Wednesday, May 4, 2011

5 Tips for New Brewers

We were back in Long Island this past weekend for a family party and I was delighted to find out my wife's cousin has started brewing beer. He apparently did a lot of research online and at this point has one batch in the primary and one batch in the secondary. Unfortunately, I think I scared the bejeesus out of him.

If I know anything about online research it's free and you get what you pay for. Sure there are tons of great brewing resources out there (*cough*) but there are just as many thinly veiled "how-to" advertisements. There's no substitute for actually going out and brewing your own batch but I think there are a few points that a less-than-careful scouring of the internet won't turn up (since they're probably buried in pornography.)

Here's five tips you won't find in the instructions (although you will find them in a good book.)

1. If you put something clean on something dirty, it's dirty

Would you use a spoon that fell on the floor? If you're me it probably depends on whether you're eating wet or dry food, but I digress. The instructions are pretty clear in telling you to clean all your tools thoroughly but they usually neglect to mention that you also need to clean any surfaces those tools will come in contact with. You may think that your kitchen counter-top is "clean enough" but if you haven't recently burned away all the little nasties they would just love to colonize your brew spoon.

The way that Gene and I have found to avoid this problem is to just keep our tools in the no-rinse sanitizer solution when we're not using them. He and I both have a PVC pipe that can fit long skinny tools and will hold sanitizer. You could go nuts cleaning all your surfaces or you can just use the bucket, but don't risk your entire batch just because you believe in the 5-second rule.

2. Start simple

My cousin-in-law started with what I would consider a fairly advanced kit involving multiple types of hops which had to be added at multiple points in the process. There's so many little things that could go wrong; the simpler the starting recipe the better. Until you really know how your equipment is going to work, it's best to choose something like an American Ale to proof the system. Buy a kit the first time around, you can try to save money and get fancy with recipes later. This isn't exactly like baking a cake from Betty Crocker (since the final step of baking means you barely even have to wash your hands).

3. Don't over-buy

If you're new to brewing you may want to consider buying the minimum amount of equipment required and adding to it as you gain in experience. You can spend some big bucks on a Kegerator, Lagering Fridge, Beer Gun, HERMS system, etc. but if you overwhelm yourself you're never going to get started. All you really need is a 5 gallon brew pot, primary fermenter, air lock, long spoon, siphon, thermometer, original gravity meter, bottle-capper and kit to get going. None of that stuff is very complicated.

Once you get your process down and know how to clean everything (and transfer the wort between the various pots and barrels) you can add in stuff like a secondary fermenter, bottling bucket, and wort chiller. Ramp up the difficulty so you don't end up with a $500 bottle of beer and a big pile of crap in the garage that you don't want to clean (other than that car you're "fixing up.")

4. Watch the heat carefully

I ruined my last batch of beer because of a problem with heat. If you're doing a full five gallon boil, you probably don't need to worry about the bottom of the grain bag getting a lot hotter than the top; if you're trying to do this on the kitchen stove and are only boiling a portion of the final volume make sure you measure the temperature at the bottom of the pot. When the recipe says not to let the temperature exceed 170 degrees that means that you really don't want your grain bag sitting on top of the electric coil. My beer tastes like old tea, learn from my mistake.

5. Don't be afraid to taste

Finally, this tip is something I learned after posting a question on another blog. When you take a sample to measure the gravity don't return the sample to the fermenter because it's likely contaminated. The half a cup of beer in the sample tube isn't worth the risk, but it is worth a taste. You can catch a lot of problems early on and not waste your time cleaning bottles for a bad batch just by tasting the sample every time you take a reading. It's not going to taste like beer until the very end, but it shouldn't taste bad.

Oddly enough, if you ever try a beer called "Pork Slap" it tastes exactly like wort to me. Anyway, I hope these tips help you on your way to taking up this fun hobby!

Have any tips of your own? Leave me a comment below!

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