I’ve been brewing beer for over four years across three different houses in two different states, and with so many pieces of equipment I’ve lost track. National Homebrew Day was this past Saturday, so I’m thinking back to my very first time brewing. Before I’d ever entered a competition, and way before I won a gold at the National Homebrew Competition last year.
When I got started, making beer seemed complicated, so approaching my first brew at home was a little daunting. Am I going to make a huge mess? Or worse totally destroy my kitchen?
It also seemed pretty cool. I can’ wait to share with my friends! Think of the instagram posts! In all, my first time homebrewing was one big, non-instagram-worthy learning experience.
You’re Basically Making Oatmeal
Realizing this on my first brew day definitely calmed my nerves. If you stop taking the process so seriously and think about making wort as making very precise oatmeal, suddenly everything seems way more fun. Just like oatmeal, small temperature fluctuations or imperfect measurements aren’t going to ruin anything. Keep the temperature in a range and measure things out to the best of your ability. Soon you’ll be cookin’ and your home will be full of the smell of hot cereal!
Clean is Key
I think it’s said on every brewery tour, “80% of brewing is cleaning.” This is even more true when you’re in a home instead of a sterile stainless steel brewing facility. Clean before, clean as you go, and clean after. StarSan is your friend. It’s really easy to get beer infected and you don’t want to put all the work into brewing to end up with an infected end product. I sterilized my whole kitchen before I got started and completely banned cooking in there for the day. Beyond cleaning and sterilizing surfaces, anything that touches your beer after it’s been boiled needs to be completely sterile. (Try not to use metal brushes on vessels used for fermentation; bacteria can find its way into the scratches left behind, and then into your beer!)
I’m Gunna Need a Bigger Bucket
I learned very quickly that giving myself a little extra space gives me a ton more peace of mind. For my first brew I had a stock pot I thought would be big enough. I guess it was, technically, big enough. But 45 minutes later, after two boil overs and constant monitoring, I decided it’s time to invest in a bigger pot!
The size thing goes for whatever you’ll be fermenting in too. Yeast give off a lot of CO2 while they’re turning sugar into alcohol. You need a bucket or carboy with plenty of space or else you’re looking at a closet full of sticky beer foam!
Let the Yeast Make Their Magic
My first brew day, I was so excited to try my beer that I just wanted to get the stuff in a darn bottle! It’s easy to forget that a ton of off-flavors (think a strong green vegetable taste) are caused when beer isn’t able to finish fermenting. During fermentation, yeast are turning sugar to alcohol but they are also releasing and absorbing chemical compounds you don’t want in your finished beer. When you notice yeast activity slow way down, don’t assume the yeast are finished with fermentation. Rushing this step, even by just a day, can totally ruin your batch.
Practice Makes Perfect
Finally, three weeks from brew day, I cracked the lid on my first bottle. It was, well, mediocre. If I was easily discouraged, this probably would have been my first and last homebrew batch ever. Luckily, during the time my homebrew was fermenting I had already come up with a bunch of ideas to improve my second brew day. And a new pot.
Homebrewing is just like cooking, or any hobby really. Your final product will improve with practice and the bumps throughout the brew day will lessen with every batch. Now, when I boil over (no one is perfect!) I know exactly what to do to keep the brew on track, it’s like second nature. I think it took five full brews for me to love the beer I made.