Tips I learned from screwing up

Lessons from making mistakes

This is a great log of all my screw-ups. I try to document every time I make a mistake. I’ve been brewing for 3 years now, but I still mess up. Mostly when I try something new, but nevertheless, here’s a list of mistakes I made so you don’t have to.

Too Much Hops

Yes, this is possible, even for hop-head IPA drinkers. For me, anything over 80IBU’s is too much hops. It stops tasting  wonderfully citrus or floral and starts tasting more like earwax. (Don’t lie, you know what it tastes like)

When I first brewed Jango New Zealand Pale Ale, I used 3 ounces of hops. No big deal because I used 5 ounces for Bedfordshire once. Well, there WAS a big difference…

  1. Pay attention to the alpha value of the hops. The higher the amount of alpha acid, the more bitter. But… there is something that makes an even bigger difference…
  2. Time. I used to just kind of spread out tosses of hops throughout the 60-minute brew without too much precision. Ah, a few minutes, a few pellets here and there. Let me tell you… it matters. The longer those hops boil, the more acids will be released. The more bitter it will get. Hops thrown in closer to the end of the boil, the aroma hops, release those hoppy tastes like citrus, pine, floral, earthy, etc. You DO need the bitter hops to offset the sweetness of the malt. So, even 1/4 ounce of bittering hops is good.

My advice…

  • Use a hops calculator or recipe calculator like on BrewToad. It will help you calculate the IBU of your beer BEFORE you brew it. Here’s Jango’s second iteration I applied it to a hops calculator:
  • Measure and time hops additions as meticulously as you do anything else. And record everything in your log. That way, you can go back and for sure find out why you beer tastes like earwax.

Bottling

I like bottles. A lot of people say to start using a keg, but I don’t want to. I think it’s cool to have custom labels and caps and it feels good to have a finished product in your hands.

I learned that you should keep caps on for a good 15 minutes before pressing them down. This allows CO2 to build up and push out oxygen. Oxygen in freshly-charged beer is bad. When you press down your caps, make sure not to disturb the cap and let in any air.

Take good notes

One of the first things I learned is to write down everything you do when you make a batch of beer. This will help you replicate the ones you like and will help you figure out where you went wrong on the ones you don’t like. Write down everything from times to temperatures to materials and utensils used.

Here’s an Excel Workbook you can use to track your brews. MikeBrewLog

This will calculate corrected gravity based on 66 degrees (You should take gravity readings several times at several temperatures. But, most people will tell you that you always need to “correct” gravity by applying a formula that adjusts the reading as if it were taken at 66 degrees. It makes it a lot easier to stay consistent and accurate if you always correct gravity) and will calculate ABV. Just copy a tab to make a new record.

When you add hops or sugar for carbonation, keep the labels. You might want to order the same thing again and it’s easy to forget which brand you bought. I keep a three-ring binder of printed sheets from my brew log. I put all the labels in the pockets in the front and back.

Aluminum Brew Kettle

Aluminum is cheaper than stainless steel. You can get a great kettle that holds 5-8 gallons for under 50$. They heat up faster than steel, but you’ll need potholders for the handles. The heat spreads through the metal quickly and evenly.

Before you use it, boil water for 5 minutes, up to the brim. The inside will turn black. This is normal and you want this! It’s a coat of oxidized aluminum that will protect your beer from tasting metallic. DON’T scrub with a brush or pad. Use a sponge and hot water for any stuck-on wort. If you scratch off the black coat, you’re ruining it!

Mash Tun

For starting out, make a mash tun from a CIRCULAR water cooler. It’s easier to sparge a round cylindrical tun since the water you sprinkle over it will filter through more of the malt. Make a mash tun

The drawback it, you’re more likely to get a stuck sparge with a cylindrical tun if you drain too fast. Also, a five-gallon tun won’t fit more than 10 pounds of malt. If you are brewing a “heavier” beer, you’ll need a bigger tun.

Heat up your mash tun with HOT water before you start your  mash. This will help it stay hot during the mash process. Temperature is KEY during your mash. Temperature of your mash determines the body and alcohol level in your grain. You want it stable. If you put your hot water for mashing into a cold mash tun, it might lose 40 degrees immediately and you’ll miss that target range of 144-158 degrees entirely. Add water to your mash in a mash tun at 170 degrees. It will lose about 15 degrees immediately, but then you’re in the range and you can control cooling with the lid. Cool quicker to the lower range by leaving the lid off. Or, if you want more body in your beer and less alcohol, keep the lid on and keep temperature around 155.

Right amount of yeast

You can’t make beer with more alcohol by using more yeast. The only thing you get is more yeast. The way to get more alcohol is to control mash temperature, aerate your cooled wort, plenty of extracted sugars, and to use different breeds of healthy yeast.

If you’re brewing a smaller batch, use less yeast. Most brewers yeast packets are designed for 5-gallon batches. Use the right amount of yeast for the right size of fermentation vessel. I learned this by using a 5-gallon yeast packet on a 2.2 gallon batch. It ended up like a loaf of bread. If your yeast is still fermenting, let it sit for a week or so more. Stronger, heavier beers need 3-4 weeks, sometimes longer. Lighter beers and wheat beers tend to be done in 2 weeks.

Under pitching is even worse. If you don’t pitch enough yeast, not enough cells will live to fully ferment your beer. They will not continue to reproduce after all the oxygen is used up. If you don’t have enough viable cells, not all the sugar will ferment, then you’ve got a foul-tasting beer.

Use healthy yeast in aerated and cooled wort. Use a yeast calculator to ensure you’ve pitched enough yeast.

Don’t Water it Down

I’ve had a few people tell me to add water to the fermenter if you come up short of the 5 gallons needed for all 48 12-oz bottles. DON’T DO THAT with all-grain. DO do that with extract brews.

  1. You’re adding water that can be contaminated. (Unless you boiled it first)
  2. You’re watering it down. That water you added doesn’t have fermentable sugars, hops or malt. However, extract kits are designed to be boiled with less water, so it is okay to add cool water to the fermenter before your wort.

To prove this, I just added a gallon of boiled water to my last batch so I could have 5.5 gallons in my fermenter. I took a gravity reading before and after I added the plain-jane water. My gravity went from a healthy/tasty 1.045 to a watered-down 1.037. That ain’t good.

Instead: know the evaporation rate of your equipment. Add enough water to your boil so you get 5.5 gallons in your fermenter. Use two kettles if you need to. That’s better than adding water to your fresh wort that you worked so hard to brew.

Add the Airlock To The Fermenter Lid First

This was a dumb move: I had my wort at the perfect temperature and took every possible step to keep it from being contaminated. I tossed in some dry hops and my freshly-activated yeast. I closed the lid and stuck the airlock into the lip. I didn’t lube up the little rubber gasket that goes on the lid to keep the airlock air-tight. That little sucker came free from the lid and went down to the bottom of the wort. I had to clean my whole arm, stick it in my clean wort and find it on the bottom.

Instead: Stick the airlock into the lid before you put the lid on the fermenter. OR: If this happens, leave that little gasket in there. Go get another from your secondary fermenter and then spend a few cents to buy another. You’ve got a few weeks before you’ll need to use your secondary.

Save Your Bottles

If you give away beer, ask for your bottles back. they’re expensive and your friends won’t mind.

Don’t buy empty beer bottles from a beer-supply company. It’s usually less money to buy full bottles of beer. You’re going to re-use them anyway, so why not enjoy emptying them? Don’t get grossed out by drinking from a re-used bottle. You can’t make good beer without completely sanitizing your bottles. If you have a bunch of bacteria in a beer bottle when you add the new beer, you’ll have a beer that smells like rotten cheese. You have to clean and sanitize your bottles before you re-use them. tell your friends that each bottle was meticulously cleaned and sanitized.

The cool thing about yeast is that it lives without oxygen, bacteria cannot. However, bacteria will take over your fermentation if there is too much in there. Don’t forget that you aerated your wort before you sealed your fermenter. The bacteria in there can utilize that oxygen just as easy as the yeast can. It will make some strange flavors if there is too much bacteria, but bottled beer for the most part is sterile and free of bacteria due to the alcohol the yeast produces.

For getting labels off of used bottles: Soak them in hot water for about ten minutes. Peel off the labels. Use a sponge with metal scratch surface to get all the remaining adhesive off the bottle.

  • I think the best bottles are Samuel Adams and New Belgium.
  • Make sure you only use bottles without twist-offs.
  • Make sure you only use American Beer Bottles. Some foreign beers use a larger mouth and larger caps. Your standard 26mm caps won’t fit Mexican imported bottles.

Blow-Off Tube For Wheat Beers

Wheat beers foam up in your fermenter. They super-foam if you ferment at anything higher than 68 degrees. If you use an airlock, which has a small opening and closing, it’s possible that foam can go up into the airlock, carrying bits of hops with it. This can clog the airlock and blow the lid off your fermenter. That happened to me once when I was fermenting a Hefeweizen in my little girl’s upstairs closet in the summer. A good fermentation temperature for ale is somewhere a little cooler than room temperature. A basement is great.

Use a blowoff tube for the first 5 days of fermenting wheat beers or any beers over 1.050OG. (Usually heavier, darker beers). Then, switch to an airlock. Remember not to lose that little rubber gasket when you punch the airlock in.

Carbonating with Honey

Honey has a ferment-able sugar and can be used in carbonating. It works rather well! Just make sure you boil it in water as honey contains bacteria not harmful to humans, but deadly for yeast.

You want a nice honey after-taste? More carbonation honey will not do it. Yeast will consume all the honey no matter how much you put in. More honey, more carbonation. I found this out with Bethusela’s Lake Cabin Ale. I used 7. 95 ounces instead of the recommended 6.5 ounces I used successfully in Ironman War Brew. (See… taking good notes is essential) I was trying to get a nice honey aftertaste, but you couldnt taste any of it. Bethusela’s Lake Cabin Ale foamed over in every bottle. Wayyy too much carbonation. I’m lucky to not have had a bottle explosion.

You need to use more honey than sugar. I usually use 5.0 ounces of corn sugar to carbonate 5 gallons. You’ll need a tab more than that to carbonate with honey. 6.5 is a good starting point. Use a priming calculator to determine exactly how much sugar you need to carbonate your beer according to the style.

Refrigerating Materials

You should put yeast packets in the fridge. They’ll last pretty long, like a couple of months if you keep them in the fridge. But: Make sure you take it out and get it to room temperature before you brew or add it to a starter or warm-sanitized water. If it’s cold when you attempt to activate it, it won’t work as well.

Don’t put malt extract cans or dry malt in the fridge. It doesn’t need to be there. Also, if you add cold malt to your lauter tun, the temperature will drop faster than you expect and you won’t hit that target 145-155 degrees needed for a good mash. I did that once and had to quickly add a bunch of hot water to the mash to get back in range. If for some reason you miss the target, use this calculator to get back on track: Mash Water Adjustment Calculator

Using Paper Bottle Labels

It’s really fun to have your own design on a bottle. It’s also cool to get custom bottle caps that have your design on them. It can be pricey (about 0.14/cap) from http://www.Bottlemark.com, but they look fantastic.

There are a ton of sites out there that will make beer labels with adhesives and pre-cut and such. Again, super expensive. The cheapest way to do this is to use a program like Microsoft Publisher, PowerPoint or Adobe In-Design, then print them yourself. If you don’t have a printer, it might cost you about $9.00 (for 48 labels, 4 to a sheet) to get some good color prints at Kinkos. It will be about half that cost at Staples.

Tips for working with printed labels:

  • Staples is recommended. Staples got my order right the first time. Kinkos has screwed it up several times. You can upload a PDF to Staples online ordering system.
  • Don’t use paper less than 32lb. Anything thinner and you risk for adhesive soaking through.
  • Use milk as an adhesive! Here’s a video. It stays on pretty well, even in ice. A little warm water and they will fall right off.

Keep in mind the total cost of your beer.

When you make beer, one goal should be to make it cheaper than buying it. It usually costs about $48 to buy two cases of beer bottles at a place like Costco. Make that your goal.

Here’s some averages… (For a 5-gallon batch)

  • $16.00: 10 pounds of malt
  • $4.50: Yeast
  • $4.00: 2 ounces of dried hops
  • =$24.50. That’s about half the price of (2) 24-bottle cases of Sam Adams. You’ve effectively cut your cost in half.

Don’t forget all the other costs. (Not including equipment)

  • $.50: Irish Moss (About $4.00 for a little jar that last about 8 batches)
  • $1.88: StarSan (About 5$ for a 8oz jar. If you use 6TBS/48bottle batch, that’s 3ounces or
  • $9.22: Custom Bottle Caps (.14$x48=$6.72. Plus shipping for a 200 cap shipment is 10$, so 1/4 of 200 is $2.50. so it could cost $9.22/48 bottle batch)
  • $9.00: Labels. (12 sheets with 4 labels per sheet of 32lb paper, color copies)
  • =$20.60. So, you’ve nearly raised the cost of your beer to the cost of buying it.

Here’s some cost-cutting measures.

  • If you can, print labels yourself or at your office. Try to stick with smaller labels if you want color, say 12 portrait rectangular per sheet. Or print black and white on colored paper. It looks pretty retro!
  • Buy sanitizer in bulk. Spend the money to buy a 5 lb tub. You’ll cut the cost of sanitizer in half. Do the math.
  • Buy at your local beer supply store if you can. You’ll save tons in shipping.
  • Just use normal caps. If you absolutely want to have those custom caps, only use them for the beers you want other people to see. You won’t be able to use marked caps in competition anyway.
  • Learn to keg your beer. You’ll cut costs on bottles, labels, caps and sanitizer. Plus, it’s faster.

Resources I use

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