[update 12/15/2015: added a extra paragraph to the extra protip section]
So you’ve gotten the itch, you’re getting ready to brew your first batch of beer and you can’t wait! Well slow down there Sparky! Get ready to go in this with expectations to mess up the first few times because brewing beer is a process, and you have to keep alot of things in mind to make sure you don’t mess it up! Many of us homebrewers have already made many mistakes ourselves and continue to do so. But we’re definitley ones to share our experiences. So here’s a list of ten tips I think are helpful for every homebrewer.
If you haven’t learned how to homebrew yet, I highly suggest started with Jon Palmers website “How to brew“. I’ll eventually get a video series showing and demonstrating the process too, but in the meantime that’s the best place to start.
So onto the list!
1: Cleanliness, cleanliness, cleanliness!!!
If you didn’t get it the first time, cleanliness is KEY! You’re taking sugar water (ok yes it’s ALOT more than that but let’s keep it simple here and introducing cellular organisms to ferment it. You don’t want other pathogens getting to it first! You need to make sure that you give your yeast the best chance of growing and thriving in this environment and no competition to have to worry about. So cleanliness is key!
Everything that will touch your wort and eventualy beer needs to first be cleaned and removed of junk that may harm the product. Homebrewers are fans of PBW, a cleaning agent. But if you’re like me and stingy Oxiclean works well in a pinch. Now anything that touches the wort before it gets boiled just needs to be cleaned. The boil will sterilize the wort. AFTER the boil though, anything that will touch the wort will need to be sanitized. A few options work here: first is a measure of one tablespoon bleach to one gallon of water. But other options can offer a more no rinse chioce such as idophor or star sans. They also will need to be diluted but you can make a spray bottle with these and spray things down and then let dry. Things like your fermenter, wort chiller, transer tubing if you need to use them, bottles, agitating device for the wort to introduce oxygen before setting to ferment all should be sanitized.
2: Make a list, check it twice
Santa makes a list and checks it twice. So should you. The last thing you want to do is forget to buy your yeast and have to make an emergency trip in the middle of your boil (speaking from experience). Make sure you have all your equipment set aside and ready to go, all your grains and hops and everything together, everything you need to do from cleaning and prep to mashing to bioling to cooling down and to fermenting. If you’re really not sure you’ll remember everything write it all down. I’ve done it! In fact I’ve done it twice!
3: Don’t scorch your wort AND attend your boil until stabilized
So this one’s a double whammy, but I feel like both are equally important and should only count for one. And I’ve done both, so lesson’s learned on both! First is don’t scorch your wort. Remember that we’re dealing with bringing a sugary water to boil and applying a great deal of heat to it. Sugar can scorch and burn, and you don’t want that in your beer. This is especially important when you’re doing extract. When adding your extract, take it off the heat and stir until incorporated. If you leave it on the heat and add the wort you’ll scorch it bad and the beer will be horrible.
Yes I’ve done this.
Second is to attend the boil until it’s stabilized. When the boil first starts up the liquid can foam up, and if you don’t have enough head space in your kettle you could get a boil over. And if you add your hops before this you can lose a great deal of those hops! Not something you want to lose.
4: Expensive gadgets are cool, but a real brewer innovates with DIY
You’ll see many fancy gadgets out there to help you get the best beer possible, some that’ll even automate the entire process for you. But the best way to become a better home brewer is to do it yourself. Now that’s not to say there’s not a benefit of the automated process. If you want to try out a new recipe this is really helpful. But most of those fancy gadgets out there you can make yourself. And others you can repurpose other gadgets to fit the bill. Want to get into allgrain? A 40+ qt cooler will be perfect for regulating temperature with a few modification. Need to control the temperature of your fermentation? Get a 4.5 cb ft refrigerator and a temperature controller. Want to make grain cleanup easier? get a couple of nylon mesh bags and stitch them together, then put some little handles on them. Want to really control everything? Raspberry pi gives you pleanty of options of monitoring and controlling your brewing. There’s always room for new innovations in the homebrewing market.
5: Bottling sucks, invest in kegging
When you brew beer, you’re going to start out bottling. And you’ll want to bottle, but you’ll learn real quickly that bottling sucks. You already spent 3-7 hours brewing a few weeks ago. Why do you want to spend another two bottling every time you brew? That’s alot of extra work.
If you keg, however, the process is simple. You sanitize your equipment, transfer from the fermentation bucket to your keg, and you seal it, gas it, and hook it up for a week or two. That’s it. Thirty minutes of work really, most of it just watching the beer transfer. Personally I tied my transfer siphon to a clip I hook onto the side of the bucket and set the base just above the trub line, making sure I don’t pick up trub and then towards the end lean it and adjust until I get every last bit of that brew I can.
6: The Biggest key to great tasting beer? Fermentation
The saying goes “Brewers make wort, yeast make beer” and that’s absolutely true. Brewers have a second job though, and that’s to give the yeast the best conditions to make the best beer possible. So learning and understanding the different aspects of fermentation and how they play into beer is important. Make sure you give them the best conditions in the wort to make good beer. That includes the right nutrients, the right amount of sugary wort, the cleanest environment, the right amount of oxygen, and pitching the right amount of yeast for your beer style. Another huge factor though is the right conditions to DO that work. Particularly, make sure that the CO2 can get out and oxygen cannot get in, and control your temperatures. Temperature control in fermentation is very important. Some yeast produce better flavor compounds than others at certain temperatures, and little swings in tempreature can greatly affect that. So first: aim to get in the right tempreature for the right stages of fermentation. Then, make sure you control the temperature fluctuations as much as possible. Finally, keep in mind that the initial stages of primary fermentation can see a temperature increase in the fermenter of up to ten degrees Farenheit, so make sure you can compensate for that and keep that temperature to your desired range. The most basic way of keeping this under control is the water bath. The temperature of water fluctuates at a much slower rate than air, so submerging part of your fermenter in water will help regulate the temperature much better and help equalize the beer on the inside with the water on the outside. Get yourself a big enough plastic container and partially fill it with water, then place your fermenter in it (making sure to keep it air tight too). For extra control hook an aquarium thermometer to monitor the temperature and an aquarium heater to keep the temperature regulated (prefferably one that can go as low as 65 F). There are other techniques, but I feel like the next step up is a refrigerator or freezer with a tempreature controller connected to it, for much more precise control.
7: The internet is your friend, and so are books
The internet is a wonderful, terrible place where you have access to all the knowledge in the world. If you’ve got a question, chances are someone’s already asked it and others have already answered it. Now I don’t mean that as a don’t ask questions. Feel free. Homebrewers are nothing if not willing to share their knowledge and experiences. But If you want to learn more and find out more you’ve come to the right place. I’ll append a list of specific resources to utilize, but basically there’s google, youtube, reddit, and various forum sites like homebrew talk, American Homebrewers Associations, and many magazines with great resources like brew your own and zymurgy both with great web portals.
And besides those magazines and links there’s plenty of great books on the subject. The first everyone will recommend is the previously mentioned “How to Brew” by John Palmer (No affiliate links I promise), which the book version contains alot more than the edition that is now posted online. The next ones I’d recommend would be “Designing Great Beers” by Ray Daniels which helped me start to understand the different components of the brewing process and how they affect the taste of the beer and how to start analyzing and designing recipes around that. Then I’d suggest “The Practical Guide” series of books covering Malt by John Mallet, Hops by Stan Hieronymus, Water by John Palmer and Collin Kaminski, and Yeast by Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff. I have personally started off with Yeast and will move next on to water as those are two areas I feel I’ve been neglecting.
8: You can’t make good beer without drinking good beer
This one may go without saying, but if you want to learn more about brewing beer you should probably know a thing or two about different types of beer. Expanding your horizons is a very important thing here as there’s a world of beer that you may not know you’d want to brew. Sticking to a style is fine but you may find that if you drink more beers your preffered pallet of beer will expand too. You may then find several styles of beer you really like and want to take the best characteristics of a few of them and combine into one weird funky style. How else would the Golden Stout have been born?
So get out there and try out new styles of beer, and try out different takes on it, not just one! You may not like a beer of a style from one brewery, but that doesn’t mean you don’t like the style. It may not have been the best representation. Or maybe you’re not accustomed to the taste. Try them all, learn how and why you get certain flavors, see how people make different beers in a certain style and eventually you can make your own, or even take what you learn to make something of your own one day. Drink and be merry!
9: All good things come in time
Patience is a virtue, and it’s especially virtuous in brewing. Yeast makes beer, but it needs time to do it. I’m not going to go into all the reasons time is important, but what’s important to remember is to give everything the time it needs. Your yeast may be done fermenting the beer in about a week, but it needs more time to clean up. If something tastes off, don’t throw it away, set it aside for a few more weeks in the dark and try again. Still not tasting right? Try to go a few months, maybe then it’ll taste better. Beer is something that can improve with age (unless it’s hoppy, then it loses its hop character) so time is always helpful to making good beer.
And it’s not just your beer that you need to give time. Take your brewing hobby in steps. Start out small with your extract kits, learn how to make a good beer from there. Then when you’re comfortable look at all grain brewing. Once you’ve gotten that down remember to focus on your fermentation and control your temperatures. You might want to set up a tighter temperature control for fermenting. Then learn about making your own recipes and all the flavors going into your beer and how they all play their part. And finally top it off with learning the ins and outs of how your brewing water and ph of your mash affects the way your beer tastes. There’s always something new to learn with brewing, but make sure you take your time to get good at one part before you move on to the next.
10: Consistency is the key to great beer
So at the end of it all the one thing I think is safe to say is we all desire consistently good beer. Considering everything that goes on in brewing consistency is not guarenteed. But as you learn you should find consistent patterns and behaviors, and things you can control. If you want consistently great beer, then consistency is something you should strive for.
This goes back to several of my points earlier, specifically one, two, and six. Be consistent in your cleaning habits and thorough to the point of obsessed. learn your process thoroughly so you don’t need to list out your steps and then instead build a sheet to track all the variables in your brewing so you can monitor them all. When you record everything you have more data to build a consistent process out of. And your fermentaiton process should also be consistent. Know your yeast, aim to make consistent wort and oxegynate properly, control your fermentation temperatures on a schedule and monitor what’s going on with your fermentation. If anything is off, note it and try to figure out what and why. Be willing to be thorough, and your beer will come out great.
Extra protip: If you wouldn’t drink it yourself, why would others?
This is less homebrewing and brewing overall, but this I feel like is important to state: if you wouldn’t drink it yourself, why would others?
Now what I mean about this is starting as a homebrewer. You’ll make mistakes, that much is sure, but don’t sit there ans suffer for them. If it’s not sitting with you, you need to get advice. Be willing to hear criticism, because in the end we’re all aiming to help each other make better beer. But if it’s not something you’d drink, after you get your advice do not fear flushing it. It’s better to share with others who are less into beer your successes rather than your failures.
And this goes into professional breweries. This is something I feel like I run into more often than I should, when a brewery doesn’t do proper quality checking before releasing a batch of bad beer into the wild, and doesn’t step up and bight the financial bullet. Bad impressions are more powerful than good ones. Give a person a good beer, and they might stop by to try another, but give them a bad beer, and you’ll likely never see them again. This also goes for ‘crazy beers’. Doing a crazy beer to try and differentiate yourself is fine, but at the end of the day that crazy beer had better be good. And not just “I might drink that occasionally” good to “I’d definitley drink that” good. If there’s alot of wild beers and not alot of them are good, you’re not differentiating yourself in a good way.
Now all of this being said, I want to stress to not be snobbish about it. I’m saying is learn about off flavors and take honest input about your beers. Make sure if you’re saying it’s a specific style that it meets the guidelines, and if it just really tastes off, don’t be afraid to destroy it. One bad beer is worth one hundred good beers.
So hopefully the preceding tips will help you avoid some of the mistakes many of us homebrewers have already made and leave you instead to make all new mistakes. Always remember that someone out there has made at least one mistake when homebrewing. If you have any homebrewing tips of your own to share with newbies leave a comment below. You’ll also find a list of websites below for great resources!
American Homebrewers Association: http://www.homebrewersassociation.org/
Brew Your Own: https://byo.com/
homebrewing subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/Homebrewing/
Homebrew Talk: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/
Homebrew finds (for the frugal homebrewer): http://homebrewfinds.com/