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Quick Pre-Brew Tips: Collective advice from fellow brewers

Brewing is an art best learned by doing . . . and particularly by doing with others. When you spend time with other brewers brewing, you’ll pick up new thoughts and practices. Things that never occurred to you can be part of their brew-day routine. All of these little things add up to the rhythms of our own brew days.

Years ago, Denny had the revelation that you didn’t have to kneel on the floor while bottling when he spent bottling day with a friend. That epiphany probably gave him a few more years before getting a knee replacement. The only reason he thought you had to bottle on the floor was, well, that’s how the books showed it. His friend demonstrated otherwise! But these days, few of us are likely lucky enough to be able to spend a brew day with friends.

Since none of us can be everywhere at once and learn everything we’ll have to make due with one of our favorite Experimental Brewing podcast segments — “Quick Tips.” Sometimes they come from our own brewing experience, especially when we mess something up. Yeah, we do that frequently and it’s important to note when you mess up to avoid it in the future! Sometimes our listeners send them in based on their experiences (listeners and readers, please send us more: podcast@experimental
brew.com). It’s as close as you can get to brewing with other people while not brewing with other people.

These tips serve as reminders of how to do things different, better, or not at all. They’re practical bits of advice to make our brewing better, more efficient, or more fun. Or why not all three?

When you spend time with other brewers brewing, you’ll pick up new thoughts and practices.

In this column, we’ve compiled some of our best “Quick Tips” from the last five years in order to give you the opportunity to use them in your brewing. In this segment we will focus our attention on the stuff before you fire up your brew system. Chances are you’ll find at least a few of them that you already do, and hopefully more of them that you can apply to your brewing. Let’s get started! (And hey, if you see something missing – yell at us.)

Ingredients

Flavorings

If you’re going to add a flavoring to your beer, like a puree or extract flavoring, be sure to taste it first. This serves two purposes . . . first, to be sure the flavoring actually tastes good! Second, to think about how that flavor will go with the other flavors in your beer. You’d think this would be obvious, but Denny has proven that it isn’t. The great thing about using something like an extract or tincture is that you can taste as you add it to be sure you not only get the right amount, but that the flavor really complements your beer.

IPA aged in a gin barrel is one of our favorite things. But let’s face it, how easy is it for a homebrewer to obtain a gin barrel? Yeah, just a bit more than never. But you can get close real easily. Simply add a shot of gin to your favorite IPA!

One of Drew’s fastest drained kegs was a bit of a boozy rescue – he made a chocolate porter with cacao nibs and then forgot about it for two weeks. What resulted was a porter with a harsh astringency from the too long cacao nap. The fix? One bottle of the very sweet and fruity Razzmatazz liqueur into the keg with the beer. Give it a vigorous mix and now you have an intensely chocolate raspberry concoction that disappeared in no time at all.

Hop Substitutions

Substituting hops is something we all do at times. Maybe your homebrew shop doesn’t have the Galaxy™ you crave or the odd Eroica your favorite old recipe uses. With late additions, it’s easy to decide on an amount. Since late additions have very little effect on IBUs, you can substitute hops 1:1.

Bittering hops, though, take some calculation. Sure, you can use software, but what if you’re at your local homebrew shop trying to figure out how much of X hop at 5.5% alpha acids (AA) you need to replace 2 oz. of Y at 3.3% AA? Use homebrew bittering units (HBU) . . . simply multiply the AA% by the hop weight to get the HBUs. In this case, 2 oz. of 3.3% AA gives you 6.6 HBUs. To find out how much 5% X hop to use, just divide 6.6 by 5 (the AA of the X). 1.32 oz. would give you the same IBUs. It’s not perfect, but it works in a pinch. And yes this conversion does work for metric units since it’s simply proportions.

Malt Storage

With proper storage, malt has a long shelf life. Even pre-crushed malt is fine after several months (we’ve done six). Some maltsters claim a two-year lifespan for crushed malt in sealed bags. You just need to keep the malt dry, locked away from air and stored at reasonable temperatures out of the sun. Drew’s used four-year-old whole malt that had been stored in his garage in airtight buckets to make damn fine beer.

How do you know if you want to take a chance on that malt that’s been sitting around for eight months? Just taste it! Crushed malt should be “crisp” and whole kernels should be crunchy, not mushy. The flavor should be clean and malty, with no mustiness to it.

Put a Seal on It

Speaking of airtight storage, a vacuum sealing system can be a lifesaver in the brewery, extending the shelf life of ingredients. If you don’t want to shell out for a new system — we don’t blame you — you can often find them littering the shelves of your local charity shops.

Properly storing your ingredients is key. A vacuum sealer is a great way to protect your hops for longer-term storage.

Inventory

Most brewing software has built-in inventory tracking, but you can also manually track. We both buy grain in bulk and keep it in either buckets or storage tubs. Tape a sheet of paper to the bucket’s outsides. Write down what and how much of each grain is in the container. Each time you use some grain from that container, update the amount written on the paper.

Mystery Malts

But let’s say your inventory has failed . . . you have an unmarked bag of grain and you can’t figure out exactly what it is. Many malts are so close in color that simply looking at them doesn’t really clue you in. That’s when you do a steep test. Crush 50 grams malt in a blender/food processer, add 400 mL of mash temperature water and steep for 10 minutes. Strain and you should be able to sniff and taste your way to an answer.

Recipes

Brew Better Simple Beers

A lot of people brew single malt and single hops (SMASH) beers to learn the flavors of ingredients. That’s a great learning experience, but can produce a lackluster beer. No, not always — see Pilsners or helles, for instance. But you can keep it simple while still making a more complex beer with the concept of “Brewing On The Ones.” You pick one base malt, one specialty malt, one bittering hop and one finishing hop. That way you can still get a good idea of the ingredient flavors while you make a more interesting beer.

Tweak, Don’t Create

It’s tempting to start every recipe from the drawing board. Isn’t that the kernel of true creative genius? You can assure yourself of better success, even when trying a risky new ingredient or technique, from tweaking something tried and true. We do this all the time and it helps us predict where our changes will take us and its impacts.

Cold Steep When You Need To

Cold steeping dark malts or adding them at the end of the mash is a popular technique. It works well, but be aware that it changes the dark malt character. It imbues less bite and roast. That may be fine for some beers, but fails when you want that dark malt character in your face. Match the process to your desired results . . . see a schwarzbier vs. a stout.

Water

Minerals as Salt & Pepper

Many people only seem to worry about mash pH, but there’s another part to it. Start by adding the minerals you need to get the flavor you’re going after. Only then do you start to think about adjusting pH. The minerals you add will have an effect on pH. There’s no point in adjusting pH only to have it thrown off by your mineral additions.

And a word on adjusting pH with gypsum . . . and that word is “don’t.” Yeah, it will have an effect on your pH but by the time you add enough to really adjust the pH, it will have a major effect on flavor.

Skip the Chalk

Don’t use calcium carbonate to raise pH. Chalk hates dissolving in water. For maximum effectiveness, you need to dissolve it under CO2 pressure. Even then you won’t know how much is getting into your water.
Use baking soda for small adjustments. Just keep your sodium load under about 50 ppm. For larger adjustments, we recommend pickling lime (calcium hydroxide). It’s easy to find in the grocery store, and highly effective.

More tips next time!

Issue: May-June 2021