Breaking Bad

                                                                                                          by Mike Retzlaff

Anyone who has brewed beer knows about or at least has heard of hot break and cold break.  Trub is produced by a number of wort constituents which coagulate as the wort comes to a boil and again when the boiled wort is chilled. There are all sorts of ideas about how to deal with both; some work well and others don’t.

One good indicator that you’ve had a good hot break is checking the boiling wort after the foam collapses.  Spoon out a bit of the wort from the kettle.  In a good hot break, you’ll see lots of little flakes in the wort – think egg drop soup.  That’s the clumping of albumins (globular proteins), free amino acids, unconverted starch, and fatty acids.  All of these contribute to chill haze and beer instability. 

I used to be plagued with boil-overs.  I used my long handled spoon to stir the foam back into the wort and that seemed to work.  Sometimes I couldn’t keep up with the foam and I’d have a boil-over anyway.  Then I got the bright idea of simply skimming the foam from the kettle to solve my hot break dilemma.  I subsequently noticed that my finished and conditioned beer wouldn’t raise a head when poured.  After a few batches, it dawned on me that whatever was in that foam was the same material that I had relied upon to raise that whipped cream head on my beers that I had taken so much pride in before. 

I started to use a mesh strainer to scoop the foam from the top to break it up while trying to push it back into the wort. It worked okay but constant attention was required.  At least breaking up the foam abated the vicious and messy boil-over problems.

At some point I started to use First Wort Hopping on some beers.  I lautered the mash run-off into the kettle directly onto a portion of the hops.  The kettle foam was now easily managed.  I fathomed that the early hopping dropped the pH of the wort sufficiently to inhibit the formation of foam.  Don’t use a mesh strainer if you use FWH.  The strainer works like a magnet to capture hop particles which is not good.  It’ll make a real mess and who knows how much of the hops are removed from the kettle?  Your final IBUs will be all over the place but certainly not what you calculated and intended.

Cold break contains pretty much the same components as hot break plus polyphenols (tannins) from the hops, and hop particles.  I use an immersion chiller coil (which is boiled in the kettle for the last 10 min.) and then hook my garden hose to it at flame out.  After the wort cools sufficiently, I bring over a plastic pail with ice and water.  In the bottom of the pail I have an aquarium pump.  I disconnect the garden hose and run the plastic discharge hose from the IC coil to the pump and simply reverse the water flow in the IC coil.  It all stays sanitized and the chill water recirculates into the ice water bucket.  You’ll get a better cold break the faster you chill the wort.  A counter-flow chiller usually provides a very good cold break.  I don’t have one but do fine without it.

Some brewers go the extra mile in sending only the most pristine wort to the fermenter.  I take a different approach.  There are a number of nutrients the yeast needs for a healthy fermentation in that murky stuff that’s normally separated from the wort before pitching.  I use the old German technique of a trub sack. Once I cool the wort, I line my old hop back with the trub sack and strain the wort into the fermenter. I know of some brewers who pitch yeast in the wort – hops, sludge and all.  They just deal with the dregs at a later date and their beer comes out just fine.  That’s the main thing, isn’t it?  Of course, these brewers are getting a good hot and cold break to begin with.

Once you realize how important hot and cold break is to beer brewing, you’ll adjust your methods to get the best break possible. Remember, little improvements here and there add up to a better glass of beer.

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