After the example set by my friend Andy, a veritable homebrew beer connoisseur, I decided it was about time I took my liking for proper craft beer and real ale to a new level by attempting to make some of my own. Anything that was possible to do in medieval times with a few wooden buckets and some questionably-sourced water should be more than do-able by a modern-day tech nerd, right?
It turns out that basic homebrewing is almost laughably simple, although the best results I’ve had have been from skipping the most basic methods and graduating to something a bit more respectable. The aforementioned Andy has taken things to an even higher level and his beers have the taste to match — look out for his stuff on sale in Leeds soon, I hope/imagine.
This post aims to document (by request of several beer enthusiast friends) my processes, equipment, what I’ve done wrong and what’s been the best tips. I’m also going to link copiously to the BrewUK website where I’ve bought most of my kit, because they’re a great little store competing with the big boys with brilliant customer care. Show them some love.
What you need to make drinkable homebrew beer
This isn’t an exhaustive list and I’m not an expert by any means, but these are the things I’ve gradually acquired since starting homebrewing in September 2012. You can get all these bits from any good homebrewing shop (or Amazon, but seriously, BrewUK have a great online shop and deliver anywhere) and they don’t take up too much space or require much expertise to use.
All of the stuff I do is “extract brewing” (so perhaps not “proper” homebrewing, but then I don’t have the time/money to fork out for equipment to do “all grain” just yet). You can probably get yourself set up to brew your own beer for about £60 for the equipment and maybe £20 a time for each brew. Here’s my kit list:
- 2x plastic 5 gallon fermenting bin
(these are used to store the brew while it’s fermenting – I use two so I can transfer the fermented beer to a new, clean vessel when bottling, although you don’t have to do this)
- 1x large metal pan
(needs to be able to comfortably hold 5 litres of water — if you’re lucky you’ll already have one; I did)
- 1x decent thermometer
(I bought a jam thermometer from Wilkinson which fits brilliantly into the above pan)
- Set of tubing
(used for transferring the brew from your vessel to your bottles)
- 1x automatic pump
(don’t bother with the suck-and-run type tube where you use your mouth to start it going, it’s unsanitary and often results in a mouthful of tepid beer)
- 1x pack of sanitiser
(this is a powder you add to water to sanitise all your equipment before brewing. I use VWP.)
- 1x bottling tap
(not essential but cheap and makes bottling much, much easier)
- 1x bottle capper
(you’ll need this to properly seal the caps on the bottles)
- 30-40x empty beer bottles
(ideally coloured as transparent bottles let light in, which is bad)
- 30-40x bottle caps
(probably buy a few more than you need, just in case)
- hydrometer and measuring tube
(this is used to measure the “gravity” of your brew, eg. how high its alcohol content is)
- 2x muslin bags
(not essential but make it much, much easier to filter your brew for hops etc)
You can buy starter kits which supply most of the above items for a relatively cheap price, if that’s your bag.
A note on “brewkits”
When I first started I began with a brewkit — these are ready-made tins of syrupy gloopy which you simply add water and yeast to. The results I got from these were fairly uninspiring: both tasted acidic and flat (I’m sure my lack of experience didn’t help either) and generally didn’t really feel like “proper” homebrewing. I’d compare it to cooking a meal from a sauce out of a jar versus making it from scratch yourself.
Extract brewing, the type I’m describing here, is a kind of halfway house: you’re essentially boiling malt extract, hops and sugar together, cooling it and adding water, then “pitching” yeast into it and leaving it to ferment. All-grain brewing is more complex still: you boil the entire thing (not just part of it) so need more equipment and you have to “mash” the malt yourself rather than use pre-prepared stuff like I’m doing.
Okay, that’s enough preamble. Here are the steps I take when making an extract brew. It’s worth pointing out that these are “recipe packs” I’ve bought from BrewUK: their members often reverse engineer popular ales and reproduce their taste and style using common hops and malts. I’m finding this a good way to learn more about the process as I’m not completely in the dark and have a recognisable taste goal to aim for when brewing. When I get more confident I’m excited to start experimenting with flavours on my own.
Brewing your first extract kit: step-by-step
0. Sanitise all your equipment (not pictured)
This is the most boring but most important step, so it comes before all the others. Using your sanitisation solution, soak all your equipment in it for the period indicated on the packet. I tend to fill my fermentation vessels with the solution then dump all the equipment I’m using in this liquid for an hour or so, which seems to work. You’ll also need to sanitise your bottles when it comes to bottling, but for my last few brews I’ve just ran them on a hot dishwasher cycle (after carefully washing them) which hasn’t seen any ill effects.
1. Boil your water and add the malt extract
The specific recipe you’re using will tell you how much to use. In my case I bring 5 litres of water to the boil and monitor the temperature carefully. Here’s the malt extract from my Timothy Taylor Landlord recipe pack:
The malt extract then goes in the water where I maintain a constant temperature for around 90 minutes. It goes in looking like this:
Once it goes in, depending on the type, you’ll immediately get a delicious, rich aroma, a bit like a strong coffee or dark chocolate. This scent is liable to fill your flat so be mindful of non-beer-loving friends and flatmates. Here’s me with a pan of malt exuding deliciousness (the malt, not me):
2. Add the hops
Next come the hops. These are my favourite part, mostly because I like hoppy beers, but also because the effect they have on the character of the brew is really interesting. First I separate them out in a bowl (they typically come in tightly-packed storage so this stops them being clumped together):
One thing I learned about this stage of the brew is the importance of bagging things. Here’s what I do now using a cheap muslin bag:
In earlier brews I just dumped the hops straight into the brew like this:
This smelled great but was a pain in the arse to then filter so I could leave it to ferment cleanly without the hops continuing to effect the flavour. It also meant I had to mess around with this sieve, too small for the vessel, so I sellotaped it in place:
I’ve since bought a large funnel instead, but you don’t need this so much if you don’t foolishly fill your brew with floaty bits instead. Here’s what a proper one should look like:
You can see the usefulness of the muslin bag: the hop flavours are still allowed to soak through and engage the brew, but like a giant teabag, I can just take it out when it’s time.
3. Add the malt and further hops
After an hour or so of maintaining the hops at the correct temperature, you can see how the brew has reduced somewhat and darkened. Now it’s time to add the spraymalt, which is a bit like sugar.
You add loads of this and stir it in: don’t be alarmed if it clumps together in white lumps; stirring it frequently means these mix in.
The brews I’ve done usually stipulate a second type of hops to be added here. Once this is done and the boil is finished, it’s a case of carefully transferring it to your primary fermentation vessel. I use my funnel and filter to strip away any remaining bits as I do this.
4. Fill up, cool, and check the gravity
Then I fill the vessel up with cold water (right from the tap, although if you’re ultra-paranoid about contamination you could use bottled water or cooled boiled tap water) and wait for the temperature to be around 20C. At this point you should take a hydrometer reading:
This tool basically shows you the “gravity” of your brew, which can then be combined with another reading once fermentation is complete to determine the alcohol content of your beer. I usually photograph it from a few angles then I have a less ambiguous reference if I need to refer back to it. On one brew I forgot to do this before adding the yeast meaning I had no concrete idea what the ABV was, but it’s not really a showstopper.
5. Pitch the yeast
At this point you should be ready to pitch your yeast. For this brew I used live yeast (as opposed to dried): I’ve had much better results with these types. This one is liquid yeast and simply requires a good shake before pitching (although it’s very active so treat it like you would a shaken beer can):
This one is a “smack-pack”: still liquid, but contains a dissolvable packet inside which basically activates the yeast cells once broken. You just slap the bag a few times to break the inner packet and then the whole thing expands excitingly. It looks like this:
This yeast worked amazingly well for me, so much so that the fermenting stage got a bit too vigorous and ejected foamy solution all over my bathroom cupboard. Here’s the (very active) fermentation a few days in:
6. Wait (not for the last time)
Now the waiting game begins. Many brewkit recipes say to leave it to ferment for a week but I’ve always done two weeks. Be patient and resist the urge to keep looking inside the vessel as you’ll increase the chances of contaminating it. After two weeks it should’ve reached “final gravity”, which you can see by taking a hydrometer reading. If the reading doesn’t change after two days’ readings, then it’s done and ready to bottle. Here’s the before and after shot of my brew’s gravity reading:
Once the gravity reading stops changing (or two weeks have elapsed, which usually does the trick for me), you’re ready to bottle. Some people at this point run a secondary fermentation where they transfer the brew to a new vessel but I’ve never bothered with that.
7. Get ready for bottling
Before you’re ready to bottle you’ll need to sanitise everything again. In this picture I’ve got a bunch of bottles soaking in hot water in my bathtub. This isn’t to sanitise them, but to make it easier to get their labels off. Some bottles have annoying plastic-based stickers which won’t come off so I gave up and threw them out. You can buy bottles from homebrew stores but it’s more fun to drink them yourself and save them, right?
Once the bottles are label-free, you’ll need to sanitise them. I’ve just been putting them in the dishwasher on a hot cycle which seems to work, but I’ve also experimented with leaving them to soak (again, in the bath) with sanitiser solution and then carefully rinsing them. The dishwasher is my preferred method since the inside of the bath is obviously not going to be the most sterile environment ever.
8. Priming your brew
Before you can bottle your brew you’ll need to “prime” it: this is basically to begin a secondary fermentation inside the bottle where yeast is allowed to react again. To do this you simply need to sanitise around 100g of sugar (I bought special priming sugar which gave better results than household sugar) by dissolving it in boiling water and letting it cool. You can speed the cooling by resting the pan in cold water, covered, like this:
My first brew, I manually added a teaspoonful of sugar to each bottle. This was messy, inaccurate and time-consuming. By transferring the brew into a new vessel containing the priming solution you ensure an even distribution and make things much simpler. Definitely worth the investment in a second vessel, just for this purpose.
Once the priming solution is ready, I add it to my other vessel and position it on the floor (gravity comes in useful in this next section). I then run a tube from the brew vessel (which I moved an hour beforehand to allow it to settle again) into the priming vessel. I bought an automatic pump which makes it pretty trivial to start the flow going as pictured here:
It’s important to try not to disturb the contents of the beer too much and allow oxygen into it at this stage so try to keep the end of the hose inside the priming solution so it doesn’t splash around and cause bubbles. This is how the inside of the fermented brew looks while this is happening:
9. Bottling tap fun
Once you’ve moved your brew into the priming vessel you can swap its position with the original fermentation vessel, again allowing some time for it to settle. I then add the bottling tube to the end of the hose and get it ready to go, as pictured here:
The beauty of the bottling tube means I can just place it inside a bottle and press it to the bottom of the glass. As soon as I lift it up it stops releasing beer so it’s trivial to fill up a bottle. Save yourself time and spillage by just buying one of these right away — much easier than manually turning on/off a tap.
10. Capping and labelling your bottles
All bottled up? The final step is to cap those bottle. I’ve found that the capper can occasionally break the top off bottles and this has only ever happened with clear bottles, for me. Given that clear bottles let the light into your brew this is already a reason not to use them, so I’d avoid them altogether. Remember you should have sanitised your bottle caps too by soaking them in some solution.
All done? You should be tired, probably covered in beerstains, but proud of yourself. I end up with something like this.
And finally, if you have some artistic ability, you can make a label. If you’re a cheapskate you can just nick some envelope label stickers from work and write the name of your brew on there, but I bought some sticker template sheets from Amazon and printed a design onto them which I could then stick over the bottles. They looked like this:
11. A bit more waiting
The next step is more waiting: this beer will improve over time so give it a couple of weeks before you crack one open. If you did everything right you should have something flavoursome, drinkable and even good. Don’t give up if it doesn’t taste quite right: my first few were disappointing but once I got the hang of it I was producing things that I was prepared to share with other people (even with Andy, whose opinion was nerve-wrackingly important to me).
As a final note, it’s worth pointing out that I’ve only done four brews myself and am far from an expert. If I was starting from scratch, though, these are the tips I wish I’d known and the (cheap!) bits of kit I wish I’d had to save time. Good luck, and good brewing.