So you want to try brewing?
Like I mentioned in my introductory blog, I’ve wanted to make beer since I was a kid. Because I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler (always wished I could paint) cooking/baking was the only outlet I had for any artistic expression. When the kids lived at home, I had an excuse to bake. Once they left home, I was the only one I was really baking for. At 58 and 220 pounds I don’t need any help holding onto weight. At any rate, as I said, I mentioned my desire to brew while enjoying a local craft beer and was directed to Robb Burden at Southern Hills Homebrew Supply. I still recall Robb’s response when I asked if making beer was hard. He casually answered; “Can you boil water? Can you make tea? You can make beer”.
But what about equipment you might ask? Coincidentally, Southern Hills Homebrew Supply carries everything you need to make your first beer, wine, kombucha or anything else you might want to ferment.
Since I started with beer, I’m going to break down that kit because it’s what I have experience with. Can wine be done in the same kit? Yes, for the most part. We do carry 3 different wine equipment kits: 6 gallon glass, 6 gallon P.E.T. (plastic), 1 gallon glass. The wine kits contain larger buckets for using fresh fruit. I’ll cover why that’s important in my breakdown. (Any thing that is highlighted is a link to Southern Hills Homebrew Supply website where you can see the products for yourself).
In the beer equipment kits we have: 1 gallon glass , 5 gallon basic, 5 gallon deluxe in glass or plastic, 5 gallon “Beast” in glass or plastic. Which kit? Glass or plastic? That really depends on your preference and equipment on hand. I bought the “Beast” because it contained everything, I needed, to make a beer but bottles and caps. Because it contains all the equipment, I will use it to cover what everything does.
- 5 Gallon Primary Fermenter- This will be your workhorse. You will use it to turn your wort (what unfermented beer is called) or must (unfermented wine) to uncarbonated beer or wine. It is used for 5-gallon batches, the remaining space is for a krausen layer that forms when the yeast start fermenting. Wine buckets are bigger to allow for the addition of fruit plus the layer.
- Lid with Grommet- it fits on either bucket so you can place an airlock on your fermenting bucket.
- Econo-Lock- This is the airlock that will allow you to vent the carbon dioxide that builds up when your lil’ yeasties do their work.
- Secondary Fermenter- Secondary fermentation is used to clear, age, or add flavors or additional hops to a beer. Truth be told, unless I’m putting something into my beer (like oak chips) I don’t secondary my beer. I do use it to clear and age my mead though.
- Carboy bung- Serves the same purpose as the grommeted lid but fits the carboy.
- 5 bottling bucket/w spigot- You will rack (move your beer/wine from one vessel to another) from your primary or secondary fermenter to this bucket before bottling. The spigot makes things so much easier when you’re bottling!
- 5 foot of hose- It is what it is. You will use it!
- Bottle filler- This device is attached to your hose, which is attached to the spigot during bottling. When you press the filler to the bottom of a bottle the beverage will flow into the bottle until you lift the wand. (If I recall correctly the one in the kit isn’t spring loaded. I upgraded to a spring loaded bottle filler for the extra piece of mind).
- Auto siphon- The auto siphon will allow you to rack your beer/wine from one vessel to another without having to prime your siphon (read suck on the hose). I would also recommend you add a auto siphon clamp to your purchase. It will clamp to the siphon then bucket or carboy so you don’t have to stand there for 20 minute holding the auto siphon.
- Double lever Capper- caps the bottles.
- Carboy brush- cleans carboy.
- 24” plastic paddle- mixing your steeping grains or oxygenating your wort.
- 20 Quart brew pot- You will use it to steep your grains and boil your wort if using extract kit or sparge water (rinsing water) if using all grain (more on that later).
- IO Star San- an iodine-based sanitizer for reducing the number of bad critters on your equipment so your yeast can achieve a viable colony. Although I used the iodine based one until it was gone it turned all my equipment brown. You do have the option of buying Star San. It is a no rinse sanitizer that won’t discolor your equipment. ( Click here if you haven’t seen my blog on cleaning and sanitation).
- Easy Clean- A percarbonate cleaner. Refer to my blog if you want to know how it works.
- Beer bottle brush- cleaning bottles
- Laboratory Thermometer- Used to monitor your water and wort to desired temperature.
- 10” Test Jar and Hydrometer- It seems to be one of the most under used pieces of equipment in this kit but arguably the most important. It is used to record the specific gravity of your fermentable to determine stage of fermentation as well as ABV. (More later)
- Crystal Thermometer- adheres to the side of your primary fermenter to monitor your temperature of your fermenting beverage.
Okay so we now have equipment. When does the beer come in? As a beginner I recommend you get an ingredient kit to help you get used to brewing before you go to all grain. Wine makers, although this is centered around beer, you’re just a different sugar for fermentation. The steps are basically the same, you will just use a kit for wine, cider, seltzer or kombucha.
There are plenty of kits available to start. Southern Hills Homebrew Supply carries Brewer’s Best and House kits, none of them are really any harder than the other. My very first brew was the “Brewer’s Best Premium Whiskey Barrel Stout”. House kits will have links for instructions (we print them for you at the shop), you can find the Brewer’s Best ones on their website.
Look at the one for the “Whiskey Barrel Stout”, you’ll see it isn’t any more difficult than baking or cooking for that matter. Piece of Cake! I got lucky with my first brew, and it went flawless! The Stout was incredible! (I was so happy when I saw the airlock bubbling, I went running around at the job I had at the time telling everyone; “I GOT GAS!”. They did know I was attempting my first homebrew and didn’t need a doctor. Gastrologist anyway.).
What happens, you might ask, if it doesn’t go flawlessly? It does depend on what went wrong, but beer and wine will make themselves if you get out of the way. Again, I will refer you to my Cleaning and Sanitation blog to stress how important it is but also to let you know you don’t have to worry either. As long as you make every effort to ensure your yeast are able to make a viable colony and ferment at your yeast’s temperature, you will get a fermented beverage. As of this writing I have 26 brews under my belt and only one of those is undrinkable. And that was because I rushed it. (More later).
What mistakes did I make? My second brew was the “Brewer’s Best Pumpkin Porter”, I decided to brew outside because it was a beautiful day. I was mashing on by grill’s burner and noticed my steep temperature was dropping, so I replaced the lid on my kettle. It was only about 2 minutes, and I checked the temperature; 172 degrees. Temps over about 168 will stop the enzymatic action that converts the starches in your grains to fermentable sugar. The result? My grains didn’t convert all the sugar and I had a perfectly good beer with a ABV of 3.2%. (After reading this Robb informed me that because the majority of the fermentable sugars came from extracts, this wasn’t the reason for my low ABV. That just means I have no Idea why my ABV came out low. But, it was still beer!). My 3rd brew was an Irish Red recipe I got over the internet. While heating my mash water I was looking at the Celsius side of my thermometer and what I thought was 155 degrees Fahrenheit was actually 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees F). I let my grains mash at this temperature a full hour before I realized my mistake. No big deal, except, I only mashed at the proper temperature for 20 minutes (90 percent of the conversion happens in about 20 minutes). Result; Another perfectly fine beer with a low ABV.
My fourth beer’s boo-boo had nothing to do with me, I swear! So I found a recipe on a different brew supply store’s website. I like to buy local so I came to Robb (this was long before I worked here) for the ingredients to make a “Wee-Heavy” (a Scotch Ale with a really high starting gravity) partial mash kit. Because of it’s high gravity, it called for 8 pounds of partial mash grains. (A partial mash uses both grains and extract to attain starting levels of sugar for fermenting). Problem was it also called for 1 gallon of strike water (the water that you heat for your mash). (I now know that you need 1 ½ quarts of water per pound of grain, I didn’t know that back then) Do you have any idea what 8 pounds of grain will do to 1 gallon of water? I do! Sucked it up like a sponge and wasn’t even wet. To further complicate things my biggest kettle was the one I had got in my “Beast” kit. So now in a newbies’ panic I’m heating water in everything that will fit on the stove. Result; another perfectly good beer with a lower ABV. In this case lower was still 9% ABV.
My latest mess up was all me! What I mean is, it was unnecessary! I made a Seltzer, and after 2 weeks it was still fermenting. The bubbles in the airlock were coming about every 30 seconds and the Hydrometer reading was 1.010 of a 1.004 target. I figured; close enough. We were going on vacation, and I bottled it thinking it would condition (naturally carbonate in the bottle) and be ready when we returned. It was ready alright! One of the chemicals yeast release along with carbon dioxide and ethanol is diacetyl. After fermentation is complete the diacetyl is reabsorbed by the yeast. Result; 2 cases of seltzer that tasted like movie popcorn butter. The only brew out of 26 that will be dumped.
The point of all this? To show you that beer and wine will make themselves. Yes, cutting corners will make a beer/wine that isn’t what the instruction sheets say, but it is perfectly good beer. Just don’t get an infection. I’ll add another thing of note here; don’t get caught up on worrying about if your beer is up to style. Unless you are entering a competition, relax and enjoy your beer! If you taste your beer and you like it then it is a good beer! You don’t need anyone to tell you your beer is up to par, just enjoy it and start planning the next one. Now don’t get me wrong! You show up with free beer for me to try and I’ll be at the front of the line! But any beer you enjoy is a good beer.
This blog is way longer than I thought it would be so I’m going to cover one more topic and save the rest for another blog.
You’re brewing your first beverage and you think something went wrong. We encourage you to call the shop (Southern Hills Homebrew Supply 540-400-0091) and we will try to help any way we can. Now do you recall that piece of equipment I said was the “most unused piece of equipment” in the kit? First thing we will ask is; “Did you take a hydrometer reading?”. 9 out of 10 people reply “no”. There really isn’t much we can do to help. We can make a guess, but nothing definitive. Take your readings! Make notes! Besides without reading you can’t tell what your ABV is.
(Original gravity – Final gravity) x 131.25=ABV
Example: Your beer’s O.G is 1.050, F.G. is 1.015
(1.050-1.015) x 131.25= ABV
.035 x 131.25 = 4.6%
I’ll end here. Leave any questions you might have, and I’ll answer as soon as I can. If you want me to cover anything in more detail, let me know. Hell, leave me a note to let me know someone is reading these! I’m starting to feel like a certain washer/dryer repair man!
- John Thompson
If I never brewed anything in my entire life, I would feel at ease after reading this. You have taken away the pressure of absolute perfection, and still gave me every bit of information I may need to dive deeper.