By DANIEL J. LEONARD
At one time, we were all beginners. The first batch of beer I made was a Coffee Stout using a Coopers Irish Stout liquid malt extract beer kit and some steeping grains I picked up from my LHBS (local homebrew store), not to mention a bit too much ground Starbucks coffee.
Prior to my first batch of homebrew, I’d sampled and taken notes on more than 300 beers, so I felt I had a pretty good handle on the different varieties of beer that were out there. I’d even joined my local homebrew club before buying a single piece of brewing equipment. Today, I’ve tasted thousands of different brews, and have many a homebrew batch under my belt, but there’s still a lot to know.
Before I crafted my first brew, I wanted to think everything through. I wanted to have the perfect equipment setup so that I could brew the perfect beer right out of the gate and every time after that. I researched and researched, and, as many newbies probably do, worried too much, even though I think a lot of that worry-driven energy paid off to this day.
As a beginner, I’d heard stories of the boogie men of beer: infected batches, bottle bombs, boil overs, stuck mashes, stuck fermentations, fermenter volcanoes, buttery beer, chunky beer, skunky beer, monkey beer (it's where beer-AIDS comes from), and everything in between.
To some degree or another, I’ve come face-to-face with those boogie men even though I knew, at least in theory, how to avoid them. I guess there can be such a thing as too much RDWHAHB (Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew); the phrase other homebrewers tell each other when we start to worry too much about our beer. The take-away? Planning and awareness is key, but to paraphrase the late philosopher David Hume, if we had to act on certainty, we’d never act at all.
Follow a few basic steps which we’ll cover here, and you’ll be amazed at how well you can brew the first time.
Where to begin... Well, there a few decisions you need to make when planning your first brew, primarily what type of beer you want to make and what type of equipment you already have, need to buy or maybe build yourself.
When selecting the style of beer you want to brew, I’d first think about what you like. Are there any beers you've had in that past that you might like to emulate or tweak a bit to your particular taste? Is there a beer you’ve thought up that isn’t on the market but should be? Or maybe you just want to master certain classic styles of beer, like Strong Scotch Ale or Dry Irish Stout, to get the basics down first before you attempt to improve upon them.
Once you’ve got your potential beers narrowed down to two or three choices, figure out which of those brews would be within your ability to brew well. For my first batch, I personally wouldn’t jump right in to trying to brew something more advanced like a light lager or sour ale, and I probably wouldn’t start trying to build a recipe from scratch just yet. If you’re not 100% sure about the difficulty level associated with brewing each style of beer, check out our beer style section under brewing difficulty to get an idea.
From there, I’d most likely recommend just grabbing an extract kit from your LHBS that sounds appealing to you. Extract kits can be a great introduction to homebrewing because they can take a lot of the potential mistakes off the table that you might make as a beginner, though in some cases, you might want to supplement the kit's brewing instructions and take a few pointers from us.
Of course, education definitely plays a vital role in becoming a great homebrewer and we encourage you to learn as much as you can from us and other brewers throughout your brewing career. Pick up a book on homebrewing, there are plenty out there, but when you’re just starting out, we highly recommend How to Brew by John Palmer. You can even read it for free, yes free, at: http://www.howtobrew.com/intro.html (aren't homebrewers nice?)
Chances are you’re probably going to end up brewing some sort of ale because lagers would require you to, well, lager, i.e. ferment your brew at controlled, near freezing, temperatures, which might be more of an investment in equipment than you’re willing to make at this stage of the game. Speaking of equipment...
So many gadgets, so little time, money or both. Every homebrewer who’s been around the block has had a dream of the ideal home brewery setup. From conical fermentors to a shiny, fully automated RIMS setup, there’s a world full of wish list equipment out there, but you’re just getting started, so let’s cover the basics.
Below is just the bare bones equipment you will absolutely need. Sure, Bear Grylls could probably get away with less, but then again Bear Grylls drinks his own pee, which is just the type of beer you're trying to avoid. With that, the following is a list of equipment that will get you through your first 5 gallon batch, and hopefully leave you satisfied enough to stay the homebrewing course. By the way, your LHBS probably has a beginner homebrewer setup, so if you want to just go with that, you’ll most likely be fine.
1. Fermentor Bucket. Your LHBS will most likely carry the seemingly ubiquitous Ale Pail, which is the standard food-grade plastic bucket designed for brewing 5 gallon batches. The bucket itself could probably hold closer to 7 gallons, but I wouldn’t recommend filling it with more than 6 gallons of fermenting beer unless you’re shooting for a fermentor volcano (think 3rd grade science experiment).
2. Stock pot that can hold at least three gallons of water. Many stock pots can hold between 6-12 quarts. Four quarts in a gallon means you’re looking at a 12 quart stock pot to be safe. Copper or stainless steel are ideal, but if you have an aluminum 12 quart stock pot laying around, use it. I’ll be honest, I started brewing out of a 15.5 gallon stainless steel keg, but unless you’re really planning on jumping into this head first, start with the stock pot. Can aluminum leave your beer with a metallic taste? Not likely, but to be safe, with new pots you can build up a passive oxcide layer on the aluminum by boiling a full pot of water for 30 minutes or heating the pot in the over for 15 minutes at 375°F. If you had a choice between stainless steel and aluminum, should you go with stainless steel? All day long. While aluminun is far cheaper, lighter, and a better conductor of heat which means faster boil and cooling times, unlike aluminum, stainless steel can be cleaned using the very common oxygen-based sanitizers like One-Step which makes it the metal of choice with brew houses and home brewers alike. Did I mention stainless steel is simply cooler than aluminum? It is. No one has aluminum envy.
3. Bottles, at least fifty 12 oz bottles. Could you get away with just 48 bottles? Maybe, but what’s an extra couple bottles just in case? Word to the frugal: start saving your empties, and make life easy on yourself by remembering to wash out the bottle has soon as you’re done with it; that way you can worry less about the bacteria and fungus that would otherwise be growing at the bottom of your unwashed bottles. Moreover, I almost always pour my beer into a glass, which I’d recommend here to avoid getting any deadly mouth-germs on your bottle. I prefer plain brown bottles with no embossments on the glass and no twist-top mouths, though you should be fine with those types of bottles either way. I’ve never personally used a twist-top bottle because of the potential lack of a good seal, but if it’s all you have, you should be ok. Brown bottles offer better protection from light for your beer over green and clear bottles.
4. Bottling bucket. Ok, I really thought about how I could leave this item off your bare-bones list, but a bottling bucket is such a low-cost way to improve your beer from the beginning, I just don’t see the point in skimping here. The bottling bucket helps to keep your final bottled beer looking clean by allowing you to transfer your finished beer off of the muddy, yeasty sediment at the bottom of your fermenting bucket. The bottling bucket itself acts as a clarifier again when bottling your beer as sediment will fall to the bottom of the bottling bucket. Not to mention, the bottling bucket provides an ideal vessel to evenly mix your priming sugar prior to bottling which helps ensure that all of your bottles are more evenly carbonated, and of course the bottling bucket allows for easy and more controlled bottling.
5. Auto-siphon. This tool enables you to siphon beer from the top of your fermentor, leaving the muddy, yeasty sediment at the bottom of the bucket instead of transferring it into your bottles.
6. Tubing (usually the standard 5/16 inch ID): You’ll probably want two 3 foot pieces of tubing, one for your racking cane, and one for your bottling wand. Can you get away with one piece? Sure, but you’ll want to eventually replace the tubing, so splurge and spend the extra couple bucks.
7. Bottling wand/ bottle filler: Usually spring loaded, this is a great tool to have to reduce splashing when bottling and achieve consistent bottle fills every time.
8. Racking Cane: Used together with your auto-siphon.
9. Bottling brush: Used to clean your empty beer bottles.
10. Bottle caps. I buy the oxygen barrier caps which help prevent your beer from becoming oxidized (think cardboard flavors), and can improve the beers shelf-life.
11. Bottle capper: I haven’t met a homebrewer yet who bottles and doesn’t have the Red Barron winged capper. Sure, you can cap with a floor corker or other multi-functional tool, but this is the easy-to-use, cost-effective standard.
12. Hydrometer: Used to calculate the amount of alcohol your beer contains. Admittedly, I was thinking of making this optional, and you can brew without one, I know many a homebrewer who do, but the hydrometer can come in particularly handy if you run into a stuck fermentation, which is probably unlikely, but can happen especially if you let your beer get too cold during fermentation. The other reason to have one, other than knowing how much alcohol your beer contains, is to dial in the accuracy of your recipe. If you are shooting for a starting gravity of 1.050, and you come up with 1.070 or 1.030, that’s a clear sign you’re off the mark and you can make adjustments up front without being surprised come bottling time.
13. Wine thief: A tool used to make hydrometer readings and tasting samples. And yes, if you're using a wine thief to take hydrometer readings, then you'll definitely need a hydrometer.
14. Sanitizer. I like to use One-Step, or whatever my LHBS's equivalent is.
15. Brewing spoon. Used in extract brewing to stir wort and to evenly distribute priming sugar solution with your beer in your bottling bucket.
Keep in mind, the more you upgrade your equipment, the better your beer could be, but the best equipment in the world can’t help you if you don’t master a few brewing basics. As a beginner, there are three words you need to burn into your brain: sanitation, sanitation, sanitation. Cleaning and sanitizing your equipment will become second nature to you as you progress, so get started early with the right practices. I’m somewhat of a germaphobe as it is, so moderately obsessive cleaning and sanitation came naturally to me. I prefer One Step no-rinse sanitizer (precarbonate) over bleach or detergents as it’s more versatile and more people-friendly. I keep a plastic Ale Pail with one gallon of hot sanitizer solution (1 tablespoon of One-Step dissolved into 1 gallon of water) on brew day and bottling day so that any equipment I use can be easily sanitized and kept in one place, but we’ll discuss more about proper sanitization in the Brew Day and How to Bottle Beer articles.
Now that you’ve got a road map for what to brew and what equipment you’ll need, you’re almost ready for Brew Day; well, you’re ready to read about it anyways. After you’ve got a handle on Brew Day, take it home with our article on bottling, aptly entitled 'How to Bottle Beer'.
And if you really want to know what I wish I would have known before my first brewing my first beer, check out the Top 40 Ways to Improve Your Homebrew.
Well, what are you waiting for?
Oh, and in case you're wondering, that first batch of Coffee Stout I made turned out just fine. In fact, I still have one bottle left I've been aging for a while now.
Like my tutorial? Questions, comments, free beer? Feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/beersyndicate.
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