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I just finished brewing a series of 5 Belgian beers, and at least 3 of them have exhibited problems with head formation and retention. I haven't tried the last 2 beers yet, so I can't say if those have the same problems.

In the Blonde, Dubbel and Tripel, I'll get a rush of carbonation after pouring and then a thin head that dissipates quickly. And I'm getting little to no lacing.

All of these beers used Belgian Pils as the base grain (following the recipes from 'Brewing Classic Styles') and were brewed using a partial mash approach, where about 50% of the beer's OG came from grain, the rest from pilsner DME and other fermentables.

The first two beers were bottle conditioned, while the tripel was force carbonated.

Other beers I've made have not had a head problem, so I don't think it's a water problem or something in my brewing system.

Any ideas on what could be causing this problem?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

There are literally hundreds of factors affecting head formation and retention. Even though you've eliminated process problems, I'm going to list everything I know of that will harm head.

Are you using a partial boil? If so, that could be the biggest problem, as proteins will precipitate out of solution, but then when you dilute the wort after the boil, your protein concentration is too low.

Using too much heat during the boil (which helps most aspects of the beer) can denature proteins. This will result in head formation but poor retention.

Scooping the hot break at the beginning of the boil may also harm head formation.

If you underpitched your yeast, or otherwise stressed them, they could contribute lipids. that will destabilize your head. Autolysis will also cause the release of lipids.

Your mash temperatures may also play a role in head formation. Too low of a temperature will hurt you, as will too long a protein rest (if you did one).

Finally, your beer might just need more time. Cold aging for a month or two will help polyphenols and tannins to settle, so your head should improve with time if the beer is young.

If I want a strong head in a beer, I sometimes add an ounce or two of CaraPils (even when the style doesn't call for it). This contributes little to color, aroma, and flavor, but usually enhances the head.

Hope that helps!

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Full boil. It's a pretty mellow boil, I'm getting about 15% evaporation per hour. I keep the water moving, but well below the raging geyser boil that I've seen some folks use. I don't skim off the break. I didn't do a protein rest, but these were mashed pretty low, 148ish. I'll stick some in the fridge for a month or two and see what happens. –  Hopwise May 9 '11 at 18:46
    
Sounds like you're doing things right, other than being a bit on the cool side for mashing. Jamil and Palmer did a Brew Strong show on this a couple years ago; you might give that a listen. I think I covered most of what they discuss as problems, but I might have forgotten a few things. They also talk briefly about the chemistry of head, which may help you pinpoint the cause. –  Brandon May 10 '11 at 1:18

This is in no way from first-hand experience, but I heard from one of the guys at a local brew shop that some dish soaps can leave a coating on your glasses that will reduce the head size when pouring a beer. Its a bit of a long shot, but its worth trying an extra thorough rising before chilling/using your beer glasses.

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Yeah, I've played around with glass ware & different ways to wash. But the problem doesn't seem related to that, sadly. Even in glasses washed the same way, the Belgians won't get a head, while other of my home brews will. –  Hopwise May 9 '11 at 18:44

Fermentation practices and pitching rates can have a large effect on beer foam, as Brandon mentioned. There's a great article here beer foam that not only describes this but also includes test you can do to help determine what the problem might be.

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