Rewind?

I’ve met some new brewers and spoken with some on forums recently. It got me thinking what it was like to be a noob at homebrewing…tehcnically for the second time. I brewed many many years ago and just took it up again a few years ago. Wow, did things change or what? Anyways, I was thinking how nice it would have been to be guided on what direction to take when I started out. There are so many choices it is overwhelming. Here are my thoughts for a noob.

READ
Check out the forums. Do the three Ls: LURK, LEECH, LISTEN. You are a noob, you have a million questions. Try to find out the answers yourself before you ask a billion questions on a forum. When you do ask a question, be clear and to the point. If you did the three Ls for a while, you’ll know if a responder is giving you good advice or note. Don’t let all the information swamp your brain. Remember that you are a beginner. Ride the tricycle for a while. You’ll make better beer earlier in your hobby than someone who jumps into the deep end, tackling every new trend within 6 months of brewing. You have plenty of time to master your hobby. Slow and easy wins this race. Keep the cinnamon banana black hefeweizen recipe idea until you understand how to brew a decent hefeweizen first, how much cinnamon to use in a batch second, how to get the best banana flavor in a beer third, and lastly how to make a beer black without affecting flavor. Your mouth will thank you. Really. Brew the basics first. You don’t realize how many off flavors are being hidden by brewing big flavored beers. Once you can brew a light pale ale without off flavors you’ll be able to brew bigger beers better.

Stick with extract for a while.
All grain is fun and ends up being a goal for most brewers. But. There are so many new skills to learn, why not leave mashing until you’ve gotten good at some of the basics? You can make really good beer with extract so you get to drink good beer while you master the basics. There are some great extract kits for every type of beer you can imagine out there. There are loads of extract recipes online and in books. You can use software to convert all grain to extract recipes. And the quality of extract is top notch these days.

Cleaning/sanitizing
Get this down pat. Learn how to clean and how to sanitize and understand the difference between the two. You really don’t have to go nutty on it, but you need to become thorough with it.

I use no name OxiClean unscented for my cleaning. It rips through anything I’ve encountered homebrewing. I use it 1 tablespoon to 5 gallons of hot water. I’ll fill up my carboy after fermenting and let it sit on the counter for a day or so and the krausen magically sloughs off. On bottle day I put a tablespoon in my dishwasher and set it on heat dry and superscrub mode.

I use Iodophor for my sanitizing. Iodine has been used forever for sterlizing in the medical field so it has a good long track record. It is also soft metal friendly so you don’t have to worry about your copper wort chiller or aluminum pot. I can also see it and smell it in my water. It doesn’t keep as long as others such as StarSan but it is cheap, effective, and easy to use so I’ll stick with it.

Dry yeast
Stick with the dry yeast for a while. It will limit you a bit on the styles of beers you can brew, but again you can master other skills first before you tackle starters. US-05 is a great yeast that will brew any ale requiring a clean taste. Nottingham can do the same if it is fermented cold or you can add fruity esters if it is fermented a little warmer. Fermentis T-58 is your go to for Belgian beers. I can’t comment on other dry yeasts but I am sure there are some more decent ones.

Rock your carboy or bucket for oxygenation or make a venturi in your siphon for now, learn oxygen later.

Partial Boil
Moving to full boil is an important big step but stick with partial boils to start with. You’ll need a wort chiller (or do no chill) once you make the jump, so again, keep it simple for a while and learn the basics. With partial boils, you can do kitchen brewing. Things inside are cleaner and the volumes you deal with are lower making it easier to handle.

Temperature Control
This would be my first thing to focus on. Whether it be a swamp cooler or a full on fermentation chamber, proper ferment temperature can seal the deal. Take a great recipe brewed expertly and ferment it at whatever temperatures your room fluctuates to and you are asking for a lousy beer. The first time I controlled my temperature there was an amazing difference in my beers. I cannot stress it enough, get your temperatures in check or brew beers that fit your environment.

I went for quite a while using a plastic bin filled with water and the carboy or bucket in it. I swapped out frozen jugs of water morning and night and found the temperatures to hold in the low 60s, perfect for ales. In the winter, my basement is cold so I swapped the ice jugs out for an aquarium heater where I could hold the temperature where I wanted it. I could have gone on with this forever, in fact I still use the bin sometimes.

Then came the temperature controller. Another great step in beer quality. I built my own controller from an STC 9000 unit you can find cheap on ebay. Heating and cooling all in one digital unit. I hooked mine up to a freezer I got for free on Craigslist. My heat circuit goes to the aquarium heater. I still use the bin full of water in the bottom of the freezer as it makes a nice heat sink to hold temperatures better. My sensor sits in the water bath. Now I can, and am doing lagers!

Hydrometer
Don’t fret about hydrometer readings. Do your best at your brew and take readings but don’t get nutty about it. You’ll make good beer. I take my readings and they are what they are, I record them and later I can learn from them. In All Grain they become a bit more important, but again, they usually are what they are and you’ll make beer.

I bought into the refractometer craze and I think this is one I could have passed on and been just fine. It is nice to use so little wort to get a quick reading on unfermented wort. But since it isn’t useful for fermented wort anyways, the cheap old hydrometer is fine.

Recipes
Get your kits from the online homebrew stores, their turnover is huge so you’ll get fresh ingredients. They all make some great kits and they usually come with great instructions. When you are comfortable with brewing put together ingredients from a recipe in a book or online. Then move on to coming up with your own recipes based on your experience and what you learn from forums, books, homebrew buddies, or wherever else you get your knowledge from.

Notes
Keep good notes on everything you do. Get a log book or keep a notebook. Whatever you do, track everything you do. The recipes, the goals, the actual readings, EVERYTHING. It will all be useful at a later date. You’ll be able to avoid or reproduce something you did at some point in the future. Again WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING YOU DO!

Full Boil
When you are comfortable brewing, move up to full boils. You’ll most likely move outside on a turkey burner with a large kettle. Get as big a kettle as you can, you’ll use it later for all grain. If you can’t get a keggle size vessel, that’s okay, the smaller kettles are useful later too. I’d say 7 gallons is the minimum, but you can get around having a smaller one.

You’ll want to either go no chill or build/buy a wort chiller at this point. A sink of ice water isn’t much fun with a full 5 gallons of wort. A chiller will take you down to ferment temperatures in 10-20 minutes. And if you no chill your brew day is over as soon as the wort hits the cube.

Full boil will give you better beer, you get better hop utilization, you’ll be ready to move to all grain if you want, and the turkey burner will give you a better boil.

Starters
Now that you’ve got the boil tackled, jump into liquid yeasts. There are so many more options with liquid yeasts…but you need to learn to make starters. Sure you can pitch a whole bunch of vials if you have that kind of money, but starters aren’t that hard to do.

You can start with the manual shake method where you shake the starter up periodically then move on to using a stirplate. Use Mr. Malty to figure out how big a starter you need.

O2
Get a diffusion stone, regulator, and an O2 bottle and you are in business to get fast starts on your beers.

All Grain
Still doing extracts? Still making great beer. Maybe you want to expand what beers you can do. Maybe you enjoy the complexity of all grain. Whatever the reason, all grain is usually a step people make. I’d suggest to start with minimash first. It is a lot easier to learn on a small volume of grains and you are already a pro with the extract.

Personally, I would move to Brew In A Bag over a sparge method. It is a very easy, very flexible, very cheap, and is an easy concept to grasp. You can get complex with the method easily so it will grow with you. Having said that, there is nothing with getting a cooler to become a sparger. It’s all just hot water and grains after all.

Water
Dive into the world of water building if you have the nerve. Most people can get away with staying clear of this topic and will make great beers. Some people want to gain a few extra points in competition so they move to water. Others, like me, have to move to water as their source requires it. My water is almost void of minerals and I noticed a huge benefit to building my water, especially for hoppy beers. But fair warning-water chemistry in beer is pretty complex, and that’s coming from an engineer.

Outer Limits
Push your limits. Challenge yourself. Try new methods. Keep brewing fun. And go back to your roots sometimes, do an extract in your kitchen. Brew all kinds of beers. Brew beers you’ve brewed before but see if you can improve them. Don’t forget to try other things too like Graff, wines, sake, mead. Then there’s yeast washing and ranching!

Can you hear me now?
I know the urge is there to jump in to brew the biggest, best beer ever know to mankind. Guess what? You won’t succeed. You build a foundation before you build a home. The same goes for homebrewing. Get all the basics down by keeping things simple at first. Add layers of complexity slowly, once you’ve mastered your last skill. Too many skills at once are not a good thing.

And most importantly. NONE of the above is really necessary to make great beer. I believe it was John Palmer who once told a story of how he made a beer with a can of hopped extract, entered it into a contest, and won. So don’t get too full of yourself and your mad brewing skills.

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