Homebrewing 101: An Introduction To Crafting Your Own Brew From Home

Homebrewing is fun and rewarding but requires the right knowledge and equipment. Before you start, it's important to learn the right steps for brewing, fermenting, and bottling your beer. Here, we’ll discuss these steps, as well as the tools you’ll need to get started crafting your own beer.
Article Image

Brewing great beer is part passion and part precision. The satisfaction of crafting and drinking your own homemade beer is hard to beat, but it's important to follow the right steps to ensure cleanliness and great taste.

Not all beer styles are the same, and taste is often a matter of preference. There are several key processes involved in making beer that all homebrewers should know inside and out. By starting with the right instructions and equipment, you can hone your skills quickly and get on the fast track to brewing a full range of delicious styles in the comfort of your own home.

A History of Homebrewing

The craft beer boom is a relatively recent phenomenon, but brewing itself is one of the most ancient processes known to man. Archeologists have found evidence of wheat and barley-based alcohol being fermented as early as 13,000 years ago by the ancient Natufian people in what is now Israel. Researchers believe that the ancient Natufians consumed the fermented beverage during ritual feasts honoring their dead. The oldest scientifically confirmed example of a barley beer was discovered in modern-day Iran and dates back to around 3400 to 3000 B.C.  

Throughout history, early forms of beer were brewed and consumed by civilizations around the world. Researchers have found documentation of beer being produced and consumed by ancient societies in Rome, China, Armenia, Greece, and Egypt. During the industrial revolution, new inventions like the thermometer and the hydrometer made beer production more precise and efficient.  

In America, homebrewing was illegal from 1920 until 1978 because of laws passed during prohibition. Shortly after President Jimmy Carter reversed the bans on home brewing and winemaking by signing H.R. 1337 into law, nuclear engineer Charles Papazian founded the American Homebrewers Association.

The mission of the new association was to unite amateur homebrewers with one another, provide them with information, and advocate for their rights in the United States. Since its founding, membership in the AHA has expanded to over 30,000 homebrewers throughout the country.

Why You Should Brew Your Own Beer

There are numerous reasons why homebrewing has become more popular. Love of brewing and enjoyment of the final product are reasons enough for many people to begin making their own beer, but there are also a few factors that make homebrewing a practical decision in the long run.

Return on Investment

It's no secret that craft beers are expensive. Depending on the style and the brewery, small-batch beers can frequently cost more than $10 for a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles. For regular beer drinkers, these prices add up. After the initial investment for equipment, the cost of homebrewing each batch is much lower than buying the same volume of craft beer from a store. As a result, homebrewing kits pay for themselves over time.  

Customization

Despite all the choices you can find in a modern store, many beer drinkers still have difficulty finding the optimal brew for their taste. Preference is often subjective and no two people have the same taste. Homebrewing gives you the option to choose your style and add the ingredients that you want.

Nutrition

Another benefit of homebrewing is the ability to control the nutritional elements of the beer you drink. There are several health benefits associated with drinking in moderation. However, many commercial beers are filtered and pasteurized, which extends their shelf life but also strips them of key nutrients like vitamin B. Homebrewed beer is unpasteurized and typically contains more nutrients than commercial alternatives.

What Are the Ingredients of Beer?

The exact recipe and quantity of ingredients for a batch of homebrew can vary significantly depending on the style of beer you’re making, but there are several core components of beer that all homebrewers need to know about.

  • Barley: Barley is a type of cereal grain. In brewing, barley grains must be soaked in water until they sprout, and then germinate (dried with hot air). This process is called malting. Different drying methods can yield different flavored malts.
  • Malt and malt extract: Malt is the primary source of fermentable sugar in beer. Malt extract is a concentrated sugar made primarily from malted barley, though other grains and adjuncts can also be malted and extracted. Some brewers use extract instead of grain malt to save time. The flavor profile of a malt can vary depending on factors like roasting time, temperature, pH level, and sugar content.
  • Yeast and bacteria: In brewing, yeast has the critical job of turning sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide during fermentation. Yeast is also responsible for producing compounds that help give the beer its flavor and scent, such as ketones, esters, phenols, and fatty acids.
  • Hops: Hops are the green flowers of the hop plant. Known for their bitterness, hops add flavor, aroma, and balance to beer. They also act as a natural preservative to extend a beer’s shelf life. Hops get their taste and smell from alpha and beta acids and essential oils. They can be added to a batch before or after fermentation. Adding hops after fermentation (known as dry hopping) yields a stronger flavor and aroma.
  • Adjuncts: Adjuncts are another fermentable sugar source that can be used as a cheaper alternative to malted grain. Beers brewed with adjuncts are typically lighter in color and less malty in flavor, but different adjuncts can still make for a very unique flavor profile. Some common examples of adjuncts used in brewing are fruit, chocolate, coffee, oats, and spices.
  • Water: Of course, the main ingredient in any batch of beer is water. The water used in brewing can have a major impact on the character of the beer. The four key elements of water for brewing are pH level (optimally 5.2 to 5.6), hardness (concentration of dissolved minerals), alkalinity, and flavor ions such as sodium.
  • Finings: Fining agents are used to filter out contaminants like tannins and excess yeast to improve beer clarity. They are typically added during fermentation or at the end of the boiling process.  

Complex recipes like flavored stouts or porters may require additional flavoring ingredients, but these seven components are essential to most types of brewing. If you’re a new brewer, getting comfortable with these ingredients is the first step toward expanding your brewing repertoire.

What Equipment Is Needed for Homebrewing?

In addition to ingredients, first-time homebrewers also need to make sure they have the right specialty equipment before getting started. The Homebrewer’s Association identifies several crucial items that all homebrewers should have on hand.

  • Fermenter: A fermenter is a vessel used to hold the solution of grains, malts, and hops (also called the “wort”) while the sugars are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation vessels can be made of metal, glass, or plastic.
  • Airlock: The airlock is a small device that allows carbon dioxide to escape from the fermenter without letting contaminants in. Fermenting without an airlock will cause pressure to build up in the vessel, potentially leading to an explosion.
  • Brew pot: A brew pot or “kettle” is a large vessel used for the boiling process. Due to evaporation during boiling, the capacity of a brew pot should be about 2.5 gallons more than the expected batch yield.
  • Heat source: Boiling also requires a steady heat source that can bring the entire batch up to temperature. Kitchen stoves often work for smaller batches, while larger volumes may require a stronger source like a turkey fryer.
  • Siphon and tubing: In brewing, you’ll use siphons and tubing to efficiently transfer the batch from container to container as it progresses through the boiling and fermentation phases.
  • Hydrometer: A hydrometer is a specialized device used to measure the sugar concentration of the batch. Brewers use this information to calculate the alcohol by volume (ABV) of the finished product.
  • Bottles: Glass bottles are more commonly used for homebrewing, as canning requires specialized equipment. Brewers can buy new bottles from a homebrew supplier or sanitize and reuse commercial bottles. Bottles with pry-off caps are ideal, as it’s difficult to achieve an airtight seal when using twist-offs.
  • Bottle caps: Unlike bottles, which you can recycle, caps must be new to achieve a seal. When you’re buying caps, it's important to ensure they are the same size as the bottles being used.
  • Bottle brush: A bottle brush is a specialty cleaning tool used to sanitize the insides of the bottles before they are filled.
  • Bottling bucket: A bottling bucket is a large container with a spigot at the bottom to regulate the release of the beer.
  • Bottle filler: A bottle filler is a tube that attaches to the spigot of the bottling bucket. It uses a pressure-activated, spring-loaded release to prevent accidental overfilling.
  • Bottle capper: The capper is a specialized device you use to seal the bottles after they are filled. Handheld manual cappers that resemble pliers are common for homebrewing, but you can use heavier duty benchtop cappers for larger jobs.

After you make the initial investment, most brewing equipment does not need to be replaced. The significant savings offered by homebrew over store-bought beer will help your equipment pay for itself over time. To reuse it safely, all brewing equipment must be thoroughly sanitized before and after every batch.

Sanitation

In brewing, even a small amount of contamination at any stage can ruin an otherwise good batch. Contamination won’t necessarily turn your homebrew toxic, but the presence of unwanted microbes can drastically alter the taste, smell, and texture. You can avoid this by taking proper sanitation measures throughout the brewing process

As a general rule, any piece of equipment that will come in contact with the beer must be sanitized before you start brewing. Everything from the fermenter to the bottling bucket to the siphoning tubes. Before you start, it may be helpful to run through a list of all the equipment you’ll be using to make sure it has been properly cleaned.  

To minimize the chance of contamination, you should thoroughly wash all equipment using an oxygen-based cleanser like podered brewery wash (PBW), and then sanitize using an odorless solution like Starsan. You should rinse out all equipment with water in between washing and sanitizing.    

Brewing Your Beer

The first step for all types of homebrewing is sanitizing the equipment you’ll be using. After that, the steps can vary depending on the specific brewing technique being used. Two of the most common techniques in homebrewing are all-extract brewing and all-grain brewing; each of these corresponds with its own set of steps.

All-Extract Homebrewing

All-extract brewing is the simpler of the two techniques, as it utilizes pre-made malt extracts instead of actual grains. Here are the basic steps involved in all-extract brewing:

All-extract brewing is the simpler of the two techniques, as it utilizes pre-made malt extracts instead of actual grains. Here are the basic steps involved in all-extract brewing:

  • Fill the brew pot with water and bring it to a boil.
  • Add the malt extracts to the boiling water; stir thoroughly to prevent the extract from settling at the bottom of the pot.
  • Bring the solution back to a boil once the extract has been fully integrated.
  • Add hops to the solution and then boil for 30 more minutes. Hop quantities will vary significantly depending on the specific recipe. Once boiling is complete, the new solution is known as wort.  
  • Prepare the fermentation vessel by filling it halfway to the top with cold water.  
  • Add the wort to the fermenter once it has cooled down from the boil.  
  • Add yeast to the fermenter.
  • Seal the fermenter, making sure to use a properly sanitized airlock.
  • Shake the fermenter thoroughly for a few moments to oxygenate the yeast.
  • Store the fermenter for 3 or 4 weeks. Make sure to keep it at the same temperature throughout this time.
  • Once fermentation is complete, it is time to carbonate the beer.
  • Make a priming solution by boiling water, then add an ounce of sugar for every gallon of beer being bottled. Boil for about 10 minutes after adding the sugar.  
  • Add the newly made priming solution to the bottling bucket.
  • Add the beer to the bottling bucket using a siphon. Any solid debris left at the bottom of the fermenter should not be added.

All-Grain Homebrewing

All-grain homebrewing is more complicated than extract, but offers the brewer more control of the process. Here’s how to get started with all-grain brewing:

  • Secure the grain bag to the rim of the brew pot. The bag should allow the grains to soak in the water without floating freely.    
  • Add water to the brew pot and grain bag; this is known as “strike water” and it is used to activate enzymes in the malt. Assume about 1.5 gallons of this water will be boiled off.
  • Heat strike water to about 165 degrees.
  • Once the water has reached temperature, add the grains to the grain bag and wait for them to fully saturate.  
  • Bring the water back up to temperature (the addition of grains will lower it).  
  • Allow the pot to sit at the target temperature for about one hour. Keep the pot closed and insulated to sustain the temperature.
  • After the hour is up, remove the grain bag from the brew pot. Make sure that all the grains remain in the bag, and none are left behind in the pot. The liquid solution left in the pot is the wort.
  • Bring the wort back up to a boil after removing the grain bag.
  • Once the wort is boiling, add hops according to the specific recipe.
  • Add a fining agent to the wort. This should be about 45 minutes after adding the hops.  
  • Transfer the wort over to the fermenter after it has cooled down enough (to around 70 degrees).
  • Once the wort is in the fermenter, use a hydrometer to calculate the original gravity of the beer.
  • Carefully add yeast to the now chilled wort.
  • After adding yeast, seal the fermenter using a sanitized airlock.
  • Give the fermenter a solid shake for about a minute.
  • Store and monitor the fermenter, making sure it stays at the same temperature.

Once fermentation is complete, the beer is ready for bottling. The techniques and considerations for bottling will be the same for both the all-extract and all-grain brewing techniques.

Bottling Your Beer

While it may not seem as important as brewing itself, properly bottling your beer will help protect its taste, aroma, and texture. Bottling is fairly straightforward, but there are several things all homebrewers should know:

  • Once the beer is ready for bottling, attach the bottle filler to the spigot on the bucket using food-grade tubing.  
  • Fill the thoroughly sanitized bottles with a uniform amount of beer. Ideally, there should be about one inch of space at the very top of each bottle after filling.
  • Securely cap the bottles using a sanitized bottle capper  
  • Store the bottles at room temperature. Allow about three weeks for the carbonation process to occur.

After carbonation has taken place, get ready to relax and enjoy your beer!

Enjoying Your Homebrew

Enjoying your home-brewed beer may seem as simple as cracking a bottle and taking a sip, but that approach may not always deliver the best results. Serving and consuming your homebrew with the right barware can help you and your guests better experience its tastes and aromas.

As any seasoned beer enthusiast will likely tell you, the glass or cup you drink from can noticeably affect your overall tasting experience. The optimal drink container for your homebrew depends on the style of beer. For traditional ales, lagers, and dry stouts, a classic stein or pint glass is usually the best way to go. Stronger or more complex beers, like German bocks and Belgian tripels, should be enjoyed in a goblet or chalice-style glass for the best experience.  

Proper storage of your homebrew is also crucial for best taste. If you’re transporting your beer to enjoy outdoors or at a friend’s house, numerous variables can potentially impact quality. When beer is exposed to sunlight or isn’t sealed properly, it can become flat or skunked. Storing and transporting your beer in a resealable, light-proof container like a metal growler can preserve its freshness through fluctuating environmental conditions.

After carbonation has taken place, get ready to relax and enjoy your beer!

Additional Brewing Resources

When it comes to brewing, even the experts are never done learning. If you’d like to know more about beer and homebrewing, check out these resources for recipes, walk-throughs, beer-related discussion forums, and more.

  • Brewers Association: The official website of the not-for-profit trade association for craft brewers. Here, you’ll find data, workshops, and links to other educational resources for craft brewers.
  • The American Homebrewers Association: The AHA is a division of the Brewers Association focused specifically on homebrewing. On their official site, you can find various recipes, step-by-step guides, and news pertaining to homebrewing. For first-time brewers, the AHA even offers a guide to shopping for brewing supplies.
  • The Homebrew Academy: The Homebrew Academy is an educational group established by and for home-brewing enthusiasts. The site offers different style recipes, video courses, and equipment walk-throughs.
  • BeerAdvocate: BeerAdvocate is a site dedicated to cataloging different types of beer. Beer enthusiasts can discuss the craft with one another on the site’s forums, trade beer with other drinkers, or simply peruse resources on beer style and brewing equipment.
BACK TO HOW-TO GUIDES