After perusing Homebrewing for Dummies, which lists you as technical editor, and The Homebrewer’s Answer Book, my previous experience converting really good apple juice, made from apples that my son and I picked, crushed, and pressed, into an undrinkable swill that I proudly called “cider”, and the fact that it took me longer to peruse the two books than it would have taken to have made multiple trips to the supermarket to buy some superb craft-brewed beers, I concluded that for people like me, homebrewing is for dummies. Decision made, happy again, nothing to worry about — until my October 2008 edition of Popular Mechanics arrived. Now I’m supposed to believe that homebrewing beer is one of the 100 skills that, “every man should know,” and it was ranked above knowing how to escape from a sinking car! Please explain to me why I need to know how to homebrew beer. Plus, can homebrewed beer ever be as consistently good as the likes of Sierra Nevada or Anchor?
Idaho Falls, Idaho
This question, albeit one of the campier questions I have received, left me scratching my head for an answer for several days. I can only answer by combining my personal feelings with assumptions I have about what may make some homebrewers tick. Homebrewing in the United States historically has its roots in pragmatism. At one time in our history homebrewing allowed people to (illegally) produce at home what they could not legally purchase. I think the homebrewers during the days of Prohibition were happy if they could brew something that was halfway drinkable as long as it provided a pleasant buzz.
There were not very many breweries that survived Prohibition and those that remained did not produce a very broad range of offerings. The number of breweries continued to decline after Prohibition’s repeal as did the selection of beers until the number of domestic brewing companies dropped to fewer than 100 in the 1970’s. This is really when today’s homebrewing scene began to take shape. It seems that young Americans were aggressively seeking more flavorful foods and beverages; homebrewers during this time were brewing beers at home to satisfy this craving for flavor. One thing led to another and articles began popping up in news rags about microbreweries. Most of the early microbreweries had one thing in common and that was a group of brewers who began their journey brewing at home.
Nearly thirty years later the terms microbrewery and brewpub, collectively termed “craft breweries” in today’s lexicon, are part of the fabric of America offering consumers a wonderful selection of beer. So I think things have reversed. Before, homebrewers brewed out of necessity. Now, many homebrewers brew because they feel encouraged by the number of really great beers available on the market largely brewed by those who got their starts as homebrewers.
In other words, craft brewers are trend-setting hipsters inspiring others to take the brewing plunge. That’s why Popular Mechanics listed homebrewing as one of the 100 things real men must know how to do. And the editors of that magazine correctly listed knowing how to homebrew above how to escape out of a sinking car. Seriously, how many men do you know who drink beer? And how many do you know who have been in a sinking car, alive or deceased? It’s clear to me that the latter skill is far more practical!
OK, so the above argument is a self-serving and narcissistic observation since I am a craft brewer. Maybe there are other reasons for homebrewing other than joining the ranks of the über cool. Some homebrewers want to outdo what we commercial brewers do. Given the excellent selection of palate-pushing beers available in most areas of the country this is not as easy as it once was, but a rising bar also leads to more aggressive competitors. And homebrewing competitions are certainly among the things motivating many backyard brewers. This unofficial training ground continues to spawn commercial brewers and upstart breweries.
Homebrewed beer can be truly exceptional in terms of flavor and these beers give brewers a lot of pride in their work. The honest answer about consistency is that commercial beers, with few exceptions, win that contest hands down. The two breweries you cite, Anchor and Sierra Nevada, are among my favorite domestic craft breweries and their consistency is notable. But consistency is only one aspect of quality. You can consistently produce something that is uninspired. You can also produce delicious beers that are totally inconsistent from batch-to-batch, yet each batch is delicious. While that lack of consistency would certainly result in failure in today’s highly competitive beer market, it is not such a big deal for homebrewers.
As far as hobbies go, homebrewing does require some academic preparation before beginning and some investment in equipment. To some, building the gear is half the fun and I have tasted homebrew from those who have more talent building equipment than brewing beer. It doesn’t matter if you are a builder, chef, chemist, biologist or artist. Homebrewing can be rewarding to all types and that is why I believe Popular Mechanics listed it as one of the top 100 skills every man must know.
Down on diacetyl
I seem to have a common issue with excessive diacetyl. I am quite wary of certain yeasts being more prevalent to this issue and the need for a temperature rest post primary fermentation. At first I thought it was a Wyeast 1968 issue, however I have since had issues with the Wyeast strains 1084, 1318 & 1272.
I am brewing all-grain beers using a stainless set-up with good fermentation temperature control to the nearest one degree. I typically ferment my ales between 18 and 20 °C (64 and 68 °F) with a rest of at least 2+ days. The beers usually spend a total of 2 weeks in the fermenter before I keg with yeast drawn off sometimes early and sometimes late. Note: I aerate the wort using pure O2 for 30–60 seconds for a 35-L (9.2 gal.) batch and use a cone-bottom fermenter.
At the time of kegging, I always taste the green beer and cannot detect noticeable amounts of diacetyl. I then put the kegs in a smallish under-bench keg chiller and pressurize to ~15 psi at approximately 4-6 °C (39-43 °F). I then wait a couple of weeks. The beers all seem to develop diacetyl over this period. At first I thought it could be the forced carbonation that was causing it so I tried kegging early to naturally pressurize. This however didn’t seem to make a difference.
Now I’m wondering if it is the chiller, which constantly vibrates — considerably more than your average fridge. Could the yeast be flocculating prematurely and stressing or is it potentially something else, for example, bacteria?
I am on non-chlorinated country water and use Proxitane as my non-rinse sanitizer. I am fairly confident it shouldn’t be bacterial, however I have had the 20-L (5.3-gal.) drum of Proxitane for about five years now. Does it have a shelf life in its concentrated pre-mixed form? I am basically looking for any advice regarding potential cause of my consistent diacetyl issue, particularly how it seems to develop once in the keg.
Tauranga, New Zealand
At first glance I suspect that the yeast strains you like may be the culprit. Most of the strains are described as highly flocculent on the Wyeast Web site and these types of strains often drop out so effectively that a diacetyl rest is difficult because much of the yeast is on the bottom and contact between diacetyl in the beer and yeast cells is limited. I have had problems with diacetyl using flocculent strains in uni-tank fermenters and solved my problem by simply changing yeast strains, in particular selecting less flocculent yeast.
To test this idea I suggest giving Wyeast 1056 a try. This yeast is popular among homebrewers and US craft brewers. A feature of this strain is that it is not very flocculent and if you like clear beer you will need to do more than simply wait for the beer to clarify. Finings or filtration is really required for a bright beer. Clarity aside, you should be able to produce a very clean and diacetyl-free beer using 1056. If you are unsuccessful with this strain, then you may be picking up your diacetyl from bacteria as you suggest.
The sanitizer you are using contains peroxyacetic acid (PAA) and this is one of my favorite sanitizers. PAA, although sharp-smelling and wicked on skin and mucous membranes, is very beer friendly since it decomposes into water and vinegar. This decomposition occurs when PAA, a strong oxidizer, comes into contact with soils and also occurs over time with storage, especially if stored hot. It is important to recognize the fact that PAA, like other peroxide-based cleaning products, does not have an indefinite storage life.
While the storage life of PAA does depend on how it is stored, I have seen data sheets that indicate a reasonable shelf life of 6–12 months at room temperature. If your 20-L (95.5-gal.) jug of PAA is five years old, and it is the only sanitizer you are using, you may be unknowingly omitting your sanitize step. PAA has a strong odor because of the acetic acid portion of the molecule and concentrated acetic acid is just as sharp as PAA.
There are other diacetyl remedies that I did not mention because I don’t think they are the cause of your problems. Increasing the length and/or temperature of the diacetyl rest and minimizing air pick-up after the diacetyl rests are two things that brewers use to combat diacetyl. But I really think your problem is either due to yeast selection or the efficacy of your sanitizer. Good luck!
Brew Your Own Technical Editor Ashton Lewis has been answering homebrew questions as his alter ego Mr. Wizard since 1995. A selection of his Wizard columns have been collected in “The Homebrewer’s Answer Book,” available online at brewyourownstore.com.