So You Like Beer . . .

I wrote this article for a Keane employee newsletter in 1994

"How hard is it to make beer?" is a question I'm sometimes asked (usually after someone finds out I'm a home-brewer). My normal response is another question: "How hard is it to boil water?"

To be honest, making beer is a bit more difficult and complicated than boiling water, but not much. The increase in home brewing in the past 15 years was facilitated by the introduction of a number of products which eliminate the need for special equipment and facilities. Instead of having to roast our own barley and boil it for hours at a variety of specific temperatures, we can cheat and buy syrups and/or powders of malt extract. (I've tasted a lot of both types of beers - I couldn't tell by tasting which was made from syrup and which was made from scratch.) Also, a wide variety of hops from all over the world are available in a number of easy-to-use forms.

Below are listed the equipment, ingredients, and a recipe for making a basic batch of beer using my favorite method. Please note that there are about as many methods for making beer as there are recipes for beer; below is the method I developed in 10 years of home brewing. There are a LOT of things that are not explained in detail (that would require a 300+ page book), but below are the basic facts.

First, the equipment. I lied up above; some special equipment is needed:

Now the ingredients needed to make one batch of beer (48 to 54 bottles):

Follow the directions on the package of B-brite and make up a sterilizing solution. Wash everything with this solution. Hygiene is the most important thing in home brewing! Rinse everything well -- B-brite is a cleaning chemical and is not edible!

Now we actually make the beer: Start by boiling 1 gallon water in the 5 gallon pot. While the water is coming to a boil put 4-1/2 gallons water into the primary fermenter and open the cans of malt extract. It will look a lot like molasses.

When the water boils add the malt extract. Bring it back to a boil, stirring to dissolve and making sure the extract doesn't settle to the bottom of the pan and burn. Keep a glass of cold water handy. For some reason that no one has ever successfully explained, when the mixture (now called wort) comes to a boil it feels this compulsion to boil over. When you see it going over the top, pour in about half of the glass of cold water. That should prevent the boil over, but keep the water handy. Sometimes the wort is stubborn and will try to boil over again.

Once you're sure the threat of boil-over is past, reduce the heat so that the wort is at a slow simmer. Let it simmer for 15 minutes, then add 1/3 the hops. Simmer the wort an additional 30 minutes and add another 1/3 of the hops. Simmer 15 minutes longer and add the final 1/3 of the hops. Remove from the heat and pour the wort, piping hot, into the water filled primary fermenter. Stir well to ensure that it is mixed.

Now we use the hydrometer. A hydrometer is a sealed glass tube with a weight in one end and markings on the side, used to determine the amount of sugar in the wort, based upon the specific gravity of the solution. Sugar is very important, since the yeast (which we haven't added yet) eats the sugar, giving off alcohol and CO2. Too little sugar and the beer is thin and tasteless (and has no shelf life); too much and you get white lightning.

Drop the hydrometer in the wort and wait for it to stabilize. The marking on the side of the hydrometer at water level is the specific gravity of the wort (good directions come with the hydrometer). The figure should be between 1.030 and 1.050 for normal beers. Record the reading, it will be important later. Sprinkle on the yeast, put the top on the fermenter, stick the air lock in the top, and put the fermenter someplace warm (65F to 75F). If possible, put it someplace at least 3 feet off the floor, preferably in an accessable place.

Now we wait. Within a day or two the fermentation will begin. The CO2 given off by the yeast will bubble off through the airlock (which prevents oxygen and airborne yeasts and bacteria from getting in). After 4 - 7 days the fermentation should slow down. Instead of 2 or 3 bubbles going through the airlock per second, the rate will slow to 1 every 5 - 10 seconds.

Take the top off the primary fermenter and place the secondary fermenter on the floor next to it. Rinse the secondary fermenter with the sterilizing solution (previously prepared). Now siphon the beer from the primary fermenter into the secondary fermenter, being careful to avoid disturbing the sediment in the bottom of the primary. Fill the secondary fermenter within two inches of where the bottom of the rubber will be. Continue siphoning additional beer into one of the glass gallon jugs, and into the second if the first is filled. Throw out the remaining sediment in the primary fermenter and put the secondary fermenter(s) in the place where the primary was stored.

Now we wait another week or so. Fermentation will continue at the slower rate, slowly dropping off to nothing. I normally let the secondary fermentation go 1 - 2 weeks.

Rinse the now empty primary fermenter with the sterilizing solution, along with three cases of clean, empty, pop-top beer bottles. Then siphon the beer from the secondary fermenter(s) into the primary. Now check the specific gravity again. The new gravity should be less than or equal to 1.010 (some beers with additional ingredients may have a higher gravity, but a basic recipe shouldn't). If the gravity is much higher than this, the fermentation isn't done! Add more yeast and put it back in the fermenters for another week and then check again.

We have beer and bottles to put it in, but it's flat ! ! ! No Fizz ! ! !

Remember the previously mentioned fact about yeast eating sugar and giving off CO2? During the fermentation the CO2 bubbled off and was lost. To carbonate the beer we induce another fermentation, then seal it in bottles so that the CO2 has no place to go and gets dissolved into the beer. Instant (well, almost) carbonation! So how do we start another fermentation?

Make a sugar syrup by boiling 1 part water and stirring in 2 parts sugar, then cooling to room temperature. The recommended amounts of sugar for carbonating purposes is between 1/2 and 1-1/4 cups syrup for a 5 gallon batch of beer. My recipe produces 6 to 6-1/2 gallons beer, so we adjust the amount accordingly. I normally prefer a lower level of carbonation, especially in memory of one over-carbonated batch in which every bottle exploded beer all over each time a cap was popped, no matter how cold I chilled them. So I use 2/3 cup syrup (1/3 cup water and 2/3 cup sugar).

Stir the sugar syrup into the wort, making sure that it mixes evenly. This is critical. If the sugar level is too high in the bottle, too much CO2 will be produced and you have a grenade! The danger of this isn't too great (I've never met anyone who has blown up a bottle), but it's easier to be safe than sorry.

Using the racking tube, siphon the beer into the beer bottles within 1 to 1-1/2 inches of the top. Take the time to stir the wort after every dozen bottle to ensure an even distribution of the carbonating sugar in the beer. Then cap the beer and store in someplace warm for two weeks.

After the initial two weeks, which is when the final fermentation takes place and the beer is carbonated, put the beer in a cooler, but not cold, spot. This is the tough part - the beer needs to age for another month, preferably two or three. Not that you can't sample a bottle or two. It's interesting to see how the beer changes weekly over the next few months. The improvement is incredible. WARNING: Do not drink the beer directly from the bottle! Some sediment will settle to the bottom of the bottle. Decant the beer into a pitcher or glass.

I'm told that the shelf life of home brew is measured in years, but I don't believe it. I don't normally let it go longer than a year, usually quite a lot less! Not that I haven't aged beers longer than a year. I did and thought that they started to deteriorate after that time. Three to nine months is a good life span for a beer (your first batch will be lucky if any bottles survive two).

If anyone is interested in more information on home brewing, I recommend "The Complete Joy of Home Brewing" by Charlie Papazian. Most home brewers consider this the bible for beer making. Locally, the American Brewmaster on Stonybrook Drive in Raleigh sells supplies, and Alternative Beverage Co. in Charlotte does mail order.

Bryan Fazekas,
former co-owner of The Winery, a beer and wine making supply shop in Rome, NY.

Copyright 1994-2008 Bryan Fazekas