Beer 101: A Guide to Small-Batch Homebrewing Kits
With plenty of options to choose from, small-batch brew kits are probably the best way to learn the craft.
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Beer brewing is one of those hobbies with a high barrier to entry: The only thing more complicated than the list of equipment you need to get started is the complexity of the craft.
Compare learning to brew at home with learning to cook at home. With cooking, you can taste-test as you go and recognize mistakes on the fly. With brewing, it may take one or two months before you even know that you’ve made a mistake. Worse still, the amount of time that’s passed and the number of variables that have emerged make it extraordinarily difficult to recognize what mistakes you've made.
Luckily, beginners have one great option for learning the fine art of homebrewing: small-batch brew kits. These typically produce one gallon of beer—as opposed to the standard 5-gallon batches produced by most homebrewers. The ingredients and equipment are much more affordable, and the brewing process itself is cleaner, simpler, and more manageable.
For those who are interested in taking up this increasingly popular hobby, we’ve put together a roundup of small-batch kits—with some proper advice thrown in for good measure.
Brooklyn BrewShop distinguishes itself from the other brew kits by selling all-grain kits. To understand what that means and why that’s important, we need to delve into some science. As a primer, you should know that beer consists of four basic ingredients: water, malted grain (usually barley, but sometimes rye or wheat), hops, and yeast.
Science Break: Many homebrewers brew using a malt extract instead of milled malted grains. The extract is a fine powder or molasses-like liquid of concentrated sugars that have already been extracted from malted grains in a commercial setting. Because the starches in the grains have already been converted into sugar—a process known as “mashing”—there is no need for a mashing stage in your kitchen, which usually requires precise temperature control, a big kettle, and a heck of a lot of grain.
Extract brewing is popular even for large volume batches. Indeed, the step up to all-grain brewing usually entails a drastic upgrade in equipment and a fundamental change in procedure. However, when brewing a batch as small as one gallon, all-grain brewing suddenly becomes possible—that is, if you don’t mind doing a mash.
I had the opportunity to try Brooklyn BrewShop’s Jalapeño Saison at the International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago last week, and I have to say I was impressed. I’ve tasted a lot of homebrew—both mine and friends’—and this tasted quite good. Of course, it was produced by experts, and homebrewing is about 40 percent ingredients, 60 percent handling.
Even if you don't have the experience of homebrewing experts, Brooklyn BrewShop is a great place to start. For beginners looking for a small-batch kit, this is our top recommendation.
Northern Brewer is another good bet for an introductory kit. Unlike Brooklyn, these kits are shipped with malt extract—but they also include a small volume of “steeping grains.”
The purpose of this is twofold: One, the milled grains impart a bit of complexity to the beer, which can be undesirably homogenous when produced with 100 percent extract. Two, novices are subtly introduced to the mashing process, as they are required to steep the grains prior to boil at about 155 degrees. This type of mash is called a “partial mash,” and it produces a moderate amount of sugar for the fermentation process—but not enough for a full-bodied beer.
That’s why Northern Brewer kits include malt extract, which is added directly to the boil. So, you may be wondering, why is sugar so important to this whole process?
Science Break: Fermentation is the process by which microscopic yeast cells convert carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and ethanol. To put it bluntly: Yeast eats sugar and expels carbon dioxide and alcohol, making delicious, bubbly, foamy, boozey beer. Many kinds of sugar can be converted into alcohol with the help of yeast, giving rise to the bounty of alcoholic beverages available: grape sugar = wine; honey sugar = mead; apple sugar = cider; grain sugar = beer.
So the process of extracting sugars from a grain bill is extremely important, and can greatly affect the final product—not merely in terms of how much alcohol it contains, but also the flavor profile of the beer. Variables such as mash temperature, grain variety and volume, and water quality can all influence how sweet, bitter, malty, or alcoholic your beer is. In short, don’t take this process lightly.
Craft a Brew kits come with a mix of extract and milled steeping grains, as well as all the necessary startup equipment. The only thing you need to provide (and this is true for all of the above brew kits) is a pot for brewing—anything with at least a gallon capacity should suffice (Brooklyn may require a slightly larger pot as well as strainer and funnel, for mashing purposes).
Craft a Brew has the largest variety of recipes for its brew kit, which may appeal to novices with a unique palate for, say, “chocolate milk stouts.” Whatever your tastes may be, Craft a Brew is like the partial-mash cousin of Brooklyn BrewShop—if only for the hip package design.
Science Break: Arguably the most important stage in brewing, fermentation occurs after the brewing process, when the unfermented beer—or “wort”—is chilled to room temperature and the yeast has been pitched into the fermentation vessel. It usually takes about two to four weeks to complete, depending on the recipe and the fermentation temperature. To be clear, there are a lot of variables here; thus, a lot of things can go wrong.
For one, most yeast strains are finicky: They demand precise conditions to do their work. Everything from the mineral content of the water to the presence of bacteria directly impacts the degree to which they thrive, prosper, and—ultimately—die. But don’t be alarmed. While large breweries often employ teams of microbiologists to study, cultivate, and manage their yeast strains, you need only concern yourself with three things: aeration, light, and, most importantly, sanitation.
Aeration is the process of adding oxygen to the wort after the boil. Like most living things, yeast needs oxygen to survive, and boiling all but removes oxygen from the wort. Simply agitating the liquid when transferring it to the fermentation vessel should suffice—especially for small-batch purposes.
You want to store your fermenter in a dark place. Sunlight, with its harmful UV rays, can kill yeast cells or cause undesirable reactions with the hops to create “skunky” flavors. It’s also ideal to maintain a consistent temperature during fermentation—usually between 60 and 70 degrees for ales. Lagers ferment at a lower temperature (45 to 55 degrees), and are thus not popular choices for first-time brewers.
When it comes to brewing, cleanliness really is next to godliness. It cannot be stressed enough: Sanitize everything that comes into contact with your wort or beer. The fermentation process itself is its own kind of disinfectant (thanks to the alcohol), but before alcohol is created your wort is highly vulnerable to microbial contaminants. Literally every single thing that comes in contact with your wort—siphons, funnels, airlocks, stoppers, human hands (god forbid)—needs to be rinsed with sanitizer, which comes standard with pretty much every brew kit on the market.
Mr. Beer’s 2-gallon brew kit is, on its face, sketchy. While it does include the necessary ingredients, you’re also paying for a fermenter—a 2-gallon plastic container with a spigot. It also include plastic bottles with (excuse me while I retch) plastic twist-off bottle caps, and labels. Mr. Beer kits seem more focused on the branding aspect of homebrewing, rather than the actual craft.
Look, if you’re going to spend $50 to $60 on a homebrew starter kit, do it right. If you’re brewing a small batch, it’s pretty easy to avoid plastic, which is just not a very sanitary material. The rest of the kits on our list all include glass fermenters. And while Mr. Beer does provide bottles (unlike the other kits)—they’re plastic twist-off bottles! Aside from being unsanitary, twist-off caps are not airtight and, thus, not conducive to carbonation.
So, then, where does carbonation come from?
Science Break: As mentioned, fermentation is the process by which microscopic yeast cells convert carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and ethanol. During the fermentation process, the airlock allows that CO2 to be released into the atmosphere (via bubbling), while blocking any toxic air from entering the fermenter. So, once beer has finished fermenting, it's still not carbonated. For that to happen, you need to seal it in an airtight container.
In glass bottles, the few remaining living yeast cells continue to ferment, but now that the CO2 can't escape, it remains inside the bottle, thereby carbonating the beer. This is called bottle conditioning. It's a common method of carbonation for homebrewers and many craft breweries—especially for Belgian and Belgian-style ales. Most breweries and some homebrewers, however, artificially carbonate their beer using a kegging system with a CO2 tank. This is how draught beers are carbonated and served.