The BSG kits come in a compact and frankly, somewhat unattractive black box. Give me some color or design to stand out on the shelf boys! Inside, however, the ingredients are all well labeled and attractive. The following write-up is specifically for the BSG HandCraft IPA kit, but most of the brewing basics to follow would be the same for kits from any homebrew shops. Nestled inside the small box are a surprising amount of items: two containers of liquid malt extract, a pack of dry malt extract, specialty grains, a mesh bag, 4 oz of hops, American ale dry yeast packet, priming sugar, and bottle caps. For now put aside the bottle caps and priming sugar, since those don't come into use until you are ready to bottle this beer in about a month. If you are not going to brew this up right away, put the yeast in the fridge and the hops in the freezer to maintain their quality.
Get your pot out and fill with 2 gallons of water. Any pot will work, but the bigger the better, if you can do 3 gallons--do it! The more concentrated the boil, the darker your beer is going to become and your IPA may end up a India Brown Ale instead. I used my enameled pot that I use for canning in the fall and it easily fits 3 gallons with some head-space to boot. Make sure to leave a few inches at the top, because when the liquid starts to boil it can get very messy if it overflows. Insert your clip-on metal thermometer. Do not use the glass thermometers--I've seen batches ruined by broken glass and whatever else is inside those things! Down the road the easiest thing you can do to improve your brew is go to a full volume boil with a 7-10 gallon pot.
The grains from the kit come pre-crushed--this could cut the life expectancy of the kit a bit. I'll admit I've had mine for a few months and the grains may have lost some of their flavor by now. Taking a taste of a few kernels they seemed OK to me, so I went ahead with the brew. Uncrushed grains will last a long time if stored airtight and cool. Put the crushed grain into the mesh bag and tie off the end to avoid messy grain spill. Tie the end of the grain bag to a handle of the pot to keep it submerged, but ideally not sitting on the hotter bottom of the pot. Start heating the pot to a goal of 155 degrees F. When the pot reaches the correct temp, turn down the heat to maintain that temp for 15 minutes while the grain steeps. The specialty grains in kits are mostly kilned crystal malts and do not have any residual enzymatic activity, meaning you just need to steep them like a tea to get the flavors and sugars out of the crushed grain rather than truly mashing them. If all of that sounds like a foreign language to you, don't sweat it until you upgrade to all-grain brewing!
3) Watching water heat up...
While the water is heating up, soak the cans of liquid malt extract in the sink with warm water to soften it up and make pouring easier.
4) Steep your "tea".
After 15 minutes of steeping at 155 F, remove the grain bag and raise the temperature of the wort (grain water) to a boil. Don't squeeze the bag and don't get the bag hotter than 170's since both can result in bitter tannic flavors from the hulls being extracted into the beer.
5) Boil away!
Once the wort is boiling, remove from heat and add your liquid extract. Remove from heat so it doesn't scorch on the bottom of the pot. Stir well at this stage. Return the pot to the heat and wait until it gets back to a boil. This is key mistake area for budding homebrewers so pay attention close at this stage! When that sticky sugary wort reaches boiling it will gleefully overflow your pot and all over your stove, counter, and kitchen floor. This happens within seconds, so do not step away at this stage. By continually stirring you can often prevent it, but sometimes have to turn off the heat as well and restart it a minute later after it settles down. A great idea is to keep a cheap plastic spray bottle of water and mist the top of the boiling wort to break surface tension and prevent boil-over. Spouses do not encourage hobbies that make a terrible sticky mess of the kitchen, so be careful! A newer technique for cutting down on the carmelization or darkening of the wort is to add half to a third of the malt extract at the last 15 minutes of the boil. I added the dry malt extract in this kit at that time.
Once the wort has settled into a rolling boil and is no longer threatening to end up on your stovetop, you can add the bittering hops. Each kit will be different, but mine called for an ounce of pellet Chinook--a high alpha bitter hop with plenty of pine aroma. The first addition will balance the sweetness of the malt in the beer, but not give a ton of flavor or aroma to the finished product. My kit called for another ounce of Summit at 30 minutes into the boil, an ounce of Cascade at 15 minutes and another ounce of Cascade at flame-out. The later additions give more flavor and aroma, and less bitterness. I usually set my oven timer for each time interval to keep track of these stages, and set up each addition in an easily poured glass or plastic container. Some beers will have only one hop addition at boil time, others will have multiple additions. Pay a lot of attention for boil-overs at each addition since the hops will give nucleation points for increased bubbles and foaming!
7) Chill Out.
When the 60 minute total boil is over, turn off the heat and bring the pot into the sink. I put my larger pot in the laundry sink since it was more capacious. Run cold water into the sink and add ice if you have any. When the sink water is no longer cold, run it out and replace with fresh cold water. I usually leave the thermometer in the wort so you can monitor how fast the beer is cooling down. I will usually also sanitize the lid and put it over most of the pot to avoid extra stuff (cat hair, fruit flies, sneezes) from falling into the cooling wort. To speed this you may periodically stir or swirl the wort with your spoon, but this risks infection as the wort cools and is longer hot enough to kill any bacteria the spoon. I also like to give the solids in the wort time to settle, which will make racking into your fermenter an easier prospect. This stage usually takes about 30-45 minutes depending on the size of your pot. Later you can buy a wort chiller to speed this up--especially if you do a larger than 3 gallon boil. The quicker you can chill, the more "cold break" protein clumps will form and settle to the bottom of the pot, resulting in a clearer beer.
8) Rack Off.
When the wort is chilled to around 65-68 degrees you can rack into your carboy. Plastic buckets or glass carboys are both fine. I use an auto-siphon which easily starts the siphon into your carboy without getting your bacteria tainted mouth anywhere near it. You will get some particulates and hop sludge into your carboy with this method, but I find it easier and safer than pouring your wort through a strainer into the carboy. Every step after the boil is done and the wort is chilled down risks infection of your beer with wild yeasts and bacteria. Be very good about cleaning equipment with PBW or other oxygen based cleanser, followed by sanitizing with Star-San. If your racking cane touched the table it is now dirty and must be re-sanitized before entering the wort. The single biggest failure in homebrewing is not being great about cleaning and sanitizing.
9) Top up.
In doing a partial boil, you will come out with a concentrated high gravity wort more like that seen in a barleywine. To get this down to the right dilution, water must be added after the boil is done. Prior to using a new carboy I'll add 5 gallons of water and mark the outside of the carboy with a line of duct or electrical tape to help with the process. Kits are pretty accurate on this front--add water to the carboy to take it up to 5 gallons of liquid and you will be close to the final gravity you are looking for. If you want to get fancy (and I do recommend it) take a hydrometer reading after adding the water and shaking up the wort. You will hopefully be near the expected goal specific gravity that the kit calls for. If you are much higher, you can add more water; if lower, you are out of luck at this stage. In theory you should use boiled and cooled water for this to remove any bacteria, but almost no one plans that far ahead. I use Reverse Osmosis water from the grocery store. Tap water is fine, but be aware that your local water character can have some different effects on the final product. I'll be posting some more on that subject later.
The yeast are going to need oxygen to reproduce and get active, and you have just spent an hour boiling off all the oxygen that was in the brewing water. So you now need to get some more oxygen into the wort before pitching the yeast. Easiest and least effective is shaking the carboy--you need to do this for several minutes and it gets tiring. You can hook up aquarium pumps or use pure oxygen with a stainless steel diffusion stone if you want to get fancy. I shook mine because I was lazy, but recommend the other two methods more. Do as I say not as I do! For larger gravity beers and lagers you really need to get lots of oxygen in there to avoid your yeast crapping out on you early or putting off strange flavors.
11) Yeasty Beasties!
For this kit I have a packet of dry yeast. These have improved greatly in the past few years and come in many varieties depending on beer style. Back when I started in the early 1990's there were shady old yeast packets in lager and ale varieties only. Rejoice in the large steps the hobby has taken! Use warm water in a cleaned and sanitized glass or bowl, sprinkle your yeast on top and let it sit for 15 minutes to rehydrate before adding to your wort. Skipping this step can cause extra stress to the yeast and decrease its health and function in making your wort into beer. After this, just pour it into your wort, throw an air-lock on it filled with sanitizer or Vodka and you are good to go.
12) You have now successfully brewed beer!
Keep your fermentation temps 65-68 degrees if possible (depending on yeast strain and directions in your kit.) Primary fermentation takes about a week, but can take longer. When the bubbles in the airlock take more than 3-5 minutes between, you can safely rack again into a secondary for another couple weeks of clarification or directly package into bottles or keg. Some folks swear by not doing a secondary, but I feel I get more odd flavors and haze when I skip that step.
I have at this point just tried the finished beer and transferred it to a keg without doing a secondary. The color was a bit darker than I wanted--perhaps I should have added one of the liquid malt extracts later in the boil. The flavor is good but a bit more bitter than I expected. I'm tempted to add some dry hops in the keg (in a boiled nylon bag) for a few days to add a little more bright hop aroma as well. Overall, a good kit with solid recipe and directions. I'll probably do another post on kegging and bottling at some point so keep watching. I also have an entry on fermentation control in the hopper. Or check other sources for info if you need it! Thanks for tuning in! Feel free to comment if you have questions about the process, or other ideas for helpful hints that new brewers might like to know. Also please share this with any friends interested in homebrewing, as they might learn something useful it! I'm intentionally leaving off more advanced techniques, but I previously did a post on yeast starters HERE.