The process of brewing beer at home is slightly akin to many ventures in the culinary arts. Granted, beer is a bit different from cr?me brule or chocolate mousse, but its creation requires the same meticulous and careful input as Martha Stewart's gourmet desserts. And there is the same chance that the finished product will either delight your company enough to have them say, "Damn, that was good. Can we have a second round?" or it will cause them to gag and never come to another of your dinner parties ever again.
So here's the how-to. I recommend that anyone wishing to try home brewing do two important things: first, wait until you have the time and space to be flexible (i.e. when you don't live in the dorms and it's Intercession or a couple months before finals) and second, purchase The Complete Handbook of Home Brewing by Dave Miller. The book has a ton of helpful tips to offer, and is more informative than the commercial brewing kits that have fairly limited sets of instructions. There is also a Web site where the main recipe for simple ale brewing can be found at http://realbeer.com/spencer/howtobrew1st.html .
Let's start out with the three most important things to keep in mind when making beer. They are cleanliness, preparation and record keeping. Cleanliness is the first and foremost concern of the three, because you're making this beverage for you and your friends to consume, so it is important to avoid giving yourselves bowel or belly problems.
Keep in mind that the brewing of beer involves fermentation and providing good growing conditions for yeast. This situation in itself is optimal for growing bacteria. Also, have your supplies and equipment clean and ready, so that the process will go as smoothly as possible and you can further avoid screwing it up. And finally, keep a good record of the time and the amount of ingredients you used so that if you happen to have a good batch you will know how to repeat it for next time.
The equipment is extensive, but I'm sure that some of it can be improvised or substituted if you're not looking to waste all of your money. You need an airlock, which gets filled with bleach water (for sanitation) and a three to five gallon boiling pot made of aluminum or stainless steel. For the finished beer, you need two dozen recapable bottles (used champagne bottles are recommended as well) a bottle capper, caps, filler and brush. Finally, obtain a fermenter (a six gallon plastic pail is ideal for beginners), a racking cane, a siphon, a stirring paddle and a thermometer.
The easiest beer to brew is ale, and the ingredients are even easier to come by. For this recipe you will need five to seven pounds of Hopped Pale Malt extract, five gallons of water, one to two ounces of hops, one packet of dry Ale yeast and 3/4 cup of corn sugar. For those of you who don't know, malt extract is a concentration of sugars that have been extracted from malted barley. Hops come in two kinds, bittering and aroma. Bittering hops are high in Alpha acids which hence makes them the main bittering agent, while aroma hops are lower in Alpha acids. They both, however, contribute to the overall flavor of the ale. As far as yeasts go, different yeasts produce different kinds of beer. For example, if you wanted to make a lager instead of an ale, you would need a different kind of yeast. The main thing that differentiates yeasts is the temperature at which they ferment. Ale yeasts like warmer temperatures, so they work mainly at the top of the fermenter, and their action dissipates at cooler temperatures.
So now that you've got all of your ingredients and equipment set-up and ready-to-go, and you've honed up your brewing vocabulary (see adjacent box) it's time to get started. The first step is to rehydrate the yeast. Simply put the yeast in a jar with one cup of warm water and cover it with saran wrap. Let it sit for 10 minutes and then add one teaspoon of sugar. Put it in a warm area, such as a window sill and let it sit for 30 minutes. The yeast should start foaming, and that is how you know it's ready to pitch (add to the fermenter).
While you are rehydrating the yeast, bring two and a half gallons of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, take it off the heat and add the malt syrup, stirring it until fully dissolved. In the next step, it is very important that you watch the pot for the entire hour and bring it to a "rolling" boil. If you want to add bittering hops, this is the step to do it in. Foam will start to form on the top of the mixture (the "wort"), but don't allow this to get out of control or boil over.
Cooling the wort is a crucial step. Add the hot wort to 2.5 gallons of cool water. This combination should bring it to a fermentation temperature. The fermentation temperature is when you want to add the yeast, and should be between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. "Pitch" or add the yeast to wort, put the lid on and seal it. You want to shake the fermenter to mix in the yeast and then put the airlock in place. Fermentation starts with 12 hours. Keep the fermenter in a bathtub or someplace easily cleaned, because the airlock will bubble and foam will escape. The place should also be warm so that fermentation does not stop. Fermentation should last anywhere from three days to a week with this recipe. It should be ready to bottle in about two weeks, when the first round of fermentation is finished. You will add a priming solution consisting of 3/4 cup of corn sugar and one and 1/4 cups of dry malt extract to the ale in the fermenter. Bottles should be cleaned and sanitized before the ale is added, filled, capped and then stored for two weeks at least in an area without sunlight. Aging improves taste, so try to be patient.
What's been described is a very summarized version of the steps involved in the brewing process. There is much precision and care required to make a good beer. Take your time, read over the steps and the important rules, but have fun. Even though there are a lot of steps, it is a fairly straightforward process that, like Martha's mousse, takes practice to get perfect. Keep in mind also, that any beer you make with care cannot be worse (barring bacterial infections) than Keystone, Beast, or Natty Bo, because it was made especially by you.