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Debating Homebrew Hot Topics

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There are multiple ways to do things and often there is not a simple “right” and “wrong” way when homebrewing. To illustrate the point, we picked four topics that are often argued about on message boards and social media and asked the experts to weigh in with what they do.

Wort Chilling

Chill Immediately (By Josh Weikert)

There are a lot of brewers that swear by a method whereby they let their wort chill slowly and naturally, sometimes over a day or more, before pitching their yeast. There are people who swear they can avoid injury by running a marathon barefoot, too. I’m not saying either one is wrong: But I am saying that just because something can be discarded doesn’t mean it should be discarded. Chilling immediately at the end of the boil/whirlpool has benefits beyond reducing off-flavors or haze. It also reduces uncertainty in the presentation of hops flavor and aroma, makes for a consistent process that removes one more variable, and adds a degree of finality.

Among the reported benefits of prompt chilling, often cited by defenders of the practice, are the following: Reduced dimethyl sulfide (DMS), formation of cold break leading to clearer beer and less protein haze, and limitation of the growth of undesirable microflora, among others. I will gladly concede that these effects are either debatable or can be accomplished even with a no-chill technique, when properly applied and with the appropriate equipment. But the benefits hardly end there. One of the most important is that it removes guesswork from your beer’s hop profile. A long (and, by nature, highly variable) cooling period means that you will need to make some adjustment to your hops usage to preserve hop flavor and aroma. While utilization and isomerization slow dramatically once beer is below boiling temperatures, they don’t stop completely. This means that, best case scenario, you’ll have an uncertain presentation of hop flavors in your beer. “So what?” you might ask, “There’s always variability in hops.” OK, maybe — but then let me also say that with that added degree of late heating there may well be hops flavors that are unrepeatable with a no-chill method, particularly from flame-out or whirlpool hopping. Your wort is still “working” on those oils and acids as it cools.

There’s also the question of process variability. My post-boil sequence is basically the same for every single batch. No-chill will almost always result in a variable total cooling time owing to room temperature differences; you’ll also have variable pitching conditions since you may not always be able to give the wort the same cooling period.

Then there’s the virtue of just being done. I finish my boil, gravity-feed through the plate chiller, aerate, pitch yeast, and slap that carboy cap on. It’s stable, consistent, and might even help me avoid DMS and re-infection. No-chill, on the other hand, makes a long brewing process longer, introduces yet another recipe adjustment/decision, and might provide opportunities for blown or flawed batches.

Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

Wait on Chilling (By Michael Dawson)

Actively cooling wort as soon as the boil is finished — whether via cold water bath, heat exchanger, ice, or what have you — is regarded as best practice. There are certainly good reasons to minimize the amount of time the wort spends between boiling and yeast pitching temperature as Josh has explained.

But a rule isn’t a rule unless it has some exceptions, and the below are some scenarios where it may not be necessary, or even advantageous, to hook up the chiller the second the boil is shut down.

You’re conducting a hopstand. For very hop-forward styles, adding aroma varieties after the boil ends but while the wort is still hot can give a boost to hop flavor and aroma in the finished beer. Steeping hops in 180–200 °F (82–93 °C) wort for somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 60 minutes can help extract volatile hop oils without the loss of those same oils that occurs in a rolling boil. This technique is called a hopstand, or whirlpool hopping, and can also come through with some isomerization if you’re still looking for some bitterness contribution out of your late hop charges.

You’re conducting a spontaneous fermentation. Uninoculated wort at a temperature below approximately 180 °F (82 °C) is a great medium for all kinds of microbes to colonize. This is definitely something to avoid if you’re brewing a “clean” ale or lager with a pure lab culture, but for brewers trying to inoculate with native yeast and bacteria, capturing a mixture of microbes in the wort is the entire point. Plus, any haze arising from a poor cold break is usually not an aesthetic or organoleptic concern for these types of beers.

You’re trying to conserve water (or your time). “No chill” brewing is a technique where the hot wort is run from the boiler into a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or stainless vessel, sealed up, and allowed to come down to yeast-pitching temperature on its own over the course of hours (or even days, depending on ambient temperatures). Apocryphally, this technique arose in drought-prone western Australia; the “seal it and forget it” nature is a handy way to shorten a brew day, too. Anecdotally, I’ve had fine results with this technique as long as . . .

You’re using a malt low in DMS precursors. You probably wouldn’t want to try the no-chill method when brewing a pale lager with a lightly-modified continental Pilsner malt, but a more highly-kilned malt (for example, a British pale ale malt) won’t have as much in the way of S-Methyl Methionine (SMM) or other DMS precursors to creamed cornify your final product. Patagonia Malt of Chile produces an extra pale malt that is kilned specifically to remove DMS precursors, which would give a no-chill homebrewer the best shot of staying below DMS flavor threshold.

Decoction Mashing

Decoctions Aren’t Magic, But They Work (By Gordon Strong)

I just love it when people tell me that decoctions don’t do anything, or that they actually cause problems. I just wonder if people making these statements are doing the processes correctly, or don’t have adequate sensory experience, or have too high expectations on what decoctions actually do. Simply looking at the color changes from decoction should show that it’s not doing nothing.

So let me bring in credible references. The standard German brewing textbook, Technology Brewing and Malting by Wolfgang Kunze, lists many effects that decoction mashing produces, such as less protein breakdown, more extensive gelatinization and liquefaction of starches, increased melanoidin formation, increased removal of dimethyl sulfide (DMS), and higher brewhouse yield. Most commercial German breweries have moved away from these techniques due to economic factors and the availability of more completely modified malt.But the same is not true for Czech brewers, who insist that decoction mashing provides an important part of the character of Czech beer. Again, I have a reference – Technological Aspects of Infusion and Decoction Mashing by J. Enge, et al. They found that Czech brewers use decoction mashing to improve beer quality (drinkability, body, smoothness, character), improve brewhouse yield, develop more melanoidins and polyphenols that improve beer stability, and more completely remove volatile compounds.

So why have Czechs stayed with the process? I think it’s due more to the character of the beer they produce, but also their choice of double and triple decoctions vs. single decoctions. The Czech study found that there was little difference in flavor impact between single decoctions and infusion mashes, but a more significant (and better) result from the more intensive processes.

I have personally found more pronounced effects with wheat beers and darker beers than pale beers, and with the more intensive treatments. I think decoctions contribute a better mouthfeel for wheat beers, but I normally use double decoctions. Same with darker beers. But a decoction will not make Munich malt taste like dark Munich malt or turn a helles into a doppelbock.

I typically use 10–15 minute decoction boils for pale beers, and 20–30 minute boils for darker beers. Those boils are vigorous as well, with plenty of stirring to avoid scorching. I avoid prolonged rests in the protein rest range (122–131 °F/50–55 °C) unless I have starchy adjuncts present since this can impact body and head retention negatively.

Yes, decoctions are more work and take more time, but buying beer in a store is less work than brewing it too.

Decoction Results Don’t Match the Lore (By Denny Conn)

Whether it’s because it’s a historical technique or based on the belief that more work makes better beer, decoction mashing is one of those things that has a long history of lore. But does it really make for better beer?

Decoction mashing originally came about back in the “bad old days” of undermodified malt. In order to get decent conversion, you had to go through a step mashing regimen. Brewers found that by pulling a measured amount of the mash and boiling it they could hit step temperatures. Also, boiling the grain burst it open, which aided conversion. Somewhere along the way, this laborious process got equated to making better beer.

These days, our malts are highly modified and therefore there is no technical need to do a decoction mash. But brewers still do them. Do they make a difference in beer flavor?

In about 2002, I wondered if the effort of decoction mashing was actually improving my beer so I put together an experiment. Five beers were brewed (two by me, the others by other brewers) in both an infused and decocted version. There were no restraints placed on the brewers in terms of the number of decoctions they did. The purpose was to see what normal homebrewers did and how it affected the beer. Both single and double decoctions were done with boil times as long as 60 minutes. Each brewer put together a blind tasting panel to assess the results. The results were varied. Most tasters found the decocted beers maltier, but most also found the infused beers had more body, which is contrary to one of the often cited advantages of decoction. More surprisingly, most tasters identified the infused beers as the decocted beers! When it came to preference, more people preferred the decocted beers, however the number of people who preferred the infused beer or had no preference was greater than the number who preferred the decocted beer. Decoction did not make a beer that tasters preferred! You can see some of the experiment at http://bit.ly/2iSt1OM beginning on page 25 of the PDF. Brülosphy did a similar experiment years later with similar results (http://bit.ly/2k4ZhAi).

So we have some pretty good evidence doing a decoction mash won’t necessarily make a beer that you or others prefer to drink. It may make a difference in the beer, or it may not, and that difference may or may not be something you prefer. The point here is that decoction mashing is not a “magic bullet” to making better beer. But I’m not telling you not to do a decoction mash. If you have the time and energy, it can be an interesting brew day. But when you taste the beer, make sure you’re not “tasting” the effort that went into making it. Despite my skepticism about decoctions, I still do one every once in a while to see if I’ve missed something. So far, I haven’t.

Dry Hopping

Dry Hopping is Not My First Choice (By Gordon Strong)

Dry hopping is probably the most common post-boil brewing technique used by brewers. Done correctly, it can add additional hop aroma with a very fresh quality, and might add to the perception of body. However, if done incorrectly, it can introduce harsh, grassy, or vegetal notes.

There are many variables in dry hopping, such as hop form (whole, pellets, fresh), contact time, temperature, number of additions, and method of adding them. Certainly issues with using hops on the cold side can be overcome, but mostly I think of the effort involved and the risk of introducing oxygen, which can produce any number of staling effects and off-flavors. Since the presence of yeast can coat the hops and absorb some of the character, dry hopping works best once the beer has been transferred. Unless the dry hopping is done in a serving vessel, that implies another transfer must be done with the finished beer. Each transfer adds to the risk of oxygen uptake. How many brewers actually take the time to remove oxygen from the hops and containers in use? Or do they just open the top of a carboy and toss them in?

OK, so if I don’t dry hop, what other methods do I use? Primarily hop bursting and whirlpool hopping (hop stands). Shifting more of the hops to the last 15–20 minutes of the boil increases the late hop character while restraining the bitterness. Adding hops during the whirlpool limits the degree to which volatile hop oils are driven off and also reduces bitterness extraction. If you wait for the beer to drop below 180 °F (82 °C) but still above 140 °F (60 °C), you get very little bitterness from the hop addition but still get the sanitizing effect of heat on any bacteria introduced and remove that raw character of the hops.

I actually think some of the best hop character in beers I’ve produced is using a combination of these methods (hop bursting, whirlpool, dry hopping). So dry hopping does have a use, but I find myself using more of the hot-side techniques first and then only dry hopping if I think the finished beer needs a slight tune-up. My opinion might change if I had a good year-round supply of very fresh hops to use, but I don’t. Like cooking with fresh produce in season, I reserve dry hopping for when I have super fresh hops and want a beer to showcase them. I also might use dry hopping a few days before serving a keg of beer at a party when I know it will all be consumed, which helps limit the impact of oxygen on the beer.

As you can see, I’m not totally down on dry hopping, but I think it needs to be managed carefully and used in situations where the negatives won’t outweigh the positives.

Dry Hopping Contributions Cannot be Matched (By Denny Conn)

Dry hopping a beer is a time honored way to get a massive blast of hop aroma and a good bit of hop flavor into a beer. Although there’s no way of knowing when dry hopping was first done, suffice it to say that it’s been around for a long time. And with good reason . . . it works!

In the last few years there have been a number of other techniques developed that are touted to produce the same, or better, results as dry hopping. Massive late hop additions, whirlpool additions, hop teas and tinctures . . . all were said to be equivalent or (usually) better than dry hopping. And while all of these techniques have something to offer (well, maybe except hop teas, but that’s another debate!) they all miss one thing — they don’t offer the same result as dry hopping!

One of the big bugaboos that have popped up in the last few years is the downside of introducing oxygen to your beer once it’s finished. People have taken to using techniques to minimize oxygen pickup once fermentation has subsided. Now, we all know that oxygen is the enemy of beer but some of the methods of combatting it have become overblown to the point of being arcane. I know brewers who dry hop during active fermentation so the fermentation will drive off any oxygen introduced by the hops. True, it does that, but at the expense of biotransformation that totally changes the aroma and flavor of the hops. The result from this procedure is nothing like the result I get from dry hopping. Whirlpool hop additions are great for hop flavor, but I find the aroma you get from them is muted in comparison to dry hopping. They just don’t give me the pop of hop aroma that I’m looking for. Same for the additions at the very end of the boil — it’s a totally different sensation than dry hopping. So for me, the biggest reason I continue traditional dry hopping is that it produces results I can’t get from any other method.

I’ve never actually measured how much oxygen is introduced with dry hops. But based on my experience of brewing and tasting hundreds of dry hopped beers, I have yet to see it be a problem at the homebrew level. I feel like this is one of those worries that’s more theoretical than real, and may be more rooted in commercial brewing than homebrewing.

So, yes, there are some valid techniques out there that people use as an alternative to dry hopping. But the bottom line is that none of them give you the same results as dry hopping. I whirlpool hop, I hop burst, I late hop, I first wort hop; but I still put dry hops into every batch of American pale ale or American IPA I make and will continue to do so. I can’t find a downside and I love the way the beer turns out. And after all, isn’t that why we all brew?

Pumpkin Beers

Pumpkin & Spice (By Josh Weikert)

It’s pretty rare that you’ll hear someone argue that canned anything is better than a freshly prepared version of the same thing — which is why I can’t envision making pumpkin beer using canned pumpkin. Using fresh pumpkin (properly prepped) yields outstanding results, but more importantly it gives us control over our ingredients, which is one of the best things about homebrewing in the first place. Why trust the guy or gal at the pumpkin processing plant? And finish that thing off right: Rarely are pumpkin beers made exclusively with pumpkin. Typically, we’re also adding spices, and given the weight-to-impact ratio of spices in beer, I argue it’s best to add them last and to taste rather than trying to predict the “right” level of spicing by adding them before the beer is properly finished.

First, the pumpkin. The amount you use is going to depend on your base beer. Mine is a northern English brown ale, so being a medium-strength amber ale this amount is probably just about average — if you’re making a bigger/roastier beer, go higher, and if a lighter/paler beer, maybe go lower (there’s not much risk of “overpowering” the beer with pumpkin, so even if you’re starting with a pale lager I’d still probably stick with this weight). I take a medium-sized pumpkin or squash (6–8 pounds/2.7–3.6 kg total weight), de-seed it, and then cut it into two-inch cubes.

Pre-heat your oven to 350 °F (177 °C), and arrange the pumpkin pieces rind-down on a cookie sheet. At this point I usually dust them with a little brown sugar. Again, let your base style guide you: The more-intense it is, the more you might be inclined to pre-sugar the pumpkin before roasting to increase the perception of pumpkin flavor. Roast on the center rack for about three hours, or until the tops are browned/caramelized and the pieces are a bit shriveled, then remove and let them cool to room temperature (overnight is fine).

I add my pieces directly to the mash, with no ill effects. If, however, you notice that you end up with a stuck lauter or sparge, in the future you can add them in a mesh bag. For those who don’t brew all-grain, you can steep them just like you would your specialty grains, then remove and drain. The end result should be a noticeable, natural pumpkin/squash flavor that permeates the beer and adds a bit of body.

As for spicing, don’t be in any rush. When I’ve added spices in the boil, it has always been difficult to predict just what they’ll add to the flavor, and to what degree. Cut out the uncertainty by adding them post-fermentation. At that point you’ll have a good sense of the beer’s flavor profile, and you can season your beer just like you would your favorite meal. Spice to taste at the end of fermentation and before carbonation, and get exactly the beer you want.

Don’t Bother with Pumpkins in Pumpkin Beer (By Dave Green)

Pumpkin beer purists will argue the necessity of adding pumpkin to their pumpkin beers. But I say don’t waste your time on the process. And if you are really gung-ho to add pumpkins, then I say skip all the effort of carving, deseeding, and roasting. Canned pumpkin puree is going to provide the same characteristics as whole pumpkins with a mere fraction of the effort.

First off, I will argue not to bother with pumpkins in the first place. Pumpkins are fairly flavorless and really the only thing they will add to the final product is some beta-carotenes and bit of body. In that regard, why not just julienne some carrots and add those or sweet potatoes? At least you won’t be watering down your beer so much. After all, pumpkins are only 3% sugar by weight. At least carrots are 5% sugar by weight while sweet potatoes are 4.5%. By comparison, a mash is typically around 20–25% sugar by weight before beginning the lauter phase and post-boil beer with a specific gravity (SG) of 1.055 means it is about 13.5% sugar by weight.

As for the roasting process, I again say, don’t bother. There is definitely a reason to do this if you were adding the pumpkins to a dish for eating, like a salad let’s say. But when you are adding it to a beer recipe, there are so many other ingredients that can provide nearly identical flavors: Roasted crystal malts, melanoidin malts, honey malt, biscuit malts, brown malt, etc. These are just a few malts in a brewer’s quiver that can be used in a pumpkin beer to provide a nice, toasted, caramel-flavored base to your pumpkin beer. And if you are not going to add pumpkins, then be sure to add something to build the body that might otherwise be added from the pumpkins. Flaked barley or wheat are both good options.

Spicing and grain bill: This to me is the place to make your mark in a pumpkin beer. If you want to get complex, make it here. Have fun, get creative with both crystal and non-crystal toasted grains. There are a lot of spices that in subtle amounts can add a lot to a pumpkin beer. Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, cardamom, allspice, raw sugars, or a touch of molasses or treacle. You have to think like a chef, but be sure to always follow the mantra of “you can always add more later.” There is nothing worse than going overboard early in spices.

I have gone through the process of carving, deseeding, cubing, roasting, and mashing pumpkins before, and for all that work there were negligible gains. To me, it is similar to the decoction mashing argument; for those that have the time and the gumption to do it, then go for it. But time and again it has been shown not to be necessary in my own brewing (sorry, Gordon). So my recommendation is to take the KISS approach (Keep It Simple Stupid) when it comes to pumpkin beers.