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 the beer
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
Check water for chlorine
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.
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 relying on outside advice, and instead, become your own best source of feedback. You need to become your own, personal beer judge.
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.
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.
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.
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.