This guide tells you exactly how to make your first batch of brew with just a handful of special equipment and ingredients.

By Mandy Naglich
September 25, 2014
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Photo by Meredith

Making beer at home is easier than you think. It requires just a handful of affordable equipment and special ingredients and it's a great way to learn a new skill while impressing your friends!

Unlike cooking recipes which are expected to take a few hours at most, beer recipes have a timeline that is more like four weeks from beginning to end. While the wait may be long, it doesn't take very much work to brew your own beer from malt extract. You'll need a few special ingredients and pieces of equipment that can all be ordered online or provided by a local homebrew shop.

There are three major phases in the brewing process: wort making, fermentation, and packaging. Wort making is the step that requires the most work from the brewer, as you make a perfect solution for brewer's yeast to turn into tasty beer. During wort making fermentable sugars from malt are combined with the flavor and antioxidant properties of hops. The next step is fermentation, the time when special yeast bred to ferment wort converts sugar into carbon dioxide (CO2) and ethyl alcohol (ethanol) to make beer. While fermentation happens there is no action required by the brewer because yeast are doing all the work! The final step of brewing is packaging. In most cases homemade beer will go into bottles but it can also go into large bottles called growlers or kegs for serving on draft. A small amount of sugar is added to the beer before it goes into individual bottles. This sugar acts as food for the yeast in the beer which they turn into the CO2 we expect in beer! Yes, all those bubbles in your final brew are from a yeast snack.

What You'll Need: The Key Ingredients

Before beginning the brewing process, you must first understand the four key ingredients necessary to brew a batch of beer: water, fermentable sugar, hops, and yeast. Each ingredient is integral to the recipe and must be cooked in a certain way to yield a successful batch of brew. Understanding their basic qualities and how each ingredient is meant to react with the others is an important aspect of beer brewing.

Water: Water makes up 90 percent of the brew, so using tasty water makes a big difference. If the tap water at your house tastes good to you, then it is fine to use for beer brewing. If you don't like the way your tap water tastes, then you can use bottled or distilled water instead. If you use tap water, boil it first to evaporate the chlorine and other chemicals that may interfere with the brewing process. Let the water cool before using.

Fermented Sugar: Malted barley is the ingredient commonly used to fill the sugar quota in a home brew recipe. Some brewers will substitute a percentage of corn, rice, wheat, or other grains to add a lighter flavor to the beer. Beginning brewers should purchase a ready-to-use form of malted barley called malt syrup or malt extract, rather than attempting to malt the grain from scratch, as it is a very complex and touchy process. Using a malt extract will guarantee the fermented sugar is prepared in just the right manner and will act as it needs to throughout the beer brewing process.

Hops: Hops are cone-like flowers found on a hop vine. They lend the bitter flavor to beer that balances out sweetness. Hops also inhibit spoilage and help keep the "head" (the frothy top when a beer is poured) around longer.

Yeast: First things first: Do not use bread yeast for beer brewing! Beer yeast is cultivated especially for use in brewing. Beer brewing boils down to mixing a mash of malted grain (often barley) with hops and then fermenting it with lager or ale yeasts. There are two broad categories of beer yeast: ale and lager.

The yeast you choose helps determine the brew you end up with. Lagers are light, crisp and golden; ales, darker and more alcoholic.

Ale yeasts are top-fermenting, which means they tend to hang out at the top of the carboy while fermenting and rest at the bottom after the majority of fermenting has occurred. Ale yeasts will not actively ferment below 50 degrees F (20 degrees C). Lager yeasts are bottom-fermenters and are best used at a temperature ranging from 55 degrees F (25 degrees C) down to 32 degrees F (0 degrees C). As their names suggest, the type of yeast used plays an important part in influencing the type of beer that will be made. Do not rely on the yeast to define the beer, however, as all of the ingredients play a part in the taste and type of beer you will create.

Sanitized for Your Protection

Before you begin brewing, you'll need to clean and sanitize your equipment and work area to prevent spoilage and avoid foul tastes in the beer. The saddest situation for a beer brewer is to wait weeks for fermentation only to find the beer's spoiled.

For every step of the brewing process you'll need two types of cleaner: one to clean dirt and grime and one cleaner to sanitize surfaces. It is easy for beer to become infected by microbes in the air or left over in kitchen equipment. These microbes can make beer taste like vinegar or sour butter so it's important everything is very clean to avoid those nasty flavors.

Brewing Wort

Ingredients

Equipment

  • Kettle (at least 4 gallons, but the bigger the better)

  • Long Metal Spoon

For this very simple ale recipe the basic ingredients are available from any homebrew supplier. Read about the hop pellet profiles to pick one that has flavor notes that are appealing to you. Your kettle can be a large stock pot or a specialty kettle ordered from a homebrew supplier.

Fermentation

Ingredients

Equipment

Any 5 gallon vessel with a lid can be a fermenter, but it is important there is a way for CO2 to escape without letting air (containing harmful microbes) into the beer. Most fermenters will use an airlock for this. Some fermenters have the airlock included while others require it to be purchased separately, be sure to read product details.

Baker's yeast will not work to ferment beer. You can find dry brewer's yeast online for less than $5 a pack. An American ale yeast is a good starter yeast because it has a clean flavor and can withstand higher temperatures so the beer doesn't need to be in a cooled fermentation chamber.

Packaging

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces granulated sugar

  • 1 cup water

Equipment

The specialty equipment for this stage is a bottling bucket and beverage line or a siphon and racking cane. If you can find a bottling bucket with a spout it will make the bottling process much easier. If not the classic racking cane and siphon are available at all homebrew shops both in person and online.

Swing top bottles don't require the purchase of a bottle capper or separate bottle caps. They are good for beginners before deciding to make an investment in homebrewing as a hobby. The bottles must be brown to protect the beer from light. When light interacts with some compounds in beer it can create an undesirable skunky flavor.

The Brewing Process

Follow the steps below, split into the three major stages of brewing, to make your first beer.

Brewing Wort

  • Clean your kettle and large spoon very well with an unscented cleaner. Be sure to rinse well.

  • Bring 2 gallons of water to a boil.

  • Stir in malt extract adding a little at a time to make sure the syrup does not stick to the bottoms or sides of the kettle. If this happens the syrup can scorch causing burnt and even metallic flavors in the final beer.

  • Once all the syrup is stirred in, bring the water back to a boil and add ½ ounce of hops. Boil for 55 minutes. Adding the hops will cause the mixture to foam, be prepared to turn down the heat and stir with the metal spoon to avoid boil over.

  • After 55 minutes add the remaining 1 ½ ounces of hops and boil for 5 minutes. Again, watch for foaming after adding hops.

  • Fill the sink or another container large enough to hold the kettle with water and ice for an ice bath.

  • When the wort is finished boiling take the kettle off the stove and put it into your ice bath.

  • While wort cools in the ice bath, prepare for fermentation.

Fermentation

  • Sanitize your clean fermentation vessel, funnel, and airlock (if they were not already clean, both clean and sanitize it) ensuring every surface that wort will touch has been sanitized.

  • Pour the contents of the yeast pack into about 1 cup room temperature water. (If using liquid yeast, read package instructions)

  • Pour 3 gallons of cool water into the fermenter.

  • Use the funnel to pour the cooled wort into the fermenter. Shake the fermenter or use a well sanitized spoon to stir the cool water and cool wort together, this will also help aerate the wort which helps the yeast ferment.

  • "Pitch" the yeast by sprinkling it over the surface of the wort.

  • Place the lid on the fermenter. Fill the airlock with a sanitizer and water solution and place it in the hole or bung depending on your fermenter. Store your fermenter somewhere dark, and about 65-70°F.

  • After a few hours you will notice bubbling in the airlock. This bubbling will continue for five days to one week and then will calm down. Wait another week after bubbling subsides to package the beer.

Packaging (about 14 days after fermentation began)

  • Sanitize the bottles by soaking them in the sanitizing solution (make sure to hold them under the solution so the water gets inside of the bottles) for 1 hour. Also sanitize your bottling bucket, and a siphon and racking cane if your bottling bucket and fermenter don't have spouts.

  • Boil one cup of water in a small saucepan. Add sugar and continue to boil for 5 minutes. Pour mixture into the bottling bucket. It is important that you measure your sugar exactly. Too much sugar in this phase could result in too much CO2 in the bottle which can cause bottles to explode.

  • Place the fermenter full of beer on the kitchen counter and the bottling bucket on the ground below it.

  • If your fermenter and bottling bucket have spouts:

    • Make sure the spout on both buckets is sanitized. You can use a paper towel dipped in sanitizer or a spray bottle with a sanitizer solution.

    • Attach sanitized tubing to the spout on the fermenter and run the wort into the bottling bucket. The beer and the sugar solution will combine at this stage.

    • Detach the tubing and sanitize it again. Attach the tube to the bottling bucket.

    • Place the bottling bucket on the counter and the other end of the tube into a sanitized bottle. Run the beer out of the spout into the bottle to fill it to ¾ from the top. Swing the top closed and make sure it is sealed securely.

    • Repeat on remaining bottles until there is no beer left.

  • If your fermenter and bottling bucket do not have spouts:

    • Attach the racking cane to the siphon. Prepare the siphon by filling it with tap water. Pinch both ends of the siphon to prevent the water from running out. Place one end of the racking cane and siphon into a sanitizer solution and one end into an empty jar. When the solution has run into the siphon and expelled all of the water into the jar, pinch both ends and let the sanitizer sit in the siphon for 5 minutes to re-sanitize the siphon. (Resist the temptation to blow into the siphon with your mouth to encourage the flow.)

    • Place one end of the sanitized siphon into the fermenter and the other end into the jar; once the beer has begun flowing through the siphon, transfer the end of the siphon to the bottling bucket. Monitor the speed that the beer transfers into the bottling bucket by pinching and releasing the siphon with your fingers (or use a specialty clamp). The beer should not splash into the bucket; it should gently rush into it.

    • Place the bottling bucket on the counter, attach the siphon and run the other end of the siphon into a bottle. Fill each bottle with beer to 3/4 inch from the top of the bottle. Swing the top closed and make sure it is sealed securely.

    • Repeat on remaining bottles until there is no beer left.

  • Allow beer to referment in the bottle in a cool place like a closet for 14 days.

Drinking! (about 14 days after packaging)

Chill all bottles in the refrigerator and enjoy! Because the swing top bottles can allow in a little oxygen it is best to drink the beer within a month.

Raise a toast to yourself and impressing your friends! Ready to try it? Try these recipes: