Brew#1 – Coopers DIY Beer Kit – English Bitter

This is here more as a historical record than a blow-by-blow account of the brewing process, mainly because I’ve set this blog up nearly six months after the brew took place, however many lessons were learnt during and subsequently which I feel it’s of benefit to myself to spell out, and hopefully to others who may be in the same situation…

Equipment Used

1 x Coopers DIY Beer Kit (English Bitter Version)

1 x pot of sterilising powder (possibly Young’s?)

1 x sachet of dry yeast purchased from local homebrew shop

Educational Materials

Read the excellent How to Brew by John Palmer, as well as CAMRA’s Brew Your Own British Real Ale. Got mostly confused by the complexity of boiling, mashing, preparing yeast starters etc.

Then watched the DVD that came with the Beer Kit. Just add water. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Brewing Notes

I’m not going to cover the brewing process in a great deal of detail, this has already been done in far more depth and with a great deal more authority than I can bring to the table by many who came before me. If you need more information on this I would very highly recommend picking up a copy of How to Brew – if you doubt the usefulness of this book, you can read the entire thing free of charge online on the website, however having a paper copy to refer to while you’re making a mess is invaluable.

I will, however, make several points to re-emphasise or clarify advice from this book (and others) and which will hopefully prevent others making similar mistakes to myself…

1. Steriliser

Having had it drilled home by the two books and various online articles that cleanliness is 90% of your success when it comes to brewing, I knew I would need to pay special attention to this. (The beer kit itself is fairly light on this topic and does not include a steriliser as part of the pack.)

Not having any steriliser to hand on brew day, I nipped down to my local brew shop to pick some up. Unfortunately, the only steriliser available was a small pot of powder which required mixing in water to form a sterilising solution. Items sterilised in this solution would require rinsing afterwards.

In fairness, brew day was not a huge problem as there are not too many items to clean and most items can be sterilised in the fermenter itself minimising mess.

The bottling, however, was a disaster. Trying to sterilise and then rinse 40+ PET bottles and lids in a kitchen sink is a gigantic pain in the balls. I could only fit a dozen or so bottles in the solution at once, each set needed to be in the solution for about 10 minutes for the steriliser to work it’s magic, then each bottle needed to be rinsed before it could be filled with beer. The whole process took over an hour by the time I’d finished the kitchen was swimming.

For Brew#2 I bought no-rinse Star San – I can’t tell you how much this has simplified things!

2. Fermentation Temperatures and Timings

I currently live in a top-floor flat with old, draughty single-glazed windows. At the time of brewing, the temperature outside was around freezing point (and generally sub-zero over night). This meant that the flat was relatively cold, especially when the heating dropped to a subsistence level over night.

Even though I risked life, limb and the wrath of my wife through keeping the radiators on in the spare room to nurse my first brew through it’s initial fermentation period, the temperature was still rarely higher than 20 C, and more often wobbled around 16 C, with occasional drops as low as 12 C. The temperature was rarely in the ideal range of 18 – 24 C and certainly was not stable.

Fermentation did appear to take place, bubbles were visible and gases escaped (side-note – soft furnishings absorb these like nobody’s business – the spare room smelled of stale ale for several months after the brew was completed!) however in retrospect it was certainly slow and may never have fully finished.

As per the instructions in How To Brew, I discounted the advice in the brew kit to bottle after several days, and instead left the ale to ferment for two whole weeks before bottling.

Immediately after bottling, the bottles were placed in a cupboard in the kitchen (note – still very cold overnight) to condition.

A couple of weeks later I tried my first bottle. It was awful; bitter and unpleasant to drink. Distraught, I frantically searched books and forums to see whether it had become infected or whether this was a rectifiable situation. After some research I concluded that the bitter taste was due to acetaldehyde and simply needed more time to condition.

Guessing that temperature was partly to blame, I move all bottles to the airing cupboard, where the temperature was a little more constant, but still within reason. For the next few months, I would test bottles, a while they certainly improved, it was too little too late and they never reached a truly enjoyable point.

With the benefit of hindsight (and a bit more research) I think that the low temperatures screwed me twice: first, the primary fermentation may never have completed because the low ambient temperatures made the yeast dormant, and secondly, the same could have happened after the beer was bottled due to the chill in their original storage location.

Either way, this registered as a total fail, but brought with it a well-learned lesson to tightly control the fermentation temperatures.

3. Yeast

One piece of advice in How To Brew reads as follows:

“Dry yeast can be stored for extended periods (preferably in the refrigerator) but the packets do degrade with time. This is one of the pitfalls with brewing from the no-name yeast packets taped to the top of a can of malt extract. They are probably more than a year old and may not be very viable.”

I read this and took it to heart. On opening my brew kit, I immediately discounted using the yeast that came in the box and went to my local brew shop to buy a replacement.

If only I’d read the following line more carefully:

“It is better to buy another packet or three of a reputable brewer’s yeast that has been kept in the refrigerator at the brewshop.”

Instead I grubbed around on the shelves with my limited (ie non-existent) experience to find an alternative packet of yeast which I could use. It speaks volumes to me now that I have no idea what sort of yeast I picked up.

The other day I was having a skim through the section in John’s book on formulating your own recipes. This section includes a paragraph which begins thus:

“The place to start when defining a style is the yeast.”

This is a fairly strong clue that using the wrong type of yeast with your beer may cause all sorts of odd flavours!

Note for future brews: take care to use the correct yeast for your beer.

Summary

Lots of lessons were learnt with this first brew. Despite reading and preparing myself as much as possible, I still managed to make an absolute mess of things. Part of this was circumstantial (weather) and part was not truly understanding what I was reading (eg if someone tells you the temperature is important or the type of yeast is key, it most likely is!) but both have served as a reminder that there’s no substitute for actually doing.

As human beings, we learn far more from personal experience that from other people, no matter how clear or accurate that advice might be.

What does help, is reading something, then having the facts hammered home by raw experience. This I believe shortens the learning curve greatly.

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