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Lessons Learned: My First Year in Home Brewing

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My home brewing story starts simply enough. One summer afternoon, a friend invited us over to grill some burgers and enjoy a few beers on his back patio. What I didn't know was that the beers we'd be drinking a Hefeweizen and an amber ale were made right there in his backyard. From that first sip, I was intrigued, and a few weeks later I was there with him, helping to brew his next batch. This addiction we call a hobby, had me hooked. Over the next couple months, we got together to brew and bottle three different extract beers for my upcoming wedding. Each time I'd take on more responsibility, and by the third batch, I was basically borrowing his equipment under close supervision. The time had come to get my own gear.

That was a little over a year ago, and since that time, I have learned so much about this hobby. I've gone all-grain. I've taken up fly sparging. I've started kegging. I've read books, subscribed to magazines, and searched forums with dozens of questions. There is a whole wealth of information out there, and with a little patience, you can find almost anything you're looking for. With that in mind, here's some advice from lessons I learned in my first year as a home brewer.
Use your Hydrometer
When I was using my friend's equipment, he never cared about hydrometer readings or approximate ABV. His attitude was, "if it tastes good and it gets me drunk, then it works for me." When I made my first batch on my own, I did what I was familiar with. I didn't use a hydrometer. I also forgot to top off the fermenter at the end, so my total volume was a gallon, maybe a gallon and a half under the recipe's specifications. The finished beer would've met my friend's standards just fine, but it was noticeably strong for my taste. If I'd taken the two minutes to take an initial gravity reading of my wort, I would've realized that I had overshot my target gravity, which in turn may have reminded me to top up my volume. I've since learned how important hydrometer readings are for monitoring fermentation progress, which brings me to my next point...
Be Patient, Let the Yeast do their thing.
My first several beers had one thing in common they were full of diacetyl. If you don't know what diacetyl is, count yourself lucky. Diacetyl is a natural byproduct of fermentation, and, if it's in your beer, it tastes like movie theater popcorn butter. The good thing about yeast though, is they will reabsorb diacetyl (and several other off-flavor causing compounds) after fermentation is complete. The hard part is, you have to let them.
For each of these early batches, I was eager to taste what I had made. I would check the gravity with my hydrometer, and as soon as I had reached my target final gravity (often in just a few days) I would prepare the beer for packaging. Because I keg, I would go from kettle to glass in a week, sometimes a day or two less. What I didn't realize was that I wasn't giving the yeast time to finish what they'd started. The first few pints usually tasted good, but after a day or two in the keg, the off flavors of my impatience became evident.
Fermentation is a pretty cool process, and there's good reading on the science of it all. The thing with it is, though, it takes time. I leave all my ales in the primary for at least two weeks now. I'm still eager to drink the beer as soon as I can, but I try to remember that I'm not doing this for profit, nor am I trying to get a product to a customer. Beer is pretty forgiving, but we have to let the yeast do their thing, and that takes time.
Know your Audience
Another thing I tried to do early on, was brew something that all my friends would want to come over and try as soon as it was ready. A few of them did, but most wouldn't make a special trip just to taste a home brewed beer. By about my fourth batch, I realized that my wife and I were drinking at least 2/3 of the beer I brewed. Instead of thinking up ideas that I thought would get the attention of everyone who tasted it, I focused on brewing beers that the two of us actually wanted to drink. When you brew, think about who you are trying to reach. Are you brewing these five gallons for you? Will they be shared at an upcoming party or BBQ? Or maybe you're brewing it to enter into an upcoming homebrew competition? Whatever the case, know your audience and plan accordingly. Speaking of homebrew competitions...

Competitions (or, What makes Beer Great?)
My local homebrew supply store shares its retail space with a well-known local brewery. One night, my wife and I were having a couple pints, and I was picking up ingredients for my next batch. The shop had posters hanging up for a couple of upcoming competitions, and my wife (thinking that my homebrew was the greatest ever, naturally) encouraged me to enter. I bottled two beers that I already had in the kegs, and entered them into the competitions. At that time, I had never heard of the BJCP. I entered my beers in the styles I thought they fit best, but they were definitely not brewed with competition in mind. We attended the judging, not knowing what to expect. Naturally, I didn't win any awards, but I learned about how the BJCP works. My score sheets also identified a few key problems in my brewing process, offering advice on how to improve not just those recipes, but any beer I brewed. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little discouraged, but my competitive nature got the better of me. I took the feedback of the judges, studied the BJCP guidelines, read through several sample score sheets (both good and bad), and went on to brew a beer that won third prize in the American Ales category at another competition.

If you're competitive by nature, then competitions can be a lot of fun. I'd recommend you enter into the competition with an understanding of how the BJCP works. The most beneficial thing about being a young brewer entering a competition is that you will get some really helpful feedback. Judges are trained to identify off flavors in your beer. If they can't find any off flavors, then they score your beer against the parameters of the style guidelines for the category you entered. The scores and feedback tell you how well you brewed a beer to a particular style. That doesn't necessarily tell you how good the beer itself is. Many great commercial beers don't fit perfectly into the parameters of the BJCP style guidelines. If you're going to brew for competition, those guidelines are your best friend. Know them and study them, have them with you when you are planning your recipe, when you buy your ingredients, and on brew day. If all those parameters and rules don't sound like fun to you, don't sweat it. Brewing for competition just probably isn't for you. This is a hobby, first and foremost, so it should always be something you enjoy.
Check everything... Twice!
There's nothing worse than wasting any portion of a batch of homebrew. We work hard for this stuff, dang it!
One evening, I opened the lid to my keezer (a chest freezer modified to serve kegged homebrew), and found my three kegs floating in a pool of brownish red liquid. Not only did I have a mess on my hands, but nearly four gallons of bacon maple amber beer was gone. I checked all my connections, and found the threads attaching my liquid out line to my keg post were just a tiny bit loose. That tiny leak drained my keg, and most of my CO2 tank. Bummer, right?
Another night, I went to pour myself pint of Cream Ale from the keezer. I opened the tap... and nothing. I opened the lid of the keezer, and was surprised to find that it was very, very cold inside. Had my temperature controller malfunctioned? No. I had moved the chest freezer the day before, and when I plugged everything back in, I left the temperature probe OUTSIDE the freezer. The freezer's internal thermostat took over, and froze two kegs of beer solid.
Whenever you do something that might impact your beer, check everything. Then, check it again. Hopefully you won't repeat my mistakes, but you never know when a small detail that you miss today can turn in to a lot of trouble (and wasted or ruined homebrew) later.
Read, Read, Read
The last piece of advice I would give is to become a sponge for information. I can recommend three great books that have answered nearly every question I have come up with. They share quite a bit of information, but each has its own character and perspective on this wonderful hobby.
John Palmer's "How to Brew" is a terrific place to start, and an early edition of the book is available online for free on Palmer's website. I have read and revisited countless pages of this book as questions arise.
I recently finished Randy Mosher's "Mastering Homebrew." It reads like many of the best college textbooks I've had to buy, with lots of pictures, graphics, and sidebars. It will continue to be my go-to reference for recipe formulation, and information on ingredients, equipment, and troubleshooting.

Finally, Charlie Papazian's "The Complete Joy of Home Brewing" is a must have. I got my copy in a swag pack from helping out with a competition. I read it straight through, cover to cover, and hardly put it down. In it, Charlie reminds us that the most important thing any of us who pick up this hobby can do is "Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew."
Cheers, my friends, and happy brewing!
***
For more from Aaron Murphy be sure to check him out on Facebook as Blue Shield Brewing!

 
i'm going to be the jerk here and ask "why is this a featured article?" sorry, but i dont really get it. there are dozens of threads in the forum that better explain what things a new should do, why rehash it from someone who seems to be relatively new. let the hate come, but i think my comment is relevant.
that aside, to the author, it sounds like you are committed to improving your beer! nothing personal, best of luck
 
@fredthecat
Probably because not everyone that visits the site is an experience brewer. If someone says to a home brewer "Hey, I'm interested in beer and I see you have a very intimidating set up (kal clone) which makes no sense to me. What can I do to make beer?". If the person says, sure, go to homebrewtalk.com... Wouldn't it be nice to see an article that give you some general tips before going to the forum?
Just because it doesn't fit your level of brewing doesn't mean it doesn't fit brewing. No one forced you to read the article.
 
Well written and I think that it is totally relevant to what this site represents. Most beginners welcome hearing from people at different stages of the Home Brew learning curve as they look for every advantage with their new hobby. In addition, we all get to know Aaron a little better.Thanks for sharing!!!
Cheers!
 
I agree, this is definitely more helpful homepage material for what homebrewers on the site are looking for. No personal anecdotes about nothing helpful. Just clear-cut genuine advice for beginning homebrewers. Hell, I wouldnt consider myself a beginner anymore, but I still read the whole "Entering Competitions" section very carefully.
 
Thanks Aaron, great read. I think this article is very relevant. I am fairly new to brewing and read through the forums regularly. Some of what Aaron has mentioned I have seen in other threads, some of the info is new. If today was my first time visiting HBT this article would be a lifeline and a tremendous entry into the hobby. Every piece of info on this site is relevant to someone interested in homebrewing. Not every homebrewer is interested in every article. I'm going to take Aaron's advise and keep being a sponge to all of the info I can get to improve my beer.
 
Nice article man! The beginning is spot on. I started the same way and struggled all the same until I started using my hydrometer finally. Maybe some day my friend will catch on.
Thanks for writing.
 
I thought the article was well written. I also don't call myself a beginning brewer anymore but it is interesting to read and see if others had the same experiences. Congrats on the Bronze medal.
 
As a newbie with homebrew, this article really helps. I've gone through the forums and found other 'learn from my mistakes!' type of posts, and they were very helpful. I've been reading, browsing, lurking for a while to gain enough knowledge to start brewing better beers (first 'real' batch, non Mr. Beer, is being brewed next weekend!). This article comes at the right time! I think a lot of it comes down to patience, which I've been learning from a lot of posts. From fermentation to bottle conditioning to whatever.
 
Good stuff for anyone about to take the plunge. Fun to read, because I think many of us have had similar experiences and pitfalls. My biggest was not getting a good enough boil/ protein break on my second brew ever (a trappist Belgian ale)- no body, overly carbed, and... zesty/sour/citrus-like.
I think it's cool that someone takes the time to write these things, and even cooler that HBT publishes it.
Write on, brother!
 
Great article. Not only have you kindly shared lessons learned through your journey in homebrewing, but also you have shared your story (which is just as important).
 
Well done, great article. I feel your pain about the competitions, it's humbling to get some honest, informed criticism of your beer rather than the layman's endorsement from your friends and family who just like it because it's free.
 
Very nicely written article and a good source of information for anyone interested in an overview of brewing and how your skills tend to evolve over time. Looking back on when I first started, if information like this wasn't as easy to find I'd probably still be cooking my yeast.
Thank you Aaron for sharing your experiences with us.
 
Great article, Ay-Ay-Ron. I wish I had read something like this when I first started brewing.
I am in no way biased in my opinion on the quality of this article.
 
What a great read. I really enjoyed it. Tons of great information for both new and old brewers here. Congrats on the medal. Fair flocks to ya'. I have never entered one. I think your article will inspire many the prospective brewer. Thanks for putting the work in to share your story.
 
Nicely written and interesting. You've shared your experience in starting out in this hobby and it gives some insight for others who are starting out, and it also offers a point of reflection for those who have also traveled the road a ways.
It's interesting to see how different people approach the hobby in different ways. Back when I first started we didn't have fancy supply stores and there was no "online". I got all my brewing knowledge from Papazian, and THANK GOD for him!
And thank God for people like you who take the time to share their experiences with others who are seeking a path to follow.
 
@fredthecat I'll send some hate :)
Following that logic then the forums should be closed because everything that needs to be known is in there somewhere.
I've been brewing for 5 years now and have done hundreds of gallons of really good beer. I still enjoy reading about other peoples experiences even if I don't "learn" anything from them. The article was well written and interesting and I suspect there is a shortage of writers to "feature."
 
Great read! As for Hydrometers, toss it and get a good refractometer..One of the best investments I have made and I waste so much less beer to pull gravity readings. Just account for the refraction post fermentation and rock on!
 
Good stuff, making mistakes is how I learn best. I have been brewing for 7 yrs and still make plenty of mistakes, it reminds me to slow down and enjoy the hobby, I brew good beer but am glad my livlihood does not depend on it. The only thing I disagree with is the props to Joy of Homebrewing. I was so glad when Palmer's How to Brew came out and replaced Charlie's book. How much ink was wasted on relax, don't worry, have a homebrew. If getting started or just to get some great info Palmer's is a must.
 
@fredthecat
I won't throw any hate your way... not my style. You did, however, throw confusion my way with your post.
What should featured articles be? Only things you don't already know? Only about places you haven't been? Things you've not done?
I brewed my 1st batch of all grain last century. I also concocted home made Apple Jack in snow banks in upstate NY way back when.
I still enjoyed the article.
So, no hate just curious as to what you wish to see in articles.
 
@TriggerHappy
I enjoy John's book more than Charlie's as I thought there was too much emphasis on "Don't worry..... blah blah"
The info is great tho and so is Charlie! I'll not give up my copy of either any time soon :)
 
I can relate to the article. These are some finer details and pointers of questions I have or have had. I do not have any brew-master mentors, outside of this site, You Tube, other web locations and a book.
Thank you for the good read. (I typically do not finish a featured article, but yours was personable to me)
 
Good, general overview of our hobby to noobs that might come upon it. I think such an overview to someone's first curious look at the site has merit. It could entice them to look further. My first home brewing book (my avatar) outsold those guys on kindle more than a couple of times, making it to #3 on kindle's top 100 list. It's not easy to tell the story of home brewing & give good information & insights as well. Besides a little humanistic humor. You did a decent job on this one in light of that.
 
@fredthecat don't think of it as a featured article. Think of it as a blog post. I'm a 2 month user of HBT and I just got a message asking if I'd like to contribute some writing. I think the owner just needs to keep content coming and by necessity they won't all be by master class brewers.
I enjoyed reading the article. So what if it's a slice-of-beer-life? It was interesting and made some good points.
 
Nice piece. I like the way you started....with a buddy to help guide you. I wish I could have had that chance! Also think that is the best way to grow any hobby or sport....teach new folks. Great way to give back to the hobby.
 
As a noob in AG I totally agree on your "POI's"
And definately, Randy Mosher's new book is the new "bible" to all new (and old) home brewers. Soo full of knowledge and usefull input.
Thanks for a really nice article..
Cheers
 
Good article. To each his own, but I'm not as big a fan of CP's book as you and many others are and don't feel he is essential reading. I got a lot more from reading Dave Miller's the Complete Guide to Homebrewing when I first started brewing in the early 90s.
 
Great article. Ive been brewing for about the same amount of time as you, and it is fun to see how others have gone through a very similar process. Thanks for the BJCP info, actually I hadnt paid much attention to all that, and I have already downloaded interesting guidelines and information from their site that Ill keep now on my next-to-the-kettle beer folder. Cheers mate, brew on!!!
 
Thank you for sharing. I've only brewed 10 batches so far and they're getting better and better as I go. I continue to make improvements because of research and learning from other's honest advice. Your point about brewing for competition is right on. When I go to monthly brew club meetings, there is a definite difference between how the occasional brewer critiques a beer as opposed to those that have received BJCP certification, and both opinions are helpful. No matter what forum you are a part of, there are going to be the know it all haters that are going to have something negative to say. One of the things I appreciate about HBT is that it gives voice to homebrewers of all levels.
 
Good article, man. I agree with everything you said. PS I shop at The Brew Hut all the time and also got 3rd at their latest competition (IIPA). Thanks for sharing.
 
@SatanPrinceOfDarkness, I think you have made the right point. In the end, the owner of this site is responsible for the front page. The article gave some good information, but I couldn't get past having to proofread the thing as I read. If the owner of this site wants to have feature articles, the articles should be submitted and edited before posting. Punctuation in this one was all over the place, and many of the other articles cold have used a heavy hand as well. Amateur brewing should not be the same as amateur writing. That have been said, it is said a new front page is in the works. I hope it will continue have articles such as this one, but I stress the need to have them more readable.
 
@tektonjp:
As far as editing and proof reading goes, this article was submitted and reviewed by two volunteer editors prior to publishing, They made a few changes that I agreed with, and a few I didn't agree with. There were also a few changes made in the published article that weren't in the final revision of what I submitted, especially missing punctuation. Could be something went wrong in posting the final script.
In my opinion, the punctuation was better in my original submission, but when you're asking someone else to publish your work, you've got to play by their rules. There are a few places where they added commas, a few places they removed commas and dashes, and a few places where the spacing was modified. I'm sorry it was such a struggle to read through it.
 
@Murph2002
Thanks for the information. I wan't aware of that. It wasn't a struggle. But the old lessons of English classes kept sending off annoying alarms in my head, much like a carpenter seeing walls and trim which are not plumb or level, wants to reach out and straighten them.
 
As a novice brewer myself, I can definitely put myself in your shoes.
You made some real dumb mistakes.
I've made some real dumb mistakes.
You medaled in your second homebrew competition.
... hmmm ...
I've made some real dumb mistakes.
I guess I still have a little ways to go!
 
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