Using beer making kits is a great, easy way to introduce yourself to the hobby of homebrewing. Brewing a batch of beer from a kit is extremely easy, and requires only the most basic of kitchen skills. If you can boil water and mix ingredients, then you can make excellent beer. Whether brewing beer from kits is used as a stepping stone to more advanced techniques, or done as an end in itself, it is a wonderful way to make the first steps into an extremely fulfilling hobby. Thousands of homebrewers around the world make a wide range of different excellent tasting beers from pre-packaged kits.
The sheer nature of the hobby we call our own, however, lends itself to experimentation and pushing your limits. Once a beginner discovers just how easy it is to make kit-beer, they often get the urge to try a little more, to go a little further. This is intended for the kit brewer who is ready to make that first leap into a broader world of DIY homebrewing. Such a leap is not always easy to make, so I hope to be able to help. I’ll show you just how easy it is to take what you already know about brewing kits, and to slowly but surely add some more advanced techniques onto that in order to give your beer the flavour that you choose, rather than the flavour that was chosen by the kit manufacturer.
Stick to Basics
It is often said that the number one cause of a ruined batch of beer is improper sanitation, but I firmly believe that the brewer’s own nervousness gives the sanitation problem a good run for it’s money. The need to stay calm and roll with the punches cannot be overemphasized, especially for a new brewer ready to take the next big step. It is important to remember that as long as you follow a few basic rules (one of which being proper sanitation), it is extremely difficult to screw up a batch of beer. This “Stick to Basics” approach even works for those folks who like to do a great deal of experimentation. Sure, you may start out trying to make a nice light, delicate Kölsch-Style beer, and end up with something more akin to a a Pale Ale or even a Stout. But who really cares as long as it’s a good Pale Ale or Stout? Remember that the ultimate goal in homebrewing is quite simply to make beer that you enjoy drinking. Remember as well that it is extremely difficult to make an undrinkable batch of beer. Most screw-ups simply cause you to end up with a type of beer other than what you’d intended to brew. For example my brother’s 2nd or 3rd batch of beer was to be a Brown Ale. He mistakenly measured the dark grains in kilos instead of pounds, so ended up with over twice the amount of both Chocolate Malt and Black Patent! It was almost undrinkable for the first year in the bottles, but after that it mellowed out into an extremely pleasant Stout. So relax and try not to worry. Even if you screw it up, it’s probably still going to be great beer.
One of the first Basics to learn is the absolute requirement to keep decent notes on your brews. List all ingredients, procedures and times with as much detail as you can. This is especially important the less experience you have. Only with proper notes will you be able to trace back the beer to find out just where you took that right-angle turn from a Kölsch-Style to a Stout. Only with good notes will you be able to seek the advice of a more advanced brewer to help shed some light on the matter. You must at very least keep track of type of ingredient, manufacturer, and for hops you must also include the alpha-acid content of the hop (more on this later) as well as how long you boiled them. But the more information you keep track of, the better.
If you are prone to experimentation (which I encourage), please make sure you only change one variable at a time. This holds true even for advanced brewers, in fact. Perhaps on your next batch you’ll want to experiment by changing Cooper’s Extract for Munton’s. Then the time after that you’ll want to try some Mount Hood hops instead of Hallertauer. Next time around perhaps you’ll try a different type of yeast. It is a basic scientific principle (not that brewing by Science is the only way to go, but this one point I think applies universally) that if you change more than one variable, you really can have no idea which one had what effect on the final product. This can make for quite a long path down the road from where you are to where you want to be, with quite a number of batches along the road, but it truly is the best way to learn from your experiments. If you don’t drink much beer (yeah, right) and find this approach isn’t getting you fast enough to the punch line, then consider making half-sized batches which means you get to brew twice as often and get to try twice as many experiments. Just take a recipe and divide each ingredient by two. It’s that easy. One great way to experiment with yeast is to brew a regular sized batch, but split it into two fermenters and use a different type of yeast in each one. This gives you exactly the same recipe right down to the last detail, except the only difference is the yeast. Just make sure to then label the bottles differently so you know one from the other. In my 45 litre all-grain batches I almost always split the fermentation to compare two different types of yeast. With every batch I brew, I learn a bit about different yeasts.
One final “Basic” of kit brewing is that there is absolutely no such thing as a “no boiling required” kit. At least not the traditional kits comprised of canned, concentrated beer wort. The newer bag-in-a-box kits like those from http://www.thebrewhouse.com/ are a different story because they’ve never been concentrated, so they really don’t require boiling. A traditional canned beer kit should always be boiled for at least 10 minutes in at least 10 litres of water. This short boiling time is sufficient to coagulate proteins in the concentrated wort, causing them to sediment out during fermentation, resulting in a clearer beer for you to drink.
One extremely easy way to give your beer your own flavour is by adding a few grains. There are actually two slightly different ways to use grains; one which allows you to use any type of grain at all, and a simpler version of the same technique which limits you to the use of only those grains which do not contain unconverted starches. This is an extremely important differentiator, and it is crucial that you understand why. We’ll start with the simpler technique, then explain how easy it actually is to move up to the more advanced one.
Any grains that you are using should ideally be properly crushed in a grain mill which was intended for homebrewing, not one that was intended for baking. This is actually only of utmost importance when using large amounts of grain like in partial-mashing or all-grain brewing, and in fact I’m about to tell another way to do a reasonable job of crushing the small amounts of grains you’ll be using in advanced kit and extract brewing. All you need is a large zip-locking freezer bag, and a rolling pin. Freezer bags are required because they are thicker than regular storage bags. But if you don’t have a rolling pin, use a wine bottle. Simply put the grains into the freezer bag, and give them a really good rolling over with the bottle or pin. No need to be too exacting, you just want to try to crack the majority of the grains that are in there. A good minute-or-two will do the trick – that’s really all there is to it. Fortunately most homebrew shops have a mill that you can use, though.
Once you’ve crushed your grains, you put them into a muslin bag and tie the mouth of the bag shut with a regular piece of cotton string. I prefer the vintner’s cotton bags to the brewer’s nylon bags, mainly because they tend to be bigger and I use the same bags to hold up to 5kg of fruit when I brew with fruit. Basically you can use whatever you can get your hands on, or even make your own bags out of a medium-weight cotton that has not been dyed. The easy-method that I was talking about earlier of now using these bagged grains has two versions : the super-easy method, and the smarter method.
For the super-easy method of using grains, you measure out your cold brew water (or “liquor” as we oddly-enough call it) and then toss the bag in as you turn on the heat. This method should only be used if you do not have a reliable thermometer and cannot afford or otherwise obtain one. Most of the floating thermometers you see in homebrew shops aren’t actually very accurate, but they are better than nothing. Instead of this I recommend you go to your local Starbuck’s and pick up a good stem-and-dial thermometer for about CDN. Anyway, if you absolutely cannot get a thermometer, then put the grains in the cold water, turn on the heat, and take out the grains as the steam starts to rise more quickly from the water. Under no circumstances whatsoever should you boil the grains, and in fact the “smarter” easy method says to take the bag out when the water hits 170F or 75C. The thing is that above this temperature you can extract unpleasant tannins from the grain husks, which can really make a mess of an otherwise great beer. If you actually got so far as to boil the grains, you would almost certainly cause such a problem, especially if you were to boil them for a full hour with your extracts, as one fellow brewer once misunderstood my advice to mean. That long of a boil produced some extremely unpleasant astringent flavours in what would have probably otherwise been a very good beer. Some amount of astringency will mellow out over extended (more than 9 months) storage, but extreme amounts are there to stay.
With this simple method of using grains, you are limited to the use of those grains which do not contain unconverted starches. Starch in your beer is a bad thing as it cannot be fermented by yeast, but actually makes a great source of food for other beer-spoiling micro organisms. So this leaves you open to use Crystal Malt, Chocolate Malt, Black Patent Malt and Roasted Barley. In the case of Crystal Malt (to use the US term, the British call it “Caramel” or “Carastan”) the starches have already been converted to sugars during the malting process, and kilning crystallizes the sugars, giving this type of malt it’s name. In the case of the dark grains (Roasted Barley is unmalted), the starches have simply been burned off in the high kiln temperatures which produce the dark colour and flavours. Don’t dismay, however, as you can do a surprising amount with just these grains.
If you want to open the door to use just about any type of grain under the sun, then you can move up to a slightly more advanced technique, which isn’t really that much more difficult to do. You start out exactly the same as above, but as the temperature of the water-and-grain mixture rises, you monitor it closely and make sure that it always remains between 150F and 160F (65C and 71C), and in addition you must hold it at this temperature for at least 45 minutes to an hour. Obviously you need a decent thermometer to do this, so throw out that floating one which was (barely) adequate for the above techniques. The only other rule here is that with the exception of the 4 non-starch grains mentioned above which don’t have to be factored into this simple calculation, at least 80% of the grains you use must have strong enzymatic power. However, this is really stretching beyond the scope of this article, so for more details see the Specialty Grains section of my website, or the Advanced section on all-grain brewing where this method is called a mini-mash
So how much do you use? And when do you use it? One-quarter to a half pound of Crystal Malt will add a considerable amount of flavour to just about any beer kit. For really light-coloured beers you want to stay on the low end, and for darker beers you can even go up to a full pound, though that can be a bit extreme. For Brown Ales, Stouts and other darker beers you can add 1/8 to 1/2 pound of Chocolate Malt, where 1/2 really is the upper limit in this case. Black Patent Malt is an extremely dark grain and should be used sparingly (a tablespoon or two the first time to see if you like it) except in the darkest of beers. Roasted Barley is most often used with Stouts and Porters, which can take up to a full pound.
After you’ve mastered the use of your own grains in kit brewing, you will very likely eventually want to move on to use some of your own hops, as well. There are 10’s of different types of hops available, and each of those comes in several different forms (plugs, pellets, whole). Fortunately there are only three main things you have to understand about hops in order to use all those different varieties. But before we look at those three basic points, just a few words about storage.
Almost without exception hops should at very least be stored in an air-tight, oxygen-barrier package which at very least is refrigerated, but ideally is stored in a freezer. Many types of plastic will actually allow oxygen to pass through them, so when in doubt assume the worst. If your retailer does not store their hops in the fridge, do not buy them! (see below for the one exception)
The first thing you have to know is that hops perform different functions in your beer, depending upon how long you boil them. If you boil for zero to ten minutes at the end of your boil, then the hops are going to impart their aroma to the beer. For this you want to use only those hops which have favourable aroma characteristics, like for example the various so-called “Noble Hops”. Check the “Hops” section of my homepage for more details on which hops have a favourable aroma, or ask at your local homebrew retailer. After about ten minutes of boiling these aroma characteristics actually boil away into thin air. If you boil for fifteen to thirty minutes, the hops will tend to impart their flavour to the beer. Again, use only hops known for good flavour. With forty-five and more minutes of boiling, the hops give their bitterness to the beer.
The second thing you have to know about hops is actually easier than the first. Hops come in several different forms, the most popular being pellets, plugs and whole (or “leaf”). (There is also a hop extract which isn’t often seen in the homebrew market.) These three different forms are basically just different ways of preparing and packaging the hops for market. Pellets are really small like rabbit food, and are considerably more processed than whole or plug hops. Because they have been ground up before being formed into pellets, they generally require about 25% less boiling than the other two forms of packaging to achieve the same results. It has also been shown that they generally last longer in storage before spoiling. At least as far as using them goes, plug hops are basically to be considered the same as leaf hops. They are simply whole hops which have been compressed (but not ground up) into a cylindrical “plug” about the size of a golf ball, where each plug typically is ½ oz in weight. Plug hops are generally purchased in foil packages which have been filled with nitrogen, thus negating the need for refrigeration until they are opened. And finally, as the name suggests, “leaf” or “whole” hops have undergone almost no processing, and are still recognisable almost as they were on the vine.
The final thing you have to know about hops involves some simple arithmetic. If you aren’t comfortable with simple division and multiplication, you can always use a pocket calculator or computer. When you are boiling hops for 45+ minutes in order to take advantage of their bittering properties, you absolutely must know about “alpha-acids”. These are the main bittering component of hops, and are a very desirable part of most beers. Though professionals and some advanced homebrewers use the IBU (International Bittering Units) to measure the amount of hop bitterness in beer, those formulae can be extremely complex, and for reasons I won’t get into in this article can be unreliable on the homebrew scale. We’ll stick with the much simpler AAUs (Alpha Acid Units) a.k.a. HBUs (Homebrew Bittering Units).
When you purchase hops in the brew shop, you will notice that they are rated with a percentage number indicating the percentage by weight of alpha acids in the hops. For example a popular North American hop known as Cascade commonly is rated between 4.5% and 7% Alpha Acids. This value is measured in a laboratory, and will vary from year to year or even from hop field to hop field for a particular type of hops, depending upon growing conditions and a range of other factors. Nowadays most hops you find in the stores will be labelled right on the package with their alpha acids, and this information is so important that you should seriously consider looking elsewhere if your shop is one of the few who does not provide these numbers.
So how do we use this value? Let’s assume that we are brewing a recipe which calls for 7 HBUs of German Hallertauer hops for a 20 litre / 5 US gallon volume of beer. We go to the brew shop and see that the Hallertauer they currently have in stock states on the package that it is 3.5% alpha acids. This 3.5% means that if we use one ounce of this hops in a boil of 45 minutes or more, we will get roughly 3.5 HBUs of bittering in the resulting beer. So in order to get the 7 HBUs we require for the recipe, we have to use 2 full ounces of this hops for the full boil.
3.5% alpha x 2 ounces = 7 HBU
Let’s say our store only carried Hallertauer hops which rated at 5% Alphas. We could try to be very exacting and determine that we require 1.4 ounces of these hops for our bittering, but why not keep it simple and use a round number like one-and-a-half ounces? This method of determining hop bitterness is by its very nature only a decent estimate, anyway, and such a small variance is not going to make a noticeable difference in the final beer. Keep it simple.
5.0% alpha x 1.5 ounces = 7.5 HBU (close enough!)
Let’s say we go to the brewshop and they don’t have Hallertauer. What then? Well, we can check our favourite book or on-line brewing resource to find out that both Liberty and Mt Hood are hop varieties which have been bred to be similar to Hallertauer. So if we were to find a Mt Hood hop rated at 7% alpha, then we would obviously only require 1 ounce of this for our bittering. And if neither of these are available, then use something else. Just remember the basic formula, and remember to keep notes about it all so you’ll know for future reference just how you did make this beer. Remember the golden rule : It may not turn out to be exactly what you had intended to brew, but who cares as long as it turns out to be good beer!
In a recipe you will often see hops specified as follows :
- 2 oz Tettnanger (4.5%, 60 min)
- 1 oz Hallertauer (4%, 5 min)
The first line is to be read that the recipe used 2 ounces of Tettnanger hops which were rated at 4.5% alphas, and that these hops were boiled for a total of 60 minutes. Some quick math tells us that this recipe contains 2 oz x 4.5 % alpha = 9 HBU of bittering. So when we brew it, we wouldn’t necessarily use 2 ounces of hops ourselves. Instead, we would use how ever much would give us roughly 9 HBUs of bittering.
In the second line we can see that these hops were only boiled 5 minutes, which means that they get thrown into the kettle near the end of the boil, 5 minutes before we turn the heat off. In this case the alpha acids of the hops aren’t really important to us since as we just learned hops boiled for only 5 minutes are not used for bittering but rather are used for aroma. So there is no math to be done here, just make sure that if we don’t use Hallertauer, that we do use 1 ounce of another hop with favourable aroma characteristics.
Using Extracts Instead of Kits
Perhaps the biggest step the beginning extract brewer is going to take is to step out of the realm of kits and into the realm of doing it yourself with extracts. That isn’t to say that one should abandon kits altogether, mind you, as kits can definitely be a key component to many a good recipe. But once you start adding some hops and specialty grains to your kits, then you are ready to take the plunge and do the whole thing yourself.
Though there is a range of colour for malt extracts that one can play with (extra light, light, amber, dark), we generally recommend using the lightest you can find – no matter the recipe – and then using specialty grains to add the colour and other flavours required. There are several reasons for this kind of approach, and one of the main ones is the “KISS” principle (Keep It Simple, Smart-Guy). It can take a homebrewer a very long time to fully understand his or her ingredients – how they react to certain circumstances, how fermentable they extracts are with which yeasts, and so on. So the more often you use one ingredient, the greater understanding you acquire of it. Keep it simple. Another big reason is of course for the sake of doing it yourself. In using a light extract to make a dark beer, you are taking far greater control over your beers. You are the one deciding exactly how to add that darkness and associated flavours – not the manufacturer of the malt extract. In the beginning make due with one good light-coloured base extract – liquid or dried – to use in your recipes. And realistically, once you start using specialty grains and bittering hops in your kits, you have already mastered all the skills you require, so technically you have already gone past kits without really realising it. There’s really nothing more to learn in terms of new techniques or procedures.
We prefer powdered extract because it tends to be lighter in colour, and tends to have a better shelf-life even under some less favourable conditions, but many excellent beers are made with liquid as well, and it tends to be less expensive, too. You just have to pay closer attention to expiry dates, especially if you have a lighter-coloured beer in mind. As your experience grows, you may want to consider finding a different good light extract which coincides with the style of beer you are brewing. For example, you’d want a light extract of German origin to brew a Kölsch-Style or an Alt, or a light extract from the UK to brew a Pale Ale or Irish Stout. To start with though, keep it simple with one good light extract. On an all-grain level I personally brew the vast majority of my beers using as my base grain the common Canada Malting 2 Row which is so cheap and plentiful, and I see every reason to adopt a similar strategy on an extract-level if a quality product is readily available at excellent prices. Though if entering a competition is your goal with the beer, there are reasons of authenticity rather than quality for using the proper ingredients.
One of the biggest problems faced by extract brewers is not how to make your dark beers dark, but rather how to make your lighter-coloured beers light. Due to the way which malt extract is produced, some darkening will take place in the product. This is especially true for liquid malt extracts, which even darken as they age. One way which many brewers use to lighten the colour of their beer is to use an amount of sugar in place of some of the malt extract. We personally don’t recommend this because sugar can lend some unfavourable characteristics to your beer. Instead, we recommend replacing some (up to a KG in an average 20 litre batch) of the malt extract with a light honey, like clover honey. And here you have a choice – if you really like the flavours that honey adds to your beer (we’ve found most folks do), then you should use a good beekeeper’s honey that has not been processed. Or if you don’t like these sorts of flavours in your beer, or if you are entering it into a competition and don’t want the honey flavours coming through (perhaps because they aren’t supposed to be there in the style you are submitting), then use the lightest, most processed honey you can find. We find Billy Bee to be a good one to use in such a case.
Dark honey like Buckwheat and similar ones should be especially avoided in lighter coloured beers, since these darker ones can have some very overpowering flavours. These same flavours may prove to be very interesting in darker beers, however, so feel free to play around a bit. Just remember to start with smaller amounts so as not to be too overpowering. If you find the smaller amount wasn’t enough, then add more the next time your brew it. Just keep good notes on exactly how you brewed the beer! And remember the Golden Rule : it may not end up being the beer you were trying to brew, but who cares as long as it’s a good beer!
One final note on using honey is that if you want to retain the honey flavour and aroma, then add your honey during the last 5 minutes of the boil – just enough time to pasteurize it, but not enough time to boil away all the flavour. If you want to keep the honey flavour to a minimum, then add it at the beginning of the boil with the rest of your malt extracts.
As we’ve seen, there is a vast range of options available to the homebrewer when choosing how to brew the next batch of beer. In fact, there are almost as many ways to make homebrew as there are homebrewers. The biggest limiting factor we find which holds back the beginner from taking advantage of this vastness of choice is usually their own timidness, their own fear of messing things up. All you have to do to overcome this is to simply keep reminding yourself that as long as you are following a good sanitation regime, then it is extremely difficult to screw up a batch of beer. Of course, until you get a bit more experience you could start out with a nice light Kölsch-Style beer in mind, and end up with something more like a Brown Ale or even a Stout, but who cares as long as it’s a good Stout? Go ahead and experiment a bit! Take a chance and we almost guarantee you’ll be glad you did!