Hindsight <insert saying here…>. As a homebrewer you are often asked about starting out, what’s the best kit to get, what recipe to use, what did you do etc. I’m doing this for Learn to homebrew day, I’ve greatly benefited by those in the community willing to share a recipe, tip, DIY plan, etc. Here is I’d do if I were to do it over again.
Read, but don’t obsess. You aren’t going to brew a perfect beer the first time, and there is only so much you can do with your first batch. Pick a book, and read it. The two most common are How to brew by John Palmer And The Complete Joy of Home brewing – Charlie Papazian. They are different takes on brewing, read a few pages from amazon, and pick the one that suits your style, and read it. I read and read and read, and listened until I was filled with crazy ideas, and worried about doing it perfect. I didn’t understand what I was reading. Just pick a book, read it, and get a bad first draft done.
Watch someone brew. For me, I learn by doing, I have a hard time digesting book knowledge into action. Doing, or watching someone do, I learn. Contact your local club, or your homebrew shop and ask if they do demos, or if they have a learn to brew day. Nothing like seeing it done. There are things you just won’t realize you need to deal with until you do. How are you going to move that hot liquid? Do you have enough ice to chill it? what’s a whirlpool? How do I handle hops? What should my grains look like? So many questions, it’s nice to have some second hand experience.
Make your early batches small. The biggest change I’d make is starting small. I would start making 1 or 2 gallon batches.The benefits of brewing small are numerous. Starting small has a much lower investment cost. You don’t need an expensive boil kettle, you likely have a large enough pot in your kitchen to brew 1g batches. There are a bunch of kits that allow you to make 1g batches. A starter setup costs $50 from norther brewer: http://www.northernbrewer.com/shop/1-gallon-small-batch-starter-kit-1.html, or similar from Brooklyn brew shop http://brooklynbrewshop.com/beer-making-kits. The logistics of boiling, handling, cooling, 1g of wort is much easier than 5 gallons. The steps remain the same, you still need to make wort, boil, transfer, ferment, bottle, etc, it is just easier and quicker to do. A 1 gallon batch makes about 11 bottles. I’m sure you can drink even the worst 11 pack. A 5 gallon batch (typical homebrew size) is 54. It’s a lot of beer to drink in the window of freshness. It’s also real lot of beer if it isn’t good. When you have a lot of beer sitting around, you won’t want to brew again. Brew small, brew often. If it’s great, and then it’s gone, all the better, brew it again!
Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Smaller batches mean less beer, which in turn means more frequent brewing. I can’t stress how important repetition and iteration are in getting good at brewing. You’ll want to have your process down in memory. You want to know what happens where, how exactly you do everything. This won’t happen until you have done this more than a few times. I also recomend repeating the same beer multiple times. It will allow you to iterate on the recipe. Understand the impacts of errors and changes. Allowing you to slowly evolving the recipe, by trying different yeasts, different malts, different hops, different hopping schedules, different mash temperatures, different fermentation temperatures. There are so many variables you can change when keeping the rest the same. This will allow you to improve your beers. I realize it is extremely hard to control your desire to make everything under the sun, using every ingredient, but the payoff will be worth it.
Keep it simple. Don’t over complicate your brewing setup or your recipes. A simple biab, or single infusion mash setup will work for most beers, all you need is a kettle and a bag or a small cooler and a bag. Watch this presentation on ‘brewing on the 1’s‘ it’s You don’t need 7 hop additions, you don’t need 10 malts to make a good complex tasting beer. Use less, and understand what they do. Those smaller batches will pay off in more flexibility to try different combinations (less to screw up with).
Last but not least, find a source of unbiased feedback. Brewers code dictates that you give your honest feedback. Give it, expect and demand it back. These guys didn’t pay for your beer, I’m sure they wont’ refuse more if it’s still free. Make sure you are getting honest feedback. It’s better to hear your beer is astringent, or soapy, than to keep making the same mistakes and bad beer. Listen with an open mind, and don’t take it personally. I’m going on four years brewing, and still not making consistently good beer. It’s hard to say that, but the only way it’s going to get better, is if I keep getting feedback, and keep making improvements.