Brewing Your First Beer
Brewing at home for the first time? This simple guide takes you through your first batch of beer including what's needed, how to brew and how to bottle. A short guide for the new homebrewer on how to brew your first extract beer!
Author's Note: John Palmer and Brad Smith have a new "How to Brew with Malt Extract" video/DVD which walks you through step by step brewing your first batch of beer, and is highly recommended for beginners.
You don't need a large set of fancy and expensive equipment to brew your first batch of beer. Many brewing supply stores sell starter kits for $75 or less. It can cost much less if you can borrow some or all the equipment from a friend. Here's a quick summary of what is needed:
- A Large Pot - at least 3 gallons in size, though a larger one will generally result in fewer spills
- Tubing & Clamp - to siphon the beer - most common is 3/8" ID food grade plastic tubing. Clamps are available at your brew store.
- An Airtight Fermentor - a 5 gal plastic bucket with lid, or a glass carboy. If you can afford it, purchase a glass carboy as they are easier to clean and don't leak. If you get a carboy you may need a large brush to clean it
- An Air Lock and Stopper - sized to fit your fermentor
- A Bottle Filler - available from your homebrew supplier - should be sized to fit your tubing
- A Thermometer - with a range of 0-100 C or up from 32-220 F
- Bottles - You need just over 2 cases in 12 oz bottles to bottle your beer. Do not use twist off bottles - get the bottles that you have to pry the lid off.
- Bottle Brush - While not absolutely required, you usually need a good brush to get your bottles clean
- A Bottle Capper - a hand driven device to cap your bottles
- Bottle Caps - New bottle caps sold at your brewing supplier - you need about 50 caps for a 5 gal batch
- A Sterilizing solution - Household bleach can be used, but it must be thoroughly rinsed to prevent contamination. Your brew store may also have other alternatives such as iodophor and starsan that also sterilize well.
You can purchase many of these items at your local brew stores or online. As you get more experienced you can expand on these kits or purchase more experienced kits from other sites.
The list below assumes you want to brew 5 gallons of a simple ale. You can use BeerSmith to formulate your own recipe or download recipes from our recipe page if you are looking for a different style.
- 6-7 lbs of Unhopped Pale Malt Extract - Usually this comes in cans that are 3-3.3 lbs each. Malt provides the sweet base that the yeast will feed on to make alcohol. Available from various manufacturers.
- 2 Oz of East Kent Goldings Hops - Hops add bitterness to your beer. Pellets are most common and easy to store.
- 1 Package of Wyeast American Ale liquid Yeast (#1056) [ or White Labs California Ale #WLP001 or Safbrew US-56 dry yeast]
- 2/3 cup Priming Sugar - such as corn sugar. Also available from your brew store or grocer.
The Extract Brewing Process
Extract brewing consists of five stages:
- Brewing the Beer - The pale malt extract and hops are boiled together with water for about an hour to sterilize the extract and release the bittering qualities of the hops. Frequently grains are steeped in the mixture prior to the boil to add additional color and flavor complexity.
- Cooling and Fermenting - The hot mixture (called wort) is cooled to room temperature and siphoned or transferred to a fermentor where it is combined with additional water to achieve the desired 5 gallon batch size. Once the mixture drops to room temperature, yeast is added to start the fermentation process. Cleanliness and sterilization are very important since the wort can be easily infected by bacteria while in this state. An airlock is used to keep the fermentor sealed during fermentation. Your beer will ferment for 1-2 weeks.
- Priming and Bottling - Once the beer is fully fermented, it is usually siphoned to another container to prepare for bottling. Here priming sugars such as corn sugar are mixed with the beer, and then it is siphoned into bottles and each bottle is capped with a bottle capping device.
- Aging - Once the beer has been bottled it needs to age for 2-6 weeks. During aging the yeast will ferment the remaining sugar you added and create carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide will naturally carbonate your beer so it is nice and bubbly. In addition, undesirable sediments such as excess yeast and proteins will drop out of the beer during aging and this will enhance the flavor of your beer. In some cases it may take several months to reach peak flavor, though it is usually drinkable after a month.
- Drinking - When the beer is properly aged - just put the bottles in the fridge and enjoy! There's nothing quite like a great beer that you made yourself.
Brew day is my favorite part of the process. The smell of sweet wort bubbling away stirs something primeval in the human psyche. Since we are brewing a relatively simple extract beer, there is not much to set up. You need a clean pot large enough to hold 2 gallons of water plus the two cans (6 lbs of extract) and boil it (I recommend a 4-5 gallon pot if you can find one). Put 2 gallons of water into your pot and begin to heat it over your stove. Once the water has heated up a bit, open your cans of extract and slowly start mixing them into the warm water. The malt extract will have the consistency of heavy syrup, and you may need some hot water to get it all out of the sides of the can. The combined water and extract mixture is called "wort."
As you are adding the malt extract to your wort, you need to continuously mix it. If you do not mix it, the extract syrup will have a tendency to settle at the bottom of your pot where it will heat and caramelize, leaving a hardened caramel mess at the bottom of your pot. This carmelization can also alter the color and flavor of your beer, so it is important to mix well while heating. Once you have all of your extract mixed in, the next step is to bring your wort to a boil. This is best done slowly, as your wort will tend to bubble up a lot when it first starts to boil. The water you used for your brew has a lot of air in it, and these small air bubbles will be released as it comes to a boil creating foaming and a high potential for a boil-over. The best way to avoid a boil-over it to turn the heat down a bit as the wort just begins to boil, and then very carefully manage the heat during the first 15 minutes of the boil until you have a steady boil with minimal foaming. Also, do NOT use a cover on your pot! While a covered pot will come to a boil quicker, the first time you open the pot it will boil over immediately - making a huge mess of your stove.
Once you achieve a steady boil it is time to add the hops. Weigh the proper amount and drop it in the hot wort. Some brewers use a mesh hops bag to reduce the mess later, but if you can cool your beer quickly most of the hops will drop out after the boil. Stir occasionally during the boil to reduce the chance of extract settling to the bottom and carmelizing. I recommend you boil for 60 minutes. Boil time will affect your hop utilization and beer bitterness, but this particular batch is sized for a 60 minute boil time.
Cool and Ferment
Once your boil has finished, you want to cool the hot wort to room temperature as quickly as possible to reduce the chance of infection. Many beginning brewers immerse their pot in a cold ice bath. Adding very cold water to the wort to bring it up to your target batch size (usually 5 gallons) will also help. More advanced brewers will use a chiller such as an immersion coil that runs cold water through a coil of copper tubing to quickly cool the beer. If needed, add water to the wort when you transfer it to your fermentor to achieve the target volume of 5 gallons.
The wort at this stage is very vulnerable to infection so you need to make sure that your fermentor, airlock, siphon tubes and anything else that touches the wort or yeast are thoroughly sterilized. I use a solution of 5 gallons of water and small amount of household bleach to sterilize my equipment. However if you use bleach you must carefully rinse everything with hot water or you risk leaving your beer with a chlorine taste.
Your wort must be fully cooled to room temperature (72 F or so) and siphoned or dumped into your fermentor before you add (pitch) your yeast. Don't worry too much about all of the gunk (hops and proteins) in the wort - most of it will fall to the bottom during fermentation. Pitching yeast in hot wort will probably kill it off, so wait until your wort has fully cooled before adding yeast. I highly recommend the use of liquid yeast as it is far superior in quality to dry yeast. Liquid yeast comes in either a plastic tube or smack pack. The plastic tube type can be added directly to the wort. The foil smack-packs require you to pop an internal pouch containing the yeast several hours before pitching it to allow the yeast to grow in a self contained starter. Follow the instructions on your yeast pack to prepare it and then carefully add it to your fermentor. Once the yeast has been added and mixed in, close the top, fit your airlock (which needs a little water in it) and set your beer in a dark cool place where the temperature is steady.
Your airlock should begin bubbling within 12-36 hours, and continue fermenting for about a week. If you see no bubbles from the airlock, check the fit on your plastic pail and airlock. Often plastic fermentors have a poor seal on the lid that leaks. The bubbles in the airlock are CO2 produced by the fermentation, and will slowly tail off as fermentation nears completion. Assuming you have a good seal, the bubbles should slow to one every minute or two before you consider bottling. As a minimum I would ferment for a week before considering bottling a beer.
Priming and Bottling
The final step before bottling your beer is called priming. Priming consists of mixing sugar in with the beer to promote fermentation after bottling. A small amount of priming sugar will ferment and carbonate your beer.
Before you can prime and bottle, you again need to sterilize everything the beer will touch. Though your beer has fermented out, it still can be ruined by bacteria or by adding too much oxygen to it (i.e. don't splash it around). Most brewers use a large plastic bucket or carboy to make it easy to mix the priming sugar in evenly. Sterilize the bucket thoroughly, and also sterilize your siphoning equipment, tools and of course your bottles. Make sure your bottles are clean of debris before sterilizing - use a bottle brush to remove any deposits. Some people sterilize bottles by soaking them in a weak bleach solution and then rinsing well. I've also had some success with sterilizing my bottles in the dishwasher, but you need to run it several times with no soap and hot water to avoid leaving a soap residue that will ruin the head retention on your beer.
Siphon the finished beer into your priming bucket, trying very hard not to splash it around or mix any air in with it. Add 2/3 cup of priming sugar (I recommend corn sugar) to your beer and very gently mix it in. Next siphon the beer into your bottles using your bottle filler. Be sure to leave at least an inch or more of empty space at the top of your bottle to aid in fermentation. Put the caps on each bottle as you go and use your bottle capper to secure them.
The most difficult part by far is waiting for your beer to come of age. While most beers are drinkable after a few weeks, the average homebrew reaches peak flavor anywhere from 8 weeks to 15 weeks after brewing. Most homebrewers simply can't wait this long. During the aging process your beer will carbonate and excess yeast, tannins and proteins that create off flavors will fall out of your beer and settle to the bottom of the bottle. This will substantially improve your beer. I personally recommend waiting about 3-4 weeks after bottling before sampling your first brew.
Store your bottles in a cool, dark place. Unless you are brewing a lager under temperature controlled conditions, do not store your beer in the refrigerator for the first two weeks. Give it two weeks to fully carbonate at room temperature. After the first two weeks, refrigerating the beer will help it improve more quickly because the tannins, yeast and protein will sediment faster at cold temperature.
The blessed day has finally arrived to sample your creation. During the aging process excess yeast, tannins and proteins will settle to the bottom of your bottle. Get a clean glass, open your brew, and gently pour most of your beer into the glass leaving only the sediment and a small amount of beer in your bottle. Don't worry if you take a little sediment into the glass - it won't hurt you though it may not improve the taste of your brew. Smell the fresh beer, admire the frothy head, and then sip (don't guzzle) your first homebrew and enjoy! As always, please drink responsibly.