When you start home brewing, mistakes can be discouraging. But they don't have to be. What you see as a mistake could turn out to be a learning experience on the path to great home-brewed beer. Here are four of the most common brewing mistakes and what you can learn from them.
"The primary foes of new brewers are wild yeasts and bacteria," says Chris Cohen, founder and president of the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild. You can do everything else perfectly during your brew day, but if your sanitation practices are poor, you'll likely end up with a beer that's been fermented by something other than brewer's yeast. "The result is typically a bad beer that can be sour, over-attenuated, and can have phenolic flavors," Cohen says.
The solution? Clean, clean, clean. And Cohen recommends replacing any plastic brewing gear every year. Scratched plastic creates microscopic hiding places for wild yeast and bacteria and is difficult to properly sanitize.
Overcomplicating the Process
Minneapolis home brewer Michael Porter says that one of the things that confounds new brewers is the overwhelming amount of detail. "Forums and books lead people to think that you have to go to great lengths in order to get good results, while the truth is that brewing is remarkably simple," he says.
Porter says these advanced techniques will help you get maximum yield and consistent results from batch to batch. But they're not absolutely necessary, especially when you're just trying to get the hang of beer making.
"When I first started brewing, I read advice that said you must 'build' your water," Porter says. That's where you add things like salts or gypsum to turn your hard or soft water into the "proper." "And forums are full of people that will make you think that if you skip this step, your beer will be ruined," he says. The reality is that this is important only if you're trying to replicate a commercial beer. For amateur beer making, this isn't necessary, Porter says.
Not Controlling Your Fermentation Temperature
Next to fervent sanitation, Cohen says fermentation-temperature control is one of the most important variables in home brewing. Yeast likes to work within a certain temperature range (your yeast packet should spell out what that range is).
For example, typical American ale yeasts prefer a temperature of between 68 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit. "Fermenting at higher-than-recommended temperatures will typically cause the yeast to create more esters, leading to fruity aromas and flavors that may not be appropriate," Cohen says.
Another important thing to keep in mind: The temperature should stay at an even level for the duration of the fermentation. Cohen recommends wrapping your fermenter in a blanket and placing it in a dark closet in the center of your house or apartment to avoid temperature swings. "If the temp drops during fermentation, the yeast will stop working and you'll be left with a very sweet and unpleasant brew," he says.
Too Many Changes at Once
Jamie Floyd, cofounder of Ninkasi Brewing Company in Eugene, Ore., advises beginning brewers to take it slow. "It is important when trying to perfect your process to change only one thing at a time," Floyd explains.
For example, if you want a beer with a good amount of caramel flavor and a robust hop profile—but you make a beer that has no caramel flavor and isn't hoppy enough—the best thing to do is change one aspect of the beer at a time so that you can mark the progress, Floyd says. "If you make more than one adjustment at a time you may not know what you did right or wrong the next brew."
Remember, beer making is not an exact science. Chances are good you will make mistakes, especially at the beginning. The key is to learn from those mistakes and have fun in the process.