Build a better homebrew

We’ve not done a lot of homebrewing recently — we’ve either been out and about at weekends or too tired.

And, when we have brewed in the last year or so, the results haven’t been as brilliant as we would have liked. We’re getting to be quite finicky and are past the stage of being pleasantly surprised our beer is vaguely drinkable. We can buy drinkable beers easily and cheaply: we want our beers to be astounding.

We’re not trying to make wacky or extreme beers, and maybe that’s why its become a challenge. There’s nowhere to hide in something as simple as an altbier or best bitter — malt, hops and subtle yeast leave you very exposed.

The trouble is, it can be really difficult to nail down what’s wrong, particularly when it’s not so much an off flavour as the absolute absence of a key flavour. And, as you address some problems, others emerge. For example, we’ve been concentrating on improving the malt flavour by experimenting with lower temperatures, decoctions etc., so it’s disappointing then to taste the latest batch; note that, yes, there are lovely malt flavours; but be disappointed to find that they are overwhelmed by a ‘homebrew’ flavour that means we still wouldn’t want to drink several in a single sitting.

There are so many variables to play with — where do you start?

We’ve been inspired by enthusiastic hop-related posting at the Thornbridge Brewer’s Blog, Reluctant Scooper and Geoff’s website to get brewing again in earnest and, like Geoff, we’re going to do more single hop brews to try to learn a bit more about the differences between varieties.

13 replies on “Build a better homebrew”

Sounds like you need to get yourselves down to the forum at a Jim’s Beer Kit. Temperature isn’t the first thing I would worry about. Do you treat your brewing liquor? That really is important.

Start with a look at your sanitation. I found that I lost the home brew taste when I got the jug of Star San acid cleanser. Everything gets to sit in the stuff for hours. Great for the complexion, too.

I agree with Alan about sanitation. But, if you have tightened all the bolts there, the other source of problems may be in temperature control on the fermentation side. Also your timing may also be problematic. Perhaps you are drinking your beer before it is really ready.

Good luck,

I have found of late that I need to leave my beers in the bottle longer than the regular 3 weeks I had been doing, generally 5 weeks gets rid of the slightly thin body I had been experiencing. Also, I started doing primary fermentation for a flat 2 weeks, to give all my brews a decent diacetyl rest.

wow…that’s a big question. Firstly, I agree re: the JBK forum. It’s a lifesaver and the guys/gals on there are great. Secondly – and I don’t mean to sound defeatist – are you expecting too much? The only reason I say this is that I’ve been brewing for about two years now, and sort of know, in the back of my head, that It’ll never reach AMAZING standards. Like Velky Al said, I personally get gratified making small, but significant steps. For example, I was missing body in my beers, but then discovered adding a little Munich malt alongside Crystal helped that. Or hopping really late on much improved my aroma. I’m now experimenting with 60 minute boils as opposed to 90, and getting some decent restults. Bear in mind – you ARE homebrewing – Not microbrewing (Macrobrewing?)…

I have to disagree with Leigh here, there is no real difference between homebrewing in microbrewing – there is absolutely no reason why a homebrewed beer shouldn’t be up there with the best of them. The essential difference between us brewers and say, wine or cider makers, is that we have access to [i]exactly the same ingredients[/i] as the big boys. Does having a bigger mash tun, access to filtering equipment and so on make the beer better? I think not. Are they teaching superior knowledge and abilities at Heriott Watt that we don’t know about? It’s all on Jim’s! In many ways, I think we can do it better given enough practice.

Beginning homebrewers tend to be happy that they are producing drinkable beer when they start out, they will rarely produce something undrinkable, and maybe about 5-10% of the beers truly shine for some reason or another. Anyway, here are some things you can do to increase your batting average, and things which drastically improved my beers:

1) Focus on fermentation. What happens before the wort leaves the kettle doesn’t really matter, the process is immensely forgiving before this point. Switch to a liquid yeast from White Labs, Wyeast or Brewlabs and match it to the style of beer you are brewing. Make a decent sized starter (refer to Mr Malty), and repitch yeast where possible. Control the fermentation temperature. Aerate the wort and yeast starter.

2) Don’t be afraid of hops. Throwing in 100g – 200g of hops at the end of the boil and maybe half of that for dry hopping for beers with a decent hop presence. Make sure your hops are from a decent supplier, vacuum packed, a recent crop and store them in the freezer. Remember that ultimately, all hops in the UK come from Charles Farams so it’s not like homebrewers are getting dud hops. Be cognisant of when your hoppy beers taste the best

3) Water, in order of importance: Always treat your water for chlorine using a campden tab. Look into adjusting calcium levels to get around 50 – 100ppm. Look at adjusting the alkalinity. Look at sulphate to chloride ratios. (the last two are more fine tuning).

4) Don’t be afraid to rebrew beers again and again until you get what you set out to brew. Jumping from one beer style to the next doesn’t teach you a great deal. Single hop beers! Stick to the easy styles first (lower gravity, less hops).

5) Practice! Commercial brewers are brewing every day. You will get better the more you brew, make a point of doing it every week or fortnight. You are at an advantage in the sense you have to vocabulary to describe what you’re tasting, what the flaws are and what is lacking. Take that information to Jim’s and you’ll be able to nail down what is happening in your process. Read all the books and listen to the podcasts that are out there.

6) Lastly, try kegging your beer so you can carbonate your beers more precisely, and also you can taste regularly to observe how the beer changes over time. Taste directly after fermentation and note when the beer peaks.

Oh, for a good malt presence, a nice addition is a few percent of Amber malt for a nice biscuity/earthy flavour. Thomas Fawcett Maris Otter is amazing. Don’t be afraid to replace 5 – 50% of your base malt with Munich malt depending on how much of a malt hit you want.

Go to your local commercial craft brewer and get some more interesting hops – 200g is nothing to them. If you get a choice, go for one of the relatively new US varieties, like Citra.

Whilst you’re there, take a sterile tupperware tub and get some of their yeast. If you can’t make it sterile, get them to sterilise it for you. They will have all sorts of good stuff like Peracetic acid, quats etc for doing this. This saves pissing about making a yeast starter, and helps to replicate your local craft brewer flavour.

Maybe even take a day off and spend it ‘brewing’ with a willing commercial craft brewer. You’d just be digging out the mash tun and stuff, but it’s a great way to see whether you’re missing anything.

The best of luck to you, and if there’s anything specific you want help with, just get in contact with me.

I could go ask a grown-up brewer.

Fermentation, fermentation, fermentation! The make or break point is in controlling the fermentation, and using enough of the right yeast at the right temperature with sufficient aeration at the start.

If you’re getting a “twang”, then I’d blitz everything with a strong steriliser, then rinse well, and make sure you’re temps are OK. Also, if you’re using tap water, treat with a campden tablet before you start (I use 1/2 to 1 tablet per 5 gallons) – this eliminates any chlorine and chloramines that your local water supply kindly supply along with the water.

Also, when you say “lower temperatures” – if you mean mash temps, this will make the wort more fermentable in fact (ie thinner) – try a higher mash temp – 68 or 69 perhaps.

There’s absolutely no reason your beer won’t be as good or better than the commercial offerings once you get your process and recipes tuned.

Thanks for all the practical tips and encouragement, folks.

We’ve definitely been being stingy with the hops and, although I think we thought we’d nailed sanitation, maybe it’s back to the drawing board on that, too.

Rather than collecting yeast from a brewery in a sterile Tupperware container, you can use a new zip lock plastic bag. These are virtually sterile when unopened.

In 1999 I collected yeast from Ridley’s Brewery (RIP) in Essex and brought it back to the States in a Ziploc bag. It’s now being sold by WhiteLabs as Essex ale yeast (WLP022) and it’s my favorite ale yeast. Great top cropper.

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