Don’t Listen To Brewing Experiments

No, actually do listen. I listen as well for their entertainment value. Just don’t put too much value on the conclusions. Let me explain.

I have built my whole brewing philosophy around the advice I was given when I started brewing. Having good brewing practices is what matters. With good brewing practices, you will be able to make good beer with just about any standard recipe. To make exceptional beer you will need to fine tune recipes as well, but recipes only matter if you have the basics down. Why is it then that just about every process related beer experiment I have come across seems to suggest that processes do not matter?

A standard experiment would look something like this; it is common belief that pitching a single pack of liquid yeast is insufficient for a five gallon batch of above 1.050 wort, meaning that for higher gravity beers you would need to either make a starter or pitch at least two packs. For the experiment, you would brew a ten-gallon batch of say 1.070 wort, split it into two equal size fermenters and pitch just one pack of yeast into one fermenter and a two liter starter into the other. Once both beers are ready, you would have a group of people do a triangle test to see if they are able to tell the beers apart. Nine times out of ten, enough people will not be able to tell the beers apart for the results to be of statistical significance. Conclusion; starters aren’t necessary, just under-pitch and you’ll be fine.

You could continue doing the following experiment without finding any difference there either:

  • Using fresh vs. old yeast
  • No oxygenation vs. standard oxygenation of wort.

So just forget everything you’ve learned and start cutting corners if experiments show that any possible differences are undetectable? My advice would be no. Or before you do, at least talk to some professional brewers whose beer you enjoy to see if they skip oxygenizing and under pitch old yeast. I doubt they do, because brewers who make great beer usually have good brewing practices as well.

Are the experiments showing inaccurate results?

Not necessarily, but you might be interpreting the results in the wrong way. First of all, the reason why you have good brewing practices in the first place is to stack the odds in your favor. Every once in a while something will go wrong no matter how good a brewer you are. With good brewing practices you might be able to compensate for whatever that mistake/accident happens to be. Perhaps the yeast pack you got wasn’t stored properly and has low viability. By making a starter and oxygenating properly, you might be able to make up for that, whereas just pitching the unhealthy yeast might result in under attenuation.

Another way of looking at this is to compare it to the classic example where a big brewery acquires a small brewery and starts looking into ways of cutting costs. They make a test batch where they substitute 3% of the malt with sugar and compare it to the original recipe. No one detects any differences. Six months later, they decide to replace another 3% of malt with sugar. No one detects any differences between the 6% and the 3% sugar beers. Six months later they do the same thing, and so on. 10 years later, you have a grist containing only 50% malt and nobody has ever detected any differences. Why? Because they stopped comparing the beers to the original.

Point being; even if you could not detect any differences by introducing one single bad brewing practice to your process, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t affect the beer. You’re just not able to detect it. Make all the shortcuts at once and you will start noticing differences. I guarantee that you would run into problems if you tried pitching a single pack of old yeast into a barley wine without introducing oxygen of any kind.

Are all brewing experiments useless?

Of course not! Especially whenever there are in fact, noticeable differences between the test beers and you get the same result every time you repeat the experiment. At that point, you can start drawing conclusions. If one method gives you a better beer, brew that way. What is considered “good brewing practice” has certainly changed over the years, and questioning things is natural. But just because you or your friends aren’t able to tell the beers apart, don’t immediately assume that whatever process change you made didn’t affect the beer.

Eventually it all comes down to what your goals for brewing are. Are your goals to make the best beer possible at any cost, or to have stress free brew days while enjoying the end result? I certainly can’t blame you for choosing either route.

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