Brewing

This is a personal account of my introduction to using a home brew kit and not an instruction set for others. End of 2012 I took over home brewing. My wife had started it all off, and I realised it was well past the point where something needed doing. However unlike the home brew I had seen in the past the use of a kit made it rather easy, and I thought it was worth another go.

The home is centrally heated and keeping the fermentor next to the radiator did seem to ensure rapid brewing with from start to finish ready to drink around two weeks which seemed a reasonable time. Later I modified my ideas on this and went to using an old body warmer and an old demo under floor heating tile for when the brew got too cool.

hydrometer 30-6-2012 hydrometer 12-7-2012

Like most I decided to alter the instructions slightly, and in doing so needed to use air locks, and hydrometers to then decide when the next stage was due. Without a hydrometer one has little idea of alcohol content, and even with one it requires readings before as well as after.

A table, grams of sugar per litre, will also give potential % ABV so for example 20 litres with 1kg of sugar will give around 3.5% ABV but this is allowing for an extra 400 kg of sugar being in the concentrate. This means we have to guess a little. Two of the concentrates I have used vary between 40 and 45% sugar equivalent so we have an approximate value only. Also the hydrometers are hard to get accurate readings from, the pictures show it floating directly in the fermentor, and how bubbles and angle make it hard to read. so again with a 3.5% beer one could read anywhere between 3 and 4% when allowing for inaccurate readings. Not all yeasts are the same they have an "Attenuation" value which is the amount of the sugars they will use this is one of the reasons we take a before and after reading with the hydrometer when we want an acurate %ABV.

One problem with using an air lock as indicator is fermenting can seem stall likely due to too low a temperature, if one could see the brew likely very tiny bubbles would still be rising, but unless very well sealed the air lock would show no activity.

hydrometer

So the hydrometer it would seem is important in working out when ready to bottle. We are told when the reading stays steady over three days the fermenting is complete, but again since hard to get an accurate reading this is not foolproof, and using the air lock bubbles is a good second test. As well as the specific gravity scale there is a sugar to alcohol scale. Shown left. So placing at start in the liquid it shows you how much sugar per gallon has been added, and what the final alcohol level will likely be. However the kit tar like concentrate is only about 40% sugar so with beer this does not really work that well, and also in old imperial gallon, lbs, ounces so need to convert anyway. I have used excel to calculate (Sugar added + Concentrate/2.5)/20/Litres of water = Finish alcohol level, not accurate as sugar in concentrate varies, but gives one a good idea.

The young’s kit was good in that it gave an approximate hydrometer reading of 1.000 – 1.006 at finish likely the range is because instructions allow for 30 to 40 pints of water to be added so there will be a range. Also my fermentor does warn measure at the side of barrel is not accurate and for guidance only. However there is a range, and one can get a good idea when ready for bottling. I also tried a Geordie Bitter oddly from below the Humber at Stowmarket Suffolk, so not from Geordie area (Humber to Firth of Forth) very similar to the young’s kit. I am carefully recorded how this is proceeding. Again a figure of 1.005 is given as a guide as to when finished. I have also started a Youngs Harvest Mild and I am recording the process.

Because of a large difference in price when buying from local supermarket, and very little, if any, difference in taste I have moved over to using the Geordie range of beers. There are normally five on offer Lager, Mild, Scottish Heavy, Bitter and Yorkshire Bitter. The three bitters do vary in how bitter they are, the Yorkshire bitter is the most bitter, and Scottish Heavy is the least. However the amount of sugar also alters how bitter, I am sure different types of sugar will as well, although not tested. All brews have same instructions including the Lager.

The coopers kit was very different unlike young’s they did give 3.5% ABV on can for alcoholic method, but no finishing reading. It was Ginger beer so I expected it to react different instructions like with bitter gave 6 days to finish fermenting but unlike bitter needed 3 weeks in bottle. It instructed “add one carbonation drop per 375ml (two per 740ml -750ml) bottle then fill and seal.” However there was no carbonation included in the kit. Only when one comes to search does one find these are glucose and sucrose tablets in other words sugar lumps. Being referred to as drops I thought they were liquid. It would have been nice if it had said, either sugar or carbonation drop, plus one expects a kit to have everything needed but sugar and water.

Hydrometer 28-08-13 Hydrometer 19-08-13 Hydrometer 9-08-13

The other thing was it did not react like the bitter and in spite of giving extra time was extremely sweet and seemed to have no effect on me as if it were non-alcoholic. The second one I became suspicious after 2 days and added yeast from a young’s kit. After this I noticed a reaction and it became apparent there was a fault with yeast provided. Internet search showed this to be a common fault. However the reaction was far slower than with bitter and as a result I ended up bottling too soon. The can said 6 days start reading was 0.030 and 9 days latter is showed 0.010 and seemed to be static but had still it had not finished. Because of the slow nature bubbles could not be seen in the air lock and also very little change in hydrometer readings.

Lucky I used plastic pop bottles so without opening I could test the pressure and release when I realised my mistake. However it all had to be returned to the fermentor after another 10 days the reading was down to 0.002 and it was re-bottled. Even then there were loads of bubbles in the brew making reading the hydrometer hard. I do wonder if the problem was wrong type of yeast and maybe the top yeast used with bitter was not right and it should have been bottom yeast?

I was not impressed with Ginger Beer and had this been my first kit likely I would have stopped doing home brew it just did not do as it said on the can. Had it said in the instructions "leave in fermentor 19 days" like some of the wines recommend I would not have had as many problems, also if it said final hydrometer reading aprox 0.004 - 0.002 again there would not really been a problem, other than faulty yeast, but 6 to 19 days is rather a big difference it took three times longer than the instructions stated. Whole idea of buying a kit is that there are detailed instructions to follow.

However later in the year I made cider and I found mixing cider and ginger beer 50/50 worked well seemed to bring out the ginger taste and remove the dryness of the cider. I had added extra water which when the ginger beer failed to brew was OK but once it did brew it resulted in not enough ginger taste.

The bitter I found always had sediment in the bottles, and so I started to use two fermentors transferring to second one after around 7 days which greatly reduced the sediment in the bottles. I also have a demijohn ready and should I lose the siphon when transferring I will pour remainder into a demijohn to settle for a day or two before continuing to bottle.

The 5 foot siphon tube was really too short. Two problems one is with a brew full of gas that gas is sucked out to some extent with the siphon so at least a 9 inch head is required so siphon does not fail. Also if the brew is allowed to drop in free air as it enters the second fermentor it does not seem to do as well as when both ends of the tube are in the liquid. A 2 meter tube is not that much longer but it makes a huge difference plus easier to move from bottle to bottle in bottling stage. Tried a clamp to reduce the flow but it was not too successful the inline tap however worked well. I also use a spring clip to hold tube onto neck of fermentor as easy for tube to lift otherwise and stop siphon early plus any movement is likely to transfer more sediment.

Once I had got into the routine with bitter I started to experiment adding more water and sugar the result was more to my taste. A surprise was it took very little longer. However the start was more violent and to stop the brew getting into the air lock I tried adding a little less yeast this allowed beer to settle before the reaction started. Latter realised more to do with temperature.

I also made some errors. One was in using the hydrometer, without the hydrometer not fully mixing at start did not really matter but with hydrometer the device would read low if all the sugar is not dissolved. Another was not labeling and then forgetting which part of the shed had which version of beer. As a result a bad result could not be attributed to a set change in brew also one was unable to select oldest brew first.

As well as beer I tried two wine kits, the first Solomon Grundy’s seven day wine kit and yes it was fast but unlike the beer there was a box of packets and one had to do far more work to make it and at the end only 6 bottles. Unlike the beer where if the screw caps leak and there is no head I am not really worried the wine would likely be kept longer so really needed a better seal. I found tapped corks fitted my discarded fortified wine bottles and would allow the cork to be pushed to flush with neck top so the screw cap could then be replaced acting like wiring corks down. It took a little over the 7 days but the first bottle produced a sweet cherry wine exact to my wife’s taste. However a week later the wine had become dryer more to my taste. I was a little surprised as I thought the packets added would have stopped any further fermenting. With beer I open a bag of sugar and poor whole of contents into the fermentor but with the wine I had to carefully measure out the sugar and considering I can buy bottles of fortified wine at local supermarket to my taste at less than £3 a bottle to pay £11 for 6 bottles seems very little saving for work entailed. And it warns once opened you should finish bottle and with my fortified wine I can make a bottle last the week so although good don’t think I will try another.

Thermometer

The Prohibition kit warned about keeping correct temperature 18ºC to 22ºC so had to be a summer brew. Shown left a stick on thermometer. Again 6 bottles this time 3 weeks a little more expensive at around £14.00 by time sugar cost added but was rated at 21% ABV. Again loads of packets in the box and detailed instructions as to how to make. This kit gives nutrients for yeast, and yeast and you basically make alcohol first then add flavour. The mixture did start to clear spot on the three weeks stated on packet but at time of writing added charcoal and stabiliser, but another 3 days before ready to bottle so is still in the demijohn. At 21% ABV way above the 15% ABV of the fortified wine I drink. However like the other kit a lot of work the gains being far less than with beer kits. I have copied the instructions given as the method was interesting. Seems one can buy a mixture of yeast foods and nutrients plus special yeasts. As to if worth the trouble is another question.

However making up the kits has helped educate me on how to do things, and now if I did another Ginger Beer kit I would mix the yeast with warm water and leave for 15 minutes before adding to fermentor.

I have now found a long test tube like container originally for blowing large bubbles as a kids toy to float my hydrometer in. This allows me to now read at eye level giving easier more accurate readings. See to right. This was in fact the reading from the Ginger beer which was found not to have finished fermenting. In hind sight the bubbles on the tube should have alerted me to the problem.

I have taken more care sealing the air lock which has resulted in seeing a bubble every 4 seconds when starting beer but the Ginger beer which is clearly not finished fermenting with one bubble every 4 minutes and with such a low activity any slight leak would mean seeing no bubbles.                          

Had my first kit been Coopers Ginger beer it would have been my last. However the Young’s Harvest Bitter has been a huge success working out at approximately 32p a pint with very little effort.

There have been some surprises. Temperature was one, letting the fermentor cool to 16ºC near stopped the fermenting process yet at 18ºC it was ticking along nicely. Using an old demonstration heated floor tile at 18W and wrapping the fermentor in a body warmer it took 8 hours for the temperature to raise to 22ºC but on switching off even 16 hours latter it was still sitting at 20ºC two degrees higher than the other fermentor sitting next to it also with body warmer on. The other fermentor alongside with a beer, which had not been going so long, simply putting a body warmer around the fermentor, had been enough to maintain the heat. To raise the temperature of 26 litres of water by 6ºC using 18W of power assuming no loses would take 10 hours but as the temperature rises the yeast will become more active and will also be giving out heat of an unknown amount hence why it only took 6 hours for the temperature to rise. The kit gives a top temperature of 24ºC so I was getting rather close to maximum. I have noted on instructions that it always says use a regulated heat mat only and having seen my results I can see why it would be easy to have gone too high.

Kit List the Younger's Harvest Bitter has been main one, others tried also listed.

Coopers Ginger beer bottled second 8th Aug third 28 Aug 2013
Young's Harvest Bitter many no dates started 9th Aug, 20 Aug, bottled 8th Sept 2013
Young's Harvest Mild started 12th Sept plus 25th Sept 2013.
Young's Scottish Heavy started 3rd Oct 2013.
Young's Yorkshire Bitter started 16th Oct 2013.
Geordie Bitter started 4th Sept 2013 bottled 4th November 2013 plus can ready for use.
Geordie Winter Warmer no date likely July start.
Geordie Yorkshire Bitter started 5th November 2013 s.g. 0.042.
Geordie Scottish Export can ready for use.
Solomon Grundy's Cherry wine likely July 2013 no date. Nice nothing special.
Prohibition Orange started 31st July 2013 to approx 14 Sept very good sweet, Coffee Rum started 27 Oct 2013.
Brewmaker Mild started 27th December bottled 17th Jan very like the other Milds only done one.
Geordie Lager did two versions one with supplied yeast the other with Youngs lager yeast first version tastes OK the second version is still waiting to be bottled started on 1st Feb and now 27th May it has been kept at a low temperature in garage as a lager should be still waiting to compare the two brews. As I knew it would take a long time it was transfered into 6 demijohns being glass one can see the fine bubbles rising but air lock activity would be measured by the hour it's so slow. As the weather warms up it will clearly also warm up so expect to bottle soon.

Well time has moved on. One huge change is brewing has moved from kitchen to garage inside a disused fridge/freezer and the old under floor sample heating tile (18W) is used together with a temperature controller to maintain the brew at a very well controlled temperature. As a result I can now nearly guarantee beer is ready to bottle after 14 days. Although often left a few days longer to fit in with other commitments.

In 2014 brewing was stopped over the summer, as in 2013 in had been found summer brews rather bitter, clearly once central heating stopped, it was down to using the tile to heat if temperature dropped, and it was all too easy to allow the temperature to over shoot. Although some warm days in 2013 think poor results were more due to allowing temperature to over shoot.

As summer arrives I will reach a point where the fridge door will need leaving open, but garage is built into house are is unlikely even on the hottest day from exceeding 22ºC which is my upper limit so no point in using fridge to cool beer even though it could be used if wanted. The problem is to know the point when fridge door needs leaving open.

I now only use one fermentor at a time but still transfer into clean fermentor once activity has reduced. Beers kept for one year were still very good in fact better if anything. I was worried that using tap water clearly contaminates can enter the beer it does not matter how well I clean the vessels the water has not been boiled so always a chance.

I had one bad batch. The Lager experiment was a failure the Lager brewed at 20ºC was far better than the one using lager yeast and temperatures maybe due to contaminates in the water so other wild yeasts got a hold before the selected yeast got the ABV high enough to kill them off. I also have a problem with slugs and snails eating my labels only the bit behind the Sellotape remains, the shed is over a disused pond so suppose I should have expected this!

The supermarket has stopped selling beer kits so now likely I will try some other types. On 22nd Jan 15 started a Young's Harvest Stout and on 13th Feb 15 started a Brewmaker Lager and Geordie Bitter mix using the Bitter yeast and filling to 26 litres with 1.5 kg of sugar start s.g. 1.058 so likely to be quite a high ABV. I will normally hold at 19ºC for one day until krausen has formed then lift to 22ºC at one degree per day, but the mix is very active so holding at 19ºC until activity drops. To my mind under temperature just means it takes a little longer over temperature can spoil the beer. I measure with a sensor held to side of fermentor with a sponge to insulate against the air temperature early tests showed it was within 0.5ºC of temperature in the centre of the brew clearly the more active the brew the larger the difference.

I have also moved to only old plastic pop type bottles for a number of reasons.
1) Does not take as long to fill and label 12 pop bottles as 30 wine bottles.
2) If I do make a mistake and bottle too early one can test without opening the bottle.
3) They take up less shelf space.
4) The caps seal well and can release pressure gradually.
The exception is cider which seems to etch into plastic bottles so once used need to be binned. So I use the old swing top bottles for cider. Wine I have not made in some time but will still use glass bottles for that but with cork not screw cap.

Disadvantage is most bottles are transparent so skunking could be a problem. But personally have not noted the problem.