5 Do's And Don'ts For A New Brewer

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1. Do: Sanitize Everything

Ok perhaps that's an exaggeration
Sanitization is one of the most crucial parts of brewing a healthy beer. At best, an infection will cause some "interesting" sour flavors, and at worst will totally ruin your beer. It should be noted that there are no known harmful pathogens that can survive in beer, so you don't have to worry about getting dysentery from your infected batch, just some bad flavors.
As soon as your wort has cooled below about 140F it is a breeding ground for microorganisms. The best way to prevent infection is to sanitize anything that will come into contact with the cooled wort, and keep it covered as much as possible to minimize air contact. It is also important to pitch your yeast and get it off and running as quickly as possible because your yeast will help prevent infection by lowering the pH of the wort, reducing the sugar content, and producing alcohol.
Now the real question is: what do I mean by "sanitize?" This brings us to our first "don't".
Don't: Wash With Soap and Call It Sanitary
"Sanitization" usually refers to killing the bacteria and wild yeast on your brewing equipment. "Cleaning" refers to removing the beer residue and sugars from your equipment. Many times these two steps together are referred to as "sanitizing," which can be confusing to new brewers, but they are both absolutely necessary. The first step is to use a cleaner such as Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW) or Oxyclean Free (yes, the laundry detergent) to remove any organic matter. You should not use dish soap or any other cleaner that leaves a residue. Yes, it will clean your equipment, but unless you rinse it 45 times, dance in a circle, burn some incense, and sacrifice a chicken, it will most likely leave a small amount of residue that will kill the head retention in your finished beer.
So you've washed with PBW and it's sanitized right? Wrong! PBW is a cleaner and has only removed the organic matter; there are still trillions of bacteria living on your brewing equipment. The only way to sanitize your equipment is to use an actual sanitizer. The two that are most commonly used in brewing are Star San and Iodophor. Star San works by lowering the pH of water to an inhospitable level, and don't worry, it's supposed to smell like sulfur. It doesn't need to be rinsed or dried, and won't affect the flavor of your beer.
Iodophor is an iodine-based sanitizer and will turn absolutely everything it touches brownish red. It works well, and I'll probably get a lot of flak for saying this, but it doesn't need to be rinsed or dried either. You should let your equipment drip clean and minimize the amount that gets in your beer, but a few drops of dilute Iodophor sanitizer won't affect the flavor of your beer in my experience.
2. Do: Follow a Recipe for Your First Brew
Let's be real; it's your first brew. The goal isn't to brew the greatest beer in history.

Not everyone can find the ultimate beer recipe stuffed in a doll
Making a drinkable brew is a good first step. Whether you're starting out with extracts or all-grain, just pick a beer you like to drink and see if there's a clone of it out there. I didn't and my first beer was awful, and I'm sure others have had similar experiences. Just learn the process before you start inventing that ultimate brew.
Don't: Obsess Over Every Detail of the Recipe
The recipe is important, don't get me wrong, but some small deviations just don't matter that much. Here's a list of things with some wiggle room in them. This list isn't comprehensive by any means--and will probably get plenty of argument from other brewers--but in my experience these are a few things that just don't matter that much:
  • Mash time can vary by ten to fifteen minutes without much change to your recipe. I've even accidentally mashed for two and a half hours before without an issue, but I was going for a highly fermentable wort.
  • Boil time can vary by 20% without a problem. If you're making an IPA and only boil for 48 minutes, you might not hit your target IBU's.exactly, but your beer won't be ruined by any stretch.
  • Accidentally throwing in a few extra ounces of grain or malt extract might change your beer a bit, but don't worry, everything will be ok.
  • Missing a hop addition by a few minutes is perfectly okay. We've all done it. If you forget one entirely, you'll have a flavor change for sure, but again, it won't ruin your beer.
  • Cooling your beer quickly is important for minimizing infections, but if you keep it covered and don't disturb it, leaving it to cool overnight won't hurt anything.

3. Do: Read A Book or Two About Brewing First

Charlie Papazian's book is perhaps the most popular and widely read, though not the most technical
The three best sources of literature to focus on are, in my opinion:
  • The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian. He presents brewing in a relaxed non-intimidating manner and breaks the process down into very easy bite-sized pieces.
  • John Palmer's How to Brew is a bit more of an in-depth look at brewing. He takes you through absolutely every aspect of brewing from the most basic extract kit to the ins-and-outs of brewing water chemistry.
  • The Brewing Elements book set - Water, Hops, and Yeast - are also excellent resources. I haven't read them myself, but they come highly recommended from many homebrewers, and some of our own HomeBrewTalk members have contributed to these books.
Don't: Get Overwhelmed by the Amount of Info Available
If the first place you start looking for brewing information is a search engine, you're going to pull your hair out. There are as many opinions on the internet as a-holes, and there's a large amount of disinformation out there. Start with one of the books, then narrow your internet searches a bit. Just learning what to look for is a good place to start!
4. Do: Take Notes and Record Data

The brewing journal I'm hoping to get for Christmas. Hint Hint Mom.
Taking notes is probably one of the most important things any brewer can do to improve their process, and their beer. You won't remember much about your current brew day next time, so take notes on everything. It's better to write too much than too little. Some key things to record are:
The date of your brew day.
Your brew's EXPECTED vital statistics and recipe: IBU's, SRM, OG, FG, mash temp, mash time, boil time, grain bill, hop schedule, and yeast strain.
Your brew's ACTUAL vital statistics and recipe. This will tell you how close you are to your targets and whether or not you need to make adjustments to your process.
Anything that doesn't go exactly as planned so you can adjust for it next time. If you make a change to your recipe or process last-minute, write down WHY you did it.
Your pre-boil volume and post-boil volume.
When you first observe krausen, how long primary fermentation activity lasts, and any hydrometer/refractomter readings you take along the way.
Racking days and bottling days.
Priming sugar weight, water volume, and expected volumes of CO2.
Any other passing thoughts that might be relevant later on.
Don't: Get Too Drunk to Write
I have a rule in my house: "you've gotta drink beer to make beer." I always drink during brew day, but I also limit my consumption to one beer per hour or less. Drinking heavily on brew day can lead to mistakes, forgetfulness, accidents, and bad beer. Don't forget that you are dealing with gallons of boiling sugar water and likely some fire. It's just plain not safe to get pissed on brew day.
5. Do: Learn Patience
I've listed patience last because it's the most important thing for a new brewer to learn, and the most difficult in my opinion. Brewing beer is exciting, especially when it's your first time. That excitement can lead to mistakes, especially after brew day is over. Brew day itself is a flurry of activity, and at the end of it the reward is several weeks of waiting. That's just plain difficult.
While your beer is fermenting, don't fiddle with it, don't sniff it, and don't taste it (except at hydrometer readings). Just leave it alone in a cool dark room and do something else, like plan your next batch, or drool over brewing equipment that is currently out of your budget. Once fermentation is complete and you bottle or keg it, you get to wait some more.
Again, stop fiddling with it! Don't keep opening beers every day to check the carbonation, just let it sit for 3 weeks minimum in the bottles. The more you open, the less of the final product you will have to drink.
Don't: Rush Things
I'm just going to go ahead and say the same thing twice on this one, it's that important. Beer is like love: it's slow, patient, kind (if not enjoyed in excess), and will be your best friend on good days and bad. But mostly it's slow. And if at the end of your long wait your beer doesn't taste great, wait some more. Time can improve bad beer, so just let it be.
I hope this proves helpful to some first time brewers out there. Good luck, and happy beering!
Author Bio:
Mat King is a Nuclear Reactor Technician by day, and homebrew enthusiast by night. He holds a bachelor's degree in English from Washington State University, which he uses for mostly nothing besides writing the best homebrew articles on the web. Other than making possibly the best beer in the world, Mat is an avid outdoors man, and spends as much free time as possible gallivanting around the western states backpacking and mountaineering. Mat hopes to one day open a brewery of his own, but he'd settle for winning the lottery and homebrewing full time for his friends.//www.pinterest.com/pin/create/extension/
Patience and taking notes - also measurements! These were my biggest mistakes at first - These are valuable skills to employ.
Nice article and nicely written! Can you recommend a resource for understanding more about sanitization? I'd really like to know more about traditional methods and even the recent changes in homebrew sanitization. Why don't breweries use StarSan? I've been getting into sour brewing and many say to utilize separate plastic sets. Well, if that's needed for sour bugs, then what else is being left behind in plastic when we clean it? Does boiling kill Everything? If I had the time, I would try to research and write an article about these questions, but I don't right now.
@Melana Yes, I would expect Homer to limit his beer drinking to 1/hr on 5hr+ brew day ;)
Thanks for the article, it may help new brewers to get started at the right ambition level.
@Melana Yup really! I don't glow in the dark and I'm still working on the super powers though.
@SatanPrinceOfDarkness Thank you for the compliment! Breweries do use chemical sanitizes very similar to star san. As for "traditional methods" They didn't really sanitize before they knew about microorganisms so they actually exposed their beers to the air intentionally to get a good culture of wild yeast going. I would guess that their brews were somewhat "inconsistent" to say the least
Boiling does kill absolutely everything after about 15 minutes, but it's not really practical to boil water in a plastic bucket and it's much more labor intensive.
Plastic can harbor bacteria because it can scratch. Many brewers change out their plastic buckets every few months for that very reason. As long as you don't scour them with anything abrasive and sanitize well, they shouldn't cause you a problem though.
Great lessons for new brewers. When I started I did not understand the difference between cleaning and sanitzing, thinking I could clean with starsan did not work well for me. I am glad that others drink on brew day(so many seam to advise not doing this). It is part of the fun, but I usually take it slower at the start and may have a couple more during the end and stupid cleaning part (boourns to cleaning)
Great article, Mat. I have one nitpick, though. The OxiClean product to use is known as OxiClean Versatile Free Stain Remover. It is more of an oxygen bleach and not laundry detergent. OxiClean actually came out with a laundry detergent with added scents recently, so I didn't want the newbies to get confused.
As a 5-batch noob myself, this is all great advice.
I agree 100% that using a book instead of the internet is a good idea when starting out. There is just too much disagreement and opinion on the internet, which is confusing. A good book (I read "How to Brew" before brewing anything) will provide a cohesive and thorough overview. Even if there are "other ways" of doing things, at least the newcomer can follow the book from start to finish and be confident that the info is good and reliable.

Also, agree that there is no need to sweat every little detail in recipes. I've already done a repeat recipe and it tastes identical to the first batch, even though I really didn't take too much care to follow things precisely. As a homebrewer, you have the luxury of not being bound by strict consistency requirements (unless you want to be); a great beer with a very subtle change is probably still going to be a great beer.
I enjoyed your article very much. on my first batch I was going crazy with every little tiny deviation from the book I read, I was sure I had ruined my frist beer, it turned out great, I which I had taken better notes though.
Great article! Although I wouldn't say "sanitize everything". Many new brewers will take the approach of sanitizing all of their equipment before brewing-- including mash tun, boil kettle, and other hot side utensils/items.
you forgot about starsan(sanitizer) and sodium percarbonate(cleaner),also get some good brewing software,also there are beer kegs
That would be "The 5 Most Insane Things You Never Knew About Being A New Brewer". Or the Buzzfeed equivalent: "5 Things Only New Brewers Understand" (with a buttload of annoying GIFs).
That's a nice looking brew journal though. I want.
I'd be curious about the journal, but if you told us.. I'd buy it. Then it would sit on the shelf with all of my other journals, diaries and fancy blank-paged books waiting to be filled. I get excited on brew day, the notes get scribbled on 8.5x11 and get thrown in a folder.
Great article. My biggest mistake that made me quit brewing years ago was #1. I used B-Brite cleaner and thought I was sanitizing my equipment. (The ritual you outlined, for getting soap residue off... does not work by the way)
When I decided to brew, after thinking about it in the 70's... I read and read books on brewing. I decided what my final goal was (all grain, kegging and at least 4 beers on tap.) A year and a half before I brewed my first beer I began to collect and make equipment. I bought most parts on sale and saved a lot of money. I brewed my first beer with store milled grains, a slightly altered Arrogant Bastard clone, go big or.... It was a home run. First few beers were tapped with a party tap then I built the keezer and a year later I got my mill. I never made an extract beer or bottled a batch. I think I saved a lot of money by side stepping these steps (It helps me feel better with how much I actually have spent!) But I've saved so much by not buying beer and have the best hobby ever!
My wife bought me an extract brewing kit for our anniversary 5 yrs ago, and included John Palmer's How to Brew. She insisted I read the book before I started brewing, she is weird like that. It helped me to avoid a lot of newbie mistakes as well as completely overwhelm me with information. Still, a good read for any homebrewer. I brew in the fall and winter due to high Temps where I live, and review the book before every brewing season. Still learning from it!
@Minky That's what I was talking about, so thanks for clarifying. It is found in the laundry detergent aisle in my local grocery stores though. It took me forever to find it because of that.
Thanks for the compliments and critiques all!
I think part of my problem is that i have been using oxy dish soap to "clean" my equipment. It felt clean, but even after sanitizing, my beer had some weird taste to it. I've done about 12 all grain batches so far, and 9 times out of 10, it had the same weird, tart taste. I will scrap the dish soap, and start rockin the PBW from now on.
The reality is, I even began contemplating the idea of just giving up the whole home brewing thing...after 12 all grain batches, it tastes nothing like GOOD beer.
@Mofoa so a few other things to consider:
1) a tart taste like green apples is just a side effect of a young beer, try leaving it sitting on the yeast cake for a few more days and letting it age more.
2) Check your water source, are you using RO filtered water? different minerals in your water can cause a wide range of off flavors
3)Fermentation temperature, a warm fermentation can cause tart flavors, so you could try to keep your fermentation temps down by using a swamp cooler
Here's a helpful link too
Number 3: I watched some guys home brew on YouTube before I started brewing. I then went to the LHBS, bought everything I needed including a small extract kit and jumped right in. It turned out great and then I started learning more about it. To me doing an extract kit from a store is like making dinner from a box and then learning about cooking once you got the basics down.
I have actually had to stop drinking all together on brew days; I find that just one or two beers is enough to slightly impair my judgement and increase the likelihood of a careless mistake. Great advice for a beginner!
Also plan to toss things that aren't easy to clean, like siphon tubing every 12 months or so. I was starting to get infections because I couldn't thoroughly clean my siphon tubing. Or at least I tried a bunch of different changes in sanitation and replacing a couple of bits (like my Siphon), finally replaced the siphon tubing and not an infected batch since.
I do a better job sanitizing everything now as well, which probably is a good thing, but I am 99% sure it was siphon tubing that had "kicked". It was about 18 months in to brewing before I started getting infected batches, but I got 2 obviously infected batches (continued to over carb and started to develop an iron taste) and 2 more that might have been (developed the iron taste, slight overcarb, but they didn't seem to get to bottle bomb levels where 1 of the massive overcarbed batches did have 2 bottles explode).
I was doing the soap rinse after bottling or use and oxy and then idophor before use. Now I do oxy after use and then oxy and idophor right before use. That and I devised a way to clean my siphon tubing thoroughly every once in awhile. A cotton patch soaked in bleach and run through with a straightened shirt hanger. Run it through one direction and then the other to scrub the inside of the vinyl tubing. I am doing it about every 4-5 batches. This is on top of the oxy and idophor soaking.
Probably will still replace it every year, it is only about $4 worth of tubing.