..from kits, for beginners:
(c) 2016, Davd

The one alcoholic beverage we can fairly call nourishing. The one we are most attracted to after an active day’s work or play. The one we can drink, not sip, without getting disabled. The one that goes with smoked salmon sandwiches or pretzels, ham and salad on a mellow Saturday afternoon.

Martin Luther once wrote that a pastor’s wife should know how to make beer. Apparently, the pastor himself was likely to be called away to a sickbed, choir rehearsal, wedding, or whatever; and the wife (at least in Luther’s time and place) more certain to be home when the beer needed tending. Plainly, the founder of Protestant Christianity did not consider beer drinking sinful; rather a normal companion to a good meal, and an important part of hospitality.

I agree—and I’m fortunate not to need to know how to make beer. I can buy a kit whose directions are simple, set aside some out-of-the-way space for the beer to ferment and then to age, spend less than five minutes per bottle doing work which is as pleasant as knitting or fly-tying, and wind up with better beer than the best-selling brands you find in stores.

A kit which makes 40-45 pints [equal to 55-60 12-ounce beer bottles] costs me C$15-18 [about U$ 14-$15] and to bring the alcohol to the Canadian standard of 5.5% takes a kilo of added sugar, which costs me about $1. For less than $20 [U$ 13-16] I get an amount of beer that would cost me $75 or more for average beer or well more than $100 for the quality the better kits make.

In this first beer-kit blog, i’ll cover the starting of a first batch; aiming to give you a good sense of what to expect as you start 23 litres [5 US gallons] of kit beer.  After a week to ten days, i plan to post a second blog on bottling the beer, priming it so it will carbonate, and starting another batch the same day.

The brewing and bottling takes me 2-4 hours, and I’d spend at least half that amount of time going to the store, taking back the empties, and so-forth if I bought my beer. So for an hour or two of work I save $45-85 on beer. The last time I got pay that good I had to pay over a third of it to the Government… a penny saved is at least equal to a cent and a half, earned, because there’s no tax on work done for yourself.

The key to making beer, even more than when making wine, is starting at the right temperature and holding that temperature until your fermentation is going fast-and-furious. I found that out reading the directions to a Cooper’s beer kit [from Australia] and since my beer had been reliably good with their kits, I nearly always used Cooper’s until i came to Alberta1. I especially liked their Stout, amber [“real”] and dark ales. Other folks may prefer a different brand of kits; it is, after all, a matter of taste.

The directions in three brands of kit I’ve liked are clear and simple: Heat the malt syrup, pour it into a clean sterilized fermenter, add sugar [the directions will say how much] to make the final alcohol level meet your taste; and water to make a total volume of [usually, 23 litres, or 5 US gallons]. The kits contain hop extract already mixed into the malt syrup; so all that’s left to do is add the yeast the kit also contains, and stir gently.  Once you get used to things, that is; read on and it should help you get used to things.

The concentrated malt syrup in the kit is at least as thick as molasses, so to pour it, you need to heat it. I take the label off the container, lay it on its side in a big cooking pot, and cover it with water; then heat the pot on the stove.

While heating the malt syrup, clean the carboy2 if it’s not clean already, and sterilize it with bleach and water—one fifth bleach is plenty and one tenth ought to do in a clean container.  Swirl the solution around so it touches all the inside surfaces of the huge bottle, and then leave it in the bottom, with a stopper in the bottle’s neck or a clean plastic bag held over the top with a rubber band [a small drinking glass upside down over the top, etc.. will do.].

When the bleach solution has been worked all over the inside of the carboy, and has sat there for ten minutes or longer, then pour it into a jar, even an old plastic food container, and cover with a lid. It can still be used to soak a rag, usually a dishrag, to sterile-clean surfaces such as where you just sliced a piece of meat or butchered a fish.

Just before you start filling the carboy, when the malt is getting hot enough to pour, get a really clean glass jar [the ones that commercial pasta sauce come in, do fine, or one-litre pickle jars] fill it maybe half full with clean water that’s just warm, not hot, to your little finger or your cheek; sprinkle the yeast on top of that, and cover. The yeast will “wake up” while you’re putting the malt and water into the carboy.

I start by putting the sugar [1 kg with most kits] into the carboy, dry; then i add some cool to warm water, so that when the hot syrup hits the bottom of the carboy it gets cooled some, to reduce heat shock to the carboy. An inch deep seems to be enough; two inches, plenty for sure.

Then pour the syrup in, through the funnel with the largest bottom opening, that will sit well in the neck of the carboy. (Rubber gloves or a ‘pot holder’ will help protect your hand from the heat.)  It will be a slow process, and probably seem even slower than it is. When the can of syrup is empty except for what clings to the metal, fill that can with warm to hot water, swirl gently [or it will spill some of the water], and pour that water-syrup mixture through the funnel into the carboy. Two rinsings of the can should get it and the funnel not totally clean of syrup, but close.

Pick up the carboy and swirl it around so the syrup, sugar, and water mix together. You don’t need to get them perfectly mixed, but try to get close. Then when you fill the carboy, you’ll be filling it with wort ready for the yeast, not water with over-concentrated sugar and malt at the bottom.

If you use a 23-litre fermenter, as I have done lately, don’t fill it full right at the start. Allow two inches or more of airspace for when your fermentation is going fast-and-furious; because when it is, that airspace can fill with bubbles.

As you’re filling the fermenter with water, keep track of the temperature. I simply tape a thermometer to the outside of the vessel — duct tape works, clear office tape should let you read the thermometer through it — and add more or less hot water according to what it reads. The syrup will be fairly hot when you pour it in (if it’s not hot it won’t pour); and you’ll probably use pretty hot water to rinse out the last of the syrup from the can—and into the fermenter. So your first several litres or quarts of water after rinsing should be “Cold”. It’s worth waiting a couple minutes when you’re past half full, to check the temperature and figure out how much cold and hot to put in to get a full temperature of 21-27 [70-80F]. (Cover the carboy top while waiting, with something clean. You don’t want flies of any size or species to get inside!)

When the fermenter is almost up to 23 litres [or a decent airspace less if its capacity is 23] and the temperature is between 21-27 [70-80 Fahrenheit], add the yeast that has been softening in warm water3 and let it gradually mix with the wort.

When the yeast has been added, put on a fermentation-lock and set the fermenter in a relatively clean place with the right temperature. In the winter I cover the fermenter with a “tent” of fabric [a clean bedsheet, light window curtain or  light blanket will do] and put a bit of heating cable inside [wrapped around the carboy or the edges of a short piece of 2×3 lumber]. A lightbulb in a metal bowl, pie pan, or steaming basket inside the tent will also work. Turn the heat on when the temperature dips near 21/[70 F].

In the summer, if a room’s temperature can go above 27/[80 F] for more than a few hours of the day, put the brew in a different room. The most important rules for making good kit beer are STERILIZING and HOLD THAT TEMPERATURE.

So when you’ve started that first batch of beer, and the fermentation lock is protecting the sterilizing you’ve done—keep it at or above 20C [68F] and below 30C, preferably at or below 28. If you let your dwelling cool below 18C at night, and cool room temperature is good for your sleep, you probably should cover the carboy with something that makes a tent shape with the fermentation lock at the top. Inside that, you can heat with an old fashioned 25-40 watt light bulb in a metal or ceramic cup or bowl, a piece of heating cable such as is used to keep water pipes from freezing—something that puts out mild electric heat.

A week or two later the airlock will stop working and the wort will be beer, ready to bottle. By that time you should have enough bottles ready, to put it in.

I bottle most of my beer in plastic “pint” bottles made for home brewing. They take the same screw-on caps that fit plastic pop bottles, which means you can use caps from pop bottles if you find “topless” ones at a garage sale—which is where I found mine. I like to have at least nine dozen pint bottles. Nine dozen hold about two-and-a-half batches of beer, which allows you to have a batch fermenting, a batch carbonating, a batch ageing, and a batch you’re drinking. When the batch I’m drinking is half gone I should bottle the batch that has been fermenting and start a new batch brewing… the combination of which two tasks i call “cycling the beer.”

If you like to have two or more kinds of beer to choose from, you’ll want to have more bottles.

(In theory, I’d like to put up all my beer in those heavy glass European bottles with cam-action ceramic-and-rubber stoppers. I usually include at least two one litre bottles like that, and one smaller one, when i bottle—you’ll see why in the next post. Meanwhile, it is a real improvement on going to the beer store, to have a case or two of pints right home, and another batch

Plastic pints fit neatly into boxes holding 18 or 24 pints; and when I refer to boxes further on, these are the boxes I mean. If you get your bottles without boxes, take the trouble to find some kind of cardboard or wooden boxes that will hold [any number between about 10 and 40] of your bottles. Then you can make a neat stack of beers where they sit to carbonate, and in the cellar or other cool place where they age; and the handling will be less bother than with store beer.]

The cam-action stoppers on glass bottles, and screw-cap plastic pints, are handiest. If i only want half a pint of beer, I can re-cap the bottle and put it in the ‘fridge; and it will keep a day or two. Usually I finish the pint before I finish the day. When I first started making kit beer, I filled several two-litre pop bottles each batch. This worked, and for having guests over the size was OK, but for one or two people, there’s a serious risk of letting some beer go flat. Now, unless I plan to give some of a batch to guests on a known coming occasion, I bottle entirely to pints, or to mostly pints and a few 1-litre bottles. The pints sit neatly in their 18- or 24-bottle cases and are easier to handle than 2-litres, except for the actual filling and priming.

One way or another, have enough bottles, capable of holding pressure, ready to hold that beer you’ve started to make. I plan to post the bottling technique, and the benefits of “cycling” a next batch of beer into the carboy that same day, in a week or ten days.


1. In Alberta, the water is harder than in Coastal BC, Northern Ontario, or New Brunswick; and i’ve found that “Beer Maker” kits whose labels say they are manufactured in the UK to the specifications of a Calgary firm, produce quite good beer, especially Pilsener of those i’ve tried, Cooper’s “real ale”, which performed well in those other locations, didn’t seem quite as good “on the Prairies”. Cooper’s Stout made up fine—i don’t know the chemistry involved well enough to say why.

2. the word “carboy” denotes a honkin’ big bottle with a neck say, between one and two inches in diameter. I’ll use the word interchangeably with “fermenter” in this text. How it came to mean neither a car nor a boy but a very large bottle?—ask a librarian, if you’re that curious.

3. You can sprinkle the powdered yeast on top of the “wort”, as the solution is called when the water has mixed with the malt syrup and sugar, and let it soften and settle through the wort, without pre-softening. Pre-softening makes the fermentation start a little faster, and more certainly.

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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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