As I look back on my earlier decade of brewing beer, it dawned on me that my brewing practices and beliefs have changed quite a bit from when I first began. My evolution as a brewer (well, I hope it’s been an evolution) has been fueled by equal parts research and hands-on experience. It’s my hope that sharing my brewing learnings may help others to sift out some prevalent myths from their brewing. Doing so has many benefits, including simplifying and shortening your brewing by allowing you to focus your energy on more important brewing aspects.
General Origins of Brewing Myths
Myths might be a strong word to use for what we are going to discuss. Maybe they should be called misconceptions, commonly held beliefs or dogma. Not all of what we are going to look at here are so cut and dry as to call them myths. Some have been mostly disproved by brewing science while others are according to my experience as well as other much more experienced brewers. Since “myths” is more click-worthy and got your attention, we will stay with that terminology. Generally, it seems brewing myths come from literature (books, magazine, digital), forums, word of mouth and from commercial brewers. Many times we read or hear something from one of these sources and it instantly becomes fact. We then tend to repeat that fact without understanding the underlying principles and caveats. Information from commercial brewers may not be a myth in their environment, but it can be to a homebrewer. Commercial brewers are concerned with different things than homebrewers. Also, their processes and scale is different and much larger, which tends to magnify the importance of smaller topics that may be irrelevant to homebrewers. That said, let’s get started exploring some pervasive brewing myths.
Some Brewing Ingredient Myths
Myth: “You Can’t Brew a Quality Beer with Malt Extract”
We’ve all heard and seen this myth repeated over and over again in online forums and well as from brewing friends. This myth probably comes from the fact that most of us started brewing from ingredient kits that included malt extract. As our brewing skills progressed, many of us took on the challenge of all-grain brewing. But just because the process is more challenging, doesn’t mean it produces a better beer. Some of the best homebrewers I know, still use extract to produce excellent beers. This is because they have refined their brewing processes over time and understand how to brew at a high level. They continue to use extract because its easier to use and generally allows them to shorten their brew day. Many brewers claim they can detect a beer made with extract from one that was made all-grain. Aside from maybe a slightly darker beer color, I have never found this to be true. My experience tells me the brewer’s skill is more important.
Myth: “Dry Yeast is Inferior to Liquid Yeast”
This brewing myth has much in common with the earlier myth. Like that earlier one, it seems to stem from our experience using brewing ingredient kits. Some brewers purchased kits with old or expired dry yeast. Because of this maybe the beer fermented poorly. Or maybe because the beer turned out below our expectations, we blamed it on the dry yeast. Its lower cost when compared to liquid yeast probably adds to the inferiority perception. Whatever the reason, many brewers like myself, include dry yeast in our brewing and use it confidence. In addition to cost, dry yeast offers important advantages over liquid yeast including a smaller storage footprint and longer shelf life. Personally, I give much greater consideration to choosing the correct yeast strain for fermenting my beer with. If there is a liquid or a dry version available, I will most often choose the dry one for the advantages referenced earlier.
Myth: Believing Treating and Filtering Brewing Water is the Same Thing
This myth baffles me, but it’s one I’ve heard from the mouths of professional and homebrewers alike. Professionals who have shared this myth with me appear to use it to justify why they don’t treat their water profiles for brewing. They typically reference a more prominent and successful brewer in the area who purportedly uses a local municipality’s water “right out of the tap” for their brewing. The inference is that “if its good enough for them, then its good enough for my brewery”. Just because a brewery says that, doesn’t mean they are not treating it for specific styles or filtering it before brewing with it. To me, this myth is akin to using the municipal water profiles from around the world to brew specific beers. In those cases, it seems a big leap to assume brewery’s located in those municipalities don’t alter or treat their water profiles. I’ve read many interviews with brewers from fabled municipalities who confirm that they treat their water profiles because they need to do it.
Brewing Process Myths
Myth: “Batch Sparging is Inferior to Fly Sparging”
In an American Homebrewers Association article on this topic, Denny Conn pointed out that this myth is probably true, in a perfect world. But most of us don’t live in a perfect world. For this myth to be true, you need a perfect fly-sparging system along with perfect sparging skills. Denny argues that batch sparging removes variables like lauter tun design and sparge technique from the process. He further states that in the real world, batch sparging efficiency can equal fly-sparging efficiency. Like some of the earlier myths, this one has more to do with the brewer’s skills in executing the method than just the method itself. Denny believes the decision to choose one method over the other should be based on preferences and equipment choices, not efficiency concerns. This makes sense to me.
Myth: Believing Ambient Temperature Control is “Good Enough”
There seems to be two sources for this myth; homebrew equipment starter kits and economics. Many beginner homebrewers start by buying a basic selection of equipment. This assortment of equipment usually excludes any means for controlling fermentation temperatures. This makes sense since you are just starting out with your new hobby, so you don’t want to spend more money than you have to. Most recipe kits will tell you what temperature to ferment your wort at, but not how to reach and maintain that temperature. As our brewing knowledge increases we begin to understand the importance of temperature control, but investing in equipment to do it can be a challenge financially. My earlier attempts to control fermentation temperatures consisted of finding colder rooms in my home or basement to keep my yeast from producing off flavors. I even resorted to placing wet t-shirts over my carboy while blowing air over it with a fan to cool my fermenting wort. Sometimes I was successful, and sometimes not and my beer quality suffered because of it. Investing in a fermentation refrigerator, temperature controller and a thermowell changed all of that, allowing me to easily control the internal wort temperature at the manufacturer’s optimal yeast temperature. This investment made the single biggest improvement in my beer quality over the past decade. Don’t just take my word for it. Chris White and Jamil Zainassheff in their book, Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation write, “one of the greatest things a brewer can do to improve his beer is manage the fermentation temperature”.
Myth: Using a Secondary Fermentor for Every Batch
The origin of this myth seems to be two-fold. First, many beginning homebrewing equipment packages include a secondary fermentor. In fact, many brewing ingredient kits include a secondary fermentation step. This leads us to the second source of this myth. For years many prominent homebrewing authors advocated using a secondary fermenter as an additional step after primary fermentation concluded. The benefits were to remove the beer from the trub as quickly as possible to prevent off flavors from the trub seeping into the beer. This step also allowed for beer to clear, without the trub concerns. Since that time, many of those same prominent authors have evolved their view and now advocate against using a secondary for this purpose believing the risk for transfer oxidation and contamination are greater than from trub off flavors. Unless you plan to dry hop with hops, fruit or something else to impart its character or aroma into your beer, you don’t need to include a secondary fermenter in your normal brewing process.
Myth: Believing Every Fermentation Requires At Least Two Weeks
This myth likely comes from some brewing literature, forums and word of mouth. It’s seems to be a well intentioned, over-generalization of how long to allow a beer to ferment. Brewing beer is a fairly complex process, so many of us crave generalized guidance to simplify things. Most of us love to simplify and shorten our brewing, with the later being just as important as the first. If someone or something can shorten the time it takes to get our beer to a glass we are all ears, right? To me, a more thoughtful approach is to monitor fermentation to determine when a given yeast strain has completed it’s work. Every yeast strain has its own characteristics to consider. Also how that yeast strain performs when fermenting different beer styles can impact its fermentation time as well. My experience has been to monitor fermentation until the activity stops. At this point, I take hydrometer readings for a couple of days after to confirm fermentation has ended. Then I allow another 48 hours to allow the yeast to clean up after itself. According to Jamil Zainassheff and Chris White’s book, Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation this time is important to allow for the yeast to reabsorb diacetyl and acetaldehyde produced during fermentation. That said, the authors stress that you don’t want to do this too quickly, to ensure the yeast has finished its business. This is the reason I wait an additional 48 hours after confirming stable attenuation. All of this might result in less than 2 weeks, 2 weeks or more than 2 weeks to complete fermentation.
Myth: Believing It’s Ok to Drink Your Beer as Soon as its Packaged
It’s important to understand that your beer is likely still “green” when its first packaged. Depending on the beer style, it requires a couple of weeks or more to reach it’s optimal taste and flavor character. Brewing experts loosely refer to this as conditioning. I say loosely because there are varying definitions of what conditioning is and the brewing phases it includes. For this discussion I’m limiting it to when a homebrew is first packaged and carbonated. During this time, beer flavors meld together under the influence of carbonation. The time needed for conditioning varies by beer style, alcohol level and storage temperature. From my experience, At least two weeks under carbonation will condition most beers. However many beers will benefit from additional time. For example, hoppy beers will take a couple of weeks to condition, then should be consumed quickly since hop aromas and flavors will fade over time. In contrast, maltier and higher alcohol beers and styles can benefit from extended conditioning. The extended time can aid in developing more complex flavors in the beer. Though the best conditioning time length is subjective, most brewing experts agree that consuming a beer as soon as it’s carbonated is consuming it when it’s good, but before its as good as it could be. In other words, this myth is actually true if you want to drink just “ok” tasting beer.
Myth: “Lagers are Difficult to Brew”
On one hand, lagers can be difficult to brew. Lager beer styles themselves generally leave little to mask brewing mistakes or poor techniques. Unless we are talking about decoction mashes and the like, brewing lagers doesn’t have to be overly difficult. For example, I’ve found 90 minute boils to be unnecessary. That particular practice was more a reflection of the poorer quality malts available in the past. Modern malts are much more user friendly for homebrewers and professionals alike. Lager fermentation need not be difficult as well. If you choose the right yeast, you can ferment a lager as quickly as most ales. Some of the most widely used commercial lager yeasts are extremely forgiving and can be fermented at ale temperatures with no ill effect to the beer. Said another way, it’s the yeast stupid! This assertion has been confirmed over and over again by industry publications and citizen brewsites like Brulosophy. Commercial breweries have know this for years. I think many brewers would be shocked to learn that many routinely turn their lagers around in as little as 10 days! For homebrewers, lagers do require more conditioning than most ales, but its not difficult or for an overly extended period of time. See the next myth below for more about that.
Myth: Believing Lagers Require Months of Lagering to Taste Good”
It’s a fact that many of the largest commercial brewers in the world managed to brew their lagers in weeks, not months. They are able to do much of this through scale and process efficiency. In addition to those advantages, they also speed up the brewing process by choosing the right yeast. In fact, I believe the yeast is the most critical choice you make when brewing a lager slow or fast. From my experience, extended lagering (or conditioning) is mostly unnecessary if the brewer chooses the right yeast. Don’t take my word for it. Dr. Charlie Bamforth at UC Davis seems to agree saying:
“Provided the brewer has delivered the desirable flavor and has encouraged the yeast in the fermenter to eliminate the generally agreed no-no’s (notably vicinal diketones, acetaldehyde and hydrogen sulphide) then there seems little point in leaving the beer hanging around”.
My experience brewing lagers has shown me that by choosing a temperature tolerant lager yeast, brewing it at ale yeast temperatures and allowing for diacetyl rests, along with time for the yeast to clean up after itself will yield a great craft lager. Ideally, I allow an extra week or two of conditioning under carbonation for my lagers. It seems to round out the flavors, much as it seems to do in lesser time for my ales. Give it a try for yourself.
Myth: Believing in CO2 “Blanketing”
This belief isn’t so cut and dry as all of us would like. The most prevalent arguments supporting this belief are that CO2 gas is heavier than oxygen, so it will sink below it and develop a stratified layer (or blanket) protecting your beer from oxidation. The counter argument to this is that CO2 is fully mixed and homogeneous in the air, not stratified. It seems both arguments have merit, under certain conditions. According to an article on this topic appearing in Beer & Wine Journal, “In actual homebrewing conditions, there are times that CO2 can pool, excluding oxygen — to some degree — from the liquid below it. The length of time a “CO2 blanket” can exist, and the extent to which it impedes oxygen ingress, depends on a number of variables”. The article goes on to say that during fermentation, oxygen in the fermentor will be pushed out by CO2 coming from the active fermentation. Until the vessel is opened, the trapped CO2 will protect the liquid from oxygen. However, once the fermentor is unsealed following active fermentation, you introduce oxygen to the fermentor. You can add CO2 gas to the fermentor (e.g. via a CO2 tank) and it will form a temporary blanket. However, unless you continually refresh it, this CO2 will quickly diffuse into the air around it mixing with oxygen. Suffice to say, adding CO2 to your fermentor’s headspace can provide a limited, partial barrier to oxygen. Expect that it won’t last long before dissipating. My best practice is to ignore my impulse to take gravity readings, and only do so when observable fermentation activity has fully ceased. This practice maximizes the time the beer headspace is mostly CO2 and sealed from outside oxygen. Once that seal is broken for activities like taking gravity readings or dry hopping, I flush the fermentor headspace with CO2 in hopes of minimizing the beer’s exposure to oxygen. For me, it seems to work since the people who drink my beer, nor myself, have detected any oxidation.
Myth: Kettle Sours Need to Be CO2 Blanketed to Prevent Infections and Decrease Oxygen
Like many other brewing practices, Kettle Souring processes anecdotally evolved over time. Processes and assumptions appear to have been rarely analyzed for necessity or efficacy. A key Kettle Sour process assumption is that oxygen leads to butyric acid production, so purging and blanketing the wort with CO2 is critical to preventing this. Enter myth-buster, Andrew Turner of Mystery Brewing Company located in Hillsborough, NC. Andrew decided to challenge the commonly accepted Kettle Sour brewing processes to separate anecdote from data. Part of his work included determining the need to purge O2 and blanket the wort with CO2. Andrew presented his findings at the 2018 Craft Brewers Conference. He was able to show off flavors in Kettle Sours were likely a function of low initial pitches of bacteria in the absence of oxygen. In other words, removing oxygen was contributing to the development of butyric acid. He was able to demonstrate that focusing on bacteria pitch rates and discontinuing the CO2 purging and blanketing process steps led to improved fermentation. His myth-busting insight has significant time and cost savings implications for both the homebrewer and commercial brewers. In fact, one of my local craft brewers, Guardian Brewing Company in Saugatuck, Michigan, altered their Kettle Souring process after attending Andrew’s presentation. As their owner and head brewer describes it, “it changed the whole souring game for me a few years ago!” Another myth busted…
Cleaning & Sanitizing Myths
Myth: “It’s Not Necessary to Throughly Clean Mash Tuns, Kettles and Their Valves Because Everything Gets Boiled Anyway”
This myth makes me cringe, and it should make you cringe too. We all know cleaning and sanitizing are critical for brewing quality beer. But many homebrewers rarely consider equipment areas like valves on your brew pots and mash tuns. It’s interesting that this is an example of a practice where homebrewers choose not to closely follow commercial brewers. Commercial brewers are meticulous in cleaning everything that comes in contact with their beer. It would be unthinkable for them to risk tossing a batch down the drain because of lazy cleaning and sanitation practices. If you disagree, disassemble your own equipment valves and take a close look. You may be shocked at what you find. Your kettles need cleaning attention too. Most of you know to clean your kettle, but many homebrewers seem to allow for hard water and beer stone to build up. It’s just as important to remove these as they can introduce unwanted odors and flavors into your beer. Even a little build up can change how your kettle conducts heat, affecting boil off rates and time. I know cleaning is a pain, but the foundation of brewing high quality beer is using clean and sanitary equipment.
Myth: Believing You Only Need to Clean Your Draft Lines Once the Keg is Empty
This myth is as cringe worthy as the last one. I can only guess this myth comes from either forums or just plain laziness. Researching this topic, you find some small disagreements on frequency, but nothing that advocates a homebrewer should only clean the draft line when the keg “spits”. Most industry sources recommend commercial cleaning be performed every two weeks. Recommended cleaning schedules for homebrewers range from 4-6 weeks depending on how frequently you pour beer through it. Do you really want to risk sickening friends and family with beer from your dirty draft lines and equipment? Consider your reputation as a brewer. After making all that effort to brew a great beer, why would you take the risk of imparting off flavors into it by serving it through a dirty draft system?
Myth: Believing Just Rinsing Your Glassware is Ok
This myth seems to come from the fact that many dish soaps and the like kill beer foam. To avoid this, many brewers seem to think that any cleaning is bad and rinsing glassware is an adequate cleaning method. This myth is as disgusting as the last two myths, and seems to be even more widespread. Using a dirty beer glass can ruin the beer’s taste, flavor and head. From my experience, many homebrewers fail to recognize their glassware is dirty. The simple way to recognize a dirty glass is to look for carbonation bubbles clinging to the inside of your glass. These bubbles are clinging to funk on the inside of your glassware. This funk can be residual food or often soap…yuck! Simply rinsing a beer glass will rarely be enough to yield a clean glass. KegWorks has a great graphic that provides other specific things to look for (see below). They recommend using hot water with a detergent that is not fat or oil-based to clean the glass. Second, scrub the entire glass to with a cleaning brush to remove film and residue. Next, rinse with cold water. Finally, sanitize the glass with hot water. Commercial establishments will want to sanitize with an appropriate sanitizer as well. See the KegWorks website for me information and details.
Those are some of my favorite myths, misconceptions and brewing dogmas. Please share some of yours in the comments section below. Keep brewing and learning. Cheers!