Brewing Beer – Getting Started
We started with the query “how to brew beer” and got six Google Shopping ads showing brewing kits ranging from $49.99 to $7,900. These results may change over time but that’s a tremendous range, so where do you start? We’ve put in the time for you, so unless you want to invest the next few hours figuring it out, just continue reading for a few minutes.
The first organic listing was for the American Homebrewers Association and we thought this was a great place to start. So we joined. We’ll let you know if membership in the association is a worthwhile investment of time and money. We thought with initials that spelled “AHA!” we might be able to learn a thing or two, right! Just exploring the links returned by our first query on the first two pages, we learned we can get started at any level from almost zero investment of time and money to nustso-crazy-over-the-top jumping into the deep end.
We opted for the somewhere-in-between method pretty close to “almost zero investment” for our first foray into the world of brewing beer and ordered the Mr. Beer Craft Homebrew Gold Kit. After a couple hours of reading about brewing in general and comparing & contrasting the features and benefits of different starter kits, we thought the shortest distance between spending a few bucks and drinking our own beer was the Mr. Beer kit. We’ll try other starter kits too and let you know how they compare. Even though we found it annoying that the first 500 links or so for the Mr. Beer branded term are for Amazon and Ebay (we dislike monster monopolies that peddle cheap and disposable over quality and value), still we went directly to the Mr. Beer site to make our purchase because we were looking for cheap and easy.
The kit cost $72.90 including $7.95 shipping, and came quickly with a DVD that made our first batch completely idiot-proof. We sanitized the parts and our utensils and mixed up our first batch in 30 minutes or so. OKAY… OKAY we admit this kit is hardly “brewing beer” and more like just mixing a few things together and waiting for beer to “happen.” Our research ahead of time taught us about the entire process and all of the variables involved in doing everything from scratch. Ultimately, we will engage in every step of making beer from growing grains and hops to bottling the beer and everything in between, but we thought it prudent to wade in cautiously and inexpensively in the beginning. We especially thought it would be a good idea to have plenty of inspiration (beer on hand) while we learn how to do it better and cheaper over time.
The Mr. Beer kit we bought came with two different “hopped malt extracts” for making two batches of different styles of beer. We started with the Czech Pilsner extract and found the entire process very simple. The extract is a thick sweet syrup and enables you to skip all of the most challenging details and jump ahead straight to letting the wort and yeast ferment for the required amount of time.
After waiting the prescribed 2 weeks while our first batch fermented and clarified in the “little brown keg” as this kit is also known, we tested a sample and found it tasted like flat beer with a slight green-apple taste. The DVD specifically mentioned that the green apple-taste was normal and would subside with age. It mentioned also not to worry about a slight “yeasty” flavor that would subside with age as well, but we didn’t taste much yeast.
The DVD cautions that if the sample tastes sweet, it is not quite done and recommends checking to see if the temperature isn’t a bit too cold. The ideal temperature range is between 68-76° F (20-24° C). Ours tasted like flat beer, which they said means it’s bottling day. Our first batch was done in the early winter when we keep the house temp at about 68° F. and that seemed to work just fine for us. As we progress, we will plan to dedicate some closet space so that we can keep it a bit warmer without the expense of raising the temp of the whole house.
The bottling process was simple too. After sanitizing the bottles and caps, we used the plastic spigot that comes with the kit to fill the bottles directly. The DVD explains the sanitizing process and suggests the use of a hose and bottling wand to make bottling easier. We happen to have those things on hand from our wine making equipment, but we went without to simulate the cheapest possible set-up, using only what comes with the starter kit. After the first bottle or two we found it was easier to get a precise fill after we determined exactly where the plastic spigot turns on and off, instead of trying to rotate it the full 180 degrees that it will go to be fully on or fully off.
Carbonation comes from adding what they call “carbo drops” to the bottles before filling. Again, we realize that these factory-made carbonation drops take a lot of the work out of the process that makes brewing more of an art form than a precisely metered recipe, but our purpose was to keep it simple and cheap. We’ll be swimming in the deep end soon enough and didn’t want to leave out any of the steps in experiencing the world of home brewing from completely idiot-proof to full-on brewing world champion. We’ll be trying other starter kits to see how they compare.
Developing full carbonation in the bottles takes 2-3 weeks at the same temperature range as before, 68-76° F (20-24° C). The instructions also explain that the plastic bottles enable you to feel the bottles getting hard as the pressure increases, so give them a squeeze when you first bottle the beer to get a feel for how hard they are at the start. Our first batch felt comparatively hard after 2 weeks so we figured we were ready to move them to the fridge for final aging before they were ready to drink.
Each 750ml bottle holds about 2 beers and we got a little antsy, so we decided to try one after only 2 days in the fridge. The Czech Pilsner tasted crisp and light with fine carbonation like champagne that we hoped would develop a little stronger carbonation after the recommended 2 weeks cold aging in the fridge. Then again, if it is a kind of secondary fermentation that continues in the bottles to create the carbonation, then we are not expecting much change in the carbonation over time as the cold temp will halt any further fermentation. After only 2 days in the fridge, we still detected a slight amount of the green-apple flavor we tasted at bottling time, but it was less distinct and actually tasted pretty good.
Note that some sediment is likely in the bottom of each bottle. The DVD explains that this “small amount of live yeast” is okay and will help the flavor continue to develop over time. Having forgotten about the sediment, we poured the last of the bottle into a relatively small sample glass and thought that the dregs did not detract at all from the flavor and may have even improved it a bit in this particular instance. We’ll pay attention to that in the future too to see if we can detect differences and report back in case you want to jump ahead to what you think will be your preference. However, as a part of our effort to live as fully consciously as we can and part of our preference for playing with our food and drink, we highly recommend doing some experimenting on your own for an added dimension of pleasure and reward.
At the end of 2 weeks in the fridge the carbonation seemed about the same. The carbonation was perhaps a bit light, but then again a Czech Pilsner would have lighter carbonation than say an American Lager, so maybe that’s okay. This is also the main reason pilsner style beers are typically and should be served in tall, narrow “pilsner” glasses. Also, the green-apple flavor was much less distinct if it was even there at all (there was some disagreement among us) and, all-in all we felt the Mr. Beer Kit delivered good beer as promised in every way. If the flavor was not fully developed or the carbonation was a bit light, we figure it was only because we rushed the process always moving on to the next step at the earliest possible moment because we were excited to drink our very first homemade beer ever ASAP.
We noted that the last bottle we filled got a bit more sediment than the others. So we labeled it “dregs” and noticed it seemed to be just as clear after bottle aging, especially after cold aging, even if it did have a bit more visible sediment at the bottom. We’ll try to note any differences in taste for the clear portion of this one compared to others as well as noting any difference including the dregs in a small sample near the end of the bottle makes in the taste of this particular bottle. We are happy to report that our first ever attempt to make our own beer at home for extremely little in the way of investment yielded some darn good beer. Our Czech Pilsner, served in any of our premium pilsner glasses tasted a lot better than any of America’s mass produced pilsners.
Even though our intent is to see how much beer we can make, how fast we can make it and how much it costs in money, time and space, we decided to wait until we tasted the first batch before starting the next batch or ordering more extract. Our kit came with the Czech Pilsner and the Aztec Mexican Cerveza. We’ll start the Cerveza now, but order another Czech Pilsner so we can try it at a warmer temperature and perhaps a longer room-temp bottle aging to compare to the first batch. Better still, in the effort to conduct more controlled experiments, we’ll move a portion of the next batch to cold aging, and let some of it age an extra week at room temp so we can compare the two. We can hardly wait to taste the difference.
We were not disappointed in any way except perhaps the cost, but we’ll experiment further to get even better results. This first batch took about 6 weeks and produced 11 750ml bottles (22 12oz. beers), but we could have started drinking it after only 30 days as our first sample was pretty good. To order just the supplies necessary to make that one batch, would cost $29.85 including $7.95 Shipping to our location near Chicago. That makes the cost of one 12oz. beer $1.36 or $8.16 per 6-pack. Our beer was better than Bud Light, but maybe not $8/6 pack kinda good. 2 standard refill kits and 2 bags of carbo-drops would have been the same cost to ship, thus saving a bit, but adding a third standard refill kit went over the $50 threshold for free shipping and would ultimately drop our per 12oz beer cost to $1.00 a beer. That’s a good deal if the beer is better than what you can buy at that price on just about every corner in America.
We’ll see how good we can do with Mr. Beer products, try other starter kits and also see if scratch brewing is any better and/or less expensive. We’re curious to see what it takes to make great beer and even to make good beer cheaply. Our guess is that we’ll never compete with the cost of typical mass-produced American piss-water, but then again, we refuse to drink that swill anyway.