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.
Updated December 2020: We’ve updated links and pricing and added a small section on gin, nocino, and other infused liquors.
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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.
Tools You’ll Need for Everything
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.
- Thermometer for $14: You’ll want a high-quality and accurate thermometer to check the temperatures of various liquids. I like this long one because you don’t steam your hand over a hot brew kettle.
- Hydrometer for $30: A hydrometer is a cute little floating thermometer that measures the density of a liquid instead of its temperature. By measuring the density both pre- and post-fermentation, you can get a pretty accurate idea of alcohol content. As alcohol becomes present in the solution—a byproduct of the yeast eating sugars—the liquid becomes less dense.
- Kitchen Scale for $20: A simple kitchen scale like this Etekcity model will help you measure out everything from hops to honey.
- Siphon for $14: You’ll need a way to get your precious beverage out of the bucket once you ferment it. An auto-siphon allows you to do this without sucking on the hose, which would require you to sterilize everything again.
- Fermentation Vessels for $28: Fermentation vessels range from glass carboys to fancy stainless steel tanks and beyond, but the best place to start is with a simple food-grade plastic bucket and a lid like this one from Home Brew Ohio. They’re affordable and you don’t have to worry about breaking glass if you drop them. Pro tip: Only use the soft side of the sponge when cleaning these. The rough side can create abrasions in the bucket that wild yeast and bacteria can cling to during cleaning and sanitation.
- Airlock for $7: An airlock is a simple device that goes in the top of your fermenter and allows it to off-gas carbon dioxide—the other main byproduct of fermentation besides alcohol—while keeping the inside of the bucket sealed from the wild yeast and bacteria. This pack gets you five for cheap.
- Bottles and Cases for $24: You can clean and reuse any standard beer bottles, but if you’re lazy you can also buy a couple of cases for around $30 on Amazon. You’ll need about 50 bottles for 5 gallons of beer, wine, or cider. I also like to recruit friends to give me their flip-top bottles, as those are awesome to reuse. Make sure the bottles are brown if you’re using hops in your beverage—light can react with hop compounds to create a skunky smell.
- Bottle Cappers and Lids for $23: You’ll want a capper and a few lids for when you bottle your creations. There are many different styles, but I like these clampdown ones because they’re a bit easier to use than stand-mounted cappers.
- Star San and Spray Bottles for $25: Star San is a no-rinse sanitizer that is totally safe for humans when diluted properly. I’ve literally seen people drink it—it tastes a bit sour and gross, but it’s safe. The Star San slogan? “Don’t fear the foam!”. You’ll spray this all over everything that touches your liquids before and after fermentation, and you’ll probably be nervous it will make your stuff taste funny. It won’t! A few spray bottles ($9) are great to have around so you don’t have to make gallons of the stuff at a time.
- PBW for $16: PBW is for cleaning. It’s essentially OxiClean without surfactants or odors. The stuff is absolutely magical and makes cleaning up crud in a brew kettle or cleaning a fermenter between uses an absolute breeze. You can even use it to clean other gunky stuff.
- Finally, you will also need a cool, dark place. There are some yeasts that do very well at higher temperatures, but you’ll ideally want a dark spot that’s between 55 and 70 degrees. Any hotter and you risk off flavors. Light can cause beer to stale faster, but isn’t as big of a deal for wine and cider.
For Making Wine or Cider
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.
Wine or Cider Yeast
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.
Fruit or Juice
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.
For Making Beer or Mead
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 ($60) 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.
Hop Bags or Grain Bag
It’s always good to have a bunch of hop bags ($40) 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 ($12). 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.
Malt or Yeast
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.
Easy Recipes to Try
- Cider: How To Make Hard Cider will walk you through making your first batch of cider, with super easy instructions to help you learn the basics from juice selection to bottling.
- Beer: How To Brew offers a simple explanation of every aspect of the brewing process, including basic recipes to try.
- Mead: The National Homebrewers’ Association has a great section on mead-making, which covers everything from equipment to recipes.
- Wine: This great article covers all things wine and will have you drinking your fruity creations in no time.
- Spirit-Based Recipes: Home distilling is difficult, somewhat dangerous, and illegal in many states, but you can always do the next best thing. If you’re willing to buy someone else’s vodka or neutral grain spirit, you can easily transform them with botanicals into things like nocino, gin, and limoncello.
Books and Other Resources
- How to Brew by John Palmer: This book will walk you through every aspect of brewing, from history to technical methods, and beyond. Consider this the homebrewers’ bible.
- Brewing Classic Styles by John Palmer and Jamil Zainasheff: With award-winning recipes for nearly every famous style, this is a great place to start when you’re trying to decide what to make next.
- The Complete Guide to Making Your Own Wine at Home by John N. Peragine: Everything from soil composition to actual fermentation are discussed in this essential home winemaking guide.
- Apples to Cider: How to Make Cider at Home by April White and Stephen M. Wood: Cider doesn’t have to be intimidating! This book offers advice on fermenting various types of apple juice from the comfort of your abode.
- The Compleat Meadmaker: Home Production of Honey Wine by Ken Schramm: Ken Schramm is the Godfather of modern American mead, and this book is his magnum opus. Interested in everything from fruited session mead to the big bold drinks of the Norse Gods? Look no further.
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