Home Brew Beer Kits – Solutions to Common Problems – Part Two: Brewing and Fermentation

What you do during the brewing and fermentation stage can mean the difference between a merely adequate beer or something truly spectacular. Off flavours and aromas or even undrinkable beer can result from a simple misstep.  It is generally written that there are 4 factors which must be controlled in the fermentation process to achieve the best tasting beer: brewing and fermentation temperature, volume of yeast used, volume of oxygen in the wort and fermentability of the wort. We would add sanitation and length of fermentation as equally important factors, especially when considering home brew beer kits. With all inclusive home brew beer kits, we can’t control the volume of yeast or the fermentability of the wort. We trust that the manufacturer has done their job and these things are as good as they should be. We can however control the other factors and these can have a big impact on the final product. Let’s look at these factors in more detail.

Sanitation, Sanitation, Sanitation

Sanitation may be self-evident but many new brewers are so excited to get started brewing that they forget, or just don’t realize, just how important this step is. Thoroughly sanitizing your equipment  prior to introducing it to your wort is vital, or your batch can get infected, leading to off tastes or an undrinkable beer. I cant think of anything more sad than waiting long, excited weeks to try your beer and then finding out its ruined.

Most kits supply fermenting containers made out of food grade plastic. This is great for the beginning brewer as it provides a kit at an extremely affordable price point. However, plastic is prone to tiny scratches which can harbour bacteria, molds, fungi and other containments. Although some kits instruct putting the utensils in the keg to soak in the sanitizing solution, we wouldn’t recommend this as it can lead to scratches. Instead, we would recommend soaking the utensils in a separate bowl.

You can use the included sanitizers that come with most kits and refills, and don’t forget to sanitize everything, including the can opener. You may also wish to wash the top of the can with some of the solution.After sanitizing according to the directions, rinse everything thoroughly with plenty of clear water. If trace amounts of the sanitizing agent are introduced to the wort, your beer may have off flavours related to the chemical compound of the sanitizer.

Brewing and Fermentation Temperature

Wort to start your beer is generally provided in cans. Heat the cans as directed, but after this, we are going to suggest you may want diverge from the instructions provided with your kit. Some kits tell you to pour the wort into the cold water in your fermented immediately off the boil. However, pouring hot wort into cold water, may allow for oxidization of the wort mixture which can contribute to bad flavours.

We will go into aeration a little more in the next section, however for now, remember to cool your wort until cool to touch or below 80 degrees F (27 degrees C). This process can be sped up by placing the cans in an ice bath. Remember that if you use this method, to dry off the side of the container your wort is in to prevent dripping (and possible contamination) into your fermentation container.

Volume of Oxygen in the Wort

Oxygen is both the friend and enemy to the fermentation process. Yeast requires oxygen but the wort must not oxidize. This is why you do not pour hot wort into cold water, to prevent oxidation. So how do you get the proper amount of oxygen dissolved in your fermentation water?

For beer kits, obtaining the proper aeration is pretty simple. Pour the required amount of cold water into your fermentation keg, put the lid on, and shake vigorously for several minutes. Some kits have ventilation notches in the lid so be careful when shaking or you may get wet. Alternatively you can shake in any other container (sanitized, of course!) and then pour into the fermentation container. The water you aerate must be cold, or again you may get oxidation of the wort compounds.

Length of Fermentation

Home brew beer kits instruct you to let your beer ferment for as little as 4 days and generally up to 14 days. For truly excellent beer, these fermentation times are far too short. Doing a little research on what is the best length of time to ferment for your particular type of yeast will help guide you. To take the guesswork out of when your batch is ready to be bottled, treat yourself and buy a hydrometer if your kit didn’t include one.

To use a hydrometer, measure the initial gravity (often abbreviated OG for original gravity) of your wort after you pitch your yeast. Begin taking measurements, every other day, starting 14 days later. Your wort is ready when the final gravity (FG) is about 1/4 to 1/5th of the OG. The other guideline if you didn’t take an OG is  fermentation is complete when the measurements are the same for three consecutive measurements. Do not measure more often than every other day as every time you open the fermenter you are exposing the wort to the risk of infection. Do not dip the hydrometer into the wort, remove what you need with a sanitized utensil such as a turkey baster and do not return the sample to the keg.

If you don’t have a hydrometer, the general recommendation is to let the wort ferment for between 21-28 days.

Temperature

The temperature at which your wort should ferment is a bit variable depending on your style or beer and type of yeast. Again, do some research, find out its optimum temperature and do your best to keep it within a few degrees of that ideal.

Most people have the most trouble keeping their fermentation vessels cool enough. There are lots of simple ways to keep them cool. Buying a cooler big enough for your keg is probably best but if you don’t want to invest that amount of money then you can easily create a makeshift one. Put your keg inside a cardboard box a bit bigger than the keg is. Place an instant read thermometer next to the keg. Then put frozen water bottles around the kegs, close the box and cover with some type of insulating material (how about that old wool sweater?). Change bottles as needed to keep temperature constant. Have extras in the freezer so you have a continual rotation.

 

We hope you enjoyed these tips on how to improve your chances of great tasting beer by controlling factors in the brewing and fermentation process. In the next article we will examine some commonly found off tastes and what they mean.

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