Hop in The Saddle: Homebrewing 101
Sunset facilities manager, Rick LaFrentz, is our resident brew king. A long-time beer aficionado, he first learned how to homebrew as part of Sunset’s One-Block Diet challenge. Since then, he’s progressed from novice to serious hobbyist, complete with a mini brewery on-site (currently, a batch of lager is fermenting away in one of our unused staff refrigerators). Here, his tips for brewing your own.
William’s Brewing is an excellent source for materials. Bonus: Orders placed by 4 p.m. should arrive the very next day. See slideshow below for images of most equipment.
- Brewkettle: A 7.5 to 8 gallon pot will work, or you can buy one with a valve (makes later transfers easier)
- Fermenter with airlock lid
- Wort chiller: Copper hosing used to quickly cool the wort to the right temperature for yeast. (A speedy cool-down period reduces the risk of bacteria ruining your beer.)
- Brewing kit: A beginner-friendly package that includes all the hops, malt extract, and yeast you’ll need to make a specific beer, like a lager or an ale.
- Bottles: LaFrentz suggests saving your empties and sanitizing, rather than buying new ones.
- Capper: Used to seal the bottles
- Hydrometer: Used to gauge fermentation progress by measuring the conversion of sugar to ethanol
- Bottle tree: Used to dry sanitized bottles
- Paddle: For stirring the wort
- Sanitizer: LaFrentz recommends Five Star
- Notebook: Track your successes (and failures)
- Transfer tubing: Allows you to move beer from container to container (or bottles)
Wort: Beer, before it’s fermented
Gravity: The beer’s density compared with water (this indicates how much sugar has been converted into ethanol—as sugars are converted, the gravity drops)
Racking: Transferring wort or beer from one container to another (e.g. You “rack” the beer when you bottle it)
Hops: Flowers from the hop vine; they add bitterness, flavor, and aroma to beer
Pitch temp: The temperature at which it’s safe to add yeast to wort
Primary fermentation: The first, more aggressive stage of fermentation. It can last anywhere from 24 hours to one week.
Secondary fermentation: The second stage of fermentation, after the beer has been filtered of sediment and racked to a clean container. This period, which can last up to a month or more, allows the beer to age without picking up off flavors from yeast or other sediment leftover from the boil.
Carboy: A large glass bottle often used as a secondary fermentation tank (rather than plastic) because it allows brewers to visually monitor fermentation
LaFrentz suggests starting out with a brewing kit, which includes a malt extract, hops, and yeast (ales are the easiest for beginners because the yeast can withstand higher temps—i.e. fewer chances for things to go wrong). Once you get the hang of homebrewing, you can move on to experimenting with different yeasts and—just maybe—making your own mash.
“Sanitization is key at every turn,” says LaFrentz. “You’re working with a lot of sugar so, especially during step 1 and 2, you must be extremely careful to avoid bacteria, which can create bad flavors and other problems.”
PREP: Sanitize all equipment, including bottles; activate your yeast according to the instructions on the package; and make sure your wort chiller is handy and fits on your faucet.
STEP 1, THE BOIL: Boil 5 gallons of water, add your malt extract, then boil again. Then add your hops, either all at once or in increments, and boil for one hour. “There are flavoring hops and aromatics,” says LaFrentz. To add a little extra aroma, reserve a half-ounce of hops for the last five minutes of the boil. This liquid is your wort.
[Note: If it’s boiled down quite a bit, you might want to add a little more water. If not, “you’ll just have a beer with more alcohol,” says LaFrentz.]
STEP 2, CHILL: You now need to bring the wort to pitch temp (to make it safe to add your yeast). Place the pot with the wort in the sink, drop the chiller into the wort, hook it up to your faucet, and start running water through the chiller. Continuously monitor the wort’s temperature and, once it has reached the proper temp (this usually takes an hour), remove the hops from the wort. [Remember, different yeasts ferment at different temperatures so be sure to follow the directions on your brewing kit.]
STEP 3, PRIMARY FERMENTATION: Add activated yeast and, using your paddle, stir aggressively. Fermentation usually begins within 24 hours and can last anywhere from one day to one week. The key is to watch the airlock: Once the bubbles (C02 escaping) die down to one every minute or two, you’re ready to move on.
[Note: Store fermenting brew away from the light in a dark closet or garage in an area where the temperature will remain within the stated range on the yeast package.]
STEP 4, SECONDARY FERMENTATION: Rack the beer into a second fermenter or a 6-gallon glass carboy. Store in a dark, cool place for at least a month. Taste and smell periodically until the beer is to your liking.
STEP 5, CARBONATE & RACK: Using a plastic tube, transfer the beer into a priming tank with 5-6 inches of plastic tube attached to the valve. Add 3.5-4 ounces of corn sugar, then stir vigorously. Using a plastic hose, rack the beer into individual bottles and cap. Store bottles in a cool spot and leave for two weeks to allow carbonation to take place. “If all goes well, you’re set,” LaFrentz says.
STEP 6: Kick back with your very first homebrewed beer. [A 5-gallon batch of wort makes roughly 2 cases (48 bottles) of beer.]
William’s Brewing for equipment, beer kits, and one-day delivery.
Brew Your Own, a magazine for homebrewers, has great tips, demos, and trouble-shooting advice.
Morebeer.com for equipment and advice.