Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

February 22, 2007

Home Brewin’:

Need Good Head?

Some simple tricks and techniques to get the best head on your home brew.
by Jug Dunningan

Jug Dunningan is just here for the beer.
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Tired of bad head or no head at all on your home brew? Or that frustrating head that teases you and just fizzles away? Hang in there, Jug has some tips to help you get the best possible head the next time you brew up a batch.

How much head a brew should have is purely a personal preference, but some beers are expected to have more head than others. For example, pale ales typically have less head and head retention than a stout or an IPA. I’m not even going to get into Guinness or some other brand name beers, since they are carbonated partially with nitrogen, and that is an entirely new subject. The important thing here is that all beers should have some head.

How It Works
Without going into too much science, head is basically the result of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the beer trying to escape into the atmosphere. This will continue to happen until the beer and the atmosphere have an equal amount of CO2, at which point you will have created a flat ruined beer or dramatically increased global warming. The carbonation forms into small bubbles and then floats to the surface of the beer. Along the way the “bubble” creates a “wall” around itself from the different molecules and compounds in your beer. Some of these molecules and compounds are good for building head, and some actually work to destroy it. Suspended proteins, dextrins and alpha acid (from hops) are excellent for creating and maintaining a good head—otherwise known as head retention. Oils, detergent residue, and fatty acids will work to break down the walls of your head.

So knowing this, some of the most common problems and cures for bad head are:

Lack of carbonation. Not enough dissolved CO2 in a brew will definitely affect the amount of head you get. Make sure you are using the correct amount of priming ingredients. A five gallon bottled batch of home brew should be carbonated with 1½ cups of malt extract, ½ cup of honey or ¾ cup of dextrose (corn sugar) if you must. These amounts can be adjusted to fit your preferences, but increases of 30 percent or more can cause “gushing” or bottles to explode. If you use a kegging system, decrease the above amounts by roughly half. Kraeusening is an entire subject by itself and will be covered in a different article.

Cleanliness. Soap residue, hard water deposits and oils (especially from fingers) will dramatically affect head retention. Use oxygen-based cleaners or bleach after washing your equipment with soapy water, and rinse well. Rinse your favorite beer mug well with hot water after washing. Doubt the importance of this? Next time you get a pitcher of beer in your favorite pub, stick one of your uncouth fingers in it and see what happens. Not only will you look stupid, you will realize old Jug speaks true.

Hops. You hopheads out there will love to know that the alpha acids in hops aid greatly in head retention. Of course not every beer can be enjoyed over-hopped, but by using fresh hops you can still get better head from your beer.

Malt extracts. Wonderful beer can be brewed from malt extracts and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from using them. Malt extracts do have less suspended proteins and dextrins that help in head retention, so try to add in some specialty malts to your process. Crystal malts and wheat help greatly in head retention; however corn, rice and oatmeal will diminish it.

Protein rest. Too long of a protein rest will break down the proteins that aid in head retention. If you are using fully modified grains there is little reason to use a protein rest at all.

Heading powders may be bought at any brew shop. They will aid in head retention but they are definitely not a substitute for cleanliness.

Clarifying agents. Finings like Irish Moss are actually intended to attract and remove suspended proteins in beer. While they do serve a purpose, overuse of them may lower the protein count enough to reduce head retention.

Get a bigger mug! A mug with a larger proportion of height to width will naturally grow a bigger head even though nothing physically has changed with the brew. Test this out and you will be surprised at the difference.

You can mix and match any of these cures to your style and to fit the nature of the beer you’re crafting. Cleanliness above all else is the biggest culprit, so make sure you’re treating the disease, not the symptom before trying more drastic measures.

Now you can enjoy great beer with good head, just like Jug.


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