So, You Want to Start Home-Brewing?

You like the idea of being able to make your own beer? You can make it much, much cheaper than those expensive craft breweries and save yourself a fortune going to the pub for a few pints, right? I’m currently laughing my socks off writing this – why? Read on.

Let’s delve in and see how you go about this and/or see if you’re kidding yourself on. Prepare to fall into the shiny world of home brewing equipment – magpies unite!

By the way, I was laughing to myself because once you see the equipment you can buy, it’s difficult to stop yourself spending lots on it. Plenty of people make good beer with minimal kit. It’s more about your process and ability to repeat it once you work out how your kit works best.

If you want to learn brewing all grain beers, you can do a lot worse than learning from a professional. Hands on courses, like the all grain brewing courses put on by Twisted Hops at Ampersand Brewery in Diss are a great way to start. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to get to grips with, so getting a grounding on a course makes sense.

Great Hobby – Great People

Home brewing is a great hobby, filled with many knowledgable people. You don’t have to stick to the tried and tested recipes and methods. Although to begin with, until you get your methods and processes nailed down. Copying isn’t a bad idea to start with. Recreating something that’s been proven and known to work is a good way to find your way and learn your system..

Home brewing can be about anything you want it to be. It can be nailing your process and being able to repeat the same beer time after time. It can be about trying out some wild idea that’s way-way out there, like adding the contents of the spice cupboard in the search for a new flavours. A lot depends on your end goal, and whether you want to share your beers with friends and peers for the all important feedback or not.

Feedback is essential for any home brewer to hone and develop your skills and refine your recipes and methods.

Sharing Your Beer Is Scary

When you first start bringing bottles of your home brew to bottle shares or home brew clubs, it can be a little bit daunting (we’ve all been there). However, if you want to improve, you need to learn to take the good feedback with the constructive criticism, toughen up and learn the lessons. There are lots of ways of learning, but the best (and quickest) way is learning from people that have been exactly where you are. Be brave and take that initial step into the warm embrace of home brew clubs.

Joining your local home brew club, like the Anglian Craft Brewers, gives you access to talented local brewers. It’s also a direct interface to the hive mind that will give you the answers to your questions. It can save you a long-long time searching the internet for answers.

When you brew a beer there are many steps, but here we’ll cover (on a high level) the main stages, known as:

Before we go any further. Understand that making beer is more about cleaning and sterilising. Sterilising is highly important for anything that touches the wort post boiling. If your not going to keep your kit in great condition, you’ll struggle to make great beer sooner or later.

Mashing

The Mash is a process of turning the diastatic power of malted grains (malted barley/wheat etc.) into Wort (“wurt/wart/wort”).

You’ll use heated water to activate different enzymes. Most beers are made with a single “rest”. The rest is a pre-determined temperature of “strike water” the brewer calculates, based on a few different variables. Variables include: grain temperatures, the thermal mass of the mash tun (how much temperature it’s likely to pull out of the strike water). The end goal is to work out how hot you need to heat the strike water to achieve your rest temperature. Strike water is the water you’ll use to dough in, which is brewing terminology for mixing the strike water with your grains (grist).

I know, there’s a lot of new terminology to get to grips with. But hang in there, it’s all worth it.

The mash tun will need to be able to hold your mash temperature to within around 5C for at least up to an hour. As far as system go, as a home brewer you can either use an all-in-one recirculating mash-kettle system, like the Grainfather G40 or make a Tun out of a plastic thermo picnic hampers. Others buy or convert stainless steel thermo-pots. You can even build your own RIMS (Recirculating Infusion Mash System).

Enzymatic Conversion

When the enzymes work to convert different starches into different sugars, most commonly sucrose, maltose etc. These sugars have different molecular masses and are either more or less accessible for brewer’s yeast to convert to alcohol. How you create the sugar profile of your wort works to affect the mouthfeel and body of the beer. There’s tons of information out there regarding the conversion temperatures and enzyme activity of mashing. As you’re only browsing and looking to learn a bit more, We’ll only touch the basics here.

In a brewer’s mash we are concerned with the activity of two main enzymes, alpha and beta amylase.

Alpha amylase is the enzyme responsible for breaking large, complex, insoluble starch molecules into smaller, soluble molecules. It is stable in hot, watery mashes and will convert starch to soluble sugars in a temperature range from 145 to 158 °F (63 to 70 °C). It requires calcium as a co-factor.

Beta amylase is the other mash enzyme capable of degrading starch. Through its action, it is the enzyme largely responsible for creating large amounts of fermentable sugar. It breaks starch down systematically to produce maltose. Beta amylase is active between 131 and 149 °F (55 and 65 °C). But like all enzymes, its activity reaches a peak, declines, and then drops precipitously as temperature increases. The rate is also dependent on the amount of enzyme present. It takes time for all of the enzyme to be destroyed, but what is still intact works very quickly. So as the mash temperature approaches 149 °F (65 °C), beta amylase is operating at its fastest rate but it is also being denatured.

This may seem trivial, but at these higher temperatures the denaturation is so rapid that the enzyme is mostly gone in less than 5 minutes. Also, in a homebrewer’s mash tun, where the grain may be poured into very hot water, the exposure to very high heat for the few seconds before the mixture becomes homogenous may work to destroy the fragile enzymes.

This means that, in a practical sense, the manipulation of beta amylase activity can be utilised to control the fermentability of the wort. If the mash is allowed to “stand” at a temperature that favours the action of beta amylase, then a greater proportion of the sugars extracted from the malt will be maltose and hence the wort will prove more fermentable.

In my commercial breweries, I found that changing the mash temperature from 149 to 156 °F (65 to 69 °C) raised the beer’s terminal gravity from 1.008 to 1.014. This is a significant difference.

Taken from BYO website.

In short – Mashing at 65C or under (down to about 55C) and you produce more Beta enzymes, which gives the yeast more fermentable sugars in the wort. This is known as a highly fermentable wort. From around 63C (up to around 72C) and you add more Alpha enzymes, which the vast majority of brewer’s yeast can’t easily, fully metabolise. This leaves the sugars unfermented, adding to the body and mouthfeel of the final beer.

Sparge

Sparging is the process of rinsing the mash bed of the remaining sugars. There are a few different methods available, some are quicker than others, but the lesson to take here is the longer, gentler and more thorough you are, the more sugars you’ll capture in the kettle and the better your overall efficiency will be. If you’re brewing with a BIAB (Brew In A Bag) or all-in-one system, sparging is literally about letting the grains drain above the kettle and maybe using some heated water to rinse the grains to make up your boil volume.

With a three-vessel system you can use a smaller amount of heated “strike” water in the mash tun to hit your rest temperature, leave it for arond 60 minutes and either batch sparge, which many home brewers do or fly sparge. Fly sparging is more popular in commercial breweries. Commercial brewers do this to get the maximum out of the sugars available to them to maximise the commercial efficiency of each beer. As home brewers, we can cut a corner and just add a bit more malt to get more sugars. This is why batch sparging is often preferred. Batch sparging is where you mash your grains at set temperature(s) and then drain the wort to the kettle in batches. After your done with the first, strong wort, you simply add the rest of your sparge water, give it all a stir and let it settle or recirculate the wort to set the grain bed and empty the mash tun to the kettle once it’s runs clear.

Boiling

Boiling is does many things, but in the main, it’s used to reduce the water in solution to concentrate the sugars. It’s also to achieve the hot break and to drive off other undesirable volatiles created in the making of the wort. Certain volatiles are not wanted in the final beer as they can cause off flavours..

Hot Break comprises of proteins and polyphenols that coagulate during the boil. The volatiles eventually clump together in large enough chunks to break out of solution. When they do this they fall to the bottom of the kettle. The hot break usually starts around 5 to 30 min after a vigorous boil starts.

Hop Additions

As brewers, we add hops at differing intervals during the boil to give the beer different characters. Hops are added early in the boil for bitterness. Hop bitterness balances out sweet malt and alcohol flavours. Later hop additions are used to give flavour and aroma.

Hops are used for their anti-bacterial properties and have been used to make beer for their bittering, aroma and flavour qualities. Hops contain two resins, which we’re interested in for brewing: Alpha and Beta acids.

Alpha acids give bitterness and need the boil to issomerise them in to solution.

Beta acids give flavour and aroma. They aren’t isommerised during the boil, and contain many volatile elements that are driven off by prolonged boiling. This is why late, even dry hops are used for flavour and aroma.

Bittering Hop Additions

Bittering occurs during the boil as the alpha acids (given in AA% for bittering potential) are isomerised. The humulone resins in hops aren’t soluble in water and require boiling to isomerise them. Bitterness in beer is a desired quality as it’s used to balance the sweetness of malts and other non-fermentable sugars/adjuncts. Without bitterness to balance a beer, it would be too sweet and cloying. Bittering hops are added first, at the start of the boil or at around 60 minutes before flame out, where the heat is removed. It’s then cooled for whirlpooling where late aroma hops are added.

Modern innovations have brought vials of bittering, aroma and dry hop oils. These oils are improving all the time and worth a look.

Aroma & Flavour Hop Additions

Beta acid compounds are used to give aroma and they are not isomerised during boiling. They contain very volatile essential oils which are driven off by the steam leaving the boil and therefore tend to be added in the final minutes of the boil or after it’s complete. Dry hopping is also a commonly used method for adding these delicate compounds to the beer.

Aroma and flavour hop additions are later hop additions. The later the hops are added the fewer of the volatile flavonoids and aroma oils are driven off by the boiling wort. Boiling hops or steeping them above around 80C issomerises the hops oils and adds to the bitterness.

Adding hops at regular interval throughout the boil period is reported to give a smooth bitterness with a balance of flavour and aroma. It’s quite popular to add a hop charge at the start of a 60 minute boil and then add more hops at around 15, 10, 5 and more at flameout, which is known as a whirlpool addition.

Whirlpool Hop Additions

Whirlpool hops are popular as they add flavour and aroma. If you want to maximise the aroma of your hops, the whirlpool is a great place to start.

The whirlpool is performed by cooling the wort to around 80C, adding the hops and rigorously stirring to collect the trub and hop debris in the centre of the kettle. The clear wort is then gently drawn from the side of the kettle, allowing you to collect all the clear wort.

There are other methods that use a pump and whirlpool arm. Pump-driven whirlpooling is simply the process of drawing wort from the kettle and recirculating it using the pump back to the kettle via the whirlpool port. The whirlpool port or arm sits in the side of the kettle and directs the pumped wort to the side walls in one direction, creating the whirlpool effect. This is popular, as done properly, it creates a nice trub cone and allows you to easily draw off very clear wort.

Dry Hop Additions

Once the beer is in the fermentor and partly or fully fermented out, dry hopping is the process of adding more hops. This is done to increase the intensity of the hop flavour and aroma. Done correctly, it really enhances a beer. Done incorrectly, it can ruin what was otherwise a good beer.

Cooling Wort

After the boil is complete, rapid cooling of the wort is important to avoid bugs contaminating and taking hold in the wort. It’s also to create what is known as the “cold break”. Cold Break is a mixture of proteins, protein-polyphenol complexes, and carbohydrates that precipitate from wort when you cool it. It’s important to achieve the cold break as it can contribute to chill haze if left in solution. You don’t want to leave the cold break in your beer as they can cause spoilage and reduce the longevity of your beer. The cold break is a visible clumping of proteins – keeping them out means you end up with better beer.

There are a multitude of methods available to chill your wort. You can start by using cold or iced water in the sink and putting the kettle in it. If you like making your own equipment, then try a homemade counterflow chiller or buy one. they work really well. If you’re prefer, use an immersion chillers for a simpler method of chilling. A heat exchanger works similarly to a counter flow chiller, but in a smaller and more efficient manner. The premise is very similar in most methods for home brewers. You’re exposing the wort to a colder water source to chill it.

We need to rapidly chill wort from boiling to a pitching temperature range that’s suitable for the yeast we’re using. This can range from 21-39C for a Kveik Yeast, to a more traditional 17C for an English or American yeast, such as S04 and US-05.

Pitching Yeast

Pitching yeast is the point of adding the dried or liquid yeast to the fermentor. It’s a good idea to oxygenate the wort as much as possible to get the yeast off to a good start.. And, unless you have a dedicated Oxygen injection system, there’s only so much freely available oxygen that you can get into solution. So make sure you’re enthusiastically splashing the cooled wort into your fermentor as you’re filling it.

If you use dry yeast, it’s a great idea to pitch the yeast early on in the transfer (to the fermentor). Simply sprinkle the packet (or packets for lagers) on top of the wort and then incorporate it by splashing the wort on top of it, adding oxygen.

Home-Brew Systems

No matter if you’re starting from wort kits or you want to jump in with both feet and make your own beer from scratch, with all-grain brewing. There’s a pathway for everyone. The learning curve is as sharp and long as you want it to be.

How To Start Home Brewing – Different Methods of Brewing for Beginners

Kit Brewing

If you want to make beer and don’t want to shell out on a dedicated brewing system, kits are a great starting point. Wort kits cut out a heap of time. Kits provide you with the wort in the form of malt extract. You’ll add water to this and then ferment it to make your final beer. You can even add sugar to up the final ABV or add different hops or hop extracts to change the bitterness and flavours and aromas. There’s a lot to learn from creating good kit beers, it’s not a given and you will learn from starting here. 

All-Grain Brewing

If you want to learn the hard way, all-grain brewing is the route. To “brew” all grain beers, you’ll need a few things and understand that it’ll take more time (think 4-6 hours rather than around an hour versus kit brewing, slightly longer for partial mash.

You’ll also need additional kit. All-grain brewing has many methods, which may or may not suit you. Depending on the style of system that suits you, you can use the different methods to cut some time off your brew day or copy the professionals and take your time. 

All-in-one and Brew-in-the-bag systems allow you to ramp the temperature up to start the boil quicker – as soon as you start the sparge process. You can cut as much as 30 minutes off by ramping the heating elements up to full power as soon as you lift the grain basket or bag to drain it out. You’ll then gently pour the sparge water over the grains to rinse the remaining sugars out. The wort will still get to boiling in the same timeframe, but not waiting for the sparge to finish is the key takeaway.

Home-Brewing Systems

All-in-one systems

Many people prefer the convieinece of an all-in-one mash/kettle system, such as the Grainfather G40 or Grainfather S40, BrewTools or RoboBrew 35l all-in-one systems, these are great and highly intuitive systems that make great all-grain beers.

Brew-in-the-bag systems

You might want to take your first steps into all-grain brewing. Many people do this using a brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) brewing system. BIAB systems are often one or two pot systems so you don’t need a dedicated Mash Tun. The Bag element of BIAB is a large grain bag, purchased to suit your system. The bag is used, much like a teabag, to steep the grains. When the mash is complete, you’ll hoist the the bag of grains out and leave it to drain.

To get the remaining sugars out of the grains, it can be a good idea to either squeeze the bag or leave it to drain in another bucket. If you have a long boil or have high evaporation losses, you can extract more of the remaining sugars by dipping the grain bag into a bucket of water and leaving it to drain. You can add this low gravity “final running’s” to the kettle to eek more out of your brewday.

A one pot BIAB system allows you to mimic an All-in-One system. You’ll create wort by completing a “full-volume” mash. Full volume is where you mash the grains in the bag with the full volume of brewing water that you intend to boil (including mash and boil losses). 

A two pot BIAB system allows you to use either use the kettle as the Mash Tun with the grain bag or have a separate mash tun and boiler/Hot Liquor Tank (HLT). You’ll need to use one to mash in and the other to heat the brewing water. This system allows you to use different volumes of water to create your wort’s sugar profile and means you’re only one step away from a 3-pot system (HLT, Kettle and Mash Tun).

Three-pot brewing systems

Three-pot brewing systems are more like what you’ll see in most commercial breweries. Three-pot systems include a Hot liquor tank, Mash Tun and a boil Kettle. There are a few different styles of system too. RIMS (direct heat) and HERMS (indirect heat) systems are methods of maintaining or increasing the mash temperatures. Both can be used for step-mashing.

To begin with, you really don’t need to go down the three-pot route. Three-pot systems work and you can make great beer and design your own recipes and tailor the system and add or remove bits to suit the recipe – you can also do the same with BIAB two-pot and all-in-one systems. There are pros and cons to all systems and methods of brewing and you can pretty much achieve similar beers on all the listed systems. It’s mostly about how much time you want to spend, your available brewing space and ultimately how deep your pockets are.

Water Chemistry

Ha-ha, just joking. thats beyond the scope of this article. If you’re interested and want a good overview for starting to modify your own water, check this article out on an introduction to water treatment.

If I was starting fresh

I love my three-pot with RIMS system, I built and modified the system myself and have made some good beer with it. I have a 50-litre capacity, but mostly brew 21- or 23-litres. If I was starting fresh, all over. I’d probably opt for an all-in-one system like the Grainfather G40 or the G70. The small footprint and ability to set timers and remote control is attractive. It means you can set it up and walk away for a period of time during the strike water heating and mash process.

NOTE: I would never leave the boil – don’t ever take your eyes off a boiling kettle.

I would definitely consider learning from a professional brewer with a hands on course, like the all grain brewing courses put on by Twisted Hops at Ampersand Brewery in Diss. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to get to grips with, so getting a grounding on a brewing course makes sense.

I hope you found this article helpful? Please leave a comment below and don’t forget to share it around with other interested brewers – cheers.

2 thoughts on “So, You Want to Start Home-Brewing?

    1. Hi Kris, glad you enjoyed it and happy there’s some useful information for you. Just updated the post with a link to an all grain brewing course that Twisted Hops are holding at Ampersand Brewery, Diss. Might be a good opportunity to learn from a pro to give you a good grounding?

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