When you get into homebrewing, the learning process never ends. I pick up a new technique or piece of advice almost daily. As someone who also teaches homebrewing, I see the same mistakes made again and again by new homebrewers.
I could have written 100 of these, but what are the chances you would implement all of them? These are the issue that are the most common and I believe will make the biggest improvement in your beer if you get them right.
Enjoy, and leave a comment below with any tips you would add or questions you have.
- Rehydrate dry yeast
Many homebrewing kits come with dry yeast. While I generally prefer liquid yeast, I've got no problem with dry yeast. What I do have a problem with is not using it properly. By that I mean not rehydrating it. Most brewers just open the yeast packet and sprinkle it on top of the beer. When you do that, you immediately kill off about half of the yeast cells. Not using enough yeast (under pitching) can lead to all sorts of issues with your beer including off-flavors and a stuck fermentation. In short, underpitching is bad, so rehydrate dry yeast before using it.
- Check water flavor
Most tap water is fine to use for brewing. There's a rule of thumb that if it's OK to drink, it's OK to brew with. I believe that to be true. If your water has any strange flavors, however, brewing isn't going to get rid of them, and the brewing process might even enhance them. Water that has a noticeable chlorine flavor is not ideal for brewing either. If your water is not up to par, then use bottled water. You can get 2.5 gallon jugs at the supermarket for fairly cheap. Spring water is good to use, and distilled or reverse osmosis (RO) water is fine was well. You don't need to worry about beneficial minerals because malt extract already contains those. Use water that tastes good.
- Have extra dry yeast on hand
A packet of dry yeast is like a roll of duct tape – you never know when you're going to need it and you're thankful you have it when you do. Sometimes things go wrong with your yeast – it was damaged in transit, you knock your yeast starter on the floor, or maybe you just lose it. In these cases, it is helpful to have a packet of dry yeast on hand to save you. It is also useful for stuck fermentations – those situations where your yeast quits on you before the beer is done fermenting. You can use the dry yeast to bring the beer back to life. I recommend keeping a packet of US-05 on hand all times. For $3, it's worth it.
- Know water volumes
Brewing is all about numbers. While you don't need to keep track of many numbers for extract brewing, there are still a handful you should know. Water volumes are the most important. New brewers frequently miss their target alcohol percentage because they made a mistake with water volumes. You should be able to fill in these blanks:
- I steep my grains in _________ gallons of water
- My preboil amount of water is ______ gallons
- I boil off _______ gallons per hour
- I transfer ________ gallons of wort to the fermenter
- I add ______ gallons of top off water to the fermenter for a total volume of ________ gallons for fermentation
The most important of these for brewing extract in partial boils is the last bullet. Your volume for fermentation should match what is listed on your recipe, otherwise your gravity (and final abv%) will be off.
Take good notes and you won't have this problem.
- Fill the airlock
Whether it's due to not knowing or simple forgetfulness, this happens more than you might think. Always make sure that you fill the airlock. You can use water, vodka, or StarSan. Without a liquid in there, you put your beer at risk.
- Get sanitation correct
You'd hate to put all that work into brewing a batch and have it ruined just because you didn't sanitize your gear properly. Sanitization is thoroughly covered in the Academy, so here are some quick guidelines to burn into memory:
– Clean first with Oxiclean Free.
– Rinse the Oxiclean off with water.
– Sanitize with StarSan after cleaning.
– Don't rinse off the StarSan (or fear the foam).
– Sanitize immediately before you use a piece of equipment. For example, don't sanitize a racking cane and then leave it on a dirty table for an hour before using it.
– If you're worried about a re-used bottle not being fully clean, throw it out. Err on the side of caution.
– Keep a spray bottle full of StarSan and use it for longer items (racking cane, thief, etc.), carboy mouths, and anything else that isn't easy to sanitize in a bucket.
- Pitch on the cool side
This is one of the best tips I can give for improving your beer. When you're cooling your beer down after the boil, take the extra time to let it cool a little lower than usual. Instead of adding the yeast at 72°F, let it cool down to 68°F or even 66°F. The yeast will produce less off flavors at these lower temperatures, resulting in a cleaner tasting beer.This is especially important if you don't practice temperature control during fermentation because the beer will naturally heat up. Since most off-flavors are produced at the beginning of fermentation, you can combat them by pitching on the cool side.