Make Beer at Home

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Make smooth, refreshing beer at home.

Five bucks won’t buy a heck of a lot these days (as anyone who’s been to the supermarket lately can attest) . . . but I can show you how to stretch a five dollar bill so it’ll buy a full 28 quarts–that’s 12 six-packs–of beer. My secret: brew it yourself.

When I talk about homemade suds, I’m not talking about some vaguely beer-like concoction, but a heady, thirst-quenching brew that’ll stand up to the best that Milwaukee–or even Munich!–has to offer. And you don’t have to be a graduate chemist to put up a seven-gallon batch of the amber beverage.

To make your own beer, you’ll need the following ingredients: Water (seven gallons), malt extract (one 2-1/2-pound can), sugar (a five-pound bag), and yeast (one package).

Because the quality of water you use will be reflected in the taste of the beer, try to obtain the purest, best-tasting water you can find. Soft tap water is OK. If you can come across some clear, Rocky Mountain spring water, so much the better.

You can purchase hop-flavored malt extract at the supermarket or at any wine or beer making supply outlet. (The last time I checked, a 2-1/2-pound can was still less than $3.00.) Look for the word “Light” or “Pale” on the label and remember, you don’t want malt. You do want malt extract.

Five pounds of granulated sugar will run you about $1.18. As for yeast, be sure to buy only brewer’s (not baker’s, not vintner’s) yeast, unless of course you want your brew to taste distinctly yeasty. One package–containing enough dried Saccharomyces to make seven gallons of beer–can be bought for about 75¢ at your local wine making supply store.

OK. In addition to the four or five bucks’ worth of ingredients given above, you’ll need a few specialized pieces of equipment: [1] a winemaker’s hydrometer for measuring the sugar content of the fermenting brew, [2] a plastic siphon hose, about six feet long, and [3] a bottle capper, with caps. These items will require an investment of $15 or $20 altogether, but you’ve got to have ’em . . . and anyway, by the time you’ve made your second batch of low-cost suds they’ll have paid for themselves and then some.

Now we’re ready to begin. First off, round up a large bucket, pail, crock, or other container (I use a plastic garbage can) to use as your fermentation “vat”. Heat your water to boiling and pour it into the vessel (thus sterilizing it). Then dissolve the sugar in the scalding-hot liquid.

Next, open the can of malt extract and–to soften its viscid contents–set it in a saucepan filled with hot water. When the malt has warmed through, pour the syrup into the fermentation vessel and mix thoroughly. At this point, you’ve created wort (pronounced wert), or malt solution. It should smell heady.

Let the wort cool until it’s lukewarm before adding the yeast. (Note: If you choose to add the dry yeast directly to the wort, you may want to use two packages of yeast instead of one, to ensure a vigorous fermentation. The alternative is to prepare a starter culture two days in advance, according to the instructions that come with your yeast . . . in which case you can be assured of obtaining satisfactory results with only a single package.)

As soon as you’ve added Saccharomyces to the mix, cover the vessel with a lid or a sheet of plastic, set the container in a cool spot where it won’t be disturbed, and wait.

Check the wort once a day to see that [1] fermentation–characterized by the appearance of froth on top of the liquid–is occurring, and [2] the brew’s sugar content is dropping. For accuracy, make sure the temperature of the wort is the same each time you take a hydrometer reading.

When the percentage of sugar in the fermenting solution has dropped from 6% down to 1% (this can take any number of days), prepare to bottle the brew. For at this point, almost all the original sugar has been converted into alcohol and C0 2 , and the little bit that remains will be just enough to allow some fermentation to take place in the bottle (which is absolutely necessary if the beer is to acquire a natural effervescence).

Round up at least 70 used 12-ounce beer bottles (check with beer-drinking friends and/or recycling centers if you have trouble coming up with this many bottles). I’ve found that Heinekens bottles make a superior container. I would NOT, however, recommend Lowenbrau, Michelob, or Andeker (or any non-beer) bottles, since such containers are weaker and more likely to explode while your beer is taking on its natural carbonation.

Once you’ve gathered up a good stock of bottles, wash them well and then sterilize them either by [A] heating them in an oven for several hours or [B] rinsing them with a germicidal solution of the kind used by amateur winemakers (look for a product called Campden at your brewing supply store). Sterilize the bottle caps, too.

Now siphon your frothy young brew into the bottles (being careful not to transfer sediment from the fermentation vessel in the process), cap the containers, and set them in a dark, cool place for about a week.

In order to keep tabs on the rate at which carbonation is developing, open a bottle of your homemade suds every other day. Should the beer foam uncontrollably after only a few days in the bottle, you’ve bottled too early (there’s still too much sugar, in other words, in the brew). Which means that–unless you release the pressure from every bottle and reapply new caps–you can expect some real fireworks (i.e., exploding bottles) before the week is up!

If you’ve bottled at the correct time, however, you can expect–upon opening an ice-cold bottle of your week-old creation–to taste some of the smoothest, most refreshing beer you’ve ever sipped in your whole life. What’s more, you’ll have enough suds on hand (28 quarts) to throw a good-sized party . . . which, for five bucks, ain’t a bad bargain!