If you can cook, you can make your own beer at home.
The last time we met, I walked you through adding yeast and water to some grains to produce something delicious. We’re going to do the same thing this month, but this time, we’ll change the grains, add a new ingredient, and produce liquid bread. That’s right, this month, we’re going to brew some beer.
The basics of beer are simple: take malted grain (typically barley and/or wheat), add water and heat to convert various enzymes to sugars, drain out the sugary water (which is called ‘sweet wort’), add hops and boil, then cool the resulting soup (now called ‘bitter wort’), add yeast and set it aside for a while, and you’ve got beer. For beginners, or for those with small apartments, producing the sweet wort can be difficult, as it involves special equipment and space. Fortunately, there’s a way to skip the first step by using malt extract, which we will use here. (For the purpose of pedagogy, we’ll oversimplify at times in this introduction. Future articles can fill in details and deal with brewing in more depth, such as starting with grains.) You can purchase beginner’s ingredient kits that contain all the items we will use today, and in fact, that’s exactly what I’m using here. Let’s make some Weizenbier!
Weizenwhat? Today, I’m going to brew a German-style wheat beer, which has about 65% malted wheat and 35% malted barley, along with a particular type of yeast. The resulting beer will be refreshing and effervescent, and have hints of cloves and banana in the taste (due to the yeast—we won’t be adding any fruit into the beer).
The equipment you’ll need for this is pretty basic: a large pot (the bigger, the better), malt extract (dry or liquid), yeast (dry or liquid), water, a large spoon, and perhaps some tubing, depending on other details of your setup. There is additional equipment that will make your life immensely easier, although it strictly speaking is not required: a wort chiller, hydrometer, and a floating thermometer.
If your brewpot isn’t big enough to fit 5 gallons, which is the amount we homebrewers typically make, it is possible to boil a smaller amount (say, 2 or 3 gallons) and add it to cold water in the fermenter. If you do go this route, remember to boil and chill the water you are putting in the fermenter. Why? Sanitation is one of the most important habits to get into when homebrewing.
A Note on Sanitation
The magic that transforms your wort into beer is fermentation by a microorganism called yeast (technically, a fungus called Saccharomyces cerevisiae/uvarum). The conditions under which yeast thrive are also the conditions under which other microorganisms thrive, and they can make your beer taste nasty. So, we want to give our yeast a head-start by reducing the other critters to as minimal a level as possible.
To do this, you can use either a very dilute bleach solution (plain bleach, unless you really want your beer to taste like lemons or a Carolina pine forest) or a commercial sanitizer. If you use bleach, make sure you thoroughly rinse all your equipment. If you use a commercial product, follow the label directions. For this batch of beer, I’ve used a commercial no-rinse sanitizer, together with a foaming cleaner.
I said we’d keep things simple for this first batch of beer, and we will, but there’s a simple thing we can do to make our first extract beer a little bit better. Specifically, we’re going to add some grains and allow them to steep (not unlike making some barley tea!). Many beginner’s kits nowadays come with these specialty grains. To use these, we gently crush the grains in a ziplock bag using a rolling pin. The idea is to expose the sugary inside of the kernel to the water, not to pulverize the grains into flour. Once the grains are crushed, put them in a muslin sack and tie off the top.
Add 5 and a bit gallons of water to your brewpot. (We put in some extra to allow for boil-off.) We’ll dunk the grains in the water as it reaches 155 °F (68 °C). Turn off the heat and allow the grains to steep for half an hour. Remove the grain sack (without squeezing it) and turn the heat back on to bring us up to a boil.
When the water comes to a boil, we will add the malt extract and some of the hops. The kit I’m using here has the dry malt extract and the hops mixed together. You might have them separate, or you might have liquid malt extract. (If you do have liquid extract, I recommend putting it into a pan of warm water to allow it to flow better when you need to add it to your brewpot.) In any case, the hops you add now will contribute to the bitterness of the beer, but most of their aroma will boil off. We’ll take care of that by adding more hops later in the boil.
Add the extract and stir it around, taking care to avoid the wort boiling over. (It can be particularly difficult to clean off stove tops.) The hop pellets will disolve, and you will have a wonderful smelling—but ugly—green soup.
Now, we allow the wort to boil for at least an hour. We’ll be adding some more hops along the way, but since we have some time on our hands, let’s rehydrate the dry yeast. Boil some water and allow it to cool to below 98 °F (37 °C). Put it in a pyrex cup or a bowl and add the dry yeast. Cover it with some plastic wrap until you are ready.
Do you have to rehydrate the yeast? If you ask 10 homebrewers, you will get a dozen different opinions. I tend to, but many people don’t. You can also use yeast that already is in liquid form. (And yeast is at least a whole separate article, so we’ll leave it at that.)
At roughly 30 minutes into the boil, you can add more hop pellets. If you are brewing an India Pale Ale, you will add another 1 oz. or so, but for our Weizenbier, we don’t need so much. Also, for some styles, you will want to add even more hops when you turn off the flame, and possibly even into the fermenter!
Chill Out, Man!
So, an hour has gone by, you now have a house that smells wonderful, and you have 5 gallons of boiling-hot wort. If you add the yeast now, you will kill it, so let’s cool down the wort. I use a handy piece of equipment called an immersion chiller, seen below. It’s simply a copper coil with inflow and outflow tubes. Cold water goes in one side, travels down through the wort, taking away heat, and heated water flows out the other side. If you don’t have a chiller, and especially if you are boiling in a smaller pot, you can simply put the pot into a sink filled with icy water. (Don’t put ice into the wort. Ice tends to be not very sanitary, to put it mildly.)
Now we’ve got the wort down to around 80 °F (27 °C). We need to transfer it to our fermenter. There are a couple of ways to do this. My brewpot has a nice ball valve, so I just open it up and let the wort flow out into the fermenter. This also serves to aerate the wort, which is important at this stage (and only at this stage), because the yeast need to have oxygen to reproduce to healthy numbers to ferment the beer. If you don’t have a fancy brewpot, you can use a piece of plastic tubing to rack the wort into the fermenter. (Brewers always call syphoning from one vessel to another ‘racking’.)
While you are transfering into your fermenter, draw some of the wort off and use a hydrometer to measure the original gravity of the wort. The original gravity is a measurement of the dissolved sugars in the liquid relative to plain water, and we will use this measurement later to calculate the alcohol by volume of the beer. If you do take a hydrometer reading, don’t pour that wort back into the fermenter. Put it in a glass and sample it. Yes, it’s flat and it has no alcohol, but try it. It will make you smile.
The Windup and the Pitch
Once your wort is in the fermenter, it’s time to pitch the yeast. No, not like Nolan Ryan pitches. Pour the yeast into the fermenter. Put the lid on the fermenter, and put a sanitized finger over the hole in the lid. Now shake the living daylights out of the fermenter. The goal right now is to aerate the solution to provide oxygen to the yeast. Good music helps.
Now, put a fermentation lock into the hole at the top of the fermenter and fill it with liquid. Some people use plain water, some people use StarSan solution, and some people use vodka (no kidding). The purpose of the airlock is to allow carbon dioxide created by the fermentation to escape without allowing competing microorganisms, dust, flies or other bad stuff into the beer. Put your fermenter somewhere out of the way that has a fairly steady temperature around 70 °F (21 °C), such as a basement or closet.
How long do you let the beer ferment? It depends on a number of factors, such as the type of beer/yeast, how well-cared-for the yeast was, and the temperature in your basement/closet. In general, I’d recomment letting your first batch go for two weeks. The single biggest mistake beginners make is to rush the beer into the bottles, and the second biggest mistake is then to open those bottles too early.
In order to bottle your batch, you will need about 48 12-oz beer bottles. Yes, you’re going to have to go out and drink a bit. (Consider it research.) The best bottles are the brown ones, as they don’t allow light in that can cause skunky flavors. You don’t have to use 12-oz bottles. You can use 22-oz bombers, or 500 ml import bottles, or any combination. Don’t use growlers, though, since the carbonation won’t set up in them.
Make sure you clean your bottles as soon as you pour the beer out. (Trust me.) To remove the labels, I use a scoop of OxyClean Scent-Free in a sink filled with warm water. In about an hour, most of the labels fall right off.
Just like magic, two weeks have passed, and the day has come to bottle. You have clean bottles, but they need to be sanitized before you put your precious beer in them. By far the easiest thing to do (i.e., the thing I do) is to run the bottles through the dishwasher without any detergent, setting the drying cycle to heated dry. If you don’t have a dishwasher, you can rinse them out with diluted bleach or any of the commercial no-rinse sanitizers we mentioned earlier.
In order for the remaining yeast in your beer to be able to generate carbon dioxide in the bottle, we need to provide them with a bit of food in the form of priming sugar. We take two cups or so of the beer (or just some water) and heat it up and add the priming sugar. (You can also take a hydrometer reading now. This will allow you to calculate the alcohol by volume of your beer: (OG-FG)*131.) Pour that into your bottling bucket. (This is a bucket similar to your fermenter, but with a spigot at the bottom.) Then take a piece of tubing and transfer the beer from the fermenter to the bottling bucket, taking care not to splash it around too much, which can cause off-flavors later on.
Also take this opportunity to leave behind the hop residue and the bulk of the yeast which is sitting on the bottom of your fermenter. (When you get more advanced, you can re-use this yeast for a new batch of beer.)
Here is where technology comes in handy. When I first started brewing, I filled the bottles with nothing more than the tubing from the bucket to the bottle, crudely cutting off the flow by crimping the tube or putting my thumb over the end. Now, I have a bottling wand, and what a difference it makes. The wand is a rigid piece of plastic with a spring-loaded switch at the bottom. Put it in the bottle and push down, beer flows in. When the level of the beer comes just up to the top, let up and pull the wand out. The displacement of the wand leaves you exactly the correct amount of headspace at the top of the bottle. (Oh, and if you have a dishwasher, use the door as a place to bottle. If, I mean when, you spill something, you can just close the door, and the problem’s solved!)
Put a crown cap on the bottle, and crimp it down with your capper. There are several variants of cappers, but I’ve had the best luck with the bench capper that has a nice lever to crimp the cap.
Again, you will need some patience. Allow your bottled beer at least 10 days to develop some carbonation. Longer is better. When the time comes and you pop off the top, pour the beer gently into a clean beer glass, leaving behind the last little bit of yeast sediment. Enjoy the fruits of your labor!
There are several good books and websites out there to help the homebrewer. Two of the books I’d recommend are:
The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian
How to Brew by John Palmer
A helpful online community I visit frequently is http://www.homebrewtalk.com/, although a simple web search will reveal many more.
Steve is the typesetter for the Pragmatic Bookshelf. When not coaxing kerning pairs or reining in overfull hboxes, he likes to spend time in the kitchen baking and brewing. He also makes his own typefaces, but you can’t eat those.