Homebrewing 101 Part 2: Brew Day

By Brett Vanderbrook - A follow up to Homebrewing 101 Part 1 that covers your first brew day.

In Homebrewing 101 Part 1 we covered the basics. What it is, what to read, and what to buy. Now that you have your head wrapped around the rudimentary aspects, it's time to put that newfound knowledge to use. Let's brew some beer!

As this is likely your first foray into zymurgy (fancy word for the science of brewing and fermentation) I highly recommend starting with an all-extract beer. Malt extract is a concentrated form of brewer’s wort (pronounced wert,) which is the technical term for unfermented beer. As you may know, the magic of fermentation occurs when yeast are introduced to a solution that includes dissolved sugars, which they feed on to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide (to give beer its buzz and bubbles.) However, the fermentable sugars in malted barley are “trapped” and need to be unlocked via an enzymatic process known as mashing. Mashing grain is performed by heating water to a temperature usually between 148-156 degrees Fahrenheit and allowing the grain to rest in the hot water until the starches in the grain have been converted to fermentable sugar. This step can be a little intimidating for first-time brewers, so brewing with extract allows you to skip that step, and just focus on becoming comfortable with the process.

A solid first brew choice is an American Pale Ale, due to the simplicity of the recipe, and short conditioning time. You could easily do a Google search for extract American pale ale recipes and find tons of ideas, but they're all going to have fairly similar components with the main differences being the hop varietals used, and the type/ratio of the extract. I did a little research, and plugged some ingredients into Brewtoad's (FREE!) online brewing software and came up with this basic recipe:

6 pounds light liquid malt extract
1 pound amber dry malt extract

0.75 oz. Centennial hops
2 oz. US Cascade hops

Wyeast 1056 American Ale yeast
(Note: Wyeast brand yeast comes in a "smack pack" with a small inner packet of yeast nutrient inside the pack that you release by smacking it in your hand. Allow your pack to come to room temperature, release the nutrient, and let the pack swell for a few hours before pitching.)

Because the grain bill of an American pale ale usually consists mostly of American 2-row barley and some crystal malt for color and depth of flavor, I've mimicked that with extract by using mostly light liquid malt extract with a bit of amber dry malt extract. (Note: Liquid and dry malt extract are essentially the same thing, dry malt extract has simply had all water removed which renders it a powder, whereas liquid malt extract is more like a thick syrup.) A slightly more advanced technique would be to skip the amber malt extract altogether, and actually just steep some crystal malt, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Baby steps!

For the hops I chose two common American hop varietals: Centennial for bittering, and Cascade for aroma. Bittering hops are hop varietals that have a high alpha acid content. They are added early in the boil and, as the term suggests, they add bitterness to beer. Aroma hops generally have a lower alpha acid content, and are added later in the boil (or even after the boil is finished) to give beer hop aroma. Many brewers take it even a step further by adding hops to beer that is fermenting or aging (called dry-hopping) if they want to really give their beer a fresh hop wallop without imparting any more bitterness. The hop schedule for your pale ale will look like this:

  • 0.75 ounces Centennial - boil for 60 minutes
  • 0.5 ounces Cascade - boil for 15 minutes
  • 0.5 ounces Cascade - boil for 5 minutes
  • 1 ounce Cascade - add at "flameout" (right after the boil is complete and you're about to chill the wort)

hops are most widely available in pelletized form

Remember the list of items to purchase from part one? It's time to start putting them to good use! From the original list, here's what you'll need on brew day:

  • 5-7.5 gallon brewpot
  • 6-6.5 gallon carboy or 6.5 gallon bucket w/drilled, grommeted lid
  • Drilled rubber stopper that fits 6 gallon carboy (*not needed if you go with the bucket)
  • Airlock (I recommend the 3-piece kind)
  • Hydrometer
  • Hydrometer test jar
  • Thermometer (floating kind or electronic version with probe)
  • Wine thief
  • Large funnel
  • Large strainer
  • Bottle of sanitizing solution (I recommend Five Star brand Star San No-Rinse solution)

In addition you'll also need:

  • Something to stir with (A long spoon will do just fine, or you could purchase a mash paddle from a homebrew supply store.)
  • 2-3 gallons of bottled or pre-boiled and chilled water for top-up (I like to just buy a couple gallon jugs of spring water because it's cheap and easy.)
  • A few bags of ice to create an ice bath for your wort after you've finished boiling it.
  • A pair of scissors or knife to open your yeast packet

Your first order of business is to get some sanitizing solution ready. I can't stress enough how important sanitation is when you're brewing and fermenting. You want to make absolutely sure you're keeping all bacteria and wild yeast out, so anything that touches the wort (when it's not boiling) needs to be sanitized. 1 ounce of Star San will make 5 gallons of solution. Mix it up with cold water in a clean bucket. Pour about half of it into your clean fermenter (either the carboy or the bucket) and occasionally slosh it around really well. Star San gets very sudsy; embrace the bubbles! With the remaining solution in your other bucket, put anything in that will potentially touch your cooled wort. The bucket lid, drilled stopper, airlock, thermometer, hydrometer, hydrometer test jar, funnel, strainer, and wine thief should all go into the bath. Go ahead and throw your packet of yeast and the scissors to open it in there as well.

Fill your brew pot with as much tap water as you can. Remember that it will be coming to a boil, so make sure not to fill it ALL the way to the top. Dry malt extract is easier to dissolve in cold water, so now is a good time to add that. Turn on your stove and bring the water to a boil. Once it's boiling, turn off the heat for a moment and add your liquid malt extract. Turning off the heat prevents the liquid malt extract from scorching on the bottom of the pot. Once all the liquid malt extract is dissolved, turn the heat back on and bring the pot back to a boil. When it's boiling again, add your first hop addition of 0.75 ounces of Centennial and set the timer for 60 minutes.

Adding liquid malt extract to the boil. Photo from homebrewersassociation.org

Early in the boil your wort will go through what is known as the hot break, when proteins in the wort will coagulate and cause it to foam up. Pay very close attention to your pot during this time; boil-overs are common and should be avoided. If it seems like your wort is going to boil over, turn the heat down a little, or stir the pot. Eventually those protein clumps get heavy and fall to the bottom, and at that point you shouldn't have to worry about boil-overs anymore.

After you've been boiling for 45 minutes, it's time to add your second hop addition of 0.5 ounces of Cascade. Your third addition of another 0.5 ounces of Cascade will go in at the 55 minute mark, and finally when your timer goes off at 60 minutes turn off the stove and add your final addition of 1 ounce of Cascade. Give yourself a pat on the back; you've just completed the "brewing" portion on your very first batch of beer! Keep the self congratulating brief, though, because you're about to perform the most crucial (and difficult) task of your first brew day: chilling the wort and pitching the yeast.

Up until this point you haven't had to worry too much about sanitation because your wort has been boiling, and boiling kills any organisms that a brewer needs to be worried about. However, now you're about to bring that wort down to roughly room temperature where bacteria and wild yeast absolutely THRIVE! Compounding the issue is you have a gigantic open pot of what is essentially just sweet grain tea, so you might as well be ringing the dinner bell for the microorganisms living in your kitchen. With that in mind, it is in your best interest to cool that wort as quickly as possible, get it into your fermenter and pitch the friendly yeast that we DO want eating those sugars.

Prepare an ice bath in your sink by stopping the drain, filling it with a bit of water, carefully placing your brew pot into the water and putting ice in the water. Add as much water as your sink will allow to cover the most amount of surface area on the pot. Keep the top off at least until the pot stops steaming. If you have a floating thermometer, you can remove it from your sanitizing solution and stick it in the pot. We're aiming to get the temperature down below 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooling wort using the ice bath method is time consuming, and in my experience you can expect this to take an hour or longer. As the ice melts, add more and gently stir the water around in the sink. When the sink gets too full you will have to remove the pot, drain the water, and repeat the process. This part surely isn't very exciting, but trust me when I tell you how important it is.

Brewpot in an ice bath. Photo from donosborn.com

While your wort is cooling, you can dump the sanitizing solution out of your carboy or fermenting bucket. Shake as much of it off as you can, but don't worry if there are still bubbles on the inside surface; it won't affect your wort.

Once the wort has reached a temperature below 80 degrees Fahrenheit remove the pot from the ice bath. If your fermenter is a carboy, place your sanitized funnel into the neck and put the sanitized strainer inside the funnel. If you're using a bucket, you won't need the funnel, but you'll likely need an extra set of hands to hold the strainer for you. Carefully pour the wort into the fermenter. If the strainer gets stopped up by the hop "sludge," rinse it out and give it a quick slosh in the sanitizing bucket again, and then continue until all of the wort is in your fermenter.

Now you need to "top up" your fermenter with pre-boiled or bottled water to get the level to 5 gallons. Most buckets and carboys have gallon markers on them, making it easy to get an exact measurement. If for some reason yours does not, prior to your brew day you should measure out 5 gallons into the vessel and mark it yourself with marker or a piece of tape. Once you have the correct amount of liquid in your fermenter, it's time to oxygenate the wort to provide a healthy environment for your yeast. Place the sanitized top on your bucket, or the sanitized drilled stopper in your carboy and shake it vigorously for 2-3 minutes. Be mindful of the openings on either vessel; cover them with a paper towel soaked in sanitizer and place your hand over the top of the paper towel while shaking.

Your wort is now ready for fermentation! Before you pitch the yeast, though, you want to take a gravity sample of the wort. Place your sanitized hydrometer into your sanitized hydrometer test jar. Using the sanitized wine thief, dip the end into your fermenter, and transfer that into test jar. You need enough in the jar so that the hydrometer can float in it, and not touch the bottom, so you may need to dip it into the fermenter 2 or 3 times to get enough. When you have enough wort in the jar, set it aside for a minute. We'll come back to it after you've pitched the yeast.

Remove your yeast packet from the sanitizing bucket, cut it open with the sanitized scissors, and carefully add it all to your wort. If you're using a carboy, place the sanitized driller rubber stopper into the neck, fill the airlock with a little bit of the sanitizing solution (there's a fill line indicated) and stick the airlock into the stopper. If you're using the bucket to ferment, place the lid on tight, and stick the airlock (with solution in it) into the drilled hole. Now take a step back and admire your work. You have just started events in motion that will transform your sweet grain tea into delicious beer in a few weeks' time!

Wort in a carboy. Photo from examiner.com

Place your fermenter somewhere cool and dark, preferably a basement. You want to keep the temperature of your fermenting beer somewhere in the range of the mid-60s to the low 70s Fahrenheit. If you live in an apartment, don't have a basement, or just cannot find a place where the ambient temperatures are in that range, you'll need a work-around. The cheapest method is to create a "swamp cooler" by filling a plastic tub with water and a few ice packs, and placing your fermenter in the water. The most effective (albeit far more expensive) method would be to obtain a chest freezer and a temperature contol unit that overrides the internal thermostat of the freezer, and allows you to maintain any ambient temperature you desire.

OK, back to the sample of wort you took before pitching the yeast. Take the temperature of your sample with a thermometer. If you're suing the floating kind, you'll have to remove the hydrometer for a moment. No need to worry about sanitizing anything now; this sample will not be going back into the fermenter, and therefore contamination is no longer a concern. But you'll definitely want to taste it, so just make sure any instrument you place inside of the sample is clean. Write down the temperature and place the hydrometer back in the jar. Spin the jar a little to remove any bubbles and prevent the hydrometer from sticking to the sides of the jar. Get down at eye level with the test jar and note the number on the hydrometer at the surface of the liquid. You want the numbers that start 1.0xx, not the "potential alcohol" numbers. Write down that number.

Hydrometer in test jar. Photo from chemistryland.com

The gravity of wort is a measurement of the dissolved sugars in the liquid. The more sugar in there is in your wort, the higher the gravity. The first reading you take is called the initial gravity. Once your beer is finished fermenting, and the yeast have eaten much of the sugar you will take another lower reading that will be your beer's final gravity. The difference between these two numbers is used in an equation to determine the alcohol content of the beer.

To figure out your initial gravity, we'll need to do a quick conversion of the number you recorded. Hydrometers are calibrated to a specific temperature, and that number will be indicated on your hydrometer. It will most likely either be 59 or 68 degrees Fahrenheit. This website will do the math for you. Plug in the temperature of your sample, the gravity number you recorded, and the calibration temperature of your hydrometer and click update. Voila! That is the initial gravity of your wort! For the recipe you brewed, your gravity should be right about 1.050. If it's off by a few points, don't sweat it. You can now taste your sample, if you'd like. Unfermented beer is flat, sweet, and with a hop-forward style like a pale ale quite bitter. As the yeast do their thing, the beer will dry out, become alcoholic, and mellow.

Keep that fermenter somewhere cool and dark, but keep an eye on it. Active fermentation should start 12-72 hours after you've pitched the yeast. As the yeast begin to ferment the beer, you'll notice a thick white foam that will form on the top of the beer called krausen as well as bubbling in your airlock. If fermentation is vigorous enough, krausen can get pushed up into the airlock and make a bit of a mess. If that happens, remove the airlock, rinse and sanitize it, and replace it. In a few weeks time you'll bottle the beer, but for now it's time to play the waiting game. We'll get to bottling in part three!

I covered a lot of information in this article, and while I tried to be thorough you may still have questions. Please don't hesitate to ask your questions in the comments section below, or tweet them to me at @beergeeksontv. Another great source of information is homebrewtalk.com, a forum for homebrewers that is chock full of helpful information. Happy brewing!

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

Continue the Discussion