Saturday, January 31, 2009

State of the Blog 2009

Well my second year as a blogger is in the books. The stats for the year are below, with the numbers from my first year in parenthesis for comparison.

Posts: 84 (80)
Posts about beer 53 (53)

Total Visits: 39,861 - 109/day (11,712 - 32/day)
108 was the highest single traffic day for the blog in its first year, to have that my average for the second year beat that is pretty excellent. The numbers are still climbing thanks to all of you who have posted links and told your friends about the blog. This January I already have nearly 5,000 hits, that is almost double what I had in the lowest month (July), when Google decided to rank me below an aggregator feed of my own site.

Page Views: 71,630 (22,435)
Unique Visitors: 21,219 (6,110)

Direct Traffic: 9,042 (2,908)
Search Engines: 16,030 (3,373) - The biggest percentage gain by far.
Referring sites: 14,779 (5,431)

Top Referring Sites:
1st Northern Brewer (1st)
2nd Beer Advocate (2nd)
3rd Basic Brewing Radio (3rd)

People from 109 (68) countries visited.
1st USA (1st)
2nd Canada (2nd)
3rd UK (4th)
4th Australia (3rd)
5th Denmark (7th)
6th Sweden (6th)
7th New Zealand (5th)
8th Italy (17th)
9th Norway (8th)
10th Germany (13th)

What is with Italy a nation of wine drinkers beating out the beer loving Germans? Could it be the cheese and bread posts? Or is the Italian craft beer revolution I keep hearing about finally taking hold?

About 82% (85%) of the visitors were from America.
1st California (1st)
2nd Pennsylvania (3rd)
3rd New York (6th)
4th Illinois (7th)
5th Virginia (4th)
6th Texas (13th)
7th Massachusetts (10th)
8th Minnesota (5th)
9th DC (2nd) - I guess I'm not reading my own posts as much as I used to.
10th Washington (12th)

It is not surprising that a lot of those states have strong craft brewing and homebrewing scenes (and big populations). In case you were wondering I got the fewest hits from Wyoming (14).

In the browser wars Internet Explorer lost ground this year 36% (40%), and Firefox stayed in the same place at 49%.

Operating System:
76% Windows (79%)
19% Mac (17%)
4% Linux (5%)
.5% iPhone (.05%)

Besides the main page, the most viewed articles have gone to the Beer label, my no-knead sourdough recipe (thanks to a link on the Bread Feed), and my Berliner Weiss recipe.

In July I signed up for Feedburner to track the number of people who subscribe to my feed. It has grown from 100 at the time to more than 250 today. The total number of feed views was 65,441 (a good deal of that comes from the Beerinator beer blog aggregator).

Things on tap for this year:
Thursday book reviews
Big Funky Ale (Just bottled)
Lambic Mrk 2 and Pluot Flanders Pale (Bottling next summer)
Group Wine Barrel Flanders Red (Probably bottling in the fall)
Group Bourbon Barrel Wee Heavy (followed another clean beer then something funky)
Plenty of other interesting fermentation experiments (variants of my no-knead sourdough, more cheese, cured meat, and oddities).

As always, if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, complaints (or sponsorship offers) please email me at [email protected]

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book Review: How to Brew

After reading The Complete Joy of Homebrewing I made a couple of extract batches and a few all-grain batches using the basic methods espoused by Charlie Papazian. For the most part these beers were drinkable and several were downright tasty, but none of them were great (even to my rookie palate) and I didn’t really understand the “why” behind most of what I was doing.

Then someone directed me to the online version of How to Brew and eventually I bought a hard copy of the third edition. The book did an outstanding job at highlighting the most vital parts of the brewing process. John Palmer tries to explain why each of these areas are important and the mechanism behind the way they impact a beer. I credit this book with getting me to be more serious about my brewing, to take better notes, and to think critically about every step in my process.

Content: The title pretty much says it all, this is first and foremost a book about the process of brewing beer at home. It touches lightly on recipe design, and a few other topics, but that is not its focus.

John Palmer goes into great detail to explain mashing, water chemistry, sanitation, hop chemistry, and metallurgy. Each section is well written and well thought out, covering everything from the practical basics to the complex scientific (from what types of water to use for extract brewing to how the ions in the water effect the pH of the mash).

The water section is one of the best references on the subject that I have found, particularly his discussion of residual alkalinity a concept I had never heard of before. As a former metallurgist, John does a particularly through job on that section, (although it is one of the sections I look at least frequently). Another great section is “Is my beer ruined?” which covers common off flavors, their causes, and possible solutions or preventative measures.

The book contains numerous lists to reference when selecting a hop, malt, or yeast strain. These are very handy when considering trying out an ingredient that you have not used before (for example which grains can be steeped and which must be mashed). The lists are by no means comprehensive, but they certainly cover the vast majority of ingredients a homebrewer will run into.

The book covers every aspect of brewing “standard” ales and lagers. While the methods it teaches (sanitation, fermentation control, water treatment etc…) are just as important for making good Belgian/extreme/funky beers, it barely touches on these topics directly. As a result, after you master the techniques on standard beers you will have to look to other books if you are interested in making more esoteric styles.

Accuracy: I haven’t found any major mistakes (or typos which plague some of my other favorite brewing books). John stays in his comfort zone, avoiding talking about subjects that he isn’t as knowledgeable about.

That said, I do disagree with him in a couple of places. For example I have some problems with the section on starch gelatinization (the temperature at which starch granules will burst making the individual starch molecules available for enzymatic action). He quotes the gelatinization temperatures for various adjunct starches and suggests that because several of these temperatures are within (or partially overlap with) the standard saccharification range it is fine not to pre-gelatinize them. The problem is that unless a starch has been refined (like corn starch) it takes quite a bit of time and/or more heat to fully gelatinize them. If you have ever tried to thicken a gravy or a stew with wheat flour you probably noticed that it didn’t really get thick until the liquid boiled for a couple minutes, which is in spite of the gelatinization temperature of 136-147 F according to Palmer's table.

There are a few other areas where I have some minor issue on a technical point, but most of them are on tangential subjects.

Recipes: All of the recipes are presented in extract with steeping grains, all-grain, and all-extract variants. There are not many recipes, and the ones that are there are all pretty standard (boring). That said they are solid beers that are perfect for someone trying to perfect their technique. I am of the opinion that when you are just starting out (or tweaking your technique) you should brew proven recipes that have as few ingredients as possible. This way you can learn how different aspects of your process affect the finished beer. Once you get a grip on your basic process you will probably leave these recipes behind (if you are like me) as you go onto make your own recipes or branch out into more diverse styles.

I one minor issue with one of the recipes. His Vienna lager recipe calls for Black Patent in the steeped grains list, and debittered black malt in its place for the all-grain recipe. I doubt this is an intentional substitution, I would assume both are supposed to be debittered.

I think How to Brew is the easiest book on my shelf to quickly reference. The numerous boxes/charts/graphs/lists make it especially easy to extract a key piece of info while you are in the middle of a brew session.

In terms of reading it cover-to-cover I think the book does a good balancing act between technical content and readability. It does a good job explaining chemistry and biology as they relate to brewing without getting bogged down in technical jargon or information that isn’t applicable to the average homebrewer. he often uses analogy to explain complex topics. I particularly like the one for starch conversion, trimming branches (starches) using a hedge trimmer (alpha amylase) and handheld clippers (beta amylase).

The layout, starting with extract brewing, and progressing though to all-grain can make the order of the chapters a bit confusing. For example hops are covered in chapter 5, while grains aren't discussed until chapter 12. There are two separate chapters for water (one for extract and one for all-grain). So if you are already an all-grain brewer you will be jumping around quite a bit to skip over the extract chapters that are mixed in with the “general” chapters.

Overall: The book can seem a bit cluttered with formulas for things you may never have the desire to do by hand (beer color, mash pH, gravity, IBUs) I think these can be good references for understanding how Promash or Beersmith normally does the work for you.

Whether you are someone about to brew your first batch of homebrew or an experienced brewer looking to polish up on your technique you should have a copy of How to Brew. It does not cover the depth of topics that some other intro books do, and it is not written with the same exuberance that Charlie Papazian brings, but I think if you are serious about making the best beer, this is the book to get.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Any interest in reading reviews of books about fermentation?

Any interest in reading reviews of books about fermentation?

Yes 62 (95%)

No 3 (4%)

Well that is enough of a margin of victory for me to close this poll early (I already posted a review anyway).

In the comments MRB asked "What other books can we look forward to reading your opinions on?" So here is a list of books that will probably be reviewed over the next few months (in no particular order):

How to Brew
Radical Brewing
Designing Great Beers
Microbrewed Adventures
Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers
Brew Like a Monk
Wild Brews
Farmhouse Ales
Smoked Beers
Wheat Beers
Extreme Brewing
Brewing up a Business
Brewing Classic Styles
Homebrewer’s Garden
Brewmaster’s Table
New Brewing Lager Beers
Principles of Brewing Science

If anyone has suggestions for other brewing books worth reading, let me know.

How to Brew will be this week's review, but to determine the rest of the order just vote in the poll. Each week I'll write a review of the most popular remaining book.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cider 2008

After last year's attempt at cider making produced Rocket Fuel I decided to go back to the basics and attempt a plain, lower alcohol (it still reached over 7% ABV) cider this year. This batch also served to propagate yeast for my ice cider, which I finally bottled a few days ago.

The first change I made was to go with a pack of Wyeast's Cider yeast instead of bread yeast. I felt like after two less than terrific attempts at cider making it was worth trying a yeast that was actually selected for it. Next I left out the apple butter, since it just added sediment and not much apple/spice flavor. Instead I just went with high quality local apple cider from a farmers market, pasteurized, but preservative free.

I took some great tips from a cider making website called Lost Meadow Orchard and Cidery. The main thesis of the site is that making cider is not that similar to making beer. The author advocates using low temperatures, low aeration, and low nutrient juice to force a long slow fermentation which he has found preserves more of the apple character than a strong fast fermentation. I did not take his advice in full (I didn't have that sort of time or juice) but I did skew my technique in that general direction.

I didn't add any sugar/malt/honey to this batch so the alcohol would not get out of control. Well that isn't entirely true, I did add a 1/4 lb of lactose at bottling to add back just a bit of body and sweetness (the cider originally fermented all the way down to .996).

I also decided to solve my cloudy cider issue from years past by adding a couple teaspoons of pectic enzyme (1/2 tsp per gallon as instructed on the package). Pectic enzyme breaks down the pectin in the pasteurized cider (pectin is activated by heat and is responsible for the fruit gel we call jelly). I added the pectic enzyme shortly after I pitched the yeast, ideally I would have added it a few hours before the yeast, but I bought the cider before the enzyme and wanted to get the cider going. Despite this the enzyme worked giving me a brilliantly clear cider.

I'd suggest that anyone who wants to try their hand at making an alcoholic beverage begin with a cider. Starting a batch takes no more than 15 minutes including sanitation and clean up, and the only equipment you need besides something to ferment it in (a carboy/bucket) is bottling/kegging equipment.

Tasting 1/26/09

– Stunningly clear golden yellow, with some carbonation visible. The pectic enzyme certainly did its job chasing away the haze, but I wonder if I used more than is really needed (I have since read that the amount I used can cause a "fishy" off flavor). No head/lacing, but that is to be expected in cider where there is no proteins to form a foam.

Smell – The aroma is very subdued, just a hint of fresh apples and not much else. As it warms there is some alcohol, but it is not enough for me to call it hot.

Taste – Crisp (slightly tart) apples and a hint of sulfur/yeastiness (pectic enzyme?). Bone dry, although not to the point of being unpleasant. The flavor is fine, but the apple flavor doesn't pop like I want it to. To get more apple flavor next year I could try to keep the fermentation cold longer, or find some fresher/unpasteurized cider from a local cider presser.

Mouthfeel – The body is pretty thin, but it does not seem watery because of a light tannic roughness on the tongue. The carbonation is moderate, prickly, but not as strong as I intended it to be.

Drinkability & Notes – It is certainly more wine like than most commercial ciders that I have had, which tend to be sweeter, weaker, and bolder. This is not a particularly complex or interesting cider, but it is still pretty young (10 weeks since I "brewed it") for a cider so it will probably continue to improve for awhile to come.

Cider 2008

Recipe Specifics
Batch Size (Gal): 4.00
Anticipated OG: 1.055
Anticipated SRM: 6.2
Wort Boil Time: 0 Min

4 Gallons Cider
0.25 lbs. Lactose

2.00 Tsp Pectic Enzyme

WYeast 3766 Cider

11/08/08 Added 4 gallons of pasteurized cider from the Arlington Farmers Market to a carboy, added an inflated pack of yeast. The only aeration was the splashing while pouring the cider into the carboy. Put it into the chest freezer @ 55 degrees. Added the pectic enzyme 1 hour after the yeast.

Small dots of yeast on the surface started to appear after 36 hours.

11/11/08 Decent krausen and activity, hopefully it can keep fermenting even though the freezer had to be dropped to 48 degrees for the lager.

11/16/08 Only down to 1.040. Moved it into the closet to let it warm up. It would probably have eventually finish in the fridge, but I don't have the time to wait.

11/26/08 Transferred to secondary, down to ~.996, very clear.

12/13/08 Bottled with 4.25 oz of cane sugar and 4 oz of lactose for a bit of sweetness/body.

5/16/09 Grabbed a third place (out of 9) at the 2009 Spirit of Free Beer, not bad for a cider I am not completely happy with.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book Review: The Complete Joy of Home Brewing

I am kicking off my series of Thursday book reviews by taking a fresh look at the iconic homebrewing classic, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian, in this case it is the 3rd addition from 2003. This book has been the bible for American homebrewers since it was first released the year I was born. It is still probably the book that most homebrewers start out with, and after reading so many other brewing books I wanted to see if it still deserves this status.

This book grew out of one of the original homebrewing pamphlets from the 1970s (written even before the legalization of the hobby). As his pamphlet grew Charlie incorporated more and more information into it creating a book which contained information about just about every aspect of how to make beer at home.

Content: The book is a survey of many of the topics that homebrewers are interested in, from how to make your first extract batch, to mashing, growing hops, water treatment, kegging, beer styles, and beer appreciation. All of these sections serve as good introductions, but few do more than scratch the surface (for example I think the odds of someone actually getting a good crop of hops with just 3.5 pages of information is pretty low).

It is a wonderfully inspiring book when you are starting out in the hobby. Just a few pages in you get the feeling that not only will your first batch be delicious, but you'll have a good time making it. However, this results in the instructions being less about brewing great beer and more about brewing decent beer as simply as possible. Overall the book tends to steer clear of explanations, preferring a folksy pragmatism which I personally don't care for.

Accuracy: Some of the information is a bit dated. For example Charlie suggests adding gypsum to many of the recipes (8 tsp in his Toad Spit Stout). With the wide variety of brewing water out there a standard water salt addition for a recipe is generally not a great idea.

I don't think he talks enough about the things that made the biggest improvements in my beer, proper yeast handling, fermentation temperatures, and fresh high quality ingredients. He suggests pitching and fermenting all of the ales above 70. In theory this might not make a terrible beer, but he does not emphasize the difference between ambient temperature and internal temperature, so someone with a room at 72 could end up with a beer high in fusels.

Recipes: I haven't brewed any of the recipes in the book verbatim (though several of my early recipes were influenced by recipes in the book), but in general they seem to be a bit haphazard. The extract recipes often build on a specific extract (for example Brewferm Trappist-style Belgian Beer kit (hopped) extract). Most homebrew authors these days suggest starting with light malt extract as the base and building the color and flavor with specialty malts. This method allows for greater control over the beer and the level of fermentability.

There are other problems as well, for example some of the grain measurements are given in volumetric measurements instead of by weight. Sometimes "crystal malt" is called for without a
specified color. Many of the recipes seem to use outdated style interpretations, a weizenbock with only 17% wheat, no flaked barley in the Irish stout, black patent in a doppelbock etc…

I also think his mash schedules need quite a bit of work. For someone who tries to simplify the hobby it is odd that he often suggests protein rests and 2 sacch rests (even when calling for highly modified English malt).

Readability: The book is a pretty quick read because it is light on technical jargon and the writing is clear. However, it is difficult to quickly reference because it doesn't use any "modern" features like text boxes, graphic design, or well produced charts/graphs/tables. It can also feel disjointed, as if the parts were stuck together rather than being crafted as a whole.

I particularly dislike the way the recipes are written, with an entire narrative instruction given for each recipe. It makes it very difficult to quickly pull out key details like mash temperatures, and it makes it time consuming to grasp all of the details of the recipe.

Overall: The huge variety of topics and big enthusiasm make this a decent read if you are just considering getting into the hobby. That said, I think it tries to do too many things because it was conceived before you could buy whole books on basic technique, recipe design, hop gardening, interesting brewing ideas, or brewing beers to style. It just isn't written for the brewer who is interested in brewing the best beer possible. I think the fact that I read it cover to cover twice when I first started out, but haven't picked it back up in three years tells you all you need to know about how useful this book is.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

You are?

Male 30 or Under 85 (45%)

Female 30 or Under 6 (3%)

Male Over 30 86 (46%)

Female Over 30 8 (4%)

Visitors to this site (or at least the ones who responded to this poll) were divided almost exactly between people above and below 30. The site clearly draws a male dominated audience, which isn't too surprising. I'd imagine my generally nerdy tone is partially to blame, as well as the greater number of male homebrewers. That said, I seem to meet lots of women who are interested in cider making, baking, cheesemaking, and from time to time even brewing.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Casu Marzu, ewww...

A friend just forwarded me a link to a short article about what must be the most disgusting cheese on earth, Casu marzu (maggot cheese). He simply said, "Please never ever make this cheese..."

According to Wikipedia it starts as a block of Pecorino (I would guess Pecorino sardo) that is contaminated with a special type of fly larva (Piophila casei) which partially digest the cheese making it softer. The cheese can be consumed with or without the live maggots (although if you choose to eat them you have to shield your eyes while eating to ensure none of them jump up and hit you.)

This cheese has been outlawed, but it is still available occasionally on the Sardinian black cheese market (I wish I lived in a country that had a black market for crazy or possibly dangerous foods). Shockingly there are several other European cheeses that rely on mites for part of their aging process.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I just flew in from India (and boy am I thirsty)

My two weeks of fun in India are over, and I'm back in DC. This isn't a travel blog, so I'll spare you discussion of the Taj Mahal, smog, Bollywood movies, beggars, Jaipur, haggling, and animals of all sorts. That said this is a food and fermentation blog, so I will talk about the trip from that perspective.

The beer selection was as bad as (or worse than) I expected. I managed to make it the two weeks drinking just 1/2 a bottle of Kingfisher (typical bland macro-lager) and a few sips of local rum that our driver shared with us when we took him out to dinner in Agra. That said the food, and the plethora of fermented milk products, completely made up for it.

The most common dairy product we had was probably the yogurt, which was part of the sauces for many (most?) of the dishes we ate (my two lactose intolerant friends on the trip really appreciated that). That said I didn't actually get to try any of the yogurt, so I can't say if it was substantially different than any other yogurt I have had before.

Paneer (a fresh cheese generally translated as cottage cheese) is another mainstay in Indian cooking, particularly because it plays the meat role in many dishes at vegetarian restaurants (strangely restaurants that serve meat are called non-veg). I found the paneer much softer and more flavorful than what I have had before.

Raita (which was translated as curd) is a side dish that helps to cut through the heat of spicy food. It is somewhere between yogurt and cottage cheese. According to Wiki it is often made by partially straining yogurt (further down this road you would get yogurt cheese). It was particularly popular with puri bhaji (a breakfast of fried puffy bread and potato curry).

Lassi is a ubiquitous tangy yogurt based beverage. In the states they are basically always sweet, and are generally mango flavored. In India there was always a choice between sweet and salty (plus an occasional mango option). I had them served at room temperature several times which was interesting because it really brought out a yeasty aroma (but was a bit disconcerting from a personal health angle). My friend Mat doesn't handle spice well so he often had a lassi to make it stop tasting like burning.

Chass is a less common (and in my opinion less tasty) drink than lassi that is traditionally drank at the end of the meal("to aid digestion"). It was referred to as buttermilk, but it was not thick and tangy like the fermented buttermilk I have always seen in America. Instead it was rather thin and flavored with salt and cilantro. It may be that they are actually using the liquid that is left behind after butter is made, but no one I asked seem to know.

According to one of our guides most of these dairy products are now mostly made at large industrial dairies, so I didn't get a chance to observe any production taking place.

Overall the food was excellent, and extremely cheap. For example the last meal the five of us had in Mumbai (consisting of a couple veggie dishes, biryani (flavored rice), roti (flat bread), a few bottles of water, a chai masala, and a chiku shake) came out to just over 50 rupees ($1) per person. I also found it very interesting that over our travels we saw many of the same names on menus everywhere, but the actual dishes ranged dramatically from city to city and even restaurant to restaurant.

The price of food seemed to have an inverse relationship to how good it was. Some of the best food I tried was at small local restaurants or from street vendors, which always cost less than $.25 per item (we generally just ordered one of whatever was coming out of the hot pan). Luckily I avoided any major gastro-intestinal illness, although I did manage to catch a 3-day cold from one of my friends.

The use of food in the wedding was also very interesting. You can't help but respect a religion (Hinduism) that holds food in high enough regard to weave it into its most sacred ceremonies. Basically every part of the wedding involved putting spices (particularly turmeric) onto the body, eating sweet cakes or sugar, or giving coconuts (I received one from the groom while standing in as the bride's older ear=twisting enforcer brother.)

In conclusion India is a land of many contrasts... OK one gratuitous shot of me in a turban and teal scarf.