Contradictory Advice, Nanobrewing Business Model, and Recipe Rantings

Q Please comment on some seemingly contradictory pieces of brewing advice:

1. It is commonly advised to chill the wort as quickly as possible post-boil to avoid hot-side aeration or bacterial contamination. Yet hopstands delay chilling, and, if you stir to create a rotation, don’t you risk introducing O2?

2. I’m told that once the mash is mixed to let the grain bed settle without disturbing it to form an efficient filter bed and avoid a stuck sparge. Yet people also advise stirring the mash for batch sparges or to stir the mash halfway through the mashing period. So what happens to the filter bed?

Thomas Wood
Nicasio, California

A The world of brewing is full of seemingly contradictory advice, Thomas. Thanks for asking about these two rules! 

Part One: Wort Chilling 

You are correct that conventional wisdom is to cool wort as quickly as possible after wort boiling is complete. The part of this general rule that is usually left off from casual discussion is how quick is quick enough. Like almost everything in homebrewing, this rule comes from commercial brewing.

Nearly all commercial breweries these days, even those using whole cone hops, use a whirlpool to remove trub, and for most of the breweries using pellet hops, hop material is also separated from wort in whirlpool vessels. It typically takes 10–20 minutes to transfer hot wort from the kettle to the whirlpool, wort spinning is allowed to slow over 5–20 minutes, during which time solids collect in the center of the whirlpool, and then wort cooling occurs over the next 30–60 minutes. That adds up to 45–100 minutes from the end of the boil to cooling the entire brew. A more meaningful rule for homebrewers is to target cooling wort in less than an hour after the end of the boil. This allows plenty of time for hopstands, if practiced, and cooling.

soiled immersion chiller being removed after chilling the wort
Should you chill the wort as soon as the boil is complete? The answer isn’t black and white. Photo by Marshall Schott

Regarding oxygen, when hot wort is splashed around and/or aerated, for example with a leaking pump seal that sucks air into the wort being pumped, it typically darkens in color. However, whirlpooling by gently stirring to get the wort rotating before removing the paddle or spoon does not splash the wort and is not on any list of process problems I have ever seen, including my own. For those concerned about hot-side aeration (HSA), it’s important to recall that HSA is primarily a concern during mashing and mash transfer when malt enzymes are still active.

Part Two: Mash Mixing

Mash stirring and filter bed development is a definite conundrum, even for commercial brewers using infusion mash tuns for mashing and wort separation. Let’s step back from this vessel for a moment and consider breweries with a mash mixer and a separate lauter tun. The mash mixer is used to stir hydrated mash flowing from the grist hydrator, or sometimes pumped in from a pre-mixing vessel or wet mill, during mash-in.

After mash-in is complete, the mash can be heated if step mashing is used, part of the mash can be pumped to a decoction kettle and then mixed with the rest of the mash following mash boiling for decoction processes, or the mash can be simply held at a single temperature. After the mash cycle, the contents of the mash mixer are gently mixed while the mash is pumped to the lauter tun. One very real consequence of mash mixing is improved raw material yield. And the modern combination of a mash mixer and a lauter tun is not known for poor mash filtration or slow run-off issues; in fact, this duo is known for flexibility, efficiency, and operational robustness over a wide range of brew types.

As far as the stirring question goes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with periodically mixing an infusion mash.

When mash from a mixer is pumped to a lauter tun, mash particles classify into layers based on particle density. Small, dense particles end up on the bottom of the filter bed (and usually below the false bottom), followed by husk bits, and topped with a gray-ish layer known as teig or top-dough (teig is German for dough). The difference between an infusion mash tun and a lauter tun is that the filter bed is established in an infusion mash tun soon after mash-in is complete.

In practical terms, part of an infusion mash tends to hover above the false bottom until the wort density falls sufficiently with sparging for the grains to settle upon the false bottom. This makes for easy wort collection. However, the infusion mash is not normally stirred and as such the yield is typically lower than the mash mixer + lauter tun duo. This reduced yield is exacerbated because lauter tun grist is usually finer than mash tun grist, and lauter tuns equipped with raking machines as a standard design feature can handle finer grist. This raises a practical process question: Can mash in an infusion mash tun be stirred during the mash? And should the mash be stirred?

As far as the stirring question goes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with periodically mixing an infusion mash. This is simple to do at home because our mash vessels are small. In breweries producing more than about 310 gallons or 1,200 liters per batch, stirring an infusion mash with a paddle is possible, but not so easy. For this reason, many breweries with infusion mash tuns don’t stir mashes after mash-in is complete.

However, I argue that infusion mash brewers should indeed give their mashes a few stirs during mashing, when practicable, to improve yield. Dough balls are not uncommon and are often left behind after mashing-in. These masses are easy to break apart after malt enzymes have digested biogums, proteins, and starch polymers. Stirring also helps to homogenize wort density within the mash that is a remnant of mashing-in.

Because the filter bed classifies based on particle density, stirring during the mash will not “mess up” your filter bed, provided you don’t stir right before wort collection begins. In fact, the primary reason for the vorlauf or wort recirculation step preceding wort collection is to move high-density, fine, and often starchy, particles from the bottom of the vessel to the top of the mash bed. This helps establish the filter bed as wort flow “shakes out” the bed as it begins to compress and trap these small particles.

As with any craft, there are myriad approaches that can be used to get to the finish line, and these varied paths do not always align. We all know that cold storage after packaging results in extended shelf life, and we also know that heat pasteurization after packaging extends shelf life. Two true statements with an obvious contradiction. When brewers are faced with such contradictions, the best thing to do is evaluate the pros and cons of the two, pick the best route for their situation, and move forward in a practical and deliberate manner. 

Q My question for you has to do with the nanobrewing business model as a long-term approach. I own and operate a nanobrewery and am constantly being questioned by customers about why we don’t pursue the regional/distribution model. We sell almost 100% of our beer through our taproom and see it yielding positive results. I would like a concise way to explain to people why our “neighborhood brewery” approach is OK to maintain and celebrate. Do you have any suggestions on how to market/explain/justify to skeptics?  

Kevin M.
via email

A As I write this piece, I sit in a local brewery in Springfield, Missouri, called Tie & Timber, listening to music, drinking beer, and looking forward to chatting with friends after I hit the save button. Tie & Timber has a 10-BBL brewhouse and is also focused entirely on selling beers in-house. Although they brew great beers and their brewhouse and fermenting tanks are open to and visible from the seating area, owners Jennifer Leonard and Curtis Marshall will tell you that they are first and foremost in the hospitality business.

I think this is true of most successful taproom breweries, even if the owners of many of these great businesses don’t always know what really makes their places tick. And when we look back at the history of brewing, most breweries did not sell beer outside of the brewery and the best of these great places attracted locals as a place to socialize, warm their bones, cool their heels, and enjoy a few beers over several hours. Indeed, many gasthauses, taverns, and pubs were probably more comfortable places for patrons to relax after work than their homes.

If I were in your position and questioned about my business decisions, I would politely and positively offer your perspective as the owner of a nanobrewery using business points that your friends and enthusiastic supporters should appreciate. Here are my top three answers to this great question:

1. When craft breweries of any size sell beer in the open market, they knowingly choose to compete with all beers in the retail outlets selling their beer. Cans of beer from breweries producing hundreds to millions of barrels annually are all sitting in the same store, often in the same cooler, and sometimes rubbing shoulders with one another. And they are all screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!”

The challenge that these beers all have is that their voices cannot be heard because, spoiler alert, beer cans don’t make noise on the shelf. This is where marketing and branding is a key differentiator. Beer brands that are known and recognized often have an advantage to those brands that are unknown. I say this is often an advantage because not all brands resonate to all consumers. And to a very small minority of consumers, complete unknowns are an attraction. But in today’s rich market with lots of choice, most consumers gravitate to what they know or have heard about.

The bottom line is that your taproom brewery does not have to compete with all beers in your market after one of your customers walks in through the door. Not too different from why great restaurants rarely choose to compete in grocery stores and markets.

2. The average consumer doesn’t spend much time thinking about packaging and is rarely aware that the single most expensive part of a can/bottle of beer is the entirety of the package. This includes the container, the lid or cap, the label, shrink sleeve, or paint job, and it also includes a carrier for 4- and 6-packs plus a box or tray. And package costs are a volume game where smaller brewers are at a disadvantage out of the gate.

Packaging is also an efficiency game (labor spent per barrel); this is where small breweries get stomped by larger breweries with higher speed packaging lines. A nanobrewery filling packages at 4 x 16-ounce cans per minute (much faster than breweries doing this all by hand) are filling almost 1 BBL of beer per hour. In contrast, 30 x 16-ounce cans per minutes equates to 7.5 BBLs per hour, and 240 cans per minutes equates to 60 BBLs per hour. The largest craft brewers are filling 200+ BBLs per hour. This means that the labor cost of packaging for a nanobrewery is between 7.5 to 200 times greater than breweries with more automated packaging lines using the same number of operators (not at all uncommon).

3. When small breweries take the leap into the retail market, there is still more money to spend before beer is sold. Examples include the cost of sales staff, beer delivery, account service, schwag, tap handles, quality control, and spending money to defend market position from the ever-present school of sharks searching for opportunities. Entering the market outside of your four walls means starting an entirely new business venture. Distribution has been the demise of many small breweries and is something that taproom breweries do when they are desperate for business or when they underestimate the magnitude of the endeavor.

In my opinion, the smartest business decision for nanobreweries like yours is to max out beer sales in your own house. And when the day comes that you have done that, expanding the size of your facility, or even opening a tied house (where permitted), is a better move than playing in the distribution world. Even adding a segment to your business in the form of a morning café business using your existing building is an option that is simpler than entering the world of distribution. To echo my friends Jennifer and Curtis, taproom breweries are in the hospitality business. Not only is the highest margin returned from in-house beer sales, brewery exclusive sales guarantee control of the taproom environment, beer presentation, messaging, and beer quality. 

I am one of those annoying folks who question things on a regular basis. Several years ago, I retired from the professional brewing world and moved back into the homebrewing space. One thing that has caught me is — Why do homebrewing recipes make my head explode?  This thought brings me to my keyboard to share some “Grumblings from the Wiz.”

Ashton Lewis, aka Mr. WizardI

I have witnessed many many positive changes over the last 37 years of homebrewing, yet recipes and recipe talk is a department where things have stagnated. Charlie Papazian’s Complete Joy of Homebrewing seemingly stamped into homebrewing lexicon that the 5-gallon (19-L) batch-size is set in stone. Today, just like 37 years ago, a 5-gallon (19-L) recipe for a 1.050 OG (original gravity) pale ale may call for 9 pounds (4.1 kg) of English pale ale malt and 11 ounces (312 g) of crystal malt. What this recipe does not state is that these weights are based on assumptions about brewhouse efficiency and malt specifics. For example, the basic recipe above assumes 85% brewhouse yield, 78% FG as-is HWE (fine grind [as-is], hot water extract) for the pale ale malt, and 70% FG as-is HWE for the crystal malt. That’s a lot of stuff to consider, but we all do it, knowingly or not.

While I understand that it simplifies things for the beginner homebrewer, these “recipe standards” actually make it more difficult for advanced brewers.

I implore that the conversations and recipes about the grist bill need to change. Essentially zero commercial breweries in the world communicate brewing recipes by weight because weights alone are totally useless to the practical brewer. The language of brewing is in percentages. The recipe spoken of earlier is best described by 1.050 OG wort comprised of 93.8% pale ale malt (% of total extract) and 6.2% crystal malt; that’s it. 

Volume does not matter because brewers calculate the grist bill based on the OG target and the percentage contribution of the grains in the recipe. Same is true for hop bitterness, color, and approximate % ABV, which are typically stated in today’s recipe as a specification. Most of us are already using brewing software, apps, or custom-built spreadsheets based on percentages. So why do we all transcribe our recipes into weights? I propose a change to the homebrewing norm! Can I get a second on this motion?

Recipe Editor Dave Green replies: Motion denied, Ashton. 

Issue: July-August 2023