So you want to brew as easy as possible, and as cheaply as possible. Well I’m here to help. The following is a guide to absolute bare bones brewing. We’re not going to buy anything we don’t have to, we’re going to ignore best practices, and we’re still going to make some pretty good beer.
First a caveat; Making beer is easy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The first people who made beer did it by accident thousands of years ago, so how hard could it be? Brewing beer is mostly boiling water and waiting patiently while something else (yeast) does all the work. A lot of people think brewing beer is hard. They’re wrong… mostly. Brewing drinkable beer is as easy as turning on a stove and remembering to turn it off sometime in the near future. Brewing good beer is a little harder. Brewing great beer though; making a truly excellent, transcendent, never drink anything else ever again beer, that is incredibly hard.
Luckily for us, that’s not what we’re doing today. Today we’re just making plain old drink-it-while-watching-football beer. You won’t sing the praises of this beer from the rooftops, but you won’t pour it out either. Today we’re brewing the kind of homebrew that makes people emphatically say, “Yeah, this beer is alright”. Sometimes that’s all we want, sometimes that’s all we have time for, sometimes that’s all the effort we care to exert. That’s what today’s beer is all about.
Getting Started With Your Cheap & Easy Beer
Ingredients/Materials Needed (with links to purchase if necessary):
- 5-7 lbs. Malt Extract ($16.27 for 3lbs)
- Two Ounces Cheap Hops ($3 for 2 oz)
- Food Grade Bucket
- 5 Gallons Water
- Large Kettle (A Big Spagetti Pot Will Do)
- Dry Yeast
- Saran Wrap
Step 1: Preparing Your Water
So first, you need reasonably big pot. Remember those old black-speckled stewpots your grandma had? Try and find one of those or a close approximation. Yard sales and thrift stores will have them; they’re everywhere, and they’re cheap. Three gallons is really the smallest size you want. Make sure it’s not rusty and if it’s got a finish, make sure the finish isn’t chipping too much and you’re good. Amazon has a 5 gallon pot on sale for $39.99, which if you are going to buy a new pot is about as cheap as you’ll ever find one.
Now that you have your pot, you need water. I’m going to annoy a lot of brewers here and tell you to use tap water. People will talk about fluoride and mineral content. They’ll say you need distilled water or that you need to treat your water with any number of chemicals. They want you to make pretentious and upscale spelled-in-capital-letters “BEER”. But we’re just making “beer” today, and we’re going to use tap water. Smell it. Taste it. As long as it’s mostly clear and it doesn’t smell like anything weird, it’ll work. Fill your pot two-thirds with water.
Step 2: Adding Your Ingredients
Next, we need ingredients. You probably should have gotten these already, but it’s okay, I’m here to help. Go get 5-7 pounds of dry malt extract. You like lighter beers? Get lighter extract. You like dark, get dark extract. The more malt you get the stronger and/or sweeter your beer will be. I’m not going to be more specific here, so follow your heart. While you’re out you’ll need some hops. Get two ounces of the cheapest hops pellets you see. This will probably be Cascade, which is always a good bet.
Before you leave the store, get some yeast. One or two of those dry packets will be fine. The clerk will probably scoff at you for getting these, but screw that guy; you don’t need to impress him. If he says anything just insult his beard (I assure you, he’ll have a beard) and walk out head held high.
So, you’ve got your pot, your water, and your ingredients, what’s next?
Step 3: Making Your Beer
First, read that packet of yeast. It’ll give you instructions on how to rehydrate it. Do you feel like doing that? No? Fine with me, let’s move on.
You see your pot full of water? Your dog was probably drinking out of that while you were at the brew store. Dump it out and pour in some fresh stuff. Put your pot on the stove and crank up the heat to high. Do you like sandwiches? Make a sandwich; you’ve got some time to kill.
Alright, so you’ve just finished your PB&J and the water in your pot has started to boil. Dump in your malt while stirring like crazy. As long as you’re really stirring it good, you probably don’t need to turn off the heat, so just go for it. Once the malt is in there, wait for the pot to come back to a boil. Once it does, throw in your hops. Now you have another hour to kill. I would recommend watching Game of Thrones, but that’s on HBO and we’re trying to do this on the cheap. Settle for Maury. It’s free to watch and always seems to be on.
Step 4: Cooling Your Wort (Your Beer).
Now that Maury’s over and you know who was and who wasn’t the real father, we’re ready to move on. Turn off the stove; we have to cool this mess down. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is with an ice bath. Fill your bathtub with water and a whole bunch of ice. You know that totally true story about the guy who woke up in a bathtub filled with ice and also his kidneys were missing? In today’s scene your brewpot will be playing the role of that guy. Let the water circulate some and add more ice if it gets too melty.
We need the wort to get down to about 70ish degrees, but since we’re doing this on the cheap we’ll skip the thermometer and go for the patented “That seems about right” technique. Your house has walls right? Feel one of the walls. That’s what room temperature feels like, and that’s what we’re going for. Hover your hand above the surface of the wort. Don’t touch it. Do you feel any heat? If you do, it’s not ready. If you take your brewpot out of the ice and let it warm up for a minute, the hottest the metal should get is about as warm as that room temperature wall. That seems about right.
Step 4.5: This is the step I forgot to put in earlier and added during editing,
So, ok, there is one thing I forgot to mention. Before you start you should pre-boil an additional 3 gallons of water or so. This is the water that you will be adding to your boiled water after you cool it and before you ferment it. You are going to want to get your total water up to roughly 5 gallons. You can use just your two gallons that you boiled and not add any additional water if you want, just adjust the amount of malt and hops you use accordingly. For 6 lbs of malt, plan on roughly 5 gallons of water total. You will add this pre-boiled water into your fermenter bucket to get a total wort of 5 gallons (roughly, just eyeball it).
Step 5: Fermenting Your Wort
Take your pot back to the kitchen. We need one more piece of equipment; a fermenter. The cheapest solution is a large plastic bucket. You can get these from your homebrew shop, but if you’re at Home Depot or something, buy one there, it’s the same thing (ummm… you might want to suck it up and get a food grade bucket!).
Before you add the cooled wort to the fermenter, you have to sanitize it. This is the only step where I can’t help you with a cheaper or lazier solution. You have to use sanitizer. If you don’t, you’ll still almost certainly make some type of alcoholic drink, but even this lazy man has standards, and though I don’t always need amazing beer, I do require beer that isn’t skunky and horrible.
Step 6: Making An Airlock For Fermentation
The final piece of gear you need is an airlock. You can buy a cheap airlock, but in the interest of saving as much money as possible, let’s make one instead. You need a hole in the lid of your bucket, if it doesn’t already have one, make one. It should be about as big around as a Sharpie. Do this before you sanitize it. Pour the cooled wort into your bucket and sprinkle your yeast on top (or for you overachievers, pour in your rehydrated yeast), Once that’s done, put the lid on tight.
Now we have to finish the airlock. Since you probably don’t have any, go ask your neighbor if you can borrow some plastic wrap. Ask about her kids while you’re there, you don’t visit often enough. Take a small square of plastic wrap and cover the hole in your lid. Tape down three edges, but leave the fourth edge alone. This will protect your beer from getting weird stuff in it, but allow the carbon dioxide to escape.
Now, you need to have some kind of patience and let your fermenting beer sit for 1 to 2 weeks. You’ll know when your beer is done fermenting when your fermentation bucket is no longer releasing carbon dioxide. Wait a minimum of 7 days and no longer than 2 weeks. Yes, there are far more scientific ways to determine if your beer is done.
Bottling Your Beer
Now comes the fun part. You’re gonna need about 50 empty beer bottles to bottle all the beer you just made. Ideally you’ll want these to be the standard amber/brown colored bottles as these block out the most sunlight (which can ruin your beer). Now, you COULD buy a bunch of empty amber beer bottles, OR you could man up and get to work! Time to invite the buddies over and call in sick to work.
Once you’ve off your 50+ beers, make sure to rinse them out and not let them sit all week or you will have some stinky crap to deal with. You’ll want to sanitize these with the sanitizer you purchased earlier or you can put them into your dishwasher and allow your dishwasher to sanitize them with it’s high heat.
Now you’re gonna need to siphon the beer from your fermenter to your beer bottles. You want to do with as little disturbance to the beer as possible. There are three ways you can get the beer into the bottles. One, you can pour the beer from your fermentor bucket into each bottle (please, at least use a funnel!), but this can be messy and add a lot of oxygen to the beer, which is bad during bottling. Second you can siphon the beer using a plastic hose (which you have sanitized!), but to get it started you will probably have to suck on the end of the hose and introduce a lot of bacteria which could ruin your beer. Personally, go for either of these if you want to, just be careful and everything will be fine. If you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket, grab an auto siphon, this is the easiest way to get the beer into the bottle without any bacteria or extra oxygen.
Finally, it’s time to bottle your beer. For this you will need a bottle capper and a good 50 bottle caps which you will also want to sanitize (dip them in a bucket of water mixed with you sanitizer then let them dry out on a cookie sheet).
And Wait Some More…
Give your beer a week or two in the bottles to condition then go ahead and give it a try. You may find it drinkable after a week, but it will probably taste best after a minimum of two and at it’s absolute best after 3-4 weeks.
There you have it; you’ve just brewed a drinkable beer using only the absolute minimum cost and effort.
What’s It All Mean??
There’s sort of a sneaky point to this article. The above is the absolute minimum required to make beer. Everything else you do, all the steps I skipped and all the equipment and ingredients I didn’t use, all that stuff is designed to take your beer from “alright” to “amazing”. For most people those things are important, but maybe they’re not important to you. Don’t want to buy a $600 brewpot? Don’t. Keep using your stewpot until the bottom falls out. Don’t want to spend six hours making an all-grain batch? Then stick with extract and catch a movie with your free time.
It’s easy to get caught up in all the trappings of being a homebrewer. It’s easy to start justifying expenses that a year ago seemed outlandishly expensive. Stick with what makes you comfortable and allows you to have the most fun. If you’re not having fun, then screw it and go buy some beer from the store! If you’re a lifetime extract brewer who never even bothers to buy a hydrometer then so be it. Brew beer that makes you happy, and do it in a way that keeps you sane.