Ask Mr. Wizard

How many batches does it take to make good beer?


Ken Starkey asks,

How many batches does it take to make good beer?


Wow, this is really the million dollar question. I don’t think there is any magic number of brews that are required before a brewer successfully brews the first batch of good beer. There are some brewers who strike gold early on and others who seem to flounder about brewing mediocre beer for their whole brewing career. Once upon a time when I was a graduate student at UC Davis I taught brewing classes, ranging from homebrew classes to classes for prospective brewery owners, and I believe that the secret to brewing success is heavily influenced by education. Reading Brew Your Own is a great way to learn about brewing from others and, hopefully by doing so, avoiding the mistakes that many authors discuss in their articles.

There are a few things that certainly make successful brewing at home much easier, and the sooner a new brewer pays attention to most of these details the sooner good beer is being brewed. So here is a list of things that will expedite the process:

1. The single most important thing to understand and master is the art of cleaning. You do not need an arsenal of expensive tools and exotic cleaners, but you do need a basic tool kit appropriate for the task. A few brushes, non-abrasive scrubby pads, a general purpose, mild-alkaline cleaner and a non-rinse sanitizer that leaves no off-flavors when properly air dried are the bare essentials. Great beer begins with a clean brewing environment.

2. Remember that brewers make wort and that yeast convert wort to beer by fermentation. The key ingredient and causative agent of beer production is yeast. Great beer cannot be made without great yeast. Great yeast is alive (viable), spunky (vital) and pure (contaminant free). This may sound like the description of a new-born, but is meant to describe a yeast population that has few dead cells with the majority of the population being very healthy and with very few unwanted microorganisms, such as lactic acid bacteria, that can spoil beer. Today’s homebrewer has access to really great yeast sold by several well-established yeast laboratories.

3. Believe the hype! Commercial brewers have advertised the importance of quality ingredients for a very, very long time. While some of the ads seem cliché and often type rife with hyperbole, there is absolutely no question that ingredient quality has an enormous bearing on finished beer quality. Homebrewing is a time-consuming endeavor that has the potential to bring pride and joy, and also has the potential to bring embarrassment and frustration. Set yourself up for success by selecting high quality brewing ingredients.

4. When you sense that you are becoming lost, stop and ask for directions. I have never understood why so many people, especially men, refuse assistance when so obviously lost. Brewers who try to figure out everything on their own are almost guaranteed to have slow success. Remember that the history of brewing is as old as civilization and that beer brewing significantly influenced the history of scientific inquiry. Whatever the problem you are facing, it has probably been encountered and solved by someone else. I will repeat this tip; when you sense you are becoming lost, stop and ask for directions.

5. Homebrewing is a hobby and is supposed to be fun. Whenever you make a mistake, brew a batch that is less than perfect, or experience a mechanical malfunction that ruins a batch of beer, take it all in stride. If you are not having fun while homebrewing, something is not quite right. Times like these were likely the inspiration of Charlie Papazian’s famous quote. So, if you find yourself taking things too seriously and not having much fun, open your beer fridge, reach for a cold one and, “relax, don’t worry,[and] have a homebrew”!

Response by Ashton Lewis.