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Simple Things to Avoid When Kit Brewing –A.K.A. Don’t Listen to the Can!

Simple Things to Avoid When Kit Brewing –A.K.A. Don’t Listen to the Can!

Hey guys, long time watcher first time poster. This is a resource I've been working on for a while - a do/don't resource for first time kit brewers. After starting on terrible kit beers for about a year and a half it dawned on me that the advice given on the cans is the exact opposite of what you should be doing. Many kit brewers brew terrible beers when in fact, they could brew good beers with very little extra effort, just a different method. I don't brew with kits any more but this should help those that do, and much of the advice transfers to well to extract/partial and AG brews. I've put this up as a resource on the Chch homebrew club facebook, as well as the UC brew club, and am after any advice  Most of the background info comes from Brewing Network podcasts, Jamil/JP etc, but some of it is based on personal experience and inference. If anyone has any suggestions/corrections post here, but keep it simple for first time brewers (ie yeast starters etc are probably a bit advanced/an extra step of effort for most first time kit brewers).

-         AVOID LAGER AND CERVESA KITS! As a general rule, the lighter the beer, the harder it is to hide mistakes in the brewing process. Cheap lager kits (think Coopers/Black Rock Lager) have nothing much in the way of flavour (like most commercial lagers!) and even when brewed well can come out thin. Regardless of your personal drinking habits, you are better to go for fuller flavour kits: amber, brown, real and dark ales, porters, stouts and IPAs. Anything but a lager. (JR - Realbeer): When it comes to kits fresh is best.  Get them as new as possible and if it is past its use by date then use it for making starters or throw it away.


-         CLEAN THEN SANITISE EVERYTHING that’s not being boiled. What Brewtec sells as ‘No Rinse Sanitiser’ is actually a cleaner, Sodium Percarbonate. You need to soak/store your fermenter/bottles/anything-that-needs-sanitation in this solution, then sanitise with a sanitiser. Sodium Metabisulphite is the most common, but it need to dry to be effective. Iodophor or Starsan are ideal, and can be purchased from brewshop.co.nz. The four most important things to remember about good brewing are: Cleaning, Sanitation, Sanitation, Sanitation!


-         DON’T USE A WHOLE KILO OF TABLE SUGAR/DEXTROSE in the boil or in the fermenter. Too much sugar (along with hot fermentation, see below) is the primary cause of acetaldehyde (a cidery ‘bad homebrew’ off-flavour) and diacetyl. The yeast will eat the sugar first and will not properly ferment the malt. You are better off to ditch the sugar and just brew a half batch (11.5L) with kit only, or stretch it to 15L with 150g sugar. If you want to make 23L, use two kits or get some malt extract!  (JR - Realbeer): Try a 1.5kg kit with 500g light DME and 500g brew enhancer for 18.9L. 2 kits can come out too bitter because you got twice the bittering hops. 


-         BOIL YOUR KIT (ARGUABLE) in as much water as you can for at least 15mins to sterilise and dissolve the malt extract properly, in a large pot with a decent amount of headspace. Pour the extract in slowly and stir vigorously to prevent burning.  Be careful as the extract will make the pot boil over very easily. Cool the pot in the sink and top up the fermenter with cold water (preferably pre-boiled and cooled or bottled bulk 10L spring water). You want the wort to be cold (17-18C) when you pitch the yeast. If you want to skip this step to save time you can. (From JR- Realbeer:) I would boil the dry malt extract in as much water as you can (and possibly any hops you want to add) then add you actual kit at flame out.  That gives it enough heat to dissolve and kill 99.??% of bugs while not messing with any late hops that were added in the kit making process.


-         DON’T USE KIT YEAST! Fermentis S-04 (English Ale) and US-05 (American Ale) are industry standard brewing yeasts that can be purchased for +/- $5 from Bin Inn and Your Shout. They are miles ahead of the yeast that tends to come with kits, giving cleaner flavours, better fermentation and more compacted yeast cake in the bottom of the fermenter and bottles. US-05 is my personal favourite and is used for most of 8 Wired’s beers now. Spend the $5 = better beer.


-         DON’T PITCH DRY YEAST STRAIGHT INTO THE FERMENTER!  Pitching dry kills about half of your yeast cells. If you’re only using a 5 gram kit yeast pack this means you will underpitch and the yeast will struggle to start fermenting quickly = possible infection, stuck fermentation and bad beer. Always rehydrate your yeast 20 mins before pitching in boiled, cooled water (20-30C – cool in the sink). This is not as essential if you buy 11.5g Fermentis yeast packs separately, but still very worthwhile. Healthy yeast = better beer.


-         DON’T FERMENT OVER 21C! The can often says to ferment between 22-28C, with a higher temp giving a ‘faster ferment’. Fast is BAD. You actually need to ferment ale yeasts between 17-19C. Don’t bother using a heat pad if your beer is in this range, just leave it! Your beer will be better for it. In fact in most situations (apart from May-June-July) you usually want to cool your fermenter down to 18C. The cooler and more stable the fermentation, the cleaner the beer. You want to avoid spikes and drops in temperature, so sitting it in a large bucket filled with cold water in an insulated area (center of the house, broken chest freezer) is ideal. Better still, you can wrap the fermenter in a wet towel and let it wick up the water in the bottom of the bucket, the evaporation with knock a few degrees off the fermentation temperature. If it gets really hot, use a fan. 


-         DON’T STOP FERMENTING AFTER A WEEK! Yeast needs time to reabsorb the nasty by-products of fermentation, if you bottle after a week (or rack to secondary) you will remove the yeast from the wort and it will not be able to re-absorb off-flavour precursors. As a general rule, always stay in the primary fermentor for at least 2 weeks, 2 1/2 to 3 weeks if you can. A 4 week fermentation will not hurt the beer and will actually help clear and improve it. If you have a spare fridge, a 2-4 day crash cool to fridge temps (1-5C) before bottling will clear the beer still more. Secondary fermentation is not usually necessary and you risk oxidisation and contamination in transfer. Keep it simple and free up your fermenters for other brews.


-         DON’T DRINK AFTER TWO WEEKS IN THE BOTTLE! Your beer needs 3-4 weeks to properly carbonate and condition. Be patient. Keep the bottles in a warm place (hot water cupboard) if you can. The beer will continue to improve with time (hoppy flavours and aromas will start to drop off after a few months, however). Fridge for 24 hrs to better settle the beer, then decant slowly and steadily into a jug, leaving the yeast and about 1 cm of beer at the bottom.

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You said that boiling the kit was arguable and here is the argument.  I would boil the malt extract and your sugar in as much water as you can (and possibly any hops you want to add) then add you actual kit at flame out.  That gives it enough heat to dissolve and kill 99.??% of bugs while not messing with any late hops that were added in the kit making process.


Also when it comes to kits fresh is best.  Get them as new as possible and if it is past its use by date then use it for making starters or throw it away.


As for the sugar I go half light DME and half sugar/dextrose.  2 kits can come out too bitter because you got twice te bittering hops.


Like Mike says - You can get good beer out of a kit, but only if you dont follow the instructions on the can!


p.s I got a silver medal @ NHC for a special bitter made from a can


Good points! Will add to the file. The only thing I would add is you would be better to boil the DME in the first step, then add the +/-500g of sugar in boiled cooled water post-fermentation. 

mmmm not sure about that.  English and esp. Belgian brewers stick sugar in their beer all the time and it seems to ferment out ok.  The only time I have heard of feeding the yeast sugar at the end of fermentation is the dogfish 120 where they are wanting to add a whole lot of sugar. I have heard the logic you are using being applied to yeast starters where feeding the yeast all sugar and no malt is bad for the yeasts ability to eat maltose but I dont think that applies where there is only 500g of sugar is used with 1.5kg - 2.5kg of malt.  Every brewer does it different though so if you think it helps stick with it.

Yes, I agree, sugar is used to style in strong Belgians and strong IPAs, but this is a resource for first time kit brewers. This link has a great discussion on the topic: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f14/adding-sugar-your-beer-not-going-ma... Basically, if your beer is strong (over 6% ABV) a sugar addition of 15% of the fermentables isn't going to hurt, and in fact is often to style (as is the case with Belgians).

Jamil Zainasheff recommends for Belgians to use even higher ratios of sugar (up to 20%) but stipulates that the sugar be added post fermentation. This is for the same reason that you state with starter above, the yeast ferments the sucrose/dextrose first, and subsequent generations have difficulty fermenting maltose. It's not that they DON'T ferment the maltose, it is that they are stressed more than they need to be. I would agree that 500g in 2.5kg of malt is not going to have a huge effect (16.6% sugar) but 500g sugar in 1.5kg of malt is 25% and there is a risk of affecting the beer (esp. if it's low bodied/ABV to begin with, as most kits are). You can minimise this risk simply by holding back the sugar until fermentation is mostly complete. If you can find the Jamil show where he talks about this, the logic is basically like "very little extra work for a better fermented beer".

Of course, it sounds like you have had good results with 500g sugar, and with good fermentation control I see no reason why you wouldn't. It sounds like a good compromise. But as a general rule for first time kit brewers, using low gravity, low flavour kits I would say to avoid a kilo of sugar. Would you think it is too much effort for a first time kit brewer to boil up a pot of 300-500g sugar later? Great to finally have a dialogue with someone about this!

Although, for 23L 1.5kg of kit and 500g of DME (before adding brew enhancer) yields 1.026 OG, which is quite low. Ideally I'd think you'd want it around starter wort OG - 1.032-1.040 to pitch the yeast into for maximum health. Changing the volume to 18.9L/5 gallons fixes this up to 1.032 though, 1.042 with the sugar, so a perfect 4% quaffer. Maybe the guide should include a stipulation, if you want to do a full batch with a 1.5kg kit instead of 11.5/15L with 300g sugar, brew 18.9L with 500g of DME and 500g of sugar. 

Added your (paraphrased) addition to the Sugar section.

I brew mostly belgian beers. Almost all of them have copious amounts of sugar. I have mostly added them during the boil and never had a problem with them fermenting out. I dont see much point in doing so unless doing a seriously high gravity beer (>13%)

As above, Belgian beers are a style in which high levels of sugar are permitted. Usually these styles are +6/7 ABV  or higher and have big malt bills, so the sugar is less than 20% of the fermentables (say, an 8% Belgian can have a full kilo of sugar and that's only 16% of the fermentables). Again the Brewing Network podcasts still recommend adding the sugar 3-5 days after pitching, even in big Belgians. I can't see any disadvantage to doing this. I wish I had the link but I'm sure I'll find it soon enough. Anyway, with a 1.5kg kit you are only getting about 1.020 or so OG for 23L (the standard kit advised volume) with just the kit (based on hopville calculations). If you add a kilo of sugar, that's 40% of the fermentables. This beer will be thin, because it doesn't have the malt backbone of a big, all grain, heavy belgian to support the sugar, and also the sugar will ferment very fast, probably causing a spike in temperature with the kit brewers lack of temperature control (or worse, active heatpad!). This spike in temperature will create all the off-flavours kit brewers are familiar with. After eating up the sugar, the yeast is now not in a good position to ferment the maltose, although it will, as you say, ferment out. The main problem is that the yeast is not in the best health, which combined with the usual poor quality of most kit yeasts, the small 5g packets, and a 5-7 day fermentation as stated on the can, is a recipe for bad beer.

To repeat the homebrewtalk forum post above "If you carefully balance your recipe, pitch the necessary amount of healthy yeast, and control your fermentation temperatures (all three which you should be doing anyway), adding sugar to your beer will NOT result in it tasting "cidery." First time kit brewers usually don't do any of these three things: their recipe isn't balanced because they're using 1.5kg low flavour lager/otherwise kits which give 1.020 of maltose, they use 40-50% sugar (often unboiled and unsterilised), their yeast is unhealthy due to age, poor strain selection, tiny 5g packets and pitching dry and their fermentation temperatures fluctuate between 20-28C - then they bottle after 6 days as instructed! Even if they eliminated the yeast and fermentation variables (which takes money and gear) the 40-50% sugar is still making their beers thin as they can't control their malt (unless they steep specialty malt, but I would argue base malt is what is needed, which requires a partial mash...not really in the first time kit brewers reach, and often expensive besides if they buy the overpriced coppertun stuff...). This is the logic behind putting less sugar in after fermentation. Of course, I'm open to suggestions. Maybe I should put the reasoning in the guide...keen to keep it simple though. Basically, there's no disadvantage to adding the sugar 4-5 days after, and considerable potential pitfalls to adding large percentages (+15/20%) in the boil. So why not tell kit brewers to play it safe?

Considering the vast array of brewing no no's you are considering this brewing noob perpetrating, I dont think the timing of the sugar will make a lick of difference.

And..once again, considering the noobness we are working with, I would think that the potential of infection and oxidation added by them opening up the fermeter (possibly multiple times to stare at it and ponder if now is the right time) far outweighs the supposed effect of yeast starting out on simple sugars.

Now, the theory is that if yeast start with simple sugars, as they bud etc they will no longer be able to process the longer chain sugars. Thus lowering the attenuation.

However, I have not found this to be the case in even very high gravity belgian quads. 

And yes, this does assume you are using good brewing techniques and recipe formulation and fermentation control. 

Now... I am assuming that you want to formulate the guide to steer our beloved noob away from the usual pitfalls. Good! :) And one of the pitfalls is the redonkulous amount sugar they use. As you have recommended, I often suggest they leave the 1kg of sugary stuff and do a half volume batch. Or to use much less sugar, say 20% max in a light beer. Assuming they listen to this, then it doesnt matter where they put the sugar in. 

The way i see it, the less chances you provide for infection and oxidation to occur, the better.

My garage has so much wild yeast and bugs floating around, if i leave wort in my sample cylinder overnight, it will have full krausen in the morning.  So... I don't open things unless i need to. I think that's good practice in general.

Good guide though! Keep it up

Edit: Just read the bit above about the sugar stressing the yeast. If i recall correctly, the yeast book says that some of the yeast simply cant ferment the more complex sugar. I guess this might put more stress on the yeast that  still can....

I think the podcast you recall was for Belgian Golden Strong. He gave that technique to achieve higher attenuation and get a dryer beer. I dont think he mentioned stress.

But once again though...I havent had a problem with my belgians finishing too high.

On a side note... I try and stress my belgian yeast a bit to get more esters out of them :) Mostly by underpitching

To each his own i guess

Ah yea that's a really good point, opening the fermenter is the biggest flaw in this plan (I had a chuckle at the "stare and ponder" line, I can just imagine... :D). And infection/oxidation etc is a much larger problem overall for newbie brewers. Possibly outweighing, as you say, the minimal effects of a small amount of sugar added in the boil. Still, the risk of opening of the fermenter applies for dryhopping etc as well, and a beer that has already fermented is LESS likely (still likely :P) with ph/alcohol etc to get infected from opening the fermenter for a few seconds than fresh wort. I still go back to Jamil's advice, maybe I'm a fanboy, but yea... Then again, you're right, the point is to keep things simple, a blanket ban/minimum percentage of sugar is simpler than the post fermentation method. This kind of perspective is exactly what I'm after, cheers! 

Yeah i dig Jamil. I think i have listened to every single jamil show and brew strong they have released. read classic styles and yeast.

feeding sugar is definitely a tool in your brewing toolbox. But i think its more important for those seriously high gravity brews. 

Yea I think it was Golden Strong too. And yea, that's what I was meaning by yeast stress. But anyway, I've deleted the post-boil advice and enforced a 10% maximum sugar limit in the boil. This works out to 150gm in the 15L batch with the 1.5kg kit. Considering my old man used to brew 4L brews with a 150gm sugar and only a cup of extract I think that's an improvement!


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