Sunday, May 29, 2011

Homebrewing Review and Info

This review is from: Thomas Coopers Premium Selection Sparkling Ale Hopped Malt Concentrate, 3.75-Pound Can (Grocery)
I have been a homebrewer for many years, but have taken a hiatus until recently. As I got back into this traditional American hobby, I was drawn to try the Coopers kits (apparently, Coopers is used as an adjective in Australia, without an apostrophe, so I will try to follow their usage, even though it feels like it a possessive to this Yank). There were two main things that drew me to the Coopers Kits, initially. One was the fact that I liked their beers, which are among very few non-Belgian bottle-conditioned beers found in the United States. Second, had to do with the Super Saver option on Amazon, which I find very convenient if I don't want to make the large individual purchase needed to qualify for $8 shipping from some of the large online home brew shops.

The Coopers individual cans are very aggressively priced when you consider that they are eligible for Super Saver Shipping on Amazon. Their kits are perhaps slightly less aggressively priced than are the individual cans, but are also available for Super Saver Shipping with no further purchases. A couple of clicks and they can be on their way.

The purchaser should also be aware that Coopers Cans and Kits make 6 gallons of beer, while the norm for American kits is only 5 gallons. (And as a dig at all my fellow backward Americans, let me say that these kits actually make 23 liters of beer. Americans were supposed to be adopting the metric system back in the mid-1970's, but I guess Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama missed the memo, so we, along with our close allies, Liberia and Burma, remain using our quasi-British system apart from everyone else in the world.)

These kits also contain high quality ale or lager yeast, while many other kit purveyors include no yeast at all, which is not a problem for many brewers who have yeast stocks or who brew on top of previous batches, but many folks like the convenience of a good yeast which is made to be sprinkled and forgotten about. The 7 grams included by Coopers seems to be plenty, with no need for a starter or extra nutrients.

By further way of comparison of the economics of homebrewing, in my area, a 30-pack case of Old Milwaukee goes for $15.99, which is essentially the same cost per beer as one of the Coopers kits, which produce close to ten six packs for approximately $32.00.

So, while it is necessary to equate between the different volumes that American kits make versus Coopers kits, and the yeast included, it must be noted that there are kits from excellent home brewing supply houses that are perhaps cheaper, excluding the flat $8 for shipping that such purveyors now seem to be charging for large orders, and that often, such kits are arguably of better or comparable quality to the Coopers kits, but these types of kits also entail much more time and work (or fun, depending on your perspective).

Do you like straining hops? I don't, particularly, because they are messy, but some people don't mind. Do you like boiling wort for an hour and then trying to cool it? None of this is necessary with the Coopers Kits, which are pre-boiled and hopped. How about yeast starters? Do you like steeping grains for thirty minutes? Some people do like doing these things, but for many of us, it is more work, and time, and the results tend to be more variable, even if such techniques do at times produce a superior beer.

Coopers individual cans, combined with extra malt, sugar or maltodextrin, depending on the recipe are an excellent way to get very good, almost foolproof beer at essentially the price of the cheapest beer in the liquor store.

I have made several Coopers kits, including the Sparkling Ale, Aussie Pale Ale, Bitter, Euro-Lager and Pilsner, and have been happy with all of them.

Especially commendable are the Sparkling and Aussie Pale Ales, which are intended to be very close to Coopers excellent (but expensive, given the value of the Australian dollar) brewery versions, which can be found in the U.S. for up to $12 a six pack.

The Sparkling and Aussie Pale Ale kits ferment quickly and can be ready to drink in three weeks or so, and may be the easiest and most fool-proof kits that I have ever used. If the user has any further questions, Coopers has a wonderful web site that will even walk you through the steps of using their commercial brewery yeast with the kits to get even closer to their classic commercial versions, which were so highly touted by Michael Jackson.

There is no hiding the ball on the Coopers web site. If their kits, which include non-traditional carbonation drops and additional fermentables are not for you, they provide equivalent do it yourself recipes, as well as alternate ones if you just want to go with the single can instead of the kit.

I have also made two of the Coopers lagers. Because newbies are often more likely to want to make lagers, it should be stressed that making lagers at home is much more difficult, than making ales or stouts. This has nothing to do with Coopers. This is simply a truth of brewing.

Lagers tend to be more one dimensional in taste, so there is very little to hide any flaws. Lagers require brewing temperatures that are much more difficult to achieve for homebrewers without fancy equipment, especially between the months of May and October.

Lagers also require a different type of yeast--and yes, Coopers kits ship with real lager yeast, apparently a type that will ferment at a higher temperature than most lager yeasts. Coopers recommends between 21 and 27 degrees Celsius. Perhaps this is because Australia shares the climatic feature of being sizzling hot in the summer time with most of the U.S.

We recently caught a good patch of May weather in the Mid-Atlantic where the temperatures basically stayed in the high 50's to low 60's Fahrenheit for a couple of weeks, and I was able to make a final Pilsner, but I wouldn't try again until fall. Ales in the basement will still be fine, though.

Finally, lagers need much more time to develop and mature. If you don't already have beer on hand, you are likely to find it very difficult to wait the 90 days or so that Coopers recommends that you wait before drinking its lagers. This is a period about three times as long as it takes for an ale to be ready.

A couple of reviewers have mentioned that people should change up the Coopers included recipes, by swapping in additional malt for those recipes that call for dextrose or sucrose.

This is highly debatable. First of all, if you want the beer you make to look like the one pictured on the front of the can, then this is bad advice. Follow the included recipe.

Second, the prohibition on sugar is one of those hoary myths that refuses to go away. Yes, if you make your beer with half sugar in terms of fermentables, then it may have a rum or cidery note. The general rule is to avoid over 20 percent of fermentables as sugar. Sugar is used in all sorts of well known British and Belgium ales to good effect. Substituting Coopers light dry malt (or anyone's) will make good beer, too, and possibly better, albeit it will change the color and possibly the hop balance, so you never know.

What you do know is that such a substitution will deviate from the look and recommended recipe and will cost MORE.

Coopers is a great brewing institution. Unless you know what you are doing, follow the recipe, and if you don't, well, don't worry. I have never had an undrinkable batch no matter what.

All that being said, if you want to spend a slight bit more and you don't need the convenience of a ready made kit with the carbonation drops (two sucrose sugar cubes which are cheaper, work almost as well, in spite of their tighter fit into bottles), then you might try the corresponding Coopers Can in place of the kit and substitute a second can of their $10.99 Light Malt Extract. This will increase the fermentables, giving you a higher ABV, but it will slightly lighten the color of the beer, and will cost a few dollars more. They make three versions so you can try to match the color as best you can.

Generally, using more malt versus using more sugar, does result in a "better" beer. This is generally recognized by almost anyone who brews, but this in no way means that doing so will always result in a tastier beer. Coopers formulated these kits (and recipes) to work with sucrose (or dextrose, either is fine) with the goal of achieving a specific taste, body and mouth-feel. Part of this has to do with Coopers use of maltodextrin, which is an adjunct that is not discussed very much in the U.S., but from my experience, almost always improves a beer when used in small amounts, by improving the beer's body and head and slightly increasing the beer's gravity.

The fact that sugar and maltodextrin are much cheaper than dry malt is an additional benefit. Sugar obviously can be bought anywhere, but for those looking for maltodextrin at a decent price, you might try Carbo-Gain, which is sold as a body-building supplement, but is pure maltodextrin.

One last bit of misinformation often heard about these kits is that people should ignore the instructions and boil them anyway. Many homebrewing books seem to advise this as well. Coopers staunchly reject this line of thinking, as does Brewferm and I believe Munton's does as well. Modern homebrewers seem to be coming around. I notice that some of the online homebrew merchants now advise strongly against boiling these kits, as do many of the online brewing sites.

I think that much of the problem has to do with the division in the hobby between extract brewers and all-grain brewers. Certain techniques may be necessary for all-grain brewers that are actually superfluous or counter-productive for extract brewers.

The Cooper cans have already been boiled and are sterile. If you boil them again, you will carmelize the wort and the resulting beer will not be as clear as most people would like. It will likely have that cloudy look that homebrew and brewpub beer often has. It will still taste good, but why spend the time and go to the trouble of boiling the wort when it is actually counter-productive? I can't think of any reason.

I have seen some claim that boiling is necessary for a good "cold break", which is a technical term referring to how proteins in beer come out of solution. But the Cooper's kits have already been boiled and thus have their "cold break". Furthermore, if you boil the kits, you may boil away the included hop extracts, which is probably why many homebrewing books advise people to add hops even when using hopped extract, since these books tend to advise boiling all extract kits.

If you use outside (i.e., non-kit) ingredients, here is what works well. Heat a couple of liters of water to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix in your sucrose, dry malt or maltodextrin, depending on the recipe, and hold it at 160 degrees for fifteen minutes or so to sterilize it. This is necessary, particularly if you are using sugar, maltodextrin, or extract that has already been opened. If you don't have a thermometer, you can boil these small liquid amounts which will probably be about a quarter of your fermentables or so, but it may increase your cooling time a bit.

At this point, turn off the heat, and either put the mixture in the fermenter, followed by the contents of the Coopers can, or pour the Coopers can in with the solution of your outside ingredients. The first way is closer to what Coopers recommends, but I find it difficult to stir the sticky malt in the fermenter this way, so I personally put the can in at flame-out, and since the wort and can are already sterile, there should be no problems with sanitation this way, but it does require a bit more cooling which may be difficult for some people.

Either way, because the wort has not been boiled, or only briefly boiled, and the Coopers malt extract has only been briefly and slightly heated at flame-out, the beer turns out lighter and crystal clear. Hop presence is maximized.

In the past, when I bought at bricks and mortar shops, I mostly used Munton's and Brewferm kits, which are also generally excellent, but these firms are not very active on Amazon, and their customer outreach really doesn't compare to Coopers. I also use specialty kits that call for all the extras, but they are time consuming, and in my opinion, apart from the excitement of creating esoteric clones, the beer actually is not any better than that from the simple extracts kits.

People brew for different reasons. Some people want to mash the whole thing themselves from grain; some want to try exotic or esoteric or extreme recipes, which call for extra hops, special yeasts and the steeping of grains vegetables or fruit, and some people want to drink inexpensive classic beer styles that are easy to brew and ready to drink quickly. Coopers kits are for this third group of people. Delicious and highly recommended.