Stuart Draughon on December 31, 2014 8 Comments Fourteen years ago, I was recovering from major surgery and had some time to reflect on what I had not accomplished in my life. I decided to work on financial planning, to develop a list of places I wanted to travel to with my wife, to stop drinking cheap scotch and find out what single malts I truly enjoyed, and to find and drink the top beers in the world..and to also be a better person, etc. I did a great job on the financial planning, places to travel, and single malts; but was having trouble on finding and drinking the top beers, because they weren’t easily available. When I complained to my good friend Tom about the lack of availability, he asked me why I simply didn’t make my own beer. Click Here to Shop for Brewing Supplies & Equipment My wonderful wife bought a starter kit, and I started making beer. I was fortunate in having another good friend, Norman, who is a great engineer and home brewer, act as my mentor on my first attempts. I also benefited from Tom’s experience as a home brewer and from the local brew club. I made several batches that had errors in my initial efforts: Scorched the wort, fermented at 74°F when it should’ve been no more than 65°, boiled over the wort, and a few other small glitches; but generally the beer was pretty good. With each batch, I got feedback on the beer, and made adjustments. I also kept tasting new beer to see if there was anything new or different that I wanted to make. During this time, I was pretty much sticking to the various ingredient kits I was ordering, and trying to ensure I was following the steps to get good beer. At the time, I was only making ales. This would evolve over time. 10 Early Lessons I Learned The key things I learned early on, both from my mistakes and from various mentors: Sanitization: Do NOT skip any sterilization steps, if you aren’t certain it’s sanitized, sanitize it again. Keep the Proper Temperatures: Keep your beer cold, read the proper temperatures for the specific yeast you are using and do NOT exceed that temperature, I tried various methods, but eventually settled on using a large cooler that I had purchased for fishing, It would hold two 5 gallon fermenters or two 6 gallon carboys for secondary fermentation. Know What’s In Your Water: Ensuring your water is high quality, if your tap water is ‘off’ your beer may also pick up and off flavors; so you can buy bottled water, or use some sort of filtration system (I have purchased bottled water, and I have added an RV filter with activated carbon to a water source to remove ‘off tastes’. Burton Water Salts: If needed, consider using Burton water salts to help condition your water. Use a Clarifying Agent: Use some sort of clarifying agent if it is important to you to have beer you can ‘see through’, my favorite is Irish Moss. Keep a Close Eye on Your Wort: Watch your wort as it approaches the boiling point, there are few things harder to clean up than wort that boils over (wort expands rapidly when it first boils, and will set up like concrete if it boils over). Turn Off Heat When Adding Malt Extract: Photo Credit: Purdman1 / Flickr Remove your pot with boiling wort from the heat source (or turn off the heat source) when you add malt extract or other sugars, and ensure the additions are stirred in and dissolved into the work prior to returning the pot to the heat source (prevent scorching). Later, I learned to have a smaller stainless steel pot with about two quarts of boiling water that I would dissolve malt liquid or solids into, before pouring the mixture into the wort through a large sieve. Using this second pot and sieve, eliminated the problems posed by a sugar going to the bottom of the large pot and sticking, then scorching. Cool Wort Before Pitching Yeast: Be sure the wort is cooled down to the proper temperature before adding (pitching) the yeast. I tried many different methods: initially using an ice bath to cool down the wort, then boiling about 3 gallons the day PRIOR to making beer and letting it cool down and then storing it overnight in the refrigerator so when I added the cold water to the hot wort it brought the temperature down very quickly. Find a Mentor: Get a mentor to help you figure out what you did right and did wrong, so you can improve with each batch you make. Your beer drinking friends will often tell you that the like your beer or what they like about your beer, but a mentor will tell you how you can make better beer. Take In-Depth Notes: Write down what you do, step by step, and measure each step, so you can do it again if it’s great; or avoid making the same mistake twice. Creating My Own Recipes That’s when it occurred to me that I could start designing my own beer. This was a revelation. After I decided to switch to a different hop that I’d had in another style beer (Fuggle vs Kent Golding), and made an ESB, an abby style ale, a Belgian Tripple, and a very highly-hopped IPA that were all well-received by all my beer drinking friends. (I now had many more beer friends, obviously.) About this time, I was transferred suddenly, and found out how much my beer was appreciated, when my friends and co-workers would call to wish me well, and then offer to take any ‘extra beer’ that I might have to get rid of—and would ask for their their favorite from the various styles I’d made. Photo Credit: DeegePhotos / Flickr Evolving & Improving After moving again, this time to a colder climate, I then made several beer batches from mini mash and several from only extracts, and made my first pilsner from my own recipe, by using the very cold garage as my refrigerator for my pilsner. That year, I made 35 batches of home brew, and had a regular distribution route with my beer drinking friends. I would load my truck and then do deliveries on my way to work. I had a great neighbor, Jim, who would offer ideas on new styles of beer to brew; while readily helping me get empty bottles for the next batch. It was during this time that I took 8 different styles of beer to a holiday party for my co-workers; and it was another learning experience for me to hear their feedback on what they tasted in the different types of beers and what they looked or did not like in each one. It showed me how a beer that might be a very good beer from a technical sense, might not be considered a ‘good tasting beer’ by one person, and ‘loved’ by the person next to them. At that party it occurred to me that it was possible to make crafted beer that was exactly suited to my palate; and that it may or may not be one that was appreciated to the same extent or form the same reasons by other people. That’s when I remembered Tom’s advice that you can make a better beer than you can buy, and I started designing beer from scratch. Upgrading My Equipment It was about this time that I started to upgrade my equipment again. I had already switched from glass carboys to used water supply plastic carboys (the trend now is to have these made with a handle through the side, which makes them easy to carry, but hard to clean, so I used the older style plastic carboys with no handle), and I purchased and started to use old soda kegs instead of bottling my beer. I really enjoyed the ease of using the kegs. My wonderful wife supported by obsession by not only buying the kegs, but by also buying a 60” two door refrigerator, that allowed me to control fermentation much more precisely and also allowed me to store my kegs easily. To control temperatures more accurately, I added a supplemental thermometer that controlled the refrigerator’s temperature to the range I needed to store beer, to ferment an ale, to ferment a pilsner, or to switch the refrigerator over to a refrigerator during the holidays when we had company. Experimenting With Ingredients Some of the crafted design beers I made, all initially included extreme hopping, with Magnum, Columbus, Chinook and a few other high-alpha hops. Examples include: Golden Ale IPA (think of Duvel with LOTS of hops) Pilsner IPP (India Pale Pilsner) Hop Stout (yes, a Stout with hop attitude) I also made quite a few fruit beers, and found that most food additives also brought some degree of chemical aftertaste; and after some rather average batches of Apricot ale and Raspberry Ale, I switched to only fruit purees, but used extracts with the natural fruit if I could get it. I also found out about the many fermentable and non-fermentable sugars, that could enhance the flavor, as well as the alcohol content of the beer, and experimented with them. Honey was probably my favorite to try. One of the beers I made was a Christmas Ale with spices. It was a big hit with my wife and friends, but I didn’t care too much for it; so I made a careful note to make it upon request or during the holidays. After the holidays, I had just over a case left of it, and no one wanted it, so I made myself drink a bottle each week to simply work the stock down, at the end of it, I decided to NOT make it again. In summary, I was having a lot of fun experimenting with unusual and new tastes and ideas, while still making my regular favorites—but learned to hard way to not make a beer that I wouldn’t personally enjoy drinking. Using the kegs really simplified the bottling process, but posed a dilemma for transport; so I started bottling about a case and kegging the remainder of the batch. That also gave the impression that I was almost out of a beer style almost from the time it was bottled, so it made me start keeping better track of my finished inventory. Some of the lessons learned from this phase: Keep a lookout for new types of brewing equipment. Focus on what you like in a beer, and then determine if you can apply that ‘like’ to a different beer style. Look for labor saving ideas, such as plastic instead of glass carboys. Turnover your materials, both raw and finished. Keep trying new beers, you will be surprised at what you may find you like and what you next want to make. Don’t give up on a beer or method if you don’t succeed the first time; often you can make a small change and be successful the next time. If you don’t like it, don’t make it; there’s not much benefit from having two cases and a five pack of beer you really don’t like and have to give to someone else to drink I hope this has been helpful. Happy Brewing!