Below is a summary of some of the topics covered in the 13-page guide.
10 Tips for Beginning Homebrewers
My first homebrewing purchase was a book. Before I ever made a drop of beer, I read Charlie Papazian’s book, The Joy of Homebrewing, cover to cover. Looking back, I realize that only an infinitesimal amount of that valuable tome actually stuck in my brain that first time through. I’ve read it many times since and something new “clicks” every time—and Charlie’s passionate, encouraging style is a treat. If you’re looking for more book recommendations, I also strongly recommend Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing and John Palmer’s How to Brew—both outstanding books no matter how long you’ve been wielding your beer paddle.
But there are some things they don’t tell you in the books that I think could be really, really useful to the beginning homebrewer. Or, to be clear, they might tell you in the book but for some reason they didn’t sink through my thick skull. Here are ten of those pieces of advice.
1. Get the big(ger) kettle.
Like many of my fellow homebrewers, my first significant purchase was a starter equipment kit. Once I had it, all I needed was a brew kettle and ingredients, and I was good to go. So, I bought a 5-gallon stainless steel kettle for $35. Stupid. It took only 2 weeks of brewing before I dropped another $70 on a 7.5-gallon kettle. If you ever plan to get into all-grain brewing or want to reduce the likelihood that your kettle will boil over, splurge for the big kettle right out of the gate. You’ll be saving money in the long run.
2. Wort chillers are worth it.
One of the best ways to reduce the likelihood of your beer getting contaminated is to chill the wort as fast as possible, dropping the temperature from that dangerous range that evil bacteria just love. Many beginning homebrewers accomplish this by submerging the brew kettle in an ice bath in either a large tub or the bathtub. Depending on how many bags of ice you purchased (additional expense), this can take anywhere from 40 minutes to well over an hour.
Selecting a Brew Kettle
Both extract and all-grain brewers need a good, sturdy kettle for conducting a 60-minute or longer boil. Although you can certainly start out by borrowing a stock pot from the kitchen cupboard, eventually you’ll want to upgrade to a dedicated kettle just for beer. Here are a few things to look for.
Make size your number one consideration because it directly affects what you can brew and how much. Certainly, beginner homebrewers can get away with a pot as small as 3 gallons, but making the best beer possible means boiling as much wort as possible. All-grain homebrewers will need to boil a full volume from the get-go. Plan for the future and buy a kettle that’s at least 1.5 times your batch size. For a 5-gallon batch, that means a kettle of at least 7.5 gallons. Going twice as large gives you even more insurance against a boil over.
Rapidly cooling wort from boiling down to room temperature or lower is no small task. But it’s a very important one. A fast temperature drop is critical for several reasons:
Risk of contamination: There are plenty of airborne yeasts and bacteria that would love to feast on your freshly boiled wort when it’s in the range of 80-160°F (27-71°C). You want to be in this zone as briefly as possible.
Protein coagulation: A rapid cool-down knocks proteins out of suspension and results in clearer beer in your glass.
More predictable hops utilization: Hops continue to contribute bitterness even at sub-boiling temperatures. Letting wort remain too hot for too long extracts additional bitterness you may not want.
How to Use an Auto-Siphon
“Racking” is the brewer’s term for transferring beer from one container to another. Each and every beer we make has to be racked at least once during its lifespan. While professional brewers typically rely on pumps to move beer between stainless steel vessels, homebrewers usually employ a siphon.
How to Make a Yeast Starter
Brewing the best beer possible means using enough yeast to get the job done. Unfortunately, a single vial or pack of liquid yeast contains only enough cells for very low gravity ales, up to about 1.030. Although you could simply use multiple packages, this can get expensive if you make lagers or high-gravity ales.
But yeasts are living organisms, and given nutrients and a food source, they’ll happily reproduce. Homebrewers can use this to their advantage by making a yeast starter. A properly made starter lets you build up the number of yeast cells you need from just one package and can save you money.
A starter is simply a small volume of wort that’s used for the sole purpose of growing yeast cells. It takes only about half an hour, but plan to make it at least 24 hours before you need the yeast. This will give the yeast cells time to reproduce.
Air on the Side of Yeast Health
It’s often said that brewers make wort, and yeast makes beer: if you want a healthy fermentation, you’ve got to have healthy yeast. One of the best things you can do to promote yeast health is to provide plenty of oxygen at the start of fermentation. Oxygen is vital for yeast growth and development. But how much do you need, and how do you get there?
Keep a Handle on It
The sixth tip in our list of Ten Tips for Beginning Homebrewers recommends investing in a carboy handle. A good handle prevents your hand from slipping on a slippery carboy neck and offers your aching back a reprieve from awkward lifting.
Here are a few more things to know about these handy devices.
When to Use a Blow-Off Tube
Most of the time, I do just fine with the standard-issue airlocks you find at homebrew stores nationwide. I prefer the 3-piece airlock for primary fermentation and the S-shaped model for secondary and bulk aging. But sometimes, an airlock just doesn’t cut it. And that’s when I bust out the heavy artillery. I’m talking about the blow-off tube.
A blow-off tube is nothing more than a generous length of wide-diameter tubing. One end plugs into your fermentor in lieu of an airlock, and the other end is submerged in an adjacent container of sanitizer (I use a spare growler jug). This setup effectively relieves pressure within the fermentor and allows Kräusen (foam) to safely escape rather than clog the airlock, thereby saving you from a beer eruption and the embarrassment of having to mop the ceiling.
So, how do you know you need a blow-off tube before you actually need a blow-off tube? Here are a few criteria I consider when deciding to reach for the blow-off tube instead of a regulation airlock.
Keep It Warm
Because the fermentation process produces heat, homebrewers are far more likely to need to cool down a vessel of homebrew than warm it up. There are certain circumstances, however, in which you may want to raise the fermentation temperature.
- If you ferment your beer in a basement or garage, you may find that the ambient temperature is too cold.
- Some fermentation profiles incorporate a gradual temperature rise, for example, from 65 to 75°F (18 to 24°C) over the course of seven days.
- Certain yeast strains and bacterial cultures benefit from elevated temperatures. Classic saison strains, for example, may require temperatures as high as 95°F (35°C) to achieve full attenuation.
If you find that your fermentation could benefit from a little extra warmth, here are a few ways to bring the heat.
Ask homebrewers about the number one consumer appliance on their wish lists, and you’re likely to get some variation on a refrigerator or freezer (assuming professional brewhouses don’t count). But there’s another appliance you probably already have in your kitchen that’s sometimes overlooked. Dishwashers make bottling easy and painless. If you aren’t using yours, you’re probably working too hard.