Fixing Homebrew Twang By: Tom Ayers

Ever give your beer to a buddy who said afterwards “yup, that tastes like homebrew”?  Or have you had a beer that was a little syrupy and just had that indescribable homebrew taste?  This is often referred to as homebrew twang, and by often I mean I’ve heard it a few times, so who knows.  But it makes sense to me.  This week I’m going to discuss ways to fix that common homebrew twang that is often found in your first homebrew batch.  I know I had it.  It was especially noticeable when I went back to taste some earlier beers after making some of these process changes.

Fixing homebrew twang is actually pretty easy.  Many of these changes can be made in your next batch at little to no cost.  It is generally confined to extract brewers, which is why it affects beginner brewers.  The reason it is confined to extract brewers is that generally the source of the twang is the extract.  If you partial mash you can also be affected by this, but it will be mitigated some or mostly by the mashed grains you are using.  Specialty grain steeping will be less effective in mitigating the issue, but can help.

There are lots of causes to homebrew twang, but the most common affecting beers of mine and my friends are:

1.  Partial Boils/Kettle Caramelization

2.  Old/Low Quality Extract

3.  Lack of Fermentation Temperature Control

4.  Incomplete Fermentation

Partial Boil/Kettle Caramelization

When you as a brewer are adding a lot of extract, particularly Liquid Malt Extract (LME) to a little amount of water you risk getting the homebrew twang.  This is because high concentration of liquid syrup/sugar so close to your heat source will likely lead to some caramelization of those sugars.  These sugars can then become unfermentable leaving a heavy, syrupy wort that ends up contributing that twang.  To counter this, the best thing to do is get a big enough pot and burner to do a full boil for your brew.  For a five gallon batch you’ll need around a 7+ gallon pot.  

Assuming dumping a bunch of money into equipment won’t be happening anytime soon, you are not out of luck.  There are a couple of other options to help reduce the twang.  Try using Dry Malt Extract (DME) instead of LME.  DME tends to blend better with your water than LME and therefore does not sit on the bottom near your heat source so much.  In addition to this try adding your extract late in the boil.  Add a little extract, 10-20%, at the beginning of the boil to aid hop utilization and then add the remaining extract during the last ten minutes of the boil.  Use Beersmith to calculate IBU’s as this process affects the bittering.  Beersmith has a late extract feature to adjust for this.  This process reduces how long the extract is in contact with your heat source, yet ensures the extract is sanitized by still being boiled for ten minutes.  Be sure when adding the extract that you stir it in completely to avoid it settling on the bottom of the kettle.  

Old/Low Quality Extract

Old or poorly handled extract can lead to homebrew twang as well.  I don’t have a great explanation for why this is other than perhaps oxidation, over exposure to elements including heat, and/or other age related issues.  Just think about some of the articles I’ve written on flaws.  There are several flaws that come from old grain.  This is the same concept with extract.  I’ve found that when I’ve used old extract this tends to lead to a greater twang.  There is a simple resolution to this issue.  Be sure you buy from a place that sells plenty of extract.  If you do this you are most likely to get fresh product as they are moving it so fast that they are turning over the stock regularly.  If you are unsure about your source, ask!  A good shop will be more than willing to tell you if they have fresh stock.  Oh and don’t buy those old kits on Craigslist and leave that can on the clearance shelf.  Of course, be sure to buy a high quality brand that has a reputation for quality.  This may take some experimentation on your part to find the best source/brand.

Lack of Fermentation Temperature Control

If you are fermenting on the floor of your bedroom and your beer is fermenting at whatever temperature it would like, you are increasing your chances of getting the dreaded twang.  The higher fermentation temperatures and large swings in temperature contribute to increased esters and fusel alcohols.  These two things can contribute to the off flavor and prevent the beer from fermenting out properly.  It is important to control your fermentation at a constant cool temperature.  Typically in ales you want to be below 70 degrees, I like 68 for most ales.  I ferment in a freezer that has a temperature controller added.  You can also use a refrigerator with a temperature controller.  If you can't use either of these try using a bathtub full of water with frozen water bottles to keep the water cool.  The point is to increase the thermal mass of the liquid.  The larger the thermal mass the longer it takes the temperature to change.  Basically it takes the ocean a lot longer to warm up on degree than a small pond because it has a larger thermal mass.  

Incomplete Fermentation

This of course can happen to more than just extract brewers, but an incomplete fermentation will lead to a heavy, syrupy flavor.  All of the above can lead to an incomplete fermentation.  Caramelized sugars can make them unfermentable by the yeast.  The same for old extract.  Poor fermentation control can also cause your yeast to not finish the job.  In addition to the above suggestions be sure to make a starter and pitch plenty of healthy yeast.  If you are using dry yeast, pitch plenty and re-hydrate properly.  To give your yeast a good environment you can also add yeast nutrient and oxygenate the wort thoroughly.        

Of course the final suggestion would be to switch to all grain.  If you’re interested, it can be done much more cheaply than you think, but be prepared to invest time in a longer brew day.  To do this cheaply you will need to do Brew In A Bag (BIAB) or small batch brewing.  But in doing so you will lose that twang and gain more options!

With these suggestions you should be well on your way to improving your homebrew.  If you are up for an experiment make several small batches changing only one thing to see what works best.  If you’re not the experimenting type, try all of them at once, and enjoy your improved beer!