A Surefire Way to Improve Your Beers . . . And Why You Will Ignore This Advice

I once met a fellow brewer who had built his own RIMS system. He had two temperature probes in his mash vessel and had fiddled with the engineering of the heating loop and wort return. He had also tweaked his process, varying how the wort was heated, his pump speed, etc., and finally arrived at a point that he was proud of. He could hold his mash temperatures steady, within only 0.5 °F (~0.25 °C) over time or between different places in the mash (except for inside the heating loop, obviously). He could program virtually any step mash into his controller and the rig would carry it out. He was very proud of his accomplishment (as he should have been) and he offered me one of his beers. It was contaminated.

In any process, the quality of the resulting product depends on the weakest link in the production chain. To use the above anecdote as an example, having a rock steady mash temperatures does not guard against contamination. If you understand this simple idea, you will instantly know how to improve your beers — fix the weakest link in your own chain.

What exactly your weakest link is depends on your setup and procedures. Maybe you don’t make yeast starters (or otherwise ensure that you are pitching the proper amount of yeast). Maybe you can’t control your fermentation temperatures. Maybe you use an inadequate method of aeration. Maybe you aren’t evaluating and using the freshest possible ingredients. Maybe you’ve stopped learning about brewing because you just want to follow recipes. It could be anything, but one thing is overwhelmingly likely — it’s not the aspect of brewing that you spend the most time on now. After I tried the contaminated beer I described above, the first question the guy asked me was if he should add another step to his step mash.

Unfortunately, I know that most of you will ignore this advice. When I told the guy above that his mash was fine, he needed to spend more time cleaning and sanitizing his fermentation equipment, he just said, “nah.” He knew that, at that point, I had been a brewer for years. He knew that I’ve studied brewing and wrote about it professionally for years. He knew that I had judged at many, many homebrew contests. However, he simply dismissed my criticism because it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

In general, people get set in their ways and are loath to hear any criticism of things they do. Frequently, they take it as criticism of them. So, if something basically works, they will stick with doing that because their basic human desire to avoid new situations overwhelms their drive to do better. This becomes more true the longer the person has been stuck in his or her rut. 

So, I know that most of the brewers who started reading this article won’t take my advice. Then again, these days most people self-censor to the degree that I’ll bet that most of them have already quit. If you’re still hanging in there, you just might listen and make a positive change. How do you do this? Well, first off, you need to brutally honest with yourself.

You probably already know what you’re giving short shrift to. If so, just fix it. If not, go through your brew day step by step. Think the hardest about the steps that interest you least. Also, if possible, get some honest feedback on your beers. This can be difficult because most advanced (and pro) brewers know that most homebrewers just want to hear praise. Instead of an open-ended, “What do you think of this?” type question, tell them that you are looking for an avenue of improvement and ask them what they would change. Then — and here’s the hard part — listen to them. What they say is probably going to be an aspect of brewing that you haven’t paid much attention to and their critique may make you feel defensive. Don’t be. Take their advice and improve as a brewer. Instead of making excuses — to yourself as well as others — address the problems that are detected. Fixing these problems may require you to get some new brew equipment, such as an oxygen aeration rig. It may require you to focus on some of the least glamorous aspects of brewing, like thoroughly cleaning your equipment. You may have to learn something. Or, it may simply take more effort. However, once you’ve made the effort and addressed the flaw in your process, you can enjoy the benefits of your improved homebrew — and the knowledge that you fought human nature to do so. 


If you enjoy Beer & Wine Journal, please consider supporting us by purchasing my book — “Home Brew Recipe Bible,” by Chris Colby (2016, Page Street Publishing). It is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can also find the nearest independent bookstore that sells it on Indiebound. My new book, “Methods of Modern Homebrewing,” by Chris Colby (2017, Page Street Publishing) will be published on December 12th. 


  1. Herb Meowing says

    Does Ed Wilson home brew?

  2. Herb Meowing says

    I can well imagine how some homies brewing the standard 5G batch size (or larger) have to do it outside where they might find it a bit cumbersome to adequately clean and sanitize their equipment.

    Hot and humid in summer.
    Cold in winter.
    Who among us wants to be outside in those uncomfortable conditions messing with water more than necessary?

    Smaller batch sizes done … start to finish … inside in climate controlled comfort FTW!

  3. The fact the guy asked if he should add another step in his mashing setup begs the question of whether he even knows why he is doing what he is doing.

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  5. Herb Meowing says

    Here’s an idea.

    Why not advertise your books on your web site’s landing page?
    Maybe place the ad alongside the ‘AHA’ and ‘Log Your Brews’ tiles.

    Please send a copy on your latest missive post-paid to Herb Meowing for his most excellent idea.

  6. Software Mangler says

    @Chris – a great reminder that it’s attention to the unseen and never glamorous details of sanitation that are often grossly overlooked because there’s no bragging rights on it at the club meeting. It’s akin to not washing your hands after taking a dump, and then proceeding directly to the party’s appetizer table and rummaging thru the various platters of finger-foods.

  7. I had great success with my first couple batches of homebrew. I thought it was easy and I knew exactly what I was doing. Then things went sour. Literally. I couldn’t make a drinkable to save my life. I committed myself to making the same batch over and over until I got it right. I tried different water sources, yeast strains, DME vs All Grain, fermentation times, brands of hops, etc. Nothing worked.

    I finally gave up and took some of my failed beer to Northern Brewer to see if they could figure it out. The guy asked some basic questions but then started grilling me on my cleaning and sanitizing techniques. I was cleaning with soap and water then disinfecting with StarSan. When I told the guy behind the counter this, he ran over and handed me a jug of PBW Cleaner. I’m proud to say I haven’t made a bad batch of beer since improving my cleaning/sanitizing process.

    I learned a lot about making beer while experimenting with variables but I didn’t make a great beer until I strictly adhered to strict and well-regulated cleaning regiment.

    Great article!

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