There are several ways to start brewing beer at home, each with different levels of complexity. But how do you choose where to start?
Although there are endless techniques and processes available, most home brewing methods fit into one of four categories:
- beer kit brewing
- extract brewing
- all grain brewing
- brew in a bag (BIAB)
If you’re just starting out you may find the options bewildering. However, the basic brewing process is straightforward and there are many overlaps between the different methods.
The Key Steps In Brewing Beer At Home
Whichever type of home brewing you choose, it will include the following key stages:
- Extracting sugar from grains to make wort (unfermented beer)
- Boiling the wort with hops
- Cooling the wort
- Pitching yeast
- Secondary fermentation (conditioning)
When choosing a home brewing method (beer kit, all grain etc.) you’re really deciding on your approach to the wort. You can buy it ready made in a beer kit or make it yourself with all grain or BIAB. Extract brewing offers something in between.
Preparing it at home you determine every aspect of the flavour and quality. To achieve this control you’ll need to invest more time on brew day and more money in equipment.
At the other end of the scale, beer kits are quick and easy and require little equipment, but are limited in terms of flavour and beer style.
Other than wort production, the brewing process is the same for all methods.
Home Brewing Options
This diagram explains the processes in each of the brewing options. The order of complexity is: all grain, BIAB, extract, beer kit. Each subsequent method can be thought of as a simplification of the one before.
The all grain process is the basis of all brewing, so let’s start there.
All Grain Brewing
The following stages correspond to the numbers in the diagram:
- Brewing begins with malt. This is grain that has started germinating, producing starch necessary for growth, before heating stops the process.
- Brewers convert the starch into sugar by soaking the malt in warm water, a process called mashing. Home brewers usually do this in insulated cool boxes.
- The resulting sugary liquid (wort) is put into a large brew pot. Usually extra wort is produced by rinsing (sparging) the malt.
- The wort is boiled and hops are added. Hops provide bitterness (if added at the start of the boil) and aroma (when added at the end). The balance between bitter hops and sweet malt is a very important part of beer’s character.
- Sometimes additional sugars are added to increase the beer’s gravity, the amount of sugar in the wort, contributing flavour, texture and strength.
- Rapid cooling shocks proteins, which would otherwise create hazy beer, out of the wort. In the home brewery this can be done with an ice bath, although more elaborate set-ups are sometimes used.
- Once cooled, the wort is transferred to a fermenting vessel. Aeration at this point will help the yeast start the fermentation.
- Yeast, either liquid, dry or reused from a previous batch, are pitched into the wort.
- The fermenter is sealed and left alone. The yeast convert the sugars to alcohol and gas, and later condition the beer in a sort of cleaning process which refines the flavours.
- The beer is bottled. Priming sugar is added to carbonate the beer.
- Additional conditioning takes place inside the bottles.
- You are rewarded for your patience with a delicious pint.
Brew In A Bag (BIAB)
BIAB is a sub-variety of all grain brewing.
Instead of a mash in a dedicated vessel (step 2 in the drawing) it’s done directly in the brew pot, which is lined with a bag that’s filled with malt. After the wort’s produced, the bag is removed from the pot with the grain and the brew continues in the normal fashion.
The obvious benefit of BIAB is that it is a lot simpler and requires less equipment.
Although extract brewing and beer kits, which I’ll describe next, are also simpler than all grain, they don’t offer the same flexibility (control) as BIAB.
In extract brewing the mash process is removed from the home brewery.
Instead, commercial breweries make wort on an industrial scale. This is boiled intensively until most of the water has evaporated. The goopy syrup that’s left is sold to home brewers as liquid malt extract, or in an even more processed powder form.
You dissolve this extract in water and pick up the all grain brew from step 4 in the diagram, the boil.
Malt extract saves time and equipment, arguably at the expense of flexibility and control, and certainly at greater cost.
Beer Kit Brewing
The simplest option of all which removes yet another step : the hop additions.
After producing wort in the same way as they do for malt extract, kit manufacturers boil it with hops before evaporating it into a syrup. This hopped malt extract is what is meant by beer kit.
The kit is dissolved in water at home, and a bag of sugar is added to bring the quantities up to a full batch, before yeast is pitched for fermentation.
Beer kits speed up and simplify brew day but restrict flavour options.
Which Brewing Method To Start With?
For many beginners the decision is an economic one. The amount of equipment needed decreases as the cost of the ingredients increases.
All grain brewers, having made a large initial investment on equipment, spend little each brew day.
Beer kits, on the other hand, are more expensive but don’t require any special tools. They may seem tempting for you if you’re a new brewer who’s testing the water.
But you’ll wonder why you didn’t start straight away with all grain brewing. It’s not especially difficult, makes better beer and is much more satisfying.
Just decide something and start.