Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Brewing Water

               I think I’m somewhat in the minority with respect to the homebrewing community, but I believe that water chemistry is criminally under talked about.  After fermentation temperature control and yeast, I think it’s next in line to make killer beer.  And it’s gotten such a rap online that people are terrified of it.  This is partially because it’s an extremely  complex topic that very few people fully understand, but if you can get a few basic concepts down and don’t get bogged down in the technical and complicated side of it, it’s pretty simple to improve your beer.

                This isn’t meant to be an in depth analysis and explanation of water chemistry in brewing.  If you want that, I highly, highly recommend Water from John Palmer and Colin Kaminski, and a variety of forums including /r/homebrewing and HomeBrewTalk.  Brewing water is a topic that you can spend hours and days and weeks on and still not fully understand it.  I find it’s best to not get too bogged down in the science behind it and know just enough to get by.  This is more meant to be a quick reference guide for myself and a way to wrap my head around this complicated subject and hopefully other people will benefit as well.

                To me, water chemistry is about mash pH and a select few minerals which can accent crispness, hop character, malt character and overall quality.

                First things first you need the content of your water.  I asked my city for a water report and received mine back.  It looks like this:

                After a lot of reading, I found that all I need to know from this is calcium, magnesium, alkalinity, pH, sodium, chlorine and sulfate.  I don’t have some of those, so I assumed 0 when entering into my spreadsheet.  I use BrewCipher, which VikeMan on Beer Advocate made. It draws from a few other places to make a spreadsheet that I find easier and cleaner to use than anything else.  I’ve checked the water numbers against Bru’n Water and they are always essentially the same.

The things my spreadsheet needs to be inputted are Ca, Mg, Na, Cl, SO4, HCO3 and pH.  These are the things I worry about when I’m brewing and here’s a quick rundown of why.

Calcium (Brewing range 50-200 ppm)
Lowers pH, promotes clarity, flavor and stability.  Needed for alkaline water to drop pH.  Too much can inhibit yeast performance.  Flavor neutral, can reduce sour perception of magnesium.  Works in conjunction with magnesium to define your hardness (temporary can be boiled off, permanent cannot, this is a more in-depth subject than what I’m going into here)

Magnesium (Brewing range 0-40 ppm)
Similar to calcium, less effective in lowering pH.  Yeast nutrient.  Laxative in higher amounts (>125 ppm).

Sodium (Brewing range 0-100 ppm)
Lower levels generates a cleaner flavor in beer.  70-150 ppm rounds out flavors and accentuates sweetness of the malt, especially in conjunction with chloride.  High sodium and high sulfate can be harsh/sour/bitter.

Chloride (Brewing range 0-200 ppm)
Accentuates malt sweetness and fullness.  >250 ppm can be salty, >300 ppm can affect yeast health/fermentation.  Can be minerally or salty when combined with sulfate or sodium in high amounts.

Sulfate (Brewing range 0-400 ppm)
Accentuates hop bitterness (drier and more crisp).  >400 ppm can make the bitterness astringent and unpleasant.  Can be added but not readily removed.

Bicarbonate sort of aka alkalinity (Brewing range 0-?? ppm)
Has the biggest impact on mash pH.  Basically, higher alkalinity means you have to add more stuff to lower the pH into range.  You could read for hours on this subject (and you should), but for now, I’ll stop.

                One of the main reasons we care about these ions is because of mash pH.  Why do we care about mash pH?  Let’s let explain
“A commonly accepted optimal range for mash pH is 5.2 - 5.7 with 5.5 being optimal for starch conversion activity but many authors report wort and beer quality benefits if the pH is lowered into the 5.2 - 5.4 range [Kunze, 2007][Narziss, 2005]. Kunze in particular lists the following benefits for a mash pH as low as 5.2. Since it is a good and fairly comprehensive list I cited it here. Some of these benefits listed will be explained in the following sections [Kunze, 2007]:
  •   The enzymatic activity in the mash is increased as all important enzymes get activated. (except for alpha amylase which starts to suffer at a pH below 5.6)
  •   The extract yield (efficiency) is improved
  •   The protein coagulation and precipitation is improved (improved break formation)
  •   The run-off speed is improved
  •   The color increase during the wort boil is reduced
  •   Better trub precipitation and faster pH drop lead to faster fermentation and greater attenuation of the beer.
  •   The taste of the beer is more rounded, fuller and softer. The beer is crisper, more fresh and shows more character.
  •   The hop bitterness is more pleasant and doesn't linger
  •   The foam is more stable and denser
  •   The color of the beer is lighter
  •   Mash oxidation is reduced since the main culprit, the lipoxigenase enzyme, doesn't work well at low mash pH conditions
  •   Haze stability is improved
  •   Susceptibility to microbial spoilage is reduced through lower beer pH beer spoilage organism don't grow below a pH of 4.4
  •   Higher attenuation

                Convinced yet that brewing water/mineral additions needs to be focused on more?  Since I’ve paid attention to my mash pH and gotten it into the 5.3 range, my beer has been lighter in color and crisper than ever before.  It seems like a lot of information but it’s been made so much easier due to the wide availability of spreadsheets you can find online.  In case it’s still not 100% clear, I’ll walk you through how I set up my water.

My water doesn’t have much to it and a low alkalinity so when I’m formulating my water profile the first place I stop is Water.  I look up my style, then the acceptable range for Ca, Cl, SO4 and alkalinity (HCO3).  That’s it!  Then I hop into my BrewCipher excel sheet and play around adding gypsum (CaSO4, lowers pH, adds Ca and SO4 ions), calcium chloride (CaCl2, lowers pH, adds Ca and Cl ions) and baking soda (NaHCO3, raises pH, adds Na and HCO3 ions).  I’ll try to get my Ca, Cl, SO4, Na and HCO3 levels into the ranges given from Water all while keeping the pH around 5.3 (remember that study that said to get as close to 5.2 as possible without going below?  I aim for 5.3 so I have some leeway).

                If I can’t get the pH into range and the ions into range, I’ll add some lactic acid (liquid form, buy it from any homebrew site/shop) and add that to get it into range.  Like I mentioned before, my water has low alkalinity so I don’t have to worry about my sparge water but if I did, I’d add lactic acid to get it to ~5.5 before sparging.  You can also add more salts to the sparge or split your brewing salts evenly between mash and sparge to get your pH in line.

                Voila.  That’s it.  On brew day I measure all of the minerals out, dump it in with the grain, give it a stir then let it sit for about 10-15 minutes before taking a sample, letting it cool and taking the pH.  If my pH is in range, great!  If it’s high, I add lactic acid, if it’s low I add baking soda, in 1 mL/1 g increments.

                I have many thoughts and experiments planned on how to make my hoppy beers even better and some theories on the proper water needed to brew kick ass saisons ala Hill Farmstead (I wish), but that’s for another day.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Scrappy Hound House Pale Ale #1

My first attempt at a house saison is in the bottles and it's now time to start working on my hoppy beers.  I'm going to be looking at hopping rates and techniques as well as water chemistry to really make them pop.  First up is a very simple/classic pale ale.  I tweaked the water a bit, but other than that, it's really just for a baseline to work on.

Pale Ale #1

3 gallons
72% efficiency
60 min boil

5 lb 2 row (87%)
0.25 lb C60 (4%)
0.25 lb Munich (4%)
0.25 lb White Wheat (4%)

0.25 oz Chinook (60 min)
0.25 oz Centennial (15 min)
0.25 oz Willamette (15 min)
0.5 oz Centennial (Flameout)
0.5 oz Willamette (Flameout)
0.25 oz Centennial (Dry Hop)
0.25 oz Willamette (Dry Hop)

Wyeast 1056 @ 65F ambient.  Mashed at 154F.

OG 1.050 | FG 1.011 | ABV 5.2% | IBU 43

Ca 148 | Mg 1 | Na 29 | Cl 51 | SO4 264 | HCO3 112

12/20/14: Brewday.  I've been getting insane efficiency the last few batches so I had to add water to get my gravity down into range.  OG 1.053.  Mash pH 5.4.  Made 1 L starter 24 hours before.  Decanted and saved some slurry for future, pitched into wort the next day.  Activity within hours.  Hit with 50 sec of oxygenation.
12/28/14: Current gravity 1.006.  Taste is nice and clean.  Fruity hops.  
1/6/14: Bottled

Friday, December 19, 2014

My thoughts on beer releases

It seems like every month there is a brewery getting lambasted online about how they handled releasing a limited beer.  Hunahpu’s Day, Kane’s ANTEAD release, NoDa’s Monstro and most recently Fifty Fifty’s Masterpiece have all had problems in the past year.  Hype for craft beer and more specifically, limited release craft beers are at an all time high.  If you’re a popular brewery with any sort of following, people will be camped outside your brewery at 2 AM, weather be damned, the day of the release.  

                Since no brewery owner is also an event planner (that I’m aware of), I’ve put together some some fool proof ways to release a beer while keeping beer geeks everywhere as happy as possible.

                Probably the fairest way to release a beer is to do a silent release with a limit.  Unannounced, just put the beer in the cooler and let word of mouth do the rest.  Locals and frequent visitors to the taproom will benefit (rewarding your biggest customers) and there won’t be out of towners coming in and taking the beer before someone who comes to the brewery 5 days a week.  I’m not saying that once news gets out on twitter/Beer Advocate/Rate Beer there will be a crush to the taproom, but at least you give locals a shot.

                The hands down easiest way to release a beer and also give everyone a fair chance to get the next M is to sell it online.  Doing so makes sure that anyone with a computer (read: everyone) gets a chance to buy.  Bonus points if you make sure the sale is at a time when people on both coasts are out of work, but let’s be honest, beer geeks will call in sick and risk their jobs to get the next waelz, bro.  The key part of this plan is to use a website that can handle 5,000 people hitting F5 at once.  You’d think they would have learned but breweries like Cigar City and The Bruery put together websites themselves and they inevitably crashed during the first online sale.  AleSmith and Modern Times have done countless releases for their delicious BA Speedway Stouts and use Brown Paper Tickets and have yet to have a problem.

                The problem with online sales is that you’re not driving traffic to your tasting room where you can make the most money (remember that breweries are businesses first and foremost, no matter what they say, and pint sales in the taproom equal the greatest revenue).  I get that, so why not have a release party where everyone can pick up the beers they bought online?  Blow it out and have the beer on tap with other variants and other limited beers.  Win win, right?  Doing a release party makes sure you don’t have lines, everyone knows who is getting the beer and people who missed out still get to drink awesome beer. 

                Online sales certainly make the most sense but I still understand that they’re not making breweries the most money and to some extent, they’re not driving hype for your brewery, which I suspect, is why some opt for brewery only releases.  If a brewery insists on releasing beer on site at a predetermined time, they have to be aware that people will camp out.  Wristbands prevent people from cutting in line, saving spots or generally being an asshole.  Once the time comes to release the beer, count the people in line, look at how many bottles you have, then announce a limit.  That’s right, no pre-announced bottle limits.  You gain nothing by allowing people to take home a case when there are only 2000 bottles made and 500 people in line.  Someone will get upset and it will turn into a shitshow.  Instead, allow people to get back in line if they want more.  Basically, this will allow everyone who arrived on time to get a bottle if they want (unless the crowd is larger than the bottle count, in which case, you’re going to sell out anyways so it doesn’t matter even if the limit is 1).  Then if people aren’t on time, you can keep cycling through the line until it’s sold out.

                The thing that brewery owners seem to forget sometimes is that craft beer is big.  Bigger than that actually, it’s enormous.  Hype is at an all time high and you have to assume that if you have a limited release beer, there will be more demand than supply.  Quit saying that you didn’t expect such a big crowd.  Imagine the most people you think will show up.  Now double it and expect all of those people to be in line at 6 am.  You’re ready to plan your release party.  Being taken off guard isn’t acceptable anymore and any brewery that tries to claim that risks a black eye which might hurt them in the ever more competitive craft beer market.  If you want to have a non-ticketed release party, with a case limit, be my guest.  Just know the people who drove 6 hours and got in line at 5 am and didn't get beer are going to raise hell.  Hell hath no fury like a beer geek scorned.

Solera Pull #1 Bottling

About 2 months ago I took my first pull from my "solera" and blended it with my Belgian golden in different ratios to make up 2 total gallons.  Today I bottled them up and now it's time to wait for them to hopefully carb up (I didn't pitch any other yeast) and then think of my next pull.


Blend of 2/3 solera with 1/3 Belgian golden.  Aged on 2 cans of tart cherries packed in water.  This was significantly tart, almost too much so.  The solera is so tart I need to blend it even more.


Blend of 1/3 solera and 2/3 Belgian golden.  Much better balance.  A nice sweetness to compliment the tart.  Golden in color. 

Can't wait to see these carbed up!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Scrappy Hound House Saison #1

First up in my recently dubbed Scrappy Hound House Beer quest is a Saison.  My ultimate goal would be something similar to a Hill Farmstead beer, but he seems to be in a unique situation to produce such amazing beers.  I would be ecstatic if I could get something like Wicked Weed.

My perfect saison: big, billowy head.  Estery nose.  A little funk if possible.  Taste is light, complex, moderate high carbonation, medium to big bubble feel (weird descriptor, I know).  Tastes lightly, threshold spiced, but it’s not.  Not belgiany.  Clean, dry finish.  Abv ranges from 5-6%.  Versions include dry hopped, fruited.  Can sour mash it.

With that being said, I’ve put together a simple saison recipe.  Looking back I might need to add munich or Vienna but I’ll do that if needed in iteration 2.  I chose Wyeast 3711 because it’s a beast from what I can her and produces excellent dry saisons.  I might blend with another strain in the future.  I know Saaz is the classic hop used, I’ll look into changing from Tettnang in the future.

Scrappy Hound Saison #1

3 gallons
70% efficiency
60 min boil

5 lb Belgian Pils (91%)
0.5 lb White Wheat (9%)

0.5 oz Tettnang (60 min)
0.5 oz Tettnang (15 min)

Wyeast 3711 @ 64F ambient.  Mash at 152F.

OG 1.047 | FG 1.006 | ABV 5.5% | IBU 24

Ca 79 | Mg 1 | Na 46 | Cl 54 | SO4 94 | HCO3 132

12/11/14: Brewday.  I somehow hit 90% efficiency so had to add water to get my gravity down.  ~1 gallon total.  OG: 1.048.  Mash pH hit on the nose 5.4 with 3 mL addition of lactic acid (spreadsheet said to add 4).  Made 1L starter, decanted, made another 1L starter, cold crashed, decanted and pitched at 9PM after saving some.  8 AM the beer was actively fermenting.
12/16/14: Gravity down to 1.004.  This yeast is awesome.  Big flavor already developed.  Might look to bottle soon.
12/21/14: Gravity down to 1.001.  Bottled.
12/29/14: First tasting.  Gorgeous murky yellow.  White head that recedes quickly.  Nose is fruity.  Taste follows the nose.  Very fruity/estery with some spice.  I'm not sure I'm in love with the taste.  Goes down dangerously easy, it's good, but not exactly the funky/sharper taste I want.

2015 Goals/Scrappy Hound House Beers

I’ve finally reached another turning point in my homebrewing career.  So far I’ve graduated from extract brewing to all grain to upgrading equipment to make good beer to experimenting with different styles and methods.  I’ve now got my process down and I can make tasty beer, but more importantly, I’m over trying to brew a gimmicky imperial, session, double hopped vanilla brett dark saison (or whatever).  I’m at the point where I want to make phenomenal beer.  To do so, I think I have to narrow down my brewing and that’s my goal for 2015 and the near future, to nail a few different beers.  I’m not saying I’m done experimenting, if anything this process will only increase my experimenting with hops, yeast strains, blends, etc.  However, I am done with the weird beers.  I can buy them at the store, because we all know Rogue is only a month away from releasing a Peanut butter and fluff beer or something. 

My process will be to start with a base recipe that’s proven or researched online, brew it, then make one or maybe two changes, then brew it again.  Most importantly though, I am going to only do this for a few different types of beer that are my favorite and I won’t mind drinking over and over (especially if they’re good).  They are: hoppy (pale ale/IPA/maybe DIPA), saison, sour/tart (Berliner/Gose/fruited versions), and then a fourth which will probably be a rotation, but mainly a dark, roasty beer (milk stout/porter/American stout).  That’s it.  Those are the only beers I’m going to brew for the foreseeable future and I’m going to detail it completely here.  (Note: I am still doing my sour beers, but since so many of them are set it and forget it, I don’t include them here.)

I’m starting with a straightforward saison, then a Pale ale.  They’ll be brewed in the next week or two!