I like beer. I like making things. I guess homebrewing was inevitable.
Brewing at home is so easy. To get beer you only need a handful of ingredients and very little equipment. The essentials are malt, hops, yeast, water, an airtight container (with an airlock) for fermenting and bottles for storing your end product.
This post is about my latest batch, which is actually my third brew. So far I have used cans of pre-hopped malt extract for all my brewing and I can wholeheartedly say that this is a great way to get into homebrewing, though I would advise spending the little bit extra and getting a premium quality can from a homebrew supply shop rather than a cheap Coopers can from the supermarket. As easy as cans of malt extract are I plan on switching to the brew-in-a-bag method for brew № 4, a technique I might write about at a later date.
Please note, as usual this won’t be a “how-to” kind of post, rather it is an account of my experience making something for myself and hopefully contains some useful tips for anyone starting out. If you’re interested in homebrewing make sure you read something a bit more detailed than this post (I have found this page quite useful) as I’ve definitely left important details out for sake of (attempted) brevity.
My first two tips are: sanitise thoroughly and don’t drop glass thermometers on tiles. The flavour of your beer is greatly effected by your cleanliness and you can easily lose an entire batch to some funky flavours if you get lax. I have found no-rinse sanitiser works great and it makes it very easy to quickly ensure your fermenenter and utensils are clean. Not dropping thermometers is pretty self explanatory.
Sitting your tin of malt extract in a pot of boiling water for a while before opening will make it a lot easier to pour and I swirl a bit more boiling water around the can to get last of the syrup out. Most recipes call for additional malt and it usually comes in the form of a very fine powder. Powdered malt will clump very quickly when in contact with any moisture (even moisture rising from the warm wort). I had clumpy problems with my last brew, so I carefully sprinkled it as I stirred which seems to work. I also tried putting a small amount in a separate container and adding a little bit of water in an attempt to make a thick syrup. This did not work very well.
Once you have all your malt dissolved you need to add the yeast. I have always purchased good quality yeast and avoided the yeasts that might come with a can of extract, as yeasts actually contribute a great deal to the final flavour of your beer. You need to ensure your wort (the unfermentated water-malt mixture) is in the recommended temperature range for your yeast otherwise you risk killing the yeast. Once you have pitched the yeast seal it up and install the airlock.
Now the waiting.
Fermentation duration can vary depending on a huge range of factors, so using the airlock bubbles or simply counting the days are pretty bad indicators of whether or not the yeast has eaten all the sugar it possibly can. Luckily there’s another method that is really easy and accurate; checking the specific gravity. Basically the specific gravity of your brew is how dense the liquid is – as the yeast converts sugar into alcohol the brew gets less dense and the specific gravity drops. You measure specific gravity when you first put the brew in the fermenter with a hydrometer (readily available and cheap) and you know fermentation has finished once your specific gravity stays the same over a couple of days. This method has the added bonus of sounding sciencey. I have found that my brews take 4-7 days and I usually just wait for the airlock to stop bubbling before taking hydrometer readings.
Brewers yeasts need to stay within a particular temperature range; too hot and you will get undesirable flavours, too cold and it will just stop fermenting. This was the first time I have brewed in the cooler months and I ran in to some troubles keeping my beer warm enough. I ended up using a heatpad (a flat heating pad you sit your fermenter on top of) and wrapping an old towel around the fermenter as insulation. Then I realised my yeast could handle much lower temps than I thought.
Once my specific gravity was steady it was time for bottling.
Bottling is the most tedious part of homebrewing, but the golden rule helps. The golden rule of homebrewing is to imbibe a golden brew whilst brewing (or bottling). Again, sanitising is essential for ensuring your beer is drinkable and if you are planning on making more than one brew in your lifetime, I strongly recommend investing in sanitiser injector (a nifty device for squirting sanitiser into your bottles). A bottling wand is also handy but – if you are quick with the tap – not entirely essential.
As the yeast has now converted all the sugar it can you need to add a little bit back in just before bottling so that it can produce the CO₂ you need to get a bubbly beer. This is called priming and there are two different ways to do this. One is putting a little bit of sugar into each bottle before adding the beer (bottle priming), the other is to add the sugar to your beer before bottling it (batch priming). I have decided to use the batch priming method and transfer my brew to another bucket before adding the sugar. This allows me to leave all the sediment (or trub) in the fermenter and easily dissolve the priming sugar without stirring up all the gross muck at the bottom which makes for a much clearer beer.
Be careful and precise with priming! There are calculators to help you determine how much sugar to use. If you use too much you can create too much CO₂ and your bottles might explode, which is both very dangerous and a waste of good beer. This brew I have aimed for a higher carbonation than I have attempted before, so I have isolated the bottles in the back shed just in case.
After a couple of weeks in the bottle I had a taste but was very disappointed. It was still quite syrupy tasting and was not at all bubbly. I figured that it had been to cold in the shed and the yeast had not been able to do its job properly, so I left it a bit longer. Now it has been in the bottle for about a month and half and we have had a good run of some warmer weather it is tasty a lot nicer and had a good amount of bubble to it. Homebrew benefits greatly from a few (or more) months bottle conditioning time.
It is a good idea to label your homebrew with at the very least a name and date and this can be done with masking tape and a pen. I enjoy going a little further and design my own labels as a bit of creative outlet. This is actually pretty easy. You can simply print your design onto normal paper, cut it out and paste it on. After reading around many forums I found someone recommending milk as glue (just brush a little bit of milk on the back of the paper and stick it on). I tried it and find it to work very well and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to glue a label on glass. It stays stuck even when the bottle is damp from condensation and performs admirably in a bathtub full of ice. The best bit is it comes straight off with a soak in warm water and doesn’t leave any horrible residue making cleaning your bottles for reuse easy.
Last step, enjoy the beer. You’ve earned it.
Last last step, make more.