Remember that awesome beer you made, like, eight months ago? Man it was good. It had everything; perfect balance between a mellow maltiness and the sharp hops, a beautiful color that was actually haze-free for a change, and the head sat on top like a pillow on a daydream. Of course all good things must come to an end, and you drank that sucker like there was no tomorrow. Last month, feeling nostalgic, you made it again but it just didn’t have the same magic. It fell right into the good-not-great category. How could this be? How could your golden ambrosia turn out so differently this time? What have you done to anger the great Ninkasi (look it up)? This sucks.
Has that ever happened to you? Probably. It happens to most brewers, and I’ve definitely experienced this crushing disappointment before. It doesn’t make sense right? You used the same recipe and the same ingredients. What could be different?
If you’d taken careful notes, you’d know. Because honestly, a lot could be different, and any of a vast number of little differences could have changed your beer from an everyday drinker to something you keep in the basement fridge just in case your annoying neighbor forces his way into your rec room again. Even though brewing (especially extract brewing) is really just jumped-up water boiling, there are quite a few discrete steps, and you really need to be taking notes.
Get a Brewing Journal
If you don’t have a brewing journal, get one. It doesn’t need to be anything special; one of those Mead spiral-bound notebooks you’ve been hanging onto since college will work just fine. Just rip out those doodles from when you thought you were going to ‘make it’ as an artist and write BREW BOOK on the front. Hell, staple together a big stack of cocktail napkins if you want, I don’t care, but you need something. Do it now.
So now that you’ve got your Brew Book, what do you put in it? The easy stuff first; for each batch record its name, ingredients, and recipe, including addition times for your hops and specialty ingredients. But you need to write down a lot more too. Record the date, you might not really need it, but it helps make things feel official. Get it notarized. Record the times you did everything. I know your recipe already tells you what time you should have done stuff, but now you’re going to write down when you actually did it.
Write down any deviations you took from the recipe, even small ones. Write down every quantifiable thing you did, whether or not you think it matters to the final quality of the beer. Did you use a clarifier? Write it down. How long did it take you to chill your wort? Write it down. At what temperature did you pitch your yeast? You get the idea.
Each entry should look something like this:
Seth’s Awesome Beer (Best Bitter)
3.5 lbs Light DME
1 lbs Amber DME
.5 lbs English Crystal 80L
.2 lbs Pale Chocolate Malt
2oz Fuggle (60 minutes)
.5oz Fuggle (10 minutes)
.5oz Fuggle (5 minutes)
1tsp Irish Moss (15 minutes)
Wyeast #1968 Special London Ale yeast
Expected OG: 1.046
Expected FG: 1.010
Started the stove with 5.5 gallons of tap water at 6:25. Water straight from tap, no additions.
Hit 150 degrees at 6:40 and added specialty grains.
Steeped for 25 minutes, end temp was 185, got distracted by the phone and let the water get a little too hot for steeping.
Hit boil at 7:15, turned off heat and stirred in DME. Turned heat back on.
Boil at 7:23, added 2oz Fuggle
Cat puked everywhere and while I was cleaning up I lost track of time, added Irish Moss late at 8:15, decided to boil an extra 7 minutes to give the hops additions enough time
Added .5oz Fuggle at 8:20
Added .5oz Fuggle at 8:25
Turned off heat and inserted chiller at 8:33
Chilled down to 72 degrees at 8:50
Poured through mesh to aerate and added to carboy, final wort volume is just under 5 gallons, maybe 4.9 or so
Shook carboy for 10 minutes to aerate more.
Measured OG: 1.042
Added yeast at 9:05 and moved to the basement
What Does It All Mean?
This log shows that though I followed the recipe for the most part, I made a few minor deviations along the way. If you end up with a beer that is above or below your standards, this type of log is a great way to try and track down what went so wrong (or right). Take the same type of notes if/when transferring to secondary, and also when you transfer to bottles or kegs. Be sure to note exactly how long your beer was in each stage (10 days in primary, or whatever), and what the temperature of your fermenter was. Definitely make sure you take an FG reading before bottling, and when you do bottle, record how much priming sugar you used.
All of the above note-taking will be useless if you don’t also take tasting notes, so once your beer is ready, have a drink and record your thoughts, good or bad. Quality beer tasting merits a column all of its own, so look for that in the future, but for now just record your impressions as best you can. Now you have a full record of the beer through its entire life-cycle.
With this process you should be able to more faithfully replicate your best beers, and learn what to avoid from your worst. So sharpen those pencils and get to brewing.