There’s an old saying that goes “To get where you’re going, it helps to know where you’ve been.” OK, maybe that’s not really an old saying, but Denny says it and he’s old, so that’s close enough. No matter what, keeping good records of your brewing is a great way to get a leg up on your next batch. After all, if something great happened, you want to be able to recreate it. If something terrible happened (hey, it happens to us, too . . . sometimes more than we’re willing to admit) then you want to be sure it never happens again! There are multiple ways of documenting your brew sessions, so let’s look at them so you can decide what works best for you.
And as Adam Savage, the hero to many scientifically minded, says, “Remember kids, the only difference between science and screwing around is writing it down.”
What to Track
What you should track depends on what you want to know. Denny’s theory has always been to track everything he can think of, because it’s gonna be the one thing you don’t write down that will turn out to be crucial to a future brew! Even though he uses software to create recipes, he keeps notes in a series of spiral notebooks. He’s up to 11 of them now! His note taking has evolved over the years, but here’s where it is today:
Each page starts with the brew number, the name, batch size, and date. Then he transcribes the recipe from the software to the notebook. Hard drive crashes have shown him that redundancy is a good thing. He lists the brand and amount of each ingredient in the recipe. If he’s feeling particularly picky, he’ll even list the colors of the malts and other fermentables. Next come the hops: Variety, form (pellet or whole), the alpha acids (AA) and the time of the addition . . . boil time, whirlpool with temperature, and dry hops. Following that is the yeast for the recipe. He specifies if a starter was made and what the size of the starter was. He lists the date on the yeast pack. If he’s using a slurry, he lists the batch number it came from and what generation the yeast was. Finally, things like water treatments (including water source), finings, and nutrients are listed. Some may call him meticulous in this regard.
The next section lists the temperature of the grain before mash in. This can be very important especially for outdoor brewers. Knowing the temperature of the grain allows you to make a decent guess at adjusting your strike liquor to account for the grain temperature. Most software will let you enter this information and calculate the strike temperature for you, but oftentimes you need to make further adjustments. For instance, if you look back at your notes and discover that the grains for your mash are 20 °F (11 °C) colder this time than the last time you brewed, you will want to heat your water 2 °F (1 °C) hotter than last time. A good brewing calculator, such as BeerSmith, can perform these calculations for you if you don’t want to go through the process of obtaining grain’s and water’s specific heat capacity and then calculating temperature change using your water-to-grain ratios. Or, with good notes, you can figure these types of calculations out on your own.
Next comes strike water amount and temperature. The amount is listed both as the total amount and qts./lb. (this can obviously be in L/kg as well, which is the same ratio as weight of water to grains). For instance, something like “heat 5.25 gallons (1.4 qts./lb.) to 165 °F to hit 153 °F” (equivalent to “heat 20 L [2.9 L/kg] to 74 °C to hit 67 °C”). Because Denny usually batch sparges in a cooler system, he also keeps track of the volume and specific gravity of his first runoff. Knowing those allows him to figure his conversion efficiency. Knowing your conversion efficiency can be a real help in tracking down efficiency issues. For more information about conversion efficiency, see http://www.braukaiser.com/wiki/index.php?title=Troubleshooting_Brewhouse_Efficiency#Determining_Conversion_Efficiency.
After that he lists the sparge amount and temperature. Once the mash is completed, he writes down the total wort volume pre-boil and specific gravity. Knowing those lets him calculate his mash efficiency. It also allows him to make adjustments to the beer’s final gravity. For instance, let’s say he collects 7 gal. (26.5 L) of sweet wort with a gravity of 1.040. That’s a total of 280 gravity points (total gallons multiplied by the specific gravity points). Since he shoots for a final post-boil volume of 5.5 gal. (21 L), that would give him a post-boil original gravity (OG) of about 1.050–51. If that was below the OG he wanted, he could add more fermentables to the boil to hit his intended OG.
The next information is the boil time, along with any notes about things that maybe didn’t go to plan . . . a boil over, forgotten hop addition . . . hey, it happens to all of us. The final section lists time of pitching, volume into fermenter, temperature of the wort at pitching, OG, and efficiency. You should also record the temperature you have your fermentation set to or ambient temperature of the room that the fermenter is stored in.
These days software is the most popular way to track your brewing. You can start by using software to design your recipe.
As fermentation progresses, you’ll want to record any fermentation temperature swings and gravity readings you take and tasting notes when you drink the gravity samples. What, you don’t do that? You should! Finally, once fermentation is finished, take notes on how things went and your general impressions of both the brewing and tasting of the beer. Especially the tasting. It’s valuable to record not only your first impression of the flavor, but to revisit your notes as the beer ages and jot down how it changes over time. The purpose of all this nit picky stuff is to be able to analyze if your batch went as planned and if not to locate where you went off course so you can adjust on your next brew.
While Denny does all this in a spiral notebook, Drew is a bit more . . . let’s say “structured.” He’s designed and published a brewing notebook you can use.
Ok, so this is where I step in — Hi everyone, it’s Drew! Cheers and thank you. Denny’s right, I did create a whole book that was dedicated to logging your brews. I’m also a big fan of the idea of how much simple “expert” checklists can keep mistakes at bay. (There have been a number of studies that show that even rock star surgeons can benefit from a simple checklist to ensure everything’s been started correctly. It’s one of the biggest things the aerospace industry has gotten right that should be drilled into everyone. Turns out that people are process dumb!)
I’m less worried about the individual details and saving them everywhere. (I am a little jealous of Denny’s notebook collection, but then I’d be worried about providing evidence in any prosecution!) I want to know that I’ve hit all the major steps and things seem on track. I’ll note any major deviations on the brew day (e.g. gravity changes, hopping changes, ingredient swaps, timing issues, etc.). All of those will get logged after the brew day is done, kettles are cleaned and beers are drunk — OK, that might mean things are getting logged the next day. After all, we’re not professional brewers — profits aren’t on the line — if you’re on the commercial side, keep your information written down!
Tracking Using Software
These days software is the most popular way to track your brewing. You can start by using software to design your recipe. That’s the most obvious use. But almost all the recipe software around does more than just help you create a recipe. It can track your inventory or help you with water adjustments. But software can also let you take notes on how your brew session goes, which can be valuable information for your next brew.
Denny has been using Promash for so many years that he knows it inside out. While the user interface (UI) is dated and it may not have a couple of the functions of newer software, it does what he needs to get done. This is the good thing about beer math — a lot of it is stable and unchanging. Promash is no longer available so most brewers have moved on to other software like BeerSmith, Brewer’s Friend, or one of the other programs out there.
Drew is one of those brewers. He uses either BeerSmith or Brewer’s Friend to track his brewing. Actually, Drew’s problem now is that he’s used so many software programs that who knows where any particular recipe lies! (This is also why it’s important to internalize your recipe design philosophy.) Why? Drew’s a computer guy and a toy guy — so new software means a new toy! Plus it’s interesting to see different UIs and thought patterns.
No matter the software UI design, they all pretty much do the same thing, which is why Denny can still use Promash to do his beer calculations. The key for tracking your brews is to lean into the brew session functionality. Choose your recipe, open a new session, and just like Denny, keep your notes in there. With today’s new tools for temperature control and gravity measurements, there’s even the ability to incorporate your tracking data into the sessions. You can do this all in real time or do what Drew does – print out the recipe and session information, take notes, and input those later. (This saves your computer from meeting water/wort in a spectacular fashion.)
And because of Drew’s long years in the information technology (IT) world — there’s another cardinal rule of brewing software — back your stuff up. Throw it on a floppy disk (remember those?), CD, a spare drive, or the cloud. Make two backups – one onsite and one offsite. This is a lesson
hard learned. That my friends is why one of the most important functions in a piece of software is an export function. Even something as simple as “Save as Text” — can save your bacon.
All of those files — including the brew session files — get uploaded to the cloud automatically. There is nothing like knowing that stuff gets backed up and Drew will never lose another recipe — like his Summer Bloody Summer Citrus Red Ale that’s been lost to the ages!
No matter what kind of records you decide to keep or how you decide to keep them, the point is that knowledge is power. Start tracking more than just your recipe when you brew. Start with what you think you need, then add what you find out you need that you didn’t know you needed until you needed it! Next time you set out to brew, you’ll have data at your fingertips that can help you turn out the best beer you can brew.