Learnings from 5 years of brewing

What I've learned 5 years 'in' about brewing

There was a time a winter or two back when I was sitting in my man shed watching Star Trek: The Voyage Home and I was wrapped in a blanket but still freezing and I cracked open a beer I made -  a loose clone of Steinlager, which if you don't know is a very celebrated New Zealand beer - it's a commercially brewed beer that is actually quite an excellent drop.

Anyways, my cloned version tasted so damn good I had surprised myself with just how perfect homebrew it was, especially for a kit beer.

So I drank about 4 of them as Kirk and Spock saved the whales.

Who'd of thought kit beer would taste so good?

Actually millions of us, kit beers are really so handy an option these day's especially if time is a luxury and you don't have all the steel that you need to brew your grains all day.

Have you ever had 2-minute noodles?

They are fine in a pinch for a meal. But if you add a few things to them you can get a  really fine meal. Cut up some spring onion, some chives or garlic and drop it in. Maybe add some prawns and a hint of chili or even an egg and your two minute ramen noodles have a delicious meal.

And I've learned, it's the same when brewing with beer kits. Sure, you can make a nice beer with a kit, but it's all the extra things you do that can make a kit beer into something really delicious to drink, a beer that you won't mind sharing with friends.

Beer kits for brewing have had a long history and part of that is this legacy effect that they didn't make good beer. I've heard stories about people making home brew in bath tubs which probably explains why that beer tasted awful but probably the real reason they didn't come up to par was that they used ordinary sugar instead of dextrose during primary fermentation.

It's actually really easy to make beer using a kit - it's like making a cake.

And if it is one thing I have learned it's that when making a beer kit brew, you need a really good beer enhancer to ensure you get that brew rocking. A beer enhancer is a combination of dextrose and maltodextrin.

How these two ingredients condition the beer is key:

The dextrose serves as the food for the yeast and is thus excellent to use in the fermentation process.

The maltodextrin, however, does not ferment and thus forms part of the beer solution giving the beer it's mouthfeel and a true sense of body, both of which are important qualities that one can judge a quality beer by.

On the other hand, simply using a whole KG of sucrose if you're making 23 litres of beer means you yeast can go a bit crazy which results in your brew tasting too sweet or 'cidery' as the effect is commonly described.

That said, a handy trick for increasing the alcohol content of your beer is by adding additional sugars - you can get away with cane sugar or the by using honey but just note that too many sugars can 'thin your beer out meaning you get a less flavorsome beer and a weakened body.

If you do wish to add extra sugars to your beer, why not add them later - let the dextrose do it's thing with the yeast first.

One of the other things I learned really on was just how massive the part temperature plays on the brewing and fermentation processes.

I'd brewed and bottled a batch and left them to condition in the shed for a couple of weeks.

It was the middle of winter so you might be able to see where this is going.

Then I cracked open the first beer, I did not hear that usually reassuring hiss of CO2 gas and I thought something was up.

Sure enough, the beer had not carbonated.

Another bottle and had the same sad result.

And the third.


I realised that there were some potential causes. Perhaps I had screwed up the brewing process. Maybe I had added the yeast when the wort was too hot and killed it? Maybe some kind of bacteria had killed the beer. 

Perhaps I forgot to add sugar for secondary fermentation?

I actually suspected the beer had not actually gone through secondary fermentation. 

Beer yeast does its best work at a warm temperature. Lager and ale yeasts work at different temps but for the home brewer that's bottle condition, the temperature cannot be so cold the yeast curls up and hides. 

In my situation, that meant bringing the bottles inside the house for a few days just to give the yeast a chance to start bottle fermentation.

After three days of warmth in the living room, I opened one to finally hear that satisfying escape of gas. Problem solved. 

The lesson I learned then is that to properly store your beer so that it is carbonated, the beer needs to be kept warm for a few days before it goes to a cooler part of the house or shed for lagering. 

There's a genuine benefit to condition bottled beer in a cool spot. By keeping your lagers cold, there's a strong likelihood there will be minimal production of unwanted esters and fusel alcohols.

Another big learning I had was about sanitization.

Where ever someone is making beer, you will find someone talking about the need to have clean brewing equipment that is properly sanitized. While I have found some of the 'chatter' over the top, one absolutely needs to have good sanitization practices when making beer.

There are many ways you can do this but very early on I took some advice about using sodium percarbonate as a 'cleaner' and found that's all I need to use on my carboys, gear and bottles.

The beauty of using sodium percabonate is that it's the main ingredient of laundry soak so you may already have some of this agent in your own home!

Let me elaborate:

These products, such as name brands like Oxyclean are designed for washing clothes and yes, the percentage of sodium percarbonate is far less than buying percarbonate by itself in bulk but it works.

It really works.

So why do it?

Because it's cheap and it works.

It really does.

I repeated myself so you get the message. And the message is clean your gear and sanitize the heck out of it.

I also like to add boiling water into the mix - the hot water will help kill any localised bacteria that might be lurking in the corners and hard to reach places (if you think your water source is bad, use a test kit).

You don't have to use sodium percarbonate, many brewers swear by a product known as PBW, which stands for powdered brewery wash.

If you looked up any beer brewing forum and you will find seasoned beer brewers raving about this product and they will be recommending it to all and sundry because they think it is so awesome.

PBW is ideal for use with carboys and fermentors. It will also get the crud of all the pots and kettles on brew day - all you gotta do is soak them in a solution of PBW.

It's also handy for removing pesky labels from beer bottles that you want to use for homebrew. Give them a good soak and those labels will come off in no time.

It will not necessarily kill the bugs that might linger, for which you need a good santizer but I suspect it's a bit like sodium percarbonate and once you've cleaned your gear with PBW, you'll be ready to rock and roll.

You can even make your own DIY version of PBW.

Batch priming beer and higher alcohol content

Another thing I have learned is that, on balance, it's an easier bottling day if you batch prime the whole of your beer with one dose of sugar rather than adding sugar individually to each bottle.

Batch priming will save you time as you simply add the right about of sugar into your fermenter when compared to bottling but the real benefit is that you get a consistent amount of sugar in each bottle - so if you get the amount of sugar right, each of your beers should each consistently taste the same.

A fan favourite trick is to give one's beer a bit of kick, that is to say, a higher alcohol content.

Sure, you can just add an extra 500 grams of sugar into the fermenter and let the yeast feed on that to boost the ABV up a bit but there's a little more to it than that, in that you have options.

You can add the following ingredients to boost your beer's buzz:
  • Hopped Malt Extract (HME)
  • Liquid Malt Extract (LME)
  • Dry Malt Extract (DME)
  • Table sugar
  • Corn sugar (dextrose)
  • Honey
  • Brown sugar
Adding extra sugars such as corn sugar (dextrose), table sugar, and brown sugar will all help to boost and increase the beer's ABV.

The potential downside is that extra sugars do intend to make a beer taste drier and thin out the body and mouthfeel of the beer.

You may also be able to taste more bitterness in any added hops.

Maple syrup, golden syrup and lollies like jelly beans can also be used but they will all influence the taste of your beer.

It's an oft-recommended practice that no more than 1/3 of your beer's ABV level should be a result of non-malt adjuncts or fermentable sugars. That is to say, don't over saturate your beer with extra sugars!

As an example, if you are making a 6 percent ABV beer then you shouldn't add extra products that will contribute 2 percent of that total.

The more sugar you put in, the more pressure that you place on the yeast as those cells will eat and eat. A keen player will consider adding more yeast nutrients to the wort which may give the original yeast a new lease of life and extend fermentation.

Making your beer clear

One of the goals of many a brewer is to get clear beer. A good clear beer, free of gunk and sediment has the benefits of tasting better and pouring better too. A good color also adds to the drinking experience.

I've learned there are a few ways to help clear your beer, so let's have a look three techniques you can use. 

Using finings to clear beer

Finings are agents that are added at or near the completion of brewing beer to the fermenter. Their chief goal is is to remove unwanted organic compounds to help improve the beer clarity - as no one likes cloudy beer. Finnings can also be for wine, cider and alcoholic ginger beer.

Finings act by precipitating and then binding with the compounds that reduce beer clarity. They then fall to the bottom of the brewing fermenter drum or carboy - when you bottle, you do not use the sediment, so there's a stronger chance your beer will have cleared just nicely.

If you have made a batch of beer in a drum or carboy, just add the contents of sachet to the beer, about 3 days before you intend to bottle the beer. Make sure you securely shut the lid on the fermenter.

If you have done a boil, you can simply add the finings at the end of that process.

Such a simple part of the process!

Cold crashing homebrew

It's when you make your beer so cold that all the yeast 'leftovers' in your brew fall to the bottom meaning you can bottle or keg your beer, safe in the knowledge there will be little sediment left in the bottles and it will be quite clear.

Cold crashing is a popular alternative to using finings.

When you are ready to bottle or keg your beer, now is the time to cold crash. If it's winter, you're in luck, place the fermenter or carboy in your extremely cold shed for a full 24 hours and that will effectively cold crash the beer.

What happens at this point is the beer cools to the point yeast can clump together (floccuate). Gravity will then do its 'thing' the newly formed clumps other impurities will fall to the bottom.

That's the old school method of cold crashing. There's a handy way to do it all year round by using a fridge.

Place your 23 litre drum in an old but working refrigerator which ideally the temperature going to be close to zero but no more than five degrees centigrade. 24 hours in the fridge will induce the cold crash and you can then bottle or keg.

The most important thing to remember when cold crashing is that it should only be done when primary fermentation is complete - to be sure this has occurred you can take readings with your hydrometer. When you have two readings the same on consecutive days, fermentation is complete (I do recommend you let your beer sit for a further week though - this will let the yeast work its magic a little more and help remove some unwanted smells and the like.

Cold conditioning or 'lagering' your homebrew

The lagering process was born when it was discovered by alcoholic vikings that beer left in cold caves turned out pretty good after it had been left for a fair period of time.

Due to lager yeasts operating best at lower temperatures, they actually ferment the beer at a lower rate than compared to ales which often ferment at higher temperatures.

This means you should let your lagers condition in a cold area as possible - this process will help with your beer clarity too!

If you are doing a boil, chilling your wort can also help remove unwanted items from your beer.

beer hops
Here's a few pointers on using hops

Understanding how temperature affects the beer

The final thing to think about is the other side of cold, and that's warmth. There are a few points in the fermentation process where your beer benefits from being warm.

If you know the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Beers, you'll know that she eats the bear's porridge and she finds it:

Too hot

Too cold

And just right!

Which is how the temperature of beer works in determining that beer tastes just right. A beer that is brewed at too high a temperature may produce unwanted fruity flavours (esters) or excessive diacetyl traits and it will not taste like you intended it to.

'Pitching yeast’ is simply what one does when adding your yeast to the wort. It needs to be done at the correct time in the brew so that it can activate properly and begin fermenting. If you pitch your yeast when your brew is too hot (say you’ve just boiled it), you will kill the yeast with the heat and fermentation will not occur.

Brewers use tools like wort chillers to bring boiled beer down to pitching range.

It's also a good practice to store your bottled beer in a warm place. This will encourage secondary fermentation (this is sometimes described as bottle conditioning). As we discussed above, beer that's too cold won't even brew at all. And that's just no fun, even for Goldilocks.

And if you want to have a little bit of brewing fun, try brewing two malt kits together!


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