The Brewmaster’s Guide To Home Brew
Some people have heard about at-home brewing, but consider the task too laborious. Admittedly, it is an investment. Brewing is a rabbit hole with no end in sight. The question you must answer is, “How far do you want to go?”
First, let me be clear. If you think home brewing could allow you to make Bud/Miller/Coors Light clones cheaper than you can get them at the store, turn back now. These companies have specialized in creating the most consistent product at the lowest cost possible. Home brewing is for people who want to create beer they cannot get anywhere else.
So how do you make that wonderful liquid called beer?
Brewing beer can be as complex or as simple as you want. I don’t proclaim myself to be a master, but I’ll simplify the process and explain what you’ll need to know.
Whenever you get started making beer, the absolute number one rule is cleanliness. You are introducing microbial yeasts into a liquid to eat it, and you want to give it the best chances of winning out over anything else. You want your vessels to be sealed tight, with an air lock to allow the CO2 to get out without letting anything else get in. Everything that may touch your beer must be clean.
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You don’t want to cheap out here. Keeping the environment clean will go a long way in making sure that the beer turns out good, and will reduce the chance of an infection from less desirable microbes that will turn the beer into something nasty.
You can do it all with just a tight-sealing bucket with a hole for an airlock, another bucket with a faucet, some silicon tubing, some large stockpots, a large stirring spoon, a bottle capper, and a little bit of time. But if you want it to be good, add a thermometer and a hydrometer, too.
So let’s begin!
Beer consists of four primary components: sugar, water, hops, and yeast. Every one of these is essential in developing the flavor profile you want in your beer, so understanding how each of these affect your flavor and what you can do with them is important.
To start with we should identify our sugar.
The sugar we train our yeast to love is maltose, a product of converting starches in malted barley into sugar. We do this by soaking the cracked grains in heated water for about an hour (the mash), draining it, adding some hotter water and letting it soak for about 10 minutes, and then draining it again.
How hot or cool the mash water is will adjust how much of your sugars will be convertible into alcohol, leaving your beer dryer or fuller. The final product is your wort, which is basically a sugary water.
The types of grain or extract you use will affect the malt profile, or the sweetness of the beer and it’s associated character. Some of these flavor notes can be described as toasty, nutty, roasted, chocolaty, bready, and caramel-y.
Next, we take the wort and start boiling it.
Once it starts boiling you’ll add your first bittering hops. Boil it for 60-90 minutes to fully convert the bittering acids for the beer as well as getting rid of some byproducts that we don’t want in our final product. Along the way you may add more hops at different points, but come towards the 15 minute mark you get to the flavoring hops. The closer you are to the end of your boil, the less bittering acids get converted, and the more flavor and aroma remains in the beer.
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After the boil is finished we need to cool it down, and quick. The best way is an ice bath. Dip your kettle in ice, making sure you don’t get any water in the kettle while you do it, and stir the wort continually. Cool it down to room temperature, then transfer it into your fermentation bucket.
Take a sample of your beer and check its gravity reading (how much sugar you have) in the hydrometer and record that as your original gravity. Stir up the wort really good for several minutes, because you need to introduce a lot of oxygen. Then pitch some really good, viable yeast, seal it up, and add the airlock. Set it in a nice shady corner of the house and leave it for a week or two to do its thing.
Fermentation: when sweet grain water turns into delicious beer.
Temperature control is key to making a good tasting beer, especially during the fermentation. If you ferment too cold for the yeast, it will go dormant. Too hot and it’ll produce flavors that make your beer taste weird. And not all yeasts like the same temperature, so be sure you know what your yeast likes.
What you have to remember is you’re producing conditions for living things to grow and prosper, so you want to give them the best chance to do that. You want to introduce a lot of oxygen for the yeast to be able to live, but you don’t want to introduce any more after the fermentation has started. Eventually carbon dioxide will displace the oxygen. Be careful when checking your beer that you don’t introduce some new foreign microbials that can overtake the yeast.
If you keep it at the right temperature, it should turn into beer within a few weeks. I’d suggest checking after the first week by testing a sample with the hydrometer. Check it again across 2-3 days, and if the reading does not drop any then it should be stable and done. From here on out it’s about aging and allowing the flavors to develop more. I prefer transferring it into the bottles and allowing it to age there, but you can leave it in its original tub for a month or so before the flavor starts to turn sour.
The final parts: storing and serving your beer.
So now your beer is finished but you need to get it into something to serve. We’ll need our bottling bucket with a spigot that we can use to pour the beer into the bottles, and we’ll need to make some priming sugar to give to the yeast for an extra kick.
Before bottling, take another sample to get another gravity reading. Write this one down as your final gravity. You can use a online calculator to compare your original gravity with your final gravity to determine your Alcohol by Volume (ABV). Boil about a cup of water and add the appropriate amount of your priming sugar for the style of beer you’re making. Let the priming sugar cool down to room temperature and add that to your bottling bucket.
Give the beer a gentle stir with a spoon to distribute the priming sugar better. Place the end of the tube in your first clean bottle, open the spigot, and fill your first bottle about ¾ of the way. Close it back up, allow it to drain, and place the tube in the next bottle. Cap the filled bottle with your bottle capper. Congratulations! You just capped your first bottle of homemade brew.
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After every ten bottles or so I’d suggest gently stirring the beer again to make sure that the sugars are evenly distributed. You don’t want all your sugar in a few bottles. None of your beer will turn out drinkable if half of them are flat and the rest are fizz grenades. Repeat until the bucket is empty, then put the bottles away in a dark place at room temperature.
After two weeks, chill and serve!
And that’s it. It’s a bit of work but the payout is well worth it. The final product, when done right, is just as good as any craft brew you can get at a bottle shop, and serving it to your friends and family is always enjoyable. So get to brewing!