Brewing is traditional. When we fire up our kettles, mash in our grains, boil our worts, and ferment our beers, we’re using techniques, lessons, and ingredients that sometimes date back millennia. Of course, the other side of that coin is that brewing is dogmatic, which is a problem: much of what we treat as inherited wisdom and which presents as incontrovertibly true…isn’t.
If I had a dollar for every time I was told something “always” worked or “couldn’t” work in my brewery, I’d have many dollars. Questioning and testing dogma is useful (if you don’t believe me, skim “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill, which I won’t bore you with here), but brewers seem reluctant to do so. Brewing is often a risk-averse enterprise, and the most-common answer I get when questioning brewing dogma (and which I’ve given myself, by the by) is “well, it can’t hurt,” or “better safe than sorry.”
That’s a bad habit to get into because it can lead to the maintenance of a lot of other bad or unnecessary habits that end up costing you time, money, and beer. Instead, I argue that you should abandon dogmatic brewing and seek out what works for you. What follows are a number of brewing practices that, in my experience and measured quantitatively (in competition) and qualitatively (in my mouth), can be abandoned or amended while still producing award-winning beer.
This doesn’t mean that they’ll definitely work for you—I’m not asking you to swap one set of dogmatic brewing principles for another—but it means that they might work for you and aren’t necessarily bad ideas. Everything below, though, is something I’ve incorporated, changed, or abandoned in my practice with no measurable negative effects (and some genuine, quantitatively tested positive effects).
First, let’s not assume that all-grain batches are superior to extract batches (see “Time Is Beer: Going Extract”). The standard refrain of “I don’t want ‘extract flavor’” is really a statement about recipe design, not quality. If there’s a flavor, adjust for it. A well-constructed extract recipe can compete right alongside its all-grain counterpart, and every year I do at least a few extract batches. The difference in their competition scores from the all-grain batches is not statistically significant, nor do those who drink them report a consistent preference of one over the other. If you’re short on time, brew with extract. The brewer makes the beer—brewing with grain won’t automatically make you a better brewer, any more than buying expensive golf clubs will automatically make you a better golfer.
Another time-saver is no-sparge brewing (adding the full volume of mash and sparge water into the mash, then running off into the kettle just once). “But my efficiency!” I can hear some of you yelling—yes, perhaps your efficiency might drop just a bit. In my experience, though, the small amount of base grain (which is cheap) that I add to most recipes is offset by reductions in specialty grains (which aren’t cheap) in the same recipes. No-sparge brewing shaves off a meaningful amount of time and produces a more flavorful wort in exchange for a handful of extra Pilsner or Maris Otter malt.
The mash-out step (adding a hot final addition to your mash to cease enzyme activity and reduce viscosity, which results in greater efficiency) is probably unnecessary. First, why do you need to stop enzyme activity? You’re about to put the wort over direct heat and boil it—it’ll stop soon enough. Second, the viscosity argument is bogus: the temperature difference isn’t sufficient to “wash” more sugars off of the grain. “But my efficiency went up when I started doing it!” That’s probably because you mashed longer, not hotter, which is more likely to increase OG (and attenuation) out of the mash. This is one of those where you can do it if you want to, but recognize that it’s probably indistinguishable from just mashing for 75 minutes instead of 60 minutes.
First Wort Hopping (FWH)
Again, by all means, use FWH (adding hops to the kettle during runoff and allowing them to steep in the hot wort)—but not because it yields “softer” bitterness. I’ve yet to read a single large-N (lots of observations) study that supports this finding, but still the belief persists. I have, though, seen studies that show FWH beers have a higher measured IBU total than beers that have those same hops added after the start of the boil. Why? Longer contact time with warm-to-hot-to-boiling wort increases utilization and isomerization of alpha acids, which means a few more IBUs. So, go ahead, especially since…why not? If I toss them in the kettle when I start running off and heating wort, there’s no way for me to forget them later!
You don’t need to boil for 60 minutes. You need to boil long enough to sterilize your wort before pitching yeast, drive off some oxygen, and maybe add some (minimal) color, but if your first hops addition is at 30 minutes, then boil for 30 minutes. Almost everything we need out of the boil happens pretty rapidly, and I don’t see any differences (in terms of clarity, flavor, etc.) until I get below a 15-minute boil. Why spend the time and energy for an hour or more of boiling? You may want to boil longer if you notice a lot of DMS in your beers and you’re using Pils malt (half-life of SMM, DMS’s precursor, is about half an hour at 212°F/100°C), but if you don’t usually have DMS issues, try a short boil even with Pils malt. It isn’t what’s in the beer; it’s what you can taste in the beer, and maybe what’s there will be below detectable levels even in a short boil.
Some of you skim off hot break in the kettle. I have no idea why. If it’s break material, it’s going to fall out of solution quickly. If it gets into your fermentor, it’ll drop to the bottom, with no likely ill effects (and maybe some positive ones related to clarity and yeast health). Leave it be. Spend that time learning a new skill.
If you’re using the whirlpool to extract hops oils at gentler and less-volatile temperatures, then good on you. Take your time—the longer, the more you’re likely to smell and taste out of those whirlpool-added hops. If you’re not adding hops, though, then why would you do a 30-minute whirlpool? Give it a healthy spin to get a cone of solids forming and then wait for it to stop. Five or six minutes later you should be ready to rack off while leaving that trub behind (and, as noted above, this isn’t even strictly necessary).
People may get angry with me for this one, but here goes: pitch immediately after chilling, so long as you’re below 82°F (28°C)—even for lagers. For those who believe that’s too warm and will result in off-flavor or precursor production, I have two things to say. First, it takes some time for yeast to wake up, take up oxygen, and start fermenting/producing anything, so flavor impacts should be minimal (or even nonexistent) if you pitch warm then cool promptly (say, to fermentation temperature within a few hours). Second, I’ve never done anything but this, and a lot of my brewing reputation was built on producing consistently award-winning lagers. If you’re moving your fermentor from your brewery into a temperature-controlled fridge, pitch away and get a head start on fermentation.
In that same vein, don’t feel like you must keep a beer at its “recommended” fermentation temperature indefinitely. Most of what we consider off-flavors are produced (or set up for production) in the initial 72–96 hours of fermentation. After that time, you can usually let the temperature rise (and promote a quick and vigorous fermentation/attenuation) with very little risk and at least one benefit: Diacetyl cleanup happens above 68°F (20°C). This is how I can keep a steady stream of lagers rolling through the brewery despite each one needing time in the fridge; you don’t need to leave them in there for a month.
Secondary Fermentation/Racking off the Trub
First, let’s call out the nonsense of calling this “secondary fermentation.” Most of the time, it isn’t—if you’re not adding new fermentables or microbiota, it’s not a “secondary” fermentation; it’s just racking off the trub. As for the supposed benefits, it is possible that doing this might improve attenuation slightly since the remaining yeast will be in a less-yeasty environment and, therefore, might find a new access of energy to do a little more fermentation…but maybe not, and I doubt you’ll notice the difference. What I do know, though, is that every time you rack your beer, you’re definitely exposing it to some amount of oxygen and contamination, which will accelerate staling and spoilage downstream. Leave it on the trub.
Autolysis is highly unlikely at homebrew scale (I’m talking months), and the benefits of racking off the trub range from the barely noticeable to the logically unlikely (Why would it clear faster off the trub? And if you care, hit it with gelatin). I do everything in primary—fermentation, dry hopping, you name it.
Adding Yeast at Bottling
I once bottle-conditioned an Eisbock at 14 percent ABV that had been in the fermentor for three months. If that sucker conditioned with no additional yeast, then any beer will condition with no additional yeast. Did it take a little longer? Yes—four weeks instead of one or two—but yeast cells are hardy, and it’s an unnecessary cost. If you’re having trouble with bottle conditioning, check your calculations of priming sugar first (to be sure you’ve added enough), then move the bottles to a warm spot in your house. If you have a laundry room, put them on top of your dryer—not only will it be warm there, but the agitation will keep the yeast in suspension in the beer!
Aging Beer (for Better or Worse)
Aging a beer—even a high-ABV, high-IBU dark beer—won’t necessarily make it better. Those beers might have a better chance at improvement as they age, but it’s still a risky maneuver. Some get worse. Time isn’t any beer’s friend—it just so happens that some beers stale in ways that yield new and maybe better flavors. But saying that you should age them is a bit like saying you should let something rust because sometimes the patina looks good.
Also, don’t assume that age will kill a beer. A well-brewed beer stored at near-freezing temperatures can have a long, long shelf life. One reason I started tracking all of my competition scores and feedback (and entered every beer multiple times over time) was to see how I was doing in terms of flavor stability.
Most held on for about thirteen months before dropping off, even those that beer dogma said should be most fragile. My first Best of Show beer was a Berliner weisse—a low-ABV, low-IBU wheat-based beer (all of which are commonly cited attributes of a beer that should stale fast)—that was more than a year old.
Drink fresh, and if you can’t, brew cleanly and store well (dark and cold).
I’m a Tiny Craft Brewery!
No, you’re not. This is a catch-all for lots of the brewing dogma I hear out there. The lessons of commercial breweries—their recipes, methods, results, and fixes—are not likely to be translatable to home breweries. Scale matters: just ask any pro brewer how well his/her homebrew recipes and processes worked on a new commercial system. Everything from the time involved, to the far greater variability within the vessels during brewing, to the effects of hydrostatic pressure on five barrels vs. five gallons, and more mean that, to paraphrase what golfer Bobby Jones famously said about Jack Nicklaus, they’re playing a game with which we’re not familiar.
It’s inaccurate to argue that there are no rules in brewing. Some brewing tradition and dogma (heck, maybe even most) is rooted in good practices and sound science. I would simply argue that we should be willing to test every rule we’re offered in brewing. Don’t follow the herd blindly. Try, then trust. Find what works. Throw off the shackles of the past. What you have to lose is so, so much smaller than what you have to gain!