It’s an old tale. You met at the local homebrew shop. You’ve been together for a long time, and you’ve been through a lot together. At the start it was like being run through a mill, and the air just smelled better. A warm feeling comes over you, and you’re changed, converted. Then it went from warm to hot — steamy, boiling, even. Then things cool. You want to experiment. You want more variety, or just something new and different. Or maybe there’s just too much of that one thing, if you know what I mean. And so . . . you split up. Yes, we’re talking about splitting your batch of Homebrew. Wait — what were you thinking about?
I’m regularly surprised that homebrewers don’t do this more often. I split my first batch of homebrew when Barbara, my wife, got it into her head to make a chocolate coconut porter and didn’t know what method of getting the coconut “in” would be best. Spoiler alert: It definitely wasn’t using coconut milk. But that’s what I’m saying — we had a question, and we wanted an answer, and so we divided the batch so that we could test out a variety of methods. And it isn’t just a problem-solving technique. What if you just want to produce a few different kinds of beer but you don’t have the time to brew often enough? Splitting a single batch from a single brew day lets you create a diverse selection of beers working off of a common grist and boil. With just a bit of planning and preparation (and a few 1-gallon/3.8-L jugs or 3-gallon/11.4-L carboys) you can get much more out of each batch, both in terms of knowledge and variety. So while breaking up may be hard to do, splitting up is an easy way to get more out of your brewing!
The Typical Homebrewer Argument
Scene: A homebrew club winter social. Joe Brewer and Jane Brewster are tasting Joe’s new vanilla porter.
Joe Brewer: You totally need to use fresh vanilla beans to get good vanilla flavor in this porter.
Jane Brewster: No you don’t — I used vanilla extract in mine and it was this good.
Joe: No way. It tastes all chemically.
Jane: Mine didn’t.
Joe: Go get a bottle.
Jane: I don’t have any left — or I might have one bottle, but it’s super old and yours is fresh, so we can’t compare.
Both exit, convinced they’re right.
Have you ever had this conversation? When to add coffee? How long to dry hop? What batch of bugs plus what Belgian yeast strain adds just the right hint of wet goat butt in the aroma? The real answer to all of these questions, in most cases, is, “neither of you really has any idea because you’re using anecdotal evidence and your faulty sensory memory to try to determine the outcome of an input that is mostly dependent on each of your individual processes.” A mouthful, I know, but still the truth. Aside from those who insist that Liquid Smoke is a good thing (it’s not), most of these discussions are so dependent upon the unique circumstances, equipment, and ingredients of your brewery that trying to compare with others and reach a meaningful conclusion is probably a waste of time and definitely unrealistic. That’s not to say that we can’t, as a community, learn and spread knowledge, but it will always need to be taken with a big grain of salt. No two brewers have the same process, and testing even your own beers through multiple iterations means that you’re testing a young beer against an older beer (unless, like me, you have the leisurely lifestyle to brew multiple days in a row). Splitting your batch is the answer.
If you really want to get into cause and effect, experimental methods are the way to go. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the short version is that, in a perfect world, to compare the effects of two different inputs, we would simply “run reality” twice and see which one comes out better in the end. Since that would violate our understanding of how, you know, time and space work in our universe, we need a simpler method. The answer is to do whatever we’re doing twice, keeping as much as possible constant or consistent between the two cases, and manipulating only that thing we care about. That way, if there’s a difference between the two outcomes, we can have at least a little bit of confidence that the thing we allowed to vary (the variable) was what caused the difference. And no time machine or violation of the laws of physics are required.
Let’s put this in beer terms. Let’s say you want to know what different hop varieties smell like when used as a dry hop. In this case, since we’re talking about a cold side treatment, we can hold constant everything prior to the addition of the dry hops: Mash, boil, kettle additions, chilling, and pitch are all identical. You might even go further and ferment the whole batch as one cohesive whole as well, so that primary fermentation is all identical. You would then divide your batch by racking into a few different vessels of identical size (I like keeping 1-gallon/3.8-L jugs on hand for this very purpose), and adding your hop varieties. You let them all sit on the wort for the same amount of time, then package and condition as you normally would. Two weeks later, you open each one and pour, and you have your answer, and you know that any differences between the beers are due to the dry hop varieties — maybe one lets more malt through, another masks esters, two smell identical even though they’re different varieties, and one doesn’t smell like it’s been dry hopped at all. “But Josh,” you say, “I can probably just read about those online.” True. Arguably not as instructive, but true. Instead, then, picture this same experiment, except you dry hop with a single variety and let one sit for three days, one for seven, one for ten, and one gets no dry hops at all. Now you’re getting into things you can’t read (or, at least, not read and trust), and you’re also generating valuable, practical information on the beer coming out of your brewery, not someone else’s. And all it cost you was a few gallon (or liter) jugs or a couple of spare carboys.
Experimentalism should be alive and well in your brewery. You can compare hop varieties and uses. You can compare the effects of different yeast strains on the same wort (that one really blows people’s minds — you’d swear they were totally different beers with totally different grists!). You can compare the performance of the same yeast at different temperatures or different pitching rates. You can compare the impact of different kinds of wood. You can experiment with different kinds of specialty ingredients or methods of getting a particular flavor (what works best: coconut water, coconut milk, shaved fresh coconut, store-bought shredded/sweetened coconut, or coconut extract? Again, not the coconut milk!). And all of this data will give you evidence of how each actually works on your system, and provide rules of thumb for future beers — in short, you’ll have a data-driven (not anecdote-driven) brewery, and your brewing skill evolution will happen that much faster because by splitting you’re effectively brewing multiple times per batch. Time to play scientist. But this isn’t the only reason to split your batches.
Make Different Beers
In my last piece for BYO (“If You Like This, Brew That” in the December 2015 issue), I wrote about brewing “ruts” and made recommendations for some styles for you to try. But even if you took that to heart (or maybe because you took it to heart and maybe brewed something you didn’t much like!), you still might have lots of
the same old beers sitting around. Or maybe you brew 10- or 20-gallon (38- or 76-L) batches, and your Dortmunder export wasn’t quite as popular at the party as you’d hoped, so now you’re sitting on several gallons or liters of it. One way to get more variety out of your brewing is to split batches. By using a grist that is similar for a variety of beers and just switching up the cold-side treatment, you can end up with a wonderfully diverse cellar in much less time, and you also avoid the risk of getting saddled with a lot of beer (from a less-successful brew day) that you don’t necessarily need or want. Why waste an entire batch on just one kind of beer, anyway? There’s a whole world of beer styles out there! If you just wanted to brew the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines sub-styles and brewed once per week, it would still take you more than two years to brew them all, and that list doesn’t even include all the variations you get by adding specialty ingredients.
Who’s Got Time For That?
Instead, consider splitting your batches. You’ll be surprised at the differences cold-side yeast, hops, and fermentation treatment can do. Consider the following all-grain grist:
35% Maris Otter malt
35% Pilsner malt
10% Vienna malt
10% crystal malt 80 °L
5% Caramunich® malt
4% Biscuit malt
1% pale chocolate malt
At an OG of 1.050, that will yield an SRM of about 15. Add on about 25 IBUs of early bittering and a late addition of something that fits almost any style (I like Hallertau, especially when paired with American hops in the fermenter). Question: What beer do you have? Answer: No one knows yet. We wrongly think of recipe formulation as being somehow “distinct” from fermentation process, but such thinking is illogical. After all, a “recipe” isn’t just a list of ingredients — it includes production notes, decisions, variations, etc. If a baking recipe only got you to the end of mixing, that’d be a pretty lousy recipe. How long in the oven? What temperature? How long to cool? What icing, decoration, or finishes do we add? Don’t leave your recipes short. The recipe includes everything you do to that beer from the second you dough in up to and including your packaging and conditioning decisions.
If you were to brew 5 gallons (19 L) of this same beer using extract with grains, you could swap out the Maris Otter with 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg) of Maris Otter liquid malt extract (LME), 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg) of Pilsner LME, plus 12 oz. (340 g) crystal malt (80 °L); 6 oz. (170 g) Caramunich® malt, 5 oz. (142 g) biscuit malt; 1 oz. (28 g) pale chocolate malt. The grains should all be steeped for 30 minutes in 150-160 °F (66–71 °C) water and the LME added after, when the wort reaches a boil.
The grist and hopping mentioned earlier would be perfectly suitable for any number of beers, depending on what happens on the cold side. What if I told you that you could produce five distinctly different beers on the strength of this one mash and boil?
For a Vienna Lager: Use a German lager yeast and ferment cool.
For a California Common: Use a steam beer yeast and ferment a little warmer, probably dry-hopping for a couple of days with Northern Brewer hops to bring out the “woody” and “rustic” quality.
For an Irish Red: Use an Irish ale yeast to get the proper esters and malt character.
For an American Amber: Use a neutral ale yeast and add a blend of American aroma hops in a multi-stage dry hopping regimen.
For a Belgian Pale Ale: Use a characterful Belgian ale yeast and let ‘er rip, maybe adding some spicing or citrus zest post-fermentation to accentuate the complexity, and be sure to carbonate high!
This same logic applies to a wide variety of “base” brews — light or dark, high or low ABV or IBU, etc. Heck, even with just this grist and hopping we could add at least four or five more styles in addition to the five noted above! And this doesn’t even get into the idea of adding specialty ingredients, exotic bug blends, wood, or fruit. And now, instead of one brew day and one batch, you have one brew day and 3, 5, 10 or more
batches. True, you have less of each beer, but that also insulates you in case one goes horribly wrong, like the elderberry Berliner weisse I once made on a bet that did very well in competition but, to me, tasted like chewing tobacco. If you find you have one you’ve really fallen in love with, then brew it up big the next time, but in the meantime you have more than just a few kegs of all the same beer laying about. Think about how often you buy mixed cases or try four beers in one night at the local craft beer bar, and then tell me this doesn’t make perfect sense. That’s what I thought.
Simplicity, Efficiency, and Zymurgical Darwinism
I’m a big believer in simple brewing (for proof, check out my blog at www.beer-simple.com), and as such I think that brewers should shoot for maximum output for minimum effort. Most of us don’t have as much time to brew as we would like: According to a recent poll of homebrewers, about 60% said that lack of time was the biggest reason they don’t brew more. Not lack of interest, or lack of desire, or even lack of money: Lack of time. I don’t like that for a lot of reasons, but two really stand out. First, it means that a lot of brewers are frustrated brewers, because they have to cut out beers they’d love to make to save time. And second, it means that the beers they are choosing to make are probably not as interesting, adventurous, or unique as those that they have to make to please the party crowd, take part in a club competition, or brew for their friend’s wedding. In the world of things to be concerned about this is nowhere near the top of the list, but we can surely agree that one of the great services that homebrewing provides to the world is as an ambassador of the diversity in beer styles that macro breweries tend to ignore, and another is as an incubator and motivator for craft brewers who look at the curious or forgotten beers we make and think, “hey, that might sell . . .” If we’re locked into fewer batches than we’d like, the least we can do is get the most out of them that we can. So get splitting.
Then there’s the idea that, even if you do have all the time to brew that you might want, you should still be trying to use that time as efficiently as possible. As I often tell Barbara, “I don’t need to be in a hurry to not want my time wasted” (usually muttered quasi-angrily while driving behind someone who thinks the rest of us are reckless libertines for driving at the speed limit and making right turns on red . . . but I digress). Think about your homebrew consumption habits. Some people drink nothing but homebrew, and a lot of it, and produce less than they might like, so as a result they’re always running out of homebrew. If so, good for you! But nearly every homebrewer I know ends up with a rag-tag assortment of old, stale, weren’t-all-that-great-to-begin-with beers sitting in a dark and dusty corner of their basement or fridge. If that’s you (and it’s certainly me), then you have an inefficiency in your homebrewing life. Your goal for nearly every beer you make (with obvious exceptions being beers that require or benefit from extended aging) is to produce only as much of each batch as you will consume or give away within 3–6 months. And for me, that consumption/distribution rate increases when I have a variety of beers, not just cases of the same Oktoberfest. Now, I love Oktoberfest — but again, variety is the spice of life, and that’s definitely true in homebrewing. I can virtually guarantee you that your stockpile of only-there-to-cook-with beers will drop off significantly if you’re producing a greater variety of beers without increasing your number of brew days. So get splitting.
And finally, there’s my deep and abiding love of empiricism and experimentalism in brewing, which I hope you all share (or at least come to appreciate). Evolution depends on adaptation, and the shorter an organism’s life cycle the faster it can evolve. The same is true of brewing. What hampers our growth as brewers more than anything is the long lag time we have between batches. There’s so much time between one beer and the next that we have a difficult time learning and applying lessons in our brewing, especially once the easy things are corrected (“No, Josh, don’t lick the spoon you just used to aerate the wort and then stick it back into the carboy . . .”). Dividing up your batch to try to determine, almost scientifically (we’re not actually in a lab here, people — well, maybe some of you are), how your beer and your brewing practices are affected by different methods, ingredients, or conditions is a thoroughly worthwhile endeavor. It brings the time between batches down to effectively zero, and the result is a much more robust, rapid and efficient evolution of your brewing process and brewing skill. This Zymurgical Darwinism will enable you, like your early proto-human forebears, to use your enhanced knowledge to surpass the homebrewing Neanderthals out there that are still guessing at the effects of their brewing tweaks across months or years of batches. Think about it: How often do you brew? And now how often do you brew the same recipe? Even if you’re a pretty prolific brewer (say, at least twice a month), you may go a year or more between attempts at the same recipe, and expecting that you’ll be able to glean any meaningful conclusions from changes made between those two attempts is, frankly, ridiculous. Get your results in real time. You want to be the rapidly-evolving brewer. So get splitting.
Maybe this isn’t for you. Maybe you’re a devotee of just a few styles of beer, and you think, “Why wouldn’t I want 20 gallons of Flanders Red?” Maybe you’re content with what you’re brewing despite the strong aroma of magic marker that kicks off of every non-temperature-controlled beer you make. But I doubt it. More variety, greater efficiency, and faster development: All this can be yours for the low, low cost of a fraction of the homebrew supply gift cards you still probably have laying around from the holidays. Get out there and get yourself some smaller fermentation vessels. And get splitting!