As with any new hobby, you may have questions about the basics of making beer; what equipment do you need, what’s the difference between lager and ale, what ingredients do you need, what steps do you follow, etc… ? Or maybe you’re still wondering if making beer is difficult or if it’s worth the effort? Let’s start with these last two questions.
So, is making beer difficult? No, making beer is not difficult for most new home brewers, but as with any hobby or craft, making beer can be as easy or as complex as you want it to be. Is making beer worth the effort? This really depends on the reason you’re interested in brewing beer of your own. We can certainly say it’s fun and rewarding if you like craft beer and have a natural curiosity for how things work.
Maybe you’re interested in saving money without having to do without your cherished evening beer. Will making beer at home save you money? Yes, it will, but not at first and it depends on the level of brewing you intend to do. To make this simple, we’ll classify beer brewing ingredient kits and equipment kits into 4 levels of experience, with the first level being the most simple.
Level 1: Most new home brewers make beer from malt extract kits that contain a very condensed malt syrup or dehydrated malt (sometimes both), a packet of beer yeast, and a packet of hops or hop pellets. One of the most simple examples of this type of kit would be the Mr. Beer packages which come with a fermenting container and ingredients to make about 2 gallons of beer. Some of these beginner kits come with more things, such as a thermometer and reusable bottles, and some come with less, such as kits that don’t come with separate hops (because the malt extract in such kits already has hop extract in them).
You simply follow the kit instructions to dissolve the malt extracts in water, follow the steps for boiling time and when to add hops (if hops are added), cool the unfermented beer (wort), transfer to the fermenting container and toss in the yeast. That’s about it. After a week or two you’ll have a beer that is ready to bottle, and a week or two in the bottle you’ll have around 2 gallons of beer that’s ready to drink.
Level 2: There are intermediate ingredient and equipment kits, which offer a little more authentic home brewing experience, and many new brewers start at this level of brewing or the level noted above. Ingredient kits at this level typically contain the same type of things as the level 1 kits, but with the addition of some actual crushed grains and maybe a little more yeast or a better quality yeast. Also, what we’re labeling as level 2 kits will come with enough ingredients to make about 5 gallons of beer… yes, 5 GALLONS! That should last you at least a few weeks, and probably longer.
Level 2 equipment kits for making beer are usually a little larger in terms of volume. These will have a food grade 6 gallon fermenting bucket with lid, an airlock to let the fermenting beer release the carbon dioxide produced without letting in oxygen, and usually a few other items to help you measure the alcohol content of your beer, to clean and sanitize everything, and probably a bottle capper with caps. You’ll need to either buy bottle or just reuse bottles you probably already have. Some kits at this level may come with a second fermenting bucket or a carboy, which is really good to have so you can do what’s called secondary fermentation that leads to even better quality beer.
Level 3: At this level the ingredient kits are referred to as “whole grain” kits, and this is the level of making beer that is referred to as “whole grain brewing”. Most experienced home brewers consider this to be real home brewing because there are no dehydrated malts or malt syrups used at this level. When making beer the whole grain way, all the sugars and nutrients needed for the yeast to ferment the beer come very naturally from crushed grains. Some people are a little intimidated by the move to this level of making beer, but they really shouldn’t be. It really isn’t difficult. Yes, there are a few more steps and it does take a little longer, but the reward for the extra effort is truly unique, natural, and customizable homebrew that can be far superior to some malt based kits.
Equipment kits at this level tend to include an extra carboy and a combination of other more advanced home brewing items. Whole grain brewing requires a home brewer to do what’s called “mashing the grains” and “sparging” which are somewhat advanced topics to be covered later. Just know that these kits will usually include at least a modified cooler that is used as a mash tun and may come with another modified cooler to help with the sparging process. Also, larger brew kettles are used at this level that can hold at least 7 gallons of wort (unfermented beer). Basically, this is the level when most all the equipment and ingredient kits get bigger and a little more complex.
Level 4: This is what we will define as the most advanced level of home brewing. This is the level home brewers fins themselves when they are ready to challenge themselves. While an outdoor wort boiling set-up (something like a turkey fryer kit would work well) can be very useful at the level 3 above, such a setup is almost essential at this level. Some home brewers may transition to not only making their own malt at this level, but may even grow their own grains. Brew kettles and mash tuns get larger, and sparging setups get more complex.
A lot of beer experimentation can be done at any level of home brewing, bit those making beer and experimenting at the most advanced level will come up with very unique ingredient combinations, such as medicinal herbs and less common specialty malts. Also, this is a level of brewing where gluten free beer is sometimes made, although making gluten free beer can be done at level 1 very easily thanks to specialty sorghum malt syrups now available.
OK, what do you think? Are you going to become a home brewer? If you’re not sure you want to take this on as a hobby but you find it interesting, my advice is simple… just do it! You’ll never know if this is for you until you try it, and getting started doesn’t have to be expensive.
Note: If you live in Alabama or Mississippi, you should look into the legal restrictions in your state for homebrewing AND get involved in helping your state’s political leaders understand that homebrewing must be liberalized. All other 48 states allow homebrewing and I truly hope Alabama and Mississippi will soon. I believe there is a tremendous untapped resource of creativity and passion in these states just waiting to be openly and freely shared with the homebrew world!