Navigating the labyrinth of brewing tips, tricks, and advice is overwhelming as a beginner. Despite reading every brewing book I could get my hands on, I still made some obvious mistakes when I was starting out. I’ve channeled those lessons into this in-depth guide on how to brew your first beer, with the goal of helping you navigate the maze a little easier. You do not have to know anything about brewing to use this guide! I wrote it from the beginner perspective, with the goal of empowering anyone to pick up supplies tomorrow.
The Easy Ale recipe checks some important boxes for those of you looking to brew high quality beer from your first batch. Firstly, it’s an all-grain recipe. Don’t worry, you can do it! There’s nothing difficult about all-grain brewing. Secondly, this recipe serves as a “home base” that can be easily adapted to your tastes once you learn the basics. You can make it hazy, or darker, or hoppier, all with simple changes to the ingredients or brewing process. You won’t have to relearn how to brew as you gain experience! Lastly, this guide attempts to cut through the noise and keep the focus on those few factors that you can actually taste in your final creation. You don’t have to slave away for hours and weeks brewing questionable beer through trial and error!
About this guide
This is the first part of a 3-part series on how to make your first beer. Part one (this guide) provides the background and explanation for the “what” and “why” questions you might have before starting. Part 2 contains the step-by-step instructions for you to follow on brew day. Finally, part 3 discusses how to adjust the Easy Ale recipe to brew different styles.
After reading this series you will:
- know how to brew a modern, hop-forward pale ale, that is
- at least as good as what you can get at your local brewery
Easy ale introduction
Simplicity and focus are perhaps the most important factors for new brewers. My biggest mistakes were a result of trying to think about too much all at once! The Easy Ale recipe is based on simplicity of ingredients and laser focus on good brewing practice. Keeping your ingredients simple allows you to confidently learn what they taste like. This is the perfect opportunity for you to get acquainted with the single malt, single hop (SMaSH) beer. SMaSH beers are great for a first brew, but will continue to be a useful tool as you gain experience and want to evaluate new ingredients.
Easy Ale is also a “crowd pleaser,” which in 2020 means a medium body, moderate bitterness, and assertive hop flavour. Let’s call it a pale ale. The base malt is Maris Otter, a classic British variety that is fantastically complex all on it’s own. Maris Otter lends a subtle nutty character, and a honey-caramel sweetness that makes this beer taste like a pale ale without any specialty malts. The hop character is the classic American citrus-floral combination that sets up a marriage of the best of old and new world ingredients.
Of course getting started involves more than just buying ingredients. You’ll need some equipment, ranging from a large pot to an autosiphon. Depending on where you are and where you shop, you can expect to pay in the range of $250 – $350 for everything you need.
How to brew beer: The process
The brewing process is as simple as possible without sacrificing quality. Quality over quantity is the motto! This means, for example, that we’ll be purposeful in what water we use, and pay extra attention to mash temperature. These little details make the difference between a good and a great beer, and are easy to accommodate.
Brewing consists of 5 main steps that are shown in the diagram below. Each will each be covered in detail over the course of this guide.
Of course there is a lot of detail behind this simple diagram. Some of which we’ll touch on below, and some of which has been intentionally left out for your sanity. In fact I recommend that you break up the brewing process into two days, with mashing done on day 1 and boiling on day 2. Why? It’ll help you slow things down and ensure you have time to do things right. Your goal in brewing this recipe should be to learn the basics with the added bonus of getting a tasty beer at the end. After brewing a handful of times and making small tweaks, you’ll have plenty of options for experimenting.
In the following sections you’ll learn why we’re including certain ingredients or steps, and why we’re not bothering with others. Each section also contains a summary diagram at the end to review the practical steps. OK let’s get into it!
Step 1: Prepare brewing water
Water is a very easy thing to overlook in making beer, which is strange since beer is mostly water! This section covers the basics about how water changes beer flavour and what is included in the Easy Ale recipe.
The recipe itself is very simple and involves the addition of only 2 salts – calcium chloride and gypsum. These salts easily dissolve in water, and provide the correct flavour profile and brewing pH for a pale ale. Brewing pH is beyond the scope of this guide, but rest assured that if you follow the recipe it’ll be in the right range!
A special note on chlorine
If you use tap water for brewing, you may need to remove chlorine to avoid off-flavours. For what it’s worth, my local water has an average of 0.6 mg/L of chlorine and this hasn’t caused any off-flavours in my beer (that I know of). You can use my experience as a guideline, or go further and remove the chlorine/chloramine commonly used in municipal water treatment. A Google search will turn up several articles on this topic.
Why bother with water treatment?
Beginners are commonly told to forget about water and just use whatever is available. I think this is shortsighted advice for a couple reasons. First, know that brewing beer takes several hours of your precious time and is spread out over a couple weeks. When you take that first sip after a month of anticipation do you want to be underwhelmed? Me neither. For me the small time savings isn’t worth getting a less interesting beer. Second, using the proper water promotes a healthy fermentation, an important factor that can impact flavour.
Having said all that, controlling your water may not be easy. If you’re lucky (like me) and have very soft water, then it’s as easy as adding minerals – salts – to your tap water and stirring to dissolve. If your water is hard and has high mineral content, the easiest approach is to buy distilled water and add minerals back in. Minerals play an important role in flavouring beer and you’ll be happy you put in the effort. To summarize, only two ingredients are required to get the right water for a pale ale.
- Gypsum (calcium sulphate)
- Calcium chloride
These minerals will help us get the right flavour profile and the right pH. Let’s talk a bit about how brewing salts change the flavour profile of beer.
Minerals and beer flavour
Some minerals play a significant role in beer flavour – maybe as significant as the hops you choose! Gyspum contributes sulphate, and calcium chloride contributes chloride. These are the primary flavour ions for virtually every beer you’ll ever brew. The amount of sulphate and chloride can literally make or break a recipe.
Sulphate works to accentuate hop bitterness, which can help prevent a syrupy mouthfeel. I perceive it as drawing out the sensation of bitterness right through to the end a sip. At the other end of the scale, chloride enhances malt character and provides a fuller mouthfeel. The balance can go towards the dry side (West Coast IPA) or the rich, full side (New England IPA).
Sulphate and chloride are both included to provide depth of flavour, in much the same way that salt rounds out the flavour of your favourite dishes. There’s enough sulphate to ensure the bitterness is present and able to balance out residual sweetness without being intrusive. There’s enough chloride to enhance the malt backbone, and make the delicate Maris Otter qualities stand out. You should consider the amounts as a starting point for refining to your tastes in future batches. Remember, the recipe assumes the use of either very soft tap water or distilled water. Please check your local water report if you want to use tap water, and use distilled water if in doubt.
Brewing water summary
Ensuring you start with relatively soft water is actually the most difficult part of water treatment. Gypsum and calcium chloride both dissolve easily in water and won’t cause you any trouble aside from measuring the quantities. Just to reinforce how easy the practical part is, here’s the summary diagram for water treatment.
Fill your pot, add salts and stir. Easy! With water taken care of we can discuss how to turn that water into the the key building block of beer: wort.
Step 2: Make wort (AKA mash)
Mashing is the simple process of soaking the grain in water to make sweet barley juice (“wort”). I find it to be one of the most interesting steps in brewing, but also the easiest to over-complicate. At the complicated end of the scale there are multi-tier “brewing sculptures” that we’re going to avoid for now. At the easy end of the scale is brew-in-a-bag, a technique that relies on nothing more than a glorified paint strainer bag to make all-grain wort.
Let’s take a detailed look at what’s happening in the mash, and what the practical steps are.
All-grain mashing objectives
An all-grain mash is literally just mixing grain in water and soaking. The starches in the grain are converted to sugars as the grain soaks, and these sugars can be later metabolized by brewer’s yeast to make alcohol. While it’s a very easy concept, there are 3 questions we need to consider before zipping off to the local homebrew shop to buy supplies:
- What temperature do we mash at?
- How long do we need to mash for?
- How do we separate the grain from the liquid at the end?
Controlling mash temperature is important mainly because it determines how “fermentable” the resulting wort will be. A highly fermentable wort is easy for the yeast to metabolize, leading to a beer with relatively less residual malt sugar. All beer has some residual sugar, but we can alter how much by changing the mash temperature. Practical mash temperatures range from about 145 F (63 C) to 160 F (71 C), with low temperature promoting high fermentability. To recap:
- Low temperature = high fermentability = thinner beer
- High temperature = low fermentability = thicker beer
The Easy Ale recipe mashes at 64 C (147.2 F), which favours higher fermentability. This leaves the right body when paired with our yeast strain of choice (see the Fermentation section for more info).
The mashing process is called the “single infusion mash,” which means you add room temperature malt to pre-heated brewing water. With the right water temperature, the mash will end up at the chosen temperature after mixing. There are online calculators available to determine what the “strike temperature” of the water should be to achieve this. The strike temperature is approximately 66 C (151 F) to hit the 64 C mash temperature target. You will probably have to make minor adjustments with ice or heat in the first few minutes of the mash to hit the exact temperature.
Homebrewing lore has always dictated a mash time of 60 minutes, but this has been explored recently for time savings on brew day. I love saving time, but it’s pretty important to allow enough time for full conversion of the starches. Residual starch in beer contributes haze (maybe a bad thing) and reduces the fermentable sugar and alcohol content (definitely a bad thing).
I took some gravity measurements during a 60 minute mash at Easy Ale temperature to double check the 60 minute rule of thumb. The chart below shows how the specific gravity (sugar extraction) of the mash increases with time.
There’s a rapid and steady increase for the first 20 minutes, followed by much slower increases out to 50 minutes. What does that mean? First, the mash was close to 70% complete by the time I mixed in the grain! It seems to be pretty important to get the right mash temperature in the first few minutes. Second, even though the mash is 95% complete at 20 minutes, there are still gains in gravity for another half hour. At least in this case a 60 minute mash is about right if the goal is converting all the starch to fermentable sugar.
Removing grain after the mash
Now for the final question: what’s the easiest approach for removing spent grain after the one hour mash? Undoubtedly it’s “brew-in-a-bag” (BIAB). This technique shook up the (North American) homebrewing world when it burst onto the scene in the mid ’00s. It’s effectively a giant tea bag for the grain – in this case a nylon mesh bag that lines your brew pot and holds the wet grain.
After the 60 minute mash you remove the bag along with the wet grain and leave the wort behind in the kettle. It’s simple, fast, and comes at low equipment cost. In fact it’s still the method I use for 95% of my brewing. It can be awkward to squeeze out a sack of wet grain, so smaller batch sizes are generally best for this technique. For 19 L (5 gal.) and less, BIAB fits like a glove.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this section, but the main takeaways are easy to summarize.
- Mash temperature is important because of it’s influence on how thick the final beer will be
- Mash time is important because we want all the starch in the grain converted to malt sugars
- Separating the grain from the wort after mashing is incredibly simple with brew-in-a-bag
Because of all these factors, the all-grain mash is arguably the most important part of brewing. Despite that, mashing can be remarkably tolerant to mistakes. You are likely to get a good beer no matter what happens! Missing the temperature target just means making adjustments for next time. Here’s the summary of the mashing process for BIAB:
Heat the water, stir in the grain, maintain temperature for 60 minutes, and remove the grain at the end. If you take my advice and pause here, make sure to heat the wort to just under boiling temperature (about 95 C or 205 F) to sanitize it. After that, place the lid on the pot until you’re ready to continue.
Completing the mash is a big milestone! Getting this far on brew day means you have high quality all-grain wort every bit as good as a professional brewery.
Step 3: Boil and flavour with hops
Wort is boiled for more reasons than just hop flavour, but these days it seems to be the main focus. A secondary objective is to add additional calcium that lowers pH and acts to clarify the final beer. For simplicity’s sake we’re only going to boil for 30 minutes, and put most of our attention on when to add hops. In hopping any beer we have 2 objectives:
- Adding bitterness to balance residual sweetness
- Adding essential oils that provide flavour
We can make the distinction that “hop flavour” comes from the essential oils, and hop bitterness provides balance against residual sweetness. Let’s discuss each of these aspects in a bit more detail.
Choosing a target bitterness
The easier part of hopping is predicting bitterness. In recent years the trend has been to pack in as much hop flavour as possible while retaining only enough bitterness to balance out the beer. The hazy and “juicy” styles so popular today pack a much lower bitterness punch than typical West Coast ales.
My preference lies somewhere between these styles, but it took some time and experimenting to learn that. I designed this recipe to reflect a lighter bitterness, but you can easily tune that in later batches. Brew, taste, adjust, repeat. The calculation and fine tuning of bitterness is beyond the scope of this guide, but you can use an IBU calculator to get a feel for it. Calculators use the mass of hops, the alpha acid level, and boil time to calculate bitterness. Depending on how you calculate it, the boil hops provide approximately 35 IBU.
Notes on hop flavour
Suffice it to say that hop flavour is a deep topic! From the practical perspective I’ve found that experimenting with hop variety and usage is the best way to learn. As much as I love readings hops reviews and descriptions, the perception of hop flavour can vary from person-to-person and beer-to-beer. Don’t beat yourself up for missing flavours that “should” be there, or tasting others that shouldn’t!
Some of the most common descriptors for hop flavour are:
- Tropical fruit
It’s a huge range! On top of that, the descriptions often don’t match your beer because hop flavour changes depending on how you use them. It’s not easy to predict in advance how potent a hop is and how much flavour it’s going to contribute so I’ve mostly relied on my own brewing to determine that. As a rule of thumb, the later the hops are added in the boil the more the flavour and aroma is expected to carry over. For pale ales I’ve settled on 2 – 4 ounces (113 grams) of late or post-boil hops to test new varieties, and that’s what I’ve built into the recipe.
Easy Ale hopping strategy
The hop flavour in the Easy Ale recipe is the classic American citrus-floral profile. The “flavour addition” is 3 ounces (84 g) of Centennial all added after the heat is turned off (“flame-out”) but before the wort cools. This technique is called whirlpool hopping, and is a staple of hop-forward beer. Additional bitterness comes from adding 1 ounce (28 g) of Warrior with 20 minutes left in the boil. This hopping strategy is just one of many ways to pack hop flavour into a modern pale ale. Yes, technically this means we’re not making a “single hop” beer. From the flavour perspective, any contribution from Warrior will be so small compared to Centennial that I’m OK with that slight discrepancy!
With a short boil and 2 hop additions, this is one of the easier parts of brew day. Let’s take a look at the high level steps.
Simply bring the wort to a boil, and add bittering and flavour hops in two separate additions. It turns out to be a very easy process after all that discussion! Now we’re ready to chill the hopped wort and start working on “the cold side.”
Step 4: Chill the wort
So at this point we have a pot full of hot, hoppy barley juice. However we can’t add yeast until the wort is cool, and sanitation becomes critical as the temperature drops. You will more than likely expose that sugary, nutritious wort to microbes you don’t want in your beer, even with extra caution. It’s important to chill and add yeast quickly so the yeast can out-compete the opportunistic critters that hitched a ride during brew day.
There are a lot of ways to cool wort, but they can be lumped into roughly 2 categories: active methods and passive methods. Passive methods like air cooling or water bath cooling are simple concepts: move the hot brew pot to somewhere cool and wait. On the positive side, these methods are usually cheaper and don’t involve any equipment. However, they do tend to introduce higher contamination risk and require lifting a brew pot full of boiling hot liquid.
On the other hand, active methods require purchasing equipment and putting in extra effort to maintain and clean it. Plate chillers fall into the active category – they are fantastic at chilling wort, but require a lot of cleaning to prevent clogging and contamination (I can attest to that).
Having tried virtually every method, I wholeheartedly recommend a copper immersion chiller. Immersion chillers are fast and easy to use, and reduce exposure of your cool wort to contamination. I made one with hardware store parts for about $40 (pictured below), but you can buy one if you’d like something prettier! About 20 – 25 feet of 3/8″ copper is the minimum surface area you need to chill a 5 gallon (19 L) batch in reasonable time.
Using an immersion chiller
The best part about immersion chillers is how easy it is to clean and sanitize them. Cleaning isn’t much more than a rinse under the tap to make sure it’s free of brewing debris. To sanitize a chiller, just plunk it into the boiling wort a few minutes before the end of the boil. This exposure to high temperature ensures any contaminating microbes are killed before the wort cools down.
The chilling process itself is equally simple. The simplest approach is turn on the cold water, and wait 20 or 30 minutes for everything in the pot to cool down. At that point you can swirl the wort to ensure good contact with the coils, and speed things up for the last few degrees. Depending on your tap water temperature and dedication to swirling, it will likely take at least 40 minutes to reach yeast pitching temperature. Practicing this sequence with water in advance of brewing an actual beer would help prevent last minute panic!
And if your tap water is warmer than yeast pitching temperature? Unfortunately you’re stuck using either an ice bath or a fridge to cool the last few degrees.
Transferring wort to the fermenter
Once we’re done chilling the wort all that’s left is to move it to the fermenter. While the transfer is simple and straightforward, remember that sanitation is crucial when handling cold wort. Everything that contacts the wort must be sanitized with Star San, a liquid sanitizer. The image below shows the kind of setup you’ll replicate for the wort transfer.
This is the first time you’ll use an auto siphon, but it comes into play again when you package the final beer. As with the immersion chiller, take the opportunity to practice with water before brewing a beer so everything goes smoothly on brew day.
The steps in chilling are simple, but sanitation becomes a critical focus. Take care to sanitize everything that might contact the cool wort, and limit exposure to open air. Let’s review the steps involved in chilling.
Chill the wort, with or without swirling, and carefully transfer it into the fermenter. Now on to the final step!
Step 5: Ferment
With the cool, hoppy wort in the fermenter all that’s left is to add yeast to start fermentation. Just remember to stay cautious and sanitize anything that comes close to the wort. Don’t lose focus at the finish line!
Fermentation is another area where it’s possible to buy extra equipment and confuse yourself with conflicting information. Some of it is well deserved, however, because fermentation missteps can ruin your beautiful brew. Most important is to use a new package of yeast and forget the more advanced techniques like harvesting yeast or making a starter. Since fermentation can be a bit tricky, we’ll give some attention to two key questions before getting started.
- How do we choose a yeast strain?
- What do we actually do during fermentation?
Practical notes on yeast selection
It’s incredible how much yeast selection can change the flavours that come through in a beer. The same wort fermented with different yeast strains can taste completely different despite the common ingredients.
The Easy Ale yeast is Wyeast 1968 London ESB. It’s a traditional British cask ale strain, which, according to Wyeast makes “bright” beer in a matter of days. What this means is the yeast clumps together and drops out of the beer faster than other strains, reducing the time you have to wait before bottling. Beer fermented with London ESB is ready to bottle in less than a week in my experience.
London ESB is not a strong “attenuator” and will leave more residual sugar and body than the average yeast. We touched on this point a bit in Step 2, so here we are full circle – in order to combat a thick tasting beer we chose a low mash temperature to boost fermentability of the wort. This makes it as easy as possible for the yeast to convert the sugar to alcohol and leave the right body.
Yeast flavour profile
On the flavour side London ESB accents the high quality base malt we’ve selected for this recipe. It also contributes a delicate fruitiness of it’s own that complements the hop character we added in the boil. Choosing a yeast with a distinct personality provides additional depth that a flavour-neutral strain doesn’t. In the past I’ve noted the combo of London ESB and Maris Otter as producing “a near-perfect pale ale.” Despite it’s reputation for being “distinctly malty,” I’ve found London ESB pairs well with hops.
Adding yeast and managing fermentation
Adding the liquid yeast is easy: shake the package, cut it open with sanitized scissors and carefully pour it into the fermenter. Add an airlock, and away we go. But what about the next few days while the fermenting wort is bubbling away? Fermentation temperature is the main focus during this time, with hotter temperatures being the most likely problem you’ll face.
London ESB is a pretty forgiving strain in that regard, with an upper temperature limit of 74 F (23.3 C) according to Wyeast. The batches I’ve fermented in that range have always turned out with nice fruity esters and no off-flavours. I can usually stay below 74 F by leaving the fermenter in the coolest spot in the house. I live in a temperate rainforest though, so you may have to take more elaborate measures depending on where you live.
A temporary water bath in a sink or bathtub can help to keep temperature in check. London ESB is not a “vigorous” yeast, so fermentation temperature is a little easier to control than with other strains.
Fermentation is a pretty cool part of brewing. I still get hypnotized by the bubbly, swirly motions of the fermenting wort! Battling high temperature is the most likely problem you’ll have, but London ESB is a forgiving yeast. Let’s review the high level steps in fermentation:
Simply add the yeast by the directions on the package, swirl the fermenter to aerate the wort, and keep an eye on temperature as the yeast works it’s magic. You almost have beer!
Post brew: Packaging
Bottling your beer is outside the scope of this guide because there are so many great resources already (How to Brew for example). Kegging is a great way to package beer, but is also a big commitment. Bottling is the best way to get a batch under your belt and learn if you like the hobby.
That’s it for the brewing process! Thinking back to my own experience, I realize how complicated homebrewing can feel as a beginner. I hope I’ve been able to help at least one person with this guide.
The rewards have always been worth the occasional frustration for me, whether it’s discovering new ingredients and methods, or simply enjoying a pint on a sunny day. In that spirit your Easy Ale will surprise and delight you as a first time brewer even as you spot things you’d like to change. Kick back and enjoy the fruits of your labour!
I’d stress that you do not need to understand everything in this guide before brewing. Some of these lessons took years to fully sink in for me! Learn by doing. Brew a few batches to enjoy the craft and learn something new. Above all, focus your energy on learning the basics and getting to know your ingredients. Happy brewing!
Here’s the Easy Ale recipe with the step-by-step brew day instructions.