For each of our two solera barrels we are bottling some of each pull as is for a baseline to compare all of our other variants against. This is the first pull from the wine barrel golden sour we brewed two years ago, hopefully the second pull will be in about six months.
Golden Solera - The Plain
Appearance – Clear golden with a thin white head. Looks just like the dry hopped version, right down to the mediocre head retention (not too surprising for a sour beer).
Smell – Deep oak, damp basement, and fruity Brett. There is a hint of acetic acid in the nose as well. A relatively clean aroma, lacking the layers of funky complexity that the best sours have.
Taste – Firm and clean lactic sourness on the first sip. A complex overripe apple fruitiness follows. The farmyard funk is subdued, but present. The oak is great, soft but pervasive. The wine character from the barrel is nice as well. The flavor has so much going on than the aroma, but it also has a light Flemish pale vinegar character.
Mouthfeel – Medium-thin body, with a slight tannic character. Medium carbonation, with more bubbles it might taste lambic-like.
Drinkability & Notes – For an unblended beer it has a good balance of oak, sourness, and Brett. Straight the oak and funk come out more than they did in the dry hopped version. However it is missing the aromatic complexity that even the low level of hopping provided that version. Not one of my favorite sour beers plain, but it is a good base for other flavors. It comes off as similar to Petrus Aged Pale, which is hard to complain about.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
For each of our two solera barrels we are bottling some of each pull as is for a baseline to compare all of our other variants against. This is the first pull from the wine barrel golden sour we brewed two years ago, hopefully the second pull will be in about six months.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
The wine barrel golden sour was brewed about two years ago. Primary fermented in the barrel with Al's (pre-East Coast Yeast) Bugfarm III. After 20 months we pulled 20 gallons, refilling with similar wort. We plan to continue this periodically, essentially creating a single vessel solera which will evolve with each pull. For more information on solera, read Will Meyer's excellent article La Método Solera.
We split the beer from this first pull evenly four ways: plain, dry hopped, aged on elderflowers, and aged on Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This resulted in about a case of the four varietals for each of us. I decided to do the tasting of the dry hopped (Hallertau Tradition) first since those hoppy aromas are already fading. Sadly I took most of my share of the dry hopped portion to serve on tap, but the keg immediately turned sharp and highly acetic despite the fact that I double purged with carbon dioxide.
Golden Solera - The Hoppy
Appearance – Looks like Pilsner Urquell, with a brilliantly clear, golden-yellow body. The stark white head is thin, but remains at that level until the beer is finished.
Smell – Big sour fruit, hard to pick out exactly what the fruit is… Plum? Pear? The hops add a nice herbal note, but it is secondary to the wild fruit. The hops were never as bold as I had hoped they would be, and they have faded a bit since it was bottled a few months ago. Luckily I don’t find faded European hops offensive like I do citrusy American hops. There is also just a hint of chalky aspirin.
Taste – Solid lactic acid with some sharpness from acetic. It gets me right in the sides of the cheeks. The flavor is similar to the aroma, a complex blend of fruit and rustic farmyard funk. The flavor is more decidedly winey, with a big contribution from the red grape juice that once filled the barrel. The oak is subtle despite the 20 months in the barrel, spicy and nothing like the lumber many “aged on oak” beers end up with. There is still a touch of residual sweetness to help balance the sourness, but nothing like the really sweet/sour beers like Duchesse De Bourgogne.
Mouthfeel – Light body, with moderate carbonation. The carbonation could be slightly higher. Slight tannic roughness on my tongue from the oak. The acidity makes it seem fuller than it actually is.
Drinkability & Notes – Considering this was the first pull it will be interesting to see if the funkiness of the Brett is able to assert itself more in subsequent years. I would have liked more character from the nearly 4 oz of dry hops, but I think we probably loaded the hop bag too full to allow for adequate circulation.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
I was inspired by coaching one of my coworkers through his first batch of homebrew (an English bitter) to write up a list of the mistakes that many new homebrewers make. Several of these are things I did on early batches, while others I have tasted at homebrew at club meetings. Many of these issues stem from poor kit instructions, bad homebrew shop advice, and common sense that just doesn’t work out.
1. Using the sanitizer that comes with a beer kit. This powdered sanitizer is slow and not especially effective. Instead get a no-rinse sanitizer like Star-San or Iodophor, which are faster and easier to use. Sanitize everything that touches your beer post-boil, and make sure it is carefully cleaned after each use (sanitizers are most effective on scrupulously-clean scratch-free surfaces). Keeping wild microbes out of your beer is the single most important step to brewing solid beer.
2. Starting with a recipe that is strong or unusual. Brewing a big complex beer is lots of fun, but play it safe on your first batch and brew something simple. High alcohol beers require more yeast and time. Interesting adjuncts add complexity to the recipe and process. These are things you don’t want to deal with on your first batch, so keep it easy.
3. Brewing with unfiltered, chlorine-containing tap water. If you are on a municipal water supply odds are that it contains either chlorine or chloramines. To remove them you can either charcoal filter (I use a Camco 40631) or treat your water with metabisulfite, or alternatively use bottled water. One of the most common off-flavors I taste at homebrew club meetings is medicinal chlorophenol, which is formed by the combination of chlorine in the water or sanitizer and phenols from malt and yeast.
4. Squeezing the grain bag after steeping. This releases tannins, which give the body a rough texture. Steep your grains in a small amount of water (no more than three quarts per pound) and then rinse them by either pouring hot water over the grain bag or dipping the grain bag into a second pot of hot water. Edit: I've had a couple people dispute squeezing being an issue in the comments. I've tasted some tannin-y beer from new homebrewers, but maybe it was just from a high water to grain steeping ratio. I'll have to squeeze the grain bag into a glass and have a taste the next time I brew an extract beer.
5. Using liquid yeast. "Pitchable" liquid yeast cultures barely have enough cells to ferment a standard gravity beer on the day they are packaged, and their cells die quickly from there. A high quality 11.5 g package of dried yeast starts with as much as twice the cells as a fresh package of yeast from either Wyeast or White Labs, and retains high cell viability for much longer. While Fermentis, for example, claims a minimum of 6 billion cells per gram at packaging, the actual number tends to be much higher. Liquid yeast can produce great beers, but require a starter unless you are getting extremely fresh yeast and brewing a low-alcohol beer.
6. Not aerating the wort adequately. It takes several minutes of shaking for the chilled wort to absorb the ideal amount of oxygen to allow the yeast to complete a healthy growth phase. The healthier your yeast cells are the cleaner and quicker they will complete the fermentation.
7. Pitching when the side of the pot or fermentor feels “cool enough.” Use a sanitized thermometer to check the actual temperature of the wort before you add the yeast. Pitching when the wort is above 100 F is rare, but will kill the yeast. Ideally the temperature should be at or below your target fermentation temperature to allow the temperature to rise as the yeast grows and ferments. You can pre-chill the sanitized water you use to top-off after the boil to help bring the temperature down.
8. Fermenting at too high of a temperature. Take note of the ambient temperature of the room the beer is fermenting in, but realize that at the peak of fermentation the yeast can raise the temperature of the beer by as much as 7 F. Fermenting too warm can cause the yeast to produce higher alcohols and excessive fruity flavors. Letting the ambient temperature rise towards the high end of the yeast's range as fermentation slows helps to ensure a clean well attenuated beer, but for most strains is unnecessary. If you are unable to control the fermentation temperature, then choose a yeast strain that fits the conditions.
9. Racking to secondary. I know the instructions included in most kits call for transferring the beer from the primary fermentor to a secondary before bottling, but all this step accomplishes is introducing more risk of oxidation and wild yeast contamination. There is no risk of off flavors from autolysis (yeast death) at the homebrew scale in less than a month. At a commercial level the pressure and heat exerted on the yeast can cause problems quickly, but those conditions do not exist in a carboy or bucket.
10. Relying on bubbles in the airlock to judge when fermentation is complete. Wait until fermentation has appeared finished for a couple of days before pulling a sample of wort to test the final gravity. There is no rush to bottle, and doing so before the final gravity is reached results in extra carbonation. Once fermentation is complete and the beer tastes good, you can move the fermentor somewhere cool to encourage the yeast to settle out for clearer beer in the bottle.
11. Adding the entire five ounce package of priming sugar. In almost all cases this amount of sugar will over-carbonate the beer. Even for five gallons of beer this will produce too much carbonation for most styles and most brewers will end up with less than five gallons in the bottling bucket. Instead use a priming sugar calculator to tailor the weight of sugar you add to the actual volume of beer, the style of beer you are brewing, and the fermentation temperature.
Hopefully this list is able to help a few new homebrewers avoid some of the biggest pitfalls on their first batch. If any of the more experienced brewers out there has any lessons learned that are not included on the list please post a comment. You should also pick up a good basic homebrewing book, like John Palmer’s How to Brew, especially if you want to learn more of the “why” behind some of my suggestions.
There are many other things I would suggest as best practices, but they tend to be more style specific and are not worth worrying about on your first batch. I also think fresh high quality ingredients are a big key to making good beer, but most people brewing their first batch are buying and using fresh malt, yeast, and hops.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
New camera arrived today, so it's time to start catching up on a massive backlog of tastings. It'll take me awhile to get used to using the camera (my first DSLR), but even with my unskilled hand it is certainly a big upgrade over the webcam I used for the last few posts.
I've been trying not to drink too much of my Half IPA to make sure I wouldn't kick the keg before I got a chance to write up tasting notes and take a few pictures. It is one of the better batches I've brewed recently, and one of my favorite sorts or beers to drink even though it is nearly impossible to find commercially. As for the "hop standing" technique, I don't notice a qualitative difference, but the beer does seem a bit more hop-saturated through each sip than some of my other hoppy beers.
Vienna Half IPA
Appearance – Slightly hazy orange colored body. The stark white two-finger white head sinks over a few minutes, but retains a sticky 1/8 inch covering. Thanks to the no-sparge and a darker base malt it is a much more attractive beer than my last, slightly grayish, micro-IPA.
Smell – Aroma is a wonderful mix of doughy malt, and fresh citrusy hops. The Vienna malt does a great job keeping up with the generous doses of Amarillo, Simcoe, and Columbus. I think the English yeast helps to boost the malt character as well, but also leads to a slightly more muted hop aroma than I expected.
Taste – Firm, smooth bitterness lingers just slightly, with a similar overall balance to a West Coast IPA. The hop complexity is terrific with the citrus (orange) and pine of the Simcoe and Amarillo and the dankness of the Columbus. It does lack the wonderful resiny character I tasted in my first glass of Alpine's Hoppy Birthday last week, probably thanks to their use of a hop back. The bready malt and fruity yeast are able to hold their own, but this beer is all about the hops.
Mouthfeel – Moderate-thin mouthfeel, could be just slightly weightier. Moderate-low carbonation. I have found that high carbonation is the easiest way to ruin a low gravity beer. High carbonation turns a light beer into seltzer.
Drinkability & Notes – This is my favorite sort of beer, big and bold flavor, but in a small easy to enjoy package. There isn’t much to change if I brewed it again, maybe a touch of flaked oats to boost the body?
Monday, February 13, 2012
Despite its rich brewing tradition, beers from England often seem to be overlooked with all of the frenzy surrounding Belgian and American breweries. Even German and Czech lagers seem to be regaining some cachet after the initial backlash against lagers. I think part of the problem is that some of England's best beer styles are low alcohol and best at their freshest (unlike many other beers that are shelf stable for at least a few months). Most of the American craft beer movement was built on English styles (adapted to American tastes and ingredients) IPAs, Brown Ales, Porters, and Imperial Stouts are all rooted in the British tradition. Maybe that is the problem, are we overly familiar with the flavors, always looking for what's next?
I have the same problem, while I love drinking a great mild or bitter when it is put in front of me, they aren’t the sort of beers that I tend to get really excited about. The ideal English session ale has a relatively simple flavor that doesn’t fatigue the palate (unlike my low-alcohol IPA). Brewers strive to use a light hand with assertive specialty malts and hops, letting the base malt and yeast strain play lead roles. I’m the sort of person who tends to order samples when I'm at a bar, and I almost never orders a second glass of the same beer (what’s next?).
However, there are some English breweries deviating from tradition and brewing really interesting beers. I think Thornbridge is producing some of the best beers of this young group. Jaipur IPA is crisp, minerally, and bright (on tap and the fresher the better), and unlike many other English "IPAs" it is not just a bitter. Thornbridge Bracia is an almost gruit-like imperial stout with peat smoked malt, chestnut honey, and licorice. I wish they were getting the sort of hype that BrewDog does because their beers are certainly better. Williams Brothers is also sending some interesting casks to America. I thoroughly enjoyed a glass of New Beginnings, which is a golden bitter lightly hopped with Amarillo Nelson Sauvin on cask.
To straddle the line between these two divergent English brewing identities, my friend Nate and I decided to employ a traditional English technique, parti-gyle mashing. I’ve mentioned it before, but parti-gyle simply refers to running off multiple beers from a single mash. In this case, the mash was composed of traditional enough ingredients: bready Maris Otter, light-coffee brown malt, slightly burnt chocolate malt, a variety of caramel toned crystal malts, and a healthy dose of chewy oats.
Chewy Brown Porters
Batch Size (Gal): 5.50
Total Grain (Lbs): 21.50
Big OG: 1.078
Small OG: 1.045
Big IBUs: 21.0
Small IBUs: 17.9
Brewhouse Efficiency: 83% (total)
Wort Boil Time: 105 minutes
69.8% - 15.00 lbs. Maris Otter
9.3% - 2.00 lbs. Brown Malt
9.3% - 2.00 lbs. Quick Oats
4.7% - 1.00 lbs. Crystal 80L
4.7% - 1.00 lbs. CaraMunich Malt
2.3% - 0.50 lbs. Chocolate Malt
Big: 1.25 oz. Styrian Goldings (Pellet, 5.00% AA) @ 75 min.
Small .75 oz Crystal (Whole, 6.00% AA) @ 60 min
.5 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 15 min.
.5 Whirlfloc @ 15 min.
White Labs WLP037 Yorkshire Square Ale
Profile: Washington DC
Sacch Rest I - 60 min @ 154 F
Sacch Rest II - 15 min @ 160 F
Brewed 1/28/12 with Nate
Quick oats from Whole Foods. Two kinds of brown malt, 1.5 lbs were the darker variety.
Filtered DC water, no adjustments.
7.25 gallons of first runnings @ 1.066
Sparged with 7 gallons of 170 F water, collected the same back @1.030
Took 3 qrts of the first runnings a put them into the second runnings, 2 qrts back the other way.
Boiled first runnings for 30 min, then added 1.25 oz of Styrian Golding pellets.
Small beer got .75 oz of Crystal @ 6% AA @ 60 min for ~18 IBUs.
Chilled both beers to ~67 F, strained, shook to aerate. Yeast cake from 3.5% Vienna IPA thing. 4 oz for the big half, 3 oz for the small half.
Good fermentation on both by 18 hours.
2/13/12 Moved downstairs ~55 F to help clear the beers before bottling.
2/18/12 Bottled the 4.5 gallons of smaller beer (1.009) with 3 1/8 oz of table sugar, and the 5 gallons of the big beer (1.015) with 3 1/2 oz of table sugar. Aiming for about 2.3 volumes of CO2 for both.
6/9/12 Despite the reasonable target carbonation target the beer quickly became over-carbonated, with both halves drying out a few more points after bottling. Not sure what caused it. Full tasting notes, pretty happy with how the beer turned out otherwise.
Monday, February 6, 2012
Having unique, high quality, content is the most important thing to focus on. This is easier to do if you write about something you have a passion for. Try to narrow your focus to find a niche or a niche within a niche that appeals to you. Be honest, don't try to cover up mistakes; posting flaws and accidents builds trust with the readers, if your batch sucks let people know so they can avoid the same mistakes. This is especially important with brewing because I often post a recipe before the beer is ready to sample. Don't try to sound like an expert on subjects where you are not, if you say something stupid in an authoritative way about one thing it undermines your credibility on other topics.
Almost as important as what you write about is how you write. It doesn't need to be perfect, but at least reread and spell check before you post. I find my results are best when I can wait a day or two between writing and editing. I usually draft in Microsoft Word, but had formatting issues when pasting from there into Blogger's Compose mode. I now work around the problem by pasting into the HTML mode and using Compose to format the post.
Try to build credibility in your chosen field. One of the biggest issues with blogs is that anyone can start one. You need to find ways to prove to readers that you are a trustworthy source of information: awards, endorsements, professional credentials, whatever. In my case appearing on podcasts, having a sour beer advance to the second round at NHC, and working with professional brewers all helped me build a level of respectability (I hope). It also feeds back on itself, the blog got me a gig writing articles for BYO Magazine, and that in turn raises the credibility of the blog (this year I'll be writing on spontaneous fermentation, dark lagers, designing recipes, and fermented foods for BYO).
You don't need to post every single day (especially if you don't have something interesting to say), but if someone comes back to the blog a few times in a row without seeing an update they may stop checking. For me it has really helped to set a schedule for posting. I try to have a big post every Monday (a recipe, technique, travel), and something small later in the week (like a tasting, or poll results). It can be discouraging to keep posting when no one seems to be visiting at first, but keeping it up is key.
Try to make your blog appear at least marginally unique, professional, and easy to navigate. Try to avoid a background that is too clunky or distracting. Use tags, text links, and static pages to draw people back to related posts. It is hard to get people to visit your blog for the first time, so try to get those who do to stick around. People love photos especially when we are reading about eating and drinking; you don't need a DSLR and a high end lens, but try to take clear pictures (with a cheap camera good lighting and a free image editing software like Gimp are your best friends).
Don't cram your site with intrusive ads, your main goal early on should be to build a readership, not make a few dollars. The pace this blog has grown at means that each year I get about as many visitors as I did for the entire history of the blog before that point (this January the blog topped 100,000 page views in a month for the first time). If you have a niche try to get targeted relevant ads, I never had good luck with Google AdWords (they seem better for a general site with hoards of visitors).
Put up an email address (although probably not your personal email) and respond to questions as quickly as you can. Same goes for answering comments on the blog. Interacting with people directly is a great way to build a more enthusiastic following. The number of people who have emailed me for advice, and subsequently sent me beer, microbes, or other stuff has been amazing. Direct interaction on Twitter and Facebook is gaining importance, although I have not seen the sort of traffic that some other sites report. Despite having only half as many Facebook "Likes" as Twitter Followers similar posts get more interaction and traffic from Facebook. Facebook uses an algorithm that give priority to posts they think you'll enjoy, while Twitter relies solely on chronology. Twitter has a huge number of users who post with great frequency so it can be difficult to reach people without being a frequent tweeter.
Posting on relevant forums and message boards is helpful as well, but don't solely post links to your blog (try to be part of the community). Social media aggregator sites like Reddit's r/Homebrewing and StumbleUpon have also sent a lot of new visitors my way, but the amount who who click a link and explore passed the linked page is pretty low (20% for StumbleUpon, and 30% for Reddit) compared to users who come through search (35%) or message boards (~40%). As much as all of these referrals are important they account for less than 30% of the traffic on my blog.
Optimize your posts to increase search traffic. The page's web address is a big factor in whether it is listed on the first page of the search engine's results. You have to strike a balance between eye catching to a human and full of key words for a computer (your website name is even more important). Speaking of website names, buy a "real" domain name rather than using the free .blogspot, it's just $10 a year through Google. Recently I became the proud owner of the address I originally wanted, MadFermentationist.com (a gift from a reader, it just links back to the blog, I don't think I'll go through the effort of moving the blog).
Adding html tags like a Meta Description, and Meta Keywords, can help (although from what I understand search engines no longer give them much weight). Similarly you can submit your site to DMOZ, but in my case I did this six months ago and it has not been listed in their directory of homebrewing sites yet. Add title and alt tags to your images to allow search engines to know what is in the picture to list it appropriately (you can hover your mouse over an image and see what they say). Recently I also added a little piece of code that makes search engines display the title of a post first rather than the blog name, making it clearer what the page is. Google Webmaster Tools allows you to remove any sitelinks (that display below your main link) that you feel are unnecessary, I've removed all of the Monthly archive pages for example.
Keep an eye on the traffic (I use Google Analytics), but don't get obsessed with the numbers of visitors. It is interesting to see who is linking to your site, consider linking back if it seems like a worthwhile site. Links drive traffic directly, but also are one of the major things search engines use to assign importance to a site. I have never emailed people requesting that they link to me, although I have reciprocated when people linking to me have asked (but only when I visit their site regularly). Try to post deeper links as well, not just to the homepage, but to a specific post that is relevant (having related words as the text of the link makes it even more valuable). Watch out for sites willing to pay for links, linking to them can cause search engines may to put you in a "bad neighborhood" which can hurt your site ranking.
Work on the technical stuff as much as you can, but time spent on the content is more valuable. When you do make changes view your blog from a couple different computers/browsers to make sure it displays properly on all of them. I've been lucky enough to have a couple people lend their eye for design and technical know how to help me improve the layout of the blog.
I hope at least a few people found that interesting. Any tips from other bloggers on things I missed?
Thursday, February 2, 2012
Fermentation Temp Control - 53%
Large Boil Kettle - 49%
Wort Chiller - 44%
Mash Tun - 37%
Outdoor Burner - 21%
Kegging System - 16%
Grain Mill - 14%
Oxygenation System - 8%
Stir Plate - 8%
Water Filtration - 5%
Wort Pump - 1%
Other - 0%
Beer Filter - 0%
(The vote was for brewer's top three choices, which is why they don't add up to 100%)
There are two main areas that a homebrewer can invest in to improve their beers: wort production gear, and equipment that improves fermentation. In my experience investments on the fermentation side is more important for brewing better beer, although it isn’t nearly as fun. Not many people get as excited about a constant fermentation temperature, or correct pitching rates, or ideal oxygen levels as they do about switching from extract to all-grain. However, I’d rather have a properly fermented extract beer no question over a poorly fermented all-grain batch.
I think the results give a pretty good path for a beginning homebrewer. I agree that gaining the ability to control your fermentation temperatures is the most important upgrade that any brewer can make. Not only does it enables complete dial in the temperature that suits a particular yeast strain but also provides the ability to lager and cold crash. Even if you don’t want to spend the money to have a dedicated refrigerator, a more hands on solution involving adding ice to a cooler or water batch can be a big help. Often overlooked, in cold climates having a method to raise the temperature of fermentation can be almost as important (especially for those of us whose basements are ~55 F at the moment). Either way it frees you from having the seasons dictate your brewing schedule.
I believe all-grain is the second most important investment a brewer can make, giving you a wider range of ingredients and a better ability to control the wort production. However, to take advantage of a mash tun you really need the ability to do full-boils (which requires a large boil kettle, and depending on your stove may also call for an outdoor burner) and cool all of that wort quickly (with a wort chiller). Don’t look at a full boil as an improvement that must be made simultaneously with going all-grain, a full boil and quick cool can really benefit the character of extract beers as well.
Much of the rest of the equipment on the list is really optional: a grain mill, oxygenation system, wort pump, kegging system, or beer filter can all improve your results, but mostly they are about saving time, effort, or money. I’ve been really happy with my newest investment, a stir plate and 2 L Erlenmeyer flask, for making starters (boil and cool directly in the flask, and the continuous stirring makes for a much denser yeast culture).
Out of all the results the only one that really surprised me was how low water filtration was; one of the most common off-flavors I taste at homebrewing club meetings is chlorophenols, usually the result of chlorinated brewing water. Given the relatively low cost of a carbon water filter, it might actually be the first suggestion I’d give to a new homebrewer. I’m not sure water filtration scored so low because it is under appreciated, or if it falls into the “optional” category since it only saves the time and money of buying chlorine free bottled water.
The longer I brew the more I am convinced that technique and process are far more important than recipe when it comes to making great beer. The ability some home and craft brewers have to make a range of delicious beers is more about how they brew than what they brew. Of course specific styles take distinct methods, and making a truly world class beer takes a higher level of recipe development, but that isn’t possible without solid fundamental wort production, fermentation, and packaging technique.
As always, I’m interested to hear what the five people who picked “Other” wanted to see? Conical fermentor? Hop back? Randall?