Beginners Getting Started Guide

by Rob Gardner
I hope that the following guide can help some beginners with their first batches. I obviously can't cover every little detail of homebrewing here, but I have tried to give an easily followed outline of the process, along with most of the common pitfalls faced by beginners. I would welcome any comments or criticism on this section, as it will probably appear again, in hopefully better form.

  1. The first thing I recommend to the new brewer is to find a source of brewing supplies. It may be a local brew shop or a mail order store. Check out books on homebrew either at a library or bookstore. The book I recommend getting is Charlie Papazian's "Complete Joy of Homebrewing." This is easily one of the best homebrewing books around, and it is very useful for both beginners and experienced brewers. There are lots of other good books around, so don't worry if you can't find this one. One caveat: stay away from books published in the UK, as these can be confusing and/or misleading for the beginner. They specify ingredients that aren't found in the US, and generally give poor advice, like adding lots of sugar.
  2. The next thing to do is buy a kit. Most brew stores sell kits that contain everything you need to make your first batch, except for bottles. They'll cost anywhere from $35-$60 depending on how fancy they are. I'd recommend getting a kit that includes a 5 gallon glass carboy as well as a plastic pail. Other useful items that the kit might not include are thermometer and hydrometer. The kit should include: 10 gallon plastic pail, siphon equipment, bottle filler, bottle brush, bottle caps, bottle capper, fermentation lock, chlorine cleaner, and perhaps ingredients. If the kit includes a carboy, it should also include a short length of plastic hose for the "blow-by," and a funnel. There might be some other odd items, such as a stirring spoon. The major difference between one kit and another will be the presence of a glass carboy, so in this article I will indicate when a difference in technique is called for. If the kit does not include ingredients, there are usually several kinds of malt extract to choose from. Try to pick something not too heavy for the first time; a light or amber ale is a very good choice. Also try to get a hopped malt extract the first time to keep it simple. If none is available, then get 2 ounces of fresh hops if available. Failing that, get 2 ounces of hop pellets.
  3. Relax, don't worry, and have a homebrew. Now you are about ready to start brewing. If possible, it is extraordinarily helpful at this point to find somebody who's done it before, and have them help you. Doing this will greatly improve your chances of success the first time, but don't worry if you can't swing it, your chances are still pretty good. Remember to tell yourself, "Relax, don't worry, and have a homebrew." The first time, ordinary beer will have to do, but do try to drink homebrew whenever you brew - it will help you to not worry. (Worrying can ruin the taste of your homebrew.)
  4. To begin, you'll need a large pot to boil the malt extract in. The pot should be large enough to hold at least 2 gallons of water - the bigger the better. Fill the pot up about half way (whatever that happens to be) with water and boil it. The idea is to boil as much water as possible, but to have room in the pot for foam that will be produced by boiling. While the water is heating up, remove the label from the can(s) of malt extract, and put the can(s) in some hot water to soften the extract. When the water boils, put in the extract and let it boil again, stirring frequently so the extract doesn't burn. When it comes to a second boil, watch out - it has a strong tendency to foam up and make a legendary mess on your stove. When the foam rises, remove the pot from the fire and let it settle down a minute. When you put it back, it will have (slightly) less tendency to boil over, but it needs watching.
  5. If you have hops or hop pellets, add them now, and boil the wort (wort == unfermented beer) for at least a half hour (an hour is better.) If you're not using hops, but instead, hopped malt extract, then it is not necessary to boil very long - 15 minutes is sufficient.
  6. While the wort is boiling, you should sanitize everything that will come in contact with the beer. This includes the fermentation container, fermentation lock if any, utensils, everything. Sanitizing is done by soaking in a solution of water and the sanitizing chemical that came with your kit. A few teaspoons of household bleach in a gallon of water is quite effective also. I generally fill a large bowl with bleach solution and throw in everything to be sanitized. After sanitizing, rinse well with clean water at least 3 times. Notice I keep saying "sanitize" and not "sterilize." Well, it would be nice if you could sterilize, but you can't. Sterilization is very difficult, i.e., boiling under pressure for an hour, so sanitizing is the best we can do. Needless to say, be careful not to breath the fumes or get any sanitizing solution in your eyes. Sanitizing might sound like a pain, but that's only because it is. However, it's absolutely the most important thing you can do to make your beer a success. You can screw up a dozen other things, but if you keep everything clean, you'll still liable to brew a good beer. But if you're not sanitary, the finest ingredients and techniques won't help - you'll brew quite undrinkable beer.
  7. Now put about 2 gallons of cold water into your fermenter, and add the boiled wort. A funnel is handy at this point if you are using a carboy. If your boiling pot is very large, use less than 2 gallons-remember, we're eventually making 5 gallons. (Do not pour the hot wort directly into a carboy with no water in it - you are likely to crack the glass!) If you added hops, you'll want to use a strainer to remove them, but don't worry if you don't get them all. Now fill your fermenter up to 5 gallons with cold water. If you're using the plastic pail, it helps if you've previously marked where 5 gallons occurs - a magic marker works well. If you're using a carboy, fill it up to several inches from the top. Depending on how much water you boiled, the temperature of the wort might be too high to add the yeast. If so, let it cool until it is below 90 degrees F.
  8. Now the packet of yeast may be added to the wort. If you like, you can "start" the yeast. I usually do this to give it a "running start" and also simply to be sure that the yeast is good. To start the yeast, sanitize a bottle, and mix 2 teaspoons of corn sugar with a half cup of 80 degree water, and add the yeast. Stick a fermentation lock on top and let it sit while the wort cools. By the time the wort is cooled, the yeast starter should be busy fermenting, and you should see bubbles percolating through the fermentation lock. Now just dump the yeast mixture into the wort. If you're using a carboy, be careful when filling it with water to leave room in it for the yeast mixture.
  9. After the yeast is added, put the lid on the plastic fermenter and attach the fermentation lock. Don't forget to put some water in the lock. If you're using a carboy, force the short piece of plastic tubing through the stopper a little bit, and put it on the carboy. Place the other end of the tube in a bucket of water. This type of fermentation lock is known as a "blow-by," and is necessary because the fermentation will produce lots of foam and sludge, and it has no place to go except out. If you used an ordinary lock, it would quickly fill up with garbage. In a plastic pail, there is plenty of space for the foam to grow.
  10. Now put the whole thing into a cool, dark, place to let it ferment. Dark is important because sunlight can damage the beer. Cool is important because beer-fouling organisms don't thrive as well at lower temperatures. Room temperature is usually fine - about 70 degrees F. If you can get it to 65 or 60, that would be better. Don't make it colder than 60, however, because then the yeast won't work very well. (Most beginners will be using top fermenting yeast, which works best at 60 degrees and above. Bottom fermenting yeast works fine all the way down to freezing.) If you can't get the temperature below 80, then you should look for a better place to keep your beer. If you are using the carboy method, check the bucket daily for overflow. Signs of fermentation should appear within a couple of hours, and by the next morning, it should be fermenting madly.
  11. After a few days, it will start to slow down, and will finish sometime between 4 and 10 days after you began. If you are using the carboy and blow-by, replace the blow-by with a fermentation lock when it stops blowing out garbage and starts blowing only bubbles. How will you know when it's done fermenting? If you like, you can take hydrometer readings, and wait until it stabilizes (same reading on 3 consecutive days.) However, I've found it works just as well to observe the frequency of the bubbles in the airlock. When you watch it, but don't see any bubbles for a few minutes, it's quite ready to be bottled. When it finishes fermenting, you don't have to bottle it immediately, but it's best to bottle it within 3-4 weeks of beginning.
  12. The first step in bottling is to acquire bottles. Go to a liquor store or bar and pay $2.50 for 2 cases of empty deposit bottles. Do not use the throwaway kind with the screw-off tops, as these are not strong enough. Chances are the bottles will be pretty scummy, so pour an inch or two of strong bleach solution into each, and let them sit for an hour. Then rinse them well, using your bottle brush if necessary, and your bottle washer if you have one (see issue #1.)
  13. If you fermented your beer in a carboy, siphon(*) the beer into the sanitized plastic pail, and add a boiled solution of 3/4 cup corn sugar and water. If you used the pail to ferment, then you must "prime" the bottles with 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of sugar each. This added sugar is what produces the carbonation in the bottles. Do not use more than 1 cup per 5 gallons or 1 teaspoon per bottle, or you risk the danger (and social embarrassment) of exploding bottles.
  14. Now fill the bottles with the siphon and bottle filler, and cap them. Store at room temperature for at least a week, then try to move the beer someplace a little cooler. (I keep mine underneath a window.) The beer should be drinkable 3 weeks after bottling, depending on ingredients. You might want to try a bottle every week after bottling just to taste the changes that occur.

* siphoning: don't suck on the tube to start it, that will introduce lots of bacteria into the beer. A good trick is to fill the siphon with water to start it. Remember that the level of liquid in the source container must be higher off the ground than the top of the destination container in order for the siphon to work.

Now don't rush to brew the second batch quite yet. Why not wait a few weeks and see how the first turned out? That way, if you really did something wrong, you have a chance to find out what, and avoid the problem in the second batch. Good luck!

Rob Gardner
Somewhere in HP