A Beginner’s Guide to Homebrewing, or Why Homebrewing Should Be Your Newest Hobby

The last decade has seen a surge in the craft beer industry in America, with microbrews rapidly replacing time-honored corporate favorites. In the wake of the somewhat offensive 2015 Budweiser Super Bowl ad, proclaiming that the popular golden suds are “brewed the hard way” in a sneering jab at craft beer aficionados, many microbreweries and independent brewers have stepped up their brewing game in efforts to prove that Anheuser-Busch probably should feel threatened by the burgeoning craft beer industry rather than snubbing it. Far from the niche market it once was, the American craft beer craze is re-shaping the alcohol industry in a totally unprecedented way and paving the road for future generations of beer drinkers to explore beyond the industry standards of Budweiser, Coors, and Miller High Life.

In addition to the surge in craft beer’s popularity, there has also been a considerable increase in the DIY beer market. Homebrewing is rapidly becoming one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, and homebrew supply companies have seen a 26 percent increase in revenue over the past year, according to a study from the American Homebrewers Association. More and more Americans are trying their hand at the delicate and delicious art of brewing at home, and it is revolutionizing the hop-growing business in America as well as creating a wealth of new industry opportunities for the beer-minded and hop-savvy.

But beer is a complex beverage, so homebrewing must be a difficult art to master, right? Wrong — with the right equipment and a little bit of guidance, homebrewing is one of the most rewarding and easy-to-learn hobbies that can be done right in your own kitchen.

The following is a beginner’s guide to homebrewing, extracted from this writer’s personal experience and some logistical information from the American Homebrewers Association. You’ll read about the key ingredients needed to make a basic ale, industry standard brewing equipment, and a step-by-step guide to mixing, brewing, and fermenting.

Ready to brew? Let’s go.

The first step to brewing is knowing the basic ingredients integral to beer: water, fermented sugar, hops, and yeast.

Water is the primary ingredient in beer, and its quality is just as important as the water itself. Many homebrewers use distilled or bottled water, but tap water is just as good. However, if you use tap water in your homebrew, boil it first to evaporate any residual chemicals that may interfere with the brewing process and let the water cool before beginning.

Fermented sugar can be purchased from homebrew supply stores in the form of malt syrup or malt extract, as malted barley is the most common ingredient used to fill the sugar quota in beer. Some brewers will substitute a percentage of corn, rice, wheat, or other grains to add a different flavor to the beer, but purchasing a ready-made malt extract ensures that the fermented sugar is prepared in the correct manner and will not affect the brewing process.

Hops lend the bitter flavor to beer and balance out the sweetness of the fermented sugar. They also act as agents to prevent spoiling and keep give the head of the beer (the foamy “top” of a beer when poured) a longer life. Hops come in a variety of styles and flavor compositions including Simcoe, Willamette, Chinook, and Cascadian, the most popular hops in the U.S. They are typically named for the geographic region in which they are grown and commonly used.

Yeast gives beer the majority of its body, or liquid composition. A common mistake many first-time brewers make is using bread yeast in a homebrew. This is problematic because brewer’s yeast is cultivated specifically for brewing, giving it different compositional qualities from bread yeast. The two broad categories of beer yeast are ale yeast and lager yeast: ale yeasts are top-fermenting, meaning they hang around the top of the brewing tub (called a “carboy”) during fermenting and settle to the bottom after the majority of fermentation has happened, and lager yeasts are bottom-fermenting and tend to rest, as their name suggests, at the bottom of the carboy during the majority of the fermentation process. In this writer’s experience, lager yeasts are much trickier to work with because they require a constant fermenting temperature between 55 degrees F and 32 degrees F, which can be difficult to maintain at different times of the year. The yeast is a crucial element to a beer’s taste, but it is by no means the only characteristic to define the beer.

Now that you have the basic ingredients, here are the homebrewing equipment basics:
Large boiling pot
— must be made of stainless steel or ceramic-coated steel. The bigger the better, because it must be able to hold at least 3 gallons of liquid with room to spare.
5 gallon carboy — a large glass bottle similar to the industrial-size jugs water is stored in, but made of glass specifically for brewing. They can run a hefty price when purchased new, but can be purchased for a reasonable price second-hand from recycling centers or fellow brewers.
Funnel — you will need a funnel to transfer liquids into the carboy. Any standard frat-party funnel will suffice (but you didn’t hear that from me).
6 gallon plastic “bottling bucket” with lid — must be able to hold at least 5 gallons and be food-grade applicable. These can usually be found cheap (or free!) from restaurants and industrial kitchens if you know the right people.
Siphon hose — six feet of plastic tubing that will be used to transfer beer from the carboy to the bottling bucket, and from the bottling bucket later into bottles.
Racking cane — a piece of hard plastic tubing that connects to the siphon hose for transferring the beer from one container to another.
Fermentation lock (or “air lock”) — this seals the beer from outside contamination while allowing carbon dioxide to escape fermentation, and must fit in a hole in the lid of your carboy.
Long spoon — this is used for stirring; ensure it has a long handle to avoid getting burned.
Bottles — any kind of sealable glass bottle will suffice, but DO NOT use the type with twist-off caps! Beer bottles, old-fashion soda bottles, and even champagne bottles will do nicely.
Bottle capper and bottle caps — this can be purchased from any homebrew supply store; any kind of capper and caps that suit your fancy will do nicely.
Thermometer — floating dairy thermometers or stainless steel dial thermometers can be used, as long as they have a range from 40 degrees F to 150 degrees F.
Household bleach and iodine solution — these are used simply for sanitizing your equipment and ensuring a bacteria-free environment for your homebrew. Make sure all of your equipment has been thoroughly washed, sanitized, and dried before you begin brewing, otherwise you may end up with a tainted fermented mess instead of a delicious beer.

A basic homebrew setup including carboys, bottling bucket, and siphon hoses. Source: foodrepublic.com

A basic homebrew setup including carboys, bottling bucket, and siphon hoses.
Source: foodrepublic.com

After you gather your basic equipment, you’re ready to assemble the basic brewing ingredients:

  • 1.5 gallons water
  • 6 pounds canned light malt syrup
  • 1 ounce hop pellets
  • Ice poured into a water bath (do not use store-bought ice)
  • 3 gallons cool water
  • 2 (7-gram) packets ale yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (about 90 degrees F)
  • 3/4 cup liquid corn syrup (or 4 ounces dry corn syrup)
Basic homebrew ingredients: malt extract, brewers yeast, and hop pellets. Source: monsterbrew.com

Basic homebrew ingredients: malt extract, brewers yeast, and hop pellets.
Source: monsterbrew.com

Once you have your ingredients and equipment assembled, you’re finally ready to begin!
The first cooking step in homebrewing is to make the wort, a soupy mixture of malt and sugar that is boiled before the fermentation process. This mixture creates the ideal environment for yeast to flourish in, so its proper creation is vital to the brewing process.
To make the wort: after sanitizing your steel pot, bring 1.5 gallons of water to a boil, remove it from the heat source once it is boiling and stir in the malt extract until it dissolves. Do not allow any of the syrup to reach the bottom of the pot as it will burn and stink up your kitchen something awful. Return the mixture to heat and allow to boil for approximately 50 minutes, stirring frequently and keeping a close eye to prevent boiling over. If boiling over becomes a threat, reduce heat and continue boiling for an additional few minutes.

A wort mixture being boiled. Source: monsterbrew.com

A wort mixture being boiled.
Source: monsterbrew.com

After 50 minutes (give or take) have elapsed, stir in the hop pellets. This will create a foam on top of the mixture which may cause boiling over, in which case reduce the heat and/or dampen the froth with a sanitized water bottle. Allow the hops to cook for 10 to 20 minutes.
While the wort is boiling, prepare the brewers yeast by mixing 1 packet of yeast into 1 cup of warm water (about 90 degrees F); stir thoroughly and cover for 10 minutes.
Before the hops are done cooking, prepare an ice bath to rapid-cool the worst. I’ve had success using large sinks and bathtubs for this, but even a small kiddie pool (filled properly with ice) can work nicely for this step.

Ice bath used to quick-cool wort mixture. Source: monsterbrew.com

Ice bath used to quick-cool wort mixture.
Source: monsterbrew.com

Once the wort has finished cooking, float the steel pot in the ice bath being sure not to spill the mixture or burn yourself. Stir the wort while it is cooling to ensure its temperature decreases evenly. If the ice begins to melt, add more to keep it reasonably cold. The mixture should be cooled to about 80 degrees F, taking approximately 20 minutes or so.

Once your wort is fully cooled, you’re read to transfer it to the carboy. Pour 3 gallons of cool water (either distilled or boiled tap water once it has cooled) into the carboy, and use the funnel to transfer the cooled wart from the steel pot into the carboy, taking care not to spill any. Once the wort has been combined with the water, add the prepared yeast into the carboy and cover the mouth with plastic wrap and cap it with a lid. Holding the lid tightly in place, shake the carboy vigorously to distribute the yeast (having a friend around to assist in this process can be extremely helpful for first-time brewers). Once the yeast is fully mixed with the liquid, remove the plastic wrap from the mouth of the carboy, wipe away any excess wort and attach the fermentation lock. Make sure the lock is securely attached, because a loose seal will result in the risk of contamination by bacteria. Store the carboy in a cool, (about 60 to 75 degrees F) safe place away from direct sunlight. Protip: place a towel or other fabric you are unattached to under the carboy to catch any foam that may escape during fermentation, making cleanup much easier. Pantries, basements, and even closets can be suitable fermentation areas as long as they are not in direct sunlight. Your beer will begin to ferment within 24 hours; a sure sign that fermentation has begin is the production of foam and air bubbles in the fermentation lock. Allow the beer to ferment for approximately 14 days after the fermentation process has begun.

Pouring the cooled wort into the carboy. Source: foodrepublic.com

Pouring the cooled wort into the carboy.
Source: foodrepublic.com

Once your beer has fermented for about two weeks, prepare your bottles by soaking them in a sanitizing solution for approximately one hour, rinsing them with boiling water afterwards. Also sanitize the bottling bucket, siphon, and racking cane, as well as a small cooking pot for the next step. Allow all materials to air-dry before beginning the bottling process.
In the small cooking pot, combine the corn syrup and 1 cup of water and let boil for 10 minutes. Pour this mixture into the bottling bucket, but be very careful not to add too much corn syrup to the bucket because this will cause the beer to over-carbonate and will result in the bottles exploding (which is not good for anyone involved). Place the carboy on an elevated surface such as a kitchen counter with the bottling bucket on the ground below it.
Attach the racking cane to the siphon and attach one end of the siphon to the mouth of the carboy, and the other into the bottling bucket. The beer should not splash into the bottling bucket, as this will compromise the final steps of the brewing process, so monitor its gradual transfer by pinching and releasing the siphon with your fingers or a specialty clamp. Once all of the beer has been transferred to the bucket, cover it with the lid and allot 30 minutes for sediment to settle at the bottom of the bucket.
Once enough time for settling has elapsed, place the bottling bucket on a counter with the siphon attached and run the other end of the siphon into the mouth of a beer bottle. Fill each of the bottles with beer to about 3/4 capacity, and cap each bottle with the capper. To be sure this has been done correctly, double-check the caps to make sure they are secure. The bottles can be aged for up to two months, but at least a minimum of two weeks to ensure proper settling and the tail end of the fermentation process. After at least two weeks, your beer is ready to sample!

Siphon and racking cane being inserted into bottling bucket. Source: themanual.com

Siphon and racking cane being inserted into bottling bucket.
Source: themanual.com

Siphon running from carboy into bottling bucket. Source: tristans-beer.blogspot.com

Siphon running from carboy into bottling bucket.
Source: tristans-beer.blogspot.com

Bottle capper being used to ensure tightly capped beer. Source: seriouseats.com

Bottle capper being used to ensure tightly capped beer.
Source: seriouseats.com

Believe it or not, beer can develop infections if not properly cared for during fermentation. Keep an eye on the carboy during fermentation for signs of “slime” or milky residue on top of the beer, as well as clumps of residue clinging to the inside of the bottleneck. If the beer appears to have milky “strands” floating around in it, it most likely has developed a bacterial infection and should be discarded immediately, less it continue to ferment and become unhealthy. A milky layer on top of the beer is also a sign of infection and should be discarded as well. While there is no shame in a batch of beer developing bacterial issues (it happens even to master brewers on occasion!) it should none the less be gotten rid of promptly, less it begin to stink up your house and raise suspicion from your housemates/spouse/neighbors/etc. Bad beer is never a good time, so keep a close eye on your brew to ensure it remains healthy.

A fully fermented beer that has developed a nasty bacterial infection; any homebrew resembling this image should be discarded immediately. Source: monsterbrew.com

A fully fermented beer that has developed a nasty bacterial infection; any homebrew resembling this image should be discarded immediately.
Source: monsterbrew.com

Speaking from person experience, there are few things as satisfying as sampling the final product of a homebrew venture. As a self-described “beer geek” this writer has experimented with a bevy of brewing styles and (through an extensive process of trial and error) has developed a certain system of brewing that has resulted in many delicious successes. At the risk of sounding cliche, the joy of homebrewing can be easily adapted to and toyed with to make for some interesting (and delicious) beverages, and one or two good stories to tell your friends about that time you spilled warm wort all over your kitchen and accidentally dumped milky brewer’s yeast onto your roommate’s cat (both true stories).

There are a plethora of resources available for the aspiring homebrewer, from Drinkcraftbeer.com to Instructables to a list of homebrew supply resources available from the American Homebrewers Association. With this quick-start guide (and a little help from your local homebrewing friend and the Internet), you’re ready to whet your whistle in the wild and wonderful world of homebrewing (and, apparently, cheesy alliterations).

Happy brewing!