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Help With Off Flavors

Hello Everyone,

This evening I sampled my first two batches of AG beer. These beers are still quite young, but, in the name of science, I felt compelled to give them a taste to see how they were doing. The first is NB’s Hope & King clone, which is about 7 weeks old and has been carbing in the bottle for a little under three weeks. The second is a Best Bitter from “Brewing Classic Styles”, which is almost 5 weeks old and has also been bottle carbing for about three weeks. For full disclosure, I came in about 10 points under for the Hope & King (didn’t boil down far enough) and the Bitter was about 3 points over.

At this point, I think the Bitter is coming along well and will turn out nicely after having a chance to sit and come together for another couple of weeks. The Scotch ale, however, is a different story. What I found most concerning in this beer was the appearance of an astringent aftertaste which I did not detect at bottling. My wife described it as “grapefruit-like” in character, but without the citrus – kind of like the bitterness left on one’s palate after a bite of grapefruit, but without the sugary citrus smell or taste that balances it. I detect traces of it in the bitter, but not nearly as much as in the Scotch ale.

I’m hoping that someone might be able to give some insight as to what might have caused such a flavor to develop between bottling and now. In one and a half years of extract brewing, I have never detected this flavor at any stage in the brewing process in any of my beers.

I have experienced this effect when the brews become contaminated. Wild critters can generate compounds that taste very bitter – I describe it as something like aspirin. If you’ve never chewed up an aspirin on purpose, try it and see if that’s what your beer tastes like (it won’t kill you). If this is the case, I fear there could be some contamination going on.

The other possibility is more due to the fact that these are your first all-grain batches. How hard did you crush the grain? What did you use to mill? Perhaps it is a mash and sparge pH issue. Ideally you want the pH to be about 5.3-5.4, although anywhere from about 5.1 to 5.5 is okay. If you used hard water and did not measure pH, it might have been too high like 5.6 or more which can leach out more tannins and cause this effect. This is especially a possibility if you used the fly sparging technique. With batch sparging, it’s not as common. With BIAB method, it’s somewhere in between. A hard crush can make this effect even worse. And the reason you didn’t taste it at bottling time might have to do with the time it takes for tannins to react and mix with other compounds in the beer as it conditions, I guess I’m not real sure on that but I have a hunch it could be true.

In either case, the problem may be too late for these batches, but it is easy to avoid for future batches – be sure to take sanitation very seriously (if you weren’t already), and measure pH during the mash and sparge, and be ready to adjust with calcium chloride and/or phosphoric acid if it’s not close to 5.3.

If it ain’t one of those two things, and if you’re absolutely sure that it’s not hop bitterness or something else, then I’m at a loss. Best of luck to you.

Thanks very much for the insights, Dave.

As you mentioned, there were a lot of new variables in the process (I batch sparge) in that these were my first two AG brews. Going through your lost of possibilities, I think my sanitation was well in hand, or at least consistent with what I have been doing successfully in the past, but one can never be 100% certain, of course. The grains for these batches were pre-crushed from NB, but for my future batches I’ll be using a newly purchased Barley Crusher, which I plan on using at the factory setting for the time being, so this will hopefully add a certain degree of consistency.

I suspected that, as you also mentioned, my question would eventually lead to a conversation about the mysterious world of mash water chemistry. As I’ve seen others mention, the more I read about it, the more reluctant I am to get into it, while at the same time realizing that I have to arrive at some sort of basic understanding. I’ve gone so far as to make a trip to the city water works and get a report on the water supply to my house, but after seeing the report (which does not address all of the variables required for EZ Water or Bru’n Water) and talking with the person helping me, it appears that the water supply to my house is likely coming from a combination of three wells, each having a different array of readings. The only consistent reading was that the overall hardness of the water was quite high at ~15 grains, which you also listed as a potential problem.

At this point, I’m considering using distilled water for future batches, at least for the mash. Is it the case that the mash water pH is the critical variable and not so much the sparge water, or does the sparge water also have to be adjusted? I am looking at getting some ColorPHast Test Strips for testing - do these work accurately? Also, I’d welcome any advise on a bare bones approach to testing and adjusting mash pH (how to calculate, when to take readings, what additions to have on hand for adjusting, when to add).

Any advise from anyone would be much appreciated!

If you;re batch sparging, it’s usually the case that if your mash pH is good that your sparge pH will be also. The exception to that is that if you have really extreme water, you may need to adjust the sparge pH. but I’d say 90% of the people who batch sparge have no need to do that.

If you’re on well water, then I’m pretty sure that’s your issue. You can use distilled water, but you’ll be robbing the yeast of essential nutrients, so instead I would recommend a blend – perhaps use 75% distilled and 25% well water or something like that. This will be necessary for both the mash and the sparge – pH is critical for both.

I am cheap and I use the paper pH strips, but I can tell you they are very hard to read – for example it’s very hard to tell the difference between 5.1 and 5.5. But it at least gives you an idea if you’re in that right range, and not way high like 5.8 or way low at 4.8. Cheap and easy and it helps. Measure anytime in the mash or sparge, the earlier the better so you can catch a pH issue before it becomes a problem. If you try the paper strips and you don’t like them (as some people don’t), then you might end up seeking out a fancy pH gauge. Eventually I might ask for one for Christmas, but after several years of success with the paper strips I haven’t gotten to that point yet where I really need to.

As for how to adjust pH, to say that it’s complicated would be an understatement. In general, for darker beers, you probably won’t need to make any adjustments if you get your ratio of well water to distilled water nailed down. If anything, you might need to use more well water to keep the pH from getting too low – otherwise the resulting beer will probably taste okay but can have an unpleasant tartness. For copper/red colored beers, software will tell you how much salt additions are needed to hit a good pH. Typically this is a teaspoon or two of gypsum, calcium chloride, or both. Those are the two essential salts – others such as table salt, Epsom salt, chalk, baking soda, etc. are 99% worthless so I would suggest not even bothering with those. But for any lighter beers (pilsners, blonde ales, etc.), you’ll need 100% distilled water and some creativity to hit a suitable pH. I like to reference Ray Daniels’ Designing Great Beers book for this purpose. He basically figured out that the standard mash pH for 100% pilsner malt (the lightest and highest pH malt) has a pH of 5.8, and for every 10% specialty malts used in a recipe, the mash pH falls by up to 0.3. So if you use 10% crystal malt, you’ll be around 5.5 which isn’t too terrible. But for those cases where you don’t want any crystal malt in your recipe, you might need to try acid additions – often times phosphoric acid is used. Again, software should help.

So anyway, that’s pretty much what I do, and it all seems to work. A little complicated at first, but once you learn your water and system and what works for you, you won’t need to worry about it as much anymore.

Good luck.

I just want to say don’t always assume well water is a problem. I’m on a well and the water quality is one reason that I think my beers generally turn out so well…no pun intended!

I’m on well water too and have never had a problem. Do you vorlauf? The taste sounds like tannins to me.

Sounds very familiar, I’ve got very hard water as well. Bad news is I think you are going to have to read up on water chemistry and mash pH. But the good news is with some RO water and a bit of knowledge your beer will improve dramatically. No brewing process change made a bigger difference for me than figuring out my water.

Thanks once again to all who replied – the holidays had me away from the board for a few days. Here’s hoping everyone was able to enjoy some QT with family and friends, or at least some down time!

I should clarify that when, in my previous post, I said my water was coming from one of three wells, the water was actually coming from city wells and was still being treated by the city, but that the mix of which wells were providing the water was unclear. I say this only to clarify that my water is not well water, per se (for better or for worse). The problem was that each of the wells had very different readings, and the random mix of water from the wells made the city water report less useful.

After doing some further reading, I came across the following post by Hampshirebrewer in another NB thread, from which I’ve quoted the following:

[i]The following recommendations apply to “soft” water. Here we will define soft as meaning RO or distilled water …

Baseline: Add 1 tsp of calcium chloride dihydrate (what your LHBS sells) to each 5 gallons of water treated. Add 2% sauermalz to the grist.

Deviate from the baseline as follows:

For soft water beers (i.e Pils, Helles). Use half the baseline amount of calcium chloride and increase the sauermalz to 3%

For beers that use roast malt (Stout, porter): Skip the sauermalz.

For British beers: Add 1 tsp gypsum as well as 1 tsp calcium chloride

For very minerally beers (Export, Burton ale): Double the calcium chloride and the gypsum.[/i]

The quote is actually a bit longer and came from an author on another forum, but I thought it might work well as a simple approach to get going with testing and adjusting my water since I’m suspicious about the quality of my tap water.

Does anyone else have any experience with or opinions on this method?

Not a bad set of suggestions, although I make a darned good helles ith a tsp of CaCl2. I’ve never used sauermalz, its just malt with a little lactic acid sprayed on it.

I have had the kind of bitterness you describe in malty beers when I use my tap water. It is high in sulfate, and generally unpredictable. Since I started brewing with RO water from Walmart I’ve had much better results. I just kegged a Scottish 70 that has a good malty flavor.

The other thing that seems to affect malty beers is oxidation. If you ferment in a bucket, transfer to a carboy before the fermentation is over. The key is to bring a good amount of yeast over, because without enough yeast the by-products don’t get metabolized.

Dan, that is the water adjustment I follow. I use the EZ Water spreadsheet too but basically come up with the same answer. I dilute my water with 2/3 RO water though so that it’s contribution to chemistry is minimal.

I agree with Flip - nothing has made a bigger difference in my brewing than paying attention to my water. My water is very high in bicarbonate - great for stouts and porters, but a nightmare for brewing lighter, hoppier beers. I spent close to 15 years brewing bad IPA’s - the second I changed what I did with my water, I began to brew good, hoppy and lighter beers. For years, my IPA’s were astringent and simply not very good, my latest was really . . . . well, it was great (the first time that has ever happened for me).

I was intimidated by the idea of figuring out water chemistry, but John Palmer’s book (How to brew) has a really outstanding section on water chemistry - step by step. Seems confusing at first - but it really is not bad if you follow through step by step. I got a water analysis from Ward Labs (cheap and easy), plugged my numbers into the handy diagrams in Palmer’s book, and was on my way. I sat down one day and basically made a cheat sheet for my water, depending on style and how I should alter it. Basically, I use 4 gallons total, with different percentages of RO water. Dark beers = no RO water, lightest beers = 100% RO water. I use Gypsum (CaSO4) and Calcium Chloride in varying amounts depending on style. Generally I use Gypsum more than CaCl because it also adds sulfate which helps with hoppy beers.

Here is the link to the chapter in Palmer’s book in case you don’t have it. I would recommend buying it though - it is an excellent book. Also, there is a diagram on the back cover that I made a dozen photocopies of to plot out my additions, Tap/RO water ratio, etc. for diff. styles of beer.

Dan, the stuff you found from Hampshirebrewer looks like VERY good recommendations, better than I was able to come up with. Go with it and see if your brews improve.

And one more round of thank you’s to all who replied – I received some gypsum, CaCl2, and acidulated malt in the mail today and will be eager to start working with my water.

I’ve found this thread to be very informative, as I’ve been experiencing the same types of off flavors lately. I had taken some time off from brewing, and now have transitioned from the kitchen to the garage. Over the last year, I’ve made a couple of darker beers and then several versions of the same EPA recipe. My dark beers turned out good, with a small hint of the an astringent aftertaste that Dan originally mentioned. This was my first all grain batch. After an all grain EPA that was very astringent, I tried to make an extract version of the same EPA and had pretty much the same results.

My latest batch (which should be ready to try soon) I made the exact same EPA recipe from extract, but I made some water adjustments. My water is very hard, and I used the EZ Water tool to figure which adjustments to make. I’m considering brewing my next batch with 100% distilled water from the store just to see if the astringent goes away. This way, I will for sure know if I’ve got a water issue or an infection of some sort.

But here’s a question: Will water adjustments to an extract batch make any difference? I used the EZ Water tool and used the sparge water adjustments, not mash. But my concern is that this really doesn’t make much difference, and I really need to go back to AG and treat both hot and cold sides to see any effect. Thoughts?

Interesting question you have there about water adjustments in extract beers… I’m not sure if this answers it, but I do have some thoughts on the general topic…

When a manufacturer is making malt extract, how do you suppose they do it? Well, like any all-grain brewer, they take a load of malt, mill it fine, add a whole bunch of WATER, mash it in the 150s Fahrenheit, vorlauf and then boil the snot out of it until it’s super thick.

Now, assuming the manufacturer had some salts in their water, whether natural salts from their local water, or through use of distilled water plus salts (which I doubt they would do – okay, maybe they’d use RO), any salts in their source water are still in their extract. So, if they were to make 100 gallons of extract, they might need to use 1000 gallons of water and then boil it all down to that 100 gallons.

And therein lies the problem. You could have a whole lot of salt in your extract, but the manufacturer isn’t putting it on their labels as to how hard their water is, and the typical homebrewer might not even think about it, thus adding even MORE salt to the brew when they use their own hard tap water or even spring water. In fact, you might end up with 2 or 3 times as much salts in your extract beer than an all-grain beer!!

I think the next time I make an extract beer (sometime in the far off future or maybe never), if I get my head screwed on straight, I would certainly ALWAYS want to use 100% distilled water for all extract brews because there’s already a buttload of salt in the extract itself. If the final beer ends up tasting too watery, then I might consider whether that manufacturer used softer water to make their extract, but for another manufacturer, this might not be the case.

Not sure if that answers any questions, but it’s definitely something worth thinking about.

Right Dave. I emailed one of the extract makers once and asked them about their water, and was told it is fairly hard. So you’ll most likely have all the calcium you need, and probably modest amounts of sulfat and chloride. I think using RO/DI water is justified, maybe with a small CaCl2 or CaSO4 addition for flavor purposes.

Very interesting. Based on what both Dave and Tom have said, I think the best course is for me to brew an extract batch with 100% DI water and see what happens. I’ll try to remember to update this conversation with the results, but between a bathroom remodel and an upcoming family vacation, I don’t see any beer production in my future until late January (at the earliest). So who knows if I’ll remember!

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