It’s your first homebrew session. You open your kit, lay out your homebrew ingredients and equipment, and read the instructions. It all seems straightforward so you give it a go.
Fast forward a month and it’s tasting time. The beer is okay, but you aren’t that excited.
This is a common scenario amongst new homebrewers. The problem is that the information that comes with the homebrew kit is generic. It is written so that anyone can understand them and follow the instructions.
I get why manufacturers do this. They want a fail-safe process, but it dumbs everything down considerably.
I want you to make awesome homebrew. Let’s go into some depth on what you are working with and how you can improve your beer.
Make good homebrew decisions
Make good homebrew choices for good homebrew.
The first thing I want you to understand is that your beer can only be as good as the ingredients you use. Your recipe is where you start making choices about how good your beer will be.
Often people start homebrewing with a cheap concentrate, generic yeast and household sugar. The results are less than impressive.
Instead of being a happy homebrewer, they get discouraged and give up.
Quality is king. This principle applies to any type of brewing – simple kits through to all grain homebrewing.
Invest in better beer
For a few extra dollars you can get a higher quality concentrate, a premium yeast, extra malt extract and hops. The homebrewing world is now opening up to you.
Your premium brewing concentrate will contain better raw ingredients and mean a better tasting beer.
A quality yeast will give you an adequate yeast count to ferment safely. You will also have more control over the type of beer you make and your beer will have a fresher character.
A great starting point is Fermentis Safale US-05. Versatile, clean and perfect for a wide range of beers.
Using malt extract instead of sugar will mean your beer is full flavored and tastes like beer. It will also keep a better head and lace your glass beautifully.
If you like hop character consider adding extra hops. There is a wide variety to choose from and they will make a big difference to your beer.
If the idea of spending a bit more on homebrew gives you cold sweats, remember you get what you pay for. And with homebrew, a little extra gives a lot back in return.
When you break down an extra $10 or $20 per a six gallon (23 L) batch, the cost per beer is bugger all.
Keep it fresh
Fresh is best for ingredients. Look for yeast stored in a fridge. Hot temperatures will degrade the yeast count and eventually make it unviable.
Likewise, check the best before dates on yeast and homebrew concentrates. Malt extract can stale – turning dark with over the top toffee notes.
Hops should be bought and stored frozen. Exposure to oxygen will also degrade hops’ flavor and aroma so re-seal packages tightly.
Hops should be green and smell fresh. Old hops become yellow and smell slightly cheesy – not an admirable quality in beer!
Beer has essentially four ingredients – water, malt, hops and yeast. There are some other elements used for specific purposes, but if you get your head around the four foundations, you will have a great start.
Use nice water
Nice water makes nice homebrew.
The wet stuff makes up over 90 per cent of your beer, so will impact on flavor and quality. As a basic rule, if you can drink it, you can brew with it.
Water hardness refers to the levels of dissolved minerals. Hard water has high mineral levels and doesn’t lather soap well. Very hard water can be tricky to brew with.
Hard water can be useful however for some beer styles. These include stouts and British ales. If you are brewing this style of beer and your water is hard, give it a shot and see what happens.
Usually, we are better off though softening hard water to brew better beer. You can filter your water or use a substantial proportion of bottled water (over half) to give your water a softer profile.
Adding minerals when brewing is a reasonably complicated topic and doesn’t really come into play until you start working with grains. Leave this until you get more advanced with your brewing.
If your water is very chlorinated, this will show in your homebrew. Again you can filter or use a proportion of bottled water.
You can also drive off some of the chlorine through splashing and pouring violently between containers.
Boiling water will also boil out the chlorine, but will need to be cooled and aerated again (yeast needs oxygen to work).
This can be done with an aeration stone or splashing.
I don’t encourage using untreated rainwater as it will contain microbes and contaminants that can spoil your beer.
To use rainwater safely you would need to boil, cool and aerate it.
Malt – beer’s backbone
Malt refers to malted barley and is the backbone of beer’s flavor profile. Malt is barley that has been soaked until it germinates, and then dried and roasted to various levels.
This malting process makes enzymes and starches available to the brewer, which in turn extracts a sweet and malty liquid.
This liquid is either then:
boiled with hops and fermented to make beer
boiled under a vacuum to make liquid malt extract (like that in homebrew tins and chocolate bars)
sprayed in a heated chamber and dried into a powder (dry malt extract).
As your brewing skills progress, you can also use small amounts of crushed specialty malts to impart particular flavors in your beer.
Hops – the spice of beer life
Hops are the spice of beer life. They add bitterness to offset malt’s sickly sweetness and deliver a balanced beer.
They also add a delightful flavor and aroma.
Different varieties can offer floral notes including citrus, passionfruit, tobacco and spice.
You will most likely see hops in their pelletized form, which gives a longer shelf life at the (slight) expense of quality.
Hops are also available as whole, plugs or as an extracted oil.
Hops in homebrew tins
Manufacturers of homebrew concentrate kits often add a measured amount of hop oil to liquid malt extract to create the necessary bitterness.
Unfortunately much (if not all) of the hop flavor and aroma is lost in the manufacturing process. We will need to add this back in if you want hop character.
Bring back the hops
We can easily add hop character, but first some background on how hop character is extracted…
Hops need to be boiled to extract the bitterness. Bitterness is extracted incrementally the longer you boil – one hour is usual in all grain brewing.
As the manufacturer has already added in the hop bitterness, we don’t need to worry about this process.
Flavor compounds are also extracted through boiling, although some can be extracted through steeping (ie soaking in boiled water).
Brewers usually boil hops for 20 to 40 minutes to extract all of the flavors. After 40 minutes the flavors are boiled out and lost.
Hop aromas are easily lost through boiling and more readily extracted through steeping. Brewers add aroma hops at the very end of the boil or during fermentation.
Adding hops back into kit recipes
To get hop character in a kit beer, you need to add it in after fermentation has wound down.
Yeast was a silent partner in the vast majority of brewing’s 7000-year history. Up until the last few centuries, brewers thought fermentation was the work of the gods or some other magical force.
Science has since unveiled yeast as the genius behind beer’s success. It is still pretty magical though to see it in action.
Finings for clear beer
Once you get comfortable with the homebrewing process, you may want to focus on brewing clearer beer.
Clear beer comes naturally as yeast and other compounds eventually fall out of suspension. You can speed this process up through using finings.
These are products which cause yeast to clump together and (now being larger and heavier) drop out quickly.
Finings are gently mixed into the fermented beer and left to clear before bottling.
Most commonly you can use household gelatine. There are also products available such as isinglass and polyclar PVPP. Chilling your beer before adding finings will improve their effectiveness.
Keep in mind though that clear beer is only one indicator of quality, and a crude one at that.
For example, beers heavily hopped for flavor and aroma will have a slight haze caused by hop resin and still taste amazing. Award-winning wheat beers will have a protein and yeast haze.
Those exceptions aside, most beers will benefit from clearing either through time or finings. Harsher compounds can attach to yeast haze, so once it drops out of suspension, your beer will taste much cleaner.
Fruit, herbs and spices
Coffee and beer. What could be better?
Another area brewers experiment with is adding extra flavors in the form of fruits, herbs and spices.
Coffee stout, raspberry wheat, pumpkin ale, chili lager…
The options are endless. As you get more brewing confidence, have a go and see what happens.
Be warned though that some of these flavors can go a long way. Less is more, at least to start with.
Homebrewing With Kits—The Beginner’s Guide
To help you master homebrewing with kits, I’ve put together a guide based on my experiences over the last two decades.
This is the information I wish I had when I started brewing. I hope it helps you make awesome homebrew.