I've been a homebrewer for about five years. It's a great hobby and one of the few that the end results make you feel so happy. After brewing my latest attempt at the world's greatest Belgian Witbier, I decided to share the five most important things I've learned about homebrewing:
1. Cleaning and Sanitizing. Going into the hobby I never realized how much time is dedicated to cleaning. In fact, the majority of my brew day is dedicated to cleaning out all of the equipment. And don't forget about sanitizing! Once the stuff is clean you need to sanitize everything that is going to come into contact with the beer post boil or you risk contaminating your beer and making something that even your friends won't lie to you and say they like.
2. Temp control. I made a lot of batches of beer before I realized the importance of the temperature that it ferments at. I would get some weird fruity flavors and just chalked it up to me screwing up the recipe. It wasn't until I Googled headaches and beer that I learned about fusel alcohols. Those nasties are the ones that give you the hangover headache and if there is enough in your homebrew, like there was in my early batches, you will get the headache while you're on the second pint. I now have an extra fridge, chest freezer and some fancy temp controllers that I use regulate the temp of my beer while the yeast is doing its thing.
3. Yeast. These amazing little creatures are what turns the sugar in your unfermented beer into alcohol. They are also responsible for those nasty fusel alcohols and other off flavors like diacetyl (butter flavor) and acetaldehyde (green apple flavor) that you don't want in your beer. If you take good care of these little guys, pitch sufficient amounts, give them some oxygen at the beginning (oxygen after fermentation is done if very very bad) and control the temps of your beer they will throw a big party and make all the wonderful flavors and alcohol that you are looking for. They can even carbonate your beer if you want them too!
4. Equipment. You can brew for cheap. Just a big pot, a plastic bucket, a bunch of bottles, and some tubing is all you really need for your first batch. However, once you are hooked you are going start buying tons of cool gadgets, outdoor propane burners, bigger pots, more fermenters, and don't forget the extra fridge or freezer for your temperature control. And do yourself a favor, keg your beer! All you need is a kegerator (store bought or homemade) and some refurbished soda kegs. Nothing beats kegging your beer and force carbonating it. It will save you a couple weeks over bottling and not to mention, bottling beer is probably the biggest pain in the ass in homebrewing, just edging out all the cleaning you have to do.
5. Share the fruits of you labor. Beer is a social drink. Sharing your beer with friends is great and gives you mostly positive feedback. Who is going to talk crap about the free beer you just gave them? If you want more constructive feedback enter into a competition. Your beer will be evaluated by certified beer judges and you will get feedback on how to improve your beer. Check out the American Homebrewers Association website for a list of competitions near you.
Bonus #6. Have fun! You are making beer, what could be better than that? As the Godfather of homebrewing, Charlie Papazian, says "Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew!"
Bill Ramsey is a self-proclaimed beer geek and avid home brewer. He has spent countless hours scouring the Internet for information about beer and brewing and isn't afraid to share that knowledge with friends, family and the occasional stranger. As a survivor of hundreds of beer festivals, he can talk to you for hours about beer if you let him, just ask some of the women he has dated. If you ever run into him in the wild he will probably be enjoying some new style of beer while googling everything he can find out about it and trying to formulate a clone recipe for it in his head.