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The Boil

Adventures in Home Brewing and DIY

May 14, 2014

I'm not sure who it was that first introduced me to Home Brewing. I just remember wanting to give it a try in the early 90s but it always seemed that there was some other shinny object in the way. More than likely it was a beer or two. However, with my increased interest in Craft Beer as I talked about in my last blog post, I decided it was high time that I took the leap into brewing my own beer.


Luckily most of the flag bearers of Home Brewing inspired other standard-bearers and most of them were open to educating others to the art. Though most of the information they were sharing was not new or revolutionary but forgotten skills. I won't go to the terrible of naming all of them but a lot of them went on to become professional craft brewers. Without them there wouldn't be the ever increasing selections on the shelves today. In a way they having been raising the dead. Long forgotten creatures from our past and bring them back to life. In other cases they are just exposing the states to beers that have continued to be produced in other parts of the world. 


Brewing at it's heart is cooking but it is also in a way about creating life. The basics are creating a sugary wort then adding yeast. The yeast then reproduce and create alcohol and CO2. Thus giving beer it's kick and carbonation. So as a brewer you are in fact creating an environment for the yeast to live and reproduce while guarding off invasion of other microorganisms. There are a number of different ways to do this but by far the easiest and simplest way is through extract brewing. Just like any extract you are creating a potent concentration of what will be your finial wort that you introduce your yeast to. 


If you can boil water, read a thermometer and set a timer, you can brew beer. Now this will not be of the same quality of a full grain beer but it will still be better than 99% of the beer you will find at the local gas station and will take a great deal less equipment and skill to do. However you will need a few items to do it correctly.


Cleaning and Sanitization:

  1. Sanitizer to sanitize equipment, fermenters, siphons, tubing, and everything that will come in contact with you wort and beer after the boil. Stan Star and Idoophor are tasteless, won't effect the wort or beer and can be found at most home brewing shops.
  2. Cleaner to clean sticky wort and the aftermath of fermentation off equipment. B-Brite and other cleansers can also be found at most home brewing shops.
  3. Bottle and Carboy brush to clean bottles and carboys.
  4. Bottle rack and bottle washer to clean and dry bottles after cleaning and sanitization. They are optional but will make your life easier.


For the steeping and brewing: 

  1. Notebook and pen to take notes of every step of the brewing to make sure that you can repeat the brew correctly.
  2. A kettle or pot that holds at least 3 gallons or 12 quarts. I have found that the larger the better and have been using a 4 gallon one from the start. A cover or lid would be helpful to regulate heat. 
  3. Water. Though tap water might not be a problem, the chemicals that are added to treated water may reduce the ability of reproduce and ferment your beer. You can filter your tap water or buy spring water or filtered water. However, do not use distilled water because it lacks the minerals and other goodies needed to keep the yeast happy and reproducing. 
  4. Thermometer. I would suggest a floating one or instant read with a long probe. It should be one that can safely survive above the boiling point.
  5. Long Handled metal spoon.


For cooling and transferring the wort:

  1. Ice and a lot of it. If you want to go all out buy a heat exchange which is a coil pipe that sets in the wort that you pump cold water through to cool the wort.
  2. A rack or auto siphon to transfer the wort to the fermentation container. This is a helpful piece of equipment that you will also use to transfer the wort to a second fermentation vessel and for bottling.
  3. Plastic hose that fits the rack.
  4. Hydrometer to read the gravity or sugar content of the wort.
  5. A cylinder or theft to hold the wort in while you read the hydrometer. Personally I like to use the thief because it can draw the wort out and then you just drop the hydometer in to get your reading.


For Fermentation:

  1. A Fermentation vessel. There are a number of options but you should consider that it needs to be air tight with a hole to allow for a air lock or blow off hose. The cheapest is a plastic bucket with an air tight lid and a pre drilled hole for an air lock. However, Glass or Plastic Carboys allow you to view the fermentation and are less likely to become damaged. If you are going to do two stage fermentation, you are going to want to buy two of them.
  2. Airlock and stopper. A byproduct of fermentation is CO2. Later it will come in handy when we want to carbonate the beer but during fermentation, we need a way to allow this to escape the vessel without allowing microorganism in. The airlock is filled with water and allows the CO2 to escape but doesn't let the invaders in.
  3. A dark cool area of your home. Closets work best to avoid exposure to sunlight and temperature changes.


Bottling and conditioning:

  1. A tub or towel to set the bottles in or on. Over filling will happen and it is much easier to clean a tub or towel than to clean the floor.
  2. Bottling bucket, This is optional but it makes the whole thing easier.
  3. Tubing, you can use the same tubing as above.
  4. Rack, you use the same auto siphon that you used to transfer the wort from the kettle to the fermentation vessel. 
  5. Bottling wand. this is a plastic tube that connects to the tubing from your bottling bucket or siphon and has a tip that you press into the bottom of the bottle. It releases a valve and allows the bottle to be filled from the bottom up.
  6. Crowns. Unused cap.
  7. Bottle Capper. A spring loaded tool with two handles. As you depress the handles it bends the edges of the crown and seals the bottle.
  8. Empty and sanitized bottles. Brown is always best and clear or light colors should be avoided. You can either buy new ones or re-use empties that have been cleaned and sanitized.
  9. Labels. This is optional but if you end up brewing a lot of beer it can get confusing just which brown bottle is which beer.
  10. Storage. Since conditioning or carbonation of the beer can take weeks and in some cases months, a dark area like a closet is best.


Now that might seem like a lot of stuff and a large investment but most home brew stores sell kits, where you can get just about everything you will need at a reduced price. Also you may find it cheaper to buy some items like a kettle elsewhere. The thing with kits though is make sure everything is in it. When I bought mine, I made it all the way home before I realized that the kit didn't include a Hydrometer or flask. So we had no way of measuring the starting gravity at all. Thus other than the bubbling of the air lock, there was no way to know if the fermentation had taken place at all and no way to figure out the alcohol pre volume of the beer. That said you can get just about everything you need for your first brew in a kit without kettle for around $80. Also since fermentation is going to take at least 5 days, you could buy the tools you need in stages to avoid a full investment up front.


OK, now you have all these new toys and you are itching to put it to uses. By far the easiest way to do your first brew is to buy one of the prepackaged beer kits. There are a number of different styles to choose from. The only thing that I would suggest is that you might want to consider buying a liquid yeast package instead of using the dried yeast that is included with most kits. Also a couple of mess hop bags. Your average kit will include:

  1. Instructions
  2. Pre-crushed grains for steeping
  3. Dry Malt Extract
  4. Liquid Malt Extract
  5. Hops
  6. Mess Grain Bag
  7. Crowns


If you decide to jump right in with a recipe or design your own, then have a list of your ingredient on hand when you go to the store. There are a number of recipes on the internet, in book on Home Brewing and programs like BeerSmith 2. Beersmith is great because you can take a recipe and then adapt it to your needs. Either way most extract recipes will include grains for steeping, liquid and/or dry extract and hops. You will need to buy the mess grain and hop bags or strain/filter the wort before fermentation. Also when using a recipe it's a good idea to let the home brew store crush the grain. I haven't done it but it can be done with a rolling pin if you get un-crushed grain.


Yeast Starting and Mashing/Steeping:


Your best friend when brewing for the first time is a plan and a lot of your first brew is about learning the brewing method as much as it's about making beer. Mistakes will be made and should be noted because sometimes those mistakes may lead to a new discovery or insure you don't do it again. Brewing can be broken down in the following steps:

  1. Yeast - It depends on the type of yeast that you are using but some prep is needed to get the romance going. Sometimes this takes sometime, so I really suggest that you read the instruction on the yeast and get it started even before Mashing or Steeping your grains. There is a wide range of different yeasts that can not only effect the amount of alcohol but also the flavor of the beer. They come usually in two forms, either dry or liquid.
    1. Dry will need to be rehydrate with contaminate free water before being adding to the wort.  This may require either distilled or boiled and then cooled water.
    2. Liquid Yeast  usually comes in a package that has yeast nutrients pouch inside that will need to be broken and combined with the dormant yeast. It might take a few hours from the yeast to start reproducing. So, I suggest you get them going earily on.
  2. Mashing/Steeping - With extract brewing you are not going to be doing a full mash or even partial mash but steeping grains to add color, flavor and a small amount of sugars to the wort. If you were doing a full grain mash, you would be adding heated water to crush grains to extract sugars. It can be a very complex procedure and one that I wouldn't suggest until you have a few brewers under you belt. Instead to create our concentrated wort, we are going to take our crushed grains, put them in a bag, tight off the end and then steep them in 1 1/2 to 2 gallons of water. I usually add the water to the kettle and then bring the water up to 150 and let it steep for around 30 minutes. This does a lot of things including adding additional flavors and colors to the beer but can also help with head retention and mouth feel of the beer. Think of it as making a malted grain tea.


The Boil:

  1. Boil - First off remove the spent crushed grains and then bring the grain tea to a boil. Boiling is done to increase sugar and flavor but also to kill off any microorganisms that might have found their way into the wort. It is also why before the scientific understanding of micros that beer unlike fresh water drinking beer wasn't going to make you sick. Once you hit boiling you are going to want to add your malt extracts. This is to add flavor and color but also fermentable sugars to the wort. In fact unlike a full grain mash a majority of the fermentable sugars will come from the extract. Without the extract there is no sugar for the yeast to eat. Without the sugar to eat they will not have the energy to reproduce and produce alcohol. Commonly a boil will last an hour.
  2. Hops - Hops add flavor and aroma to the beer. The longer the hop are in during the boil the more it will effect the flavor. So often the first addition of hops in called the flavoring hops. Hops added later in the boil will add aroma to the beer. Most commonly the first hop addition is either at the start of the boil or 15 minutes into the boil. With the aroma hops added in the last 15 minutes. Also if you want even more hop flavor you can dry hop, where you add hops to the wort in the fermentation vessel. 


Cooling and Transferring the Wort:

  1. Cooling the Wort - Now you have this lovely sugary malted grain sweet tea. However it is far too hot to allow your yeast to survive. With Ale yeast which is the most common used in home brew this means getting that wort down below 70. Thus, it needs to be cooled and cooled quickly. The longer the wort is exposed to air, the more likely there will microorganism invaders in your wort. The cheapest method is to fill a sink with a ice bath and set the kettle in it and add ice when needed. This can take sometime. A faster method is using a heat exchange but it's going to run you around another $60 to $90. What it is a metal coil that you set in the wort during the last 15 minutes of the boil to sanitize it. Then you hook up a hose to one side and pump in cold water and then drain out the hot water through a hose on the other side of the coil.
  2. Sanitize Everything - Now that your wort is cooled it is acceptable to foreign microorganisms that will cause off flavors and compete with your yeast for food and oxygen.  So spray down everything from this point forward with sanitizer. While the wort is boiling, I usually sanitize the rack auto siphon, tubing and fermentation vessel. Stan Star and Idoophor both don't need to be rinsed and will not effect the flavor of the beer. It is also a good idea to premix the sanitizer in a spray bottle and spray down everything before it comes in contact with the wort.
  3. Racking the Wort - Racking is transferring the now cool wort extract from the kettle to the fermentation vessel. This is usually done with an auto siphon. Since oxygen is needed for your yeast we usually splash the wort around as much as we can as it drains into the Bucket or Carboy. 
  4. Adding Water - Since you made an extract you are going to need to add water. Otherwise you are going to end up with a very strong and extremely sweet barley wine or wort that will not ferment. You should add the same time of water that you used for the boil. To add additional oxygen, I suggest using a whisk to mix the water with the wort extract. See below about measuring gravity while adding water.
  5. Gravity Reading - Time to play with your new toy, the hydrometer. What it will do is measure the Gravity or density of the wort. You want to do this to read how much sugar is in your wort and determine what the alcohol per volume or ABV will be. Most recipes and beer kits will include what the target starting gravity should be. It isn't a bad idea to get a couple of measurements of the gravity while you add water. If the gravity is too high adding water will reduce it. However there is no way to go up. Regardless you want to write this number down in your notebook because you will be using it to figure out the ABV at the end of fermentation.


Pitching the Yeast and Fermentation:

  1. Pitch the Yeast - It never hurts to check the temperature of the wort before adding the yeast to make sure that it is within range for the yeast to do their job. With most ale yeast this is between 60 and 70 degrees. Larger yeast it needs to be much colder around 40, so I would leave larger yeast alone unless you can keep your house at 40 degrees or have a fermentation chamber. 
  2. Seal up the Fermenter and fill the air lock - All fermentation vessels are air tight except for a hole that you insert a air lock into. The Air lock will require a small amount of water to block the flow of air into the fermenter but still allow bubbles of CO2 to escape from the fermenter. Of course spray everything before putting it in place.
  3. Waiting - Move the fermenter to a quite, dark place and leave it alone. Usually within a day you will start to see bubbles passing through the airlock. This means the yeast are reproducing and creating alcohol. Basically magically turning your sweet wort to beer. This will usually take 5 to 7 days and once the bubbling stops the beer can be bottled or racked to a second fermenter.
  4. Clean everything, wort is a sugar rich liquid that sticks to everything. The longer you want to clean up the harder it will be to clean up.  Nothing beats a little of old fashion elbow grease and soap and water but products like B-Brite can be very helpful for removing sticky wort and the aftermath of a fermentation.


So there is the basic and with little or no luck you have produced beer. You should always take a gravity reading and compare it with the target gravity to insure that the fermentation is done. Always remember that fermentation is not an exact science and there are a number of factors that can cause your fermentation to take longer. These include the health, type and amount of yeast that you pitched, the temperature, sugar content, style of beer, etc... Even if you didn't reach the target gravity, it doesn't mean that your beer is going to be awful. If it seems like the fermentation isn't done, there is nothing wrong with giving it more time. I always taste the beer or wort and make a decision from there. Remember with home brew and craft brew it isn't the alcohol content but the taste that is the main goal. If it tastes good or even great to you, imagine it carbonated and you might be close to the beer you were trying to make.


The thing you want to remember is that if you want to repeat the beer take detailed notes. If I'm not seeing the bubbles in the air lock, I will often take a gravity reading, note the date and the reading. Oh and give it a smell and taste and make a note of what my impression was at that point. The reason is that as I adjust the recipe in the future I may want to reduce sugars or the time of fermentation to create a better beer.


Since you now have two gravity readings you can estimate the ABV or Alcohol By Volume of your beer. The formula is (original gravity - finial gravity) X 131.25 = ABV. I would suggest that you do a finial reading before bottling and figure out the ABV before priming and bottling. ABV is important because many of us have been trained on the idea that a set number of beers can determine your intoxication. I believe that Mother's Against Drunk Driving came up with the one drink an hour thing but the reality is that a number of factors going into intoxication including sex, weight and ABV. If you are used to drinking say Guinness and the ABV is around 4% and then start drinking a home brew dry stout that is 7.5%, it's safe to say it is going to take a lot less beer to get you drunk.   


Now there is the question of second fermentation or not to. What a second fermentation will allow is reduced contact with the yeast segment which can effect flavor while allowing the yeast time to clean up after their population exploding party. Second fermentation will often produce a cleaner and clearer beer. You will have to have an additional fermenter but all you will need to do is sanitize the fermenter you will be using, rack auto siphon, tubing and anything else you will be using. Then take the beer filled fermenter on a table or higher level and siphon the beer into the second fermenter on the floor. Of course put the air lock and then let it ferment for an additional 5 to 7 days.


Carbonation, Priming and Bottle Conditioning:


OK, so now we are at the finial stage of home brewing. We have a beer that has fermented completely and tastes good but is not carbonated. During the fermentation to avoid the Fermenter from exploding or over flowing and creating a huge mess, we have been allowing the CO2 and all of the carbonation to escape. Now that fermentation is over we need to capture some of that CO2 and it's lovely bubbles of head producing gas.


There are two ways to do this. The most basic and cheapest is priming the beer with a small amount of sugar and letting the yeast do what they do. The other method would be to force CO2 into the beer and then keg or bottle the beer. Since this is your first beer I'm going to suggest the oldest method of carbonation, priming and bottle conditioning.


To do this you will need to add a small amount of sugar to the beer before bottling. There are a number of sugars that can be used from natural sources like honey to refined sugars like corn starch and Dry Malt Extract. Some will add a little flavor while others well not. The easiest is a refined sugars and they will impact the flavor the least. DME or Corn Starch are the most common and easy to find.


Prepping the bottling bucket and bottles:

  1. Add water and sanitizer to the bottling bucket. Make sure that the valve on the bucket is elevated and closed. I have both left the valve open and broken one, so check it before filling.
  2.  If you are using old bottles clean them first with soap and water using the bottle brush and then rinse. If the bottles are new or already clean, submerge them in the bottling bucket for 15 minutes. Often I will fill a number of them and just let them set on a clean mat. With a 5 gallon batch you will need between 24 and 30 22oz bottles or 48 to 54 12oz bottles. Often on bottling day I'll begin sanitizing a few hours before bottling.
  3. Place the bottles on a drying rack if you have one. 
  4. Also sanitize all the other equipment you will be using including the siphon, tubing and bottling wand. 


Create Priming Sugar:

  1. Combine sugar with water in a saucepan. The amount of sugar to water is often 3 parts water to 2 part sugar. However, there is a lot of additional factors that make how much sugar to use, extremely confusing. So, if you have a beer making kit or recipe following the instructions. Though most say 3/4 of sugar and 2 cups of water.
  2. Since there is a possibility of both the sugar and the water being contaminated it will need to be boiled to avoid contaminating your beer. Also this is needed to dissolve the sugar. I suggest that you mix often and bring it to a boil for 10 minutes.
  3. Cool the priming sugar before introducing it to your beer. The temperature should be dropped to below 70 before you added it. I usually cool it in a sink full of cold water. Just be careful the it doesn't spill or the cold water gets into the mixture. While it's cooling this is a good time to continue sanitize your bottles and get them ready to go.
  4. If you are using a bottling bucket, pour the priming mixture into the bottom of the bucket and then siphon your beer from the fermenter into the bucket. To insure that the sugar mixes with the beer, place the tube into the sugar mixture. This way the beer will mix with the priming mixture. It doesn't hurt to give the beer a couple of careful stirs with a sanitized spoon to insure it mixes in but be careful not to introduce oxygen into the beer. If you are not using a bottling pour the priming mixture into the beer and mix.


Bottling and Crowning:

  1.  Whether you are going to be racking your beer from a bottling bucket or straight from the fermenter, you want to place the container with the beer at a higher elevation.
  2. Create a bottling area by either laying down a towel or placing a shallow tube down on the floor to catch any overflow you might have.
  3. If you are using a bottling bucket attach the sanitized tubing to the valve and the other end to the sanitized bottle wand. If you are siphoning from the fermenter, attach the bottle wand to the outflow end of the tube coming from your rack auto siphon.
  4. Open and valve or begin the siphon and then press the bottle wand into the bottom of the bottle. This will open the valve at the end of the wand and allow the beer to flow into the bottle.
  5. When the beer reaches the top of the bottle pull the wand out of the bottle. This will not only stop the flow of beer but also allow roughly an inch of space at the top of the bottle for CO2.
  6. Place the crown(cap) on the top of the bottle and use the bottle capper to seal the bottle shut. Wipe off the outside of the bottle with a damp cloth if to clean off any overflow that might have gotten on the outside of the bottle.
  7. Label the bottle if you wish.


Bottle Conditioning:


Now with your beer bottle all you have to do is wait. You want to place your bottled beer in a dark cool place and leave them alone. It will take at least a week or so for your yeast to eat the sugar, reproduce and create CO2 and thus carbonation. I usually will bottle 3 to 4 12oz bottles as test bottles. After a week I will place one in the refrigerator for a couple of hours and then try out. Some beers, especially those with high alcohol levels may take longer or need to be aged for sometime. For example our first stout took 5 days to fully carbonate but our first standard Scottish Ale took 3 weeks to get the carbonation I wanted.


Then there is some styles of beer like our Strong Scottish Ale with it's 10% ABV, a month later is just starting to carbonate and get the flavors I was shooting for. With high alcohol beers you may not get as much carbonation and will benefit greatly from a longer conditioning and aging. It's important, especially when trying out recipes created by yourself or other home brewers, to do some research into the style of beer you are planning on creating. Often what may seem like a problem maybe common with that style or in fact a desired trait of that beer style.  Some beer styles may need mouths to mature to the point where they are at their full potential. The key is noting what you have learned with each tasting and charting the beers progression.




Well, if you have read this far you should have the basic information and a pretty good understand on how to brew a 5 gallon batch of beer in your kitchen from extract. Like any art there is a great deal more you can learn about it. The thing is taking it to a level that is enjoyable to you and produces a beer that you enjoy and can enjoy with others. 


Just like cooking, brewing should be in away playing. Explore, laugh at your mistakes, sing, dance and enjoy yourself.  Also just like cooking, brewing is at it's best when it can be experienced with friends and family. 


If you would like to learn more about home brewing here is a couple of books I would strongly suggest:

  • The Complete Joy of Homebrewing Third Edition by Charlie Papazian
  • Home Brewing: A Complete Guide On How To Brew Beer by James Houston
  • Also I would suggest watching a few episodes of Brew Dogs. Not only for inspiration but also because they are highly entertaining and show the brewing process in every show.


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