In Search of Monsters: Simplicity, Consistency, and Beer

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

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

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

The Mash Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready, Aim, Fire

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Don't go looking for monsters to destroy.

Keep it simple.


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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).


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.


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


"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 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.


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.


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One Cell to Rule Them All: A Simple Approach to Yeast

How often have we heard the saying, "brewers make wort - yeast make beer"?  Obviously it's essential.  But does that mean it needs to be complicated?

Like much else that we've tackled here, I tend to think that the answer is "no."  Yeast are vital to the brewing process, but a great many brewers have worked very hard to make a mystery of yeast.  While I grant that there is much to know and learn about yeast (and I have a well-read copy of the White & Zainasheff book on the shelf behind my head), your yeast handling and use goals can be pretty simple and modest: take this single-celled organism, put it into your wort, and let it make your beer.  You don't need to have the chemical equation for fermentation tattooed to your thigh, or hold a degree in biochemistry, you just need to know how to use yeast in your process.

This week's post is about how I use it, and hopefully you'll find there's a few steps you can cut out and still produce high-quality beer.  We'll cover four elements of yeast use: strain, volume, temperature, and packaging.  

Simply put, though?  I don't think too much about yeast.  I have a process that works.  Sometimes I try something new or fun or different, but I'm more of a hot-side tinkerer (which sounds like a genre of German adult films).  Since I have a lot of respect for what yeast have to do, and since I believe in process as a key to performance, I like to use them pretty much the same way every time so that I can be sure that what is perhaps the most "invisible" (and important) part of the process isn't messing with my results.  And as always, I'll add the caveat that I'm not a biologist: if I'm dead wrong on this, please feel free to explain why in the comments!

Strangers on a Strain

Most brewers I know tend to favor one of two brewing yeast producers - Wyeast and White Labs - and each regularly offers about 50 strains of (generally comparable) brewing yeasts.  I confess that I'm a stranger to most of them, and I'm OK with that.

Trying to learn the strengths, weaknesses, and features of each would be a practical impossibility.  You could try brewing with each yourself, across multiple batches and multiple recipes, taking extensive and detailed notes on each, and utilizing controlled and blinded tasting to verify your findings - but even if you can control for the inherent variability, who the hell has time for that?  You could also try reading reviews of each strain and selecting based on what you read, but there are at least two issues with that strategy: a) your system and fermentation process might yield very different results than those of the reviewers, and b) how can you know that the perceptions of the reviewers are accurate and/or consistent with your definitions and understandings of what are often subjective evaluations (what does "moderate bitterness" even mean, anyway?).  

Here's what I recommend instead: identify a solidly-performing "go to" strain for each of three "beer families," and spend your time learning all of the intricacies of them.  What are these "beer families?"  First, I would suggest having a yeast for your "general" ales - a yeast that produces some moderate and mild esterification, ferments well at slightly warmer temperatures, and "floccs out" (drops out of suspension) promptly.  Second, find a lager yeast that works well for you - clean, complete, and reliable cold-weather fermentation.  Last, find yourself a great Belgian yeast - these strains can produce a wide variety of esters, phenols, and alcohols, and you should test-drive a few and see which combination of flavors you like.

If anyone's curious, I like Wyeast 1007 (German Ale Yeast) for most of my ales - it's a quick ferment, it tolerates warm and cold well so I can use it on my altbiers, and it produces a very pleasant berry ester that seems to pair well with noble and Nugget alike.  I like 2206 (Bavarian Lager) for my lagers thanks to a VERY robust fermentation at even mid-40s Fahrenheit and toleration of the substantial alcohol levels you get in big lagers (think Eisbock at 14%).  And since I'm not a huge Belgian beer fan, I like the 3522 (Belgian Ardennes) for some nice spice and a beautiful pear-orange ester that seems to work with any Belgian recipe I've thrown it at.

How did I settle on those?  And why?  Well, it came from a lot of trial and error.  It also came about because, for a while, I bought into the idea that you needed to tailor your yeast to your recipe - which isn't necessarily bad advice, but it means that I could never really be sure of why a beer might have turned out as it did.  Fewer moving parts made sense, and so I spent some months brewing comparable beers with a few of the "typical" strains for those styles in recipes I had found to be reliable, and taking particular note of the fermentation characters of each.  Once I had one locked in (German Ale became a favorite early on), I'd use it for everything in that family - even a multinational one.  For example, I happily ferment away my Best Bitters with German Ale yeast (which must turn a lot of folks over in their graves in the UK).  That same winter I test-drove the major lager yeasts, and did the same thing.  Ditto the Belgians.  And that was that.  But it took a WHILE.

If I had it to do over again, I'd have split-batched it (say, didn't BYO just have some hack write about that?) and saved myself some time - I recommend you go that route, since it also keeps a lot of other variables constant!

I get that I'm surrendering a little control here.  I may well be missing out on some great yeast-grist combinations.  But I'll trade that for the level of control and reliability I get out of using yeasts I know intimately.  I do still go "rogue" at times and trot out a new yeast into the old carboy, but I can at least do so knowing that if it goes badly I can re-brew with my standby yeasts, and that makes the experimentation more fun and less stressful.

Wait - that's a Starter?

"How much yeast do I need for my lager starter?"

"Use the pitch rate calculator at somebrewingwebsite.net and then double it.  I just made a 6L starter for my 5G dopplebock."

"OK - thanks!"

NOOOOOOOO!!!!  I saw this exchange (paraphrased here - I don't recall it verbatim, but the numbers are right, I swear!!!) on a Facebook discussion not too long ago, and it shocked me.  Good Lord, six liters???  That's a LOT of yeast!  This was one of those dogma days of summer for me, too - when I mentioned that 6L seemed like an awful lot of starter yeast for five gallons, and that I used half of a 2L starter for every beer I make (even 10%+ lagers and hybrids), I was told that clearly I didn't know much about brewing.  Maybe not, guy, but I sure as hell know that I'm not drinking fusel-y, hyper-estery, under-attenuated and buttery sh!t.  

In my experience, brewers are pitching way more yeast than they need to.  Now, some of this may be process - see the next section on Temperature - but for years the only reason I've made a starter at all is to stretch my yeast to two batches from a single pack (liquid yeast is kinda expensive, you know?).  So, I grow up a 2L starter, then split it between two beers that are using the same yeast (and since I tend to brew most beers in the same "family" with the same yeast, there's a lot of opportunity to do so!).  

If you're making a 6L starter for a 5G batch because you think that a Dopplebock just can't be made "cleanly" without it, then I want you to know that that's not necessarily the case.  My 1L starters get rolling quickly, ferment fully and cleanly even at very high alcohol levels, and have plenty of life left at bottle conditioning. 

You might think about starting to walk back your starter sizes, and if you (and those you trust to evaluate your beer - hopefully blind judges in competitions!) aren't noticing a higher rate of undesirable fermentation characters, maybe keep going!  Yeast are pretty robust, and wort wants to be beer.  You want to pitch a reasonable amount - but lots of y'all are pitching one whole beer into another (slightly larger) beer!

Is It Cold In Here or Is It Just Me?

That's a bit of a shameless plug: that heading is the same name as my German Altbier.  For reasons I can't explain, it made me laugh.  But anyway...

Another raging debate I see among brewers revolves around yeast and temperature.  You're welcome to take any tack you like on this, but let me tell you what I do, because a lot of brewing dogma says it shouldn't work that well (though it certainly seems to).

Temp at pitching: Whatever it is after passing through my plate chiller using un-chilled water.  So....groundwater temperature?  A little warmer?  I pitch immediately, oxygenate through a stone for 30-45 seconds, and then stick it in the chest freezer.  I haven't had issue with any consistent off-flavors that could be tied to early-fermentation overheating, and my biologist friends tell me that in the lag phase and shortly thereafter the yeast aren't producing anything I don't want.  So why chill to "just below primary fermentation temperature" as so many advise?  I pitch, then chill.  Seems fine.

Temp for primary: 50F for lagers, 60F for hybrids, 64F for ales.  Your numbers may vary based on yeast strain, but I like to go relatively cold.  If I'm going to have a fault, "too clean" is one I can easily live with.  "Too buttery and plasticky" isn't.  I leave it here for 3-4 days, then start raising the temperature.  If it's a "big" beer (8% ABV or higher) I'll walk it up by 2F/day, but otherwise I'll just spin that little analog temp controller dial all the way up and let 'er rip.  This will have the added benefit of encouraging a complete fermentation and the cleanup of a lot of undesirable compounds and precursors.

Temp in secondary: Who the hell knows?  I don't do it, and don't know of any good reason to.

Temperature definitely matters in fermentation, and I recognize that my relative "underpitching" might be something I get away with because I coddle my yeast a little bit and keep things nice and cool for them, but this process is mine simply because it was easy and always seemed to work, all the way through to...  

Package Time

Again, possibly another good German adult film title.  I know some will think me insane, but I honestly don't mind bottling.  For those who would rather eat the Southbound end out of a Northbound cow than bottle, though, may I propose a small compromise?  Keg most of it, but bottle-condition anything you think you might need in bottles.  For myself, I take a gallon and set aside eight 12oz. bottles (for competition evaluation) and two bombers (for beer club evaluation) out of each batch, no matter how I package the rest.  

So when I do, do I need a fresh pitch of yeast?

Answer: No.  Or, at least, not yet.

When bottle conditioning, we're right to be concerned about our yeast.  They're tired, in an alcohol-toxic environment, and have already done the important fermentation job we've asked of them - now we want to wake them up and make them carbonate the beer, too?  What d**ks we are...

But I've never yet had a group of yeast give up on me.  For every beer, I calculate the priming sugar needed, add it as a simple syrup solution (1 cup of water into x ounces of dextrose, boiled for two minutes), and bottle/cap to completion.  I do this for Kolsch.  I do this for IPA. I do this for 11% ABV Wee Heavy and 8.2% Dopplebock.  Hell, I did it with a two-month old, freeze-concentrated by 40%, 14% ABV Eisbock.  And that thing was good to go (at least on carbonation) two weeks later.

If you're having trouble, check the temperature of wherever you're storing your conditioning bottles.  To ensure mine stay nice and warm I just park them right over a heat vent in the brewery, but you might just pick a relatively warm room (laundry rooms with running dryers are great).  Kept at a few degrees above room temperature (say, at least 68F) I would be willing to bet that you'll have conditioned and carbonated beer in about a week, maybe two if it's a particularly old lager that you're carbonating.

And in exchange, you get a bit of oxygen cleanup, some additional flavor stability, and a dusting of something that will make your non-bottle-conditioned-beer savvy friends have the most exciting gastrointestinal night of their lives when they unknowingly dump the yeast bed into their beer.  You're welcome.

Yeast Simplicity in Four Steps

Let me explain - no, there is no time - let me sum up:

1. Learn a few strains well rather than a dozen strains superficially.  You'll gain more control and confidence over their performance, which to me is a good trade-off.  Yes, I might be losing a potential subtle improvement based on yeast strain selection, but I'm also picking up a potential strain-specific fermentation that strips all the hop aroma out of my Imperial IPA.

2. Make appropriate but not over-the-top starters.  You're not sending your yeast to assault Omaha Beach on D-Day - they'll probably handle the beer just fine, even a high-gravity lager, and even from a single smack pack or vial.  Like I said, I make starters to stretch yeast and cut costs, not because I'm afraid of them being outnumbered.

3. Feel free to pitch warm, but when it comes time to ferment, stay cool, at least at first.  Then let the yeast out to play and let the temperature rise, since they'll also be cleaning up your beer!

4. Consider a small bottling session - and don't sweat your yeast.  Actually, that's wrong - DO sweat them, because warmer temperatures encourage appropriate bottle conditioning, but after they're conditioned go ahead and toss them in the fridge.  But don't sweat that they'll do the job - they're up for it, I promise.

And Barbara, my wife, asked me to pass along this PSA: "Be kind to your yeast."

The more you know...

Keep it simple.


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Dogmatic Brewing (or, What Rudyard Kipling Can Teach Us About Beer)

Dogma (n.): a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted. 

That’s the Merriam-Webster definition of “dogma,” and I never realized how much we run into this as brewers – until I started offering brewing advice to brewers.  We're a pretty dogmatic bunch, it turns out.  Which sucks, because "Dogmatic Brewing" sounds like a pretty cool name for a brewery...

Since I started writing Beer Simple, I’ve offered in the Brewing posts a number of recommendations, suggestions, and commentaries on brewing.  Not that I expect that every one is a gem that needs to be adopted - far from it, in fact.  Brew your own way.  I heartily and happily acknowledge that I'm not a biologist, chemist, professional brewer, or metallurgist.  I like to think I'm just the friendly neighbor, chatting over the fence.  "Say, Bob, you ever think about putting that sprinkler on a timer?  Works well for me."  Like that.

But often, the response isn't just that someone isn't interested in the advice (which is perfectly fine, of course - your beer, your rules!).  It's that what I'm saying simply can't be right.  But why not?  Shouldn't the proof be in the Pilsner, so to speak?


I’m sure it’s not just me that runs into this stuff.  We all do, don’t we?  When talking methods, or ingredients, or tools and tips and tricks?  Every brewer has their process and their habits, and even though someone tells you that it isn’t strictly necessary to turn around three times and spit before adding your flameout hops, you just always have done it, so you don’t necessarily want to change.

I get that.  That’s fine.  We’re all a little idiosyncratic that way – otherwise, we’d have a more “normal” hobby.

But even though we all have our own process, I’m certainly not hostile to those who suggest that there’s a better way.  I might decline to adopt their idea, but I’m not going to aggressively deny its validity.  And yet that seems to happen frequently, when I share something from my brewing process.  Not just that they prefer not to change – but that I’m wrong for even suggesting it.  To take a recent example (my OneStep addiction), you’d think based on a lot of the comments made that I’m running a mineral-caked shitpile of a brewery that produces nothing but rancid and infected beers since – as we all know – it’s IMPOSSIBLE  for a product to clean and sanitize.  And yet there’s my equipment: no more calcified than anyone’s.  And there’s my beer: hundreds of batches without a single infection.  We "all know" it can't work.  But it does.  That's a contradiction we need to reconcile. 

That’s the issue, really: that “we all know it” mentality.  Remember in Men in Black when Tommy Lee Jones’ character talks like that?  He mentions lots of mistaken beliefs from our past that we all just "knew" to be accurate, and then asks, “I wonder what we’ll know tomorrow.”  I've always liked that.  It reminds us that we should be critical of our stereotypes – that persistence or pervasiveness of a belief shouldn’t be sufficient to justify that belief.  Empirical verification should be our goal.  That truth isn't arrived at by majority vote.

So why the resistance to new or heterodox or unusual ideas when there’s support for their validity?  Answer: we’re prone to dogmatism.  And we shouldn’t be.  It’s a very bad habit to get into, and it’s limiting us as a homebrewing community.  As Winston said, “To improve is to change – to perfect is to change often.”  I’m always happy to hear brewing advice.  If I think it’ll make my brewing day shorter, easier, or better, I’ll give it a try. 


And I’m not talking about adding things to the process.  That’s getting us into a whole level of cause-and-effect that I’m not set up to test for (but please go see the good work over at Brulosophy!).  No, I’m talking about taking away – getting the leanest, neatest, SIMPLEST, most-parsimonious brewing process I can.  If I tell you that adding hops in five additions is the only way to get great hop aroma, then I understand if you doubt me – after all, maybe it’s only one of those five that really creates that great hop aroma.  But if someone tells you that they only ever add hops in the whirlpool, and that their beers win GABF medals for hop-forward styles, then you might consider taking that under advisement. 

It’s like the old story about the Englishman who scattered acorns everywhere he went.  When asked why he did it, he informed his questioners that it was “to keep the lions away.”  “You fool,” they said, “there aren’t any lions in the whole of the British Isles.”  “GOOD GOD,” the man yelled, “it works even better than I thought!”  So I understand skepticism if, for example, I tell you that I add a quarter teaspoon of baking soda to dark beer mashes to improve the roundness of my malt flavors – maybe they’d be nice and round without it .

But if I tell you (as I did) that you can use OneStep alone to clean and sanitize without fear of infection, the only reasons to doubt me would be if: a) I’ve only brewed a few beers, some of which got infected, or b) I live in a bacteria- and wild-yeast-free house.  If neither of those things are true (they’re not), then aggressive denial of the factual basis of my claim seems to be unwarranted.  But that’s just what happened: in at least a dozen places, I was told that what I was suggesting simply couldn’t work.

But it has.  Or I’m a pathological liar. 

I’m not, though.  I’m not advocating the spreading of acorns.  Addition by subtraction – finding out what practices may not be essential or unavoidable, through multiple assessments of repeated trials – is incredibly valuable, but we throw that away when we reject advice on principle rather than on merit.  Don’t be that guy.  Or rather, don’t be this guy…


You all remember my friend Mr. Beer, right?  Turns out he has at least one friend who’s something of a bigwig in the brewing industry.

I was already planning on writing about brewing dogma this week anyway, but then something so perfectly-timed happened that I couldn't believe it: I was accosted this week by someone who was straight up offended by my questioning of brewing dogma (FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW!  You’ll want to read this one, trust me).  I was perusing my mostly-beer-and-politics Facebook feed and doing the usual commenting, liking, and sharing that that entails. 

I ran across a comment that wondered why beer enthusiasts don’t seem to be all that enthused about lagers (at least according to the Ratebeer rankings).  One of the respondents thought that it might be because Ratebeer users prefer intense beers which, “by and large, lagers aren’t.”  As someone who brews a lot of lagers, that caught my eye.  Sure, there are lots of light-ish and boring-ish lagers, especially as a percentage of beers on offer in the marketplace, but I wasn’t convinced that it was lagers per se that lacked intensity, but rather the kinds of lagers that tended to be brewed.  So, in the spirit of social media, I made what I thought was a conversational observation.

I said I wasn’t sure about the idea that lagers are just inherently not-intense.  Maybe it’s just that there are fewer lager styles, and thus a smaller proportion that tend to be “intense” - but maybe the same proportion of lager styles fall into the "intense" category as Ale styles.  And after all, with the possible exception of some Belgian styles, it isn't the yeast family per se that makes a beer intense - it's ABV, IBUs, etc.  Sure, you get Imperial IPA and huge stouts in Ales, but we Lager folk have Baltic Porter and Eisbock, and some others that could be considered “intense,” and since they’re part of a smaller subset…

You’d have thought I questioned the notion that the Earth orbits the sun.  What followed was an impressive display of dogmatic reasoning.  No evidence, no empirical support – just the repeated assertion by this person that everyone knows that lagers aren’t intense, and a litany of ad hominem attacks, appeals to authority, and other logical fallacies.  First there was name dropping of this individual’s relationship to a Prestigious Brewing Institution.  Then it was reference to his/her frequent judging visits to a Prestigious Brewing Competition.  Then it was that I was clearly the only person who believed my claptrap.  But here’s the thing: at no time did this individual actually provide any support for his/her position.  And I wasn’t even saying that I was right – just that I wasn’t sure, and maybe there was something to investigate.  But that was enough to have my sanity, sincerity, intelligence, unrelated professional acumen, and beer knowledge not just questioned, but outright ridiculed.

This was someone who should know better.  As he/she repeatedly referenced, this was someone who contributes to a prestigious brewing institution, is a professional brewer, and judges at prestigious brewing competitions.  How dare I, someone of no beer standing, question something that “every brewing scientist and a majority of beer bloggers knows.”  On the strength of what evidence did “all beer scientists” know this?  None, none whatsoever.  In fact, this person refused to even engage on the limited evidence that I offered.

And let’s not forget: I wasn’t staking out a position here.  I was just suggesting that there might be something worth considering.  But for doing so, I was a target for ridicule, passive aggression, and belittlement. 

In other words: classic alehole behavior.


And so, I ask this – and not for my sake, but for others and your own, and I hope it doesn't sound too preachy:

Don’t be that person.  Don’t be dogmatic.  Look for evidence, and empirical support, and opportunities to learn and evolve. 

Don’t swallow every single suggestion or recommendation you hear (because God knows there's a lot of bad advice out there), but don’t be hostile to people and their ideas, either.  As the poem says, “if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming you for it, then you can trust yourself when all others doubt you."  True - you can trust yourself.  You're a competent brewer.  However, Mr. Kipling warns us in the very next line: "BUT MAKE ALLOWANCE FOR THEIR DOUBTING, TOO.”

In other words, embrace the openness that brought you into craft beer and homebrewing in the first place.  Be willing to be wrong, and to be right if you think that others are wrong. 

Be kind.  Be considerate.  Be the kind of people other people think beer people are.

If we aren’t, then we’re driving new beer people away and undermining our own brewing success.  It’s just not worth it.

Keep it simple.


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APPENDIX A: Social Media Incident transcript; emphasis is mine.  Names/identifying items have been changed to protect the innocent, but otherwise this appears exactly as it played out in public.


Original Poster I asked (the hive mind) the other day: What's up with lagers? Why don't beer enthusiasts like them? Is it technical? Are ales simply more amenable to fiddling? Lager brewing not as flexible in terms of creativity as ale brewing?

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Original Poster nobody answered because nobody knows smile emoticon As Another Beer Guy says its a self selecting group active on a site because they are attracted to extreme intense beers. Which, by and large, lagers aren't. Last weekend I visited a place packed with the young, affluent, employed, college educated demographic, and they were pounding 24oz Bud Light cans which represented the best value for money at that time. The place had sold the draft lines to the highest bidder so the choice was bad. Both groups represent the beer industry. One of them is just getting on and enjoying their lives however, while the other is sitting at their computers worried they're missing out on collecting something. It was beanie babies before.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT - I'm not sure i grant the premise that ales are somehow inherently more intense/extreme than lagers. Yes, you have RIS and DIPA, but lagers have Baltic Porter and Eisbock. If you did a style-for-style comparison between ales and lagers, you might find a greater proportion of intense flavor profiles in lagers than ales, if only owing to the relatively smaller number of lagers...

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) I actually wrote "which, by and large, lagers aren't... Nobody reads anymore. I did just read what you wrote a few times, and here at the  Prestigous Brewing Institution  we won't be changing our curriculum to reflect your views.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT How did what I write suggest I didn't read? There are extreme/intense ales and lagers. They're defined by style/recipe. If there are 4/16 styles of lagers that are intense, and 8/60 styles of ales that are intense, then the "by and large" characterization isn't valid. I'm not saying those numbers are accurate - just that it's worth considering. It seems that you're basing the position on a prevailing view of lagers, not necessarily their defined characteristics.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Also, not for nothing, but who asked you to change the PRESTIGOUS BREWING INSTITUTION curriculum based on a FB comment? Is that something you'd ever even entertain?

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) I'll bear that advice in mind when judging the Prestigious Brewing Competition in May.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT is there a reason you're credentialing all over the place?

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) You took issue with a simple statement about a commonly known fact, and proposed an alternative view that defies conventional wisdom. Its not particularly relevant to the discussion. Your position that lagers are statistically more likely to be more flavorful than ales is one you alone hold I believe.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT I took issue with calling it a fact, yes. And I recognize that my response defies conventional wisdom (but so what?). And if part of the conversation is about the attractiveness of intense beers, then it's certainly relevant.  I'm an academic. We're encouraged to question assumptions rather than assume they're correct, consider context, and look for empirical verification of claims. As I thought about it, the claim that lagers "by and large" aren't intense seemed like an assumption, not a conclusion - as you say, it's "conventional wisdom," but in my business that's not really evidence of fact, it's evidence of potential bias.  And it wasn't my "position" - it was just something I thought merited a thought or basic investigation. Following up as you did, name-dropping PRESTIGOUS BREWING INSTITUTION and Prestigous Brewing Competition and implying I'm some kind of beer rube, was fairly high-handed, dismissive, and rude.

It doesn't matter what my credentials are - what was gained by taking that attitude? If I was just someone with a passing interest in beer, wouldn't it be better to politely correct me? Because if this was one of my earliest interactions with a beer professional, then I'd take a pretty dim view of them - which, by and large, and according to conventional wisdom, has them being a pretty friendly and easygoing group. Thanks for providing a counterpoint.

At any rate, in the 2008 BJCP guidelines there are 40 Ale styles, 19 Lager styles, and the rest are either hybrids or specialties that might use anything. Of the 19 lager categories, I'd say there are 4 that could be called "intense" (numbers to save space; 5C, 5D, 12C, 22A). That's ~21%. Of the 40 Ale styles, I have 11 (13D, 13E, 13F, 14C, 18C, 18D, 18E, 19A, 19B, 19C, 9E). That's ~28%. Obviously there's an element of subjectivity in this - it'd be better to have some objective standards, but this is just a rough-and-dirty look. So, more likely by style, but not overwhelmingly so. And of course there's nothing stopping you from making an extreme beer with a lager yeast that defies style descriptions, which a lot of them do these days.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Publish a paper on your assertions. I'm sure there are any number of peer reviewed brewing publications falling over themselves to present your research. Or write a review onratebeer.com. Your opinion is equally as valid.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) I'm curious - do you always approach conversations this way? It seems very counterproductive. To my knowledge I've never insulted you, hit on your significant other, or stolen money from you.  At the risk of repeating myself, it's not a position or an assertion, it's an observation and a question. I've offered an observation and some basic data to support it. It's my understanding that that's what often happens in a public and social forum.  I don't see how elitism and sarcasm are relevant to the discussion.

 BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT I refer you to my previous comment

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT "I'm not sure i grant the premise that ales are somehow inherently more intense/extreme than lagers." Grant the premise that every brewing scientist and the majority of beer bloggers know to be the case?

 Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) EVERY brewing scientist "knows" it? I'd love the supporting reference. But in the meantime, please tell me why yeast strain alone equals more-intense beer across dozens of beer styles, fermentation profiles/practices, and recipe formulations.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) Now you're getting the hang of it. A spirited intellectual debate with nuanced insults. American community college debates not quite at the Oxford level I take it.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Now you're changing the subject

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Stick to the original statement you took issue with.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Would it help it I put smiley faces on the end of all my posts smile emoticon

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) How is that changing the subject? The original statement was: "...attracted to extreme intense beers. Which, by and large, lagers aren't." My response was that I wasn't sure that was correct, since there are numerous lagers that ARE intense, and that suggesting that they're less likely than ales to be so might be worth considering. I subsequently proposed that this was a statistical artifact that's a result of there being relatively fewer lagers than ales.  You're making the argument that lagers, on average, are not intense (presumably compared to ales). So what we're talking about is whether lager yeasts and their standard fermentation lead to less-intense beer. Why would that be the case, when what makes a beer "intense" is rarely the yeast alone? And if it's that lager styles are, on average, not intense, then I'd refer you to that quick breakdown/evaluation - not that it's the only one, or that it's definitive or unassailable, but that it at least suggests that the question is a valid one.  And I'm not a child - I don't need smiley faces. I'm just confused by the passive-aggression. It seems out of place in my experience with brewers and craft beer people, and doesn't seem to add anything to the discussion. I'm not over here touting credentials or making appeals to authority - I'm just talking about beer and evaluations of it, and what might account for the ratings bias in favor of DIPAs and other intense beers.

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) by speculating about facts that all brewers know?

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) How can you claim it's a fact? You haven't cited a single piece of evidence, and haven't responded to the only data on the page. Moreover, what's even the logical argument for it? As I said, I'm not staking out a position - but I'm also not impressed by a statement that "everyone" knows it, and that that's the same as evidence or theory.   If I take a 100 IBU beer with a potential ABV of 11% and ferment it with a lager yeast, is it intense? And if not, what magic does the ale yeast impart?

BEER INDUSTRY EXPERT What does that have to do with what I was talking about? You're getting desperate my friend. My original statement stands. When your college adds a brewing class I sincerely hope there's someone else there to teach it.

Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) Not at all desperate. Either ales are more intense because of the yeast, or they're more intense because of style parameters for beers that typically use ale yeasts. You've offered no support for either statement. And again, why the snarky comment? I haven't made a single claim to being any kind of beer expert. We actually do have a brewing course - it's taught by a chemistry professor. Not my field.


Random Beer Person (aka “Me”) Ok. Well, if you're unwilling to do anything more than be snide and dismissive, I guess I'm done. Really wish you'd have been willing to actually support your position - and that this isn't reflective of what you teach other brewers. If I'm questioned by my students I give them the theoretical explanation, empirical evidence, and supporting references. That way they see that I can defend my statements, and that I'm not peddling opinions dressed up as fact.  Good luck to you.


10 Simple Beer & Brewing Goals for 2016

Happy New Year from Beer: Simple!  To start off this new brewing/beer year, here are some simple things I’m planning on doing in 2016 – and I think you should consider doing the same.  They’re all about getting more out of your beer and brewing life, and shouldn’t take too much of your time, effort, or money (well, except #9, but it’s totally worth it).

But before we get into the list, let’s address a long-standing epidemic that is the shame and bane of the beer world: beer-based puns.  In discussing this post with people, a disturbing number of people jokingly asked what the post title would be.  Among the rejected suggestions were the following: Hoppy New Year, Happy Brew Year, Happy New Beer, Malty Brew Year, Hoppy Brew Beer...

People.  People, people, people.  End the puns.  Never make one again.  Don’t wish me a “hoppy birthday.”  Every time I see that on Facebook it makes me want to punch my dog in the face (but then I look at her, and…well, she's just too damned cute). 

So just stop it.  Now, on to the list!  Things to do this year, Beer and Brewing Edition:

10. Buy a high-quality thermometer – or at least calibrate the one you already have.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to open my new Thermapen MK4 on Christmas morning!  It was the only thing I asked for, and for good reason: temperature is really at the heart of what we’re doing.  It affects mashing, boiling, fermentation, conditioning – even enjoyment when you finally open the bottle or pull the tap handle.  So do yourself a massive favor and get your hands of a good thermometer, or at least calibrate yours so you can make the appropriate adjustment for what it reads – if it’s consistently reading 2-3 degrees high or low, you’ve got an easy fix for a lot of likely issues in your brewery.

9. Make a point of attending either the Great American Beer Festival or National Homebrewers Conference.

Conveniently, this year NHC (June) is in Baltimore and GABF (October) is (as always) in Denver, so one or the other will be (relatively) close to home for nearly everyone.  Both are events that let you taste a LOT of beer, and both also offer myriad ways to expand your beer and brewing knowledge.  I’m a much greater proponent of NHC, but only because I’ve never been to GABF (the only downside to an academic life – no travel in the fall…).  But going to beer events of this size is a wonderful experience – stay hydrated (just drink your cup wash water), eat at every opportunity, and soak in as much as you can!

8. Find a new appreciation for a passé or overlooked beer style – I’m thinking Witbier.

We all have beer styles that we gloss right over on beer menus.  I’m not a huge fan of very many Belgian beers or breweries (some notable examples, though – Allagash and Ommegang are always on my list!), so this year I’m going to focus on a style that may deserve doubling-back on – probably Witbier.  For you, maybe it’s amber lagers.  For others, maybe you’re a hopophobe and it’s time to try out some IPAs again.  But try to avoid brewing or drinking ruts – these beers and styles evolve over time, as does your palate. 

7. Give up beer for Lent, even if you’re not Catholic.

Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations, notes eleven virtues that you should exhibit and which are “wholly within your power” – one of these is self-denial.  Every year, for 40 days, most Catholics you know give up something for their Lenten observance (you can usually tell – they get a little pissy whenever you order beer, chocolate, steak…).  This year, whether you’re Catholic or not, give up beer.  Marcus’ point about self-denial is that it shows that you’re in control of your impulses and desires – you’re not governed by them.  This also gives you the opportunity to spend some time on other beverages you might have neglected: revisit wine, give Scotch a try, delve into meads or ciders – or even “go dry” for 40 days.  It won’t kill you (and, in fact, has impressive health benefits), and your favorite beer will taste that much better come Easter!

6. Write a letter to a brewery that is making your favorite beer and thank them.

When we travel, my wife loves to write thank-you notes to the staff of the hotel or the crew of the cruise ship, while we’re still on it, to let them know that we appreciate their hard work.  She figures that most of what they hear, day-to-day, is complaining (much of it just whining, really) and she wants to change that.  It’s really quite sweet and something I would literally never think to do on my own (she’s a much nicer person than I am).  So this year, I’m going to write (actually write – with paper and pen and all!) a brewery I like, and thank them.  Brewing is hard, hard work, and breweries deserve a lot of credit for doing it, especially when they do it well.

5. Learn one scientific lesson that will improve your brewing.

Brewing is a science.  Just because we learned to do it by accident 5,000 years ago doesn’t mean that it hasn’t grown up!  So, I’m going to hit up one of the biologists, chemists, or physicians in my club and have them teach me the scientific root of a beer process, and then use that to simplify and improve some element of my brewing process.  To paraphrase the book The Martian, I want to science the shit out of something in my brewery.

4. Attend a homebrew club meeting – other than your own!

If you don’t belong to a club, you probably should, because remember – Your Beer Sucks, and they’ll tell you why and how to fix it.  But even if you belong to a club (I do), I think it’s a good idea to go to another one now and again.  For one thing, you’ll meet more homebrewers (fun), and you’ll get new feedback – and new kinds of feedback – on your beer (useful).  It’ll be worth driving an extra 20 minutes or so to get to that club’s meeting.

3. Teach a willing person to homebrew, and brew with them at least three times.

I’m sure a lot of people talk to a homebrewer and decide to brew.  Once.  Then they do it, feel frustrated, and never do it again.  I know this happens because I remember how irritated and frustrated I was brewing in the new house when we moved – I didn’t know where anything was, nothing worked as it usually did, and the beer was a pain in the ass to make (though it turned out well).  If that had been my first go, there’s at least a one in three chance I’d have given up.  The way we tell people to just “get your stuff and brew” is like sending a new skier down that Black Diamond trail called “The Preacher.”  So instead, convince someone to brew, and then brew with the at least three times, preferably on their equipment and at their home/brewery.  Brewing is habit and process more than anything else, and being there to keep them on track for the first few beers will mean a better brewer and one who is more likely to keep at it when you’re not around.  And going back to basics may also remind you of some important things you’ve been letting slide!

2. Stand up for one newbie that is being razzed by an alehole.

Sometimes when we see this shit – new bartender or wait staff being hazed and harassed by a know-it-all (even if he/she doesn’t) alehole – we let it slide.  Even if you don’t confront the alehole, at least have a quiet word with their intended target, and let them know that we’re not all like that, and that (especially if they’re new to the craft beer world) it’s pretty easy to get up to speed.  You might even recommend them to the Certified Beer Server course over at the Cicerone Program – in short, be constructive.  They’ll probably throw you a free beer for it, so do it even if you’re a curmudgeonly, introverted, misanthropic elitist like me.

1. Contribute in a meaningful way to the brewing world – however you can.

And finally, try to find a way to pitch in to our (still quite little) community.  This doesn’t have to be big.  No one’s asking you to organize a 5K.  Or even run in one.  Or even walk in one.  OK, basically, no running unless you’re into that – why do we as a society feel better when we force unwilling people to pay money to run approximately three miles for a cause?  But I digress.  Just try to give something back.  The reason I got so into beer and brewing was that I was so impressed and touched by so many people in the brewing community, and I feel like every year should include a resolution to give back, however and wherever you can.  I think there’s a 5K that is sponsored by a local brewpub that I’ll run in – wait, an 8K???  Well, alright…

Have a wonderful year everyone, and thank you for following Beer: Simple into it.  I’m also resolving to do my best to keep providing what I hope is high-quality writing on relevant beer topics, but if you feel I’m not quite up to the mark, please let me know in the comments or by e-mailing me at [email protected]

Keep it simple.


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).  

Up in Smoke: Rauchbier Made Simple

Rauchbier (smoked beer) is one of the less-common styles in the market (though I think it's due for a resurgence once we all get tired of this onslaught of barrel-aged beers), and while it's wonderful it's also the source of a lot of undeserved mystery and confusion.  Let's clear some of that up - this is a simple beer, and my recipe (below) will have your LHBS grain attendant thanking you for taking it easy on him/her this Christmas week.

A Brief History of Smoked Beers

Very brief, in fact. Once upon a time, almost all beers were smoky.  Maltsters dried and roasted malts over wood fires, and they produced smoke, which imparted a smoky flavor to the malt itself.  As smoke-free sources (coal fed ovens, primarily) became commonplace, malts became "clean" except for those that wanted to be smoky, and smoked beers became a retronym-labeled thing.  

Wow, That Was Brief - now what?

None of that helps us, really, since the question now becomes, "If I want to make a Rauchbier, how much smoked malt do I use?"  Ironically, few things scare me as much as homebrewers who say "I read it on the internet" as justification for their brewing practices.  But I want you to take this piece of internet trivia to heart:


How do you Know?  

Well, I know because I brew Rauchbier two to three times per year, and because I get a lot of objective feedback on it!  Over the years I've adjusted my Classic Rauchbier recipe a number of times, looking for this magical percentage that will produce the best one, and in doing so I've completed a good natural experiment.  

When I started, I didn't want to overpower what is, essentially, an Oktoberfest plus smoke with an excess of smoked malt flavor/aroma, so my first attempts were pretty conservative and in line with the internet wisdom of that bygone age of 2008. I stuck to about 25-30% of the grist, making up the balance with straight Pils, Munich, and Maris Otter (I use Maris Otter for damn near everything - more on that another time).  It made for a pleasantly smoky lager.  Good stuff.  

But I wanted to go smokier - after all, anyone who's making a smoked beer has the Schlenkerla angel (devil?) lurking on one shoulder, muttering in a German accent in their ear, "You know, vee haff a much smokier beer zahn you..."  So I upped the percentage of smoked malt.  And upped it again.  And again.  

And you know what?  No real difference in the smoke level.  It increased a bit, but certainly not to any level where I said, "whoa, back it off."  

Until I hit my limit.  97%.  That's what I currently use in my Rauchbier.  And I've actually had competition judges tell me to "increase amount of smoked malt" - right, except that wouldn't address the problem!  [Take note, BJCP Exam preppers...]

Not How Much, But What Kind

It isn't how much you use, but what the maltster did to your malt in the first place that makes the difference.  In that way, it's kind of like when you use malt extract: you're at the mercy of whomever created it.  So what do different types do?

First, let's just acknowledge that peat malt is disgusting.  But beyond that, it's a crazy intense smoky/phenolic flavor producer, so use it sparingly (or not at all).

The classic version is beechwood smoked malt, and at least one commercial brewery I'm personally acquainted with actually uses the same maxed-out levels of beechwood smoked malt that I do.

But you can use other wood types as well.  Apple and cherry wood are quite common and can be used at very high levels.  I read that you can do the same with mesquite or hickory, though I admit I have no experience with them.  

So the moral of the story is: Don't be afraid of smoked malt.  Using it sparingly might produce somewhat subtler smoke flavors (only "might," though - one of my early attempts came out crazy smoky despite being only 40%), but using more almost certainly won't make your beer too smoky.  It will, though, almost guarantee that people can tell it's a smoked beer, which I'm assuming was the point of your brewing of it in the first place.

Recipe, Discussion, and Uses

The recipe below is a favorite of mine, and it's just about as simple as simple beer gets.  

R-97 Rauchbier

OG: I shoot for about 1.050, but you can raise/lower to your ABV goal/liking!

Briess cherry wood smoked malt: 97%
Melanoidin malt: 2%
Black Patent malt: 1%
25 IBUs of your favorite bittering hop added at 60 minutes
About an ounce per 5 gallons of your favorite German noble hop (Hersbrucker is my preference) added at flame out
Wyeast Munich Lager yeast (#2308), but German Ale (#1007) can be fun, too
Ferment cool (52F for the lager yeast, 62F for the ale yeast) and enjoy!

The small malt additions there, I've found, make a pretty big impact.  The melanoidin addition adds a touch of rich bread in the background, and the black patent adds a note of dryness without adding any real "roast" flavor - I find that smoky beers tend to come across as a bit sweet.

The hopping is there just for a touch of complexity and enough bittering to balance the sweetness, but this is definitely a malt-centric beer.

And as for yeast, use whatever you like for Oktoberfest, but as I noted above you can get some fun fruity/berry esters out of the German Ale yeast as well, and they seem to complement the beer nicely.

Rauchbier makes for an outstanding cooking beer as well as an easy-drinking pint, and it makes for a great base for marinades!  I've also injected it directly into roasting meats, with very good results.

And as for smoking your own malt: I'm not that guy.  Sorry.

Smoke Away

The simple takeaway here is that smoke malts are like most other things these days: user-friendly.  It's pretty difficult to hurt your beer with these (except the aforementioned monstrosity that is peat malt), so swing for the fences!

Keep it Simple.


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Of Ice and Men*: Simple Lager Brewing

People often tell me they're making their first lager in the same hushed, anxious tones one might use to describe losing one's virginity or going skydiving for the first time.  There's no need for that: lagering (like much else we discuss here), is pretty simple.  You, too, can lager, and there's no need to work yourself into a kreuzen over it (see what I did there?).

What's ironic here is that so many people care so much about temperature and care that they end up mucking up their beer.  They effectively temperature-control and yeast-coddle their way into a bad beer, and instead of the beautifully controlled masterpiece of a virtuoso pianist they end up with Lennie and the rabbits: they love their beer to death (YES - Monday morning Steinbeck reference...).

So, what's the key to making lagers?  And what are you doing that might be unnecessary?  Read on to find out! 

Lagering To-Do's

This is going to be a pretty short section, because as I said, making good lagers is pretty simple. The driving force in lager beers is producing beers with few flavors from the yeast: so, minimizing esters, phenols, fusels and off-flavors.  We accomplish this in lager beers by using yeast that are conditioned and bred to ferment at lower temperatures, which slows activity and prevents the formation of flavors that are typical in most ale strains.  So, then, lager is mostly about yeast strain selection and fermentation temperature, which is usually in the 50F (10C) vicinity.

The mystery is that so many misunderstand when and why temperatures are important, and as a result they're often being wasteful, inefficient, and/or damaging their beer through their "care."  

There is a very narrow window in which temperature control is essential to producing good lagers.  Your goal is to produce "clean" beer, so avoiding esters, phenols, and fusels is the key.  Well, when do those form?  If you answer that question, you know when you need to control temperatures aggressively.

First off, we don't much need to worry about formation of these compounds in the Lag Phase, when your yeast are just waking up, so from pitching to about 18 hours in, don't sweat it (no pun intended) if your beer isn't at 50F yet.  Then there's the fact that most of what you're worried about is produced in the Growth Phase (18 hours in until about day 3 or 4).  So there it is: a roughly 72-hour period when temperature is essential.  

  • Keep your beer at 50F (10C) for about 96 hours, and don't worry about the first 12-18 of those.  

That's basically it.  Any questions?

Undoing the Damage of Over-Lagering

The problem comes in when people think that they need to treat their beer like it lives in whatever magical place Coors Light keeps that train that makes it instantaneously snowy.  Lagering is about temperature control, not about keeping your beer cold.  

You need that initial cool period to limit the production of stuff you don't want, but here's the thing: in that period, even at cold temperatures, you're still producing things you don't want, just less of them or different varieties of them.  You still may have precursors and compounds that need to be cleaned up (diacetyl, acetaldehyde, etc.).  But if you never let your beer warm up, you're virtually guaranteeing that you'll be leaving them behind when your yeast settle in for their brewer-enforced long winter's nap.

This is why I say you need a little less care with your lagers.  After you're done with the Growth Phase, let that temperature come on up.  Personally, I let it rise 5-6 degrees F, but I've also (for reasons I'll get into in a second) just pulled them out of the fridge and let them come up to room temperature.  The risk of doing so is very low - since the possibility of ester, phenol, or fusel production after a few days is minimal - but the risk of not doing so is very much real and orders of magnitude larger.  Don't believe me?  Judge one flight of Amber Lagers at a BJCP competition: at least half have caramel or green apple flavors which might have been addressed by a more-complete attenuation instead of the Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-like temperature control that the brewer subjected their beer to.

Practical Lager Brewing and Lager Myths

There are other, practical, things you can do to make lager brewing a better experience, too.  First off, as I said, you can just yank them out of that fridge and leave them at room temperature.  I learned this when I got into a run of brewing lots of lagers and needed to keep up my brewing pace so that my ingredients didn't stale - there's only room for two in that fermentation chest of mine, so my young lagers had to get turfed out into the big bad 68-degree basement when they were just a few days old, so that their younger siblings could chill out (it's like that scene in Monty Python's "Meaning of Life" with the Catholic family).  And you know what?  Those beers were awesome.  Better-attenuated, no off-flavors, no precursors, and I didn't have to commit to weeks of waiting for them in the fridge before I could brew again.

Then there's this obsession with massive yeast pitches for lagers.  I read on a message board about a rule of thumb of "doubling" whatever the yeast calculator told you, just to be safe.  One recent FB poster said he made a 6-liter starter for a 5.5-gallon beer because it was a lager.  A homebrew club friend once told me that he pitched five smack-packs into an 8% Dopplebock.  People: CALM DOWN.  Chris White might be laughing all the way to the bank, but you're going overboard.  Every lager I brew, no matter the ABV, gets the same half-of-a-2L-starter into a 4.5-gallon batch.  And did I mention that I've won more than 100 medals for lagers in competition?  You're overpitching, which probably won't hurt you, but it's hurting your wallet.

One more lagering myth I've heard is that you need to transfer off of your yeast for an extended period of aging in the carboy/bucket/vessel.  Put simply: no, you don't.  First, autolysis is the homebrewer's bogeyman.  I've never experienced it, nor known anyone else who has, and I've accidentally aged a Roggenbier for four months on its yeast cake when I forgot about it (we'd just moved in, and it ended up behind some boxes. Call Beer Social Services on me if you must).  So, clearly, the risk is low at our volumes and with our level of hydrostatic pressure.  And second, every time you transfer your beer, you're exposing it to air and contaminants.  Every beer is contaminated and oxidized to some degree, and the more you move it, the more so it gets.  So we're talking about balancing the minuscule (and, potentially, mythological) risk of autolysis against the absolute certainty of a higher level of contamination and oxidation.  No thanks.  Leave it be until fermentation is complete, then package it up.

And then there's the great bottle conditioning question.  "Dude, you totally need to add a pitch of yeast when you bottle lagers because the yeast won't carbonate your beer."  Right.  Let me put this one to bed with an anecdote that - although anecdotal - I think you should consider instructive.  I made my first Eisbock a couple of years ago, and I f***ed up.  I started with a pretty strong (8.9% ABV) Dopplebock that was about eight weeks in the fermenter, and set about to freeze-distilling it. Turns out that takes a while and I started in the afternoon.  Well, at 3AM I had barely any ice formation, and went to bed.  At 7AM when I woke up, I had myself a Dopple-sicle.  I'd concentrated it by nearly 40%, and had made myself a nice 13% beer.  Curious about whether it would bottle condition, I just treated it like I normally would, and added the appropriate weight of priming sugar.  Two weeks later, perfectly carbonated.  If THAT beer with THAT treatment at THAT age and with THAT level of alcohol toxicity can bottle condition, then anything can.  Unless you've actively filtered out or killed your yeast, there's probably no need to add more yeast when bottling a lager.

There's No Lager Mystery

Lagers are just beer.  There's no need to be intimidated by them.  Even the process listed here - which assumes you have a temperature-controlled vessel/chamber/fridge in which to ferment - isn't strictly necessary.  Especially in winter, check for a cold spot in your basement - many, left unconditioned (think a closet, storage area, etc.), hold at a pretty steady 52-57F, which is perfectly acceptable to make lager beer.  Even low-tech solutions like ice baths and evaporation can be maintained long enough to get your beer out of the "danger zone" for esters and all that other stuff.

So, as always, relax.  Sit back, pour yourself a Sinebrychoff Porter, and have George tell you about the rabbits again.

Keep it simple.


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).

*I realize the title is a little bit sexist, and I know that lots of women are brewers (brewsters?), but the reference to "Of Mice and Men" and the easy play on words and its connection to the Lennie/rabbits thing made it irresistible!

Modified No Sparge: Indoor Brewing and the "Weeping Tony Romo"

My single, sad, lonely, awesome, SIMPLE one-pot induction system.

My single, sad, lonely, awesome, SIMPLE one-pot induction system.

Moving from the garage to the indoor brewery entailed some sacrifices.  None of them were bad enough to outweigh the joy of brewing while watching Tony Romo cry after botching a hold for a field goal in the playoffs (remember that game?  Every Eagles fan has it enshrined in their "happy memories" brain file), but sacrifices they were, nevertheless.  One of them was that, due to space restrictions, one of my two kettles and induction elements had to go (for more on induction brewing and why it might be better than whatever your doing, see my previously published work on the subject in BYO).  Au revoir, dedicated sparge water heater.  Life must go on, and seeing those beautiful, delicious Dallas Cowboy tears while I brew is totally worth it.

Change of system: Change of Process

Since I could no longer heat and hold sparge water while lautering, owing to my change of circumstances, I investigated some no-sparge options.  For those who need a primer, "No Sparge" is a process whereby the full volume of brewing water is added in a single charge to the grains, and lautering simply fills the kettle with no mash-out or subsequent washing/sparging additions of water.  It's manageable, and certainly many have seen a great amount of success with it, so it was certainly an option.

Then there's Brew in a Bag, and I look forward to having a guest blogger on at some point to discuss it!  It certainly meets the "Simple" part of Beer: Simple, but I wasn't in the market for a new kettle, and BIAB requires a lot of kettle volume to be able to mash in the same vessel you're boiling in, since it needs to be big enough to accommodate ALL of your grain and your full boil volume.  

No, I wanted to stick with my existing Coleman mash tun and my 5-gallon Kitchenaid kettle (thank you, Target - $47 and induction-capable...).  But I didn't like the idea of just adding a full six-ish gallons of water to my mash, for at least two reasons.  First, I was already changing enough: now I was changing my mash water-to-grist ratio as well.  Second, I didn't like the idea of the hit I'd take in efficiency.  I'd always struggled with efficiency, landing in the low-60s pretty regularly - but all that changed when I started doing a Mash Out to increase my temps and reducing viscosity before lautering.  I was finally hitting 72-73% pretty regularly, and this seemed like a big step back.  No Sparge usually entails a loss of efficiency, all the more so since I wasn't in a heat-producing system, so there'd be no pre-lauter warm up to shake those sugars loose from their grip on the grain.

The Modified No Sparge Method

The result was what I've come to call the Modified No Sparge method.  For the record, I don't claim to be an innovator here - I'm sure that others have thought about this problem and reached the same conclusion - but I've talked No Sparge with a LOT of homebrewers, and they always seem surprised when I explain my process, so I thought I'd pass it along here.

At the mashing end, change nothing.  Do what you've always done.  Simple, right?  Same water-to-grist ration, same strike temps, same everything.

Where things change is in the mash out addition.  Where I'd previously raised my mash temps to 170F (77C) by adding a single gallon of near-boiling water to the mash, I asked myself, "what if the mash out addition was just the mash out PLUS the sparge addition?"  I came to call this the Super Mash Out.  I tried it, and after some tinkering, I was able to consistently hit the right temperature (without going over, Price is Right style, because who wants tannins), drain my mash tun dry while hitting the rum of the kettle, AND preserve most of my efficiency, all without any decrease in quality.

The math was simple.  I use BeerSmith for my mashing/sparge water calculations, and since batch sparging (my previous method) requires a pretty precise addition to get the most out of your grains, I'd already dialed in my adjustments.  It was "whatever Brad says, plus my one gallon of mash out water."  I'm sure there's a button for that in the program somewhere, but I'd just learned from trial and error.  For the Modified No Sparge?  Just eliminate the one gallon for the mash out water, and go with the sparge volume.

Temperature was likewise pretty simple.  The Super Mash Out volume was typically around the same size as the initial mash-in volume.  When they were equal in volume, in my system, 195F (91C) brought the mash just to the brink of 170F (77C).  For every half-gallon more that the Super Mash Out was, I reduced the temperature of it by five degrees Fahrenheit.  For every half gallon less, add five.  Simple, and virtually guaranteed to avoid those hot-sparge tannins.

Efficiency went from an average of 72.8% to 70.1%, but I saved myself at least 15 minutes per batch and an entire heating element and pot.

So What?

Like I said, this isn't groundbreaking stuff.  I'm sure that it's been discussing and implemented by lots of brewers.  But what it does show is that simplification can be done while maintaining (and, given the latent advantages of no-sparge more generally, improving) beer quality.  

If there's a moral here, it's that simple can be better.  It isn't just about economies or efficiency and finding what you can live without, it's about making your system work for you, and not the other way around.

Otherwise you might miss the simple joy of watching a grown man sit on AstroTurf and cry.

Keep it simple.


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).



Dump the Pump: Newton, Pascal, Bernoulli, and Homebrewing

Gravity brewing 001.JPG

Physics is your friend, and can save you money on homebrewing equipment.  I'm no enemy of Chugger or March, but let's face it: most brewers don't need a pump if they can employ some basic brew system design advice to let physics do the work for them!  And here's the thing: principles of physics will never break down on you.  They won't burn out.  They don't (really) need to be primed.  And they're free.  So let's drink a toast to Sir Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, and Daniel Bernoulli and talk about how gravity, pressure, and suction can eliminate the need for pumps in your brewing (without requiring you to brew from atop an A-frame ladder).

When building out my new system, I wanted something simple (shocking, I know) and convenient.  Therefore, I wanted to build it more or less horizontally for ease of access and operation, and as a result came to the conclusion that pumping was my only real option.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the brewery: it turns out I couldn't stand the added steps, equipment, cost, and cleaning that the pump required, and went back to the drawing board.  Not for the first time in my brewing life, I thought, "well, why don't I just try the simplest thing and see if it works?"

With the minimum possible drop, could I transfer using nothing but gravity, hydrostatic pressure, and siphoning, and still work from counter height to the carboy without the need for a pump?  The answer was yes, and I now have a never ending source of transferring energy to go from my mash tun to my kettle, through my plate chiller, and out into my carboy.  Simple.

But let's talk numbers.

My mash tun sits on the countertop, a standard 36" from the floor, with a drain and ball valve roughly one inch above that.  Draining from the mash tun to the kettle, I have a ZERO inch drop from the ball valve outlet to the lip of the kettle, and a drop inside the kettle (once the beer clears the lip) of 10".  The hydrostatic pressure of the liquid in the mash tun is sufficient to get things flowing over the lip despite the lack of an actual drop, and once started, Bernoulli's Law takes over and keeps pulling liquid until the mash tun empties.  Nice and easy.

Now, once in the kettle, I boil as usual, and the time comes to chill things down.  I have a weldless fitting on my kettle, and I drain from it using the same principles as the mash tun's transfer.  Open the valve and let gravity/pressure do their job.  How big a drop?  Well, it's a whopping 4.5" from the barb to the "Wort In" side of the plate chiller...but here's the thing.  The easiest way to use my Shirron chiller (see the photo) is to lay it flat and clamp it to the counter that the kettle sits on, which means that to get OUT of the chiller, the fluid is now running UPHILL!  Before I let logic overcome reality, though, I just opened it up and observed what happened - no problem.  Once the flow gets going, we're home free again, thanks to Monsieur Pascal and Signor Bernoulli.  

Upon exiting the chiller, there is a 2.5" drop from the lip of the chiller output to the lip of the carboy, and then about a 6" drop into the carboy.  In case you're curious, it flows at a nice, healthy rate, too: 4.5 gallons of beer takes me nine minutes to drain/pull through the chiller, for a rate of about two minutes per gallon.  Even using a pump, you wouldn't want to (or be able to) go faster, chilling with cold tap water, so there's no real time loss.

And that's it: pump-free transfer.  I've literally never had a stuck lauter/sparge or transfer out/through the chiller.  Physics is some reliable stuff.

Obviously you'll need to do some tweaking to make this fit your system, but the gist is a simple one: you don't need big drops in height to make a gravity-fed system work, because gravity's not doing it all on its own.  Pressure is the real lead dog on this one, and so long as you have enough to get things moving, the rest is simple.  

Most three-tier stands on the market have about 24-30" of total drop, and most still make use of a pump to get the finished wort into the fermenter.  

My total drop, mash tun to carboy, with no pumps employed?  17 inches.

Keep it simple.


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Balanced Beer (or "How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kegerator")

Homebrewers, strangely, have made a mystery of kegging.  In this first practical post of the Brewing section of the Beer Simple blog, we're going to simplify kegging and draft service for you - and I'm not just talking about for newbies.  I know a great many brewers who insist on making their keg systems work way harder than they should, so even if you already keg regularly, read on and see if there's anything you can use.

The appeal of kegging should be obvious: cleaning and sanitizing bottles sucks, and the more you brew (both in frequency and in volume), the more it sucks.  Kegging is the go-to answer.  No bottles to clean and sanitize!  No priming sugar to mess with!  One transfer and WHOOSH: great beer on demand.  And in truth, it really is that simple (or at least it can be).  All you need to do is a small amount of math up front to balance your system, and then LEAVE. IT. ALONE.  As in so much else to do with beer, balance is the name of the game.

A lot of brewers only pay attention to the pressure needed to create the volumes of CO2 they want in their beer, at a certain temperature.  Anyone who has spent any time kegging has seen this table (or something like it):

Courtesy of the Brewers Association Draught Beer Quality Manual

Courtesy of the Brewers Association Draught Beer Quality Manual

Tables like this give you an idea of what to set the CO2 regulator at, given a certain target for carbonation and a certain temperature Fahrenheit.  This, though, is really only two-thirds of the story.  

Once you carbonate, that beer, you need to serve it, and this is where balancing comes in.  You want a smooth, steady, and easy pour out of the faucet, otherwise you'll end up with a glass full of head, spilled beer, beers that take three minutes to pour, a distinct lack of enjoyment, or maybe all of these.  

A BALANCED SYSTEM is one where the applied pressure (CO2 on the beer) creates the desired level of carbonation (per the table above) is equal to the resistance created by getting the beer to the faucet.  Resistance can be caused by changes in elevation (pumping up from a basement, perhaps), but is usually caused by the tubing between the keg and the faucet.  Once you know your temperature and your desired carbonation level, all that remains is the create (or eliminate) the appropriate level of resistance, and you're all set!  Once your system is balanced, carbonation and service is as simple as 1.) Connect keg, 2.) Wait.

A common mistake that I've helped at least a dozen folks correct over the years is trying to fix everything by adjusting the regulator.  Too splashy?  Turn it down.  Too slow?  Turn it up.  And it never, never ends...  That's the mistake.  Once you decide on a CO2 level and a serving temperature, you should never touch the regulator or temperature controller again.  Do this right the first time, and all of your dreams will come true.  No, wait, that's not right - but you definitely won't need to mess with your kegerator, regulator, or tubing again, and you'll pour perfect beer every time.

So, how do you work out resistance and create balance?  Easy.  

 Let's start with a typical case.  You have a converted chest freezer on a temp controller with a few taps coming through a wood collar or the top of the freezer lid.  Your kegs are just inside.  You decide that you want your beers served at less-than-cellar-temp-even-though-it's-better-at-55F-because-otherwise-people-will-complain (or, more briefly, 40F), and you want a good all-purpose level of carbonation because (if you're reading this blog) you want your beer life to be simpler, so you go with 2.2 volumes of CO2.  We consult our handy table above, and see that we need to set the regulator to 9.1 PSI to create and maintain that level of CO2.  We do so, connect our keg, and we're done - except that the beer is pouring WAY too fast and creating mugs full of head, or it's coming out at a trickle.  

If we reduce the CO2, the pour rate slows, but we're also slowly de-carbonating the beer in the keg.  If we increase, the pour rate picks up, but the beer itself is a carbonic, bitey mess.  The fix is in the amount of resistance.

In almost every case of this type, the tendency is that the beer is pouring way too hard.  That's because your run of tubing is too short to provide the resistance needed to slow it down at 9.1 PSI.  The answer is simple: measure and cut a new tubing connection for the PSI level you've chosen.

Most of us use 3/16" ID vinyl tubing to connect to our kegs to our faucets.  3/16" ID tubing creates resistance equal to about 3 pounds per linear foot.  To balance our hypothetical system (running at 9.1 PSI), then, we need 36.4 inches of tubing between our keg and our faucet connection to create a balanced system (36.4" x 3 lbs/ft = 9.1 pounds of resistance).  Go to the LHBS, cut a piece a little longer than you need, take it home and trim to the just-right length, and connect via hose barbs.  You're done!

Height matters, too, but in most systems the height difference is negligible.  You don't need to worry about that few inches of rise from the top of your keg to the height of the faucet, but if you're a stickler, you should know that you're getting 0.43lbs of resistance per foot of rise.  You can factor that in if you want.  Elevation affects this, too, so consult an authoritative source if you're more than a couple of hundred feet above sea level.

So, to recap:

1. Decide on a level of carbonation (volumes of CO2) and serving temperature that will work for most of the beers you make/serve.
2. Consult the PSI/temp table to determine the PSI level on the regulator.
3. Calculate the amount of resistance needed to balance the system as a function of how much resistance you get from your connection tubing and any height differences (3 lbs/ft for 3/16" ID, 0.43 lbs/ft in height adjustment if the tap is above the keg).
4. Procure, cut, and secure the proper length of tubing.

And that's it!  Now, any time you have a new keg ready to go on, just connect and forget it.  In 2-3 days it will be properly carbonated, and you can trust even your most clumsy and/or tipsy friends to pour for themselves.

Time for a just a couple of caveats:

1. This will mean that ALL of your beers will be at the same temperature and pressure, so you're serving a Berliner Weisse at the same pressure as a Standard Bitter, even though you'd expect three times the CO2 in the sour.  That's true, but it's also a pretty minor point.  Most beers are perfectly enjoyable at about 2.2 volumes, but if you're really committed, you can use independent regulators to create different pressure situations on different taps: just remember to cut different lengths of tubing to balance each tap, and note which are your "high CO2" and "low CO2" lines.

2. You won't have a new keg ready to go on demand - it'll take a few days (three is about right for me) before the flat keg's beer is properly carbonated.  If that concerns you, you can always pre-carbonate your kegs using a second cylinder and regulator - hit it with 30 PSI for a 4-5 hours, then disconnect it and set it aside for storage.  When you do ultimately attach it to your serving cylinder/faucet, be sure to bleed it to get rid of that first possibly-over-pressurized spurt (hold a mug under the tap and whip that puppy open), and you should be ready to serve almost immediately (or if it is a tad under-carbonated, no one is likely to notice).

So that's draft system balance made easy - set it and forget it.  These same rules apply whether you're connecting to a ten-tap system or a simple cobra/picnic tap: you should always be starting with volumes of CO2, and then balancing from there.  It keeps it simple, which is, around here, the point.

Be sure to check out the BA Draught Beer Quality Manual (http://www.draughtquality.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/DQM_Full_Final.pdf) to determine the resistance levels for your specific equipment/tubing, and when in doubt, consult your nearest Certified Cicerone (R), as draft system balance is an essential part of their certification!


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Brewing Simply: A philosophy

This first "real" post in the brewing section of the blog is dedicated to a statement of philosophy more than a specific practical improvement, but I think it's important to ground what's to come in the weeks, months, and (who knows?) years to come in a statement of what I mean by "brewing simply."

Despite the near-limitless universe of gadgets, equipment, and tools available to homebrewers, brewing outstanding beer definitely does not require an extensive investment in that equipment, or even a detailed knowledge of how the stuff we buy at the homebrew shop becomes "beer."  Is some knowledge beneficial?  Absolutely.  But is some knowledge (and its application in homebrewing) just a form of hobby-intensive masturbation?  Absolutely.  Knowing the difference is part of what we'll be discussing.

This section will detail areas where processes and ingredients can be simplified - either by eliminating extraneous or minimally-beneficial steps or implementing a work-around for existing steps.  Will some recommendations cause minor variations in your beer?  Yes, almost certainly.  But not all of those changes will be negatives, and when they are I'm confident that they're nominal.

I start from the position, in every case, that brewers would brew more frequently (and be happier doing it) if it was easier, took less time, and turned out a good product, reliably.  So that should be our goal.  In evaluating your own process (the topic of our next post), ask yourself why you're doing something: can you justify (and not just rationalize) this, in the context of making a positive contribution to the beer?  Or are you just doing it because you read it in a magazine/blog/message board?  Or because you've always done it?  Or because a great brewer you know does it?  I think that many people lose sight of the fact that this stuff (beer) was made basically by accident, for millennia.  The science we reverence now is a relatively recent guest at the brewing party, and while it can open doors to make our beer a lot better, its mania for correcting even very minor errors may be creating additional work for very little return.

So, take a look at your process.  Write down your steps in detail.  Next time, I'll be discussing where you might be putting in a lot more than you're getting out!