Created | Updated Feb 25, 2010
Homebrewing carries with it an image of middle-aged men in baggy jumpers and broken spectacles, hiding in their garden sheds, searching for that elusive drinkable beer, like alchemists looking for gold, but merely producing an undrinkable flat brown liquid.
The truth is slightly different.
Homebrewing has gained in popularity1 since the late 1970s and early 1980s as a reaction to the few major breweries which produced only streamlined beers for the mass market. Since then, micro-brewers (small breweries which typically make a regional beer) and brewpubs (pubs which brew their own beer sold only in the pub) have had their small market share, as has homebrewing.
A few companies and micro-brewers, many of which had been in the homebrew brigade themselves, filled a gap in a niche market and are producing brewing kits that are foolproof. It is now possible to go into a shop on any high street and buy a brewing kit. Often the instructions on these are straightforward and the results taste pretty damn good, too. Buy the equipment, sterilise it, open the can, add some boiling water, stir, add some cold water, add the yeast sachet, leave for a while, drink.
With a little time, patience and care, anyone can do it.
Ways to Brew
There are several different ways to brew for your own consumption. The first thing that you have to do however is to decide what you want to brew. It's possible to get kits for all ale types from mild to barley wine and for lager of all strengths. You can even get kits for cider and for some spirits. But for this entry we're looking at beer. One thing to remember though, as you start brewing, is that every single ingredient affects the taste. Each sort of malt, every type of hop and each style of yeast can change how the brew turns out.
The method you chose should depend on your skill and knowledge. There really is no point taking on a full mash brew if you have no idea what a mash is.
This is the easiest way of brewing beer. You can buy these in high street shops with the names of reputable breweries plastered on the front. They are designed to mimic the beers that you can buy in the pub and it's hard to mess them up. There are different types of kits available, just avoid the 'Bag on the Wall' types at all costs.
This is the second step along the road to becoming a garden shed alcoholic. Similar in a way to the kits, but instead of buying all the ingredients together with a recipe, you'll need to find a recipe, then buy the ingredients separately. The two methods don't sound too different, but the half mash does allow for a far greater scope of beer. The malt is still bought in a can, but the hops are bought separately along with the yeast. This allows the homebrewer with some degree of skill to tweak brews to their own tastes and particular needs.
This should only be attempted by those who really know what they're doing. With full mash brewing you start from scratch. You do everything, including extracting the malt from the grain. Good luck, you'll need it. You'll buy every ingredient in its raw form and you'll end up with a beer of your own design and manufacture. The satisfaction gained is immeasurable, but so's the failure.
Going to a Brewery
This is really only for those who can afford it, but a number of the micro-breweries in England will let you come in and use their equipment, for a price. (Okay, so strictly speaking this isn't homebrew.) Most of them will even work with you through the brew, helping, encouraging and suggesting. Breweries are also a good place to go for advice about your homebrew, but they do tend to look down on the pure kit brewer.
The equipment you are likely to use differs on the level of brewing you decide upon. At the (very) low end all you need is a kettle and a measuring jug. At the high end, well, it gets expensive. All the equipment and advice that you could want for brewing at home can be gained from a homebrew shop or from one of various brewing websites. Here are some tips from some Researchers' own experiences.
One bucket - Sounds a bit dull, but you will need a five gallon bucket of food grade plastic, which will be useful for siphoning into and adding priming malt to. Try to get one from your favourite fast food take away, which has had lard or ketchup or whatever in it.
One five gallon brewbin - Inside the brewbin the fermentation will take place.
One long-handled spatula - You use this to stir the mixture.
Sterilising powder (or liquid) - This is really vital. If you do not sterilise everything properly you will end up with a nasty substance, but not beer.
A Syphoning kit which is basically a length of plastic tubing and a filter cap, which lets pressure out of the brewbin but won't allow anything in.
Optional thermostatically controlled heater
20 strong, glass, screw top 1 litre bottles - Regular beer bottles will do if you have a bottle capper. It is vital that only proper containers are used because of the high pressure that develops during second fermentation.
Homebrew Kit - This usually consists of 6.6 pounds (3kg) malt extract, hops, yeast and any other ingredients that go in the beer. If you're picking all the ingredients yourself, you won't need a homebrew kit and will have more control over your beer, but you will need:
Malt - Malt is mostly made of barley (seldom wheat). Green buds have sprouted from the barley and the seeds are then roasted. Hot water is sprayed over the toasted seeds, and the resultant liquid that trickles through takes maltose sugar with it. This process is called sparging. You can buy liquid malt in a can, though, which is especially handy until you are familiar with and have practised the art of brewing.
Hops - Hops add the bitterness to the beer. Different hops add different levels and different sorts of bitterness. Using more than one variety of hop allows an increased range of flavours in the final brew.
Yeast - Yeast is the all important ingredient. Don't settle for a cheap substitute, make sure you get a proper brewer's yeast, and an ale yeast rather than a lager yeast. These two varieties work in two completely different ways and produce two completely different drinks.
Sugar - Common household sugar is not necessarily suitable for homebrewing. Different types are available: there is invert sugar (the sugar naturally found in fruits); glucose (white or colourless powder which is an important energy source in living organisms); syrup (containing glucose, maltose and so on and is used extensively in the food industry as sweetener and thickener); and demerara sugar (unbleached, light or dark brown cane sugar). You could also use powdered malt extract that will produce a tasty beer. Try not to experiment too much in the beginning though; it is recommended that you cling slavishly to the recipe until you gain more experience. In most cases it is useful to dissolve and boil the sugar before use.
Water - Does that sound silly? Just think what the main ingredient is in most foods. Water plays a vital part in brewing beer. If you live in a chalky area, you'll end up with a beer that has a slight chalky taste to it. If you live in a soft water area, you'll get a beer that is slightly smoother. Brewers call water liquor.
Sterilise the brewbin and spatula thoroughly. If you don't take care to do this, you'll run the risk of getting a bacterial infection or - to speak plainly - you'll get 5 gallons of vinegar, which defeats the point of the exercise completely.
Rinse out the brewbin thoroughly. If you fail to do this, the yeast will be killed off and fermentation will not take place.
Boil one gallon of water (in batches if necessary) and pour it into the brewbin. It is also recommended you boil all the other ingredients, too.
Add one kilo of sugar (more if a stronger brew is required, but no more than two kilos, as too sweet a wort will also kill the yeast). Stir thoroughly until all the sugar is dissolved.
Add the contents of the tin of homebrew malt extract and stir again until all the malt has dissolved.
Rinse out the can with more boiling water, add this to the brewbin and stir again.
Take the brewbin to the area where you'd like fermentation to take place before adding more water, as it is easier to carry one gallon of liquid than five. This area must be at a temperature of roughly 68 - 72°F (20 - 22°C). If not, then a heater must be used.
Fill the brewbin to the five gallon mark with cold water and stir again thoroughly. It will now be possible to predict the strength of the beer; to do this, sterilise and rinse the hydrometer and drop it into the brewbin. Check the reading when it comes to rest. A reading of 1.050 will indicate a beer strength of five percent by volume; one of 1.060 a strength of six percent by volume.
Remove the hydrometer and add the contents of the yeast sachet. If you have boiled all the ingredients, wait for the concoction to cool down first.
Put a pipe in the top of the brewbin to drain off the outflow (mainly consisting of froth) into a bucket full of water. There will be quite a lot of outflow in the first few days; after it dies down, you can put the fermentation lock (the syphoning kit) in the top instead. During the fermentation process, make sure the brewbin is not firmly closed, since you would not want the pressure produced by escaping carbon dioxide to blow up your garden shed.
In the first days of fermentation, the beer-to-be should be stirred every now and then to ensure all the yeast deposits at the bottom are mixed back into the mixture, until the process slows down after a few days.
Leave it alone for two weeks. Do not disturb under any circumstances.
At the end of this waiting period (patience, patience) examine the brewbin to see if fermentation is complete. If no bubbles are rising to the top of the liquid (which can now be called beer!) then fermentation is complete. Optionally, the hydrometer could be used. A reading of 1.002 or below will indicate fermentation is complete. Full instructions for use will be enclosed with the box the hydrometer came in. If fermentation is not complete, leave for another few days and check again. When it is complete, the beer should be allowed to clear in a cool environment for a few days.
When the fermentation is complete it is ready for bottling.
Thoroughly sterilise the bottles and syphoning kit and rinse. Incidentally, this entry makes no apologies about the fact that it constantly goes on about sterilising; it is most important.
Put one teaspoon of sugar into each bottle. This will promote secondary fermentation, and give the beer a little sparkle and fizz. Alternatively, the sugar (or priming malt) could be added all at once before fermentation, this will make 3/4 cup sugar (or one and 1/4 malt extract) per 5 gallons. Carefully, making sure that the sediment at the bottom of the brewbin is not disturbed, syphon the beer into the bottles. Close tightly and shake to dissolve the sugar if added at this stage. Place the bottles in a dark, cool place for two weeks or longer, to settle, just for as long as you can feasibly keep your hands off it.
When the beer is bright and clear, it is ready for drinking. Consider, however, that some beers, such as stout or certain wheat beers, that will never get bright or clear. Just drink it anyway. Excitedly open the bottle and decant into a large jug or straight into your beer glass. The sediment2 that will have formed at the bottom of the bottle is a matter of taste; while some beer drinkers are take extra effort to drink it along with the beer, others are take care not to disturb the sediment.
Pour into a glass or mug and quietly get drunk, but don't forget to save some for your friends, too.
Now is the time to start all over again!
Sterilise thoroughly the brewbin and spatula....
Most helpful tips could be taken from the book The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian which is an excellent reference.