In the Beginning

I’ve kicked ideas around for some time now about just how to start giving my two cents on beer, skirting confusion and headache. A recent question from a reader (Jym, @brew_thusiast) prompted me and made perfect sense. How does one start indeed?

At some point between touching lips to a glass of beer and the bottom of it (or many), a beer lover will wonder if they can replicate such an admirable product. The answer is a resounding “yes”! Notice I wrote “glass”—call me a glass Nazi, beer geek, what have you. The reason for drinking craft beer and/or homebrew is so you can enjoy the myriad of flavors brought forth by the many varieties of hops, grains, and yeast. Sense of smell is an integral component of taste. Just as having a head cold limits your ability to taste food, drinking straight from the bottle or can limits your ability to enjoy your beer. But that’s a subject for another time.

First, we need the gear.  Let’s start with the where and how.  Initially, homebrewing is a venture that a few kitchen items that you already have will help.  Some, such as food-grade fermenters, aren’t as common.  Most homebrew stores carry all the necessities for beginners and are generally staffed with homebrewers who’ll be happy to guide your purchase.  Many of these suppliers also have a considerable internet presence, should you find yourself not within a reasonable driving distance of one (I’ll go on record and say Northern Brewer is my favorite not-so-local internet supply store).  At the very least for your first batch, you’ll need:

  1. a stock pot capable of boiling at least 2 gallons
  2. a food-grade 6.5 gallon carboy (glass or plastic) with a drilled stopper or food-grade plastic bucket with a grommeted hole in the lid that will accept an airlock
  3. a three piece airlock or bubbler
  4. a long spoon (preferably stainless steel)
  5. a hydrometer with test jar for reading the specific gravity
  6. a bottling bucket
  7. a racking cane or other type of siphon
  8. 50 or so caps
  9. a capper
  10. 50 12-ounce brown non-twist-off beer bottles
  11. a quality no-rinse sanitizer
  12. the ingredients!

Note I wrote “no-rinse sanitizer”.  Some would object that some sanitizers that require rinsing (like bleach) are just fine for brewing.  To me, this is a measure that requires little extra effort and rewards you with less potential for problems.  The water that you drink from the tap (or bottled) may taste fine but it has a component of bacteria and other microorganisms that would be very happy in a room-temperature environment that provides plenty of nutrients.  Those nutrients are better left to the brewers yeast that’s going to make the beer you want.  Using a sanitizer that requires you to rinse the equipment afterward with water just reintroduces the very things that you’re trying to keep out of your wort (unfermented beer).  Furthermore, bleach in your beer isn’t very tasty and can combine with compounds in the wort to produce some unpleasant medicinal flavors.  Leave the bleach in the laundry room.

Note also that I wrote “brown non-twist-off beer bottles”.  Brown bottles do a better job of protecting the beer from becoming light-struck; that is, ultraviolet light of a specific wavelength can cause photochemical rearrangement of unisomerized hop compounds in beer, creating mercaptan flavors and odors.  Translation:  UV light will “skunk” your beer, making it smell and taste like the back end of a skunk.  Toss the green and clear beer bottles in the recycling bin.  Where do you get brown beer bottles?  Homebrew stores carry them but when you buy them at the beer store they come filled with your favorite beer!  The non-returnable kind that require a bottle opener take caps much easier and seal better than twist-offs.  Yes, start saving your beer bottles!

Lastly, ingredients.  What are you going to make?  Many experienced homebrewers will recommend brewing a dark beer (like a stout or porter) for your first batch because the assertive, dark flavors tend to hide imperfections better.  This is true in some regards but in truth some flaws such as “off-flavors” or taste sensations will not hide well in any beer.  I’d recommend making a beer you like to drink.  It’s your first batch, have fun with it!  If you like India Pale Ales (IPAs), make one.  If you like Nut Brown ales, make one!  If you like light lagers—wait, hold on there a sec.  Brewing lagers requires being able to control the fermentation temperature of the beer in the area of 45-55°F (7-13°C) and a subsequent lagering temperature of near 34°F (1°).  That said, you can approximate a lager with a very neutral, clean ale yeast.  It won’t be a true lager and will have a few ale-like flavors, but if done correctly it’ll still taste pretty good.

Ingredients can be purchased at any homebrew supply store.  For your first batch you may want to start by using malt extract.  This comes in either a liquid or powder (“dry malt extract” or DME) form.  Some recipes may call for specialty grains in addition to the extract.  Using specialty grains is a simple process and a small extra step that will add extra flavor to your beer and is as simple as brewing tea.  Hops can be purchased as well if the recipe calls for them, but many times the malt extract has been blended with hop resins (“hopped extract”).  Lastly, yeast is available in either liquid or dry form.  Stick with one that works well with the type of beer you’re brewing.  In most cases, ingredient kits are available that contain all the necessary malt extract, grains, hops and yeast that you’ll need and is a good no-brainer option for your first batch.

Before you start heating up the kettle you’ll want to read up a bit on the process.  I highly recommend How To Brew by John Palmer, specifically Section 1 for beginners.  The book is a great overall read for newbies and veterans alike.  Certainly, it’s part of my brewing library.

Brewing your own beer is rewarding on many levels, not the least of which is feeling the connection to a craft and art form that has been woven into the fabric of our culture and has survived for millennia.  Good luck and happy brewing!

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