Today I’d like to give five tips for new brewers. However, these tips also apply to brewers who are switching to all-grain or trying out anything new within brewing (brewing sour beers, decoction mashing, etc.).
1.) You Will Need Knowledge and Experience
There is a lot of information on brewing available these days. And the more you know, the better brewer you will be. Being an informed brewer is most useful when something goes amiss and you need to deviate from an existing recipe or procedure. It’s also required when you are trying anything completely new.
On the other hand, experience is important, too. If you decide to wait until you’ve learned all the nuances of brewing before you start, you’ll never start your first batch. Although you can learn the general principles of brewing from a book, friends, or a website, you will still need to master the nitty gritty details of your own homebrewing setup to produce good beer.
So, learning about brewing and actual brewing go hand in hand. You’ll make progress the fastest if you do both simultaneously.
2.) The Most Important Aspects Are Not The Most Discussed
If you were to look through brewing books, or read homebrewing forums, you might think that the most important topics would occupy the most number of pages or spawn the most discussion. This isn’t the case.
While many important aspects of brewing are written about and discussed widely, others are not. First and foremost, this applies to cleaning and sanitation. If this were given the weight it deserved, over half of all discussions on brewing forums would related to cleaning and sanitation. In homebrew texts, whole chapters would be devoted to cleaning and sanitation. (This is true of professional brewing texts).
In the homebrewing community, cleaning and sanitation is frequently mentioned, but rarely discussed at length. (And that applies even to this site. I really ought to do something about that.) Despite its importance, let’s face it — it’s boring.
And it’s like that with a lot of topics. Somethings get written about at length because there is something to say about them. Other topics which are just as important aren’t discussed because some information may be lacking. For example, homebrewers put a lot of emphasis on calculating the IBUs in their beers. However, from the standpoint of beer quality, the oil content of your hops is just as important as the level of alpha acids. But, oil content frequently isn’t reported in hops marketed to homebrewers (unlike commercial brewers) and there’s nowhere in homebrew recipe formulation software to plug in those numbers, even if you did know them.
3.) Everybody’s Got An Opinion; Listen, But Suspend Judgement
Homebrewing is fun, and everyone has an opinion about how best to brew. And this is great. Whenever people are enthusiastic about a topic, they should try to synthesize what they know and formulate opinions. The flip side, of course, is that the value of people’s opinions varies wildly. One brewer might say that The Grain Reaper malt mill is the best homebrew mill out there because he has personally tried several and actually tested their performance. Another brewer might swear that the Barley Eviscerator mill is the best because that’s the one he owns. Unless you know what a person is basing his opinion on, you don’t know if his opinion might be highly insightful or completely useless. Unless you know the person and have tried their beers, it’s often hard to gauge the credibility of someone’s opinions. For example, when you’re on an online brewing forum, the guy who answers the most questions isn’t guaranteed to be the guy who knows the most. (He may just enjoy typing.)
So when you start homebrewing, listen to everyone’s opinions, but put them all — including this one — in the “maybe” pile until you can start sorting them according to their worth.
4.) Know What Separates Good Beer From Bad
Entire books could be written about what separates good beer from bad, or the best from the rest. However, a general answer is that attention to detail is what allows good brewers to brew good beer. Conversely, lack of attention to detail is what condemns some brewers to continually produce lower-quality beer. There are a number of steps in brewing, and they all need to be executed well to make high-quality beer. Once you’ve learned the ropes, it is far from impossible to focus and produce great beer. However, you have to pay attention to everything.
Of course, as humans beings, it’s unlikely that we are equally excited about every aspect of brewing. Some homebrewers obsess over their mash conditions. Some homebrewers are meticulous about pitching an adequate amount of yeast. And of course, the vast majority of us view cleaning as drudgery. The weakest link in the chain determines the quality of your beer. So, if something goes wrong with your beer, the first place to look is the parts of the process you enjoy the least.
In order to brew the best beer, you should definitely have fun with the parts of brewing you enjoy. However, you also need to bite the bullet and take care of those you don’t.
5.) Learn From Your Mistakes
This last tip is easy — learn from your experiences. When you first start brewing, every detail about every batch will be fresh in your mind. After you’ve brewed for a couple years, your memories of individual batches will fade. Don’t let this happen by keeping a brewing notebook. Record what your plan is, what you actually did, and how your beer turned out for every batch. Take as many measurements as you can and write them down. Write down every thing that seems different or unusual about every batch — you never know what you might be interested later on down the road.
Keeping a brewing notebook will let you learn from your mistakes. It will be a place where the details of your brewing practices live and it will help you plan future brews. Take good notes on how much water you used at each step, how long it took to heat, the temperature at each step, the specific gravity at various steps, the volume of liquid evaporated in your boil, etc. Don’t repeat your same mistakes over and over — or brew a brilliant batch and have no idea how to repeat it — write everything down and learn from your experience! Oh, and read Beer and Wine Journal, too. Why not?