When you first start to homebrew, it seems like there are a million people telling you a million different things you HAVE to do to make good beer. Fortunately, as you get more experience, you start to figure out how things work and what really matters. Now, while I may not have as much experience as some homebrewers, I’ve brewed 493 batches since I began in March 1998. And since my brewing is driven by my laziness, I’ve used that experience to figure out what matters and what doesn’t.
If you’ve read the writings (Experimental Homebrewing or www.experimentalbrew.com) or listened to the podcast (“Experimental Brewing," available on iTunes and others) I do with my co-author, Drew Beechum, you might think my tips come down to: 1.) Brew like me and 2.) Don’t brew like him! But that leaves out the other 8, so here’s a list of my Top 10 Tips for Brew Day.
1. Plan and prepare….I like to think about my recipe at least a week ahead of brew day and get my ingredients prepped at least the day before. Even if you’re doing a spur of the moment brew, take a few minutes to calmly think through what your brew day will be like and get your brewing supplies mise en place….that’s French for “aggregate your fecal matter." :)
2. Got leftovers to use up? Don’t just throw ‘em all in…make a recipe first! When you start off on a road trip, do you just get in the car and start driving, or do you plan where you’re going and how to get there? A recipe is a roadmap to success…you can’t get to your destination if you don’t know where you’re going!
3. Pre weigh your hop additions into Ziploc bags marked with the time of the addition. I line the bags up in the order I’ll use them, too. And when it’s time to add the hops, actually READ the bags….don’t ask me how I know that.
4. If you brew outside or in your garage with a propane burner, think safety! If you put the burner on a wooden deck, think about a heat shield under it. If you brew in your garage, use a carbon monoxide detector to alert you of potentially dangerous levels of CO. Always keep a fire extinguisher nearby. And be sure it’s charged and ready.
5. Take good notes. If your beer turns out great, you’ll want to remember what you did so you can do it again. If it doesn’t, you’ll want to remember what to NEVER do again! Write down recipes, procedures, water volumes, water salts added, specific gravity at various points (I keep track of mash runoff gravity, starting boil gravity, and ending boil gravity at the very least), pitching temperature, fermentation temperature, fermentation schedule (how long at what temps) and final gravity. Of course, tasting notes of the finished beer are invaluable.
6. Clean as you go. That will mean there’s less clutter laying around getting in your way. It also means that by the time you get to the end of your brew day, most of the onerous task of cleaning is done. All you need to do is clean the kettle and you’re set.
7. I know this is gonna be a controversial one….don’t drink while you brew. Save it til you’re done. I sometimes break this rule when I’m having a “brewing event” like a gathering for “Big Brew” or “Learn to Homebrew” days. I just write those off as days when I know I’m pretty much guaranteed to make a mistake. Sure, I get beer out of it and sometimes it even turns out to be the beer I was going for! But in general I make much better beer with much less stress when I brew alone and don’t drink until I’m done. That also makes cleanup less of a drag and faster, since I have the promise of a beer ahead to pull me along. I know this is a personal decision for everybody, but this is my advice. Take it or leave it
8. Don’t brew if your yeast isn’t ready. You’d think this would be a no brainer, right? Doesn’t seem like it. You wouldn’t brew if you didn’t have malt or hops, would you? So what makes you think you can brew if your yeast isn’t ready to go? For most liquid yeast, you will have better results by making a starter than simply pitching a smack pack or vial of yeast. Fortunately, there are more yeast companies starting to market pitchable sizes so there are ways to avoid making a starter. For one example, I’ve been trying the Imperial yeasts lately. Not only do they taste and perform great, but they’re ready to pitch right from the can unless you’re making a very high gravity beer. And don’t forget dry yeast. There are some great dry yeast strains available for both ales and lagers, and they’re always ready to go.
9. Pitch at the proper temperature for the best beer. Sure, you can reduce the lag and speed performance by pitching at higher temperatures, but your beer quality will generally suffer. My experience is that I want to pitch ales at about 63F and lagers at 48-50F. Fermentation is an exothermic process, so the wort will warm a bit as it ferments. Most temperature related off flavors occur within the first 72 hours of fermentation, so after that you let the wort warm up to be sure it finishes fermentation properly. But make sure you start it cool. Most recommendations you see are to begin the ferment warmer. I urge you to try it cooler and compare.
10. BREW AGAIN AND AGAIN! Like I said back at the beginning of this screed, there is no substitute for experience. And one way to get that experience is to brew the same recipe over and over, until you can repeat it reliably every time. I know there are a lot of brewers, especially new brewers, who find that to be anathema. Yeah, I understand...you don’t have a lot of time to brew, there are SO many styles out there to brew, yada yada, excuse excuse….OK, your choice. But I’ll tell you that nothing will teach you more about brewing and ensure your future success on those one off recipes than the experience and learning process that repeated brewing will teach you.
So, those are the Top 10 most important things I can think of for brew day. You may disagree with some of them, but I urge you to especially try the stuff you disagree with first. You may discover that I’m right.Or, as Drew would tell you, you may discover that I’m totally off my rocker. But you WILL be learning about home brewing, what matters to you about it, and how to make it more fun while you make better beer. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
About Denny Conn
Denny is a respected member of the home brewing community, serving on the Governing Committee of the American Homebrewers Association for nine years and as an active BJCP National ranked beer judge. He regularly writes for many homebrew publications, including Zymurgy and Brew Your Own magazine, and is the developer of the Cheap'n'Easy all-grain brewing system. He is also a contributing author of the book "Craft Beer for the Homebrewer: Recipes from America's Top Brewmasters" and co-author of "Experimental Homebrewing: Mad Science in the Pursuit of Great Beer" and "Homebrew All Stars" (coming in May 2016). Denny enjoys sharing many of his homebrew recipes with the community, but is known for his Rye IPA, which has been brewed by several commercial breweries both in the US and Europe. Currently, he is a co-host and co-producer of "The Experimental Brewing Podcast" and Brewery Ambassador for Oakshire Brewing in Oregon.