Brewing From a Can

Homebrewing is the art and science of brewing beer at home. It combines the fields of chemistry and biology, much as cooking does, in order to concot something delicious and alcoholic. It involves, in essence, unleashing yeast on a pile of sugar to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. What’s left are unfermentable sugars and water which, kind of like tea, has been flavoured by grains and hops. At it’s most simplistic level, it’s kind of like baking cupcakes from a box; at it’s most complex, it’s like making a cake from scratch, right down to grinding your own flour. It is truly an art and a science and allows just about anyone to jump in wherever they want and make a brew that’s almost guaranteed to be better than the stuff you buy in store: and cheaper, too.

I’ve been brewing for some time. I’ve reached a level where I can do intermediate level brewing — which involves store-bought malt, hops, and grains — with ease, but have yet to break into the expert level stuff (where you make your own malt). I figured today, since I saw a can of Cooper’s Mexican Cerveza for cheap recently, I’d post about it, since it’s summer and there’s not much better than a cool Mexican-style beer on a hot summer day.

Let’s start from the top:


To do it right, you need:

a fermenter and airtight lid that has a hole for an airlock.

an airlock

a turkey baster

a spoon or a whisk — plastic is best, metal is second-best, and wood should be avoided.

sugar — dextrose corn sugar is best.

your can of Cooper’s Mexican Cerveza

a can opener

a big stock pot, if possible (mine is about 3.5 gal, 5 gal is best)

measuring cups

a hydrometer and a thermometer

some kind of sanitizer — I use One-Step, most swear by StarSan.

and, probably most importantly…

a homebrew (if you haven’t made one yet, go buy something that tastes like what you’re making)

And, if you have one:

an assistant.

Now, you can pick up most of this stuff at your Local Homebrew Supply Store, which is awesome, because you’ll pretty much be using the same things over and over, with the exception of one or two ingredients. There are a few things to remember:

Cleanliness is next to Godliness:
If there were seven rules to homebrewing, six of them would be cleanliness. You should handwash everything you use thoroughly and carefully, and making sure what you’re cleaning with is nonscented. Everything that ever comes in touch with your brew after boiling needs to be sanitized. Sanitize everything: your fermenter, your lid, your airlock, your whisk, your thermometer, your hydrometer, your spoon, your can opener: everything. Make sure your hands and workstation are clean. Protip: your fermenter and your lid aren’t needed until the very end, so you can easily sanitize all your equipment inside your fermenter. After sanitizing your lid, pour some sanitizer on top and then store things you’ll be using often (like your whisk) on top so that they stay sanitized.

Yeast is essentially a germ that we’re introducing to our beer. It’s invasive but it can be delicate, so we want it to work in a very clean environment. If your beer is contaminated by rogue yeasts or germs, it can kill off the yeast or mutate with the yeast, resulting in weird and unpredictable flavours. Advanced styles of beermaking sometimes call for this to be done intentionally, but that’s not what we’re doing here so keep that stuff clean  and sanitized.

Note the distinction between clean and sanitized. Clean refers to dirt and stuff: your equipment shouldn’t be stained. Sanitizing refers to removing the actual hidden bacteria. It is possible to sanitize something and not clean it, and to clean something and not sanitize. Make sure you do both.

Most of the equipment you’ll be using will be food-grade plastic. This is high-quality stuff but there is one downside: it scratches easily. The problem with scratches is that scratches can be hard to reach for cleaning and sanitizing. This means that germs can hide out in scratches and never get properly cleaned or sanitized. So, always use plastic on plastic when you can. I use a metal whisk that I’ve never had problems with and can’t really scratch plastic, but it’s definitely best to use a big plastic spoon if you can.

Scratching the equipment isn’t the only concern: plastic and metal, when unscratched of course, are very easy to clean and sanitize. Wood, on the other hand, also scratches easily but is porous and can easily contain germs and bacteria and can be hard to sanitize. So, while it won’t scratch your stuff, it can sabotage it in the end. Use plastic.

With that out of the way, we can move on. So, first thing’s first: sanitize all your stuff by mixing sanitizer and water into your fermenter. Swirl and rub it around so that it coats the entire interior, and leave a bunch at the bottom. Add your equipment. The rule of thumb is to sanitize for at least 15 seconds, but some sanitizers work quicker and some take longer, so read the instructions on your container.

Next, pour yourself a beer.

Next, bring about 2 gallons of water to a boil in your big stock pot. Don’t worry about sanitizing your stock pot because we’ll be boiling water in it: that’ll sanitize it for us. While it’s boiling, take your can of Cerveza and pull off the plastic top. Underneath are instructions and a package of yeast. Set that aside and run the can under hot tap water and leave it in some hot water. See, inside is a thick syrup, and heating it up like that will make it much easier to pour.

Once your water is boiling, take your sanitized can opener and crack the can of Coopers open. Pour it into your stock pot slowly, making to stir as you do. If you let it settle or pour it too quickly, it can burn on the bottom of the stock pot and leave you with a caramel flavour in your beer, which isn’t as appetizing as it might sound. Once you empty it, you’ll have a bunch of syrup left inside: pour hot water into the can and pour it back into the stock pot. Do this once or twice until you get almost all the syrup out. The syrup is a essentially water, malt, and hops, and are pretty key for beer and where your beer will get it’s flavour. You’ll  also want to add some sugar to complement the malt: use dextrose if you can. It varies from can to can, but Cooper’s calls for a “beer enhancer”. These things are usually mostly dextrose, so ignore that. Add some dextrose (3 cups should do it), stir, and let get to a rolling boil for a few minutes. Make sure to watch that it doesn’t boil over.

With that done, you’re going to want to cool your mixture. You can do this several ways. One of the easiest is to fill up your sink with cold water and ice and add the mixture (in brewing terms, it’s called a wort, pronounced wert). Avoid aerating the wort (that is, adding air through vigorous stirring) at this point: it can negatively affect your beer later on down the road and can decrease it’s shelf-life. It’s a minor thing, but an easy thing to avoid. Normally you want this at about 21 degrees celsius, but since we’re dealing with a can mixture you can fudge it a little bit.

Now, dump out almost all the sanitizer in your fermenter, but leave some and fill up a measuring cup. This will help for later on. Sanitizer is generally safe for consumption, so don’t worry about drying the container or rinsing it out or anything, as these steps will only introduce more bacteria (that said, don’t drink straight sanitizer: you’ll be adding roughly 5 gallons of beer, so a few mls of sanitizer won’t kill you). Dump your stock pot in. Remember how I said don’t aerate? Now, aerate. Aeration only has a negative effect when the wert is hot and after the yeast has been introduced: right now, we want as much air in that thing as we can get. Add  water to fill your bucket up to the 5 gallon mark, all the while mixing. You should get something like what I have below:

Now, when you’re confident it’s well mixed, take your sanitized turkey baster and fill up the testing jar that came with your hydrometer to about halfway. Drop in your thermometer. You want about 21 degrees celsius: if you’re a bit over or under, don’t worry too much (unless you’re way off: 15 degrees in either direction would be pretty bad). After you get your temperature, record it. Now, switch that thermometer out for your hydrometer and fill up the jar until your hydrometer is floating.

This type of hydrometer is calibrated for about 20 degrees celsius; it includes a chart in case you’re over or under, so consult that. Take your reading, making sure to spin the hydrometer once or twice: bubbles can catch on the hydrometer, thus affecting your reading. Take your reading and apply the difference from the chart: I wound up with a reading of 1.0293.

That number is referred to as the beer’s specific gravity; the first reading in particular is called the original gravity (or OG). The specific gravity refers to, very simply put, the beer’s weight. Water at 20 degrees celsius has a specific gravity of about 1, so you can see my beer is much heavier than water, which is good. Specific gravity is always taken compared to water in this respect.

Now, the beer is so heavy because of the fermentable sugars contained inside: as these are eaten away by the yeast we’ve yet to add, your SG will drop. When your SG stabilizes (reads the same three days in a row), it’s ready to bottle. This last SG reading is referred to as the final gravity. Subtracting your final gravity from your specific gravity actually gets you your alcohol content: say my FG is .985: 1.0293-.985 nets you .0443; thus, the beer would have an alcohol content of 4.43%. Cool, no? Measuring your OG is tricky, though, and with canned kits it often lands in the 1.02 range and often times, especially for a first timer, this is an inaccurate measure, so take it with a grain of salt.

Anyway, I got ahead of myself: next, sprinkle the yeast into your fermenter. Avoid shaking it whatsoever and add the lid and airlock. The airlock I pictured above is easy to use: take the lid off and fill it between 1/4 and 1/2 of the way up and close again. Put it in the lid’s hole and you’re done. As the yeast eats up the sugar, it’ll produce CO2, which will escape through that airlock… if you have a particularly high OG, it may produce so much CO2 that the lid will pop, so be careful.

That is, more or less, how to get started with homebrewing. I obviously haven’t covered bottling, which is the long and arduous task of making that sweet, sweet nectar bubbly and drinkable, but I’ll cover it when the time comes. In the mean time, that beer needs about a week or so to ferment, so put it someplace around 22-25 degrees celsius and let it bubble away. Keep an eye on it, and if you don’t see activity in the airlock after a day or two it might mean your yeast is dead (which isn’t uncommon with these freeze-dried packs provided by beercan makers). Measure your SG every now and then, and if it’s lowering, it means your yeast is working.

The hardest part of making your first beer is waiting for it to be ready. It’ll take about a week of fermenting and then 1-4 weeks in the bottle for it to be ready. Once you have a few beers under your belt, you’ll have delicious homebrew to tide you over until it’s ready, but on your first one, you’re a bit out of luck. Homebrewers call it “the pipeline”; once you have a good pipeline going, you’ll never go thirsty again.

It’s also very nerve-wracking: odds are you forgot to sanitize something or messed up somewhere, so you’ll spend these weeks fearing for the worst. Homebrew experts use the acronym RDWHAHB: Relax, Don’t Worry, Have A Homebrew. Your first beer, you won’t have any homebrews to enjoy, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to worry. Once you put the lid on, it’s almost entirely out of your hands. Odds are the beer will turn out awesome, and even if you bought it on some supermarket store shelf, it’ll almost definitely taste better than most other beers you’ve ever had. Homebrewing is an awesome hobby and one that’ll keep you entertained, whether you really get into it and make your whole beer from scratch, or whether you’re content with brewing from a can.


3 Comments on “Brewing From a Can”

  1. Anth says:

    This reminds me of something: When can I finally have some JVP Brew?

    Also, you and I should get together and do this. I’m more of a visual and hands on type learner.


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