Over the years I've gotten numerous emails asking me to do a post detailing how I brew. This post is the answer to those requests. What follows is not the only way, or necessarily the best way, but it is how I brew. The pictures were taken during the brew day for my Citra Pale Ale, a relatively simple, moderate gravity batch. This post is not intended to be a complete guide on homebrewing (How to Brew is what you should read for that), but hopefully it will provide some insight by elaborating on why I've decide to do things in specific ways. If it seems like I've left something out let me know, and I'll add it.
This is my 7.5 gallon aluminum turkey fryer pot. It has served me well for 5 years. I don't regret going aluminum because it is lighter, cheaper, and has better heat conductivity than stainless steel. Your hot liquor tank (HLT) needs to be at least as big as your finished batch size, but bigger is always better.
On top I keep boxes of supplies. One contains all my liquids and powders (water salts, yeast nutrient, Whirlfloc, acids etc...) and the other contains small equipment (airlocks, stoppers, caps, bottling wax, oak cubes etc...). Sanitizers and cleaners go in the middle. Eventually I'd like to get some nice shelves to put everything out on, but for the time being this keeps everything together.
Northern Brewer. I tried to build my own at first, but I was never able to get it leak-proof. It is a good idea to use Teflon tape on any threaded connections (like the one I have between the bulkhead and ball valve) to ensure they don't start leaking while you are in the middle of a mash/sparge.
The 5 gallon mash tun is fine for 5 gallon batches up to about 1.080 (without sugar or extract), above that I need to use my larger 70 qrt rectangular mash tun (which doesn't happen very often). If I need to do a direct fired multi-step mash I'll usually do it in my boil kettle and then scoop the mash into the mash tun when it is time to sparge. I'm surprised that the cooler has held up as well/long as it has, but the sides are starting to look a bit scratched, bumpy, and warped from the ~100 batches I've run through it.
I take temperature readings, adding more water and stirring as necessary until the mash hits 1-2 degrees higher that my target (the mash tun will suck up a bit of heat over the first few minutes). I only preheat the mash tun in the rare case that I am mashing outside during the winter. I find that adding water before the grain makes the dough in a bit easier to deal with. It also prevents grain from being compacted down around the manifold which makes sparging slower.
I like the pH strips because they don't need calibration and they don't break (unlike pH meters). Having the right pH ensures that the enzymes will do what they are supposed to do, and that tannins will not be extracted.
I stir the mash with my big spoon a couple times during the mash just to make sure the heat and enzymes are evenly distributed. I doubt it does much, but it gives me something to do during the mash.
For completeness I'll cover both methods.
I use 180-185 degree water for the sparge infusion, aiming to get the mash up just below 170. The closer to 170 you get the better the extraction you will have, hotter than that though and you risk tannin extraction. Once the water is added I stir the mash for about five minutes to make sure I extract as much of the sugars as possible. There is no need for any additional rest in my experience. Once I am done stirring I recirculate again until relatively clear, and drain the second runnings.
I let the wort drain to within an inch of the top of the grainbed, then pour in a pint or two of the sparge water. I keep adding water when the level gets close to the top of the grainbed until the wort in the boil kettle is about half a gallon short of the target volume, then I stop adding water and let it drain. Ideally you would monitor the gravity and pH of the runnings and stop it once the pH starts to rise or the gravity drops below 1.010 or so (in practice I never do this).
My boil kettle is a relatively thick 10 gallon aluminum stock pot I bought at a restaurant supply store in Boston. I've been happy with it so far (again close to 5 years), although it would be nice to have gone stainless in this case so I could give it a more aggressive scrub from time to time.
Banjo Cooker) in my garage (with plenty of ventilation), but if you have a wide enough pot you can get a pretty good boil going on your stove by placing the pot over 2 burners (which is what I did for years when I lived in apartments). I generally start heating with the lid on, but once it gets close to a boil I take it off and stay nearby to watch for boil overs.
Skim. I like to skim off the foam (coagulated protein) that accumulates on top of the wort as it approaches a boil using a small sieve. This ensures that I get any small particles of grain that might have slipped by the manifold. Skimming also helps to prevent boil overs by removing some of the protein and nucleation sites. It doesn't have much effect on the finished beer, but it gives me a reason to stick around the pot while it is coming up to a boil.
Hop. While the wort is heating I get my mise en place laid out for anything I'll be adding during the boil (hop additions, yeast nutrient, sugars, kettle finings, spices, herbs etc..).
Once the hops are measured out I seal any left over back up and put them back in the freezer. Hops stored away from heat and oxygen will retain more bitterness and aromatics than poorly stored hops. Just like grain, buying hops in bulk makes Hops Direct and Freshops depending on what varieties I'm looking for and how much I want to buy.
I use both pellets and whole hops depending on what I can get. In general I like pellets in the boil and whole hops for dry hopping. Whole hops take up more space, oxidize easier, and suck up more wort, but I like them for dry hopping because it is easier to prevent little bits of them from making it into your glass and they don't give as much of the grassy (chlorophyll) flavor that pellets can with long exposure times.
Yeast nutrient is always a good idea, but especially if you are adding sugars or are worried about your yeast health. I like the Wyeast blend, but there are lots of good options available.
Chill. A quick disconnect makes hooking up my homemade immersion chiller to the faucet much easier. I like the convenience of chilling in the kitchen (boil kettle sitting on a metal folding chair), but outside connected to a garden hose works to. I give the wort a stir/swirl every few minutes with the wort chiller to speed up the chilling process. In the winter my tap water is really cold, but in the summer chilling takes much longer as the water creeps up towards 80.
This post was originally conceived as a overview of wort production, but I thought I'd touch on a few other areas as well. I also did a post on brewing sour beers that covers most the issues specific to those beers.
Pitch. I try to pitch plenty of healthy cells, either with a starter from liquid yeast, slurry from a previous batch, or dry yeast. Jamil's pitching rate calculator is a very handy tool for figuring out exactly how much to pitch. The only time I pitch right out of a smack-pack or vial is when I'm doing a small batch of low gravity beer (essentially a glorified starter I'm planning on drinking).
Ferment. Keep the ambient temperature a few degrees below your target fermentation temperature. The fermenting yeast will produce some heat and will cause the wort to be a few degrees warmer than the surrounding air. As the fermentation slows I'll generally increase the ambient temperature to make sure the wort doesn't chill (which could shock the yeast and lead to a stuck fermentation).
I usually crimp a piece of aluminum foil over the neck of the carboy for beers that have plenty of head space (with the amount of CO2 being produced you don't need to worry too much about wild microbes getting into the beer), or a blow-off tube for beer that don't have a safe amount of head space. Once fermentation slows down I'll switch either to an airlock to make sure no oxygen gets into the fermenter.
Rack. A pump action auto-siphon is the single greatest homebrewing gadget in my opinion. Mine tend to only last about 12-18 months before the gasket loses suction, but the $10 is well worth it for the effort, oxidation, and infection risk they reduce. Flushing the carboy with CO2 is a great idea if you are worried about oxidation, but I really only do it for pale hoppy beers. I don't rack beers I am going to keg to secondary, since the keg takes its place, but I do for most bottled beers to ensure they don't have much yeast/trub in the bottle. If you have the ability to cold crash/stabilize your beers for a few weeks it will help improve the clarity and shelf stability of your beer by dropping out excess yeast and protein.
Bottle/Keg. An in depth look at packaging will have to wait for another time. That said, I wish it didn't because I think carbonation is an often marginalized topic. Figuring out the proper amount of priming sugar should be done with a priming calculator that takes into account the volume (not your intended batch size, but the actual amount in the bottling bucket) and temperature of the beer (which is a proxy for the amount of carbonation in solution), and target amount of CO2. Like most things in brewing, priming sugar should be measured by weight, not volume for the most accuracy. Some fresh yeast is a great idea for long aged, strong, or cold crashed beers, but it is generally not needed.
As Pete Docter the director of Monsters, Inc. and Up said, "Pixar films don't get finished, they just get released." I've been working on and off on this post since I brewed my Citra Pale Ale in late April, I'm still not completely happy with it, but it was time to post.