I learned how to play chess when I was five years old. Took about fifteen minutes for my father to explain all the pieces and the way they move, and when he was done I asked him what else was there. He said that was it, and the rest was tactics and strategy. As a kid this annoyed me greatly: why would adults spent so much time thinking about a game who's rules I could recite in under a minute? Then my father showed me a whole (thick!) book about chess openings. WHY? What difference does it make what you start with?
Later, of course, I found out it makes a great bit of difference, and that arguably the opening is the most important part of playing chess. It is what sets you up for the rest of the game. A good opening may not guarantee a win, but a bad one can put you much closer to a loss. Brewing is a lot like playing chess.
It really is, too. Just like in chess you got the opening, the middle game, and the end game. And just like in chess, while the most spectacular action happens in the middle, you depend on a "good opening" to set you up.
So what's a brewing opening? To me, it's everything that happens until your wort hit the kettle. That is recipe, grain selection, milling, water, starter (you'll use that in the end, but you make it in advance), equipment building and maintenance, mash, luther, etc. Everything that happens between the moment you wake up at night with an idea for your next brew, until your wort is ready, is the opening.
And just like in chess, a great opening doesn't guarantee success, but a bad one can guarantee failure. You could have produced the best wort on earth, boiled it covered or scorched it, added stale hops or let it get infected, and ruin it. Or you could have done everything right in the boil and ferment, but over-sparged your wort and end up with beer full of tannins, mashed too high and end up with syrup, or just used bad tasting water and ended up with bad tasting beer.
There's several key factors in the opening that can effect your final beer. I'll try to discuss them in more details in future posts, but for now lets do an overview:
This is where it all begins. Sure, you can just throw some grains and hops into the pot and probably come out with something fermentable. But if you are trying to make beer, and especially a particular kind of beer, it helps to have a good recipe.
"Good" is the key word. You can get a ton of recipes just by browsing the web, but just because someone posts something online doesn't mean it's good. Finding yourself trusted sources for recipes would make your life much easier, but you should also understand how recipes work, how flavors mix, and how your particular ingredients and process will effect the final beer. When I published my recipe for my award winning IPA a month ago I had people telling me I was a fool. But the fact is that you will never be able to make my beer. The most you could do is to use my recipe to make your own beer. Your ingredients, your equipment, and your process will invariably be different than mine, and so your beer will be different. (It might, in fact, be better, but that's a different question).
Water makes up 99% of your beer. It's what all the sugars from the malt and all the alpha acids from the hops dissolve in. If your water tastes bad, your beer will taste bad. Unfortunately, if your water tastes good your beer may still taste bad. This is because the mineral composition of water effects the mineral composition of the beer, and not everything that tastes good in water will taste good in every kind of beer. For example: Water high in minerals (a.k.a "Mineral Water") can taste good. But put it in a Pilsner, or a light, malty beer, and it'll taste all wrong. Understanding your water, and how to adjust it to suite your particular beer, is crucial.
When you formulate a recipe, you are preforming a juggling act. You have to keep maltiness, bitterness, carbonation, body, mouthfeel, and flavors in perfect balance. You tweak it and tweak it until it looks perfect on paper. But then you brew it and it all falls apart. I had that happen the first time I tried to brew all grain: I researched and found that BIAB (which was what I was going to use) gets about 75% efficiency, so that's what I based my calculations on. Well, it turned out that my bag was all wrong, and I got 58%. All of the sudden, my big Belgian beer turned into a bizarre, over-hopped, over-spiced concoction (ok, truth be told, it was that before hand - never try to formulate your own recipe with three week's worth of experience..). The point is, I didn't know what to expect from my equipment, so all my fancy calculations weren't worth anything.
4.Ingredient storage and preparation.
This is the other side of knowing what to expect from your equipment: If your grain is crushed differently every time, than your equipment will preform differently every time. If you buy pre-crushed grain and then wait sometimes months to use it, it will preform differently than fresh-milled stuff. Ideally, you should always have your grain milled the same way, and close as possible to brew day. Likewise, when you buy hops you should pay particular attention to how they're stored. Hops that have been stored improperly (exposed to heat, oxygen, light, or humidity) will have dull flavors, lower alpha acid content, and in extreme cases can actually add nasty spoiled flavors to the beer. If you buy hops in bulk make sure you store them well, too. (BTW, this also pertains to yeast, but seeing as we're talking about the beginning stages of brewing, we haven't gotten there yet.)
Assuming your equipment is consistent, and your grain is milled the same, you can still get great variation in your wort depending on how you produce it.Sparging and luthing are major parts of this equation: the sparge method can impact your efficiency, and over-sparging can result in tannin extraction. Sparge temperature can also extract tannins. Grain-to-water ratio, mash method (infusion, decoction), water source and composition - All of these factors can change the efficiency, and composition of your beer, and make it more difficult for you to produce consistent results.
There are, of course, many smaller parts to making a successful start for a brew day, and many things that come into play later are crucial for great beer (Sanitation, anyone?). Hopefully we'll cover some of those in future posts. But before I end this one I would like to offer one last thought: When a chess player approaches a chess board, he is always starting from the same place - from scratch. Brewing is the same way: Your beer is the sum total of your decisions as a brewer, and every time you make a batch of beer you have the chance to make better, more informed decisions, and make great beer.