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.
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.
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