Beer Kits - What They Don't Tell You!
So you're back from your local home brew shop, carrier bag in hand, and excitedly transfer your purchase to the kitchen bench. So what's the first thing you do? Read the instructions, right? Usually a great idea when you buy something from IKEA, but the instructions supplied with many beer kits can be woefully inadequate and even misleading. You will need them to tell you the basic quantities of water and sugar etc (but see below for alternatives) to add, but often they don't contain much else of use. Instead have a read of the tips below.
Top Tips for Making up a Beer Kit
Buy 'Two Can' Kits
The cheaper single-can beer kits are a compromise. They rely on the user adding a large amount of sugar to make up for the inadequate quantity of malt extract in the kit. This makes the beer taste thin and unsatisfying and also (in my experience) gives you a worse hangover - not good! Two can, or 'all malt' kits have all the malt you need to make a good strength beer without additional sugar and produce a far superior beer - the only down side is they are more expensive.
Replace the Sugar With Spraymalt
If you must buy cheap kits, instead of adding sugar use 'spraymalt' ('beer kit enhancer' is a similar product). This is available in all decent home brew shops (including supermarkets and chain stores that sell home brew gear) and is basically dried malt extract. You are thus effectively increasing the malt content of the kit rather than diluting it with household sugar, and it also gives you the opportunity to play around with the beer style by using light or dark spraymalts. It's more expensive than sugar, but you're still in profit just by making beer yourself, so what the heck!
Use Specialist Sugars
If you can't run to the cost of spraymalt, you can still improve your brew by using different types of sugars (e.g. demerara sugar, soft dark brown sugar and many more). These will subtly alter the flavour of the brew and while not as good as adding extra malt, it also allows you some degree of customisation of the flavour. There are also specialist brewing sugars available from the same outlets that sell spraymalt.
Buy a Hydrometer!
The instructions supplied with some kits would have you believe that you can judge when fermentation is complete by the number of days since you made your kit up and how many bubbles are on the surface! While under perfect conditions there is something in that, most people beginning to brew don't have the ideal environment to store their brew while it's fermenting (the most important factor being a steady temperature). This makes any time-based measure of the progress of fermentation very dodgy indeed. And it's important to know for sure, because this can be a safety issue when bottling.
An inexpensive hydrometer can reliably measure the remaining sugar content of your brew by simply floating it on the surface and reading off its 'specific gravity' in degrees. When you get the same reading two days running (provided it's below about 1.014 - we usually say '14 degrees') you know it's time to transfer your beer to bottles or your chosen type of beer keg.
Use a Specialist Brewing Yeast
Many people don't realise that the strain of yeast used in brewing has a massive effect on the characteristics of the finished beer. Flavour, mouth-feel and residual sweetness are all significantly affected by the yeast, which is why commercial breweries go to such lengths to find and maintain unique strains of yeast that give their beers the edge over the competition.
Cheaper kits in particular are often supplied with inferior packs of yeast that don't bring out the best in the final beer. By investing an extra pound or so, you can get a genuine brewing yeast such as Nottingham, SO4 or Windsor which will add its own unique profile to your beer.
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