Ten Top Tips for Home Brewing Beer

by Brad Smith on February 16, 2008 · 71 comments

Today we look at 10 tips for brewing better beer. These are things I wish I knew when I started homebrewing but had to learn the hard way. Enjoy!

Enjoy great beer

  1. Use High Quality, Fresh Ingredients – Fresh ingredients make better homebrew. If you started with dry yeast, move up to liquid yeast. If you are an extract brewer, look for fresh extract rather than a can that is several years old. Store liquid yeast in the refrigerator, grains in a cool dry place, and hops in the freezer. Hops, dry malt, yeast, liquid malt and crushed grains all have a limited shelf life and must be used quickly. Crushed grains, dry malt and liquid malt will oxidize over time.
  2. Do your Homework – Designing great beer is one part science and one part art. Why guess on the science part? Switching to brewing software like BeerSmith can make a difference in your brewing as it gives you the opportunity to calculate the color, bitterness and original gravity up front to match your brewing style. As I brewed more, I started reading top brewing books, engaging in discussion forums and browsing the internet for brewing resources. All of these sources, combined with experience and experimentation dramatically impacted my brewing style and consistency in a search for brewing perfection.
  3. Keep It Sterile – Anything that touches your beer after it has started cooling must be sanitized using any of the popular sanitizing solutions (bleach, iodophor, etc). The period immediately after you cool your beer is particularly critical as bacteria and other infections are most likely to take hold before the yeast has started fermentation.
  4. Cool the Wort Quickly – Cooling your beer quickly will increase the fallout of proteins and tannins that are bad for your beer and will also reduce the chance of infection. An immersion wort chiller is a relatively inexpensive investment that will improve the clarity and quality of your beer. Cooling is particularly important for full batch boils.
  5. Boil for 60-90 Minutes – Boiling your wort performs several important functions. It sterilizes your wort, vaporizes many undesirable compounds, releases bittering oils from the hops and coagulates proteins and tannins from the grains so they can fall out during cooling. To achieve all of these noble goals you need to boil for at least 60 minutes, and for lighter styles of beers a longer boil of 90 minutes is desirable.
  6. Control Fermentation Temperature – Though few brewers have dedicated fermentation refrigerators, there are simple methods you can use to maintain a constant temperature for ales during fermentation. The best technique I’ve seen is to pick a cool, dry area in your home and then wrap the fermentor in wet towels and place a fan in front of it. Wet the towels every 12 hours or so, and you should get a steady fermentation temperature in the 66-68F range. Most brewing shops sell stick-on thermometers that can be attached to your fermentation vessel to monitor the temperature.
  7. Switch to a Full Batch Boil – Boiling all of your wort will benefit to your beer. If you are only boiling 2-3 gallons of a 5 gallon batch, then you are not getting the full benefits of a 60-90 minute boil. The purchase of a 7-12 gallon brew pot and (highly recommended) outdoor propane burner (which will make the spouse happy as you now brew outside) are great intermediate steps for moving to all-grain brewing and the full boils will improve your beer.
  8. Use Glass Fermenters – Glass carboys (or stainless) fermenters offer significant advantages over the typical plastic bucket. First they are much easier to clean and sterilize. Second, glass (or stainless) provides a 100% oxygen barrier, where plastic buckets are porous and can leak oxygen if stored for long periods. Third, plastic fermenters often have very poor seals around the top of the bucket and can leak in both directions making it difficult to determine when fermentation has actually completed. A 5 gallon glass carboy will do the job better, and is available at a very reasonable price from most stores.
  9. Make a Yeast Starter – While pitching directly from a tube or packet of liquid yeast is OK, your beer will ferment better if you make a yeast starter first. Boil up a small amount of dried malt extract in a quart of water with 1/4 oz of hops. Cool it well and then pitch your yeast into it 2-3 days before you brew. Install some foil or an airlock over it and place it in a cool dark location. When brew day comes, pitching your starter will result in a quicker start and less risk of infection or off flavors.
  10. Make Long Term Purchases – You may have started brewing with an off-the-shelf kit, but if you enjoy brewing then you are best off making long term purchases rather than a series of short term purchases. For example, early on I bought a 3 gallon pot, then a 5 gallon pot, then an 8 gallon enamel pot and finally a 9 gallon stainless. It would have been much cheaper to jump to the 9 gallon stainless after the 3 gallon pot. Similarly I’ve had several sizes of immersion chillers, finally settling on a two stage 3/8″ diameter copper coil. If you instead make long term purchases (a good pot, a good chiller, glass carboys, a nice mash tun/cooler) you will save a lot of money in the long run.

I hope you enjoyed today’s suggestions!

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{ 62 comments… read them below or add one }

Jkennen April 21, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Got in late but just to comment on the bucket/Carboy debate, I never hear much about the option of fermenting in corny kegs. I’ve used these from the inception of my homwbrewing and they work great. No breaking, no light, easy to use handles, no plastic, easy to clean, easy to rig a blow off tube, etc. etc. Cut a couple inches off the dip tube and use co2 to transfer beer and trub left at bottom. Put in full dip tube to harvest yeast. Only gripe I’ve heard is lack of headspace but its the same as a 5 gal Carboy. If your worried pt a dollar pack of anti foam in brew and no issues.

Justin May 12, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Number 4 is interesting…here in Australia there are a lot of experienced home brewers now using the “no chill” method, i.e. storing their hot wort in plastic containers (“cubes”) with the air squeezed out, sometimes for weeks before transferring to their fermentation vessel and pitching their yeast. I’m curious to know why NOT getting the proteins and tannins out of their wort via rapid chilling is apparently not a problem for their end beer?

michael May 13, 2013 at 11:43 pm

GREAT site gents,,,
my question is about 44 gall drums of liquid coopers extract used by the U BREW IT self brew outlets,
How long is it after these drums are open is it until oxydisation is an issue…what is the issue

Secondly there is a common taste /medecine like to all their beers, a down side of extract ??? or can
a reasonable beer be made with extract… They have powdered yeast, one ale yeast,one lager, for a hundred supposed different beers. I like the convenience of their facility but the beer is not up to scratch,, anything i can do ?
thanks guys keep up the good work.

Brad Smith May 22, 2013 at 10:15 pm

If done properly, your supplier will actually pressurize the large drum with CO2 so it does not oxidize. I don’t know the exact amount of time before oxidization becomes obvious for a large vat like that exposed to air however.

If you have a medicine taste it is probably not the extracts. The most likely cause of a medicine or band-aid taste is chlorophenols – usually from Chlorine in the water you used or excessive extra bleach used when cleaning. Some related flavors such as tannins (bitter) you might also perceive as medicinal.

You can make outstanding beer with extracts – it is a matter of using quality ingredients (use liquid yeast if you can get it), fermenting at the proper temperatures, pitching a proper size yeast starter, etc…

Richard August 20, 2013 at 4:42 am

Mostly I fully agree, but I would just like to comment on no. 8: using glass fermenters in preference to plastic buckets. I thought the same until one carboy neck snapped during a transfer and the carboy fell on the floor and shattered. The large thick shards are lethal weapons and I was lucky to get away without serious cuts to my feet. I also lost the brew… so I now use “Better Bottles”, they are impermeable to oxygen, as easy to clean as glass, reasonable price and much safer.

Alan McKay October 20, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Mostly agree except 3 and 8.

3 – nothing is ever sterile. Period. In brewing we “sanitize”, we do not “sterilize”. It may be seen as quibbling but I think there is an important difference.

8 – I used to think that too but I’ve known far too many brewers over the years producing world class beer in plastic. It just ain’t true …

Alex Kopf October 21, 2013 at 11:29 am

I would add two more tips:
- Don’t use bleach, switch to iodophor. It doesn’t leave a residual aroma/taste and it doesn’t corrode stainlees, like bleach will.
- Write down everything you do, everything you measure, and everything you observe. You can’t get any better if you don’t know what you’re actually doing. Plus, it will get you in the habit of actually doing the measurements if you make up a worksheet beforehand to fill in every step, and you won’t skip any steps.

Heineken Kegerators December 16, 2013 at 2:59 am

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Craig February 9, 2014 at 11:42 am

Good tips for the most part, but I also agree with what Alan McKay says.

I switched from Glass Carboys to a home made 16G plastic conical (based on Hess Brewery design) and make 12G batches. I find it far easier than glass carboys in terms of cleaning and making beer. I’ve had no issues with the quality of my beer, it’s every bit as good as I used to make in glass carboys.

Neil February 26, 2014 at 7:56 am

Great tips! Also agree with almost all. I like 10 especially.

I have brewed with dry yeast and lots of liquid yeast with great results. I thought good quality commercial dry yeast are captured at a healthy stage. Good pitching rates and adequate oxygenation I think more important than just liquid yeast (with low pitch and no oxygenation).

Tim March 4, 2014 at 8:12 pm

Thanks for tips Brad!
Awesome collection.

James March 25, 2014 at 8:49 am

I’d like to second the comment from Alex Kopf about keeping track of every brew session. Nothing has improved my beer more than that. Anyone can make a good batch of beer once. A good brewer can make the same good batch of beer over and over. If you use BeerSmith, print your brew steps and keep notes on there during the session, then copy whatever recipe you’re brewing to the brew log and enter your notes when you’re done.

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