Consistancy is the key to beer recipe freedom

Rye Pale Ale

Anyone that has just started all grain brewing, (or brewing from raw ingredients for you non-brewers out there) will tell you that it can be a complicated and confusing process when getting started. There are so many steps involved in grain brewing that must be completed in certain order,sometimes it can get a new brewer befuddled. Whereas veteran brewers can complete these steps just out of routine and knowing their own brewing equipment and system. If you get the basic idea and concept of the entire process, it really isn’t that difficult once you get some experience.

Consider that people have been all grain brewing since the ancient Egyptians were building pyramids. Some have even said that is why we have cereal crops to this day…to make beer. It’s why the pilgrims stopped and settled what is now Plymouth,MA. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were brewers and Washington’s recipe for a Porter is floating around on the web somewhere if you’re willing to look for it. Most of us students of brew know these stupid facts, but the fact still stands that beer brewing is steeped in american and world history and is going through a “renaissance” or rebirth in America in the last few years.

  • Getting the basics down with extract brewing

I have written in past articles that most (not all) new brewers start out with malt extract brewing. Malt extract can be light, dark ,amber, dry like cocoa powder, or in a liquid form like pancake syrup. It is essentially instant wort…just add hops and water and you have unfermented beer! In fact there are extracts that already have the hops in them. As I’ve said before extract brewing can be a great way to begin making your own beer. It teaches you the basic processes of beer making that are necessary if you decide to start grain brewing. Good sanitation habits are definitely key to turning out a good beer and this point can not be stressed enough. Sooner or later ,if you lack in cleanliness ,you will end up with a less than stellar brew and will end up tossing it out. Also extract brewing will also teach you hop schedules and the why’s and how’s that surround kettle hopping.

When comparing extract brewing to all grain brewing there are less variables to the process. Extract brewers generally don’t have to worry about things like mash PH and water chemistry. They also don’t have to worry about extraction percentages when writing recipes. Basically if you need more maltose (malt sugar) in you recipe, you just add more malt extract! Simple.  All grain brewing is much different and it is also very much the same. Its just two different ways of  ultimately getting the same product. It is all a matter of personal preference, but most people will tell you that grain brewing adds an extra dimension to your brews as well as adding major depth in terms of flavor. But like anything, grain brewing is a learning process and there pretty much is not  a right or wrong way to brew per se. The most important thing about learning the process is learning how to be consistent with each brew session.

  • Get to know you system

An all grain brewer that is considering brewing his/her first batch from scratch can prepare for that first batch by learning the system they intend to brew on. All of the subjects listed below are variables and changing or miscalculating any of them can result in missing your intended starting gravity, poor sugar extraction from the grains, or missed final volume.

  1. Learn your boil off percentage: How will you know what gravity to expect when you do not know how much water will evaporate in the boil. The easiest way to find out this crucial information is to take your boil kettle/pot and add 2-3 gallons. Then bring it up to a boil for 30 mins. After the 30 mins, measure how much water is left and that will tell you what gravity a 60 min or  90 min full boil of wort will be if you do a little math. (double or triple you final remaining volume).
  2. calculate you dead spaces (kettle and mash tun): This will affect you final volume if this is miscalculated. Many times after you drain your mash tun and kettle there is a small amount of liquid left in the vessel. For instance if you want a 5 gallon batch and do not count on these potential losses, you may end up with 4 1/2 gallons instead.

    This is the setup inside my boil kettle. I know that I lose about a gallon to trub with this setup

  3. mark volume increments in your hot water tank and you boil kettle: you must always know how much water is in any given vessel. Some brewers use a dip stick. The take a measured amount of liquid (usually water), and mark each graduation by gallons on the stick. When they want to know how much liquid they have, they read what level on the stick. I tend to use a more simpler, more sanitary way. I use a punch mark for each measured gallon. So if I count 2 dots up the side of the pot I know I have 2 gallons of liquid. Simple…easy.

    Note the punch marks on the inside of the pot. Each mark represents 1 gallon increments.

  4. get consistent when milling you grain: if your milled grains are different from batch to batch, it will be difficult to calculate you average sugar extraction when mashing.
  5. calculate for grain absorption: usually dry grain when mashing in will result in about 1 quart per pound of grist (milled grain) in the recipe. If you are using brewing software, sometimes it will calculate it for you. This is a big one not to forget! In my system , I know that if I mash in with 5 gallons of hot water, I will normally get about 3.5 back out and into the kettle.
  6. know you water: I have stated this in past articles. Get a mineral report from your local water dept or send off a sample to Ward Labs and have results in a few days. Water chemistry is a vital part in grain brewing. It can affect maltiness,bitterness, yeast health, wort attenuation etc. It will tell you if you need to dilute you super hard water for a pale ale or it will tell you to add more carbonates in your soft water for the stout you are trying to brew.
These are all very basic variables to learn and could considered absolutely necessary to know in order to be consistent. Unfortunately they might need to be “hammered out”  in a real brew session. Live and learn and try to get better with the next batch. REMEMBER:The key is NOT to get the most sugar extraction as much as it is to get consistent sugar extraction. Every brewer would love to get really high sugar extractions from the grains and there is nothing wrong with improving that.However, there is a trade-off (to a point): when the extraction percentage starts to get too high,  bitter tannins  start to get extracted from the grain husks. This can result in a mouth-puckering effect.
  • Tools to achieve repeat-ability
You brewed that great IPA last year but have had trouble brewing that same beer again and again. You might know your system extremely well, but it could be another set of variables with you brewing tools. Having the correct and calibrated tools can be a great asset in the brewery when looking for repeatability. In fact some of these tools could be considered “must have” for good brewing practises. You also must have tools that you feel comfortable trusting.
  • accurate temperature readings: I listed this first because you CAN

    A lab thermometer is a very accurate way of telling temps.

    NOT be a successful brewer without an accurate way of reading temperature. Whether reading mash temps, cooling temps, or fermentation temps, you must have an accurate thermometer. For instance, I use a digital thermometer when checking mash temps but I always recheck with my lab thermometer just for my own OCD – sanity.

  • gravity readings: a good hydrometer is absolutely ;necessary when looking for consistency. Pre-fermentation gravity readings will help you establish your average sugar extraction


    percentage. On brew day I use a refractometer. This tool is invaluable when checking the sugar content in your unfermented wort on the fly. It allows me to make quick decisions in the middle of the brew session such as adding more or less bittering hops depending on my pre-boil gravity.  And it only requires a small wort sample to check, unlike the hydrometer which requires enough wort to float the hydrometer. The refractometer also has automatic temp correction which will give you accurate readings no matter what temp the sample is. The hydrometer must have the readings adjusted for temp.

    This refractometer reads in Brix. Brix easily converts over to gravity when you multiply the brix reading by 4, This is a typical view through a refractometer.

     The trade off is the hydrometer is a mere $10 at the supply store and the refractometer costs about $35.This refractometer reads in Brix. Brix easily converts over to gravity when you multiply the brix reading by 4. This is a typical view through a refractometer when checking sugar content.

  • PH levels: mash PH is a crucial piece of information. Having a reliable PH meter or litmus paper is an easy way to adjust for high or low PH levels in the mash.
  • Digital scales: are a good idea when seeking accuracy when dealing with weight of grain, hops, or water mineral additions. A scale that reads in pounds, ounces, and grams would serve any purpose in the brewhouse.
  • good brewing software: when looking for consistent results a good brewing software like Beersmith can really help out. It still allows you to write the recipe while the program will calculate the numbers for you. Just make sure you input the correct info and it will perform perfectly.

Digital Escali scale. Reads in oz,lb, and grams.

So if you are on the fence about switching to all grain brewing, take the jump. You will be very proud once you taste the first sip of your brewed-from-scratch beer for the first time. Yes there are many variables but at the same time you must understand it will be a trial and error, learning process. We all have gone through it believe me. We all have gotten discouraged at times when things do not turn out right. But if you figure out ahead of time your specific system quirks, you will be miles ahead of the game. It will get you consistent real quickly. Also when it comes to the tools of the game, (thermometers, PH checkers), don’t skimp! I am not telling you to buy the $100 dollar thermapen or the $150 Lab PH meter! Litmus paper is very inexpensive as is a lab thermometer. I think I picked up my thermometer for about $10 at the supply store.

One last thing I must highly encourage is the use of brewing software when trying to get repeatability. There are many programs out there. Some are even free! If you have an iPhone, the have an app for that too. I use Beersmith. I believe its about $25 for a lifetime license. Not a bad deal and its a GREAT program. It will do the brewing math like figuring out what your starting gravity, IBUs, and color should be when the brew session is complete. IF you input the correct parameters, it is dead on accurate. It will also help you become very consistent as well. You can scale up recipes for commercial brewing or scale down your 5 gallon batches to 1 gallon test batches. You can also keep track of you inventory of grains, hops, and anything else. This is an invaluable tool to have in the brewhouse so consider it.

It’s not just looking for recipe repeat-ability, it’s about getting consistent results and knowing what you should end up with at the end of your brew session. Once you get your routine in place you can really start getting creative with you recipes. That is when you can let your mind think up the craziest brew you can muster, and you wont have to worry so much about the”process” and you will be able to concentrate on the recipe instead. However don’t try to run before you walk, learn your system and learn to adjust your process from batch to batch until it becomes second nature.

Happy fall to all and remember don’t just brew it, CABREW it! Cheers


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