Monday, April 22, 2013

The Four Stages of Homebrewing

After a post busting homebrewing myths, I wanted to  put together something a bit more positive. So I came up with four sets of brewing techniques/equipment that fit together. The categories start with the basic stuff that I think all beginning brewers should do at a minimum, and progresses to the expert level of complex, expensive, and difficult.

I don't intend this to be a map from where you are, to where you "should" be. I don't do all of the things in the Expert category, and probably never will. Hopefully this list will help you to identify gaps in your process. If you are already dabbling in some of the Advanced or even Expert topics, but still not doing some in the Beginner and Advanced Beginner levels, you might want to consider investing in some relatively simple/inexpensive things that can really improve the quality and consistency of your homebrew.

The Four Stages of Homebrewing

Shaking to aerate wort.Beginner (I hope it turns out well...)
Recipe: Recipe from a trusted source or high-quality kit
Wort Production: Steeped specialty grains and malt extract
Water: Chlorine-free water (carbon filtered, well, spring, RO, or distilled)
Boil: Partial boil (staggered extract additions for pale beers)
Chilling: Ice bath and top-off with chilled sterile water
Aeration: Shake chilled wort
Yeast: Rehydrated dry yeast
Fermentation: Monitor ambient fermentation temperature, brew seasonally
Packaging: Bottle conditioning using a priming sugar calculator, sugar measured by volume
Other: Focus on cleaning and sanitizing
Other: Take notes on each step of the process

My standard chilling rig in action, with ice water recirculator.Advanced Beginner (I think I know what I'm doing.)
Recipe: Tweaking a trusted recipe
Wort Production: Partial Mash (measure the gravity pre-boil and adjust extract amount as needed)
Water: Simple water salt additions for flavor (knowing your water's profile)
Boil: Full wort boil
Chilling: Immersion wort chiller
Aeration: Filtered air aquarium pump
Yeast: Liquid yeast with a starter
Fermentation: Monitor the actual temperature of the fermenting beer, control with swamp chiller
Packaging: Bottle conditioning using a priming sugar calculator, sugar measured by weight
Other: Evaluate ingredient quality
Other: Using non-Reinheitsgebot ingredients (fruit, coffee, spices, sugars etc.)

My fermentation fridge, before I removed the shelf.Advanced (I make excellent beer!)
Recipe: Design to-style recipes
Wort Production: All grain (single infusion mashes)
Water: Water adjustments, including monitoring mash pH
Boil: Full wort boil
Chilling: Counter-flow wort chiller
Aeration: Estimated pure oxygen aeration
Yeast: Repitching yeast
Fermentation: Electronic fermentation temperature control
Packaging: Kegging
Other: Purge everything the fermented beer touches with CO2
Other: Check finished beer pH

My advanced, plate-chilling rig in action.Expert (Why aren't I brewing professionally?)
Recipe: Design your own not-to-style recipes
Wort Production: All grain (single infusion, step, decoction, turbid etc.)
Water: Water adjustments, including mash pH
Boil: Monitor/adjust the boil pH
Chilling: Pump, plate chiller, hop-back etc.
Aeration: Measure dissolved oxygen
Yeast: Microscope to check cell count and viability
Fermentation: Temperature controlled conical fermentors
Packaging: Counter-pressure bottling
Other: Tests (wort stability, forced fermentation etc.)
Other: Barrel aging, sour beers, etc.


Fender said...

Me when I started:

Recipe: Recipe from a trusted source or high-quality kit
Wort Production: Steeped specialty grains and malt extract
Water: Tap water
Boil: Partial boil. I didn't know about staggered extract additions for pale beers.
Chilling: Wort chiller and top off w/ tap.
Aeration: None.
Yeast: Dry yeast sprinkled on top.
Fermentation: Put it in the basement, hope for the best.
Packaging: Used 4 oz of the 5 oz the LHBS put it the kit since 5oz seem to make most beers too carbonated.
Other: Cleaned/sanitized w/ One Step.
Other: No notes.

Me now:

Recipe: Design mostly to-style recipes
Wort Production: All grain BIAB (single infusion mashes)
Water: Use Campden tablets to remove chlorine
Boil: Full wort boil
Chilling: Wort chiller w/ pre-chiller in the summer
Aeration: Estimated pure oxygen aeration
Yeast: Liquid yeast with a starter
Fermentation: Electronic fermentation temperature control
Packaging: Kegging
Other: Purge everything the fermented beer touches with CO2
Other: Brief notes in brewing software

Amos said...

Now I'm curious: why would you monitor and adjust the boil pH?

Fred_Pepin said...

How important are water treatments..? We've been making around 15-20 batches now, and came up with honest stuff, I can pretend better than commercial beers such as coors (no doubt about that lol), and we never really bothered filtering the water beforehand. We simply use tap water. Now, how could we filter that tap water without investings hundreds of dollars?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

The boil pH has an effect on the hop utilization and the hot break formation. It is also generally the case that if the boil pH is in the right range, the finished beer will end up close to the right pH (which influences both flavor and mouthfeel). I don't check it, but it is one of those things that I probably should start doing.

For water filtration, a counter-top carbon block filter is a great option. Here is the model I used until I got an under-sink, not bad for $40. Removing chlorine removes the chances of producing chlorophenols, terrible, medicinal tasting compounds. There are other options as well depending on how your local water department disinfects. Adding water salts is far less important, but they can certainly change the impression of a beer.

Anonymous said...

Recommendations on a good pH meter for homebrew use, one that is easy to use, not finicky/wonky and doesn't require new electrodes every six months?

I'm going to argue that "upgrading" (quotes intentional) to a counterflow chiller (or a plate chiller) isn't required to advance in this homebrewing experience hierarchy. As long as you are chilling your beer as fast as possible the equipment used is irrelevant. I can get a five gallon batch down to ~80F in under ten minutes using an off-the-Northern-Brewer-shelf immersion chiller and stirring constantly (either manually, or with a motorized paddle dealie). The mistake a lot of folks make is to simply put the chiller in, start the water running and then walk away to do other stuff; if the wort isn't moving around the coils the chilling power is greatly crippled.

Synaesthesia said...

I didn't think much about water treatment until I started researching it. First thing is to get a water report if you are using tap water. Some small basic things make quite a difference, like making sure there is enough calcium and magnesium to help with yeast metabolism (I actually noticed better and faster fermentation on high gravity beers).

The sulfate to chloride ratio is a good thing to look up to help make the beer go from good to awesome. A higher sulfate is good for bitter beers, and a higher chloride is better for malty beers, and a balanced ratio is good for things like black ipa's.

The first thing that draws people to water salts is for adjusting mash pH. Since the mash should always be the same pH (5.5 -5.8 @150F ish), every beer would have a different water profile ideally, since residual alkalinity is used to balance the acidity created by different specialty malts.

Anonymous said...

Saw your site while looking for information on brewing sake.

Primarily I brew ciders and fruit based drinks, as i'm not a fan of beers.

It's a bit harder because the information when I started a few years ago wasn't there. Primarily people focused on larger scale wine production or on beer making.

Mainly I'd classify myself as an experimental brewer, not having too much of a recipe or guide, but simply trying to learn different styles and processes to hit upon a basic brewing method that I enjoy and helps to create the brew I most enjoy.

Anonymous said...

You forgot the Old Grouch Stage:

Recipe: From your file of old crusty but trusted recipes.

Wort Production: All Grain Every Time. Grain bought in bulk from a group buy consisting of other Old Grouches.

Water: Half Culligan RO and 1/2 from the tap with Campden tablet to remove Chlorine.

Boil: Full wort boil with a multi teired somewhat rusty stand.

Chilling: Counterflow Coil type chiller

Aeration: Blast the chilled wort with a paint stirrer and drill until the foam begins to fob over the buckets. It works, its cheap.

Yeast: Liquid yeast with stir plate starter for special beers to be shared with other know it all brewers and dry yeast for those cheap batches of Cream Ale consisting of 20% of the cheapest adjuncts possible.

Fermentation: Garage or Basement.

Packaging: Kegs all the way.

Other: Use the cheap cream ale to bribe friends and neighbors to help you with home improvement projects.

pjdunn said...

I do check my boil and post-boil pH, but I am honestly kind of taking a shot in the dark. I'd like to learn more, ie - if my finishing pH is 5.0, how would taking it to 4.8 or 5.2 affect the finished product.

Are there any resources or articles you might recommend on that subject?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I use a Hanna Instruments HI 98107. Not too hard to work with, electrode still seems to work fine at a year old. In the boil, pH affects color development, protein coagulation, and hop utilization. In the finished beer it affects how "crisp" the beer tastes, and the mouthfeel. Kai has lots of great info on the science and practical aspects of pH in brewing on this page.

None of these steps or pieces of equipment are completely necessary, and some are much more important than others.. I still use my immersion chiller for plenty of batches, even though I own a plate chiller. However, in-line chilling has several advantages like lowering the exposure of partially cooled wort to airborne contamination. It also allows the use of a hop-back. Like a conical fermentor, an "advanced" chiller is certainly not required to brew terrific beer, but that doesn't mean they are without benefits. The question for an individual brewer is, which of these options are worth the added time/effort/expense?

Ed Hill said...

I use PH strips to measure mine, but honestly if it ever came back to high or too low, I wouldn't even know what to do to fix it. I use filtered tap water and calcium chloride and gypsum additions to get to where i want it for taste (I brew mostly English beers). I also think, and correct me if i'm wrong, that PH is a big factor in starch conversion for all grain batches.

I know John Palmer is a big fan of just dropping in a Campden tablet to get rid of chlorine and chloramine. I dont just because my raw tap water here in DC tastes atrocious and I dont trust how effective that can be to fix it.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

pH strips have issues, see the link to Kai's site. Mash pH is certainly an issue for conversion, however it is fine in a reasonably wide range. If the pH is too high you can add calcium salts or acid (lactic or phosphoric usually). If the pH is to low either carbonate (i.e., chalk or baking soda) or slaked lime can be added to the mash.

I had bad luck with campden, agreed on carbon filtering helping with other water flavor issues as well.

Jax Beach Ed said...

I do not and never will use some of the equipment/techniques you outline in Expert, simply because I find them unnecessary to make great beer. I realize your intent was not to point out shortcomings or establish rigid categories, but I want to assure rookie brewers that they don't have to spend a ton of money to become expert brewers.

Jax Beach Ed said...

I do not and never will use some of the equipment/techniques you outline in Expert, simply because I find them unnecessary to make great beer. I realize your intent was not to point out shortcomings or establish rigid categories, but I want to assure rookie brewers that they don't have to spend a ton of money to become expert brewers.

Michael T. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael T. said...

Those are good stages, well described. I have four different stages:

1) Noob: Buy a kit, go overboard on the fruit, end up with some bottles of champagne, some bottles of flatness, and a few bottle bombs.
2) Enthusiast: Scaling up, buying gear, learning tricks, trying everything. Making some amazing brews and a couple of stinkers. Cultivating hops, learning to appreciate agronomy. Movin' on.
3) Workman: The keg is empty. Gotta order some ingredients. Oh and there's that batch to rack. And it looks like the hops have sprouted, better get those trellises up. This weekend's gonna be busy.
4) Aficionado: Proofing the latest Zymurgy submission while polishing the newest trophy, checking the pellicle on last year's p-lambic, and spraying the hops again. Dang aphids! Life is good.

[I'm at stage 3.]

Unknown said...

Ha. I like yours better. I'm with you on #3

George Woods said...

Wow, sounds like an elite crock of horse crap. What ever happened to relax and have a homebrew? I have produced excellent beer without following any of the "expert" steps. Way to make homebrewers seem like douchebags. Are you doing it because its cool? Do you only buy clothes second hand stores? I really don't get the angle you are going at here. I know of several commercial breweries that don't follow your steps, let alone homebrewers. I have worked in said breweries and find this laughable.

Signpost Brewing Co. said...

I find myself between advanced and expert, with money being the limiting factor. I brew sours and odd styles and make up my own. I barrel age in wine barrels but don't have enough money even for a pump or plate chiller.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

@George, why the anger? People have various levels of time/interest/money/space to devote to homebrewing. Nothing wrong with knocking out a extract kit if that's what makes you happy. However, my GOAL is to brew beer that is as good as the best commercial breweries (without devoting unnecessary money/effort/space). I certainly don't do everything on the "expert" level.

As I said in the post, this wasn't intended to be taken as a suggestion on what anyone should be striving for. Just a bit of fun, and a way to identify gaps in your process. For example, if you're brewing triple-decocted Czech Pilsners I hope you're also making yeast starters and adjusting your water.

Judging from the quality of some of the beer I've had from craft breweries, it is evident that many aren't putting the effort into quality and process control that they should be.

Glad everyone else got it...

Max said...

One of my favorite ways to homebrew was to keep brewing the same recipe over and over again. This helped me learn the differences in my process and adjust until it comes out the exact way I wanted. Prost!

Anonymous said...

It's too arbitrary and specific.

It should be more general...

Advanced beginner: Adjusting mash pH

Advanced: Understanding water chemistry and mash pH

Expert: Understanding pH throughout process

Other aspects seem based on how close your equipment resembles a commercial brewery, which doesn't really indicate anything. Why not make the expert having a steam fired fully automated brewery where all he does is program the computer?

Jason said...

I kind of went in a totally different order. I did one kit with LME and then straight to all grain brewing for years, then wanted to simplify things and went to hopped LME kits for quick & easy brewing.

I did a lot of batch sparging when I was all grain brewing, so I guess I was wanting to simplify my brewing even back then.

Now I am really into making hard cider with store bought apple juice instead of brewing some much beer.