Brewing beer is nothing more than making a tea (called wort) from malt, boiling it with some hops, and then fermenting it with yeast. Brewing good beer however takes practice as there's infinite variables within each of these simple steps. If you like beer, homebrewing can be a very rewarding (and cost effective) hobby. While some homebrewers will invest thousands in high-end brewing equipment, it really only takes about a $100-200 to get started. Here's some pointers from the class for getting started in homebrewing…
Any of the local (and Internet) homebrewing stores will have starter kits. They're all pretty good but my personal favorite is MoreBeer BRKIT1. I'm a big fan of fermenters with spigots as they eliminate the need to siphon beer to the bottling bucket. This kit also comes with Star San - the gold standard of brewing sanitizers. If your kit comes with anything but Star San - toss it and buy a bottle. The BRKIT1 does come with a dial thermometer, of which I'm not a fan. It will do the job for extract brewing, but when you make the eventual switch to all-grain, you'll need a proper lab-grade thermometer (just like you used in high school chemistry). I also like that this kit does not include beer ingredients. Just like cooking, fresh is best and there's no telling how long those “starter” recipe packs have sat on the shelves.
There's a few more odds and ends you're going to need before brewing your first batch of beer. First and foremost, you need a way to boil the wort. For a typical 5 gallon batch of beer, you need to be able to boil 6 gallons, and ideally have space for 7-8 to handle the hot-break (a brief period at the start of the boil, when the wort foams up). Most home electric ranges don't have the power to boil 6 gallons, which is why a lot of homebrewers venture outdoors and use propane turkey fryers. Gas kitchen ranges are usually up to the task as well. Another option is to brew less than 5 gallons of beer. The downside here is, it takes just as much time to brew 3 gallons as it does 5, 10 or even a 100. One thing to consider when looking for a brewing kettle is tall/skinny has less heat loss than short/wide if you're pushing the limits of your kitchen range. Aluminum or steel pots are perfectly acceptable. New aluminum pots should be “seasoned” by boiling plain water in them for an hour or so. When it turns black, it's ready to use.
You'll also need a way to chill the finished wort. Putting a lid on the kettle and setting it in a sink full of ice (or snowdrift on the porch in the winter) will work in a pinch, but a proper chiller will be at the top of your brewing wishlist after a batch or two. You'll find immersion, counter-flow, and plate chillers at all the usual homebrewing outlets. For beginners, immersion is the way to go (the others typically require pumps). Nothing more than a coil of copper tubing with some hose to hook up to your cold water supply, the immersion chiller screams DIY - especially if you can catch copper tubing on sale at Lowe's or Home Depot.
Of course, you're going to need beer bottles. Unless you love to clean cigarette butts out of crusty bottles and have tons of spare time, I strongly suggest buying new. A case of brand-new beer bottles from the local homebrew store runs about $14. All they need is a flush with sanitizer and they're ready to fill. Using new also reduces the risk of breakage when capping and insures you'll get a good, tight cap. Commercial bottles are surprisingly variable in strength and mouth size. If you do decide to scrounge your own bottles, note screw-tops are an absolute no-go. The mouths are too fragile for the capper and crimp caps won't seal correctly anyway.
OK! Got all your brewing toys rounded up. Now all you need is ingredients to brew your first beer! The beginner's inclination is always “I want to brew a clone of XXXXX!” I strongly suggest avoiding this temptation. Cloning commercial beers is a serious (but fun) homebrewing challenge. I've yet to see anyone's clone recipe kits - particularly extract ones - come close to the real thing; even when brewed by seasoned homebrewers. For your first homebrew, you want a simple pale ale recipe. You also want moderately high alcohol (yeah!) because a “big” beer will cover a lot of rookie mistakes and still taste awesome. Something like the following ingredient list which will produce 5 gallons of a 6-7% ABV pale ale. If you're brewing less, simply reduce all ingredients but the yeast proportionally:
So where can you get your ingredients? I highly suggest going local - Denver's got a bunch of awesome homebrew stores. My personal favorite is The Brew Hut which shares space with Dry Dock Brewing - one of the most award winning microbreweries in the US. Can't beat drinking a pint while shopping for your next homebrew! They also have a recipe book for all the Dry Dock brews.
I'm only going to highlight some general brewday tips & pointers. For the full scoop on the brewing process, read the book that came with your starter gear as well as John Palmer's excellent How To Brew which is free to read online.
Water. Generally speaking, if it tastes good, it's good water to brew with. One potential gotcha for using tap water however is chlorine/chloramines. In sufficient concentrations, they will result in a “band-aid” flavor in your beer. Chlorine can be removed from water by boiling before use or running it through a carbon filter, which is what most all-grain brewers do. If your water doesn't taste great, or has high chlorine levels, bottled water is certainly an option. A 50/50 mix of cheapo Target or Walmart “artesian” water and distilled generally makes for great brewing water.
Sanitization. After reading those introductory texts, you're probably freaking out about sanitization. Don't. It's actually pretty tough to screw up a beer to the point of undrinkability, and there's nothing you can do that would make your beer hazardous. The key thing to think about with brewing sanitization is the boil. Boiling wort is always sanitized because boiling kills just about everything. It's ok if a leaf or bug falls into the kettle during the boil. There's no need to sanitize your utensils used in the boil (or even the kettle itself). You don't even need to sanitize your immersion chiller - just toss it in the kettle for the last 10 minutes of the boil. The time to get serious about sanitization begins once you start chilling your wort. From that point on, try to minimize exposure to open air (dust carries wild yeast and bacteria), and anything that touches cooled wort should be dipped in or sprayed with Star San. Your fermenter, fermenter lid, airlock, and stopper should all be thoroughly rinsed in Star San. Residual Star San foam in the fermenter is perfectly OK; even desirable. Do not rinse the foam out!
Yeast need oxygen for their initial reproductive phase. Obviously, this flies in the face of the “minimize open air exposure” advice I just gave, but unless you go nuts and buy an O2 bottle and oxygen stone, some air exposure is a necessary evil. By simply splashing the wort into the fermenter during transfer from the kettle, enough oxygen will be introduced to make the yeast happy. This is the only time during beer production that air exposure is desirable.
As a homebrewer, your subtitle is “Yeast Whisperer.” Yeast, not malt, nor hops, are the primary flavor contributor to beer. The secret to really great beer is in making the yeast happy. There are different yeasts for different styles of beer. Each yeast will also have surprisingly strict temperature requirements. The same wort with same yeast, fermented with as little as 4-5 degrees temperature difference, will produce an entirely different beer. One of your first homebrewing investments, should you get bitten by the bug, is fermentation temperature control (this typically involves buying a small chest freezer, heating wrap, and temp controller). For now, and specifically for this starter brew, making sure your wort is at 65-68F before you pitch (add) the yeast and fermenting in the coolest part of your house should do. Safale US-05 is a pretty forgiving yeast but keeping it under 70F will produce a cleaner beer. Also try to minimize temperature fluctuations during fermentation. Some yeasts, particularly Belgians, will actually “give up” and quit fermenting if they experience a temperature drop of as little as 5 degrees. A common complaint of first-time homebrewers is that their beer tastes “cidery”. They often blame their bottling priming sugar, but the real culprit is acetalaldehyde. Yeast produce it when they have a particularly miserable time. Remember, happy yeast = good beer.
One last yeast tip: Stick with dry yeast for your first couple brews. Yes, there's a lot wider variety of liquid yeasts but the cell counts in the liquid packs/tubes are only a small fraction of what's in a pack of dry yeast. Using liquid yeasts generally involves making starters (mini batches of beer to grow the yeast), or being lazy like me and buying and pitching multiple tubes ($$$).
Cleanup. The least fun bit of homebrewing. Bottom line? Don't wait. Funky, smelly things grow quick on dirty homebrew gear. Clean all your stuff as soon as the brewday is complete. Nothing exotic - just plain ole hand washing dish detergent does a great job. Running a little Star San through any cleaned tubing isn't a bad idea either.
So your beer has been resting quietly in the fermenter for a couple weeks. It's time to bottle! Back to the sanitization point, everything happening now is post boil so everything that touches your beer needs to be dipped or sprayed with Star San. This includes your bottling bucket, wand, hoses, bottles, caps, and even your hands. Having a spray bottle filled with Star San is ideal to have about on bottling day.
If you have a dishwasher, set your bottling bucket on the counter above and fill your bottles right on the open door. This catches the inevitable drips and makes cleanup a breeze. The dishwasher racks are also ideal for holding inverted ready-to-fill sanitized bottles.
Don't forget to add your (boiled) priming sugar to the bottling bucket! A common rookie mistake. Stir it gently into the beer as while you want to distribute the priming sugar evenly, you don't want to introduce excessive air to the beer, which will, at this point, give a “cardboard” taste to it. Another option to priming sugar is Carbonation Drops. Just bottle your still beer and add one drop per bottle before capping. I actually prefer these but it is a small additional cost.
Home stretch! Stash your bottled beer somewhere warm - room temp is fine - for a couple weeks to carbonate. Then it's time to chill and commence drinking! Finished beer should be stored as cold as possible. Every 10 degree increase in storage temp halves the shelf life of beer. A beer stored at 40F will last 2x as long as one at 50F. Guess there was something to that Coors marketing hype in the 80s about their beer being shipped cold after all! Bottled homebrew will have a sediment layer at the bottom. Perfectly normal. Beer is supposed to be poured in a glass for proper enjoyment anyway. Just leave the sediment behind.
To be continued…