It’s easy to make tasty beer at home. With some attention to detail, it’s even possible to make beer that rivals that of the pros. But that attention to detail is super important, because it’s just as easy to make really bad beer at home.
Here are five things you can do to insure that you make the best beer every time.
1. Sanitation – When I judge homebrew competitions, the most frequent flaws that I encounter are caused by insufficient attention to sanitation. The importance of cleanliness and sanitation in brewing cannot be overstressed. Any professional brewer will tell you that 95% of what they do in the brewery is cleaning.
Think of it this way. Your job as a brewer is to make the perfect growth medium for yeast. That also happens to be the perfect growth medium for beer-spoiling bacteria. For that reason, everything that touches your beer has to be kept clean. Everything that touches your beer after the boil stage of brewing has to be sanitized. Everything!
There are a number of products available at your local homebrew store for this purpose. You’ll want a cleaner that will remove organic matter from you equipment and a sanitizer to kill the bugs. I prefer no-rinse products. They’re easier to use and you won’t run the risk of re-infecting your equipment with rinse water. It’s helpful to have a bucket and a spray bottle full of sanitizer on brew day that you can use to soak or spritz your stuff. And please clean your equipment as soon as possible after use. Dried on beer gunk is no fun to remove.
2. Use fresh ingredients – So 2 years ago your cousin gave you a beer-making kit with a can of liquid malt extract. It’s been sitting on a shelf in the basement ever since. Throw it away.
Beer ingredients are subject to spoilage and oxidation. In other words, they get stale. Old extract will make your beer taste dull and papery. Hops lose their flavor and bittering potential. And aged yeast will peter out before your beer is fully fermented. All of this combines to give you sugary, non-bitter beer with notes of cardboard. Mmmmm, delicious. You wouldn’t cook with stale ingredients, would you? Then don’t make beer with them either.
3. Get a good rolling boil – Hops have to be boiled to impart bitterness to beer. That bittering happens best when the boil is vigorous. A rolling boil will also sterilize your wort and cause haze-producing proteins to coagulate out, resulting in clearer beer. If your stove isn’t capable of bringing your kettle of wort to a good boil, you may have to look into purchasing a more powerful burner. Turkey fryer burners are inexpensive and work great. Be sure to keep an eye on that boiling pot. Boil-overs happen quickly and leave a sticky mess that you won’t want to clean up.
4. Tend to your yeast – The second most common flaws encountered in competition are related to fermentation. Fermentation is one of the most important steps in the brewing process. It’s the yeast after all that turns wort into beer. It provides a plethora of flavor and aromatic elements that give each beer its unique profile. Proper attention must be paid to keeping those critters happy.
Aerate your wort – Yeast needs oxygen to begin the process of fermentation. The boiled wort contains no oxygen, so you’ll have to add some back in. You can do this by vigorously shaking the fermenter for five minutes (an arduous task, believe me). Alternatively, you can purchase an aeration kit at your homebrew store that will include an aquarium pump and an aeration stone. Run that for half an hour and you’ll be good to go.
Use enough yeast – When you first pitch yeast into your beer – “pitching” is what it’s called when brewers add yeast – the yeast goes into a frenzy of reproduction, building up its cell count to a point that it will overwhelm any bad bacteria. Under-pitching causes that growth stage to take longer, leaving your beer exposed to infection. Under-pitching can also stress your yeast, causing it to quit before the job is done. For a five-gallon batch of average strength beer, a packet of wet or dry yeast should be enough. For anything stronger than 6% or 7% alcohol, I would suggest buying two packets.
Ferment at the proper temperature – Yeast is very sensitive to temperature. Fermenting at a temperature that is too high can cause it to produce too much of those flavor and aromatic chemicals that I mentioned earlier. You’ll have a beer that is overly fruity or spicy. Too much heat can also lead to hot or solventy alcohols. Fermenting too cold will stress the yeast and cause them to stop fermenting before the beer is done. The folks that grow the yeast provide recommended temperatures for every strain. Try to keep your beer in a place where it will stay close to that temperature.
5. Sanitation – Sanitation is important enough that it deserves to be on the list twice. Remember, everything that touches your beer has to be kept clean. Everything that touches your beer after the boil has to be sanitized. Everything.
There you go. Tend to these five things consistently and you’ll be well on your way to making great beer every time.