Things I wish I’d known before making my first kit brew.

Brew Buddy
I’m sure many of us started here or hereabouts.

My first kit brew (about four years ago now) was drinkable. Just. But certainly not something I would’ve paid money for in a bar. I now know why it tasted so ‘iffy’, and there are a few simple, cheap, things which I could have done which would have made the end product far more palatable.

1)      Water. It’s the single biggest ingredient in any beer and needs to be given some consideration. Don’t use it straight from the tap – it will probably contain some unwanted micro-organisms and may well taste of chlorine. Either boil it for 15 minutes and leave it to cool to room temp, or buy cheap packaged water from a supermarket (you can get 2 litre bottles for 17p in some places, which works out to 24 litres for about £2). The hassle with the former option is fiddling around boiling it bit by bit (I’m assuming that a first-time kit brewer probably won’t have a 30l boiler) and finding something to put it in as it cools. Your fermenting vessel is the obvious choice, but a regular Young’s fv won’t take kindly to being filled with boiling water. You could, however, chill each pan of boiled water by placing it in a sink full of cold water or ice, but this is quite time-consuming.

There are problems with the packaged water option too (apart from strolling to the checkout looking like you’ve had a tip-off about the zombie apocalypse). The downsides are largely ethical and environmental, concerning the packaging itself and the carbon footprint for transporting the water from source to store. You can weigh this up against not using all that energy to boil your water, the lack of carbon footprint of the beer you’ll be producing (OK, that’s a weak point), and you can recycle the bottles responsibly – or even use them to bottle your first batch of beer (a future post will look at packaging your beer).

2)      Sanitation. Make sure that anything that comes into contact with the wort is sanitized. Wipe down the can of wort with sanitizer, sanitize the can opener, wipe down the yeast sachet, the scissors you use to snip this open, everything.

3)      Wort aeration. Yeast need a lot of oxygen in the first phase of the fermentation process (the ‘lag phase’). The easiest way to get oxygen into your wort is to make sure that there is plenty of splashing when you pour the water into the fermenter to dilute the concentrate. This is especially true if you have boiled your own – boiling will quickly knock dissolved O2 out of water. Then give it a good stir for a couple of minutes with a sanitised brewer’s paddle or long-handled spoon, again with some controlled splashing, just to be sure. This will also mix the wort properly – otherwise the heavy syrup will hang around at the bottom of the fv. It is actually possible to over-aerate, so don’t go too nuts.

4)      Yeast hydration. Sprinkling dried yeast on top of your wort will result in the death of half the yeast cells, making fermentation slow to start and thereby risking a bunch of problems, including infection. They also need considerable warmth to build healthy cell walls as they hydrate. This is a simple way to rehydrate your dried yeast and go a step closer to a boisterous fermentation:

You will need:

  • a sanitised measuring jug
  • a sanitised stirrer (a thermometer is ideal, and can also be used to monitor the temperature of water you will need)
  • some clean tinfoil
  • a kettle.
  1. Boil some water in the kettle.
  2. Pour about 150 ml into the sanitised jug, cover this with the tinfoil.
  3. Cool the water by placing the jug in a sink of cold water, until the temp drops to a bit under 40C (if you don’t have a thermometer the bottom of the jug should be ‘hand hot’, i.e. distinctly warm but not painful to hold). This won’t take very long.
  4. Sprinkle the yeast onto the surface of the water (do not stir at this point), cover with the foil again, and leave for 10 minutes or so.
  5. Stir, cover again, leave for another five minutes. If using a thermometer to stir then take care not to clatter it about too much and break it!
  6. ‘Pitch’ (i.e. pour) your happy and hydrated yeast into your wort and give it another good stir.

After about 10 to 14 hour you should see a beautiful rocky foam (krausen) forming on top of your fermenting beer.

If you want to know more about yeast and the science behind the above advice then I strongly recommend Yeast by Jamil Zainasheff and Chris White:

Zainasheff, J. & C. White (2010) Yeast. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications

Yeast Book

One more thing for now: if your fermenting vessel isn’t calibrated (i.e. has litres marked on the outside), it’s a good idea to calibrate it yourself. The best way is taking a jug and weighing exactly one kilo of water in it – mark the jug at the waterline and that will be precisely one litre. I don’t need to tell you what you have to do now, but I’d recommend marking your fv off at 5l, 10l, 15l and then in one litre increments up to 23l.

Nick Written by: