It’s not as fun as brewing from scratch, but I would definitely recommend starting off your brewing experiments using a homebrew kit. It’ll help you get used to many of the processes involved, you only have to invest in a few bits of equipment and hopefully you’ll make some perfectly drinkable beer.
How long will it take?
A month or so in total. About an hour of brewing, then waiting for a week while your beer ferments and then a couple of hours of bottling. Then you’ll have to wait another three weeks or so before drinking your beer.
Is it difficult?
No. Making beer (especially from a kit) is really easy. The main thing to remember is that cleaning everything is really important. Homebrewing sadly involves an awful lot of cleaning and sterilising.
What do you need to buy?
– a homebrew kit. This normally a big tin can of sticky sweet malt extract and a sachet of yeast. Sometimes it also includes a sachet of hop extract.
– a fermenter. This is a large container (mine is 25 litres) that you will use to ferment the beer in. It has a lid and normally has small hole in the lid with an airlock to allow gases to escape during fermentation.
– a thermometer. I started with a cheap plastic stick-on thermometer on the side of the fermenter.
– some tubing. To siphon the beer into bottles. You don’t need this if you have a tap at the bottom of your fermenter.
– something in which to condition and serve the beer, i.e. bottles You have a choice. I started off with a set of “flip top” bottles which are a bit more expensive but you don’t need to buy a capper or any bottle caps. I now put all my homebrew into basic reused beer bottles. It’s a pain to remove the labels and clean and sterilise them but is super-sustainable! Alternatively you can buy a barrel of some sort – but bottles are easier if you’re not going to drink it all in one go.
– sterilising solution. I started off using sterilising solution for baby’s bottles (Milton I believe). You can buy it in a pharmacy or supermarket. Since then I’ve changed to a special brewing sterilising solution. It’s called StarSan and is awesome in many ways, but I’d recommend starting with the other stuff for now as I think you can only buy it in quantities that will last you about 10 years!
What else do you need?
– a large saucepan and a hob
– a big spoon, preferably plastic
– a warm cupboard or room for the fermenter during fermentation (between 18 and 25 degrees C)
So, how do you make beer from a kit?
– Open up the kit and see what the instructions say. Some kits say you need to add (maybe 1kg) of sugar as well as the malt extract, some don’t.
– Put a bit of water in a big saucepan and heat it up. Stand the closed can of malt in the pan. Don’t open it yet – you’re just trying to heat up the syrupy malt so it’s easier to pour out of the tin.
– Sterilise the fermenter and your spoon while you’re waiting.
– Open the can of malt and pour into the fermenter. Add the sugar if the instructions say to. Add boiling water (the instructions will tell how much) and stir to dissolve the syrup. Top up (to the correct volume – often 20 litres) with ice and/or cold water to try and get the temperature to be close to 20⁰C. If it’s too hot after you add the cold water, you’ll just have to wait for it to cool. Add the hops extract if you have it (sometimes it’ll already be in the malt extract). Feel free to taste the wort. It’ll be really sweet.
– Once the temperature is right (say between 18 and 25⁰C) add the sachet of yeast. If you’ve let your wort standing for a while to cool, make sure you stir it vigorously before adding the yeast.
– Put the lid on the fermenter and the airlock (with some water in it). If it’s not already there put the fermenter in your warm room or cupboard. Careful. It’ll be heavy!
– You should start to see activity in about 24 hours. You are aiming to keep the fermenting temperature between 18 and 25⁰C. If you go higher than that you may get some odd fruity flavours in your beer. If you go lower the fermentation will be slow and may stop entirely.
– Wait a week or until the airlock has stopped bubbling. Feel free to taste the beer. It should taste quite nice now – like flat beer.
– Sterilise your bottles. This is really boring.
– If you have another large container, siphon the beer into it (leaving the scummy stuff at the bottom) and then add about 1 teaspoon of “priming” sugar (caster sugar or brown sugar or anything) for every litre of beer. Mix it all together so the sugar disolves.
– If you don’t have another container add the priming sugar (half a teaspoon per bottle if they are pint or 500ml bottles) to the bottles directly and then siphon the beer into each bottle. Put the cap on the bottle then shake it around a bit to make sure the sugar dissolves.
– After you’ve filled and capped your bottles you need to keep them for about 3 weeks somewhere not too cold or too hot (room temperature is fine). Secondary fermentation should be happening in the bottle. The carbon dioxide produced from the fermentation has nowhere to go so the pressure increases and eventuallly the CO2 ends up dissolving into the beer. That is how your beer will becomes fizzy. It’s called “bottle conditioning”.
– Then the best bit. Drink your beer.
What can go wrong?
– If you bottle your beer too early (before primary fermentation has finished) or add too much priming sugar your beer bottles may explode. Definitely something to avoid!
– Your yeast needs oxygen as well as sugar to do its job. If you end up leaving your wort for ages while it cools down then make sure you stir it vigorously for a few minutes before adding the yeast.
– Clean everything well to avoid infections and off flavours. But remember to rinse off the sterilising fluid. This will taste pretty awful and even more importantly it may kill your yeast.
How can I experiment without buying loads of extra equipment?
– If you want to experiment, buy some (aroma) hops and add them into the fermenter after a couple of days. They will add all sorts of interesting flavours to your beer. This is “dry hopping” and a very fashionable way of adding hoppy flavours to beer.
– Try adding another source of priming sugar. A jelly bean? Elderflower cordial?
– The sweeter the wort the more alcoholic your beer will become (within limits – the yeast won’t like it if the alcohol levels get too high). Add more sugar (or less water) for stronger beer and more water for weaker beer.
Good luck. Feel free to get in touch if you get stuck.
Coming soon – Part 2 – The Full Mash.