Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cherry Buckwheat Sour Ale Tasting

A wine glass of sour beer brewed with buckwheat and flavored with pie cherries.
Here is a tasting of just one of those fun small-batch projects I have sitting around my basement waiting for me to post notes. This batch started life as an experimental buckwheat amber, soured with Jolly Pumpkin dregs and aged on rum-soaked American oak. On a big blending/bottling day I racked a gallon of the batch onto frozen/defrosted sour cherries where it sat for a couple months. Nothing too crazy, I say with a straight face.

Buckwheat Sour Cherry Amber

Appearance – Pigeon blood ruby. It is darker than many cherry beers, but brilliantly clear. Stunning really. The head retention is mediocre at best, sinking to a white wispy covering after a few minutes.

Smell – Prominent fresh cherries with a hint of basement mustiness. Some bread, and as it warms, sweet-vanilla from the oak. The nose is sweeter than I expected.

Taste – It possesses a nice mix of fruit and funk and a pleasant acidity. Not as sharp as many of my sours, both in terms of less acid and slightly more residual sweetness. Lingering fresh pie cherries into the finish. Not a super-complex sour beer, but the flavor is very pleasant.

Mouthfeel – Lightly tannic, not overly thin. Medium-low carbonation. Not sure if the buckwheat helped with the body or not, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

Drinkability & Notes – This is a solid sour-cherry amber. I really like the vanillin-rich American oak with the cherries. No off flavors, but the Brett/fermentation doesn’t shine either. This should age well, sadly with the small batch size I’m down to my last bottle.

Monday, February 25, 2013

American IPA - Hop Bills and Analysis

Over the last few years I’ve slowly been building a list of the hop varieties added to some of my favorite IPAs and Double IPAs. The list was stuck at the bottom of one of my favorite IPA recipes, but it has grown to the point where I think it deserves its own post.

The information for the list below came from a wide variety of sources. Many breweries post their hop bills on their websites, in other cases books, magazine articles, and podcasts have provided recipes or ingredients directly from a brewery. I’ve also gotten some good information in the form of emails from breweries that other homebrewers have posted to forums. However, while I trusted that all of the information below was accurate at the time, hop choices often change with supply, demand, and taste. Just because a brewery used a certain hops in their beer before, doesn’t mean they still do today.

Below the section listing the hops in each beer, I have tallied the number of beers that contain each hop. Out of 192 total hop choices made (4.27 hop varieties per beer on average), 133 (69.3%) of those were for just seven varieties (Centennial, Simcoe, CTZ, Cascade, Amarillo, Chinook, and Citra). The most popular hop, Centennial, was featured in 60% of the recipes! Only two of the 45 beers don't include at least one of these top seven varieties (i.e., Alpine Nelson, and Hill Farmstead Galaxy) - DC Brau On the Wings of Armageddon is brewed with the Falconer's Flight hop blend which I'm sure contains at least one of those top seven varieties.

The main takeaway for me was the wide variety of hop combinations that can make terrific beers. I find it amazing that none of the 45 beers below share the exact same combination of hops! Although considering that even just taking those top 7 varieties, and assuming you can brew a beer with between 1-4 varieties, there are 1,099 possible combinations; that doesn't even include the differences between using the same varieties at different points in the process or in different ratios! Often it is the hopping technique, and quality of the hops that really deserves the credit for producing a great IPA rahter than the specific combination.

I'll keep updating this list. Happy to take any suggestions, but my goal is to only add what I think are great beers. I don’t want this to be a list of the hops in every IPA!

Alpine Duet - Simcoe and Amarillo

Alpine Hoppy Birthday - Pacific Jade, Centennial, Amarillo, Columbus, Nelson Sauvin, Citra, and Simcoe.

Alpine Nelson - Nelson Sauvin and Southern Cross

Alpine Pure Hoppiness - Hallertau, Hersbrucker, Tomahawk, Cascade and Centennial

Avery Maharaja - Columbus, Centennial, and Simcoe

Ballast Point Sculpin - Mash hops: Simcoe, Boil: CTZ, Chinook, Cascade, Northern Brewer, Centennial, Galena, Amarillo, Dry Hop: Amarillo and Simcoe. For a 5 gallon batch dry hop with about 3 oz of each.

Bear Republic Racer 5 - Chinook, Cascade, Columbus, and Centennial

Bell's Hopslam - (2007) Hersbrucker, Centennial, Glacier, Vanguard, and Crystal in the kettle, and then dry hopped with Simcoe. In 2009 there is a mention of Amarillo in addition to Simcoe in the dry hop.

Bell's Two Hearted - Centennial

Boulevard Double Wide - Zeus, Bravo, Chinook, Centennial, Cascade

Brew Kettle White Rajah - Citra, Centennial, and Summit

Captain Lawrence Captain's Reserve - Columbus, Chinook, and Cascade (a commenter below suggest that Simcoe is added as well)

Cigar City Jai Alai - Kettle hops: Ahtanum, Columbus, Cascade, Amarillo, and Centennial. Dry hopped with Simcoe.

Coast The Boy King - Citra, Chinook, Nugget, Cascade, Centennial and Columbus.

DC Brau On the Wings of Armageddon - Falconer's Flight (blend)

Fat Head's Head Hunter -  Simcoe, Columbus, and Cascade

Firestone Walker Double Jack - Bittering: Warrior, Columbus; Late Kettle: Cascade, and Centennial;
Dry Hops: Amarillo, Cascade, and Centennial

Firestone Walker Union Jack - Bittering: Magnum; Late Kettle: Cascade, Centennial; Dry Hops: Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Chinook, and Simcoe

Flying Fish Exit 16 - Firdst wort: Citra, Boil: Columbus, 5 min: Centennial: 3 min: Simcoe. Whirlpool: Citra. First Dry Hop: 50% Chinook, 50% Citra, Second Dry Hop: 75% Citra, 25% Columbus

Great Lakes Commodore Perry - Simcoe, Willamette, and Cascade

Green Flash Le Freak - Kettle: Summit and Nugget. Amarillo dry hop during fermentation

Green Flash West Coast IPA - Simcoe, Columbus, Centennial, and Cascade

Hill Farmstead Abner - Centennial, Chinook, Columbus, Simcoe, and Warrior (prev. Chinook, Citra, Columbus, Simcoe, and Warrior)

Hill Farmstead Ephraim - Centennial, Chinook, Columbus, Simcoe, and Warrior

Hill Farmstead Double Galaxy - Galaxy

Hill Farmstead Susan - Citra, Simcoe, and Riwaka

Ithaca Flower Power - Kettle: Simcoe, Cascade, Ahtanum, and Centennial. Dry-Hop: Simcoe, Amarillo, and Chinook

Kern River Citra Double IPA - Nugget to bitter, Citra in the kettle, and Citra and Amarillo dry hop

Lagunitas Sucks - Chinook, Simcoe, Apollo, Summit, Nugget, and HBC342

Port Hop 15 - Kettle: Challenger, Golding, Chinook, Tettnang, Magnum, Phoenix, Sterling, Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe, Columbus, Galena, Amarillo, Saaz, and Aurora. Dry hop: Simcoe and Centennial.

Russian River Pliny the Elder - Kettle hop extract, Simcoe, Columbus, Centennial, and Amarillo.  Dry Hop Simcoe, Columbus, Centennial, and Amarillo.

Russian River Pliny the Younger - Bittered with extract, Amarillo extract mid-boil, Amarillo and Simcoe (plus others?) in the boil.
Dry Hop Schedule
DH 1 Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial for one week and remove
DH 2 Amarillo, Centennial for one week and remove
DH 3 Simcoe for one week and remove
DH 4 Simcoe, Amarillo Dry Hop in Keg

Smuttynose Big A IPA - 2008: Nugget, Cascade, Centennial, Crystal, Chinook, Sterling.

Smuttynose "Finestkind" - Bittering: Magnum; Flavoring: Simcoe, Centennial, Santiam; Dry hops:  Amarillo

Societe The Pupil - Nelson Sauvin and Citra

Southern Tier Unearthly IPA - Kettle Hops: Chinook and Cascade, Hop Back: Styrian Golding, Dry Hopped: Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook

Stone 10th Anniversary - Bittering: Summit. Whirlpool: Chinook and Crystal. Dry hop: Simcoe and Crystal.

Stone IPA - Chinook, Columbus, and Centennial

Stone Ruination - Bittering: Columbus. Whirlpool: Centennial. Dry hop: Centennial

Surly 16 Grit/Abrasive - Warrior, Citra (Previously CTZ bittering extract, Amarillo, and Columbus. Before that, kettle hopped with CTZ extract, Amarillo and Glacier hops. Twice dry-hopped with Glacier and Amarillo).

Surly Furious - Warrior, Ahtanum, Simcoe, and Amarillo

Tröegs Nugget Nectar - Nugget, Warrior, Tomahawk, Simcoe, Palisade. Hop back: Nugget

Three Floyds Dreadnaught - Warrior, Simcoe, Centennial, and Cascade

Three Floyds Zombie Dust - Citra

Town Hall Masala Mama - Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, and Mt. Hood

Count of the hops used:
Centennial 27
Simcoe 24
CTZ (Columbus, Tomhawk, or Zeus) 20
Cascade 19
Amarillo 16
Chinook 16
Citra 11
Warrior 7
Nugget 6
Summit 4
Ahtanum 3
Crystal 3
Magnum 3
Nelson Sauvin 3
Hersbrucker 2
Sterling 2
Galena 2
Hop Extract 2 (probably more)
1 each (Falconer Flight, Mt Hood, Tettnang, Styrian Golding, Northern Brewer, Willamette, Pacific Jade, Santiam, Southern Cross, Hallertau, Glacier, Bravo, Vanguard, Galaxy, HBC342, Apollo, Challenger, Golding, Tettnang, Phoenix, Saaz, Aurora, Palisade, and Riwaka)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Black House #3 - Coffee Oatmeal Stout Tasting

Many great coffee stouts are flavored with beans from local roasters; when it comes to fresh coffee flavor, the beans are at their peak within a day or two of roasting. When Modern Times brews Black House we’ll need 20-25 lbs of coffee beans for each 30 bbl batch. That’s too much to just show up and expect to buy on the spot, it would necessitate coordinating that enough of the variety/roast we wanted was produced a few days before we need it. Roasters also don’t usually work in beer-sanitary conditions, with a cold infusion that means added risk. While the beans are heated enough during roasting to kill any microbes on them, during cooling and packaging beer-spoilage organisms could be introduced.

Luckily for us, none of that will be an issue. A few weeks ago, Jacob invested in a small coffee roasting machine that we’ll be using at the brewery! That way we’ll be able to buy green coffee bean (which store well) in bulk, and roast on demand. It will also allow us to really figure out exactly what sort of coffee melds with the the grains of the recipe.

For a beer we were pretty happy with previously, we had a couple pretty radical alteration this time around. As the brewery will have a silo of American/Canadian pale malt, the Maris Otter used in the first two batches would mean a large outlay in both labor and cost. We'll also be fermenting our two year round hoppy beers with American ale yeast, so using an English yeast for this beer would mean having three house strains, a logistical hassle. I assumed that in such a complex beer with specialty malts and coffee, these two changes would go unnoticed, but it is surprising the impact the base malt and yeast switches had.

Mason Jar of Coffee Oatmeal Stout.Black House #3

Appearance – Solidly black body at first, but by the time I near the end of the glass it appears a perfectly clear brown. The head pours thick/dense/mocha, slowly sinking to a patchy covering.

Smell – Big fresh coffee grounds in the nose. Toasted bread, slight plum/prune, with a hint of smoke. Not as complex as I’d like, the roast lacks the depth of the last iteration.

Taste – Many similarities to the nose, lots of coffee and some fruit. Moderate sweetness, but the solid bitterness from roast and hops prevents it from tasting like a Starbucks Frappa-whatever. Missing the cocoa notes that the last batch displayed.

Mouthfeel – Milkshake body, rich and coating. Moderate carbonation, could even be slightly lower. Perfect for wintertime drinking, but at 1.025 it might be too thick for a year-round beer.

Drinkability & Notes – It lost a step with the conversion from English base malt and yeast to American, but I still really enjoy it. Jacob and Alex are brewing three iterations of this beer tomorrow. One will be essentially this recipe with some Munich subbed in for a portion of the pale and C60 for the CaraMunich (to replace the Melanoidins and reduce the fruitiness), the second will play with the roasted malts (swapping the chocolate out for pale chocolate and debittered black) and adding biscuit, and the third will be a bit of a combination of the other two with a few twists. Looking forward to trying all of them!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Lomaland - Saison Test Batch #2

Saison wort coming to a boil in a keggle.When I tell people that Modern Times will be canning our four year-round beers, the one they invariably get most excited about is Lomaland. The availability of a reasonably priced, ~5% ABV saison in that format is really appealing. 16 oz seems like the ideal serving size for a refreshing beer with peppery yeast, and firm complementary hopping. We're going for a crisp beer, one that calls back to the half-imagined pastoral history of saison as a quenching restorative beverage brewed on Belgian farms (even if our methods and equipment are a bit more modern).

This recipe is pretty similar to the first version. Tastings determined that the flaked spelt added to the original wasn't worth the added effort and expense of obtaining it for us, so we swapped it for flaked wheat. We also doubled the corn to make it's flavor a more prominent feature.

Neither the White Labs Saison 2 nor Saison 3 that we split the first batch between was a slam-dunk choice for yeast. I preferred the Saison 3, while Jacob and several tasting panels (sign up for the newsletter to get in on one) leaned towards the Saison 2. For this batch we selected Wyeast 3711 French Saison. It's a very easy strain to work with, fermenting quickly and completely even without pushing the temperature toward 90 F. It produces a higher level of tropical fruit esters than most other saison strains, but it does really well with hops and spices. Jacob and members of the brewing team recently brewed a test-batch of their own, using a variety of yeast strains. Jacob will be bringing a number of bottles when he visits DC for the Craft Brewers Conference in March for us to compare.

Refractometer on a sunny day.Currently on BeerAdvocate, out of the top-50 rated saisons, only three are under 6% ABV (i.e., Upright Flora Rustica, Tired Hands HandFarm, and Hill Farmstead Flora). Stiff competition to say the least! The latter two are barrel-aged and mixed-fermented, putting them out of the range of what we'll be able to do for the standard version of this beer. They are special variants of Farmhands and Florence respectively, we're already talking about getting Lomaland into barrels with bugs as soon as possible. Upright's Flora Rustica was infused with yarrow and calendula; spices/herbs would be much easier for us to accomplish on a large scale.

I'll be producing a number of infusions to mix on a small scale with the finished beer to begin felling-out which flavors might add to the character without obscuring the yeast. Currently we're planning on trying chamomile, pepper/ginger, rooibos, and a few others. With the fruitiness of the yeast, I think peppery/earthy flavors will be more valuable. If you have any suggestions please leave a comment! Half of the batch will be aged with a few unique species of Brettanomyces, but more on that in a future post.

Lomaland #2

Spent grain: barley, corn and wheat.
Recipe Specifics
-----------------
Batch Size (Gal): 10.00
Total Grain (Lbs): 18.00
Anticipated OG: 1.045
Anticipated SRM: 4.4
Anticipated IBU: 31.5
Brewhouse Efficiency: 69 %
Wort Boil Time: 95 Minutes

Grain
------
58.3% - 10.50 lbs. German Pilsener
19.4% - 3.50 lbs. CMC Superior 2-Row
16.7% - 3.00 lbs. Flaked Wheat
5.6% - 1.00 lbs. Flaked Corn (Maize)

Hops
------
3.50 oz. Hallertau Hersbrucker (Pellet, 3.00% AA) @ 60 min.
2.00 oz. Czech Saaz (Pellet, 3.50% AA) @ 15 min.
2.00 oz. Czech Saaz (Pellet, 3.50% AA) @ 2 min.
2.00 oz. Czech Saaz (Pellet, 3.50% AA) @ 0 min.

Extras
-------
1.00 Whirlfloc @ 5 min.
1.00 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 5 min.

Yeast
------
WYeast 3711 French Saison

Water Profile
-------------
Profile: San Diego

Mash Schedule
----------------
Sacch Rest 75 min @ 149 F

Notes
------
1/31/13 Made a 1.75 L starter with a pack that had slightly frozen on the way to my house. Started right up quickly on the stir-plate.

2/3/13 Brewed by myself

7.5 gallons of mash water treated as if San Diego with .4 g/gallon of CaCl.

With DC this means .8 g gypsum, 2.4 g kosher salt, 2.4 g Epsom salt, 2.2 g CaCl, and 1 g baking soda.

Similar treatment for the sparge water, which was heated to 182 F.

Added the last dose of hops and let them sit for 10 minutes before starting the chiller.

Chilled to 75 F, adding 1 gallon of distilled water to raise the volume and drop the gravity. Racked 5.25 clean gallons to a bucket for the clean half. The rest ~4.5 gallons along with some hops were transferred to a 6 gallon BetterBottle (will receive Brett eventually).

Shook to aerate, pitched 1 L of the starter into the bucket, and the rest into the BetterBottle. Left at 64 F to ferment for 18 hours. Then placed near a radiator, the bucket also got a heating pad set to low.

36 hours after pitching, measured the actual temperature in the bucket at 76F.

2/11/13 Turned the heating pad off, fermentation appears finished.

2/16/13 Down to 1.006. Nice fruity yeast character, solid hops.

2/17/13 Racked half to a keg with 2.5 oz of table sugar to carbonate. The bucket had slightly too much beer for the keg, so I topped off the BetterBottle with the remainder.

2/28/13 Bottled the remaining 4.5 gallons with 3 3/8 oz of table sugar. Aiming for a safe 2.5 volumes of CO2. Left some plain, but the rest was dosed in bottles with a small amount of B. custerianus, B. nanus, and B. naardenensis.

4/18/13 Tasting of the kegged/clean half. Nice expression of saison yeast character without being too fruity. Clean, bright, and refreshing.

9/25/13 Tasting notes for the B. custerianus portion. Terrific aroma, loads of fruit and pepper, but the flavors clash. I preferred the beer fermented with the same strain alone.

9/30/13 Tasting notes for the B. naardenensis portion. Makes the saison yeast saison-ier, spicier, fruitier, more interesting.

10/9/13 Tasting notes for the B. nanus portion. Not too aggressive, some fruitiness and light funk. Interested to see if the funk continues to increase with time.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Blazing World #3 - Tasting

Blazing World #3, India Amber Ale with Nelson Sauvin, Palisade, and Simcoe.
The recipe for Blazing World, Modern Times’ amber IPA, has stood out as a unique challenge. All three of the batches have been pretty good, but none has yet achieved that magical combination of dank hop aromatics that we set out to create. Every batch has lead with Nelson Sauvin, and included some Simcoe backing, but varied the hop in the middle. We started with citrusy Ahtanum, moved to surprisingly fruity Columbus, and now to Palisades for this third batch. For the Love of Hops suggests Palisades as a good compliment to “special” hop varieties, like Simcoe and Nelson, but we selected this lesser-hyped American variety for its unique floral-dank aromatics.

Blazing World #3

Appearance – Very clear amber-orange. It might be slightly paler that the second iteration (resulting from the switch from a Vienna to a pale/Munich base, and dropping the C120). Slight haze, but pretty clear for a dry hopped beer. It has beautiful head retention and lacing, a sticky white head.

Smell – This version really pushes that signature Nelson Sauvin melon-dank aroma. Abounds with similarities to what Alpine achieves with Nelson Sauvin and Southern Cross in their Nelson (one of the beers that inspired us originally). Maybe because the pellets did much better loose than the whole Simcoe and Palisade compared to previous batches when all of the hops were bagged and weighted. Not much else other than hop coming through, clean fermentation for all I can tell.

Taste – The flavor is more balanced than the nose. Still a prominent hop character (mango, pine, and that classic Nelson stank) but also mild toasted bread crust. After the resiny-bitter finish there is just a hint of coffee from the pale chocolate malt. Drier than previous batches, but that really brings it inline with the West Coast IPA balance.

Mouthfeel – Moderate body, heftier than many IPAs, but certainly not thick. Carbonation is slightly prickly, which is about right for this one.

Drinkability & Notes – The bitterness is close to spot-on for my tastes, but I could see dialing it back slightly to make it more drinkable. I’m pretty happy with this batch, it is the closest to our original goal of a dank amber IPA, but it isn’t quite there. I’d like to see it leap out of the glass a bit more, which is hopefully where Mosaic we plan to use in the next batch will come in handy.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Has commercial beer been becoming better or worse?

Cases of beer in my basement.
Better - 62%
Worse - 20%
About the same - 17%
(591 votes)

Obviously it is hard to generalize when there are so many breweries, and the selection of beers at the average liquor store or bar has been growing steadily. There are hundreds of new breweries, many of which are being experimental with their recipes and ingredients, while the senior craft brewers have become more established with money to devote to quality control.

Sometimes it seems like brewers aren’t making beer that is quite as good as it was when I started paying attention to craft beer (~2004). I suspect much of that is that feeling is that in the nine years since I’ve sampled so many hyped beers and those from well established brewers, that I usually find myself buying new releases from smaller breweries that may not have their process completely dialed in. Probably not the smartest thing, but I never turn down buying the first beer I see from a new local brewery. Although conversely, I almost never buy a beer from a new brewery on the West Coast (if I haven’t heard of you and you’re already shipping beer 3,000+ miles, there is something wrong).

You’d expect a brewery that stays in business brewing the same beer to do a better job of it as time goes on. Repetition allows brewers to dial in their equipment, process, ingredients to make the beer more delicious when fresh, more consistent, and more shelf stable. Although it seems that some breweries expands too quickly without gaining a hold of their process. Other times the care/process/ingredients that worked originally aren’t feasible on a larger scale.

Even if a brewery is brewing a beer that tastes exactly the same as it did eight years ago, my taste buds have changed. The additional years of drinking and brewing have honed my palate to recognize off-flavor that I was blissfully unaware of before. It could also be that what was a new and exciting flavor/aroma for my young palate has been topped again and again by the beers in the intervening years.

These are small issues compared to the amazing growth of breweries making fantastic beers. There are now dozens of breweries all over the country that are making terrific examples of pretty much every style imaginable, and yet there are always breweries coming up with stunning new flavor combinations. This is thanks to a supply chain that is increasingly catering to craft brewers, brewers pushing their craft, beer-rating websites raising the profiles of excellent breweries, and consumers voting with their money. Hopefully beer quality keeps improving, and we see brewers taking those amazing ideas and turning them into delicious realities.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dark Zante Currant Saison Tasting

12 oz of Zante Dark Currant Saison in a ~30 oz glass.With the second test batch for Modern Times Lomaland saison bubbling away next to a radiator and on a heating pad (it is similar to the first batch, but with wheat in place of spelt and fermenting with WY3711), I wanted to post a tasting of a dark saison I brewed around the same time I began working with the brewery. Brewed fall 2011, this is the fourth in the series of dark saisons my friend Alex and I have brewed. This is the darkest thus far, with cold steeped roasted barley added to the boil. Fermentation was a mixture of saison yeast and several Brett strains (including some White Labs American Farmhouse sent to me by Brandon who writes the always fascinating Embrace the Funk blog); the beer was aged on dried Zante currants and an oak stave that had previously soaked in a red wine barrel.

Dark Funky Saison IV

Appearance – Dark brown with amber-ruby highlights when held to the light. Head retention is dreadful, the thin mocha head fizzing out almost completely in less than a minute.

Smell – Lots of dank Brett funk. Raisin (probably the currants) is the lead fruit, but there is a red wine as well. I'd initially worried that I'd pulled the beer off the fruit too early (to avoid over-oaking), but the currant is at about the right level. As it warms, vanilla from the oak becomes apparent, as does some toasty malt.

Taste – Similar to the nose, with damp leaves, port, cherries, but also a subtle light-roast coffee dark malt flavor. Cold steeping the dark malt successfully prevented them from adding a harsh or acrid character. This is a dry beer, but not overly so, it is after all saison-inspired. The only issue is that all of this complexity covers up the simple peppery flavors of the primary fermentation. Lightly tart, minimal bitterness, slight warming alcohol.

Mouthfeel – Thin, but not watery. Solid carbonation, lower than many spritzy saisons, but I tend to like dark beers a bit under-carbonated compared to pale beers. Somewhat tannic from the oak, but it isn’t obnoxious.

Drinkability & Notes – Really happy with the way this batch turned out. Rich flavors in a drinkable package. The right saison for a winter evening, like the other version I’ll be enjoying this one for years to come!

Monday, February 4, 2013

CaraMunich isn't Caramelized Munich, and 9 Other Homebrewing Myths Debunked

CaraMunich and Munich malts, close up.Homebrewing has a host of hotly debated topics when it comes to how to brew: hot-side aeration, dry yeast rehydration, aluminum pots, the need to rack to secondary etc. I’m not touching those with this post. What I want to highlight is 10 things I’ve heard repeated over-and-over again, that annoy me because they either aren't true or don't match my experience. While the internet deserves credit as a great resource to homebrewers, it has also lead to ideas and “facts” being repeated by people who assume they are true "because someone on a message board said so."

1. CaraMunich is made by caramelizing Munich malt.
I've heard a couple people say that CaraVienna or CaraMunich are very different from standard caramel/crystal malts (e.g., Crystal 60) because they are made from Vienna and Munich malt, rather than pale malt. In fact, all of these malts start as green malt (barley that has been soaked and sprouted, but not yet dried). The Weyermann FAQ says: "Caramel malts are produced from green malt (directly after germination) in special designed roasting drums." CaraVienna® and CaraMunich® are simply the copyrighted names for Weyermann’s medium-light and medium-dark caramelized malts. I like them, but find them to be mostly similar to other caramel/crystal malts, although there are certainly subtle flavor differences maltster-to-maltster.

My current stash of Citra hops.2. Citra tastes pretty much the same as every other “C” hop.
Citra hops contain higher concentrations of two essential oils (geraniol and linalool) than hops like Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook. Yeast activity converts geraniol into citronellol, which along with linalool is a key component of the characteristic flavor that Citra imparts. Leaving the chemistry behind, Citra produces a different aromatic quality with more tropical/melon notes compared to the classic orange/grapefruit flavor of most Pacific Northwest varieties. Stan Hieronymus talks a great deal about hop chemistry  and the creation of new varieties by breeders in his new book For the Love of Hops, interesting stuff.

3. Entering homebrew contests is the best way for new brewers to get feedback on their beers.
Homebrew judges’ primary role is to pick the best beers, feedback is secondary. Judges have to work relatively quickly, describing what they see, taste, feel, and smell within only a few minutes. Beers are often too cold, drank out of small plastic cups, and consumed in a setting not conducive to enjoyment. If flaws are detected it is nearly impossible to give constructive feedback, because the judge doen’t know anything about your recipe or process. If you want constructive feedback, share your beer with a BJCP judge or experienced brewer at a homebrew club meeting. That way you can talk about your process and what you might want to tweak.

On the other hand, competitions are a great place to get blind feedback on what you think are excellent beers. Tasting multiple beers of the same style next to each other allows judges to really tease out the subtle differences in a way impossible at a homebrew club meeting where you might sample 15 beers of 15 different styles.

4. Craft brewers do (insert technique) or use (insert equipment) so homebrewers should aspire to as well.
Many choices are made for commercial production that aren’t worth the effort for homebrewers. The huge volumes and immense pressures of commercial fermentors necessitate different techniques. For example the heat generated by the huge amount of spent yeast in the cone of a cylindro-conical fermentor can cause autolysis in a couple days. The thin layer of yeast at the bottom of a carboy or bucket allows the yeast to live longer, delaying the contribution of off-flavors by weeks or even months, depending on the strain/temperature. Higher pressure also suppresses ester production, so a craft brewer will often get a cleaner fermentation at a higher temperature than a homebrewer. The same goes for equipment, just because breweries use sparge arms, conical fermentors, steam boilers etc. doesn't mean these are the ideal choice for a smaller scale brewer (even if cost weren't a constraint).

5. I can’t taste a difference from (insert process), so no one should bother with it.
The sensitivity of the human tongue and nose to different compounds can be wildly variable. Studies have found that large numbers of people can’t sense diacetyl, for example. Just because you can’t taste the difference between two ingredients or processes doesn’t mean that no one can. What is valuable is learning for yourself what compounds you are or aren’t sensitive to. That way you’ll know what is worth the effort and what isn’t, and what you’ll need to work on even though it doesn’t bother you. Want to know if decoctions are worth it? Brew the same recipe with and without one and see which you prefer. I know many people don't think decoctions are worthwhile, but Jason Oliver (Devil's Backbone - 8 medals at the 2012 GABF) gave Nathan and I this quote for the Jan-Feb BYO article we wrote about dark lagers "Also, if you tell me that specialty malts can create the same flavors [as a decoction], please give me the formula." With that said, I'm sure there are cases where brewers are wasting time/money on things that almost no one can taste, that's where a large double-blind study would come in handy.

6. Kegging is a huge timesaver over bottling.
I really enjoy kegging. I think it's especially valuable for beers I want to serve quickly, and the ability to flush with CO2 keeps my hoppy beers fresher longer. The ability to control and adjust the carbonation as you drink. However, one advantage kegging doesn’t have is saving much time compared to bottling. While it allows you to spread out the tasks over several days, the total time spent is similar. Sure kegging feels fast when you sanitize a keg, rack a beer into it, snap the lid on, and hook it up to the tank, but you had to clean that keg after it kicked, disassemble the tap/lines for cleaning and sanitation, run to the store to fill your tank with CO2, clean your kegerator etc. I’m not saying it isn’t worthwhile, I’m just saying time savings isn’t one of the primary advantages.

HopRocket as hop-back in action.
7. How hop-backs work.
I've read a huge number of posts by people looking to use a hop-back in ways that negates its benefits. For example, pumping wort through the hop-back and returning it to the kettle, or using it on the wort after chilling. I'm not suggesting that these are completely ineffective ways to add hop character, but they will not accomplish the same thing as a hop-back where the hot wort passes through the hops on its way to the in-line chiller, and then the fermentor (as I did with my third batch of Fortunate Islands). The correct configuration allows the heat to extract essential oils from the hops, and the chiller drops the temperature before they are destroyed or driven off.

8. Brettanomyces makes beers sour.
Too many people think that because a beer is fermented with Brett, it will be sour. Brettanomyces (a yeast) produces hugely aromatic esters and phenols, but very little acidity. In a sour beer it is bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus that are responsible for producing the lactic acid. When exposed to oxygen, Brettanomyces can produce a small amount of acetic acid, but in a vinegary beer it is usually Acetobacter doing the heavy lifting. As a result, 100% Brett beers are usually no more sour than a beer fermented with brewer's yeast. I suspect much of the issue is beer nerds who don't brew, writing negative reviews of 100% Brett beers for being too clean, but I've heard similar complaint from some homebrewers who have entered their 100% Brett beers in BJCP competitions!

9. Sugar should be included in recipes as a percentage by weight of the grain bill.
The percentage of sugar (table, candi, brown, maple etc.) added to a recipe by weight is a relatively meaningless indication of its contribution. For example, let’s think about a Belgian tripel with 20% beet/table sugar by weight. Is that a good amount? If I get 85% efficiency from my mash of Pilsner malt, the sugar works out to 26.5% of the fermentables. If the mash ended up with only 60% efficiency on the other hand, we’d be getting 33.6% of our fermentables from the sugar. Dealing with sugar as a percentage of the fermentables, rather than weight, is the best way to think about the amount you should be adding.

10. Boiling wort for a long time caramelizes it.
The temperature (~213 F at sea level) experienced by the wort during a standard boil isn’t hot enough to significantly caramelize the sugars; of the common sugars, fructose has the coolest caramelization temperature at 230 F. On the other hand, the temperature of the boil is hot enough for Maillard reactions, which result from the reaction of sugars and amino acids and produce similar results to caramelization (darker color and complex flavors). Still, the flavor contribution from adding 30 minutes to a boil are generally rather slight. German hefe-weizens are often boiled close to two hours, lambic/gueuze closer to four, and neither is thought of as especially richly malty. Boiling the first runnings to syrup, or a concentrated boil accelerate the Maillard reactions considerably. As I suggested above, try it for yourself to see if it is worth the extra fuel/time.

Those are the 10 myths that came to me during the last week of thinking about this post. Happy to hear any additions that anyone else has in the comments!

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