Getting Started


Deciding to make your first batch of homebrew can be a little daunting. However, if you can boil water and measure ingredients, then you can easily make really good beer. There are a lot of steps in brewing, none of them is that hard, but there is a chance you might forget one even after you have made a few batches. It is useful to have a strong grasp of the purpose behind each step rather than just trying to memorize a meaningless list of actions. Beyond some basic knowledge and a few key items of equipment, home brewing is only as complicated as you want to make it. You can fill your basement up with lots of fancy equipment and fill your head up with lots of fancy science later. For now let’s just focus on the essentials. Hopefully the sections below will help get you started brewing some homemade beer with a minimum of confusion.

Frequently Asked Questions

[ + ] Why should you homebrew?

It is fun and rewarding, and when it’s done you have beer. Not just any beer but your beer. Something conceived by your own skill and crafted by your own hands. Something genuine and one-of-a-kind to share with people you care about.

[ + ] Isn’t home brewing really complicated?

Not that complicated. Sure, there are lots of things you can experiment with later, if you are interested. For the most part, making good beer comes down to using decent quality ingredients, keeping things clean, and helping your yeast to thrive.

[ + ] How long does it take?

It takes about one month in total. There are a few hours of active brewing to get it started. Then you wait about two weeks while the yeast do all the hard work of turning wort into beer. After fermentation is complete it takes a few hours to put the beer into bottles. Then it is a long two weeks of waiting for the beer to carbonate, but then finally it is time to drink the fruits of your labor.

[ + ] What about contamination?

Beer can sometimes become contaminated with bacteria or wild yeast. These microorganisms surround us all the time, carried invisibly by air currents. No matter how clean your house is you cannot escape them. Consequently, cleaning and sanitation are pretty much the most important brewing skills. By properly rinsing equipment with sanitizer solution and using strong and healthy yeast, you stack the odds in favor of a healthy fermentation. The yeast strain of your choice should pretty much always come out on top (outcompeting all the other microorganisms). There are a few kinds of microorganisms that can get into beer and give you an upset stomach, but they also make it taste bad. Never drink anything that smells or tastes really disgusting.

During the evolution of beer styles fermentation with bacteria was quite common. Today bacterial fermentation is considered necessary to the flavor of several styles of so-called “sour beer.” Thus in many cases bacteria are not harmful, but they may produce tart flavors you were not expecting. Fortunately, contamination does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition and sometimes it causes beer to be merely sub-par.

[ + ] Isn’t homebrew really... bitter/strong/fizzy/bad tasting?

While occasionally homebrew just comes out wrong. Other times it could just be that an otherwise well-made beer isn’t quite what you are looking to drink. Maybe that batch your friend brought to a party is more bitter or alcoholic or carbonated than you personally would like. One great thing about homebrew is that you get to decide what kinds of beers you want to make and with time you can hone in on that flavor you are looking for. If you have ever drank a beer that you liked then you should be able to make something similar with a little practice. With more practice you will be making beers that suit your tastes even better.

[ + ] What kinds of beer can I make?

Pretty much any kind of beer you can imagine. However, some styles of beer are easier to make well than others. There are dozens of common beer styles. Each one has its own characteristic range of flavors and ingredients. Some require special techniques. There is plenty of room to experiment by making your own variations on these, or you can go off the rails and make your own styles or throw in exotic ingredients. Whatever you decide to make it will be uniquely yours.

[ + ] What are hops?

Hops are the flowers of a particular species of vine (the hop plant). They look like tiny, soft, bright-green pinecones. Home brewers mostly get them as packets of compressed pellets. In beer, hops are used similarly to herbs and spices in cooking. They add some bitterness and other flavors to the beer. Some people only have negative associations with the word “bitter.” They seem to think that it can only be an unpleasant flavor, but just the right amount of hop bitterness is what gives beer its refreshing edge. Hops also act as a preservative (they slow down the growth of bacteria) and greatly extend beer’s shelf life.

[ + ] What is malted barley?

Barley is a cereal grain similar to wheat, rye, and oats. Each grain of barley is a seed for a new barley plant. These grains are made largely of starch (complex carbohydrates). The process of malting makes barley sweeter by converting starch into sugars (simple carbohydrates). Sugars are a quick source of fuel for plants, animals, and yeast. Starch takes some effort to digest and is better for long-term energy storage. Malting allows the seed to start the sprouting process, so that the simple sugars are made available in preparation for growth of the new barley plant. Then the sprouting process is suspended by drying the seeds out.

[ + ] Where does the alcohol come from?

Yeast! These are single celled microorganisms that float around in your beer and eat dissolved sugars turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This process of yeast transforming sugars into alcohol is called fermentation. This is in fact a controlled process of food spoilage similar to the production of yogurt, bread, soy sauce, sauerkraut, cheese, and kimchi. They do this work tirelessly and for free, making your beer alcoholic over a few days. Although the biochemistry is interesting, you don’t really need to know how they do it to get started brewing.

[ + ] How does it get carbonated?

Yeast are single celled microorganisms. They feed on sugar and convert it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. When carbon dioxide is dissolved into liquids they get bubbly and carbonated. In the beginning, beer has lots of sugar for producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. If all of this potential carbon dioxide were dissolved into the beer it would become explosively carbonated, so this carbon dioxide is allowed to escape out the airlock. Later, to get a controlled amount of carbonation, a small amount of additional sugar is added just before sealing the beer in a closed container such as bottles, a cask, or a keg. After the yeast consumes the extra sugar, the carbon dioxide produced is dissolved and the beer is properly carbonated.

[ + ] Is it expensive?

There is some financial cost upfront to get the necessary equipment. After that the additional expenses are actually pretty low, although the costs to your time and closet space can become significant. Modestly priced craft beer from the store will almost always be much more expensive than similar tasting homebrew. In fact given this price difference you can often recover the cost of your brewing equipment within a dozen or so batches.

[ + ] What equipment and other resources do I need?

You will need a few things you probably don’t have in the kitchen already. There is a checklist of the basics below. The big-ticket items are a very large pot (stainless steel or aluminum), buckets and containers to hold the beer, specialized tools for filling bottles and putting bottle caps on.

Aside from equipment you will need to store a little over two cases of beer for a typical size batch. You will also need floor space for the beer while it ferments. Typically this means about 4 square feet someplace out of the way with consistent temperatures between 65 and 73 °F. You will also need some storage space for your equipment.

[ + ] Is it safe?

Yes, for the most part. Brewing has many of the same risks as cooking. You may need to lift heavy objects and work near large volumes of boiling hot liquid, so caution is advised. You could cook up something spoiled that is going to make you puke or give you diarrhea, so don’t drink a whole glass of something that tastes bad. However that basically shouldn’t happen if you make even an effort at sanitation.

Note on Botulism: While this is more of an advanced technique, storing wort (i.e. unfermented beer) for longer than about a week can be dangerous because of the risk of botulism infection. Botulism is rare but very deadly. If you plan to store wort make sure you use proper pressure canning technique and consult a reputable book on canning first.

A Broad Strokes Summary of Brewing

Here is a broad strokes summary of making homebrew – more on specific steps later. For the purposes of our discussion, beer is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting sugars from grains. Barley and wheat are the most popular grains used in brewing. Fermentation is controlled food spoilage and the process of yeast making alcohol. Yeast are microorganisms that eat simple sugars and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide as byproducts – as far as the yeast is concerned these are byproducts anyway.

Some sugars remain unfermented and are responsible for the slightly sweet taste of beer. The sweetness of beer is balance by bitter flavors that come from boiling a plant called hops. Some of the carbon dioxide made during fermentation is dissolved in the beer resulting in carbonation. Beer is slightly sweet, balanced by hop bitterness. It has some intoxicating alcohol and is topped off with a foamy carbonated head.

Wort is the name for beer prior to fermentation. To make wort you start by making a sweet grain liquid – sort of a broth or tea. You can get sugars from grains in a number of ways: mashing, steeping, or using malt extract.

Malt extract comes as either powder or syrup. These are just refined sugar originally from grains. Someone else has produced wort directly from grains and then concentrated it for your convenience. This is similar to how table sugar is produced from sugarcane and then refined and dried into small white crystals. To use extract in brewing you just add the extract to water to reconstitute. Malt extract is the easiest way to get fermentable sugars. Quality extracts are easy to come by and can produce great tasting beer. Extract is extremely dependable allowing for a high level of consistency between batches. Extracts come in a number of varieties with different flavors, colors, and other properties. One major drawback to using extracts alone is that you as the brewer are ceding some control to the extract manufacturer. The wort you make from an extract will be highly similar to the wort that was concentrated to make the extract. If you are aiming to makes something different, you will need to use a mix of extracts or get some sugars from other sources like steeping or mashing.

Steeping grains works similarly to steeping tea – crushed grains are soaked in warm water often in a large mesh bag. The goal is to obtain flavor and color for your beer. The production of some fermentable sugars is a secondary benefit when steeping. Steeped grains are most often used alongside extracts to get interesting grain flavors and for added flexibility in recipe formulation. For these reasons steeped grains are often known as character grains. For example, you could steep half a pound of black roasted barley and use five pounds of light colored dried malt extract in a batch together. The resulting beer would be dark brown in color with some of the coffee and roasted flavors typical of a stout. Nearly all of the fermentable sugars in this example wort are from the extract and most of the color and roasted character are from the roasted barley.

Mashing is really the heart of obtaining fermentable sugars for brewing. To mash, you simply soak crushed grains in warm water. Similar to steeping but by carefully controlling the temperature you will create an environment that favors the conversion of the grains’ starch into fermentable sugars. Starch molecules have a complex structure made of many simple sugars joined into long chains and trees. Mashing makes use of enzymes naturally found in the grains to breakdown the starch into smaller units. Conducting a mash is essential for all-grain brewing which is more of an intermediate or advanced brewing method.

After getting sugars into the wort (by using malt extract, by steeping grains with extract, or by mashing) it is boiled for an hour or longer. Boiling removes any chance of contamination from microorganisms other than your yeast. It also has a number of other benefits on beer flavor (more on that in the article on all-grain brewing). During the boil, hops can be added at various times. The amount of time hops are boiled can change the flavors produced dramatically. Hops boiled for longer times produce more bitterness. Hops boiled for short periods of time retain more delicate hop aroma. Hops boiled for intermediate amounts of time favor the production of hop flavors. Hence it is traditional to make a bittering hop addition early in the boil a flavor hop addition later and an aroma hop addition towards the end. Some styles only use a bittering addition and get interesting flavors from ingredients other than hops.

After boiling the grain sugars and hops together, you now have wort. Your next objective is to cool the wort as quickly as possible to a temperature that the yeast can survive (less than about 80 °F) and then add yeast. This minimizes the risk of any wild microbes getting in and getting a foothold before your yeast strain of choice. Wild microbes are perfectly happy to get into the nutrient rich environment you created for them and ferment your wort, but your beer will probably end up with some unintended off-flavors produced by the random microbes. Cooling the wort quickly also ensures controlled production of hop bitterness – as the hops will continue producing bitterness if the wort stays hot even if it is no longer boiling. To cool the wort some brewers partially submerge the pot in ice water to make an ice bath. Other brewers cool it using a device called a wort chiller.


  1. Keep everything as clean as you can. Sanitation is paramount.
  2. Read ahead and plan ahead. See mise en place.
  3. Don't underestimate the value of record keeping. Detailed logs help you make incremental adjustments that eventually lead to consistently good beer.

General How-to

Prep-day: You will need extra water if your pot is too small to boil the entire volume at once. This is called a partial volume boil. If your pot is large enough, about 7 gallons for a 5-gallon batch, you can skip this whole day. A day or two before brewing you will want to boil and then cool water for topping off to full volume.

Brew-day: This is where you make the wort (unfermented beer) and add the yeast to it. You will start by steeping any specialty grains you are using, and then add extracts. Hops can be added a various times during the boil. You then need to cool the boiled liquid to room temperature (or cooler) and add the yeast.

Bottling-day: Two weeks or so after the brew-day and after the wort has finished fermenting, the activity in the airlock will slow and eventually stop. This usually means that most of the sugar in the wort has finished fermenting. You will now add some extra “priming” sugar before capping the beer in bottles. Fermentation of this last bit of sugar results in carbonation.

– Prep-day Timeline –

If your pot is too small to boil the full volume of the batch, then you will need sanitized (previously boiled) water to top-off at the end. There are two reasons your brew kettle needs to be substantially larger than the batch volume. First, boil overs are common in brewing because huge amounts of foam are produced when boiling wort. Second, volume is lost due to evaporation during the de rigueur 60 minutes of vigorous boiling, so you need to start with more than the final volume. Boiling enough volume that you finish at the full volume is known as a full-volume boil. Boiling less is a partial-volume boil. If you have the capacity for a full-volume boil and you know from experience how much volume you will lose on your system, then you might be able to skip the prep-day.

Step 1: Boil water – Measure about 4 gallons of water into your brew kettle and bring it to a boil. Hold at a simmer for 15 - 20 minutes with the lid off. Then cover with the lid and turn the heat off. Boiling kills microorganisms in the water. Leaving the lid off during boiling allows chlorine from water treatment to escape. Chlorinated water can cause off-flavors in beer.

Step 2: Cool Water – If you can move the kettle someplace cold like outside or the basement, this will go faster. You want to cool the water down as much as possible short of freezing it. The water should not be warmer than about 70 °F. While you are waiting you can work on the next step.

Step 3: Sanitize a Storage Vessel – Mix up some sanitizer solution and use it to sanitize a container large enough to hold the previously boiled water. If you are not using the vessel immediately you should seal or cover it. A carboy or plastic bucket is a good choice.

Step 4: Pour Water into Vessel – Pour the cool water into the sanitized vessel and seal it with a lid or stopper.

– Brew-day Timeline –

Step 1: Steep Grains – If you are using any specialty grains in your recipe you should start by steeping them, otherwise you should skip to Step 2. Put as much water as you can into a large pot remembering that you will want a gallon or two of excess capacity to prevent boil overs later on. Also the grains will displace some volume and raise the water level when you add them. Heat this water to between 150 and 160 °F. Add your specialty grains in a mesh bag or large brewing sock. Keep the water in the range 150 to 160 °F with periodic heat for 30 minutes to an hour. Afterwards remove the grain bag. You can pour some hot water through the grains into the pot to get the last of the sugar if you want.

Step 2: Mix in Extract – Next, mix in the malt extract little by little. Stir well as you add the extract to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot and scorching.

Step 3: Bring to a Boil – Bring the wort to a rolling vigorous boil. Watch for boil overs from this point to the end of the brew-day.

Step 4: Maintain Boil and Hop Additions – Keep the water at a nice strong boil for 60 minutes. This ensures that the wort is sanitized. Hops are added at different times during the boil. The weight of hops added and the length of time they are boiled depends on the recipe.

Step 5: Cool Wort – Cool the wort to 65 - 80 °F as quickly as you can. The yeast you will add in the next step will tolerate cooler temperatures, but significantly hotter temperatures than 80 °F might kill them. Risk of contamination is much higher once the wort stops boiling, so it is a good idea to keep a lid on the pot if you can. You also need to sanitize the thermometer you will use to check the temperature of the cooling wort. Mix some one-step sanitizer into warm water. You can make an ice bath by partially submerging the pot in ice water inside a larger tub or your kitchen sink. Setting the pot down in a snow bank is also effective if you have one available.

Step 6: Pitch Yeast – You now need to sanitize anything that will touch the beer from here until the beer is ready to drink, thermometer, hydrometer, fermenter, airlock, paddle/spoon, yeast package, scissors to open the yeast if needed, etcetera. Pour the wort from the brewing pot into the fermentor. Next, pour the sanitized water to top off to full volume if needed, see Prep-day Timeline above. If you will be adding room temperature water, you can cheat slightly on the cooling process since the mixture of warm wort with cooler sanitized water will have a lower temperature. Once the wort in the fermentor is less than 80 °F, add the yeast. Seal the fermentor. Fill the airlock with sanitizer water and attach it to the fermentor. Move the beer to a cool place that can be easily cleaned if it makes a mess.

– Bottling-day Timeline –

Step 1: Sanitize Everything – Mix some one-step sanitizer into warm water. Sanitize about 50, 12 ounce bottles with uncrimped caps for 5 gallons of beer. Sanitize the bottling bucket. Sanitize the hose racking cane and bottling wand. Alternatively you can sanitize bottles in a dishwasher if it has a high heat drying cycle.

Step 2: Boil Priming Sugar – In a small pot boil 2/3 to 3/4 of a cup of DME in about 2 cups of water. This is the priming sugar that will, once fermented, produce the carbonation in the beer, but first you need to sanitize it by boiling for around 10 minutes.

Step 3: Cool the Priming Sugar – Set the boiled sugar water from Step 2 aside to cool. To prevent contamination, it should be stored with the lid on. If it fits inside your refrigerator, this will cool it fairly quickly to room temperature or colder.

Step 4: Measure Final Gravity – Using the sanitized racking cane and siphon hose, siphon the beer from the fermentor to the sanitized bottling bucket. Take the final gravity using a sanitized hydrometer.

Step 5: Add Priming Sugar – Mix the cooled priming sugar into the beer in the bottling bucket. Stir with a sanitized paddle or spoon.

Step 6: Bottle – Disconnect the hose from the racking cane and connect it to the bottling bucket spigot. Connect the bottling wand to the other end of the hose. Set the bottles up so that they are within reach as you work. Open the spigot, fill the bottles, and cap.

Step 7: Drink – After about two weeks in the bottles the beer should be mostly carbonated and ready to drink. If an average strength beer isn't quite ready after two weeks you could try it again in another week or two. Beers with higher alcohol by volume can take more time to properly carbonate. If you have gushing bottles you may have a contamination issuse or you may have been impatient and bottled before the beer was completely finished fermenting.

Equipment Checklist

Click equipment names to learn more about that item.

[ + ] Large Pot (5+ gallons)

Your brew kettle should be sturdy stainless steel or aluminum. To boil all of the liquid for a 5-gallon batch your kettle will need to be considerably larger (closer to 7 gallons). With a 5- or 6-gallon kettle you can do a partial volume boil where you make a more concentrated wort and dilute it with previously boiled water.

[ + ] Miscellaneous kitchen stuff

One or more smaller pots, some bowels, and measuring cups

[ + ] Stove or other Heat source

This could just be the stove in your kitchen if it puts out enough heat to boil 5 gallons of liquid. Beer frequently boils over into a sticky mess, so cleaning the stove can become a pain. Many home brewers opt for a butane burner that can be used outdoors.

[ + ] Large Spoon or Slotted Paddle

This just needs to be long enough to reach the bottom of the pot you are brewing in. Many sugary ingredients have a tendency to stick to the bottom and scorch before they dissolve completely.

[ + ] 5-Gallon Plastic Bucket

This will be the primary fermentor, the first place the yeast start fermenting the batch. You want a food grade plastic container that can hold the whole batch and easily be opened for cleaning. There will be large amounts of yeast and sediment.

[ + ] 5-Gallon Plastic Bucket with Spigot

This is the bottling bucket it holds the beer just prior to bottling. The spigot at the bottom allows a gravity-feed into the bottles

[ + ] 5-Gallon Carboy

This will be the secondary fermentor, where the yeast will finish fermenting and conditioning the beer

[ + ] Colander or Strainer

Useful for removing particles from the wort and good for when you need to remove wet bags of steeped grains.

[ + ] 3-Piece Airlock

This allows carbon dioxide and other gases to escape from the fermentor while isolating the beer from airborne microorganisms.

[ + ] Bottling Wand

When bottling, this goes on the end of the hose and blocks flow until it is pushed against the bottom of a bottle. This allows for controlled filling of bottles in a way that does not splash or oxygenate the beer.

[ + ] Siphon Hose

A typical diameter siphon hose is 3/8 inches and made of food grade vinyl.

[ + ] Racking Cane

In conjunction with the siphon hose, this allows you to rack (move) your beer from one container to another.

[ + ] Capper

This is a specialized tool for crimping bottle caps onto bottles.

[ + ] Thermometer

Either a floating thermometer or an electronic instant read thermometer works well.

[ + ] Hydrometer

This device measures the density of liquids. In brewing, this is assumed to approximate sugar content. Measuring density before fermentation and after fermentation allows you to estimate how much of the sugars were converted into alcohol.

[ + ] Bottle Caps

You will need a bunch of uncrimped bottle caps for sealing bottles, at least one per bottle and probably a few spares.

[ + ] 50 Empty 12 oz. Bottles

This is enough bottles to hold a 5-gallon batch with a few extras.

[ + ] Sanitizer

There are a number of products sold for sanitizing brewing equipment. So-called one step sanitizers are very convenient since you just need to soak items to sanitize them and good to use without requiring an additional rinsing step.