Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Making great homebrew with a beer kit in a can or pouch

When I started brewing in the early 2010's, my first recipe kit came with two cans of un-hopped malt extract, some specialty malt to steep, and hop pellets to add in the boil. In that era many of homebrewers started that way. Traditionally here in the US, and especially internationally most brewers entered the hobby with an even simpler way to make beer at home: canned extract beer kits. My copy of the 3rd Edition of the Complete Joy of Homebrewing includes a chapter recipes for enhancing canned extract kits.

These canned extract kits contain pre-hopped malt extract. The extract only needs to be dissolved in water before yeast is pitched and the wort is fermented. Usually, but not always additional fermentables are required and dissolved along with the contents of the beer kit.  Then the brewer tops off with cool water to the desired batch size.

The main producers of canned extract kits currently are Coopers, Mangrove Jack and Muntons. The most widely available brand in the US is probably the Mr. Beer line of extract kits and equipment, which is produced by Coopers. Small in size and at moderate cost, Mr. Beer has been a low entry point four countless brewers.

Canned beer kits are popular in places like the UK and Canada where a pint at a pub or craft beer is relatively expensive due to taxes on alcohol. In these places a making a beer kit is a cheaper way to enjoy a beer. Beer kits are also popular in areas like parts of Asia or Eastern Europe where there is little or no craft beer available. Places where if you want anything other than a pale lager you need to brew it yourself.

Beer kits aren't as widely available in US homebrew shops as they were in the past. Coopers has added their Coopers branded kits to the Mr. Beer website. Muntons partnered with a distributor in Canada to set up a new direct-to-consumer website, and to distribute to homebrew shops in the US as well as Canada. Mangrove Jack is distributed by its parent company BSG Handcraft, but their cider kits appear to be more available in the US than their beer kits. 

When I worked for Muntons, I had an opportunity to play with these type of kits for the first time. I produced eight batches of beer kit beer for Homebrew Con in 2019. These type of kits receive a bad rap for making mediocre or worse beer. In my experience this is a bit unfair. Often these kits are being made by novice brewers who are making rookie mistakes like poor sanitation, not controlling fermentation temperature, or using chlorinated tap water. 

One friend made a beer with a beer kit just to prove to friends in his homebrew club he could make a great beer with a beer kit base. Not only could his fellow brewers not tell, he entered the beer in the National Homebrew Competition and advanced to the final round!

Here are my best practices for making beer with a beer kit. 

  1. Try and use the freshest beer kit that you can: The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor. This happens to bread in an oven, malt in a kiln, and wort in a brew kettle as heat accelerates the reaction. In malt extract the Maillard reaction will happen because you have sugars and amino acids floating around in syrupy goo. Since a can of extract sitting in a box or on a shelf isn't heated, the reaction is much slower. Most kits have best by date of two years after packaging. Old liquid extracts and beer kits will be darker, and can have an umami-off flavor.
  2. Read the instructions before starting: Seems simple enough, but it is good to review before starting your brew day. This is also when you want to make sure you are clear on the units used in the instructions. I do not miss constantly going back and forth from US to metric units at work! If making changes to the kit, write out your brew steps.  I created a BeerSmith equipment profile for no-boil extract batches which I use to create and log recipes. I print out my brew steps just as I would for an all grain batch.
  3. Use good water: This is one pitfall I think many kit brewers fall down. By using good water, I am not talking about levels of sulfates, chorides or bicarbonates, I am just talking about good tasting water. Where I live our water is heavily chlorinated; untreated this water will make medicinal-tasting beer. If your tap water tastes great straight from the faucet, it should be perfectly fine for making a beer kit. If you have to filter out chlorine or other impurities, then be sure to filter the water you use to brew, treat your water with a campden tablet, or use bottled water.
  4. Steeping specialty malts: This is one I have never done with a beer kit, but have seen and read about others doing. I'd call this step optional. The beer kit as is will produce the color the beer is supposed to be, and should have the malt flavor built in. What steeping a little bit of specialty malt is intended to do is add a little bit of a fresh malt character and maybe help with foam stability. By a little bit, for a 5 US gallon/19 liter - 6 US gallon/23 liter we're looking at as little as 4oz/115g - 8oz/230g steeped in your brewing liquor as you bring it to a boil before dissolving the beer kit in the water. Here are specialty malts I suggest steeping that do not require mashing.
    1. Pale lager, Pilsner, Blonde Ale, Golden Ale, Hazy IPA kits: A dextrin malt that is drum roasted like Carapils or Carafoam. In these styles you do not want to darken the beer at all.
    2. Pale Ale, Amber Ale, English Bitters, Amber Lagers, Brown Ales, British and American IPA kits: Caramel or Crystal Malt, probably in the 40 L/110 EBC or 60 L/150 EBC range.  
    3. Porter & Stout kits: Chocolate Malt, Black Malt or Roasted Barley. I wouldn't go more than 4 oz/115 g unless you want the beer to be jet black and opaque.
  5. Do NOT boil your beer kit: Beer kits, and liquid malt extract are aseptic because they are packed at hot temperatures. There is no need to boil a beer kit to sterilize it. For that matter the only reason to boil un-hopped liquid extract is to isomerize alpha acids in hops in wort. 
  6. Use hot water to rinse liquid extract cans: Save some extra hot water in a pot or tea kettle to rinse any additional extract off the sides of the can. This makes sure you are getting as much of those sweet fermentables as possible in your fermenter. Additionally this helps clean the inside of the can and makes it ready to be recycled. Be careful when doing this. That can will get hot when you fill it up with near boiling water. Use an oven mitt or towel when holding a metal can full of hot liquid. 
  7. Use malt extract instead of sugar, in most cases: Many of the most common beer kits are the "kit and a kilo" style kit where you have one can of hopped malt extract that is designed to be made with an additional 1kg/2.2lbs of dextrose. Replacing some or all of the sugar called for in the instructions will produce a fuller-bodied and fuller-flavored beer. Often I will make a batch with the beer kit and one can of un-hopped malt extract.
  8. Replace the yeast that comes with the kit, at least most of the time: This is one of the most-common cited pieces of advice in kit brewing. Conventional wisdom is that the yeast that comes with the kit is low quality, and because it has been sitting at room temperature is in poor condition. Like many things in life, the truth is a little more nuanced.
    1. The yeast under the cap of a beer kit almost certainly came from a large manufacturer of dry yeast. The yeast in and of itself isn't 'bad'. 
    2. The yeast in most beer kits is has a fairly neutral flavor profile so it can be used in a wide array of styles. 
    3. The kit manufacturer almost certainly chose a strain with a wide temperature range so it can be forgiving for new brewers, and brewers without temperature control. 
    4. Critically, the yeast that comes with the kit is often selected to ferment a wort with a high amount of simple sugars. That means it has low to moderate attenuation to ensure the kit produces a beer with adequate body and flavor even with a relatively large proportion of simple sugars.
    5. If you use malt extract instead of sugar, I would absolutely suggest replacing the yeast.
    6. Also, replace the yeast if you want to use a yeast more appropriate for the style of beer you are brewing like a lager or wheat beer.
  9. Cleaning and sanitation: Goes without saying that cleaning and sanitization is as critical for kit brewing as any type of brewing. 
  10. Take and keep good notes: If you make something great, you want to know how to repeat it. If your beer is less than great you want to know what to change for future batches. Treat a beer kit brew just like you would an all grain brew day in terms of attention to detail. 

Those best-practices will work if you follow the kit instructions to the letter. If you want to make a porter, and buy a porter beer kit, there probably isn't much you need to change. Still, if you want to make a beer kit your own with your own creative touches, you absolutely can.
  1. Add hops: A dry hop charge a few days before packaging will certainly add hop aroma that might otherwise be missing from a beer kit. You can also add hops while dissolving the beer kit and let them steep for 15 minutes or so at near boiling temperatures to add a little extra hop flavor. Depending on the style I would add hops in 1oz/28g increments per batch to avoid completely throwing off the balance of the kit. If you find you want more hop character you can always add another ounce on your next batch. 
  2. Add additional spices and flavorings: You can also add spices and botanicals while you are heating up your water. Flavorings like coffee and chocolate which need more contact time with the beer can be added in the fermenter before packaging. 
  3. Experiment with different extracts and sugars: This applies to the "kit and a kilo"-style kits. Want to make a dark lager? Just add some amber or dark malt extract to a lager kit. Instead of dextrose you can use other sugars which can add character to your beer like honey, agave nectar, turbinado, demerara, brown sugar, maple syrup, Belgian candi-sugars, molasses, treacle, or anything else fermentable.
  4. Replace top off water with juices: Fruit juices can be the easiest way to add fruit to any beer. With a beer kit it is especially easy to replace a portion of your top off water with fruit juice. A couple things to bear in mind:
    1. Make sure the juice you are using doesn't have any preservatives that will inhibit your yeast during fermentation.
    2. Account for the sugars in the fruit juice you are using. In a one can kit that requires additional sugars, the simple sugars in the fruit juice can replace some or all of the additional fermentable needed. 
    3. Do not use too much juice. Be careful not to add to many simple sugars and risk drying your beer out. You do not want your beer to taste like a wine cooler. Plus, four gallons of something like cherry juice is pretty expensive!
  5. Use a priming sugar calculator to adjust carbonation: Some beer styles are more highly-carbonated that others. Many kit brewers, especially overseas use carbonation drops or prime each bottle with sugar. This works, but is a bit one-size-fits-all. Investing in a separate bottling bucket will enable you to rack your beer on top of a priming sugar solution. This will allow you to adjust the amount of sugar you use more precisely, and have better control the carbonation level of the finished beer. A priming sugar calculator like this one, will tell you how much sugar to add for the style you are making. 
I am sure there are experienced brewers, and brewers who started brewing all grain or even with unhopped extract don't see any need to brew with hopped extract kits. As someone who has been brewing for over a decade, I enjoy making beer kits from time to time because how quick and easy they are to make. I can make a beer kit beer in the time it takes to mash an all grain batch. For brewers short on time, or can only squeeze in a few brew days per year, they should definitely give beer kit brewing a try. 

Some of my favorite kit beer recipes:

Recipe: Suffolk English Red
Style: Fruit Beer
TYPE: Extract

Recipe Specifications
Boil Size: 2.00 gal
Post Boil Volume: 2.00 gal
Batch Size (fermenter): 6.00 gal   
Bottling Volume: 5.75 gal
Estimated OG: 1.042 SG
Estimated Color: 32.1 SRM
Estimated IBU: 19.8 IBUs
Brewhouse Efficiency: 72.00 %
Est Mash Efficiency: 0.0 %
Boil Time: 0 Minutes

1 lbs Muntons Spraymalt Plain Amber [Boil] (10.0 SRM)  Dry Extract                 
4 lbs Muntons Connoisseurs Wheat Beer [Boil] (5.6 SRM) Extract                  
1.12 gal Tart Cherry Juice - Knudsen [Primary] Juice                         
1.0 pkg Muntons Ale Yeast  [23.66 ml]    Yeast        

Based on a clone of New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red from Zymurgy Magazine.

The Amber Dry Malt Extract is to give a little extra malt character to balance all the simple sugars from the juice. I used the yeast with the kit for its moderate attenuation since the cherry juice was adding a ton of simple sugars.

DoNut (Shop) Brown Ale
Style: Spice, Herb or Vegetable Beer
TYPE: Extract

Recipe Specifications
Boil Size: 1.25 gal
Post Boil Volume: 1.25 gal
Batch Size (fermenter): 5.25 gal   
Bottling Volume: 5.00 gal
Estimated OG: 1.050 SG
Estimated Color: 18.8 SRM
Estimated IBU: 18.1 IBUs
Boil Time: 0 Minutes

3 lbs Muntons Spraymalt Plain Light [Boil] (5.0 SRM)  Dry Extract      
4 lbs  Muntons Nut Brown Ale [Boil] (49.2 SRM) Extract                  
1.0 pkg Munton Fison Premium  (Munton-Fison #-) Yeast               
4.00 oz  Coffee (Primary 3.0 days) Flavor           

This beer was inspired by Gentile Brewing's Bastion Brown Ale. I pulled over the brewer at the time to figure out the right dosing on the coffee and when to add it. I used Dunkin's house blend; I recommend a medium roast coffee. A dark roast might dominate the base beer entirely. If you can't find the Muntons Premium Yeast, Safale S-04 is a good substitute. 

Ambar Cerveza Mexicano
Style: International Amber Lager
TYPE: Extract

Recipe Specifications
Boil Size: 2.60 gal
Post Boil Volume: 2.60 gal
Batch Size (fermenter): 5.50 gal   
Bottling Volume: 5.25 gal
Estimated OG: 1.045 SG
Estimated Color: 8.0 SRM
Estimated IBU: 24.0 IBUs
Boil Time: 0 Minutes

2 lbs Muntons Spraymalt Plain Amber [Boil] (10.0 SRM)  Dry Extract        
1 lbs Muntons Spraymalt Plain Dark [Boil] (30.0 SRM)   Dry Extract       
3 lbs 4.8 oz Mexican Cerveza Extract (Muntons) [Boil] (4.2 SRM) Extract           
4.0 oz  Corn Sugar (Dextrose) [Boil] (0.0 SRM)     
1.0 pkg  SafLager West European Lager (DCL/Fermentis #S-23) Yeast       

I saw someone online use the Mexican Cerveza Kit as a base to make something like Modello Negra or Dos Equis Ambar and I had to try it. I played around with different combinations of malt extracts and sugars until the color and fermentability was where I wanted it. A lager strain that can ferment warm like S-23 or 34/70 will produce a clean lager. Lutra Kveik could also work well here. 

OG Sam Summer
Style: Fruit and Spice Beer
TYPE: Extract

Recipe Specifications
Boil Size: 1.25 gal
Post Boil Volume: 1.25 gal
Batch Size (fermenter): 5.25 gal   
Bottling Volume: 5.34 gal
Estimated OG: 1.050 SG
Estimated Color: 5.2 SRM
Estimated IBU: 22.7 IBUs
Brewhouse Efficiency: 72.00 %
Est Mash Efficiency: 0.0 %
Boil Time: 0 Minutes

0.66 oz  Lemon (Dehydrated) (Boil 5.0 mins)  Flavor       
2.00 g  Seeds of Paradise (Boil 5.0 mins)  Spice       
4 lbs  Muntons Connoisseurs Wheat Beer [Whirlpool]     
3 lbs 4.9 oz  Extra Light Malt Extract (Muntons) [Whirlpool]   
1.0 pkg  Munton Fison Ale (Munton-Fison #-) [23.66 ml]    

I really wanted to re-brew my OG Sam Summer last summer, but being short on time I converted it to a beer kit recipe and made it while brewing an all grain batch. This batch was just ok. I drank most of it, but the body was a little heavy and yeasty.

Next time I make this I am replacing the can of Extra Light Liquid Extract with 2 lbs/900 grams of Extra Light or Pilsen Dry Malt Extract, and 0.5 lbs/227 grams of dextrose. I am also replacing the yeast with White Labs 008 East Coast Ale, or Safale S-05. With those changes, this should be damn close to the all grain batch.       

I have also made a similar Belgian Wit variant:
0.5 oz Bitter Orange
0.5 oz Sweet Orange
1 oz Coriander
4 lbs  Muntons Connoisseurs Wheat Beer 
3 lbs 4.9 oz  Extra Light Malt Extract
1.0 pkg Munton Fison Premium 

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