Homebrewing 101

History

Prior to 1979, brewing beer in the home was illegal in the United States on both the state and Federal level. The illegality of homebrewing was a direct consequence of Prohibition: Prohibition had outlawed all forms of beer brewing, in the home or otherwise. When Prohibition was repealed with the 21st Amendment, home wine-making was legalized. Homebrewing of beer should have also been legalized at this time, but a clerical error omitted the words "and/or beer" from the document which was eventually passed into law. Thus, homebrewing remained illegal for several decades.

In November 1978, Congress passed a bill repealing Federal restrictions on the homebrewing of small amounts of beer. Jimmy Carter signed the bill into law in February 1979, and many states soon followed suit. Later that same year, Charlie Papazian founded the Association of Brewers. In 1984 Papazian published The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.

General information

The brewing process typically takes about 3-6 hours with beer that is ready to drink in about 4-6 weeks. Contrary to some of the myths about homebrewing, it does not necessarily require a large amount of space or produce unpleasant odors.

A typical batch of homebrewed beer is five US gallons (19 l) in volume, which is roughly enough for two cases — or 48 12-ounce (355 mL) bottles — of beer. In Britain homebrew is typically produced in 5 Imperial gallon (23 l) batches. In Australia, which has a strong homebrewing culture (due to both historical consumption patterns and the presence of the Adelaide-based Coopers brewery & their large associated homebrew business), a standard batch is 23l.

Equipment and books may be purchased through local home brew shops or online. In the United States, typical equipment costs are approximately $60 plus the cost of a large kettle (about $35-$50). Ingredients for a typical 5 gallon batch range from $20 to $40 depending on beer style, using dry or liquid yeast and the store's pricing. Additional costs such as bottles (which may be reused with adequate cleaning) and sanitizers should also be anticipated.

The Process

Homebrewing malt extracts: liquid in a can and spray dried.

Homebrewing malt extracts: liquid in a can and spray dried.

The home brewing process can be broken down into 5 steps:

  1. Making wort (unfermented beer);
  2. Fermentation;
  3. Packaging (Bottling or Kegging);
  4. Carbonation;
  5. Consumption

Typical homebrewed beer is produced by boiling water, malt extract and hops together in a large kettle and then cooling the resulting wort and adding yeast for fermenting. Advanced homebrewers make their own extract from crushed malted barley (or alternative grain adjuncts like wheat, oats, corn or rye) by a more complicated process of mashing the grain in hot water. The wort is always boiled for a minimum of 15 minutes, but if the brewer is creating the wort from grain, the minimum is 60 minutes. Whether the minimum is 15 or 60 minutes, it typically takes an hour or longer to remove some volatile impurities, dissolve the character of the hops, and break down some of the proteins. The wort is then cooled down to pitching temperature (70-75 °F or 21-24 °C- but if it is possible, 18C-20C is best). Quick cooling and isolation from the ambient atmosphere is needed to prevent early bacterial contamination or oxidation of the wort. Often, cooling is hastened by the used of thermal heat exchangers, informally, wort chillers, which often consist of copper tubing immersed in the wort, through which cold water flows. For larger volumes of wort, a counter-flow wort chiller can be used, in which the hot wort flows through copper tubing which is jacketed by a second tube (often garden hose) through which cold water is run in the opposite direction from the wort's flow. A more primitive and ineffective method is to immerse the pot in a sink full of ice water.

Homebrewing fermentation vessel with fermentation lock.

Homebrewing fermentation vessel with fermentation lock.

The cooled wort is poured into the primary fermenter in an aggressive manner, so as to aerate the wort; sufficient oxygen is vital for the yeast's growth stage. Advanced homebrewers may further oxygenate the wort by bubbling filtered air or even pure oxygen through the cooled wort. The yeast is then pitched (sprinkled or poured) into the wort. If a dried yeast is used, some brewers rehydrate it first to reduce 'lag time', or the time taken before the yeast starts working. Although more expensive than dry yeasts, a number of liquid yeasts are also available, offering a range of flavor characteristics that allow the brewer to more closely approximate various beer styles.

Primary fermentation takes place in a large glass or plastic carboys or food-grade plastic bucket, nearly always sealed, but traditionally can be left open. When sealed, the fermenter is stoppered with the carbon dioxide gas produced venting through a fermentation lock. During this time, temperatures should be kept at optimum temperature for the fermentation process. For ale this temperature is usually 65-75°F / 18-24°C, and for lager it is usually much colder, around 50°F / 10°C. Starting within 12 hours and continuing over the next few days a vigorous fermentation takes place. During this stage the fermentable sugars (maltose, glucose, and sucrose) in the wort are consumed by the yeast, while ethanol and CO2 are produced as byproducts by the yeast. A layer of sediment, the trub, appears at the bottom of the fermenter, composed of heavy fats, proteins and inactive yeast. A sure sign that primary fermentation has finished is that the head of foam (krausen), built by bubbling of CO2, falls.

Often, the beer is then racked (siphoned) into another container, usually a carboy, for aging or secondary fermentation. Fermentation is actually complete, so the term secondary fermentation actually refers to conditioning. Racking is done to separate the batch from the afore-mentioned trub so that it is not used as food, as this can give the beer an off-flavor. Racking also helps separate the beer from sediment, making it less likely to find its way into the finished product. During secondary fermentation some chemical byproducts from the primary fermentation are digested, which considerably improves the taste. Secondary fermentation can take from 2 to 4 weeks, sometimes longer, depending on the type of beer. Some homebrewers will keep the batch in the primary fermenter, called single stage fermentation, for the entire process. The potential drawbacks include added sediment in the finished product and a greater risk of off flavors. The tradeoff is this eliminates the need for a second container, reduces labor, and reduces the likelihood of contaminating the batch with bacteria, or oxidizing it, during transfer to the second container. This is a good beginner strategy, especially for those not skilled with racking.

A homebrew bottling operation in a home kitchen.

A homebrew bottling operation in a home kitchen.

Once this secondary fermentation is finished, the beer is ready for carbonation. There are two methods of carbonation. The first method does not require much capital expenditure per batch but is more time consuming. About 3/4 cup of corn sugar (dextrose) or other fermentable sugar is added to the beer, which is then transferred to bottles and then capped, or placed in a keg. The fermentation of the priming sugar in the closed container by left-over yeast suspended in the beer causes the carbon dioxide to be forced into solution in the beer. This takes 1-2 weeks. The second method involves pressurizing carbon dioxide into the beer into a special type of keg - either a Cornelius keg, the kind used in restaurants for soda storage, or a pressure barrel. Canisters of carbon dioxide, or soda chargers, can be released into the pressure barrel directly. The carbonation process then occurs almost instantaneously.

Using the first carbonation method, sediment will remain at the base of the bottles after completion. At this point it is referred to as the dregs, and an experienced homebrewer learns how to decant the beer, with minimal contribution to the taste of the beer in the mug. Some wheat beers, however, demand the sediment be rotated through the beer before it is served. The sediment in bottles is mostly an aesthetic problem, although ingesting yeast may cause excess digestive gas in some drinkers.

When using natural carbonation, the fermentation process restarts, although in a much smaller scale. The yeast must ferment the sugar, then clean up the byproducts of fermentation as in the secondary phase. Because the yeast population is much smaller, the process can take up to and beyond two weeks beyond full carbonation. Once the bottle/keg conditioning phase ends, the beer begins aging. Aging typically rounds out any rough edges in the beer and can remedy many imperfections. Some beers such as wheat beers are considered best with little to no aging, while bigger, higher alcohol beers can benifit from age for years.

During all stages attention to sanitation is essential. All items that come in contact with the wort or brew, must be soaked in a sanitizing solution and thoroughly rinsed, or immersed in boiling water.

Homebrewing kits.

Homebrewing kits.

There are homebrewing kits available that eliminate the need of the first stage – boiling of the wort. These kits, sometimes known as beer in a can, no-boil, and hopped wort kits contain liquid malt extract that just needs to be reconstituted and then add yeast. These are the easiest beer kits available since they typically don't require boiling or other preparations. Generally, the quality of beer from these kits is not on par with beer made from all-grain or malt extracts, but can be a good start for someone overwhelmed by the process.

When using malt extract, additional steps can be taken to add different flavors. Specialty grains are malted grains that do not require mashing. They are commonly steeped to add flavor, body and color at the beginning of brews. Sometimes hops are added at later stages for aroma and flavor, or dry hopped, (added just after secondary fermentation). Malto-dextrin, oak chips, and numerous other flavoring can also be experimented with.

There are several instruction books available. Some are more detailed than others, but homebrewing can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. The basic process does not require a great deal of technical knowledge, and the results are very much under the control of the brewer.

Brewing culture

Patience is required in homebrewing. The whole brewing process can take from two weeks to several months or even years, depending on the style of beer. Some enthusiasts brew beer in far larger quantities than the typical 5 gallon batch, sometimes as a prelude to commercial production. It is not unusual for a homebrewer to have several batches in different stages of completion to permit the dispensing of quality homebrew at short notice.

Advanced homebrewers often prefer to brew "all-grain" batches of beer, by mashing the grain themselves to reduce starch into sugars needed by the yeast. Such techniques allow a greater control over the final quality of the beer than malt extract brewing. A large vessel called a mash tun holds the water at various temperatures to break the starch in malt into fermentable sugars which become alcohol and dextrines (unfermentable carbohydrates) which give the beer body. The spent grain is removed in a perforated container called a lauter tun and brewing proceeds as normal. Often, homebrewers use one vessel with a perforated false bottom for both mashing and lautering. A hybrid called grain extract, or partial mash uses both home-mashed malt and malt extract. This method is preferable to those who do not want to invest in larger equipment required for all-grain brewing, but would like to experiment with mashing grain.

People homebrew for a variety of reasons. Homebrewed beer can be cheaper than commercially equivalent brews, however most homebrewers customize their recipes to their own tastes, which tends to be more expensive. For instance, hopheads, or fans of bitter beer, can hop their beer far beyond what would normally be considered excessive. Dark beer enthusiasts can create beers, such as Russian Imperial Stout or Porter, that are the antithesis of the commercially dominant paler style. Additionally, homebrewers are able to create ‘specialty’ beers that are either extremely rare or entirely unavailable on the open market. Moreover, homebrewers have complete control over the amount of alcohol produced (based on the amount of fermentables placed into the wort), allowing for the production of beers containing very low amounts of alcohol or very high amounts of alcohol.

Some homebrewers strive for perfection of specific styles of beer and enter their products in competitions. Others simply brew to have styles of beer on hand to drink and share that are otherwise commercially unavailable, or in an unacceptably poor state when they are available. Others, with access to extremely large quantities of bio-materials (grains, rice, beets, potatoes, etc.), produce their own alcohol fuel for powering farm equipment, as well as cars and trucks, at a considerable cost-savings relative to paying for fuel at the pump.

One of greatest draws of homebrewed beer is the opportunity to enjoy beer that is 'live'. Since almost every beer available is pasteurized, it is almost impossible for the average beer drinker to enjoy beer in its natural state. Pasteurization requires the beer to be cooked, which results in the disappearance of any carbonation. Commercial brewers collect the boiled off alcohol, mix it with the pasteurized beer and force carbonate the brew. The disadvantage of this is the fact that all of the yeast is killed in the process. Therefore, the beer tastes considerably dissimilar from ‘live’ beer. Moreover, the beer will not age without live yeast. Homebrew is never pasteurized, therefore the carbonation present is naturally produced by the yeast, the taste is a more natural flavor, and the beer will age, changing in taste, texture and color over time. Without homebrew, the general public would not be able to enjoy beer in its natural state. The one exception is a type of beer occasionally offered by pubs and breweries known as ‘cask conditioned’ beer, which, like homebrew, is not pasteurized.

Legality

In the United States, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law a bill explicitly allowing home beer and winemaking, which was at the time illegal as a holdover from the prohibition of alcoholic beverages (repealed in 1933). This applies at the Federal level, and States can also set their own laws concerning beer and wine making. Most specify brewing 100 gallons of beer per person over the age of 21 per household, up to a maximum of 200 gallons per year. Because alcohol is taxed by the federal governments via excise taxes, homebrewers are restricted from selling any beer they brew. This similarly applies in most Western countries.

Other Links

Homebrewing Information and Instruction

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