First Time Homebrewer, Lessons Learned

The co-worker of a good friend of mine is a first time Homebrewer.  Dave Ruppel who has been following my blog for some time, recently he tried his first homebrew.  Unfortunately for him it was not the best of results, fortunately for you, you may learn something to help your first batch of homebrew!  Here is Dave’s experience in his own words:

1/4/11

It’s a Tuesday and I just received all my ingredients and tools to brew my first batch of beer.  My dad brewed it all the time when I was a kid, and it just dawned on me a few weeks ago that maybe I should try it.  I asked for a kit for the holidays, and he took care of me – getting me a deluxe kit with plastic carboy, and a 4 gallon stainless steel pot.  Now I should have just waited until Saturday when I had time but I’m one of those people who get so antsy in my pantsy about something that I need immediate gratification.  Lesson #1 – make sure you give yourself enough time (a good 4 hours from start to finish).

So it’s 8:30PM.  I start by washing and sanitizing my fermentation bucket, airlock, and hydrometer.  I clean my brew pot, which is a 4 gallon pot, thermometer, and stirring paddle/oar/something to scare the dog with.  I didn’t bother sanitizing these as they’ll be in boiling water for most of the festivities.  I used a no-rinse sanitizer, filled the bucket with water and put everything in there with the right proportion of sanitizer.  I have my malt extract Oktoberfest ingredients from Annapolis Home Brew and 6 gallons of Deer Park water from the grocery store.  We’re ready to go.

I’m boiling in the garage since my mother gave my wife anywhere from 5 to 50 warnings about how the boiling wort stinks up the house.  Thanks Mom, love you.  Well it’s January in NJ, so it’s about 35 degrees outside.  Not a big deal as long as you plan for it.

I add one of the 2.5 gallon containers of water to the pot, and the other I have waiting to put into the fermentation bucket (once it dries from the no rinse sanitizer).  The recipe says to put the steeping grains in the mesh bag into the cold water until it reaches 170 degrees.  This is also my first time boiling on an outdoor cooker so I wasn’t quite sure how high to turn the propane.  20 minutes later and we’re at about 130 so I kick it up to almost full power without the flames billowing around the pot.  Oh crap I forgot to activate my yeast!  Lesson #2 – at least 3-4 hours before boiling, either make a starter for the yeast or in my case (I had an activator pouch) slap the yeast bag to release the food and take it out of the fridge.  I run inside, pull it out of the fridge, smack it, shake it, and leave it on the counter.  I should get about 1.5 hours of activation before I add it to the wort.

A few minutes later we’re up to 170.  I pull out the steeping grains, turn off the gas and get my 7 lbs. bag of malt extract.  I cut a hole towards the top and tip it over to start stirring it in.  Lesson #3– keep the bag of malt extract at room temperature before use.  I had it sitting on the cold garage floor.  It was so thick it was like trying to pour caramel through a strainer.  Not only is it thick, it is STICKY.  I had poured a good amount into the hot water so I wanted to pause to stir.  It’s a bag so this is no easy task.  I tip the bag up only to have it run down my hand.  At this point my right arm is getting tired from stirring so I switch hands.  Now I have malt extract all over my stirring oar – great.  I tip some more in and then try to pull it back, now my right hand is covered in malt along with my left AND the oar.  Wow this stuff sucks.  I dump the rest in, squeeze out the bag and stir some more.  There is still some extract in the bag – how on earth do I get it out?!  So I just chucked the whole thing into the pot and sloshed it around.  A minute later a clean bag emerges.  Granted I have at least 3 oz. on my hands and oar but I think we’ll be ok.  I stir until it’s all dissolved, just a couple minutes.

I kick the propane back on and the temp starts rising back up.  I take this opportunity to wash my hands, knowing I had to be quick.  This ended up working out, no boil over – probably because the wort had to rise 50 degrees before it would start boiling.  10 minutes later, we’re at a good rolling boil so I tweak the gas level for consistency and add the first round of hops.  The 60 minute timer is starting.  Now I understand the warning from my mother, boiling malt isn’t too bad, smells kind of sweet.  Boiling hops smells like death.  Granted it’s my creation so I embrace it.  The only bad part, it’s now 10:07PM.  I typically like to go to bed by 11:00 on work nights…back to Lesson #1.

Luckily I didn’t have to deal with a boil over, it just boiled away for 55 minutes.  With 5 minutes remaining I added my finishing hops.  I also poured the other 2.5 gallons into the fermentation bucket and grab the yeast from the kitchen counter.  Lesson #4 – keep the yeast at room temperature until pitching.  I put the yeast on the cold garage floor without thinking about it which probably dropped the temp to about 40, most likely deactivating the yeast.  The timer dings and I turn off the gas.  I rapidly pour the wort into the fermentation bucket (rapidly to help aerate) with the cold water.  I forget to try to hold back the hot break materials but it’s OK, I plan on using secondary fermenting.   I take a temp reading, 120 degrees.  Damn I have a good 40 degrees before I can pitch.  I take a hydrometer reading, 1.042 at 120 degrees.  I don’t have a wort chiller so I partially cover the top to let heat escape while still protecting from some dirt/grime while I clean up.  20 minutes later, 110 degrees…ah crap.  Lesson #5 – invest in a wort chiller or another idea, freeze some of the leftover water so I have a good mix of ice/water to which I’ll add the wort.  10 minutes later, it’s 11:30, I’m freaking tired, and the wort is 105 degrees.  I run inside and google “pitching yeast at 105 degrees.”  The consensus was it’s not recommended, but not the end of the world – so I pitch, not realizing that I had cold yeast going into hot wort with a probable temperature difference of 60 degrees.  I put the lid on, put the airlock in and take it to the basement.  Lesson #6 – while a small lesson, still something to note – wait to put the airlock in until the bucket won’t be moved.  You’ll see why in a minute.  I save the clean up for the next day and go to bed at 11:45PM.

1/5/11

I wake up for work, run downstairs to find the airlock on the floor next to the bucket.  The optimist in me says oh the yeast activity popped it off!  The pessimist in me says next time put the airlock in down here.  So I re-sanitize the airlock, add new clean water to it, and put it back on, this time a little tighter.  Expect maybe I pushed it down too hard.  I pop the rubber seal straight through the lid.  Luckily it’s still attached to the airlock and didn’t fall into the wort.  I get some tape and make a seal with the airlock against the lid.  I didn’t want to take the lid off and risk crud getting into the beer.  Lesson #7 – the airlock does not need to be jammed in too far.  If for some reason it pops out, not a big deal, clean it and put it back.

I come home from work to find no bubbles.  I’m not panicking though because I’ve read yeast can take 24-72 hours to activate.  It hasn’t even been 24 yet.

1/6/11

I wake up for work again, no yeast activity.  I’m still not panicking because the seal may not be perfect and airlocks are the end all be all measurement of yeast activity.

After work, still no bubbles.  I google my concerns to find 1 overbearing response =  RDWHAHB.  “Relax.  Don’t worry.  Have a home brew.”

1/7/11

AM – I see no bubbles.  I’ve decided that tonight when I come home, I’ll sanitize my hydrometer and take a reading and then make a decision.

PM – I take a hydrometer reading, it’s 1.051 – higher than my original gravity.  Granted the 1.042 was at 120 degrees so it being higher doesn’t shock me.  The real shock is that it wasn’t 1.020 or something close to that.  This means my yeast did not take or as my dad put it, I’ve committed yeasticide.  Because it’s 72 hours later, it’s too late to re-pitch, plus I didn’t have any more yeast.  Earlier in the day I ordered more ingredients with the anticipation of this and the consequences.  Serious homebrewers close your eyes – everyone else, I was left with one option, dump the batch.  Granted a more seasoned home brewer would have found ways to fix this prior to dumping.  Actually, serious home brewers wouldn’t have made the mistakes I did which caused the dump.

In any case, I have more ingredients on the way and I’ve taken the following valuable lessons from this tragedy:

Lesson #1 and most important – Plan to have enough time and take your time.

Rushing through and impatience was the overarching mistake made.  I wasn’t able to take the necessary precautions and steps to ensure everything went seamlessly.

Lesson #2 – Get the yeast active with plenty of time prior to boiling.

This allows the yeast to activate or if the yeast didn’t activate, to have time for a backup plan.

Lesson #3 – Keep the malt extract at room temperature prior to use

This wasn’t the end of the world since I still got everything out of the bag, more of a convenience thing.

Lesson #4 – Start the yeast with plenty of time for activation and at room temperature prior to pitching

This was one of 2 direct reasons why I had to dump the batch.  The yeast was A) not active yet when pitched, and B) it was cold from the garage floor.

Lesson #5 – Find a way, whatever that may be, to cool the wort ASAP

This was the other direct reason why the batch failed, along with Lesson 3.  The yeast went from 40 degrees to 105 degrees instantly, not prime conditions for the survival of yeast.  Invest in a wort chiller or figure out some some tricks like an ice bath to help rapidly cool the wort.

Lesson #6/7 – Attach the airlock once the beer is at rest

As I said before, this is minor but it will help avoid the issues I had like jamming the airlock in and popping the seal out.  It fell out because it had moved since I put it in prior to moving.  Because it fell out I was compelled to jam it in.  Neither is necessary.

——————————————————————————–

After reading this Dave made some good observations about his process.  I think had he done 2 things, his beer would have been fine.  It is a lesson we all can learn.  1) make sure you have enough time to brew.  Steeping/Mashing, Boiling, Cooling, and Cleaning take time.  I always plan 8-10 hours for a beer.  the Second lesson is a derivative of teh first, be patient.  Yeast have a very low tollerance to temp.  Be sure to read the tollorance temp and plan accordingly.  (lagers are cold fermented)  For any yeast, try to get the temp under the pitch temp and let it rise back up.  Colder temp will slow fermentation, but to hot could kill your yeast.

Dave, even after you probably killed the yeast from pitching at 120, once the temp did get down into the 60′s – 70′s range you could have re-pitched another culture.  Something to try in the future, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve got bad/old/damaged vials/packs of yeast.  Now I always make a starter and don’t brew until my starter is really churning away.  My last brewer (in the primary now) I had to wait 3 days for it to get going.

Patience is a Virtue and Relax have a Homebrew!

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15 Responses to “First Time Homebrewer, Lessons Learned”

  1. Vanessa Says:

    My three p’s (sort of) of homebrewing :)

    1. Planning – hard one for me because I like to fly by the seat of my pants!

    2. Patience – yeasts are finicky beasts, and cannot be rushed!

    3. (Dont!) Panic -helpful advice I learned from my Hitchhikers Guide – no matter how bad you think your beer is turning out, in my experience it is rare (no, not impossible, but rare) that a home brewed beer is truly awful! RDWHAHB :)

  2. Simply Beer Says:

    Good Advice!

    Brewing beer is an art, IMHO. You can’t just pick up a brush one day and paint a picasso, it takes practice, you need to understand your medium and tools. then with some patience and dedication everything evolves.

  3. Vanessa Says:

    Agreed!

  4. Jason Says:

    On your lessons (to Dave Ruppel):

    1) Definitely need more time. I usually give myself two weeks of planning, one week to make a starter from scratch and about 6-8 hours during brewday.

    2) Some things to note: you don’t need to activate the yeast pack. Its not necessary but it doesn’t hurt, all it does is proof the yeast making sure they are alive. Just make sure to get it to pitching temps. You could have just pitched the pack without a starter since your brew was under 1.050

    3) Switch to dried malt extract – problem solved.

    4) Kinda related to #2. I agree pitching at 105F was a no-no even if your yeast was at 40F. But the biggest thing with the pitch: make sure you have healthy and ENOUGH yeast. Can’t stress that enough. Think of it in numbers. To properly ferment a beer of 1.050 in 5 gallons you need around 100-150 billion cells. Those smack packs only provide 100 billion cells so you may need to do starters in the future. A simple starter in a growler, for example, can provide 200 billion yeast cells if started 3 days in advance.

    5) Yep you nailed it. Invest in a wort chiller. Cooling from boiling to under 100F in 20 minutes will bring your beer to a whole other level.

    6/7) Use a blow-off tube and you won’t need to worry about airlocks anymore.

    Some other notes:

    Forget the gallons of water bought at the store – this help your back and save you money. Tap water is just fine in most places unless it is extremely chlorinated, you don’t have to worry about contamination as well.

    Buy a bigger pot. Doing a full wort boil (i.e. boiling 6 gallons down to 5) is one of those things that make far superior beer, especially hoppy brews like IPAs. Buy a cheap 7-10 gallon pot at a restaurant supply store. I got one for 25$.

    Good luck and hopefully the lost batch didn’t turn you off to homebrewing!

    Jason

  5. Simply Beer Says:

    More great advice, Thanks Jason. Dave, a wort Chiller is probably the best investment you can make in the early stages of homebrewing.

    Keep the comments flowing! Great Stuff

  6. Dave Ruppel Says:

    Vanessa, agreed 100% on your 3 (almost) P’s. It’s unfortunate that I had to learn the hard way.

    Jason, response to your comments.

    1) I brewed again this weekend and took my time. That’s the #1 improvement as Vanessa mentioned as well

    2/4) Doesn’t activating the pouch start yeast reproduction? It was also for my own santity to test. I was under the impression that it’s a pseudo-starter in itself.

    3) The simplest ideas are usually the best, aren’t they? Dried malt extract, go figure.

    5) I’ll definitely look into the wort chiller and larger pot. That seems to be the master combo for quality and quick chilling.

    6/7) After the latest attempt, I realized it wasn’t the airlock that was the issue, it was the airlock installer – me.

    Thanks for the great comments, much appreciated!

  7. justa J0e Says:

    Can’t resist adding my 2cents.

    Malt. When I brew, I actually set the malt as close to my heat source as I can. This makes it less thick. Also, having poured out as much as you can … ad a littly HOT HOT HOT water to the malt container and shake it around then pour into the wort. Your hour long boil will take care of any tap water impurity issues. ALSO – brew with a buddy, besides the most excellent company it provides … you can take turns stirring!

    Chilling. My buddy and I freeze about 2 gallons of water. When the wort has finished the boil, we put a fish tank air bubbler(previously sanitized) in the bottom of the fermentation bucket, put the ice (broken into large chunks) on top of the bubbler and then pour the wort over all of it. You’d be amazed at how quickly it cools down.(sometimes too much). Then you add hot or cold water to bring your bucket up to the 5 gallon (or so) level.

    Good luck and happy brewing!

  8. Jason Says:

    Hi Dave,

    It does but in a very small amount. Its almost negligible. Sometimes I used to smack a pack with no results for almost 12 hours. Pitched said yeast and it to work as normal. Those little pouches of malt extract are definitely nowhere near what a starter is and will provide extremely little in yeast numbers. Its really just for proofing.

    Yeah, DME is the way to go. Some people complain about clumps but whatever – they go away during the boil. LME has this against it: 1) will fall to the bottom of boiling water and may scorch. 2) The stickiness. 3) Shelf life. DME has almost twice the shelf life of LME.

    If you are looking for a wort chiller, consider it a DIY project. Buy 50 feet of copper refrigeration tubing and coil it around a paint can. I made mine with connections and for 40$.

  9. Simply Beer Says:

    Good points on the DME. I had a buddy, @grapesandgrains who got a bucket of LME and it had mold all over the inside lid. LME is much easier to work with. Just don’t use it in a windy area or spill it! :-)

    Justa Joe, thanks for chiming in. W/o a wort chiller, the Ice sounds like a great idea. While I’ve never done that it is always better to go to cold and warm up, much easier to deal with before pitching your yeast.

  10. Jason Harris Says:

    For the yeast situation, I tend to keep a few packets of US-05 in the fridge just in case. Never know when you need extra yeast! They’re cheap, anyhow. Although not always style appropriate, I suppose (What, there are other beer styles besides IPA?)

    Also, as to that beer…if your sanitation was good, there was no reason it couldn’t have sat for a bit before you dropped the yeast in. I suppose oxidation from the headspace could be an issue, but I’d rather have slightly oxidized beer than a drain full of sugar water.

    The mantra I tend to go by is even if it’s bad beer, it’s still beer. You’d be surprised at what mistakes you can make and it still turns out. For example, someone up there mentioned moldy LME…I had an ESB with a bunch of mold in the LME bucket. I scraped the mold off with a spoon, boiled the LME like normal and it’s in the keg now. Tastes great! Boil killed any baddies from the mold, and the flavor came out ok.

    Think about how much of our current sanitation equipment they had when making beer, say, 100 years ago. That stuff came out drinkable, right? Besides, pouring out beer offends the beer gods. You don’t want to do that!

  11. Aaron Says:

    Sounds a lot like my inital brewing time. I didn’t make all the same mistakes, I made others, but very similar. But I’m happily drinking my first batch now.

    If at all possible I recommend people try brewing with a friend first, just so you understand the timing of things.

  12. justa J0e Says:

    So here’s a “stuck” fermentation story.

    Last year about this time, we brewed a batch of Hefeweizen that just lay there in the bucket. It was totally indifferent to our desire for it to turn into beer. So after three days, my buddy added some sort of “yeast food” that he bought at a local place. It was suppose to nudge the yeast back into action.

    Nothing.

    At this point we feared the batch was DEAD and went ahead and started a 2nd batch of the Hefe (we really like to have it on hand for summer. A lot of it.). We hated to throw out our wort from the 1st batch though and since we have enough equipment to keep several batches of beer going at the same time we decided to keep poking at it. We got a packet of English Ale yeast (just because our local store had it and it was like $2) and dumped THAT in there.

    Nothing.

    7 days later we racked our 2nd batch of Hefe (which had been bubbling merrily away) and instead of just washing out the brew bucket … we dumped the tailings into our original batch of Hefe.
    BINGO!!!
    The next day our “undead Hefe” was bubbling along like nobodies business!

    To this day, that batch of Hefeweizen (which we dubbed “The Franken-Hefe” was one of the tastiest we have ever made. Sadly, as we had just started throwing things at it and not really keeping notes of exactly what we had done … it is an un-reproducible recipe.

  13. Simply Beer Says:

    Justa JOe, this is a very common story. It would have happened to me in my last brew had I not created a starter. Sometimes yeast can be fickle. My last starter of Belgian Abbey yeast took over 3 days to start showing any signs of life. Probably because it was old. With old yeast it can take a while for the small number of yeasties that still viable to take hold and make a large enough colony. If you have the time make a starter.

  14. Sanjay Yadav Says:

    Hey.. nice info..
    To know about malt extract, liquid malt extract, dried malt extract, barley extract, barley flour.
    For more, visit : http://www.imperialmalt.com/malt-extract.html

  15. Simply Beer Says:

    Thanks for the info Sanjay!


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