By Chris Lindsey
The beer didn’t turn out the way you expected? Brewing beer above all is a process, and the process can impact the final beer product as much as the ingredients. Having a consistent and controlled process will help reign in variability in the homebrew. Then you can concentrate on improving your beer, without having to chase your tail figuring out why a certain batch went awry. Here are five important factors, in rough order of influence over the final product:
Yeast can add a lot of flavor and aroma to the beer during fermentation, which may or may not be desired. Be sure to add enough healthy yeast to the wort to ensure a good, complete fermentation. I almost always make a yeast starter a few days before I brew. This is a simple process to grow more yeast that will be fresh and ready to ferment your beer properly. Oxygenating the wort is important to so the yeast will grow more once it was been added to your wort. Temperature is also important, as discussed next.
More important for all-grain brewing while mashing, temperature is still important for all brewing because the fermentation is very temperature dependent. A fermentor sitting alone can have large temperature swings due to changes in room temperature, and the yeast produces heat during the first few vigorous days of fermentation. There are several strategies to keep the fermentor at the desired temperature. The easiest is a water bath – dunk the fermentor in a larger bucket, fill the larger bucket sides with water, and add ice if necessary (I use half-gallon milk jugs that can be refrozen). The most consistent but more complex plan is to convert a mini-fridge into a fermentation chamber using an external controller to operate the fridge.
Temperature measurement is important as well. Buy a thermometer that gives accurate readings over the full range of temperature that you’ll need – roughly 32 F to 212 F. I bought a digital thermometer with a thermocouple sensor that can take quick and accurate readings.
Since beer is process-heavy, a brewing recipe includes not only ingredients but how and when to add them. This can make developing and tweaking a recipe difficult due to all of the moving parts. There are several brewing software programs that do all of the heavy-lifting calculations. It makes recipe preparation so much easier and helps you verify that the finished product will be what you expect. Beer Smith and ProMash are good programs that sell for about $25-$30. There are a few free programs out there but they don’t offer the same features as the paid programs.
It’s good to know both the original (pre-fermentation) and final (post-fermentation) gravity. The original gravity tells you how well your process met the expectations of the recipe. The final gravity tells you how well the fermentation went. The most accurate measurement device is a hydrometer, but it needs a lot of cooled wort or beer to make a measurement. This isn’t practical when you’re boiling the wort. While brewing I use a refractometer, which can take gravity readings with only a single drop of wort, regardless of temperature.
On brew or bottling day you’re sure to have a small change of course. The original gravity came out too high or low, there’s more or less beer than you expect, you made a mistake, you change your mind, etc. A digital scale helps you measure out hops, priming sugar, and other ingredients accurately, which helps you make recipe adjustments on the fly. I have a simple digital scale that measures grams and ounces. Be sure to zero the scale right before weighing the ingredients!
Part 1: Why I Brew Beer
Part 2: 4 Common Questions
Part 3: Step-by-Step Guide To Getting Started
Part 4: Extract or All-Grain
Part 5: You are here. Awesome!
Part 6: Bottling or Kegging
Part 7: My Best Brewing Resources
Part 8: Beer Alternatives
Legal Stuff: Of course, we should remind everyone that our blog entries are for your information only and are not intended as medical advice. If you’re going to drink, do it legally and responsibly; don’t be stupid =).