Right now, going out for a beer simply isn’t an option. (Please support local breweries by ordering delivery online, if you’re comfortable with it!) But, there is more time than ever to make your own beer.
Whether a clone of a popular IPA or something totally unique that’s only possible in a 5-gallon batch size, everything required to brew is available for online delivery — and while you wait for shipping (or aren’t quite ready to tackle a brew day yet), we have plenty of reading recommendations to keep you occupied, too.
If You’ve Never Brewed: Read This Book
The seminal text for homebrewers that breaks down the science of the brewing process and how to take control of it at home is available online — for free! “How to Brew” by John Palmer is similar to a brewing textbook but is written in an approachable style, with easy to understand metaphors to explain chemistry, and answers to frequently asked questions.
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Palmer has updated the book several times from the text that is available online, but all of the information on the website is correct and will give you a thorough knowledge of brewing. For the most up-to-date advice you can order his 2017 edition on the book’s website.
If You’re New to Brewing: Buy a Kit
To really give homebrewing a shot, order an all-in-one starter kit from your local homebrew shop or an independent homebrew retailer like More Beer or Adventures in Homebrewing. The American Homebrew Association has a registry of homebrew shops by state that are guaranteed to have all the ingredients and equipment you need to start brewing. Call ahead to arrange for delivery or pickup — right now local businesses desperately need support to stay afloat. (You can expect to spend about $175 for an all-in-one kit with ingredients.)
For a low-budget start to brewing at home, you’ll only need to order an ingredients kit like this one that has hops, malt extract, and yeast; sanitizer (StarSan is a homebrewing standard); bottles (go swing top for the lowest effort and investment, just make sure to drink the beer quickly!); and a fermenter (this can be a big plastic bucket or glass jug).
You’ll also need your largest stock pot, a funnel, and, optionally, some tubing to use for a blowoff tub and to siphon beer from fermenter to bottles. (This helps avoid oxidation of your beer!) Piecing together this equipment will cost between $70 and $90, depending on the recipe you decide to brew.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to your first brew day.
If You Like a Project: Rig Your Mini-Fridge
There is a saying among brewers, “Brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” It’s up to the yeast to turn sugars into alcohol and flavor compounds, but brewers can still set those little bugs up with the best possible environment for doing so. The most important factor in this environment is temperature. The second most important is that temperature stays consistent. Both can be achieved with these purchases: a mini-fridge and a temperature controller.
Now is probably not the time to buy a mini-fridge off of Craigslist, unless you can do so with proper social distancing measures in place. However, hardware and home goods stores sell mini-fridges online. If possible, getting a min-ifridge that is at least 4.5 cubic feet is ideal; any smaller, and your fermenter may not fit. This is because the compressor, usually located in the bottom rear of the refrigerator, takes up ample space; and even with 4.5 cubic feet, you’ll need to take off the internally mounted shelves attached to the door. It’s easy enough with a screwdriver and a serrated knife.
However, if you want to save money and purchase a smaller, non-ideal-sized fridge, handy homebrewers build a simple wooden collar and add it to the mini-fridge frame. (Many tutorials online, like this one, will take you through the proper sealing steps. What else do you have to do right now, anyway?)
While it is possible to skimp a bit and DIY the fridge component, I suggest buying a ready-to-go temperature controller. It will run you about $40 and pay for itself in ease of use, as well as energy efficiency compared to wiring your own unit. Simply mount the temperature control near an outlet (near the mini-fridge that is now your fermentation chamber), plug the temperature controller into the outlet, and plug the refrigerator into the temperature controller. Now you’re able to keep the yeast at a consistent temperature within a degree or two.
If You Homebrew Often: Try a SMaSH Beer
There is a lot to learn about hops simply from smelling them, or adding them to a fermenter for dry hopping. But the best way to understand the full range of an individual hop varietal is by brewing a “SMaSH beer.” The term comes from “Single Malt and Single Hop.”
SMaSH IPAs were becoming the big trend before hazy IPAs took over the scene. The reason to brew this kind of beer isn’t to reminisce about trends of the past, but instead to get to know your future favorite hop.
By brewing a beer with all pilsner or two-row malt, and a very clean yeast like White Labs 001 or Wyeast American Ale, the hops have a chance to shine through. There is no mistaking hop character for yeast esters or malt flavor when the base of the beer is so simple.
One thing to watch out for in this very simple style: Since very aromatic hops tend to have lower alpha acids, you may only be able to achieve your desired bitterness by adding a large, 60-minute addition. So instead, substitute a hop with high alpha acids (like Magnum), or be okay with making a beer that isn’t as bitter. Large 60-minute additions can lead to vegatal flavors in the final beer.
Without commuting to work or going out for meals, there’s never been more time for the ultimate experiment: the side-by-side brew. Usually, brewing and fermenting two of almost the exact same beer is too time- consuming, especially when the result is… a lot of one kind of beer. However, as the time indoors stretches out long before us, homebrewing a half-batch suddenly doesn’t seem so bad, even if the brew day is as lengthy as a full-batch.
Testing the impact of base malts, like the popular (and more expensive) Golden Promise against the humble pilsner malt, is one way to go. Another is to perform a specialty malt trial: Does switching out roasted barley for chocolate malt really make the difference between calling something a stout or a porter? And how do we know special B malt is all that flavorful anyway? Have we actually tried brewing a Belgian quad without it? These questions have finally found their day to be answered.
So many aspects of a style, from mouthfeel to aroma, are determined by yeast. Mastering a yeast strain until results are consistent isn’t an easy feat, so it can be intimidating to try a new strain. During this pandemic, when the fermenter in the closet is never too far away, is the perfect time to experiment with new yeast strains that will ferment differently than the ones in your comfort zone.
Monitor yeast daily to check activity, and adjust the temperature accordingly. There should be bubbles coming up through the airlock at least every minute or two. If that isn’t happening, heat things up a degree or two to keep yeast active and working. When taking a sample to measure the gravity, don’t forget to give it a taste. It will be warm and flat, but yeast character is apparent in the flavor within days of fermentation and will continue to develop.
Who knows? Maybe you went into quarantine an American ales expert, and you’ll leave it the queen of German wheat beers.
If Beer Is Too Much Work: Brew Something Else
So, you’re stuck at home. You don’t really have the money to get into a new hobby, or maybe all those steps and ingredients are just too much. For this recipe, all you’ll need to order is a pack of wine yeast that costs about $3. Then, find an empty plastic bottle or a large glass pitcher to use as your “fermenter.” Clean it as well as you can, and make sure to rinse it thoroughly afterward. Any residue from soap will come through in the flavor of this simple brew.
As this beverage ferments, taste it to experience how the sweetness changes as the yeast does its thing! It doesn’t take much to learn about fermentation in isolation.
Something Brewed Recipe
- 4 cups water (960 grams)
- ½ cup table sugar (100 grams)
- ⅓ cup fresh-squeezed citrus juice (about 3 limes, 2 lemons, or ½ orange)
- Wine yeast (available on Amazon)
The above recipe should be scaled to the size of your “fermenter.” A triple batch is a good amount for a 1-gallon container.
Heat water to about 100ºF. Stir in table sugar until dissolved completely. Turn off heat and add fruit juice. Pour into “fermenter.” Sprinkle in yeast and swirl lightly to hydrate yeast. Cover fermenter opening with a paper towel secured with a rubber band.
Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 4 days before tasting it. After about a week you’ll have a lightly carbonated, pleasantly sweet, lightly citrus-flavored alcoholic drink. In about 10-14 days you’ll have a barley sweet, somewhat fizzy, alcoholic drink. After 16 or so days your drink will be very dry and mostly still and contain a little more than 5% alcohol.
To serve, gently pour into a glass (avoid pouring too much yeast). Chill or add ice before enjoying. Garnish with a citrus wedge or top with soda water for extra character.