In Search of Monsters: Simplicity, Consistency, and Beer

John Quincy Adams once said something that's of remarkable value to us as brewers: "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be [America's] heart.  But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy."

A little heavy for a Monday morning, perhaps, and don't worry - we're not going to get into anyone's thoughts on the current presidential election (much as I might want to).  But that quote always jumps to my mind when I hear brewers (professional and amateur) talking about their brewing, and most especially when I field questions from homebrewers.

I recently invited y'all to send any and all questions you might have, and rather than post answers in a Q&A format, I thought I'd answer them over time, in context.  But the overarching message (which should come as no surprise to anyone who can read the URL for this blog) is that too many are, in a brewing sense, ignoring Adams the Younger's sage and valuable advice.  Put very, very simply: Don't go looking for trouble.

The Mash Question

This question came in from multiple people, so it gets to go first (and it's a great candidate for the treatment I'm advocating).  One reader put it this way: 

"What temperature do you mash at?  I've read your articles here and at beerandbrewing.com, and it almost never says."  

True.  Well, sort of. I do sometimes say, but it's often left out for a very simple reason: I nearly always mash at the same temperature.  Why?  Because consistency is probably the most important thing in brewing.  Do it the same way every time, and you'll trend towards a better product, since fixes and adjustments are happening within a more-stable and -repeatable environment.

And 95% of the time I'm mashing at 152F/66.7C.

At the 2012 NHC in Seattle I went to a presentation delivered by a chemist at White Labs, and he made a pretty compelling case for 152 being a "sweet spot" for fermentable wort, despite our conventional wisdom that going lower will make the beer more-fermentable.  I figure it's always easier to add body than take it out, so that's what I've gone with since.

And I've nearly always used it.  No tinkering with mash temp here.  

Ready, Aim, Fire

There are things I tinker with, but they're usually the things that lend themselves to easy quantification - ingredients, mostly.  Which ones, treated how, and how much?  So, for example, I'll try a recipe with a higher-Lovibond malt, or a little more/less of it, or from a different region, or in combination with other elements of the grist.  I'll dry hop with 20% more, or for a day or two longer.  

But there are other things that are better left alone.  I tend to include in that bin the things that revolve around the chemical/biological processes in brewing.  Since they're complex (and dynamic) processes, they don't lend themselves to control or adjustment as easily, and so to null out their variability I usually recommend that you keep them as steady and stable as you can.

Anyone who's had firearms training knows that when you shoot, you always aim for "center mass" - as in, the point that's more or less equidistant from the edges of what you'd want to hit to protect yourself.  At the range, that's usually just a big dot with a red center, but in the real world it's presumably a person.  So, we sometimes also use targets that look (sorta) like people.  There's a reason those targets don't usually have arms or legs - just a chest and head.  Aim for the dead center of the chest (no pun intended), because everything from the wind, the distance from you to the target, the heat of the bullet as it exits the barrel, and a hundred other things can move you off of your target.  If you aim for the center, every time, you increase your odds of hitting what you're aiming at and successfully protecting yourself.

Same thing here.  If you're messing with mash temperature, mash thickness, time, how often you stir, speed of your runoff, and other things in an attempt to "work" your mash, then you're increasing the probability of not getting what you want.  The "control" you're getting is illusory, because it presumes that the mash process itself, in the tun, is highly predictable and controllable.  It isn't.

If you do it the same way every time, you surrender a very small amount of control but you also take the worst potential results completely off the table.  It's like golf: just aim for the center of the green.  Take bogey out of play.  

Cost/Benefit

When you adjust mash temperature to get a certain result (usually something to do with the body/fermentability of the beer) you might add in a tiny level of perceivable difference.

But you're also introducing more error and uncertainty into the result, and doing so while moving the desired outcome towards the edges of what we consider "acceptable."  You might create a sludge with lots of long-chain sugars if you end up missing too high.  You might get a simple-sugar-laden-but-starchy-and-protein-heavy mess if you end up going too low.    

To me, the cost just isn't worth it.  There are other ways to get body into beer (or take it out).  If you want more body, add a non-fermentable to the recipe.  Done.  And you know how much you've added, so you can adjust it the next time if the beer's too heavy/not heavy enough.  If you want less body, add a pure fermentable to the beer.  After all, you're ostensibly creating a more-fermentable wort through your lower-temp mash, so why not remove the uncertainty?  Start with a lower gravity to begin with and add in something that will ferment off completely - it isn't like we lack for choices, and most won't affect the flavor at all.  I once emptied the spice cabinet of every damned simple fermentable I could find when I was making an Apfelwine and realized I didn't have any cane sugar left - that thing got maple syrup, honey, confectioners sugar, and some leftover light candi syrup, and you couldn't taste a one of them in the finished product.  

And in exchange for not messing with the chemistry of your mash, you'll get a stable base to work from in any other area that you do want to change.

So, as I said, good ol' 152F for me, every time.  If you want to play, do it with things that don't involve whatever sorcery is going on inside that mash tun.

Don't go looking for monsters to destroy.

Keep it simple.

JJW