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>10 Ways to Improve your Homebrew (Part 2 of 2)

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Here are a few more ways to improve your homebrew:



6. Join a homebrew club



Talking to other brewers on forums or other internet sources is a great way to learn. I pored through HomeBrewTalk.com extensively when I first started brewing, and it remains a great resource if I have any off-the-wall questions that need answering. Same goes for your local homebrew shop – a great resource that you can learn a ton from.



But nothing beats a homebrew club.



A homebrew club allows you to be face-to-face with other brewers from all levels of experience, giving you (hopefully) unbiased opinions about your beer, and (again, hopefully) constructive criticism that will aid in your growth as a brewer. Larger clubs will also often have educational portions of meetings (like styles-of-the-month, or presentations on various aspects of brewing), organize brewery tours, have special guest speakers, and a multitude of other educational opportunities. A homebrew club is also a great way to make friends, build relationships, and become a part of your greater local brewing community. Check out the AHA’s website for a list of clubs – there will most likely be one near you. If not, you can always start one.



7. Use a Priming Sugar Calculator.



Over or under carbonation is a very common flaw in the beers of many brewers, but especially new brewers. Every style of beer has an appropriate level of carbonation, be it low (English-style beers), medium (most American beers) or high (some Belgians, especially Saison and Strong Golden Ales.) Most beginning brewers will stick to the good ol’ ¾ cup per 5 gallons, and while this can work for many styles, there are other factors to consider when priming.



First, how much carbonation do I actually want?

If you’re brewing a Belgian Strong Golden, ¾ cup may not get you to that level of effervescence indicative of the style, just like of you’re brewing an English Mild or similar style that should be carbonated on the low side, ¾ cup may produce far too much CO2.



Second, how much CO2 is in my beer before I prime?

Everyone knows that the fermentation process produces CO2. What many brewers don’t know is that the beer will retain a fair amount of gas after fermentation is all said and done. Those air bubbles you see in your racking cane when transferring? There isn’t any leak in your tubing or anything like that; that air is CO2 escaping from solution due to the motion of the beer. CO2 becomes more soluble the cooler you get, so usually the temperature of the beer is a fair indicator of how much residual CO2 you have left in solution.



Third, EXACTLY how much beer am I bottling?

One reason racking into a bottling bucket is a good idea, as opposed to bottling straight from your fermenter, is that moving your final bottling volume into a graduated container will tell you exactly what your final volume is, and therefore allows you to adjust your priming solution accordingly. Your final volume can vary based on a number of factors, like the amount of hot break and cold break you have, how much hop matter you have, and so on. If you use ¾ cup of priming sugar in 5 gallons, you will get far less carbonation than in 4 gallons.



The simplest way to alleviate these problems is to use a priming sugar calculator. A quick Google search will pull up a number of calculators, but my favorite is found on TastyBrew.com. Just punch in the style of beer you’ve brewed, the current temperature of your beer, and your final volume, and you get an exact measurement, in weight (not volume, this is very important) for the level of carbonation you need.

I’m a huge advocate of using calculators and software to ease my brewday, which leads us to…



8. Use Brewing Software



Have you ever brewed a recipe you found online, and had your numbers be radically different from the estimated numbers on the recipe? This is a mistake often made by beginning brewers who don’t realize how much variation there is in ingredients and techniques, and how big of an impact these differences can have on the final product. Color, bitterness, extraction efficiency, and attenuation are all variables that require applying specific formulas to get accurate numbers. Of course, you could do all the calculations by hand, but personally, I’m lazy. This is where the magic of brewing software comes in.



The most basic brewing software is just a series of calculators, making it easier to calculate things like original gravity, bitterness, color, extraction efficiency, IBUs, mash temperatures and carbonation. This alone is invaluable to any homebrewer, but when you move to the top end applications, they become practically the center of your brewing world. Apps like Beersmith, Beer Tools and BeerAlchemy allow you to create, store and catalog recipes, build custom equipment profiles, create an infinite number of mashing schedules, catalog a personal ingredient inventory and apply that to your recipe database, and more. Some apps (like my favorite, BeerAlchemy) even have a mobile version that allows you to sync your recipe database and ingredient inventory so you can have both on-the go.



Fortunately, almost all of these apps have free trial versions, so you can find the one that suits your needs the best.



9. Plan Ahead



Too often I see guys come in to my store and buy an ingredient kit intending to brew that day. While I can admire the enthusiasm, this is usually a less-than-optimum way to do things. Brewing requires planning. Before they fire up the kettle, a brewer should ask themselves a few essential questions: What exactly do I want to brew? Do I have all the necessary equipment and space? How long will it take from grain to glass? Will I need a yeast starter? If you dive in without these questions being answered, your beer may come out just fine, but knowing all these things beforehand will help immensely.



Another planning issue that drives me crazy is the “let’s just go to the homebrew store, buy a bunch of random things and throw them together” style of brewing. I’ve had more terrible beer from this than I’d like to remember. While throwing random ingredients together may yield something drinkable (if you’re EXTREMELY lucky), you’ll probably end up with too much of something (no matter what kind of beer it is, four pounds of chocolate malt is too much), not enough of something (you need more than two pounds of 2-row), or too much of everything. Doing wacky things with beer is fine. Breweries like Dogfish Head and The Bruery do it all the time, often with stellar results. But these breweries are also very careful to make sure that these beers are balanced and drinkable, which takes an enormous amount of planning and conceptualization – something every brewer should aspire to.



And finally….



10. Keep Learning!



No brewer knows everything about brewing. Go to any seminar at the Craft Brewers Conference each year and you’ll find plenty of highly respected brewers there, looking to improve their craft. These brewers realize that if they don’t continue to learn more and more about their craft, their creativity will begin to stagnate. This is something that I see in experienced brewers far too often.



If you want your beer to keep getting better, stay excited about brewing! Challenge yourself to brew something outside your wheelhouse! Do you only brew super clean German lagers? Brew a Belgian Saison! Only brew high-abv IPAs and Imperial beers? Brew an English Mild! Been brewing the same Pale Ale recipe for 10 years? Change your yeast! Exploring areas of brewing that you’ve never explored can only increase your knowledge of brewing, and make every part of your brewing better.



And in the end, we all just want to drink tasty beer



Cheers!

Matt

Categories: Uncategorized

>An introduction to Small Batch Brewing.

>I like brewing in small batches. It’s kinda what I do.

If you brew as frequently as I do (about once a week), and you brew 5 gallon batches, you either have to have lots of friends who live nearby (mine are a fair distance away), have a lot of beer take up a lot of room and go stale (wasteful), or be drunk all the time (Seemingly fun, yet unfortunately impractical).
About two years into my homebrewing journey, I was faced with this problem, and decided that in order to have a wide variety of great, fresh beer all the time, a 2.5 gallon batch size would be the best way to go. It’s worked well so far.
Pros:
1. Frequency: A brewer only improves his brewing by brewing. The more one brews, the better one’s beer gets. Small batches allow me to brew more frequently without worrying about waste.
2. Experimentation: When brewing small batches more consistently, one is less afraid to try something new. I feel far less guilty throwing away 2.5 gallons of overspiced or too bitter beer than 5 gallons.
3. Indoor all-grain brewing: My heat source is my stovetop. Smaller volumes mean a huge jet burner is unnecessary, which means when outdoor all-grain brewers are cursing the wind or rain, I’m thinking brewing is exactly what I should be doing when it’s ugly outside.
4. Cost: This is probably the most obvious advantage. Half the batch size means half the ingredients, which means half the cost. Throw in bulk ingredient purchasing and yeast reuse, and you can have a case of tasty homebrewed craft beer for as little as $12-$15.
5. Pitching rates: Don’t have time to build a starter? No problem. With small batches a single vial of White Labs or smack pack of Wyeast yeast is often enough cells right out of the package.
Of course, as with any brewing system, there are disadvantages.
Cons:
1. Thermal Mass: The less volume you have, both in the mash tun and in the fermenter, the less easily temperatures are held. I can usually expect a drop of 3-5 degrees F in the mash tun during a 60 minute mash, and my fermentations are unfortunately far too dependent on ambient temperature (that is, until I build my cellar.)
2. Precision: One has to be very precise with measurements when brewing small batches, particularly if, like me, you’re formulating recipes that are intended to be scaled up eventually. I’ve found that having separate scales for grain (pounds and ounces) and hops (grams) helps with this.
3. Sanitation: All brewers, even beginners, know the importance of cleaning and sanitization. With small batches it’s even more critical. Because you’re often dealing with vessels that are made for 5 gallon batches, you are working with the same amount of potential bacteria, and it takes far less time for that bacteria to spoil 2.5 gallons that 5.
4. Time: It takes almost as much time to brew a 2.5 gallon batch as a 5 gallon batch. Folks with a high-output burner on their stove won’t quite have the same issue, but waiting for your strike water to heat up is boring, no matter what size batch you’re brewing.
5. Friends: I don’t know about your friends, but mine can kill a case of beer in a night without hesitation. Especially when your beer is exceptionally tasty or sessionable (or worst of all, both) it can disappear quickly when in good company.
I credit brewing in small batches for the vast improvement in my beers over the last couple of years. I hope this blog can both inform and inspire my fellow homebrewers into doing the same.
Cheers!
Matt
Categories: Uncategorized