Whether this is your first fermentation or a continuation of the quest to create the perfect glass of beer, here are the fundamentals of brewing.
Beer brewing can be as complex or simple as you wish to make it. There are beer brewing kits available for purchase that simplify brewing–and then there is the art of brewing from scratch.
The Key Ingredients
Before beginning the brewing process, you must first understand the four key ingredients necessary to brew a batch of beer: water, fermentable sugar, hops, and yeast. Each ingredient is integral to the recipe and must be cooked in a certain way to yield a successful batch of brew. Understanding their basic qualities and how each ingredient is meant to react with the others is an important aspect of beer brewing.
Water: Water is the primary ingredient in beer, so it is very important the water tastes good. If the tap water at your house tastes good to you, then it is fine to use for beer brewing. If you don’t like the way your tap water tastes, then you can use bottled or distilled water instead. If you use tap water, boil it first to evaporate the chlorine and other chemicals that may interfere with the brewing process. Let the water cool before using.
Fermented Sugar: Malted barley is the ingredient commonly used to fill the sugar quota in a home brew recipe. Some brewers will substitute a percentage of corn, rice, wheat, or other grains to add a lighter flavor to the beer. Beginning brewers should purchase a ready-to-use form of malted barley called malt syrup or malt extract, rather than attempting to malt the grain from scratch, as it is a very complex and touchy process. Using a malt extract will guarantee the fermented sugar is prepared in just the right manner and will act as it needs to throughout the beer brewing process.
Hops: Hops are cone-like flowers found on a hop vine. They lend the bitter flavor to beer that balances out sweetness. Hops also inhibit spoilage and help keep the “head” (the frothy top when a beer is poured) around longer.
Yeast: First things first: Do not use bread yeast for beer brewing! Beer yeast is cultivated especially for use in brewing. There are two broad categories of beer yeast: ale and lager. Ale yeasts are top-fermenting, which means they tend to hang out at the top of the carboy while fermenting and rest at the bottom after the majority of fermenting has occurred. Ale yeasts will not actively ferment below 50 degrees F (20 degrees C). Lager yeasts are bottom-fermenters and are best used at a temperature ranging from 55 degrees F (25 degrees C) down to 32 degrees F (0 degrees C). As their names suggest, the type of yeast used plays an important part in influencing the type of beer that will be made. Do not rely on the yeast to define the beer, however, as all of the ingredients play a part in the taste and type of beer you will create.
Ready to Brew?
We’ve opted to use a simple ale recipe to guide you through the process. The first cooking step in brewing is to make the wort, a soupy mixture of malt and sugar that is boiled before fermentation. Malt and sugar form the perfect food for yeast to grown in–thus making the all-important process of fermentation possible. All of the ingredients for beer-making can be found at your local brew supply store, or at any number of beer outfitters. Once you’ve got all the necessary equipment and ingredients, you’re ready to begin the beer-making process by properly sanitizing your equipment, making and cooling the wort, fermenting the wort, and bottling your brew.
- 1.5 gallons water
- 6 pounds canned pre-hopped light malt syrup
- 1 ounce hop pellets (choose your flavor)
- Ice poured into a water bath (do not use store-bought ice)
- 3 gallons cool water
- 2 (7-gram) packets ale yeast
- 1 cup warm water (about 90 degrees F or 35 degrees C)
- 3/4 cup liquid corn syrup (or 4 ounces dry corn syrup)
- 1 (4-ounce) container iodine solution
- 1 tablespoon bleach
- A bottle of household bleach or an iodine solution that can be bought at your local home brew shop to sanitize all of your materials or use will be necessary. (Make a bleach disinfecting solution with 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 gallon water.) Be sure to rinse the equipment well with boiling water before using it.
There are many materials necessary to brew, and some of them can be expensive. Restaurant supply stores and home brewing stores will have what you need. Here are the basics:
- A large boiling pot: It must be made of stainless steel or ceramic-coated steel. The bigger the pot the better, because it needs to be able to hold at least 3 gallons of liquid with room to spare.
- One 5-gallon carboy: A carboy is a large, glass bottle. They look identical to the bottles that large amounts of water are often sold in, but they must be made of glass for beer brewing. Visit your local recycler and ask if they have any on hand to sell, as they are expensive to buy when new.
- Funnel: You will need a large funnel to transfer the wort into the carboy.
- A 6-gallon plastic “bottling” bucket with lid: This plastic bucket should hold at least 5 gallons and be food-grade. You can find them cheap (or free) at many restaurants; ask the kitchen staff to save any extra for you rather than throw them away.
- Siphon hose: This is at least 6 feet of plastic tubing that will be used to transfer beer from the carboy to the bottling bucket, and later into bottles.
- Racking cane: An ingenious piece of shaped, hard plastic tubing that connects to the siphon hose for transferring beer from one container to another.
- Fermentation lock (airlock): This clever feature will seal your beer from outside contamination while letting carbon dioxide escape the fermenter. It must fit in a hole in the lid of your carboy.
- Long spoon: This will be used for stirring; make sure it has a long handle so you don’t get burned.
- Bottles: Do not use the type with twist-off caps. Any type of sealable glass bottle is good: beer, old-fashioned pop, or even champagne bottles. Ask your friends to save these types of bottles for you.
- Bottle-capper: It is used for securing caps onto bottles. You can use any style that catches your fancy.
- Bottle caps: For capping your bottles.
- Household bleach or an iodine solution: Used to sanitize brewing equipment (2 ounces bleach to 5 gallons water).
- Thermometer: Be sure to use a thermometer that has a range of at least 40 degrees F (4 degrees C) to 150 degrees F (65 degrees C). Either a floating dairy thermometer or a stainless steel dial thermometer can be used. The floating dairy thermometer can be broken more easily than the stainless steel dial thermometer.
Part I: Make and Cool the Wort
- Sanitize the pot, stirring spoon and fermenter with the sanitizing solution. Rinse everything in boiling water.
- Bring 1.5 gallons of water to a boil. When the water begins to boil, remove it from the heat and stir in the malt syrup until it dissolves. Do not allow any syrup to stick to the bottom or sides of the pot, as it will burn and taste awful. Return the pot to the heat and bring the mixture to a boil for 50 minutes, stir frequently and watch constantly to prevent boil-overs. If the mixture threatens to boil over, reduce the heat.
- After 50 minutes have elapsed, stir in the hop pellets. Hops will create a foam on the top of the liquid–so if the pot is very full, the hops may cause a boil-over. You want to avoid this at all costs by lowering the heat or spraying the foam down with a water bottle (sanitized, of course). Let the hops cook for 10 to 20 minutes.
- While the wort is being made, prep the yeast by placing 1 packet of yeast in 1 cup of warm water (90 degrees F or 35 degrees C; stir and cover for 10 minutes. If the yeast does not react (form foam), discard the yeast solution and try again with the second yeast packet.
- At about the time hops are added to the wort, you should prepare an ice-cold water bath in either a large sink or tub to quick-cool the wort. Once the wort is finished cooking, float the pot in the water bath. Stir the wort while it is sitting in the bath so that the maximum amount of wort reaches the pot’s sides where it can cool quickly. If the water bath heats up, add more ice to keep the water bath cold. It should take about 20 minutes to cool the wort to approximately 80 degrees F (27 degrees C).
Part II: Ferment
- Pour the 3 gallons cool water into your sanitized carboy. Funnel in the warm wort. Sprinkle the prepared yeast into the carboy. Cover the carboy’s mouth with plastic wrap and cap it with a lid. Holding your hand tight over the lid, shake the bottle up and down to distribute the yeast. Remove the plastic wrap, wipe any wort around the carboy’s mouth off and place the fermentation lock (with a little water added into its top) on.
- Store the carboy in a cool (60 to 75 degrees F or 15 to 24 degrees C) safe place without direct sunlight where you will be able to easily clean up or drain any foam that escapes. A bathtub is an excellent place to store your fermenter if there are no windows in the room. If the temperature in the storage room drops and bubbling in the carboy’s airlock stops, move the carboy to a warmer room. The fermenting will resume. Fermentation should begin within 24 hours. A clear sign of fermentation is the production of foam and air bubbles in the fermentation lock.
- When fermentation begins, it produces a slow trickle of bubbles that will increase in amount for a few days, and then reduce to a slow trickle again. Let the beer ferment for approximately 14 days when the primary fermentation has taken place. If the fermenting process pops the fermentation lock out of the carboy, re-sanitize it and place it back into the carboy.
Part III: Bottle
- Sanitize all of your bottles by soaking them in the sanitizing solution (make sure to hold them under the solution so the water gets inside of the bottles) for 1 hour. Rinse the bottles with boiling water. Also sanitize a small cooking pot, bottling bucket, siphon, and racking cane. Follow the instructions that came with the bottle caps to sanitize them. Let everything air dry.
- Combine the corn syrup and 1 cup water in the sanitized cooking pot. Let boil 10 minutes. Pour mixture into the bottling bucket. Be careful not to add too much corn syrup to the bottling bucket, because this will over-carbonate the beer and cause bottles to explode! Place the fermenter full of beer on the kitchen counter and the bottling bucket on the ground below it.
- Attach the racking cane to the siphon. Prepare the siphon by filling it with tap water. Pinch both ends of the siphon to prevent the water from running out. Place one end of the racking cane and siphon into the iodine solution and one end into an empty jar. When the solution has run into the siphon and expelled all of the water into the jar, pinch both ends and let the iodine sit in the siphon for 5 minutes to re-sanitize the siphon. (Resist the temptation to blow into the siphon with your mouth to encourage the flow of iodine solution.)
- Place one end of the sanitized siphon into the fermenter and the other end into the jar; once the beer has begun flowing through the siphon, transfer its end to the bottling bucket. Monitor the speed that the beer transfers into the bottling bucket by pinching and releasing the siphon with your fingers (or use a specialty clamp). The beer should not splash into the bucket; it should gently rush into it. Once all of the beer has been siphoned into the bucket, cover it (with a sanitized cover ) and wait 30 minutes for the sediment to settle at the bottom of the bucket.
- Place the bottling bucket on the counter, attach the siphon and run the other end of the siphon into a bottle. Fill each bottle with beer to 3/4 inch from the top of the bottle. Cap each bottle with the bottle-capper. Check and double-check that the caps are secure.
Sure Signs of Infection:
Keep your eyes peeled for strands of slime in the beer and a milky layer at the top and/or residue bumps clinging to the air space in the bottleneck. If the beer has strands, it most likely has a lacto infection and should be discarded. The milky layer is a sign of a micro-derm infection; this beer should also be discarded.
Age the bottles at room temperature for up to two months, but for at least two weeks, before cracking one open, proposing a toast to yourself and impressing your friends! Ready to try it? Try these recipes: