Brewing Tips and Tricks

Been homebrewing beer for eight or nine years, now. Learnt a lot and will continue learning a lot. IMHO, blogs are the perfect way to share things you’ve learnt but I’ve yet to share much “brewing wisdom” on my blog.

Here are a few things I’ve learnt, so far. Some of these are quite obvious, some I’ve learnt the hard way, some are somewhat controversial, and some are more matters of opinion. I could classify them, but I won’t.

A few of these things I’ve learnt while working at a wine-making store, after having brewed for several years. Some I’ve learnt through fellow brewclub members or the Interwebs. Most come from direct experience.

  • There’s a difference between a steel scrubby and stainless steel scrubby.
  • A rubber bung can stick so strongly to the inside of a carboy’s neck that the carboy can explode under pressure from fermentation.
  • Some of the best beers are brewed during the weirdest brewing sessions.
  • From brewing, you get a new perspective on all sorts of things, from biochemistry and physics to hardware and grocery stores.
  • Any ingredient can find it’s place in beer. (I’m especially fond of playing with spices, herbs, grains, sugars, and fruits.)
  • Whatever crazy thing you think of in terms of brewing has probably been thought up by somebody else. (Turns out, I’m not the only one brewing with hibiscus flowers.)
  • It’s important to taste everything you brew, at every step. (A yeast starter is especially important to taste before adding to your wort.)
  • Everything which touches your wort after boiling needs to be thoroughly sanitized. (Sanitizing anything else is overkill but it’s easy enough to do that it doesn’t matter.)
  • Yeast is a strange beast: some yeast strains are really finicky, others can withstand almost anything. (Any strain which has been used for beer can produce great results.)
  • There’s something strangely fun about reusing yeast.
  • Dropping wort on top of a yeast cake makes fermentation take off like crazy.
  • In some conditions, primary fermentation can be over within 24 hours.
  • Grain freshness doesn’t really matter but the freshness of every other ingredient does matter quite a bit.
  • A cheap digital scale with 1 g precision is among the most useful tools in a homebrewer’s arsenal.
  • There’s no correlation between the quality of the beer and how “hi-tech” your equipment is.
  • Find a no-rinse sanitizer you like and use it extensively.
  • “Clean as you go” is an important rule.
  • A Bruheat boiler makes a very cool mash-tun for step mashes if you put a false bottom or grain bag in it. (I use a zapap-style “bucket with holes” in mine.)
  • There might be ways to achieve the same results as a decoction but it’s still fun to do, once in a while.
  • It’s essential to clean a Bruheat’s heating element between mashing and boiling.
  • A PDA or smartphone has its place in the brewery.
  • It’s perfectly possible to brew in an apartment, especially if you have storage space.
  • A basement makes an excellent site for a homebrewery.
  • The more room you have for brewing, the more room it takes.
  • Auto-siphons do make life a lot easier and there’s probably no reason not to use them.
  • Splitting batches is an efficient way to experiment with diverse ingredients.
  • Brewing gets you to experience beer in a new way.
  • It’s much easier to do several brewing-related activities on the same day than doing them on separate days.
  • Siphoning a sanitizing solution through your equipment is an efficient way to sanitize everything.
  • Those bottle-washers you put on your faucet are really useful for both bottles and carboys.
  • A spray bottle is an excellent tool to quickly sanitize equipment.
  • To make a gallon of StarSan solution, you can use 8 g of StarSan.
  • Cold outside weather might be the most efficient way to chill wort.
  • Brewing on a whim is fun.
  • Throwing beer away should only be done when there’s a huge problem. (Even then, you could probably make vinegar or something.)
  • Don’t be afraid of brewing sour beers.
  • There are many ways to add coffee in beer.
  • “Hot side aeration” isn’t anything to worry about.
  • Do stir the mash, there’s a reason brewing is called «brassage» (“stirring”) in French.
  • A restaurant-size long-handled skimmer works well as a way to stir the mash as well as to skim the wort.
  • As there probably no way (at home) to produce the exact same beer twice in a row, it makes more sense to make every batch significantly different from all the previous ones.
  • The more frequently you brew, the easier it is to maintain your equipment.
  • Brewclubs make every aspect of brewing more enjoyable.
  • Papazian’s “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew” is a brewer’s mantra.
  • Anything you start worrying about makes brewing less fun and probably doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it does.

There are many things I still haven’t learnt. Some should be obvious

  • How to make bottling fun, even when I’m alone.
  • How to plan my brewing sessions so that I have everything set up beforehand.
  • The volumes of some of my vessels. Haven’t graduated any of them, actually.
  • Whether or not I should skim the hot break.
  • The perfect moment to rack to secondary.
  • An efficient way to stagger my brew so that I do several activities on the same day.
  • The joys of using a refractometer. (But I’m getting one soon.)
  • The importance of proteins in brewing.

15 thoughts on “Brewing Tips and Tricks”

  1. J-cloth look-alike scott towels should be added to the list of pieces of useful equipment. Started using them on Saturday and I’m liking them quite a bit in a brewing context.

  2. Great list.

    One important one you missed (that covers things like “Some of the best beers are brewed during the weirdest brewing sessions.” and “Don’t worry about HSA”):

    – Brewing (at home) is much more art than science: everyone has an opinion, but they’re all simultaneously wrong and right. Do what works for you, then do it better next time.

    Hmm.. guess that turned into more than a bullet point, but I think it’s important for all brewers to come to grips with the fact that beer WANTS to be made, the details just make it better.


  3. “beer WANTS to be made, the details just make it better.”
    Good one!
    I tend to agree with your point about art and science and, as you probably know, I’m more of a “Belgian artist” than a “German engineer,” when it comes to brewing.

  4. My addition is:

    # Use an instant-read meat thermometer. It is easy to underestimate how much this helps.

    Also, there’s one that I disagree with, mildly.

    As there probably no way (at home) to produce the exact same beer twice in a row, it makes more sense to make every batch significantly different from all the previous ones.

    Maybe I’d say instead:

    # Depending on your process, there can be a high amount of variance inherent to the brewing process. This variance often makes measuring, controlling, and tweaking your results difficult.

    And then I’d leave it up to the brewer to decide how to react.

  5. @Anonymous Thanks for dropping by.
    I actually maintain my point about variance. As I said at the onset, some of these points are based on my opinions and this one is quite important, in my brewing philosophy. I’ve been saying something much similar with the home barista craft (though I wasn’t talking about variance). In a way, it’s a call to “be reasonable in your expectations.” And it goes with the point about art.
    The “significantly different” matters, here. I don’t mean “then do every batch completely different from the previous one.” I even disagree that tweaking results would be difficult. I think it’s quite easy to tweak results but that we lack “precision,” at home. Tweaking is pretty much the kind of significant change I had in mind. Tweaking in an artful way, based on significance, not on precision.
    Part of the philosophical basis of this is distinguishing craft brewing (from large regional breweries to our home “nanobreweries”) from macrobreweries. Macros consistently produce the same beers and expand tremendous resources in efforts to do so. Some micros do try to achieve the same level of consistency as macros but they’re not necessarily that successful, if you get down to the details. As my post was about homebrewing, it was a way for me to push a point about an advantage of homebrewing over macro-like brewing.
    As for “depending on your process,” I’m not sure the degree of variance ranges that widely across homebreweries. At least, if you think “in the grand scheme of things.” Some commercial craft breweries (brewpub and bigger) do achieve a certain level of consistency. I have yet to hear of a homebrewery producing that consistent a set of results as those commercial breweries. In other words, in terms of variance, I perceive a discontinuity between home and commercial breweries. Scale is a major difference. So is the brewing frequency: no homebrewer I know brews three times a day, five days a week. The precision of brewing equipment is an obvious factor that is easy to overestimate. Cost is another reason as consistency can be very costly and most homebrewers don’t have that much money to spend on it. But there’s also a matter of context and brewing philosophy: there’s no pressure to be that consistent when brewing at home, and most homebrewers do like to drink different beers (even if they tend to adopt the “German Engineer” model).
    My position may seem radical. And I might sound much more opinionated than I probably am. But there’s a whole logic behind this attitude toward homebrewing: it’s supposed to be fun.

  6. You’re so right about steel vs. stainless steel. This one is generalizable. Rust never sleeps.

    I’ll throw a corollary at Sean @ #2. We don’t always start out doing something that works, for us or anyone else. So the first step has to be to find something that works. I’m speaking here of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and thinking about skill/knowledge acquisition more generally – it helps a lot to be shown (the, a) right way first as a basis for independent experimentation later.

    Speaking of which, one of the more delightful, famous and successful instructional books I’ve run across is Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, the transcription of his field notes from a lifetime of teaching golf. Flesh your bullet points out with some folksy wisdom and you may really be on to something here!

  7. @Carl Now we’re talking!
    I actually used this comment as an example, tonight. My post was about a relatively geeky topic and you picked it up. Which probably wouldn’t happen if I had, say, a separate blog about blogging.
    This is a case in which I think it’s better to not separate things out.

    The rust thing is much funnier when I tell the whole story. That would give it a folksy flavour… 😉

    As for skill acquisition, it’s an interesting way to put it, in general terms. In fact, it reminds me of the Chowhound’s “Slightly Better Muffin” concept. There’s a more contextual piece to this (many brewers are obsessed with constant improvement) but it all makes sense.

  8. Yeah go ahead, make and example of me, I can take it. :-p

    The only thing that worries me about the constant improvement thing is that without some care and humor it’s fundamentally anomic. I mean, in principle everything is incrementally improvable but trying to live that way would be exhausting, not to mention that satisfaction is always in the receding future. So for lots of things I’m a big fan of ‘good enough’ and at least in history, so are most humans most of the time.

    Over at my place I recently linked to an interesting post about cave art, which did not change for thousands of years. The analysis was that this must have been a thoroughly satifying culture, unlike our own in which we seem to need to change things every couple of minutes.

  9. @Carl If, as you’ve said, I’m your blogfather, I must treat you as my blogson. So I used this example to point out that having disparate subjects on the same blog can have surprising effects.
    I have a difficult relationship with the “constant improvement” thing. To me, it sounds Calvinistic. Even in art, I prefer to go in different directions than thinking in terms of “constant improvement.”
    What you say about good enough also connects with my (in)famous “Belgian artist and German engineer” model. Though I use generalizing terms, I mean these in relative terms. (Add “typically,” “frequently,” and “as far as I can tell” in any of these.) There’s some kind of saying that “to an engineer, ‘good enough’ is perfect, to an artist, there’s no such thing as perfection.” (Googling it, I see it comes from Alexander Calder.) An engineer friend of mine replied that engineers don’t believe in “good enough” and I do see that. At the same time, there’s a difference in goal achievement. Engineers have clear goal that they think they can achieve. Artists typically have broad targets for what they want to achieve and achieving goals isn’t seen as realistic or, even, that important.
    There’s even an issue of control. Engineers control their worlds precisely. They need to take all variables into account and produce something which will do exactly what it’s supposed to do. Artists willingly share control with the material at hand, they “listen” to what that material says and will produce something which, they find, fills the need they had set for themselves.
    In brewing, a major difference in attitude has to do with the fact that we’re playing with living organisms. I’m thinking of yeast cells but the same is true of hops and malted barley: their characteristics vary because they were produced by living organism.
    Even among engineer-like brewers, there’s something which sounds mystical when we talk about yeast. We say that we brew wort to “make yeast happy.” And yeast can be quite “finicky” in that it requires very precise conditions which aren’t necessarily under the control of the brewer.
    Commercial brewing is clearly about engineering. There’s creativity involved, no doubt. But the main goal is to control as many variables as possible. Finicky yeast is unacceptable.
    Craft brewing can be about art. About “craft” in the strong sense. Carefully crafting a beer does mean exercising some control but you also “listen to the beer.” Several homebrewers seem to despise the “touchy-feely” aspect of this but it’s quite common. The idea is, as in cooking, to use your judgement. In a way, brewing can become quite “mechanical” in these contexts, as you go through the motions unthinkingly. But while you may not consciously think about diverse variables, your experience of brewing informs your every gesture.

    Back on “good enough” vs. “constant improvement.” Through my folkloristic training, I’ve gained a specific understanding of this difference.
    I define “tradition” as “continuity through change.” No notion of “static” or even “old.” There’s no teleology involved either. Much of it tends to be about adaptation. Not more than “biological evolution” is there any notion of “progress.” Natural selection is contextual, being “fittest” isn’t a value judgement. Traditional practises can be about “making do” and adopting new strategies in direct connection with old ones.
    Modernity, on the other hand, is about discontinuity. Not only do things change, but the notion is to “make things change.” Improvement is eventually about a qualitative jump. Kuhn’s paradigm shift to Foucault’s épistémè. There’s also a notion of struggle with change, but the basic mode is goal-oriented. I do perceive this specific notion as Calvinistic, in a casual sense. The very concept of “earning” (which had to look for, because it’s not that much part of my active lexicon) is tied with this.

    Of course, I’m grateful for the insight on historical perspectives and satisfaction. It does help. In my mental scheme, I see satisfaction in relation to a broad form of hedonism which, instead of a quest or a struggle, is a way of life.
    I might be wrong, but I’m happy.

  10. Confirmed: refractometers rule.
    I’m thinking about repurposing some of these tips and tricks. And I’m still thinking about other aspects of brewing, including logging brewing data, experimentation, etc.

  11. I keep making my beers to hoppy for my taste is something i could put in them during second stage to kill off some of that hoppiness??

  12. I want to make bookmarks for my husband. What are some general reminders, hints or tips I can use for an intermediate brewer?

    1. Really nice of you!
      It’s a rather general question, though. I’d say that if your husband doesn’t listen to a brewing podcast (like Basic Brewing or the Jamil Show) and doesn’t belong to a local brewclub, these are the first things to get into. Then, there’s a good deal of excellent sites about brewing. I’m partial to the venerable because it’s long been the most appropriate source for reliable info. I remember that the brewing section of was quite interesting. Some people like HomeBrewTalk but it’s restricted (you need to pay to get access to some interesting things). Then there’s a bunch of brewblogs, some online brewing software, lots of club sites have valuable info ( and both have unique info on yeast, for instance), and even online brewshops are valuable.
      Hope this helps.

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