Your First Ale
This section will guide you through your first ales.
Step 0: Getting Organized
Sanitize your equipment
Bring 1-1/2 gallons of water up to 165°F (it doesn’t have to be a boil) in your 5 gallon brew kettle. Turn off the heat under the kettle. If you don’t have specialty grains, then you pour your malt extract into the warm water. Stir until all the malt is dissolved, and there is no extract stuck to the bottom of the kettle.
Step 2: Steeping the Grains
If you have specialty grains, place in a muslin bag and tie it off at the top. Don’t compact the grains as you want the water to get all the way inside. Hold them down till they stay submerged, cover, and let “steep” off the heat for 30-60 minutes. When you are ready, remove the grains. I like to place the bag in a strainer over the kettle and rinse with another quart or two of hot (not boiling, 170°F) water. Now, blend the extract with the grain tea, stir till all the extract is dissolved, and nothing is sticking to the bottom of the kettle.
Step 3: Boiling the Wort
Top off the kettle with more water. In a five gallon kettle, you should be able to boil 3 to 3-1/2 gallons on a typical stove top burner. The headspace is important since the wort will foam up as it comes to a boil. Be prepared to slide the kettle off the burner or dial the gas flame down when you see the foam rising up. Never cover the kettle when it is getting close to boiling, or you will have a messy foam-over. Once the boil is established, set your timer for 60 minutes.
Multi-Task #1: While you are steeping the grains, you should be sanitizing your equipment. If you ferment in a 6 gallon carboy, I would recommend filling it with sanitizer up on the counter the night before you brew. Then you can siphon the sanitizer out of the carboy into another bucket/tote that can be used to sanitize your funnel, strainer, stopper, etc. If you are fermenting in a plastic fermenter, then you can sanitize it and all your equipment at the same time. I stick the lid in half-way and then rotate it so that the other half gets sanitized too. Ideally, by the time the boil is over the sink is empty, and all your equipment has been sanitized and rinsed. I will often siphon the sanitizer into an empty 5 gallon carboy if I plan to do a secondary for this beer. Then all you need to do is pick up the fermenter and carboy, siphon out the sanitizer, rinse, and siphon in the beer: all without mixing up more sanitizer. If you don’t plan to use a carboy for secondary, then you could use it to pre-soak/clean bottles that you are saving to re-use. I would re-sanitize them on bottling day, but sometimes saved bottles need a good soaking first.
Multi-Task #2: If you are using dry yeast, you can boil a cup of water now, early in the process. Once the water has boiled, cover it and let it cool down below 100°F. This water can be used to re-hydrate your yeast for 15 minutes before you pitch (add) it to your chilled wort.
Step 4: Hop Schedule
Once the timer is set for 60 minutes, check the hop schedule.
Helpful Hack: I write the hop schedules in a countdown manner. Hops added at 60 minutes are for bitterness, at 30 minutes are for flavor, and at the end of the boil are for aroma.
Step 5: Cooling the Wort
When the boil is done and your sink is empty, you can do a cold water bath to chill the wort. Fill the sink around the kettle with cold water. When the water warms up, drain and re-fill with more cold water. As the kettle starts to cool down, you could add some ice to the sink.
Helpful Hack: You can make brick-sized ice cubes in quart containers and place them in the sink corners to help chill the wort even faster.
Step 6: Prepping the Chilled Wort
Pour the chilled wort into the fermenter. Top off with cool/cold water until just above the 5 gallon mark. Your target for an ale is 65-70°F. You should have your stick-on fermometer placed no higher than the 3-gallon mark so that you can adjust the water temperature as you fill the fermenter. Stir well to blend with a sanitized spoon. Pouring the chilled wort through a sanitized strainer is a great idea! You are eliminating hops that could clog your airlock, minimizing future sediment and adding so much beneficial oxygen to the wort. The yeast will love that!
Optional: You can take a starting hydrometer reading now.
Step 7: Pitching the Yeast
When the wort is 65-70°F, re-hydrate the yeast in the water you boiled and chilled. It only needs 15 minutes to absorb the water and be ready to be pitched.
Use your lid and airlock with the plastic fermenter or use a blow-off tube if you are fermenting in a 6-gallon carboy. The yeast will start fermenting in 12-36 hours.
Helpful Hack: To give the yeast a better head start, remove the airlock and shake up the fermenter until the wort gets frothy. The oxygen in the headspace is fuel for the yeast as it reproduces. This is the only time oxygen is beneficial to your brew. And every 6-8 hours remove the airlock and shake it up some more. Keeping oxygen saturated in the wort is crucial for yeast reproduction. When you see fermentation is starting, you can stop aerating.