It’s no secret that a cold beer isn’t exactly a kale smoothie when it comes to your waistline and overall well-being. But the truth is, your beer could be a lot healthier—especially if you’re the type who glugs mass-produced swill (such as Bud Light Lime, which HBO’s John Oliver famously declared tastes “like Jolly Green Giant’s ejaculate”). In fact, most big beers contain not only alcohol but also high-fructose corn syrup, chemical additives like propylene glycol, and GMO ingredients like corn and dextrose.
The fact is, you can make better-quality brew—glass-bottled and chemical-free—by taking a little time to make it yourself. And you needn’t be a wealthy hobbyist to pull it off. Right now, thanks to DIY “kits” offered by top craft brewers, all-new suds-making gadgets, and the rise of newfangled “beermaker” machines, there’s never been a better time to create your own game-day cold one. Here’s how.
STEP 1: Prepare for the barley!
From start to finish, it’s going to take about three weeks, and around $150, for you to brew up and sample that first refreshing, homemade beer. But the first order of business is to understand the process and the hardware you’ll need.
The basic brewing process breaks down into four steps: 1) Barley and malt extract are boiled in water along with a blend of hops for flavor; the result is a soupy proto beer called wort. 2) The mixture is then chilled to room temperature and strained into a fermenting vessel. 3) Yeast is added to turn that concoction into alcohol, and the blend is stored in a cool, dark place for seven to 10 days. 4) Then, before bottling, some sugar water is boiled and poured into the vessel to create carbon dioxide.
As for equipment, according to the experts I spoke to, you can’t go wrong with one of the widely available ready-made kits—box sets that include just about everything you’ll need, including thermometers, tubing, and a glass carboy, the fermenting vessel’s official name. (Warning, aspiring brewers: The most complicated thing about making beer is mastering the lingo, a nerdy slang that makes Klingon sound easy.) Among the several reputable brand-name beers offering these kits, I recommend those by Brooklyn Brewery, which are affordable and come with idiotproof instructions. Other good kits can be had on morebeer.com, the keg world’s answer to Amazon.
There are a few other tools you’ll also need to buy. First, get plenty of sanitizer—crucial for cleaning the equipment and preventing bacteria and other nasties from curdling the taste of the final product (most box sets fail to include it). I recommend no-rinse Star San, which you mix with water in a spray bottle then use to scrub any equipment before it comes in contact with the brew. You’ll also need a boiling pot and a burner; and while a chili pot and the stove will work fine for that, Matt Simpson, founder of craft consultancy the Beer Sommelier, suggests you instead get a turkey-frying kit, which is essentially a giant chemistry set. “With a seven-gallon pot and a propane burner, it’s the perfect cheap, entry-level option.”
Note: If you can’t see yourself doing the whole “starting from scratch” thing, you may be in luck. There are two new beer-making machines launching this year, and both of them hope to lead a home-brewing revolution: The countertop PicoBrew Pico (picobrew.com), “the world’s first automatic all-grain home-brewing device,” touts itself as the Keurig of beer and uses capsules from major breweries to flavor the wort as it cooks. And the Wi-Fi–enabled Brewbot (brewbot.io), which resembles a dorm-room fridge, takes orders from an online database, automating much of the brewing process for you. Unfortunately, the PicoBrew costs $1,000 and the Brewbot roughly $3,000—and neither accelerates the natural fermentation process. You’ll still wait a week or more until bottling the beer. My advice? Stick to an old-school kit—at least for now.
STEP 2: Get your brew on!
Now it’s time for the fun part. For your first go-round, start by making either a wheat beer, a pale ale, or an IPA—all beer types that pack enough flavor to camouflage any rookie mistakes—and avoid lagers, which are especially tricky to make, and require extra hardware. The home-brew kits’ specific, step-by-step instructions are too detailed to go into here, but know that the basic process involves cooking grains into a sugary syrup, boiling that with some hops for flavor, then cooling and adding yeast before you start bottling.
But there are some handy brewing hacks you can also use, says award-winning beer-maker and Extreme Brewing author Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales.
For one, he says, double the amount of yeast specified in your recipe. “It won’t change the flavor, but it will help you avoid contaminating the mix and kick-start the fermentation, so there’s less opportunity for bacteria.” If you’re running low on yeast, you can buy packets from the online brew stores, but he recommends the plastic vials from northernbrewer.com, which cost about seven bucks a bottle.
That’s not all: Instead of using just the premixed barley syrup supplied in the kit, Calagione advises getting some raw grains—look for American “two row” barley at brewer supply stores—and add that in for extra flavor. All you have to do is take two handfuls of the stuff and add it to the water you’re boiling to make the wort. “You can always taste the difference in a home brew that’s been made with both syrup extract and some naturally steeped grain,” Calagione says.
Fellow beer snob Michael Agnew, who runs the craft beer site A Perfect Pint (aperfectpint.net), also suggests “dry-hopping” your beer, a technique that involves dropping two half-ounce “hop pellets”—soluble extracts of American varieties like Cascade or Amarillo—into your carboy about seven days into the two-week yeast-powered fermentation process.
“By then the beer is done fermenting, so if you throw in the pellets it’ll draw out more flavor and aroma from the hops,” he says.
STEP 3: Bottle it up!
So it’s two weeks after you first set out to brew, and you have a warm, soupy concoction (the industry calls it “fermented wort”) that will only become drinkable once you’ve added a little extra sugar. (For the record: The sugars act as fresh food for the remaining yeast, which produces carbon-dioxide, meaning carbonation.) Then it’s time to decant it into your sanitized bottles. Be sure to use metal caps with oxygen barriers to preserve the fizz, and attach them to your bottles using the Red Baron Bottle Capper (around $15), a handy gizmo for securely applying them.
Once the beer’s bottled and sealed, store it in a cool place for two weeks, then pop in the fridge before serving.
Of course, if want to play the true beer snob, you’ll need to come up with a name so you can slap a label on it (some kits even come with printable labels; if not, those are available online, too). If you’re having difficulty coming up with a name (though you shouldn’t—yours won’t be any worse than some craft brews, such as “Reindeer Droppings” and “Butt Crack Brown”), there are online generators to help you out.
But in case your new beer tastes really bad, I went ahead and checked for you: “Jolly Green Giant” is still available.