Okay, so you’ve decided you want to brew and would like to take a stab at the amber ale, known as beer. Hop onto a homebrew forum and your mind will reel at the jargon and seemingly complicated steps to get to something as simple as beer. I’ve created this cheat sheet so you can make a drinkable beer quickly and easily. After you’ve done that you can fiddle around with ingredients and get as technical as you like to create different styles of beer.
First lets look at the basic ingredients, grain, yeast, water and hops.
I learned to brew beer from grain from the beginning and completely eskewed any kind of extract or kit brewing. Brew kits are expensive and limiting and so are extracts. I wanted to know how to brew beer from scratch using easily sourced ingredients that meant I learnt all grain brewing. Don’t be fooled, it’s isn’t difficult and can be as high or low tech as you like. All beer was brewed with grain in the past and it was so simple every farmer did it in the off season. So lets talk about the different grains available for brewing.
Grains fall into two categories, diastatic and non-diastatic. Diastatic means the grain contains enzymes that can convert the starch in the grain to sugars the yeast can ferment. A good rule of thumb for beer is to use at least 80% diastatic grain in your grain mix. Diastatic grains include pale malts, acid malts, brown malts and munich malts. The use of the word malt instead of grain just means it has been germinated and dried again to convert a certain amount of the starches into sugar so you can extract them in the kettle. Grains come in various colours indicated by the lovibond scale (L). The higher the L number the more toasting the grain has received which gives it a different flavour than pale malt which hasn’t been toasted at all. Many beers are made with 100% pale malt only and are light coloured beers with a dry finish and low malt character. Increasing use of toasted malts changes the colour of the beer and imparts more malty, toasty and bready flavours to the beer. A porter (dark brown beer) still has around 70%+ pale malt with a small amount of toasted malts but a malty and nutty character.
Non-diastatic grains are called specialty grains because they cannot convert their own starches to sugar in the kettle and need to be mixed with a diastatic grain to be usable by your yeast. Non-diastic grains impart flavour and colour to the finished beer and usually only need to be used in very small quantities to have a large impact. Non-diastatic grains include crystal malts, chocolate malts, roasted barley and wheat.
In summary – when you are purchasing malt you will need to buy 80% pale malt and only 20% speciality malts. For example in a 5L batch of beer I will typically use up to a kg of pale malt and then a few hundred grams of specialty malts. If you are wanting the ability to brew a wide range of different beers then a good way to go is to get a pale malt and crystal malts in 30, 45 and 60L and one type of dark chocolate malt. That will allow you to brew pale ales, amber ales, red ales, dark ales and stouts.
Beer lingo – your chosen varieties & quantities of grain for making beer is called a Grain Bill and the collection of grain itself is called the Grist. Once you steep grain in water for about an hour or more the resulting liquid is called Wort.
Far from just being the means to the end yeasts will determine the character of your beer and commercial yeast strains have been created to impart specific flavours and alcohol content into your beer. If you choose to use wild yeasts you will have less control over the flavour of your beer as your brew will have a combination of bacteria and yeast in it that creates flavours. But brewing wild will produce a beer closest in character to traditional brews. If you are wanting a repeatable and predictable flavour in your beer and near commercial characteristics then use commercial yeasts. If you are more adventurous and willing to put your beer in the lap of the Gods then by all means go wild.
Commercial Yeasts – come in a wide range of types. But first there are two basic types of yeast you need to be familiar with.
- Ale yeasts create beer at higher temperatures and ferment on the top of the liquid.
- Lager yeasts are for low temperature brewing and ferment on the bottom of the liquid.
Unless you live in a particularly cold climate then use ale yeasts to begin with otherwise you will have to ferment your beer in a refrigerated environment for weeks on end. Lagers are a drier and crisper style of beer than ales but ales are more suited to wide range of climates for those that don’t wish to invest serious coin in sophisticated setups.
Within ale yeasts you will find many varieties that impart different characteristics to the beer. Mostly they are listed by the style of brewing they have been developed for, Belgian, German, French, English etc…If you can’t decide you can always rely on a generic ale yeast that is sold in most brew stores SafAle, for the temperature range you will be brewing at. This is a neutral yeast, it doesn’t impart specific flavours into your beer so the character of the other ingredients dominates.
Brewing with wild yeasts is quite easy but not guaranteed and takes a few extra steps. It’s not time consuming and in fact I worked out my brewing process making small batches of brew for capturing wild yeast. So perhaps getting a wild yeast going first is a good thing even if you decide to use a commercial yeast for your first batch and experiment later.
Beer Lingo – Putting yeast into wort is called Pitching Yeast. Using yeast from previously fermented batch of beer is called Re-Pitching. Flocculation describes how much of the yeast organisms fall out of solution and settle into the bottom of the fermentor when they are done fermenting, leaving your beer clear. High flocculation = clearer beer. Attenuation describes how much of the available sugars in your wort is converted to alcohol. High attenuation means you get the highest alcohol content possible from your wort. Low attenuation means the beer will be lower in alcohol than average given your grain bill.
The minerals present in your tap water can affect the brew in countless ways. There is a lot of information out there about testing your water and making adjustments with salts to create an ideal brewing medium. At some point it might interest you to learn all about this. Unless you have particularly hard or particularly soft water however, attaching a water filter to your tap will be sufficient treatment to ensure the brew works okay. I chose to simply ignore this step in brewing in the beginning. I had enough going on upfront and decided I could always worry about this later as long as my brew fermented properly.
When you see lists of various salts like calcium carbonate in a beer recipe, this is what those salts are for, adjusting the water properties to create ideal brewing conditions. Although beer will brew very well under less than ideal conditions.
Back in the day before hops was freely traded across europe people made beer without it. Hops imparts bitterness to a beer and prevents harmful bacteria from growing in it. Malted water is pretty sweet and without a bittering agent beer wouldn’t be as refreshing as it is. Prior to hops brewers used a mix of other bitter herbs to do the same thing such as rosemary, wormwood, dandelion root, juniper etc. So strictly speaking hops isn’t essential but if you want your beer to taste like modern beer then yes you will need hops because this is what we are tasting on the back of the palate.
Hops varieties have now become dizzying. What was once a wild vine has been hybridised to create all manner of new aroma’s and flavour profiles. Hops falls into a few basic categories that are useful to know based on the kinds of flavours and aroma’s they give off when added to a beer. Hops can be….
- Tropical fruit
For a comprehensive list of the various hop varieties and their uses visit this site. In the beginning however you can successfully brew a variety of delicious beers with a single hops variety and that’s the cheapest way to go. Hops which are good as single hops in beers with a good overall flavour and aroma include – Goldings, Halltertau, or Cascade. This is not a comprehensive list, they are just the most commonly used hops because they are versatile and suit a lot of beer styles.
Goldings is the quinessential English style hops. Hallertau is a German hops and Cascade is the big American hops used in countless commercial modern beers. All of them are used for both bittering and flavouring/aroma so they can be added to the boil or dry hopped into beers to reveal different characteristics. I went with First Gold, which is a Goldings variety that is mild with a traditional hops flavour.
Beer Lingo – hops is added to the wort in a variety of ways but for simplicity sake I will tell you the two most common. If you add it during the boiling phase it’s called bittering the beer. If you add it after the boil in the fermenter it’s called dry hopping. The bitterness of a beer is measured in IBU’s (International Bitterness Units).
A Basic Beer Recipe
Now we’ve got this out of the way, and you know what to go shopping for lets move onto creating a beer recipe. You can always go online and use any one of a number of beer recipes online. There are many available for free. The only problem is you might not know what you are brewing in terms of style and the instructions might also make no sense to you with fermentation temps, sparging and all the rest. This is the problem I faced since most beer recipes also assume you have the exact same equipment setup as the creator or that you use extracts or their particular hops etc. It took me three weeks of research just to figure out what grain to get and how to do the brewing process, let alone follow a recipe.
I made my own recipe up. I decided I liked ales which are amber in colour with a medium hops character and everything else was up for grabs. In other words, a basic beer. Luckily this is very easy to achieve if you are looking for something nice and drinkable as opposed to something award winning. To create your own beer recipe you can follow this simple formula which will work to create a basic beer.
Working out the grains. Until you know how large a batch you intend to brew just list your grain bill in % rather than weights. We’ll get back to that.
- Pale malt – 80%, doesn’t add much colour and only light flavour to a beer. A 100% pale malt beer tends to have a dry finish because the sugars ferment into alcohol easily. Many beers styles use only 100% pale malt, so technically this is the only malt you might need in the beginning.
- Crystal malt – 10%, crystal malt has a high amount of roasted unfermentable sugar in it and creates sweet caramel flavours in beers if it is below 60L in colour. For dark crystal malts they tend toward burnt toffee and raisin flavours which can taste acrid in high quantities but add delightful full bodied flavours to dark ales.
- Toasted malt/munich malt – 10%, doesn’t contain crystalised sugars but instead has a toasted nutty flavour which is good for rounding out a beer’s flavour. If you think of the smell of baking bread, this is the kind of flavour those malts add to a beer. The darker the more bitter and roasty the flavour becomes.
For my first recipe I used a pale malt, a 45L crystal malt and a 30L biscuit malt. The resulting beer was a nice clear amber colour with a full flavour. You can play around with the quantities of crystal and other malts all you like as long as you keep your pale to 80% it’s unlikely you will go far wrong. Note – use a very light hand of anything labelled roasted barley, wheat or black malt. These are very acrid flavours typically used at 5% or less in a batch for black beers.
Working out the water. Now there is a very simple thing to remember here. You’re going to boil your wort for an hour or more so you need to start with more water than you want to end up with. Don’t worry if you have too much water you can keep boiling to reduce it. If you end up with too little you can add more water at the end. A rule of thumb is that you would use 5 times the amount of water by weight as you would grain plus 40%. So if you want to end up with 5L of wort at the end, you would need 1kg of grain at the start and around 7L of water at the start. Over the course of the boil those 7L will become 5L very easily.
Working out the hops. This is where a beer calculator comes in handy. I use the free BeerTarget. It’s a simple beer calculator that lets you add in your own ingredients, equipment and quantities and then will estimate for you the colour of the beer, the IBU’s and the alcohol content at the end of fermenting. It’s available for all operating systems and is easy to use.
How bitter your beer ends up depends on the type of hops you are using and also the amount of time you have it in your wort during the boil. Hops is a bitter herb that gets more bitter the longer it is cooked. Most varieties of noble hops (traditional varieties) have fairly low alpha hydroxy acid content which determines how bitter they make something. So you will usually get around 20-30 IBU’s for 7 grams of these types of hops boiled for 1hr in a 5L batch of wort. This is a fairly standard amount of bitterness that many commercial beers have.
If you are using a high alpha hydroxy acid content hops however you need far less of it to get to the same level of bitterness in beer. This is why the easiest way to calculate your hops is to run your recipe through a beer calculator that can take the AHA content into account and estimate it for you.
Working out the yeast. If you are using a commercial yeast no calculations necessary. Most yeast sachets are for a 25L batch for you would use 1/5th of that packet for a 5L batch etc. If you want to extend your yeast to do more batches you can do what is called a yeast starter. This is a small amount of wort that you pitch a small amount of yeast into and let it ferment for 3 days. During those three days your yeast will multiply and you’ll end up with enough to brew a bigger batch with a very small amount of dry yeast. It’s a good idea to do a yeast starter anyway even if the packet states you can pitch the dry yeast directly into the fermentor. It will save you money by using less of the dry yeast but it will also ensure that your yeast is alive and active before you dump it into your wort. You will also be able to see how long the yeast takes to become active in the wort and show signs of fermenting familiarising you with the process. I’m a cheapskate, I make yeast starters 3 days before brew day. For a 5L batch I make a starter from 500ML of wort and about 1gm of dry yeast, then let it multiply for a few days. Once you get a good krausen on your yeast starter you know you’ve got enough to pitch into a 5L batch.
If you are using wild yeast, same thing. Make a yeast starter from 500ML of wort and either add a piece of unwashed fruit or a leaf from a non-toxic species of tree to gather yeast into the wort. You can also cover the jar with some muslin and leave it outdoors overnight to capture airborne yeasts. Wild yeast generally contains slow fermenting yeast strains and so you will need to culture your wild yeast starter for longer before it is large enough in population to handle a full 5L batch. You might have to culture your wild yeast for a week to get it up to the right strength. Wild yeast won’t produce a foam on top of your wort, known as krausen, anywhere near as large as a commercial yeast does. Commercial yeasts have been bred to be fast acting, strongly fermenting and brewing with them looks different to brewing with wild yeasts.
The brewing process.
Brewing beer is a multi-step process that can be very complicated or relatively simple depending upon how you want to go. Over time and with experience you will learn to tweak every aspect of the brewing process to produce a beer to your own tastes. For the purposes of simplicity I am going to give you some basic rules of thumb that are known to work well for nearly all beer recipes and therefore are unlikely to fail.
Milling the grain – You can have this done for you by your brew shop or do it at home. You can buy special grain mills for crushing your grain. But I pop mine into a bullet machine until it’s ground fairly fine. Works a treat.
Mashing – this is beer lingo for putting your grains into warm water and letting it steep, similar to making a cup of tea. This step is usually done somewhere around 65C to ensure maximum amounts of fermentable sugars are converted from the starches in the grain ensuring the yeast has enough food to ferment and creates a decent amount of alcohol. The temperature to mash can be changed depending upon the grist, but 65C is a fairly versatile temp that will work with most recipes. You can mash at a lower temperature but above 70C there’s a good likelihood you will destroy the enzymes you need to convert the grain starches to sugar and mess up your wort.
There are several methods for mashing, but for simplicity sake and for the least amount of equipment BIAB or Brewing In A Bag is simplest method that yields good results. So you put your grains into a pillowcase or brewing bag, put it in the water, let it steep and when it’s time to mash out. You remove the bag, place it in a colander over your kettle and let it drain until all the water is out.
Boil & Bittering. After mash out you boil the wort. Why boil? Because you want to now destroy all the remaining enzymes, break down the proteins and ensure your wort is sterile before pitching yeast into it so you don’t get nasties growing in your beer that will make you sick. During the boil you will also add your hops in order to bitter the beer. If you are doing small batches of beer 5L or less one of these will work just fine. They can fit up to 12gms of hops pellets in them.
Or you can toss your hops directly into the kettle. Most people use a bag or a strainer of some kind though because then you don’t need to strain your wort when putting it in the fermenter. You toss your hops into the kettle for the required amount of time according to your recipe. So if you want to boil it for 30mins then just toss it in halfway through.
Cooling the wort and transferring to the fermenter. A lot of people recommend cooling the wort down fast to prevent the amount of time it’s sitting at room temp collecting wild yeasts. I’ve not bothered. I put it directly into my sterile fermenter hot then put an airtight lid on it until it’s cooled completely. If you want to get all technical at some point you can buy a wort cooler which looks like a copper coil or bother with filling an esky full of ice water and putting your kettle into that etc. Personally I can’t see the point when letting it air cool is easier. I’m lazy and as long as it’s not exposed to the air wild yeast won’t get into it while it’s cooling.
Super Important – do not pitch your yeast until your wort is body temp or less! Yeast is easily killed by excessive heat, so don’t be tempted to dump it in early. If you’ve made a yeast starter you can now drain the half fermented liquid off it and toss in the sediment that’s in the bottom which is a layer of yeast and what’s called trub (yeast waste).
Fermenting – If you decide to do open fermentation (not putting an airlock on it) you still need to cover the fermenter to stop foreign material from falling into it and insects out of it. Some people use a muslin cloth secured with a piece of elastic. I use freezer plastic secured with a piece of elastic. This creates a crude kind of airlock that allows excessive carbon dioxide to off gass through pushing against the light pressure of the elastic while keeping foreign material out. Note this isn’t a secure airlock, some air can still get in so can some bacteria and wild yeast although I’ve not had any infections in my brews. The commercial yeast is generally strong enough to out grow anything else. Why open ferment? Apparently access to air generates more esters, these are aroma compounds that smell fruity. If you like fruity beers then maybe this is an option. If you are wanting to create a sour beer also, open fermentation is a way to do it as lactic acid bacteria can take up residence in your wort and give it a light puckering quality.
If you decide to use an airtight fermentation remember to provide an airlock or some method for excess carbon dioxide to off-gass as the fermentation proceeds. If you don’t you could have an explosion and massive mess on your hands. Do NOT screw an airtight lid onto a container with an active ferment in it. It needs a way to get rid of excess gas.
How long to ferment? Until the yeast uses up all or most of the sugars in the wort is the answer. There are two methods to know when this is done. Use a hydrometer to measure the amount of fermentable sugars left in your wort, known as specific gravity. Or watch the ferment for signs of carbon dioxide bubbles floating towards the surface, an active ferment will have a cloudly wort, foam on top and active bubbles. Once the wort clears a little, and no more bubbles are reaching the top and it lacks foam you are probably good to go. Failing those two methods you can just wait 2-3 weeks (if using commercial yeast) and most ferments will be complete in that period of time. If using wild yeast wait 4-6 weeks before bottling to make sure the fermentation is done. Wild yeast ferments more slowly.
Bottling. Once active fermentation is complete your beer will be vulnerable to oxidation from contact with the air and it’s ready to bottle the beer for later drinking. Sterilise your bottles, pour the fermented brew into bottles leaving a 1″ space from the top of the bottle then cap it. To make bottling easier you can get a racking cane, which costs about $5. I bought one but because my batches are very small it’s just easier to pour my brew into a jug and fill the bottles that way. There’s a whole load of brewing lore about limiting the brew contact with ambient air. I’m sure it makes a difference if you are out to win prizes or want to be super finicky. I’m a practical sort of person and haven’t noticed any terrible effects from using a jug. Get the beer into the bottles is all you need to do really.
This is the point at which you will add what are called priming sugars or additional flavourings to the bottled beer prior to drinking. If you want to make fruit/floral beers I find it far easier to make a syrup from the fruit/flowers and then add that syrup to each bottle prior to adding the fermented beer. You get less sediment this way (using a strained syrup) and all the taste of the fruit/flowers. To calculate the amount of priming sugar use a beer calculator. Otherwise half a teaspoon of table sugar per litre bottle while provide light carbonation for beer and avoid explosions. Be sure to dissolve the sugar into boiled water first and add it as syrup to the bottle. If you are adding fruit remember they are full of sugar, do not add additional table sugar or your could over carbonate your beer. I made this mistake with a sparkling wine and was off-gassing the bottles for weeks as it fermented to avoid having wine on my ceiling upon opening the bottles.
Once bottled you’ll need to let your beer stabilise for 2 weeks or more prior to drinking. This small amount of time allows the yeast to carbonate the bottles from remaining sugars in the wort or priming sugar you’ve added and for the yeasty flavours to settle and subdue.