Specific specialty grains
There seems to be a lot of different specialty grains that folks add to their recipes for things like head retention, creaminess, mouthfeel, etc. Crystal, Carapils, Caravienne, Caramunich, Carafoam, flaked barley and the list goes on. Why are there so many and does one really stand out for you when you are brewing a beer?
I have enough years in my rearview mirror that claiming part of my anonymous past is probably OK. When I was in graduate school at the University of California, Davis, I was one of a handful of participants in a taste panel for a major magazine that rates products and publishes the reviews. Our task was to flavor profile a fairly wide range of beers available in the United States. The methodology used in this panel is called Quantitative Descriptive Analysis (QDA for short) and the objective is to evaluate a food product using an agreed upon lexicon of flavor descriptors using a point scale. For example, a descriptor for beer is “bitter” and in a QDA panel this descriptor is given a numerical value depending on its intensity. If you are wondering if we mixed up an answer and question, we didn’t. I’ll get to malt in a bit.
The QDA panel I was on had over 40 descriptors in our vocabulary. Over the course of several months we were presented nameless samples of beer to evaluate. The panel leader was Dr. Jean-Xavier “JX” Guinard. JX is a really cool guy from France who has a varied background in beer, food and wine research and wrote the Classic Beer Styles “Lambic” book for Brewers Publications. When I was entering Davis in 1991, JX was leaving for Penn State and later returned as I was completing my degree. Luckily for me and the other graduate students, JX left some of his experimental Lambics in the lab beer refrigerator (cold room) and we tasted some of these gems when time permitted. In any case, JX insisted on conducting this panel in a very rigid and non-biased way (which is the best way to conduct a sensory panel). We tasted the same beers randomly during the study and JX monitored the consistency of the panel; we were a very well-trained group of “expert” judges and our consistency was excellent.
This magazine wanted us to rank the beers in addition to simply describing them because descriptions do not sell magazines. JX was extremely hesitant to allow his expert panel to commit the ultimate sensory crime, which is intermingling a QDA (read “expert”) panel with a preference (read “consumer”) panel. At the end of the day, we were persuaded to wear both hats and I think we did a pretty good job at separating our dual roles.
Your question beckons me to walk that path once again, but age and experience has given me the wisdom not to take the bait! There are indeed many, many different malts available to brewers. And many of these malts have very similar (if not the same) names. Chocolate malt, black malt, wheat malt, crystal 60, and all of the names you listed in your question. Many beers also have the same names. Pale ale, stout, doppelbock, hefeweizen; just stick a brewery name in front of any of these styles and I am sure most homebrewers can create a list of at least 30 different beers. And all 30 of these beers are truly different beers brewed by different brewers with different ideas about what and why they do what they do. The selection of malt available to brewers is really no different than the selection of beers available to the beer consumer.
Part of my job includes going to annual brewing meetings that feature trade shows. I love walking around the tradeshow floor, checking out the various tools of the trade. Part of this journey includes chewing malt samples and reading the specs accompanying them. I evaluate the flavor, look at the size of the grain, read the specs that detail color, enzyme content, viscosity, protein content, degree of modification, etc. and imagine how the malt (or other grain) may fit into my ideas for future brews.
Walking into a grocery store offers the same abstract trip as walking a trade show floor. Look at the selection, read the labels, evaluate the firmness, color and overall appearance of the various ingredients and imagine how they could be married into dinner. Without a varied selection we would have limited variety in food. And the same is true with malt (and hop) selection in brewing. I do not have a favorite maltster or type of special malt. Rather I seek the malt that I believe, based upon available information, will serve my brewing needs.
I remember editing articles submitted by Horst Dornbusch for his style column and wondering about his recommendations about using Weyermann malt in just about any beer style. I figured since there are many great malts out on the market, why limit the recommendation to just one company? But on the other hand, Horst knew that he could get a certain color, aroma, taste or foam contribution from Weyermann malt and that was what he used in his brewing recipes. The same outcome would surely not be achieved by using malt produced from another maltster, such as Briess, Crisp, Great Western, Hugh Baird or Dingemans. Knowing ingredients, even if you have detailed knowledge of only a handful, is extremely important when selecting a particular grain to perform a certain task.
I know that I must bring this answer to a close for fear of standing on my soapbox for too long. The answer to your question “does one [malt] really stand out” above others is a resounding NO! It depends on what you wish to accomplish in the brewhouse. The malt requirements for Budweiser are most certainly different than those for Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel. I encourage all brewers to read recipes as a general guide. When it comes to malt selection, I certainly heed the advice of others but also follow my own path. If I read a recipe and envision a variation with a change in malts, I do not hesitate to make the alternation. What this process requires, however, is a working knowledge of the different malts on the market. And to reiterate one of my common themes, I offer my opinion that knowledge requires experimentation.
There is a really wide selection of malts on the market and the reason for this is that brewers require a great variety of great malts to brew a great variety of great beers. The only way to really know the best malt for your particular need is do your research by chewing, reading malting specs, trying different malts, reading about different malts and then using this body of knowledge (or speculation) to make a choice that hopefully makes your abstracted beer a reality. By the way, our panel selected Old Milwaukee as the best domestic lager and that beer has won more than a few medals at the Great American Beer Festival. I’m not sure what my point is, but I know that every expert opinion has an equally persuasive alternate opinion. Use the malt that makes your face smile and taste buds tingle!
Pale ale predicament
I am an avid homebrewer, and have been for about a decade, off and on. I’m quite confident that I have a pretty good grip on the fundamentals of brewing both ales and lagers, from extract to all-grain, even decoction mashing, which I do a lot. But I’m stuck at a dead end when it comes to brewing pale ales. I’ve had great success (here and there, anyway) with dark ales and lagers and even pale lagers, but I cannot make a decent pale ale to save my life. I have experimented with absolutely every conceivable parameter of recipe design; mash temperature, water chemistry, hopping level, yeast type, malt bill — you name it, I’ve tried it. Not only do I not get a decent beer, I get exactly the same result every time, which is a weird, citric, vaguely yeasty-tasting liquid which doesn’t really resemble pale ale at all. I’m at my wit’s end and have sworn off ever attempting to brew a pale ale again unless I can get some kind of expert advice on what I’m doing wrong. I’ve read every article, and even whole books, on the subject of brewing pale ales, that I can get my hands on, and I can’t seem to find any answers anywhere. You’re my last hope. Is there anything you can tell me which you think I might not know already that might help me brew a good pale ale?
Unfortunately I don’t have much information to digest from your question. All I know is that you have no luck brewing pale ales and I seem to be your last resort. The name of my column may imply that I am sort of psychic, but to be honest I am just an ordinary person . . . who happens to have a particularly simple view of brewing.
I feel compelled to use a little tough love here to help you with your problem. Either you are really, really unlucky when it comes to brewing pale ales, or the other beers you brew have not been as successful as you let on. Style aside, brewing styles that are expected to be clean and balanced, such as pale lagers, pale ales, dark lagers, etc, requires good brewing technique. Consistent and “proper” brewing techniques (whatever the heck that really means) are required to brew good beer, no matter the style.
I suggest having some homebrewing friends give critical feedback to a variety of your beers. It would help if you could present them in a blind fashion, mixed in with some other homebrews, to help eliminate bias. If you are a taster, you could recruit a non-taster to present the samples. Or you could solicit feedback by entering your beer into competitions. Personally, though, I have never been overly impressed with judges’ comments on competition sheets. A good tasting where flavors are discussed by the judges is usually more revealing; however that’s just my opinion.
There may be something in all of your beers that could be the culprit and it just happens to be more obvious to you in your pale ales. Pale ale is not a style that easily hides flaws. Some homebreweries, just like commercial breweries, have a “house character” common to all beers. If this house character is caused by a flaw in technique it can be eliminated by identifying the problem.
The techniques that I encourage all brewers to really focus their attention on are cleaning (and yes there is a technique associated with cleaning), wort aeration, pitching rate and fermentation temperature control. If you mash, you need to understand how mash thickness and temperature can be used to affect wort fermentability and of course how water chemistry affects enzymes and beer flavor. Whatever tact you choose to take, you should have a method that makes sense. In other words, everything you do should have a reason that you more-or-less understand. Mashing for two hours because that’s what the recipe said to do is not a very good reason in my book.
If you have good brewing technique then you should be able to execute the details of a recipe and brew beer like a technician. A good technician brewer can follow any recipe presented to them and follow the process through to its intended outcome. If a technician brewer starts off with a bad recipe and methodically follows its course the outcome is most likely going to be bad. I am going to assume that you are just using problem recipes. In all reality, most brewers are not perfect when it comes to technique and you should critically evaluate your methods and look for things that can be improved.
It’s pretty easy to spot a really lame recipe once you go through the brewing process and taste the disappointing outcome. A good technical brewer can confidently blame the recipe for a bad brew just like an excellent group of musicians can blame the notes of the score for a less than harmonious tune. The ideal approach is not to brew a beer according to a bad recipe and avoid the disappointment that surely will follow.
I try to compose recipes that have a decent chance of success (at least that’s what I tell myself). When coming up with a new recipe, I use past successes to help guide my new recipe. When in doubt, I subscribe to the “less is more” philosophy of brewing. I would much rather brew a beer that clearly lacks something. I believe it is easier to pick out what is missing from a beer than identifying flavors that need to be removed. If a flavor is missing I try to identify ways to add that component to the beer the next time I brew it. Simplistically, one can argue that if a beer is way too bitter, it’s pretty obvious that the flavor that needs to be partially removed is bitterness. But if you are brewing one of those “everything, but the kitchen sink” kind of recipes, the task of identifying what doesn’t belong is a bit more complex.
To me, pale ale is a style that is best approached with a very simple recipe. This opinion is true of both American and British-style pale ales. You do not need a laundry list of malts; usually pale malt, some crystal malt and the odd “toasty malt” for added flavor, or roasted malt for a touch of extra color is all you really need or want. In my opinion, more than three malts in a pale ale recipe is excessive unless you are fine-tuning a recipe and adding some missing flavor note.
Mashing should also be simple because the base malts used for pale ales usually require nothing more than a single-temperature infusion mash. Use a water-to-malt weight ratio somewhere in the neighborhood of 3:1 (0.36 gallons of water/pound malt or 3 liters/kg) and do not go crazy with adding Burton salts to your water unless you have a good reason for doing it. Remember that all pale ales are not brewed in the Burton style, one that is noted for its pronounced mineral palate, and that not all brewing water needs to be enhanced by adding minerals. If you don’t know much about your local water, I recommend using distilled or reverse osmosis treated water and adding minerals to create the water you want. I like to use a mix of calcium sulfate and calcium chloride and target around 100 ppm of calcium in my water.
The next major part of a pale ale recipe is the hopping schedule. When you say your pale ales have a “citric” flavor, two things come to mind. The first is a citrus-like aroma and the second is sourness. While sourness usually comes from acid production from bacteria, such as Lactobacillus, the citrus aroma usually comes from hops. And if you have enough of the hops to make the beer smell like citrus fruit, it can sometimes taste, at least in my opinion, that the beer has a lemonade-like zing.
The hops most commonly used in American-style pale ales are the “C” varieties. Cascade, Centennial, Columbus and Chinook, and all have this citrus-like aroma. Although these varieties, especially Cascade and Centennial, have become the signature aroma hop for the American style pale ale, they can be overbearing. Large mid-boil additions can add a flavor that is part bitter and part piney/citrus. Large late additions mainly add aroma and are responsible for the big, hoppy nose of many pale ales. There is no correct hopping schedule to follow, but I have found that using only two additions, one for bitterness and one for aroma, gets rid of a mid-palate, herbal, hop flavor that can be distracting in some hoppy ales. Try backing off on the hops if the recipes you have previously used have been aggressive in the hop department.
Finally there is yeast. If you are brewing American-style pale ales, use a nice, neutral yeast strain. My old standby when it comes to clean ale yeast is White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) or Wyeast 1056 (American Ale). I like to ferment this strain between 64 and 68 °F (18 and 20 °C) to produce very clean beers with minimal aroma from the yeast. If you are brewing British style pale ales you should use a different strain since a lot of the flavor in British ales results from the yeast strain. In my opinion, the American pale ales tend to be more malt and hop accented. British ale yeast strains used in pale ales, for example Wyeast 1968 (London ESB Ale) and White Labs WLP002 (English Ale), are much more flocculent than a strain like 1056 or WLP001. If you don’t allow these yeast strains to settle with time or use a fining aid like isinglass, you may have beers that are a bit yeasty.
These are the big recipe topics I would focus on. If you have sound brewing technique it may be just finding the right recipe to suit your taste. And if you buy into the “less is more” philosophy, seek out recipes that look simple and tweak them over time to come up with a house pale ale recipe that you are pleased to drink. Good luck!
Brew Your Own Technical Editor Ashton Lewis has been answering homebrew questions as his alter ego Mr. Wizard for the last 12 years. A selection of his Wizard columns have been collected in “The Homebrewer’s Answer Book,” just released, available online at brewyourownstore.com.