12 tips to improve your beer homebrewing
We started homebrewing beer back in February 2020 and I can't believe a whole year has passed! We have wanted to brew beers for years and finally started just before the first UK coronavirus lockdown. I imagine it would have petered out while trying to balance full-time work and social engagements but the sudden need to stay at home meant that we had plenty of time to brew and we brewed a lot. A total of 14 beers by the end of 2020!
Generally, we do small-batch homebrews between 10 and 12 litres, which means we get around 25-30 bottles per brew. Not bad when your brewhouse is a small London flat. So far we have brewed many styles, including IPAs, Pale ales, stouts and wheat beers. Over the year we have learnt so much about homebrewing beer and tweaked our process to improve our brews. You can find all our homebrew recipes here!
To celebrate our first anniversary of homebrewing beer I have decided to tell you my top tips for homebrewing beer! I imagine in a year I will look back at this and think you missed out so much but I believe this will be a great resource for the beginner homebrewer.
My top homebrewing beer tips
Tip 1: Sanitise everything
This is my number one tip and honestly, its importance cannot be understated. Once you have released that sugary wort from your grains, boiled and added your hops to season your beer from this point onwards you want to make sure that anything that comes in contact with the beer is clean and has been properly sanitised. Ineffective sanitation means bugs can grow during fermentation. While a bit of microbial growth is unlikely to make you ill, it can really affect the flavour of the final beer producing a lot of off-flavours.
Why after the boil and not before?
Before the boil you want everything to be clean but it does not need to be sanitised, this is because the hot boiling temperatures will kill anything nasty and sterilise your wort.
Do you need to sanitise hops?
Most hops are added during the boil when the high temperatures sterilise your wort. However, when we dry hop our beers to add more flavour we sometimes add hops during fermentation or once it is complete. Despite this, there is no need to sanitise the hops as they have natural anti-microbial properties. But if you add the hops to your beer in a vessel, such as a muslin bag, make sure you sanitise it thoroughly.
What do you suggest?
I am a big fan of no-rinse sanitisers as they are so much easier to use. A lot of homebrewers use StarSan but as it is banned in the UK we use an alternative called ChemSan which we buy from The Malt Miller. Whatever you decide to use just make sure you are thorough and rigorous with your sanitising regime!
Tip 2: All-grain brewing all the way!
We started homebrewing beer using a standard IPA brewing kit from Wilko which was basically a large can of malt extract syrup. It produced 40 bottles of below standard beer that we were incredibly proud of. Sadly, the taste was not incredible! Take a look at our first homebrew here.
While brewing beer at home using malt extract is where most people start brewing beer, I personally believe that all-grain brewing is the way to go! For me, there is something magical about doing the whole brewing process from malted barley to final beer. All-grain brewing is also easier than you think, especially if you use the brew in the bag method. Check out this post to see our first ever attempt at all-grain brewing.
Furthermore, the complete flexibility to design whatever beer you want using a combination of different grains and hops means the world of beer becomes your oyster. Look at the variety of homebrews that we have made.
All-grain brewing means brew day is a little more involved than extract brewing and you only need to invest in a few extra bits of kit. You will never regret switching to all-grain brewing. If you are worried, you can even start with an all-grain brewing kit.
Switch to all-grain brewing! You will not regret it.
Tip 3: Start simple, add complexity later
We made many mistakes when we first started brewing beers but one of the things that we did well was start simple. The first all-grain brews we made were SMaSH beers (i.e. Single malt and single hop beers) which were pretty easy. We began with Maris Otter as our single malt and Citra as our single hop (see the details be here). We then swapped Citra out for Simcoe hops before eventually experimenting further with more complex beers.
The good thing about this approach is that we learnt a great deal about how different hops contribute to the flavour of the final beer. As we moved to more complex brews it made it much easier to understand the contribution that each additional hop made to the brew. So my advice is to start simple and add layers of complexity as you go along your brewing journey.
Tip 4: Play around with hop timings
Hops are really important for adding bitterness, flavour and aroma into your beer. I like to think of them as seasoning for your beer, akin to adding salt and pepper to your cooking. However, the type of seasoning that hops add to your beer is not only determined by the specific hops you use but also by the time that hops are added to your beer.
Hops are made up of resins and oils; the breakdown of the resin during the boil contribute bitterness but this process takes time. On the flip side, the hop oils which add flavour and aroma are very delicate and the length of time required to give bitterness to the beer destroys them. Therefore, to allow hops to contribute bitterness and flavour, they need to be added at different times.
Adding hops early in the boil is important for adding bitterness while adding hops later around 15-20 mins are great for flavouring and at flameout (0 mins) great for aroma. Dry hopping by adding hops either during or after fermentation adds a massive hit of flavour and aroma without contributing any bitterness.
When we started brewing we added hops at 60, 30, 20, 10 and 5 mins in the boil and produced very bitter beers. Playing around with these timings and removing the mid-boil hop additions in favour of additions at 15 mins or even later at flameout (0 min) completely changed the characteristics of our brew. Playing around with the hop timings will make such a difference to your brewing. Do a few experiments to see what differences it makes to the character of your brew.
Tip 5: Don't worry, original gravity is adjustable
When we started brewing we thought if we missed our original gravity that was it and the ABV of our beer was decided. I wish someone had mentioned it was completely adjustable. What a gamechanger! If your original gravity (OG) is too high add water to dilute it. If it is too low add dry malt extract (DME) to boost the fermentable sugars for the yeast to work with.
Some online calculators help you figure out how much water to add to reduce your OG. I have had success using this calculator from Brewer's friend. If this happens repeatedly you could have an issue with how your grains are being milled, the volumes you are using during brewing or you could be underestimating your brewhouse efficiency. Brewhouse efficiency is something we are currently exploring with our brews.
You can use this calculator to increase the OG. So far we have not had to do this but I imagine it will happen soon. However, knowing that OG is adjustable I am not as worried as I once was about the whole thing.
Tip 6: Use a bottling bucket
While a bottling bucket is a completely optional item, I believe that if you are going to be bottle conditioning your beers it is essential. When we first started homebrewing we used carbonation drops (basically sugar drops), which we added directly to our beer bottles before siphoning in the beer. However, this is a pretty expensive way of producing CO2 and did not always produce consistent carbonation between bottles. I also know that some new homebrewers add sugar directly to their bottles instead. Avoid, avoid, avoid!
A bottling bucket makes carbonating beer simpler and more consistent because it allows priming of all your beer at once. This bucket can be anything that fits your beer such as a spare fermenting vessel or a large bucket from a hardware store. To bulk prime your beer dissolve a measure of simple sugar such as table sugar or dextrose sugar in double the volume of boiling water. Once this sugar has cooled add it to the bottling bucket and siphon your beer from the same bucket. As the beer is siphoned into the bucket it will mix evenly with your beer allowing you to have more consistent carbonation between the different beer bottles. Another bonus is that by moving the beer from the fermentation vessel to the bottling bucket, you take the beer off the trub (sediment from fermentation), reducing the risk of getting any trub in the final bottles.
Tip 7: Don't waste time, get an autosiphon!
Moving the beer from the fermenting vessel to the bottling bucket and then to final bottles is not the most fun part of homebrewing. A thing that makes this even worse is using a cheap standard siphon to facilitate these steps. Getting this siphon started is one of the most annoying things ever, especially when midway through the transfer it just decides to stop and you have to result to sucking on the end of the tube. Not sanitary at all. I wish someone had just told us to get an autosiphon right from the beginning. Just one pump and you can start siphoning your beer straight away. It is such a timesaver and only a fraction more expensive! It also reduces the risk of oxygenising your precious beer or the siphon just giving up halfway. Start with an autosiphon! We got this one from The Malt Miller.
Tip 8: Temperature control is important but even without it you can still produce tasty beer
Maintaining a consistent temperature while fermenting your beer is pretty important and I don't want to deny that. However, I know that this is pretty hard for people brewing with limited space or those unable to invest in a more advanced set-up. Therefore, I think it is important to point out that you can still brew great beers even if your fermentation temperatures are less than ideal.
For example, one of my favourite brews we ever did was the juicy fruit pale v2 and it was left fermenting while we were on holiday in Wales during a London heatwave. As we were on holiday we could not do anything to alter the temperature of the brew whatsoever, I have no idea what temperature it hit but I imagine above 28 °C at least and it was still amazing.
Yes, temperature control is always better but you can still brew great beers even if you can't control the temperature. What a relief! Stop stressing and keep working on your brews.
Tip 9: Keep good brewing notes
I know this does not sound like the most fun thing but it is so important. Keeping good notes allows you to record your recipes, recreate good brews, modify these brews and figure out anything that could have gone wrong. Write notes as you go along. It is so easy to promise yourself that you will do it later or the next day, then before you know it you completely forget and have nothing to refer back to when something goes wrong. So write in-depth brewing notes as diligently as possible.
Things to record:
Ingredients and recipe. This should include grains, the hops and yeast strains used. Don't forget to include the weights and hop timings.
Key dates, such as brew day and bottling day.
The original gravity and final gravity so you can determine the beer's alcohol content.
The quantity and type of priming sugar used for carbonation.
Tasting notes - What is your general impression of the brew? Remember to include notes on appearance, carbonation, flavour and mouthfeel. I also rate my beers out of 5.
Tip 10: Small tweaks matter
While it is tempting to brew as many styles as possible you can learn a lot from brewing the same beer multiple times and just tweaking it. For example one of my favourite brews is Dave and I's Juicy fruit pale ale. It is a lovely beer that we designed using Simcoe and Mosaic hops. The first time we brewed it we loved it but wanted it to be a bit more punchy, see here. Therefore, the next time we brewed it we increased the dry hop and now it is packed full of citrus flavour. While I still think it is great I would still like to continue working on this brew and perfect it by increasing the carbonation. Expect a juicy fruit pale ale v3 in the future.
Tip 11: Join a group
Facebook groups, Instagram and online forums such as Homebrew talk are all great sources of information and a brilliant way to meet people also interested in homebrewing. Not only are these great to feel part of a community but they are also great places to find answers to many homebrewing questions, in particular the forums. Remember lots of people have come before you and asked the same questions so these forums are often a bank of existing information. Use them! They are brilliant.
Also, don't forget to Subscribe to this blog to stay up to date on our homebrewing progress. There will be several how-to posts coming in the future.
Tip 12: Have fun and enjoy brewing
Remember that at the end of the day homebrewing beer is just so much fun so don't take it too seriously. Enjoy the process.
Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew - Charlie Papazian
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