Okay, so now you've got everything you need and you're itching to get your first batch of beer underway. The first thing you'll want to do is decide what kind of beer to brew. Since you've never done this before, keep it simple. The recipe should include malt extract, yeast and hops. Later nodes will discuss the addition of other ingredients such as specialty grains, various types of sugars, and substances which affect your water chemistry. A good place to find a wide variety of recipes is Homebrew Digest's Beer Recipator, at http://www.hbd.org/. We'll be using the following amber ale recipe as an example here:

  • 6 lbs. Light Malt Extract
  • 1 lb. Light Dry Malt Extract
  • 2 oz. Cascade hops
  • Wyeast #1056 "American Ale"

First, let's talk about each of these ingredients and the role they play. Malt extract is a syrup made from malted barley, and usually comes in 3 lb. cans. Your local homebrew shop may also sell their own "generic" malt extract. If so, I suggest you use the generic - it should be significantly less expensive, and is just as good as the "brand name" extracts. Dry malt extract, or DME, is the same stuff in powder form. Malt extracts provide the sugar which the yeast ferments into alcohol, and they come in several varieties, ranging from dark to extra light. The type of extract used will have some impact on the flavor of your beer, but will primarily determine its color.

Hops are what give beer its bitterness, and they come in two forms: whole hops and pellet hops. Whole hops are the actual dried flowers of the hop plant, while pellet hops are compressed and look rather like gerbil food. Many homebrew shops only carry pellet hops - they are cheaper, and have a longer effective shelf life. Pellets vs. whole hops is one of the great debates among homebrewers, and I'm not going to get into it. I personally use pellet hops and, at least for your first batch, I suggest you do also. You will find them easier to work with.

The yeast is what does the real work as far as making beer is concerned: it eats the sugars you provide and excretes alcohol in return. This process is, of course, fermentation, something which we will cover in greater detail later. There are many different varieties of yeast, each designed to work best with a specific style of beer. Wyeast Labs is the most common brand of yeast, carried by most homebrew shops. The yeast itself is in liquid form, and will be packaged in one of two ways: in a flat foil "smack pack", or a toothpaste-like tube. The smack pack will require you to make a starter culture at least a day or two ahead of time before you can use it, while the tube is usable on demand. For this reason, I suggest you use the tube for your first batch if your brewshop carries them. It will cost an extra two or three dollars, but it will simplify the brewing process for you.

When you get your ingredients home, the hops and yeast should be refrigerated immediately, while the extracts can be left out. Now it's time to get your equipment ready. The first thing you should do is sterilize your carboy by putting a couple tablespoons of regular household bleach in it and then filling it with water. Let it soak for ten minutes or so, then empty and rinse it at least two or three times, until the bleach smell is completely gone. Put the stopper and fermentation lock on it to keep anything from getting in while you're brewing.

Now pour two gallons of water into your brewkettle and fire it up. If you have a water filter in your home, use the filtered water. If not, you may wish to buy distilled water from your supermarket for this purpose. Tap water is quite acceptable for brewing in most areas, but you should check with the person at your local homebrew shop first. He or she will almost certainly be well acquainted with your city's water quality.

While you're waiting for the water to boil, fill another container with hot water and submerge the unopened containers of liquid malt extract in it. This will make the extract pour more easily when it's time to use it. Once your water is boiling, turn the flame down and grab a wooden spoon. Remove the malt extract from the hot water, open the containers and begin stirring the water slowly with your spoon. As you're doing this, pour the malt extract in steadily, stirring the whole time. This will help the extract dissolve completely in the water and will minimize the possibility of scorching it on the bottom of the pot.

Once the liquid extract has all dissolved in the water, add the DME and stir until it is dissolved as well. The almost-beer you now have in your brewkettle is referred to as "wort" (pronounced "wert"). Turn the flame back up on the stove and bring your wort back to a boil. This will take some time, but if you go sit down and watch some TV or read a book, I absolutely guarantee that your wort will boil over and make a huge mess of your brewkettle, stove and floor. It will also cause any spouse you might have to take an immediate dislike to your new hobby. Trust me on this one, stick close to your wort.

When your wort has begun to boil, turn the heat down to low so you can maintain a slow, steady boil that won't froth over. Now, add the hop pellets and stir well. The pellets will break up into tiny fragments and most will remain floating on the top of your wort. This is normal. Your wort will need to boil for one full hour before it will be ready for the next step. At this point, you are free to go watch TV or read that book. Check back on your wort from time to time, stirring it every now and then.

After 45 or 50 minutes or so, it's time to start preparing for the next step, that of cooling the wort. You can buy a wort chiller from most homebrew shops, but they're rather expensive and usually unnecessary. It's important to cool your wort fairly quickly to reduce the possibility of bacteria or foreign particles contaminating your beer. The easiest way I've found to do this is to place the brewkettle in my laundry sink and surround it with cold water. Periodically agitating the water and the wort will speed up the process somewhat as well. This is also a good time to use that brewing thermometer.

While the wort is cooling, place about 2 gallons of cold water in your carboy. You'll also need to get your funnel and strainer ready (sterilize them if you wish), and have a "dipper" of some sort handy. I use a one quart Pyrex measuring cup. Once your wort has cooled to somewhere in the range of 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit, it's ready to go into the carboy. Set your funnel in the mouth of the carboy, and place the strainer inside it. Then use your dipper to transfer the wort a little at a time into the carboy. The strainer will catch most of the hop particles and anything else that might be floating around in your wort. You will most likely need to empty the strainer from time to time or it will get clogged.

Once all your wort has made its way into the carboy, it needs to be agitated or shaken vigorously. This helps the wort absorb as much oxygen as possible, which will speed up the fermentation process. If you plan on keeping records of what you do, now is a good time to decant a small amount of wort from the carboy and use your hydrometer to measure its specific gravity. You can note this down as the beer's original gravity, or OG. This figure will help you determine your beer's alcohol content when it is finished.

Now check the little stick-on thermometer on the side of your carboy. Most ale yeasts prefer a temperature range of about 60-72 degrees Fahrenheit for fermentation. If the temperature of your wort is within that range, go ahead and add the yeast now. In homebrew jargon, this process is called "pitching" the yeast. If the temperature of your wort is significantly above 72 degrees, wait until it cools a bit more before pitching.

After you've pitched the yeast, add enough water to "top off" the carboy, and then take it to its new home and set it down. Ideally, your carboy should rest on a flat, stable surface a few feet above the floor. There should also be enough room for your bottling bucket to be set next to it. The room the carboy is in will of course need to be the proper temperature for the beer you're brewing, and should be relatively out of the way. Your yeast can only do its job in the dark, so it's a good idea to cover the carboy somehow. You can buy special carboy covers, but an old sweatshirt fits just fine - you can use the carboy handle to clamp it firmly in place.

Once your carboy is covered, take your thick flexible plastic tube and insert one end firmly into the carboy. Place the other end in your bottling bucket and add enough water to submerge it. This allows gases to escape from the carboy during fermentation without letting in any foreign particles or bacteria. Now clean up your mess, and you're done.

The next node in this series, Homebrewing 103: Primary Fermentation, will explain the fermentation process a bit, and provide some insights into what you can expect throughout. You may also wish to go back and read Homebrewing 101: Getting Started if you haven't already.