20 Facts You Should Know About Brewing

No single magic trick will transform good homebrew into great homebrew. Many brewers make excellent beer by following instructions and paying close attention to details. But brewers who understand the “why” of a particular process or operation in addition to the “how” seem to get the best results. Here are some brewing facts, including the whys, to keep in mind the next time you brew.

1. Simple is better.

In recent years homebrewing has continued to increase in sophistication. Many of the innovations enjoyed by homebrewers today are based on scaled-down equipment or operations used at the craft- or macrobrewing level. Interestingly enough, while homebrewers are now working with pumps, stainless steel mash screens, and the latest techniques for hop additions, commercial brewers are researching and developing ways to simplify and ease the brewing process. This is because the single biggest variable in the brewing process is not the ingredients or the equipment used but the one factor that many brewers overlook: the human element. It is an experiment that has been repeated many times: If you give 10 different brewers the identical ingredients and instructions, you will undoubtedly end up with 10 different finished beers. Remember that anything that can be done to organize the brewing process and keep it simple will not only make it an easier and more enjoyable hobby, it will reduce the likelihood of brewing errors occurring as well.

2. If it’s not clean, it’s not sanitary.

Cleaning is one area in which homebrewers, in mimicking their craft brewing and microbrewing cousins, often miss the point. While there is a multitude of chemicals and products available to help clean dirty equipment, many of the chemicals used in commercial operations are simply industrial substitutes for the one piece of equipment that no homebrewer can overuse — elbow grease. Giant tanks that can’t be reached can only be effectively cleaned with harsh chemicals, but there is really no good reason to employ hazardous caustics and acids in homebrewing. While good cleaners can help with the job, the best approaches to cleaning boil down to plenty of hot water and liberal use of scrubbing pads and brushes. Getting equipment spotless allows the chemicals used in the sanitization process to effectively do their jobs. Failure to get equipment clean can result in bacterial contaminations, and nobody enjoys dumping a spoiled homebrew down the drain.

3. Directions are there for a reason.

As with cleaning products, there are many choices today on what to use as a final sanitizer in homebrewing. Regardless of the sanitizer used, there is a human tendency to believe that if a little is good, more is better and way too much is just right. This seems especially true if a recent batch of beer has gone bad due to poor sanitization. Unfortunately, failure to follow proper dilution instructions by creating stronger-than-recommended solutions usually results in a decrease in sanitizer efficiency. Furthermore, overmixing of sanitizers can result in residues that can create off-flavors even worse than those caused by bacterial contamination. Remember to allow adequate contact time for the sanitizer to do its work. Mixing up sanitizing solutions that are double the recommended dosage does not mean you can cut the required contact time in half. Use the proper dilution ratios for the recommended time; your beer won’t end up tasting like industrial paint stripper.

4. It’s the water.

The vast majority of a bottle of beer is made up of the one ingredient that most brewers pay the least amount of attention to — water. Most of the truly successful mega- and regional breweries in the world today are located at or near a good source of clean water. If your local tap water tastes good, without excess chlorine compounds or mineral imbalances, it will probably make good beer. Otherwise, most bottled drinking water will provide a good neutral source of clean water. Water picks up its character as a result of what it passes through, so unless you are fond of unusual rubbery smells in your beer, think twice before filling the brewpot from the old garden hose hanging up in the garage. Draw your water directly from the tap or with a short length of food-grade hose such as the siphon hose available at most homebrew shops.

5. Water adjustments often create trouble.

There is a plethora of information regarding ways to adjust mineral content and pH levels of water to mimic the great brewing waters around the world. But use caution. Many times the levels of adjustment required as well as the minerals or acids used are relatively minor and difficult to accurately weigh without a gram scale, pH meter, and titration equipment. In addition while government- mandated water reports for your local water supply are readily available and quite accurate (just call your local water department), many times these reports are annual averages, and the actual water could be quite different depending on the season and any recent rainfall if the water is from a surface source. Unless you feel that there is a substantial improvement to be made in beer quality due to the style of beer being made or the water available, avoid making too many adjustments to the brewing water.

6. Freshness counts.

You know that fresh beer tastes best, so keep that in mind when you purchase the ingredients for your next batch of beer. The same reactions that can result in beer going stale over time can affect the ingredients as well, and using stale or out-of-date ingredients means you’ll get stale off-flavors in the beer before it is even a few weeks old. Beyond looking for obvious signs such as freshness dates, look at products before you buy. Do they look and smell fresh? Do the products appear to rotate frequently, or are the packages covered with dust? Are the hops green and kept cold in airtight packaging? Are packages of yeast stored in a cooler, or are they taped to the outside of a can of malt extract? If possible, taste grains to make sure there are no stale or moldy flavors or characters.

7. Milling grain can contaminate the brewing area.

Grain is a food source. As such it is literally covered with different types of bacteria, with Lactobacillus being the most common. In the brewing process this bacteria usually does not present a problem thanks to the high temperatures used in the mashing and boiling stages. If allowed to come into contact with cooled wort, Lactobacillus produces lactic acid in the finished beer. This creates sour, unpleasant off-flavors. Milling grain usually creates a lot of dust, which in addition to being an irritant and nuisance also releases an airborne invasion of Lactobacillus into the surrounding environment. Most successful breweries move pre-mash grain processing as far away from the brewing and fermentation areas as possible, and homebrewers should do likewise. If you pre-mill your grain and need to transport it home, do so in a bag or old, unused pail, not a fermentation bucket.

8. Mash temperatures dramatically affect beer flavors.

In all-grain beer, conversion of starches into fermentable and unfermentable sugars takes place over a wide temperature band from 145° to 165° F. However, within this range different enzymes are working at different temperatures. The work done by these enzymes has a big impact on the flavor profile of the finished product. Beta-amylase, the enzyme responsible for creating easily fermented simple sugars, works best on the lower end of this range. Alpha-amylase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down starches into unfermentable long-chain sugars, works best at the higher temperatures. Adjusting mash temperatures within this range gives you control over the finished wort. It can be very fermentable, resulting in a dry beer, or very dextrinous with a sweet, malty character. A good compromise allowing both enzymes to work relatively well is in the center of this range, 150° to 155° F.

9. Grains should be sparged at 168° F and 170° F.

The mashing process creates a sweet, sugary solution that must be lautered, or extracted to the brewpot. The sugars present in the mash react to temperature much the same way the sugars in a can of malt extract syrup do. When cold they become very thick and viscous, and when hot they tend to lose viscosity and flow more easily. Extract brewers many times will run a package of malt syrup under the hot water faucet for a few minutes to make it easier to pour into the brewpot. For all-grain brewers the goal in sparging is to use the hottest temperature possible to take advantage of this effect and improve extraction efficiency, yet not extract any of the harsh, astringent tannins that are present in the husks of grain. This occurs best at 168° to 170° F.

10. There is no substitute for a hard, rolling boil.

There are many good reasons to employ a solid, rolling boil for a minimum of 30 minutes. A strong boil ensures sanitization by killing any bacteria present. Compounds in hops responsible for bittering are isomerized and drawn into the final solution. And a strong boil is crucial in creating an effective “hot break,” in which proteins that might otherwise cloud up or haze the finished beer are coagulated into particles that can easily drop out of suspension. The steam that escapes from a vigorous boil carries with it several volatile aromatic compounds that can create unpleasant sulfury aromas in the finished beer — if they are not driven off.

11. Good notes make better beer.

Keep track of the temperature when you pitched yeast, the gravity of the wort before fermentation, mash variables, and many other tangible factors in your process. You can’t know where you are going unless you know where you’ve been. Without good notes, the many factors that can affect the outcome of a batch of beer will become muddled and forgotten over time and a few batches of homebrew. Being able to look back and review notes made at an earlier time can help you make decisions that change or improve the next flavor in that next batch, especially if you stumble across something unexpected but good. Using simple instruments such as thermometers and hydro-meters allows you to take accurate readings that not only indicate what to expect from your current beer but that will help you to accurately reproduce it in the future as well.

12. Quick wort chilling does more than just save time.

After boiling, quickly dropping the temperature of the fresh wort to yeast-pitching temperature of no more than 70° F speeds up the entire brewing process. More important, it helps to improve the quality of the finished beer. Wort is sanitary at the boiling point, and most yeast can be safely pitched and fermentation begun at 70° F. Beer-spoiling bacteria can thrive and reproduce rapidly at temperatures below boiling and above 70° F. It stands to reason that the faster you can transcend this danger zone, the more you lessen the chances of any bacterial contaminations taking hold and ruining the beer. Furthermore, rapidly chilling the wort increases the coagulation and precipitation of proteins. With proper chilling this “cold break” will settle out of suspension. If these proteins are not removed, they will create a haze in the finished beer.

13. It’s hard to overpitch.

How much yeast is the proper amount? In most cases the right answer is more! From a technical standpoint the proper amount to pitch is somewhere between 10 million and 30 million cells of viable yeast per milliliter of wort. The factors that affect the amount of yeast required to pitch and ferment a batch of beer are many, including gravity of the wort, fermentation temperature, yeast strain used, type of fermentation vessel, and myriad other factors. However, from the homebrewer standpoint it is very difficult to have an adverse effect on the finished beer by overpitching, and without a microscope, hemocytometer, or centrifuge, pitching volumes are almost impossible to accurately determine. Overpitching a beer can result in shortened fermentation time. It will also undermine proper yeast health for successive repitching by not allowing the yeast to go through a proper growth phase. In this phase cells rejuvenate, and they rebuild their glycogen reserves at the end of the growth phase. These are all factors that can be important to a commercial operation with set production schedules and where a yeast strain is expected to be used for many successive batches of beer. The majority of homebrewers rarely use a particular batch of yeast for more than just a few sequential batches of beer, so this is not really an issue. Large pitching volumes have the advantage of reducing lag times and the opportunity for beer-spoiling organisms to multiply and produce off-flavors. While the potential for yeasty flavors does exist when using large pitching amounts, for the most part these can be avoided by racking at the proper time and maintaining proper fermentation temperatures. How much is a good volume to pitch? A pint of good slurry from a clean previous batch or cultured from a starter should result in a prompt and active fermentation in a five-gallon batch.

14. There’s a time and place for oxygenation.

Much the same as with yeast pitching rates, there are many equations to determine the proper amount of air to inject into the cooled wort for optimum yeast health, usually in the neighborhood of eight to 12 parts per million. The factors that affect this figure include wort gravity, temperature, oxygenation or aeration method and efficiency, and many others. Again, from the homebrewing standpoint the proper answer on how much oxygen to use is more! As with yeast, without proper lab instruments it can be virtually impossible to determine the amount of dissolved oxygen in a sample of wort. It is better to err on the side of excess, because the problems that can occur from over-oxygenation in a homebrew are negligible compared with the problems that can happen when not enough is used. Inadequate oxygenation can result in poor yeast health and performance, along with stuck fermentations and beers that do not attenuate or reach their expected terminal gravity. A healthy dose of oxygen usually results in a shortened lag time, vigorous fermentation, and good yeast health. Any excess oxygen that is introduced usually is removed or “scrubbed out” by the escaping carbon dioxide gas during the subsequent fermentation. Whether you’re using the time-tested method of splashing the cooled wort into the fermenter or using any one of the commercially available oxygenation/aeration systems, don’t hesitate to introduce more oxygen to the wort prior to pitching yeast. Be careful not to add too much when using pure oxygen. Many homebrewers do make a mistake that will affect the flavor of the finished beer by introducing oxygen to the wort after the fermentation process has begun, usually by careless splashing during racking or bottling. Since the fermentation process is for the most part complete, any oxygen introduced will not be scrubbed out and will instead remain to react with other compounds in the beer to create staling and off-flavors.

15. Steady, constant temperatures protect wort from off-flavors.

Yeast is a living organism, and like any other creature yeast perform at their best when in a comfortable environment with an adequate supply of nutrients. The nutrients are supplied in the form of boiled and chilled wort, which will be fermented into finished beer. The temperature at which this takes place has a dramatic effect on the flavor of the finished product. Ferment too warm and you’ll get higher alcohols called fusels, which are associated with hangovers. They not only taste harsh, they are very difficult for our bodies to process and neutralize. Temperatures that are too cold slow down the metabolism of the yeast. This can result in sluggish fermentations that stall before the beer has reached the proper terminal gravity. Butterscotch-like compounds called diacetyl can also result from fermentation temperatures that are too high. Don’t worry if you do not have access to a rigid, temperature-controlled environment. A five-gallon fermenter of wort will be slow to react to minor daily fluctuations in air temperature. Liquids change temperature much more slowly than the surrounding air and thus maintain a reasonably constant average if kept out of drafts or direct sunlight.

16. Two-stage fermentation clears beer.

In a two-stage fermentation the fermenting wort is transferred into a second fermenter after the initial vigorous fermentation subsides. Not only will this result in a cleaner-looking finished product but a cleaner-tasting one as well. As the fermentation begins to slow down, the yeast flocculates (settles out) along with a substantial amount of protein trub. If the still-fermenting wort is allowed to remain in contact with this sediment, unpleasant yeasty characters and off-flavors can result. Transferring the beer into a clean secondary fermenter for the remainder of the conditioning time allows additional settling to occur. It also allows time for the flavors in the young beer to mature.

17. Darkness is a good thing.

Much has been written about using brown glass bottles to help prevent the light-struck, skunky aroma that can result from hop compounds reacting with ultraviolet light. This reaction can occur at any time, so remember to keep those clear glass carboys covered up or in a closet to prevent “preskunking” the beer long before it reaches the bottle.

18. Time is on your side — with unfiltered beer.

If that latest batch of beer just doesn’t quite seem to taste right, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to start opening bottles and fertilizing the roses. Providing the flavors are not the result of a bacterial contamination, the further conditioning that takes place in the bottle or keg can result in a mellowing of flavors over time. An unpleasant beer can sometimes turn into a quite drinkable one. This process can take weeks or even months. So unless you need the bottles for something else, forgetting about them and sampling again at a later date can result in some very pleasant surprises.

19. Talking beer can improve beer.

Brewing is a science that, while quite old, is evolving. Some books that were on the cutting edge 15 years ago are now quite dated and full of information that will actually hurt your brewing. That’s because equipment and ingredients have changed, and thus so have proper techniques. The best way to stay current is by reading and talking to others who brew. Most brew-shop owners and brewpub brewers are more than happy to talk about the hobby. After all, most brewers brew because they enjoy it. It is always fun to sit down over a pint of homebrew and talk shop. Just be a little discreet; when the delivery truck is unloading a pallet of malt to the shop or the brewers are attempting to remove 2,000 pounds of spent grain from the mash tun is probably not a good time to approach and say, “Hey, can you answer a quick question?”

20. Experimentation is the soul of brewing.

Many of civilization’s greatest scientific discoveries and advances were made by accident. Yet without these “accidents” we would be without many of the things that we take for granted today. The same is true for brewing; the best way to find out what will happen if you try something new is to do it. Just because you’ve never read about somebody using breakfast cereal or starch-based packaging material in a mash doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t work. Be open to new ideas, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Brewing is every bit as much an art as it is a science. By working to understand the processes that can take place every time you make a batch of homebrew, you can better exercise artistic freedom to continually create better, more flavorful beers as you improve your brewing skills.

Issue: March 1999