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.

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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.