Monday, July 23, 2012

Beer Me!

Bottles ready for beeeeeeeeeeeeeer!
Here it is – the post you've all really been waiting for. The post about beer. After all, it's summer – the season of beer!

Making your own beer is actually very simple. The problem is you have to wait nearly a month between starting the process and drinking the beer. If you already have some on hand, that's not a problem. For the person who wants a beer and doesn't have one, it can be irritating.

Loosening up the mix
The easiest way is to start with an extract kit. You can buy these at most home brew stores. You probably have a home brew store near you and didn't even know it. Centralia has one. So does Chehalis. And Olympia. The kit is a can of hop malt extract; it's a liquid with the consistency of molasses. Depending on the kit, it will make five or six gallons of beer. The only additional ingredient you will need is corn sugar.

You need very little in the way of equipment. A large stock pot, a fermenter (food-grade five-gallon bucket), an air lock, hydrometer, and a bottle capper. None of these are terribly expensive. Oh, and bottles. You need about 60 empty beer bottles (pop-top, not twist-off). Start working on those now!  We like the Kirkland brand bottles because they are smooth, so if we're giving beer as gifts, we can put on our own labels easily.  We also enjoy emptying the bottles.

You want to make sure all of your equipment is sterilized; they sell sterilizer (iodine) for cheap and it lasts for a long time. You don't want to have anything funking up your beer.

Mmm.  Malt.
To begin, put the extract can in a sink of hot water to loosen up the liquid. Boil the amount of water designated on the can – some call for as little as one gallon, others call for all the water to be boiled. Pour the extract and the boiling water into the fermenter and stir until everything is evenly combined.

All mixed together
Next, you want to activate your yeast. The kit will come with a packet of yeast designed for the type of beer you're brewing. There are a surprising number of yeasts out there! Put the yeast in a bowl with around a cup of warm water (110 F or so) and a tablespoon of corn sugar.

While the yeast wakes up, add cold water until you reach the total volume (five or six gallons, depending). With the kit we just made – Munton's Connoisseurs Wheat Beer – we boiled one gallon of water and added five gallons of cold tap water.

Once the temperature of the mixture is 100F or cooler, you can add the yeast. If you add it while the mixture is too hot, you will kill the yeast. At this point, you also want to add the corn sugar. This will come out to a little over two pounds. Again, stir it all up quite well, so everything is interacting with each other nicely.

Use a hydrometer to measure the gravity of the beer. There's a lot of science involved that I'm not super solid on; if you are really interested, here's the wiki!. Basically, it's a good way to track if your beer is mixed correctly or not, and when it's done. The kit will tell you an original gravity (OG) number and a final gravity number (FG). Any kit – canned extract or not – should tell you these numbers. The bigger the difference between the OG and the FG, the higher the alcohol content.

Cap it off with an air lock, and set the fermenter somewhere warm with a relatively stable temperature – big temperature swings can impact the process. We use our kitchen counter, but the garage would work as well. Then you let it sit. And stare at the air lock, waiting for it to bubble. The bubbles mean the yeast is doing its thing and the beer is fermenting. When it's at it's peak, it will bubble every three seconds or so.

Transferring to secondary fermenter.
Leave the beer in the fermenter for a week or so, until the bubbling stops and the hydrometer tells you you have reached the FG. Once your brew measures at the FG, you should leave it in the fermenter for another 24 hours and re-measure the FG to make sure there's no more action happening. We are usually too impatient to wait, and it hasn't been a problem for us.

See the funk?  That's why.

At this point, you need to transfer your beer to a secondary fermenter. If you only have one, you can transfer it to any large, sterilized container(s). You don't want to skip this step, because it leaves all of the residues and funkiness behind in the original fermenter. If you only have one fermenter, clean it out, sterilize it, then return the beer to it.

Put your bottles through the rinse cycle of your dishwasher to sterilize them, and put your bottle caps in a pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil, then turn off. Again, you want everything sterile to avoid funking up your beer! Doing this step here also allows the beer to settle and any remaining residue to sink to the bottom.

When your bottles are sterilized, add sugar to each bottle – around ½ teaspoon per bottle. Then pour beer into the bottle. Fill the bottle until about the base of the neck. You'll know you've gone too far if beer spurts out of the top.

Uncrimped cap.
Using the capper to seal it up
Cap the bottles and then let them sit for a couple of weeks in a warm-ish place. When you think they are ready, put a few in the fridge to cool off, then pour a glass. If it tastes good and is carbonated, they're ready! If it either tastes bad or is not carbonated, let it sit longer. Never give up on beer – if it doesn't taste good, just let it sit a while longer. Some batches take longer than others to finish. We have had beers that tasted like swill after the recommended bottling time that tasted phenomenal a month or so later. Likewise, some beers taste great at the two-week mark!

This is the most basic level of home brew – you can buy kits that include dried malt extract and hops and grains you add in and customize. We generally stick to the cans because they're easy and cheap. They cost $20-$30 and yield around 60 beers. Also, our experience has been that the more complicated kits take longer to mature. I'm not patient at the best of times, and waiting months for beer to mature is maddening!


  1. Yay! I love brewing beer and you guys are the reason I even started. Why do you add sugar to the bottles? I have never done that. I actually add the corn sugar right before bottling. But I guess that is the same idea, eh? I have a Summer Ale that I will be brewing next week sometime. It's been a couple of months since I did my last one. Good job, guys! I fully intend on sampling some when I get up there! Unless there is none left...

    1. We had some batches that had some beers be sweeter than others due to uneven mixing, or some didn't get enough sugar so didn't carbonate. If we had more cash, Randy would use carb tabs.

      We'll try to save some, but Megan IS here the week before...

  2. Hmmm, very interesting but I'm more of a vodka girl. :)

    1. You can make that,'s just not legal. It doesn't make sense that you can brew beer, make gallons and gallons of wine, but not distill liquor, but there it is.

  3. I've been thinking of trying it when I have more space. You make it sound doable. Thanks!

    1. It's very approachable. You can often find all the startup equipment on craigslist for cheap-ish, too!

      The brew store in Chehalis doesn't carry the can kits, but Heymann's Winery in downtown Centralia does.

  4. Great article. A few tips to improve quality and consistency:

    Fermentation Time: Let it sit for 2 weeks in the primary instead of one. The yeast will clean up a lot of the off flavors that can ruin a good beer. Don't do a secondary fermentation, letting it sit on the primary creates better beer. You should only do a secondary if you are dry hopping or doing some huge belgian or adding fruit, etc.

    Fermentation Temperature: This is huge for getting consistent beers. Most ales should ferment around 66-68 degrees. You live in washington so you have an easy and cheap solution to control this. Go get yourself a 10 gallon rubbermaid container and an aquarium heater ($30 - I recommend the Fluval M50). Put the fermentation bucket into the container, fill with 68 degree water. Place in garage. Set aquarium heater to 68, drop in - voila - temperature control. I would recommend getting a cheap digital aquarium thermometer as well so you can get an accurate sense of what the heater is doing, the thermo on the heater is usually off by a few degrees.

    Bottling: Instead of adding sugar directly to the bottles, dissolve the corn sugar in a few cups of boiling water, cool, then add this to the bottling bucket before adding the beer. You can figure out how much sugar you need here: This approach will ensure that all bottles get the same level of sugar and will help u avoid bottle bombs. Plus its way easier than putting sugar in 30 bottles.

    Good luck!

    1. Oh and use Star San for sanitation, iodine is god awful and star san requires no rinsing:

      That bottle will last you 10-15 brews easy.

    2. Thanks for the tips! We have a problem with patience, and really should let it sit longer, lol. We usually pop a bottle before it's ready, too. You know...just in case!

      I hadn't thought about the aquarium heater trick - that's something I'll have to look into. If it is strong enough, I could use it for cheese, too.