How to Get into Brewing without Really Trying
It is my deeply held belief that brewing at home is not only pleasurable and rewarding, but is really the best way to enhance your understanding of beer. Wine is all about agriculture; getting out there and seeing which side of the hill gets the sunshine is the true path to enlightenment. Beer is about process. The mysterious conversion of a basic commodity like barley into the sublime nectar of beer requires a thousand little steps, and each decision along the way critically affects the final product. Looking at breweries is fine, but brewing yourself expands your insight in a powerful way.
You might look at the homebrew hobby and imagine yourself entangled in a web of cumbersome, expensive, high-maintenance gear, and there are those of us who revel in this approach. But brewing can be accomplished, even mastered, by stone-age peoples. So if you’re curious but unwilling to make a big commitment, here’s your opportunity.
I know that advice to keep things simple may be a little suspect coming from a man who has a mound of stainless steel the size of a tanker truck in his basement, but I can assure you that it’s absolutely true. You probably have much of what’s needed already, innocently lurking in your kitchen.
Keep It Simple
What follows is a simple, but not dumbed-down, way to make a small batch of beer in your kitchen. If it works out, you just might want to make a few more, at which point getting a kit of dedicated equipment would make sense.
This procedure will make a two-and-a-half gallon batch of beer. The smaller size makes it easier to brew with standard kitchen gear. It will be all-malt, with real hops and brewing yeast, and you’ll bottle and carbonate it, just like regular homebrew. It will be great!
Here’s what you need:
A 2- to 4-gallon spaghetti pot, any material
Cheesecloth, folded to double thickness, enough for a 2-foot square, plus a double-thick piece 12 inches square
A 5-gallon plastic food grade bucket, well-cleaned
A 3-foot length of food-grade plastic hose, 3/8-inch inside diameter, with shut-off clip
Measuring spoons, measuring cup, and a small saucepan
Two fresh white kitchen garbage can bags
A few tablespoons of plain laundry bleach, for sanitizing
One 3- or 3.3-pound can of unhopped malt extract syrup, your choice of color (light, amber, etc.)
1/2 pound of crystal malt, your choice of color (You’ll probably have to buy a pound.)
1 ounce of fine quality hops (Saaz, Goldings, Cascade)
2 packs of dry ale yeast.
4 gallons carbon-filtered tap water or spring water (If it’s good to drink it’s good to brew with.)
All of your decisions on ingredients should be filtered through the wisdom of your local homebrew shop. They know what products are freshest, which are making the best beers, provide the best value, and so on.
You’ll need to collect bottles. You can use screw-top plastic soda bottles. Cola, lemon-lime, and ginger ale are fine, but strong flavors like orange, grape, and especially root beer, should be avoided unless you want those awkward tastes in your finished beer. Use any size you want; just add them up to 2 1/2 gallons. If you have access to a bottle-capper, glass bottles are marginally better, but you can’t squeeze them to find out how they’re carbonating.
Start by cleaning your pot and plastic tub very well. Beer hates both grease and detergent, either of which will kill the head, so rinse thoroughly. Mix up a solution of bleach and water, 2 teaspoons per gallon, and sanitize the bucket inside and out with this. Rinse with clean tap water. Then, take one of the trash bags and line the bucket with it, and repeat the sanitization procedure on it. The other bag will form a lid, so sanitize it and invert it over the bucket and secure with a big rubber band or some contraption of your own devising. It doesn’t need to be airtight―just dust-proof. You can trim off the excess half with scissors for a neater look.
Figure out how much liquid will fit in your boiling pot, and subtract a gallon. This is how much wort (unfermented beer) you’ll be able to make. If this is 3 gallons or more, swell. If it’s less, you’ll have to boil and cool enough water to make up the difference, and place it into your fermenter before beginning the brew. Example: a 3-gallon pot minus 1 gallon equals 2 gallons of wort. In this case, boil and cool 1 gallon of water and add to the (now-sanitized) fermenter, which will make 3 gallons of fermentable wort, which by the time you leave the dregs behind, will get your 2 1/2 gallons of beer.
Once this is done, fill your kettle to within a gallon of capacity, fire up the burner, and add the malt syrup. Rinsing out the can with hot water will help get it all. Wrap up the half-pound of crystal malt in the small square of cheesecloth, tie, and drop it into the pot. This will provide lots of great malty flavor that sometimes gets lost in the malt extract process. Bring up to a boil slowly, over at least half an hour. Be sure to stir gently until all the syrup is dissolved, but avoid splashing.
Once the wort comes to a boil―and beware, boil-overs can be a real mess―add 1/3 of the hops. These will contribute most of the bitterness. Set a timer or note the time; you have an hour to go.
In the meantime, put 2 cups of filtered water in a well-cleaned saucepan and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Turn off, cover, and allow to cool until just warm to the touch, about 100 degrees F. At this point, add both packets of yeast and allow them to activate, just as if you were making bread. The yeast should be bubbling in a half an hour or so.
After 45 minutes of boiling, add the remainder of the hops. These will provide some bitterness but mostly aroma. After an hour of boiling, shut of the fire and allow to settle for a few minutes. At this point you want to cool the wort as quickly as possible. If you have a big tub that you can fill with ice and set the pot into it, then do. Don’t put it in the fridge; it’s the dirtiest place in the house. If all you can do is just let it sit there, don’t panic; it’ll be OK.
Once the liquid is cooled to just about room temperature, tie the large piece of cheesecloth over the top of the kettle securely with string, then pour the wort into the fermenter. Splashing is good at this point, as it provides oxygen for the yeast.
Dump the yeast in. Stir and splash around with a sanitized metal or plastic (don’t use wood) spoon. Replace the trash-bag lid and secure with the rubber band. Temperature should be between 60 and 70 degrees F. Lower, and the yeast might conk out; higher, and you’ll get excessive fruitiness and other less pleasant aromas. The yeast should take off within 12 to 24 hours. It takes longer than that, you may want to run back to the homebrew shop to get a couple of packets of a different brand and pitch it in.
Now, the Wait
The beer will ferment violently for a couple of days, a stage known as “high krausen.” After that, things will slow down as the yeast switches over to consuming the less-fermentable sugars that remain. Eventually, the foam will subside and the surface will clear. This may take a week or two. Once it gets very quiet, it should be ready to bottle. A hydrometer is normally used for measuring the amount of sugars remaining, but you can just taste a small amount. If it’s still very sweet, it may not be ready, and may need another week or two in a slightly warmer spot.
Bottling involves adding a dose of sugar to the beer and closing it up; the restarted fermentation will pressurize the beer with the carbon dioxide produced. For a beer with a normal amount of fizz, use 1/3 cup of table sugar. Homebrewers usually use corn sugar, but this small amount won’t make a difference, so it’s silly to buy a big bag of it.
If you want a more British-style carbonation level, use 1/4 cup instead of 1/3. Place the sugar in a clean saucepan along with a cup of filtered water and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve. Once it’s boiled, cover with foil and allow to cool to room temperature.
Place your fermenter on a table and place a small block under one edge to tilt it gently. Place your cleaned, sanitized kettle on a chair or shorter table below it, so the top of the pot is below the bottom of the fermenter. Sanitize your hose. Fill with clean tap water and shut the clip, holding both ends upwards to keep the water from running out. Place one end in the beer and quickly drop the other end into the kettle, then open the clip. The beer will flow by gravity.
Hold the inflow end well above the dregs at the bottom, and keep the outflow end submerged to keep splashing to a minimum, as it is bad at this point. As the level drops in the kettle, keep lowering the end of the hose. Get as much out as you can until it starts picking up goo. There will probably be a quart or so left that you’ll have to throw out.
Have all your beer bottles and caps clean. Sanitize with the bleach solution and rinse well with three changes of water.
Add the cooled priming sugar syrup to the beer and stir gently but thoroughly. Once this is done, position the clip about a foot from one end of the hose, fill with water, and put the long end of the hose into the beer. Open the clip and drain the water out into a bottle. As soon as beer starts to come out, shut the clip, move to a different bottle and fill. Dump the water in the first bottle. Using the clip to control the flow, fill all the bottles to within an inch of the top, and screw the caps down securely.
Rinse off the outsides of the bottles with water and place them where they’ll be around 60 to 70 degrees F. In two weeks or so, your beer should be ready to drink. You can feel the plastic bottles getting harder as the pressure builds.
All-malt beers like this usually display a haze when chilled. It’s tasteless, but if it bothers you, you can put the carbonated beer in the fridge for a couple of weeks and it will settle out. Be aware that there is yeast in these bottles, and careful pouring is needed to keep it out of your glass.
At this point, there’s nothing left to do but drink it. A beer of this strength―about 5 percent―will improve for a few months, so try not to drink it all up right away. Better yet, start your next batch!
A brewer since 1984, Randy Mosher is a nationally recognized writer and authority on brewing and beer styles. He is the author of The Brewer's Companion (Alephenalia Publications, 1984), Radical Brewing (Brewers Publications, 2004) and Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Best Drink (Storey, March 2009). In addition, Mosher consults on package design and branding.