March 27, 2013

Homebrewing Deconstructed: Time Heals Everything

On a certain homebrewing forum there is a large contingent of brewers who answer all questions about off flavors and fermentation issues with the slogan, "time heals everything" as some sort of poorly distilled version of Charlie Papazian's "Relax and have a homebrew" slogan. The problem is that "time heals everything" is sometimes appropriate advice for new brewers but it has converted into a brewing paradigm that generally does not make the best beer and is a proxy for a solid brewing process.

The history and meaning of "time heals everything"

This particular brewing paradigm appears to have started in the mid-2000s when a group of then-new homebrewers got butthurt across the internet when they were (probably unfairly) chastised by experienced brewers on multiple homebrewing forums because they were complaining about their beers not being great but at the same time refusing to follow good brewing practices. At the same time, on the same forums, there were some bitter battles between the old guard of homebrewers, who followed traditional practices and stood by them very firmly, and a new guard who rejected some of these older practices in favor of what is now considered current practices (e.g. aluminum is ok, secondary is not required, etc.). These butthurt brewers wrongly viewed themselves as part of the column of new brewers ushering in more science-based brewing practices. These new, butthurt brewers found themselves a new home on homebrewtalk.com, at the time a new forum. There were few experts willing to chastise them for poor brewing practices so their bad/lazy ideas as new brewers thrived like a virus without a cure. HBT also became sort of a home base for the new guard and they provided a lot of the quite extensive 2006-2008 content that is the backbone of the HBT knowledge base. Although there has been some debate over the "time heals everything" garbage on HBT in the past couple years on most other places online and in most homebrewing clubs there is a lot of dissent against this garbage idea, for good reason.

The whole "time heals everything" mantra is a way of saying if your brewing process isn't great then you can still make ok beer because with time the yeast will clean up your mistakes. There is some truth to that (sometimes) but it's a strange idea that instead of making the best beer you can you should/could just hope the yeast do the work for you. It's gotten to the point where I see experienced homebrewers telling new brewers the appropriate fermentation schedule for all beers is 4-6 weeks in primary plus 3-5 weeks in the bottle and your beer won't even taste it's best for months. This is just bad, bad advice. Yes, some beers need extended aging and some beers do improve with age but those tend to be the exception rather than the rule. A lot of beers are at their best very young and fresh and homebrewers following this stupid rule are depriving themselves of the best beer they could make by letting their beer sit around and not following good practices in the first place.

Some beers are best fresh and most ales are fresh and ready to drink after weeks, not months. Lots of homebrewers love their hoppy beers. Hops are at their best fresh, not after months. If you are making an IPA and waiting two months to drink it, you're losing out on the freshest aroma and flavor you could have. It's like making a fantastic meal and instead of eating it fresh out of the oven you put it in the fridge for a week and eat it as cold leftovers. If you disagree with this position, please let me know which brewery sits on their IPAs for months and encourages you to age them for improved flavor. The same is true for some yeast-driven beers, like weizen-style beers and even some sessionable English beers. The flavor compounds in the strains producing these beers degrade within weeks. A hefeweizen can be full of banana and clove for the first month but if you've ever tasted an old hefe there's very little banana and the clove is a little stale. Some English strains lose some of their delicate estery character after a few weeks (of course, not everybody enjoys those flavors anyway). Certainly these are not the only styles harmed by unnecessary delay. Other styles benefit from young consumption. Smoke beers, for example, mellow with age and the smoke flavor can get sort of stale over after a certain point.

Of course, there are some beers that definitely benefit extended aging. Lagers certainly require more fermentation time and the extended lagering period. Sours and brett beers obviously also need more time. Certain yeast, such as Dupont, don't break into their prime for several weeks and can be rather harsh early after fermentation ends (even Brasserie Dupont ages Saison Veille for several weeks before distribution). Big beers often benefit from a little age, but there are plenty of commercial brewers turning out big beers to the market after a month. A big beer can be fantastic very early on if proper brewing techniques are followed but can benefit from extended aging if you prefer the aged flavor on that beer. A DIPA probably isn't the right big beer to wait six months to bottle but a barleywine or BDSA may be preferred later on.

Malty beers stand up to time better than hoppy beers and can benefit from extended aging if the brewer prefers that flavor in the beer. Malty beers are not always better after months, particularly lower ABV beers, and like any other beer there are things lost during that first month or two even though some of the malt flavors improve with age. Personally I prefer the fresher flavor in session-level malty beers although I like many bigger malt bombs with a little age. Rather than just sit on your beer for months and assume it is best with age you should try it young and see what you are missing.

When it is appropriate advice

There is a time and place for this kind of advice. New brewers tend to follow less than ideal brewing practices which lead to fermentation flaws that usually are cleaned up or fade with time so telling them to give their beers some time is usually appropriate for that particular batch but should be tied to advice to improve the next batch. Similarly, new brewers tend to freak out when the beer has off flavors very early into the process or just doesn't taste like a finished, carbonated beer when it's a week old and flat. In that instance, time really is going to be a factor in the remaining days of clean up and subsequent carbonation.

If you brew a beer with some flaws there's no harm in letting it sit around and hoping time will fix it as a back up plan but this shouldn't be the rule to brewing.

But when it is not appropriate

The problem is that the advice isn't given within an appropriately limited purpose or along with the advice on how to improve the next batch. Instead, the "time heals everything" trash is pounded out by people who have been brewing for years and proudly proclaim that the "right" way to brew is to leave your beer in the fermentor for a month and then bottle for a month and then you can start thinking about drinking one bottle each week for the rest of your life. As I addressed above, it's inappropriate advice for many beer styles and trains new brewers that they cannot enjoy a beer in its prime by ignoring good brewing practices.

Relying on time to fade out off flavors or the yeast to clean up for you is not just lazy brewing but deprives you of the fresh character of beer. Instead, you could improve your processes to enjoy a fresh, delicious beer. The "time heals everything" nonsense is spouted out by people who tend to have nothing to say on the subject of actual brewing processes that affect the ability to drink a beer within a reasonable time frame. Specifically, we're talking about mash processes, mash temperature, mash/sparge/kettle PH, mash/sparge/kettle mineral composition, yeast health, yeast nutrients, aeration and fermentation controls. Although new brewers tend not to know about these subjects and it can take some time to understand and control each (and I would not say I have perfected any of them) it does not mean letting your beer sit around is a superior option than trying to understand and control them. If these processes were not better ways to brew beer and did not produce a better beer then you would see the majority of craft brewers sitting on their beers. Instead, you see them applying good processes to produce great beer going into the package after 2-4 weeks (depending on the beer). Sure, they have a business need to turn the beer around quickly but I've also never heard a pro brewer say they wish the beer could sit in the fermentor for another month.

Another reason why this advice is not appropriate is that some off flavors do not imrpove with age and will get worse. Infections rarely turn into good beers over time; they normally get worse. Similarly, phenolic off flavors generally do not age out and can get worse with time. Chlorophenols in particular do not go away and are known to get worse over time. It takes very little chlorine (especially if you are using bleach as a sanitizer) to produce terrible beer.

Why it is bad for homebrewing

There's plenty of bad advice floating around the interwebs about brewing but in my opinion this one is probably the worst of all because it implies there is no reason to get into the science and finer details of brewing as long as you just let your beer sit around. It's disappointing to see people with lots of experience and expensive RIMS and HERMS systems handing out this bad advice. I cannot fathom why somebody would spend thousands of dollars on a brewing set up to then treat their beer so poorly. There is so much good science and advice about brewing available and high quality ingredients out there that no reason exists for encouraging people to make average beer instead of great beer.

It appears this idea has spread like a virus to pretty much all the homebrewing forums (except the anti-HBT, homebrewchatter.com) and creating a league of misinformed brewers. I guess for those of you who compete it's a good thing because that's a lot of competition you don't have to worry about losing to.

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