Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The 5 Best Ways to Improve Your Brews

There are two extremes to learning to brew. 

You can buy yourself a 10 gallon, pump driven, all grain brew sculpture and conical for 20 grand. You'll make beer, but you won't know HOW to make beer. Then you'll get bored, and try to sell it on Craigslist for half it's worth.

You can start from the bottom, using a Mr. Beer kit and working your way up, making every mistake you can make and learning from it. If you don't make wise decisions up front, you can end up spending a lot of money in the long run, but you understand exactly how every upgrade you make will improve your beer. This is what I did, and I know that it can be extremely frustrating when you make that one key upgrade and wonder why the hell you spent the last year making substandard beer.

Wouldn't it be great if there was some incredibly smart person who already made all the mistakes and had a blog where they could write about it? Yeah, that would be swell. 

1. Pitch More Fucking Yeast

You probably don't. Even if you've been brewing for years, I bet you don't.

If you're a newbie, and aren't willing to make a starter, USE DRY YEAST. I cannot stress this enough. A packet of dry yeast has at least twice the number of yeast cells as a vial of liquid yeast, and it's cheap. Direct pitching a package of liquid yeast is not enough for anything. It wasn't even enough for a healthy fermentation of my 3 gallon batches until I started making starters.

Pitch one 11 gm packet of US-05 for a 5.5 gallon batch of average strength beer, and don't be afraid to pitch 1.5 - 2 packets, especially for stronger beers and lagers. Properly rehydrated in 100 F water, of course. Pitching an extra packet of yeast costs you a whole 2 extra bucks per batch, just do it.

If you want to step it up, go straight to a stir plate and 2 liter flask. A 2 liter starter, decanted and pitched warm, will give you a strong, fast, healthy fermentation, and using liquid yeast will give you greater flexibility in the styles you can brew. The flask can be boiled and fermented all in one container, won't break when cooled quickly and is easy to swirl and pour. A 2 liter starter made with half a vial of liquid yeast will give you just enough yeast for a 6 gallon ale of around 1.070, cutting your yeast costs in half. A stirplate and 2L flask can be had for less than $60 and is probably the best investment I have ever made.

PS. Some people say you can pitch too much yeast. If you can, I haven't seen the limit. I've racked a 1.100 OG imperial stout right on top of a dry irish stout yeast cake with no ill effects. It finished fermenting down to 1.030 in two fucking days and tasted great!

2. Just Fucking Buy BeerSmith Already

And I mean buy it, not pirate it. It costs what, half the price of a batch of beer, and you'll be supporting a guy who works hard to support your habit, both with podcasts and frequent software updates. BeerSmith is hands down the best brewing software I've ever used. I use it to maintain a detailed brew log, design recipes from scratch, scale other recipes for my batch size and efficiency, and calculate anything I could possibly need to when brewing up a batch. Just don't pirate it, you cheap asshole.

3. Don't Waste Your Time (Or Money) On Partial Boils

Brewing with extract is perfectly okay. You can and will make great beers with extract, but you absolutely need to do a full boil. Right from the get-go, no topping up. Why?
  • Better hop utilization. Open up BeerSmith (you don't have it? Go back to number 2). Try designing a recipe where you top it up with 3 gallons. Look at your IBUs. Now change the top up water to 0 (i.e., full boil). Now look at your IBUs. You can make this better by adding most of your extract at the end, at least.
  • Less chance for contamination. This should be obvious. Half of your water wasn't even boiled - probably right out of the tap. Add that to the fact that you're probably trying to save yeast by pitching half a packet of dry yeast and getting 2 day lag times, it's no wonder your beer is infected.
  • Better taste. This one's obviously difficult to quantify, or even prove. Some people say the source of 'extract twang' is due to stale extract, but others attribute it to a concentrated boil followed by dilution. Regardless, you know who doesn't do partial boils? Jamil. Tasty. Pro brewers. People who win contests. People who make better beer than you do.
  • Replicating recipes. See the last point. Do you think that brew you read about in Brewing Classic Styles or heard on Can You Brew It was topped up with tap water? No. Your beer may taste okay, but it won't taste like it's supposed to. Pretty much any recipe written by a professional or an advanced homebrewer assumes, at a bare minimum, that you're boiling everything at once.
  • You're going to do it anyway. Come on, if you're even halfway serious about homebrewing, you'll go all grain sooner or later. And when you do, you're going to be doing a full boil. If you don't do all grain or full boils for the rest of your life, make sure you put a pound of hops in every brew so no one can taste how terrible it is.
This one will cost you. You'll need a larger brew pot, 8-10 gallons (a ball valve is nice, but not 100% necessary). You'll need a propane burner. You'll almost certainly need a wort chiller. Here's why it isn't as expensive as it sounds, and why it's totally worth it:
  • Brewing on the stove top sucks. I ruined the electric stove at my last apart, and that was doing 3 gallon boils. The landlord charged me 50 bucks when I moved out for the cosmetic damage, but that's because she didn't charge me when she repaired the melted wires in the stove. If I had told her it was my fault due to brewing on the stovetop, she probably would have. The first time a repairman charges you $200 to fix your f'ed up stove, you'll wish you had just started on a propane burner. Plus, the gas stove at my new place takes about 45 minutes on high just to bring 3 gallons to mash-in temperature. Ugh, no thanks.
  • You can buy 5 gallon pot for $50 now, then a 9 gallon pot with two welded ports for $90 later. Save yourself some money and just buy the bigger one right now.
  • You can get a propane burner for $50 at Home Depot or wherever. When the rapture comes and you are cut off from all utilities, you'll be glad you have one. Plus, em, you can make a shit ton of chili on it with that big shiny new pot you have. You also probably already have a propane tank for BBQ - hell, I lived in a 500 square foot apartment and I already had one.
  • Chilling wort in an ice bath REALLY sucks. I'd recommend a wort chiller even if you AREN'T doing full boils. Ice baths really just suck that much.
  • Again, if you're going to go all grain, you'll have to buy all this stuff anyway. So it's basically free, right?

4. Fermentation Control

Keeping your fermentation temperatures under control is the number one most important thing you can do improve your brew. So why is it #4? 

The problem is, it's a huge pain in the ass and isn't always worth it. For example, if you keep your beer in the house and set the thermostat to 62, it's probably going to be fine. Most of the year, it won't even get hot enough to worry about. Plus, not everyone has the room in their house or the money to spare on a temp control solution, especially when the difference is between fermenting at 67 degrees and fermenting at 72. 

You can also solve the temperature problem by just not brewing in the summer. Make wine instead, I guess. That's how the Bavarians did it - their summer beer sucked balls, so they made it illegal to brew in the summer. Problem solved.

Finally, it just isn't exciting. There's no WOW factor to controlling your fermentation temperature. It isn't fun, or interesting, but if you're making hot, fuselly, estery, phenolic beers that are prone to infection, or if you want to make lagers, it is a game changer.

Unlike the first three items on the list, which you should do before even starting your first damn brew, I'd recommend getting a chest freezer as soon as you can spare the room and money for it. Keeping it in the house is best, where it won't get too cold at night and the temperature swings are less drastic. If you live in California, like me, outside it fine, but you still need to keep an eye on it so it doesn't get too cold or cycle on and off too much.

You can pick up a 5 CF chest freezer for $50-75 on Craigslist if you keep an eye out. A Ranco ETC-111000 will run you about $50 on ebay, unwired. You can see how to wire it yourself here and save yourself some money. It is digital and you can switch it from heating to cooling just by pressing a button. If you have huge temperature swings (100 during the day, 40 at night), you may need to use a dual stage controller like the Ranco ETC-211000, which lets you connect the freezer and a heating device at the same time.

5. Stop Storing Your Beer On a Hot Shelf in the Laundry Room

Stop it. And you wonder why that beer you sent to the local comp was hazy, infected, oxidized and had no hop character. Beer needs cold to settle out yeast and to keep it from premature aging. Putting your beer in the fridge is the best way to ensure it is clear and doesn't taste "young" (a.k.a., yeasty, green). It also doesn't cost you anything, though your significant other may object. 

I really wish the dumbasses at had emphasized how terrible your homebrew tastes after you leave it warm for 3 months, instead of always claiming that time heals all wounds. It doesn't. Ferment it at the right temperature, with enough yeast, enough oxygen, enough nutrients and just enough time to clean up yeasty byproducts, then chill the shit out of it as soon as you can. Most well made beers taste great after about of month of total time fermenting and aging. Hell, it should taste pretty damn good right out of the fementor. If you have to let it age longer than that before it tastes good, either you made a big, aggressive beer (RIS, barleywine, scotch, etc) or you suck at brewing. Go back and read the first four points.

The next logical step here is to start cold conditioning your beer. My beer didn't stop tasting like 'homebrew' until I started kegging. But, it wasn't the kegging or the force carbonation that did it. The difference was that I was able to get my beer cold as soon as fermentation was done and keep it cold forever after. Not only will you settle out more of the yeast (and faster), thus eliminating common green/homebrew flavors, your homebrew will last you months (or years) before going south. Your IPAs will thank you especially.

If you can manage it, stick your carboy in a fridge for a week or two before bottling. Do it Sierra Nevada style - put it in the fridge to knock out all the yeast. Make sure it is crystal fucking clear. Then add about 1 gram of yeast (rehydrated) to your bottling bucket with the priming sugar. Make sure to let your beer warm back up to room temp before bottling. Say hello to clear, professional-tasting beer, and say goodbye to that enormous yeast plug in the bottom of your bottles.

The ultimate solution is to start kegging. I won't go into that now, but man guys it is so awesome. You have no idea.

6. ((Bonus)) Go All Grain

Okay, not on day one. I mean it. Take some time, learn to brew with what you've got. Maybe even win a comp or two with your extract beers. Really get to know your system as it is. Then step it up.

Brew in a bag pretty much costs less than 5 bucks to start. Just use your big-ass pot (you've got one now, right?) and a paint strainer bag. You'll be limited by how much grain you can fit into the bag you buy, and your wort will have much more 'crud' in it since you don't vorlauf. Your efficiency will also be lower if you don't sparge, but you can batch sparge with BIAB and get 75-80% efficiency.

The next step up isn't too expensive either. I mean, you already have the big pot, the wort chiller and the propane burner. You know what else you probably have? An ice chest. Something like this Coleman Xtreme. I bought it a few years ago for like...50 bucks on Amazon, to use when camping. Now, go to Get this and this. Screw everything in according to their instructions. You now have a big enough mash tun to make 10 gallon batches of fucking Barleywine, and it probably cost you less than your brew kettle. Google "denny conn batch sparge".


Read every book you can find. Listen to everything The Brewing Network puts out (they put out a lot, if you know what I mean). Don't trust everything you read on, but DO read Join the AHA, then read through all of their free back issues of Zymurgy. Subscribe to BYO. Find a local homebrew club and join it. Enter your beer in comps even if you don't think you'll win - you'll still learning something. Experiment. Most importantly, don't let an infection or a bad beer get you down - figure out what went wrong, fix it and keep brewing. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Recipe Recap: #21 - #25

Today's Recipe Recap will cover brews #21 through #25. There were 3 rebrews - all disappointing. There were a lot of problems and disappointments here. It almost feels like my brewing is going backward. A big part of it was using harvested yeast and having a hard time controlling fermentation quality during the summer.

#21, Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA Clone 2.0
The result was definitely better than the first. However, I got way too much ester and phenol character, and what I'm pretty sure was chlorophenols, which eventually went away. The flavor was okay, but never quite right. Carbonation was great, but the beer wasn't nearly dry enough. I was discouraged enough to never bother with this recipe again.

#22, Janet's Brown Ale 2.0
Well, this one was mistakenly made with pale chocolate malt, and that made it completely different. Without the mild roast of the chocolate, this one just didn't taste right. On top of that, it was way overcarbed, maybe due to underattenuation. No roast at all, pretty much just bready and hoppy. Disappointing. Entered this one in competition because I ran out of Sweet Stout - didn't expect it to do well and it didn't. It was slammed for too much carbonation and lack of roast, among other things.

Still, I'll probably try this again eventually.

#23, Pliny the Elder Clone 2.0
This was a huge improvement over the first attempt, but it still only sorta tasted like Pliny, and I couldn't come anywhere near the dryness of Pliny. The greater sweetness of my version blocked some of perception of bitterness, so it didn't seem that hoppy (despite the obscene amount included in the recipe). I entered one in competition, but lost a lot of points because most of hops had dropped out due to age, making it seem sweeter and revealing flaws in fermentation. It was pretty damn great early on, and has convinced me to throw my IPAs into the refrigerator as soon as they are carbed.

#24, Heretic Evil Twin Clone
An infected disaster. This infection may have continued into batch #26. First time I've feared for my health due to a bottle bomb infection. Maybe I'll try making this again someday, but I'm not really sure just yet.

#25, McQuaker's Oatmeal Stout
Pretty awesome, despite its flaws. Would've been better with fresher, healthier yeast, lower carbonation and a bit more sweetness and mouth feel. I will be rebrewing this with my own tweaks to make it my own recipe and correct its flaws.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

All Grain Recipe: #28 Jamil's Chocolate Hazelnut Porter

Another damn infection!

Okay, I wanted to create some beers for Thanksgiving. Something holiday-ish but not necessarily 'holiday' or "christmas" beers. I decided to go with a chocolate hazelnut porter and a witbier - both are spiced, but not 'holiday' spiced. The porter would be the more interesting one, while the witbier would be for family with less adventurous palates.

I retired my Mr. Beer kegs for this batch, and have moved entirely to Better Bottles. I picked up an extra one at HopTech in Dublin while mashing.

The recipe calls for baking cocoa added at the end of the boil. This turned out to be difficult, and it didn't distribute evenly until it boiled for a while (even then it was chunky). It sunk to the bottom of the fermenter. During fermentation, the cocoa all went up to the top with the krausen. It was all very strange and made me uncomfortable. If I were to make another chocolate beer, I'd stick with cocoa nibs or chocolate extract!

True to my word, I didn't repitch yeast. I used a fresh vial of WLP001, but with no starter. After a month in primary, the FG was insanely high - 1.028. Even given the amount of specialty malt, the attenuation was way too low, about 57%. Out of fear that I'd get bottle bombs, I bottled these all in 1 liter PETs, which would bend instead of exploding if fermentation started up again in the bottle.

After 3 weeks in the bottle, carbonation was perfect, but the flavor was... off. Ashy, like a freshly burned candle or incense. Unpleasant, and the hazelnut and chocolate just made it worse.

One more week, and suddenly all of my bottles were bulging. Opening the bottles led to a fountain of beer.

Okay, so I did have underattenuation, which led to fermentation in the bottle. No big deal, right? Just let off pressure until the CO2 level hits the right amount, then drink. The problem is that the flavor got worse instead of better, and no amount of pressure relief led to a proper amount of CO2. I believe there was an infection that didn't manifest itself until after the beer was bottled.

After I realized it was likely an infection, I poured everything out. Yet another failure; I'm starting to get discouraged.

Anyway, as usual the recipes are after the break.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

All Grain Recipe: #27 Mirror Pond Pale Ale Clone

For this recipe, I thought I'd make a clone of Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale, from Can You Brew It.

Another not so great brew. This time, the problem was the yeast. I created a starter from a repitch of WLP007 (instead of the WLP002 the recipe called for). The first sign of trouble came when I smelled the starter, which was way more "Belgian" than it should have been. I thought it might just be the starter, so I pitched it.

I soon discovered it wasn't just the starter. Samples taken from the fermented beer tasted more like a Saison than an APA. They weren't bad, and the flavor mellowed over time. If it was an infection, they would get worse over time. I decided to roll with it, after letting it sit for twice as long as I normally would. I dry hopped it and bottled it, and when I tried it two things jumped out at me:

1) The carbonation was correct, unlike many of my other brews which were way overcarbed.
2) It wasn't bad! The Saison with citrusy cascade hops wasn't a bad combination.

After this brew I decided I'm going to stop repitching yeast. When it works, it is great, but it is too inconsistent. Yeast can mutate too much after only a few repitches, especially if the harvesting isn't done just the right way. I suspect the lack of attenuation in many of my beers may even be caused by less healthy yeast from repitching. It will only be fresh vials from here on out.

Recipes after the break.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

All Grain Recipe: #26 Rogue Dead Guy Clone

This was an infected disaster. It was infected some time in secondary by my house wild yeast. It started fermenting again out of nowhere, and by the time I threw it out it had an astringent, Belgian-y flavor.

Let us never speak of it again.

For those curious, the recipe came from Can You Brew It, and is just after the break. I included notes I took while listening to the podcast, which is here.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Yeast: Bottle Harvesting

Bottle Harvesting: the process of bringing nearly dead yeast back from the dead. Yeast Frankenstein, if you like.

Maybe you want to brew a spot-on clone but they don't sell that particular brewery's yeast strain. Maybe you're cheap and want 'free yeast'. Or maybe you're just a homebrewer, and you don't need a goddamn reason. Here's how.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Recipe Recap: #16 - #20

Today's Recipe Recap will cover brews #16 through #20. My brewing is definitely getting better. I improved my process, lowered my efficiency, corrected my pH, cleared my beer more, carbonated properly and controlled my fermentation better.

#16, Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA Clone
First, the bad news. This didn't really taste like Union Jack at all. I bittered with Columbus hops for 60 minutes instead of Warrior for 90, giving it a much harsher bitterness. My OG was off, and it attenuated more than it should have. My high efficiency led to a lack of strong malt character, so it was hop dominated (more like my pliny clone). My lack of pH control led to a little bit of phenolic off flavor and astringency, but very very little.

Finally, the carbonation was higher than I'd like, making the beer seem harsh. Oddly enough, I have to carb around 2 - 2.2 volumes, using BeerSmith's calculator, to reach a level of carbonation that is close to what you'd get from a commercial bottle or draught. This beer was carbed to around 2.6-2.7 volumes.

Also, I tried to dry hop without a hop bag. That was a huge mistake, and I lost almost a gallon of beer to hops before all was done.

The good news is that it was a pretty good beer. It just wasn't a clone, and it wasn't perfect.

#17, Janet's Brown Ale
Holy cow, this stuff was good out of the gate. I had one after only being in the bottle less than two weeks and it was fantastic. I carbed it properly, to around 2.3 volumes. The head was thick and creamy and lasted a long time. The hop aroma was strong and pleasant. The hop flavor and subtle roastiness of the chocolate malt went hand in hand. The mouth feel was nice and thick but never sweet, and very drinkable. My best beer so far!

If there was any complaint, it might be that the specialty malt flavor wasn't as pronounced as I expected and there was a hint of phenolics in the background. I only noticed it when I compared mine to a commercial Black IPA that had a similar flavor.

I'd love to try the real thing and compare! I've also rebrewed this one with some improvements to my process. I carbed to 2.3 volumes, and will probably reduce that to 2.0 - 2.1 next time I bottle.

#18, Stone Levitation Clone
Light, dry and orange-y. Drinkable and full of flavor, though more and more I prefer beers with a very thick body. I can't detect any off flavors, though.

Carbonation is a little high at 2.5, and I would reduce that to 2.3 next time. I had to sub Mt. Hood for the Crystal, which may have had significant impact on the flavor. Aroma and flavor are definitely dominated by the orange citrus of the Amarillo. Over time, the flavors have 'melded' together into a more cohesive single flavor, where before it felt like a combination of different flavors competing for my attention. I don't know if that makes sense, but it's the only way I can describe it.

This will probably taste closer to the original if I lower my efficiency and adjust my specialty malt percentages. Of course, I haven't compared it to the original. I'll come back and update this post when I do, or create an entirely new post.

#19, JZ's American Pale Ale
Well, I'm not the biggest fan of Pale Ales in general. They're usually pretty dry and boring. For me, a glass of beer is an event, not something I drink pints and pints of. It tastes decent, though a little young, and the carbonation feels higher than it should. I think the flavors need time to merge. It currently tastes like hops and malt, instead of a single combined 'pale ale' flavor, if that makes sense.

This is my first beer made with a lower efficiency, 5.2 pH stabilizer and gelatin finings. I can definitely tell. The beer is clearer and cleaner than any before it. I detected no off flavors. Very clean and very drinkable. The flavor is similar to Levitation, probably due to using the same base malt (Great Western American Pale Ale malt, a US version of British pale malt).

#20, Triple-X Sweet Stout
Heaven in a glass. This will be gone in no time, even though I'm only drinking on weekends on my diet. Thick but drinkable. Slight milk-like aftertaste. Creamy espresso and chocolate flavor, with a hint of alcohol. Not hot alcohols or off flavors that I can detect. This one has been in the bottles only two weeks and yet is nicely carbed, creamy and delicious. Proof that if you need to age your (lighter) beer more than a few weeks, you probably did something wrong.

I carbed to 2 volumes, and will probably reduce that to 1.8 or 1.9 next time. There *will* be a next time.