Setting the Record Straight

Joe came into the homebrew shop with a bottle of his latest creation. “Tell me what I did wrong,” he said, while pouring two small samples. The sharp, mouth-puckering astringency suggested some sort of oversparge or possibly boiled specialty grains. With his lips still tingling the shopkeeper began trying to analyze his procedures.

“Was this an all-grain batch?” he asked, trying to narrow the possibilities.

“Well, lessee, I have been brewing an awful lot lately, and I think it was…no wait a minute, it might have been…doggone it, when did I make this?” replied Joe, staring at the bottle, struggling to recall the details of this batch of beer brewed many weeks before.

Whether you brew with malt extract, partial mash, or all-grain, good record keeping is one of the most important tools available to help improve your brewing. It can help any brewer avoid the mistakes of the past while at the same time allowing him to repeat and improve on previous successes. By recording the variables associated with brewing a batch of homebrew, you can look back while tasting the finished beer and decide what to change and modify to help improve the profile of future brews.

To accomplish this effectively you need to measure and record the important variables in a manner that allows you to easily and quickly refer back to the information you need. The two most important decisions to make when putting together a record-keeping system are what pieces of information you need to record and the form in which you will record this information.

The Structure of Record Keeping

Brewing is a fun hobby, and if you overburden yourself with paperwork or long forms to fill out, it can put a damper on the activity. In addition, if the system of keeping records is not easy, the tendency of most people is to skip it or do a poor job. These incomplete records turn out to be of little value or even useless when they’re needed for a future brew.

When deciding on a method of record keeping, choose one that is easy and suits your personality. As a rule, most brewers fall into two distinct categories with record keeping: The Technician and The Artist. Each of these methods records the same basic information but in a different way. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages.

The Technician relies on a fill-in-the-blanks method of record keeping, usually centered on some type of form. One of the advantages of this method is that the blanks are always there, waiting to be filled in. During a frantic brew the brewer is less likely to forget to record some piece of information than he would be with a more free-form system. By referring to the blank brewing record, it is easy to see at a glance what information has been recorded and what still needs to be.

Many brewing texts and periodicals have examples of these kinds of brewing logs. The information recorded tends to be numerical and quantifiable data. The disadvantage is that many brewers find that filling in the blanks on a brewing record, no matter how accurate, has all of the romance and fun of filling out an IRS form. This quickly throws a damper on an otherwise fun brewing session. Also, while numerical data can draw a clear picture of what takes place with a particular brew, some brewers have a hard time quickly and easily interpreting numbers as opposed to understanding a narrative description.

The Artist, on the other hand, tends to record information in more of a narrative style, jotting down notes during the brew. The big danger with this method is that during the course of a brewing session a valuable piece of information can be overlooked and not recorded. The information recorded tends to be more descriptive in nature, for example “light gold in color” as opposed to “SRM = 6.” While this type of information is more subjective in nature, it is usually easier and quicker for most people to understand.

Which method is best? Truth­fully, it depends entirely upon the individual brewer. The easier and more comfortable a system is to use, the more likely that all of the data will be recorded accurately and will be useful for future reference. Many homebrewing records are actually a personalized blend of the two styles, with much of the information recorded in a format or table accompanied by some descriptive narrative. The important thing is to find a system that works for you.

What Should You Record?

Your brewing records should include three basic types of information: the materials used in the recipe, the brewing methods and procedures, and the results. Keep in mind your own brewing situation; if you are primarily brewing with kits or malt extract, much of the data that is important to an all-grain brewer is useless to you.

The simpler the process of record keeping is, the more likely it will be done accurately every time. The materials used in a recipe are fairly straightforward. Regard­less of the type of beer you are making, you need to know the batch size as well as the amount and source of the water used to brew. For a malt extract batch, you need to know the type and amount of each of the malt extracts used. If you used any specialty grains, record the type and amount used as well.

For all-grain brews record the types and amounts of the various pale malts and specialty grains used, along with any adjuncts. Water volumes and temperatures for mash-in and sparge need to be noted, along with any acids or minerals used for water treatment.

Whether you’re brewing extract or all-grain, record the amount of hops used, their variety, the type (leaf or pellet), and the alpha-acid value. With yeast you should know the type or culture, the amount pitched, and the age or number of times the culture has been reused. Any other ingredients that are used should be recorded as well, for example yeast nutrients; clarifiers such as Irish moss or gelatin; and flavoring agents such as fruit, spices, or flavoring extracts. Don’t forget to list any priming sugar or malt extract used at bottling time.

The greatest care must be taken in recording brewing methods. The single biggest variable in the brewing process is the brewer, which becomes evident when several different homebrewers try to brew an identical beer while using their own equipment and procedures.

The result of these types of experiments is usually a wide variety of beers that all share several common characteristics but differ significantly as well.

Individual brewers tend to do things just a little bit differently, which is why some of the most valuable information you can record centers not on the materials you use to brew a batch of beer but the methods you use when brewing it.

The malt extract brewer should record such variables as amount of water boiled, top-up water used, and boil times. If specialty grains were incorporated, were they crushed or left whole? What were the time and temperature of the steeping?

For all-grain and partial-mash brewers the amount of information needed becomes more substantial. Amount of water and temperature used in the mash, strike temperature, and the period of time and temperature for each of the mash rests should be noted. Decoction times and amounts must be listed for decoction mashes. Advanced brewers may also want to record the pH of the strike water, mash, and sparge water as well.

Regardless of brewing style, the amounts and times of the various hop additions need to be recorded, preferably incorporating any of the many formulas available for calculating hop bitterness. Simply recording the variety and amount of hops used does not take into account the seasonal variations in a given hop variety. If this year’s crop of Northern Brewer is averaging 5.8 percent alpha acid and next year’s crop comes in at 7.8 percent, you will end up with two dramatically different beers if only quantity is taken into consideration with no thought given to bitterness.

Specific gravity, regardless of brewing style, provides the yardstick to measure brewing efficiency. By recording hydrometer readings not only do you know if you have matched your previous efficiency, you also know what to expect in terms of the finished beer, including if it’s done and if your yeast has performed to expectations.

Fermentation times and temperatures have a strong bearing on the flavor of the finished product.

By recording the length of time and temperature of the fermentation, along with any transfers, you can chart the performance of your yeast to know if it has performed as expected. Is there an unusual fruity character in your Munich helles? If your records indicate that the yeast was pitched at 75° F and the fermentation was at 71° F, you may have found the reason.

Without a record of the results, looking back on your previous recipes lacks the single most important piece of information from the most valuable test instrument that every brewer has — your own taste buds. Does the beer taste good? Why? What do you like about the beer, and what would you change next time? How old was the beer at the time of tasting? Did you enter the beer in any competitions, and what did the judges say about it?

Every recipe should contain tasting notes, written down at various stages in the life of the beer. Homebrew is a living environment, and even while the finished beer is in the bottle it will continue to change in flavor and character over time. Don’t forget to identify your finished bottles of homebrew with some type of mark, such as a label or a designation on the cap, so that you can identify what beer it is and relate it back to your records.

The Computerized Record

Many computer programs tailored specifically to homebrewing are available for both IBM-based and Macintosh computers. Most of these programs provide an easy, consistent method for recording data. The advantage of these programs is that not only do they provide a convenient way to record a batch of homebrew, many times they are set up to perform the routine and laborious calculations such as hop bitterness and potential specific gravity automatically, eliminating a source of human error in recipe formulations.

Some programs use the infor­mation you provide about ingredients to create an approximate profile of the finished brew, including variables such as gravity, alcohol content, color, and bitterness, without ever dirtying a brewpot or fermenter. Advanced programs automatically provide suggestions on modifications to the ingredients to match the style of beer being brewed.

Setting the Record Straight

Much like homebrewing itself, when it comes to keeping good records there is no single right way to do it. As long as all of the pertinent information is being recorded in an accurate, straightforward manner that can be read and understood later, then improvements to your home­brewing are sure to follow. Typically, the types of information a homebrewer considers important or necessary change as he develops and grows within the hobby, so do not be afraid to experiment or modify.

The log sheets from your first dozen batches may be rudimentary compared with the notes that you keep later on, yet they will allow you to grow and advance. Most important, don’t let record keeping get in the way of having fun. Brewing shouldn’t be work; good records should be a reflection of the fun you had brewing that batch of homebrew.

Issue: November 1998