How to Homebrew
If you like Beer and you like rolling up your sleeves and making a huge mess in the kitchen, then Homebrewing may be just the hobby for you! I’ve been brewing for many years now, and I can make a few recommendations to get you started.
If you’ve never brewed before, I suggest starting with a good kit that contains what you need and doesn’t contain what you don’t need. Avoid the $49.99 kits that make tiny batches; you’ll regret it. Everything in homebrewing is focused on 5-gallon batches (which is around 2 cases of 12-ounce bottles). Anything less than that and you are stuck with a particular brand’s recipe kits or trying to do some sketchy math.
There are two major methods of homebrewing. The first is called “extract brewing” and involves buying your malt as either a powder or a syrup and making beer with it. It is sort of like making a pie and buying the pie shell from the freezer section. It’s cheating a little, but you can still make a crappy pie if you don’t follow the recipe. You can also make a really tasty pint of beer and impress your friends.
The alternative is all grain brewing. This is taking malted barley (and perhaps some other things) and extracting the sugars from the grains. This is a fairly complex process and requires a ton of equipment and space. I suggest doing extract for a while, and then decide if you want to go all in and start doing full grain batches. Many brewers have limited space and time, so they stick to malt extract forever. Unless you start competing, you’ll probably never know the difference.
What You Can and Can’t Do Well
If you love ultralight lagers (macrobrew), then don’t start homebrewing. Those are actually the hardest things to make, and the most complicated. If you like basic ales (think Newcastle, Fat Tire, etc.), then you can do those easily because they are ales, which can be fermented at room temperature. You can also do big malty ales (think Guinness Extra Stout) and big, hoppy ales. If you only like things in silver cans, then stick to the silver cans. You can do funky farm ales (think Tank 7), and you can do refreshing summery things like Bavarian Hefeweisens. There are many options, but I strongly suggest sticking to ales until you master brewing without temperature control (which is what “lagering” means).
What You Will Need
To begin with, you need a few special things. The first is a hydrometer. This thing measures how much sugar you have in the wort (unfermented beer), and that tells you how much alcohol you will end up with. You will need malt, which is the extracted sugars from barley. You will need hops. Hops are not generic, they are sometimes called a “seasoning,” but they are not like table salt. They are more like roses; each cultivar is unique and beautiful. Hops add bitterness and aroma to your beer, and you need to follow a recipe carefully when you are just starting. An ounce or less is customary for a five gallon batch of ale; hops are potent. When you are starting you, I suggest using a premade, premeasured kit from a reputable homebrew supplier. I favor Northern Brewer and Williams Brewing for excellent quality and price (shipping is really important! Beer ingredients get very heavy very quickly).
Since beer has been made, all historical records indicate that it has been boiled. Some recipe kits claim to be no boil, which means the manufacturer boiled it for you. Something about this doesn’t sit well with me; it’s like a fine dining establishment serving an 18-year-old single malt Scotch in a styrofoam cup. Most brewers boil the wort, and you need a really big brew pot for that. If you are an extract brewer, you will need at least a 3-gallon stock pot. If you want to do a “full wort boil,” you will need an 8 to 10-gallon pot. That much liquid takes forever to boil on a conventional stove, and many brewers use 10+ gallon pots with propane burners in the garage. If you aren’t sure if you are going to like brewing as an ongoing hobby, perhaps start with a 3-gallon stock pot and work your way up as your passion and skills increase.
You will also need a way to cool a lot of near boiling wort down to near room temperature really quickly; there are advanced methods of doing this, but for your first batch just dump a bag of ice into the kitchen sink. Once you have boiled the malt, hops, and water according to the recipe and cooled it, you are ready to transfer it to the fermentation vessel. By “fermentation vessel,” I mean a five-gallon bucket or a carboy with an airlock on it. A key to brewing is sanitation. Sanitation doesn’t mean merely clean, it means that nothing can possibly live in or on anything that touches your beer after the wort drops below 200 degrees. That means transfer hoses, fermenters, airlocks, and so forth have to be sterile. Ditto for your bottles and bottle caps. The best way to obtain bottles is to buy two cases of your favorite beer and drink them (preferably with a brewing buddy). Save the bottles, sterilize them, and reuse them. It’s green to recycle, but make sure you use amber bottles. Light, oxygen, and microbes are all enemies of beer. You may want to compare bottle heights and save only bottles of the same height. Different sized bottles are notoriously hard to store (and are extremely annoying when using bench capper).
I’ll be posting about homebrewing as time goes on, but if you can’t wait to get started, check out the kit below, and the handy book by master homebrewer John Palmer: