So you’ve tasted a number of different craft beers, and decided that you want to start brewing your own. If you aren’t sure how to get started, this guide will lead you through the steps of malt extract brewing, from choosing equipment and ingredients, to brewing and bottling your beer. We’ll go over the equipment you’ll need, the ingredients you’ll use, and the basic process by which you can create your very own beer.
- Brew Pot
- Large stirring spoon (not wood)
- Measuring cup (pyrex glass is best)
- Regular spoon
- Clean jar or bowl for starting yeast
- Fermentor (food-grade plastic bucket or glass carboy)
- Sanitizer (B-Brite or chlorine)
- Bottling bucket
- Bottle capper
- Bottles and caps
- Bottle brush
- Removable spigot (alternatively, a racking cane and some clean hose)
First, let’s discuss the major equipment you’re going to need to invest in. There are many homebrew supply stores, and most of them offer a beginner’s kit that includes most of the tools you will need to brew your first batch of beer for a fraction of the price you would pay if you bought all the equipment separately. It’s important to understand what each of these tools is used for, and how to properly care for and use them.
A brew kettle or pot is exactly what it sounds like: a huge pot in which you make your wort. Your brew pot needs two handles and a lid, and can be aluminum, enamel-coated metal or stainless steel. It is important to clean and sanitize the pot before brewing. With a material that absorbs flavors, it’s probably unwise to use this pot for anything other than brewing, but using a stainless steel pot for other things is fine, so long as you thoroughly clean and sanitize the pot.
Your fermentor can come in three varieties; a glass carboy, a food-grade plastic bucket or a conical fermentor. The cheapest conical fermentors start at several hundred dollars, take up a lot of space and are usually used in breweries rather than at home, so we’re going to focus on the first two types in this beginner’s guide. A carboy is the more traditional choice in home brewing, but buckets are becoming more and more popular. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between the two functionally, but with a carboy you can watch what is going on during the fermentation process, and buckets tend to be easier to clean, given their large mouths. Buckets can also come with a removable spigot for easier transference. You can also purchase plastic carboys if you’re worried about breaking a glass one and finding all your hard work in a big puddle on the basement floor, but make sure they are food grade. For a five gallon batch, you’ll need a seven gallon fermentor.
A fermentation lock, or airlock, is used to allow carbon dioxide to escape during fermentation without allowing air in. A few different types of airlocks are available, including an S-curve airlock and a 3-piece airlock. Both of these work essentially the same way: you fill the device partially with liquid, creating a barrier between the fermenting solution inside the fermentor and the air outside. This keeps the brew from oxidizing or being contaminated by bacteria in your household. Once fermentation starts, you will notice gases escaping from the fermentor as little bubbles through the liquid. Most people use water in their airlocks, but some use vodka or sanitizing solution. The best policy is not to use anything that you would mind getting in your beer. You also need a rubber stopper for your airlock in order to provide an airtight fit.
You’re going to need a food-grade bottling bucket with a spigot. This is the bucket you’re going to use to transfer your beer into bottles. It’s also where you will prime your beer for bottle conditioning. You’ll also need a bottling tube, which is a long, hard tube with a valve at the end for filling bottles. It attaches to the spigot.
Bottles, caps and a capper are all necessary for conditioning and storing your beer. Cappers are mechanical devices that use a lever system to seal caps onto bottles.
A triple-scale hydrometer and graduated cylinder are needed for determining the gravity of your brew, allowing you to calculate alcohol content. It’s a simple design, with a weighted glass bulb being lowered into a cylinder full of your homebrew. Familiarizing yourself with how to read a hydrometer is a good idea if you want to know how much alcohol your yeast has created.
Finally, you’re going to need supplies to clean all of this. This includes bottle brushes and sanitizing agents. There are some sanitizing solutions sold specifically for home brewing, such as B-Brite, but simple chlorine works well for a fraction of the price. Be sure you choose an unscented variety, though. Sanitation is key for keeping your brew from being infected by molds or bacteria. Everything that will touch your beer must be sanitized, especially after the boil. This website has some good tips on sanitation, as well as a lot of other good home brewing information.
For your first (and second, third, etc.) home brewing experience, it’s best to use malt extract rather than whole barley. Using the whole grain makes the process of creating wort much longer and more difficult than it’s worth for such a small amount of beer. The easiest way to begin brewing with extract is to buy an extract kit and follow the recipe in it, because these come with their own packet of dried yeast. All you need to do is choose the style of beer you want to make.
Malt extract comes in two forms; a syrup and a dried powdered. The syrup usually comes in 1.5 kilogram (3.3 lbs) cans or 1 pound bags. You’ll need about two cans to make five gallons worth of beer, but recipes vary. The powder is more expensive but easier to use than syrup. Malt extract also comes in a number of different varieties, allowing you to choose from a whole array of different colors and flavors. These are usually labeled based on the type of beer they are meant to produce.
Hops come in all sorts of different flavors, each one contributing to certain beer type’s flavors and aromas. They usually come in 1-ounce packages, and recipes can call for vastly different amounts of hops. When you add the hops during the brewing process also determines what qualities the hops impart, which we’ll discuss when we get to the brewing portion of this guide.
Like hops and malt, there are many different types of yeast. If buying an extract kit, your yeast will be chosen according to the beer type you’re brewing. Typically, the yeast you will get is dried, but there are wet-yeast varieties out there; they just need to be kept refrigerated.
To create that lovely carbonation that gives beer its foaming head and crisp texture, you need to use sugar to prime the beer before bottling. You can either use dextrose (corn sugar) or cane. You’ll only need ¾ cup for the corn sugar or 2/3 cup cane sugar mixed with two cups water for a five gallon batch.
This is an important ingredient that many people forget to put any thought into. You can use tap water, but the quality of your brew might suffer due to minerals or chlorine in the water. We suggest using bottled water to ensure the best beer possible.
The Brewing Process
Now that we’re done explaining what equipment you need and the ingredients you use, we can get down to the business of brewing. For this guide, we’ll be assuming you are making one batch, or five (5) gallons of beer, and using a bucket-style fermentor with a spigot.
Equipment for Brewing
- Brew Pot
- Large Stirring Spoon
- Fermentor and Lid
- Airlock and Rubber Stopper
- Hydrometer and Cylinder
- Bowl or Jar and clean spoon
- Measuring Cup
- Fill your clean brew pot two-thirds of the way with water and put that sucker on about medium-high heat on the stove. Some people boil all five gallons of water (which is certainly sanitary), but it’s difficult to bring that much water to a boil, and you can always add bottled water after the boil.
- If you’re using malt syrup, heat it within the packaging by putting it in hot water for about five minutes. This will make it easier to work with. After it’s soft, open it up and use a clean spoon to scoop it into the brew pot. Stir to keep it from burning on the bottom of the pot. You can just add dry extract directly, but be careful; the steam will make the dust very sticky.
- Boil this mixture uncovered for about an hour. You’re going to need to stick around and stir it to keep it from boiling over or burning on the bottom of the pot. If the foam is threatening escape from the pot, be prepared to turn the heat down or off. Adding ice-cubes to cool it off at this stage is also an option.
- Add your hops. Adding hops early in the boil creates bitterness, and hops added late in the boil add aroma. If hops are added in the last half of a one hour boil, they should impart some hop flavor to the beer. A kit recipe should tell you when to add your hops based on what style of beer you’re making.
- You can take this waiting period to sanitize all the equipment you will need for the next steps in the process. Remember: everything that touches the brew after the boil NEEDS to be sanitized. No exceptions. You should sanitize the fermentor and lid, airlock, rubber stopper, the bowl or jar for yeast proofing and your hydrometer.
- After your hour-long boil, turn off the heat and cover the pot with a lid. Your solution is now wort! Now you’re going to need to cool that down to keep molds from getting a foothold. You can do this by filling your sink with cold water and bathing the brew pot in it, making sure not to allow any outside water into the pot. You can add ice cubes to the sink water, and refill the sink each time the water gets too warm, but do not add any ice cubes or water to the pot itself. The pot will need to be cool to touch before you do anything else with the wort; around 80 degrees is the temperature yeast is the happiest at.
- While your pot is cooling, you can proof your yeast. You do this by filling your jar or bowl with lukewarm, sanitized water and sprinkling the package of yeast over it. Cover this with plastic wrap to prevent contamination and let it sit for 10 minutes. Keep this out of sunlight. Some people add a little bit of sugar to wake the yeast up at this point; if you do this, the yeast should foam a bit after thirty minutes of sitting. This helps you tell if your yeast buddies are still alive.
- Once your wort is cool and your yeast has been proofed, it’s time for fermentation. Add or pitch the yeast to the fermentor you’re using, and then carefully pour your wort over it. This movement and aeration should mix the two together thoroughly enough and give the yeast enough oxygen.
- Top off the mixture to the five gallon mark with sanitized or bottled water. If you want, you can add the wort first, then the yeast, then the water, because this movement will also be sufficient for aeration and mixing. Just be sure that yeast is not the last thing you add.
- At this step, you can take a hydrometer reading if you like. Here is a helpful video for using and reading a hydrometer. Do not return any brew you’ve measured in the cylinder to your fermentor; there’s a good chance it’s been contaminated.
- Now put the lid, put your fermentor where you want it—dark and cool, like a basement or closet, is best—and place your rubber stopper and airlock. Gently pushing on the lid of your fermentor should cause bubbles to come through the airlock. If they don’t, you have a leak you need to seal.
- It’s time to hurry up and wait. Fermentation takes seven to ten days, so don’t open your lid, move your airlock or otherwise tamper with the fermentor for the minimum of a week, otherwise you’ll be contaminating your hard work. After about 24 hours, you should see some bubbles coming through your airlock. This is proof that fermentation is happening.
Bottling Your Beer
This is really a job best done by two people; one to pour the beer into bottles and the other to cap them. It’s best to try bribing a friend with promises of delicious homebrewed beer to enlist their help.
Equipment for Bottling
- Bottling Bucket
- Bottling Tube
- Bottles (around 48 should be needed)
- Plastic Hose
- Bottle Brush and Bottle Washer
- Bottle Caps
- Bottle Capper
- If your airlock is letting out less than a bubble a minute—or no bubbles at all—it’s done about all the fermentation it can.
- Sanitize your equipment, including bottles, your bottling bucket, bottling tube and plastic hose.
- Prepare your priming sugar. If using corn sugar, boil ¾ cup, and if using cane sugar, boil 2/3 cup of sugar in two cups water. You really don’t want to add more than this, unless you’d like to have all your beer go to waste due to exploding bottles. Let this solution cool.
- Set up your work station. You need to place you fermentor with the brew in it up on a table or other raised surface, with the sanitized bottling bucket beneath it. Attach the plastic hose to the spigot on the fermentor, letting it hang into the bottling bucket.
- Pour your priming sugar into the bottling bucket, then let the brew run through the hose into the bucket. It should mix with the priming solution pretty well, but avoid splashing during this process. It’s best to let the hose sit below the surface of the beer as it’s filling the bucket. Don’t worry if you don’t get all of the brew into the bottling bucket; the bottom of the fermentor has a bunch of yeast and organic sediment that you don’t really want to drink.
- You can release a little brew from the hose into a cylinder and take a hydrometer reading to check the alcohol content. Don’t pour your sample back into the fermentor or bottling bucket; if you’d like, you can drink it. It’s not carbonated, but it should taste like beer.
- Once all the beer has been drained into the bottling bucket, set aside the fermentor and hose for later cleaning. Place your bottling bucket on the table, being careful not to drop all your work on the floor. Gather your sanitized bottles, caps and bottling tube.
- Open the spigot and start filling bottles. Softly press the bottling tube against the bottom of the bottle to start the flow of beer. Don’t worry if it foams some. Remove the tube from the bottle when liquid or foam has reached the top, and check that the space left in the bottle is about the same as with commercial bottles. Now move onto the next bottle.
- If you failed to bribe a friend into capping these for you, it’s okay—more beer for you! You can cap them after all the bottles are full without any issue. To cap the bottle, place the cap on the top of bottle and pull the capper lever down slowly and steadily.
- Put your bottles in a cool, dark place, such as where you left your fermentor. Let them rest for two weeks, then check to see if they’ve clarified. The yeasty cloudiness should have settled at the bottom of the bottle. You can put a couple bottles in the fridge for a taste test. Like all beer, you should decant your homebrew before drinking it.
Now you can enjoy the fruit of your labor!
This guide doesn’t include every little thing about home brewing, because that can fill several books. So, for more information and detail about the process, there are a number of resources that you can reference before starting your brewing process. Below is a list of books and websites you can use for research and buying supplies.
How to Brew: Everything You Need to Know to Brew Beer Right the First Time by John J. Palmer
The Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian
Clone Brews: 200 Recipes for Brand-Name Beers by Tess and Mark Szamatulski
Keystone Homebrew Supply
John J. Palmer’s How to Brew
How to Home Brew