Recently a couple of friends have started home brewing so I decided it was time to refresh my “how to make sure your home brew doesn’t taste like arse”. I was also prompted by a post from Glen at Beer is your Friend who has run up a list of things he’s figured out in year 1 of homebrewing. This started as something to email to people that ask “oh I’d love to do homebrew, what should I do”, either for themselves or a friend. It kept things simple for me and has hopefully helped a couple of people out. I think its time that I updated it though, it has been a couple of years and stuff like brew in a bag and no chill, that didn’t sound quite right to me then make a whole lot of sense now (yes even though I don’t use them).
Again this is what I call the basics on making your homebrew a little bit better. It is not the bible, and its no guarantee, but I think it’l help, after all most hobbies are all about figuring out how to sort the important bits out from the irrelevant. This is not always obvious but can make life easier.
I won’t take you through my process as I do all grain and that’s not where I recommend starting. I did however skip the middle ground, going straight from kits to all grain (and made a lot of fuckups on the way). All grain is making beer totally from scratch, malted barley, hops, yeast, and whatever else I feel like throwing in.
If you don’t want to go from kits (i.e. the supermarket kits like coopers) then try a fresh wort kit. Fresh wort kits are great, basically they are a big bottle of wort, more or less the extract can with the water left in. You can add your own twists to any kit by adding some specialty grain (like crystal malt or black barley) and some hops. This can be done with little more than a sauce pan and a sieve.
You can also do a full extract kit, by steeping/boiling up some specialty grains and malt extract to make your fermentables and adding hops. Most of this can be done in a big pot on the stove. A good home brew shop should be able to get you going on this.
Up to this point you are able to do more or less the whole process except mashing. This is not a complex process but you do need some more gear. Something to heat the mash, something to strain the sugars from the grain, something to boil the wort, and a way to chill the whole lot. Traditional this takes a whole bunch of dedicated gear (and it’s what I do). However if I was starting now I’d get an urn, a big mesh bag and a cube, and do brew in a bag no chill. This will get you going on all grain much quicker and cheaper than any other way. And yes it will make good beer without a number of expensive and sometimes complicated gear to figure out. It also gives you the ability to set your mash temp and therefore have some more control over the fermentability of your wort. A good thing. It’s not perfect, and you do lose some control but its a great way to start all grain.
I’d recommend listening to some pod casts from the brewing network (probably the Jamil Show, heaps of free recipes) and getting yourself a book by John Palmer called “How to Brew” it’ll point you in the right direction. As for homebrew shops in Melbourne I recommend Grain and Grape in Yarraville, the blokes there are awesome.
I did used to recommend for starting off get a kit, something like the coopers one that comes with a fermenter and bottles all ready to go (plastic ones are good to use and you can reuse them if you wash them properly but don’t use boiling water – the bottles shrink!). However after getting a mate set up with a starter kit at Grain and Grape recently I think that better deals can be found. All of the kits you get from the supermarkets or homebrew shops are ok. My recommendations on these would be use the kit but get a better yeast (for dry yeast get the safbrew 04 (UK) or 05 (US) will cost about $5) and ferment them at about 18-20 deg C rather than the 28 deg C the kits tell you (I’m not certain that they still recommend this?).
Stick with ales rather than larger. Standard ales ferment at 18-22deg C. Larger needs to be fermented at 12-16 deg C to get the right flavours (they ferment like champions at higher temps but the flavours go all over the shop). Stick with a standard ale (pale or amber) or most of the dark beers are easy (stout or a porter, there pretty easy to get drinkable) the wheat beers are ok but can be a little more fickle in getting the flavours right.
When your bottling if you want to use glass bottles get a bench capper, the hammer things don’t work that well.
If you want to spend a bit more cash try a fresh wort kit (grain and grape has them). The next two areas you can spend cash on are;
- getting setup so that you can boil 30l – going to a full boil setup will let you make your own extract and hop selections, essentially create your own beer. If you go all grain (as I do) you will be able to use this. I have a an old keg with the top cut out fired by a gas burner. You can use an electric urn also (I’ve done this but don’t like it)
- or some kind of temperature control for your fermentation – temp control on the ferment = better beer
General tips to make your beer not shitty;
- Remember its only beer. No matter how badly you fuck up its only beer and beer is very forgiving. Wrong yeast, wrong temp, boil cuts out part way, to many hops, not enough hops, I’ve done it all and with the exception of an infected batch its all pretty much ok. You may swear a lot (as I do at times) but at the worst you tip the batch out and have a beer. So relax and enjoy the process.
- Keep everything clean get some no rinse sanitiser and use it all the time (mix some up in a spray bottle). Its heaps cheaper than throwing out a batch of beer. Don’t forget to clean you bottles properly (I rinse with boiling water then rinse in sanitiser). Also don’t use the kitchen sponge for cleaning brewing stuff, those things are full of nasty bugs.
- Use your hydrometer, write everything down, measure everything properly. This helps with repeatability and lets you figure out where you stuffed up. Nothing worse than making an awesome beer and not being able to do it again.
- Give the fermentation time to work. At about 3- 5 days it’ll probably be done on most beers but give it 7-10 in the fermenter to let the yeast finish the job off.
- Keep the fermenter out of the light, hops go funky in the light and make the beer taste skunky (that’s why beer in green bottles can taste shitty). This is done by putting the fermentor somewhere dark or throwing a towel over it. Again don’t use green bottles.
- If you are using a dried yeast hydrate it before you put it in the unfermented beer (the wort). Put about one inch of water in a coffee cup, cover with cling film and put it on high in the microwave for 2 minutes. Put this aside to cool to room temp (do this hours before you brew). 15 minutes before you want to put it in the wort gently pour the yeast into the water in the coffee cup. Do not stir it. it will hydrate and look kind of gooey. You then add the whole thing to the wort. I often do 2 cups of water at the same time then use the second one to rinse the remaining yeast out into the wort.
- Actually use liquid, its only a little more expensive and the choice is way better.
- Fermentation is the most important bit after the sanitisation.
- The recipe is not the most important thing, process is king, a good recipe helps but wont fix bad process.
- To keep the beer a bit cooler wrap a towel around it and keep it wet.
- Read John Palmers book and do what he says!
- Dont just follow the bloody internet (yes I know this is on the internet) there is so much shit on the internet about homebrewing. Also have a think about which home brew shop you get advice from, not all are great.
- Share your beer with people, the best way to get genuine feedback, if you get a little confidence give competitions a go.
- Use anti foam, I love the shit and hate boil overs. Really good for when you start doing starters, but that’s a little down the track.
- Write everything down. When you get into all grain get some brewing software, it makes life easier. I use Beer Smith.
That should get you started and remember there is no excuse for bad beer. Also go wander around in your local homebrew shop, sus out if its any good. I learned the basics from the guys in my local home brew shop, then figured the rest out myself from books (with a fair bit of help from doing a brewing course at Ballarat Uni).
I hope this helps, but mainly remember that brewing should be a process you enjoy that will make beer you can enjoy and share. So with this info go brew something, you should have enough to be sort of ok (and you should also be reading Palmer right now) otherwise if in doubt ask someone you trust. Remember there are no stupid questions, only stupid questions.