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Common Sense for Homebrewers - Some Basics Everyone Should Know

Posted by homebrewdad on 3/13/2012 at 07:14:48 PM

I have gotten fairly active on the forums; I find it liberating to be able to communicate with others who share this hobby/obsession of homebrewing beer. Since I've recently been going through a job search and have been unable to justify the spending of money on beer making equipment or ingredients, I have used that forum as a way to vicariously live through others.

In fact, before I ever started actually brewing my own beer - back when I was trying to get a handle on the process of homebrewing, and figuring out what equipment I needed - I spent a fair amount of time reading the various threads there. They have a complete subforum dedicated to newbie brewing questions, and believe me, the newbies there make great use of it.

Understand, I have only brewed two batches of my own beer to date. I am still very much a newbie, myself, and I have a ridiculous amount left to learn. Even so, I sometimes think that my desire to educate myself makes me something of an exception to the rule; I am amazed at how many people ask the same questions day in and day out, and am even more amazed at how many rush into the process and cut silly corners. If you are willing to spend the time and money to brew your own beer, why would you not want to do it right? Sure, even a moron in a hurry can probably make decent beer, but just a little patience and knowledge can give you great beer.

I'll spend the rest of this post touching on some of the absolute fundamentals of brewing your own beer. Maybe, just maybe, I'll help some other newbie.

Sanitation - this is perhaps the most important step for brewing your own beer. You must sanitize everything that your wort will come into contact with after boiling. This includes your carboy or bucket, your funnel, your tubing, and your bottles - among other items.

Note that cleaning is not the same as sanitizing. PBW or OxyClean will certainly clean your gear, but the residue from it will likely ruin your beer, so be sure to fully rinse these - and you still need to sanitize.

If you use a no-rinse sanitizer (StarSan, Cleanitizer, etc), you don't have to worry about rinsing. You will not harm your beer or its flavor with the foam/residue from these.

Temperature - despite all of my reading, I made mistakes on this. Realize that fermentation creates heat, and your beer will be five to ten degrees warmer than the ambient temperature where it is stored as long as active fermentation is happening.

If your yeast calls for fermentation temps from, say, 60-68 degrees, and you ferment in a room at 65 degrees, you may get off flavors - your fermentation temp will likely be 70-75 degrees (depending on your yeast strain, as well as other variables). Be sure to account for this by placing the beer in a cooler location, by using a swamp cooler, etc.

Pitch the right amont of yeast - check one of the free calculators, like the yeast starter calculator right here on this site.  Input your batch size and expected original gravity, then be sure to pitch at least the minimum number of yeast cells. Underpitching can result in incomplete fermentation and/or off flavors in your beer.

Know that the older your yeast is, the fewer viable cells you have left. High gravity beers will need more than one vial/smack pack of liquid yeast - better yet is to make a starter. Starters are stupidly easy to make, and help to give you great beer.

Don't try to rush your fermentation or your process! This one is my pet peeve, and simply drives me nuts. I constantly see new brewers talking about racking their beer after a week. I have seen posts about doing so in after four days, even after one day. One flipping day?

Unless you are brewing a wheat beer or an IPA, relax. Your beer will only improve with age. Give it two - even three - weeks in primary fermentation before you even think of moving that beer. Even if your final gravity is stable, the yeast will clean up after themselves and remove a lot of the impurities that result in off flavors. If you are talking about racking your beer after a matter of days, you are doing it wrong!

Bottling a beer that isn't done fermenting can result in bottle bombs. Bottling a beer too quickly will result in beer that isn't as tasty as it could have been.

Airlock activity does not equal fermentation. First off, while a healthy yeast pitch will likely show activity within 12-24 hours, it can take up to 72 hours for fermentation to begin. Furthermore, you may never get bubbles in your airlock, even if everything is just fine.

Why? Because you may not have a great seal on your airlock. The CO2 may be escaping around the airlock. Plastic buckets have notoriously leaky seals; if this is your case, you'll likely never see the first bubble, as the pressure takes the path of least resistance (the leaky seal).

The only way to be sure that the beer is fermenting is by taking specific gravity readings and comparing them. If you don't have a hydrometer, spend the $8 and get one.

Fermentation stinks, literally. Some fermentations smell nice and yeasty. Others smell downright rotten. This is completely normal. Don't freak out.

Fermentation looks weird. Fermentation may give you brown foam, white foam, or creamy foam. It may leave dark, ugly residue on the inside of your vessel. You may get floating green crap in the beer. You may get floating white spots, or strange white clumps. You may get odd bubbling. You may all kinds of ugly stuff at the bottom of the vessel. These are all normal, and they are not signs of infection.

Don't taste your unfinished beer, then freak out when it doesn't taste right. This is another one that absolutely kills me. People taste their gravity samples and complain about funny flavors. They taste beer that they fully admit is not yet carbed - and complain about funny flavors. If the beer is not done, it won't taste like it does when it IS done. How is this not blatantly obvious?

If you primed the beer, it WILL carb up. Give it time. Most veteran homebrewers agree that a normal gravity beer needs to bottle condition for three weeks at seventy degrees before it is fully carbonated. If your temperature is cooler, your gravity is higher, or the moon is in an odd position, it can take longer - sometimes, MUCH longer. If you open a bottle and it seems flat, or you open a bottle that seems to be nothing but foam, odds are that it needs longer to carb up. Flat indicates that the priming sugar has yet to be converted to CO2, excessive foam indicates that the CO2 is there but not yet dissolved in solution. Relax, give it time.

Whatever you do, don't dump your beer. Time fixes so very many ills in beer. I have read countless stories of people who made mistakes - sometimes, very bad mistakes - and ended up with beer that ranged from funky to awful, then disovered a forgotten bottle of that same beer months later that turned out to be good (or even great). If your beer isn't all you had hoped it would be to start with, place is somewhere dark and relatively stable in terms of termnerature, then leave it alone for a few months.

Beer is resiliant. Is it easy to make a mistake when making your own beer? Sure. Odds are, though, that your mistake will simply leave you with a different beer, not necessarily a bad one. Yeast are amazing organisms who know how to do their job without your help. Let them.

Be patient. Relax. Enjoy the process, and enjoy the beer.

Tags for this post: newbie, mistake, mistakes, fermentation, homebrew, homebrewing, carb, temp, temperature, beer, brewing

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every novice brewer should read this article... several times. well done, sir.

posted by sweetcell on 3/13/2012 at 02:45:59 PM

Interesting as always, my friend. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

posted by Pekka on 3/13/2012 at 04:29:50 PM

Oh man, great post! Im a newbie too with only 2 batches under my belt. I've also read endless forum postings before, during and after every step. I've taken my own random notes that are in no simple, shareable format with others at all. So I totally appreciate and love that you've spent the time here to do what obviously summarizes the most common advice on every basic step. As much as I love the books, I'm a big fan of collective and diverse knowledge, and I can totally vouch that this is exactly that. Thanks!

posted by Brian on 3/13/2012 at 11:58:00 PM

In your article you mention a swamp cooler. It should be noted that in beer making, a 'swamp cooler' is placing your fermentor (bucket or carboy) in a big tub of water and covering it with a towel or t-shirt. The water wicks up the shirt and cools the fermentor with evaporation. The tub of water also serves as a heat sink, stabilizing the temperature of the fermentor. If you need extra cooling power, you can place a small fan to blow on the t-shirt, causing more evaporation.

posted by bleme on 3/14/2012 at 10:31:51 AM

I just linked this in a new brewer's thread. Thought you'd like to know. Although most of this is my crap ;) you summed everything up perfectly. It's the perfect thing for a new brewer to read.

posted by Revvy on 3/17/2012 at 06:51:57 PM

Good article. I got hooked on this hobby/obsession last summer and have 8 extract batches under my belt. I'm still reading and learning on the homebrewtalk forum all the time, and still love reading little reminders and tips like this. Thanks for sharing!

posted by tbnguy on 3/17/2012 at 07:45:48 PM