Let the Trials Begin!
Homebrewers ask me all the time about starting a brewery, usually with their own aspirations to turn their hobby into a profession in mind. My typical response is a question back to them, do you want to own a business or do you want to brew beer? If you have dreams of owning your own business then I would definitely encourage you to create the business around something your passionate about, like making beer, however you may want to consider if you have other passions that would be more profitable. On the other hand, if you really just enjoy making beer and experimenting with different recipes, and don’t want to worry about taxes, payroll, marketing, sales, etc., then you might be better off continuing to homebrew.
Now, almost six years into this business, while I still have a passion for making beer, it really is a business and my passion has evolved to include running my own business, being my own boss, and charting the course for Figurehead. One unexpected outcome of my non-alcoholic beer journey has been the rekindling of my old homebrewing roots and the joy that comes with trying to create something new. While I still enjoy creating new beers and finding ways to improve the quality of our beers, I’ve found the research I’ve done into NA brewing techniques and the experimentations I’m starting has reenergized me.
The science behind adjusting the mash temperature or yeasts that selectively consume sugars is nothing new to me, but the techniques to manipulate these characteristics to the extreme are not things that I’ve attempted previously in alcoholic beer brewing. Because of this and the fact that most NA brewers do not share details of their process, the brewing trials I am embarking on will hopefully help me establish which levers can be pulled to produce the desired results and then be fine tuned to create something worthy of going on tap at Figurehead.
As I mentioned in a previous post there are two main mashing techniques used to reduce the amount of alcohol in a finished beer, high temperature mashing with very little malt, or cold mashing with a more typical malt bill. For the first brewing trials I decided to try hot mashing with a reduced malt bill to see if I can produce an NA beer with this method and what type of resulting characteristics it might have.
I chose this method because it is the closest to “normal brewing” methods, basically all the steps are the same you just use less malt and mash at a higher temperature. Also, because it is the same process as we use to brew our current beers, this method would be the simplest to scale up using my existing brewery equipment.
Besides testing new mashing techniques, my initial trials are also aimed at experimenting with different yeasts to see how they perform and what flavors they might add to the beer. I’ve identified two different strains to test initially, a maltotriose negative strain called Windsor from Lallemand, and a maltose negative strain called LA-01 from Fermentis. Check out my earlier post if you need a refresher on maltotriose or maltose negative yeast.
To accomplish my trials, I’ve invested in some new homebrew equipment, an electric mash/kettle combo, and two 3-gallon carboys to ferment in. My plan is to brew 4-gallon batches, split the wort between the two fermenters, and pitch one yeast into each carboy. This will allow me to ferment the exact same wort with two different yeasts which then can be compared. For the yeasts I’m looking to compare attenuation (% of sugar consumed), alcohol produced, and flavor profile.
Trial 1 Recipe
For the first trial my goal was to familiarize myself with my new equipment and evaluate the new mashing technique, so I wanted to create a simple recipe targeting a basic blonde ale. I want to refine my process before I start to refine the recipe. From my research I’ve found that because so little malt will be used it is challenging to create the body and richness of a typical beer. To overcome this, I substituted our typical base malt with darker, more characterful base malts and a higher percentage of crystal malts than I would normally use. These malts add more flavor and the melanoidin character of the malts add body. I also used a good percentage of a malt called carapils, which is also known as dextrin malt, which adds additional body.
So here is my recipe for my first trial batch:
1 lb. 8 oz Vienna Malt
1 lb. Munich Malt
4 oz Carapils
0.5 oz Liberty Hops @ 10 min
0.5 oz Liberty Hops in Whirlpool
Mash in at 165 degrees
With this recipe I anticipated a very light-colored beer with a starting gravity around 1.015 and around 8 IBUs. Non-alcoholic beers tend to have more perceived bitterness, so the goal is to add our hops toward the end of the boil and keep our IBUs (international bitterness units) low.
For the most part my brew day went pretty smoothly. I found my electric kettle does not have super tight temperature control. When it reaches the set temp it will switch to “warm” mode causing the wort to begin to cool and it will not switch the full heater back on until it reaches 5 degrees or more below the set point. This meant that I struggled to reach and maintain my target mash temp of 165.
The other major hiccup I found was during the sparge, which is the step of rinsing the mash to extract as much of the dissolved sugars as possible. Lacking anything else I used a bucket to pour the additional sparge water over the mash which was too forceful and caused the mash bed to be disturbed. This resulted in malt husks and particles going into the boil instead of being filtered out.
Overall, I guess homebrewing is sort of like riding a bike and the process seemed to come back to me pretty easily.
After an approximately 5-hour brew day I was able to produce a wort that matched the color/flavor profile I was going for and a starting gravity right at 1.015. I cooled the wort down to around 70 degrees, split it between two carboys, and pitched my two different types of yeast.
Both beers fermented out, meaning all the accessible sugars had been consumed by the yeast, in around two days. This is very fast (most fermentations take closer to a week) due to the small amount of sugar present. Due to the timing, I wasn’t able to transfer the beers to the cold room or keg them for another week, which led to my first discovery.
When I went to keg the beer fermented with LA-01 I found that both the gravity and pH had continued to drop. This signaled a potential contamination with an unwanted bacteria or wild yeast. Because LA-01 does not consume maltotriose the resulting beer is more prone to spoilage by bacteria or other yeast that are happy to consume the maltotriose left behind.
The other thing I found was that the beer fermented with Windsor yeast finished at a gravity of 1.009 giving in an ABV of 0.8% which is above the 0.5% threshold for non-alcoholic beer.
Here are the specifics on the first trial along with some tasting notes:
Alcohol by Volume
Slight fruity notes and less “worty” compared to LA-01. Tastes thin. Very little bitterness but possibly some astringency due to grain husk that made it into the boil.
Very bland, not much going on in terms of flavor. Dominated by the characteristic “NA worty” flavor. Also tastes thin. *Represents pH and gravity following primary fermentation, both continued to drop due to contamination.
Conclusions and Tweaks
Based on my goals going into trial number one I consider it a success. I learned some things about my new equipment, mainly that I need to shoot for a higher mash temp in order to keep it in the range I would like. I also validated that I could utilize a hot mash with small malt bill to create a low gravity wort and then ferment with selective yeast to create a very small amount of alcohol.
As I start to think about trial two there a few things I need to address:
Need to hit a higher and more consistent mash temperature. This will help lower my attenuation in the hopes of keeping the ABV below 0.5%.
Eliminate astringency by finding a way to more gently sparge and not disturb the mash bed.
Create more body by increasing the percentage of darker malts and carapils.
Increase the bitterness slightly.
Chill the finished beer quickly after fermentation to reduce risk of contamination.
Overall, I’m encouraged by the results of trial one and hopefully I’m on a path to creating a great NA beer!