Way back in 2009, I had this American stout recipe that drove me freaking nuts.
I could NOT get it to taste the way I wanted. The best way I could describe what was wrong was that it had "that homebrew flavor."
Have you had a batch like that? A batch that really did taste like a home brew, instead of pro brew?
I wanted to brew something that tasted as good as what you could buy at the store, but this sure as hell wasn't it.
I turned to Google for help.
Everybody seemed to think it was a sanitation issue, so on the next batch, I cleaned like I was Danny Tanner after chugging a Red Bull.
The day finally arrived when I pulled that first pint from my kegerator...
Still a disappointment. Damn.
This time I really focused on the fermentation temperature. After all, the vets on the forums made it sound like this was the big secret.
I nearly cried. And not tears of joy.
Alright... up until now, I was changing one thing at a time. Scientific method and all, ya know?
But I was at my wit's end, so I said screw all that. I'm fixing everything.
I did everything you're supposed to do.
Did it work?
Of course not.
I gave up on that recipe and moved on to something else, frustrated. And not too happy with this homebrewing hobby.
When I looked back on that year of brewing, I averaged about one batch per month, and my "scorecard" wasn't pretty.
Ever have a year like this?
The Hits were batches that turned out the way I hoped. The Misses weren't dumpers, but if I was truly being honest with myself, they were let downs. Like that stout.
Ever had a phase like this with your brewing? It's no fun.
To me, it wasn't about having an endless supply of beer on tap. I could buy good beer locally at a decent price. It was more about that feeling of accomplishment you get when you make something amazing with your own two hands.
I remember how mad I was after that 4th attempt...
I brewed the beer on a Sunday. As you know, Sundays are precious when you're working full-time. You want to make the most of them.
And on that particular Sunday -- when I attempted Batch #4 -- my buddies had invited me to go on a cool hike. But of course I had to say no because I was brewing that day.
So when that batch still didn't turn out right, I wanted to punch something.
Although I never figured out what exactly went wrong with that stout recipe, I eventually got the root of the problem with my brewing.
The REAL problem was this: I was stuck in the Homebrewing Guessing Game.
So many damn tips to improve your beer, which do you choose?
Control your fermentation temps
Increase the pitch rate
Use pure oxygen
Do a step-mash
Cut back on the crystal malt
Replace plastic equipment
The grains are old
The hops are stale
Use oats for mouthfeel
Use glass, not plastic
Lager 3 months
Pitch low, then free rise
First wort hopping
Try hop bursting
Make a yeast starter
Dry hop in the primary
Aerate the wort
Reduce oxygen pickup
Don’t splash when transferring
Don’t squeeze the grains
Check the mash pH
Mimic their water
Add dark grains late
Do a diacetyl rest
Too many specialty grains
Increase body with CaraPils
Add wheat for head retention
Use RO or distilled water
Don’t transfer over the trub
Use a secondary
Don’t use a secondary
Just wait longer
Ever heard these before?
There are dozens more, too.
I felt like I was just guessing at which ones might improve my beer. I felt kinda like this guy, throwing darts blindfolded.
Yep, there was no doubt about it. I was a hit or miss brewer.
The problem clearly isn't a lack of tips. I mean.. do YOU ever have a hard time finding homebrewing advice?
Blogs, forums, books, Facebook groups... we're drowning in homebrewing advice!
And most of it is the same advice, over, and over, and over again.
So if the problem isn't a lack of advice, what IS the problem? Why do our beers turn out wrong when we did everything right?
The key is to stop GUESSING at what changes to make to your beer. That will only drive you crazy and cost you time & money.
Instead, you must make informed decisions on what to change -- and here's the important part -- you make those decisions based on your personal tastes.
When I did that, everything changed.
I'll explain more about how I did this in Part #2. It's probably not what you expect. And I've never heard anyone else explain it in quite this way. So stay tuned.
p.s. Do you ever feel like you're stuck in the Homebrew Guessing Game? Leave a comment below and give me an example of a change you made to a recipe based on a guess.
Leave a comment below and give me an example of something you tried that didn't work out.
How's it going, brew buddy? Ready for Part 2?
What I'm sharing here goes beyond the surface level tips you normally hear from homebrewers. "More information" is rarely the problem with homebrewing. We're drowning in information, as we saw in Part 1.
If you really want to brew great beer, and do it consistently for years to come, you need to change how you approach homebrewing.
You may be thinking this means more work on your part. Far from it.
This path is actually easier than the way most people approach homebrewing. It will will save you countless hours over the course of your brewing career. And you'll have more fun with the hobby.
In Part 1, we saw that Hit Or Miss brewing is a miserable way to go about homebrewing.
Let's be blunt: Homebrewing chews up a lot of hours.
It's not like cooking marinara sauce on the stovetop where if you screw it up, you can have another batch ready to taste in 20 minutes. It can take months for a new batch of beer to be ready to taste.
When you look at each step in brewing a batch of beer...
... you're talking about A LOT of time invested.
Of course, we enjoy all the time spent. It's our hobby. But if I'm going to invest that much time, I don't want to rely on luck for my batch to turn out the way I hoped.
So what's the secret then?
If you want to brew better and better beer, it's absolutely critical that you learn how to 1) Critique your own beer and 2) Make changes to your recipe based on your personal tastes.
Why not just get feedback from others? There are problems with that.
Oh, and let's not forget the most important reason you can't depend on feedback from others: You have different tastes! For example...
Some people enjoy hops that taste like grapefruit. But I've never enjoyed eating grapefruit. Bleh!
Some people enjoy Belgian beers that have intense spice-like flavors. But I don't.
Some people enjoy SUPER bitter beers. But I don't.
You have your own preferences too, don't you?
What all this means? If Hit Or Miss Brewing is not the answer, and you can't rely on feedback from others, then the only solution is to learn how to critique your own beers. You must become your own personal beer judge!
This doesn't mean you need to actually get certified as a BJCP judge. That's up to you. What's more important is that you know how to judge your own beers.
The light bulb moment came to me when I was interviewing a professional perfume maker, Joel, about learning how to refine your sense of smell. He was explaining to me the difference between him smelling a lemon and his dad smelling the same lemon.
First, he said that he was not born with a "better nose" than his Dad. Rather, the difference was in his training.
Now pay attention because this is the critical piece...
Listen to how Joel describes smelling a lemon.
When I heard Joel describe how he smells a lemon, I had a giant "AHA" moment. Because I saw how it all tied back to improving your beer.
Let me explain...
Check out the picture below. Have you ever felt like this when you describe your beer? Like instead of smelling all the distinct flavors, you only smell one flavor? It just smells like beer.
You may enjoy that flavor. You may love it. But to your nose, it's just one somewhat vague aroma & flavor.
That's just like Joel's Dad smelling the lemon. He may love the smell of lemon, but to him, it's just lemon.
Which is fine because he's not a perfumer. A lemon can smell like a lemon and that's okay.
Just like most craft beer drinkers don't care if they can pick apart all the flavors, as long as they like what they taste.
But you and I are different. We're homebrewers. If we can't distinguish between flavors, we can't improve our beer. Which is why so many of us rely on the Guessing Game.
Now check this out.
See the difference?
The little colored dots on the right represent the individual flavors in the beer. It's the citrusy aroma of the hops. It's the breadiness of the malt. It's the pear-like flavor from the yeast.
Can you guess what that red dot it?
Yep, it's an off-flavor.
Remember my stout from Part 1? When I was trying to improve that stout recipe, I was the guy on the left. I was just guessing at what changes to make. And I was guessing at what changes to make to my recipe because I couldn't pick out the individual flavors.
Once I got decent at this ( it didn't take as long as I expected) I began to notice different types of adjustments to make to my recipe.
These are what most homebrewers are trying to get rid off. They are the flavors that are almost always undesirable in beer, like:
But they are still only one category. If you've brewed a beer that didn't have any noticeable off-flavors, but you still weren't happy with it, the reason was most likely because of one of these other categories.
This is an often overlooked category just ripe for opportunity.
Much of the time, your beer doesn't taste the way you want NOT because you made a mistake that led to an off-flavor, but simply because the flavors are out of balance. I don't mean that your malt and hops should be perfectly "equal" in every beer.
After all, an IPA will ALWAYS be dominated by hops. But it should have enough malt to balance those hops. Just like a milk stout should have enough bitterness to balance the sweetness from the malt.
It could be that your hops and malt are out of balance. Or your hops and the attentuation. Or the attenuation and the body.
When you bring all these components into balance, something just "clicks" and you know you've got it right.
Another big reason your beer doesn't turn out the way you hoped is because the flavors just aren't right for your palate.
Maybe they flavors clash, like what happens when you combine roasty grains with bitter hops. Or maybe, like I mentioned above, you used hops that taste like grapefruits but you really freaking hate grapefruit.
Often, homebrewer think they have an off-flavor (category 1), but really, it's just a flavor that their palate doesn't enjoy.
Now that you know the 3 major categories, which one do you find most of your adjustments falling into?
In the final installment, Part 3, I'll show you how you can get better at detecting which changes to make. I'll also connect the dots between knowing what adjustments need to be made and actually taking action to make these changes in your own batches.
When I began to study what the best homebrewers did differently, I noticed that homebrewers generally fall into one of two groups:
Group 1: Hit or Miss Brewers
This was me back with that stout from Part 1. I was always in "reaction mode." If my beers turned out great, it was mainly due to luck. I could never replicate my success. And if my beers turned out crappy, I simply guessed at how to fix them.
Homebrewers in this group don't have much control over their brewing. They can't taste their own beer and say, "Oh, this didn't turn out quite how I expected, but I know exactly how to fix it."
Instead, they rely on either 1) Guessing at what changes to make or 2) Feedback from other people. But as we saw in Part 2, getting feedback on your beer from other people comes with risks. It's helpful, but it should not be your #1 source of feedback. Your own taste buds should be #1.
Group 2: Total Control Brewers
Like the name says, these brewers are in total control over their brewing. They are in the driver's seat. They veer off course every now and then, but quickly get back on track.
Total Control brewers have proven recipes, go-to hop combinations, and killer techniques they've developed. They're able to put together a recipe from scratch and get close to the bullseye on the first try.
And if their beer has an off-flavor or the flavor doesn't match what they wanted? They can quickly decide what needs to be done differently next time.
Which brings us to the quality that ALL the best brewers, homebrewer or pro, have in common...
Try to find me a great brewer who doesn't have a great palate. They don't exist.
Take Gordon Strong for example. He's the only 3-time winner of the coveted Ninkasi Award, which is an insane accomplishment when you think about it.
Or Jamil Zainasheff. He's now a professional brewer at Heretic, but spent decades as a homebrewer and brewing educator. I learned most of what I know from him and his books. Jamil is an accomplished beer judge and is renowned for his critical palate.
Or take Chad Yakobson, the founder of Crooked Stave Brewery. I got to know Chad when I lived in Denver and Chad's palate for beer is incredible. I remember handing him one of my homebrews and he guessed the final gravity dead on.
(The final gravity was 1.021 btw. The beer under-attenuated, which Chad immediately picked up on).
What do you think these guys would say if you asked them what's a bigger difference maker in brewing great beer? A fancy new brew kettle? Or a finely tuned palate?
You might be thinking, "Well I don't have the palate of a Gordon Strong or Jamil or Chad."
Fair enough. But here's the thing...
First, if your goal is to brew better beer, you don't need to be some kind of supertaster. You don't need to be as good as those guys. You just need to be good enough to get over the hump to where you can make informed decisions about your recipes.
Second, anyone can develop a more critical palate. It's a skill you learn, just like anything else. It doesn't matter if you're a born taster. I'm certainly not, that's for damn sure.
But once I became a beer judge, where I was forced to develop my palate, I realized that 1) It is possible to learn how to taste more in your beer. I don't mean the flavors become more intense, I mean you can taste more distinct flavors.
And 2) It didn't take nearly as long as I expected. In just one month of practice sessions, I made bigger gains than I had in all my years of being a craft beer drinker.
Some skills, like playing guitar, you suck at for a long time before you make any noticeable progress.
Other skills, you get better at quick and then eventually get diminishing returns. Critiquing beer falls into this category.
It's like lifting weights. Ever get into weight lifting? If you haven't bench pressed in a long time (or ever), you get better at it fast. You add more weight to the bar at every session. Eventually you'll hit a plateau, but by that time, you're strong as hell.
It's the same thing with training your palate on beer. You get better fast because you've never actually practiced it before.
You see, most homebrewers never practice critiquing their beer so they never get off the ground. They stay stuck on the bottom of that line in graph above. They think it takes years of practice to make progress, but little do they know, quick gains are right around the corner!
When I started to teach what I had learned to other homebrewers, they got great results too. Like James, a graduate of our Beer Tasting Mastery course.
Basic tasting skills go a long ways in hombrewing. Think about it...
If you could identify one change to make to your recipe -- instead of guessing -- you could save yourself an entire cycle of brewing. And we saw in Part 1 just how long a batch takes, from getting your ingredients to tasting the final product.
That's what I mean by tasting skills going a long ways. When a batch of beer takes months to be ready, every decision you make is super important. I mean, do YOU have much spare time these days???
Becoming a beer judge made the biggest difference in the quality of my homebrew. Most other beer judges will tell you the same. But here's the thing...
You don't need to become a certified BJCP judge to get these skills. There's a lot of "other" stuff in getting BJCP certified, like learning how competitions work and how the rankings work.
If you just want to develop the critiquing skills, you don't need to get certified, which can take a year like it did for me.
The need for beer tasting training is why I created our Beer Tasting Mastery online course. It's opening very soon and this Fall 2017 class is the very last time it will be taught.
I'm hosting a free webinar where we'll taste beer together and I'll share with you some of my best beer tasting tips. These are techniques that you can use immediately the next time you visit your local craft brewery or taste your own homebrew.
This webinar will also give you a feel for the Beer Tasting Mastery class, because we'll use the same webinar format in the official class. Finally, I'll walk you through how the class works and answer any of your questions. And we'll drink beer. Did I mention that already?