Friday, June 29, 2012

Homebrewing As Religion

Homebrewing can be like an ancient religion, a cauldron full of dogmatic traditions and rituals. There are a lot of practices going on that are based on general assumptions that continue to be passed on year after year from brewer to brewer.

One case in point - a mash tun insulation jacket. It looks technical, fits in with the consensus that it's stabilizing and prolongs mash temperatures (a good thing for sure) and creates the warm fuzzy sensation that all is right in the world while you're brewing your best bitter. But do you really need it?

I'm not going to launch into my history of the "don't ask just do it, mind set". I've covered that sad tale Here. I just want to get to the bones about being able to brew a decent batch of beer. That skill doesn't necessarily require some of the practices that we use as homebrewers today. There are a few things I know from personal experience that have convince me that many things we do as homebrewers is purely based on accepted practices that warrant a little investigation.

Put on a jacket - it's cold out there!

For instance, I don't care much for carboys. At this point in my homebrewing career I don't see the value of their popularity.  Consequently, I've spent some entertaining time questioning my fellow homebrewers regarding the idea of using them. The fact is, in my past, I've done my fair share of genuflections and prayer in front of them asking a higher power for a successful ferment but for the most part, the best I can get back from the loyalists I talk to is that they like to watch them and they're necessary for hygienic qualities. But is it true? Does using a carboy with an airlock really benefit the beer or the brewer? Is the beer safer and more protected in a carboy, allowing it to mature into a healthy beer. Or is it just what we do because that's what we've been taught over the years and that's what Charlie said to do in his book?

There's plenty of history, ancient and current that points to the contrary. Look no further than Anchor Brewing with their open fermentors. My experience with open fermentation tells me that the carboy is highly over rated and unnecessary,  passe' at best, a pain to clean and a health hazard at worst. Can I defend the carboy? Sure, aging beer in a carboy for long periods may be of value but still even that defense deserves some investigation. Maybe a secondary fermentation in a carboy with additional sugars deserves some thought. Still, using carboys instead of easier and qualitatively equal methods (open) leaves me thinking that ritual, paranoia and superstition may be behind the resistance to let go of an idea.
This brings me back to the mash jacket insulation technique that I witness at this years Big Brew event at Seabright Brewery in Santa Cruz, California. Friends and fellow Zymurgeek brewers Winslow and Dave were using their three tiered, gravity fed brew sculpture to brew a batch that day. Their mash tun was decorated with what appeared to be Liberache's sequined vest,  a metallic bubble wrap jacket held securely in place with tape at the seam. I asked about the value of this insulation wrap and suggested that it may not be warranted. They naturally defended it's proper place in their arsenal of equipment and so I challenged them to an experiment. We would brew two identical batches of beer. One to be mashed with said Liberache's mash tun jacket and the other without, and so I soon found myself in their yard a couple weeks later brewing up a pair of blond style ales and the experiment was on. The following are the results from samples that Winslow took during the course of the mashes.

Treatment 1: Mash Tun with reflex insulation (sample taken by recirculating 30 oz of wort and then sampling 10 oz in a mug, Ambient temperature ~63f. degrees, overcast)
Time Temp
10:20(Mash In)= 152.7
10:35= 148.0
11:00= 145.9
11:15= 144.0
11:25= 146.6 (this sample was taken by placing the thermometer in the stream from Mash Tun to Boil Kettle)
OG: 1.048
Treatment 2: Mash Tun w/o reflex ( sample taken by recirculating 2 gallons of wort and then sampling 10 oz in a mug, Ambient temperature ~75, direct sun)
12:50(Mash In)= 152.5
13:05= 148.6
13:20= 146.0
13:35= 144.6
13:50= 146.0 (this sample was taken by placing the thermometer in the stream from Mash Tun to Boil Kettle)

As you can see from the test results, the mash without the insulation was at the end of the mash schedule only 4/10th of one degree Fahrenheit lower than the mash that was sporting the insulation jacket. Conclusive proof in an off handed way that the jacket was not needed. Let's also not forget that most of the enzymatic action is taking place within the first 20 minutes of the mash time and that the thermal mass is the main source of maintaining the temperature during this time period. There is some data to show this truth.

But in the end, my opinion, like so much silly science is no good. Like so many brewers caught in the idea, the actual results made no difference as I found out later that Winslow and Dave still use the bubble wrap insulated jacket with complete abandon, despite the results of our trials. The idea behind the insulation may be more valuable then the reality. Thus my contention that homebrewing could be very much like the beliefs of those that brewed before the invention of the thermometer or the discovery of micro-biology. Let the dogma bark my friends, or as Dr. House would say "...with the absence of rational comes ritual."
My insulated mash tun just had a baby! It's a blond.

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