Homebrewing 101

By Colin FieldColin Field

beer

Photo by Deyan Georgieve/Shutterstock.com

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So you want to brew your own beer? Welcome. We can be friends now. I love brewing beer. It is a brotherhood (and increasingly a sisterhood) of people who are as nerdy as the tech heads at Google and as gadget-oriented as Inspector Gadget himself. But don’t let that worry you—anyone can brew beer.

Brewing beer is an intimidating prospect. A quick search online will have you questioning the PH of your water, the difference between original and final gravity, and the IBUs of your IPA. But it doesn’t need to be that complicated. In fact, it doesn’t need to be complicated at all. Brewing beer isn’t hard. You’re simply combining ingredients that will give yeast something to feast on, and in turn, creating a great-tasting beverage.

What you’ll need

The best kind of brewing to start with is an extract brew. This means you won’t need a grain mill or all the fancy equipment that’s necessary to get the sugars out of that grain. With an extract brew, that part is already done for you.

Still, you’ll need to do more than just boil some water and mix in liquid. This is one step further than the homebrewed hooch your uncle used to make in his basement and very generously call beer. You’ll get to choose your own hops, your own yeast, and your own malts to create something that is truly your own.

Below is a list of gear to get you started, and your local homebrew shop should be able to hook you up.

  • A five-gallon brew kettle (fancy term for really large pot)
  • A stove top or burner
  • Two five-gallon, food-grade plastic buckets with lids
  • An airlock
  • A racking cane
  • 6 feet of food-grade tubing
  • 40-45 500 ml clean bottles with lids
  • Starsan no-rinse sanitizer or equivalent
  • 2 gallons of pre-boiled chilled water in a sanitized container
  • A few bags of ice
  • Thermometer
  • A long stir spoon
  • 1.5 cups of corn sugar (dextrose)
  • A bottle filler

A tasty recipe to start

Personally, I can’t get enough of Indian Pale Ales, so I like to start with a basic IPA recipe, which looks something like this:

  • 4 lb Amber Dry Malt Extract
  • 4 lb Light Dry Malt Extract
  • 1 tsp Irish moss at 10 minutes
  • 1.2 oz Northern Brewer 7.9% 60 min
  • 1.5 oz Cascade 5.6% 5 min
  • Wyeast 1056 Chico

Homebrew recipes are generally for five-gallon batches.

Don’t worry too much about what all the numbers mean at this point, just go to your local homebrew shop and ask them to put all of this together. And ask questions. All the homebrew shop people love to talk brewing, so they’ll be happy to answer any you may have. No question is a dumb question.

Many homebrew places will also have online sales, and they will often deliver right to your door if there isn’t one near you.

The day you’ve been waiting for

The most sacred of all days is Brewday. Make sure to have three to four hours set aside that you can dedicate to your first batch. Then, once you’ve got your ingredients, your gear, and probably a couple cold pints, it’s time to start brewing.

Fill your pot two-thirds full with tap water and place it on your biggest burner on high. As the water heats up, stir in whatever extracts the recipe calls for, then wait for it to boil.

You want to bring it to a good rolling boil. And once you get that, you’ll need to take a look at your recipe.

  • 1 tsp Irish moss at 10 minutes
  • 1.2 oz Northern Brewer 7.9% 60 min
  • 1.5 oz Cascade 5.6% 5 min

This is when the 10-minute, 60-minute, and 5-minute instructions come into play.

What we’re about to do is boil the liquid (now officially called wort) for 60 minutes. We’ll add hops at varying stages of the boil to add bitterness, flavour, and aroma. These early hop additions will create bitterness. In this recipe, we’ll add 1.2 ounces of Northern Brewer hops at 60 minutes, just as the wort really starts to boil.

Watch out for a boil over when you add the hops. It’s a good idea to have a spray bottle around to spray a little cold water on it to prevent this from happening.

It’s around this point that it starts to smell like beer—yum! It’s also at this point that you need to start a timer. Set alarms for 50 minutes from now (1 tsp. moss at 10 minutes), 55 minutes from now (1.5 ounces of Cascade hops at 5 minutes), and 60 minutes from now (the end of the boil).

Keep the liquid boiling for the full hour. (A good rolling boil is best.)

When the 10-minutes-to-go alarm goes off, add the Irish moss. (This will help clarify the beer.)

When the 5-minutes-to-go alarm goes off, add the 1.5 ounces of Cascade hops. (This will add aroma and flavour.)

When the 60-minute timer goes off, turn off the heat.

Now’s the time to act quickly. What you need to do now is cool the wort. The quicker you can cool it, the better. If there’s any step in the process when your beer could get infected, this is it. Put the entire pot in a sink and surround it with an ice bath. Ideally you want to get the temperature down to about 68 degrees, but if it seems to be taking forever, get it down to about 85 or so and go from there. Resist the temptation to put ice directly into your wort.

Time to start santizing

Anything that comes into contact with the wort from this point forward, needs to be sanitized. Starsan is a great product that doesn’t require any rinsing. Simply wash your bucket, and any other utensils you may need as you would your dishes. Mix some Starsan in a container as directed and pour this liquid into and over anything that will come in contact the wort. From there, pour the Starsan back into the original container. Don’t worry about any remaining bubbles—this isn’t a nasty, corrosive cleanser, it’s just a phosphoric acid that will actually assist the yeast in making beer. If you have a lid for your Starsan container you can keep the liquid for your next brewday or bottling day.

Transfer to fermentor

Your 5-gallon food-grade bucket is going to be your fermentor. You’ll need to have a hole in the lid that you can press a stopper and airlock into. You’ll want a really tight seal on this lid.

Now take your cooled wort and carefully pour it into the bucket. Top this bucket up to the five-gallon mark with your pre-boiled and chilled water and try to bring the combination to about 68 degrees.

Next, use your long (clean and sanitized!) spoon to froth up the wort. You need to get air into the liquid for the yeast. Basically, the yeast will feed on the oxygen and sugars in the wort to create two by-products: one being CO2, the other, being alcohol.

The final steps

This is one of the final steps on the road to making beer. You’ve got the wort in the fermentor, you’ve stirred some air into the mix, your lid is sanitized, your airlock full of Starsan, and your yeast acclimatized to nearly 68 degrees. Now it’s time to crack the yeast package and pour it in. Close the lid, put the bucket somewhere that will stay around 68 degrees (a basement in the summer, or somewhere inside your house in the winter) and wait.

Over the next 24 to 48 hours, you should start to see some bubbles coming through the airlock. It may start off vigorously, it may start slowly, but this is the yeast creating alcohol and producing CO2. You’re making beer!

The waiting game

Fermentation can be as quick as five days and as long as two weeks. It all depends on the type of yeast and the conditions you’ve provided for it. Early on in the process (about two to three days in), the yeast will create kraeusen, a dirty looking foam that rises to the surface. If you see this, don’t panic—it’s normal. In fact, you want it. The yeast is doing what it’s supposed to.

When the bubbles coming out of your airlock have slowed to about one per minute, it’s probably time to bottle the beer. If you’re feeling unsure, waiting 10 to 14 days should be just about perfect.

Bottling your beer

If you don’t have the bucket up on a table or something you can siphon from, place it on something solid about six to 24 hours before bottling. This will allow the dead yeast to settle at the bottom. The less you disturb the beer now, the clearer it will be while bottling it.

Now it’s time to get the bottles ready. They need to be clean and sanitized with Starsan before being filled. Depending on the type of bottle you use, you’ll likely need to do the caps too and you may or may not need a capper. The old Grolsch bottles with flip-top lids are probably the easiest option, but use whatever you can. If you don’t have any bottles, your homebrew peeps can sort that out for you too.

With your second sanitized bucket ready, put the 1.5 cups of dextrose into the empty bucket. Next, use your racking cane and your 6 feet of food-grade tubing to siphon the beer into that second bucket. It’s best to avoid siphoning the sludgy, creamy dead yeast that’s at the bottom of the fermentor into your second bucket—leave it behind and throw it out. Use your stir spoon (cleaned and sanitized!) to stir in the sugar.

The dextrose you just added will provide the extra bit of umph the yeast needs to carbonate the beer while conditioning in the bottles.

Lift the second, now full bucket up onto something solid that’s about table height and get your bottles ready. Having a helper nearby is extremely useful right now.

Use your bottle filler on the end of your six feet of tubing to start filling the bottles. Leave a bit of space in each bottle (about half a neck’s worth on a traditional brown glass bottle). Put on the lid, give the bottle a wipe with a wet cloth, and stack it in a box somewhere. Again, be sure all of these items are clean and sanitized first!

Once you’ve bottled all your beer, clean your equipment (it’s easier to do it now than on your next brewday), and store it away somewhere dry and out of the way. Take the boxes and boxes of glorious beer (that you made!) and store them somewhere dark that’s 68 degrees or cooler. Now wait. Waiting is probably the worst part of making beer.

Now for the quaffing

How long should you leave these bottles to condition? An old brewer’s saying states that the day you finish drinking your last bottle is the day you should’ve actually started drinking the first one. It’s a pretty good rule, but 10 to 14 days of conditioning should do it. Chill a couple in the fridge and when you pop that lid, if you get the wonderful pssst! sound of CO2 escaping from the bottle, then you know they’re ready.

Congratulations! You can now call yourself a homebrewer. Welcome to the club. I’d like to think we’re a friendly, jolly bunch, so don’t be afraid to berate any of us with all the questions you have. We won’t always have the answers. After all, brewing beer is a lifelong education. There will always be more to learn, more gear to build and, most importantly, more delicious beer to drink.


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