The thought of first putting something like this together came to me when I was judging a competition some odd months back.
As my judging partner and I were going through the beers, I mentally noted to myself just how often I was recommending increased carbonation in my overall impression sections. There were so many beers that were quite good, but could have been SO much better with just a little extra kick from more bubbles. This is something I find in many breweries I visit as well, so I don't attribute this to just being a homebrew thing.
Beer demands bubbles.
And, of course, this varies from style to style. Getting a Dark Mild that's carbed like a Saison totally happens too, but whichever the direction the result is the same. It affects the appearance, mouthfeel, taste, and aroma of the beer. One single ingredient can make or break the whole thing, and I don't think it's talked about enough.
I'm sure I'm missing plenty of topics, but I sat down with a beer and a notepad last night and tried to scribble together everything I could think of regarding carbonation in beer. How to get it, how to keep it, what it affects, etc. Here's what I came up with:
• Impact on aroma
• Impact on mouthfeel / texture
• Impact on flavor intensity
And I want to say before I go on, I'm not coming at this as a professional in anything brewing related. I may be talking out of my ass for most of this, but that's why I'm writing it up. I think this should be a good discussion topic and I hope that at least one person out there goes "Yeah, I really do need to work on that" or something and improves their beer.
This is all just my thoughtful Wednesday afternoon rambling. I often write how I talk so I apologize if any (or all) of this comes off sounding very casual. That's intentional. Again, trying to start a discussion and not be an authority figure.
Impact on aroma
Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine has a great write up on how we smell beer here so I'm not going to go into any of that. Bubbles aid in helping aromas gather and intensify etc. That's pretty much common sense. Instead what I want to focus on is its impact from a presentation aspect. When you present someone with a beer what's the first thing they do? What's the first thing you do when you get a beer? I can't speak for everyone, maybe it's habit, but I for sure smell it.
Aroma sets the stage for tasting and, along with appearance, gives us an idea of what we're getting ourselves into. A lackluster intensity of aroma sets the stage for a lackluster tasting beer (even if it tastes great.) We make a bunch of split second judgments about a beer before we even taste it, and having a beer that lacks aroma can create a negative bias towards the beer before we really even give it a fair shake.
So what's the carbonation impact on aroma? Well it can lose some intensity if it's undercarbed. If it's overcarbed… I honestly don't know. You tell me in the comments. I feel like in my heart of hearts that I can pick out the carbonic acid aroma. Something like a light twang, but not what you'd get with old LME. Just an effervescence.
A well carbed beer will present an aroma that sets the stage for the rest of the drinking experience. It's important, but I feel like it's impact on mouthfeel and flavor trump it in terms of impact. So let's talk about that.
Impact on Mouthfeel / Texture
Have you ever had a NEIPA right out of the fermenter and thought it was just a little slick? Or had a beer that was almost going to be a bottle bomb, and when you take a sip the bubbles basically just explode in your mouth and you can't even taste the beer? It makes for a pretty pitiable drinking experience.
Carbonation is what makes beer fun to drink. It's what makes it palatable, and what makes you keep going back for sip after refreshing sip. Next time you're out at a bar or brewery and get an undercarbonated beer, pay attention to your desire to go back to the beer and take another sip after you put it down. I find that drier, well carbonated beers get finished off in nearly no time while beers with less carbonation can present as a little more sweet and not as desirable. I sip them, which is fine, but if you're goal in making a beer is wanting people to really, really enjoy them then they need to have adequate carbonation.
I've actually drank a whole Budweiser while typing this up without even realizing it because that's just the kind of beer it is. Highly carbonated and very drinkable.
This isn't just for beer either. Things like hydromels, or short meads, really need carbonation to help the drinking experience. It's like the difference between drinking a flat pop and a freshly opened bottle. The flavor is kind of the same, but one is vastly better because of the experience it provides. Because of the sensations. Because it helps drive home the flavors.
Impact on Flavor Intensity
So how exactly does it impact flavor? I think it does it both directly and indirectly.
It's direct impact is through carbonic acid. Carbonic acid will lower a beer's pH (though not drastically), and has its own flavor that it can present. Sour Beer Blog does a great write up on it regarding to sours (but also somewhat generically) here.
It's indirect impact is what it helps accentuate. Beer is obviously more than just bubbles. We have hop, malt, and yeast character (at the very least) that we, as brewers, try to keep in balance to make a really great end product. To that end, these specific traits are usually something that we want to be a bit more noticeable in specific styles. In an IPA we may want to err on the side of slightly higher carbonation to help get some of those volatile hop aromas out of the glass and punching the drinking in the face. For a Dark Mild we may want to keep it lower and let some of the delicate malt aromas gather together and shine. In a sour we may want to use REALLY high carbonation to help accentuate the acidity that's already in the beer.
So how do we dial it in, especially when bottling for friends, competitions, or homebrew club meetings?
When I taste other brewer's beers for feedback, the most common piece of advice I give back is "needs more bubbles". I'd say it beats out any other suggestion at least 2:1. So why would this be so common? It comes down to how the beer gets placed into the container it's served in, or packaging.
There's really just two common ways of carbonating beer, and for the purposes of this discussion I think that really only kegging merits some extra discussion. Bottle conditioning is pretty straightforward i.e. use an online calculator and dose by weight to get a desired carbonation level. Packaging from kegs, however, leaves a few more options open:
• Packaging straight from a tap
• Packaging using a growler filler
• Packaging using something like a Blichmann beer gun
• Packaging using a counter pressure filler
Am I missing anything? Let's talk about each of those in turn:
Straight from the tap
100% the easiest option of the four I listed. There's no extra equipment involved, and no extra cleaning needed. For filling growlers, or anything with a bit of a bigger opening really, it works well enough. You're likely to lose some carbonation as the beer smacks against the inside of the container as well as risking some oxidation there as well, but it's a fine option if you don't plan on entering a competition with whatever you're filling. Likely a fair amount of foam as well, which can end up wasting some beer. Consider this option fine for immediate drinking.
This was my first "investment" into helping me bottle beer off of my taps. It's just some tubing attached to a metal piece with some o-rings that can fig snugly into your tap-hole. They're super cheap and very easy to use. They're typically using vinyl, so it's pretty easy to replace the tubing if needed when it starts to look dingy (which you should absolutely do). They're also cheap enough that, if you bottle sour beer, you can just buy two and keep them separate.
Some disadvantages here are that, in my experience, due to the extra points of contact in the tubing as it works its way into your container, they tend to knock CO2 out of suspension as with just filling it off the tap. Expect a loss of carbonation when you open whatever it is your packaging back up. not a lot of loss, but some. They're also not great for packaging highly carbonated beer. Or even beer that's on the higher end of the range. They loss of carbonation is paired with excess foaming. If you're not using a tap with flow control you may need to adjust your pressure in the keg to aid with getting a decent fill. Keep in mind too that, like the rest of the options that are listed, this is an extra piece of equipment on the cold side and as such is another point of risk for contamination.
Something like a beer gun
There are a few options here. The Blichmann Beer Gun has the most name recognition, but there are also options like "The Last Straw" as well as some homemade gadgets I've seen posted about here and there. This is where I went after giving growler fillers a fair shake. The first great things about these devices is that they allow you to CO2 purge your bottles. Bottling on the least amount of air as possible is a really great benefit, especially if you're packaging beers that are very sensitive to oxygen or will likely be sitting around for a while. I don't need to go into why O2 is generally bad, you're a smart bunch, but if you didn't know it then congrats on being one of today's lucky 10,000!
These also give you better control over the speed at which you're filling which, in turn, lets less CO2 out of suspension and thus causes less foaming. Less beer waste is always good in my opinion. They're not perfect, but they're better than a growler filler. This is second-hand, but I've also heard stories of studies from breweries where a beer gun beer out their packaging line in terms of dissolved oxygen (DO), so they do a great job in that aspect (supposedly).
The annoying thing here, and why I eventually moved away from even these, is that they need to hook up directly to your keg. For me, that meant one of two things:
- Leaving my keezer lid open and moving a table over to my keezer while I bottled
- Taking the keg out of the keezer and moving it to where I needed to be, thus shaking around sediment on the inside and potentially kicking up some haze that I didn't want.
Neither of which jived with me a ton. I also found them to be somewhat annoying to clean. The gun itself was generally fine, but the tubing had to be purged of beer and dried which I didn't have a great setup for. I'm sure some people do, it just wasn't for me. It was just a lot of setup and cleaning if I wanted to only bottling like, 3 beers for a competition or something. They're more suited for bottling a lot of beer at once, and they're great at it. As soon as I learned about counter pressure fillers, however, that's where I ended up moving towards.
Counter pressure fillers
Counter pressure fillers work very similarly to the way the above fillers do, except that they also allow you to keep the bottle under pressure as its filled. What this means is that you not only CO2 purge the can/bottle you're filling, but afterwards you can also keep it at roughly the same pressure as that of your keg. In doing so, when beers is transferred to the bottle, very little CO2 leaves suspension. Less CO2 leaving suspension means a more optimally packaged beer, as well as less beer waste via foam.
When I started looking into these I lucked out in that something called the Tapcooler had just came out around the same time. This is where I get a little (more) biased.
The Tapcooler is a counter pressure filler that doesn't have any extra tubing (though there are attachments for it). Like a growler filler, it plugs directly into your tap-hole and allows you to both purge, pressurize, and fill containers using one little device. It's super easy to clean, easy to sanitize, easy to use for just a few bottles at a time. No moving kegs around, disconnecting anything, or otherwise fussing around. They're also cheaper than a beer gun.
There is a learning curve to using these. There are plenty of videos online on how to properly work them so I'd say give those a watch, but it'll vary from setup to setup as well. I don't think I use mine quite like any of the videos, but I have a great experience.
To use these properly, however, you do have to have a CO2 source to hook them up to. This can be annoying if you only have one CO2 tank, so I do suggest having a "utility tank" that you can haul around and use wherever. If this isn't possible, having a secondary regulator open on your current setup is probably advised.
I do attribute a portion of my success in the competitive homebrewing scene to using a Tapcooler (or just counter pressure filler in general) though. Unless something even better somehow comes out I don't find myself willing to move away from this one single device.
Carbonation is really important for beer, and having the right amount can make or break drinking it. Don't work hard on brewing and fermenting it, but neglect to carbonate it properly. There are lots of gadgets out on the market to help with this (if you keg), and some options are better than others. Counter pressure filling is amazing and shouldn't be overlooked.
Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.