Ten Top Tips for Home Brewing Beer

by Brad Smith on February 16, 2008 · 82 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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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Skipdogchip February 17, 2008 at 10:38 pm

#11. Always invite a few “non” brewing buddies over on brewing and bottling day. Chances are, they’ll catch the brewing also.

Mike February 18, 2008 at 3:16 pm

nice entry only thing is brewers sanitize, not sterlize. At least all but the crazy ones. 🙂

BeerSmith February 18, 2008 at 3:20 pm

Mike – Thanks for the comment – I just edited the post to reflect “Sanitize” vice “sterilize”

Thomas February 19, 2008 at 11:00 am

Plastic buckets are much easier to clean than glass. Glass is great to clean until one shatters because you weren’t careful enough with your temperature control. Not to mention how many times I have heard of them breaking under other conditions until I can afford a conical fermenter I go with the buckets. Sure I have to toss them occasionally, but I can always find use for the buckets when I am done brewing with them.

Full boil is great when you have room, but late addition extract has proved very useful in my partial mash batches and for alot of people getting started far more practical than that large purchases you suggest.

BeerSmith February 19, 2008 at 6:20 pm

Thomas,
Thanks for the suggestions – appreciate your perspective.

You will be happy to know that one of the upcoming articles is on late extract additions.

Thomas February 20, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Well, I understand glass vs plastic is a matter of taste, frankly they both work. I help at my local homebrew shop and I try to present the good and bad of both. I just have a personal taste to the plastic.

LeeA February 22, 2008 at 10:30 am

What about using plastic spring water jugs? Are they any less porous than plastic buckets.

aaron February 22, 2008 at 9:38 pm

Carboys are much easier to clean than buckets? What?? Not even close. A bucket is wide open, a carboy is not. Having both a bucket and carboy that are equally dirty, a bucket is MUCH faster to get clean and sanitized. I definitely do not agree about carboys being easier. Also, why do you say sterilize? That is not necessary. The largest breweries in the world don’t. Sanitization (which is not the same) is all that is necessary.

BeerSmith February 23, 2008 at 12:07 am

The advantage of glass over plastic is twofold. First it is easier to sanitize. Glass won’t trap food or bacteria, and if it is dirty it is quite obvious. With a long bottle brush it is easy to clean. In contrast, even food grade plastic has a surface that will trap bacteria over time. Second, glass is airtight while plastic is porus. Plastic bucket covers are also notorious for leaking air.

All that being said, you can make great beer in a plastic bucket or jug, as long as you keep it sanitized (I guess sterile may be a less precise word), and airtight. You need to inspect your plastic equipment periodically to make sure it is in good condition and not leaking air, scratched or dirty.

It is a matter of preference – but my personal experience was much better with glass than plastic.

LeeA February 24, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Im experimenting with spring water jugs as a secondary fermenter, sanitized of course, and using the spring water to brew with. I see an advantage with being able to trade for new jugs to ferment in and have a good supply of clean water for pretty cheap.

BeerSmith February 24, 2008 at 1:55 pm

LeeA – I believe the spring water jugs are fine, though I would recommend getting a new one every few batches as they will collect some bacteria and scrateches over time.

Dacelo G. March 19, 2008 at 7:39 pm

What’s all this about sanitize/sterilize? “Sanitize” is just a fancy alternative to the verb “to clean”. Make everything as sterile as you can. Non-yeast bugs and fungi in your brew can’t possibly do it any good.

The tips are all good. The one about temperature control is not great, though. Ambient temperature can differ considerably from day to day, and especially from day to night. Your brew is better kept at an even temperature throughout fermentation. Put your whole fermenter into an insulated plastic or metal container and surround it with water. Use a thermometer. Drop chunks of ice in the water when it is too warm; pour warm water in it if it gets too cold. Siphon some of the water out when it is too full.

rudraigh March 21, 2008 at 9:26 am

While the *type* of effort is different, the *amount* of effort is the same when cleaning buckets or carboys. A bucket may be wide open but, because carboys don’t have the sharp angle between the side and the bottom that a bucket does, it’s easier to get that part clean.

Thomas, want some cheese with that whine? Glass is superior to plastic and a full boil is superior to a partial boil. Your particular circumstances don’t change that. The best things I ever did for my brewing were to buy a 7.5 gallon kettle and a 6.5 gallon glass carboy.

Brad, nice post.

Joe American November 18, 2008 at 10:29 am

Another tip (my two cents):
Newbies shouldn’t splurge on expensive equipment such as glass carboys or large stainless brewpots, at least not in the beginning.

After brewing a several batches, if you like doing it, and have had success, then upgrade. If you’re unhappy, then you’re not out alot of cash.

2009 August 14, 2009 at 6:41 pm

clean is visable. if u cannot see dirt, it is clean.
sanitary is most bacteria, say… 95%
sterile is im getting my guts ripped into and i dont want to die of an infection. 99.999% germ free, hospital standards. to sterilize you would need more bleach for longer and end up with bandaid beer. or more beer birght or whatever the case is.

Gord M. February 16, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Hi…After reading this article and the one on aeration, I have come away with some confusion. Quick background…my interest is in brewing ales, so I purchased a book by C.J.J.Berry and several “kits” to get started. The book made specific reference to the use of a plastic fermentation bin with a loose fitting lid to avoid any off/sour taste. He also advocated the gentle agitation of the wort under the “pancake” to admit oxygen. In all my attempts I have had difficulty with sluggish fermentation and bringing the SG below 1010. I am assuming from these articles that oxygen is essential in the lag phase before pitching, and to be avoided thereafter. Would that be accurate?

Brad Smith February 16, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Yes – you want oxygen present only before you pitch the wort. After the wort has fermented, oxygen will ruin your beer.

Gord M. February 24, 2010 at 8:47 am

Hi again…I mentioned your useage of a glass carboy as a primary fermenter to a winemaker. On the assumtion we are talking about a standard 5 gal carboy, he put forth the concern that the yeast pancake could create an overflow through the air lock, given the minimal head space left in the carboy. If such an event may happen, could I first prepare a wort in a plastic fermenter, aerate, and then siphon it equally into two cardoys?

Brad Smith February 24, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Yeast blocking the airlock is a real problem if you use a conventional stopper and airlock. However, if you do a search here on the blog for the article on “Burton method” you will find that you can use a large diameter hose and separate tank to form your own airlock and avoid plugging the top of the carboy.

luke rensink May 7, 2010 at 4:04 am

if you are going to comment please get your facts straight. say 95%? if you have 100,000 bacteria ,which is very low, and you kill only 95% you still have 5000 bacteria. if the bacterias generation time is 30 mins in three hours you have 320,000 bacteria and this will ruin your beer. the word sanitize is the reduction of bacteria by 99.9% (3 logs) and sterilize is the statistical destruction and removal of all living organisms. 99.999% (5 logs) in 30 seconds. its really not that big of a deal everyone knows what the author meant. i found this article very informative. i agree with him on glass is better for the beer, but i think it is harder on the brewer. plastic gives off some funky tastes sometimes and can only be used a handfull of times because of the way it can house pathogens in little cuts. if you are starting out or fermenting than less for two weeks use plastic. if longer, use glass. about aeration yeast cells need oxygen for metabolism. aeration should only be done right before pitching the yeast and only if the wort is below 80 degrees F, otherwise it will ozidize. and lets remember we are all on the same side. brew drink and be merry. 🙂

FenoMeno May 14, 2010 at 7:37 pm

Are you saying to boil the 1/4 Oz of yeast with the starter DME? Not sure how to pull that off with Whilte Labs or smack packs…I have never added yeast to my starters: boil/chill/pitch/stirplate.
Am I missing something?

I recently heard someone say it was beneficial to boil the DME in a similair beer (in lieu of water)of which you are pitching into. Any validity in that? I suspect nominal–

admin May 14, 2010 at 8:11 pm

No,
You definitely do not want to boil your yeast. You boil some hops and malt in water, then after it cools add your yeast to make a starter. If you do a search here on the blog you will find that there is an entire article on how to make yeast starters. — Brad

Steve November 9, 2010 at 12:11 am

Gday. I have an old tea urn that boils at least 25 litres of wort and I run it through a home made copper pipe chiller in a bucket of icy water to chill it down. It can be a slow process but I usually get the temp to approx 15 – 17 degrees . If needed I have an old fridge set up with an autmatic temp controller which was very cheap and easy to wire and set up. ( I can give details if needed) . The temp controller which also has a probe in the wort gives me complete control of the temp. I have brewed on and off for years but not as easily as now with good temp control, lagers especially. I would like to be able to chill the wort more quickly though . I have not seen how the chillers you can buy from the HBS work . What can any one recommend– Steve

Jim May 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm

This weekend my neighbor, who is moving to a new place, gave me a couple of old beer kits. I am sure they are several years old since he hasn’t brewed in the two years we have been neighbors. I am sure the hops is shot and the yeast is dead. Is there any way to salvage the canned malt extract and still produce a reasonable beer or is it a lost cause? I always try to get fresh ingredients so, I have never looked into how one might salvage some clearly old ingredients.

Beer Making June 9, 2011 at 4:57 am

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Day Tripper June 12, 2011 at 10:09 pm

“Boil up a small amount of dried malt extract in a quart of water with 1/4 oz of yeast. Cool it well and then pitch your yeast into it 2-3 days before you brew. ”

Fwiw, I noticed someone else caught the obvious error in that sentence. No doubt the “1/4 oz of yeast” was supposed to be “1/4 oz of hops” (added for antimicrobial properties). But the error persists…

C Dettenwanger June 17, 2011 at 7:32 pm

I agree that investing in better equipment is worth it: so long as you’re really serious about it. I went crazy and splurged when I got started, having never made beer before. I bought a 7 gal heavy duty steel pot, 2 igloo coolers, copper cooling coil, a chest freezer off craigslist, the works. I started in April and this weekend will be my 40th gal batch. Anyway, so long as you are really into it, invest. Better equipment makes a WORLD of difference in quality.

The other thing I might add is if ou have the option, do buy an outdoor propane burner. I unfortunately do not have that option, as I live in a 3rd story apartment. Boiling 6 gallons of liquid on an electric burner destroys it really fast. I’ve already replaced 1 burner.

tom June 23, 2011 at 6:36 pm

plate chillers work best for fast cooling and magnetic stirrer is best way to get starter going

rodg hannok September 14, 2011 at 5:56 am

great site, thanks for the info and tips……me and the boss invested in a home brew set-up about 2 years ago as we are Aussies, love our beer,and sick of paying way to much for a slab.now we produce top beer for stuff all,BEWARE HOME BREWING IS ADDICTIVE.

Glen Giddens October 15, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I totally agree with everything in you article. I’ve built the majority of my equipment, and really enjoyed doing it nearly as much as I do using it. But if you review the basics you mention, before you brew, you’ll be brewing better beer.
Thanks for the time you put into your list.
Glen Giddens, Montgomery, Texas.

Jose M November 23, 2011 at 10:46 pm

your articles are awesome , and very useful , I bought your software one year ago and is an icredible tool , is hard to find exellent beers in my country so the only way was making it , I learn to brew in england when I was travelling ,its change my life , thanks for beersmith and your practical information is a lot of help !!!
Jose Miguel Iñiguez , Constitucion , Chile.

Gale W December 24, 2011 at 2:45 am

Very good advice. I would like to add my opinion based on my experience.
1. You cannot have a pot that is too big. I boil my wort in a 12 gallon pot and have reduced my boil over chances.
It also allows me to boil extra so that when I cool the wort I don’t feel bad wasting the nasties.
I have a 15 gallon pot for the hot water which is very handy.
Check out your local sporting good stores. They usually have very good pots at cheaper prices.
2. After putting my chilled wort in a 6 gallon fermentor I refrigerate it for 30-60 min.
You would be amazed at the addition unfermentable that precipitate out(using Whirlfloc).
I siphon the clear wort off, aerate, and pitch my yeast starter. My beers have turened out clear and clean.
3. Another trick I use on the boil is don’t start your boil “time” until after the hot break. this puts less pressure on the brewer having to do too much in just an hour or so. Pay attention to the hot break then move on from there. A 90 minute boil is good advice.
4. I pre-sanitize my wort chiller in the left over hot water prior to chillin. After the chill I put it back in the left over hot water to clean off the wort and hops.
Thats it!

bcul February 6, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Brad:
These are all great suggestions. I have learned over the years that the brew that doesn’t quite work out is because I have neglected to observe one of these.

Case in point. The last batch was ruined from the outset because I pitched from the package as was instructed on the Wyeast Activator pack. The package didn’t expand all the way, and the instructions said that was okay, just pitch anyway. I did – the fermentation took two days to get into full swing and infection took over.

I would add that before you pitch make sure you aerate the wort fully. I do this by sloshing the wort back and forth between two sanitized containers before transferring to the fermenter.

Thanks Brad,

steve draper February 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm

im making a home brew kit, real ale, but when i open the bottles it fizzes up disturbing the sediment what am i doing wrong any suggestions appreciated
many thanks

John Armstrong February 22, 2012 at 9:33 pm

I started brewing with a kit that my wife brought as a Christmas present. It took 6 weeks from start to finish, and made a six pack. I immediately realized we had a production scale problem. I scaled everything up for five gallon batches, but being cheap I was creative in sourcing my fermenter. Dairy Farmers use an iodine solution to dip their cows teats ( OK, tits ) in after milking. It is commonly referred to as “tit dip”. Since my cousin was a dairy farmer, I was able to acquire two of these 15 gallon jugs to use as fermenters. They have a 3 inch primary opening that is flanged, threaded and gasketed. I have never had a seal problem, and a modified car boy brush makes a great scrubber. I have been brewing for 10 years, and recently acquired a glass car boy for secondary fermentation. That’s my story. You don’t have to spend a fortune on equipment to get started. If you are going to spend money, spend it on quality ingredients.

Brad Smith February 26, 2012 at 11:41 am

Steve – if you are getting excessive carbonation you might cut down on the sugar you are using to prime the bottles. Also if you leave your beer in the fermenter a bit longer you will likely see less sediment in the bottles (though some will always be there).

GreatBrewEh.com March 23, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Save yourself a ton of work and invest in some pumps, I hated my gravity feed system now I enjoy my hobby more as I can tilt the elbow a little more during brew day. Check these bad boys March Type Brew Pumps at http://www.GreatBrewEh.com, lot cheaper and good quality units. & $79.95

Rifter April 5, 2012 at 6:17 pm

I have heard all the arguments of glass vs plastic. Here is my real question. We know that plastic is “porous”… but how porous is it? Has anyone found out?

I guess from a more technical view… Oxygen (O2) should in theory have an atomic weight of 16, while Water is 10… shouldn’t water molecules be smaller, and able to fit through a surface easier? I haven’t seen overly wet buckets from seepage. Though, I am more interested in plastic carboys.

In *MY* limited research, the possible scratches in plastic that hold nasty little organisms is probably the biggest hit against plastic. The fact that glass carboys can shatter, and that can be a catastrophe is the biggest hit against glass.

Grifter April 30, 2012 at 11:08 pm

Yo Rifter:
Oxygen has an atomic weight of 16 ==> molecular weight is 32. Water molecular weight is 18. But there’s more to diffusion through plastic than simply molecular weight…
sincerely
the grifter

jeremy May 20, 2012 at 3:43 am

i am making my second lot of beer and i have bottled it all and 5 out of 34 bottles look like they have gone muddy or something can anyone please tell me what is going wrong as the rest of it looks normal

Kerry Hales May 20, 2012 at 6:53 pm

I use a Hobby Beverage conical for fermentation and have done so for over 10 years. I have never had an issue with fermentation except finding a freezer big enough to put the conical into. I sanitize the conical with Oxiclean
and then rinse with Iodophor solution that needs no rinsing.

I use a regular washcloth to scrub it down on the inside. I have never (NEVER) had an infection get into my beer. I love the Hobby system because it is inexpensive, lightweight and easy to clean. Sure, if I had the cash, I would get stainless conical fermentation vessels. But I highly recommend the Hobby Brewing Conical if you can’t get a SS conical.

Kerry Hales May 20, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Rifter, there is really no need to worry if you have a plastic bucket. If you sanitize it well, the chances of a wild yeast or bacterial infection are slim, especially with a good starter yeast. I brewed for years with just a bucket and never had an issue with contamination. I moved to HDPE conical and don’t think I will ever get rid of them. They seem to work fine.

The “Problem” with conical is they take up a lot of space. Other than that, I would recommend a conical as the best fermentation vessel. There are pretty good reasons commercial breweries use conical.

That being said, you can ferment just fine with a bucket. Just keep it as clean as possible and watch the inside for small scratches and clean the valve on the front if you have that type of bucket.

NivlemRulz June 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

I saw that it was suggested to use a blow off method to primary in a 5 gallon glass carboy. I always primary in my plastic bucket 4-7 days and secondary in a glass carboy ~2 weeks. I’ve been considering getting a 6.5 gallon glass carboy for primary, I think you could then use a standard airlock…also having a carboy that big is great if you need the space to add ingredients when you rack into a secondary. Anyone else primary in a 6.5 gallon carboy?

Brad Smith June 27, 2012 at 12:25 pm

I have a 6.5 and it is large enough to contain a 5 gallon fermentation without spilling over.

Scott July 18, 2012 at 12:02 am

What about using Ozone to sterilize the water for brewing? It kills everything and then degrades to Oxygen in a few hours and leaves no residual. Your water is germ free and oxygenated. Alot less water to boil.

graftme August 24, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Hey, for the most part this is good info, however some of you guys are getting way to technical for the beginner. I started brewing 6 years ago, my first batch was a mr. Brew kit my boys got me. I quickly moved to partial mash recommended by my brew store. I am now all grain, I use both a 6.5 gallon glass Carboy and a plastic bucket. I brew 3 to batches a month. Fr experience I can say the plastic buckets are easier to clean. However, the glass carboy allows you to see the fermentation process, giving you fuller controll of what is going on, and of it is fermenting properly. As far as keeping it at the proper temp while fermenting, make a small room of you can, and install an air conditioner in it.

Jason Mitchell September 26, 2012 at 10:01 am

Brad;

I had a question in regards to #5 (boiling 60-90 min). I’ve been homebrewing for 5 years, switching to all-grain last year. Every one of my batches have been at least 60 minute boils. However, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a couple of quick extract batches (w/ steeping grains) to get my “inventory” back up and save a little time in the process. One recipe I’m looking at has a 45min hop addition as the only bittering addition. Since I won’t be using any grains (besides the steep), are there any negatives in not completing a 60+ minute boil, and performing a 30-45min boil?

Thanks for the help;

Jason

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