It’s easy to learn how to brew beer, but the process can take years to master. Once you become proficient with the basic technique, many tweaks can be made to improve the quality of your brews.
For those of you who may be thinking of getting into home brewing, but may not fully understand the process, I thought I’d break it down for you in this post (this is how I wish someone had explained it to me when I started). For those of you who do have some experience with homebrewing, I’d love your to hear your comments on your experiences and what’s worked best for you.
If you haven’t done so already, please go back to my previous post and make sure you have all the necessary equipment before you get started! In my next post, I’ll walk through the bottling/kegging process. I hope I can inspire you all to take up this fun hobby!
Plan to spend about 4 to 6 hours on your first brew day. Many first-timers (myself included) underestimate how much time it takes to complete the steps below. Same applies to your bottling/kegging day—plan for it to take twice as long as you think it will!
Also, it’s important to take good notes throughout the process. When you add or change something in a recipe, it’s vital to know exactly what you did so you can re-create it later! Even if you never plan on brewing that particular beer again, you’ll more easily be able to identify problems based on the final outcome. Look back and see exactly what was added and when, then you’ll know how to avoid those issues in future brews.
I’ve separated the instructions below to include both the extract and all-grain brewing methods. If it’s your first time, consider starting with the extract brewing method just to get the hang of things. Once you feel like you have that down, you can purchase the additional pieces of equipment you’ll need (see my previous post for a list) and jump right into the all-grain method. Keep in mind that this process works for ales, but if you’ll be making a lager, it will involve some additional equipment and steps not listed in this post.
Now let’s get to it!
- Before you start brewing, read through your entire recipe to make sure you understand it and have everything you need. You don’t want to get halfway through your brew before you realize you’re missing a vital tool or ingredient.
- Next, and most importantly, gather all your supplies and then clean and sanitize your equipment. Be sure to concentrate on anything that comes into contact with your beer after the boil, as unsanitary equipment at this stage can lead to infected beer! I cannot emphasize this enough: clean and sanitized equipment is absolutely necessary for a good outcome!!!
Note: steps 3 through 9 are for all-grain brewing only
- Heat about 5 gallons of water in a large kettle. Keep an eye on your temperature, and try to keep it around 152°F.
- Preheat your mash tun by pouring in about a gallon of boiling water into it, then swirl it around gently and close the lid. Wait a few minutes, then pour the water back into the kettle.
- Next, you’re going to “mash in.” Add the grain to the mash tun, then slowly add the hot water from your kettle. Continue to stir every few minutes, and check the temperature often. Most brews will require a steady temperature around 152-156°F for about an hour, so carefully adjust as needed.
- Measure your pH and add brewing salts if needed. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) raises the pH, and lactic acid lowers it. Your actual pH value may vary depending on the recipe for the style, but 5.2 is generally a good number to shoot for if you’re unsure.
- In the meantime, start heating up about 4 gallons of water for the sparge. You’ll want the temperature to be in the range of 165-170°F.
- After the hour has passed, you’ll need to re-circulate and lauter. Slowly open the valve and drain your first runnings into a pitcher, then pour it on top of the grain bed. Repeat this process a few times until the liquid coming out is fairly steady in color and appearance.
- Carefully drain the wort into a kettle. Slowly add your sparge water, pitcher by pitcher—you’ll want to harvest as much of the fermentable sugars as you can from the grain. Once all the sparge water has been added, let it sit for about 15 minutes, then re-circulate again and drain into kettle. You should end up with 5-6 gallons of wort in your kettle.
Note: steps 10 and 11 are for malt extract brewing only
- Next, you’re going to need to get water in the kettle and start heating it up. If you’re going to be doing a partial boil (meaning you’ll add the rest of the water in later), then add about 2.5 gallons of water to the kettle (refrigerate the balance if you can—this will help later). If you’re doing a full boil, you’ll want to add 5.5-6 gallons to the kettle now.
- If your recipe calls for specialty grains, you’ll add those to a mesh bag, tie it into a loose knot, and drop it in the kettle for about 20 minutes. Your water should not be boiling yet at this point, so keep the temperature around 155-160°F. At the end of the 20 minutes, simply remove the grain bag, allowing any excess liquid to drain back into the brew pot (but do not squeeze the bag). At this stage, your unfermented “beer” is actually called wort.
Both all-grain and extract methods resume here
- Now, increase the heat supply and get the wort to a rolling boil. Add all of your malt extract (both dry and/or liquid, depending on what’s provided in your kit), and stir continuously until dissolved.
- Add hops as directed by your recipe. Some may be added to the boil right away, while others are added later in the process. Watch the wort closely during this stage, as boil overs are common (not to mention messy). Your boil should take about one hour start to finish.
- After the hour is up, you’re going to need to cool the wort. You can either use a wort chiller (insert chiller into kettle and run cold water through the piping), or you can use an ice bath method (place the boil kettle in a sink filled with ice). If you chose to go with the partial boil method, this is the point where you can add in the remaining water, which will also help bring down the temperature.
- Take a hydrometer reading to measure your original gravity. Be sure to write this down, as you’ll need it later to calculate the ABV.
- Transfer the wort into the fermentation vessel (usually a carboy or bucket).
- Pitch your yeast. If using liquid yeast, you may need to “smack” the pack to activate it. Dried yeast can either be sprinkled directly on to the wort, or you can rehydrate the yeast before adding it.
- Fill your airlock half way with sanitized water, press it into the rubber stopper, then push the stopper into the carboy’s opening, ensuring a tight seal.
- Place your fermenter in a dark and temperature-stable environment. Check the yeast packet for the ideal temperature range, and keep it steady for about 2 weeks. Fermentation times can vary based on the beer, so be sure to check your specific instructions. You’ll notice a lot of activity in the first 24-48 hours, and it’s normal for the action to slow down a bit after that.
For further reading, I’d recommend How to Brew by John J. Palmer. It’s considered the go-to source for new homebrewers, and takes you all the way from the basics into the full science behind the brewing process.
Those of you already homebrewing: how do you brew? What methods or equipment have you found that works really well (or what doesn’t work so well)?
Stay tuned for Homebrewing 103, where you’ll learn how to bottle or keg your latest creation!