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Homebrewing FAQ

(See my homebrew batch log here.)

I enjoy homebrewing. It’s a mix of cooking, chemistry, microbiology, and shop class. It takes $100-$200 in equipment to get started, maybe 5-7 hours per batch to brew, and a couple of batches to start making something pretty decent. In fact, one of my all-time favorite beers was the 3rd batch I ever brewed: Crime Scene Stout. Once you get into it, you can design your own recipes from scratch and brew whatever style you like, including clones of pretty much any commercial beer. I’m asked a lot about homebrewing, so this FAQ attempts to answer the common questions.


What do you brew?

Short answer: these.

Long answer: Whatever I want. I design my own recipes from scratch, or find them online. Usually I brew either a nice example of a style (stout, IPA, Weizenbock, etc.), perhaps with some tweaks, or I work to clone a commercial beer that I really like. The book Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels is an excellent resource for designing your own recipes. Clone recipes are easily found by searching the Internet.


How Much Do You Brew?

When I brew a beer, I produce 5 gallons. In my basement I have 4 tap handles each hooked to a 5-gallon keg. I generally try to keep beer in all of them; when one is running low, it’s time to brew a replacement. Looking at my brew log, I’m brewing a 5-gallon batch once every 5 weeks or so.


Is It Any Good? How Does It Compare to Commercial Beer?

All modesty aside, yes, it is. It took several batches to get there, but in blind taste tests my homebrews usually compare favorably to similar commercial examples. (See evidence here.)

Most homebrewers produce mediocre beer, honestly. And homebrew deservedly has a reputation for being mediocre. But a careful, experienced homebrewer can produce beer that is definitely better than commercial beer. How can an amateur beat the pros? Three reasons. (1) Freshness. Beer just isn’t as good after it’s been shipped across country and then sat on a shelf at a store. Homebrewers usually drink and serve their beer as soon as it’s ready, and brew batches small enough that they don’t sit around long getting stale. (2) Profit maximization. Even the best craft brewers make small sacrifices to cut costs. For example, dry-hopping should be more effective at warm temperatures. But brewers also need to chill their beer to clarify it (because haze-causing proteins precipitate out at cold temperatures). So Russian River dry hops their world-famous Pliny the Elder double IPA at cold temperatures to accomplish both jobs at once. They do this so they can get the beer out of their tanks ASAP, making room for the next batch. Homebrewers, on the other hand, have little pressure to take such shortcuts. (3) Consistency. Pro brewer John Harris tells a story of smelling Cascade hop samples from a hop grower, and finding a batch that had unusually awesome aromas. But he couldn’t use them because it would produce a batch of beer that would be noticeably different, and pro brewers strive for batch-to-batch consistency. A homebrewer would have been all over that batch of hops!


Can It Make You Sick?

No. During brewing, beer is sterilized by extensive boiling, and then inoculated with a large, healthy population of yeast against which pathogens must compete for resources. So infection is unlikely until fermentation is complete. And, by that point, the beer is inhospitable to infection because of the low pH, ethanol concentration, hops, high CO2 concetration, low O2 concentration, and overall lack of nutrients like carbohydrates and amino acids. There are a few types of bacteria and wild yeast that can survive in that environment, such as Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and Brettanomyces. But these produce an obvious sour flavor and pose virtually no health risk. In fact, some “sour” beers like lambic are intentionally infected with these organisms. Infection may also occur at the serving point (dirty faucets may harbor Acetobacter, for example), but again the infection is noticeable and the health risks are minimal.

Remember: Before clean water supplies, people drank lots of low-alcohol homebrewed beer because it was actually safer than their drinking water.

Two disclaimers: First, you may end up with trace amounts of metals dissolved in your beer, especially if you’re careless in choosing certain pieces of equipment. Some people shy away from aluminum boiling pots, for example. But the resulting levels per pint would still be low; roughly like eating an antacid tablet. Second, unfiltered homebrew does contain live yeast (some styles more than others), and some people have reactions to brewers yeast. It is possible to filter out the yeast (or just pour carefully) to mitigate this problem.


How Long Does It Take?

Currently, it takes me about 6 hours on “brew day” to set up, brew, and clean up. In another week or two I spend 30 minutes transferring to the keg and cleaning the fermenting vessel. After a few days in the keg under CO2 pressure, the beer is carbonated and ready to enjoy! It’s usually 2-3 weeks from brew day to first pint.

When you’re starting out, you move much slower on brew day, but extract brewing is also much faster. Plan on 5 hours for your first batches, which will drop to 3 hours as you get experienced. When you switch to all-grain, it jumps to 7-8 hours and slowly falls with experience to 5-6 hours.

One good trick is to brew 2 beers on the same day. It adds a couple of hours and makes for a long day, but it compresses two brew days into one. You can either brew two independent batches, or else brew a big beer first and use the leftover sugars from the grain to make a smaller beer (partigyle brewing). But don’t try this until you have your process nailed down.


How Much Does it Cost?

A typical batch size is 5 gallons, or roughly 2 cases of 12-oz bottles. The ingredients for a single batch cost anywhere from $25 up to $75, depending on the style (really extreme beers can go even higher). Per bottle, that’s $0.52 up to $1.56. Add another $0.50 if you’re not re-using old bottles. The big problem is it takes 5-7 hours to brew, so if you add $20/hr labor cost (or more), then the per-bottle cost ranges from $3 to $5. Commercial breweries have massive economies of scale, so their labor cost per bottle is way lower. For this reason, you’re not really saving money by homebrewing. That’s why it’s called a hobby.

And then there’s the equipment. Basic start-up equipment costs for extract brewing (see below) are around $150. But as you get more into it, you’ll spend double that in basic equipment. You’ll want a $70 refractometer for better gravity (alcohol) measurements. Then you’ll get sick of bottling and drop $200 on kegging equipment, and another $100-$200 on a used freezer that you modify to be a kegerator (“keezer”). Add some nice faucets at $50 each, plus the time and materials to install them somewhere. Then you move to all-grain brewing (see below), which requires 2 new big metal pots ($50 each), a cooler ($20), 2 big propane burners ($35 each), and a bunch of parts needed to modify your new pots and cooler ($100). Then you’ll want a grain mill to crush your own grain ($80). And maybe a couple of electric pumps to automate the transfer of liquids during brewing ($60 each). Space becomes an issue, so you build a brewing shed in your back yard ($500)… you get the idea. The good news is that the initial $100-$170 outlay is enough to make good beer, and you can decide from there how much you want to get into it.


How Do You Get Started?

Get Informed. Buy the book How To Brew by John Palmer (the 1st edition is available free online), and read the forums at homebrewtalk.com.

Understand the Basic Steps. They are:

  1. Soak (“mash“) the crushed grains in hot water (148F-156F) for 1 hour. The heat activates enzymes in the grain, converting starches to sugars that dissolve into the water. The sugary water is now called “wort“.
  2. Drain (“lauter“) the wort off the grains and into the boil kettle, and rinse (“sparge“) the grains with more hot water to get any remaining sugar out. If you did things right, you’ll end up with around 6-6.5 gallons of wort collected in your boil kettle.
  3. Boil the wort for 1 hour, concentrating the wort down to 5 gallons. This sterilizes it and removes unwanted proteins. During the boil, hops are added to give bitterness (if added early), flavor, and aroma (if added late). The beer will foam up at the start of the boil, so you need a 10-gallon pot for your boil kettle.
  4. The boiled wort is cooled to a yeast-friendly temperature, transferred to a “primary” fermenting bucket (or glass carboy), and the yeast is added.
  5. Some brewers then transfer their beer to a “secondary” fermenter to age a bit and let stuff settle out. But this is generally not necessary, and can almost always be skipped.
  6. After 1-2 weeks of fermenting, a bit of sugar is added to revitalize the remaining yeast, and the beer is bottled. In 2 weeks the revitalized yeast will carbonate the beer inside the bottle. If you have kegs then the beer is put straight into the keg with no sugar added. CO2 pressure then carbonates the beer and pushes it to the serving faucet.

Choose Extract vs. All-Grain vs. Partial-Mash Brewing. Steps 1 & 2 (mashing, lautering, and sparging) result in sugary wort. But those steps are a bit more difficult, take more time, and require extra equipment (specifically, a “mash-lauter tun (MLT)“). You can skip those steps by buying malt sugar (“extract“) in powder or syrup form, dumping it into water, and proceed to step 3 (the boil). In fact, you can boil a more concentrated wort (say, 3 gallons), and then dilute it in the fermentor up to 5 gallons. Now you only need a 5-gallon pot (3 gallons plus foaming), and you can do the boil on your stove! That’s called extract brewing.

There are some downsides to extract brewing. It is more pricey than extracting the sugar yourself. Extract sugars do get stale, and that stale flavor can show up in your beer. And, most importantly, you don’t get to fine-tune the exact grain makeup of your beer. Starting from scratch, including steps 1 and 2, is called all-grain brewing. The problem is you’ll need a 10-gallon container (MLT) to mash all that grain, and you can’t start with concentrated wort, so you need a 10-gallon boil kettle. Plus you’ll need a 3rd pot to heat the water you use to mash and sparge (this is called the “hot liquor tank (HLT)“, even though it contains water, not liquor). Your stove simply can’t boil that kind of volume, so you need to get propane burners (or some other system). Now you’re brewing in the garage/driveway/patio. Much less convenient.

An intermediate option is partial-mash brewing. Basically, you do a small mash (step 1) in a pot on your stove with the grains kept in a big mesh bag. Pull the grains out of the wort when mashing is done (sort of like step 2), add extract to increase the sugar level up to where you want it, and then proceed with the boil (step 3). This keeps homebrewing in the kitchen, while  letting you adjust the flavor profile by getting some actual grains back into the equation.

I recommend you do 1 batch with just extract and hops. Then start doing partial-mash brewing. Make the leap to all-grain brewing when you feel ready. Personally, I switched to all-grain brewing for my 10th batch and never looked back.

Buy Your Equipment. Find a local homebrew shop (“LHBS”) or online retailer (I like Northern Brewer, but there are many). Your LHBS will give better service and advice, but their prices will be noticeably higher. Focus on extract brewing and buy a starter kit. You’ll need:

  1. A 5-gallon metal pot for your stove-top boil kettle. Or even a bit bigger.
  2. An “auto-siphon” and tubing (to transfer the wort/beer between vessels).
  3. A “wine theif”, test jar, and hydrometer (to pull samples and measure the specific gravity, or sugar content, of the wort).
  4. 6.5-gallon plastic primary fermenting bucket, with a hole in the lid for an airlock. (CO2 gets out, germs don’t get in.)
  5. Stick-on thermometer for your fermenting vessel.
  6. 6.5-gallon bottling bucket with a spigot, tubing, and a bottle-filler wand. (Transfers the beer into the bottles.)
  7. Bottles, bottle caps, bottle brush, bottle capper.
  8. PBW cleaning powder and StarSan food-safe sanitizer.

Strictly speaking, testing and measuring stuff (#3 and #6) can be skipped, but I really recommend them if at all possible. Most homebrew places sell startup kits that more-or-less contain these pieces.

Buy Ingredients. Most homebrew places also sell ingredient kits, and they’re usually good. I’ve brewed a few Northern Brewer kits and they were great. The one caveat is that you must buy fresh yeast. Some cheap kits come with a little pack of dry yeast. Don’t trust it. Get a liquid yeast from Wyeast or White Labs, or a fresh pack of dry yeast that you know is good. Good, healthy yeast is a key ingredient in good beer.

Get Brewing! It’s natural to hesitate and second-guess yourself. At first, the process seems complicated and you worry you’re not doing things “right”. Fortunately, there is no one right procedure. As long as you create sugary water (preferably with some hops added), cool it to room temperature, dump yeast in it, and give it a couple of weeks to ferment, you will end up with beer. For your first batch, that’s your goal. Quality will go up quickly with subsequent batches. Soon you’ll be designing your own recipes and moving to all-grain.

Stay Sanitary. Once your wort is done boiling, it’s now a wonderful food source for both yeast and bacteria. Try hard to eliminate infection. Everything that touches the wort post-boil should be cleaned with PBW and sanitized with StarSan. Spoons, fermenting buckets, airlocks, siphons, tubing, etc. This is a bit tedious, but always important. And both chemicals are necessary: sanitizer doesn’t remove dirt deposits (which can hide bacteria that won’t get killed), and cleaners don’t sanitize. Don’t use soap or detergent for cleaning, as they leave a film on the surface. Remember, your tap water is not sanitized, so don’t rinse a spoon and then stick it in your cooling wort. StarSan leaves a foam on things, but it’s totally food-safe. If some StarSan foam is on your spoon or in your fermenting bucket, it won’t hurt anything if it gets in your wort. The good news is that once you pour a few hundred million yeast cells into your wort, any small amounts of bacteria or wild yeast that got in will have to compete for food and are likely to die off. And, as I said above, human pathogens don’t live in beer. Even if your beer gets infected, it won’t make you sick. It’ll just taste bad.

Shopping Lists. The following give you what you need to get started. A couple of different options are available.

The Bare Minimum [$150]

  1. A 5 gallon (20 quart) stock pot, preferably stainless steel. [$35] (you may already have one)
  2. Northern Brewer Essential Starter Kit [$80] (includes ingredients for your first batch and bottle caps)
  3. 2 cases of 12oz bottles [$24] (make sure to buy TWO cases)
 A Much Better Start-Up Package [$270]
  1. 5 gallon (20 quart) stock pot, preferably stainless steel. [$35] (you may already have one)
  2. Northern Brewer Deluxe Startup Kit [$170] (includes 1st batch ingredients and bottle caps)
  3. Hydrometer kit [$14] (for proper testing of sugar levels)
  4. 2 cases of 12oz bottles [$24] (make sure to buy TWO cases)
  5. How To Brew” by John Palmer [$13]
Forget the Bottles… Keg Your Beer! [$525]
  1. 5 gallon (20 quart) stock pot, preferably stainless steel. [$35] (you may already have one)
  2. Northern Brewer Deluxe Startup Kit [$170] (includes 1st batch ingredients and bottle caps)
  3. Hydrometer kit [$14] (for proper testing of sugar levels)
  4. How To Brew” by John Palmer [$13]
  5. A Homebrew Keg [$60]
  6. CO2 Regulator, & Tubing [$70] (for the 5-lb cylinder. You can go with the 20oz cylinder & regulator to save money.)
  7. 5lb CO2 Cylinder(unfilled) [$55] (most paintball stores fill CO2 tanks up to 5lb)
  8. A used 5 or 6 cu.ft. refrigerator tall enough to hold kegs (Sanyo 4911 is perfect) [~$75]. You may want to covert it to add a tower with faucets.