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.  

Cost/Benefit

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.

JJW

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What to Brew, What to Brew...

In an average year, I'll brew about thirty times.  Sometimes it ends up being more (NHC coming to town, lots of celebrations/parties), or less (busy semester, equipment rebuild/repair chewing up brewing time), but it's usually within a few of that.

Which means that in any given year I'm filling a surprisingly limited dance card.  And I brew more frequently than the average homebrewer (if surveys by the AHA are to be believed, the over-under is something like 15).  

When I came to that realization it got me thinking about how I decide what to brew, and largely without realizing it I've been following a few rules.  You don't need to follow these, of course, but it might be worth your while to think on why you choose to brew what you do.  You might be surprised...

If I Can't Buy It, I'll Brew It

First up, I generally brew things I can't buy regularly.  Even living in the beer market I do (gotta love Philadelphia, for both the local beer AND what we get imported), there are beer styles that just don't pop up all that much.

Altbier probably tops the list.  Good English Bitter (though there's more of it than there used to be).  Eisbock.  American Amber, oddly enough.  And I'll definitely brew clones of things that are outstanding but just not available in our area, even if I can get something in the same style!

But IPAs?  I'll usually just buy them.  Seasonals are usually thick on the ground, so it's not necessary to brew them if I'm running short on time.  We're also getting to the point where good light lagers are now abundant, though I know that's not true everywhere.

Scarcity, then, becomes an important part of figuring out what I'll be brewing. 

Speed v. Strength

I also tend to brew things that I know will be consumed quickly, and without turning my friends and family into Oakland Raiders tailgaters about ten minutes before kickoff.  I currently have a keg of Baltic Porter on, and that sumbitch is probably going to be there until December.  

When I'm properly planning, I keep the stronger or more-esoteric stuff in bottles.  Or I don't brew it at all.  Unless it's specifically going to be aged/rationed (for example, every four years I brew a small batch of English Barleywine, of which I drink three bottles per year!), I'll typically pass on brewing it.  

I simply won't drink (or give away) enough of it, or fast enough, to justify it.  I find that I'm happier with three pints of 4% Munich Dunkel than one pint of 12% Strong Scotch.  Your mileage may vary, of course.

Finding the Right Challenge

At least a few times a year I brew something that comes under the heading of "experimental" beer.  But when working out what that will be, I'll often pair it with a base beer that will let me pull double duty.  

Split batches are your friend.  Instead of making two or three small batches, make a regular-sized beer with a common grist and hopping, and split it out on the cold side.

And as a corollary to that, choose your challenges with care.  There's certainly value in making a Gueuze, but before you head down that path, consider the impact on your other brewing.  How much fermenter space are you tying up?  How much time and effort to age your hops?  How long before you get a drinkable product?  And how willing are you to dump it if you don't like it?

Path dependence can be a real pain, so before you set yourself a brewing challenge, make sure it's something you're committed to, and put yourself in a position to learn from it no matter how it turns out.  Push yourself, but do so in a way that doesn't waste your efforts.

Choices FTW

A lot of us keep a tap or two set aside for "everyday" beers.  I'll usually have a German lager or English bitter on tap, just for the "not really into craft beer" crowd.  Standard beer.  "Watching the Ryder Cup on a Sunday Afternoon" beer.  Dare I say, session beer.

But for the rest of my beers, I tend to stick to styles that produce home runs when done really, really well.

Not every style can claim that.  I've never been to Cologne, so maybe it's a different experience there, but I've never in my life had a Kolsch and thought, "GOOD GOD, WHERE HAS THIS BEER BEEN ALL MY LIFE!"  Ditto for Helles.  Or whatever "summer ale" is.  

If I'm going to brew a roasty beer, I'm going to brew a Robust Porter with lots of late hopping.  If I'm going to brew a wheat beer, I'll brew a Weizenbock.  Not super-strong, or mega-bittered, or ultra-estery.  But something with a lot of flavors, and more importantly, a lot of choices on the part of the brewer.

If it's just going to be approximately the same thing that anyone else brews (hello, Hefeweizen), then I'm just not as interested.  I want something customizable.  It's like deciding to make an egg dish, and making a hard-boiled egg.  Is there a difference between a phenomenal hard-boiled egg and a horrific one?  Sure.  But the gap between the 20th percentile and the 80th percentile isn't all that large, and it's a lot larger between the same examples of (for example) Eggs Benedict.

Call me crazy, but it makes me feel like I'm making "My" beer, not just the best imitation of someone else's.  

Brew What You Want

I mean this both as a general disclaimer (to head off the nattering nabobs who will knee-jerk the response of "DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO BREW!"), and also a plea to think about what you want out of beer when deciding what to brew.

"I want something that tastes good."

Yeah.  Got it.  But what else?  Why are you doing this?  

Do you brew because you want to say you brew your own beer?  

Do you brew because you're not satisfied with the beer in your market?  

Do you brew because you like to play around with flavors and pairings?  

Do you brew to save money?  

Do you brew because you're a mad scientist that wants a new strain of yeast named after you someday?  

The more you know about why you're brewing, then the more satisfied you'll be with the brewing choices you make.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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

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This piece began as a half-joking list of beers called "S--t I won't brew."

For fun, the Beer Simple Condensed Version of the list (in-progress) is below:

  • American IPA - too many good ones out there
  • Most sours (with the exception of quick sours like Berliner Weisse) - blessed with lots of breweries making great sours, just down the road from me
  • Spruce beer - I had a bad experience once (picturing Jurgen Prochtnow in "Beerfest")
  • American lager - just...why?
  • Barrel-aged anything - I almost always end up just tasting barrel
  • Blueberry beer - I'm not convinced it can even be done well
  • Black IPA, White IPA, Red IPA, Brown IPA, Belgian IPA... (seriously - the whole "tag the name with IPA because it's high in bittering and flavor hops!" thing is annoying)
  • Beers that involve adding petals to them
  • Lots of Belgian Strong ales, but I do occasionally get a hankering...
  • Gose - not only is it trendy, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus among brewers and beer drinkers as to what constitutes a "good" one
  • Cream ale - just because