- Today's Topic: A quick overview of the next 5 weeks, from brew day to pouring the first glass.
- The Kitchn's Beer School: 20 lessons, 7 assignments to brew your first 1-gallon batch of beer.
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Brewing a batch of beer is not an overnight affair (unfortunately!). From brew day to cracking open your first bottle, you need to allow a minimum of five weeks. Most of this time is hands off, however — you get to go about your daily life while the beer slowly bubbles away by itself in the corner, turning into tasty, malty goodness.
We're going to be working through these five weeks in real time over the course of our Beer School. But today, let's get a birds-eye view of the whole process so you know what to expect over the next five weeks.
Timeline for Brewing Beer
- Brew Day: 4 to 4 1/2 hours
- Primary Fermenation: 1 Week
- Secondary Fermentation: 2 Weeks
- Time in the Bottles: 2 Weeks to 1 Year
- TOTAL Time from Brew Day to Drinking: 5 Weeks Minimum
Beer is made by creating a sugary liquid out of grains and then adding yeast. The yeast eat the sugar in the liquid, giving us alcohol and carbon dioxide in the process (aka booze and fizz). The yeast also transform the beer from something so uber-sweet it would make you gag to drink it into something balanced, tasty, and very interesting to drink — which is to say, beer.
This whole process takes about five weeks from the day you first brew the beer to the day you drink it. Just remember: sugary liquid + yeast + time = beer.
Below is a quick and dirty overview of what happens during each stage of the beer brewing timeline. We'll come back and cover each stage in much more detail over the next few days.
Brew Day: 4 to 4 1/2 hours
Beer starts off life as malted grains, water, hops, and yeast. Your "brew day" is the day you take those four separate ingredients and transform them into the rich, sugary liquid that will eventually — five weeks from now — become a drinkable beer.
The brew day happens in four steps, which will take four to five hours to complete.
The Mash: First, you combine the malted grains with a specific amount of warm water and let everything steep — this is called the mash. During this step, we create the sugary liquid that will feed the yeast over the next few weeks.
Sparging: Next, you need to strain the liquid from the grains and rinse any remaining sugars from the leftover grains with fresh water — this is called sparging. From this point on, we're only interested in that sugary liquid — called wort — and we're done with the grains (you can use them for compost or even in baked goods).
The Hop Boil: For the third step, you bring the wort up to a boil and add hops — this is called the hop boil. Hops are like the seasoning in a stew; they aren't essential for actually making beer, but they make it taste really good!
Pitching the Yeast: Finally, you need to cool that wort down to roughly room temperature and add the yeast. You also transfer the wort to a special sanitized bucket where it will live for the next week. This step doesn't get a special name like the other steps, although brewers usually say they're pitching the yeast when they add it to the wort.
Primary Fermentation: 1 Week
This is the period of the most activity for the beer. It's like Mardi Gras in that bucket, and the yeast are partying hard eating up all the sugars you just made for them and giving you alcohol in return. You won't need to do anything at this point other than make sure the bucket with fermenting beer is in a corner or closet away from direct sunlight.
The yeast need about a week to eat through the first major feast of sugar and settle down. After this, you can transfer the beer into a smaller, cozier container for the more subdued secondary fermentation.
Secondary Fermentation: 2 Weeks
Things are much quieter during this stage of fermentation. The yeast are just tidying things up and making sure the beer is ready for you. Sediment kicked up during that active primary stage also settles to the bottom of the jug, leaving the beer clear and sparkling.
I like to wait a full two weeks before bottling most beers to make sure the beer is totally settled and the yeast have eaten all the sugars.
Time in the Bottles: 2 Weeks to 1 Year
Last but not least, you divide the beer into bottles, cap them, and wait another two weeks before drinking. During this time, the beer carbonates and also goes through a bit of bottle shock — opening a bottle early can mean flat or less-than-tasty beer. It's hard to wait, I know, but worth it.
Also, most homebrew is good for at least a year — sometimes even longer. While five weeks is the minimum it takes until you can pour yourself a bottle, I often find that the beer continues to improve in the weeks and months that follow. I'm frequently surprised by beers that I thought were "just OK" when I first tried them, but then taste amazing given a few more weeks of maturing.
Total Time to Make Homebrew: 5 Weeks Minimum
It's tempting to rush some of these steps and get to the fun part of drinking the beer a little sooner. And yes, you can make a fizzy, boozy drink in much less time — but it just doesn't taste as good. A "young" beer will usually have a lot of harsh, unbalanced flavors and lack the depth or character of a fully finished beer. Also, if you bottle before the yeast has finished eating all the sugars, you can risk some bursting bottles.
It's really best to sit on your hands and let the brew process run its course — or better yet, occupy your downtime with brewing another beer!
Brew Better Beer: A Companion to Beer School
I love brewing beer so much, I wrote a book about it! Brew Better Beer (May 2015, Ten Speed Press) is a complementary guide to Beer School. Take a look for even more nerdy details about homebrewing, how to brew 5-gallon batches, and plenty of recipes for different beers.
→ Find it: Brew Better Beer by Emma Christensen
With The Kitchn's Beer School, we'll teach you how to brew your own beer at home — and brew it with confidence. In 20 lessons and 7 weekend assignments, we'll get you set up with your own home brewery, walk you through your first brew day, show you how to bottle your beer, and then toast you on your first pint. Ready to brew your first beer? Join us!