Ingredient sensory is something homebrewers often don’t do in any great depth or detail. Why not? It’s easy, and not very time consuming considering it could have a dramatic effect on the outcome of your beer. You’ve probably heard “one bad apple spoils the barrel” or something similar. “One bad ingredient can ruin the batch of beer” is true as well.
The Quality & Age Issues
So let’s start with some questions — do you trust your ingredient manufacturers to make, store, and ship you good product? You should. Every time something old, off, or out of specification leaves their facility, it reflects very poorly on them. They know this. Maybe a tougher question — do you trust everyone else? The shipping companies, distributors, retail shops, online retailer, and your own storage methods, to provide your beer with the best product possible? I hope you can. They’re doing their best to store your product, and deliver it carefully to you. Still, no one is perfect. How are you doing on storing your own products? Are you using them in a timely manner? Do you have old grains and hops laying around? Thinking of putting them to use but nervous to do so?
The one thing all beer ingredients have in common is that they’re a perishable product. Most often freshness determines quality, as the products will degrade with age. It’s sometimes hard to tell when looking at a product if it’s still fresh, and in many instances viable. Will your hops bitter? Will your malt starches convert to sugar? Will your yeast ferment? Of course, equally important is whether or not they’ll taste as expected and be flavorful. One off ingredient can easily topple an entire beer. That’s not a risk most want to take, though many often do. Let’s take the risk out of homebrewing with questionably old and degraded ingredients, and create rewarding, high quality beer each time.
Your Sensory Lab
Let’s look at the tools you may want to have in your own sensory lab. Some tools you may not need for basic sensory tests. Many of these tools you may have already, and some may be optional. Overall, I believe the cost-benefit analysis would show that these few additional lab items are well worth your peace of mind and money in the long run. It may save you from ruining a batch, and the money lost on fresh ingredients that ended up co-mingled with your bad ingredients. You’ll probably find you have some of these items, or something similar that will work already in your home or homebrewing equipment.
HOME SENSORY LAB: Basic Equipment and Uses
Of all the ingredients, sensory of malts is one of the easiest to do. The traditional “chew test,” which literally just consists of taking a few kernels of malt and chewing, is a great place to start. The value is not in determining flavor, but in determining freshness. If the malt itself isn’t crunchy, and is “slack,” soft and chewy, the malt has humidified, and has begun to break down. This could lead to less flavor, off flavors, and less efficiency in a starchy base malt.
Flavor is hard to determine from a chew test, as the husk will drive flavor, something that doesn’t make it into the beer. You can get a better idea of what the malt will provide in terms of flavor if you chew a long while, releasing the flavor inside the kernel, but it’s still not a great way to determine all the attributes it will bring to your beer.
A better method is to create a tiny mash for sensory. There is an official process for home and craft brewers referred to as the Hot Steep Method. It’s a recommended lab sensory analysis method of the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC). This mini-mash method allows you to quickly try your malt in wort form. You’ll also see that we can use this wort again in hop and yeast sensory.
There are a few ways to go about a mini-mash sensory of a single ingredient, or sensory of your wort bill. When doing sensory of a single ingredient you’ll learn a lot more about the attributes of that ingredient, and whether it still tastes as it should. You may want to reduce the grain-to-water ratio if it’s something like, say, black patent malt. You may not get a good idea of what it actually tastes like as the astringency and certain strong flavors in the malt may be overpowering. We’ll only be mashing 50 grams (1.7 oz.), so a good general rule for tasting specialty malts is 50% (25 grams/0.9 oz.) of any sort of any caramel or kilned specialty malts, and only 20% (10 grams/0.35 oz.) of any dark roasted malts. The rest of the malt should be your preferred base malt, whether it be Pilsen, pale ale, or standard 2-row. To do sensory on your base malt, you should use 100%, or 50 g (1.7 oz.).
I’d like to also mention there’s an app called Draughtlab that allows you to take both beer sensory and base malt sensory notes. It’s a great guide that can be used for specialty malt sensory too, you just may need to expand the sensory language and take notes.
Mini-Mash Sensory Method:
1. Place about 50 grams (1.7 oz.) of malt in your electric coffee grinder.
2. Grind 10-15 seconds, until you have a flour consistency.
3. Add your malt flour to a thermos (at least 24 oz. capacity).
4. Pour 400 mL (13.5 oz.) of 150 °F (65 °C) water into thermos. This should be the same water you brew with. Close and shake contents of thermos for 20-30 seconds to ensure malt flour is completely wet and mixed.
5. Let thermos sit and mash for 20 minutes.
6. Place filter paper (I recommend Hario #03 filter paper, or a thick coffee filter paper) inside funnel and position over mouth of 1 L (1.1 qts.) glass jar (or a glass jar that’s larger than 20 oz./590 mL) to sparge and collect wort.
7. Swirl contents of thermos for a few seconds to bring settled particles back into solution, then open and pour all of the mixed mash liquid into the filter paper.
8. You may want to collect and pour first 100 mL (3.4 oz.) of filtered wort back into the thermos and then swirl thermos to collect any grist that remains inside. Gently repour back into the filter.
9. Allow wort to filter until dripping has ceased. This typically takes between 15-30 minutes, but may take longer.
You now have wort to sip and sample! It’s best to sample it fresh, but you can keep it in your fridge for a day if you like. Companies like Briess and Weyermann provide a spider diagram of their own malt sensory, and this can help you to learn what to expect from a malt, as well as learn the lingo of malt sensory. It’s always good to compare your own sensory notes with that of the maltster.
It’s good to use words you understand and can relate to, but also good to understand what other folks are using to describe something. It helps us to communicate and understand each other. Here are some common, high level malt sensory terms: Bready, grainy, nutty, earthy, floral, fruity, grassy, spicy, metallic, sweet, woody, solvent, medicinal, smokey, stale, waxy, vegetal, dairy, meaty, and rotten. Of course, not all of these are positive. If something is earthy it could have a mineral flavor, or mossy, or even barnyard. It’s always good to clarify to the best of your ability. Unsalted crackers, unsalted pretzels and clean drinking water can help reset your palate if you feel flavors are going dull.
Hops have both visual and aromatic cues you can use to determine both quality and freshness. Although not a perfect indicator, yellowing of hops can indicate oxidation, which can lead to both papery and cardboard flavors, as well as cheesy flavors.
Aroma can tell you a lot about hops. Many brewers start by rubbing whole cone hops in the palms of their hands to open up the hops by breaking the lupulin glands exposing the aromatic oils. Getting hops into solution opens up these aromas as well, and gives you an even better idea of the hop aromas that will present. Making a hop tea is a practical guide for what the hop will provide in your beer. The ASBC has an official lab hop aroma sensory method known as the Hop Tea Sensory Method.
Let’s look at measuring and evaluating aromatics in hops. Using a single hop can tell you much about what that hop will provide, both good and bad. Though, like our wort sensory, you could use a combination of hops in any ratio you please (maybe the same ratio you’re using in a recipe) to see how they interact.
Hop Aroma Sensory Method:
1. Weigh out 10 g (0.35 oz.) of hop pellets (12 g/0.42 oz. of whole leaf hops if that’s what you’re using).
2. Grind the hops in your coffee grinder for 10-15 seconds (20 seconds for whole leaf hops) or until the hops are a fine powder.
3. Measure out 0.5 L (16.9 oz.) of room temperature water (70 °F/21 °C.)
4. Place a magnetic stir bar in the bottom of a glass French press.
5. Add your ground hop material to the bottom of the French press, and then pour your 0.5 L (16.9 oz.) water over your hop powder.
6. Insert the French press plunger and depress the plunger so it gently rests above the hops.
7. Place the French press onto the stir plate, and set the mixing speed to about 40%, or about 180 RPM.
8. Allow the hop solution to stir for 20 minutes. If you do not have a stir plate you may swirl the solution as often as possible, and you should keep hops in solution for 1 hour.
9. After 20 minutes, turn off the stir plate and press down on the plunger filter to strain the hop material from solution.
10. Pour the hop solution into a 1-L (1.1-qts.) glass container for storage and use for sensory analysis as soon as possible.
You may choose to refrigerate your hop solution, but volatiles will quickly begin to disappear. I would suggest taking an initial aroma sensory, and then refrigerating your solution and sitting for another aromatic sensory session the next day to see what’s changed. Pour off what you need into a small glass so you can get your nose right down next to the solution. Your nose may fatigue fast — sniff your forearm to reset your nose. Your own odor is a smell your nose is intimately familiar with. Don’t wear too much scented spray, perfume, lotions, or cologne on hop sensory day!
Start picking up on the vocabulary used to describe your hops by the growers and the industry. Look for those aromas, and make notes. If you smell something more, or don’t smell an aroma that is linked to the hop you’re sniffing, take note! If you’re unfamiliar with some of the sensory lexicon being used, you can always learn. Grab a papaya, mango, or lychee fruit the next time you’re out shopping.
A Note on Yeast Sensory
As far as I can tell, there is no benchmark for yeast flavor sensory, or a provided lab method by any yeast company. You may smell or taste a solution or starter of liquid yeast made prior to pitching, and it may let you know if it contains bacteria, but won’t give a good indication of the flavor contributions in your beer.
Although it’s possible to glean a bit of information from tasting wort from a yeast starter, or even from a small batch of beer made prior, often the dynamics of yeast change dramatically with temperature, the media it is being fermented with, the size of the culture, and even the container in which it is being fermented. One real benefit to fermenting (or making a starter) with your yeast prior to using probably wouldn’t involve much in the way of flavor sensory, but more so a check that your yeast is viable.
A Note On Water Sensory
We often feel stuck with what we’re given in terms of water. Of course, there are ways to change this key ingredient through additions, or subtractions of your water’s elements and minerals. Table salts, calcium chloride, espom salts and calcium sulfate can all be added to samples for analysis.
Through the purchase of distilled water, you can start from scratch. Take into consideration the flavor and make up of your water when brewing. Water with heavy chlorine can be sniffed out, literally. The flavor can carry over as an off-flavor in your beer quite easily. It goes a bit beyond the scope of this article, but if your water tastes or smells off or different, take note, and try to find those flavors and aromas that carry over to your finished beer.
Following these methods and focusing on the sensory of your ingredients will both help you understand the flavors you are working with, and the flavors you’d like to avoid. Move through these techniques and then tweak and experiment! Find out what works for you and your brewing and sensory process. Even something like making a ‘mini batch’ may seem a bit silly, but you’ll be able to glean much about your future scaled up recipe.
If something doesn’t taste as expected in your beer, be sure to learn from it and take descriptive notes. You will improve your sensory vocabulary, palate, recipe building, and brewing skills.