I was first introduced to the world of home brewing in my friend’s hatchback during my junior year of high school. As we drove to the diner, I heard a glass clink underneath my seat. A large, clear bottle containing a cloudy, orange-yellow liquid was rolling around the car.
After a second or two of horror, I ruled out the possibility of urine. The guy was weird, but not that weird. Also, urine doesn’t usually have cloves floating in it.
“Dude, what is that?” I asked.
“Oh, I made some mead,” he stated nonchalantly.
“Mead? Like, Beowulf, medieval shit? You made it?”
“Yeah man. You should try it. Watch for cops though.”
After a hesitant sniff, a brief consideration of various open container laws, and ample assurance that I would not, in fact, go blind from the stuff, curiosity overpowered my better judgement and I did. It was sweet. It was alcoholic. It was pretty good.
The coolest thing about homebrewing is that it’s actually surprisingly easy. You get some equipment, brew for 2 or 3 hours (during much of which the process doesn’t have to be supervised), and let it chill out for a couple weeks. Then you bottle it, wait another couple weeks, et voila! You’ve got your very own beer. Most homebrew batches are five gallons, so you get between 40 and 50 bottles, too. And it’s pretty educational: you learn a lot about different types of beer by making them.
Anyway, my brewing buddy and I recently started a batch, and I documented the process for your viewing pleasure.
The Equipment: Homebrewing involves a few different pieces of equipment, so I’ve compiled them here for your ease of use.
- Carboy: a large glass bottle, pictured below. Mine is 6 gallons, which works nicely for 5-gallon batches (due to the krausen, which I’ll explain shortly). If you have a 5-gallon one for a 5-gallon batch, you’ll need to set up a blowoff system for the krausen, which can marginally improve the taste of the batch. This is apparently not very hard, but it’s beyond my experience.
- Carboy #2: for Step 11. 5 gallons. Can be plastic.
- Siphon: food-grade tubing plus an auto-siphon, which allows you to pump. Make sure the tubing fits the auto-siphon.
- Pot: Metal. 5 gallons.
- Floating thermometer.
- Bleach or some other sanitizing agent for homebrewers like Starsan.
- 40-50 empty bottles. You can buy empty bottles from homebrew stores, buy returned ones from liquor stores, or just wash well and reuse ones you’ve emptied. Good for the environment, man. Just make sure they’re not the twist-off kind — you can’t cap those properly.
- Bottle caps to match.
- A bottle capper. There are tabletop ones and cheaper handheld ones like the one I use.
- One-way airlock + drilled stopper. Make sure the stopper is the correct size for the carboy.
- Grain bag. Keeps the hops and the grains out of your wort.
- Spring-tip bottle filler. Makes bottling so much cleaner and easier.
- Specific gravity meter. Taking measurements with this before and after fermentation allows you to determine the final alcohol content of the batch.
- Carboy brush. Sometimes hard-to-clean deposits get stuck in the carboy. You don’t want those in there.
Step 1: Sanitize.
This is probably the most important part of homebrewing. If your equipment isn’t clean, you risk introducing bacteria into your brew, which will make it taste gross. (Never fear though, the pH and alcohol content of the resulting beer renders it inhospitable to pathogens, so it really is just the bad taste.) Throw a little Clorox into your carboy (the big glass guy), pump it through your siphon, let it sit a few minutes, then rinse a couple times and you’re good to go. While you’re at it, mark off 5 gallons on the carboy. Measure it out with a Nalgene or something, then mark the water level. You’ll need this later. Note the duct tape in the picture above.
Step 2: Steep the grains.
Check the beautiful array of malts! Basically, this step is like making tea. You put 2-3 gallons of water in a big pot, put in the grains, turn on the heat, and let them steep until the water reaches about 170 degrees Fahrenheit. You can measure this with a floating thermometer, which are easily obtained at homebrew stores. The grains in the picture are in a grain bag, which makes it way easier to remove them when they’re done steeping. Pictured below is the brew post-steeping. It looks like coffee because we used very dark grains to make a dark beer (specifically, a porter).
Step 3: Add the malt extract.
Once you’ve removed the grains, crank the heat and bring that baby to a solid boil. Then, you stir in the malt extract, which is basically the food for the yeast. It looks like molasses and tastes kind of like it, too. Most 5-gallon recipes call for somewhere between 6 and 10 pounds of this stuff.
After you add the malt extract, watch the brew. It will boil over. Violently. See below. If this happens, just turn down the heat a tad and stir it down, no biggie.
Step 4: Add the hops.
Hops are the flower of a plant. They smell kinda dank and contain alpha acids, which are what make the beer bitter. IPAs are relatively hoppy, while lighter beers like weissbeer or your typical Natty aren’t. Below are hop pellets, which look kind of like hamster food. It’s what you usually get in kits.
After you add the malt extract, put in the bittering hops to steep. There are three major stages of hopping: bittering, aroma, and flavoring. Bittering hops get steeped for 60 minutes in the boil, flavoring for 15+, and aroma for 1-5. If you use a kit, there will be an instruction sheet telling you which is which and how long to boil them. (Again, grain bags can help with extraction later.)
Step 5: Add the clarifier. Five minutes from the end of the boil, you can optionally add a clarifying agent like Whirfloc or “Irish moss.” This attracts proteins and other solids that otherwise will cloud the beer. Which is not inherently bad, but it’s all about the presentation.
Step 6: Chill. No, literally, chill the wort. (Which is what you have right now, by the way — the pre-fermentation mixture is called wort, pronounced wehrt.) Stick it in an ice and/or water bath and let it chill to 130 degrees. And keep the lid on–you don’t want critters floating in at this point.
Step 7: Prepare the yeast. If you have dry yeast, pitch it. That is, awaken it from its long slumber by adding it to a bit (maybe a cup) of warm water and letting it reactivate for about 10 minutes. If you have a liquid yeast, bring it out of the fridge and let it rewarm to room temperature.
Step 8: Siphon. Add 2 gallons of cold water to the carboy. Once the beer is at 130 degrees, siphon all of it into the carboy.Then, add cold water until there are 5 gallons in the carboy.At this point, feel free to mix it up or slosh it around. This introduces oxygen into the wort, which is normally bad for beer but at this stage is not because it promotes faster yeast growth.
Step 8: Pitch.“Pitching” the yeast is just adding it to the mixture. Do that.
Step 9: Cork it. This is a one-way airlock. It allows the CO2 produced by the yeast to exit the carboy, but doesn’t allow any outside air to enter during fermentation. It’s attached to a bung or stopper, which is the rubber thing in the neck of the carboy. But no, the hole into which the stopper is inserted is not called the bunghole. Sorry.
Step 10: Sit back and relax.Keep the brew in a dark, room-temp place for fermentation. Light can inhibit fermentation and/or make the beer taste off.
Usually on Day 1, fermentation really kicks up. A krausen (the foamy stuff on top of the liquid above) will form, and the airlock will start to bubble. A week after brewing, fermentation begins to slow, and another week after that, it’s ready to bottle.
Step 11: Siphon, take 2. After these initial 2 weeks, your beer is warm and flat, but otherwise complete and safe to drink, so feel free to taste as you complete the rest of the steps. After sanitizing the secondary carboy well, siphon the liquid off the lees, aka the dead yeast/vegetable matter/other proteins/general gross solids that have settled at the bottom. Make sure you don’t dip the siphon too low into the carboy, or you’ll siphon up some of that gross stuff.
Step 12: Pour some sugar on me. As it siphons, boil some extra fermentables (in kits, often corn sugar) to sanitize, then add to the beer in the secondary carboy. This gives the yeast a little more to work with, which produces delicious carbonation.
Step 13: Bottle. Siphon the beer into well-sanitized individual bottles. Attach sanitized caps as you go, or after filling up a dozen or two. Again, avoid bottles with twist-off caps like Blue Moons; your caps won’t seal properly over the thread.
Step 14: Wait a couple more weeks. At the end of these two weeks, your brew is ready to drink! Throw the bottles into the fridge and pop ’em. Mmmmmm.