Eight Tips to Advance Your Brewing Skills

Brewing is a blend of science and art. This often-used cliché has real merit when you consider its meaning. In the pursuit of good beer, an informed brewer draws from microbiology, chemistry, biochemistry, food science, mathematics, and engineering principles on a regular basis. Just like excellent laboratory technique is crucial to good science, a solid command of brewing technique is also required for consistently excellent beer.

The art of brewing comes into play when brewers draw from their knowledge, experience, and available techniques and tools to create new beers and brewing techniques. In a certain sense, all the brewing knowledge and technique in the world is useless unless it is properly and creatively applied. This is the brewer’s art.

Hobbyists in general like to identify their skill level with terms such as beginner, intermediate or advanced. Snow skiing is a prime example. Every ski trail on every mountain in the world is marked with a symbol that tells skiers how difficult the terrain is. And it’s pretty easy to spot, say, an intermediate: He’s the guy flailing down the black-diamond slope.

Brewing is one of those hobbies in which skill level is difficult to define. A first-time brewer, for example, is capable of brewing a beer that blows the socks off a batch brewed by a
seasoned veteran. Is this brewer a prodigy, plain lucky, or exceptionally good at following the directions on that excellent kit he got for his birthday? One way to define an advanced brewer is that he fits the following four-point profile:

  1. An advanced brewer is usually, but not necessarily, an all-grain brewer. Most advanced brewers prefer all-grain brewing because of the added freedom.
  2. An advanced brewer must have an open mind. He must be eager to get out of the routine of following directions and pursue the art of brewing.
  3. An advanced brewer must be knowledgeable about beer and brewing and have good technique.
  4. An advanced brewer continually expands his knowledge base.

If you fit this profile, these tips will give you ideas on how to become even more advanced in this great hobby. If you’re on your way to joining the advanced ranks, they may help you hone your skills.

    1. Chuck the Recipes

Brewing shares many common traits with cooking, including recipes. Recipes are an excellent method of communicating the particulars of how something is made. This is great for restaurants that need to deliver the same plate of pasta day after day.

Cooks use recipes, but a real chef will use a recipe as a very general guideline in an attempt to put his own twist on another’s idea.

Brewing works the same way. Beginner and intermediate brewers find comfort in recipes because they minimize the risk of a design flaw. Let’s face it: Some blends of malt, hops, yeast, and water can make for some pretty nasty brews. Advanced brewers eventually grow out of recipes because recipes are, by definition, restrictive.

Learn to read a recipe in general terms. Evaluate the ratios of the various specialty malts and the hopping schedule. Your experience may throw a flag that you are not going to like the flavor produced by the recipe. Then look at the mash profile.

Does it fit with how your system is designed? If not, change it!

Similarly, don’t worry too much about details like mash thickness, sparge temperature, and the nitty-gritties of fermentation and aging in a recipe. When you see a recipe, you should take a hard look at the malts, the original gravity, the bitterness, and the type of beer. You will have your own methods of mashing, sparging, fermenting, and aging and are usually not going to change your brewing process for most recipes. On the other hand, you should definitely look at information that pertains to the beer’s flavor. An example is a very warm fermentation temperature or a certain yeast strain that produces a special flavor.

  1. Crunch Those Numbers!There are many different methods for calculating a brew. Each method has its own assumptions and limitations. Whatever methods you use, an advanced brewer should be able to determine his system efficiency and formulate malt and hop blends to
    hit a target wort gravity at a target bitterness level. Calculations are also useful for estimating color, determining yeast pitching rates, and even can be used to calculate carbonation levels.

    The only way to evaluate other brewers’ recipes or become completely free of them is by learning how to effectively do brewing calculations. The other power you gain is to read a beer description and formulate a close approximation of the beer. Many breweries now describe their beers in brewer’s terms because of more knowledgeable consumers. If you know an IPA contains British pale, crystal, and wheat malts; has an OG of 1.065 and 50 IBUs; and is dry hopped with British aroma hops, you can easily calculate this brew.

    The action item to go along with this tip is to choose useful calculations from the literature you feel comfortable with and add them to your bag of tricks.

  2. Question the Importance of StyleBeer styles help brewers inform beer drinkers about their beer. When someone opens his mouth for a swallow of stout, he is mentally prepared for the flavor of stout. The study of styles is interesting from a historical view and shows how styles travel around the globe. Styles can also be used to categorize beers for competitions, making it easier for judges to define and evaluate various beers.

    Styles can also get in the way of brewing if taken too seriously. Too many beers have been slammed because they were inappropriately labeled. For example, “Bob’s IPA was terrible – it was way under-hopped and its OG was too low to be an IPA.

    Too bad. It would have been a great ESB.” Advanced brewers should evaluate a beer by its flavor profile first and then determine whether it is labeled with the appropriate style.

    A no-style philosophy also makes it easier to be creative because new beers can be accepted even if they don’t conform with an established style. The Great American Beer Festival now has an “experimental” category for beers that don’t fit the traditional style

  3. Increase the Depth of Your Brewing KnowledgeThis tip is easier said than done considering the best brewers are proud to state that learning never stops. The key is to invest in a small brewing library and keep the library growing. A good brewer uses his collection of information as a reference and will challenge ideas by referring to the library. There’s something interesting about brewing and debating – very few brewers (or homebrewers, for that matter) share the same interpretation of any given issue. The hotly debated topics these days include hot-side aeration, the significance of the “protein rest,” and decoction mashing and its affect on flavor formation. An advanced brewer should know enough about these hot topics to develop his own beliefs. An advanced brewer should be able to defend his position on such issues.
  4. Learn from the Giants of the IndustryToo many small-scale brewers (homebrewers and craft brewers) spend way too much time bad-mouthing big brewers. Maybe it makes small brewers feel superior or something, but it could simply be a complex. Most small brewers feel pretty tiny when they dwell on the numbers. A small brewery may squeak out 1,200 barrels of beer a year – that’s roughly 0.0006 percent of annual domestic beer sales. If every domestic brewery only produced 1,200 barrels per year, there would be 150,000 breweries in the United States!

    The fact is that the big breweries really know their stuff, but they choose to brew what 95 percent of the public wants to buy. Their decisions are based on basic economic principles that drive the world. Some past experimental brews from the
    corporate R&D facility of a rather large brewery located along the Mississippi River were truly exceptional beers. Included was a doppel bock, a barleywine aged in French oak, and a dry-hopped IPA. These beers will never be sold commercially
    because the market is too small, but they proved that these companies can do about anything they want.

    Learn how the big breweries do what they do and you are sure to pick up some useful information. This doesn’t mean you need to start brewing light beer at home, but many of the techniques used by the big breweries are pretty slick and can give homebrewers new ideas.

  5. Sharpen Your PalateIt’s hard to be critical of your own beer. After all, the whole idea is to brew beer at home that you like. Being your own worst critic can be very discouraging at times, but it is also key to improvement.

    There are many things a brewer can learn from books, magazines, and experience. When it comes to tasting, however, a training program organized by a knowledgeable and experienced taster is essential. Training programs use flavor standards to illustrate aromas like diacetyl, acetaldehyde, isovaleric acid (cheesy hops), oxidized, DMS, and others. It is very hard to educate your palate without learning to identify the aromas typically encountered in beer.

    Once your palate is sharpened, then the connection between ingredients, process, and flavor can be made. This is perhaps the single most important skill required to be an excellent brewer.

  6. Experiment with Raw MaterialsKnowing how different malts, hops, yeast, and water affect flavor, color, and the brewing process (for example, rye and lautering) is essential. This knowledge is useful when formulating new recipes or modifying a recipe you want to try. One of
    the ingredients that is interesting to play with is malt. Although all crystal malts are made using a similar process, malts from different malt houses have different flavors. Exposing yourself to a wide variety of maltsters is a great way of discovering subtle and interesting flavors. When you are tasting beers and wondering where a particular flavor came from, often you will discover a certain malt was the key to reproducing the flavor.

    The same reasoning can be applied to hops, yeast, and water. Knowing your hops is especially useful when you are forced to substitute one variety for another. It also comes in handy when you are formulating a new recipe: You can smell and taste the hop flavor you desire, and need to decide what variety (or varieties) to use to get that flavor. One of the rewards of knowing your ingredients is the ability to create a signature flavor in your beers.

  7. Take the Consistency ChallengeOne of the great benefits to homebrewing is having the freedom to brew just about anything, anytime. Commercial brewers, especially those who began as homebrewers, are envious of this creative freedom. One drawback to creative freedom is that many homebrewers are constantly trying different recipes and rarely brew the same beer over and over again.

    Choose one of your favorite brews to become a stock beer. The challenge is to brew the same beer several times to test your ability to be consistent. Once you become consistent, you can then move on to making very small changes in your stock beer recipe and procedure to learn how to fine-tune a beer. This can be a very valuable learning tool since it enables you to demonstrate how certain ingredients and techniques affect the finished beer.

    If you decide to give this idea a try, you can do some informal sensory-evaluation panels with your brewing pals to assess how similar your stock beer is from batch to batch. A blind tasting is also a good way to test your palate; for example, if you
    and your brewing partner are tasting a beer from the same batch and bottle, and find yourselves describing significant differences, someone probably needs a bit more sensory training.

Issue: March 2000