Ten years ago I started out doing partial wort boils making extract batches on the glass top electric stove in our kitchen. I brewed my first batch using mostly donated equipment and ingredients along with an IRC transcript from my friend Chris explaining what I should do. I had bought a copy of the Complete Joy of Home Brewing but hadn’t read it yet.
I had no clue what I was doing and it definitely was the worst beer I’ve ever made. It was infected big time. That’s okay. We all need to start somewhere.
It got better. There are many things that have improved my brewing. These six stick out in my mind as game changers.
1. A Bigger Pot
More space is better. Full wort boils are simpler and lead to better hop extraction due to the lower gravity of the wort at boil time. A full wort boil should also result in less caramelization in your boil kettle resulting in beers that are probably closer to what you are trying to make. A huge advantage to a bigger boil kettle is that it allows you to boil harder while being less concerned with boiling over.
2. A Wort Chiller
Once you are doing full wort boils you’ll realize that cooling off five gallons of 200+ degree liquid takes a long time. This is pretty annoying. And while much of life on Earth is grateful that water has a high specific heat, the homebrewer who finishes boiling at 11:30 PM on a week night really doesn’t care whether or not that fish at the bottom of the pond freezes to death in the winter or not. I’ve tried water baths and I’ve stuck my pot in snow banks but nothing really worked well until I made an immersion chiller. Not only is chilling your wort to pitching temperature in minutes rather than hours a huge time saver but it also improves the quality of the end product. First, rapid chilling reduces the chances of an infection. It also causes cold break proteins to drop out of the wort permanently resulting in a clearer beer.
3. A Propane Burner
It takes a long time to bring five plus gallons to a boil on your kitchen stove. Oh, does it take a long time. A propane burner from a turkey fryer kit or from the homebrew store is worth every penny. I recommend using one with a 10 PSI regulator. I used to use a five and it worked but it had a hard time keeping a boil going on a cold and windy day. If you’re going to switch things up and try some ten gallon or larger batches this is an absolute necessity.
4. Local Homebrew Store
Your local homebrew store is a phenomenal resource. It’s not just a place to buy equipment and ingredients. Typically many of the employees are experienced homebrewers. And if there’s one thing that brewers like to talk about at length, it’s beer and brewing. They will help you build recipes, give you tips on techniques and most will taste your beer and give you feedback on it. Homebrew stores often put on educational events and contests as well. Get plugged in. To help find a store near you, White Labs has a homebrew store locator on their website. Google is your friend as well.
One of the best things I ever did was start brewing with friends. I brew primarily with folks from Two Guys Brewing in the Grand Rapids, MI area. We try and get together at someone’s house every month or two all year round. We brew. We eat. We taste each others previous beers. Not only is it a fun social event but it gives beginning brewers the opportunity to learn from the veterans and use equipment that they may not have yet. Usually the veterans also learn a thing or two. We’ve got a following of non-brewers as well. We’ve managed to convert a few of them into giving brewing a shot.
In the end, you only get better at something by practicing it. If you want to be a better piano player, you need to play the piano. In the same way, if you want to be a better brewer, you need to brew. If you want to be a better brewer, you need to taste other beers. Be patient. If you learn from your successes and your failures and keep moving forward, you will make great beer.