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Beer is one of the oldest beverages in the world and it has an incredible history. In fact, humans have been making fermented beverages for thousands of years. The first documented beer made with cereal grains was brewed about 5000 years ago. Would you believe that it is the third most popular drink on the planet?
Interestingly, because the first beer ever "brewed" was likely made accidentally, it's very possible it was made in someone's home. This means that the world's first beer was a homebrew beer and it laid foundations that persist to this day. So, let's talk about how to make beer.
What is Homebrew?
Homebrewing is the process of making beer, wine, cider, mead, and other fermented beverages at home for personal consumption. It's an age-old practice but was actually outlawed in the United States during prohibition. However, it was made legal again in 1978.
Some say that homebrew beer has gained increased popularity in recent years with the rise of craft beer culture. However, those who know better will tell you that it actually happened the other way around. Homebrewing allowed individuals to create their own unique flavors and styles of beer that were not be readily available in commercial offerings. This exploration and pushing of boundaries gave rise to the craft beer industry that we know today. Want to know more? Check out our article on the history of home brewing.
How Beer is Made
Beer is an alcoholic beverage made from four primary ingredients - water, malted cereal grains, hops, and yeast. It is created by converting starches from cereal grain into a sugary liquid during a process called mashing. The liquid is then boiled, often with the addition of hops, which is a bittering agent and a natural preservative. After that, it is cooled to room temperature and yeast is added. Yeast eats sugar in the liquid and produces alcohol in a process called fermentation. At this point it’s officially “beer” and is either bottled or kegged and carbonated, to make it fizzy. The amount of time it takes to make beer ranges from 1 to 4 weeks for an ale and as long as 6 months for a lager.
The 4 Steps To Making Beer
Since its inception, the quality of beer has improved dramatically. Beer making equipment has improved, as have the ingredients. The process has also evolved slightly over time, but actually remains largely the same. There are 4 primary steps to making beer:
Another important part of brewing is the boil. The brewing process takes several hours and includes the following steps:
- Clean and Sanitize - Thoroughly clean all brewing equipment with PBW, then sanitize with StarSan.
- Crush Grain - Crushing grain in a grain mill. If using a Clawhammer BIAB system, crush grain to .025” (using the smallest setting on the mill) for maximum efficiency. If using any other system, crush somewhere between .035” and .045”.
- Mash Grain - During the mash, enzymes (alpha and beta amylase) found within malted grain are activated by creating a slurry of milled cereal grain heating it to a temperature between 140-158 F. The activated enzymes break down starch found within the grain and convert it into sugar.
- Boil - The liquid, now called wort, is boiled to increase the concentration of sugar and kill unwanted bacteria.
- Add Hops - During the boil, hops are also added. Hops are responsible for beer’s characteristic bitterness and boiling beer actually increases hop bitterness.
- Chill - Once the boil is complete, the wort is cooled to room temperature.
2. Ferment and Condition
One of the reasons beer is so popular is the alcohol contained within it. Humans enjoy the feeling of relaxation and euphoria that it causes. One of the most fascinating things about beer is that alcohol isn't an ingredient that is merely added to beer. It's actually created during during the fermentation process.
During fermentation, yeast eat sugar and produce carbon dioxide, alcohol, and a lot of flavor and aroma compounds called esters. So yeast is arguably the most important ingredient in beer. And fermentation is undoubtedly the most important process. Fermenting beer is relatively hands-off and should go without a hitch assuming some basic steps are taken to create a healthy environment for the yeast to grow. The fermentation process is completed by following these steps:
- Transfer - After brewing, the next step in the process is to transfer the chilled wort to a fermentation vessel. This is best done by siphoning or pumping it from the brew kettle into the fermenter.
- Aerate - Oxygen is one of the worst enemies of finished beer. Oxidized beer is often described as tasting like wet cardboard. However, yeast need oxygen at the beginning of their life cycle to adequately finish the fermentation process. Aerate wort by shaking sealing and shaking the fermenter for 2 minutes. Ideally, this will achieve a dissolved oxygen level of 6-8 ppb.
- Seal - The fermentation vessel should be sealed with an "air lock." An air lock is a simple device that lets gas out but won't let any air in. It's necessary because as yeast grow they produce carbon dioxide. This gas must be released. Keeping air out is necessary for preventing contamination of the beer by wild yeast and bacteria and also for preventing oxidation.
- Ferment - Two of the most important elements for proper sanitation include cleaning and sanitation. Aside from that, the fermentation vessel should be stored somewhere with a relatively cool and stable temperature (68-70F for ales and 48-58F for lagers ). An opaque fermentation vessel should be used or it should be stored in a completely dark room or closet. The fermentation process will take 7-10 days for ales and 3-4 weeks for lagers.
Once fermentation is complete the liquid is now officially beer.
However, it will need to be "finished." Here are the steps that one needs to follow:
- Conditioning - The beer is technically finished now now but it may be a bit cloudy and may also taste and smell a little rough around the edges. The best method to smooth everything is give the beer some additional time to allow yeast to metabolize less than ideal flavors. he two best remedies are time and temperature. Sample the beer. If any off flavors are present, give the yeast another week or so to mellow everything out.
- Clarify - The beer may also be cloudy and have a "yeasty" character. This can be eliminated by a process called “cold crashing” (reducing the temperature to near freezing). Cold crashing at 34 degrees for 4 days will cause a lot of the solids to drop out of suspension. Some homebrewers will also add fining agents (like gelatin) further improve clarity. Lager beers are stored at very cold temperatures for weeks to several months to improve both clarity and taste.
After the initial stage of conditioning, the beer may taste and look good, but it is likely flat (uncarbonated) and needs a home. Typically home brewed beer is first packaged and then carbonated. In terms of packaging, here are the options:
Bottling requires the lowest initial investment because craft beer bottles can actually be reused and bottle cappers and caps are relatively inexpensive. However, most home brewers consider it a pain and prefer other methods. It does have it's advantages though, particularly when a beer needs to be stored for a long time to age.
Electric canners are somewhat expensive and new cans need to be purchased for each new batch of beer. The only real benefit to canning is being able to take home brewed beer places where glass is undesirable (pools, etc). That said, it’s probably the least popular option due to cost.
Kegging is perhaps the most expensive initial investment, as it requires kegs, a co2 tank, a kegerator, and a tap, but it’s by far the most convenient. Also having beer on tap in a kegerator is pretty sweet!
Home brewers typically package their beer before carbonating. It’s either transferred to bottles or kegs. When transferred to bottles the beer is “bottle conditioned,” meaning that it is naturally carbonated with the addition of a bit of priming sugar and sometimes additional yeast. The yeast will eat the sugar and create carbon dioxide. Because the beer is now in a sealed container, the CO2 gas gets absorbed into the liquid. When transferred to a keg beer is typically “force carbonated,” meaning that a CO2 tank is attached to the keg and the keg is pressurized, causing the gas to be absorbed by the beer.
The easiest way to carbonate beer is to transfer it to a keg and "quick carb" by increasing the preassure to about 40psi then shaking the keg for several minutes.
Additional Beer Making Resources
Beer Brewing FAQs
What are the basic ingredients needed to brew beer at home?
The basic ingredients for brewing beer at home are water, malted grains (primarily barley), hops, and yeast.
What equipment do I need to start home brewing?
Basic home brewing equipment includes a brewing kettle, thermometer, fermenter with airlock, thermometer, hydrometer, sanitizer, stirring spoon, and bottles or kegs for storing the finished beer. More advanced brewers may also use a heat source (electric is preferred) with digital temperature control, mash paddle, grain mill, wort chiller, a stir plate and flask (for making yeast starters), and you’re all set!
How long does the beer brewing process take?
The brewing process itself usually takes a few hours, but the fermentation can take anywhere from a week to several months depending on the type of beer. After that, the beer needs to be bottled and conditioned, which can take an additional few weeks.
Why isn't my beer fermenting?
There could be several reasons why your beer isn't fermenting. It could be that the yeast was old or unhealthy, the temperature might be too cold for the yeast to be active, or there might not be enough oxygen in the wort.
How do I know when the fermentation process is complete?
The best way to know when fermentation is complete is by using a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of the beer. When the specific gravity remains the same for two or three days, fermentation is likely complete.
What is the difference between ale and lager?
The main difference between ale and lager is the type of yeast used and the fermentation temperature. Ales use top-fermenting yeast and are fermented at warmer temperatures, while lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast and are fermented at cooler temperatures.
Can I brew beer at home legally?
The legality of home brewing varies by country and sometimes by state or province. In the United States, home brewing is legal under federal law, though states are allowed to set their own laws regarding home brewing.
How do I clean and sanitize my brewing equipment?
All brewing equipment should be thoroughly cleaned with a brewing-specific cleaner and then sanitized with a no-rinse sanitizer before use.
What are some common mistakes to avoid in home brewing?
Some common mistakes include not cleaning and sanitizing equipment properly, not controlling the fermentation temperature, rushing the process, and not measuring ingredients accurately.
How can I improve the taste of my home-brewed beer?
Improving the taste of home-brewed beer can be achieved by using high-quality ingredients, controlling the fermentation temperature, allowing the beer to condition properly, and experimenting with different recipes and brewing techniques.
How long does homemade beer last?
Homemade beer can last for several months to a year if stored properly. It should be kept in a cool, dark place and consumed within a year for the best taste.
Can I grow my own hops for brewing?
Yes, you can grow your own hops for brewing. However, hops are a climbing plant and need a lot of vertical space. They also require a specific climate and soil conditions.
What is the role of yeast in brewing?
Yeast is responsible for fermentation in the brewing process. It consumes the sugars in the wort and produces alcohol, carbon dioxide, and flavors.
Can I use any type of yeast?
While there are many types of yeast, brewers yeast is specifically designed for brewing beer and will produce the best results.
What food should I pair my home brew with?
Check out our comprehensive guide for everything you need to know about beer and food pairings.