A reader’s question

Got an email from a reader and would like to address it publicly here. Brandon writes:
“I have read (Greg) Noonan’s book on Scottish ales, but I am not clear on the procedure for caramelizing the wort. I thought you might be able to answer some of my questions.
In the book, he says to lightly caramelize some of the wort. How much wort did he typically use? I have read of homebrewers boiling a gallon of first runnings and reducing it to a quart. Is this too much caramelization or is this similar to what Noonan did?
I have also read that longer boil times do not necessarily increase caramelization but instead increase Maillard reactions, which are two different things. So when making a Scottish ale, am I going for caramelization or Maillard reactions?
Any information you could offer would be greatly appreciated.”

Good question, Brandon – and potentially confusing! As I understand it, Maillard reactions do in fact produce pretty much the same results as caramelization, but due to amino acids rather than actual “burning” of the sugars. Maple syrup, bread crusts, milk caramels, etc. are darkened by Maillard reactions, true sugar caramel and the like are by “pyrolisis”, or burning. In terms of a Scotch Ale, I think we’d be hard pressed to differentiate – true caramelization should be easy to do, although if a Maillard reaction occurred we might not know the difference among all the other complex flavors in the brew…
What I usually do (and I have a recipe, inspired by Greg Noonan’s work, that comes awfully close to a Traquair House clone) is take the first 2 or 3 quarts of runoff (from a 5-gallon all-grain mash with a target OG of around 1080 at least) and boil it in a cast iron pot until it thickens to a syrup-consistency, and almost burns… takes some watching, especially if you are also still monitoring the runoff and sparging the rest of the mash… I will then dilute the caramelized wort with a few cups of ordinary wort and add it into the brew kettle….

I would love to hear from readers with more of a chemistry background, explaining, in layman’s terms, the difference between these two processes, and between their results…

A tough job, but someone has to do it…

Frequently, I get customers asking me “How could I make something like…” and they point to a beer in the cooler, or name something they recently tasted. Right up my alley, no? And usually I can give them a fair approximation of style, strength, bitterness guidelines, on the spot, without much thought. Occasionally, though, there are stumpers. Beers I’ve never tried, or even never heard of, or that are just too difficult for all but the most experienced home brewers to do justice to.

A gentleman named Peter came into the store the other day and bought a case of the Amber Ale brewed by Peak Brewing, an organic brewery in Portland, Maine. I had tried the beer when it first came out a couple years ago, but didn’t remember it very well. This guy asked me “How could I brew this beer?” Turns out he had been a homebrewer back in the day (perhaps 30 or more years ago!) and hadn’t brewed in a long time – but was thinking about starting again.  A challenge, to be sure – how could I give the guy a recipe for a beer I didn’t know well? That was quickly solved – he handed me a bottle and said “here’s your homework”…

So here goes. Along the way to the recipe, this is how I generally approach the task of creating a clone brew, as I did during the aforementioned arduous research for my book.

The Research
Before opening and tasting any beer I hope to replicate, I do my homework – read the label, read the six-pack or case box, go to the website. Rarely does a brewer fail to give some hints about his or her beer – some list grains and hops used, some talk about their yeast, most give at least the % abv and the IBU’s. I was able to find out that Peak Amber is brewed to 4.9% abv, has 37 IBU’s and gets its color and complex malt flavor from crystal malt and “generous” amounts of Munich malt. That’s not a complete recipe, by any means, but to the discerning home brewer it’s a pretty good start.

Next I open the beer. I evaluate it as if I were judging it, looking at color, clarity, head, then aroma, then body and flavor, maltiness and bitterness, aftertaste and overall impressions. I try to figure out, as best I can, which hops or which general style of hops were or could be used, which malts are necessary to get the color and body I am tasting, and especially I try to detect any traces of a distinct yeast profile. There are certain commercial yeast strains that jump out at you, if you’ve tasted them.

Finally I begin to plan the brew – I know the final alcohol content I want, I know roughly the final gravity the beer must have (based on the fullness of the body, the residual sweetness of the malt, etc.), so I can figure out how much fermentation needs to happen and from what approximate starting point. I proceed to calculate how much of the main ingredients, especially extracts, I will need to reach that OG, tweak it a little for color and body, determine how to arrive at the IBU level I want with the hops I have decided to use, and then compare yeast profiles with what I have (or haven’t) detected in the beer. Usually I make up both an all-grain and an extract-based version of the recipe – the first for me, the second for customers who, like Peter, are not ready to step up to all-grain brewing just yet.

I’m going to leave this sounding arcane and mysterious for the time being, but I promise I will return to this and talk about recipe formulation, gravity and IBU calculation, etc. in a later post.

The Recipe (extract-based)
Steep 1/2 lb. medium crystal malt (60°L) and 1 lb. toasted Munich malt (toast on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes at 375°F) in 2-1/2 gallons of cold water. Raise temperature gradually to 160°F, hold for 20 – 30 minutes. Remove grains, rinse into kettle with 1/2 gallon hot tap water. Heat kettle contents to boiling, add either 5 lbs. light dry malt extract (DME) or 7 lbs. light malt extract syrup. Stir in well to avoid sticking and burning on the bottom. When the wort returns to boiling, add 5 AAU’s of a bittering hop (such as Galena, Nugget, or Northern Brewer). Boil 30 minutes, add 5 AAU’s of a different bittering/flavoring hop (Columbus or Challenger, perhaps). After another 30 minutes, 60 total, remove from heat and chill. Add to a sanitized fermenter along with enough chilled, pre-boiled water to make up 5-1/4 gallons. Take a hydrometer reading. Make sure the wort is between 65 – 80°F, pitch an American Ale yeast (White Labs WLP001) or 15 g. of a clean dry ale yeast, such as Cooper’s. Primary fermentation should take about 10 days, then rack to secondary and age & clarify for about two weeks. Prime with 2/3 cup corn sugar, bottle and condition for two weeks.

OG 1050
TG 1012
abv 4.8 – 5.0%
37 IBU’s

Note: Peak brews their beers with 100% organic ingredients. If you can find organic malt extracts, grains and hops, you should use them to stay true to Peak’s mission. You can, however, brew a similar beer with conventional ingredients.

All-Grain version
Mash 6 lbs. lager malt, 1-1/2 lbs. Munich malt, 1/2 lb. medium crystal malt (60°L), 1 lb. toasted Munich malt (toast 15 minutes at 375°F) in 14 quarts water at 152°F for 60 minutes. Runoff and sparge with 14 quarts of water at 170°F. Collect 26 quarts sweet wort. Bring to a boil, add hops as above. After a total boil of 60 minutes, chill to 75-80°F, pour into fermenter, pitch yeast and ferment as above.

Let me clarify…

You say your pale ale’s a little hazy? You say you can’t read the newspaper through your pilsner? You say your stout looks like the murky bottom of an aquarium tank? Is that what’s troubling you, Bunky? Well, you’re hardly alone…

Let me preface here by saying that I have little experience with this problem, its causes, or its remedies. For some reason, almost all of my beers turn out pretty clear, and I really don’t worry about the issue, myself. If I were brewing for competition (or gods forbid, commercially!) I would be more concerned. But I’m not. So I don’t worry. Nevertheless, I have some insight and some suggestions.

First, a word from our sponsor, real beer. Big commercial brewers filter their beer. They strip it of all live yeast and basically bottle a “dead” product. Many small breweries, and virtually all home brewers, bottle a beer that still contains live yeast, this is how we get carbonation. So naturally there is more likelihood of a homebrew being cloudy. A careful pour will usually avoid a cloudy glass of beer.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of cloudiness in beer. The first is suspended materials, either proteins (from malt and sugars), or yeast. This kind of cloudiness is both preventable and somewhat fixable. The second is due to infection, bacterial or other. This is, to a certain extent, preventable, but not really remediable after the fact.

To prevent infections that can cause cloudiness (as well as off-flavors and aromas), sanitation is the key. All equipment must be not only clean but also sanitized. Chlorine bleach, iodine, really hot water, autoclave… whatever method you choose, you cannot get your equipment “too sanitary”. This includes all items that come in contact with the beer after boiling – wort chiller, spoon, hydrometer and test jar, fermenter, lid, airlock, etc. etc. And do keep your brewing area (kitchen, cellar, garage, man-cave…) clean, dust-free, pet-free…

The other aspect of prevention is quick cooling and pitching. The longer your wort sits waiting to begin fermenting, the more possibilities there are for wayward ambient flora and fauna to invade. Unless you brew in a sterile lab environment, there are bacteriae, wild yeast, and many other creatures in your brewery just waiting for a snack. Try to chill the wort down and pitch the yeast within an hour of the end of boil, if you can. If that’s not possible, keep it covered/sealed until it is cool enough.

To prevent the suspended matter from becoming haze in the finished beer, or to remedy existing haze, there are a couple of things that brewers try. I don’t generally use any of these, so I only know about them second-hand, really. The first is Irish Moss. Irish Moss is actually a seaweed, also known as Carrageenan, often used as a preservative (in ice cream, for one example). It is added to the wort (1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon, depending on the wort volume) and is supposed to attract protein particles and bind them, precipitating them from the wort. The only time I used Moss I got a beer that tasted like iodine, and I have not used it since.

Some brewers add “finings” at various later points, during primary or secondary fermentation, at bottling, etc. There are basically two types, gelatin and isinglass. Now, I don’t know about you, but the thought of putting gelatin (made from beef/horse/pig hooves and skin, right?) or isinglass (which is derived from dried fish bladder) in my beer just doesn’t work. I’d rather have cloudy beer, personally. But that’s me. Besides, my daughter is a vegetarian, and she could not drink my beer if I used gelatin or isinglass. You brew for you, so you can “fine” your beer any way you want. If you buy gelatin or isinglass, it will generally come with instruction as per amount, application, etc. There are a couple of newer chemical compounds but I have no experience with them. I’d be happy to hear from other brewers in this forum – what do you use, how much, what results have you had?

The best way I’ve found to ensure that my beer is clear is proper aging and temperature. If you rack your beer  to secondary too early, you risk interrupting and maybe even stopping the natural fermentation cycle of the yeast. If you try to bottle before fermentation is done, not only are you headed for potential over-carbonation (and therefore possible gushers, broken bottles, etc…), but you may also prevent the yeast from properly flocculating (settling out of suspension). Always, always, always let your beer age, let it settle, let it clarify as much as possible in the secondary fermenter. And cooler is better, for secondary aging. Once the majority of fermentation is complete (in the primary, during the initial 7 – 10 day period) almost every yeast benefits from cooler temperatures – as low as 35° for lagers, 50° for ales.

My one exception is when I brew with fruit. I make a few different meads, throughout the year, and frequently add fruit to them – elderberries, strawberries, cherries, etc. My annual Lambics are aged on cherries and blackberries, sometimes on apples or blueberries. In almost every case, these fruits contain pectin, the substance that allows fruit sugars to “solidify”, producing jelly. I don’t want my fruit meads or my Lambics to be consumed by the spoonful or spread on my toast, so I will generally add a little pectic enzyme in the last couple weeks of aging, just before bottling. This enzyme breaks down the pectins and I do appreciate the crystal clarity which results.

Bottom line: if it bothers you, you can do something about it. If it doesn’t, you don’t need to. As long as you like your beer, it’s good.