The St. Patricks Day Cascadia Cup Homebrew Competition held in Seattle each year is one of my favorites. It is large enough, with well over 100 entries, to qualify as being a major competition and attract quality entries, but still small enough that the judges are less likely to experience palate fatigue before they get through their flight. This year I entered a Cream Ale I had produced a few weeks before. It scored an average 32 from the three judges, with comments like "clear", "bright" and "flavor balanced". A respectable score that means the judges considered this beer "Very Good".
What makes scoring a 32 in a large regional competition so extraordinary? I used a canned "beer kit". And I followed the instructions that came with it. I ignored the sage advice of all the authors, experts and professionals who say that if you deign to use a beer kit you should "throw away the directions and the yeast". I did not boil, I used the yeast that came with the kit, and then I added a pound of corn sugar and a pound of rice syrup. Based on several years of literature, this should have been a sure-fire disaster, not a "Very Good" beer. So, what went right?
The first thing to keep in mind is that the "conventional wisdom" is kept by a very small group of homebrewers. While Americans constitute perhaps 5% of the world's population of homebrewers, we are nothing if not prolific in producing brewing literature. It would be easy to believe, based on the prevailing literature, that everyone believes the conventional wisdom.
The simple fact is the vast majority of homebrewers in the world use beer kits, follow the instructions and make good beer. The best beer kits are essentially concentrated wort. The producer of the kit mashed various grains, sparged, added hops, boiled and then reduced the liquid down to a syrup. The types and amounts of grains and hops are generally dictated by the type of beer the producer intends the finished product to be. Based on the instructions, all that is left to be done is to re-constitute, add additional fermentables, pitch the yeast, and ferment. No mashing, no sparging, no "pre-hopping", "dry-hopping", "first-wort hopping" or "bunny-hopping". And no boiling. Quick, easy, fool-proof.
Why the prejudice against beer kits and their instructions by the experts? As the owner of a homebrew shop, I have heard and read all of the arguments; "You have to boil for an hour to get protein coagulation"; "You have to boil for an hour to sterilize", "You have to boil for an hour just because", "You can't make good beer unless it is 'all-malt'", "the yeast is old or inappropriate", "Someone else has decided the hop schedule", "the instructions don't indicate that you should only use water that has been reverse-osmosis filtered, ozonated and re-calibrated". These are the most common charges leveled against beer kits. When each are examined individually, none of them actually stand up to scrutiny.
"You have to boil to get protein coagulation" - Virtually all of the higher quality beer kits have already been boiled prior to being concentrated. The best ones, including Coopers and Muntons, have also undergone a filtration to remove coagulates. And contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not even necessary to boil your wort if you are adding additional unhopped malt extract. "I'll be the first to admit that after all I've read, I'm surprised that my test beers came out great", Beer Essentials owner Robert Christian remarked after making a series of beers using kits and plain malt extract without conducting a boil.
"You have to boil to sterilize"
Few of us brew in a laboratory environment. Therefore sterilization is a hopeless quest. Sanitation is the key to ensuring high quality beer. Most kit instructions emphasis the use of boiling water both in sanitizing equipment and in the mixing of ingredients, despite the fact that boiling is not necessary to achieve sanitation. Adequate sanitation can be achieved by holding the temperature of your re-constituted wort at 160-180'F (50-60'C) for 15 minutes.
"But, shouldn't I boil anyway? I mean what's the harm?"
Not only is it not necessary to boil, it can have a significant negative impact on what you are trying to achieve. Any time you boil anything malt-related you will get carmelization induced darkening. The more you boil, the darker the finished beer. Ok if you are making a stout. Not so good if you want a nice light cream ale. Another side effect of carmelization is excessive sweetness in the finished beer. Boiling can also change the hop character that the producer was seeking to achieve. Boiling a beer kit will drive off any hop aromatics that the beer was supposed to have. Of course, you can just add more hops, but if you don't boil, you don't have to. Quick, easy, fool-proof.
"You can't make good beer unless it is 'all malt'"
The instructions on most beer kits call for adding 1 kg of additional fermentables, typically in the form of "brewing sugar", although more and more manufacturers are adding lines such as "for a fuller bodied beer add malt". Adding additional fermentables is necessary to get your wort up to an alcohol and body level that is appropriate for beer. The key is not that the beer is "all-malt", but that any non-malt based fermentables do not exceed the level that renders the beer undesirable to your tastes. Based on information published by CAMRA (the British Campaign for Real Ale) many of England's best-loved "real" ales, including Boddington's Bitter, Courage Best Better and Beamish Irish Stout, are made using such fermentables as corn sugar, "maltose syrup" and caramel. Generally I recommend that fermentables like corn sugar, rice, molasses, Belgian candi sugar not exceed 25% of total gravity contribution, however, in some instances where a really light colored and bodied beer is desired, this can be exceeded. The most important consideration is what you want and how you get there.
"The yeast is old or inappropriate"
Not only do many manufacturers date-stamp their cans, they also date-stamp their yeast packages. Look for them. If the use-by date is past, then toss the yeast and buy a fresher packet. Only on the "appropriateness" issue do I find common ground with conventional wisdom. In some cases it is necessary to sacrifice stylistic integrity for ease of use. Most, but not all kits labeled "Lager" actually contain an ale yeast. This is done to allow brewers to make a beer as close to a lager as possible without resorting to taking over the kitchen refrigerator. If you want your lager beer kit to make a lager, either purchase a kit that is known to contain a lager yeast or purchase a pure liquid lager yeast.
"Someone else has decided the hop schedule"
By the very nature of a beer kit some of the recipe formulation has been pre-determined. What you get for giving up determining the hop schedule is quick, easy and fool-proof brewing.
"What about the water?"
If you feel comfortable drinking your tap water, there is no reason why you can't brew with it. If the chlorine being added by your municipal water system is gassable (some systems are now using chlorine that won't gas out), then most of the chlorine is expelled when you bring your brewing water up to 160'. What chlorine is left is largely undetectable. If you won't drink your tap water, then you probably don't want to brew with it anyway.
Another source of questions involves fermentation times. The instructions on beer kits for fermentation times are sometimes conflicting and are often left vague. This is in response to the different conditions that exist for brewers in different geographical areas. When fermented out at 68-72'F (18-20'C) most beer kits will complete their fermentation is 2-4 days, with the beer cleared in another 4 or 5 days. However, some parts of North America don't see temperatures that high for months. Some parts don't see temperatures that low for months. Most kit instructions do a good job of alerting brewers of the signs that their fermentation is finished. Where the confusion often lays is when the brewer tries to incorporate practices detailed in other literature. Kit instructions do not detail the intricacies of two-stage fermentation. If this is to be tried, consulting your local expert is key. Of course, when making a good beer from a kit, two-stage fermentation is not necessary. The key to fermentation times is to give it enough time to ferment and clear without going more than 10 days before bottling. Leaving your beer in primary longer than this increases the risk of getting yeasty off-flavors. If your fermentation is taking this long to complete then the fermentation temperature needs to be raised.
Most of the beer kit producers are international concerns. Their products are intended for brewers all over the world. Out of necessity the instructions are designed to be understandable to the broadest array of brewers and brewing cultures. As such, it is not possible for these manufacturers to produce instructions that appeal to all brewers in all cultures. And although I think the instructions are just fine as written, let's expand upon them a bit. Here are the guidelines I provide new brewers looking to make good beer. Quick, easy, fool-proof. They are followed by the recipe I used to make a "Very Good" cream ale.
Instructions for making great beer from a beer kit
- Bring 2 quarts of water to 160-180'F, basically steaming but not boiling. Then remove from heat.
- Add your beer kit and additional fermentables according to the directions. Suggested fermentables include brewers sugar, dry malt extract, liquid malt extract, rice syrup, demerera sugar, Belgian candi sugar or any combination of the above. Each will impart its own unique flavor profile. Ask your local shop owner for advice on how to get what you want.
- Stir aggressively to ensure that everything gets dissolved. Put a lid on the pot and let it sit for 10-15 minutes on the lowest heat setting. This should keep your temperature in the 160-180' range you need to ensure that you achieve sanitation.
- Add the contents of your pot to 4 gallons of water already in your fermenter. Mix well, at least a minutes or two. This helps aerate your wort prior to your yeast addition. If you take hydrometer reading you will need to mix aggressively for a good 4-5 minutes to get even consistency throughout the wort. If you have any questions about proper sanitization techiques for your equipment, definitely consult your local homebrew shop.
- When the side of your fermenter feels cool to the touch, it is safe to add your yeast. Some authors recommend re-hydrating your yeast in water first. I have never been able to discern a difference when doing side-by-side comparisons with good quality yeasts, and I don't care for the additional contamination risk.
- Ferment as close to recommended temperature range as possible.
- When activity in the airlock drops to a bubble every 1.5-2 minutes, fermentation is pretty much done. If this has been completed within 2-4 days, leave in fermenter for an additional 2-4 days for clearing.
- When you are ready to bottle, put all your clean bottles upside down in the bottom rack of your dishwasher and allow it to run through the rinse and dry cycle. Be sure the "heat dry" option is on. It is the steam that sanitizes your bottles. Boil 1 cup of water with 3/4 cup of corn sugar for a couple of minutes. Allow to cool then add to your sanitized bottling container. Transfer your beer to your bottling container, give it a couple of gentle stirs and bottle.
A "Very Good" Cream Ale
- Coopers Brewmaster Series Pilsner Beer Kit
- 1 lb corn sugar
- 1 lb rice syrup solids
- Coopers Pilsner Beer Yeast (included in kit).
- Prepare according to instructions. Ferment at 62'F for 7 days. Bottle with 3/4 cup corn sugar.
There are millions of homebrewers in the world. Most of them are interested in making good beer. Ninety-nine and a half percent of them are not interested in spending 6 hours in the kitchen with three pots, a flame-thrower of a burner and $600 of stainless steel. Beer kits are all about making good beer as simply and easily as possible. Revel in its simplicity and by all means, follow the directions.
Adjuncts - It's not a four-letter word!
All beer kits need additional fermentables added to them. There simply is not enough fermentables in the can to make 5 gallons of beer. What are the various additional fermentables that can be used with a beer kit, how much do you use, what do they bring to the table?
Corn Sugar - The most common fermentable added to beer kits. Also referred to as "brewer's sugar". Advantages: widely available, easy to use, relatively inexpensive. Allows brewer to produce light bodied, light colored beers. Disadvantages: use too much and your beer will take on a "cidery" flavor. Recommended usage: 1-2 lbs.
Unhopped Malt Extract - Dry unhopped malt extract (dme) is probably the most common fermentable used by American kit brewers. Advantages: will give beer more body and mouthfeel. Can be used in greater amounts, thereby increasing gravity of beer. Disadvantages: moderately expensive compared to alternatives, more likely to increase body and color beyond what is desired. Recommended usage - 1-3 lbs of dme, or 3.3 lbs liquid unhopped malt extract.
Rice - Available in both dry and syrup form. Advantages: Will give beer body without significantly increasing color. Disadvantages: relatively expensive, not as widely available, contributes little to the flavor. Recommended usage: 1-2 lbs.
Invert Sugar - A derivative of cane sugar. Highly fermentable. Commonly used by British commercial brewers. Advantages: similar contributions as corn sugar with less "cider" effect. Disadvantages: not widely available. Recommended usage: 1-2 lbs.
Other Sugars - Belgian Candi Sugar, demerrera sugar, brown sugar. All similar to corn sugar in usage and advantages. The disadvantage of Candi Sugar is cost. Each contributes its own unique flavor profiles.
Experience shows that when working with non-malt based fermentables, best results are achieved by not exceeding recommended usage, and by mixing-and-matching. Experiment! Have fun! You will be surprised with what you can achieve with a pound of rice and a pound of brown sugar.