To many, brewing beer is a mysterious, sacred art. As a beer devotee, you might assume that the gods brew beer atop Mount Olympus using equal parts lightning and miracles. In truth, you don’t need Prometheus to steal the secret from the heavens–you have the power yourself. No, you’re not a god, buddy; rather, brewing beer at home is actually pretty easy.
If you haven’t already, we highly recommend reading part one of our series, in which we discuss the basic equipment and ingredients needed for home brewing. Once you’re ready to rock, let’s jump straight into the brewing process. I was lucky enough to take a homebrewing class at The Homebrew Exchange in Portland, OR and speak with co-owner Jocelyn Fabbri, who has long lived in the pantheon of beer gods.
Choosing Your Batch Size
For the purpose of this article, we assume you’ll make a five gallon batch, as that’s the standard batch size for most beer recipes. “It’s the same process whether you do one gallon or five gallons,” says Jocelyn Fabbri. “That’s why people just go for five gallons, because it’s the same amount of work for more beer.” As you read, keep in mind that all recipes are different, and that your recipe may not correlate to all the advice given in this guide. Still, we have some pretty solid guidelines for brewing beer. Now let’s get down to business.
Sanitizing Your Equipment
Proper sanitization is essential for brewing a fine beer. If some bad bacteria gets into your fermentation bucket, you’re in for some funky flavors. As we mentioned in part one, Star San is an excellent sanitization product, as it doesn’t require any rinsing. Mix a Star San solution in a five gallon bucket (1 oz of Star San to five gallons of water). This will make it easy to sanitize equipment by simply dipping it into the solution. You could also keep some Star San solution in a spray bottle and sanitize your tools as you go. You want to clean and sanitize everything that will come in contact with your beer.
Heating the Water
Pour 3 or 4 gallons of water into your pot and turn your burner on high. If you have a reliable propane burner, you might do the whole process outdoors. If you don’t have an outdoor burner, you can absolutely brew your beer on a normal kitchen burner–in fact, that’s how most home brewers do it. You’ll find that an extra-wide pot that spans two burners can speed up the process.
NOTE: It’s always a good idea to have a buddy assist you with home brewing. Home brewing is mostly waiting, after all. It’s nice to have someone to talk to, provide an extra pair of hands, and help you remember things that you forget. You might have your buddy take detailed notes–that way, you’ll have an easier time recreating your brew.
A Note on Malt
Malted grain is one of the four sacred beer ingredients. It’s what gives beer its sugars, which yeast consumes to make alcohol and carbon dioxide. For the sake of simplicity, this guide focuses on brewing with malt extract and a modest amount of steeping grains. Once you master the basics, you might try using 100% malted grain–a process called all-grain brewing.
If your recipe calls for steeping grains, you’ll need to put your malt grains in a mesh bag so your grains can steep, as if you’re making “grain tea,” as Fabbri calls it. You don’t want to let your steeping grains boil. Instead, get your water to about 170 degrees and let the grain steep for 30 minutes or so. Once the steeping is finished, lift the mesh bag out of the water, take a couple quarts of hot water (also heated to about 170 degrees), and pour it over the mesh bag. This will help maximize the sugars in your wort (pronounced “wert”).
Many recipes call for malt extract in addition to or instead of steeping grains. Fabbri describes malt extract best: “Someone has already taken the grains, cooked them at a certain temperature, and drained off the water so it’s syrupy sugary malty goodness.” Once the water comes to a boil, add all or part of your malt extract. Depending on your recipe, you will have powder malt extract, liquid malt extract, or both. Add your malt extract slowly, and be sure to stir it well.
NOTE: Your wort will likely overflow at certain points during the brewing process. Don’t freak out. This happens. Reducing the temperature, taking the pot off the burner, and throwing in ice cubes can all help stop the boil over.
After you add the malt extract and your wort resumes boiling, continue boiling for 60 minutes or so. Try to keep your wort at a nice rolling boil–a vigorous boil is necessary to drive off undesirable aroma and flavor compounds naturally present in grain. At some point during the boil (again, depending on which type of beer you’re brewing), you’re going to add your hops. You can add hops early in the boil to extract the bitter taste, add it later to bring out the flavor and aroma, or do both to achieve both.
When it comes to hops, you have two options–you can either toss in hop pellets, which will mostly dissolve during the boiling process, or you can add fresh hops. If you add fresh hops, consider using a muslin bag, or else you’ll end up with a bunch of hops swimming around in your wort. This is not a particularly bad thing, but it’s kind of a pain to fish all the hop pieces out of your wort at the end of the brewing process. Each beer recipe has its own special “hopping schedule,” so be sure to pay close attention.
Before you can begin the fermentation process, you’ll need to get the wort temperature down to about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have a wort chiller, sanitize it by plunking it into the wort while it’s still boiling. Once your timer goes off, remove the wort pot from the heat. Attach one end of the wort chiller tube to your faucet and point the other end into the sink drain. When you turn on the faucet, water will cycle through the copper wort chiller and come out the other side. “It’s one of those pieces of equipment you don’t actually need, but it makes things easier,” says Fabbri. “People ask for it for Christmas all the time.”
If you don’t have a wort chiller, you can just toss your wort into an ice bath. You could either use your bathtub or kitchen sink, whichever you’re more comfortable with. Be sure to get a lot of ice or ice packs, as the hot wort will melt the ice quickly. Whether you employ a wort chiller or an ice bath, you must stir the wort occasionally to make sure it cools evenly. Again, the goal is to get the temperature down to about 80-100 degrees.
Preparing for Fermentation
Transferring the Wort
Once you cool your wort down to the proper temperature, go ahead and dump it into your sanitized fermenter. If you’re making a five gallon batch, add water until you get to five gallons (it’s a good idea to use a bucket with gallon measurements on the side, available at the Homebrew Exchange’s online store). Adding water will also cool your wort to 80 degrees, which is right about where you want to be.
NOTE: Remember the racking cane from How to Brew Part 1? Taking the time to siphon your wort from the pot to the fermenter will help leave behind any solid hop and grain protein, resulting in a clearer, crisper tasting beer.
Taking the Specific Gravity
You should take the specific gravity of your wort using an inexpensive device called a hydrometer. The specific gravity refers to the density of a liquid–in this case, it measures the amount of sugar in your wort. Use a wine thief or racking cane to extract some liquid from your wort and transfer it into a narrow vessel, such as a graduated cylinder. Insert the hydrometer and let it float freely. Take the reading from the bottom of the dip in the meniscus (curvature of the liquid’s surface). Write this number down–later, you’ll compare this reading with another reading at the end of the fermentation process to calculate your beer’s alcohol percentage. We’ll discuss specific gravity and the hydrometer again in part three of our series.
Pitching the Yeast
Now it’s time to pitch your yeast. Not only will yeast turn your sugary grain water into beer, it has the most profound effect on the beer’s flavor. “What makes the beer is the yeast,” says Fabbri. “If you had like a Belgian, a fruity smell, that’s coming from the yeast.” Pour the necessary amount of yeast into your wort, and stir it for a few minutes (be sure to sanitize the spoon!).
NOTE: try not to scrape the sides or bottom of your plastic fermenter with your spoon, as bacteria may hide in the scrape spots in future batches.
Lastly, you’ll want to give your soon-to-be-beer one last good stir. “At this point, you want oxygen,” says Fabbri. “This is what the yeast is going to live off of. Splashing, stirring, and whisking are good–some people use aeration systems. You can get real fancy.”
Affix the lid to your fermenter and get fermenting! Remember to sanitize the bejesus out of the lid to prevent the growth of taste-ruining bacteria. Add the airlock to the top of the bucket, and you’re done! Store the fermenter in a dark, cool spot; you’ll want to keep your beer between 65 and 75 degrees during the fermentation process.
So there you have it. That’s the hard part, and frankly, it’s not even that hard. It’s mostly just waiting. There is nothing to be nervous about–even if you mess up, you’ll still end up with something you can drink. Most home brewers are familiar with the phrase “relax, don’t worry, have a home brew.” We suggest you take this advice to heart.