Neil reviewing tasting notes

Brewing Water Series – Tasting Minerals, Sensory Evaluation

In February 2015, I brewed Brülosopher’s Best Brown Ale which naturally turned into a series of experiments. The intention was to ship beer off to Marshall from Brü for evaluation, and that twisted into preparing some bottles, doctored, for sensory evaluation. I kept a set of the evaluation beers as part of my sensory education to review with a BJCP Certified judge. I am merely Pending… counting the days till September for the tasting exam.

The beers were bottled from a keg that had been conditioning in my kegerator, and I had recently changed gas lines and installed ball lock connectors with a check valve. The result was that all of the beers were flat… meaning we both had to recap after priming. In the time this took – Marshall’s evaluations drifted from my intended format (which is my fault). Their general impressions are noted at the end.

All of the findings below should be considered anecdotal and opinions! Much more testing needs to occur, systematically to determine the impact of differing mineral profiles.

The Procedure

Brülosopher’s Best Brown Ale was brewed on February 12 to 11 gallons. The water profile used was intentionally different than Marshall’s normal profile, and used epsom salt to provide the required sulfate. The details were discussed in the previous Brewing Water Series article.


Based on the finished water profile above, three new profiles were developed with the focus on pushing sulfate, chloride and magnesium each to their respective “flavor threshold” in Bru’n Water Spreadsheet (the exception being sulfate which only reached 214 ppm). Each beer was assigned a symbol, the appropriately salts were added to 100 ml of finished beer and stirred to dilute. Salts were carefully measured out on a jeweler’s scale (calibrated) and accurate to +/- 2 mg. 50 ml of these solutions were added to the appropriate bottles and then each bottle was topped up using a beer gun from the keg. The result was 4 beers in the flight: base beer, gypsum beer, epsom beer and calcium chloride beer.

Note: Because the salts were added to finished beer they did not have the opportunity to go through the mash and boil process. The bottles were eventually bottle conditioned and it is likely that some of the salts may have precipitated. I did not adjust for pH in the finished beers, which may have impacted flavor and mouthfeel. However, since we pushed the ion’s flavor thresholds, the results were three distinct beers versus the baseline beer.

Calcium Magnesium Sodium Sulfate Chloride SO4/Cl
Base 41 20 8 111 51 37:17
Epsom 41 33 8 163 51 163:51
 Delta +13 +52
Gypsum 84 20 8 214 51 214:51
Delta +43 +103
CaCl 65 20 8 111 93  37:31
Delta +24 +42

In the table above, you can see the delta for each mineral in the estimated water profiles.

My friend Neil Spake (BJCP Certified) and keeper of sat down with me for the evaluation. We judged these blindly by symbol (I did not know which beer was which without my notes after two months). I explained the purpose to Neil after the first beer to beer evaluation. After the sensory analysis, we went back and ordered by preference.

Generally, the bottled beers did not hold up very well. In the process of dissolving minerals and dosing, I oxidized the beer that went into the bottle. While it was detectable, it was not overwhelming – yielding a wet paper aroma and slightly stale taste that was not in the freshly tapped beer. This is an issue that needs to be eliminated in future testing.

Our tasting notes are below:

Matt Neil
Base Aroma Biscuit, Toast, low hop aroma, no off aromas. Sweet Malt, light caramel Grainy, Bready, Biscuity Malt with slight caramel/toffee. No hops
Flavor Toasty Munich character, medium toffee, Firmly bitter, but Malt forward. Dry clean finish. Lovely bready lightly toasty grain, definite brown ale character, low carb, medium body, medium bitter finish, dry, dark grain, some hop bitterness
Appearance Brown, Bright, low Head, white, falls quickly. Low carbonation. Medium brown, Slight garnet hues, very clear, thin head, light tan, doesn’t persist
Overall Great beer aging well. Carbonation low, likely from growler fill and rest. Classic American Brown Ale. Great recipe.
Epsom Aroma Low malt, wet paper, sweet smelling, cracked pepper spice, musty Some paper (oxidation?), subdued malt, biscuit/cracker-like, no hops
Flavor One note malty sweetness, toast on the finish, soft mouth feel. No mineral character. Malt Sweetness, well balanced, more toasty/roasty flavors like the base. Caramel a little more subdued, slight salty aftertaste
Appearance Low carbonation, dark brown with red highlights, Bright. White head falls quickly. Medium body. Medium brown, low garnet hue. Clear, thin off-white head, doesn’t persist
Overall Of the three – closest to the base sample. Acceptable. softer mouthfeel
Gypsum Aroma Dry cracker, very low aroma, some wet paper (oxidized?) No Roast or toast Dry/stale bread, cracker-like aroma, no hops, no esters. Slight paper/cardboard (oxidized?)
Flavor Malt forward with a weird sharpness, toast and dark biscuit lingers Thinner body, mouthfeel medium to medium low. Salt in finish. Malt sweetness, better balance than circle but lacks the toastiness of base
Appearance Bright brown and red, deeper color than Base, white creamy head falls quickly. Low carbonation Medium brown, slightly deeper hue than base. Thin off white head, loose and doesn’t persist
Overall Creamier mouthfeel than Base, much softer. Muddled malt character  –
CaCl2 Aroma Biscuity, malt sweetness, very low hop aroma. No roast or toast Biscuity/Bready malt but more subdued compared to base beer. Definite mineral (sulfate?) character.
Flavor Sweet, malty, stone fruit/plum, soft and round, less sharp than Base Softer, sweeter malt character, more caramel/toffee than base. Picking up salt (sodium) in finish, bitterness, dark grain bitterness nearly gone.
Appearance Brown, bright, creamy white head falls to lace. Low carbonation Medium brown, slight garnet, very clear, think week light tan head doesn’t persist.
Overall Mellow compared to Base. Much softer mouthfeel and much less robust complexity in malt. Muddled Softer on palate but salty finish, less roast, more caramel sweetness and lower bitterness


We found the beers to be very different. While it is difficult to account for the problems I created in bottling and later conditioning, the magnesium beer really stood out – where the sulfate beer was completely muted and tasted the most salty. The chloride beer was certainly the sweetest and most malty. I think the tasting notes really speak to the qualities brought to the table. Being a brown ale, the base beer really featured layers of malt and toast, with a little sweetness that complimented the bit of hops. So while there are perhaps few empirical conclusions we found that, at least in this case, the epsom did the least harm to an already very good beer. Remember that the base beer already had a moderate magnesium content, but also was better carbonated, resulting in a dry crisp finish that was missing in the evaluation beers.

The Aroma and Flavor were the most changed; the color difference likely due to darkening from oxidation. In particular, the mouthfeel from each beer was unique.

Epsom Beer: Sharpened up the toast character, reducing complex layers of malt, toast and caramel. At 40 ppm, there was a clear mineral/salt character that Neil detected, so staying well below that level is necessary. I did not pick up the salty character, but trust Neil’s palate.

Gypsum Beer: Expecting a sharper roast and hop character, we were surprised at the muddled and muted malt and hop character. This was the most oxidized of the bunch, probably from the difficulty in dissolving gypsum.

Calcium Chloride Beer: Rounded malt character and much “sweeter” on the palate. Where the Epsom beer seemed to amp up roast/toast tones, this was a muddled mess of soft malt. Nothing stood out and the toast character was gone.

Coming back to the base beer, of which we enjoyed several after the evaluation, I am very happy with the result of using epsom rather than gypsum to achieve the desired sulfate levels. Trying to pick out the role that magnesium plays is very difficult, but it adds a slight nuance to help presenting layers of malt flavors, and leaving some room for the hop bitterness and slight hop flavor and aroma. Of course, the higher level of carbonation plays a role in enhancing the dry finish, despite a fairly high FG.

Notes from Marshall of Brü He and a few friends approached this like a triangle test and singled out the Calcium Chloride beer as the odd beer out. They noted a much fuller and richer malt character in the Calcium Chloride Beer, where they felt the Epsom and Gypsum beers were noticeably sharper with a lingering bitterness.

I plan to return to this experiment with a pale beer, perhaps something with a very soft starting point. This will let me isolate from the base profile and more completely evaluate specific flavor contributions. A very frustrating element here is that it is impossible to eliminate the secondary -ions, with increased magnesium comes elevated chloride or sulfate. A mildly hoppy ale should allow simpler flavor notes to be easier to sense.

Westmalle Tripel

Some Changes Coming…

It has been a few weeks since my last article. In that time, I have chewed hard (over a beer or two) on what to do with this blog. When I started it, my intention was really to just cover my brewing – basically yet another brewing blog. Since then, my coverage of the Bru’n Water Spreadsheet, some of the tips & tricks for the Brew-Magic system, and the occasional  general articles have taken over – and built a strong subscriber base and traffic. No intention to become affiliated, at least until the site costs become difficult.

I have some thoughts on other topics, which will take a year or two to develop properly – yeast management, fermentation and recipe development. While I am not abandoning the focus on water management, I really want a more rounded perspective on brewing. The reality there are far better sites that cover most of the topics… so will give credit where it is due, and urge you to review those articles.

My brewing shifted last year toward competition, which means most of my brews orient around specific styles and particularly my pursuit of BJCP Certification. In this vein, I will attempt to document some brew days, recipes and, as expected, the water profiles used. Expect some Q&A around some of these topics and perhaps an interview or three. Also expect a revisit to my recipe writing, making grist bills simple with high quality malts and better hops choice.

Finally, I need to bring up my writing game and stop repeating myself. There will a more rigid structure to articles; better documentation, photos, shorter lists, and some charts and illustrations. In particular, my tasting notes will be presented more in a BJCP oriented format and start using the 2015 definitions.

As always, remember that a good deal of the information here is gleaned from home brewing and commercial brewing books, blogs, forums and websites. Be skeptical of definitive statements, especially from me; test and confirm. Surround yourself with trusted and skilled brewers and continue to learn. Most of all brew as often as possible!

Show Floor

SoCo Homebrew – LHBS Done Right

If you live in Austin, you are aware of the great divide. The bridges over Lady Bird Lake, just south of downtown, is the demarcation point between the true “Keep Austin Weird” South Congress (SoCo) community and the rest. SoCo Homebrew fills a big gap that has existed for years… while the home brewing community is Austin is huge, those of us south of town have had to fight growing traffic problems to get to our only other LHBS north of town, which Chris did for several years working there in various roles, managing their retail floor and marketing.

Even if you don’t live near Austin, below you will find an excellent example a great Local Home Brew Shop (LHBS), and particularly, the kind of expertise you should expect. It’s divergent from my usual material, but worth posting about. I have no affiliation with SoCo Homebrew – just thrilled to have another choice and their great service at hand!

In January of 2014, that all changed. SoCo Homebrew opened, just south of Ben White on Congress and is bringing home brewing to a growing new community. They also embrace the independent and quirky culture that defines South Austin, while bringing a creative enthusiasm to all things fermented. They do not have an internet store, content to focus on engaging South Austin with a great location, friendliness and attitude.

There is a self-serve grain room, mills, a yeast and hops cooler. Everything you need to brew beer, cider or wine, make pickles, sauerkraut, cheese and yogurt is all organized and handy. If something isn’t in stock, ask… they most likely can order it for you. And most times, something is brewing or fermenting… and you might score a sample!

“Just a reminder to live an epic life…. that is all.” – Chris Ellison

You cannot talk about SoCo Homebrew without talking about Chris. He has been a character in the Austin home brewing scene for several years. Chris is uniquely himself, artistic, passionate and engaging. Don’t expect him to show in a suit, rather flip-flops, cargo shorts and a t-shirt is the uniform. We sat down to talk about SoCo and his love of brewing over a pint of “Hell Yes” helles lager at The ABGB. A good interview deserves good beer!

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I started brewing a couple of years before I started at AHS. I was brewing twice a week, mostly doing partial mash. I quickly learned the ins and outs and the quality of my beers improved. I have been a serious cook and foodie for a while and was able to draw from those experiences as I started making my own recipes. Brewing was an extension of my love of food.

Very few of my recipes are brewed to a specific style. I take a foodie approach that is natural for me. I have the ability to visualize and taste a recipe as I develop it. That ability is a critical component to creating solid beers; understanding the malts, extracts, hops and yeasts and their influences on the finished product. I brew at least twice a week at the shop, usually one personal batch and one for the shop.

I partial mash most of the time. It is important to understand that brewing with extracts is a valid process. Partial mashing (as opposed to steeping) allows me to control flavor, color and body, and is convenient as I am brewing and working at the same time. Fresh extract is also important, and I typically only use pale extract, letting the specialty malts shine as they should. We brew 5 gallon batches in an electric kettle which is controlled with a temperature controller. It’s a great opportunity to show new brewers easy ways to make beer. We also ferment and keg in the shop so there is a good chance a customer can see the process first hand.

We have customers that want to brew in apartments and those that brew outside on big expensive sculptures. In both cases, SoCo wants to see these brewers succeed and continue to shop with us. The ability to provide all customers with great recipes keeps them coming back. And we have lots of fun.

We really engage the local community. Tried and true recipes are great ways for brewers to experience successful results and we ask them to carefully follow the instructions. That way, we are sure their first brewing experiences make great beers! All of our recipes are in either Partial Mash and All Grain format. Having a wide variety of recipes also allows our customers to experiment with unknown styles and we are happy to consult on recipe changes or build a new recipe on the spot. Success will encourage brewers to keep on with the hobby.

You helped my neighbor Mike out with a new system and his first all grain recipe, your Town Lake IPA. It turned out fantastic by the way!

That is a great IPA. Folks like Mike help us grow the community and educate others. The more folks understand brewing, the deeper their understanding of beer and food. We want to share our passions for all things fermented, from beer to cheese, wine and ciders, even sauerkraut and hot sauces. And these are healthy ways to connect people to where their foods come from. They seek better ingredients and more locally sourced products. That is a role we value as we become an intrinsic part of the South Austin culture and beyond.

We post all of our recipes to BrewToad so anyone can access them. There are about 90 recipes there in both all grain and partial mash.  Customers can browse and choose a recipe and call ahead. We will prepare the recipe for pickup, or they can stop in and discuss some changes to make the recipe their own.

What is your best advice for the beginner brewer?

Follow the instructions and don’t over extend. Get the fundamentals down and enjoy the process. Brewing is fun, but can be over complicated and changing out ingredients or process without experience can lead to frustration. It sucks to dump an undrinkable batch of beer! Figure out what you enjoy and let us help you plan your way to more advanced brewing. We are here to help, but practical – no point in selling hundreds of dollars of stainless steel gear that will sit unused when a brewer gets frustrated.

For the record, we hold Partial Mash and All Grain as equal techniques to brew great beer. There should be no bias against using extract in brewing when proper fermentation techniques are exercised, and the time saved makes it very convenient. We love our all grain brewers, but for people with space constraints or indoor brewers, a single kettle makes things easier. I would put any of my partial mash batches against an all grain batch any day. You just cannot tell a difference.

Your thoughts on recipe creation?

Use anything at your disposal to create a recipe to match your vision. I always start with base malt extract, like pale pilsner extract. It’s the equivalent of your base malt in an all grain recipe. Then carefully add your specialty malts – focusing on desired malt flavors but using restraint. Experience is important, as are style guides if you want to stick to them. My favorite malts are rich in flavor and color, like Special B, Victory and smoked malts. I have been using the new mesquite smoked malt from Black Lands Malting recently. Lends a very nice subtle sweet smokiness to the right beers. Of course, hops come into play and I love East Kent Goldings. But for a pale ale or IPA, Citra, Mosaic, Summer and Summit have been my go-to hops. The right yeast selection brings in the right fermentation character and I use a lot of California Ale (WLP001), Cream Ale (WLP080), Kolsch (WLP029) and Mexican Lager (WLP940). That lager strain is so incredibly clean.

Of course, we have a wall full of spices and herbs traditional to brewing. I love to use culinary spices as well. I love to use ghost peppers or jalapeños and fruit. Anise or licorice root and other more unusual spices can add wonderful character. Brewers should dig deeper into their culinary experiences and use all of their senses to create beers that pair in amazing ways with their favorite foods.

Our time ran out, as did the excellent pint. Chris had to run off to help build an outdoor shower. Powered by a pressurized corny keg. I suspect beer will be sprayed at some point, perhaps for a Flashdance re-enactment after a party, or a silly beer baptism. Having someone like Chris as a home-brew resource is incredibly valuable and a boon to SoCo Homebrew.


Local Homebrew Supply Shops are local businesses, usually run by folks that are experienced and passionate about beer, and important to our local economies. A great LHBS will listen to you, provide good advice and welcome your questions and skepticism. Look for fresh ingredients, coolers to protect hops and yeast and a good turn over on malts. Expect good service,  good advice, and be reasonable when a problem pops up. A good LHBS will work with you to resolve any problems. Many will provide classes that focus on a variety of entry and advanced techniques and even new experiences (like making wine or cheese).

If you are in South Austin swing by and say hello. They are located at 4930 South Congress Avenue, Suite 307. Open Wednesday through Sunday. You can reach them at (512) 785-7868.