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 new here - just made 2 1-gallon batches - and I personally appreciate this type of article. Thanks for your witty response!