I have a friend who is interested in homebrewing and he got a “Mr. Beer” kit for Christmas. He’s been asking me a bunch of questions, so I thought I might as well post them here.
Q: Hey, how come this thing doesn’t have a place for CO2 to escape? I thought the fermentation process creates lots of CO2.
It absolutely does. If you tried to make beer in a sealed container you’d make a bomb.
The Mr. Beer (we discovered after contacting their customer support line) has grooves in the screw-on lid that allow CO2 to escape. That doesn’t sound like the greatest design to me, but it’s probably good enough.
After his first batch, which was made from the kit that came with the Mr. Beer machine, he said …
Q: My beer is sweet and flat. What did I do wrong?
If it’s too sweet, that means the yeast wasn’t able to ferment enough of the sugar. There could be several causes for that. The most likely are (1) you fermented at the wrong temperature, or (2) the yeast got “stuck” before it finished.
Later I learned that instead of using the recommended 2.5 teaspoons per liter of bottling sugar, he used 2.5 tablespoons. That had me worried. I was imaginging exploding bottles in his basement. (Hey, Charlie Papazian is right about relaxing, not worrying and having a homebrew. But exploding bottles are no joke.)
By my calculations, 2 teaspoons per liter is better. (2 tsp / liter corresponds to 3/4 cup in a traditional 5 gallon batch.)
But anyway — what was the problem? Clearly the excess of bottling sugar would have contributed to sweetness, but why was it flat? Why didn’t he get gushers?
Clearly the yeast didn’t ferment all the sugars. The yeast might not have had enough oxygen at the start of fermentation, but I didn’t consider that too likely. Probably the beer was simply too cold and the yeast never really got going. I recommended that he move the bottles to a warmer spot and keep an eye on them — e.g., open one every couple days to see if they’re getting too carbonated.
Of course it’s better to take a specific gravity reading before you bottle to ensure fermentation is done, but he’s just starting and doesn’t have a way to measure specific gravity. The Mr. Beer instructions have you wait two weeks and then bottle — which is good enough in most cases.
He moved the bottles to a warmer place and he did eventually end up with gushers. I was trying to come up with a solution to that, but he simply poured out the rest of the batch and chalked it up to experience.
On a subsequent attempt we decided to do a batch together. We did a little more than a double batch, and we just siphoned 2 gallons into his Mr. Beer. This time things were off to a better start.
The side of the Mr. Beer is brown, but transparent, so you can see how much foam you’ve got on top of your beer. On his first batch, there wasn’t much foam (supporting the idea that the yeast never had a fighting chance).
My foamy head is now just a small patch of foam floating in the center. Does that sound about right? Can I bottle on Friday?
Ah. Now we have a good fermentation going on. We aerated it well when we siphoned it into his Mr. Beer, and he was using a very good yeast — a whole packet of Safale 05 in a 2-gallon container. If anything’s gonna start a fermentation, that will.
I am looking for a 8 qt. stainless steel pot. The Paula Dean pot is $50, Sears has one for $8. What do I need to spend? Is that big enough? My plan is to boil 5 or 6 quarts then add enough cold water to the keg for the 2 gallons.
Some people recommend a full wort boil — even for an extract batch — but that’s for another day, especially since he’d have to get a wort chiller to make that worthwhile. For now, boiling part of the wort is just fine, and topping off with tap water helps to ensure the beer is oxygenated.
I think 12 or even 16 quarts is the better bet, even if you’re only boiling part of a 2-gallon batch. Boiling wort really foams up, and it’s good to have a little room to expand if he ever wants to make larger batches.
You can get big cooking pots pretty cheap at food stores that cater to Hispanics. They tend to have a pretty good selection of pots at pretty cheap prices. Get stainless steel.
If the fermentation process is done when the yeast consumes all of the sugar then how is more CO2 produced when you add sugar during the bottling process?
The fermentation is done, but the yeast is still there — dormant — waiting for more food. When you add sugar at bottling time the yeast wakes up and ferments that sugar too, creating the CO2 in the bottles.
Some recipes call for adding sugar to the boil. What’s up with that?
Sugar is less expensive than malt, so brewers have often added various kinds of sugar to the boil to get more fermentables at a lower cost. Adding sugar can make a cidery taste, but some styles rely on sugar (like some Belgian beers).
Generally speaking it’s better to use malt extract and skip the sugar, but it’s no crime to add some. Brown sugar or molasses can add an interesting flavor to a beer.
Hey — homebrewing is all about experimentation.