As you learn more about home brewing beer, you will find that there is more than just one way to make beer. Here is a quick run down of the different levels of home brewing. Keep in mind that while you do not have to start at one level and work your way through the progression, you will likely (and it is advisable) to start towards the bottom when you are first getting started home brewing. This is simply because beginning brewing is stripped down to the very basics-allowing the beginner to understand the fundamentals of home brewing first, before expanding out and trying some of the many variables that exist in making beer.
Once you have that solid foundation set, you then can venture off in all kinds of directions. The reason home brewers progress through the levels is simply because as you progress, you have more control over the final flavor of the beer. You have more options in the home brewing process–different types of ingredients, various ways to combine the ingredients, more recipes to use, or, even create your own).
For most beginners, the introduction to the world of home brewing is the beer ingredient kit. A kit in a can, everything you need to make beer in one simple package. You simply pour the malt extract into the wort, and you are on your way. This type of brewing is called Extract Brewing, because you are not using actual grains for brewing. Instead, you are using the extract of the malt in either liquid or dry form.
You can make great beer brewing with extracts, and many home brewers continue with extract brewing. There have even been award winning extract brews. One thing about the kits: then ingredients aren’t the best, but they can easily be improved upon. There is no telling how old the yeast is, and the kits often come with pre-hopped malt extract.
Substituting fresher yeast and adding fresh hops to your boil isn’t too difficult, but the improvement on the flavor of your final brew will be noticeable. Brewers yeast can be purchased separately, either at the LHBS or online, and is cheap.
The main goal of the kits is to introduce you to the world of home brewing, produce drinkable beer in the shortest amount of time, and get you hooked on home brewing. Then, they know you will likely purchase more beer kits. You can make decent beer with them, but just a couple simple tweaks will produce better beer.
Substituting fresh yeast, fresh hops and extending the fermentation and bottle aging time are just small, simple steps you can take that will reward you. These small steps push you up a level, but it is a big step you can make that results in great payoff–better beer!
Once you have a few batches of Extract Brewing under your belt, you might go up a level and try Partial Mash Brewing. Partial Mash involves adding grains to your boil, while still using some malt extract–you are basically substituting some grains for some of the malt extract. You can start by steeping grains, which is no more complicated than making tea. You simply add some grains to your boil, either directly (and straining them out after the boil), or in a grain bag.
The purpose of this is to extract flavors and colors from the grains to impact the flavor profile of your finished brew. What grains you use and length of time steeping vary. After steeping, mashing grains is the next step in the progression. You can do a partial mash first, then work up to a full mash, which is known as All Grain Brewing.
All Grain is significantly more complex than Extract Brewing, and requires exact measurements and proper temperature control. The brewing process takes longer. However, there are endless options available to you now, and this allows for the brewer to have more control over the final flavor of the brew. It also opens the door to more styles of beer than can be made.
You can read more online and at my blog about steeping, partial mash, and all grain brewing to learn more. How you progress in home brewing is entirely up to you. You may wish to progress through the levels of home brewing, trying and perfecting each level. You may want to skip a level.
Or, you may just decide to stay with one style and brew that way every time. You may brew one way for certain beers, and brew differently for another. No matter what, there are many ways to make great beer, and that is what is so cool about home brewing–find what works for you, and in the end, no matter how you get there, you will have what all home brewers aspire to–delicious home brew!