My struggles with fermenting can be described with two topics.
Yeast is an amazing organism. Brewer’s yeast, or saccharomyces cerevisiae, is happy to reproduce at warm temperatures. However, when really reproducing out of control, they also put off a lot of compounds that taste pretty unpleasant in a beer. The biggest lesson for me in beer making is to make sure I’m keeping my yeast at their ideal fermenting temperature. Manufacturers usually print this on the yeast package, or it can be found on their website. I’ve had the most success with the following: divide that temperature range by three. Try to pitch the yeast at the 1/3 mark. Yeast reproduction is naturally thermogenic, so the wort temperature will rise 2-10 degrees, especially during primary fermentation. Towards the end of primary, allow the wort to rise to the 2/3 mark, and try to keep it there.
To do this, I’ve started putting any beer that doesn’t have a Belgian/wheat/saison strain yeast in a pie tin of water, with a damp handtowel around it. The handtowel then wicks up water from the pie tin. This allows for some evaporative cooling and keeps the outside of the fermentor around 10-15 degrees cooler than the ambient temperature. As the beer finishes primary, I allow the evaporative handtowel “skirt” to start to slide down, replenish the water less often, and when all visible signs of fermentation have ceased, take it off completely. This allows a gradual raise in temperature from a low end of the ideal range, preventing hot-ferment off flavors, but later ensuring that attenuation is complete.
Charlie Papazian, godfather of homebrewing and a fellow Coloradan, coined the phrase “Relax, don’t worry about it, have a homebrew”, commonly referred to by the very long acronym RDWAIHAHB or something similar in the homebrewing community. He uses this to mean that the homebrewer can often freak out that something is wrong with their beer, but usually it is fine or at worst, there isn’t much you can do about it once things start to go wrong.
Brewing is a lot more like baking than it is cooking, but with a much longer wait. I love cooking, and consider myself pretty good, but am an abysmal baker. When you cook on a stove or grill, you can take the temperature up or down, add more fat, more water, more seasonings, take part out and set it aside and put it back in later, etc. Not so with baking; you pretty much have to put the right amount of things in together in a vessel that will hold them, apply the right amount of dry heat, and let the chemistry that you set up take place.
Brewing is like baking. You need to put the right amount of sugars into water, and let the yeast do their things at the right temperature. You can’t really take out things after the fact, and adding things must be done carefully.
Every time you mess around with your beer, you risk exposing it to contamination and oxygen, which will make for terrible beer.
Deciding the beer is finished early is also no good. When the yeast are done converting the sugars, they will get to work eating and processing a number of chemicals that they made during the fermentation. If you give them enough time, a lot of the sharp and rough flavors from the young beer will mellow out. When they’re completely done, the yeast will die or go into suspended animation, and fall out (called flocculation) of the beer, leading to clearer, less yeast flavored beer.
I have a bad habit of 1) worrying about the beer and messing with it and 2) bottling too early because I want to get to my beer sooner. While I’ve had no oxidation yet and just one infection, I think I’ve drank most of my beers before their prime. I’ll generally bottle when a stable gravity is reached, give it 14 days to carbonate, and start drinking. Some time later, I’ll hit the last bottle, which is now at least 6 weeks from when it was first brewed and 3-6 weeks in the bottle, and is always the best one.
Giving the beer a little more time at every step is a good move.
The more I can overcome these two issues, the better my beer gets. Hopefully as this blog progresses, we’ll see more beers brewed at their respective yeast sweet-spots, allowed to fully ferment, and to fully condition, and enjoyed at their peak.