Homebrew Primer

Wed August 19 2009 by Christopher Aedo

I wrote this up for my friend Moshe, and have since forwarded it to probably five or six people who are interested in brewing their own beer. I thought I might as well put it up here, should make it a lot easier for me to share!

WOW, here's my home brew primer. It's long, but if you read it all you will have all the info you need to get started. You could get most of this same information from the book The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing, which is a pretty good book to start with. You could also just go to http://www.homebrewtalk.com/ and check out their forum where you can find a few good starter guides.... One other good book I could suggest: How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time.

The three main methods of home-brewing are "extract", "partial-mash" and "all grain".

Extract brewing uses malt extract (either liquid or dried malt extract [aka DME]). This malt extract is a syrup-like (or powdered) concentration of the sugars contained in the grain. It's extracted from the grain and concentrated under pressure, and sold by the pound. Brewing with extract is easy, and requires a smaller brew pot (because you only need to boil 3 gallons or so of liquid since the malt is highly concentrated - you add water to bring your total volume up to 5 gallons AFTER you've done all the brewing...) The only drawback is that it's not considered "pure" brewing, since someone else has done some of the work for you. SOME people claim they can taste the difference between an extract and all-grain brew, but most people would never know the difference. Extract brewing is AOK... You need a brew pot at least 4 or 5 gallons for this.

Partial-mash uses extract plus a small amount of specialty grains used to influence the beers flavor to match the particular style. For instance, a recipe might call for six pounds of pale malt extract, plus another pound of some specific grains. These grains will be steeped in 160 degree water for 20-30 minutes, and then that liquid will be poured through a strainer into your beer. For best results, those leftover grains would then have 170-200 degree water poured over them to rinse the last of the sugars off the grain (this process is called sparging). Some recipe kits come with a mesh sock to put the grains in, so you would not need to strain the grains out, just pull out the sock. This method makes it a little harder to "sparge" the grains, but you're really not getting much sugar out of such a small amount of grain anyway, so it probably doesn't matter. You need a brew pot at least 4 or 5 gallons for this.

Finally, there is "all grain" brewing, where you start with a big bag of ground grain (10lbs up to 20lbs depending on the beer, though the more grain the higher the gravity/alcohol content), extract all the sugars yourself, and then proceed from there the same as you would have with any other method. Getting the sugars out is called "mashing", and can seem complicated and daunting at first. In short though, you need to control the temperature of the grain at two different temperatures, and possibly three or more depending on the type of grain and the specific recipe you are using. There are entire books about this process, so I don't think I can give it justice here in a paragraph or two, so I won't even really try. The main consideration for someone just getting started is that all-grain brewing requires more (and larger) equipment. First off, you need a boil kettle that can handle at least 7 gallons, or possibly more. Many people convert a half-barrel keg (like the kind you would rent for a party) into a brew kettle, since they're about 15 gallons in size. That also means you probably have to boil your beer outside unless you have a really large cooktop. People use the burner setup that comes with a turkey fryer (available from home depot most commonly.) So you need at least one large kettle, possibly two. One will be your Hot Liquor Tank (HLT), where you heat up the water for the grains. The other would be your brew kettle where you boil your wort (the sweet liquor you extracted from the grains, pronounced "wurt"). I just have one large kettle, and find that to be pretty easy. Then you need a large (7-10 gallon) water cooler to hold the grain and water during the mash. These coolers work pretty well since they hold the temperature for a long time. If you don't want to use a cooler, and have a large pot available, you can keep the grains in the large pot and heat them directly. This can be tricky though, as you risk scorching the grains while applying heat - this can give your beer some off flavors.

Wow, that's already a lot about all-grain, I think I'll let it rest there. I can talk for a while about this in person, and show you the setup I'm using (where you use steam to heat the grain), it works really well and was not terribly expensive.

Now you've got your wort and it's either 3 gallons or 6 (or more if you're doing a large batch or brewing a high gravity beer that has a lot of volume you need to concentrate.) Let's assume you're doing an extract brew as that's the easiest. You want a vigorous rolling boil during this hour, and the timer starts once you hit the boiling point. Most recipes call for a one hour boil during which time you will add hops to the wort according to a schedule. You'll usually add some hops at the beginning, then after 45 minutes add more, and finally there will be your bittering hops added right at the end after you've turned off the heat.

You've boiled your wort for an hour, now you need to cool it down to about 70 degrees, add water to bring it up to the necessary volume, add your yeast, and then wait! There are a few different methods you can use to cool the wort. Simplest (and I've done this many times) is to transfer from your boil pot into a fermentation bucket that already has a bunch of ice in it. The boiling wort will melt the ice and if you're lucky, it will stabilize around 70 degrees. I usually would just cover it up and let it sit until it got to the right temperature at this point. I also made a "chiller", which is a coil of copper tubing through which you pump cold water. You put the tubing in the wort, and keep recirculating cold water through it while occasionally stirring the wort. You can also buy a counter-flow chiller, a chillerator or a chillzilla.... There are many options, and most of them get pretty expensive.

OH, before pitching the yeast, it's really important to oxygenate the beer. You can do this by shaking the hell out of the bucket or carboy, or by pumping oxygen through a small stone with either an oxygen tank or an aquarium pump.

Anyway, once it's chilled, you put it in a bucket or glass bottle (aka carboy) for fermentation. Pitch your yeast into the mixture, and seal it with an airlock so the gas the yeast creates can escape without allowing air from the outside to get back in (which can contaminate your brew.) After a week or so of fermenting, I usually transfer to another carboy using a siphon. This is so you can leave the now dead yeast at the bottom of the first vessel, and let it sit for another week or two in a new vessel, allowing all the suspended grains and yeast to settle to the bottom. This helps you get a clear beer, so there won't be any sediment in the bottom of the glass when you're drinking it a few weeks later. During fermentation, every strain of yeast will have a specific temperature range that it performs best in. The recipe will usually suggest a yeast or two, and will also usually say what the optimum fermentation temperature is. I've been using a small wine fridge for fermentation, it's convenient and keeps the beer at whatever temp you set on the front.

After fermentation is all done, you can either bottle the beer, or put it into a keg. If you are going to bottle, you need to add some sugar to the beer again. Once the beer is sealed in a bottle, the small additional sugar will wake up the yeast again and carbonate your beer. If you put too much sugar, you might end up with bottles that explode due to excessive pressure.

If you're going to keg (by far the easiest way) you just transfer the beer into the keg, and seal it up. Then you cool it to 40 degrees, and pressurize with your CO2 canister. After three days to a week, the beer will have absorbed the CO2 and will be carbonated and ready to drink! Some beers are ready at this point (roughly three weeks from when you brewed), other beers can take 3 to 6 months to properly condition (they won't taste quite right if you don't wait long enough with some of the more complicated beers.) ECONOMY: You can expect to spend from \$70 to \$500 on your initial investment. Spending a lot up front probably means you won't need to buy anything but ingredients for a while.

Good sources for starter kits:

At the bottom of that Northern Brewer page, their ultimate kit would get you started with everything you need, including keg. You might be able to piece things together for less, or work your way up to having all the pieces over time. I guess it depends on how much you want to invest in the beginning.

One gallon is 128 fluid ounces, which means a five gallon keg contains 53 12oz beers. Assume \$10 for 12 "premium" beers, that's about \$44 worth of premium beer in a keg. The ingredients would cost around \$30, so the more beer you drink, the more money you save! You can spend more (\$40-\$45) on ingredients, but that's for a pretty serious brew, and then you're talking about copying a beer like Arrogant Bastard Ale which I think costs \$10 for just a six pack! That means your keg would hold roughly \$90 worth of beer!!

A good starting point would be the extract recipe kits they sell at Northern Brewer, take a look at them on their site. Another good alternative is to come in to the brew shop in Culver City and use one of their recipes. They have all the ingredients there, and help put the kit together if you're using one of their recipe packages.