Most of the time, brewers give comparatively little thought to foam. We brew our beers and foam appears on top of them. There is no single ingredient or procedure that creates foam, it simply emerges when a beer is brewed properly. However, there are things you can do when brewing that affect foam production and stability. It pays to understand these things, especially if your foam isn’t always what it should be. [Read more…]
When I started brewing, information of how to make the best quality beers was just starting to emerge. These days, there is an abundance of information on homebrewing, and sometimes it can be overwhelming. Sorting important information from minutiae or the latest fad can be hard. As such, I’m going to present what I think are the top 10 most important aspects in brewing. This top ten list is presented as both an informed opinion on what the most important aspects of brewing are, and an argument for their ranking.
The list will cover things that are important to brewing quality beer. I’ll ignore economics, among other things, and just focus on what is most important to making outstanding beer. I will assume that the brewer can already manage to produce a drinkable beer. Incredible foul-ups or intentionally ruining items farther down the list could ruin a beer, and argue for a different ranking of items, but I’m trying to help brewers who are actually attempting to brew good beer and can reasonably hit the temperatures, volumes, and durations required on an average brewday.
I’ll start this list at the top, rather than doing the usual countdown, because I want this list to be an argument. (And by argument I mean a set of statements meant to support a central thesis, not a shouting match.) And, it is easier to understand my logic if start at the top.
In most cases, the thing that separates a good Russian imperial stout from a bad one is a well-run fermentation. In order to conduct a good fermentation, you need to select the right yeast strain, pitch an adequate amount of it, and create a healthy environment for the cells.
Pitching rate, the number of yeast cells used to inoculate a given volume of wort, influences several things in the brewing process. Higher pitching rates lead to faster fermentations — they start faster and finish faster. Higher pitching rates also lead to finishing gravities closer to what is predicted by a forced fermentation test. In other words, the yeast utilize all the carbohydrates that they can. In contrast, in severely underpitched beers, the yeast may quit early and leave fermentable carbohydrates behind, resulting in a higher final gravity (FG). Low pitching rates are frequently the cause of stalled or stuck fermentations.
For “characterful” yeast strains that produce plenty of fermentation byproducts, higher pitching rates are associated with “cleaner” beers. Some Belgian ale strains produce an estery, “spicy” aroma when slightly underpitched, but produce a cleaner beer when pitched at a higher rate (to a well-aerated wort). Temperature also plays a major role, with higher temperatures leading to more fermentation byproducts.
This is true of White Labs WLP530 (Abbey Ale) and Wyeast 3787 (Trappist High Gravity) yeast — larger than optimal pitches, thorough aeration, and low temperatures (within the usual ale fermentation range) lead to clean fermentations. It is also true that the “banana ester” level in German hefe-weizens can be manipulated this way.
Homebrewers who are concerned about their pitching rate generally consult a pitching rate calculator, then make a yeast starter of the suggested volume. However, if your brewday arrives and you haven’t made a starter, there is a way to “cheat” that may come in handy occasionally.
This article is part of a series on barleywine.
Making the wort for a barleywine can be trying. Sometimes the amount of grain required is more than your mash tun can hold. Sometimes you can’t collect all the wort you’d like because your kettle is too small. And for most all-grain versions, you need to boil the wort for an extended period of time. Even though wort production can be a chore, the part of brewing a barleywine in which the brewer can exercise the most influence on the quality of the final product is the next step — fermentation. If you make a yeast starter that is large enough, your fermentation can be handled like most ale fermentations, especially for smaller barleywines. For the largest barleywines, you may need to use some additional techniques to get all you want from the yeast,
Once the wort is chilled and in the fermenter, it’s time to let the yeast transform the wort into beer. In a barleywine fermentation, you have several goals. As with any fermentation, you want active fermentation to begin quickly. If your barleywine has a cap of kräusen and your airlock is gurgling between 8 and 16 hours after pitching the yeast, you’re doing great. If it takes longer than 24 hours to start, you may be headed for problems. (At a minimum, this could lead to a sluggish fermentation that takes longer than it should to finish). Likewise, once started, you want the fermentation to keep moving steadily until the beer’s target final gravity (FG) is reached. Most barleywines should finish in the high teens through the 20s. (The BJCP gives FG 1.018–1.030 for English barleywines and FG 1.016–1.030 for American barleywines as the proper range.) For beers at the lower end of the barleywine OG range (OG 1.080–1.090), this means you want a maximum apparent attenuation of around 75%. For heavier barleywines, apparent attenuation up to 80% is OK. The biggest key to achieving this is to pitch an adequate amount of yeast. Choosing an appropriate yeast strain is also important.