Brewing-Beginner tips

After the equipment and the ingredients have been purchased for the first batch, it is time for Brew Day! Here are some simple basic tips to use above and beyond the FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS common sense.

1) It may help to pre-boil the tap water being used so that it is ready for use the next day (if brewing extract-mini boils where water must be added). Bottled water is fine if the tap water cannot be trusted. Do not use distilled water unless it is being mixed with a hard water, as some of the naturally occuring solids (salts etc) are necessary for making a good beer. Purified water is fine. Make sure that chloramine is not present in the water, which may be an issue with city water.

2) Use specialty grains. If a kit does not provide or even mention specialty grains as part of the process, do a little research before brewing and see what specialty grains fit the recipe. It is a very simple step to add that requires little extra effort and will add a whole lot of flavor. Add those grains to the brew kettle before at the beginning of heating. Use a cheese cloth bag to hold the crushed grains and remove them at 170F. Some simple suggestions would be Crystal malt (60 lovibond) for a Red Ale, Crystal (any lovibond), Chocolate, Black Patent for a porter, Crystal malt (20 lovibond) for a Pale Ale or IPA, Roasted Barley for a Stout. There is a specialty grains page for some ideas, but the Complete Joy of Homebrewing will more thoroughly cover the topic.

3) The boil is an essential part of brewing. As a beginner trying things out for the first time, the stove will work fine. If the full 5 gallons is being boiled though, it will take quite some time to get a nice rolling boil going on the stove. Not to mention a boilover will be a mess to clean up in the kitchen. The solution is to by a specialized burner that will shorten the time to reach a boil. Talk to the local homebrew shop see what they recommend.
My first batches were done using a 60 minute boil. This works OK but never boil less time that this. Be carefull as the first few minutes of the boil are typically marred by a boil-over (foam and wort rising up over the edge of the kettle and making a mess). This will effect the hop utilization as a portion of the hops that were just added at the beginning of the boil end up on the stove or ground.
The boil utiizes the alpha acids in hops, boils off voilatiles such as DiMethyl Sulfide (DMS), and stabilizes the beer so that it wont become to hazy with age.
I use and highly recommend a 90 minute boil, preceded by a 15 minute pre-boil (105 minutes total). The pre-boil allows the boil and foam to stabilze so that your bittering hop addition does not get caught up and lost in a boil-over. This is a technique used by the pros. The 90 minute boil assures that all of the off flavors (DMS- Dimethyl Sulfide is a problem in all grain brewing with pilsner malts for example) in the wort are boiled off and increases hop efficiency. Here is the issue: if a specific recipe is being followed calling out a 60 minute boil, then the recipe is designed for a larger amount of hops and the longer boil will add some bitterness. There are calculations that can be done but it is a more advanced discussion that can be found in the Papazian book, which I do recommend having on hand before making batch #1. That said, the 15 minute pre-boil is still a great idea!

4) Hop additions. Firstly, kit hops are often not very fresh. Here is where some learning would be beneficial, with some time in a brewery or two spending time learning about hop character and freshness. May also be a good idea to buy some extra hops to have on hand as a substitute for possible stale hops in the kit. It hopefully will not be necessary, but it may avoid a sub par beer later. The extra hops can always be added as late addition hops to enhance hop character that is usually subdued during the course of fermentation and bottle conditioning. 
Flavor hops should be added during the last 10 minutes of the boil and will add hop flavor to the finished beer and adding at this time works well. Earlier than that and the hops will begin adding bitterness that is noticeable. Aroma hops I feel are best added at flame-off. Many recipes call for last 5 minutes or 2 minutes, but some of the aroma characteristics get lost. This is brewer's choice and can be adjusted with experience.

5) Don't forget to add the irish moss with 15 minutes left in the boil. There are other clarifiers available and can be tried, but I have never noticed significant differences. I should also note that there will be batches that maintain cloudiness for various factors. Irish moss will not make for perfectly clear beer, but helps get close. Often I find beers clarifying in the refrigeratior after a couple weeks if clear beer is the goal.

6) The Chill. Wort chillers are expensive, but unless a vessel (sink, etc) is large enough to hold the entire pot with sufficient ice water, it is necessary. I recommend copper, but this has become a dedicated brewer's luxury due to cost. Stainless steel alternative coils can be had at a fraction of the cost. The coil is added with 10 minutes left in the boil to assure sanitization. There is debate about the effects of copper on the beer, and here is where the beer is exposed to copper in home brewing if a copper coil is on hand.
At flame off, move the brew kettle to the spot where the coil can be hooked up to the water source. I recommend whirlpooling the wort prior to chilling, as it settles cold break and hops to a pile in the center of the kettle. Add the floating thermometer at this time as well. The target is 70-75F for ales and 60ish F for lagers. The wort should be cooled as quickly as possible and be covered as well as possible to keep out the baddies. It is up to the brewer to improvise ways to feed the coldest water possible to the chiller. Using two chillers, with one in an ice bath and the other in the wort is a suggestion. Keep in mind stainless steel pots hold the heat well and will be slower to chill in an ice bath!

7) Dumping the chilled wort into the primary fermentation bucket is the first method the beginner is taught. Pour carefully and try and leave as much of the murk at the bottom behind. However, a plastic siphon starter with an aerator at the other end is what I use and recommend, although it does require practice. The siphon will  leave the whirlpooled gunk behind (trub, cold break, hops, etc). This is the time to take a hydrometer reading if one is so inclined. I use a refractometer so only a couple of drops are required and it is no big deal. The hydrometer is floated in about a pint of beer, and the level above the liquid is read. That is a lot of beer! This is why I prefer using a refractometer.
Wort Siphon

Wort Siphon setup, with a plunger at one end and an aerator at the other

We use this setup, a plunger to start siphoning the wort into a carboy, with an aerator at the other end that aerates the wort (adds oxygen to the wort for yeast fermentation). There is a screen on the plunger that keeps the gunk in the kettle.
8) As I had mentioned for the yeast in the ingredients section, better results may be had by substituting a fresh liquid yeast for the dried yeast. Wyeast slap packs may be the best for beginners as there is no starter required. Check out the next step section for info on yeast starters. Once the yeast has been pitched, let the beer ferment in an appropriate environment that matches the temperature recommended on the yeast package, and keep it dark. Avoid temerature swings. If the environment is warm, cover it with a rag soaked in water and place ice packs around the fermenter to help keep things cool. With a bucket fermenter, the air lock must be watched and when it only bubbles once every two minutes the fermentation is mostly complete. For those who want to be technical, the hydrometer can be used and a pint or so of beer can be pulled off periodically and tested to see if the gravity is being reduced, but this method requires the loss of beer which again to me is unacceptable. I do not measure final gravity as I don't like wasting beer, and I watch the primary fermentor (carboy) and wait for activity to cease as my method for knowing that  it is time to bottle.

9) Transfer to a secondary vessel prior to bottling. Especialy if the dump method was used in getting the wort into the fermentor, as there will be undesireable crap at the bottom. Let the beer sit for a week in a secondary. The air lock may bubble or may not. Keep an eye on it as if it is bubbling more frequently than once every two minutes or so, hold off on bottling.
As a rule of thumb, do not leave beer in the primary for more than two weeks, as the dead yeast in the primary will cause off flavors in the finished product. If fermentation is still active, do the transfer anyway after two weeks. Better safe than sorry. Most ale fermentations should be complete in 7-10 days, though the yeast used and original gravity of the wort will cause variances. Lagers I have found take much longer when at the required cold temperatures.
Leaving finished or almost finished beer in the secondary for a week allows the yeast to settle and the beer to clarify a bit, instead of having a rather large amount of sediment in the bottles. That said, the beer DOES clarify faster in secondary than leaving it in the primary!

Final comments about brewing
First, make sure everything that comes in contact with the beer from the moment it is chilled (wort) until the bottle caps are secure is sanitized. A chlorine solution may be used and rinsed off with hot water, or an iodophor solution may be used without having to rinse. The primary fermenter should soak in a chlorine solution as iodophor residue will get into the pores of the plastic. Chlorine will dissolve beer residue and kill the baddies that are feeding on the residue. When iodophor is used, let soak for 15 minutes or so. I use iodophore on the equipment used to transfer the wort from the kettle to the primary fermentor (such as the siphon system pictured above.

Taste the wort. Either a little left over after the wort is transferred to the fermenter or a little hot wort (prior to cooling so as to avoid contamination). It is a good idea to get to know the flavors of beer every step of the way.
Be patient. Beer cannot be rushed. It is on its own schedule and there is nothing that can be done to change it.

Ask questions. There are pros all around and most home brew shops have staff that can help. The Papazian book(s) will answer many questions on its own. Do not cut corners. Follow all the steps. The reason for all the steps in making beer and the time involved is that it takes time and care to make good beer. A brewer will be rewarded for following directions and paying attention to detail. Prepare yourself for brewing the first batch properly and go over what is needed so nothing is left out.

Best of luck to all!