What I Wish I Had Known as a Homebrewer: Tips from the Pros

Brewer: John Maier of Rogue Ales in Newport, Oregon

Use a Hopback. If there is one piece of equipment that I
really wish I had used as a homebrewer, I would have to say it is the hopback.
This is a device used after the boil. We have a stainless-steel screen with a
bunch of small holes — big enough to let the wort flow through, but not the
hops. Homebrewers could fashion something of similar design, maybe out of a
bucket top or perhaps a stainless-steel screen fashioned to fit inside a bucket
or a pot. A hopback allows you to get an excellent aroma from the hops without
losing some of the aroma characteristics, which might happen if you added the
hops at the end of the boil. The longer the hops are in contact with the
near-boiling wort,  the more aroma
is lost. The hopback makes the contact fast and the loss of aroma minimal. It
adds tremendously to the brew.

Go Low-Co. I used to use some of the more standard
dry-hopping hops like Chinook and Cascade, but I’ve found that the better
finishing hops are low-cohumulone hops. Cohumulone varies between 20% and 65%
of total alpha acids, depending on the variety. Some varieties, like Cascade, have
higher levels of around 40%. These higher levels of cohumulone impart a harsh
bitterness to the beer. Low-cohumulone hops are in the range of 17% to 25% and
impart more subtle flavors and aromas, and they add to head retention. I prefer
varieties like Horizon and Amarillo.

Mash Short.  I would  shorten the mash time and
only do single-temperature mashes. The way malts are modified these days, I
think homebrewers waste their time doing a step mash. We do everything single
temperature at Rogue, and 148° to 152° F is the best range. The rest time only
needs to be about 45 minutes. Lab tests show that conversion can be reached in
seven minutes, but I wouldn’t try that. You could try 30 minutes, too. I mean,
why extend the brew day?

Brewer: Mark Lupa of Tabernash/Left Hand Brewing in Denver, Colorado

Transfer with Utmost Care.  Transferring the beer is a critical step, and there are two
times when you need to be very attentive. The first is when the hot wort is
transferred to the lauter tun. It’s important to minimize oxygenation at this
stage, since it leads to off-flavors.

The second is the transfer of the hopped wort to the cooling
vessel. The goal is to get the wort down to fermentation temperature as quickly
as possible. You want to reduce the time that organisms other than yeast can
work on it. Once the temperature is below boiling, those bad organisms will
start going to work.

Monitor pH. I learned it’s important to monitor pH during
fermentation. This tells us how the yeast is managing. The pH drop is the first
effect the yeast has in the fermentation process. A rapid decline in pH in the
first days of fermentation is a good sign of healthy fermentation. The general
starting pH is between 5.2 to 5.5, then it should drop to between 4.4 and 4.6.
Anything below 4.2 means you might have some trouble with the beer. But if the
drop isn’t low enough, you will not have a complete fermentation. And if it’s
too slow, other organisms will have an impact.

Regulate Temps. The need for temperature regulation is often
ignored because of equipment limitations. The goal is to create the right
environment for yeast. If it’s too hot — above 60° F for most lagers and above
70° F for ales — you’ll get all kinds of by-products, like higher alcohols or
fusel alcohols, which can impart a solvent-like and rubbing-alcohol flavor and
aroma. If it’s too low — below 40° F for lagers and below 65° F for ales —
fermentation will be too slow. We regulate lagers at two levels. First we
ferment for three days around 50° F, then we drop for several more days between
42° to 44° F. This limits the diacetyl.

Brewer: Bob Davis of the Weyerbacher Brewing Company in Easton, Pennsylvania

Bob started working at the Weyerbacher brewery in
September 1991 and became head brewer in 1998. He brewed at home for about five
years before “going pro.”

Count Yeast Cells. Professional brewing forces you to learn
things you never even considered as a homebrewer. Yeast is one example. It’s
really easy to just grab a packet of yeast and throw it in the fermenter, and
then let the little guys do their work. But knowing cell counts and the
viability of your yeast is dreadfully important. Being able to do this requires
some basic biology and chemistry skills, a microscope with slides, and the
ability and patience to count the cells. As a general rule you want to check
the cell count throughout fermentation to make sure they are propagating well
and are viable, because this guarantees a good fermentation.

Make a Starter. This is helpful whether you count cells or
not. However, there are some general rules of thumb. First, a thick slurry
always trumps a packet of dry yeast. Second, an active, frothing starter always
trumps slurry, which may contain dead, mutated or tired cells.

Watch the Temps. It is often beyond the enthusiasm of most
hobbyists to strictly control their fermentation temperatures, but it can be
vitally important. Most homebrewers only pay attention to temperature if they
are lager brewers, but ale yeasts have preferred temperature ranges as well.
Certain ale yeasts give off wacky out-of-flavor-profile esters if permitted too
high a primary fermentation temperature, as is evidenced by certain Belgian
beers which are fermented in the 80s.

Ignore IBUs. If there is one thing I have learned, it is
that IBUs are not the gospel. They are absolutely impossible to duplicate
exactly, so there is no point in worrying about doing so. Why?  Because your kettle is different from Urquell’s, or Bass Brewery’s, or wherever. They more than likely get better
alpha-acid extraction than you could ever dream of with your home brewery.
You’ll never know the exact IBUs unless you send your beer to a lab for
analysis. Just make the best flavor, aroma, and (above all) the best beer you
possibly can, and don’t worry about trying to hit a target IBU.

Issue: September 2001