Top 10 Steps Towards Brewing Better Beer

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The first five of which I’ll post today.

When I started brewing, information of how to make the best quality beers was just starting to emerge. These days, there is an abundance of information on homebrewing, and sometimes it can be overwhelming. Sorting important information from minutiae or the latest fad can be hard. As such, I’m going to present what I think are the top 10 most important aspects in brewing. This top ten list is presented as both an informed opinion on what the most important aspects of brewing are, and an argument for their ranking.

The list will cover things that are important to brewing quality beer. I’ll ignore economics, among other things, and just focus on what is most important to making outstanding beer. I will assume that the brewer can already manage to produce a drinkable beer. Incredible foul-ups or intentionally ruining items farther down the list could ruin a beer, and argue for a different ranking of items, but I’m trying to help brewers who are actually attempting to brew good beer and can reasonably hit the temperatures, volumes, and durations required on an average brewday.

I’ll start this list at the top, rather than doing the usual countdown, because I want this list to be an argument. (And by argument I mean a set of statements meant to support a central thesis, not a shouting match.) And, it is easier to understand my logic if start at the top. 

1 Cleaning

I put cleaning at the top of the list because failure to properly clean your equipment — and especially every surface that will contact chilled wort — will lead to contaminated beer. Any other steps that you handled well during your brewing session will be negated by the off aromas and flavors of contaminating microorganisms.

One aspect of cleaning that doesn’t get enough press is inspection. After I clean my equipment, I very carefully inspect every surface to see that my cleaning procedures actually did their job. Homebrewers are lucky to have access to a variety of cleaning chemicals that do a good job on brewing equipment. However, I think it’s is always important to check if they (and you) did their job.

2 Sanitation

I put sanitation at number 2 because sanitizing something that isn’t clean may not work. Heat can sanitize dirty equipment, but then you’re left with dirty equipment. Chemical sanitizers may not penetrate large accumulations of soil.

Sanitizing properly lowers the amount of contamination in your beer. I think it is important to understand that. It doesn’t lower the odds of contamination — all beer is contaminated — it lowers the degree of contamination. Unless you are sterilizing all your equipment in an autoclave and brewing in a positive pressure clean room, your beer will have some degree of contamination. (And for whatever it’s worth, beer is never “infected.”)

If the level of contamination is low enough, your beer will not be adversely affected. As the degree of contamination increases, subtle differences in flavor and aroma occur. (I believe small amounts of contamination, below the amount causing off aromas and flavors, robs beer of fresh flavors and aromas.) At noticeable levels of contamination, your beer will have unpleasant aromas and flavors.

To really understand sanitation, you need to understand that bacteria are tiny and everywhere — including on surfaces and in the air. You can sterilize a stainless steel surface, but if it is subsequently exposed to air, it will begin accumulating bacteria, fungi, and potentially other contaminants over time. Taking the time to read up on “sterile technique” or aspetic technique as used by biologists who handle microorganisms is worthwhile to any brewer who wants to take sanitation seriously. Also, waiting until just before a piece of equipment is ready to be used, and sanitizing it with fresh sanitizers is a good practice, when possible.

3 Fresh Ingredients

Once you’ve ensured that your beer is not suffering from too much bacterial contamination, your next step towards quality beer is to use fresh ingredients. No amount of skill at brewing can make up for stale grain or cheesy hops. Likewise, I’d include good water in this category with the minimal requirement of it being free of the chlorine products used in water treatment.

Get in the habit of smelling and chewing some grains before brewing with them. And likewise, examine your hops for their appearance and aroma. Taste your brewing liquor after all the mineral additions have been made. And finally, sniff the airlock on your yeast starter and perhaps taste the starter beer to make sure everything seems OK with it. (Note: Some yeasts can produce some odd aromas or flavors in the starter beer if it is fermented outside the temperature range that the main batch will be fermented or without time for the yeast to “clean up” diacetyl and other elements after fermentation.)

4 Fermentation Temperature Control

I would argue that fermentation temperature control is the next most important step. If fermenting beer is too cool, the yeast may drop out prematurely. If fermenting beer is too warm, the beer may show too many esters or other byproducts of fermentation. Everything you did well on the hot side of brewing can be negated if your fermentation is not run adequately.

Ambient temperature control of 5.0 gallon (19 L) buckets or carboys of beer works well for brewers in the right climate. (Be glad if somewhere in your house is almost always in the mid-to-high 60s °F/18–20 °C.) For brewers outside these regions, or who want to brew year around, some way of controlling your fermentation temperatures will likely be the best way to improve your beers.

If your brewing area is somewhere in the vicinity of “room temperature,” simple wet T-shirt cooling may be all you need. If your temperatures are outside this range, heating pads or a chest freezer with an outside thermostat are valuable tools.

Keep in mind that fermentations generate their own heat. Fermenting the beer at a constant ambient temperature may not actually be controlling the temperature of the beer. You may need to take steps around high kräusen (the peak of fermentation) to keep the temperature down, and then cease them when the fermentation slows.

5 Adequate Pitching Rate

Once your fermentation temperature is taken care of — either by where you live and when you brew, or by more active means — the next most important step towards brewing quality beer is to pitch an adequate amount of yeast. Overpitching is not a practical problem for the vast majority of homebrewers. However, underpitching can be.

Underpitched worts can be slow to start fermenting. And this slow start can give bacterial contaminants a chance to grow enough that they become a problem. Low pitching rates can lead to fermentations that are sluggish or that quit prematurely. In either case, the beer can be underattenuated. This will result in an overly sweet beer that is also more susceptible to the growth of contaminants. Finally, when yeast struggle due to inadequate numbers, they can give off fermentation byproducts at a higher rate. Your beer may end up too estery, for example, if you severely underpitch.

Most of the time, the best solution to this is to make a yeast starter.

Tomorrow, I’ll post the remainder of this list. The steps listed tomorrow are important, but I would argue that they are less important than those listed today. To brew a truly great beer, of course, you need to be firing on all cylinders. Even if you scrupulously take care of these first five items, you still have plenty of opportunities to produce poor beer. Another way of saying this would be, although I think there is a relative importance to these items — and have outlined an argument for their ranking — they are all required to brew quality beer.

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