Ask the Ex­perts Gear­head: Sour Union

Home­brew ex­pert Brad Smith, au­thor of the Beer­smith home­brew­ing soft­ware and the voice be­hind the Beer­smith pod­cast, tack­les ques­tions about sav­ing a batch of beer gone wrong, beers that fin­ish overly bit­ter, and stuck fer­men­ta­tions.

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I just fin­ished fer­ment­ing and bulk ag­ing my beer, but it did not turn out well. Is there any­thing I can do to “save” it?

It de­pends on what is wrong with your beer. Some off-fla­vors (e.g., from se­ri­ous in­fec­tions) re­ally can’t be eas­ily cor­rected or cov­ered up. How­ever there are a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of flaws that can be cor­rected by ad­just­ing the bit­ter­ness lev­els or blend­ing your beer. You can even use the same tech­niques to change the style of your beer af­ter fer­men­ta­tion.

First, let’s talk about hops-malt bal­ance. If you have a beer that is too malty, you can ad­just it by adding more bit­ter­ness. The eas­i­est way to do this is us­ing an iso­mer­ized hops ex­tract. Iso­mer­ized ex­tracts are “pre-boiled”—that is, the al­pha acids have al­ready been put in a fi­nal “iso­mer­ized” form. So you can, quite lit­er­ally, add tiny amounts of iso­mer­ized ex­tract “to taste” un­til you achieve the hops bal­ance you want.

If the beer is too hoppy, then blend­ing your beer with a much less hoppy beer is prob­a­bly your best op­tion. In fact, blend­ing is often the best way to cor­rect a medi­ocre beer. Blend­ing is used ex­ten­sively in the pro­duc­tion of wines and dis­tilled spir­its be­cause it can, in many cases, pro­vide a fin­ished prod­uct bet­ter than the sum of the blended parts. With proper blend­ing, you can not only cover up mi­nor flaws but even change the style—say from an English ale to a brown ale—af­ter fer­men­ta­tion is com­plete.

If you have a beer that is flawed or out of bal­ance, one ap­proach is to brew a blend­ing beer that is the “op­po­site” of your flawed beer. Blend a hoppy beer with a low-hops beer. For a light beer with a slight off-fla­vor, blend it with some dark beer to hide the flaws. If your beer is weak on body, blend it with a higher-body beer that uses more ad­juncts. You can also di­lute your beer with wa­ter to re­duce the fi­nal grav­ity and al­co­hol or for­tify the beer with a stronger beer for more al­co­hol. Some mead mak­ers even use small amounts of vodka to di­lute a cloy­ingly sweet mead. The same tech­nique could be used on an ex­ces­sively malty beer.

Fi­nally, you can blend us­ing the beers you al­ready have on hand. I en­joy dark beers and usu­ally have a few on tap and find they are great at cov­er­ing mi­nor flaws in lighter beers. To achieve the right blend, start with a mea­sured quantity (say, 100 ml) of your base beer and then slowly add mea­sured amounts of the sec­ond beer un­til you achieve the bal­ance you want. If you’ve mea­sured both the base beer and the ad­di­tion, you will have a blend­ing ra­tio. I’ll then pull a sec­ond sam­ple and mix at that ra­tio to do a fi­nal check of taste. Once you have your ra­tio, just scale it up to your batch vol­umes to get the proper blend. While a fin­ish­ing grav­ity of 1.025 is quite high, the com­bi­na­tion of a high mash tem­per­a­ture and high per­cent­age of crys­tal malt can lead to very low yeast at­ten­u­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly if you use a low-at­ten­u­at­ing English yeast such as White Labs WLP002 English Ale. You could con­sider pitch­ing more yeast or, if that fails, blend­ing the beer with a lighter bod­ied beer. Short of blend­ing, there is not much you can do to cor­rect the beer at this point. It will prob­a­bly be quite malty when it fin­ishes—per­haps more like an English cask ale.

It is worth­while to take a look at the con­tribut­ing fac­tors in the recipe that led to the very high fin­ish­ing grav­ity. First, you prob­a­bly do not need a large per­cent­age of crys­tal malts in an English ale. Crys­tal malts add body be­cause they have a high per­cent­age of non-fer­mentable com­plex sug­ars. How­ever, ad­juncts of any kind in your grain bill are re­ally used to ac­cent cer­tain fla­vors and should make up a small por­tion of the grain bill. Most ad­juncts have low fer­mentabil­ity, and if you use an ex­ces­sive per­cent­age of ad­juncts, it will throw off the malt-hops bal­ance of your beer. The vast ma­jor­ity of your grain bill should be pale malt or an­other base malt, and ad­juncts in most cases should be 10 per­cent or less. I’ve had dis­cus­sions with sev­eral yeast man­u­fac­tur­ers who tell me that the per­cent of ad­juncts used has the largest im­pact on over­all yeast at­ten­u­a­tion, so this fac­tor alone is prob­a­bly the driv­ing fac­tor in your high fin­ish­ing grav­ity.

Next, con­sider the mash tem­per­a­ture you used. Yeast at­ten­u­a­tion goes down as mash tem­per­a­ture goes up, so if you mash at the low end of the range (around 148°F/64°C), you will get higher at­ten­u­a­tion than mash­ing at the high tem­per­a­ture range (156°F/69°C). This is due to the ac­tive tem­per­a­ture range for the ma­jor mash enzymes, which pro­duce more fer­mentable sugar chains at the lower tem­per­a­ture. So mash­ing at a lower tem­per­a­ture would have re­duced your fi­nal grav­ity by at least a few points.

I brewed an English pale ale and pur­posely added a high per­cent­age of crys­tal malt and also mashed at a high tem­per­a­ture (158°F/70°C). Now the fer­men­ta­tion seems to be stuck at 1.025. Is this nor­mal?

The fi­nal sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor is the yeast strain you used. While you did not men­tion which strain you used, you can look at the yeast data sheets for a va­ri­ety of English ale yeasts and see that there is quite a range of pos­si­ble at­ten­u­a­tions. For ex­am­ple, White Labs WLP002 English Ale yeast has an at­ten­u­a­tion range of 63–70 per­cent. White Labs WLP005 Bri­tish Ale yeast, a sim­i­lar strain, has a much higher at­ten­u­a­tion of 67–74 per­cent. So if you are mak­ing a high-grav­ity, full-bod­ied English pale ale, it might be bet­ter to use a higher at­ten­u­at­ing yeast than you might use for a low-grav­ity bit­ter. I’ll cover two pos­si­bil­i­ties. Based on your de­scrip­tion, the most likely cause is ex­ces­sive tan­nins, though it is also pos­si­ble you used an ex­cess of grains from the “harsh zone,” which I’ll de­scribe in a minute.

Tan­nins are a form of polyphe­nol that nat­u­rally oc­curs in malted grains and is de­rived pri­mar­ily from the grain husk. Dur­ing the mash­ing and lau­ter­ing process, some tan­nins are ex­tracted from the grain husks, al­though in most cases the tan­nin level re­mains below the fla­vor thresh­old that most peo­ple can de­tect.

Ex­ces­sive tan­nins can be ex­tracted in your beer if you al­low the ph to be driven too high (above 6.0) ei­ther when steep­ing grains in an ex­tract brew or when lau­ter­ing an all-grain brew. In the ex­tract case, the usual cause is us­ing too much wa­ter when steep­ing your grains. For ex­tract brew­ers steep­ing grains, I rec­om­mend keep­ing your wa­ter/grain ra­tio below about 4 qts/lb (8 l/kg), as higher ra­tios can re­sult in the ph above 6.

For all-grain brew­ers, tan­nins are most fre­quently ex­tracted near the end of the sparge/lau­ter­ing process when the last run­nings rise above a ph of 6. To counter it, first you want to man­age your mash ph and keep it in the 5.2–5.6 range while mash­ing. For most batches, I end up adding some lac­tic acid to bring the ph down close to 5.2 when brew­ing, and you can use soft­ware or an on­line cal­cu­la­tor to es­ti­mate your mash ph acid ad­just­ment both for the mash and sparge wa­ter. Sec­ond, you want to avoid very long sparges, es­pe­cially on light colored, low-grav­ity beers.

While tan­nins are one po­ten­tial cause of your prob­lem, the other prob­lem could be use of too many grains in the “harsh zone.” The “harsh zone” is a con­cept Randy Mosher in­tro­duces in his re­cent book, Mas­ter­ing Home­brew. In the book, Randy notes that very few grains are malted and pro­duced in the color range from roughly 80 to 250 Lovi­bond. The rea­son for this is that malts pro­duced in this “harsh zone” have many harsh fla­vors in­clud­ing strong tan­nic, cof­fee, burnt marsh­mal­low fla­vors that can eas­ily over­power other malts.

That’s why malts such as Spe­cial B, very dark caramel malts, dark brown malts, aro­matic malts, and even light choco­late malts should be used very spar­ingly. Some even come in “deb­it­tered” or “de­husked” ver­sions to try to soften their fla­vor. Us­ing more than a few per­cent of malts from the harsh zone can give you ex­cess tan­nins and other harsh burnt fla­vors that could ruin your beer. I use them only in small per­cent­ages and only when I have a spe­cific pur­pose, such as to add depth to a com­plex porter or im­pe­rial stout. You should avoid us­ing grains in the “harsh zone” when brew­ing most beer styles.

My last beer has a sharp harsh bit­ter fin­ish to it. It’s not a hoppy fla­vor but tastes more like a harsh tea or over­done cof­fee fin­ish. What did I do wrong?

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