Saturday, December 18, 2004

Making Beer or Lager from Kits

I’ve been making my own beer/lager for a good
number of years, and I thought I’d pass on a
few tips to anyone who wishes to have a go.

What follows is meant for a UK readership,
especially in terms of what equipment is
available, and the weights used. I recommend
that you should also seek advice from your
local homebrew specialist as regards all
this, and that you must always read the
instructions that come with the kits and the
equipment (to be on the safe side and to
pre-empt anyone sueing me for giving what
might be bad advice).

There is no doubt that starting a brew off
by mashing from the grain produces better
tasting beers. However, the process takes the
best part of a day, and it involves humping
around large and very heavy volumes of liquid
(to produce a 5 gallon brew) …. back-breaking
work in my experience.

So I think the next best thing is to use top
quality beer/lager kits, for example those
made by Muntons and Brupaks in the UK. With
these you get tins of hopped malt extract
with no added sugar, and I think the results
are very good.

I think these kits are worth paying extra
money for. They cost in the region of £15-£20,
so you can get a good quality beer/lager for
about 40-50p for a pint/half litre.

You can start one of these kits going in
about 30 minutes….. so the time saving is

The process is very simple, and you can read
a lot of what follows, in the instruction
leaflets that are with the kits. Some of my
friends laugh at the lengths I go to
sterilise things (bordering on obsessive
-compulsive behaviour!), but I’ve had several
brews go sour on me in the past when I’ve not
been so careful. I don't like having to pour
a 5 gallon brew down the drain, and then
having to buy a new fermenter as well.

I would be interested to hear from you if you
have any queries or helpful suggestions.

So, this is what I do ....

1. I sterilise my equipment, the malt extract
and the priming sugar. For the equipment I
either boiling water (take care not to scald
yourself) or one of the sterilising powders.
If using the latter, follow the maker's
instructions and rinse the equipment
afterwards with lots of cold water.

2. I use a large kettleful of hot water (3-4
pints/2 litres) to start off a brew, to
dissolve the hopped malt extract in. I bring
all this up to the boil briefly (to sterilise
it) and then pour it into a sterilised 5
gallon fermenter. (Ask your home- brewing
shop to fit a tap to the bottom of the
fermenter. A tap is easier to use than a

3. Put the fermenter in a warm room in your
house, on a chair or a stool, and then fill
up the fermenter to the FOUR gallon mark
with cold tap water. When you come to clean
out the fermenter later, you’ll find the job
a lot easier if you ferment out 4 gallons
rather than 5 gallons. The initial
fermentation with these kits is very
vigorous, producing lots of frothy,yeasty
gunge, which would go all over the place,
if you were to fill up the fermenter to the
5 gallon mark).

Sprinkle the dried yeast on the top of the
brew, and put the bin lid on. Leave the bin
lid very slightly open,to allow surplus
carbon dioxide gas to escape. Leave the brew
to ferment out for at least seven days.

If you cannot keg the beer at this stage, it
is possible to keg it the next day (though
you run the risk of the beer becoming
infected in the fermentation bin). A lot of
people advise using hydrometers to check that
fermentation has been completed, and to
assess the alcohol content,(by measuring the
specific gravity of the brew before and after
fermentation, and then doing some maths). I
think hydrometer use would be advisable if
you were to bottle the beer rather than to
keg it.

Kegs have safety valves in the lids, in case
the pressure inside them becomes too high, so
it’s unlikely that they would blow up.
Over the years, I have had one or two leaks
from the tap of the keg. So it’s a good idea
to buy an extra tap with its seal to have in
the house for such emergencies.

4. I think it’s important to sterilise the
inside of the keg (and the keg lid) with
boiling water or one of the recommended
chemical cleaners. If using the latter, it’s
important to wash the keg and the keg lid
thoroughly with lots of cold water afterwards.

You need to buy a keg which allows a good
amount of carbon dioxide to build up during
secondary fermentation... a large keg. Some
years ago,I was advised to buy a Hambleton
Bard keg ... this one has a capacity of over
6 gallons (well over 25 litres). There may be
other kegs of similar size available now. You
need a good amount of carbon dioxide to keep
the beer fizzy, and you should find that you
won't need to use much carbon dioxide from a
gas cylinder during keg use.

The amount of granulated sugar to add to the
keg is about 4 oz (112g) for a 5 gallon brew.
I have tried 5 oz inthe past, but this amount
was too much.

To sterilise the sugar, dissolve it in a
small pan of water and bring it briefly to
the boil. Add this to the keg, and then add
cold tap water up to the ONE gallon mark. Now
position the keg under the tap of the
fermenter, and fill up the keg to two and a
half gallons. Move both the keg and the
fermenter to roughly the final position of
the keg - the coldest part of your house,eg
the cellar or garage. Transfer the rest of
the beer to the keg. So you now have five
gallons of beer in the keg.

Before you put the keg kid on, smear some
petroleum jelly liberally on the black rubber
ring seal of the lid and on the grooves on
the inside of the keg lid also. Put the lid
on firmly. If the seal is poor, then carbon
dioxide gas from the secondary fermentation
will escape, resulting in flat beer.

Leave the beer to ferment and settle for 2-4
weeks before starting to drink it. If left
longer, the beer tends to clear and the
flavour improve. As more sugar and residual
sugars in the beer ferment out with time, the
beer will become more bitter.

The beer will come out at high pressure
initially, so open the keg tap very slowly,
and perhaps use two pint glasses or a large
jug to obtain your first pint.

5. Clean all the gunge in the fermenter - use
plenty of cold or hot water to wash away most
of the gunge, and pour it all down the sink
or bath. As regards the yeasty scum at the
top of the fermenting bin, a good overnight
soak in water works wonders (or wetting it
repeatedly). I use a combination of wet
kitchen roll and a blunt object,eg the edge
of a fork to remove the gunge.

Storage of the fermenting bin, I often add a
little chemical sterilising powder to the bin,
plus cold water to cover the tap outlet, if
I’m storing the bin unused for ages. You can
sometimes get black mould growth inside the
fermenter if you don’t do this.

6. I use spring-top beer/lager bottles for
storage of remaining beer from the keg, when
I’ve drunk down to the last gallon or so of
beer in the keg, and when I’m ready to re-use
it for another 5 gallon brew.

These bottles can be difficult to obtain, but
I’ve found them a lot easier to use than
using ordinary beer bottles and crown corking
them with metal caps. I have used plastic
caps in the past too, but the seals were not
very good.

I sterilise the bottles (and the spring-top
lids) with boiling water, and then allow them
to cool. I also sterilise a small plastic
funnel in the same way, putting it inside a
heat-proof glass measuring jug. I sterilise a
teaspoon (for the sugar) in a low gas flame
briefly (holding the spoon with an oven
glove!), and then place the spoon in the
granulated sugar bag to cool.

Before emptying the keg, take the keg lid off
carefully - try to avoid the black ring seal
on the lid falling into the beer inside the
keg, which has happened to me a few times.

To each 500ml or pint bottle, I add HALF a
TEASPOONFUL of granulated sugar. Put this in
the funnel just before you pour in the beer
from the keg.

I usually do the bottling of the residual
beer, when I’m about to keg a new brew, so
after emptying the keg, you have to clean the
inside of the keg as best as you can, and
change the small rubber seals on the lid.
With the HB kegs, I change the red and yellow
seals each time, just before I put a new brew
in. I change the larger white seal under the
large gas inlet valve less often. I think
it’s important to sterilise the keg and its
lid each time too, before putting a new brew

Have a think about how fast you and your
friends are or will be drinking this beer, so
you can work out how soon to set another brew
going. It will take 7 days to ferment and
another 2 weeks to mature in the keg. So
perhaps it might be a good idea to buy a
second keg, so you don’t run out of beer, or
if you like throwing lots of parties for your
friends, or if you’d like an alterantive beer
to drink, instead of the same one night after

Please support your local home brewing shop,
as the number of these is shrinking owing to
competition with the supermarkets and the
internet. My local shop will do a free home
delivery if I order a large quantity of stuff,
so buy in bulk with your family and friends.
To find a local shop in the UK, try a Google
search for one of the kit manufacturers (eg
Brupak), and then search for the shops they
supply kits to.

Let me know about your favourite kits, so I
can try them out.