A Beginner’s Guide to Brewing Beer

I think we’ve all had that experience. Our friend brings over their latest homebrew. You pop the cap and take that first, skeptical sip. You’ve seen this friend lick the chicken marinade off their fingers at a barbeque. Brewing beer is hard. How could they have mastered the ancient art that still drives monks to cloister in their backyard with a propane burner and a five gallon bucket from Home Depot. But then you taste it. And you like it. And you want another. But they only brought six beers for seven people so odds are this is probably all you are getting for a while. 

Besides, brewing beer is expensive.

“My entire grain bill and yeast was less than thirty bucks for five gallons of beer,” they say. A follow up reveals that that amounts to 48 bottles of beer or 8 six packs. While you look around at the singular sixer that you managed the miracle of splitting seven ways someone else asks how much work it was. You are all assured it was simple to do. And you believe it because chicken fingers here is usually the type to hold the flashlight over turning the wrench. 

They describe the process of boiling malt like oatmeal, straining out the ‘mash’. Boiling warts and adding those hops you keep hearing about on all the commercials. At some point during this impromptu tutorial someone asks the question:

“When do you add the alcohol?” 

This novice brewer lets out a hearty chortle dripping with self-enlightened smugness. “You don’t add alcohol,” he says. “The yeast make the alcohol.”

And so the seed has been planted. You, dear reader, are wondering how to get started on this new adventure.

How do we get started?

If at all possible, find a friend that makes good beer and help them next time they brew. Bring something to barbeque and a case of beer. Help and learn. You’ll learn a lot about the hobby that will help you understand the process, the equipment, and your own level of passion. 

If none of your friends brew, but you are the sociable type, search for a brewing club in your area. You can make friends, and sometimes these clubs will host ‘how-to’ sessions. These clubs are fantastic as a resource for understanding what has gone wrong in a beer. Internet forums are great for getting first round triage advice, but there is nothing like someone who will sip your beer after you say “Taste this and tell me why it’s awful.” 

Now that we’ve ignored that advice let’s jump in. I’m going to write this in three parts:

  1. A Breadth-First Search of Brewing
  2. A Practical Guide to Buying Beer Brewing Equipment
  3. A Deeper Dive into Brewing Your First Beer (Coming Soon)

A Breadth-First Search of Brewing 

At its core the process for brewing beer is to first get some sugar from barley malt, get some water, get some hops, and get some yeast. If you buy your sugar already extracted from the barley, you’ll need some water. If you buy the malt and want to get the sugar out yourself you’ll need more water. A lot more water. Also heat. You’ll want to add heat to that to get it boiling. It’s probably going to bubble and overflow your pot. You’ll want to put the hops in a sack then toss it in the boil at some time. You’ll want to cool all this super fast so that there is minimal time at an unsafe temp to become contaminated. You’ll transfer it into a carboy or brewing bucket then pitch your yeast. Finally, you’ll let it sit for the prerequisite time. Mix a bit more bottling sugar. Bottle it. Let it prime and condition, which is a fancy way of saying carbonate via the last gasp of the yeast. Some of those bottles aren’t going to make it. They’ll paint your garage wall with what smells a lot like your carpet from college. You’ll want to chill the bottles that hang on. You’ll want to drink it.

A little bit slower now

No matter how we brew, the first question we have to ask is “where will our sugar come from?” The easier solutions are to use liquid malt extract or dry malt extract. The third option is called “all grain brewing.” If you are buying liquid or dry malt extract that means that someone else started with an all grain grain bill, performed the mashing process to render the malty sugar water known as wort. For liquid malt extract they’ve reduced the concoction to about 20% of its original water content. Dry malt extract (DME) is further reduced until it takes on a powdery consistency a bit similar to brown sugar. A word of warning, if you get DME wet or leave it exposed to the air it will harden just like brown sugar. If you sprinkle DME over steel cut oats you will likely question your life’s choices. 

He did the mash

So what is happening in the mash? There are many great references that go into detail on this. I like to recommend “The Brewmaster’s Bible” as it was the first book I read on the subject, and I have turned out fine. In broad strokes there are large complex starches in malted barley. Heating them to target temperature activates enzymes that begin to break down the complex starches into fermentable sugar that yields alcohol, unfermentable sugar that yields sweetness and color, and proteins. These enzyme processes also make all of these materials soluble, meaning they will dissolve into the water. Once we are satisfied that this enzymatic activity is complete we add hot water to stop the enzymatic activity and to rinse the newly formed solubles out of the grain. This process is called lautering. We triumphantly separate the grain from the malt sugary water called wort. If we’re in the LME or DME business we would reduce it to the desired consistency to package for wholesalers. If we’re in the beer making business we proceed to the wort boil.

Almost there

We now boil the wort to sanitize it. We want to kill any wild yeast as well as any harmful bacteria that may be culturing within. This is also when we will add hops. Hops play a few roles in the beer making process. They have a preservative quality to help the beer keep. Hops also add bitterness, aroma, and flavor to a beer. In some styles of beer such as the pale ales the hops will be the most prominent notes in the beer. In others styles like pilsner the hops are noticeable, but they don’t mask the malty sweetness of the grain. The aroma and flavor compounds tend to break down under heat. This leads us to add some hops earlier in the wort boil for the purpose of contributing bitterness then adding more hops towards the end of the boil to preserve the aroma and flavor that we desire in our final beer. 

Now that the wort boil is over our goal is to get the wort down to yeast pitching temperature, transfer it to a carboy or brewing bucket, then let it sit until the yeast have done their work. The process of chilling the wort has a handy set of tools known as wort chillers. I suggest you buy one. I managed to skimp on other tools early in my brewing days, but the process of getting my wort chilled quickly was a nightmare that I dreaded every time I brewed. My technique at one point was to fill my bathtub with an ice bath then duck waddle my eight gallon gumbo pot filled with five gallons of nearly boiling sugar lava to the bathtub. I would carefully, burning my forearms minimally, lower the kettle into the ice bath. Inevitably the water would be too shallow to cool the sides properly or so deep that the kettle wanted to pitch to the side threatening to spill the precious wort into the icy waters below. I’d stand in the ice bath, pants rolled up for high water, and swirl the wort until I lost feelings in my feet. At that point I’d hop out for a brief respite hoping that no floating airborne particle in my pristine bathroom was tarnishing my proto-beer at that very moment. I would then repeat this until I reached the desired temperature.

Buy a wort chiller. 

The Long Wait

Before we transfer the wort we want to get a gravity reading. This is the original gravity reading as this wort was just created. This is effectively a measure of the proportion of sugar in the water. More on this later. We can now transfer the wort into our fermenting vessel of choice, pitch our yeast, move it to a cool dark place, and wait. You’ll top the system with an air exchange. The fermentation will release beery smelling CO2. If you don’t allow this to escape the top will eventually explode in spectacular fashion covering anything nearby with something that again smells very similar to the stiff carpets of your youth. Within a day or two you should expect vigorous bubbling. Allow the beer to continue to ferment as recommended by the recipe. You’ll notice a layer of sediment composed of proteins and dead yeast settling to the bottom of your vessel if it is transparent. This is called trub, and it is a sign of healthy fermentation. When sufficient time has passed we will measure gravity again. If the gravity is still too high compared to the recipe, allow it another day or so then measure again. If the fermentation stalls before you reach your target final gravity that is okay. You will drink this beer. It will taste just fine. Then somewhere down the road we can try again. The difference between the original gravity and final gravity gives the change in density. From this we can understand how much sugar was converted to alcohol, and therefore, the alcohol by volume measure.

You’ll want to bottle your beer. I hate bottling, and don’t have much good to say on the subject. To bottle you’ll want a bottling bucket with a bottling attachment. You’ll add priming sugar to the fermented wort, now called liquor. The purpose of the priming sugar is that it allows the remaining yeast to ferment a bit more, thereby carbonating your beer. It won’t change your flavor profile, and the bit of trub left by the yeast won’t be too noticeable drinking from the bottle or a glass. There are tools that will allow a single person to fill bottles. You’ll want two people to operate them. You’ll now want to wait a few weeks for the yeast to do their work. A few of these little pressure bombs is going to blow. Put your bottles in the fridge for a couple days. As soon as you’re committed to the hobby I recommend you start kegging. 

When you get to this stage the best thing to do is to pour a bottle into a glass. Admire the color, the head, the aroma. Finally, enjoy the taste of your hard work. 

A Few Good Reads

How to Brew (Affiliate Link) This is a fantastic book that deep dives into everything you need to know to make great beer. If you are buying one book to read on brewing I suggest buying this one.

The Brewmaster’s Bible (Affiliate Link) I like The Brewmaster’s Bible as it gives a well written description of brewing processes, styles of beer, and several recipe. examples as well. It holds a special place in my heart, as this was the first book on brewing I ever read.

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