Keeping Records of Your Homebrew

Making beer takes time. I don’t mean brew day, I mean the part between first pitching the yeast and drinking the final product. This, of course, refers to the fermentation and aging period. Depending on the style, starting gravity, fermentation temperature, yeast strain, and countless other factors, it’s not out of the question to wait up to two months between pitching yeast and consuming the first beer from a batch.

This lag has several profound effects that we don’t often get from other creative processes. First, it makes us impatient. Because of that, we do impulsive things like obtain more fermenters and fill them up with more brews. In doing so, we sometimes find ourselves making a second batch identical to the first, while the first is still fermenting. Another consequence of the lag between creation and consumption is that our environment may well undergo a change in its conditions. A season lasts only three months. If we’re dealing with a slow batch of beer that consumes the best part of two months to ferment and bottle condition, that’s two thirds of a season. In such circumstances, it’s understandable that the ambient temperature of the brew will undergo a significant change if not controlled.

If we were to compare homebrewing to baking, the situation just described is analogous to a baker in a kitchen with two ovens. They mix ingredients as per a recipe and put the uncooked product in one of the ovens, but the temperature dial is not accurate. While that batch is cooking, they prepare a second identical batch, assuming the first recipe is perfect, and place that in the second oven. Only, the second oven has a faulty seal and leaks heat out. At the end of the baking process, the baker is left with two differing products, neither of which is great, but they have no idea why. The recipe might have had some faults, but how do they know it wasn’t the fault of the oven that contributed to the sub-optimal end-product?

Now consider the above example extended out over two months. Ignoring details of what might change, the point is that when brewing, we can deal with some fairly big time frames. This makes it difficult to remember what we did and when. If we make a lot of beer concurrently, it becomes difficult just remembering what is fermenting where, let alone the recipe, yeast strain, pitch rate, pitch temperature, etc.. So, as brewers it is imperative that we record what we do at each stage along the way.

Homebrew logging can be as low or high-tech as you want it to be. You can use a pen and paper, use a basic spreadsheet, buy subscriptions to websites or smartphone applications, or even use equipment that logs data continuously. Whichever tool works for you is fine, but here are a couple of suggestions that may help you get started and get the best return on your efforts:

Things often seem unforgettable 'right now'

Remember that conversation you had with your friend three weeks ago? Didn’t think so. Although I bet at the time, you thought you’d never forget it. When we are actively doing something, right here right now, it often seems so abundantly clear that it feels we’ll never forget it. But alas, we do. This is just our primitive brain at play. It’s a carry-over from the days when the only thing that mattered for our survival was avoiding an immediate threat. However, what it can mean is that we consider the value of our data to be considerably lower at the time than we would in several days/weeks. So remember, just like a photograph of a close friend or relative, what may not feel valuable at the time may significantly increase in value as time goes on. Homebrew records follow the same pattern. Once you decide to log, make sure you always log, and be disciplined about it.

Choose a medium

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As I mentioned earlier, you might use paper or an electronic method. Paper has the advantage of being able to travel with you anywhere without needing power, but has many restrictions as well, such as inability to search rapidly or share easily with others. Electronic methods are more versatile and ultimately, more future proof, and there are many online recipe building (and logging) platforms such as the Recipe Builder on Homebrew Supply. You can also overcome the lack of portability problem by taking notes on paper while brewing, then recording them electronically later. Use whatever method works for you.

Spend time deciding what you will log

This is an important step. You might initially decide to keep recorded data to a minimum, then later decide to add more numbers. When you do this, you will almost certainly say “if only I had recorded that from the beginning”. You can choose to log anything from the water used, grain bill, temperatures, boil times, hop additions, yeast strain, pitch rate, pitch temperature, starting gravity, times at each step along the way, and a multitude of other values I haven’t mentioned. The trick is to strike a balance between not enough data and so much you become a slave to your logbook and forget to enjoy brewing.

For reference, here are a few commonly used data points that it will be useful to know through the process:

  • Recipe. That's including any water additions as well.
  • Gravities. Original and Final. This will help you determine your ABV and yeast attenuation. On this note, if you haven't already, grab a hydrometer to measure your gravity.
  • Mash temperature (if all-grain), intended AND actual.
  • Fermentation temperature.
  • Boil time.
  • Yeast cells needed and the number you pitched.
  • Volumes. How much liquid you mashed with, collected from the mash, pre-boil, post-boil, in the fermenters, and in the bottles/kegs.
  • Dates. When you brewed, when it was in the fermenter, when it was packaged, when you drank it.
  • Tasting notes. How did it go? What would you change? Wait a month, record again. How is it now?

Take photos

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Often when homebrewers ask questions relating to an in-progress brewing exercise, responders will request pictures. This is particularly prevalent when posts relate to possible infections. A picture paints a thousand words, and in some cases it’s virtually impossible to give advice without them. Given your current brewing experience will one day be lost in the mists of time, it may be beneficial to photograph it at particular times. The obvious time to do this is if anything starts to look unusual, but what about when taking measurements? Hydrometers and refractometers can be fiddly devices to interpret, so why not photograph the measurements while you’re getting the hang of it? Then you can revisit that initial reading as many times as you wish.

Be consistent

Having decided what to log, the one last thing I would suggest is to be consistent with what you log. While ‘comments/remarks’ sections can be useful, I personally use them only to log anomalies, otherwise you can end up with inconsistent information from one brew to the next. The values you have decided to record should all be compulsory fields. If you think of them this way, you’ll be more inclined to capture what you need to.

A bit of discipline is never a bad in homebrewing. While you may be the only person who reads your log, remember, you’re not writing for yourself now, you’re writing for yourself in the future. You want to make it as easy as possible for your future self (who just tasted the first beer and thought “wow!”) to be able to reproduce the same thing time and time again.

By Richard Greaney

written by Richard Greaney

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