How To Make Beer At Home: The Brewing Guide
You don’t make your own beer to perfect the flavor, really. With more than 6,000 breweries in the U.S. alone, there’s a good chance someone’s already brewing something you enjoy. You make beer for one reason: because it’s fun. That you also get beer out of it is just a delicious bonus.
You don’t need fancy gadgets, says John LaPolla, cofounder of Bitter & Esters, a home-brew shop in Brooklyn, who’s been brewing since 1991 and still uses buckets. “Most people spend around $200 on equipment and ingredients,” LaPolla says. First, find a home-brewing-supply shop near you at homebrewersassociation.org.
The Easy Way: Buy a starter kit. A five-gallon setup from Bitter & Esters costs $150 and includes a recipe, ingredients, and all the gear except the kettle and the bottles.
You don’t need a brewery, a science lab, or even a garage. “I used to brew five gallons of cider in my kitchen cupboard. Then I graduated to the bottom of a utility shelf, then my closet,” says Douglas Amport, the other cofounder of Bitter & Esters.
Although there’s no ideal time of year for brewing, most beers do well between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In hotter climates, you can buy special yeast that works at up to 90 degrees, or put your fermenter in the fridge or a cooler filled with ice.
Step 1. Make the Starter Wort
Yeast is an essential part of the beer process. These fungi feast on sugars, making alcohol as they go. The more yeast cells at work, the better the job they do at making alcohol. In this first step of the beer-making process, the yeast cells get a head start, hungrily dividing and populating as they feast on dry malt extract.
2 quarts water
6 ounces dry malt extract
1 package instant starter wort
First, heat the water and malt to a boil for 10 minutes and then cool to 60 degrees F. You can check the temperature with a thermometer or by rule of thumb (it should be about room temperature).
Sanitize the gallon container with a no-rinse sterilizer or by following the manufacturer’s instructions. Then, pitch the yeast by tossing in around 33 billion yeast cells (numbers depend on your starter kit) into the 60-degree wort. Cover the starter wort and put aside. Make sure the container is not airtight (aluminum foil will do the job).
Heating The Water and Malt
Heating water and malt for the starter wort.
Add Yeast To Wort
Adding the yeast to the wort.
Seal the Bottle
Sealed, but not air tight.
Step 2: Make The Mash
Making a mash is not always necessary–you can brew a perfectly good lager or ale with prepackaged malt extract. But for this recipe, we’re going all out, with an all-grain beer– we extract the sugars from the grain ourselves. The recipe we’re following is for a beer in the Belgian white or “wit” sytle. It’s called “Wit Ginger, Not Mary Ann,” and was published by the esteemed beer-brewing magazine, Zymurgy.
11 pounds of grain
11 quarts of water
Our grains include 5 pounds Belgian pilsner malt, 4.5 pounds of German wheat malt, 1.0 pound of flaked oats, and 0.5 pounds of caramel pils malt.
Take the mash (all the ingredients above in a pot) and bring it up to 150 degrees F, keeping it at that exact temperature for 1 hour.
* Test the mash: The point of mashing is to turn starches in the grain into sugars and extract them into a sweet liquor. After 1 hour, you want to make sure this process has taken place. Take out a spoonful of the water and grain mix and place a drop of iodine in it. The murky brown iodine will change to black in the presence of starch–this means you need to do some more mashing. If there’s enough sugar, the color will remain the same.
Add the grain for the mash
Adding the grain (11 pounds) for the mash.
Prepping the Strainer
We used rice hulls on the bottom of our DIY strainer–as well as mixed into the mash–to make sure that the grains didn’t gum up the works.
Step 3: Straining and Sparging
Pour the mash into a lauter tun, a big strainer used for separation of the extracted wort, to drain the sweet liquor from the grain. For our budget lauter tun, we drilled 1/8-inch holes into one 5-gallon bucket and placed this strainer on top of another 5-gallon bucket.
Capture the runoff liquor in your brewpot. This liquor is called the first runnings. Once all the liquor has run off, heat the rest of the water–1/2 gallon per pound of grain at 180 degrees F (according to this recipe)–over the grain in the lauter tun. Again capture the runoff (second runnings) in the brewpot.
The sweet liquor in the brewpot is now what’s known as a wort, and it’s ready to boil.
Step 4: The Boil
1 ounce 4.8 percent alpha-acid Styrian Goldings hops
1/2 teaspoon of ginger
1 cinnamon stick
It’s time to raise the wort to a vigorous boil. The boil kills offending bacteria or wild yeast and releases DMS, a chemical byproduct of heating that gives a flavor akin to sweet corn. During this process, watch carefully, as the wort is prone to boil over, resulting in a sticky mess that makes for a tough cleanup.
As soon as a boil is reached add the hops to the wort and continue to boil for 60 minutes. Hops added at this point in the process give beer its bitterness, because of the alpha acids that are extracted. Since Belgian wits aren’t terribly bitter, our recipe called for just 1 ounce of 4.8 percent alpha-acid Styrian Goldings hops (the higher the percentage of alpha acids the more bitter the hops). In most beer recipes another addition of hops is made 2 to 5 minutes from before the end of the boil to give flavor and aroma. Our recipe forgoes these additions–wheat beers are light on the hop flavor–but it does call for an addition of 1/2 teaspoon of ginger and a cinnamon stick 5 minutes before the end of the boil.
Add Cinnamon, Per Recipe
Adding a cinnamon stick, a special touch of flavor called for in this recipe, in the last 5 minutes of the boil.
Step 5: Cool The Beer and Pitch The Yeast
Boiling wort should be cooled as quickly as possible since the cooling period is the time when the beer is most vulnerable to microorganisms present in the air. Cooling can be achieved with a wort chiller, like the one pictured here, or by dipping the brewpot into a sink full of ice water. Do not add ice directly to the beer.
The beer should be cooled to 68 degrees F, strained and transferred to a sanitized carboy, where the beer will stay through its first few days of fermentation.
Affix a blowoff tube to the top of the carboy–the other end of it should be placed under a couple inches of water to seal it from the outside environment while the carbon dioxide escapes. You’ll start to see a vigorous fermentation at anywhere from 8 to 26 hours into the process.
After one week, visible fermentation will have subsided and the wort should be transferred (via a siphon) to another sanitized container. Our recipe called for the addition of a vanilla bean at this stage. Two weeks after this transfer the beer should be bottled.
The Wort Chiller
The wort chiller, pictured here, is attached to the sink and runs cold water through copper tubing to quickly cool down the boil.
Strain and Transfer the Beer
Here, we are straining and transferring the beer to a sanitized carboy. Notice the bubbles in the bottle–those are the product of the no-rinse sterilizer.
Proper Coloring of Belgian Wheat
Straining the beer. After two days this murky brown beer cleared up, looking more like a proper Belgian Wheat.
First things first, everything the beer touches (bucket, siphon, bottling wand, bottles) should be sanitized before you begin the bottling process. Don’t slack off here, else your beer could pick up flavors you don’t want.
Hospital sterilization isn’t necessary, but it is important to avoid bacteria. You’ll need to clean work surfaces and brewing implements with soap and water. A sanitizer kit such as Star Sankills the microbes that change the flavor of your beer. Just pour it on your equipment and wait 30 seconds.
Step 6: Bottling
Take 3/4 cup of corn sugar and boil it for 15 minutes in a pint of water. Cool the sugar water and add it to the bottom of a bottling bucket. Then transfer the beer to this bucket. The sugar water gives the yeast something to eat while inside the sealed bottle for a final stage of fermentation, where the beer gets its characteristic bubbles. After two weeks at room temperature, the beer should be fully carbonated and ready to be drink.
What To Do When Your First Batch Is Terrible
My first batch of beer was intended to be an easy-drinking English-style pale ale. It wasn’t even pale—more of a hazy caramel. The taste was uniformly awful, simultaneously cloyingly sweet and egregiously bitter. And was that a hint of gym socks in the aroma? When a friend asked to try a bottle—it was college, so: free beer!—I tried to blow the aromatic nastiness off the top without his noticing. I was willing to endure the bizarre awkwardness of whistling at his beer for the hope of my dreadful ale tasting a little less vulgar. It barely helped, but we naively drank the whole batch.
My beer got better. Yours will too. It always does. I bought fresher ingredients—nothing from a can—and avoided my first-batch pitfalls of fermenting too warm and with unenthusiastic yeast. The next brew was a brown ale that was still too sweet, but mostly palatable, and I didn’t have to blow it a kiss before serving. I smartly followed that by brewing a blond ale with enough fresh ginger to cover all but the most obvious failings. And by my fourth batch, a near-black porter, I had legitimately good beer in my bottles. I’m not sure if my friends cared—or noticed—but I know I did.—Matt Allyn
How to Name Your Beer
Pick whichever sounds better, your first or last name. Never both. If you’re having a hard time deciding between them, pick the one that the ring announcer at a UFC fight would draw out longer. The easiest option is to simply add the style of beer after that name. If it’s your first name, it gets a possessive (Cameron’s Pale Ale). If it’s your last name, it does not (Johnson Porter).
If you’re feeling creative, beer makers love word play (Hopular Mechanics, Augmented Reality).
For subsequent batches, add a number at the end.
Home-brewers are a talkative and helpful community. If you can, find a home-brew club near you. Home-brew stores will also answer most questions and taste your beers to help you determine where you might have gone wrong. You can also try your local microbrewery. “There is a blurred line between home-brew and small breweries, so ask them questions,” says LaPolla.