Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The 5 Best Ways to Improve Your Brews

There are two extremes to learning to brew. 

You can buy yourself a 10 gallon, pump driven, all grain brew sculpture and conical for 20 grand. You'll make beer, but you won't know HOW to make beer. Then you'll get bored, and try to sell it on Craigslist for half it's worth.

You can start from the bottom, using a Mr. Beer kit and working your way up, making every mistake you can make and learning from it. If you don't make wise decisions up front, you can end up spending a lot of money in the long run, but you understand exactly how every upgrade you make will improve your beer. This is what I did, and I know that it can be extremely frustrating when you make that one key upgrade and wonder why the hell you spent the last year making substandard beer.

Wouldn't it be great if there was some incredibly smart person who already made all the mistakes and had a blog where they could write about it? Yeah, that would be swell. 

1. Pitch More Fucking Yeast

You probably don't. Even if you've been brewing for years, I bet you don't.

If you're a newbie, and aren't willing to make a starter, USE DRY YEAST. I cannot stress this enough. A packet of dry yeast has at least twice the number of yeast cells as a vial of liquid yeast, and it's cheap. Direct pitching a package of liquid yeast is not enough for anything. It wasn't even enough for a healthy fermentation of my 3 gallon batches until I started making starters.

Pitch one 11 gm packet of US-05 for a 5.5 gallon batch of average strength beer, and don't be afraid to pitch 1.5 - 2 packets, especially for stronger beers and lagers. Properly rehydrated in 100 F water, of course. Pitching an extra packet of yeast costs you a whole 2 extra bucks per batch, just do it.

If you want to step it up, go straight to a stir plate and 2 liter flask. A 2 liter starter, decanted and pitched warm, will give you a strong, fast, healthy fermentation, and using liquid yeast will give you greater flexibility in the styles you can brew. The flask can be boiled and fermented all in one container, won't break when cooled quickly and is easy to swirl and pour. A 2 liter starter made with half a vial of liquid yeast will give you just enough yeast for a 6 gallon ale of around 1.070, cutting your yeast costs in half. A stirplate and 2L flask can be had for less than $60 and is probably the best investment I have ever made.

PS. Some people say you can pitch too much yeast. If you can, I haven't seen the limit. I've racked a 1.100 OG imperial stout right on top of a dry irish stout yeast cake with no ill effects. It finished fermenting down to 1.030 in two fucking days and tasted great!

2. Just Fucking Buy BeerSmith Already

And I mean buy it, not pirate it. It costs what, half the price of a batch of beer, and you'll be supporting a guy who works hard to support your habit, both with podcasts and frequent software updates. BeerSmith is hands down the best brewing software I've ever used. I use it to maintain a detailed brew log, design recipes from scratch, scale other recipes for my batch size and efficiency, and calculate anything I could possibly need to when brewing up a batch. Just don't pirate it, you cheap asshole.

3. Don't Waste Your Time (Or Money) On Partial Boils

Brewing with extract is perfectly okay. You can and will make great beers with extract, but you absolutely need to do a full boil. Right from the get-go, no topping up. Why?
  • Better hop utilization. Open up BeerSmith (you don't have it? Go back to number 2). Try designing a recipe where you top it up with 3 gallons. Look at your IBUs. Now change the top up water to 0 (i.e., full boil). Now look at your IBUs. You can make this better by adding most of your extract at the end, at least.
  • Less chance for contamination. This should be obvious. Half of your water wasn't even boiled - probably right out of the tap. Add that to the fact that you're probably trying to save yeast by pitching half a packet of dry yeast and getting 2 day lag times, it's no wonder your beer is infected.
  • Better taste. This one's obviously difficult to quantify, or even prove. Some people say the source of 'extract twang' is due to stale extract, but others attribute it to a concentrated boil followed by dilution. Regardless, you know who doesn't do partial boils? Jamil. Tasty. Pro brewers. People who win contests. People who make better beer than you do.
  • Replicating recipes. See the last point. Do you think that brew you read about in Brewing Classic Styles or heard on Can You Brew It was topped up with tap water? No. Your beer may taste okay, but it won't taste like it's supposed to. Pretty much any recipe written by a professional or an advanced homebrewer assumes, at a bare minimum, that you're boiling everything at once.
  • You're going to do it anyway. Come on, if you're even halfway serious about homebrewing, you'll go all grain sooner or later. And when you do, you're going to be doing a full boil. If you don't do all grain or full boils for the rest of your life, make sure you put a pound of hops in every brew so no one can taste how terrible it is.
This one will cost you. You'll need a larger brew pot, 8-10 gallons (a ball valve is nice, but not 100% necessary). You'll need a propane burner. You'll almost certainly need a wort chiller. Here's why it isn't as expensive as it sounds, and why it's totally worth it:
  • Brewing on the stove top sucks. I ruined the electric stove at my last apart, and that was doing 3 gallon boils. The landlord charged me 50 bucks when I moved out for the cosmetic damage, but that's because she didn't charge me when she repaired the melted wires in the stove. If I had told her it was my fault due to brewing on the stovetop, she probably would have. The first time a repairman charges you $200 to fix your f'ed up stove, you'll wish you had just started on a propane burner. Plus, the gas stove at my new place takes about 45 minutes on high just to bring 3 gallons to mash-in temperature. Ugh, no thanks.
  • You can buy 5 gallon pot for $50 now, then a 9 gallon pot with two welded ports for $90 later. Save yourself some money and just buy the bigger one right now.
  • You can get a propane burner for $50 at Home Depot or wherever. When the rapture comes and you are cut off from all utilities, you'll be glad you have one. Plus, em, you can make a shit ton of chili on it with that big shiny new pot you have. You also probably already have a propane tank for BBQ - hell, I lived in a 500 square foot apartment and I already had one.
  • Chilling wort in an ice bath REALLY sucks. I'd recommend a wort chiller even if you AREN'T doing full boils. Ice baths really just suck that much.
  • Again, if you're going to go all grain, you'll have to buy all this stuff anyway. So it's basically free, right?

4. Fermentation Control

Keeping your fermentation temperatures under control is the number one most important thing you can do improve your brew. So why is it #4? 

The problem is, it's a huge pain in the ass and isn't always worth it. For example, if you keep your beer in the house and set the thermostat to 62, it's probably going to be fine. Most of the year, it won't even get hot enough to worry about. Plus, not everyone has the room in their house or the money to spare on a temp control solution, especially when the difference is between fermenting at 67 degrees and fermenting at 72. 

You can also solve the temperature problem by just not brewing in the summer. Make wine instead, I guess. That's how the Bavarians did it - their summer beer sucked balls, so they made it illegal to brew in the summer. Problem solved.

Finally, it just isn't exciting. There's no WOW factor to controlling your fermentation temperature. It isn't fun, or interesting, but if you're making hot, fuselly, estery, phenolic beers that are prone to infection, or if you want to make lagers, it is a game changer.

Unlike the first three items on the list, which you should do before even starting your first damn brew, I'd recommend getting a chest freezer as soon as you can spare the room and money for it. Keeping it in the house is best, where it won't get too cold at night and the temperature swings are less drastic. If you live in California, like me, outside it fine, but you still need to keep an eye on it so it doesn't get too cold or cycle on and off too much.

You can pick up a 5 CF chest freezer for $50-75 on Craigslist if you keep an eye out. A Ranco ETC-111000 will run you about $50 on ebay, unwired. You can see how to wire it yourself here and save yourself some money. It is digital and you can switch it from heating to cooling just by pressing a button. If you have huge temperature swings (100 during the day, 40 at night), you may need to use a dual stage controller like the Ranco ETC-211000, which lets you connect the freezer and a heating device at the same time.

5. Stop Storing Your Beer On a Hot Shelf in the Laundry Room

Stop it. And you wonder why that beer you sent to the local comp was hazy, infected, oxidized and had no hop character. Beer needs cold to settle out yeast and to keep it from premature aging. Putting your beer in the fridge is the best way to ensure it is clear and doesn't taste "young" (a.k.a., yeasty, green). It also doesn't cost you anything, though your significant other may object. 

I really wish the dumbasses at had emphasized how terrible your homebrew tastes after you leave it warm for 3 months, instead of always claiming that time heals all wounds. It doesn't. Ferment it at the right temperature, with enough yeast, enough oxygen, enough nutrients and just enough time to clean up yeasty byproducts, then chill the shit out of it as soon as you can. Most well made beers taste great after about of month of total time fermenting and aging. Hell, it should taste pretty damn good right out of the fementor. If you have to let it age longer than that before it tastes good, either you made a big, aggressive beer (RIS, barleywine, scotch, etc) or you suck at brewing. Go back and read the first four points.

The next logical step here is to start cold conditioning your beer. My beer didn't stop tasting like 'homebrew' until I started kegging. But, it wasn't the kegging or the force carbonation that did it. The difference was that I was able to get my beer cold as soon as fermentation was done and keep it cold forever after. Not only will you settle out more of the yeast (and faster), thus eliminating common green/homebrew flavors, your homebrew will last you months (or years) before going south. Your IPAs will thank you especially.

If you can manage it, stick your carboy in a fridge for a week or two before bottling. Do it Sierra Nevada style - put it in the fridge to knock out all the yeast. Make sure it is crystal fucking clear. Then add about 1 gram of yeast (rehydrated) to your bottling bucket with the priming sugar. Make sure to let your beer warm back up to room temp before bottling. Say hello to clear, professional-tasting beer, and say goodbye to that enormous yeast plug in the bottom of your bottles.

The ultimate solution is to start kegging. I won't go into that now, but man guys it is so awesome. You have no idea.

6. ((Bonus)) Go All Grain

Okay, not on day one. I mean it. Take some time, learn to brew with what you've got. Maybe even win a comp or two with your extract beers. Really get to know your system as it is. Then step it up.

Brew in a bag pretty much costs less than 5 bucks to start. Just use your big-ass pot (you've got one now, right?) and a paint strainer bag. You'll be limited by how much grain you can fit into the bag you buy, and your wort will have much more 'crud' in it since you don't vorlauf. Your efficiency will also be lower if you don't sparge, but you can batch sparge with BIAB and get 75-80% efficiency.

The next step up isn't too expensive either. I mean, you already have the big pot, the wort chiller and the propane burner. You know what else you probably have? An ice chest. Something like this Coleman Xtreme. I bought it a few years ago for like...50 bucks on Amazon, to use when camping. Now, go to Get this and this. Screw everything in according to their instructions. You now have a big enough mash tun to make 10 gallon batches of fucking Barleywine, and it probably cost you less than your brew kettle. Google "denny conn batch sparge".


Read every book you can find. Listen to everything The Brewing Network puts out (they put out a lot, if you know what I mean). Don't trust everything you read on, but DO read Join the AHA, then read through all of their free back issues of Zymurgy. Subscribe to BYO. Find a local homebrew club and join it. Enter your beer in comps even if you don't think you'll win - you'll still learning something. Experiment. Most importantly, don't let an infection or a bad beer get you down - figure out what went wrong, fix it and keep brewing.