There’s something about a cold brew that helps bring a hard day’s work to a close. Beer in the United States has come a long way in the last 40 years. As a young man in the 1970s, I remember seeing generic beer on the shelf. At that point, it was just a commodity — a pale, fizzy beverage indistinguishable from others like it except for the labels.
These days, the beer aisle is overflowing with styles of beer from all different types of brewing traditions: British ales, German lagers, strong Belgian beers, and more. Brewers in the United States are taking classic styles from around the world and giving them their own twist. American-style IPAs, for example — all the rage right now — are descended from English India pale ales. This “beer renaissance” has been partly driven by home brewers, and you, too, can brew any beer you desire in your own home.
The most common batch size for home brewers is 5 gallons. This makes just over 48 standard 12-ounce bottles. You can easily brew beer at this scale in your kitchen with a minimal amount of equipment. Home brew shops sell kits that include everything you need to start, except a large brew pot and empty beer bottles. The price of starter kits is generally between 70 and 200 dollars, depending on what the kit includes. Starter kits including kegging equipment are typically more expensive.
The main items in a brewing starter kit include: a food-grade plastic bucket or glass carboy in which to ferment the beer; a second bucket to hold the beer before bottling; tubing necessary to move the liquid from vessel to vessel; and a bottle capper.
For beginning brewers, a 5-gallon stainless steel pot will work well as a brew kettle. At a minimum, you’ll need a pot that will hold 3 gallons of boiling liquid with at least a gallon of headspace for foaming.
There are four basic ingredients in beer: malt, hops, yeast, and water.
Malt is a cereal grain that has gone through the process of malting, which I’ll explain later. The most commonly malted grain is barley, followed by wheat. In some beers, such as American-style pilsners, unmalted cereal grains — corn or rice — may be used along with the malt. Malt supplies the sugars for the yeast to ferment and the “malty” breadlike flavors to beer. Specialty malts may add caramel, biscuit, or roasted flavors to darker beers. For 5 gallons of average-strength beer, around 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), 8 to 10 pounds of malt is required.
Hops are the female cones of the hop bine. Hop cones contain lupulin glands that contain compounds called alpha acids. These compounds give beer its bitterness to help balance sweetness from the malt. The lupulin glands of hops also contain oils that lend a pleasing aroma to beer. For a 5-gallon batch of beer, only a few ounces of hops are needed.
Brewers yeast is a living organism — a fungus — that ferments the sugars in the malt, and is separated from the beer after fermenting. So, although it’s a beer ingredient, it is not present in the final product, except in some specialty beers like German hefeweizens, which have a layer of yeast at the bottom of every bottle. Hundreds of billions of yeast cells are required to ferment just 5 gallons of beer. However, yeast cells are tiny, so a thick slurry of only 1/2 cup yeast supplies that amount.
The remainder of beer is water. Most beer is more than 94 percent water. The basic requirements for brewing water is that it be potable and free of chlorine compounds. If you carbon filter municipal tap water, it can be used for brewing. The carbon filter will remove chloramines — chlorine compounds added to municipal water sources for sanitation. Well water can be used if it meets typical municipal standards and is free of iron. If you don’t have a filter, you can also treat your water with Campden tablets — the tablets home winemakers use to sanitize their unfermented wine. One tablet treats 20 gallons of tap water.
Of course, other ingredients — including fruits, spices, coffee, chocolate, etc. — may also be used in beer, but the main four ingredients are malt, hops, yeast, and water.
There are four basic steps in making beer, but you only need to do the last two or three at home.
The first step is malting. Barley seed is soaked in water and sprouted, and is then kilned (heated) to stop the sprouts from growing and lightly toast the husk. This process converts plain old barley into barley malt. This step is done by a maltster. Home brewers, and the vast majority of commercial breweries, buy their malt rather than producing their own.
The next step is mashing. The barley malt is crushed and soaked in hot water. Then the liquid from this mix, called sweet wort, is drained from the mashing vessel. Some home brewers do this step at home. Others buy malt extract, which is sweet wort that has been condensed by the maltster. Adding water to the malt extract will reconstitute the wort. This is convenient and how most home brewers get started. Others make some of their wort from malted grains and use malt extract for the rest. This is the approach I will explain.
Next comes the boil. The wort is boiled to sanitize it and to coagulate proteins that would otherwise cause haze in the beer. Hops are added and the alpha acids are extracted and converted into a form that is pleasantly bitter. Hops added early in the boil and boiled for an extended period lend bitterness to the beer, as alpha acids take awhile to be extracted. Hops added near the end of the boil give beer a floral aroma as the volatile oils in the hops are quickly extracted, but also boil away quickly.
After boiling, the wort is chilled and the yeast is added. The yeast consumes the sugars in the wort and converts them into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Essentially, hopped wort is fermented into beer. So, you can think of beer as being brewed with four ingredients, and being brewed in four steps — malting, mashing, boiling (and cooling), and fermentation.
The home process
The first time you brew, you will probably want to follow an established recipe. See the recipe below, or there are also numerous recipes on the internet.
When you purchase the ingredients, ask the home brew shop to crush the grains, unless you have a grain mill. Store the crushed grain in a cool, dry place until it’s time to brew. Likewise, keep your hops in the freezer and the yeast in the refrigerator until then. To brew these recipes, you will also need a large colander.
Your first step as a home brewer, and the most important one, is to clean and sanitize all of your equipment. Clean everything, preferably with a brewery cleaner such as PBW (Powdered Brewery Wash), and rinse. This may be included in your beginner kit. If not, you can find it separately at any home brew shop.
Next, sanitize everything that will come in contact with chilled wort. This includes your fermentation vessel, any tubing used for transfer, airlocks, and the like. If you don’t clean and sanitize everything, you risk allowing your beer to become contaminated and develop off odors and flavors. Popular sanitizing agents for home brewers are iodophor and Star San.
Fill your fermenter with sanitizing solution and let it sit for about five minutes before draining the liquid. If you have a bucket fermenter, soak any other equipment that needs to be sanitized while you’re sanitizing the bucket. If you use a carboy, run the sanitizing solution from the carboy into a clean sink, and use this to soak the other items for five minutes.
In your brew pot, begin heating 1-1/2 gallons of water to around 160 F. Place the crushed grains in a nylon steeping bag. Steep the grains in the hot water for 60 minutes, using a spoon to break up any clumps of grain. The water temperature will drop when the grains are added. Hold the temperature at the temperature specified in the recipe — usually between 148 and 162 F — as best as you can. As the steeping time progresses, the pot will cool slightly. Add heat in short, 10- to 20-second bursts to reestablish the correct temperature. Heating in short bursts makes it easier to avoid overshooting your target temperature. While the grains steep, heat 3 quarts water to 170 F in a large pot.
When 60 minutes is up, remove the grain bag from your brew pot and let it drip into the brew pot. Then, place it in the colander, and situate this above the brew pot. Rinse, or sparge, the grains with the 170 F water from the smaller pot, and let the runoff flow into your brew pot. After rinsing the grains, set the colander and grains aside. Once the grains cool, you can feed them to livestock or compost them.
Add water to the wort in your brew pot so that you have 3-1/2 gallons of liquid in the pot. Stir in roughly half (or slightly less) of the malt extract, and heat the mixture to a boil.
You will need to boil the wort for about 60 minutes. Do not let the wort volume drop below 3 gallons. Top up with boiling water if needed.
Once the boil starts, let it go for a couple minutes and then add the first dose of hops. Start the timer, and boil for 60 minutes. Add remaining hops at the times indicated in your recipe. Stir in the remaining malt extract during the last 10 minutes of the boil. You can take a separate pot and dissolve the malt extract in a small amount of wort first to make it easier to stir in.
When the boil is over, chill the wort to 68 F. You can chill the wort by placing the pot in a sink filled with cold water. Change the water a few times as it warms up, then add ice to the sink water when the wort temperature drops below 90 F.
Next, transfer the chilled wort to your fermenter. To do this, use a racking cane, and siphon the wort into your sanitized fermentation vessel. There will be a fairly thick layer of debris, called trub, at the bottom of the kettle. Do your best to leave as much of this behind as possible. A small amount of trub in the fermenter is a good thing, as it provides nutrients for the yeast.
Add enough water to make 5 gallons and aerate thoroughly. Aeration gives the yeast oxygen. You can aerate the wort by sealing the fermenter and shaking it vigorously for a few minutes, or beating it with a sanitized whisk for the same amount of time. Home brew shops also sell aeration devices that let you pump filtered air, or even oxygen, into the wort.
Once the wort is chilled and aerated, add the yeast, and ferment the beer at 68 F, or whatever temperature specified in the recipe. Seal the fermenter, and affix the fermentation lock, filled with water, to the fermenter. This airlock will bubble as fermentation proceeds, vigorously for a couple days, then slowing. For most normal-strength ales, fermentation will last four to six days. When the beer has stopped fermenting, let it sit for two to three days before bottling.
To bottle the beer, clean and sanitize your bottling bucket, tubing, and large spoon. Also, clean and sanitize 52 12-ounce brown beer bottles. Alternately, you can bottle in 28 22-ounce bottles.
Dissolve 5 ounces, or however much your recipe specifies, of corn sugar into water and heat it to a boil. Use just enough water to dissolve the sugar. Cool briefly and add to the sanitized bottling bucket. Transfer the fermented beer into the bucket and stir gently with a sanitized spoon. There will be a layer of yeast at the bottom of the fermenter. Disturb this as little as possible.
Once the beer is transferred, put the lid loosely on the bottling bucket, and begin transferring beer to the bottles. Leave a small amount of headspace in each bottle, comparable to what you see in commercial beers. Then use the bottle capper to seal the bottle. Seal the bottles as you go, rather than filling all the bottles before capping. The longer beer is exposed to air, the more it will be primed to go stale faster. So work as quickly as you can comfortably manage. You should not need to sanitize the bottle caps if they come from a clean, unopened package. But you can boil them for a couple minutes in water, if desired.
Once the beer is bottled and capped, let it sit for at least a week at room temperature. Chill one bottle overnight and open it. If it is carbonated, then the rest of the beer can be chilled and consumed. If you want the beer to be clear, let the bottles chill for at least three days before opening. Sometimes a newly chilled beer will be a bit cloudy initially.
To serve bottle-conditioned home brew, pour the beer into a chilled pint glass, leaving the yeast sediment behind. You will have to sacrifice a small amount of beer to do this.
I’ve been home brewing for about 25 years, and the best advice I can give any home brewer would be to take cleaning and sanitation seriously. Cleaning up immediately after you brew is fairly easy. But if you wait, it gets much more difficult. Second, always keep your yeast happy. Pitch an adequate amount of yeast, aerate the wort well, and keep the fermentation temperature within the yeast strain’s specified range. Third, avoid exposing fermented beer to air as much as you can. Keep your airlocks topped up with water. Make transfers quickly, and seal the next vessel as quickly as possible.
Finally, practice makes perfect — and beer has a tendency to run out quickly. Start brewing your next batch of beer before the previous batch runs out. Happy brewing!
Cascading Pale Ale: American Pale Ale Style
5.1 percent ABV
44 IBUs (International Bitterness Unit)
Yields 5 gallons
- 2 pounds 5 ounces US 2-row pale malt
- 7 ounces crystal malt (40 °L)
- 4 ounces crystal malt (60 °L)
- 4 pounds 2 ounces light dried malt extract
- 1 ounce Centennial hops at 10 percent alpha acids
- 1 teaspoon Irish moss
- 1/4 teaspoon yeast nutrients
- 2 ounce Cascade hops at 5 percent alpha acids, divided
- 1 ounce Cascade dry hops
- 11-gram package Fermentis US-05 dried yeast
- 5 ounces corn sugar, to prime bottles for 2-1/2 volumes of CO2
- In your brew pot, heat 1 gallon water to 161 F. Place crushed grains in steeping bag, and submerge in pot. Use a large spoon to break up any clumps of malt. Temperature should settle around 150 F. Keep mash at 150 F for 60 minutes, then slowly heat to 168 F, stirring constantly.
- In a second pot, heat 2 quarts water to 170 F for sparge water. After steeping grains, remove and place a large colander over your brew pot. Set grains in it, and rinse with the sparge water.
- Add water to make about 3 gallons of wort. Stir in roughly a quarter of the malt extract, and bring to a boil. Do not let wort volume drop below 2-1/2 gallons during boil. Add boiling water as needed to maintain 2-1/2 gallons.
- Once boil starts and the first bits of “hot break” (particles in wort) show, add the Centennial hops, and boil for 60 minutes.
- When there’s 15 minutes left on timer, add Irish moss and yeast nutrients, and let boil.
- With 10 minutes left on time, add 1 ounce of the Cascade hops and let boil. When boil timer is done, add remaining Cascade hops and Cascade dry hops. Stir in the remaining malt extract in the last 10 minutes. Dissolve into small amount of wort first to make it easier to incorporate.
- Chill the wort to 68 F, and transfer to fermenter. Add water to make 5 gallons, and aerate thoroughly. Pitch yeast, and ferment beer at 68 F.
- Transfer to a keg, or add priming sugar and process into bottles.
Chris Colby is an avid gardener who lives in Bastrop, Texas, with his wife and cats. His academic background is in biology, but his main interest is in brewing beer. His new book Home Brew Recipe Bible (Page Street, 2016) contains 101 recipes for a variety of beers.