What’s the rush?
How to make and drink great quality homebrew while sitting on your sofa – a guide for new homebrewers
Saturday 04 July 2020
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You have just finished your brew day. Yeast pitched, fermenter or carboy placed in a temperature-controlled cupboard, and equipment washed and gleaming clean, ready for the next time. Time to put your feet up, and perhaps crack open a bottle of something nice to drink to celebrate a job well done. Now comes the important part: waiting.
Homebrewing requires patience, not least once the brew day is over. Once your precious creation is fermenting away, you might feel somewhat untethered, as though separated from a once needy child, now aloof and independent. If you are anything like me, you might not be able to resist the temptation of checking on it first thing each morning, to see the development of a layer of kräusen (the name for the foamy head atop the wort).
Perhaps you will flick through your ‘lab book’ and make notes about the brew day and check against your intended process. Be careful here: ‘Brewer’s Regret’ is a pesky but very real phenomenon. There will always be one thing you could have done differently. Maybe the grain bed got a degree hotter than intended ten minutes after mashing in, or the chilling process was interrupted and delayed by unanticipated toddler or pet wrangling.
Your brew day does not have to go absolutely perfectly in order to make great beer
Here is the good news; your brew day does not have to go absolutely perfectly in order to make great beer. This is a lesson I learned the hard way, after lots of frustration over a seemingly disastrous brew, only to discover a few weeks later that it all turned out fine. That said, there is one thing that is almost guaranteed to lead to a sub-par beer when it finally comes to tasting the spoils: not enough conditioning time. Luckily, this is the easiest thing to change. All that is needed is a little bit of patience and forward planning.
Decide how you will condition your beer
A simple way to condition your beer when starting out with homebrewing is by bottling, especially since it is possible to bottle beer without racking to a secondary fermentation vessel. Many new homebrewers prefer this method of going straight from primary to bottles, due to the reduced risk of contamination of the beer by minimising steps. If you only have limited time to carve out for your brewing endeavours, this could be the right method for you.
For tips on the pros and cons of various homebrewing methods, John Palmer’s book “How to Brew” is an excellent introduction. John points out that extending the time in the primary fermentation vessel can be a benefit. “Leaving an ale beer in the primary fermenter for a total of 2-3 weeks [instead of just the one week most canned kits recommend], will provide time for the conditioning reactions and improve the beer. This extra time will also let more sediment settle out before bottling, resulting in a clearer beer and easier pouring.”
Match your selected homebrew recipe to your desired drinking schedule
Before you set about brewing, decide how long you will be willing to wait to drink the beer; this will be a critical factor in helping you decide which style to brew. As a rule of thumb, the higher the original gravity reading, the longer a beer will need to condition. If you are looking to drink a beer within a month or so, consider brewing something like a low gravity pale ale. Keep in mind that heavily hopped ales are not suitable for aging. The alpha acid compounds found in hops deteriorate over time, degrading the flavour and aroma and causing the beer to taste stale when kept in the cupboard for too long.
Rich, dark, stronger beers might be perfect for cracking open in front of a roaring fire in the winter, but you will need to be brewing them long before the weather turns chilly. If you have a barley wine or imperial stout on your brewing wish list, you will need to plan especially far ahead. Randy Mosher’s book ‘Radical Brewing’ has a great primer on brewing ‘big beers’. “It takes a long time for the yeast to hack its way through all that sugar under the high-alcohol conditions that quickly develop”, Randy writes of ‘big beer’ brewing. “Six months in the carboy in the secondary is not an unusually long time”.
Remember that you will need a dark and cool place to age your beer until it is ready to drink. Bottles of homebrew should be stored upright and away from any direct sunlight.
You will need a dark and cool place to age your beer until it is ready to drink
Read books and forums, but ultimately give your palate the final say
The only person truly qualified to judge when your beer tastes the best is you. If you type a question about conditioning times into a search engine, you’ll be hit with a wall of advice, from old-school homebrew forums from the 1990s to Reddit threads from a month ago. The most common rule of thumb I’ve seen is to always allow beer between one and two weeks in primary fermentation, and an absolute minimum of two weeks bottle conditioning, though many seasoned homebrewers claim that aiming for a four week minimum in bottles is much better.
Once again, it is important to keep in mind the style you are brewing as you digest this advice. For example, I mostly brew styles in the 4% - 6% ABV range, and I’ve found that six weeks in bottles can make them taste much better than if I was counting down the clock on day 28. Eight weeks is sometimes even better still, but the improvement is more marginal. By nine or more weeks, there is not a lot of discernible difference, and by then I might also need to start thinking about drinking the beer whilst it is still at its freshest.
Keep detailed notes
There’s a big overlap between avid homebrewers and spreadsheet nerds for good reason; one of the best things about brewing is that you are running your own ongoing (and delicious) experiment. If you crack open a bottle that doesn’t taste quite how you hoped, write down what you taste, and open another bottle a week later, and then another a week after that.
The more you brew (and taste!), the better you will become at judging when a certain beer will be ready. Brewing the same style a few times is a good way to build up consistency. Before you know it, you’ll be scheduling brew days far ahead of holidays and parties so that the beer is just right for drinking by a certain date. And don’t forget, the most important thing is to have fun!
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