Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Homebrewing Notes

I've been debating about whether or not to post this for some time as I think it could be in the running for the most boring beer blog post in the all time history of beer blog posts. Reading about taking notes probably doesn't rank that high up there in the list of things you could read. But a recent MTF question about log books got me thinking about this again. Plus it has been some time since this blog, which started as a homebrewing blog, had a real homebrewing-specific post. If reading about note taking isn't your thing then the images present almost all the details for an English Mild I made that took 1st place at 2015 NHC 1st round in Seattle. The beer scored in the mid 30s in the final round of NHC at 8 months old (way too old for a mild, but I didn't get a chance to rebrew it). And if that still isn't good enough, no worries. There are brewery/beer history/beer travel posts in the works.

I think good note taking is really important for making the best beer you can. When you have a beer that turned out really well, or even one that didn't, knowing what you did, why you did it, and what the result was, not to mention remembering this 6+ months or more after you did it, will help you progress and learn from your brews.

I’m perhaps over-neurotic with my notes, as some friends can attest, but I suppose that comes from being a lab scientist as my day job. Keeping thorough and well organized notes helps me stay organized and know what I did/my thoughts so that I can continue working to make better beer with some direction rather than random attempts. I do use software (Beersmith) for building recipes and calculations; however I choose not to keep all of the rest of this in beersmith because I don’t do a good job of recording smaller stuff (and/or brewday changes) there and I find it easier to do this on paper. And I like having the paper copy.

3 notebook classes: recipes, travel (Belgium 13-14 and 15-16) and reading.
I keep 4 distinct classes of notebooks for beer. First is tasting notes from commercial beers. Second is a smaller set of notebooks for notes from focused beer travel (tasting, discussions with brewers, notes from brewery visits, day overviews to cover where I went, who I met, etc.). Then I have a set of notebooks for reading/meetings/non-travel experience (so things like homebrew books, scientific papers, podcasts, homebrew club meetings or meetings with other homebrewers to discuss specific plans, take away messages from commercial beer/wine/etc experiences, beer conferences, etc.). And finally there are the notes on my homebrew, the topic of this post. I’ve briefly included the other three categories as I think they have helped my beer greatly in addition to the specific notes about my homebrews and splitting them in this way helps me find what I am looking for faster.

I think every brewer should do whatever is best for her/him to get what they want out of their brewing and I’m not putting these up because I think everyone should do this. Rather I'm posting this as there might be some elements in here that are useful to your brewing. I put a lot of thought into the organization of these notes and what goes into them and the notes are constantly evolving. I can’t count how many times I’ve been at homebrew meetings and had someone’s beer and asked about their recipe/process, for reasons such as really liking it and wanting to do something similar as well as trying to work out problems/undesirable characteristics, and had them respond that they don't really know any details on their beer/process. I know some of this is because they are on the spot but they also brought there beer to a homebrew meeting, sometimes with specific questions about how to change it. So if that's you I'm not trying to call you out, but if you are interested in making better beer then maybe knowing what you did to make the beer you have now is a good start.

To some extent this is an idealized version of my notes. Not every set of notes has each of these parameters in full. It depends a bit on how much planning time I have for a brew and how different it is from the standard things I do. And how the brewday/fermentaiton goes. I've pulled elements from a couple different beers to give a more complete overview. Hopefully there is some useful info in here for you, and if you have a great idea that you’re using that you think I or others could benefit from please feel free to put in the comments. Thanks!

Table of contents and tape labels
To start, I take my notes in notebooks such as these (WPH-190), which have graph paper on the back side of every other page. I mention this because I find this graph paper especially useful and because it is the sole reason I use these books. I use at least 4 pages per beer, which gives me 2 pages of graph paper per brew. Leaving yourself plenty of extra space is good, especially for beers you plan to age for a while. I also make little tape tabs at the top of the book so I can easily flip to the page of a given recipe. If a beer is much more complicated then I may give 6 pages instead of four, and sometimes there will be a page or two that is simply to plan something (like blending) and isn’t an actual brewday.

So this is how the book is generally set up. Now on to specifics.

Page 1, right side - The Recipe:
There is the obvious first step of the recipe. This is a good minimum, though not always the most important part, and I think most folks do this. For many of the beers I make the recipe might not matter as much as the fermentation temp/how the yeast was treated/aging. I organize my recipe portion by:

English mild recipe with table for targets, various 'if' scenarios & actual, and brew plans
Malts – amount, type, supplier, percentage (makes communicating with others with different batch sizes/efficiencies/units easier)
Hops – amount (g), type, aa%, harvest year, were I bought them, sometimes date when I first opened the package (I ought to do this all the time)
Yeast (and bacteria) – types, (sometimes) estimated cell counts and generation, and them also any yeast nutrients added
Salts, etc. – amount (g) and resulting ppm added to both mash and sparge water, whirlfloc, other additions (spices, fruit, wood, etc)

This is followed by a table with the target for the brew and other scenarios as well as what I actually got on the brewday. I'm starting to split this up by carboy as I'm frequently splitting batches into multiple carboys with different treatments. This splitting isn't fully reflected in the pictured page, though I did split the batch 3 ways so the actual line is a bit cramped. I find this table super useful during the brew day to check in with where I am and where I am likely to end up. And if I am off by a bit where that would put me.

Then I put calibration dates for my equipment so that if I find something like my refractometer is off, I know which batches this affected. This also keeps fresh in my mind that I should calibrate my equipment. I also put in things like my equipment parameters - which pot I’m boiling in, which I’m mashing in, how much trub loss I expect for this batch, what total efficiency I expect, etc.

Yeast record from a saison - 4 yeasts into 3 blends
Finally, this first page includes plans for mashing (times, temps, liquor to grist ratios), boiling (time, if I anticipate needing to top up with water, hop additions with times/amount/IBUs expected from each addition), and fermentation. Usually the fermentation part doesn’t get filled out very well as I often brew similar beers and this is in my head. But taking the time to write it down would also make me take the time to think it out a bit more so I ought to write it.

This planning maybe cuts down on spontaneous brewing a bit, but it really helps me get organized for brew day, and it is the sort of thing that can be done in small chunks of time leading up to the brewday and it saves me a lot of time on the brewday itself.

Page 1 left side (Back of page 0) - Yeast:
This page is focuses on my yeast. I put calculations/records here for how many cells of each type (I'm often blending yeast, here's a basic rundown of my simple method for that), and often the tape labels transferred from the jars of yeast I used with date, generation, and cell count. I used to do a more thorough culturing history for the yeast and probably ought to continue this but I don’t anymore.

Page 2 - Brewday Notes:
Now that the plans and recipe are all laid out, this is where I start my notes from the brewday. These are generally notes with the time of day that I did them and include:

Brewday notes, including what went wrong (cold steeping)
-mash stuff: mashing in times and strike temps, vorlauf start time, start of collection of mash runnings (I should do sparging start time but I generally don't), time of final runnigs collection.

 -boil stuff: preboil gravity and volume, boil start time, any additions during the boil (hops at given times, and ideally write the amount again as a fail-safe to make sure that this gets recorded), whirlfloc, yeast nutrient, boiling water to top up if my gravity is high, any wort pulled for starters, mid-boil volumes to see if my boil off rate is on track, boil end time, chilling start time, chilling done time and temp.

-fermentation stuff: carboy volume, yeast calculations, yeast addition time, temp for start of fermentation, amount added, aeration, fermentation and any notes during fermentation.

Also, if applicable, I include how full certain vessels like my mash tun or boil kettle were so I know the limits very well when I try to push them next. I probably also ought to include a bit about the day's weather as things like wind will strongly affect my boil.

An example saison mash.
Back of page 1 - Mashing Plot:
This is the first graph paper page (sometimes back of page 1 and 0 get switched if the graph paper lines up this way). On this page I put a temperature-time plot of the mash. This is more valuable if I am not doing a single infusion mash. I use 2 thermometers – one in the side of the pot and one floating thermometer, and these are color coded in this temperature time plot. I may also include small notes about addition times of hot water, recirculation with heat, etc. on the plot as well. I draw a vertical dashed line when I begin vorlaufing as at this point the temp of the mash may not be as evenly mixed.
Page 3 - fermentation notes

Page 3 - Fermentation notes:
Here I continue notes of the brew, and by this point this is generally fermentation and bottling notes. Sometimes on complicated brewdays there might be some spill-over of brewday stuff onto this page as well. Any sort mid-fermentation tasting and gravity notes would also make it here. Bottling notes include priming sugar needed to get my approximated volume at a given temperature (initial CO2) to get the target carbonation, and then the number of each bottle volume filled, the total volume and the amount of carbonation I should expect from how much sugar I used and my real (not estimated) total volume.

If there is enough space here I’ll also add full tasting notes of the finished beer (but usually this ends up on Page 4). This might be a simple tasting of one beer or a comparative tasting of different variations of the brew (such as previous batches, different fermentation treatments/spicings/fruitings/etc. of the same batch). And although I don’t really shoot out to clone beers, it might also include a head to head tasting with a commercial beer or two that inspired my beer or are highly regarded examples of a similar type of beer.

Example fermentation from a grisette.
Back of Page 3 - Fermentation Plot:
The back of page three (the second page of graph paper) gets a temperature-time plot of the fermentation. This may also include notes like when I specifically did things to adjust the temp (like warming a water bath with an aquarium heater or cooling one with ice blocks) so I can differentiate what the beer is doing on its own from my control on the beer, but I don't always note this. Again this is color coded to differentiate each carboy if the batch has been split into different treatments. Perhaps adding gravity readings to something like this would be good but for now I don’t take them frequently enough to be of much use. Usually the temp-time plots aren't as detailed as they ought to be after the first couple days, but generally I have the beers in a reasonably stable, temperature-controlled environment at this point.

Tasting notes of the three different treatments
Hopefully some of this helped you organize your own notes and let me know if you do something that you think would add to my notes (or the notes of others).

1 comment: