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Top 40 Ways to Improve Your Homebrew

10. Use fresh ingredients. Just like any food product, malt, hops and yeast (especially liquid yeast) will deteriorate in quality over time.  Sure, there are limited exceptions to this rule like with recipes that call for aged hops, but on the whole, the better beer is the one that is brewed with the freshest ingredients. Old, improperly stored hops can develop stinky cheese qualities, and old unrefrigerated grains and sometimes extract can leave you with musty, grassy and sometimes moldy or metallic flavors in your finished brew. Old yeast may be too weak to fully ferment your beer, leaving you with a stuck fermentation resulting in a sugary sweet malt drink and potentially open up the possibly for other unwanted bacteria to take over and generously contribute any number of potentially nasty off-flavors to your beloved homebew (re: Sweaty Gym Sock Ale).

9. Steep with specialty grains. This tip applies more to the extract brewer, but it doesn’t hurt to steep some of the more roasted specialty malts even if you’re an all-grain brewer.  Steeping is one of the easiest ways to add complexity and depth to your homebrew and is a must if you’re brewing only with malt extract.

8. Choose the right yeast for the job. Yeast is the life of beer, and in most cases is responsible for the majority of the beer’s aroma and flavor profile.  Often times, the key to the perfect beer lies in the yeast.  This isn’t a debate over whether liquid or dry yeast is better because nowadays both will produce excellent beers.  That said, you will find more variety with liquid yeast, which means you might end up using liquid yeast more frequently. Take advantage of that variety, so if you’re brewing a Saison, use a Saison yeast strain, not just any old Belgian Ale strain. As a matter of fact, there’s so much variety when it comes to yeast, you can often find different yeast with in the same style of beer.  At last check, White Labs [a popular yeast producer] was offering at least four different varieties of Saison yeast alone! If you’re not sure exactly which strain is best for your brew, check the manufactures website, White Labs or Wyest, for example. There you can often find descriptions and recommendations for the various yeasts, and consumer reviews.   However, sometimes the best yeast you’ll ever use is the yeast you re-culture yourself from one of your favorite commercial beers.  Sounds complicated, but it’s not too difficult if you practice super sanitation and follow a few basic steps for how to harvest and grow yeast from a beer bottle.

7. Research and create your own recipes. Developing your own recipes is part of the fun of homebrewing, but do some homework first.  Compare different recipes you might find online, or in books. Look for common ingredients and ratios, and stay within the general framework of those recipes.

6. Pitch the appropriate amount of yeast.  Underpitching yeast can stress your yeast and leave you with unwanted estery characteristics, beer that is not fully fermented (i.e. too sweet), or even worse, allow for the potential of other bacteria or wild yeast to infect your beer. The general rule of thumb when pitching yeast is to add about 150 billion viable cells of yeast for a 5 gallon batch of ale wort with an original gravity of 1.050. White Labs states that each vial of their yeast is packaged with 70 to 140 billion yeast cells, which still leaves you short of the recommended 150 billion cells. This 150 billion cell number comes from a formula that references that shows how to calculate the proper pitching rates. However Mr. Malty, in turn, borrowed their figures from George Fix who authored the book An Analysis of Brewing Techniques. I don’t know who George Fix got his numbers from, but the gist is it’s recommended that you pitch about 0.75 million viable yeast cells, or 1.5 million for a lager, for every milliliter of wort, for every degree Plato.

Here’s the formula: (.75 million) X (milliliters of wort) X (degrees Plato of the wort).

 5. Brew with the right equipment.  Many times, an artist is only as good as his tools. This holds true for homebrewing as well.  Much of the equipment you’re going to use in brewing you will be using over and over again and keep for many years to come, so spend a little bit more up front to make your brewing career a little easier.  If I had to recommend a beginner to intermediate brewing setup, I would say get a BIG pot (at least 4 gallons) and if you can brew outside I HIGHLY RECOMMEND a stainless steel keg that’s been converted to a kettle, at least two food-grade fermentation buckets or glass carboys (5 – 6.5 gallons each), a food-grade bottling bucket with a spigot, an auto-siphon and racking cane, a wine thief, a hydrometer, a bottle capper, oxygen barrier caps, a bottling brush, at least 50 brown glass bottles per 5 gallon batch of beer, a precarbonate sanitizer such as One-Step, a brewers spoon, 3 feet of tubing, airlocks, and an outdoor burner, especially if brewing with a keg that’s been converted into a kettle.  But my # 1 most recommended piece of equipment to homebrewers is a spare refrigerator with a temperature controller.  I even show you how to do it here: Convert a Refrigerator Into a Fermentation Chamber.

4. Sample AND WRITE about several commercial examples of the style of beer you’re trying to brew.  Better yet, WRITE ABOUT EVERY BEER YOU TASTE!  Buy several commercial examples of the style of beer you’re interested in so you get a clear idea of what’s considered a good example of the style, and what isn’t.  And don’t just drink the beer, TASTE IT and WRITE NOTES!  Write about what you like best from a particular example, what you might want to tweak about it, and how it stacks up to the general descriptions of the style (see the BJCP Style Guideline as a reference).  Write descriptions of the aroma, color, flavor and body, aftertaste, and overall impression allows you to refine your palate when it comes to beer.  No need to limit yourself to just commercial examples; write about homebrews too!  In little time, you’ll be better able to discern the contributions of various ingredients, pinpoint what you find desirable in a beer in order to recreate it, pick out off-flavors to know what to avoid, and get a better understanding for what is considered a good commercial example of a particular style of beer to use as a benchmark when brewing that style.

3. Keep a brewing journal… the more detailed, the better.  Ever brew a beer that you and everyone else loved, but try as you might, you haven’t been able to reproduce it?  Sloppy/lazy note taking might be the culprit.  If you haven’t heard it before, beer brewing is largely process driven, meaning that if you follow a precise recipe and a specific plan EVERY time, you will end up with basically the same product (we’ll save the discussion about terroir for another day). Here are a few key things to note: (1) mash schedule [if brewing an all grain batch], (2) boil schedule and ingredients: note the quantity and variety of ALL ingredients used including any malts and hops, when you added them to the boil, boil time and pre-boil water volume, (3) fermentation schedule: note the pitching temperature, fermentation temperature/s, how many days in the primary fermenter, gravity readings (especially the Original Gravity and Final Gravity), tasting notes, how many days in the secondary (if any) and note any dry hopping ingredients, (4) if bottling note the bottling date, amount and type of priming sugar used, and (5) tasting notes: jot down the date and describe the beer as it matures over days, weeks, or months if it lasts that long.

2. Fermentation Temperature Control.  Some days I seriously consider putting temperature control above sanitation- it’s that important (spoiler alert!).  In fact,  I’m familiar with at least one very well-known homebrewer who made only one single change to his recipe, a six degree change in fermentation temperature, which ended up turning his ordinary homebrew into award winning beer.  Fermentation is where our yeastie friends go to work to transform our sweet malt juice into beer.  And being that yeast are highly reactive to temperature especially during active fermentation, temperature control not only helps to avoid many of the common off-flavors you might find in a so-so beer, it can also help you fine tune and showcase the exact flavor/aroma profiles you want in your finished product.  As a general rule of thumb, try not to ferment ales warmer than 68 degrees F, otherwise you run the risk of your beer developing unwanted esters such as banana, banana cream pie, topical fruit, gumball, and potentially fusel alcohols which can impart notes of rubbing alcohol or ammonia into your beer.  Yum. Remember that during the first three days of active fermentation, the beer inside your fermenter can be as much as 10 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature outside of your fermenter which means that if you’re fermenting in your house at 68 degrees, the temperature inside your fermenter could be fermenting in the upper 70s (bad idea).  Homebrewers  use several different methods to try and control their fermentation temperatures.  Many find a room in the house that maintains a relatively steady temperature, an approach that is better than nothing, but not by much. Others employ the ghetto bucket method, but for my money, adding a temperature controller to a spare refrigerator and using it as a dedicated fermentation chamber is the best way to go.

1. Sanitation. Sanitation is first on the list for the same reason it’s stressed up front by almost every ‘how to homebrew’ book you’ve ever read; it’s so fundamental to good, consistent, beer that it should really just fall under the assumed, self-evident, axiom category of homebrewing.  Some might not appreciate how vital sanitation is when it comes to brewing until they brew their first ‘sweaty gym sock’ ale and have to watch all their hard work, time, and money literally go down the drain. The most CRITICAL potential infection times are (1) Any time after you’ve cooled your wort to below 140 degrees F and before you’ve pitched your yeast, and (2) Any time you are making a yeast starter or re-culturing yeast.  Aside from being super vigilant during these two danger zones, carefully cleaning and sanitizing your brewing equipment BEFORE and AFTER every use is the corner stone of any brewer worth his weight in malt. I can tell you that the worst homebrews I’ve ever had came from brewers who didn’t practice proper sanitation procedures; you really just have to wonder if they can’t even get sanitation down, what else are they missing…

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Hi, I’m Dan: Beer Editor for Beer Syndicate, Beer and Drinking Blogger, Gold Medal-Winning Homebrewer, Beer Reviewer, AHA Member, Beer Judge, Shameless Beer Promoter, and Beer Traveler.  Interests? Beer.

Daniel J. Leonard: Beer Syndicate Co-Creator

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1 Comment

  1. John G.

    It looks like you are using wordpress. If so, please get a Twitter account and WordPress plugin that tweets a link to your new blog posts. I’ve enjoyed the articles I’ve read but I don’t use RSS and don’t always remember to check back. Thanks for publishing a blog that really has some details! John

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