By John Varady (Brewing Techniques)
More than 45 home brewers from coast to coast, introduced to each other through the internet, devised a homebrew version of the 1997 Oregon Pale Ale Experiment to refine the test of recipe replication. The home brewers’ scheme took the original experiment a step further by standardizing the yeast used. Here’s the story of how it all came together and an outline of the experiment.
In the spring of 1997, six pub brewers in Eugene, Oregon, conducted an experiment to determine whether different breweries could produce an identical beer. Starting with the same malts and hops and following the same basic brewing procedures, they each brewed a pale ale. Although many of the parameters were controlled, some variables were left to the mercy of commercial restrictions (yeast strain and batch size) or to the individual brewer’s discretion (mash length and bittering calculations). To no one’s surprise, the beers came out similar, but with significant differences. Two conclusions were reached: It takes more than a copy of a recipe and a set of procedures to reproduce a beer, and communal brewing is fun.
In an attempt to bring some of this fun to a homebrew level, I turned to the Homebrew Digest (HBD), an online brewing forum, to solicit participants for a more controlled version of the experiment. This exercise, which has since been dubbed The Great HBD Palexperiment, gained the involvement of dozens of people from all across the United States. Next issue, BrewingTechniques will report the findings of the various analyses of the finished beers. The present article reviews the human origins of the project and outlines the recipe and brewing parameters that participants agreed to follow in the pursuit of the HBD Palexperiment pale ale.
My original posting to the Homebrew Digest #2628 went out to the forum on 3 February 1998. It read:
I am wondering if anyone has any interest in a HBD Pale Ale experiment like the one reported in BrewingTechniques magazine. I would like to see a bunch of us brew a beer from the same recipe. We could all agree to use the same grains, hops, and yeast and then submit them to the same contest for evaluation. We would all use our standard brewing techniques, water, and equipment. We could then see how each of the systems we use fare.
This initial call to home brewers garnered only five responses. The exact details of the experiment were not defined; as such, few brewers expressed interest. After some discussion on the HBD, I offered to procure, weigh, and ship all the ingredients to guarantee that each brewer would be starting with exactly the same types and amounts of malt and hops. A pale ale recipe was put together, loosely based on the original Oregon experiment. We decided the batch size would be 5 gallons, with the malt bill consisting of 8.2 lb pale ale malt (82%), 1.0 lb crystal malt (10%), and 0.8 lb Munich malt (8%), for a total of 10 lb of malt. This recipe would yield an original gravity of 1.054, based on a mash efficiency of 75%. A single-infusion mash at 154 °F (68 °C) lasting for 60 minutes would be used. The hop schedule would result in a total of 40 IBUs from two additions of Centennial hops at 75 and 30 minutes, followed by two additions of Cascade hops at 15 and 0 minutes. Fermentation would be handled by Wyeast #1056 American Ale yeast. I decided to limit the experiment to 12 participants (100 lb of base malt) to keep things manageable.
With the experiment defined, my second call to brewers received much more attention. Within a week I had received more than 50 requests from brewers wishing to be included. Amazed at the overwhelming response, and not wanting to disappoint anyone, I allowed everyone who showed interest to get involved.
With the large number of brewers participating, it became necessary to establish some sort of forum to discuss the experiment outside the realm of the HBD. Jen Jorgensen, one of the participating brewers, offered to put together an e-mail mailing list for the discussion of the experiment. I wanted the process to be democratic, so I encouraged feedback from everyone. It quickly became apparent that democracy and anarchy are separated by a fine line.
Right from the start, we had trouble agreeing on what was to be meant by the “same recipe.” Did it mean making a beer starting from the same amounts of ingredients, or making a beer to the same specifications? Because we expected each ale to be directly influenced by the brewery equipment, some brewers thought they should apply their knowledge of their systems to determine the amounts of malts and hops needed to achieve the target original gravity and IBUs. Some also thought that the final volume should be adjusted to hit the target original gravity with the amount of malt and hops predetermined, whereas others felt that the original plan was the best. We took a vote and decided that the purpose of the experiment would not be simply to see if we could make the same beer, but to see the effect that different brewers, brewhouses, and water would have on the same set of ingredients.
During the discussion that followed, a couple of issues were raised and some alterations were made to the recipe and to the brewing procedures. It was decided that the length of the mash should be extended to 90 minutes to ensure complete starch conversion. The total IBUs were reduced from 40 to 35 to ease palate fatigue during evaluation. The 30-minute hop addition was changed from Centennial to Cascade to reduce the IBU variations caused by a late addition of a high-alpha hop. The use of copper finings became optional, though filtering was still not allowed.
To standardize volumes, we decided that the final knock-out volume would be as close to 5 gallons as possible. It was recommended that brewers boil down below this target and then add water back to the kettle to hit exactly 5 gallons before transferring to a fermentor, thus ensuring that each brewer produced the same amount of beer from the same amount of ingredients. The source and method of carbonation were left up to the brewer, but a target of 2.25 volumes of CO2 was recommended.
We ultimately decided that the fermentation would be carried out at 62–65 °F (17–18 °C) for at least three weeks before bottling. We had bounced around the idea of using Danstar’s Nottingham dry yeast, which would standardize the amount of yeast pitched and eliminate the need for a starter. Curiously, the majority of brewers involved were unwilling to use dry yeast, regardless of the quality. As it turned out, Wyeast was in the process of releasing a new extra large yeast pack that the company claimed contained enough viable yeast to pitch directly into 5 gallons of wort. It was decided, to a few brewers’ chagrin, that we would each buy and pitch a swollen Wyeast #1056 XL smack pack directly into the wort without making a starter.
I asked each brewer to send $ 10 to cover the cost of malt and hops, plus whatever additional money was required to cover UPS shipping from my part of the country (Philadelphia) to their zip code. In the end, I received a total of 47 checks.
Once I pinned down the exact number of participants, it came time to actually buy the supplies. Jim Cancro, head brewer of the Red Bell Brewing Company in Philadelphia, offered to sell us the malts and hops at cost. Red Bell did not have Centennial hops in stock, so Chinook was substituted at the last minute. A total of 385 lb of Crisp Maris Otter pale ale malt, 55 lb of Hugh Baird medium crystal malt, 50 lb of Briess Munich malt, 2.5 lb of Chinook (10.4% alpha-acids), and 7.5 lb of Cascade (4.8% alpha-acids) got loaded into the back seat of my VW Jetta. Although the weight put my bumper near the ground, the smell sent my olfactory senses to heaven (having 10 lb of fresh Northwest hops in the car is an unearthly delight). The total cost of supplies was $ 215, way below the $ 470 received from the group; we used the surplus funds to help purchase commemorative pint glasses for the event (thanks go to Spencer Thomas for handling this project).
With the purchase of the hops, we knew their alpha-acid rating and could calculate the amounts required to achieve 35 IBUs. Using utilization factors of 21% for a 75-minute addition, 11% for a 30-minute addition, 2% for a 15-minute addition, and 0% for a hop addition at knock-out, I determined that the hop schedule would be 23 grams of Chinook at 75 minutes and 23 grams of Cascade at each 30, 15, and 0 minutes. I then weighed out the hops to a tenth of a gram on a triple-beam balance scale and sealed them in Zip-lock bags.
In the 11th hour, one of the experimenters, Brian Rezac (also AHA administrator), called Dave Logsdon at Wyeast, who, after hearing of our exercise, generously offered to donate 47 Wyeast #1056 XL smack packs for the experiment. The AHA offered to pick up the overnight shipping charges of the yeast from Oregon to Pennsylvania.
Once the yeast arrived, the final step was to weigh the grains and pack the goods up for shipping. The grains were weighed to a tenth of an ounce using a Pitney Bowes postal scale and, with a little help from my loving wife Eve, packing the supplies took only six hours. We then shipped out the packages, giving brewers until Easter Sunday to brew.
I included a detailed log with each shipment so that the brewers could record the data from their brew session and subsequent fermentation. Every piece of data deemed worthy of tracking was collected on the logs (a portion of the log is shown at 41). Each brewer was asked to take a little extra time to calibrate their equipment and to pay a little extra attention to this batch then they would normally. Those brewers who used water from a municipal supply were asked to obtain a mineral analysis from their water company. Jens Jorgensen put together a web page with an online version of the brew log and fermentation log for each brewer, as well as areas in which to enter personal information, brewing history, water analysis, brewhouse equipment, and processes.
Originally, the plan was to send these beers off to various homebrew competitions to have them scored. These scores would then be compiled and used to make some assessments about the various homebrew systems in use. Although this method certainly would have given up some data, the beers would not be compared directly against one another and therefore system-influenced differences would not be noted. It soon became apparent that we needed to have the beers tasted and compared to each other by a panel of experienced judges in the same setting.
Though not a participant in the brewing, George De Piro was instrumental in the discussion and steering of the project. Having just completed the 63rd Short Course at the Siebel Institute of Technology, George contacted president Bill Siebel and inquired about having the beers tasted by one of the classes. Bill replied that it would not be practical for a class to taste 40-odd beers, but suggested that the beers could be tested through Siebel’s “Beer Style Flavor Assurance Program” and offered to discount the costs. Unfortunately for most of the brewers involved in the experiment, even the discounted prices were beyond their means. We declined Bill’s offer.
Early on in the experiment’s inception, BrewingTechniques columnist Louis Bonham had stepped forward to offer to do spectrophotometric IBU assays on some of the beers and write the experiment up in his BT column, “The Experimental Brewer.” As the experiment took on a grander scope and grew from a few brewers to close to 50, Louis and the staff at BrewingTechniques found themselves becoming more and more involved. Louis, who has an extensive small-scale brewing laboratory, expanded his offer to include tests on color, final gravity, percent alcohol, carbonation levels, and bacterial contamination (using LDMA) in addition to the IBU assays.
Knowing of our desires to have these brews tasted by a panel of recognized judges, BrewingTechniques contacted Oregon’s oldest and largest homebrew club, The Oregon Brew Crew, and arranged a special “competition.” Arrangements were made by OBC brewer and BJCP judge Kelly Jones to have the beers judged using both quantitative and comparative scoring techniques, which we expected would yield more information than would be provided if a standard BJCP score sheet were used. The tasting took place 13 June at the Saxer Brewing Company in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Interestingly, two of the pub brewers from the original Oregon Pale Ale experiment took part in the evaluation of these beers.
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