How to make Beer ( a beginners primer)
There are two basic ways to make beer: All Grain and Malt Extract. The difference is how much processing has taken place to the grain by someone else. When starting with the grain, you convert the starch within the grain into sugar, extract the sugar, add hops to it, boil then ferment. When brewing extract brews, you buy syrups or powders that you dilute, add hops to, boil then ferment. But first you need a good recipe. The best online recipe database I have found is located at: http://hbd.org/brewery/cm3/ .
If you have selected an all grain recipe the first step after purchasing the ingredients is to crush your grain. Most homebrew stores have grain mills in the store that you can use, some are manual, and others can have an electric drill hooked up to them. The grain should be crushed, but not ground into flour. You want the husks of the grain to mostly be intact to act as a filter later in the process.
When the time to brew arrives you will need to convert the starch into sugar (maltose). This process is known as mashing. You put your grain into a large (5-8 gallons suffice but you could probably get away with a 4 gallon) cooking pot, and add enough water that you can easily stir the concoction. Heat the pot to between 152ºF and 158ºF for about an hour, or until dropping iodine into a small cup (less than half an ounce) of your liquid doesn't turn it dark purple.
Once the conversion is complete you must separate the sweet liquid from the discardable grains in a process known as lautering. For this you need a special piece of equipment called a lauter tun. It is basically a bucket that has a drain in the bottom, a false bottom to keep the grain out of the drain, and a sprinkler arm on top. Place all your grain, and the liquid it was heated in into the lauter tun. Drain off some liquid and replace it back into the top of the lauter tun. You will need to do this many times monitoring the clarity of the runoff. Once it has little cloudy particulate matter in it, the husks have formed a filter bed, and you can drain off your wort into a boiling kettle. Run hot (about 150-170ºF) sparge water through the sprinkler to help rinse the sugars out of the grain, until the runoff is nearly clear, or you have as much liquid as your boiling kettle can hold.
You are now caught up to the point where extract brewers start.
Extract brewing starts here
As an Extract Brewer, you are purchasing the syrups or powders that contain the sugars extracted from the grain in the above directions. Throw your sugars into a boiling kettle, add your water, and continue with the steps common to both methods.
Steps common to both methods
At this point, you should have a boiling kettle full of hot wort, and it is time to boil your beer. Start heating your kettle, and once it is boiling, you can add your hops according to the timing the recipe calls for. If the recipe says 60 minutes, you boil the hops for 60 minutes, not put it in at 60 minutes into the boil. Most recipes call for an hour-long boil, but some call for more or less depending on the style of beer, and the opinions of whoever wrote the recipe. Try to not boil away too much water, as that will cause there to be too much sugar in the wort, for the style of beer you are trying to make. However, that will also result in a higher alcohol beer, just fewer bottles of it. Most of the time hops are added near the end of the boil too to add hop flavor and aroma to the beer. The hops added early to the boil only add bitterness.
Once the boil is finished, you need to cool the liquid down quickly. The cheapest way to do this is to fill the bathtub about 5" deep with ice water. You will need several bags of ice to cool 5 gallons of water down from 212ºF to just below 100ºF. Once cooled you can put it in a fermenter. Either a 5-gallon food grade bucket, or glass carbouy should suffice. Add your yeast (if dried yeast is used rehydrate it earlier in the day. If a liquid yeast culture is used remember to start it a day or two in advance.) affix an airlock and wait about two weeks.
Once activity in the airlock ceases, you have beer, albeit flat beer. To carbonate it, add ¾ cups of corn sugar to 2 cups water. Boil it. Cool it. Add it to your beer. Using a bottle filler, you can fill bottles with your wonderful creation, and you will of course need a capper to seal the bottles. The yeast in the brew will eat the sugar you just added, and convert that into more alcohol and carbon dioxide. As the carbon dioxide has no place to escape, it will dissolve into the beer and carbonation occurs. Wait two weeks with the bottles stored in a safe place for carbonation to occur. There is a slim chance that if you put it in the bottles before it was done fermenting, that the bottles may explode. After enough time that carbonation occurs properly, sit back and drink up. You earned it.
Anything that touches the brew after the boil, including carbouys and bottles must be sanitized!!!!!!
Don't breathe on your beer as you have bacteria in your mouth that can cause beer to taste bad.
A hydrometer measures the density (specific gravity) of a liquid. (The SG of the beer before fermentation - the SG of the beer after fermentation) * .129 = percent alcohol by volume.
Buy a thermometer.
The single thing you can do that will show the greatest improvement in your beer is switch from dry yeast cultures to liquid yeast cultures.
A news group rec.crafts.brewing exists for the discussion of brewing beer, and has many knowledgeable frequenters.