Everything you need to make beer, wine, cider and mead
During the first quarantine rush of 2020, as everyone rushed to supermarkets to stock up on flour and yeast for homemade breadsmy older brother and I had another idea: stock up on malted barley.
For the past decade, we’ve met almost every Saturday in his shady driveway to hang out with our dogs, have a BBQ lunch, and boil a cold batch of beer. We’ve gone from beginners to relatively experienced brewers, and lately have been exploring fresh, local ingredients (most recently malted barley from Oregon). But we’d be lying if we said we did it for the regular foam supply.
Like barbecuing or gardening, making your own toddy is more than just a way to get cheap booze. It also connects you directly with the culinary and scientific stories of mankind. Did you know, for example, that we may have gone from hunter-gatherers to farmers because of our love of beer? What about the fact that Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization while studying spoiled wine – and that he hated german beer?
One of the things I love is how easy it is to progress in this hobby. You can probably make something drinkable (even tasty!) on your first try, but you can make something downright professional if you work at it a bit. This mainly requires the ability to read instructions and set timers. When you’re done, your products can help you relax afterwards. a long day of doomscrolling.
Do you want to try? It doesn’t take a lot of money. Here’s what you need to know to make beer, wine, cider, and mead.
May 2022 Update: We’ve added more tips and tricks, and some useful new products.
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Key concepts for making alcohol
Making alcohol is easy. Take a sweet liquid, add sugar eating yeast and wait.
When yeast eats sugar, it produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Wait long enough (usually a few weeks) and you’ll have a fully fermented drink that’s (probably) safe to drink. Here are some general tips to keep in mind when fermenting your own alcohol, for the sake of quality:
Sanitation is the most important part of any fermentation process. You want to make sure that everything that touches your liquid before and after fermentation has been fully sterilized with a no-rinse sanitizer. (See the section on Star San below.) This keeps bad-tasting yeast and other contaminants out and provides shelf stability.
There’s a saying in the brewing community that brewers are really just glorified janitors. Yeast is what actually makes the things you love to drink. It couldn’t be truer. Keeping your biological little buddies happy is of the utmost importance for alcohol that tastes great. If you’re making beer, wine, cider, or mead, be sure to put in a good amount of yeast cells and keep your fermentation within the recommended temperature range for the specific yeast you’re using.
“Relax, don’t worry, homebrew” is the most popular saying in the home brew world for a reason. Doing good things can take time, and it’s important not to rush things, even if you’re excited!
The tools needed
I recommend buying some gear from your local brew shop if you can. The experts there are invaluable resources, and if you’re looking to buy malt, hops, or other ingredients in bulk, it’s a great way to save on shipping costs. If you’re a bit further afield, however, we’ve included links to purchase gear online. Pro tip: Hops are harvested in August and September in the United States, so you’ll often see good discounts on last year’s crop around this time. Fresh hops hit the market in December. Harvests of grapes and apples vary by location, but generally take place in mid-autumn.
- Thermometer for $24: You will need a high quality and accurate thermometer to check the temperatures of various liquids. I like this long because you’re not steaming your hand over a hot kettle.
- Hydrometer for $36: A hydrometer is a nice little floating gauge that measures the density of a liquid instead of its temperature. By measuring the specific gravity before and after fermentation, you can get a pretty good idea of the alcohol content. As alcohol becomes present in the solution – a byproduct of yeast eating sugars – the liquid becomes less dense.
- Kitchen scale for $18: A simple kitchen scale like this Etekcity model will help you measure everything from hops to sulphites to honey.
- Siphon for $17: You’ll need a way to get your precious drink out of the bucket once you’ve fermented it. An automatic siphon allows you to do this without sucking the hose, which would require you to sterilize everything again.
- Fermentation vessels for $42: Fermentation vessels range from glass carboys to fancy stainless steel tanks and beyond, but the best place to start is with a simple food-grade plastic bucket and lid. It’s affordable and you don’t have to worry about breaking the glass if you drop it. Use only the soft side of a sponge to clean them. The rough side can create abrasions in the plastic that yeast and bacteria can latch on to during cleaning and sanitizing.
- Airlock for $7: An airlock is a simple device that sits in the top of your fermenter and allows it to vent carbon dioxide – the other main by-product of fermentation besides alcohol – while keeping the bucket sealed of any wild yeast or bacteria present in the air. This pack gives you five for cheap.