When I started brewing beer a little over 30 years ago, the craft beer revolution had not happened yet, and the selection of commercial beers was limited to small variations of the “American lager” style. One of my motivations entering homebrewing was the ability to make other styles of beer.
So when I got my first beer kit, I did exactly that — brewing a stout, then a honey ale, then a ginger ale, and many styles that at the time I had only read about in books and never tasted. To be fair, most of my early beers were not particularly good, and many were just above the threshold where I wanted to toss them out. But I kept on brewing; style, after style, after style.
Looking back on those early days in homebrewing, I can see now that I was working under a number of severe limitations. The quality of the ingredients we had in the late 80s was very poor – brown hops often stored loosely in plastic bags on the store shelf, yeast packets that were really just dried bread yeast, and malt extract that was produced mainly overseas and then canned and transported in hot containers for months at a time.
Even worse was the very limited information we had. Brewing knowledge was in its infancy, and few homebrewers knew how to estimate simple things like original gravity, color, or bitterness.
We also had no point of reference for the finished beers. Judging a finished beer was a black art. You could brew a Belgian abbey ale, but few of us had access to the real thing to compare it. Obvious flaws like spoiled or stale beer could be determined but we lacked the knowledge of other off flavors and even the lexicon of what to call them!
In spite of all these limitations, we brewed on. Looking back on the period, I see now that there was little I could do about the quality ingredients, or easily accessible brewing knowledge (which gradually improved), or even the lack of reference beers at the time. Despite all of this, there is one simple thing I could have done back then that would have greatly improved my beer: I could have brewed the same beer more than once!
Jumping around from style to style was the single biggest mistake of my early brewing career. Brewing a recipe only once guarantees that the recipe will never get better.
The Elements of Better Beer
Fast-forward 30 years, and the homebrewing landscape has dramatically transformed. We now have high-quality fresh ingredients, access to equipment equal to that of a professional brewer, a vast store of knowledge, software and tools, and access to craft and imported beer of any style.
So what are the elements today necessary for creating the perfect beer in any style? I will argue that they have not changed much since the time when I started homebrewing, though our ability to create amazing beer at home has transformed dramatically:
Starting with a Good Recipe
This may sound obvious, but doing some homework up front to make sure you have a good starting point for your beer is critical. I’ll cover shortly some of the resources available to you to get you started on solid footing.
Consistency in Brewing, Measurement and Quality Control
Consistency in your brewing is very important, particularly if you are looking to improve upon a recipe you have brewed before. Keep good records of each brew, measure simple things like volumes, gravities, and temperatures, and compare different batches of the same recipe.
Judging and Identifying Flaws
Even sophisticated pro brewers rely primarily on sensory evaluation or “tasting” to evaluate beer quality. Developing the critical ability to judge and evaluate your beer is crucial if you want to make it better. The best beer brewers are often the best beer judges, so developing the ability to identify off flavors is important.
Correcting Your Beer, and Brewing it Again
Being able to consistently brew, measure, track, and taste your beer are all important, but only if you can identify the root cause of an off flavor or imbalance and make a correction to either your recipe or process to brew it again.
Starting with a Good Recipe
Recipe design is a fascinating combination of art and science. While some brewers take a scientific approach, trying to match numbers, grain percentages, gravity, color, and bitterness, this is only part of the story. The other half is understanding the flavors that each ingredient contributes as well as how these flavors interact in complex ways to create the profile of the finished beer. You need to master both the art and the science of brewing to produce the best beer.
I find that while many brewers make efforts to study the scientific side of brewing, they sometimes do so at the neglect of the artistic side. Much like a cook needs to understand the flavor that simple ingredients like butter, oil, flour, milk, and spices contribute, a brewer needs to understand what flavors each grain, hop, and yeast variety contributes. I encourage you to take time doing sensory analysis on individual ingredients like hops and malt as well as brewing single malt and single hop (SMASH) beers to get a strong grasp on ingredients.
Fortunately, you rarely need to start with an entirely blank sheet of paper. The internet provides a wealth of information. For most styles of beer you can think of there are detailed style guides available that include color, gravity, alcohol content, bitterness, and ingredient guidelines. The most popular is the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines at BJCP.org. Many of these styles have characteristic ingredients you can target as well as specific yeast strains and even water profiles to use. Of course, Brew Your Own has been publishing its “Style Profile” column for more than 20 years, and all popular styles have been profiled, offering tremendous insight into particular author’s approaches to these styles.
Researching recipes is another great way to develop your own. You can search books, magazines, websites, or online recipe databases for examples of the style you are targeting. In fact, the challenge now is no longer a dearth of recipe data, but instead sorting through the huge volume of recipes available.
One technique I like to use is to pick 10 or so recipes from trusted sources in the style I’m targeting and then compare them. What base grains does each use? What specialty malts? How do the grain bills compare percentage-wise? What hops and yeast varieties did they choose? You can then use this comparison to develop your own recipe, perhaps adding your own twist.
While a complete discussion of ingredient flavors and recipe design techniques is beyond the scope of this article, doing a bit of research on existing recipes and ingredients used for the style you are targeting should give you a solid starting point for your recipe.
Consistent Brewing, Measurement, Quality Control, Repeatability
Once you have a solid starting recipe, the next step is to brew it! The goal here is not to create a “one-off” brew, but instead to use your best techniques so you can either reproduce your fantastic recipe or improve upon it if the beer is not exactly to your liking.
Large commercial breweries have quality control departments that measure and monitor every aspect of the brewing process looking for slight changes in ingredients, process, or outcome that might affect the finished beer. While these breweries use labs to evaluate these things, the vast majority of the data needed can be collected and monitored at the homebrew level.
Consistency in the process starts with your ingredients, so that is a very good place for you to start as a homebrewer. Commercial brewers carefully evaluate their ingredients before committing to a batch. Before you brew, sit down with the grains, hops, and yeast you plan to use and do some simple sensory analysis. Take notes so you can help connect the dots later to determine if you have any ingredient issues. Is the grain fresh? Did you properly crush it? Does it have any odd color, odor, moisture, or consistency issues? Does it smell and taste like it should?
Do the same with your hops. Dry rub a bit of the hops in your hands and bring it up to your nose. Does it have a fresh flowery aroma? Is there any discoloration or signs of moisture? Are there any odd aromas? This is a particularly important step, as more than once I’ve opened a package of hops to find it was not fresh and aromatic – and it probably would have ruined my beer if my QC step was not used to reject the ingredient.
Check the date on your yeast package and make sure it is still viable. If working with liquid yeast I usually recommend using a starter as it can be more fragile than dry yeast. A good strong starter will give you a healthy yeast population when you pitch it.
A Consistent Process
Once you start brewing, the key is consistency in your brewing processes. Try to follow the same steps in the same way each time you brew so they literally become a habit. I like to print out a brew sheet of the steps to follow and times for each addition or new step in the mash and boil.
As you brew you need to take time out to measure. Pre-measure the ingredients so they are easy to add. Measure your volumes as you brew including water volumes, mash volume, pre- and post-boil volumes, and your volume into the fermenter. Measure your mash temperatures and fermentation temperature over time. If you have a pH meter, measure your mash pH, pH into the fermenter, and finished pH. Measure your gravity both pre-boil and your original gravity into the fermenter, remembering to adjust for temperature if working with hot wort.
Record these measurements along with your notes and observations. If you had a process problem like a missed mash temperature or you forgot to turn off the recirculation pump at a certain time, record it so you can figure out what impact it may have had. Detailed notes can really help in the judging and troubleshooting.
Also, over time you can start to compare batches of beer, which will help you identify inconsistencies in the process that may tie back to inconsistencies in the finished beer. At large breweries they term this “quality control” with the goal of making the same beer every time.
For a homebrewer, beer software or a simple spreadsheet can help you compare the same beer as it is brewed multiple times. Seeing the data you’ve collected side-by-side from batch-to-batch can really bring out trends, inconsistencies, or subtle changes in your process that may have helped or hurt your beer. Small changes in ingredients used or the brewing process can have a large impact on your finished beer.
You can even do some comparisons between different beer recipes to look at how consistent your mash temperature and volumes are, your brewhouse efficiency, yeast performance, and other brewing processes. While this may not be quite as useful as comparisons against the same recipe, it can help in finding issues with your equipment and processes.
Judging and Identifying Flaws
We often say that “beer judges make the best brewers” simply because they are able to evaluate and identify imbalances and flaws in beer. As your brewing skills improve, you also need to consistently work on improving your skills as an evaluator of fine beer. In order to perfect a beer recipe over time, you need to be able to identify flaws and characteristics of a beer.
The best way to improve your skills as a beer judge is to sit down with an experienced beer judge and sample some beers. This could be a BJCP certified judge at a competition, a professional brewer, or even just an experienced homebrewer from your club. Most experienced brewers are familiar with the major beer styles as well as imbalances and off flavors and will be able to help guide you. Sit down and sample a number of beers with them, first judging the beer yourself and then comparing notes with the experienced judge.
A second way to improve your skills is to simply sample great beers. The BJCP style guidelines have commercial examples listed for each of the major beer styles and you can purchase and sample these at home. Anytime you have a beer out at a craft brewery, restaurant, or homebrew meeting, you can continue to hone your skills by critically evaluating the beer and trying to identify flaws.
For the purpose of this article, I’ve broken beer flaws into two types. The first, which I’ve termed “imbalances” are simply a mismatch of flavor, carbonation, color, or other aspect of the beer. These can usually be remedied by altering the recipe slightly or perhaps making a small process change.
The second group of flaws, called “off flavors,” cover the classic off flavors identified on the BJCP score sheet. These are terms that you should gain familiarity with as they are used in beer competition as well as by other brewers to identify certain flavors and flaws.
I’m a strong advocate of writing down your perceptions as you judge your beer. You can use the BJCP score sheet from BJCP.org that is used to score beers in competition or just a plain sheet of paper. Write down everything you can determine about your beer including the appearance, flavor, balance, carbonation, and overall impressions.
Imbalances in Beer
An imbalance in your beer is something in your recipe or process that makes the beer “not quite right.” For example, you may have been shooting for a pale ale, but the beer came out too dark. Your big IPA may have fermented too well and now be closer to a double IPA. You may have a great, well-balanced beer flavor but the beer is flat with no carbonation. The nice thing about this type of imbalance is that it is relatively easy to correct.
Flavor imbalances are a bit more complex to identify and correct. Obvious flaws like a beer that is too bitter or too malty can be easily corrected, but problems like the wrong malt selection, too many specialty malts, using the wrong hop or yeast variety, and similar issues can be harder to pinpoint. While the beer may taste lackluster or just plain wrong, it can be difficult to figure out which of the ingredients caused the problem. This is why, as mentioned earlier, it is important to obtain an understanding of each ingredient.
Even if you can’t pinpoint what exactly is off, it is worthwhile to do your very best to write down any imbalances you perceive and even general comments like “lacks depth” or “poor aroma” can be useful for your next iteration of the recipe.
I’ve covered off flavors and their causes in a two-part series featured here in the pages of BYO (refer to the September 2016 and December 2017 issues of BYO). The BJCP recognizes 21 off flavors, which are discussed in depth in the previously mentioned articles, so I will not go into detail here. I will say, these are terms and flavors you as a brewer should become familiar with because it is absolutely critical to making your beer better. If you can’t identify the flaws and imperfections in your beer it becomes very difficult to improve your recipe and processes.
Brew it Again!
After a long process of creating the perfect recipe, carefully selecting only the freshest ingredients, brewing and meticulously recording metrics on your brewing process, and then critically judging your beer, we come full circle — now it is time to brew it again!
I started this article with a story about how brewing a different beer every time never led to better beer. Only after I became interested in brewing the perfect pale ale or the perfect Irish stout did my beer start to measurably improve.
So sit down with your original recipe, your brewing notes, and your beer tasting notes and try to figure out what you could have done better? Perhaps a bit more color, another specialty grain to get more depth, a different yeast strain to get a cleaner finish, or even an entirely different hop variety?
Make those adjustments — ideally, limiting it to one or two adjustments per batch — and then brew the beer again. Measure, take notes, and critically evaluate the second beer. If it is close enough in time, you may even be able to compare the first and second finished beers side-by-side. Continue this process of improvement until you have a great beer recipe!
I’ve done this with several different styles now and many of these have become my “house” recipes — the beers I brew again and again and always keep on hand for guests to enjoy.
Along the way you will certainly learn to be a better brewer, a better beer judge, and hopefully have some great beers to share with your friends and family.