by Mike Retzlaff
There are a number of little things any brewer can do to improve his or her brewing. Most of these things require a little extra effort but home brewing takes a bit more effort than just buying beer at the store anyway. None of these techniques require expensive equipment or a brewing degree from U.C. Davis or the Seibel Institute.
The following thoughts illustrate some techniques you can use to make a marked difference in the beer you produce.
Adjust the pH of Your Water
Mash water almost always needs to be adjusted to suit a particular grain bill in order to assure complete conversion. Roasted grains will generally acidify a mash sufficiently but light colored grain bills won’t.
Sparge water needs to be adjusted as the act of sparging rinses the buffers along with the sugars from the mash and the pH will rise toward the end of the lauter. If that pH gets above about 5.9, the polyphenols (tannins) from the hulls will begin to leach into the wort and give you an astringent beer. The lower pH numbers help your finished beer attain the right acidity to keep it from tasting dull or “flabby”.
Refer to articles on pH, Astringency, and Water III on this site for a detailed explanation and specifics.
Use the Appropriate Mash Technique
When we decide on a particular style of beer we want to brew, most brewers default to the standard single infusion mash whether it suits the beer being brewed or not. Single infusion is what most of us started with, it seems to work, so why change now?
Crushed malt can be added to ambient temperature water and it will convert if given enough time. This is far too slow and the time element can easily lead to an unwanted organic infection. If a perfect environment is established including temperature, mash thickness, and pH, malted barley will convert in as little as 12 minutes. Most of us don’t have lab quality brewing conditions and equipment so we need to do things somewhere between the two extremes.
The major purpose of mashing is to degrade proteins, gums, and starches in the grain to produce a wort which will suit our purposes as brewers. Different beer styles require a wort of specific properties. Some beers are supposed to be thick, malty, and sustaining while others should be lighter bodied, crisp, and refreshing. The method of mashing you employ should be tailored to the kind of beer you produce.
The various mash regimens include single infusion, step infusion, step or program mashing, decoction mashing, and various combinations of these mash techniques. Pale Ales and Stouts do well with a single infusion especially with English Pale malt but many other beers usually do better with a mash focused on the enzymes.
No matter which mash technique you choose, consider mashing for longer than 60 minutes at conversion temp. An iodine test may indicate that conversion is complete but it usually isn’t. There are lots of different sugars in the mash and some need to degrade further to yield a balanced wort. An extra 30 to 60 minutes of mashing won’t destroy your brew day but will surprise you in producing a better wort and subsequently, a better beer. If you’re that pressed for time, go to the store and buy a six-pack.
First Wort Hopping
FWH is an easy technique to bolster hop character in a beer. Not all beers need this treatment but it is certainly something to keep in mind when designing a recipe. Refer to the FWH article for a full explanation and some techniques.
Proper Aeration of Boiled Wort
An article in BEERSMITH HOME-BREWING NEWS entitled “Aeration for Home Brewing” contains quite a bit of info and is well worth reading.
As explained in the article, wort boiling removes most of the dissolved oxygen. Yeast must have at least some oxygen in solution for the initial aerobic phase of fermentation. In very basic terms, yeast requires O2 at this point to replicate. Once the little yeast beasties are crowded shoulder to shoulder, they start eating the wort sugars in earnest. If you’ve ever had a ferment that slowed down or stalled, it is probably because if insufficient initial aeration.
The article goes on to explain your options in aerating the wort which include splashing, agitation, and injection. The injection can come in using an aquarium pump & filter or using pure O2; either with an air stone.
The Brewers Publications book “YEAST” confirms that the desired level of oxygen saturation is 8 – 10 ppm as was stated in the article. In a test conducted by White Labs, the following levels were achieved:
Shaking for 5 minutes 2.71 ppm
30 sec. pure O2 5.12 ppm
60 sec. pure O2 9.20 ppm
120 sec. pure O2 14.08 ppm
Their recommendation for the home brewer with a 5 gallon batch is 1 liter per minute of pure O2 for one minute through a 0.5 micron sintered air stone. Exceeding the recommended 8 – 10 ppm results in a somewhat quicker ferment for the first few days but the terminal gravity does not change. Under saturation of the wort results in a terminal gravity of a full degree Plato higher than properly aerated wort and it usually takes longer to get there.
Early on in my brewing, I started out with shaking and splashing the cooled wort. I upgraded to an aquarium pump & filter with an air stone. It definitely improved fermentation and the quality of the finished beer but I couldn’t seem to keep the air stone from clogging (yes, I boiled it before and after use to no avail.) At the Brew Offs I saw O2 injection in action and really liked the idea. Due to the generosity of a friend, I got an oxygen cylinder and regulator. I now use the White Labs recommendation of 1 liter of O2 per minute for 1 minute.
If you are interested in upgrading your equipment to include this technique, you might think about hitting a few yard sales. Somebody’s elder relative may have passed away recently and their O2 equipment may be there and gotten for a very reasonable price. All you need after that is an air stone on a wand and perhaps a change of plastic tubing.
Make a Yeast Starter
Smack packs are great but what if the yeast culture you want doesn’t come from Wyeast? What if that yeast has been stored in the fridge for a little longer than optimal? Just mixing a slurry of DME and yeast in a jar and giving it a shake once or twice a day may not provide a really healthy starter. I couldn’t imagine the difference that a stir plate starter can make until I got one for myself and put it to work. There’s a great article in the 9/2019 issue of the HopLine which guides you through the construction and use of a stir plate or you can buy one from a homebrew supply house. Even Amazon has a variety of models starting at under $40.
Control Ferment Temperature
I started out fermenting in the garage where Mother Nature had complete control over the temperature. That worked just fine for about 3 or 4 weeks of the year. I began fermenting in the house, moving the fermenter to a cooler or warmer place, but that wasn’t really ideal either.
I tried draping a wet towel over the carboy and used natural evaporation as my chilling device. It actually works if there isn’t much of a temp differential but, again, I had to use the coolest part of the house and keep the fermenter in a drip pan to avoid the anguish and expense of divorce.
The next step was to add a thermostat to an old refrigerator out in the garage. The fridge was only large enough to handle one fermenter at a time. When it finally crapped out, I was stuck trying to figure out my next move.
I built a SON OF FERMENTATION insulated box which utilizes a fan blowing air over jugs of ice. The fan is controlled by a thermostat. That worked just fine. My efforts with it can be found in the 9/2015 issue of the HopLine. I’ve still got it and it works fine. I’m limited to one fermenter at a time and I really can’t lager in it but it is much cheaper than building a refrigerated walk-in beer room.
I’ve got a small chest freezer equipped with an external thermostat. I use it to keep my kegged beer at temp and simply refuse to empty it out just to ferment a batch since the aforementioned ice box is still in play.
Consider removing the bobber and/or water from your air lock and capping it with a screen or piece of muslin. You can secure this with a rubber band. If using a plastic fermenter, simply put the lid on without snapping it in place. That will also simplify skimming during the hop drive. One of the features of the original Burton Union system is that it utilized open fermentation. In Eric Warner’s book, GERMAN WHEAT BEER, he stresses that German brewers get hundreds of generations of their yeast with no problems because of the open fermentation. When the same yeast is used under an air lock, the yeast will mutate after 5 to 10 generations. I think the science behind this is CO2 saturation. The tiny amount of extra pressure in the vessel because of the airlock is enough to maintain too much CO2 gas in solution. It apparently takes a toll on the health of the yeast causing it to mutate or lose vitality. Even if this explanation is incorrect, we can still perform the “monkey-see, monkey-do” routine until one of us can figure it out.
None of these techniques are novel or reflect some new breakthrough technology. Some are already part of many a brewer’s brew-day regimen. When we realize that there is always room for improvement and then act upon that idea, things tend to improve. Getting something for nothing is a rare occurrence but a little extra time may be all that’s required. The truly hard part is breaking from routine. Dare to take a single step out of your comfort zone to do something differently and you may be well rewarded!
I don’t suggest that you incorporate all of these ideas on your next brew-day but give them a try one by one and you’ll find that you have made a difference for the better in your brewing.