Homebrewing 101: How to Brew your own Beer (Part 1)


As I've mentioned before, I have several hobbies, er… passions… besides running ultramarathons. 

One that I have been involved in the longest is homebrewing beer and wine. I began making beer almost 20 years ago and have been making it off and on ever since.

What better way to relax after running an ultramarathon than sit in our hot tub overlooking a pine forested canyon enjoying a refreshing cold homebrew?

We had an Oktoberfest party recently; after an evening of visiting and listening to Bavarian beer drinking music…our friends emptied almost all of our kegs. 


I love when my kegs are empty. That means I have space to store new beer and can start brewing again. Making beer is as much fun as tasting it-almost. The creation and trying out new recipes are the best parts of the hobby. However, I could never ever consume all that I make which is why I'm always eager to share.

I started out using kits and simple recipes. I learned from the mistakes I made along the way. I've never made a bad batch of beer- but some have turned out better than others.

One bit of advice is to aquire a good homebrewing book and/or have an experienced homebrewer show you how.

My favorite book…indeed it should be called the "bible" of homebrewing… is The Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian, one of the pioneers of home brewing beer.

It was he who first coined the phrase "Relax… Don't Worry… Have a Home Brew!" which remains the unofficial motto of homebrewers to this day.

I make all kinds of beer. I also enjoy trying out new microbrews or imports to get ideas of which style of beer I might like to try brewing next.  

Sometimes I am asked which is my favorite: "I have none… I appreciate them all…."

A pale ale with the citrusy bitterness of Cascade hops may be just the thing on a hot August afternoon after working in the garden… while a rich, creamy oatmeal stout accompanied with homemade whole grain bread, soup and salad might be exactly what's needed after coming in from slitting firewood on a winter's evening.

Which beer is best? It all depends…

There are two main styles of beer: ales and lagers. The difference is in the type of yeast that is used.

Ale yeast forms a thick krausen or head of foam on the beer as they ferment- they're top fermenters. Ale yeasts produce fruity esters. Sometimes these are clove-like and spicy, sometimes they are fruity, even banana-like- it all depends on the variety. Ale yeasts work best at room temperature and usually they do their job more quickly than lager yeasts. Thus, ales are the best types of beer for a beginner to learn to make first.

Examples of ales include: Pale ales, English Bitter, IPA, red ales, light ale, amber ales, stouts, porters, and wheat beers.

Lagers, on the other hand,  ferment more slowly and require cold aging, often as long as 3 or 4 months or more. They are bottom fermenters and do not work asaggressively as most ale yeasts. However, the wait is worth it: lager yeasts produce crisp, clean tasting beers, highly prized by beer drinkers around the world. Nevertheless, lagers are slightly more tricky to work with which is why it is best for beginners to develop their skills on ales first.  

Examples of lagers include: Pilsner, Amber lager, Vienna lager, Oktoberfest, Marzen, Bock, Dopplebock and others.

My second bit of advice: use liquid instead of dry yeast.

The quality of beer made with liquid yeast is markedly better than with dry yeast. I keep a few spare packets of dry yeast around in case I have a "stuck" batch of beer that won't ferment. Dry yeast does not expire as quickly as does liquid. Otherwise, I use only liquid. Plus, there are many more varieties to choose from.

My favorite brand is the Wyeast Activator, avalable in countless different strains. There's a kind for every conceivable style of beer you might want to make.

The next important ingredient in beer is hops. There innumerable varieties of hops available. Hops are used either for bittering or aroma. Some varieties are used for both.

Hops are the dried female flower of a perennial vine that dies back to the ground every winter before sprouting up again from its roots every spring. We grew hops on the south wall of our house back when we lived in Wisconsin. Within a couple of months every spring they were touching the roof of our two story farmhouse.

Amazing vines- hops can grow a foot or more in a day!

Hops add both bitterness and the familiar aroma to beer. They also possess natural antioxidants which help preserve beer, a useful trait back in the days before pastuerization and refrigeration.

Some beers, such as the India Pale Ale were purposely made extremely hoppy so they could survive the travel for months on a ship around the Cape and through the warm tropical seas- eventually to quench the thrist of the British in India a century ago. 

Certain beers are known for the specific type of hops they are made with. The noble Saaz hop is an essential ingredient to Pilsners; the citrusy, almost grapefruit-rind like, aroma and bitterness of the Cascade hop is a favorite in American Pale Ales.

One confusing thing, sometimes the same variety of hop is used for both bittering AND aroma.  Bittering hops are added to the wort (unfermented beer) early in the boiling process- aroma hops are added only a few minutes before the boiling is done. Bittering and aroma hops can be two or more different varieties or they can be the same- it all depends on the recipe.

Hops are available as dry leaves, plugs or pellets (pictured above). I prefer the latter for availability and ease of use, unless I happen to be using some hops I've grown myself. 

But yeast and hops without malt would be nothing more than bitter hop flavored tea. Yeast needs food to grow on and carbohydrates to convert into alcohol. Just as bread yeast feeds on the starch in flour; beer yeast needs the sugars in malt. Malt is made from the sprouted barley and other grains. As the grain begins to sprout, starches are converted into sugars, easier for yeast to digest. The malts are then dried and roasted to various darkness, imparting a rich complexity to the beer. In the past, all brewer had to malt and roast their own grain- a few still do.

Now however, you can buy pre-made malt extract from homebrew suppliers- it is easy to use and almost as good. All grain brewing is much more challenging than using malt extracts.  I prefer to use a combination of grains and malts. The quality of beer is better but using some extract makes brewing more convenient.

Finally, the last important, and probably least appreciated, ingredient in beer is water. Most tap waters are acceptable- as long as they don't have off-flavors or are too highly mineralized.  

Our pure cold Black Hills mountain aquifer water is perfect for creating great beer.

Many homebrew suppliers offer kits with all necessary ingredients. These are tried and true recipes which minimize the possibility of starting a batch and later finding out one or more essential ingredients is missing. However, before you can begin brewing, you need the tools to do the job. Again, homebrew suppliers offer new to homebrewing supply kits for new homebrewers.

The minimum equipment and tools required to make beer include the following:

  • Stainless steel brewing pot: to boil the wort (unfermented beer).
  • Slotted bewing spoon– to stir the wort while it boils
  • A burner to boil your beer– a stove top will do but does not heat as quickly and is harder to get the exact right temperature to allow a slow bubble without messy boilovers. I bought a propane burner for frying turkeys on sale after the Holidays. It works great!
  • Cheese cloth muslin: to put the hops and specialty grains in when steeping and boiling
  • Household bleach– diluted it makes a cheap and effective sterilizer for beer equipment. Use gloves and don't forget to rinse! 
  • Carboy- preferably a large glass one instead of plastic bucket- for the beer to ferment in. Glass is easier to keep clean. 
  • Air locks– the beer needs to "breathe" or release CO2 as it ferments but oxygen must never touch it. Air locks with filled half-way with water do the trick.
  • Stoppers with hole- to fit the air lock into and put on the carboy
  • Strainer and funnel: to strain the wort and allow it to be poured into the carboy. Make sure the wort has cooled before pouring it into the carboy or the glass will shatter!
  • Siphon with plastic hose: for transferring beer into another fermentor, into a keg or into bottles
  • Bottles (until you move up to kegging beer as I have): to store your beer until you drink it- duh!
  • Bottle caps– to cap your bottles- another duh!
  • A bottle capper- I recommend spending the extra money to get a stand alone one. They're much easier to use, with less hassle and frustration

The above are the minimum equipment needed. As you become more experienced, you may decide to invest in a set up to keg your beer and more specialized equipment such as a wort chiller and so on.  Those are nice but not an absolute necessity when starting out.

Once you have assembled your equipment and ingredients-  it' time to make beer!

Jah Vohl!

-Continued in Part 2-

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2 responses

  1. [esto es genial]

    December 6, 2009 at 11:14 am

  2. I'm glad that you approve and enjoy… I should have new beer in the kegs and ready to drink by New Year's.
    We cut and split firewood yesterday. We sure could have used your help. My shoulders are aching!

    December 6, 2009 at 11:38 am

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