Not to make a big deal out of it, but when I started to brew we had to crush our malt with big flat rocks, climbing splintery telephone poles in our skivvies to harvest brown, pea-sized hops that reeked of creosote. The only reliable guidebook was written in ancient Armenian and was missing more than a few pages. Malt extract had to be chipped off a giant block with an adze.
If you stay within the guidelines here, your beer will turn out lighter or darker, more or less bitter, but it is guaranteed to be wonderfully drinkable.
Things are better now. Everything one needs to brew great beer is available in abundance. Cartloads of malt from all corners of the brewing world await your recipe. Hops appear in profuse, resiny bounty. Yeast, once by far the weakest link in the homebrew chain, may be had in dozens of pedigreed strains, in pitchable quantities freshness dated for your brewing pleasure. Many of the thorny technical issues have been wrestled to the mat. Information flows in beery rivers. Clubs abound.
So what are you waiting for?
I hear a lot of beer enthusiasts say “I’ve been thinking about brewing.” You procrastinators know who you are. You’re out of excuses.
The Basic Drill
Getting started doesn’t have to be a big deal. A brewing kit at your local homebrew shop will run you between $50 and $100, depending on how luxe you want to get. Those truly dedicated to the hobby can eventually spend a lot more, but it’s usually an incremental process, one gizmo at a time. For now the basics will do just fine.
As for process, you’ll want more detailed instructions than this article can provide, but the basic drill is this. Put three gallons of drinking water (filtered tap water is great) on the stove to heat. To this you’ll add 5 pounds of pale dry malt extract (or 6 pounds of syrup), stirring well to dissolve. You will also need between half and a full pound of any of the many colored malts available. Crystal malt is especially suited to this purpose. As you would expect the quantity and color of the specialty malt will determine how dark your beer will be. The malt gets coarsely crushed, goes into a cloth grain bag and into the liquid to steep like tea.
I am purposely not telling you exactly what to brew. To master this hobby you need to be able to develop your own recipes to suit your own taste, and you might as well do this right from the beginning. If you stay within the guidelines here, your beer will turn out lighter or darker, more or less bitter, but is guaranteed to be wonderfully drinkable.
When the water comes up to a boil, you can remove the grain bag, draining its malty goodness into the pot. Between one and one-and-one half of low alpha acid hops are then added to the wort, which is the name for the sugar-rich mixture in the kettle. These will add bitterness and a little flavor and aroma. After the wort has boiled for 45–50 minutes, a similar quantity of hops are added, and their main contribution will be aromatic. As with the grain, the combination of alpha acid, quantity and boil time will determine the bitterness and aromatic punch of the beer. The quantities I’m giving will range from moderately light to moderately bitter, nothing real extreme. If you want to go wacko with the hops, be my guest, and substitute a medium- or high-alpha hop for the first addition.
Once the wort has boiled an hour, turn off the heat. You will have previously boiled and cooled two gallons of drinking water, and it should be sitting in your sanitized primary fermenter (usually a plastic bucket for beginners). Add the hot wort, holding back the hops either by a screened funnel, or by tying a stainless or copper cleaning scrunchy around the pickup end of your racking tube. Try to get the whole thing cooled to around 70°F as soon as you can. Poke around on the Internet if you need ideas, as some of them are highly entertaining. After it is cool add one package of liquid ale yeast, well worth the few dollars it costs. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Try to keep the temperature between 60 and 75°F unless the yeast man tells you otherwise. I recommend not beginning with a lager, as they require rather precise temperature control which not many beginners can manage.
Your beer will come to life in half a day or so, throwing up a dense crown of brownish foam. After a few days it will settle down, at which point it should be racked into your carboy and fitted with a fermentation lock. The beer will continue to slowly ferment, eventually dropping clear. This should take a few weeks. After that, the beer is bottled with a small amount of sugar which restarts the fermentation and provides carbonation after a week or two. Start to finish, you’re talking about six weeks, although the beer will usually improve after another month or two.
Why go all through all this?
First, there is great satisfaction in enjoying the fruits of one’s labor whatever it may be, and a well-made beer is indeed a thing to be proud of. With the great ingredients available, homemade beer can be the equal of any brew on the planet, so the opportunities for success are plentiful, unlike, say, golf. I also believe that brewing is an important path to understanding beer. Great beer is all about the process and the choices made, and going through them actually sensitizes you amount various flavor, aroma and texture elements that make up a beer. It’s the equivalent to touring wine country, where soil, climate and geography determine much of a wine’s character.
And once you start brewing, you become part of the community of homebrewers, as passionate and collegial bunch as I have ever had the pleasure of sharing beer with.
Once you have a batch of beer (literally) under your belt, you will have few answers and a lot more questions. Read, taste, listen and grow. You will be rewarded with mightily good beer.