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When Matt and I were in college we made a lot of beer. This was back in the early 2000s when the craft brew industry was just starting to emerge its head in the Asheville, North Carolina area. Highland Brewing was still the local craft brew. Other craft beer was sold at Ingles Markets and gas stations but it was quite limited.
The homebrew and wine supply stores were small and supplies limited. This was before the dawn of everyone using mail order to get whatever specific products they wanted.
We would get our money together and go to Asheville Brewer’s Supply. It was downtown on a narrow little street called Wall Street. Space was limited. Back then we could pick up supplies to make 5 gallons for around $15.
A lot of this was happening in my last year of college. Matt started college when he was really young so he graduated shortly after turning 21. He was working a job already and putting back money for when I graduated so we could have a better start.
Well saving money and drinking in college don’t work so well when your friends are going out all the time to bars or buying a ton of craft brew at the grocery store.
Our school had a big recycle program long before it was a big deal in a lot of other places. We could get bottles and sanitize them so we had something to put all that beer in. We had our friends save them and the cardboard carriers too. We made sure to give them a 6 pack occasionally for this service. It save d us from having to sort through the recycling and the bottles required less cleaning.
What started off as just some three friends making beer together turned into a bigger operation as our friends wanted the less expensive home brew or found that they wanted a beer but didn’t want to leave our rural campus to get it. A lot of people didn’t have cars anyway and they didn’t want to drink and drive either so some beer was distributed on the campus.
After classes were over and I had worked my shift on the Natural Resources Crew (this involved logging, running a sawmill, chopping firewood, growing Shiitake mushrooms, and trail work. Our college required you to work 15 hrs per week for the school. ), I would spend time making beer and washing 150 bottles at a time in a bathtub. We had to cap them by hand too so this took some time. At one point we were making something like 500-600 bottles a month.
We were not getting rich off it, that is for sure and we had to do some work but it was a profitable enterprise overall.
Later on when we lived in Ketchikan, Alaska we started ordering brew supplies and kegged our own beer there.
When we decided to lock things down at our place, we realized that unless we wanted to rely on Instacart or similar, if we wanted to drink a beer, we would have to make it.
We had a kegging system already. If you plan on making your own seltzer, soda, or beer, it is more cost effective and faster to get things carbonated if you just get a kegging system.
Bottle conditioning is very time consuming and not practical unless you drink very little beer or soda and happen to have bottles that you can use. Bottling also takes up a lot of space compared to a keg system.
The method for making beer is the same regardless of the conditioning process you use after fermentation is complete. This article is going to concentrate on how to make and ferment beer and then outline a few options you have for carbonating and conditioning.
Ingredients and Equipment
Fermentation Vessel- You can use a fermentation bucket or a glass carboy for this. The buckets are less expensive and easier to get through the mail due to the weight and cost of shipping glass.
Airlock and Stopper-We prefer the single-piece “S” shaped airlocks and stoppers rather than the airlocks that have 2 or more pieces because it is easy to lose one of the pieces and they seem to become brittle and break more easily.
The basic ingredients for beer are the following:
Corn sugar is often used to add additional alcohol and in place of some of the more expensive malt.
Of course, there are many variations on this. Some recipes call for the addition of corn, rice, or rye. People also add different flavors and some food ingredients. Personally we prefer to keep it simple and just use the basics.
We are making beer from extracts because that is what is fastest and easiest to do at home. It is more cost-effective when it comes to shipping ingredients as well.
For our homebrew supplies, we order from Label Peelers. They are located in Ohio so not that far away really. I encourage you to seek out suppliers that are close to you because shipping costs can be higher if you order from a place that is further away. It just depends.
It is always good to compare the total cost after shipping to see where you should order from. Label Peelers is always the best deal for us and it may also be good for you even if you are a bit further away. Amazon carries some supplies for a decent price as well but the way things are at the moment, I cannot tell you how good supplies really are.
For this article, we made a pale ale that I would say is similar to a Sierra Nevada or something like that. Pale Ales are one of the most popular styles of beer so this one will go over well with a lot of adults in a household. I will give you another recipe for those that like Budweiser or Bud Lite more than Pale Ales later on in the article.
Note: This recipe is for a 5 gallon fermenter or carboy.
- 1 oz Cascade Hop Pellets (1 oz of hop pellets is about 2 heaping tablespoons)
- 1/2 oz Nugget
Fill a large pot about 1/2 full of water. We use a 20 qt stockpot with lid. Add the hops.
Bring water to a boil then add the following ingredients while stirring to prevent sticking.
- 1 quart Golden Light Malt Extract
- 1 quart Sparkling Amber Malt Extract
- 2 cups of Corn Sugar (Alternatively you can use an extra 8 fluid ounces of Golden Light Malt and an extra 8 oz of Sparkling Amber)
Stir well and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce heat to prevent scorching. A little scorching on the bottom will not ruin your beer but it is best to avoid it if at all possible. You may need to really watch your first batch of beer to get a feel for how your stove works. Stoves can vary a bit.
Let the mixture boil for about 20 minutes. Letting it go a little longer or reducing boiling time will not hurt anything. The lesson to remember is that the longer you boil the more bitter and stronger the initial hop flavor will be. I still would not boil more than 30 minutes for a pale ale.
Some people like beer to be hoppier than others. If you are a big fan of India Pale Ales (IPAs) then you are going to want to stick to a longer boil time.
Even just a 5 minute boil time is enough to sterilize any sugars and get ingredients to combine well. This is good to know if you are trying to conserve cooking fuel or electricity.
Allow the wort (this is what beer is called before fermentation) to cool off for an hour or so. I usually just leave the lid on during this time.
Add another 1 oz of Cascade Hops and 1/2 ounce of Nugget Hops. This is called your finishing hops.
Sanitize your fermentation vessel. To do this you can use potassium percarbonate or unscented oxygen cleaner. Bleach can also work but you will want to let it sit for a little while after you rinse to make sure the odor goes away. I do not advise using soap because it has a tendency to linger on the surface and you don’t want a soapy taste in your beer.
Use a funnel and carefully pour the hot wort into your carboy. Top off with cold water. Only fill to the start of the shoulder of the carboy or leave about 3-4 inches headspace in your bucket. You need to allow room for the fermentation process or your carboy will overflow. This usually results in the airlock filling with fermenting beer or the airlock blowing out of the carboy and a big mess.
Put the airlock in and fill the airlock about half way with water. Most airlocks have a line that tells you how far to fill them up.
Let your wort cool down to below 86 F before adding the yeast and replacing the airlock. We bought some temperature indicators to put on the sides of our fermenters to let us know when it is cool enough. If you put yeast in before it is cool enough you can scortch it and kill it all so you have to add more yeast. Within 12 hours you should see fermentation get going. If you do not then you can add another yeast packet.
Your beer will be fine as long as you notice that it is not fermenting within 24 hours and add the yeast. This usually only happens if you pitch it when it is too hot. I have definitely made that mistake recently, hence why we have the temperature indicators now. This is also why it is always good to have more yeast on hand than what you need.
Allow beer to ferment until the airlock stops bubbling. This time will vary depending on the beer recipe you use and the temperature of the area where your fermenters are located. Different beer yeasts require different temperature ranges so it is important to look at the label of your yeast. If the temperature in your building gets too cold, the fermentation will slow down or even stop and that is a problem if you don’t correct it. A little slow is one thing but basically stopping or stopping can lead to ruined beer or off flavors. I have never heard of beer getting too hot to ferment. In the case of elevated temperatures it usually just ferments faster. A lot of pale ale yeasts are tolerant of heat up to 86 F or so.
Lager is the beer style that a lot of people like. Budweiser and Bud Lite are both lagers and that means they are fermented at cold temperatures. If you have a kegerator or refrigerator or just ferment lager when the seasonal temperatures are low, you can do it at home. Most homebrewers don’t bother with lager because of the conditions it requires. Lager yeast will not ferment properly if temperatures get above 65 F or so.
This is the process that takes a long time if you are bottling. Kegging is a lot faster but the upfront costs of a kegging system are in the $200 range. Keep in mind that once you have the setup, it will be useful for many many years. You can replace little things here and there but you won’t have to spend a lot to keep it going.
We use 5 gallon Cornelius kegs. You can also use these to make seltzer water and soda. I have an article on how to do this that you might want to check out. It is a lot easier than you think.
The kegs have to be cleaned and sanitized. To do this we use unscented oxygen cleaner. A little bit on the bottom of the keg and a few cups of water is all you need unless something is really dirty. Put the lid back on and slosh the water and clear around a bit.
Now you need to use your CO2 tank to force the cleaner through the lines that go to your beer tap. To do this you have to attach your tap hose to the input that is marked OUT. The CO2 hose gets attached to the side marked IN. Be careful and don’t get these mixed up.
Open up your CO2 tank enough to add a little pressure. Turn it off. You just need enough so that you can press your tap and get the cleaner to come out.
Ok now you have cleaned the lines! Next you need to let the pressure off by pulling the ring on the top of the keg. Open the keg up and put fresh water in it. Just enough to rinse everything. Put the lid on and slosh around. Add CO2 again and run the water out through the tap. Now your keg is ready to have beer added.
Siphon beer from your carboy into the keg. Be careful to not stick the siphon all the way in the bottom and get a bunch of sediment.
When beer has ben siphoned out, put the lid back on the keg and add CO2 until you cannot hear it go in anymore. Put the keg somewhere to get cold for a few hours. Add more CO2 then agitate the keg for 10 minutes or so. Matt and I put on music and roll it back and forth on the floor for 3 songs. We call it “kicking the can”.
It can take awhile for the beer to carbonate. The more you agitate it the shorter the time period is. After 3 songs worth of rolling we add more CO2 and then roll it for another 3 songs. After that is ready to drink.
While that may sound like some work, it is far better than the length of time it takes to bottle beer and wait for it to carbonate. With kegging you can have a cold beer within the day.
Washing bottles and capping them takes a lot of work and then it takes a few weeks to get it carbonated. Regardless here is the process. For some special beers you may want to do this anyway because there is a taste difference between natural and forced carbonation.
- Clean and sanitize bottles and caps with sanitizer.
- Siphon beer into a clean fermentation bucket with a spicket.
- Add priming sugar. This is what gets your beer to carbonate.
- Pour beer into bottles and cap with a hand or tabletop capper.
- Let sit for a few weeks. Taste a bottle and see how carbonated it is. If it is not fizzy enough, wait another few days or so before trying another bottle.
How To Get Clearer Beer
Unfiltered beers in the store have a haze to them. With homebrew, you will notice that a lot of it has the same haze. One way to get clearer beer is to rack your beer (this means transfer to another clean carboy) after fermentation has stopped or when it has slowed down a lot. This removes the clear beer from the sediment that gathers at the bottom. You can also use gelatin and other clarifying agents to clear up the haze. Personally I don’t really care if my beer looks stunningly clear in the glass.
The main reason we rack our beer sometimes is that by doing so you don’t waste as much. Sometimes if you don’t rack your beer and you are trying to avoid a bunch of sediment that can clog a keg line, you wind up having to stop the siphon while there is still a beer or twos worth of liquid. Over time this adds up to racking can be a way to get a little more out of the ingredients you have on hand.
On average it costs us about $20-$25 to make 5 gallons of beer. That is equivalent to about 48 bottles or around $10-$12.50 per 24 beers and the quality is a lot better than the lower-priced brews found at the grocery store.
Note on Non-Traditional Beer Ingredients
Some of you may like some of the non-traditional beers out there. While it is totally possible to make some of these at home, I have to urge you to be very careful with what you put in your beer and how you do it. For example, if you just go throwing milk in beer wort to make a milk stout you are going to get something disgusting and undrinkable. If you like blueberry flavored beer like Sweetwater Blue then you need to know that they use blueberry flavoring. They don’t just throw some blueberries in the beer wort and ferment it with the berries. There are many excellent websites dedicated to brewing that can help. There are also books like the Clone Brew Series that can help you duplicate the recipes of your favorite beers.
Don’t start your brewing experience by trying out the most complicated recipe you can find.
Like any new thing, start with a basic recipe like the one in this article and then go on to other more advanced brews if you want. A lot of folks find that they like to have a basic flagship homebrew on offer around their house with the occasional different recipe thrown in seasonally or just when they get a notion. Remember that you don’t have to make 5 gallons at once either if you just want a small batch of something different. You can split a yeast packet and just make a 2.5 gallon batch of something if you want to play around with recipes without committing to a full run of beer.
You can make hard apple cider easily enough if you have a reasonable source of apple cider or access to apples and equipment. When Matt and I have made hard cider we have just bought 5 one gallon jugs of cider from the grocery store and used that. It is already pasteurized so we just pour it into a clean carboy and then add the same Fermentis beer yeast we use for beer.
I do feel that I should point out that apples are only naturally sweet enough to give you a product that finishes out at 4.5% alcohol. A lot of people reading this that drink hard cider from the grocery store are probably used to 5%-6% total alcohols. You can add some water and corn sugar or regular cane sugar to increase the alcohol level but you should be sure to boil the sugar in water for a few minutes before adding it to the cider.
The kegging and bottling process is the same. I do have to say that if you like ciders to be sweeter and not dry, you can add a little extra sugar after fermentation has stopped or at the time of bottling.