TV chef Emeril Legasse likes to take a plain recipe and soup it up, no pun intended. He will flip a pinch of spice into the pot from behind his back while mugging: “BAM! Let’s kick it up a notch!” Any kit brewer — whether using simple, all-extract kits or “complete” kits that include malt extract, specialty grains, hops and a tube of liquid yeast — can “kick it up” by adopting one or more of the following “pinches of spice” offered here. Oh Boy! Here we go!
Types of Beer Kits
The most basic beer kit consists of a 3.3 pound (1.5 kg) can of liquid extract and a packet of dry yeast. Often these kits direct you to combine the extract with a few pounds of sugar. Many homebrew shops offer more advanced kits that contain one or more types of specialty grain, liquid or dry malt extract, hops for bittering, flavor and aroma and priming sugar. (Sometimes these “kits” are really recipes from the shop’s recipe book.) There are even beer kits that emulate wine kits with liquid wort packaged in large bags. Kits are definitely capable of producing great beer. Whatever type of kit you have, there are always enhancements available that will improve your beer.
Tip 1. Malty or Dry?
Does your kit instruct you to add sugar along with your malt extract? If so, you may have an opportunity to improve upon the recipe formulation. If the kit specifies a lot of sugar — anything over 1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) — you can swap some or all of the sugar for dried malt extract. Adding dried malt extract (DME) in place of sugar gives the beer a maltier flavor. If you want a very malty beer, replace all of the sugar with dried malt extract. (You can swap the amounts one for one and not seriously change the projected strength of the kit.) If you want a moderately full-bodied beer, reduce the amount of sugar to less than a pound and replace the rest with dried malt extract. If you’re trying to make a light-bodied beer, keep up to two pounds of sugar in the formulation and replace the rest with dried malt extract.
Tip 2. Add Specialty Grains.
Does your kit contain a little bag of crushed grain? If not, you can kick up your beer flavor a bit by adding some specialty grains. If you are making a golden or light-colored beer, try adding 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) of CaraPils or light crystal malt (with a color rating of 10– 20 °L) to your recipe. For a red or amber ale, add 0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) of moderately dark crystal malt (30–40 °L). For darker beers, you can add a bit of crystal along with some darker malts; 0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) of crystal along with 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) of chocolate malt would improve any all-extract porter. Likewise, adding 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) pound of roasted malt to all-extract stout can add some roastiness. Adding a small amount of specialty malt will not drastically alter the character of your beer. It will just make the beer a little darker and little stronger — but is that such a bad thing? More importantly, the flavor of your beer will improve.
Tip 3. Steep small.
Does your kit instruct you to steep your specialty grains in the full amount of brewing water? This is a good way to get the most flavor from the grains, but it’s also a good way to extract harsh tannins from the grain. For a better steep, place your crushed grains in a nylon or muslin steeping bag and add only enough water to your brewpot to cover the grains. Steep the grains at temperatures anywhere from 130–170 °F (54–77 °C). When you are done, lift the grain bag out and let it drip for 15 seconds or so. If you steep the specialty grains in a separate small pot, you can be heating the bulk of your brewing water in your big brewpot during the steep. Just add the “grain tea” from the little pot to your big pot when it’s ready — in about 30 minutes.
Tip 4. Do a Partial Mash.
Think you can handle a “small steep?” If so, you should consider trying a partial mash. Here’s one way to do it: Add a small amount — either 1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) or an amount equal to the weight of the specialty grains combined, whichever is larger — of crushed 2-row pale malt to your grain bag. (You can also use pale ale malt or Pilsner malt.) Now, follow the steeping instructions above with one small change — keep the temperature between 148 and 158 °F (64 and 70 °C) and let the grains “steep” for 45 minutes to 1 hour. That’s it — BAM! You’re partial mashing. A partial mash beer is going to have a better grain flavor than a beer with only steeped specialty grains. Adding a pound of 2-row malt will make your beer slightly stronger, of course. If this worries you, just subtract 0.66 lbs. (0.29 kg) LME or 0.50 lbs. (0.23 kg) DME from the recipe. Or, don’t worry about it and enjoy a beer that not only tastes better, but is slightly stronger.
Tip 5. Add Hops.
Does your kit contain a little bag of hop pellets? Do you like hops? I think you can see where this is going. All-extract kits are not typically hopped to the level that American homebrewers prefer. If your kit lacks a hop addition — and the kit instructs you to boil the wort — a sprinkling of hop pellets can boost your beer’s bitterness. Hops added near the beginning of a boil add hop bitterness. For English ales, such as bitters or pale ales, add between 0.5—1.0 oz (14–28 g) of hop pellets of either East Kent Golding or Fuggles. Add up to 1.5 oz. (43 g) for IPAs. For American style ales, try 1.0–2.0 oz. (28–57 g) of Cascades or 0.25-1.0 oz. (7–28 g) of Chinook (a more strongly bitter hop variety). For German style beers, which are typically not as bitter as English or American styles, try up to 0.75 oz. (21 g) of Hallertau, Tettnanger or Saaz hops.
A 0.5–1.0 oz. (14–28 g) addition of any of these hops at 15 minutes remaining boil time will add hop flavor to your beer. A 0.5–1.0 oz. (14–28 g) addition at 5 minutes or less will add hop aroma to your brew. As before, you’re not totally altering the beer — you’re just kicking it up a notch.
Tip 6. Make a Yeast Starter.
If you use liquid yeast from a tube or slap-pack, making a starter a day or two ahead of brew day will insure that you have a healthy and plentiful family of yeasty-beasties to start chewing up the sugars in your wort. I did a web search for “yeast starter” and got 2794 hits. Here is one way to do it: Dissolve one cup of extract in 1 qt. (~1 L) of water and bring to a boil. Let cool to room temperature then put a 0.5 qt. (0.5 L) of each into two sterile Mason jars. Shake each vigorously to aerate, then combine with the yeast back into one Mason jar. Cap, but leave the lid slightly loose to permit CO2 to escape. Add your yeast to this starter 2–3 days before brewing. Add the whole thing to your wort once it’s cooled. If you use dried yeast, pitching a couple packages should give you a sufficient cell count.
Tip 7. Filter Your Water.
Beer is 97% water — so use good quality water when you brew. A simple, faucet-mounted carbon filter will remove most of the compounds in treated municipal water that can negatively impact your beer.
Tip 8. Boil Bigger . . . or at Least Better.
Just as there’s more than one way to peel garlic, there’s more than one way to boil your wort. Let’s run down your options.
A full wort boil: My definition of a full wort boil is boiling the entire volume, less evaporation losses, of wort that will go into the fermenter. A full wort boil lets you extract more bitterness from your hops and darkens your wort less. If you can manage a full wort boil, this is the way to go. To boil your full wort, you either need a pot big enough to hold your entire wort or to boil the wort in shifts. If your boiling pot is not large enough to hold all your wort, plus a few gallons of headspace for foaming, see Chris Colby’s “Texas Two-Step Method” article (October 2003 BYO) for a way to produce your wort in two steps.
Add the extract late: Even if you’re saddled with a small brew pot, you can still tweak some boil variables to get a better boil. If your kit contains liquid malt extract, you can add the bulk of it at or near the end of the boil. To do this, add one or two pounds of your malt extract to the kettle at the beginning of your boil, but withhold the rest. Add your hops at the times specified in the recipe. With 15 minutes left in the boil, turn off the heat and stir in the remainder of the extract. Resume heating for the remaining 15 minutes, but don’t worry if the wort doesn’t return to a boil. See Steve Bader’s “Boil the Hops, not the Extract,” (October 2002 BYO) for another variation on this theme, in which you add the liquid malt extract at knockout.
Adding the extract late lets you brew pale ales that are actually pale, not red. Plus, you don’t have to add a whole hopper of hops to get the degree of bitterness you want. This advice runs counter to much homebrew lore, but many liquid malt extracts are already boiled during their production. Remember the mantra, “Don’t fix what ain’t broke?” In this case, it translates to “Don’t boil what don’t need boiling.”
Tip 9. Cool it! Many kits instruct you to pour hot wort directly into your fermenter. Some even want you to pour it through a strainer. Don’t do this. Always cool your wort prior to transferring it from your brew kettle. Moving hot wort around darkens it and may make your beer go stale faster. Cool your wort first, then move it to your fermenter.
Finally, don't forget your Emeril Lagasse imitation. When you add flavor hops to your pot, why not flip them in from behind your back and say, "BAM! I just kicked it up a notch!"
Marlon Lang wrote about PID control in the November 2003 issue of BYO.