I've been brewing wine for a few years now but only just recently turned to beer. I've just finished (as in "consumed") my first brew and have now got my second one on the go.

Both of my brews are extract/hops type brew. I've done a lot of reading around the subject and dipped into various forums and I think I pretty much understand the whole hopping process and such... however there are a few things I can't find clear answers for... hence my appearance here.

My first brew, a dark ale, tasted really good but didn't have much of a head. I'll explain how I brewed it - perhaps someone can explain if I did anything wrong?

  1. Boiled up the extract (2 standard tins) with about 80g of hops in as much water as I could get on my stove top.
  2. Put the extract in my 5 gallon primary fermenter (not a pressure barrel) and topped up to 5 gallons with boiled water.
  3. Added a 20g hop bag into the primary fermenter
  4. Added yeast when the brew was about room temperature
  5. about 36 hours later primary fermentation started... bubbling away nicely after 48 hours. I'm in the UK so I needed to wrap the barrel in blankets - I kept the temperature at around 20oC fairly well.
  6. When fermentation had pretty much finished I siphoned off into a sterilised 5 gallon pressure barrel (no CO2 cannister. Made sure it was quite splashy when I did it. I primed it with about a cupful of sugar and lidded up the barrel.
  7. After another couple of days I was tapping off nice pints of dark ale under reasonable pressure (at least I thought it was reasonable pressure - it might not have been) but with no head. I'd only tap a max of 4 pints a day for my wife and me... perhaps 6 tops.
  8. After another 2 or 3 days I was beginning to get at least a thin layer of small bubbles sitting on top of the pint but nothing approaching a head, as such.

So, with my second brew (a light malt/wheat hoppy brew) on the go in my primary 5 gallon bucket (with air trap - not pressurised) I want to try and get a better head. I got the brew going yesterday and by this morning it was bubbling vigorously. I've added extra sugar so it's going to be about a 6.5% brew and I want to put it in my pressure barrel. How and when would I be best to do this, and is there anything else I can do to improve the head?

Thanks for reading and even more thanks for helping! :)

4 Answers 4


As Denny mentioned, head formation is primarily related to protein though dissolved carbonation level will also have something to do with it. If you're adding a fixed amount of priming sugar to a single pressure vessel, as you dispense beer, the increased amount of headspace will allow some of the CO₂ to leave the beer, making it flatter.

You do not want to be "splashy" in step 6. Any time after fermentation has finished, you want to minimize the introduction of oxygen.

If your step 2 is a sort of "dry hopping", you'll want to do it after primary fermentation is complete.

  • Thanks jsled. Can you also advise me as to when I need to transfer to the pressure barrel? Am I waiting until all significant fermentation has ceased, and giving it an extra little kick with some priming sugar? Or should I preempt it slightly by transferring to the pressure barrel whilst it has still got a little fermentation to do? If so, would I still add priming sugar?
    – Doug
    Nov 21, 2013 at 18:50
  • "Standard procedure" is to wait until fermentation is complete, rack and prime. The whole "spunding valve" idea is basically to use the last stage of fermentation to also carbonate. I recommend the former.
    – jsled
    Nov 21, 2013 at 23:48

Foam formation is related to the protein content of the beer and fermentation specifics. You can increase the protein content by steeping some non diastatic malt, like crystal, as part of your brewing liquor. Once you have the protein in your beer, increased hopping increases foam as the polyphenols in the hops bind the proteins in the beer. For the impact of yeast and fermentation on foam, see http://byo.com/stories/article/indices/35-head-retention/697-getting-good-beer-foam-techniques

  • Thanks for the link, Denny. As far as I can tell I seem to be following the hints therein - giving the extract a good boil to denature the protein, the fermentation temperature isn't too high. My previous brew had 100g on hops - 80g in the boil and 20g dry - so that should also help? My thoughts were that it's not well carbonated... But that appears to be secondary to the head actually forming in the first place.
    – Doug
    Nov 21, 2013 at 17:34
  • The problem is that extract doesn't have a lot of protein to begin with. Much has been removed when the extract was made. Did you pitch the proper amount of yeast? Maybe you could try some of the tests in the article to help you identify the source of the problem.
    – Denny Conn
    Nov 21, 2013 at 17:50
  • Interesting, I didn't know that. I've found Crushed Crystal Malt on eBay - is that the sort of thing you mean to reintroduce a higher protein content? My current brew is half wheat - this should have more protein so I should learn quite a but from this brew.
    – Doug
    Nov 21, 2013 at 18:25
  • 1
    Wheat, even in extract form, will have more protein. Yes, crystal malt is exactly what I'm talking about. Buy the color that fits your beer. 20, 40, and 60L are commonly used. Steeping 1/2-1 lb. of it in 155ish (F) water, then using that as part of your brewing water, should improve both flavor and foam.
    – Denny Conn
    Nov 21, 2013 at 19:47

Carbonating the beer from priming sugar takes at least a week, often closer to 2 to be ready. The problem here is that you were sampling a too early:

After another couple of days I was tapping off nice pints of dark ale under reasonable pressure (at least I thought it was reasonable pressure - it might not have been) but with no head. I'd only tap a max of 4 pints a day for my wife and me... perhaps 6 tops.

After another 2 or 3 days I was beginning to get at least a thin layer of small bubbles sitting on top of the pint but nothing approaching a head, as such.

So you see after you've waiting a few days more the head is slowly improving. It will continue to improve over time.

Carbonation from priming sugar requires that both the yeast have fermented the sugar (taking up to a week for regular beers) plus that the CO2 produced is then dissolved into the beer, which also takes a week or more.

Your next beer, a wheat, will have a better head, since wheat contains more protein, which contributes to the head formation. If you leave the beer at least a week before trying, ideally 2, then you'll get the head you're looking for.

Once you start drinking the beer, the amount of carbonation will decrease as the barrel empties, so you should get hold of the CO2 bulbs to replenish the carbon dioxide in the barrel - it's there to push the beer out and to keep it carbonated.

  • This is more what I was thinking - poor carbonation... I guess a beer being carbonated enough to form a head does not necessarily make it fizzy - not a trait I'm after in my ales. You read so many people online talking about brewing beer in under a week - for someone who's used to brewing wine this is quite a foreign concept... I guess I've been listening/reading too much from the folk who try to rush it.
    – Doug
    Nov 21, 2013 at 18:32
  • One thought I've had is to brew and store the beer in the pressure barrel. There are two downsides to this that I can see - firstly the beer sitting on the yeast cake for too long, and too much pressure building up in the barrel. An I right on both counts? Is this not the way forward?
    – Doug
    Nov 21, 2013 at 18:34

You definitely just need to wait longer. I always wait at least two weeks, more for higher gravity beers. Waiting will not only improve the quality of the head and carbonation level, but almost everything else about the beer will get better if you give it more time.

A side note on your step 6, it's best to keep splashing to a minimum when racking after fermentation is complete. Pretty much the only time you want splashing is when transferring from the kettle to your fermenter on brew day, as you need to get oxygen into the wort so the yeast can get a healthy, vigorous fermentation going. Introducing oxygen after the yeast have done their thing can lead to oxidation and that wonderful wet cardboard taste / feel.

That said, oxidation can take a LONG time to show up in the flavor, so there's no need to be overly paranoid about it. It's mainly a concern with macrobrewed light lagers, where even the slightest fault is apparent because the beer itself has little to no flavor. I'm sure I've caused oxidation in my brews before, but they're usually too flavorful and consumed too quickly for the taste to appear. Keeping post-fermentation aeration to a minimum is just a good practice to follow in general, and especially if you're doing a big beer that will age a long time.

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