So You Want to be a Homebrewer – Volume 1: Recipe and Overview

So, you like beer and want to try making your own batch at home? You’ve read about it on the internet. You’ve heard your buddies talk about it. You figure it’s time – what’s the worst that can happen, right? You drink it, it sucks, you throw it out.

Good for you! Welcome to the community!

Homebrewing is a fun hobby if you are really into beer, and you enjoy learning/practicing a process. It really is something you get better at each time you do it (if you are willing to try and learn from your mistakes). As I’ve talked about previously, my personal experienced started with an IPA kit I received as a gift.  That batch was drinkable, and the reviews from my friends were that it didn’t suck. Hooray for me.

My next batch was a disaster.

I learned very quickly what a waste of time the process can be if you don’t properly sanitize your gear. That experience made me almost give up the hobby. Luckily, I had one gifted kit left, and rather than throw it out, I decided to give it my best shot. I spent some time reading articles online, and watching a lot of YouTube videos from experienced brewers. There is A LOT of nuance to this hobby that is lost when you just read the instructions that are inside of the kit you buy. When you understand the steps, understand the WHY behind what you are doing, and understand how the process leads you to different points in the brewing process, you can better execute the craft. And, you will also be in a better position to make corrections if a problem arises, OR, more importantly, be able to IDENTIFY that a problem is coming.

This series of posts will not be the companion piece to John Palmer’s, “How to Brew.” That dude wrote the definitive book on homebrewing, and you are hard pressed to read any beer forums that don’t refer back to John Palmer at least once. Rather, these posts will walk you through my process in brewing a beer on my stovetop in the plainest language I can provide. If I have to use jargon, I’ll be sure to explain the jargon. I’ve found that when people come over to try my beer, they usually ask about 20 different questions about it, and then say, “…that just seems like a lot, and I don’t think I could figure it out…”

YES YOU CAN.

In 2 minutes, I’m able to explain to people exactly what gravity means, and how important it is to the quality control process simply by putting my hydrometer in some tap water. All of this process can be explained and absorbed by looking at it in pieces rather than as a whole. Yes, its 4-5 hours of work, and yes, there are a lot of things you need to do along the way to get it right, but, it is manageable if you have a plan. You can use as little or as much equipment as your heart desires. Me personally, if there is a way to make the process easier (within reason), I try to either make the equipment or get the equipment.

For the purposes of this series, I’ll talk about the brewing process as it impacted one of my recent beers, The Bunsy Imperial Stout + Oak Chips.

To become a homebrewer, you really just need two things:

  1. Love beer
  2. Have a beer you want to make. You need a RECIPE!

It all starts with a recipe.

The Recipe:

imperial stout + bourbon oak

Please don’t be alarmed. I know that all probably looks like sanskrit, but it’s pretty simple once you know what you are looking at. The good news is that if you buy a kit for your first rodeo, the entire recipe is in the box, and you just need to follow the directions.

A quick note on kits – you can buy an all-in-one kit like I got for my first batch. Not only did it have the ingredients for the recipe, it also included the bare minimum equipment I’d need (fermenting jug, air lock, racking cane, tubing). I did need to buy bottles – those are rarely included. Understand that your brewing process will be very clunky with just the bare minimum stuff. If you are willing to spend a little extra money, there are ways you can make the process easier the first time around.

As you get more comfortable, you can begin using recipes from the internet, or you can design your own recipe. Both of those scenarios require a trip to your local homebrew store, which is a fun pilgrimage to make for the first time.

In the most simple terms, your recipe should include:

  • a grain that will provide fermentable sugar
  • a hop that will provide bitterness and aroma
  • a yeast that will eat the fermentable sugar, thus producing alcohol and carbon dioxide

That is it. If you have those three things, and execute the process, you can have beer. What I just described above is actually a style of beer called a SMaSH beer (single malt and single hop). A brewer would make a SMaSH beer if he/she wanted to taste the subtle nuance that a grain or hop can bring to the beer. I made a couple SMaSH centennial beers once because I wanted to see what centennial hops tasted like on their own with a basic pale malt. Next time around, I added a second grain to see what the color and taste difference would be. It’s really that simple. Just three things. Once you get more experienced, you can learn about all of the specialty grains you can add to alter taste, color, mouthfeel, etc. You can learn about adding multiple hops at different times to impact bitterness and aroma. You can learn about the different fining agents you can add to clarify your beer. That is down the road. For now, just focus on the fact that a beer just needs grain, hops, and yeast (and water of course).

The Grain:

In the recipe I used for the Imperial Stout, there were 4 grains. One of them is the base malt that will provide a majority of the fermentable sugar for the beer, the other three grains will add some fermentable sugar, but also add other characteristics that impact color, taste/mouthfeel, bitterness, etc. The base malt is usually a LARGE percentage of the overall grain bill. By grain bill, I mean the list of grains you plan to use in your beer. If you want to know more about the different base malts out there, check out this link. 

The Hops:

For the hops, there is only one hop in this beer. Stouts are not usually very hop forward beers, so hop additions are few and far between. In the case of this beer, there is one hop, and its added only once. Here is where I’ll get into the weeds for a moment.

Remember earlier when I said that hops add bitterness and aroma? The magnitude of those characteristics can depend on a few variables, but the biggest variable you can control with your hops is when you put it into the beer. Simply stated, the longer the hop boils in the beer, the more bittering flavor will be present. The shorter the hop boils in the beer, the less bittering flavor will be present. And, if you want to get all aroma and no bitter, you can add the hops after the boil and after the primary fermentation (called a “dry hop” addition). This is how IPA’s get all of that crazy amazing hop aroma. They usually get a nice dose of dry hops. If the brewer threw all of those hops into the boil, too many alpha acids (the compound that leads to the bitterness) would be extracted, and the beer would be unpalatable. For a recent beer of mine, “My Mosaic,” I dry hopped the heck out of it with great results.

In the case of this stout, the only real job of the hop is to provide some bitterness to the brew to offset the sweetness of the sugar in the beer, so we throw it in early, and let it ride out the entire boil.

The Yeast:

With regards to yeast, this part can get as complicated as you want it to be. For my purposes, I keep the yeast strains and handling as simple as I can. More advanced brewers use very specific strains for very specific beers, they harvest yeast, they blend and create new yeast. It really is an entire side world if you want to fall down that rabbit hole. Since I brew mostly stouts and IPAs, the yeast I use most commonly is by Fermentis. The two varieties I’ll use are either S-04 or S-05 (those are the names). I prefer dry yeast since its overall less expensive, its more “shelf stable,” and the cell counts are higher. When it comes to yeast, cell count is a HUGE consideration. If you don’t pitch enough yeast for the type/size beer you are making, the fermentation either won’t start, or will get stuck (that is a fancy way to say it will stop dead in its tracks). The thing I like about dry yeast are there are really 3 options in terms of use:

  1. pitch it dry right on top of the beer once you cool it down
  2. rehydrate the yeast in water prior to pitching
  3. create a yeast starter (there is a lot of debate if this is necessary with dry yeast, so I’d say once you get the hang of brewing, do a little reading, and decide for yourself).

I’ve pitched dry and gotten good results. I’ve rehydrated and gotten good results. I’ve also created a starter and gotten good results. For my purposes now, I’ve settled on either rehydrating (if the beer I’m making will be low to mid gravity), or I’ll make a starter if the beer will be high gravity. In the case of this stout, this is VERY high gravity, so I’m making a yeast starter.

You are probably wondering what this has to do with cell count. In the case of rehydrating – you aren’t really improving the cell count directly; rather, you are helping the existing cell count to survive as much as possible (pitching dry yeast into a very sugary environment can kill some of the less viable cells right on contact, thus, reducing your overall cell count). By rehydrating, you are helping as many of those little guys possible survive the initial contact with your beer.

Now, in the case of a yeast starter, you are improving the cell count, DIRECTLY. When you make a yeast starter, you are actually making a very low gravity “beer,” and pitching the yeast into it. This semi-friendly environment gives the yeast a chance to get a head start on its fermentation process (which leads to cell reproduction). The yeast you pitch from a starter has a significantly higher cell count than just regular rehydrated yeast. So, when you need high cell count, a starter is probably a good idea.

Now – let’s review the entire process from 60,000 feet.

The Process:

Here are the very high level steps you’ll perform to make your beer:

  1. MASHING IN – Soak/steep your grains in hot water for whatever time your recipe dictates
  2. LAUTERING & SPARGING – Separate the grains from the liquid after the mash time is complete (this is called LAUTERING), and rinse the grains with hot water to collect the amount of pre-boil liquid called for in the recipe (this is called SPARGING).
    • Note – the liquid you collect is referred to as WORT. From now on, we’ll use the proper term – your unfermented beer liquid is called WORT.
  3. BOILING – Once you have your WORT in your boil kettle at the proper volume, you will boil for the amount of time called for in the recipe until you have the proper post-boil volume that will go into your fermenter.
    • You should always have more WORT pre-boil than your final batch size – for example, if you are making a 1 gallon batch of beer, you probably will have about 2.5 gallons or so of pre-boil WORT. That liquid will boil down over the next 60-90 minutes, and get you to your final batch volume that will go into the fermenter
  4. HOPPING – Add hops directly into the boiling WORT at the times specified by your recipe
  5. COOLING – At the end of the boil, immediately begin cooling down the WORT to its yeast pitching temperature
    • This is usually around 65-70 degrees F
    • The method to cool the beer must be completely sanitary – we’ll talk about that later
  6. PITCHING – Once cooled, transfer into your sanitized fermenter, aerate, and pitch your yeast
    • Put fermenter in a cool/dark area, and leave it alone for at least a week, maybe two
  7. FERMENTING – After the first week or so, take a gravity reading and note it
    • A couple of days after the first gravity reading, take a second gravity reading
    • You are officially done fermenting when you get the same gravity reading two consecutive times
  8. PRIMING – Assuming you are bottling (since this is your first beer), prepare your sugar priming solution
    • Pour the priming solution into a sanitized bucket (let’s call this a bottling bucket), and transfer your beer from the primary fermenter you’ve been using into the bucket with the priming sugar in it
      • You will need to use a siphon for this process
  9. BOTTLING – Clean and sanitize the siphon you just used for transferring the beer out of the primary, and prepare to use this siphon to move the beer from the bottling bucket into the actual bottles
    • Once you are done bottling, put all of those bottles in a cool/dark area (basement, maybe?) and let them set for two weeks or more.
  10. CONDITIONING – After 14 days, go ahead and try one of your beers. If you note that the beer is carbonated (nice job), go ahead and put the rest of the bottles in the fridge to cold crash. You can drink them as you please!

Okay – that is a lot.

Please don’t be intimidated.

The work is very spread out. A good quick brew day takes about 4 hours if you have your process nailed down. Bottling takes about an hour (including cleaning) once you get the hang of it. The result is worth it. I promise.

No better feeling than drinking a beer you hand crafted!

That concludes volume 1 of the “So You Want to be a Homebrewer?” series. Please check out our subsequent posts where we get into the nitty gritty of creating really awesome beer. Next on deck – Mashing In!

Are you a homebrewer, or have you considered homebrewing? If so, please let us know your thoughts, and tell us all about your delicious creations! Thanks.

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