Brewing is the process of making beer — a fermented, alcoholic beverage made from grains. The most commonly used grain for brewing is barley, but there are others (including wheat, rye, oats and sorghum). Brewing is similar in some ways to making wine, which is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from fruits (most often grapes) or mead, which is fermented honey. However, the brewing process has its own unique elements as well.
You can think of beer as a beverage made from (essentially) four ingredients using four main steps. The ingredients in beer are malt, hops, yeast and water and the four steps are malting, mashing, boiling and fermenting.
The Four Ingredients
Malt: Malt is a grain that has been prepared for brewing (by a process called, not surprisingly, malting). Malted barley is the most common base grain used in beer, but malted wheat is also prevalent. In some beers, unmalted ingredients — including corn and rice — are used. Malt provides the sugar that the yeast consume during the brewing process and therefore determines the strength of the beer. More malt equals stronger beer. Most homebrewers, or professional brewers for that matter, do not malt their own grains. They simply purchase malt produced by maltsters or they use malt extract, a more highly processed form of malt.
Hops: Hops provide the bitterness to balance the sweetness in beer. Compared to malt, hops are added in small quantities to beer, even in the most bitter IPAs. Most homebrewers use pelletized hops in their brewing as this is a convenient form to store and use.
Yeast: Yeast converts the unfermented beer (called wort) that brewers make on brewing day into beer. They consume sugars from the malt and convert them to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Alcohol is, of course, what gives beer its "kick" and carbon dioxide is what gives beer its fizz.
Water: Most beers are over 90% water by volume. And, quite a bit of water is used in the brewing process that does not end up in beer. A basic (although not infallible) rule of thumb in homebrewing is, if your water tastes good, it's suitable for brewing. If your tap water doesn't taste good, try using bottled spring water instead.
The Four Steps
Malting: As mentioned before, malting is usually done by maltsters. However, malting begins the process of converting raw materials into beer and we'd be remiss if we didn't mention it. In malting, naturally-occurring enzymes in the grains are activated so they can be used for the next step, malting. Then, the grains are dried by heating (called kilning). Kilning dries the grains, which allows them to be stored for long periods of time, and also develops malt flavors and aromas that get extracted in the brewing process.
Mashing: In mashing, malted grains are soaked in hot water. In the process, the starch molecules in the grains are dissolved in the hot liquid and the enzymes (activated by the maltster) chop the large starch molecules into smaller molecules of sugar. The main sugar produced in the process of mashing is maltose. Malt sugars from the mash are what fuel the yeast cells during fermentation.
For homebrewers who brew with extract, this process has been done for them. Malt extract is made from malted grains that have been mashed. The resulting liquid is then condensed into syrup or dried into a powder.
Boiling (and Cooling): The solution of water, malt sugars and other substances from the malt is called wort (or unfermented beer). Before wort can be fermented, it must be boiled. Boiling sanitizes the wort and helps to make the finished beer a more stable product. During the boil, the hops are added to the wort and bitter compounds are extracted from them. After the boiling, the wort is cooled so that yeast can be added.
Fermenting (and Conditioning): Once the wort is cooled, yeast is added to it. After a short time in which the yeast acclimate to the wort, fermentation begins. For homebrewers making average-strength ales, fermentation will last from a few days to a week. For brewers making stronger beers or lagers, fermentation can last longer, up to months. After the beer has fully fermented (and sometimes conditioned for awhile), it is ready to be bottled (or kegged) and served.
In order to make homebrew, you will need a small amount of specialized equipment. Most homebrew shops sell starter kits, consisting of a bucket fermenter and some other basic equipment, starting at around $60 (US). The more complex the brewing method the more equipment you will tend to need. You will also need a large pot to boil your wort in. A 5-gallon (19 L) stainless steel pot is a great one to start brewing in and these can be found starting at around $40 (US) in many homebrew shops.
- Stainless steel brewkettle. Anything less than four gallons will be frustrating due to boilovers or scorching. You will want a top for it if possible. This is a good thrift-store item.
- Five-gallon (19 L) glass or plastic carboy and five-gallon/19 L (or larger) food-grade plastic bucket, or two plastic buckets. You will use these as a fermenter and bottling vessel. If you choose a carboy, you'll need a #7 drilled rubber stopper; if you go for two buckets, you'll need a lid for one of them with a hole drilled for the airlock.
- An airlock. This allows carbon dioxide produced during fermentation to escape from your fermenter.
- A racking cane (rigid plastic) and 6 feet of vinyl siphon hose that fits over the end of the cane.
- Two cases of clean, non-twist-top beer bottles.
- A bottle capper and a package of crown caps.
- Malted grains, dried malt extract or liquid malt extract (depending on your brewing method and recipe).
- Hops Choose pellets or "leaf" (whole flower) hops, but pick those that are as green as possible. Yellowed hops might be old or losing some flavor.
- A package of ale yeast. Dry yeast, rather than a liquid culture, is fine for a first batch, or you can use liquid yeast if you prefer.
- 2/3 cup of dextrose, also known as corn sugar, to use at bottling time.
- Homebrew-friendly cleaning and sanitizing chemicals.
Cleaning and sanitizing
There are many kinds of brewers, from extract brewers making their beer in 5-gallon (19-L) buckets to commercial brewers making their beer in multi-story fermenters. The skills these brewers need and the procedures they use vary substantially. However, there are two skills that every brewer needs, no matter what size brewery they brew in: cleaning and sanitizing.
Cleaning and sanitizing your brewing equipment is the first step listed in the procedure on brew day. Your brewing equipment needs to be as clean and as free from biological growth as possible. The only organism you want growing in your fermenter is yeast. Growth of other organisms in wort can spoil the resulting beer. Contaminated beer may turn out sour or develop other off flavors. It can smell like baby diapers. In addition, the beer may gush when opened or your bottles may explode.
To clean your equipment, you'll need a special solution that's made for brewing equipment. TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) and PBW (Powder Brewery Wash) are two good cleaners to use in your homebrewery. Make up the solution, grab a scrub brush and clean all the surfaces you can reach. Run your cleaning solution through your racking cane and fermentation lock. After cleaning, rinse the equipment. When you're done, visually inspect your equipment, especially those surfaces that will contact the wort. If you see any dirt or residue, repeat your cleaning procedures. Don't rely on your sanitizer to take care of any surfaces that are not spotless — it doesn't work that way. You'll need your equipment to be as clean as possible for the sanitizer to be effective.
To sanitize, soak any equipment that will touch wort in sanitizing solution. There are a few homebrew-friendly sanitizers to choose from, including iodophor. Make a solution with iodophor by combining 1 ounce in 5 gallons of water. Be sure to run sanitizing solution through your racking cane and fermentation lock and let it sit there for the same amount of time your bucket is soaking. When you're done, rinse the equipment with clean water.
The final step is prevention. Don't take this the wrong way, but you may be the biggest threat to your beer! Every day, you pick up bacteria and yeasts from every surface you touch. You transfer these microorganisms to every surface you touch subsequently. On brew day, you handle malt extract and grains. You may also touch brewing equipment that wasn't completely cleaned after your last brewing session. All these things may be harboring strains of bacteria or yeasts that can live in your wort.
So don't touch any surface that will touch wort (the inside of buckets, submerged parts of racking canes). In addition, wash your hands often while brewing. When you're done, clean your brewing equipment thoroughly and wipe down all surfaces that may have gotten spattered, like your kitchen counters and stovetop.
A Word About TroubleshootingIf your first batch is not the best beer you have ever had, there are generally only two possible reasons:
Contamination. If a microorganism other than your brewer's yeast got in your batch you will likely know it. Vinegar flavor, mud puddle, locker room/dirty socks, or compost pile odors are classic signs of contamination. (These contaminators won't kill you, but they might make you sad or discouraged if you have to dump out all that hard work.) Analyze your routine. If you can figure out the source of contamination, fix it and try again. Sanitization does get easier as you brew more.
Not what you expected. There are many nuances you can add as you gain brewing experience, among them: specialty grains, boiling of a larger wort volume (and add less water to the fermenter), more complex hopping, efficient wort cooling, liquid yeast cultures, dry hopping, and all-grain brewing, wherein you start from grain instead of extract. A simple improvement is to add a "secondary fermentation" step: When fermentation has finished, transfer the beer to another carboy for two weeks or so. This can give you clearer, cleaner beer.
These additional procedures offer more options, more ways to tweak your product. Good brewing notes and more attention to details will allow you to customize your flavors, too.
Very faint sherry-like or cardboardy flavors should not discourage you, because they are fixable; as you get more comfortable brewing, handle hot wort and finished beer very gently. Aeration (splashing, spraying, bubbling) of hot wort or of finished beer can lead to oxidation and produce those flavors. The only time you should aerate actively is when your freshly brewed wort has cooled, so siphon gently, stir primings carefully, and so forth. If you have not reached perfection in your routine, you'll still have the ability to make great beer. Don't worry if your siphon hose bubbles when you're filling a bottle, but think about ways to reduce the bubbles next time.