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Guide to Homebrewing Beer

by Tim F on 11 August 2009

Homebrew Beer Setup

Over the years quite a lot of you have asked about how to start brewing your own beer. The short answer is that it’s pretty easy! Find your nearest homebrew supply store and introduce yourself. Most of those guys love to help beginners get started, and the few jerks won’t mind if you keep going to the next homebrew shop down the road.

As an added incentive to get yourself started, here are FAQ-formatted answers to questions that would-be homebrewers often ask.

How much time does brewing take?

Making good beer takes about a month total, although the brewer only needs to work for about six hours of that. Brew day generally needs about three hours. Then you give the yeast a week or two in a primary fermenting vessel (usually an eight-gallon plastic bucket with lid). You usually siphon the beer into a secondary fermenter where it sits for another week or two to clean up the flavors. Bottling takes another three-ish hours of work, then two more weeks for bottle-fermenting. Then you’re ready to go.

How much does it cost?

If you buy everything new, the durable goods for your first batch should cost $70-100. I would spend another $50-$100 for useful extras such as a copper-coil wort chiller, a tap-threaded bottle washer and a secondary fermenter, but you can go without if cost is a problem. Consumables for each batch will range from as low as $15 for a pre-mixed syrup with dry packet yeast (that you will probably regret) to $60-$70 for a high-alcohol specialty recipe with exotic ingredients. Expect to spend about $40 for the ingredients in a typical medium-strength beer recipe.

How much beer will I get per brew?

One 5-gallon batch produces two cases worth of beer. If filling and capping forty-eight bottles sounds like no fun, either use larger 22-oz bottles or look into kegging at home.

Can I make my favorite kind of beer?

With one notable exception, the answer is almost certainly yes. Homebrewers have diligently reverse-engineered ‘clone’ recipes for nearly every commercial brew on the market. If you want to make your own homemade Dead Guy Ale, the odds are pretty good that a recipe is already out there. Further, most beer styles are doable once you know the basics. The major exception to this rule is lager beer. The lagering process is ultra-sensitive to mistakes, making it an unforgiving style for beginners. Worse, you basically cannot do it at all unless you have access to temperature-regulated cold rooms. If you need lager beer then keep buying cases of Budvar until you get quite good at turning out porters and pale ales.

Where can I find out more about brewing?

(1) Find a shop near you and get to know the guys who work there. Either they will be thrilled to help you get started, or you shouldn’t shop there anyway. (2) The book list here is a great place to start. I enjoyed The Complete Joy of Homebrewing; others recommend The Brewmaster’s Bible.

How much space will I need?

Unless you have particular skill with stacking things, plan to set aside a small dining room table’s worth of space somewhere in your property. Basement space is a prime spot for cases of empty bottles and unused gear.

That covers most of the questions that non-brewers typically ask, but we are not done yet. Here are a couple more points that will save many novice brewers from pain and tears.

How do I keep my beer from turning bitter, nasty, full of stringy crap and exploding out of overpressurized bottles?

Both yeast and bacteria can potentially grow on sugary mash. You want yeast to win. Hops keep bacteria under control to some degree, but hops won’t save the batch if you handle it carelessly. Here are a few tips from a guy who uses sterile technique for about ten hours most week days. First of all, everything that touches the beer gets soaked first with no-rinse sanitizer. No-rinse works better for me than the other kind because you just soak, drip-dry and you’re ready to go. Once the initial boil is done I handle everything with rubber kitchen gloves, and I keep those sterile by routinely dunking in a bucket of the same no-rinse sanitizer. Finally, I avoid leaving my beer open to the air as much as possible. After fifteen batches without bacteria I’d say that the trouble is worth it.

The second way to keep bacteria under control is to use pre-grow your yeast in a decent-sized ‘starter culture’. To do this, prepare a one-liter ‘growler’ bottle of mash two days before the main brew day and pitch your yeast in that. 48 hours later the yeast should be awake and fermenting like mad. When you pitch a vigorous starter culture into your main brew, the yeast will have the beer up to 5% alcohol before bacteria can get their pants on.

What is the most dangerous moment in brewing?

This question has two answers. The biggest red zone of your entire brewing career unquestionably comes at the particular moment when your sugary mash first starts to boil. Unattended mash WILL foam over onto the stovetop. Then you get a thick layer of sticky, smelly, burned goo on and around your burners, on the floor and spreading. If this happens on your very first batch, with a skeptical spouse looking over your shoulder waiting for exactly that to happen, there may not be a batch #2! To prevent this, keep a brewing thermometer in your mash and watch it like a hawk for the moment when it crosses over to a rolling boil. As soon as foam starts to rise, lift the whole pot off the burner and wait for the foam to settle back down, then return the pot to the burner. Depending on how strong you want your beer, you need to repeat this process three to five to eight times before the mash settles into a clean rolling boil. Also, do not cover a pot of boiling mash, ever. Trust me.

Brewing also involves involves several steps where you need lift your batch to something elevated like a chair to siphon it into another container. A 5-gallon batch of beer weighs about 45 pounds, so lift with your knees! There is a 50% chance that you have a greater-than-average risk of straining your back.

Now, as Hillel might have said, go home and brew.

This essay was previously published at Balloon Juice as “A Homebrewing Guide For The Perplexed.” Image courtesy Boing Boing Gadgets.

About Tim F

Tim F. blogs pseudonymously at Balloon Juice to preserve his privacy. For all you know he's a double-naught spy. His name may or may not actually be Tim.

{ 2 comments }

1 Shlok 11 August 2009 at 09:53

Great free online book – http://www.howtobrew.com/intro.html

2 Triumph 11 August 2009 at 10:17

I used to homebrew pretty regularly–it is easy as hell.

I haven’t put together a batch in a few years–primarily because of the proliferation of craft breweries in the US.

Back when I started, finding, say, and India Pale Ale, in the grocery store was nearly impossible. You either drank crappy domestic or a “premium” swill like Heineken.

Now you can get awesome beer pretty much everywhere, making the incentive to spend the time to home brew insignificant.

My European friends are always amazed at how good the beer is here and what a variety we have. Forget homebrewing: Relax, have a craft brew.

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