Tech Talk: Top 10 Steps to Better Beer

Written by Chris Colby for byo.com

Everybody loves his or her first batch of beer. However, after the initial enthusiasm fades, most brewers start looking for ways to improve their beer. And here, beginning homebrewers face a problem. The problem isn’t a lack of information; it’s a surfeit of it. From books to magazines to on-line forums, everyone has an opinion on how to brew better beer. Do you make a yeast starter or try to mimic Burton Upon Trent’s water? Should you keep things clean or build a HERMS machine? Will a little zinc improve your drink? Is avoiding hot side aeration the key to a great libation?


Sorting out the critical from the trivial is not easy. Some important aspects of homebrewing get relatively little press, while oceans of ink are spilled on less important aspects simply because a technical explanation of how they work is available.

In this article, I’ll give what I think are the top 10 most important steps to brewing better beer, in (at least roughly) their order of importance. Most steps are well-known, even to most beginners. But hopefully, by ordering their importance, it will spur beginning (and intermediate) brewers to think about their brewing process.

#1 Cleaning

There’s no getting away from it, the most important part of brewing is also the least glamorous — cleaning your equipment. Without sparkling clean equipment, there’s no way to sanitize it and hence no way to brew quality beer.

Everything in your brewery needs to be cleaned. Certainly any surface that touches wort or beer needs to be spotless, but so should other surfaces on equipment and your brewing environment. Otherwise, soil can be transferred from an unclean surface to clean equipment and then come in contact with wort or beer. Keep in mind that your hands touch many things during a brewday. If you’re going to handle a cleaned and sanitized piece of equipment after touching anything of suspect cleanliness, wash your hands before proceeding.

One of the biggest keys to making cleaning manageable is to clean everything immediately after use. It’s relatively easy to clean brewpots, fermenters or empty bottles before the “crud” on them has time to harden. It will take some serious elbow grease after it has sat awhile. Also cleaning immediately prevents the soil on your equipment from becoming a breeding ground for contaminating microorganisms, which brings us to . . .

#2 Sanitation

Wort (unfermented beer) is a rich growth medium for microorganisms. But, the only microorganism you want growing in it is brewers yeast. If bacteria or wild yeast begin growing in your wort or beer, sour, acetic, phenolic or other off flavors and aromas may result. Without proper sanitation, anything else you do on brewday is futile.

The most important pieces of advice a new brewer should learn about sanitation is to use sanitizers only after equipment is clean and only at their proper concentration — more isn’t better.

Finally, keep in mind that your beer is not equally prone to contamination throughout the process. Cool, aerated wort is a very good growth medium for a variety of microorganisms. Beer is less so. There are beer-spoiling organisms, but the alcohol content and low pH of finished beer are a partial shield against contamination.

#3 Quality Ingredients

In many ways, brewing is like cooking. This is especially true when it comes to ingredients. You need fresh, quality ingredients to make good beer. So, it pays to review how to identify fresh ingredients.

Hops — whether whole, plug or pellet — should appear green and smell pleasant. Hops that look brown or smell cheesy should not be used. Optimally, your hops should be stored frozen in vacuum-sealed bags.

Grains — including base grains and specialty grains — should smell and taste fresh. Old grain will smell and taste stale. Popping a few kernels in your mouth and chewing on them should tell you instantly whether your grains are fit to brew with. Grains should be stored in a cool, dry place and will last at least eight months if so. Whole grains retain their freshness much longer than crushed grains, which should be used within a couple weeks of being crushed.

Malt extract also needs to be fresh and can be stored under the same conditions as grain. If stored properly, dried malt extract (DME) will last at least a year whereas liquid malt extract (LME) will start going stale after 6 months. (LME contains water, which explains why it ages faster.)

DME should remain as a powder; if it’s clumped into a brick, it has absorbed water. Liquid malt extract will turn noticeably brown when it goes stale. You can dissolve a small amount in a glass of hot water and observe it. Look around the edges, where the wort meets the glass, for a brown hue. If the color looks right for the extract type and it smells and tastes good, go ahead and use it. If the dissolved extract looks brown or tastes “off,” don’t brew with it.

Since most beer is over 90% water, your water must also be of high quality. First of all, it should taste good. If your water has off flavors, so will your beer. For tap water that tastes acceptable, the biggest concern is chlorine (or chloramines). These chemicals are added to water supplies to help keep it sanitary and will react with ingredients in your beer and cause off flavors or make it age prematurely.

To rid water of chlorine or chloramines, there are a couple alternatives — carbon filtration or chemical treatment. A carbon filter, especially the larger under-sink kinds, should remove a sufficient amount of chlorine or chloramines to render your water suitable for brewing. Alternately, treating your water with Campden tablets, at a rate of one per 20 gallons (76 L), will also do the trick. If your equipment is clean and sanitized and your ingredients fresh, your goal in brewing becomes to make the most of the ingredients, which brings us to . . .

#4 Pitch Enough Healthy Yeast

From a practical standpoint, the biggest improvement most beginning homebrewers could make would be to run a good fermentation. And, the biggest key to this is to pitch an adequate amount of healthy yeast. For a 5-gallon batch of ale, the optimal pitching is around 260 million yeast cells, and 95% or more of these cells should be healthy. Getting a reasonably accurate estimate of your cell count and yeast health requires a microscope, a special kind of microscope slide and some methylene blue stain. There is, however, a relatively simple way to be virtually certain you have enough healthy yeast — make a yeast starter.

For moderate strength ales, a 1-2 qt. (~1-2 L) yeast starter will yield a sufficient amount of healthy yeast cells at, or a day or two after, high kraeusen. For moderate strength lagers, a 2-4 qt. (~2-4 L) starter is required.

There’s also a way to “cheat” if you are using a liquid yeast strain. Pitch the liquid yeast straight from its smack pack or tube, but also pitch one to two sachets of a neutral dried yeast. Dried yeast is cheaper than liquid yeast and is an easy way to boost your overall pitching rate. (US-56 works well for ales.) You might expect the presence of a neutral yeast to “dilute” the aroma and flavor from a more distinctive yeast, but anecdotal evidence suggests that any dilution effect is small.

#5 Proper and Stable Fermentation Temperature

If you pitch an adequate amount of yeast, the next most important factor is to ferment your beer in the yeast’s preferred temperature range and to keep the wort temperature (at least relatively) stable throughout the fermentation.

If the ambient temperature in your house isn’t suitable, some low-tech methods — such as covering a carboy with a wet T-shirt — allow for a small, though, reliable amount of cooling. Likewise, wrapping the carboy in a warm blanket helps the fermenter retain heat. Slightly more high-tech solutions to temperature control include using a chest freezer with a thermostat on it or buying a fermenter with built in cooling.

#6 Wort Aeration

The final important factor to conducting a good fermentation is achieving proper wort aeration. Yeast need oxygen to make compounds called sterols, which help them build healthy cell walls. You can aerate your beer by pouring it back and forth three or four times between two sanitized buckets. A better solution is to get either an aquarium air pump or one of those small red oxygen cylinders used for welding (and a small regulator) and bubble air or oxygen through your wort with a stainless steel air stone.

#7 Avoid Excess Tannins

Fermentation is important, but you need to present the yeast with good wort to ferment. Making wort is relatively straightforward, but there are a few problems that can arise. One of the most common things that goes wrong when mashing, partial mashing or steeping grains is extracting too many tannins from the grain. If too many tannins end up in your beer, a drying, astringent mouthfeel results. When this happens, the most common culprit is sparging or rinsing the grains with too much water. You should mash with 1–2 quarts per pound (2.2–4.4 L per kg). If you are an extract brewer steeping grain, use 1–3 quarts per pound (2.2–6.7 L per kg). But more importantly, do not oversparge or rinse your grains excessively. All-grain brewers can monitor the specific gravity of their final runnings and stop collecting wort when the gravity drops to 1.008. (Or, if you have pH meter, you can stop when the pH exceeds 5.8.) Extract brewers should just keep the rinse water limited to the same volume or less than they steeped with. And finally, keep the temperature of the sparge or rinse water under 170 °F (77 °C).

#8 Keep Oxygen Away

Yeast need oxygen when they are pitched in order to grow and ferment the wort properly. However, after they have been “fed,” you should strive to minimize your wort or beer’s exposure to oxygen. Exposure to oxygen while beer ages leads to papery or cardboard-like aromas in beer. And, the presence of oxygen can spur the growth of some beer-spoiling organisms, like Acetobacter, which causes a vinegar-like character in beer contaminated with it. To avoid this, keep your buckets sealed and fermentation locks filled, rack your beer quietly and use a container without a lot of headspace for conditioning your beer. If you have a kegging system, you may also want to fill receiving vessels with CO2 before racking beer into them.

#9 Vigorous, Full-Wort Boil

Proper wort boiling sterilizes the wort, causes proper hot break formation, drives off DMS and lowers wort pH. Wimpy boils lead to cloudy, unstable beers while vigorous boils lead to clear, more biologically stable beer.

Also, it is best to boil the wort at as close to working strength as possible. The common technique of boiling a concentrated wort and diluting the wort in the fermenter is quick and simple, but has a few drawbacks. The main three are the possibility of scorching, lowered hop utilization and poor hot break formation.

When homebrewers boil less than vigorously, it’s almost always because of inadequate equipment, not due to lack of knowledge. Many all-grain brewers, and quite a few extract brewers, use a “turkey fryer” propane cooker setup. A propane burner delivers the needed heat to get 5-gallon (19-L), and larger, batches of homebrew boiling well. Some brewers, however, are tied to their kitchen stove as a heat source. If this is the case, all is not lost. Extract brewers can perform a vigorous full-wort boil, or procedure that “fakes” it, with just a little extra energy. A conceptually simple way to do this is to use the Texas Two-Step technique — boil your wort in two stages. Boil half of the wort one evening and the second half the next day. It takes more time, but works well.

One way for extract brewers to dodge many of the problems of a concentrated wort boil is to use the extract late method. Boil about half the volume of your beer, using roughly half the extract at the beginning of the boil. Late in the boil, or at knockout, add the remaining extract as liquid malt extract.

#10 Proper pH

When the topic of pH comes up in homebrewing circles, it’s usually in the context of the mash. Mash pH should fall between 5.2 and 5.6 for proper conversion of starch to wort sugars. However, hitting the proper pH is also important in boiling and post-boil wort and beer.

During the boil, the pH of wort will drop from around 5.6 to around 5.3. However, if the pH can be driven lower — from 5.0 to 5.2 — some positive benefits accrue. Better hot break, better tasting hop profile and less color pickup are three benefits of lowered pH during the boil. The biggest drawback is that hop utilization is decreased slightly.

In order to drop the pH during the boil, some German brewers add a bit of calcium during the boil. I’ve found that about 1/4 tsp. of gypsum or calcium chloride works well for this. You can also use lactic or phosphoric acid.

The pH of beer falls to 4.0 to 4.4 after fermentation and aging. If beer pH gets too high, the resulting beer lacks crispness. However, if you achieve a decent post-boil pH, beer pH almost always takes care of itself.

Conclusion

This is not to say there aren’t other factors that lead to better beer — there are. But, I believe the above list comprises the top 10 factors that most often make the difference between good and bad homebrew for most homebrewers. If I were to keep extending the list, subsequent items — such as mucking with your water chemistry, tweaking your mash variables, finding the perfect recipe, etc. — would affect the character of the beer, but wouldn’t affect overall quality as much as the 10 above. Also, some procedures — such as cooling — are important, but do not usually pose a problem to homebrewers given their usual practices.

I’m sure many homebrewers will disagree with my ordering of the items presented here (and one of the great things about homebrewing is the impassioned debates it inspires). For example, most homebrewers probably know a fellow brewer who obsesses over mash parameters, but treats fermentation as almost an afterthought. At a minimum, if this article gets you to think about where you spend your time and effort in brewing (and why), then it will have served its purpose.