Lessons I wished I'd Learned, or How to Stop Worrying and Buy More Stuff August 24, 2022 11:33

Some social media site or another recently tried to drum up sympathy for one of the bigger online homebrew retailers with a link to a blog called "21 Homebrewing Lessons I Wish I Learned Sooner" or something along those lines.

So, I took the bait and read said blog entry. They probably should've called it "At Least 21 Things I Should Have Purchased from This Specific Website." At least that's what they'd call it if they were being honest. Here's the list, with my commentary, a tally of the products being sold, and an assessment of the value of these products.

1. Read “How to Brew” by John Palmer

No issue here. You should read How to Brew and I recommend it to everyone. I am also petty and will note that the formatting of the book title is pretty sus. Just italicize, folks.

Products to buy: 1 (1 of 1 are recommended)

2. If You’re Brewing More than 5 Gallons at a Time, Get a Wort Pump

"Trust us on this, if you are brewing more than 5 gallons at a time a wort pump is critical. Wort pumps have multiple uses depending on your setup; you can transfer sparge water into your mash, recirculate the mash, pump finished mash into the boil kettle, or pump wort through a wort chiller - all without the risk of lifting and pouring from hot kettles."

Critical is an overstatement. I have run 10 gallons of beer through a plate chiller with gravity and it works well. You do want to avoid lifting even 5 gallons of hot wort, so it really depends on your set up. I generally recommend a pump instead of a gravity fed system with two burners, if you go that route. Trust me on this - anyone who says "trust me on this" is probably selling you something.

Products to buy: 1 (1 of 1 are a good idea, but not necessary.)

Total products to buy: 2

3. Save Time, Get a Wort Chiller

"This is a crucial step in the brewing process and if you started with small batches, you may have just put your kettle in an ice bath. This works, but it can take a long time, and isn’t as effective for 5-gallon batches. Chilling wort quickly... helps minimize the possibility of contamination by organisms that thrive in warm temperatures and allows you to pitch yeast at an optimal temperature sooner."

Again, an overstatement. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this. You'd think a northerly homebrew supplier might know something about cold winters. An ice bath actually works well for a 5 gallon condensed boil and you only really "need" to get an immersion or other type of chiller if you are doing 5 gallon or larger, full boil all-grain brewing.

Products to buy: 1 (1 of 1 are a good idea, but not necessary.)

Total products to buy: 3

4. Ditch the Bottles and Start Kegging

"You’ll save plenty of time no longer sanitizing each bottle, you can skip the extra step of adding priming sugar, and honestly it looks pretty cool to have a keg of your own brew in the house when friends come over. You could start with a mini 1.75 gallon keg or go straight to 5 gallons to keep more beer primed and ready."

It's just that easy, trust me! You don't need to have space for a fridge or freezer dedicated to just beer or spare cash to buy the fridge or pay for electricity! C'mon what are you waiting for? You enjoy cleaning and filling bottles, like a peasant? Okay, went a little overboard on sarcasm there. But bottle or keg or whatever floats your boat. Bottling doesn't need to be a heinous chore sent from the gods as punishment for the hubris of all humanity. If you don't enjoy bottling, just keep in mind that it is not just a keg you'll need - you need to keep the keg cold if you want carbonation; you need a CO2 tank and regulator, and you need some number of fittings to connect it all. I rate item #4 as misleading and oversimple.

Products to buy: 1, but also 3 others, if you count the regulator and tubing and connectors as a single kit (4 of 4 can be an improvement, but also assume a certain amount of resources. Homebrewing is, on some level, supposed to cost less than buying craft beer.)

Total products to buy: 7

5. Your Yeast are Suffocating

"Your yeast needs oxygen at the beginning of fermentation, and sure, you can shake your carboy or bucket of wort, but there’s only so much oxygen you can get into wort using air alone."

Technically correct on all fronts but this doesn't need to be the first thing you worry about. And, for what it is worth, Fermentis - makers of US-05, S-04, etc. - says this about oxygenation of their product: "We don’t recommend aerating the wort in normal conditions. The dry yeast has been produced and dried with a specific know-how of the Lesaffre Group, in order to maximize the Ergosterols content of the cells. This allows the yeast to grow/multiply and ferment well. However, you could aerate the wort in particular cases, for example if you recycle the yeast. There is no difference (for the O2) between Ale and Lager." (My emphasis added.)

If you are buying new dry yeast with every extract or partial mash batch, don't worry about oxygenation equipment. Adding water to a condensed boil also helps with the oxygen levels. If you are reusing yeast, buying liquid, and/or brewing all-grain, you might benefit from added O2.

Products to buy: 1 (1 of 1 are a good idea if your specific conditions call for it.)

Total products to buy: 8 (Assuming this is an all-in-one kit.)

6. Switch to All-Grain

"Extract brewing has its benefits, but all-grain brewing gives you a lot more control over the process and the precise mix of grain that goes into making your wort. Plus there are certain techniques (decoction mashing, first wort hopping, mash hopping) that can only be done with all-grain brewing."

Well, first off, way to not have any partial mash options, Brewing Supply Place that is geographically south of Bangor! Also, you can definitely add hops before the boil with any brewing process... right? Did I miss a memo? And also OH NO YOU CAN'T DO A DECOCTION MASH. That is certainly the end of all things good and fun in this world. Like, brew all-grain or not. Maybe you want to brew but don't want to spend 4 or more hours on a batch. Or maybe you and a couple friends get together and make a day of it. Whatever works!

The important things are that: 1. you enjoy the process and 2. you enjoy the result. It does not matter how you get there. Here is my guideline: If it works for you, do that.

Products to buy: 1****** (Many asterisks on this because there are many ways to brew all-grain and several pieces of equipment involved. At a minimum, a good kettle, a heat source, and a chiller. You can get those all-in-one if you have the funds.)

Total products to buy: 9 (Assuming you bought an all-in-one system.)

7. Add Yeast Nutrient

Again, no argument. Way to sneak in a good suggestion! You don't typically need it, but at like $2 an ounce to get through several batches, why not?

Products to buy: 1!

Total products to buy: 10

8. Save Time with a Bottle Rinser

Totally agree. Saves time and sanitizer. A great investment at $20 (Farmhouse price) or $26 (online megastore price... weird).

Products to buy: 1

Total products to buy: 11

9. Get a Floor Corker

"If you are making wine, and don’t have a floor corker, you’re doing it wrong. Bottle your wines with considerably less elbow grease by using a floor corker. These are suitable for hobby or small-scale winery use, and make short work out of even the largest batches of wine. And since your 6-gallon batch makes about 30 bottles, a powerful floor corker is well worth the investment."

As usual, I don't like the framing of this one ("you’re doing it wrong"), but it is not a bad suggestion. Not all floor corkers are created equal, and don't think you can cork and cage with any old corker. If you make enough wine it is worthwhile to buy a floor corker.

Products to buy: 1

Total products to buy: 12

10. Skip Kettle Souring

I don't even have a complaint with tone on this one. Lallemand Wildbrew (TM) Philly Sour gets it done. Even in your hoppy beer styles. Buuuuuut I would be remiss if I failed to note that it "produces moderate amounts of lactic acid" so you may want to add lactic acid at the end or consider additional souring measures.

Don't want sour beer? Skip this suggestion entirely!

Products to buy: 1

Total products to buy: 13

11. Control Your Fermentation Temp

"We’ve seen your blanket-wrapped fermenters and we’re going to be honest, that’s probably not cutting it. But you can control the most important variable in making beer with the [brand specific product here]. Wrap your brew in the warmth of the electric fermentation heater, dial-in the exact temperature you need, and let your yeast do the rest."

Here's an odd customer comment that suggests they were fermenting outside...? “Made fermentation go by smoothly when we had subzero temperatures back in February.” That aside, you could also brew seasonally based on the available conditions, or a heater of some sort is fine. You don't need their $75 dual stage heater or a glycol system to achieve this end, but you could go that far.

Products to buy: 1

Total products to buy: 14 (Or more, if you go for that sweet glycol system and conical fermenters.)

12. Eliminate Wine CO2 ASAP

"Improving the quality of your wine doesn’t have to cost tons of money or take up more time. In fact the express wine degasser saves you time. Just whirl this magic wand (with the help of a drill) in your wine and you’ll rapidly eliminate excess CO2 in less than 10 minutes on any batch size. It’s the easiest, fastest, and most reliable tool for degassing your wine at home - plus it’s a tool that’ll barely take up any space."

This one is tough, because they are technically correct. I don't personally want my drill anywhere near my wine and I don't have time in the day to degas every batch of wine made at the store for 10 minutes. I would argue this point is both an overstatement on the part of a company who is trying to sell you something AND that if you want to take your wine to the next level, it is a worthwhile equipment upgrade. Or if you use carboys and can't degas with a spoon. (I degas all wine made at the store with a spoon and a quick specialty stir and it works great.)

Products to buy: 1

Total products to buy: 15

13. Warm Your Extract for Easier Pouring

A good suggestion that is actually relevant to the stated intent of the blog - lessons that are good to learn early in the homebrewing journey. But also PUT DOWN THAT EXTRACT AND BREW ALL-GRAIN! (Their suggestion, not mine.)

Products to buy: 0 (A first!)

Total products to buy: 15 (Still a generously low ball estimate.)

14. Keep a Few Spray Bottles On Hand

"One of the simplest tips - but one that multiple employees recommended. A spray bottle makes for simple and to the point sanitation. Be sure to label each and fill one with clean water for battling potential boilovers (spritzing the surface can help ease a tumultuous boil) and fill another bottle with StarSan for quick surface sanitizing of spoons, yeast packs, thermometers, etc."

Sure, if that works for you. Not a bad tip.

Products to buy: 2 (Specifically, this provides two different uses and you need to keep them separate from other spray bottles that may have been used for other cleaning purposes.)

Total products to buy: 17

15. Ditch Carboys for Siphonless Fermenters

"Siphonless fermenters aren’t just easier to use, they’re also better for your beer. Without opening the lid to insert an auto-siphon, you’ll fight oxidation and contamination. Just turn a valve and you’re all set to bottle. You’ll even avoid the trub that’s settled below the spout."

Really a personal preference thing. I don't love spigots. They can be a real issue - great place to grow bacteria, they tend to leak at some point. To restate an earlier point, do the thing that works for you. Maybe that is to close your web browser and go buy beer somewhere.

There's probably a ton of other considerations here about mobility and cost and the weight of fermenters, but I am not sure exactly how to address those points or if it is even necessary. Something about the way these suggestions are all written just strike me as assuming all homebrewers have the resources to just upgrade equipment and store it somewhere. I also cringe at calls to use glass because glass is heavy and not suited to everyone's mobility.

Products to buy: 1 (But more if you want to make carrying a glass carboy with bottling spigot easier. Or if you are replacing multiple fermenters.)

Total products to buy: 18

16. Keep Extra Ingredients Around

"Random mishaps can occur on brew day and you don’t want to be stuck with a yeast that’s not fermenting or a gravity that’s way off. Having extra US-05, S-04, corn sugar, and light DME on hand can quickly save these issues."

Sure, if you have space. Keep an eye on dates and rotate stock if you do have extra ingredients.

Products to buy: 4? (4 suggestions are listed here, so 4.)

Total products to buy: 22

17. Split Batches

"Experiment, experiment, experiment! This goes for wine, beer, or anything you’re fermenting. Make a 5-gallon batch and then split it into smaller batches post-boil... [specific suggestions here]. It’s a great way to see what you like and don’t like without 'wasting' a whole batch."

Yes, do this if you have space for twice the fermenters, etc. I have often brewed 10 gallons and split it into two 5 gallon batches as well. Or brew small batches. A world of possibilities!

Products to buy: 3 (They suggest 3 ways to change the split batches - hops, oak, fruit - in my ellipsis. This does not count buying multiple smaller fermenters, because you also have to do that.)

Total products to buy: 25

18. Make Yeast Starters, Seriously Do It.

"A yeast starter is essentially an aerated sugar solution that allows your yeast to eat, grow, and reproduce. Why does that matter? The more yeast cells, the less stressed they are trying to do their job. Under-pitching your yeast (not having enough cells) can lead to stuck fermentations, stressed yeast producing off flavors, or increased lag time where bacteria could take over. Making a yeast starter, especially with the Yeast Health Kit is as easy as a pop of the top, a push of a button, and a turn of a valve."

They actually didn't link to the Yeast Health Kit, so I am not 100% sure what that is, but this suggestion kinda fits with the oxygen issue. If you are making a high gravity beer, reusing yeast, using older yeast, making a lager, etc., it is a good idea to boost cell count. You can make a starter with DME (I have instructions somewhere on this website) or use a Propper Starter and just make sure you time it right. They really undersell the importance of timing the yeast starter.

Products to buy: 1 (I will be generous and count this as one of several ways to make a starter.)

Total products to buy: 26

19. Add Your Own Flair

"Take a base style recipe and try adding a little bit of something unique to see what the result is. There’s no limit to flavor profiles... But the key is to go easy at first so you don’t overpower your beer - you can always add more later, but you can’t take any back once it’s there. You may find great ideas by reading reviews of some of our kits; customers love sharing how adding vanilla and orange peel to a Cream Ale resulted in a dreamy Creamsicle flavor or adding lavender to a Saison made their Spring beer even more perfectly seasonal."

Sure, that's fair. Getting it right is also more complicated, but you should try new things that sound good. Sometimes it will be good, other times less good. And you have to be cool with that. It's at least half the fun of doing this to begin with.

Products to buy: I'll be VERY generous here and say 0, but they absolutely want you to buy things. One of the many advantages of buying at a local homebrew store is that I can easily switch up an existing kit without charging extra, so you can add flair of your own without technically buying anything. Again, I am being very generous because with the extra brew companies or geographically named websites that is not an option.

Total products to buy: 26

20. Becoming a Homebrew Pro? Try a New Fermentation!

"You’re nearing the end of this list and feel like you already do all of these things and own all these gadgets? It may be worth considering adding more variety to your brew cave, or cellar, with wine, hard cider, or hard seltzer kit. You likely have all the equipment needed for these new recipes and it’s super easy to fit into your brew day during steeping or mashing."

Okay, this one contained a list to a variety of gadgets of varying usefulness and practicality for anyone's given situation. That makes it hard to quantify. As for the general idea? Yeah, try things! (If you want to. It's okay to not like hard cider or wine or beer or whatever.) You may not even have a cellar or "brew cave" and can still try things or do smaller batches or whatnot. Or, at a place like the Farmhouse, you may be able to make wine or hard cider without having any equipment at all. (Hint: it is not a hypothetical, you can actually do this.)

It's beside the point, and I know the term "pro" is being used playfully here, but everybody relax - ya know, and have a homebrew! It's okay for homebrewing to be and stay a hobby that you enjoy. No need to pressure yourself or others to do or try things if they just want to enjoy something.

Products to buy: 1 (I will be generous and count this as a suggestion to just try one thing.)

Total products to buy: 27 (Though you may have most of the things you need for new stuff, you probably need some other stuff.)

21. Keep on Brewing

"Like any hobby, you’ll probably make mistakes. And that’s okay! Just about every homebrewer has had a boil over, added the hops at the wrong time, used way too many adjuncts, or messed up in another way (and probably drank the beer anyway). Every mishap will be a learning opportunity and the key is to keep brewing and getting more experience."

Agreed. But we also just read 15 or more arguments for just skipping the learning step and buying a quick-fix gadget. I'm not even arguing that a store should not be selling things, rather that this was framed disingenuously. I'm not a big fan of ads disguised as educational opportunities like this was. Here is the stated point of the original post: "We thought we’d put together a list of things we wish we’d known when we started brewing. Whether it’s something that saves you time, money, or even space in your brew cave, there are plenty of ways you can make your hobby an even better experience." Some of the advice was good for new brewers. A lot of it was just stuff to buy before understanding what you are doing, much of which is not necessarily affordable - or even desirable - for the average homebrewer. I certainly didn't get into this to be anything but a hobby and I only bought more equipment because I started working at this homebrew store.

I'll even go one step further - I also want you to buy things here. But the right things for your situation. Not a one-size-fits-all prescription for better brewing. Sometimes gadgets address problems. Mostly it's about better ingredients and a little patience. Like Papa - nope, not making jokes about that place.

So, fine, I guess I have to say that Charlie's advice is still relevant: Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew. (And, if you have the space, money, and interest, turn your garage into a dedicated homebrew space where you can work on the craft. But mostly the first part about relaxing.)

Product to buy: None, but also...

In case you thought this was the end of the product list, they slipped in a link for a series of instructional videos you can watch as part of a "university" for a fee, ranging from $5-10. Again, that is fine. (I have not paid for or watched any of these. They might be great.) 

Final product tally: At least 27. I would argue that is a generous low-ball estimate.


Since I am petty AND fair, here is a link to the original.