Brewing Mistakes (Part 1) By: Ben Bakelaar

Let’s face it. Part of the hobby of brewing (for some, like me, a big part) is making mistakes. They are really unavoidable, in my opinion, because brewing beer is such a complex combination of art and science.  I remember when I first started brewing from kits; I would read the instructions and have a million questions. It seemed like the 10 or 15 steps should really have been 50 or 100! It would say something like “Heat the water to a boil and then add DME”. I would wonder “Do I turn off the burners before adding the DME?? Do I add all the DME at once, or do I have to slowly stir it in while pouring??? I read a random homebrew forum thread that says you can scorch your DME and you should add half of it after 30 minutes!”. So then I would turn off the burners, add the DME very slowly, and the boil would take another 10 minutes to start up again, at which point I worried that I didn’t boil it correctly.

I love to Google for some homebrew terms and read threads as much as the next homebrewer, but my advice to you is to make sure you gather multiple opinions. There is a lot of bad information out there, as well as what borders on superstitious practices and processes that ultimately have little effect on your homebrew. How can you know? It takes a bit of critical thinking, but also personal experience which you’ll only gain by continuing to brew and continuing to make those mistakes. It’s hard when you are just starting out to imagine having 10 or 20 or 30 brews under your belt. I remember a lot of times thinking “Well I better get it right the first time, because what if I move on to a new hobby or stop brewing”. But I say it’s better to have the attitude that you are going to brew for the rest of your life, so there’s really no hurry. You may or may not actually brew the rest of your life, but with that attitude, your results might turn out a lot better and you’ll have a lot less stress on brew day.

What you inevitably find after brewing long enough and being exposed to enough smart brewers, is that everyone’s process is different, and every step in the process both does and does not affect the final product. What I mean by that is, every choice you make does affect your beer, but some choices have very little effect and others have a much larger impact. There are so many variables and steps in the process that you can’t avoid “mistakes”, and you’ll most likely drive yourself crazy if you try (engineers, pay attention). What you can do is educate yourself about the science of brewing, relax, and think about the potential impact. For example, what happens if you don’t hit your target original gravity? Well, plain and simple, your beer either has more or less alcohol in it. Now I’m not a competition type of homebrewer, but this has never bothered me one bit. What do I care if my beer comes out 5.2% ABV vs. 5.4% ABV vs. 5.6% ABV? See what I mean? You might get all worked up about hitting your target, which I’ve definitely done before, but once you think it through, you might find that the variability introduced by your “mistake” is totally acceptable, or even a happy accident. There are of course true mistakes that will ruin your beer, but once you get your sanitation under control, I think a lot of it is ends up being natural variability in a complex process.

Recently, I brewed another batch of the Scottish Wee Heavy that I blogged about earlier this year. It would be the second batch, and I had already tasted the results of the first, so I felt fairly comfortable with the recipe. I made a duplicate of it in BeerSmith, and then started modifying it based on the inventory I had on hand. After checking in with a very experienced brewer (15 years) and the head brewer at Harvest Moon, my first change was to substitute Pilsner malt for the 2-Row that I had used on the first batch, since I had about 30 lbs of it on hand from the summer. The difference between 2-Row and Pilsner, from a technical perspective, is minimal. The next was to change the roasted grain bill. I like nice and even numbers, so I went for 2/3 lb of Crystal 60, ½ lb of Crystal 120, and ½ lb of Roasted Barley, whereas on the first batch it was just 2/3 lb of Crystal 120 and ½ lb of Roasted Barley. I also substituted UK Kent Goldings hops for Fuggles, and upped the addition from 1 to 2 ounces. This being a 15% beer, I imagined it could use a bit more hops to balance the malt. The biggest change to my recipe was that I also correctly entered my DME additions. Instead of indicating to BeerSmith that I was adding all 6 lbs of DME during the boil, I indicated 3 lbs at 30 minutes (halfway through the boil) and 3 lbs after the boil.

I went ahead and brewed this partial-mash batch with no problem. My target gravities were close (off because of miscalculations in the water volumes pre- and post-boil), and I put it in the fermenter and added the yeast. It was only later when I was discussing the recipe with some other homebrewers that I realized a critical “mistake”. The IBU calculation, whether you do it by hand or website calculator or BeerSmith, depends on knowing the gravity of the wort during the boil. The way it works is, the lower the gravity, the higher your hop “utilization”, and therefore the higher your IBUs. If BeerSmith thinks you are boiling your hops in a solution at 1.130 SG, your hop utilization is going to be incredibly low. On the other hand, if BeerSmith thinks that you are boiling your hops in a 1.030 SG solution, your hop utilization is going to be incredibly high and your IBUs are going to skyrocket.

And that’s what happened with this beer. Without realizing it, because I decided to use “late extract additions” for the boil, I had upped the IBUs way beyond style. For the first batch, with 1 oz of hops, BeerSmith calculated 15.3 IBUs. I literally brewed a 15% ABV beer that has only 15 IBUs. I did use the term “malt bomb” in my original article, and obviously I meant it J Meanwhile, on the second batch, I only added 1 more ounce of hops with a similar alpha acid, but my IBUs shot up to 51! Again, this is because for the first 30 minutes of the boil, the wort was around 1.030 SG (from the grains that I mashed prior to boil), and then when I added 3 lbs of DME it went up to 1.080 for the final 30 minutes of the boil. The final addition of 3 lbs of DME post-boil (actually I add it after fermentation starts) will bring up the gravity to the intended 1.130 SG, but will have no effect on the IBUs at that point. So when you look at the numbers, this is a huge “mistake”. I thought I’d be getting 30 (double the 15 from the first batch). But I’ll give you one guess... do you think I care if my 15% ABV Scottish Wee Heavy which is going to age for 9-12 months has a starting IBU of 15 vs. 51?

Let’s hear your stories about the “mistakes” you’ve made that in the end didn’t really affect the quality of your brew. Hit me up on Twitter @beerbyben with any questions, or leave a comment below and I'll respond!