HowToDoThings.com already has a fine article on How to Brew Beer. It is excellent advice for brewing from a malt extract kit, and I recommend it. We homebrewers have our own preferences and styles, so I do things a bit differently than our other author, but you should have excellent results by following the advice in either article.
Beer making should be fun. In fact, Charlie Papazian, the patron saint of homebrewing to many of us, tells us that the one thing that can ruin your beer is worry. So, if all this looks daunting, remember what Charlie says, "Relax, have a homebrew."
How do you make good beer at home? You need to dissolve malt sugars in water, boil them for about an hour and add hops for bitterness, flavor and aroma. You cool the liquid until it is safe to add yeast. Ferment about a week, transfer to another vessel to clarify for about another week. Add priming sugar, bottle, allow to carbonate. Refrigerate a couple of weeks, and it is ready to drink. That's the short version. Now, wasn't that easy?
Let's go back and fill in a few details and explain a bit why you do what you do when you brew. Below, I describe brewing a two-stage 5-gallon batch of beer from a "kit" of ingredients that includes some actual grain. This article is rather more challenging than the other article mentioned above, but it is still well within the capabilities of a dedicated first-time homebrewer. These steps will produce a final result that will be as good as or better than any beer you have ever purchased. (Modestly stated, don't you think?)
- Pick a recipe. I suggest a beer style that uses an ale yeast. Ale yeasts ferment at room temperature. The other type of beer yeast, lager yeast, ferments at low temperatures, somewhere in the 48º Fahrenheit range. Pick a clone recipe of your favorite microbrew. I recommend a partial mash kit from your local homebrew supply, or order online. A partial mash kit contains some cracked whole malted grain. It will give your beer better character and body. All of us could use some better character and better bodies. Get a muslin bag for your grain when you get your kit.
- Gather your supplies and equipment. See my article on selecting supplies and equipment. Read it. It contains information that is not repeated below. Let me emphasize strongly that buying locally is best. If you scrounge your brew pots and a few other things, you can get all the equipment you need for around $75, plus the cost of the ingredients. And that equipment will last for years and years. You can get two plastic fermentation vessels and save a few dollars. They work as well as glass.
- Sterilize everything. And I mean anything that will touch your beer after boiling. Making good beer means inoculating your brew with a pure yeast strain and keeping the strain pure. Wild yeasts are everywhere in the air and on every surface. Allowing your beer to be contaminated with wild yeasts will produce odd and undesirable flavors. If you get a bacterial contamination, you will end up with swamp water. You will have to pour it out, and that is alcohol abuse! I use an iodine compound to sterilize everything. You don't have to sterilize your pots, stirring spoon, or anything that goes in the boiling beer. The boil will sterilize those things. Remember that tap water is not sterile. Boil it. For most kits you will need to top off your wort (pronounced "wert" - the malt extract mixture you are going to boil) to make a 5 or 6-gallon batch. If you only have one pot, you may need to boil about 3 gallons ahead of time and let it cool.
- I said everything! I start a batch of beer by filling a gallon bucket with water. I add a commercial iodine preparation according to directions. I put in the solution my fermentation lock, the rubber cork that goes with it, a thermometer and the plastic spigot that attaches to my primary fermentation container (plastic bucket with a hole to mount the spigot). After 20 minutes, I put the spigot on the primary fermentation container and pour in about ¾ of the solution. I drop in a couple of paper towels and swish the solution around to keep the sides of the bucket wet with solution to sterilize the interior. Sterilize the inside of the lid as well. Don't hurry, and don't worry. You will have everything perfectly sterile by the time the boil is finished.
- Heat 2 ½ gallons of water. If you are making a partial mash kit, you will get a couple of pounds of cracked barley malt. You need to get a muslin bag to put it in. You need to steep it in water at 155º F. for about 45 minutes (or whatever the recipe says). Swish and dip the muslin grain bag like a big teabag several times. When time is up, drain all that liquid, sugary goodness out of the grain. Discard the grain, but keep the muslin bag for the next batch. Bring the wort to a boil.
- Add the malt extract. In your recipe kit you almost certainly got a container with a few pounds of syrupy malt extract (or your recipe may use some DME, Dried Malt Extract). Remove the pot from the heat. Using a spatula, pour and scrape until you have all the extract in the pot. Start stirring with a long, long spoon. Do not return the mixture to the heat until all the malt extract is dissolved. Sugar will burn, and so can the syrup on the bottom of your wort. Start your boil. Your recipe will probably say to boil for 60 minutes.
- Add hops at the beginning of the boil. Your recipe will call for some variety of hops at the beginning of the boil. This variety of hops will be the bittering agent for your beer. Watch the wort carefully. It is at high risk for a boil-over just after you add the hops. You will ultimately want a rolling boil that does not produce much foam. If you want an irate spouse (and if you do, your preferences are different than mine), let your wort boil over and leave the stovetop a sticky mess that is hard to clean. It will also partially carbonize by the time you finish your boil. Nasty.
- At 45 minutes into the boil, add the flavor hops. Your recipe will tell you how much of what hops variety. You also add other things at this point in the boil. I use Irish Moss to help clarify the beer. What is Irish Moss? It's not Irish, and it's not moss. It is actually a seaweed product. It helps undesirable solids clump together so that they settle out of the beer more easily while the beer is in the secondary fermenter and the bottle. Hefeweizen and some Belgian beers are supposed to have what's called a "chill haze", so don't add Irish Moss to these brews. Watch for boil-over every time you add hops!
- Only 5 minutes left to boil. Time for the aroma hops. Follow the recipe. Sometimes other ingredients go in, depending on the recipe and style.
- Time to chill. You should now cool the hot wort as fast as possible. A sink full of ice water will do for a beginner. For the serious homebrewer, a wort chiller is indispensable. It is a copper coil that goes in the pot with 15 minutes left in the boil. Why then? Well, it needs to be sterilized by the boil. You attach plastic tubing and circulate cold water through the coil to cool the wort. When the wort has cooled to 80º F. it is time for your yeast. Pour the cooled wort into your primary fermentation vessel/bucket!
- Pitch the yeast. Well, don't actually throw it, but adding yeast is called "pitching the yeast". I could never make this stuff up. With terms like "wort", "Irish Moss", "wort chiller", and "pitching yeast", you and your fellow homebrewers can sit around and discuss making beer, and non-homebrewers won't have any idea of what you are talking about. It's kind of a protective vocabulary that shows you are in an elite club like soccer fans or techie geeks.
- A word about yeast. I use only liquid yeast. It always works. I use the brand in the plastic tube, not the brand in the foil pouch that you have to "spank" to activate. Explaining to someone that you have to go spank your yeast will lead to all kinds of misunderstandings. Certainly, dry yeast works, but I personally think it is too much hassle and adds one more opportunity for contamination to ruin your brew.
- Stir vigorously. Remember to keep everything sterile. Contamination produces swill. Yeast needs oxygen only at first. Stir your wort vigorously to introduce as much air to the liquid as possible. After fermentation has started, oxygen becomes your enemy, and carbon dioxide becomes your friend.
- Top off with boiled and cooled water. Bring the water level up to amount required by your recipe.
- Measure the OG with a hydrometer. More cool vocabulary! OG means "original gravity", and a hydrometer is a tube that has a sealed, graduated tube inside it that floats. It measures specific gravity. The higher the sugar content, the higher the OG and the higher the final alcohol content. Write down the OG measurement. You will need it later to measure the ABV (Alcohol By Volume). Do not pour the wort from the hydrometer back into the primary fermentation vessel.
- Seal and add a fermentation lock. Snap the lid on your primary fermentation vessel. Add a sterilized rubber cork and fermentation lock with water in it.
- Let the wort ferment until fermentation is nearly complete. It should start fermenting vigorously within 12 to 36 hours. After 5 to 7 days you should see almost no bubbling in your fermentation lock. It is time for secondary fermentation and a new vocabulary word.
- Transfer beer to the secondary fermentation vessel. Sterilize your secondary fermentation vessel, siphoning equipment or plastic tubing and another fermentation lock. I use a big glass bottle called a carboy for the secondary. Siphon the beer if you are using two glass carboys, or connect a hose to your spigot if using a plastic container. In either case, you want to leave the sediment behind. That sediment is called "trub", and it is pronounced "troob". It consists of proteins, spent yeast and solids from the hops and additives. It can be two or three inches deep with some recipes. The more you leave behind, the better your beer will clarify. Finish the transfer to the secondary and put another fermentation lock in place. If your beer does not clarify in a week or so, you can get what are called "finings" at your local homebrew supply store. There are several types of finings, but they all work the same magic. They clear your beer. After a week, the beer is usually clear, and it is ready to bottle.
- Prepare to bottle your beer. Kegging requires equipment far beyond the beginner level. Wash and sterilize 48 bottles. Again, I use an iodine preparation. It actually works better than chlorine bleach, and you don't have to rinse it. If you rinse sterilized bottles with tap water, you risk contamination. Tap water is not sterile. Also sterilize your bottle filler and plastic tubing. Boil ¾ cup of corn sugar in a cup of water for 10 minutes. This is your priming sugar. More on why you need priming sugar in a minute.
- Measure the final gravity. Water has a specific gravity of 1.0. Sugar is heavier than water, so water with sugar dissolved in it will have a specific gravity higher than 1.0. Alcohol has a specific gravity less than 1.0, so as your yeast converts sugar to alcohol, the original gravity will decrease. Subtract the final gravity number from the original gravity (which you wrote down, right?) and then multiply that number by 131. That will tell you the alcohol content of your beer. Just imagine the amount of beer that had to be brewed and consumed to figure out that 131 was exactly the right number. That's my kind of scientific experimentation!
- Add priming sugar. At this point I sterilize my primary fermenter again and carefully siphon the beer from the secondary back into the bucket to add priming sugar. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. The advantage is that the transfer leaves essentially all the trub (sediment) behind, so it is a lot easier to mix the priming sugar without disturbing the trub. I also find it easier to fill using a tube from the spigot than the tube from the siphon. What are the disadvantages of doing another transfer? It takes more time, and any transfer risks the introduction of oxygen or contaminants. If you do add priming sugar directly into the secondary fermenter, stir gently and carefully to avoid stirring up the sediment.
- Fill your sterile bottles. Fill to within an inch or so of the top. You will want an assistant to help with this operation. Grabbing empty bottles and setting down full bottles is a challenge to pull off all by yourself. By the way, this is a messy operation. You WILL spill some beer on the floor. Unless cleaned up well, it will be icky and sticky, and you will have some ‘splainin' to do.
- Cap your bottles. You don't need to sterilize bottle caps. They will not be contaminated. Cap carefully. Remember, you can only use bottles that are meant to be opened with a bottle opener. Screw cap bottles will not work for homebrew. One of the most amusing anecdotes I ever heard was from a first-time homebrewer who saved lots of screw-top bottles for his first batch of beer. He and his friends went to bottle their beer, and the capper started breaking every bottle. They panicked. It was Sunday. The homebrew supply store was closed. So they went out and bought two cases of Corona because it comes in the right kind of bottle. They proceeded to empty the Corona bottles, wasting nothing (except themselves). They then started washing and sterilizing the empty bottles and started bottling the brew. They had to call in reinforcements. Two of the buddies did not remain awake long enough to see the last bottle capped. Plan ahead. Don't let this happen to you. Of course, there are friends of mine who saw absolutely nothing wrong with the execution of their original plan.
- Let the beer carbonate. I said I would get back to the reason for the priming sugar. The yeast in your beer is not dead when you bottle it, it is just dormant. It has fermented all the sugar and converted it to alcohol and carbon dioxide, so it has nothing to feed on. When you add the priming sugar, the yeast will wake up and digest the added sugar. This will produce more alcohol and carbon dioxide. The amount of alcohol will be negligible, but the carbon dioxide will be dissolved in your beer. Voila! Carbonation!
Let the beer set for a week at room temperature. Put one bottle in the fridge in the morning. When it is cold, open it. If it is carbonated, refrigerate all your beer. If it is not carbonated, wait another week. If it is still not carbonated, it is probably "stuck". It happens. I know it is embarrassing. Carbonation dysfunction is a terrible affliction that happens to all of us from time to time. But there is help. Go to the homebrew supply store and buy a packet of Champaign yeast. Take the caps off all your bottles, sprinkle a few grains of yeast in each bottle, and recap your bottles. In another week or two all will be well. Your beer will fizz, and you will be happy, happy, happy.
- Two more weeks. Let your carbonated beer bottle-condition for two more weeks. A beer with a really high alcohol content will benefit from an even longer bottle conditioning. It will mellow greatly. A strong, but harsh beer at three months might be a smooth strong beer at six months or longer. Lower alcohol ales (4-5% ABV) will best be consumed young.
You just covered about 5 weeks of making a batch of beer from beginning to end. Rest on your laurels and have a homebrew. Your friends and neighbors will be singing your praises. And your last chore (and it is not a chore) will be to name your beer and make a label for it. This can be a real hoot! Some of my beer names: Misters Bock (with a picture of a Vulcan on it), Beam Me Up Scottish Ale, Newborn in the Castle Brown Ale (for the one and only grandson #2), Vixen Beer (why Rudolph's nose was red), and so on.
In the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin, "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." If you don't worry, you will make great beer.
Thoreau said that wood warms you twice: once when you chop it and again when you burn it. Beer should exhilarate you twice: once when you make it and again when you drink it.