How to make beer?

Buying beer from a shop or a pub is fine, especially if you know what you like. However, if you decide to make your own, you can tailor every brew you make to be exactly what you like: strength, colour, flavour, bitterness. You can experiment and try new things, adding things that you wouldn't expect in a 'traditional' beer such as fruits, spices, etc. You'll also quickly realise that when you brew your own, you will see how easy it is to make something that isn't just drinkable, but can easily compete and improve on beers that you can buy.

If that isn't enough, you'll also be able to make beers that come in somewhere between £0.20 and £0.65 per pint!

The two main methods of making your own beer at home are:

  • Extract kits
  • Whole grain

I'd highly recommend going in to a local home brew shop and chatting with the staff. They'll give you advice and can also sell you a starter kit which has everything you need to brew your first beer including the beer ingredients and the basic equipment.

Most microbreweries offer tours and are happy to chat with budding brewers. They are definitely worth a visit! Whilst they brew on a much bigger scale, every beer they make will have first been made on a small scale as described below.

Of course, we welcome visitors and are always happy to chat with you about beer. You can also sign up to one of our Brew days if you want to come and brew with us.

Extract Kits

For the beginner, I'd definitely recommend having a go with extract kits to start with. They are cheap and incredibly quick and easy to make. Expect to pay between £12 and £25 for a beer extract kit that makes about 40 pints (£0.30 - £0.63 per pint). You obviously get what you pay for here and the £12 kits, whilst being perfectly drinkable, may not encourage you to try again. If I was to recommend a good beer extract kit, I'd go for the Festival Beer kits (available online from the Brewstore in Edinburgh). The downside is you can't easily tweak the recipes - you get the style you buy, but it lets you see the basics.

Equipment needed:

  • Fermenting bin with bubbler (£10)
  • Bottles, bottle caps and capper or a pressure barrel (caps are about £2 for 50, a capper is about £8 or a pressure barrel at £25)
  • Thermometer (£1)
  • Large paddle/spoon for stirring (£2)

The process for these kits is simple, you empty the malt extract (thick syrupy liquid) into a fermenting bin, add some boiling water to dissolve it up, add about 1kg of sugar (depending on the included recipe), top up to the 5 gallon mark and when the temperature is about 20'C, add the yeast from the sachet. Seal it up with the bubbler and leave if for about 10 days. After this process, you can bottle the beer or put it in a pressure barrel with some priming sugar to give it a bit of life/fizz.

To make the beer, it takes about 20 minutes, then leave it alone for about 10 days. Once it is in the bottles, it'll take another couple of weeks to finish off.

Whole Grain

This process is more involved, but is definitely worth the time and effort as you can really play around with your own recipes. I use the website http://www.brewtoad.com to view other people's recipes and create my own. You can look for clones of your favourite beers, or come up with your own. It has a great feature that predicts what your final beer will be like in terms of colour, alcohol content, bitterness, etc. It's surprisingly accurate!

Many brewers are happy to share their recipes to encourage others. BrewDog make all of their recipes available in their DIY Dog download and is definitely worth a read. It also has some further tips and guides for new brewers.

Here's the process I used to use at home before starting as a microbrewer. Many home brewers do things slightly differently depending on their space, budget and equipment available.

Equipment needed:

  • Large water boiler (e.g. tea urn) - 23 litre capacity is a good size (about £85, but will last a long time if you look after it!)
  • Kitchen basin to fit the top of the boiler with holes drilled in it (£2-3, plus access to a drill)
  • Optional grain bag (£2)
  • Fermenting bin with bubbler (£10)
  • Bottles, bottle caps and capper or a pressure barrel (caps are about £2 for 50, a capper is about £8 or a pressure barrel at £25)
  • Thermometer (£1)
  • Large paddle/spoon for stirring (£2)
  • Optional chiller (about £80 to buy, but about £25 to make using copper pipe and tubing).

If you can find a friend that wants to try home brewing, try to share the cost of the equipment between you. You'll only need it for 1 day to make 5 gallons of beer.

Ingredients needed (from a homebrew shop):

  • Grain (approx £11 for 40 pints worth depending on the beer - this can also be much cheaper if you buy in bulk, but you need to make sure you use it while it is fresh!).
  • Hops (approx £4 per pack - you'll probably want a few packs of different hops depending on the type of beer, but what you don't use can be kept in the freezer). Recipes use between 20g (session beers) and 80g of hops (IPAs).
  • Yeast (£4 - if you are careful, you can keep your own yeast culture going and use it for years to come).
  • Sterilising powder (sodium metabisulphite - £5 for about 1kg - will last for ages).
  • Other things you want to add to your beer (e.g. Irish moss, spices, fruit, sugars, etc.).

One major point to note in home brew is to make sure you keep everything clean and sterile. You are going to make beer wort, which is a sugary liquid that microorganisms, like yeast, love. However, other microorganisms, such as bacteria also like this, as do fruit flies - these can ruin a perfectly good beer if they get a chance. Always clean and sterilise your equipment at every stage using some sodium metabisulphite in a measuring jug of warm water. Thoroughly rinse everything that will come in contact with your beer. You can gently rinse off the steriliser with fresh water.

The mash

This is when you extract the sugars from your grain.

4 grain bags for 4 different beers (5 gallons each). Each bag is about 5kg of grain.

Firstly I add about 14 litres of tap water to my boiler and bring the temperature up to 70'C. Some brewers add salts and minerals to their water to slightly change the beer character

I then add a reusable muslin grain bag (to make the next steps easier) and pour in my grain. This drops the temperature to about 65'C. Every recipe is slightly different, but you'll be keeping it at this temperature for about 1 hour - 1 hour 30 mins to fully extract all of the sugars.

The mash stage (lid is off just for photo)
Sparging (rinsing) the grain back into the boiler. Notice the plastic basin holding the grain bag out of the liquid below allowing it to drain into the boiler.

Sparging

This is the process of rinsing your grain to fully recover all of those sugars.

If you used a grain bag, carefully lift it out of the wort (beer liquid) and let it drain for a minute or so. Lift it up completely (letting it continue to drain into the boiler). Add your basin to the top of the boiler (which has straining holes in it), then put the bag into the basin.

Repeatedly pour hot water from a kettle (at your mash temperature) to rinse the grain. You can taste the grain after each rinsing and once there is no sweetness left (I find it takes me about 8 litres of sparging water to get to this stage), you are done. The grain can then be composted as it has done it's job.

The boil

This is where you fully invert your sugars (making them fermentable). You add your hops and other flavour ingredients at this stage. Many recipes add hops in two stages.

  1. At the start (for the full boil). This extracts the hop bitterness into your beer.
  2. Midway, or the last 15-20 mins. This helps extract some of the extra hop flavours and avoids boiling them all off
The wort recovered after sparging. The grain bag is cleaned and added back. Usually about 18 litres volume at this point for me.
The hops are added to the wort and the mixture boiled.

Boiling the wort again varies by recipe, but is often between 1 hour and 1 hour 30 mins.

Chilling the wort

This stage can take a long time and you are in danger of bacteria contaminating your wort. The quicker this can be done, the better. Some home brewers transfer the wort into a fermenting bin and sit in a bath of cold water. I chose to make my own chiller (a length of copper pipe with rubber tubing to attach to a tap/hose fitting). The wort chiller cools the wort from 100'C down to 20'C in about 10 minutes. Leaving it to cool naturally will take about 10 hours! You can buy wort chillers, but it is much cheaper making your own.

Removing the hops in the grain bag (strained into the fermenting bin) while the wort is chilled.
Beer fermenting in a cupboard.

Fermenting the beer

This is the simplest bit as the yeast does all of the work! Once the wort is about room temperature (between 18'C and 25'C), pitch/add your yeast. Put the lid on the fermenter and add the bubbler with some sterilising solution in it. Place the fermenter in a reasonably warm cupboard for a couple of weeks. Most beers take between 10 and 14 days to finish fermenting to about 5%, but keep checking on them.

Within a day, you should hear the beer bubbling away. If you overfill your fermenting bin, it may ooze through the bubbler - keep an eye on this an clean up as required. Try to minimise letting air into your fermenting bin though.

Some recipes encourage dry hopping, which involves adding additional hops during this step. I'd recommend waiting until the fermentation has slowed from its initial flurry (usually after 3-4 days) and then add the additional hops in a small hop bag (makes it easier to remove at the end). This is common for IPAs.

Racking off the beer

Once the fermentation has finished (no more bubbling and the beer has cleared considerably), you should siphon the beer off the yeast and silt at the bottom of the fermenting bin (this is called the trub). This should be racked into a second fermenting bin, but if you only have one, rack it off into your water boiler, clean the fermenting bin and return it there. At this stage you can bottle your beer or transfer into a pressure barrel. However, I prefer to clarify my beer a little by adding a small sachet of gelatin (from a home baking aisle - enough to set 1 pint of water) dissolve in nearly boiling water. Stir this into the beer and leave the fermenting bin on a worktop where you will bottle from for a few days - try not to disturb it). This will drag any small protein molecules and other fine bits of trub down to the bottom of the fermenting bin and hold it there. It makes your beer far clearer and reduces the likelihood of it 'erupting' when you open a bottle.

Culturing your yeast

If you want to keep yeast for a future brew, collect about 200ml of the trub liquid from the bottom of the fermenter after racking off the beer and put it in a clean/sterile 500ml water bottle with a pop-lid. Add a spoonful of sugar and about 100ml of warm (30'C water), squeeze out all of the air and close the lid. It should start bubbling in the bottle within a few minutes. It will produce carbon dioxide (which prevents air getting in) and will fill the bottle. Release the pressure by popping the lid and squeezing out the gases. Repeat this process over the next day or so, not letting air in, but letting out the extra carbon dioxide.

Once the pressure stops building, label the bottle and date it. You can put it in a fridge and store it for up to 6 months. When you are ready to use this yeast again, bring it out of the fridge and allow it to reach room temperature. Add another spoonful of sugar to bring the yeast back to life and add to your next batch of beer.

You can repeat this as often as you like and will develop a yeast culture that suits the style of beer you are making. If it smells off, or your beer goes off, it might mean you've contaminated your yeast culture and you'd be best to buy some fresh yeast.

Bottling or pressure barrel?

The option is yours. The pressure barrel is quicker, but I find always causes problems (losing pressure, leaks/cracks, unable to fit in the fridge! etc.), so I would encourage bottling. It takes longer and adds a little more cost, but it does mean you can give some beer away and chill it as required in the fridge. It also allows you to better monitor how much you drink. A pressure barrel in a prominent position is too tempting!

Eventually you may want to invest in a hand pump and beer barrel (pin or firkin), but these are expensive and require the beer to be drunk quickly.

If you bottle your beer, I'd encourage you to start collecting empty beer bottles. Speak nicely to friends and local pubs - you'll get a stack very quickly at no cost. Caps and a capper can be bought on the internet cheaply. You'll need about 36-46 bottles for a 5 gallon batch of beer (since you will likely lose some of the volume during racking off the trub). You can also bottle into plastic juice bottles (500ml - 2.5l). Make sure whatever bottle you use, it is designed to hold pressurised liquids, otherwise it will explode and spray beer everywhere!

For each bottle (after sterilising them), add about 1/2 tsp of sugar (table sugar is fine), siphon in your beer into the bottle (a fermenting bin with a tap makes this easier) and cap it. Leave about 3 cm of expansion space above the beer. Give it a good shake to dissolve the sugar and place it in a dark, cool (but not cold) cupboard until you are ready to drink it. A small label with the type of beer and date it was bottled is a good idea here.

The sugar added at this stage prepares the secondary fermentation, which small traces of yeast in your beer convert the sugar to carbon dioxide which under pressure dissolves in the beer. When you open it later, you will get the 'hiss' as the gas pressure is released and you are left with beer with bubbles. Unless you are making a lager, don't go for fizzy - you only want a bit of life. Beer carbonated in this way is described as 'bottle conditioned'. This means that you will have a small layer of sediment at the bottom of the bottle, so you shouldn't drink from the bottle, but should transfer to a glass. Try not to disturb this yeast sediment as you pour the beer. It won't really change the taste of the beer and won't harm you, but it will make your beer look cloudier. Some people prefer to swirl all of this into the glass for drinking, but that's a personal choice.

A general rule is that the darker or more alcoholic the beer, the longer you should leave it before drinking. This is for the same reason as wines taste better with age - you allow chemical reactions time to form more complex flavour molecules. It will be perfectly good after 2 weeks, but 4-10 weeks is better if you can wait! I often find a dark beer in the back of my cupboard that I thought I'd already drunk 6-10 months earlier - they often taste incredible, but I don't like waiting too long to enjoy my beer. It's your beer, you made it, so you decide when to drink it. You can optionally, share it with friends!

Enjoy your beer!

An IPA with a nice creamy white head - one of my favourites!


The legal side

Home brewing, is for home drinking. Whatever you brew at home should be drunk at home. You technically shouldn't even give bottles away to other households, but rather invite people round to your home to enjoy the fruits of your labour, which is absolutely fine.

Selling your beer without the proper legal permissions is a definite no-no! If you want to sell your beer, you'll need to register as an official (micro) brewer, submit an application to the appropriate government agency and adhere to their policies on charging, taxation and storage - there is a cost involved in this and this will be based on the quantity of beer you produce. Most home brewers simply enjoy drinking their beer!

Use our online calculator to calculate the %ABV (uses HMRC method)