Serious Eats: Drinks

7 Tips for Using the Homebrew Kit Santa Brought You

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[Photograph: Sarah Postma]

Along with the flocks of folks shaking off hangovers to make their way to the gym and others half-heartedly embracing a New Year's resolution to drink more green juice, there are undoubtedly brewmasters-to-be out there trying to figure out how to use the beginner's homebrewing kits that were waiting for them beneath the tree this year. To you, fledgling brewers, I say, "Welcome!" This is going to be fun.

But before you get started, allow me to share a few tips that will give you a leg up and improve the quality of your initial batches of beer. Most of them don't cost a thing!

1. Start Simple

Let's take things slow. Chances are your equipment came with a beginner's recipe kit for something like a basic American pale ale, amber ale, or porter. Stick with something like one of those beers at first and resist the urge to tart it up with a load of additional ingredients. Straightforward recipes will make it easier for you to get your footing and to figure out what went right and what went wrong once the beers are finished.

There'll be plenty of future batches when you can get all Sam Calagione with multiple fruit, spice and exotic wood additions.

2. Clean and Sanitize!

Ask 10 different home or professional brewers for the best brewing techniques and you're bound to get 12 different answers. However, there's one point on which they'll all agree: Sanitation is the most important part of making good beer. On brew day, you're trying to create the best possible conditions for yeast to grow in and ferment your wort. (Wort, pronounced like "hurt" with a "w," is what we call beer prior to fermentation.) Unfortunately, those are also the best possible conditions for beer-spoiling wild yeasts and bacteria lurking in the air and on the surface of just about everything around you. Sanitation will help keep them at bay.

Once you've cleaned any visible dirt or build-up from all of your equipment, you must sanitize everything that will come in contact with your wort after the boil (carboys, buckets, tubing, spoons, thermometers, etc.). I use an acid-based sanitizer like StarSan (1 ounce per 5 gallons of water) or an iodine-based sanitizer like Iodophor (1 tablespoon per 5 gallons of water). StarSan will sanitize clean surfaces with 30 seconds of contact time; Iodophor takes longer (at least 2 minutes, 10 minutes for hospital-grade sanitation). Both sanitizers should be drained, but neither requires rinsing. StarSan will leave behind quite a bit of foam, but that won't hurt the wort.

There's no need to sanitize any of your equipment that will touch the wort before it's cooled because the boil will take care of that. And make sure to clean and sanitize your bottles and caps once the beer is ready to be packaged.

3. Chill Fast

After the boil is complete, you want to chill the wort as quickly as possible. The wort is most prone to infections by bacteria and wild yeast at temperatures above 80°F, so you want to minimize the time it spends in that danger zone. Rapid chilling also causes proteins to coagulate and drop out, which can reduce haziness in the finished beer. This is mostly a cosmetic issue, but it can lead to the beer going stale faster. Chilling more gradually will be less effective against these proteins or not effective at all.

Joe Postma has already laid out the pros and cons of different chilling methods, but for your first batches you'll probably want to put your brew pot in an ice bath. I started off making huge quart-size ice cubes in plastic takeout containers. If you want to speed the chilling process, use a sanitized spoon to gently stir the wort without splashing, which will increase the amount of hot wort that comes into contact with the cooler walls of the brew pot. Also be careful to keep the unsanitized ice water from splashing into the wort.

Shelling out $50 to $100 for an immersion chiller is one of the first equipment upgrades I recommend if, after you've made a few batches, you decide homebrewing is for you.

4. Aerate the Wort

These next 3 tips all deal with yeast. Why is yeast so important? Simple. Brewers make wort. Yeast makes beer. As brewers, we can't control the billions of yeast cells charged with that lofty task, but we can certainly influence them and help them out along the way.

Boiling drives off the oxygen dissolved in the wort, which yeast needs for healthy reproduction. If that oxygen isn't added back, the yeast can become stressed, leading to the development of off-flavors during fermentation. The cheapest way to aerate the wort is shaking the hell out of it for several minutes. Once you have the wort in a sealed, sanitized carboy or bucket, place a folded towel on the ground and vigorously rock the full carboy or bucket back and forth until it's good and frothy. I do not recommend picking the carboy up and shaking it back and forth. Carboys are dangerous, brittle, and unforgivingly messy if dropped.

5. Pitch Enough Yeast

Having plenty of healthy yeast is crucial, and most 5 gallon batches of beer require more than one package of liquid yeast for an adequate number of yeast cells. I use Mr. Malty's Pitching Rate Calculator to determine how many yeast cells I'll need in each batch. To get the appropriate cell count, you have the option of pitching multiple packages of liquid yeast, making a yeast starter, or pitching a single package of dry yeast.

Pitching multiple packets of liquid yeast is expensive, so in general I'd advise to avoid that route. Making a yeast starter isn't difficult, but requires some planning in advance of brew day. If you don't have the Erlenmeyer flask mentioned in the link above, you can use a sanitized growler to grow up the starter after boiling your starter wort in an ordinary pot.

The final option is dry yeast, which contains a much greater number of cells than a single package of liquid yeast. One of the drawbacks of dry yeast is there are fewer options available. However, a standard American ale yeast (such as Fermentis Safale US-05) or English ale yeast (such as Safale US-04) should do the trick for most entry-level recipes.

6. Control the Fermentation Temperature

Now that you've chilled and aerated the wort and pitched an appropriate amount of yeast, it's almost time to sit back and let the yeast cells do their thing. But first you need to make sure they're at a comfortable temperature so they can do their best work. I say "comfortable" because yeast cells can reproduce and convert sugar into alcohol and CO2 in a wide range of temperatures. However, each strain has a narrower optimal temperature range. You can find the recommended fermentation temperatures for each strain on the manufacturers' websites. Most American and English ale strains will perform best in a range of about 63°F-68°F. If you ferment cooler, you run the risk of an incomplete fermentation. If you ferment much hotter, the yeast can produce more fruity esters than are desirable as well as harsher, higher alcohols.

To keep your fermentation in check, find a cool place that doesn't see a lot of temperature fluctuations. Also keep in mind that the yeast will produce heat while it's reproducing and creating alcohol, so temperature of the fermenting beer may be 5 to 7 degrees warmer than the ambient room temperature. If you have trouble finding a place that's cool enough, Joe Postma has a few tips for adjusting your temperature.

7. Take Notes. Read. Share.

Once you have your first batch under your belt, you'll see making beer is really pretty easy. It's making great or even good beer that brings difficulty. Taking notes and learning from your mistakes and successes will help you improve your process and ultimately your results.

There's no substitute for repetition, but there's plenty you can do to expand your knowledge when you're not brewing. Read everything you can get your hands on. In addition to Serious Eats' homebrew articles, check out John Palmer's How to Brew, Charlie Papazian's The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, The Brewing Network podcasts, and Zymurgy magazine, which is available to members of the American Homebrewers Association—and it alone is worth the cost of membership.

You can also look for local homebrew clubs in your area. Joining a club is a great way to hang out with other brewers with all levels of experience and get no-nonsense feedback on your beers. Chances are your friends and family will tell you that they like just about everything you make, regardless of its actual merit. And why wouldn't they? It's free beer for them and they want to be supportive. Sharing your beer with other brewers will give you the opportunity to learn what you did right and what you did wrong from people with a deeper understanding of how beer is made. The lessons I've learned in homebrew clubs have made the biggest differences in my brewing, no question.

There's always more to learn, but for now it's time to get brewing. So read your instructions, make sure you have all of your equipment, and have at it.

About the Author: Jonathan makes wort and writes about beer. He lives in St. Louis. Find him on Twitter at @jonathanmoxey.

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