Some reflections on my hundredth (or so) batch of beer. Over time I’ve learned the primary contributors to a beer’s flavor. Spoiler alert: If you’re obsessing over recipes and still getting bad beers, you’re going down the wrong rabbit hole. So here’s my list of the top contributors to beer flavor:
1. Sanitation. You don’t get this right, you don’t have a chance.
2. Fermentation control. Find a way to keep your fermentation temps relatively stable first, then in the range you want them. For ales, a redneck swamp cooler works fine for me to keep the temps down a few degrees and the water bath stabilizes the temperature. For lagers and some ales, I use a temperature controlled refrigerator. This includes pitch rate: If your OG is greater than 1.06, use a starter or use two packs/vials of yeast. It also includes oxygenation. Make sure you have enough oxygen in the wort.
3. Time. Let your beer finish before racking it so the yeast can clean up after themselves. Give yourself adequate time to let the yeast settle out naturally. Green beer flavors will subside over time but don’t drink one too early. Serving time counts here, too. Most beers are best fresh.
4. Yeast selection. Ferment something other than hefeweizen with hefeweizen yeast and you’ll know what I mean.
5. Recipe formulation. Once you have all of the above right, it’s time to start looking to the recipe. Hops, particularly late hops, are very strong flavors and will affect your beer more than malt. Malt will affect color, probably more important to human taste perception than “flavor”, and sweetness as well as imparting more subtle aromas. But don’t obsess here. If your beers are coming out with drinkability problems, it’s more likely something above, unless you’ve made a hop bomb resembling quinine in flavor in which case, it’s personal preference.
6. Mash control. Mash control can contribute some off flavors but mostly will affect mouthfeel and sweetness. Again, this isn’t the place to obsess unless you’re getting a highly dextrinous, oily pilsner. Again, don’t obsess over a couple of degrees of downward drift in temperature. The enzymes do most of their work early and downward temperature drift will not affect the enzymes you want active in the next step. When you heat the mash for the next step, you denature what was working earlier. So unless you’re doing real precision brewing, downward drift of a couple degrees is mostly irrelevant to the outcome of your beer.
7. Everything else.
At homebrew scale, making beer relies heavily on process. We simply can’t measure and control all the variables my friends at MillerCoors can. So to the beginning homebrewer I recommend picking something simple and light, say a pale ale or a blonde, and brewing it until it’s exactly the same every time. That way you know your process variables aren’t causing problems. Armed with this, you can start troubleshooting in the right place.
Speaking of everything else, I hope that lactobacillus brevis I used in my Berliner Weisse stays under control…. I start seeing sour beers, I pretty much know where to look.