Your best advice for a beginning brewer

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Well-Known Member
Jan 17, 2016
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So, i'm NOT a beginning brewer - been doing this for nearly 20 years, and about at batch 125 now.

That said, I have several friends that have gotten into this recently and I continually get people who have just started asking me for "well, what advice would you give me?"

So therefore, my young Jedi brewers, old Stew-Yoda gives you some of my advice from years of hard-fought brewing:

1) What Would The Trappist Monks do? So monks in monasteries have been making beer for at least 1000 years - probably more. Yes of course now they use lots of science as it has become a business, not a hobby (thanks Chimay!), but more than a hundred years ago, they winged it. So therefore, when you forget to measure the gravity, your numbers are off somewhere, you miss a hop addition during the boil, you forget to rack your beer to secondary, etc. etc. Don't sweat it - ask yourself, what would the Trappist Monks do? Well, they'd just let things take their course and hope for the best. You're making beer not saving babies. Don't worry about it! Learn from it, of course, but quoting Charlie Papazian: "Relax, have a homebrew!"

2) Sweating the numbers: Yes, all good brewers should be smart and familiar with starting and ending gravities, and making the right volume calculations will result in better, more consistent beer, knowing your Alpha Acids in your hops will help you predict better what it tastes like in the end, but it stuns me the number of folks that get their underwear in a twist because they missed the FG by .002, or missed their mash-in temp by 2 degrees, or only have 45 ibus when they wanted 48 or whatever. Here's what I do - I log my numbers, I do celebrate a bit (hey, drink a beer) when I hit the numbers, but I NEVER wig out if I miss them a bit. Because while there's plenty of science in it, the enjoyment is in the art.
See above about making beer, not saving babies.

3) Taste, taste, TASTE! Every good cook tastes EVERY ingredient and every dish - and you should taste things too. Before making an all-grain batch, I take a small handful of the grain prior to matching and munch on it - it gives me a good sense of where it's going to be tasting. I have actually tasted pellet hops before. You don't have to do that but definitely smell the every time. You'd be surprised how after a while you can smell if something is off, not as strong, etc. While the yeast tastes like ass, try tasting a starter sometime - doesn't take much - a drop on a finger tip does the trip but it's amazing the nuances of flavor you pick up. While in process, taste the wort at every step. If you're extract brewing, taste the wort after you've mixed in the malt extract. If you're an all-grain brewer, taste the mash, then as you run off during the sparge, keep tasting periodically - you'll be amazed at how you can tell when the sugar is all washed out of the wort. One time as a test, after I ran off my sparge, I put another quart of so of hot water into the mash to see if I could force some tannins out (this didn't go into my batch) and could taste them. Sure could! Taste your beer anytime you take a gravity reading (drink that sample, don't toss it!) and as you're packaging. I can say there's nothing more thrilling than drinking a sample tube full of warm flat beer that is totally delicious that you're packaging. That means that when it's cold crashed, carbed, and served, it's going to be awesome. If you use "set it and forget it" carbonation for your keg, pull a sample every few days - it'll amaze you to learn how the carbonation builds up. You can also taste test bottled beer by doing a test bottle every few days.

4) Journal your beer making. I have kept journal notes for nearly every batch that I've made since 1998. I do have some holes in my journaling when I got lazy, but generally, I have kept notes the entire time. My entries are basic - date I brewed, weather notes, recipe, quick procedure description, and then tasting notes - I keep updating the journal as the beer gets consumed to note how it ages etc. It's a great way to make sure you know what you've done and what worked great and what did not.

5) Make what you like. I can't tell you the number of people that I know that have made beers they don't like even though there is not a thing wrong with the beer. Get to asking them and they say "yeah, I don't like super hoppy beers" ... hmm then why did you just brew a hop-monster IPA? "Well, it's what everyone is making these days" ... screw that. While I'm all about learning about new flavors and tastes, save your efforts and expense to that what you really love. And skip the things you don't.

6) Get REALLY good at just a few beers. Now, don't misconstrue #5 and this one as "he doesn't like to experiment" - I do. In fact, I love it. But I also have found that being consistent and delivering the same thing twice or 10 times is much harder than making a new recipe each time. Your friends will come to appreciate it ("ooh, Stew, got any more of that wheat ale I love so much?" Yup, just tapped a fresh keg, let's head to the basement bar and get a draft), and you'll look forward to it too.

So, veteran brewers, what advice would you give to our beginner friends?
I'm not a veteran or an expert, but I've learned a few things.

1) Don't drink too much while you're brewing -- one beer is about right. You can drink a couple more while cleaning up, and however much you want afterwards ;) If you get buzzed while you are brewing, you will make mistakes.

2) Keep your recipes simple.

3) The water is important. (especially for all-grain) If your water tastes good you can probably brew *something* good with it, but not necessarily everything. Probably best to start with bulk RO water from the machine at Walmart or Kroger, you can brew anything with that.

What I'm working on this year is brewing minor variations of the same recipe, over and over. Working on my technique, and figuring out what the small changes actually do.
My simple advice would be:
A fancy brewing rig is nice to have, but you can still make great beer with just a kettle and your kitchen stove if you just pay attention to:
-Careful recipe selection and using the right ingredients; garbage in=garbage out.
-Proper management of your yeast and fermentation. You can ferment at ambient temperatures if you have the right environment and pay close attention; actual temperature control, even in a primitive way is way more important than a shiny kettle.
-Many people bottle without having off flavors, but many brewers say the taste of the beer improved when they started kegging.
1) Read and participate in HBT.

2) Don't obsess over getting every batch perfect. If something's wrong, remember what you did, and do it differently the next time. In fact, DO make mistakes; don't be afraid of them. In the long run, mistakes are better teachers than successes.

3) Be careful - slips, hot liquids and lifting.
There are quite a few times during brewing where you're sitting around waiting. Whenever possible use that time to clean stuff you've just used and sanitize stuff you're about to use. It'll make your brew day go by much more smoothly.

Don't go too complex for your first few brews. Make something simple that you know you'll enjoy, and make it more or less as instructed the first time around. If you go adding fruits and spices and who knows what else to your very first batch, then you have no baseline idea of what that beer was supposed to taste like. If something tastes off about it you have no idea if it was your process or just some misguided addition you made to the recipe.

That said, relax. The overwhelming majority of batches people mix up with no idea what they're doing will still end up being beer.
Study and Practice.
Everything you learned to do well in life required study and practice. Whether it was playing a sport or an instrument, repairing a car or firing a gun, even relationships and sex, all are improved with study and practice. Brewing too.
1) Don't drink too much while you're brewing

PLUS 1+++ Drinking while brewing is a sure fire way to screw up. Your words are wise so I save the celebrations until beer is in the fermenter and cleanup is done. Tempting as it may be to sip on a cold one while brewing, something will go wrong directly linked to losing your edge.
Great stuff above. I have brewed 32 batches (29 all-grain, the last three Brew-in-a-Bag), and while I have experience, I can remember very well what it was like to be a new brewer.

  1. What helped me tremendously was watching a friend do a brew day. He did an extract brew, and I was able to clearly understand the process. It made a world of difference when it came time for me to do it. I'd advise any new brewer to try to find a local brewer who can walk them through the process, or just observe it. It gives you a context into which you can place what you read in books, on HomeBrewTalk, on the web elsewhere.

  2. Don't try to go all-grain at the start. Learn how to brew using extract, to get the process down. Only after you're comfortable with that should you move to all-grain if you're so inclined. I'm not saying it can't be done, it's just not the way to bet.

  3. Fermentation temperature control. Fermentation by yeast is exothermic, meaning it produces head. An ambient temperature of 66 degrees looks good for fermentation, except that the exothermic reaction will add 5-10 degrees. A few beers require higher temp fermentation, but most don't--and shouldn't. Even a simple swamp cooler will help a great deal.

  4. Start simple. Brew a simple recipe. I see new brewers wanting to do complicated brews because they want to do the latest oatmeal dry rye lager stout with a twist of lemon and multiple dry hop episodes, and it's just too much. Make a decent beer, then when they have the process down, start adding complexity. The more complex the brew day and the recipe, the greater the chances for something to go wrong--and then how do you identify the error? This is why I don't think new brewers should start with all-grain; if the beer doesn't turn out, what do you blame? Water? Mashing temp? Mash PH? Boil? Chilling? Recipe? Hop schedule? It's too much, and the new brewer will not have learned anything except that doing it as they did produces a bad beer. Not the way to start. Brew a good beer, and do it simply.

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