Improving Your Beer: Part 1

In order to improve our beer, we need to know what is wrong with our beer. Wait, don’t leave the page. I’m not trying to insult your talents, but even the best brewers in the world make mistakes from time to time. Some of the most sought after beers in the world can have problems (See Goose Island Bourbon County Stout 2016 Infection or Left Hand Milk Stout Contaminated Yeast). Over the next few months, I’ll be offering up suggestions and ideas on how you can improve your brewday and final product.

Before we get into how to improve your beer, first we need to know how not to improve your beer. It is very important to learn which sources of opinions you need to avoid. The two main sources of bad information are:

  1. Non-brewing friends and family
  2. Yourself

Look, we’ve all done it. You finally finish that first batch of beer. You bottle it up and sit patiently, waiting for it to carbonate per directions provided in your kit. Two to three weeks later, you grab a bottle from the fridge, not knowing what to expect. Crack it open and hear that delightful *pssh*. Pour it into your favorite beer glass. It’s twice as dark as it should be for a Blonde Ale, but you “did that on purpose”. You take a little sip. It’s a little sweet, has a slight butterscotch flavor and maybe some cream corn on the palate. You take a second, bigger swig… “THIS IS THE BEST BEER I’VE EVER HAD! I NEED TO OPEN A BREWERY!!!” You share it with your family during the holidays; maybe let your neighbors and best friend have some. They all agree, “What are you doing wasting your time in IT, you need to open a brewery right now!”

Trust me, we’ve all done it. The second beer I made was the best beer I ever made, until I made my third beer, then the fourth beer. Nothing was going to stop me… except maybe reality. Compliments certainly make us feel better, and no one wants you to feel better about yourself than friends and family. They don’t want to tell you that something you spent time on, and gave them as a gift, tastes like someone boiled gym socks in pineapple juice.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know even after years of brewing, I still make mistakes. I’ve let my pH get too high during sparge and been saddled with an astringent American wheat. I’ve used old, improperly stored hops that have left me with a flavorless, aromatic free Pale Ale. No one is perfect. As a brewer, you should always be learning and always open to feedback, including negative. Sometimes an off-flavor isn’t even an off-flavor, it’s just not an expected flavor. Perhaps you wanted a saison with more pepper and spice up front and got more clove and fruit. Maybe you wanted less bananas in your Hefeweizen.

So, how do you get honest feedback to improve your beer? Below are tips that helped me over the past few years.

  1. Be Open to Criticism

    If you aren’t willing to accept criticism, you are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. This is probably the hardest thing and it extends well beyond beer. Human beings don’t like to hear negative things about themselves or their passions. It’s very easy to shrug off negative feedback as uninformed or inaccurate, and sometimes, it can be. In the past I’ve entered competitions where 3 judges mention the beer being clear, wonderfully carbonated and delightful to drink, only to have the fourth judge say it was oxidized, out of style, flat and murky. It is OK to disregard information that seems out of place. However, if 3 out of 4 judges say that, it may have some merit. If you can’t allow yourself to look at criticism from the outside looking in, it will be very difficult to overcome those obstacles.tmg-facebook_social
  2. Join a Homebrew Club
    I’ve written about this in the past, and I think it’s the easiest and most immediate way of getting feedback. You can certainly establish some great friendships with some of the other members of the club, however you’ll find they will also be some of the most direct and honest critics of your beer. That’s not to say everyone has learned the art of tact, but again, that doesn’t invalidate their notes. I encourage everyone who has a local group to visit them and bring some of your homebrew with you. It’s entirely possible you’ve made a great beer; it’s also possible you could get some insight on how to improve the mouthfeel of your all grain batch or how to brew a lighter colored extract beer. This is direct, honest and immediate feedback.obh-pano
  3. Enter a Homebrew Competition
    Homebrew competitions are an excellent way to dig deeper into some of the more unrecognizable flaws in beer. Most competitions are sanctioned by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), a group of judges who have gone through training and certification testing to detect off-flavors in beer. The amount of insight you get into the contents of your bottle is almost always well worth small investment (usually less than $10 per entry). I’ve even had beers that have won their category, that have come back with information on ways for me to improve it even further.MCF+2016+bos+trim
  4. Talk to a Professional
    No, not a therapist; a professional brewer. The craft beer industry is not like most business sectors. Unlike most professions, brewers generally get their start at home, just like you and me. Every once in a while you’ll find a brewer who thinks he’s holding the keys to the city and goes into full lockdown mode at the hint of even the simplest of questions, but most are volcanoes of knowledge. Some will share recipes of their most popular beers, including mash temps and hop schedules. Some will invite you to join in on brew day. Some will even offer to mentor you. If you can find a professional brewer who is willing to taste your beer and offer suggestions, do not sleep on that. It is a golden opportunity most would not pass up. Visit a local brewery, ask if the brewer is available and ask if they’d be willing to try your beer and offer feedback. You might be surprised the relationships that can be forged this way.brewery-bamforth-williams.jpg
  5. Visit your Local Homebrew Shop
    Folks who work at homebrew shops are almost always homebrewers themselves, and usually very good ones. Jay’s Brewing for instance has an incredibly knowledgeable staff that can assist you in perfecting your recipe. They can help you select the right yeast or hops for the job, or possibly even malt substitutes. There are a lot of malts on the market, with a lot of different maltsters providing them. It’s hard to know what each and every one taste like and what subtle nuances they’ll provide in your beer. Jay’s Brewing recently held a seminar in common off-flavors in beer. Based on social media response, they will be having more of these in the future. It’s possible you’ve been tasting something this whole time and couldn’t pinpoint the issue. A class like this may be the exact thing you need to make it click.  If you’re interested in hearing more about these classes, please email Jay’s Brewing to find the next class.cropped-cropped-IMG1_0607

Once you have an idea of where your process needs work, you can make some great strides. Many problems can be fixed right away and you’ll see the difference in your very next beer.

Next month, we’ll look at some common off-flavors and how to fix them, such as astringency, oxidation, corn/vegetal/DMS, green apple/acetaldehyde, hot/alcoholic, skunked beer.

Until next time, happy brewing!

stephenStephen Boyajian has been an avid homebrewer for 4 years. A fan of many styles, with a particular love for IPA’s and Stouts. He lives in Gainesville, VA with his wife, 3 kids and dog. When not brewing, he enjoys golfing or playing guitar.

3 Comments on “Improving Your Beer: Part 1”

  1. Nick Says:

    Good blog. I would say that it is tough to improve a beer unless you keep brewing the same beer, or at least the same intended beer. I find I almost never brew the same thing twice so while I can potentially improve in general, I cannot scientifically measure improvement. I have at times tried for an intended result in up to 7 brews but changed too much in each version and have not even repeated the best one. Even ingredients vary between batches too so. But it is on my list…..


  2. Andy Szmerekovsky Says:

    Another excellent post!


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