It’s a small step from kit brewing to extract brewing; the two main differences are that you buy your extract, yeast and hops separately, and you add your hop flavour yourself. There are more fun details to get into beyond what we look at here, but for now we’re just looking at what’s important for a brewer moving on from kits. We’ll build on this knowledge base as we get into steeping and all-grain recipes.
Large saucepan (at least 5 litres). Making beer with extract and adding your own hops is the first step in getting creative. You need something big enough to allow the hops to move around when you make the hop tea to add to your brew.
Large strainer. Straining the hop tea before adding the extract is not vital but you’ll have to remove the hops at some point. A big sieve is best, but a colander with a clean cotton teatowel draped over it will do just as well. Just rinse the teatowel in hot water first and wring it out.
Hydrometer. This handy little thing floats in your beer and tells you the “gravity”, which is the density of the brew compared to water; specifically, how much sugar is in it. Taking measurements before and after fermentation will tell you how strong your beer is. You don’t need one of these for kit brewing, because following the instructions will give you a beer reasonably close to the ABV specified by the manufacturers. Check the useful links page for a link to an ABV calculator.
A keg. Kegging beer allows it to be less carbonated than bottled beer as all the beer is occupying one large volume. If you brew bitter or other ales, you’ll be able to have a pint with the typical pub carbonation – less fizzy than bottled – and better assess the quality of your brew compared to those beers you know from the pub.
Hops. Hops give your beer that refreshing bitterness you get in a lager, the overpowering kick you get in a Kentish bitter, and the floral aroma and citrus flavour you get in an American Pale Ale. These differences are decided by the type of hop, and more importantly, when you add the hops. The earlier in the boil you add the hops, the more bitterness you get. The later you add them, the more actual flavour, and adding later still – for instance, after fermenting – provides the aroma.
There are few hard rules about hopping, and brewers are constantly experimenting and making hybrid beers. At times the same thing may be done out of necessity when only certain ingredients are available. A quick comparison between recipes for stout, bitter and APA will give you an idea of what to use, how much and when.
Check the useful links page for information about hop types and uses. Alongside the flavour characteristics, the common thing you will notice is the Alpha Acid percentage. This is the compound that gives beer its bitterness, and sometimes higher AA hops will be used only for bittering, added at the start of the boil for economy’s sake.
Yeast. Yeast has two main characteristics you need to know for extract brewing: the speed of the brew and the operating temperature. Yeasts will only operate within a certain temperature range. A yeast with a broader range will be more forgiving of the environment you have to brew in, meaning that you can brew in summer without a cellar as long as you tuck the fermenter away in the coolest corner of the house.
Certain yeasts, such as Nottingham, can ferment so fast you don’t know it’s happened. Some, especially specialist beer yeasts, need time to finish the job and properly mature the beer. The initial fermentation (usually 3-5 days) is called primary fermentation, the maturing stage (usually 2-4 weeks) is called secondary fermentation, and this is when the yeast processes by-products and “cleans” the beer. Safale S-04 (better for ales) and S-05 (better for stouts and pale ales) are fast, have a broad temperature range, and mature reasonably quickly.
Maturing the beer. As a rule of thumb, your beer is generally ready to drink after primary fermentation plus one week per ABV percentage point. For example, you can probably expect a blonde ale to reach a final gravity of around 1.012. If the gravity of your starting mixture (or wort, as brewers call it) is 1.055, the calculator tells us your beer will end up at around 5.7%. A week for primary plus 6 weeks to mature = 7 weeks. This way you can tell when your beer will be not just drinkable but tasty.