Brewing 101: Making a Very Clean Soup (The Brewing Process)

If you enjoy cooking and you also enjoy drinking beer, you will likely enjoy beermaking. The basic brewing process is as simple as following a recipe for soup, albeit a very clean soup — essentially boiling water, steeping grain, and adding hops, keeping things sterile, then waiting.

This piece will teach you how to begin. You’ll probably also want to see the earlier entries in this series:

Brewing 101: Building the Brewhouse (Equipment)

Brewing 101: Grocery Shopping (Ingredients)

Once you’ve mastered the steps below, you can build to refine your technique or experiment with novel ingredients and processes.

Before brew day

Step 1: Order your equipment and ingredients.

There are many large online or mail-order suppliers of brewing supplies. I made a short list of suppliers here: Brewing 101: Suppliers

Consider ordering your equipment and your first recipe online, then finding a local supplier for the future. It’s convenient, ensures fresh yeast and hops, and helps support the hobby.

Step 2: Store your ingredients.

Hops and yeast are best stored in the fridge. Extract can be stored in a cool place.

Notes: Dry malt extract lasts a long time, years even if in the freezer, but liquid malt extract is best used within a few weeks to a month of arrival. If you put liquid extract it in the fridge, it needs to warm up first on brew day or it may be close to rock solid.

A note on sanitation

Sanitation is very important for beermaking, so learn to follow simple best practices:

While the beer liquid, known as wort, is boiling, it is sterile. It can be touched by anything.

When the wort is finished boiling, it is susceptible to infection by bacteria or wild yeasts in the air or on utentils or containers. Thus, try to make sure anything that touches the wort is clean of crud and sterilized using a bucket of StarSan or something similar.

Once you’ve roughly followed those rules, relax!  Brewing is a forgiving process and it is very unlikely you’ve ruined your beer.

I would argue from personal experience that attention to the recipe, proper yeast pitching, and especially temperature control during fermentation are all more important to the taste of the final product.

Now, onward to the brewing process.

Brew day

Step 1: Measure and boil water.

You may use your bottling or fermenting bucket at this point to measure out the proper amount of water for your beer. Plan to lose from 1/2 to 1 gallon during the process, so add a bit extra to your pot (if it fits).

Don’t worry if you inevitably don’t hit the mark, you can always add more water later. Having markings on the inside of your boil kettle helps when aiming for the perfect volume.

Step 2: Steep grains (if part of recipe)

If required, add the cracked grain in a mesh grain bag and follow directions for heating and steeping. My most recent extract batch called for heating to 155 degrees and holding at that temperature for 30-40 minutes. This is akin to a mash for all-grain beers.

Once this step is complete, remove and discard the grain bag.

Step 3: Heat to a boil

Heat water to a rolling boil. I use a thermometer to make sure I reach a full boil but you can also eyeball it.

Step 4: Add malt extract and bittering hops

Most recipes call for a 60-minute boil, with the first hops added at 60 minutes. Recipe additions are listed in descending order by boil time. These first hops will be in contact with the wort for the longest, which leads to the necessary bitter backbone to your beer.

Step 5: Add flavoring or aroma hops (if part of recipe)

Flavoring hops are those added for around 30 minutes. Aroma hops are added in the last 10 or so minutes or even after the boil is complete.

Ten minutes or less may seem like a waste of hops since they are in contact with the boiling liquid for much less time and less of the hops flavor is extracted. Indeed, less of the hops oils at that point are infused into the wort.

However, many of the most prized beers use these late additions to add a great “nose” to the beer without the bitterness from an extended boil. Most top commercial IPAs use this technique to add depth of aroma.

Step 6: Cool wort to close to room temperature

Cooling the wort to around room temperature allows the liquid to reach a temperature to support the propagation of yeast and thus fermentation. The goal at this point is to create an inviting environment for the yeast, then to add yeast and only yeast to the wort to start the conversion of sugar to alcohol.

The point between boiling and the addition of yeast is a window during which your beer may come in contact with contaminants and thus cooling rapidly is considered best practice.

One simple cooling method is to submerge the kettle in a sink or tub of cold water and ice and stir the wort until it’s cool. Change the water as needed. This is sufficient for small batches of 2.5-3 gallons.

For the next level, a snake of coiled copper tubing called a counterflow chiller circulates tap water through and out of your wort, carrying away excess heat. This is the quickest option, especially useful if you’re making larger-volume batches of 5+ gallons.

However, beermaking is forgiving. I either tested or heard first-hand of the following less-than-ideal methods being applied by both first-time and long-time brewers without ill effect, roughly in descending order from best to worst idea:

  • Addition of cooled boiled water to drop the temperature of the wort
  • Refrigerating sealed fermentation vessel overnight and adding yeast the next morning
  • Adding tap water run through a Brita filter
  • Adding plain tap water to cool and reach the right volume
  • Pouring wort into fermentation vessel filled with ice

Step 7: Pour wort into fermenter

If you have a bucket, just pour it in, ideally with a cleaned and sanitized kitchen strainer to catch the hop goo at the bottom of the kettle. If your fermenter has a small opening, you’ll need to use a funnel.

Step 8: Aerate wort

Shake the wort vigorously for 2 minutes to add oxygen to the liquid. Yeast need oxygen in their initial growth phase. Keep your finger over the hole in the lid so wort doesn’t fly everywhere

Note: If you stirred vigorously during the cooling down process, this may be unnecessary.

Step 8: Add additional water (if needed)

See advice from Step 6: Cool wort to close to room temperature (65-80 F).

Step 9: Add yeast

Dry yeast should be rehydrated for at least 15 minutes first in a cup of warm (80 F) boiled water or a 50/50 mix of water and wort. Just pour, don’t stir. You could use non-sterile water or even just pitch the dry yeast directly into the cooled wort in the fermenter.

Liquid yeast can also simply be added to the fermenter or it can be added to a starter. Starters are basically wort mixed with yeast prior to brew day so that the yeast will start reproducing and be big and strong. I’ll explain starters in a later entry.

Wyeast liquid yeast comes with a special starter-like “smack pack” that confines liquid yeast and small amount of sugary water to an airtight package that you smack to mix together. It inflates to show that the yeast are working.

Basically the more forethought the yeast preparation takes, the healthier your yeast and more vigorous your initial fermentation. Vigorous fermentation creates alcohol quickly, which will poison most anything non-yeast trying to take hold in your beer.

Step 10: Check and note gravity

Using your hydrometer, read the number at the surface of your beer liquid. It will start with 1.0-something, e.g. 1.060 or 1.038. In fact, most of my beers have been in that range. Your beer liquid contains sugar and is slightly more dense than water (1.00).

Step 11: Close fermenter and add airlock or blow-off tube

CO2 from fermentation needs a way to escape the container without letting air and contaminants in. One option is a PVC plastic tube with one end in the top of the fermenter and the other submerged in a container of sanitized water, which allows gas to bubble out. You may also buy a plastic airlock which does essentially the same thing but has a narrower diameter.

See my forthcoming piece on Brewing Questions for a longer discussion.

After brew day

Step 1: Keep beer at ideal temperature for 10-14 days

Fermentation should start within 12-24 hours. Keeping your beer at a temperature within the ideal range for your yeast (generally 62-72 degrees, use 68 degrees as a rough guideline). This will ensure that the yeast work steadily and efficiently, keeping off-flavors to a minimum and avoiding dormant yeast.

However, the fermentation process itself throws off heat and your beer may get hot regardless of the temperature of your room. Here are a few simple approaches to keeping cool:

  • Place the fermenter in a bucket of ice or cold water
  • Move the fermenter to a cool spot, like the basement
  • Wrap a wet towel or t-shirt around the fermenter and aim a fan at it — this is called evaporative cooling and is the same process as sweating
  • Build a temperature-controlled fridge and place the fermenter inside. I’ll explain how I did this in a later post.

Step 2: Check gravity

After 10-14 days, check the gravity of your beer. It should generally be between 1.004-1.016. Lower numbers mean less residual sugars, and is a function of your ingredients, alcohol percentage, and choice of yeast.

Check your one reading against the guide for your recipe and take two readings several days apart to check that they haven’t changed more than a few points, though either approach is usually sufficient.

When touching the beer, use a measuring cup you’ve dunked or boiled to sanitize and do not return the sample to the fermenter.

Once your final gravity, as it is called, is reached, get ready to bottle.

Bottling day

Step 1: Move to bottling bucket

Use an auto-siphon to start the beer flowing from your fermenter to the bottling bucket. Raise the fermenter and lower the bottling bucket and gravity will do the rest.

Just a note that your bottling bucket and its spigot should be cleaned and sanitized as they touch the beer.

Step 2: Add priming sugar

The yeast is done with its initial work, but adding priming sugar, around 2/3 cup dissolved in water and added to 5 gallons of beer is enough to restart fermentation in the bottles and carbonate your beer.

Step 3: Bottle and cap

Fill your cleaned and sanitized bottles and use the capper to seal sanitized caps on your beer. Bottles may be stored for months or even years, so ensuring that they are completely sanitized will make sure nothing unwanted grows in your beer over time.

Step 4: Wait 2-4 weeks

I know it’s painful to wait, but this time is needed for the beer to self-carbonate. I’ll write later about how I created a kegging and serving system that skips this step.

Step 5: Drink


Brewing 101: Building the Brewhouse (Equipment)

The beer brewing toolkit consists of a handful of inexpensive items, a few of which you likely already have in your kitchen. The list below is a comprehensive accounting of all the tools you’ll need to start out.

Like any hobby, the more obsessed you get, the more money you can end up spending, though you can easily get started with $50-100 of supplies. Somewhere along the way you may either break things or want to upgrade your equipment.

Proper sanitation and cleaning is the first step to good beer, so let’s start there:

Cleaning. If you’re looking to remove grime and gunk without scratching your equipment with a scouring pad, OxyClean or PBW work wonders. OxyClean can be found in any grocery store, while PBW is a similar brewing-specific powder that removes everything from labels to dried-on gunk. Generally, I try to remove the mess while it’s moist using a sponge and then sanitize right away.

Sanitizer. After some trial-and-error, I’ve settled on StarSan as the ideal sanitizer. It’s non-toxic, requires 30 seconds of contact, and doesn’t need to be rinsed. It can also be saved for weeks and used in a spray bottle to clean on the fly.

If you’re looking for what you have around the house, bleach works and is cheap, but it needs rinsing and can stain your clothes if you’re not careful. Iodophor is an iodine-based sanitizer that is cheap and simple.

I started my brewing career by using the high heat / dry cycle on the home dishwasher to sanitize. It works a bit like the autoclave from your dentist’s office and is fast, simple and doesn’t require dunking dozens of bottles.

Kitchen Items

The following items you probably have in your kitchen already.

Large pot. Space in the pot for at least 4-5 gallons of boiling liquid is necessary. In a pinch you can boil 3 gallons and add cold water. When you add your hops, the liquid will foam up suddenly and may overflow, so more space is better.

I purchased my 8-gallon aluminum pot for $55 at a restaurant supply store in Chinatown. Stainless steel is more durable and can be easier to clean, though it is usually 2-3 times more expensive.

Spoon or paddle. I’ve noticed that my large steel spoon leaves marks in my aluminum kettle if I’m not careful. Wooden paddles look cooler and may function better for breaking up grain, though stainless steel is easier to sanitize for use after the boil.

My metal spoon cost $4 at the restaurant supply store in Chinatown.

Thermometer. I use a long stainless steel cooking thermometer to monitor the temperature of the boiling wort as it approaches 212 F and I have a stick-on thermometer on my fermentation bucket to make sure it’s nice and cool for a clean-tasting final product.

My cheap cooking thermometer cost around $5-7. An accurate digital thermometer can be found for under $20.

Homebrew-Specific Items

You’ll have to buy the following inexpensive items to start brewing.

Brew bucket or fermenter. This is where your beer will ferment. It is a 6.5-gallon food safe bucket with a hole drilled in the top for an air lock. The air lock allows CO2 gas from fermentation to escape without air or contaminants reaching the beer.

Plastic buckets ($), glass (or plastic) carboys ($$) can be purchased from any homebrew shop, either online or in-person. Stainless steel fermenters ($$$) are the next step up and easier to clean. An entry-level plastic bucket costs around $15.

Hydrometer. This contraption looks a bit like a floating thermometer and measures the density of the beer-liquid, i.e. how much fermentable sugar is dissolved in water. A higher density means more sugar and thus, generally, a higher final alcohol percentage for your beer.

This is a bit of a specialized product and thus has to be purchased from a homebrew shop, though it shouldn’t cost more than $8-10.

Auto-siphon. This is a plastic tube contraption that looks a bit like a slide trombone and allows you to start the beer flowing from your fermentation vessel to your bottling bucket without contaminating your beer. It costs around $10 from any homebrew shop.

Bottling bucket. This plastic bucket looks similar to the brew bucket, only it has a hole on the side for a spigot, and this spigot is where you’ll fill your beer bottles after adding the priming sugar.

A bottling bucket costs around $12-15 from any homebrew shop.

Saving your beer

The items below are needed to get your beer into bottles, which is the final step in the brewing process.

Bottle capper. I started bottling my beer by rinsing out old beer bottles, sanitizing them, and capping them using this special hand-held contraption for crimping bottle caps.

A capper costs around $10-15 from any homebrew shop.

Bottles. Get your bottles for free from a friend’s house party or a local bar. Make sure they are the non-twist off kind with the standard lip, as the others can’t easily be re-capped.

If you can find 22oz bombers or European half-liter bottles, even better, as larger bottles mean fewer to clean and cap. Avoid green glass, as it doesn’t protect from UV light and will lead quickly to “skunked” beer.

Bottle caps can be purchased for $0.10 or less each from a homebrew shop. You’ll need 48-50 for a standard 5-gallon batch and, unlike the bottles, they can’t be reused.

Time to start brewing! See my post Brewing 101: Suppliers if you’re not sure where to get the necessary supplies.

Brewing 101: Suppliers

Cover image by Pierre-alain dorange (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Finding out where to buy your homebrewing supplies the first time around can be a chore. Luckily, there are hundreds of homebrew shops, both online and brick-and-mortar.

I tend to buy my equipment online and my ingredients locally to support the local store. It’s a tough market, and it’s essential to have a local supplier during a brewing emergency. Plus homebrew shop staff are usually very helpful, especially with beginners.

The online stores all offer low flat-rate or free shipping and have similar prices, though some have regular sales. Bulk hops, i.e. anything over single-ounce packages, tend to only be available online.


I’ve lived in a few places since beginning my homebrew career. These are my choices in those cities:

Brooklyn: Bitter and Esters (700 Washington Ave)

Small store that also offers brewing and tasting classes in addition to carrying all the usual ingredients and malts. They also have house recipe binders for those looking for inspiration. From what I can find, it also happens to be the only brick-and-mortar homebrew shop in NYC.

Syracuse: Sunset Hydroponics and Homebrew (3530 Erie Blvd E)

Friendly staff, though a bit disorganized. The beer I made with their ingredients turned out amazing so I have no complaints. Large, centrally located store with big selection.

Washington, DC: 3 Stars Brewing (6400 Chillum Pl NW)

The only homebrew supply within Washington DC city limits is at 3 Stars Brewery. These are nice guys that brew good beer and this is a Thursday-Sunday side-business especially good for fresh yeast, impulse shopping while filling a growler, and emergency runs after work or on a weekend brew day.


Adventures in Homebrewing

Has a loyalty program that gives you 5% on purchases redeemable after $200 in spending. Sometimes has rare equipment in stock, such as the used 3-gallon soda keg I recently purchased to make half-batches for my kegging system.

Austin Homebrew Supply

Lots of unofficial clone recipes of your favorite beers. Good prices on self-branded malt extract.

Label Peelers

Has had a wide variety of hops on sale 30-50% off by the pound recently and sells in bulk.

Midwest Brewing Supply


Carries many specialty products, including the affordable new Torpedo kegs (1.5, 2.5, and 5 gallon sizes). This is where I purchased my 3.5-gallon Ss Brewtech Mini Brew Bucket with free shipping.

Northern Brewer

Has a really nice glossy mail-order catalog with unique and official brewery clone recipes, as well as constant special sales via their subscription email.

Even if you don’t order from them, it’s nice to have their catalog to visualize what you’ll need for your next homebrewing plans.

Good luck with your homebrewing plans and remember small, lightweight things like stick-on thermometers and thermometers can even be purchased on Amazon Prime if you’re in a pinch.

Brewing 101: Grocery Shopping (Ingredients)

This is second in a introductory series about homebrewing and I’m starting with the basics, ingredients, equipment, and process before delving into more complex topics.

If you’ve ever talked to a German about beer, you’ll have been told that beer has four, and only four, ingredients: water, hops, yeast, and malted barley (sometimes wheat). Not entirely true, but these are indeed the building blocks of your standard beer. You can add all kinds of other fun and useful ingredients in small quantities to improve flavor, clarity, alcohol percentage, and much more.

Flavor-wise, hops, yeast, and malt generally contribute a similar amount to the final taste of your beer, though certain styles are distinguished by favoring one ingredient over the others. This article serves as an overview

Water. Most tap water is fine, though you might consider spring water if yours is particularly nasty. If the water tastes good, it’s probably good to brew with. If not, running “bad” water through a Brita filter can help, and spring water – not distilled – can be substituted for tap.

Hops. These little flowers, Humulus lupulus, are what give beer many of its most distinctive characteristics, especially in the case of very bitter or floral beers like an IPA. They are added in small amounts, generally from 0.5 up to 2 ounces per gallon. Fun fact: hops are in the Cannabaceae family.

There are dozens of varieties of hops, from light floral or citrusy German hops, to earthy English hops, to dank and resiny from the Pacific Northwest. If you like a strong hops character, an IPA would be a good first beer. The typical American IPA is an excuse to try out various hops in large quantities.

Malt. Barley is the most common malt for beermaking and even wheat beers use generally half-half wheat and malted barley. The malted wheat or barley has been malted to ready its starches to be converted to sugar. Malt is generally inexpensive and used in copious amounts, several pounds per batch, then discarded once it has been cracked, steeped, and the sugar extracted. The resulting sugary liquid is called wort. Barley can be anywhere from lightly roasted to chocolate malt, which has a dark and bitter bite akin to French roast coffee.

Generally, only malted barley is used in beer, though it may be mixed with wheat, oats, or other sugars to build body, flavor or to boost alcohol. Wheat tends to be light in flavor and body. It’s a necessary ingredient in beer styles such as the hefeweizen or Belgian wit.

Homebrewers can go the all-grain method, and extract sugars directly from the malted grain or they may buy pre-extracted sugars in the form of liquid or dry malt extract.

All-grain will save you money and allow you more flexibility but it involves a one-hour mash, the steeping period where sugars are extracted from the grain by enzymes in the barley.

Extract saves you the step of extracting sugars, which allows you to better estimate the strength of your beers and it saves time and space. It also happens to generally be more expensive. Lastly, malt extract tastes a bit like maple syrup, so if you’re looking for a pancake topping, it could do double duty.

If you like the bready, malty character of beer, try an amber ale or an English mild. If you enjoy roasted coffee flavors, try a porter or Irish stout.

Yeast. These little guys are the star of the show because without them the sugars in your wort would never be converted to alcohol. Once they’re done with their work, however, they are left aside.

Yeast comes either liquid or dry. For simple recipes where yeast isn’t the star, dry yeast is the simpler and less expensive option, e.g. Safale US-05 is common for most IPAs and clean-tasting ales. Liquid yeasts can help round out a unique flavor profile.

If you like yeast in your beer, the aforemenioned hefeweizen (which roughly translates as yeast-wheat in German) or a Belgian witte is for you. In most beers, yeasty haze is to be avoided and left at the bottom of the bottle.

There you go. Ready for your first beer groceries run.

Brewing 101: Today is Brewing Day (Introduction)

Somewhere I heard a mention of the hobby, and it sounded like a mix between playing with a chemistry set and cooking soup. I had to try it.

Way back in grad school I decided on a whim to try my hand at homebrewing. It turns out, home-brewed beer can be tastier and even cheaper than buying from the store, and it makes you feel like a mad scientist. Consider this series an introduction to the hobby for the uninitiated.

I was no beer fanatic or IPA-crazy “hop head” at the time, but I had tried a few fascinating beers that were difficult to find in stores and thought I might be able to make a halfway decent approximation of those brews myself. My kit was from the local restaurant supply store and my instructions a four-page pamphlet that came with the box. That and the amazing power of the Internet. Every possible answer and freak-out concern you have as a novice brewer is on there: why isn’t my beer fermenting, did I ruin it by touching it, etc, etc.

Let’s not talk about my first beer, which was mediocre due to substituting cheap sugar for barley malt extract. My second beer, an oatmeal stout, was amazing and is still one of the tastiest I’ve ever made.

Home brewing is simple, inexpensive, and fun, and it briefly makes you popular with your friends (until the beer runs out). That’s the best endorsement I can make for trying it yourself.

Next, hear about the ingredients in your standard beer, equipment needed, suppliers, and brewing steps.