Homemade Sensory Training

One of the more difficult things for a new brewer to do is to learn what we mean when we talk about beer flavors.  Not just off flavors, but the flavors we want in our beers can be difficult to find for the newbie.  Fortunately, flavors in beer are pretty much the same as those found in other foods and there are foods that are high in the flavors we are trying to isolate.  In other words, you can do sensory training with ingredients available in your supermarket, liquor store or homebrew shop.


You can simulate diacetyl with butter extract.  It’s easy to skunk a European green-bottled beer like Stella by setting it in the sun for a couple of hours.  Brewing salts added in the glass provide the same flavors as brewing salts in the mash tun or kettle.  You can simulate fruity esters using pear and apple flavoring.  A complete list of the adulterants I use is available here:

Homemade Sensory Kits

Start with a neutral, low-flavor beer – Coors Light works wonderfully.  The really strong flavors, the extracts, for example, need to be diluted with distilled water.  Brewing salts should be dissolved in water.  Once ready, taste the beer, then put a drop or two of adulterant in the glass and stir.  Taste again.  If you can’t taste the adulterant, add more!

You can also use the adulterants to determine how to improve a beer.  If a beer is flat, add some acid to it, or some sulfate.  If that improves the beer, use it the next brew.  Or if you want to change something, use the adulterant that represents the change you want.  For example, if you want more body and sweetness, add maltodextrine to your beer then, if it works, mash higher next time.

Sensory training is the one thing you can do that will have the most effect on your outcomes as a brewer (excepting maybe sanitation).  There are many ways to simulate flavors.  I’d caution you to stick to food-grade adulterants and never use anything you aren’t certain it isn’t toxic.  But use your imagination and use these flavors to improve your beers.

Metabisulfite as Dechlorinator

Chlorine is the enemy of good beer made with tap water.  Chlorine reacts with phenols to form chlorophenols, chemical flavors reminiscent of a band-aid, harsh and very detrimental to beer’s flavor.  I don’t react well to harsh flavors so for years I’ve tried to drive them out.  The final frontier was the chlorine in tap water.

Our tap water here in Aurora is good for brewing and very low in disinfectant – the role chlorine plays.  The city uses both chlorine and chloramine, a more complex, more stable chlorine disinfectant and one much harder to get rid of.  Boiling or simply letting water stand will get rid of chlorine or chlorine dioxide, another gaseous disinfectant sometimes added to tap water.  But chloramine is persistent and reacts to form chlorophenols.  And it is much harder to get rid of.

Three primary ways are available to homebrewers to get rid of chlorine in tap water.  Reverse osmosis (RO) filters for home use are available and they get rid of everything.  The water comes out close to pure, so close you can treat all the ion concentrations as zero, chlorine included.  At some point, I’ll likely consider getting an RO filtration system and building my brewing water for each style but for now, I have other things to invest in.

Larger breweries use activated charcoal filtration.  Activated charcoal filters are available for home or RV use and I used one for years before learning that the water has to be in contact with the filters for a significant amount of time to remove chlorine and chloramines.  Long story short, these filters alone are not likely to remove all the chlorine in your water unless as a stage in a RO filter.

The easiest and cheapest way I’ve found to dechlorinate is using metabisulfite, either potassium metabisulfite or sodium metabisulfite, commonly known as Campden tablets.  Ground and added to tap water, a single Campden tablet is sufficient to dechlorinate 20 gallons of water and at that concentration, has no ill effects on yeast.  I generally use 10 gallons of water for a typical brew so I just grind up the tab and add it with my brewing salts.  The net result is the chlorine and chloramine is reduced to near zero and the reaction forms a negligible amount of chloride and sulfate, with some sulfite formed that will boil off.

When I started using this procedure, I noticed quickly that I could smell the chlorine before adding the metabisulfite but not afterward.  This was not enough.  So I got some chlorine test strips and ran the test.  I checked my water before adding the metabisulfite.  The concentration of total chlorine was about 5 ppm.  After adding the metabisulfite, the concentration was close enough to zero that the strips could not detect chlorine.  That’s good enough for me.

I still detect a lot of chlorine at Homebrewer’s Night, when I sample beers from several homebrewers at our local homebrew shop.  It’s so quick and easy to remove chlorine, it should be one of the steps in every brewer’s brew day, at least those of us using municipal tap water disinfected with chlorine.  A ground-up Campden tablet is our key to smoother beer with no chemical flavors.


Cloning Yuengling

It’s been a while, hopefully I haven’t lost my dozen or so followers.  If you’re still around, thanks for bearing with me.  Life has been crazy.

I’m still brewing!  In the near future I’ll be showing off my new electric brewing system but for now, I wanted to talk about an experience I had cloning Yuengling’s classic lager.  The backstory:  My daughter’s boyfriend has a friend, a chef we know at a rather nice restaurant, that loves Yuengling.  Unfortunately it’s not distributed in Colorado so we can’t get it.  The friend, I’ll call him Chef, had some of my beer at a party.  We talked and the subject of Yuengling came up.  Long story short, I said I’d try to clone it.

A few notes on cloning:  You can’t.  I really prefer the term “inspired by” to cloning simply because I can’t reproduce a large brewery’s processes, my equipment is orders of magnitude smaller.  Also there’s the issue of ingredients.  Larger breweries contract for malts and hops, I take what’s available at the local homebrew store.  And another comment on ingredients:  If you’re brewing a lot of beer, you can’t formulate a recipe using “the best ingredients.”  You want the average, the ingredients that will most likely be around from season to season.  We can, because if we can’t get the specific brand or quality of malt, no big deal.  Yuengling can’t get the malt they need for the classic lager, their business suffers.  So when you go to clone a commercial recipe, keep in mind that you might actually be using better ingredients than the original brewer.

Okay, now to the cloning process.  First step, taste it.  Yuengling is dry, minerally, medium-light bready malt (European bread, not Wonder) with some crust-like flavors, balanced between hops and malt with a bit of late hop finish, more Bohemian like than American, meaning herbal-spicy rather than citrus-pine.  Good place to start.  Next is to go and see what Yuengling themselves say about the beer.  Quoting from their website:

Famous for its rich amber color and medium-bodied flavor with roasted caramel malt for a subtle sweetness and a combination of cluster and cascade hops, this true original delivers a well-balanced taste with very distinct character. Born from a historic recipe that was resurrected in 1987, Yuengling Traditional Lager is a true classic.

Not much help, but it did tell me about the hops used.  When I checked, they had some information on the grist that tells me it is primarily two row and Munich, with some Caramunich.  Being a “traditional American lager”, corn must be in it, validated by my taste tests noting a light body and “corny” flavor.  It’s 4.5% ABV, giving me an idea of what the gravity should be, and it’s not very bitter.  So here’s the recipe I came up with:

Amount Fermentable PPG °L Bill %
5.5 lb American – Pale 2-Row 37 1.8 50.3%
3 lb American – Munich – Light 10L 33 10 27.4%
0.75 lb German – CaraMunich II 34 46 6.9%
1.5 lb Flaked Corn 40 0.5 13.7%
3 oz German – Acidulated Malt 27 3.4 1.7%
10.94 lb Total

Amount Variety Type AA Use Time IBU
0.6 oz Cluster Pellet 6.5 Boil 60 min 13.6
0.3 oz Cascade Pellet 7 Boil 20 min 4.43
0.3 oz Cascade Pellet 7 Boil 10 min 2.65
 Show Summary View

Mash Guidelines
Amount Description Type Temp Time
21.6 qt Infusion 150 °F 60 min
Sparge 170 °F 10 min
Starting Mash Thickness: 2 qt/lb

Other Ingredients
Amount Name Type Use Time
2 g Gypsum Water Agt Mash 1 hr.
1.2 g Whirlfloc Water Agt Boil 15 min.

Attenuation (custom):
Optimum Temp:
50 – 55 °F
Fermentation Temp:
53 °F
Pitch Rate:
1.5 (M cells / ml / ° P) 414 B cells required
Yeast Pitch Rate and Starter Calculator

The links are to the recipe on Brewer’s Friend.

So I brewed it.  Fermented at 50 degrees until complete, lagered a month at about 32 degrees, bottle-conditioned, then tried side-by-side with one of the precious cans of Yuengling.  The color was close to spot-on, coppery red with a persistent off-white head.  The flavors were close – the original was drier and much more mineraly than mine, malt was very close, there was some finishing hop flavor in the original that mine did not have, likely a bit of Cascade in the last ten minutes of the boil.
Quite a few of the “clones” I could find on the Web included Crystal malts, mine did not.  Crystal has a sweetness not present in the beer and to me seemed inappropriate.  So I came up with Caramunich instead, and got a pretty close copy.

Some Lessons from Helles

I love Helles.  Done right, it is the very definition of German beer, pale, refreshing, clean.  And as a brewer, it will break your balls.  There is no place at all to hide any error, your least flaw sticks out like a sore thumb.  Even water adjustments become obvious.  This makes it the perfect brew to perfect the craft, so perfect the Weihenstephan brewing school in Germany teaches only Helles, thinking that if you can brew Helles, you can brew anything.  So I undertook a project:  Brew Helles and learn.

And I’ve learned a number of lessons.  The first lesson is that I wasn’t handling chlorine in my water well.  I was using an RV filter with an activated charcoal element.  It wasn’t sufficient, as evidenced in the band-aid flavor apparent in the Helles version I did using only Vienna malt.  I’ve started dechlorinating my water with sodium metabisulfite, Campden tablets, and the band-aid flavor is gone.  My Saisons are better, too.  The phenolics are not as harsh.  I’ve learned how to manage my water, particularly when it comes to the mash pH and the pH of the final beer.   A beer’s mash should be within 0.2 units of pH 5.4, the wort in the fermentor around 5.2 and the final beer pH, pre-carbonation, should be around 4.2.  Getting the final beer pH too high results in a flat beer, too much too low generates noticeable tartness.  And I discovered this by “spiking” one of my Helles with acid and alkali.  You can determine the effects of brewing salts, too, with the result that I add a small amount of table salt to my beers at bottling.

There’s more I’ve learned such as the effect of starting with relatively pure water and building up the salt content – result was a smooth, malty beer resembling some of the good ones I’ve had in Germany.  I have more to learn from Helles such as the effect of pH on clarity, the tastes of differing malts, varying fermentation temperature and time.  Small-batch brewing helps, I’m not stuck with too much of a failed experiment.  And the homebrew club enjoys my experiments as well.  They can see the effects of varying process and recipe and employ the results in their own brews.  Brewing one simple style repeatedly, varying it slightly from brew to brew, is very educational.  I’d recommend it to anyone.

Measuring Mash pH

Okay, Mr. Wizard is certainly muddying the water when it comes to mash pH.  In October, his sidebar seemed to imply that mash pH readings should be taken at mash temperature.  He cites several sources but the only one I could find that made a definitive statement was Kai Troester at Braukaiser.com.  Reference is here:  http://braukaiser.com/blog/blog/2011/03/02/about-ph-targets-and-temperature/

So when I read the instructions for my pH meter, a Milwaukee Instruments MW-102, it tells me to cool samples to room temperature to avoid damage to the electrodes.  It’s been a long time since high school and college temperature but I seem to remember we always cooled samples.  So I’m wondering why the wizard at BYO would think otherwise?  I’ve been measuring my mash pH and shooting for the optimum 5.4.  The result has been “brighter” beer flavor, better clarity and higher attenuation.  Hard to argue.  And I’ve been cooling my samples.

The post from Kai pretty much suggested I’d been following the proper procedure.  I take a sample, cool it in the water bath, then take the pH reading.  If my reading is off by 0.1 to 0.2, I won’t worry too much about it.  At that time I can take a gravity reading with the hydrometer, if desired.

It’s confusing.  Most of the classic brewing references do not mention the temperature of the sample.  My guess is that for these masters of brewing chemistry, how to take a pH reading was so trivial it wasn’t worth mentioning:  You cool the sample to the meter’s calibration temperature, then take your reading.  Period.  So I’ll choose to keep to that schedule.  I like the results I’m getting from the “lower” pH than Mr. Wizard would suggest, so I’ll keep taking my readings cool.

And as I like to say, if you like the beer you’re brewing, you’re doing it right.

A Cheesy Disaster and Das Helles – Projekt

I wanted to make a Port-du-Salut today.  I ended up making a pot of slightly curdled milk.  

Due to problems finding un-homogenized milk, I tried something else.  Skim milk is not homogenized, it’s not necessary, and I can find non-homogenized cream.  So I combined the two, and the end result was that listed above.  I can get non-homogenized milk at Natural Grocers for about $8 per gallon, God only knows how old the stuff is, or I can get a cow share for about the same price per gallon.  Pricey for a hobby – I’ve had cheese come out less than great.  I consider that the price of learning and i’m getting better.  My soft and semi-soft cheeses are killer, even with using plain store-bought milk.  But I don’t want okay.  I made a brie using the pricey Natural Grocers milk and it came out wonderful.  So I thought I’d try the skim-cream combo.  To disastrous ends.

I’ll try again this weekend with normal milk.  It’s semi-soft so I should be okay.

Das Helles-Projekt is underway – I brewed the first of the tests today using a Bohemian Floor-Malted Pisner, I think from Weyermann.  The actual first wound up teaching me about my equipment, as did this one to some extent.  I still had a bit too much wort in the kettle – the boil-off rate for my heating plate in the basement is about 3/4 gallon over 2 hours.  So for future batches I’ll cut my water use a bit more but I can use this as the first test.

The Avangard version looks good, I started lagering it today.

Brewing Priorities

I have a wheel of Gruyere in the press, we bottled a white blend and one of the wines in the blend, an Albarino (forgive me, don’t know how to get a tilde on the “n” on my tablet).  The blend:  Albarino (60%), Gewurztraminer (25%) and Muscat (15%).  But the reason for this post:  I got my new copy of “How to Brew” by John Palmer this week.

I’ve always maintained that the recipe was not nearly as important as other factors in brewing.  The same wort can be fermented differently and produce a completely different beer.  John’s priorities match mine so I’ll list them:

1. Sanitation.  Your stuff isn’t clean, your beer gets infected, it will not be good.  Period.  You can’t call an infected beer “Belgian” and get away with it, at least not with anyone who knows what they’re tasting.  Infected beer tastes like infected beer and there’s nothing that can be done to fix it.

2. Fermentation control.  Yeast does not like temperature swings.  The temperature isn’t as important as the stability.  My fermentation controller, an Inkbird two-stage controller that both heats and cools, is accurate to +/- 0.7 C, or about 1 F.  It’s made a great difference in my beer.  If you don’t have that level of control you can still make good beer but look for ways to keep the temperature stable.

3.  Yeast management.  Pitch enough viable yeast.  Period.  Make starters.  Hydrate dry yeast.

4.  The boil.  You can over or undercook your ingredients.  Pay attention to the boil.

5.  The recipe.  Finally, the thing most obsess over.  Obsessing over 1 through 4 will help make better beer.

I had a chance to meet John earlier this year and we had an interesting chat about this very subject.  I didn’t have the boil in my list then, I do now.  Some further factors are oxygen after fermentation, how you package, choice of priming sugar and so forth but these five will do most toward helping you make good beer.