For all of us brewers that have been brewing for many years, what advice would we have for ourselves when we were nascent homebrewers? If my current self were in my dorm room when I was creating my game plan for brewing, executing those first batches of beer twenty years ago, and finally packaging the beer . . . what would I tell myself? Well here are the Cliff’s Notes:
- Always have a backup yeast sachet
This is one that is the clear leader in my mind . . . always have an extra sachet or two of dried yeast that can be pitched on a moment’s notice if the first pitch of yeast for some reason fails on you. If you are not seeing any signs of yeast activity within 48 hours of the initial pitch of yeast, it’s time to go to the backup. It’s easy — just keep a favorite strain and keep the backup rotating through at regular intervals.
- Keep it simple to start
Do your research and find a solid lineup of recipes you would like to brew. But keep the recipes simple. In my trajectory of homebrewing, I wish I had read Ray Daniel’s Designing Great Beer Styles before I read Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing. I ended up putting the cart before the horse when it came to my homebrewing learning curve. Nowadays it’s pastry stouts and mango creamsicle IPAs leading the charge in this department. I implore you to learn to master a few key beer styles before expanding into the more exploratory recipes.
- More isn’t always better
Just because that bag of crystal 60L comes in a 1 lb. (0.45 kg) bag, it doesn’t mean you should use all 1 lb. (0.45 kg) in the recipe. This goes back to the previous point, find some good recipes and stick with them to start. Jamil Zainasheff’s collection of homebrew recipes found in Brewing Classic Styles is a great jumping off point for dialing your recipe design. Once you establish a baseline for the style, you can then tweak these recipes to fit your preferred tastes.
- Don’t neglect your water
While simplifying the process is key to having fun homebrewing . . . there is nothing that can ruin a batch of beer faster than not identifying potential problems with your water. If your water is in question, start with reverse osmosis or distilled water. If you are brewing with municipal water, you need to make sure your water is free of chlorine/chloramines, which can be done with the simple addition of one half Campden tablet per 10 gallons (38 L) of brewing water or slowly filtering through a carbon block filter. A little research into your city’s water department or sending a water sample off to a laboratory for brewing-specific water testing can save a lot of grief down the line.
- Go to a homebrew shop
This may be a bit of a luxury for some, but when it’s time to make purchases, whether it is equipment or ingredients, find your closest shop and pay a visit. Don’t be afraid to talk and elicit advice from them . . . tell them you’re green in the hobby and leave your ego at the door. You may be a great taster, but that doesn’t make you a great homebrewer.
- Don’t sweat mash temperature
For all-grain and partial-mash brewers, mash temperature is a key step in the process, but don’t get sucked into knee-jerk reactions if your mash temperature doesn’t land where you intended. Keep a calm head and don’t over compensate. But do make sure you have a good thermometer and keep it calibrated so you’re confident about your temperature readings.
- Size matters
Whenever you get new vessels, whether they’re fermenters, boil kettles, or anything else that will hold the wort or beer, be sure you are able to measure the volume. A wooden dowel with etchings is a great tool to measure boiling wort volume. Markings on the outside of carboys or other fermenters can assure you that you are getting the volume you were expecting, which can go a long way in solving inconsistencies in your brewing process.
- Sweat the fermentation temperature
While I used to freak out if my mash temperature was not spot-on, my early homebrewing self could barely muster a cursory glance at the fermentation temperature. Don’t be like me. Do your research, adjusting fermentation temperature can be done on the cheap, but if there is one area I recommend investing a little more at the outset, this should be your focus.
- Learn to taste critically
We receive tons of troubleshooting questions stating, “something just tastes off.” This is one of the hardest problems to troubleshoot. How does it taste off? Is it plastic-y, medicinal tasting, or tasting like a rotten vegetable, or have the aroma of green apple Jolly Rancher? When you can hone in on potential sources of off-flavors, you can start to troubleshoot things you are doing wrong in your process.
- Get informed from reviewed sources
A lot of homebrewers get too much information from some random person(s) on the internet. While there may be some great knowledge to be found out there in the web ether, start with learning from experts whose writings have been technically reviewed — like in books and certain magazines.