Category Archives: Beginner

What do I need to homebrew?

One of my buddies just recently asked, “what do I need to have to be able to homebrew?” He actually brewed his first batch of beer tonight after he got his starter kit in the mail. I thought that I would take a few moments to go over the very basic things that you need to have as a new homebrewer. I am going to leave out a few things that typically come in a beer kit, becasue, as a new brewer you simply don’t need or shouldn’t be worrying about them. If you don’t want to read my explanations, simply scroll to the bottom of the page for the final list of necessary equipment.

Boil Pot

11-13-02The first thing that you are going to need is a pot to boil your wort in. A basic definition for wort is the liquid that contains all of the sugars that the yeast will eat. Your pot can really be any size, most people will say that you need to have something big enough to boil a few gallons and I would agree with that. I started with, and still use my 20 quart pot, and have had great success with it. You can find a stainless steel, 5 gallon pot for 20-50 bucks depending on where you shop. My local Big Lots has them on sale right now for $20. You can read my entry on brew pots here as there are a few other (aka cheaper) options out there, but I am going to stick with stainless.

Fermenter

11-13-01The next thing you have to have is something to ferment in. Most beers are brewed in a closed fermenter. What this means is that once the wort and yeast are combined, there is no other air introduced to the container. Just think of a water bottle, once you put the lid on no extra air can come in. Some brewers do open fermentation where the beer is put into a container with no lid or cap, and is left alone. This is fine as long as nothing falls into the beer, there is minimal air movement, and you are willing to risk airborne critters entering your beer. In either case, the beer needs to be in something rated food safe. If it is a glass carboy you have no problems, and if it is a plastic bucket, just double check to make sure it is food safe.

So we have something to boil the wort in and somewhere to put it once it is done boiling. Now we need a way to get it out of there once the fermentation is complete. Actually, let me back up for a second. Most brewers like moving their beer from one fermenter to another after the fermentation has completed. This does a lot of things for you if you are going to be storing the beer for a long time, but if you are ready to go right to the bottle, you don’t need to worry about a second fermenter. Remember I am going for a basic list here, so no secondary.

Siphon and bottling equipment

Getting back to moving that beer out of the fermenter and into the bottle, we need something to do that with. There are two options a siphon (aka a racking cane) or an auto-siphon. What both of these devices use is basic physics (pressure) to move liquids from a high pressure to a lower one. There is a little more to it, but that is the general gist. A siphon you must start and then work it into your beer. To be honest I’ve never used one. An auto-siphon is slightly more expensive (about $5 more), but well worth your time and effort. You simply pump it and the liquid starts flowing. Pretty easy. Along with your siphon or auto-siphon you are going to need a tube to transport the beer to where you want it.

Our next few things kind of go hand in hand. At the end of the tube from your siphon you want to have a bottle filler. A bottle filler has a spring loaded tip that only allows your precious beer to flow out of it if the tip of it is depressed (on the bottom of a bottle). They run in the 2-5 dollar range. Just make sure that you are getting one that is spring-loaded. Obviously we are going to need some bottles as well. To top off the bottles we need to have bottle caps and also a capper that crimps the caps onto the top of the bottle.

Sanitize brother, Sanitize

There is the equipment side of things. The other necessary thing that you have to have, repeat HAVE TO HAVE, is some type of sanitizer. It can be as simple as bleach or as cool as a non-rinse sanitizer. In any case it is absolutely necessary. You can have the best equipment in the world, but without sanitation, you can’t make good beer (and possibly not even drinkable beer). Yikes. This is because there are tons of microscopic  critters out there that like beer as much as we do. If they get into your fresh wort, they will compete with your yeast in eating the sugars. These critters can make some terrible smells and tastes if given the chance. So just kill them when you have the chance, all of them.

11-13-03

So a quick recap of things absolutely necessary to homebrew:

  • Boil kettle: size doesn’t matter but a 3-5 gallon one will serve you well
  • Fermenter: because you need somewhere for your yeasts to live
  • Siphon: so you can get your yummy beer into a bottle
  • Bottle filler: you need to fill those bottles in some controlled fashion
  • Bottles: what else would you drink your beer out of?
  • Bottle caps: you want your beer to be carbonated don’t you?
  • Bottle capper: those caps need to stay on the bottle somehow
  • Sanitizer: other little critters like beer as much as we do, don’t give them a chance to have it

Well there you go, all of the stuff you need to make beer, other than the ingredients of course. I’ll cover that in our next into to brewing post. Thanks for reading and let me know if there are any questions that you have. This is in no way a complete list of things that you could have, but this is the necessary list of things. There are plenty of other products out there that will make your homebrewing experience easier and more satisfying.

Yeast

While there are literally hundreds if not thousands of different classifications for beer, they all come from one of two starting points. You either have an Ale or Lager. As a general rule, most macrobrews are lagers while microbrews are ales. We will get into why that is in just a bit.

So what is yeast?

Yeast is a single cell organism that eats sugar. When it eats (ferments) sugar it gives off three by-products; carbon dioxide (CO2), alcohol, and heat. This is why we use it for brewing, without yeast, we would have a grainy, sugary drink that didn’t make us feel very good (or as good as a drink with alcohol can).

Ale vs. Lager

As I said before, everything boils down to the type of yeast you use; lager or ale. An ale refers to a yeast that ferments on the top of the fermenter and will function from 60-76 degrees or so. If it gets any colder than 55 degrees, the yeast will go dormant and stop fermenting. Ales can ferment in 3-7 days depending on the sugar available. Generally ale yeast give you a higher alcohol concentration. Ales also give off a fruity ester flavor that is desirable for some types of beer.

A lager on the other hand is a bottom fermenting yeast and functions at colder temperatures (40-55 degrees). It tends to give a crisper beer, but also takes longer to complete. It can take as long as month and a half. Lagers are much lighter in body and tend to be harder to make. A lager does not give off the esters of an ale, and therefore, it can be easier to detect when something goes wrong.

My choices for homebrew

Luckily homebrew shops offer a huge variety of yeast. Some cultures are specially made to give special tastes. A hefeweizen yeast will often give a bananna flavor to the beer. The yeast also come in several different forms. The first is dry yeast. Dry yeast is freeze-dried yeast cells that are very cheap. You must rehydrate the yeast in order to give it a proper chance at life. Another problem is that it can become easily infected and cannot be used on multiple batches.

The other option is liquid yeast. These generally come in two forms, The first is a smack pack. There is a bag within the outer bag that hold yeast nutrient. When you smack the bag, you release the nutrient and the yeast start feeding and multiplying. It is an effective means of generating healthy yeast growth.

The other liquid yeast can be found in vials (pictured at the beginning of this article). It is basically a vial of dormant yeast cells that need to be grown a bit to get proper pitching rates. Liquid yeast is the way to go if you want to make several beers using the same type of yeast. It is reusable. The only real downside is the upfront cost. Dry yeast can be found for around a dollar, where liquid yeasts cost at least $6. But you get a better pitching rate and it can be used over and over again.

I’ll explain what I mean by some of these terms more indepth next week.

2 gallons of badness

As I’ve noted I got my start to homebrewing with Mr. Beer. That got old pretty quick as all of the beers had the same after taste and there wasn’t a ton of useful things you could do with Mr. Beer. I’ve seen people make a ton of different “styles” with Mr. Beer, and I don’t know how they turned out, but to me it seemed like a weak attempt at homebrewing.

So one day during the summer, I decided to upgrade everything and start formulating my own recipies a bit more. I went down to the homebrew shop and bought most of the basic brewing equipment, including two 2 gallon buckets. I talked to the guy at the store and told him I wanted to make a simple American Lager. He loaded me up with yeast, hops, speciality grains, and 4 pounds of dry malt extract (DME). This all for a 2 gallon batch.

I didn’t really have a good sense of what I was doing, but I went for it anyway. I now know better. 4 pounds of DME for 2 gallons of beer is way, way, way too much. I’ll explain later. I did the normal procedure, let it ferment in my basement for 4 weeks, and then bottled it.

A week or so went by for carboniation and then I tried it. The stuff was terrible. The beer was so unbelievely full of alachol that the hyrdometer couldn’t give a reading. There was just too much sugar for such a small batch. Usually, I tend to use about 7-8 pounds of DME for a typical 5 gallon extract brew. I had half of the amount of that for less than half of the total liquid. The flavor was a strong carmel and the smell was just aweful. I do have a bit of the stuff laying around just to see if I could get a real ABV reading on it one of these days. When I do, I will let you know.

The point of this is, understand what you are getting into. Don’t solely rely on other peoples opinions when brewing, do what works for you. I didn’t do enough research and listened to someone who didn’t have as good of an idea of homebrewing as I thought they did. My result was an undrinkable beer. The only positive thing I took away from this was that I had good sanitation and learned some technique.

My intro to homebrew: Mr. Beer

As I have said in previous posts, my homebrew experiences started with Mr. Beer. Two of my roommates came back to the apartment one day with a new toy to play with, a Mr. Beer kit. They got the deluxe one with the bottles and one kit of ingredients. Being college kids, it was great, we could pay $12 or so for a case of beer, about 2.5 gallons. They tore it open and began “brewing.”

I wasn’t involved in the process becasue I had to work that day, lucky me. I came home, the kitchen was a wreck, but the Mr. Beer container had soon to be beer in it. Two weeks later they bottled and a week after that, we were ready to drink.

Holy shit, the stuff was terrible. Either the sanitation was not followed or something just went wrong, in either case, I was turned off. They made a few other batches that were better, but still not great. Also note at this time my beer taste buds were young, so it could of actually been some good brew (but I don’t think it was). Continue reading