Brewing good beer really is an art form and can take a lot of trial and error to master. Still, we can all learn some key ideas to avoid those early mistakes which may get in the way of a beautiful friendship, you and your home-brew creations.
So what are the things I wish that I’d known before I started brewing?
There’s a lot to think about when brewing beer, but the most important factors in good beer brewing are sanitation, using the correct equipment and getting the correct conditions/measurements for each phase of the process. Patience is also a key virtue
In this article, I will share with you some of the 21 tips (and those are just the start) which will make your life as a homebrewer better. Don’t repeat my ghastly mistakes, make your first brewing experience a joy!
Here are the tips I’ll be covering in this article:
- Tip 1: Start with a simple beer recipe.
- Tip 2: Invest in your very own hydrometer (or refractometer).
- Tip 3: Measure quantities correctly
- Tip 4: Keep your fermentation environment at an optimal temperature.
- Tip 5: Cleanliness is close to “beeriness” (always use a checklist)
- Tip 6: Your beer needs plenty of air ( at the right time).
- Tip 7: Always take detailed notes
- Tip 8: Bottling is messy
- Tip 9: Cover your stove-tops with foil
- Tip 10: High quality water makes high quality beer.
- Tip 11: Be patient, don’t taste it too early
- Tip 12: Keep an eagle eye on that wort
- Tip 13: Go big with the kettle
- Tip 14: Wort chillers are worth the money and hassle.
- Tip 15: Go ahead and make your own yeast starter.
- Tip 16: Get carboy handles and save yourself some backache
- Tip 17: Don’t forget to calibrate your digital equipment
- Tip 18: Storage (use a keg instead of bottles).
- Tip 19: Brew in the 21st century
- Tip 20: Get a bigger auto-siphon
- Tip 21: Use a blow off tube
So, let’s go into more details about why I wish I’d known each of these things before I’d started brewing at home.
Tip 1: Start with a simple beer recipe.
If you are a novice brewer, or even if you already have a few batches under your belt, stick to an easy to follow beer recipe. Ideally, you should be using a prepared beer recipe kit until you can consistently produce the same quality beer several times.
Go for a kit that has fewer phases in the process, often an extract-based recipe is a good easy introduction to beer brewing rather than having to mash your own grains on the first attempt. You can always try something more challenging next time!
Most kits under $50-60 are going to be adequately challenging for a budding brewer to cut his or her teeth on.
After you can successfully navigate these types of kits, start branching out and attempting more complex beers with a more involved process. The worse thing would be to challenge yourself too much and to lose interest due to initial failures.
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Tip 2: Invest in your very own hydrometer (or refractometer).
People always say that making beer is a science, in fact I might have already said that. It’s really true.
A hydrometer is really an essential piece of kit and if you plan to make more than one batch of beer in your life (and you will once you successfully brew your own beer) it’s just a no-brainer in terms of the cost. You can pick one up for as little as $10 or so. It will change the quality of your beer without a shadow of a doubt.
A hydrometer is used to measure the density of your beer by calculating the amount of liquid it itself displaces. A refractometer measures the same thing by calculating the refraction of light through your beer.
You need one of these instruments to accurately calculate the destiny of your beer in several stages of the process and that can tell you a lot, including when your beer has stopped fermenting and its alcohol content. (see tip 19!)
Tip 3: Measure quantities correctly
Just like when you made that stodgy cake in home economics class, you know that a little too much of one thing can throw a recipe right off. It’s the same with beer.
Making sure that you have the right tools to measure all quantities in your brewing process will help you brew better beer. A hydrometer is just one essential tool.
Make sure that you accurately mark the quantities on the outside of your carboy (container used for fermentation). Knowing just how much wort (beer mix) you are left with after fermentation is another key variable. This is especially true when entering the bottling stage and using priming for carbonation.
Tip 4: Keep your fermentation environment at an optimal temperature.
Never work with kids or animals, and yeast! Well, I suppose we have to work with yeast if we want to make beer.
The fermentation process in brewing is done by a living organism, called yeast and it’s incredibly temperamental. If your brewing space is too hot or too cold during the process of fermentation then you will have beer that is sub-standard.
Try to keep this space cool and around 68-72 °F (20-22 °C). Usually, the supplier of your beer kit or ingredients will give more exact instructions.
Tip 5: Cleanliness is close to “beeriness” (always use a checklist)
It’s said by some professional brewers that they do more cleaning than brewing and that is absolutely true for the home brewer too. Properly sanitizing your equipment and brewing space may make the difference between “yum” and “yuck”!
You should make sure that every little piece of equipment you use has been scrupulously cleaned and that anything that may come into contact with the brew is also spotless. Cleaning your workspace is also a must.
Write yourself a checklist based on when you may need the item to ensure that you never forget to clean something important.
Tip 6: Your beer needs plenty of air ( at the right time).
As we have previously mentioned yeast is that fantastic living organism that gives us our favorite drink’s alcoholic kick. And all living things need oxygen to some degree in their biological processes.
It’s essential that after the initial hot phases of a brew and before fermentation that plenty of oxygen is allowed to mix into the wort. If this oxygen isn’t present in the mix then your yeast will not be able to function as efficiently in turning sugars into ethanol and CO2.
Using an aeration stone is by far the best way or an oxygenation kit. Funnily enough, it’s the same sort of equipment you’d find in a home aquarium. You’re looking at no more than $50 for either of these items.
Tip 7: Always take detailed notes
This tip really is to help you in future batches, but it’s still something that I didn’t do the first few times.
TakIng notes, especially of what I did when and the all-important readings from my thermometer or hydrometer are essential for reproducing the same recipe consistently. It can also help you to fix any little bugs you have with that particular recipe as you will have data to analyze.
Tip 8: Bottling is messy
Not only is bottling your beer a fiddly business, it’s also an incredibly messy one.
With most basic beer making kits you either have an inaccurate siphon system or a tap to deal with. It’s not uncommon to be concentrating so much on filling your bottle that you don’t notice that the end of your tube has popped out and all that lovely beer is spilling over your kitchen floor.
When possible, try to arrange your equipment so that you are bottling over a kitchen sink or even onto your dishwasher. You’re always going to spill something unless you’re a world-class surgeon, so better it goes somewhere easy to clean.
Tip 9: Cover your stove-tops with foil
Another area that is likely to experience spillage is when you are boiling up your mixture in the early stage of your brew.
For most novice brewers, they will be doing this in the kitchen. If you cover your work surface with aluminum foil, with the stove poking through, this can be far easier to wipe down than without it.
Alternatively, you can buy a dedicated burner and complete this stage outside as the heat will kill any bacteria which may risk entering your brew.
Tip 10: High quality water makes high quality beer.
Many budding brewers only concentrate on getting the right recipe and equipment. Let’s not forget that most of that beautiful beer is made from water. Having the right sort of water is also essential.
Now, you could give yourself a headache over the chemical consistency of the water, but as a general rule, you want to avoid using basic tap water or even distilled water and invest in purified bottled water from the store. Don’t use that rainwater from your garden tank (I know, but I have to cover all bases here!)
Tip 11: Be patient, don’t taste it too early
In fact, I had to debate with myself over this tip. In certain circumstances, I might suggest that you SHOULD taste your beer at each stage so that you begin to understand how its taste and behavior changes.
The main danger of always opening up your fermenter to taste the wort is that you could introduce some unwelcome bacterial guests. That could be disastrous to the taste of your beer later.
Also, as a general rule don’t be tempted to crack open a bottle ten minutes after you bottle it. Let the priming sugars take time to fully carbonate your beer. 3 weeks is a good general rule for how long you should wait, but this could depend on the beer you have brewed.
Tip 12: Keep an eagle eye on that wort
If for nothing else, as a beginner it’s damn exciting to see how your wort changes throughout each process of brewing. However, especially in the fermentation stage, it is important to see how the wort develops.
If you can see the airlock bubbling away then you can be sure that fermentation hasn’t ended yet. This is essential information before you stop bubbling.
Another important factor is the actual appearance of the wort’s surface. It does often look like an alien invasion, and that’s perfectly normal. But you also want to look out for something really strange as this can indicate a bacterial infection. This is just going to ruin your beer. Catch it early enough and you can act!
Tip 13: Go big with the kettle
Now, I wouldn’t dream of making a euphemism about size here, but it is absolutely better in this case.
You need to boil up that brew in order to get the process started and you will want a vessel that is up to the job. If you are, say, working with an initial quantity of 5 gallons, then aim to have a kettle that can accommodate about another 20% -30% more liquid. It’ll reduce spillage a lot.
The same is also true of the fermenter you choose because the CO2 that will be produced will need the space to expand into, even if you have a great airlock.
Tip 14: Wort chillers are worth the money and hassle.
There are so many critical periods in the process of brewing beer and cooling the wort down before fermentation is just one such period.
There is nothing wrong with cooling the wort down naturally. However, it can be one of the most likely times for the introduction of bacteria to your beer.
A wort chiller gives you a lot more control of how quickly and to what temperature you can cool your wort to. For anyone who is looking to make even a modest amount of batches a year would find their investment is returned in time and excellent beer quality.
Tip 15: Go ahead and make your own yeast starter.
Yeast is really the most important element of actually turning your beery mix into real beer. So, making sure that you help this process of fermentation is perhaps the only thing that you should worry about ( in fact there are a lot more, sorry!).
In order to avoid contamination of your wort or getting stuck fermentation, a good strong yeast starter is key. Making this yourself is also important when using a basic starter kit. Sometimes the yeast given in these kits isn’t the best and can lead to all sorts of issues in the fermentation process.
Tip 16: Get carboy handles and save yourself some backache
Your carboy is what you ferment your wort in and they are just smooth fat vessels which you have to physically lug around when transferring your wort into another container.
A real lifesaver is those carboy handles. It’s a little piece of kit which fits over the neck of the carboy and allows you to work with it more easily. Most people won’t even think of getting this the first time they brew, but it’ll really help you out if you do.
Tip 17: Don’t forget to calibrate your digital equipment
If you have splurged out on some fancy digital measuring equipment such as a thermometer or hydrometer (they’re great by the way!), then don’t forget to calibrate them before use. You don’t want your measurements to be out!
Tip 18: Storage (use a keg instead of bottles).
Now, there is nothing wrong with bottling your beer. It’s often a more familiar option for new brewers and can be easier to store in the average home.
However, if you are serious about producing beer in any quantity, then consider kegging your beer. It’s actually easier than the time-consuming nature of bottling beer and it can give you much more control over the carbonation of your beer. There is also less chance of contamination and exploding bottles.
Tip 19: Brew in the 21st century
In the past, a home brewer had to do a lot of calculations to ensure that the beer they were making wouldn’t make them throw up. Those days are gone.
There are so many apps on the market that can help you with the key calculations you need to make such as the specific gravity of your beer and the ABV of your beer.
You can also find apps to help you with calculating the amount of priming (sugars) you should use if you do choose to bottle you beer.
In this case, I do think that technology is adding to the experience rather than taking anything away from it. After all, even real scientists use fancy software nowadays.
Tip 20: Get a bigger auto-siphon
When you are transferring your wort, either from the kettle to the fermenter or from the fermenter into a keg, you do it through an auto-siphon.
As the name implies, you don’t want to be sucking on this tube like you do when stealing fuel from your neighbor’s car. In fact, placing your mouth on a tube which you then introduce into your wort could infect it with lots of nasty things.
So, you want an auto-siphon and you want a thick on. The thicker the tube the more beer is transferred in less time. This can minimize the exposure to the air and also your workload. The cost between a smaller and larger auto-siphon could be only a few bucks, so go big!
Tip 21: Use a blow off tube
The most annoying thing for any home brewer is the mess when something explodes. You are, after all, dealing with substances under fairly high pressure. Either in bottles or other containers.
When fermenting, most people opt for an airlock to allow gas to escape from the fermenter without exposing the wort to the elements. However, these can easily become clogged or just overwhelmed.
If you are brewing a significant amount, say 6 gallons or more, a blow-off tube can help reduce the risk of your fermenter popping its lid or exploding entirely.
Brewing beer is an excellent experience and will be a big learning curve for most people. There is only so much that you can learn from reading, so the best way is to get brewing and see what happens.
Be prepared to learn from your mistakes and to build on your experiences. The first few batches may not be your best but the more you do it the better you will get. Happy brewing and cheers!