Monday, November 28, 2011

Brewing Better Beer: Book Review

That was my real randomly assign license plate when I live in VA.
Brewing Better Beer: Master Lessons for Advanced Homebrewers is book written by BJCP president, Grand Master V Judge, and three-time Ninkasi award winning homebrewer Gordon Strong. While reading his bio I was surprised to see that he lives in the same small Ohio town where my girlfriend Audrey grew up. It had been awhile since I read a brewing book that didn’t have a narrowly defined subject, so I was excited to pick up some general improvements to my process.

The concept behind Brewing Better Beer is an interesting one: the investigation of what separates the great brewers from those who simply understand the process. It does a good job of avoiding being bogged down by overly technical detail. It puts forth that at its heart homebrewing is a craft rather than an art or a science. Knowing the scientific underpinning of the process may inform your choices, and there is some artistry in recipe design and blending, but these are less essential than your ability to correctly complete the mundane tasks of mashing, sparging, yeast propagation, keeping oxygen out at packaging etc.

At a certain point after brewing seriously for a few years many homebrewers realize that there are no longer any obvious upgrades that their system requires. From that realization a driven brewer can focus on methodically refining their technique and recipes to produce consistently great results. This book also puts a focus on personal efficiency, avoiding extraneous steps to allow for quicker and less taxing brew days. Being able to brew great beer with minimal time and effort is the goal that most of us strive for.

Part homebrewing autobiography, Brewing Better Beer struggled to keep me interested. The author frequently poses questions for the reader to ask themselves about their own recipes, process, equipment, and technique. In some cases Gordon describes a particular situation and how he dealt with it, but generally does not dwell long. In the end most of these answers require personal investigation and thought (I assume most brewers like me evaluate the available options on their own). As a result, despite the 300+ pages, I didn’t come away with much advice that I’ve actually applied to my brewing.

It may be that I’ve already been brewing too long, already developing a method and system that work well for my needs. While its title suggests the book is for advanced brewers, it covers a number of things that are rather basic without interjecting any advanced information. For example information about how hops and malt are used, or options that I’d think most “advanced” homebrewers would be aware of (e.g. no-sparge brewing, all late hopping). I think this would be a better book if you are still trying to figure out what sort of system you want, or are thinking of doing a major overhaul.

There are a few really interesting sections, I especially enjoyed the passage on using spruce tips (something I’ll have to try next spring). I also found the section about his use of dark grains to be interesting (basically always using cold steeping or adding at the end of the mash to reduce harshness). I would have liked to see more information like this presented in other parts of the book that went into detail on the benefits of a particular method or ingredient.

One of the chapters focuses on the importance of BJCP styles, which I could have done without. Gordon uses the styles to define both brewing to style, and brewing off-style beers. He talks about the area between the “style space” of two beers as the place to create new styles. For example, the space between robust porter and IPA yielded black IPAs, or between Belgian tripel and IPA for Belgian IPAs. To me the best new beers come out of the ether outside the guidelines, drawing ingredients and techniques from different traditions and combining them into unique creations (or using new ingredients for the first time).

I strongly disagree with his suggestion that all beers with yeast/spice/fruit character do not meld well with hops (he points to hefe, wit, and lambic in particular). There are a number of great beers that combine hop aromatics with fruity characters (see New Glarus Crack's Wheat, Mikkeller Not Just Another Wit, Cantillon Iris, and Cigar City Mango IPA).

The book only includes a few recipes scattered through the text, mostly to illustrate specific points. I was surprised how complex Gordon’s recipes were, mostly featuring six or more malts. I tend to strive for simplicity, but it is interesting to see the intricate formulations of his award winning beers.

Michael Ferguson in the forward, and the author in the text both compare the book to Zen and the Art of Motorcycles Maintenance, a lofty comparison which Brewing Better Beer fails to live up to. I think this one would be a good book to borrow from a friend or the library because it is not one I have found myself going back to reference. It is great to see Brewers Publication putting out more advanced homebrewing books since it seems like the “intro to” market is pretty well saturated.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Galaxy Double Australian Pale Ale Tasting

Thought I'd already taken a picture... had to go back for a taster.
With two kegs waiting for an opening in the kegerator I’m happy to have my whole family in town for Thanksgiving (my first time running the show). While I’ve been loving the Riwaka Hefe Weizen the Galaxy DIPA has been drinking a bit slower. The flavor is great, but there is only so much 8.8% ABV beer I want to drink. Especially the presence of my father, who managed to kill a case of my first double IPA that I left at home when I moved down to DC,  for the week is much appreciated!

In doing some research trying to figure out who was the first American craft brewer to release a sour beer (Cottonwood in 1995 is the current leader), I stumbled upon this quote on Beer Connoisseur: "In Booth II-14, Vinnie Cilurzo served the first commercial “Double IPA” anybody ever heard of. He brewed the beer in June of 1994, his first batch at Blind Pig Brewing in Temecula, Calif. He aged it on oak for nine months and served it on the brewery’s first anniversary as “Inaugural Ale.” It was 15 months old when he hauled it to GABF." Funny that 16 years later at Russian River he is now plastering "Drink fresh, do not age!" on every bottle of Pliny the Elder... not that I'm complaining!

Cosmos DIPA

Appearance – Darker yellow, with warm burnt orange tones. There is still a slight haze (it was cloudy when young), not shocking for a dry hopped beer. Fine white head starts dense, but dissipates over a couple minutes despite the hop resins.

Smell – Ample “America” hop aroma, some tropical and citrus, but also pine. The hop character is more complex than I usually expect from a single varietal, but it isn't quite as assertive as I would like. There is some clean sweet ethanol as well, not obnoxious, but on the high side for the style.

Taste – Firm bitterness, clean, slightly rough. Saturated with big green and fruity hops, lingering into the finish. The malt character is almost completely covered up, but what is there is clean and crisp. I recently had my first taste of Alchemist Heady Topper, and enjoyed the slightly bready (without caramel) malt character.

Mouthfeel – Light body with moderate carbonation. This is what I like in a strong hoppy beer, a thick body would have made this too close to an American barleywine.

Drinkability & Notes – I am a fan of this beer, but if I brewed it again I would back down the alcohol. For a big DIPA this is a very drinkable beer, but at close to 9% I am taking my time. Seems Galaxy is great for anything that you might use Simcoe for, terrific hop!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Measuring Sour Beer pH

Many homebrewers know that pH plays an important role at several points during brew day, including: mash enzyme effectiveness, hop utilization, and protein coagulation. Some maybe even know that pH can also be used to test to monitor yeast activity on a clean beer (as I was told when a Pilsner I brewed last winter failed to start fermenting). Probably not as many of us (myself included) pay enough attention to it. I only check mash pH if I am doing something really dark or light (using test strips), but I wasn't motivated to buy a pH meter until I decided it would be fun to test my sour beers.

pH meter storage solution.As pH is a measure of acidity (actually the concentration of hydronium ions) it gives a hard number to confirm what our tongues report. Knowing the pH of the beer allows you to track the progress of the acid producing bacteria, or judge when the souring is complete. Keeping track of the acidity can make your results more repeatable, especially if you do not have a sensitive palate.

The meter I bought is a Hanna HI 98107 (~$40 on Amazon), which also requires a storage solution and two buffered calibration solutions to use (which doubles the price). The storage solution prevents the probe from degrading (although even with it I'll be lucky to get more than a year out of it apparently). Before measuring the pH of a sample the meter requires two point calibration. First the storage solution must be rinsed off. Then the probe is dipped into a buffered 7.0 (neutral) solution and a small small screw is adjusted on the side of the case to get the display to read 7.0. After rinsing off the probe with water, it is calibrated in a 4.01 pH buffered solution (a 10.01 solution is available for taking readings of solutions above 7 pH) and the second screw is adjusted so it reads 4.0. Once the probe is rinsed a third time it is ready to use.

The samples must be uncarbonated to get an accurate reading because dissolved carbon dioxide (aka carbonic acid) lowers the pH reading. pH is also affected by temperature, the warmer the sample the lower the reading. Unless you buy a more expensive meter that has automatic temperature correction you will need to take readings at the same temperature so they are comparable. Like gravity readings you can correct for temperature, but this introduces variance.

I decided to try the meter out for the first time during our blending session since I had plenty of uncarbonated room-temperature samples to test. I should have read the instructions more carefully in advance because I didn't realize that before using the meter for the first time it needed to be soaked in the storage solution for two hours to activate the electrode. While it soaked we proceeded with blending, and by the time we came up with our ratios and ate lunch the two hours had passed.

pH meter calibration.The pH of the eight sour beers I tested ranged a full point (as pH is a logarithmic scale the Berliner Lambic was 10 times more acidic than the Big Funky Ale).

4.1 - Big Funky Ale
3.7 - Cherry/Raspberry Lambic 2.0
3.7 - Irma
3.5 - Dark Saison III
3.4 - Buckwheat Amber
3.3 - Fruit Salad 3.2 - Apple Brandy Solera
3.1 - Berliner Lambic

At the high end of that range beers taste tart, while down at 3.1 they have a bracing acidity. For the most part the readings confirmed what we tasted, but it was surprising to see what the different levels of acidity translated to. The one surprise was that despite both testing 3.7, the Irma tasted much sourer than the Fruit Lambic, maybe the acidity was offset by the higher alcohol?

When the testing was finished I rinsed off the probe, put on a few drops of the storage solution and snapped the cover back on. I'm interested to take it out next time I get a few friends together to drink sour beers to see how beers from different breweries (and made with different methods) stack up.

A simpler, but less accurate, method is to use pH test strips. The chemical indicator impregnated onto them changes color when submerged in the beer. When the color is stable they are compared to a chart, which is impossible to read with the same degree of accuracy as a digital readout (especially if you happen to be colorblind). The main advantages of the strips are that they are relatively cheap and require no additional care or calibration. I have had good luck with ColorpHast pH test strips for monitoring mash pH, but the standard pH range of 7.0-4.0 sold to homebrewers is not useful for monitoring the souring process, luckily they are also sold in the 4.5-2.5 pH range. These also need to be used on flat room temperature samples for the highest accuracy. However ColorpHast strips have a .2 pH resolution and so may not provide enough accuracy for fine tuning a beer.

The character of the acidity is not solely a matter of the pH however. Different acids contribute various characters to the beer. A beer that has a pH of 3.5 from the presence of lactic acid will have a much mellower character than a beer that has the same pH resulting from acetic acid. Other characters in the beer including residual sweetness can balance the acidity as well. A well trained palate is your best tool for determining what the character of a blend should be, but pH measurements are a way to improve your ability to judge acidity (rather than treating it as an abstract number to be targeted).

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Riwaka Hefe Weizen Tasting

A glass of Riwaka hopped Hefe Weizen.Wheat beers are supposed to be best fresh, hoppy beers too, right? For some reason the Riwaka Hefe Weizen that I brewed in early August just keeps getting better. Young the beer tasted strongly phenolic and yeasty, but it has cleaned up beautifully in the 6 weeks it has been on tap. That is one of the advantages of kegging, the beer has just been cold conditioning and continuing to pick up hop aromatics from the hops in the keg.

This is the second in my series of Southern Hemisphere hopped beers, the final (Galaxy Double IPA) will be ready for its tasting next week.

Riwaka HoppyWeizen

Appearance – Perfect, almost immobile, sticky, dense, white head. The body would be ugly for any beer other than a hefe weizen (ruddy orange-gold).

Smell – The nose suits the color with a potent citrus character (particularly fresh orange peel) and plenty of banana aroma. The combination of citrus and banana is complementary (smells like a fruit smoothie).

Taste – The aromatics from the nose come through in the flavor as well, but they are joined by a fresh caramel malt and bread. There is some light clove-spice (and maybe some cinnamon), but I think the hops are covering it up a bit. The bitterness is more assertive than a hefe weizen usually is, close to a hoppy pale ale. Rising bread yeasty finish.

Mouthfeel – Medium-light body with prickly carbonation. Right for a fall beer, but it might have been a bit thicker than I wanted if this was a summertime beer.

Drinkability & Notes – It took a few weeks on gas for this one to come together, but I'm really happy with where it is now. Riwaka seems like a good hop for anything you'd usually use Cascade or Centennial anything you want fresh orange aromatics. I didn't miss the decoction that I did for my previous batch of Hoppy Hefe, the hops covering any subtleties gained.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Cherry Wood Smoked Roggenbier Recipe

My friend Scott mashing in.
Recipes and ingredients are important, but brewing the best beer requires control over your process. You might get lucky once, but consistently great beer does not come with chance. The more variables you can manage the more repeatable your process will be, and the closer you can dial in a target. For example, mashing offers a level of control that you give-up by using extract. For where my process is, gaining more control over the fermentation is more important than focusing on wort production. For example, I can set the ambient fermentation temperature, but setting the temperature of the beer itself would be better; I make starters to ensure healthy/active yeast, but doing cell counts and viability tests to know what I am pitching would be better.


When it comes to smoked beers the biggest problem that brewers have is the variable nature of commercially smoked malt. Aecht Schlenkerla (which brews almost nothing but smoked beers) overcomes variability by smoking their own, blending different lots of smoked malt into the same batch of beer, and then blending multiple batches of beer together for packaging. As a homebrewer all that blending isn’t feasible, but then we don't need the exacting level of consistency. The biggest issue we have with smoked malt is that the aroma tends to fade as the malt ages, and unless you are able to find out how fresh the malt is it is hard to anticipate how much to use. By smoking your own malt you can exert more control over the process (not to mention play with smoke from less common woods as well as herbs, spices, I've even seen recipes that call for tossing strips of bacon onto the fire).

My friend Scott (who I brewed with for the first time shortly after moving to DC five years ago) invited me to his house to brew 10 gallons of smoked roggenbier (similar to a dunkel weisse, but with rye in place of the wheat). I have brewed a number of smoked beers before (Rauch Dunkel, Smoked Baltic Porter, Smoked Imperial Porter, Adambier, Smoked Doppelsticke, and DCHB Apple Smoked Stout), but this was the first time using home-smoked malt. New Glarus brewed a beer along the same lines (Unplugged Smoked Rye Ale – which was brewed with a combination of German beechwood and Briess cherry wood smoked malts), but it is stronger and smokier than something we wanted five gallons of.

Note the minimal color change after smoking.(A few weeks earlier...) to smoke the malt Scott thoroughly mixed base malt with enough distilled water to moisten (~1 cup in 5 lbs). Dampness helps the smoke to stick, and distilled water ensures that there is no chlorine, which would combine with the phenols in the smoke to produce medicinal tasting chlorophenols. Scott spread the damp malt onto old window screens placed in his smoker (the same one we used two years ago to smoke bacon). He made a small fire in the corner of the smoke box as far back from the main cavity of the smoker as he could to keep the heat low enough to avoid scorching the malt. He added cherry wood chips each time the smoke died down. Woods from fruit trees tends to produce a sweeter and softer smoke than other woods, making them a good choice when smoking malt for a beer fermented with a fruity yeast. After a couple hours the malt was dry and fragrant. He sealed it in a large Tupperware container where it stayed until I came over to brew (he had also used some in a smoked mild).

In addition to the rye and smoked malts we included Pilsner, Munich, CaraMunich, and Carafa Special II. Between the nearly 50% rye malt, specialty malts, and the assertive yeast we wanted to go easy on the smoked malt, so we settled on 3 lbs in 10 gallons. We ended up with a few more IBUs than anticipated due to a miscalculation in splitting the batch for two boils, but it the original gravity is towards the big end of the style so I’m not worried.

POSTPONED On a side note, Sunday December 11th from 2-5 PM I’ll be teaching another homebrewing class at Mountain View Farm in Purcellville, VA. This one will primarily be an introduction to brewing, but there will also be time to discuss whatever questions people have. If you are interested in attending the deal is the same as last time ($25/person or $40/couple), send an email to Shawna (shawna_dewitt@yahoo.com) to register. I'll also be bringing samples of the Peach-Amber Wheat we brewed during the August class. POSTPONED

Cherry Wood Smoked Roggenbier

Recipe Specifics
-----------------
Batch Size (Gal): 10.00
Total Grain (Lbs): 26.75
Anticipated OG: 1.062
Anticipated SRM: 16.7
Anticipated IBU: 33.5
Brewhouse Efficiency: 69 %
Wort Boil Time: 75 Minutes

Grain
------
44.9% - 12.00 lbs. Rye Malt
18.7% - 5.00 lbs. Munich Malt
18.7% - 5.00 lbs. Pilsener
11.2% - 3.00 lbs. Cherry Wood Smoked
5.6% - 1.50 lbs. CaraMunich
0.9% - 0.25 lbs. Carafa Special II

Hops
------
4.00 oz. Crystal (Whole, 4.75% AA) @ 60 min.

Extras
-------
1.00 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 15 min.

Yeast
------
WYeast 3068 Weihenstephan Weizen

Water Profile
-------------
Profile: Springfield, VA

Mash Schedule
----------------
Saccharification Rest: 60 min @ 153 F

Notes
-------
Brewed 10/29/11 at Scott's

Scott had home smoked the malt over cherry wood (mixed in enough distilled water to get it wet, then laid it over a screen with a very low fire all the way back in his firebox).

Tried to distribute the runnings from the double batch sparge evenly between two kettles. We ended up a bit under volume, but with plenty of gravity

Chilled to 65 F. Ran through a screen to remove the hops. Aerated with pure oxygen. Scott made a 2L stir-plate starter, decanted and pitched half into each 5 gallon batch.

I ended up with 4.5 gallons of wort at 1.072, added 3/4 gallon of distilled water when I got home to dilute. Fermented at ~58 F ambient with the lid just resting on top of the 8 gallon bucket. Active fermentation by the following morning, nearly blowing off by day #2. I left the lid resting on the bucket for a low-pressure open fermentation effect.

11/06/11 Moved upstairs (~62 F) to make sure the yeast was warm enough to finish fermenting.

11/20/11 Down to 1.010. Racked to a purged keg with 3 oz of cane sugar to prime. Really full keg.

1/19/11 Reasonably happy with the way this batch turned out. If I brewed it again I would back down on the rye and hops, and up the smoke slightly. I think the cherry wood is a mild enough complement to the yeast and malt, good choice there.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The best pumpkin beers...

The infamous pumpkin keg.taste like pumpkin pie - 33%
I've never had one I liked - 24%
have just a hint of spice - 24%
taste like pumpkin - 9%
are historic/colonial/sour - 7%

Pumpkin ale is a style that has some historical basis, but the cinnamon/nutmeg/ginger pie inspired creations are a relatively recent phenomenon. Colonists added pretty much anything fermentable they could get their hands on (molasses, spruce, various root vegetables) to augment or replace the malts they had. It is hard to tell what these original beers tasted like, but Randy Mosher provides his take on one in Radical Brewing.

As the poll indicates, not many people want gourd to be the primary flavor in their beer. This isn't a bad thing since it can be tough to use enough pumpkin to get that subtle earthy flavor into a beer, which is probably the reason so many brewers go heavy on the pumpkin pie spice. I'm not a fan of most of the standard, highly spiced, amber pumpkin ales that flood the market this time of year. I've had better luck with those based on dark beers like Cape Ann Fisherman's Pumpkin Stout, Midnight Sun TREAT, and St. Arnold Divine Reserve #9. The roast tends to cut the spices and provide more "beer" character. I've been meaning to re-brew the Chocolate Pumpkin Porter I made on a whim three years ago, but I missed my chance again this year (I have a chance to make another pumpkin keg either).

Talking to Ron Jeffries at Jolly Pumpkin for an article I am researching about American spontaneous fermentation for BYO he mentioned that this year he boosted the spicing in La Parcela (his sour pumpkin beer) just because he was sick of people complaining that they couldn't taste them. I don't know, when I brewed a Butternut Squash Sour Brown a few years ago I aimed for threshold levels of cinnamon and nutmeg, which seemed about right to me. Alphine's Ichabod from 2007 and 2009 was another great sour pumpkin beer, a revelation when I first tried it. The sample of Allagash's Ghoulschip (bottles of which were just sold for the first time) I had last year was good, although I was disappointed that it wasn't especially sour (while it is cooled in their coolship it is then pitched with ale yeast).

Between pumpkin ale and Oktoberfest fall seasonals aren't something I look forward to much, but happy to take suggestions in the comments if anyone has a favorite pumpkin ale.

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