Sunday, March 24, 2013

Brew Day: Challenger Bitter

Considering the number of English style bitters I brew, it is no surprise that I often get asked what my favorite bitter recipe is, or which recipe will make the best tasting beer. To answer such a question is, of course, difficult and I hesitate to give a straight answer. Honestly, I have yet to try a particular bitter (or any beer for that matter) that made me think it was the be-all and end-all example of the style, or is the only beer I'd want to brew and drink until the end of my days. Rather, the beauty of brewing English bitters is that they are so versatile. Change a few ingredients - be it malt, hops, yeast, or water - and you'll end up with a completely different beer. Therefore, the cop out answer to what my favorite bitter recipe is the one that I'm currently brewing.

However, while it may be impossible to choose a 'favorite' bitter recipe, I do have a pretty good idea of what my ideal bitter would look like. First, it would be brewed from the simplest ingredients, using a quality Maris Otter or similar malt, with some medium crystal and/or torrefied wheat, and some fresh, earthy-floral hops. Of course, we can't forget a characterful yeast, something that lets the malt and hops shine but still imparts its own character to the beer. And the water would contain a fair amount of sulfate.

The recipe I am brewing today follows my criteria for an 'ideal' English bitter, although it is a bit different than what I've brewed recently. For the grist, I'm using Thomas Fawcett Maris Otter and medium crystal, and I will be employing a thick mash at 1qt/lb and slightly higher than normal rest temperature of 156F. The thick mash paired with the higher temperature seems to produce a richer malt character, although attenuation can be an issue if your yeast pitch or oxygenation is low. The big difference with this recipe is hopping, as I will be using all 2012 (UK) Challenger hops, a variety that I absolutely adore but haven't had much of a chance to use these past few years. Finding good quality UK hops is often difficult and sometimes it is easier to just use what you have on hand... which in my case is pounds of EKG, Fuggles, and First Gold. For those of you not familiar with Challenger, they are similar to EKG, but spicier and with some light marmalade and lemon-y flavors. They are especially nice when used with EKG for late hopping. Yeast, will be Bedford Bitter (second choice would be wy1968). Moreover, as I want this beer on the maltier side of things, sulfate will be a modest 100ppm with chloride around 40ppm. As usual, I try to keep my sodium and magnesium below 15-20ppm.

Lastly, I wanted to say a few words about hop schedules when brewing bitters, as there are so many different ones floating around the internet these days. While the supposed "traditional" hop schedule would include less of an emphasis on flame out hops, for a stronger bittering and dry hop charge, I prefer my bitters to have a lighter bitterness with some hop flavor and a strong, hoppy aroma. To achieve this, I add my flame out hops, bring the temp of the wort down to 175-185F and start my whirlpool. They'll stay there for 20-30 minutes before I'll chill the wort to pitching temp. Another popular method that I've tried and works somewhat well, is the 'hop steep,' where you add all of your hops at 20 min and let them 'steep' in the whirlpool for up to two hours. However, I don't think you get the same intensity of hop aroma as you do with the traditional flame out addition and I've had issues with bitterness. It would be interesting to hear what other people's favorite bitter recipes are and/or what they do with their hop additions.

Belgian Porter
Challenger Bitter : Special Bitter

Recipe Specifics:
Batch Size (Gal): 4.00
Total Grain (Lbs): 6.35
Anticipated OG: 1.042
Anticipated FG: 1.010
Anticipated SRM: 6
Anticipated IBU: 30
Efficiency: 70%
Boil Time: 60 Minutes

94.5% - 6.00 lbs. Maris Otter
5.5%   - 0.35 lbs. Medium Crystal

0.50 oz. UK Challenger @ 60 min for 20 IBU
0.50 oz. UK Challenger @ 20 min for 10 IBU
1.50 oz. UK Challenger @ flame out

Yeast: WhiteLabs 006 Bedford Bitter
Mash 156F for 60 min
Brewed on 24 March


  1. Will, your comments about bitters are keen as usual. I'm planning on brewing with Challenger this year too. Working in some Northdown and Bramling Cross as well, all hops I've never used before...all going into bitters like this one.

    I've been a bit confused by the hopping schedules. I recently tried a "whirlpool" hop addition with Centennial at 180F (in a brown ale) and felt I got very little aroma and the flavor might be covered by the malts. All the aroma blew out during fermentation. That got me thinking I need some hotter wort contact time to integrate and lock-in "something". I've tried the "all in at 20 minute" addition with Amarillo and enjoyed a great flavor/aroma only to lose a half-batch in a keg mishap. I can't recall if I let that steep for an additional 1-2 hours after FO to be certain that is the critical step. I'm doing all this without dryhopping to see where my thresholds are on the hot-side of things.

    1. Interesting that you'd lost the aroma on the Centennial whirlpool. I've had good sucess with the process so far, although I found I was extracting more bitterness than aroma in my first few attempts when the wort was above 190+F. In contrast, with the 20min steep, I never seemed to get enough bitterness and the aroma was lacking. Flavor was great tho.

      I may be mistaken, but I'm pretty sure one of the homebrew magazines just did an article on whirlpool hopping, comparing the times/amounts/ect...

    2. In my trials with hop steeping/extended whilpooling, I too noticed a drop in hop aroma. Did some wonky stuff with my early and middle additions as well. Good to know I am not alone.

    3. I'm beginning to believe that almost all of the aroma from late hopping ends up escaping through the airlock. I've been moving toward a bittering addition (FWH, 60 or 90 depending), a 30 minute addition (which I believe closely mimics a 15 minute addition on a pro-setup due to the time it takes to chill wort post-boil) and dry hopping. I know that this runs counter to what some experts like Gordon Strong say, but I've tested a number of late hopping regimes like the ones you have suggested and never end up with substantial aroma as compared with simply adding the flame-out charge as dry hops. With big flame out additions, my fermentation closet smells great, but I never get much residual (IPA level) hop aroma without dry hopping.

  2. The Centennial hop recipe called for 1oz at 10 minutes and 1.75oz at 0 minutes (it is BCS' Dirty Water Brown). I've dryhopped with 1.75oz or more of Centennial before and I would say I got similar amounts of aroma volatilizing during primary fermentation on this batch. The finished product has just a hint of aroma. If nearly 3 oz of hops in the final 10 minutes leaves "just a hint", then the amount (and cost) of hops aren't pulling their weight in this beer or I have numb senses. I added my hops only when the wort chilled to 175-185F, when you describe adding hops at flameout, then chilling to 175-185F before steeping. I wonder if that small difference makes all the difference.

  3. I recently evaluated the hop steep as well as the 30 minute addition in my home brewery.

    Coles notes, I think the hop steep is not worth the extra time and infection risk.

    Given our volume sizes and the fact we HAVE the ability to chill and separate wort quickly, I am not sure why the homebrewer is moving to mimic a commercial process which has been created to make the best out of a system inefficiency. "They" would do it our way if they could.

  4. I think your comments about the impact of mash thickness on wort fermentability have largely been debunked by some recent scientific research linked to in a post on the Mad Fermentationist here:

    1. Yes and no. I agree with Kai that mash thickness alone does not affect attenuation in the way we once assumed it did, although it does have an impact on the final product once mash temp, time, effeciency, and yeast choice have been factored in. For our purposes, a thin mash can be of use for flavor development, although we shouldn't think that it alone will lead to low attenuation.

    2. Will, I've read the paper and I'm not sure what you are asserting. Kai's research showed no measurable impact on attenuation based on mash thickness. You say "it does have an impact on the final product" which may or may not be true depending on what you mean by "impact". We can be fairly certain that it has no "impact" on the level of attenuation achieved in the final product though. The original statement I took exception with was, "The thick mash paired with the higher temperature seems to produce a richer malt character, although attenuation can be an issue if your yeast pitch or oxygenation is low." I suppose that "attenuation can be an issue if your yeast pitch or oxygenation is low" is true, but it's true for all worts regardless of mash thickness.

      If what you are saying is that mash thickness impacts mash temp (the rate at which the mash cools) and efficiency, I'd agree, but you lump it in with time and yeast choice which are of course independent of mash thickness. I'm just trying to discourage you from repeating brewing myths that have been experimentally debunked on your influential blog.

    3. All I meant to say was that I agree that mash thickness does not affect attenuation for our modern malts, but it does for effeciency and mash temperature. Furthermore, when I said that attenuation was an issue, I was (more) implying that a hot mash paired with a weak yeast can lead to fermentation problems. Thanks for your concern.

  5. Coniston Bluebird is all challenger and a great pint it is too on cask.

    Hope this one is too, great blog!

    1. My first time trying a beer with challenger was Bluebird on cask. A great pint indeed!


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