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

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

 


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

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


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

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Glassholes: Marginal Improvement Calculus in Beer Evaluation and Enjoyment

Overheard in a beer group on social media recently: "I'm bringing beer to a friend's house, and he doesn't usually drink craft beer.  Is it OK to bring glassware for my beer, too?"

Oof.  OK, where to begin here...

I know it's come up before, but I ran into this one again recently.  There's really two questions here: is it socially OK for me to show up with my own beer and my own glassware, and does glassware matter that much?

First Things First

For the first question, in this particular inquiry, the answer has to be "no."  It's not OK for you to show up with glassware.  I don't know you, and I don't know your friend, and I don't know what kind of beer we're talking about, but I can still answer this question, logically:

If your friend took beer seriously enough to not potentially be a little put off by this, he'd probably have a decent stock of glassware on hand already.  Maybe I'm just being overly sensitive, but I think you're running a risk of looking like a snob rather than a geek in this case.

Look, I shudder a bit, too, when I see someone pull out a frozen mug for me when they see I have "good" beer, but I think the more neighborly thing to do is just stall for a minute while the glass warms up a bit and then pour.  No one's going to thank you for educating them on glassware - except for people who wouldn't likely need that education.

So, on to the second part of the question: just how much does it matter?

Glassware Matters...and Doesn't

Short answer?  It matters, and more than a lot of people think.  Volume, shape, curvature and size of the bell, stemmed or not, wall thickness, even glass type make a difference, and if I was at home I'd always reach for a stange for my Kolsch, a snifter for my Barleywine, a tulip for my IPAs, and a dimpled mug for my Mild.  I've done side-by-sides, and you do find a noticeable difference.

You've probably heard this before, but the shaker pint glass isn't really a great vessel for beer.  Tuning your glass choice to your beer style is a good call, assuming you're in a position to do so without suggesting your friend is a hick for not having an 18-karat gold-lipped chalice on hand.  

But at the same time, it doesn't matter so much that you should be losing sleep, friends, or tolerability over it.  Blind Pig is an excellent beer, whether served in a tulip glass or a conch shell, and would still be pretty good even if you drank it from a lightly-used dip spit can.  On the other hand, that low-carb macro lager I had at the finish line of the Delaware Marathon last week was disgusting, and would have been even if it had been served out of a platinum chalice crusted in jewels in a mosaic of Emma Stone's stunning vampire-person face.  

So, if you have the option, fit your beverage to your glassware.  But if it's not practical, or polite, or reasonable, then enjoy your beer anyway.  I suppose I could see an exception for some rare and expensive beers where I'm only going to get one shot at it, but if it's just a question of "will I enjoy it," glassware alone is going to matter a lot less than the beer's quality, how it's been treated since it left the brewery, its temperature, and a bunch of other factors.  Drink up.

The marginal improvement is worth it, but not at the expense of just about anything else.  Factor the non-beer-enjoyment-related stuff into your calculus.

The Go-To Glass

Is there a brewer in the world that doesn't end up with too many damned pint glasses?  I swear, I could smash every one I drink from into the fireplace, Greek-wedding-style, from now until Rapture and I'd still have a cabinet full of shakers on hand for the next round with my fellow-denizens of the post-Apocalyptic hellscape.  Here's to you, Scarlet Woman - and Scarlet Beast, for that matter.

But if you're looking to stock up on good go-to glassware, I have a humble recommendation: the water goblet.

Glassware-water-goblet-11.5-oz-.49cents.png

There's a nice little bell, you can usually swirl your beer neatly, there's a stem so you can keep your hand from warming the beer if you want, and it should keep you from getting the weird looks that sometimes come from pouring your beer into a wine glass (thank you, BYO-restaurant waitstaff, but I'm fine with my wine-glass beer...).

Also, since they're a common purchase you can usually score them for a decent price from any number of online retailers, and if you host a bunch of beer parties you can get a couple of dozen or more for about $2/glass.  

Just...don't bring them with you to parties.  Trust me.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

 


You Need Help: Advice for Brewers in the Style of the Brownlow Committee

The Brownlow Committee: Merriam, Brownlow, and Gulick

The Brownlow Committee: Merriam, Brownlow, and Gulick

"No man is an island entire of itself," Donne tells us.  He certainly got that one right: we all need help, brewers especially, and no matter how long they've been brewing.  

Why?  Because brewing rewards consistent repetition, and repetition is arguably the enemy of progress.  "Practice makes perfect" - sure, but what is the thing it's perfecting the right thing?  Or just the good-enough thing?  If you have a process, routine, mindset, recipe, and/or approach to brewing that yields beer that's good, then you may end up in a real brewing rut.  It's like evolution.  The human eye isn't the finest visual organ that anyone could design: it was just the first one that worked to give us a survival advantage, and so it got passed down and refined over time.  It doesn't mean it can't be obviously improved.

But "obvious" isn't always easy.  Consider the American presidency - it may be the most challenging job in the world.  All the more so when, like in the late 1930s, you're a president looking down the barrel of a global depression, fascism on the march (literally), and an impending world war (again?).  And yet, at the time, the office of the president consisted of a few clerks/secretaries, the president, and...that's about it.  So, the Brownlow Commission is formed because - and I swear this is the quote - "The President Needs Help."  Duh.

So, today, as an homage to Louis Brownlow and Co., Beer Simple presents a five-point plan (just like theirs) to help us brewers get not just help - but the right help.

The Five Point Program

First, increase the amount of good feedback you get.  Luckily, we've already jumped into this topic, but it bears repeating: not all feedback is worth your time.  Some of it is overly-harsh, but much more commonly it's far too friendly and optimistic.  Join a homebrew club with structured tastings.  Enter every beer you brew in several competitions (maybe not forever, but just for a short while) to get trained, anonymous feedback.  Taste your beer against highly-rated commercial examples in the same style to see how you stack up.  But get more - and better - feedback.

Second, identify the best brewers in your area and ask if you can join them for a brew day.  This isn't so you can steal their entire process - it's to see what they do and don't do that you might consider to be essential brewing practice.  There's no better way to break out of your own stale brewing dogma than to watch people (whose quality as brewers you personally attest to) flout the "rules" that you've subscribed to and still create great beer.  By all means, hit these people up for tips, too, but more important is to expand your horizons.  It's like Mr. Clemens said: travel is fatal to prejudice.

Third, read.  And read old and new.  Revisit some classics of brewing literature (How to Brew, Jean de Clerk's A Textbook of Brewing, if you have access to it) and read some of the great modern texts on brewing science and practice.  Books like this are vetted (usually) by several technical experts and brewers, which doesn't guarantee that they're right, but it limits the probability that they're flatly wrong.  Unlike, say, a beer blog which gets vetted by...I don't know, does Biscuit the Brewdog count?

Fourth, and this might sound counterintuitive, but stop brewing for a while.  Not long - but take a couple of months off.  Clear your brewing head.  This happened to me as a natural experiment last year when I had overcommitted by a borderline-irresponsible degree to teaching.  I had minimal free time, and when I did I was occupied with staying organized.  The result, though, was that when finals were done and the smoke cleared and I got back into my brewery, I was looking at it with fresh eyes.  It wasn't that I'd been looking at brewing as an obligation or a slog (though that can happen, for certain) - it was just that I'd gotten used to doing things a certain way.  Now that I was essentially re-familiarizing myself with my system and process (due to my long absence) I was more than willing to make changes in process, equipment, method, and more - which I did, with some very nice results.  

Last, help yourself.  Look for your own flaws, subtle though they might be.  Don't rush through a brew day - if you're doing that, you're not making good beer, so start looking for ways to shave time off of your process.  Check out your ingredient procurement process - is everything fresh?  When was the last time you refined and updated your recipes?  Have you been trying out new ingredients?  Maybe don't drink while brewing (I know that's controversial).   There's an almost-infinite list of things you can do to help your own brewing if you conscientiously and actively decide to do so.

Aaaand....repeat

After you do these things, you'll feel confident, rejuvenated, and happy with your brewing, like a brewer who just got the latest software update downloaded into his/her brain.  The trick is not to re-dig your rut.  Once every year or two, repeat this program to keep yourself fresh.

We all need help.  The sheer, stupid obviousness of that statement doesn't undermine its truth or value.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Everybody Knows You Never Go Full All-Grain...

Among homebrewers, "have you gone all-grain?" seems like a rough analog to asking if you've lost your virginity.  

"Oh yeah - I went all-grain years ago.  I've been going all-grain so long I don't even know what extract is.  It's just so much better - you've gotta try it..."

Sexual overtones aside, all-grain brewing really does have some distinct advantages over extract brewing, and I'm going to make a case for it (in case some of you readers are on the fence), but I'm also going to make a pitch for holding back just a little.  Don't forget about extract brewing.  Because while all-grain has its advantages, it has its downsides, too - and extract isn't without its virtues.  

Go all-grain - but maybe don't go full all-grain.  

The Case for AG

All-grain (AG, from now on) brewing has at least two clear, indisputable advantages over extract brewing: cost and control.

First, it's plainly cheaper.  A grain bill of 15 pounds (pretty typical for 5-gallon batches) will run you about $30 or so, even less if you buy and store in bulk.  For example, since I get grain by the 55-lb. sack, I'm usually paying well under a dollar a pound even for fairly expensive malts.  An equivalent amount of extract for a 5-gallon batch will run you about $45-50, including any steeped specialty grains.  That means that even the AG equipment costs you'll add ($100 or so will get you a nice cooler-based system) are rapidly recouped.

Second, it gives you a level of control that isn't there with an extract.  Especially if you do your own milling, you can get a much more consistent product, fresher, and make lots of fun recipe/process decisions along the way - crush, mash temp and length, mash and first-wort hopping, and more.  If you're using extracts, you're hoping the guys and gals at the extract factory were having a good day, and that your product wasn't oxidized all to hell and gone in the meantime.  

Does it add time?  Sure.  But even that doesn't have to be a major consideration, as we've discussed before.  

So why would I ever defend extract brewing?

The Worst Beer...

Lots of beer people are fond of saying that the "best beer is the one in your hand right now!"  Now, I consider that to be trite nonsense that creates a kind of unacceptable beer-quality-relativism that I just can't stomach, but we'll have that debate another day.

What I can get behind, though, is the idea that the worst beer is the one you never get to drink, and that probably happened because you never brewed it.

In surveys of homebrewers (my own and the AHA's), the most common roadblock for homebrewers in relation to what limits their brewing isn't cost - it's time.  And, say what you want, but extract brewing is FAST.  Even faster than my efficiency-laden AG process.  I clock in at 3:15 for an AG batch (which you gotta admit is still pretty damned fast!), but I can wrap an extract batch in under two hours, comfortably.  If you can regularly find two hours, you can homebrew.  If you can't ever find four then it doesn't matter how much cheaper or better-designed that beer would be, because you're never going to brew it.

And let's talk about quality.  I believe (though I've never personally tested myself in a structured way) that, generally speaking, AG beers are better than extract beers, on average.  Having said that, I'm not saying that extract beers are bad or undrinkable or that they can't in specific circumstances be as good or better than extract beers.  They undoubtedly can.  

I think the reason that we tend to assume AG beers are so much better is that, around the time we shift to AG brewing, we're better brewers.  Our first batches range from awful to pretty good, and we rapidly improve (hopefully).  We also change our methods around the same time, which could very well mean that we're conflating an increase in quality based on method with what might be an increase based on skill.  When I brew extract, they're not quite as good as my AG batches, but they still do very well in competition and the people who drink them seem to enjoy them just as much.

For that reason, I always brew a couple of extract batches per year.  First, it's easy to do, so why not, especially when I end up needing some extra batches around party season (3-4 Christmas/New Years events in three weeks)?  Second, it lets me see how the product is these days - and extracts are better and more-specialized every year, much like our other ingredients.  Last, it reminds me that there are a lot of paths to the top of the mountain, and so long as we do it right, there's no reason to think you're going to see a massive fall-off in quality.

Doing Extract 

Good brewing practices are generally good brewing practices, no matter the ingredients.  With extract, though, I take just a little more care in two areas: style and mouthfeel.

First, I pick styles that don't require a ton of gravity points.  "Extract flavor" may or may not actually exist, but I'm positive that if it does it's probably a good idea to minimize the amount of extract needed, so I shoot for lower-ABV beer styles. Not only that, but it can be tough to reach the right terminal gravity with extract beers that are swinging for the fences.  Speaking of which...

Second, since extract tends to be slightly less-fermentable, you want to pay particular attention to mouthfeel and body.  I do this two ways, and from both directions: I try to make the beer a bit lighter in body, but also a bit smoother and less "syrupy" in feel.  One pound of a neutral honey (100% fermentable, baby!) will dry out the beer a touch (and feel free to use a non-neutral honey and add a fun flavor), and adding in a bit of flaked barley will soften the mouthfeel.  

Coming Home

Brewing extract now and again is a great way to stay connected to your homebrewing origins.  You might even find that a "new" extract beer becomes a favorite in your recipe book.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Under Pressure (Or Not): Bottle Conditioning Q's from the BS Mailbag

Of all the things I get questions about, none surprise me more than questions about bottle conditioning, and not because it isn't important (it is): because it's not something I've ever struggled with.

I understand why people freak out about it a little, of course.  After all, it comes at the end of the process, you've put a lot of work (and wort) in, you have high hopes.  You add your priming sugar, cap that sumbitch, and wait.  Time passes, you chill a test bottle, prep your favorite beer glass, reach for the bottle opener aaaaaaaaand.......

Nothing.  No puff of escaping air.  Your heart sinks.  Your ego deflates.  You pour, knowing even before you do that it's going to be a flaccid affair, and sure enough there's no carbonation, no fluffy whiteness.  Just a sad little collection of not-quite-foamy bubbles from CO2 being slapped out of suspension as you dump beer aggressively into the center of the glass hoping for anything resembling head.  

But it doesn't have to be that way.  Below is a brief description of my bottle conditioning process (from Beer #1 to today, ten years exactly since that first beer) and a few quick Q&A responses from e-mails I've gotten from readers and homebrew club members.

Weight, weight - Don't Tell Me

First off, my process.  It's pretty simple, really.  

First, I check my beer's finishing temperature; a colder beer will have more CO2 in it already, while a warmer one will have blown more off.  

Second, I head to my favorite Priming Calculator website (this one).  Why that one?  It was the first one I tried, and it worked, so why screw around?  All you need is the volume of beer you're carbonating (which you should know already), the temperature of it (which you just checked), and the volumes of CO2 you want (which you should decide based on your recipe, but somewhere around 2.25, in all likelihood).  The result is a weight.  Don't just use that whole "PRIMING SUGAR" pack from the kit. Always carbonate by weight.

With that info in hand, I head to the kitchen and add the given weight of sugar (dextrose if I have it, table sugar if not, and I've never noticed a difference in the finished product) to a cup or so of water, stir, and bring to a boil for about a minute.  

After that, it goes into the bottling bucket.  I rack onto it, and that's it.  No stir or anything.  

I bottle and cap, and then set them aside for about a week.  Usually seven days is plenty.  The longest I've ever had was about three weeks, but that was very much an outlier (and even she carbonated up for me, eventually).

Your Questions (well, someone's questions...)

Do you ever add yeast at bottling, to help out the existing yeast?

Nope.  Never.  Not once.  Not even for a several-month-old Eisbock that clocked in at about 14% ABV.  Yeast are incredible.  If you're not getting carbonation, it almost certainly doesn't have anything to do with whether there are yeast in there capable of carbonating - if you haven't filtered them out, then they almost certainly are.

I didn't get carbonation.  What should I do?

Step one is put your bottles someplace warmer.  In at least 9/10 cases, that does the trick, and a beer that sits for a month in a kind-of-cool place might not carbonate, but one that sits in a slightly-warmer place might carbonate in just a couple of days.  I find 68F to be the lower limit.  Find a warm spot in your house (near the dryer, in an upstairs bedroom that gets a lot of sun, etc.).  In a real pinch, set your beer on top of a heat register or near a baseboard heating element. 

If that doesn't work, try rousing the bottles and applying heat as above.  

If that doesn't work, check your scale/calculations: maybe you didn't add the right amount of priming sugar.  

Should I try adding more yeast to each bottle? 

It almost certainly can't hurt, but it's probably unnecessary, and you're exposing the beer to oxygen.  I'd let time/temperature take a shot at it first.

Should I add more SUGAR to each bottle?

NO!  There's a real risk of bottle bombs if you do, and that's no joke.  Flying glass is something to be avoided, and even if you don't go THAT far, you might still end up with a bunch of gushers.

Honestly, before you take that step, just consider drinking it flat or using THAT beer for vinegar or cooking applications.  

Have you ever tried the Carbonation Tabs/Pellets? 

Once, and I got pretty uneven results.  It's kind of a pain, but the short-boiled sugar solution option I describe above seems like the best method.

Do I have to use white sugar? 

No, you don't.  You can carbonate with maple syrup, honey, candi sugar - virtually any simple sugar.  You might need to experiment with weights/volumes, though, and keep in mind that some sugars will add flavor in addition to CO2 and a little alcohol.

What about caps?

I recommend them.  Otherwise the beer slops all over the place as you ride your bike to the party.

Seriously, though, any caps are probably fine.  Pick a color you like.  If they're available and you want to be super-careful, go ahead and buy the oxygen-absorbing caps.  But make sure you seat them fully on the bottle - even a slight gap can let air be pushed/pulled in and out as the temperature in the bottle changes, so don't just crimp them until you can hold them upside-down without liquid leaking out (though it's a start).

Why do you bottle at all?  KEGGING, BABY!!!!

I keg, too, but I like bottling, especially for things I'm going to age for a while (Barleywine, Old Ale, etc.) and sometimes my brewing outpaces my keg supply.  If you do it regularly, it doesn't even take all THAT much longer - I bottle a batch in about an hour, two batches in about 90 minutes, three in about two hours.  

Personally, I like that once I put that cap on, it's done.  I don't need to worry about a gas leak, or a contaminated keg wrecking my entire batch, or something in the draft line/faucet screwing up my pour.  Bottle conditioning is reliable as hell, and that's worth a little time once in a while (if not every time).

In Yeast We Trust

I've said it before: yeast are incredible.  They're worthy of your trust.  Give them the right conditions, and they'll probably take care of you!

But I meant what I said back there: dump it before you add more priming sugar.  It's not worth a glass sliver in the eye.  The more you know...

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

 


The Basics of Base Grains

"You said to go back to the beginning - so I have."  I can still hear Inigo Montoya slurring that line, and it's good advice, especially for brewers.  So today we check in with base grains, if for no other reason than to be sure that we're getting all we can out of our recipes.

It seems like it should be obviously important, but I frequently run into brewers (amateur and professional) who don't seem to give much thought to their base.  They'll tell you all about the crystal they had imported from the UK, the special steeping method they use for chocolate malts, bore you to tears with discussions of experimental hops and fermentation temperature ramp-up - but when you ask about base malts, you often get a shrug and an "I dunno, whatever I usually use or have laying around..."  Since base malts make up the largest chunk of your grist, that attitude seems bizarre to me.

It matters.  As I'm often recommending, you should be choosing base grains for a reason - and that reason should probably be something better than "because I had a bucket of it."

Base Basics

The good news is that there aren't many grains out there that could reliably function as base malts (that is, malts with sufficient enzymes to convert themselves and most anything else you dump into the grist).   They are distinct, though, and your flavor profile is subtly but persistently and pervasively affected by them, even in darker and more-intense beers.

Let's see what our options are:

  • American 2-row: Faint and light grainy flavors.  A good malt to use if you don't want anyone to notice malt - so, some IPAs, I guess?  
  • American 6-row: A lot more diastatic power, so if you're using a bunch of adjunct, then maybe, but practically speaking there's almost never a reason for homebrewers to use this, especially since it has the same barely-there flavor profile but with a touch of gritty/sharp flavor. 
  • Maris Otter/English Pale Ale Malt: Kilned a bit higher than the American malts, it provides a noticeable cracker/bready/nutty flavor.  An excellent go-to malt for all but the most austere styles.  Speaking of...
  • Pilsner Malt: The lightest malt around.  If you want a malt that at least tastes like something (lightly grainy, slight honey-like flavors) but otherwise stays the hell out of the way, this is your choice.  Obviously it's good for Pilsners (where you want those classic hops flavors coming through), but be careful with it in other less-hoppy applications: it can make beers seem surprisingly sweet.  
  • Vienna Malt: Lands in the no-man's-land between pale ale malt and Munich Malt (coming up next): it has a nice toasty flavor, very little of the sweetness of the lighter-kilned base malts, and stops short of the too-full richness that can come from Munich malt.  It can be used in almost anything; don't be shy about using it in pale beers (my Kolsch is 50% Vienna), and you can also count on it to hold its flavor in stronger/darker beers all the way up to Baltic Porters. 
  • Munich Malt: In a lot of ways, this is the Cadillac of base malts.  Munich has the power to convert itself while also functioning as a kind of utility-infielder specialty grain, with rich bready melanoidin flavor and even a touch of light-crystal flavor.  It can be used in a SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) Doppelbock, or as an equal-partner base malt in lots of other amber-to-dark styles.  

The "right" base grain (or mix of them) for you will vary from batch to batch, but I do have some general advice, if you'd like to hear (read) it.

Clearing the Barley Field (So to Speak)

First off, let's clear the board a bit: I don't own a single grain of American 2-row or 6-row malt.  I prefer to follow the chef's maxim of "season everything."  Why would I choose a malt that exhibits virtually no flavor?  The argument that it's a good choice for IPAs because it "doesn't get in the way of the hops" seems asinine to me.  We're talking about beers that are aggressively hoppy - NONE of the base malts (except maybe Munich) would really compete with it (note to self: brew a German IPA with Munich as a base and an ass-ton of Polaris hops...).

So now we're left with four: Pilsner, Maris Otter, Vienna, and Munich (in ascending order by Lovibond).  Which is used how, and when?  Again, your call, but here are my recommendations and rationale.

The Go-To 

First up, when in doubt, reach for Maris Otter.  With just a few obvious exceptions (below), there's virtually no beer flavor profile that doesn't benefit from a slightly bready, biscuit-like background flavor.  It's beer, after all.  In side-by-side fermentations/comparisons and triangle tests with other folks' beers, I've found an incredibly high success rate in picking out Maris compared to 2-row, and almost everyone prefers the Maris-based beers, even in purely American styles.  I use more Maris Otter than any other grain.  Hell, I even use it in...

Pilsner: The Esoteric Malt

I'm not a big fan of Pilsner Malt (there's something in the flavor that just bumps me, like how I love seafood but just don't like crab), but if you're making certain styles, it's the right choice.  Not many styles.  OK, one style - if it's a Bohemian Pils, then go to town on the floor-malted Pilsner Malt.  For German Pils, I still say you're better off with a Maris/Pils blend and then hammering it with Hallertau, but I know I might be weird in that regard.

In other styles, Pilsner can be a nice blended base malt, especially if you want a bit of light honey-focaccia bread background, but be sure it's in a milder beer: its flavor can get trampled easily, unless you're super-sensitive to it like me.

The Underdog

I once received a 55-lb. sack of Vienna Malt free, as a prize from a competition.  I had my eye on the sack of Munich, but someone got to it before me, and so I took the Vienna.  I'm so, so glad I did: this is a wildly underappreciated base malt.

If you're an amber beer fan (and especially if you're an Altbier nut like me), then Vienna is a great thing to have on hand.  Use it for about 1/3 of the grist in any amber or darker beer, and you'll add a nice toasty-spicy flavor, almost like rye but without the sharpness.  I played around with that sack of Vienna in about a dozen recipes, and in only one (an English IPA) did it seem to make it worse.  

The toast comes through really well, but it doesn't add heft to the beer.  I don't think I could use it for 100% of the grist (some people taste it as being a bit too rustic), but as a blender, it's terrific.

The King

Munich Malt is wonderful.  Someone told me once (an outstanding amateur brewer who has since gone pro) that "a pound of Munich makes every beer better."  It's pretty hard to argue with that formulation.  One of the most common pieces of advice I give to people that seem to have trouble with producing full-flavored beers is to add a pound of Munich.

It's like beer flavor mortar.  It seems to fill in the gaps, and creates a flavor that's more mature and complete.  It can be overdone - don't go over 50% unless you're sure you want a rich, bready background - but as a plug-in malt it almost can't go wrong.  

The Others

I've left out wheat and rye here, even though they're perfectly legitimate choices for base malts.  The reason is because they could (depending on your system or recipe) cause process issues.  We'll jump into those another day (or you can buy the most recent issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine and read all about it!).

Brew Deliberately

My (often-repeated) point in bringing this up is that I want you to brew deliberately.  Make decisions about your entire beer - don't just let it happen.  There's certainly a RDWHAH-based approach to recipe construction, but if your goal is consistency and reliability, then you should be looking at every piece of your recipe as an opportunity to exert some control to get the product you want - and a product you can make again next time.

Begin as you mean to go on, as they say.  Make a deliberate choice on base grain(s), and you'll be well on your way.  

"....you killed my father - prepare to die..."  Sorry.  I had to.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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The Case of the Multitasking Kegerator: Return to the Beer Simple Mail Bag

DSC_0004.jpg

Back to the Beer Simple Mail Bag this week!  Recently, a brewer asked whether he/she could use a kegerator as a fermentation fridge, and vice versa.  The answer, of course, is "of course."  But just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it.

Quick answer: yes, it can be done, but it's probably not worth the time, effort, and beer impact.

The Obvious

I feel like we need to get this out of the way first: if the choice is between "no temperature control for fermenting beer" and using your kegerator to do the job, then this is a no brainer: use that kegerator.  

I don't know that there's anything more valuable to beer quality than temp control during fermentation, so if you're choosing between leaving your fermenting beer in the garage and letting your kegs warm up a bit, then by all means, choose the latter.

If you're going to do that, though, you need to be aware of a few things.

A Question of Pressure

First, when you dial that temperature up, you're messing with the CO2 balance on your draft system.  You can either adjust the CO2 to rebalance it (and serve your beer warm, temporarily), or (probably the better idea) pop the gas lines off of your kegs and just let them maintain the pressure they already have in them.  As they warm some CO2 will come out of solution into the head space of the keg, but it'll re-absorb when you chill your kegs down again.  Once they cool off, re-connect them to their gas lines, and they should serve just as smoothly as before.

When in doubt, don't adjust more than one thing, and since you're already adjusting temperature, probably best to leave the CO2 regulator out of it.  When you cool down again, it'll be right where it needs to be (as long as you return to the same temperature!).  Disconnect from the CO2, ferment at whatever temps you want, then reconnect your kegs when you re-set the temperature back to serving temps.  

A Question of Stability

You should also be aware that you're increasing the level of flavor instability you're likely to see in your finished beer.  Letting those kegs rise and fall in temperature is a mild form of beer abuse, and when you let them warm, you're increasing the rate at which staling reactions occur (and, assuming you have some small degree of contamination, the rate at which your beer is developing off-flavors).  

Don't get me wrong - it's still better than letting your beer ferment at "whatever temperature it is at that moment in the basement or guest bathroom," but it's a cost you should be aware of.  If you have lots of pull-through and your kegs are rarely on for more than a month or two anyway, then don't worry about it.  If you take a little longer to work through your kegs, though, it's a risk.

A Question of Time and Money

What's your time worth to you?  This is where the multitasking argument breaks down for me.  

Coordinating and choreographing all of this not-hot keg-and-fermenter action is a real time suck. It'll require you to plan ahead so you have cold beer ready to serve at a time when you don't need temp control for fermentation.  If you don't have a massive kegerator it'll probably involve removing and re-inserting kegs.  It certainly puts more strain on your draft system and its connections (changes in temperature can cause CO2 leaks as fittings change in size and fit and work loose).  

Is it worth it?  Honestly, probably not.  

No-frills refrigerators are inexpensive, and depending on where you live they range from "free" (watch the curb, especially for discarded freezers that can't freeze anymore - they may still have plenty of cooling power to hold your beer at lager-fermentation temps!) to $50 (off of something like Craigslist) to $150 (new and delivered from a big-box or mega-hardware store).  It's a small price to pay for flexibility.

A Question of Tolerances

At the end of the day, the answer to this question is, "yes, you can multitask with your kegerator," but only you know if it's worth it to you.

Done deliberately and conscientiously, sure, it can be done.  But for me, it's worth the max cost of $200 (for a decent-sized new-and-delivered chest freezer and a decent temp controller) and 5-6 square feet of floorspace to run a separate fermentation fridge.

So, your call.  Keep those questions coming to josh@beer-simple.com.  Always happy to hear from you all!

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

 


Procrustes v. The Dude: Fitting Recipes to Your Brewery

Beer recipes are everywhere.  Every jackass on the internet posts recipes, it seems like.  Step one is sorting the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and we all have our own tricks and tolerances there.  Let's assume, though, that you've found a reputable recipe: it's still going to need to be adjusted to fit your system and process.  What's the best approach for doing so?

The Procrustean Method

Procrustes is a character from Greek mythology, who had a bit of a sadistic streak.  He lived along the road to Athens, and he'd invite travelers along the road to spend the night at his place.  Once there, though, you had to sleep in his special iron bed.  If you were too short, he'd stretch you to fit; too tall, and, well, you can probably guess.

Lots of people seem to take this approach to their "sourced" recipes.  They adjust every recipe the same way, fitting it to their own Procrustean Brewery.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, and it'd be out of character for me to argue against a systematic approach to something, but I'm still (kind of) going to do it.  

First, the good: it's a smart idea to make identical adjustments to correct for idiosyncratic problems that are reliably caused by your equipment, or process, or ingredient supplies.  If you know you have hard water, or low efficiency, or you bag your hops, then sure, make those Procrustean adjustments.  

However, don't become a slave to those adjustments at the expense of looking at the what and why of that recipe you're adopting and adapting.  Most of the recipes you'll want to take on will probably be for beers with unique or distinctive characteristics, and if you fixate too much on the mechanics there's a risk that you cut corners elsewhere and/or don't fully commit to the recipe.  Which brings us to...

The Lebowskian Method

The Dude is a character from the Coen Brothers mythology.  He lived in an apartment, and one night some visitors rough him up and defile a rug that really tied the room together, man.  Hijinks ensue.

Lebowski (the Dude) is, arguably, a drunk, stoned moron.  But he teaches us an important lesson: keep an eye out for the things in the recipe that really make it what it is.  Which of those ingredients, elements, or steps really "tie the beer together?"  Maybe it's a specific grain (Fawcett 45L British Crystal) or a process (decoction).  If you're adjusting a recipe to your brewery, you might end up wasting your time if you substitute in your normal American Crystal 40, or reduce the amount of chocolate malt you use "because your roasty beers are always astringent so you always cut the recommended chocolate malts by half," or decide to just do your typical infusion mash - and no amount of your Procrustean tinkering is going to fill the hole that's left in your beer.  

Give Both Their Due

Good recipe adjustment requires a bit of both.  I write a lot of recipes for brewing publications, and I'll share a not-a-secret secret: when I share my recipe, that's not my exact recipe.  We use standardizing spreadsheets to ensure that each recipe has a common point of reference on efficiency, water-to-grist ratio, hop utilization, etc. so that you can hammer away (like Procrustes) and make it fit your system.  As a result, what you read is usually already different than what I actually do when I brew the beer.  We expect that you can and will make changes to weights, volumes, times, and more.  Procrustes should get to have a hand in your beer (so to speak).

What I do spend a fair amount of time advocating for, though, is for some specific ingredients of steps that make it much more likely that you'll get the "special" part of the recipe right.  Even if your IBUs are off, or the water chemistry isn't quite on target, or you miss my OG by a few points, it'll matter a lot less than if you sub in that "house" malt or yeast of yours for one that the recipe calls for, or ferment it at 65F instead of 52F.  Keep an eye out for what ties the beer together, and commit to matching that part of it.  The Dude Imbibes.  

A Simple Approach

When I get a recipe I want to adapt, I take a pretty simple approach.  Each will be a little different, of course, but this might work for you as a rule of thumb.  

1. Adjust for efficiency differences, but only with the base grains, to hit about the right OG.
2. Leave the weights of the specialty grains alone (unless you're doing a wholesale scale adjustment, like from 10 to 5 gallons).
3. Use exactly the ingredients listed for the grist, and any hops added within 30 minutes of the boil (early hops may add a very slight detectable flavor, but mostly just add IBUs, so substitutions probably won't hurt you).
4. Use the recommended yeast unless you can't get it fresh, and even then, pick the nearest substitute (so, London Ale for London Ale III is fine, if the LAIII is two weeks old and the other is two months old). 

As for process changes, go with your gut and let parsimony and commitment be your guide.  Extended boil?  Sure - no reason not to.  Water adjustment?  Maybe not - you might do more harm than good.  The deciding factor should be whether you have good reason to believe that the recommendation is a key feature of the beer's flavor profile, and if you decide against doing it you should also mentally commit to trying the same recipe again with the change in the event what you get without it just doesn't work.

So take it seriously - but also don't lose the forest for the trees.

Keep it simple.  

JJW

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Paper Trail: Identifying and Limiting the (Not Very Obvious) Effects of Oxidation

How do you know if a beer is oxidized?  

That's not the start of a joke - if it was, it'd be a pretty boring one.  It's a sincere question.  The trouble is that, very often, you'll be told the answer is, "it smells like wet paper or cardboard."  One reason you'll hear that is because, sure, sometimes a beer is so oxidized that it actually smells like wet paper or cardboard - old, pulpy, and stale.  

Another reason you'll hear it is...because that's what we tell people to say when they think a beer is oxidized.  Most beers that are oxidized, though, won't smell like you just dipped your Sunday New York Times into last night's leftover pint of Pilsner.  It'll just taste duller than it would have, and that's if you're lucky.

The False Spectrum

For lots of beer diagnosis, we (wrongly) treat signs of an off-flavor as though it's just a question of amplitude or spectrum.  If a beer is oxidized, it's going to smell like paper - slightly oxidized, a little paper; much more oxidized, a lot of paper.  If a beer is contaminated, it'll taste a little sour; more contaminated, a lot sour.

It's an awfully simplistic approach, and one that's woefully inadequate and probably invalid.

This "false spectrum" disorder that we seem to have is probably a result of our relative palate inadequacies.  If we had sterling palates, all of us, and could detect and disentangle each individual sensation and flavor, then maybe we could speak in these terms - but we can't.  Don't believe me?  Watch a cooking show, and see how professional chefs struggle with identifying something as exotic as "chicken" while blindfolded.  Or pour four samples of four IPAs for your friends and see if they can tell you which one is which even after you tell them what you've poured (and it's a virtual impossibility without narrowing the field for them). 

So if we're not tasting machines that can parse out all of those flavors - minutely and precisely - then what's the answer?

See the Whole Off-flavor Crime Scene

Don't look for one piece of evidence - look for all of them.  Yes - an oxidized beer may well taste like wet cardboard (and if you've ever unpacked beer shipped to a competition, you know that smell perfectly, because it's how about one in ten of the shipping boxes smell because some of the beer has leaked out).  But that's not the only way to detect oxidation (and, I'd argue, it isn't even the most common).

Instead, let's think about what oxidation is, and what it does.

Oxidation is effectively a consumption process.  Iron oxidizes - it is processed from iron into rust.  Gasoline oxidizes - it is converted from fuel to heat and exhaust.  Beer oxidizes - and sometimes it converts into a detectable aroma of staling.  

But the staling is happening even if it isn't sufficiently intense to be detected by your nose.

Compounds in the beer that would ordinarily produce other flavors, won't, because they've been converted into something else.

The Dog That Didn't Bark

Look for the dog that didn't bark.  A beer that has flavors that seem dull, muted, absent, or different-than-expected may well have an oxidation problem, even if you can't smell paper.

A friend says that he added a bunch of late hops, but there's little hop aroma?  Could be an oxidation issue.

A homebrew club member says that she made a great Saison but it lacks esters and phenols?  Could be an oxidation issue.

Consider secondary factors to try to see if this might be a cause.  Ask when the beer was brewed.  Ask how it's stored, and for how long.  Ask if it's kept at a constant temperature or if it fluctuates.  Ask if they flush their kegs with CO2 before racking into them.  

Because, often, you're not going to have that positive and patent evidence of oxidation - but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

The Dog That Barked Too Loudly

Sometimes, too, evidence of oxidation will be too pronounced to diagnose it properly.  

Once upon a time, about a year into my brewing habit, I played around with bottle conditioning beer directly in growlers.  It seemed like something worth exploring, as a sort of "middle ground" between bottling and kegging, and I was often taking growlers places anyway.  The concern (initially) was that the threaded caps wouldn't be up to the job, and would simply leak out CO2.  But two weeks later - Eureka! - growler-conditioned beer.

But it had a problem: there was an acetaldehyde (green apple/raw grass) flavor that wasn't present in the conventional bottles.  It puzzled me, and no one I spoke to had an answer, so I e-mailed a gentleman by the name of John Palmer.  He shared my befuddlement, but speculated that what might be happening was an excess of oxidation: apparently, sufficient oxygen post-fermentation can actually cause ethanol to revert to acetaldehyde - bingo.

It's worth noting, though, that the beer never gave the traditional "wet paper" aroma we (supposedly) associate with oxidation.  It's not a good idea to get too tunnel-visioned when it comes to presentation of off-flavors - either in small or large presentation.

Simple Isn't Always Precise

I know this might seem to run a bit contrary to my usual philosophy, but in this case "simple" isn't synonymous with "precise" or "minute" or "discrete." 

There are times when holistic assessment is better than fine-grain analysis.  Stand back and see if you have secondary or atypical or unexpected or should-have-expected signs of oxidation, and if you do, tighten up, particularly on your cold-side beer handling.  It's still simple - it's just higher-altitude.  Macro.  Big-picture, which comprises lots of smaller elements.  

And if you suspect oxidation, what then?

Use CO2 liberally at kegging.  Cap on foam when bottling, and make sure you're fully seating those caps.  Store beer cold, and at a steady temperature to minimize the unavoidable "breathing and sucking" of bottles that are experiencing temperature fluctuation.  If you're doing all that, maybe shift to hot-side causes - are you using old ingredients, or splashing the wort excessively?  Lots of causes of oxidation out there, and most can be addressed passively.

Failing to do so might be causing subtle (or major) problems in your beer that have nothing to do with wet paper.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Contact High: A Strange Tale of Accidentally Dry-hopped Cheese

Once upon a time, I kept a lot of my brewing ingredients in the same refrigerator as my food.  Which is how, one fine afternoon, I pulled out some cheese I was serving to some guests and found out that you can add hop flavor and aroma to cheese, completely by accident.

The Hop Flavor Invasion

There was no real technique or process here.  I had some plastic-wrapped cheese in the drawer.  Said drawer also contained two ounces of pellet hops in small zip-locked (not heat sealed/nitrogen flushed) bags.  I made literally no attempt to merge their flavors.  

Total exposure time was about two days, during which time nothing else in the fridge tasted like hops, and in fact there wasn't much in the way of aroma coming from the zip-lock sealed hop bags.  And yet, there it was in the cheese: hop flavor.

And you know what?  It was excellent!  The cheddar had picked up a great earthy/floral flavor, and the gouda (already a bit more piquant) showed off some hoppy herbal notes.  

There's potential in this for your next party.

Recreating the Accident - On Purpose

Just for fun, I tried it again, deliberately this time (though I admit to feeling a bit like Fleming discovering penicillin).  It's pretty easy, as you might imagine in a process that I noticed accidentally.  

This time I unwrapped the cheese and put it in a larger zip-lock bag.  I then dumped hops into a smaller (and zipped) zip-lock bag and put that bag into the cheese bag and sealed it all up together.

Back into the fridge.  One day is all it took.  You can go longer, but I wouldn't do that unless we're talking about a medium-to-intense cheese.  I would also note that the flavor/aroma fades after the cheese's exposure to the hops ends, so if doing this for a party I'd combine the hops and cheese overnight and pull it just before serving.  

Your beer geek friends are going to love it, and your foodie friends probably will, too.

Hop Selection

My initial accidental/natural experiment was with noble hops, but this seems to work really well with any variety.  Certainly it's a fun way to add some herbal flavors.  You could even match the hops to the beer you're serving.

The best reactions seem to be from the "big citrus" hops.  Just like people seem to like bright, fruity beers, they seem to like the same in their hopped cheeses.

I'd also recommend sticking with fairly neutral cheeses, at least to start.  Cheddar, Gouda, Havarti, and Mozzarella have all done well for me!  Once you've dialed in your process, timing, and matched this stuff to your own palate, then by all means, go crazy.  

Beer Ingredients and Food

I've read some interesting things about using beer ingredients (malt extract, crushed grain, etc.) in food, but they usually entail some precise steps and a good understanding of cooking.  

This, on the other hand, is idiot-proof.  Right up our alley here at BS.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).