Sunday, February 3, 2013

Designing Great Beer Part 3: Managing Fermentation

Some people wax philosophic about brewer's yeast. Something living turns your carefully-designed wort into beer. More than any other part of the process, the yeast can make your homebrew taste like fine craft beer or "homebrew." That is to say that 90% of homebrew off flavors I encounter come from improper fermentation management. What do I mean? Let's look at what yeast needs to give you the best beer possible.

Choose the Right Yeast Strain
Want to make a great Belgian Dubbel? Use a Belgian yeast recommended for Dubbels. There are several choices and Wyeast and White Labs both have pages on their website that will help you pick the correct strain for your recipe. This isn't brain surgery, though. Many strains are very versatile. Nearly every style of lager can be effectively brewed with Wyeast 2124 or White Labs 830. Any American-style ale can be made with the renowned "Chico" strain that almost every brand of brewer's yeast produces: White Labs 001, Wyeast 1056, Safale US-05, and Danstar BRY-97. And one "trick" that I have learned is to use a clean English Ale yeast like WLP002 to make American Ales - that's what Deschute's and Ninkasi use and they are both known for producing fine American-style ales.

Pitch Enough Healthy Yeast
Another common problem people run into is pitching too little yeast and/or pitching unhealthy yeast. Despite what Wyeast and White Labs will have you believe, one "smack pack" or vial of yeast is not the ideal amount to ferment 5-6 gallons of beer. Most of the time you should ideally pitch 2-3 times as much yeast. This doesn't mean you need to buy 2-3 smack packs for every brew because you can either use a pack of dry yeast (Safale and Danstar yeast sachets really do contain enough yeast for 5-6 gal of beer up to 1.060), or you can make a yeast starter to build up more healthy yeast to pitch into your beer. Another option is to save the yeast slurry sitting on the bottom of your last batch of homebrew. The yeast you have on the bottom of your homebrew fermenter is usually healthy and there is a ton of it. Some people recommend that you only reuse yeast from beers under 1.060 OG that aren't hoppy, but, in my experience, anything under 1.070 OG can be reused just fine, hoppy or not. This is standard practice in the brewing industry. And while I avoid going more than 6 generations with my yeast, most pro brewries go 20+ generations before they start fresh. I just saved you $8 per batch of homebrew. Pitching rates (the amount of yeast you need for the beer you are producing) can be looked up in your homebrew software or at Mr. Malty.

Oxygenate Your Wort
Yeast need Oxygen to be happy. This can be achieved by adding O2 directly to your wort, or by stirring or otherwise aggressively aerating your wort to make sure their is enough oxygen in the wort to provide an ideal environment for the yeast to feast.

Pitch and Ferment at the Correct Temperature
After you made your wort, aerated id, and you are ready to pitch plenty of healthy yeast into the beer, you can still ruin your beer by fermenting at the incorrect temperature. This is the single most common brewing mishap. 9/10 homebrews I taste that I do not like were fermented too warm. Fermenting too warm can lead to the yeast producing various esters, phenols, and other off flavors, often "fruity" or "spicy," these off flavors make the beer taste unpolished, unprofessional, and like "homebrew" instead of craft beer. Yes the yeast companies tell you 65-72º F is the ideal temperature for most strains, but that is the fermentation temperature, not the ambient temperature outside the fermenter that they are describing, and they are considering fermentation in MUCH larger vessels. Larger fermenters, like a standard 10 bbl/310 gallon conical fermenter at a craft brewery, will permit higher fermentation temperatures with fewer yeast-derived off flavors. In your 5 gal carboy or 12 gallon plastic fermenter, you need to keep the temperature a few degrees cooler than that to get the cleanest flavor from most yeast strains. This often depends on the yeast strain, but I shoot for the low end of the "recommended" temperature range provided by the yeast manufacturer. How do I keep my fermentation so cool when my apartment is usually warmer than my ideal fermentation environment? I have a chest freezer with an external temperature control that I use to keep the temperature at a steady whatever-I-want-it-to-be. It looks like this (when it was in my old Portland apartment).
There are other ways of keeping your beer fermenting at the right temperature, and you can google "son of fermentation" and "homebrew swamp cooler" to find some of them.

Let It Finish
Your beer will tell you when it has finished fermenting. Krausen will fall, the airlock will stop bubbling, and you can check the gravity to make sure it stops dropping (checking once every 2 days after fermentation looks complete is a good method). Once the beer is finished, let it sit at a warm indoor temperature (~68-72º F) for a few days to make sure it cleans itself up and settles. If you can, after the beer has sat at a warmer temperature for some time, try to cool the whole fermenter down to 34º F or so. Spending a couple days at that cold temperature will help the yeast fall out of suspension and compact on the bottom of the fermenter. This makes it easier to rack the beer off of the yeast with minimal yeast tranfer (so your beer will be clearer), and the remaining yeast cake is easier to harvest for use in your next batch.

Take Care to Bottle or Keg Properly
I keg my beers and have a pretty good technique of force carbonating. But be weary of the kegs. Sometimes they can look fine, but not be perfectly sealed, causing your beer to oxygenate or spoil. You don't want this to happen, so don't let it happen. Once it is kegged or bottled and carbonated, give it a couple days cold before you pour off that first pint. Once you do, you will get a lot of the remaining suspended yeast out in the initial 4-8 oz. After that you beer will pour clearer and clearer every day. Try not to knock the keg around so you can keep it all nice and settled and the yeast doesn't get back into suspension.

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