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Vol 27 No. 6 November/December 2004
The Iowa Beer Tinkerers
Have you ever wondered, while enjoying a homebrew, how different the beer would taste if you could change just one ingredient in the recipe? This kind of mind- set stokes the natural curiosity of many homebrewers. Some experienced home- brewers possess a vivid “taste for the imagined,” such that they can be induced to drool when asked about their next recipe. This is similar, I suppose, to the bliss felt by Pavlov’s dogs.
To hone this taste, many brewers tinker with a favorite recipe, returning again and again to brew the same beer with minor modifications. For an ideal comparison, a brewer should change only one ingredient at a time. Any difference in the beer can then be attributed to the substitution in the recipe.
Or can it?
Unfortunately, natural variability exists in crops from year to year and from place to place. In fact, the amount of alpha acids found in hops harvested from a single plant can vary by several percentage points between two different years. This leads to a perplexing question: is the noticed change in a beer due to the controlled change in the recipe or a natural variation in the grain. hops or extract?
Another factor that confounds comparisons between “tinkered” beers is that taste comparisons are often made between two beers of different ages. Comparing a relatively green one-month youngster to a detect able four-month old-timer gives the aged beer a monster advantage. To get around this conundrum, some meticulous brewers keep detailed notes so they can compare a “beer in hand” to a “beer on paper.” More often, however, such notes are not available and a brewer will compare a beer in hand to a beer that resides in the cushy recesses of fond memories. With aging differences and natural variations in the ingredients working against a brewer, it’s important to take the lessons learned with a grain of salt (which, ideally, is found on a pretzel).
One way to avoid these confounding influences is to brew 10 batches of beer, all in the same day, using ingredients that came from the same harvest. What a busy brew day that would be. Another way is for a group of brewers to cooperate. Each brewer could make one batch of beer and compare it to the nine other batches made by the other brewers. This is exactly the arrangement set up by a group of brewers in Iowa in late
Two friends discussed the idea and cont acted their homebrewing buddies to see if others would be interested. This kind of proj ect had been on the mind of everyone cont acted, At an initial meeting, the brewers chose a style and formulated the standard recipe. Distinct beer styles characterized by a particular potent flavor (such as IPA or rauchbier) were excluded, because subtle flavor differences in the experimental beers might be hidden under the distinct style. On the other hand, recipes for nondescript beer were undesirable, because we were making 50 gallons of the stuff. The beer would need to be pleasant to consume in its own right. Finally, because all-grain and lagering were not an option for some brewers, we decided to brew a simple porter from extract and specialty grains.
With the standard recipe defined, we moved on to discuss how the recipe could be changed. Dozens of variables were considered and each brewer provided unique insights as to possible effects each variable could have on the final product (see Table 2). In the end, the list of interesting variables exceeded the number of brewers involved in the project. Different variables inspired different brewers and, because there was no duplication of interest, each brewer was able to test the variable he or she found most interesting (see Table 3). As a last order of business, a firm schedule of activities was agreed upon, a detailed protocol was outlined (see Supplement 1) and bulk supplies were ordered.
On a cold November evening, we divvied up the grains, hop pellets and bulk extract and drew our brew water from the appropriate sources. Brew day was just a couple of days later and bottling day couldn’t come soon enough. Busy holiday schedules kept us from meeting to compare the beers until mid-February. Upon tasting, we were pleased
to discover that the beer had aged quite well during the two months since bottling.
By itself, the beer tasted pleasant, but plain. While sweet, it would have benefited from additional malt and a stronger hop profile. The steeped chocolate malt provided an interesting nutty hint that saved the beer from being completely artless. For the purpose of the experiment, the beer completely fulfilled our designs. The flavor was simple enough on the palate that subtle flavor
differences would be detected, but was interesting enough for the brewers to desire to consume the beers. The color was a bit tamer than we would have liked. The beer was too light for a porter and would be better classified as a brown ale. Unless otherwise stated, the physical characteristics such as head and color of the beers were identical to the characteristics of Standard A.
Sweet Porter Recipe
3.3 lb (1.5 kg) Munton Dark Malt Extract
3.3 lb (1.5 kg) Munton Amber Malt Extract
0.5 lb (227 g) Chocolate Malt
2.0 oz (56 g) Fuggles hops, 4.4% alpha acid,
0.5 01(14 g) Tetnanger hops, 4.0% alpha acid, 5 mm
I tsp. Irish Moss
White Labs Ready to Pitch Burton Ale Yeast 5 gal Iowa City well water
0.75 cup corn sugar (to prime)
Desired 06: 1.045
Actual 06: varied greatly, from 1.048
The beer poured a one-finger head, which lapsed to a ring around the edges by the end of the glass. A few bubble streams raced to the surface and cloudiness was glaringly evident in the brown liquid. The scent was sweet with the flat grassy hop tone that can come with Fuggles.
Sweet malt predominated the palate to start. Darker grains then appeared in the form of mild hazelnut and a gentle grain bitter that quickly blended into a grassy hop finish. Once down the throat, the tongue quickly lost all memory of the beer, including the light to medium-light body.
All in all, it was a pleasant beer probably tasted during its prime. It was safe, not unique, the kind of beer used to turn a commercial beer drinker onto homebrew.
6.5-gallon ferment (instead of 5-gall on ferment): The recipe used to make this beer was identical to the recipe used to make Standard A. The beer was fermented in a 6.5- gallon carboy in order to retain the krausen in the fermenter, whereas Standard A was fermented in a 5-gallon carboy and lost about a quart of krausen out of the blow-off tube.
When consumed alone, the 6.5-gallon fermented beer was a satisfactory home- brew. A bitter bite at the end of each sip left a memory of the beverage in a way that Standard A lacked. When compared side by side with Standard A, however, the bitter bite made the 6.5-gallon fermented beer distinctly less desirable. Delightful fruity flavors tasted in Standard A were overwhelmed by an astringency that conflicted with the sweet malt and disarmed any nuttiness that may have been present. The grassy hop finish took on a sharp edge that made some tasters wonder if dandelions had grown on their tongues.
Despite the weak finish to Standard A, the tasters unanimously preferred the delicate play of flavors found in Standard A over the bitter punch of the 6.5-gallon fermented beer.
Irish Ale Yeast WLPOO4 (instead of Burton Ale Yeast WLPO23): The physical characteristics were identical to Standard A and the flavor was very similar. The sweet malt was a bit softer than Standard A, perhaps because of an interesting hint of silky cream like that found in an oatmeal stout. It wasn’t clear if the beer had a heavier body or if the creamy taste tricked the mouth into that perception.
Cascades (instead of Fuggles):
While the physical characteristics were identical to Standard A, the hops made the beer an entirely different experience. Most notably, this beer was too hoppy to be a porter. The West Coast hop profile changed this beer into an American Brown that was enjoyed by all the tasters. The citrus floral “C” hop profile worked well in the sweet malt, perhaps even standing strong because the gentle beer had been designed to allow subtle flavor differences to be detected.
Kent Goldings (instead of Fuggles):
The physical characteristics were identical to Standard A, but the hop profile dramatic ally changed the character of the beer. While not bitter, there was a refreshing spiciness, a tan’, earthy flavor that worked quite well with the nutty flavor from the chocolate malt. Hop level was appropriate for the sweetness of the beer. Perhaps the most pleasant of the beers tasted that
evening. John Bull (instead of Munton & Fison): Unfortunately, this brew became infected. It turned to sour vinegar in the primary.
Standard B was identical to Standard A, except the water came from a different well (the same aquifer, but some 25 miles away). The two beers shared physical characteristics and were indistinguishable by taste.
Tettnanger (instead of Fuggles):
Physical characteristics were similar to Standard B, but the flavor was quite different. The Tettnanger hops bit earlier and were more pronounced and aromatic than the Fuggles used in Standard B. Hop level was appropriate to the intensity of other flavors and played well with the sweet malt. Additionally, the hop experience pushed the flavor of the beer beyond the swallow, whereas the flavor of Standard B ended abruptly when the beer left the mouth.
Plus Dextrine Malt: As dextrine malt had been suggested to affect the head of the beer, we were disappointed to see no difference in the size or retention of the head when compared to Standard B. The color was barely darker than Standard B, but the flavor of the two beers was indistinguishable.
This recipe was identical to Standard A, except the water was obtained from a ‘ell located near the Mississippi River, some 50 miles away. The easily generated head was foamy and enormous, like a bubble bath in a beer glass. About half of the head subsided while the beer was consumed, and only because some of the foam stuck to our lips and tips of our noses.
This beer was lighter in color, lighter in body, had a gentler sweet-malt flavor, and was perhaps a bit hoppier. Upon discuss ion, we discovered that the brewer had diluted this beer in a way that none of the other brewers had. After racking to the secondary, the brewer had topped off the carboy with tap water. While this can’t explain the differences in the head, this dilution may explain the lighter color, body and gentler sweetness. The increased perception of hops may simply be the result of other flavors having been diluted.
Wyeast British Ale Yeast (instead of Burton Ale Yeast): This beer was identical to Standard C in regards to physical characteristics and flavor, except for a hint of cream that persisted through the quaff. Like Standard C, this beer had also been diluted after racking to secondary.
Not surprisingly, the flavor of the beer was most dramatically influenced by the hops. Our simple porter was transformed into a German ale by Tettnanger hops, an American brown by Cascade hops and an English ale by Goldings hops. The brewers who chose to use different hops were interested in learning the distinctive qualities of the hops. By comparing the beer, each brewer obtained firsthand experience with the flavor of each hop used. A second experimental beer is being planned and,
in order to further expand our experience base, some brewers will vary the hops.
Size of the fermentation vessel, the variable we considered least likely to affect the flavor of the beer, was actually the second most influential factor. As the two beers were prepared by the same brewer and the two fermentation vessels sat side by side, there can be little doubting the results. Perhaps the urban legend of foul- tasting fusel alcohols being blown out with the krausen is true. We are now interested
in comparing the quality of brew fermented in glass to brew fermented in plastic.
We were surprised that the different yeasts had barely detectable effects on the beers. This may be that the yeasts used in this experiment were chosen because they arc all known to have relatively neutral effects on flavor. More notable differences may have been apparent if our choices of yeast had been bolder.
Perhaps most surprising was that the source of water had no effect on flavor despite having an enormous impact on head and head retention. How could the physical characteristics change so much without having a notable effect on taste? This question will be explored further in our next experimental brew session. Interestingly, we found that dextrine malt did not affect head or head retention, contrary to numerous sources we consulted. It’s possible that dextrine malt needs to be mashed in order to increase head retention.
For the experienced brewers, some of the changes in the recipe had predictable effects on the beers, a confirmation of their “taste for the imagined.” For newer brewers, this experiment will play a pivotal role in their development of this taste. The unexpected results intrigued new and experienced brewe rs alike. Some brew lore was called into question. What other information, which we assume to be correct, is actually inaccurate? This fresh perspective has encouraged the experienced brewers out of brew ruts and to start thinking outside the box again.
Another rewarding aspect of the experiment was meeting and exchanging ideas with other homebrewers. Each person came to the initial meeting with a different background and a different level of brew experience. The exchange of ideas and opinions was wonderfully engaging and has sparked even more “beer-tinkering” thoughts in our restless minds. I can’t wait for our next experiment.
Paul Ogg drank macro-swill until a friend finally submitted to his begging and taught him how to brew. His professional actMties include laboratory instruction and research in cancer and virology. By the time this issue is at the press, Paul will have earned his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Iowa. Hes eager to begin his post-doctoral position at the University of Colorado, Boulder.