Thursday, November 29, 2012

Controlled Brewing

I'm sure that every brewer has heard the term "Controlled fermentation". It's usually one of the most major pieces of advice that a beginner gets, and major improvements a brewer can make in their process. Adding a mechanism (usually a temp-controlled fridge) to control the temperature in which their beer ferments. Controlled fermentation can help a brewer achieve their goals for the particular beer they are brewing. It can completely change the character of the finished product by changing ester levels, effecting attenuation, and helping control by-products. 

But fermentation is just one stage where a brewer can exert control to change the outcome of their beer. In fact, almost every stage of the brewing process contains "control points" where a brewer can adjust the actual brew to fit more closely to the planned product.

The ability to adjust on the fly is crucial to the brewer. Many of us, when we start brewing, make beers that don't turn out the way we expect. We use a recipe to plan a beer with specific values: OG, FG, IBU, ABV (don't you just love brewing abbreviations?) all come together in perfect balance on our paper. Yet, when we brew we find that the numbers don't work out right. The OG is too low, the volume is too high, the PH is all wrong, etc etc (ok, so most beginners don't know what PH is, but you get the point.) The same is true when we change equipment: all of the sudden our efficiency calculations are out of whack and out evaporation rate is all wrong.

This last part happened to me lately: I've recently changed roughly everything in my system. I've replace my kettle with a new SS one, which has a different height to surface ratio. I chucked my old mash-tun in favor of a bigger one with a different manifold design. I went from buying pre-milled grain to milling my own. And made a few other "minor" adjustments that basically amount to my not knowing anything about how my system works anymore.

As a result of all this tweaking I have a very hard time designing my recipes. I don't really have my efficiency dialed in yet, so I don't know what preboil gravity to expect. I don't quite have a handle on my evaporation rate, so I'm not sure what water volume to use (I batch sparge, which I think is easier than fly sparge, but does have the disadvantage of needing a predetermined amount of water). And so my "in kettle" results are sometimes quite different than what I expected.
This is where control points become key. I was brewing a Dortmunder a couple of weeks ago - a beer that requires supreme balance between malt and bitterness. My OG was to be 1.056, which meant that I needed a preboil gravity of 1.044. I mashed, sparged, and tested my collected wort. It came in at 1.040, this will not do.

My recipe included a fair amount of Pilsner malt, which meant a 90 minute boil. But the first hop addition was at 60 minutes, which meant that if I did a longer boil, the bitterness would not be effected. And so I did: I brought the wort to a fairly gentle boil (my goal being simply to evaporate the extra liquid, rather than cause any kind of reaction) and took periodic gravity readings. The readings climbed steadily until the hit 1.044, at which point I turned the heat up and called this the beginning of the 90 minutes. I had exactly what I needed.

Of course, I still had a problem with my evaporation rate. Just because I started where I expected to, didn't mean I would end there. And indeed I didn't. 15 minutes before the end of the boil I took a measurement again, and this time it was too high (1.060, I think). Never fear! I was ready with an Erlenmeyer flask full of boiling water at hand (I wanted to add boiling water, not just boiled water, to prevent the temperature in the kettle from dropping). I added a litter of this into the kettle and brought the gravity back down. At the end of the boil my OG read 1.057 - within one gravity point of the recipe plan, and actually closer than I usually got with my old equipment.

Incidentally, brewers can effect their beer even long after brewing: I mentioned here before that I was planning to make a 2.5%. and I did. Except that it fermented out and ended up at 3.8% instead. I didn't mind the extra alcohol, but when I tasted my sample it tasted very thin, and I didn't like that. My solution was to take 100g of lactose, boil it in one liter of water, and  add it to my beer (9 Liter batch, so this was actually a substation addition). The result was a beer that was about 3.3% ABV, and with a bit more body than the sample. I also lowered the carbonation a bit (carbonation often causing a lighter perceived body) resulting in a beer that, while not exactly what I planned, was a lot closer to my original vision than what it originally ended up as. I didn't like what I had, so I changed it to match what I wanted. That is the essence of controlled brewing.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Putting the "micro" back in Microbrew

For my next brew, I'm planning to make a small batch of very small beer: 2.5% abv. When I say this to people, they almost always have the same reaction "why?".

It seems that often in the micro-brew world beer is judged by its "size". That is, it's alcohol level, it's bitterness level (especially for IPAs) and in general how much havoc it will ring on your body systems. Whereas the average alcohol content of commercial beers seems to be around the 4.5 to 5 percent mark, for microbrews 6 percent seems to be the minimum acceptable level, with many beers topping 7 and 8 (and 9) percent alcohol by volume.

I think possibly part of that trend is a reaction to the lower-alcohol, lower-flavor approach of commercial (or I should probably say, large-scale commercial) beers. It's a way to distinguish your brew from the crowed. And that's fine. Truly, when microbrews got their start in the late seventies and eighties they needed every advantage they could muster, so upping the ABV was fair game. When you are trying to sell beer to people who's spent their entire life drinking industrial pale lager, you need to be able to have as many selling points in your arsenal as you can. Nothing wrong with that.

But I think that this had also had an inadvertent effect on micro-drinkers. We've come to identify quality beer with higher-than-average alcohol level. I imagine that the penetration of Belgian-style beers into the micro-drinking market didn't help either. Though it's probably a chicken and the egg kind of scenario: Belgians became popular (partially) because they were "big", and people came to seek out big beers because they were popular. The fact that you can now get Leffe beer (which, incidentally, is owned by nBev ) just about anywhere shows that restaurant owners have long wised-up to the idea that people like high alcohol beverages.

Another aspect of this is that people like to feel like they're getting their money's worth. At most restaurants and bars, there is no real difference in price between a bottle of 4% beer and 7% beer. So people choose the 7% because it's "more bang for the buck" and will get them drunk sooner, for less money. Unfortunately, in as much as we beer geeks adore the drink for it's qualities, most people still drink to get happy. (whether that's a fight worth having is a discussion for a different post).

The thing is, however, that this is no longer the same beer world as it was in the seventies and eighties. Over the years, a fairly large drinker base has developed that drinks beer for its quality and flavor, not (just) it's alcohol content. People who smell, and look at, and taste their beer fully, and who can spend half an hour admiring the hop qualities of a brew. In short, a consumer base that you don't have to "sell" on beer, but that you can sell beer to based on its merits.

And for those people, with whom I humbly consider myself, alcohol is just one the many facets that make up beer, and is not very high on the list. We want quality and flavor. And I submit that if a beer has quality, and has flavor, and is satisfying to hold and smell and taste, then the level of alcohol becomes much less important. In matter of fact, the level of alcohol is important only in as much as it contributes to the overall character of the beer, and so if you reduce the alcohol level, you must make up for it in other ways.

And so that's the answer to the people who ask me "why": Because it's a challenge.  Because making a 2.5% beer is much harder, in my opinion, than making a 6% beer. You have much less to hide behind. You have to make a beer that has flavor and body, and that doesn't feel like a "light" beer. formulating a recipe for a low alcohol beer is a complicated balancing act of body, flavor, hopping, and a dozen variables that don't work quite the way they do in a normal beer. If, in a 6% beer, we can mash at 67-68C and get a full body beer, at 2.5% that will yield a watery feeling beer. And so we have to work extra hard to make sure everything balances out right, and the drinker has a wonderful experience. The test of a "great" low-alcohol beer, in my opinion, is that you should be able to serve it to someone without telling them it's low alcohol, and they wouldn't know it. :)

And then, of course, there's the other answer to the question of why make it: "Because it's there."