Last spring we were talking about the next summer’s football season over a pint with couple of friends and came to conclusion that instead of playing football we would start brewing some beer on our own. After all, it sounded more healthier and interesting hobby. Originally I got the idea from my colleague who had brewed beer at home already for couple of years and explained me a bit the background of it.
Once the decision was made it was time to dig into the details: What equipment we need? What kind of ingredients we need? How to make beer recipes? What is the brewing process? When can we drink it? Is it going to taste good? All of these questions were completely open and now that we have some experience I decided it’s good time to write down some of these and share it with the world.
After not-so-long research of available equipment we decided to order the 30 liter BrewMonk from Finnish online store Lappo. It was not too expensive, had great reviews and also two of my colleagues owned one. Initially we thought 30 liters for 3 guys would be sufficient but today it feels the demand is more than we can produce and it would have made sense to order a bigger kettle in the first place.
Additionally we ordered other required things such as bottles, fermentation buckets, airlocks, thermometer, gravity hydrometer, siphon, sanitizer and some brushes for washing bottles and the kettle. All together this costed a little less than 700€ including the ingredients for the first 3 batches of beer.
Later on we discovered that ordering empty bottles is very expensive and decided to get full ones from Sweden at the same price. Also family, friends and colleagues helped us a lot by bringing empty bottles for us to bottle our beer.
The first brew
It was Friday and we were very excited to get into brewing. We had also prepared a checklist and visualized the brewing process beforehand so we wouldn’t forget anything (or so we thought). We knew that it was very important to keep everything clean and sanitized and took this a little too far by wearing plastic gloves all the time and sanitizing each and every piece of equipment multiple times during the brew. Later on we have lowered a bit our standards as it took quite a lot of time during the first batch.
The first batch was a pils like beer but with ale yeast (“fake-pils” we call it). The recipe was somewhat copied from the internet but of course we did some changes to it to get our own taste using a nice app called BrewFather. This is one of the many apps used by homebrewers and helps quite a lot to get your recipes on the right level in means of the wanted beer style (and all the things related to it: ABV, OG, FG, EBC, IBU and so forth).
Other thing that took time was to figure out how the BrewMonk works. Nowadays programming and assembling it takes only few minutes but we spent at least half an hour to figure it out. Brewing phase itself went almost fluently; adding the malts, waiting for the mashing to complete, sparging, boiling and adding the hops was quite easy as the BrewMonk gives an indication when something needs to be done.
Once the boiling was done we had the yeast already ready to be pitched in but we didn’t think it would take so long for the wort to cool down. At this point we measured the original gravity of the wort to be able to calculate ABV of the beer after the fermentation. We threw the wort to snow pile but the temperature just didn’t come down so our brewmaster living in the brewery had to setup an alarm every two hours during the night to check the temperature and to pitch in the yeast. That was a mistake we don’t want to do again and instead wait overnight before pitching the yeast.
The beer was left to ferment for 2 weeks and after that it was time for bottling. Final gravity was measured and it was calculated that the ABV of the beer was around 5.0%. Calculating the sugar for priming was done using online calculator. After adding the sugar we bottled the 20 liter batch to the 0,5 liter bottles we had ordered and yet again we had to wait another 2 weeks for the priming to be completed. After that it was finally time to taste our first product!
As you can see in the image, the appearance is not very appealing. The beer was not clear and only later on we learned a magic trick called cold crash which helps a lot with this. What we also tried in later batches was Irish Moss, a dried seaweed ingredient, which worked pretty well and cleared the beer quite a lot.
Even though the beer didn’t look very nice, it tasted okay(ish)and didn’t have any off-tastes. We were happy with it; after all it was our first one. The taste of the beer even got better after couple of weeks which was surprising for this kind of beer.
More batches and equipment
As we had somewhat succeeded with our first batch, decision was made to try out something totally different. We ended up trying to make a mix of mead and beer with a lemon hop. For some reason we decided to do a smaller, 10 liter, batch out of this and the next one. This didn’t work out very well as the lemon was overwhelming and the outcome was very dry which might be because of the added artificial sugar. Luckily it was only 10 liters of beer to destroy.
Third batch we made was supposed to be IPA. It didn’t end up being as hoppy as we would have liked or you would expect from this beer style. Later on we discovered that dry-hopping (meaning adding hops during the fermentation) is the key to achieve the extra hoppiness in the beer. The “IPA” turned out still pretty good but had the same problem with the appearance as the first batch did.
At this point we ordered some more ingredients and equipment: air pump to oxidate the wort before pitching the yeast, a new fermentation bucket and more bottles. Also we moved from the warehouse to the garage for brewing as it had more space and the water supply was way closer.
We had some successes with the following batches (Golden and Amber Ale) and the outcome was getting better and better. Decision was also made to make batches bigger from 20 liters up to 27 liters as the consumption was more than the production (the brewdays can get pretty wet from time to time).
One thing that affected the length of the brewday was decision to start using malts as whole. For this we ordered a malt mill and ordered some malts from local malting plant, Pehkolan Mallastamo. The upside of this is that we save some money and also the malts stay usable for longer time.
After the initial batches we have made quite many different beer styles including: APA, Barley Wine, California Common and Stout. Some of these have already been consumed while others are still waiting in the fermentation tank or in a bottle for their time to come.
Money and time
The first patch had the price per liter of almost 53€ (including ingredients and equipment). Fortunately the price per liter dropped quite fast and now, after 16 batches, we are almost at the same price range you can get from any store (beer in Finland is expensive). In the chart below you can find out the correlation between expenses and production of our little homebrewery:
What is not calculated to these is the price for electricity and water as well as the time used for the brewing and bottling. Creating the first batch took around 10 hours but currently it takes only around 6; even if you do it alone. Additionally bottling and other things (like pitching the yeast and dry-hopping) takes additional 2–5 hours for the batch to complete. From the ingredients point of view the cost is around 10–20€ per batch depending on your recipe.
After studying brewing more and more, you’ll find more and more things you can improve. Reading books like Mastering Homebrew and How To Brew are absolutely necessary to improve your brewing process and understanding the chemistry behind everything. From our experience the most important things for improvement have been:
- Cold crashing and using Irish Moss
- Sparging the mash with hot water (~77°C)
- Using yeast starters and yeast nutrient
- Slowly raising temperature during fermentation
- Using grains as whole
- Being aware of not using too much of dark malts (for example Cara should be less than 5%) and artificial sugar
What we are still missing due to missing equipment or otherwise:
- Cooling the wort faster (currently it’s cooled overnight)
- Using kegs instead of bottles or improving the bottling process
- Getting the water profile right
- Remaking one of the previous recipes
- Mastering different mash profiles
- Improving our beer tasting skills
- And at least 50 different other things in the process
Who is it for and how can I start?
If you like beer it’s definitely something you should try out. Also if you are into cooking you might like brewing as, after all, it’s all about creating new tastes and smells. The possibilities with brewing are endless and the rewards are getting better and better over time.
To start off, you might think if you want to do it alone or with friends. Personally I enjoy a lot the brewdays with friends around but on the downside I have to split the results as well ;) After that all you need to do is find a place to brew, order some initial equipment and get to it. The premises for brewing should have at least running water available (or nearby) and of course electricity. Reading the books mentioned earlier can give you a very good head start of the process, ingredients, recipes and so forth — I highly recommend using some time for that. Additionally if you have friends who are brewing beer you should definitely go and see the process yourself.
In case of questions or sources of ideas, internet is full of discussion boards, Facebook pages and other pages (such as Brewer’s Friend) for homebrewers.
If you liked the story, please press the ❤ button below (did you know that you can give more than one clap). Also please feel free to share this story!
I am Heikki Hellgren, Software Expert and technology enthusiast working at Elektrobit Automotive. My interests are in software construction, tools, automatic testing and all the new and cool stuff like AI and autonomous driving. You can follow me on Medium and Twitter and check out my website for more information.