How to Start Experimenting With Your Beer and Get Quick Wins

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What if you could have your own library full of successful homebrew experiments?
It would have detailed notes, research, and your findings. You could use it as a powerful reference when crafting new recipes.
"Hmm..what yeast strain should I go with in this sweet stout?"
Off to your files you go. You find the answer in one of your many side-by-side yeast experiments.

A Notebook Full of Experiments Gives you an Unfair Advantage in Brewing

And I'll show you how you can get started. Not only that - I'll show you how to get quick wins.
Quick wins are very important because nothing is more discouraging than a homebrewing experiment gone wrong. You get your eagerly wait for brew day...and then it comes. And everything falls apart....
Maybe you weren't prepared. Or maybe the experiment went smoothly but you didn't really learn anything from it.
Here are some ways you can make the most of your experiments, especially if you're new to them.

Wait Until You Enjoy the Beer You're Brewing

If you don't like your "normal" beer, you won't like your experiments. You can't experiment your way from bad beer to good beer. You should be brewing good beer already. Get the fundamentals down. Make sure you're not making one of the biggest mistakes new brewers make.
No, the beer doesn't need to be great. That's often where experimentation comes in. But you should be happy with it.
Why is that important? Because of my next tip:

Have a Consistent Process in Place

According to the scientific method, a good experiment only has one independent variable - the thing you're changing.
Everything in your brewing process is a variable: your water, your boil length, your ingredients, your equipment, your fermentation temperature, etc. So when you go to taste your experimental beer, you want to be sure the difference you taste came from your independent variable and not something else in your process.

Image courtesy AnOldUR

That's why a consistent process is critical to good experimenting.
Use a checklist. Keep good notes. And most of all, get some batches under your belt before you jump into experimenting.
Start macro, then go micro
Make big changes first. That's really the key to quick wins. Your goal is to taste your finished beer and say, "Whoa! That's a huge difference! I'm using [malt type] for all my [beer style] recipes now."
Let me give you an example.
Say you want to experiment with Munch malt. You really don't know it that well. Well, Munich and Vienna malt are pretty similar. They are swapped out for each other in recipes all the time.
A great experiment is to brew one batch with Vienna and another one with Munich. Make an Oktoberfest-style of beer with these two variations. You'll learn a ton about Munich and Vienna malt.
This is an example of going wide. Going narrow - which I don't recommend at first - would be to start off by testing two different, but similar types of Munich malt. Maybe you test Munich I vs. Munich II. Or maybe you're using Munich II, but from two different brands. Or it's the same brand but a priest blessed one lot and not the other.
You get the idea.
Start macro. Learn the difference between Munich and Vienna. Once you've done that, then get more micro.

Start Further Downstream

The further downstream in the process you conduct your experiment the easier it will be. I like my Munich malt example, but there is a problem with it. Do you see it?
You need to perform TWO mashes. Ugh....
That means you need to perform two different boils, two different fermentations, and bottle two different batches.

Instead, you can perform two different boils from one mash (maybe to test hop varieties), so that's easier. Better still, you can split a single boil kettle into two fermenters (maybe to test different yeast strains). And splitting a single fermenter into different kegs (whole fruit vs. puree perhaps?) is even easier.
See the difference in time & efforts between these experiments?
If you want to get quick wins, start further downstream. I love doing experiments in my keg or bottling bucket. I don't do anything different until that very last day. Plus you can do some really fun stuff when it comes time to package your beer.
Test Ingredients AND Process
By now you know that you can tweak your beer without touching an ingredient. I'll let that post do the heavy lifting in this section, so go check that out.
When we think of experimentation we immediately think of ingredients. And you should definitely test those. Test them like crazy. Experiment with different hop varieties, different yeast strains, different kinds of malt. You'll get new insights while improving your palate.
But don't forget about your process. Just a few of the places in your process where you can experiment are:
  • Boil duration
  • Fermentation temperature
  • Mash temperature
  • How long you age a beer
  • How long you aerate
You might find some of your biggest successes in the tweaking the steps you take to brew your beer.

Brew Small Batches

Sometimes you're trying something so wild, so cockamamie, so...STUPID (in a good way)...that you don't want to risk an entire 5 gallon batch.
What do you do? Brew a small batch.
There is a monstrous and fantastic 1-gallon brewers unite thread here on HomebrewTalk. I suggest you give it a read. Now, there is debate about whether brewing a 1 gallon batch is worth it or not. My 1 gallon batches never turn out as good as my larger batches.
But that's not the point. I'm not trying to brew a perfect beer at one gallon, I'm doing an experiment and looking for a thumbs up or thumbs down decision on whether or not I should scale it up to a full sized batch.
For that, they're awesome
Finally, Get Inspiration from Other Brewers
Take advantage of the experiments conducted by other homebrewers. My most dog-eared brewing book is Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher. The Basic Brewing podcast also has great experiments. And while my copy is still in the mail, I hear the new book by our friends Denny Conn and Drew Beechum is one for the ages. Use them all.
Now go forth and tinker!
Billy Broas heads up The Homebrew Academy, where you can find tips, videos, and online courses for brewing world-class beer at home. He's co-author of the book Craft Beer for the Homebrewer, a certified BJCP beer judge, and his beer philosophy is that "we should all be beer geeks, not beer snobs."
My buddy and I call them Exbeeriments. We use gallon milk jugs which allows us to split a batch up to 5 ways to test dry hopping or fruit/extract additions. Its like brewing 5 beers all at once.
Great idea.. I've had about 4-5 different milk stout recipes I came up with that I've been wanting to try. Most have the same base, but far different boil or secondary ingredients. Great idea to split the mash into multiple kettles.
I started off experimenting more than I have lately. My first beer was a Cream Ale. I bottled half and then added some bourbon vanilla extract before bottling the rest. The basic batch was great as soon as it carbed. The vanilla batch had a bite that took about 3 months to smooth out.
My second was an American Wheat. I bottled 3 gallons and racked the rest onto 2 pounds of blueberries. At one of the club meetings, someone brought 2 beers that were boiled together, then split so one batch was fermented with US-05 and the other with Wyeast 1056. While very similar, the 1056 had a noticeable butter flavor.
Completely agree with the small batches. Think about it...large commercial breweries do 15g, 20g, 1bbl test batches before they go all in on the big system so why not do the same as a homebrewer.
A little over a year ago I started doing some 1 gallon batches to test out new recipes and modifications of old recipes. If they don't turn out, you have less ruined beer and less money thrown away.
I agree they don't always taste exactly the same, but you will be pretty close.
I started doing 2G batches in the past year, really fun, no fear- if it sucks, little is lost. Also, I can do my batches stovetop, which is great.
The only thing is, I have done some "huge" small batches, 14% alcohol, lagers, etc. When they come out awesome, you're months away from doing them big scale. I just did a Surly Smoke tribute, only got a dozen bombers, can't wait to do a big batch, I know I'm gonna be giving lots of these away.
Excellent write up, thank you. Still working on getting my process exactly the same. Putting this into my glossary section though.
I literally just realized today that I don't need a larger kettle (currently 7 gal) to do all-grain BIAB, I just need to scale down my recipes to 3 gal! Then I found this article in my inbox and knew it was meant to be! Thanks for the insight!