There is nothing like brewing your own beer at home. However, for many new to homebrewing, the process can be overwhelming and mistakes can be made. Whether you’re a seasoned brewer or just starting out, it’s important to be aware of the most common homebrewing mistakes and how to avoid them. From contamination to inconsistent temperatures, we’ve got you covered with tips and tricks to ensure that your next batch of beer is a success.
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We are starting off with possibly one of the most important homebrewing mistakes to avoid – improper cleaning. Using dirty equipment is just about guaranteed to lead to off-flavors. The wort you produce during the brewing process is very sticky and sugar-laden, which means it is a breeding ground for bacteria and other microorganisms. Unless you want to add these microorganisms to your beer, make sure you clean every piece of equipment your wort touches with brewer’s soap, which is discussed below.
You do not want to use dish soap for your cleaning. It leaves behind a residue that is harmful to the beer, and the scented soaps can drastically impact flavor. Instead, you want to use a brewer’s soap, such as PBW (powdered brewery wash). These cleaners are alkaline, non-caustic cleaners that are excellent at removing the organic soils produced during the brewing process. PBW can be used in both CIP (clean in place) and manual cleaning methods. You cannot sanitize a dirty surface, so make sure everything is cleaned and rinsed well.
Building on what we discussed above, sanitation is absolutely essential to homebrewing delicious beer. Because the boil sterilizes the wort, removing any microorganisms that have been added from the raw materials and mashing process, you do not need to sanitize your mash tun or boil kettle. You must, however, sanitize everything after this point. You must sanitize your heat exchanger (if you are running your wort through an external one), your fermenter and all of its attachments, secondary fermentation vessels, bottles, and kegs. Basically, if your wort touches it after it has been cooled below 160 degrees Fahrenheit, sanitize it.
We use Star San as our sanitizer. Star San is a self-foaming, acid-based, no-rinse sanitizer. It is also biodegradable so it will not harm septic systems. The foam helps the sanitizer cling to all necessary surfaces and penetrate any cracks and crevices. You should soak all clean brewing equipment that comes in contact with the cooled wort in star san at the required dilution rate for the required amount of time before using it. You should also spray star san on all of the fermenting vessel’s ports before adding any attachments.
Lack of Temperature Control
A lack of temperature control is another huge homebrewing mistake. You need to be able to control the temperature of your wort throughout the entire brewing process, but the two main steps we will discuss here are mashing and fermentation. Single infusion mashing, which is most common among new brewers, is performed between 148 degrees and 156 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the beer style. Mashing outside of these ranges significantly impacts the enzymes required to convert the starches in the grains to fermentable sugars. If you do not have a thermometer, you can order one here from amazon.
For fermentation, you need to be within your yeast strain’s required temperature range. Too low and the yeast will not replicate or produce the alcohol or flavor compounds you need. Too high and it will ferment too quickly, adding unpleasant off-flavors. Many new brewers place their fermenters in refrigerators that they can set at the required temperatures. Intermediate and advanced brewers usually upgrade to jacketed stainless steel fermenters that are controlled by glycol units. Whatever technique you use, make sure it is able to ferment exactly where it needs to or you will undoubtedly have off-flavors.
Incorrect Brewing Water Profile
One of the major homebrewing mistakes new brewers make is underestimating the importance of the water they use to brew. The first thing you should do before brewing is to get a water analysis done. There are many companies that can analyze your water, but whichever you choose, you need to know the total number of calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfates, chlorides, and bicarbonates. You can learn more about these ions in our in-depth post on developing a water profile.
Using the right water profile can make your beer world-class. The wrong water profile, however, can make it undrinkable. Don’t underestimate the water!
Using Damaged Equipment
It is very easy to damage equipment during the brewing process. The low pH, high temperatures, and cleaning processes can all lead to damaged equipment. Visually inspect all of your equipment before use. Worn-out gaskets and seals can cause leaks and lead to oxygen pickup at later stages of the brewing process. Small scrapes in fermenters, particularly plastic ones, can be very difficult to clean and harbor bacteria.
Low-Quality Brewing Ingredients
Try to get the freshest ingredients you can find. Old grains will have dampened malt flavor and aroma. They can even pick up some metallic flavors if the grain gets oxidized. Old hops can begin to lose their aromatic compounds. They will also develop cheesy flavors if stored improperly (exposed to oxygen and light). Dried yeast has a longer shelf-life than liquid yeast, but both will begin to lose viability if they sit beyond their use-by date.
The difference between old and new ingredients is more noticeable in some styles than others. For example, a style such as the blonde ale that revolves around its malt profile will be very different if you use old grains instead of new grains. And similarly, a fresh, citrusy style such as a NEIPA is significantly different if you use old hops instead of new hops. Feel free to sample your raw ingredients before brewing to make sure they are exactly like you want them to be.
Getting Too Complicated
Next up on our list of homebrewing mistakes is trying to get too complicated. It is very easy to get excited when designing a recipe and add too many specialty malts or too many hops. Try to resist this urge – adding too many of these will cause the flavors to become muddled together. When you are first starting out, try to stay at or below 3 specialty malts and 3 different hops per recipe until you get used to your system.
Not Measuring Correctly
This can be broken into two parts – measuring your beer and measuring the ingredients used. For the beer itself, you need to measure it at different points to make sure everything is working as it is supposed to. We measure our wort before the boil, after the boil, and throughout fermentation. The gravity before the boil lets you know if your mashing efficiency is where you expect it to be. The gravity after the boil lets you know if your boil was as vigorous as you need it to be. The fermentation gravities tell you if the yeast is performing as expected. We recommend using a refractometer to measure pre-boil gravity, and a hydrometer to measure post-boil gravity and gravities from the fermenter.
Next up is measuring the ingredients you use. Especially on a small scale, it is very important to measure exactly how much you need. Hops are potent, with only around an ounce needed for most 5-gallon batches. Dark, roasted malts are the same way. Accidentally adding too much, or too little, will drastically change the flavor of your beer. We recommend using a scale that goes out two decimal places for ounces and one decimal place for grams, like this one.
Not Taking Notes
Taking notes is a must if you want to continually improve your process and brew consistent beer. Unless you have a photographic memory, it is very difficult to remember every aspect of the brew day. At a minimum, you should keep track of the gravities we mentioned above, the temperature of your mash, the length of your mash, the length of boil, the temperature you push it through the heat exchanger at, and the temperature that you pitched the yeast at. You should also note sensory observations, such as the smell of the mash, the color of the wort, the intensity of the boil, the smell of the hops you use, etc. You should work on continuously improving your recipe. Whether that involves slight malt or hop changes, different mashing profiles, different water profiles, or different yeast or fermentation temperature, note what works and what does not.
Drinking on the Job
Last, but certainly not least, is the most disappointing one on the list – you should not drink beer while you brew. This is one of the homebrewing mistakes that many homebrewers make. At least, not if you want to make good beer. There are a lot of things you need to monitor in a brew day, and drinking makes it very difficult to keep track. Many homebrewers can tell you about a failed attempt (or two) that was the result of starting to drink too early. Try to wait to start drinking until after you pitch the yeast, and you should be golden.
Homebrewing can be a fun and rewarding experience, but it’s important to avoid the common homebrewing mistakes mentioned above. By paying attention to the quality of ingredients, maintaining a clean and sanitized brewing environment, and controlling fermentation temperatures, you can greatly increase your chances of brewing a delicious beer. Remember that brewing is a learning process, and don’t be afraid to experiment and make mistakes along the way. Cheers!