Article

Brewer’s Thumbprint: 5 Homebrewers & 1 Recipe

I’ve always been curious about whether or not it’s truly possible to “clone” a beer on a homebrew scale. Consider the number of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Stone IPA clone beers you’ve sampled at club meetings that barely resemble the beer they claim to have copied. My thinking has always been that certain factors and details end up having a rather significant impact on the beers we brew. Be that as it may, there’s still something enticing about the idea of making a beer from a brewery I don’t have access to using the exact recipe that brewery uses — Pliny and Heady, anyone?

Another thought I often have has to do with recipe kits, like the kind you can buy in a box with the ingredients pre-picked and measured for you. I’ve heard great things about Russian River’s Pliny the Elder all-grain kit, which I’m sure makes a great beer but if brewed by multiple people on their own systems, I wonder, would the resultant beers all taste the same? Perhaps this isn’t the point and folks don’t really give a hoot, but I’m hard-pressed to believe there wouldn’t be at least some noticeable differences. My curiosity got the better of me about the differences that can result from brewing the same recipe on different homebrew setups, and I developed an experiment involving some of my great brewing buddies. What we learned along the way were lessons in house flavors, and why it’s important to pay attention to (and get as many) details in a homebrew recipe as possible.

PURPOSE

To evaluate the perceptible differ-ences in a beer that is made from the exact same recipe brewed by five different homebrewers on five different homebrew setups.

METHOD

Five homebrewing friends were provided with the following ingredients and instructions for a fairly straightforward 5-gallon (19-L) batch of pale ale:

Grist
7.5 lbs. (3.4 kg) US 2-row malt
2.0 lbs. (0.9 kg) Gambrinus Munich malt (10 °L)
0.5 lbs. (0.22 kg) Crystal malt (60 °L)

Hops
12 g (0.42 oz.) Magnum (60 minutes)
10 g Belma (0.35 oz.) (20 minutes)
14 g Belma (0.5 oz.) (5 minutes)
20 g Belma (0.7 oz.) (flameout w/ 15-minute steep)

Yeast
1.0 pkg. Danstar Nottingham Ale yeast

Process
1. Mash at 152 °F (67 °C) for 60 minutes
2. Boil for 60 minutes
3. Ferment at 65–66 °F (18–19 °C)

With the exception of the process parameters provided above, each of the five brewers were instructed to brew as they might normally without making any changes to their typical  approach, including water source, mashing method (although all of us used a single infusion mash), and aeration. We all brewed the recipe on the same day to ensure similar fermentation and conditioning times. For those interested, I put the data in a spreadsheet (below). Now, let’s meet the homebrewers!

Brad

I met Brad earlier after he did a brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) demo brew at a club meeting and soon after he became a bartender at my local watering hole, House of Pendragon (HoP) Brewing Co. (in Clovis, California). He used the BIAB method, using unfiltered tap water as his brewing liquor.

Knowing his system well, Brad was able to nail the prescribed mash temperature on the nose. After mashing, he lifted his WilserBrewer BIAB Bag out of the kettle to drain. Yes, he is a squeezer.

The boil commenced and all hops were added at the appropriate times. Brad used his stainless steel immersion chiller to chill his wort to groundwater temperature, racked the wort to a 6.5 gallon (25-L) glass carboy, then finished bringing it down to target fermentation temp in his chest freezer fermentation chamber.
The dry yeast was sprinkled on top of the wort at 65 °F (18 °C) and the beer fermented for 14 days before being cold crashed for two days then kegged. Brad added gelatin to his keg to aid in clarity.

Vitals for Brad’s Batch
OG = 1.046
FG = 1.010
ABV = 4.7%
Overall efficiency = 70%

Matt

Matt has served on the board of our local homebrew club (although is no longer serving). While he is currently reworking his brewery to shave off as much time as possible (he recently welcomed a third child), he used a gravity-fed traditional fly/continuous sparge system for this brew. Matt manipulated his brewing liquor, which he collected from his tap, to have about 50 ppm chloride, 150 ppm sulfate, and 90 ppm calcium.
Matt’s been brewing on his system for quite awhile, he knows it well and hit the mash temperature with ease. He brought the wort to a boil using his propane burner with a little help from a newly built heatstick.

Post-boil, Matt chilled his wort using a 25-ft. copper immersion chiller and used a 6.5-gallon (25-L) glass carboy for fermenting. He prepared his yeast by rehydrating it in a small sample (~1200 mL) of real wort and pitched it once the temperature of the carboy stabilized to 65 °F (18 °C). The regulator was set to 66 °F (19 °C) and the beer was left to ferment for 14 days, after which he crash cooled it for a week before kegging.

Vitals for Matt’s Batch
OG = 1.061
FG = 1.011
ABV = 6.6%
Overall efficiency = 93%

Aaron

Aaron is another former board member of our homebrew club, and up until recently managed the HoP taproom. He’s been refining his process over the last year to simplify things without negatively impacting the quality of his beer. Aaron used the “no sparge” method on this batch, meaning he mashed with the entire volume of brewing liquor.

After the 1 hour mash at 152 °F (66 °C) was complete and the sweet wort collected, Aaron boiled the wort in his 14-gallon (53-L) kettle using a Blichmann burner. He then transferred the still very hot wort to a plastic cube, which was placed in his chest freezer fermentation chamber and allowed to chill naturally overnight via the no-chill method.

The following day, Aaron racked the 66 °F (19 °C) wort to a 6-gallon (23-L) plastic carboy, sprinkled the dry yeast on top without any prep, and let it ferment for 15 days . . .while he took a trip to Belgium. Upon returning, the beer was cold crashed for a couple of days before kegging.

Vitals for Aaron’s Batch
OG = 1.050
FG = 1.010

ABV = 5.2%
Overall efficiency = 76%

Sean

Sean is the outgoing president of our local homebrew club and brewer of super delicious hoppy beer, though since returning from a recent trip to Belgium (with Aaron), his focus has shifted a bit as he tries to emulate some of the delicious traditional offerings from that region. Sean mashed in a 10-gallon (38-L) cylindrical cooler, nailing the target mash temperature of 152 °F (66 °C).

Sean utilizes what I call a modified fly sparge method wherein he gently pours his sparge liquor over his grain bed while collecting the runoff.

Sean boiled, adding all the hop additions as instructed, then  used The Mantis immersion chiller from JaDeD Brewing to rapidly chill his wort. It was transferred to a glass carboy and thrown into his chest freezer fermentation chamber to finish chilling. Once the wort was at 65 °F (18 °C), Sean sprinkled the dry yeast into the carboy and let it ferment for 15 days while he drowned his sorrows in Cantillon and other delicious Belgian sours. When back from his trip, he bumped the temperature up to 68 °F (20 °C) for two days then cold crashed another two days before kegging.

Vitals for Sean’s Batch

OG = 1.049
FG = 1.012
ABV = 4.9%
Overall efficiency = 75%

Marshall

Like Aaron, I brewed using the no sparge method in my converted cooler mash lauter tun (MLT). BeerSmith helped me hit the target mash temperature spot on. The sweet wort was collected in a bucket then poured into my 14-gallon (53-L) kettle and boiled for an hour. After the flameout hop addition had steeped for 15 minutes, I used my King Cobra immersion chiller to chill the entire batch to 4 °F (2 °C) above groundwater temperature in about 6 minutes.

The wort was racked to a 6-gallon (23-L) PET carboy and placed in my chest freezer fermentation chamber to complete chilling to my target pitch temperature of 64 °F (23 °C). Prior to pitching the yeast, I rehydrated it in 95 °F (35 °C) for about 15 minutes.

I pitched the yeast slurry and activated my standard ale fermentation profile in The Black Box temperature controller, which held the temp at 66 °F (19 °C) for four days then ramped up to 70 °F (21 °C) for another four days before crashing to 32 °F (0 °C) for a couple of days. I kegged 11 days after brewing, and stored it in my keezer.

Vitals for Marshall’s Batch
OG = 1.050
FG = 1.010
ABV = 5.2%
Overall efficiency = 76%

RESULTS

We were able to schedule a group tasting about a month after these beers were brewed, unfortunately Matt couldn’t make it, but some of his finished beer made it to the party. Each beer was initially sampled on its own and we took notes; tasters were able to go back to previously tasted beers for comparison’s sake. Ok, on to some tasting notes.

Brad’s beer: Due to the use of gelatin, Brad’s beer was impressively bright, almost as if it had been run through a filter. Slight sulfur (rotten egg) aroma that was neither pleasant nor terribly off-putting. The bitterness was perceived as being smoother than some of the other samples and the flavor was noted to be a bit softer/rounder.

Matt’s beer: Slightly hazy appearance. Somewhat grassy aroma with some subtle berry notes and perhaps a little ethanol in the nose. While some thought Matt’s beer had the richest and best flavor of the five, the bitterness was perceived as being much harsher than the others, and there was a noticeable alcohol burn with each sip. This beer was noted as having perhaps a touch more body than the other lower ABV versions, though not by much.

Aaron’s beer: Moderately hazy appearance. Aroma was described as being very grassy with some tobacco and sulfur notes blended in, perhaps some Dimethyl sulfide (DMS) as well. The flavor basically followed the aroma, beginning relatively smooth and finishing with a noticeable sharp bitterness. There were some general similarities between this beer and the others, but it was probably the most different of the five.

 

Sean’s beer: Haziest of all the beers. Moderate to strong vegetal aroma with Sean claiming it smelled like “vegetable garbage.” Flavor came across as slightly sweeter than the other versions with a smoother bitterness that was never experienced as harsh. Body was perceived by most as being slightly thinner than the other beers.

Marshall’s beer: Very slight haze that clears as the beer warms. Noticeable graininess in the aroma with some of that grassy character picked up in the other beers. Unpleasant bitterness from start to finish. Grainy character that carries through into the flavor and there is also a slight tang in the finish, something I’ve heard is common with Nottingham yeast. Flavor was described as generally bland and boring.

DISCUSSION

All of the beers shared similar qualities, you could definitely tell the same ingredients were used in each batch; however, each beer was also very obviously different in their own ways. The results of this experiment seem to indicate that even when using the exact same ingredients, mash temperature, and fermentation schedules, every brewer is going to produce a unique beer. Which is exciting! How boring a hobby would this if my beer tasted exactly like every other homebrewer’s beer. I’ll admit to being personally fascinated by how stark the differences were between each beer. So, at first glance this experiment seems like five guys with the same brewing ingredients left to their normal brewing methods are destined to end up with vastly different beers.  But is this really a valid conclusion? Perhaps what our experiment really demonstrated is the importance of the details — as in the devil is in the details. The next time you wave your hands when it comes to water, mashing method, sparging technique, wort aeration, and fining method, and just go about your preferred method of homebrewing, you may want to consider that these details have a real influence on finished beer. Perhaps our next experiment will be a repeat of this one where we replicate each of the variables of homebrewing to see how much closer we can get to brewing the exact same beer!

Issue: October 2015