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Tips and Tricks

General Tips and Tricks

The following are general tips and tricks for various aspects of homebrewing.

Starting a Siphon

With a racking cane, there are two ways to start a siphon. Make sure, before starting your siphon, both racking cane and tubing are completely sanitized.

First, attach tubing onto the racking cane, put the cane into the beer or wort, and suck on the other end of the tubing. If you are worried about bacteria contamination from your mouth, take a quick swig of vodka. The amount of contact time you have with the tubing is not likely to cause contamination.

The second method is more sanitary, but can be messier. It is best to keep towels on hand to clean up any drips. Completely fill the tubing with sanitizing solution. Keep the tubing filled while you put the racking cane into the beer. With the tubing filled, attach one end onto the racking cane, then lower the opposite end into a separate container. The force of sanitizer running out the tubing will create a vacuum inside the racking cane, starting the siphon.

For both these methods, if you do not have an extra pair of hands to hold the cane or tubing in place, you may consider a racking cane clamp. The clamp will hold the racking cane in place, allowing you to place the racking cane in the beer at the correct height, then begin siphoning.

The easiest, most convenient method of siphon is to use an auto siphon. The auto siphon is put in the beer or wort, tubing attached onto the cane, and a single pump of the cane will start the siphon automatically. Pair with an auto siphon clamp, and racking becomes a breeze. 

Keep in mind, for siphoning beer after fermentation, to keep the sediment behind in the fermenter. This is best done by starting the bottom of the cane about halfway up from the bottom of the fermenter, and slowly lowering the bottom of the cane as the level of beer drops. Keep an eye on the beer, and stop the siphon as soon as the clear beer is gone, and only the trub remains.

Using bags for grains and hops

Steeping grains in a bag is much more convenient then keeping them loose. After steeping, simply lift the bag and let it drain. Using a spoon to squeeze the bag against the side of your kettle will help speed up the dripping.

Grain bags come in two forms, muslin single-use bags or nylon reusable bags. Muslin is convenient; the bag can be tossed after use, thus saving time cleaning. However, new bags must be bought for each brew.

For the long term, nylon is a better option. Provided you don’t rip the bag, they will always be there when you need them. They often come with a draw string or elastic top, allowing for convenient opening of the bag.

For hops pellets, fine mesh nylon bags will help contain all the hop material, allowing for less losses to trub after the boil. Muslin bags do not have a fine-enough mesh; any hops pellets in a muslin bag will seep through the bag. However, muslin bags are good for use with whole hops.

When using hops bags of any kind, make sure there is plenty wort contact inside the bags. If you see the hops being balled up, and wort is not evenly distributed through the hops bag, you may not achieve the hops utilization being sought, resulting in a beer with a lack of bitterness, flavor, or aroma.

A newer method of containing hop material is a hops spider. This is a large, fine mesh stainless basket. It goes into the boil kettle, and all additions are added into the spider. This makes cleanup easier, as all hops are in one single vessel.

Finally, hops bags or spiders are not required; you can add hops directly into the kettle. The only advantage of using a bag or spider is you will end up with less loss to trub after the boil, thus yielding slightly more beer in the end. This becomes especially true with IPAs and double IPAs, wherein a lot of hop material will lead to much more significant losses to trub.

For dry-hopping, either a bag can be used (just be sure you sanitize it beforehand), or hops can be added directly to the beer. Be careful with this method, as you want to allow plenty of time for hops to drop out of suspension. If you want to speed up this step, try cold-crashing the beer for a day or two.

If kegging dry-hopped beer, be very careful when racking if you did not use a hops bag, as small bits of pellets are really good at clogging dip tubes.

Getting extract out of the bottle

The easiest way to get LME out of our jugs is to let it sit in the sun, or another warm place, when you start your brew-day. When ready, let the jug drain out as much as possible, then carefully submerge the jug in the hot water, allowing water to flow inside the jug. Shake up the jug, then drain again. Repeat as needed to remove as much extract as you can.

Grain storage

There are multiple ways to store excess grains. Any dry, cool area is good for storage. For smaller amount of specialty malts, large mason jars work well. For store bulk amounts of base malts, Vittles Vaults or any other large, food-grade plastic food bin will work fine. Be sure to keep the lid sealed, and don’t let the malts sit for any extended period of time (over ~1 year or so), and the malts should keep fine.

Hops storage

If you end up with excess hops after brew day, and want to save them for the next brew, there are two things to keep in mind to maintain freshness. First, keep the hops protected from outside air. This will help maintain aromatics and alpha-acid levels in the hops. A food-saver, or other food-grade vacuum sealer is a great option here. Many commercial hops suppliers will nitrogen-flush hops packages, which is much more fool-proof then vacuum sealing. However, this is much more difficult on the home scale.

Second, store hops in your freezer. This will slow down the rate of decay of hops, and help maintain freshness over the long-term. Generally, following these rules, you should be able to keep hops around for a year or so. If you see your hops turn brown, or if they begin to smell off, usually like cheese or feet, then toss them and purchase fresh hops.

Controlling boil-over

Controlling boil-over can be done in several ways. First, as the wort gets closer to boiling and the layer of foam rises, reduce the heat on the burner. This will lower the energy of the wort, slow down foams growth, and give the boil more time to begin before boil-over occurs.

Second, keep a spray bottle of cold water on hand. As foam builds up, spray the foam a couple times. This breaks the surface tension of the foam, causing it to fall back into the wort. Similarly, some brewers have success with laying a long wooden spoon or paddle across the top of the kettle. Again, the wood will break the surface tension of the foam, breaking the foam apart and preventing a boil-over.

Making a Blow-off tube

A blow-off tube replaces the airlock during active fermentation. Tubing provides a larger hole for CO2 to travel through. The lessens the likelihood of the airlock clogging with krausen and being forced out, causing a large, yeasty mess.

There are a few methods to make a blow-off tube. The first method uses a three-piece airlock and a length of ½” ID tubing. The top cap and inside float in the airlock are removed, and the tubing is attached onto the inner post.  The airlock is placed in the stopper or grommet on the fermentation vessel, and the other end of the tubing is place in a separate vessel filled with sanitizer solution. Be careful this this method, however, as once the tubing is place on the airlock, it won’t be easily removed without breaking the airlock.

The second method is to simply stick a length of 5/16” ID tubing directly into the stopper or grommet of your fermentation vessel. This works best with rubber stoppers.

A final method for use in large glass carboys is to use 1” inner diameter tubing. The tubing will fit snugly inside the top of the carboy.

Keep an eye on fermentation once the blow-off tube is installed. After fermentation has slowed down, and krausen is no longer entering the blow-off tube, replace the tube with an airlock.