The art of crafting homemade hooch isn’t just for the heroes of country music songs anymore. Ever since 1979—when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill allowing homemade booze for the first time since prohibition (!)—homebrewing has become an American pastime for self-declared connoisseurs of beer. (Though it wasn’t until 2013, when Alabama and Mississippi got on board with the bill, that the practice finally became legal in all 50 states.) In fact, many of your favorite breweries and bar staples were started by people experimenting with flavors in their own homes: Russian River, Dogfish Head, and Sam Adams all started that way.
The downside to this today, of course, is that every Tom, Dick, and Jane thinks they can open a craft brewery just because they managed to whip up a couple of stove-top batches themselves. But, hey, there’s no harm in dreaming big. Here’s a handy guide on how you, too, can achieve that glorious, hopped-up level of delusion. Even if you don’t make more than one batch, you’ll still have a couple of cold ones to console yourself with.
Why You Should Try It
The obvious perk of homebrewing is that the end product is beer. Moreover, that beer can be as malty, hoppy, and goggles-inducing as you’d like it to be. By putting time and effort into considering what’s going into your personal concoction, you’ll begin to notice subtle differences in other beers and learn about how small changes can impact flavor. There are also clone recipes available! So, let’s say you live in Boston but enjoy Alaskan’s Amber Ale—you can try to reproduce your favorite regional specialities at home, at a fraction of the cost. It can make you smarter, too! If you get hooked, you’ll find yourself doing crazy shit like reading chemistry textbooks and studying yeast-propagation rates. Of course, all of that might end up being a wash given what we know about alcohol and brain cells.
There are many different ways to homebrew, as well as a lot nuances to those processes that brewers can tweak. Basically, there’s two fundamental ways to make beer at home: extract and all-grain. With extract brewing, you use Dry Malt Extract (DME) or Liquid Malt Extract (LME) as your base (referred to as a grain-bill or malt-bill). With all-grain, you’ll use, well, all grains, predominantly malted barley.
For beginners, it’s easier and cheaper to start with extract brewing: It takes less time and less equipment, and involves fewer steps. All-grain requires more of all those things, but gives you more options in your process and recipes, and therefore more control over the final product. For the remainder of this article, I’m going to focus on entry-level extract homebrewing. My technique is just one way to do it, but for newcomers, it’s the most straightforward approach while also giving you the satisfaction of going through a vigorous process. (If you want to get more in-depth, I highly recommend John Palmer’s How to Brew; the first version is available online for free.)
Find A Recipe
The Internet is littered with these damn things. Look, here’s one! The easiest way to find a recipe is to find a beer style you like, and search “beginner recipe” or “extract recipe” online. If the first one you find looks too complicated, pick another. Make sure you note the batch size, as that will determine your measurements and quantities. I recommend starting with a one-gallon batch; it doesn’t make a lot of beer, but it also doesn’t cost a lot in terms of ingredients or equipment. You probably have most of the tools you need lying around the kitchen.
What You’ll Need
If you’re sticking to a one-gallon recipe, you’re going to need the following items:
- A 2- to 3-gallon (or larger) kettle or pot to boil your water.
- A one-gallon carboy or an airtight food-safe container to ferment.
- A rubber stopper or lid and airlock to let out CO2 and stop bacteria from getting into your carboy/container.
- Something to stir the beer with, like a metal spoon or whisk.
- Strainer bags for any specialty malts, or any hops.
- Sanitizer, such as StarSan or Iodophor.
Before you can have beer, you need to make something called “wort,” which is a fancy term for sugar-water. For a one-gallon extract recipe, bring about 1.5 gallons of water to a boil, then kill the heat. Add your LME or DME, stirring until it’s consistent. Don’t let LME syrup settle on the bottom of your pot, as it’ll scorch. Then bring the heat back up and boil.
You’re going to boil anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours. The recipe you choose should tell you how long to go, but if it doesn’t, assume 60 minutes for ales and 90 minutes for lagers.
With all-grain, you mix the grains with hot water and let it steep for about an hour. This process—known as mashing and lautering—is one of the more complicated, technical, and labor-intensive parts of brewing; that’s why I recommend starting your brewing career with extract.
Add Your Hops
The sexiest step in the brewing process is also one of the easiest, as you’ll buy the specific hops meant for your recipe; there’s no guessing or chemistry required yet. Your recipe will denote hop additions, and tell you how much and what kind of hops to add. These instructions usually look like this:
- 2oz Hallertau 60min.
- 1oz Saaz 15min.
- 1oz Saaz 0min.
The time given denotes how far from the end of the boil you should add the hops. In this example, if you’re boiling for 60 minutes, you should add the Hallertau right after you get your boil going, add the first addition of Saaz with 15 minutes left, and add the last addition of Saaz as you turn off the heat.
Be careful with 60-minute hop additions, especially if using pellet hops. Adding too much at once can cause a boil-over, and holy shit is that a stinky, sticky mess to clean up. Either add the hops slowly, or boil your wort for an extra five minutes (so a 65-minute boil instead) before adding the hops.
Chill Your Wort
There are various devices that can help you here, but the easiest way to chill a small batch is to fill your sink with ice and cold water, and stick the kettle into it. You should chill the wort down to about 75°F before transferring it to your sanitized carboy (or fermenter). This is to ensure that the wort is not too hot when you pitch your yeast; run too hot and you’ll kill the yeast on contact. You’ll want to chill the wort with some covering over the kettle to keep out bacteria: Bacteria that will affect your beer can grow at any temperature below 170°F, so make certain that everything that touches the beer below that temperature is cleaned and sanitized.
Pitch Your Yeast
Once your wort is chilled, it’s time to pitch your yeast. Remember what I just said about bacteria and sanitizing? Your carboy/fermenter should be clean and sanitized before you pour your wort into it (if you’re using a funnel, that should be cleaned and sanitized, too). If you’re using StarSan, don’t worry about residual foam in the carboy—it won’t affect your beer.
There are three ways that yeast is packaged: dry, liquid, and smack-pack. If you’re doing a one-gallon batch, simply tossing the dry yeast into the carboy should do the trick. Alternately, you can rehydrate the dry yeast by mixing it with a cup of warm (95° to 100°F) pre-boiled water (the boiling serves to kill any microbes in the water). You should also sanitize the outside of the yeast container (be it a packet, smack-pack, or vial) to make sure that nothing gnarly makes it into your beer when adding the yeast.
Put in your sanitized rubber stopper/lid and your sanitized airlock, give the vessel a few hard shakes, and store the carboy in a place with stable temperature (in the range of 58° to 70°F) that’s out of the sun.
The next step is to wait two weeks. This is the most frustrating part of brewing, because there is precious little you can do to (positively) influence the outcome of your beer. During this roughly two-week period—it varies depending on the amount of yeast you pitched, the health of that yeast, the amount of oxygen dissolved in the beer from the shaking, and the temperature where the carboy is stored—the yeast is busy eating all the sugars in your boiled wort.
There’s a lot of science happening in there, but at it’s most basic, the yeast is eating sugar and crapping out alcohol and CO2. You may notice a layer of film and bubbles on the surface of the wort; you may also notice what looks like sea monkeys floating in there. That’s known as krausen and flocculation, respectively. Don’t worry about it, it’s normal, and I’m not just saying that to make you feel better.
After the two weeks are past, it’s time to bottle your beer. For this, you are going to need:
- More sanitizer.
- Approximately 10 12-oz bottles (cleaned and sanitized, not screw-tops) per gallon.
- Unused bottle caps.
- A bottle-capper.
- A beer siphon with racking cane.
- Tubing that fits on the siphon.
- A bottle-filler attachment for the siphon/tubing.
- A bottling bucket.
- About 1oz of table sugar (err on the lower side).
- A towel to mop up all the beer you spill.
The first step is to put the sanitized (and yes, everything at this point needs to be sanitized) racking cane—the hard plastic or metal bar—into the carboy. The yeast, proteins, and hop particles will have settled to the bottom; do your best not to disturb this mass (known as “trub”) when inserting the cane. Use the siphon to transfer the beer from your carboy into the bottling bucket. Once you’ve got the flow started, dump in 0.5oz to 1oz of table sugar per gallon into the bucket. The flow from the siphon will do the mixing for you. Be careful to transfer as little trub as possible into the bottling bucket.
Next, sanitize your bottles and caps, insert the (re-cleaned and re-sanitized) racking cane/siphon into the bottling bucket, add the bottle-filler attachment, and start filling your bottles (some bottling buckets allow you to connect the tubing and bottle filler directly). Fill your bottles close to the brim; removing the filler will lower the level of beer down to about the desired amount, halfway up the bottle’s neck. Once you’ve got the bottle filled, remove the filler, place the cap on top, and cap it into place. I place the cap on loosely until I’ve filled all my bottles and then go back and cap at the end, but some people prefer the one-at-a-time approach.
Wait Some More
Once you’ve got all your beers filled and capped, it’s time to wait again. Store your beer upright in a dark area at room temperature. Over the next two weeks or so, the residual yeast in your beer is going to eat the table sugar and produce more CO2 (and trace amounts of alcohol). Because the CO2 will have nowhere to go—assuming you capped your bottles correctly—it will dissolve into the beer, providing it with carbonation.
Chill Your Beer and Enjoy
After about two weeks, take one or two of your beers, chill them, and then taste them. If they are flat and under-carbonated, leave the rest alone: The yeast are moving slowly and haven’t finished carbonating yet. If they bust open and gush over the sides, you have an infection, or you over-carbonated, or a combination of the two. Clean and sanitize better next time, champ.
Assuming you did everything at least pretty close to right, you should be rewarded with beer. Glorious, glorious beer. It will probably taste better than you expected and fill you with the sort of false confidence you get when you sleep with someone better-looking than yourself. Congratulations, homebrewer.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
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