My brewing process
Note that I am updating my brewing process very soon to reflect my new brewing system. But for now, you can take a quick look at my HERMS.

I currently brew most of my beers using all grain brewing methods. Although this process takes more time than extract brewing (using syrups and powders derived from grains), I still prefer it because I have more control. Since I also enjoy the "scientific" part of the brewing process, all grain brewing is just more interesting to me. But, here I outline what I do when I brew using both techniques. Note that this is not exhaustive and is primarily meant as an introduction to those that might be interested in beginning this kickass hobby!

NOTE: I recently built a new system and will be putting up my updated brewing process with pictures soon.

If I had to identify the most important thing involved in the brewing process, I'd have to say that it is cleanliness and sanitation. Be sure to keep everything clean and properly sanitized. I usually stuff everything that will touch the beer after the boil into a fermentation bucket (including the lid and airlock). I then fill it full to the brim with water and 4 tablespoons of plain bleach. That takes care of it, but be sure to properly rinse everything that's been sanitized! Lately, I've taken to using Star San since it can be reused quite well and lasts a while. A second important thing would be to pay attention to temperatures during the brewing process, but particularly during fermentation. Doing so drastically helps with consistency. And lastly, taste your beer! Yes, I mean to taste in when it's ready to drink, but also taste it at different intervals in the process. For example, I taste my beer after the boil once it's cooled. I taste it after it's been through the primary fermentation. I taste it after it's been through the optional secondary fermentation. I taste it right before bottling. Sometimes I taste my beers at different times after it's been bottled. For example, I know that my beer probably won't be ready 1 week after bottling, but I sometimes taste it just to see what it's like. I think those kinds of things are important as they help you to better understand the whole process. Think of it as a feedback loop: input, process, output. You can only learn and get better if you analyze some input (beer, wort, hops, grains, measurements, etc) and generate output (methods, recipes, techniques, etc).

There are four main "ingredients" used when making beer: malted barley (the grain), hops (the flowers), water, and yeast (the bacteria). Brewing attempts to treat the malted barley with water in order to extract as much fermentable sugars as possible (technically, starches are converted into these sugars by enzymes). The sugar will eventually be consumed by the yeast and converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Once the extraction is done, we boil the "wort" and add hops periodically. The hops add unique flavors and characteristics to the resulting beer. Adding hops early into the boil contributes to the bitterness of the beer, adding hops near the middle of the boil mostly contributes a hop flavor, and adding hops near the end of the boil mostly contributes a hop aroma. After boiling, we're left with very young beer; it just doesn't have any alcohol or carbonation yet. At this point, We must cool down the beer very quickly in order to "pitch" the yeast to start the fermentation process.

During the initial stages of fermentation (typically anywhere from 1 to 2 weeks), we allow the carbon dioxide generated by the yeast to escape while trapping the alcohol in. When bottling the beer, we trap just enough carbon dioxide to create carbonation. Beer is usually ready to drink about 2 weeks after bottling. Some beers, however, benefit from extended aging. I've brewed beers that have fermented for months and aged even longer once bottled.

Extract Brewing
A difficult task of brewing beer involves extracting enough fermentable sugars from the malted barley. In extract brewing we don't have to worry about this because someone else (an expert) has already extracted these sugars and packaged them into malt extract. You'll typically find two kinds of extract, dry malt extract and liquid malt extract, and both are a pain in the ass to work with! But it doesn't matter because homebrewing is so much fun that we're willing to overlook such little things, right? Plus, we can enjoy a chilled homebrew while brewing a batch of beer!

Of course, you may want to start brewing with ingredient kits (pre-packaged kits that have exactly the ingredients you'll need to brew a particular batch of beer). That's how I started, and I made some pretty damn good beer this way. So to start the brewing process, we typically heat water to about 155F and steep some grains (usually in a type of mesh bag) for about 15-30 minutes. Not all extract beers will have grains that require steeping, but some will.

After adding the malt extract

Waiting for the boil

We then remove the grains and bring the water to a boil. Now the fun part. We add the malt extract and bring the water back to a boil. This is where the dreaded boil-over can happen. When the water comes to a boil, it reacts with the malt extract and foams. Sometimes, there's so much foam--and it comes up so quickly--that, if you don't pay attention, your kitchen floor will be covered in stickyness for the next 3 months. But don't let that stop you from brewing! At this point, we add hops at different times in the boil according to a hop schedule. After a typical 60-minute boil, we can strain the wort into our fermenter. Our target is to have a little over 5 gallons in the fermenter.

With extract brews, we typically have about 2.5 to 3 gallons, so we'll need to add water to make up the difference. It's important to quickly cool the beer or else harmful bacteria may creep in and ruin it. And that would be a bad thing! I've never had that happen, but I'm always very careful to properly sanitize everything and to quickly cool down my wort. I do this by putting about 7 pounds of ice in the fermenter and pouring the wort right over it. In the images above, I use my wort chiller to cool down the wort. I then add just enough water to total about 5.5 gallons. Next we add the yeast (in this case, I'm using liquid yeast, but I've used dry yeast in the past). The lid goes on the fermenter, and we put the airlock in place. The airlock prevents air from going into the beer during fermentation but allows carbon dioxide to easily escape. Now, we wait...

Avoiding the dreaded boil-over

Topping up with water

Pitching the yeast
The cleanup

All Grain Brewing
With all grain brewing, we have much more control over the beer making process. With that, however, additional equipment is required in order to be able to extract the fermentable sugars from the malted barley. What that essentially amounts to is an insulated container (I use a retro-fitted cooler that functions as my mash/lauter tun) that will be used to mash (or steep) the grains, a larger boil kettle (since we'll be boiling the entire volume of wort which is over 6 gallons depending on your system (I use a converted beer keg), and a wort chiller (I made my own by inserting 50 feet of 3/8" copper tubing into 50 feet of 5/8" garden hose and added a few fittings and tubing) it took 10 minutes to stuff 40 feet and 40 minutes to stuff the last 10 feet!) to cool our wort down quickly to pitching temperatures (somewhere around 65-80F). Since we're talking about boiling that much wort, it may take too long on the stove so we typically head outside and use a propane burner (something from a turkey fryer is what I started with).

Some of the all-grain equipment

Sanitizing the fermenter and other useful things

The homemade counterflow chiller
A simple jug used to vorlauf

The mash/lauter tun
The valve at the bottom of the mash/lauter tun

The beautiful keggle
A pretty good hop strainer at the bottom of the keggle

The typical all-grain process consists of several steps:

  1. The mash: steeping the grains for some time in order to start the conversion of starch to fermentable sugars. In essence, we're heating water (called the strike water) to an appropriate temperature so that our grains can be mashed for usually around 60 minutes at about 152F in order to begin the starch conversion process and extract the fermentable sugars from the grain. That depends on the amount and temperature of the grain and on the amount of water you will use to mash (usually 1.25 quarts per pound of grain). Once the mash is finished, we need to top it up with water so that we increase the temperature to about 168F in order to halt the starch conversion process and to make up for the water that is absorbed by the grain (this is called the mash-out). That typically means heating an amount of water to 210F and adding it to the cooler. I add this top-up water, mix well and wait about 10 minutes. We can then begin to collect the sweet wort. I have a valve at the bottom of my cooler that is connected to some tubing on the outside and a CPVC manifold on the inside. The idea is to allow the grain inside the cooler to settle and compact, creating a grain bed, and to drain the wort through the grain and out the valve into your kettle. Initially, the fluid has some grain particles, so we'll drain a bit of it into a jug and recirculate it back to the top of the grain until it runs clear. This is called the vorlauf. From then on, we can completely drain the cooler into the kettle or some other container. We now have our first runnings or first collection of the wort.

    Getting the strike water into the mash tun
    After mixing and ready to mash

    Heating the mash-out water
    First collection in the keggle

  2. The sparge: adding more hot water to the grain in the lauter tun (I use the same cooler for both the mash and lauter tun) and draining more wort in order to capture as much of the remaining fermentable sugars as possible. There are many different methods of sparging; I happen to find batch sparging easy and so that's what I do. I heat an appropriate amount of water (enough so that the total amount I collect is about 7.4 gallons for my system) to about 185F in order to have a target temperature of about 168F once it is added to the grain. Again, I mix thoroughly, wait 10 minutes and begin to drain the wort (performing the vorlauf again).
  3. The boil: boiling the wort in order to make beer! At this stage, we have a full kettle. I aim for about 7.4 gallons because I know that about 0.53 gallons will be left in my kettle once it's drained, 0.22 gallons will be left in my wort chiller, about 13% of the original boil volume will be lost due to evaporation during the boil, and about 4% of what's left will be lost due to shrinkage during cooling. That leaves me with about 5.5 gallons in the fermenter which is just right for me considering that fermentation and bottling will leave me with about 5 gallons total (and that translates to about 46-52 12-oz. bottles). We typically boil for 60 minutes (although I tend to go for 90 minute boils nowadays to ward off DMS, a byproduct of certain grains that gives beer a smell and taste of cooked corn). Throughout this process, we periodically add the hops. Adding them once we see a bubble (just beginning to boil) will contribute to the final bitterness of the beer. So we usually add hops at T-60 minutes for bitterness, T-30 minutes or even T-15 minutes for imparting a hop flavor and at T-2 minutes or at the end in order to impart a wonderful hop aroma. After 60 minutes or so, we're done brewing!
  4. Just beginning the boil
    Ah, those wonderful hops (next to a homebrew!)

  5. The chill: cooling the wort down to pitching temperatures as quickly as possible. Once the beer gets below 140F, we're at risk of the little nasties getting a hold of our beer and giving it offending flavors and aromas. So the trick is to get it down to 75F or so very quickly. Doing so also helps with the cold break which will make your beer clearer. Some people set the kettle in a sink full of ice water. But that takes several refills (the ice water will get warm quickly). I use a counterflow wort chiller. It's nothing more than a heat exchanger. I force cold tap water into the outer garden hose and hot wort into the inner copper tubing in the opposite direction. My chiller is 50 feet long, and by the time the wort reaches the end and starts to fill my fermentation bucket, it is as cold as the tap water. It always amazes me!
  6. Sanitizing the chiller
    Cooling and draining the wort into the fermenter

    Closeup of the wort coming out of the chiller
    Warm tap water coming out of the chiller

  7. Aerating the wort: adding oxygen to the wort. The boiling process removes most of the oxygen from the water. But yeast needs oxygen in order to do its job, so we must make sure we have enough of it in the wort. In extract brewing, this isn't a problem because we typically top up the fermenter with water that hasn't been boiled (and thus has plenty of oxygen in it). All-grain brewing is not so simple. You can buy all kinds of expensive equipment for this; I just use a plastic paddle with holes in it, hook one end to my drill and insert the other into the wort, and start spinning the hell out of it for about 30 seconds.
  8. The pitch: pitching the yeast into the wort and capping things to begin fermentation. I've used dry yeast before, but I prefer to use liquid yeast now. It helps with consistency which means that I can brew the same beer over and over and it will taste the same each time (we're not always so lucky with dry yeast). A particularly important part of successful brewing is to ensure that we have enough yeast cells so that fermentation will go smoothly. For this we can buy enough yeast or make a yeast starter and grow the yeast ourselves. Anyways, I keep the liquid yeast in my refrigerator until I'm ready to brew. My goal is to remove it from the refrigerator about 12 hours before I'm ready to pitch the yeast. That way, it's at room temperature. I vigorously shake the yeast and pitch it into the wort. And all that's left is to cap the bucket and add the airlock. Then it's off to fermentation!
  9. Aerating the wort
    Ready to ferment

Fermentation usually occurs pretty soon after pitching the yeast. Of course, it depends on the temperature of the wort, the ambient temperature, and even the style of beer you have brewed. For ales, I usually ferment at 66-72F for 10-14 days. I then transfer (rack) the beer (it's now beer with alcohol; it's just not carbonated) to a secondary fermenter. This part is optional (I could just bottle the beer at this point), but I prefer to do this since I've found that it clears up the beer nicely and also helps to improve the flavor. I continue to let the beer ferment for about 7-10 days. And then it's time to bottle. I add about 4-5 oz. of priming sugar that's been boiled for a few minutes to a bucket, transfer the beer from my secondary fermenter to this bucket and fill up the bottles. Last thing to do is to cap them, label them (this is important) and store them for a few weeks. Ales are usually ready about 10 days or so after bottling. So in total: 10 days of primary fermentation, 10 days of secondary fermentation and 10 days of conditioning in the bottle amounts to about a month. An important point is to properly cool your beer prior to opening up a bottle. I recommend at least 24 hours (a week is better). This allows the CO2 to go into solution (into the beer) and not remain in the gap at the top of the bottle. Warmer beer can result in a gusher.

An Imperial Stout in the secondary
Same stout racked over cherries

Lagers are a bit different. Whereas ale yeast prefers warmer temperatures and likes to remain on the top of the wort during fermentation, lager yeast prefers the bottom and cooler temperatures. So my fermentation process for lagers involves the use of a freezer with a homemade temperature control (a home thermostat with the thermocouple extended to the inside of the freezer and a solid state relay controlling power to the freezer). I typically ferment at about 52F for 10 days or so (actually, the goal is to let it ferment until it's about 75% done). Next, I increase the temperature to about 62F and leave it for about 3 days. This is called the diacetyl rest and helps the yeast to become more active in order to remove diacetyl (it can produce off flavors that remind us of butter and bananas). Then it's time to transfer the beer to a secondary fermenter (this is not optional for lagers) and, with the temperature set to about 32F, we lager the beer for about 3 weeks. The cooler temperatures help the beer become very clear and also gives the lager its typical crisp character. And now the process is similar to ales with respect to bottling and conditioning in the bottle for at least 10 days. Actually, I prefer to wait about 2 weeks for lagers before putting a bottle in the refrigerator and popping it open. So in total for lagers: 2 days to get fermentation started, 10 days in cold fermentation, 3 days for the diacetyl rest, 3 weeks of lagering, and 2 weeks conditioning in the bottle amounts to a bit less than 2 months. To be on the safe side though, we like to think that it takes about 2 months to go from brewing to consumption. Some beers require a lot more time.

My lagering freezer
The homemade freezer temperature control

A lager in cold fermentation
This is what I live for!

Racking is just another term for transferring the wort into another container. Sometimes, that container is a glass carboy, sometimes it's another plastic bucket and sometimes it's even a bunch of bottles. Most times, I ferment my beers in the primary fermenter (a plastic bucket) for about 10 days. I then transfer them to a secondary fermenter (glass carboy being my favorite) for about 10 more days of fermentation. Of course, the style of beer influences timing. Even more importantly, fermentation influences timing. Which brings an important point: never trust the airlock to clue you in to fermentation. You should always use a hydrometer. I tend to start fermentation in plastic buckets with spigots. That way, it's very easy to transfer the beer to another container later on. I make sure to sanitize the spigot before I transfer the beer.

A great aroma just after opening the primary
Racking to a glass carboy

Finished racking the Clorona (a Corona clone)
And we begin secondary fermentation

A hydrometer reading

Bottling is fun. Kind of. Well, not really. Particularly once you've started kegging. But it means that in a few weeks, I can enjoy my beer! A typical bottling day starts with--you guessed it--sanitizing the equipment (which usually consists of a bucket, some hose, a bottle filler, the bottles, and some other useful things). I always triple rinse my bottles right after pouring a beer, so they are pretty clean. But I still wash my bottles in the dishwasher without any detergent. I then sanitize them using a device that squirts sanitizing solution into the bottles and a device that screws to my faucet and shoots water at high pressure into the bottles to rinse them. I hang my sanitized bottles in a bottle tree.

Clean bottles in the dishwasher
Sanitizing the bottles

Rinsing the bottles
The bottle tree

Once everything is sanitized, I begin to boil about 4-5 oz. of priming sugar with about a cup of water. This will give the yeast more fuel to convert to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Remember that we've allowed all of the CO2 to escape during primary (and maybe secondary) fermentation. To create carbonated beer, we need to make more CO2 and trap it in the beer. So we boil sugar and water, let it cool, and pour it in the bottom of a bucket. The beer is then racked on top of this without stirring it around too much: oxygen is your friend right before primary fermentation, but after that it's your enemy! And now we can begin to fill our bottles. I pretty much only use 12 oz. bottles that I've recycled (ask your friends to keep the non-screw top kind for you). I can usually fill about 50 bottles per batch of beer.

Perhaps the most wonderful aroma in the world
Boiling the priming sugar

Transferring the beer to a bottling bucket
Looks like 1.013 SG to me, and it tasted great!

So the math gets us to about $0.60 per bottle or $3.60 per six-pack ($30 per batch on average / 50 bottles) which is less than the price of the horse piss that most people drink (e.g., Bud, Miller, Coors, and the like). Plus, we have control over what goes in it! Anyways, once the bottles are filled, we cap them (with sanitized caps, of course) and properly label the caps so we don't forget what kind of beer is in there.

Filling 48 bottles this time
Capping away

Clearly not a Corona
Properly labeled bottles of Ferocious IPA

It's time to store the bottles for a few weeks, and then we can chill a few and enjoy our brew! I recommend trying out a bottle about a week after bottling to see what it tastes like. Then try one at 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 4 weeks, and so on. And keep several to try after longer periods of time. If you have the power to resist drinking all of your beer right away, keep a few bottles for a year or more to see how it ages. I've had some beer that was good after a few weeks, better in a few months, and heavenly after over a year. I still have bottles of an Irish stout, a porter, a bock, and even some Oktoberfest that were capped in early fall of 2008; and the beer inside is wonderful! Remember not to leave your beers in the light (particularly in the sun) as it will impart a skunkiness. To be honest, it's something we want sometimes; for example, I leave some lagers (like Pilsners) in the sun for about 15 minutes on purpose! But I generally leave my beers in plastic totes or in the refrigerator. An a very important point: nothing pathogenic can live in beer! That means that you can't get sick from homebrew. It might be infected with some kind of bacteria if you were lax in sanitation, but all it will do is impart off flavors and aromas (or perhaps leave you with a few gushers). I will add, however, that fermenting too warm may produce fusel alcohols that are very harsh. Consuming a large amount of beer with fusel alcohols won't hurt you, but it can give you one hell of a hangover the next day!

Yeast Starters
For healthy, active fermentation, it is crucial that you pitch the appropriate amount of yeast cells into your wort. Spreading a packet of dry yeast will work. So will pouring a vial or pouch of liquid yeast. But if the yeast is old (or not fresh) or has not been taken care of properly, many of the yeast cells will have probably died off. This can have numerous effects on your beer; for example, a stuck fermentation (where the yeast don't quite finish consuming all the sugars and you end up with sweeter beer than you wanted), off flavors, unwanted aromas, etc. I often tell people that the most important thing you can do when brewing beer is to clean and sanitize everything that will touch the beer after it has been cooled from the brewing process. The second most important thing is to make sure to pitch the right amount of yeast. And in case you want to know, the third is fermenting at an appropriate, constant temperature. You can pretty easily make good beer, but making great beer takes great work!

To make a yeast starter, all we do is make a very small batch of beer. How much you make depends on how much beer you are making and its estimated original gravity. The process basically entails boiling a bit of extra light dry malt extract with some yeast nutrient. This is then cooled to about 75F and yeast is pitched. From this point, there are several options. I choose to utilize a stir plate that I built out of a computer case fan, some magnets and a box. A magnetic stirring rod is dropped into the small batch of beer and placed on the stir plate. This allows the yeast to remain in suspension throughout the fermentation while drawing in oxygen. The purpose of this is to grow the yeast, thereby creating a lot more yeast cells. This, when pitched into the beer we'll make later, will ensure healthy, vigorous fermentation. If you don't have a stir plate, you can simply swirl it every time you walk by (say every couple of hours).

One of my two homemade stir plates
Dry malt extract, yeast nutrient and a 6L flask

There are several ways that you can pitch the yeast starter into your beer. The first is to let the starter ferment to completion. This typically takes 36-72 hours. You then "cold crash" it by placing it in your refrigerator for 24-48 hours. This forces the yeast to flocculate (drop to the bottom), leaving you with healthy yeast at the bottom and spent wort on the top. You decant most of this spent wort and pitch the rest into your beer. Another method is to pitch the entire thing at "high krausen" or when it is at its most active point of fermentation (a good bit of foam that we call krausen). I prefer to cold crash and decant because sometimes I have large starters (on the order of 5L), and I'd rather not pour all that spent wort into my beer. But that supposes that I have enough time to actually make the starter. Remember, it can take up to 72 hours to ferment and up to 48 to cool. That's 5 full days. And if you choose to pitch at high krausen, you're still looking at about 24-36 hours (or a day to a day and a half). So I just make the starter on Monday, cold crash on Thursday and brew on Saturday.

Stirring the wort and watching for the boil-over!
Cooling the wort in ice water

About to pitch a vial of yeast
Yeast starters: after 40 hours (L), 8 hours (R)

A yeast starter at high krausen; beautiful!
After cold crashing for 36 hours

Disclaimer: once you start kegging your beer, you will find it hard to go back to bottling. Kegging just takes little time compared to bottling. Instead of cleaning and sanitizing 50 or more bottles, priming and racking to a bottling bucket, filling bottles, and capping and labeling them, you just clean and sanitize a keg and rack straight to it. Done. Finito. Simple. Plus, it can take a lot less time to carbonate a keg (we can quickly force CO2 into the beer if we wish). But in general, it takes as much time to carbonate in the keg as it does in the bottle (and we can carbonate in the keg with CO2 from a tank or as we do in bottles with corn sugar and let the yeast do it for us).

In order to keg we need additional equipment: kegs (called cornies, short for Cornelius), taps/faucets, beer hose, a CO2 tank, gas hose, and miscellaneous fittings. The kegs we use for homebrewing have been around a while. They were used to store soda (e.g., Sprite) a long time ago before the bags they use now. We recycle, clean and refit these. Typically, we "push" CO2 into the kegs (with our beer stored in them) and after a week or so we have carbonated beer. We dispense it through a hose and a tap (it could be a nice faucet or a simple picnic tap). The CO2 in the tank is used both for carbonating the beer and also to serve it (we need pressure to dispense the beer through the hose and out of the faucet). The best method to ensure a good pour is to balance your system. This means to use the proper length of beer hose so that you can set the pressure at the CO2 tank's regulator to a level that properly carbonates your beer. That same pressure is also used to dispense the beer. In essence, you never have to mess with the regulator to account for pressure differences when carbonating or serving beer. It's important to remember that carbonation is directly related to pressure and temperature. And the colder our beer is, the easier it is for CO2 to dissolve into it. In my case, I use 10 foot beer hoses and about 13 PSI at the regulator. My beer fridge is set at 40F. This carbonates my beers to 2.57 volumes of CO2 (a level of carbonation that I like in most of my beers). With a 10 foot beer hose, the beer is dispensed at a proper rate that does not cause foaming in the glass. There's a lot of math behind this, but in the end it's pretty simple.

So to keg we simply clean and sanitize a keg (including the fittings for both gas and liquid). We lightly grease o-rings located on the dip tubes (the tubes inside the keg that the liquid and gas go through), the lid and the posts (the connectors that connect the keg to both the gas and the beer hose). Filling the keg with beer is done in a similar manner as racking to a bottling bucket. We then seal the keg. It's important that we purge oxygen from the keg at this point. To do this we just hook it up to gas, fill it with CO2 and purge the oxygen through the release valve a few times. From this point, there are many options. For beers that need to condition, we can simply leave them to condition for the length of time we are looking for. They can be at room temperature or refrigerated depending on the room we have in our beer fridge. If we want to enjoy this beer as soon as possible, then we can carbonate it. And for this, we have three options:

Sometimes we find that we want to bottle some of our kegged beer. There are several ways to do this. One is just to temporarily reduce the serving pressure so that you can slowly fill bottles from the tap. The problem with this is that, no matter how slowly you dispense the beer, it will still foam and reduce the carbonation of your beer. This may be acceptable (for me it often is when I take brews to a party or something). I sometimes fill flip-top bottles or 1 gallon growlers. For competitions, I just fill typical 12 oz. bottles and cap them. Another method is to fill under pressure so that foaming doesn't occur. There are devices you can buy that allow this (or you can build your own).

Images coming soon!

So, what are you waiting for? You should start brewing your own beer. Go! Go! Go! Oh, and it helps to have helpers...

Finca, our German Shepherd
Maya, our mutt (no disrespect intended)