Homebrewing Year One: Equipment and Labels

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I started homebrewing early in 2016 with no knowledge and with what a store owner told me was "everything I needed." With every batch I brewed, I made mistakes, sought out more advice, and acquired more equipment. Now, after nine batches, I finally feel confident that when I invest time on brew day, I'll end up with something worth drinking and sharing.
While I have loved this journey into homebrewing competence, I've also loved making beer labels for each batch. This article presents my year-one journey as captured by the labels I created.

1. Incident With a Siphon Imperial Stout

As depicted on this label, I had major struggles with the siphoning on my first batch. I was anxious about ensuring everything that touched the wort was properly sanitized but then the siphon kept jumping out of the fermentation bucket. As I desperately wrestled with the siphon hose as beer ejaculated all over the kitchen, I had to give up on keeping the process clinically clean.
So the first additions to "everything I needed" were an auto-siphon and a spring-tipped bottling wand. The kitchen has been much less sticky since then.

2. Big Bill ESB

My main mistake in batch number two was mis-remembering the recipe. I used way too much grain thus the inspiration for "Big Bill." My only equipment purchase was a better thermometer.

3. I Get a Kick Out of You Wry Porter

Batch number three was a rye porter with a label featuring a wry Cole Porter. This was the first of many batches where I was hardly getting any alcohol. The 4% on the label is wrong arising from another struggle which was miscalculating the ABV. If you were generous you might call this a "session ale" but I call it a "near beer." I wondered if my lack of fermentable sugars could be blamed on improperly milled grain, or maybe a fermentation environment that is too warm or too cool. I didn't know what I was doing wrong.

4. Hopalot Cassidy American Red Ale

For the next one of my labels, I wanted to do a child-like one, befitting of it's ABV, that makes it a beer that could be served to a child. This was my first attempt at dry hopping. While washing up I managed to break my hydrometer, leading to the ill-advised idea of switching to a refractometer.

5. Abby Abbey Ale

My niece's name is Abby so, of course, when I decided to try an abbey ale, I used her face for the labels. Again, the 5.5% is way off from where I wanted. This time I was trying to use the refractometer for OG and FG without doing any needed adjustments.

6. Shakentot Old Peculier

A friend of mine is a big fan of Theakston Old Peculier, so I found a recipe to see if I could brew something similar. I some oxygenation equipment this time to try to give the yeast a boost, but again the result was a beer without much alcohol. For the label, I borrowed the actual Theakston label and rearranged the letters.

7. Ears Single Hop English IPA

A friend of mine lost his pet rabbit after a long fourteen years. The rabbit's name was Ears. In his old age, Ears wasn't good for much more than a single hop. With this brew I started using a yeast starter. I bought a magnetic stir plate and a new flask. I really hoped this would be the solution to my ABV problem, but no such luck.

8. Religious Extremist Imperial Stout

Thanks to the forum here, and my local homebrew store I finally got to the root of my problem. It turns out all this time I had been acting on faulty instructions for sparging. I was essentially recycling the wort multiple times with the result being that I was filtering out all the sugars. I bought a mash tun and did a proper sparging. This combined with the yeast starter and the oxygenation finally gave me the fermentable sugars, and attenuation I had been longing for. I can't tell you how happy it made me to see that air lock dancing a jig.
For these labels, I thought back to my initial imperial stout that had the acronym ISIS. I decided to do this imperial stout as a reminder that our culture has its own religious extremists.

9. Shiner Black IPA

I end this brewing adventure with a Black IPA. When I told my wife what I was brewing she heard "black eye PA" so that's where I got the idea for the label. I can proudly confirm that this brew has a healthy 7.2 % ABV. I'm now using my refractometer for the OG reading and my hydrometer for the FG.
Happy brewing everyone.
" It turns out all this time I had been acting on faulty instructions for sparging. I was essentially recycling the wort multiple times with the result being that I was filtering out all the sugars. I bought a mash tun and did a proper sparging. This combined with the yeast starter and the oxygenation finally gave me the fermentable sugars, and attenuation I had been longing for"
Love the story, but man I am still trying to wrap my head around this bit..Just how the hell you were sparging to begin with without a mash tun?
That might worth another story unless this is all one big tease gag-wise..
I’ve heard all kinds of misfortunes from new brewers ranging from boiling their grains to adding the priming sugar packet into the fermentation with the yeast pitch (and then it came out un-carbed of course). I think there’s just a lot of information overload for new brewers and it gets processed and stored in different ways, leading to issues.
I’m happy he was able to correct his issue regardless and be able to continue homebrewing.
Awsome article and labels. Only had one batch low abv but it was my mill gap. Learning and finding my own way I like to run my brewday has been the best part. Cheers keep on brewing!
Typical homebrewer attitude: I'll do better next time!. Congrats for hanging in there long enough to figure it out. When I started brewing 25 years ago good ingredients, equipment and good advice were not readily available in my small town, so I also brewed some pretty gut wrenching beers that first year. But it did eventually come together. Never quit learning
Entertaining stories. I might suggest one thing for new brewers: try to reduce the number of recipes and focus more on perfecting just a few. If every time you brew a new recipe, how do you learn to correct mistakes and such--and how do you know that you've done it?
I have 23 batches under my belt. I suppose you could say I've tried 8 or 9 recipes, but in reality, some of the difference is in my tweaking. I brewed a SMASH with Maris Otter and East Kent Goldings. Tasty beer, many liked it a lot. It's actually set aside as a "tried and true" recipe. But the most recent SMASH was Maris Otter and Styrian Celeia. A tweak. BTW, that one is just as good, maybe better.
I've had 5 tries at refining an ESB with which I'm trying to clone the old version of Potosi Cave Ale. Still working on it. I'm close. I've had 6 brews of my Funky Rye, with two tweaks. Every one is great, but version II is the best--and it's now a house beer. I've done a couple of Biermuncher's Cream of Three Crops, a couple of his Black Pearl Porter (with vanilla--wow!), and now a couple California Commons. They also are wows. Going to try one of Yooper's recipes.
I know some people live for exploring, including tweaking recipes mercilessly, but IMO if you want to brew really tasty beer, you've got to refine the recipes until you hit, then do it again, and maybe yet again.
When your guests try one of your beers, then reach for a refill, you'll know you're on to something. :)
I was following instructions in a book titled Brew Better Beer. It advises using a simple strainer for a one-gallon batch and here is what it advises:
"Pour the mashed grains into the strainer. The wort collects in the bucket beneath. Slowly pour the warmed sparge water over the grains, rinsing them evenly, until you have collected 1.5 gallons of wort. Transfer the strainer with the used grains to the kettle. Slowly pour the wort over the grains again. Repeat this step twice more, ending with the wort back in your kettle."
So I was misinterpreting these instructions. Doh!
Gotcha..glad you stuck it out, figured it out and are brewing the beer you wanted to brew to begin with. :)
The road only gets more expensive from here the further you go down the rabbit hole!
Man, I ran into enough issues starting off with extract brewing, so I can't even imagine the information overload of trying all-grain from the start.
I think my biggest mistake was trying to convert an AG Nut Brown recipe with flaked oats to extract without understanding that if you just steep flaked oats you're going to end up with an incredibly starchy beer (that being said, I've seen recipes at online suppliers that tell you to do exactly that).
While I've yet to produce anything so bad as to be undrinkable, I'm definitely considering dumping the last few bottles of my early batches because of how much worse they are than my more recent brews.
As a relatively new homebrewer, the reason I don't keep trying to perfect the same recipe is pretty simple: I don't want to drink the same beer all the time. Maybe if I was the kind of person that had a "go-to" beer it would be different, but if I'm going to pick up 6 beers, I'm not getting a 6-pack, I'm getting 6 different beers, and they're probably all going to be different styles.
If you're doing 5 gallon batches, that's quite a lot of beer to go through; even more so if you're tweaking the same recipe over and over again. Of course the obvious answer is to just make smaller batches. I think about that a lot, but because my equipment's all set for 5 gallons, and the amount of time and effort that goes into making a batch, bottling, etc (and all the cleaning and sanitizing that goes along with it) I just keep making 5g batches.
Then of course there's a whole world of possibilities to try out. I want to try new grains, new yeasts, new water profiles, different mash and fermentation temperatures. Don't get me wrong, I think you're giving really sound advice. I understand wanting to be scientific about it, to isolate variables and learn what does and doesn't work. But to someone who craves variety (both in drinking and in making), it's like telling a kid in the candy store to just stick to chocolate. I've only been at this hobby about 4 months, and presumably I've got many more years left, so there'll be time enough to settle in on some of the things I really like and try to perfect them.
Hey, great story and really great labels. Thanks for the encouragement and honesty for new brewers. The comments seemed to take a turn away from the point but it wasn't missed here. May even consider developing my own labels for my "drinkable" beers in keeping with the spirit of funny optimism about the next time.