Thursday, November 29, 2012

Controlled Brewing

I'm sure that every brewer has heard the term "Controlled fermentation". It's usually one of the most major pieces of advice that a beginner gets, and major improvements a brewer can make in their process. Adding a mechanism (usually a temp-controlled fridge) to control the temperature in which their beer ferments. Controlled fermentation can help a brewer achieve their goals for the particular beer they are brewing. It can completely change the character of the finished product by changing ester levels, effecting attenuation, and helping control by-products. 

But fermentation is just one stage where a brewer can exert control to change the outcome of their beer. In fact, almost every stage of the brewing process contains "control points" where a brewer can adjust the actual brew to fit more closely to the planned product.

The ability to adjust on the fly is crucial to the brewer. Many of us, when we start brewing, make beers that don't turn out the way we expect. We use a recipe to plan a beer with specific values: OG, FG, IBU, ABV (don't you just love brewing abbreviations?) all come together in perfect balance on our paper. Yet, when we brew we find that the numbers don't work out right. The OG is too low, the volume is too high, the PH is all wrong, etc etc (ok, so most beginners don't know what PH is, but you get the point.) The same is true when we change equipment: all of the sudden our efficiency calculations are out of whack and out evaporation rate is all wrong.

This last part happened to me lately: I've recently changed roughly everything in my system. I've replace my kettle with a new SS one, which has a different height to surface ratio. I chucked my old mash-tun in favor of a bigger one with a different manifold design. I went from buying pre-milled grain to milling my own. And made a few other "minor" adjustments that basically amount to my not knowing anything about how my system works anymore.

As a result of all this tweaking I have a very hard time designing my recipes. I don't really have my efficiency dialed in yet, so I don't know what preboil gravity to expect. I don't quite have a handle on my evaporation rate, so I'm not sure what water volume to use (I batch sparge, which I think is easier than fly sparge, but does have the disadvantage of needing a predetermined amount of water). And so my "in kettle" results are sometimes quite different than what I expected.
This is where control points become key. I was brewing a Dortmunder a couple of weeks ago - a beer that requires supreme balance between malt and bitterness. My OG was to be 1.056, which meant that I needed a preboil gravity of 1.044. I mashed, sparged, and tested my collected wort. It came in at 1.040, this will not do.

My recipe included a fair amount of Pilsner malt, which meant a 90 minute boil. But the first hop addition was at 60 minutes, which meant that if I did a longer boil, the bitterness would not be effected. And so I did: I brought the wort to a fairly gentle boil (my goal being simply to evaporate the extra liquid, rather than cause any kind of reaction) and took periodic gravity readings. The readings climbed steadily until the hit 1.044, at which point I turned the heat up and called this the beginning of the 90 minutes. I had exactly what I needed.

Of course, I still had a problem with my evaporation rate. Just because I started where I expected to, didn't mean I would end there. And indeed I didn't. 15 minutes before the end of the boil I took a measurement again, and this time it was too high (1.060, I think). Never fear! I was ready with an Erlenmeyer flask full of boiling water at hand (I wanted to add boiling water, not just boiled water, to prevent the temperature in the kettle from dropping). I added a litter of this into the kettle and brought the gravity back down. At the end of the boil my OG read 1.057 - within one gravity point of the recipe plan, and actually closer than I usually got with my old equipment.

Incidentally, brewers can effect their beer even long after brewing: I mentioned here before that I was planning to make a 2.5%. and I did. Except that it fermented out and ended up at 3.8% instead. I didn't mind the extra alcohol, but when I tasted my sample it tasted very thin, and I didn't like that. My solution was to take 100g of lactose, boil it in one liter of water, and  add it to my beer (9 Liter batch, so this was actually a substation addition). The result was a beer that was about 3.3% ABV, and with a bit more body than the sample. I also lowered the carbonation a bit (carbonation often causing a lighter perceived body) resulting in a beer that, while not exactly what I planned, was a lot closer to my original vision than what it originally ended up as. I didn't like what I had, so I changed it to match what I wanted. That is the essence of controlled brewing.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Putting the "micro" back in Microbrew

For my next brew, I'm planning to make a small batch of very small beer: 2.5% abv. When I say this to people, they almost always have the same reaction "why?".

It seems that often in the micro-brew world beer is judged by its "size". That is, it's alcohol level, it's bitterness level (especially for IPAs) and in general how much havoc it will ring on your body systems. Whereas the average alcohol content of commercial beers seems to be around the 4.5 to 5 percent mark, for microbrews 6 percent seems to be the minimum acceptable level, with many beers topping 7 and 8 (and 9) percent alcohol by volume.

I think possibly part of that trend is a reaction to the lower-alcohol, lower-flavor approach of commercial (or I should probably say, large-scale commercial) beers. It's a way to distinguish your brew from the crowed. And that's fine. Truly, when microbrews got their start in the late seventies and eighties they needed every advantage they could muster, so upping the ABV was fair game. When you are trying to sell beer to people who's spent their entire life drinking industrial pale lager, you need to be able to have as many selling points in your arsenal as you can. Nothing wrong with that.

But I think that this had also had an inadvertent effect on micro-drinkers. We've come to identify quality beer with higher-than-average alcohol level. I imagine that the penetration of Belgian-style beers into the micro-drinking market didn't help either. Though it's probably a chicken and the egg kind of scenario: Belgians became popular (partially) because they were "big", and people came to seek out big beers because they were popular. The fact that you can now get Leffe beer (which, incidentally, is owned by nBev ) just about anywhere shows that restaurant owners have long wised-up to the idea that people like high alcohol beverages.

Another aspect of this is that people like to feel like they're getting their money's worth. At most restaurants and bars, there is no real difference in price between a bottle of 4% beer and 7% beer. So people choose the 7% because it's "more bang for the buck" and will get them drunk sooner, for less money. Unfortunately, in as much as we beer geeks adore the drink for it's qualities, most people still drink to get happy. (whether that's a fight worth having is a discussion for a different post).

The thing is, however, that this is no longer the same beer world as it was in the seventies and eighties. Over the years, a fairly large drinker base has developed that drinks beer for its quality and flavor, not (just) it's alcohol content. People who smell, and look at, and taste their beer fully, and who can spend half an hour admiring the hop qualities of a brew. In short, a consumer base that you don't have to "sell" on beer, but that you can sell beer to based on its merits.

And for those people, with whom I humbly consider myself, alcohol is just one the many facets that make up beer, and is not very high on the list. We want quality and flavor. And I submit that if a beer has quality, and has flavor, and is satisfying to hold and smell and taste, then the level of alcohol becomes much less important. In matter of fact, the level of alcohol is important only in as much as it contributes to the overall character of the beer, and so if you reduce the alcohol level, you must make up for it in other ways.

And so that's the answer to the people who ask me "why": Because it's a challenge.  Because making a 2.5% beer is much harder, in my opinion, than making a 6% beer. You have much less to hide behind. You have to make a beer that has flavor and body, and that doesn't feel like a "light" beer. formulating a recipe for a low alcohol beer is a complicated balancing act of body, flavor, hopping, and a dozen variables that don't work quite the way they do in a normal beer. If, in a 6% beer, we can mash at 67-68C and get a full body beer, at 2.5% that will yield a watery feeling beer. And so we have to work extra hard to make sure everything balances out right, and the drinker has a wonderful experience. The test of a "great" low-alcohol beer, in my opinion, is that you should be able to serve it to someone without telling them it's low alcohol, and they wouldn't know it. :)

And then, of course, there's the other answer to the question of why make it: "Because it's there."

Monday, October 22, 2012

It's suppose to look like that, honestly!

English has several idioms that mean basically the same thing: To "Con" or to "Gip" someone means to deal with them unfairly. The terms come from the words "Convict" and "Gipsy" respectively, with the second one reflecting the popular belief that Gipsies were thieves.

I mention this because over the last couple of years that I've been pouring beer for people I've come to the conclusion that Israelis tend to think that whenever I pour them a beer, I'm trying to "Gip" them by giving them a beer with, heaven forbid,  a visible head of foam on it.

Israelis seem to think that foam is a vise, and that it has no place in a beer cup. That I pour them foam because I'm trying to save on beer and steal their money. The Irony is that Israelis also really love Wheat beer, which is the biggest head-producing style there is. The combination of these two factors often lead to unhappy customers that, having been conditioned by low-head, low taste lagers, complain to me about only pouring them half a beer, and trying to save on them.

So I would like to take a moment to set the record straight: THIS IS WHAT BEER IS SUPPOSE TO LOOK LIKE =========>
If anyone serves you a beer that doesn't have any head on it, send it back. It's bad.

Seriously. We (brewers) put a lot of effort into our head. We mix in special grains, fiddle with carbonation, beer line length, and aeration, and  have a standard of glass cleaning that wouldn't be out of place in a hospital. All to make sure that when you get a glass of beer, it'll have a nice cap of foam on it. When you insist on not having the foam, you're insulting the beer, and you're insulting the brewer.

And the thing is, beer is not only a a drink, it's an experience that involves all five senses. It's not just something you drink, it's something you smell, and feel, and look at. A clear body topped with a tall foamy cap is a beautiful thing. Take a moment to admire your beer before you guzzle it down. If your only purpose for drinking is to get drunk then, frankly, there are faster, easier choices. Beer, good beer, is an experience to be savored.

In this context I want to take a moment to thank whoever it was who came up with the notion of putting measure lines on beer cups. It's great. It lets me, as a beer server, show the customer that I'm not cheating them. That they actually got the full third or half liter they paid for, and then some in the form of foam. People don't like to feel like they're getting taken advantage of, I understand that. And even though that feeling is the result of their own lack of understanding, it's much easier to make the point when they have visual confirmation. In other words, it's easier for me to say "no no, it's suppose to look like that" and make it stick. In the hope that if I say that enough time to enough people eventually some of them will change the way they see the drink.

Change come slowly. But it does come. I do see people who take my beer, look at it, smell it, feel it, taste it in small sips instead of throwing it down. We're working against a long tradition of "quaffing" and "throwing back a pint". And while you can rile against people's ignorance, it does no good to yell. It's better to try to educate, one drinker at a time.

So I keep pouring, and (when I have the time) I talk to people about the experience of beer. And I invite them to visit our local brew pub and enjoy a real drink. And I keep dreaming. I dream of the day when someone hands me back a glass and says "I don't like this, it doesn't have enough head on it..."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Having your (yeast) cake, and brewing the beer too...

I made a comment to a facebook post earlier today about saving yeast from a smack pack. A previous commentator admonished the owner of said smack pack to wash the yeast for re-use once he had brewed the beer. I commented and said that there's no reason to wash the yeast, since you could just save a portion of the starter and re-cuture. I then got yelled at that you "don't save a piece of any starter, certainly not of lager." Seemed to me like a good chance to crunch some numbers.

So lets start with the basics. Why do we build a starter to begin with? Well, it's because we need a certain number of yeast cells to insure a healthy fermentation and, dang it, the yeast we get from the store just isn't enough. Let's take the case of my friend's brew as a test subject: He's planning to brew a fairly strong lager, so let's assume he's starting with an OG of 1.060. Using the handy-dandy Mr. Malty pitching rate calculator I find that I need no less than 439 Million yeast cells.

Now, given that the average yeast vial or smack pack is suppose to have about 100 Million cells in it, it would take four of them to pitch a proper pitch. But the fact is that yeast dies in transit, and over time the viability of that vial degrades. If I'm really lucky, and the vial was transported cold, and was very fresh when it was bought, and I pitched it right away, I might get about 40% viability. So of that theoretical 100 Million cells, I have about 40 Million to work with. Mr Malty doesn't tell me how big of a starter I'd need for that, but does: it would take a 12 liter starter to make enough yeast for this beer. For those following at home, we're talking about a 18.9 Liter brew.

The reason it takes so much starter wort to generate this much yeast is that growth is not liner to starter size. In other words, a 2 Liter starter will not propagate twice as many cells as a 1 Liter starter. It's the law of diminishing returns, on a cellular level.

So how do you make that much yeast? Well, you try to always pitch as much yeast as would hit the optimal growth rate for that size starter. In other words, the more starter wort you have, the more yeast you need to pitch. Or, flip it, the more yeast you have, the larger a starter you can pitch it to. This is called making a step-up starter. 

So lets take our 40 Million cells that we got in the smack pack, pitch them into a 1 liter starter, and throw it on a stir plate until it ferments out. At the end of fermentation, our yeast has grown to about 139 Million cells (according to yeastcalc). Now lets do it again, take those 139 Million, and pitch them into 2 Liters (more yeast means bigger starter, right?) let it ferment and we get 377 Million cells. Getting close to the target, but not quite there. So lets do it one more time, and pitch into a 3L starter. At the end of that cycle we get...ready for this?...a whooping 779 Million cells! WAAAAY more than we need. In matter of fact, if we took that 3 Liter starter, mixed it well, and pitched only 1.75 liters of it into the wort, we will hit our target rate almost exactly. And the rest? That's enough yeast slurry there to fill a couple of vials and share with friends, and we've made it using half of the starter it would have taken in a single-step starter.

So yes, you can save a portion of the starter and re-culture it. in fact, if you do your step-up right, you probably wont need to re-culture. You'll have enough ready to use yeast that you can pitch what you need and save the rest. So get starting!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Tasting Notes: ESB

The genesis of this beer was in a period of intense brewing leading up to this year's Longshot competition.  I had decided to enter pretty much at the last second, and was kind of scrambling for a third beer to enter (my friend Levi was supplying three beers, and with my three we were splitting Beer-d's six-for-the-price-of-five deal.) Eventually, I ended up not submitting it, favoring instead the Kosher (oyster) stout. As a result this has become somewhat of a neglected beer in my collection, and it wasn't until a couple of days ago that I decided to give it a proper tasting and write up notes. I kind of wish I hadn't waited so long, since Bitter should be drunk fresh, and after five months, this beer is beginning to loose its sparkle.

The Recipe:
Recipe: E.S.Bitching (ESB) TYPE: All Grain
Style: Extra Special/Strong Bitter (English Pale Ale)
---RECIPE SPECIFICATIONS-----------------------------------
SRM: 7.6 SRM  SRM RANGE: 6.0-18.0 SRM
IBU: 35.3 IBUs Tinseth IBU RANGE: 30.0-50.0 IBUs
OG: 1.057 SG  OG RANGE: 1.048-1.060 SG
FG: 1.015 SG  FG RANGE: 1.010-1.016 SG
BU:GU: 0.614  Calories: 535.8 kcal/l Est ABV: 5.6 %  
EE%: 72.00 % Batch: 20.00 l      Boil: 30.48 l BT: 90 Mins


Total Grain Weight: 5.08 kg Total Hops: 90.00 g oz.
---MASH/STEEP PROCESS------MASH PH:5.40 ------
Amt         Name                              Type    %/IBU         
4.75 kg     Pale Malt (Weyermann) (3.3 SRM)   Grain   93.5 %        
0.23 kg     Carahell (Weyermann) (13.0 SRM)   Grain   4.5 %         
0.10 kg     Caraaroma (130.0 SRM)             Grain   2.0 %         

Name     Description                   Step Temperat Step Time     
Mash In  Add 14.19l water at 74.7 C    67.0 C        60 min        

Batch sparge: 3 steps (1.37l, 10.48l, 10.48l) of 75.6 C water

---BOIL PROCESS-----------------------------
Est Pre_Boil Gravity: 1.046 SG Est OG: 1.057 SG
Amt         Name                                Type    %/IBU         
60.00 g     Goldings, E.K. [5.50 %] - Boil 60.0 Hop     35.3 IBUs     
0.50 Items  Irish Moss (Boil 15.0 mins)         Fining  -             
30.00 g     Goldings, E.K. [5.50 %] - Boil 0.0  Hop     0.0 IBUs      

---FERM PROCESS-----------------------------
Primary Start: 5/8/2012 - 7.00 Days at 20.0 C
Secondary Start: 5/15/2012 - 10.00 Days at 18.3 C
Style Carb Range: 1.50-2.40 Vols
Bottling Date: 5/15/2012 with 1.9 Volumes CO2: 
Fermentation seemed to be over within 72 hours, so I started 
letting temp drop by one degree every 12 hours. This may not
 have been a good idae as FG ended up 1.019 instead of 1.014.
 Also ended up with 17.5L of beer instead of 20.

Taste Notes:
Overall the impression is of beer that is good, but past its prime. The carbonation was always a little light on this one, but when I tasted it it seemed particularly low. Don't know if that was just the specific bottle tough. 
Small stable head over translucent maple color 4/5
Aroma of some hops, caramel and brown sugar 6/10
Taste of some wood and light caramel medium body 6/10
Palate a little odd, and woody 2/5
Overall 12  Cumulative 29/50

This beer happened to also be reviewed by Keren MK in her blog where she says it was "Amber color, with aromas of malt and a touch of fruit, a little watery, bitter, with a grainy finish" (Translated from Hebrew). Others that have tasted this liked it a lot, but unfortunately, I don't have anything more detailed then "This is good" by way of review. :)

OOPS, Had a feeling I forgot something: The yeast used was English Ale Yeast (obviously). I used Dunstar Windsor, but I think it's no longer available in this country. I imagine Fermentis 04 would do a pretty similar job. (Thank Noam for the catch!)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What's common to a Chessmaster and Brewmaster?

I learned how to play chess when I was five years old. Took about fifteen minutes for my father to explain all the pieces and the way they move, and when he was done I asked him what else was there. He said that was it, and the rest was tactics and strategy. As a kid this annoyed me greatly: why would adults spent so much time thinking about a game who's rules I could recite in under a minute? Then my father showed me a whole (thick!) book about chess openings. WHY? What difference does it make what you start with?

Later, of course, I found out it makes a great bit of difference, and that arguably the opening is the most important part of playing chess. It is what sets you up for the rest of the game. A good opening may not guarantee a win, but a bad one can put you much closer to a loss. Brewing is a lot like playing chess.

It really is, too. Just like in chess you got the opening, the middle game, and the end game. And just like in chess, while the most spectacular action happens in the middle, you depend on a "good opening" to set you up.

So what's a brewing opening? To me, it's everything that happens until your wort hit the kettle. That is recipe, grain selection, milling, water, starter (you'll use that in the end, but you make it in advance), equipment building and maintenance, mash, luther, etc. Everything that happens between the moment you wake up at night with an idea for your next brew, until your wort is ready, is the opening.

And just like in chess, a great opening doesn't guarantee success, but a bad one can guarantee failure. You could have produced the best wort on earth, boiled it covered or scorched it, added stale hops or let it get infected, and ruin it. Or you could have done everything right in the boil and ferment, but over-sparged your wort and end up with beer full of tannins, mashed too high and end up with syrup, or just used bad tasting water and ended up with bad tasting beer.

There's several key factors in the opening that can effect your final beer. I'll try to discuss them in more details in future posts, but for now lets do an overview:

1. Recipe
This is where it all begins. Sure, you can just throw some grains and hops into the pot and probably come out with something fermentable. But if you are trying to make beer, and especially a  particular kind of beer, it helps to have a good recipe.
"Good" is the key word. You can get a ton of recipes just by browsing the web, but just because someone posts something online doesn't mean it's good. Finding yourself trusted sources for recipes would make your life much easier, but you should also understand how recipes work, how flavors mix, and how your particular ingredients and process will effect the final beer. When I published my recipe for my award winning IPA a month ago I had people telling me I was a fool. But the fact is that you will never be able to make my beer. The most you could do is to use my recipe to make your own beer. Your ingredients, your equipment, and your process will invariably be different than mine, and so your beer will be different. (It might, in fact, be better, but that's a different question).

2. Water.
Water makes up 99% of your beer. It's what all the sugars from the malt and all the alpha acids from the hops dissolve in. If your water tastes bad, your beer will taste bad. Unfortunately, if your water tastes good your beer may still taste bad. This is because the mineral composition of water effects the mineral composition of the beer, and not everything that tastes good in water will taste good in every kind of beer. For example: Water high in minerals (a.k.a "Mineral Water") can taste good. But put it in a Pilsner, or a light, malty beer, and it'll taste all wrong. Understanding your water, and how to adjust it to suite your particular beer, is crucial.

3. Equipment.
When you formulate a recipe, you are preforming a juggling act. You have to keep maltiness, bitterness, carbonation, body, mouthfeel, and flavors in perfect balance. You tweak it and tweak it until it looks perfect on paper. But then you brew it and it all falls apart. I had that happen the first time I tried to brew all grain: I researched and found that BIAB (which was what I was going to use) gets about 75% efficiency, so that's what I based my calculations on. Well, it turned out that my bag was all wrong, and I got 58%. All of the sudden, my big Belgian beer turned into a bizarre, over-hopped, over-spiced concoction (ok, truth be told, it was that before hand - never try to formulate your own recipe with three week's worth of experience..). The point is, I didn't know what to expect from my equipment, so all my fancy calculations weren't worth anything.

4.Ingredient storage and preparation.
This is the other side of knowing what to expect from your equipment: If your grain is crushed differently every time, than your equipment will preform differently every time. If you buy pre-crushed grain and then wait sometimes months to use it, it will preform differently than fresh-milled stuff. Ideally, you should always have your grain milled the same way, and close as possible to brew day. Likewise, when you buy hops you should pay particular attention to how they're stored. Hops that have been stored improperly (exposed to heat, oxygen, light, or humidity) will have dull flavors, lower alpha acid content, and in extreme cases can actually add nasty spoiled flavors to the beer. If you buy hops in bulk make sure you store them well, too. (BTW, this also pertains to yeast, but seeing as we're talking about the beginning stages of brewing, we haven't gotten there yet.)

5. Process.
Assuming your equipment is consistent, and your grain is milled the same, you can still get great variation in your wort depending on how you produce it.Sparging and luthing are major parts of this equation: the sparge method can impact your efficiency, and over-sparging can result in tannin extraction. Sparge temperature can also extract tannins. Grain-to-water ratio, mash method (infusion, decoction), water source and composition - All of these factors can change the efficiency, and composition of your beer, and make it more difficult for you to produce consistent results. 

There are, of course, many smaller parts to making a successful start for a brew day, and many things that come into play later are crucial for great beer (Sanitation, anyone?).  Hopefully we'll cover some of those in future posts. But before I end this one I would like to offer one last thought: When a chess player approaches a chess board, he is always starting from the same place - from scratch. Brewing is the same way: Your beer is the sum total of your decisions as a brewer, and every time you make a batch of beer you have the chance to make better, more informed decisions, and make great beer. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Lonely Brewery ISO New Brand Name.

After a year of working under the name "Three Cats Brewery" I've decided that my beer need a new name.

Not the brewery, mind, just the beer. Something short. In the same way that you walk into a bar and say "gimmie a Bud/Hiny/Goldstar/Stella/Guinness" (I could name plenty more, but the example is clear. A good beer name is one word. Two, max).

I've been racking my brain trying to figure out how to come up with a name, and then it occurred to me:  Ask the target audience! And furthermore, make it a prize-winning competition! So...

Announcing the Three Cats Brewery "Brand our (gl)ass" Sweepstake!

How to enter (in three simple steps):
1. Go to our facebook page ( and hit 'like'
2. Suggest a new name for the beer, along with a short explanation as to why it's good
3. That's it!

 Top entries will be put up to vote on our facebook page. And the submitter of the winning entry (subject to executive veto, cause there's some things I just refuse to name my beer) will receive a prize: A whole case of the first beer brewed under the new name! Free beer, and the thanks of a grateful brewery! What could be better?

So go forth, get the creative juices flowing, and get posting! There could be beer out there with your name on it. Literally.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Paying your debts forward

When I started brewing I had no idea what I was doing. I read a lot of "stuff", much of it contradictory (or simply wrong) and much of it I didn't understand. I started brewing, got over excited, made a beer with carob, and cinnamon, and anise (and 58% efficiency, because I REALLY didn't know what I was doing.) And basically made all the typical mistakes that a new, overly excited homebrewer makes.

But I learned, and I got better. And one of the major reasons for that is that I have a strong community of brewers in this country who welcome new brewers into their ranks and help them. There's a long list of people I can thank for my advancement this past year, including Dagan Bar-Ilan, who gave me access to his homebrew forum  even though I didn't quite "qualify", Noa'am Shalev, who spent several hours talking me through my first BIAB batches (before I had a mashtun), Shahar Klien, who gave me me first taste of liquid yeast (and a lot of good advice), Shahar Hertz, my "dealer" in homebrew goods until he closed shop, and many many others.

But there's one man that I credit more than anything with helping me become the brewer I am today, and that is Emanuel Zaidman, also known as E.Z. Much has been said about Emanuel over the years, mostly having to do with his, um, people skills. But two facts have never been in doubt: One, that he is an extremely competent brewer (and the long list of awards his beer has won would testify to that) and Two, that he is never stingy about sharing his information. Oh, he may yell at you for doing everything wrong. But he'll also spend hours patiently explaining how to do it right (in his opinion, at least.)

One thing I remember particularly about Emanuel is his first post to the brewing forum after last year's Longshot competition. He won first prize, I believe in the wheat beer category and, true to his promise from before the competition, he posted the winning recipe online. He got a fair amount of crap for that, and people were telling him that he should keep the recipe for himself so he can win the next year. But he said that it's the brewer that makes the beer, and that the purpose of the forum is to make us all better brewers. So he published the recipe. And you know what? Last night, at this year's Longshot, he took first for wheat again.

When I saw the recipe posted I remember thinking to myself that he was an idiot for posting it. But then I rethought about it, and I realized he was right, and that I hope one day I could be like that. Well, last night at Longshot, I won first prize as well, in the Light Ale category. After which I walked up to Emanuel and told him that I own half of this prize to him. And so, in the spirit of paying my debts, and with the belief that information makes better brewers of us all, it is my honor to share my winning recipe with the world at large. Enjoy:

Recipe: Left Hand of IPA
Brewer: Boaz
Asst Brewer: 
Style: American IPA
TYPE: All Grain

Recipe Specifications
Boil Size: 30.48 l
Post Boil Volume: 25.48 l
Batch Size (fermenter): 20.00 l   
Bottling Volume: 20.00 l
Estimated OG: 1.053 SG
Estimated Color: 6.7 SRM
Estimated IBU: 64.4 IBUs
Brewhouse Efficiency: 73.00 %
Est Mash Efficiency: 89.4 %
Boil Time: 90 Minutes

Amt         Name                                     Type          #        %/IBU         
2.70 kg     Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM)           Grain         1        56.0 %        
0.80 kg     Carapils (Briess) (1.5 SRM)              Grain         2        16.6 %        
0.80 kg     Wheat Malt, Pale (Weyermann) (2.0 SRM)   Grain         3        16.6 %        
0.40 kg     Medium Caramel/Crystal Malt - 45L - Shac Grain         4        8.3 %         
0.12 kg     Carafoam (Weyermann) (2.0 SRM)           Grain         5        2.5 %         
30.00 g     Centennial [7.50 %] - Boil 60.0 min      Hop           6        29.2 IBUs     
0.50 tbsp   Irish Moss (Boil 15.0 mins)              Fining        7        -             
70.00 g     Hallertauer [3.20 %] - Boil 15.0 min     Hop           8        12.3 IBUs     
30.00 g     Perle [6.00 %] - Boil 15.0 min           Hop           9        9.9 IBUs      
30.00 g     Tettnang [3.00 %] - Boil 15.0 min        Hop           10       4.9 IBUs      
30.00 g     Amarillo Gold [4.80 %] - Boil 5.0 min    Hop           11       3.2 IBUs      
30.00 g     Cascade [4.50 %] - Boil 5.0 min          Hop           12       3.0 IBUs      
20.00 g     Styrian Goldings [4.40 %] - Boil 5.0 min Hop           13       1.9 IBUs      
1.0 pkg     Safale American  (DCL/Fermentis #US-05)  Yeast         14       -             

Mash Schedule: Single Infusion, Full Body, Batch Sparge
Total Grain Weight: 4.82 kg
Name              Description                                Step Temperat Step Time     
Mash In           Add 15.82 l of water at 75.3 C              68.9 C        90 min        

Sparge: Batch sparge with 3 steps (0.36l, 10.48l, 10.48l) of 75.6 C water 
A couple of notes from the brewing notes:
- I have a small mash tun, so I couldn't add much water for mash-out, and obviously adding 360ml of water wasn't going to bring the mash to 77C, so instead I did a 2L THIN mash decoction to bring the temp up. You don't necessarily have to do this, it's just something that helps with batch sparging.
- Fermentation Temperature was 19C, for two weeks
- Preboil Gravity: 1.043 OG: 1.053. FG: 1.015
- Carbonation was 2.5 volumes
- I didn't forget the dry hop addition in the recipe. Believe it or not, this beer was not dry hoped. :)

See you all in Longshot 2013! (oh, and if anyone has pictures, share them on facebook, I was a little too busy to take any :) )

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Getting your message out

Many words have been written in the past few days about the sudden, and some say draconian, doubling of the production tax on beer. Anger, desperation, contempt, and disbelief were the common response of a people who so their beloved industry dealt what many feel would be a death blow.

Of the many posts that have gone past my facebook feed, none was as heartfelt, simple, direct, and desperate as the words of David Cohen, owner and proprietor of the Dancing Camel brewery pub. David wrote his letter to the Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, and attempted to post it on Bibi's official page. Sadly the post was taken down within a few minutes. Others, myself included, who attempted to post the letter, encountered similarly swift removal.

We, members of the beer community of Israel, feel that our voice has a right to be heard. And while the Prime Minister of this country does not, apparently, believe in any form of free speech that criticizes him, and will deny such a message an official stage, we welcome it. Therefore, it is my honor to post David's letter here in it entirety. I know well that not many people read this blog, but any person that reads this letter because it is posted here is one more than the Prime Minister would like. I did not ask David for his permission to re-post this, but somehow I don't think he would mind.:

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

My name is David Cohen. I made Aliya from New Jersey nine years ago. Six years ago I founded the Dancing Camel Brewing Company in Tel Aviv, Israel’s first production microbrewery. I asked for no government subsidy, I received no government handout. I invested my own money – every last penny that I saved from working for 20 years as a CPA in New York. I brought additional investment – from the US, from Russia, from people who were excited about the mission of the brewery – to reestablish a culture that traces its roots in Judaism back thousands of years.

It has not been easy, Mr. Prime Minister. Whether from the language, the business culture, or the stifling beauracracy, I have endured obstacles at every stage of the way. I have endured personal traumas as well, including a divorce that stemmed from our Aliya and the loss of my children as a result. I have done this because I refused to be shaken from the belief that this is my home and that this is where the history of the Jewish people will be written for the next 2000 years. My father ז"לused to refer to Israel as a “Tiny Dam” with torrents of water pushing from all sides. One more person pushing on the wall could be the difference between the wall collapsing or the wall standing firm for our children.
הגמבל המרקד
Mr. Prime Minister, I know that you are responsible for the well-being of the entire nation. I know that you have a monumental task in trying to keep the Israeli economy healthy while the rest of the world is in shambles. I voted for you because I believed in you and I share your philosophy of fiscal restraint. And I am prepared to shoulder my burden, as I’m sure most of the Israeli public is, when it comes to income tax, VAT and any other tax that falls uniformly on the population. However, last week, your finance-minister’s office levied a tax on beer production that will quite frankly, shut my business. I can not absorb a tax increase that literally doubled overnight since my business is struggling as it is. I will be forced to pass this tax on and as a result, sales will fall. I will be forced to fire our workers and shut our doors. I will be left with nothing after nine years of Aliya, other then the staggering debts which I have personally accumulated.

I am not alone, Mr. Prime Minister. The Boutique Beer industry in Israel is only just now getting off the ground. With over 25 licensed breweries, we have brought tourism, employment and national pride to a global industry that traces its very roots to this region. These breweries have been started, largely by individuals with similar stories to mine. People with a dream, a passion and the drive to build something from their own sweat and money, where nothing previously existed. I ask you Mr. Prime Minister – are these the type of people you want to drive into bankruptcy?
Bibi, I am imploring you, I am begging you, for my own well being but also for the well-being of the country, don’t cast away people like us. You know that back in the US I would have 100 congressmen clamoring to sign a petition. Here, I do not know where else to turn.

Very truly yours,
David Cohen
The Dancing Camel Brewing Co., Ltd.

Monday, July 23, 2012

But you'll die happy

Anyone who drinks Tequila is probably familiar with the sight of a worm floating in the bottle. Once a sign of the potency of the drink (and today probably more of a gimmick), it is said that the worm died trying to drink itself out of the bottle. It didn't make it out, but at least it died happy. That's kind of what I felt like after two days of pouring beer at the Disingof Center annual craft beer fair. It was exhausting and exhilarating, and by the end of it I was left with the feeling that if you tried to do this every day, you would surely die of exhaustion. But you would die happy.

One of the great things about being in an event like this is the people you meet along the way. From the first-time drinkers who have never tasted anything other than commercial beer before, to the "professional" tasters who give you valuable (if not always pleasant) feedback, to the fellow brewers on both sides of the booths - the drinkers, and the presenters. There were far too many great presenters at the event for me to mention in one blog post, sadly, but I'll try to mention at least a couple...

The first familiar face I encountered, in the Center parking lot, was Gal Sapir from Gal's Brewery. I thought this was an auspicious sign, because it's totally Gal fault  that I'm brewing today. Ok, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. But the fact is that his "Talash" memorial brew was the first home brewed beer that I tasted in this country, and while I wish the circumstances were happier, I still think it was one of the best things that has happened to me. From the first taste I was hooked. Beer with flavor! Amazing. A side from being an inspiration to many (in his day job Gal counsels youth against drug use) he's also a wacky guy and great fun to hang out with.

If Gal is the inspiration for my brewing, Sasha from Gopher's Beer opened my eyes to the amazing possibilities of this unique brew. His Klobaska beer was the first beer I tasted in the first beer festival I went to (the now sadly defunct Ma'abarot festival) and I still remember the taste. I took a sip, took an other sip, took a third sip, and then wordlessly handed the glass to my friend who was standing next to me. It was amazing. I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that the beer had actual sausage in it. The taste was so spot on that you really expected to find "Kosher-Meat" stamped on the back.

My "next door" neighbor at the fair was Vladimir "Vova" Gershanov from the Laughing Buddha brewery. A great guy and fellow hitech-er who took a day off from his job to find some refuge in quality brew. The Buddha is a great brewery because it not only makes great beer, but it keeps making different great beers all the time. This is much harder than it sounds, if you consider how long it takes to come up with a great recipe, tweak it, prefect it, and brew and re-brew it until you can reliably make the beer. I know a lot of breweries who make great beer, but who stick to the same lineup of three or four beer. I can't blame them: When you make a barleywine that will age for four years like Vova you are taking a huge business risk, and not everyone wants to do that. But I think that the long line of thirsty drinkers at his stand proves that he's doing something right.

Finally there was Mati from the Habesora Brewery. Unfortunately, with all the hubbub and commotion I never got to taste his beers. But the "Winner of the Saint Patrick Irish beer challenge" plaque on his booth and the long line in front of it spoke volumes about the quality of his beers. In fact, between Vova, who was "upstream" from me, and Mati who was "upstream" from him, by the time people got to my booth, they were pretty much drunk! It's all good, though.

All in all, great event, great people, and great beer. I'd like to take a moment to thank everyone who came by the booth. To Mk Keren and Elad for the feedback, to Ben Fried, Ari Schmidt, and Michaela Wulff for the help behind the counter, and most important to my wife, who not only came and helped, but actually puts up with all this hobby entails. :)

See you all in two weeks, at Longshot!

Monday, July 2, 2012

La viva Italia

The Carbinirie in Rome were definitely in for a rough night last night. Italy was playing Spain in the European Soccer final and the Carbinirie knew that if Italy wins the streets of Rome would be flooded with drunk and jubilant soccer fans. Of course, though no one would say it out loud, there was the chance that Italy would loose. In which event the streets of Rome would be flooded with drunk and disappointed soccer fans. Either way, the Carbinirie were going to be busy.

I had left Rome the morning of the game, so I did not get to be there during the final. But I did get to be there when Italy first beat England in penalty shots, and then took out Germany with a couple of goals early in the game. We went for a walk through the streets during that game: You could follow the action play-by-play by the sorts of cheers and cries from the bars that line the streets and the Piazzas. Piazza Navona has no bars, so it was a barren wasteland of tourists and a couple of board peddlers. Campo de Fiore, on the other hand, had turned from a quint, touristy farmer's market into a living throng of soccer mania that spilled from the numerous bars all around the square. You got a feeling that the best way to get yourself ran out of town was to run across the square waving a Germany flag. I don't think you'd have made it all the way through.

To me, being much more of a beer fan than a soccer one, the striking thing about the drunk throngs was that, in the land of fine wine, they were drinking beer. And not just any beer: Italian beer. GOOD Italian beer.

Now granted, the vast majority of the beer Italians drink is crap, just like in Israel, in the States, or really anywhere else. I think it's a law of beer countries that before you can have good beer you must have bad one. In Israel we have Maccabi, in the States they have Bud Light, in Italy they have Peroni. As they say "shit(y beer) happens". Like its counterparts in other countries, Peroni is cheap, you can drink a lot of it, and it will get you drunk. A lot of Italians don't ask for more than that in a beer.

But some do. And for those who demand more of their brew, there are some really good Italian beers that fit the bill. In the middle of a country that lives and breaths wine, new(ish) Micro-brews are springing up. "This is a new thing" told me Manuel, the Owner of "Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa" - voted "the best beer bar in the world" in 2010 by "When I opened up eleven years ago no one was making good beer in Italy. The oldest brewery, BrewFist, opened about six years ago. Now we have a lot more breweries, and many of them are not very good, but some are." He went on to add an interesting observation "This is happening in France now, too. The countries that make wine are now starting to make beer". Having tasted both Italian and French microbrew, I have to agree with him.

My first introduction to Italian micro brew was "2Late". A Double IPA from BrewFist. At 9.5% ABV it is an evil, evil drink, and no less than an amazing beer. Take a sip of this hop cocktail and then just sit there with a stupid smile on your face as the different hops parade one at a time across your tongue. I have no idea how they manage to do that, but I've never tasted a beer that managed to highlight each hop separately, and then have them join into an amazingly balanced celebration of flavor. I've had DIPAs before that didn't taste like they had much alcohol. This is not one of them. You taste the alcohol in this beer, and it is there to enhance the flavor of the hops (and also to remind you that you are, in fact, drinking a double IPA). In my time in Italy I drank several beers by Brewfist, and every one of them was impressive. (Maybe it's just that Ma Che Siete knows how to serve it's beers: When I was there one night, Manuel refused to serve me a certain beer because it was too cold and carbonated. He insisted that I come back the next day, after they've had a chance to move the beer to a pump and bring it up to 12 degrees. I had him give me a taste anyway, just to compare, and he was right. On tap and cold it tasted like nothing. On pump and a bit warmer it was a different beer. )

Another Italian Brewer of note is Baladin, the wine maker, and the company behind "Open Baladin" the bar that is a serious contender for the title of "most impressive beer bar in the world". The idea of wine makers turning into brewers sound a little odd at first (wine and beer seem to be sort of natural enemies, though friendly ones), but it works. Baladin started making beer only a few years ago, but they're already a major player in the local market. Partially due to their distribution network, and partially because they just make really good beer.

There are many reasons to go visit Italy. The sights, the food, the atmosphere, the people are all part of it. But for a beer lover, Italy is slowly but surly becoming a heaven of tastes, and a must-visit destination. Salude!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Let's get started

I'm a big believer in making yeast starters for my beers. I use a fair amount of liquid yeast which sometimes goes a couple of months between pitches, so making a step-up starter to verify viability and propagate a good pitch of the yeast is key.

Recently I did something stupid: I killed most of my yeast.

I usually store my yeast in the house refrigerator which, unlike my fermentation fridge, is kept at a constant (and cold) temperature. I typically keep the yeast in the back of the bottom shelf, which is the coldest, and also most out of the way place in the fridge, and it's fine there. However, a couple of months ago I had to move the yeast out while cleaning the fridge for Passover (The yeast itself is kosher, but the beer it's in is not) and so I put it in the fermentation fridge. I figured that since I had a lager lagering in there at the time it was probably fine to keep the yeast in there for a while. (And it probably was).

The stupid thing I did was not moving the yeast back into the house fridge after Passover. And furthermore, fermenting an ale in there after the lager, causing the temps in the fridge to shift from 4C to 20C in short order, and keep around 20C for a couple of weeks, before dropping them back down to 8C at the end of fermentation. So yeah, turns out that violent temperature swings and hot temps kill yeast. Duh...

Actually, that's not quite true: These conditions kill older yeast. Yeast that has been recently used, on the other hand, has a pretty good chance of surviving. Problem is, you don't know what survived and what didn't until you try to use it, which is where yeast starters come in. Over the past month I've been making small starters and painstakingly pitching vials of yeast to see what survived and what didn't. The results are, sadly, pretty grim. I've lost a number of strains I can not replace, including my favorite English strain, which was a real issue since I was going to brew an ESB, and I needed yeast. My dry yeast of choice for an ESB is Dunstar Windsor, which unfortunately my LHBS doesn't carry. Luckily, I discovered an old package in the back of the fermentation fridge.

But now comes the tricky question: Did the yeast survive? It was exposed to the same conditions that killed my other yeast and while it was dry, it was also quite an old package. I decided to take the unusual step and actually do a starter for my dry yeast.

The result was spectacular.  Within less than an hour of pitching the yeast into 300ml of 1.040 wort, it had foam and very active fermentation. Clearly the yeast was alive and well (I take this as a sign of the quality of Dunstar products). I let it finish and put it in the fridge until I was ready for it. On brewing day I took it out to let it warm up, and started brewing as usual. After mashing and boiling for 15 minutes I drew about a liter of unhopped wort (I boil for 90 min, so I hadn't gotten to the first hop addition yet) cooled it, and pitched the yeast into it (having first decanted most of the spent liquid). My thinking is that if I'm going to pitch a starter at high krausen, as oppose to letting finish and decanting the spent liquid (my usual technique) then the liquid should resemble my actual beer as much as possible. Clearly they are not identical (the started is not hopped) but they have the same malt profile, which is not bad. I continued brewing as usual, cooled, and pitched the slurry.

Fermentation started within hours. High Krausen within less then 24 hours. By 40 the krausen has fallen. I don't think I've ever seen a beer move so fast. It was so fast, in fact, that my fridge was having a hard time keeping up, and the fermentation temperature ended up at 21C instead of 20C. Not terrible, but a little disconcerting. I was very glad to have left as much head space as I did in the fermentor, as I'm sure I would have had a spill otherwise.

So now it's slowing down and doing its thing. I think I'll give this beer a while at fermentation temps to make sure it re-uptakes some of the extra esters the fermentation must have produced, and possible let it lager a bit for extra clarity and conditioning. Next time I'll be more prepared and set my fermentation fridge a little lower to compensate. I think this will be an interesting beer. And if it turns out OK, I'll bring it with me on August 2nd for everyone to taste. :)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Taking the plunge

I started brewing exactly a year ago. I remember because when I told SWMBO that I want to brew she swore me to wait a month and be sure, so I bought my kit the first week in June.

My first beer was an Amber Ale Extract Kit. And a stale one, at that. My second was All Grain. I hadn't really planned on going all grain right away, it's just that I couldn't get enough extract at the little shop I was buying from up north. I didn't have a MLT, so I brewed BIAB in a bag made out of the wrong material and got 58% efficiency.

But I got better. I got better equipment, and learned better process, and payed better attention to details. And slowly, slowly, my beers got better. I went from really shitty beers, to shitty beers, to mediocre beers. They are still not at the level of "good beers", but I feel I can definitely call them "Drinkable" now.

Given how I feel about my beers, it was with great reservations that I decided to enter in this year's Longshot competition. I don't think they're good enough. I know for a fact that there are much better entries in the categories I've entered. And I'm certain that they will not win. Basically, it's a waste of time and money.

But I entered anyway. Because I want the feedback. I want someone who doesn't know me to taste my beers and give me an honest evaluation. That's the thought that guided my beer selection as well: I didn't enter what I consider my "best beer". I entered beers that I want to improve on, and that I would some critique of. I entered beers that I taste something in, and that I wanted to know if other people taste it too, or am I just hallucinating.

I also entered for the camaraderie. Because a home brewer is an individual, but he's also a part of a community. There are many, many excellent brewers in this country, and many of those will be at the competition, pouring their own beers. To stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these people is an honor and a statement of intent. I am a home brewer. I make the best beer I can. I will continue to improve so that one day, my best will truly be best.

See you all at the marina. :)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

pride and prejudice

I usually write this blog once a week. Typically Monday morning on the train... But my post yesterday seems to have generated more interest than usual, and seems to possibly offend some people. While I stand by my statements about the need for honest feedback, it was never my intention to attack or target anyone. So if I offended anyone, I apologize.

Some of the most interesting comments came from DSG, a fellow Israeli beer rater (you can see his comments on the previous post.) DSG raised an interesting point: That we are beer raters, not beer judges, and thus that bias is built into our rating. In other words, that we rate beer according to wither we liked it, not necessarily wither it is good or not. In fact, as he points out, that is how beer rating is described on the site.

While I still feel that we should strive to incorporate objective measurements into our rating, I have to concede the point DSG is making. If ratebeer calls for a "hedonistic" rating, then by all means how we like the beer should come into play. I will still argue that when I detect flaws in the beer it detracts from my "hedonistic" enjoyment of it, but to each his own.

But in reading DSG's comment I came up with two additional insights:
First, that there is a difference between a beer rating and beer feedback. And I think unlike a rating (that is done in public) feedback (which is done in private and often face to face) should focus on the character of the beer. Its strong points, its flaws, its process, what was done well, and what could be done better. And furthermore that it should be as specific as possible. In a nutshell, if rating characterizes the beer, feedback should analysis it. 

Second, that the thing I was talking about, where a familiarity with the brewer or brewery may prejudice the rating, can work both ways. I know that when I evaluate a beer, I also look at were it came from. It is very possible that when I know a beer comes from a certain brewery, who's house character I don't like, it would prejudice my evaluation of a new beer by them (this happened to me with a certain New York brewery that routinely got great ratings. I tasted a bunch of their beers, and for some reason none of them seemed that great. It got to the point that I would smell a new beer by them and the particular "house smell" of their products would drive me away.)  If one tried to be fair about this, one must allow for the idea that prejudice works both ways.

So I am going to try something and, DSG if you're reading this, you're welcome to try it with me: I'm going to take three IPAs, and blind taste them. One will be an IPA that I thought was the greatest example of its kind in Israel, one will be a beer a lot of people claim is the best IPA but I thought was a little lackluster, and one will be an IPA that some people rave about and that I straight-up didn't like. (you're welcome to message me privately for the specific names).  For these three beers I'm planning to have my wife pour me a 100ml sample in identical glasses, without letting me know which beer is which. I'm planning to taste them one at a time, and write (on a piece of paper) a rating of each one as if I was doing it on the site. Between the samples I will eat plain crackers and sniff my own sleeves in order to cleans my nose and palate.

And then I'll compare these notes to the ones I posted on the site about these beers, and see the differences. I may discover some things about my own objectiveness. :) And it will be an interesting experiment at any rate.

I will end this post with one final thought: Homebrewing is a hobby. But it is also a community. As members of this community we need to embrace brewers on all levels, and know that every person brews at his or her own level, according to their tools, knowledge, and experience. BUT, and this is really the crux of my last post: I feel that we must strive for excellence. We must strive to improve, and learn, and experiment, and evaluate, and do all those things that we CAN do that professional guys can't afford to do. And in this quest for self-improvement, we must be honest with ourselves and each other about the results of our efforts. If I can trust you to tell me when you taste something bad, I'll be a lot more likely to believe you when you tell me something good.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Judgment Day I:The politics of beer rating

I've been working on my beer tasting and evaluation skills a lot lately. You see part of it here on the blog in that I've started to publish tasting notes for my own brews. I've also been doing a lot of things like listening to podcast and reading about beer judging methods, and trying to incorporate these ideas into my own evaluation process. It's been a highly rewarding experience, where I found myself suddenly discovering new smells and tastes in beer that I have not noticed before. There's nothing like the first time that you smell a beer differently and you go "By Gad! This doesn't just smell of hopes, it smells like Mango! There's no mango in it, but I smell it!" (It's a little hard to engineer such a moment, but if you can achieve it in the presence of someone else, the startled looks are worth the effort).

In this quest to expand and train my palate I've been tasting a fair amount of Israeli beers. I have two reasons for this:
1. I live in Israel, so I never know how fresh is the imported beer I drink. Local beer, on the other hand, is fairly consistent.
2. There's a fairly small number of Israeli beer raters on, so I get to know the way they rate fairly well. It also means that a typical Israeli beer doesn't have nearly as many ratings as an international brand, which lets me read a few reviews by people who's spectrum of ratings I know, and helps me calibrate my palate against a fairly consistent sample.

I also taste a lot of beer made by other home brewers, and try to have as many people taste my beer and give me feedback. It is, in my opinion, a crucial part of becoming a better brewer.

But lately I've been noticing something: Israeli raters rate Israeli beers higher, on average, than import beers.

It's a well known problem: A guy hands you a beer that he made. He's very excited about it. He thinks it's great. He looks at you with big dewy eyes as you take your sip, excited to hear your praise. But the beer sucks. Or maybe it doesn't suck, but it's just not that good. Maybe you detect the hot-fermentation byproducts, the mash tannins, or just the recipe flaws, doesn't matter. The point is that he's your friend and you don't want to offend him. So you tone it down. You don't tell him that his beer sucks (and by gad, I've had homebrew beer that actually made me want to say "yuck") You say it's "interesting" and "complex" and that you can really taste that special ingredient that he put in. He worked so hard on this thing, and it's his own hand-crafted creation. So you don't want to crush his spirit, you want to let him down easy.

And I think that's a problem. Yes, if someone spat out my beer and said "yuck" I'd be offended. But at the same time, if someone spent five minutes telling me how great it is I'd call him a liar (maybe not to his face, but I wouldn't believe him.) The greatest thing you can do for me, as a brewer, is to tell me what you taste in my beer. How it feels in your nose, and mouth, and throat. THAT'S what I want to know: your honest impression. One of the biggest compliments I've ever got for my beer was from a woman who sipped my Pilsner and exclaimed "I taste saffron!" I don't know where the hell she got that, I certainly didn't put any saffron in the beer, but the fact she tasted it meant that she was actually taking the time to really taste and evaluate my beer critically. And I really appreciated that.

The big problem with this kind of false feedback is that people believe it. And if you keep getting this kind of feedback consistently (and you probably will, because you keep asking the same people - your friends) It may lead you to believe that your beer is, and has always been, great. And that's bad, because it can mean that you never strive to improve. What's the point in trying to tweak your process, in improving your sanitation, in refining your control points,and in controlling your fermentation if your beer is already "perfect"? Why learn, invest, research, test, evaluate, and respond if you "don't need to change anything"? It's a trap. At best, if you buy into these kind of accolades they will lead you to being a mediocre brewer. At worse, it can lead you to think that you are so good that you can go pro.

I know at least one brewery like this: It started with a homebrewer who caught the bug and started brewing in his back yard. Within a year, speared on by a chorus of adoring fans, he opened a brewery. He put in a lot of time and effort into professional equipment, advertising, innovative business plan, and a dozen other things. There's just one problem: The beer isn't good.

Don't get me wrong, the beer is not bad for homebrew, and it has potential. But it's not good enough for a commercial product. The guy spends a lot of effort trying to be a "cool and innovative" brewery, which means that he does a lot of gimmicky beers (something I will talk more about in part II of the judgment series) and is involved in the brewing community in his area. The constant stream of "new, innovative beers" that comes out of the brewery keeps up customer interest and drums up business. But if you ask any of the local drinkers in his area who know how to taste beer, and aren't fooled by dumping a massive amount of hops into a mediocre beer, they'll tell you "he's great, he's a good guy, he does everything right, except for the beer..."

And the sad part about that, and I think the dangerous part, is that when you have a bunch of friends and casual drinkers singing hosannas to your brew, you tend not to accept the few who do try to give you honest advice. I have a friend. A brewer of great beers, greatly educated in the theory and practice of brewing, and (unfortunately) an arrogant bastard. (I think anyone who knows who I'm talking about will agree with that statement. In fact, I think he himself would). There's no way around it: This guy is convinced that he knows the only way to make beer, and that anyone who doesn't do it his way is an idiot. But for all his personality shortcomings, he has a great palate, and he knows how to taste beer. This is the kind of person I want feedback from.

My friend is a bit of a pariah in some parts of the local homebrewing community because of his abrasive nature. But I ask you: If you truly want to improve as a brewer. If you truly want to make great beer. If you truly want feedback on your brew. Who would you rather ask, the guy who's trying to be your friend, or the guy who'll give you his honest opinion and doesn't give a crap if you never talk to him again?

We all have egos. And when you craft something as personal as a home brew. When you put in all the time and effort and do it "the best way you know how", it sucks to have someone take one sip of this thing that you worked so hard on and tell you what's wrong with it. But if we truly want to improve we must put our egos aside and allow our beers to be tasted critically. By ourselves, and by others. Otherwise, we will never be more than the sum of our accolades.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Tasting Notes: Patriot Shame (APA)

Jews are by nature wine people. There's no other explanation for the fact that we have a holiday that requires you to drink four cups of wine in a single night, but forbids you from having beer for a week. Contrast that with the monks that LIVED on beer for 40 days, and you get the distinct sense that we (again) got shafted.

The upside of this is that it forces you to let the beer sit just a little longer. And sometimes the beer can really use the time. This was the case with this APA: I tasted it a week before Passover, made a face, and said "this needs a bit more time". So it was good timing for the holiday, for a change.

One thing that I did with this beer, that I've always wanted to do before but never got around to, is to compare tasting notes and brewing notes. This turned out to be very educational: My tasting notes talk about the beer being a bit thin and how it would benefit from a slightly higher mash temp. After I wrote that I went back to my brewing notes and found that, indeed, I did mash a bit lower than intended. It was good to see cause and effect outlined so clearly.

Recipe as brewed:
Patriot Shame American Pale Ale
Type: All Grain Date: 3/2/2012
Batch Size (fermenter): 20.00 l Brewer: Boaz
Boil Size: 29.44 l Asst Brewer:
Boil Time: 90 min Equipment: Brew Pot (50L) and Cooler (24L)
Final Bottling Volume: 20.00 l Brewhouse Efficiency: 70.00
Fermentation: Ale, Single Stage

Mash Ingredients
Amt Name Type # %/IBU
4.50 kg Pale Ale Malt 2-Row (Briess) (3.5 SRM) Grain 1 86.9 %
0.34 kg Munich I (Weyermann) (6.1 SRM) Grain 2 6.6 %
0.20 kg Caramel Malt Pils (Shahar) (2.9 SRM) Grain 3 3.9 %
0.14 kg Medium Caramel/Crystal Malt - 45L - (45.0 SRM) Grain 4 2.7 %

Mash Steps
Name Description Step Temperature Step Time
Mash In Add 14.46 l of water at 72.7 C *see below
66.7 C 60 min
Batch sparge with 3 steps (0.86l, 10.13l, 10.13l) of 75.6 C water
Estimated pre-boil gravity is 1.044 SG

Boil Ingredients
Amt Name Type # %/IBU
20.00 g Galena [11.00 %] - Boil 60.0 min Hop 5 30.8 IBUs
7.00 g Columbus (Tomahawk) [14.50 %] - Boil 60.0 min Hop 6 14.2 IBUs
12.00 g Cascade [5.40 %] - Boil 10.0 min Hop 7 1.8 IBUs
7.00 g Columbus (Tomahawk) [14.50 %] - Boil 10.0 min Hop 8 2.8 IBUs

Steeped Hops
Amt Name Type # %/IBU
18.00 g Cascade [5.40 %] - Aroma Steep 2.0 min Hop 9 0.0 IBUs
16.00 g Columbus (Tomahawk) [14.50 %] - Aroma Steep 2.0 min Hop 10 0.0 IBUs
10.00 g Galena [11.00 %] - Aroma Steep 2.0 min

Fermentation Ingredients
Amt Name Type # %/IBU
1.0 pkg Fermentis Ale Yeast US-05
Yeast 12 -
Original recipe numbers (Listed in the recipe I used):
OG 1.052
FG 1.013
Attenuation 74%
IBU 40
Color 7 SRM
Alcohol 5.1% ABV
PreBoil 1.044
Brewing notes:
*Mash in: 14.5L @ 76 +.5L after daugh-in yielded mash at 65.5-66C <== This is probably the cause of the thinner body

Fermentation Notes:
Yeast pitched at 19.2 after 24 hrs
8 hours after pitch raised temp from 20 to 21.3 to try to get a bit extra attenuation due to lower than expected OG
After 8 days temp raised to 22.2 for diacitile and attenuation
12.3 (10 days) FG (by corrected refractometer) 1.008
13.3 (11 days) drop to laget temp (4C)
17.3 (15 days) Reached 4C
24.3 Bottled 21.3 Liters
Taste Notes:
Appearance: Light copper, mostly clear with a large foamy head
Aroma: Citrus and Grapefruit, hoppy with a bit of yeast
Taste: Firm bitterness upfront, grapefruit and lemon, body a bit thin - probably overly carbonated a bit since carbonation is very lively
Palate: nice and bitter, fairly long
Overall: Good. Beer tastes rather like a light IPA, which if you think of and American IPA as a sort of extra-hoppy APA makes sense. For next version I would try slightly higher mash temp, sightly lower carbonation, and maybe just a touch more hops - probably as late addition

One thing I thought about this morning, after I re-read the notes, was the hop schedule. When I tasted this beer I felt it needed a bit more hop character, and had originally though about another (late) hop addition. Re-reading this now I realize that while the character is a bit lacking, the bitterness is above and beyond the guidelines for an APA, and has in fact strayed into IPA territory. This causes me to think: Maybe the reason I feel the need for more hoppiness, is because of the extra bitterness. It is possible that, having drank many an IPA, I come to expect certain hop character at certain levels of bitterness, and my palate is interpreting this beer as a not-quite hoppy enough an IPA, rather than an APA. (The styles ARE very close, after all). So in looking at this recipe now, I think I would not add another hop addition, but rather move one of the bittering additions (probably the Challenger) to a later stage, thus reducing the overall bitterness, and upping the perceived hop character at the same time. (lower carbonation will help this too, I think). This is why it's good to re-brew a recipe several times: You get to experiment and test different ideas.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Bottle blues

Every time I have to wash, rinse, sanitize, fill, and cap 60-some odd bottles I wish I were kegging.

Don't get me wrong: There are few joys in the life of a homebrewer that equal the sudden thrill of finding a perfectly good, dark brown, non-screwtop bottle with an easily removable label. In my neck of the woods the local Vienna Lager (Goldstar) comes in these bottles, and it is one of the greatest justifications for the continued existence of that beer (Though truth be told, as far as Vienna lagers go, Goldstar is one of the better examples of the mass-produced breed). I look for bottles everywhere: I have scoped out every recycling bin around my office, and I know which ones have empty beer bottles and on what day. My coworkers have gotten used to seeing a crate of empty bottles in the corner of the office waiting to be taken home, and my friends have learned to put bottles neatly in bags for me. I am the bottle king of my little domain.

But it's a lot of work. Especially if one suffers from a lethal combination of fishing bottles from the trash (often with dried residue and fungus inside) and a compulsion for cleanliness and sanitation that would make a clean-room worker weep with joy. Before any bottle of mine gets filled it had been rinsed out between 6 to 8 times, scrubbed with a dedicated bottle brush, sanitized with contact sanitizer (including the mouth and a few centimeters on the outside), and filled on top of the sanitizer foam. Multiply that by 60 bottles for an average 20L batch, and you'll easily understand why I wasn't that upset when my latest batch of cider turned out sour. - At least it meant I didn't have to bottle it!

So I'd love to keg, but it's not really a realistic option.

For one thing, I don't drink enough. I drink somewhere in the neighborhood of one liter per week. I still have bottles of a Pilsner I brewed in August (and it's still good, which I attribute to the anal-retentive sanitation described above), and practically every other beer too. At that rate, I would be able to use a keg maybe two or three times a year (assuming I just drink from that keg). Hardly worth it.

For another thing, I don't have the cooling. I "only" have the fermentation fridge (I say only in quotations because I'm well aware that many home brewers don't have that, and I count myself blessed to have a wife who doesn't mind sticking a fridge in the livingroom so long as she gets to decorate it). Kegs need to be kept at serving temperatures (not strictly true, of course, but the alternative is an inline cooler, which is another piece of equipment I don't have) where as beer needs to ferment at temperatures much higher. They can't live in the same fridge.

Actually that's not true: I could dedicate my fridge as a keg/lagering fridge and brew ales and lagers based on the ambient temperatures. But I loth to do that. So much of the character of beer hinges on precise temperature control that I would hate to lose that ability just to save some effort.

And kegs have their own problems: They don't transport well (If you want to take some beer over to friends you have to bottle it). They're expensive (compared to the free bottles I get). They don't age well (I have an "archive" of past beers I brewed, so I can taste how they change over time). And they require a lot of extra equipment (CO2, lines, taps, etc).

All of these reasons mean that I will stay with bottles in the foreseeable future. Maybe one day I'll have a large walk-in cooler in the basement and thirty taps lining the walls of the livingroom. But as it is, whenever I have a beer that's ready to leave the fermenter I will be putting it in bottles, and just wishing I were kegging...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dialing in your process

When you first start brewing it's all guesswork.

There's a lot of numbers involved in brewing. Efficiency, volume, gravity, boiloff, time, and many many more. You need to know these things when you brew, but you'll only know them when you start brewing, so you guess. You use rules of thumb, estimates, and calculations to achieve approximate numbers that you can use to estimate your results. And then you brew with those numbers. If you're lucky, they're close enough to true values that you end up with decent beer. When you're just starting, "decent beer" is great, and you get convinced it's the best beer you've ever tasted. So that's fine.

As you grow more proficient as a brewer, though, you start noticing certain things. The OG is consistently a little low, the color is a little off, the attenuation is not what you were looking for, the beer is decent but it's not great, etc. At first you attribute this to mistakes in the particular batch, then you start blaming inconsistencies in the process. But after you improve the process, and repeat it consistently, it becomes a nagging feeling that you're missing something else. Eventually, you start looking at the underlying assumptions that you base your process on, and try to modify those assumptions to fit the factors of your particular system. This is called "Dialing in" your process.

For me the trigger was realizing that my OG is consistently two points lower than the recipe expected. This mean that the water to sugar ratio in my wort was slightly off. IE, I either had too much water, which meant my boiloff wasn't as much as I thought, or I didn't have as much sugar, which meant that the mash efficiency wasn't quite what I thought. Of the two, boiloff is the easier to measure, and is relatively constant. So lets start there.

There's two ways (that I can think of) to measure boiloff:
The first involves simply measuring how much liquid you had at the beginning of the boil, versus how much you have at the end. The difference is the stuff that boiled off. Simple in theory, but can have unforeseen problems. For example: If you use an immersion chiller, like I do, you need to put it into your wort 10-15 minutes before the end of the boil in order to sanitize it. Since you have to measure at the end of the boil you will either have to allow for the volume of the chiller (bigger than it looks) or take the chiller out (which negates the point of putting it in to sanitize in the first place. ) You can measure after you chill, of course, so long as you account for the shrinkage due to temperature drop. In my case, since I measure with a ruler stuck in the wort, this was not an option. I simply wasn't going to stick an un-sanitized, sugar coated metal rod into my wort.

The second method to measure the volume is calculating posthumously. That is, using the numbers you get to calculate what the boiloff was. This works as following: Lets say after I finished my sparge with 32Liters of 1.042 wort. After I boiled and cooled I sampled my wort and came up with an OG of 1.050. The amount of sugar did not change during the boil, only the amount of water. Therefore I can say this (Ov*Pg)/Og = Fv Where Ov is Original volume, Pg is preboil gravity, Og is Original gravity (at end of boil) and Fv is final volume. In this case: (32*42)/50=26.88 Given that my original volume was 32, I lost 5.22L of liquid during the boil, or roughly 16%.

The beauty of this method is that you can apply it retroactively. I take notes every time I brew, and I know my start volume, start gravity, and final gravity for each batch. By taking the last few batches, running them through this simple calculation, and averaging the result, I can get a pretty accurate measure of my boiloff. One I know that, I can go back to my calculations and figure out if I had too much water, or not enough sugar. Adjust, brew, test, adjust again, and so on until the numbers are consistent.

The sad part about this is that I'm going to go through all the trouble of dialing in my process, and then I'm going to change it again when I go HERMS this summer. But then again: I'll still be using the same kettle once I go HERMS, so doing this calibration now will make it much easier to isolate problems with the new setup down the road. So I guess it's worth it.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Upward mobility (Gushing, Part II)

After my last post about gushing I got a message from my Partner in Crime. They guy sounded upset. "Infected beer doesn't taste good, it has weird flavors! Ours is good, no flavors!", he complained.

I had to admit the man had a point. The beer was gushing, but we didn't know why. Before I send him to look for a possibly non-existent infection in his equipment, I should try and figure out exactly what was wrong. The signs we had (gushing getting worse with time, beer looking weird) were inconclusive. I needed more information. If I could only taste the beer, I may be able to tell what's going on there...

Which leads to an interesting question: How do you go about tasting a beer that levitates out of the bottle when you open it? I decided to to a little experiment.

I took two bottles of the beer out of the fridge and set them side by side on the counter. For both bottles, I started to open the cap little by little, until I heard just a little bit of gas let out. Psssst...stop. Psssst...stop. I noticed that a bit of foam was building up inside the bottle, sign that the CO2 was being released. I tried to release the gas in two different rates: the bottle on the left got one release for every two the one on the right got.

At some point, I clearly overshot. The bottle on the right, that has been releasing at a faster rate, had apparently reached a tipping point. All of the sudden I noticed that the foam inside the bottle doubled and the yeast inside seemed to be traveling upwards towards the cap. Ah ha! One mystery solved. I have been wondering why it is that when I pour the beer it looks murky and smells weird. Now I knew: The pressure letting up caused CO2 to fling the yeast back into the beer, causing the murkiness and the smell.

Well the one on the right was obviously a bust. But what about the one on the left? I have been letting the gas out very slowly, and the yeast didn't seem to be disturbed. If I kept venting the beer really slowly I should be able to avoid the yeast problem. But I didn't want to spend half the night on this. Finally I had a thought: I caught one tooth on the cap with my bottle opener and bent it until I could hear just the faintest Pssssssst sound. This meant that I've created a tiny channel for the gas to escape, hopefully very slowly. I put the beer back in the fridge (figuring that that would help any yeast that becomes disturbed to settle back down) and went to sleep.

The following evening I grabbed the beer from the fridge. Opened it like I would any other, and poured it. Success! The beer poured without gushing (but still with plenty of carbonation) and settled neatly in my glass. There was a slight haze to the beer, which was what it had always had, but none of the murkiness. Time for the all-important taste test: Will the beer taste infected?

Well, no. In fact, it tasted just fine. I've had this beer many times before, over the course of several months, and I knew what it tasted like. It tasted exactly the same now. No sign of wired flavors or infection. Mystery solved! I guess I owe P.O.C. an apology :)

Moral of the story: It pays to spend the time an figure out exactly what happened to your beer. Even if it takes a whole day to open it. :)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Tasting Notes: Hoppy Burton Ale (English IPA)

Taking a page from Mike "The Mad Fermentist" I've decided to start posting tasting notes for my beers. I've often wondered what my beers would rate like if I could post them on ratebeer, and this seems like a good way to quantify the experience in order to improve the beers in the future.

A general note about tasting notes: These are my personal impressions. If you have tried the beers I'm rating and would like to add your own evaluation, you are encouraged to do so in the comments for the appropriate beer.

Hoppy Burton Ale Ver. 1
A note about the name: After my diatribe about American IPAs I wanted to call this beer something that would distinguish it from the style. While it is true that the IPA is, fundamentally, an English beer, I felt that the "IPA" designation conjures certain expectations that this beer does not, and was never meant to meet.

Appearance - This beer is pretty. There's no other way to describe it. Deep golden color bordering on copper. A solid white head and decent lacing. Beer is somewhat hazy, though. I don't know if a couple more weeks of aging would clear that, or is it just a natural result of dry hoping (in primary, no less).

Aroma - I must admit that I was a little disappointed at the aroma at first. I poured the beer, sniffed it, and smelled almost nothing. But then I let it sit for a bit, and once it got a little warmer (about 12C) the beer just "opened up". All of the sudden there was a whole bouquet of aromas. Earthy notes, spices, and forest. It was a little disconcerting not to have the grapefruit notes that we all to often associate with (American) IPAs, but there was plenty of nose to satisfy. Still, I think it would benefit from more aroma next time.

Taste and Palate - Firm bitterness with plenty of hop flavor. Palate lasted a good 10-15 minutes. Very balanced and a good malt background means that it doesn't give you that lop-sided sear-your-throat taste that some IPAs can. In the same way that the beer could use some more aroma, it could also use a little more flavor (not bitterness, just flavor). But on the whole very nice.

Drinkability and general notes - Medium body and good mouth feel. This is a nicely drinkable beer. It needs to be served cool rather than cold, which is typical of English beers I suppose. Carbonation is a little on the high side for the style, and could be toned down a notch as well. All in all, I'm very pleased with the result.

Notes for next version - More late addition hops would benefit this beer. Perhaps something around the 5 minute mark, or simply adding more hops to the 10 min and dry-hop stops. This recipe calls for challenger, fuggle and E.K. Golding hops, with challenger being a bittering addition only, so perhaps a good choice here would be to add a little of it to the flavor stop as well.
Carbonation on this batch was 2.4 volumes, and should probably be dialed down to 2.3 or 2.2. This, along with the higher serving temperature, will give it more of a "real ale" feel, which is where this beer originates, after all.

Recipe (as brewed):
Batch Size (fermenter): 20.00 l Brewer: Boaz
Boil Size: 29.44 l Asst Brewer:
Boil Time: 80 min Equipment: Brew Pot (50L) and Cooler (24L)
Final Bottling Volume: 20.00 l Brewhouse Efficiency: 75.00

Est Original Gravity: 1.054 SG Measured Original Gravity: 1.052 SG
Est Final Gravity: 1.014 SG Measured Final Gravity: 1.012 SG
Estimated Alcohol by Vol: 5.3 % Actual Alcohol by Vol: 5.2 %
Est Color: 10.4 SRM

4.00 kg Pale Ale Malt 2-Row (Briess) (3.5 SRM) Grain 1 85.0 %
0.18 kg Wheat Malt, Bel (2.3 SRM) Grain 3 3.8 %
0.18 kg Biscuit Malt (23.0 SRM) Grain 4 3.8 %
0.25 kg Medium Caramel/Crystal Malt - 45L (45.0 SRM) Grain 2 5.3 %
0.10 kg Dark Caramel/Crystal Malt -107L (107.0 SRM) Grain 5 2.1 %
45.00 g Challenger [7.00 %] - Boil 80.0 min Hop 6 38.1 IBUs
45.00 g Fuggles [5.00 %] - Boil 30.0 min Hop 7 19.8 IBUs
30.00 g Goldings, East Kent [5.00 %] - Dry Hop 7.0 Days Hop 14 0.0 IBUs
0.50 tsp Irish Moss (Boil 10.0 mins) Fining 9 -
15.00 g Goldings, East Kent [5.00 %] - Boil 25.0 min Hop 8 6.0 IBUs
10.00 g Goldings, East Kent [5.00 %] - Boil 5.0 min Hop 11 1.1 IBUs

Mash Name: Single Infusion, Medium Body Total Grain Weight: 4.71 kg
Sparge Water: 15.12 l Grain Temperature: 16.0 C
Sparge Temperature: 75.6 C Tun Temperature: 22.2 C
Adjust Temp for Equipment: TRUE Mash PH: 5.20

Mash Steps
Name Description Step Temperature Step Time
Mash In Add 13.16 l of water at 75.1 C 66.7 C 60 min
Mash Out Add 6.84 l of water at 95.7 C

Carbonation Type: Bottle Volumes of CO2: 2.4
Pressure/Weight: 125.67 g Carbonation Used: Bottle with 125.67 g Corn Sugar
Yeast: S-04 (Fermentis)
Fermentation Temp: 20C