Hey new brewers. I assume you are here because you are either considering homebrewing as a hobby or because you have just started. With all of the effort I have put into this site, I realized that I have left out some of the stuff that new brewers will encounter. With interest in homebrewing at an all-time high and with new brewers coming into the hobby at a quick pace, I thought I needed to put a "starting point" together for people who are just getting started or are considering homebrewing. I also suggest going to my General Brewing Information page as it will also cover some basic information for making better beer. For this section, I assume that the new brewer is going to get their feet wet with extract brewing. If you're going directly into all-grain brewing, there still may be some good information on this page as well as the All-Grain Brewing page.
If you already have all of your equipment, skip this part. If you're considering homebrewing and you do not have any equipment yet, read on. Homebrewing equipment can be picked up online, at a local homebrewing supplier (LHBS), on eBay and even from other local brewers who have entirely too much equipment or have decided to give up homebrewing. If you go to any online supplier, you will probably see basic, intermediate and advanced equipment kits. If you're not sure that you're going to like brewing, get the basic kit. If you have already watched another local brewer make beer and you're sure you will enjoy it, you can go with intermediate or advanced. At the very least, you will need a 6½ gallon plastic bucket that has a tight-fitting lid that can accept an airlock. This means that the lid has a whole drilled into it and either has a rubber grommet or will accept a #2 stopper and an airlock. Your kit will also come with an airlock which will keep contaminants out of your fermenting beer. You will typically get a bottling bucket, a bottle capper, a racking cane and tubing which allow the beer to be transferred from one container to another and a hydrometer which allows you to measure the amount of alcohol in your beer. Various kits from various suppliers come with various equipment but even the most basic of kits will allow you to make great beer. Some kits will come with chillers, secondary fermentation vessels, funnels, flasks and other goodies. Get the one that best fits your needs. Eventually, you'll get more equipment (we all do!) but a lot of the stuff that comes with your original kit will remain useful to you... I still have my original hydrometer that I got with my first (basic) equipment kit in 1999.
To start with, I suggest getting a recipe kit that sounds good to you. Many online and local suppliers have tested and trusted recipes in almost every style. These recipes will give you the best chance to see how beer is properly made without worrying about recipe formulation. Eventually, all brewers begin to put their own recipes together and it can be very rewarding. But when you are a new brewer, you have other priorities and worries and it's my opinion that it's best to leave the recipe formulation to someone else at first. Most of these recipes use liquid malt extract (LME) or dried malt extract (DME), specialty grains like Crystal 60°L, chocolate or Special B, hop pellets which can come in many varieties and either liquid or dry yeast. Typically, new brewers make ales as opposed to lagers. Ales are easier and more forgiving than lagers and will require less equipment and effort, generally. If you decide to select a kit, I suggest looking for one that is made with fresh ingredients. Some places will box up their kits and put them on a shelf and you have no idea how long its been sitting there. Many places use bulk malt extract that has very quick turnover so it is fresh when it gets to you. Fresh extract, grains, hops and yeast will make the best beer. The hops should be vibrant and green, not yellow or brown. Liquid yeasts have dates on them so you can use it before it starts to age. Dry yeast stores better and can be used months after its been purchased, as long as it is stored properly.
There are a lot of cleanser and sanitizers on the market for use in commercial and home breweries. The truth here is that your fermenting beer is THE place in your house that bacteria would love to hang out. When you take your ingredients (extract, water, hops) and boil everything together, you get a very sweet liquid called wort. This is basically unfermented beer and there is a lot of sugar in it. When everything goes properly, your yeast (which is a fungus) metabolize the fermentable sugars in the wort and produce alcohol and Co2. When this happens, your beer will have your standard beery flavor and it will also have some amount of flavor that has come directly from the yeast. Different strains of yeast will produce different flavors in beer and some are very neutral while others are more assertive. But when things go wrong, something other than your yeast will metabolize the sugars in the wort and make something very sour, vinegary, astringent or worse. This other thing is usually some sort of airborn bacteria that exists everywhere in your house including your body. Because of all of this, cleaning and properly sanitizing your equipment is very important. Before your ingredients are boiled, it's less of a problem because if bacteria somehow got into your extract, the boil would sanitize the wort. But once the wort has been cooled and it is time to pitch the yeast, the wort is vulnerable. My choice for a brewery cleanser is LD Carlson Easy Clean, but there are many, many cleanser out there including products like Oxiclean which many people already have in their house. For sanitizing, I use Starsan by 5-Star. There is also Iodophor which is an iodine-based surface sanitizer. It works well, but it can stain plastics (including buckets, tubing, etc.) and possibly your countertops and cloths, so be warned. Some people use bleach with good results, but using a product intended for the brewing industry is probably better. Once you have confidence in a product, you will probably use it exclusively.
For new brewers who are going to be brewing with extracts, the rule has always been that if your water is good enough to drink, you should be able to make extract beer with it. I will just add that water that has a high chlorine content, may not be suitable for lighter beers and if your water is just plain funky, use bottled water if possible. If you do have a high chlorine content, tap some water into a clean bucket or some pots that you have available. Leave them out overnight for the chlorine to escape. When brewing all-grain, the chemical makeup of the water will have an impact on the mashing of the grains and then brewers will begin to get into water chemistry. But when using extracts, the mash has already taken place (at the extract manufacturing facility) and the compounds in the water are less of a concern.
Quick Tips before you brew
¤ Allow enough time to brew and don't rush. Enjoy the process and take notes if possible.
¤ Follow the directions on the kit you have. Most suppliers include step-by-step instructions with their kits.
¤ For best results, use the largest pot you have available. Some brewers will suggest using a 3-gallon pot where the water, extract and hops are boiled and then "topping up" with sterile water to acheive the 5-gallons necessary. This can carmelize the extract and lead to off-flavors while also lowering the effectiveness of hops in the boil leading to an unbalanced beer or lower hop profile. If possible, try to boil the entire volume of the batch... this would ordinarily require at least a 7 to 7½ gallon brewpot.
¤ Have all of your equipment handy in your brewing area and make sure that the area is clean. If you're brewing in your kitchen, make sure that tables, counters and other areas have been wiped down. There shouldn't be any food in the brewing area as it can cause contamination.
¤ Read through the instructions prior to brewing so you are familiar with the process.
Brewing the beer
Let's run through a mock batch. Let's assume you're making an amber ale with dried malt extract (DME), some Crystal malt and some Biscuit malt (yes, I'm making this up). Let's assume that the kit also came with 3 ounces of hop pellets and let's just assume that they're all Cascade (a variety of hop that is popular with American brewpubs. The hops give a fresh, citrusy taste to beer.) and let's also say that our yeast is a dry packet of US-05 which is an ale yeast with a neutral yeast profile. It doesn't contribute an overly assertive flavor to the beer. The first step is to get about a gallon of the water we plan to use, pour that into our brewpot and turn on the heat. Most kits that use specialty grains will also come with something called a muslin bag. This looks like cheescloth and is usually long, white and thin... like a sock. Brewers can also buy grain bags which can be thrown into the brewpot and some resourceful brewers have even used a length of pantyhose. These grains should already be crushed but if they're not, you can place them in a Ziploc bag and roll over the grains with a wine bottle or other heavy object to lightly crush them and open them up. Place the grains into a bag (muslin, grain bag, pantyhose) and place it into the water in the brewpot. You will want to use a thermometer here and turn off the heat when the water temp reaches approximately 150°. Also, I have read in a few places that it's beneficial to take some small amount of liquid or dried extract and add it to the brewpot as the water is heating to 150°. Something about properly adjusting the pH of the wort... take it for what it's worth. Once the brewpot reaches 150°, turn off the heat and cover the brewpot. Let the grains sit for 30 minutes. Then take out the bag of grains (yes, it can be heavy) and hold it over the brewpot to allow it to drip. Don't squeeze it... that can release tannins into the wort which could add an astringent flavor to your finished beer. At this point, those grains (Crystal and Biscuit) have done their job and can be tossed out. For the record, the Crystal malt will lend a sweet, carmelly flavor to the beer and it will also lend an amber color. This grain is barley that has been roasted until it's a medium-amber color. The Crystal will also lend some head stability and some residual sweetness to the beer. The Biscuit is also barley that will impart a bready, crackery flavor to the beer. It's usually used in small quantities of maybe 4 or 8 ounces in 5 gallons. At this point, more water should be added to the brewpot... up to about 5½ or 6 gallons and the heat should be turned up. As the water approaches boiling, get your extract ready. Since our kits came with dried malt extract (which resembles a yellow powder, but can also come in "medium" or "dark"), we will normally have bags that have to be cut open and poured into the brewpot. This can be messy and some of the DME can stick to the bag when the steam from the brewpot comes in contact with the bag. Do your best to get all of the DME into the brewpot. This should be done before the water is at a full boil. But once the extract is added, the wort is capable of boiling over because of the sugar content. Keep your eyes on the brewpot at all times once the extract has been added! If your kit happens to come with liquid extract, it may come in a small bucket, a plastic milk-jug-like container, a can, a pouch and just about any other container. It's best to heat the container a little to thin out the extract a little. You can heat some water in a pot on the stove or just run very warm water in the sink and place the container in there. Then use a spatula to get all of the extract out.
This is probably a good time to think ahead about what may happen at the end of the boil. When your wort is done boiling, we will want to get it to about 70° as quickly as we can. If you are boiling the full volume of wort (around 6 gallons), we will want to get that amount of wort cool quickly. If you're only boiling 3 gallons or so, you will want to add more water once the boil is done. Some brewers (and some television shows) have suggested that you can add ice to your primary fermenter to begin the cool down process. This can be done, but be aware that bacteria is not necessarily sterile or bacteria-free. I did use ice a few times as an extract brewer and it was fine. The other option is to boil some water to get it sterile and then allow it to cool. This will take some time so best to do it ahead of time. When the water is cooling in the pot you boiled it in, place the lid on it and even put it on some ice (in a bucket, sink, etc.) to get it cool. All of this is an effort to get the wort cool enough to add our yeast... which would die if it was added to wort that is too warm. But we want the wort to cool as quickly as possible so other contaminants don't colonize the wort and turn it into 5 gallons of vinegar. If you have a wort chiller (immersion chiller, counterflow, plate chiller, etc.) just use that to get your wort cool.
Once the water begins to boil, keep an eye on the brewpot. Boilovers are messy to clean up. At this point, we will probably have our first hop addition which is usually called a "bittering addition". Let's say it's an ounce of Cascade hops at 6% alpha acid. The percentage tells us how "bitter" the hops are and how they will work in our beer. Hops at 4% would make a mildly bitter beer while hops at 14% added at the beginning of the boil would make a very bitter beer. Now the boil needs to go for an hour and there may be hop additions (according to our make-believe Amber Ale recipe) when there is 15 minutes left and then again with 5 minutes left or even when we turn off the heat. Hops added between 30 minutes and 10 minutes left are usually called "flavor additions" and anything after 10 minutes is usually referred to as an "aroma addition". While the wort is boiling, you can clean and sanitize your primary fermenter, your racking cane and tubing, airlocks, etc. When the 60 minutes is over, turn off the heat and put the lid on the brewpot. At this point, the wort has to be cooled and it's best to get it to a temp that is close to the temp we want to ferment our beer at. For an ale, 62° to maybe 70° is normal. Some kits will come with an "immersion chiller" which connects to a sink or outdoor spigot and has cold water run through it while the chiller sits in the wort. This is basically a heat exchanger. If you do not have a chiller, placing the brewpot into the sink with ice and water will work fine. Do your best not to get anything else near the brewpot as bacteria would love to take over your wort, especially as the temp drops from boiling down to 70°.
We're getting close to the end of the process and we will need our primary fermenter, the airlock, the lid and probably the racking cane and tubing (or Autosiphon) to be clean and sanitary. This may also be the time to get our dry yeast ready. Some brewers will simply open the packet of yeast and sprinkle it over the yeast in the fermenter. Others like to "rehydrate" the yeast in sterile water or room temperature wort. This allows the yeast to wake up & begin fermenting your beer quicker. I don't use a lot of dry yeast and I have used the yeast straight from the pack and have rehydrated it and can't really tell a difference. If you want to rehydrate it, get some wort or sterile water that is about 70-80° and pour the contents of the dry yeast pack into the water and let it sit, covered with a paper towel. After 10 minutes, stir it with a sanitized spoon and leave it covered until you need it. If you're using a Wyeast pack, it should be fully expanded which means that the inner pouch would have to be smacked days earlier. I do not recommend using a White Labs yeast directly from the vial unless it's ultra-fresh. I love White Labs yeast, but the packaging does not tell you that the yeast is viable like the Wyeast packaging does.
The Final Steps
Once the wort is close to room temp and all of the equipment is sanitized, it's time to get the wort into the primary fermenter (a 6.5 gallon plastic food-grade bucket or a 6.5 gallon glass carboy). Yeast also likes some amount of oxygen when it ferments and more advanced brewers may use an oxygenation stone to acheive this. But new brewers can also aerate the wort by racking it (siphoning it) from the brewpot to the primary and allowing it to splash a little. I like to siphon the wort to the primary so that all of the hop schputz and other solids will be left behind in the brewpot. If you're using an Autosiphon, this will work well too.
I will take a timeout here to discuss the racking cane and tubing that may have some with your kit. A racking cane looks like a long clear plastic (or stainless steel) candy cane and there should be some plastic tubing that fits onto the end of it. Connect the tubing and hold the racking cane in your left hand. Hold the racking cane over the sink and begin to fill the other end (tubing) with cold water from the sink. The tubing and cane will fill with water. When full, turn off the water and place your (hopefully clean) thumb over the end of the tube and hold the racking cane a little higher than the tubing. Place the racking cane (which normally comes with a clip) into the brewpot and put the tube end into the sanitized primary fermenter. Take your thumb off the tube and let it fly. This can take some practice and if it's not for you, try an Autosiphon. Some people like to siphon through a strainer to catch hop solids. Watch the level in the brewpot and keep the end of the cane under the level. Fill the primary to about 5¼ gallons. If you need to top up, now is the time for the sterile water... use it to get the volume to 5¼ gallons. Also, a quick note about using tap water to fill the cane & tube. Some people wince when I tell them that I do this because they assume that something in the water may contaminate the wort. I believe my water has enough chlorine in it to keep it safe from beer-spoiling bacteria. Your mileage may vary. At this point, the yeast can be added once we know for sure that the wort temp is cool enough. 80° is probably fine, 70° is better and 62-65° is probably the best. We want the yeast to be in relatively cool wort. We also want out primary fermentation temperature to be cool and consistent. When beer ferments at temps that are higher than say 70 or 80°, fusel alcohols can form and detract from the flavor of your beer. I like to ferment ales in the 62-65° range to get the cleanest-tasting beer I can make. At this point, place the lid on the primary, install the airlock in the lid and fill the airlock with something like a sanitizing solution or even cheap vodka to keep contaminants out. Place the primary somewhere cool, dark and out of drafts. When fermentation begins, there will be activity in the airlock.
* Ferment beer at cool temps. Most yeast strains have an ideal temp range... shoot for the low end of the range.
* Beer can be left in a primary fermenter for quite a long time. Don't be in a hurry for your beer to be done. It's possible that the beer could be done fermenting in 4-5 days. I have left beer in primary for 3 weeks (busy schedule!) without ill-effects.
* Learn to use your hydrometer. When the gravity of the beer is where the kit suggests the final gravity should be, the beer is done. If you're not sure, take hydro readings 3 days in a row. If the gravity is low (1.010-1.015) and it's the same for all three readings, the beer is done. Bottling the beer before it's done fermenting can be problematic and possibly dangerous.
* You can go directly from your primary fermenter to your bottling bucket without using a secondary. If you do this, allow the beer to sit in primary for at least 2 weeks to allow the yeast to settle. This will mean less yeast at the bottom of your bottles.
* Some brewers will experiment with "late-addition" extract in an attempt to avoid carmelization of the extract and to keep the color of certain styles of beer lighter. Some people will add some of the extract at the beginning and the rest with maybe 15 minutes left in the boil. I have tried this and my beer ended up with less body, less sweetness and the overall impression was beer that had a very watery consistency and had more of a hop presence than normal. Check out late-addition techniques on Google and see what you think.
* At some point, consider a secondary fermenter so you can move the beer out of primary and into another clean and sanitized vessel. Beer can sit for months in a secondary and the beer will clear and smooth out. This can also be handy for storing beer and getting your primary back so you can make another batch. I will move beer from primary to secondary and add a gel solution (check out the clear beer section on the General Brewing Information page) so the beer will eventually be crystal clear.
* Consider using Irish Moss, Supermoss or Whirfloc in the brewpot. These products get the solids in your wort to coagulate and settle in the brewpot, leaving behind very clear wort. I have allowed my brewpots to sits in the sink with ice water after using Whirfloc in the brewpot and the wort siphoning from brewpot to primary was ultra-clear.
On bottling day, you'll need to have about 50 twelve ounce bottles or about 30 twenty-two ouncers. All of the bottles have to be clean and sanitized. I will fill the sink with hot water and cleaner, let the bottles soak and use a bottle brush to make sure there is no crud in the bottles. Then soak them in a santizing solution. Some brewers will soak their caps in sanitizer too... I have done this and I have NOT done this and it doesn't seem necessary to me. You'll also have to clean and sanitize your bottling bucket which should have a spigot on it. This spigot and drum-assembly can be taken apart and cleaned separately. You'll also need to sanitize the bottling wand that came with your kit. Take the cap off the end and clean and sanitize the cap, the spring and the tube. You can siphon the sanitizer out of the bottling buket through your racking cane & tubing so they are sanitized too. You will need 5 ounces (3/4 cup) of priming sugar to carbonate the beer. Boil a small amount (maybe 2 cups?) of water on the stove and add the priming sugar. Allow it to boil for 5 minutes or so and then take it off the heat and put the lid on it so it will cool. When everything is ready, pour the priming solution into the bottling bucket (make sure the spigot is closed) and then rack the beer into the bottling bucket. The racking process should adequately mix the beer and priming solution together without having to mix. Avoid aerating the beer at this point. Once the beer is fermented, oxidation is the enemy of beer... siphon quietly. Place the bottling bucket on a chair, table or bar top and connect the tubing to the spigot and the other end to the bottling wand. Begin to fill the bottles and cap them. When finished, place the bottles in a box and keep them around 70°. Natural carbonation will take place at warmer temps, but will occur slower at cooler temps. Remember earlier that yeast will metabolize fermentable sugars and produce alcohol and Co2? When the beer was fermenting, the alcohol was being produced and the Co2 was escaping through the airlock. But now the yeast left in suspension will metabolize the priming solution and produce Co2 that cannot escape because the bottles are capped. Carbonated beer! But... if you make the mistake of bottling your beer too soon and too much fermentable sugar has been left behind, the residual yeast will now metabolize your priming sugar AND the sugars left behind and the beer could be overcarbonated. Overcarbonated bottles can explode and be a very real risk. This is why we NEVER want to package homebrew unless we know that it is fully fermented.
Since all homebrewers eventually begin to put their own recipes together, here are some guidelines I found to make it easier to make great extract beer and also move those extract recipes over to all-grain recipes when the time comes. As I got close to the end of my extract brewing, I concluded that my best recipes were made with specialty grains and extra-light DME. I thought that the beers made with these ingredients came out the cleanest and smoothest when I used all my other information properly. I also think that the DME has a cleaner overall flavor as opposed to extract syrup that comes in a can. When the recipes are put together this way, the extra-light DME acts like the 2-row base malt of an all-grain recipe. When the recipe is converted to all-grain, base malt such as 2-row barley or pilsner malt can be used to get the same gravity as the DME provided in the extract recipe and the specialty grains can simply be added to the mash. This also solves the problem that you may have using colored extract such as amber or dark. Since you have no way of knowing how those extracts were colored, you have no way of knowing which ingredients to use to duplicate that recipe as all-grain. I had a great extract Red Lager recipe that started with amber liquid extract. It used some specialty grains along with the extract to create a beautiful red beer. But I had a hard time duplicating it as all-grain because I didn't know how that amber extract got "amber".
Questions? You can always email me using the link on the home page. Cheers!