If you were one of the fortunate ones to get a beer-making kit during the holiday season, you’re probably experiencing a mixture of excitement, anticipation, and abject terror. I know those were my feelings when my wife got me my first kit eight years ago.
I’d been curious about brewing beer at home for a while, but didn’t know how to go about it. Everything I’d read about homebrewing (which wasn’t much) made it seem as though you needed an advanced chemistry degree and the unlimited finances and laboratory facilities of a Bond Villain.
In my case, ignorance wasn’t bliss, it was a roadblock. I just didn’t think I had the know-how or the finances to brew beer at home.
KITS TO THE RESCUE
Fortunately, the homebrewing industry has made the introduction to the process easier with pre-made kits. These kits contain just about everything a person needs to make good quality beer without any prior experience, or a large initial investment.
The kit I was given was a small one, for 2- gallon batches, and came with cans of liquid malt extract that already had the hops added, as well as one packet per batch of yeast and sanitizer.
Other kits offer extract with grains to steep, for added body and flavor. There are even all grain kits. Each type of kit allows you to make a wide variety of beer styles; you only have to decide which method best suits your experience, budget, and work space. And you have to set your fears aside and take the plunge.
PROS AND CONS
As with all things, there are positives and negatives to take into consideration. I’m not advocating one type of kit or one brand over another, I’m merely listing the different types of kits. In the interest of fairness, I’m including an admittedly subjective assessment of what I consider the pros and cons of each type of kit. The biggest advantage to all kits is that these are proven recipes, and if you follow the instructions and maintain good procedures, you know you’ll have good beer in the end.
- HME KITS – Kits that use Hopped Malt Extract (HME) are the most basic ones. It’s what I started with. They are super easy to use, as the can of liquid extract has already been formulated and the hops are already added. You only have to heat some water, add the extract, cool it down, add the yeast, and wait. The kits come with their own fermenting vessels, and some of the deluxe models even come with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. The drawback is that there’s not much room for experimentation or innovation (I’ll discuss this later on, so you can learn from my mistake). But basically, if you can make canned soup, you can make beer from an HME kit.
- EXTRACT KITS WITH STEEPING GRAINS – These kits are the next level up. They come with Liquid Malt Extract (LME) and/or Dry Malt Extract (DME), and pre-crushed grains that you steep in warm water to make a sort of “grain tea” that adds color, flavor, and body to the finished beer. Also included are hops, and a schedule for the hop additions. Advantages include a bit more depth and sophistication than HME kits can offer, and a better sense of the overall brewing process, as they require a 60- or 90-minute boil and timed hop additions. You can also tailor your output, since there are kits that make one, two, or five gallons. The disadvantages? Well, the cost of these kits is higher than the HMEs, obviously, but they also require more specialized equipment, such as a larger carboy in some cases, a large enough pot (not included), and they take more time because of the boil period. This is a little closer to making soup from scratch.
- ALL-GRAIN KITS – I can’t say I recommend these kits to most first-time homebrewers. They require all the equipment and time that any all-grain brewing calls for; it’s just that everything from recipe to measuring and packaging the ingredients has already been done. Then why have these kits? Well, not everyone is interested in recipe formulation, so that’s taken out of the equation. These beers work, there’s just some assembly required. I also know homebrewers who take basic AG kits and add their own steeping grains, extra hops, or special ingredients to make customized chocolate-raspberry stouts, or imperial IPAs, for instance. AG kits are the summit of the brewing kit mountain, but the know-how and equipment required means you’ve already made a big commitment to the hobby. This is the soup your grandma makes. And if your grandma also makes beer, she’s really cool and I want to hang out with her.
This is just a basic overview of the three main types of kits. There are some variations; some HME recipes now feature steeping grains, for instance. Still, as a quick overview, from simplest to most complex, this pretty much covers it.
EQUIPMENT TO CONSIDER
Whichever kit you’re using, it’s wise to assemble the proper equipment. Because of the nature of the beer-making process, I recommend having dedicated homebrewing equipment. We know beer goes great with pizza, but it’s probably best to avoid making beer in the same pot you used for your extra-garlic/oregano tomato sauce with capers. This also goes for spoons, whisks, digital thermometers, washcloths, and towels. If it sounds like overkill, ask yourself: Is the risk of contaminating my beer with a meat thermometer worth the few bucks I saved not buying a new one?
You’ll also need special-use cleansers. While there are products especially made for the brewing industry and homebrewers, for a lot of basic cleaning, any ordinary soap or detergent free of dyes and perfumes is fine. Perfume- and dye-free liquid hand soap or oxygen laundry detergent work well for utensils and pots. Having said that, I also recommend having one of the industrial-style cleansers on hand to deep-clean scorch marks from pots and a thorough cleaning of fermenting vessels.
While some kits may include something to sanitize utensils, carboys, and bottles, having your own supply of sanitizing concentrate is recommended. They are available from Local Home Brew Stores (LHBS), and online suppliers. Read and follow label directions, and conspicuously label the vessels you store your mixed sanitizer in. Nothing spoils the taste of a nice blonde ale like sanitizer someone mistook for topping-off water.
Before you get started, save yourself some grief, anxiety, and time by getting organized. Develop some good habits right away, and they’ll stay with you through all the levels of brewing. You don’t want this to be a chore filled with last-second frantic searches for something you could have set up earlier.
Stage your work area. I’m a big believer in the adage “Well-begun is half-done.” If you’ve ever watched a celebrity chef video, you’ve probably noticed they’ll say something like, “Add your herbs and your onion,” and then just pick up a little dish next to the stove and dump it in. It’s all set up beforehand, so they don’t waste time or motion searching for it. Do the same with your brewing. Mentally go through the steps you’ll be taking throughout the entire process, and set up your work area accordingly. Write down the steps if that helps you remember. I would also recommend keeping others out of your work space, if that’s possible.
Too many cooks spoil the broth, and too many distractions from toddlers, spouses, and pets can disrupt the smooth flow of brewing. This is You-Time, not Family-Time. Hey, it’s okay to be selfish sometimes.
Remember the sanitizer I talked about? Use it. Whenever you ask an experienced brewer for advice, one of the first things they’ll tell you is sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. Anything that comes in contact with your beer needs to be protected from airborne microbes that can contaminate it. This means not just cleaning thoroughly, but applying a sanitizing solution to utensils, carboys, and even the scissors you use to cut open the yeast packet. Keep a spray bottle of sanitizer handy at all times, so you can give a spritz to anything suspect.
So you’ve pitched your yeast and sealed your fermenting chamber. Now it’s Bond Villain Laboratory time (okay, I lied. Kind of). Actually, what you need is a spot that is dark and maintains a steady temperature, so it’s just sort of Junior Bond Villain. The UV rays from sunlight will cause a chemical reaction in the hops that mimics the chemical composition of skunk spray. Yep, that’s where skunky beer comes from; it got light-struck. I put a black plastic garbage bag over my carboys to block all light. Ideally, ales ferment best in the low-to-mid 60s, but many yeast strains can handle temperatures in the low 70s, and your kit may contain one of these types of yeast. If you can’t maintain temperatures in the 60s, at least make sure your beer is fermenting in a dark place. Many kits claim to make beer in seven days, but give it two weeks before bottling, just to make sure fermentation is complete.
WORDS OF ADVICE
Homebrewing is ultimately all about customizing your beer, but it’s easy to get carried away with the prospect. It’s important to learn to walk before you try to run, and even then, it’s best to take baby steps. These kits are designed to produce a good quality result just as they are, and even though they can be modified, it’s not necessary. I learned this the hard way, going Mad Scientist immediately. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to add pureed strawberries to a Pale Ale recipe, but the result was one of the most variable batches of beer I’ve ever come across. One bottle was pretty good, the next was just odd. That convinced me I needed to slow down. Paradoxically, once I did slow down, I progressed a lot faster. I learned the procedures and the styles, and felt more comfortable about moving forward.
Another mistake a lot of new brewers make is trying to bump up the level of alcohol-by-volume (ABV). The knowledge that yeast converts the sugars in the extract to alcohol leads to a simple (but misleading) equation: more sugar = stronger beer. Well, yeah, but just as salt is a flavor enhancer, and necessary in just about all recipes, it’s also a flavor killer if overused. Merely dumping in a cup of granulated sugar throws the balance of the beer out of kilter. On its own, sugar thins out the beer, adding alcohol, but no flavor or body. Other sources of sugar, like maple syrup, honey, or molasses, have their own flavors that may not be maintained during the fermentation process.
That imperial maple stout you envisioned might turn out to be a nasty, bitter mess, without the maple flavor you desired. You don’t need an advanced chemistry degree to use adjuncts, but you do need to research how and when they should be added. If you want more alcohol in your kit beer, it can be done, but the thing to remember is the overall balance and mouthfeel. Chase flavor, and the ABV will follow.
Study styles and research how they’re made. Kits are designed to make a specific style, but if you see yourself branching out into making original recipes, it’s good to have some knowledge of styles. The BJCP Style Guidelines are here to help.
Your fellow homebrewers are also eager to help. There might be a homebrew club in your community where you can learn styles, techniques, ingredients, and much more. There are also online homebrewing forums that can help with questions, research, and are usually populated by people who check their egos at the door and genuinely like to teach newbies. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or voice your concerns. We were all new to homebrewing once, and we want you to be successful at it. We asked the same questions ourselves when we started.
Don’t feel you have to move at a particular pace, either. I started with HME kits, moved to extract recipes, and eventually, in about eight months, started formulating all-grain recipes. I know guys who went from HME to AG in about two months. I also know guys who have been brewing for years and have never made anything other than the HME kits, straight up, no changes. It’s all good, and it’s all your beer, so make it the way you want. If you’re in a comfort zone and want to stay there, then stay there. No one should judge you, least of all you.
One of the best pieces of advice I can give is that offered by one of the great founders of the homebrewing movement, Charlie Papazian: Don’t worry. In fact, you’ll probably run across people responding “RDWHAHB” to questions in a lot of homebrewing forums. It stands for Relax, Don’t Worry, Have A Home Brew.” A little patience and trust in the process will make this a more enjoyable hobby for you. I know it did for me.
Kits are a great introduction to homebrewing. And they’re a good place to stay, if that’s where you feel comfortable. The important thing is, you’re making beer, and if you like the beer you made, you did it right.
And listen – you’ll make mistakes; we all have, and we all still do. But this is an extremely rewarding hobby. Unlike some other pastimes, you have produced a consumable product that is as unique as you are. And telling people you brew your own beer never fails to raise an appreciative eyebrow. So what are you waiting for?
Open up that box, and get brewing!