Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need an airlock on my fermenter?
Do I need to do anything to my water?
Granulated Sugar, Brewing Sugar or Malt Extract?
How do I bottle my beer?
How do I chill my beer?
How do I fix a stuck ferment?
How do I reduce the amount of sediment in my bottles?
How hard is it to make beer from kits?
How long can I store my beer?
How much sugar should I use when priming?
Single Can or Two Can Kit?
Should I Barrel or Bottle my beer?
What are "finings" and do I need them?
What temperature should I maintain?
Which barrel should I choose?
Which gas system should I choose?
Which kit matches my favourite commercial brand?
Why has my beer/wine stopped fermenting?
Why has my barrel run out of pressure?
Why is my beer flat?
Why am I only getting foam from my King Keg Top Tap?
Wine Making Questions:
What is "Country Winemaking"?
How hard is it to make wine from kits?
What are "finings" and do I need them?
What is the difference between the Various 30 Bottle Wine Kits?
If your fermenter has a hole in the top for an airlock, then Yes. If not, then they are not absolutely necessary during primary fermentation providing you have a fairly tight fitting lid, as the CO2 and foam generated will protect the beer from oxidation and infection.
Many books, websites and forums insist that an airlock is absolutely necessary on a secondary fermenter, but many of these are published or based in America (or have accepted the argument as "perceived wisdom" and repeat it unquestioned) and fail to point out that many American brewers undertake their secondary ferment in glass or plastic "carboys" which are, in effect 5 gallon demijohns. As carboys have a big hole in the lid and shoulders to funnel the CO2 towards the opening, you do need an airlock to stop air (and bugs) getting into the fermenter.
Standard fermenting bins tend to be conical in shape and are wider at the top than the bottom. This means that the CO2 pressure dissipates and, tied in with the fact that most fermenter lids are not completely airtight, often produces too little pressure to make the airlock bubble. If this happens, it is easy to mistake the lack of activity as the end of fermentation and you can, if you don't test the gravity with a hydrometer, end up bottling or barrelling your beer with too much unfermented sugar still present, which makes it much more liekly that you will end up with serious pressure problems.
A further problem with fitting an airlock to a beer fermenter, especially a primary fermenter, is that the initial fermentation produces a LOT of foam. If you give this foam an escape route, it WILL escape and settle on the outside of your fermenter lid. Once the foam breaks down, you will be left with a pool of sticky, sweet liquid that is incredibly attractive to the type of bugs and biddies that you are trying to keep away by using an airlock.
Water makes up over 90% of your beer, so if your tap water tastes awful, so will your beer.
Water companies are legally required to provide safe drinking water and routinely add chlorine to their water to kill bugs. Untreated water with high levels of chlorine can potentially affect the flavour of your finished beer, and areas with high levels of limescale can end up with cloudy beers.
HOWEVER, many beer styles were developed to take account of the water available in the area in which they were being brewed. Lagers work best with soft water, Porters, Stouts and dark beers that use dark roasted malts were often developed in areas of hard water. If you live somewhere with hard water, you can probably get away with using untreated tap water if you are making these darker beers, but you may have problems with clarity in paler beers, though this can be alleviated by serving your beer in a pewter tankard.
When working with beer kits or unhopped malt extract, some people, especially those living in hard water areas, find that working with supermarket "value" bottled water produces a cleaner, clearer beer. Its all a matter of personal preference.
When brewing with grain, it is usual to treat your water to match the mineral content and acidity of the water used in the style of beer being brewed. There are many ways to do this, depending upon whether you have soft or hard water in the first place, but the commonest method is to boil the water for 15-30 minutes to drive off the chlorine and then use a variety of chemicals to adjust the concentration of the various minerals. Graham Wheeler's preferred method for treating 25ltrs of hard water, as stated in "Brew Your own British Real Ale" is to boil the water for 30 minutes with 10g of Gypsum (Calcium Sulphate) and then leave it to cool. Once the sediment has precipitated out, 1g of Epsom Salts (Magnesium Sulphate) is added to improve yeast performance.
Alternatively, proprietory water treatment systems such as Brupaks CRS and DLS are available to easily reduce the carbonates and then adjust the minerals back to the desired levels. Full details of usage and dosage can be found on Brupaks website. For more information on water treatment, it would be worth checking out Dave Line's books "Brewing Beers like those you Buy" and "The Big book of Brewing" or John Palmer's "How to Brew".
If you are making a single can kit which contains between 1.5 and 1.8kgs of malt extract, unless you want a really weak, thin bodied beer you will need to add around a further 1kg of additional fermentable material to bring the gravity up to a sensible level. A two can kit doesn't need any additional sugar, other than at priming stage, unless it has been provided by the kit manufacturers as part of the kit in order to boost the alcohol content without thickening the body. Several of the beers in the Festival Range have this as a feature
For kits that require additional sugar, you can use either standard white granulated sugar, brewing sugar, coloured sugars, honey, golden syrup, treacle, liquid malt extract or dried malt extract (or a combination of any of them) to provide the additional sugar and alter/enhance the colour and flavour of the finished beer. Many brewers happily use standard granulated sugar, which works fine, but may take slightly longer to start fermenting than brewing sugar and will often not ferment down quite as far as Brewing Sugar and may leave a residual sweetness that you were not expecting. Granulated Sugar is usually a mixture of several simple sugars and the yeast has to break down the chemical bonds holding them together before it can ferment the resulting simple sugars. Brewing sugar tends to be a simple sugar that the yeast can immediately start to ferment and which usually produces a drier flavour than granulated sugar would. Coloured sugars or syrups are often used to provide different "after tastes" or body. If you want to experiment with them, feel free, but keep careful notes so that you know what works (and at what levels) and always check the gravity reading at the beginning of fermentation to ensure that you don't use TOO much sugar and end up with an overly sweet finished beer.
Malt extracts, either liquid or dried, provide fermentable sugars, but also, because they are based on the same ingredients that the kits themselves contain, produce richer flavoured, fuller bodied beers than kits brewed with simple sugars. Dried malt extract is approximately 20% more concentrated than liquid malt extract, so you will need to reduce the amount used if you wish to avoid potential sweetness problems.
A further alternative is to use a 1kg pack of "Beer Enhancer", which is basically ½kg of Brewing Sugar and ½kg of Dried Malt Extract. It produces a richer flavoured, fuller bodied beer than granulated or brewing sugar, but isn't quite as overwhelmingly "Malty" as either a two can kit or a beer brewed using exclusively LME or DME.
For single can kits, the stated FG (Finishing Gravity) will usually be based on the expected hydrometer reading if you have used the instruction's stated amount of Granulated Sugar. As Brewing sugar is slightly less fermentable, the FG will probably be 2 points higher with the same kit (ie if the kit states 1006-1008, you will probably end up at 1008-1010 with Brewing Sugar). If you use Beer Enhancer with this kit, the sugars in the DME will push the finish gravity up to around 1010-1012. If you use a full kilo of DME with this you can expect the FG to rise to 1012-1014. As long as it stays stable at this FG for two days (and assuming the temperature has been at the correct level) you can usually consider that fermentation has ceased and you can proceed to the bottling or barrelling stage.
Once primary fermentation has finished and the bulk of the alchohol has been produced, you need to bottle or barrel the brew and leave it to mature and produce the additional CO2 that will give it its "fizz" and generate the head.
Most of the beer kits (or recipes if you are making Malt Extract or All Grain Brews) are designed to make 40 pints, so you will need to obtain, clean, rinse, fill and cap up to 40 bottles. It is possible to use the following types of bottles:
- Purpose bought 500ml PET bottles with screw caps, which are light, easy to seal and can be reused over and over again.
- 1 or 2ltr PET bottles that have previously contained carbonated drinks or the water you used to brew the beer if you have chosen to use bottled water instead of tap water. They work fine, but if you use the 2ltr bottles, you will need to decant the beer into a jug as soon as you open the bottle and drink all four pints in one sitting.
- Purpose bought 500ml crown cap beer bottles, which can be reused over and over again. You will also need crown caps and a capping device.
- Recycled beer bottles, provided they have a 26mm neck and are strong enough to hold carbonated drinks.
- New or recycled "Grolsch" style swing top bottles. They are more expensive than the other types but are much easier to close and don't need any extra equipment.
At the end of normal fermentation, which you need to confirm by using a hydrometer, you simply syphon your beer into your bottles, making sure that you leave a small amount of headspace between the beer and the top of the bottle, and add ½ level teaspoon of sugar per pint to each pint of beer. You then seal the bottle using either a screw cap, crown cap or swing top, and leave the brew in a warm environment (18-24°C) for a couple of days, before moving it to a slighly cooler location (15-18°C for beer, or as low as 5°C for lagers) to clear and mature for at least two weeks, though this could be much longer if you are making cider, lager or a really strong ale or barley wine. You need to be really careful when adding the sugar to ensure that ONLY ½ level teaspoon is used as excessive pressure can be generated (leading to exploding bottles) if you use more than this amount. During this "conditioning" stage, the CO2 is produced and a layer of sediment is dropped onto the bottom of the bottle as the beer clears. You need to be careful to leave this in the bottle when you pour your beer, so you may not always get a full pint from each bottle, unless of course you actually like cloudy, yeast filled beer.
That's the theory and the basic method, but there are brewers who suggest that MUCH better results can be obtained by syphoning the beer into a second, clean fermenting bin, at the end of primary fermentation and then leaving it in that one for a number of days to allow some of the sediment to drop out of solution. Once you have done this, you then bottle it and prime it as normal. This method does produce a much lower sediment rate in the bottles than would be achieved if you bottled straight from the primary fermenter, but it also means that there is much less active yeast transfered across to undertake the secondary fermentation. As a result, you will normally need to leave the beer to mature for MUCH longer in order to generate the CO2 needed to give it a head.
Other brewers transfer it straight to a barrel and prime it using just 3oz of sugar, rather than the ½ level teaspoon per pint that would normally be used for bottles. Then, several days later, they carefully draw the beer directly from the barrel into the cleaned bottles, seal it and leave it for a couple of weeks to reabsorb the CO2 present. This produces the lowest amount of sediment in the bottle, but can lead to a fairly flat beer with little or no head retention.
As with much in brewing, the method used is a matter of personal preference, but whichever method you chose to use, the job of bottling can be made much easier if you use a "little bottler" attached to a fermenter. This is basically a rigid tube with a spring or gravity activated cut out valve at the bottom of the tube. When you open the tap on the fermenter, the tube fills with your brew and the weight seals the valve. you then insert the tube into your bottle and press the bottom of the bottle onto the valve needle. This opens the valve and allows your beer, lager or cider to flow gently into the bottle without frothing up too much. As soon as the beer level reaches the top of the bottle, you simply lower the bottle and the spring (or gravity) closes the needle valve and stops the flow of beer. Removing the tube and the beer that it contains, causes the beer level in the bottle to drop, thus providing the perfect headspace, ready for you to seal as normal.
If you have bottled your beer then it is pretty straightforward to chill it and doesn't require too much imagination to work out what to do. HOWEVER, if you chill it too much, it may develop a "Chill Haze" and look a bit opaque when poured. This is usually purely cosmetic and it will revert to its original clarity as it warms up. The other problem that may occur if you chill it too much is that you may experience a rapid expansion of the dissolved CO2 when you open it and end up with either on overflow from the bottle or a cloudy beer if it sucks up the sediment from the bottom of the bottle.
With a barrel things are a little more difficult, unless you have a kegerator or spare fridge that you can commandeer. Many years ago, when Boots used to be one of the largest suppliers of homebrew equipment, it was possible to buy a cooling jacket which was more or less a barrel cover made out of the material that used to be used to insulate copper immersion tanks. This was used in conjunction with a specially designed holder for freezer blocks, which was placed over the neck of the barrel to allow pouches containing the freezer blocks to drop down and hang against the side of the barrel. The jacket was then placed over the barrel and allowed a layer of chilled air to surround the barrel and cool the contents. Whilst these are no longer available, the effect can be recreated by placing a couple of freezer blocks inside some plastic carrier bags, hanging them over the barrel neck and wrapping the whole lot in either an insulated camping mat or a suitably sized, double walled cardboard box.
If you have a Cornie Keg you could cool it by standing it in a bucket of ice or salted iced water. Alternatively, you could wrap your barrel or Cornie keg in a damp towel. As the towel dries and the moisture evaporates, heat will be drawn out of the barrel, thus cooling it. The main disadvantage of all of these methods is that cold beer tends to absorb CO2 and you would thus end up with a reduction in serving pressure in the barrel or keg.
Rather than chilling the whole barrel, it may be easier to purchase a couple of the double walled, gel filled glasses that can be chilled in the fridge. You will need at least two so that you can chill one whilst you are drinking from the other one. Another possibility would be to simply add a couple of plastic, non-melting ice cubes to each pint.
A stuck ferment is the term used to describe a brew that has stopped a long way above its target gravity. Before you can say it is “stuck” you need to check the following:
Is it definitely showing no signs of fermentation?
If you have an airlock fitted, do not believe that it is not fermenting just because there are no bubbles coming through the airlock. Most buckets do not have airtight seals and if the CO2 being generated can find an easier escape route, it will. Lift the bucket lid and have a look to see if there are any bubbles on the surface or the trace of a sediment ring around the bucket just at the water line.
Is it at the right temperature for fermentation – ie 18-24°C?
If it is too cold, you will need to increase the heat. If it is too hot, you will need to cool it down, but you may already have killed the yeast.
Has it actually started fermenting at all?
If it is more than a few days since the yeast was pitched and the gravity hasn’t fallen at all, you may need to pitch a new batch of yeast.
What is the current gravity and how does it compare to the start gravity?
Most beer yeasts will only ever ferment 70-80% of the total available sugar so if you start at 1040, you are only ever likely to finish up with a gravity of 1008-1012 under ideal circumstances.
How does the gravity compare to the stated finished gravity on the kit?
If it is only a couple of points higher than the stated gravity, then ignore it and just use slightly less priming sugar when you bottle it or barrel it..
Are you fermenting a two can kit (where the finish gravity will generally be around 1014-1018) or a single can kit where it will be much lower?
If it is a single can kit, are you using granulated sugar (where the gravity is typically down to 1006), Brewing sugar (which will typically be 1008-1010) or malt extract (where it can typically be 1012-1014)? If you are using other sugars such as syrup, treacle, brown sugar or honey, it could vary considerably from the stated finish point.
If you have checked all of these items and it is none of them solve the problem, the first thing to do is to give it good stir to rouse the yeast layer from the base of the fermenter and back into the body of the beer.
If that doesn’t work, make up a small batch of yeast starter in a 2 pint jug by mixing a small batch of beer yeast in a cup full of luke warm water with 1 teaspoon of sugar. Cover and leave for 15-30 mins for it to start to foam, then gradually add a small amount of the beer wort to it. Build this up over 30 minute intervals until you have about 2 pints and it is frothing enthusiastically, then sitr gently into the beer wort.
In order to get any carbonation in a bottle, it is necessary to transfer it out of the FV (Fermentation Vessel) at the end of primary fermentation when it has reached the FG (Final Gravity) stated by the kit manufacturer or All Grain/Malt Extract instructions (allowing for any correction required based upon the type of sugar used as the secondary fermentable ingredient (if necessary) - See the section on Granulated Sugar, Brewing Sugar or Malt Extract), and add a small amount of additional Priming Sugar.
If you have reached the FG stated by the kit manufacturer (who has, lets face it, a vested interested in you getting good results and therefore know how THEY have designed THEIR kit to produce the best, most reliable results they can), then you can generally rest assured that provided you have not exceeded the priming rates, you will achieve the result they have intended.
The main issue with bottling the beer directly from the fermenter is that you will potentially have different levels in each bottle and thus not obtain consistent carbonation. This is because, as the yeast settles out of the beer in the FV, there will be distinct "layers" of different densities of suspended yeast. The layer nearest the surface (and the last one bottled) will probably be clear and thus have little yeast to put into the bottles. The first ones out, from the bottom of the FV, will have lots of yeast (because all the yeast in solution will have been dropping towards the base) and these bottles will therefore be fairly vigorous. The middle 20 or so bottles will have a reasonably consistent level of yeast in them and be fairly consistently carbonated.
The easiest way to overcome this and reduce the amount of sediment in each bottle is to transfer the beer to a secondary fermenter prior to bottling as this will more easily and consistently distribute the yeast throughout the whole of the brew and thus be more likely to produce consistent carbonation. You can, if you wish, leave the beer in this secondary vessel for a few extra days to allow the sediment to further drop out prior to bottling. This will produce much lower sediment levels in the bottle, but will also mean that you have to put the beer aside for a MUCH LONGER period to "condition" (clear, carbonate and mature) as there is very little yeast present to undertake the secondary fermentation and carbonation.
Brewing your own beer, lager or cider from kits is really easy.
All you need is:
A kit, a fermenting bin, some water and a warm place to brew. (Patience helps but isn't completely essential.)
Kits are available that match just about every possile style of beer, lager or cider and generally consist of one or two cans of concentrated liquid malt extract and a sachet of appropriate yeast, though some manufacturers supply dried malt extract in their kits rather than liquid malt. The amount of malt extract available determines the body and flavour of the finished beer. The malt extract also provides the fermentable sugars that produce the alcohol, so the more of it you have, the stronger the brew. Single can kits need to have sugar or extra dried malt extract added to them because they don't have enough sugar of their own to produce enough alcohol without some additional help.
The fermenting bin is simply a big bucket that is large enough to contain all the water being used in your brew. Most beer, cider and lager kits make 36-40 pints, though some of the Belgian ales only make 18-30 pints. A standard 25ltr/40 pint fermenter will easily cope with all your brewing needs.
Beer is mostly water and the many different regional styles of beer are the result of the quality of the available water in the particular brewing area. Really soft water, such as that in Bavaria and the Alps, is ideal for brewing Lagers whilst the water in the Midlands is better for light bodied, highly hopped ales, whereas limescale rich waters such as those in the South East and near Dublin, are most suitable for brewing dark coloured Porters and Stouts. Of course you can brew any beer kit with whatever water you have available, but unless you carry out some clever water treatment, you'll never make an "authentic" Yorkshire Bitter with London Water.
In order to avoid any more work than is absolutely necessary, I tend to brew all my beers with supermarket value bottled water, which seems to be suitable for just every beer style. Most standard beer, lager or cider kits need around 18-23ltrs of water to be added to the kit according to the recipe, whilst the Belgian style beers and some of the "Strong Ales" only need 8-12ltrs. Once the beer kit has been mixed with water it is known as "wort".
Yeast is a wonderful substance - a benevolent fungus that can withstand being freeze dried and rolled up into little balls, but which gets tetchy if you don't keep it at its favourite temperature. The wort should be between 18-24°C before the yeast is added and it should be kept at this temperature throughout the fermentation period. During the summer, this is easy. In winter you may need to wrap the wort in an insulated jacket or think about using a thermostatic heater to maintain the correct temperature.
Fermentation will normally take between 4-8 days depending on the temperature and will be complete when the yeast has converted as much of the sugar as it can to alcohol but it's safest to confirm this using a hydromter before bottling or barrelling.
The full brewing process can be viewed in photos here and you can also download a pdf "step by step" instruction guide.
Provided that you have properly conditioned and stored it, the simplistic answer is usually, "An awful lot longer than it takes to drink it." In practice, it depends on the style of beer, the starting gravity/alcohol content and the storage method being used.
For bottled beers, you can generally expect your beer to easily last 6 months for a standard strength brew and possibly up to 12 months for a high strength, dark beer.
For barrelled beers, you would normally expect to be able to keep it for 3 months, provided that you maintain a layer of CO2 over the surface to provide protection against oxidation and serving pressure.
You may find that if you have large amounts of sediment, the decaying yeast cells can eventually impart an off flavour to the beer if the beer sits on the dregs for too long. My beers rarely suffer from this as they rarely last more than 3-4 weeks from the time the first pint is pulled. Some brewers avoid this by using Cornelius kegs. In this instance, the beer is cleared completely before being added to the keg and no priming sugar is added. As a result, there is no secondary fermentation in the keg and no thrown sediment. You do have to artificially carbonate the beer and provide serving pressure, but your beer is basically "dead" and will happily last for 6-12 months without a problem.
Whilst the priming rate does tend to vary from kit to kit depending upon the beer style - Belgian ales for example are, in my opinion, hideously overprimed which is why you end up with so much froth and so little beer in your glass - in general you would use the following priming rate unless your kit suggests otherwise. The following figures are based upon the assumption that you have reached the target gravity stated in your kit's instructions. If your finishing gravity is slightly higher, but has stayed stable for two days, you can generally just reduce the amount of priming sugar at a rate of 5g for every 2 degrees of gravity above the target figure. ie if your target gravity is 1014 and your finish gravity is 1016, reduce your priming sugar by 5g.
Generally, you would use ½ level teaspoon per pint. This is the quivalent to around 100gms per 40 pint kit. If you are going to put the sugar directly into the bottles, you may find that it is easier to use a cooks measuring spoon and a dry funnel, rather than a normal teaspoon which may vary in size and which will quickly get wet on the rims of the bottles. If you wanted absolute consistency, it is often easier to add the whole of the priming sugar into the bulk of your beer whilst sitting in a secondary fermenter/dedicated bottling bucket, but an easier method, especially if you have young children and are regularly administering medicine to them, is to put the whole of the sugar into a mixing jug and then add beer until you have 400ml. then, take a cleaned syringe and put 10ml of this mixture into every bottle before filling it with beer and capping as normal. If you are using a kit with a different brewing size, then the priming rates are as follows:
Amount of Sugar to be used.
|Amount of Boiled Water to be Used|
Barrelled beers are usually less heavily primed than bottled beers and as such generally only have 75gms (3oz) of sugar added to the total batch. I tend to put all of this sugar into a mixing jug and dissolve it in about a pint of beer, before adding it to the bulk of the barrel, sealing the lid and giving the whole lot a really good shake. I then vent a small amount of the released gas out of the pressure release valve to clear any air that might otherwise cause my beer to deteriorate during priming and storage. Some of the beer kits (especially the Woodforde range which has, in my opinion, very poor and incomplete instructions), simply say to use ½ level teaspoon of sugar per pint for priming, but if you put this much into a barrel, you run the risk of either over pressurising it and having it vent away all of your CO2, or making it so vigorous that the first few glasses are nothing but froth and then the rest of the barrel is virtually dead and needs artificially carbonating. For a normal, 5 gallon barrel, the appropriate priming rates are as follows:
Amount of Sugar to be used.
I have found that the 2 gallon barrels tend to bulge and distort if I use 30gms of sugar (15gms per gallon) so I tend to reduce the priming sugar to around 20-25gms when making up tasters for the shop.
You can use granulated sugar, brewing sugar or malt extract for priming, but you should be aware that some are easier to dissolve in beer than others and that coloured sugars and malt extract will add slightly different flavours into the finished brew than plain white granulated or brewing sugar would and MAY affect the colour, especially if used in very pale beers or lagers.
There are two main differences between single can kits and two can kits - the amount of malt extract contained and the price.
Almost all beer styles are available in both single and two can format, and which you choose depends upon your personal preferences. The richness and body within any beer is determined by the amount of Malt that is used in production, and the more there is, the smoother the finished product will normally be. If you like rich, full bodied, premium ales, then a single can kit based on 1.5kgs of Malt Extract will probably be prove to be a disappointment, whereas a premium two can kit containing 3.6kgs would be overwhelming for somebody who prefers a light, easy drinking "session ale". This applies regardless of whether you drink pale ale, mild, bitter, porter, stout, lager or wheat beer - the more malt extract, the richer and fuller the body will be.
The amount of malt extract also directly affects the amount of alcohol that can be produced. If you have a two can kit, all the required fermentable sugars are already present and no additional sugar is required other than at the priming stage. As Malt Extract is much more expensive than sugar, two can beer kits are invariably more expensive than single can kits.
With a single can kit, only half of the total fermentable sugar is usually present and you therefore have to add an extra amount of fermentable material in the form of Liquid Malt Extract, Dried Malt Extract (Spraymalt) or sugar. Using Liquid or dried malt extract will bring a single can kit up to the "body" and maltiness of a two can kit, but can often end up making the beer more expensive than a two can kit would have cost in the first place. It can also offset the "balance" of the beer and make it slightly too sweet and cloying unless you counteract this effect by adding extra hops during the fermentation stage. This is known as dry hopping and whilst it won't increase the bitterness, it will enhance the flavour and aroma of the hops. If you want extra bitterness, you would generally have to boil the hops to extract the bittering compounds.
There are some single can kits that do not require additional sugar, such as the "Iberw" range that are designed to only make 20 pints, and it is possible to only make up one of the two cans in a two can kit if you don't want a full 40 pint batch, but in general, and as with much in homebrewing, the choice of which to use comes down to you own personal preferences.
The decision to bottle or barrel is really a matter of personal preference and will depend upon how you like your beer to taste, whether you want to drink it cold, whether you want to give it away to friends and how much time you have on your hands.
Bottles are easily portable so can be given out as samples, or taken on days out.
Bottles tend to fit in the fridge, so it's easy to chill your beer.
Every bottle is its own pressure container, so should display consistent pressurisation.
Bottles are fairly easy to acquire/recycle, so they keep the initial cost down.
Beer will tend to last longer in a bottle than in a barrel.
Washing, rinsing and filling 40 bottles is a bit of a chore.
You need to continually replace the caps and you will need a capping device unless you use Grolsch bottles or PET bottles.
If you overprime a bottle, it can explode.
The sediment in each bottle means you rarely get a full pint from each bottle.
Bottled beer tends to be very fizzy.
Beer matures better in bulk, so barrelled beer will often taste better than bottled.
Barrelled beer is never as fizzy as bottled beer.
Barrels have safety pressure release systems built in so they don't generally explode if you over pressurise them.
All the sediment from secondary fermentation drops below the tap, so you always get a full pint.
There is less work involved in cleaning, rinsing and filling 1 barrel than 40 bottles.
Barrels generally don't fit in the fridge (unless you have a spare, dedicated beer fridge).
A full barrel weighs around 25kgs and doesn't respond well to being moved.
If you pour your beer to quickly or have too many beers in quick sucession, you can rapidly lose all your pressure.
If you lose pressure, you either have to drink flat beer, throw it all away, or use a gas injection system to re-gas the barrel.
If your tap is slightly lose or the barrel seam develops a leak, a full barrel makes much more mess than one or two exploding bottles.
I like my beer to be not too fizzy, served at room temperature and am fairly lazy. I also have several brews on at any one time, so I find barrels to be the most convenient storage method for me, but it really is a matter of personal preference.
Finings are chemicals added to beer and wine to help them clear.
All grain brewers generally add a substance called Irish Moss, which is dried seaweed, or another called Protafloc or Whirlfloc during the last 15 minutes of the boil to encourage the proteins to coagulate together and help to produce a clearer finished beer. They will also sometimes add the same "secondary finings" used by kit brewers to help clear their fermented beers.
Kit brewers and winemakers often add finings to help clear their fermented beers either just prior to bottling or into the keg. the main fining agents are:
Bentonite - This is a clay based fining agent and is thus useable by vegetarians
Gelatine - This is made from the gelatine extraced from animal hooves and is available either as a dried powder or ready mixed in liquid form.
Isinglass - This was traditionally made from fish swim bladders and is available either as a dried powder or ready mixed in liquid form.
Chitosan - This is made from the crushed shells of crustaceans and is usually available in liquid form.
Kieselsol - This is a silica gel and usually available in liquid form.
Common commercial clearing agents, including those supplied in wine kits, often use a variety of these compounds within their products, eg
Harris Vinclear and Two Stage Beer Finings contain liquid Isinglass
Youngs Beer Finings contains Chitosan
Ritchies Kwik Clear contains Kieselsol and Gelatine solutions
Alcotec TurboKlar contains Kieselsol and Chitosan solutions
Still Spirits Turbo Clear contains Chitosan.
None of these items are generally considered essential, especially if you are prepared to drink cloudy or hazy beer or wine or are prepared to let time take its course and have the sediment naturally drop out of your brew. If, on the other hand, you want crystal clear drinks in the shortest possible timeframe, you will probably end up using one or more of these solutions at some time in your brewing career.
In MOST cases, beer ferments best if you can maintain the temperature between 18° and 24°C. Lager will often ferment at lower temperatures than this because the lager yeast strains are more tolerent to low temperatures than beer/ale yeasts.
Below 18°C the yeast can become sluggish and lead to a very slow ferment, which could increase the risk of infection because of insufficient CO2 to protect it from other yeast sources. Above 24°C the fermentation can be a little too rapid and could potentially lead to the formation of a "thin" beer and unpleasant compounds that could adversely affect the flavour of the finished brew.
Consistent temperature is what is most important, so there is not much point leaving it in a room that is 22°C during the day but cools to 10°C overnight. The fermenting wort will lose heat during the night, but will not regain it during the day when your heating comes on. It is far easier to maintain the heat by wrapping the fermenter in blankets, duvets, sleeping bags, camping mats or twin walled cardboard boxes than try to reheat it if it gets too cold.
You can also use a heater belt or demijohn heater tray to maintain the temperature (or even an insulated cupboard with a 40w light bulb) but unless you cylce the power on and off, it is possible to overheat the brew. A thermostatically controlled immersion fish tank heater placed directly into the fermenter and set at 20°C will ensure a perfect fermentation and if you double this up with some form of external insulation as well, your heater has to work less hard to maintain the temperature.
Which barrel should I choose?
If you prefer keg beer to bottled beer, there are several different types of barrel available to the homebrew market and which one you choose depends upon where you are going to store it, how patient you are and how you drink your beer.
The standard 5 gallon barrel is fitted with a 2" neck and a pressure vent cap. This is designed to allow any excess pressure created during the secondary fermentation to safely escape, rather than cause the tap to leak or the barrel to bulge. It has a single handle which makes it a little more difficult to lift onto a work service that is sufficiently high off the ground to allow you to get a glass under the tap for serving your beer. The quick serve tap is easy to use, but you have to remember that, when looking from above, the "off position" is with the tap at a "3 o'clock" position. If you turn the tap to a "1 o'clock" position, there is a good chance that the tap will leak. The 2" neck makes it a little more difficult to clean than the barrels fitted with 4" necks.
With any barrel, the beer needs to be left for at least 2 weeks after priming, to clear and to generate the gas pressure needed to serve the beer. Once it has conditioned properly, the beer can be served (though the first ½ glass will be cloudy because of the sediment that will be present in the tap chamber), but you will need to open the tap slowly in order to avoid ending up with a glass full of froth and an inch or two of beer at the bottom. If you pull too many pints out in quick succession, you will deplete the available gas and the pressure drops. If it drops too far, there is a risk that you will create a partial vacuum in the barrel and start to suck in air from outside. If this happens, you run the risk that your beer will go stale pretty quickly and you are left with only two real choices.
If there is only a small amount of beer left in the barrel, you can unscrew the lid to equalise the pressure and then allow the last few pints to be drawn out under gravity. They will be flat, but it's better than letting them go bad. Alternatively, if you have a gas injection lid, you can inject some more gas into the barrel and carry on serving your beer as normal. For more information on the different gas injection systems available, please see the "gas injection systems" topic in the FAQ list.
King kegs, whilst more expensive than standard barrels, are much sturdier and come complete with two handles, which makes it easier to balance the 25kg+ weight they contain when lifting them into their serving location. they are also fitted with a 4" neck that is wide enough to get your arm inside and thus makes it MUCH easier to clean than barrels with a 2" neck. They are also supplied pre-fitted with a gas injection lid, so you always have the ability to add extra gas if your pressure drops. A top tap version of the king keg is also available. In this one, a float system is fitted into the back of the tap and sits on the surface of the beer. This system is useful if you are limited for space or are unable to lift a full barrel of beer. Having the tap at the top allows you to sit the barrel on the floor but still be able to get your glass under the tap to serve your beer. The only real downsides of this system are that because the beer clears from the top downwards, the float always sits in clear beer and you are thus tempted to drink your new brew before it has had sufficient time to mature and condition properly, and also the fact that you always need pressure to serve the beer as the beer level is always liekly to be below the level of the tap. This means that you are MUCH MORE likely to need to inject extra gas into a Top Tap keg than you are into a bottom tap keg.
A Hambleton Bard Rotokeg also has a top tap, but has a slightly larger capacity than a King Keg and is a much more rounded shape. It is also fitted with a moulding point that allows you to attach a drip tray. It is often used by All grain brewers because of its larger capacity allows you to make and store slightly larger batches (6 gallons rather than 5) for the same amount of effort.
A completely different type of "barrel" is a Cornelius Keg, which is usually a reconditioned, stainless steel, container that has previously been used in the drinks trade to store the syrup concentrate that is used to create the draught fizzy drinks in pubs, bars and restaurants.
Unlike standard plastic barrels, cornies are designed to work at much higher gas pressures (up to 100psi compared to the 8-12psi that plastic barrels operate at) and thus require a different gas injection system, though SOME are available that have been converted to accept a standard pin or S30 style valve. They have a 4" oval neck that allows access for cleaning but require separate "in" and "out" lines fitted to it in order to inject gas and take off the beer to a tap or dispensing system. Being a steel tube, they are fairly easy to chill by putting in a bucket of iced water or upright in a spare fridge, so they are ideal for storing lager and cider. They are however considerably more expensive to set up than a standard barrel because they require additional connectors and specialist pieces of equipment that a standard barrel doesn't need.
Normally, the beer is brewed in the normal method and then transferred to a secondary fermenter for a couple of weeks to mature and drop clear. With a standard keg, you would prime the beer when adding it to a keg, but a cornie is usually used to store and dispense clear, virtually dead beer at high pressure, so it is more common to artificially carbonate it rather than naturally condition it in a sealed vessel. If you do prime it in the corny, the "out" tube attached to the tap is at the very bottom of the keg and continually sucks up any sediment formed.
As with much in brewing, each system has its advantages and disadvantages, and it is really, once again, a matter of personal preference as to which best suits your own tastes and wallet.
If your barrel runs out of pressure and there is still beer inside, then you have two choices: either drink flat beer or add some more gas.
The main danger with drinking flat beer is that as the pressure and the beer level inside the barrel fall, a partial vacuum can be created. Nature abhors a vacuum in the same way that a brewer abhors an empty barrel and will try to suck air into the barrel to equalise the pressure. If this happens, your beer will generally go stale within a couple of days, so you will either have to quickly drink whatever is left or accept the unpleasant possibility of having to throw it away.
A far better solution is to simply add some replacement Carbon Dioxide (CO2) to maintain the pressure. There are several different types of gas system and which you choose depends on your personal preference and wallet.
The easiest to use, and least expensive to start with, is the sparklet type bulb and bulb holder. With this, the bulb, which contains 8g of compressed CO2, is placed into the holder and then screwed down onto the valve. The pin in the valve will pierce the gas bulb and all of the gas will immediately be forced into the barrel. the bulb holder is then unscrewed and the empty bulb is thrown away.
You should never be tempted to put a second bulb in to increase the pressure as there is always the risk that 16g of gas will be too much for the valve to cope with, leading to the pressure release system opening and venting much, if not all, of the gas you have just injected.
As a pin is needed to pierce the bulb, you cannot use this system if your barrel is fitted with an S30 valve. You should also be wary of injecting gas if you have had a few beers. It is very easy to crossthread the the plastic bulb holder when trying to attach it to the valve and plastic is no match for the brass and always comes out second best...
If the valve on your barrel doesn't have a pin in it, it is an S30 valve and you will need to use a Hambleton bard S30 cylinder. These contain 240g of CO2 and are thus much better value than the small bulbs, especially if you drink your beer to quickly and keep running out of serving pressure.
Unlike the small bulbs, they screw directly onto the valve and are slowly screwed down until the bottom of the valve depresses the sealing valve in the neck of the gas cylinder. As soon as this happens, and you hear the gas start to enter the barrel, you should count "One, Two" and then begin to unscrew the cylinder. This will inject just enough gas to provide serving pressure without the risk of overpressurising the barrel. As you unscrew it, the needle valve in the cylinder neck will automatically close and cut off the gas flow. Very occasionally, most commonly in cold weather or if you have held the valve open too long, the self sealing needle valve will freeze open and the gas will continue to escape from the S30 cylinder. If this happens, simply run the cylinder under hot water or place it in a cup of boiled water. This will unfreeze the valve and allow it to reseal itself.
You should NEVER, EVER attempt to use an S30 cylinder on a valve that has a pin in it. You will only get the first two threads onto the valve body before the pin depresses the needle valve in the cylinder neck. When this happens the gas will start to escape very quickly and, becasue you havent formed a complete seal, will generally rush back out of the valve housing and give you very cold fingers....
Unfortunately, none of the beer, lager or cider kit manufacturers market their products by giving a direct comparison to any of the commercially available brands, so it is very difficult to provide direct recommendations of kits that will be close matches to commercial beers. In the brewing world there are over 20 recognised "styles" of beer and lager and within each style, sub-styles are permissable and achievable by changing the make up or quantities of the grains being used. Add to that the fact that there are over 40 types of readily aviailable hops that can be used and it becomes clear why there are so many possible varieties available when you visit a pub or the local supermarket/off licence. Factor in the hundreds of varieties of apples that can be crushed and blended to produce cider and you can see why the kit manufacturers generally, with the exception of the Woodfordes, St Peters and Milestone ranges, stick to making kits that conform with specific style guidelines rather than trying to replicate named commercial brands.
Furthermore, as commercial brewers don't generally add 35% of their total fermentable material in the form of additional sugar, whilst you will produce light bodied, easy drinking, flavoursome beers, lagers and ciders, none of the single can kits will ever produce a beer that identical to a commercial beer. You may well approach the flavour profile of a named style, but you are more likely to get better results if you use malt extract rather than sugar, or choose one of the 2 can kits instead.
Ultimately, part of the fun of brewing your own beer, lager or cider is either trying all of the available kits to find one that matches your personal preference, or adjusting those that are available in order to create something that you enjoy.
A stopped fermentation can have many causes. The commonest are:
- Fermentation has finished
- The temperature is too low
- The temperature is too high
- The yeast has failed
1) To check for finished fermentation, use a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity. If it is close to the specified end gravity reading for your brew you can generally consider fermentation to have been completed and can safely move onto teh next part of the brewing process. The general finishing gravity for a beer, lager or cider will be 1006-1014 depending on the starting gravity. For white wine, the finishing gravity will usually be 1000-1008 depending on whether you are making dry, medium or sweet. For Red Wine, the finishing gravity will usually be 990-998.
2) Yeast generally wants to be between 18-24°C. If it drops below this, fermentation may slow down or stop completely. You can try to increase the temperature by gently heating small amounts of the brew in a microwave or on a stove. Heat a few litres at a time by approx 5°C and mix it back into the bulk of the brew to dissipate the heat. Do this a few times until the overall temperature is back within the preferred range. Stirring the beer or wine will also bring the yeast up from the bottom of the fermenter and give it a chance to restart the fermentation.
It is usually better to avoid this problem by keeping the brew at a steady temperature in the first place, by either placing it in a room with a stable temperature or using a thermostatic heater, brewbelt or a multidemijohn heater tray. Wrapping the fermenter is a heat retaining jacket, such as an old camping mat, fleece, towels or blankets also helps. If none of this is possible, for wine, you could always consider a low temperature tolerant yeast such as the Gervin GV5.
3) If the temperature is too high, you may well kill the yeast. You will need to try and keep the brew within the preferred temperature range. If it is too hot, try wrapping a wet towel around the fermentation bin to cool it down.
4) If the yeast has failed, you can try using a sachet of restart yeast. Provided the temperature is correct and the alcohol level is below about 8%, you can often restart the fermentation and get the gravity down to your desired level. This is best used only with wine as if you use it with beer, it is likely to produce a very dry, thin bodied beer that is highly alcoholic. With beer it is usually better just to repitch a new batch of yeast, preferably made up into a yeast starter.
There are many reasons why your barrel may have run out of pressure. The most likely reasons are:
a) you barrelled the beer too late and didn't transfer enough active yeast cells to generate a decent secondary fermentation,
b) you added too much sugar to the barrel and generated too much gas and it has all escaped through the pressure release valve. Never use more than 75g (3oz) per barrel and be prepared to reduce this if the specific gravity at the time of barrelling was higher than the gravity stated in your beer kit instructions,
c) you generated sufficient gas but it escaped because you didn't put vaseline on the threads of the cap or tighten it sufficiently,
d) you generated sufficient gas but it has escaped becasue the O-ring has deformed as a result of tightening the cap too much
e) you generated sufficient gas but the pressure release rubber has lost its elasticity and can't hold the pressure and has allowed it to vent from the barrel. It will need replacing.
f) you generated sufficient gas but lost it all due to inefficient pouring of your brews - the beer will be "enthusiastic" and the gas will try to escape. If you don't control the taps properly, you will end up with a glass full of froth, an inch or two of beer and no pressure in your barrel.
g) you generated sufficient gas but the ambient temperature rose and increased the pressure within the keg to the point where the pressure release rubber opened to relieve the pressure.
h) you generated sufficient gas but the ambient temperature fell and caused the beer to absorb some of the generated gas. As the remaining gas above the beer cooled, it also would have lost pressure because the pressure on a fixed mass of gas is directly proportional to its temperature.
i) you generated sufficient gas and poured each pint carefully, but simply drank far too much too quickly and exhausted the pressure...
If you have discovered a loss of pressure, you only have a short period to rectify the problem before air gets in and causes the beer to spoil. The usual way to deal with this problem is to inject some new CO2 by using one of the gas injection systems listed above. If there are only a few pints of beer left in the barrel and you are sure that you will be able to drink it in one sitting, you can always unscrew the lid and gravity feed the beer into your glass. You will get flat beer but at least you will not lose any from the barrel. The lid should be retightened between beers in order to reduce the rate of spoilage. This method ONLY works if you have a bottom fitted tap. Top tap barrels will ALWAYS require gas pressure to serve the beer, no matter how little of it is left in the barrel.
If your beer is being served from a barrel, any of the answers listed in the section covering "Why has my barrel run out of pressure" could apply. If your beer is being served from bottles the commonest reasons are :
a) you bottled it too late and thus didn't transfer enough active yeast cells to generate sufficient secondary fermentation. This commonly happens if you have left it too long in the primary fermenter before attempting to bottle, or in the secondary bottler to allow the sediment to drop out in order to produce a much smaller yeast layer in the bottle.
b) you have used too little priming sugar in the bottle.
c) the crown cap, screw top of grolsch top wasn't applied firmly enough and the gas has escaped.
If you are only getting foam rather than beer from a King keg Top Tap, then your float is not sitting correctly on the surface of your beer. Unfortunately, the only way that you can treat this is to vent all of the pressure in your barrel, adjust the position of the float so that the pick up tube is below the surface of the beer, reseal the barrel and inject some extra gas from an 8g sparklet type gas bulb or Hambleton Bard S30 cylinder. As you have now vented all of your naturally produced CO2, you will need to keep injecting gas whenever the pressure in the barrel falls below normal serving pressure.
Wine Making Questions:
"Country Winemaking" is a term that is usually used to distinguish between wines made from grapes and those made from other ingredients, especially fruits and berries or vegetables that can be grown in one's own garden, greenhouse or allotment, or can be foraged from the hedgerows.
Most European grown grapes are traditionally only available between the end of August and the end of November, depending on the grape variety and geographical location of the vineyard, and wines made from grapes tend to be made during those periods when the grapes can be harvested.
As wine is basically little more than a fermented sugar solution with various flavourings in, it stands to reason that it should, in theory, be more or less possible to ferment any sugar rich solution and use any non-poisonous flavouring to produce a wine. Generally most fruits and berries can be made into wine, especially those that are high in natural sugar and quite a lot of vegetables, flowers, herbs or spices can also be fermented in a sugar solution to produce flavoured alcohol.
In this way, using seasonal fruits and vegetables, it is easy to produce a different wine every month of the year. It is often more complex than making grape based wines, and CONSIDERABLY more difficult and time consuming than making wine from wine kits, because there are so many other properties of the base ingredient that needs to be taken into account and adjusted, such as acidity levels, natural sugar levels, tendency to cause pectin haze when using fruits that would normally be used to make jam, tendency to create starch hazes in high starch items such as potatoes, rice and wheat etc, but it can be very rewarding and will definitely produce a much broader range of wines than can be made from grapes.
All of the kits use concentrated grape juice which you water down with either tap water, filtered water or cheap bottled water as per your personal preference or quality of your local water supply. You then add the yeast and, whilst maintaining a stable temperature between 18°C and 24°C, leave the yeast for about 14-21 days to break down the sugars that are present in the grape juice. As it does so, it produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is given off as rapidly escaping bubbles and these are normally funnelled through an airlock, which is both quite hypnotically entertaining and also an indication that something is actually happening.
The amount of alcohol produced is directly proportional to the amount of sugar present in the mixture. Some of the older kits only provide a small amount of grape concentrate for flavouring and require you to add the sugar (in the form of granulated sugar) to a predetermined level. Most of the modern kits provide various amounts of grape concentrate that already contain ALL the sugar you need to make the particular style of wine.
Whilst the sugar determines the alcohol level, the amount of concentrate used determines the body. The more concentrate there is, the richer the body will be. The alcohol content will always tend to be higher as well as alcohol thins out the wine and thus the manufacturers tend to balance the sugar levels (and thus ultimate alcohol levels) against the body that is likely to be produced from the amount of concentrate used.
Therefore, the Cantina wines, which use only 5ltrs of concentrate to produce 30 bottles, will tend to produce fairly light bodied wines with an ABV of around 9.5-11.5%, which whilst some are very flavoursome (such as the Montepulciano), tend to be quite light and soft – barbecue wines, as my wife calls them. They also use huge amounts of high powered yeast to produce a VERY QUICK, typically 5 day, fermentation. As they then use clearing agents to drop the sediment, they are usually ready to bottle and drink just seven days after they are started. That’s great if you want a soft, easy drinking wine that will be ready by Christmas/New Year or for a last minute organised Bank Holiday barbecue, but not many commercial wine producers generally let you buy their wines when they are 7 days old – other than Beaujolais - so that should give you an idea of the style of wine you are likely to get with a Cantina. Having said that, if you let it rest for a month before serving, the Cantinas are very pleasant, especially the Montepulciano, and I am advised by several of our customers that they can be substantially improved if you only make them up to the 18ltr mark rather than the 21ltr stated in the kits. This improves the body and, because of the lower liquid volume, proportionally increases the final alcohol level. The Cellar 7 and Solomon Grundy Platinum range work in exactly the same way. At around £27.99-£32.99* for a nominal 30 bottle kit, which will in reality yield around 27-28 bottles after fermentation, these wines are around £0.90-£1.20 per bottle.
The Beaverdale range uses 7.5ltr of concentrate in their 30 bottle kits and produces wines with a much richer body and alcohol contents In the 11.5-13.0% ABV range. They are more expensive as they contain 50% more concentrate than the Cantinas, and they take longer to ferment and mature – typically 14-21 days fermenting and a further 7-14 days clearing before they can be bottled, but they are far better quality and will happily sit for 12-18 months. The Californian Connoisseur Range also contain 7.5ltrs of concentrate whilst the Moments range, which is sometimes difficult for us to obtain supplies of, has 8.1ltr and offers better quality at a very similar price. At around £43.99-£46.99* per kit, these produce wine at a cost of around £1.50-£1.70 per bottle.
The Vintners Reserve and Kenridge Classic range uses 10ltr of concentrate in their 30 bottle kits produce much better quality and fuller bodied wines for a relatively small increase in the cost per bottle. The kits are around £47.99-£52.99* and produce wines at a cost of approximately £1.70-£1.90 per bottle.
Towards the top of the range home winemaking kits, 30 bottle kits such as the Selection International and Kenridge Showcase range use 15ltr of concentrate and whilst initially seeming quite expensive in the £75-£80* price bracket, produce superb quality wines for around £2.50-£2.75 per bottle that are more than comparable with commercial wines costing £9.99-£12.99.
The very best wine kits available, such as the Selection Estate and Kenridge Founders Series are usually around £95.00-£105.00* but use between 16-18ltr of finest quality (often single vineyard) grape juice to produce superb wines at a cost of around £3.50-£3.75 per bottle that would happily sit in the £12.99+ price bracket if they were commercial wines.
*Please note, these prices are those that were applicable in Autumn 2011, so they may well have increased since then and should be used only as a indicative guide, rather than an offer price.