Brewing Beer: The Basics

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Photo by Adobe Stock/Dusk

There’s something about a cold brew that helps close out a hard day’s work. Beer in the United States has come a long way in the last 40 years. When I was a young man in the 1970s, I remember seeing generic beer on the shelf. At that point, it was just a commodity — a pale, fizzy beverage indistinguishable from others like it except for the labels.

These days, the beer aisle is overflowing with styles of beer from all different types of brewing traditions: British ales, German lagers, strong Belgian beers, and more. Brewers in the United States are giving their own twist to classic styles from around the world. American-style IPAs (all the rage right now) are descended from the English India pale ales, for example. This beer renaissance has been driven in part by homebrewers — and you, too, can brew beer at home that has the qualities you desire.

Assemble a Starter Kit

The most common batch size for homebrewers is 5 gallons, which makes just over 48 standard 12-ounce bottles. You can easily brew beer at this scale in your kitchen with a minimal amount of equipment. Homebrew shops sell kits that include everything you’ll need to get started, except for a large brew pot and empty beer bottles. The price of starter kits is generally between 70 dollars and 200 dollars, depending on what the kit includes. Starter kits that include kegging equipment are typically more expensive.

The main items in a brewing starter kit include a food-grade plastic bucket or glass carboy in which to ferment the beer; a second bucket to hold the beer before bottling; tubing to move the liquid from vessel to vessel; and a bottle capper.

For beginning brewers, a 5-gallon stainless steel pot will work well as a brew kettle. At a minimum, you’ll need a pot that will hold 3 gallons of boiling liquid with at least 1 gallon of extra space for foaming.

Just 4 Ingredients

Beer is comprised of four basic components: malt, hops, yeast, and water.

Malt is a cereal grain that has gone through the process of malting, which I’ll explain later. The most commonly malted grain is barley, followed by wheat. In some beers, such as American-style pilsners, unmalted cereal grains (corn or rice) may be used along with the malt. Malt supplies sugars for the yeast to ferment and imparts “malty,” breadlike flavors to beer. Specialty malts may include caramel, biscuit, or roasted flavors added to darker beers. For 5 gallons of average-strength beer, which is about 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), you’ll need 8 to 10 pounds of malt.

Hops are the female cones of the hop bine (technically not a vine). Hop cones have lupulin glands that contain compounds called “alpha acids.” These compounds give beer its bitterness, which helps balance sweetness from the malt. The lupulin glands of hops also contain oils that lend a pleasing aroma to beer. For a 5-gallon batch of beer, you’ll need only a few ounces of hops.

Brewer’s yeast is a living organism — a fungus — that ferments the sugars in the malt and is separated from the beer after fermenting. So although it’s a beer ingredient, it’s not present in the final product, except in some specialty beers, such as German Hefeweizens, which have a layer of yeast at the bottom of every bottle. Hundreds of billions of yeast cells are required to ferment just 5 gallons of beer. However, yeast cells are tiny, so a thick slurry of only 2 cup yeast will supply that amount.

Water makes up the remainder of beer — most beer is more than 94 percent water. To be used for brewing, water must be potable and free of chlorine compounds. If you carbon-filter municipal tap water, you can use it for brewing. The carbon filter will remove chloramines — chlorine compounds added to municipal water sources for sanitation. Well water can be used if it meets municipal standards and is free of iron. If you don’t have a filter, you can also treat your water with Campden tablets, which are the tablets home winemakers use to sanitize their unfermented wine. One tablet will treat 20 gallons of tap water.

Of course, other ingredients — including fruits, spices, coffee, and chocolate — may also be used in beer, but the fundamentals remain the same.

Just 4 Steps

Each of the following four steps is required for making beer, but for homebrewing, you’ll only need to complete the last two or three.

1. Malting. Barley seed is soaked in water and sprouted, and is then kilned (heated) to stop the sprouts from growing and to lightly toast the husk. This process converts plain old barley into barley malt, and is done by a maltster. Homebrewers and the vast majority of commercial brewers buy malt rather than producing their own.

2. Mashing. The barley malt is crushed and soaked in hot water. Then, the liquid from this mix, called “sweet wort,” is drained from the mashing vessel. Some homebrewers do this step at home. Others buy malt extract, which is sweet wort that’s been condensed by a maltster. Adding water to the malt extract will reconstitute the wort. Still others make some of their wort from malted grains and use malt extract for the rest — which is the approach I’ll explain.

3. Boiling. You’ll boil the wort to sanitize it and to coagulate proteins that would otherwise cause haze in the beer. You’ll then add hops to extract their alpha acids and convert the wort into a form that’s pleasantly bitter. Hops added early in the boil and then boiled for an extended period will lend bitterness to the beer, as alpha acids take awhile to be extracted. Hops added near the end of the boil will give the beer a floral aroma, as the volatile oils in the hops will release quickly but will also boil away quickly.

4. Fermentation. After boiling the wort, you’ll chill it and then add the yeast. The yeast will consume the sugars in the wort and convert them into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Essentially, hopped wort will ferment into beer.

The Homebrewing Process

The first time you brew, you’ll probably want to follow an established recipe. You can use my recipe below (scroll down to “Cascading Pale Ale Recipe,” or do a quick online search to find other options.

When you purchase the ingredients, ask your homebrew shop to crush the grains, unless you have a grain mill. Store the crushed grain in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to brew. Likewise, keep your hops in the freezer and your yeast in the refrigerator until then. To brew these recipes, you’ll also need a large colander.

Your first step as a homebrewer, and the most important one, is to clean and sanitize all of your equipment. For cleaning, use a brewery cleaner such as PBW (Powdered Brewery Wash), and then rinse the equipment. A brewery cleaner may be included in your starter kit. If not, you can find it separately at any homebrew shop.

Next, sanitize everything that will come in contact with chilled wort. This includes your fermentation vessel, any tubing used for transfer, airlocks, and the like. If you don’t clean and sanitize everything, your beer could become contaminated and develop off odors and flavors. Popular sanitizing agents for homebrewers include iodophor and Star San.

Fill your fermenter with sanitizing solution and let it sit for about five minutes before draining the liquid. If you have a bucket fermenter, soak any other equipment that needs to be sanitized while you’re sanitizing the bucket. If you use a carboy, run the sanitizing solution from the carboy into a clean sink, and use this to soak the other items for five minutes.

In your brew pot, begin heating 1-1/2 gallons of water to about 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the crushed grains in a nylon steeping bag. Steep the grains in the hot water for one hour, using a spoon to break up any clumps of grain. The water temperature will drop when the grains are added. Maintain the temperature at the temperature specified in the recipe — usually between 148 and 162 degrees — as well as you can. As the steeping time progresses, the pot will cool slightly. Add heat in short, 10- to 20-second bursts to re-establish the correct temperature. Heating in short bursts will make it easier to avoid overshooting your target temperature. While the grains steep, heat 3 quarts of water to 170 degrees in a large pot.

When the hour is up, lift the grain bag and let it drip into the brew pot. Then, place it in the colander, and situate the colander above the brew pot. Rinse, or “sparge,” the grains with the 170-degree water from the smaller pot, and let the runoff flow into your brew pot. After rinsing the grains, set the colander and grains aside. You can compost cooled grains or feed them to livestock.

Add water to the wort in your brew pot so that you have 3-1/2 gallons of liquid in the pot. Stir in roughly half (or slightly less) of the malt extract, and heat the mixture to a boil.

After the boil starts, let it go for a couple of minutes, and then add the first dose of hops. Then, start the timer, and boil for 60 minutes. Add the remaining hops at the times indicated in your recipe. Don’t let the wort volume drop below 3 gallons. Top it off with boiling water if needed. Stir in the remaining malt extract during the last 10 minutes of the boil. You can take a separate pot and dissolve the malt extract in a small amount of wort first to make it easier to stir in.

When the boil is over, chill the wort to 68 degrees. You can chill the wort by placing the pot into a sink filled with cold water. Change the water a few times as it warms up, and then add ice to the sink water when the wort temperature drops below 90 degrees.

Next, transfer the chilled wort to your fermenter. To do this, use a racking cane and siphon the wort into your sanitized fermentation vessel. A fairly thick layer of debris, called “trub,” will be at the bottom of the kettle. Do your best to leave as much of this behind as possible. A small amount of trub in the fermenter is a good thing, as it will provide nutrients for the yeast.

Add enough water to make 5 gallons, and aerate thoroughly. Aeration will give the yeast oxygen. You can aerate the wort by sealing the fermenter and shaking it vigorously for a few minutes or by beating it with a sanitized whisk for the same amount of time. Homebrew shops also sell aeration devices that will let you pump filtered air, or even oxygen, into the wort.

After the wort is chilled and aerated, add the yeast, and ferment the beer at 68 degrees, or the temperature specified in your recipe. Seal the fermenter and affix the fermentation lock, filled with water, to the fermenter. This airlock will bubble as fermentation proceeds — vigorously for a couple of days, and then more slowly. For most normal-strength ales, fermentation will last 4 to 6 days. When the beer stops fermenting, let it sit for 2 to 3 days before bottling.

To bottle the beer, clean and sanitize your bottling bucket, tubing, and a large spoon. Also, clean and sanitize fifty-two 12-ounce brown beer bottles. Alternately, you can bottle in twenty-eight 22-ounce bottles.

Dissolve 5 ounces of corn sugar into water and heat to a boil. Use just enough water to dissolve the sugar. Cool briefly and add to the sanitized bottling bucket. Transfer the fermented beer into the bucket, and stir gently with a sanitized spoon. Try not to disturb the layer of yeast at the bottom of the fermenter. The corn sugar will restart the yeast and, after a few days, will add fizz to your bottled beer.

After you’ve transferred the beer, put the lid loosely on the bottling bucket, and begin transferring beer to the bottles. Leave a small amount of headspace in each bottle, comparable to what you see in commercial beers. Then, use the bottle capper to seal the bottle. Seal the bottles as you go, rather than filling them all before capping. The longer beer is exposed to air, the more likely it will go stale faster. So work as quickly as you can comfortably manage. You shouldn’t need to sanitize the bottle caps if they’re from a clean, unopened package.

After the beer is bottled and capped, let it sit for at least a week at room temperature. Chill one bottle overnight and open it. If it’s carbonated, then the rest of the beer can be chilled and consumed. Sometimes a newly chilled beer will initially be a bit cloudy. If you want the beer to be clear, let the bottles chill for at least three days before opening.

To serve bottle-conditioned homebrew, pour the beer into a chilled pint glass, leaving the yeast sediment behind. You’ll have to sacrifice a small amount of beer to do this.

I’ve been homebrewing for about 25 years, and the best advice I can give any homebrewer is to take cleaning and sanitation seriously. Cleaning up immediately after you brew will be fairly easy. But if you wait, it will get much more difficult. Second, always keep your yeast happy. Pitch an adequate amount of yeast, aerate the wort well, and keep the fermentation temperature within the yeast strain’s specified range. Third, avoid exposing fermented beer to air as much as you can. Make transfers quickly, and seal the vessels as quickly as possible.

Finally, practice makes perfect — and beer tends to run out quickly. You should start brewing your next batch of beer before the previous batch runs out. Happy brewing!

Cascading Pale Ale Recipe

This recipe produces an American pale ale that’s 5.1 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), with 44 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). Yield: 5 gallons.


• 2 pounds, 5 ounces American 2-row pale malt
• 7 ounces crystal malt 40L
• 4 ounces crystal malt 60L
• 4 pounds, 2 ounces light dried malt extract
• 1 ounce ‘Centennial’ hops at 10 percent alpha acids
• 1 teaspoon Irish moss
• 1/4 teaspoon yeast nutrients
• 2 ounces Cascade hops at 5 percent alpha acids, divided
• 1 ounce Cascade dry hops
• 11-gram package Fermentis US-05 dry ale yeast


1. In your brew pot, heat 1 gallon of water to 161 degrees Fahrenheit. Place first three ingredients (that is, the crushed grains) in steeping bag, and submerge in pot. Use a large spoon to break up any clumps of malt. The temperature should settle to about 150 degrees. Keep the mash at 150 degrees for 1 hour, and then slowly heat to 168 degrees, stirring constantly.

2. In a second pot, heat 2 quarts of water to 170 degrees for sparge water. After steeping the grains, remove them and place a large colander over your brew pot. Set grains in it, and rinse with the sparge water.

3. Add water to the wort in your brew pot to make about 3 gallons of wort. Stir in roughly 1/4 of the malt extract, and bring to a boil. Don’t let the wort’s volume drop below 3 gallons during boil. Add boiling water as needed to maintain 3 gallons.

4. After the boil starts and the first bits of “hot break” (particles in the wort) show, add the ‘Centennial’ hops, and boil for 1 hour. When 15 minutes are left on the timer, add Irish moss and yeast nutrients, and let boil.

5. With 10 minutes left on the timer, add 1 ounce of the Cascade hops and let boil. When the boil timer is done, add the remaining Cascade hops and Cascade dry hops. Stir in the remaining malt extract during the last 10 minutes. You can dissolve the malt extract into a small amount of wort first to make it easier to incorporate.

6. Chill the wort to 68 degrees, and transfer to the fermenter. Add filtered water to make 5 gallons, and aerate thoroughly. Pitch the yeast, and ferment the beer at 68 degrees.

7. After fermentation has finished, transfer the beer to the bottling bucket, add the corn sugar, and bottle your homebrew.

Chris Colby is an avid gardener living in Bastrop, Texas. His academic background is in biology but his main interest is brewing beer. His newest book, Methods of Modern Homebrewing: The Comprehensive Guide to Contemporary Craft Beer Brewing is out now

Inspiration for edible alchemy.