Ask a Cicerone: How Can I Improve My Homebrewing?

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Become a better homebrewer with these tips. [Photos: Sarah and Joe Postma]

It seems like everyone's experimenting with making beer at home these days—but you want to make sure your results taste more like your favorite beers, and less like, well, science experiments. We asked eight Certified Cicerones for their advice on how to improve your homebrewing once you've graduated past the beer-in-a-box starter kit. Beyond making sure to have flawless sanitation, what else can you do to brew better beer?

Here's what they had to say.

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"The best way to improve is to brew with other people. You'll be surprised what pointers you'll pick up and also what you may be able to share. In the same vein, pour your beer for other brewers and ask them for their honest opinion and tips for improving the faults." —Judy Neff (Pints & Plates)

"How do you know what's wrong with your guava cinnamon IPA if you've never made a simple pale ale before? Master the process of brewing to style first, then build from there. Also, try brewing some lighter, low alcohol beers. Making a clean tasting English Bitter won't give you much to hide behind the way a massive stout will. This way, you get a better understanding of your recipe and brewing methods." —Christopher Quinn (The Beer Temple)

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"An important part of making better beer is investing in equipment for temperature control during fermentation. Whether it be a converted refrigerator, kegerator, or chest freezer having control of consistent and proper temperatures for your fermentation vessels will increase your chances of producing quality homebrews significantly and should be a more immediate investment than, say, all-grain mash bills or large mash tuns." —Tyler Morton (Taste of Tops)

"My advice would be to focus on only one or two styles. Find a baseline recipe you like for the style and brew batch after batch of essentially the same beer. With each subsequent batch make small changes. Explore what happens if you switch the Munich malts for Vienna. What if you substitute Chinook for Columbus hops? What if you change the base malt from 2-Row to Marris Otter? Or try the same exact recipe with English Ale yeast instead of American. Committing to such a process really does help hone your palate and focus one's understanding of the effect that different ingredients have on a given brew. This process will also make you a more informed beer consumer." —Sayre Piotrkowski (Hog's Apothecary)

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"First, having steady control of your fermentation temperature will ensure a healthy fermentation and a clean beer, free of off-flavors. A firm understanding of temperature ranges associated with yeast strains will also help you produce expected results associated within a given style. When brewing saison and selecting yeast, knowing that Wyeast 3724 ferments significantly warmer than Wyeast 3711 well prevent wasted time and money over stalled fermentations.

Second: Properly calculated pitching rates and yeast starters will dramatically increase the quality of your home brewing especially if you're used to pitching directly from a single Wyeast smack-pack or While Labs vial. The general rule of thumb for commercial brewing is to pitch 1,000,000 cells of yeast per ml of wort per degree Plato. This is a substantially higher cell count then the allocated count a vial or smack pack includes, this can be bumped up either by pitching multiple packs/vials or better yet by making a yeast starter with malt extract the night before brew day.

Finally, while most homebrewers are familiar with the concept of incorporating oxygen into wort prior to pitching yeast, most homebrewers tend to do this through agitation of wort, mixing open air possibly filled with contaminants and potentially compromising the quality of the finished beer. Instead, a pure O2 tank can be purchased from any local hardware store with an air stone that will provide sterile oxygen to fresh wort at an accelerated rate." —Ryan Spencer (Bailey's Taproom)

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"My number one tip for homebrewers who want to improve is patience. Especially when you're first starting out, everything is so exciting! You're boiling wort and filling carboys and pitching yeast, but you just want to have beer to drink already! Take things slow and give the beer time. Time to ferment and condition and carbonate. Rushing things just leads to mistakes and green beer. If you're really an impatient type, look into brewing styles like English milds that ferment and condition quickly. Oh, and take notes. Lots of notes." —John Verive (Beer of Tomorrow, Beer Paper LA)

"The best thing you can really do for your brewing is join your local homebrew club. Everyone does things a little differently, you can pick up tons of tricks and great information just by brewing, tasting, and talking about homebrew with other passionate brewers. The other thing that can take you to another level is working towards passing the BJCP test (Beer Judge Certification Program). Learning to analyze beer is key to figuring out how to make your own beer better. If you get mixed up with the geeks in your local homebrew club, you'll undoubtedly end up meeting some BJCP judges who will happily help you with this." —Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewers Guild)

"Practice makes perfect! The more often you homebrew, the better you understand both the process and your own brew system. Whether you have a fully automated two tier ten gallon system or just a big turkey fryer pot that sits on your stove, you will slowly learn how to fine tune each brew and end up with your desired outcome." —Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)

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