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Brewing Better Beer, by Gordon Strong

I read a lot of brewing books.  Some are much better than others.  Brewing Better Beer by Gordon Strong is easily one of my favorites.  Most brewing books are aimed at beginning brewers, and spend a lot of time on the basics, without taking that next step.  Brewing Better Beer is a great book, aimed at intermediate or advanced brewers.

In Brewing Better Beer, Gordon Strong takes more of a first person approach to the brewing process.  He shares stories of (mostly award winning) batches that he has brewed, and shares nuggets of wisdom from the process of creating those batches of beer.  This book is like having a conversation with an expert brewer.  As the title suggests, it isn’t about “how to brew”, it’s about how to brew BETTER.  As an intermediate brewer who still runs in to complications (more often than I’d like…), this book is exactly the type that I’d like to read. Gorden shares tips and concepts that can help you improve the beer you’re already making.

Brewing Better Beer covers most every step from the mash, the boil, fermentation, and bottling.  Through each step, he suggests things that could be done in that step, why you might do them, and how they’ll change your beer.  Gordon doesn’t take a scientific, dry approach, but rather a very conversational, anecdotal approach.  It’s like having a pro along for your brew day — which I think is great.

If you can’t tell, I’m a huge fan of this book.  After reading so many dry books that seem to say mostly the same thing, it’s nice to read a book that is truly unique.  Living in a smaller city without a homebrew club, it’s nice to feel like you’re getting advice from an expert brewer, and not just making it up as you go.

As much as I liked it, it did take me a long time to get through.  I felt like it could wander occasionally, and would lose my attention.  I had to be in the right mood to read this one, but it’s still one I’ll be reading again and again in the future.  There is quite a bit of reference to competition brewing, as well, which I don’t currently care much about.

Brewing Better Beer is currently going for less than $12 on Amazon, which is almost too cheap not to check out.  If you’ve been brewing for a while, and would like to pick up some extra info that might help your batches improve, or even your processes – this one is worth picking up.

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Which Brewing Kit to Buy?

People often wonder about the best way to get started brewing, or the best gift to purchase for someone who is interested in brewing. This question can be answered in a variety of ways. It really depends on how seriously someone may eventually take the hobby. What’s important? Is it the novelty of making a batch of beer? Or is it the ability to eventually create a beer that’s better than many you can pick up at the store? Maybe it’s to save money by making your own beer. No matter the reason, there are some great options for anyone who would like to get started brewing.

As someone who has run the gamut from Mr. Beer extract kits to all-grain brewing, I have a good idea of the benefits and drawbacks of each brewing option. I’ll go through each type of brewing that I have done and size up the products that would be best to get started with each variation.

Mr. Beer Kits

A Mr. Beer Home Brew Kit is likely the most common way for people to get started brewing. There are some really solid benefits to getting started with Mr. Beer. The start-up costs for this type of brewing are easily the cheapest, and the batch sizes area a more manageable 2 gallons. Mr. Beer keeps everything very simple. A standard brew kit includes pre-hopped extract, a generic “booster”, and generic yeast. Whipping up a batch with Mr. Beer is as simple as making soup. Actually, it’s quite a bit easier. Everything is really basic, you even use table sugar for bottle conditioning!

Sure, there are some solid benefits to getting started with Mr. Beer, but the Cons far outnumber the Pros. Yes, Mr. Beer is an easy way to brew beer, but can you really take any pride in your work? You’re literally mixing a few ingredients together, leaving it to ferment, then bottling. This leaves very little room for error, but also very little room for any sort of creativity. The beer these kits product is decent enough to drink, but it’s never left anyone begging for more. The batch size is also an issue. At only 2 gallons, the amount of beer produced barely seems worth all the work it takes to make. Finally, by biggest complaint with Mr. Beer kits is that they are really only good for making Mr. Beer kits. Most beginning brewers are making 5 gallon batches, and Mr. Beer is maxed at 2 gallons. To advance or grow as a brewer, you’re likely going to need to pick up all new equipment, rendering the small 2 gallon keg pretty much useless.

Brewing Equipment Kit

A “real” brewing kit has equipment that gets the job done, yet allows you to grow and upgrade some equipment without replacing everything.  There are a lot of options for brewing kits (linked below), but almost anything sold as a kit is going to have what you need to get started brewing, even the cheapest one. For less than $60, you can pick up the Basic Homebrew Kit. This kit contains almost everything you’ll need to get started brewing. A kit like this is where it’s at. After 3 years of brewing, I still use most of the equipment that came from my first kit. I actually recently bought a second kit so I could update some of the stuff that was showing some wear. The equipment included with this brewing kit includes: 6.5 gallon fermenting bucket with lid, 6.5 gallon bottling bucket with spigot, Fermentation lock, Siphon tubing, Bottle filler, Bottle brush, Auto Siphon, Bottle capper, Hydrometer, and Sanitizing Cleanser.

If you have a local homebrew shop, I would suggest looking there first. If you can support the local guys, by all means, do it. If you don’t happen to have one, or the price difference is too great (which happens), Amazon is an awesome place to look. Just a quick scan found these kits:

Pretty much the only downside of choosing one of these kits over the Mr. Beer kit is that most do not include anything to brew (one of them does). That problem is easily fixed, though. If you have a local homebrew shop, they’ll have anything you could want. If not, just do a quick search True Brew to find something like the True Brew Pale Ale Home Brew Beer Ingredient Kit. There are also a bunch of websites that sell extract brewing kits. I am a huge fan of Northern Brewer.

Get Started Homebrewing

A friend and I started brewing at the same time a few years ago.  I started out with one of the a homebrew kit just like this, while my coworker started out on a Mr. Beer system.  Both of us have continued to brew, and have both progressed to all-grain brewing.  The difference, however, is that he’s had to slowly accumulate all new brewing equipment to get where I was when I started with a brewing kit.  Mr. Beer and Coopers Kits are a great way to get started brewing quickly and easily, but if there’s any chance you might pick up brewing as a hobby, by all means consider getting one of the better kits mentioned above.

Once you have a kit you’re almost there, but not quite.  Any of the above will require the use of a brewing pot.  You can pick up a decent priced 5 Gallon Stock Pot from Amazon, or whatever you can find at a local store.  Other than the brew pot, you’re basically set!  As you continue to brew, you will likely find new toys and gadgets to buy, but a good kit will provide everything you ‘need’ to brew.  Check out my Brewing Equipment page to see the gear I am currently using on brew day.  As you’ll see, most of it isn’t anything to fancy.

If it’s not already obvious, I LOVE brewing.  Hopefully I can help somebody get started brewing with a kit that’ll give them the greatest chance of success in the future!

Additional References

Overview:  Mr. Beer Kits
Brewing with Mr. Beer Kits
Brewing Coopers Ales
Brewing Extract Kits (Brewer’s Best)
My Personal Brewing Equipment
Brewing Equipment Auctions

 

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Washing Yeast

Lately I’ve become a big fan of reusing yeast.  Especially when using liquid yeast, it seems like you should get more than one batch of beer out of something that is such a large portion of your cost per brew.  I’ve read that reusing once is fine, twice is okay, but after that you’re running higher risks of contamination.  I’ll push those limits later, but for now I wanted to stretch the yeast to a third brew.

My last two batches have used and re-used a pack of Safale US-05.  Both the Blonde Ale and the Honey Ale turned out great, so why not try for a third round?  At this same time, I was reading a book about Yeast, so I was all about playing a little bit.  I wanted to go through the process of washing the yeast.  Washing yeast is basically the process of separating used yeast from the trub that has settled at the bottom of the fermenter.  You can reuse the whole yeast cake, but you’ll probably get better results over the long term if you remove old hop particles, dead yeast cells, etc., from the mix.

When I racked over my Honey Ale, I took a few scoops of the twice-used yeast from the empty fermenter.  I used a funnel and scooped it in to a sanitized growler.  I then added some boiled and cooled water and shook it all up.  It’s pretty interesting to watch the various levels of separation.  Each different element in the used yeast cake settles at a different rate.  The crud you don’t want settles the quickest, then the yeast settles on top of that.  The top area appears to be the lightest liquid levels.  The yeast stay suspended in the liquid for a while, but you can see clear-brown water remains as the yeast settle out.

I let the growler mixture settle for a few hours, then transferred to a mason jar.  I poured off the liquid layer at the top, then tried to pour the middle layers in to the new jar, leaving the heavy bottom layer behind.  I kept this new jar of cleaned yeast for a week before I was ready to use it in the Leftover Ale.

Making the Leftover Ale

As the name would suggest, I had a bunch of random ingredients around, so I decided to brew a small batch of beer.  More than anything I wanted to test out my washed yeast, but didn’t want to lose a whole batch if it wasn’t any good.  I had several types of hops left around, as well as some crystal malts.  I didn’t have grains around, but I did have some Amber Malt and some Honey.  The Mr. Beer Kegs I bought are perfect for a small batch, so I figured why don’t I make a batch of beer?

Ingredients: Leftover Ale

Fermentables

  • 27 oz Amber DME
  • .5 oz Crystal Malt 40L (steeped for 20min)
  • 16 oz Honey – added at end of boil, (0 min)

Hop Additions

  • .4 oz Simcoe – added during boil, boiled 30 min
  • 1 oz Cascade – added during boil, boiled 5 min

Yeast

Additional Details / Notes

  • SG 1.057 / FG 1.011
  • 5.95% ABV
  • Brewed: 02/05/2011, Secondary: 02/12/11, Bottled: 02/19/11
  • Efficiency 75% – Attenuation 80% (from Beer Tools)
  • Fermentation temps: ~60° in Primary, ~64° Secondary
  • Small batch.  Fermented in Mr. Beer Keg using washed yeast.

Brewing the Leftover Ale

I went with a 2.5 gallon boil for this one.  I started off by steeping 5 oz. of 40L Crystal Malt for 20 min at about  155°.  Then I raised the heat and added my DME when the temp came almost to a boil.  I let this roll for 10 minutes before making my 30 minute Simcoe hop addition. The second and final addition was 1 oz of Cascade with 5 minutes left in the boil.  Finally, I added the pound of Honey at the end of the boil, stirring it in to dissolve it.

I brewed on a cold day, so I covered the pot and set it outside for a while.  That didn’t work very fast, so I gave it an ice bath for a while longer.  It took about an hour, but once the temp was about 88° I strained the wort in to a Mr. Beer Keg.  At this point, I poured the room temp. washed yeast in to the keg and gave it a good stir, then off to the fermentation fridge.

After a couple of weeks, I racked the beer over to a second Mr. Beer Keg.  After another 2 weeks it was time to bottle.  While I have mixed feelings on the Mr. Beer brews, I have to admit these kegs are really handy for small batches.  Being able to bottle from the little tap on the side is pretty dang cool.  As with my usual “Mr. Beer” brews, I used the little measuring tool and used cane sugar for priming.  All in all, I ended up with 5 liter bottles and 1 growler.  Barely worth the work, but this batch was in the name of science!

Drinking the Leftover Ale

Jokes were made after I brewed this beer that it would be one of my best creations, but impossible to recreate.  Truth be told, that’s not too far from the truth.  The combination of the Amber Malt with the Honey created a pretty nice base for a Pale Ale, and the Simcoe & Cascade were really nice together.  I didn’t mess with filtered water (as I’d done with my Blonde & Honey Ale), so I think my hard water gave it a little bit of the bitter quality that I’ve found in my other Pales and IPA’s.

Overall, though, the Simcoe & Cascade made a really nice combination.  I’d really like to revisit that combination in the future.  I read someplace that Simcoe can have a bit of a passion-fruit flavor, and I really agreed in this beer.  Someday I’d like to try Simcoe with added orange & lime peel and go as tropical as I can go.  Whether anybody will drink it… I don’t know.

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Testing Mash Starch Conversion

As I was doing my second mash ever, I started to worry that my starches weren’t converting to sugars.  For the sake of “better safe than sorry”, I ran over to the drug store and picked up a bottle of iodine.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about, but it’s nice to have the bottle around in case I ever decide to worry about this again!  I took some pictures of both passing and failing tests to show the difference.

The Iodine Test

An Iodine Test uses the reaction between starch and iodine to check for the completion of the starch converted in the mash.  All-grain brewers often use the iodine test to confirm the success of their mash.  A successful mash means that all of the starch in the grains will have been converted to sugar.

To perform an Iodine Test, you’ll only need a few items.  A white plate or bowl, a small bottle of iodine, and liquid from the mash tun.

Pour a bit of your mash liquid in to the plate or bowl.  Make sure not to include any solid material (grain husks), as they’ll taint your results.  Now add a drop or two of the iodine.

If there is still unconverted starch, the iodine will quickly turn the wort to a black / dark blue color.  If the starch conversion is complete, the iodine will remain a reddish brown color.

NOTE: Iodine is a poison.  Do not return the sample to the mash tun.

Additional Resources

BYO – brewing tools
Home Brew Wiki – Iodine Test
Winning Homebrew

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Quick & Easy Yeast Starter

Leading up to my first All Grain batch of beer, I needed to create my first yeast starter.  Up to this point I’d only used dry yeast from the various kits I’d made, so everything about using liquid yeast was new to me.  In theory, you’re supposed to be able to pitch liquid yeast directly in to your wort, but most of the information I’ve read suggests creating a starter to build the yeast population first.  Also, it just sounded like a cool project.

I read several websites to gather the information I used to create my yeast starter.  I’ll link to a few at the bottom of this post.  You’ll get different information from every source you find, so I opted to work with the timeline that was easiest for me, using the equipment I had available.

Keep in mind this was my first attempt, and it worked, but by no means do I really know what I’m talking about!

Equipment & Materials

  • Liquid Yeast – Wyeast “smack pack”
  • Water – .5 qt. / 1 pt. / 16 oz.  (choose your favorite measurement)
  • 1/2 cup Dry Malt Extract (DME)
  • Glass Growler
  • Tin Foil

Making a Yeast Starter

First thing you need to do is have a rough idea when you’re going to brew your beer.  There are steps that need to take place days in advance of your brew day.  Once you know this info, you can decide when to smack the pack & create your starter wort.

First up, activate your yeast package by “smacking” the internal yeast nutrient.  Once you break open the yeast nutrient inside of the package, it’ll slowly swell up like a pillow.  Not sure how long this is supposed to take, but give yourself about 12 hours.

After your Yeast package has puffed up, you’re ready to create your starter wort.  You don’t need to add hops or anything, it’s just a simple wort that gives the yeast population something to eat in order to multiply.

Creating the starter wort is easy.  Boil 1 pint of water, then add half a cup of DME.  I used Amber DME, as I had it around from a batch I had done in the past.  There are several ratios of water to malt that you can choose, I used the amounts I seemed to come across the most often in instructions.  After you have brought the wort to a boil, remove it from heat and cool it.  A simple sink ice bath works great.

Next, add your cooled wort to a sanitized growler or mason jar.  It’d be easier to work with wide mouthed jars, but I didn’t have any, so I went the growler route.  Either should work fine.

You’re ready to add the yeast.  Use sanitized scissors to cut open the yeast package, and pour the contents in to your wort.  Shake the mixture a little to aerate and combine, then cover with some sanitized foil.  You wouldn’t want to screw the top on, as the yeast will create some pressure as it releases CO2.

Put your yeast starter in a cool, dark place and let it roll.  Give this process a day or two, and you’ll have a great yeast population to pitch in to your wort at the end of your brew day!

Yeast Starter Resources

How to Brew – Yeast Starters

Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation

Beer Dude – How to Make a Yeast Starter

Beer Smith – Making Yeast Starter

Mr. Malty – Proper Yeast Pitching Rates

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Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation

I’ve read a bunch of brewing books over the last year, so I’ve decided to start writing a bit about them after I’m done.

Most everything I do when I brew comes from some little nugget of wisdom I’ve grabbed from either a book or website, so it only makes sense to give some of the highlights so that other people can possibly decide to read the same materials.  I’m starting things off with the weirdest, but probably my favorite book I’ve read so far.  Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation.

The Yeast Book

You know you’ve gone past casual brewer when you have the attention span to go through an entire book dedicated to yeast, but apparently I’m there.  I didn’t just forge through this book for the knowledge, I actually enjoyed the hell out of it.

Amazon describes the book as a resource for brewers of all experience levels. The authors adeptly cover yeast selection, storage and handling of yeast cultures, how to culture yeast and the art of rinsing/washing yeast cultures. Sections on how to set up a yeast lab, the basics of fermentation science and how it affects your beer, plus step by step procedures, equipment lists and a guide to troubleshooting are included.

Before reading this book I really didn’t know how important yeast was in the brewing process.  I’ve always known you needed to take certain steps to keep yeast happy, but I never had any idea how much the different variables can improve or change the brews you make.  You can make a good beer without paying much attention to your yeast, but I don’t know that you can make a GREAT beer… and that’s the goal isn’t it?

The Yeast Book” (as I call it) does a great job of riding the line between over-technical and interesting.  The chemistry of fermentation is often explained, but it’s usually just there for those who might care.  Your eyes can gloss over those parts, and you’re still going to get a lot out of this book.  I don’t need to know chemical composition, and why things react the way they do on a molecular level.  Leave that for scientists…

I would say this book is aimed at a mid-level brewer who is looking to take their beer and processes up a notch.  There’s a lot of great information on how brewing yeast has evolved over the years, the different ways yeasts affect your beer, and there’s even a bunch of info on creating your own yeast cultures.

I don’t know that I’m going to be creating yeast cultures any time soon, but I did like learning about the different bi-products of yeast in fermentation and how to control many of them.  For example, I have always fermented at about 68°, but I’ve recently lowered that to closer to 60° to reduce esters and go for a dryer finish.

I know it sounds nerdy as heck to read a book about yeast, but even if you’ve been brewing a while, there’s probably info in this book that can help you out.  Like I said, I really liked this book.  I can say pretty confidently that knowing more about yeast is going to give me better beers going forward.  I wasn’t even aerating my wort before this book, but have since purchased the equipment to make it happen!

Amazon.com: Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation (Brewing Elements Series)

Disclaimer:  The Amazon links are affiliate links, which means I stand to make a small cut of purchases made with Amazon if you click the book links in this post.  None of the opinions I’ve stated are biased in an effort to sell books.

 

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My New Kegging Setup

I’ve had my eye on the kegging setup at my LHBS for a while, and I finally got excited and bought it.  It’s a pretty standard setup, but I figured I’d take a few pictures to show it off.

The ‘kit’ I got came complete with a keg, the pressure gauges, CO2 tank, and hoses for beer and gas.  Everything you need to go from secondary to kegerator.

The biggest piece in the kit is, of course, the keg.  Most homebrewers use a Cornelius keg. The “Corny keg” is a type of keg originally manufactured by the Cornelius company for use in the soda industry. Now replaced by soda-in-a-box, they are easy to find and are popular with home brewers.   Two different hose disconnect types are used.  Either ball-lock and pin-lock.  I think each major soda company had a connection style of their own so people couldn’t use one for the other’s product.

I went with the ball lock option, which seems to be the most common by quite a bit.  Ball-lock just refers to the way the fittings on the hoses attach to the keg.  They tend to be the easiest way to attach and detach.

Next up is the CO2 Tank.  These come in a few sizes, and are a pretty important part of the process.  Without CO2, you’re not going to have any carbonation.

The CO2 regulator is the mediator between the CO2 Tank and the keg.  You have to set your CO2 pressure to specific levels to keep the right levels of carbonation, so the gauges are pretty important.  You can use single gauges, but the best is a High-pressure gauge and a low pressure gauge

Gas & Beer lines finish everything off.  My kit used a red gas line so there’s no confusion which is which, and the beer hoses came with a picnic tap attached.  I may eventually add a tap to my beer fridge, but this works just fine for now.

Cleaning and Prepping Corny Kegs

I purchased a nice refurb keg, but if you buy one online, or a little more recently used, you may want to do some deep cleaning.  I didn’t disassemble mine, as I was happy with the condition, but you can take everything apart and replace o-rings if necessary.

Just to be safe, I filled my keg with Oxy-Clean and water and gave it a good shake.  Then, I lightly pressurized the keg with my CO2 and pushed the Oxy-Clean water out of the keg through the tap.  That way I knew all of my lines were good to go.  After the Oxy-Clean I went one step further and ran some sanitizer through everything, too.

I soaked the lid, hoses, and the connections in sanitizer, too, so everything should be ready.

Kegging the Witbier

Not a lot to write here.  Kegging is GREAT!  Siphon the beer in to the sanitized keg.  Seal.  Pressurize.  Done!

Okay, so there’s a little bit more than that.  Turns out I had NO idea how to carbonate beer inside a keg.  Who knew it wasn’t as easy as turning on the CO2 and pouring a glass?  Sounds dumb, but I had no idea what needed to be done.

Carbonating Beer in a Keg

Cleaning Kegs. Transferring OxyClean from keg to keg.

After plenty of research and a couple of podcasts, I have a pretty good idea what needs to be done now.  Here’s some of what I found out.

After adding the beer to the keg, your first step is to seal and lightly pressurize the keg.  You want to make sure and release a little CO2 from the valve in order to push out any oxygen that is still hanging out at the top of the keg.

Next up, refrigerate the keg overnight.  Carbon dioxide solubility increases as the beer temperature decreases, so it’s best to begin the process with cold beer.  You can carbonate without cooling, but it takes longer and isn’t as efficient.  Consulting a gas solubility charge will tell you how much pressure to add based on volume and temperature.  That’s way too technical for me, though… I’m all about trial and error.

Adding the carbonation with carbon dioxide can be done several ways.  Two main ways are to Set and Wait, the other is the Crank and Shake method.  I tend to be less patient, and like the C&S method.

Crank and Shake method – Chill beer, hook up CO2, pressure to 20 – 25lbs.   Rock keg back and forth, beer will hiss as more co2 goes into solution.  Stop.  Shake more, listen for the hiss, stop…etc.  10min or so.   Disconnect keg leave overnight.  This process increases the surface area of the beer that comes in to contact with the CO2, thereby causing it to carbonate faster.

Set and wait method. This is the longer process for CO2 carbonation.  If you’ve got the patience, it’s said to give you better carbonation.  I don’t posses this ‘patience’ I’ve read about, so I haven’t tried this.  This process takes 4-5 days to a week.  Beer is hooked up to the CO2 and placed at the desired level of pressure.  This will depend some on the temperature and the type of beer, but I think someplace around 13 psi is close.

If you want to save money on CO2, you can also Prime the Keg with a form of sugar.  This would be similar to how you would bottle condition your beer, but in the keg.  The downside to this is that this process will leave sediment in the bottom of the keg.  You could filter this, or just deal with the first few beers being pretty cloudy.  I’ve read that this process uses less priming sugar than regular bottle conditioning.  Haven’t tried this yet.

For more info on quick carbonation, check out this BYO article.

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My First Bottle Bomb

I’d been told about the dangers of bottle bombs when making homebrew.  I’ve always used kits, so I’ve had pretty consistent results, which would make sense with pre-measured priming sugar.  My recent Mr. Beer Blonde Ale was a different deal, though.  Usually with Mr. Beer kits, I had been using the plastic bottles, but for the Blonde kit I had those bottles being used for my Cider, Doppel Bock, and American Lager.

This was the first time I was going to prime actual glass bottles using the table sugar method that Mr. Beer uses.  I followed directions for measurements as close as I could.  I’m not going to lie and say I pay GREAT attention to what I am doing when scooping sugar in to bottles.  There is a definite chance that I over-primed.

Anyway, I stuck the bottles in my dark beer closet, just like normal.  After they’d been there a week or two, I noticed what looked like wet floor outside of my closet.  Sure enough, a growler (on almost the top shelf, of course) had exploded.  Now when people talk about bottle bombs, I had assumed that was an exaggeration.  Nope, it’s not.

As you can see from the pictures, there was almost nothing left of the growler.  A small pile of glass remained where the growler had been.  Then there were tiny shards of glass everywhere.  Not only were they tiny and sharp, but sticky.  I had three bloody fingers before I was smart enough to go grab rubber gloves.  It’s wroth noting that sticky pieces of glass will stick to other objects and not lift right up – you’re more likely to slice your finger open.  Trust me on that one…

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