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What First-Time Homebrewers Wish They Had Known

We spoke to some people about their first time brewing and asked if they would share any regrets, tips and/or stupid things they did that we can mock them about. The list below comes from their input as well as our own experience. Some of the things on the list may seem like no-brainers, but we have found that new home brewers approach the process from many different ways. There is probably something on this list that you have not thought about as you enter into home brewery life!

  1. Boil for the full time – If you get antsy and don’t do a vigorous boil for at least 60 minutes, you’re asking for it. Boiling sanitizes, caramelizes the wort (adding flavors, color and aromas) and breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars that the yeast can eat. Another critical function of boiling is that it drives off a chemical called dimethyl sulfide (DMS). The presence of DMS in beer give a “canned corn” aroma and is considered a major flaw, although low levels are acceptable in some styles like light lagers.
  2. Gravity readings are your friend. Take the time to learn what specific gravity readings are, what they mean and how to take them. These numbers are crucial to understanding how your beer is doing at all stages from in the pot to the end of fermentation. Specific gravity is also a common discussion topic for homebrewers, so learn about it so you don’t sound like a moron.
  3. Join a homebrew club before you start – You can read and read and read about brewing, but nothing beats the insight and tips you can get from talking to other homebrewers and participating in club brewing days and demonstrations. Discussion boards are OK, but this is where you will get real hands-on experience. You will be exposed to a variety of brewing situations and problems and learn how to deal with them. Another perk of clubs is they will often buy supplies and/or equipment in bulk or at reduced prices for members to purchase at a savings.
  4. It’s hot work. Brew in spring, fall and winter - There’s always a lot going on during a brew, so you don’t need the added factor of sweltering heat and humidity. Plan your first brew during cooler times of the year. In fact, brewing outside in the winter can be a real blast. It also makes cooling the wort go faster if you don’t have a chiller.
  5. Avoid drinking alcohol while brewing - We highly recommend not drinking while doing your first brew. There’s already a lot to remember…you don’t need alcohol complicating the situation. “Dude, I boiled my wort for 3 hours. I wondered why my gravity was so high.” Over boiling, under boiling, forgetting to add ingredients, dropping things (like a glass carboy) and a variety of safety issues become more likely if you are drinking.
  6. It’s going to take longer than you think - From our experience, first time brewers say they wish they had planned for more time for their first attempt. Something is likely to go wrong and you may have to start over or stop and lookup how to fix something with the equipment or the wort/beer. Cooling the wort is one step where you really need to be patient and let it get to the right temperature. It can take much longer if you are using an ice bath method instead of a wort chiller. If you get impatient and think it’s “close enough” you may kill the yeast.
  7. I should have spent more time on my recipe – If you decide to make up your own recipe instead of buying a kit, be thoughtful and don’t just throw it together like you’re making barbecue sauce. We recommend using brewing software or one of the great free online recipe calculators that are available. In time, you will be able to understand how much malt you need to balance the hop bitterness (and why you need to do this), but for now, use the technology so your ingredients are not wasted and to avoid frustration.
  8. My tap water ruined my beer – In the rush to brew, tap water is less expensive and more convenient than buying distilled water and/or adjusting the mineral content using water salts. High levels of chlorine that effect the taste and smell of tap water can remain throughout the brewing process. Also, very hard or very soft tap water may not be best suited depending on what style of beer you are brewing. If you have city water, most local water departments will be able to give you a basic analysis of what’s in it. If you plan on using your tap water and have a well, send a sample to a lab for testing.
  9. My yeast died – Depending on the turnover at your local brew supply store, some ingredient kits may have old yeast. Be sure to check the expiration date on the package and keep it in the refrigerator until brew day. Ideally, you can make sure the yeast is alive and kicking on brew day by making a starter the day before. Yeast must be treated with care. Remember that it is a living organism just like you and needs a comfortable temperature, enough food to eat and air to breathe.
  10. Buy a big pot - A friend told us he got some great advice from another brewer before he brewed his first batch. “Buy as big of a boil pot as you can, preferably one you can do a full boil in.” Planning for and sanitizing top off water can be a drag. And when it’s your first brew, it’s one less thing to worry about if you have at least a 7-gallon pot do a full boil for a 5-gallon batch.
  11. Use a blowoff tube and stopper – Many brewers say that because of one thing or another that happened during the brewing process, their fermentation went nuts, bubbled up through the airlock and made a huge mess. This is not fun to wake up to the next morning. Fermentation is an exothermic process which means it gives off heat. Whenever you brew a high gravity beer that will have a lot of yeast cells gorging themselves and heating things up, make sure to use a blowoff. It’s a cheap and easy modification that can be done for every brew.
  12. Sanitizing is different from cleaning – Taking a shower is cleaning yourself. Cleaning just means you are removing dirt and other stuff on the surface. Sanitizing is to make something (surfaces, objects, your hands) sanitary, and that means removing microorganisms. The sanitizing methods used by brewers reduces the number of germs by killing them or washing them away. It doesn’t kill viruses or fungi, that process is called sterilization. Scrubbing your equipment is not a perfect process and there will be some areas that you miss. Sanitizing properly will kill and remove most of the remaining microorganisms. The idea is to get the germ population low enough so the brewing yeast can take over.
  13. Timing of ingredient additions – It’s important to understand how to time ingredient additions. If a recipe says to “Add 2 ozs of Centennial hops at 45 minutes,” you may think that means they go in 15 minutes before a 1 hour boil is done. Wrong! The timing in brewing is like a rocket launch---it’s a countdown. The Centennial hops go into the pot 15 minutes after the boil has started. Time zero is the end of the boil, also called kettle knockout or flameout.
  14. Keep a log book – Even if you didn’t do well in high school science lab, keeping notes is essential to becoming a good brewer. One reason is that by writing things down, it makes you think about what you are doing, and sometimes you will catch yourself doing something wrong or out of order. Also, if there is an issue with your beer, the information in the notes may help you figure out what happened. And, keeping notes makes it easier to repeat a recipe so it comes out the same each time. There are some great brewing log forms online that you can download for free. These forms will make sure you capture all the essential information. Buy yourself a pretty binder to keep your notes in.
  15. Plan ahead for your first brew day – Things will go more smoothly if you take time to plan ahead and take care of some things the day before. That way you can concentrate on the brewing process. Weighing out the hops and putting them into labeled zip bags is a good idea. If you are cooling the wort in an ice bath, make sure the ice ready in the freezer. For partial boils, top off water can be boiled and cooled the day before to save time and effort on brew day. Is there enough propane in the tank? Is there someone available to take care of the kids/pets while you are brewing? If you are planning to brew outside, what’s the weather going to be like?