The Compleat Homebrewer, Mk. 1: Beer is Beer is Beer [Archive]

This piece was originally published 2/16/18 on a different section of my site.

Every time I mention that I brew at home, people want to know what exactly the process entails. In order to avoid being a pontificating ale-hole every time I explain it, I've decided to just make a guide according to what my process looks like at this point. I'll likely be revisiting this idea later on, so it is also a measure for posterity. Follow these instructions exactly and you'll be brewing in no time!

1.) Visit your local homebrew store

Every time you feel the urge to brew, you'll need to get at least three things: barley (either whole grain or liquid malt extract), hops (usually in pellet form), and yeast. While you can get these things from many successful internet services, I believe it is important to support your local homebrew shop whenever possible. Because the hops and the yeast are the most important ingredients, they will cost the most. It is extremely important to look longingly at the most expensive options in the store, regardless of how well they will work with your recipe

2.) Silently deliberate about what exactly you want to make

If any brewer tells you that they walked in and out of the store with the exact same beer in mind, they are a stone cold liar. Well sure, you did want to make an IPA, but gosh these oak chips are only $3.50 and it has been a while since you made a stout and how hard can artificially barrel aging be? Maybe that chamomile could go well with the tangerine you've had sitting in the fridge for a week? It's like mixing the moment of walking into a candy store with Russian Roulette with the first three minutes of "Chopped"

3.) Ask for advice

Every single head in a homebrew shop has been in the industry since roughly before the dawn of time. This usually gives them a classically mellow beer mentality and ensures that they will answer dumb questions honestly and thoughtfully so that the customer can make the best beer possible. Plus, they'll probably talk you down from buying the $130 5-gallon bourbon barrel; they don't want that beautiful object to turn out bad beer any more than you do

 Preliminary reports indicate the world's first beer was made by cro-magnon man in 1996 near what is now San Marcos

Preliminary reports indicate the world's first beer was made by cro-magnon man in 1996 near what is now San Marcos

4.) Pay and head home

I've been told that after 5 batches, you start making your money back. Maybe that will be true if I stop driving myself into the red with weird ingredients or looking at new toys. Either way, use the time spent parked in traffic on the highway to savor the process you just committed to. Just remember, the beers you imagine at first are usually better than the ones you make

5.) Making ready

Now, in a perfect world all of the tools are sitting on the kitchen counter when you arrive, ready for you to start a-cooking. However, the wise among us know that man by nature is a damn mess, and that the primary fermentation bucket still contains 5 gallons of a stout that should have been bottled two days ago. In times like these, it's best to skip judgement and just get to work washing bottles with that nice B-Brite. And in the mean time? Relax. Don't worry. And have a homebrew.

6.) Sanitizing equipment, pt. 1

This is a part that always pains me, but homebrewing is essentially a perpetual battle against bacteria. The only bugs you want in there are those that you put in, so it's important to either soak everything in sanitizer solution or fill a spray bottle with Star San for when you get going (or both.) Bottles, caps, hose, soda filler, and bottle capper all should get a dip and a rinse

7.) Oh shit, forgot to add the priming sugar

Now, technically, what you would put into bottles at this point is "beer." However, if you want it to be "drinkable", most folks would advise boiling about 4-5 ounces of sugar in water, letting it cool down to room temperature, and adding it to your finished beer. This will make your beer not as flat, which will make it suck less. And hey, now you've got more time to kill and a fridge full of homebrew... any ideas?

8.) I dunno, turn on some music or something

It takes a while to boil water and have it cool down (more on that later.) Since you'll be using your hands at every stage of the process, putting on something that will last a few hours without need for maintenance is never a bad call. Plus, everybody knows that your brew tastes better if you serenade it with fitting music or media; I play indie shit for herb beers, smooth jazz for stouts, and the good stuff for IPAs

 We will also accept movies played for your beer, especially if they last three hours and contain that beautiful bright beer

We will also accept movies played for your beer, especially if they last three hours and contain that beautiful bright beer

9.) Sharing is caring (about your social image)

After a bottle or two of homebrew, you may even decide this is a good time to start documenting your brew on social media because you need constant self-validation and this is, admittedly, one of the coolest hobbies out there. I would advise doing your documentation during breaks in the process or not at all. If you want to look a little less desperate for attention, you can even structure it as an intimate walkthrough of your brewing process

10.) Sugar Sugar, Honey Honey

Once the priming sugar solution has reached room temperature (or close enough to not kill the yeast you have growing in the bucket) it should be added to the bucket and gently stirred in. Since you just spent at least twenty minutes boiling water only to cool it down, it can't hurt to make sure all your equipment is re-sanitized and rinsed afterwards

11.) Bottle that Djinn

Currently, my bottling operation works as such: fermentation bucket on the counter, large pot on a towel, bottle capper next to a bowl filled with sanitary bottle caps on a different towel, bottle in the pot, bottle filler in the bottle, hose leading from the bucket to the bottle filler. Each component has a specific function in my system, but the main point is to bottle the beer in the shortest amount of time with the smallest chances for contamination (which mainly comes from both air and bacteria), the minimal mess, and the maximum yield. Fill each bottle as close to the top as you dare, pop a cap on with your press, and put it somewhere safe

12.) Cleaning and sanitizing, pt. 2

After a quick homebrew break to relax while you store your finished bottles in dark with a constant near-room temperature (a box in a closet works just fine), it's time to scrub up all that equipment. Technically, you don't have to have things like your bucket ready for another couple hours and your bottle filler for another week, but it's always easier to clean everything at once. As I have discovered, this is not the time to cut corners

13.) First Strike

When brewing with all-grain (as opposed to just liquid malt extract (LME)), the first step after sanitizing is to take your crushed grains and heat them in a small amount of water for the time and temperature as specified in the recipe you are following (if you're not following a recipe, chances are you already know what you want.) This will generally be around 150°-155° F for under an hour, but if you don't have a thermometer just resolve to get one next time and relax, don't worry. I like to use a grain bag so my beer comes out as liquid instead of oatmeal, but that's just me. Remember to agitate (read: stir) every once in a while to avoid hot spots, and if you actually wanna know the whole process check out a real guide

14.) Idle hands are playthings of some sort or another

After you've made sure the mash temperature is constant, you may find yourself without a lot to do. During this time, you can either continue cleaning excessively or just settle back and watch your brew be a brew. I've tried both, and so long as the equipment is clean and ready to brew by the end of the mash, I've noticed no difference. Just make sure you have some water warmed up and ready to sparge when the time comes, and everything else will take care of itself

15.) Sparge the night away

Another step to making sure you get the maximum yield from your all-grain mash is the sparge. Aside from having the second coolest name in the process (behind only whirlpooling, which we won't cover today), sparging is essentially pouring warm water over your grain to get all the sugar you possibly can from it; think of it like rinsing a teabag. This is where either having a false bottom or a grain bag comes in handy, again

 Whirlpool time! Propane tank for scale

Whirlpool time! Propane tank for scale

17.) Ouch! That's hot

I don't know if it's actually necessary, but I haven't gone through a full brew day without burning myself at least a few times. So, ya know, follow your heart on that one

18.) Start the boil

Crank that heat, next stop 212°! What you add in the boil and when you add it are what really makes the beer unique. This hour is where hops are added, where possibly more LME is added, where temperature switches from a suggestion to a mandated minimum. Wizardry and madness abound in this process, from 60+ hop additions over the course of an hour to twenty hour boils. Start the timer when you hit boiling and get ready for magic

19.) Really get into the boil

 Even though boiling is arguably one of the most precise parts of the process, it is also the step where I'm most likely to get bored. My solution has been to keep sanitizing tirelessly, change up the music if necessary, drink another beer or eight, and stir when possible. My best brews have been when I didn't micromanage the boil, so I would advise against getting all stressed. But then again, that's just me

20.) Your feature presentation

If you've been using social media, the boil can also be the time to get some quality selfies in with the wort. Remember that you have professional brewer pals who will call you out publicly if your post is particularly egregious, and remember that you have people you want to impress watching your story. You can craft your image from a place of fear or one of pride. Guess which one people generally like better?

21.) Hop additions

Unless you are making a gruit, you will likely be adding hops during the boil. Done correctly, this will give you a beautiful flavor profile that can feature spices of all varieties. Done incorrectly, this can give you an expensive soup. My favorite beer to this day is still one where I just poured the hops in at a random time without even using a hop bag. Do what's right for you, and the beer will follow

22.) Doop doop

As I'm sure you've guessed by now, I'm writing this in a San José beer bar at 9 AM and drinking a coffee stout to kill time before the contemporary art museum I want to go to opens. I'm giving you that perspective because, heck, homebrewing's an imprecise process, and at the end of the day it is all just beer. Passionately pursuing the chemistry works for some people, but taking the suds too seriously kind of defeats the purpose of making beer for me. That could be construed as a polarizing opinion, but I'd rather drink a beer with you than argue about making it

 Four Windswept Oversize Oranges (2000) Raimonds Stapran

Four Windswept Oversize Oranges (2000) Raimonds Stapran

23.) Cold is as cold does

 Getting your five-gallon pot of boiling wort back to room temperature without introducing any bacteria is a particularly involved process. The most effective way to do this, of course, is to have a running current of coolant moving in a copper tube through your beer while the outside of the pot is wrapped in a large ice pack. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the easiest and most possible version of this for amateurs is a big ol' ice bath. I usually start filling up my sink with cold water, ice, and anything colder than 212° about 10 minutes before the end of the boil, but this is simply because of budgetary limitations. If you can find a better solution that works for you, more power to ya

24.) Double check

Is everything ready? Is your bucket sanitized? Hose reconnected to the siphon? I always like to make sure that everything's ready to go within the last ten minutes. And then within the last five. And maybe again in the last two

25.) Dayglow Inferno

Once your boil has completed, quickly move that hot wort over to whatever cooling system you have set up. It's important to get your wort down to a survivable temperature for the yeast as quickly as possible, but now is still not the time to cut corners with sanitation! My process involves placing my pot into the aforementioned ice bath, complete with stirring the wort to avoid uneven cooling and scooping in new ice and cold water as frequently as possible. It usually turns into an extended mess, but you're almost there

26.) Panic that it's not cooling down quickly enough!!!

Oh wait... Relax. Don't worry. And have a homebrew.

27.) Poetry in motion

Once your wort has hit the standard temperature to not kill your yeast outright (~75° in my experience) it's time to move it to the fermentation bucket via siphon. My set-up usually involves both containers on towels with the pot up higher than the bucket (siphons work best when moving things downhill because gravity.) Once you get your siphon going moving wort from the pot to the bucket, pretty much all you can do is minimize splashing and bide your time. Alternatively, you can just pour the lukewarm wort from the pot into the bucket if you are a goddamned lunatic

28.) They live!

Pitching the yeast is the most terrifying moment in any brew because it is where you officially relinquish control of your baby. From this point until you bottle, the yeast will be doing all the heavy lifting of turning the sugars in your wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Give it a stir and trust those microscopic bad boys to be hungry

29.) Last one out, hit the lights

With everything in place, seal up your fermentation bucket, put an airlock with cleanser on top to let gas escape during the process, and put your bucket on a towel somewhere dark and with a constant room temperature. Voila, it's ready to sit until you decide to bottle. If you're still on social media be sure to take a quick snap of it, and come back tomorrow to get a quick video of the airlock bubbling

30.) Deep cleanse

Unless you have a specific space designed primarily for brewing, it's likely that you have transformed what was formerly a domestic kitchenette or a porch into a mess of melting ice, used grain, and empty hops wrappers. If you don't clean up now it'll only be harder later, so get to work

31.) That'll do

Well, it's six hours later, but you now have a beer in bottles and one in the tank. Time to celebrate with a homebrew and a nap