Get started making cheap and easy homebrew.
If you think that you might like brewing your own beer, do it. You don’t have to be some kind of gastronomic genius or chemistry nerd to make great tasting beer from scratch. Don’t go overboard with cost or complexity. This article will help you get started making cheap and easy homebrew of which you can be proud.
My philosophy on homebrewing is that it should be simple, fun, and cheap. I don’t want to get a PHD in how enzymes work or spend a fortune on some stainless steel monstrosity that I will have to clean.
After all, beer originated by making itself. Millennia ago some idiot left a grain bucket out in the rain and few weeks later some other idiot dared a third idiot to drink out of it. The rest is history. If beer can happen essentially by accident, you can make delicious, cheap, and easy homebrew.
Assumptions on making cheap and easy homebrew
You have to enjoy some level of effort. No matter how elegant your set-up is, there is always some organizing, cleaning, and lifting involved.
You have to be patient. This applies to the agonizing weeks that you will have to wait before trying your cheap and easy homebrew and to the waiting entailed in the brewing itself. You spend a lot of time waiting for things to soak, heat up, cool down, etc.
The main brewing day is kind of like tailgating. Plan for some good company, music, food, beer, or other diversions to make the experience even more fun. I like to listen to baseball or mess around in my garage while keeping an eye on the homebrew.
You will be brewing ales. There is a reason why most small breweries and homebrewers make ales. Making lagers adds complexity related to the yeast strains and the required refrigeration. Fear not, there are thousands of awesome ale recipes for cheap and easy homebrew.
You will be brewing five gallons of beer. This is the standard for most homebrewers. It makes about two cases, so you will have plenty to share. You can easily cut a recipe in half, but the effort of brewing is the same.
Your cheap and easy homebrew should focus on styles that are expensive to buy. If you are spending all of this time trying to make Old Milwaukee, what is the point? Think about the pricey beers that you love to drink, these are the styles to emulate in making cheap and easy homebrew. I will be making a Belgian Dubbel based on a recipe from Keystone Homebrew.
You will need to spend a bit of money. Even if you make all of your own equipment from found objects, you will still need to buy ingredients. I can make two cases of a Belgian Dubbel from $40 of ingredients, so that’s a great deal.
You want to quickly advance to all-grain brewing. Most beginners start by brewing from extract, a syrupy concentrate that adds the fermentables (think carbs). You can make some great beers this way and customize your recipes, but, to me, it seems a bit lame. All-grain brewing is not difficult, and the ingredients are cheaper. If you do start with extract brewing, try to progress quickly to brewing with grains.
You will need a bit of space. I have successfully brewed all-grain beers in the kitchen of a one-bedroom apartment, but you still need a place to store your buckets and things.
Steps to making cheap and easy homebrew.
Note: If you are brewing with extract, you will skip many of the early steps.
1) Ingredients and gear for cheap and easy homebrew
You will need: Water, fermentables (malted barley or malt extract), hop flowers (whole-leaf or pelleted), and yeast. That is all you really need. Technically, you don’t even need the hops, they weren’t generally used in beer until the twelfth century.
There are so many great resources for homebrewers these days. You can find a recipe or start with a recipe kit. You can order online or visit your nearest homebrew shop. I like to frequent Keystone Homebrew because they are awesome. I use their kits frequently because it gives me a low-risk way to try different malts, hop varieties, yeasts, and adjuncts (weird additions like berries, honey, etc.) that I can incorporate into my original creations.
I have ordered custom recipes and/or kits from all of these online suppliers:
They have all done a fine job, but make sure you are getting a good deal on the shipping. The only concern here is with the health of the yeast. Liquid yeasts give better results (generally), but need to be kept cold with an ice-pack during shipping, and this can be a bit iffy.
NOTE: Don’t forget to request that your grains be crushed! Investing in a grain mill is unnecessary for cheap and easy homebrew.
You will also need some buckets, lids, tubes, capper, and stuff like that. You can buy an inexpensive kit that has what you need to get started.
2) Water for cheap and easy homebrew
Water is an important factor in your beer. Water that is too hard, too soft, too chlorinated, or has a bad taste might be a problem depending on what you are brewing. Distilled water is not recommended as the beneficial minerals have been removed. If your water is pretty OK, don’t worry about it.
3) Heat up the water for mashing.
How are you going to boil large volumes of liquid? You will need at least a six-gallon pot. If you are doing extract brewing, you can do a partial boil and add clean water to make up the difference. However, your hop optimization will be reduced.
If your kitchen stove has a high-output burner, it might be able to get the job done, but it will take a long time. Most people go ahead and buy a high-output burner that attaches to a propane tank.
Heat up six gallons or so to your mash temperature. The recipe that I am making calls for mashing the grains for one hour at 152 degrees (pretty typical). However, the resting temp. of the mashing vessel and the grains themselves will cause the temp. of the mix to drop 10-15 degrees, so I want my water to be about 166 degrees when I add it.
Warning: Do not heat an empty pot, it could melt!
4) Put the heated water and your crushed grains together.
You need a method to soak the grains in the heated water for a while and then remove the sweet liquid known as wort. This step is called mashing and the device is known as the mash tun. The mash tun is able to hold the mushy mixture at temperature and then separate the liquid from the spent grains. It is kind of like a giant teabag.
You can make a mash tun from an old cooler, but it will need the addition of a valve and a false bottom to release the liquid without getting clogged. You can buy an adapter kit for this modification or spend some time with some plumbing supplies. Make sure that whatever you buy is food safe at hot temps.
You don’t need to get elective surgery in Brazil to have a false bottom. I made the false bottoms above out of some CPVC pipe, but you can also buy them. You just need away to drain out the sweet goodness and leave behind the grain husks.
Use a spoon to mix up the mash and break up any “dough balls.” Be careful not to displace your false bottom when stirring. Then close the lid and wait for the enzymes to do their work in turning the complex sugars into the simple sugars that yeast likes to turn into alcohol.
5) Get the sweet goodness into the boil pot.
After the hour has passed, you need to get all the good stuff out of there. This process is called sparging. You gently add hot water (170 degrees, any hotter will start to leach nasty tannins from the grain husks) to the mash tun while slowly draining the good stuff into the pot. Keep an inch or two of water above the grain bed.
You want to add the water gently so that it doesn’t create channels leading to the exit. Otherwise, you will leave a lot of the good stuff behind. There are many ways to add the hot water gently: You can buy a sparge arm, sprinkle the water through a pie pan with holes in it, or use a tube with a bunch of holes (as shown).
This should take at least an hour. Slow and gentle is the key. Collect the first quart or so in a smaller vessel and then add this back to the mash (gently). This removes any nasty stuff from when the mash bed wasn’t filtering well.
6) Boil the wort and add the hops etc.
Once you have collected six or so gallons from the mash tun, start boiling the stuff. Dump the remaining contents of the mash tun on your neighbor’s lawn when he isn’t looking.
Watch the boil carefully as a boil-over is a real mess. You might want to skim off some of the foaming proteins from the top of the boil to calm things down. Don’t worry if you wort is full of globs, this is normal for cheap and easy homebrew.
This particular recipe calls for some Belgian rock candy (yum!) Whenever adding anything like this to the boil, it tends to fall to the bottom and form a burned-up mess. When adding candy, syrup, etc. stir it faithfully until it has all dissolved.
Add your hops according the schedule shown in the recipe. You put the hop leaves or pellets in muslin bags so that you can pull all the debris out at the end.
7) Retrieve your hop bags, cool the wort, and start sanitizing.
After the boil is complete (typically one hour), retrieve your hop bags and cool the wort as quickly as possible. You can put the whole pot in an ice bath (like a storage tote filled with ice and water), or purchase a wort chiller that runs cold water through a tube. If you are simply going to wait for it to cool off enough to add the yeast, you will be waiting a long time.
Cooling the wort quickly is ideal as it clarifies the beer with what is called a “cold-break” and reduces the chance that something other than your chosen yeast will take over the brew. Once it starts cooling, your cheap and easy homebrew is in danger of contamination.
While your wort is chilling, mix the sanitizing solution and sanitize the fermenter (bucket), airlock, lid, and thermometer. You want your yeast to be the only thing living in the fermenter. I use sanitizing solution that doesn’t require rinsing as it is easier.
For the fermenting vessel, I use the “bottling bucket” that has a spigot; it makes transferring the beer easier later on. Some brewers consider this a bad practice as they think it increases contamination risk. Clean and sanitize the spigot parts carefully, and you shouldn’t have any trouble. Make sure that the spigot assembly is water tight before adding the wort.
TIP: After mixing up the sanitizing solution, keep some handy in a spray bottle.
8) Get yeasty.
Once the wort temp has fallen into the range dictated by the directions on your yeast (typically around 70 degrees), transfer the wort from the pot to the sanitized fermenter. Your yeast likes to have some oxygen in the mix when it is doing its thing. I like to pour the wort from the pot into the fermenter, then back again, then back again. The splashing adds some oxygen. There are also fancier ways to introduce oxygen (e.g. “It is my supreme privilege to announce the arrival of a most illustrious molecule etc…”)
9) Let the magic of cheap and easy homebrew begin.
Now your brewing day is complete. Your wort and yeast are safely in their sanitized environment, so you can relax a bit. Soon (in a few days) the airlock will start to bubble and you can giggle with glee. Put your fermenter in a safe place for a week or more. The next time you mess with it, it will contain alcohol and be in less risk of contamination.
10) Secondary fermentation
Most homebrewers choose to employ a secondary fermentation. This simply means that you move the beer to another vessel (after a week or two) during fermentation. This is desirable because you are getting the beer off of the dead yeast cells (at the bottom) which may cause off flavors. I also find that the agitation renews the efforts of the remaining yeast. Don’t forget to sanitize the second fermenter.
NOTE: Once fermentation is started, oxygen is the enemy. Avoid introducing any oxygen (splashing) when transferring or bottling the beer or you risk oxidizing the beer and making it taste stale.
11) Bottle your cheap and easy homebrew.
Even though I have a keg system, I still bottle frequently as I like to give away beer. Bottling is no big deal. You can bottle strait from the spigot on the barrel, and most of the sediment will be left behind.
- Make sure you have enough bottles. Five gallons means you should plan for 52 bottles.
- Use only pry-top bottles. Don’t try to cap a twist-type bottle.
- Make sure the bottles are clean before bottling. You can get the labels off of saved bottles by soaking them in warm water and oxyclean (a couple scoops) for an hour and then scrubbing them with steel wool. They will clean right up.
TIP: Get in the habit of rinsing out beer bottles before saving them. The beer left in the bottom dries into a hard crust that is difficult to remove.
- A standard milk-crate holds 25 bottles perfectly. This is helpful for cleaning, drying, stacking, and storing. Stack the bottles upside down after cleaning so that they will drip dry.
- Create an assembly line. I like to start with clean bottles and then have several stations: sanitizing dunk station, dripping out station, priming sugar station, capping station, and stacking area.
- Sanitize the valve on the bucket (use a spray bottle) and fill the sanitized bottles carefully to avoid spilling or splashing. Leave about an inch of head-space.
- Put a priming tab in each bottle (this allows the remaining yeast to carbonate the bottle). Be organized so that you don’t mess up this step or you could have flat or explosive beer.
- Crimp on the cap. If you are worried about oxygen in the bottle damaging your beer, you can use bottle caps that have a oxygen absorbing pad in them.
Enjoy your cheap and easy homebrew.
After two weeks in the bottle, your cheap and easy homebrew is ready to enjoy. Some styles will benefit from aging, but most are best consumed young. If you think that you might like making cheap and easy homebrew, you should give it a shot.
For an initial investment of about $200, you can enjoy brewing for a lifetime. You will be drinking better beer and people will think you are magical. Once you have your all-grain system figured out, there is no end to the recipes, ingredients, and methods you can explore.
LEGAL NOTICE: Homebrew has alcohol in it. It can be bad for you. There are some laws about homebrew in your state, and you should obey those laws. Don’t drink too much or you will feel bad and do stupid things. Home brewing involves hot things and heavy things. Don’t burn yourself or give yourself a hernia.