What it's usually like
The exact methods and instructions change from kit to kit, according to which company you buy the kit from. In some recipes, you'll need to steep the grains (think of a bigger version of using a teabag). Some companies like you to use a wort cooler (a metal contraption to help cool the wort) while other companies welcome you to dump ice in your pot. It's all variable... and it all seems to work just fine. These are the common steps, though:
Boil 2.5 gallons of water. (This is the hardest step depending on the power of your stove or burner.)
Dump in some malt extract. It's the consistency of molasses, but thicker and stickier.
Let it boil for a while.
Put in some more extract.
Let it boil.
Let it boil.
Let your mixture cool to about room temperature.
Dump it in a fermenter and add yeast.
You come back about a week later and have fermented, non-carbonated beer. You put in some priming sugar, mix it into a "bottling bucket," then put it in bottles. (I use growlers, usually, because I don't stand on ceremony.) A few weeks later, you have carbonated beer.
The more complex stuff
If I made that sound simple, that's because the basics really are that simple. This is not rocket science. Now, when it comes to making artisan beer, beer of different flavors, and other variations... things get a bit more involved.
For an Oatmeal Stout, you should expect to steep the oatmeal before you add the first malt extract. It flavors the water, man. That's where that "oatmeal" vibe comes from. For an oak barrel stout, where you use oak chips to flavor, you perform a secondary fermentation with the oak chips soaking in the carboy.
But that's really the point of brewing, and why we're doing this column. The basics are always about the same (Boil, stir, add, boil, stir, add) but the flavor is in the details. Some recipes like you to strain the wort as you add it to the fermenter... others don't care. When I perform a recipe, I'll always let you know what I'm doing differently.
So about that Ziebart Stout...
This is a glass carboy
. You usually use it in secondary fermentation. (When you first add the big batch of water you boiled and cooked, that's the wort. When you put the wort in the big bucket for the first time, with some yeast for fermentation, that's primary fermentation.) Secondary fermentation gives a cleaner flavor, and helps age your beer. You'll get a more "grown up, real beer" vibe from a beer that went through secondary fermentation. Ziebart's our Editor-in-Chief, so his nom-de-booze deserves secondary fermentation.
But he's also a man of late nights, so I was struck by inspiration. Usually, once you've brewed, it's too late to go mucking about with recipes, but I wanted to try something. So I brewed a pot of coffee, mixed it into the fermented material... and added it all to the glass carboy. Ziebart Stout is going to be an oatmeal java scotch stout.
I've not done this before; it could go horribly awry.
So, as of the time you read this, the fermented liquid is now sitting in a glass carboy going through secondary fermentation. I needed to add no additional yeast. It has a hefty smell of beer at the point. Wort won't necessarily smell like beer to an apprentice drinker; us old professionals recognize the scent of our friend.
Tip of the week
Cleaning a carboy sucks. Little bits of hops and junk like to stick to the sides, and since it has a narrow mouth... getting in there to wick the stuff out is a pain in the neck. I don't like putting a bunch of extra soap in the carboy, for fear of my next batch tasting like it has soap in it. (I've had it happen.)
My solution? I use a garden hose to really get some pressure behind the water. You can buy carboy cleaners that attach to a kitchen sink, but a power-wash nozzle for the garden hose gets it done. Then I rinse thoroughly with water that's not been through a rubber hose, and put it up to dry.