Lessons Learned: Homebrew Tips and Experiences

There is a short-list of hobbies out there where people really get the “bug” and dive head-long into a lifetime of enjoyment.  For me, it was home brewing and photography.  Then I realized you can’t drink photos.  Now, it’s just home brewing.  I remember starting out having no clue what I was doing.  I started with all-grain because I did not even know that extract existed.  I soon found a community of homebrewers in the real-world and on a handful of online sites.  The info overwhelmed me, but I pressed on. After a few years most homebrewers tend to develop a pretty substantial knowledge of homebrewing; from techniques to recipes, equipment, and lessons learned.  If you are relatively new, I hope the following article helps you relax and learn a little from the experiences of several homebrewers and myself.

Fermentation matters!

When you’re first starting out, a brew-day over several hours can be stressful and maybe even exhausting.  When everything is cleaned up, you feel relieved.  I. Made. Beer.  Except you didn’t, you made wort, and it is up to the yeast to turn it into beer.  The conditions during fermentation are just as important as all the work you put in brewing.  Give the yeast a less-than-stellar situation to do their job and they’ll give you less-than-stellar beer.  It is important to be able to control fermentation as early into your brewing hobby as you can. Unfortunately, most options are not the cheapest and many homebrewers who start out are not sure if they are going to stick with this hobby for the long haul.  The least a new homebrewer can do is make sure they are pitching the proper amount of yeast.  Use an online calculator to see how much yeast you need for a healthy fermentation.  If you are using dry yeast, you might need to purchase more than one.  If you are using liquid yeast, you may need to make a starter if possible, or also buy multiple vials. The second step is to try your best to keep your beer within the acceptable temperature range of that yeast.  This info is easily available online.  With ales, this can be pretty simple.  Many brewers have basements that are in the 60s; this is a great range for most ale yeast types.  Others fill a cooler with water and use frozen water bottles to control temps.  This can take a lot of work but often keeps the temps surprisingly well.  Finally, many brewers buy or build fermentation chambers or temp controlled fermenters.  This can be expensive and involve a decent amount of handy-work, sometimes both.  It will produce the best results and give you the most control over your beer, but it is not necessary to make good beer.  This leads us to the next topic:

Equipment:  What you need vs. What you Want

As you start learning, you start yearning.  You may have gotten into the hobby from a buddy with a single-tier RIMS system and glycol-controlled fermentation.  Their beer may be great, but do you NEED this equipment to make great beer? Not at all.  There are only a few necessary items truly needed to make great beer.  Depending of your method of brewing (BIAB, partial mash, extract, etc.) you might have several of the important items in your house.  The first priority is a brew kettle.  In most cases, a 5 gallon/20 quart stock pot will give you a lot of mileage when you start brewing.  A common “lesson learned” is that brewers wished they had bought a bigger kettle.  If you feel you will be brewing for a while, it is important to consider the FUTURE of your brewing as much as the present.  Many new brewers say they will never brew bigger batches, go to all-grain, etc..  Even I started with 1-gallon and was quite content for many years, even after I bought the equipment to do larger batches.  But I did go bigger, and even if you are content with whatever batch size you do, having some freedom down the road by buying slightly bigger doesn’t really get in the way of that. Now that we understand the importance of fermentation, our next priority in terms of equipment is a fermentation vessel.  Here is where opinion will vary greatly.  Some prefer expensive and shiny stainless steel, other glass carboys, and still some plastic buckets.  Which should you go with?  Whatever you feel comfortable with.  There are some small advantages each have (stainless will last longer, plastic is cheaper and easier to handle, etc.) but your main concern is most likely budget and space.  Be reasonable at first and consider where you are putting this equipment. The rest of your equipment includes only a handful of essentials and a horde of tools and gadgets that can make brewing easy, even better, but are not necessary.  A hydrometer or refractometer is a solid investment early on.  It will help you make better beer and understand how your brew process is going (more on that later.)  Many brewers say an auto-siphon really improved the ease of brewing as well. Again, not necessary but helpful. You’ll need some type of bottling equipment or introductory keg system to serve your beer.  Remember to save your empties!  You might want to save larger size bottles too, if you find bottling tedious but don’t want to keg. Sanitizer is a must in the brewing world.  Why do all the work only to ruin the beer because you didn’t rinse or soak a few pieces of equipment? Anything touching your beer after its boiled needs to be cleaned AND sanitized. Finally, some type of chilling system, whether it is a counterflow chiller or an immersion chiller.  Again, is this necessary? Of course not.  A lot of brewers have gone to a no-chill brewing method (be careful about adding hot liquids to fermenters!)  Some even ferment in the kettle.  But, if you are going to chill your beer, these will really help.  Ice baths are a simple and cheap solution.  But if you brew often and buy $10 of ice each time, this will eventually exceed the price of a chiller.  Just a final thought to consider.

Learn it, log it

The final piece of advice nearly every homebrewer talked about over their first few years was learning.  Buy books, talk to homebrewers, and join a homebrew club if you can.  Two heads are smarter than one and more experienced homebrewers can help you avoid the mistakes they made.  The internet is a wonderful place.  I personally spent so much time on the internet researching brewing that by the time I bought my first few books on the subject, I found there was very little I didn’t already know. Log it.  Write. Down. Everything. Repeatability is a term you will start to here as you get more experienced.  The worst thing that can happen when you make a great beer is not being able to accurately make it again or even knowing how to make it again.  Note your grain bill or extract amounts as accurately as you can.  Write down mash temps, boil times, hop amounts, fermentation temps.  It will pay off in the end. Some brewers, myself included, even focused on one recipe early on.  Each time I brewed, I would tweak one or two aspects (yeast choice, hop schedule, base grain, etc) just to see the effects.  I really learned a lot about brewing this way.  I actually knew what each ingredient did in a recipe.  A common method of learning this way is doing a single-malt and single hop recipe known as a SMaSH recipe.  It’s a great way to get know a particular hop or base malt. When you’re starting your own recipes, keep it simple.  If you are asking yourself if there is too much going on, there probably is.  Scale back, learn the basic styles, then experiment; and remember, you can always add more (at bottling) but you can’t add less. Consider investing in some type of brewing software.  Many are free and the best ones are not that expensive.  It will help you to predict the end results of a beer before you even go out and buy your recipe. It’s a great tool.  Finally, consider any new purchase carefully (whether listed above or something else,) especially if you are on a budget.  One trinket or extra feature you really don’t need might mean you can’t save or buy a better product you discover soon after.

The Most Important Lesson Don’t forget to enjoy it!

Relax, enjoy it.  You will make beer and it’s a hobby that’s supposed to be fun. I personally prep nearly everything the night before I brew.  Everything is cleaned, weighed out and in its proper place.  I find this far more relaxing and there is no way that I can forget an ingredient or lose a piece of equipment if I do the prep-work the night before.  It also makes brew day a little faster, leaving more time for family, work, errands, etc.