How to brew beer using a beer kit
Beer kits are one of the easiest ways of making beer at home. Even if you've never done home brew before, it's hard to go wrong. Beer kits contain concentrated malt extract, a packet of yeast and instructions. Some may come with extra ingredients, such as hop oil or even dried hop pellets, but for now we'll keep it simple and look at a basic kit.
A quick guide to beer kit types
Beer kits generally fall into two camps; budget kits which tend to weigh around 1.5 to 1.8kg and consist of a single can, and premium kits, which start at 3kg and go up to 3.7kg and contain two cans. Single can kits will require the addition of extra fermentable sugar, although you can use brewing sugar, beer kit enhancer or malt extract instead. Simple sugar will increase the beer's overall alcohol content, but can make your beer taste a bit watery and lacking in body. Malt extract is the best option, as it will give your beer added sweetness, body and flavour, but beer kit enhancer is a good compromise as it consists of half brewing sugar, half malt extract. As the premium kits already contain two cans of malt extract, no additional sugar is required.
How to make your beer kit
In this guide we will be using a budget, single-can kit, made by Coopers. The kit contains one 1.7kg can of hopped malt extract concentrate, yeast and instructions, which you will find under the lid. You will need to add 1kg of sugar, or equivalent, such as 1kg of beer kit enhancer, or dried malt extract, or 1.5kg of liquid malt extract. In this guide, we are using a 1.5kg can of Coopers Amber liquid malt extract.
The most important part of home brewing, before you even think of making any beer, wine, cider, etc. is sterilisation. Every single item of equipment you use has to be clean and sterile before use, including tin openers, spoons, fermentation vessel (FV) and so on. Because your unfermented beer (wort) is warm and contains a lot of sugar, it is an ideal environment for bacteria or other bugs to grow and the only thing we want to live in the beer is our beer yeast. There are a number of sterilisers you can buy, but VWP is widely used because it is both a cleaner and steriliser. It is chlorine-based, so you do need to rinse all your equipment thoroughly with clean water, to avoid any chlorine smell or taste in your beer. There are also no-rinse sterilisers you can use, such as videne, but we will cover those in another guide.
Make up a gallon or so of VWP inside your fermentation vessel and give it a good swirl round. You can use a soft cloth to clean the surfaces, but never use a scouring pad or anything that can scratch the plastic. Put your spoons, tin opener and any other equipment in the steriliser for a minute or so, too. It's handy to sterilise the fermentation vessel lid, then use that as a sterile surface to rest your spoons, etc. on, once you have cleaned them. Give everything a good rinse with clean tap water to remove any VWP, before proceeding to the next step.
Put your beer kit can(s) in a washing up bowl, along with the liquid malt extract, if you are using it. Fill the bowl with hot water, to soften the malt extract inside the cans. Move the cans around every few minutes, to ensure all the malt is warmed up. After 10 minutes or so, the cans will be ready to use. In the meantime, boil up as much water as needed in the beer kit's instructions, in this case, 2 litres and sterilise your can opener, if you haven't already done so.
Open the can(s) of malt extract and tip them into the fermentation vessel. Once most of the extract has come out of the tin, add a litre of your boiled water to the empty can and give it a stir with a sterilised spoon, to dissolve any remaining extract, then add it to the FV. You may need to use oven gloves to pick up the can! Do this for as many cans as you are using, then if you need to, add more boiling water until you have added as much as the beer kit's instructions require.
Now you should have about 4 litres of malt extract and hot water in the fermentation vessel. Using a sterilised spoon, give it a good stir, making sure to scrape any malt extract off the bottom of the FV, until it is all dissolved. Don't skimp on this step, or you will affect your hydrometer reading (step 7).
Now you need to add cold water, to bring the level up to the total required amount. For a standard 40-pint kit, you need to top up to 23 litres, but for other kits, check the exact amount as you may need as little as 18 litres in total. If you are normally happy to drink your tap water, then you can use this for your beer. However, if you find your water is heavily chlorinated, you may want to use bottled water. We've used a water cooler bottle, which contains 19 litres, the exact amount we need for this kit:
It's worth calibrating your fermentation vessel
before you first use it, so that you have accurate measurements, as the printed markings are not always reliable. Here we are topping up to 23 litres, which is the total required amount for this 40-pint kit.
Now that you've added all the extra water, you need to give it a really good stir, to make sure that the malt extract is properly mixed. Use a sterilised beer paddle
and stir vigorously and try to get as much air into the mix as you can. After a few minutes, you should end up with a nice big froth on the top:
Now that everything is thoroughly mixed, it's time to take a hydrometer
reading. By comparing this reading with one after fermentation has finished, you will be able to determine the alcohol content of the finished beer. If your fermentation vessel is fitted with a tap, draw off a sample into a trial jar
. If your fermentation vessel doesn't have a tap, then use a sterilised turkey baster to take a sample. Once you have enough liquid in the trial jar, add your hydrometer and give it a spin to remove any bubbles, which could give a false reading. Take a reading from the liquid's surface, not where it curves up the glass. Here we have a reading of 1.042:
Now it is time to add the yeast. Check the instructions that came with the beer kit. Most beer kit yeasts can be added dry, but some require you to rehydrate them in warm water first. In this particular kit, no rehydration is needed, so carefully cut a corner off the sachet and sprinkle onto the top of the wort. No need to stir:
Fermenting beer needs to be kept at a specific temperature for best results, For most ale and beer styles, the optimum temperature is 18°C, and the maximum is 22°C. One of the best ways to ensure your fermentation temperature is correct is to use a temperature-controlled fridge, but otherwise a cool garage or cellar will do. If you do use a temperature-controlled fridge, cover the probe in bubble wrap and tape it to the side of the fermentation vessel. This will ensure the probe measures the temperature of your fermenting beer, not the ambient temperature in the fridge.
The final step is to ensure that the lid of the fermentation lid is firmly clipped down and to fit an airlock. An airlock
helps to show that fermentation is active, as it will bubble as CO2
is released by the fermentation process, although you should always use a hydrometer to check if fermentation is complete. An airlock also helps to keep oxygen, bacteria, fruit flies and other unwanted items out of your beer. If you don't have enough room for an airlock (because you are using a fridge for instance), or if fermentation is very vigorous and producing a lot of foam, you can use a blow-off tube. Here we have used a length of 1/4-inch diameter siphon tube
, inserted into the airlock grommet
. The other end is placed in a beer bottle, half-filled with sanitiser, which acts as an airlock and visual indicator that fermentation is active:
Your beer will take 1-2 weeks to finish fermenting, but the only sure way to know if fermentation has completed, is to take a hydrometer reading. Your beer kit instructions will tell you what reading to expect, but it will generally be around 1.010 to 1.014. Once fermentation has completed, you can either transfer the beer to a pressure barrel, or bottles, adding 1/2 a tsp of sugar per bottle or 85g sugar for a barrel. This will enable secondary fermentation to take place, which will carbonate your beer (give it fizz). Carbonation should be done at room temperature and takes 1-2 weeks. While your beer will be ready to drink after this time, you will find it tastes much, much better if allowed to condition in a cool area (ideally 13°C) for a minimum of 2 weeks and preferably a month.