Homemade Sensory Training

One of the more difficult things for a new brewer to do is to learn what we mean when we talk about beer flavors.  Not just off flavors, but the flavors we want in our beers can be difficult to find for the newbie.  Fortunately, flavors in beer are pretty much the same as those found in other foods and there are foods that are high in the flavors we are trying to isolate.  In other words, you can do sensory training with ingredients available in your supermarket, liquor store or homebrew shop.


You can simulate diacetyl with butter extract.  It’s easy to skunk a European green-bottled beer like Stella by setting it in the sun for a couple of hours.  Brewing salts added in the glass provide the same flavors as brewing salts in the mash tun or kettle.  You can simulate fruity esters using pear and apple flavoring.  A complete list of the adulterants I use is available here:

Homemade Sensory Kits

Start with a neutral, low-flavor beer – Coors Light works wonderfully.  The really strong flavors, the extracts, for example, need to be diluted with distilled water.  Brewing salts should be dissolved in water.  Once ready, taste the beer, then put a drop or two of adulterant in the glass and stir.  Taste again.  If you can’t taste the adulterant, add more!

You can also use the adulterants to determine how to improve a beer.  If a beer is flat, add some acid to it, or some sulfate.  If that improves the beer, use it the next brew.  Or if you want to change something, use the adulterant that represents the change you want.  For example, if you want more body and sweetness, add maltodextrine to your beer then, if it works, mash higher next time.

Sensory training is the one thing you can do that will have the most effect on your outcomes as a brewer (excepting maybe sanitation).  There are many ways to simulate flavors.  I’d caution you to stick to food-grade adulterants and never use anything you aren’t certain it isn’t toxic.  But use your imagination and use these flavors to improve your beers.


Metabisulfite as Dechlorinator

Chlorine is the enemy of good beer made with tap water.  Chlorine reacts with phenols to form chlorophenols, chemical flavors reminiscent of a band-aid, harsh and very detrimental to beer’s flavor.  I don’t react well to harsh flavors so for years I’ve tried to drive them out.  The final frontier was the chlorine in tap water.

Our tap water here in Aurora is good for brewing and very low in disinfectant – the role chlorine plays.  The city uses both chlorine and chloramine, a more complex, more stable chlorine disinfectant and one much harder to get rid of.  Boiling or simply letting water stand will get rid of chlorine or chlorine dioxide, another gaseous disinfectant sometimes added to tap water.  But chloramine is persistent and reacts to form chlorophenols.  And it is much harder to get rid of.

Three primary ways are available to homebrewers to get rid of chlorine in tap water.  Reverse osmosis (RO) filters for home use are available and they get rid of everything.  The water comes out close to pure, so close you can treat all the ion concentrations as zero, chlorine included.  At some point, I’ll likely consider getting an RO filtration system and building my brewing water for each style but for now, I have other things to invest in.

Larger breweries use activated charcoal filtration.  Activated charcoal filters are available for home or RV use and I used one for years before learning that the water has to be in contact with the filters for a significant amount of time to remove chlorine and chloramines.  Long story short, these filters alone are not likely to remove all the chlorine in your water unless as a stage in a RO filter.

The easiest and cheapest way I’ve found to dechlorinate is using metabisulfite, either potassium metabisulfite or sodium metabisulfite, commonly known as Campden tablets.  Ground and added to tap water, a single Campden tablet is sufficient to dechlorinate 20 gallons of water and at that concentration, has no ill effects on yeast.  I generally use 10 gallons of water for a typical brew so I just grind up the tab and add it with my brewing salts.  The net result is the chlorine and chloramine is reduced to near zero and the reaction forms a negligible amount of chloride and sulfate, with some sulfite formed that will boil off.

When I started using this procedure, I noticed quickly that I could smell the chlorine before adding the metabisulfite but not afterward.  This was not enough.  So I got some chlorine test strips and ran the test.  I checked my water before adding the metabisulfite.  The concentration of total chlorine was about 5 ppm.  After adding the metabisulfite, the concentration was close enough to zero that the strips could not detect chlorine.  That’s good enough for me.

I still detect a lot of chlorine at Homebrewer’s Night, when I sample beers from several homebrewers at our local homebrew shop.  It’s so quick and easy to remove chlorine, it should be one of the steps in every brewer’s brew day, at least those of us using municipal tap water disinfected with chlorine.  A ground-up Campden tablet is our key to smoother beer with no chemical flavors.


A Thought On Bottling vs. Kegging

Last night I was reading in the Brewing Elements series, “Water”, that the acceptable oxygen levels in commercially packaged beers were about 50 parts per billion.  Yes, you read the denominator right, billion.  This is to prevent staling of the finished product.  While their supply chain is considerably longer than mine, it got me thinking about the difference between kegging with forced carbonation and bottling.  If you naturally condition in the keg you should be able to consider it bottling for this purpose.

With forced carbonation, you may or may not be driving off all the oxygen.  Henry’s Law states that the partial pressures of gas in solution add up to the pressure on the solution so when forcing carbon dioxide into your beer under pressure, you may not be forcing oxygen out since the pressure is high enough it could allow both gasses to remain.  If oxygen is not forced out, you’re exposing your beer to oxidization and all the nasty flavors that brings, sherry and wet cardboard.  At Homebrewer’s Night I’ve tasted oxidized beers but have never thought to ask if the brewer filled the bottles from kegs so I’m simply guessing here.  But my bottle conditioned beers have never had that distinctive oxidation flavor and I’ve kept some of them upwards of 18 months.

I’m guessing that here, too, yeast is your friend.  It’s alive and respiring down there in the bottom of that bottle, scavenging oxygen from its environment every chance it gets.  So I’m thinking the yeast keep the oxygen level below that which can cause staling.  Of course I don’t have equipment lying around to test this but simply logically, when it comes to oxygen in the beer, the advantage goes to bottle conditioning.

Kolle on Tap in Dillon!

My Koelleweizen recipe is on tap in Dillon, Colorado at the Dillon Dam Brewery.  You’re up that way, have a pint.  I’m looking forward to it this weekend.  It’s basically a good Koelsch recipe fermented with Hefeweizen yeast.

And thanks to all the guys at Brewer’s Friend who came by for a visit.  I talk about technical stuff over there, here it’s about the fun of fermentation.  If you’re visiting from elsewhere, go give them a look.