Brew Better Beer

Perplexed by homebrewing failures? Address these common mistakes for better quaffability.

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by AdobeStock/Ozgur Coskun

Most new brewers are constantly looking for ways to improve their craft. Luckily, a lot of brewing information is available to the hobbyist. The internet is filled with websites and forums devoted to homebrewing, and a wealth of books have been published on the topic. On the other hand, inexperienced brewers looking for advice are bombarded with information, some of it sound, and some not – and it can be hard to tell the difference.

In any fairly complex process, quality is determined by the weakest link in the chain of production, and the weakest link is frequently the aspect that’s the least interesting. If you’re a brewer who wants to improve your craft, look for your weak spot, and expect it to be a part of the process that bores you.

Brewing Glossary

Bottle conditioning: carbonating beer in the bottle.
Campden tablets: a sterilization product.
FG (Final Gravity): the beer’s specific gravity after fermentation is finished.
Kräusening: conditioning a finished beer by adding active wort to cause a second fermentation.
OG (Original Gravity): the wort’s specific gravity before fermentation has begun.
PBW (Powdered Brewery Wash): cleaner designed for brewery equipment.
Racking: transferring beer from one container to another.
VDKs (vicinal diketones): a group of flavor compounds in beer.
Wort: residual sugary liquid of a mash that’s drained off the grain, then boiled, usually with hops.

Four Factors for Homebrewing Quality Beer

The following elements contribute to brewing quality beer at home, beginning with the most important.

1. Cleaning and sanitation.

Overshadowing everything else is the need to be fanatical about cleaning and sanitizing your brewing equipment. You can’t brew good beer without this, and nothing else will compensate for contaminated beer.

barley seeds at beer brewery factory making Brewing craft beer in a kitchen.

Although this is the most important aspect of homebrewing, it’s wildly under-discussed in most books and articles, because it’s the most tedious part of brewing. But putting extra effort into cleaning and sanitation will most likely yield immediate results. For starters, use a cleaner designed for brewing equipment, such as PBW (powdered brewery wash). Wash your equipment thoroughly, rinse it, and then visually examine every square inch. If you see even the slightest speck of soil, clean that surface again.

Follow the manufacturer’s recom­mendation for sanitizer concentration. Mixing a stronger solution won’t kill more microbes. You can’t effectively sanitize a surface with iodophor or an acid sanitizer – the two most popular homebrewing sanitizers – unless it’s completely clean to begin with. Don’t touch any sanitized surface that will later come into contact with wort or beer. That can be hard to do, and you can’t sanitize your hands, but you can use a clean paper towel to handle items that may later touch wort or beer.

Clean everything immediately after using it, and clean the entire area in which you brew. If possible, mill grains in a different location than your brewing space. Grain dust and the contaminants that come with it can hang in the air for an extended period of time.

If you make yeast starters, be especially diligent about cleaning and sanitation. Contaminating microorganisms in your yeast starter will carry over into your main batch.

If you think your cleaning and sanitation procedures are fine, try the forced wort test, or wort stability test. On your next brew day, collect a small amount of chilled, aerated wort in a clean, sanitized container; any small glass jar will work. Place the clean, sanitized lid loosely on the sample container and let it sit somewhere at room temperature or slightly above. If the sample rests for 72 hours without showing any evidence of fermentation, your cleaning and sanitation is adequate. If not, you need to work harder.

Brewer's yeast in flakes

2. Fresh ingredients.

You can’t make fresh beer with stale ingredients. Novice brewers should learn how to evaluate their ingredients. Chew a few kernels of malt to see if they taste fresh or stale. Dilute a small amount of malt extract to around 10 degrees Plato (1.040 specific gravity) and note the color; stale extract will appear darker than it should be. Hops should smell fresh and floral, not cheesy. Taste your brewing liquor (the water you use to brew), especially if you’ve adjusted the mineral content or treated it in any way. All municipal water sources contain chlorine compounds that will have to be removed by carbon filtration or treatment with potassium or sodium metabisulfite. For the latter, one standard Campden tablet will treat 20 gallons of water.

3. Ordered fermentation.

I’ve judged a lot of homebrew competitions, so I know that an ordered fermentation typically separates the best beers from those in the middle of the pack. An ordered fermentation starts reasonably promptly, proceeds at reasonable speed (without stalling or stopping) and reaches a reasonable final gravity (FG). What’s “reasonable” in all these instances depends on the type and amount of yeast, fermentation temperatures, and other variables. In contrast, substandard fermentations can be sluggish, stall, or never reach a reasonable FG.

Homebrew judges can tell if a beer isn’t attenuated properly, because it tastes overly sweet or, in extreme cases, worty. Off odors, such as an excessive amount of esters or hydrogen sulfide, indicate that the yeast has struggled. In contrast, beers from an ordered fermentation are appropriately dry and smell clean, or exhibit an ester profile appropriate for the type of yeast used.

To run an ordered fermentation, you’ll need to brew wort that provides a hospitable environment for the yeast. This means the wort will have enough nutrients to support the yeast, and be aerated to the extent that the yeast will take in an adequate amount of oxygen. In many cases, wort doesn’t need supplemental yeast nutrients. All-malt beers frequently contain enough nutrients in the grain to maintain healthy yeast. But if you’re brewing a type of beer that contains a fair amount of sugary adjuncts, adding yeast nutrients will likely help.

You’re much better off aerating with an aquarium pump and an aeration stone, or an oxygen tank and an aeration stone, than by shaking the fermenter or whisking the wort.

two men standing on either side of a brewing pot

You also must pitch an adequate amount of yeast to run an ordered fermentation. One straightforward way to do this is to use an online yeast pitching rate calculator, such as Mr Malty. Simply input the type (ale or lager), volume, and original gravity (OG) of the beer you’re brewing, and the calculator will output the volume of yeast starter you’ll need. For an average-strength ale, a 2-quart yeast starter will yield enough for 5 gallons of wort. The final major requirement to run an ordered fermentation is to hold the fermentation steady in the proper range for your yeast.

If you’re fermenting a lager, you’ll also need to ensure that the yeast takes up any vicinal diketones (VDKs) at the end of the fermentation. The most famous VDK is diacetyl, which produces caramelly flavors and aromas. This is usually done by raising the temperature a few degrees for a diacetyl rest after active fermentation has wound down. Kräusening, or adding active wort to a finished beer, is another helpful process.

a grain bag in a pot of brewing beer

Brewer’s yeast is resilient, and you can usually get away with little temperature control and pitching an inadequate amount of yeast into a weakly aerated wort. In most cases, the yeast will eventually ferment your wort into something resembling beer. However, over the course of several similar beers, the start times will vary, some fermentations may be sluggish or stall, the FG will be variable, and the fermentation byproducts may be excessive. If a fermentation runs overly warm, fusel oils (alcohols other than ethanol) can form and cause headaches in people who consume the beer. You can’t consistently brew high-quality beer without taking your fermentation seriously.

4. Oxygen and heat.

Your job as a home­brewer doesn’t end when the beer is fermented. The beer must be packaged in a way that exposes it to as little heat and oxygen as possible. Oxygen accelerates staling. If you’re bottle conditioning, the standard approach is to rack the beer to a bottling bucket containing the priming sugar. Then, the beer is siphoned into bottles. To minimize oxygen pickup, don’t splash the beer as it transfers. Place the exit end of the tubing at the bottom of the bucket, and, after the bottom of the bucket is covered, rack the new beer under the surface of the existing beer. Without splashing, stir the beer to mix the priming sugar and beer evenly. Transfer to bottles – again, with as little splashing as possible – and cap them quickly. Most of the oxygen the beer has picked up during this transfer will be absorbed by the yeast that ferments the priming sugar.

man pouring a beaker of liquid yeast in to a bucket with brewing beer

If you’re racking the beer from a fermenter to a keg, do so under a cover of carbon dioxide (CO2). One way to do this is to fill the keg with water, and use CO2 to empty the keg. Leave the keg filled with CO2, and then rack the beer to the bottom of the keg under the cover of a column of CO2. As with any transfer to a keg, purge the headspace with CO2 once the keg is sealed.

If you follow these recommendations, you’ll make reasonably good beer. But these are only a starting point if your goal is to become a better brewer. You’ll need to study and practice a lot. A fairly large amount of effort can be required to produce only slightly better results. Research water chemistry and the pH of the mash, boil, and finished beer, especially if your water is loaded with carbonates and you’re trying to brew a pale beer. Learn about the minerals in your water if you’re trying to brew a hop-forward beer, such as an IPA. Study how mash variables can make wort that’s less or more fermentable, which is needed for brewing sweet and dry beers, respectively.

Mastering homebrewing is hard work, but it ends with tasty beer.

Man using capper to put metal caps on beer bottle

Chris Colby has authored many articles on brewing beer, plus two books, Home Brew Recipe Bible and Methods of Modern Homebrewing. He lives with his wife and their cats in Bastrop, Texas.