Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Top Three Priorities For Homebrew Success

From the very first day that I took my initial tentative steps down the homebrewing path I've been cautioned repeatedly about the importance of sanitation. Whether it came from the opening chapters of brew books, leaders in the homebrewing association or from well intentioned homebrewers, the message has always been the same, "be very afraid of infection". Sure, relax and don't worry except when it comes to sanitation. This fear runs deep in the homebrewing community and definitely deserves serious consideration especially if you're in the habit of producing spoiled beer, but I'm not that concerned about it and because of my take it with a pinch of salt attitude, I feel that my enjoyment of the hobby is that much more satisfying.

For the sake of all those just beginning their personal home brewing journey, I'm here to help take the edge off of your sanitation fears. I have discovered through the course of many years of homebrewing experience that when it comes to matters of critical importance in my brewing regimen and brewing quality beers I would place sanitation down at  number three on my list.


That's right, number three.
Don't get me wrong, I clean and sanitize my post boil equipment with each brew session but I don't give it the attention that is stressed in homebrewing. For instance, I swirl a couple of quarts of diluted StarSan around inside my fermentor and run some out the ball valve, now it's ready to receive the wort. I pump Iodophor solution through my transfer pump, hoses, plate chiller and back into a bucket of the same. With this done, I can transfer the wort through a sanitized system into a sanitized fermentor which I then cover with a bag to keep dust out. When the brew session is over I flush out the transfer equipment and chiller with a garden hose and set aside until the next time. I never boil or bake my chiller.

Before kegging I splash sanitizer around the inside of the kegs and place a transfer hose in a bucket of sanitizer for a few minutes then transfer to the kegs, force carbonate and set aside to chill. If I bottle the beer I don't boil or soak bottle caps in sanitizer but use them directly from the package. My point here is that I don't like to brew scared.

So if sanitation is not at the top of my list then what is? Here is my top three in order of importance.

  • Number One: Pitch a large healthy quantity of yeast into a well aerated wort to get the fermentation process up and going quickly.
Don't give any wild yeast or microbes an advantage over your choice of yeast. Your yeast should be the predominant factor in this equation and it serves you best that they are a force to be reckoned with. If using Whitelabs or Wyeasts liquid yeast, I will always make a starter and step that up at least twice but more likely three times to insure a large colony. This is done for a five or ten gallon batch. If using packages of dry yeast I will normally pitch two packages for a five gallon batch and three packages for a ten gallon batch. The dry yeast is relatively inexpensive so I feel free to pitch a fist full.

  • Number Two: Ferment ales at cool temperatures.

I make sure that the wort has been chilled to 65f. to begin with and I do my best to maintain a temperature of 65f-70f. during the entire fermentation period. This time of year (Winter/Spring) the night time temperatures are quite low. I can raise the temperature in my fermentation chamber using a heat lamp. The lower fermentation temperatures insure less harsh fusel alcohol is produced and also minimizes the esters and phenolic characteristics that may suggest spoilage. Cool temperatures mean a clean, smooth quality to the flavor profile I am trying to achieve with my grain bill. 
  • Number Three:  Sanitation of post boil equipment.
Finally, for number three I use a generic brand of Oxy-Clean for cleaning my equipment. It cleans as well as powder brewery wash (PBW) and rinses easily and at a fraction of the cost of PBW. For sanitizing, I use an acid based type called StarSan disinfectant which is quick and easy to use. I have fermented in my plastic fermentor after just misting the surface of the vessel with StarSan using a spray bottle. I also use Iodophor (iodine) when I need a bucket full to soak equipment in or as mentioned above, to circulate through pump, hoses and chiller.

Over the years I guesstimate that I have brewed close to 2,000 gallons of beer and in that time I have not had an infected beer. When I started brewing I was extremely careful about sanitation and would have considered it the number one most important aspect of successful brewing but over time have come to realize that pitching plenty of yeast and fermenting cool are paramount to producing high quality beers.  

One final suggestion.  If I ever have a concern about a new batch of my beer being infected, I drink it fast as possible before it gets any worse.

9 comments:

Jessie said...

I am glad to hear someone else who isn't psychotic about cleanliness. In my years of brewing wine and beer, my only losses to infection have been with wine. Even though it has a higher alcohol and is therein less susceptible to infection, the longer associated time lines make it easier to forget about/neglect them. I lost 2 batches of wine because the airlocks ran dry and I didn't notice. With beer, the time is shorter and the ingredients are cheap and readily available year-round. If I ever lose a beer to infection, maybe then I will ramp up the cleaning, but I doubt that will happen. Thanks for another great post.

Beer Diary... said...

Thanks Jessie,
I just hope I don't get too much negative feedback by my de-emphasis of this brewing practice "holy grail". Thanks for the positive reinforcement.

Russ Tarvin said...

I have not been as careful as the books "require" you to be. Lately though i have been getting a really bad taste in my beers. Like licking quarters and I have not been happy about it at all. I don't even clean as much as you do. I let the Iodophor do all the sanitizing, and I think I need to do a deep cleaning of all my equipment. I don't know, except I am not liking my beer as of late.

Beer Diary... said...

Hi Russ,
I'm not sure what is causing the quarter licking flavor other than maybe water quality? In any case, it doesn't sound like a sanitation issue. By the way, who's Gail?
Cheers!

Russ Tarvin said...

Hey Mark,

Gail is a good friend of mine, who likes to write (and can write better than me). I am trying to encourage my friends to blog, on my blog and maybe create one for themselves as we have unique experiences that cover most of humanity (except for being insanely rich and not having to schlep to work) and we are crazy enough to think people might listen. LOL.

As to water quality, I have used bottled water for the last 20 or so batches, should I boil it all beforehand, even bottled? Or should I get a reverse osmosis system?

Beer Diary... said...

No, you don't need to boil it. If you are using bottled water the problem is somewhere else. I have had the metalic quality show up in liquid malt extract batches in the past. If the extract is stale or oxidized this may be the problem. Do you use extract? Other than that, I would have to know more about your equipment, ingredients and processes. Cheers!

Russ Tarvin said...

I am using extracts from the brew store, so I figure there would be more complaints if this wasn't just me.

As to equipment, normal equipment. I think I am going to do a thorough cleaning of everything this weekend and do another batch the week after. That way I can at least start at zero and start to narrow down the problems. I also don't want to blow up your comments section. Sorry. Thanks for the help. I like your blog and will be around.

Beer Diary... said...

One last thought. Switch to Dry Malt Extract if you are using Liquid. The liquid extract is the type that get stale quickly.

Russ Tarvin said...

Oh ok, I will see what the brew store can offer. Thanks a ton.

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