Getting into the homebrewing hobby can feel like quite a commitment. Between the equipment and the time it takes to brew, you want your first few batches to come out right. Follow these tips to start your adventures in homebrewing off on the right foot.
Start with the Right Recipe
If you don't have a good recipe, you won't make good beer. And for beginners, a good recipe is more than just having the right ingredients. You want to pick a recipe that caters to your level of experience. Standard styles that are between 4% and 6% ABV are a good place to start for the first few batches. These types of recipes often have a small number of ingredients, which will make your brewday less complicated, and the lower alcohol will help with a proper fermentation, so your homebrew doesn't taste like bubble gum or some other fruity ester.
That doesn't mean you have to limit yourself to a boring beer, but pick something like a porter, pale ale, or ESB for your first few brews. If you save that dry-hopped Belgian Black Triple IPA with mango for your third or fourth brew instead of your first, you'll not only be more likely to succeed, but you'll be less likely to quit the hobby out of frustration. Creative success usually means learning how to follow the rules before you can decide which ones to break.
Your homebrewed creation is most vulnerable after the boil, and up to the point when fermentation starts. One of the goals when making wort is to produce a sugar and oxygen environment that is ideal for yeast growth. That means it's also an ideal environment for growing bacteria and unwanted wild yeast as well. Since homebrewers don't brew in sterile lab conditions, there will always be small amounts of bacteria in the brew, but our goal is to limit them until our yeast can take over.
On brew day, this means that you have a bucket of iodine or Starsan sanitizer at the ready. Anything that touches the beer after the boil, including spoons, racking canes or hoses, needs to have soaked in sanitizer for at least one minute. Your fermentation bucket or carboy needs to have sanitizer in contact with every surface for the same amount of time, and airlocks and rubber stoppers need to soak as well. Keep the lid on your cooled wort until it's time to transfer it, and don't disturb it once it's in the fermentor.
Keep Your Yeast Happy
After sanitation, poor yeast health can have the biggest negative impact on your beer. The first step to healthy yeast is to start with enough of it. When you don't use enough yeast, known as "underpitching", the remaining cells need to work a lot harder to get started and they produce undesirable flavors.
The easiest way for a beginning homebrewer to pitch enough yeast is to use dry yeast. An 11.5 gram package of dry yeast contains significantly more healthy yeast cells than a liquid package. There are not as many varieties of dry yeast as there are of liquid yeast, but a recipe that calls for American yeast can always substitute Safale US-05 and English yeast can be substituted with Safale US-04.
If you do choose to use liquid yeast, usually either Wyeast or Whitelabs brand, you'll have to make an appropriate sized starter to get the right amount of cells. While starters are not difficult to make, they can be a hassle for beginning brewers since they take extra time and equipment.
The other key variable to keeping yeast happy is temperature. For most beginning recipes, adding the yeast at a temperature of 60°F to 70°F will produce the best result. A common mistake is to check that the fermentor feels "cool to the touch" before adding yeast. Since your body temperature is in the high-90s, a wort temperature of 90°F might feel cool to the touch, but it would cause the yeast to wreak havoc on your beer flavor. Check the wort temperature with a sanitized thermometer or an inexpensive fermentor thermometer sticker before adding the yeast.
Once you add the yeast, do your best to keep the temperature as consistent as possible. This is usually the toughest job of a new homebrewer, but success will pay off in homebrew that's even more delicious. Try to find a cool, dark closet or basement that stays between 63°F and 68°F to get the best results for most beginning homebrew recipes.
Let Nature Work
Almost every new homebrewer I've talked to assumes that they've ruined their homebrew in some way. Either fermentation didn't start when it when they expected, or the specific gravity of the beer didn't get as low as they wanted or they're worried about some other problem. My answer to these concerns is almost always the same: "It's probably going to be fine." People have been making beer since before thermometers, stainless steel, and even before we even knew that yeast existed. Even if you're convinced otherwise, it's unlikely that you've stumbled on the perfect combination of mistakes that causes grain, hops, water, and yeast to become something other than beer.
The answer to most perceived problems in homebrewing is to just be patient and let nature run its course. Fermentation can sometimes take up to 48 hours before it becomes visible. If you do happen to have a homebrew that doesn't start bubbling after 2 or 3 days, you can usually fix the problem by pouring in another package of dry yeast. Almost every other fermentation problem can be solved by being patient and letting the beer rest in the fermentor for another week or two.
About the author: Joe Postma is a homebrewer who is seeking that perfect blend of creativity and science required to make great beer. He moonlights as a consulting actuary during the week.