I've done lots of home brewing before (check out our recipes for homemade soda and hard cider), but I've always put together the ingredients myself. I've seen complete kits in stores, usually around Christmas, but never really had the desire to try one, since I already had the majority of the ingredients. However, when I saw a beer making kit on clearance I had to try it--heck, the hardware in it was worth more than the sticker price!
I found the Black Series Craft Beer Brew Kit on clearance after Christmas at an office supply store, of all places. It normally sells for about $25, but I was able to pick up their last one for just $10. It comes with:
- A Glass 1-Gallon Fermentation Jug
- Racking Tube And Cane
- 2 packages Of Row and Crystal Malt
- Packet of sanitizer
The only other things you need to brew (other than some basic kitchen tools) are an ounce of sugar, water, and some ice. So how does it work?
How To Brew Beer From A Kit
The first step says to heat 2.7 quarts of water to 160F. I've never seen a measuring cup that would show .7 quarts, so I figured just under 3 cups was close enough.
Remove the water from the heat and add both bags of malts and grains. The larger bag contains row malt, and the second contains crystal malt. Stir the mixture, cover and let it sit for 60 minutes. The temperature needs to stay around 149°F - 152°F, so you can either add cool water if it is too hot, or a little more heat if it cools down too far. Continue to stir every 10 minutes.
While the grains are "mashing" (the process of combing grains and warm water), heat 1 gallon of water to about 170°F.
After 60 minutes you're ready to remove and rinse ("sparge") the grains. Place a fine mesh strainer (or a regular colander lined with some cheesecloth) over another large pot or bowl, scoop the mash into the strainer and allow the wort (the liquid) to drain into the pot. Pour the gallon of water over the mash. You are rinsing the grain to collect as much fermentable sugar as possible.
When the grains are fully rinsed, bring the liquid to a boil. Once it's at a rolling boil, let it continue boiling for 60 minutes and add the hops as follows:
- 0.1 oz added at the beginning of the 60 minutes for bittering
- 0.1 oz added for the final 20 minutes for flavor
- 0.1 oz added for the final 2 minutes for aroma
- 0.2 oz added after turning off the heat for aroma
Cool the wort immediately to 68°F - 72°F. The easiest way to do this is to place it in a bath of ice water.
From this point on, everything that touches the beer needs to be sanitized. The kit comes with a packet of sanitizing solution, but I just used the StarSan that I use for all my other brewing. You mix the solution in water, dip your equipment in and let it all air dry, no rinsing needed.
Next, fill the gallon glass jug with the wort, and top up the fermenter with filtered water.
Add the dry yeast to the fermenter and stir or shake it a few times to mix. Cap it and attach the hose; put the other end of the hose into a jar of water. This allows the carbon dioxide to escape while not allowing in any wild yeast. Set the fermenter in a cool, dark place.
Now here's where I ran into trouble. I bought this set in March, which means that the kit (and specifically the yeast) had been sitting on the shelves at room temperature for probably at least 5 or 6 months. You can expect to see some bubbling action from your yeast within 24 hours, but after 48 hours I saw absolutely nothing. My yeast was dead. Normally when brewing you "pitch" your yeast ahead of time by mixing it in a cup of warm water and letting it set for 1-3 hours to see if it starts bubbling, and if so you go ahead and add it to the brew. I didn't do that for this batch simply because I wanted to follow the instructions exactly and see what happened. So I pulled some of my ale yeast out of the freezer, added it, and within 24 hours had a nice vigorous fermentation going.
You will use the hose rather than the fermentation lock at first due to the foaming.
I had quite a lot of liquid and foam bubbling up the tube and into the jar; if the regular airlock had been on it would have been quickly clogged.
After 7 days, you will replace the hose with the fermentation lock and allow the fermenter to sit for another 7 days.
When I removed the cap, I found a thick layer of gunk clogging the neck of the bottle. In a "traditional" fermentation this wouldn't be as much of an issue; you'd be starting your beer in a large, wide-mouth bucket and could avoid this when transferring it to the glass jug for the final fermentation. But since we're only using the glass jug here, it builds up and could block the gases from escaping. I carefully removed as much as I could--pushing it back down into the beer could give it a bitter taste.
After another 7 days have passed (or 14 days total), the beer is ready to carbonate and bottle. Once again, anything that touches the beer will need to be sanitized.
Dissolve 1 ounce of sugar in 4 ounces of water and let it cool. This will give the yeast a tiny bit more food to east, allowing them to produce some more carbon dioxide. This time, however, it will be inside of a sealed bottle, which will carbonate the beer.
We're going to be siphoning the beer into a pot to get it ready to bottle, so your glass jug has to be on a higher level. I simply set it on top of a #10 can.
Next, you'll assemble the racking cane. Attach the soft plastic hose to the hard plastic cane, and place the clip on the end of the hose. With the clip open, fill the tube with water until it reaches the cane, then close the clip. Lower the racking cane into the fermenter, stopping it above the "trub" (the sediment at the bottom). In theory, the foot on the end of the cane should keep it out of the sediment, but I found that there was so much I had to hold the cane in place rather than letting it rest on the bottom. Open the clip and allow the water to pour out; it should start to siphon the beer with it. Close the clip once the beer reaches it, and you're ready to transfer the beer to a pot.
Open the clip and gently siphon the beer from the fermenter into your pot. Be careful not to splash it too much--oxygen will rapidly age the beer.
Getting a good siphon was challenging--it took me 4 or 5 tries to get it going. I much prefer a racking cane with an auto siphon--you can just pump it a few times to get a siphon going. But this method works, if you're patient.
Finally, use the same siphoning method to fill your bottles. You can either use standard bottles and cap them with a bottle capper, or use swing-top bottles like I did. Set the bottles aside in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks to allow the carbonation to develop.
After 2 weeks the bottles went into the refrigerator to stop the carbonation process. When they were nicely chilled, I poured a glass to sample. It had a nice head of foam, pleasant aroma, and a good enough taste--it wasn't earth-shatteringly delicious, but I've definitely tasted worse!
So, should you brew beer from a kit? If you're already brewing beer yourself, then this won't give you anything you don't already have. But it would make a nice gift for a friend you'd like to introduce to the hobby. And it's a nice introduction if you're new. If you can pick it up on clearance like I did for only $10, you wind up with at least $15 worth of equipment that you can use on future brewing, plus the batch of beer!