A Beginner’s Guide to the World of Homebrewing

If you’re reading this, you’re either looking for information on how to make your own beer or you’re terribly lost. Maybe you want to try it, maybe you’re just wondering how it’s done, or maybe you read one of the posts about it on this wonderful blog and wanted to know what all those crazy contraptions are for and what all those strange words mean. Hopefully, this page will answer some of your questions. It’s a simplified introduction to the brewing process and at the end of it I’ll list some sources to find more/better information if you’re still curious (and not bored out of your mind).

Homebrewing is actually pretty simple. At it’s core, beer is made up of four simple ingredients – water, barley, hops and yeast. The process used to bring these together is the tricky part. And with the right tools (most of which are easy to come by, easy to make or easy to substitute) and a whole lot of patience (which is not easy to come by, impossible to make and impossible to substitute) anyone can get started making beer pretty quickly. And good beer, too. Not just some yellow-ish swill like you would find in a can at a Nascar rally or something. I’m talking high quality beer snob level stuff here. Seriously. It just takes some time and lots of patience. Mostly patience. You’ll see why in a little bit.

So let’s get this party started.

As a homebrewer, you have two basic ways to make beer. You can either start with whole malted barley grains (all-grain brewing) or with malted barley extracts(extract brewing). If you use the whole grains you have to crush them yourself and then make a “mash” to extract the sugars. This is time consuming work but not terribly difficult. If you start with extracts, either dry or liquid, that part is done for you. But then where is the fun? Here’s how I see it: making beer from extract is the homebrewing equivalent of Semi-Homemade Cooking. Some people don’t have the time or inclination to bake a three layer lemon cake with butter-cream frosting from scratch. They’ll use a mix and a tub of frosting and maybe add some stuff to it to make it their own. Sandra Lee made a career of it. (She also appears to be bat-shit insane and a bit of a drunk.) But that’s not me. Now I’m not saying that I can bake a cake or anything, but I can brew beer. And I choose to start from the whole grains because I feel more involved in the process that way. It gives you more control in the end product. You know, the beer. Which is what this is all about, anyway. So why not go the extra step? The beer deserves it.

So you’ve decided to make some all-grain beer. Good for you. Now what? Well, you’ll have to get your hands on some grains. You can get them at a local homebrew shop (LHBS on most online forums) or online. They’ve been malted for you by professional maltsters. But they need to be crushed. I suppose you can buy them pre-crushed but if you do that they don’t store very well. Only crush what you need and grain can last for years. But what kind of grains do you need? What kind of grains are there? Well, you’re base grain will be 2-row barley. Then you can supplement that with all sorts of different varieties. Most common are crystal malts (sometimes called caramel malts). They come in different grades by Lovibond number (a unit of coloring) and add color, flavor and body to the beer.

Grinding Process
My weekly excercise

The grains can be crushed with a motorized grain crusher, a hand cranked mill like I use, or even a wine bottle. Some methods are better than others. The idea is to get the grains open but leave the husk mostly intact. You need it to act as a filter in the mash tun. Which brings us to the mashing step. Basically what you’re doing is soaking (mashing) the grains in hot water to get all the delicious sugars in the barley into solution. But let’s take a moment here to discuss the mash tun.

Tiny Tun
Isn’t it precious?

This is one of those tools that can either be purchased or built. I use a Rubbermaid cooler with a nifty valve I installed. The valve parts came from a hardware store and cost about 20 bucks all together. Inside is a metal mesh screen that came from a toilet water supply line (NEW, people…don’t be gross!) with the inner hose pulled out. The screen filters the wort (that’s beer before fermentation) when draining the tun. You could buy all different kinds of mash tuns for all different sums of money but they all produce the same thing in the end. So I went with what was cheap and readily available. Also, I like to make things myself. It’s a weakness. So back to the mashing…

Temperature matters here. Somewhere in the low 150’s (Farenheit) is usually good but it depends on what you’re looking for in the finished beer. Lower temperatures give you more fermentable sugars. Time is a factor, too. You want to mash the grains for about an hour. This is why Michelle says making beer is mostly about waiting for things to happen. You can use this time to clean things for later in the brewing process. Or washing the floors. Or playing video games. Or napping. I don’t think it matters what you do for an hour as long as it’s legal in your country/state/municipality. So stir up the mash and walk away.

(I’m going to take a moment here to mention that I brew in very small batches. Five gallons is pretty much the standard homebrewing size. I don’t know how that started but that’s where things stand. I don’t really have room for the equipment necessary for batches that large and I don’t drink enough to justify that much beer sitting around my house. So I brew 2.5 and 0.875 gallon batches. That’s right, 0.875 gallons. That’s roughly 8 beers as opposed to the standard 50 beers you get out of five gallons. So I brew less beer than most people but I brew more often. What’s great about this hobby is that you can do whatever you want. Personalize it to your wants/needs/abilities. Now I’m off to play some video games while I wait for the mash.)

Whew. That Wii sure is fun, huh? Oh, has it been an hour? Awesome. Let’s see how the mash is doing. Smells like grape nuts. Let’s drain it. If you just drain it directly to the boil kettle you’ll end up with tiny bits of grain in the boil. And that’s not good. So you want to vorlauf. Say it with me. Vorlauf. That’s where you drain some of the wort and pour it back into the mash tun. What this does is gets all the tiny pieces of grain that got to the bottom and through the screen and puts them on top. Do this a couple of times, maybe a few quarts worth, and the bottom of the mash tun will be mostly larger husk pieces that can’t get through the screen. Drain to the boil kettle now and very few bits of grain will get in. A tiny amount won’t kill you. At least I don’t think it will. Not instantly, anyway. But we’re not done with this yet. See, you don’t mash with all the water that you’re going to boil. You only mash with about half the water. After you drain the tun there’s still some sugar clinging to those grains. We’ve got to get that shit off of them. So we’ll rinse the grains off with some more hot water. This secondary rinsing of the grains is called sparging. And I think that word is hilarious.

There are two ways to sparge (hahaha!). Fly sparging is where you continuously sprinkle water over the grains while draining the tun at an equal rate. You do this slowly until you get the sugars you want and the final volume of wort that you’re after. Batch sparging is where you fill the tun with more water, stir it up and drain it again. This is easier and so it’s the way I do it. I don’t really know what all the pros and cons are for the two methods. I just know that batch sparging doesn’t require anymore equipment than what I already have. So pour some hot water (about 170F) into your mash tun, stir it around, wait about 10 or 15 minutes, vorlauf and drain to your boil kettle. By now you should have enough wort in the pot such that the hour or so of boiling that we’re about to do will bring you down to your target volume and gravity of finished wort. In fact, let’s talk about gravity for a second.

When we talk about gravity, we’re talking about specific gravity. As any chemist will tell you, specific gravity is a ratio of the density of a liquid to the density of pure H2O. So water has a specific gravity of 1. Why does this matter? Because sugar will increase the density of liquid. This gives us a way to talk about how much sugar is in our wort. And since yeast is going to eat most of the sugar and turn it into alcohol, we can use specific gravity to figure out how strong our beer is. Pretty neat, eh? Ninth grade science has its uses.

Back to the beer. Actually, wort. It’s sitting in a pot (the boil kettle) and waiting for us to make it into beer. But beer isn’t really beer without the hops. Hops add that floral aroma that you inhale as you bring the pint to you lips. The distinctive bitterness that balances the sweetness of the malt. The crisp finish that cleans your palate. You need the hops, man! So get that wort boiling and start a timer for 60 minutes. Hops are added at certain times to add different qualities to the beer. Hops added at around the 60 minute mark add the backing bitterness. Add them around 30 – 15 minutes (countdown time) and you’ll get their flavor (citrus, pine…depends on the hop). Add them at the end between 5 and 0 minutes and you’ll get their aroma. Along with the hops, sometimes very small amounts of clarifying agents like Irish moss (a seaweed based additive) are thrown in during the boil. These help the beer clear during the fermentation process. I only use it when I remember to and not terribly often. It doesn’t affect the flavor in any way.

Great. We’ve got hopped up wort. Now we need to cool that shit down. The faster the better. You could put the pot into a sink full of ice and wait for it to get down to yeast-pitching temperature (about 65F for an ale). Or you could use a wort chiller.

Wort Chiller
A homemade wort chiller. This is what I do in my spare time.

I made this sucker out of some copper tubing, vinyl tubing and some brass fittings. Fifteen smackers at the hardware store. It chills my tiny batches of beer from boiling to 65F in 20-25 minutes. That’s pretty good. You attach one end of the hose to your sink and drop the copper coil into the boiling wort. When you want to cool it you stop the boil and turn on the cold water. The water flows through the pipe and chills the surrounding wort. The other end of the tube shoots the now-hot water back into the sink. Or all over your shirt. You had to see it.

Let’s say your wort is now at 65F. You have one step left before you have to clean up the kitchen. Pitching the yeast. I don’t know why they call it “pitching”. You’re just dumping yeast into your wort. You can get yeast online or at your LHBS. You can save yeast from previous batches and reuse it, too. It saves a couple of bucks and gives you something that looks like peanut butter to keep in your refrigerator.

Slurry and Coffee
Slurry and coffee. My brother got me that mug. I love it.

I should note here that everything that touches the wort or beer after the boil should be sanitized. The beer is going to ferment in conditions that are very favorable to bacterial growth so you want to make sure there’s no bacteria lurking in your fermentation vessel. You want the yeast to be the only thing going to town on your beer. So sanitize your spoons and turkey basters and vessels and whatnot with some good sanitizer (available at your LHBS or online blah blah blah). Indeed, I did say turkey baster. I use one to take a sample of the wort from the jug to test the specific gravity. Just dump the wort into a jug or bucket or something, take a gravity sample, and pitch the yeast. Last thing to do is lock it up. I jam a section of 3/8″ tubing into a rubber stopper and put that in the mouth of my fermentation jug. The other end goes into a bottle of water (with sanitizer to make sure the water doesn’t get gross). The yeast is going to release a bunch of CO2 along with the alcohol. You have to give it somewhere to go without letting air into the beer. Air and beer don’t mix.

Old Ale Finished
Beer genesis

That’s all! Well, not really. You now have to wait a few weeks for fermentation, then bottle it up with some sugar so that it carbonates, then wait for it to carbonate. I won’t get into those details here. You can look through the other resources if you really want to get into it. I hope this page has helped you understand what brewing is all about. If it seems complicated, rest assured. It really isn’t. If you can boil water you can brew beer. Now you can look through some of the posts on the blog for some of my recipes and have a go at it yourself. Good luck!

Other Resources

If you’ve gotten this far you may be thinking of actually doing this whole brewing thing. Cool. I highly recommend it. I think it’s a blast. Here are some places to look for more information:

Books

How to Brew by John Palmer
The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian

Websites and Online Forums

www.howtobrew.com
www.morebeer.com
www.northernbrewer.com
www.thebrewingnetwork.com

My LHBS

www.brewapp.com (These people are great. If you’re in NJ you should check them out.)