… it’s the way that you brew it.
It came as a bit of a shock the other day to be told that, as I only deal with breweries that brew conventional beers, I didn’t understand craft brewing! The comment came from a brewer who felt that as they only produced ‘craft’ beers, these beers are somehow produced differently to other more ‘traditional’ styles of beer and should not have to adhere to the natural laws of brewing, namely – efficiency, consistency and most of all quality.
I think this particularly misguided view of the beer styles is held by some of the new wave of brewers who like to think their extremely cloudy, intensely hopped, fruit infusion or kettle sour beers are completely different to beers that have gone before, and not just an extension to the vast array of beer styles which have always existed since time immemorial.
If you think of beer styles and flavours as being like light waves and then consider the electromagnetic spectrum; there is the visible part with its rainbow of colours which represent the spread of more traditional beers we know, but then at either end there are the ultra-violet or infra-red beers, with flavours which lie just beyond what we drink everyday and are a little harder to pin down. These latest, ever more extreme, styles of beers could be said to be simply moving more and more into the X-ray and radioactive regions of the spectrum with the current DIPA, NEIPA and kettle sours at flavour wavelengths well beyond what we have seen or tasted before. Nonetheless, they are still a part of the same spectrum of beer that all start in the same way and when it comes down to brewing good beer, there is no difference in the basic approach to the brewing of ‘traditional’ or new styles of ‘craft’ beer.
What brought about this original comment was the fact I’d told this brewery that a 70% yield between Mash Tun and bottle was very poor and might raise a few eyebrows with Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise without some very good reasons for experiencing such high process losses. More worryingly, when we had analysed their beers, they were nearly all 1.0%Alc above their declared values. Whilst Trading Standards officers might be happy with the alcohol levels in some of these beers, HMRC officers might well come knocking on their door demanding duty payment for these under-declarations. It’s surprising the number of new brewers who have never heard of Notice 226, let alone read it. What this particular brewer couldn’t work out was that, by adding sugar priming to the beer in bottle and keg for the purposes of increasing carbonation (using a calculation they got from the internet), there would also be a corresponding increase in alcohol content.
This brings us to the crux of the problem: brewers not understanding the very basics of the making beer process. When we looked at the problems this brewery was experiencing, including exploding bottles and keg dispense issues, these problems were caused by fundamental schoolboy errors that any reasonably well-trained brewer shouldn’t be making.
But many brewing problems start even before a beer is mashed in – with poor recipe formulation.
Recipes that work well in the home brew kitchen or pilot brewery very rarely scale up to commercial volumes without some major revisions. So, when brewed in 35 litre batches recipes may work fine, and possibly even when scaled up to 350 litres, but when scaling up to 3500 litres brew lengths without revision, the balance of recipes starts to go awry.
They, like many brewers, had no idea about how to calculate the litre degrees required for a recipe and no understanding of Mash Tun efficiencies we quickly realised, when this brewery had moved on to brewing on a larger plant, they were adding 20% more malt to the grist than was required. The problem with so much extra malt in the system is the inability to extract the Mash Tun sugars efficiently, and this brewery was typically seeing last wort runnings from the mash of 1015° or higher. The result was the brewery was simply pouring extract and money, straight down the drain
In addition, not correctly understanding the relationship between wort sugar content and %Alc., and that a 1050° gravity wort doesn’t necessarily produce a 5.0%Alc. beer, particularly when adding a further 5+° of sugar when priming in bottle or keg! A further misconception is the brewer can decide the final gravity of a beer arbitrarily. With yeast present then it is the yeast that decides when it wants to stop fermenting (the attenuation limit) depending on the spectrum of sugars present, much of which relates back to the initial mash temperature and the yeast type.
Efficient brewing depends so much on understanding the basics of recipe formulation, starting from the required alcohol content in the final package and working back through the process to correctly calculate malt requirements. Any brewer worth their salt should be able to do these basic of basic calculations. However, we are finding that some brewers have no real idea about the basics of putting a recipe together and increasingly leave much to guesswork.
Does it matter that a brewer has never mastered the art of recipe calculations or how to run a brewhouse efficiently? Well, not if they aren’t bothered about brewing consistently good beers. Good brewers know that no two batches of malt and hops are ever the same, and the better brewers will amend their recipes to take account of these changes to their raw materials. The not so well informed brewers will simply brew with the same amounts of materials in their recipes every time the outcome of which will be more variability in the final product.
This particular brewery’s problems didn’t end with their poor mash efficiency. When we looked more closely at their Copper boil, we found they were making numerous hop additions during the boil to achieve a complex hop aroma. Unfortunately, they were oblivious to the impact the different additions, and differing alpha values of the hops, would make to the final bitterness of their beers.
On-line bitterness calculators will only take you so far, unless you know the exact utilisation value for each hop addition. This will be compounded by the unknown impact on bitterness of large amounts of hop additions made late in the boil for a huge hop flavour. Hops added part way through the boil, although not always fully isomerised into iso-alpha acid, are still bitter and will add greatly to the final measured bitterness of the beer.
But the biggest failing for this particular brewery, and they are not alone, is in understanding the capabilities and limitations of their own equipment. In this instance they were trying to use hop pellets in a system designed for whole hops. At the end of the boil they turned off the steam and simply left the wort and hop residues to settle to the base of the Copper.
Unfortunately, this Copper did not have a high draw off point or an up-stand in the outlet for the wort so they were simply running the hop pellet residue, still virtually at boiling point, from the Copper outlet and onto the floor. After a time, the wort would appear to run clear enough to pump through the heat exchanger but not before 5% to 10% of the extract of the brew also went down the drain in the form strong wort. But with no in-line hop seed filter to safeguard the heat exchanger, it regularly became blocked during the Copper cast as hop residues would invariably find it their way through the wort main.
Assessing the correct gravity of the wort and volume collected in Fermenter is often another problem encountered by many breweries. Without accurate gravity and volume readings, breaking the wort gravity down to the correct Original Gravity for an individual beer often seems a step too far. Brewers are frequently found trying to adjust the final gravity of the wort by assessing the amount of liquor required from assessing (or more likely guessing) the Copper volume. What most fail to consider is the thermal expansion of a liquid meaning the volume in the Copper at 100°C is around 10% greater than it is at 18°C. So using this method means brewers are over estimating the true volume of wort in the Copper and the volume of liquor required, and so end up casting at a low OG.
Saccharometers are often being used for calculating Original Gravity which are only accurate to 1.0⁰. This is by no means an uncommon problem, with many brewers failing to purchase the equipment required to accurately monitor not just wort gravity but many of the brewing parameters. What they fail to appreciate is this can be a false economy as failure to be in complete control of any part of the process inevitably leads to inaccuracies leading in turn to greater inefficiencies and losses.
Maintaining equipment, along with regular calibration, is also vital to the overall brewing efficiency, whether this is weighing materials or the measurement of volume and temperature. The final nail in this particular brewery’s coffin was a flow meter that was 25% out in its readings. Volumetric checks in FV after transfer showed the meter was actually recording 100 litres for every 75 litres that passed through it. So, the ‘losses’ this brewery were showing were actually beer that never existed in the first place!
This same flow meter was also used to measure the beer going into the bottling tanks, putting in 475 litres rather than the 625 litres they were stating. But they were using the higher figure to calculate the final sugar additions so it was not surprising therefore that the beer was being massively over primed in tank and the apparent final bottling ‘losses’ were also apparently so very high.
Are high losses, real or imaginary, and lack of understanding of the fundamentals of the brewing process, acceptable for any brewer, whether they consider themselves a craft brewer or any other sort of brewer? Or is it an example of shoddy workmanship, sheer incompetency and a complete lack of any basic brewing skill? Unfortunately, it is usually a combination of all of these things and brewers are often hiding behind the belief that for some forms of brewing none of these really matter.
No matter what type of beer you think you brew it is still beer, and a sound knowledge of the brewing process is essential. Before embarking on a career of producing commercial beers, you might think it would pay dividends to first learn your craft and acquire the skills required to brew efficiently. So often we find this is not the case. Unfortunately, lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of the brewing process and the equipment being used, proves to be a very expensive shortcoming as the brewery above was finding out. They were simply throwing pounds very literally down the drain. Not to mention the can of worms that would be opened if HMRC were ever to get involved.
Nor is there any reason why being efficient and consistent should be against the ethos of any brewer. It seems to me just plain common sense for a commercial brewery of any size, and producing any style of beer, to brew efficiently, work with the vagaries of their raw materials, be able to accurately measure gravities and volumes, and to maximise yield. The ability to accurately calculate quantities, monitor gravities and measure volumes at every stage of the process, and adjust correctly, lies at the heart of good brewing technique – and more importantly leads to the quality and consistency that all good brewers strive to achieve in their beers.
Quality and consistency is simply a part of running a successful and profitable brewing operation, no matter the style or how the final beer is packaged, cask, bottle, keg or can.
You see for every brewer, it’s not what you brew – it is the way that you brew it.