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I started my first homebrew a few days ago. I used a John Bull India Pale Ale beer kit made by Young's (West Midlands, UK). The airlock is bubbling away merrily and I've taken the lid off the fermenter and had a sniff - got a huge fizzy hit in the nose (won't get so close next time!) and can detect a general beery smell so hopefully all will be well.

Anyway, I was wondering what sort of result I might expect as a newbie from a beer kit (assuming no silly mistakes)? I'm not expecting to win any awards, but on the other hand, it's going to be a waste of effort if it's undrinkable.

TL;DR - Can a newbie make something drinkable or is it going to take years of experience?

UPDATE: Thanks for answers so far. Sounds like it could be better than I was hoping it might be! I'll come back and update once it's done and let you know how I got on.

Some extra info: The kit cost £10 and included yeast (in a sachet). The instructions were to tip the canned malt-extract into a brewing bin, add 1kg of sugar and add 4 litres of boiling water, so I didn't need much special equipment. Stir and top-up to 23 litres with cold water.

So, ingredients cost £11.

Equipment (so far):

  • £15 - Brew bin
  • £2 - Bung and airlock
  • £3 - hydrometer
  • £3 - trial jar
  • £3 - Bruclens steriliser (sanitizer)

UPDATE 2: Wow - it came out better than I expected, but pretty much in line with the opinions expressed here - that is, I don't think it was award-winning, but it was certainly very drinkable (all gone now!) I've paid money in pubs for stuff that wasn't as nice. I've got a second kit on the go now - will probably stick to kits initially, but will be back here for advice/info when I want to progress from there. Thanks for the answers and encouragement.

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Glad to hear it was a success! I stuck with kits for my first 3 or 4 batches before starting to brew my own recipes with extracts and specialty grains. The kit beers got good reviews from my friends, and sometimes better reviews than my own recipes! I'd encourage you to continue with kits until you have the general process down and have developed good sanitation practices, and then branch out to extract/specialty grain recipes. –  Bill Sep 17 '10 at 16:51

7 Answers 7

up vote 17 down vote accepted

You can make beer from kits that are better than just drinkable as a newbie.

Especially, when you continue to consult websites like this and others to get research and questions answered about how to do this or do that.

For the newbie using a kit their are two areas to focus on that will give you great beer.

  1. Sanitation. You hear it over and over because its true. You have no hope of making decent beer, even drinkable beer, if your sanitation isn't solid. That said sanitation is an easy step in the process. Just soak all your equipment that comes into contact with the beer for the required amount of time (depending on sanitizer of choice) and your good to go. I prefer no rinse sanitizers like Star-San.
  2. Fermentation management. The yeast does all the important work in the brewing process. When working with kits all you are doing is boiling ingredients essentially (and #1 Sanitation). So if you focus on providing great yeast and work to have steady and dependable fermentation temperatures great beer is almost a guarantee. For a newbie, you don't need to dive right into yeast starters first thing. For the first couple batches be sure to rehydrate dry yeast in water prior to pitching (water should be sanitary remember). Or pitch the freshest tube of liquid yeast you can. Once you are comfortable with doing those steps, maybe a starter culture is in your future. And you WILL notice the difference. For temp control its a little more tricky. An old fridge is best, but a swamp cooler works pretty well too as a cheaper alternative. A swamp cooler may not be good as maintaining a set temperature, but it is pretty good at maintaining a stable temperature (which is often just as important).

Kit brewing is fun and easy. Follow those two steps and keep researching them and you'll make really good beer. I bet that first batch will be great even without having read this.

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Brewchez hits the nail right on the head here. Oh, and remember Charlie Papazian's advice, "Relax, don't worry. Have a homebrew." –  Pulsehead Jul 1 '10 at 13:55
    
What no up vote? I'm not saying that for the points, I am just saying it because voting is what makes this site work, no voting, might as well just be at a regular forum. Its all for the site!!! –  brewchez Jul 1 '10 at 14:16
    
I gave ya' an upvote. –  markskar Jul 1 '10 at 15:25
    
Kits are how pretty much everyone gets started and are a great way to do it. The only thing I recommend is that you get kits that will list all the ingredients so you can see what the different grains/hops contribute. Williams Brewing, for example, won't tell you what's in the kit = Sucks. Breworganic.com and many others will. So get a kit that list ingredients, brew it and then get it again and brew it again. Only the 2nd time swap out one of the grains in the grain bill. Or swap out one of the hops in the hop schedule and then note the difference. Keep a log. You'll learn a lot. –  Juanote Jul 10 '10 at 4:33

I cannot express any opinion about this brand, having only tried munton's and brewferm beer kits, but, as far as I may know from those, beer from kits is not, as you already guessed, an award-winning beer, but it's certainly much better than any commercial bottled beer you may have tried! So relax, you'll enjoy all your batches starting from the first one! ;)

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2  
I disagree about award winning part. The ingredients in most kits are top notch or at least no different than other ingredients. If you brew well and take proper steps the beer can be great. Great beer comes from process more than ingredients and recipes. –  brewchez Jul 1 '10 at 10:44

You can brew a great batch of beer using tips that Brewchez mentions in his response.

The only thing I'd mention about the John Bull kits, is that it's a "hopped extract", meaning the hop additions are already included in the syrup. If you try other (usually more expensive) ingredient kits, you'll generally find that you'll get unhopped extract with hops to add to the boil.

Using the John Bull kit, you'll get a decent batch, but you can have much more control over the final outcome (and the recipe itself) by using unhopped extracts and adding your own hops. It can be a lot of fun to play around with different types of hops and when to add them.

Ingredient kits can in fact turn into "award-winning" beers if your process and sanitation are good, so I have to disagree with Tetragrammaton on that. Ingredient kits are a great learning tool for new homebrewers because the recipes can show you what goes into each style of beer. After you learn what you need to, you can start creating your own recipes based on your experiences with ingredient kits.

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It's not the kits that suck, it's the instructions.

Modern kits contain ingredients of MUCH higher quality than homebrewers used to have to deal with. If you buy your kit from a shop that has high turnover (morebeer and northernbrewer are pretty safe bets, I'd think) than you don't risk getting old extract.

That being said - the instructions (and advice you will get from many homebrew shop owners) are not the way to make the best beer. They oversimplify the instructions so they don't scare off the newcomers to the hobby. If you follow the instructions, you'll probably make good beer, but if you do a little research and modify the instructions to your liking, you can make GREAT beer from a kit.

Not to self-promote, but I have an article on my site @ http://www.lootcorp.com/2008/05/22/five-things-which-made-me-a-better-brewer/ which details some steps I took which made a big difference in the quality of my beer. As brewchez mentioned, fermentation and temp control are HUGE. Making yeast starters helps a lot too. And even if you don't go all grain, it is simple to get a kit with some specialty grains to add some depth of flavor - you simply steep these in your brewing liquor (hot water to non-brewers) while you are heating it up - just be careful to stay below 165*F or so when steeping or you can extract astringency from the grain.

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I try to keep it simple and have found this to produce an excellent quality brew from kits. Try to stay away from corn sugar except for priming. If you spend a little more money and use 1 and ½ cans of hopped malt extract instead of 1 can and 1 kg of corn sugar you will produce a superior 4%-5% beer with lots of body and head. I use 1 can of Cooper Canadian blonde and ½ can of Coopers Cerveza, no corn sugar. The Cerveza has hardly any flavor to it and can pretty much pass itself off as unhopped malt extract so the brew isn’t over flavoured. No siphoning off to a secondary carbouy either. Makes things way simpler and I found no difference in taste. Leave it in the sealed primary with an airlock for two weeks at room temperature 70 degrees Fahrenheit, siphon it into a separate container and add 180 grams of Corn sugar diluted in some hot water to prime and bottle it. Age a minimum of two weeks before drinking. Makes 23 liters. My carboy is made out of a plastic pail that a wine kit was sold in. They are same diameter as the universal 20l pail but a little taller and holds almost 30 L. I perforated the lid to take a rubber stopper with an airlock by heating up an approx. 1”socket on my BBQ and with some pliers and took the hot socket and melted a perfectly round hole into the lid that came with the pail. Don’t fill it too high with wort or the foam will bubble through the airlock and make a mess. I usually only make 20 liters to allow for a lot of room for the head the yeast will produce while it is working and mix the 180 grams of priming sugar with 3 liters of hot water and add it to the 20 liters of wort which has been siphoned into a separate container at bottling time. Things learned the hard way: Use plastic bottles. You aren’t going to drink out of the bottle anyways because of the sediment and they are way more practical than glass. Spend the money and buy the self-priming siphon contraption. Nothing worse than sucking on a hose. A scale for measuring priming sugar is really handy too and pretty cheap nowadays.. Never prime with malt extract as it will make your beer taste like crap. Found out the hard way! Cool your wort as fast as possible when first mixing ingredients. If you have boiled all of your water to disinfect it let it cool to room temperature before adding the malt extract diluted in a few liters of hot water to it. I can’t stress this enough. You will have nasty tasting beer if you don’t. Remember yeast will die if pitched into water too hot to put your hand into but will survive -40 no problem. I have always just used household bleach as disinfectant for cleaning all equipment and bottles and have never had a sanitization problem. Cheap and effective. Be patient.

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IMO, You can make better beer as well as a large commercial brewer from a kit. You may not be able to replicate a fine craft beer without close recipe & ingredient control.

As 6 mo. old brewers (son & I) we've made some good beers - all from kits. Several friends and relatives have skipped the commercial beers to drink ours and I am quite proud of that. we even came in first with a pale ale in our local hombrew club contest.

My approach is to learn as much as I can about brewing while making one-step-at-a-time changes to our process. I've added partial-mash (easy), went full boil (a bit more complicated), just planning & testing temp control. I think its important to take time to learn, brew/practice, taste/test & adjust and not try to do too much too fast. It is way too easy to spend too much on this hobby for negligible changes in results.

Have fun and don't over stress the work unless you are planning on going commercial.

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Kit vs extract vs all grain is to me like putting a frozen pizza in the oven vs cooking with sloppy Joe's hamburger helper vs making your own pasta from scratch. You can get good results from all. Just because you put in more work doesn't mean you get better results.

That said, when I brew I brew all grain because I want to spend the time on it and because I want to tweak things and learn. If I wanted fast and simple, I just go to the store and buy beer.

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