Along with being economical and a lot of fun, brewing your own beer can help you to better understand the intricacies of the brewing process and can lead to a greater appreciation of the beers you drink. Knowing how a pale ale differs from an India pale ale, and how that is a reflection of the ingredients and techniques used by the brewmaster, lends an entire new facet of enjoyment far beyond what most think of when they consider “beer drinking”.
To illustrate the economy of brewing your own beer simply consider the micro brews and imports you can commonly buy for as much as $30 or more per case. With an initial cost of equipment to brew beer out of the equation, the cost of ingredients for your own equivalent batch of beer could work out to as little as $10-15 per case when you brew just over two cases per batch. With a savings of as much as $20 per case, even an initial investment of over $100 for equipment is paid off within the first few batches you brew.
To get started brewing beer you have any number of options and can spend as little or as much as you want. With a suggested retail price of under $40 you can buy a basic Mr. Beer brew kit which is available from many retailers. This kit comes with instructions, a plastic brewing keg and ingredients to make two gallons of beer. That’s the equipment and ingredients for over a case of beer for just a bit more than the cost of a case of premium beer at your local liquor store! Other kits are available with more ingredients for other beers and everything needed to bottle your beer. And they sell prepared refills for as little as $13 and special recipe beers for under $20.
When you’re ready to move on from such a basic kit you can get recipes for these two-gallon batches from a number of sources and your local homebrew store can supply all the ingredients necessary. Or, a little bit of arithmetic can allow you to convert the standard homebrew recipes, which are designed to make five-gallon batches, to the appropriate measurements.
To really start learning about beer brewing you should probably consider getting a good book on the subject. While there are dozens of books available the “The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing” by Charlie Papazian is probably the best and most comprehensive. Covering all aspects of the brewing experience and introduce you to everything you need to know to get started with serious brewing this book is more than enough to begin with. After you have a few batches under your belt, if you wish to explore specific styles and techniques more fully you can find good books to help with that as well.
If you’re ready to jump into the standard homebrew batches of five gallons there are a couple of approaches you can take, rent or buy. Many metropolitan areas have homebrew clubs that will allow you to use their equipment for a certain cost per batch saving you the expense of buying all of the equipment up front. Some homebrew shops also offer similar services. These places will have a room with all of the equipment setup and you just schedule a time to come in and brew your beer. If you have any questions you can also get expert advice from experienced brewers.
If you’re ready to buy you need to have some idea of what to get. To make a basic extract batch of homebrew you’ll need a pot to boil the wort. While you don’t need to boil the entire five gallons to ensure consistent results your pot should be able to handle at least three gallons. Always use enamel or stainless boiling pots, aluminum or other materials can affect the taste of your beer. You’ll need something to ferment the beer in, preferably a primary and secondary fermenter. While you can get by with just a single stage ferment in a plastic bucket with a lid and an airlock it is better to do your initial fermentation in that and move to a glass secondary, and you’ll need an airlock for both. Finally you’ll need a bottling bucket, bottles and a capper, or some alternative. Be sure and use good quality glass bottles, no twist tops here. While you’re unlikely to have a problem, if your mixture is a bit off you can get large pressures that can’t be handled by the cheap twist top style bottles.
For ingredients you’ll need malt, hops, water, yeast and priming sugar, as a minimum. For more complex recipes you might need some adjuncts like corn sugar and specialty malts. You’ll also need a specialty bleach to clean all of your equipment and bottles. Complete sterilization is very important to produce quality beer. Most large cities have homebrew stores where you can get these ingredients along with recipes and expert advice.
The steps are actually fairly simple. Pour the extract, bittering hops and an appropriate amount of water into your boiling pot and bring the whole thing to a boil for at least fifteen minutes. As this is coming to a boil get your yeast ready, using lukewarm water and a little bit of sugar in a sterile bowl let your yeast come alive and start bubbling. After the boil is complete let the wort cool to less than 80 degrees Fahrenheit, any warmer and it’s likely to kill the yeast as it’s added. When the wort is cooled pour it into your sterilized primary fermenter, top off the water to five gallons and add the yeast. If you’re using any finishing hops now is the time to add them. Put on the lid with the airlock and allow your beer to ferment.
After the beer has fermented for about a week and a lot of the yeast has settled out of the wort it’s time to move the beer to the secondary fermenter if you’re using one. Using a sterilized piece of plastic hose as a siphon transfer the beer while trying to avoid picking up a significant amount of the yeast and hops that will have settled out. Put the airlock back on and wait again. After a week or two the bubbles coming out of the airlock should slow to about one every few minutes. It is now time to bottle.
Once again siphon the beer, this time from the secondary fermenter to the bottling bucket, still avoiding getting too much of the yeast that has settled out. Either before you siphon, or just after, add an appropriate amount of priming sugar to the beer. The remaining yeast will feed on this, producing carbon dioxide, ensuring your bottled beer has the appropriate fizz. Following the proper instructions for you bottling equipment and capper, transfer the beer to sterilized bottles and cap them.
Now, you just wait a week or two and enjoy.
Brewing your own beer can be a fun hobby. And, who knows, you might even become a beer snob. Imagine being able to explain to your friends how that particular flavor in their favorite microbrew is achieved and sharing with them your own interpretation of those methods.