What do I need to start brewing my own beer?

Brewers who are just starting out almost always use malt extracts, which are prepackaged cans of concentrated wort (a brewers' term for unfermented beer). When using these extracts, there are three main steps to brewing: Boiling, Fermenting, and Packaging. Each of these steps requires its own equipment:

Boiling Equipment:
Stainless Steel or Enamelware Kettle with at least 4 gallons capacity.

NOTE: If you have any inkling that you may be pushing your new hobby to the limits, you should consider getting a kettle with at least 7 1/2 gallons capacity. This size will be necessary if you switch over to advanced brewing, and if you have it from the start you won't be wasting money buying two kettles.

Fermenting Equipment:
At least one food-grade plastic or glass fermentor which can be sealed with a lid or stopper and fit with an "airlock". The airlock is a device which allows escape of Carbon Dioxide gas from the fermentor while sealing the fermentor from outside air, which could infect the beer with harmful microorganisms.

Packaging Equipment:
You'll need to package 5 Gallons of beer. The most common method is to use bottles. Pry-off bottles are preferable to twist-offs because they seal better and are composed of stronger glass. About fifty 12-ounce bottles are necessary for a five gallon batch. These can be purchased from your homebrew supplier, but you can also collect and re-use your own empties. The most important thing is that the bottles are clean and sanitized, so if you're saving them it's best to rinse them out just after emptying them. That way, cleaning won't be a problem, and sanitation will be easy.

To put the caps on these bottles, you'll need a capper. Decent cappers range from $12 for hand-held models to $30 for bench-mounting cappers. The only other thing you'll need will be enough crown caps for all your bottles.

The alternative to bottling is to use kegs. The cost of a good 5-gallon kegging system is prohibitive for a brewer just starting out, but there are some cheaper, smaller systems available. If you'd like to avoid bottling from the start, you should do some research on these systems. Ours are found on our bottling page.

The basic ingredients of beer are malt, hops, yeast, and water. Homebrew shops sell these ingredients (the first three, at least) in many different styles. Beginning brewers often opt for prepackaged "kits" of malt. These are cans of pre-hopped malt extract with a package of dried yeast under the lid. These kits are pre-designed for a particular style of beer, and they minimize the amount of effort the brewer must put forth. Although this does make brewing extremely easy, it keeps the brewer from having much input, or much fun! Also, the prepackaged cans cannot duplicate the flavor of fresh specialty grains and hops. Therefore, we recommend that even first-time brewers use a more advanced method. The addition of fresh specialty grains and hops is not complicated, but it will do wonders for your first beer's flavor.

How long does it take to make beer?

From start to finish, the brewing process takes only 4 weeks. To oversimplify a bit, it's two weeks to ferment and two weeks to naturally carbonate. However, although many of us don't have the patience, giving a little time to the beer can do wonders. The flavor of a brand new beer is a bit "green," and it needs some time for it's flavors to mellow and "marry." A 3 month old homebrew is better than a 1 month old homebrew in almost every case.

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How difficult is it to make homebrew?

The great thing about the modern homebrewing industry is that there are now lots of companies devoted to producing prepackaged kits with high quality, easy-to-use ingredients. With the production of malt extracts, these companies have taken over the hard part of homebrewing. If you can bake a good cake with a box of Betty Crocker, then you can brew a good beer using malt extracts. All of the ingredient kits we offer are available in the easy-to-use use malt extract form. We throw in fresh specialty grains and fresh hops to make sure the flavor is commercial-quality, but the process remains simple and surefire.

Once you develop your understanding of the process, you might decide to delve into "from scratch" brewing with the all-grain brewing method. But because all-grain brewing requires extra equipment, extra time, and extra know-how, most homebrewers never switch to advanced brewing. The quality and ease of the malt extracts available makes it optional instead of preferable.

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Is homebrewing legal?

Homebrewing has a long, colorful tradition in this country. Despite the effects of prohibition and the remaining myths about homemade "hooch," homebrewing has become a well-established, and (almost) universally accepted practice. By US federal law, 100 gallons of beer per individual or 200 gallons of beer per household may be produced per year. Technically, you'd only be breaking the law if you surpassed this mark--which is pretty difficult to pass by brewing 5 gallons batches at a time.

The legality of homebrewing is subject to the laws of individual states, however. And since brewing laws are generally created to set tax standards for commercial breweries, homebrewing is often forgotten about on paper. There are still a handful of states which have yet to pass formal statutes on the legality of homebrewing, but their number has been falling fast with the continuous pressure from the homebrewing community. Homebrew shops, homebrewing clubs, and homebrewers exist in every state in the country, and no one has been arrested or fined for homebrewing in at least 20 years.

If you're still curious about it, you can contact the American Homebrewers Association to find out about your own state's relevant laws:

Mark Snyder
AHA Legalization Administrator
PO Box 1679
Boulder, CO 80306-1679
(303) 447-0816, ext. 137
FAX (303) 447-2825

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The directions on this can of malt are totally different from those in my book. What's the deal?

We understand your dilemma. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to remedy this problem. But our advice is to ignore the directions on the can. Though this may seem like bad advice, it is perfectly logical. One part of the problem is that many, if not most, malt extracts, are produced in England, where a gallon is not a gallon. That is, a gallon on a can of British malt extract is not a gallon in your American carboy. The British use Imperial measurements, which are actually larger than our own. So all of the volume measurements on that British can are different from the ones we use here in the states.

Your can says to make three gallons from the can alone, which really equates to 3.6 US gallons, which obviously doesn't fill up your fermentor. Even when the measurements are the familiar ones, malt cans usually ask you to adjust your batch size to the amount of ingredients in the can. This makes sense, since the manufacturer wants to be selling you a self-sufficient product. But most homebrewers adjust their ingredients to the established batch size of 5 US gallons, and it's best to accept this general trend to brew five gallons. In doing so, you avoid many problems with equipment size, recipe formulation, and brewing instructions. This is especially true when you are just starting out.

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My beer fermented for 2 days and now the airlock has stopped bubbling. What have I done?

There are three factors involved here, and we'll deal with each one separately.

  • Trust your yeast. Reading all of those foreign instructions and brewing books when you were getting started may have made everything seem so technical and unforgiving that brewing seemed more challenging than it was fun. Not so. It's not as complicated as it sounds at first, and not as unforgiving. But yeast is a living, eating, multiplying organism, and it is not always going to act exactly as you expect it. There are many factors affecting the speed of your fermentation: the amount of oxygen in your wort, the number of yeast cells initially pitched, the amount and type of fermentable sugars in your wort, and the temperature of your fermentation, to name a few. Since each of these has a big impact on the way the yeast ferments, there can be large variations in the way your fermentation proceeds. Sometimes, we get the disconcerting thrill of exploding fermentor lids. Other times, barely enough activity to make it fun to watch the airlock.
  • With some experience, you'll learn the tricks of taking better control of your fermentation activity, and you may better control the length of your fermentation. But you'll never completely control it, and learning which problems are minor and which ones are major is a big part of becoming a good brewer. In this case, even if you're fermentation did stop prematurely, it's no big deal. A stuck ferment can be solved by doing one or more of the following: moving the fermentor to a warmer spot, stirring the wort, or adding yeast nutrient. If your yeast is dead, you can just add more yeast. No problem.

  • Question your airlock. Though it can give you a general idea of how things are going, it will never tell you exactly what you need to know. If the CO2 found a tiny hole to escape through instead of your airlock, and you bottled your still-fermenting beer, all the extra CO2 created in the bottle make for a big carbonated mess when you pop the cap. Conversely, if the CO2 coming through your airlock is not from current activity, but is just seeping out of solution from past fermentation, then you're waiting for something which may not end for weeks--even though your beer is ready for bottling. When these questions are raised, it is best to answer them with a hydrometer, possibly the most important instrument for monitoring fermentation. If you don't have one, buy one. If you have one, use it. With it, you can see if the wort is at it's expected terminal point. If not, you can use successive readings to see if the gravity is changing, in which case your fermentation is still occurring. When the readings have reached their expected level and have stabilized, you're ready for bottling.

  • Relax. We have enough experience helping beginning brewers to understand why brewing guru Charlie Papazian coined the mantra of homebrewing: "Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew." Don't assume that every unexpected development spells doom for your entire batch. It is always better to be overcautious about things like sanitation and such than it is to be lackadaisical. But most facets of homebrewing are much more forgiving than beginners are lead to believe.

My beer has been fermenting for 2 weeks and it is still bubbling. Will it ever end?

This is kind of the corollary to the question above, and much of the answer is related. If you haven't read the statements above about trusting your yeast and distrusting your airlock, you may want to give them a peek.

Using your hydrometer becomes very important at the end of your fermentation. True, you're beer could still be fermenting. But it might just be that CO2 is coming out of solution. After fermentation, there is a certain amount of CO2 that was created as a byproduct but did not escape from solution as gas and pass through your airlock. In fact, the fermentation process totally saturates your wort with CO2. Depending on changes in temperature and other variables, it may slowly escape from solution over a period of weeks. Just like you soda pop bubbles after you open it--without any fermentation occurring--so may your wort bubble slowly.

There is no way of knowing if this bubbling is fermentation or simple bubbling without using a hydrometer. Use it to see if the wort is at it's expected terminal point. If not, you can use successive readings to see if the gravity is changing, in which case your fermentation really is still occurring. If it has been fermenting for quite a while, try moving your fermenter to a warmer spot to speed it up. When the readings have reached their expected level and have stabilized, you're ready for bottling--even if you airlock is bubbling slowly.

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What's the difference between liquid and dry malt extract?

The only real difference between liquid and dry malt is how it is packaged. The dry malt has nearly every trace of water evaporated from it, so it ends up as a powder. Generally, liquid malt retains about 20% water by weight, so it is in syrup form. Though this does not greatly affect the malt extract itself, it does affect your brewing process. For one thing, you should consider dry malt to be more concentrated than liquid (since 20% of the liquid malt weight is just water). If you'd like to convert from one to the other, you should use .8 pounds dry malt for each pound of liquid, or 1.25 pounds of liquid for every pound of dry malt.

Much like the argument between brewers preferring a particular form of hops (leaf, pellet, or plug), there are arguments for and against each kind of extract. Some say that dry malts are less fermentable since they have to be reconstituted--thus, they leave a maltier flavor. Some say that dry malts are easier to store, since their dryness makes them less susceptible to spoilage. Our opinion here at the Cellar is that you should use whichever gives you the best results or makes your brewing easier. With years of brewing and tasting, we have found no significant difference between the two forms. But we do recommend experimenting with both.

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What's the difference between leaf hops and pellet hops?

Like the difference between the malt extract forms, the difference here is simply the means of packaging the product. However, the results of these two processes should be considered when you are deciding on which form to buy. We'll consider each aspect separately:

  • Ease of use: Most brewers consider the pellets easier to use, since they basically disintegrate into the wort during the boil. They do not need to be strained out after the boil, and they precipitate during fermentation, to be cleaned away with the rest of the sediment. In other words, there is really no work or extra equipment involved in using them.
  • The leaf form is usually placed in a nylon or mesh strainer bag during the boil, or strained out afterwords with a collander or strainer. This is not difficult, but it does require some sort of strainer or boiling bag.

  • Bitterness: When considering the difference between the bittering potential of the hop forms, we must consider both the amount of bitterness they have and the amount they give to the beer. Pellets generally give more of their bitterness (alpha acids), since they are already pulverized and simply disintegrate into the boiling wort. However, the leaf forms usually have slightly more bitterness, since none of the alpha acids are lost to the pelletizing process used for the other form. Then again, leaf hops lose more of their bitterness during periods of storage, since they have more surface area exposed to heat, oxygen, and light. So the matter is not clear cut.

    In the end, your best bet is to find out what the alpha acid levels of each form are, and compare them to the recipe's level if it gives one. Weigh these facts with your own preferences in deciding which form to use. Since both forms give excellent results, it will most likely boil down to deciding which form is easiest.

  • Flavor: Always remember that flavor is not just what your tongue is telling you about your food. All your tongue can say is "sweet," "salt," "sour," or "bitter." Flavor gets the rest of it's vocabulary from your nose. And the aroma of hops is a major, major factor in the way we perceive a beer's flavor.

    Purists will say that the aroma hops ("finishing" hops, used at the end of the boil or after it) must be leaf hops. The delicate oils found on the hop flower are responsible for the hop's wonderful aroma, they say, and the hops should arrive at the brewhouse with as little processing as possible. Why would you want to pelletize something that's too sensitive to be boiled for more than a short time? Well, we understand their point. And some of us believe it enough to choose only leaf hops even for boiling.

    But, again, it is important to understand that you can achieve excellent flavor from either hop form, and that you're allegiance to one form or the other will develop only with experience, if it does at all.

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