How to Get Started Brewing Beer: A Step-by-Step Guide

This article is fairly long, but I hope it’s worth the read. I will go over everything you need to start from scratch including: picking your batch size, what equipment you need, what ingredients you might want to use (including a recipe!), and common pitfalls you can avoid. This guide will also take you step-by-step from brewing to bottling: cleaning & sanitizing, wort boil (wort is the beer solution prior to fermenting), fermenting, bottling, storage, and tasting. Now let’s get started.

IMAGES COMING SOON!

Picking a Batch Size

What I noticed when I first started brewing was that many resources online talk about 5 gallons or more for brewing beer. When asking fellow brewers why they choose a specific batch size, the reasons are varied. Some of the common replies are: wanting to make lots of beer without a lot of added effort, wanting to share the beer with all of their friends and family, more beer is always better, etc. However, for those of us living in cities or otherwise in small apartments, brewing 5 or more gallons is difficult due to the space requirements (not to mention the costs are higher!).

After doing some research, I discovered 1 gallon brewing. This is a fairly new movement started by brewers looking to make smaller batches in more manageable spaces. Reading through these articles showed me that scaling down the beer recipes should be fairly easy, and I’ll explain that in more detail later. However, 1 gallon brewing still meant I needed a fair amount of space in order to brew multiple batches. After all, I love experimenting, and the thought of needing to wait over a month to start a second batch was killing me.

Rather than following 1 gallon recipes by the numbers, I took the plunge and started experimenting with even smaller batches from ¼ to ½ gallon. This is something that may shock some brewers, and they may find the results surprising. Other than saving space, there are some other benefits to starting out with less than 1 gallon batches, some of which especially apply to beginners:

  • You don’t need to buy a dedicated brewing pot. The batches are so small that you can boil the wort in a regular 4 or 6 quart kitchen pot as long as you clean and sanitize it properly.
  • You don’t need dedicated heating equipment. A standard stovetop will work for about up to 1 gallon recipes. Beyond that, you need a hotplate or gas burner.
  • Batches at such small sizes can typically get away with shorter boil times without any negative effects. I like this one because it’s easier to fit brewing into a tight schedule.
  • More experimentation! If you love experimenting as much as I do, then you’ll be ecstatic to whip up one batch, and then immediately turn around and whip up a totally different batch and have them ferment side by side without hogging floorspace.
  • A small cooler is enough to house and cool 2 to 4 batches depending on your fermenter size (discussed below).

Whether or not you decide to brew sub 1 gallon batches, the same directions below will apply, although larger batches will typically take more time. But before we get to how to brew, let’s talk about what method of brewing you’ll do and what equipment you’ll need.

Picking Your Brewing Method

I don’t want to go into the details of why you should pick one method over another, as that’s out of the scope of this article (Google around if you’re curious). However, all beginners should be aware of the main two methods so that they can select the best one for them. Those two methods are extract brewing and all-grain brewing.

Extract Brewing

I highly recommend all beginners to start here. Rather than pile thousands of options of ingredients onto a new brewer, it’s far easier to pick out a ready-made malt extract so that you can learn brewing before adding extra complexity to the process. Don’t worry, this is far from “concentrated beer”, so don’t feel like you are cheating by picking this option. There are so many ways to modify your recipe and brewing process that no two extract brews will taste the same. Some benefits of using extract over straight grains is easier cleanup (no leftover spent grains to cleanup/throw out) and shorter boiling steps. Also note that malt extract come come in either dry or liquid form. I prefer the dry form as it’s easier to store and has longer lifespan the liquid extract.

All-Grain Brewing

All-grain brewing involves selecting your own malted grains and “mashing” them to extract the colors, flavors, and fermentable sugars. This process is a bit more involved, but most brewers will agree that produces higher quality beers and gives the brewer far more control over the recipe.

Natural Progression From Extract to All Grain Brewing (Coming Soon)

Once you have tried an extract recipe, it may be difficult to simply jump to all-grain. The costs are higher and the equipment used is not necessarily the same. However, you can comfortably progress from extract to all-grain quite easily. I’ll be writing a more indepth article on this topic in the near future, but for my more curious readers, look up steeping grains and partial mashing. I personally found it very easy to progress from extract, to steeping + extract, to partial mashing, and finally to all-grain brews.

For the sake of simplicity, the rest of this article will assume you’re choosing to do extract brewing.

Picking Your Equipment

Picking equipment as a beginner is tough. There are thousands of articles pointing every which way to buy the latest and greatest brewing equipment. I’ve tried to distill everything down to its essential parts to save both space and money.

Although you can purchase just about everything on Amazon, there is a great local brewing store near me called MoreBeer! I love going here as their selection is great and their staff is really helpful. You can purchase online from them, so I’ve included links to all of their products in the list below. But if you live in Bay Area or can visit a MoreBeer! store near you, I highly recommend going.

In my opinion, the absolute minimum equipment to use for brewing drinkable beer is the following (assuming 1 gallon recipe or less and using malt extract):

  • Stainless steel saucepan or cooking pot (don’t use non-stick surfaces! These will produce terrible flavors in your beer). Do not worry if your pot is too small for your entire batch. You can always boil with less water and then add water later to bring the wort to the proper volume.
  • Stainless steel spoon (any regular kitchen spoon will do)
  • Plastic or glass measuring cup
  • Small tub of PBW to clean your equipment. While avoiding soap isn’t 100% necessary, it’s best to avoid soapy flavors in your beer.
  • Small bottle of Star San for sanitizing
  • Small empty spray bottle
  • Scale accurate to 0.1g or better and small ceramic or glass bowls to measure ingredients
  • Small funnel
  • #6 rubber stopper
  • S-shaped airlock
  • 1lb Corn sugar
  • Digital Thermometer with a long probe that can withstand over 100°C / 212°F
  • 1 gallon clear glass carboy (I pick clear because I like to see the progress of fermentation).
  • Bottles: I personally like using normal 12oz and 16oz bottles and capping them myself (you can reuse bottles from beer you’ve already drunk!). Some people will disagree and don’t like the additional work. If you go this route, be sure to purchase a bottle capper and a bag of bottle caps. Another option that's great for beginners is 16oz flip top bottles (also known as easy caps). If you don't want to buy a case of 12, you can purchase them individually in the store.

"But you forgot the siphon! And the hydrometer!" I can already hear every brewer screaming at me. Alright, alright, you need a siphon if you want your beer to come out perfect with the least amount of oxidation as possible. But in my personal experience, small batches work just fine by carefully pouring down a funnel. If a batch becomes overly oxidized, you may experience darkened beer with stale or cardboard-like flavors. As long as you are careful, you can avoid these and still make great beer. But as you progress, I do suggest investing in an auto siphon at some point.

Regarding the hydrometer, using one for batches this small doesn’t make sense in my opinion. While it is true that you won’t know the final alcohol content, nor will you know for certain if your fermentation is completed, I’m of the opinion that experimenting with these small batches without a hydrometer works just fine. If you insist on measuring the original and final gravity of your beer (not discussed in this article), then I recommend either brewing larger batches or using a refractometer.

Here’s a list of some optional equipment that may help you produce better beer. I will mention using them below, but I won’t go in depth.

Picking Your First Recipe

Before you even made it this far, I’m sure ten different ideas flashed across your brain for the different types of beer you want to create. To be honest, you could try making just about any beer as your first, just remember that beers with more steps or ingredients involved have more points of failure for you to make mistakes. I like to suggest a simple blonde or amber ale to start off with because they can be brewed with as few as three ingredients, including the yeast.

For this example, I’ll be doing an amber ale. I’ve scaled the recipe to 64 oz (½ gallon). When bottled, you’ll have about five 12 oz bottles, give or take. Feel free to scale the recipe up or down as you see fit. I’ve provided links to each of the ingredients if you’d like to purchase them online.

Bottling Batch Size: 64 oz
Boiling Time: 45 min
QuantityIngredient
300 gAmber DME (Dry Malt Extract)
2.5 gChinook Hops @ 45 min
2.0 gCascade Hops @ 10 min
2.0 gSafale US-05

The extract might seem like a lot when you measure it out, but it all gets dissolved into the water when you make your wort. More on that later.

Notice how the hops have a time next to them. This time is measured from the beginning of the boil. This recipe will boil for 45 minutes total, so you add the Chinook hops at the beginning of the boil, then you add the Cascade hops after the wort has been boiling for 35 minutes (so 10 minutes to go). The reasoning for adding these hops at different times is due to their function. Hops added early in the boil will contribute more bitterness while hops added later in the boil will add more aroma and flavor. This is dependant on the properties of the hop oils for a particular hops. Chinook hops are well known as Bittering Hops because they do well at contributing bitterness. Cascade hops on the other hand are well balanced and can be used for both bittering and/or aroma. If you want to save some money, you can use Cascade hops in place of the Chinook. The results won’t be exactly the same, but you’ll still have a tasty beer none the less.

My selection of Safale US-05 is done for ease of use. US-05 has a high range for temperature tolerance (about 15 - 24°C, 59 - 75°F). For many folks, this allows to ferment at room temperature through most of the year without needed temperature controls. This is quite the plus for most beginners who aren’t looking to buy dedicated chillers or fermenting fridges.

Purchasing the Ingredients

If you don’t want to purchase online, the links above should at least provide a good reference point for what you need. After you have them in hand, storing them properly until you begin brewing is very important. You’d be pretty disappointed to open up your yeast packet to find that they died due to improper storage!

The dry extract is easy to store. Just keep it in a cool, dry place with dry being the most important. Dry extract is hygroscopic, so it will absorb any water it comes into contact with.

The hops can be kept in the freezer. If you open up the aluminum-lined bags that the hops come in, be sure to seal them as tightly as possible and double or triple bag them. Oxidation of the hops reduces good flavors and adds gross, stale ones.

The yeast is best kept in the fridge.

The Day Before Brew Day

The term Brew Day refers to the day that you boil your wort and begin the fermentation process. For beginners, I highly recommend preparing the day before to make sure everything is ready to go. That way, you reduce the chance of those emergency, last-minute store runs for something you forgot. I tend to spend some time the day before cleaning my equipment.

Ever wonder how you clean the inside of your carboy and bottles? You can buy brushes and expensive rinsing equipment, but it usually isn’t necessary. A good dousing of PBW will dissolve just about any gunk without hurting the glass, as long as you don’t let the leftovers sit in for days and dry out. If that happens, I suggest giving them a scrubbing first.

PBW is a safe-to-use alkaline cleaner that leaves no smell. It’s better than using soap because soap residue left in beer doesn’t taste very good! As instructed on the container, use about an ounce per gallon of water. I usually measure and dump the PBW into the container and then pour warm water afterwards so that the PBW mixes well while you pour. This comes out to about the following amounts to clean your equipment:

  • 1 gallon carboy 1 oz
  • 12 oz bottle ½ teaspoon
  • 16 oz bottle ¾ teaspoon
  • 22 oz bottle 1 teaspoon
  • Regular 4-qt saucepan/pot 1 oz

For your funnel, rubber stopper, airlock, and measuring bowls, you can just drop those into your saucepan. Be sure to fill all of the containers to the brim so that the PBW solution doesn’t miss any spots. You can let these sit for as little as 30 minutes if they aren’t that dirty, but feel free the leave them overnight if you’re unsure or lazy like me! Once you dump the solution out, give everything a quick rinse with warm water before letting them dry.

Lastly, make sure to have some ice on hand. In order to save money, I put a few water bottles in the freezer and use those. But it helps to have ice cubes on hand too.

Brew Day

Hold up, you’re not quite ready. About 30 minutes before you brew, you want to sanitize everything that will touch the wort. Anything not sanitized runs the risk of ruining your precious beer. There’s hardly any risk to your health to drink infected beer, but it won’t smell or taste good.

To begin sanitizing, put between ¼ and ½ teaspoon of Star San into your spray bottle (or more, scaled appropriately, if you bought a larger bottle). Fill with room temperature water. Using a Star San solution for sanitizing is amazingly easy. Just spray on all of the surfaces that will contact the wort and let air dry for 15 to 30 minutes. Do not rinse afterwards. There may be some dried residue left over, but don’t worry because Star San is both odorless and tasteless. Now, just to make sure absolutely everything is sanitized, here’s a list:

  • Saucepan/pot
  • Stainless steel spoon
  • Measuring cup(s) and bowls
  • Funnel (both inside and out)
  • Rubber Stopper (don’t forget to spray inside the hole)
  • Airlock (both inside and out)
  • Thermometer
  • Carboy (be sure to spray everywhere inside and a bit on the outside of the lip)
  • Bottles (same as the carboy, everywhere inside and the lip) An extra plate to place the spoon, funnel, thermometer, etc. onto while they aren’t in use.

I tend to overspray by bottles and carboys a bit, but I just dump out the extra solution before I let it dry.

Boiling the Wort

Now you’re ready to brew! For your small batch of beer, be sure to set aside about 2 hours to boil the wort, transfer it to the carboy, and then kickstart the fermentation process.

Measure out your batch size in water plus 15%. This 15% is to compensate for water loss while boiling. If this is too much water to fit in your pot, only fill it such that you’re leaving a couple inches from the top. If you don’t have enough room, a boil over could occur and leave a super sticky mess all over your stovetop. Now, put your pot onto the stove on high and bring to boil. I prefer not to cover the pot for this step because doing so introduces another possible point for infection. If you would rather cover it, then be sure to have it sanitized.

While your water is being brought to a boil, measure out your dry extract using the scale. Once boiling, carefully pour your extract into the water. As you do, be sure to slowly mix with the sanitized, stainless steel spoon. Don’t stop stirring until all of the extract is dissolved. The water is probably no longer boiling at this point, so bring it back to boil. I like to drop the heat to medium-high at this point to reduce the chance of boil over.

While the wort is coming to a boil, measure out the Chinook hops, again using the scale. Once the surface of the wort starts to roll a bit, you’ll probably notice a sudden bubbling. This was the boil over risk I talked about earlier. Brewers call it the “hot break” and this is perfectly normal. Once the hot break subsides, add the Chinook hops. If you feel like the boil is a bit too vigorous even after the hot break, feel free to back off on the heat. As long as the surface of the wort is rolling a bit, it will turn out fine. Now set a timer for 35 minutes from now.

Once the timer goes off, measure out your Cascade hops and add them to the boil. Set another timer for 10 minutes. You don’t want the Cascade to boil for too long or you lose it’s fragrant floweriness that everyone loves. This is a good time to take the yeast out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature while still in the packet.

While the timer is ticking, fill your sink with water and ice to a few inches deep. If you have a big sink or not a lot of ice, get a container that can fit your pot to at least a few inches deep. This container doesn’t need to be sanitized. Place the container in the sink. Now fill with ice and water. The colder this is, the better.

When the timer goes off, kill the heat and move the pot into the ice water bath. The goal is to cool the wort quickly. The longer this takes, the higher chance of infection due to bacteria floating through the air. Some brewers will cover for this step, but I do not. The ice will melt pretty quickly, so be sure to add more if it melts completely. Every few minutes, put your thermometer in the wort and check the temperature. You’re aiming for 70 - 80°F. Cooling your wort is important for two reasons. One, wort that is too hot can temperature shock glass and shatter your carboy. Two, any higher temperature, and the yeast will produce off aromas and flavors. I made the mistake for my first batch and there was some funky banana and strawberry smells in the beer. Luckily it tasted fine and I was happy drinking it, but it’s not something you normally want.

Preparing for Fermentation in the Carboy

Once around 70 - 80°F, pour the wort into your carboy using the funnel. Careful not to splash as the wort becomes sticky when it dries. Do not fill the carboy completely. Depending on the type of beer you make, you'll need anywhere from a few inches of headspace to 50% of the container. Headspace is referred to as the space filled by air sitting above the fermenting beer. It's necessary to allow room for foam to form without it bubbling out of the carboy and causing a bit mess (more on this in the Fermentation section below). For our amber ale, leaving 10% to 20% headspace should be plenty. Once the pouring is complete, shake the carboy a bit to oxygenate the wort further. Not enough oxygen can stress out the yeast and cause off flavors.

At this point, it's unlikely that you'll have enough wort to bottle 64oz of beer. To make sure the volume is correct, add bottled water (tap water could introduce an infection, don't do it!) to your carboy until the wort reaches about an inch above half way. Half way for a 1 gallon carboy will be 64oz. You're shooting for about 74oz so that you have around 64oz of bottleable beer. The bottom of the carboy will be covered in up to an inch of yeast sediment and hops residue, called trub, at the end of fermentation. Bottling trub will not produce nice tasting beer.

Now measure out and add, or ‘pitch’ the yeast, as it’s called. There’s no need to stir or shake the carboy at this point. The yeast will permeate throughout the wort relatively quickly.

To seal the fermenter (carboy), slide the airlock into the hole of the rubber stopper. Fill it half full with either Star San solution from your spray bottle or unflavored vodka. You don’t want to use tap water as this could become a vector for infection into your beer. Lightly press the rubber stopper into the carboy. Don’t press too hard or your rubber stopper will become stuck and may even drop into the beer. I should also note that if your airlock came with a cap, be sure that you don’t leave it on. You want carbon dioxide that gets produced by the yeast to exit the airlock or else you’ll end up with an explosive fermentation on your hands (not fun to clean up!).

You’re done! Well, not quite. The wort will begin to ferment within 24 to 48 hours, but we want the yeast to be as happy as possible so they only produce the flavors we’re looking for. If your living space is already around 68 - 70°F, then you can probably leave the fermenting beer on its own. But, that’s not the case for myself, so I place my fermenters in the 10qt Rubbermaid Cooler that I mentioned in the Equipment section and then fill with water (not exceeding the height of the beer in any of the fermenters). Then, I place a frozen water bottle into the water until it reaches 65°F and then I remove it again. Surprisingly, the water will maintain the temperature between 65 - 70°F for days until it needs ice again, so the yeast will stay in their happy temperature range without too much attention from the brewer.

Now your brew day is finally complete! Congrats!

Fermentation

Within the first 24 - 48 hours of fermentation, you’ll notice foam starting to form on the top of the beer. This is called “krausen”. Krausen is completely normal and will not appear the same from beer to beer. As long as you don’t see fuzzy white or black stuff or a wrinkly looking texture forming on the surface of the krausen, then you’re good to go and there’s likely no infection.

Let fermentation go undisturbed and out of the sunlight for one to two weeks. Erring on the side of two weeks is typically better as it’s easier to accidentally under ferment. Over fermenting isn’t really possible, but if you leave the beer in the fermenter for too many months, the yeast will start to die, known as autolysis, and that will impart bad flavors in your beer.

If you aren’t using a hydrometer like I am, be sure to look for the krausen dissolving back into the beer. Once most of the krausen is gone, the fermentation is complete, or at least nearly so. I usually wait two to three days after the krausen has dropped to ensure that fermentation has completed.

Bottling

With fermentation complete, you’re ready to bottle your delicious homebrew. Same as you did for your carboy before brew day, clean your bottles with PBW, letting them sit for a few hours. Then rinse them out and apply Star San, both on the inside and on the outside of the lip. Also spray Star San on the underside of the bottle caps that you intend to use. Place the sanitized caps aside onto a sanitized plate.

Adding Priming Sugar for Carbonation

Once sanitized, add the priming sugar (I use corn sugar, but there are many types of sugar you can use for priming) to each bottle according to its size:

  • 12oz bottle: 2.25 g corn sugar
  • 16oz bottle: 3.0 g corn sugar
  • 22oz bottle: 4.15 g corn sugar

The amounts above will generate 2.4 volumes of CO^2 in each bottle. You can tweak the amounts +/- 0.5 g or so if you want them more or less carbonated. The amount of carbonation you want will depend on your recipe. 2.4 volumes is a typical amount for ales. Warning: Adding too much corn sugar can result in exploding bottles, also known as bottle bombs. Assuming you want to avoid a mixture of beer and glass shards flying around, be sure to double check your priming sugar quantities.

Transfer Beer to Bottles

When your bottles are all ready, transfer the beer to the bottles. Though not entirely necessary, most brewers will insist on siphoning beer from carboy to bottles. Oxygenation at this point will not be helpful and will cause oxidation of the beer. However, for beers with an already dark color, I’ve found that pouring them into the bottles slowly and carefully (to reduce bubbles) works fine all the same. Just be sure to not disturb the trub on the bottom of the carboy or you’ll end up with really yeasty beer. As your carboy empties, be sure to leave about a half inch to an inch of beer above the trub. You don’t want this incredibly yeasty beer bottled because it’s unlikely to taste very good.

When filling your bottles, you’ll want to stop about halfway up the neck of the bottle. For most bottles, this is about 1.5 to 2 inches from the top. When you’ve filled all of the bottles, place a sanitized cap onto each bottle and use your capper. If you bought the one in the Equipment section, it’s fairly easy to operate. Just touch the metal stopper to the cap and pull both levers down. Just be careful to not let the bottle slip.

Storing Your Newly Bottled Beer

Now you’ve bottled all of your beer! Unfortunately, it’s not quite ready to drink yet. The carbonation process takes about 2 weeks, but as I discuss in the next section, you can actually try it before then. In the meantime, don’t put these bottles into the fridge! The yeast left floating in the beer need to do their work in order for carbonation to occur. This is best done at around 70°F. I usually just let them sit at room temperature in a cool closet space.

Also note that while you clean up (which you should do immediately to ensure that the yeast doesn’t get caked all over your equipment), you can pour out a little of the remaining beer into a glass to see how the taste is progressing. There won’t be any carbonation and may also taste quite yeasty, but it should give you a small idea of how the final flavor will come out.

Homebrew Tasting

Once the two weeks carbonating period is up, put your bottles in the fridge like any normal beer. Be sure that they’ve chilled for at least a few hours before drinking. I know you can’t wait, but trust me it’s worth doing. This final cooling process, known as cold crashing, helps the yeast drop out of suspension in the beer and improves both taste and clarity. If you’ve made a large batch or don’t plan on finishing it immediately, typical homebrews will last a few months in the fridge without undergoing any negative taste changes. Infact, some beers will improve dramatically after a few weeks.

When you do drink your beer, there are two things to keep in mind: one, homebrews should be drunk from a glass; and two, when you pour the beer, be sure to leave a fourth to a half of an inch left in the bottle. The last drops of beer will have some yeast sediment built up from the carbonation process. You don’t want to pour this into your glass or your whole beer will be too yeasty to properly enjoy.

So, you’ve made your first batch and bottled it, and you’re wondering you can try the beer before carbonation is completed. The answer is absolutely! Before carbonation is finished, I like to do a checkup and drink one bottle from each batch. Not only can I not wait to try it, but it should be drinkable at this point. It just won’t be as carbonated, and some unexpected flavors may still be lingering. Another week should clear up fruity ester aromas and some weak off flavors. Just make sure to cold crash the bottle before you drink it.

After taste testing your beer at each point in the process: at bottling time, after 1 week in the bottle, and after 2 weeks in the bottle, you should get a decent idea about how your future beers might progress.

That’s it! Hopefully you made it all the way through this article and enjoyed every bit as much as I did. Happy brewing!

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me: contact@jasonbcox.com