Friday, June 7, 2013

Water Profiles for a Westvleteren 12 Clone Recipe

One of the last things I worry about in brewing is water profiles. I'm fortunate to live in the Seattle area where the water is naturally soft, so there is a wide array of light-colored beers that I can brew with tap water, without a second thought, and without any treatment other than to remove the chlorine. For a few things like IPAs and stouts I can add a tablespoon of gypsum per seven gallons of water and be good to go.

Having brewed one Westvleteren 12 clone that wasn't as close as to the original as I wanted once before, I'm being more strategic the second time around. So water profiles are worth some study. Brew Like A Monk (BLAM) reports that Westvleteren has a water profile that is not great for brewing, so they treat their water because it is too high in bicarbonates, sodium, sulfate and chloride:

Westvleteren Water Profile
Calcium (Ca+2): 114
Bicarbonate (HCO3-): 370
Magnesium (Mg+2): 10
Sodium (Na+): 125
Sulfate (SO4-2): 145
Chloride (Cl-): 139

As with everything else Westvleteren, the actual treatment and the resulting water profile is a closely guarded secret. But according to BLAM, Chimay has a nearly perfect water profile for Belgian Dark Strong Ale, and might be what Westvleteren aims for when they treat their own water.

Chimay Water Profile
Calcium (Ca+2): 96
Bicarbonate (HCO3-): 287
Magnesium (Mg+2): 4
Sodium (Na+): 6
Sulfate (SO4-2): 32
Chloride (Cl-): 13

I'm on the other side of the water treatment line, and need to 'harden' the local water so I get the Calcium and Bicarbonate levels up high enough for brewing the dark beer I want to clone:

Seattle Water Profile
Calcium (Ca+2): 10
Bicarbonate (HCO3-): 20
Magnesium (Mg+2): 0
Sodium (Na+): 1
Sulfate (SO4-2): 3
Chloride (Cl-): 3

Brewing Salt Additions for Seattle
Chalk (CaCO3): add 11 grams, or 1 scant tbsp
Baking Soda (NaHCO3): add .75 gram, or 1/8 tsp

Adjusted Water Profile
Adding almost a tablespoon of chalk and an eighth of a teaspoon of baking soda brings the Seattle water profile within a couple of points of the Chimay water profile. An alkalinity of 150 to 300 ppm is ideal for dark beer, so we are right where we want to be.

I was very pleased to see that I got as close as I did with the example above. If you're trying get your local water profile dialed in, don't worry about hitting the target exactly. You only need to be in the general ballpark. Even when you get your local water report, it's not chiseled in stone, it will vary from year to year, so there is no guarantee that the water coming out of your tap today exactly matches the water report from last year, or from years gone by; which means that you can't adjust it with absolute accuracy anyway.

If you're interested in adjusting your local water, Brewers Friend has a good water calculator here, a list of water profiles for various cities here, and a good discussion of water chemistry here. For a much more in-depth discussion of brewing water chemistry, have a look at the Bru'N Water Knowledge Page. There is also a free downloadable Bru'N Water spreadsheet. Just don't make yourself crazy by adding minute amounts of half a dozen different chemicals every time you brew. As long as your water profile is in the general ballpark for the style, your beer will be just fine. And even if it isn't there's a pretty good chance that you can brew a great beer anyway.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Taste Your Ingredients

I'm guessing a bit here, but I'm willing to bet that whether they started with whole grain or extract, most homebrewers brewed their first beer in one of two ways:
  1. Following a recipe designed by someone else
  2. Using a kit prepared by someone else
This makes total sense to me. When I started out, I didn't know my ingredients, I only knew that I wanted to brew a beer. I was focused on learning the brewing process, so I wanted to limit the unknowns. I knew what style I wanted to brew, so I found a recipe that said it would produce that result.

Eventually, I started making my own recipes, which initially tended to consist of tweaking an existing recipe designed by someone else to make it a little hoppier or lighter or darker or whatever. Eventually, as I started becoming more familiar with my ingredients. I started designing my own recipes.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I got a great bit of advice from one of my fellow homebrewers, "Taste your ingredients."

With malt, you can just chew a bit of it. Nobody is going to complain if you do this in a homebrew store. Or at least they've never complained when I've done it, and if they do complain, is that the sort of place you want to be shopping? But the chew and taste method requires some mental math on your part. When tasting you need to remember that the taste you're getting will be diluted a lot and sweetened a bit. And the aroma will change as well.

To get a better understanding of malts you might want, try super-mini mashes with an ounce or two of various malts side by side. For example, Aromatic @ 21.6 lovibond, Biscuit @ 19.3 lovibond, Victory Malt @ 25 lovibond and Crystal 20 @ 20 lovibond will all add approximately the same color to your beer. You can figure that out with math. But what tastes will they add? You'll be able to tell a bit by just chewing some of the malt, but you'll get a better picture of the taste and aroma my mashing just a little bit of each.

As I found out one day long ago, you probably don't want to chew on your hops. On that fateful day I popped open a bag of Simcoe hops, and put my nose in it. The smell was glorious. I picked out a pellet and chewed. Not so glorious. Apparently, human saliva does a pretty good job of isomerizing the alpha acids, the resulting taste was nearly painful. Fortunately, there are other options. One is to smell the hops. The best way to do this is to take a bit of the hops and rub them together between the palms of you hands.

To get a good idea of the taste of various hops, this "tasting experiment" seems like an incredibly good way to evaluate them side by side. One of the "Lite" beers seems like the best test media, because they have little else to get in the way of the hop taste. I'm planning to try it soon. The Mikkeller brewery did this on a professional level by brewing a series of single-hop IPAs with the same malt bill and yeast, but different hops. Great for them, great for any homebrewers who took advantage of the tasting opportunity.