Choosing a Starting Brewing Kit

Choosing a Starting Brewing Kit

Difficulty: level_1

Time Required:

As long as it takes you to read this post and shop.  Unless you are like me and it will require at least one spreadsheet and reading at least 5 reviews of each kit at 3 independent website.

Background:

Interested in learning to brew?  Looking for a gift for your special Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins?  Everyone needs to start somewhere, so I was going to give a quick breakdown of various starter kit types to help you get going.

Brewing your own beer?  I mean hey, what is the deal with this?:

Everyone needs to start somewhere.  I’ve heard many different phrases regarding brewing:
“If you can make oatmeal, you can make beer”
“If you can make macaroni, you can make beer”
I agree with those statements.

In picking out a beginning brewing kit, you need to take into account:
How patient are you?  Beer isn’t done the day you brew it.
How good at cleaning are you?  Nobody likes cleaning, but it is essential.
How much space do you have to store the equipment?  Buckets and carboys take up space, so make sure you have a space to store them in when you are not using the equipment.
How well equipped is your kitchen?  Starting in the kitchen is acceptable, but when you start going bigger, you’ll want to move outside.
Do you have a “phone a friend”?  Knowing someone who has brewed before will be very helpful.

There are many kits available and many different ways to get into brewing.  I will attempt to give a brief overview of a few popular options and list in my opinion, the pros and cons of each.  With all kits, they should come packaged with an ingredient kit or at least be packaged with choices of a certain beer ingredient kit.  The best advice I had when I started was to pick a kit for a beer that you like to drink.  There is no sense in producing beer that you wouldn’t normally like anyway!  I’m not going to go through the entire process of making beer, since there is a plethora of information on the internet.

Needs:

  • Attention to cleanliness and sanitation
  • Be able to follow directions in the order they are supposed to occur
  • Patience
    • First you produce the wort and add yeast
    • Then you wait for fermentation to complete (7-10 days with the kits)
    • Then you bottle (1-2 weeks) It could be longer.  Everything just depends…

Wants:

Essentials:

Keep it fun.  If you aren’t having fun, then you need to think about what made it not fun and figure out a way to make it better next time.

Some kits:

Mr. Beer Kit

I would call this The “Gateway” Beer Kit.  This is probably the easiest way to make beer.  This is the equivalent of the Easy Bake Oven for beer.  You are simply mixing extracts with water and adding yeast.

Pros:

  • Super easy
  • Low effort entry to making your own beer
  • Kits are even found in liquor stores now
  • “Brew day” is maybe 45 minutes to an hour
  • Kits that come with plastic bottles will save you from exploding bottles
  • Could have beer in as little as 14 days

Cons:

  • Lowest tech way to make beer
  • Only makes 2 gallons, which will probably go quickly

Brewers Best Basic Equipment Kit

This is the way I started.  Well the kit, plus a bunch of other stuff you can read about HERE.  There are several variations of the kits.  Some come with a glass carboy and others come with buckets.  I started with the glass carboys, but quickly went back to buckets for practicality reasons.  See blog post Fermentation Bucket Liners. Most of the Brewers Best brand kits are full extract and made for 5 gallons of beer (boiling water for an hour with either dry or liquid extract additions and hops).  You can get by with what is called a “partial boil” where you are only boiling 2.5 gallons and adding cold water at the end.  Some of the Brewers Best kits are extract plus steeping grains.  This is slightly more complex than pure extract, but their instructions are clearly written and produce good beers. I’m still using some of the equipment I got with my kit.  Well, plus my neighbors kits since they gave theirs to me.

Pros:

  • In my opinion, a very good way to get started making beer
  • Not completely all grain, but in reality, you will be surpassing the taste of the macro-breweries from the get go and within a few batches, you might be producing better tasting beer than some of the national craft breweries.

Cons:

  • More involved that Mr. Beer, but your steps will be what you will be doing throughout the rest of your brewing career/hobby.

LHBS (Local Home Brew Store) Kit

American Homebrewers Association LHBS Finder

If you have a LHBS, your best bet is to go there and talk to them.  Make friends with them, as they will be one of your biggest sources of help in your brewing.  If they aren’t helpful, then you either need to find another store or go to the internet for help.  Every brewing supply store I have been to has employees that live to talk about beer and help others make it.  Every store should have a variety of starter kits and be able to help you choose the right one for your needs.  When you go in, don’t be intimidated by the towers of stainless kettles or the bearded guy with the body piercings.  You should make it in and out with ease.

Pros:

  • You will be meeting your new friends
  • You will feel more confident about the process after just having talked to someone at the store

Cons:

  • You are probably already hooked on homebrewing before even leaving the store

Small batch starter kit

These Fun Size kits are actually pretty cool.  For someone just getting started with brewing, this is a way to start with smaller size equipment that won’t go to waste when you get more advanced and start going to bigger batch sizes.  Your LHBS might have these, or they could set you up with the stuff to put your own kit together and scale down some of their recipes for you.

Northern Brewer 1 Gallon Small Batch Starter Kit

Brooklyn Brew Beer Making Kit, Everyday IPA

The Brooklyn Brew Kit actually bypasses the extract concept all together and teaches you all-grain brewing from the get go.

Pros:

  • Potential to make the best beer of all the kits
  • If done right, and you have just gotten started brewing, you are going to make what you will consider some excellent beer
  • Requires a minimal amount of space and equipment
  • Small enough to keep it fun

Cons:

  • Only makes enough beer for 9-12 bottles
  • Most effort of all kits for little output

Conclusion:

You really just have to find the kit that suits your budget, ultimate desire, storage situation, etc.

Like this post?

Consider making a small donation or share on your favorite social hangout.

Fermentation Bucket Liners

Fermentation Bucket Liners

Difficulty: level_1

Time Required:

As long as it takes to empty the trash

Background:

So you know how much of a pain it is to clean and sanitize your carboy/bucket/conical after fermentation is complete?  All that yeast residue, hop matter, etc?  Well this is my method that has served me quite well the last 2 years and makes cleaning a piece of (yeast) cake.

The bags are also great to store your milled grain the night before brewday.  Then re-use the bags for trash or spent grain.

When I say “bucket” in these instructions, I also mean carboy, conical, trash can, etc.

Required:

FDA Approved bag liner.  See below for discussion….

Options:

Option 1 (new as of March 26, 2015)

An astute reader (see post comments) found another source on Amazon for another equivalent bag liner.  I’ll pick up a case and update.  They are much thinner (0.39 mil versus the 1.5 mil thick bags that I’ve been using).  They are also about half the price.  As of March 26, 2015, they were $26 for 250 ($0.10 / bag).

The link above is for the clear 40 gallon size, but they also have different capacities.

Fortune Plastics Hi D Tuff Folded HDPE Waste Can Liner, Star Seal

If you are an Amazon Prime member, this would be the way to go, since the cost of shipping can easily lower the cost/benefit ratio.

Here is a link to the manufacturers site and their quote about it’s food worthiness.

Hi D Tuff® liners are USDA and FDA Approved for direct food content, and implement a star seal bottom seal, the strongest, most reliable seal available utilizing pickets for wet material below the seal.

Source: http://novolex.com/products/hi-d-tuff

 Option 2 (what I’ve actually used through 2014)

003-Bucket Liners - U-Line Trash Liners

U-Line S-13572 Clear Trash Liners

  • 24″ x 33″ bags
  • 12-16 gallon
    • I went way larger than the 6.5 gallon size of my buckets
    • Only $2 more per box than the next size down
  • I went with the heavier 1.5 mil thickness bags
  • Lid seal
    • Despite the thickness, the bucket lid still seals just fine
    • I can even shake the fermenting bucket to oxygenate and it has never leaked
  • FDA Compliant
    • If you go to their website and click on “Additional Info”, it will list “FDA Compliant”
    • Made from Linear Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
      • Most fermentation buckets are made from High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
    • I called them before ordering and they couldn’t tell me what “FDA Compliant” meant
    • Pre-Sanitized or sterilized?
      • I don’t know
      • I have always just pulled a new bag out and dropped it right in
      • Never had any off flavors
      • Never had any infections
  • As of 11/14/13 they are $51 for 250 bags
    • $0.20 / bag
  • Durable
    • Never had a bag leak
    • fully supported by bucket anyway
  • You can essentially make any container into a fermenter!

Mr. Obvious Directions:

  • Pull new bag out, put into fermenter, pour in wort
  • Then do everything you would normally do
  • When done, rack beer as you normally would
  • pull bag out, tie shut, put in trash
  • easy peasy!

Directions with bonus material:

003-Bucket Liners - bucket ready with bag

Preparation

Get the bag and bucket ready

003-Bucket Liners - bottom of bag

Bag Construction

Bags are sturdy on the bottom

003-Bucket Liners - bag pulled all the way down

Easy tiger!

If you shake to oxygenate your wort, or you will be opening the lid before starting the fermentation, go directly to the next step.  With the bag all the way to the bottom of the bucket, the rest of the bag COULD be pulled down all the way like this, but DON’T.  I’ll get to that in a bit.

003-Bucket Liners - bag pulled halfway down

Leave a lot of the bag in the bucket

I went from shaking to oxygenate the wort, to an aquarium pump, back to shaking.  Not great for my back, but this is my method for now.  My point is, when you put the lid on, it does stretch the bag material and sometimes could put a hole in the bag and if you need to open the lid and reseal before starting fermentation, you may not get a good seal the next time.  By leaving more bag in the bucket, after you open the lid, you can pull more fresh bag out and have a brand new seal.

003-Bucket Liners - bucket ready for wort

Ready for the wort

My burner is at the perfect height where I just tip my kettle and pour it into the fermenter.  By the time I need to lift it to pour the remaining wort, it only has about a gallon left.

003-Bucket Liners - wort in bucket

Now the wort is in the bucket with the liner

If you are going to put the lid on to shake it or you need to put it in your keezer to get some extra temperature drop before pitching your yeast, go ahead and do so now.

003-Bucket Liners - wort with slack pulled out of bag

Cut me some slack, Jack!

When you are ready to pitch your yeast and close the lid for the final time, grab the bag and pull up on it.  Not enough to pull it out of the bucket, but just enough to pull the slack out of it and hopefully get rid of any potential air pockets between the bag and the walls of the bucket.

003-Bucket Liners - tie knot

Keeping things neat and tidy

If you want, you can roll the excess bag up and then tie it into a knot.

Fermentation…..waiting……

When you are ready to rack to secondary or the keg or whatever, pop the lid and smell the awesomeness you just created.

003-Bucket Liners - dirty lid

Only the lid is messy

The lid has crud on it like usual or from the vigorous shaking you did prior to pitching the yeast.

003-Bucket Liners - holes in bag

Holes / Stretching I mentioned

See the stretching and potential holes in the bag?  You only want these from the lid seal outward.

003-Bucket Liners - dirty bag

This is what’s left

Your usual yeast cake.  Do notice how some sediment settles in the wrinkles of the bag.  You really can’t prevent this, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have cleared beer.  I’ve had some brilliantly clear beers.  In my opinion, it’s all about giving it enough time to settle.

003-Bucket Liners - pulling bag out

Pull the bag out

003-Bucket Liners - yeast

Here’s your yeast ready for washing, re-pitching, whatever

003-Bucket Liners - clean bucket

Check out that perfectly clean bucket!

003-Bucket Liners - clean lip

And the rim is clean too

Not often, but occasionally due to the stretching of the bag or holes, I do get some beer on the lip only.  Still, way easier to clean the lip than the entire bucket!

Congratulations!  You just saved yourself a few minutes (if not more) of cleaning and sanitizing, plus the drying time.

February 7, 2014 Update

Ok, so even though I’ve been using the bags for over a year now, and my judgement was good enough for me, I thought I would get a second opinion.

Fortunately, it just so happened that on the Basic Brewing Radio podcast, James had recently done a couple episodes on Homebrew Toxicology.

Part 1:

Part 2:

I emailed James to get in touch with “Paul the Toxicologist” to get his opinion.  Do not take this as a full endorsement from Paul or James, but just some cool homebrewers helping another homebrewer out.  

Here is Paul’s response:

 So on to your question about FDA compliant vs. Food Grade.  There could be a difference, but it may just be semantics as well. Think “not all parallelograms are squares, but all squares are parallelograms”.  FDA has a lot of regulations, so by saying it is FDA compliant does not mean it is food grade.  But I would take it that if someone were to call a product food-grade, what they would mean is FDA compliant to the specific FDA regulations that deal with food contact materials.

That link also says FDA compliant but is more specific in that is says “FDA approved for food storage”.  Again, this is not to say that the bags you are using aren’t the same.  What would help is if Uline were to provide the specific regulation that is making them FDA compliant – this would tell you whether they are compliant to the food contact regulation.  The reference you would be looking for is 21 CFR 177.XXXX, where the XXXX is another set of numbers that specifies the approval for that specific polyethylene.
 
A reference to the CFR citation will also help to figure out if your specific use (storing alcoholic beverages) is an approved use of the material.  I took at look at one of the entries for polyethylene in 21 CFR 177.1630 (you can find it at the FDA search site as well http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm).  In this entry you will see that (according to part 21 CFR 177.1630 (f)(2)) that “The plastics are used for packaging, transporting, or holding food, excluding alcoholic beverages, at temperatures not to exceed 250 deg.”
 
So you can see that FDA compliant is a complicated statement, in that it isn’t a material that is approved for use, but instead it is a material for a specific use that is approved for use.  This is based on the fact that the companies need to conduct migration testing to ensure that nothing hazardous migrates out of the plastic and into food under specific conditions.  To be compliant with the FDA regulation, they only need to test situations that are water-based, and do not need to look at contact with alcohol (which is a different solvent and could leach out different compounds).
 
I just sent a note out to Uline that I used some of my regulatory-speak, I’ll let you know if I hear anything back from them.
 
So the bottom line is that if I had to guess, I would think that the Uline liners you have found (and likely all other similar liners you could find) are actually compliant with the FDA regulation for food contact. However, I would also suspect that they will indicate that they are not intended to be used in contact with alcoholic beverages, such as your intended use.  So from a regulatory compliance standpoint, I have a feeling that you are not using those liners for an approved use.
 
That being said… I would also say that your risk of having things migrate into beer at a relevant concentration is pretty small.  When I talked to the polymer toxicologist that I know, his advice was that if you are using a food-grade polyethylene that the starting materials that are used in their manufacture are almost all gone in the final product, leaving only long polymers that are not toxic.  There could be some of these starting materials left over in trace amounts (monomers, catalysts, etc.), but anything that would migrate out of that plastic would be coming out under “approved” use.  When you are using these bags under “non-approved” use, you are likely only going to be leaching out the same materials that would come out under the approved use, and therefore unlikely to be leaching out anything else with the alcohol that would increase the hazard of those liners. 
 
So if you wanted a toxicological opinion, since you are using a food grade material (and a known material) it is a low risk from using those bags.  If you listen to the podcasts, this is a similar explanation that I gave for the picnic cooler mash tun or jerry can no-chill wort chilling, they are all “non-approved” uses for food grade materials but are low risk.
 
Response from Uline
Dear Paul,

Thank you for contacting Uline Product Questions.

In response to your question about the S-13572, 24 X 33″ 12-16 Gallon 1.5 Mil Clear Trash Liners, these bags are approved for the bagging or packaging of containers of alcoholic beverages.  They are also approved for containing or packaging of non-contained beverages. Unfortunately, there is no 21 CFR reference available and no migration testing has been done on this item.

Update again:
In the 3rd installment of Homebrew Toxicology, they actually discuss my conversations with them.  It’s the first topic they cover and it starts at about 5:30 into the podcast.
http://traffic.libsyn.com/basicbrewing/bbr02-27-14toxicology3.mp3 

Me again:

The fact that they are approved for containing “non-contained beverages” is good enough for me.  I can certainly understand the legal ramifications of the word “approved”.  As a company, I am assuming that they can only list a product as approved, if the actual test has been carried out to a certain standard.  The FDA standard Paul referenced does however have the caveat “excluding alcoholic beverages”.

If you listen to the Basic Brewing Radio podcasts however, you will quickly understand that when it comes to food contact, it doesn’t seem to matter what  is in contact with the plastic and at normal temperatures, if something is going to leach from the plastic into your food/liquid, it is going to happen anyway.  So by that logic, I work out that if it is safe for generic beverages, it is safe for alcoholic beverages.

I just wanted to say a special thanks to James Spencer of Basic Brewing Radio and Paul “the toxicologist”.  I appreciate the straightforward nature of the Basic Brewing podcasts and Paul for just being a cool guy willing to help other homebrewers and to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions withing the brewing community.

For what it’s worth, Paul also found these bags.  Different size, but you can work out which size you want:

Trashbagdepot

Also, if you subscribe to BYO Magazine, you might have seen this in the March/April 2015 BYO Homebrew Hacks Issue.  If you click on the link, you’ll be able to download a copy of the article.

Like this post?

Consider making a small donation or share on your favorite social hangout.

Belgian Candi Sugar and Silicone Baking Mats

DIY Candi Sugar Made Easy

Difficulty: level_2

Time Required:

one to two hours, depending on how dark you plan to make your candi sugar

Background:

If you are planning on making a potent Belgian beer such as a Dubbel, Tripel or a Home Run (just kidding!), you are going to need Belgian Candi Sugar. If you have already purchased some, you know that it can make the cost of your batch of beer skyrocket. It typically runs about $6/lb! My Tripel recipe uses a modest 3 lb. You can however make your own Belgian Candi Sugar at home with just a few simple things, some time and some regular table sugar that you can get for about $2.50/4 lb. bag ($0.63/lb).  As I write this Christmas season is just around the corner and thus the reason I’m preparing some candi sugar.  I’m preparing to brew one of my favorite and most interesting beers I’ve ever had.  It is based on a Northern Brewer recipe Saison de Noel.  Mine is identical, but I use homemade dark candi sugar instead of the candi syrup.  If you want the quick instructions, just read the headings.

Oh, and this recipe could be used to create windows for a gingerbread house too!

Equipment / Ingredients Required:

  • Table Sugar (1 lb. sugar yields approximately 1 lb. candi sugar)
  • Lemon Juice (addition of approximately 1 tsp. / lb.)
    • Used to “invert” the sugar
  • Candy thermometer
    • This one had the best reviews.  They indicated that the temperature markings would come off of others
    • I like the coded indicators for different crack temperatures
    • These are good, because they keep the bulb off of the bottom of the pot, which will help to prevent false readings
  • Silicone baking mat (Trust me, this is the best way to do it)
    • Less expensive that actual Silpat brand
    • Fit our inventory of baking pans better
    • We’ve had ours for almost a year now and they get used often.  Still no staining or degradation in the material.
    • My wife is a great baker, so this was an easy sell on why we “needed” them
  • SRM color chart (for consistency)

Why I recommend the silicone mats?  Past fails…

  • Non-stick baking pan
    • Yes, they are non-stick, as long as it isn’t Candi Sugar you are making on them
    • You can warp the baking sheet to pop it off, but quite a bit still sticks.
  • Wax paper
    • Stuck to the hardened Candi Sugar
    • I ended up with bits of wax paper floating in the boil
    • I did catch it with a colander when I poured into my fermenter, but just a pain
  • Foil
    • Still no luck
  • Just learn from my mistakes and buy some silicone mats!

Procedure:

 

002-Candi Sugar - lemon juice

Get your lemon juice ready

As I mentioned before, you need about 1 tsp. per pound of sugar.  I love using syringes for liquid measurement.  We have 3 kids, and so we’ve got about a bunch of these from all the prescriptions they’ve needed.  I just used lemon juice.  Fresh squeezed or the pre-bottled stuff will work.

002-Candi Sugar - Just Sugar

Pour the sugar into a pot

With candi sugar, you put in a pound of sugar, you pretty much end up with a pound of candi sugar.  I recommend putting in a little extra to account for some sticking to the pot when you pour it and some of it ending up in your mouth when you are done.  It’s so good it tastes like candy!  Oh wait..

002-Candi Sugar - warming up

Add just enough water to saturate the sugar

If you add more water than necessary, it won’t ruin it.  You’ll just be waiting longer for the water to boil off.  You’ll be surprised at how little water you need.

002-Candi Sugar - maintaining temperature

Add lemon juice and warm up to temperature (260-275 degF)

Pour in your lemon juice and you want to warm to between 260-275 degF.  This is right between “Hard Ball” and “Soft Crack”.  It will take a bit of time to get the sugar dissolved and boil the water off.

Maintain temperature for about 20 minutes

Once you get the mixture into the temperature range, you want to dial back the heat on your cooktop.  I took it down to about 4/10 and was able to maintain with just 2 large spoonfuls of room temperature water at a time.  This is just like a boiling kettle, in that if you walk away, you could come back to a mixture that has overheated and made a mess or cooled too much.  I fluctuated through the range, but was averaging about 270 degF throughout the initial 20 minutes and on into the darkening period.

After 20 minutes, keep at temperature and decide how dark you want it to get

Take a sample small spoonful and drop it onto a piece of wax paper to do a color check with your handy dandy SRM chart.  Yes, I know I said not to use wax paper, but it is semi-transparent and if you also put a piece of white paper under it, you will be able to better judge the color.  Now SRM is officially taken through 1 cm of beer and my spoonfuls ended up at about 0.1″ (2.5 mm).  You aren’t measuring an exact SRM, but you are at least establishing a reference for the next time you make the candi sugar that will lead you down the path of repeatability.  The longer you keep at temperature, the darker the candi sugar will be.  Scroll to the bottom to see the results of my experiment of sugar color versus time.

Once you are happy with the color, raise to 300 degF (Hard Crack)

Raise to 300 degF… All you need to do is raise the temperature of the mixture to 300 degF then pour onto your silicone pad lined baking pan.

002-Candi Sugar - ready for sugar

Pour Some Sugar on Me!

Make sure you have a hot pad under the pan or you might do something unintentional with your countertop.  Also, be very careful when pouring.  300 degrees is HOT and you don’t want to burn yourself or splash any all over your nice kitchen.  It is a pain to clean up.

002-Candi Sugar - finished

Let cool

I was making dark candi sugar this time, so it is much darker than you would want in a Tripel.  It also adds some burnt caramel, smokey flavors to your beer.

Clean your equipment immediately

Just like your brewing equipment, it is much much easier to clean right after you are done with it than it is when it has been sitting around for a while.  The candi sugar will harden on everything and be much more difficult to clean off.  You can soak in hot water, but don’t wait for that water to cool.

Break into pieces

Once the candi sugar has cooled completely, simply peel the silicone mat off of the back of the candi sugar sheet.  You can also bend the sheet to help break the candi sugar into smaller pieces.  I typically just break into small enough chunks that it will fit into a gallon plastic storage bag.  Then I just chuck it in the freezer until brew day.

Nerd Alert!level_5

As I was letting the sugar darken, I took a tablespoon every 3-4 minutes in the beginning, then 5 then 10 minutes apart until I got to where I wanted it so that I could come up with some guess on time required for a certain darkness.  I dropped these samples onto a sheet of wax paper laid on top of a plain white sheet of paper on a cooking sheet.  YES, I know I told you not to use wax paper, but these samples were not going to be used for anything but color measurement.  Technically SRM is measured with a specific wavelength of light through 1 cm (0.4″) sample.  I measured the thickness my hardened samples and they measured 0.008″ to 0.012″.

 

002-Candi Sugar - different levels

There might be some equations out there to scale one thickness sample to the equivalent for SRM measurement.  So my measurements, although not actual SRM, are good enough for me to be able to repeat a certain darkness based on time or spot checking the value to my SRM color chart.  Below is a chart of “SRM” versus total cook time at 270 degF of my samples.

Plot of “SRM’ versus time (Your times may vary)

002-Candi Sugar - SRM vs Time

Source Data

002-Candi Sugar - SRM vs Time source data

Like this post?

Consider making a small donation or share on your favorite social hangout.