Monday, November 25, 2013

Beginner tips from a beginner...

So, a friend of mine recently told me that he's wanting to get into homebrewing, and asked me for a few tips to get started.  I had planned on just giving him a couple of pointers, but ended up with a long email when I was done.  I thought it acutally ended up pretty good, so I decided to share it here, and made it more generic.  Enjoy!

Here’s the starter kit I got:

I got the plastic carboys, but glass may be easier to clean.  You also get a recipe kit with it.  I did the Irish Red for my first beer.

Get a propane burner.  Trust me, your wife will appreciate you brewing outside rather than in the kitchen.  Any messes will be easier to clean up, too!  You’ll want at least a 6 or 7 gallon stockpot, so you can eventually do full boils, but to start, a 5 gallon will work.  I have an 8 gallon aluminum seafood pot that I use.  Works perfectly.  Stainless steel also works, but it’s more expensive.  If you don't little clip on thermometer already, get one, it will help you monitor the boil temperature.

A couple of things that you’ll want that don’t come in the kit are a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity with and a wine thief to take samples from the fermenter to test.  You can get both at Northern Brewer or any other homebrew place.  Specific gravity readings are used to calculate your ABV, and also to help you determine when fermentation is done and it’s time to bottle.

You’ll need 50 or so bottles, as well.  I used old (well cleaned out) Sam Adams bottles.  Any brown, long-neck, non-twist off 12oz bottles will work.  You’ll have enough bottle caps in the starter kit for your first batch.  You can always buy more (or a different style) as you need to, they’re super cheap.  When you drink a beer, clean it out with soap and water, then set it some place to dry, and store it until ready to bottle.  I have a couple of boxes full in the garage ready for my next bottling day.

A great place to order stuff is also  They’re in Austin (obviously), and all their recipe kits are free shipping, and they have a ton.  I ordered a Belgian White (think Blue Moon) from them a few weeks ago, and I’m going to brew it this weekend.

The forums at are a great place for info and to ask questions.  I’ve gotten a bunch of questions answered there without even having to ask.  Someone else has generally already asked whatever it is that you’re asking.

Some tips I have from my meager experience so far:

Sanitization is the most important part of brewing.  Your starter kit will come with a small bottle of sanitizer.  You’ll use it up pretty quickly, so you’ll want more for your second and following batches.  Sanitization will keep your beer from becoming infected.  I’ve made sure to sanitize everything that the beer is going to touch after boiling, and have had zero problems.

Fermentation temperature is extremely important.  For most ales, you’ll want to ferment between 65-75 degrees.  Any higher and you risk creating off flavors.  While it won’t ruin your beer, it will make it taste a little “hot”.  My first batch fermented close to 80 degrees, and there’s a bit of a funky “hot alcohol” taste to it.  It still tastes pretty good, but it could be better.  I used a tub of cold water and bottles of ice to keep my second batch around 62-68 degrees, and it is much better.

The instructions that come with most kits are just a guide.  It’s may take longer or shorter for your fermentation to be complete.  I usually leave mine in the fermenter for three weeks before I think about bottling.  Patience is the key.  After two weeks, take a hydrometer reading.  A couple of days later, take another.  Then a couple more days and take another.  If it’s steady, and close to the expected final gravity (will be listed in the instructions), then you’re ready to bottle.

When you’re bottling, ignore how much priming sugar the instructions say to use, it will probably be way too much and result in over-carbonation.  I ended up with beer that takes a while to pour, because I have to wait for the head to go subside to finish pouring.  Use a priming calculator like the one at to determine how much sugar to use.  I did that for my second batch, and the carbonation level is perfect.

I generally let them sit bottled at room temperature for 3 weeks to carb up and properly condition.  I will, of course, sample the product during that time.  Usually I’ll put a bottle in the fridge after a week, then try it a couple of days later.  After 3 weeks, I’ll put them all in the fridge.  For each of my first two batches, I’ve kept a 6-pack back, and not refrigerated.  I’m going to let them sit for 6 months or so, and see how the longer conditioning time does.