Procrustes v. The Dude: Fitting Recipes to Your Brewery

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

The Procrustean Method

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

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

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

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

The Lebowskian Method

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

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

Give Both Their Due

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

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

A Simple Approach

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

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

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

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

Keep it simple.  


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

How do you know if a beer is oxidized?  

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

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

The False Spectrum

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

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

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

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

See the Whole Off-flavor Crime Scene

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

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

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

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

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

The Dog That Didn't Bark

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

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

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

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

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

The Dog That Barked Too Loudly

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

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

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

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

Simple Isn't Always Precise

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

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

And if you suspect oxidation, what then?

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

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

Keep it simple.


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