More Great Homebrew Debates

Scouring homebrew discussion pages and blogs on the internet in search of an answer to what you believed would be a simple question makes it very apparent that there is rarely an “easy question” when it comes to homebrewing. Everybody has their own way of doing things. Even when two answers are completely different, it’s possible both are correct in particular cases, depending on equipment differences, brewing styles, etc. Then again, a lot of opinions from unnamed Internet sources are simply incorrect.

Last year, to illustrate that there are often multiple ways of doing things, we had trusted experts in the homebrewing hobby share their opposing views on controversial topics in quick-hitting, straight-to-the-point arguments. And we had them put their names on it. “The Great Homebrew Debates” ran in the March-April 2017 issue of BYO, but we were not able to tackle all of the topics we wanted to, so now we’re ringing the bell to start round two.

In the ring this time are Steady vs. Vigorous Boils, Secondary Fermentation vs. Primary Straight to Packaging, Precise Mash Temperature vs. Close Enough, and Candi Syrups vs. Less Expensive Substitutes. Let’s get it on!

Steady vs. Vigorous Boils

Steady boils are all you need (Josh Weikert)

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a boil is a boil is a boil. Brewers who tell you that you “need” (my favorite red flag to go do some research) to reach a heavy, violent, rolling boil in order to brew good beer are, I propose, mistaken, and losing more wort than they should be through evaporation. Let’s briefly look at what a boil is, and what we need from it, and then see if the difference between a low and a high boil makes a difference.

Water boils at 212 °F (100 °C). What that means in practice, though, is that within a pot of water, some amount of that water is at boiling temperatures. Temperature varies within a liquid over heat, and it’s not all at 212 °F (100 °C). However, thanks to the miracle of convection, the hot liquid at the bottom of the pot is rising to the top, giving up a few degrees, and then sinking back to the bottom as other hot liquid replaces it. This is true in both the low boil and the violent, rolling boil; it’s just happening at a higher rate in the rolling boil.

Now, what do we need from the boil, as brewers? We need coagulation of unwanted proteins (hot break), elimination of unwanted compounds (Dimethyl Sulfide, oxygen, etc.) by volatilization/evaporation, solubilization and isomerization of alpha acids from hops, and sterilization of the wort. As a bonus, we get some color development, some concentration, and we stop enzymatic activity.

Does our gentler boil get us these things? Yes, with just two basic caveats that shouldn’t be a problem. If our boil is sufficiently vigorous to produce convection (it almost certainly is) and if we have a rippled surface that’s producing steam (it definitely is, or we wouldn’t say it’s boiling), then these things are all accomplished by a low, steady boil. They just might take a little longer . . . but still far less time than a standard (or even a shortened) boil. If the hallmark of a gentle boil is less-violent movement of wort (but still movement) and less surface break (but still some), then all we’re talking about is a slightly slower but just as robust process.

Let’s look at our boil “needs,” and how long it takes to achieve them:

• Hot break forms early in the boil, as anyone who’s had a boilover knows.

• Most compounds in wort are volatile, and rapidly decrease at boiling temperatures. Dissolved oxygen is driven off in about five minutes. Sulfurous compounds are boiled off in ten minutes. DMS (according to one lab experiment) in 30 minutes. Even doubling those times (and that seems like a very pessimistic assessment of what our easy boil can accomplish), we’re still “done” in 60 minutes.

• Alpha acids achieve about half of their isomerization “potential” in less than 40 minutes, after which the isomerization curve flattens out, with diminishing returns over time.

• Boiling wort sterilizes in about two minutes.

• Enzymatic activity will halt anyway, concentration (boil loss) can be accounted for by recipe, and color adjustment can be accomplished in other ways.

Even if most of these take longer in a gentler boil, they’re still happening, and by the end of a 60- or 90-minute boil, there’s no likely functional difference. Idiosyncratic, system-based, or recipe-based differences may crop up here and there, but that’s true of any brewing decision.

Boil easy. Keep your brewery violence-free.

Hard, vigorous boils are necessary (Aaron Ritchie)

There’s a time in every brewer’s life when they need to decide whether they are going to boil hard and vigorously, or steady and calm. Call it a slightly pre-mature midlife crisis, my love of ‘80s tough-guy movies, or predilection for hard-rocking music, but I’ve made my decision to turn the burner “up to 11” and now I’m going to convince you to follow suit. I will use a lot more than sheer bravado and insanely big muscles (alright, that’s dreaming) to debate my point; Using some science, hearsay, and personal experience, I’ll deliver a proverbial roundhouse kick to the face of weak boils.

There are multiple reasons why we boil wort when making beer. Boiling sanitizes your wort, it boils off undesirable compounds, coagulates proteins, extracts alpha acids from your hops, decreases pH, alters color via Maillard reaction, and removes water via evaporation. All of these are important features of a boil, and typically obtainable in some manner from either a weak or a vigorous boil. So why am I advocating to boil strongly?

The first reason to boil vigorously is the coagulation of proteins. A stronger boil helps these proteins clump together, which gets you clearer beer out of your whirlpool.

The second reason you may want to boil vigorously is if you are trying to increase the gravity of your beer. The more evaporation that takes place, the more highly concentrated your wort will be, leading to a higher starting gravity. This is not typically a large consideration for a session style beer, but for a big beer such as an imperial stout, barleywine, or other high-ABV styles, you want a high starting gravity. You could achieve this result by boiling weakly for longer, but time is money, so turn up the heat a bit to speed up this process.

The third reason to boil vigorously, and perhaps nearest and dearest to me, is to evaporate as much Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS) from the wort as possible. DMS is a fairly common off-flavor in beer, and is best described as tasting like creamed corn or cooked vegetables. The compound S-Methyl Methionine  (SMM) is produced during the malting of barley. Very light malts, especially Pilsner, have much higher levels of SMM. SMM is a precursor to DMS and when it is heated it breaks down into DMS. Luckily, DMS is volatile, and a vigorous boil evaporates it and drives it off into the air with the steam.

Story time. Last winter I had to squeeze a garage brew session in on a cold 18 °F (-8 °C) day. I was brewing 28 gallons (106 L) of a golden sour beer for a solera barrel. The propane tank was freezing up, and while there was a very gentle rolling boil the whole time, it lacked any semblance of vigor. The grain bill was almost entirely Pilsner. Fast forward two weeks later, when I excitedly took a sample off the fermenter. It tasted like I was drinking a creamed corn and cooked vegetable smoothie. Could it have been from the weak boil? I think so. There was a study published in the Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists by Zangué S.C. Desobgo in 2015 (“Dimethyl Sulfide Stripping Behavior During Wort Boiling Using Response Surface Methodology”) that looked at boil vigor and how it affects DMS rates. The results of the study showed that increasing the power input of a burner during a boil significantly reduced the levels of measured DMS over a given period of time.

So I implore you – rather than simply accepting the common wisdom of boiling gently for extended periods of time to solve the above problems, take a closer look at boiling with vigor!

Precise Mash Temperatures vs. Close Enough

Mash temperatures don’t need to be exact (Denny Conn)

When you read through beer recipes, you’ll often see great attention given to the temperature of the mash. Read through any beer forum, and you’ll see answers to questions about controlling beer body relying on adjusting the mash temperature. For many years, I followed this same advice and it was fairly good advice. But maybe not so much anymore.

Over the last 30 years, there have been many advances in the malting of barley. Many of these are economically driven. If a brewery can get the same result with a single temperature mash that they can with a complicated step mash regimen, it will save them time and therefore money. So, maltsters started taking on the role of the brewer to a certain extent by producing malts that allowed the brewer to skip steps in the mash.

But that also means that conversion takes place over a much wider temperature range than it used to. Diastatic power is the measure of the “strength” of the enzymes on malted barley. The more diastatic power the malt has, the more readily it converts.

Every maltster has their own idea of what their malt should be like and how it should react in a mash. Some have more diastatic power than others. Domestic US malts seem to be particularly high in diastatic power compared to some continental malts. This has led many brewers to use shorter mash times, since conversion happens so quickly. It has also made the use of mash temperature to adjust beer body and final gravity much less relevant.

This was dramatically shown to me as I developed the recipe for my American mild. I was set on using only American ingredients. I mashed the first version at 153 °F (67 °C) and was disappointed to find that the low gravity beer had all the body to it as a glass of water. I decided for the next batch I’d crank the temperature up to get the body I was looking for. I mashed the next batch at 168 °F (76 °C). I was shocked to find that both the final gravity (FG) of the beer and the subjective body were exactly the same as when I mashed at 153 °F (67 °C). Maybe if I had shortened the mash time for the higher temperature mash things would have been different. But I’m not certain of that.

The point is that how much effect mash temperature will have on your beer is very much dependent on the particular barley variety, how it was malted, and the malt specs. So using mash temperature to control FG and body is a very uncertain way of doing it. You never really know what temperature to use and how it might affect the beer without doing a few test batches first. To gain the most control over your FG and body, I recommend looking to ingredients and recipe design, not mash temperature. You’ll have a much easier time of it.

For instance, if you’re not getting the body you want in the beer, look at using some type of crystal/caramel malt. Very light ones, like carapils, can add body without adding much in the way of flavor. Darker crystal malts will impact the flavor, but that might end up being a positive for you. A bit of lactose can add some body, too, but keep it minimal to avoid extra sweetness.

To reduce body, my go-to is to add 4–8 oz. (113–227 g) of plain old table sugar. Just be sure to account for the extra gravity points it adds and reduce your base malt by a similar number of gravity points.

Precision is key when it comes to mash temperature (Gordon Strong)

Selecting the proper mash schedule is one of the more important tasks a brewer must perform, and is one of the things that sets apart a brewer from someone who is just making beer. When you conduct a mash, you are determining the wort composition (the mix of fermentable and unfermentable sugars) that ultimately becomes beer when fermented by yeast.

The types of sugars and other carbohydrates in the wort affect several aspects of the finished product – clarity, body, mouthfeel, attenuation, and flavor. Whether or not you think precise mash temperatures are important can be answered by whether or not you think clarity, body, mouthfeel, attenuation, and flavor in your beer is important. Are you trying to create a beer with a particular style or profile in mind, or are you just trying to create alcohol?

The question about precision turns on whether “close enough” is good enough. But what’s “close enough,” anyway? When you go to a restaurant and order a steak, do you tell them to, “just cook it”? They’ll make something that won’t kill you but how much hope do you have that it fits your expectations or palate preferences? Or do you not care about flavor, texture, and appearance?

This question exposes problems that many brewers have; accuracy of temperature measurement and consistency of temperatures across the entire mash bed. There is some natural variation even when you use precise controls; if you don’t care about accuracy, how far off are you really? Next time you mash, move a quick-read thermometer across different points in the mash bed (depth too) and see how much variation you have. If you don’t care, you may have a large portion of your mash outside the active range of enzymes. And all bets are off if your thermometers aren’t calibrated.

When you control mash temperatures (and more broadly, mash conditions), you are selecting what enzymes are active. These enzymes break down specific structures (which may take place over multiple temperatures) and create a particular wort composition. The fermentability of the wort affects attenuation, the dextrin content affects body and mouthfeel, and some mash programs prepare the wort to be fermented by particular yeast strains (e.g., Brettanomyces).

If you are shooting for 145 °F (63 °) but are really at 135 °F (57 °C), instead of performing a saccharification rest, you are really performing a protein rest. So you may not even be converting some of your mash, and your efficiency will suffer. Or if you want 149 °F (65 °C) but are really at 159 °F (71 °C), your beer will not attenuate properly and have a heavy body.

If your wort composition is off, the balance of your beer will be off. You can try to adjust your recipes to compensate, but often that is a trial-and-error process, and the results won’t be the same. And you can’t hide behind “people can’t tell the difference” excuse because people with trained palates will tell the difference. So if you can’t tell the difference between different approaches and techniques and you don’t care if the people drinking your beer like it or not, by all means use the “close enough” approach. But if you have a goal in mind, you have to take specific steps to get there.

If you don’t care what mash schedule you use, why not just use malt extract? You won’t know what ingredients they used or what mash program they performed, but it will make beer. If you can’t tell the difference between ingredients or mash programs, it’s probably close enough for you. But not for me.

Secondary Fermentation vs. No Secondary

Secondary fermentation has primary benefits (Gordon Strong)

I never really liked the term “secondary fermentation” since there is rarely what most brewers think of as fermentation occurring during this phase (conversion of sugars to alcohol). I prefer to call this phase “conditioning,” since that’s what’s actually going on.

Professional brewers typically ferment and condition in a conical unitank, where after fermentation is complete, the yeast and trub is dumped and the beer continues to mature in the same vessel. They will then move the beer from a unitank to a bright tank, where the beer is carbonated and packaged or served, possibly with an intermediate filtration step.

Homebrewers most frequently will ferment in one vessel and then transfer the beer into a second vessel for conditioning, or will simply package the beer after fermentation in the primary fermenter.

Since there is an additional transfer step for homebrewers when using a secondary fermenter, there is concern that oxidation of the beer may occur, or the beer may become infected. Oddly, the same people rarely complain about the transfer from a primary fermenter to bottles or kegs, though. There are always risks introduced during transfers and when moving the beer to new vessels, but that is a skill all brewers should have since it must be done with every batch.

If we want to discuss whether conditioning is necessary for beer, let’s review what actually happens when a beer is in the secondary. The yeast continues to clean up the beer, reducing fermentation by-products such as acetaldehyde, diacetyl, esters, and other “green beer” flavors. The beer may continue to attenuate slightly, and the beer clarifies as the yeast goes dormant. The beer may undergo dry hopping or other post-fermentation treatments, such as additions of fruit, coffee beans, etc.

Removing the beer from trub and the bulk of the yeast mass after fermentation reduces the risk of autolysis, which adds meaty, glutamate-like flavors to beer. For brewers that harvest yeast for additional batches, the transfer phase allows the yeast to be collected. With the beer off most of the yeast, the conditioning phase becomes less time-sensitive, and the beer can then be bulk-conditioned.

There is nothing wrong with doing a single-vessel fermentation for some styles; I use this method myself. Some styles, like weissbier, are best when young and the yeast adds some necessary character to the beer. Other beers are designed for quick consumption, and the “turn and burn” method gets the job done faster. New England IPA sometimes uses dry hopping during fermentation, so it’s not really necessary to wait until a secondary to dry hop.

If the beer doesn’t have time to clarify and condition, you may have to carefully decant the beer from bottles or be prepared to dump the first few pints from a keg. Or maybe you don’t care about clarity. Homebrewers are notoriously lazy, so you can certainly save some time and effort by using this route. But I would only do it with certain styles, or if I was sure the beer would be consumed quickly.

So unless you ferment in a conical unitank, I firmly believe that for the majority of beer styles, your homebrews will taste better and have a longer shelf life if you condition your beer in a secondary vessel. Just make sure you know how to transfer beer without introducing oxygen.

Secondary Fermentation is a risk not usually worth taking (Dave Clark)

While an argument can be made to the contrary with dry-hopped beers, meads, or even lagers, there is no real need to transfer most traditional beer styles. The risks simply outweigh the benefits.

First, let’s discuss the potential for degradation of quality. Anytime a beer is transferred, the two biggest concerns are the potential for contamination and oxygen uptake. While experienced brewers can usually keep sanitation issues under control, an unnecessary transfer opens up the possibility for a rogue contaminant to make its way into the beer. Even the best sanitation practices can occasionally go awry, so the less a beer is moved around, the less likely it is to become contaminated.

Though oxygen may be an ally during the yeast reproduction phrase, it becomes the enemy of beer after primary fermentation is underway. Oxygen will shorten the shelf life of beer, breaking down the flavor components and introducing new, unpleasant ones in their place. When oxygen comes in contact with finished beer it increases the opportunity for the introduction of staling aldehydes. With few exceptions, these aldehydes can and will negatively alter the flavor and aroma of the beer. Heat and motion accelerate oxidation.The best way to avoid this is to minimize splashing, shaking, pouring, or anything else that may increase the presence of oxygen — such as transferring your beer. Oxidation can produce a myriad of flavors and aromas, most of which are considered flaws in beer, such as umami, soy sauce, and “paper-like” character. Other undesirable qualities including dullness, harshness, reduced hop character, and/or increased malt sweetness can result from oxidation. A vicinal diketone (VDK) known as pentanedione 2,3, created during primary fermentation, can be increased to perceptible levels with an increase in oxygen, resulting in an unwanted honey-like aroma. While proper aging may or may not eliminate this, it is still not what the brewer likely intended when crafting the beer. Paper-like and honey flavors and aromas tend to be much more prevalent in lighter beers, especially those with large quantities of Pilsner malt as the base, while a Sherry and caramel oxidative effects tend to be found in beers with higher alcohol content and darker base malts.

While those in favor of transferring to secondary will argue the potential of yeast autolysis, rest assured that autolysis typically doesn’t manifest until well past the timeframe needed to properly ferment a typical ale, assuming temperatures are held in the proper fermentation range.

Outside of quality control issues, there is also the issue of beer loss. Anytime a transfer takes place, some of your prized beer is left behind in the process. Why leave it at the bottom of a vessel when it would be so much more enjoyable in your glass?

Lastly, there’s the subject of time and energy. No matter how much a person loves to brew, time is a valuable commodity. Why spend a bunch of time sanitizing additional equipment and transferring beer when that time can be better spent brewing another batch?

If you really want to age your beer, a better practice is to simply keg the beer and let it age in the keg. Put a couple pounds of CO2 pressure on the beer to reduce the possibility of oxygen uptake. Especially in the case of lagers, kegging the beer and storing it this way at lager temperatures will create the desired effect without requiring unnecessary transfer.

With little to gain and much to lose: Just say no to secondary transfer.

Candi Syrups vs. Substitutes

Candi syrup is critical in Belgian beer styles (Denny Conn)

When I began homebrewing in 1998, some of the first beer styles I got interested in were all things Belgian. I’d never encountered anything with those flavors before and I wanted to know how they did it so that I could do it for myself. I had started a love affair with Chimay Premiere (the red label version of Chimay), so I decided to make that my first Belgian-style homebrew. I ran down to my local homebrew shop and picked up their Belgian beer kit. As I recall, it came with amber extract, a couple packs of Hallertau hops, some English ale yeast (yeah) and a package of dark candi rock sugar. I brewed it up and proudly served it to Charlie Papazian when he was in town for an event. He very kindly told me it was great, but I knew it wasn’t.

Not only was the yeast character not right, but it completely lacked the full, fruity flavor I get from Chimay. Thinking it had to be the recipe, I researched what was actually in Chimay and gave it a try as an all-grain brew, using Wyeast 1214 (Belgian Abbey Style), which is the Chimay yeast. But I kept using the dark candi sugar. And I kept thinking something was missing.

Finally, I decided to do a blind tasting of various colors of candi sugar. Yeah, I was into experimenting from the very start. Wanting to not be influenced by the color of the sugars, I blindfolded myself after separating them into 3 piles according to color. I tasted a rock of sugar from each pile, taking a drink of water in between each. I was astounded to find I couldn’t distinguish one from another! Now, this shouldn’t be a big surprise. After all, rock candi sugar is simply cane or beet sugar that’s been dissolved and left to recrystallize. There may be a bit of color to it, but that color doesn’t translate into a distinct flavor.

And that was the state of things for several more years. I resigned myself to brewing Belgian-style beers that just didn’t have “it.” I tried a Rochefort-style beer with the same disappointing results. I was stumped. Then a company named appeared. They were selling candi syrup from Belgium and touting it as the flavor that was missing from your Belgian beers. And they were right! Using their syrup — and later syrups from other companies — got me as close to authentic Belgian beers as my brewing skill allowed me to get. Up until that point, homebrewers had been trying to recreate the dark fruit flavors found in some Belgian styles by using Special B or other malts. These syrups delivered the fig/plum/dark fruit flavors that authentic dark Belgian beers had and homebrewers lacked. The lighter syrups are pretty much like using cane or beet sugar, but the darker ones add flavors that can’t otherwise be replicated. A 45 °L syrup adds a bit of toffee flavor. A 90 °L ups that with a bit of dark fruit in addition to the toffee notes. A 180 °L syrup brings big dark fruit flavors that are unmistakably noticeable in Belgian styles. A 240 °L candi syrup keeps some of the dark fruit, but also has strong notes of coffee and chocolate.

So, I encourage you to try the same experiment that I did. Get ahold of some rock candi sugar of various colors, blindfold yourself, and taste it. See if you can tell one from another and what kind of flavor you get from it. Then try the same with some of the various candi syrups. Finally, get ahold of a bottle of Chimay or Rochefort and analyze the flavors in those. I think you’ll quickly realize that those flavors couldn’t have been created without candi syrup. Then go get yourself some syrup and get your Belgian brew on!

There are substitutes for candi syrup (Dave Green)

I’ll admit it; Belgian candi syrups are a great ingredient that both professional brewers and homebrewers can benefit from the use of in their beer. Especially the darker colored candi syrups — they can add flavor elements that are hard to derive from specialty malts. But that’s not to say that they are irreplaceable. Belgian candi syrups can escalate the price of a homebrewed beer quickly, and while there are some dedicated homebrewers who have gotten very close to reproducing the commercial products at home, that method can be time-consuming and messy; making the syrup production feel like a second brew day.

Light-colored Belgian candi syrups are the first thing I drop from recipes to cut corners. Replacing them with simple table sugar or corn sugar and maybe a touch of citric acid since golden Belgian candi syrups are known to provide a slight citric taste  — use a 1⁄4 tsp. per 5-gallon (19-L) batch to simulate the attributes from candi syrup. Often brewers like the slight acidity that the golden candi syrups provide, so a simple deconstruction of the final product will give you something in the ballpark. I find this happens very often in homebrewing — sure it’s fun to add Cocoa Crisps to your next porter, but you can simply add some rice and unsweetened cocoa powder (and maybe sugar if you’d like) to get the same effect. Because when you simply deconstruct the ingredients of a finished product, you can simplify and save money.

When brewing many darker colored Belgian-style beers, brewers are looking for complexity from Maillard products. Sure, there are going to be differences between the mainly invert sugar-derived Maillard products found in Belgian candi syrup and the mainly maltose/glucose-derived Maillard products in crystal malts, but just look at the descriptions found on the two such darker grade candi syrup and crystal malt products . . . often you’ll see the same desciptions of “adds notes of fig, raisin, plum, etc.”

Homebrewers often complain that using crystal malts will overly sweeten their dubbel or quad. Yes, if you add a ton of it then you can expect a more syrupy final product. But if you keep the crystal malts constrained, supplement with some table sugar, and provide a little color from a de-bittered roast malt, then a rich, dark color, and subtle flavors of raisin and fig can shine through. Be sure to layer in the crystal malts too, don’t just add Special B. Open with some of the darker crystal malts, but add in some of the 40–60 °L and a touch of 80–100 °L. This will add some complexity to the Maillard products found in the beer. I do not go more than 10% crystal malts and always mash for dryness in the final beer (low conversion temperature and 60–90 minute mash).

Obviously Special B is the first malt that most brewers think of when it comes to specialty malts found in a dubbel. Another malt that I suggest homebrewers keep in mind is Simpson’s DRC (Double Roasted Crystal). It adds some intense caramel, dried plum, and raisin notes that, if kept restrained, is a very nice addition to a darker abbey-style beer. Aromatic malts are another that should not be overlooked when developing these recipes.

With all that said, most of my light-colored abbey-style beers don’t contain a Belgian candi syrup, while most of my darker abbey-styles do in a moderate percentage. As noted, I do find plenty of complexity in the darker candi syrups that are very tough to emulate with specialty malts, but using the right grain bill will still decrease the amount required.