BEER! Tips for beginning homebrewing?
May 31, 2005 7:17 AM   Subscribe

BEER! Looking for tips, resources (.ect) useful to a beginner in the art of homebrewing.

Good online suppliers/sites/information? Things you would have done differently, knowing what you know now? Recommended books (or ones to stay away from)? I'm all ears!
posted by spock to Food & Drink (39 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
When I lived in the middle of nowhere, the local health food coop was the source for beer making supplies. Not online, but maybe easier.

The easiest way to make some beer is to get a can of concentrated wort. Mix with water according to instructions, ferment, bottle, rest, then drink. The one I had (made by someone else) was Yorkshire Bitters. I liked it, but I like ale anyway, and can't stand lager.

The only reason I didn't make my own was the lack of a place in my house offering steady temperatures. Steady temperature during fermentation is as important as anything else to beer making. IIRC the desired temperature was on the order of 60f.
posted by Goofyy at 7:39 AM on May 31, 2005

A big tip is to try to stay local. Most of the ingredients you use will be quite heavy, so shipping costs are high. The closest home-brew shop to me is about a 50-mile round trip, but it's still worth the drive when compared to what it would cost of have ingredients shipped.

That said, I love these guys. They make up their own kits, many of which are indexed to the classic Complete Joy of Homebrewing. Their instructions are excellent, and they have an advice line, even for non-customers.

Also, stick to heavy, dark beers at first; they're much more forgiving of mistakes. Start simple. I prefer dry yeast to the liquid packs the shops try to sell you, due to its greater flexibility.

In all the years I brewed, I never had a batch go really wrong, so don't worry if you don't do everything exactly by the book. It's as much as an art as a science, at least at beginning stages. You'll figure out a bunch of little tricks as you go along. And, you know, come back here (or email me or others who are sure to respond) if you have questions.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:44 AM on May 31, 2005

Keep everything really clean. The sanitizers the supply shops sell are fine, but they should be used on everything that comes in contact with the beer, even your hands.

Buy a really good pot. This will likely be the most expensive part of your supplies. I got a 4-gallon stainless-steel pot with a 1/4-inch aluminum disk welded to the bottom, and it's been great.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:58 AM on May 31, 2005

Get a jet bottle washer. It's one of the most useful pieces of equipment you can buy.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:02 AM on May 31, 2005

I got my husband one of the super OMG kits from Mr. Beer for Christmas. He's made enough batches at the beginner level that for father's day this year we're going to get him some more professional equipment...but for starting out, I think the Mr. Beer kits show you how the process works and the failure rate is low.

MrMoonPie is right about finding a local supplier for a lot of stuff...unless you happen to catch a free shipping offer from one of the online suppliers. Beer stuff is heavy and expensive to ship.

Also, I recommend going with plastic bottles rather than glass until you're really pretty sure you know what you're doing. Exploding glass bottles really make a mess. Either we've done every batch right, or the plastic is a lot more forgiving, but we've never had a plastic batch go fubar during the cold cellar part.

Also note that most beer batches in kit form make about 2 gallons of beer, which is a lot more beer than you might think. If you're doing beer that requires a cold aging process, you might consider adding a fridge for your beers. I think we're going to buy one for the garage, just so I can have my kitchen fridge back. ;)
posted by dejah420 at 8:07 AM on May 31, 2005

If you have a local homebrewing store (surprisingly more common that I would have ever thought), go in and talk to the workers. They usually can provide more insight, practical knowledge, and tips than a barrel full of malted barely.
posted by Staggering Jack at 8:13 AM on May 31, 2005

er, barley.
posted by Staggering Jack at 8:14 AM on May 31, 2005

Check out Beer Tools for a neat online recipe generator. Don't let the complex recipes scare you, that's usually just some beer nerd showing off.

For your first batch, you're probably best off with a kit. Once you get a few of those under your belt, you can start to go nuts. I have a pound of oak ships that have been soaking in Jack for a few months now for some faux whiskey barrel aging action.

Also, consider buying a batch of larger bottles. Cleaning the normal 12 ozers is a bitch and a half.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:18 AM on May 31, 2005

Best online resource: BeerAdvocate's homebrew forum

Books: Complete Joy of Homebrewing (Papazian), How to Brew (Palmer), Designing Great Beers (Daniels)

Do NOT get a Mr. Beer. Get a plain old starter kit; every home brew supply sells them. They do not cost much more than the Mr. beer does. (By the way, expect to keep buying or building more and more gadgets and do-dads.)

Find a local homebrew supply if you can, otherwise you'll have to mail-order. Kenny Wood Brew and Northern Brewer are pretty reputable.

So for starters, pick up your starter kit, ingredients, and a book , and just do it.

Welcome to the obsession. I mean hobby.
posted by jclovebrew at 8:24 AM on May 31, 2005

ship -> chips, I'm guessing.
posted by goethean at 8:33 AM on May 31, 2005

jclovebrew, I'd be interested to know why you're so vehement against the Mr. Beer kits for a beginner. We've had pretty good luck, what problems do you perceive?
posted by dejah420 at 8:47 AM on May 31, 2005

For my brother's birthday I got him a kit from Midwest Brewing supplies. They're a pretty good outfit, i have to say. And if my brother can work the equipment, anyone can do it. He even got a video which is pretty awesome. I think this is what I got for him. PLUS these folks have, like, whatever you want. For any skill level, or taste/interest.
posted by indiebass at 8:51 AM on May 31, 2005

dejah420 don't get me wrong... I actually had a Mr. Beer, and I guess that's what got me into it to begin with. So in the sense that it might get people into homebrewing, it's a good thing.

That said, the "beer" that thing produces is pretty poor. I blame the ingredients and instructions. You would be better off buying your own malt extract and hops and just using the Mr. Beer as the fermentation vessel (perhaps that's what you're doing and that's why your beer is good). But that leads me to my second major issue, which is that it's on the small side. I think if you're going to go through the trouble, you should make at least 5 gallons. It's remarkable how quickly 5 gallons can disappear when friends are over.
posted by jclovebrew at 9:11 AM on May 31, 2005

I would also agree on buying the ingredients for the beer you want to make rather than buying a kit.

Don't use your mouth to get the siphon going. Fill the hose with water first.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 9:18 AM on May 31, 2005

Hee...and I thought 2 gallons was a lot. But, now that you mention it, if there are guys around, it does disappear pretty quickly.

The system that Indiebass linked to is much more complex than than the one we've got going, but having read stuff on that site, and on a couple other sites linked above, I think I now understand the difference that a more complex process would make. So, now I want to get him one of *those* set-ups.

Oh you suck the money from my wallet and the space from my house. Between my soap making/mad scientist laboratory and the Man's beer making, we have got strange things bubbling and brewing all about the place.
posted by dejah420 at 9:26 AM on May 31, 2005

jclovebrew mentions the store, but the Forums at Northern Brewer are an excellent source for tips and recipes. The folks there are friendly, too.

Extract kits are an easy way to get started and learn the process. Pretty soon you'll be putting together your own recipes and trying to clone your favorite brews. Dry yeast is fine, and good to have on hand for emergencies. But I'm a big fan of Wyeast smack packs. Bottling is the biggest pain of the whole deal, so if you're going to stick with it, I would seriously look into home kegging. You can get kits to make your own Kegerator. And you can usually find cheap used soda (corney) kegs either at your local homebrew store or digging around scrap yards.

Enjoy! This is a great hobby to get into. You can keep it simple with extract kits or you can go crazy with huge all-grain setups. But either way, you end up with plenty of good beer to drink.
posted by ecrivain at 9:35 AM on May 31, 2005

Local stores are best, if you have one. I haven't ordered online in some time but here are some of my old links (they may be out of date):

The Beer Hut

Beer, Beer and More Beer
Northern Brewer
Homebrew Heaven

The Home Brewery
Five Star Chemicals
Brewin' Beagle
Alternative Beverage
Bacchus and Barleycorn

To find more online shops I would get a copy of Zymurgy and check out the ads in the back. You should subscribe to this if you get serious. It is a great magazine and it comes with a membership in the American Homebrewers Association.

Other good info:
Homebrew Digest
The Beer Advocate

Beer History

Brew Your Own
The Brewery

Brewing Techniques
The Brewing Science Institute
Hopsunion hops info

Norm Pyle's Hops FAQ Tech library
Beer Recipator
Real Beer

posted by caddis at 9:36 AM on May 31, 2005 [1 favorite]

Here's a page I put together on making beer. It doesn't go into great depth, but it gives you an idea of what to expect.

I buy from a local brew shop I prefer to (1) support local business (2) for their help and (3) because I like their kits.

I wanted to make a clone of Rogue's Shakespeare Stout and they put one together for me. After it was done we did a side-by-side and they tweaked the recipe so that it matches really well. I would expect this kind of attention from any brew shop and it's unlikely that you'll get that kind of attention from mail order.

As a starter, I'd recommend using an all-extract recipe, which means no grain. It's less complicated.

If you make several batches and have the fridge space, upgrade to a kegging rig. Keep some bottles and the capper so that you can give beer out, because trust me, you will.

Occasionally, I've bought some things from Williams Brewing.
posted by plinth at 9:37 AM on May 31, 2005

Not sure if this is still being read or not, but I would like to recommend and as good places from which to buy ingredient sets. Also, they are both good places from which to buy starter kits. The first even has free shipping for orders > $50, so that could be good for you. I've made a few beers from both places and they always turn out good. For some reason, I tend to make IPAs more than anything, but damned if they aren't fun to drink.
posted by bDiddy at 9:38 AM on May 31, 2005

Carboys tend to explode if they get clogged up, so make sure you don't ferment in your bedroom. If you do, cover them with a towel.
posted by sled at 9:53 AM on May 31, 2005

Ah, the fond memories. It's been quite a while since I brewed my own (just before I got the huge pot that sits unused in my attic), but this thread has me thinking of doing it again.

Without knowing what you want to get out of homebrewing, my tips:

0. Read a lot. There is are a number of books, and a lot of communities (many littered with archives my pre-web usenet postings).

0.1 If you can, find a good homebrew shop. What makes a good homebrew shop? Well, knowlegable staff who can listen as well as talk; proper hop handling and storage (vac packed and refrigerated) sourced from reputable suppiers (gleaned from reading a lot); reasonable prices; roller-type grain mills in good repair.

1. Start simple, but not too simple. A kit with pre-hopped concentrated wort is a good start. From there, I'd move quickly to bulk extract enhanced with specialty grains and loose hops or hop pellets. This approach has the advantage of being cheaper.

2. Don't be shy about experimenting with partial mash and even full mash batches. It takes more time, but I found mashing to be very satisfying. It's also cheaper.

3. An easy to use and clean wort-chiller is a good investment that will shorten your brewing day and improve your beer.

4. You don't have to drink it. If you brew something and it sucks, don't force yourself to drink it.

5. That said, some beers take time. I brewed a strong beer with belgian yeast. After a good deal of time (long enought, I thought), I tried it, and it was nasty. I was loath to pour it out though, because it was an expensive batch to brew. A month later, it had mellowed considerably and made for a fine beer.

6. Bottling sucks. If I start up again, I'm likely to go with soda kegs. Also good are the "Growlers" which hold 2L each -- perfect for a small party

7. Meet other brewers in your area. I used to go to montly tasting parties which were a lot of fun and gave me a lot of ideas.

I second what other's say about sanitation. Very important (but also easy to go overboard with).

Oh, have fun!
posted by Good Brain at 10:19 AM on May 31, 2005

Heck YES it is still being read. Thanks for all the insights so far!
posted by spock at 10:20 AM on May 31, 2005

I second jclovebrew in suggesting ... gives very good intuitions for what's going on, where you can improvise and what steps you must follow.
posted by louigi at 11:41 AM on May 31, 2005

Just as a note, I've been brewing for 20 years and I've never had a bottle (or carboy, for that matter) explode. Maybe I've just been lucky.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:13 PM on May 31, 2005

I haven't been homebrewing for as long as MrMoonPie, but close, and I have not had a bottle or carboy blow, nor do I know of anyone who has. I have heard of caps blowing off but that is messy not dangerous. On occasion a batch will go bad and wild yeast or something will keep producing CO2 which overpressurizes the bottles. If you leave enough head space in the bottles they will be fine, but will froth violently upon opening. Anyway, I think sled was referring more to the cork blowing out rather than the carboy busting - 5 gallons of beer spilled out of a broken carboy is not going to be retained by a towel tossed over the top of the carboy. This is caused by performing primary fermentation (the first of two fermentations) in the carboy and not leaving enough space for all the foam on top. The foam then travels into the airlock and can in some instances block it, especially if some yeast or hops get pushed in there. More likely is that foam just spills out of the airlock creating a mess. If you are going to perform primary fermentation in a carboy I recommend getting a 7 1/2 gallon carboy for this. It should have plenty of headspace. As a rookie I would stick with a plastic fermenter. Just make sure you get it clean and sanitary.

I am not sure that it has been stressed here enough: the key to good beer is sanitation. Everything else is secondary. If you practice proper sanitation you will make good beer with just about any kit or recipe. If you get sloppy the beer will be off, or in worst cases ruined. To sanitize you must clean first. Sanitizer will not penetrate and disinfect dried on crud. Clean equipment makes clean beer. Proper sanitation is not really that hard, but it is the one area of brewing unforgiving of mistakes.
posted by caddis at 1:44 PM on May 31, 2005

I second caddis' _Beer, Beer and More Beer_ recommendation, I got most of my current equipment from them.

Go to a local homebrew shop and geek out with the owner a bit. Most of those folks are happy to spend some time educating you. I got my first lesson in brewing from a homebrew shop owner who happily gave me a 1-on-1 seminar for an hour and a half. For an investment of around $100 and just a few hours research, you can get started right in on extract brewing.

If you know anyone who homebrews, get them to come over and help out. If not, consider tracking down a local homebrew club (your local homebrew shop will know about clubs in the area, and Google might find a few). If there isn't one, after you've done a few batches you should start one. :)

I'm in the anti-Mr. Beer crowd. Regular extract brewing really isn't that complicated, and it will be a better introduction to what's actually going on. The success rate may be lower, but it'll be YOUR beer in a more real sense. I have a friend who did Mr. Beer, and yeah, he had drinkable beer afterward, but he kind of wondered why he had done it.

After you've got a batch or two under your belt, consider doing a partial mash (steeping some grains in the liquor before boiling). It's a fun and easy way to add some authentic character to an extract brew.

Kegging is a huge timesaver. If/when you start to think about pouring more money into the hobby, consider a kegging system. I second Good Brain's suggestion of a wort chiller, too.

"Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew"
posted by gurple at 1:52 PM on May 31, 2005

Don't use your mouth to get the siphon going. Fill the hose with water first.

No no no; just gargle and swallow a shot of whiskey or Rumplemintz (sp?) first. It enhances the whole brewing experience.

The abovementioned "The Brewery" site is fantastic. If you are in the middle of brewing and have an immediate info need, just pop into the Brews & Views forum; the members are really responsive.

Also, Skotrat is pretty good, if you can get past the smartass 'tude.
posted by cog_nate at 2:03 PM on May 31, 2005

...but will froth violently upon opening

Ah, yes, I have, indeed, experienced that.

And I heartily recommend geeking out with home-brew shop owners. Most that I have encountered got into the business just so they could engage in such geekery. I count on a visit to a shop lasting at least 30 minutes, even if I'm running in for a specific item.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:36 PM on May 31, 2005

Why does everyone think bottling is such a pain? I just bottled my first batch last week and it didn't really take that long, nor was it messy or anything. Now I'm worried that I did something wrong. Are those of you who dislike botting adding sugar directly to the bottles instead of the bottling vessel?

*Sigh* The problem with homebrewing for me is that it takes 1-2 months to know if I did it wrong.
posted by bonecrusher at 2:39 PM on May 31, 2005

Ahh homebrewing... something to finally force me to join mefi after a long time reading without feeling the need to post.

Now this is a topic close to my heart and liver and my wallet.

Other's have said it, but by far the best thing in the universe you can do is go read (John Palmer's local to me; good egg; knows what he's talking about) and then go find your local shop. Cultivate a relationship with them. Pick their brains.

Other thing to do if you decide you like the hobby and want to keep learning more.. Find the local homebrew club. They'll probably be run out of your local shop as well. Clubs have a lot to teach and to drink, it's a good thing.

This is the club I'm president of:

Feel free to email me questions.. I like them.. a lot (emails in the profile and all over that site like kudzu)
posted by drewbage1847 at 2:42 PM on May 31, 2005

My friend and I want to homebrew - never done it before. But I want to skip the bullshit extract and hop pellet stuff and go right to real grain and real hops. Advice? How much is it going to put me back, assuming the most ghetto equipment that won't compromise the quality of the beer?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 2:44 PM on May 31, 2005

Well.. hop pellets are real hops and they're generally used by most microbreweries. They store better and offer more of their goods to the beer than whole leaf hops do.

But to get started with ghetto all-grain.. easiest thing to do is find yourself a 40qt cooler, some copper piping and tubing and a pot (aluminum is fine short term) and burner big enough to handle 7.5 gallons of liquid at a boil.

Do that and you can get started with an all grain system for around $100 and then throw in the extra $100 for fermentation gear and your first batch.
posted by drewbage1847 at 2:59 PM on May 31, 2005

TheOnlyCoolTim, I'd strongly recommend against skipping extract and going straight to all-grain. There are a LOT of variables in all-grain; a couple years after making the transition myself, I'm still trying to figure out how to tweak my efficiency, for instance.

Walk before you run -- all of the equipment you buy for extract brews (except maybe the kettle, you might want to go ahead and get a 7.5-gallon or bigger kettle) will serve you well when/if you do eventually go all-grain. Same with the skills, like managing sanitation. Partial mash will get you working with the grain, if that's what you want. You might get lucky with a first all-grain batch with no prior experience, but you're more likely to have a good first few brews if you start with extract.

As for getting the siphon going, there are these wonderful pumps that will help you cheat on that -- no sucking, no trying to keep the damn tube filled with water. Most homebrew stores will have 'em. Highly recommended, saves a lot of frustration.

bonecrusher, my biggest beef with bottling is having to collect all the bottles and clean 'em up. Keg cleaning sucks, too, but at least there's only one thing to clean.
posted by gurple at 4:45 PM on May 31, 2005

drewbage1847, funny you should turn up here. Just found & bookmarketed the maltosefalcons article Yeast Propagation and Maintenance: Principles and Practices earlier today! Will no doubt be taking you up on your email offer. Thanks!
posted by spock at 5:19 PM on May 31, 2005

This may be another post, but what's the general thoughts on the U-brew places I see around?

I've written them off as being fairly nasty (based on past experience) but reading this post it sounds like homebrew can be pretty good, and I assume that the u-brew places should be as good as homebrew, but without the need to buy the equipment.

Am i wrong? Any places to recommend in the Vancouver area?
posted by kaefer at 5:33 PM on May 31, 2005

That article on Yeast is by Dr MB Raines, probably one of the smartest folks I know and definately the person who knows the most about yeast I've ever met.

As for the question about the U-Brew (or a BOP to use the parlance of the industry) joints... Too much money, not enough control and lastly it's removing the most interesting aspect of the homebrewing process, you.

I started doing the homebrewing thing cause I'd lost connection with my cooking/catering history and work had blown out my sense of wasting time. I picked up brewing and got back a connection to a physical product that's sorely lacking in the modern office life.
posted by drewbage1847 at 9:57 PM on May 31, 2005

TheOnlyCoolTim - You can successfully start out with all grain, if you study first. I would read some of the links and get Papazian's book. Make yourself, or buy, an EZ Mash for the grain extraction.

Although you can start all grain, I would still do a kit or extract beer first. Getting your sanitation down is the hard part and blowing a couple of hour's work on an extract beer is less painful that blowing a day's work on a grain beer. Doing the extract beer lets you focus on the steps of cooling and transferring the wort without infection (the critical step). Extract beers are pretty close to all grain, you would be surprised. Again, sanitation is more important than ingredients. Once you get good, sanitation is a given and you can focus on ingredients, although even experienced brewers get lazy and blow a batch now and then. Since you want some of that all grain flavor I would suggest a partial mash in which you mash a pound or so of grain and the rest is extract. It would be hard to tell the difference in a blind taste test between a well brewed partial mash and an all grain beer. You could probably do it in a side by side comparison, but if I gave you one the next day and asked you to tell me whether it was all grain or partial mash I bet you would be guessing. So, my recommendation is do a few extract brews to get the system down. Then add the complexity of mashing.

The key with mashing is temperature control. Here is where the EZ mash helps. A pot on the stove has the most control, but must be watched constantly. The EZ mash is much simpler.

The big challenge is mashing and brewing a clean, light colored lager beer. With this beer, the mashing is complex (you need the pot on the stove for the temperature changes) and there is no room for error in the rest of the brewing as nothing will mask the flavor of your mistakes. Once you can do this, you can brew anything. To get there, and for the best discussion of mashing, I suggest "Brewing Lager Beer" by Gregory Noonan.
posted by caddis at 10:46 PM on May 31, 2005

I've not gone to a U-brew place, but I got a solid report from a friend of mine who has given up homebrewing because he found it impossible to brew with his kids around, so his wife got him a gift certificate at one of these places. His take was that you make beer, but you're not really brewing. All thought and consideration to the process (which is what he likes, and I do too) were taken away and he was handheld much more than he cared for, nor could he request them to back off.

Why keg instead of bottle? Because it's time consuming, tedious, and space wasting.
posted by plinth at 5:37 AM on June 1, 2005

Clarification - by exploding, I mean either the cap or the lid blowing off, not necessarily shattering of the glass. Anyways, what you get is wort and hops sprayed all about the room. Everything else is fairly documented and commented upon, but I do wish someone told me earlier that I'd be cleaning the wall, carpet, and ceiling for a hour if I didn't watch for clogs! Have fun with this, it's a great hobby.
posted by sled at 9:15 AM on June 1, 2005

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