The Beginner Brewer: April 2013

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Basic Brewing Techniques Part III: 5 More Steps to Better Beer

My previous post on better brewing techniques seemed to have gone down well, so I thought another installment would be a good idea. Here are five more steps to better beer:

1. Repeat recipes

Homebrewers have a massive advantage over their commercial cousins. Commercial brewers have to brew consistent beer, using the same recipe, time and time again to satisfy their consumers. Homebrewers only have to satisfy themselves (and their devoted friends and family members).

As a homebrewer, you can brew a brown porter the one week and an imperial IPA the next. With all the beer styles out there, you never have to brew the same beer twice for a year or more. Adventure! Excitement! But a master brewer craves not these things.

It's really difficult to master brewing if each time you brew is like the first time. Sure, you'll gain experience in the basic mechanics of brewing, but you won't learn much about the interplay of ingredients and beer chemistry that way. So take (one) leaf from the commercial brewer's book: try for consistency by brewing the same recipe a couple of times. You won't regret it.

Good experiments = Better beer

2. Change only one thing at a time

So you've taken my advice and are about to brew that Blonde Ale for a second time. But now that you think about it, wouldn't it be interesting to substitute Cascade hops with some Centennial? And you've always wanted to add some maple syrup to a brew. And how about that Trappist yeast?

Experimentation is a fantastic way of learning how to brew, not to mention producing some fine beers. But good experiments (and experimenters) change only one variable while keeping all the others constant. So for that second Blonde Ale, why not just try and substitute one hop varietal. Or even better, use the same hops, but add them at different times in the boil.

3. Buy brewing software

Brewing, as I've mentioned in previous posts, is as much as science as an art. It is important to calculate your Original Gravity, expected Final Gravity, and alcohol content. Once you go further down the rabbit hole of brewing, you'll encounter other interesting statistics relevant to beer, such as bittering units, residual sugar content, attenuation, bitterness ratios, and others. You can calculate these by hand, or put them in a spreadsheet, but that's just a little primitive, no?

Brewing software has come a long way, and packages like Beersmith are tremendously powerful tools for homebrewers. Brewing software can help you calculate just about every possible beer statistic, assists you in formulating your own recipes, and serves as a repository for all your brewing notes and observations (you are keeping a log of those, right?)

4. Take notes

Pictured: One of the best  pieces
of brewing equipment you'll buy
One of the best investments I've ever made in brewing equipment cost me less than ten bucks. It was a simple counter-top note book. 

My brewing notebook looks pretty primeval by now. It's pages are warped and stained from many years worth of steam, wort, and syrup assaults. But I still go back to it every time I brew. Nowadays I also keep notes on Beersmith (the cloud is safer for storage than a cupboard).

Recording what you did during a brew day, noting potential risks and mistakes, and noting future ideas are all going to improve your beer immeasurably.

5. Use fresh ingredients

Commercial brewers like boasting about the quality of their ingredients, the purity of their water, and so on. A lot of that's just marketing of course. But homebrewers shouldn't ignore all the hype.

It's tempting to use ingredients that have come close (or gone beyond) their expiry dates. You paid good money for these after all, and surely expiry is just a guideline? Some ingredients are more robust than others: high alpha hops tend to keep for longer than noble varieties; dry yeast stays viable far longer than liquid.

But don't risk your beer if there is any doubt about the freshness of your ingredients.

Taste the grains you're going to be using for freshness and quality. Check the expiry date on yeast packets, and if you're using extracts, try to source local varieties--these are generally fresher and haven't been exposed to as many environmental ups and downs as imported brands.


{Picture credit: Lab flasks; Amy Love Yah (CC BY 2.0)}

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Going All-grain: The Basics

Once you've mastered brewing good beer using extracts and specialty grains, you may want to try your hand at all-grain brewing. This essentially makes you responsible for the entire process of beer making, just like craft and macro-brewers the world over.

In all-grain brewing, you produce fermentable sugars from malted barley (mostly), thus replacing malt extract with your own 'extract' that comes from converting starches found in barley to sugars, and eventually, beer.

Understanding the basics of all-grain brewing helps you understand the eventual equipment you'll be using and the steps to making great tasting beer at home. This post is really a very bare-bones description of the whole enchilada. I don't want to tie you up in jargon-heavy knots, and this ain't going to be a chemistry lesson either. Just solid advice (I hope).

Converting grain into sugar: Mashing

All-grain brewers convert the starches found in malts to sugars through a process known as mashing. When you mash grains, you essentially suspend milled (cracked) grains in a watery soup that is held at a specific temperature (usually in the region of 67 degrees C), for a specific time (usually 75-90 minutes), and at a specific PH level (usually in the region of 5.3).

Why all these parameters? It's because of enzymes found naturally in malted barley. Enzymes are the proteins that convert starch into sugar, and they need particular conditions to become active and start doing what they're good at: helping your grains along the path to becoming beer!

One thing all-grain brewing does give the brewer is more choice in how the beer will turn out (on the down side, it gives you more opportunities to screw things up!). Mashing is where a lot of that takes place. Depending on the mash temperature and time you choose for your grains, you can select the amount of body (residual sweetness) your beer will have. It will also determine how many fermentable sugars you have in your wort. This, in turn, determines the Original Gravity, Final Gravity, and alcohol level of the beer.

The short of it is:
  • Higher mash temperatures result in a sweeter beer with greater body and less alcohol
  • Lower mash temperatures result in a dryer beer with less body and more alcohol
(For the serious beer geeks out there: yes, there are more variables that affect body, ABV, and overall taste of the beer--but these are the basics)

Mashing Equipment

A commercial mash tun
Brewers generally use a vessel called a mash tun to mash their grains. This can take the form of a simple
stock pot lined with a bag (more about that next time), or an insulated vessel fitted with a false bottom (normally made from a picnic cooler--see picture below).

Homebrewing mash tun
made from picnic cooler
At the end of the mashing period, the temperature of the mash is raised (to about 77 degrees C), which stops the conversion process and extracts additional fermentable sugar from the grain. This is called mashing out, but is not always practiced (or needed).

Getting the most out of your malt: Lautering

While mashing the malt tends to do most of the work in terms of converting starch to sugar, the all-grain brewer must still separate the grains, husks, and grist from the wort--otherwise you have malt porridge, not beer!

This process is referred to as lautering. Generally, it involves recirculating the wort a few times, in other words, pouring the cloudy wort through the grain bed of the mash/lauter tun (these are often the same vessel for homebrewers) until the wort starts to run clear.

So the grain bed acts as a natural filter for the wort, just like your water filter at home. But, the grains themselves still hold on to a lot of sugars simply because of the porridge-like consistency of the mash. To wash out all the remaining sugars, most, but not all, all-grain brewing methods call for sparging, which is the technical term for washing additional sugars from the grains to increase the amount of fermentable sugars (and flavor compounds) in the wort. 
Grains being sparged with a rotating sparge arm.

There are different methods of sparging, each with pros and cons, but I won't get into those now. Suffice it to say that sparging can be important in some, but not all methods of brewing all-grain beer. This process of sparging can take anywhere from 20-90 minutes, depending on the particular method chosen.

Important to note is that as the clear wort is being drawn from the lauter/mash tun into the kettle, sparge water (at around 76 degrees C) is trickled through the grains, thus ensuring that the grain bed doesn't dry out.

Once the grains have been mashed, and the wort recirculated and sparged, all-grain brewers end up where extract brewers begin: with sweet wort in their brew kettle, ready to be boiled and converted into beer!

Lautering Equipment

As mentioned, lautering and mashing often happens in the same vessel for homebrewers (and microbrewers).  It is certainly possible to have a separate mash and lauter tun however, but then things get slightly more involved.

Where to from here?

I hope this post has at least somewhat demystified all-grain brewing for you (if it hasn't, let me know!). As I've said before, you can still produce excellent, award-winning beers using extracts, specialty grains and the methods I've outlined in previous posts. But if you feel like a bit of a challenge, or you want to experiment with every style of beer and every type of malted grain, then all-grain brewing can help you do that.

In my next post, I'll discuss what is without doubt the easiest, cheapest way of getting into all-grain brewing. So read that post before mortgaging your house and rushing out to buy that three-tiered, deluxe brewing system!


{Picture credit: Commercial mash tun: Bernt Rostad (CC BY 2.0)} 
{Picture credit: Cooler mash tun: Joe Olivas ( CC BY NC-SA 2.0)}
{Picture credit: Sparge: GregPC (CC BY NC-SA 2.0)}