Homebrewing 104: Common Problems & Solutions

Homebrewing 104

I’ve been home brewing for a little over a year now (which makes me a relative newbie in the field), and of course, I still encounter issues. It’s a matter of knowing what to do when these certain problems arise that turns you into an expert. I don’t claim to be an expert by any means (yet), but practice makes perfect, so I’m going to keep trying!

Before reading this post, I highly recommend that you go back and read the previous posts about the equipment needed, the brewing process, and the bottling/kegging process. I find that once you have a good understanding of how beer is made and stored, it’s easier to identify problems along the way and to make adjustments to resolve the issues.

I think any home brewer can tell you that your beer doesn’t always turn out as expected. Most problems are easily identifiable once you know what to look for, and can be resolved if you catch them early enough. This post is designed to help you figure out what to look for, and how to fix the problem when you encounter it.

COMMON PROBLEMS & SOLUTIONS

Problem: The beer tastes very sweet/I didn’t hit the target FG (final gravity) or ABV.

Solution: The beer is likely too sweet because the yeast did not convert all of the fermentable sugars into alcohol. I have found that this is usually because of the fermentation temperature. Check the yeast packaging for the ideal temperature range, and try to keep it within that range at all times. If the wort becomes too warm or too cold, the yeast can die off quicker than intended, leaving behind sugars which haven’t been converted into alcohol. If necessary, try pitching new yeast and keeping the temperature consistent.

Problem: The beer smells or tastes funky/sour.

Solution: When intended, a funky or sour beer can be amazing, but when it’s not, you’ll likely end up having to pour that batch down the drain and start over. It’s one of those unfortunate scenarios that can’t be fixed this time around, because your beer has become infected. Contamination is usually the result of improper sanitization, so be sure all of your equipment is thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before trying again.

Problem: My airlock stopped bubbling.

Solution: This could mean a few things:

  1. You may have a leaking seal on your bucket/carboy. Fermentation could still be happening, but the CO2 is coming out of the leak instead of the airlock.
  2. Your yeast could have stopped working prematurely due to temperature. If that’s the case, pitch new yeast, and try to keep the temperature within the recommended range.
  3. You may just be brewing a style that typically has low attenuation. In this case, the lack of bubbling isn’t a concern. Just check the yeast packet to see how yours measures up.

Problem: The beer isn’t carbonated enough.

Solution: When you’re using sugar to carbonate your beer, it is usually best to leave it stored at room temperature for two to three weeks before refrigerating it. If you open a bottle of flat beer, and you’ve given it plenty of time to carbonate, add a carbonation tablet (you can find these at your local homebrew supply shop) and recap.

Problem: The beer is too carbonated or bottles are exploding.

Solution: The beer was likely bottled too soon, or too much priming sugar was added. In either case, you can open up the bottles to vent them, then recap. You may need to do this a few times if the beer is severely over carbonated. Refrigerating the bottles can also help to slow the fermentation, but be careful—if one bottle exploded, others could likely have the same fate!

Problem: The beer is hazy or cloudy.

Solution: Again, there are several reasons this can happen, but none of them are harmful. Here are some causes:

  1. Chill haze. Next time, after boiling, try bringing the wort to a cool as quickly as possible. A wort chiller can definitely help with this!
  2. For all-grain brews, it’s possible to have incomplete conversion, leaving behind residual starches that cause this cloudiness.
  3. Certain yeast strains are known to have low flocculation, so the beers are meant to be hazy.

In any case, if the cloudiness is bothersome, you can cure this even after fermentation with a fining agent from your local homebrew shop (such as isinglass, Polycar, etc.). For all-grain brews, you can also enhance the clarity by adding Irish moss during the last few minutes of the boil.

Problem: The wort is darker than expected.

Solution: This is a common problem with extract brewing because the malt extract can scorch during the boil. You can’t change it, so just know that it shouldn’t have any real effect on the final outcome. The problem will likely be resolved once you move into all-grain brewing.

I hope you have learned something new from this series. I would love your feedback on this topic! For those homebrewers out there, I’d love to know what problems you’ve encountered and if you’ve figured out a solution.

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Homebrewing 103: Bottling/Kegging Day

Homebrewing 103

​So your beer is ready, and it’s time to package up the goodness! Lesson 103 is designed to help you bottle and/or keg your beer. If you’re just tuning in, I recommend that you go back and read the previous posts about the equipment needed and the brewing process.

​The above video shows “racking” your beer, simply transferring it from one container to another.

This process is much easier with a second set of hands, so grab a beer-loving friend and impart them with some homebrewing knowledge along the way!

BOTTLING

  1. Clean and sanitize all the equipment you’ll be using, including bottles and crown caps. Remember that anything which comes into contact with the beer at this stage can cause contamination if not properly sanitized.

    Tip: Place the bottle caps in a bowl of water-sanitizer solution until you’re ready to seal your bottles.

  2. Prepare the priming sugar by dissolving it in 2 cups of boiling water (takes about 5 minutes). Pour the mixture into a clean and sanitized bottling bucket.
  3. Place your fermenter on a countertop or other stable, waist-height surface and place the bottling bucket from step 2 on the floor directly under the fermenter.
  4. Using a racking cane and siphon, carefully transfer the beer into the bottling bucket. Avoid siphoning the sediment (dead yeast and other particulate) from the bottom of the fermenter. Gently stir the mixture for about a minute and do your best not to agitate it (keep air bubbles to a minimum).
  5. Set the nearly-empty fermenter aside to be cleaned. Lift the bottling bucket with the beer onto the counter. Attach the bottle filling wand to the tubing.
  6. Touch the wand to the bottom of a bottle to start the flow. Once the beer reaches about half an inch from the top, release the pressure and the flow will stop. Continue until all bottles are filled.

    Tip: Offer to buy that friend a beer (or donate some homebrew), as the bottling and capping can take a while!

  7. While one person is bottling, another can be capping. Simply crimp down the caps with the hand capper. Continue until all bottles are capped.
  8. Clean your equipment thoroughly, let air dry, then store for next time.

    Tip: Wash bottles as you drink them and store with your equipment to reuse next time!

  9. Put your bottles in a dark, room temperature place for about 2 weeks. The remaining yeast in the bottle will “wake up” to eat up the priming sugar you added, creating CO2 in the process, which is what carbonates your beer!
  10. After the 2 weeks is up, place the bottles in the fridge for a couple hours. Finally…
  11. ENJOY!

KEGGING

  1. Clean and sanitize all the equipment you’ll be using, including your keg and beer lines. Remember that anything that comes into contact with the beer at this stage can cause contamination if not properly sanitized.
  2. Using your siphon and racking cane, transfer your fermented beer into the keg. Try to minimize aerating your beer in any way at this stage. You don’t need to add any priming sugar because your beer will be “force carbonated” via CO2.
  3. Turn the regulator on your CO2 tank up to 10-12 PSI for 20 seconds or so, then pull the release valve to release the residual oxygen in the keg. Repeat this process a few times.
  4. Turn the regulator up to 15-18 PSI, then place the keg in the fridge overnight (temperature should be around 40°F). Be sure to turn down the pressure the next morning and keep it steady at about 12 PSI. You may have to adjust the pressure upon serving, but your beer should be fully carbonated in just a few short days!

One last note to consider… People often ask how long a beer can be stored for. It’s really dependent on the style of beer. Low ABV beers (like lagers or “sessionable” ales) and hoppy beers (like pales ales and IPAs) are best drank fresh, usually within 90 days of bottling/kegging. Stronger or very dark beers can continue to improve with age and are sometimes at their best after 6 months or longer.

I’ll do a separate post about cleaning and sanitizing and its importance later, but this should give you a basic starting point for now!

Homebrewers: I want to hear from you! In your experience, have you found any improvements to the process? What has made your life easier on bottling day? Do you prefer to keg your beer?

Want to know more? The final post in this series will cover common homebrew problems and solutions, helpful for even the most experienced homebrewer!

Homebrewing 102: Brew Day (Simplified)

Homebrewing 102

It’s easy to learn how to brew beer, but the process can take years to master. Once you become proficient with the basic technique, many tweaks can be made to improve the quality of your brews.

For those of you who may be thinking of getting into home brewing, but may not fully understand the process, I thought I’d break it down for you in this post (this is how I wish someone had explained it to me when I started). For those of you who do have some experience with homebrewing, I’d love your to hear your comments on your experiences and what’s worked best for you.

If you haven’t done so already, please go back to my previous post and make sure you have all the necessary equipment before you get started! In my next post, I’ll walk through the bottling/kegging process. I hope I can inspire you all to take up this fun hobby!

THE PROCESS

Plan to spend about 4 to 6 hours on your first brew day. Many first-timers (myself included) underestimate how much time it takes to complete the steps below. Same applies to your bottling/kegging day—plan for it to take twice as long as you think it will!

Also, it’s important to take good notes throughout the process. When you add or change something in a recipe, it’s vital to know exactly what you did so you can re-create it later! Even if you never plan on brewing that particular beer again, you’ll more easily be able to identify problems based on the final outcome. Look back and see exactly what was added and when, then you’ll know how to avoid those issues in future brews.

I’ve separated the instructions below to include both the extract and all-grain brewing methods. If it’s your first time, consider starting with the extract brewing method just to get the hang of things. Once you feel like you have that down, you can purchase the additional pieces of equipment you’ll need (see my previous post for a list) and jump right into the all-grain method. Keep in mind that this process works for ales, but if you’ll be making a lager, it will involve some additional equipment and steps not listed in this post.

Now let’s get to it!

  1. Before you start brewing, read through your entire recipe to make sure you understand it and have everything you need. You don’t want to get halfway through your brew before you realize you’re missing a vital tool or ingredient.img_2450.jpg
  2. Next, and most importantly, gather all your supplies and then clean and sanitize your equipment. Be sure to concentrate on anything that comes into contact with your beer after the boil, as unsanitary equipment at this stage can lead to infected beer! I cannot emphasize this enough: clean and sanitized equipment is absolutely necessary for a good outcome!!!img_2452

Note: steps 3 through 9 are for all-grain brewing only

  1. Heat about 5 gallons of water in a large kettle. Keep an eye on your temperature, and try to keep it around 152°F.
  2. Preheat your mash tun by pouring in about a gallon of boiling water into it, then swirl it around gently and close the lid. Wait a few minutes, then pour the water back into the kettle.
  3. Next, you’re going to “mash in.” Add the grain to the mash tun, then slowly add the hot water from your kettle. Continue to stir every few minutes, and check the temperature often. Most brews will require a steady temperature around 152-156°F for about an hour, so carefully adjust as needed.
  4. Measure your pH and add brewing salts if needed. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) raises the pH, and lactic acid lowers it. Your actual pH value may vary depending on the recipe for the style, but 5.2 is generally a good number to shoot for if you’re unsure.
  5. In the meantime, start heating up about 4 gallons of water for the sparge. You’ll want the temperature to be in the range of 165-170°F.
  6. After the hour has passed, you’ll need to re-circulate and lauter. Slowly open the valve and drain your first runnings into a pitcher, then pour it on top of the grain bed. Repeat this process a few times until the liquid coming out is fairly steady in color and appearance.
  7. Carefully drain the wort into a kettle. Slowly add your sparge water, pitcher by pitcher—you’ll want to harvest as much of the fermentable sugars as you can from the grain. Once all the sparge water has been added, let it sit for about 15 minutes, then re-circulate again and drain into kettle. You should end up with 5-6 gallons of wort in your kettle.

Note: steps 10 and 11 are for malt extract brewing only

  1. Next, you’re going to need to get water in the kettle and start heating it up. If you’re going to be doing a partial boil (meaning you’ll add the rest of the water in later), then add about 2.5 gallons of water to the kettle (refrigerate the balance if you can—this will help later). If you’re doing a full boil, you’ll want to add 5.5-6 gallons to the kettle now.
  2. If your recipe calls for specialty grains, you’ll add those to a mesh bag, tie it into a loose knot, and drop it in the kettle for about 20 minutes. Your water should not be boiling yet at this point, so keep the temperature around 155-160°F. At the end of the 20 minutes, simply remove the grain bag, allowing any excess liquid to drain back into the brew pot (but do not squeeze the bag). At this stage, your unfermented “beer” is actually called wort.

Both all-grain and extract methods resume here

  1. Now, increase the heat supply and get the wort to a rolling boil. Add all of your malt extract (both dry and/or liquid, depending on what’s provided in your kit), and stir continuously until dissolved.
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  2. Add hops as directed by your recipe. Some may be added to the boil right away, while others are added later in the process. Watch the wort closely during this stage, as boil overs are common (not to mention messy). Your boil should take about one hour start to finish.
  3. After the hour is up, you’re going to need to cool the wort. You can either use a wort chiller (insert chiller into kettle and run cold water through the piping), or you can use an ice bath method (place the boil kettle in a sink filled with ice). If you chose to go with the partial boil method, this is the point where you can add in the remaining water, which will also help bring down the temperature.
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  4. Take a hydrometer reading to measure your original gravity. Be sure to write this down, as you’ll need it later to calculate the ABV.
  5. Transfer the wort into the fermentation vessel (usually a carboy or bucket).
  6. Pitch your yeast. If using liquid yeast, you may need to “smack” the pack to activate it. Dried yeast can either be sprinkled directly on to the wort, or you can rehydrate the yeast before adding it.
  7. Fill your airlock half way with sanitized water, press it into the rubber stopper, then push the stopper into the carboy’s opening, ensuring a tight seal.
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  8. Place your fermenter in a dark and temperature-stable environment. Check the yeast packet for the ideal temperature range, and keep it steady for about 2 weeks. Fermentation times can vary based on the beer, so be sure to check your specific instructions. You’ll notice a lot of activity in the first 24-48 hours, and it’s normal for the action to slow down a bit after that.

For further reading, I’d recommend How to Brew by John J. Palmer. It’s considered the go-to source for new homebrewers, and takes you all the way from the basics into the full science behind the brewing process.

Those of you already homebrewing: how do you brew? What methods or equipment have you found that works really well (or what doesn’t work so well)?

Stay tuned for Homebrewing 103, where you’ll learn how to bottle or keg your latest creation!

Homebrewing 101: Getting Started

Homebrewing 101

If you couldn’t already tell from the title, the focus of this series is going to be all about homebrewing! This series will be broken down into four parts: first, what you need to get started; the second will focus on the brewing process itself; part three will focus on bottling and/or kegging your beer; and finally, I’ll go over how to identify common problems and their solutions.

I love homebrewing because my knowledge is constantly expanding based on experience. Every time I brew, I encounter some new hurdle that I need to overcome and figure out. That’s fun for me, but what’s even better is the people you meet along the way. Other homebrewers are almost always willing to lend a helping hand (or a piece of equipment) if you need it. Make friends with the people you meet at the homebrew store or out at breweries and plan a brew day! Before you know it, you’ll find yourself fully immersed in this fun hobby!

This first post in the series is designed to be a sort of checklist for what you’ll need in order to get started with this new hobby. Print it out and use it as your guide!

EQUIPMENT NEEDED

Cleaning supplies:

  • High quality cleaner (I suggest PBW)
  • High quality sanitizer (Star San is my favorite)

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Brewing/fermenting supplies (musts):

  • Boil kettle (I’d recommend starting with an 8-gallon)
  • Large stirring spoon
  • Santizing bucket
  • Carboy with rubber stopper
  • Airlock
  • Vinyl tubing
  • Siphon
  • Funnel
  • Mesh steeping or hop bags
  • Wort chiller (optional, but very useful)

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Additional brewing supplies for all-grain method only:

  • Mash/lauter tun with false bottom (7-10 gallon cooler or kettle with a ball valve)
  • Hot liquor tank (7-10 gallon kettle with ball valve)
  • Propane burner (or other high powered heat source)

Scientific stuff:

  • Waterproof thermometer (minimum tolerance of 220F)
  • Hydrometer
  • pH meter (optional, but necessary if you want to adjust your water)

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Bottling/Kegging supplies:

  • Bottling only:
    • Bottles
    • Bottle brush
    • Bottle filler
    • Bottle caps
    • Bottle capper
    • Racking cane
    • Priming sugar
  • Kegging only:
    • Cornelius keg
    • CO2 tank
    • Regulator
    • Vinyl tubing for gas & beer lines
    • Party tap/hand held tap OR Kegerator

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Ingredients (exact specifications vary depending on the recipe):

  • 6 gallons or so of bottled spring water (you could use reverse osmosis water if it’s accessible to you and are comfortable manipulating water chemistry)
  • Malt extract or grain
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Hops

I find the easiest way to make sure you have all the correct ingredients is to buy a beer kit, especially if you’re just starting out. These kits will contain the malt extract, hops and yeast you’ll need for your desired style. Just add water!

Look up your local homebrew supply store and pay them a visit. If you’re more of an online order person, I’d recommend the following sites:

www.morebeer.com
www.northernbrewer.com
www.homebrewsupply.com

Keep an eye out for part two, where I’ll detail the actual homebrew process. In the meantime be sure pick up your equipment and ingredients!