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Working in the cellar at Founders Brewing Company often finds me shoulder to shoulder with the Yeast Tech department. Their department, as you may have guessed, is entirely responsible for the care, maintenance, and practical application of any and all yeast used in the brewery. For emphasis, a beer is not released for consumption without their labor-intensive checks and balances that ensure the quality of a vitally important ingredient in the beer-making process. To make beer at home like a professional means we should emulate the practices of a professional. How can we do that? Or, how can we do that without the high-tech equipment and completely sterile work environment of a large scale brewery? To form a kind of answer to that question, I spoke with Jim Knight, Lead Yeast Tech at Founders, about his advice for home brewers.

“Clean, Clean, Clean,” were the first words out of his mouth when I broached the subject. In a past article, I talked about the importance of cleanliness and sanitation. Let’s say it’s doubly important when it comes to handling yeast correctly, and I’ll spare you a speech. However, as Knight stressed, clean environments breed happy yeast which make the best possible beer. Knight went on to propose that there are three things home brewers should be sure of before adding yeast to each batch of beer. Below, I list the three factors of focus, as well as helpful tips, tricks, and links to sources that will help you make the most of your yeast in the future.

  1. Freshness Ranking among the easiest of things for a home-brewer to check, the expiration date for any yeast culture is often clearly labeled and should be checked before purchase. Fresh yeast is happy yeast. Say you pick up a culture of two month out-of-date yeast, you might think of it like an exhausted workforce. A tired worker may still get the job done, though likely not in a timely fashion, or well. Exhausted yeast may manifest itself in heavy doses of phenolic flavors tainting the flavor of your beer. An expiration date check should accompany every yeast purchase.
  2. Correct Yeast Dose Now, just because your yeast is fresh, doesn’t mean you have enough in your packet or vial to ferment the beer you’re trying to make. Continuing the work-force metaphor, say you have half the amount of people show up to work as you were expecting, likely you won’t expect them to get a job done very well, in a timely fashion, or with zeal. Having half the yeast you need for a batch of beer can result in a host of negatives that might have easily been avoided by simply making sure you have enough yeast for the job. There are two ways to make sure you have enough yeast: longhand arithmetic, or using Mr. Malty’s free calculator. This calculator allows you to input the simple parameters of your recipe to ensure that each batch of beer you make has been dosed to perfection. There is even a function that allows you to account of the freshness of the yeast purchased! Neat-O!
  3. Vitality This category is a bit tougher to describe, but let’s continue on with the worker analogy to get us there. Let’s now assume all of your workforce showed up, and, better yet, they’re fresh off their weekend. The only thing you might hope from such an ideal circumstance is that your workforce is excited to perform the task at hand. A workforce that is “hyped” is very likely to get their job done and done very well. The easiest way we can “hype” up yeast at home is to make a yeast starter. The primary function of a starter is to ensure that yeast is happy, healthy, and “hyped,” or active, before being added to your beer. Bonus, a starter will actually help to grow more yeast from an original culture so making starters may help alleviate the expense of buying multiple vials of yeast for those high gravity or lager batches. Now, there are many ways to make a starter, but I think the advice from the one of the largest Yeast providers in the nation has quite a bit of merit. I have distilled that advice here.

For those who’d like an even more in-depth look at the technical side of yeast, you can read all the information in addition to preparing yeast starters. For those seeking something more in-depth than that, pick up “Yeast” by Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff. Their book informed much of this article and may well be the definitive written work on the subject. Again, to make beer like a professional, one must emulate the professionals. Happy brewing!

Over the past week I have been installing a fence in my backyard. Installing a fence means I will have to set posts in concrete, so I have had to make sure that I am working in the temperature range necessary for the concrete to set up the way I want it to. I can easily imagine what my fence might look like if I hadn’t worked in the appropriate temperature range; a wonky, Seusian, Tim Burton inspired nightmare that might still function as a fence, while not at all succeeding in looking like one.

Try to prepare noodles in water just south of boiling and you’ll have something “near pasta.” A grill at too low a temperature will fail to cook meats correctly.

The metaphorical connections might continue, but suffice it to say that temperature control is as important for the above-mentioned as it is for your homebrew Fermentation temperatures.

Every professional production brewery has some system in place that is designed to control and monitor fermentation temperatures. More often than not, this system will involve a bath of glycol that is heated and or cooled before being circulated around a fermentation vessel in order to achieve the temperatures a brewery desires.

For those unfamiliar with glycol, or jackets on fermenters, imagine if your jacket was hollow between its outer and inner layers. Now imagine that there is a tank of liquid which, at your command, can fill the hollow layer in your jacket. If you had the ability to control the temperature of that liquid precisely, you would always have a jacket that warmed or cooled you to the exact temperature most comfortable for you.

Unfortunately for us, 2015 hasn’t even given us a hover board, let alone a “sleep number” style jacket, but the technology has existed in the fermentation industry for decades. Breweries utilize these systems to create a fermentation environment best suited to the yeast they have chosen to ferment with. This should function as the goal of the homebrewer as well; to provide an ideal fermentation environment for beer based largely on the temperature range designated by the yeast chosen for the batch.

Most ale yeasts have a temp range that roughly equates to room temperature, so often the homebrewer makes ales instead of lagers, or those styles of beer with extreme temperature control needs. For the purposes of this piece however, let’s assume you’ve got an itch, and the only thing that’ll scratch it is to make a mai-bock. Let’s also assume you don’t have the thousands of dollars necessary to install and implement a glycol system of your own. What then are your options?

To be frank, there is a shit-ton. The most popular of them is called a “fermentation chamber,” and even the most minimally handy of folk can put one together easily, though not without some monetary investment. The necessary components for the chamber are; A. A small insulated environment, be it a fridge, freezer, or something built; B. A way to monitor and control the temperature in the environment (see example).

The two elements combine to create an environment that a homebrew-sized fermentation vessel can easily fit in, while being cooled or heated to the specific temp range that the yeast calls for.

Though this system well mirrors the glycol jacket of professional breweries, it is, as I mentioned, costly. Some people will use a bath of lukewarm water and a damp towel to wrangle in their temps. Some hardy D.I.Y. fanatics will cannibalize computer fans and create intricate air flow systems that cool using the wind. Many and more articles are published each day with people’s clever homemade gadgets that serve the purpose of working within a specific temp range, though the prevailing method most beginners, and many seasoned home beer makes prescribe to is picking yeast with the temp ranges that best suit that ambient temperature of their own home.

Fermentation temperature should be a primary consideration for every batch of beer you make at home if you want to make beer like the professionals do. Each day it is a part of my job to make sure that the temperatures of the beer I work with are where they are supposed to be. If they are not, it is then my job to rectify the situation or risk the beer not tasting the way it is supposed to. Bear in mind, a beer fermented 10 or so degrees cooler than it should be may still be beer, but you can be sure it won’t taste the way it should. For a production brewery, that is unacceptable.

The easiest way to make the beer you intend is to pick the right yeast for the job, make sure your temperatures are in line, provide a clean and sanitary environment, and check those factors daily. The beer will take care of itself.

“You can’t sanitize a turd”. When asking Head Cellar Operator Brett Kosmicki and countless other Founders Brewing Co. employees about the importance of cleanliness and sanitation, the previous statement proved the great consensus.

Or, more simply, in order for something to be sanitized, it must first be thoroughly cleaned.

Though this author knows much of this information to be common knowledge, he reminds readers that the point of the series is to re-examine common knowledge practice from a fundamental stance.

Now, let’s assume we all know that we must first clean and then sanitize our equipment in order to make the best beer possible. Agreed? Cool. Let us also agree that the nitty gritty of chemical composition and scientific data pertaining to these products would be best suited for other articles, hundreds of which you might find a quick Google away.

When you wake up in the morning, you shower and clean yourself. However, If you have blood drawn, even only an hour after said shower, your arm will be sanitized. Beating a dead horse has its merits when it comes to home brewing like the pros. “Clean is not sanitary,” said almost every professional polled for these articles.

Following are a list of the most common products one might find in a homebrew store. The sparse information following them is by design. Please feel free to use this article as your launch pad to “geek-out” on the products below.

Cleaners

Designed to remove organic solids (turds).

  • PBW: A high concentration per-carbonate base similar to Oxy Clean.
  • B-Brite: A product similar to PBW, but a far milder concentration.
  • Easy Clean: Often used as a sanitizer, this no rinse cleaner is an alkaline that is a very effective cleaner. It may be used to sanitize if done correctly and allowed for its full five minute contact time.
  • One Step: Nearly the same makeup as Easy Clean, the same rules for cleaning and sanitation apply to this product.

Sanitizers

Rid equipment of microbial and bacterial infection. These products are classified by the government as Sanitizers, an important distinction from the products above.

  • Iodine based: Iodophor and Io-San are the most commonly found in the market. This product uses a dilution of Iodine to sanitize.
  • Star-San: This acid based sanitizer boasts a very quick contact time and may be stored in a spray bottle for pre-mixed use. However wonderful a sanitizer, many dislike the amount of foam produced when using Star-San — a preference I will leave up to your independent trial and error.

Note that bleach is not used in any professional brewery setting, and will therefore be left out of this article.

It has often been said that brewers are simply janitors who clean up for, and after beer. This statement deliberately makes no mention of recipe development, efficient equipment or volume output because those are not terribly important for making good beer.

Working as a professional, I can tell you that 40% of my day consists of cleaning, 40% sanitizing, 10% visual inspection of proper cleaning and sanitizing and 10% “making” or transferring beer. In order to make beer like the a professional one must first take up the mantra of a professional — “clean and sanitize!”

A more comprehensive list of the contact times and the chemical composition of the above listed cleaners and sanitizers can be found at Siciliano’s Market (or most local homebrew shops) in the stores’ resources folder. One may also call the manufacturer of each product for more detailed information.

While it is a passion of mine to help people make beer at home, I suppose it would be better to state that my passion is to help people to make the best possible beer at home.

To clarify, I seek to help home-brewers to identify and construct the beer they wish to make, a beer they can call their own. More often than not, my help is offered by way of advice.

The advice usually pertains to brewing practice, subtle tweaks, yeast suggestions, different malts to try, etc. Over the years of helping homebrewers I have tried my best, and failed at times, to keep the advice I offer free of my opinion, unless it is asked for. The removal of my personal opinion allows me to offer help based on mimicking the practices of professional brewers as best as possible in a home setting.

After all, we strive to create beer to meet the standard of the professional breweries around us, and those are some high standards here in Grand Rapids.

With the goal of helping homebrewers to make the best possible beer at home in mind, I created a poll of four possible answers to the question, “How can the average home-brewer make better/the best beer at home?”

The four answers in the poll were cultivated from my years in the industry and the popularly held beliefs of home brewers who were asked the same question.

NOTE: Before reading on, please note, this article is meant to offer broad advice to the average home-brewer, more specific and technical advice for the advanced class will be offered in following pieces.

Professional brewers from Founders, Brewery Vivant, Harmony, The Mitten, Pigeon Hill, Crankers, Pike 51, Osgood, and B.O.B.’s Brewery picked one of the following categories that they felt will help any brewer to make professional quality beer.

A. Fermentation temperature control
B. Proper yeast handling and pitching rates
C. Making the switch to all-grain brewing
D. Proper cleanliness and sanitation

Of the brewers polled, 63% percent chose D, and the remaining 36% chose A. None of the brewers chose either B or C.

It is important to note that while neither of those categories was chosen, a majority of the brewers, as well as I, believe that each of the above categories would prove vitally important for homebrewers to focus on throughout their home brewing career.

Time and time again brewers responded to my inquiry with a quip of this sort, “You can make a 10 gallon all-grain batch, but if you haven’t properly sanitized it’s all for not,” and I found their logic inescapable.

Having now learned what professionals find most essential to making beer, I intend to work with them on a four-part series focusing on each of the above categories in the order that the brewers chose them. Beginning with proper cleanliness and sanitation I will work with industry professionals to attempt to provide homebrewers with A Professional Approach to Home Brewing.

ADA — Matthew Michiels, owner of Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery & Supply, opened up his pub with one simple goal in mind — creating a space that is conducive to connectedness and making new friends over a pint — either brewing or drinking that pint.

Gravel Bottom is more than just a brewery — it’s a thriving homebrew shop that has been embraced by Ada residents and those who want to explore the world of homebrewing at all levels — novice or expert.

The concept for Gravel Bottom was always a combination of both brewery and homebrew shop, but not at the level it ended up becoming. “In the original business plan, we only had a 1/2 bbl brew house. However after moving back to Grand Rapids and experiencing West Michigan’s craft beer renaissance, it was clear we needed a bigger brew house to keep up with demand.”

Settling on a 3 bbl brew house provided a big enough a space big enough to support demand, but still small enough to experiment and play.

Play is important, and homebrewing is incorporated into the tavern — six ever changing taps provide customers a diverse range of styles and experimental beers. “One of those taps is always a homebrew recipe which is open source to anyone who wants to brew it or tweak it to fit their pallet better,” Michiels shares.

At the homebrewing shop itself, Michiels prides himself on having all the necessary equipment, supplies and ingredients to create a perfect beer. It carries a multitude of different varieties of grains, hops and yeast. The brewers who work at Gravel Bottom have definitely increased the selection options as well, because they are junkies for new ingredients to play around with.

Home brewers are a big influence on Gravel Bottom. Ada is a small town, and people become regulars, neighbors become friends. Michiels tells MittenBrew a story about one of the first Home Brewers to make a guest appearance on tap at Gravel Bottom — John Weicherchess.

“John is a neighbor of mine who showed up at my house as soon as he heard I was putting in a Craft Brewery & Supply. So, of course, I offered to take him down to the brewery and show him around. At the time the place was pretty tore up, but I figure it would be a cool place to have a couple pints of his (and Steve Waakes’) home brew. After the first pint, he grabbed the jackhammer and started helping me break up the concrete floor for our plumbing. Having fun and making new friends is why I opened this place. I could not have picked a better town and I watch this same story play out regularly. This story is also one of the things that inspired us to always have at least one home brew recipe on tap.”

Michiels and his staff are all brewers, bartenders and shopkeepers at Gravel Bottom. A well-rounded bunch, anyone can help you with anything you may need.

As for the beginning brewer? Michiels has some collective tips and tricks for getting started.

“It’s like anything you want to get better at. The more you do it, the more you will learn. You begin to hone in your processes, and each time you brew it gives you the opportunity to experiment with new ingredients or tweak a recipe. Don’t overthink your recipes — take great notes and be open to new ideas and feedback. You’ll be surprised how easy and fun it is to create your ideal beer,” he said.

“And GBCB is always here to help — feel free to bring in a sample for feedback and don’t hesitate to ask our brewers about anything you want to understand better.”

In the first article in a three-part series on brewing ingredients, the Humulus Lupulus is where the journey begins. As it turns out, the Michigan-exclusive Huma Lupa Licious from Short’s Brewing Company is in fact, not a name created from a certain Gene Wilder movie, but a name based off the species’ botanical designation. At this point, I may dive further into the scientific classification and mention that the hop is in the Cannabaceae family (sound familiar?), but what we’re really out to gain here is what the hop does in your beer.

Assuming we’re all familiar with standard hop packaging techniques, you’ve seen two numbers written on just about every package of hops out there. The first being alpha acid — think of this percentage as bittering potential. A low alpha acid hop such as Crystal might contain somewhere around 4.0% alpha acid, and something like Columbus might contain upwards of 15% alpha acid.

The main thing to think about here is exactly how much of a specific hop variety you’ll need to achieve a certain number of IBUs. Although some hops have different bittering characteristics than others, the actual flavor contribution of these acids isn’t necessarily going to be a huge factor.

Next stop — beta acids. This group of compounds is responsible for the effects of hop character in the long-term. Its role during the boil and presence in a fresh beer is rarely noticeable. However, over time beta acids may contribute a perceived bitterness as oxidation comes into play. For example, beer aging for 6-12 months in an oak barrel is not completely protected from oxygen due to the porosity of wood, so beta acids may influence the flavor of the beer as it is slowly exposed to minute amounts of oxygen over time.

The last few compounds contained in that sweet, sweet hop cone that determine the overall hop character are the essential oils. The essential oils are like the icing on the cake. They give us the fruity, resiny, piney, floral, noble or spicy character we all notice in the nose and finish of our favorite hoppy beers.

The oils we’re particularly concerned with are primarily humulene, myrcene and caryophyllene. Humulene is responsible for the “noble” character in hops like Hallertau or East Kent Golding. It becomes spicy and herbal when applied as a middle- or late-boil addition.

Myrcene lends the classic American hop chacarter found in Citra, Chinook and Amarillo.

Caryophllene, though typically low in concentration may add a spicy or herbal character.

A fourth oil, farnesene, is sometimes mentioned, but its contribution to flavor and aroma is often insignificant, and largely unknown. 

The final parameter to consider when building your hop profile is the origin of the hop. Unfortunately, we’d love to be able to purchase all of our hops from the various hop farmers in our Michigan backyards, but the geographical influence on a variety of hops is far too great, and our choices would be quite limited.

As far as American hops go, rumor has it that streets of the Pacific Northwest are paved with myrcene (okay, perhaps it’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea!). Massive citrus and pine character can be found in the hops that are grown there.

European varieties provide the opposite end of the spectrum, and should definitely be considered for your next saison recipe. Of course, things start to get interesting when you plant a European variety in U.S. soil. Look into a comparison between U.S. Saaz and Czech Saaz if you’d really like to watch your brain explode.

Lastly, I would be treating all of you unfairly if I were to fail to mention Austrialian and New Zealand hops. These beasts are like American hops on steroids! Prepare your tongue for the boldest, brightest fruit flavors you’ve ever experienced. Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin are positively worth investigating. 

Now that you have a wealth of information regarding various compounds in hops, you’ll surely have no trouble finding a date to help keep you warm during this unrelenting, midwest winter. Just kidding — this information won’t help you at all there! However, you will be able to select your hops with a bit more intention in your upcoming recipes, which may indeed keep you warm this winter, depending on the starting gravity of said recipe. Refer to this incredibly handy chart when you’re designing your next beer. Good luck out there, folks — you’ve got a lot of pale ales to brew.

In the first article in a three-part series on brewing ingredients, the Humulus Lupulus is where the journey begins. As it turns out, the Michigan-exclusive Huma Lupa Licious from Short’s Brewing Company is in fact, not a name created from a certain Gene Wilder movie, but a name based off the species’ botanical designation. At this point, I may dive further into the scientific classification and mention that the hop is in the Cannabaceae family (sound familiar?), but what we’re really out to gain here is what the hop does in your beer.

Assuming we’re all familiar with standard hop packaging techniques, you’ve seen two numbers written on just about every package of hops out there. The first being alpha acid — think of this percentage as bittering potential. A low alpha acid hop such as Crystal might contain somewhere around 4.0% alpha acid, and something like Columbus might contain upwards of 15% alpha acid.

The main thing to think about here is exactly how much of a specific hop variety you’ll need to achieve a certain number of IBUs. Although some hops have different bittering characteristics than others, the actual flavor contribution of these acids isn’t necessarily going to be a huge factor.

Next stop — beta acids. This group of compounds is responsible for the effects of hop character in the long-term. Its role during the boil and presence in a fresh beer is rarely noticeable. However, over time beta acids may contribute a perceived bitterness as oxidation comes into play. For example, beer aging for 6-12 months in an oak barrel is not completely protected from oxygen due to the porosity of wood, so beta acids may influence the flavor of the beer as it is slowly exposed to minute amounts of oxygen over time.

The last few compounds contained in that sweet, sweet hop cone that determine the overall hop character are the essential oils. The essential oils are like the icing on the cake. They give us the fruity, resiny, piney, floral, noble or spicy character we all notice in the nose and finish of our favorite hoppy beers.

The oils we’re particularly concerned with are primarily humulene, myrcene and caryophyllene. Humulene is responsible for the “noble” character in hops like Hallertau or East Kent Golding. It becomes spicy and herbal when applied as a middle- or late-boil addition.

Myrcene lends the classic American hop chacarter found in Citra, Chinook and Amarillo.

Caryophllene, though typically low in concentration may add a spicy or herbal character.

A fourth oil, farnesene, is sometimes mentioned, but its contribution to flavor and aroma is often insignificant, and largely unknown. 

The final parameter to consider when building your hop profile is the origin of the hop. Unfortunately, we’d love to be able to purchase all of our hops from the various hop farmers in our Michigan backyards, but the geographical influence on a variety of hops is far too great, and our choices would be quite limited.

As far as American hops go, rumor has it that streets of the Pacific Northwest are paved with myrcene (okay, perhaps it’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea!). Massive citrus and pine character can be found in the hops that are grown there.

European varieties provide the opposite end of the spectrum, and should definitely be considered for your next saison recipe. Of course, things start to get interesting when you plant a European variety in U.S. soil. Look into a comparison between U.S. Saaz and Czech Saaz if you’d really like to watch your brain explode.

Lastly, I would be treating all of you unfairly if I were to fail to mention Austrialian and New Zealand hops. These beasts are like American hops on steroids! Prepare your tongue for the boldest, brightest fruit flavors you’ve ever experienced. Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin are positively worth investigating. 

Now that you have a wealth of information regarding various compounds in hops, you’ll surely have no trouble finding a date to help keep you warm during this unrelenting, midwest winter. Just kidding — this information won’t help you at all there! However, you will be able to select your hops with a bit more intention in your upcoming recipes, which may indeed keep you warm this winter, depending on the starting gravity of said recipe. Refer to this incredibly handy chart when you’re designing your next beer. Good luck out there, folks — you’ve got a lot of pale ales to brew.