Myths and Surprises in Homebrewing

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It has been a year since I started brewing my own beer. In that time, I went from extract to all-grain, learned how to keg my beer, built a keezer, bought and used a fermentation chamber, installed an RO filter for water, and learned how to manage water additions, along with a host of other things.
I’ve done 24 batches to this point which gives me some measure of experience, but I also remember, vividly, what it was like to be a new brewer. In the interest of giving back, I list these myths and surprises I discovered in my first year of brewing.

1. SURPRISE - Patience Isn’t Just A Virtue, It’s Required If You Want To Brew Great Beer.


Everyone starting out is anxious to sample their new baby, but it’s almost always better to wait. I know how hard that is, as I was one of the miscreants sampling beer that hadn’t yet even carbed in the bottle! Lesson learned - it didn’t taste that great! Wait, you will be rewarded! Really.

2. SURPRISE - Green Beer Will Smooth Out, Almost Always.



When I started I didn’t really believe, deep down inside, in conditioning. Once beer is fermented, it’s done, right? Well, not right. Beer changes as it ages, usually for the better. A beer that is only slightly drinkable at 2 weeks can become a delight at 4 weeks. The key to allowing patience to flourish is to have enough beer in the pipeline that you don’t feel compelled to test. Not all beers require a long primary fermentation (meaning, 2 weeks or more), but everything else being equal, wait.

3. MYTH - You Must Use A Secondary.


A lot of starter kits come with secondaries, so it appears as if they’re necessary, but that’s not necessarily so. If you’re aging beer for months and months, a secondary might be advisable, but it's still a gray area because of oxidation concerns. There are other reasons to secondary – freeing up the primary for more beer is one, but unless you have a specific reason, it’s not needed. For most beers, leaving beer in the primary is just fine.

4. MYTH - Avoid the Trub!


You know trub – that stuff composed of hop residue, cold break, hot break, the ugly green stuff left at the bottom of the boil kettle. When I started I used a sieve to try to remove all of it I could before it went into the fermenter; now, it all goes in! If I were aging for a long time, I’d use a secondary and get the beer off the trub, but most beer is just fine on the trub. I just kegged a porter that sat on the trub for 35 days; it is delicious at 65 degrees and not carbonated. I can’t wait to see how it is cold and carbed.

5. SURPRISE - Relax, Don’t Worry, Have A Home Brew Is Really Good Advice!


RDWHAHB - Charlie Papazian’s famous acronym is true. Brewing is generally a robust and hardy process. During my first brew I misread the directions, and added the liquid malt extract too early. In a near panic I chatted online with a brewmaster at one of the famous brew supply houses. He assured me everything would work out ok, and it did.
Most of the mistakes we make while brewing are not a death sentence for our beer. Didn’t hit the exact minute to add hops? It’ll turn out. Boiled five minutes too long, or short? It’ll turn out. The brewing process is resilient, and so long as you’re following good cleanliness and sanitizing practices, you’ll likely produce decent beer.

6. MYTH - If The Water Tastes Good, It’ll Make Good Beer.


I read this when I first started and was encouraged; my water tastes great. So why did my first few beers fall short of what I was expecting? I paid no attention to chlorine. Later, when I went to all-grain, I didn’t realize how bad my water composition is for some beers as it is very hard. Get your water tested, find out what it actually contains, and go from there. And watch the chlorine! Chlorine and chloramine can be removed by adding 1/4 of a campden tablet to each 5 gallons of water (1 tablet for 20 gallons).

7. MYTH - I Can’t Control Fermentation Temperature Without A Fridge.



Well, you really can, unless you’re living in a place that is insanely hot. Using a swamp cooler is easy, and effective. Just set the fermenter in a pan of water, and drape an old t-shirt over it to wick up water which evaporates and cools the fermenting wort. You can also help by using frozen water bottles placed in the pan in the morning and replaced daily or otherwise as needed. When I use one, I often place ice cubes or ice chunks under the t-shirt at the top; as they melt, they re-moisten the shirt, keeping it cooling. Replace as needed.
Temperature control is one of THE major things a new brewer can do to help move his/her beer from just drinkable to the WOW category. Yes, a fermentation chamber controlled by an Inkbird is more elegant in some ways, but for those for whom money is tight right now, you can easily control fermentation temps with a little ingenuity.

8. MYTH - I Need A Fancy Beer Gun To Bottle Kegged Beer.



No, you don’t. I’ve included a picture of my poor-man’s beer gun here, and it cost me about 5 dollars in parts. It works great! I have a growler filler for my taps, and I’ve filled many a bottle just using that, and quickly capping the product. I actually do have a $100 beer gun, but I’ve only used it once. The other methods work just fine, and they’re cheap!

9. MYTH - You Must Do Complicated Sparge Techniques If You Brew All-Grain.


People brew excellent beers using batch sparging and even no-sparge techniques. Brew-in-a-bag has become quite popular; some BIAB brewers sparge the bag; others just let it drain and they forgo any rinsing. How can they do this? They adjust their grain bill. While fly sparging, the more complicated and time consuming approach can increase efficiencies a few points, it’s not necessary to produce good beer.

10. SURPRISE - What You Like Is What You Like.



Your palate is what it is. I don’t care for Belgians. That doesn’t make me a bad guy, it just makes me a guy who doesn’t like Belgians. I tend to prefer malt-forward beers; others are hop-heads. As the famous sign says, there’s room for us all to co-exist. What is a great beer for one person can be torture for another. The only criterion that matters is that you like the beer you brew, and if you can do that, you’ve won.
 
Mike Dalecki
I would like to add one of my experiences. I've been brewing for about 4 years now (not 24 batches in a year like yourself...probably between 12-18 a year). So many people make it seem like making a yeast starter is necessary for most beer styles. I use a single Wyeast smack pack for almost everything I make and have quick, efficient, fermentations. I have had maybe one or two beers that gave me attenuation issues and those were very high gravity. I routinely make 8% abv porters and have no issue using a single smack pack...I often ferment below my desired FG and almost always ferment at the lowest end of the yeast's temperature range...sometimes even lower (talking ambient temps here). In my opinion, if you're making something that is very high gravity, like 9%+ abv, then it's a good idea to make a yeast starter. Otherwise, as long as your supply source is getting you fresh yeast (the yeast I purchased yesterday was MFG'd two weeks ago), I would not worry about a starter. Add some yeast nutrient, shake the ever living hell out of the fermenter with sanitized tin foil banded tightly around the top, add a blowoff tube (That's another thing I've learned! Almost always need a blow off) and let er rip.
 
I use dry yeast for all my fermentations. As long as you pitch at the correct rate and rehydrate, I don't see any reason why you would need to use a yeast starter. For the record, I just pitched a yeast that was made FOUR YEARS AGO and I had very active fermentation in less than 12 hours. It was an old kit that my dad bought years ago and we decided to brew it just to see how it would turn out...everything seems to be going just fine. Its not just the ingredients that matter...its the process.
 
It is a myth that you need a yeast starter: dry yeast is fine if it has been treated well and it only needs rehydration to get it ready. I only used dry yeast and I've done well over 40 batches in the last 2 years just with dry yeast. Yes, I over-pitch but not to the point where it is double the calculated cell count requirement.
The other myth is HOT SIDE AERATION always causes problems: it doesn't. Aeration only causes problems AFTER fermentation.
 
Thanks for all the information
You talked about bottling from a keg I make draft cream stout how can I bottle that from my keg and it's on 25/75 stout gas thanks hope you can help
Ps you have come a long way in a short time well done I'm at it 7 years now didn't get it right until I bought myself a fermentation chamber temp control HALF A DEGREE DIFFERENTIAL 24/7
 
It depends how old your liquid yeast pack is as they lose about %20 viability per month. I always recommend my friends to make a starter since it doesn't cost much or take much time. A lot of them would argue with me that it's not necessary until they started entering competitions. Some of the judges would comment that their beer had off flavors that could have been caused by stressed under pitched yeast.
 
Dry yeast lasts a really long time, liquid yeast loses around %20 viability per month past production. It's the liquid yeast that people recommend making a starter for.
 
On Myth 6: Sometimes 1/4 tablet of Campden per 5 gallons is not enough - it's only about 50% more than is needed to remove the typical amount of chloramine used in water systems. Sometimes water companies need to up the chloramine more than that to deal with specific contamination problems in the distribution network, or to do spring cleaning.
I've dumped one batch due to chloramine where I used 1/4 tablet per 5 gallons. Testing later showed that I needed 1/2 a tablet per 5 gallons to get rid of the chlorine smell from my tap water at the time. It's good to make sure the Campden is fully dissolved, and then smell the water - if you smell chlorine, add another 1/4 tablet. There's no problem with adding 1/2 or even a whole tablet per 5 gallons (and it's even recommended in the recently developed low dissolved-oxygen brewing processes).
 
I think HSA is becoming recognized again as an issue in certain beers. The whole low-DO brewing process is about minimizing HSA. It's not going to absolutely ruin a batch, but it may make the difference between good and great beer.
 
I like the beers I make, but enter them into BJCP contests to get feedback. I'd be interested in you guys that don't make a yeast starter (I ALWAYS do) to have some qualified judges rate your beers. The discussion goes on about yeast starters, but not having enough healthy robust yeast is one good way of getting off flavors.
 
I remember back when I started brewing, I had poor techniques and lots of inconsistency. I even thought I should enter a contest back then; it was a poor decision that only landed on me a very long time later. As far as building a starter goes, I can't avoid it in my brewery. I use very few yeast varieties, so I have always made a step up starter to provide me with yeast for the current batch I am brewing and enough to go into the fridge to be stepped up again for the next batch. I used to lose a lot of beer when racking to my bottling bucket due to the layer of trub at the bottom of my fermenter. I now place a layer of paint strainers in my colander that sits on top of my fermenter and I pour all of my wort through the strainers; it doesn't remove all of the fine particles from the brew kettle, but instead of having two or more inches of trub at the bottom of my fermenter I now have almost none.
 
Using a yeast starter doesn't insure that your yeast will be healthy during fermentation. Good pitching rate, good aeration, correct temperature for the strain, good water are much more important than having a yeast starter. Nobody needs to have their dry yeast beer judged, its well documented that excellent beer can be made using rehydrated dry yeast. If you think using yeast starters is making your beer better than by all means keep using yeast starters. I prefer using dry yeast.
 
Having brewed since 1981, I know a little about brewing, but learned the most important things in making great beer from Homebrewtalk. You've managed to cover much of that in a quick, clear article. Great job! I'm sure others will benefit.
 
Good article Mike. I agree with pretty much everything you said and it was written in a clear, informative and concise manner.
 
Good article. Just one quibble. I agree, you can make beer by dumping all the break and hop material from wort production into the fermenter. However, I have landed on the fact that you will not make optimal beer this way. There's too much evidence and advice to the contrary in professional brewing texts, namely that written by George Fix and Wolfgang Kunze.
The same goes for yeasts and starters. There's just too much information to the contrary.
 
One can't bottle from a keg with "stout gas", "beer gas", 70:30 mix, etc. Well you can physically bottle, that's for sure. But the nitrogen in the gas mix is not soluble in the beer. It is in the beer gas mix to force the beer out through the restrictor plate in the tap under high pressure creating that delightful creamy foam. I've never done it, but theoretically if you bottled from a N2-CO2 beer gas system, only the C02 component - 30% (or 25% in your case) would remain in the bottled beer.
If you find a can of Guinness (or similar) they have a "widget" inside the can that creates the creamy foam when the can opens. If it were possible/feasible to simply bottle with beer gas mix, they wouldn't bother.
 
As a five year homebrewer who mostly toiled by myself and learned by experience, I have to agree with every point that was expressed in the article. Try to be diligent but stuff happens. Relax and be patient. It will turn out more than not.
 
What's true in a professional context isn't always true in a homebrewing context. Brulosophy has a great experiment on the effect of large amounts of trub in the fermentation vessel - in the end, both beers were similar and preference was split about 50/50 either way. Similar results for dry yeasts vs. starters with most people not being able to tell the difference at all.
 
I agree about a couple of things for home brewers, for sure.
1. Dry yeast, with no starter- works perfectly for me, and always has. I did the yeast cleaning, and yeast starter thing for a while, and it was just not worth the time . My beer was great without those things.
2. I learned to brew with a single fermentation vessel - no secondary. There are many articles where exact batches of beer were run out of first fermentation into a secondary fermentation, discarding the trub VS keeping the beer in one fermentation vessel on trub- and the tastes where the same.
Save your time- keep it on the trub until ready to keg/bottle.
The KISS principle is really pertinent to home brewing. If you are stressed while doing it, step back and reexamine things.
 
I cannot disagree with any of them. One of the biggest myths is that competitions make you a better brewer. Its like most competitions it only strokes your ego and playing to ego is the easiest way for someone to make money off of you. I have been brewing for 26 years and have done the whole gamut of techniques. I resisted joining the largest HB club in Houston as far back as 1993 since competition seemed to be their focus. I helped judge one competition and it only reinforced what I though, that the judging process was subjective, not objective. The "styles du jur" usually were favored. I have not judged since. In fact I I have avoided competitions and recently stopped supporting a club in west Houston since their emphasis shifted to competition and nothing more. I did not see any reason to pay dues that simply went to subsidizing the entry costs for those competing simply for their ego gratification. When I suggested that the club emphasize classes taught by members on subjects on the basics to get new people started, it fell on deaf ears. All the emphasis is on competitions or public brewing demos a public events which as we all know are about as exciting as watching paint dry. But is sure makes the participant brewers feel like somebody. Over the years I have seen a lot of competitions and judging. I have no faith in it. When I was a member of the AHBA and got Zymurgy. I used to laugh at the published results of the three master judges tasting and evaluating the same commercial beer. It was like they were each tasting something different. Now take those inconsistencies to your average competition and make it times ten. Another example is some commercial beers I have tasted, that I would not pay $.05 much less $5 a pint for. I know what I like and I know faults when I taste them. We had a brewery open near Houston that lasted in business about a year. Their beer was undrinkable. There are others that hang on, but have water problems but do what they can with what they have. Another Myth is that strange additions have got to make great beer. I am sure I have made beer that others did not like, but my basic styles are good, and I would not drink something with jalapenos or some other trendy addition by a brewer who didn't make a first class pale ale, IPA, wheat beer and stout. It boggles my mind to see brewers making all kinds of nonsensical beers when their main styles are nearly undrinkable.
 
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