The Beginner Brewer

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Your Guide to Off-flavors: Volume 1

Off-flavors. We've all had them. Come on. I know you've had them. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Well, maybe a little.

Knowing about off-flavors is really, really important for homebrewers though. Here's why:

  • It can help you diagnose where / why things went wrong in your brew
  • It will make you a better judge of beer
  • It will help you brew more drinkable, award-winning beer
  • It will make you more attractive and sexy
Okay, so maybe not that last one.

I'd add another, non-homebrewing, reason to know your off-flavors, though: Beer education. 

With more and more craft beer flooding the market, it behooves craft beer lovers to develop their palates (I've written about this one in another post as well). Good craft beers and the brewers who make them should be rewarded with improved sales.

Bad beer should be punished with decreased sales and probably a good old slap across the face. Knowing off flavors helps you do that--good one! Oh, and please don't buy the malarkey of "It's craft beer, so it's supposed to taste like your granny's armpit." No. It's not.

In this first of two posts, I'll discuss the most common off-flavors homebrewers (and craft lovers) are likely to encounter. Here we go!

Off-Flavor #1: Diacetyl

Butter. Yummy. Maybe not in beer though..
Think butterscotch. Buttered toast. Heavy, sugary butter. If your beer smells and tastes like any of these, its probably got an unhealthy dose of Diacetyl. This bad-boy is a by-product of normal fermentation as well as, in certain instances, bacterial infection.

Diacetyl can be a desirable flavor in some styles of ales and stouts, especially those produced in the English style. But too much Diacetyl in even these beers would be considered a flaw. Which is bad.

How to stop it

Since Diacetyl forms during fermentation, you've got to look into that phase of the brewing proceess to prevent it. The thing about Diacetyl is that it forms naturally when yeast ferments wort, but is then scrubbed out again later, if you've ensured the following:
  • Healthy yeast growth: For yeast to remove Diacetyl, you've got to make sure that these wonderful little beings are happy. That means you've got to make sure you've pitched enough yeast, that you've aerated your wort before pitching, and that you haven't killed your yeast by pitching it into too hot or too cold wort. Got that? Also:
  • Don't ferment too hot: Controlling fermentation temperatures is a vital component of brewing really good beer. Keep your fermentation temp steady during primary fermentation. For ales, try aim for 16-18 degrees Celcius. For lagers, around 12-15 degrees Celcius should do it.
  • Do a Diacetyl rest: Pro brewers who want to prevent Diacetyl in their beers tend to do a Diacetyl rest around Day 5 and 6 of fermentation. It's pretty simple: raise the temperature of your fermentation by a couple of degrees, around 18-20 degrees Celcius. Keep it there for a day or two.
    What's happening here is the heat re-activates dormant yeast cells and encourages them to absorb Diacetyl. After the rest, you can do your normal cold conditioning at lower temperatures.
  • Keep things clean: Diacetyl can also be produced by various bacteria. Damn those bastards. So do make sure to keep things clean, especially once your wort has been chilled and you're ready to add yeast. Go take a look at my post on sanitation to refresh your memory. It's good for you. Promise.

Off-Flavor #2: Phenolic

Cloves. A little goes a long way.
Think cloves, medicinal, and at high concentrations, that weird Band-Aid smell. No, not Bob Geldof--the bandages, smart-ass. 

Phenolic compounds can form throughout the brewing cycle and by a variety of culprits, so figuring out what went wrong can be more difficult.

Like Diacetyl, Phenols can be desirable in certain beers. Yeasts used to produce Wheat beers, Witbiers, Saissons, and most Belgian styles all have a touch of the phenolic in them.

When controlled, it should add a nice flavor of cloves and spice to the beer. But just a touch, mind you.

If your beer smells like a MASH surgery, it's not okay. Here's what you do:

How to stop it

  • Check your water: High levels of Chlorine compounds (chloramine) in your brewing water can cause very phenolic, medicinal off-flavors. Use a Chlorine filter or boil your water before use.
  • Don't use bleach: Given how many high-quality, built-for-purpose sanitizers there are nowadays for homebrewers, using bleach just because it's cheap is insane. What are you, the Grinch? Avoid bleach, because its residue can cause off-flavors in your beer. Okay?
  • Keep things clean: Yep, you guessed it. Proper sanitation, especially post-wort cooling, can go a long way in preventing most bacteria from spoiling your beer. Phenolic off-flavors are often produced by wild yeast strains and bacteria. So keep it clean, folks.
  • Bottle carefully: Wild yeast infections like phenolic compounds like creeping in during the botling phase of brewing. So remember to keep things extra-special clean and sanitary during bottling.
  • Mash temperatures: Less common, but worth checking, is phenolic compound formation due to low mash temperatures. If you're brewing all-grain, check if your mash temperatures aren't a bit low (45-55 degrees C). That can contribute to the formation of phenolic precursors in your wort.

Off-Flavor #3: DMS

Tomato beer anybody? No.
Think creamed corn, tomato stew, cooked vegetables. None of these tastes or aromas belong in beer. They're always bad. Always.

DMS, or as it's mom refers to it, Dimethyl Sulfide, resides, like a viper in the grass, inside of most malts. Once you heat up malts during mashing and boiling, DMS starts to form. Bummer.

How to stop it

  • Wort time: Unlike Hammer-time, you should try to collect your wort from mashing at a reasonable pace without letting it sit around for too long.

    If you're using Brew-In-A-Bag (BIAB), that's usually not a problem. But for brewers who use converted coolers, it can be. So collect wort slowly, but not at a pace that will allow you to read War and Peace in one sitting.
  • Full Boil: Make sure that you achieve a full, rolling, boil. I've spoken about this in previous posts, so go check it out. DMS is blown off by vigorous boils, so get rid of those suckers! Also, don't cover your kettle during the boil. Allow DMS to escape. It wants to be free.
  • Limit chill time: I'm talking about Netflix and chill here. Just kidding. Chill down your boiled wort as quickly as you can afford to. Use a wort chiller. Use prayer. Whatever it takes, just make it quick, okay?
  • Good, strong fermentation: A vigorous fermentation can really help to scrub out DMS through the CO2 that naturally forms during this phase of brewing. Make sure you've pitched good, healthy yeast, aerate your wort, and pitched the yeast at the right temperature. If you're brewing a high gravity beer, make sure to use yeast nutrients in the boil to help things along.
Next time, I'll cover some more off-flavors. Now go brew some better beer.


Picture Credits: 
Butter by Taryn (CC BY 2.0)
Cloves by anuandraj (CC BY 2.0)
Tomato by photon_de (CC BY 2.0)

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Open Letter to All South African Beer Bloggers and Reviewers

I love beer. Always have. From the first taste of my Dad’s Black Label to having a Trappist Triple, beer has woven its seduction into my bones and into my heart. It made me want to brew my own beer more than ten years ago. It made me start this blog. It made me start Hate City Brewing Company.

When the Craft beer revolution hit SA shores, I was right there, cheering along with all of you. I thought, “Yes! Now is the time for good beer!” It was a special time. Once, a beer enthusiast considered finding a Portuguese lager in their local liquor store a very special thing. Now we’re spoiled for choice.

Enough with the nostalgia. 

I’m worried about the future of South African craft beer. And here’s why. 

There’s still too many flawed beers out there on the shelves of restaurants, pubs, and liquor stores. Too much DMS, too many band-aid beers. It’s not okay. It’s not “craft” if a beer is cloudy, tastes like old nappies, and smells like a sewer grate. That’s crap beer, folks.

I fully realize and own the irony and scary tension of me, a craft brewer, saying such things.

Craft brewers shouldn’t review fellow craft brewers. But I think I have earned the right to review beer reviewers. You, dear critics of craft, have the power to make this beautiful craft revolution of ours keep on revolting against the faceless, bland, corporate swill produced by the macros of this world.

Make no mistake. It’s super-horrible to receive a bad review about your beer. I know. But that’s the only way to improve. Craftspeople do ultimately appreciate the interest, even if it’s negative. That’s the way of progress.

But you have a lot of power, dear reviewers.

The average craft consumer will listen to you. They will take you seriously. This is what the craft movement needs. It’s painful, yes. But necessary. Craft is about quality. It’s about prioritizing taste and artisan craft above all else. 

So here’s the rub: If you follow an “Everybody get’s a prize” philosophy, if you refuse to post bad reviews, if you don’t educate yourselves in what an off-flavor is and tastes like, well, you’re doing a tremendous disservice to the craft beer movement in this country.

You really are.

The reason is very simple. 

Once someone tries a craft beer, and pays far more for it than the average macro, and that beer doesn’t taste great, they are very likely to turn away from craft. They are likely to conclude that this is just another hipster trend, another ploy by marketing folk to divest them of their hard-earned cash.

And if enough people think like that, the craft movement will die. I really think it will.

So please save us from ourselves. Post bad reviews. Name and shame (even if that name is my own and that shame is mine to bear).

You will be doing the right thing.

Thank you.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A Couple of Questions: Homebrewing FAQ

So after a long hiatus, mostly thanks to working on my craft brewery: Hate City Brewing Company, I'm back!

My apologies for the long wait, and my thanks to everyone who has still read through the blog anyway!

Today's post is a collection of questions I've fielded throughout the last few years teaching in the Beer Keg's beer school, where we show homebrewers how to make awesome beer at home.

So let's get started!

1. I've recently opened a homebrew after bottle conditioning, and beer came shooting out, pretty much emptying the entire bottle. The beer doesn't really taste off. What went wrong?

When your beer empties itself almost entirely, the likely culprit is a wild yeast infection. Some strains of wild yeasts can ferment even complex sugars that brewing yeasts can't. 

The result?

Your beer becomes hyper-carbonated and once you open it, wants to escape at all costs! Also, if you taste carefully, you'll note that the beer tastes bland, very dry, and has almost no body. All symptoms of having (usually) non-fermentable sugars removed from the brew.

The cure?

Look carefully at your bottling practices. This type of infection usually happens during bottling (the horror...), so review your bottling methods. Some pointers:
  • Sterilize everything that touches the beer. Including bottle caps and the siphoning tube
  • Ban pets from the room you're using to bottle--their fur harbors wild yeast.
  • Try to keep air flow to a minimum: wild yeast floats on the air, especially if you've got a big garden or live near agricultural areas.

2. I'm using Beersmith (or similar software) and am brewing full grain recipes. I almost never hit my pre-boil gravity, even though I've tried to improve mash efficiency through raking, mash-outs, etc. What now?

Remember that mash efficiency is not a competition. 

Commercial brewers need to worry about extracting the maximum from their mash, because we're using large quantities of expensive malts and can't afford to lose money on an inefficient mash. Homebrewers aren't as restricted.

So don't sweat it if your mash efficiency hovers around 60-70%. Adjust the settings in your software to accommodate for that and use a bit more grain. And hit your numbers every time!

3. My beer is very cloudy, even though the style calls for crystal clarity. What's wrong?

This is a complex problem. Clear beer is definitely a joy to behold (unless you're brewing a style, like a Witbier, that is supposed to be cloudy). I am a strong believer that if you use the right technique in brewing, you generally don't have to filter or overly-fine your beer to achieve clarity. Here are a few pointers to clear beer:

Clear Beer: What a wonderful thing..
  1. Make sure that your grains are not milled too finely (If you're doing a full grain brew).
  2. Maintain a full, rolling boil for at least 60 minutes.
  3. Use Irish Moss at 10 minutes (5-10ml per 20 litre batch).
  4. Create a whirlpool to collect the trub in the centre of the kettle.
  5. Cool the wort rapidly (less than 30 minutes to pitching temperature)
  6. Cold condition your beer at 5C for at least 2-3 days before bottling
If you follow these five steps, you will have clear, beautiful beer. Promise.

4. I'm thinking of starting a microbrewery in South Africa. What are the requirements/things to keep in mind?

Since I've embarked on starting my own craft brewery, I've gotten this question a lot. Unlike many other countries such as the States, South Africa is still struggling to become small business friendly, so starting a craft brewery can be a tough proposition, but here are a few of the things I've picked up so far in my own journey:

  • MOST IMPORTANT: Please learn how to brew properly! The Craft Beer movement is a wonderous thing. I can honestly say that with a few exceptions, most craft brewers are incredibly decent people who will help their fellow brewers even if it puts them out or costs them money. The secret is: We are not really in competition with each other. In fact, the few d-bag brewers out there are distinguished in that they think there is a competition going on. The only real competition for Craft beer is: Bad Craft Beer. If you start a craft brewery and brew shit beer, you're hurting all of us, and that's not cool. I really cannot emphasize this enough. Craft beer in South Africa is growing, but so is the number of quick-to-capitalize-on-the-trend breweries. Not all of them produce quality, and that endangers the entire Craft movement. 
  • SECOND MOST IMPORTANT: Have an idea of how to sell your beer. As unfair as it sounds, beer, even really, really good beer, does not sell itself. It turns out that almost nothing sells itself. You've got to move from being a competent brewer to being a competent marketer and salesperson of your beer. If you don't like all that "marketing malarkey," then you probably should stick to homebrewing.
  • Premises: In SA, microbreweries may only be housed on properties that are zoned for industrial or agricultural use. There are exceptions for brewpubs, but then you will be constrained in how much beer you can distribute outside your brewpub.
  • Licencing: You'll need a micro-manufacturing licence, health & safety certification, and a zoning certificate to register your business, plus a few other ones like SARS registration for excise. My advice: speak to a craft brewery that's gone through the process, and resist the temptation to get a lawyer involved unless you really, really cannot get any joy. There are lawyers who advertise expertise in getting liquor licences, but in my experience, they are often less than impressive, which is  a bummer.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Small-batch Recipe: IPA

In a previous post, we discussed the equipment you'd need for small batch experiments, and with hope, you've tried a few batches already. If you're a hop head like me, you're going to have to try and brew an IPA, so today's post covers a reliable recipe for this super-hoppy beer. Enjoy!

Humulone-Head IPA

For a 3 liter extract batch (that's a 6-pack of 440ml bottles) you will need:


5 liters of H2O.

Extract and Specialty Grains

485g Dried Malt Extract
32g Caramunich I (50 SRM) Malt (steep at 65-70C for 30 minutes)
21 g Carared or similar (20 SRM) Caramel malt (steep at 65-70C for 30 minutes)


3g of Apollo @ 60 minutes
3g of Warrior @ 10 minutes
4g of Cascade @ 1 minute
4g of Warrior: Dry hop for 7 days before bottling.


A third of a packet of US-05 dried yeast (or similar American yeast)


A third of a teaspoon of Irish Moss @ 10 minutes.

For a 3 liter full-grain version:

You will need:
708g of Pale 2-row Malt
69g of Caramunich I (50 SRM) Malt
45g of Carared or similar (20 SRM) Caramel malt 

Use the same hops, Irish Moss, and yeast.

Mash Schedule (using the BIAB method):

Get your water to 72 C, then add the grains to achieve 66.7 C.

Mash the grains at this temperature for 75 minutes, then mash out at 75 C for 10 minutes and lift the bag. 
Do not squeeze the bag.

Your pre-boil gravity should be close to 1.036. Boil for 60 minutes.

Fermentation & Bottling

Ferment at 16-18C for 2 weeks. 
Bottle with 18g of dextrose or keg for 2.5 vols.

Technical Notes

Pre-boil Gravity: 1.036
OG (Original Gravity): 1.060
FG (Final Gravity): 1.014
ABV (Alcohol): 6.0%
IBUs (Bitterness Units): 65

Some Experiments to Try:

Small-batch brewing can be an excellent opportunity for the homebrewer to experiment. Here are some suggestions for this recipe:
  • Hops: Substitute the Warrior with a different hop, I recommend Centennial, EKG, Amarillo, or Chinook
  • Sugars: Try adding some Maple Syrup (about 60g) in the boil for a dry finish and wooded taste.
  • Other Flavors: Try adding some honey in the primary fermentation (50g) or chuck some juniper berries into the boil at 10 minutes (a handful should do).


Sunday, 6 April 2014

3 Beer Books for Non-Brewers

Homebrewers are a passionate lot (some would say obsessive), and often want to share our love for beer with friends and family.

So, apart from handing over your latest masterpiece in a tall pint glass, what about gifts that can be given to help others understand this wonderful hobby (i.e. obsession)?

Today's post looks at three books that homebrewers can safely hand to their non-brewing friends and loved ones without risking a puzzled look.

Brewing up a Business: Adventures in Beer

The author, Sam Calagione, is the owner and mad beer genius behind Dogfish Head Breweries, famous for their 60 minute IPA and recreating ancient brews from around the world. He's also written some kick-ass how-to books for homebrewers.

In this book, Sam takes a bit of a departure from that and talks business. More specifically, he takes the reader on an entertaining and occasionally revolutionary journey through his craft business model. 

If your non-brewing friend or significant other has an interest in business, guerrilla marketing, or just plain fascinating autobiography, this book is a great read.

The Brewmaster's Table

Garrett Oliver is the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery in NYC, and also a leading authority on food and beer pairings. Apart from authoring this book, he's also the editor for the Oxford Companion of Beer.

The Brewmaster's Table is a fantastic read for anybody who can be described as a "foodie" or is passionate about a good meal (accompanied by good beer, of course).

I'd also recommend Oliver's book to my fellow homebrewers--He is a very, very knowledgeable brewer, and his insights into different styles of beer are incredibly useful for getting your homebrew's flavours just right.

African Brew

Lucy Corne is without a doubt one of South Africa's true craft beer heroes. In this book, she journeys across South Africa, sampling craft beer, chatting to brewers, and sharing some great beer-friendly and beer-infused recipes (sounds like hard work, that).

This is a must-have for anybody who is interested or passionate about the craft revolution currently sweeping South Africa. A solid, well written tome with lovely photography and mouthwatering food (and beer) porn. Get it.

Friday, 28 March 2014

3 Tips for Better Beer

My apologies for not posting in a while--alas, starting a craft brewery is somewhat time intensive! More on that development in future posts.

But today, we're going to cover three very important things to keep in mind when making your own beer. They all improve flavour, stability, and the general health of you homebrew--enjoy!

Tip #1: Full Volume Boil.

I've mentioned this step in previous posts, but it bears repeating: unless you boil the full volume of wort you will not gain the advantages that it brings.
A full, rolling boil

And the advantages are many:
  • Full volume, rolling boils utilize hops more fully, and ensures a nice, rounded hop flavour
  • Full volume boils ensure that proteins responsible for haze are fully broken up, resulting in nice, clear beer
  • The full volume boil is essential for blowing off compounds naturally found in malt that produce off-flavours, like DMS.
  • A rolling boil ensures that no oxygen can enter the beer at this stage, helping with flavour profile and stability

Tip #2: Re-hydrate Dry Yeast

Properly re-hydrated yeast
Dried yeast is a popular choice with homebrewers--it’s easy to handle, lasts for a long time, and is relatively cheap. But dried yeast is not as lively as its liquid cousin. To help it along, and ensure that your yeast starts to replicate quickly, you should re-hydrate it.

It’s simple and will ensure that you have a good, strong fermentation that out-competes any potential nasties that may have crept into the brew:

  • Take the yeast out of the fridge and allow it to get to room temperature
  • Measure your room temperature by putting a thermometer in a glass of tap water
  • Clean and santitise a mason jar. Clean and santise the outside of the yeast packet and the scissors you’ll be using to open the packet.
  • Pitch the yeast into 150ml of sanitised water (I use a freshly opened bottle of mineral water)
  • Close the mason jar with a clean and sanitised lid
  • Let the yeast diffuse naturally for about 20 minutes
  • Then, swirl the jar gently every five minutes or so for another 20 minutes. The re-hydrated yeast will now be a nice, even-coloured cream, ready to pitch.
  • Make sure that you pitch the yeast into the wort when the wort has chilled to within 5 degrees Celsius of the yeast (the re-hydrated yeast will be at room temperature—which you measured earlier). Rather pitch into a warmer temperature, so if your yeast is at 20 degrees, then pitch into wort that is at 25 degrees, to avoid yeast shock.

Tip #3: Fermentation Control

The Fermenter: Strange things are happening inside

The fermentation phase of brewing is often perceived as a hands-off process by most homebrewers. Once you’ve pitched your yeast and placed your fermenter in a suitable spot, it’s all up to time and the gods. But this is where most of the flavours (and off-flavours) of beer are produced. So some careful control is necessary.

The main contributor to the flavour profile of your beer during fermentation will come from three things: Oxygen, competition, and temperature:

  • Oxygen: Yeast needs oxygen to function properly, so make sure that you’ve introduced enough of the gas into your wort before pitching (either by shaking the fermenter, whisking it, or using an aeration stone).

    • Once fermentation is going, you want to keep oxygen away from the developing beer—this is usually not a problem during primary fermentation, but if you’re going to rack your beer into another vessel for secondary fermentation, oxygenation is a real risk. My recommendation: don’t bother with secondary fermentation in another vessel—just use the one your beer is already in. If you are going to use another fermenter, fill it with CO2 first, or lacking that, fill from the bottom up. Slowly.

  • Competition: Yeast has evolved, through natural and artificial selection, to be very adept at fermenting out wort. But there are bacteria and wild strains of yeast that are also pretty good at working within the fermentation cycle. First off, you need to try and limit the unformed beer’s exposure to these harmful critters, and you do that by following the basics of good sanitisation (see my article on it here). Here are some additional points to keep in mind:

    • Make sure the fermenter does not have deep scratches inside where bugs can hide. If it does, you need to invest in a new one
    • Ditto for rubber grommets, gaskets, and airlocks in your fermenter lid. Check them periodically for tears, gouges, and places that can harbour nasties. Rather spend a few bucks buying new ones than stubbornly ruining your beer by being a cheap skate.
    • Make sure that you fill the airlock with sterile liquid. I prefer vodka, because unlike sterilisers, it doesn’t lose its potency, and if some of it ends up in the beer, it won’t affect its flavour

  • Temperature: Controlling the temperature of the fermentation is always a challenge for homebrewers, and unfortunately, it’s also one of the most important factors influencing the final product. This is a very wide generalisation, but most ales ferment really well at around 16-18 degrees Celcius. This temperature, depending on the yeast used, tends to produce minimal off-flavours while still allowing the tasty esters ales are known for to develop. There are exceptions though:

    • For Saisson yeasts, ferment at higher temperatures, from 22 C to 27 C works well
    • For Belgian ale yeasts, higher temperatures from 25 – 30 C work well.
    • For lager yeasts, your fermentation temp will be far lower, from 11-15 C.

  • As for controlling the temperature, the best possible option is to get an old fridge or freezer and bypass the thermostat with an external thermostat (digital or analog). You can get these from most homebrew supply shops. Put your fermenter in the fridge, adjust the temp to the desired range, and Bob’s your uncle!

    • Another option is to measure the ambient temperature in various rooms in your house, as well as in cupboards, etc. Make notes and track seasonal changes. That way, you’ll know which places are more suitable than others for different fermentation schedules.
    • In summer, you can cool down your fermenter by placing it in a large container with water, and periodically placing frozen bottles of water in the container
    • In winter, you can warm up a fermentation by using a heater in the room (costly), or wrapping the fermenter in a blanket or thermal cover (cheaper)

Hope you enjoyed the tips! Let me know about your homebrew experiences by posting a comment or question below, or connect with me via Facebook. I always answer any question, even if it takes a while. Happy brewing!

Monday, 27 January 2014

What is Craft Beer?

Yep, I’ve decided to tackle this hairy subject. It seems that sooner or later, every craft beer enthusiast, every beer geek, will have to come up with a good answer to this question. Usually it’s the first thing that friends and family ask you when you shove an IPA into their hands and tell them to try “craft beer.”

Pictured: something slightly less
elusive than the definition of craft beer
The problem is, nobody seems to agree on what we mean by “craft beer.” Many have tried, and some have even argued that there is no good definition, that even attempting to find one is less likely to succeed than those crazies who stalk Big Foot (you know who you are). 

And it’s certainly true that one can lump a lot of inappropriate things under the banner of “craft”. For an excellent treatment of that subject, please read Lucy Corne’s article here.
But I think that there are at least a few reasons why finding a workable definition for craft beer is important (and not just so that you have an answer for your buddy who is trying that IPA):

  1. It’s a fledgling industry. For craft brewers out there, especially in South Africa, the craft beer industry is still very young. Yes, it is reaching the eyes and ears of more people every day, but it is still very, very tiny in relation to other markets. Unlike the States, we don’t even have reliable data on who craft beer drinkers are, or how many of them are out there. So, having a proper definition helps in defining markets and helps brewers make better business decisions, which in turn will help grow the market and ensure survival of artisan brewers.

  2. It helps to define standards and identify pretenders. Craft brewers (and roasters, and bakers) are often mavericks, people who like to swim against the stream. But it’s not long before that disruption becomes yet another marketing gimmick. So, having a definition that distinguishes craft brewing (baking, roasting, etc) from other, more mass-produced endeavors is useful if only to create a shared consciousness among craftspeople about what we are willing to fight for. It also helps call out businesses that are trying to capitalize on the good will craft creates without wanting to actually contribute to the craft movement.

So here goes: I think that craft, and more specifically, craft beer, is distinguished by these key factors:

1. Artisan brewers are fanatical about quality of beer and will often do commercially “stupid” things to ensure this quality. This is because they are producing art, not product.

Yes, I know that there are brilliant, really nice people working at the big commercial brewers. They are not horrible to old people, and don’t eat little fluffy bunnies in their spare time (although…). 
Your average SABMiller brewer is fanatical about quality and consistency of product as well, but what distinguishes craft brewers is that second part of the definition. 

The part about being stupid.

A case study in this theme is Sam Callegione’s story about Dogfish Head’s take on making a craft version of cheap malt liquor (you can read about it in Sam’s book, Brewing up a Business). In their quest to make the ultimate craft malt liquor, they spent a lot of money on premium, rare ingredients, roped in highly-paid staff members (including Sam and the COO) to bottle the product by hand, and sold the beer at way more than malt liquor is ever sold at.

None of these decisions made any sense from an accountant’s high profit, low cost perspective.

Fact is, commercial brewers at big corporate brewers will never be allowed to make beer like this, unless there is a huge market and unless the profits can compete with their other, main-stream lines (both very unlikely).

But this sort of financial “stupidity” is exactly what distinguishes craft brewers from commercial ones. Craft brewers would rather pay premium prices for a rare or special ingredient than source the cheapest, most mass-produced ingredients simply to ensure a large profit margin.

It makes for risky business models, but fortunately, craft brewers keep operating costs small and don’t employ thousands of people, so a living can be made.

The approach has limitations built in—given the high costs of producing some beers, plus the logical limit of what you can charge for a bottle of beer, craft brewers are sometimes limited in the volumes they can produce (some would argue that this adds to the charm of craft beer, however).

I often find that people simply don’t understand this characteristic of craft beer. Maybe it’s because as a society we’ve lost a lot of traditional artisanship, and because the predominant models are those handed down by the big corporate success stories like Coke and P&G. 

Massive global food and beverage companies are massive because, in part, they've found the right balance between cheap ingredients, mass appeal, and large distribution networks.

Craft brewers however, are not aiming for this endpoint. What they want to achieve is, for want of a better word, art. And art can be mighty stubborn about profit margins and such..

2. Craft does not aim at mass appeal. It is often disruptive of mass appeal.

Again, when we look at big business, we look at the success of mass appeal. Why is Coke so successful? Because almost everybody likes (to some extent) Coke. MacDonalds? Same thing. A Mickey Dees burger is not gourmet food, but it is also not absolutely horrible either. So billions of people will eat a couple of them, at least once a year.

Mass produced beer is similar. SABMiller’s Castle is a good American premium lager. It does not offend too many taste buds, and it is quite refreshing on a hot day. It has mass appeal. Craft beer does not aim for mass appeal. 

Craft brewers like to play with definitions of what beer should taste like, they like producing obscure styles like Saissons and Imperial Ales that have not found their way into the lexicon of beer drinkers. Also, they like poking fun at the boring, re-tread ways of their more commercially-minded cousins (although that’s not a requirement, it is fun).

In many ways craft beer is the rebellious off-shoot of mass produced beer that says: “I don’t care if only a few hundred people appreciate this weird taste. As long as they’re fanatical about it and I enjoy making it, that’s okay.”

Mass market brewers do not have that luxury, and nor should they, really.

And Finally..

There are other ways of defining craft, but I think these two above do the job pretty well. It allows us to have meaningful discussions about the craft beer industry without it devolving into silly “chemical beer” debates, and what I especially like about it is that it opens to scrutiny brewers, large and small, who claim the “craft” title.

For instance, it allows us to call bullshit on mass-production brewers who think that they are making craft beer by producing slightly altered, smaller quantities of their commercial brands and labeling these ‘craft.'

It also asks some searching questions of existing “craft” brewers who seem content to produce beers that offer little differentiation in terms of taste from existing mass brands, contain only the cheapest ingredients, but are sold at high “craft” prices.

Your thoughts? Am I up a tree or is this some brilliant revelation (probably not..)?

Monday, 2 December 2013

Fixing Things: Low Mash Efficiency

If you've recently started all-grain brewing, you may well be using the Brew-in-a-Bag method as I’ve described elsewhere. Even if you’re not going the BIAB route, one persistent challenge for the all-grain homebrewer is mash efficiency.
That wonderful mash

Simply put, mash efficiency is the amount of actual sugars extracted compared to the total possible sugars that can be extracted from the recipe's grain bill. For many homebrewers, efficiency of between 60-70% is quite common.

On one level, achieving lower levels of efficiency (e.g 50%) is not a disaster. Homebrewing is not a mashing competition, after all. What is far more important is to know the average efficiency of your homebrewery.

Why? Because it affects recipe formulation. If you know that you tend to consistently hit 60%, or 70% or whatever percentage efficiency (as calculated by hand or software), you can modify your recipes accordingly.

To illustrate:

Let’s say you’re brewing an ale recipe with a simple grain bill of 4.5 kgs of Pale Malt, a target OG of 1.050, and a pre-boil gravity target of 1.044.

If you’re brewery efficiency is 60%, you’ll need 5.2 kgs of malt to reach the above targets. But if you’re working at 80% efficiency, you’ll need only 3.9 kgs of malt to reach the same targets. 

So you can see that knowing your efficiency is key to recipes that work out the way they're supposed to.

But what if you want to improve the mash efficiency in your homebrewery?

Here are three tips for getting the most out of your mash!

1. Get the Basics Right.

The alchemy of enzymatic action is waaaay beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that if you want the various amylases to work properly and convert grain starch into sugar, you need to create the correct environment.

So, check that you’re hitting that golden temperature zone of 67 degrees C. Then, make sure that you’re holding it there for at least 60 minutes (preferably 75 minutes for BIAB).

Finally, check that your mash PH is at or around 5.3 – 5.7.

2. Stir the Mash.

Enzymes like beta and alpha amylase need contact with the starch in grains to do their job. Stirring the mash helps with this, and will almost always benefit your efficiency.

Don't whisk the Mash!
Just be cautious: don’t whisk your mash! That can cause so-called hot-side aeration, that affects taste down the line.

A gentle stir, say every 10 minutes or so, should help a lot with efficiency—remember to use a heated spoon to avoid chilling your mash every time you stir.

3. Mashing Out.

So, you’ve done the basics right and you’ve stirred (gently) the mash. 

But your work is not yet done. Especially when using the BIAB method, you can help the washing of sugars from the grain bed by mashing out. To mash out, raise the temperature of the mash to around 75 C and hold for 10 minutes.

This will accomplish two things: first, it stops further enzymatic conversion. Second (and this is the important bit related to our current quest of better efficiency) it makes the wort less viscous and aids in draining sugars from the grain bed.  

That's it: good luck with your mash--but don't forget, this is not a competition folks!

For more tips on fixing things, check out my previous posts on:
Next time, I'll be writing my final (or next-to-final) post for this year, before disappearing into a cloud of Christmas-flavored beer. See you later.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Fixing Things: Avoiding Hazy Beer

While taste and aroma are arguably the more important components of the beer experience (along with the buzz), appearance makes for the third element of a really good beer. It is a joy to behold the rich red colour of amber ales, the warm gold of pale ale and the cola-like darkness of a brown porter.

So it’s understandable that homebrewers aspire to showing off these colours by making clear, bright brews rather than hazy, opaque ones that resemble dirty dish water.

In today’s post, I’ll be discussing several steps that you can take to ensure that your homebrew comes out clear and haze-free.

Step 1. Full volume boils.

Boil. Or else.
In previous posts I've discussed the importance of a full volume boil for enhancing hop flavour and blowing off the dreaded DMS. A full volume, vigorous (rolling) boil also helps with the clarity of the final product.

The physical and chemical agitation that a rolling boil creates also helps in breaking up compounds and larger proteins that contribute to hazy beer. So boil vigorously for 60-90 minutes.

If done properly, you should observe occasional “sheathes” of protein material bob to the surface of the wort: this is known as the hot break.

Step 2. Use Irish Moss at 15 minutes.

Irish Moss
Irish Moss is my placeholder name for a variety of finings that can be added during the boil to help clarify beer.

Mostly derived from types of algae, these compounds bind with larger protein molecules and help to drop these haze-forming troublemakers out of suspension where they collect at the bottom of the kettle.

Step 3. Create a whirlpool.

At the end of the boil, you should stir the wort for a few minutes, creating a whirlpool—yep just like the one that forms in a bathtub when you pull the plug. Maintain the whirpool for a few minutes, being careful not to disturb the center of the kettle as you stir.
Whirlpools: Groovy

What is happening when you do this is that all the solids, leftover hops and stray grain husks collect in a little pile at the center of the kettle. This makes it easier for you to pour off the clear wort and leave this stuff (referred to as trub), behind.

Step 4. Chill rapidly.

Apart from the haze created by actual trub in the beer, another form of haze is a result of proteins and tannins appearing at low temperatures—so-called chill haze.

Chill haze only becomes evident once you’ve cooled down your beer after bottling, so it can be quite frustrating when you think you made clear beer, only to pour a hazy brew when serving it to your friends!

You can help in reducing this problem by chilling your beer rapidly after the end of the boil. If you can take the beer down to pitching temperature (25-27C) in under 30 minutes, you should be good.

A sign of a quickly chilled beer is another “sheath” of protein bobbing to the surface—this is called the cold break.

Step 5. Pour carefully and use a sieve

When it’s time to pour the chilled wort into the fermenter, don’t forget the trouble you've gone to in creating the whirlpool! Be gentle with the kettle and try not to disturb the mound of trub in its center.

Pour the wort into the fermenter through a sterile sieve (this is optional and I’m not always sure it really helps all that much). When you get to the really dark grey-green trub, stop pouring!

Don’t be greedy—it really doesn't make sense to put too much trub in the fermenter only to harvest a few more milliliters of actual wort—that way leads to hazy beer!

Step 6. Cold Condition before bottling.

The last step in creating super-clear homebrew is to put the death knell to chill haze by cold conditioning your beer. At the end of secondary fermentation (about 2 weeks from start), chill down the beer to 1-5 C and keep it at that temperature for up to 1-2 weeks.

This conditioning phase will further help with flavour integration and stability, and importantly, prevent chill haze from forming in the finished beer.

And that’s it! Some brewers do add finings like Isinglass and Polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP) to beer at bottling, but in my experience, if you follow the preceding six steps, this won’t be necessary. Here’s to some clear beer!

If you'd like to see some more ideas on how to fix things, check out the previous post.


{Picture credit: whirlpool by Gordon Wrigley}

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Fixing Things: A Stuck Fermentation

Sometime, despite our best efforts to be kind to beer, it's not kind to us. If you brew beer, you will (I promise) come up against some of the more vexing issues that plague brewers the world over. In the next few weeks, I'll be covering some tactics you can employ to help your homebrew along when things go awry.

A Stuck Fermentation

It makes cold shivers of terror flow through the spines of most brewers: a fermentation that. Just. Stops. 

You’ve measured your fermenting beer as instructed , and for some reason, the SG refuses to dip below 1.020 (Of course we’re assuming that you’re not brewing a monster beer with a OG of more than 1.080, in which case it may not ever go below 1.020). 

Also, remember to give things time—beer can take up to a week to complete primary fermentation, and for big beers, this can be even longer.

But assuming that it’s a week down the line and you’re not brewing the world’s strongest beer, then yep, you’re in 1.020 limbo hell. Sorry. But is all lost? Not necessarily. It’s time to apply some emergency procedures. Here are some moves to make:

Step 1. Check your measurements.

It may seem obvious, but perhaps there is nothing wrong with your fermentation. You may have just measured wrong.  Of course, if you haven’t measured at all, and you think that you've got a stuck fermentation because there is no more bubbling coming from the airlock—shame on you. You HAVE TO measure your gravity! Eyeballing the airlock is not a recognised scientific measure of fermentation activity. Ever.
You may have gotten the math wrong..

If you used a hydrometer, measure the temperature of the wort and compare it with the temperature the hydrometer is calibrated to (that will usually appear along the side of the hydrometer itself). If there’s a difference between wort temperature and hydrometer temperature, you may need to adjust the reading (I don’t need to remind you to take sanitary precautions, right?). Click here for a handy calculator that can help with that.

If you’re using a refractometer, measure again—sometimes you don’t have enough liquid on the face plate. Then adjust the reading for fermenting wort. You can do this in Beersmith, or click here for a handy calculator. If you’re measurement is still correct after this, it’s time to move on to..

Step 2. Check the fermentation temperature.

Since you’ve checked the wort temperature in Step 1, you should now know what the fermentation temperature is. For ales, it should be around 16-23 C. For lagers, it should be around 14-17 C. 

Chilly temperatures: Yeast doesn't like that.
One common cause for a stuck fermentation is too chilly an ambient temperature. The yeast will then go back into a state of suspended animation and drop out to the bottom of the fermenter.

If this is your problem, there’s a relatively easy solution—heat up the fermenter by putting it in a warmer room in your house, or wrap an electric blanky around the fermenter—but be careful—you don’t want to overheat the brew: that can cause additional problems down the line.

Step 3. Shake your money-maker.

Yeast. It likes to go to sleep (sometimes).
 No—not your booty (although, then again…). If your temperature is fine, it might just be that you’ve started with old or tired yeast. 

What is needed is to “rouse” the yeast from its slumber at the bottom of that fermenter. Gently (and I mean gently) shake the fermenter a bit to put some yeast back into suspension. You can repeat a few times per hour for 2-3 hours if you like. Just don’t shake so violently that you introduce oxygen into your beer—that will be a BAD THING, and will make the finished beer taste like cardboard.

Once you've shaken the fermenter, let it rest and measure again after a couple of days to see if there’s a difference

Step 4. More yeast. 

If you’ve gone through all the preceding maneuvers and things are still not looking up, then it’s time to break out the final, last ditch, we’re-not-kidding-anymore solution: re-pitching yeast. 

Make sure that you’re pitching fresh, viable yeast. For dry yeast, just pitch another packet. For liquid yeast, pour the vial directly into the fermenter. Wait a few days. Pray to the big beer pixie in the sky. And then measure again.

If you've faithfully followed all the steps in this toolkit and there’s still no change, it may be time to throw in the bar towel. I know it sucks. But you’ll just have to dump the batch, go over your brew notes, and try to figure out what went wrong. 

Here are some likely suspects:

  • Old yeast: expired yeast ain’t going to get you far
  • Under-pitching yeast: for dry yeasts, this is seldom a problem, but for liquid yeasts, it could be. Check out this link to calculate your correct pitching rate.
  • Yeast shock: pitching yeast into wort that is more than 10C colder than the yeast itself is a bad idea and can cause yeast shock, and in turn, yeast slumber.
  • Pitching at too high a temp. Yeast is resilient, but it won’t survive you pitching it into wort that is hotter than 40-50C.
  • Sanitation. Often, when brewers follow poor sanitary practices, yeast can be outperformed by bacteria. This can cause a stuck fermentation, and incredibly bad tasting beer.

Next time, I'll be tackling the thorny issue of hazy homebrew. Click here for the next installment of fixing things.


{Picture Credits: Equations by Robert Scarth; Ponds on the Ocean by NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre; Sleep by Agus Munoraharjo; }

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