The Beginner Brewer: June 2013

Monday, 3 June 2013

Basic Brewing Techniques Part IV: 3 Tiny Details that will Improve your Homebrew

If you've been following my basic brewing techniques posts, and have found them useful, I've got some more lined up in the coming weeks. Here are three more tips for better tasting beer. Enjoy!

1. Sanitize even the Tiny Stuff.


Missing tiny things can be costly in homebrewing. The smallest of these are those nasty micro-organisms that can contaminate your beer. I’ve found more than a few homebrewers who take alarming chances when it comes to sanitization. Perhaps because these bugs are not visible to the naked eye, a kind of ‘good-enough-for-government-work’ attitude seems to prevail when it comes to keeping things clean.

But that’s a bad idea.

If you’re struggling with occasional (or regular) off-tasting beer, look carefully at every single thing that touches your wort once it is cooled (or being cooled). Remember, it really only takes one bug to ruin your brew.

Infected beer: Not what you want to show your friends
I always find it amazing that some homebrewers think that you can be overly-careful with sanitation. What exactly are the risks of being overly-cautious versus not? Part of the problem is that beer does actually have a number of anti-microbial properties that help fight infection.

Chief among these are the hops you used and the yeast you pitched. Both fight against bacteria that are like to find their way into your beer, so if you do make some sanitation errors, you may well get away with it (this time).

But do you really want to play roulette with a hard day’s work and rely solely on the homebrew gods to protect your beer?

I’ve never seen a beer ruined due to meticulous sanitation, but I’ve seen bad beer due to sloppy sanitation.
Here are some commonly overlooked things that deserve careful sanitation attention:

    Remember that clean and sanitary are not the same! You cannot sanitize dirty equipment, and sanitizers like Perisan are not good at cleaning things. First remove gunk and dirt with a good cleaner (Sodium Metasilicate or Caustic Soda), then sanitize.

On brew day:
  •  Scissors used to open the yeast packet
  • The yeast packet (spray it with sanitize before opening)
  •  The water used to rehydrate the yeast (use boiled water or brand new mineral water)
  •  The parts of the immersion chiller that weren't boiled in the wort (the steam from the cooling wort condenses on these and can drip back into the cooling wort)
  •  If you’re going to aerate the wort with a whisk, then that has to be sanitized
  • Thermometer used to measure the wort temperature
  •  The fermenter’s rubber grommet, bubbler, and bubbler cap.
  • Your hands. Generally you shouldn’t be touching the cooled wort directly, but it’s not a bad idea to use hand sanitiser to make sure your hands are santitary when handling equipment that will be touching the cooled wort.
Bottling day:
  • Hydrometer for measuring your Final Gravity
  • Bottle caps
  • Bottle capper (just spray the parts that touch the caps)

2. Avoid Yeast Shock


Rehydrating Yeast
Yeast is pretty amazing. Those microbes can be freeze-dried (as is the case with dry yeast), kept in suspension for years, and then come alive to do their part in making great tasting homebrew. So you can tell
that they are pretty resilient little critters.

But it doesn’t harm to give them a helping hand when you pitch them into your wort. A good principle is to make sure that your wort is cooled to below 30C, and to always pitch yeast into wort that is within 5C of the yeast temperature. 

It’s also not a bad idea to pitch yeast into wort that is warmer than the yeast’s temperature. So if you rehydrated dry yeast at say, 20C, then your wort needs to be at about 22-25C for good results.

Taking these precautions will ensure that your yeast has a viable leg-up on any other microbes that reside in your wort, and will ensure a vigorous, healthy fermentation.

3. Give it Time


It’s understandable that once you’ve got your beer in the fermenter and the airlock is bubbling away nicely, you’ll be anxious to try your new creation. And while it’s technically possible for beer to ferment to final gravity in the first three days (for ales) or so, fermentation is not just about converting sugars into alcohol.

This stage of making beer is also about conditioning the beer and getting yeast cells to absorb substances, like diacetyl, that produce off-flavors in the final product. 

For ales, I get good results when I ferment for 10-14 days, cold condition at around 5C for another week or two, and then bottle condition for another 2 weeks (this last bit can be skipped if you keg and force carbonate your beer).

Yes, that’s around a month from start to finish, but it makes a big difference in not only the immediate taste of the beer, but also its flavour stability over time.