I just bottled my first batch of home brew the other night, a lager made from a kit – Mangroves Jacks Munich Lager. Actually technically it is probably an ale as it was brewed with ale yeast but as long as it tastes good who cares what it’s called. And I have tasted it, and I can tell you that even at this premature stage it actually tastes quite nice. I even had a glass of it while I was bottling and I’ve also tasted all my hydrometer samples – yum! Definitely an incentive to take lots of readings. After the bottles have carbonated and conditioned for a few weeks, I’ll get to taste the final product. If it tastes this good already, I reckon it should be pretty damn good by then!
Brewing from a kit is very easy but there are so many different ways of doing things that it can get confusing, especially for a beginner with a perfectionist streak who wants to get the best results. You can follow the simple instructions that come with the kit and they are designed to be the easiest possible instructions. But then if you start reading up on how to brew you will find lots of advice telling you that following the kit instructions exactly will not give you the the best result. Most brewing experts are of the opinion that the kit instructions are just designed to be a simple as possible and give you beer as quickly as possible but at a compromise to quality. A few little extra steps and give it a little more time they say, and you will get a better tasting beer. That all sounds fair enough to me and I’m interested in making a better beer but the confusion arises when you read conflicting instructions. Like whether or not to rehydrate your yeast, what temperature to pitch it at, what temperature to ferment at, what sanitizer to use, or how to use finings, etc.
Resources that helped me
There is a wealth of information available on the internet and I’ve scoured a lot of it. At this point, my three main sources of information and help in trying to figure this stuff out are:
The CraigTube videos are great demonstrations of how to brew the kits pretty much according to the kit instructions and Craig takes time to answer questions posted in the comments sections. Also his enthusiasm for home brewing is contagious.
John Palmer‘s book is considered the definitive beginner brewers book and it has a lot of detailed information that will give you a good knowledge of what is happening in the brewing process. But the type of brewing covered is a bit of a step up from basic kit brewing – brewing with unhopped extract. He does mention the kits and makes a point of saying to ignore the instructions that come with the kit and follow his to get a better beer. Interestingly, in a recent podcast, Palmer discusses kit beer and raves about the quality of beer that can be made from a kit.
Home Brew Talk is a very active online forum for all levels of home brewers. There are lots of home brewing forums but Home Brew Talk appears to be the biggest and best of them. I turned to that forum more than a few times to find some answers and to ask a few questions of my own.
How I made my first batch
I started my batch out according to the instructions that came with the kit. Just sanitize the fermentor and other equipment, warm the can to loosen the syrup, mix boiling water, beer enhancer and syrup in the fermentor, top up with cold water, add lid and airlock and leave it to ferment. The next morning the airlock was bubbling and all appeared well.
My first worry
I got a bit concerned when the airlock activity died off after 2 days. I checked the hydrometer reading and it was down to 1.016 already. I wasn’t expecting that to happen and wondered if something was not quite right, so I turned to CraigTube for advice. Craig reassured me that it wasn’t unusual and told me to just leave it until day 7 before checking it again. His words of wisdom: “Try not to treat it like a new born. It knows what to do.” I did check it on day 5, couldn’t resist, and SG was at 1.018. What the hell, it had actually gone up! I didn’t worry about it too much and the fact that the sample tasted good was reassuring, so I just put it down to margin of error. But I was slightly concerned that it was a bit off from the final target of around 1.010. Anyway I was chatting to my mate Andy who, by coincidence, got into home brewing at the same time as me and had brewed the exact same kit a few weeks prior. He suggested bringing the temperature up a bit and giving the beer a bit of a swirl to get things going again so that’s what I did. The temperature had actually dropped from 24C to 18C as the weather suddenly cooled down. So I brought in a portable heater to warm the room up and brought the fermentor temp back up to around 24C. Next day I noticed an occassional bubble coming from the air lock. The SG reading was 1.015, going the right direction, but 2 days later I tested it at 1.018 again. Oh well, could be temperature differences, and/or lack of uniformity within the fermentor or maybe just user error.
A little extra time and cold crashing
After reading Palmer’s book I decided it sounded like a good idea to leave it 2 weeks in fermentor before bottling instead of the 1 week instructed by the kit. I took a few more hydrometer readings and at day 13 it was at 1.014 and on day 14 I measured 1.012. I was ready to bottle, or so I thought. There was a packet of gelatin finings with the kit and instructions were to drop them straight in just prior to bottling. But after checking my knowledge sources, those instructions did not tie in at all with anything else that I read about how to use gelatin finings. The usual way is to mix with hot water first, then add to fermentor and leave for around 5 days. I wondered why the instructions were so totally different, that had me confused so I turned to Home Brew Talk for help. The conclusion I’ve come to is that the idea of the kit instructions approach is to help the yeast drop out in the bottles but I figured it would be better to have as much sediment as possible drop out in the fermentor so I decided to go with the more usual approach. In my impatience I didn’t like the idea of waiting a further 5 days but in the thread I started I found out about something called ‘cold crashing’. Cold crashing is just helping clear your beer by chilling it and the recommend time combined with use of finings is 1 day with finings plus 2 more days at a cold temperature. Since I already had my fermentor in a spare fridge it was very handy for me to do. So I bottled on the 18th day.
Bottling at last
Bottling is quite enjoyable once the sanitation part is out of the way. I sanitized the bottles with sodium metabisulfite. That stuff is a bit of a pain because your supposed to let the sanitized items air dry for an hour. I left them dry for an hour but they were still droplets in the bottles but I carried on anyway. In future I gotta get me some of that Star San that everyone raves about, no waiting around for things to dry. As I bottled I noticed that the beer was quite clear – the finings and cold crashing seemed to have worked well. When I got to the bottom of the bucket there seemed to be quite a bit of beer left. The spigot has a sediment reducer, an opening that faces upwards. It makes it harder to get the beer at the bottom and there was still quite a bit of good beer there. So I tilted the bucket to get some more of it and try and fill up the large bottle that I had just started filling. Because of the sediment reducer I had to rock the bucket back and forth to get the beer to come out, this stirred up the sediment and that last bottle was very cloudy. I marked it ‘dregs’ but I needn’t have bothered as it’s pretty obvious just by looking at it. I’ll save that one for someone special.
One problem I ran into in the bottling process was disolving the sugar tablets in the bottles. They would not dissolve easily and were sticking to the bottom of the bottles. I think it’s probably because I was bottling chilled beer. Next time I’ll mix some sugar solution directly into the fermentor instead.
As I mentioned, I have already tasted the beer and despite it being premature for tasting it actually tasted nice. But the real taste test will come in a few more weeks. I plan to leave it at room temperature for 2 weeks for carbonation. 1 week is what the kit states but I’ll leave mine an extra week to be on the safe side since I’d guess that mine has a lower yeast count due to cold crashing it. Then another week to cold condition in the bottles. The cool thing is that my mate Andy made the same beer so we can do a side by side comparison. He followed the instructions exactly and I tried out a few deviations – longer time in fermentor, clarification in fermentor, cold crash. So it should give us an idea if those deviations actually make much difference.
- Don’t worry about lack of airlock activity after 2 days
- Leave beer 2 weeks in fermentor instead of 1
- Hydrometer readings can go up and down a bit, don’t sweat
- If fermentation stops prematurely you might get it going again by bringing the temp up a few degrees
- Use of finings combined with cold crashing can speed up clarification of the beer
- Switch to a fast acting sanitizer like Star San
- Carbonation drops don’t work well if you’ve cold crashed
On to the next batch
I got my second batch going last night, an IPA, and some new complications arose, I’ll let you know what happened and how I dealt with it in my next post.