Wasted: Things I'm Sure You Don't Need to Do to Make Great Beer

We homebrewers do a lot of unnecessary things when making beer, and we know why: we're scared.  We don't want to make a bad beer.  We don't want to mess up something that we're putting a significant amount of time and effort into.  We want to make a beer that we're proud of.  I get that, but it doesn't mean we can't learn and improve - we're not slaves to convention and dogma (at least, we shouldn't be).

Last week I was invited to talk to a group (the Berks Homebrew Club in Reading, PA), and one of the attendees asked me what might have been the best question I've ever heard: "What are we doing that we don't need to be doing?"  That got me thinking about things that we probably don't need to do - and I'll go on about those at length in person, when I can properly condition/caution everything - but today I'm going to go with things I'm 100% sure we don't need to do.  

These are things that are simply a waste of your time or effort, for what I'm supremely confident are minimal to non-existent returns, and often actually increase your odds of creating faulty beers.    

The Secondary Fermentation Necessity Myth

OK, first things first: it isn't secondary fermentation.  "Secondary" fermentation only happens when you add a new fermentable after the initial sugars in the beer have already fermented off (primary fermentation).  It doesn't even have to be in a second vessel.  But it's become shorthand for moving your beer off its yeast cake, post-fermentation, into a new vessel prior to packaging.  

Setting aside the linguistic quibble, this is still a pointless thing to do.  The argument for it is that it prevents yeast autolysis (death and rupture of yeast cells, imparting a soapy off-flavor to the beer) - but despite leaving any number of batches on the yeast for weeks (and, on at least two occasions, months) at a time, I've never detected this fault in my beer.  Nor really in anyone else's (and when I have, it isn't as though that's the only explanation).

The reality is that autolysis is a bogeyman that homebrewers fear because someone told a campfire story once that put the image in their head of "AUTOLYSIS" creeping into their fermentation chambers and murdering their yeast, leaving foul-smelling yeast corpses all around.  This fear is completely unfounded.  When yeast were generally less-well-developed and robust than they are today?  Maybe.  If you're producing 30 barrels and exerting crazy hydrostatic pressure on the yeast bed?  Maybe.  But you're not, so autolysis isn't your concern.

You know what is?  Oxidation and contamination.  And every time you expose your beer to a new environment or the outside air, I promise you that you're oxidizing and adding contaminants.  Maybe only in small amounts, but why bother even adding that?  It's like if you started every day pinching yourself to be sure you're not asleep.  It doesn't hurt a lot, but it hurts, and it adds nothing.  So why are you doing it?  

I've heard a few other explanations for the benefits of getting your beer off the yeast cake, but they make even less sense.  "It helps clear your beer."  Why the hell would that be true?  "It helps the yeast clean up off-flavors."  Not really - you're better off just rousing your yeast (including the cake) and upping the temp a degree or two.  "You have to if you're going to lager."  No you don't - is there a reason you can't lager in the bottle/keg?  

And last but not least, if this was an issue, wouldn't we have all kinds of problems with bottle-conditioned beers, sitting on a not-inconsiderable pile of yeast for weeks and months at a time?  

Knock it off. Ferment until fermentation is done, cold crash it, and then package it up.  Hell, I don't even rack into a new vessel when I have an actual secondary fermentation - I just add the new juice/sugar/whatever directly to the primary.

The Never-ending Whirlpool

This one truly baffles me.  I'm a believer in whirlpooling (getting your wort moving in a circular fashion to allow centripetal force to collect physical bits in the center) and allowing it to form a nice protein/hop/break cone.  But a lot of you are reading bad advice and doing it for WAY too long.

I whirlpool for seven minutes.  Maybe eight, if I'm watching a particularly good episode of "Archer" while brewing ("Lo Scandalo" is incredible).  That's about how long it takes to get a good stir going and then stop moving.  When it's done (the surface looks still), I open the ball valve (which has a small, unfiltered elbow joint on it inside the kettle) and run the wort through the chiller.  Easy.  Simple.

But I'm reading things that say you should whirlpool for 20 minutes.  30 minutes.  One particularly absurd soul says "45 minutes, always."  But let's keep our eye on the goal here.

You want to create space for your outlet to pull clean wort (whether it's something intrinsic to the kettle, like mine, or something extrinsic, like a siphon/racking cane).  That doesn't take 20-45 minutes.  

Much like the "secondary" practice above, though, this is doing more than just wasting your time, it's hurting your beer (potentially).  That's time you're spending on whirlpool, not chilling, which means you could be allowing DMS to re-absorb.  You're also wasting the aroma/flavor oils in your late hops (and many people don't allow for that time in their addition timing) as those oils isomerize - more slowly, since we're not at a full boil, but it's still costing you.

Now, if you're doing a warm hop-stand (if you are, you'll know what I'm talking about - if you don't know what that means, then you're probably not doing it!) you might get more out of a long whirlpool, but there's still considerable disagreement on just how long it needs to be.  I've read anywhere from 10 minutes to - I'm not joking - 24 hours.  But utilizing a whirlpool in that specific instance shouldn't translate into treating it as a norm for all beers you brew.

Whirlpool if you want - though avoiding kettle trub in the fermenter may not be necessary and can add some good things to your beer, as the folks at Brulosophy have demonstrated - but doing it for more than 10-15 minutes seems pointlessly wasteful to me.

Pitching Temps

"At what point do I pitch my yeast if I'm making a lager?" a friend recently asked.  "Uh...whenever you do it for an ale?" I answered.

I'm done boiling.  I whirlpool (briefly).  I chill my beer.  I pitch my yeast.  

What temperature is the beer at when I pitch?  Whatever the hell the temperature is that my groundwater and plate chiller got it to.  And then I oxygenate and put the thing in the fermentation fridge, with the temp set to whatever my initial fermentation temperature will be.

That's true whether it's 72 or 48 degrees Fahrenheit.  Does that mean my lager yeasts are at 75, 80 degrees for a little while?  Sure.  Does it matter?  No, or at least it doesn't seem to.  

But I know people who insist on chilling their beer to below their initial fermentation temp first - and only then pitching their yeast.  You can do that, I guess, but this is another scenario where you may be hurting more than you're helping.  

First off, you want your yeast in there ASAP.  They'll get moving, growing, eating and crowd out other microbiota that might be competing for space and food.  The longer you wait, the bigger the head start you give to those other things that want to eat your beer.

Second, you're probably making it harder for your yeast to wake up and get to work.  Yeast activity is a function of temperature, and a colder start means a slower start.  Now, if we're talking about fermentation, then you want that - in most yeasts, and especially in lagers, it means fewer off-flavors - but they're not fermenting at first, they're waking up and making new yeast cells.  By the time they are, your beer will be chilled to the appropriate temperature.

And you're wasting your time.  Let's not forget that part.

So don't be shy - if it isn't too hot to kill them, it's not too hot to pitch.  Let them get up and get moving while you bring the wort down to "fermenting" temperature.

A Little Learning

Our friend Alex Pope warned in An Essay on Criticism that "A little learning is a dangerous thing."  You'll find all kinds of people in your homebrewing community who want to give you advice, and though they mean well they may be inadvertently keeping alive the bad ideas and dead dogmas of the past, or applying lessons from professional breweries to your home brewery.  Be critical.  Test.  Question.  Don't take these things at face value, especially if they waste your time.  And let your beer quality be the ultimate arbiter.

Keep it simple.

JJW