Tofi's collected home-brewing techniques

(last updated June 18, 1998)


Get ready to boil. Put some water in your big pot, say a gallon and a half or so, put on the lid, and turn the heat up to "high". After a while, this will start to boil. Take off the lid.

Now the thing to remember about boiling is to be careful not to make a mess. You've got this big, say 3 gallon, pot on the stove, with a gallon or so of boiling water in it. Carefully add your malt extract or honey. And stir it a lot. You don't want to scorch the bottom and caramelize some of the sugar. (Well, probably not anyway.)

Now, as you are stirring the liquid, called "wort", and running the heat on high, remember to watch it very carefully. There may be a bit of protein in the extract or honey as well. What will happen is that as it starts to boil, it may make a bunch of foam that does not die down, and this will spill out and over everything, making a big sticky mess.

To avoid this, turn the heat down quite a bit when it first starts to foam up, and be ready to lift the whole pot off the heat if it tries to get out of control.

Eventually, you will cook these proteins enough that the foam settles down and part of the boiling liquid surface emerges. Congratulations, you have reached what us brewers call "hot break".

boiling adjunct grains

Adjunct grains, such as dark malted barley or caramel malt, are generally added to the boiling water before the extract is added, and allowed to boil a bit. Unless you have a grain mill, which you probably don't, try to get these grains crushed at the homebrewing shop.

If you didn't get them crushed ahead of time, then what you can do is find a solid counter surface. Get a wine bottle, and a couple gallon Zip-Loc bags. Put about half a pound of grain in a bag, spread it out evenly, and go at it with the wine bottle, using it as a roller, to crush the grain. Ideally, each piece of grain should end up split into two or three pieces, not counting the husk (which will split and open up).

boiling hops

Hops not only give beer a bitter flavor, which somewhat balances the sweetness of the malt, but they also help preserve the beer. The preservative powers of hops were not fully appreciated, however, until the British were shipping beer all the way to India by cargo ship. But that is after our period, and as a result so is really bitter beer (IPAs and such).

All hops, if used, should be added after reaching hot break with the wort. If not, they will probably cause an instant hot break, with hot foam flowing out all over the stove.

Bittering hops are added quite soon after hot break, and boiled a very long time (like 45 minutes to an hour). They will add bitterness, but not much of the flowery smell.

Aroma hops are added close to the end, say 5 minutes before boiling is to finish. They add much more smell.

Finishing hops are added just as the heat is turned off. They give the beer a nice flowery aroma, but add almost no bitterness.

All this is moot if you are making a pre-Elizabethan English Ale. Before this time ales, as an occasionally broken rule, didn't have hops in them (or any other herbs either).

The bittering agent in hops is also the reason why beer "skunks" in too much light. Under light, the alpha-acids that give the bitterness react and change into slightly different acids that have a distinct skunky aroma.


Now that you have boiled the wort, you need to cool it. One option is to just pour it hot into a plastic fermenter, close the fermenter, and wait until the next morning. There is much evidence in old recipes to support doing this -- in the recipe "Scotch Ale from my Lady Holmbey", Digbie writes: "Then put it into a Woodden-vessel to cool, which will require near forty hours for a hogshead."

This works just fine, but isn't as fast as force cooling. Also, it gives many hours for things other than your yeast to start growing and multiplying in your beer.

These days I use an immersion cooler, which is simply a long piece of thin-wall copper tubing, shaped into a cylindrical coil around something, with long hoses attached. One hose connects to a cold water source (like a faucet), and the other sits in the drain. When cold water is passed through the coil, and the coil is swirled around in the hot wort, the wort is quickly cooled. It is cheap and easy to construct.


You can never be too clean. No really. A good start is to wash everything well, using hand dish-washing detergent without any funny hand-softening stuff.

When washing plastic, be very careful not to scrub it too hard. You don't want to create any scratches in the plastic where bacteria can lead a sheltered life. I use only a sponge when cleaning plastic things.

Glass is a bit more rugged. You can scrub it well. The only problem is that most glass things are hard to reach inside and clean out. Fortunately, homebrewing shops carry a couple of different brushes to make this easier. The brush for beer bottles is a medium-length straight thing. The brush for wine bottles is a bit longer and wider. The brush for carboys is even longer, and the brush part is shaped like a big "L".

For bottles, you can also use a pressure sprayer. See below under "bottling".


The second half of cleaning is disinfecting. A good, inexpensive, disinfecting agent is household bleach. The plain kind, without any funny scents. Use a tablespoon per gallon of warm water. The fully immerse everything you need to disinfect in this. The main problem with using bleach is that you need to rinse everything very well after using it. People can taste bleach in remarkably small quantities, so rinsing well is a necessity; you cannot just let things air-dry. Of course this supposes that your water is sufficiently clean, clear, and germ-free. Also, bleach will bleach anything it is splashed on, so wear clothing that you don't care if it gets messed up when using bleach.

A more expensive option is to use a commercial disinfectant such as Iodophor. This is much like bleach, only using iodine rather than chlorine. And instead of bleaching splashes white, it stains them brown. Despite the expense, Iodophor has the advantage that things that have been soaking in Iodophor can be used immediately, without rinsing. (Just empty it out first.)

pitching yeast

Yeast is a living thing. It likes to be not too hot, and not too cold. In particular, getting yeast too hot will kill it, which is why we boil the wort. But now we want to cool it before adding the yeast.

The other thing about yeast is that it needs plenty of oxygen to multiply, and the more yeast cells we have eating sugar, the faster the batch will ferment.

Make sure your wort or must is no hotter than body temperature. Now stir air into it, shake it around, etc. Now pour in your yeast, and seal up the fermenter with a lid or stopper and water lock.

Making a yeast starter

A yeast starter is nothing more than a small batch of beer or mead; perhaps half a gallon. The reason for using a start is that you are pitching much more yeast into your wort or must, and if you are making a particularly strong beer or mead, you may need lots yeast to get a good clean ferment.

So start a yeast packet going according to the instructions. Get a couple gallon pot, and some dried malt extract. Throw in about half a pound of extract into the pot, and add a bit over half a gallon of water. Boil this (being careful not to make a big mess). Add a compressed hop pellet or two (the rabbit food sized kind, not the one inch diameter hop plugs). Boil for half an hour, then cover and put in the sink, and run a few inches of cold water around it. Let it cool down.

Clean out and sanitize a 1 gallon glass jug (the sort you can get apple or cranberry juice in). And a number-8 drilled rubber stopper and a water lock. It may also help to clean and sanitize a funnel.

When the starter is cool, and the jug is clean and rinsed if needed), pour in the yeast and then pour in the starter. Make sure the starter splashes around a lot going in. Seal it up with the stopper, with the water lock in it, and put it someplace cool.

Check it after a day. You should see a nice thick layer of foam across the liquid. In a day or two more, when the foam is just starting to subside, is the best time to use the starter.

At this point you can pitch it all in as you would other yeast - just swirl it around good to mix it all up and pour it into your batch. Or you can pour in most of it, and feed the rest a bit of the batch, and use that to start another batch a few days later.

Don't try to stretch it too far, though. Your set-up isn't sterile, and after a while various wild things could start growing in your starter besides the yeast you want.

Blow-off tubes

(Or, why you should be very careful of using a glass fermenter to start a batch of beer.) Glass carboy make perfectly good fermenters. They can be cleaned well, an it is easy to see what is going on. The main problem with starting a batch with one, however, is that the neck is kind of small, and some types of gunk can take a lot of work to get off of the inside of the glass.

But here is something not to do: don't use a normal water-lock to seal a glass fermenter. If you do, you risk having something like a hop petal plug up that really skinny hole in the lock, and then pressure will build up. At this point, if you are extremely lucky, it will only shoot the stopper into space, and several gallons of beer all over your ceiling. That's lucky. If you aren't lucky, the glass carboy will explode, which will send shards of glass and beer all over creation.

I have read of one case, perhaps and urban legend, in which someone blew up a carboy. The half-fermented beer got all over, and this attached ants. In the end this poor soul had to sell his house at quite a loss.

To prevent all this mischief, what you will need is a blow-off tube. This is a piece of large diameter vinyl tubing, at least an inch in inside diameter. If it is the right size, it will fit in the neck of your fermenter without a stopper at all. Get a long enough piece so that you can then stick one end into the fermenter, and the other will just naturally rest of the floor without pinching. Then what you do is take a small plastic bucket (half gallon or so), put it on the floor, dangle the hose in it, and put a few inches of water, maybe with disinfectant in it, in the bucket. Now you have a giant water lock -- one big enough that an entire hop flower can't clog it.

This is not really a problem with meads and wines that don't use any solid ingredients. But if you are unsure, it is best to stay on the safe side.


Racking is simply transferring liquid (beer, wine, mead, etc.) from one fermenter into another one, which has first been cleaned and disinfected. This is usually done in order to separate the liquid from any stuff that has fallen to the bottom of the fermenter. The stuff is often a tan scum, which is a combination of yeast cells that have gone dormant and fallen out of the solution, and proteins and other particles that used to be suspended in the liquid.

I have had some success racking small, 1 gallon batches by simply decanting the liquid off. For larger batches, I use a siphon.


Siphoning is the best way to transfer large quantities of liquid from one container to another, while avoiding picking up gunk from off the bottom.

The general idea is that you have the container with the liquid you wish to move placed higher in the air than the empty container you wish to fill. So for example, when I rack between fermenters, I put the full one on top of a table, near an edge, and put the empty one on the floor just beside the table and very close to where I put the full one.

Then if a tube that is full of liquid is placed into both containers, the liquid will try to fall out of both ends. It can't, because water is pretty much incompressible, and there aren't any holes in the tube. So what happens is which ever side is further down creates more of a vacuum than the side that is further up, in proportion to the distance that the liquid has to go down.

The result is that the siphon tube sucks liquid out of the upper container. This goes up, around, and down the siphon tube, and ends up in the bottom container. (Or all over the floor, if you aren't careful where you put the lower end of the tube.)

One nice side-effect of this is that the siphon only works if the bottom end is lower than the surface level of the liquid in the upper container. So if you hold the free end slightly higher than this, it won't flow. (But don't hold it too high, as you will empty the siphon tube.)

Now there is still the matter of getting the siphon tube full of liquid in the first place. Many people get the hose full of liquid by sticking the tube empty into the top container, and sucking on the down-hill end until it is full. I used to start my siphon by sticking my dirty, bacteria infected mouth on the nice, clean, disinfected siphon tube and sucking liquid up too. Now what I do is fill the tube about 3/4 full of water, keeping the bottom end closed, and putting the top (unfilled) end into the liquid (mead, beer, or whatever) I want to siphon. Then I just hold the bottom end down and run out the first bit into a glass until the siphon has only mead in it. Then pinch it off at the bottom, stick this into the secondary, and release. This starts the siphon every time, and doesn't risk infecting the batch in the process.

I prefer to use siphon hoses attached to "racking canes". These are hard-plastic tubes shaped like a "J", with the flexible tube attached to the hook-end. The also often come with a small plastic thingymabob that sticks onto the straight end that allows you to more easily suck stuff up while avoiding gunk on the very bottom. These are pretty handy, and well worth a few dollars.

Once you have the tube full, and one end in the upper container, you are ready to siphon away. If you are trying to avoid picking up stuff off the bottom, it is often best to try to siphon out of the middle of the liquid, if you can tell where that is. Turning the siphon so that the end is against the side of the upper container often helps a lot in seeing what you are doing. Don't be too greedy about getting every last drop - often getting the last few ounces will also get a lot of the stuff that you are trying to avoid with it. If you can doing a five gallon batch, you can afford to loose half a bottle in order to have a much clearer product.

On the other end of the tube, you should be careful with how you are running the liquid into the bottom container. Stuff that has not yet started to ferment you should allow to splash around quite a bit. This will add oxygen into the liquid by picking up (and dissolving in) more air in the process. Yeast needs a bit of oxygen to help it reproduce.

On the other hand, if you a siphoning a batch that has finished fermenting, you don't want to splash it around. In that case, get the bottom end of the siphon as close to the bottom of the new container as possible, preferably sticking into the liquid as it builds up. This will help prevent it from splashing around.

One last word on siphoning. Once you are done, rinse out your siphon tube very well, before it starts to dry out. Start a faucet running somewhat, and use your hand to couple between the faucet end and the tube. (But don't stick the tube against, or worse into, the faucet.) Let lots and lots of water flush through it.

If you let your siphon dry out dirty, or even sit a long time before being cleaned, it can get infected on the inside. Once this has happened, the only thing to do is throw it away and buy a new one. I've had this happen, and ruined a few batches with a dirty siphon before figuring out where the problem was.

Some homebrewing shops sell little brushes attached to nylon lines to pull through a siphon and better clean it. I don't like these, because the flexible tubing is very soft, and very easy to scratch as a result. I just rinse mine out very well each time, and replace the soft tubing once every year or so.

Filtering out chunky stuff while siphoning

Sometimes I need to filter out a bunch of chunky solids when I'm siphoning something. This is often the case for dark fruit wines or melomels, which are often started fermenting "on the fruit", which is to say not strained.

To do this, get a bit of cheese cloth; about a foot square is good. Put it in a pan with some water and heat it to boiling. Meanwhile, find a new clean rubber band. Also get a hold of a clean siphon tube, or better yet tube and cane combination with the thingymabob on the end. And, of course, a glass secondary fermenter (plastic is okay, but glass is much better), with a rubber stopper and fermentation lock that fits the stopper. Disinfect all of this stuff. Take the cheese cloth, fold it into a six-inch square (in quarters), wrap it around the end of the siphon tube or racking cane, and rubber-band it a couple inches up from the end. (Make sure it is not too tight against the end). Then let this soak for just a bit more. Then use it to siphon as described above, sticking the cheese-cloth-end into the liquid in the primary.


I usually bottle into beer bottles. They are easy to find, cheap, and can be sealed well. Don't use twist-off bottles - these are hard to cap correctly. Also, if you are priming your beverage a lot, try to use thick-wall "returnable" beer bottles.

To clean your bottles, you will need a special bottle brush, available at homebrew supply shops. This brush will be relatively easy to get down into the bottles and scrub around.

I also use a jet-type bottle washer. This is a thing that screws onto a normal (garden-hose threaded) faucet, which combines a valve and a jet sprayer. When the bottle is pushed over the end tube and activates the valve, water is sprayed forcefully up into the bottle. This can save a lot of time spent scrubbing, and rinses the bottles very well.

I usually clean my bottles by the following steps:

Count out enough bottle caps for your batch. (1 gallon is 128 oz, which is 10 2/3, 12-oz bottles; 5 gallons is 54 bottles.) Now throw in a few more - you might mess some up. Put these in a small pan, and add some water to more than cover them. Put this on your stove, and heat until a boil, then cover and turn off the heat.

Now measure out how much priming sugar you want. Early home-brewing books suggested 3/4 cup of white sugar for a 5 gallon batch, and pouring the dry sugar into each bottle. First off, that "pure" sugar might have small quantities of bacteria in it; a friend tainted many a batch by using dry sugar to prime. I also find that 3/4 cup is too much, and prefer using about 1/2 cup of dried malt extract for beer, 1/4 cup of honey for sparkling mead, and 1/3 cup cane sugar for sparkling wine. Measure this into a slightly larger sauce pan, add about a pint of water and heat until boiling. Be careful of the boil - it can easily boil over and make a big mess on your stove. Simmer it for about 15 minutes, being careful not to let too much water boil off.

Cover your priming sugar solution and let it cool down. Meanwhile clean and sanitize a fermenter, and a siphon. Rack your beer, mead, or what have you into this new fermenter, and as it is racking pour in the priming sugar solution. Stir it around well. If you are priming a mead or wine that was started more than a couple of months ago, you might have to start a new yeast solution and add this along with the priming sugar. Don't let the yeast get too hot.

Now fill your bottles using your siphon. I use a bottle filling gadget on the bottom end of my racking cane. This is basically a valve in the bottom of a hard plastic tube, that fits into the siphon hose snugly. When not pressed against anything, now liquid flows. When pressed down against the bottom of a bottle, the valve opens and will fill the bottle. You don't need one of these, but it is much more convenient than just pinching off a hose.

Fill the bottles, leaving an inch or so of space between the liquid and the top of he bottle. Now take a cap out of the boiled water (careful if it is still hot), and use your capper to seal this down on the bottle.

When you are all done capping, label the bottles somehow. You don't want to end up with several cases of anonymous beer.

Tofi Kerthjalfadsson
pwp+ (AT) cs dot cmu dot edu