Tuesday, February 21, 2012

11 Mistakes Every New Homebrewer Makes

Two fermentors of barleywine fermenting.I was inspired by coaching one of my coworkers through his first batch of homebrew (an English bitter) to write up a list of the mistakes that many new homebrewers make. Several of these are things I did on early batches, while others I have tasted at homebrew at club meetings. Many of these issues stem from poor kit instructions, bad homebrew shop advice, and common sense that just doesn’t work out.

1. Using the sanitizer that comes with a beer kit. This powdered sanitizer is slow and not especially effective. Instead get a no-rinse sanitizer like Star-San or Iodophor, which are faster and easier to use. Sanitize everything that touches your beer post-boil, and make sure it is carefully cleaned after each use (sanitizers are most effective on scrupulously-clean scratch-free surfaces). Keeping wild microbes out of your beer is the single most important step to brewing solid beer.

2. Starting with a recipe that is strong or unusual. Brewing a big complex beer is lots of fun, but play it safe on your first batch and brew something simple. High alcohol beers require more yeast and time. Interesting adjuncts add complexity to the recipe and process. These are things you don’t want to deal with on your first batch, so keep it easy.

3. Brewing with unfiltered, chlorine-containing tap water. If you are on a municipal water supply odds are that it contains either chlorine or chloramines. To remove them you can either charcoal filter or treat your water with metabisulfite, or alternatively use bottled water. One of the most common off-flavors I taste at homebrew club meetings is medicinal chlorophenol, which is formed by the combination of chlorine in the water or sanitizer and phenols from malt and yeast.

4. Squeezing the grain bag after steeping. This releases tannins, which give the body a rough texture. Steep your grains in a small amount of water (no more than three quarts per pound) and then rinse them by either pouring hot water over the grain bag or dipping the grain bag into a second pot of hot water. Edit: I've had a couple people dispute squeezing being an issue in the comments. I've tasted some tannin-y beer from new homebrewers, but maybe it was just from a high water to grain steeping ratio. I'll have to squeeze the grain bag into a glass and have a taste the next time I brew an extract beer.

A packet of T-58 dried Belgian ale yeast.5. Using liquid yeast. "Pitchable" liquid yeast cultures barely have enough cells to ferment a standard gravity beer on the day they are packaged, and their cells die quickly from there. A high quality 11.5 g package of dried yeast starts with as much as twice the cells as a fresh package of yeast from either Wyeast or White Labs, and retains high cell viability for much longer. While Fermentis, for example, claims a minimum of 6 billion cells per gram at packaging, the actual number tends to be much higher. Liquid yeast can produce great beers, but require a starter unless you are getting extremely fresh yeast and brewing a low-alcohol beer.

6. Not aerating the wort adequately. It takes several minutes of shaking for the chilled wort to absorb the ideal amount of oxygen to allow the yeast to complete a healthy growth phase. The healthier your yeast cells are the cleaner and quicker they will complete the fermentation.

7. Pitching when the side of the pot or fermentor feels “cool enough.” Use a sanitized thermometer to check the actual temperature of the wort before you add the yeast. Pitching when the wort is above 100 F is rare, but will kill the yeast. Ideally the temperature should be at or below your target fermentation temperature to allow the temperature to rise as the yeast grows and ferments. You can pre-chill the sanitized water you use to top-off after the boil to help bring the temperature down.

8. Fermenting at too high of a temperature. Take note of the ambient temperature of the room the beer is fermenting in, but realize that at the peak of fermentation the yeast can raise the temperature of the beer by as much as 7 F. Fermenting too warm can cause the yeast to produce higher alcohols and excessive fruity flavors. Letting the ambient temperature rise towards the high end of the yeast's range as fermentation slows helps to ensure a clean well attenuated beer, but for most strains is unnecessary. If you are unable to control the fermentation temperature, then choose a yeast strain that fits the conditions.

9. Racking to secondary. I know the instructions included in most kits call for transferring the beer from the primary fermentor to a secondary before bottling, but all this step accomplishes is introducing more risk of oxidation and wild yeast contamination. There is no risk of off flavors from autolysis (yeast death) at the homebrew scale in less than a month. At a commercial level the pressure and heat exerted on the yeast can cause problems quickly, but those conditions do not exist in a carboy or bucket.

10. Relying on bubbles in the airlock to judge when fermentation is complete. Wait until fermentation has appeared finished for a couple of days before pulling a sample of wort to test the final gravity. There is no rush to bottle, and doing so before the final gravity is reached results in extra carbonation. Once fermentation is complete and the beer tastes good, you can move the fermentor somewhere cool to encourage the yeast to settle out for clearer beer in the bottle.

11. Adding the entire five ounce package of priming sugar. In almost all cases this amount of sugar will over-carbonate the beer. Even for five gallons of beer this will produce too much carbonation for most styles and most brewers will end up with less than five gallons in the bottling bucket. Instead use a priming sugar calculator to tailor the weight of sugar you add to the actual volume of beer, the style of beer you are brewing, and the fermentation temperature.

Hopefully this list is able to help a few new homebrewers avoid some of the biggest pitfalls on their first batch. If any of the more experienced brewers out there has any lessons learned that are not included on the list please post a comment. You should also pick up a good basic homebrewing book, like John Palmer’s How to Brew, especially if you want to learn more of the “why” behind some of my suggestions.

There are many other things I would suggest as best practices, but they tend to be more style specific and are not worth worrying about on your first batch. I also think fresh high quality ingredients are a big key to making good beer, but most people brewing their first batch are buying and using fresh malt, yeast, and hops.


Steven Bloomfield said...

Haha, I did #2 this weekend (that sounds so bad!) My first all-grain batch (and my first batch of any type since 2000) was a Rougue I2PA clone. Make several mistakes but at least it's fermenting!

spry said...

For pale ales/IPAs: Boiling the extract for full duration of the boil, instead of adding a significant proportion towards the end of the boil.

Caleb said...

12. Not Relaxing. It's just beer, have fun with it!

Revvy said...

Oh dude, you're one of MY brewing heroes, and this was a great article, one that I would gladly reference to new brewers on homebrewtalk. But you had to ruin it with the "don't squeeze the grain bag" nonesense...That's been long proven to be an over simplification and a brewing boogeyman, by folks like Mr Wizard in BYO, The Australians on Craft brewer radio and even The Basic Brewing guys. I've posed a lot of info from those guy repeatedly like here- http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f39/squeezing-wort-out-grains-hops-bad-idea-279795/#post3468700 Please don't perpetuate that myth my friend.Otherwise it's good stuff.

Andrew said...

I will add one more: brewing five gallon batches. Every single beer kit is geared towards a five gallon batch, but no one has a kettle large enough. So, you have to add water back. Excessive kettle carmelization, poor hop utilization (due to only putting a fraction of the stated IBUs into the whole water volume), the possibility of infection from the additional water, and underpitching yeast packets all add up to a lackluster brew for the newbie. While I never did it, I am advocating smaller batch brewing for the new person. they can still get a 5 or 6 gallon carboy, still use all the same equipment, and probably end of with *better* beer on their first run! And if your batch didn't go so well, its only 3 or so gallons! Brew again!

Jameson Penn / djconnor said...

The guys from Alaskan Brewing Co talked to Brewing Network about using their mash filter press to increase efficiency, and report no difference in taste. They looked into this to reduce both the volume of spent grains they have to dispose of, and the volume of water they used.

Tim said...

I agree with just about everything except for the last paragraph.

Everyone I know that has taken up brewing started with a recipe kit, the dusty kind that has been sitting on a shelf for who knows how long. Invariably, that first batch tastes like stale malt extract.

By the way, your word verification gave me a lot of trouble - maybe I am a robot?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Revvy, I'll have to test it out, but I'm still suspicious of squeezing the grain bag especially in cases where a high ratio of water to malt is used. The wort retained by the grain would be equivalent to the final runnings of an over-sparged mash. The issue might not be the squeezing per se, but at this stage odds are the pH is too high and that could cause tannin issues. When you are talking BIAB the "right" ratio is used and there wouldn't be an issue with tannins. Next time I brew an extract I'll squeeze the grain bag into a separate glass and give it a taste test. Just a theory, poke away! (and that mash filter press would be a good start...)

Good point on brewing smaller batches. I did that for awhile and it certainly made brewing in an apartment much easier.

Adam said...

What's the best way to filter tap water? It seems like running 10 gallons through a Brita would be a pain in the ass.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Do a search for countertop carbon water filter. They are much faster than a Brita, and the filters are good for thousands of gallons.

Derek said...

Is something like this what you'd recommend for a water filter: http://www.amazon.com/Gallon-Countertop-Water-Filter-Purifier/dp/B002F58M12/ref=pd_sbs_k_2

I have to admit, researching / altering my water profile is thus far one thing I've neglected. I never know where to start.

Ed said...

Great advice. I always try to tell new brewers to watch the fermentation temperature (my biggest first batch eff-up , for sure).

So many "first brew day" guides say little to nothing about what to do between closing the lid on the fermenter, and racking/bottling. And I personally was advised to keep it in the warmest place I could find in my house. Guess how that turned out? ;)

Anonymous said...

I like your point about using dry yeast, but to add to that. I read some research, can't find it right now, that said rehydrate dry yeast in room temp water for 15 min. before dumping in your beer. pitching dry yeast straight into the work kills much of the yeast, especially as the wort OG goes up. I thought it was something like 1/2 the yeast cells die if pitching in wort vs water first?

Anonymous said...

Your suggestion about several minutes of aeration seems at odds with the testing from Wyeast - at http://www.wyeastlab.com/hb_oxygenation.cfm they suggest that unless you're using straight oxygen 8ppm is the maximum saturation you can achieve with air and that 40s of shaking is all it takes.

AaronWesternNY said...

I agree with Annomy. above about hydrating dry yeast before pitching. Also maybe don't overfill the fermentor to prevent krausen from blowing through the airlock. I just came home after 4 days to dried yeast on my ceiling, a yeast splatter mark on the wall and about a cup of yeast oozed down the sides of the fermenter!

Jim said...

The notion that dry yeast contains twice as many yeast cells as liquid is a very common misconception. While a 11.5 gram packet does contain twice as many yeast cells, only about 60 to 70 billion are living cells. This is straight from the spec sheet for Safale US05.

Viable cells at packaging: > 6 x 10
9 / gramme

That's 6 billion living cells per gram. My hunch is they guess low so there may be more living cells than that, but you can't count on it. Going by the numbers, one tube of liquid yeast will give you more living cells than one 11.5 gr package of dry yeast.

Pete said...

Great post, thanks. The comment about filtering out chlorine is spurring me on to get a filter. One question on this front: You said "medicinal chlorophenol, which is formed by the combination of chlorine in the water or sanitizer and phenols from malt and yeast".

Can you clarify this? Do you mean to say that the chlorine can combine with the sanitizer OR the malt/yeast and produce the off flavors? Or do you mean that the chlorine OR the sanitizer can combine with the yeast/malt?

I ask, because I recently started to get this flavor, and it was right around the time I switched from a powdered sanitizer to Star San. I'm wondering if the sanitizer could be reacting with my unfiltered water in some way.

Anonymous said...

Due to the plastic bucket...Wouldn't skipping the secondary and leaving it in the bucket until completion promote oxidation as well?

bkyeast said...

Hehe! I've been guilty of 5,6, and 8. And I'm one of those who disputes 4. Great article! Should be included with starting homebrew kits :)

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I stand corrected on the dried yeast, my statement was based on Jamil’s pitching rate calculator. However, I’ve had good results pitching a single pack of dried yeast into a moderate gravity beer. I almost always rehydrate, but I was surprised to read that the results were pretty mixed in the BYO/BBR rehydration experiment.

The only sanitizers that could cause issues are those that contain chlorine (aka bleach). For the production of chlorophenols you need a source of chlorine (water or bleach) and a source of phenols (malt or yeast, but especially Belgian strains and smoked malt).

I think racking into a carboy would do more to promote oxidation than the small amount that seeps through the plastic in a week or two. Racking to secondary is certainly worth it for stronger beers that need months of age before bottling, but then those aren’t the sort of beers you should be brewing on your first batch.

thughes said...

Mike, fantastic article and one that I would almost point everybody to. I said "almost" because of the dumb "don't squeeze the bag" comment. I (along with more than a few others) brew 5 and 10 gallon batched with the BIAB method.

BIAB uses the full volume of water for the mash (avg 3+ quarts/lb of grain) and we squeeze the living shit out of the grain bag at mashout. No "tannin" issues here.

Every bit of research I have located (along with my own experience over the past couple of years) seems to indicate that tannin formation is a function of temperature and PH, not simply squeezing the bag.

Please do your own research/testing to dispel this myth and then remove #4 from your list so I can reference this to every new brewer I meet.

Andrew said...

Re: aeration; In the latest BYO, there is a great article on the science of h2o aeration. Punchline: just like co2, the colder the liquid, the faster the uptake of gas. The debates amongst "shakers" and "pure o2 aerators" also comes down to the temperature its done at. Also, the density of the liquid probably matters too, but I am not sure how to add that to the analysis.

Dustin said...

Mike, I've really enjoyed your blog. two quick questions about nixing secondary fermentation. (i have typically transfered to secondary for 10-14 days).

1. At what alcohol level to you think secondary gains value? 7% 8%?

2. In lieu of secondary, do you recommend cooling the temp down in the primary (say to 35-45 degrees) for a day or so to gain better clarity before bottling? Or do you just transfer to bottling bucket at fermentation temp upon completion?

scott said...

Great article Mike, this is an excellent reference new brewers, and some not so new brewers. You know you're doing something right when Revvy comments!

I don't have personal experience on squeezing the bag, but I have hear the same concerns with tannin extraction. However I am taking a brewing course and learned about a mashing system I had never heard of. Apparently some large brewers use a mash filter that essentially is sealed and pressurized. The mash, grain and all, is pumped into columns and compressed against filter sheets with a very fine screen. It is essentially squeezed under a good amount of pressure to extract as much wort as possible.

So obviously with this system there is not a problem with squeezing the mash/grain. They do use an extremely fine mill on the grain with these system so I don't know if this makes a difference with tannin extraction or not.

Marco Aurélio Piacentini said...

I thik thtat racking to a secondary always pays off, because, even when brewing small beers, the gain in clarification is considerable.
I always do this when brewing clear beers like Kolsch, Pale ales or even when brewing different stuff, like belgian, saison, etc... I like the result.
Of course... a conical is a pretty good acquisition that leaps over this issue os racking to a secondary (I have a plastic conical fermenter which is great).

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It isn't an alcohol issue that would encourage me to use a secondary, it would be projected aging time. For example I would rack a 5% ABV Pilsner, not not a 5% porter. Cold conditioning just about any beer after fermentation is complete is a good idea. I do it if time allows, but since I keg most of my session beers two weeks under pressure carbonating takes the place of cold conditioning.

The mash press/filter was mentioned above. My concern is that without that fine filter you'd be extracting fine bits of husk that could lead to tannin extraction in the boil. I'll also say that just because a commercial brewer does something in the name of efficiency doesn't mean it makes the best beer. In my brewing I'd rather buy an extra pound of grain and make better beer than save a dollar and reduce quality.

David said...

Great article (and I've made all of these mistakes since starting...), but I disagree a bit with #5. I do mostly low-moderate gravity brews (1.045 - 1.055 OG), and pitching one vial of liquid yeast has always worked great for me. Of course, YMMV, but as long as I've aerated well and pitched at the right temp my fermentation starts within 18 hours and finishes right at or slightly below the predicted FG with no off flavors. For higher gravity beers I definitely plan to make a starter. Great blog!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

As long as you have fresh yeast you aren't under-pitching by too much. Everyone has different sensitivities to various off-flavors, what may taste clean to you may not to another person. That is one of the hard things about determining a best practice. I look at starers as insurance, if you know your yeast is alive and active your chances of making good beer are higher.

Anonymous said...

I'd vote for going to full boils as soon as possible! I've exclusively used liquid yeast in the 10 batches I've done. I have recently began to make starters, but for my medium sized brews i never had a real problem with underpitching.

Anonymous said...

I have left beer in primary for several months with zero autolysis off-flavors whatsoever. IMO autolysis at the homebrew level is of zero concern whatsoever, assuming you pitch healthy yeast to begin with. And along with that, I find secondary to be completely useless except for beers that benefit from long-term bulk aging (as opposed to bottle aging).

That said, if you do wish to do a secondary, you should still leave your beer in primary for three weeks or so (two weeks absolute minimum); just because the airlock stopped clicking after thee or four days that doesn't mean the yeast are done working in there. IMO most people who do a secondary rack off of the yeast WAY too early, often after only four or five days. Very very bad methodology.

sherf said...

As comments seem to indicate, process will direct whether to use secondary or not. All of my beers go into kegs and many of them are then transported to events for serving, sometimes multiple events per keg. I CO2 purge at each transfer. Lower gravity beers go into a secondary for gelatin fining to get most of the duff out and then are either dry-hopped or transferred to keg and the cooler. A flocullent yeast helps but is not always possible. High gravity beers wait awhile before transferring from secondary.

Anonymous said...

Simple enough to not have issues for #4, don't brew all grain batches. I have brewed one extract batch, and it was not ideal. There are so many more things you can do with an all-grain brew.

Shawn mills said...

Once I get settled in brampton, I will try this technique.
I hope there will be more to come in the future!


MrManifesto said...

Using liquid yeast is wrong? Not brewing many saisons, sours, wheats, trappists, to mention a few, are you?

Also, I don't know too many people who seriously brew who never do five gallons. Sort of weird couple bits of advice there.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

While there are dried strains for saisons (Belle Saison Yeast), Trappists (T-58), and wheat beers (WB-06), the idea of this post wasn't things that no homebrewer should ever do, but things that people brewing their first few batches might want to avoid. These days I rarely pitch dried yeast, but I also make a starter for just about every batch with the liquid yeast. On your first few batches this is something that isn't worth the extra effort and risk of contamination from my point of view.

I don't think I said not to brew a five gallon batch, but brewing smaller batches is certainly easier on a kitchen stove and without a wort chiller.

Again, just trying to keep people from botching their early batches so badly that they quit brewing. After you know the basics, do what you want!

Anonymous said...

Hello, my name is Mark and I was wondering whether when re bottling for secondary if keeping sediment yeast out of bottom of each then re-brewing with that yeast is something that is possible? Like in a bid to get the most out of the yeast and make another say half batch or similar at little or no extra cost to mine pocket??? Or is this a complete 'Alexander Dumas'...?

Thank you for help it is much appreciated,


The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

If you are very careful with your sanitation, you can certainly re-use the yeast from the primary fermentor. This is how most commercial breweries operate. In fact many claim that the quality of the yeast/fermentation improves after a few batches. Even with perfect sanitation the yeast will begin to have a genetic drift after a 8-10 batches, depending on the stresses you place on it.

You'll actually have more yeast than you need for another similar sized batch. As a result it is best to save a cup or two of the slurry (consult a yeast pitching rate calculator), sanitize the fermentor, and pitch into the new batch!

Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

You truly are a top man, i have learnt much here and will use to my advantage without a doubt. Your ultra swift response really did amaze me and appears wholly reflective of your genuine and self-less desire to help people. you succeed on all levels in my view. thanks again. Mark.

Chad said...

Thanks for the great post. I especially agree with your comments about the secondary fermenation. Almost every time that I transfer over to my carboy I get off flavors after bottling.

phil.f said...

Hi. Im about to do a coopers ipa. My plan is to warm 5 litres of water add 500g of candi sugar rather than 500g of dme and bring to the boil to disolve candi sugar. Then add the tin of coopers ipa. Should I place the contents of tin prior ? Once all is boiled and mixed I plan to cool a little place into fermenter and add a spoon of corn flour. (Recipe i found online)
Separately ill be mixing 1 kg dextrose and 5 litres warm water. Pour into fermenter again. Then pitch the yeast. Top up to 25 litres of hot or cold to set temp.
Any advice appreciated.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

1 kg of dextrose is probably more than enough refined sugar already, before adding the candi sugar. Simple sugars ferment completely leaving a thin beer compared to a beer with the same starting gravity made with malt. I've never brewed with hopped extract. As a result I'm not sure if it should be boiled or not. If the bitterness (isomerized alpha acids) are already present, boiling will just drive off the hop aromatics.

Not sure what the corn flour would be for. The only time I've done something similar, added 1 tbls of wheat flour to the boil, was for a wit that I wanted to be cloudy.

I'd suggest trying a recipe with unhopped pale malt extract, a small amount of crystal malt to steep, a small amount of sugar, and hops that you get to add yourself. That will give you more control, and a fresh flavor.

Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

I heartily agree with all of the authors points. Having just received my 250 gallon pin, I would add these:
1. Follow the rules for your first few, then experiment at will.
2. Always document. It will come in handy many times over. But don't be afraid to be creative.
3. Always share and remain relaxed and humble.

Trulstrengerikkealias said...

If you skip the racking to secondary, you get more sedimenrs, but that only mwans you need to be carefull when pouring the bottle into a glass.

Tip for pint nr 11: put 1 suger cube (skandinavian ones are ~3g) in each 1/2Litre (~paint) bottle and you avoid a lot of trouble of dissolving the suger for the carbonation. It is cheap and cosistent!

Also keep the bottles at room temp for 2 weeks (not 1 as most recipes say).

My 2 cents...

Allen Barry said...

Hey my name is Allen I have a Mexican cheravez larger just fermented and I have a Young's 5 gallon pressure barrel I want to force carbonate using dextrose and co2 so it will be ready for Christmas and new year litallary straight away dose anyone know how many grams of dextrose I should use? I've seen online people have used 130g over 5 weeks but I don't have that long I kegd my last lager wit no sugar and had it in the fridge for months it tasted good but was really flat with no head none the less I finished it! Waste not want not! Any help would be garetly appreciated :-)

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

A priming sugar calculator is your best option: http://www.tastybrew.com/calculators/priming.html

You'll need to leave the beer at room temperature for at least three weeks to get full carbonation.

Never used a pressure barrel, but it should be the same as bottle conditioning. Good luck!

Patrick Chasco said...

Totally agree. I was doing 5 gallon extract batches for a couple years. I didn't get much practice because, well, it takes a long time to drink five gallons of beer! I downsized to 1 gallon batches. I only get about 8-9 bottles, but I can brew an all grain batch in an evening, mostly just letting the mash tun and kettle do the work for me. I just mash in a 2 gallon cooler. Once the mash is complete, I put a nylon paint straining bag over my kettle (a few bucks for three at lowes, which I wash and reuse), dump the mash into the kettle, lift the bag and let it drip out completely into the kettle. Again this requires me to do nothing until its done. Bring to boil, hop according to schedule. While that's going on I sanitize my 1 gallon carboy, funnel, and cap. I let the wort cool to about 180 just with the ambient air temp. There's little risk of contamination at those temps. Once it's cooled to that point I dump into my carboy using the funnel. Cap it and let it cool to room temp overnight. The next morning I dump about 1/4 of a dry yeast packet, put on a sanitized cap and blow off hose. Done.

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