Brewing Guide So You Want to Learn to Brew?
This guide is mostly meant for beginning brewers, and will not address some of the more advanced topics related to brewing. It won't likely please many of the picky, experienced brewers out there. As you get some experience brewing, you'll learn which techniques work for you, and which ones don't. We hope to help you get started, and eventually, perhaps you'll become one of those picky, experienced brewers. We don't claim to know it all, but we want to share with you what we have learned.
Just Get Started
It might seem daunting at first, starting your first brew, but rest assured, it seems more complicated than it really is. A first brew could be as simple as buying your favorite fruit juice, pouring yourself a cup to drink, optionally filling it with a type of sugar, putting some yeast in there (whether by letting it sit open in your backyard, or by pitching domesticated yeast--even bread yeast will work), and stopping up the top with an airlock of some sort. That's certainly not the ideal method, and we don't recommend starting there unless you're completely broke or castaway on an isolated island, but it does actually work.
For your first brew, we recommend that you get yourself a few things:
- A fermentation vessel (a bottle or container that can hold water, and be stopped up with a bung). Hint: when you buy a gallon of apple juice, you get a fermenter and free apple juice.
- A drilled bung (aka, a stopper, rubber or otherwise) that fits the mouth of your fermenter. (alternatively, a lid with a grommet, in the case of wide-mouth vessels)
- An airlock.
- A source of sugar. (sugar, honey, malt, etc)
- A source of flavor. (Fruit, fruit juice, herbs, spices, etc)
- A type of yeast.
The flavor thing is optional, but definitely recommended. Everything else is required.
In time, we expect to offer affiliate products related to all aspects of brewing, or at least links to their products. In the meantime, we'll just have to point you to your favorite internet search engine to find the various materials.
What Kind of Brew?
There are many types of brews, from beer and ale, to wine and mead, and many variations of each. While this guide is primarily focused on mead, in this section we'll explore two of the prominent types: mead and wine
Mead has two basic components: honey, and water. The natural composition of honey slows fermentation almost to a halt, and makes it very difficult for any bad microbes from taking hold. This is thought to be a function of the pH level, the sugar to water ratio, and other factors relating to its composition. When honey is diluted with enough water, it decreases the "osmotic pressure" on the microbes in solution, enabling them to work again.
In mead making, we can take advantage of this process, ensuring that no undesireable microbes can get a foothold, by only diluting the water once we're ready to pitch (pour) our selected yeast(s). This gives our yeast the upper hand, and helps them outcompete any undesireable microbes.
Wine has two basic components: sugar (fruit juice and/or sugar), and water. In contrast with mead, the fruit juice and/or sugar water that makes up wine is generally friendly to microbes, and has a greater potential for microbial infection. That shouldn't scare you, just make sure to keep your equipment sterilized, and to pitch an adequate amount of your yeast as soon as your must is ready.
Choosing a type of yeast for your brew is just as important as the choice of ingredients in your brew. While it is true, that many types of yeast will work, even bread yeast, you may find that you prefer the tastes that certain yeasts produce over that of other yeasts. We'll cover a few types here.
Wine yeasts typically ferment well, many leave fruity esters behind which contribute to both a brew's aroma and taste. These types of yeast are generally isolated from grape must (mashed grapes and water), and were once wild. Lalvin D47 and 71B are examples of wine yeasts that are commonly used in mead.
Isolated for use in beer, these strains are usually used for their clean fermentation. Compounds called, "diacetyls" (buttery/creamy taste), are usually frowned upon in beer brewing, and many ale yeasts are isolated for their low production or high cleanup of this and other compounds. SafAle US-05 and S-04 are examples of ale yeasts commonly used in mead.
Wild yeast is just that, wild. You can capture wild yeast any number of ways, from leaving a small starter (sugar source and water) covered with cheesecloth out in the garden overnight, to putting freshly picked flowers, leaves, twigs, berries, fruit, etc straight into your brew.
We have done our fair share of brewing with wild yeast, and have found that we prefer the latter: make a starter having all those items and regularly inject oxygen (by shaking or aerating) into it, until it begins to actively ferment.
Believe it or not, the type of water that you choose to use in your brew will affect the outcome. Chlorinated water should be de-chloinated and dirty water should be filtered. Hard water can actually help, as it provides a mineral source for the microbes in your brew. Equally important as the cleanliness and purity of your water, is the taste. If your water doesn't taste good to begin with, find a different source of water--consider buying some bottled spring water or capturing some rainwater.
Water can be dechlorinated a few different ways:
- Simply exposing it to the open air for a period of two or more days. If done outside, the UV radiation will aid in the evaporation of chlorine.
- Boiling it for twenty minutes or more. If you use this method, be sure to let it cool before you use it in your brew.
- Vitamin C, otherwise known as ascorbic acid, can help to dechlorinate it. Use approx. 40mg per gallon of water.
Distilled water can be used, but since all its mineral content has been stripped, you'll have to add some back. This can be done by adding some pink himalayan sea salt to it, 1/4 tsp per gallon of water. It isn't quite the same, but it'll do in a pinch.
When making mead, the ingredient that makes up a plurality of the must, besides water, is honey. Honey can bring a lot of taste to a mead. As you may have surmised, it is therefore of great import, when choosing a source of honey, that you choose wisely. Make sure you like the taste, and that that taste will go well with the other ingredients.
Taste is important, and quality is equally important. The quality of honey isn't always reflected in its taste. Discover where your honey comes from, the beekeeping practices of the producers, and the agricultural setting where the bees likely forage. Make sure the bees food and environment is good, when feasible.
Certain types of honey pair better with a particular brew than others. When first beginning to learn to brew, it would be fine to simply find a decent wildflower honey. After much experimenting, or outright guessing, you'll come to discover which kinds pair well with which brews, at least according to your palate.
Always make sure that your equipment and work area are clean and sanitized before brewing with it. There are various types of sanitation liquid, the most popular of which is a contact sanitizer called, "Star San". Others include ethanol, hydrogen peroxide, and ozone, just to name a few. Lastly, clean your ingredients just as you would if you were to cook with them.
Now that we're through the general overview, let's get brewing! How you brew is ultimately up to you, but we have some suggestions to get you started:
Gather your materials
Here are a few materials you'll want to have when brewing:
- Fermenter; perhaps a 1 gallon, glass jug.
- Drilled stopper; one that fits the mouth of your fermenter.
- Airlock; either the 3-piece or the 1-piece will do.
- Racking cane or siphon.
- Tubing; a length at least twice the height of your fermenter, and that fits your racking cane or siphon.
- Hydrometer; for measuring must buoyancy to determine approximate sugar content, and by inference, potential alcohol content.
- Conditioning vessel; just a container, like the fermenter. Ensure it is as close to the volume of the original vessel as possible, but not exceeding it.
- Bottles; the oft forgotten item.
Collect the Ingredients
This is pretty straightforward. Though, as we've stated previously in this guide, make sure to choose fresh, good tasting, quality ingredients. No one likes stale ingredients in their brew.
Clean and Sanitize Your Equipment
We highly recommended making certain that your equipment is clean and sanitary before you begin your brew. Wash your fermenter and such, and use sanitizer (as the sanitizer product instructs) where possible. Clean any ingredients that need it.
Start Your Brew
Most of the time, you can simply chop or crush the ingredients and throw them into the fermenter. However, you may choose to make an infusion (by boiling/steeping in water) out of some of the ingredients. This is often done, when you want to limit an ingredients' exposure to the brew to a known quantity.
Whether you make an infusion, or put your ingredients straight into the fermenter, get them in there.
From there you may add your honey and water to the fermenter, or you may wish to do this before you include your other ingredients. Either way, make sure to leave some room (up to half of the volume of the fermenter) for the next step.
Mix and Aerate
Make sure to shake the fermenter very vigorously. This incorporates the honey into the water, and gives the yeast that you're going to pitch lots of oxygen to work with. Yeast need oxygen to multiply, and you definitely want them to multiply in your brew. The more the yeast multiply, the quicker the fermentation (in most cases), and the more likely it is that they'll out-compete other undesireable microbes.
Add more water, leaving some headspace so it doesn't make a mess, and you keep all the stuff in your brew--instead of all over your fermentation area.
Once the must is near room temperature, you may take a specific gravity reading using your hydrometer and record it. Do this, either by directly submerging the hydrometer into the must, or by drawing some of the must out with a pipette into a graduated cylinder (or some other narrow and tall vessel) and submerging said hydrometer into extracted must.
The former can result in your hydrometer getting stuck in your fermenter. If you extract the must into a another vessel to take the reading, you may pour that liquid back into your fermenter once you've taken the reading.
Now, as long as the temperature of your must is below 100°F/38°C, pitch your yeast. This is just a fancy way of saying, pour the yeast into your fermenter. You may wish to shake it again at this point, to ensure the yeast are well hydrated and ready to work.
Once all of the ingredients are in, and the yeast is pitched, install the drilled stopper and airlock onto the fermenter. Find a cool (68°F/20°C or so), dark place to store the brew. You may wish to check on it every week or so, so make sure it is accessible.
After fermentation is complete, you may wish to leave your brew to age on the lees (or trub in the case of beer) for an extended period of time. Whether or not it is a good idea very much depends on your brew, and its condition up to this point. However, generally speaking, many brews can benefit from this, in reduction of certain off-flavors, cleaner must, etc. One of the indications that fermentation is complete, is when all the significant bubbling has ceased and the watched airlock isn't moving.
When you're ready to transfer your brew, use your siphon or racking cane to transfer the brew into the conditioning vessel, making sure that the source vessel is elevated higher than the destination vessel. Depending on the state of your brew, and your preference, you may wish to rack it straight into bottles.
At this point, take and record the specific gravity of the must. You can use the difference between the reading before fermentation, and this one, to compute the potential alcohol of your must. Make sure to taste your brew here.
Be sure to install a stopper and an airlock on the conditioning vessel and place it in a cool, dark place, just as you did before with the fermenter. Let it condition for at least a month.
Age and Enjoy
Finally, after the conditioning phase, rack your brew into bottles and leave it to age some more, or simply enjoy it as is! Give it a taste, and if it doesn't taste good, give it some more time to age.
Sometimes flavors take time to come through, and off-flavors take time to dissipate. When in doubt, give it time.
A note about our Brewing Mixes: Since some of them contain caramalized sugars, we recommend that brews made with them should be left to age for at least six months from the start of fermentation. That's time spent in the fermenter, conditioner, and bottles combined.
Mead Recipes Recipes to Get You Started
Mead made with some additional ingredients for taste and body, such as raisins, citrus peel, and some source of tannins.