20. Make a yeast starter. Ok, let me make a caveat here: A single vial of liquid yeast is enough to pitch directly to a normal gravity (1.040-1.065), 5 gallon batch of wort without making a yeast starter. Generally speaking, I would only make a yeast starter from a single vial of liquid yeast IF I’m adding it to a 10 gallon batch, making a high gravity beer (1.070+), brewing a lager, brewing a really clean ale, or the liquid yeast is a little old. That’s it. I know, the old brewing wisdom was that a starter will always help your beer, but things keep getting better in the world of homebrewing and the good people at White Labs and Wyeast have scientifically designed their liquid yeast vials with enough yeast cells to adequately ferment your standard gravity 5 gallon batch.
19. Use online brewing calculators, programs and apps. Stop with the guesswork. There are so many free, easy-to-use brewing programs out there from priming sugar calculators, to ABV and recipe calculators, it’s insane not to use them. Heck, it’s even worth throwing down a few bucks for some kick ass brewing software like BeerSmith!
18. Aerate your wort just before or at the time you pitch your yeast. Yeast will benefit from an oxygen rich environment at the very beginning stages of fermentation. That said, let me stress: DO NOT shake the fermenter long after you’ve pitched the yeast. Let’s put it this way: It’s best to shake the hell out of your fermenter and then pitch your yeast immediately afterwards. Second best is to pitch your yeast and then shake the hell out of your fermenter immediately after pitching.
17. Create and/or add to your brewing library. There are too many great books to mention them all, but the bottom line is that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Many of the missteps you might make in brewing have already been encountered and remedied, so stand on the shoulders of giants and enjoy the view.
16. Chill your wort quickly. The faster you chill your wort after the boil, the better cold break you achieve which not only helps to clarify your beer, but can help extend the shelf-life of your homebrew by better stabilizing it and potentially prevent certain off-flavors such as sulfur/ cabbage. Not to mention, the quicker you chill your beer, the less risk you’ll have of infection as you’ll be that much closer to pitching your yeast instead of giving some uninvited bacteria time to set up camp. Personally, I use a copper immersion wort chiller in combination with an ice bath, but there are several other common approaches to quickly chill your wort.
15. Brew all-grain batches. True, about half of award winning homebrews are extract recipes, but the other half are all-grain. And when it comes to brewing exactly what you want and not someone else’s ‘malt from concentrate’, all-grain is the way to go. Usually more cost effective than extract batches, all-grain brewing offers the homebrewer more complete control over their recipes and the brewing process. Just remember that all commercial brewers brew all-grain recipes, so if you ever start thinking about taking your recipes and turning pro, you’ll already have one foot in the door with quality all-grain recipes.
14. Boil full-volume batches. Boiling full-volume batches of wort can help with hop extraction, prevent caramelized or scorched malt and the accompanying darker colors that come with scorched malt, and prevent you from unintentionally infecting your beer if back-adding water to your brew. Oh, and when I say ‘boil’, I mean a rolling boil. Not a volcano boil, but not a few bubbles here and there either.
13. Be creative and experiment. Most homebrewers are curious and creative by nature. Whether it comes in the form of recipe development, in the equipment and gadgets we use or build, or the processes we implement, the true homebrewer is driven by a passion for beer to innovate and explore. Try brewing a batch of beer, then splitting the batch into two fermenters and changing just one thing about the beers, like using one yeast strain in one batch and a different one in the other, or maybe dry hop different ingredients like two different types of hops, wood, chili, fruit, whatever. Maybe age one batch longer than the other, secondary one batch but not the other, or prime with different types of sugars.
12. Remember the “don’ts” of brewing: Don’t rack your beer off of the yeast during primary fermentation too soon (give it at least a week), or you may end up with popcorn butter beer (diacetyl). Don’t bottle with any color of bottle other than brown; if you do, keep your beer out of the light, or you might “skunk” your beers. Don’t bottle your beer before fermentation is complete, or you may end up with malty sweet beer, or worse yet, bottle bombs. Don’t ferment your beer much higher than that yeast’s ideal fermentation temperature as recommended by the manufacture, or your homebrew could come out with strong fruit and/or rubbing alcohol characteristics. Don’t steep or mash your grains at temperatures exceeding 170 degrees F, or you may end up with harsh astringent beer. Don’t cover your wort when boiling, or your beer may take on noticeable amounts of DMS which is described as cooked vegetables such as creamed corn, tomato or cabbage. Don’t over mill your grains, or you may end up with dry, husky grainy notes in your beer. Don’t splash or otherwise oxidize your beer after fermentation has begun, unless you’re looking for wet cardboard tasting beer. Don’t keep your beer in the primary fermenter for long periods of time (usually three weeks is ideal), otherwise you could end up with beer that exhibits yeasty and soapy characteristics and a lack of head retention.
11. Brew with quality water. Water makes up the vast majority of beer, and, pound for pound, it’s probably the cheapest of all your ingredients, so it only makes sense that you would want to brew with quality water. Brewing with over chlorinated water can lead to the development of possible chlorophenol compounds (think plastic or vinyl), and sometimes medicinal flavor components in your beer. Not convinced water makes a difference? Try this experiment: Buy a bottle of bottled water and line it up next to a glass of tap water, a glass of water from a garden hose, and a glass of water from a drinking fountain, and compare. Make sure to serve all the different samples at the same time at the same temperature, and see which one you prefer. Even in the off chance you don’t taste the difference, why would you want to skimp on the least expensive ingredient of your beer? That said, in some cases, tap water is ok to use, but for the most part, you’ll want to use some sort of filtered water, either store-bought filtered water, or water from your own home filter or purifier. For all you hydro-heads* out there who really want to get into the topic of water and brewing, check out John Palmer’s book Water: A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers. [*hydro-head: equally as annoying a term as “hop head”, used to describe a beer enthusiast whose idiosyncratic flavor fetish is water.]