Brewing Priorities for Beginners

Beer is easy to make. People brewed beer for thousands of years without the benefit of computers, digital wireless hydrometers, or PID controllers — or, for that matter, even basic thermometers and hydrometers. Because we do not have direct control over the biological processes that make beer, we rely on production procedures to make wort for yeast to ferment to produce the results we desire. All brewers follow the same process for converting grain to beer. A recipe is simply a list of inputs to the process. Yet when I read forum comments from beginning homebrewers, most of the questions revolve around recipes (it is a very close race between “will this recipe make beer x?” and “what went wrong?”).

After more than 9,000 comments on Brewer’s Friend, my first piece of advice to beginning brewers is to brew a simple beer with a grain bill of 90% pale ale malt, 10% medium crystal such as C60, a single clean bittering hop such as Magnum, and a single flavor hop — brewer’s choice but I’d go with something unobtrusive like Crystal or Willamette. For extract beer, light dried malt extract (DME) or liquid malt extract (LME) and C60 for steeping. Keep it reasonable, an original gravity (OG) of 1.050–1.055, around 30 IBUs and keep the yeast neutral, one of the Chico strains, SafAle US-05 for example, is a good choice. This formula makes a respectable pale ale recipe, by the way. Then brew that one recipe until it tastes the same every time. If you can’t wait that long to try your own version of the imperial kveik-fermented Belgian dark IPA, at least brew the pale ale a few times. Here’s why:

While there is creativity involved in combining flavors and predicting outcomes, to brew consistently requires rigorous procedures and process controls. Attention to detail makes the difference between drinkable beer and great beer. It’s very tempting to try to make that New England IPA you had at a local brewpub but that’s a very difficult beer to make well. Beginners, start with something simpler and more forgiving. Full disclosure, I’m still trying to perfect the first beer I was challenged to brew, a German schwarzbier. It, too, is a very demanding style.

Getting Your Priorities Straight

I seldom respond to beginning brewers’ requests for feedback on their recipes. The reason is simple: The recipe is a low priority when it comes to brewing good beer as long as the proportions of ingredients are reasonable. I’ve provided a pale ale recipe on page 35 designed to be a good introductory beer; a quick Google search will turn up thousands more of them. I will almost always respond to questions about how to make the beer (or the inevitable, “Did I do this wrong?” question). Great beer is made through using solid procedures, the recipe simply describes the inputs to the process.

To brew well, here are the priorities that I have come up with after nine years of homebrewing:

1. Sanitation: As a brewer, in everything you do, cleanliness and sanitation should be your number one priority, especially once the wort is chilled. Sanitation errors ruin your beer. All you can do with an infected beer is keep it cold and drink it quickly before it becomes too unpalatable. A beginner working with new equipment can often get away with sanitation errors for a few brews because new equipment is relatively clean and wort-loving microbes have not yet multiplied in your brewery. But make no mistake, they are already there. Beginner’s luck never lasts. If your sanitation regime is not solid, infected beers are inevitable and rarely come out tasting pleasant.

Pro Tip: Mix Star San with Distilled Water: If you mix your Star San or similar sanitizing products with distilled water, they will last practically forever. I mix mine four gallons (15 L) at a time using distilled or reverse osmosis water in a cheap plastic bucket and leave it covered. Once in a while I’ll measure pH to ensure it is still good – look for a pH of 3.5 or lower.

2. Fermentation temperature control: 

Yeast ferments wort across a wide range of temperatures but will generally not produce desirable results at the extremes (kveik yeasts are an exception as they do produce good results at extreme temperatures). Being able to keep your yeast operating within a couple of degrees of its optimum temperature, particularly during the first half of fermentation, will increase the quality of the beer immensely. 

Pro Tip: Simple Temperature Control:

• Here are some things you can try, short of tricking out a refrigerator, to keep your fermentation temperature within a few degrees of the yeast’s optimum temperature:

• If you have a place in your basement or house that stays at or below your fermentation temperature, ferment your beer there.

• If you don’t, you can always drape your fermenter in moist towels. Extra points for directing a box fan at the towels or for putting the fermenter and towels in a water bath so it will wick upward and keep the towel moist.

• Place the fermenter in a container of cool water and add ice or ice packs to keep the water at the proper temperature.

3. Proper yeast management: This refers to pitching enough healthy yeast cells into a wort rich in nutrients, including oxygen. Liquid yeast manufacturers claim their yeast packages have enough healthy cells to ferment 5 gallons (19 L) of a medium-gravity (1.050) wort. If your original gravity or volume is much above that, you’ll need more cells, meaning propagating the yeast, commonly called making a yeast starter. Likewise, shaking your fermenter vigorously before adding yeast will dissolve some air into the wort, enough for most beers I’d recommend for beginners. You can eliminate two process steps by using dry yeast — a single sachet is sufficient to ferment a 5-gallon (19-L) batch of medium gravity wort without aeration, two sachets normally cost about the same as a single package of liquid yeast and will ferment a higher-gravity beer. (Thank you to Denny Conn and Ashton Lewis for finally convincing me I do not have to rehydrate dried yeast, nor do I have to add oxygen for moderate-gravity worts when using dried yeast.)

4. Removal of chlorine/chloramine: 

Chlorine or chloramine in your tap water can lead to harsh medicinal or plastic-like flavors due to formation of compounds called chlorophenols. If you are using municipal water, it usually has chlorine or chloramine added as a disinfectant. Chlorine can be removed easily by letting the water stand or by boiling it; however, chloramine is far more persistent. Refer to your water report or call your water office to find out what disinfectant is being used. The easiest way to remove chlorine and chloramine is to crush a Campden tablet (metabisulfite, either of sodium or potassium) and add it to the brewing water, assuming 5-gallon (19-L) brews using 10 gallons (38 L) total water used. One tablet is enough to dechlorinate 20 gallons (76 L) of water. Once in your beer, chlorophenolic flavors won’t come out. If you’re on well water or other non-municipal sources, your water likely does not contain chlorine
or chloramine.

5. Process considerations:

This refers to how you move wort around when it’s hot and cold, stirring, control of splashing, measurement, and other procedures used to make your wort. I’ll specifically mention oxygen, measurements, and record keeping: Oxidized beer is seldom pleasant. There are two ways it can go, one way tastes like wet cardboard and the other, cooking Sherry. Oxygen also dulls malt flavors and contributes to haze. At the beginner level, simply avoiding splashing wort will help prevent oxidized flavors in your beer. Measurement is also a process consideration: You should be able to measure weight, temperature, volume, and specific gravity fairly accurately. Finally, keep good notes. If you brew a great beer you will want to be able to brew it again and you will forget what you did by your next brew day.

6. Ingredient freshness:

Old hops can smell of Parmesan cheese or smelly feet. Old malt can taste dull and lifeless and yield less extract (gravity) than expected. When sourcing ingredients, try to taste malt or buy from vendors that keep fresh stock. Smell hops — they should smell bright and fresh and not like a cheese monger’s shop. Malt should be fresh tasting, crisp, and crunchy. Yeast should be used before its sell-by date and should not be dark brown or smell like soy sauce or bouillon when opened. Stale, old ingredients do not make good beer. 

7. The boil:

How and when you add hops and other ingredients can make a large difference in the beer’s outcome. Hop oils are volatile, hop compounds react with other compounds in the boil, so when you add hops can make a huge difference in the flavor of your beer. Another important instruction: Don’t cover the boiling wort. One reason beer is boiled 60 minutes or longer with the lid off is to drive off bad-tasting volatile compounds that can leave your beer tasting of cooked cabbage.

8. And finally, the recipe:

Recipes are everywhere. Google any style or even many commercial beers and you can find hundreds of variations of recipes that will supposedly make that beer. There are many ways to make a given beer style and with experience, you’ll learn to judge recipes by the ingredients listed. Recipes simply tell you the inputs to the brewing process, not how to make the beer. Your procedures are far more important.

I’ll mention one more process factor only because it comes up so often in forum discussions: Water. Yes, despite how much you may have read or heard about water in brewing, unless your water is very bad it really is one of the lower brewing priorities. Water is a low order contributor to beer quality if it is clear, not excessively hard, and tastes good. Brewing salts have an impact on beer flavor and mouthfeel but you can’t fix a poorly made beer with them. Get a water report or test your water, make sure you’re in the 50–100 ppm range for calcium and your beer should be fine. Extract should be rehydrated with soft or pure (distilled or reverse osmosis) water — the minerals needed for flavor and yeast health are already in the extract. You can buy reverse osmosis (RO) water in many grocery stores, there are dispensers or pre-filled jugs, or you can buy jugs of distilled water. But until you nail the basics, water can be put on a backburner.

Brewing can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. Knowing what is important to making beer helps you decide where to spend your time and money to improve your brewing. Would you benefit more from a larger brew pot or an RO filtration system (generally decided by cleaning up a boilover or two)? Should you ask the forum about your recipe or suggestions on ways to control your fermentation temperature? Armed with knowledge of the priorities in brewing, a beginning brewer can pinpoint where to improve, what to ask, and what to buy. 

If I could tell my beginning brewing self one thing it would be to know the priorities in brewing, to concentrate on one recipe until I knew what my system was doing and why, and then branch out to more complex styles and equipment.

Beginner’s Luck Pale Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.054  FG = 1.012
IBU = 32  SRM = 10  ABV = 5.5%

10 lbs. (4.5 kg) pale 2-row malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (60 °L)
6 oz. (170 g) acidulated malt (optional)
7.5 AAU Magnum hops (60 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 15% alpha acids)
7.5 AAU Centennial hops (10 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 10% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) Amarillo® hops (0 min.)
1 Whirlfloc tablet (10 min.)
LalBrew BRY-97 (West Coast Ale), SafAle US-05, or Mangrove Jack’s M44 (US West Coast) yeast
4.7 oz. table sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Mash in with 4 gallons (15 L) of water at 163 °F (73 °C). Rest one hour at 152 °F (67 °C). For simplicity, this recipe uses a batch sparge: Start by running off all the wort into your kettle. Then add 4.5 gallons (17 L) of water at 170 °F (77 °C) to the mash tun, stir, rest 10 minutes, drain the wort. Bring to boil and add hops per schedule while doing a 60-minute boil. After the boil is complete, add the Amarillo® hops and give the wort a long stir to create a whirlpool. Let stand for 10 minutes.

Chill to 68 °F (20 °C), run off to a sanitized fermenter, add yeast (aeration or rehydration not required). Ferment at or near 68 °F (20 °C) for two weeks. At bottling, make a syrup of two cups of water and table sugar, boil, stir gently into wort in bottling bucket to prime. Keep bottles in a warm-ish (room temperature) but dark place for at least 10 days to carbonate. Alternately, if you use 16-oz. (470-mL) PET bottles, you may prime the beer with one standard (3 g) sugar cube per bottle.

Beginner’s Luck Pale Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.054  FG = 1.014
IBU = 32  SRM = 13  ABV = 5.3%

6 lbs. (2.7 kg) light dried malt extract
1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) crystal malt(60 °L)
6.5 gallons (24.5 L) reverse osmosis or distilled water
7.5 AAU Magnum hops (60 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 15% alpha acids)
7.5 AAU Centennial hops (10 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 10% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) Amarillo® hops (0 min.)
1 Whirlfloc tablet (10 min.)
LalBrew BRY-97 (West Coast Ale), SafAle US-05, or Mangrove Jack’s M44 (US West Coast) yeast
4.7 oz. table sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses the extract and steep method to produce a concentrated wort. Rehydrate malt extract in 3.5 gallons (13.2 L) of reverse osmosis (RO) or distilled water, bring to a boil, and add Magnum hops at the beginning of the boil. While the reconstituted extract is heating, place the crushed crystal malt in a grain bag and separately steep in 2 quarts (2 L) cool RO or distilled water, which you want to heat to 170 °F (77 °C) and hold for 30 minutes. At 15 minutes remaining in the main boil, remove the grain bag from the steep and drain the liquid from the bag. At 10 minutes remaining, pour the liquid from the steep into the main boil, return to a boil, add the Whirlfloc and Centennial hops, and boil for 10 more minutes. Follow the remainder of the all-grain recipe instructions, being sure to top up the fermenter to 5.5 gallons (21 L) with RO or distilled water prior to pitching yeast.

Issue: March-April 2021