Home-brewing covers a multitude of different drinks, but as with many pursuits, while you can spend a medium-sized fortune on equipment, you only need a few items to start off with.
Although the particulars vary between wines, beers and ciders, the principle behind home-brewing is to extract the sugar and flavour from a source, be it malt, apple, grape or other, and let the yeast get to work. It’s as simple as that, though you can make anything from scrumpy to stout, parsnip wine to nettle beer with those principles.
Before getting started, consider that you’ll need a bit of room to brew in, so make sure you have that covered. The kitchen is the obvious choice, so think about worktop and hob space. Especially with beer, where recipes are often for 20 litres at a time, make sure you can work safely with large volumes of potentially boiling, sticky liquid.
The good news is that you can scale down most recipes quite easily, and ciders and fruit wines don’t usually aim for such large batches anyway.
Beer brewing methods
With beer, there are three main brewing options:
- All-grain brewing is where you brew with malt, and so have to deal with the mash (steeping the malted grain to extract sugars), the sparge (rinsing them to get the last of the sugars out) and the boil. It gives you the greatest flexibility, but potentially the greatest headaches.
- Extract brewing is where you buy malt extract in either syrup or powder form, skipping the mash stage, which simplifies the brewday greatly, although you have to consider hop additions in the boil.
- Beer kits are a simple form of extract brewing, where the malt syrup has hop extracts added in, allowing you to skip the boil entirely. All that is required is to dilute the syrup as instructed and then let it ferment before bottling.
Fruit wine and cider brewing methods
With fruit wine and cider, the process is slightly different, and varies between recipes, but in general you don’t need to worry about any steps prior to the fermenting bucket. Infection is avoided by using of boiling water and/or campden tablets.
Whilst the process is simpler, you will often need to transfer the drink off the accrued sediment into a second carboy or fermenting bucket, so bear that in mind when preparing. Sparkling recipes will need pressure-safe bottles in the same manner as beer, but if it’s a still wine or cider, you can use old wine bottles quite happily, as long as you can seal them. Bear in mind that the maturation time for cider is generally a minimum of four months, and fruit wine 12 months – they may be simpler to make, but more patience is required.
For the purposes of this guide we’ve presumed you are using a kit, as it is a simple and affordable entry point that allows you to get a feel for what is involved without being overwhelming.
Beer kits can be obtained for around £20. Wilko is a great high street source of home-brew equipment, but there are a profusion of independent outfits online:
For this first brew you’ll need:
- A beer kit
- A fermenting bucket
- An airlock
- A tap or siphon
- A bottle stick
- A long stirrer
- Caps and a capper and some means to clean and sanitise your equipment
These can all be got for about £65, which works out at around £1.62 a pint. Any further brews would be able to reuse all of the equipment, and thus only cost you about 50p a pint. If you get into the hobby, all-grain brewing tends to be cheaper like-for-like, but also allows you to vary the recipe however you fancy. It is harder to price up making homemade cider or fruit wines, given they are often an excellent way to use up surplus or foraged goods.
A kit brew
Alongside own-brand offerings, there are also official kits to allow you to reproduce beers from breweries such as Woodfordes or Tiny Rebel, should you have a hankering for recreating a particular beer, although the selection can be limited.
A beer kit will contain all the ingredients you need to make a beer, usually a can of malt extract with hop oils and a sachet of yeast. All you need to do is mix in hot and cold water in the stated ratio and volume, pitch (add to the mixture) the yeast and let it do its work. Make sure you have cleaned and sanitised everything first.
Buying a fermenting bucket
In order to ferment your kit beer, you’ll need a fermenting bucket. Available on the high street from Wilko or online from Brew UK for around £10, most commonly with a 25-litre capacity, which gives you some headspace for a 20-litre recipe.
Buy one with a lid, as leaving it open to the air is not advised and trying to cover it with a tea towel or clingfilm is not a great way to keep your brew safe. For another few pounds, you can get fermenting buckets with an airlock fitted in the lid, which saves you a small amount of DIY fuss (they will often also have a tap fitted at the bottom, which makes bottling simpler). Bottling will require you to lift up the bucket to give clearance beneath for the bottles, so bear this in mind.
You can also get carboys or demijohns, traditionally in glass, but also plastic. Available in a range of sizes, but most often seen in the 5-10 litre range, these are certainly more handsome than a plastic bucket, but are also heavier, harder to clean, and require more practice to transfer beer out of without disturbing sediment.
Do I need an airlock?
An airlock isn’t essential on a bucket and lid, but is definitely a great improvement on leaving the lid cracked open slightly to let CO2 escape. With a carboy, they are a must.
Choosing your stirrer
You will also need a sanitised long-handled stirrer – you may have something suitable in your kitchen already, ideally in stainless steel. In a kit brew, this will be to mix the malt extract with the hot water before fermentation, and possibly also when priming the beer (see below). Don’t use wooden implements as they may be harbouring microbes that could spoil your beer.
The fermentation process
With the kit made up, and the yeast added as instructed, fit the lid on and make sure the airlock is snugly fitted. We tend to use some of the no-rinse sanitiser, or freshly boiled water, to go into the airlock. You only need enough to make sure there’s no direct air connection with the inside of the bucket. If you overfill it, the escaping gas from fermentation will simply force it out.
Keep the fermenting bucket out of direct sunlight in a location with a steady temperature between 17C and 25C. Fermentation produces heat, so the bucket will warm up slightly as the process gets going. This is normal, but if the fermentation is so vigorous that it is butting up against the lid, or even forcing it open, damp towels wrapped around the body of the bucket will help calm it down. Brewing during hot weather can be difficult, as the high ambient temperatures give the yeast too much of a helping hand, and a fermentation that is too fast and too vigorous is likely to give off undesired flavours.
How long does fermentation take?
Fermentation usually takes a day or two to become visible, and can be observed primarily through the large head of dense foam that will appear on the top of the liquid, alongside a steady bubbling from the airlock, as excess carbon dioxide is forced out. The rate of bubbling will subside with the foam and after around a week, the bubbling will cease. This suggests the fermentation is done, and you can bottle up. If you have a hydrometer, you can measure the progress of the fermentation with more certainty and the final alcohol content with precision, but it is not necessary with kit brewing.
Bear in mind that if you need to move the bucket at all after the beginning of fermentation that you do it slowly and carefully. This is for a number of reasons. The first is that it’s a large, heavy bucket, so try not to hurt yourself or spill it everywhere. The second is that the sediment that naturally settles at the bottom is best left there. Stirring it up is likely to introduce ‘off’ flavours. The third is that you don’t want the beer slopping up to the lid, as you’re increasing the risk of infection. Similarly, resist the temptation to prod at the lid, as forcing out too much liquid from the airlock can render it ineffective, and by the same token, you don’t want to accidentally suck it into the fermenting beer.
How to prime the beer
There are two ways to prime your beer, by the bottle, or by the batch. Priming is where you add a little sugar to the packaged beer in order to give it enough food to create some fizz. It shouldn’t affect the alcohol levels, and as long as you distribute the sugar evenly, it won’t be a cause of over-carbonation or exploding bottles. 5g sugar per litre of beer is a safe amount to use and will give you a pleasing amount of fizz.
To prime by the bottle
Tip 2.5g (for a 500ml bottle) or 1.7g (for 330ml bottles) of sugar into each bottle before filling. A funnel helps greatly here.
There is a more complicated method that can be easier and faster, but it is only practical if you have another clean and sanitised vessel to decant the beer into before bottling. If you are in that position, here are the instructions:
Make a priming syrup with the total quantity of sugar for the batch with the same weight of boiling water. For a 20-litre batch, this is 100g of sugar with 100ml of water. Pour this into the second vessel and then decant the beer in with it, taking care to leave the sediment behind and avoiding any splashing of the beer. You don’t want to stir, rouse or splash the beer because you want to minimise oxygen uptake and the risk of infection, both of which are increased by unnecessary exposure to air. A short, gentle stir with a sanitised spoon or stirrer and you’re ready to fill without any bottle-by-bottle priming.
Bottling the beer
When the fermentation has finished you need to bottle up. In principle, all you need to do is prime the beer with a little sugar (see above), fill then cap the bottles.
- Raise the fermenting bucket onto a surface higher than the bottles.
- If this is your first go, cleaned, sanitised fizzy drink bottles are an easy way to go. Glass beer bottles are a better option if you aren’t expecting the beer to be drunk soon.
- The bottles (only ever use pressure-safe bottles, such as the ones fizzy beer or cider come in) need to be spotlessly clean, and sanitised as close before filling as possible.
Filling is most easily done with a bottle filling stick attached to the tap. If you don’t have a tap on the fermenting bucket, an autosiphon is a good alternative. It should come with a length of flexible plastic hose that you can fix the bottle stick to.
Put down old newspaper or similar where the bottling will happen, as there’s bound to be some drips and stickiness. With both methods, you want to avoid drawing off any of the murky sediment at the bottom – there will be enough yeast in the beer already, so all that sediment will do is impair the flavour.
How to cap the bottles
Once filled halfway up the neck, the bottle should be capped. A hand capper is notably cheaper than a fixed capper. Standard crown caps in the UK are 26mm, although Belgian style bottles use larger ones. Caps themselves are single use, but very cheap, we’d recommend practicing capping a few times, as there is a certain knack to it.
Work through the filling and capping as best suits you, but we find resting the caps over the bottle tops as we go, and then capping them on properly once all the filling is done works best. If you can get a second person to help, then you can get a neat production line going which saves time and effort.
If you happen to be able to get your hands on flip-top style beer bottles, they are a great labour saver. Remember that you have to pay close attention to the rubber seal on the top when sanitising the bottle.
Once filled, capped and wiped down, the bottles need a couple of days in a mild place (17-25C), like for the fermentation, and then if you have it, somewhere cool for at least a fortnight. For any but the lightest beers, they improve over the next few months, remain tasty for at least six, and are best drunk within twelve.
That, in a nutshell, is all you need to make a 20-litre batch of beer with a minimum of equipment. Once you have the equipment, every batch after that can reuse the kit, further reducing the cost. If it takes your fancy, you can make your own recipes rather than use kits, and if you move beyond malt extract to grain, the possibilities are endless.