5 Lessons Learned From Our First Homebrew

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Garrettc
We enjoy the occasional pint and, like much of America, have taken an interest in craft beer ever since we could afford (and thus appreciate) it. While I like to simply imbibe my beers, my husband enjoys discussing the various flavors and styles of beer. "What if," he asked, "we could make the perfect beer?"

The dream of cranking craft beer out of our guest bedroom-turned-super-microbrewery took a step toward reality after my brother-in-law gifted us a homebrew kit last Christmas. Needless to say, we were intimidated by the daunting task of homebrewing and did not open the kit for half a year. But after seeing friends brew their own beer, we decided what the heck -- super-microbrewery, here we come.

As with most things in life, the initial experience didn't turn out as expected. There are lots of errors made, lots of lessons to be learned. Here are the five things we learned during our first homebrewing experience. Read on, and save yourself a headache should you ever attempt homebrewing.

5. DON'T start the brewing process at eleven at night.

...unless you are a nocturnal creature. The processes of preparing bottles, cooking ingredients, cooling the wort, and siphoning into the carboy can take several hours, especially if you're ambitious like us and decide to employ the entire five-gallon capacity of the carboy. It takes several, painful hours to cool the wort if you are using a rudimentary method like we did; that is, placing it in an ice bath in our tub. The wort needs to be cooled below 85°F in order for the yeast to do its job, so to go from boiling to below 85°F, the wort will have to drop more than 100 degrees. Watching wort cool is far worse than waiting for water to boil--it takes up much more time if using the ice bath method for five gallons--so I advise setting aside half a day to brew your beer and not waiting till eleven at night when you're bored and deciding suddenly that brewing beer will result in an hour or two of fun. We made that mistake, and by dawn, we were cranky and snapping at each other: "Whose great idea was it to start brewing at eleven anyway?"

Consider buying a wort chiller. If you prefer not to spend hours of your weekend watching the wort cool at a snail's pace, it might make sense to invest in a wort chiller. Wort chillers quicken the cooling process of the wort, improving the beer's clarity while reducing the chances of contamination and off-tasting beer. You can find some for as little as the price of five six-packs of craft beers. Forgo 30 beers, but save three hours of cooling time.

4. DON'T underestimate the importance of climate control.

A proper thermometer is necessary so you'll know when the wort has cooled to the desired temperature to begin fermentation. Adhesive thermometers work well--just peel and stick to the carboy, and you've got instant temperature readings.

Depending on which sort of beer you're trying to make, the wort needs to remain at a stable, cool temperature during fermentation. Lagers require a fermenting temperature between 45 and 55°F, while ales ferment somewhere between 68 and 72°F. If you plan to brew during the summer, make sure you place your carboy in the darkest, coolest section of your house (e.g. the same closet in which you hide your skeletons). Otherwise, plan to invest in a converted mini fridge.


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21 comments
Bucsman1
Bucsman1

Christine, your story is remarkable and after just watching master chef, you have gained a couple new fans, and my wife and I will be rooting for you. I wish that most folks (including myself), had your strength, determination and sheer grit! I am proud to say that I'm from Houston, knowing that you are also from here as well. Have faith and be strong. In my opinion, you have already won the competition! I don't know if you will even get to read this, but I just wanted to say "you go girl". All the best in your quest to be master chef!

Marc and Gordana MarquezOwners www.thegeniustraveler.com

Gbrock31
Gbrock31

You should never throw away a whole batch of beer before it has fermented.

Chad
Chad

Did I read this right that it took you hours to cool your wort??? I do 5 gallon batches all the time and can get it down to the pitching temp in 20 minutes max using a18 gallon bucket and 3-4 standard sized bags of ice

Christine Ha
Christine Ha

Thanks, everyone. Your tips are all so helpful.

rgwalt
rgwalt

Though I haven't brewed, everyone I know who does brew echo's the keg sentiment.  They start by bottling, and after brewing a few times move to kegging because it is so much easier.  Also, as far as equipment is concerned, in general everyone I know wants to start cheap to "see if they like homebrewing".  They invariably end up enjoying the process, and end up spending money on bigger/better equipment.  Maybe the moral of the story is to go all out at first. 

If you are going to bottle, consider grolsch bottles.  No capping!  Kegs don't need to be "resealed" as they operate on CO2 pressure.  Once the keg is filled and purged, the beer is moved out of the keg and displaced by CO2.  The only time it contacts oxygen (after the initial fill) is when it hits your glass.

KAC
KAC

Brew what you want to drink first. Do the easy receipies until you get a hang of it, then go all grain. After that, start making up your own receipies, because it's fun.

Doak
Doak

That is good advice, all around, and especially about considering the time.  Once you get a wort chiller and a little practice (and a cajun cooker, if you don't already have one), you can knock those "several" hours down to "a few."

I also second the comment about how you do not have to worry about poisoning your friends.  Like Jeff said, no pathogens live in beer.  That's one of the reasons why people make beer, wine, and other fermented beverages.  They are safe.  You only have to worry about poisoning if you are putting poison in your beer.  Just stick to good quality, food grade, proper ingredients and equipment, and you have nothing to worry about.

Brew on!

AKing
AKing

Nothing is more of a pain than sanitizing tons of bottles and caps.  Nothing made me enjoy brewing more than investing in some Cornelius kegs and CO2 tanks.  

Jeff
Jeff

The guys at DeFalco's are great.  They really know their stuff.  Definitely agree that that's the place to go for equipment, ingredients, and instructions/advice.  Don't worry about poisoning your friends, however.  There's nothing that lives in beer that can kill you or make you sick.  It can go to vinegar and taste terrible, sure, but if you clean and sanitize properly that will never be a problem.  It's not like making dry-cured salami at home; beer making is easy!

Megan
Megan

YES to the Grolsch bottles.  This is what I use, and they are amazing.  We started our homebrew experiments with a one-gallon setup from Brooklyn Brew Shop and were very pleased with the summer wheat we made (I want to add lemon peel to the wort next time, husband wants grapefruit peel).  Next is going to be another batch of the summer wheat, and maybe a blonde.

Christine Ha
Christine Ha

I guess the only kind of poisoning you can get from homemade beer is drinking the entire 5 gallons of it in 30 minutes and get alcohol poisoning.

Christine Ha
Christine Ha

It seems many of you vouch for kegging instead of bottling. This may be an elementary question, but how do you "reseal" the keg? We don't want to have to throw a party every time we brew a batch. Plus, if we decide to bring a virtual 6-pack to a party, do we bottle straight from the keg? Or do we need to buy growlers? Saw some at Whole Foods--price seemed a little exorbitant though.

Tim
Tim

Going all grain, and then kegging improved my beer the most.

Megan
Megan

And if it goes to alegar, you can cook with it!

trisch
trisch

That's pretty much what happened to us back in college when we pounded a classmate's homebrew (it tasted pretty bad, but we didn't want to hurt his feelings, so we gulped it down as quickly as we could).  Poor tummy.

WhiskeyR
WhiskeyR

Corny kegs have a cap that comes off easily, so they're very easy to fill and clean. They're also only 5 gallons, perfect for homebrew.

SirRon
SirRon

There is no need to reseal a keg. Look up homebrew kegging online or go talk to the guys at DeFalcos about how a homebrew draft system works.

I've got a beer gun to fill bottles from my draft system, but I have to admit I almost never use it. If you want a few bottles, just prime and fill a few large bottles before you put the rest in a keg. If you want to bring some to a party (something I also do a lot less than I orginally thought I would), then filling a growler works best. You'll only need 1 or 2 in your inventory.

SirRon
SirRon

In my opinion, going all grain and kegging aren't the two biggest things that will improve your beer. Vigilant cleaning and sanitation, pitching healthy yeast, and carefully controlling fermentation temperatures (google "son of a fermentation chiller") will improve your beer the most. I've had plenty of excellent extract beers.

Kegging is the single best decision I made as a homebrewer (besides starting in the first place). Saving, cleaning and sanitizing bottles, and filling bottles are all brutal. Plus, there is a cool-factor to pulling a pint of your own beer.

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