Crafting IRL: Brewing

Besides PC and console games, reading books, and sleeping, I like beer. I’m not talking about PBR (be thankful if you don’t know what that is) or Bud Lite, I’m talking about the good stuff: Guinness and micro-brews and such. I don’t drink a lot, and haven’t had a hangover in years, but I do enjoy a good beer or two.

I’ve wanted to try making my own beer for a long time, but I always thought it required having a basement because it would stink up the apartment or house and required cool temperatures. Neither one of these is true. Well the temperature thing can be true if you’re making a lager but it’s not true for making ales.

I started brewing in 2007 and have done seven batches (mostly stouts). I’m an extract brewer, which is a little easier than all-grain and requires less equipment and skill.

I realized recently that I hadn’t brewed in quite a while (August 2008), let’s blame fatherhood for that although it’s probably just laziness, so last month I decided it was time to get back to it and picked Saturday, May 29th. My favorite recipe that I’d made so far was a milk stout which is called that because it has milk sugar in it, lactose, which yeast cannot convert to alcohol. This makes a sweeter stout, and I’d really enjoyed my first batch (beer number 5) but it was almost gone.

For the curious, here’s the recipe:

  • 12 oz 80°L Malt
  • 8 oz Chocolate Malt
  • 8 oz Roasted Barley
  • 3.3 lbs Dark Liquid Malt Extract (Unhopped)
  • 2 lbs Dark Dry Malt Extract
  • 8 oz Lactose
  • 8 oz Malto-dextrin
  • 1 tbsp Irish Moss
  • 0.6 oz Magnum Hops Pellets
  • Wyeast 2565 Kölsch yeast, activator pouch

This yields about five gallons of beer.

Brew Day

Brewing is about two things: boiling water and cleanliness. Brewing is basically boiling water and adding ingredients at the right time, the hard part is not letting it boil over. Cleanliness is important because when the brewing is done, before you add the yeast, you have what is basically 5 gallons of bacteria heaven.

For heat, I have a propane burner, just like what you’d use to fry a turkey. My first time brewing I tried to boil 4 gallons of water on an electric stove and it took all day just to get a slight boil. The propane burner does 5 gallons in 20-30 minutes.

To start, I fill my brew pot with five gallons of water and put it on full heat. I have a thermometer clipped to it in order to monitor the temperature. I want a water temperature between 120 and 175, hot but not boiling. This is because this recipe requires steeping. The first three grains listed above are crushed and put into a mesh bag, and then steeped for 45 minutes. Steeping is a way for extract brewers to add some different flavors. It’s important to keep from boiling the grains because that will start to break down the hulls and add a lot of bitterness to the beer. Once the steeping time is up, the grain bag gets removed and trashed.

After steeping, I bring the pot back up to a boil and then add the liquid and dry malt extracts, the lactose, and the hops. Once all the sugars are in, I start watching out for boil overs. Foam will tend to collect on the surface, this traps more heat. Boil overs are are bad, because wort is very hot and very sticky and that’s a dangerous combination. The best method I’ve found to avert boil overs is to try and keep the foam from covering the entire surface, or just take the pot off of the heat for a few seconds if that doesn’t work.

The hops boil for this recipe is 30 minutes. At the 20 minute remaining mark I add my immersion chiller so it can sanitize. At 15 minutes remaining, I add the Irish Moss (for clarifying), and at 5 minutes the malto-dextrin (adds body).

Once the boil is finished, the wort (unfermented beer) has to be chilled down to 80 degrees or below as quickly as possible (above 80 will kill the yeast). It is important to do this quickly and carefully. The wort is totally sanitary but also fill of sugar, bacteria heaven remember, so it’s important to get it chilled enough to add the yeast but not allow any infections. It took me about fifteen minutes of running the immersion chiller through an ice bath before the wort was pitchable (term for adding yeast to wort).

The last step is to siphon the wort into the fermentation bucket, top it off to five gallons with distilled water (if necessary), pitch the yeast, and seal the lid on. The siphon is to try and prevent as much contact with air as possible, both to protect against infections and avoid oxidation. I put some aluminum foil over the airlock hole in the lid and try to shake the bucket as much as possible while taking the fermenter down to the basement. This is to aerate the yeast. Once the fermenter is settled in the basement, I add the airlock and fill it with distilled water. I also use a brew belt on the bucket (electric heater), my basement is a bit too cold for ale yeast and this keeps the fermenter at a perfect 70 degrees.

Couple of notes. Fermenting buckets are food grade plastic, not just any old bucket from the hardware store. I skipped a step in the process where I check the specific gravity of the wort. Normally you take a gravity reading that the start, and then another when fermentation is done to calculate the alcohol by volume. The gravity readings can also tell you if the fermentation is really complete or just stuck and needs new yeast, etc. Unfortunately I dropped my hydrometer while I was getting setup, and I didn’t have time to go to the local brew store to pick up a new one. Since I was making a low gravity beer (basically low alcohol), I wasn’t too worried and just decided to wing it.

Now I just wait between seven and ten days. There should be bubbles in the airlock in a few hours, which I’ll check tomorrow, but I’ll give it at least a week before bottling.

Speaking of, I’ll save that for next week. If you want to see more I’ve setup a Picasa album, and feel free to ask any questions in the comments. I’m not an expert by any stretch, but I’m happy to help anyone who wants to get started.


  1. SeanMc74No Gravatar says:

    I’ve never made my own but I was looking at some smaller batch setups online. I found a site that sells 1 gallon brew kits I was thinking it would be a good place to start. 1 Gallon batches can be done on the stove and I can try different beers before making a 5 gallon batch. I have to convince my wife I won’t turn into an alcoholic is I make 5 gallon batches.

  2. AmuntothNo Gravatar says:

    That is crazy. I’ve barely got through my Navy years 18-21, but I never developed a liking for the TASTE of any alcohol.

    Let me know what you think when it’s done, and what you’re gonna call it.

    • BrianNo Gravatar says:

      Should be good, this is the second time I’ve made this receipe. Name it? I usually just refer to it by number, maybe I’ll have to think of one this time.

  3. AnjinNo Gravatar says:

    That’s pretty awesome, Blue Kae. I was a chemistry major in college, but that setup intimidates even me. 🙂

  4. That’s really neat! I’m not a beer drinker, but I showed my husband your post knowing he’d be interested. What’s cool is that I just found out he’s also tried brewing his own beer once, a long time ago. He took a look at your pictures and was like, I think I had a similar set up. He’s envious of your propane burner though! Reading this made him want to try it again, but he wouldn’t know where to get the ingredients since the place he used to go to closed down. That’s a good question, actually…where would you get all that stuff if you didn’t live anywhere near a beer and wine brewing store? Would you have to send away for them?

  5. […] Last week I left off with my beer just starting fermentation (which was May 29th). Checking on the fermenter a few hours later, I was seeing a few bubble in the airlock already. This is good, the bubbles are CO2 and it means that fermentation has started. At this point, things get pretty easy: check on the fermenter once a day or two, make sure the temperature is reading around 70F and see if the airlock is still producing bubbles. […]

  6. […] the brewing and the bottling, there’s the waiting, and then the drinking. After bottling a homebrew it […]