Things I wish someone had told me when I first started homebrewing
I’m closing in on a decade of brewing my own beer. Over that time I’ve made lots of mistakes, learned many new things and refined my processes all in an effort to make better beer. That learning and process improvement challenge is a big part of why I homebrew. To shorten my fellow homebrewers learning curve, here are some of my learnings I wish others had shared with me.
Cleaning & Sanitizing
We all know cleaning and sanitizing are critical for brewing quality beer. Rather than detailing methods for accomplishing both, I’ll instead point out some rarely considered areas you should inspect, clean and sanitize on a regular basis.
Valves on your brew pots and mash tuns should be disassembled, cleaned and sanitized. For me, simply flushing them with cleaners or boiling water fails to clean them adequately. Valves can be a good source for brewing infections if not cleaned and sanitized after every use.
Hoses can be another neglected area of your brewhouse. In addition to cleaning and sanitizing them after each use, consider replacing them at regular intervals. Hoses can get stained and brittle over time, so inspect and replace them regularly.
Calibrate, calibrate, calibrate your equipment! If you use digital thermometers, PH meters, scales and temperature controllers it’s extremely important for you to calibrate them regularly. These useful tools typically fail to maintain their calibration. Many of my past brewing frustrations could be traced to poorly calibrated equipment. Don’t let this happen to you.
Your calibration routine should also include your brewhouse. Fine-tuning your brewing volumes will increase your brewhouse efficiency, saving you time and money. During your next brew day, carefully measure your volume levels at different stages of your process and compare them to those in your brewing software (e.g. mash and equipment profiles). I’ve experience significant increases in my brewhouse efficiency by dialing-in my equipment dead space, pre & post boil volumes, boil off rates and fermenter losses.
Most of us started homebrewing by purchasing glass carboys or plastic buckets as part of our beginner homebrewing kits. Both work well but I prefer clear plastic carboys. They offer two important advantages; safety and transparency. Glass can be pretty scary to handle when wet and is quite heavy when full of liquid. Shattering a glass carboy is easy to do and dangerous. Plastic buckets are light and safe, but it’s impossible to observe what’s occurring inside. Being able to visually monitor my fermentations helps me gauge progress and yeast performance.
My early attempts to control fermentation temperature consisted of finding colder rooms in my home or basement to keep my yeast from producing off flavors due to overheating. Sometimes I resorted to placing wet t-shirts over my carboy while blowing air over it with a fan to cool my hotly fermenting wort. All that changed when I invested in a small refrigerator, temperature controller and a thermowell. These three items allow me to easily control the internal wort temperature throughout fermentation. Thermowells are particularly helpful since the temperature controller probe is placed inside the fermenting wort, allowing for very accurate temperature readings.
If you strive for clear beer, consider fining your beer. In addition to using Whirlfloc tablets (Irish Moss if you prefer) fining during the boil, consider fining your beer with gelatin once fermentation is complete. I learned of gelatin fining from the good folks at Brülosophy. It’s so easy to get crystal clear beer using unflavored gelatin during the cold crash. For more detailed instructions, click here Gelatin Fining
If you’re still bottling your homebrew, consider investing in the equipment necessary for kegging your beer. Bottling is a hassle. It’s no fun cleaning and storing bottles, nor is the tedious process of filling them. Investing in kegging equipment was one of the best homebrewing decisions I’ve made. Kegging my beer is pretty easy and I feel it’s rewarded me with better tasting, more consistent quality beer. Depending on your budget and how much floor space you have, minimally you will need the following to keg your beer.
- Keggerator large enough to hold your Cornelius kegs, CO2 tank w/regulator and hoses
- 5# CO2 tank
- Gas regulator
- Gas hoses and fittings
- Picnic taps*
- If your budget allows, upgrade to fancy tap towers and such
If you are new to kegging, dialing in your carbonation can be challenging. There are many methods for carbonating your beer. For most of the beer styles I brew, I follow this method for a 5 gallon batch:
- After purging keg headspace with CO2, I place the keg at 50 psi for 10 hours at 38 degrees.
- At the 10-hour mark, remove the gas, purge the CO2, and then reconnect the gas at my desired serving psi. For most of my beer styles, that is 12 psi.
- The initial level of carbonation will typically be a little light, but I’ve found carbonation will reach my desired level in a day or two. Slightly under-carbonating initially is probably better than risking over-carbonating your beer.
- Obviously this process will vary by beer style, with some requiring more of less carbonation
Since most of your beer is water, it makes sense that the quality and composition of your water can make a huge difference in the taste of your beer. I am fortunate to have access to very good local water. This allows me to focus on the profile of my water to calibrate (there’s that word again) to my desired taste. To accomplish this, you can make use of water profile software tools (e.g. Bru’n Water, Brewer’s Friend, BeerSmith). These tools offer a wide range of water profiles for various beer styles. In addition, their tools help brewers with determining which brewing salts and acids to add to their water to formulate the profile they want. Manipulating my water profile is kind of fun and seems to have a very positive impact on the quality of my beer. To treat your water, you’ll first need a water report from your local water municipality. You can also test your water using a mail-in test kit or by purchasing your own water testing kit.
I hope you find these learnings helpful. Share yours by commenting to this article below. Cheers!