Monday, June 25, 2012

Preparing to brew your first beer.
Part 2: Picking your first recipe

The easy suggestion here is to tell you to brew what you like to drink.  Unfortunately, this will come with a lot of caveats, and you might have some misunderstandings about what beer you even like. 

The craft beer industry has done a lot to really help people understand a lot more about different types of beer, but this post is going to give you a little information to help you decide what you want to brew your first time out.

Lagers, ales and California Commons, oh my!
Because beer has been around for so long, a lot of the terms like “beer” and “ale” have actually changed a lot since the terms first came into usage.  I’m not going to go into the historic definitions of these terms now, but I will give you a bit of a primer in what they mean today.

The first myth I want to dispel is that ales are bitter, or lagers are watery and flavorless.  The differences between ales and lagers, while they do make quite a bit of difference in the end flavor of the beer, have little to do with how bitter or strong tasting a beer is.

Ales are brewed with ale yeast, a top-fermenting yeast.  What does that mean?  Top-fermenting yeast tends to sit at the top of the beer while it’s fermenting.  You get a thick, white/tan foam floating on top of your beer called krausen (you do get krausen with lager yeast as well, but it’s typically a lot smaller.)  Ale yeasts are typically fermented at higher temperatures (60-75ºf) and can add slight fruity or spicy flavors to the beer.  Most craft beers are ales.  They’re typically easier to make, and tend to have more complex flavors than lagers.

Lager literally means “storage” in german.  Lager is brewed with lager yeast, a bottom fermenting yeast.  While ale yeast eventually drops to the bottom after it’s consumed all the sugars it can, lager yeast typically falls to the bottom very quickly, and is referred to as a bottom-fermenting yeast.  When brewing with lager yeast, you end up with a much smaller krausen.  You typically ferment lagers at lower temperatures (45-55ºf), and then “lager” (bring the temperature of the beer slowly down to roughly 35ºf and then keep it at that temperature for several weeks) the beer once fermentation is done.  Budweiser is a very widely distributed example of a lager, but not all lagers are pale, lightly flavored beers.  Lagers span the entire spectrum from extremely light to extremely dark.  Lagers are more difficult to make, and have a “cleaner” flavor.  By that, I mean you won’t get many of the fruity or spicy characteristics that you typically get with ale yeasts.

California Common
There is one more type of beer that doesn’t really fall into either of those two categories (well, sours don’t really fit into either of the other two categories either, but that falls outside of what you’d likely want to make for your first beer.)  The California common is a beer that is fermented using lager yeast, but at ale fermentation temperatures, and not lagered.  One of the most well know examples of a California Common is Anchor Steam Beer.  Typically, these beers are a bit cleaner tasting than ales, but a bit more complex than lagers.  They’re also considerably easier to brew than a normal lager.

That’s great, but how do I decide what to brew for my first batch?
My suggestion is to make an ale or California Common for your first batch.  You will have a lot of new things to keep track of your first time brewing, you’re probably best off not adding the complication of making it a lager.

The main source of sugar in beer is malt, grains.  You can either extract the maltose (grain sugar) yourself by soaking the grains at a specific temperature for a period of time, or you can buy malt extract where someone has already done the work of extracting the maltose from the grain for you.

Stick to extract with specialty grains (grains that add additional flavor to the beer) for your first beer.  Using malt extract instead of doing an all-grain batch eliminates a lot of work.  While you might eventually want to go all-grain, the first time you make beer is already going to be a lot of work, and you don’t want to end up doing so much that you end up discouraged an unwilling to do it again.

I’m also going to suggest buying a recipe kit for your first batch.  Formulating a good beer recipe is actually fairly difficult, and even following someone else’s recipe can be difficult your first time.  Kits eliminate a lot of the guess work, all of the ingredients are already measured out and packaged in a way that makes them easy to use.  Check to see if your kit has any specialty grains, and if they do, ask to have them crushed by the people you’re buying it from.  Crushing the grains helps you get more flavor out of them, and it can be difficult to do it properly at home.

As for what to make beyond that, make what you like.  If you like lighter beers, make a lighter beer.  If you like darker beers, make a dark beer.  Very, very light beers can be hard to get right because any off-flavor will stand out like a sore thumb.  

Ambers and reds are actually a good place to start.  They're not super light, so off flavors won’t be too apparent, but they're also not so strongly flavored that you would be unable to tell if you really made a big mistake during the brew process.  The hop flavors (hops are used for bittering, flavor and aroma, and range from earthy, to piney, to flowery, to citrusy) also tend to be fairly subdued, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding people willing to drink your beer (although, if you like really hoppy beer, make a really hoppy beer.)

This kit is very similar to the first beer I brewed: Homebrewing Kit: Irish Red Ale w/ Munton's 6 gm dry yeast.

Next week, we go through the basic brewing process!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Preparing to brew your first beer.
Part 1: The equipment

For this post, I’m going to be linking to various products to show you examples of the equipment you should purchase to brew your first batch of beer.  While purchasing the products online is just fine, I encourage you to see if there is a homebrew store in your area and visit the store in person.  Not all local homebrew stores are great, but a lot of them are, and the people working there tend to be very helpful.

Brewing beer can be done extremely inexpensively.  That being said, ultimately, brewing your own beer shouldn’t be about getting cheap beer, it should be about brewing a good beer, and having fun doing it.

When I started brewing, I was out of work.  I had been interested in brewing beer for a while, but hadn’t made the leap to actually doing it.  As much fun as it is to search for job openings, send out resumes, call prospective employers, I needed something else to help occupy some of my time.  Unfortunately, being out of work, I was on a bit of a tighter budget, so a lot of hobbies were out of the question.  Brewing, on the other hand, was inexpensive, and can be as little or as much time-consuming as you really want it to be.

I made my first batch of beer for roughly $35, and that included equipment that would be reusable through a number of brews.  Admittedly, I did luck out a bit.  My grandfather had been a homebrewer, so I got a carboy (a big, glass bottle) as well as some other equipment from him, and my dad had an old turkey fryer he had sworn off using, but had kept immaculately clean on the inside (the outside of the pot was a different story, but that’s far less important.)  That left me with buying a cheap ingredient kit for $20 and another $15 worth of equipment to buy.

What do you need?
When it comes down to it, there are really only two pieces of equipment you need in order to brew your first batch of beer (one, if you really want to dumb down the process.)

Brew Pot
The first thing you need is a pot to boil the wort (unfermented beer, pronounced wûrt.)  Ideally, you want to be able to do a full boil, boiling all of the water for the beer, which, for a 5 gallon (20qt.) batch, you’d likely want at least a 7 gallon pot.  Most people don’t have a 7 gallon pot on hand, and even if they do, boiling 5+ gallons of water on your stove can be extremely difficult, so you can do what is called a partial boil, boiling a smaller volume of wort and then topping off with additional water when you transfer it to the fermenter (see below).  To do a partial boil, you should make at least 2 gallons of wort, so you’ll want roughly a 3 gallon pot.

Possibly the best route to go for a brew pot is to get one of these: Brinkmann 815-4001-S Turkey Fryer.  The pot is big enough to do a full boil, and it comes with a propane burner, so you don’t have to try to boil 5+ gallons of liquid on your stove.  You can also find turkey fryers on craigslist fairly frequently, especially after Thanksgiving in the US, but make sure the inside of the pot is spotless if it’s used.  You don’t want any old, cooked on grease in the pot as it’ll ruin the beer.

Now, I did mention being able to skip one piece of equipment if you’re really trying to do this in a minimalistic fashion.  There does exist no-boil beer kits like this one: Coopers Brewmaster Selection India Pale Ale No Boil Home Brew Beer Kit.  If you use one of these, you wouldn’t need to have a pot to boil the wort in.  That being said, I’ve never tried one of these myself, and I’ve never heard of anyone being terribly impressed with the end result.

The second thing you’ll need is something to actually ferment the beer in.  You have a couple of choices here.  I personally use a glass carboy, like this one: 6.5 Gallon glass carboy.  You can also use a plastic bucket like this one: 6.5 Gallon plastic fermenter with lid.  They also make a plastic bottle similar to the glass carboy: 6 Gallon Better Bottle.  There are some pros and cons to any of those choices, and I might go into those pros and cons in another post, but for the most part, they work the same.  You put your wort into the fermenter, add yeast, wait a few days and the yeast will have converted the sugar into alcohol and you’ll have beer.  I do suggest that no matter what you use for a fermenter, it should be at least 6 to 6.5 gallons in size for a 5 gallon batch.  While the wort is fermenting, you’ll likely get a lot of foam on top (for ales anyway), and if the fermenter is too small, it will spray out the top of the fermenter.

So, those are the two things you absolutely need.  Lets go over a few things that you really should have for your first batch of beer, but aren't absolutely necessary.

You’ll need an airlock like this one: 3 Piece Plastic Airlock (Sold in sets of 3).  If you get a carboy or a better bottle, you’ll also need an appropriately sized rubber stopper with a hole drilled through it, like this: Drilled Rubber Stopper (Carboy Bung Sets of 3).  If you’re using something like the bucket listed above, it should already have a hole drilled in the lid with a rubber grommet for the airlock to go into.  The airlock allows the gasses created by the fermenting beer to get out, while stopping air and other things from getting in.

You’ll want a sanitizer.  While regular soap can clean your equipment well, sanitizer kills all bacteria, mold and fungus that might compete with your yeast for the tasty sugars in the unfermented wort.  Even if you don’t see anything on your equipment, there are still microscopic organisms that will feast on the sugar, and even the alcohol the yeast converts the sugars into.  The sanitizer will kill all of unwanted organisms, so the yeast can do its job without any interference. 

You can use a mild bleach solution for this, but you would then want to rinse out the bleach with sterilized water as the bleach will create off-flavors in the beer, and bleach isn’t terribly good for you to ingest.  I personally like to use Star San, but I also use Iodophor.  Both Star San and iodophor are no-rinse sanitizers.  You rinse your equipment in the sanitizer, pour it our and then you can immediately introduce the equipment to the wort or beer without rinsing off the equipment. 

Iodophor is basically iodine, and can stain your equipment, your counter tops, your hands (if used improperly) but Star San is extremely slipperly, and foams up a lot.  Some people don’t like how much Star San foam remains in their fermenter after pouring out the sanitizer.  They fear it will somehow create off flavors in the beer.  I’ve never had any issues with Star San, and as Star San advocates like to say, “don’t fear the foam”.  The leftover star san will actually break down into nutrients for the yeast.

Bottling Bucket
You’ll want some way to get the beer into bottles.  A bottling bucket is a great way to do that: Bottling Bucket with Spigot.  Some people do use a fermenter with a spigot and bottle directly from the fermenter.  If you’re using a glass carboy or a fermenter without a spigot, you’ll want a bottling bucket.

Bottling Wand
Along with the bottling bucket, the bottling wand (Spring Loaded Beer Bottle Filler) is a great way to get the beer into bottles that minimizes spillage and keeps you from introducing too much oxygen into the beer.  You’ll also want a short piece of vinyl hose to connect the bottling wand to the spigot on the bottling bucket.

Racking Cane
If your fermenter isn’t also your bottling bucket, you’ll need a way to transfer the beer from the fermenter to the bottling bucket.  Typically, this is done with a racking cane (Racking Cane - 3/8 inch x 24 inches long).  You’ll also need a few feet of vinyl hose (5 feet should be plenty).  Make sure you get a nice tight fit between the racking cane and the vinyl hose or you’ll end up leaking beer or introducing oxygen to the beer.

Even better than a plain racking can is an autosiphon (Auto-Siphon - 3/8").  The autosiphon starts transferring the wort to the bottling bucket without you needing to manually sucking or blowing the beer through the hose.  When I first started brewing, the autosiphon was significantly more than a racking cane, but the price has come down a lot.

The hydrometer (Hydrometer - Triple Scale) is one of the most important, yet most overlooked pieces of equipment for homebrewing beer.  The hydrometer allows you to measure how much dissolved sugar there is in your wort before it’s fermented into beer, and more importantly, will tell you when your beer is finished fermenting.  A lot of beginners overlook the hydrometer because they figure they don’t need to know how much dissolved sugar is in the wort or they don’t care about calculating how much alcohol is in the beer, but the really important part is being able to tell when the beer is done fermenting.  Bottling your beer before it’s done fermenting can lead to exploding bottles.

Far less important than the hydrometer, but still good to have is a thermometer (Dial Thermometer).  Go for one that will show you at least 30ºf at the low end and 220ºf at the high end.  Digital thermometers are great as long as they’re accurate. 

When your beer is done fermenting, you’ll want some way to store the beer.  Traditionally, this is done with bottles (24 12oz Amber long neck bottles).  The bottles can really be any size, and can even be plastic, but you want to stay away from clear or green bottles.  Amber/brown bottles, or even black are your best bet as they keep out UV light, which causes beer to go skunky.  You know the odd, skunky flavor that imported beer in green bottles has, that’s not caused by the brewing process, it’s caused by UV light reacting with the beer and turning it skunky. 

If you’re going with 12-oz bottles like the ones in the link, you’ll want around 50.  Don’t get the screw-top glass bottles, the type of capper you’re likely to get won’t apply the cap properly, so the cap will either leak, or the bottle will break.

Bottle Caps
If you’re getting glass bottles like the ones linked above, you’ll need bottle caps (Gold Crown Bottle Caps (1 gross, 144 caps)).  They also make oxygen absorbing bottle caps if you really want to keep the O2 out of your beer.

Bottle Capper
And finally, if you’re using glass bottles, you’ll need a special tool to apply the caps.  Red Baron Bottle Capper.  The linked bottle capper is known as a wing capper.  You can also get a bench capper (Super Agata Bench Bottle Capper), which is easier to operate, but tends to be a lot more expensive.

Buying a kit
If you’ve got the money to do so, buying a kit like this: Home Brewing Equipment Kit with Carboy & Instructional Beer Making DVD, will get you a lot of the way toward having everything you need.  You may periodically find deals on group deal sites like Groupon for homebrew kits, and you can check out craigslist for people selling their old homebrew equipment.  If you do buy used equipment from craigslist, be careful with any plastic/rubber equipment that it comes with as it’s possible for the plastic to become “infected” with bad bacteria either through neglect, or intentionally done (I don’t mean people are maliciously selling homebrew equipment that they’ve intentially infected with bad bacteria.  There are some types of beer that call for using various wild yeasts like brettanomyces, but then that equipment should only be used for beer you intentionally want infected).  It won’t likely hurt you, but it can cause your beer to turn out bad. 

If you do buy a whole kit, go back through the list of things I’m recommending you buy to figure out if there are any gaps you’ll need to fill in.

Next week’s post will be far shorter.  I’ll be talking about how to pick your first recipe.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Ah, glorious beer.  We have truly entered into a zymurgistic (area of science related to fermentation and brewing) renaissance.

The craft beer has become extremely popular in the last few years.  It seems that new, small breweries and brew pubs pop up every couple of months in my home state of Minnesota, and from what I’ve seen elsewhere, this appears to be the case just about everywhere in the US.  Even with all these new sources of beer, it appears we have yet to hit the saturation point.  Every new brewery seems to open with great interest and anticipation at what new and unique thing they will bring to the brewing community.  Of course, not every new brewery is successful, but their chances of success are far greater than they would have been even five years ago.

All of this new interest in craft beer has also fostered a lot of interest in how beer is made, and has drawn in a large crowd that is interested in brewing their own beer at home.

I, myself, have been homebrewing beer for about four years now, and while my interest in brewing beer waxes and wanes, it has been the one hobby that has really taken hold for me.  I am passionate about beer in general, and brewing beer gives me a great creative outlet with so many facets to the hobby that when I become bored with one aspect of the hobby, another aspect easily garners my interest.

I’ve been looking for a topic to write about for some time now, and have struggled to find a topic until recently, when I realized, I really do have one subject that I’m passionate about and love to talk about with anyone that will listen.  I just hadn’t thought of homebrewing as something to write about because I spend so much time talking about it.

The purpose of this website is to help spread the good word about homebrewing, so to speak.  I plan to give information on how to brew beer at home, interspersed with information on what I’m doing now with brewing beer.

I hope to make this blog a fairly regular thing for me, so I hope I can interest you in brewing beer and get you to check in often to get more information and evolve your brewing while I continue to evolve with you.