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

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.

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


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