February 2013 will mark the 9th anniversary of my first batch of beer. I remember everything about that batch. It was the Brewers Best English Brown Ale kit, purchased from my local brewery. They had a small selection of kits, hops, yeast. Just the bare essentials. But, I remember spending what must have been hours in that little room trying to decide what to brew. I decided on the Brown and made my way home to start. I had a small stock pot on my glass top stove, 2 1/2 gallons of wort boiling away. Several weeks later, I found myself with 52 bottles of mediocre beer. No worries! It was still good, and it was mine. All mine.
I kept at it, though, moving on to all-grain and kegging. Then, I started putting together my own recipes. The first was a red ale. It was designed to be a little high in alcohol, maybe around 7% if I remember correctly. And it used all Centennial hops, my favorite! This was really exciting stuff…..until I received the worst complaint ever. “How many times did you wear that dirty sock before you used it to filter this beer?” Devastation! It didn’t matter though, I continued to brew. I just didn’t give samples to that person any more. I made some good batches, I made some bad batches. But, I learned something new each time.
I’ve been working at Great Fermentations just under 3 years, and I can honestly say that I’ve learned more in my time here than I had in all the previous years of brewing on my own. It really is amazing to have so many brewers around you on a daily basis, from whom you can learn both what to do, and what not to do. I wish I had access to a community like this when I began my hobby, there’s no telling where I’d be at this point. So, in honor of all the people who have taught me I thought I’d offer some tips, so that you can make 2013 your best brewing year yet.
- Take good notes – We talk about this at Great Fermentations all the time, and it’s still not enough. Taking great brewing notes is essential to brewing great beer. Initially, your notes will help us diagnose a miss-step in your batch. Down the road, you’re going to use these notes to duplicate a previous batch, or to help achieve predictable results on a new batch. The third reason to take good notes is the best of all. When your fellow brewers taste the beer, you’ll be able to describe the exact process and recipe you used. Hey, there’s no better compliment than when another brewer wants to brew your beer.
- Duplicate some recipes – It’s taken me this long, but I’m finally at the point in my hobby where I’d like to duplicate some previous batches. And, since I’ve kept good notes, it’ll be a breeze. Repeating batches just helps solidify your brewing techniques. Think about it, duplicating a recipe exactly will take some really precise attention to detail, attention that will help you in all your batches. Don’t settle for getting close to your original mash or fermentation temperature. Nail it! Nail the entire recipe right on the head!
- Pay attention to your yeast – I’ve always been the type of brewer to pitch my yeast and cross my fingers. Not any more. I’m now calculating my pitch rate, oxygenating, and adding yeast nutrient. I don’t even take a multivitamin, but I make sure my yeast does! And my recent batches have fermented faster, cleaner and more predictably than before. Make note of the strain specific data from the yeast lab. They put out this information to help us, use it. Remember, we don’t make the beer. Yeast makes the beer, keep them happy.
- Get out of your comfort range – If the most excitement in your brewery this year was a result of switching from 30L to 40L Crystal in your IPA recipe, it’s time to cut loose! There are so many new ingredients at our fingertips, and we’re seeing more and more all the time. We don’t always know exactly how it will turn out, and neither do you. Just have fun with it.
- Rely on others – Whether it’s one of the employees at Great Fermentations, or another home brewer, ask questions and learn from others mistakes. There are some great clubs around the Indianapolis area, and beyond. Join one. Attend one of the Friday Night Club meetings at Great Fermentations. There’s always a ton of good beer and plenty of home brewers just like you, willing to share their knowledge. And don’t forget to share with others. There’s always someone who’s just starting out, and they could use your help.
What are some of the tips that have helped improve your brewing skills throughout the years? We’d love to hear your input!