Home-brewing is a satisfying hobby, and one that can be undertaken at pretty much any level of commitment or complexity. From a quick batch of ginger beer that can be made in minutes and drunk within days, through to an all-grain brew of imperial stout that takes much of a day to brew, needs weeks or months to ferment and condition, and can improve for another year or two of aging in bottle, there’s a project for every level of ambition and confidence.
Basic principles of home-brewing
The first thing to know about home-brewing safety is that it is pretty safe, but you should be mindful of some basic principles and take sensible precautions. Fermentation has such a long history across the world, in part, because it made food and drink that might otherwise have rotted or spoilt, safe to store and consume. Check out our beginner's guide to fermented foods for more info on making simple pickles and preserves.
What is rather easier to do, though, is let in bugs that will make your homebrew taste foul. Rogue strains of yeast or bacteria getting into your lovely fruit wine-to-be and making it taste of sweaty feet or vomit is nobody’s idea of a successful outcome. The other main issues to be aware of are safe handling of the chemicals you will be using to keep everything clean, and the principles behind packaging and handling the finished product so they’ll keep safely.
As mentioned earlier, fermentation has such a long history because it allowed foodstuffs to be kept safe when people lacked access to refrigeration or modern hygiene. Alcoholic drinks often involve boiling in their preparation and are naturally acidic, which also puts off a lot of nasties. Introducing the yeast crowds out other organisms competing for food and nutrients. The carbon dioxide that it gives off aids the aforementioned acidification, and the alcohol produced is another antimicrobial. The handy thing is that the steps you take to make sure that it all goes off smoothly are the same ones you take in order to prevent off-flavours. However, if it tastes weird or unpleasant, stop drinking and pour it away.
Cleaning & preparation for home-brewing
The second issue is cleaning chemicals. In order to give your homebrew the best possible chance to come off as envisaged, you need scrupulously cleaned and sanitised equipment. (This is discussed at greater length in our guide on how to clean brewing equipment), and to do this, you need some chemicals. Always follow the safety and dosing instructions on any chemicals or treatments you use before, during, and after a brew.
- Wear gloves when handling cleaning and sanitising chemicals.
- Don’t forget to check you have everything ready and to hand before you start on a recipe.
- Never, ever mix different types of chemicals. It won’t work any better, and you can do yourself and anyone else around serious harm.
- During the brewday, make sure you have rinsed any cleaning chemicals off all of your equipment. If you use a ‘no-rinse sanitiser,’ use it only as instructed and keep any solution you make up clearly separated from other cleaning and sanitising chemicals.
As mentioned before, a lot of homebrewing, especially of beer, involves boiling water, and a lot of recipes are for 20-25 litres. Like with cooking, always make sure that your pan or other container is suitable for high temperatures and has the excess capacity if the brew boils up.
Next, consider if you need to move that liquid around after the boil. Have you got the space and can you lift it safely? Do you need a second person to help out? It is always better to have thought this out before you have to do it, and you might be surprised how amenable others are to volunteering, especially if they get some of the finished product.
Priming and storing your home-brew
The third issue is safe packaging, storage and handling. However conscientiously you make your homebrew, it won’t matter if you leave it out in an unsealed bottle – it’ll go mouldy. So, always plan for what the brew will go into during and after fermentation, as bottling is no fun to try and do on the hop.
You want clean, sanitised receptacles that you can seal properly. During fermentation, that usually means a lidded bucket or carboy with an airlock. If you’re making a drink that will be fizzy, the bottles it’s transferred into need to be able to withstand pressure.
Don’t put beer into normal wine bottles, for example, as they are likely to blow the cork or even explode. They’re not glamorous, but the one- or two-litre plastic bottles you get fizzy drinks in work well, because they’re designed to withstand pressure. A resealable lid also means you can vent off excess pressure if it gets too lively. Standard glass beer bottles are designed to withstand a lot of pressure, are reusable and easy to obtain, but you need to get fresh caps and a bottle capper.
Essential info on carbonation
Yeast turns sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. If there’s too much sugar in the bottle, that extra fizz can cause your precious brew to gush everywhere, or in a more serious case, explode the bottle.
There are a few ways to avoid this risk, but the main one is to know how much sugar is left in what you’ve brewed.
What is priming?
With beers, ciders and sparkling wines, you generally let them ferment out (which means that the yeast has eaten all the available sugars and gone dormant) before adding a controlled quantity of sugar at bottling. Known as priming, this little hit of sugar won’t affect the alcohol level, but gives the yeast enough food to carbonate your drink. There are plenty of guides online for dosing levels, but 5g of cane or beet sugar per litre of brew will give you carbonation akin to a lager.
For simple brews that are intended for consumption quickly, without fermenting out and priming, plastic screw-top bottles are simplest. You can feel how much pressure there is with a squeeze, and vent off excess gas easily and in a controlled manner, without having to worry about recapping them every time. In these instances, keep the bottles in the fridge once pressure starts to build up, as low temperatures slow the yeast down and make the bottle far less likely to gush, even when highly carbonated.
Storing your bottles
Keep your bottles out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources. As ever, a cool, dark, spot is best. Apart from what heat and sunshine will do to the flavour (nothing good), heating up the bottle makes an unfortunate explosion far more likely.
More information on making your own drinks
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