Wednesday, May 2, 2012

General tips for the beginning brewer

I'm going to deviate from my BIAB slant today to share a few important general tips that will move you into the major leagues of brewing quickly, and keep your beer from having that "homebrew" taste.

Several of my early batches were "good", but still had that slight off-flavor that is not objectionable, but you notice.  All of your friends and family will tell you it's good beer, but you can still see that look on their face after they take the first sip that tells you they're only being half-truthful.  They can tell it's homebrew.

Here are a few things that, if you pay attention to will make your beer much better.

1.  Fermenting temperature - Many beginning homebrewers think that sitting their carboy or plastic bucket in the corner of the living room or a closet with a towel over it is good enough.  WRONG!  I did this initially, but finally realized that it was too warm there.  My wife and daughter really like the house warm in the winter, and I'm forced to crank the heat up to 75 Deg F.  While the yeast will survive at 75 deg with no problem, at this temperature the yeast are in overdrive, and produce a several by-products that will affect the taste of your beer.  If you want learn the nitty-gritty about what the yeast produce, check out the Yeast book on my Recommended Books page.

Even if you keep your thermostat at a lower temperature, you'd be surprised at how much variation there can be. I significantly improved my beers by setting up a water bath system as shown below.

What you're looking at is (aside from a 6 gallon carboy full of Blue Moon wheat clone) a plastic storage bin filled with water, with a 300W aquarium heater (similar to a Fluval E 300-Watt Electronic Heater ) and submersible pump (like this one: Active Aqua Submersible Water Pump 160 GPH ).  The heater is on the left with the green end cap.  The pump can't be seen but is attached to the rear wall of the bin.  Also floating around in there is a thermometer that I monitor temperature with.  The black straps you see are my Brew Hauler (The Brew Hauler - Carboy Carrier ).  I have this sitting in my shop which stays at around 55-65 degrees F.

There are other heaters available, but make sure that the one you pick is adjustable down to 68 degrees F or lower.  I chose a 300 W heater based on a formula in Chapter 4 of the Yeast book mentioned above.  The beauty of this set up is that the heater will keep the water at the proper temperature and the pump keeps the water circulating so that the temperature is even throughout.

Temperature variations in your fermenter will affect the yeast in a bad way.  You want to keep a constant temperature, and I have had good success with this arrangement.

2.  Yeast Starters - One of the big things I learned by reading the Yeast book is the importance of pitching the correct amount of yeast.  You need to have enough yeast introduced into your wort so that it moves from the Lag phase to the Exponential Growth phase within 15 hours.  In most cases, this means that you'll need to make a starter, as the number of yeast cells contained in your dry yeast packet, or liquid yeast vial is not going to be enough.  In general, the rule for calculating yeast cell counts is

(1 million) X (milliliters of wort) X (degrees Plato of the wort)

(I've taken this formula from the Yeast book mentioned above)

In some cases, the yeast cell count in the packet or vial you purchase can be less than half of the optimal cell count needed to get your wort fermenting properly in the desired timeframe.

Making a yeast starter is the solution, as it is simple and prevents the yeast from making high levels of diacetyl and acetaldehyde which contribute off-flavors to your beer.

I will not get into the process of making a yeast starter here, as there are numerous well-done explanations of the process including this one by John Palmer from his book How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time.

While these tips are not specific to Brewing in a Bag, I wanted to share my thoughts here, as it took me longer than it should have to figure these things out.  I hope these help you get to the major leagues of homebrewing quickly!

Until next time....Cheers!