Testing your beer should be part of your brewing process. Why? Because repeatability throughout the brewing process is the key to brewing consistent high quality homebrewed beer. There are several tests which you should be doing. These include water analysis and treatment, mash pH, starch conversion, specific gravities, instrument calibration, and yeast viability.
Water Analysis Of all the ingredients you use in producing your winning homebrew, water is probably the most misunderstood. Your water’s hardness, quality, and it’s subsequent pH will affect the enzymatic activity of your mash, the solubility of any mineral salts you use as well as the solubility of proteins and sugars, and your hop usage in the perceived hop bitterness. Lastly, your water’s properties also determine to some extent the life of your brewing equipment. Certain properties will cause scaling and mineral deposits to be formed on or in your equipment.
Prior to using your water for brewing, you should have a water analysis done to learn your water’s basic chemistry. I recommend you send a sample to Ward Labs, Inc. and order the W-5A Brewer’s Test which gives you the pertinent data for around $27.95 (at the time of this writing). Then, treat your water as needed for mineral deficiencies or to mimic a particular beer style’s water. The Brewer’s Test tests for:
Sodium, Nitrate, Total Hardness (Lime), Calcium, Carbonate, Total Alkalinity, Magnesium, Bicarbonate, Iron, Potassium, Sulfate, Phosphorus, Chloride, Electrical Conductivity, pH, Est. Total Dissolved Solids.
Testing Your Beer-Mash pH
Analyze Your Mash pH after the grain has been doughed-in and the mash begins. Use a pH meter that has been recently calibrated, or pH strips. The best strips are called ColorpHast strips. They use a pH sensitive dye that will not run like litmus paper. It also shows a stronger change of color over a narrow pH range which makes them easier to read and more precise than litmus paper. They are a little more expensive than most strips but are much more accurate. You can cut them down the middle of the strip with scissors and get 200 strips per container.
A pH meter is a good choice, but not only are pH meters relatively expensive, their electrodes have only a limited lifetime of 1-2 years when cared for well. They also require constant maintenance like calibration and the tip of the electrode needs to be stored wet. A pH meter is recommended if you have other than mashing uses for it. Because of its precision it can also be used to monitor the pH of the fermentation and finished beer. Once you know your mash pH, there are a few ways to adjust it.
Testing Your Beer-Specific Gravity
Analyzing For Specific Gravity involves using either a hydrometer or refractometer (which measures the Brix of a solution, the reading can be converted to a specific gravity reading). There are several important reasons for checking and tracking your beer’s specific gravity. One is to assure you are getting all the hop utilization you paid for. Another is to determine the efficiency of your brewing process and equipment. And still another is to track fermentation so see when it has finished or if it has stuck prior to finishing.
To learn about using your hydrometer, click here
Many homebrewers are using the refractometer to obtain quick real time readings of their wort while brewing. The sample size is very small and you only have to wait a few seconds for the sample to cool before taking the reading. Some refractometers are temperature corrected so you don’t have to make any adjustments to the readings like you do with the hydrometer.
To learn all about refractometers and refractometry, click here.
Testing Your Beer-Yeast Viability
Yeast Viability Analysis There are times when you just don’t know what kind of shape that packet or vial of yeast is in. Shipping during summer months, long storage situations, re-pitching onto used yeast cakes, plus many other situations should make you worry about your yeast’s health. Pitching plenty of healthy yeast is one thing you can control which will pay big dividends in the quality of your homebrewed beer.
To learn about yeast viability analysis, click here.
Testing Your Beer-Starch Conversion
Starch Conversion Analysis Testing for starch conversion is important in determining the endpoint of your mash. Without it, you won’t really know if all the starch has been converted into sugar. If you find your original gravities don’t quite get to where they should, this is the check you need to be performing. In fact, everyone should be performing this analysis. It is easy and very cheap and gives you the information you need to continue on with the sparge or keep mashing a little longer to extract every last bit of sugar from the grains.
To learn how to perform the starch-iodine conversion check, click here.
Testing Your Beer-Fermentation
Forced Fermentation Analysis Anyone can do this check. What it tells you is where your final gravity should be when your wort finishes fermentation. If the final gravity does not hit this mark, it will tell you if the problem lies in the fermentation or the fermentability of the wort. To learn all about the forced fermentation analysis, click here.
Testing Your Beer-Diacetyl
Diacetyl Test Have you ever wondered if your beer is ready to bottle or keg? If you want to know if there is an excess of the diacetyl precursor alpha-acetolactate (AAL) in your young beer, here is a simple procedure you can perform to find out. Click here to learn how to check for diacetyl.
Hopefully you have seen where testing comes into the brewing process. Following standard procedures will increase the accuracy of your tests. Keep all instrument instructions and download all available conversion charts to keep with your equipment. Calibrate your equipment frequently and replace or repair faulty instruments. Keep all your reagents fresh, usually not more than a year from the date you purchased them. I like to write the date on chemicals and reagents and remove them from service after a year or so. Analysis is another tool you can use to make important real-time decisions about your beer. If you get into the habit of checking and adjusting as you brew, you will be making award winning homebrew sooner than you think.