May was huge for us. Not sales, or reviews or being able to sleep in (sometimes) but it was huge for learning and hopefully making a better, more consistent product while saving hours off of already long brewdays.
“Never stop tweaking” is paying off…tweaking in the sense of the dictionary definition of: to improve (a mechanism or system) by making fine adjustments to it. We also do this compulsively, via the urban definition, as if we are addicted to making change and tweaking. We are. And we can’t stop. And there are no signs that we ever will.
So how has tweaking made better beer?
What do you think of when you hear ‘pale ale’? Given a taplist will you have a pale ale? Pale ale’s are boring anymore, right? With IPA’s being the category giant, pale ales just don’t get the love that they used to. IPA’s, to me, can have much more variation in style with hops, malts and bitterness. Pale ales are, and should be, a little more restrictive. They should be A LOT more repeatable and solid…no room for error.
Pale Ale’s are a difficult style to brew
Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale is my go-to pale ale ad something I grew up on as a
craft evolving beer drinker. When you want something with just enough flavor, but not with the bitterness or hoppiness of an IPA and you just want to quench your thirst with a beer that’s reliable and shouldn’t let you down, a Pale Ale is your beer.
But it’s not an easy style to make. It’s a frick’in PITA. It’s a huge balancing act between hops, malt and yeast. You don’t want any one of them to dominate the other. With IPA’s you can cover a lot of ‘stuff’ with hops. The same with Stouts. But Pale Ales…you want it to come off as…distinctively plain. Because to me, that style is what you want to drink with spicy barbecue, after mowing the lawn, or just to relax to without having to get out untappd and muster up an evaluation.
Our Towpath’n Pale Ale just hasn’t been solid…until now. For reals! EVERY batch you have tasted since we opened is tweaked. Why? I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t bad but it didn’t fit how I think it should be. For all of 2016 we changed the hops for every batch. But yet it still tasted the same. It still had that ‘finish’ that I didn’t think a pale ale should have. A pale ale should finish ‘crispy’…not malty. Ours finished malty – not crispy. Changing hops did nothing. Changing yeast did nothing. Changing malts didn’t help either.
What’s left to do? Change the water chemistry. You see, as a chemist, you would think I would be all over that. Not so. I’m more of a, ‘Our beers will represent the terroir of the region’…that being Akron water!’ I wanted these beers to represent Akron by not messing around with the basic ingredients. I was and still am very stoic on this. Now know that Akron water is one of the better water sources for making beer. But like in my homebrewing days, I never made a good Pilsner or Pale Ale (that’s why you don’t see a Pilsner on my menu).
To solve this malty Pale Ale problem, there wasn’t any variable left to change except water chemistry. Luckily I belong to the Akron homebrew club, SAAZ. There has been a meeting on water chemistry and how different types of water will affect the flavor of your beer…i.e., perceived bitterness, maltiness, etc. with some side-by-side taste testing. It was noticeable. The club also purchased a water chemistry kit where another member in Akron, Chris S., had the water tested. I started there with his numbers. What caught my eye was that to favor bitterness instead of a malty finish, Akron’s level of sulfates were low. In addition, it’s counter ion, Calcium was on the low end. There are a whole lot of other minerals in water too but these are the two biggies. Now, you hear ‘sulfate’ and you think, “I don’t want that in my water!” Relax. These are naturally occurring in all waters and it’s what makes water ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. Each main brewing center of the world makes specific great beers due to there specific water chemistry.
So I ran the chemistry and figured out the right amount of gypsum (Calcium Sulfate) to add. The additional mineral, Calcium, is also important for the mash enzymes and also, calcium helps the yeast flocculate (settle to bottom of fermentor when done) so that filtering is easier. So if all goes right, this is a two-fer.
We then made the beer. We were able to keg it on day 10 without filtering. Bonus!
How does the new Towpath’n pale ale taste?
Phenomenal! There is a clear difference in the finish between the older version and this one. No more did it have that lingering sweet maltiness at the end. This was replaced by a crispness as the additional sulfate ion enhanced the perceived bitterness of the beer. You want to keep drinking this beer whereas before, one would suffice…and as it warmed it got more unbalanced. This new version of Towpath’n does a lot better as it warms up.
Now even though this was a successful experiment and one that we will bring to future batches of Towpath’n, we’re still going to tweak the hops. I want to really dial-in a winner.
I’m going to apply some mineral adjustments to certain beers in the future on a case-by-case basis. I don’t want to do it to the IPA’s yet as we’ve become known for our ‘softer’ IPA’s that don’t have that bitter punch at the end. We may tweak our session IPA though and use these additional minerals to actually make a bitter, resiny IPA.
What else have you’ve been tweaking?
Oxygen. When one boils wort, it strips the liquid of all the gases. We need to add oxygen back in. Up until a month ago, we have been using air in a venturi loop with regular air to oxygenate our wort (yeast needs oxygen to multiply, without enough oxygen, fermentation can slow or stall). This was time-consuming but we used it as it eliminated figuring out using pure oxygen as most pro-brewers use. As I work more on the production facility, I wanted to get our methods efficient and in-line with how we will be making beers on a larger scale. So I did research and got a lot of help from Vince, the brewer at MadCap in Kent. I bought the equipment and we started using this new method. Now most breweries that use this method then have no oxygen meter to verify the amounts put in and just go by what they were taught. Luckily I had one. The first few beers we thought we developed a spec that worked and was repeatable, i.e., 1liter/min oxygen for 15 minutes during pumpout = 12-16ppm of O2 in the wort. Then everything became erratic the next week. Any beers that were higher in gravity (amoung of dissolved sugars = more alcohol), we couldn’t get enough oxygen in from our current procedure we just developed.
I did some research and apparently gas solubility is a function of a solution’s density (specific gravity). In my case, the bigger the wort, the harder it is to stuff oxygen into it. This is further complicated by the fact that for bigger beers with higher final alcohol levels, you need twice as much oxygen to start so the yeast can get going and divide more to handle the stress.
After many trials, we had to double our oxygen rate to 2liters/minute and also double our time it’s applied as we pumpout for these bigger beers. This finally got us to the level that we want.
Tweaking fining agents
Filtering has been our other nemesis. Up until recently we just haven’t been able to get our beers clear enough to then filter easily – and it doesn’t help that we have a a small window of 10 days from born to keg before we have to turn around that fermentor for next week’s batch. We like to filter our stouts, blondes, lagers and pale ales. They should be bright and clear. But they constantly gum up our filters too early. I’ve been working with Dave from Royal Docks and Mike Y from SAAZ on fining agents and filtration techniques and it’s helped to a point. I then went back to their recommendations on adding a kettle fining agent to the beers that we want to filter. After some adjustments for our bigger beers, it’s been simply amazing. Beers that we were deathly afraid to filter as it would gum up and take hours longer, now don’t even need filtering. Thanks Dave and Mike!
Ironically, stripping out all of these fining agents is what makes a great hazy IPA which we are becoming known for.
Doing things the hard way
As a homebrewer, I made a conscious decision to strip out all of the ‘extras’ in making the beer as I wanted to qualitatively know what each product added or subtracted from the finished beer. Up until a few months ago, we’ve done it just the same and have gotten a clear sense of the flavor profiles and clarity – even though process-wise it’s been a pain and has added many hours to the day. As we start adding things back in, one-by-one, we are getting a lot better comparison of what mineral or addition has exactly what effect in the final product instead of ‘you add all of this stuff and this is what you get’. Certain beers need certain water chemistry. Hazy IPA’s need a completely different treatment regarding fining agents and specifically, which ones. We never would have been able to make our accidental hazy IPA’s if it weren’t from my stubbornness from the beginning.
I wouldn’t take it all back. It’s not like I like reinventing the wheel…but there are so many things you can do to affect the composition of your beer depending on style, that it’s almost better to ‘exactly know’ by tweaking…so you know exactly how to use the tools in your tool-box of tricks.