I’ve been homebrewing now for over five years. My beer has come a long way since the days of pouring extract syrup into a 2.5 gallon stock pot that was way too small and always boiled over.
If you’re brewing extract or partial-mash, there’s only so much flexibility you have. For those of you who may be getting into all-grain brewing, I wanted to share five quick tips that I feel will get you a long way in making good beer. These suggestions are primarily for you.
1. Find a trusted guide
The Internet is the single greatest store of information that the human race has ever known. And 90% of it is crap. HopGod5728 may or may not know what the hell he is doing, or his palate may be completely shot and he doesn’t taste bitterness less than 100 IBU.
I gave up on Internet recipe research long ago. I now only use a select few resources from authors that I trust. I use these books or magazines to get an understanding of the style or end result I’m looking for, then I tweak from there to make it exactly how I want it.
My three most used resources are:
There are dozens of great brewing authors out there. Find three or four that share your brewing spirit and stick to them. There is such a thing as too much information.
2. Use less than 20% specialty malt
One of the most common critiques I have of homebrew is that it is often too sweet. They seem under-attenuated and way too malty.
When I first started making all-grain batches, I got all excited about specialty malt and trying to make complex, advanced, “layered” beers. What I actually made was beer that tasted like homebrew.
Specialty malts, such as caramel, black malt, chocolate malt and roasted barley, are more highly kilned or roasted than your typical base malts, such as 2-row, Munich, Vienna, pilsner or Maris Otter.
Through the kilning process, the malt become less attenuative, meaning that the sugars don’t ferment as well as the sugars from the base malts do. The result is a sweeter, fuller character than you get from a base malt. Now, depending on the style, this may or may not be a good thing.
(Note: similar effects can be achieved through different mash temperatures, so if you do want to use a higher percentage of specialty malt, consider mashing at a lower temperature, which will yield a more fermentable wort.)
When looking at specialty malt, I apply the “less is more” rule. You can still get great color and depth of flavor by scaling back on the specialty malt.
Unless you are doing an insane Russian Imperial Stout or something completely experimental, try keeping the specialty malts under 20% of the total grain bill. You’ll get a cleaner beer that more closely resembles what the pros make.
3. For IPAs, use at least 2 ounces of dry hops
When I first started brewing, I was pretty much sticking to the book as far as the recipes went. I’d order a kit and use whatever the homebrew shop sent me.
What I found, even in IPA kits, was that the beers never had the hop flavor and aroma that I came to love in my American IPAs. Perhaps, under ideal conditions with ideal equipment, the amounts of late addition and dry hops that they give you are enough, but I never found that to be the case.
It wasn’t until I started doubling, sometimes tripling, the amount of hops the recipe called for at flameout at the end of the boil or in dry hopping in secondary fermentation, that I started achieving the hop-forward character I was looking for.
Through various experiments, I found that I could not get a significant improvement in hop flavor and aroma if I used less than 2 ounces of hops to dry hop in a five-gallon carboy. One ounce or less of dry hops made very little difference over the same beer that didn’t have any dry-hopping at all.
4. Let the magic happen in secondary
All homebrewers want to experiement. That’s why we brew. We want to throw everything in our beer, from herbs to peanut butter.
Let me qualify everything I’m about to say with, “It depends…” Depending on whether you’re using fresh or dried, whole or crushed, you may want to add your fruit, vegetables, spices, herbs, coffee, chocolate, peanut butter, fruit, wood, liquor, you name it, you can add ingredients anywhere from the mash to the beginning of the boil to the end of the boil to flameout to secondary to bottling to in your glass right before you drink it.
So if I qualified that effectively and confusingly enough, allow me to simplify. Unless you have a good reason to add a particular adjunct ingredient at a particular stage in the process, first consider adding it to your brew in the secondary fermentation stage.
I have two main reasons for this. First, many of the characteristics from herbs and spices can easily evaporate off if you add them during the boil. Coffee can be harsh and astringent if you add it during the boil. In secondary, there is no heat or bubbling action to send any of the good stuff off into the atmosphere.
Adding ingredients to secondary also gives you a little more control. You can start by adding a little, waiting a day or two, then sampling your beer. If you feel like you need to add more to get your desired character, you can always do so. You can’t remove what you’ve already added.
5. Don’t forget the salt
Water is one aspect of brewing that I neglected until the past year or so. I would either use store-bought spring water or whatever came out of the tap. Maybe I’d throw in some gypsum or something, depending on the recipe.
The mineral content of water is a very important aspect of how the finished beer will turn out. After all, that’s why classic beer styles are so regionalized. The hardness and mineral content of the local water determined what styles of beer would taste good.
That’s why you traditionally have uber-hopped pilsners from Pilsen, Czech Republic, malty amber lagers from Munich, Germany, and stouts from Dublin, Ireland. When you study water chemistry and it’s effect on beer, it’s like the universe opens up before you.
I encourage you to get a water report from your local water utility. Find out if you have soft or hard water. If you have soft water, like we do here in Greenville, you may need to add some brewer’s salts such as gypsum, epsom, table salt, or calcium chloride, to achieve authentic-tasting darker styles of beer.
If your water is very hard, you may need to dilute it with some distilled water if you want to keep your light-colored or hoppy IPAs from turn turning out too harsh or astringent.