Too much information. It turns out that there is an awful lot of very detailed information out there, probably quite a bit of it written by men in Arran sweaters who know what sparging is without looking it up. Unfortunately, they often forget that some brewers have only just started, and wouldn't know a sparge if it climbed out of the barrel and bit them.
My uncle has been dead for some time, so I couldn't ask him.
Eventually, I realised that I was guilty of over-thinking the problem.
I decided to keep it simple, and brew a craft beer suitable for sharing with friends at a barbecue.
Please remember that I am not an expert brewer, and that this is not "the" way to brew beer. This is just documenting what I did for my first batch. If you follow my example, you should produce something drinkable, from which you can experiment to find a beer that is perfect for you.
I should also point out that I am brewing this in the UK. Here, we expect beer to have flavour. Proper beer does not need to be chilled to near freezing-point to be drinkable. If you think that beer is yellow, cold and fizzy, then you are about to embark on a learning experience that will result in you growing up a little as a beer drinker.
Beware: it is difficult to accurately know the strength of home-brewed ales - drink responsibly, and do not drive or operate dangerous machinery after even a single glass.
Step 1: The Recipe
What there are most of, though, are recipes - lots of combinations of grains, malts, hops, yeasts, sugars...
So, to keep it simple, I went for an extract method. This gives you a lot more flexibility of flavours compared to kits, but is a lot less fuss than the various full-grain methods.
So, my simple beer recipe, aimed at making forty pints* is;
- 3kg malt extract
- 50g hops
- 1 packet yeast
I bought them online, from The Home Brew Shop, but there are many other suppliers around the world. If you are lucky enough to have a physical shop that sells brewing ingredients nearby, then I recommend you talk to them. [Edit: I've found a "real world" supplier called You Can Brew It in Diss, Norfolk. Not a huge range of malts, but enough to experiment for months, and it's easy for me to get to, and they have all the equipment you could possibly need. They also cater for cider and wine making from kits or raw materials.]
*A note on units - beer is drunk in pints, but European legislation means that ingredients have to be sold in metric units. Such is life.
Step 2: Equipment
You can buy kit online from many sources, to fit many budgets.
The kit I bought contains:
- A 25 litre Fermentation container (a big bucket with a lid)
- A 25 litre pressure barrel
- A syphon tube (a bit of flexible pipe)
- A bubbler airlock
- A hydrometer (for checking the strength of the brew)
- A liquid crystal thermometer to stick to the side of the bucket
- A long spoon for stirring the mixture.
You will also need a cooking vessel. You could splash out on a large stock pot to cook the whole batch as one, but they cost a lot, and I'm not willing to risk the weight on my induction hob. So, I used a normal stainless steel, five litre (one gallon) cooking pot.
Unless you are planning to host a large party on the day your beer is ready, you will also need bottles. You can buy new bottles, with reusable flip-tops, but I chose to recycle bottles, adding fresh crown caps (which meant I had to buy a capping gadget).
Step 3: Sterilising
Unlike normal cookery, where bacteria are killed by the heat, brewing happens at the perfect temperature for microbes to thrive and multiply (that's kind of the point), so you need to use proper sterilising chemicals to clean your equipment before using it. If you don't sterilise properly, the best you can hope for is something that tastes really bad.
Your sterilising compound will have instructions on it, but you can sterilise a lot of your equipment in the fermentation vessel. Do not be tempted to use bleach, as the flavour lingers in the the equipment, and on into your beer.
Glass bottles can be sterilised later, while the beer is in the pressure vessel, using the original fermentation vessel as a bucket, by boiling them in a large pan, or using the same equipment used to sterilise baby bottles. I have also heard of people sterilising them by "baking" in an oven at 160C for ten minutes, but I've never tried that.
Step 4: Cooking and cooling
You need to cook your ingredients in about 20 litres of water (with your ingredients, that should add up to about 25 litres). You also need to cool the mixture fairly quickly to close to room temperature, to cut the chance of bacterial growth.
If you have got a big pot, then just put 20 litres water in the pot, along with the hops, sugar and malt extract, bring to the boil and then simmer for an hour. You will then need to cool the pot down. There are several ways of doing this, including special "wort chillers", standing the pot in a bathtub of cold water, or standing it in the sink and letting the cold tap run down the side.
Since I was using a small pot, I could cheat on the cooling. This technique also meant I didn't have to stagger around the house with a thirty kilo bucket of hot liquid.
I boiled three five-litre pots of water, poured them into the fermentation bucket, then let them cool in a cold draught for a couple of hours (with the lid on!). I then cooked about half the ingredients, mixing them in two THREE litre batches.
Note the three litres - while you stir the malt into the hot water, a lot of foam is generated. If I had not left an extra two litres of space in the pot, and watched the foam carefully with my finger on the temperature control, I would have had a very smelly, sticky mess to clear up.
I poured the last two pots into the (now cool) fermentation pot through a (sterilised) nylon mesh bag in a (sterilised) colander, then boiled up another three litres to make up the volume, and poured that through the hops in the bag as well.
The lid went on, and I left it to cool to room temperature before adding yeast.
A note on the smell:
I grew up in a town with a brewery. One of my lasting childhood memories is the wonderful smell of the hot wort being transferred to the fermentation vats.
Kitewife grew up in the same town. One of her lasting childhood memories is the hideous stench of the hot wort being transferred to the fermentation vats.
Consult any housemates you may have (if you live in an apartment block, then the whole building), and be prepared to do chores or sacrifice some bottles to the neighbours in compensation for the smell.
Step 5: A Note on the Hydrometer, and a warning.
This is actually the density of the beer before fermentation began. The higher the number, the stronger the final beer, because more sugar had been converted into alcohol during fermentation.
Brewers still use a hydrometer, but the scale also has a handy ready-reckoner to convert OG into alcoholic content by volume ("% abv").
There are also markings on the hydrometer to show when the beer is ready to be bottled, along with a handy warning; Do not bottle (or keg) until hydrometer sinks below 1.006 or bottles will burst.
This means that you have to check the gravity of your brew before secondary fermentation, or you risk an almighty mess.
Edit: it has been pointed out to me by a proper brewer that it is not the actual reading of the hydrometer that predicts explosions. If the gravity of your wort stays constant over three or four days, then fermentation has stopped. Personally, though, I would worry that opening the bucket too often might allow contaminants in, so I'm happy to rely on time.
I forgot to check the OG of my brew, but I am expecting this recipe to end up at a strength of 4-6%abv
Step 6: Yeast - the first fermentation
I chose this because it is supposed to be good at fermenting the complex sugars in malt, and is good at forming a gelatinous layer of sediment that is hard to disturb when pouring the finished beer.
This particular yeast is also easy to use - you just sprinkle the powder on the surface of the wort. There is no need to hydrate or stir it in.
If you use a different yeast, make sure you use it correctly, or fermentation might not happen fully.
The fermenting mixture will produce CO2, which needs to escape. You need to connect the bubbler airlock to the fermentation vessel (mine has a small grommet for the purpose). The airlock lets CO2 escape, but prevents air and bacteria getting back in - it needs to be part-filled with either boiled water or (cheap) vodka.
Leave your mix sitting at room temperature for two weeks. The location I used was standing on the floor next to our central heating boiler. It's reasonably warm and undisturbed.
My brew took about a day to kick off - I added the yeast Saturday evening, but it didn't start giving off CO2 until Sunday afternoon, at which point it went crazy. It made so much gas and foam that it didn't just bubble through the airlock, it spewed foam all over the lid of the vessel. I ended up having to build a dam around the top of the lid with a towel overnight, just for Kitewife's peace of mind.
One good point, even after only a day, it already smells like beer!
Step 7: Secondary fermentation
You can bottle the beer now, adding a couple of grammes of sugar to each bottle, and a little of the yeast mixture from the first vessel. Leave the bottles in a dark room for about 8-10 days for secondary fermentation and carbonation. Make sure that the bottle stands vertical for several hours before pouring, and be careful not to pour out the sediment into your glass.
I chose to syphon the beer into a pressure vessel (a plastic barrel) large enough to take the whole batch, making sure some of the yeast went over as well, and added another 150g sugar to feed the yeast for the last few days of the fermentation.
Remember to sterilise the equipment before you syphon, and then rinse out the tube with boiled water.
The pressure vessel's lid needed lubricating with petroleum jelly (commonly known as "Vaseline" in the UK), with a smear around the gasket, and a little on the threads.
Since I forgot to check the OG, I checked the gravity at this point, and it was 1004 - still plenty of fermentation to go.
I left the barrel in a cool corner of the house for just over a week before bottling the beer.
Step 8: Bottling
If you just open the tap, the first beer might jet out at quite a messy speed. So, crack the lid a little to let any excess CO2 vent off harmlessly.
Pour the beer into your sterilised bottles, and seal them how you choose (I used crown caps and a small capping machine purchased at the same time).
I have no idea how long the beer will last - some sources say as much as a year in cool storage, but we'll see...
Step 9: Naming and Labelling
Whatever name you come up with, make sure you google for it before you announce the name to the world, just in case the name is already "taken" by another brew (for instance, there's already a kind of cider called "Special K"), or has an unwelcome connotation.
Since I have been trying to keep things simple all along, I decided to call this brew Simple Beer #1.
You can design and print professional-looking labels for your bottles, but I kept with the "simple" theme, and hand-wrote the beer details on a strip of masking tape.
Step 10: Drinking!
As I said, I forgot to check the gravity before fermentation, so I don't know exactly how strong this beer is. By taste alone, I would judge it to be about
It's not very hoppy, and not very bitter, so I would class the type somewhere between a "mild" and a "ruby" ale. It proved quite quaffable, and went well with a spicy pizza, although the cloudiness threatens a wicked hangover, should one over-indulge.
I am definitely going to make this again, though I might add 70g hops next time, instead of this batch's 50g, but that's just my personal taste. I also might use a soft brown sugar in the second fermentation, to add a caramel toffee overtone to the flavour.
One last warning - brewing beer is a very satisfying activity, but please remember to take care in the consumption of any alcohol, but especially when drinking home-brew. Be careful with machinery, don't drunk-dial, and if you drink and drive you are a thoughtless idiot, and ought to be disenfranchised from the entire human species.
Step 11: Final Thoughts
- I am definitely going to make this again, probably near Christmas, when I naturally consume more beer than usual. I might add cinnamon to that batch.
- My bottles are all recycled, so I had to soak and scrub them in very hot water to get their labels off. Because we have hard water, that left a grey hazy deposit on the glass. I wiped it off with a rough cloth soaked in lemon juice. Vinegar would also work, but I didn't want traces of the smell of vinegar around my beer.
- Clean as you go. Beer, and its ingredients, dry sticky. Clean up spills straight away. It also stops your home smelling like a back street pub. Splash very hot water on spills, and mop up immediately with a cloth.
- If you use colourless bottles, store them in the dark to stop the beer degeading in the light.
- Lightweight bottles are easier to fill without spilling. The glass is thinner, so the opening in the neck is wider.
- Be aware of the law. You're perfectly fine brewing your own beer in the UK, but check the laws of your nation or state to check you are allowed. You also run into difficulties if you want to sell your beer. In the UK, both the person selling the beer and the premises from which it is sold must be licenced by local authorities. I have heard of brewers getting around this by giving away beer free to anybody who buys a beer mat, or charging for entry to an event, which includes a free drink with each entry, but such games often rely on the local police being in a good mood.
- Brewing is a friendly pastime - I doubt I could drink all 40 pints before they go off, so I'll be giving quite a bit away. About a third is already earmarked for individual friends or events. If you give yours away, ask folk to save and return the empties for your next batch.
- Lastly, and again, drink responsibly. You don't know for certain how strong homebrew is, and you should always avoid driving or operating dangerous machinery after partaking.