I’ve been making beer at home (home brewing) for about five years now. It is a fun hobby, and I enjoy making beer. Despite what you may think, it really is not that difficult or expensive to make your own beer.
Over the past several years, I have entered multiple home brew competitions and managed to win some medals. So far, I have made 44 five-gallon (20L) batches. Even so, I still consider myself to be a beginner, with a lot to learn.
I plan on writing a few blog posts about making beer. We’ll see how it goes!
February 2 Update: I brewed two batches of beer in parallel over the past weekend. One was an all-grain American Saison, and the other was an extract Belgian Saison. I documented part of this in this video.
About five years ago, encouraged by my friend Mike Witcher, I became somewhat serious about making beer at home. This was not my first foray into making beer, since I had made about four small two-gallon batches of beer with a Mr. Beer kit about eighteen years ago. Many home brewers get their first start on Mr. Beer kits, which let you make drinkable beer at a very low starting cost, as long as you can follow some basic directions and you pay attention to cleanliness and sanitation.
Using a Mr. Beer kit to make beer is kind of like making mac-n-cheese from a box. It is possible to make beer while having very little idea what you are actually doing. It is also very similar to using Microsoft Access as a database, which is something you might do as a beginner, that you don’t want to admit to later!
Fast-forward to 2016, and I was thinking about making larger batches of beer, using somewhat more serious equipment. I had met Mike when he bought my previous house in Parker, and we had become friends. He was a veteran home brewer, with many years of experience under his belt who urged me to give it a try.
I was already aware of The Brew Hut, which is the largest home brew supply store in Colorado. I made a couple of reconnaissance visits to the store, before I ended up buying a “Super Deluxe” brewing equipment kit very similar to this one.
A kit like this gives you just about everything you really need to make five-gallon extract batches of beer. This includes a primary fermenter, a secondary carboy, an immersion chiller, a thermometer, a hydrometer, and various other small accessories. This type of kit lets you do a partial boil, usually on a stovetop in your kitchen, which is often how brewers first really get started (after Mr. Beer). Many brewers successfully use kits like this for many years, with very good results. It is not necessary to spend a lot of money on equipment!
Of course, since I am a gadget nut, I could not resist immediately upgrading my brewing equipment, even before I brewed my first batch of extract beer! My first upgrades were a 10-gallon Anvil brew kettle, and an Anvil Forge burner, with leg extensions. Anvil is the mid-level line of equipment from Blichmann Engineering, endorsed by John Palmer, who is the author of How to Brew. I also bought a 7.9 gallon FastFerment plastic conical fermenter.
Armed with this fancy new gear, I made a couple of Brewer’s Best extract batches (a Milk Stout and a Belgian Tripel), that seemed to turn out pretty well (at least to an uncritical audience of family and friends). Encouraged, I took an “Introduction to All-Grain Brewing” class, subscribed to several brewing magazines and bought a number of home brewing books. I also made the switch from using bottles to using five-gallon kegs to package my beer.
Then, I made a crazy, early jump to all-grain brewing on batch #3, brewing a pretty challenging Scottish Wee Heavy with a 26lb grain bill! Amazingly, this first all-grain batch turned out pretty well (even though it took me about six hours on brew day). I made one more extract batch (which was a gift from someone), but it has been all-grain ever since.
You really don’t need that much equipment for an extract batch. A 3-4 gallon kettle for the boil, and a plastic fermenter with an air lock as all you absolutely need. You will probably want a few other items, such as a hydrometer and some gear to help you bottle your beer.
Extract brewing uses either dry malt extract (DME) or liquid malt extract (LME) that you buy from a home brew store. This extract is added to water to make wort, which you boil.
All-grain starts with crushed grain (mainly barley) that you have to process in a “mash” in order to create wort that you boil. All-grain takes more time and equipment, but gives you more control.
On brew day, an extract batch typically takes 2-3 hours, including cleanup. An all-grain batch typically takes 4-6 hours, including cleanup. After brew day, fermentation usually takes 7-10 days. After fermentation, you have to carbonate your beer, either by bottle conditioning or by forced CO2 carbonation. Depending on how you do it, it might take a week or two.
Extract batch kits usually cost anywhere from $15-$60. The more expensive kits are for higher alcohol content beers. An all-grain batch can range from about $25-$60 depending on the ingredients that you use. High alcohol, hoppy beers are more expensive to make.
As I said before, I am still just a beginner with a lot to learn. Brewing beer is similar to cooking or baking, where the basics are pretty easy, but becoming a master takes a lot more time and experience. The reason I enjoy brewing so much is because of how it makes me feel during and after the process. I love the smell of the grain during the mash, and how sweet it tastes as the starches are converted to sugars. The smell of the wort during the boil is incredible.
The whole experience of a brew day is a lot of fun (and a lot of work). Going through all of the steps, trying to hit your numbers, as you listen to good music and drink some good beer is very enjoyable! Doing all of the required cleaning and sanitizing is not as much fun, but it is easier with a large sink and hot water out in my garage. After brew day, you get the chance to sample your beer as it is fermenting, and then finally get to taste the final product a week or two later.
I wrote about brewing a Biere de Garde here.
If you have any thoughts or questions about this post, please ask me here in the comments or on Twitter. You can also follow me on Twitter, where I am @GlennAlanBerry. Thank you for reading!