A big part of the joy of creating the Beginner Brewer blog is giving back to the homebrew community that has provided me with so much joy. I love brewing beer but I love teaching others how to brew even more!

So it’s only fair that I share some common mistakes and errors I’ve committed or seen committed in homebrewing over the years. Take a careful look at these three and avoid them if you can. . .

#1 Chasing Alcohol

It’s naive to believe that at least some of the joy of beer isn’t wrapped up in the buzz it gives you when drinking. But having said that, it’s also a very bad idea to view the primary goal of brewing as boosting alcohol to the highest levels or trying to brew a beer that will get you smashed in two sips or less. Part of the reason that’s not a great idea is because it ignores the goal of brewing well-made, balanced beer rather than just cheap plonk that gets you wasted.

The other reason for this being a bad idea is that in trying to boost alcohol by adding things like dextrose or other sugars to your beer, you’re going to be affecting the taste, body, and balance of the brew dramatically, and often not for the best.

For instance, adding a lot of dextrose to beer will create a very dry beer, sometimes overly or bone-dry. Bone dry is not a great experience in beer. And that’s if your yeast can actually ferment out all the sugar you’ve added!

Many yeasts won’t do that because they are quite sensitive to alcohol. This will negatively affect the capacity of the yeast to fully ferment your beer or create the flavors associated with the style you’re after.

That’s why Dextrose in and of itself will add sweetness to the flavor, simply because many yeasts will run out of capacity to ferment all the sugar and die off because of high alcohol levels.  Of course, once you bottle these monsters, adding additional sugar for carbonation will create an over-carbonated beer because of the residual sugar still in the brew.

So what you’re left with often resembles sparkling whiskey rather than beer. And not a nice whiskey either!

There are of course legitimate ways of brewing high ABV beers. Styles that have been crafted over hundreds (yes, hundreds) of years to be high alcohol content brews. Quite a few Belgian styles like Tripels and Dubbels are examples, as are the various Barley wine styles. But these take skill to brew and you need to not only use the correct type of yeast (Abbey-style yeasts in the case of the Belgians and high-alcohol tolerant ones for Barley wines), but you’ve got to ensure a very nutrient-rich environment for the yeast once pitched. So aeration, good wort quality, and temperature regulation are all key to brewing such beers.

It’s also important to note that while some of these styles do call for sugar additions, the sugars used are flavorsome and interesting ones like Belgian Candi sugars, Molasses, and Golden syrups. Other than being sweet, Dextrose is pretty tasteless and can impart an unpleasant sugar “burn” to beer when used in large quantities.

So what’s the solution? Instead of chasing the monster ABV brew, rather brew styles of beer you will actually enjoy drinking or are interesting in drinking. Try and master the basics of good brewing (you can find a few ideas in this blog on that one, hint, hint!).

Repeat your brews and learn how to brew good beer. Before long, you’ll find that you’re brewing excellent beer. And that’s a true joy which no bone-dry high ABV mess can replicate!

#2. Messing with your fermentation

It’s a wonderful feeling, isn’t it? You’ve spent the day brewing beer and it’s finally tucked into the fermenter, your yeast is pitched and the (sanitized) lid is sealed with an airlock on top. But now what?

Maybe it’s because fermentation is largely in the hands of the beer gods (especially for homebrewers who don’t have nifty jacketed fermenters and cooling plants) that newbie homebrewers start getting a bit antsy. Surely there’s something I can do to make this beer really ferment like a boss? What’s going on in there? Is everything okay? Should I add more yeast? These are the doubts and fears that plague the mind of any brewer with a beer on the way.

My best advice, and I really, truly mean it is this: Leave it alone! I repeat: DO NOT MESS WITH YOUR BEER!

A common error for newbie (and nervous) brewers is opening up that fermenter, messing with the beer by either measuring it too early, adding things like finings (better to add these in the boil), or even worse, transferring to a secondary fermenter. None of these actions will help your beer. And even though some books on brewing might advocate things like secondary fermenter transfer, new thinking has shifted (see this article as an example of how even homebrew guru, John Palmer, has moved away from secondary fermentation transfer).

The problem with fooling around with your fermenting beer is that it introduces a number of problem factors that can ruin your brew:

– Oxygen. Even though the average homebrew fermenter is hardly hermetically sealed, fermentation does build up a decent amount of CO2 in the fermenter headspace that prevents oxygen from getting into your beer. Opening the lid risks aerating your brew that can lead to off-flavors like rubber and cardboard.

– Contamination. Obviously, any measuring device you use in fermenting beer can potentially contaminate the brew. A stray wild yeast spore floating in on some cat or dog hair can also find a nice place to grow if you open the fermenter lid to let these nasties in.

– Temperature. Yeast works well in a stable temperature environment. It even generates some heat of its own while fermenting your beer for you! So opening up the fermenter will change that stable temperature environment, affecting yeast health and flavor production.

That’s not to say that you should never open the fermenter. You should measure your beer at least once before bottling. And cold-conditioning your brew by placing the entire fermenter in the fridge a few days before bottling can help clarify beer. But whatever you choose to do to your fermenting beer, do it quickly, carefully, and (preferably) once.

For most beer styles, you can happily leave your beer well alone in the fermenter for 2 weeks before lifting a finger.

#3 Taking safety for granted

In general, brewing beer at home is a very safe enterprise. I’d hazard a guess that homebrewing as a hobby is far safer than other activities like golf, tennis, or going shopping (especially nowadays).

But that doesn’t mean that you should be overly cavalier about safety though! I’ve seen far too many home brewers just plain ignore personal safety, and that ain’t great.  Commercial brewers spend a lot of time and money in ensuring a safe working environment in their breweries, and you can take a leaf out of their books for your homebrewing operation.

Here are a few safety risks and mitigating measures you should have in place on brew day:

  • Beware plastics + heat.  If you siphon hot beer during mashing or anywhere else in the brew cycle, please make sure that you’re either using copper, stainless steel or heat resistant plastic for the job. Far too many homebrewers will use any old plastic tubing to funnel hot wort and that’s not healthy. Many soft plastics release substances that are known carcinogens when heated. So take some time and ensure your own long-term health and safety!
  • Cleaning safety. A lot of chemicals used for cleaning are potentially harmful. For instance, a common cleaning agent in breweries is hot caustic soda, which does an excellent job of cleaning stainless steel but is also pretty toxic to soft and squishy humans. And while commercial brewers have a lot of stainless steel to clean, homebrewers often don’t. So unless you’ve got stainless steel kettles, mash tuns, lauter tuns, lines, fermenters and brite beer tanks to clean, you’ll be well served to use less harsh cleaning substances like dishwashing liquids and powders. Remember also that plastic fermenters scratch easily, so be gentle in cleaning these anyway!
  • Ventilation. Good ventilation can literally save your life. If you’re using a large high-pressure gas burner or have a large capacity mill, it’s best to ensure good ventilation throughout the brewing operation. If you’re milling lots of grain, get a respirator mask rated for grain particulates. Seriously: you don’t want to get something known as brewer’s lung. It ain’t pretty.
  • Boil-overs. Hot wort contains a whole bunch of sugary lava, and you should be careful of big boil-overs. If you’re doing a full volume boil of 19 liters (5 gallons) of wort, that’s a lot of very hot, very dangerous liquid to manage. So be cautious when adding hops and other additions during the boil (either turn off the heat before adding, or have a brew-water filled spray bottle handy). Be extra cautious when carrying your kettle filled with this hot liquid around. A bad spill will not only ruin your kitchen floor, but could also result in serious burns.
  • Footwear. Quite a few pieces of brewing kit are either heavy, sharp, hot or all three! Don’t wear open shoes when brewing! Sure, it’s hot, but you know what’s not-so-hot? Losing a toe or fracturing your foot. Also, feet are generally a bit dirtier than other parts of the human body, so close those puppies up and keep things clean on brew day!
  • Spinal health. You know what’s the number one physical ailment among professional brewers? Back-related injuries and pain. That’s because in a brewery, one is called upon to lift heavy things like grain bags and filled beer kegs. Homebrewers don’t often need to move around big grain bags, but lifting a big brew kettle filled with wort can injure you if you’re not careful. Bend at the knees, breathe while lifting, and rather get someone to help you with the heavy lifts. I’ve injured myself lifting heavy brewing kit and I can honestly say, it ain’t worth it!
  • Sobriety. All of the above dangers will be exacerbated 200% if you’re brewing and drinking. Not to mention that you’ll forget to add hops at the right time, start thinking that adding some garlic to the brew may just be a great idea, and so on. While there’s always the temptation to have a few brews while brewing, my experience is that brews done while stone cold sober turn out better on all fronts.

Well,  that’s it folks. I hope you avoid these newbie mistakes. If you do, you’re well on your way to awesome homebrew!

Now, go brew.

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