Jan 25, 2014

Bottlenecks in my beer

A key moment in my brewing journey was when I drank the first bottle of my second extract brew and realised that home brew could be a drink that you might actually choose to drink because it tasted good. Since then I've worked every brew to try to identify and remove the bottlenecks: the flaws, inconsistencies and practices that limit the quality of my beer.

So since that 2nd extract brew I've: moved to all grain, sorted out fermentation temperature control, gotten access to better quality ingredients, learned about water chemistry & pH adjustment, started oxygenating the wort, began stepped mashing, made a stir plate and began growing yeast starters so I could pitch good rates of yeast. And the result is that I now feel confident with my equipment & process. I can brew with good consistency and the last 10 beers I've brewed have all been very good in terms of process and fermentation (with the exception of the cloudiness of the rushed Playoffs Rye IPA). I could upgrade my brewing equipment and go for an automated system, I could keg my beer and I probably will do that eventually but they will primarily make life easier rather than improve the beer. As far as I can see, there's not much more to improve on that front.

And as I tasted the beer I brewed for the wedding and birthday, I realised that the current bottleneck is me. The best 3 of the 7 were the Pilsch, hefeweizen and Brewdog clone, 2 recipes-by-the-numbers and a recipe created by professional brewers. It's not that my recipes are bad, some of them are of a high standard but there's a lot more variability to them than I want. Sometimes it's because of an ill-advised last minute change and other times it's just because it just needs work.

As I've chewed over this stuff, I've been trying to think about how to improve. At the moment my ideas are: 1. Learn from pro recipes, 2. Learn more about hop varieties & combinations, 3. Brew, refine and re-brew.

1. Learn from pro recipes
I've never been interested in brewing clones. There's plenty of skill in being able to replicate a commercial beer but I guess my interests are more in making something new. However, I think there's probably a lot to be gained from looking at the recipes that are available from great breweries and analysing and sometimes brewing them to get a better sense of how things work. I guess that's what Designing Great Beers does and I should probably have another look at that.

2. Learn about hops
A bigger part of the challenge for me is in learning about hops/hop combinations. I'm more confident with the malt side of things, most of my best recipes are malt/yeast dominant, but I'm finding it difficult to get the hop combinations to really sing. I got For the Love of Hops for my birthday (thanks, Dad!) so hopefully that'll give me a better sense of how to approach it. I'm also going to brew more single hop beers with varieties that are new to me so I can get a feel for each one. 

3. Brew, refine, re-brew
The last and probably most important step is to brew, refine and re-brew. I've brewed a few beers 2 or 3 times but generally I've brewed new recipes. I think I need to spend some time working on a few recipes, at this stage I'm thinking they'll probably mainly be hoppy beers since hops seem to be the big issue and a saison because I've been itching to refine that recipe. I guess we'll see how this goes over the course of the year.

This stuff is in line with what I was thinking when I wrote my goals for the year but the issue is much clearer for me now. I want to end the year with a handful of recipes that are more or less perfected and with a better handle on hop combinations in particular and recipe construction in general.


  1. I like clone recipes to being a cook as opposed to a chef, however one of the best beers i've brewed in my short stint as a home brewer was a clone, however i wish i couldve tried it side by side with the actual original beer!
    I tested the first of my Ella Pale the other night. Fairly herb/grass hop flavour, but definitely reminded me of Seven Sheds Stella IPA.
    This post also reminded me of your 2014 goals, specifically around the home brew club idea. This would be awesome!

  2. Yeah man, we need to make a home brew club happen. I'd like to see if we can organise a preliminary meet up in the next couple of months and see where we go from there.

    I like the cook/chef analogy. Following a recipe in a book is often going to give more consistently good results but there's something really fun about building something from scratch. I think that's a large part of why I brew, turning an idea into something real.

    Are you happy with Ella on its own? I've only used it with other hops so far but I was thinking of doing a single hop pale ale to get an idea of how it goes.

  3. Its quite a distinct hop to me. A nice difference away from the American C's or super citrus/tropical hops. To be honest i did a single hop with Summer and enjoyed that more, but that beer had a single malt as well. I'll drink a few of the Ella tomorrow which is now 3 weeks old as opposed to 1 week when i tried it initially.

    I'm keen for a meet up. Perhaps a thread on AHB?

  4. For sure, that'll be the best way of getting the ball rolling. I think we'll need to cast the net as widely as possible. I'm just waiting on a bit more info from one or two people, to put another few weeks of recovery in the bank and to look into a venue.

    Interesting about Ella. I did an IPA which was mostly Ella and Topaz with some Galaxy thrown in too which was definitely different. Do you have any ideas about what other hops might work well with it?

  5. The Ella Pale turned out quite nicely. It was a good beer but not great. I had a couple of Wits before i tried it and wasn't that impressed initially, seemed to lack some hoppiness i was expecting. But, after a mate gave me a small glass of an Imp Stout i went back to the Pale and it definitely tasted nice and hoppy! I did 10, 5 and a flame out addition of the hop but i'd probably skip the 10 minute and load up the 5 and dry hop it next time. It's definitely a different flavour, more spice/herb to me, but what exactly my palate can't tell!

    As for pairings with other hops, i don't have too much of an idea. What i will do is brew a Summer Pale and then an Ella/Summer Pale as i have plenty of both hops from the group buy.


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