RoboBrewing: Automation and "Real Brewing"

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A few weeks back I put some thought into a brewing system overhaul.  I was looking at my nine-year-old Coleman Cooler mash tun and pondering the idea of "if it ain't broken, don't fix it" vs. "stuck in a rut," and decided it was at least worth exploring.

One of the things I considered - mainly because I'm friendly with some enthusiastic people who own, use, or sell them - was one of those new-fangled brewing machines like the Zymatic.  Pricey, for sure, but I was curious about whether it might be worth it, and so I started talking to some folks.  Time saved and repeatability are worth something, after all, and psychologists often demonstrate that money spent on buying back time feels like a good investment compared to other forms of buying, so why not?

That's when I discovered a surprising resistance to these kinds of machines: "That's not REAL brewing."  

"Real Brewing?"

"Um...it isn't?"

Nope.  Not according to a small-but-reasonably-vocal group of homebrewers I was in touch with.  Maybe I'm constructing a straw man here and there really isn't real opposition to this, but it sure seemed that way.

Some even seemed shocked I was considering it.  

The argument went like this: if a computer and a machine are doing the adding and processing of ingredients, then the "real brewer" is the machine, not the human operating it.  They described the machines as basically producing a hot, pre-hopped wort extract.

So, naturally, I followed up with, "OK, but isn't extract brewing 'real brewing?'"  This is where it got weird: YES, obviously, extract brewing is real brewing, in their estimation.  

Why?

Well, because you're adding the pre-hopped extract and boiling it yourself.

Dismissing (I think rightly, but please feel free to disagree) the idea that using a can opener and pouring extract into water to dissolve it as a "brewing act" of note (I mean, really, why is that substantively different than letting the machine do it?  If I used an electric can opener, am I "not brewing" again?), it seems like these folks bring brewing down to one act:

Boil the wort yourself.  Is that really the essence of "real brewing?"  If so, it seems like a strangely specific hill to die on.

Ideology

And then there's the old saw that "brewers make wort - yeast make beer."  If so, then isn't "real brewing" much more about the cold-side process?  

That argument didn't get much traction with my impromptu and far-flung focus group, either.  Why?  Because the objectors had what amounts to an ideological objection.  One wrote, and I quote, "it's just wrong," referring to the use of an automated brewing machine to produce wort.  Others expressed the same idea in different ways, but to the same general conclusion.  

Introduce automation, and you've tainted the process.  You're "buying" consistency in your process, as one put it.  That's not an expression of logic - after all, the same could be said of brewers who use software to build recipes and calculate strike temps and water additions/adjustments - it's a statement of philosophical and stereotypical and normative thinking.  

But ideology, stereotype, and philosophy are, almost by definition, incomplete and imperfect shortcuts that often work against reason.  They simplify the world and make it "knowable," which is comforting, but they usually rely on (check out Lippmann, Public Opinion, Chapters 6-10, for some awesome reading) "blind spots" to provide their crucial energy and agency, since simplification nearly always comes at a cost in terms of accuracy or consistency.

Automation "feels" wrong to them, and introducing it is acceptable in some ways that feel "OK" (using extract) while being unacceptable in others (using a home-based machine to create a comparable product).  That inconsistent standard is often evidence of a blind spot at work. 

No Axe to (Automatically) Grind

Ultimately, I decided against the various machines out there, but I was perfectly satisfied by their capabilities and potential to make great beer.  I have no axe to (automatically) grind, here.  I'm not path-dependent and trying to make myself feel good about a decision or purchase.

I'm just fascinated by the debate.

For what it's worth, I can't side with the anti-machiners.  Even if we're talking about a push-button machine with pre-packed ingredient sets, you're still doing your own fermentation.  If we start drawing lines around what can and can't be accomplished by buying pre-processed ingredients, using specialized tools or programs, and/or taking advantage of technology and equipment in order to decide what is or isn't a brewer, then I think we just end up in a muddle.  

Is a decoction gal a more "real" brewer than a single-infusion guy?  People who use whole flower hops v. pellets v. extracts?  Temp controller folks v. "natural cave aging and temperature control" people?  

If you're working the product in any way, you're brewing.  If the day ever comes when you can push a button on one end and get a full, fermented, and carbonated keg out of the other end with no work on your part, then I'm more than willing to restart this conversation.

Until then, though, I don't see what the problem is, even though I'm sticking with my old, reliable Coleman cooler instead of the shiny brewing machine.

Keep it simple.

JJW


Homebrewing Addict: Obsession, Commitment, or Compulsion?

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I recently played a basic icebreaking game with a class in which the speaker made three statements about him or herself, two of which were true and one which was a lie.  My "lie" was "I run marathons for fun."  It was a lie because although I do run marathons, I don't think there's anyone who does so "for fun."  In my explanation (and experience), most marathoners run them because they're compulsive people who are willing to engage in a deliberately injurious activity out of a desire to do something relatively extreme - it's where people who want to exercise and also have addictive personalities end up.

I've started to think it's the same with homebrewing.

Does This Sound Familiar?

I've brewed beer while kegging/bottling a beer so that I have somewhere to put the beer I'm brewing right at that moment.

I couldn't tell you the exact date of five of my six nieces'/nephews' birthdays, but I can tell you the exact OG of the beer I brewed two days ago.

I've adjusted the heat/AC in our house to aid in fermentation temperature management (in the days before I had a temp controller).

I have two or more refrigerators on at least two levels of my home, plus two more in the garage. 

I've scheduled social and professional events around when I need to be at a local homebrew shop to get supplies for a batch.

We have more than one room or area of our house explicitly dedicated to (and decorated for) homebrewing.

A solid majority of my friend group is comprised of members of my homebrew club(s).

I deliberately shop at three - no, wait, FOUR - different homebrew shops so that in a pinch, if I need something rare or special, I can call on a favor from an employee or owner at those shops.  

Since I started brewing beer in April 2007 I've never - not once - been without beer of my own to drink.

Does this sound familiar?  And does it sound sane?  I'm seriously asking.  I hang around with mostly homebrewers, and that's like being a coke addict who mostly hangs out with insomniacs with ADHD - you start to lose track of what's objectively normal.

Rubbing the Lamp

Fine - so we live in a pretty involved and involving subculture.  But it's still culture, right?  I mean, sure, this chews up time that could be spent at a museum, or hearing live music, or visiting family, but honestly, when was the last time anything constructive ever happened in any of those places?

Because say what you want about however you spend your time, but at the end of the brewing day, you know what I have?  I have beer.

And that's like rubbing the lamp with the genie in it and being smart enough to ask for more wishes.  When you're the guy/gal with beer taps coming out of your walls and with the fridge full of bottles and the head full of know-how, the world beats a path to your wort-stained door.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go pack up some herbs and yard clippings I've been drying on a windowsill for use in a hay-themed Saison for a Homebrewing Secret Santa brewing challenge.

And then maybe I need to make an appointment with a therapist.

Keep it simple.

JJW


Repeat Repeat For For Success Success

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Getting something right the first time is hard, if not impossible.  So why is it that I so rarely hear about homebrewers repeating beers?  Multiple surveys indicate that homebrewers brew an average of once per month, and I don't have much evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) that homebrewers are producing the same recipe twice in a row.

I sincerely think that's a mistake, particularly for newer brewers, but also for those with more batches through their mash tun.  The only way to know - know - that you're making what you intend to make is to repeat your process and get the same result.

Process is King

I don't think I know a single good-to-great brewer that doesn't pay close attention to their process.  There's a good reason for that.  It isn't that carefree, devil-may-care brewers can't make incredible beer, it's that hitting your target requires two steps to be performed consistently: aiming and pulling the trigger.  These generate validity and reliability in your brewing.

Validity is the extent to which there's correspondence between what you think you're aiming at and what you're actually aiming at. If you're consistently looking down the sights in the same way, then you should get a much more valid result.

Reliability is simple, too - reliability is repeatability, and reliability depends absolutely on your commitment to doing the same thing in the same way every time.

Not all beer that's targeted validly and produced reliably is good beer - but if it isn't, it's a hell of a lot easier to bring it into line since you can rest easy knowing that the changes you introduce should, all else being equal, produce the anticipated changes.

Prove It

So you think you have your process under control - now prove it.  Make the same beer twice.

I don't mean "brew the same style from the same recipe twice," and I certainly don't mean "change every recipe to improve it with every brew day."  I mean it literally.  Brew the same beer, from the same recipe, on the same equipment and using the same process, with the goal of producing an identical beer.  

Clone your own beer, effectively, and then you can claim to have your process under control.  And lest you think, "well of COURSE they're going to be more-or-less identical!," I've seen this done lots of times and it almost never happens that way the first time.

Brewing is a pretty damned robust process.  As we say, wort wants to become beer.  But that doesn't mean that small inconsistencies in process won't cause large downstream effects.  You'll get beer.  You might even get outstanding beer.  You won't get the same beer, though, without practice.

Don't Think - Know

When I bring this up among brewers, the answer I get most often is, "oh, I definitely brew the same way every time."  When I ask how they know, they seem confused.  "Well, I like all my beers, and they do well in competition, and..."  Honestly, there's nothing wrong with that as an answer to the question "are you a good brewer?"  But it's not much of an answer to the question "are you a consistent brewer with good control over recipe-building and process?"

The only way to know that is to do it.  I know there's an impulse to brew, solicit feedback, and tweak with the goal of improvement.  I also know that brewers often end up chasing their tails "improving" their beer before they have a good handle on their process - and know that they do.  Instead, they're trying to fix their beer based on a "maybe" (as all such evaluations tend to be) in a process that is itself a "maybe."  We can't remove the inherent subjectivity of the feedback and evaluation we get.  We can, though, lock down the process end of the equation.

Once you cross that threshold, as validated by back-to-back brews, you can make adjustments confidently and effectively.

Keep it simple.

JJW


Hell Is Other Brewers: Loving and Ignoring Beer Feedback

Our previous image was apparently offensive to at least one reader who took issue with the use of the face of Che Guevara.  Instead, please enjoy these creepy meerkats staring at you, which work pretty well, too...

Our previous image was apparently offensive to at least one reader who took issue with the use of the face of Che Guevara.  Instead, please enjoy these creepy meerkats staring at you, which work pretty well, too...

There's a certain vulnerability in homebrewing that we don't often discuss: homebrewing invites judgment.  I don't know a single homebrewer that drinks everything they brew.  Such a person could be only a sporadic brewer or an alcoholic (or both).  That means that, for most of us, we're offering up what we've brewed to other people, and when we do, they're going to judge us.

Hell is Other Brewers

In reflecting on that last week, I was reminded of a famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit: "Hell is other people."  An oft-misinterpreted sentiment, Sartre isn't saying that other people are annoying (though they can be, of course).  He's saying that there's anxiety and pain caused by a near-unavoidable human trait of seeing ourselves not as innately free and independent entities, but as an object that is regarded externally by others, and that we are as others perceive us to be.

If you are as others perceive you, you're a slave to their perceptions even if your innate qualities are completely adequate to your needs and wants.  If they think you're stupid, or vain, or untrustworthy, then you are (or might as well be), and your inability to be free of that judgment can be torturous.  Hence, "hell is other people."

This is deep for homebrewing, I realize, but in many ways it applies to the kinds of judgments we get from people who drink our beer - especially other brewers.  Your friends and family probably won't be totally honest with you, even if they're journeymen beer aficionados with some sensory training and a good beer evaluation vocabulary.  But other brewers...they'll probably be honest.  Maybe painfully so.

And here's the thing: you should both want that painful feedback and try to remain independent from it.

No Exit

For a variety of reasons that we've already delved into, you should be seeking good feedback for your beer - and "good" shouldn't mean "polite."  It probably shouldn't be hurtful and demeaning, but even in those cases such feedback (if warranted) can be a good wake-up call for a brewer who is, perhaps, a little too optimistic in their assessments and filters everything through the lens of "clearly I'm a great brewer and I love my beer and that's all that matters."

I'm 100% guilty of giving unvarnished, direct feedback, to the point where I'm also pretty sure that, taken out of context, it'd be considered cruel (I'm working on being nicer about it, I swear).  Intent and context matter here, though.  If someone is just ripping on your beer to belittle your efforts and mock you, then that's clearly wrong - don't confuse that with someone who is just being pointed to the point of cringe-inducement to prevent any rose-colored-glasses misunderstandings.

Because that feedback is just what you need.  There's degrees of "wrong" in brewing, as we all know.  Slight ester in a lager?  No big deal.  Vegetal aroma plus sulfur that smells like a head of cabbage lit a bucket of s**t on fire?  Big deal.  You need to know the magnitude of the problem, and politeness will strip away that important feature of the feedback.

Hell, I don't even mind when someone is just being mean - there's probably some truth in there, and I think we can and should find value in even ill-intentioned feedback.

That doesn't mean you should be a slave to it, though.

Freedom

Sartre, like many others, was philosophically guided and preoccupied by notions of human freedom.  Those lessons apply here, too.  Feedback is valuable.  Feedback, however, should not be deterministic as it pertains to your brewing choices.

Creativity is something that draws lots of people into homebrewing.  Creativity and artistry are not things that are universally understood, and in many cases the very best of art is perceived as deeply flawed by the majority.  Maybe you've hit on something truly brilliant in your brewing; even if you have (hell, especially if you have) it's very likely that the feedback you receive about it will be negative and maybe hostile.

If you believe in what you're brewing, then don't let others change your mind for you.  This isn't a blanket denigration of feedback, but it is a reminder that what you're doing, even if you share it around, is still fundamentally for you.  If you believe you're making the beer you want to make, then keep making it.

Be willing to reject specific points of feedback, no matter how intense or how universal.  But if you do, do so for a reason.  Rejecting feedback because you don't like feedback is arrogant and self-defeating.  Rejecting feedback because you have a specific claim or goal can be both principled and correct.

Brewing and Nothingness

Zymurgic-existentialist meanderings aside, the right path here, as I see it, is to embrace the feedback you get.  Beer is inherently social, and making/sharing it even more so.  If we didn't have that feedback, it wouldn't be beer.  In Being and Nothingness Sartre notes that nothingness is a real thing, not simply the absence of something.  

If you walk into a bar and your barfly friend who stops by every afternoon for a pint on the way home isn't there, then his or her absence "haunts" the bar and your experience of it.  It is not simply a state or condition; saying "Chris isn't here" is different than saying "a horse isn't here," because no one expects a horse in a bar.  Chris, though, should be here, and isn't.

In the same way, if we have beer but don't have the social, group mechanism of feedback then the lack of it "haunts" the entire exchange.  It creates a form of isolation that isn't healthy and is certainly not enjoyable.  

So love that feedback, whatever its character or content.  Ignore it if you have a reasonable justification for it, but love it all the same, like a relative with strange political beliefs.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 


How To Talk Homebrewing Without Going Overboard

"A fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." - Winston Churchill.

You're at a party, or perched on the bar, or standing around a grill.  There's beer.  Someone starts talking about beer.  And, almost irresistibly, you find the words spilling out of your mouth, despite any intention you had of keeping them in...

"Actually, I brew beer."

If that's not you, then you can go.  But I can write that sentence fully aware that I'm keeping an enormous percentage of you on board for this, because as far as I can tell we nearly all do this.  It's not inherently a bad thing, but it certainly has the potential.  Homebrewer fanaticism might not be what it once was, but there's still plenty of us out there.  

The Downside of Depth

Specialty is the enemy of gaiety.  It isn't so much that people aren't or couldn't be interested in brewing (though they might not be), it's that the kinds of conversations homebrewers tend to have about beer and brewing are only interesting to other homebrewers, and even then it may be heavily dependent on the other's brewing practice, experience, method, or skill.  

If I'm not a Brew-in-a-Bag guy, then there's only so much I care about where you're ordering your bags from and whether or not they eliminate the need for rice hulls in a wheat-heavy grist.  If I don't use extract I'll have a hard time mustering up interest in Muntons v. Alexanders or DME v. LME.  If I don't use induction...well, I do, but you get the point.  

And that's assuming you're talking to another brewer.  Now imagine you're not.  How much do they care about anything other than the very, very basics of brewing, if that much?  

If you're talking about homebrewing, there's a very good chance that you're not educating or entertaining - you're masturbating.  And no one wants to see that in public.

Courtesy v. Interest

I'm sure I've said this before, but never mistake courtesy for interest.  Yes, you're all talking about beer.  It can be fun, and if you're at good craft beer bar or brewery there's bound to be some casual interest.  This shouldn't convince you that you have a green light to go full beer geek.  

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If you're going to talk about brewing, maybe don't go full beer geek.  If you use terms that need to be explained, you've probably already gone too far.  If you mention ales v. lagers, take a breath and change the subject.  If you think you might let the words SRM, sparge, or Vorlauf escape your lips, step outside and punch yourself in the genitals until you feel the sensation pass.

The danger here is that people might keep listening just to be polite.  Hell, I'm married to someone who keeps asking questions about something even when she hates the topic, just because it seems polite.  Don't assume that just because they're nodding and smiling that they're not screaming on the inside.

A Matter of Taste

I've been down this road.  I know what it feels like to be the overcommitted, hyper-talkative alehole in the room.  You realize it the next morning, or maybe later that night, and you wonder why you didn't just stick to the basics.

So that's my advice.  Stick to the basics.  Hell, stick to less than the basics.

I prefer to talk about beer like it is what it is - a food product.  Leave the science and the mechanics aside completely.  I've never, not once, had a brewing-based conversation that focused on taste and flavors that has gone awry.  But I've seen (and ignored?) a lot of glazed eyeballs when I go into too much detail on the question, "how long does it take to make beer?" ["Well, only about 4-5 hours to make it, all-grain, maybe 2-3 if it's extract, but you want to do all-grain because of the control you get.  It's cheaper, too.  Anyway, all-grain is when you do your own starch conversions, instead of just getting the liquid or dried extract.  Hey, cool - where'd you learn to tie a noose?  So, as I was saying you can use a cooler or a kettle to mash in, mashing being when you hold the grain in a warm, wet bath so the enzymes can convert the starches into - sure, I'll get you a glass of water for those pills - simple and complex sugars.  See, yeast can consume and convert short-chain sugars but not long-chain sugars, so there's some left over which is why we need hops to balance the sweetness of the remaining - oh, Bob?  He's in the bathroom with my pocket knife, I think he needed to clean his fingernails - long-chain sugars and alcohols, because you know alcohol is sweet, too!  Anyways, that's just the brew day, but it can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to ferment and age the beer..."  You get the idea.]

And when I say to talk flavors, I don't mean "round maltiness" or "flinty bitterness" or "slick diacetyl."  I mean "pineapple," "banana," "coffee," and the like.   Imagine you were describing cake to someone who just generally, sort-of-knows-about baked goods.  You'd talk up the sweetness of icing and the softness of sponge cake, not the advantages of convection ovens over gas ovens or silicon trays v. aluminum, right?  

Briefly

Nothing wrong with something basic ("all alcoholic drinks are basically just sugary liquids, fermented, which makes alcohol") and a discussion of flavors ("lots of beers taste like banana or spices even without using fruit or spice").  Crack that tiny egg of knowledge, then shut up.  Pretend you're cultivating an air of mystery, if it makes it easier for you.  Answer questions, but don't try to gin up a long conversation.  Maybe it'll happen anyway, but try to talk about other things in between brewing-related questions.  And maybe you're just better at this than I am.

But I always get better results when I keep it brief.  A couple of points, and then move on.  

On that note, why not stop here?  

Keep it simple.

JJW


Lazy Brewing: Cheap and Easy Hydro-Pneumatic Keg Cleaning

I like kegging.  I hate cleaning kegs. 

I like keg washers.  I hate spending money on brewing equipment.

I like DIY.  I hate when I DIY and make something more complicated and unreliable.

Sometimes – just sometimes – you find yourself a quick and effective fix for a common brewing task, and man, that’s really just the best. 

I think I have one of those this week, for those who love the convenience of kegging but hate slopping water all over to clean them and aren’t willing to invest in a keg washer (which I read can be kind of unreliable anyway).

Nothing Beats A Spare Parts Solution

My beef with keg cleaning is this: I want a clean (and maybe sanitized) keg, but I don’t feel like stripping it down every time.  However, I also don’t really trust that a healthy rinse gets the job done, so I often end up stripping it, filling the whole bastard with OneStep, then dumping it all out and reassembling (invariably spilling lots of oxygen-laden water all over the brewery). 

What I wanted was a simple solution (upcoming pun intended) that allowed me to hit most of the parts in the keg (nearly all of them, really) with some kind of cleaner and/or sanitizer while also not having to hoist and dump anything and, if I could avoid it, disassembling the keg.

My answer came when I was doing a little inventory on my “random brewing parts” drawers (we all have those, right?) and I noticed I had a lot of spare ball lock connectors and tubing of assorted diameter in lots of lengths.  A bit of inspiration and some lucky guesses later, and I had a fast and easy keg cleaning mechanism.

Homemade Hyrdo-Pneumatic Keg Cleaning

Rather than using a pump to cycle liquid into and through and around the inside of the keg, I just went hydraulic/pneumatic.  I connected about 36 inches each of tubing to one beer post connector (black/out) and one gas post connector (white/in), with nothing connected to the other ends.  Those two post-tube pieces and a hose barb coming off of my faucet (which I already had) are the only equipment needed. 

Step One: Bleed the gas off the keg and pop the lid.  One quick hit with the sprayer and the residual beer (and small amount of sediment) is gone.  Add the appropriate amount of OneStep (use your favorite no-scrub/no-rinse cleaner) into the bottom of the keg.

Step Two: Connect the posts, running the open end of the “Out” post to the hose barb on the faucet, and the open end of the “In” post to the sink. 

Step Three: Turn the hot water on and run about half a gallon into the keg (in through the out post), then pause to give the keg and good shake/swirl to help the cleaner dissolve.  Then run hot water in until you see water coming out the white gas post tubing.  At that point, I lifted the bleed valve on top of the lid until the keg filled to that level (you’ll get a fun little sprinkler effect when it “tops out”), but you may find that overkill.  In any case, once you’re full, leave it sit for half an hour and let the cleaner work.

Step Four: Remove the tubing from the hose barb – that’s a real “Out” again.  Connect a conventional CO2 line to the keg’s “in” post and push the cleaner/water out with the CO2, which also ensures that your “Out” dip tube is getting hit with cleaner. 

That’s it!  Once it empties, you have a clean, CO2-flushed keg.  Repeat with sanitizer if you want.  Then just set it aside for its next use.

Daisy Chain

Since I had a bunch of spare post connectors, I also played with building a “Daisy Chain” keg cleaning rig.  It’s the same as the single-kegger described above, but I built “jumpers” to connect one keg to the next in the chain (white to white, then black to black to the next keg, etc.).  Calculate how much cleaner you need for however many kegs you have chained together, and add that amount to the first keg.  Then run water through until it comes out the other end of the “keg chain,” let them sit, then blast clear with the CO2!

Nothing New Under the Sun

I feel pretty confident that others have already done this, but it was new to me.  Problems aren’t “problems” until we try to fix them, even if we don’t like what we’re doing, and this wasn’t a “problem” for me until recently.

I’m feeling pretty good about this one, though.  Yes, itexpends some CO2, but to be frank I’ve blown way more than this every time I get a has leak in the kegerator.  I’ll take the minor cost over the strain and slop of lifting and dumping kegs.

Keep it simple.

JJW


Buttered Up: Identifying and Treating Diacetyl In Your Beer

As off-flavors go, diacetyl is an odd duck in that it's fairly benign but also infuriating.  A little diacetyl (which comes across as butter, butterscotch, or maybe vanilla in flavor) is acceptable in some styles, and not all that off-putting in others, but many brewers struggle to identify it (or pretend they can!).

This week at Beer Simple, we're going to talk through a fool-proof method for testing for diacetyl that will allow even the most butter-insecure person to confidently state whether or not they're out of the diacetyl woods, and what to do if you're not. 

A Quick and Dirty Overview of "D"

Diacetyl is a fermentation byproduct (specifically, a vicinal diketone, or VDK) that is present in almost every beer.  The trick is preventing it from ending up in your finished beer, above detection levels.  A thousand other articles have discussed how to limit it, so feel free to read those, but here's the short version:

  • Pitch enough healthy yeast
  • Choose a yeast strain that produces less diacetyl (unless you want it)
  • Control initial fermentation temps
  • Increase temperature in the latter stage of fermentation to encourage the yeast to clean up after themselves
  • Avoid contamination

Simple enough.  The real question is whether you've met that goal, and what to do if you haven't.

The Force Test

Once you build up some confidence in identifying diacetyl you'll be able to just take a sample, give it a swirl, and sniff/taste/feel your way to a conclusion.  To help you build up that confidence and train up your palate, you might want to consider the Diacetyl Force Test.

Ferment your beer, and pull a four-to-five ounce sample.  Divide the sample between two microwave-safe vessels (most coffee mugs work well), and cover them both.  Put one sample in the microwave for about 20 seconds, and pull it.

The heated sample is going to be jamming with aroma at this point.  Take a sniff and compare it to the unheated sample.  If they smell identical (just at a different magnitude), then you almost certainly don't have diacetyl remaining!  Heating oxidizes and drives out AAL (the precursor to diacetyl) and will create a rich, buttery aroma that will be both distinct from traditional "beer-y" flavors like caramel or melanoidins (which can be mistaken for D) and also turn up the volume on it.  

Training

This is a terrific way to train your palate because it will demonstrate the difference between what are and are not "diacetyl" flavors, and teach yourself how you perceive them.  

We often discuss beer flavors as though they're monolithic, but they're not: I perceive diacetyl, oxidation, and acetaldehyde differently than you (artificial vanilla, old books, and wild grasses, respectively).  Hell, to me Isovaleric Acid (gym socks) tastes like raspberry.  The terminology we use describes common perceptions and creates a functional language for identifying beer faults, but that doesn't mean that your brain will process these flavors/aromas in exactly that way.

So, yes, to many, diacetyl is patently identical to popcorn butter - but it's better to know for sure.

Knowing is Half the Battle

Now that you know whether or not you still have a diacetyl issue, what can you do about it?

There are two simple solutions.  OK, I take that back, one simple solution, and one kind-of-harder solution.

The first is to increase the temperature of your fermenting beer slightly, and wait.  This is the famous "diacetyl rest," and it will encourage your yeast to go back and clean up/break down any AAL or VDK remaining in your beer.  Time alone might do the trick, but time plus a little warmth will encourage your yeast to stay active and clean up after themselves.

The other is to add actively-fermenting wort to your finished beer, a process known as "krausening."  The highly-active yeast will be hunting for anything they can get their hands on to process, and as a result will drive you to a fuller attenuation, jump-start the carbonation process, and clean up diacetyl.  It's not a bad practice to get into in general!

Diacetyl is nothing to fear, and as I said above, there are certainly worse brewing faults to contend with.  As you get a better sense of how you perceive it you can abandon the force test altogether and trust your senses, and between that and some minor process tweaks you'll soon have your VDK problems in the rearview mirror.

Keep it simple.

JJW


Hunting and Finding (New) Rules of Thumb in Hopping

For as much time as brewers spend talking about hops, you'd assume we know all about them.  The bizarre reality is that we know surprisingly little about how hops work, what they add in terms of flavor, and the effects of different treatments and manipulation of them.  

Don't believe me?  Spend some time digging into the scientific research into hops.  You'll soon start wondering about the competence and sanity of the brewers who never miss a chance to talk up their hopping process, their proprietary hops and blends, and how they use X hop to get Y flavor.  If we know so little, they must be completely snowing and bullshitting us.  How dare they!

That's right - you heard it here first.  I'm calling out ALL professional and home brewers and saying they're all LIARS!  

No, not really (though I'd love to stop the post there and see what kind of reaction we get).  They're not lying.  They're probably not even wrong.  It's just that hop usage and what comes out of it is super-idiosyncratic: if the non-lying brewers in question produce similar recipes with changes in hop type and/or use, they can dial in flavors they want.  What we shouldn't do is necessarily assume that what works for that brewer will work the same way for us, because there's a very good chance it won't.  

Today's offering will (at least attempt to) provide some actual translatable lessons that can put up some signposts on the solipsistic road that brewers find themselves on when it comes to hops.

Two's Company

I'm an intense advocate for blending your hops.  Single-hop beers are all well and good, and have the virtue of taking the guesswork out of where hops-derived flavors are coming from in a particular beer, but their utility is limited for recipe and even for education purposes.  

You're not getting a general impression of one hop - you're getting one impression of one hop, since the point of addition, length of whirlpool, water chemistry, yeasts strain, grist, and more are creating a unique flavor and aroma.  Hell, that specific batch of hops and its oil ratios matter, too, both in terms of how it presents and what compounds are created when its added and fermented-on.  And as for single-hopping for recipe purposes, you're putting all of your flavor/aroma eggs in one hop basket, which is risky since we know that other process and recipe elements can scrub out flavors from a hop that you presumably chose for its flavor profile.

Instead, I recommend pairing hops for better results, at least if you're not willing to put in the repeated-batch-brewing necessary to find effective single-hopping (remember, you'll need to find out for yourself how that hop presents in YOUR beer in THAT recipe).  You can either pick hops with complementary flavors (for example, I love the Hallertau-Northern Brewer combo for its woodsy and floral presentation) or those that amplify common flavors (say, Citra and Motueka for a big-time citrus and tropical fruit bomb).  Consult a good hops flavor chart, and pick hops that work well for your target recipe, knowing that even if you don't get all of what you wanted, you're at least covering your bases.

Ignore IBUs (a little)

Don't obsess over IBUs.  What you should care about is the impression of bitterness you're getting, and especially if you aren't working your water chemistry that's going to differ substantially from one brewer to the next (and one recipe to the next, for the same brewer) even at the same IBU level.  

Use an IBU target for the first time you brew a recipe, then adjust up or down based on impressions.  It doesn't matter if your Ordinary Bitter only has 20 calculated IBUs instead of the guideline-minimum so long as it tastes like it does.  By the same token, ignore the maximum if you're still getting an IPA that lacks a soft bitter burr on the palate.  

You should also be looking for all sources of bittering impression in your recipes and aiming for a general "bittering impression" level.  IBUs are certainly one source.  So is carbonation level.  So is the presence or absence of roasted malts, what Lovibond level they're kilned to, and whether they're husked or dehusked.  So is sulfate-to-chloride ratio.  

Don't think of bitterness just in terms of alpha acid percentage, boil time, and utilization.

Slowhand

When it comes to late hopping, you'll have lots of brewers tell you that the longer hops are in contact with hot wort, the less aromatic impact you'll get as volatile compounds in the essential oils disappear into the ether.  They'll also tell you that whirlpooling will add isomerization "time" to your already-added hops.

There's emerging evidence that that isn't quite right.  It's probably true when we're talking about boiling wort - as minutes go by you're creating more iso-alpha acids (bittering) and burning off essential oils.  But it's not at all clear when it comes to hot-but-not-boiling liquid.  Experimental research strongly suggests that long whirlpools/hop-backing yields a higher level of aroma from hops than shorter exposures, even though it means longer contact with hot wort. 

So, when it comes to whirlpool hopping, take your time.  Slow down.  You'll probably get more flavor out of your hops while risking very little in terms of your mid-to-late boil hops.

You're Not Aging Your Hops

Finally, I field this question all the time, and I'd love to try to bury it here: no, you don't need to worry about how old your hops are.  If you're taking any kind of care in the storage of your hops, then they're perfectly fine to brew with for at least a year, and probably longer.  

Will the AA% be a little lower?  Yes, probably.  But not that much.  And see the earlier note on not obsessing about IBUs.  

To think, though, that you're going to get cheesy flavors, or dramatically less bittering, or significantly less aroma/flavor out of a hop that you've had in a zip-locked bag in the refrigerator is bordering on zymurgic paranoia.  Have you ever seen/read about what it takes to make hops "age" for use in things like Lambics?  It takes some rough treatment; we're talking 50 Shades of Perle rough (Editor's Note: that's an absolutely killer and hilarious multi-level play on words as long as you're pronouncing it right - "Per-LAY").

So don't worry about your hops.  I store mine in a bag with the air pressed out, zipped, in the freezer.  They're basically immortal. (Second Editor's Note: This was TOTALLY written before Brulosophy dropped this week's exBEERiment!!!)

Try then Trust

There may be more, but that's all we have time for this week.  Feel free to add questions/comments and expand!  What's important, though, is that when it comes to hopping you keep good notes on use and subsequent impressions.  There are rough rules to abide by, but to really get the most out of your hops, YOU need to be on the ball to find out what that looks like in your situation.

Try, then trust.

Keep it simple.

JJW


Practice Doesn't Make Perfect: Active Steps to Improve Your Brewing At All Levels

"Back up, think again, take dead aim" is a better strategy than "Brew, rinse, repeat."

I know a genuinely tone-deaf person.  Can't carry a tune in a bucket.  No matter how many times I hear him/her singing the same songs - Christmas carols, country songs, anything - it's a tuneless, cringe-inducing (but well-meaning) mess.

Practice doesn't make perfect.  The best we can say is that practice, by rote and over a long stretch of time, generally guarantees some level of improvement.  Real progress takes more than reps, though.  When it comes to brewing, improvement (at all levels - not just for beginners, and we should all be looking to improve now and again) takes, in my humble estimation, three things:

1. Strategic retreat/evaluation

2. Education (or re-education)

3. Deliberate practice (as the likes of Prof. Anders Ericsson describe it)

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Human beings aren't big fans of revisiting things, especially when they seem to work.  "Don't fix what isn't broken."  "Don't change horses in midstream."  "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."  The problem with that thinking is that too often we're not finding solutions to our not-yet problems.

Problems aren't just "things that are negative."  They're things we seek to fix.  Problem recognition is not automatic, and we have an innate bias against seeking out problems.

Step one, then, is to take a step back and evaluate the effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability of your brewing practice.  However good your beer is, I promise you that you're doing something that could be improved upon, if only you'd take a beat and think about it.  I can also promise you that you've added something to your process that isn't giving you any real benefit and can be eliminated.  Back up.  Reevaluate.

It might feel like regression: it isn't.  Every few months I buy new and different hops.  Every bulk grain buy, I buy more of some grain that I know I don't need to force me to try new recipes.  I think about whether I need more output, or less.  Being self-critical as part of a regular regime of improvement isn't putting yourself down, it's urging yourself up.

All Knowledge is Provisional

Some posit that all knowledge is provisional - that everything we "know" should be treated as "correct for the moment, but subject to revision."  That kind of epistemological humility is especially important for brewers, because brewing science and practice are still evolving pretty rapidly.

Some of that is because it's the subject of a lot more interest today than in previous generations, but it's also because we're constantly trying to adapt the lessons of commercial brewers (or of other homebrewers, whose skill and diligence we can't evaluate easily) to our own process and approaches.  

Short version: what you believed to be true last year about brewing might no longer be accurate.  At the same time, things you thought wrong or impossible might now be known to be preferable.  How do we know the difference?

Some of this is live-and-learn (just naked practice - hey, I didn't say it was worthless, just that it doesn't make "perfect!").  

However, if we want to improve we also need to reconsider what we "know" in a formal sense.  We need to educate and, potentially, re-educate ourselves.  Read new books.  Seek out new articles.  Attend conferences and classes.  Go through a formal certification process like the BJCP or Cicerone exams to compel learning and skill development.

At the same time, see if any new technologies, ingredients, or developments have given us any new tools to solve previously-intractable problems.  Hop extracts and hash and power are now readily available.  Mini-barrels can be had for wood-aging in small batches.  New and rediscovered yeast strains are on the market.  Reconsider what's "possible."  

Doing this, though, requires us to be willing to challenge what we know.  As John Stuart Mill said in "On Liberty":

"However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth."

Practice with Purpose.  Practice with Purpose.

There's practice, and then there's deliberate practice.  For a great rundown, check out this episode of Freakonomics radio.  The short version is that if we want to improve, doing the same thing over and over is a pretty poor way to do so.  What we need to do is to practice and train at the limits of our abilities so that we force our brains and bodies to find new economies, solutions, and methods.  

For brewers, the best way to do this might be to brew to exacting standards and compare our output to real benchmarks.  One great way to do it, and the one I recommend most often?  

Clone.

Cloning beers is tremendous deliberate practice.  It requires us to source or create a recipe, brew exactingly to it, adjust, brew again, adjust, brew again, and all the while comparing what we made to what we were trying to make.  We'll start identifying variability that we need to clamp down, we start to learn how ingredient or process changes affect what we produce (and by how much), and more.  

To quote golf teaching legend Harvey Penick, "take dead aim."  That's what cloning requires.

There are other approaches, too, of course.  Challenge yourself to make a beer under 4% ABV or over 10% that is usually 6%, but with no perceptible flavor changes.  Duel, with two brewers brewing the same style or even the same recipe.  Brew new beers all year long to break yourself out of ruts.  Introduce a new process or method that you discovered in your "education" step.  Anything.

Cloning is best, though.  Anyone can shoot an arrow.  Shooting an arrow off the top of someone's head is a real test, though - especially if you like the person (and maybe even if you don't, if you know what I mean...).  You could stand in an open field and fire off arrows all day long and not improve, but it wouldn't take too many near-and-dear relatives getting shafted (so to speak) before your aim ticked up out of sheer concentration and stakes.  

Or Not

The preceding all presumes that you have any desire - even just a little - to get better.  If you don't, and this is just a fun pastime for you, then that's AOK, of course.  I know a guy who goes "fishing" all the time and never catches anything, and isn't really interested in it.  He likes the quiet and the sunshine, and the fish are incidental.

If that's you, then there's not a thing wrong with it.  

Let me say this, though: however we like to brew and for whatever reasons, we can usually do it better, cleaner, faster, or cheaper.  If you're just a "fun" brewer, then think about inviting over some friends to brew, too!  If you like what you brew and don't want to change it at all, why not see if there's a way to brew more varieties of it?  

If you're a pure "Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew" person, why not try brewing while doing yoga?

For those who are working to improve in any way, though, this little treatise might be of some use to you.  

Just don't tell me that "practice makes perfect."

Keep it simple.

JJW


Be Cool, Honey Bunny: Chilling Methods and Rationales, Examined

There’s a certain irony to the hot-and-bothered question I got recently about wort cooling.  As much as I hate puns, I couldn’t resist:

“Dude – you just need to chill.”

**Rimshot**

Seriously, though, chilling doesn’t need to be a cause for anxiety.  Yes, a quick chill will (probably) impart some benefit, but this is generally not a place where you beer will go wildly off the rails. 

So just be cool, honey bunny (is that one of the best closing scenes in all of cinema, or what?), and let’s talk about why and how we chill our wort.

WHY WE CHILL

There are some practical reasons why we chill wort, of course.  Prompt chilling helps create break material which (maybe) results in clearer beer, prevents (maybe) the recreation/reabsorption of DMS and other compounds that were driven off in the boil, stops (somewhat) the isomerization of alpha acids from later hop additions, and (of course) makes it possible to pitch our yeast and get the fermentation process rolling.

These are all potentially good reasons to chill, and do so promptly.  I’m not sold on them, though.  They don’t motivate me.  You know what motivates me?  Simplicity.

The real, simple reason I chill is so that I’m done brewing.  Time is beer, as I’ve said before, and anything that gets me done quicker (without compromising the quality of the beer) is preferable.  And in a blog called Beer Simple it’s no surprise that we prioritize simpler methods wherever possible.  So, from an Aristotelian, “first principles” position, the reason to chill isn’t the absorption of DMS: that's just a potential marginal benefit.  The reason to chill is because it gets the job finished, in the fermenter, and working towards becoming our next beer.

This is an important distinction to make, because it means that your choice of method can and should revolve around what’s easiest and/or fastest for you – don’t worry too much about the relative superiority of each method as it pertains to the benefits of chilling. 

Just chill.  Or not. 

A QUESTION OF METHOD

This piece is being written in the first place because of a message I received from a new-ish brewer who wanted to know what chilling method I used and whether I thought it was worth his money to buy a certain piece of equipment.  I hate to waffle on things like that, but the honest answer was and is “it depends.” 

Each of these methods might be best for you, so pick your remedy without worrying about what the chatterboxes in forums have to say about it.  They may try to run you down for under- or over-doing it, but remember that the important thing is that brewing is something you like doing, so following their advice to your own frustration will mean you brew less-often and probably make something no better than what you’d have made your own way.

So, without further ado:

ICE BATH: cover your kettle, put it in the sink or bathtub, and run some cold water in with an addition of ice.

·      Best for: Small-batch brewers (under 3G), diluters (those who don’t do full-volume boils and add cold, clear water in the fermenter), equipment-phobes.

The venerable ice bath was a staple of homebrewing in the days before ready-made chilling equipment was commonplace and affordable.  It works (yay, physics!), but can be very slow.  The upside is it can be very cheap (depending on your batch size and ice production capability) and it’s simple and passive.  You can change out the water to speed up the process, or just let it sit.  The smaller your batch, the faster this probably goes since the thermal mass is smaller, and if you’ll be diluting with cold water you can cut the chilling time a bit short and pull it at 130F or so to add your cold dilution water and end up around pitching temp.

A word of warning about snow-chilling!  I love winter, but sticking your kettle in a snow bank is a surprisingly piss-poor method for chilling wort.  The snow immediately around your kettle will melt, and the air in between the kettle and snow will form a thermocline barrier – which means that the cold from the snow isn’t getting to the kettle surface any more!

IMMERSION CHILLER: A few minutes before the end of the boil, drop this coil of copper into your kettle to sanitize it, and then kill the heat, cover, and start running cold water through it.

·      Best for: Brewers with access to a hose-threaded water source and a little bit of cash and a little less time.

Most of us start our chilling-equipment adventure with an immersion chiller, and they can be bought or made fairly inexpensively.  They work by transferring heat through the copper to the cold-but-now-heating water, and carrying that heat out an outlet tube.  The one potential hitch is that you need access to a threaded water source, so apartment or condo-dwellers might be SOL here (though you can sometimes thread an adapter onto a kitchen or sink faucet).  This, like the ice bath, is pretty passive.  Turn on the water, divert the runoff to a drain or some virtuous outlet (watering a garden, for example), and wait for the thermometer needle to drop.  It’s one more thing to clean and can be a pain to store, but it works.  Since the chiller is chilling all of the wort at once, though, it’s a pretty even fight and so this method still takes a while – just not as much as a straight ice bath. 

COUNTERFLOW AND PLATE CHILLERS: Move your wort through a tight space in direct contact with a heat-transfer system fueled by cold water to chill rapidly.

·      Best for: Brewers with a little more cash, less time, and (maybe) a pump

If you have a lot of wort to move and/or a bit more cash for equipment, one of these might be your best bet.  They both function on the same principle: rather than chilling all of your wort at once, why not chill a small flow of it?  This adds speed, since the cold water can absorb nearly all of the heat from the comparably-small volume of hot wort.  In the Counterflow Chiller we run wort through a tube-in-a-tube, surrounding the hot wort with cold water.  In the Plate Chiller the wort is flattened/thinned out and run parallel to plates filled with cold water.  These add speed, for sure, but might also add some equipment costs.

You need the chiller, of course, but you also need a way to get the wort into said chiller.  These chillers work easiest when you have a kettle with an outlet valve: just connect the valve to tubing leading to the “Wort In” port on the chiller, and open up the valve!  Water, just like with the immersion chiller, is sourced from a threaded source and runs in the opposite direction.  It may be necessary, depending on your system, to secure a pump to move the wort through your chiller if you can’t gravity-feed it, but this isn’t true in all cases. [Note: it is true, though, that you can move the wort a lot faster with a pump!  The chiller can almost certainly handle more than your gravity feed is giving it.]

 

I DID IT MY WAY

So, what do I do?  I’m a plate-chiller-gravity-feed guy. 

I like the speed (even without a pump, I’m done with about 4.5 gallons in under 10 minutes), it’s super-convenient (because I can just open up the valve, turn on the water, and walk away), and despite the Rube Goldberg machinations some go through to clean theirs I’ve never had an issue keeping mine ready to rock with minimal effort.

After use, I just connect the wort-side tubing to my sink (I have a barbed fitting for the faucet) and blast it clear with hot, then hot-and-cold, then just-cold water, from both sides (in and out).  Before my next use, I soak it with the rest of the gear in OneStep cleaner.  Never had a jam, never had a contamination traced to it. 

Do it your way, though.  This might even mean no chilling – more on that in an upcoming guest column.  Worry less about minimal finished beer effects (which, by the by, we can address through other means) and more about convenience.  We can work on clarity with finings, DMS produced while waiting to chill probably isn’t even reaching detectable levels, and isomerization drops off rapidly once we get below boiling.  Time, however, is an immutable cost of your brewing, and you should always be on the lookout for ways to use it better!

Maybe use your newfound freedom to, like Jules Winnfield, walk the Earth.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 


Quick (Good) Lagers for Lazy Brewers

I wouldn't say I'm obsessed with fast brewing, but there's no doubt that one of the virtues of "simple" brewing is that it tends to be quicker.  That's why it always bugs me when I hear people say that they won't/can't brew lagers because they don't have the time and/or can't temp control for long enough.

Of course you do, and of course you can.  

Most anything we want to do in brewing can be done (and done well) with the right method.  I'm a believer in the idea that the hard part is figuring out what you want - figuring out how to do it can be surprisingly easy once you settle on your desired outcome.

So, this week, let's assume that you want to brew lagers, but that you've convinced yourself (or have been convinced by others) that they take too long or that you can't hold the proper temperature.

Work Backwards

What makes a lager a lager?

Well, if you want to get all historical, lager (from the German lagern) literally just refers to beers that were stored, usually in caves, and therefore at cool-ish temperatures (12C or so - it's German, so we're using metric).  

Moving into modern lager style characteristics, though, we generally think of these as "clean and clear" beers.  Ester and phenol production is low, alcohols are restrained even when the beer has a high ABV, and they're usually brilliantly clear with a nice jewel tone.

Why?  Because that's what you get when you make them the way earlier brewers made them.  They're low in esters and phenols and feature "cool" alcohols because they were fermented cooler than, for example, summer farmhouse ales.  They're brilliantly clear because they've been sitting and precipitating out solids for weeks, or months.  

But that doesn't mean that's the only way to get those characteristics.  Why don't we just work backwards and see if we can get this done while shaving time off, preferably in simple ways?

Set the Board for Success

First things first: let's make sure you're stacking the deck in your favor here.

Choose a yeast with a reputation for "clean" fermentations.  Not all lager yeasts are equally clean (just like not all ale yeasts create a riot of fermentation characters), so read reviews and product descriptions to get something as flavor-neutral as you can.  You might even (cover your ears, orthodoxy-lovers) consider the cleaner ale strains in case your temp control "ceiling" is a little on the high side.

Also, pitch big.  Esters and phenols are the result of work, and the less your yeast have to work and the sooner they finish fermentation, the less they'll put out detectable flavors.  Take the recommended lager yeast pitch rate, and bump it up by about half.

Consider your style, too.  If you're concerned about being able to make a fast lager without creating fermentation flavors, go with something that'll cover them up, at least a bit.  Doppelbock and Baltic Porter hide a lot more than Helles and Pilsner.

Last, give your yeast plenty of air.  This goes to rapidity in moving through the lag/log phases of the yeast life cycle in which the flavors we don't want are produced: the more oxygen there is in your beer at the start, the quicker they'll settle down and stop producing the stuff we're trying to avoid.  Esters and phenols are usually a reaction to heat and/or stress.  Reducing at least one of those is a good way to get clean beer.

Now that you've given yourself some structural advantages, let's talk process.

A Question of Time

Lagers don't need to chew up a lot of time, either in your fermentation fridge or in your finished-beer fridge (we all have one or three of those, right?).  This is probably the second-most-commonly-cited reason I hear for why people don't make lagers: "I don't have the time to brew lagers because I need the space in the fermentation fridge for other beers."  Fine - why are you leaving them in there for so long, then?

The things we want to avoid - principally esters, but other compounds as well - are formed (or their precursors are) pretty early in the fermentation process.  How early?  Well, if it isn't there by the time we finish the lag phase and growth phase, it probably won't ever appear in levels sufficient to be noticeable.  That means that if you start cool and stay cool for about 72 hours, you can pull that beer and leave it at any steady room temperature and still avoid the things that make your lager seem like not-a-lager to your palate.  

Voila - free space in the fermentation fridge.  I mean, don't leave it in a hot garage or anything, but just your normal basement temps (even if they're in the high-sixties Fahrenheit) aren't likely to cause any real trouble for you.  Hell, it might even help you avoid incomplete fermentations and/or increase blowoff of things like sulfur, making your beer even cleaner.

"But what about the extended aging process?  I might brew it faster, but I still need to age it..."

Why?  Get aggressive with the gelatin (or your preferred clarified) and it'll be bright and clear before you know it.  I once turned around a Helles in nine days for a 500-entry competition held three weeks from brew day, and it won a silver medal with a 40+ score.  

This isn't really about time.  Again, if you have it, it helps, but not having it isn't disqualifying.

A Question of Temperature

A much more valid concern is when people tell me they want to brew lagers but don't have any real form of temperature control.  

This one is hairier, because there's no "simple" way to set up an evaporation rig.  It's not assembling an aircraft engine, but there's no doubt that it's a bit of a pain.  

If you can't get your hands on a chest freezer and temp controller (though thanks to the secondary market and falling prices on products like the Inkbird, those are much more affordable now!), and aren't willing to drape t-shirts and towels and set up a fan, I do have at least one solution that takes minimal effort: ice jugs.

Take six one-gallon plastic jugs.  Fill with water.  Freeze.

Chill your beer down as cold as you can, put it in a large vessel (bathtubs work), and fill with cold, groundwater-temperature water, as high on your fermenter as you can get it.  Except for the deepest parts of the deep south, that will give you a starting temperature in the high-50s or lower (even better in winter, but I'm assuming we're thinking "summer" here).  

Immediately add three of your ice jugs.  Thermal mass is your friend here.  You don't want to cool water down - it's far easier to keep water cool.  Do this morning and night, cycling your melted jugs back into the freezer and replacing with the others, for three days.  After that, just let it slowly come up to whatever temperature you can hold it at using nothing but water replacement (drain the tub, refill with cold water) for another day or two.

If the three-jug method doesn't keep you below 60F, increase your total to eight and add four at a time - if it's too cold, dial it back.  But you want to try to maintain a steady temperature for those 72-96 hours.

After that, you're out of that lag/log phase flavor-production window, and just like your temp-controlled colleagues you can pull your beer and hold it at room temperature!

Lager Away

There's nothing magical about brewing lagers.  And, for that matter, then recommendations noted here work just fine for ales, too.  

Don't let time or temperature be your reason to not make lagers, though - you've got this!

Keep it simple.

JJW


Stuck: Managing a Troubled Fermentation

Brewers make wort - yeast make beer.  In light of that, it's a bad idea to focus too much on recipes and wort production and neglect your fermentation process, which is why so few good brewers do it.  But even the best brewer will occasionally have a problematic fermentation.

Diagnosing and treating a failed, slow, or stuck fermentation takes a bit of guesswork, but in the end you should nearly always be able to get things moving.  This is a robust process, and once you get the yeast rolling they'll usually get back to what they're bred to do.  After all - apparently it's cliche day here at Beer Simple - wort wants to become beer.

The questions are these: do you have a problem, how can you address it, and is it worth it?

Do You Have a Problem?

Step One is figuring out if you actually have a problem.  

Lots of new brewers panic when they don't get quick action in the fermenter.  I like to see some krausen forming within 12-24 hours (though with a good dose of oxygen I've had it in as few as 6), but I don't start sweating until about 72 hours, and maybe not even then, even if I don't see action in the airlock.  Don't panic - just take a gravity reading.  Sometimes your yeast crank through primary fermentation very fast and leave little evidence of it - these "phantom fermentations" are rare, but they happen.  Your gravity reading will tell you.  If it's still at your OG, then you have a failed pitch.

Diagnosing a stuck fermentation follows this same basic method, but asks for some analysis.  It requires taking gravity readings at two times (say, 12-24 hours apart); if both are identical, then you may have a stuck fermentation.  It's not certain, though.  The gravity might be static, and higher than you anticipated, but it's possible you are finished.  If you mashed warm, or had a recipe that included a lot of unfermentables, or over-yielded on your efficiency and started with a higher-than-expected OG then your FG calculations might be off (consider this possibility if you're over 50% attenuated).  Maybe you're done and you don't even know it.  How do you know?  Taste your beer - if it's not particularly sweet, then you could very well be finished.  Those residual sugars often don't taste as sweet as simple sugars, and your palate is very sensitive to sweetness.  Sweet beer is usually still-fermenting (or fermentable) beer.

And then there's diagnosing a slooooooooow fermentation.  Sometimes a beer is still fermenting, just very, very slowly.  Sluggish yeast are a pain.  You take your gravity readings, and it's dropping...but only by a couple of points every couple of days, even with 20-30 points to go.  

If you have any of these, then you might consider taking action.

Remedies

For a failed fermentation (no activity, and no movement on your OG):

  • Step one is to check your temperatures.  If you're freezing your yeast, they might have simply gone dormant - anything below 50F is a risk for that, though I've fermented at 45F without problems.  If you're flirting with that number, put your fermenter somewhere a little warmer and see what happens..  
  • If nothing happens then, make sure your wort isn't too hot (over 90F) and re-pitch.  You can wait it out, but if you don't see activity within 4-5 days and there's no bubbling in the airlock and your gravity hasn't dropped, then your yeast are likely dead (or so few are alive that they'll struggle like crazy, creating lots of off-flavors), and they need the cavalry to come to the rescue.  If you wait too long, every other thing in your house will try to get in there and establish a foothold.

Stalled fermentations invite all kinds of tricks, but they have some uncertain results.  They can work, and you should try, but don't get your hopes too high (though this isn't the end of the world, as we'll discuss a little later).  Your options include:

  • Just like a failed start to fermentation, check your temps - and increase them.  Warmer yeast are more-active yeast, and if you catch them in time this might get them off the picket line and back to work.  Go all the way to 90F - if you're already through the initial fermentation stages, the hot temps won't be nearly as likely to produce off-flavors.  
  • Shake it up.  You could also try rousing the yeast, either by shooting CO2 into the sediment or old-fashioned swirling or agitation.   
  • Repitch.  This can be with the same yeast strain, a more-aggressive yeast like champagne strains, or even bugs that might keep on chewing (especially if you think the problem was caused by an excess of unfermentables).  
  • Re-feed.  If you think that the problem is a bunch of unfermentables and you're not comfortable introducing Brett or its ilk into your brewery, you can also spike your beer with simple sugars (honey, maple syrup, table sugar, etc.) that the yeast will consume.  You'll add alcohol, thinning out the beer, but at the possible cost of new/off flavors and hotter alcohols.

And for slow fermentations, well...

  • Increase temperature and wait.  It will end someday.  Go on vacation.  May I recommend Campobello Island, New Brunswick, home to an Joint US-Canadian International Park that FDR used as a retreat?

Do you REALLY Have a Problem?

Before you take any of these steps, though, ask yourself if you really have a problem - or, at least, one that's worth fixing.

Taste your maybe-unfinished beer.  If it's soured or funked already because the yeast never took hold, then you might consider dumping it, cooking with it, or making some vinegar depending on the flavor.  

If it's a stuck fermentation but it tastes OK, then consider just carbonating it, claiming victory and departing the field - the odds that someone can taste the difference between a 1.030 and a 1.020 beer are pretty slim (just be sure you're actually stuck - otherwise you could be making bottle bombs). 

I've seen a lot of brewers fight their beer for those last few points.  It's not always worth it, and the cure can be worse than the disease, so ask yourself some tough questions about whether you even want to try.  

But what you definitely shouldn't do is what we tried with an early group-brewed batch before we knew much about brewing: don't dilute your beer with club soda.  I mean, it tasted alright eventually...about eight years later.

Keep it simple.

JJW