Monday, July 30, 2012

Surly SŸX

When I started this blog about a month and a half ago, I said I would also talk about craft beer.  Up until now, I've been fairly quiet on the subject.  Today, that will change.

Surly SŸX is Surly Brewing Co.'s sixth anniversary beer.  The description from the label reads:
Woah. Who would have thought? Another great year flew by, bringing us to the big SŸX. What better way to celebrate than to challenge ourselves with unfamiliar techniques and materials? Utilizing six wood species in a 'Honey Comb' shape for aging this year's anniversary beer. SŸX comes in at Alc. 15% by Vol. and is one to be savored with it's pale gold color, dry toffee and fruit character and warming afterglow finish.
Todd Haug
Last Monday morning, at about 10:30am, The Four Firkins announced the arrival of Surly SŸX at their store.  I got there at around 3:30pm, and they had already been sold out for two hours.  I then contacted Surdyk's, and they informed me they wouldn't be getting their delivery until Wednesday.  I took my chances and just showed up at about 2:30pm, but didn't find a single bottle in my mad dash through the store.  On my way out, I asked an employee, and they confided in me that the beer had been tucked into an odd, out of the way corner, in an attempt to waylay the anticipated horde of people that would be seeking out the elusive beer.

I was led back to the location of the corner where the beer had been hidden and was told "there is no limit on the number you may purchase".  I was tempted to purchase an entire case, but at $20 a bottle, I restrained myself to purchasing only four bottles.  They were still cold, so despite the heat outside, they arrived at my destination at well below 70۫f.

I managed to keep myself from immediately opening a bottle, and waited until Friday, when my wife and I would have time to actually take our time with the beer and savor it properly.

After a nice, relaxing dinner, we came home and opened the bottle.  I was immediately hit by the strong, flowery smell of the hops.  I poured the beer into two glasses.  The beer was far too cold to begin with, and the only odor was a very flowery hop character.  The flavor was sweet, almost on the edge of cloying, but the strong hop flavor kept it just bitter enough to keep from being too sweet.

There was definitely a strong alcohol flavor to it, and the beer was too strong in general to drink quickly.  This was actually quite beneficial, because we were able to experience the way the flavor changed over about three hours.

As the beer warmed, the sweet flavor became more complex, and the alcohol flavor faded away.  The flowery hops were present throughout the entire session, but helped to compliment the malty flavor well as the beer grew closer to room temperature.  Eventually, the beer actually took on a bit of a sour characteristic, which I didn't expect, but wasn't entirely unpleasant.  

Beth, my wife, compared it to a barley wine.  Overall, I didn't get much of the wood character that I was expecting, but I really did enjoy drinking the beer.  I think I might enjoy the beer a bit more in cooler weather, and plan to cellar the remaining three bottles to see how the beer changes over time.

I love to see breweries trying new things with their beer, and while I wouldn't rank this beer in my top 10 all time favorites, I definitely think it's a great beer, and recommend trying it if you can get your hands on a bottle.

Not entirely certain what I'm going to write about next week, but I hope you'll join me to find out where I go next.

Monday, July 23, 2012

This One's For the Girls

This week I have a guest post from my own wife, Beth.

Well hello there!  I'm the "other half" of Pants Monkey Brewing so to speak - as I'm the wife of the brewer!  Anyway, I'm writing this post for the girls today.  So guys, if you're having a hard time convincing your wife/girlfriend/significant other that homebrewing is a good idea, have them read this post.  Or any ladies lurking on their own, maybe you're interested in brewing but were too shy to say anything, this post is for you too.

So, why do I love homebrew?  First off, it helps that I love beer.  I didn't always love beer though.  It took me a number of years after turning the legal drinking age before I really had a taste for it.  I blame that on the fact that on my 21st birthday I was force fed beer to get to bring home a free mug and yeah, that turned me off of it for quite a while.  Flash forward a few years and my husband, the author of this blog, kept saying how good beer was with pizza or hamburgers and I decided, I really want to try to like beer.  I started with something simple, Leinenkugel's Apple seasonal from that winter, since it was more like cider and worked up from there.

Gradually, we found ourselves into the craft beer scene more and more and then hubby inherted some brewing equipment and said he wanted to try making his own beer, so I said sure, why not?  At the time he was out of work and needed something to occupy his time and I figured, if we make our own beer maybe we'll save money by not having to buy beer as much.

Now, I will have to be honest with you, homebrew is not necessarily always cheaper.  And there can be a lot of cost up front - but over some time it will start to pay for itself the more you get into it.  I will admit, I was more willing to let him start brewing because we did inherit so much of the start up equipment.  But, I also was rather intregued by the concept of being able to make our own beer from scratch.  I love DIY.  I'm not good at most DIY, but this one just seemed do-able.

So that was four years ago and our love of homebrew and beer in general has just grown more and more. The craft beer scene here in MN has exploded in the last probably two years or so and that has just fueled our fire for homebrew.  We see what these awesome local breweries are doing and we want to try it ourselves!  For Christmas two years ago I gifted my husband tickets to Winterfest, a giant craft beer event in St. Paul, MN.  We had a blast trying different beers and I was inspired to create my own recipe after attending!  You heard me right - I actually created a recipe and did the work to make my own Cherry Wheat beer.  My husband likes to crudely call it "Beth's Poppin Her Cherry Wheat Beer" since it was my very first time making everything from start to finish.  He's naughty like that though.

Another reason I love homebrew is I love to throw parties - I'm the quintessential Monica from "Friends", I love being the hostess.  Having a bar with seven kegs now gives me an excuse to throw one hell of a big party in the fall for Oktoberfest.  I love this annual event, we invite our friends, family and co-workers and it's a blast.  It wouldn't happen without homebrew!

Finally, the biggest reason I support my husband's homebrew hobby and why I love it - it's something we enjoy and can do together.  I love sitting out on the deck with him on brew day, I like drinking the beer together and discussing the way it tastes, I even like going to the homebrew supply store and helping pick out the next kit.  And homebrewing makes him insanely happy.  He is adorable when he talks to people about it, his face lights up and it just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.  I'm probably embarassing him and getting all mushy, but seriously, we've had some stressful times in the last few years between work, family drama and other things, but homebrew is something that relaxes us and kind of makes those problems go away.  It is such a wonderful part of our life as a married couple.

So, ladies, I don't know if I did a good job to convince you or not, but I really do think you should give it a try.  It's satisfying and fun and your husband/boyfriend/significant other will love you for it.  If nothing else, tell them that if you let them do this, they have to buy you something pretty in exchange!  I'm teasing.  If you are seriously interested in beer or trying homebrew yourself, there are a couple of organizations geared towards women you should check out.  Barley's Angels is a beer group that meets at a bar/pub to sample and learn about beers, usually on a monthly basis.  I haven't made it to the local chapter meetings here in MN yet, but they are a very active group and it looks like they have a ton of fun.  I have had the chance to participate in another local Minneapolis women's group though - Bitches Brew Crew, they meet monthly to brew a batch of beer from start to finish.  I don't doubt there are other groups like that in other places too, check or Facebook, you never know what you might find!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Yeast - The fungus amongus

Beer, or at least something like what we call beer today, has actually been an extremely important part of human history.  For a long time, beer was actually one of the only clean, safe sources of drinking water available to us, and in large part, thanks to yeast.

Back before we even knew what yeast was, we knew that drinking beer was safer than drinking water straight from a river, lake or well.  We didn't know why at the time, but the whole process of making beer kills microorganisms, such as parasites, bacteria and fungus, that are harmful to us, and pretty much all of the microorganisms that are harmful to us (yeast is actually a fungus, but isn't harmful to us) can't survive in even the tiny amounts of alcohol found in beer, so beer stays safe to drink months, even years after having been brewed.

What makes the alcohol that keeps the beer safe to drink?  The yeast, of course. But what about today, when clean, safe drinking water is plentiful in first world nations, why drink it now?  Well, despite what some people would have you believe, beer is actually fairly nutritious. Beer is a source of protein, some complex carbohydrates, potassium, and various vitamin B complexes such as niacin and folic acid.  Yeast is directly responsible for the vitamin B found in beer.

OK, lets not kid ourselves.  We don't drink beer for the nutritional value, we drink beer for the way it tastes, and for the small amount of alcohol it provides.  But that's OK.  There's nothing wrong with drinking beer as long as it's done responsibly.  

OK, back to yeast.  As I said, yeast provides the alcohol in beer, and can also provide carbonation as both alcohol and CO2 are waste products for the yeast.  Yeast also adds a lot to the flavor of the beer.  Some yeast strains will help bring out the malty flavor of the beer, or accentuate the hops.  Some yeast strains, such as Belgian yeast strains, will give the beer a strong fruity or spicy flavor.  You can easily test this to see the difference that yeast can give the beer yourself by splitting a batch of wort into two different fermenters, and pitch a different yeast in each fermenter.

Yeast can also contribute to a lot of the off flavors in beer, such as making the beer taste cidery, or buttery, or fruity when you're really not looking for a fruity tasting beer.  Yeast will also clean up a lot of these off flavors if left to their own devices.

Lets talk a little about the choices we have for yeast.  First off, don't buy baker's yeast to ferment beer.  It will ferment the beer, a bit, but it's generally not very alcohol tolerant, so it might not ferment out as far as you'd like, and baker's yeast generally doesn't have as stringent quality control as brewing yeast, and for good reason.  If you're making bread, you're only going to let the yeast interact with the dough for a few hours as most before baking the bread.  If you have another microorganism in with the yeast, it really isn't going to have time to cause any real issues with the bread before it's baked.

On the other hand, you're going to let your brewing yeast remain in with your beer for days, if not months or years, so a little acetobacter or lactobacillus will have plenty of time to start multiplying and changing the flavor of your beer considerably.

Brewer's yeast
So what about our choices for brewer's yeast?  First we have dry yeast.  One of the great things about dry yeast is that the process of drying the yeast preserves the yeast really well, so it won't degrade much over time.  It's also packed with nutrients to help kick start the yeast once you add it to your beer, and you can get a lot of healthy yeast packed in a really small container, so one packet of yeast is enough to brew 5 gallons of beer without a problem.  Dry yeast is also very inexpensive when compared to liquid yeast.  The downside of the dry yeast is that there just isn't a very wide selection of dry yeasts to choose from, so you're pretty limited in what you can do with the beer, as far as changing the yeast goes.  Dry yeast is also typically very clean fermenting, so you don't end up with much for off-flavors, but sometimes you actually want the off flavors to add complexity to the beer.

Then we have liquid yeast. Liquid yeast isn't nearly as hardy, and starts to degrade quickly after packaging, even when stored in ideal conditions.  The packages of liquid yeast marketed for only needing one packet of yeast for a 5 gallon batch, don't actually have enough living yeast to ferment the beer well.  On the other hand, you have tons of choices when it comes to liquid yeast.  You can buy yeast specifically for the flavors and properties that you want in your beer, so you can have full control over your end product (or at least as much control as you can expect to have over a living organism.)

Another down side of liquid yeast is that it tends to be fairly expensive, making up to 1/4 the cost of the entire beer you make.  You can mitigate this cost a bit by reusing the yeast.  After you've fermented a batch of beer, most of the yeast falls out of suspension, and ends up at the bottom of your fermenter.  After you remove the beer, you can pour another batch of wort on top of that yeast cake, and then you don't have to pitch any more yeast.  The yeast at the bottom of the fermenter will be more than enough to ferment another batch of beer.  You'll want to reuse the yeast cake within about a week, and you'll want to make sure you don't needlessly expose the yeast to other microorganisms, so keep it covered.

If you just reuse the yeast at the bottom of the fermenter in this fashion, you will end up with a little of the beer from the first batch getting into the second batch of beer.  This means any flavors from the first batch will be added to the second.  You can always make the same recipe, but that can get boring, so just make sure the flavors from the first beer won't be unacceptable in the second batch.  If the first batch was a double IPA, you probably wouldn't want the second batch to be an american light lager. An easy way to account for the flavors of the first batch is to simply make the first batch a lighter tasting beer, and make the second batch a bit stronger tasting.

Another possibility, to remove the non-yeast part of the trub (trub is the sediment at the bottom of the fermenter, not all of which is yeast), and remove most of the flavor influence of the previous batch of beer is to wash the yeast.  I'll try to write an article on washing yeast in the future.

Many American breweries will reuse yeast for up to 10 generations of yeast, but Belgian breweries have been known to use the same yeast cake for upwards of 100 generations of yeast.

Along with your normal brewer's yeast, you can also get some specialty yeasts and bacteria to really change the way your beer tastes. Brettanomyces, lactobacillus, acetobacter and pediococcus can all be added to your beer to add interesting, unique flavors.  If you do ever work with these non-traditional microorganisms, it's a good idea to have a separate set of equipment for the fermentation and bottling/kegging of the beer so you don't inadvertently infect other batches of beer.

Preparing yeast to use
For the homebrew scale, 200 billion yeast cells is considered to be roughly the right amount of yeast to use for a 5 gallon batch of beer.  On the commercial scale, even this wouldn't be nearly enough. You do want enough healthy yeast to minimize off-flavors and to make sure the beer is fully fermented. If you don't have enough healthy yeast, the yeast may produce more of the compounds that contribute to off-flavors, and may even give up on fermenting before all the fermentable sugar is gone.
Preparing dry yeast is easy. Generally speaking, a packet of dry yeast has enough viable yeast to brew a 5 gallon batch of beer as-is. You should let it get to room temperature before pitching (actually, you should get it to the temperature of the wort you're intending on pitching the yeast into.)  After letting the yeast get to room temperature, you can "proof" the yeast, which basically means you're making sure the yeast is still good by putting it in a small water/sugar mixture to see if it starts to ferment in the mixture before pitching it in your wort.

Liquid yeast might require a bit more work to get ready to ferment your batch of beer. Wyeast guarantees their activator yeast packages to have at least 100 billion viable yeast cells at the time of packaging. White labs used to advertise their vials of yeast as containing roughly 50 billion viable yeast cells, but upped it to 100 billion a few years ago.

Unfortunately, 100 billion viable yeast cells is roughly half of what we need for healthy fermentation, and the cell count starts going down fairly rapidly after packaging (by the time it leaves the factory, it's down to roughly 95% viability).  You could always pitch multiple packages of yeast in your wort to get enough yeast, but liquid yeast isn't cheap.  A good alternative is to make a yeast starter.

A yeast starter is basically a tiny batch of beer, with the specific purpose of generating more yeast to pitch in your larger batch of beer. While there are a variety of calculators out there for figuring out the size of the yeast starter you'll need, Mr. Malty's Pitching Rate Calculator is generally considered the definitive resource to use.

Before we make the starter, you're going to want to take the yeast out of the refrigerator and let it warm to room temperature.  The yeast, as it warms up, will start giving off some CO2.  If the yeast is in a vial, you may want to periodically unscrew the top a little to let the excess CO2 escape, and then seal the vial again.  If you have a Wyeast smack pack, there will be a small packet of yeast nutrient inside the main container, you'll want to smack your package of yeast hard enough to rupture this nutrient packet.  The smack pack will then slowly inflate as the yeast wakes up and starts consuming the nutrients.

The following recipe I'm going to give you is a great starting point for making a yeast starter, but it may not be the right size starter for all batches of beer you make.
2 cups water
1/2 cup extra light dry malt extract
2-4 hop pellets (you don't really need the hops, I just like to add them to make it a little more like beer.)

You basically make it like any other beer.  Dissolve the malt extract in the water, bring it to a boil and add the hops.  In this case though, you really only need to boil for about 10 minutes, just long enough to kill anything that might have been living in any of the ingredients.  You then cool it, put it in an appropriately sized container (I like to use a growler), shake it up really well to aerate the wort, pitch your yeast and then use something to cover the container that will let the CO2 out.  I actually use an airlock, but some people just use a piece of sanitized aluminum foil.

Let it ferment for 2-3 days, and it will be ready to pitch in your bigger batch of beer.

You might find that your starter is getting so large you don't want to pour the whole thing in your large batch of beer (for a higher gravity beer, you may need to make a 1 gallon starter).  If that's the case, after the starter has finished fermenting, place it in your refrigerator for a day or two, so the yeast all falls out of suspension, and then pour most of the liquid off the top.  Just be sure to leave enough liquid in the container so you can shake the yeast up enough so it's not completely stuck to the bottom.

I hope this gives you a good primer in yeast and how to use it in your beer.  I'm sure I'll have another post somewhere down the line with a little more in-depth information on yeast.

Next week will be a guest post from my wife on being a woman in the world of homebrew.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bottling your beer

This post comes about a day later than normal.  My week has been a bit busier than normal, so I hadn't had time to write this post yet.  Part of the time has been spent learning about a couple of new brewing techniques that I hope to share with you in the future.

After brewing a batch of beer and letting it finish fermenting, you need a convenient way to store the beer that should also be easy to dispense, and for most styles, you'll also want to be able to properly carbonate the beer.

While there are actually a wide variety of ways to tackle these issues, the first method that most people use is bottling their beer.

Bottling beer, while not the fastest or easiest way to carbonate and store your homebrew, is inexpensive and easily approachable for the new brewer.

The things you absolutely need are bottles, bottle caps and a bottle capper.  You could use  PET beer bottles instead of glass, but I'm going to focus on traditional glass bottles for this post.

When it comes to choosing the bottles to use, if you're going with glass bottles, you want to get the pry-off style bottles, not the ones with the twist-off caps.  The bottle cappers you are likely to use as a homebrewer aren't designed to properly apply caps to twist-off bottles, and could either break the bottle or cause a poor seal, so your beer will be flat instead of well carbonated.

After that, most 12oz or 22oz bottles should work fine, but your best bet is to get the amber colored bottles.  Green or clear bottles let through too much UV (ultraviolet) light, which will cause the beer to become skunky tasting (UV light reacts with the alpha acids in the hops, causing it to break down to sulfur compounds similar to those found in skunk spray) if the bottles aren't stored in a dark place.  Amber bottles block the UV light, so you won't have to worry about your beer going skunky.

A great way to source beer bottles is to buy beer, and save the bottles when you're done drinking the beer.  If you haven't been collecting beer bottles all along, it can be difficult to get 50+ bottles this way quickly, so you can also buy bottles from the link I provided above or at your local homebrew store.  You can also check out Craigslist.  I ended up getting about 6 cases of bottles for free off Craigslist when I first started brewing.

If you do end up using bottles from beer you've purchased, it's a lot easier to rinse out the bottles when you're done drinking beer than it is to try washing the dried beer residue off later.

Things you don't strictly need but should still have are: sanitizer, a bottling bucket, a bottling wand, and an auto siphon (a racking cane works fine too, but you'll have to start a siphon by sucking on the hose, which could potentially cause an infection in your beer.)  You'll also need some vinyl tubing, which you should be able to pick up at your local hardware store.  I find 5/16" ID tubing works best for me, but you might have trouble getting it on some of the equipment, so you might find 3/8" ID tubing works better for you.

A couple of things that are nice to have, but aren't really necessary are a bottling tree and a  a bottle rinser. The bottle rinser makes it easier to sanitize the bottles and the bottling tree gives you a convenient place to put the sanitized bottles until you're ready to fill them.  You might decide you want to buy them somewhere down the line as they do make the bottling process easier, but aren't necessary for bottling your first batch of beer.

You'll also need some sort of sugar to "prime" your beer.  That basically just means adding a bit more sugar so the yeast can create CO2 to carbonate the beer in the bottles.  Table sugar works OK, but most people use dextrose, also known as corn sugar, because normal table sugar can cause some off flavors in the beer. I also know some people that absolutely swear by conditioning tablets. Getting the sugar properly mixed with the freshly fermented beer can be a bit tough sometimes, and the conditioning tablets ensures you're getting the proper amount of sugar in each bottle to provide the appropriate amount of carbonation. 

First things first, make sure your bottles are clean.  If you're using used beer bottles, clean them thoroughly with soap and water, using a bottle brush to tackle any stubborn gunk.  If you've purchased new bottles, just rinse them out to get any dust or debris out of the bottles.

Next, mix up a batch of sanitizer and sanitize your bottling bucket, auto-siphon (or racking cane), vinyl tubing and bottling wand.  If you're using a bottling tree, now is a great time to sanitize that as well.  

Once everything is sanitized, connect the bottling wand to the spigot on the bottling bucket.  You can cut an inch or two from the vinyl tubing and use that to connect the two together.  I suggest pouring a little bit of sanitizer in your bottling bucket so you can verify you know how the spigot and bottle filler work.  Just make sure you get all of the sanitizer out of the bucket before you put your beer in the bottling bucket.

Next, if you're using loose dextrose or table sugar for priming sugar, put about 1/2 cup of water in a pan and add about 5 oz. of the dextrose/table sugar to the pan (you may want to adjust the amount of sugar used in future batches to get the carbonation level you want.  The 5 oz. of sugar is fine for your first 5 gallon batch of beer, but you might want your beer more or less carbonated in future batches.)  Then heat it to a boil and boil the sugar/water mixture for 10 minutes.

After the sugar mixture has boiled for 10 minutes, pour it into the sanitized bottling bucket.  Then connect your vinyl tubing to your auto-siphon and transfer your beer from your fermenter to the bottling bucket.  MAKE SURE THE SPIGOT IS TURNED OFF ON THE BOTTLING BUCKET!!! otherwise you might end up with beer slowly leaking all over your floor, and you don't want that.  

You'll want to make sure the sugar is well mixed in with the beer at this stage.  If it isn't well mixed in, you will end up with under/over-carbonated beer, and can actually end up with bottles so over-carbonated that they literally explode, but you also want to be careful not to stir the beer too vigorously, or you'll mix in a lot of oxygen, which will cause your beer to go stale quickly (this issue of needing to mix the sugar into the beer well, but not oxidizing the beer is why many people use the conditioning tablets.)

While your beer is transferring to the bottling bucket, this is a perfect time to sanitize your bottles and caps.  The bottle caps are easy, just fill a bowl with a bit of sanitizer solution and put the bottle caps in the bowl.  For the bottles, you can dunk them in sanitizer, or if you bought the bottle rinser, just fill the rinser with sanitizer and pump the bottle down on the rinser a couple of times.  If you bought the bottling tree, put the sanitized bottles on the tree, otherwise, just put them somewhere that they aren't likely to have anything fall into the bottle while it's waiting to be filled.

Now for the moment of truth, filling and capping your first bottle!  I personally like to open the door of my dishwasher and fill the bottles over the door so it catches any spills, but you can just put down a dish towel to catch any drips or spills.  Just don't try to fill the bottles over your carpeting, or you'll stain the carpet.

Open the nozzle on your bottling bucket and slip the bottling wand into your first bottle, and push the bottling wand down against the bottom of the bottle.  The bottle might fill more quickly that you're expecting, but wait until the beer is level with the top of the neck of the bottle, then remove the bottling wand.  This should leave just enough of a gap at the top of the bottle (you want about a 1-inch gap between the beer and the top of the bottle, just like a commercially purchased bottle of beer.)  

If you're using conditioning tablets, add the appropriate number of tablets to the bottle.  The packaging should give you an indication as to how many to use.

Set the bottle on the counter, place a (sanitized) bottle cap over the top of the bottle, then use the bottle capper to crimp the bottle cap in place (usually you just put the capper on top of the cap and push down on the wings, you should have gotten some instructions with the capper.)

Congratulations, you've just finished bottling your first bottle of beer!  Now fill another 45 to 55 bottles and you'll be done.  The way I usually did it was, my wife would fill a bottle and I would cap it.  The whole process typically took about 2 hours beginning to end.

Once all of your beer is bottled, it will take about a week or so to fully carbonate, but will probably taste a bit off for up to 3 weeks.  The yeast still in the bottle will clean up the off flavors over those three weeks.

If you decide to open a bottle of beer before the three weeks are up, don't be concerned if your beer tastes a bit funny.  It takes some time for certain compounds in the beer to break down.  If you open a beer after 3 weeks and it still tastes funny, give it some more time.  Many beers do improve with age.  About the only exceptions are hefeweisens (and other wheat beers) and some farmhouse ales which rely on esters to add complexity to the beer.

While I have mostly moved to kegging, I do still bottle smaller batches of beer, and may bottle larger beers (high alcohol content), like barley wines, that should be aged for a considerable amount of time, but I haven't yet made any beers quite that big yet.

I will discuss kegging somewhere down the line, but bottling should be a good start for you.  I think next week I will discuss yeast a bit more and how it contributes to the end beer.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Brewing your first beer!

I suggest you read through this entire article at least once before starting your first brew.  This isn't something where you want surprises part way through the process your first time through.

The day is finally here.  You've purchased all the equipment you need, you've come up with a recipe to brew and purchased all the ingredients, and you're ready to brew.  Lets go through your first brew step-by-step.

Before we start, I'm going to make a few of assumptions about your first brew.  First, I'm going to assume you're using an extract based recipe with specialty grain.  If your recipe doesn't include specialty grain, that's OK, I'll let you know which part of these instructions to skip.  If you're making an all-grain recipe, I'm afraid that all-grain brewing is really outside of the scope of this article.  I'll be covering all-grain brewing at some point, but not today.   I'm also going to assume that you're using dry yeast for your first batch of beer.  If you're using liquid yeast, that's great, it's just a bit more advanced than what this article is intended for.  I'll be writing an article about how to properly use liquid yeast in a couple of weeks.  Lastly, I'm going to assume you're making a 5 gallon batch of beer.  Just scale any measurements I give up or down as appropriate.

First things first, get all of your equipment and ingredients together.  Make sure everything is there.  You can go through the equipment list from my earlier post (you don't need any of the bottling equipment today, we'll get to that later.) and for your recipe, make sure you have the following:
1.) Malt extract, liquid, dry or both. 
2.) Specialty grain, if applicable.  Make sure they're crushed.  It's always easiest to have the store you bought the grain from, crush it, but you can do it yourself at home by putting the grain in a plastic bag and crushing them with a rolling pin.  Failing that, you could put the grain in a food processor and one or two quick pulses should be OK.  This isn't ideal, and make sure you aren't turning the grain into powder.  You want the grain lightly crushed, not turned into flour.
      **Note** If you have specialty grain, you'll also want a muslin or nylon mesh bag to put the grain in while it's steeping.  If you bought a recipe kit, usually the kit comes with such a bag, if not, you'll want to buy one.  You don't want the grain free floating in the wort (unfermented beer).
3.) Hops.   It's possible that you might not actually have this if you bought a kit as some kits come with hopped malt extract.  The beer will be better using actual hops instead of hopped extract, but it isn't strictly necessary.
4.) Yeast.  For this post, I'll assume you're using dry yeast, but if you have liquid yeast, that's fine too.
5.) Water.  This one might sound obvious, but I bring it up for a reason.  The quality of your water will affect the quality of your finished beer.  If your tap water tastes terrible, consider buying some water at your grocery store.  If you do buy water from a store to brew with, be aware that RO (Reverse-Osmosis) water is actually too pure to properly brew with without adding additional minerals/salts to the water, which is outside of the scope of this article, but I may go into at a later date.

Have everything together?  Great!  Now make sure all of your equipment is clean.  Remember, this is a food product you're working with.  If you'd be unwilling to let raw food touch any of the equipment that the beer/wort is going to touch, it's not clean enough.

Now, I feel it important to talk about sanitizing equipment now, even though you won't need to do it until later on in the brew session.  Cleaning equipment and sanitizing equipment are two different things.  Cleaning the equipment means you're getting dust, dirt, old food, etc. off your equipment.  Sanitizing the equipment means you're killing all the bacteria, fungus, mold on the equipment

You need to clean all of your equipment, but you only need to sanitize the equipment that will come in contact with the wort and beer after the wort has finished its boil.  This means you need to sanitize things like the inside of your fermenter, your hydrometer, if you're using a funnel to help you transfer the wort into the fermenter, you'll need to sanitize that as well.  If you take a sample of the beer later, you'll want to sanitize whatever you're using to take a sample of the beer.

It's very easy to infect your beer (introduce unwanted bacteria/fungus/etc.) before fermentation has begun, and, while harder, still possible to infect the beer while fermentation is underway or has finished.

Use a sanitizer like Star San or Iodophor.  Carefully follow the instructions that come with the sanitizer.

Step 1.) Steeping the specialty grain
OK, you've got everything you need together.  The first part of the brewing process is steeping your specialty grain.

Fill your brew pot with water, making sure you leave at least a few inches of space from the top of the pot.  If you have a larger, 7.5+ gallon pot, put roughly 6 gallons of water in the pot.  While you're aiming for 5 gallons of beer, you want more than exactly 5 gallons of water because some of the water will evaporate out while you're steeping/boiling the wort.  You might find you need either more or less than 6 gallons of water to have 5 gallons of wort to put in your fermenter, but the amount you actually need is different for everyone as it depends on things like the size and shape of the brew kettle, the burner, the weather and your altitude.  6 gallons is a pretty safe starting point.

If you don't have a 7.5+ gallon pot, put as much water in the pot as you can, again, leaving plenty of space at the top of the boil kettle as it will foam up quite a bit as you brew.  Aim for at least 2 gallons of water if you can.  We'll add more water to the fermenter to bring your total volume up to 5 gallons at the end.

Next, heat the water to around 155ºf.  Temperature isn't super important for steeping specialty grain, but you want it to be warm enough to help extract the flavor from the grain but not so hot that it starts extracting too many tannins from the grain, which would give a bitter, generally unpleasant flavor to the beer.  Anywhere from 150-160ºf should be fine.

Put your crushed grain into your grain bag (the muslin or nylon bag mentioned earlier) and soak/steep the grain in your pot for about 30 minutes.  Keep the temperature of the water around 155ºf while you're steeping the grain.

After 30 minutes, take the grain out of the pot and dispose of it.  Do not squeeze the grain bag to drain the water back into the kettle, especially if it's a muslin bag.  You'll likely end up squeezing some grain out of the bag and into kettle, and when you bring it to a boil, you'll end up extracting tannins from the grain into your wort, which can negatively affect the flavor of your beer.

Step 2.) Adding the malt extract
This step requires a bit of decision making on your part.  You want to add at least some of the malt extract at this point, but not necessarily all of it. If you're doing a full boil (boiling all of your water in one pot at the same time) you can add all of your malt extract now without much of an issue, and it is likely how the designer of the recipe assumed you would make the beer.  If you're doing a partial boil (only boiling some of the water now and will add more water at the end), you'll likely overcook the sugars in the malt extract, caramelizing them, if you try to add all of the malt extract now.  Your best bet in that case is to only add about 1 lb. of the malt extract now and add the rest during the last 15 minutes of the boil.  You can also do this with a full boil, which will give you a slightly lighter, more fermentable wort.

Whichever way you go, turn off the heat for your boil kettle and add the malt extract to the water.  Stir the water/malt extract mixture until the malt extract has completely dissolved into the water.  It will take a bit longer than you might expect.  A good rule of thumb is to stir until it's completely dissolved, and then stir for another minute.

Congratulations, you've made wort!  We're not done yet, there is still quite a bit to do, but hey, this is an important milestone for you.

    ** Note ** be careful with dry malt extract when adding it to the wort.  Dry malt extract is actually extremely flammable.  When making my first beer, I left the burner on, opened the bag of dry malt extract, and proceeded to accidentally spill a little bit of it.  I ended up engulfed in a giant fireball.  Luckily, other than some singed hair (all of which grew back fine) and having a very frightened wife screaming because she saw her husband go up in flames, I was none the worse for wear.

Step 3.) Starting the boil
At this point, you've steeped your specialty grain and added at least some of your malt extract.  Start heating your boil kettle and bring it to a boil.  Do not wander away while you are doing this!  As you get close to when the wort actually starts boiling, a layer of foam will form on top of the wort.  This layer of foam traps in heat, allowing the wort to actually exceed the temperature it would typically boil at.  The superheated wort will boil over the side of the kettle and make a sticky mess that is difficult to clean up of you aren't paying attention.

You will see the foam on top suddenly start to rise very quickly.  When this happens, turn down the heat, use a large spoon to stir the wort, you can even take a spray bottle full of water and mist the top of the foam to help it collapse.  Your main goal here should be to keep things under control until the wort stops trying to foam over the top of the brew kettle.

After a few seconds, maybe a minute, the foam will collapse into the wort, and you'll be left with a nice rolling boil.

Here is my one secret to making a good beer, and I don't make much of a secret out of it as I will proclaim it to anyone who will listen.  You want the heat on the boil kettle to be as low as possible, and still have it boil.  I used to pride myself on how high I could get the burner, how violent I could make the boil without it overflowing the brew kettle.  But as I got the heat higher and higher, the sweeter and sweeter the beer ended up tasting, to the point where I was making beer I didn't want to drink because it was too sweet.  Why?  Because the sugars in the wort were caramelizing, and yeast can't consume the caramelized sugars.  If you want a sweet beer, there are far better, more consistent ways to get that effect.

Step 4:) The boil
Now you'll need to consult your recipe.  What you're looking for is information about the hop additions.  It might be stated in a few different ways, such as "Add X at the start of the boil, after 45 minutes add Y, after 60 minutes remove from heat and add Z" or it might be written like this:
Hop X (60 min.)
Hop Y (15 min.)
Hop Z (0 min.)
Those are two different ways of writing the same thing.  The first example is fairly self explanatory, the second example means hop X is added 60 minutes before the end of the boil, hop Y is added 15 minutes before the end of the boil and hop Z is added right at the end of the boil.

You may even have hop additions that call for 90 or more minutes, but that is less common.

Whatever the recipe calls for, start the timer when you add the first batch of hops, following the recipe for each hop addition.

Keep an eye on the boil kettle for the first minute or so after every hop addition.  The wort may foam up again, so you want to make sure it doesn't boil over if this happens.

If you only added a portion of your malt extract at the beginning, add the rest for the last 15 minutes of the boil, making sure you stir it in very well.

The recipe may even call for other additions as well, such as dextrose (corn sugar), spices or fruit extracts.  Just add them as called for in the recipe.  If you do have dextrose, make sure it's not meant to be priming sugar.  If it is, don't add it to the boil, you'll need it later for bottling.

Do not cover the pot during the boil.   One of the things happening during the boil is that sulfur compounds and other things that make the beer taste bad are boiling off and evaporating.  If you leave the lid on, these nasty compounds will stay in the beer, causing it to taste bad.  Leaving the lid on also promotes boil-overs.

Step 5.) Cooling the wort
From this point forward, do not let anything you haven't sanitized touch the wort or beer.

When the time called for the boil in the recipe has finished, remove the boil kettle from the heat.  Don't cover the pot, and as quickly as you can, bring the temperature down below 140ºf.  At temperatures above 140ºf, the wort creates DMS, dimethyl sulfide, but because the wort isn't boiling, the DMS dissolves into the wort instead of evaporating away.  DMS will give your beer a bit of a canned vegetable flavor.  Creamed corn beer doesn't sound terribly appetizing to most people.

Then, get it down to about 70ºf as quickly as you can.  The speed at which this happens is a bit less important, but still somewhat important.  After you get below 140ºf, you're entering the sweet spot for bacterial/fungal growth, and you've just made lunch for them (the sugary water).  The sooner you get it down to 70ºf, the sooner you can pitch your yeast.  The yeast doesn't really like competition, so it will help prevent infection.

So, how do you actually go about cooling your wort?

There are a few option.  The first, and best option is to use a purpose built wort chiller.  The problem with wort chillers are, they cost money, and this is your first batch of beer.  Do you really want to spend an extra $40+ when you aren't certain you're ever going to use it again (although, I certainly hope you do decide to brew more beer after your first batch)?

The second option is, fill your sink or bathtub with water, preferably ice water, and put the boil kettle in the ice water.  Make sure you don't get the water in the boil kettle as it likely hasn't been sanitized.

The third option is, if you've only done a partial boil, put the hot wort in your fermenter and top it off with cold water.  If you do this, make sure you've boiled the additional water to kill any baddies that might be lurking in it, and then allowed it to cool before adding it to the wort.  Also keep in mind that this can be dangerous if you're using a glass fermenter as the sudden change in temperature can cause the glass to shatter.

Once you've cooled the wort to around 70f, you can take a measurement of the Specific Gravity of the wort using a hydrometer.   The hydrometer will tell you what temperature it's calibrated for, and hopefully it came with instructions on how to correct the reading for different temperatures.  Just float the (sanitized) hydrometer in the wort.  The line/number that the hydrometer is floating at is your reading.  Some sources state the correct way to read it is from the bottom of the meniscus (the surface tension of the liquid causes the liquid to creep up the side of the hydrometer a bit, this is the meniscus), other sources tell you to read from the top of the meniscus.  For now, just pick top or bottom, and just be sure to read it the same way the next time you take a reading.

Step 6.) Transferring wort to fermenter and aerating
After the wort has cooled, you need to transfer it to the fermenter (assuming you didn't choose the third option above.)  If you're using a plastic bucket for your fermenter, just pour the wort into the fermenter.  If you're using a Better Bottle or glass carboy for your fermenter, you can either use an Auto-Siphon to transfer the wort to the fermenter, or use a large funnel to help pour the wort into the fermenter.  If you don't have 5 gallons of wort, top it off with water you've boiled to remove any bacteria/fungus.

Yeast requires oxygen to multiply, so once you've transferred the wort to the fermenter, you need to aerate the wort.  This simply means getting oxygen dissolved into the wort.  

You can use something like an air stone connected to an O2 tank or air pump with a HEPA filter.  But again, that's extra money, and this is your first batch of beer.

The other thing you can do is close up your fermenter and shake it.  Shake it until you feel like your arms are going to fall off.  The more you shake it, the more O2 that will be dissolved in the wort, the more dissolved O2, the healthier the yeast, the healthier the yeast, the better the beer.

You'll eventually want to get something like the air stone setup, but you really don't need it right away. 

Step 7.) Pitching the yeast and finishing up
The last thing you need to do is add the yeast to the wort.  This is called pitching the yeast.  There really isn't any trick to doing this, just open the package of yeast and pour the yeast onto the wort.  You don't need to mix the yeast in, it will get there on its own.

For your first beer, I'm going to suggest you use dry yeast.  You lose some control over the end flavor of the beer that way, but it's really the easiest way to go for your first beer.  If you bought a liquid yeast, that will work OK for now.  You typically want to create what is called a yeast starter when using liquid yeast, but we'll just go ahead and pitch the yeast without one for now.

Once you've pitched your yeast, put the lid, carboy cap, rubber stopper on the fermenter and install the airlock.  Put a little bit of water with sanitizer mixed in, into the airlock to keep anything from passing through it the wrong way.

The yeast will now begin multiplying and converting the sugar into alcohol.  This is called fermentation.

Fermentation and beyond
Store the fermenting beer in a cool, dark place, but not too cool.  You're looking for between 65-75ºf (for future brews, you'll want to consult the information on the specific yeast you're using to determine the best temperature to ferment the beer at.)

If you're using clear glass/plastic container for your fermenter, keep it somewhere very dark, or at least out of the light.  If you don't have anywhere appropriate, put an old t-shirt over it, or wrap it in a towel.  You just don't want the beer/wort exposed to the light if you can help it.

After 1-3 days, you'll get a thick, foamy head on top of the beer, this is called krausen.  It's a mixture of wort/beer, CO2 and yeast.  This is a good thing.  The airlock will also likely bubble quite a bit.  Don't worry if it doesn't though.

Fermentation will take about a week.  After 3-5 days, take a small sample of your beer and take a reading of the specific gravity of the beer with your hydrometer.  The reading should be lower than it was before you added the yeast a few days ago.  If the reading isn't lower, there's a problem.  Either your yeast didn't start fermenting the wort, or you're not using the hydrometer properly.

Don't pour your beer sample back into the fermenter.  You can either drink it to see how it tastes, or pour it out.  It's better to waste a little beer now than to risk infecting the whole batch.  Don't worry if it doesn't taste good now, it still has a few weeks before it'll really be ready to drink anyway.

Take SG (specific gravity) readings every 1-2 days until you get 3 readings in a row that haven't changed.  Once the SG has stopped dropping, your beer is ready to bottle.

If you screw up any step along the way, don't panic, it's likely that everything will be OK.  As Charlie Papazian likes to say in his book The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, "relax, don't worry, have a homebrew", or in your case, a commercial beer, as this is your first batch.

This post is already more than long enough, so next week I'll cover bottling the beer.