reader question: boosting mouthfeel

Reader Andrew posted this question earlier in the week:

I was wondering if you could give me some tips on increasing mouthfeel on my lower abv brews. Is there a way to get a nice low abv beer without it being sweet due to high mash temps/ increased specialty malt?

… and I thought it was a substantial enough topic to warrant its own post.

Substantial! Mouthfeel! #BeerJudgeJokes

First, let’s recap mouthfeel vs. body. BJCP.org has this to say:

Body is technically separate from mouthfeel, which encompasses physical sensations such as astringency, alcoholic warmth and carbonation, but the combination determines how the beer stimulates the palate.

In Tasting Beer, Randy Mosher defines them thusly:

Body: A quality of beer, largely determined by the presence of colloidal protein complexes and unfermentable sugars in the finished beer.

Mouthfeel: Sensory qualities of a beverage other than flavor, such as body and carbonation.

So we could say that body is body, but mouthfeel is all about perception.

Armed with that knowledge, off the top of my head, and in no particular order, here are some things you could try *without* resorting to higher percentages of crystal malt or higher sacch’ temps:

  1. Dial back CO2 level, and/or increase serving temp. Think about a beer you’ve had refrigerator-cold and dispensed (or poured from a bottle) with full CO2, and the same beer at cellar temp from a handpump or gravity-poured from a cask – not the same mouthfeel. Lower carbonation and warmer temps play down astringency and bitterness while playing up malt and viscosity. Low-gravity ales really benefit from this, IMO.
  2. Adjust chloride in brewing water. Chloride will give roundness to the mouthfeel and enhance malt character – up to a point. Past about 300 ppm it starts to adversely affect flavor. As a baseline, Munich and London water both have around 60 ppm Cl, so a little can go a long way and depending on your water source adding more may not be desirable. I use CaCl in most of my mashes, but have very soft water. My advice would be to check your water report first and then use a brewing calculator or software and a gram scale to target and dose out the additions.
  3. Incorporate a small % of wheat, or unmalted adjunct grains. Medium-weight proteins from wheat or flaked oats/rye/barley will definitely help the sensation of palate fullness, and it shouldn’t take much. A dextrin malt (CaraPils, CaraFoam) would work here too if you want to keep the grist all-barley and/or all-malt.
  4. Switch yeast strains. Look for a strain that is billed as specifically benefitting mouthfeel. Or one that shifts the attenuation range downward by a few percent. Or (and I’m not saying this is always appropriate) consider one that might throw a touch of diacetyl – assuming you’re brewing a style like dry stout or mild, where a low level would be acceptable. Or go for a very low-attenuating yeast but then chaptalize the wort with a tiny % of sugar to lean it out and drive the FG down a bit. There are a lot of approaches that would work from this angle …
  5. Embrace the lightness. Not a tip so much as a mindset, I guess … as I spouted off in the comment thread of this post,  a low-gravity beer shouldn’t necessarily shy away from being light-bodied but make a strength out of it. If it’s going to be sessionable, embrace sessionability. A standard bitter shouldn’t taste like an ESB; a Scottish 60/- or mild shouldn’t taste like a 90/- or old ale – they’re supposed to sit at one end of a continuum of flavor and texture intensity.

Anybody else have any aces up their sleeves for Andrew?

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22 thoughts on “reader question: boosting mouthfeel

  1. I agree with point #1. I have a mild on tap now that is (albeit a little strong for a mild) under 1.050 OG and is coming in around 4.5% ABV. I have the kegerator set to 48F and the pressure at 10psi. Comes out with the same mouthfeel as a nitro-based Guinness. Very deceptive and I have had friends say ‘wow this must be a heavy (aka higher-alcohol) beer’. They are surprised to learn it is only 4.5% ABV. I will soon have a Special Bitter on tap that will get the same treatment…

    I’ve also tinkered with #2 and #3, but the results don’t have the same impact for me as #1.

  2. I can certainly vouch for both #1, #3 and #4; I haven’t tried increasing Chloride levels, and the last point of more of attitude than altitude.

    I do personally feel that the choice of yeast strain affects mouthfeel tremendously, even with yeast strains that are superficially similar. For example, in a split batch experiment on an American Amber Ale (~4.5% ABV, ~25 IBUs) this spring, I noticed a considerably increased mouthfeel with WLP007/WY1098 as opposed to WLP001/WY1056. WLP002/WY1968 is also an excellent choice (as far as mouthfeel goes) for low gravity beers if it fits the style, and it flocculates like a pro to boot.

    With that said, I do think that the best way to increase the viscosity (which, at least in my book, has a lot to say for the mouthfeel) of the beer, is to control the wort composition in favor of maltodextrins (e.g., by increasing mash temperature and mash thickness, etc.). I know, I know, that’s cheating. What I’m getting at is that a higher finishing gravity does not have to entail a sweeter tasting beer; what matters is the composition of whatever is left in the beer after fermentation is done. That is to say, the perceived sweetness of the fermentable sugars in wort is much higher than the perceived sweetness of maltodextrins (see, for example, http://owlsoft.com/pdf_docs/WhitePaper/Rel_Sweet.pdf – wort commonly contains mostly maltose, but also maltotriose, glucose, sucrose and fructose). In other words, two beers of equal finishing gravity may taste very differently in terms of sweetness depending on whether the material in solution is mostly fermentable sugars or mostly dextrins.

    Another suggestion is to control the astringency of the beer, as this (at least in my mind) has a negative impact on mouthfeel. As such, keeping cohumulone and tannins to a minimum (e.g., by keeping pH below 6.0 and SG of runnings below 1.008 at all times, etc) can be a good idea.

    As was also touched upon briefly in #4, giving the beer a slight slickness or smoothness may improve mouthfeel if you’re into that sort of thing. A touch of diacetyl is one way to do it, but glycerol can do the trick as well without the buttery aroma. Research suggests that proper aeration, as well as fermentation temperatures in the higher end, may increase glycerol production (see for example http://www.sawislibrary.co.za/dbtextimages/ScanesKT1.pdf).

    • Adjust chloride:sulfate in favor of chloride. A little CaCl2*2H2O goes a long way. My 3% ABV Milds are much maltier because of it!

    • I would like to know how to get Wy1968 to attenuate a titch more. Normal fermentation practices (i.e. temp control, oxygenation, rousing) always leaves my beers at ca. 60-65% ADF with that strain. I’m already a couple deep with a 12 y/o bottle of anCnoc a colleague brought to a work function, so I’m too lazy to look up the Wy#### associated with this strain, but I’ve often found that the Northwest Ale strain is great for mouthfeel in my brown drinks.

      • I have yet to break 70% ADF with this strain as well, which is rather annoying since I know that Lagunitas uses it for Maximus – and just to show off, they are mashing at 157F, and they are still getting 76% ADF!

        Professional brewhouse pitch rates certainly count for something, but I’m guessing that their ability to ferment under pressure, in turn allowing them to crank up the fermentation temperature without getting a ton of esters, is quite significant as well. Perhaps our friendly local Wyeast Brand Manager has a trick up his sleeve?

        • Let me run this idea by you, Robin: How about making a huge starter (ca. 4L), alllowing the yeast that normally floc prematurely to do so, and then collect the more powdery yeast left in suspension to repeat the whole process with? This procedure effectively puts selection pressure on the strain for the less flocculant members of the culture. I imagine extended contact time with the wort while in suspension will result in a higher ADF. Temperature control coupled with fining agents would aid in clearing the yeast from the finished beer.

          • That would work, in that it would favor the less flocculent specimens, which are indeed often more attenuative – that is why proper timing, as well as the strata from which you are cropping, is critical when extracting yeast from your fermentor for reuse.

            The problem, however, is that you can’t really be sure what you’re getting in terms of fermentation properties. What is worse, the less flocculant cells could have all sorts of problems – respiratory deficiency or petite mutation to name a few; indeed, if memory serves me right, petite mutants have a tendency to be less flocculant.

            If you’re really serious about this, however, you could make your own little yeast breeding program. White & Zainasheff’s “Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation” is an excellent read in this regard, and provides a ton of methods and techniques for measuring and maintaining the health and viability of your yeast. It requires considerably more equipment, time, and patience than I am willing to spend though.

            You could also just give it a go. In fact, I think you should. I’d love to hear the results anyway!

        • I don’t think I’m doing anything you guys don’t already know about.

          The most recent batch in which I used 1968 was an imperial black IPA (single infusion at 147F, 8% sucrose in the grist, extremely high pitch rate with 1st gen yeast, ferment in the upper 60s) and it went from 1.068 to 1.010.

          The last couple session-strength beers I brewed with it were a mild (single infusion at 156F, standard pitch rate with 1st gen yeast, ferment in upper 60s – 1.044 to 1.015) and a best bitter (single infusion at 152F, larger pitch rate with 2nd gen yeast, ferment in upper 60s – 1.042 to 1.011).

          • Awesome ideas all around. This blog is the absolute tits! Many thanks, gents.

            …looks like I have some work to do.

  3. So glad you mentioned carbonation. THAT (IMHO) is the one thing that the craft beer movement has not paid a lot of attention to. To an extent, over carbonation is the price to be paid in exchange for stability, but that only really applies to bottles as any kind of draft setup allows for proper carbonation. Anyway, that’s my soap box and I’ll not go on, but I will mention that Founders All Day IPA (a very low OG beer) that benefits immensely from a vigorous pour and/or fork-swizzle–it’s really enlightening how the de-gassing transforms it from a highly carbonated, thin beer to a very quaff-able brew.

    Thanks for the tips!

  4. I agree with 5, the brain of a homebrewer can expect a lot from their little running ales. To be fair they DO give a lot (the wee little ales), but we expect them to be over the top with fullness and flavor. Why? I don’t know.
    I like the carbonation/temp statements as well. My local bar (very rural) has Black Butte on tap. They serve it at around 36*f, and gassed to maybe 3 volumes, cold and fizzy for us yokels. It comes across as thin, ashy, astringent, not the best. Anyway I get looked at awkwardly for leaving my pint on the bar for 20 minutes before enjoing it, and ordering my 2nd one as I start drinking the first. When it warms up and fizzes out it becomes the black butte we all know, roasty, chocolatey, nice mild sweetness perfectly balanced with fresh green hop character. Great points in this article Mr. Dawson, as always I’m inspired to brew something you covered, like maybed using your QPA grist for a wet hop ale with my first year centennials? We will see.

    • …expect a lot from little running ales.

      That’s a good way of putting it, Bryan B. You hear talk about the “hops arms race” in craft brewing (lupulin threshold shift, IBU as marketing strategy, etc.) but not much discussion about gravity escalation. Highly anecdotal, but my recollection of drinking micros in the 90s was most flagships existed somewhere just on either side of 5% with some seasonal releases (e.g., SN Celebration) creeping up on 6%. A good number of US craft brewers’ flagships and year-round standards that have come into being in the last decade are in the 6-7% neighborhood, which, actually going by numbers, is getting into Bock/Doppelbock/Trappist territory – traditionally not everyday, day-in day-out, non-mealtime styles.

      • It seems reasonable to assume that with the high IBU new beers that you also raise the abv and fg for some balance, but I also think that in a lot of drinkers mindsets (I know I felt like this when I first started drinking craft beer) we feel cheated with lower gravity beers. If the brewery down the road can make a “pale ale” that’s 60 ibu and 6%, then why would I drink this 4% swill? They call it a bitter, it isn’t bitter at all! Even if it is well brewed with a lovely unique character the brain says, “what’s this, bud light? What are they doing charging me the same for this as an IPA? I bet they cash out all the extra money and roll in it while laughing about what a sucker I am.”

  5. I’ve had success using tips 3 and 4 on a low gravity saison. I added about 4% oats and even though the beer finished at 1.002 with 3711, it did not lack mouthfeel or body at all and didn’t taste nearly as dry as the FG suggested.

    I’ve also done a full volume no sparge mash for small beers with good results. This probably leans more toward the side of mouthfeel but tannin harshness can become very apparent in low abv beers.

  6. One fairly obvious omission to me is simply to avoid honey and corn sugar additions to smaller beers – but that is pretty well known among homebrewers, so it probably goes without saying…I love the #5 embrace suggestion – I can see it now as session beers become the next huge wave: “Stuart Smalley Brewing has a motto ‘my beers are big enough, full enough, and gosh darn it, they are good enough’.”

  7. Wow! A tremendous amount of information. I did keg said batch and lightly carbonated it, it does indeed increase perceived mouthfeel. Thank you MD and others. I am brewing a mango pale ale this weekend with an og of 1.040 and I will mash out from now on and follow these other tips. Thank you!!!

  8. One thing that should probably be noted….mashing higher alone won’t increase sweetness. Dextrins will increase body and viscosity, but it is flavorless.That seems to be a common misconception that keeps getting repeated. I know the question was how to affect the beer without increasing mash temps but I wonder if the premise of the question is flawed?

    For my own low gravity beers, I will second MD’s recommendation of using a small % of unmalted grain. I really like WY 1469 for bitters…but YMMV, so experiment around. An excuse to brew more beer!

  9. MD, thanks for this post. I’m going to be making an Allagash Black type beer (Belgian Dark Strong/Belgian Style Stout) and for me, the mouthfeel really makes this beer. It’s a good beer in its own right, but the mouthfeel brings it home, IMO. I was thinking of mashing at 158*-160* and making the mash a bit thicker to try to get a thick, yet smooth, mouthfeel. Would you say 1qt/lb is too thick? This is the first time I’ve ever really played with the mash thickness, normally I rely on whatever BeerSmith tells me to do so I’m a bit nervous about having it too thick, etc.

    • I was thinking of mashing at 158*-160* and making the mash a bit thicker to try to get a thick, yet smooth, mouthfeel. Would you say 1qt/lb is too thick?

      1 qt/lb is not too thick for conversion or normal mash function (thicker mashes favor a-amylase activity and slower enzymatic action, so maybe allow for a longer rest); IIRC the basement is more like 0.75 qt/lb.

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