How-To Brew Beer

There are 3 main types of brewing, and each has it's own merits and complexities:

Extract & Grains

This is my favourite way to brew. It's easy and lets you brew whatever beer you desire. This is the brewing style that was designed for.

Basically, you use Malt Extract to make up the majority of the fermentable part of you recipe and add speciality grains as the remainder. Your choice of speciality grains determines the flavour and colour of the final beer (along with hops and yeast).

This is actually the same as all-grain brewing, except that the Base malt in a recipe is replaced with malt extract instead. The amount of physical grain used is reduced, meaning you can brew with smaller equipment and can avoid (or minimise) the effort and time spent on mashing and sparging.

One downside is that you do not get to control the mashing of the base grain and must rely on the malster's skill. For some brewers that means losing control of one one of the most important brewing steps, but for this brewer it means ease of brewing and allows me to brew a lot, experimenting with different speciality grains, hops and yeasts!

Malt Extract is malt that has been mixed with water (mashed) to extract the sugars and then concentrated, typically by boiling under vacuum. Malt extract is available as a liquid or as a dry powder these are known as Liquid Malt Extract (LME) or Dry Malt Extract (DME) respectively. DME has a higher proportion of sugars because LME contains about 20% water. On the practical front, LME is usually available in 1.5kg tins and any leftover is difficult to store.

For example, this is a recipe for Sam Smith's Nut Brown Ale:

The only difference is the use of 2.53kg of DME to replace the 4.5kg Pale Malt in the all-grain recipe. The projected outcome for both recipes is the same mathematically, although taste could vary, but that's largely due to the brewer. The Extract recipe will be much easier to brew. It requires less equipment and time because you don't need to conduct a full 45-60 minute mash and sparge of 4.73kg of grain – instead you just steep the grains (227g) in water, directly in the kettle for 20 mins then boil and add the DME. That saves you some time, but the saving in effort from having less equipment to clean and sanitise makes it so much more enjoyable; unless you like cleaning.

Kit & Kilo

This is the easiest form of brewing and the one many brewers started with, often from being given a kit on father's day, or being a poor student.

The “Kit” usually comprises a can of liquid malt extract that the manufacturer has already added hops to, and a packet of dried yeast under the plastic lid on the can. You then buy a “Kilo” of sugar and you're ready to go. Sometimes a sachet of additional hops is provided though these can be quite old and may be even stale.

Brewing only requires you to boil the can's contents with the sugar, pour it into a fermenter, top up with water and then add the yeast once cooled. In a couple of weeks time you will have beer ready to bottle.

This is an almost foolproof way to make cheap beer – only your cleanliness can let you down. Unfortunately it usually makes fairly mediocre beer and can give homebrew a bad reputation. This can be made worse if the instructions hint that a warmer fermentation will produce your beer sooner.

So is it possible to make OK beer from a Kit & Kilo? Yes! Just make these changes:

  1. Do not use sugar! Go to your local homebrew shop (or go online) and buy a kilo of Dry Malt Extract (DME). This is a powdered extract made from malted barley that has the same properties as sugar that will ferment into a much nicer tasting beer. It's not expensive and the results will be worth it. Save the sugar for priming bottles to make your beer fizzy or baking biscuits.

  2. Throw away the yeast that came under the lid and replace it with a new sachet of brewers yeast from your local homebrew shop. That yeast was designed to survive a nuclear war and ferment anything it can. The manufacturers know it could sit on store shelves for months in direct sunlight and try to ensure it will still be viable, so they select a very strong strain to avoid disappointing the novice brewer. Yeast strains are actually quite sensitive and need to be treated right to avoid producing off flavours. You will learn that yeast choice is one of the key choices in making different beer styles.

  3. Be patient and don't try to speed things up. Resist the temptation to ferment at a warm temperature, even though you planned a party on Saturday. That makes the yeast produce the really odd flavours, like burnt rubber. It's actually better to find somewhere cool for your fermenting beer and that way you will get a much cleaner tasting beer. For lager you actually want a cold fermentation around 10C followed by a few weeks at 0 to 1C. So no lager for Saturday's party sorry. If someone has given you a lager kit, I suggest that you replace the lager yeast with an ale yeast. It will be easier to ferment without refrigeration and will be ready much sooner with agreeable results.

Alternatively, if you want the ease of a kit with none of the worries above, get yourself a wort “cube” from your local homebrew shop. These are large cubic plastic bottles containing a slightly concentrated beer wort made by a professional brewer. You pour it into a fermenter with additional water and add the yeast the shop provided. Again ferment it in a cool place, and you will make good beer.

All Grain Brewing

This is the most natural way to brew as you are working with grains directly and have full control of all aspects.

It also requires a lot of equipment and knowledge on the part of the brewer, and for that reason it is too complex to describe here. You can find many excellent guides online, including YouTube videos of other brewer's equipment.

I recommend that you research the BIAB (Brew-In-A-Bag) method for your first all-grain attempt. That uses only a single kettle for the mash and the boil.

The HopWort recipe calculator works for all-grain recipes and you search the BrewDB for "biab" to find recipes.

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