After your first few brewing experiences, you feel more confident and now is the time to step up your game and understand how to make the best beer you can. Here are the 5 most common homebrewing mistakes to avoid. The good news is that, those are all easy to manage and to correct. Happy brewing, everyone!
1. Not using proper sanitation
I know, you heard that one a hundred times already. The first practice a home brewer learns is how to sanitize. Truth is you cannot use too much sanitation. Yes, it’s probably not your favorite part of the experience, but you can ruin a whole batch of beer with wild yeasts and bacteria. I hope your didn’t have that misfortune happen to you.
Make sure you PLAN AHEAD to have all your equipment ready, cleaned and sanitized when you need it, instead of rushing that step at the last minute and doing it half-way, or without respecting the instructions.
Remember that once your wort has cooled down to 140F degrees, this is when you have to take all the necessary precautions to meticulously protect your wort.
What you should do: Understand how to use your sanitizer properly, at the correct dilution rate, and have all your sanitized equipment ready before you need it. Keep your beer clean and save time!
2. Mashing temperature too high or too low
Brewing all-grain allows you to be creative, to control and to enjoy the process, however you need to understand how the mashing process work. Malt naturally contains enzymes (types of proteins) that are responsible for transforming the starch in different types of sugars during the mashing process. Typically, brewers are looking to extract two primary types of enzymes, Beta-amylase and Alpha-amylase, and should rely mainly on TEMPERATURE to achieve the desired quality of mash. A small variation can produce a totally different style of beer.
Beta-amylase is best activated between 140 and 149F degrees. It produces maltose, highly fermentable. The beer obtained from this mash will be drier/ with a lower finished gravity, resulting in lower alcohol.
Alpha-amylase is best activated between 154 and 167. It produces maltose too, along with unfermentable sugars, such as dextrin. The resulting beer will be fruitier and sweeter/ higher finished gravity, resulting in higher alcohol and/ or under-attenuation.
This means there is a small window to extract fermentable sugars – maltose, sucrose, glucose, fructose – the home brewer has to work with to determine the profile of the beer he/ she wants to make.
OTHER FACTORS THAN TEMPERATURE to be taken into consideration during the mashing process that can affect the proper saccharification of starch in your wort:
- MASH WATER PH. The ideal target is 5.5. Darker malts have a lower PH, and paler malts a higher PH. You want to measure your mash water PH, determined by the characteristics of the malt, not your brewing water PH. The easiest way to do that is to invest in a PH meter, which you can find for $20 or so. If you are brewing a lager and your brewing water is very soft, you may have to perform an acid rest, between 90 and 128F for an hour or more, or add minerals such as Gypsum. Water chemistry is essential to create great beer.
- SUBSTRATE CONCENTRATION. This is basically the thickness of your mash. By reducing the amount of water, the increased enzyme density will promote the transformation of the starch up to a certain point. As a rule of thumb, 1.5 pounds of malt per gallon of mashing water will yield an average of 1.035 pre-boil wort, depending on wether your malt is highly modified or not. If Brewing in a bag, count that your grain will absorb about 10% of your mash water.
What you should do: Know the exact temperature at which the beer you are brewing should be mashed. Measure it precisely with your thermometer during the whole process. Managing your PH, and grain density will determine a better wort that will ferment easier, and more completely, bringing all the balance and precise flavors you are looking for.
3. Incorrect use of yeast
The yeast pitching science is easy to overlook. New homebrewers tend to focus on the steps they can more immediately understand and control – and they should: sanitation, mashing temperature and initial gravity, boil schedule (the fun part). Most recipes specify a recommended type of yeast that comes in dry or liquid form. Yeasts are packages for average 5-gallon batches. If the yeast is viable (fresh), you may assume nothing can go wrong. Dry yeast typically is more concentrated and starts the fermentation in a few hours. Liquid yeast on the other hand takes a bit longer. Eventually, in both cases, everything is bubbling happily in your fermentor. So, why worry?
In reality, to take your beer to the next level, you need to understand how fermentation works. BeerandBrewing.com gives a great description of the 3 phases – the lag phase/ the grow phase/ the stationary phase. After you’ve done all the work to prepare a wort – mashed at the correct temperature to extract the right composition of fermentable sugars and nutrients, reduced it to the right OG (original gravity), the last thing you want to do is to ruin the quality of your beer by conducting a poor fermentation. A clean, healthy, efficient fermentation depends on 3 key elements:
- Pitch rate – if it’s too low, the stressed yeast will generate undesirable phenolic off-flavors such as band-aid, cooked vegetable, and chemical aromas and flavors. Overpitching can result in lack of character, too clean or beers that are too fruity, estery. The correct pitch rate is calculated by millions of cells/ milliliter/ degree Plato (or gravity). A standard pitch rate could be 0.75 for an Ale below 1.060 gravity, and 1.50 for a Lager below 1.060 gravity
- Oxygen – it is critical to aerate your work to start fermentation since it’s oxygen-deficient after the boil.
- Temperature – each yeast strain works in a specific temperature range which you have to respect. The yeast manufacturers will have all the relevant information on their website.
What you should do: calculate the appropriate pitch rate, to do so, use online calculators, when fermenting a Lager or a high gravity beer, learn how to make a starter. Pitch when your wort has reached the right temperature. Finally, make sure you aerate your cooled wort for 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Chilling wort too slowly
As I explained in this post, chilling your wort in a timely manner is crucial to make, clean, good beer. You are taking too long, most of the time because you do not have the proper equipment to do the job, or you are not using it efficiently.
Here are the 4 main reasons why wort should be chilled quickly:
- to prevent oxidation of the hot wort, as it will otherwise affect the taste of your finished beer
- to prevent infection by all kinds of unwanted bacteria, risking contributing to off-flavors and aromas
- to preserve the freshness of your hops additions
- to stop the production of DMS (Dimethylsufide), a sulfury compound from mainly your base-malt that evaporates during the boil. Too much DMS in a clean, pale beer with contribute to undesirable flavors of cooked cabbage or corn.
What you should do: For smaller batches, 3 gallons or less, using an ice-bath, for example, your sink, filled with ice, will work just fine. If you brew 5 gallons or more at a time, you definitely need to invest in a wort chiller. You’ll find a description of the common 3 different types available to the home brewer here, and decide which one is best for you. With experience, you’ll learn how to control chilling water temperature, flow rates, and how the heat exchange surfaces will maximize the process efficiency. The key is to bring your wort from 140F degrees to pitching temperature – i.e. 72F degrees or under in 30 minutes or less.
5. Not allowing your beer to age long enough
The hardest part in home brewing is not sanitizing, cleaning up … it might very well be waiting until your homebrew is finally ready for drinking. Arguably, certain styles will benefit from more aging than others. Brewers refer to young beer as “green beer”. Flavors and aromas are coarse, and not harmonious.
LAGERS, by definition – in German, the noun Lager means “warehouse, storage place”, the verb Lagern means to store, to keep. So, you get the idea. Of course, cold fermentation requires a longer time, and pale beers, because they are normally more delicate, like Pilsners, definitely need that time in kegs or bottles to reduce potential vegetal notes coming from DMS, and refine the balance. You may want to keep your lager for 8 to 12-week secondary fermention at close to freezing temperature to truly get it a chance to rest and taste right.
STOUTS, HIGH ABV ALES (above 5%) will benefit from aging a month or so. Some people say a month and one extra month for every percent above 5%.
HOPPY BEERS such as IPA and DIPA should be consumed on the earlier side, as you want to enjoy the fresh floral, citrusy, spicy aromas of hops that will deteriorate from the moment it’s carbonated. 2 weeks in the bottle, and 1 week in the keg.
There is no set in stone kind of rule, so I suggest you try your beer every week or every other week after it’s carbonated, and see how your beer evolves.
There are many aspects of making beer that can adversely impact the result, these are the top 5 homebrewing mistakes to avoid I have personally been able to manage and, hopefully, get better at. Perhaps another I should mention here is getting too enthusiastic about enjoying the end product of a prior brew day than focusing on enjoying the process of the present brew day, in other words stay as sober as possible. Believe me, I’m speaking from personal experience and inclination. LOL.
I sincerely hope nobody ruins a batch of beer. After you’ve invested half a day of hard work, you do not want to end up with bad beer, and I hope you find this discussion useful. Let me know what your thoughts are – please share your comments or questions below.
Cheers and to our health,