Craft Beer Home Brewing Tips For Beginners

Craft beer brewer Craig Dexter.

By Meggan McCarthy

The craft beer scene is exploding worldwide. According to home brewer Craig Dexter, you don’t need a lot of money to start brewing, and you can make better tasting craft beer at a fraction of the price of the craft beers they sell in stores and restaurants. It’s not just for men – there are many women brewers too. Dexter gives advice to beginner brewers.

Brewing equipment essentials for brewing an extract:

– Beer kit.
– Food grade bucket (25L – 30L, to be used as a fermenter – you’ll need to drill a hole in the lid). You can get it at places like Westpack Lifestyle.
– Bubbler airlock
– Brewer’s spoon or paddle.
– Bung or rubber grommet – to fit the Bubbler airlock snugly into the drilled hole to seal it.
– Hydrometer to measure gravity.
– Trial jar.
– Thermometer (glass or digital).
– Beer bottles.
– Bottle capper to cap the bottles – can be bought at brew shops.
– Large pot (at least 5L)

All equipment must be thoroughly sterilised. Beer is a living organism and can easily become infected, so sanitisation is key. Keep lids on equipment, caps on bottles, and other stuff covered, to prevent any infection. You can sanitise equipment with alcohol or a no-rinse sanitiser (supplied by the brew shop).

Three methods of brewing:
• Kit beers.
• Malt extract.
• All grain/full mash.

Using a kit

The best way to start and get a feel for brewing is to get an all-in-one kit, which is like a cake mix. You can get these at brew shops such as Brew Craft. With these kits, malt has been extracted out of the grains and it is a concentrated mix of malt, either in a liquid format or a dry malt extract.

Heat up the cans of liquid malt extract, which is quite thick (like molasses), in a large pot of boiling water – this softens the extract. Pour the mixture into your container (usually a food grade bucket ) and mix 5L of boiling water to dilute. Then fill up with cold water to the desired volume (refer to kit instructions), and mix it in.

Measure the original gravity (OG)

This measures your sugar content, also known as your ‘gravity’. With a sterilised trial jar, take a sample of the wort, and using your hydrometer, measure your gravity and take note of the reading. This is your original gravity reading. Discard the sample (do not put back into the wort).

Add the yeast

Yeast is your most important ingredient in the brewing process because it ferments and converts wort (a sweet infusion of ground malt) into alcohol. You can throw away the sachet of yeast you receive in the kit because shipping, etc. can affect the quality. Rather ask the brew shop to give you the correct yeast for the style of beer you’re brewing. The yeast will be fresh from being stored in the fridge and you can be assured of its quality. As soon as you get home, put the yeast in the fridge. It must only be refrigerated, not kept in the freezer.

Remove the yeast from the fridge about an hour before pitching to get to room temperature. Before pouring in the yeast, measure the temperature of the wort mixture with a thermometer to make sure it is about 20 degrees for ales and 12 degrees for lagers and pilsners (refer to ideal temperature on yeast instructions). You can’t put the yeast into wort that is too hot, otherwise you’ll kill it. Once the ideal temperature is reached, add or ‘pitch’ the yeast by sprinkling it evenly over the surface of the wort.

Seal the container (fermenter) and give a good shake for about a minute to mix up the contents and introduce oxygen into the wort. This is the only time you add oxygen to the mixture. The yeast uses oxygen and the sweetened wort (sugar) to make the alcohol. You’ll need to have a hole drilled into the bucket lid to fit the rubber grommet, which acts as an o-ring to seal the sterilised bubbler (a type of a one-way valve). When the beer is fermenting, it builds up pressure in the fermenter and too much pressure can cause this to explode. The bubbler releases the pressure without letting oxygen into the fermenter.

Fermentation time and tips

Normally yeast will take 10-14 days to ferment. There are ways to check that the fermentation is complete, such as measuring the gravity. You will have measured your original gravity (mentioned above) and so will have that reference to compare with your new measurements. Take a sample the beer in your sterilised trial jar and using your hydrometer, measure the gravity levels. After your yeast has fermented everything, the gravity will drop, and if it’s still fermenting, it will drop even more.

After about 10 days, when it’s levelled out, it means the yeast has fermented out. You always start with high gravity, and then it levels out. If you’re not sure, you can check over 2 or 3 days, and if it’s consistent, you know it’s fermented out.

Measuring gravity also allows you to get the alcohol content. According to Home Brew Beer by Greg Hughes, the formula is: original gravity (this you took before you added the yeast) minus the second reading before bottling (final gravity). Hughes says: ‘Multiplying the difference between these two readings by 105 will give you the percentage of alcohol-by-weight. To determine alcohol by volume (ABV) – the measure used by most commercial brewers – multiply the alcohol-by-weight figure by 1.25.’ The ideal alcohol content will depend on your style of beer.

Make sure that the temperature while fermenting stays in that 18-25 degree range for ales and 8-15 degrees for lagers and pilsners. If you can keep it consistent, it’s even better. You can buy a fridge and temperature controller to store the brew, but when first starting out, it isn’t necessary. If the temperature is too cold, you can put a blanket around the brew. Don’t move it around too much while it’s fermenting.

You can then bottle the beer and add carbonation drops (sugar) to carbonate the bottles. You put in a sugar drop – it looks like a sucking sweet – which gives you the bubbles. Either one per bottle (depending on size of bottle) or you can add cane sugar to the container before bottling. Use the correct amount so that you do not over-carbonate, which could cause your bottles to explode.

The overall time before it is ready to drink takes about four weeks: two weeks to ferment, and two weeks in sanitised bottles. You can use old beer bottles and a capping machine to cap the bottles.

You can taste the beer while it’s fermenting, but the more you do this, the higher the risk of the beer being infected. With one kit, you can produce about 20L of beer at a time (about two cases). It can cost anything from R200 to R700 for a brew, depending on your style.

Beer styles and ideal temperatures

Lagers and pilsners use bottom-fermented yeast, which ferments at 12 degrees. So it’s fine to keep in your garage in winter, but in summer, if you don’t have a controlled environment, you won’t be able to brew this style unless you have a fridge with a temperature controller – the device is not too expensive and is supplied by most brew shops. It controls the temperature of any fridge or freezer.

Ales are much easier to brew, with more flavour and aroma. They use a top fermenting yeast, which ferments at higher temperatures (18-25 degrees). This can easily be put in your garage or the coolest part of your house.

Brewer’s clubs and support

WortHogs East Rand is a beer brewing club that holds meetings in Bedfordview. Members meet every second month and taste each other’s beers and give constructive feedback. But you don’t have to be part of a club. There is so much advice online, as well as very supportive online communities. Even mainstream brewers give away some of their recipes online. Two books that I found really useful when starting out: Home Brew Beer by Greg Hughes and How To Brew by John J. Palmer.

As you get the hang of brewing, you’ll progress from beer kits to all-grain brewing and from bottles to kegs. This more advanced brewing does require more time, but as with any hobby, if you are passionate about it, you won’t mind the extra effort. It’s all worth it in the end as it’s very gratifying to share your beer with friends and family at braais and social gatherings.

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Brewing is a fun way to get the kids involved too.