How To Make Your Own Beer

Learn how to make beer in your own home! An introductory primer on homebrewing, from an experienced home brewer.

If you can boil water, you can make beer.

Too good to be true? Not really; while it's a bit more complex than that, it's not much more so. This article shows you how you can start down the road to producing your own delicious homebrew for less than $150. It's by no means a comprehensive guide to homebrewing, but it'll get you started.

Don't I Need a License to Make Beer?

Not usually; homebrewing has been legal in the U.S. since 1978. However, the laws can vary from state to state. In Texas, for example, you can brew up to 200 gallons a year for personal consumption; in West Virginia you can brew all you want, provided that the beer is "non-intoxicating" (less than 6% alcohol); and in most other states, production is unlimited as long as it's meant for you and your family. No state specifically forbids homebrewing, although as of the year 2000 it isn't statutorily recognized in Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah.

Now, if you want to make some moonshine, that's another story altogether.

What Should I Do First?

The first step is finding a place to purchase the equipment and supplies you'll need. Although many shops and department stores can provide you with individual components, it's best to establish a relationship with a single business that can supply everything you need. Make sure the business you choose can provide not only the basic hardware, but also the various hops, malts, yeasts, adjuncts, herbs, publications, and odd bits of stuff you'll need to homebrew successfully. Finding a good supply house is a simple process if you live in a large city -- there should be several homebrewing stores in the Yellow Pages under "Homebrewing." If you live in a more rural locale, you may have to acquire your supplies through mail-order. The Internet is a great place to look; you'll find supply businesses all over the world there.

What Will I Need?

You can outfit yourself as a homebrewer for an obscenely small amount of money -- although, as with any hobby, how much you spend is up to you. Unless you already know a bit about homebrewing, your first purchase should be a handbook or manual covering the basics. One standby is Charlie Papazian's Homebrewer's Companion. Another useful reference is Papazian's New Complete Joy of Homebrewing; yet another is Zymurgy magazine ("zymurgy" is the scientific term for brewing). Start studying right away!

Here's the equipment and supplies you'll need:

Bleach -- Used for sanitizing your equipment and bottles. Plain bleach is best.

Brewpot -- A large pot that can hold a least six quarts of liquid. Stainless steel is recommended. This pot shouldn't be used for anything else.

Blow-off tube -- A flexible food-grade plastic hose about 1.5 inches thick and at least 4 ft long that fits snugly in the top of the fermenter; the seal must be airtight. This tube will be used to carry off the "blow-off" or "blow-by," the yeasty foam that flows out of the top of the fermenter during the early stages of fermentation.

Bottles -- Any good-quality, glass beer or soda bottles will do; however, don't use the cheap kind with twist-off tops. These bottles are difficult to cap, and they break easily. You'll need at least two cases of bottles for every batch of beer, possibly more.

Bottle filler -- A plastic tube that fits onto the end of your siphon hose. One end has a pressure closure that makes filling your bottles a breeze.

Bottle capper -- One of several types of devices that can fasten bottle caps to your beer bottles.

Bottle caps -- Unused bottle caps to cap your filled bottles with. Often you can get surplus caps very cheaply, as long as you don't mind using ones that have "grapefruit soda" or something similar printed on the top.

Fermentation lock assembly -- a gizmo consisting of a special lid and mini-airlock that releases CO2 but doesn't let air into your fermenter. This device keeps wild fungi and yeast from contaminating your beer.

Fermenter -- This usually takes the form of a five-gallon glass carboy (like the bottles you see on a water cooler). You can use a five-gallon plastic bucket with a tight lid, but plastic can be hard to sanitize properly. Some brewers use separate containers for fermenting and bottling; this is up to you.

Funnel -- A food-grade plastic funnel used for transferring your beer from brewpot to fermenter.

Long-handled spoon -- For stirring the beer mixture, or "wort" (pronounced "wert"), while it's boiling.

Racking cane -- A cane-shape length of rigid plastic tubing about 2 ft long, used in the process of "racking" or siphoning your beer from one container to another.

Siphon hose -- a flexible, food-grade plastic hose about three-quarters of an inch thick and at least 5 feet long. This is used to siphon your beer into bottles or other containers as necessary.

And, more importantly, the makings:

Beer Yeast (also called ale yeast) -- Tiny fungi that have the magical ability to convert sugars into alcohol and CO2. Comes dehydrated in handy-sized packs.

Corn sugar -- Sugar is added to the wort to provide something for the yeast to convert to alcohol.

Hops -- A cone-shaped herb often added to malt to introduce bitterness. Without hops, most beers would be unbearably sweet. Often found in concentrated pellet form.

Malt -- The basis of all beers. Malt is made from grain that has been allowed to germinate and then has been roasted to one degree or another; the darker it is, the longer it was roasted and the stronger the flavor. You can buy malt either in grain or extract form (either liquid or powder). It's best to start out using pre-hopped liquid extract; you'll need one large can for your first batch.

Water -- The cheapest ingredient of all. Tap water works fine.

None of this stuff is incredibly expensive; altogether, it should cost less than $150, perhaps less than $100 if you catch a special at the supply store. Usually you can buy all the hardware, as well as your first can of hopped malt, in a kit. Once you've mastered kit beer, you can move on to the more difficult stuff like full-grain malts.

So How Do I Brew My First Batch?

Sanitize your equipment first. Bottles can be left in a bathtub filled with bleach solution to soak overnight; once they've done so, remove them from the solution, empty them, and cover the tops with aluminum foil until you plan to use them.

Next, prepare your wort. Bring 1-1.5 gallons of water to boil in your brewpot, then add the malt extract and four pounds of sugar. Allow the wort to boil for at least an hour, so that the chemicals in the malt and hops can react properly with one another. Stir the wort regularly and, during the last 10 minutes of the boil, add 1-1.5 ounces of hops pellets for aroma.

While the wort is boiling, stir the yeast powder into a cup of warm tap water and cover it with a piece of foil. The yeast will immediately begin to propagate. Then place your fermenter on a counter, table, or floor and fill it about half full of water. When the wort is boiled to your satisfaction, put the funnel in the top of the fermenter and carefully pour in the wort. If necessary, fill the fermenter to within about 8 inches from the top with cold water.

Cap the fermenter and wait until the wort has cooled to just over room temperature, then open it and use the funnel to add the yeast solution. This is called "pitching" the yeast. (Don't pitch the yeast while the wort is too hot, or it'll die.) Stir the wort with your racking cane, then immediately attach the blow-off tube to the top of the fermenter and place the fermenter in a cool, dark place (a closet works great). You should fill a pot or large bowl with water, and place the free end of the blow-off tube below the surface of the water. Once fermenting begins, which should be within 24 hours, the yeast will begin to reproduce so exuberantly that a yeasty foam called "blow-off" will flow out of the fermenter, down the tube, and into the water container. This is normal, so don't worry.

After fermentation slows a bit, remove the tube, add the fermentation lock assembly, and let the mixture sit in the dark for 6-14 days. When it stops bubbling, it's ready to bottle.

How Do I Bottle My First Batch?

Have these items sanitized and waiting: racking cane, siphon hose, bottle filler, bottle capper, bottle caps, and bottles. Then boil three cups of water in a saucepan, and add one cup of corn sugar. Why? Because the yeast in the wort is now dormant, and you need to reactivate it so it can make more CO2. In a closed bottle, the CO2 will remain in solution and, voila! your beer will be naturally carbonated. This is called bottle conditioning.

Place the fermenter on a cabinet or table, and prepare a bottling spot, complete with towels or newspapers to catch spills, on the floor nearby. Once the sugar has melted completely, remove the fermentation lock assembly from the fermenter and use the funnel to pour the sugar solution into the wort. Mix it with your racking cane. Then rinse off the cane and attach it to one end of the siphoning hose; the bottle filler should be on the other end. Remove the fermentation lock from the lid, insert the cane into the hole the fermentation lock has just vacated, and attach the whole assembly to the top of the fermenter. Slide the cane down until it's within two inches of the base of the fermenter.

The fermentation lid will have a stem into which you can blow to increase the air pressure inside the fermenter. Gravity should take care of the rest. Get a bottle, remove the lid, and rinse it out. Then kneel, place the bottle on the floor, and insert the bottle filler. This device will be long enough to reach to the base of the bottle; press down, and the beer should start to flow. When the bottle is filled to within one inch of the top, release the pressure, cutting off the flow of beer. Then cap the bottle, put it aside, and then proceed to fill your bottles until the wort level is within 3-4 inches of the bottom of the fermenter. Your five gallons of wort should make 48-60 bottles of beer. You'll want to avoid the dregs, which are thick with yeast and, though palatable, can cause digestive problems. Toss the dregs and clean up after yourself. Then put the beer away in a dark place for at least a week so that it can age and carbonate properly. When it's ready, pop it in the fridge for an hour before enjoying it.

You'll notice that your beer will appear cloudy at first, due to the presence of hops, yeast, and a few other minor impurities, but in nearly all cases these particles will settle out of the beer after a few days. As long as you use a glass and are careful when you pour, your beer should retain its clarity. If it doesn't, no matter: the haze won't affect the taste.

What Next?

Once you're done with your first batch, you can start another. The ingredients should cost less than $20, which is way cheap for two cases of good beer. You've got a lot to learn -- there's a whole universe of brewing out there, and kit beers, while a good starting point, merely scratch the surface. So grab a homebrew, and get to it!

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