When Kegerators Attack: Dealing With Unexpected Beer Service Failures

Four days ago I had an experience that most homebrewers would recognize: I got well and truly shafted by my kegerator.

We've all been there, right?  It's one-to-thirty hours before a party, and you're prepping for what is sure to be an event where no fewer than a dozen people will ask, "so, what have you brewed lately?" because that's your thing.  You check on the kegerator...

...and something's wrong.

CO2 tank is empty.

It's too warm.

It's too cold.

There's beer leaking all over the place.

It's way too foamy.

Or all of the above.  And you're screwed.

This week at Beer Simple we'll be talking through some ways to deal with these sudden failures that always seem to hit when you're least prepared to deal with them.  But hey - maybe you've never had this happen, and if that's the case, please e-mail me at josh@beer-simple.com with the name of the guy/gal that supplies you with your sacrificial goats.

The Slow and Quiet Death of the CO2 Cylinder

This is probably the most common.  The number of panicked Facebook posts and sudden mailing list e-mails looking for the nearest refill location is clear evidence of that, and given that we're talking pre-party, they usually come at REALLY inopportune times!  You have options, though.

The easiest fix here is prevention.  Make sure your gas connections are screwed on nice and tightly, use thread tape, and make it a habit to check in.  But even if you do that, you might get a sudden failure.

The next-easiest is to always have a spare and relatively full CO2 cylinder.  It doesn't need to be much - pushing the beer is the easy part and uses relatively little gas, so you don't need a dedicated, full replacement.  After the third such incident in six months, I decided to just purchase a second five-pound cylinder and use it for my initial keg pressurizing.  That way it has a purpose, and I always have a backup if things go wrong.

Another option is to keep on hand some of the small 16-gram CO2 cartridges and the requisite connections to make them work.  These are more than sufficient to keep your beer moving in the short term.

But let's get a little stupid.  My favorite move is to use the carbonation already in the beer to build up pressure to pour it.  I've done this for more than two hours at an event when I realized that the cylinder I'd brought was empty.  A little sloshing shake every few minutes kept the beer pouring, and no one even noticed the slowly decreasing level of carbonation.  Dumb, but simple and effective.

Fridge to Sauna

This past Friday before the party - literally four days ago - I was doing my usual pre-party faucet cleaning and check, and I noticed the beer was foaming like mad.  My first thought was that I'd developed a contamination in the keg, but then I realized the mug I was holding was warm.  Sure enough, my trusty, free, rolled-it-down-the-street-into-my-garage-after-dumpster-diving-it keg fridge had died, and my beer was rocking a solid 82F.  Hot Amber, anyone?  I didn't have a kegerator anymore.  I had a Keg Sauna.

Luckily it was a relatively small beer-drinking crowd coming, and I could get by with what I had in bottles/cans.  But what if this was just before our homebrew club's winter social?

What's essential is getting cold beer out of the keg.  For that, not ALL of the beer needs to be cold, just what's coming out.  So keep on hand a tub of any size, a large (20 pound) bag of ice, and a couple of picnic taps.

I use a large aluminum tub that neatly fits two kegs.  In the event of a cooling failure, I can pop two kegs off of the kegerator, stick them in the tub in a nice thick ice bath, and attach two picnic taps.  Since the dip tube is drawing from the bottom of the keg, it doesn't matter that the ice bath only comes up about halfway - what's down low is still plenty cold.  Voila - cold beer on draft.

Could this have been prevented?  Maybe.  I'd heard the thing making some odd noises a few days before, but it still seemed to be cold.  At the very least I should have been conscious of the probability of an imminent failure, but what can I say - apparently I'm an appliance optimist (or ostrich)!

Foam Party

There's something about beer that's pouring flat or way too head-y that makes me feel like a complete beer amateur.  I don't know what it is, but I feel like the moment someone pours a pint of head off the tap they're looking around and thinking, "oh, I see, you wanted a tap system but have no idea how to manage it..."

So I'm sensitive to what you might call the Foam Party Effect.  Cue the strobe lights and the techno music.

To start with, a lot of people screw themselves here, so step one in avoiding "heady" pours is to instruct your guests on how to pour a beer (maybe even hanging a small sign).  Angle the glass, snap open the tap fully, don't try to "throttle" it, etc.

But what if it's not you, it's me?

Sometimes (as happened with my Keg Sauna), your issue is temperature disparity.  Limit as much as possible any changes in temperature from keg to glass, which is tough if you have a long distance to traverse.  Luckily, most of you will either be pouring through a collar or countertop, but if you're going through a wall you can secure 10-12" shanks that can pass through a mounting board, the wall, and the back of your fridge.  This will keep all of your sitting-in-the-tubing beer at the same temp since it's all in the fridge, inside and outside the keg, which will help.

Also, make sure you're appropriately balancing your kegs.  Properly balanced, you should maintain a steady level of pressure/volumes of CO2 in the keg AND get a steady, easy pour out of your faucets.

If it's ALL of your taps that are making like a South Beach nightclub and foaming all over the place, then it's probably one of these issues.  If it's just ONE tap, though, you can get into some other possible explanations.

First, you might have a contamination in that keg or that set of lines.  Taste the beer - if you're getting sharp acidity, acetic/vinegar flavors, a grape-juice-like flavor, or the more traditional baby-vomit-plus-goat-shit-rolled-in-cherries, then pop that thing out of there, throw away any plastic beer lines it's touched, swap out the o-rings in the keg, and give the keg and shank and faucet a good cleaning/sanitizing.

Second, you might also have an obstruction in the line.  A constricted passage (and this can be something as simple as a bit of hop matter, a bit of silicon tape, etc.) will cause agitation in the beer and force CO2 out of solution.  When you're pouring, look for pressure/flow irregularities at the faucet, look for bubble buildup in the beer line, and check your visible connections for anything that's blocking the flow of beer, even minutely.

Last, check for kinks in your beer lines.  Shanks are solid, and beer should flow smoothly through them, but that tubing can kink faster than...some metaphor involving New Orleans and Mardi Gras.

And if your problem is beer that's barely moving, increase the pressure and then double back to balancing your kegs!

The Beer Vat

One of my brother-in-law's first beers was a massive IPA that used about a pound of hops in five gallons.  He was so excited about it, because it was going to go head-to-head with another home brewery's beer (two brothers who lived down the street) in an informal competition.

But "Brother Crusher IPA" never made it to the showdown.  It ended its short but happy life as a small swimming pool of hoppy beer inside of chest freezer, where it smelled glorious for a couple of hours before turning into a rancid mess.

The keg leak is probably the worst offender here.  First, it often also accompanies a dead CO2 tank.  But second, and more importantly, it's a massive waste of your time and effort (and beer).  And while four gallons of Oktoberfest dumped on a floor smelled incredible for about half a day, once the late September heat has a bit of time to work on it my garage smelled like I'd been storing yak corpses in it.

When this happens, it's time to check the liquid connections throughout your system.  Don't just fix the immediate problem (for me, a loose nut on a beer line connection), because if you put this system together all at the same time then another small leak could be lurking just a few days or weeks down the road.

So get in there and check the keg "Out" post and poppet, your post connector, the nut and clamp connecting it to the beer line, and the connection between the beer line and the shank.  Tape, tighten, and test it all, because if you think you're pissed the first time it happens, wait until the second time (and the Dubbel didn't smell any better than the Oktoberfest, let me tell you...).

An Ounce of Prevention

Almost every problem I've ever had with my kegs (probably) could have been prevented by better and more-conscientious maintenance.  However, I was too sold on the idea that "no news is good news" on my kegs, and that the less I touched and tinkered the more solid they'd be.

Learn from my poor example.  Take care of your kegs and kegerator, and they'll take care of you.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Clubbing: A Brief Introduction to Brewing Clubs v. Beer Clubs

If you’ve been brewing for a year or more, there’s a good chance you’ve started looking into joining a homebrew club.  Depending on how anal-retentive you happen to be – or what the options look like in your area – you may or may not have previewed and auditioned more than one club. 

It shouldn’t come as any surprise to hear that not all homebrew clubs are created equal.  I’m not talking about size, the kinds of activities they engage in, or even brewing quality.  No, what I’m talking about is the difference between a brewing club and a beer club.

They sound basically the same, right?  Trust me when I say that they’re not (or don’t, and just keep reading!), and the differences matter. 

I’m not passing judgment, or arguing for one type over the other, but being able to spot the difference might mean a much more satisfying experience as you hunt around for a club to call home.

THE BREWING CLUB V. THE BEER CLUB

Brewing clubs are pretty easy to spot.  Beer tasting and evaluation tends to be more structured and is present at every meeting.  You’re likely to find a significant number of BJCP-certified beer judges.  Members brew at least once a month, and often more.  The club tends to sponsor intra- and/or inter-club competitions that encourage members to brew outside of their comfort zones.  For example, my club, Stoney Creek Homebrewers, has a “duel” program in which members can challenge any other member to brew a specific type or style of beer (or a beer with a specific ingredient), and the challenged member MUST accept.  The result is an opportunity to engage in a bit of friendly competition while at the same time forcing you to get creative and challenge yourself.  Duels have included everything from a boring-but-tasty English bitter duel all the way up to the surprisingly-good malt liquor duel. 

Brewing clubs also tend to have a substantial emphasis on education and technical development of their members.  You don’t need to pay for luminaries to come visit, either: conscientious members can volunteer to engage in some basic research and provide a brief class to the membership, at which point a general discussion can evolve. 

Brewing clubs are about brewing. 

The beer club is a different animal entirely.  While it is comprised of (mostly) homebrewers, it lacks an emphasis on brewing.  Evaluation of beers tends to be a bit haphazard, sometimes with nothing more formal than members roaming the room with a growler and pouring samples. 

They also tend to be heavily social, with very little organized activity, either at meetings or in club activities.  Education is often reserved for specific events external to the club’s normal meetings, and sometimes includes larger-scale talks with outside experts.

Beer clubs are about lots of things, including brewing, but usually lack a particular focus or strategy, which can make them seem a bit more ad hoc and freewheeling.  And the focus is more on beer than brewing.

FIND YOUR FIT

Finding the right homebrew club for you is, like many things in life, about finding the right fit. 

To a highly social, extroverted, or casual brewer a more-structured club like the stereotypical “brewing” club described above will likely seem a bit dull or stiff.  It will seem too obsessed with rules and agendas and the technical minutiae.  You’ll likely be bored.

To a more technically-minded or – let’s just say it – neurotic brewer, the typical “beer” club described above will feel like a waste of time.  You’ll want to give and receive feedback on your beer but might get nothing more than a nod and a two-word response.  You might also find that large beer clubs get clique-ish and can be a bit unwelcoming to new members – maybe not deliberately, but it can still feel that way to someone without a lot of friends in the room. 

Find your fit. 

MAKE YOUR FIT

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with multiple homebrew clubs, then it’s probably a good idea to audition all of the ones that are a reasonable distance away rather than just jumping into the first (or closest) club you find.  If you’re not, then don’t be afraid to start your own club!  Stoney Creek was created because a few people in the same area that were already acquainted formed a club around a kitchen table – and what started with four attendees now draws ten times that many regularly, has a main and satellite chapter, and is a significant contributor to its local community.

But don’t settle.  A supportive and helpful club – whatever kind you prefer – is a great way to keep yourself motivated and interested in brewing.  It will bring you into contact with like-minded people in your area, and connect you to the larger brewing community.  It may end up being an important part of your social life or be a priceless resource to develop your brewing skills.

KEEP A WANDERING EYE

It should also be noted that clubs don’t all fit into neat boxes.  There are large and decentralized clubs that are highly focused on the technical aspects of brewing.  There are small clubs that function as social clubs more than brewing clubs even if they follow Roberts Rules of Order to a T.  And clubs evolve over time: what starts as one type may develop into another, depending on the wants of its membership or the actions of its leadership.  So be flexible, and be willing to bail.

Hell, you should also be willing to join more than one club!  I’ve known lots of homebrewers that belong to multiple clubs as a way to take advantage of what each has to offer.

So keep looking until you find (or found) what you want.  There are few things that will do more for your enjoyment of homebrewing than joining a homebrew club, and the effort to find a club you like will yield benefits for years to come. 

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Professional vs. Amateur Brewing: A Game With Which I am Not Familiar

After watching the field-crushing performance by Jack Nicklaus during the 1965 Masters, Bobby Jones, the tournament's legendary co-founder and a man idolized by Nicklaus himself, had the following to say about Nicklaus' performance:

"He plays a game with which I am not familiar."

That sentence runs through my head quite a lot when I hear homebrewers talk about brewing - especially when they're citing professional brewery practices to justify something they believe to be essential to homebrewing.  

When Jones gave his famous quote, he wasn't being humble or even falsely modest: he was simply pointing out that the game of golf was so different compared to when he had competed (equipment, the advent of professional golfers whose sole vocation was the game, course design) that the two could hardly be compared.  He was complimenting Nicklaus, to be sure - but he wasn't necessarily conceding that Nicklaus was more skilled or talented.

So it is with homebrewing v. professional brewing.  What is necessary, desirable, or appropriate for one is not necessarily so for the other.  They're playing a game with which we homebrewers are not (well, are maybe notfamiliar.

A Question of Goals

Homebrewers should not consider themselves "minor league" brewers.  If I made a list of the best brewers I know, it would be about an even split between pros and talented amateurs.  

At the same time, we should not consider ourselves "mini-pro" brewers.  There is far more that separates us from professional brewers than the scale of our batches (and for that matter, some homebrewers regularly brew on a brewpub or nano scale).

The most significant difference between us is the goal being served.  Professional brewers brew to earn a living.  Yes, they also (hopefully) want to make great beer, give back to their community, provide employment, and enjoy their work - but they're also doing it to support their families, which means that when push comes to shove they're always, at least in the back of their minds, staring down the barrel of a profit motive.  This will alter their practices.  It will likely make them risk-averse.  It will probably make them value consistency and, perhaps, mediocrity.  They are brewing to a standard, whether it be industry norms, market conditions, safety or health requirements, or some combination of these.

Homebrewers do not brew for profit.  A bad batch will not mean an unpaid bill.  We have no need to brew to meet the demands of the madding crowd.  We have no fears of mistreatment of our beer by a distributor or vendor or bartender.  For that matter, we have time on our side: even if we screw up, there's a decent chance the beer will be gone before our mistake is manifest.  We're brewing for ourselves, and our mistakes are ours alone - and if we can tolerate them, then in most cases they do no further harm.

To hold ourselves to a professional standard is not only unrealistic - it is unnecessary.

Form Follows Function

This isn't going to be a point-by-point review of things that pro brewers do that we don't need to - it's more a request that you refrain from automatically adopting pro brewers' dogma about brewing.  We're not playing the same game.  Our equipment, scale, and purpose differ in all kinds of ways that change our processes.  

A few quick examples:

  • Yeast health and fermentation are very different games when you have 200+ gallons of beer pressing down on a yeast bed vs. 5 gallons.
  • Maximizing mash efficiency isn't nearly as important when you're not trying to preserve a very thin profit margin.
  • Temperature changes, runoff, the addition of ingredients, and any number of other things might take a LOT longer in a professional brewery. 
  • You're probably not brewing lots of beers across multiple shifts in the same week.
  • Your beer doesn't need to survive weeks in transit and then on the shelf and still be drinkable.
  • A hop chosen for a very high alpha acid percentage might make sense to a brewery who can buy less of it for the same IBUs, but not to a homebrewer looking to minimize cohumulone.

We could go on, but I assume you get the point (and people get on me for writing too much).  When I write about something you can probably leave out of your process and still get good beer, at least one person always writes, "but ABC Brewing Co. would never do that, so how can you say we should?"  

Because we're not professional brewers.  It's like asking why I don't go out and run a mile before the start of a marathon - elite runners do it to get loose and ready, so why not me?  Because I'm not looking to qualify for the Olympics - I'm just trying to survive and finish with a decent time, and I don't have 27.2 miles in me (26.2 is more than enough). 

And why are we reverencing professional brewers as though they have access to magical knowledge that we don't?  For certain, they often have more experience - more brewing "reps" under their belt - but as noted above, their goals and process aren't the same as ours.  Their rules and norms don't automatically apply to me any more than mine apply to them.  They may or may not have more brewing education than you.  They may or may not have a better culinary sense than you.  Hell, they may or may not even be a better brewer than you.  The only thing we're sure they have that we don't is a license to produce beer for sale - they're professionals.

I'm an amateur.  But so what?  "Amateur" doesn't mean "worse."  And let's not forget that "amateur" frees us up to experiment without fear, innovate, take advantage of small batch sizes to make unique beers, and more.  There's value in being an amateur.

Hell - Bobby Jones was an amateur.

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).


Hot or Not: Heat Effects on Flavor Stability in Finished Beer

While we're right to be wary of light when it comes to finished beer, worries about heat are - persistently and irrationally - overstated.  While heat does have an effect, it isn't an inherently damaging factor in its own right: it needs help.  And, by and large, if you're producing good, healthy beer then you don't need to worry quite as much.

Bright vs. Hot

Light is our enemy.  We've all tasted skunky beer.  Skunking is an effect caused by the interaction of UV light with specific compounds found in hops (though not hop extracts, as I understand it).  This has led some to conflate light with heat, which is a bad idea for at least two reasons.

First, it might make some less wary of light exposure in cold environments.  Be wary.  Chilled beer that's sitting under fluorescent lights, or out in the sun on a cold day, is probably going to skunk quickly.

And second, there's very little reason to be concerned about heat, in and of itself.  Some have written about the potential for the formation of coagulated proteins due to extended hot aging (which I'm not scientist enough to support or rebuke), but I can't recall a specific time when I experienced it.  Reading others' accounts the effects seem to be limited to mouthfeel and head formation which, while important, aren't at quite the same level as light effects, which can make your beer taste like homeless-person asparagus urine.

A Natural Experiment

One reason I'm pretty confident that heat isn't a principle concern in terms of beer flavor and its stability is because I'm a bit of a nerd.  I generate and keep data on my beer, and one of the things I track is competition score as a function of age in the bottle.  It gives me a sense of overall flavor stability, among other things, and one year I was provided with a nice little natural experiment.

I moved.  And in the course of moving house, my finished, to-be-sent-to-competition beer had to be stored for 32 days in a garage.  In the middle of summer.  During several heat waves.

Now, ordinarily my "evaluation" beer doesn't see the light of day between bottling and submission, and it's stored in a near-freezing refrigerator.  So as you can see, this was beer abuse - if we start from an a priori position that heat is a detriment to beer.  

Well, I now had my natural experiment.  18 beers that had been hot-aged for a month, vs. those in previous (and subsequent, eventually) years that had not.  I compared the scores for those beers to those of other beers of similar style and age, and also compared the average effective "life" of each (the point at which its flavor and/or scores fall off the cliff, using judges' scores/comments as well as my own organoleptic evaluation).

Results

I'll spare you the statistics (though I hope to present them in some detail at a future Homebrewcon), but suffice it to say that there was no statistically significant decrease in scores or life expectancy for the treatment ("hot-aged") beers.  

Scoring fluctuation was within "normal" limits (there's always a bit of variability in those due to the human nature of beer judging).  

Flavor stability was unaffected (and, in fact, for the lagers I got a very counterintuitive result when their timeline actually extended).  I can count on more than a year (13.1 months, to be exact, as a 20-batch moving average) of flavor/scoring stability, and this batch had no issues there.  The hot-aged beers varied in initial bottling date, too, so some were hit with this within a few weeks of bottling, and others after more than a year.  As a group, and individually, there was no statistically (or substantively) significant change.

And for what it's worth, they tasted fine, too.  But that's so highly subjective that I shudder to even mention it.

When Heat Matters

Maybe I just got lucky.  It's certainly possible.  But I don't think that's it.

Heat has one undeniable effect on beer (and most any other chemically-reactive situation): it speeds up reactions.  Arrhenius tells us that for every 10C increase in temperature, reaction times double.  Now, many have taken this rule and oversimplified it to state that "heat means beer stales faster."  That's incomplete.

Heat certainly might make beer stale faster, or sour faster, or anything faster - but only if the requisite process(es) is (are) already underway.  A beer with only limited contamination might be "turning" faster than it ordinarily would have in a cold environment, but that doesn't automatically mean that it will hit detectable levels before its normal timeline runs out.  

So I'm not denying Arrhenius' rule, I'm just saying that it might have only limited (insignificant and/or insubstantial) effects depending on the underlying beer's situation.  If you have some history of producing contaminated beer, then, you should certainly be avoiding heat.

Heat is also blamed for accelerating oxidation, but that, too, is incomplete.  Subject to Arrhenius' rule above, oxidation (if already present) may be brought to the fore more quickly in hot-aged beer.  What many are blaming on heat, though, might really be a function of temperature fluctuation, not temperature level.  As temperatures change, your beer bottles (and their caps) are expanding and contracting.  That temperature change is also causing pressure changes, and these two elements are very likely resulting in the introduction of more oxygen into your beer.  Hence, greater risk of oxidation.

So yes, temperature swings might be present in a hot-aged environment, but apparently they weren't a huge issue in my dad's garage.  And if you gave me the choice between aging at a steady 85F vs. aging in a cooler room with 30F temperature swings, I'd take "hot" every day of the week.

Respect Heat, but Don't Fear It

In a perfect world, as soon as your beer is carbonated to your target level, you should be storing it cold.  But if circumstances make that a challenge, you shouldn't abandon all hope.  Make your priority temperature stability, and keep your fingers crossed that whatever's happening faster in that bottle isn't going to catch up to you!

And if you notice that it is...well, I guess it's time to get rid of it.  Cheers!

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).


No Man is an Island: The (Occasional) Pleasure of Joint Brewing

About 95% of the time, I brew alone.  I like it.  Everything that happens - good or bad - is down to me.  It means that I get to decide precisely how things go down: recipe, mash temperature, boil length, hop additions, dilution or addition, how long to oxygenate - all me.  And like a lot of people who are fundamentally introverts, I know that "being alone" isn't the same thing as "being lonely."  I rather enjoy brewing as a solitary pursuit, with only Biscuit the Brewdog (who doesn't make demands or suggestions, only wags and approves) as an audience.

Which is why, about every 40 batches or so, when my wife gets an awesome idea for a beer, I get a little anxious about our joint brew day.  

A Stranger in the Brewery

Mostly, Barbara sticks to meads.  She prefers them to drink, and she also seems to prefer them to make - the patience and care that they require suit her temperament.  But about once a year, she gets inspired by something or other to make a beer.  One year it was a Thanksgiving beer: an Irish Red with cranberries and rosemary, the perfect complement to a leftover turkey sandwich (it was great).  Another year it was a maple almond beer (it was remarkable).  This year it's an Earl Grey Braggot (which I'm sure will be exceptional).  

This isn't about her beer sensibility: she has remarkable taste and an impressively intuitive sense of what will work in beer, which is all the more impressive when you realize that she doesn't drink more than 16 ounces of beer in a year.  

No, this is really just about sharing the brewery.  It's in our house, just off of the Great Room (gotta love induction - indoor brewing!!!).  It isn't explicitly "my" space.  But still, in descending order of who spends the most time in there, it's me, then Biscuit in a respectably-close second, and then Barbara WAAAAAY back from the two of us.  So it feels odd, having her there.

It's like when the bears get home and realize someone's been in their beds and at their porridge: something's not right here...

For at least the first half hour or so, it's like wearing your watch on the wrong wrist. But then, something changes.

Sharing is Caring

After the initial awkwardness, it's really a pleasure to be brewing together!  I run a pretty tight brewing ship (as regular readers will have read before), but with two sets of hands we can brew even faster!  Or at least accomplish the same work in the same time with less individual bother.  

There's someone to talk to.  There's an interested person there asking questions and offering insights of her own.  Brewing becomes collaborative, and while my experience means that I'm making a lot of recommendations, I'm also being confronted with new questions and ideas that my brewed-a-few-hundred-times brain hasn't considered in a long time - and maybe forever.

And beyond that is the simple fact that it's fun to share something you love with someone you love (or even someone you just like, if the person that's in the brewery that day isn't Barbara or Biscuit, but just a friend or acquaintance).  When I stop and think about it - even now as I type this - my fingers get tingly from the simple joy of knowing that someone cares to ask how you know when the mash is done.  

It doesn't even really matter that I'm providing most of the technical information - at the end of the day, that's just trivia and minutiae.  What matters is that we're doing it together.  

What a great thing to be doing together.  Of course, anything can be a great thing to do together, with the right person or people.  

Just Enough

But then I think..."OK, that's enough for now."

Whether it's because I don't want to become bored or complacent with it, I tend to come around to the idea that this once-in-a-while experience is quite enough.  It's like smoking a cigar two or three times a year instead of one a day: you preserve the "specialness" of the experience, but you also avoid building up a tolerance, so you still get that nice buzzy high from it every time.

I (eventually) love brewing with someone else.  It's a wonderful collaborative experience.  But I wouldn't want it all the time.

One of two things would happen if I didn't think this way.  Either I'd eventually feel that itch to get away and reclaim my solitude in some other venue, or the novelty of the situation would wear off and it would dilute the happy memory making quality of the thing - which even if it happened only a little bit would be a tragedy, like a small death (and not the good kind).  

And so we brew together, and a few weeks later we package it up together, and I return to my hermit-like brewing life.  

We'll brew again together, I'm sure of it.

Not too often.  Not too rarely.  Just enough.  

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).


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

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).


(Almost) All's Fair: Homebrew Competition Ethics

There's no rule that says you need to enter competitions with your beer - but if you're going to, then you're bound to have some questions about what's OK, what's verboten, and the grey areas in between.

Just like lawyers debate legal ethics, brewers will hold differing views on competition ethics.  I'm not here to tell you this is the definitive answer to these questions, but as always I'm more than willing to respond to any challenges to these answers.

Competing is fun, and a great way to get objective feedback.  I've always advocated entering all of your beers multiple times to get a collection of reactions (to account for any outliers, bad bottles, etc.).  The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) exists to help make competitions and judging as objective and valuable as possible, but keep in mind that they don't supervise competitions.  Competitions set their own practices and rules (often with BJCP/AHA guidance).  Not everything is covered there, though - which leads to lots of questions in lots of places on what's "in bounds" when it comes to competitions.  As a veteran judge and entrant and organizer I thought I'd throw out some questions I hear regularly.

Off we go...

This thing is totally NOT what I was trying to brew - do I have to enter it as what it was supposed to be?

Nope.  You're entering what you brewed, not what you were trying to brew.  If your Rauchbier recipe totally whiffed on smoke character (bad batch of smoked malt, bad recipe, yeast scrubbed out the flavor, etc.) then you don't have to enter it as one - go ahead and enter it as an Oktoberfest.  

I'm not sure what this beer is, really - can I enter it in more than one category?

This might vary from competition to competition, but usually the answer is that you can enter it in as many categories as it fits (and doesn't, for that matter - if you want to waste your money...).  While some might say that it's borderline to cross-register the same beer for the purposes of winning medals/earning points in some larger multi-competition contest, I say that if there's an inefficiency/overlap in the guidelines that allows (for example - not that I necessarily did this...) a Black IPA to win a medal as both a Robust Porter and an American Stout, then that's not the fault of the entrant.  

Most entry guidelines in most competitions prohibit you from entering the same sub-category with more than one beer, but that's about it.

My awesome beer won a medal in a competition - can I enter it again?

Sure.  If you've got the flavor stability to win multiple medals with the same beer over time, then that's a sign of your brewing prowess.  Why shouldn't you be rewarded for it?  My first BOS was for a 16-month-old Berliner Weisse that had competed well in several previous competitions.

My even-awesomer beer advanced to the second round of NHC!  Can I re-brew or enter a different version of it?

If you've got the time, I highly recommend it.  Freshness is often a major asset, and you're well within your rights to brew another batch before delivering your entries - after all, it's still your beer, and if you're consistent enough to produce the original award-winning beer again, then good on you.  And what with the timeliness of First Round results these days, most brewers of most beers will have the opportunity to do so, so it doesn't create any kind of unique advantage.

I've heard some say that you should, though, produce an identical version of the recipe.  I don't agree, but I acknowledge it's a grey area. The way I see it, if you're willing to take the risk of tweaking it, then you're also entitled to the potential benefits.

I've opened/work at a professional brewery/meadery/cidery - can I still enter homebrew competitions with you amateurs?

Be very careful with this.  Strictly speaking, yes - so long as you're brewing on homebrew equipment, not professional equipment (which, I would argue, includes your small-scale pilot system).  And most competitions require that you not be using the competition for quality control or market research purposes.  If you've cleared those (and any other competition-specific) hurdles, then fine.  But....

I still wouldn't do it.  There's a whiff of...something.  I wish I could articulate it better, but there's just an element of "not your party anymore" about it.  If I can't enter GABF, then maybe you shouldn't be entering the Dixie Cup.  

The two exceptions I have no problem with would be a) things you brewed, at home, before you began brewing anywhere else (professionally), and b) things that are outside of your "professional" umbrella (so if you're a pro brewer, then by all means keep entering homemade meads).

I put [obscure specialty ingredient] in this - do I have to say so?

No - remember, you're entering the beer you've got, not the one you were trying to get.  If you made a mango-cherry IPA but there's not even the faintest whiff of mango, then just call it a cherry IPA.  This, by the by, is also just good description strategy: in Specialty category descriptions, don't list things unless they're obvious.  If you list strawberry and there's barely any there, I may end up docking you for it; if you don't list it and I pick it up (and it's appropriate), then it's just adding complexity.  

Can I enter my own homebrew club's competition?  I know a lot of the judges, and they've had my beer...

Absolutely.  But avoid talking to club members who are judges (or any judges) about what you've entered.  We want to preserve their objectivity as much as possible.  This is especially true in specialty categories where you might have the only Mint Saison on the table (or in particularly rare "straight" sub-categories, like Southern English Brown or Eisbock, when it might be the only one in competition).  

But the idea they they're so dialed-in that they can pull your Saison out of the pack?  Probably not.  Most judges would be very hard pressed to do so even if they knew your beer was in there, and in this case they shouldn't even have that much to go on.  Enter away!

I made two English IPAs/Fruit Beers/Meads, but the competition says I can only enter one beer per sub-category.  Can I enter it under my friend's/spouse's/dog's name instead?

No.  Misrepresenting who actually made your entries undermines the integrity of the competition - the only exception I can think of would be if you contacted the organizer and let them know what you were doing (just to get around the competition software's blocks on multiple sub-category entries, for example) and that you want them to make it ineligible to win its table.  

You can also ask for an exception, but unless it's a blanket change to the rules, I don't like that - it's rewarding you for asking for special treatment.  Petition for a rule change next time, and just pick one (either the best, or the one you want feedback on) to enter this time.  

I made this beer from a kit or someone else's recipe - I'm a fraud.  Can I still enter it like I'm one of you "make your own recipe" brewers?

Sure - and I'm surprised how often I hear this.  Two things.  One, if only "original recipes" were allowed, then there'd be very, very few entrants.  Most brewers use others' recipes from time to time, especially first attempts at a beer (or a clone) before they start dialing it in for their system or tastes, so you're not alone.  And two, every recipe comes out differently on every system, and for that matter (subtly) on every brew day even on the same system.  

It's your beer.  You made it.  You can enter it!

"People who blend beers are cheating."

Says who?  Breweries - home and professional - have blended beers to adjust flavors, add complexity, and cover faults for centuries.  If you're blending nothing but beers you've made (no popping the cork on that Rodenbach), then you're fine.  

"People who enter lots of beers are cheating."

Says who?  Let's say someone enters 12 beers (a nice even case, at two bottles per entry!).  Each one of those beers, in most cases, will be judged in a separate flight, which means each is competing independently.  And even if you get a little overlap because they're in the same category, or if categories get condensed to form a reasonably-sized flight, they're now competing for fewer available ribbons.  

Ultimately, a mediocre brewer who enters a bunch of beer isn't much more likely to win a medal with 12 beers than they were with two.  But hey, they might get lucky.

Can I just peel a label off of a commercial beer and enter it?

No, that'd be wrong.  It also wouldn't likely do you much good.  Go ahead if you really want to, but if you think that's the path to being showered in blue ribbons and Best of Show, you're wrong!  While the worst homebrew on the table would (hopefully) shut down a pro brewery, the best of it usually blows away most commercial beers (even good, successful ones).  

Is there anything that's definitely, absolutely wrong that will get me a Pete Rose-style lifetime ban?

The one definite no-no (aside from actually using commercial or someone else's beer) would be attempting to collude with judges to win.  Unusual cap colors.  Using unique words in descriptions.  Entering a particular (rare) style so they'll know it's yours.  That kind of stuff is totally off-limits.  

First, it's wrong.

Second, people pay (and, effectively, earn, via prizes) money in these competitions.  Once money gets involved, things should get a bit more serious.  

Third, you're undermining the reputation of the organizing club, its members, and our hobby.

Fourth, you're being an unconscionable, needy, untrustworthy, pathetic, scurrilous alehole by doing it, and when you're found out I hope that you're forced to drink nothing but low-carb macro beer for the rest of your life.

Questions, anyone?

If anyone has any others, post them below or at our Facebook page and we can talk!

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).


Why People Stop Homebrewing

Children.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 

 

Just kidding!  Well, not really.  There are lots of reasons, and this is just one, and certainly there are those who have kids that keep homebrewing.  But I've known a lot of homebrewers that are very much invested in the hobby, but then, quite understandably, get much more invested in their new family members.  Time gets short.  Budgets get tighter.  Sleep becomes a rarity.  If you know someone who's running really short on time thanks to their new addition(s), maybe offer to do a team brew with them, pick up their ingredients on your next LHBS run since they might not be able to get out there, and just be a supportive fellow homebrewer.  And you might also remind them that they're now responsible for training the next generation - my friend Seth's son Gabe got, as a Christmas present, one of my old CO2 regulators.  That kid is seriously into brewing, and he's not old enough to drink for another decade and a half.

Really, this time - 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).


Time is Beer: Brew Faster Without Rushing or Cutting Corners

A few weeks ago I doughed in at 8:34PM - not because I'm an insomniac (though that's kind of true), but because I knew I could be done brewing well before midnight.  "Done" as in a full mash, sparge, boil, whirlpool, chill, oxygenate, pitch, and cleanup.  Three hours, fifteen minutes from the first lick of heat on the mash tun pre-heat water to hanging up the last damp towel to dry.

A friend, reacting to this news on social media, wrote, "How is that possible???"  

The answer is a simple one (of course): it just doesn't take me long to brew.  I don't have a magic wand or a 6,000-watt heating element.  I'm also not making micro-batches (though admittedly they're 4.25G instead of a full five - kettle size).  These are full batches of all-grain beer on conventional (even weak) heat - but it's efficient, and that's what many are lacking in their brewing processes.

This week B:S will focus on promoting efficiency in your process: why it matters, what you might do differently (all without rushing), and what I do (to show it in practice on one system).

Why to Brew Faster

On a homebrewing discussion thread, someone recently asked, "why do I want to brew faster?"  The answer, from this blog's previously-stated perspective, is that a shorter brewing process means you'll be more likely to be able to find the time to brew, which will mean that you'll do it more frequently, which will both make you better at it and produce more beer.  

But you certainly don't have to.  Brew your own way!  For many, brewing is a long affair - and for many, that's exactly what they want, which is fine.  It's fine the same way many people use golf as an escape, a reason to spend some time in nature, and a good excuse to drink good (homebrewed, hopefully) beer at 10AM.  But for many others, brewing (especially all-grain) is simply too long a process, and that's a problem.

I golf.  Not very well, but I golf.  One of the reasons I'm not better is that to commit to a round of golf is to commit to 5-6 hours at the course, on the course, and recovering from the course, and that's a big chunk of time.  Now, if you told me that I could play a round in only 3:15, I'd be much more likely to do it.  Not all the time - but a lot more frequently than I currently do.  The same logic holds for brewing.

I want to be clear that I'm not talking about rushing.  I'm not even really talking about clock-watching.  I'm talking about a number of efficiencies that can be implemented as part of your regular brewing routine that just happen to save you time.  And faster brewing will (probably) mean more of it, at least until you hit your next bottleneck (money, keg space, tolerance for the smell of boiled hops in your place...).  

How to Brew Faster

My (anyone's) process is going to be equipment- or infrastructure-specific, but faster brewing is really about not wasting time.  That's all.  Not faster pumps or more energy output or cutting out steps, just using your brewing time well.  

How much time do you spend staring at a thermometer?  Or watching a pot (about to) boil?  Or cleaning?  The answer is probably "too much."  The total time involved in doing brewing tasks is certainly 7-8 hours, but most of that time it's the equipment doing the work, not you.  Rather than waiting for it, do other things while it's working.  

Some simple changes that yield good results:

  • Clean as you go.  Once I'm done with a piece of equipment, I clean it right away, as soon as I'm not actively managing my brewing process.  Why pile it up, all to be cleaned at the end?  By the time I'm chilling and pitching, the only things that remain to be cleaned are the wort chiller, the kettle, and the oxygenating stone.  Mash tun?  Clean and draining.  Spoon and paddle?  Cleaned in the runoff from the wort chiller. Pitchers, tubing, counters?  Done, done, and done.  And if you can keep a tub, bucket, or sink full of your favorite cleaner, all the better.  Let the chemicals do the work.
  • Be prepared.  Those Boy Scouts really had it right.  If it's time for a hop addition, have your hops weighed and ready to go.  When it's sparge time, have that water at the right temperature to go in as soon as you finish lautering.  I watch friends brew, and they're often reacting to their brewing instead of planning for it.  The great part is that once you get your routine/process down, you'll always be ready and won't even need to think about it much.
  • Start warm.  This one may be a bit controversial, but one way I cut time out is to start with the hottest tap water I can.  Some have pointed out to me that thanks to mineral buildup in the water heater, brewers might be using water that is chemically different than what they're expecting.  True.  But so what?  Try it first - see what your results are.  Maybe submit two bottles for water testing, one pure cold and one pure hot and see what the differences are - hell, it might even help!  But I'm not one for looking for problems before they exist.
  • Cover your kettle while you come to a boil.  This will get you to boiling faster (about 45% faster, on my induction element) and anything that would have steamed off in that time will likely come out in the boil anyway (and if you feel better, you can lift the lid carefully and wipe off the water that's collected there, keeping it out of the boil!). 
  • Get hot, early.  If you keep your tubing off of the bottom of your kettle, there's no reason you can't start heating immediately at the start of runoff (assuming you're using high-temp tubing).  Silicon tubing is rated up to 275F (135C), and your wort isn't getting that hot.  Start up that heat source and get to pre-heating your wort as it runs off to shave time off of your boil run-up!
  • Whirlpool efficiently.  Don't overdo the whirlpool.  There's an upper limit to how fast you can get that wort spinning with your spoon - 20 or so good strokes will get it moving at a brisk clip, and then you wait for it to settle out.  I've read folks who wait for up to 20 minutes for their beer to settle - why?  After five minutes or so the surface is still in my kettle, and I runoff successfully without a screen or false bottom.  
  • Count Whirlpool in your Boil time.  Even though the heat's off, that wort is still plenty hot to isomerize alpha acids.  Until you drop below 190F, you're still getting 50% or more isomerization.  So if it's a 2-3 minute whirlpool and a 5 minute rest and a 7 minute runoff, that's about 15 minutes.  If you count that at half par, that means your proper "boil" time can be reduced to 53 minutes while still giving your initial hop pitch (and later pitches) their "full" boil time.  In fact, this may solve a problem some have with "not getting any aroma or flavor" out of their hops.  You're whirlpooling so long, resting so long, and (before that) boiling so long that even your 10-minute addition is getting effectively 45 minutes of heat. 
  • Pre-heat your mash tun (if you're in a cooler).  This will save you a few degrees of heating for your mash water.  Just be sure to use the same volume and temperature of water each time - I like one gallon of boiling water, shaken up a bit after the lid's closed (to get a little more coverage and release steam).  Then work out your strike temp until you know the proper adjustment.
  • Keep your grains at room temperature.  This is another thing that's easy to overlook: cold grains affect mash temp, which means you'll either miss it low and spend ten minutes adding in small boiling water additions to get to the "right" temperature, or you'll simply spend more time bringing it up to the proper temperature in the first place (in a direct-heat mash vessel).  
  • Consider adopting a no-sparge process.  It'll cost you a bit more in grain, but will save you the time you'd spend adding water, settling, and vorlauf-ing.  You might even like the flavor better!

There are other time-savers out there, of course, but they get pretty system-specific.  Just look at your brew day, and make note of how much time you spend standing and staring - then fill that time with something you'll need to do anyway.  See how many times you're adjusting things - then work out a consistent process to avoid the tinker time.  Efficiency doesn't mean rushing.

My Brew "Day"

"Day" is in quotation marks because it isn't even a brew morning.  I use a Coleman mash tun, an 1800W induction element, a five-gallon kettle and...that's it.  Here goes.

  • Put 1G hot water into a pot, cover, and put on high heat on the stove (this is my one cheat - I use the kitchen stove to heat the mash tun pre-heat water).
  • While that's heating, I measure my mash water.  It comes hot from the faucet, through the carbon filter, into the measuring bucket.  That goes into the kettle, which immediately goes to 1800W (high) and is covered, on its way to strike temp.
  • Next I measure my sparge water.  It goes combo hot/cold into the measuring bucket, and is then set aside.
  • At that point, my mash tun pre-heat water is near boiling.  It goes into the mash tun, and gets a good shake.
  • While the mash tun is pre-heating, I go down to measure and mill my grain.  
  • When I come back up, I measure the mash water.  Usually, at this point it's within 10F of strike, and I drain the pre-heat water out of the tun, keeping the lid closed to preserve the heat.
  • When the mash water is at strike temp, it goes into the mash tun.  The milled grain follows.  A stir and a temp check, and we're good to go on the mash.  Elapsed Time: 15 minutes.  
  • Mash gets stirred twice, at 20 and 40 minutes.  At 20 minutes I also put the sparge water into the kettle and turn it to 1400W (med-high).  It's ready to add when mashing is complete (I do a modified no-sparge method).  
  • At 60 minutes after dough-in, the "sparge" water goes in, gets a stir, and is followed by a 10-minute rest.  Elapsed time: 1 hour 25 minutes.
  • I do a two-minute Vorlauf and a 13-minute runoff (about 1.5 qt/min), with heat running at full bore from the second Vorlauf finishes and I start running out the wort.  Elapsed time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
  • Once the kettle is full, it's covered.  At that point I clean out the mash tun, fill the sink with sanitizing solution, and add the cold-side equipment to it.  By the time that's complete, we're at a boil - start the clock!  Elapsed time: 1 hour 50 minutes.
  • 53 minutes later, and I've added whatever hops are necessary, Irish Moss (though I'm not convinced it does that much...), and it's time to kill the heat.  Whirlpool starts (just a spoon), and while it's swirling and settling I hook up the plate chiller and position the tubing to get ready to chill.  Roughly seven minutes later, we're ready to go.  Elapsed time: Two hours, 50 minutes
  • Fire up the water, open the ball valve on the kettle, and let gravity do its thing!  At 0.5GPM, the kettle is empty and the fermenter is wort-ed in under ten minutes (remember, only a 4.25G batch, after boil-off).  At that point it's 30 seconds of wide-open pure O2, in goes the yeast, and the carboy cap goes on.  Elapsed time: 3 hours
  • After that, it's just cleanup.  The wort chiller gets a full flow of hot and cold water from both ports, in sequence (wort in, wort out) and is set aside to drip-dry with the rest of the already-cleaned equipment.  The kettle gets hot water and a scrub, and water forced back through the ball valve to be sure it's clear, then a towel dry.  The sink, counters, and anything else left out is wiped down and put away.  
  • I carry the carboy down to the fermentation fridge, set the temperature, and mark the calendar date that it went in.  And that's it.  Elapsed time: 3 hours 15 minutes.

Waste Not, Want Not

At no time here am I rushing - unless I realize that I've forgotten I'm out of a certain grain and need to adjust my grist on the fly!  And this isn't about being in a hurry - as I often say to my wife (usually while following a very slow driver), "I don't need to be in a hurry to not want my time wasted."

Brewing faster gives you more time to do...anything.  It's a gift to yourself.  And it will mean more batches, faster skill development, and more of your homebrewed beer on offer.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to use some of my saved time to watch an old episode of Game of Thrones.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Conditional Love: Bottle Condition Without Fear (or Extra Yeast)

Three times in two weeks I've had to witness a crime: libel, or the publishing of false information that is damaging to one's character.  The victim?  Your yeast.  A substantial number of anti-yeasters out there are trash-talking your yeast.  They think they're weak.  They think they're lazy.  They think that they aren't up to the job of carbonating your beer.  And these yeast-haters are nearly always wrong.

This week we'll be talking about bottle conditioning.  Why it's (probably) good, how to do it to get the beer you want, and most importantly (as someone who hates to see kindly single-cell organisms run down unjustly) how little you really need to worry about the ability of your initially-pitched yeast to do the job.

In Defense of Bottling

I know that many of you hate bottling, and it would seem to fly in the face of the entire Beer: Simple philosophy (one keg is simpler than 60 bottles).  But sometimes you need a bottle of beer (competitions, to share at the homebrew club meeting, bring to a dinner party, etc.).  In that situation, knowing how to bottle condition effectively is useful (and let's not forget that bottling off of your kegs comes with its own challenges and variability, so it isn't as simple as "bam, ONE transfer into the keg!" unless you NEVER take/send beer anywhere).  Even when kegging, I bottle-condition a gallon of the beer and set it aside for evaluation and sharing.

It's also worth knowing about because if you're a prolific brewer (which you should be - at least once a month, and preferably twice!) you're going to run out of kegs sooner or later and have to resort to bottles.

And not for nothing, but I've never had all of my bottles go flat all at once right before a party (thanks, bled-off CO2 cylinder...my kegs are now paperweights...).

So now and again, you'll need to bottle.  And there's anecdotal evidence that it has some benefits in terms of flavor: the additional mini-fermentation may take up the oxygen in your head space (if there was any) and provide one last chance to clean up fermentation byproducts.  I've looked for scientific research on this, but wasn't able to find any - as a side note, does anyone else think it's time for the AHA or some such body to produce a peer-reviewed journal about homebrewing?  I do.

But in any case, I've done it both ways (-phrasing-) and my limited sample shows that my bottled-off-the-tap beers score lower and have a shorter stable shelf-life than my bottle conditioned beers.  For what it's worth.

Bottle Conditioning Basics

Nothing complicated here.  I mean, it's more complicated than, "well, guess I'd better pitch all five ounces of this here bag marked 'primin' sugar' into the beer!" (yes, that was written in a "yokel-ly" voice; sorry), but it's not much more complicated than that.  

You don't want to "rule of thumb" this.  Why not?  Because there's no reason to.  There are any number of perfectly reliable nomographs and calculators out there to give you the amount of carbonation you actually want.  So it by calculation.  So here's a simple process:

  1. Determine your beer volume.  It'll be a little less than what's in the fermenter: you'll lose some in transfer.
  2. Determine the beer's temperature.  The colder it is, the more CO2 is already in suspension.  You don't need to rectal-thermometer this thing, but within a few degrees, work out what temp it is at bottling.
  3. Determine your desired CO2 level.  When in doubt, 2.25 is a good "go-to," but many beers have a traditional level that you might consider following - or go your own way!  But like every other part of your recipe, it should be a choice, not an accident.  Think of CO2 as an ingredient.
  4. Decide on a source of priming sugar.  Corn sugar is most-common.  Cane sugar is fine.  You can also use DME, LME, honey, molasses, brown sugar, maple syrup - hell, almost anything with simple sugars in it.  But be aware that it might impart a touch of flavor, especially if we're talking a cooked sugar. Regular table sugar is perfectly fine.
  5. Punch this info into a calculator.  I use this one because it was the first one I saw when I Googled "priming sugar calculator" years ago.  There are lots of others.  They're all pretty damned accurate.
  6. Weigh your sugar, mix it with a cup or two of water, dissolve it, and boil for a minute or so before adding it to the bucket.  Then rack your beer on top of it.  No need to stir - the natural motion caused by the liquid transfer should more than adequately mix it in, and stirring can add oxygen that you don't want in the beer.  

And that's it.  Consistent bottle conditioning.  If you DON'T get carbonation the answer is almost certainly this simple one: keep them warm.  I almost always see near-complete carbonation in a week or 10 days.  If I don't, it's winter - and so I've learned to simply put them in the warmest room in our house (Laundry Room, if anyone cares) or stack the cases on top of the air register in the brewery and cover them with a towel or blanket so they get a nice shot of warm air at regular intervals.  But the answer has never, not once, been an inability of the yeast to properly carbonate the beer.

(Don't Fear) the Reaper

Now, on to the thing that prompted me to write this in the first place.  

Your yeast aren't dead.  Much like [SPOILER ALERT!] a certain Game of Thrones character, they're still very much alive.  

This might be one of those times when the brewing purists, dogmatists, and scientists will leap onto their keyboards to exclaim about how I must be wrong.  This is definitely, though, also one of those times when my answer is, "OK, but I've done it this way for years, and either I'm a pathological liar or maybe there's more than is dreamt of in your philosophy."

Don't worry about adding extra yeast.  Your existing yeast can do the job.

"But it's been in the fermenter for four weeks!"  Don't care.  

"But the ABV is 8.1%!"  Don't care.

"But it got cold and the yeast are definitely dormant!!!"  Don't care.

"But I racked to secondary!"  Don't care.

"But I filtered all the yeast out!"  Don't c- actually, yes, if you did that, then add more yeast.

But the rest of it?  Seriously - don't sweat it.  There are still lots of yeast there, and they can do the job.

"How do you know, alehole ?" [Trademark pending, btw...]  Because I've bottle conditioned with no additional yeast for....literally every beer I've ever put into a bottle, and every time I think the yeast won't handle it because of some terrible thing I've done to them, I'm proven wrong by those hardy little bastards.  

Secondary?  The yeast are still there.  If you haven't filtered them out, they're still present.  Moving the beer off of the yeast cake shouldn't matter at all. 

Length of time?  I recently brewed a braggot with Adam Crockett of Haymaker Meadery (congrats to Haymaker on their recent Mead Free or Die medal!!!).  We made it for a beer festival in December, so this was October.  Unfortunately it didn't make it to the festival (I ran out of kegs, and he has two real jobs, so...), and I forgot about it in the hustle and bustle of the holidays.  Then I started a busy, busy semester and was on a brewing hiatus (hence, I didn't visit my fermentation fridge), and it just sat.  And sat.  And sat.  For FIVE MONTHS.  And guess what?  Bottle conditioned to 2.5 volumes with no additional yeast.  

ABV?  Don't make me laugh.  My biggest "normal" beer is an 11.2% Wee Heavy.  No problems at all.  Bottle conditions right up.

Cold treatment?  Please.  I once over-froze an Eisbock that was already at 9% alcohol and three months in the carboy, and freeze-distilled to just over 13% when I iced-off about 40% of it by accident. Carbed up just fine - it took a little longer (three weeks instead of 10 days), but no problems.

I've never yet had the yeast fail me.  And as you can see, I've tried.  

Now, is there a chance that my abused and stressed-out yeast are carbonating my beer but also adding off-flavors to it?  I guess it's possible.  But if so, they aren't adding much - it's a very small fermentation, and I've not noticed any "stressed-yeast" off-flavors, nor have the judges who have evaluated it.  In fact, my best-scoring beers historically are the very-lowest ABV (3.0% Berliner Weisse) and one that's fairly-high (8.5% Dopplebock).  There's no significant correlation between ABV and scoring or flavor stability in my data.

The bottom line here is that by adding a new yeast pitch, you're adding a step.  You're adding cost.  You may be adding variability in your process if you don't do it consistently.  You might be adding a wild or mutated yeast, or contamination.  And you'd be doing it for basically no reason.

If you're having issues with getting your beer to condition, check the thermostat.  It's been the culprit in every "missing carbonation" case I've ever worked.

So condition away, and trust in your yeast.  They are wise, and they will take care of your beer.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Xana-Brew: Surviving and Thriving at the National Homebrewers Conference

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"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree..."  What follows in the Coleridge poem is a description of an Eden-like paradise built for the enjoyment of only those within the walls.  This summer, those walls will be those of the Baltimore Convention Center, and if history is any guide more than half of those in attendance will be at their very first National Homebrewers Conference (NHC).  It's time to get psyched.

NHC (or #homebrewcon as the AHA would like to rechristen it) is probably the best beer event you'll ever attend, see, or hear about.  It is homebrew Xanadu, Valhalla, and a Beer Garden of Eden all rolled into one.   This week we'll be talking about how to get the most out of it, because while it's undoubtedly an unbelievable event, it'll go by in a flash and you may want to go in with a plan!  And even if you won't be coming to Baltimore for this year's NHC, you may want to read on to get a sense of what you can expect in years to come when you finally can take the plunge.

A Birds-Eye View of the Conference

NHC is nominally a three-day event (there are pre- and post-conference activities as well), beginning on Thursday and closing on Saturday.  It incorporates three evening events (Opening Toast/Kickoff, Club Night, and the Grand Banquet), daytime seminars (usually three or four per hour, from 9-4 or so), and a Homebrew Expo and Social Club for homebrewing suppliers, equipment vendors, product reps, etc.  

The name of the game here is beer.  There's more of it, in greater variety, than you'll find anywhere in the world.  That's a bold statement, but I challenge anyone out there to prove me wrong.  It's brought in by craft breweries, produced and distributed by homebrew clubs, offered by vendors, and toted around by the attendees themselves (and if you show up without any, don't worry, you'll be handed a couple of Commemorative Beers on arrival).

It's up to you to decide what you want to get out of it.  This piece will cover the big picture stuff and provide some advice, but this is your event.  Make it what you want it to be!

Two Roads Diverged...

I've found that there are two overall strategies to NHC, and while they aren't mutually exclusive, most attendees will tend to stick to one or the other.  On one path you have what is primarily a sensory and consumption experience: basically a three-day beer tasting orgy with every style, type, and notion of beer/mead/cider you can imagine.  On the other you have what is generally an educational experience with some fun tasting events in the evenings.  It's your dime and your trip, so don't let anyone tell you that you need to do NHC a certain "way."  I've done both, though, and it was like two completely different conferences.

if you're on what we'll call the "Consumption" path, your biggest challenge will be the sheer number of beers, meads, and ciders on offer.  You might find 70-80 at the Opening Toast event.  There will be as many as two dozen (and rotating bi-hourly!!!) in the Social Club.  Club Night....well, we'll talk about Club Night, but suffice it to say that you're looking at upwards of a thousand different taps and bottles.  And that's before we get into what might be served at the seminars, what exhibitors might have pouring at their tables, and what homebrewers have brought with them to share.  On the Consumption path, your overarching challenge will be managing your BAC level, energy, and hangovers.  Schedule some naps.  Eat often.  Pour out beers you're not fond of.  And this is probably the single-best piece of advice you can get (and it applies at all beer festivals): DRINK YOUR GLASS RINSE WATER.  It's the easiest way to ensure you're staying at least somewhat hydrated.  

For you who want to get the biggest bang for your buck, though, you may want to take the "Education" path.  There are dozens of speakers and presentations happening over the three days of the conference, and you can even focus on specific tracks (beer styles, brewing, equipment, "going pro," history, clubs and competitions, and more).  My first NHC I came home with pages of notes and ideas, and I was struck at the time by what a treasure trove of information and discussion I was just exposed to.  My head was full.  If you're going down this path, you're going to want to peruse the schedule in advance and map out a strategy - note, too, that some presentations repeat.  I find that the practical presentations are best ("How to Do 'X': Results of a Homebrew Experiment"), but don't rule out some brewing-adjacent talks too (you'll find me, for example, attending the Homebrew Bloggers Roundtable).  

But there's one event you don't want to miss.  I don't care how hungover, mentally exhausted, or sick of beer you might, be you absolutely must attend...

CLUB NIGHT

Club Night is like Mardi Gras for homebrewers.  Don't think this is just some run-of-the-mill beer festival.  And not just because it's all homebrewed stuff - though that's pretty remarkable in itself - but because of the lengths that clubs go to make it memorable.  This is THE marquee event of the conference, and you'll want to have your camera as accessible as your tasting glass.

Every year is different, but a brief list of some things I've seen at past Club Nights:

  • Roving bands of "Sudbusters" dressed up as Ghostbusters with "proton packs" of beer slung to their back (2.5G kegs), filling glasses
  • A 12-foot high rigging to support a light show, monitors, and LED "pyrotechnics" as part of a beer-themed rock concert, complete with "backstage passes" to get at aged beers only available in the bottle
  • A photo booth experience with couples going "over the falls" in a barrel, sponsored by the Niagara Association of Homebrewers
  • A giant "wheel of fortune" that decided what beer you'd taste at the table
  • What I think was half of a DeSoto convertible, converted into a rolling kegerator

You seriously need to experience this for yourself.  This is a VERY small sample, and I'm sure that (given the tasting going on) that I'm forgetting dozens of even better and more-committed things.  Show up early and leave late.  Oh, and the beers, meads, and ciders on offer blow away the selections you'll get at even the best commercial beer festival.

GO. TO. CLUB. NIGHT.  

What I Wish I Knew Before My First NHC

There's lots of good info at the AHA's website, but there are also things that I wish I'd known before my first NHC.  These might be useful to you (or not - I may just be an idiot...).

  • PACE YOURSELF.  I'm not kidding when I say there's more beer here than you've ever seen in one place, and everyone will be offering it to you.  Seminar presenters, the Social Club, the vendors at the Homebrew Expo, your fellow conference goers, etc.  You can't avoid it, and you shouldn't try, but be aware of your pacing.  And as I said above, drink your rinse water.
  • DUMP FREELY.  There's a lot of beer (have I mentioned that yet?).  Your liver can only process so much of it.  Don't waste its valiant efforts on something you don't like.  You'll find dump vessels around - use them (discreetly - no need to offend anyone).
  • EAT.  Put together a PLAN to eat.  There's beer everywhere, but there's remarkably little food to be had at the conference proper.  At a minimum, go out for a big lunch every day, and have a list of late-night dining options before you get to the conference - when you wrap up at Opening Toast, Club Night, and even the Grand Banquet, you'll likely be looking for something to eat.  If you can manage to wake up early enough to eat breakfast before the first seminar of the day, then good on you, but historically I've slept as late as possible.
  • FORGET BREWERY VISITS OR PUB CRAWLS.  Unless you're doing pre- or post-conference days, don't plan on heading out of the conference at all, especially not for MORE beer.  There's more than enough to keep you busy from Thursday to Saturday, and believe it or not, by Saturday evening you may well be "beered out."  You'll never try it all at the conference, and you've already pre-paid for that beer!  
  • HIT THE HOMEBREW EXPO.  It's fun to see what's available - glassware, new ingredients, new equipment - and most of the exhibitors are pouring beer, doing give-aways, and in general just talking up what's new in homebrewing.  Usually it's located in the same place as the Social Club, so if there's a spare hour when none of the seminars are up your alley, take some time to walk around and hit every booth.  At a minimum, you'll come away with some interesting information, probably a couple of new t-shirts, and possibly some great ideas or new gear.
  • TALK TO PEOPLE.  You'll find homebrewers from all over (although about half will be from the host city).  I'm a pretty introverted person, but my first NHC experience was to do research in my role as co-chair of the 2013 Philly conference, so I was more or less forced to interact with people!  I'm glad for it, too - it was interesting and fun to talk with homebrewers from around the country (and the world) and ask them about their views of our hobby.  And although there are thousands at the conference, there's a lot of "milling about" going on, so you'll keep bumping into the same folks!  It just makes for a richer experience.
  • CHOOSE YOUR SEMINARS WISELY.  You won't be able to attend all of the seminars you might want to, so pick and choose wisely.  There's audio and video of all of them available via the AHA available after the conference, so choose seminars where you might have a question to ask.  And think outside the box - go to a seminar on a new (to you) method, ingredient, or style.
  • THINK LONG AND HARD ABOUT THE GRAND BANQUET.  If you're going with a bunch of people, and especially if you have beer competing in the second round, then by all means, go for it!  But as a beer dinner, it's just OK.  It's a phenomenal effort, feeding that many people that quickly and it has a solid beer selection, but it's still limited by its size.  You may want, instead, to choose a good restaurant near the conference and do a private event with yourself and the friends/family you've brought with you.  But again, your conference - do it your way! 
  • HAVE A COME-DOWN PLAN.  Don't plan a bunch of beer-related stuff for at least a week after the end of the conference.  As I keep saying, you may not believe it now, but you might be just a little tired of beer at the end of the conference.  Give yourself some detox time.

Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew

Mostly, though, HAVE FUN.  It'll probably happen naturally anyway, but don't get too stressed about anything.  Like your wedding day, it will fly by and you'll regret missing some things.  Unlike your wedding day (hopefully) it'll come back your way again soon. And once you attend NHC once you'll want to go again, believe me!

Take it all in.  Follow crowds.  Go your own way.  Try beers you haven't enjoyed before.  Meet a new friend.  Talk with a beer celebrity.  Go to a book signing.  And enjoy the dizzying array of homebrew, homebrewing gear, homebrewing people, and homebrewing entertainment available - it really is unparalleled in the beer world.  It's a lupulin-fueled dream palace that Coleridge would absolutely recognize as the kind of superlative and extreme places of his reveries.  

And lest you think I'm way off with the Coleridge "Xanadu" references, here's how that poem ends: "It was a miracle of rare device: A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice."  

Looks like Kubla was a lager fan.

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).


Brewing with Voltaire: Simple Recipe Cheats

"The best is the enemy of the good."  This old phrase and even older idea, popularized by Voltaire, means that in trying to improve something further you may actually screw it up.  Let's say you're working on something.  It's more than good enough - you can stop now and enjoy it.  But you don't.  You keep trying to make it perfect,  And you never actually get to perfect, so you don't get to enjoy it.  I find that brewers are particularly susceptible to this trap, and I'm writing today with two goals: 

1. To convince you to recognize that perfection isn't the goal, and probably isn't attainable anyway.

2. To share a few simple tricks you can employ to get to "good enough" that will save you all kinds of time and effort compared to the "might get me to perfect" methods.  And not for nothing, but who said that complexity was the road to perfection, anyway?

Addition by Subtraction

Starting with the philosophical side of this, it probably shouldn't surprise you that here at Beer: Simple we're in favor of the idea of "good enough."  If you want to make great beer, geeking out is fine, but hardly required.  If you're having issues and you aren't happy with what you're making, then certainly some geeking out might be in order, but you don't necessarily need to do so if you're enjoying the beer you're producing.  Some of the very best brewers I know are brewing in battered kettles on top of ancient plywood held up by nothing more exotic than sawhorses, and they don't think all that much about the thousands of technical details that go into brewing.  Despite what some might call this lack of "care," they're still producing great beer.  

Some of that might just be luck - a good water profile, a lucky guess on mill gap, etc. - but a lot of it can be had by affirmatively simplifying your beer and brewing.  Be willing to let go of what might be unnecessary, especially when it's taking up your time or money.

In my brewery, empiricism rules the day: if I'm not sure I need to do something, I'll drop it out of the process (or replace it with something easier) and see what happens.  If I don't see a noticeable difference in flavor, or stability, or competition scores, then I leave it out.  Sometimes it backfires and I need to double back (direct oxygenation really is crazy beneficial), but far more often there's no meaningful impact (or it turns out better).  

Am I abandoning the possibility of making that perfect, mesmerizing, 50-point beer?  Maybe.  But I don't care, because that wasn't the point of brewing it in the first place. The point was to make enjoyable beer, and Step One in the process is "brew."  I'm more likely to do that if I can do it quickly and easily.  It doesn't much matter how perfect that beer would have been if I decided that I didn't have time to make it in the first place.  

Let's also not forget that trying to make it perfect might mess it up, too - or to quote another fine author (Billy S.), "striving to mend, [we] mar the subject."

So you might consider some editing.  This week is about recipe choices, but in the future we'll also get into some process and equipment ideas, too.  But it has to start with a willingness to, in the words of yet another immortal author, "Let it Go."  [God, I hated that movie.  I know it's for kids, but kids aren't (all) morons.  Plot holes everywhere.  Singing that's a little "shriek-y."  That f***in' snowman.  And if she could control the ice the whole time, then why did we need the entire movie???]

Recipe Cheats

As always, let me start with the disclaimer that these things may or may not work for you. There's a whole universe of potentially unobvservable differences between us.  But they've worked for me, and they (or variations on them) might work for you, too.

Season Everything.  This is a truism of cooking - don't miss an opportunity to add a flavor.  For that reason, I almost never use generic 2-row base malt.  To forestall the e-mails, yes, I know that it does have a flavor, but it's a flavor that's relatively easy to overshadow.  When in doubt, replace that 2-row base addition with a 50/50 split of Maris Otter and Pilsner.  I think you'll find it adds a great biscuit/honey background note to most beers, and might enable you to skip some light crystal additions.  

Work Low to High.  With new recipes, start with less of (whatever) then you think you actually need, and walk it up in successive batches.  You're looking for a minimum required amount - overkill can be hard to spot, so you're probably wasting money on over-used ingredients.

Sugar, Sugar.  Sugar additions aren't just for Belgian beers.  Any time you want to be sure that a beer finishes nice and light and dry, replace 5% of your gravity points with corn or cane sugar.  It's a little nudge in the right direction because it completely eliminates some long-chain sugars which might linger.  Sure, you could do the same by mashing lower, but that introduces a lot of error, whereas this is as simple as breaking out the scale.

Think "Results."  Don't focus too much on the original flavor of an ingredient - it may not taste that way when your process is finished (I still remember thinking about the great maple flavor I was going to get out of that maple syrup....or not, because it all just fermented off!).  And don't obsess about the "right" way to get a flavor: yes, you should probably use a lacto strain to get lactic acid in your Berliner Weisse, but if it didn't get sour enough you can also just spike it with.....LACTIC ACID (good enough for BOS at one competition).  There are some shortcuts you should never use (Liquid Smoke, anyone?) but a great many more that are perfectly useful.  Try, then trust.

Focus your Malts.  Fewer ingredients is usually better than more.  You don't need four types of crystal malt - one or two will be fine.  You probably don't need three kinds of chocolate malt - you'll likely only taste one of them.  In fact I'm of the opinion that, with almost no exceptions, no recipe needs more than four malts: a base malt, a light character malt (think Victory), a crystal malt (Fawcett 45L is my favorite - that thing can do damn near anything), and a chocolate malt (Chocolate Rye is fun).  In addition to making it easier to discern the flavor contributions of different malts and train up your palate, your LHBS grist guy/gal will thank you for making their life easier.

Focus your Hops. Same thing as malts.  Keep it simple.  Choose a hop from a particular family, whether it's a geraniol-focused hop like Styrian or big-time citrus from a linalool-rich hop like Amarillo (for some great guidance, check out this recent piece at Craft Beer & Brewing!) and use it the whole way.  The one exception would be low-Alpha-Acid-percentage hops that would require too much hop matter in your beer (and can cause vegetal flavors).  If you're going to have more than six ounces of any hop in your five-gallon batch, cut it down by using high-AA% bittering hops.

Don't Obsess Over Water.  I didn't adjust my water for years.  It tastes fine, so I used it to brew.  Eventually I got a water report (think Cologne, Germany) and worked out a basic treatment plan (1/4 teaspoon of Gypsum in light beers, 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in dark beers, nothing for ambers).  The simple fact is that for a great many brewers, obsessing over water is a massive time and energy suck.  If you've got crazy hard well water then get on that stuff right away, but if not?  Deprioritize it.  I know it's the single largest ingredient, but most drinking water is perfectly fine as-is for brewing.  And trying to "re-create" brewing center waters so your beer is uber-authentic is a sign of pretension that's almost as egregious as using the modifier "uber." 

Recipe Your Way Out.  Sometimes process is what we use to get flavors - for example, pushing temperature on a yeast to get certain phenols, esters, or fermentation characters.  But be willing to "recipe" your way out of that situation - process is simply less reliable than ingredients.  YOU control the ingredients.  The yeast control the fermentation byproducts.  So if you're looking for pepper flavor in that Saison, consider just adding some...cracked pepper.

Know Thy Yeast.  I've already covered this elsewhere, but I firmly advocate using a few go-to strains of yeast rather than switching it up for every single recipe.  Yeast performance dictates a lot of what you get out of the other end here, and if you stick with one strain for similar beers (I do one ale, one lager, and one Belgian) then your other recipe adjustments will be more reliable and educational.

If It's Stupid but it Works, it Ain't Stupid

We could probably go on forever with little things like these.  What's more important is a willingness to try out different things and see how they work.  Don't be tied to the orthodox or the dogmatic.  And keep an eye on what you want out of your brewing: if you want a peach beer, consider adding peaches before delving into the academic research on the molecular nature of peach aromatics and hop oils and how they present in alcoholic solutions post-fermentation and post-isomerization.  Be willing to double back to the orthodox (it often exists for a good reason), but be just as willing to try something obvious, even if it sounds stupid.  If it's stupid but it works, it ain't stupid.

Please feel free to add your own tips below in the comments, and I'll be back here soon with another round of Brewing with Voltaire.  Don't let the best be the enemy of the good in your brewing.  And for those who would criticize you or tech-talk your ears off for bucking the trends or relying on something as simplistic as adding lactic acid to your sour beer, I would offer my favorite Voltaire witticism in return (ironic and hypocritical as it might be):

"A witty saying proves nothing."

Keep it simple.

JJW

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