For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.
— Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo, dated October 22, 1882
We’ve covered a lot of ground, a succession of little things. But now the time has come to bring them together to make something truly unique and truly great: your very own homebrew.
This chapter is intentionally short on why and long on how. The goal isn’t to theorize and explain: That’s what previous chapters are for. Instead, the aim is to apply the science you’ve learned to the art of brewing beer. This chapter is about practice, not principles.
In each of the following sections, I describe exactly what equipment and ingredients you need before, during, and after brew day. For your convenience, lists of what you’ll need to make beer from start to finish are provided in Everything You Need to Get Started. Once you have all of your equipment and consumables in place, it’s time to start making beer!
Preparation for Brew Day
In preparation for brew day, you really need only two things: creativity and—this is important—a beer recipe. The countdown to brew day is your opportunity to ensure you have everything you need to make great beer. It’s a time for planning your brew and preparing your ingredients and equipment.
Planning Your Brew
A few days, weeks, or months before you want to brew, think about what you’d like to make. Maybe you already have a recipe kit. Or maybe you just know it’s time to make beer, but you’re not sure what you want. This is a time to ponder what you’re in the mood for, or, if you want to have beer ready for a party or a holiday, how early you need to start to meet that goal. In general, plan on this time line:
▪ 1 week to brew and ferment an average-strength ale.
▪ An additional 2–3 weeks to mature an average-strength ale.
▪ 2 weeks to brew and ferment an average-strength lager.
▪ An additional 4–6 weeks to condition an average-strength lager.
▪ A final 2–3 weeks to bottle condition and carbonate an average-strength ale or lager.
If you do the math, an average-strength ale takes about 6 weeks, start to finish. An average-strength lager needs about 10 weeks. These are merely averages, of course. Low-gravity ales (English mild and bitter, German Hefeweizen, American session IPA) take the least amount of time, while high-gravity ales and lagers (imperial stout, barleywine, Belgian dark strong ale, Doppelbock) take the longest.
It’s not a bad idea to get out your calendar and pencil in the dates that you expect to brew, rack, and bottle. If travel plans, house guests, or social engagements are in your future, a calendar can help you plan your beer so that you don’t miss dry-hop additions, temperature adjustments, and so on. If it’s a big beer or a lager, you can also use a calendar to work backward from the day you want the beer to be ready and plan the brew accordingly.
When you know what you want to brew, head down to the homebrew store or visit your favorite online retailer and procure the ingredients you need, along with any special equipment you might not already have. (If you order online, keep in mind that many retailers now offer flat-rate or free shipping on orders above a certain size. Take time to play around with your shopping cart and shipping options if you order anything large or bulky, such as carboys, sacks of grain, kettles, and so on. I once managed to have a 55-pound (25 kg) sack of grain delivered right to my door for a mere $2.00 in additional shipping fees because my order included a carboy. Shipped on its own or with smaller items, that bag of grain would have incurred more than $25.00 in freight fees!)
Everything You Need to Get Started
Below is a list of the minimum hardware you need to brew, bottle, and carbonate a good batch of homebrew. You could get by with less, but you won’t have nearly as much fun. You can find all of this (and much, much more) at any good homebrew retailer
- Boil kettle or large stockpot, 3 gallons (12 l) or larger, with lid
- Large metal or plastic spoon
- Nylon mesh bag for steeping specialty grains (a muslin bag is also fine, but it’s not reusable )
- Mesh colander
- 16-ounce (500 ml) glass measuring cup (if you are using dry yeast)
- 6.5-gallon (25 l) fermentation bucket with lid
- 6.5-gallon (25 l) bottling bucket with integrated spigot
- Wine thief
- 5 feet (1.5 m) or more of siphon tubing, preferably with a pinch clamp
- Bottling wand
- Fifty or more 12-ounce (355 ml) glass beer bottles (see pages 70–71 for quantities of bombers and European half liters)
- Fifty or more bottle caps (often called crown caps)
- Bottle capper
- Small saucepan
Ingredients and Consumables
If you purchase a prepackaged beer-recipe kit, then there’s no need to buy ingredients separately, except, perhaps, yeast. Some kits don’t include yeast, presumably for the same reasons that toys don’t include batteries and cars don’t come with floor mats. Moral: Check before you buy and purchase yeast if it’s not part of the deal.
- Specialty grains, milled
- Malt extract, liquid or dry
- Hops, whole or pellets
- Yeast, liquid or dry
- A brewery-safe cleaner such as PBW or OxiClean
- Sanitizer of your choice, preferably Star San or Iodophor
- 4–5 ounces (113–142 g) corn sugar
Optional Equipment and Ingredients
Strictly speaking, you don’t need any of the following to brew beer. However, you may want to procure these sooner rather than later because you’ll almost certainly want them at some point.
- 2-liter Erlenmeyer flask or 64-ounce (1.9 l) growler jug, if you plan to propagate a yeast starter
- Extra dry malt extract (DME) for making a yeast starter
- Plastic funnel for transferring starter wort to your flask or growler jug
- Wort chiller
- 5-gallon (19 l) carboy with bung and airlock, if you want to mature your beer in a secondary vessel
Mandatory Items and Abstractions
You’ll never brew a drop of (good) beer without these.
- A beer recipe
- A cool, dark, quiet spot to stash your fermenting beer
How to Make a Yeast Starter
To propagate yeast from a packet of liquid yeast, you’ll need the following:
- Sanitizer of your choice
- Dry malt extract (DME)
- Saucepan of at least 4 quarts (4 l) capacity, with lid
- Aluminum foil
- Plastic funnel
- Erlenmeyer flask or 64-ounce (1.9 l) growler jug
- A packet of liquid yeast
Most homebrewers make yeast starters by the liter rather than by the quart because the math is much easier. Simply take your starter volume, in milliliters, and divide by 10 to obtain the number of grams of dried malt extract (DME) you need. That ratio yields a starter wort with an original gravity (OG) of about 1.035–1.040, which is ideal for growing yeast.
So, if you want to make a 1-liter starter, that’s 1,000 milliliters. Divide by 10 to get 100, which means you’ll add 100 grams of DME to your 1-liter starter.
Once you know how much water and DME you need, here’s how to make your starter.
- Sanitize a flask (or growler jug), plastic funnel, a small sheet of aluminum foil, and thermometer. (If you use a borosilicate Erlenmeyer flask, you can boil in it right on a gas range—not electric, though—saving you the step of sanitizing and the need for a funnel.)
- Prepare starter wort by combining the DME and water in your saucepan. A whisk can help break up the DME, which tends to form unwieldy clumps as soon as it hits water.
- Bring the DME and water to a boil, uncovered, and boil for 10 minutes. Watch for boilovers!
- After killing the heat, immediately cover the saucepan. Leave it for a minute or two to steam sanitize the lid and then place the covered saucepan in an ice-and-water bath, taking care not to allow water to seep in under the lid.
- Occasionally swirl the saucepan to aid cooling and use a sanitized thermometer to check the temperature once it is cool to the touch.
- When the starter wort temperature drops below 68°F (20°C), remove the saucepan from the ice bath and carefully pour the wort through a sanitized funnel into your flask or growler jug.
- Add your yeast to the starter wort through the sanitized funnel, then wrap sanitized foil loosely over the mouth of the vessel and leave it on the kitchen counter.
Give your starter a gentle swirl from time to time, every couple of hours or as convenient, for the next 2 to 3 days. You’ll notice that the wort becomes opaque and a head of foam may appear on top. You may also observe bubbles rising up as the yeast reproduces and ferments.
When fermentation is complete, activity will slow, the liquid will begin to clear, and a layer of yeast will settle to the bottom of the vessel. Place the whole thing in the refrigerator and let it wait for brew day. By the time you’re ready to use it, the yeast will have dropped to the bottom and formed a nice compact layer. When you’re ready to use the starter, decant most of the liquid, then swirl vigorously to re-suspend the yeast in the remaining liquid and pour the mixture into fresh wort.
A yeast starter will remain viable for at least a couple of weeks after you prepare it, but always give it a sniff before use. If it smells bad, don’t use it!
Preparing Your Ingredients
When you brew from extract, there’s little you need to do to prepare ingredients ahead of time, aside from ensuring that you have them. Store hops in the freezer until you need them, and keep malt extract and specialty grains in a cool, dry, dark location. The refrigerator is fine, but be sure to remove liquid malt extract a day or so in advance so that it will less begrudgingly pour come brew day.
If you intend to ferment your beer using one or more yeast packets pitched directly into the wort, just make sure you have your yeast and keep it in the refrigerator until brew day. However, if you plan to build up a large quantity of yeast cells from a smaller colony, you need to make a starter in advance so it’s ready for brew day. I typically like to do this about 4 days before I plan to brew.
Making a starter is simple once you figure out how big it needs to be. There are some excellent Internet-based calculators to help you do this if you want to really dial in how much yeast you need. Just run a Google search for “yeast starter calculator.” The ones at brewersfriend.com, mrmalty.com, and yeastcalculator.com were among the best at press time, but it wouldn’t be surprising if others become available by the time you read this. It’s a science that changes more than you might guess.
If you don’t want to get too bogged down in the details, though, the rules of thumb in the table below are pretty good, provided your yeast is fresh. The numbers are based on suggested pitch rates on the Wyeast Laboratories website.
I don’t claim that these are optimal for all situations, only that they’re convenient guidelines that should get you close if you don’t want to bother with lots of complexity. And it’s crucial that your yeast be fresh, so try to buy it just a day or two before brew day if you can, and get it straight to your refrigerator until you need it.
If you have decided you need a starter and have calculated how big it needs to be, the process of making one is straightforward. See “How to Make a Yeast Starter” (page 84) for complete step-by-step instructions. But remember, if you don’t want to bother, you always have the option of buying a second or third packet of yeast.
A typical brew day takes about 3 hours, including cleanup. For your brew day, you need the following items:
▪ Sanitizer of your choice, preferably Star San or Iodophor
▪ Boil kettle or large stockpot, 3 gallons (12 l) or larger, with lid
▪ Large metal or plastic spoon
▪ Mesh colander
▪ 16-ounce (500 ml) glass measuring cup (if you are using dry yeast)
▪ Scissors (for liquid yeast pouches or dry yeast)
▪ 6.5-gallon (25 l) fermentation bucket with lid
▪ Wine thief
▪ Milled specialty grains
▪ Nylon mesh bag for steeping specialty grains (a muslin bag is fine, but it’s not reusable)
▪ Malt extract, liquid or dry
▪ Hops, whole or pellets
▪ Yeast or yeast starter that you prepared earlier (if you’re using one)
▪ A brewery-safe cleaner such as PBW or OxiClean for cleanup
Brew day is the main event. This is when you prepare the wort that your yeast will ferment into beer. Your job on brew day boils down (ha!) to the following eight tasks:
- Sanitizing your equipment
- Steeping specialty grains in hot water
- Adding malt extract to the resulting grain water to make wort
- Boiling wort with hops
- Cooling hot wort to fermentation temperature
- Transferring chilled wort to a sanitized fermentor
- Pitching yeast
- Cleaning up
In the following sections, we cover how to do it, step by step. But before you start, if you are using packets of liquid yeast instead of a yeast starter, it’s time to take the yeast out of the refrigerator (see “How to Use Liquid Yeast,” below).
Sanitizing your Equipment
Truth be told, I usually sanitize my gear once the boil is underway to save time, but when you’re first getting started, it’s a good idea to go ahead and do it up front. That way you won’t find yourself sans sanitized stuff when you need it. Here are the pieces you should most definitely sanitize:
- Fermentation bucket and lid
- The lid to your brew pot
- Mesh colander
- 16-ounce (500 ml) glass measuring cup (if you are using dry yeast)
- Scissors (for liquid yeast pouches or dry yeast)
- Wine thief
I like to prepare my sanitizer right in the fermentation bucket and drop everything else in there to soak while I complete other tasks. Remember, you don’t need to sanitize your brew kettle or anything else that comes in contact with the wort before the end of the boil. But once the boil is over and done, only sanitized equipment should be used.
How to Use Liquid Yeast
1. If you are using an Activator product from Wyeast Laboratories, remove the packet from the refrigerator on brew day a couple of hours before you start brewing. Smack the pouch firmly with the palm of your hand as indicated on the instructions to rupture the internal nutrient pouch. Give the package a good shake and let it rest at room temperature until you’re ready to pitch. The pouch will likely swell as the yeast cells within devour the nutrients.
2. If you are using a White Labs PurePitch product, simply remove the pouch from the refrigerator and leave it at room temperature until you need it. (At press time, White Labs was in the process of converting all of its yeast products to the new PurePitch packaging, but some strains were still sold in the older “test tube” vials. If you use one of the vials, or a product from East Coast Yeast, I recommend that you remove it from the refrigerator and twist open the cap just until you hear hissing to relieve the internal pressure. Then twist the cap closed and leave at room temperature until needed. When you’re ready to pitch, relieve the pressure again in the same way, then close the cap, shake the vial to suspend the yeast cells, and then carefully open the cap all the way and pitch your yeast.)
3. When you are ready to pitch the yeast, sanitize the yeast packet and a pair of scissors with a brief dunk in sanitizer (no scissors needed for Wyeast Activator).
4. Open the yeast packet, using sanitized scissors if necessary, and pour the contents directly into fresh wort.
Steeping Specialty Grains and Adding Malt Extract
Specialty grains and malt extract are what make wort possible. Recall from Chapter 6 that while extract supplies most of the sugars that yeast cells will ferment into carbon dioxide and alcohol, specialty grains add color, flavor, aroma, and fresh malt character to your homebrew.
A handful of recipes have no specialty grains whatsoever, but I feel that even small amounts of specialty grains add depth that extract sometimes can’t achieve on its own. If your recipe has no specialty grains, consider steeping 8 ounces (225 g) of a neutral specialty malt such as Carapils or Carafoam to get started. These add no color or fermentable sugars, but you’ll gain a little fresh malt character from them.
So, get out your brew kettle, specialty grains, mesh bag, malt extract, and big spoon. Follow the instructions in “How to Steep Specialty Grains” (page 90) to get your wort off and running, and then add the malt extract according to the simple directions in “How to Add Malt Extract” (page 91).
Keep in mind that the total boil volume depends on your equipment. If you’re working with a 3-gallon (11.3 l) stockpot, then 2.5 gallons (9.4 l) is about as much as you can do. On the other hand, if you have a nice big 8-gallon (30 l) crab-boil-style pot, then you can boil the entire 5-gallon (19 l) batch! Because all of your malt and extract goes into the boil kettle, boiling a smaller volume such as 2.5 gallons (9.4 l) means you’ll be boiling a concentrated wort, which will later need to be topped up with water to bring it up to the full batch size and dilute it down to the appropriate strength. Boiling the whole batch means no top-up water at the end, but it also means that you need a big heat source, which is why so many homebrewers end up buying outdoor propane burners.
Once you’ve added all of this malt goodness to your pot of hot water, you want to be very careful to avoid a boilover. Remember that the dissolved sugars and proteins have a tendency to foam up and leap right out of the kettle until you’ve added the first hops addition. So keep an eye on your wort and do not walk away from it!
How to Steep Specialty Grains
1. If your specialty grains haven’t been milled, use a dedicated malt mill or place them in a large zip-top plastic bag and lightly crush them using a rolling pin. All you need to do is crack the grain kernels open, so no need to go too crazy.
2. Heat a gallon (4 l) or so of water—the exact volume isn’t important—in your brew kettle on the stove. While the water is heating, place the milled specialty grains into a mesh nylon or muslin bag (see page 89 for the easiest way to get grains into a mesh bag).
3. When the water reaches 160°F (70°C), kill the heat and place your mesh bag of milled grain into the hot water. Make sure to close the bag’s drawstring if it has one or tie the open end of the bag onto one of the pot’s handles to keep grain from floating into your hot water. Set the timer for 30 minutes and cover the brew kettle with a lid.
4. After half an hour, remove the specialty grains from the hot water (now proto-wort) and discard the grains. Spent grains are a great addition to the compost bin (and a popular staple among discerning backyard squirrels worldwide).
Boiling Wort with Hops
When the wort approaches the boiling point, a silky cap will develop on top. You want to make sure to have at least a couple of inches (5 cm) of headspace between the wort and the top of the kettle so that when it starts to foam up (and it will), you have time to push it back down.
And just how do you push it back down? As I mention in Chapter 7, I’ve found that a two-handed approach works rather well:
- Keep one hand on the burner knob and reduce the heat as needed.
- Keep a spray bottle of water in the other hand and mist the foam on top of the wort. This cools it enough to keep it from boiling over.
Eventually, that cap of foam will become unstable and fall back on itself. At this point, it’s time to set the kitchen timer and let the boil begin!
The vast majority of beer you make will require a boil time of 60 minutes, but this won’t always be the case. Some very light beers such as Pilsners may need 90 minutes of boil time if you brew from grain malts, but you probably won’t run into this with extract. In other cases, the boil may be only half an hour. How do you know how long to boil? Here’s how: The boil must last at least as long as the specified time of the first hops addition.
If your recipe specifies a first hops addition at 60 minutes (and most do), that means you’ll need to boil for an hour. If that first hops addition is at 75 or 90 minutes, as may be the case for certain very bitter styles such as double IPA, then you’ll need to plan on a 75- or 90-minute boil. But if your first hops addition doesn’t enter the picture until the 45-minute mark, then by all means, truncate that boil down to 45 minutes. No need to boil any longer than necessary. So, let’s assume here that we’re boiling for an hour and the first hops addition is at 60 minutes. In that case, set your kitchen timer for 65 minutes.
Wait! What’s up with the extra 5 minutes? Boiling for a few minutes before the first hops addition gives the wort a few minutes to stabilize, which I’ve found helps keep it from trying to boil over when you hit it with the first hops addition. It’s not a complete panacea, but I think it helps.
Once you’re at the 60-minute mark, add your recipe’s first hops addition, called the bittering addition. Keep your hand on the burner control and be prepared to turn down the flame—or turn it completely off—to keep the wort from boiling over. Once the wort looks as if it has stabilized, leave the flame at a level that maintains a solid rolling boil.
For the next hour, your only job is to add hops at the intervals specified by your recipe. If you’re brewing a classic German Hefeweizen or certain Scottish ales, the first hops addition may well have been your only one, in which case, congratulations! All you have to do is wait! An American IPA recipe may ask you to add hops every 10 minutes, even more frequently as the end of the boil draws near. Just follow the directions in your recipe.
Pay attention to the timer, but don’t worry if you add hops a minute or two too late or too early. Homebrewing is more like cooking than baking when it comes to adding Humulus lupulus. And don’t forget, hops additions are always specified in minutes before the end of the boil. A 5-minute addition is 5 minutes before you kill the heat, not 5 minutes after you started.
After the initial hops addition, the ebullient boil becomes better behaved, so feel free to walk away for brief periods of time to use the restroom, change the radio station, grab a beer, pet the cat, whatever. But don’t stray too far. Keep one eye on the boil at all times and be prepared to jump into action should it become too enthusiastic.
I like to use this time to sanitize and prepare my equipment, but the first couple of times you brew, consider keeping a book nearby. Just make sure you add the hops when you’re meant to. And don’t forget to sanitize the lid to your boil kettle, as you’ll need that at the end of the boil.
When about 5–10 minutes remain in the boil, prepare an ice and water bath in your kitchen sink, a large bucket, or another vessel that can hold your brew pot and a mix of ice and water. In addition to good old-fashioned ice cubes, I like to drop in a few of the frozen gel packs that ship with yeast to make sure things stay nice and cold.
If you’re using a wort chiller, you can skip preparing an ice bath and instead place the chiller in your boiling wort with 10 minutes remaining in the boil.
How to Add Malt Extract
1. Bring your specialty grain–infused water to a boil, then shut off the heat.
2. Using a long-handled spoon or whisk, add the malt extract.
3. Stir completely to fully dissolve the malt extract in the grain water. Liquid malt extract is thick, so keep stirring until it no longer sticks to your spoon. Dry malt extract is powdery and clumpy, so consider using a whisk to help break it up and help it dissolve.
4. Congratulations, you now have wort! Turn the heat back on and bring your wort to a boil.
Cooling Hot Wort to Fermentation Temperature
Once you’ve added your last hops addition and reached the zero mark on the timer, kill the heat. Then cover the brew kettle with a sanitized lid to keep airborne nasties from getting in there while your wort chills. Using potholders, oven mitts, or long-neglected baseball gloves, carefully lift your covered brew pot and gently lower it into the ice bath. Top up the ice bath with additional cold water if needed to keep most of the kettle submerged.
It’s helpful to periodically stir the cold water and ice bath in one direction (counterclockwise, say) and then rotate the brew pot in the other (clockwise) to encourage heat transfer through the wall of the kettle. If you have enough ice to top the bath back up after the first batch melts, then do that as well. Ideally, you want to get this baby down to fermentation temperature in 20 minutes or less.
Of course, if you own a wort chiller, then you don’t have to bother with the ice bath. Just hook up the inlet to a garden hose or your kitchen faucet, direct the outlet away from anything that can’t stand a barrage of hot water, and let ‘er rip. See “How to Use an Immersion Wort Chiller” (page 95) for more information about chilling your wort with a wort chiller.
Transferring Chilled Wort to a Sanitized Fermentor
When the chilled wort drops below 68°F (20°C) or so, as measured by a sanitized thermometer, then you can stop cooling it. Actually, if you’ve boiled only a portion of the total batch volume, say 3 gallons of 5 (or 11 liters of 19), then you can stop when it’s a few degrees warmer, as adding cold top-up water will lower the temperature even further.
Using a sanitized colander, pour your cooled wort into the sanitized fermentation bucket. Some brewers recommend using a siphon to transfer from the kettle to the bucket, but pouring through a mesh colander (left) helps aerate the wort, which is a critical part of ensuring healthy fermentation. Choose your favorite way to get wort from the kettle to the fermentor, but remember that some amount of splashing and agitation is a good thing at this stage. Yeast needs oxygen to start fermentation, so splash away in that bucket!
If you’ve boiled a concentrated wort, then you’ll need to top up your fermentor to the full-batch volume, typically 5 gallons (19 l). Some will insist that you need to use water that has previously been boiled and then cooled, but I have always used cold water straight from the tap and have never had an issue. Do whatever helps you sleep best at night. Should you simply use the kitchen sink, consider taking advantage of the sprayer, if you have one, to add vital oxygen to your fermentor.
Finally—and it is critical that you not skip this step—take a specific gravity reading using your hydrometer (see “How to Use a Hydrometer,” page 98). Recall from Chapter 7 that this is your beer’s original gravity, which tells you how much sugar is available for fermentation. It won’t all get consumed, but only by knowing where you start can you possibly know where you might end up. (That sounds like something Yoda might have said.)
How to Use an Immersion Wort Chiller
There are two main types of wort chillers: counterflow and immersion. Counterflow chillers require that you pump wort through one of the chiller’s inlets at the same time as you pump cold water through the other inlet. The cold water and hot wort pass on either side of a metal plate or coil, rapidly transferring the heat of the wort to the cooling water. Because pumps (or gravity) are required, though, they can be a bit complex for the beginning homebrewer.
An immersion chiller, on the other hand, is just a coil of metal that has one inlet and one outlet. The whole coil is immersed in hot wort, and cold water is pushed into the inlet, usually via a garden hose or your kitchen sink, and it exits the chiller’s outlet after having picked up heat from the wort.
Using an immersion chiller is straightforward.
1. About 10 minutes before the end of the boil, place the coil in your boiling wort. This will sanitize the chiller.
2. Attach a water source, such as a garden hose, to the inlet of the chiller.
3. Direct the chiller’s outlet hose to something that heat won’t harm (e.g., not your spouse’s flower garden). Consider collecting the hot waste water in a separate vessel and using it for cleaning up after your brew, but understand that there will be a lot of waste water!
4. When you reach the end of the boil, kill the heat, and turn on the water source. Cold water will begin flowing into the chiller, and after a brief delay, hot water will emerge out the other end.
5. Using an oven mitt, grab the chiller from time to time and gently swirl it in the hot wort to enhance heat transfer.
6. When the wort reaches your desired pitching temperature, turn off the water source and remove the chiller from your wort.
How to Rack (Transfer) Your Beer
Racking beer is a task that every homebrewer has to do at least once in the life of each batch. It’s nothing more than transferring beer from one vessel to another. The pros rely on pumps, and some homebrewers do, too, but most of us use gravity to move our beer, which is where siphoning comes in.
To siphon beer, you’ll need the following:
- A clean, sanitized auto-siphon
- 5 feet (1.5 m) or more of clean, sanitized flexible siphon tubing
- Your beer
- A clean, sanitized carboy, bottling bucket, or a keg (depending on when you are racking your beer)
The process itself is straightforward:
1. Place the source vessel that contains your beer on a table, kitchen counter, or other elevated surface.
2. Place the destination vessel on the floor.
3. Attach one end of your flexible tubing to the internal racking cane on the auto-siphon that slides up and down inside the housing.
4. Place the other end of the tubing in the destination vessel, as near the bottom as you can.
5. Dip the sanitized auto-siphon into the beer you want to transfer, but not all the way to the bottom. Halfway is usually pretty good.
6. Gently pull up on the internal racking cane, about a foot (30 cm) or so and then push it down all the way to the bottom of the auto-siphon.
At this point, beer should flow up through the racking cane, down the siphon tubing, and into your destination vessel. If it doesn’t quite make it, give the auto-siphon a couple of extra pumps. Once you’ve established a siphon, then gently lower the tip of the auto siphon toward the bottom of your beer. You may pick up a small amount of sediment and yeast, but that’s fine.
Avoid splashing and spraying as much as you possibly can. Introducing oxygen at this stage will only stale your beer and lead to paper-like off-flavors.
When all of the beer has been transferred, you’re done!
With 5 gallons (19 l) of cool wort in your fermentor, it’s time to pitch the yeast. See “How to Use Dry Yeast” (right) if you’re using dry yeast. If you’re using a Wyeast smack pack, simply tear open the top of the now-swollen pack and dump the contents right into the wort. White Labs PurePitch pouches need to be opened with sanitized scissors. If you are using the older White Labs vials that resemble test tubes, slowly twist open the cap slightly to relieve pressure, then twist it closed again. Give the vial a good shake to suspend the yeast and slowly open it all the way before pouring the contents into your wort.
Ultimately, all you need to do is get those yeast cells into your wort in a sanitary way. Then just place the sanitized lid on top of your fermentation bucket, affix the sanitized airlock, and fill the airlock with sanitizer, cheap vodka, or straight tap water. Place the fermentor in a dark, cool spot where the temperature is unlikely to exceed 68°F (20°C)—the cooler the better, down to about 60°F (16°C)—and leave it alone.
How to Use Dry Yeast
Dry yeast is convenient and reliable, and it is a cinch to use. Some manufacturers and brewers tell you to just sprinkle the contents of the yeast packet directly onto the surface of your wort, but hydrating the yeast in advance enhances viability and takes just a few minutes.
1. Add 8 ounces (250 ml) lukewarm water (about 95°F/35°C) to a sanitized measuring cup. Using sanitized scissors, cut open your sachet of dry yeast.
2. Sprinkle the contents of the sachet on top of the lukewarm water, but do not stir.
3. Wait 5 minutes for the yeast to absorb water, then gently agitate the measuring cup by slowly swirling it. Wait another 5 minutes, or until all of the dry grains of yeast have dissolved.
4. Swirl the slurry to suspend the yeast cells, then add the slurry to the fresh wort.
How to Use a Hydrometer
The hydrometer is your best friend when you want an answer to the question, “Is fermentation over yet or what?” While a happily bubbling airlock and a cap of foam on the fermenting beer are good signs, these are only visual cues, and it’s entirely possible for fermentation to proceed without them. A hydrometer, however, does not lie.
A hydrometer measures the density of a liquid relative to that of water. So, placing a hydrometer in pure distilled water will yield a reading of 1.000. Sugar-rich wort will be considerably denser, usually in the 1.040–1.100 range, the higher, the more sugary. That number falls as the beer ferments.
It’s possible to float a hydrometer in the fermentation bucket, but sometimes the scale can be hard to read. Carboys, with their narrow necks, are another story altogether: Don’t even think of trying to plunk a hydrometer into one. You won’t get it back out until you rack the beer, and you run the very real risk of breaking the hydrometer in the process!
The most popular alternative to measuring right in the bucket is the hydrometer test jar. These are cylinders, usually plastic, with a stable base. You just draw a sample of wort or beer, fill the jar, and then place the hydrometer inside.
The jar works great, but it’s far from perfect. In order to get the beer, you either have to start a siphon (messy) or use a wine thief to remove the sample. And that brings us to my preferred tool for the job, a combination wine thief and test tube.
A traditional wine thief resembles a long turkey baster from which the squeeze bulb at the top has been removed, and it functions like a large straw. Insert the thief into your liquid of choice and place a thumb over the hole at the top to pull a sample. Then remove the thief, hold it over a sample jar. When you remove your thumb from the top of the thief, the jar fills with liquid.
A modern variant on the classic thief design has a small valve on the business end of the device that allows wort or beer to flow into the tube when it is submerged in liquid. But when you remove it, the weight of the trapped liquid closes the valve. Then you just float a hydrometer right in the thief itself, eliminating the need for a separate jar.
Here’s how to use a hydrometer, whether you use a hydrometer test jar or wine thief:
- Remove a sample of wort or beer from your fermentor using a sanitized wine thief (1).
- If your thief doesn’t let you take measurements directly inside it (see above), transfer the sample to a separate hydrometer jar.
- Gently lower the hydrometer, bulb-end down, into the sample (2), and give the stem a quick swirl as you let go of it.
- Wait for the hydrometer to stop spinning, then read the specific gravity (3). It’s the number on the stem that corresponds to the lowest part of the meniscus. (The meniscus is the curved surface of the liquid between the walls of the tube and the surface of the hydrometer. It’s caused by surface tension, which doesn’t indicate specific gravity. So always read at the bottom of the meniscus for accurate results.)
- Write down the number in your notes.
Washing up is straightforward. Use PBW or OxiClean to clean your mess. If you brewed in your kitchen and your significant other has been kind enough to tolerate your brew day without complaint, take a moment to leave the kitchen cleaner than you found it. This will go a long way toward your continued encouragement to brew beer.
Fermentation is the 1- to 2-week process during which yeast cells consume the wort sugars you’ve so lovingly prepared and convert them into carbon dioxide and ethanol. For the fermentation period, you need the following items:
- A cool, dark, quiet place in which to ferment your beer
- Sanitizer of your choice
- Beer or wine thief
There’s very little you can do during this phase to influence the outcome once it gets going, but you can keep your fermentor cool, ideally 65–68°F (18–20°C).
If the seals on your bucket and airlock are in good shape, you’ll probably notice bubbles issuing forth from the airlock, but it’s entirely possible for beer to ferment with nary a bubble to be seen or burp to be heard. The only way to accurately measure progress is to take a hydrometer reading, a good habit into which to get.
I suggest taking as few hydrometer readings as possible because every time you open the fermentor, it’s another opportunity to introduce oxygen and potential contaminants. So, give your beer at least a week before taking a measurement. Higher-gravity styles such as Belgian tripels and imperial anythings are probably best given 2 weeks.
If your beer’s specific gravity, as measured with a hydrometer, remains constant over separate readings taken 3 days in a row, then your beer has probably finished fermenting. I say probably because there is a possibility, especially with certain yeast strains, that you’ll experience stuck fermentation, which is when the yeast gives up prematurely and fails to fully ferment the wort.
How do you know if fermentation is truly complete or simply stuck? Calculate your expected final gravity (FG) and see if the current gravity reading is close. You can estimate the expected FG by taking the numbers to the right of the 1 in the original gravity (OG) reading and multiplying them by the yeast’s apparent attenuation, usually available from the manufacturer’s website. Then subtract that number from the original. Here’s an example.
Let’s say the original gravity of your beer is 1.050, and your yeast has an apparent attenuation of 70 percent. Seventy percent of 50 is 35, which means that you expect the yeast to consume 35 of the 50 gravity points. That means you’ll have 50 − 35 = 15 gravity points at the end of fermentation, or a final gravity of 1.015.
Thus, if three consecutive hydrometer readings come in at or near 1.015, you can safely assume your beer is done. However, if they’re closer to 1.020, you might want to wait a few more days before declaring it finished. If, after that, you’re still at 1.020, then gently swirl the fermentor, warm it up to 70° (21°C), and wait again. If after that, fermentation still hasn’t budged, you’re ready for the maturation period.
Recall from Chapter 9 that all beer needs a maturation period, during which time its rough edges can smooth, its flavors can meld, and yeast cells can clean up after themselves. Here’s what you need for this 1- to 2-week period:
- A cool, dark, quiet place in which to condition your beer
Optional items include:
- Sanitized carboy with **bung and airlock
- Sanitized siphon tubing and auto-siphon
Maturation could be as simple as waiting a few days after fermentation winds down, or it could be as complex as transferring to a lagering vessel and putting your beer down for a 6-month nap at a temperature near freezing. For your first batch, I suggest simply leaving your beer alone for a couple of extra weeks. You’ll avoid possible oxidation and contamination and increase the likelihood that your first batch will be a success.
That said, I know that you’re probably also eager to get started on your next batch of homebrew, which means you need that fermentation vessel! In that case, it’s worth racking to a secondary vessel, typically a 5-gallon (19 l) carboy. See “How to Rack (Transfer) Your Beer” (above) for details on how to do this. If you do transfer your beer into a clear vessel such as a carboy, be sure to store it in a dark place or wrap it in an old towel or sheet to keep out light, which could turn your beer skunky.
Once your beer is in its maturation vessel, leave it alone until you’re ready to bottle.
Bottling day is at once exciting and frustrating. It’s exciting because you’re well on your way to enjoying your homebrew, but frustrating because you still have to wait another 2–3 weeks to taste it. But it’s the last thing standing between you and your beer, so get to it! Here’s what you need:
Sanitizer of your choice
* 6.5-gallon (25 l) bottling bucket with integrated spigot
* Enough clean, sanitized bottles to hold all of your homebrew (see Chapter 4 for how to sanitize bottles in the oven or dishwasher; see Chapter 10 for the quantity of longnecks, bombers, and European half liters you’ll need)
* An equivalent number of bottle caps, often called crown caps
* Plastic siphon tubing,** about 5 feet (1.5 m), preferably with a pinch clamp
* Bottling wand
* Small saucepan
* 4–5 ounces (113–142 g) of corn sugar (dextrose); your local homebrew store may sell priming sugar in bulk or in 5-ounce (142 g) bags. As you gain experience, you may want to adjust the amount of sugar you use to achieve different carbonation levels for different styles of beer. But when you’re just getting started, 4 or 5 ounces (113–142 g) is a good general-purpose amount.
* Bottle capper
* Something to drink while you fill bottles
Use the small saucepan to boil 5 ounces (140 g) of corn sugar in 2 cups (16 fl oz/475 ml) of water for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, place a lid on top, and leave to cool while you prepare for bottling. While the sugar water is cooling, sanitize all of your equipment except the bottle capper.
Now it’s time to transfer your beer to the bottling bucket, a food-grade plastic bucket with a spigot near the bottom. Use your auto-siphon and tubing to gently rack the beer into the bottling bucket (see “How to Rack (Transfer) Your Beer,” above). Keep this process nice and smooth, and avoid splashing as much as possible. Some splashing is bound to happen, but racking quietly means less oxygen to spoil your beer.
As the beer flows into the bottling bucket, gently pour the sugar solution on top of it. When all the beer has been transferred, remove the siphon equipment and raise the bottling bucket up to a tabletop or countertop that’s above the area where you plan to fill bottles.
Let the primed beer sit for 5 minutes or so to give any particulates time to settle to the bottom. This also helps the priming solution evenly mix throughout the beer, ensuring even carbonation from one bottle to the next.
When it’s time to fill bottles, attach one end of a sanitized length of siphon tubing to a sanitized bottling wand and the other end to the sanitized spigot on your bottling bucket. Place several sanitized bottles in a row on the floor or—even better—on the lower rack of your open dishwasher. You can line up as many as you’re comfortable with, but many brewers fill six or twelve bottles at a time because that many bottles fit neatly into 6-pack and 12-pack holders, respectively.
Open the spigot on the bottling bucket and place the bottling wand into your first bottle. Press the tip lightly onto the bottom of the bottle to start the flow of beer. Keep an eye on it as the bottle fills so that it doesn’t overflow! When the beer just reaches the lip of the bottle, pull up on the wand and remove it from the bottle. The volume that the wand displaces leaves just the right amount of headspace when you remove the wand from the bottle.
Continue this process until you have bottled the entire batch. You should get somewhere between forty-eight and fifty-two 12-ounce (355 ml) bottles out of a 5-gallon (19 l) batch. If you don’t have enough beer to fill the last bottle more than about two-thirds full, then drink the flat beer and save the bottle for your next batch. Leaving too much head space in the bottle could lead to over-carbonation and an explosion!
Capping your bottles is a piece of cake. Just place a sanitized crown cap on the bottle capper’s magnetized bell, lower the bell onto the top of the bottle. Pushing down on the capper’s two wings engages a pair of metal plates that grasp the bottle’s neck on either side while simultaneously plunging the bell down and onto the cap. When the two wings snap down to become horizontal and parallel to the bottling surface, the cap seats firmly onto the bottle, and you’re done. Be careful, though. The bottles may be wet and could easily slide out from under you and break as you push down with the capper. Consider bottling on a kitchen towel to mop up liquids and offer some grip to the bottle.
After you have capped all of your bottles, dry them off, and store them away in a spot that is at or slightly above room temperature. Consider placing them in a large bin or tub with a lid just in case one of the bottles explodes.
Put those bottles away for at least 2 weeks. I know how tempting it is to crack open that first bottle, but it’s important to give the yeast enough time to carbonate your homebrew. Your patience will be rewarded with better beer. Two weeks minimum. Three is even better!
Pro tip: Why not brew up another batch of homebrew while you’re waiting?
Everything you have done until now has been in service of this moment when you can sample your beer. Here is what you need:
- One or more bottles of homebrew
- A refrigerator
- A bottle opener
- A carefully selected glass appropriate for the occasion (see Chapter 11)
- A couple of friends, if you’re feeling generous
At least 24 hours before you plan to open your first few bottles, put them in the refrigerator.
Why wait 24 hours? It doesn’t take that long to chill a bottle of beer, after all. No, but it does take time for carbon dioxide in the headspace to dissolve into the beer beneath it. You could accelerate the process by shaking the bottle once it’s at the right temperature, but this is likely to upset your friends when they pop the top.
So, 3 weeks of conditioning, and then 24 hours in the fridge. Now it’s time. Pull your beer from the refrigerator and pop off the cap using your preferred method: bottle opener, wedding ring, flat-head screwdriver, incantations, whatever. Listen for the hiss. If it’s there, it means you have carbonation! If not, pull the remaining bottles from the fridge and bring them up to room temperature to condition for another couple of weeks.
If you have carbonation, pour your beer into a glass, taking care to leave the small bit of sediment behind (unless you brewed a Hefeweizen, in which case swirl up all that yeast and dump it into the glass. It’s part of the experience!).
Observe the color, bubbles, and aroma as you pour. No need to write anything down unless you really want to. Just notice what you see.
And then drink your beer.
That’s all there is.
This is an excerpt from our Illustrated Guide to Homebrewing by Dave Carpenter. Want to read the whole thing? Download it here.