A ‘kit and kilo’ is usually our first experience with homebrewing. The resulting beer is hopefully good and gives us a foundation for more advanced homebrewing techniques.
For the first few years of my homebrewing adventure, I brewed with kits exclusively. The routine of brewing with kits was reassuring.
Follow a solid cleaning and sanitizing regime. Mix your ingredients. Run a controlled fermentation. Bottle. Get a drinkable beer.
It’s like 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 4. Simple maths for simple beer.
But after a while, the interest and challenge wore off. For me, I wanted hoppier and maltier beers than a simple kit could deliver.
Luckily there are some tricks in the bag to take your kit beer to a new level.
Let’s cover how to get the best from your homebrew kit.
About homebrewing with kits
Homebrew kits are essentially hopped liquid malt extract.
The liquid malt is made from the grain barley. The fermentable sugars and flavor have been extracted and processed to make a thick syrup.
This is mixed with hop oil to bitter the beer.
Manufacturers generally don’t add any hops hop flavor or aroma. If they do, the impact is minimal.
The resulting beer can be still quite nice but like any processed good, some of the delicious flavors are lost.
I compare homebrew kits to a jar of curry paste. Sure the curry paste is easier and gives a nice curry, but will never be as good as working with fresh curry leaves, coriander, chili and other spices.
What homebrew kits offer you
When you look at the balance between effort and results, properly made kit beers punch above their weight.
They can deliver a clean, simple beer with minimum fuss.
You get the excitement and reward of making your own beer with only a little investment of time, effort and equipment.
They are a perfect gateway into the homebrewing world. No eight-hour brewing sessions or shining stainless steel brewing castles. For less than $100 and a couple of Sunday evenings, you can call yourself a legitimate homebrewer.
Option B for busy homebrewers
Even if you are brewing all grain, the humble kit still has its place. They can offer the time-poor brewer a homebrewing life-line.
When our kids were little, I started brewing with kits again simply because my time and energy were in demand.
I could still scratch my homebrewing itch and juggle kids and work. Thank you kit beer.
One of the big advantages of kits is they are simple, predictable and repeatable.
All you need to do is be clean, take care of your yeast and run a decent fermentation process.
Follow the formula and you’ll get good beer.
I’ve tasted bad all grain beers. There is more to do and more mistakes to be made.
I’ve also tasted great kit beers. The kit manufacturer has taken care of the complicated parts of beer making. You just have to pick up where they left off.
The limits of kit homebrewing
There are compromises for convenience, ease and simplicity.
Processing by the manufacturer, fewer raw ingredients and reduced control all limit what you can deliver.
Don’t get me wrong. The beer can still be awesome if you mix it up a bit with some of the tricks below. But it won’t be a good as a well-crafted extract or all grain beer.
What brewing with kits can teach you
Now and again I pick up on an undercurrent amongst all grain brewers that kits are a sell-out.
This ‘all grain or go home’ mindset is frustrating and unhealthy for the homebrewing community.
And it’s just wrong. A well-made kit beer will beat a badly made all grain beer every day.
Making great beer with kits takes skill and attention to detail.
You learn how to clean and sanitize properly
In the absence of strong flavors, the focus with kit brewing is often to make the cleanest beer possible.
This is kit beer’s superpower.
Styles of beer without any strong character are perfect for kit brewing. Your homebrew kit can deliver a clean lager or ale if you meet it halfway.
This means you need to clean and sanitize properly otherwise mild infections and flaws will stand out.
You learn how to manage your yeast
Homebrewing with kits is the perfect playground to learn how to select and manage your yeast properly.
Unfortunately, kit’s shady reputation has much to do with the yeast and instructions supplied with your tin of gooey goodness.
Firstly it is usually not enough. You need at least 11 grams of healthy yeast to cleanly ferment your beer. The pack taped to the top of your tin is usually five grams.
It has also been sitting in warehouses, trucks and shelves for too long. Heat and time will degrade the cell count.
The yeast is also, well, generic. Up to a third of beer’s flavor is driven by yeast, so generic yeast will make a generic beer.
If you want to make a particular style of beer, you a better off with a yeast suited to that style. A fruity English Ale, clean APA or crisp lager will each need a different yeast to hit the mark.
Lastly, the instructions tell you to sprinkle it on top. Dried yeast needs to be rehydrated properly before pitching. If you add it to your wort while dry, up to half of the cells can be destroyed as sugary wort rushes into the cell.
The astute kit brewer will have considered and countered these issues with a premium brewing yeast and solid process.
How to run a proper fermentation
Great kit homebrewers pay attention to their fermentation.
This means proper temperature and time. Too hot or cold will create issues with flavor and stability. Always ferment within your yeast’s preferred working range, preferably on the lower end.
Also, they make sure to let the yeast continue to clean up any off flavors after fermentation has finished.
Leaving the wort to sit on the yeast cake for an extra five to seven days after fermentation finishes will give you a cleaner beer. Longer than this can cause problems as the yeast starts to consume itself.
Kit beers can also be improved through racking, cold conditioning (ales) and extended lagering (lagers).
How to get the best out of your homebrew kits
Step up your game: The core four
If you want great homebrew, you first need to master the basics:
Yep, it’s a bit boring. But these core four will make the biggest difference to your homebrew.
No tricks or techniques matter unless you have these pillars in place.
We cover these in detail our homebrewing guide, The Complete Kit.
The simplest thing you can do to improve your kit beers is to buy better ingredients. All things being equal, a premium homebrewing kit will give a nicer beer with fuller flavors.
When I first started brewing, one of my dad’s mates offered me a homebrew to try. It was well crafted, clean and cold. But it was missing any real flavor.
Turns out his goal in homebrewing was to make beer as cheaply as he could. He used cheap generic kits and sugar exclusively. The math worked out to be 30 cents a longneck.
I want you to make great beer and penny pinching on ingredients is not the way to do it.
Buy premium ingredients. Even if your costs climb to a dollar per longneck, it is still a pittance compared to your local bottleshop.
The manufacturing process has stripped out a lot of flavor. But you can add it back in.
There is a bagful of tricks you can use to add in hops and malt character.
You can add in hop flavor and aroma through ‘wet hopping’.
This involved steeping hops in boiled water and tipping this into your fermented beer. You are essentially making a hop tea and will extract hop aroma and some flavor, but little bitterness.
The important part of this exercise is to add the hop tea to your wort after fermentation has finished. If you add it while fermentation is in action, the bubbling action of a healthy fermentation will strip out the delicate hop aromas.
Use a hops bag when wet hopping, otherwise the pelletized hops sludge will end up in your bottles.
The exception is if you are racking to a second fermentation to further clarify your beer.
To wet hop your kit beer:
Bring half a gallon (2 liters) of water to the boil.
Bag an ounce (30 grams) of your favorite hops in a hop bag. If you want over-the-top hops, make it three ounces (90 grams).
Add this to the boiled water, switch off, cover and leave for 15 minutes.
Tip the liquid and hops into your fermented wort.
Leave for three to five days and bottle as you normally would.
A pound (220 grams) of specialty malt will add noticeable malt depth to your beer. These include crystal, chocolate, caramunich, roasted and black patent malts.
The beauty of specialty malts is that they don’t have to be mashed (ie mixed with hot water for specific times and temperatures). You can steep them in hot water to extract the flavor and aroma.
To steep successfully:
Heat a gallon (4 liters) of hot water to 158°F (70°C). Any higher will extract tannins from the grain.
Seal a pound (220 grams) of crushed specialty malt in a small grain bag.
Add this to your hot water, seal and leave for half an hour.
Gently extract the grain bag (don’t squeeze) and boil the liquid for 10 minutes.
Mix in your homebrew kit and extra malt/brewing sugar.
Seal and cool in an ice bath.
Once it is cool enough to touch, mix with cold water in your fermenter.
Pitch your yeast and it is then business as usual.
While specialty malt can add particular flavors, you can also carry out a partial mash to give more malt backbone to your brew.
This is a reasonably advanced technique, but will set your kit homebrew apart if you do it right.
If you are keen on making great beer, give it a go.
Basically, you need to mix crushed malt with hot water and hold this at 153°F (67°C) for an hour. Over this time, starches will convert to sugar, which you can extract and ferment for delicious beer.
Fruit, spices and other surprises
Malt and hops aren’t the only flavors we can add to beer.
You can also add spices, fruit and other flavors to complement your homebrew.
Why not experiment with the following:
Fruit: Raspberries, blueberries, cherries. Whatever you fancy can be added to your beer. The simplest way is to add a quart or liter of syrup to your wort after fermentation. Leave for another week to make sure the sugar in the syrup has fermented out fully. You can also add thawed frozen fruit to your fermented beer. Start with two pounds (1 kilogram) of fruit. Bottling can be tricky so often best to rack to a secondary fermenter for clarifying.
Coffee: Brew three ounces (90 ml) of fresh espresso and add to your fermented wort prior to bottling.
Chili: Hot chilis can make a surprising addition to a wide range of beers. Make a tincture with vodka and add a measured amount to your fermented wort (either to the fermenter or individual bottles).
A word of warning though that many of these flavors can quickly become overpowering. Err on the side of caution when experimenting.
Also, while your rosemary, garlic and oregano stout seems like fun, you may not want to be stuck with a cupboard full of the stuff.
Experiment with a few pilot bottles or split batches before committing.
The final trick in the bag to enhancing your kit beers is to make sure you drink them at their best.
Malt extract based homebrew needs some conditioning time to lose its green tinges.
Generally, this is between one and three months. By then, the carbonation will be perfect, the flavors blended in harmony and any harshness mellowed.
Hoppy and roasty beers should be consumed earlier, before the flavors pass. Stronger beers take longer to mellow.
Experience and trial will help you find the perfect cellaring time.
Longer maturing time doesn’t always mean better though. After six months, beers can become stale and over-carbonated. If you notice one of your prized brews getting dusty, make sure you drink it up before it declines too far.
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.