During the initial quarantine rush, as everyone scrambled to supermarkets to stock up on flour and yeast for homemade loaves, my older brother and I had another thought: stock up on malted barley.
For the past seven years, we’ve met up every Saturday in his shaded driveway to hang out with our dogs, barbecue lunch, and boil up a fresh batch of beer. We’ve steadily progressed from newbies to relatively experienced brewers, and have lately been exploring fresh local ingredients (most recently, Oregon-malted rye in an English-style stout). But we’d both be lying if we said we did it for the steady supply of suds.
Like barbecuing or gardening, making your own booze at home is more than just an opportunity to spend time with your quarantine bubble. It also directly connects you with humanity’s culinary and scientific histories. Did you know, for example, that we may have gone from hunter-gatherers to farmers because of our love of beer? What about how Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization while studying spoiled wine—and that he hated German beer?
One of the things I love is how easy it is to progress with this hobby; you can probably make something drinkable on your first try. It mostly requires the ability to read instructions. When you’re done, it can help you relax after a long day of doomscrolling, and it offers a small sense of accomplishment. Want to give it a shot? You don’t need to spend too much cash. Here’s what you need to know to make beer, wine, cider, and mead.
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Updated December 2020: We’ve updated links and pricing and added a small section on gin, nocino, and other infused liquors.
Making alcohol is easy. Take a sugary liquid, add sugar-eating yeast, and wait. As the yeast eats the sugar, it produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Wait long enough (a few weeks), and you’ll have yourself a fully fermented beverage that’s (probably) safe to drink. It might be safe, but your beverage might not taste very good. The following are a few general tips to keep in mind when fermenting your own booze, for quality’s sake:
Sanitation is perhaps the most important part of any fermentation process. You want to make sure everything that touches your liquid pre- and post-ferment has been fully sterilized with a no-rinse sanitizer (see the section on Star San below). This keeps poor-tasting yeasts and other contaminants out, and ensures shelf stability.
There’s a saying in the brewing community that brewers are really just glorified janitors: yeast is what actually makes the beer. This couldn’t be more true. Keeping your little biological buddies happy is of the utmost importance for booze that tastes good. Be sure to pitch a healthy amount of yeast cells, and keep your fermentation within the recommended temperature range for the specific yeast you’re using.
“Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew,” is the most popular saying in the home fermentation world for a reason. Making good booze can take time, and it’s important not to rush things.
If you live in a city, there’s a good chance you have a homebrew supply store in your area. I highly recommend you buy as much of this gear locally as you can, as the experts at the shop are invaluable resources. If you’re a bit more remote, or don’t want to go inside a shop right now (for obvious reasons), we’ve included links to buy this gear online.
Making wine or cider requires fewer steps than making beer, and it’s what I recommend if you’re doing all of this for the first time. It involves adding yeast to fruit juice and waiting. How you get your juice—whether you press it yourself or buy it from a store—is the most important choice you can make. Otherwise, it’s all up to the yeast!
You’ll want to buy some Potassium Metabisulfite ($12), Potassium Sorbate ($6), and Pectic Enzyme ($7). These are the three most-used additives in winemaking, used to kill off wild bugs, improve shelf stability, and make your cider or wine more clear. You’ll probably see them referenced in your recipes, so it’s good to have them on hand.
There are many kinds of liquid and dry wine yeast, which is why it can be fun to experiment with a yeast sampler pack like this one ($6). Be sure to read the instructions on the package before using it.
You can’t make wine or cider without fruit or juice. You can buy grapes, apples, or other sugary fruits to press into your own juice, or you can buy pre-concentrated winemaking kits like this Australian Chardonnay version ($65). You can even buy apple juice for cider at the supermarket—though any juice you buy from the store should be checked for sulfites or other yeast-killing additives that are often added for longer shelf life.
The basic steps for making beer are simple: add malt to water to make sugar water (called “mashing”), boil said sugar water (called “wort” once the liquid is separated from the grain), and add hops. Then, cool and ferment said wort with yeast. Wait a couple of weeks, bottle it with a bit more sugar so the remaining yeast off-gasses a bit more carbon dioxide in the sealed bottle during a tiny second ferment—the source of carbonation—and enjoy.
Extract brewers buy pre-mashed grain that’s been made into concentrated syrup. You add this syrup to water, boil it and add hops, and ferment. Voila: Beer. Mead is made mostly the same way, but with honey substituted for malt extract, and hops not always added during the boil.
“All-grain” brewers don’t use malt extract. Instead, they take malted barley, crush it to expose the center of the grain, then mix this milled grain with warm water until it’s between 145 and 158 degrees to extract the sugar. It’s basically like making very thin oatmeal at a specific temp. After about an hour, you separate the liquid (wort) from the grain using a grain bag or kettle with a false bottom, and proceed with the same boil and fermentation steps previously mentioned.
Neither method is devastatingly hard, but I recommend you start with extract, as it’s simpler, faster, and bit easier to wrap your head around at first if you’re a visual learner like I am.
A big brew kettle like this one will allow you do boil more than 5 gallons of liquid to make a 5-gallon batch (the typical batch size in homebrewing). I’ve had a Bayou Classic like this one ($62) for years, and the thing is still rocking it.
It’s not required, but you can make it easier to get hot liquids out of your kettle by installing a ball valve like this one ($18), which easily attaches to most kettles, as long as you have a stepped drill bit.
It’s always good to have a bunch of hop bags ($45) around. They’re almost like giant teabags. You’ll be using at least one of these in every batch to keep your hops from going where they’re not supposed to be.
Many recipes for beginners use exclusively malt extract, but some also call for some extra grains to be steeped. For that, you’ll want one of these nifty grain bags ($9). You can even keep this bag around if you transition to all-grain brewing, as many people like the “brew in a bag” method.
You might (barely) physically be able to boil 5 gallons of liquid on your stove, but take it from someone who has: you don’t want to. Get yourself a nice propane burner ($66) and take your brewing outside. If you are forced to boil indoors, consider making smaller than normal batches.
This isn’t absolutely required for first-time brewers, but an immersion chiller ($40) really does help make your beer better. After you boil the beer, you’ll need to cool it down to the proper fermentation temperature as fast as possible to ensure clarity and to limit the chances of wild yeast infecting your beer. These chillers allow you to hook a hose or faucet up to them and run cold water through the middle, for faster cooling.
The best way to snag fresh malt and yeast is to order them from your local homebrew supply store. Otherwise, there are a number of awesome stores that do online sales. My favorite is FH Steinbart Co. here in Portland, Oregon—which also is the oldest homebrew shop in the US. But there are tons of other great online retailers that ship beer ingredients. Be sure to have them mill your grain if you don’t own a mill.