By Mark Pasquinelli
While reading The Time Traveler’s Wife—the tragic tale of a star-crossed man who is doomed to spontaneously travel through time—a thought occurred to me: what if I could build a rig that brewed faster than the speed of light and travel back in time, to 1995, the year of my homebrewing birth? (My wife says that if I accidentally travel forward in time, I’m not to return unless I’m toting a copy of the Wall Street Journal.) The thought of knowing then what I know now in hindsight boggles my mind: the mistakes I could have avoided; the better beer I could have made; the time and money I could have saved.
It’s unlikely I could build such a contraption. I’m a hammer and screwdriver man. Besides, flux capacitors are always on backorder at my local homebrew shop. However, it’s not too late for others to learn from my mistakes and be able to brew great beer from the beginning.
Haste Makes Waste
Even though my first batch of homebrew was a disaster (it was a black Pilsner; don’t ask), it was also magic. I was hooked. In a frenzy, I brewed several more kits as quickly as I could, before I could even sample the first batch. I should have followed the advice of the classic Eagles song and taken it easy. Homebrewing is about relaxing and making the best beer possible. It’s not a competition of how many gallons you can make—quality, not quantity. Be patient; sample that first batch before brewing another. Let your friends critique it. Compare and contrast that first homebrew to one of your favorites of the style. The first batches are especially vital for learning and reinforcing technique. Those homebrews will be so much better if you can restrain your enthusiasm and proceed slowly. This is the key: at first, use money judiciously for brewing supplies, and use the money saved to buy the necessities that will make future homebrewing sessions so much faster and future beers taste so much better. Your first necessity is a…
10 Gallon Brew Kettle
Yeah, they’re expensive, but they’re never going to be cheaper either—and you only have to bite the bullet once. Resources like eBay and Craig’s List that didn’t exist when I started homebrewing might help you land a bargain. Just don’t do what I did: keep buying slightly bigger kettles that still weren’t big enough. I ended up with four undersized pots. If I had pooled the money spent on those four, I could have bought a real kettle. Think of it as an investment. It’s stainless steel; it’s going to last forever. Get the 10-gallon rather than an 8-gallon size, even if you’re an extract brewer who’s content never to venture into the world of all-grain. A bigger kettle is instrumental for better hop untilization that can only be achieved by a full-wort boil. My first brews were always under-hopped. Boil-overs are also far less likely—and you never know when you might have to crank out a few extra gallons of homebrew for a special occasion. Of course, with that bigger kettle, you’re going to need…
Most stoves, gas or electric, don’t have enough BTUs to achieve a rolling full-wort boil. I used to be able to read a Stephen King novel waiting for my wort to hit a feeble simmer. Your next purchase after the kettle should be a propane burner. There are many excellent brands available, so I’m not going to recommend one—although I do covet my friend’s Hurricane Burner. It’s also possible to pick up burners cheaply, especially at the end of the summer cookout season, as part of a combo that’s sold with an aluminum kettle for frying turkeys. For the budget conscious, the companion aluminum pot could be a solution to the stainless steel kettle conundrum. Regardless of the brand chosen, you can get a rolling full-wort boil in almost no time. This will maximize your IBUs and cause a good hot break, resulting in a clearer, cleaner beer that will have better stability and shelf-life. Of course, with a propane burner, you have to move…
Into the Great Wide Open
Propane burners are designed for outside use—which is where homebrewing should be done. I spent my first years homebrewing indoors, even though I had an apartment with a perfectly good deck. Coincidentally, the hottest days of the summer always coincided with my brewing sessions. I realize this may not be possible for urban apartment and condo dwellers, but try to be creative. Perhaps a homebrew-curious friend has an available garage (which is where I brew during inclement weather). Brewing outside will give you a much better mindset than being cooped up indoors. You’ll have a better attitude and make better beer. Also, spills and occasional boil-overs are inevitable. There’s a reason why breweries have concrete floors with drains. Freed from the worry of making a mess, you can focus on brewing great beer. Cleanup is as simple as a few hose squirts. Your spouse or significant other will thank you too since the kitchen will no longer require a visit from a hazmat team after a brewing session.
Make a Starter
Make yeast starters. Politely ignore anyone who tells you otherwise. I have a microbiology background and was afraid that the extra step of making a starter would introduce the possibility of contamination. Consequently, my early homebrews were slow to start (increasing the possibility of contamination), never reached the desired terminal gravity, and bottle carbonated slowly because of the low yeast-cell count.Homebrewing intelligentsia far more erudite than I have described the process of making a starter, so I won’t discuss it here. (Editor’s Note: A great article to check out is “The Secret to Healthy Yeast” by Jamil Zainasheff in the March/April 2007 Zymurgy. It is available as a free download under the “Zymurgy” section on this website). However, be aware that adequate cell count must be combined with proper fermentation temperature. Once I adopted this two-part doctrine, my homebrew quality took a quantum leap forward. One of the best compliments I have ever received was that my beer didn’t have “that homebrew taste” that comes from incomplete fermentation at improper temperatures.
Don’t Fear the Foam
In the early days of homebrewing, there was only Clorox for sanitizing. No matter how much I rinsed, I always believed that I could taste a trace of it in those first homebrews. To make matters worse, all my favorite T-shirts were spotted from the splatter. Then came Star San. I couldn’t believe it was so easy. No rinsing saved huge amounts of water; the foam sanitized everything it touched, so there was no need to fill carboys as I had previously done; and the foam is inert: beer can be racked directly onto it. Maybe it was only in my head, but the homebrews tasted better too. Although it’s more expensive, it can be reused as long as the pH remains below 3 and the solution isn’t cloudy. Star San needs to be part of your cleaning and sanitizing arsenal.
Homebrewing Abhors a Vacuum
I brewed in a vacuum for almost 10 years—no feedback from other brewers to see what they were brewing and how they did it. When I joined the PA-Alers homebrewing club, it began an age of enlightenment. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The knowledge and camaraderie have been priceless. Homebrewers are a friendly lot, always ready to assist and answer questions. And they love to talk about their favorite topics: themselves and beer. Rural brewers may have a problem locating a club, but they have a solution that I didn’t have in my early days: homebrewing forums. There are excellent ones at www.thebrewingnetwork.com (they consider themselves to be a club: the BN Army), www.northernbrewer.com, and the newly created AHA forum at www.HomebrewersAssociation.org. New friends can be made; recipes and ideas may be exchanged; and, most important, problems are quickly solved. There’s no excuse to be a homebrewing hermit anymore.
I saved this for last because it’s the most important. In 1998, I sent three beers to my first competition and waited for the accolades to roll in. The best score was a 20. I was devastated and took a hiatus from homebrewing. Sometimes, however, good can come from a train wreck. After I spent an appropriate amount of time wallowing in self-pity and pondering whether I needed a new hobby, those scores became the impetus for re-evaluating my methods and revamping my entire homebrew operation, enacting many of the changes listed here.The judges’ scores weren’t what I wanted, but they were what I needed: a dose of reality. I still have those scoresheets handy to keep my ego in check (although my wife does an excellent job of that). Sometimes one has to step out of his or her comfort zone and accept real criticism, not the fawning adulation of friends. Enter some of those first homebrews. Don’t brew in oblivion for years, like I did. A few of the judges’ comments will be off the wall, but others will be dead-on. Look for trends—not just with certain styles, but overall. (Astringency was one of mine.) Then it’s possible to research the probable causes and correct the flaw.Seven years later, I won best of show at that same competition. It never would have happened if those judges back in 1998 hadn’t been honest. I’m eternally grateful to them.There are probably many more things I could mention if the homebrewing gods were to grant me a mulligan to travel back to 1995 and not have to learn to brew the hard, expensive way. Ah…to dream, but reality was never was my strong suit. Perhaps if I keep tinkering with my brew stand, the time machine idea might still work. Maybe I could reverse the polarity on my March pump and then…
Mark Pasquinelli resides in Elysburg, Pa. with his wife and four cats. He’s a member of the PA-Alers Home Brew Club and has been homebrewing since 1995. He likes to brew Pale Ale, Pumpkin Ale, and an Imperial Stout with hallucinogenic qualities.