I’ve been a home brewer for over 8 years now and in this time I’ve run many homebrew classes, and what I always tell new students wanting to make their own beer is: brewing can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be. As a beginner, let’s keep it simple! This guide will help you through your first few brews and get you brewing beer you’ll be proud to share with your friends.
The most important part to focus on is sanitisation and cleanliness! If there’s one thing you take away from this article, it needs to be this point. It may not sound very fun, but if you get this down then everything else will fall into place, your beers will be good, and this will give you the drive to brew more and get more from this hobby. They say brewing is 50% art and 50% science. It’s actually 95% cleaning.
What is Brewing? And How is Beer Made?
Let’s start right at the beginning. Beer is made by mashing grains in hot water so the sugars can be extracted. This creates a liquid called wort and it’s then boiled with hops for bitterness and flavour. The wort is cooled, transferred to a fermenter and yeast is added to ferment those sugars. As the saying goes: brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.
The yeast turns the sugars into carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol, and once fermentation is finished we have beer. The beer is then packaged into bottles or a keg and enjoyed.
Whether you go for a Grainfather or build your own system from plastic buckets, the concept is the same: malt needs to sit in hot water (around 65°C) for an hour. This is known as mashing. A Grainfather has a built in concealed element, and a basket for containing all the grains. A traditional mash tun has no direct heat. Instead, the grains are placed in water and the water is recirculated through a heat source to keep it at temperature. A false bottom is in place to stop grains blocking the mash tun’s tap.
A popular brew system for beginners is a brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) system. This is where a brew bag is placed into a brew kettle and grains are mashed inside, and after the mash the bag is removed and the wort is drained into the kettle.
The brew kettle is used to boil the wort. For the majority of beers, the wort should boil for an hour, and during this time we add the hops. (We have a great article with more information on hops.) At the beginning of the boil hops are added for bitterness, and when added at the end they impart less bitterness and more flavour. It’s helpful for the brew kettle to have a filter so hops and other bits of trub (grey matter deposited in the kettle) don’t get into the fermenter.
The wort needs to be cooled as soon as possible, and for that we have a wort chiller. This is a copper coil which sits in the kettle and has cold water running through it. It acts as a heat exchanger and cools the wort.
There’s a range of fermenters available, from plastic buckets to stainless steel conicals with glycol chillers, to pressure fermenters. A plastic bucket is perfect for starting with, and 8 years in I still love my plastic buckets. They can be prone to small scratches which are hard to sanitise, but by taking care of them and washing with the soft side of a sponge these can be prevented.
Once the beer is fermented it needs to be bottled. We have an article which goes into depth on bottling with an accompanying video, which tells you everything you need to know about bottling.
How to Brew
Now you’ve got your equipment sorted, it’s time to make your first beer. Remember, the first few batches you make it’s best to focus on the process, especially sanitisation. The easiest and most effective way to sanitise homebrew equipment is with Chemsan. It’s possible to make a solution and store it in bottles. It can be reused, and a bottle of Chemsan can last years.
I’d also recommend starting your all-grain journey with an all-grain kit. There are loads to choose from and they make great beer.
Start by heating the strike water in the kettle. Usually the strike water has to be about 10°C warmer than the mash temperature, this is because mixing in the grains will lower the temperature. The volume needed differs from system to system, but a good starting point is 2.5L/kilo of grain. The mash should have the consistency of porridge.
When the water gets to temperature, transfer it to the mash tun along with the grains, or if you have a BIAB place in the grain bag and mix in the grains. Try to avoid dough balls: clumps of malt sticking together. Mix really well.
Mash for an hour, during which time heat up the sparge water to 80°C. This can be done in the brew kettle or on the stove in a pinch. Once the mash is complete it’s time to vorlauf: Slowly open the tap a small amount and catch the wort in a jug, then pour it back on top of the mash. This helps to clear the wort. Keep doing this until the wort runs clear. One of the benefits of an all in one system is they usually come with a recirculation pipe which does this for you during the mash.
It’s now time to sparge. This is a process where the wort is drained from the mash tun whilst hot water is poured on top to rinse as many sugars out the grains as possible. There are two types of sparging:
- Fly sparging: water is poured onto the grains at the same slow rate it’s being drawn off. It takes about 45 minutes to collect 25-30 litres of wort.
- Batch sparging: the wort is drained off, then a batch of sparge water is added to the mash tun and left for 15-20 minutes, then slowly drained off. This is repeated until enough wort is collected.
I sparge into two buckets with measurements on them so I know how much I’m collecting, and then pour into my brew kettle once the sparge water has emptied and start the boil.
As the boil is heating up, I measure out the hops and get them ready and set a timer for when they need to go in. Phones are great for this because it’s possible to label timers making it easier to keep track of what goes in when.
15 minutes before the end of the boil I put the immersion chiller into the boiling kettle. It helps to have it in place at this time so the heat will sterilise it.
Fill a fermenter with 5 litres of Chemsan solution and attach the lid and airlock, swirl the solution around, rotate the bucket, turn it upside down, make sure all the sides and inner lid come into contact with the solution and are sanitised. Anything post boil which will come into contact with the wort (any hosing etc.) can be placed in there too. The sanitiser solution can be left in there until the fermenter is filled. Leave it covered.
Drain the sanitiser from the fermenter and transfer the wort from the kettle. This is one of the only times it’s good to get oxygen into the wort/beer. I usually use a shortened piece of tubing for this so the wort falls from a height and splashes into the bucket, aerating the wort. Aerated wort will lead to a healthier fermentation.
Once all the wort is in the fermenter, draw off a sample to take a gravity reading. For this you’ll need a hydrometer which is a tool for measuring dissolved sugars in solutions. Make a note of the gravity, it will be needed for working out the ABV. With the final gravity reading, put the numbers into this calculator and it will calculate the ABV of the beer.
Ferment the beer in a warm place out of direct sunlight. This can take 1-2 weeks sometimes, and may even need another week to “condition”. Fermentation can cause some weird flavours to occur, but over time they tend to fade. It may be tempting to open up the fermenter and have a look but don’t! This can be detrimental to the brew by inviting in unwanted bugs which will ruin the beer.
Congratulations! You’ve made your first beer. Next step is to bottle the beer so you can enjoy it.
Here’s a printable checklist for you to follow on brewday:
- Heat water
- Mash in grains, stir and avoid dough balls
- Mash for an hour
- Heat sparge water
- Vorlauf (recirculate) the wort
- Add hops during the boil
- Add immersion cooler 15 mins before the end of the boil
- Sanitise fermenter and other equipment which will come into contact with the wort
- Cool wort
- Take a gravity reading
- Ferment the beer