How to brew a stout

Dan Craft beer

It has been 2 months since we brewed our first commercially available beer; the Eggnog Stout and we are pumped with how it has been received. We’ve had a number of people ask us for more info on the process, so I thought I would go in to more detail in this post about how to brew a stout.

Let’s start at the beginning, where all beer is inevitably destined for glory or the drain:

Brewing Water

“If the water tastes good, you can brew with it”

I’ve heard this far too many times to count. While the brewing process is quite tolerant of poor conditions, it’s not likely going to be a great beer if the water profile isn’t appropriate to the style.

The first step is knowing where you start; this can be done by contacting your local council and requesting a water quality report. These reports are typically subject to variance but it will give you an idea of what’s in your water. If you are on tank water, find your closest water testing facility or use distilled / spring water.

The report may be a simple single page document or could be a complex 30-page dossier that will leave you wondering “brewing isn’t meant to be this hard”, but there are only a few ions that are critical to the brewing process:

The principal ions are:

  • Calcium (Ca+2) – determines water hardness & is instrumental to many processes in the mash and in the boil.
  • Magnesium (Mg+2) – an important yeast nutrient in small concentrations.
  • Bicarbonate (HCO3-1) – balances water pH.
  • Sulphate (SO4-2) – compliments hop bitterness.
  • Sodium (Na+1) – balances the beer’s sweetness.
  • Chloride (Cl-1) – accentuates the fullness of the beer.

Finding the correct water profile for a particular style is fairly easy through reputable home brew forums. Be careful because while being a little under with your additions will probably be forgiven, if you go overboard you could end up with a salty, sour laxative beer – so always err on the side of caution. I’d also be careful of being drawn into “regional water profiles”. While it is true different breweries are famous for different styles, we are assuming they don’t make adjustments to their local water supply, trust the science.

For the Eggnog Stout we went with the following mineral profile:

  • Ca+2 – 100ppm
  • Mg+2 – 5ppm
  • HCO3-1 – 200ppm
  • Cl-1 – 20ppm
  • SO4-2 – 50ppm
  • Na+1 – 15ppm

The high Calcium and Bicarbonate addition is to increase the alkalinity when using dark malts (which are more acidic than pale malts) for an optimum mash pH.

If your water levels are above the target for the style, you can dilute with distilled water. BeerSmith has a great water profile tool to calculate your additions. Popular minerals to use include Table Salt (NaCl), Gypsum (CaSO4), Calcium Chloride (CaCl), Epsom Salts (MgSO4), Baking Soda (NaHCO3) and Chalk (CaCO3).

Choosing your ingredients

Before we get into which malts, hops and yeast are going to produce the perfect stout, I would like to focus on something very important and often not considered when compiling a recipe; Freshness.

When you are at your LHBS make the effort (if possible) to sample the ingredients: chew the grain, you want a firm crunch from the kernel’s husk and pleasant malt flavor from the starch inside – if its chewy and stale, consider using a different grain or supplier.

When it comes to selecting hops, ask your supplier what year the crop was harvested and where it came from – it could prove better to use fresh hops that you may not have considered for your recipe than a ‘true-to-style’ variety that has been sitting on the shelves for 2 years. When it comes to yeast, check the manufactured / best before date and prepare in a yeast starter where possible.

Grain Bill

Choosing the right grain bill for your stout can be challenging. There are so many good recipes out there to take inspiration from, but if you keep it simple you will give yourself a base on which to grow with each brew. This is the fun creative part so I wont even begin to tell you how to brew the perfect stout, but for those who are interested here is what we used:

  • Pale Ale – 80%
  • Roast Barley – 6%
  • Chocolate Malt – 5%
  • Flaked barley – 9%

This gave us a nice rich roasted barley flavour and the flaked barley gave it extra body and an incredible off-white lasting head (the brandy added after fermentation would thin the beer slightly). I am a big promoter of keeping the recipe simple and allowing the ingredients to be noticed and not over complicate the flavours.

Mashing, Hops, Boiling, Fermentation & the Nogg

We brewed a simple single infusion mash at 67ºC for 60mins at 2.5L/kg of water with a 75ºC mash-out for 10mins finalizing at 3L/kg water:grist ratio. We then recirculated the mash for approx. 25mins until the wort ran clear (dilute a sample with water if its too dark to check clarity). Then we started to run-off into the kettle and sparged on the fly with hot liquor under 80ºC (any hotter and you risk extracting astringent tannins from the grain husk). Clear wort in and out of the kettle is so important to brewing a great beer as many off-flavours are contributed from either grain material getting into the kettle, or the post-boil trub getting into the fermenter.

Once we achieved a rolling boil, we added 1g/L of Cascade for bittering at the 75min mark of a 90min boil then 0.75g/L of East Kent Goldings into the whirlpool after the end of boil (wort temp < 96ºC) for aromatics.

Final hops #australiancraftbeer #craftbeer @blackhopsbeer

A photo posted by Dan Norris (@thedannorris) on

I speak to a lot of homebrewers suffering from off-flavours and style-faults in their beers and I can bet that in many cases it is from insufficient boil time – the kettle is responsible for a lot more than just hop isomerisation and a boil under 70mins is likely to still contain volatile compounds that have not had time to evaporate from the wort.

Then we knocked-out into the fermentation vessel (via a heat-exchange), pitched a pre-prepared yeast starter of enough Wyeast Irish Ale (1084) to give a yeast count of approx 1,000,000 cells/mil/ºP, aerated well and fermented at 18ºC for about a week.

The heat exchanger is handy for a full size brew, but if you are just home brewing, throwing the cube in the pool is a popular technique.

A photo posted by Dan Norris (@thedannorris) on

Once within 1ºP of our target gravity, we got to work with the Eggnog component of the stout. This was a ‘dry-hop’ with 12 bottles of French Brandy that had been infused with Madagascan vanilla beans, fresh nutmeg and cinnamon.

Translating our spicing calculations from our initial 20L pilot up to 800L commercial batch was very challenging and not wanting to go overboard, we decided to play it safe as cinnamon and nutmeg (especially) are not very pleasant when in excess. How we came to our first batch addition was by simply purchasing a 6-pack of a quality stout from the local craft beer liquor store and experimenting with our brandy/spice blend until we were happy then multiplied it up to a 20L brew.

The beer was then transferred into a conditioning tank for 2 weeks, carbonated and kegged.

While we were very happy with the end result, I imagine this beer (our flagship) will be a brew that evolves and improves over time and I look forward to when we can brew this on a large scale again.

If there is anything I can leave you with it is; use fresh ingredients wherever possible, boil for 70-90mins and don’t overcomplicate your recipe. I hope this information has been of interest to you and please feel free to reply with any questions or comments – I would love to hear from you.

Cheers!

Govs