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Recording Keeping Tips

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Consistency is the Virtue of Homebrewing
Part 2: Record Keeping

It’s no good to brew a great beer once, only to fail to recapture that glory every other time. In the last article, I discussed the importance of good hygiene procedures in brewing consistent beer. Good hygiene practices mean your beer contains just you intended it to, and nothing else. But if cleanliness means keeping out everything but what you want, then it’s record keeping that ensures that every batch contains exactly what you do want, each and every time.

Good record keeping is part of the brewing process, from start to finish. Since home brewing is a hobby, it may seem natural to ‘trust to memory’ when you make changes or experiment with a beer. Variation and experimentation are the heart of fun homebrews, and the key to discovering new & delicious beers, but trusting to memory is a sure way to never return to those new discoveries again. And if you can’t brew a consistent batch, it’s hard to know whether the changes from batch to batch are because of the changes you intended to make, or the ones you failed to control.

Beer brewing starts with the recipe. The first mistake many home brewers make is viewing the recipe solely as a shopping list. While it does have a list of ingredients, it should also include the mash schedule, the hops schedule, as well as all necessary adjunct information. Many computer programs will also calculate the anticipated starting and ending specific gravity. The calculators at this site can aid in getting to numbers such as (OG, FG, IBU, SRM, etc) and learning how to interpret them.

The grain, hops, & yeast for a recipe are usually purchased at your local homebrew store; as supplies vary from time to time, some substitution may be necessary. Any deviation from the recipe, no matter how trivial, should be recorded if consistency is your goal. Changing from American two-row grain to English two-row grain will definitely affect the flavor of your beer! The hop schedule on the recipe templates at this site don’t just include the name of the hop, but also include the alpha acid percentage; when substitutions do need to be made, having that extra information lets you make a closer match! Surprising to some, yeast can have a huge impact on flavor as well. Consider the difference between a Belgian Abby yeast, and a California common ale – both produce quite different result and apply to different styles.

Adjuncts need to be not only listed as ingredients, but also need every step of preparation included in the recipe. Adding roasted nuts to a beer can add good flavors, but the recipe needs to include not only the type and weight of nuts used, but also the time & temperature used for roasting, and the details on when the nuts are added. (mash, boil, primary fermentation or secondary) When you consider all the details for an adjunct like that, it’s obvious that ‘trusting to memory’ means never getting the same beer twice.

Record keeping continues through fermentation and bottling, as well. It’s useful to know what the final gravity is at bottling, and how long the fermentation was. If you bottle or keg-condition, it’s helpful to know when the beer is minimally carbonated for drinking, when it’s ideally drinkable, and when it’s gone past its prime.

Testing the final bottling gravity of the beer, noting how long the fermentation was, and keeping notes on minimum bottle-conditioning (if used) all add up to success the second time around. Fermentation temperature also plays a role. Advanced brewers setup temperature controlled fermentation chambers to dial this in, even for their ales, to keep them at a consistent 68F, for example.

Even if you’re unsatisfied with the results, keeping good notes on what you disliked, and what you did the first time gives a good starting point for what to change the second time around. As long as you’re still tinkering with a recipe, you should keep all previous notes to know how each variation changed. The ideal recipe should tell you what you need to buy, how you should prepare it at each step, how long it will take, and what to expect at the end.

Assuming that you’re using good cleaning and sanitation procedures, there’s no uncontrolled fermentation occurring in your beer and no unexpected trace flavors or contaminants. At this point, you should be keeping thorough, detailed records of each batch, so you should also have a pretty good ‘road map’ for brewing a particular batch. But there is still one source for uncontrolled, unplanned variations from batch to batch. The next article in this series explores how to refine the actual processes you use in your brewing to reduce unintentional changes from batch to batch.

Please check out our brew day checklist sheets, recipe templates and brewing calculators for more information about brewing with consistency.

The next article in this series is about brewing process improvement ideas.

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