We have gotten a lot of our friends and family into the hobby of homebrewing. It’s fun, creative, and the results are often delightful. However, not all results are delightful. In fact, some beers that we’ve tasted are downright nasty. Learning from our mistakes and our friends’ mistakes, we decided to make a little list about the Seven Deadly (well, potentially deadly if you really really mess up) Sin of Homebrewing. We ranked them in order of importance.
1. Poor Sanitation
The emphasis on sanitation is a delicate line. Obviously, you should make a concerted effort to clean all your fermenting equipment and anything that touches the wort after it has been chilled. This is the best way to prevent infections. However, this should not result in paranoia about infections ruining your beer. We’ve thrown out batches because we thought they were infected, but there were not. In all honesty, your beer is pretty durable and isn’t at serious risk of infection. But why risk it?
We generally just use bleach to sanitize our equipment (I can already see the faces of horror). It works fine on any non-metal surface, and we rinse it with boiled water.
(Let no little bug live)
2. Under-Pitching Yeast
We have had plenty of homebrew that just reeks of esters/fusel, aromas of cider, alcohol, solvents and fruits. Often this is caused by not using enough yeast. When not enough yeast is used, the yeast has to work harder to eat the sugar, reproducing and creating nasty aromas and flavours. Make sure you pitch enough yeast, especially when you are brewing a high gravity beer (higher than O.G. 1.060). This often require making a starter.
Admittedly, some yeast you will not want to over-pitch (adding too much yeast). For example, hefeweizens get their banana, clove flavour from the esters produced by the yeast. Over-pitching will result in little yeast flavour in your beer. Though counter-intuitive, adding less yeast produces more yeast flavour, and adding more yeast produces less yeast flavour.
Find out the temperature your yeast should be fermented at. Often this information can be found on the yeast package or the internet. If your yeast’s preferred temperature is between 16-22 Celcius, make sure it ferments in between those temperatures. Fermenting too warm seems more common than fermenting too cold.
Generally, we prefer to ferment on the colder side. This results in a cleaner tasting beer. Plus you cannot really harm your beer if the temperature is too cold. The fermentation will just stop. All you need to do is raise the temperature and the yeast will start up again (though this does strain the yeast). However, if you ferment your beer at a warmer temperature, more esters and fusel flavours will be produced, which can result in unpleasant flavours in your beer.
When we first started brewing, we could barely wait to try our beer. We would bottle it after 7 days or so, and then drink it 7 days after bottling. This doesn’t ruin the beer, but it does not give the beer enough time to age properly; the yeast has not had enough time to remove the harsh flavours.
As a guideline, We don’t drink any of our beer until 5 weeks after being brewed. That is long, but I believe the time pays off. Here’s a schedule I often follow
1 week in the primary fermenter: After 1 week, most of the primary fermentation is complete, and we transfer the beer into the secondary fermenter. We use a secondary fermenter because we like to pour new beers onto the yeast cake in the primary fermenter. Thus we condition/age the beer in a secondary fermenter while we pour a new beer onto the yeast cake in the primary fermenter.
2 weeks in the secondary fermenter: Depending on the alcohol of the beer, we may let it sit in the secondary fermenter for longer than 2 weeks.
2 weeks in the bottle before drinking: It is tempting to drink your beer as soon as possible, and we often open one bottle a week after it has been bottled, but we are rarely impressed with the beer at this stage. We are just curious how the flavour is developing. The carbonation is often a little weak and the flavours are still harsh; the yeast has not had time to go into dormancy. In our opinion, beer must be in the bottle for at least 2 weeks before it can be properly enjoyed.
5. Using Old Ingredients
It is obvious; fresh ingredients are better. But old ingredients aren’t necessarily bad. If they are stored properly, old ingredients can retain their freshness.
Signs of Age: Damp, not crunchy, flavourless, moldly
Consequence of Adding to Beer: Flavourless, boring beer. Or nasty mold flavours
Solution: Make sure the grain is stored somewhere cool and dry relatively protected from oxygen. You don’t need to vacuum seal all your grain (though this will allow you to keep for much longer)
Shelf Life: Grain doesn’t have a ‘best before’ date, but the older the grain gets, the less flavour it has. Ground grain has a shorter shelf life, around 20 days or so. If the grain is still whole and stored in a cool dry place, it can be stored around 12-18 months.
Signs of Age: No hop smell, or cheesy moldy smells
Consequence of Adding to Beer: The ability for hops to bitter your beer decreases with time. So you could have an under balanced beer with no hop flavour or aroma. Hops that smell moldly and cheesy will add that flavour/aroma to your beer.
Solution: Vacuum seal your hops and store them in the freezer. This is a somewhat expensive investment (vacuum sealers cost around $70 to $120), but it is worth while if you like hoppy beers.
Shelf Life: If vacuum sealed and stored in the freezer, around 2 years. Remember that hops are only harvested once a year. For example, if you buy hops in April, those hops are already 5 months old (assuming those hops were harvested in September/October). The hops you purchase in the fall will be the freshest, unless your homebrew store is just trying to get rid of old stock. Solution: Find a new homebrew store.
(We store our hops in Foodsaver bags in the freezer)
Signs of Age: The expiration date on the yeast package. Or your beer isn’t fermenting
Consequence of Adding to Beer: Your beer will not ferment, or the yeast will be so badly damaged that it produces harsh tasting beer.
Solution: You have many options. Store your yeast in the fridge. Create a starter. Use your yeast as soon as possible. Pitch on yeast cakes or wash your yeast.
Shelf Life: Dry yeast has a shelf life of about one year. Liquid yeast has a shelf life of about 4 months. But don’t wait that long. Yeast is best fresh.
6. Not Taking Good Notes on Your Batches and Recipes
Notes are important for two reasons. First, it allows you to reproduce good batches. Second and more importantly, it allows you to troubleshoot issues with bad batches.
There are three things we take notes on: ingredients, techniques and results. Ingredients consist of grains, hops, yeast (what generation is the yeast and how old is it), and water (whatever minerals you’ve added to the water).
In terms of techniques, keep track of mash temperatures, length of time of the mash, mash thickness, when hops are added to the boil (or first wort hopped/dry-hopping), length of time of the fermentation, if secondary fermentation was used, and the fermentation temperature.
For results, we keep track of the original gravity, final gravity, IBU, and volume of beer. We generally are not overly concerned with hitting are targeted original gravity. If our beer’s original gravity is higher than expected, that is divine intervention that our beer should be a little more boozy. If our beer’s original gravity is lower than expected, then we will have a slightly more session-able beer. We might adjust the hops the properly balance out the bitterness.
Some homebrewers take very extensive notes, covering everything from the temperature of the mash water to the amount of wort collected after the sparge. This is fine, but we feel this is information that is dependent upon your brewhouse. After you brew many batches with your brewhouse, you will start to instinctively know the temperature loss and wort loss of your brewhouse. That being said, taking notes on these aspects can help you better understand your brewhouse: mash/lauter tun, hot water tank, brew kettle and fermenting buckets/carboys.
7. Using Malt Extract
Yes, you can make fine beer with malt extract. You can even make great beer with malt extract. However, it’s not really making beer. Using Duncan Heinz to make a cake isn’t the same as making a cake from scratch. Malt extract doesn’t give you the same level of control.
There are many types of malt you cannot use, like Munich malt, Vienna malt, barley flakes, wheat flakes and any other grain that needs to be mashed. Plus you can control the body of your wort by what temperature you mash at.
All grain brewing does take more time (about 3-4 hours to make a batch) and more equipment, but this is making beer the same way breweries make beer. If you’re going to put time into making your own beer, why not go all the way? You’re obviously somewhat passionate about brewing seeing you are reading a homebrew website.
(Kevin Spacey does not approve of bad homebrew)