10 Steps to Better Beer (Part 2)


The final 5.

Here is the second half of my list of the top 10 steps towards brewing better beer. My hope is that new brewers can benefit from this by knowing where their efforts are best expended. Although I’ve ranked the items, and produced an argument for that ranking, none of these can be ignored. They are the top 10, after all. Even if the list extended to the top 100, everything on the list would have some degree of importance.

I’ve ranked the items on the list based on the degree that failing at a given step would have negative consequences that would overshadow any other things you did right. This ranking is an opinion, but I hope an informed opinion.

6 Adequate Aeration and Yeast Nutrition

If the first half of this list were not an indication, I think that running a good fermentation is key to producing great beer. Anything you do well on the hot side of brewing can be undone by running a poor fermentation. And this can happen relatively easily, if sufficient attention is not paid to this step. Conversely, I think it would be hard to so completely screw up a mash that you couldn’t brew a decent beer from the wort. (I get that you might experience a stuck mash or not hit your target OG, but you can still “kicksave” and produce a decent beer — if not exactly what you planned — from wort in most cases.)

Given fresh yeast, aeration might be ranked a little lower — especially if “fresh yeast” means yeast that has some glycogen reserves. However, unless you are sure the yeast is healthy, adequate aeration is the third key — after temperature and pitching rate — to start a great fermentation. I’ve thrown in yeast nutrition in this step as well, although lots of great beer is brewed without the aid of exogenous yeast nutrients.  

7 Proper Conditioning

Diacetyl, and other VDKs (vicinal diketones), are a common fault in beer. Contamination is one cause. Improper conditioning is the other. In lagers, if the beer is not kräusened or given a diacetyl rest, residual diacetyl may yield a butterscotch flavor and slick mouthfeel to the beer. This flavor and mouthfeel is not desirable in most kinds of beer. In ales, excess diacetyl is less of a problem unless the beer is separated from the yeast prematurely. (So, this might be further down on the list if you exclusively brew ales, as many homebrewers do.) 

8 Avoiding Oxygen (and Light)

Once beer has been fermented, its biggest enemy is oxygen. Contact with even small amounts of oxygen will prime the beer to stale quickly. Stale beer has a cardboard character. In bigger beers, oxidation may lend a Sherry note to the beer. (In some limited cases, a small amount of Sherry character may be desirable.)

When bottling or kegging your beer, avoiding oxygen will extend the fresh life of the beer. To do this, rack beers quietly and avoid splashing beer when it is exposed to air. Keep headspaces small (and flushed with CO2, if possible). If you can flush a vessel with CO2 before racking beer into it, do so. You can do this with a gas cylinder or with dry ice. (Always wait until the dry ice has completely sublimed before racking a beer into any vessel. If you don’t, you’ll get a beer volcano as the CO2 rushes out solution when it contacts the dry ice.) Finally, work as quickly as you can during steps when fermented beer is exposed to air. Cap bottles quickly. Get the lids on kegs quickly.

I ranked oxygen exposure below residual diacetyl because all beers eventually go stale, but not all contain residual diacetyl. Likewise, even a poorly handled beer (with respect to oxygen) is going to have a short period when it is fresh — unless you go nuts and actively aerate the fermented beer. 

I’ve also thrown in light exposure. This isn’t usually a problem as kegs block all light and most brown bottles block enough light to stop skunking. However, be careful with clear fermenters, bottles, or other vessels — don’t expose beer to strong light. 

9 Vigorous Full Wort Boil

A vigorous boil is important to making good wort. For all-grain brewers, a boil should not only sanitize the wort and extract the alpha acids, but coagulate the proteins that will form the break material. (DMS, if present, should also be driven off.) 

In extract brews, the closer you approach a full wort boil, the better hop utilization you’ll achieve and the less color the wort will pick up.

The length of the boil is, I think, less important than getting a vigorous boil for a sufficient time to develop an adequate amount of break material. (I favor longer boils, but plenty of homebrewers report good results from fairly short boils.) If you can’t achieve a vigorous boil in your kettle or brewpot, either get a larger heat source or try a smaller batch size. Alternately, if you can split the batch into more than one brewpot and get them all to boil vigorously, that will work, too. Sometimes partially covering the kettle with a lid helps. (If you smell DMS, I would remove the lid; otherwise, you’re probably OK.)  

10 Hitting Proper pH

pH is a measure of the acidity of a solution. In brewing, there are several pH targets you need to hit to brew quality beer. Most homebrewers only pay attention to the mash. Ideally, your mash pH should fall between 5.2 and 5.6, with the lower half of that range being preferable. Having the right balance of minerals in your brewing liquor — and especially the balance between carbonates and calcium ions — will allow you to do this. You can also adjust the mash pH with organic acids, such as food-grade phosphoric acid. Hitting the proper mash pH will help with starch conversion.

It’s also important for your boil pH to fall to around 5.1–5.2. Some of the time, and especially if there is sufficient calcium in your wort, this will happen without any intervention. Other times, adding a little calcium to the boil will help. Hitting the proper boil pH will help the hot break form, which is important for beer clarity and stability after fermentation. 

Hitting the proper beer pH is also important, but this almost always happens as a consequence of fermentation, even if the boil pH is high.

Some brewers are lucky and have water well suited to the type of beer they want to brew. For those, pH will only ever be an afterthought. However, if you have “problematic” water, or brew beers that run the gamut in color, odds are tracking your pH through the hot side of brewing — and adjusting it, as needed —will improve your beers.

The things on this list are the things I focus most on when brewing. There are plenty of other things I take seriously — doughing in to hit the right mash temperature,  mash regime, mash temperature during the rests (if more than one), mash thickness, mash stirring, how much wort I collect, avoiding the extraction of excess tannins, knocking clinging hops from the side of the kettle back into the boil, (relatively) quick chilling, leaving most of the trub behind in the kettle after chilling, racking the beer off the yeast once fermentation and initial conditioning (diacetyl uptake) is complete, carbonating the beer appropriately, storing the beer at the proper temperature, etc. — but these are my top 10.

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