If you are really thankful, what do you do? You share. With the giving season about to begin, the CBB crew took this short week off to enjoy time with our families and friends, but before we left we wanted to share our annual Thanksgiving homebrew special with our readership. In the spirit of both thanks and giving, we reached out to a few of our favorite craft breweries from around the country to get their advice on the ultimate homemade treat — homebrewed beer. California to Delaware, craft breweries like Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head and Gordon Biersch offered up excellent insights for homebrewers everywhere. We thank them all for taking time out of their busy holiday schedules to participate, and we wish everyone in the craft brewing world a happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday. Here we go…
Brew without fear
Mitch Steele, Brewmaster
Stone Brewing Co., Escondido, Calif.
The best piece of advice I can give a homebrewer is to “throw caution to the wind.” Don’t be timid about using ingredients or processes that on the surface appear to veer from tradition or convention. Some of the best beers in the world, including our own Arrogant Bastard Ale, started out as accidents or miscalculations on a homebrew scale, and several other of our successful beers use malt and hop varieties that don’t necessarily conform to style guidelines.
Brewing unconventionally doesn’t always work, and you won’t always be happy with the results, but the benefits are always great. You will learn something important no matter the result. When it does work, it’s a magical experience. Regardless, you will walk away with a lot more brewing knowledge than you had before you started.
That doesn’t mean it’s OK to ignore conventional styles. If you are a brewer, you’ll be in a much better position to take risks with your formulations and brewing procedures if you already have a solid grasp of beer styles and how to brew them. But to me, that’s a starting point, and I think the most successful brewers use classic styles as a launching point for creating new beers and styles.
The importance of racking
Jason Salas, head brewer
New Holland Brewing Co. (Holland, Mich.)
Racking of beer is often taken lightly. Every time you move your beer from one vessel to anther, you should always consider what effect it has on your beer. Ask yourself these questions: Do I need to rack my beer over? Does racking have a particular advantage or disadvantage to the style I am producing? How can I transfer this beer to another vessel with minimal negative impact? When transferring to another vessel you are potentially exposing your beer to a few things — potential contaminants on your equipment, oxygen and contaminants in the air.
Now I know “it’s just a homebrew,” but if you want to make the best beer you can, you have to treat it right from raw ingredients right on through to when you put it in your mouth. So what do you do? Inspect and thoroughly clean all your equipment. If it is starting to change color, or you can’t see through it, how do you know it’s clean? My advice, once your equipment starts to show wear, replace it with new. Purge your racking vessel with CO2. This will give your beer a good (or better) reduced O2 environment; in my mind, this is necessary in all IPAs. O2 will dull those hop characters faster than you think.
When you are racking out of a vessel into another, air is pulled into that vessel. I like to displace that air with CO2. So, as the vessel empties it has CO2 that goes in and not the air around me. I have no doubt that if you apply these techniques to your brewing, your finished beer will improve. Additionally, you do not always have to rack beer over. Think ahead and use kettle finings. Don’t over pitch. Add finishing finings like biofine to your fermenter and give it a little swirl to disperse it. The only time I rack over to another vessel is if my beer requires lengthy aging and I don’t want it to sit on a bunch of yeast that long.
Experiment and have fun
Ben Potts, brewer
Experimental brewhouse at Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats (Rehoboth Beach, Del.)
As a homebrewer-turned-pro, I think it’s important to remember that brewing is fun. All too often I talk to brewers who stress the minute details and, in doing so, lose sight of the true experience of making beer. Look at brewing as an art — sometimes mistakes and miscalculations can lead to unexpected and wonderful surprises, and sometimes not. Embrace the unknown. Remember, it’s only five gallons of beer, and you can always brew it again. There lies the beauty of making small batches. Experiment with new ingredients, play with different combinations and amounts, and most importantly … HAVE FUN. It’s just beer. In the words of Charlie Papazian: “Relax and have a homebrew.”
Refrigeration and yeasts
Dan Gordon, co-founder and director of brewing operations
Gordon Biersch Brewing Co. (San Jose, Calif.)
Most of the fun in homebrewing comes when you have more bells and whistles that enable you to brew precisely. I’ve found that temperature control is the largest void in homebrewing. I like to modify conventional refrigerators for fermentation and aging by removing the built-in thermostat and replacing it with one that has a narrower hysteresis (temperature variance for turning the compressor on and off). This modification enables you to have more controlled temperatures. It’s especially important when brewing lagers to lock that temperature in at 50 degrees F. From there, you want the capability to dial it down one degree per day during the aging process and hold. A solid 32 degrees is ideal. Most refrigerators can pull it off.
In talking to homebrewers over the years, it seems like the biggest challenge is getting healthy and fresh yeast. Unless you are trying to source an unusually rare yeast strain, I recommend hitting up a brewpub for some of theirs. Don’t be shy. Every brewpub has a surplus of yeast, and they brew frequently. You can always rest assured that the yeast at a commercial brewery is going to be more viable than reconstituting dry yeast and hoping for the best. You will get much better fermentations and attenuation than any other source.
Chris Andrus, co-owner
The Mitten Brewing Co. (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
Perhaps the most misunderstood and neglected aspect of homebrewing is water chemistry. Even with distilled/de-ionized water and brewing salts, you still may have problems getting your mash into the proper range. Consider using food-grade phosphoric acid to remove the buffers and bring your mash into the desired range. Using too much calcium salt to achieve this effect can lend an undesirable mineral flavor to your beer, whereas the phosphoric acid is concentrated and (mostly) flavor neutral. Be careful, though — a little goes a long way. Think eyedropper, not ounces.
Acidifying your sparge water is another great way to ensure that you won’t be adding harshness during the sparging process, where the low gravity of the final runnings caused the pH to rise and tannins to be extracted from the grain husk. Targeting a sparge water pH of 5.5-5.8 should prevent your final runnings from rising above the dreaded 6.0.
If you really want to take your homebrews to the next level, forget the pH strips and spring for a digital pH meter with ATC [automatic temperature compensation]. Just remember to add 0.3 to your measurement taken at mash temperature; i.e. if you are targeting a 5.4/5.5 pH mash, your mash should be measuring 5.1/5.2 pH at a mash temp of 150 F. Proper attention to sparge water and mash pH can go a long way toward eliminating astringency and harshness in your light-colored beers. Let the ingredients and flavors in your beer shine!
A few simple rules
Chris Riphenburg, head brewer
Ale Asylum, Madison, Wis.
Homebrewing can be the best of times and the worst of times. Every homebrewer has made at least one batch that was undrinkable. There are many factors that can contribute to that result. To avoid this result in the future, try following these few simple rules and procedures.
Pitch healthy viable yeast! You are not just brewing, but also yeast ranching. The happier they are, the better your beer will taste. Keep your equipment clean, clean and clean. Your fermenter should be scrubbed clean, rinsed, visually inspected and sanitized before every batch. Your wort chiller and hoses used for runoff also need to be cleaned and sanitized.
Use high-quality ingredients. Learn to use those ingredients by formulating recipes. Recipe formulation is a skill that is acquired by repetition, attention to detail and excellent recordkeeping. Homebrewing is a lot of fun, but we all know it’s a lot more fun when we can drink the fruits of our labor.
By following these rules and procedures, you will surely be able to just relax, not worry and have a homebrew.