It’s Friday morning. The sweet, nourishing scent of lightly roasted malts steeping at precisely 151°F fills the brewhouse and wafts into the cellar, balancing against baby plumes of dust from Mosaic and Cascade hops pellets meticulously ticking 22.3, 22.4, 22.5 pounds on the scale—ready for dry hopping fifteen barrels of IPA once I can take a step away from the brew during its boil. The world seems right.
Boil starts and first hops are in. Time for a quick gravity check on my IPA tank before dry hopping. It’s day 5, gravity reads 1.022… wait, let’s try that again—1.023… fresh sample, filter, spin the hydrometer… 1.022. Oh crap! Taste it—sweet…. Shake the blow-off, no bubbles. What now? Should I still dry hop and hope the fermentation picks back up? Rouse the cone with CO2? How? Why? I need a breakfast stout.
Sound like a familiar, unpleasant memory? You’re not alone. This example is just one of the many scenarios where investing in your internal quality-control or quality-assurance program is worth its weight in beer. And if the word “investment” scares you, you’re also not alone. However, at a small scale, so much of the investment needed is simply in time, discipline, and attention to detail rather than dollars (although those always help, too). So let’s get into it!
Building out your lab and QA/QC program needs to be budgeted into your growth plan no differently than a new tank, hops contract, or more glassware for the tasting room. Where to start?
Let’s start by grabbing the lowest hanging fruit from the tree—sensory. You like tasting your beer, right? Well then taste it! But this time, don’t just taste; evaluate your beer. Take notes and, just as important, read and reference those notes before each time you build a new brewsheet or a hops bill.
Collect and organize your notes by brand just as you organize your brewsheets and cellar notes. Define your expectations for appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, etc. and establish a detailed living written description to compare each batch to your intentions.
Engage the whole company when possible. You’ll be surprised how often the most reliable and talented tasters aren’t part of the brewing team and how often your personal knowledge of day-to-day brewing operations can bias your ability to objectively evaluate your own beer. Move your approach from taste to sensory analysis—this is the single most critical step in both quality control and improvement of a young brewery that can be taken. And it’s free!
Now, time to spend a little money. Buy a microscope! Seriously, if you have enough money to buy yeast, you have enough money to buy a microscope. Put another way, if you don’t have enough money to buy a microscope, you definitely can’t afford not to have one. You wouldn’t brew without a hydrometer, so don’t ferment without a microscope.
There are a litany of options out there less than $400—just make sure it has 40x and 100x magnification capability. You’ll also want a hemocytometer and a small bottle of lab-grade methylene blue (or violet) for yeast evaluation. All in, for less than $500, you’ll now have the ability to see your yeast, evaluate the shape, size, density, and determine percentage of viability (how many are alive).
Online resources for using this equipment and running these tests abound. Take a quick jaunt through the Interwebs and find the specific training method you like best. Write it down as a standard operating procedure and train every one of your brewers to do it the same way.
So what to do with all this data you are meticulously collecting? I’ve often said that the only thing more dangerous in a brewery than not collecting data is collecting data that you don’t use. Use your data! Make it relevant to your beer and use it to make your beer better every time you brew. How, you ask? Well, control charting, my friend!
This is yet another free tool you can use to almost immediately improve the quality and consistency of your beers. And it’s one of the ways that the annoying stuck fermentation problem we had to start this article could have been either avoided altogether or addressed before it became a real problem. Pick the most relevant data points you measure and chart them. Create brand specs for high and low to balance against.
Make it visual so every individual on your brewing and operations team can know at a glance how the beers are looking. My suggestion for a first step—chart original gravity, final gravity, alcohol, and IBU (assuming you are getting measures for the latter two). Create a daily fermentation chart (daily gravity, cell count, and pH) for every beer. When you crash cool that beer, print out the chart and keep it organized with your brewsheet, cellar sheet, packaging log, and sensory notes. Next time you schedule that brand to brew, review how the previous batches performed against expectations so that the adjustments you make are truly driving your beer in the desired direction.
Let’s be honest, though, quality assurance starts before you count a single cell of yeast or measure your first ounce of malt to be ground. Be involved with the quality of your raw materials. It’s another easy first step that can cost very little.
While this topic can certainly lead you down the rabbit’s hole if you let it, there are some pretty straightforward items to be focused on requiring relatively small investments of time, effort, and money. Start with the basic four—water, grains, hops, and yeast.
It’s not all the same and rarely as consistent as you’d desire (unless you’ve decided to dive into the relatively costly track of reverse osmosis, which we should table for now). Learn from your local municipality. Oftentimes, you’ll be able to garner a surprising amount of free information about your water supply directly from the local water department.
After that, taste it! Every day! Seriously, you should start seeing a theme here—sensory analysis is, in general, freeeeeeeeee! And it can make a huge difference at nearly every step of your brewing, cellaring, finishing, and packaging processes. Once you’re done tasting your water and getting as much information as possible from the supplier, it’s always worth getting quarterly analysis.
As a first step, look to whomever provided your filtration equipment. If they don’t offer full analysis, its highly likely that one of your neighboring breweries has a good contact. If you don’t have the budget to do it yourself, perhaps its possible to gather together with your local guild and share the information—it’s one thing that’s certainly easy to share if you’re on the same source.
They’re not just the favorite food source for vegan zombies. Ask for CoAs (certificate of analyses) from your suppliers with each shipment. Sometimes one won’t be available, but certainly for base malts, it always should be. Understanding your relative diastatic power, protein content, extract analysis, β-glucan levels, etc., can be an incredible leading variable in understanding changing outcomes in your wort production. Oh, and… taste it! Every time before you mash! You’ll be able to taste off-flavors in your malt before they end up as off-flavors in your wort. Make notes of anything you notice as different (either better or worse) and review them along with your sensory notes of the finished beer. You’ll not regret it.
Yes, they are the “spice” of beer. But more importantly, they’re fragile and beautiful little green flowers that need to be treated well to harness their ultimate expression. It’s not a bad idea to buy a small chest freezer to hold your hops in when not in use. Additionally, don’t forget that oxygen is the enemy of so many things in beer, including your hops. Don’t let oxygen infiltrate your most fragile raw material before the mash even starts.
CO2 purge whichever containers you hold your opened bags of hops in whenever possible, and store as cold as you can. Additionally, here’s another tip—if you’re using pellets, check their density simply by dropping a handful in a beaker of room temperature water and watching what they do. This will be invaluable in determining how you use these to dry-hop your beers. Buoyant hops pellets act much differently than dense hops pellets when you are looking to infuse their essential oils into your beer.
Learn about the physical characteristics of your hops pellets, and you’ll quickly be able to harness their powers more effectively.
Which brings us to the final raw material that I’ll harp on.
Since you’ve now (obviously) purchased a microscope and are having a great time getting intimate with yeast’s shape, size, density, and viability, taste it! Seriously, you’ll be able to get a very good hint on its relative level of health just by smelling and tasting your yeast at every stage. Each strain will certainly have its own characteristics, but getting to know how each strain of yours tastes, smells, and feels, both when healthy and when struggling, will give you a truly more intimate knowledge of your beer and help you to be a step ahead of any troubles you may encounter before you may even see them analytically.
To wrap this all up, there’s a whole catalogue of options you can pursue in starting your approach toward instituting quality systems in your brewery. Some cost money, some cost time, some attention, some discipline. But in the end, all are worthwhile and will save far more in the long run than the investment required.
Preemptively putting some of the foundational practices discussed here into play will help keep you focused on the best parts of brewery life—drinking a celebratory beer with your team at the end of a productive week, for example—rather than drinking a beer to forget the challenges of a difficult week.
Learn more about Jon Carpenter’s work at kathinka-assoc.com.