The revolution has happened. Chances are good that you live within a short drive of a brew pub, microbrewery, or — at the very least — a store from which you can purchase quality beer. In fact, the craft brew industry is so strong right now, you may wonder, “why even bother trying to brew my own beer?”
There are a few compelling reasons. First, you are in full control of the ingredients you put into your brew. This leads naturally to the second: Given that you have full control, you can brew beers to completely suit your own tastes, beers that commercial breweries would never risk brewing. Want to brew an American pale ale? Sure. Want to brew a chocolate cherry ancho pepper-flavored porter? Hey, I’m not here to judge. Third, while the initial cash outlay — though minimal — may intimidate some, it is far cheaper in the long run to brew your own beer than to buy microbrewed beer.
To get started brewing your own beer, you’ll need a few essential pieces of equipment. You can find all kinds of brewing supplies at local homebrew supply shops, or mail order online at sites such as Northern Brewer and William's Brewing.
The brew kettle. This can be a regular stainless steel, enameled iron or aluminum stockpot, preferably 12 quarts or larger. For advanced brewing, the kettle must be at least 6 gallons in size, but for the purposes of this article, 12 quarts will do. This is the most expensive piece of brewing equipment, but you can get it for about $40. Altogether the rest of the equipment may run you another $50 or $60.
A soup spoon. This can be plastic, wooden or steel; it doesn’t matter.
A candy thermometer, or other thermometer that can be put into hot liquids.
Strainer and/or funnel. This will be used to strain the spent hops out of your wort (raw beer) as you pour it into the primary fermenter.
An alternative to a strainer is a hop/grain bag. These are reusable cotton or nylon bags that will retain the hop cones/solids while allowing the enjoyable properties of the hops to flow into the wort during the boiling process. They may also be used to hold specialty grains for those who use the “extract with specialty grains” method, which this article covers.
The fermentation vessel(s)/bottling bucket. These should be food-grade plastic or glass vessels, also called carboys, in which the wort will ferment and mature. Homebrew stores sell them — the ones with spigots are especially convenient — or you can scavenge them (plastic ones, at least) from the bulk foods section of your local hippie food store. If you scavenge, be sure to clean the vessel thoroughly to remove residual food and oils, and drill or puncture a hole in the lid (you’ll absolutely need a lid) for the airlock.
Speaking of which, you’ll also need airlocks and rubber stoppers. When I was a kid and my grandpa made wine, he put a balloon over the top of the fermenter. It made a comical sight when filled up with carbon dioxide. You could conceivably put a balloon on a glass carboy, but it wouldn’t stay there long given the vigorous fermentation involved with beer making. Better to use purpose-made airlocks and/or rubber stoppers to allow off-gassing while preventing bacteria and wild yeasts from finding their way into your precious brew.
Food-grade plastic hose. This is necessary to transport the fermented beer from vessel to vessel without allowing it to oxidize. It is typically clear and sold at all reputable homebrew shops. Be sure the hose is of a diameter that will fit on the spigot of your fermentation vessels (if yours has a spigot). You’ll need at least two lengths of hose that are 2 or more feet in length and one that is about 12 inches.
Bottles and/or jugs with caps/lids. You’re going to have to put your finished beer into something, after all. I keg now, but I used to prefer to bottle in half-gallon growler jugs like you’d get from a brew pub. Most beginning brewers decide to bottle their finished beer in 12- or 22-ounce bottles. To bottle up a 5 gallon batch, you’ll need about 53 12-ounce bottles or about 29 22-ounce bottles. Also, if you decide to bottle in 12- or 22-ounce bottles, you’ll need a capper to attach the caps to filled bottles. It’s especially convenient to use swing top bottles. These type of bottles are used by the Grolsch and Fischer breweries and some high-end French lemonade bottlers, so you may be able to find some to reuse.
Sanitizing liquid. Wild yeasts and bacteria are hardy microbes, and it is simply not worth going to the trouble to brew if you’re going to ferment and bottle your beer in unsanitary containers. One of the better sanitization methods is to use a non-bleach, no-rinse sanitizer such as StarSan or iodophor (available at homebrew stores) in your fermentation vessel, then reuse the same solution to sanitize your bottles or jugs.
Your local homebrew shop may have a “beginner’s kit” available for sale. These will include almost everything listed here, but double-check to make sure everything is present! There’s nothing worse than brewing up a batch of beer only to find out you have no way of transporting it to another vessel or bottling it.
The Basic Process
There are a few generally accepted methods of brewing beer: extract only, extract with specialty grains, partial mash and all-grain. In this case, we’ll be using extract with specialty grains. This means that we’ll steep some specialty grains for a bit to extract a little sugar and flavor from them, then add malt extract — freeze-dried maltose and other sugars and solids extracted from barley — as the main source of sugar (which the yeast that we’ll add later love to eat and turn into alcohol and carbon dioxide).
Here are the main steps to brew the above-mentioned American brown ale.
- Sanitize your primary fermenter with whatever sanitizer you choose.
- In the brew kettle, boil 3 gallons of water. Pour it into a fermentation bucket (not the one in which you intend to do your primary fermentation). Heat 2.5 gallons of water in your brew kettle to 150 degrees Fahrenheit — this is now called the hot liquor.
- Using a grain bag, steep the crystal, chocolate, biscuit and black malts in the hot liquor for 20 minutes, stirring regularly and maintaining the temperature of 150 degrees.
- Remove the grain bag from the kettle and add one half-gallon of water and the dried malt extract (DME), stirring vigorously to dissolve.
- Bring to a boil, being extremely careful to watch out for boil over. Once at a boil, add the ‘Cascade’ hops (in hop bag). Maintain rolling boil.
- After 30 minutes, add ‘Centennial’ hops in another hop bag. Maintain rolling boil.
- After another 30 minutes, cut heat and let the kettle sit for 10 minutes.
- Remove hop bags — after pressing with spoon to remove any extra wort (it’s now officially called wort, by the way) — then pour wort into the primary fermentation vessel, preferably a plastic bucket with a spigot.
- From the other bucket, pour in enough water to reach the 5-gallon mark on the primary fermenter. Attach lid and airlock filled with sanitizer liquid.
- Let the bucket sit until it reaches almost room temperature. Remove the lid and add both packets of ale yeast. Re-attach lid and airlock and swirl the fermenter to dissolve the yeast and aerate the beer.
- Set the fermenter in a shady spot with an ambient temperature between 60 and 70 degrees.
- Wait. Within 16 hours you should see activity in the airlock, which will periodically bubble. Let the beer go in the primary fermenter for two weeks, or until active fermentation is completed (i.e., no bubbles within 90 seconds of watching).
- You’re at an option point here. You can either: 1) bottle your beer right now, which means you can be drinking it within another two or three weeks, or 2) siphon your beer into a secondary fermenter, which will help it to clarify before you bottle it. If bottling, go to step 16.
- Sanitize your secondary fermenter and a length of hose, then run some sanitizer over the spigot — you got one with a spigot, right? — of the primary fermenter. Attach hose to primary fermenter spigot and run the beer into the secondary fermenter. Once complete, attach lid and airlock to secondary fermenter and let sit another two weeks.
- To bottle, sanitize your bottling bucket according to the directions on your sanitizing solution’s label. Sanitize all the bottles/jugs and caps/lids you’re going to use in the bottling bucket before pouring out the sanitizing solution, as well as your brewing spoon, one long length of plastic hose and the 12-inch length. You may also want to sanitize the spigot of the bucket you’re running the beer out of — use a very clean sponge or Q-tip soaked in sanitizer. Then, set the bottles and caps (or jugs and lids) aside and pour out the sanitizing solution.
- In a small saucepan, bring 2 cups of water and 11⁄4 cups corn sugar to a boil. (You can also use 11⁄4 cups of extra light dried malt extract, or 1 cup of honey — I prefer honey.) Ensure the mixture is homogenized, then cut the heat.
- Once you’re ready to go, pour the sugar-water mixture into the bottling bucket. Then, you can stir as the beer runs into the bottling bucket, but stir gently so as to not aerate the beer.
- Once the beer’s in the bottling bucket, attach the 12-inch length of hose. This will make it easier to bottle the beer. Run the beer into your containers and attach the lids as you go. This is the most tedious part of the entire process, but remember, it’s worth it.
- Once you’re done capping all your bottles, set them in a shady, not-too-warm spot and forget about them for a few weeks.
- After two or three weeks, depending on how warm it is, check in on your brew. Shake a bottle to see if bubbles form rapidly. Uncap one to check it out. If it doesn’t hiss — and you know what a properly carbonated beer hisses like, I imagine — seal it up again and wait another week. Check it again after that — chances are it’ll be ready. You can leave most of the bottles at room temperature and chill only what you want to drink, but this type of beer is best consumed by two or three months after it’s bottled.
- Do enjoy it, eh?
Resources and More
Once you’re finished with your first batch, you’ll probably wonder where to go from there. Well, try experimenting with this recipe. Add a couple more ounces of hops, a few more ounces of crystal malt and another pound or two of malt extract, and you’ll have a fine Extra Special Bitter.
Also, read up. The de facto introduction to homebrewing is Charlie Papazian’s The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing. His Homebrewer’s Companion is also excellently done, but don’t stop there. If you’re looking to brew a specific style, be on the lookout for Brewer Publications’ “Classic Beer Style Series.” Once you think you’ve learned everything there is to know, check out An Analysis of Brewing Techniques by Laurie and the late George Fix, and be humbled. Your local library will probably have at least one of these, and can get the others for you via interlibrary loan.
I find it’s a lot more fun (not to mention easier and cheaper) to brew with fellow enthusiasts. Fortunately, there is a vast network of homebrew clubs. Visit the American Brewers Association to look up an affiliated brew club.
If you don’t find one in your community, that means you get to be a groundbreaker and start one yourself!
For advanced procedures, techniques, equipment and recipes, the Internet has you covered. The Brews & Views Bulletin Board and Northern Brewer Homebrew Forum are among the best beer discussion groups on the Web. Don’t be afraid to ask questions on these forums, but always try searching beforehand to spare yourself the embarrassment of Internet ridicule.
And if you ever brew that chocolate cherry ancho pepper porter, send me a bottle, won’t you?
Recipe for a Basic American Brown Ale
American brown ale is a slightly richer, hoppier version of the classic English brown ale style. Good examples of commercial brown ales include Moose Drool brown ale from Big Sky Brewing, and Sierra Nevada brown ale. The following ingredients are typically sold at homebrewing shops, and this list might cost you about $35 to $40. You’ll need the grain cracked, which you can do with a rolling pin and a plastic bag, or you can ask the shop to crack the grain for you. (Makes 5 gallons.)
3 ounces 60L (Lovibond) crystal malt
2 ounces chocolate malt
2 ounces biscuit malt
1 ounce 550L black malt
6 pounds Muntons plain light dry malt extract (DME)
1 ounce whole leaf ‘Cascade’ hops
1 ounce whole leaf ‘East Centennial’ hops
2 packets Windsor Ale yeast (or other dried ale yeast)
1 1⁄4 cups corn sugar or Muntons extra light DME or 1 cup honey
Nathan Poell is a fermentation fanatic who frequently brews beer with friends. Check out the photo gallery for all the photos of this brown ale a-brewin'.
Note from Mother: Want to learn more about beer? We've recently found a great source for online videos about craft brewing. Check out