Since 2012, the Beginner Brewer blog has been helping people with solid homebrewing advice. Over the last 8 years, I’ve had the privilege of talking to many of you, hosting beer schools, and answering hundreds of questions about homebrewing.

In this time, I’ve kept an eye on various forums and discussion groups dedicated to homebrewing and realized that if you’re new to the hobby, things can be pretty confusing.

In fact, my non-scientific analysis of responses to newbie questions on various homebrew forums reveals that answers to questions posed by newbie brewers (e.g. “My homebrew smells like burnt matches after five days in the fermenter. Is it ruined?”) will prompt the following types of responses:

  • About 50% of the responses will be ambiguous or not really directed at answering the question at all: “Did you sanitize everything? You should be focusing on sanitizing EVERYTHING!”
  • Another 20% will ignore the question and use the opportunity to promote their particular view of homebrewing Valhalla: “Get a BarleyMother 3000 electric brewery system buddy. It’s the only way to go!”
  • About 10% will be helpful advice, “Well, it depends on the style of beer you’re brewing. If it’s a lager-type and you used lager yeast, then that’s pretty normal. If not, it may be a problem,” but the problem is, how does the newbie brewer know the wheat from the chaff?
  • Unfortunately, 10% of answers will be incorrect or unhelpful, often made by fellow newbies who are trying to be helpful but end up doing the opposite: “I think it’s ruined dude! May as well chuck it down the drain. Probably an infection.”
  • And then there will be around 10% of answers that are not only unhelpful, but also take the wind right out of your sails because sometimes, people just suck: “Yep, definitely infected with sulphur compounds. Throw it away and side-note: Maybe you should be a bit cleaner in your brewing methods!”

So, what do you do if you really, really want to brew excellent beer at home, but have no idea where to start?

And to add to that, you’re new to all of this and don’t want to invest thousands on equipment etc that you may never use again?

Homebrewing is a fantastic hobby. You can end up brewing beer that far exceeds most of the products available on the shelf of your local liquor store or pub. So getting it right while also enjoying yourself yields very positive results.

In this article, I want to clarify some questions that you, the beginner brewer, may have about getting started in the hobby. In doing so, I’ll be making a few assumptions:

  • That you don’t want to spend a fortune on equipment, ideally using things you may already have in your home kitchen;
  • That you still want to brew really great-tasting beer;
  • That you’d like to have at least some variety in the styles and types of beer that you’ll end up brewing
  • That you want to start simple, avoiding anything overly complicated or that requires a phD in brewing science or chemical engineering!

Given those assumptions, here is the shortest, quickest way I know to get started while at the same time getting you on-track to brewing truly excellent beer at home.

Throughout, I’m going to keep things super-simple, but if you have questions, please drop them in the comments section below. Let’s also assume that there really is no such thing as a stupid question!

1. To kit or not to kit

If you’re new to the hobby, you might already have spotted various branded homebrewing kits that contain everything you need to start brewing. These are always pre-packaged as a particular type of beer (e.g. Bohemian Lager, Brown Ale, etc.) and contain pre-hopped extract, yeast and cleaning supplies to get you started.

So, is this sort of kit a good way to start as a beginner brewer?

My honest answer is, no, it’s not.

Why do I say that?

For one, kits are so pre-made that you end up doing very little that actually resembles real brewing. So, if you do decide to continue with the hobby, you haven’t learnt very much that will prepare you for more advanced methods of brewing by using kits.

The other reason is that kits are created with the hops, base malts and speciality grains all contained within one syrup. While that may seem like a good thing (it certainly is convenient), it also removes much of the fun and interest of brewing your own beer using specific malts, specialty grains and hops.

That’s not to say that extracts are all bad. Quite the contrary! Your first brew will be with Dried Malt Extract (DME), but more on that later.

I’m over-simplifying here, but using kits is akin to taking something really fun and fascinating and reducing it to, “Just add water.” And that’s no fun.

So if not kits, then what?

There is an almost-as-simple way to get started in homebrewing, but the advantage of this method is that (a) you learn important, universal principles of good brewing and (b) the range and quality of beers you can brew increase exponentially.

2. Go for small-batch brews using malt extract and speciality grains

That’s a mouthful, I know! Let me unpack this method and explain why it’s ideal for you to start with while retaining the simplicity of kit brews.

First, let’s cover how this will work. Brewing using extract + specialty grains means that you will be:

  • Adding dried malt extract (DME), a light-coloured powder derived from barley malt, to water and then boiling it for about an hour. This will form the basis of your brew and provide the lion’s share of sugar used by yeast to create beer.
  • Along with the DME, and before the boil, you’ll be steeping grains (which are cracked open, or milled), known as “specialty grains” in that very same water. Specialty grains (usually barley modified in different ways) add additional flavors and colors to your beer, like the rich red hue of an amber ale or the opaque black of an Irish Stout.
  • Once you’ve got all of the above boiling away, you’ll be adding hops (in pelletized form) to the beer at different intervals. Hops is a critical component of brewing, and provides both bitterness (to balance out the sweetness of your malt extract) and flavor to your beer.

    Hops come in hundreds of varieties, from the citrussy, grapefruit flavors of Cascade to the earthy, minty notes of Northern Brewer. Experimenting with hops is one of the true joys of brewing beer, is likely to become a life-long obsession, and is sadly side-stepped when using pre-hopped kits.

  • At the end of your boil, you’ll cool down the liquid (known as “wort”) and add the final, most important part of the whole brew: yeast. These tiny fungi are the true makers of beer, and it’s your job as the brewer to keep them happy and well fed. Fortunately, beer yeast is very good at turning wort into beer!
  • So, after about 90 minutes from start to finish, you’ll put your finished, cooled wort (plus yeast) into a fermentation vessel (i.e. a food-grade plastic bucket or glass container) and leave it to ferment for about 10 days. Fermenting beer is a clean, wholesome beverage and produces very few weird smells or odors, just in case you were worried about that!
  • At the end of the fermentation period, you can finally bottle your beer. When starting out, you’ll be using brown glass bottles for your homebrew, sealed with crown caps.
  • To ensure that your beer is carbonated, you’ll add a small amount of sugar to the beer before siphoning it into the bottles. That way, the remaining yeast will turn that sugar into CO2 and then the CO2 will be reabsorbed back into the beer. Pretty cool, right?
  • Because you’ll be starting out with small batch brews, you’ll only be bottling about 6-12 bottles of beer per batch (depending on the size of your bottles, of course). This only takes about 30 minutes or so to get done.
  • For the carbonation to build up properly, you’ll have to leave your bottled beer at room temperature for another week or two, and then, voila, you have homebrewed beer!

So, in total, from start to finish, you can produce truly excellent beer in about 3-4 weeks. It may seem long, but it’s definitely worth waiting for!

To start with, you’ll only be making about 3-9 liters (1-3 gal) of beer at a time, so your cleaning time (not to mention financial committment) will be minimal, which is not the case if you start out with the “standard” batch size of 19 liters (5 gal). Later, when you’re sure that this hobby’s for you (and I hope it will be), you can easily transition to larger batches.

The good news: Everything you’ve learnt creating small batches of beer will still be valid for larger ones!

By now, you may be wondering what sort of equipment you’ll need, as well as the ingredients required.

As I mentioned before, I’ll be working on the assumption that starting out, you prefer to keep things simple and affordable, so here are two lists.

The first contains equipment you may already have in your home kitchen, and the second is a shopping list of things you’ll (probably) need to buy, borrow, or steal! No jokes, if you have a friend who is already a homebrewer, chances are they’d be more than willing to lend you some kit to get started.

Us homebrewers are nice that way!

equipment you probably already have:

  1. A stock pot of between 9-12 litres (2-3 gal) capacity. Ideally, it shouldn’t be too big for your kitchen stove top because you’re going to need…
  2. A stove top: gas, electric or induction will do just fine.
  3.  A large whisk or slotted spoon
  4.  A glass mason jar or similar (minimum capacity: 250ml / 8 fl. oz)
  5.  A clean plastic bucket or container of about 9-10 liters ( 2-2.5 gal) capacity. You’ll be using this to mix your sterilizing fluid and then soak other pieces of equipment, a critical component during brew day!
  6.  A metal sieve that can fit comfortably on top of or over your fermentation vessel (see below).
  7.  A kitchen scale (yes, there will be measurement involved!)
  8. A mixing bowl or similar which will be used to measure out your ingredients
  9. A rolling pin or wine bottle (this is for cracking your specialty grains, although you can also buy these pre-milled)
  10. An instant-read digital thermometer, often used for baking, cooking or checking the doneness of meats (if you don’t have this, you can buy a suitable one from your homebrew supply store).
  11. A notebook. Taking notes while you brew is an important step to becoming a better brewer.

Unfortunately, like with any hobby, homebrewing requires some specialist equipment, but starting out, it’s pretty minimal. Also, I’ll point out where you can easily make your own kit rather than buying it:

equipment and sundries you will need to buy (or construct):

  1. A fermentation vessel. Since we’re starting with small batches, you won’t need a massive vessel. As long as it can contain around 5-9 litres (1-2.5 gal) of liquid with around 1-2 liters (0.5 gal) of headspace, you’re good!

    A fermentation vessel should be made from food-grade plastic or glass and must be free of internal scratches or gouges.

    Get two, because the other one will be useful as a bottling bucket. In small-batch brewing, you can certainly improvise a fermenter without spending too much. For instance, those comically massive diet supplement containers used by gym aficionados are perfect for small batches. Large glass growlers also work well.

    If you’re using plastic, make sure that you use food-grade plastics only. The best types are HDPE, or PP that used to contain foodstuffs. With plastics, never put hot liquids (i.e. uncooled wort) in them and store them out of direct sunlight.

    One last thing: the lid of your vessel needs to have a hole drilled in to allow you to fit…

  2. A rubber gasket and airlock. These you’ll have to purchase from a homebrew supplier.
  3. A muslin or voile bag. This is for steeping your specialty grains. Think of it as a giant cotton tea-bag. These are easy to have made by your local tailor, but you can also buy them from homebrew supply shops. Again, because we’re starting small, you don’t need a huge bag. As long as it can comfortably contain around 500 grams (17 oz) of grain it will be fine.
  4. Cleaning materials. This will include a bottle brush and a cleaning agent. For now, you can use good old dish detergent and elbow grease. Avoid harsh alkaline cleaners like caustic soda. Yes, commercial brewers use these, but then they have tons of stainless steel to clean and know how to handle the stuff safely. For small-batch homebrewing, caustic soda is overkill.
  5. Sanitizing agents. I strongly recommend that you purchase a no-rinse sanitizer like StarSan or Perisan from your homebrew supplier. This will save a lot of time and frustration down the line. Sanitizing is a big part of brewing, so don’t compromise on this one!
  6. Bottles. You’ll be bottling your beer, so gather around 10-14 brown glass bottles. A popular size for homebrewers is 440 ml (15 oz). But 660ml (22 oz) or even 750ml (25 oz) are also fine (for larger bottles, you can also use champagne bottles – classy!).

    You could buy new bottles, but I find using empties from good craft beer is way more fun! The only caveat is not to use bottles that were fitted for screw tops. Only use bottles that were sealed with proper, need-a-bottle-opener-to-open caps (or corks in the case of champagne bottles).

  7. Speaking of bottle caps, you’ll need some. Buy these (called crown caps) from your homebrew supplier. They often come in bags of 50-100, so one bag will last for a while.
  8. A bottle capper. These come in various shapes and sizes and are stocked by homebrew suppliers. I recommend the twin-levered, butterfly-type (made for crown capping) as a good starting tool that is both affordable and robust.
  9. An auto or shaker siphon. This is perhaps the most expensive piece of kit you’ll buy for now, but it’s well worth it. Shaker siphons are cheaper and work just as well as regular auto siphons. These doohickies are for transferring your beer from the fermenter to your bottles and saves loads of time and frustration down the line. 

If you get the above-listed pieces of kit, you’re set up to make really excellent beer at home!

In next week’s post, I’ll cover the ingredients you’ll need for your first brew and we’ll cover some basic beer science (don’t worry, the math is minimal!).

And also: welcome to the wonderful world of homebrewing! What took you so long? 

6 Comments

  1. Joep Joubert

    Wow, thanks for the great info.

    Reply
    • BrewerAdmin

      Thanks Joep! Looking forward to publishing Volume 2 soon!

      Reply
  2. Les

    Fantastic. Thank you

    Reply
    • BrewerAdmin

      Thanks for that, Les! Let us know how the brewing goes!

      Reply
  3. Dave

    I am happy to have met this group, I am building a still at present and brewing is my next mission. I am at present collecting knowledge.

    Reply
    • BrewerAdmin

      Welcome Dave and good luck with the brewing! Let us know how we can help!

      Reply

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