By Vito Delucchi
Section 1: What Is Craft Beer
Section 2: Crafting Your Own Beer
Section 3: Enjoying & Sharing Craft Beer
If you’re reading this, it’s safe to say you probably like beer; so much so that you even started making it yourself. And that’s where the paths between craft beer enthusiast and craft beer brewer start to split. Not to say they are mutually exclusive and one cannot step back and forth between the paths. But for a certain portion of us beer lovers, enjoying beer means understanding how it’s made and even making it ourselves. I often relate brewing to cooking at a very basic level, you’re taking raw ingredients and making something for yourself and others to enjoy. They both blend art & science and can easily be performed by anyone with interest in the subject, but they also take years to master. One thing that differentiates brewing from cooking is the equipment side of things. I think that is another reason homebrewing resonates deeper with some of us. It’s the gadget’s and engineering side of making beer that makes the hobby so much fun. Either way, be it your passion, flavors or form & function, crafting beer is a fun and rewarding hobby!
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What Is Craft Beer?
To me personally, craft beer is any beer that was made with thought towards ingredients/process and a creative purpose. Sure that’s super broad and one can argue all beer fits that definition. But simply trying to make a mass appealing, lowest cost beer for the purpose of making the most money is not craft beer. Not to take anything away from big beer and trying to make money. But the word “craft” should be driving the bus, sure “money” can have a seat on the bus and we want it to have a comfortable seat, but never at the cost of quality or compromising your beliefs. Thankfully, if you’re homebrewing, you don’t have to worry about any of that—you’re definitely a craft brewer! But I digress. Let’s look at the definition the BA (Brewers Association) uses to define craft beer:
“An American craft brewer is a small and independent brewer.”
They further define “Small” and “Independent” as the following:
Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to rules of alternating proprietorships.
Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
Depending on when you started drinking beer, the selection of “Craft Beer” has expanded a lot over the years. In fact, that is one of the main reasons a lot of us got into brewing; 20 years ago if you wanted a fresh classic beer style or something flavorful and creative you had very few choices. Now we have over 6,000 breweries in the United States that fit the definition of craft brewers. What a time to be a beer drinker, right?! However, even with all these amazing craft breweries, you can still have trouble finding a classic style or even something new & innovative. But, as long as homebrewing & creative craft brewers continue to do the right things for the right reasons, we will have a thriving beer ethos.
Crafting Your Own Beer
Nothing beats the feeling of enjoying a beer you crafted yourself, especially if it turned out how you intended it to. And in brewing that’s the ultimate sophistication, knowing what your ingredients and process will produce. The only way to get there is by brewing, tasting and learning. Yes, both brewing and tasting beer help you learn, but hitting the books and reading articles just like this can be a great help as well. Below we’re going to touch, and I emphasize on “touch” (not going super deep), into some of the ways you can craft your own flavors within a beer. I am going to touch on the four main ingredients in beer—Water
. I apologise in advance but this article will be sorta all-grain centric. This is not to say you can’t craft amazing beer with malt extract
. I myself and many people I know have made award-winning beer using malt extract. I just want to focus on using grains and discuss some of the ways you can alter malt flavor with mash temps and other steps. However if you’re an extract brewer don’t stop reading, the other topics still apply.
Elements of Composition
Brewers, like music conductors, guide the different elements of a beer towards their desired outcome. Each one of the following ingredients plays its part in this beautiful symphony and you can influence them via brewing equipment & process. The following sections will cover just a few of the ways these brewing ingredients can be manipulated to craft your own beer.
Water makes up a majority of the earth, our own bodies and of beer; so it goes without saying that one should pay attention to it when brewing. At a bare minimum you should use water that you yourself would drink. If you don’t like drinking your local tap water, you probably shouldn't use it to brew with. You can always pick up a few gallons of purified (not distilled) water from the local grocery store. It will most likely have lower mineral content and have had a majority of the chlorine removed from it as well. Another step you can take to help improve your own tap water is running it through a carbon filter. This will help remove the chlorine that can be reactive with the organics in your beer and lead to off-flavors.
That’s the basic steps you can do to your brewing water to help improve the quality of your finished beer. But just like anything else, this liquid rabbit hole goes much deeper than that. It can be daunting, but try and take it in steps. The first thing I would recommend is get a good pH meter. This will allow you to test the pH of your brewing water and use acids like Lactic or Phosphoric to lower and in turn dial in your mash pH (ideally 5.2-5.4 range). The next step is to pick up a water test kit like the LaMotte BrewLab Basic Water Test Kit. This will allow you to test your waters TDS’s (Total Dissolved Solids), so you can determine your Calcium, Sulfate, Chloride etc levels. Sure, you can easily get a local water report online; but trust me these levels change seasonally and in my experience the reports are better than nothing, but seldom reflective of the TDS PPM’s week to week or month to month. Once you have the ability to accurately determine your water’s TDS’s, you can start to add things like Calcium Chloride or Gypsum (Calcium Sulfate) to enhance or reduce elements of your finished beer flavor. For instance, higher levels of chloride ions can enhance the malt and mouthfeel perception in a beer. Whereas high levels of sulfate ions can enhance the hop bitterness and dryness perception in a finished beer.
Once your water has been identified and altered to fit the tune of your brew, it gets introduced to the next member of the band—malted barley. Just like water, this can be a deep (pun intended) subject as well. Barley is an agricultural product, so it can vary from year to year and even across different growing regions. Once the barley has been harvested, it’s not ready to brew with, it needs to be malted first. This is a three step process that includes first Steeping, then Germinating, and finally Kilning. Each one of these steps is very important and leads to the finished quality of the brewing malt. Luckily for us these steps are all handled by the Maltster and each one of them generally includes a COA (Certificate Of Analysis) for us to interpret and adjust our process as needed.
Let’s go over a few of the items on a COA to help understand how they will play a role in your crafted brewing process. First off, the most commonly referenced specification is color. In the United States it’s typically displayed as °L scale, which is short for Lovibond. The lower the °L the lighter the color of the malt and in turn the lighter the SRM (Standard Research Method) of the finished beer. Some other specifications are MC (Moisture Content), Extract and Friability. For MC typically the lower the better, but some malts like crystal will have a higher MC than say a base malt, but again if comparing different brands lower is better. Extract is one you want to pay attention to as well, just like color. It will give you an idea of the maximum extract potential of the malt and is a good indicator of the amount of starch modification that went on during malting. Essentially the higher the number the more sugar you should be able to extract. Speaking of starches and sugars, some COA’s list DP (Diastatic Power) as well. This gives you an idea of the starch converting enzymes in the malt. Some brewing grains like Oats & Wheat have zero DP and require a base malt with high DP to convert. Lastly we have Friability and Kernel Size. Friability basically means how well the malt will crumble when pressed (higher the number the better). Kernel size can be a little harder to interpret as it’s typically represented in terms of the sieve or screens it passes through for that lot assortment. Without going into too much detail, I recommend always physically looking at your malts kernel sizes to start to become familiar with it. Then always look at the crush coming out of your mill. If the kernel sizes are smaller adjust your mill gap closer or vice versa.
Ok enough geeking out on malt specs, besides malt selection and its effects on color & flavor let’s talk about what you can do with the process to alter that base malt and craft your own unique flavors, mouthfeel and More! We talked about converting starches to sugars and how the maltster unlocks that via the malting process. But you have control of the mash temperature and thus how that breakdown of complex and simple sugars get created. There are two enzymes at work here, the Alpha Amylase and the Beta Amylase. The Alpha breaks down the larger starch molecules and the beta then breaks those down into fermentable sugars. For me what was counter intuitive about this model is how it corresponds to linear temperature i.e. the beta amylase comes in the lower temp range and alpha in the higer. My mind wanted alpha to come first and then beta but I digress. All you need to know is the lower the mash temperature (within reason, bare with me) the more active the Beta and the higher the more active the Alpha. Sounds simple right? It is, but you need both to do their job; so mashing at 140 degrees fahrenheit won’t produce highly fermentable wort. This is because it’s too low for Alpha activity. That’s where a thing called “The Brewer’s Window” comes in. It’s the ideal temperature range for both Alpha and Beta to do their thing. It’s range is 145 to 158 degrees fahrenheit. The lower your mash temperature within this range the more fermentable wort, thus drier the beer. The higher the less fermentable wort, thus sweeter and fuller bodied the beer. You can play in this range to make an ultra dry or a full bodied beer depending on your mash temperature.
The next ingredient is one of my personal favorites and probably yours as well—hops! Hops are often described as one of the most exciting ingredients in beer. Similar to grain, hops are an agricultural product and change year to year and even differentiate from lot to lot. Having had the opportunity to do lot selection, it’s truly amazing how different say one lot of Mosaic can be from another lot. The good news is that hop growers combine their lots after commercial brewers have finished selecting and purchasing single lots. This leads to a homogenization of the alpha acids, aroma’s, etc. Having access to a single lot selection can be one of the ways a brewer can differentiate their beer’s aroma and flavors using the same hop variety. Regardless of the varieties lineage, try and always use the freshest possible hops and store them correctly.
Another way to craft flavors and aroma with hops is by using them in your boil kettle. The most important thing to understand here is the bittering value. Hops contain Alpha Acids that when boiled in a sugar & water solution (wort) create agreed upon bittering units. The higher the amount of hops and the longer they’re boiled the more bittering units you yield. However, the longer the hops are boiled the less aromatics they give. There is also a maximum amount of extraction per gram/pound, but we’ll get into that in a second. Depending on the beer style, you want some bitterness to balance the malt profile, but you also want some of those great aromatics from your hops as well. I tend to formulate my recipes with some of the ibu’s coming from first wort and the rest at knockout. I really like the flavor you get from the first wort, and then I try to maximize as much aroma as I can. By utilizing a whirlpool, time and temp, you can get real crafty on your approach to hot side hopping.
Then we have the cold side...Dry Hopping! There is so much to talk about here, but I am going to keep it light and easy like the rest of this article. Amazing hop aromas and some flavor really come out when used as a dry hop. Those alpha acids we talked about in the kettle don’t contribute IBU’s (International Bittering Units) but they do contribute what they call “perceived bitterness”. Definitely not as much of a concern as boil hops but something to be aware of. That being said most brewers, myself included, are using around 3-4 pounds of hops per barrel on most IPA’s. You hear of people using twice as much as that, but for me there is a point of diminishing returns. This is a good time to talk a little bit about what hops contain. Of course the aforementioned alpha acids and other aromatic oils & organic compounds, but they also contain enzymes and sugar, so depending on the amount of Hops you add and the temperature, you will see some more fermentation after adding dry hops. So be sure to give your beer time to condition accordingly to help reduce diacetyl. There is also an enzyme that can help reduce diacetyl formation. Alternatively you could cold (low 50’s F) dry hop to help reduce the secondary fermentation. From my experience the flavor from cold dry hopping is different, not as aromatic and a little sharper flavor; but definitely something worth mentioning. Either way, adding hops post fermentation leads to some amazing flavors and aromatics when crafting your beers.
I know it’s cliche, but I feel I have to mention it here. Brewers make wort and yeast make beer! Few ingredients can have as large an impact on your beer flavor & aroma as yeast. Nothing quite hammers this home more than a simple yeast trial. I remember back to when some members of my local home brew club DOZE split a single batch into 30 plus separate one gallon fermentations using different yeast strains. Smelling and tasting the differences between all those samples really gave me an appreciation for how much of an impact yeast can have on a beer. The moral of the story, you can definitely utilize yeast strains to craft the flavors and aromas of your beer.
Aside from yeast selection, fermentation temperature is another way to craft different flavors and aromas in your beer. All yeast manufacturers supply suggested fermentation temperature ranges per yeast strain. Assuming you have healthy yeast and the correct cell count you can utilize fermentation temperature variances to further enhance or diminish yeast esters. The higher in the specified range you go the more esters the yeast will produce, the lower the less. Each strain of yeast produces different esters, some can be reminiscent of pineapple & mango, some that of roses or bananas. Also worth noting, typically with most yeast strains higher fermentation temperature can lead to fusel alcohol production. So be sure not to exceed the recommended high end unless you really like nail polish remover.
Another way you can utilize equipment and yeast to craft your own beer flavors & aromas is via pressured fermentation. By fermenting under pressure you can suppress ester & fusel production even when fermenting at higher temperatures. There are a lot of great articles on this subject so I won’t go into it too deep. Another value to fermenting under pressure is the beer will retain some carbonation from fermentation leaving you with a semi carbonated beer. These are just a few ways to utilize yeast in crafting beer, the world is your oyster and those yeasties are the pearl!
Enjoying & Sharing Craft Beer
Ok, so we went over all the different ways you can use ingredients to craft beer. Now let’s talk a little bit about the best part of craft beer, enjoying it! Having gone through the BJCP program and becoming a Certified Beer Judge I always tend to use their scoring approach to evaluating a beer I am drinking. Just like a BJCP scoresheet I start with aroma & appearance. Take a look at the beer, “is it clear or hazy?”, “does it have a head on it?” “What does bubble formation look like?”. Smell the beer, “is the aroma malt, hop or yeast forward?”, “what do the hops, malt, or yeast aromas smell like?”. The old saying, you never get a second chance to make a first impression sort of applies here. But many times I have seen and smelled a beer that I didn't think I would like and ended up loving it when I tasted and even vice versa. After the aroma & appearance impression comes the most important flavor & mouthfeel. Similar to aroma, you evaluate all the ingredients and their impact on the beer's flavor. Mouthfeel is also important and can have a huge impact on the beer. Does the beer, “have a dry finish or not?”, “Is it highly carbonated or not?” so on and so forth. Lastly and most importantly you bring all these components together and form your overall impression of the beer. To me this is the most important thing, even when judging against a beer style. If a beer is out of range of a specific style it still can be quite enjoyable overall.
Classic Beer Styles
Speaking of specific styles I think it’s important to talk a little about them, especially as they relate to the craft beer industry. They were not created solely for the sake of beer judging, they serve as a reference point for the customer to understand what they’re ordering. Many times I have ordered beer based on the style it said on the board, only to receive something completely different. I am not saying the brewer should not craft the beer they want to, but if you call it a West Coast IPA and it’s really a Hazy IPA; let a brother know!
Innovation & Creativity in Beer
Ok, enough with the “get off my lawn!” speech, as much as it’s important to know and respect the classic styles; to me it’s just as important if not more to innovate & create. I’ve been brewing for over a decade now and a lot of my peers and those who taught me along the way hated the Haze Craze or hell even the Cascadian IPA craze before it. I’ve always been someone who loves trying new things especially when it comes to food and drinks. If something is done well and people enjoy it then far be it from me to tell them what is right or wrong. I love seeing new & innovative beer creations and I love that the BJCP guidelines get updated as needed. After all brewing is a science and just like scientific theory beer styles should be carefully thought-out explanations for observations of the natural beer world. I will close this section with this quote:
“Without order nothing can exist-without chaos nothing can evolve” - Oscar Wilde
At the end of the day craft beer means so many different things to many different people. It was my first time at GABF (Great American Beer Festival) that a friend of mine said something that really resonated with me. We were visiting a local brewery and just paid for a pint of the same beer. We both didn't really enjoy it and my response was “Man, I am not really into this beer, but I paid for it and don’t want to tell the staff I didn’t enjoy it”. He responded with “Vito, if it doesn't spark joy in your life then let it go”. We both found a place we could discreetly dump our beers and went on to something we both enjoyed. The point I am trying to make is don’t force yourself to drink something you don’t enjoy. Also don’t force your opinion onto someone not soliciting it. Of course, if you're judging a beer competition or they ask you, then you should give honest feedback. But if you’re having someone else’s beer that they really like and you're not into it, that’s ok; we all have different tastes and that’s what makes craft beer and the world in general such an awesome place! Cheers and be awesome to each other!
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