5 Brewing Tips for the Non-Homebrewer

by Karl S Updated on February 2, 2011

Beer Light Bulb

This blog presents a challenge.

Since I often write about homebrewing, I exclude those readers who do not homebrew. Sure some people still read those posts out of curiosity, but hitting “publish” on my hop filter video was like hitting a “not for you” button for non-homebrewers.

Ideally, everybody would homebrew, but since that’s not the case I’m going to try to bridge the gap with this post.

It’s a homebrewing post that is relevant to non-homebrewers. You see, even if you don’t make your own beer, you can still gain a better appreciation by understanding the brewing process.

This has a practical application to.

Want to be a beer judge? You don’t need to be a homebrewer, but you can bet you’ll have to answer brewing questions on the exam.

Even a Cicerone could benefit by knowing how beer is made.

So here are 5 brewing concepts that the craft beer drinker can drop into their box  of knowledge. Use them to better appreciate what you’re drinking, or impress that hottie at the bar.

1. Beer Dryness

Ever heard someone refer to a beer as dry?

This thing can help explain it. It’s a hydrometer, and it measures the gravity, or density of the beer. Since wort (unfermented beer) contains sugar, its gravity is higher than pure water. As the yeast eats the sugar and makes alcohol, the gravity drops because alcohol has a lower gravity than water.

The final gravity is the density of the water after the yeast has had its way with the sugars. The higher the final gravity, the more residual sugars left in the beer. A lower final gravity = less sugars and a dryer beer.

The brewer controls the dryness of the beer through a number of factors, but two of the most important are mash temperature and yeast selection.

Translation for the beer drinker: A dry beer has less residual sugars and a lower finishing gravity. For comparison, an English Barleywine can have a final gravity as high as 1.030, while sour beers can get as low as 1.003.

It’s tough to describe the flavor of a dry beer because it’s really more of a sensation. Dry beers do leave your mouth feeling, well, dry. I also find them more crisp and quenching. A dry beer makes me immediately want to go back in for another sip.

Is dry beer better? That depends on what beer you’re making and who’s drinking it. Remember that it’s not just about the finishing gravity, but the difference between the original and finishing gravity, which is a measure of attenuation.

An overly attenuated beer will be light bodied and sometimes cidery tasting. A barleywine that starts at 1.120 and finished at 1.008 is going to be way too thin and alcoholic. A barleywine needs more body. For a pilsner that starts at 1.045 though, 1.008 is an acceptable finishing gravity.

2. Base Malt vs. Specialty malt

Base malts like pale malt, pilsner malt, and Marris Otter contribute the bulk of the sugars to the beer, and a little bit of character. The role of specialty malt is the opposite – mainly character  (flavor, aroma, color), but not much fermentable sugars.

The more you process the malt through kilning or roasting, the more character it’s going to add. Pale malt is very lightly kilned. It adds a bunch of sugar, but not a ton of character. Black patent on the other hand is highly roasted and very potent stuff. A few ounces is often enough for a 5 gallon batch.

Translation for the beer drinker: When I first started brewing all-grain I was surprised by how much base malt I used compared to specialty malt. It’s often 90% of the total grains.

In fact, it’s amazing how tweaking the specialty malt in a recipe can create a whole different beer style. Take a pale ale and add a little bit of chocolate malt and you have a brown ale.

The next time you drink American ales like pale, amber, or brown, taste the difference in malt character and try to relate that to the difference in specialty malts.

3. Bottle Conditioning

To carbonate a beer you need to add CO2. There are two primary ways to do this: inject pure CO2, or have the yeast consume extra sugar and produce the CO2 naturally.

The latter is what’s known as bottle conditioning. You hear that term a lot, and it’s become a marketing angle for many breweries. Most breweries do not bottle condition. They filter out the yeast, inject CO2 into the beer, then bottle.

Most homebrewers add a little bit of sugar at the bottling process which the yeast then consumes to produce alcohol and CO2, thus carbonating the beer. Homebrewers that keg usually inject CO2 from a tank, although you can naturally carbonate a keg.

Translation for the beer drinker: Because the yeast is still at work in naturally carbonated beers, the beer is going to change over time. Take a bottle conditioned beer and let it age for a while, then compare it to a fresh version and witness the difference. The classic example is Orval. Because brettanomyces is added before bottling, the beer changes radically over time and the alcohol content increases by as much as 2 percentage points.

4. Lagering

Lagering can be confusing because the term is used in different ways. Technically, a lager is a beer made with bottom fermenting yeast, or lager yeast. Lager yeast can ferment at lower temperatures which results in less esters and a cleaner tasting beer. Because the beer is fermented at cooler temperatures, around 50F, the yeast slows down and the process takes longer.

Then there is the verb lager. To lager is to condition a beer at near freezing temperatures. This cold storage period smooths the beer out and gives it a more polished flavor. So can you lager an ale? Yes, you sure can.

Translation for the beer drinker: First, grab a good lager like the Brooklyn Lager, not a Bud. Then compare it to an ale of similar strength. I say similar strength because we normally differentiate a lager from an ale as being lighter. There’s more to it though. Notice the fruity flavors in the ale that are lacking in the lager. Taste how clean the lager is compared to the ale.

5. Mash pH

Ok the other ones made sense but how the heck does the mash pH relate to every day beer drinking? Just give me a chance.

You see, if the mash (mixture of hot water and grain)  pH isn’t in the right range then you’re going to extract unwanted flavors and you won’t develop the enzymes needed to convert starches into simple sugars. Bottom line – brewers need to get the right mash pH.

Translation for the beer drinker: This one is cool for its historical implications. Nowadays, brewers can adjust their water to get the exact pH needed for the mash. But in the past, brewers were at the mercy of their local water supply.

If you had hard water, you could use roasted malt to lower the pH to the desired level since roasted malt is very acidic. If you had soft water, you wouldn’t need the roasted malts and could get the right pH with only lighter base malts.

The classic examples are the cities of Dublin and Pilsen. Dublin has very hard water so they need to use roasted malt to lower the pH. The result? Dark beers like Guinness.

Pilsen has very soft water so they are able to make very light beers like the classic Pilsner Urquell.

Brewing Helps you Understand Beer

Those are just 5 out of  thousands of ways brewing knowledge translates into everyday beer drinking. Use them as nuggets to toss out at will or for achieving a certifiation.

Sorry if the non-brewers get left out on the blog once in a while. You know, you guys could make my job easier and start brewing. I happen to know of a place where you can learn.

Otherwise, I ‘ll keep things pretty well balanced.

What do you think is a geeky brewing concept that translates into an everyday drinking experience?