Top 5 things I wish I knew when I first started homebrewing.

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I got into homebrewing around 2001. I developed my processes, equipment, and methods based primarily on what I had read in books because there were not a ton (at least that I could find) of references on the internet. I very quickly got into all grain brewing and made some decent beers but I never made a beer that I was really really proud of.
About 5 years ago my daughter was born and I set aside the hobby to change diapers and chase her around the house. I actually got so far out of the hobby at one point I had all of my equipment for sale on craigslist but never sold it. Then around this time last year a buddy I worked with mentioned that he really wanted to get into home brew. I told him I used to be way into it which lead to a lot of discussions about the hobby.
He eventually talked me into dusting off the equipment and brewing some beer with him.I don't know why, but before I brewed with him I decided that if I was going to start up again I was going to take some time to re-learn the hobby. I tossed away everything I knew and every preconceived notion I had about the "right way to brew" and started from scratch. I read everything I could get my hands on including dang near every thread on this site. I finally brewed with him and the resulting beer was really really good but still not amazing. At that point I started picking away at the things I thought would make it go from good to great.
Again I used this site and numerous other resources to pick away at the things that could take me to the next level. I have brewed about a dozen times in the last year fine tuning my process and I can easily say that I'm now brewing "amazing" beer. So why am I wasting everyone's time with this article? Well I'm hoping that I can share a few key things that I have learned in the past year and maybe help some new brewers save some time learning this stuff on their own. I'm in no way trying to start a debate and I'm in no way trying to say that I'm some world renown homebrewing expert.
All of this stuff can be debated up and down but these things changed the hobby for me and none of them were difficult or expensive at all. I think there are 5 key things I have learned in the past year that have really transformed my beers and here they are. None of this is new information but it may be new to brewers just starting out. Everyone will have their own top 5 but i bet at least three of these are on everyone's list.
#5 Brewers Friend

Really it could be any brewing software but after using about 4 different programs, in my personal opinion brewers friend is the most intuitive and user friendly. I used to take really good notes when brewing but the power of brewing software these days is amazing. The key thing here is being able to fine tune the software to your brewing setup. If you take really good measurements such as volumes, lost wort, temperature drops, etc you will very quickly be able to dial in this software to give you accurate estimations for your brew day. This will quickly allow you to get repeatable results with your brewing. The power of these programs is amazing and the more you use them you can tap into the vast number of other resources (one of which will be mentioned below).
#4 Batch sparging

I know this is a subject of much debate and honestly I think the impact this has on your brewing has a lot to do with your equipment. All I can tell you is I used to spend over an hour on the fly sparging part of my day. I would make sure the pH of my sparge water was good and the temp was good then spend a solid hour fly sparging. I decided to give batch sparging a try and I can honestly say I personally will never look back. I think the process is significantly easier and significantly faster (takes me about half the time).
The most important thing is that my efficiency is just as good if not better than it was with fly sparging which to me is the entire point. As long as I split the batch sparge for smaller brew days (i.e. divide the sparge water in half and do two separate sparges) I consistently hit over 80% efficiency. Again this is going to have a lot to do with your equipment and technique. Now that I have everything dialed into my brew software I'm getting very consistent results and I'm saving time in my brew day. There is also less equipment to buy if you are just getting into the hobby. Not looking for a debate here just sharing my experience.#3 - Yeast Starter / Yeast Harvesting

When I first started brewing I was told liquid yeast is better, dry yeast sucks, and liquid yeast has enough yeast to directly pitch. Looking back this guidance was severely flawed. I noticed a step change in the quality of my beer when I started using a yeast calculator and making starters for my beer. This isn't just my imagination, my beer got significantly better when I started making starters and pitching the correct amount of yeast. You can use this site to study the science behind this, but do yourself a favor and make a starter if you are using liquid yeast.
Also don't discount the dry yeast because I have had amazing results with this as well. With the dry yeast it is way cheaper and here you don't necessarily need a starter. Do your own research on this but I'm telling you if you use liquid yeast make a starter. I won't dive too deep into this next part, but all I'll say is don't be afraid to harvest yeast from a previous batch either. I was terrified of this but I have now used it many times successfully and I have saved a boat load of money and it's actually easy and fun.
#2 Water Chemistry

This is probably one of the smartest things I ever dove into. Water chemistry is like diving into a never ending rabbit hole. You can go insane with this topic and almost make a new hobby out of it. I didn't take that approach I took the Charlie Papazian approach and relaxed and had a home brew. I used to mess around with pH meters and finally got sick of it. This time around I decided to trust the power of the brewing software. I sent a sample off to Ward, used that as my baseline water profile, and used brewers friend to fine tune my water and help me figure out what I needed to add. I don't play with meters, and don't go crazy with the science, I simply relax and trust the software. The software uses your malt bill and base water profile to perform its calculations. You can pick the style of beer you're looking to brew and it helps you figure out what to add, including how to adjust the pH of your mash. I can tell you without a question of a doubt tweaking the water chemistry of my mash water was the #1 cause of improving the taste of my beer and i didn't need to go crazy with it and I didn't need a PHD.
After seeing the Ward results from my water and learning a little about chemistry it makes complete sense why something was always a little bit off with my beer. Do yourself the favor and drink some beer while you read a little about water chemistry. I think the brewing software is a key ingredient if you are just diving into this subject.
#1 - Fermcap and the Boil

I just got done saying water chemistry played a huge role in the taste of my beer, now I will tell you this has had the biggest effect on the clarity of my beer. Fermcap is probably the most amazing product I have ever used. I do 13 gallon boils in a 14 gallon pot and could never really boil super hard due to the dreaded boil over. This product allows me to boil very very hard without having to worry about the boil over. I'm telling you it is an amazing product. Once I started being able to get a really really good boil going I noticed that, combined with whirlfloc during the last 5 minutes of the boil, I was getting a significantly better hot break. I was noticing a lot more break material in the kettle before I sent it to the fermenter.
This has directly correlated with much clearer beer for me. This is another topic that has been heavily debated but I'm telling you after a lot of other stupid things I tried, this really worked for me and made a huge difference. I hope this is useful to some new brewers out there.
This is an amazing site to be a part of and if you are here you should consider yourself lucky to have found it.
There is a wealth of knowledge here and an amazing community of people who enjoy the hobby and are always willing to help.
Great article Jeff. As a relatively new brewer, I agree with everything you've said and reading this a year ago would have saved me a lot of time. The Fermcap is new to me, but it will definitely be on my next order.
agree with this article fully. Especially the yeast management part. I started forcing myself to actually calculate the yeast count on every brew log using the pitching rate calculators available and keeping manufacturing date in mind, and it has made a huge difference in the quality of my beer. My common practice is now to over pitch just a little to account for unforeseen variables and it seems to work every time. I would also like to reinforce that accurate measurements when setting up your system the first time is critical to all the rest of your brew days going forward, so double and triple check everything the first time you setup. Don't trust your thermometer either. it will lie it's ass off to you and you won't even know it. get several and check one against the others to make sure it's not lying to you.I had one that was accurate at boiling / freezing, but off by 10 degrees at mash temp. took me a while to figure it out.
Ward labs is an analytical lab in the midwest. They test water and other types of samples for the agricultural industry. One can send a sample of the water used for brewing and they will report back on your water quality (hardness/softness, various salts, etc.) They have a "Home Brewing" product. One can use Beersmith or Bru'n Water (https://sites.google.com/site/brunwater/) to dial in the salts required for a specific profile of water
@mbiskup Thanks for the explanation. I think I'm going to do the same with my water although I'll have to find a similar lab up here in Canada. I'm sure there is one around.
Great article. I am just getting back into it again as well after a 20 year break. A lot of information has changed in that time. Thanks for the time to write this up.
@altimate_one, @Black Island Brewer
I expected people to mention fermentation temperature control but for me personally it doesn't make my top 5.
This is a good example of how everyone's list may be a bit different. I had a fermentation fridge with temp controller and thermowell etc and in the end found it to be a huge waste of time and effort. I think this one really depends on where you live and where you ferment. I ferment in my basement and i'm lucky because it stays in the 60s down there all year long. In the winter when its colder i put the fermenter off the floor and in the summer i put it right on the concrete. It works perfect for me.
I totally agree with all of the fermentation control comments though. If people ferment in a closet that is maybe sitting at 75 in the summer then the beer could be in the 80's which can be way too high in most cases. So getting that fermenter somewhere where the beer will ferment near the mid range of the yeast's happy zone is key.
Thanks for the info! I need to start planning a yeast starter into my brew schedule. If you buy bottled water for brewing would you still recommend the water analyses?
What am I missing on your boil using Fermcap. After the hot break and the foaming subsides can't you boil as vigorously as you want. I use compressed air regulated to a low pressure to blow the foam down. I'm guessing Fermcap is some form of silicone, don't want that in my beer, even though it's a miniscule amount. However, I completely agree with using Whirfloc, carrageenan is an approved food additive.
It is my understanding that fermcap is basically the same as the infant gas drops I gave my baby daughter every day for the first year of her life. It's perfectly safe and drops out once you stop boiling. Only difference is the gas drops were flavored. I'm not and expert on this but dig around and I think this is what you will find.
Here is a link to the MSDS for Fermcap S.
No safety issues here, although there have been a lot of sensationalist stories such as, "These Fast Food Companies Use Silly Putty in Their Food!" because Silly Putty contains dimethylpolysiloxane. What next? "These Fast Food Companies Use Water In Their Products, Just Like Draino Liquid Drain Cleaner!!!" The truth is that dimethylpolysiloxane has been tested, found to be safe, and has been used for decades without incident.
I figured since I wrote this article I would refrain from being lazy and do the research on fermcap-s. The active ingredient in fermcap-s is polydimethylsiloxane which is commonly referred to as dimethicone. Dimethicone is used in a ton of food and non-food stuff, however medical companies mix dimethicone with silica gel which makes simethicone. Simethicone is in just about every stomach illness or digestive related medicine you can think of such as rolaids, mylanta, infant gas drops, etc.
If i had to guess, the company that makes fermcap-s probably puts silica gel in this product to make it simethicone but either way it doesn't matter because its all the same stuff.
So i will never argue with anyone who doesn't put extra chemicals in their beer, that is just a no brainer. But as far as this product goes the reality is that everyone reading this post has at some point in their lives eaten this stuff whether it be in a rolaid or a McDonalds french fry. If its good enough to stick in my baby's bottle it's good enough to stick in my beer. So if you want to take some stress out of your brew day because your pot is a little on the small side, I think fermcap-s is a pretty safe product to use.
Just my 2 cents. I hope this helps.
Unlike private wells, the composition of most public water supplies changes periodically; therefore, a one-shot test of a public water supply should be used only for ball park figures. I recommend the purchase a professional-level portable water test kit like the one offered by LaMotte if a brewer is working with a public water supply.
Batch sparging is only as efficient as continuous sparging (a.k.a. fly sparging) if one has a poorly-designed lauter tun and/or poor technique. I obtained an extraction rate of 35 points per pound per gallon on my last continuous-sparged batch (an efficiency of 96% treating all of the grain in the grist as 2-row), which I have never seen anyone achieve with batch sparging. Batch sparging's strong points are that it is lauter tun design agnostic, does not require much in the way of technique, and sparging time does not increase as rapidly with respect to batch size. The time savings with 5 and sub-5-gallon batches is more than offset by the increase in manual labor that comes with batch sparging.
Malt does not need to be crushed really fine when continuous sparging. In fact, too fine of a crush often results in lower extraction, not better extraction. Continuous sparging is all about maintaining equal resistance to flow down through the mash bed. Anything that leads to channeling will result in one obtaining a lower extraction rate when continuous sparging.
Yeast cropping is subject that most new brewers overcomplicate. Yeast rinsing is a complete and absolute waste of time that is more likely to result in the introduction of house microflora than an improvement in viability. A yeast crop does not need to be bathed in boiled and cooled water in order to be reused. All one needs to do is to crop about 100 to 150mls of slurry and pitch it into the next batch. Brewers have been reusing yeast for thousands of years without rinsing it with water.
The simplest and most foolproof way for a new brewer to store a yeast culture for a long period of time is in refrigerated normal to low-gravity bottle-conditioned beer. Anyone who has propagated yeast from a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (SNPA) has learned this lesson. It's not uncommon to be able to obtain viable yeast from of a one-year-old bottle of SNPA.
I'm curious...do many of you try to keep hot break out of the fermenter? I had in the past but hated wasting so much wort.
@Brewsday Yes, I absolutely keep as much of that crap away from my fermenting beer as possible. I used to hate wasting the wort too, but once I started doing it the noticable difference in my beer was completely worth it.
I keep try to keep as much hot break, cold break, and hop material as I can out my primary fermentation vessel. Kettle and primary fermentation vessel losses are factored into my recipes. I expect to lose between 0.5 and 0.75 gallons of wort/green beer between my kettle and one of my kegs.
I agree @EarlyAmateurZymurgist about the washing yeast. I was careful to say "harvest" yeast because i washed it for a batch or two then realized how much easier it was to just dump the slurry in a jar and re-use it. I have had great success with that. I think you are spot on.
As for the hot break/cold break... I whirlpool the hot break and hops out in my kettle so that all stays out of the fermenter. However i use a counterflow chiller so the cold break all makes its way to the fermenter. I did a lot of reading on here and it seemed like the consensus was the cold break really isn't bad for the fermenting beer.