The Case of the Multitasking Kegerator: Return to the Beer Simple Mail Bag

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Back to the Beer Simple Mail Bag this week!  Recently, a brewer asked whether he/she could use a kegerator as a fermentation fridge, and vice versa.  The answer, of course, is "of course."  But just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it.

Quick answer: yes, it can be done, but it's probably not worth the time, effort, and beer impact.

The Obvious

I feel like we need to get this out of the way first: if the choice is between "no temperature control for fermenting beer" and using your kegerator to do the job, then this is a no brainer: use that kegerator.  

I don't know that there's anything more valuable to beer quality than temp control during fermentation, so if you're choosing between leaving your fermenting beer in the garage and letting your kegs warm up a bit, then by all means, choose the latter.

If you're going to do that, though, you need to be aware of a few things.

A Question of Pressure

First, when you dial that temperature up, you're messing with the CO2 balance on your draft system.  You can either adjust the CO2 to rebalance it (and serve your beer warm, temporarily), or (probably the better idea) pop the gas lines off of your kegs and just let them maintain the pressure they already have in them.  As they warm some CO2 will come out of solution into the head space of the keg, but it'll re-absorb when you chill your kegs down again.  Once they cool off, re-connect them to their gas lines, and they should serve just as smoothly as before.

When in doubt, don't adjust more than one thing, and since you're already adjusting temperature, probably best to leave the CO2 regulator out of it.  When you cool down again, it'll be right where it needs to be (as long as you return to the same temperature!).  Disconnect from the CO2, ferment at whatever temps you want, then reconnect your kegs when you re-set the temperature back to serving temps.  

A Question of Stability

You should also be aware that you're increasing the level of flavor instability you're likely to see in your finished beer.  Letting those kegs rise and fall in temperature is a mild form of beer abuse, and when you let them warm, you're increasing the rate at which staling reactions occur (and, assuming you have some small degree of contamination, the rate at which your beer is developing off-flavors).  

Don't get me wrong - it's still better than letting your beer ferment at "whatever temperature it is at that moment in the basement or guest bathroom," but it's a cost you should be aware of.  If you have lots of pull-through and your kegs are rarely on for more than a month or two anyway, then don't worry about it.  If you take a little longer to work through your kegs, though, it's a risk.

A Question of Time and Money

What's your time worth to you?  This is where the multitasking argument breaks down for me.  

Coordinating and choreographing all of this not-hot keg-and-fermenter action is a real time suck. It'll require you to plan ahead so you have cold beer ready to serve at a time when you don't need temp control for fermentation.  If you don't have a massive kegerator it'll probably involve removing and re-inserting kegs.  It certainly puts more strain on your draft system and its connections (changes in temperature can cause CO2 leaks as fittings change in size and fit and work loose).  

Is it worth it?  Honestly, probably not.  

No-frills refrigerators are inexpensive, and depending on where you live they range from "free" (watch the curb, especially for discarded freezers that can't freeze anymore - they may still have plenty of cooling power to hold your beer at lager-fermentation temps!) to $50 (off of something like Craigslist) to $150 (new and delivered from a big-box or mega-hardware store).  It's a small price to pay for flexibility.

A Question of Tolerances

At the end of the day, the answer to this question is, "yes, you can multitask with your kegerator," but only you know if it's worth it to you.

Done deliberately and conscientiously, sure, it can be done.  But for me, it's worth the max cost of $200 (for a decent-sized new-and-delivered chest freezer and a decent temp controller) and 5-6 square feet of floorspace to run a separate fermentation fridge.

So, your call.  Keep those questions coming to josh@beer-simple.com.  Always happy to hear from you all!

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

Procrustes v. The Dude: Fitting Recipes to Your Brewery

Beer recipes are everywhere.  Every jackass on the internet posts recipes, it seems like.  Step one is sorting the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and we all have our own tricks and tolerances there.  Let's assume, though, that you've found a reputable recipe: it's still going to need to be adjusted to fit your system and process.  What's the best approach for doing so?

The Procrustean Method

Procrustes is a character from Greek mythology, who had a bit of a sadistic streak.  He lived along the road to Athens, and he'd invite travelers along the road to spend the night at his place.  Once there, though, you had to sleep in his special iron bed.  If you were too short, he'd stretch you to fit; too tall, and, well, you can probably guess.

Lots of people seem to take this approach to their "sourced" recipes.  They adjust every recipe the same way, fitting it to their own Procrustean Brewery.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, and it'd be out of character for me to argue against a systematic approach to something, but I'm still (kind of) going to do it.  

First, the good: it's a smart idea to make identical adjustments to correct for idiosyncratic problems that are reliably caused by your equipment, or process, or ingredient supplies.  If you know you have hard water, or low efficiency, or you bag your hops, then sure, make those Procrustean adjustments.  

However, don't become a slave to those adjustments at the expense of looking at the what and why of that recipe you're adopting and adapting.  Most of the recipes you'll want to take on will probably be for beers with unique or distinctive characteristics, and if you fixate too much on the mechanics there's a risk that you cut corners elsewhere and/or don't fully commit to the recipe.  Which brings us to...

The Lebowskian Method

The Dude is a character from the Coen Brothers mythology.  He lived in an apartment, and one night some visitors rough him up and defile a rug that really tied the room together, man.  Hijinks ensue.

Lebowski (the Dude) is, arguably, a drunk, stoned moron.  But he teaches us an important lesson: keep an eye out for the things in the recipe that really make it what it is.  Which of those ingredients, elements, or steps really "tie the beer together?"  Maybe it's a specific grain (Fawcett 45L British Crystal) or a process (decoction).  If you're adjusting a recipe to your brewery, you might end up wasting your time if you substitute in your normal American Crystal 40, or reduce the amount of chocolate malt you use "because your roasty beers are always astringent so you always cut the recommended chocolate malts by half," or decide to just do your typical infusion mash - and no amount of your Procrustean tinkering is going to fill the hole that's left in your beer.  

Give Both Their Due

Good recipe adjustment requires a bit of both.  I write a lot of recipes for brewing publications, and I'll share a not-a-secret secret: when I share my recipe, that's not my exact recipe.  We use standardizing spreadsheets to ensure that each recipe has a common point of reference on efficiency, water-to-grist ratio, hop utilization, etc. so that you can hammer away (like Procrustes) and make it fit your system.  As a result, what you read is usually already different than what I actually do when I brew the beer.  We expect that you can and will make changes to weights, volumes, times, and more.  Procrustes should get to have a hand in your beer (so to speak).

What I do spend a fair amount of time advocating for, though, is for some specific ingredients of steps that make it much more likely that you'll get the "special" part of the recipe right.  Even if your IBUs are off, or the water chemistry isn't quite on target, or you miss my OG by a few points, it'll matter a lot less than if you sub in that "house" malt or yeast of yours for one that the recipe calls for, or ferment it at 65F instead of 52F.  Keep an eye out for what ties the beer together, and commit to matching that part of it.  The Dude Imbibes.  

A Simple Approach

When I get a recipe I want to adapt, I take a pretty simple approach.  Each will be a little different, of course, but this might work for you as a rule of thumb.  

1. Adjust for efficiency differences, but only with the base grains, to hit about the right OG.
2. Leave the weights of the specialty grains alone (unless you're doing a wholesale scale adjustment, like from 10 to 5 gallons).
3. Use exactly the ingredients listed for the grist, and any hops added within 30 minutes of the boil (early hops may add a very slight detectable flavor, but mostly just add IBUs, so substitutions probably won't hurt you).
4. Use the recommended yeast unless you can't get it fresh, and even then, pick the nearest substitute (so, London Ale for London Ale III is fine, if the LAIII is two weeks old and the other is two months old). 

As for process changes, go with your gut and let parsimony and commitment be your guide.  Extended boil?  Sure - no reason not to.  Water adjustment?  Maybe not - you might do more harm than good.  The deciding factor should be whether you have good reason to believe that the recommendation is a key feature of the beer's flavor profile, and if you decide against doing it you should also mentally commit to trying the same recipe again with the change in the event what you get without it just doesn't work.

So take it seriously - but also don't lose the forest for the trees.

Keep it simple.  

JJW

 

 

Paper Trail: Identifying and Limiting the (Not Very Obvious) Effects of Oxidation

How do you know if a beer is oxidized?  

That's not the start of a joke - if it was, it'd be a pretty boring one.  It's a sincere question.  The trouble is that, very often, you'll be told the answer is, "it smells like wet paper or cardboard."  One reason you'll hear that is because, sure, sometimes a beer is so oxidized that it actually smells like wet paper or cardboard - old, pulpy, and stale.  

Another reason you'll hear it is...because that's what we tell people to say when they think a beer is oxidized.  Most beers that are oxidized, though, won't smell like you just dipped your Sunday New York Times into last night's leftover pint of Pilsner.  It'll just taste duller than it would have, and that's if you're lucky.

The False Spectrum

For lots of beer diagnosis, we (wrongly) treat signs of an off-flavor as though it's just a question of amplitude or spectrum.  If a beer is oxidized, it's going to smell like paper - slightly oxidized, a little paper; much more oxidized, a lot of paper.  If a beer is contaminated, it'll taste a little sour; more contaminated, a lot sour.

It's an awfully simplistic approach, and one that's woefully inadequate and probably invalid.

This "false spectrum" disorder that we seem to have is probably a result of our relative palate inadequacies.  If we had sterling palates, all of us, and could detect and disentangle each individual sensation and flavor, then maybe we could speak in these terms - but we can't.  Don't believe me?  Watch a cooking show, and see how professional chefs struggle with identifying something as exotic as "chicken" while blindfolded.  Or pour four samples of four IPAs for your friends and see if they can tell you which one is which even after you tell them what you've poured (and it's a virtual impossibility without narrowing the field for them). 

So if we're not tasting machines that can parse out all of those flavors - minutely and precisely - then what's the answer?

See the Whole Off-flavor Crime Scene

Don't look for one piece of evidence - look for all of them.  Yes - an oxidized beer may well taste like wet cardboard (and if you've ever unpacked beer shipped to a competition, you know that smell perfectly, because it's how about one in ten of the shipping boxes smell because some of the beer has leaked out).  But that's not the only way to detect oxidation (and, I'd argue, it isn't even the most common).

Instead, let's think about what oxidation is, and what it does.

Oxidation is effectively a consumption process.  Iron oxidizes - it is processed from iron into rust.  Gasoline oxidizes - it is converted from fuel to heat and exhaust.  Beer oxidizes - and sometimes it converts into a detectable aroma of staling.  

But the staling is happening even if it isn't sufficiently intense to be detected by your nose.

Compounds in the beer that would ordinarily produce other flavors, won't, because they've been converted into something else.

The Dog That Didn't Bark

Look for the dog that didn't bark.  A beer that has flavors that seem dull, muted, absent, or different-than-expected may well have an oxidation problem, even if you can't smell paper.

A friend says that he added a bunch of late hops, but there's little hop aroma?  Could be an oxidation issue.

A homebrew club member says that she made a great Saison but it lacks esters and phenols?  Could be an oxidation issue.

Consider secondary factors to try to see if this might be a cause.  Ask when the beer was brewed.  Ask how it's stored, and for how long.  Ask if it's kept at a constant temperature or if it fluctuates.  Ask if they flush their kegs with CO2 before racking into them.  

Because, often, you're not going to have that positive and patent evidence of oxidation - but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

The Dog That Barked Too Loudly

Sometimes, too, evidence of oxidation will be too pronounced to diagnose it properly.  

Once upon a time, about a year into my brewing habit, I played around with bottle conditioning beer directly in growlers.  It seemed like something worth exploring, as a sort of "middle ground" between bottling and kegging, and I was often taking growlers places anyway.  The concern (initially) was that the threaded caps wouldn't be up to the job, and would simply leak out CO2.  But two weeks later - Eureka! - growler-conditioned beer.

But it had a problem: there was an acetaldehyde (green apple/raw grass) flavor that wasn't present in the conventional bottles.  It puzzled me, and no one I spoke to had an answer, so I e-mailed a gentleman by the name of John Palmer.  He shared my befuddlement, but speculated that what might be happening was an excess of oxidation: apparently, sufficient oxygen post-fermentation can actually cause ethanol to revert to acetaldehyde - bingo.

It's worth noting, though, that the beer never gave the traditional "wet paper" aroma we (supposedly) associate with oxidation.  It's not a good idea to get too tunnel-visioned when it comes to presentation of off-flavors - either in small or large presentation.

Simple Isn't Always Precise

I know this might seem to run a bit contrary to my usual philosophy, but in this case "simple" isn't synonymous with "precise" or "minute" or "discrete." 

There are times when holistic assessment is better than fine-grain analysis.  Stand back and see if you have secondary or atypical or unexpected or should-have-expected signs of oxidation, and if you do, tighten up, particularly on your cold-side beer handling.  It's still simple - it's just higher-altitude.  Macro.  Big-picture, which comprises lots of smaller elements.  

And if you suspect oxidation, what then?

Use CO2 liberally at kegging.  Cap on foam when bottling, and make sure you're fully seating those caps.  Store beer cold, and at a steady temperature to minimize the unavoidable "breathing and sucking" of bottles that are experiencing temperature fluctuation.  If you're doing all that, maybe shift to hot-side causes - are you using old ingredients, or splashing the wort excessively?  Lots of causes of oxidation out there, and most can be addressed passively.

Failing to do so might be causing subtle (or major) problems in your beer that have nothing to do with wet paper.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Contact High: A Strange Tale of Accidentally Dry-hopped Cheese

Once upon a time, I kept a lot of my brewing ingredients in the same refrigerator as my food.  Which is how, one fine afternoon, I pulled out some cheese I was serving to some guests and found out that you can add hop flavor and aroma to cheese, completely by accident.

The Hop Flavor Invasion

There was no real technique or process here.  I had some plastic-wrapped cheese in the drawer.  Said drawer also contained two ounces of pellet hops in small zip-locked (not heat sealed/nitrogen flushed) bags.  I made literally no attempt to merge their flavors.  

Total exposure time was about two days, during which time nothing else in the fridge tasted like hops, and in fact there wasn't much in the way of aroma coming from the zip-lock sealed hop bags.  And yet, there it was in the cheese: hop flavor.

And you know what?  It was excellent!  The cheddar had picked up a great earthy/floral flavor, and the gouda (already a bit more piquant) showed off some hoppy herbal notes.  

There's potential in this for your next party.

Recreating the Accident - On Purpose

Just for fun, I tried it again, deliberately this time (though I admit to feeling a bit like Fleming discovering penicillin).  It's pretty easy, as you might imagine in a process that I noticed accidentally.  

This time I unwrapped the cheese and put it in a larger zip-lock bag.  I then dumped hops into a smaller (and zipped) zip-lock bag and put that bag into the cheese bag and sealed it all up together.

Back into the fridge.  One day is all it took.  You can go longer, but I wouldn't do that unless we're talking about a medium-to-intense cheese.  I would also note that the flavor/aroma fades after the cheese's exposure to the hops ends, so if doing this for a party I'd combine the hops and cheese overnight and pull it just before serving.  

Your beer geek friends are going to love it, and your foodie friends probably will, too.

Hop Selection

My initial accidental/natural experiment was with noble hops, but this seems to work really well with any variety.  Certainly it's a fun way to add some herbal flavors.  You could even match the hops to the beer you're serving.

The best reactions seem to be from the "big citrus" hops.  Just like people seem to like bright, fruity beers, they seem to like the same in their hopped cheeses.

I'd also recommend sticking with fairly neutral cheeses, at least to start.  Cheddar, Gouda, Havarti, and Mozzarella have all done well for me!  Once you've dialed in your process, timing, and matched this stuff to your own palate, then by all means, go crazy.  

Beer Ingredients and Food

I've read some interesting things about using beer ingredients (malt extract, crushed grain, etc.) in food, but they usually entail some precise steps and a good understanding of cooking.  

This, on the other hand, is idiot-proof.  Right up our alley here at BS.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

Might vs. Right: Blogs, Brewing, and Belief

What's the point of all of this?  Why are you reading it?  What is it saying?

It's the start of a new year, so instead of unseemly navel-gazing I'm just considering this "introspection," but at least it's to some purpose.  

Several times a year I run across commentary from readers of this and other blogs (brulosophy.com comes immediately to mind) which are critical of beer blogs and bloggers.  Their central objection is that we're trying to "reinvent the wheel" or spread idiosyncratic and small-sample pseudo-science.

I thought it was worth a few minutes to speak to what we're doing here, and maybe also speak to readers' expectations or interpretations, because I feel like beer writing readers/critics have constructed quite the Straw Man.  For today, anyway, read this because it might save you some frustration later.

What I'm Not Saying

I'm not pitching a religion here.  No one is saying that you must do things a certain way, brew certain things, not take certain steps.  Your brewing is yours.  Brew what you want, how you want.

I'm not arguing that I'm infallible.  I could certainly be wrong, and badly.  In fact, that's the one thing I AM certain of: somewhere in the pages of this blog is some really bad advice.

I'm not saying it's science.  I might say that it's logically sound, and make a case for a reasonable conclusion, but you'll  never read that it's scientific.  Empirical, yes - but more on that later.

I'm not making a claim of originality.  There's nothing new under the sun, and humans have been brewing almost as long as we've been human - most of what we write about has been written about before, is being written about now, and will be written about again.  

I'm not telling you that what I'm writing is worth your money.  I love the "I wish I had a job where I could just write pointless think pieces about beer" criticism.  Yeah - me too.  Who wouldn't?  But the reality is that this isn't a job (for me, anyway), so when I take 1,500 words one Monday morning and just write about something I've been thinking about, there's no need to point out that it's frivolous and lacking in utility - I already know that, and I'm not asking you to pay for it.  

So in light of these things (and others), why bother reading?  

Why Bother?

First, because frivolity and thinking aren't bad things.  As humans we like the idea that others have the same thoughts as we do.  We like being exposed to new-to-us thoughts that we agree with.  Heck, trolls will tell you that we even seem to like arguing (at a nice remove) with people that we disagree with.  

Second, because although this isn't science, it is a bit scientific. It's often empirical and approached with an eye towards making a defensible argument, at least.  There's not much here that I assert without something to support the assertion (even my well-documented hatred of Terrence Malick films).  

Third, and this is probably the most important part from the brewing perspective, it's because of YOU.  Lots of this stuff is reactive - lots of you out there trade in conventional wisdom and tradition and habit, and tell us what we can or can't do.  And, so, I/we push back.

You're the Problem

Not really, but I wanted a nice, provocative heading for this section.  What I mean by that is that a great deal of what I'd consider the "process" stuff I and others write about is taken up from a perspective that seems to be misunderstood.  

I'm not saying that what I do will work for everyone.  I'm saying you're wrong when you say it can't work (especially when you say it about my brewing), and I'm prepared to make and support an argument that it can.  Let me give you an example:

  • "You can't use OneStep alone to clean/sanitize, because you'll get lots of contamination."  
    • OK, but I have, for a decade and about 250 batches of beer, and my beer shows no evidence of consistent (or even sporadic) contamination.
  • "OK, but just because you like drinking your filth doesn't mean it isn't contaminated."
    • Very true.  But I also enter all of my beers in competition to get objective feedback on them, and my scoring data show no evidence of contamination, either.
  • "OK, but it's still wrong of you to say that everyone can do it..."

And that's how we end up at the straw man.  I didn't say that.  I'm saying that you're wrong when you say something CAN'T work.

I CAN'T make full-sized batches on a 110-volt, 1800-watt induction element.  I CAN'T boil indoors without a vent hood.  I CAN'T free-add pellet hops and drain/chill through a plate chiller without a screen.  I CAN'T ferment lagers at 75F after two days at 50F without getting off-flavors.  I CAN'T make an all-grain batch with a full 60-minute mash and boil and be done in 3:15.  

Except I can.  I do.  I'm not saying it will work for you - just that it might, despite the categorical prohibitions and proscriptions you've been exposed to.  Might - not right.

So before you criticize a piece of beer writing, ask yourself whether you're criticizing it for what it's actually saying, or just what you think it's saying.  When I say it works for me and you should try it, I'm not trying to re-write De Clerck's Textbook of Brewing.  I'm just saying you should give it a try, because it worked for me and I think it might work for you.

I'm sure there are lots out there that DO try to win converts and make near-universal claims of scientific accuracy - and when they do, go ahead and give them hell if they deserve it.

Those aren't the norm, though - at least not in my reading.  Mostly it's well-meaning people, spending time and sharing thoughts about a hobby they love, and trying to add to the collective discussion we're all having.  Is there crappy information on the internet?  Sure.  Always be willing to question the credibility of your source.  But most of the criticism of beer writers that I read is people that are pushing back against something that's different from what they do or from what they've always believed, and their objection is more often than not rooted in the objection that it's different or heterodox.  

Keep an open mind.  It's a new year, after all.

Keep it simple.

JJW

10 Beer & Brewing Resolutions for 2017

Happy New Year from Beer Simple, everyone!  Since last year's list was highly constructive (and at least 8/10 items on it were actually completed), I thought I'd start this year by resolving another ten beer-and-brewing-related things to do by the end of 2017.  Join me, if you will - maybe not for all of these, but just a few.  And for anyone who might care, 2016's recapped list and feedback are at the end.

So off we go, into 2017...

1. Drink all unique beers in 2017

This is a big one, and it came to me when I realized that I drink almost exactly 365 pints a year (I was curious, so I kept track of how much overall, and when).  I thought, "what if I didn't repeat any beers at all next year?" and once a thought like that gets into my head it's hard to shake.  The downside is that I get only one can/bottle of a lot of beers that I love, but the upside is that I have a built-in reason to try lots of new things.  With the continued growth in the craft brewing sector (we're over 5,000 breweries now, and at times it feels like 3,000 of them are in the Philadelphia area), the timing couldn't be better.  What's going to be weird is how I deal with my own beer - the current plan is to only brew a) beer for parties that I'll put in kegs, and b) age-able beers.  There's a lot of Old Ale, Barleywine, and Baltic Porter in my future.  Maybe a lot of sours, too!

So - no repeats.  Already off the list following yesterday's New Year's dinner are Lagunitas Stoopid Wit, Sierra Nevada Celebration, Short's Brown, Goose Island Fulton Street Blend, and Heavy Seas Winter Storm.

2. Make a perry

I've never made perry, but I have pear trees, and someday I might even use my own pears for it!  For the first time, though, I'll probably get some reliably good pressings from a local purveyor.  But everyone should brew something new every year, if only to avoid ruts.

3. Revisit my least favorite brewery and drink at least four of their beers

Sometimes we write off a brewery, and it becomes an article of faith that their beers suck.  This year I'm going to revisit my least-favorite brewery - and it's the clear frontrunner - and drink four of their offerings.  If nothing else, it keeps me honest and gives them another shot, and even if they still make beer that should just be called "IPAcac" at least I'll know that I'm correct in continuing to steer people away from them.

4. Replace my Better Bottles - all of them

I'll likely just replace them with new Better Bottles (they've done very well by me), but it's been several years since I've replaced my fermenting vessels, and I get the feeling I'm mostly coasting on luck these days - there might be some bug in there waiting to bite my brewing ass.  I want to get ahead of him.

5. Visit more beer bars, and fewer breweries

For some reason it seems easy to get people pumped to visit a brewery - probably because the presumption is that the beer is better right at the source - but I find it harder to get psyched to visit a new (or new to me) bar, even though they're all over the place.  The power of habit, I guess: you find some comfortable places to drink at, with great beer lists and excellent food, and you start to get lazy.  I want to break that paradigm this year - get out there and try out some new places.

6. Convince a friend to give their child a beer-related name

Preferably without them knowing it.  "Porter" is too easy, but I'll take it.  I'd much rather talk them into Vorlauf or Citra, though.  "Citra's a nice name - she's the Greek goddess of the orange harvest!"  I can sell that. 

7. Use honey as a flavorful adjunct

I'm not talking about making more Braggot or Mead - I just mean using a pound of buckwheat honey in an ESB, or a pound of Raspberry honey to add some light honey sweetness to a wheat beer.  I feel like it's being overlooked as a secondary or tertiary ingredient.

8. Find a pair of brewery-branded pants

I already own lots of brewery t-shirts and sweatshirts.  I've seen and can get brewery underwear and socks.  If I find a pair of brewery pants, I can actually dress head-to-toe in brewing merchandise.  Not sweatpants, either - some kind of jean or trouser.  It seems like an odd ambition, but I've always wanted to, just for a day.

9. Read at least three new beer and brewing books

It's an odd side-effect of doing a lot of beer writing: I don't spend nearly as much time reading other people's writing.  I'll hit articles that touch on old topics in new ways or seem to introduce genuinely novel ideas (I like to keep current), but whereas I used to read new brewing books as much for pleasure as for education, I find I just don't do it much anymore.  I'd like to correct that this year.

10. Support pro-beer legislation at the local, state, and federal levels of government

There are still laws in place that breweries and beer drinkers have to contend with that are either illogical, ineffective, or create inefficiencies.  I've been content to let the AHA lobby on this stuff, but I'd like to set aside time this year to more personally get involved in it.  I'm a political scientist, after all...

And, of course, I'd like to keep writing Beer Simple.  Thank you to everyone for reading this year, whether you just stop in occasionally or read every week.  It means a lot to me that you spend your time here, and every week I try to put something up for you that is worth that sacrifice.  Best wishes in 2017, keep brewing and drinking good beer, and as always...

Keep it simple.

JJW

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

RECAP OF THE 2016 RESOLUTIONS!

10. BUY A HIGH-QUALITY THERMOMETER – OR AT LEAST CALIBRATE THE ONE YOU ALREADY HAVE - Done and done.  My new Thermapen has been incredible. FAST and accurate.

9. MAKE A POINT OF ATTENDING EITHER THE GREAT AMERICAN BEER FESTIVAL OR NATIONAL HOMEBREWERS CONFERENCE - NHC 2016 ("Homebrewcon" - but I still have trouble with that) in Baltimore was a blast, and the dozen or so members of our club that went all had a remarkable time.  

8. FIND A NEW APPRECIATION FOR A PASSÉ OR OVERLOOKED BEER STYLE – I’M THINKING WITBIER - Oddly enough, it ended up being American Pale Ale.  They're everywhere, but it's amazing how often people (me included) gloss over them en route to looking for something more interesting, using the logic of "I can always go back to it..."  This time I started with them.  Really fun.

7. GIVE UP BEER FOR LENT, EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT CATHOLIC - It was no alcohol for 40 days, and it yielded some interesting conclusions.  I may do something similar this year, but I haven't really thought about it yet.  

6. WRITE A LETTER TO A BREWERY THAT IS MAKING YOUR FAVORITE BEER AND THANK THEM - Burial Brewing in NC got an e-mail, and they were super grateful for it.  Keep up the great work, guys!  And if you readers are in a position to try their Shadowclock Pilsner, it's incredible - but it for the artwork, drink it for the flavor.

5. LEARN ONE SCIENTIFIC LESSON THAT WILL IMPROVE YOUR BREWING - I spent some time on presentation of essential oils in hops, reading through the academic literature.  I can't pretend to have understood it all, but one thing was abundantly clear: we need to know more about this.  They're quite the black box.

4. ATTEND A HOMEBREW CLUB MEETING – OTHER THAN YOUR OWN - Done.  Actually, I attended three!  Always neat to see what everyone else is up to.

3. TEACH A WILLING PERSON TO HOMEBREW, AND BREW WITH THEM AT LEAST THREE TIMES - this is one I didn't get to follow through on.  I'll try better next year.

2. STAND UP FOR ONE NEWBIE THAT IS BEING RAZZED BY AN ALEHOLE - got to do this at NHC actually.  Sad that it was necessary, but glad to have been there to do it.  And the alehole in question had some bizarre beliefs about what an IBU was.

1. CONTRIBUTE IN A MEANINGFUL WAY TO THE BREWING WORLD – HOWEVER YOU CAN - I hope I did this, but if not I'll do better next year.  

Happy New Year, all!

Catching the Truck: What to do When You Made "Your" Beer and It's Awful

You've brewed for a little while.  You have some control over your process.  It's time to go off-script and make your own beer.  That's what this hobby is great for, right?  Creativity?  Novelty?  So you do it, and you get exactly what you aimed for - and it sucks.

I'm sure we've all been down this road at least once.  It happens all the time in life, so why not with brewing?  "Seemed like a good idea at the time" isn't only something that applies to time shares, small-of-the-back tattoos, and eating at Whataburger.  

Sometimes we brew a beer that does exactly what we wanted, it just turns out that what we wanted isn't any damned good.   In my case, it was a colonial-era stock ale with pomegranate and spruce.  I wanted to make a strong ale that Washington might have drank during the cold winter at Valley Forge.  I wanted some heat, some roast, some berry, and some pine.  I wanted rustic.

Well, I got exactly what I wanted.  And if I was right, George suffered that winter in more ways than one.

That beer was awful.

Now what?

Own It

First, be humble enough to admit that this wasn't the result of some process flaw (poorly calibrated thermometer, for example) or a mislabeled bag of grain.  You made some bad choices.  Take it like a big boy/girl, and own up to it.  If you won't do that, you'll never learn.

I met a brewer early in his career who would mash everything at about 140F.  This guy was making starchy pseudo-beer (with a healthy dose of cat hair, I assume for flavor).  Why?  "So I don't extract tannins."  OK, fair enough - but you're not getting many sugars, either.  Convinced that we were just not in touch with what he was shooting for, he dismissed a lot of our feedback.  His beer never improved (to my knowledge) and he moved to Appalachia and later had a broken engagement (if I remember correctly).  I imagine him sipping his starchy beer and petting his cats in a lonely shack somewhere

Don't be that guy.  Learn from your mistakes

Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome 

The Tree of Life sucked - one of the worst movies ever.  Old Faithful is really disappointing.  And that colonial spruce ale was awful.  Yet people still tell me about the genius of Terrence Malik.  They say that I can't miss Old Faithful because it's so majestic.  And that spruce ale went on to win several medals.

Now, clearly, there's an element of subjectivity and personal preference and taste here.  I'm not pretending there isn't.  But what I do know for a fact is that a number of people came up to me later and said that they didn't understand The Tree of Life but that they said they liked it because they didn't understand it (see also, The Piano).  On driving out of Yellowstone (and with me keeping my thoughts about geysers completely to myself), my wife looked at me and said, "I don't think I actually enjoyed that...", referring to Old Faithful - it was a let-down compared to the other amazing things in the park.  And at least one beer judge said to me that my awful beer won because it was "exactly what the description described" and was "unique."  He admitted that he didn't like it, though.

Don't let that be you (in any regard - stay away from Terrence Malick films...and Baz Luhrmann films, while we're on it).  Just because you made exactly what you were trying to make, don't convince yourself that it's good just because it was what you "meant to do" or because it's unusual/novel.

Make Allowance for Their Doubting Too

Just because you were the dog chasing the truck and finally caught it, it doesn't mean that the result is all you dreamed and hoped for.  Be willing to let go of the truck.

Go out of your way to get/accept objective feedback, and be willing to give it to yourself as well.

The only way to get it right the next time is to acknowledge that something went wrong this time.

Trust yourself when all others doubt you - but as Kipling tells us and as we've mentioned before -make allowance for their doubting, too.

Keep it simple.

JJW 

 

I Don't Like Your Beer - and That's OK

Brewing beer and sharing beer are basically inextricable.  I don't know any homebrewers that drink all of what they produce, like some kind of homebrewing hermit.  But if you share your beer, you're going to get a reaction, probably whether you ask for it or not (though most do), and when that happens you're eventually going to get back some negative feedback.  

I tasted your beer.  And I don't like it.  

And you know what?  That's OK.

You Asked For It

OK, maybe you didn't (hang tight - we'll get to you in a second), but you probably did.  We were at a party or a beer festival or you brought it to my house, and you said, "hey, would love to know what you think of my ______________ !"

What's crazy is that despite judging/evaluating lots of beers, in competition and professionally and as part of research for writing, I'm not really particularly judgmental when I'm just drinking.  But if you ask for it, I'm going to tell you.

What's even more crazy is how often people get bent out of shape if I say I don't like it.  

Look, if you're holding out for universal acclaim in life, you're going to have a long and disappointing row to hoe.  Why'd you ask if you didn't want to know?  I didn't spit it across the room and then give you the finger while disparaging your mother's sexual history - I just smiled and said, "I don't know - it's not really for me."  If you don't ever want to hear that, don't ask.

You Didn't Ask For It - But You're Going to Get It

Then there's this.  Let's say you didn't ask.  Now, if that's me and you didn't ask, I'll just say "thanks" and leave it at that.  But most people won't.  

Beer is inherently communal.  The context of it isn't "sitting at home alone with the lights off watching a Downton Abbey marathon," it's a pub, or a sporting event, or a party.  When you hand someone a beer - whether you made it or not - they're likely to say something about it.  

You might not be looking for a reaction, but (especially since there's alcohol involved), you're probably going to get it.  Brewing beer for yourself and offering it up for public consumption takes a touch of bravery - own it.  Smile, thank them for their feedback even if it's unsolicited or indelicately phrased, and either dismiss it (if you want) or take it to heart (if you want).  But I think it's unreasonable to hold it against that person.

I Didn't Say It - But You Heard It Anyway

Maybe it was just a facial expression, or the fact that I didn't want more of it, or I didn't praise it and instead remained silent (though I'd point you to Sir/St. Thomas More's defense of "qui tacet consentire videtur").  But you interpreted my reaction as an expression of my dislike.  Maybe that's not totally reasonable.

I remember being told, as many of us were, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."  I don't remember that being followed up with, "...and if someone does that to you, act all pissy and snub them later if you can."  

I Didn't Know This Was Yours

This one comes up fairly regularly, actually.  As much as so many of us claim to want honesty, and/or we think the world has gotten too soft and politically correct, we ignore (to our benefit) the reality that lots of people aren't honest with us when they know they're directly offering feedback to the progenitor of a product, whether it's food, or art, or beer, or...ahem...a blog.

If I don't know you brewed it, I'm probably going to offer a pretty frank opinion - which might be good or bad.  I think most people would.  It's like how if I'm talking about the Cowboys I'll say that nothing gives me more pleasure than watching video of Tony Romo crying while slumped dejectedly on the field after falling JUST short of winning a playoff game.  Now, if I ever met Tony Romo, I wouldn't share that with him.  It'd be inappropriate.  

So when you hand me a beer and say, "what do you think of this?," or if we're at a beer event of some kind and I taste your beer at a booth and don't know who brewed it and you seek out/overhear an opinion, I hope you'll cut me a little slack and know that I would have been a bit more politic if I'd known you were going to hear it.

That doesn't make me two-faced - it makes me human.  Or so my "How to Act Human" pamphlet tells me.

I Don't Like Your Beer - and That's OK

Ultimately, if you're going to say (as so many homebrewers do) "I brewed this for me, and I like it," then you shouldn't get too hung up on what I (or others) think of your beer.  

I'm not in that camp, though.  I brew beer I like, for sure, but I also want you to like it.  So if you have anything to say - nice or not, polite or not, accurate or not - I want to hear it.  

But even if you're in the "care what people think of your beer" boat with me, it's still OK if people don't like what you made.  Beer is diverse.  Not every beer fits every palate, even if very well made.  And some will find a supportive audience even if they're not well made.  

At the end of the day, it's only beer.  

I don't like yours - and that's OK.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 

 

Brewing for the Holidays: A Fast Pacification Strategy With One Brew Day

It's time.  Actually, it might already be past time.  If you haven't yet done so, we need to get serious about the beer you'll be serving through the holiday season.  All of you "it's not even Thanksgiving yet!" people can stow it on this one: if you're like me then your first holiday party is only a couple of weeks away, and we need to get a move on.

The way I see it, there's three things to think about here: beer for parties, beer for gifts, and beer for you. I have a plan to get you done with this in as little as one batch, but even those with a little more time should probably sit down and work out a plan (or just steal this one).  Let's get to work.

Needs Assessment

You know this better than I do, of course, but let's assume that you're brewing for one large-ish party of your own, that you have beer gifts to provide to about a dozen work and family periphery-people, and that you want a nice winter warmer of your own to drink at the end of all of the holiday insanity.

FOR THE PARTY: You want four gallons each of two beers (which works out to a bit more than two pints a piece for 30 party-goers), neither above 5% ABV, but with some contrasting flavors.  And you need to satisfy your nothing-but-macro grandfather and your sour-swilling cousin and her alehole husband.  Tough needle to thread...

FOR THE GIFTS: It's bomber time.  Anything less is an insult.  And ideally you want something that will age well since you don't know if this is going to get re-gifted, and/or how long it'll sit before the recipient cracks it open.  But since you can't be sure who's going to be drinking it, it can't be all that out-there if you want them to come away with a nice experience!  

FOR YOU: Roll it into the gift-beer decision-making, and you're covered as well.  

For the Regular Brewer

Let's assume that you can brew at least three times in the next two weeks.  You're in luck - all you need to do is pick the styles you want for the party and your lucky gift recipients.

For the party, I like to work backwards.  What are people going to ask me for, and what if they don't know what they want or like?  In other words, I want to be able to accommodate people who say the common sorts of beer-ish discriminating things ("I like hoppy beers/dark beers/lagers" - not specific, but we know what they mean), and I want to have two beers on tap that are easily explained to beer neophytes ("one is X, the other is Y") in words they can understand.

And, of course, time is a factor here. True lagers are probably out.  But that's OK...

Beer One: English Bitter, dry hopped with something spicy/piney (like Northern Brewer).  If someone tells me they like "hoppy beer," I'm hitting both elements here (bitter and hop flavor/aroma).  At the same time, I have a light beer that's easily explained.  "English Pale Ale" carries some obvious connotations (pub drinking) even for people who don't drink much beer or are in the macro light lager crowd.  The caramel, floral hops, and low ABV also mean that it's almost universally non-offensive and won't overload anyone's palate.  

Beer Two: Dark Mild.  It'll be a dark beer for the people who say they want dark beer.  It's low in ABV.  And the flavor profile (toffee, toast, a little light chocolate roast) is a good fit for the winter.  Done and done.  

Beer Three: Your favorite strong ale, preferably something with some hops - I like American Barleywine for this one.  Brew up a full batch of it, keg half, and bomber bottle half.  Print out some fancy labels (make sure they describe the beer AND how you're not supposed to rouse/pour the yeast), add a ribbon around the neck, and you've got 16 gifts and a bunch of small goblet pours for yourself to ring in the new year.

For the Stressed Brewer With NO TIME For Anything

Maybe you're a parent who's already overwhelmed by the holidays.  Maybe you're busy as hell at work as the calendar year comes to an end.  Maybe you're just too busy going to every fall and winter beer event that crosses your calendar.  You effectively need three gallons of gift beer, four gallons of each two party beers, and hopefully a little something leftover for you - and some diversity to meet a variety of palates. It can be done.

The easy solution is to knock out three quick extract kits: it's not easy, but it's probably a better idea than what I'm about to propose.

Let's say you can't brew that many times - just not on the table.  You can still meet your brewing needs.  We're just going to need to get homebrewer-creative as hell here.

You're about to brew one batch.  It can even be an extract batch.  Fast and simple and easy.

  1. Brew five gallons of Amber wort using either a 50/50 batch of Munich and Pilsner malt or liquid extract (to a calculated SRM of 20) to a gravity of 1.100.  Add 60 IBUs using a good all-purpose American (but NOT a super-citrusy) hop.  I'm a fan of Glacier, Northern Brewer, and Target (though Polaris is growing on me...).  You just want to be sure it's something that has a decent AA% (so you don't need tons of it - at this gravity your utilization is going to be pretty low) and doesn't scream "AMERICAN IPA!"  Pick your hop, and add it in such a way that 40 of your IBUs come from a bittering addition at 60 minutes, and the balance comes from equal (by hop weight) 20 and 10 minute additions. Chill.  You now have your starter wort.  High OG, 60 IBUs, dark amber in color, with some herbal/spice/fruit hop flavor and aromatics.
  2. Set aside half the batch and dilute with an additional half gallon of water, bringing you to an OG of 1.080.  Ferment with Wyeast Scottish Ale yeast (1728), dry hop with a classic C hop, and you've got yourself a nice American Barleywine/Winter Warmer at 8% ABV, SRM of about 16, and 50 IBUs with a big, fresh, hoppy nose and a touch of ester from the yeast.  That 3 gallons should fill 17-19 bombers.  Gifts are done (and there's a few bottles left for you).
  3. Take the other 2.5 gallons and dilute to eight gallons - it should reduce your overall gravity to about 1.031.  
  4. Split into two four-gallon batches.
  5. Dissolve 4 oz of maltodextrin powder into about 1.5 cups of water, boil for a few minutes, and then add in equal amounts to each batch (to bulk up mouthfeel a bit).
  6. To one, add a pound of darker honey (buckwheat is a nice choice) and ferment with the cleanest ale yeast you can find (Wyeast 1056 or WLP001), and voila: you have a light honey faux-lager, 4% ABV.
  7. To the other, add a pound of blackstrap molasses and some cold-steeped coffee.  Ferment with Irish Ale yeast: Instant session porter or Dry Stout (however you want to sell it).

And there you have it.  One brew, three beers, lots of happy people.  I can't, in all sincerity, say that I think this is a good idea, but necessity is the mother of invention and apparently some of you over-busy people just left this stuff too late.  Give it a shot!

Happy Thanksgiving from Beer Simple

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone - and if you live outside the US...have a great weekend.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 

Pound It: Bulk Hops and What to Do With Them

Back to the Beer Simple mail bag this week!  More than one person expressed concern over keeping their hops fresh.  To which I have this response: don't worry about it.  In fact, buy more.

That picture at the top is my newest shipment of hops.  Four pounds of pellets.  I brew more than most, but I don't really use lots of hops.  Altbiers and Pilsners are my usual "hoppy" beers.  So have I lost my mind?  Am I about to jam out a series of IPAs for the hell of it?  Have I discovered that a hop-pellet-eating diet is great for treating hair loss?  

Nope.  I just don't worry about hop staling.  I'll use those hops for at least a year.  Maybe two.

When we talk about hop freshness, we're mainly discussing two elements of hops: alpha acid percentage (%AA) and essential oils (since so much of their flavor/aroma components derive from them).  Brewers get concerned about a loss of either because it makes recipes unreliable and can significantly impact what you get out of your kegs and bottles.

To which I say, again: don't worry about it.

That's because both of these are highly stable, especially when stored properly.  If you're not living in a mobile meth lab somewhere in New Mexico and storing your hops in the outdoor shower area in full sunlight, then in all likelihood you can buy hops with abandon and keep using them almost-forever without any concerns about freshness.

[NB: Before we go on, let me say that I'm always talking pellets here.  A lot of this applies generally to whole flower hops, too, but they're not really my thing, so I can't promise anything if that's what you tend to prefer.]

Frozen: Not Just a Terrible Film With Massive Plot Holes Anymore

Storage temperature is the first thing to look at here.  Generally speaking, anything that's kept cold takes longer to spoil, stale, develop, etc.  Arrhenius' Rule tells us that chemical reactions double in speed for every 10C of temperature we add.  If we turn that around, it tells us we can roughly halve the reaction times by reducing temperature by 10C.

So let's take a worst-case.  You can find this data yourself from a variety of sources, but generally speaking you'll lose about half of the alpha acid potency and somewhere between 30-90% of essential oils in hops after six months.  

"OH MY GOD!!!  BUT I JUST BOUGHT A BUNCH OF HOPS!  YOU'VE SCREWED ME!"

No, I haven't.  Because those numbers assume you're storing the hops in open air at room temperature.  

So let's take good ol' Arrhenius out for a spin.  If we have a 10% Nugget hop, it'll be at 5% in six months (50% loss).  But room temperature is 72F (or just over 22C).  Put those hops in the fridge (average temperature being 2C, just to keep the math easy) and we're looking at half of half of that loss, or 12.5%, so our Nugget hops in the fridge are at about 8.75% AA six months later.  Put them in the freezer and we drop it by another 20C (to -18C), so we're at half of half of that 12.5% loss, or 3.125%.  So our theoretical Nugget hops are still rocking about a 9.7% AA level.  

How long would it take to cut the AA% in half, then?  Well, at that rate, it's a hell of a lot longer than you'll ever have those hops.  Theoretically, we're talking about four half-life doubling steps down in temperature.  6 months at 22C, x 2 (down to 12C) x 2 (down to 2C) x 2 (down to -8C) x 2 (at -18C, or average freezer temperatures).  96 months, or eight years.  

Essential oil survival is likewise extended dramatically.  It's tough to calculate, but essential oils and their contribution potential is seriously unpredictable anyway, so you shouldn't buy into your own BS on how much you "know" they'll contribute in the first place.  But storing them cold WILL reduce the rate at which those oils decay, in the same proportion that our AA% was reduced.

So buy that pound of hops, keep it in the freezer, and don't worry about it.

Everybody Just Hold Their Breath

The other enemy (well, one is light, but if they're in the freezer I doubt they see the light of day very often) is oxygen.  Mostly when you buy hop they're vacuum-sealed and/or flushed with nitrogen to prevent staling, which is how hops vendors get away with selling the same crop for a year or more.  In that relatively-inert environment, hops last a LONG time, especially when they're also frozen (which they are - and btw, freezer burn isn't possible in hops because of something to do with a lack of "free" moisture - ask a scientist).

Before you run out and buy a vacuum sealer and/or your very own cylinder of nitrogen, you should be aware that at least one study in the journal Comprehensive Review of Food Science & Food Safety found that simply reducing the oxygen by pushing it out mechanically (squeezing the air out of the bag) and then manually sealing it yields about 87% of the total benefit of a nitrogen flush. 

So just get as much air out as you can and then seal that puppy up.  Done and done.

Time v. Consistency

There's not much risk attached to buying lots of hops and storing them for a long time, but there is a slight loss, as noted herein.  So why take the risk?  Consistency.

First, the losses are small and predictable (and calculable).  You'll have a good sense of about how close to "new" your hops are in terms of Alpha Acids and Essential Oils, and you can account for it in your recipes.

That very slight loss in consistency from batch to batch that we will experience will, in my view, be more than offset by the consistency we'll derive from learning how to use a discrete set of hop varieties.  Constantly swapping out ingredients can be fun, but in brewing our goal is usually consistency - there's already a LOT of variability in the process.  Why not stick with six or seven hop varieties for a year?  You can always sub in specific additions for flavor and aroma, but most of your recipes are looking for a certain hop character - spicy, fruity, floral, herbal etc.  

My view is that you'll probably make better beer overall, and more consistently, if you go get yourself a few one-pound bags of pellets and use them as your "base hops" for a year or two.  And if anyone asks you about hop staling or aging - just forward them this link.

Keep it simple.

JJW

In Search of Monsters: Simplicity, Consistency, and Beer

John Quincy Adams once said something that's of remarkable value to us as brewers: "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be [America's] heart.  But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy."

A little heavy for a Monday morning, perhaps, and don't worry - we're not going to get into anyone's thoughts on the current presidential election (much as I might want to).  But that quote always jumps to my mind when I hear brewers (professional and amateur) talking about their brewing, and most especially when I field questions from homebrewers.

I recently invited y'all to send any and all questions you might have, and rather than post answers in a Q&A format, I thought I'd answer them over time, in context.  But the overarching message (which should come as no surprise to anyone who can read the URL for this blog) is that too many are, in a brewing sense, ignoring Adams the Younger's sage and valuable advice.  Put very, very simply: Don't go looking for trouble.

The Mash Question

This question came in from multiple people, so it gets to go first (and it's a great candidate for the treatment I'm advocating).  One reader put it this way: 

"What temperature do you mash at?  I've read your articles here and at beerandbrewing.com, and it almost never says."  

True.  Well, sort of. I do sometimes say, but it's often left out for a very simple reason: I nearly always mash at the same temperature.  Why?  Because consistency is probably the most important thing in brewing.  Do it the same way every time, and you'll trend towards a better product, since fixes and adjustments are happening within a more-stable and -repeatable environment.

And 95% of the time I'm mashing at 152F/66.7C.

At the 2012 NHC in Seattle I went to a presentation delivered by a chemist at White Labs, and he made a pretty compelling case for 152 being a "sweet spot" for fermentable wort, despite our conventional wisdom that going lower will make the beer more-fermentable.  I figure it's always easier to add body than take it out, so that's what I've gone with since.

And I've nearly always used it.  No tinkering with mash temp here.  

Ready, Aim, Fire

There are things I tinker with, but they're usually the things that lend themselves to easy quantification - ingredients, mostly.  Which ones, treated how, and how much?  So, for example, I'll try a recipe with a higher-Lovibond malt, or a little more/less of it, or from a different region, or in combination with other elements of the grist.  I'll dry hop with 20% more, or for a day or two longer.  

But there are other things that are better left alone.  I tend to include in that bin the things that revolve around the chemical/biological processes in brewing.  Since they're complex (and dynamic) processes, they don't lend themselves to control or adjustment as easily, and so to null out their variability I usually recommend that you keep them as steady and stable as you can.

Anyone who's had firearms training knows that when you shoot, you always aim for "center mass" - as in, the point that's more or less equidistant from the edges of what you'd want to hit to protect yourself.  At the range, that's usually just a big dot with a red center, but in the real world it's presumably a person.  So, we sometimes also use targets that look (sorta) like people.  There's a reason those targets don't usually have arms or legs - just a chest and head.  Aim for the dead center of the chest (no pun intended), because everything from the wind, the distance from you to the target, the heat of the bullet as it exits the barrel, and a hundred other things can move you off of your target.  If you aim for the center, every time, you increase your odds of hitting what you're aiming at and successfully protecting yourself.

Same thing here.  If you're messing with mash temperature, mash thickness, time, how often you stir, speed of your runoff, and other things in an attempt to "work" your mash, then you're increasing the probability of not getting what you want.  The "control" you're getting is illusory, because it presumes that the mash process itself, in the tun, is highly predictable and controllable.  It isn't.

If you do it the same way every time, you surrender a very small amount of control but you also take the worst potential results completely off the table.  It's like golf: just aim for the center of the green.  Take bogey out of play.  

Cost/Benefit

When you adjust mash temperature to get a certain result (usually something to do with the body/fermentability of the beer) you might add in a tiny level of perceivable difference.

But you're also introducing more error and uncertainty into the result, and doing so while moving the desired outcome towards the edges of what we consider "acceptable."  You might create a sludge with lots of long-chain sugars if you end up missing too high.  You might get a simple-sugar-laden-but-starchy-and-protein-heavy mess if you end up going too low.    

To me, the cost just isn't worth it.  There are other ways to get body into beer (or take it out).  If you want more body, add a non-fermentable to the recipe.  Done.  And you know how much you've added, so you can adjust it the next time if the beer's too heavy/not heavy enough.  If you want less body, add a pure fermentable to the beer.  After all, you're ostensibly creating a more-fermentable wort through your lower-temp mash, so why not remove the uncertainty?  Start with a lower gravity to begin with and add in something that will ferment off completely - it isn't like we lack for choices, and most won't affect the flavor at all.  I once emptied the spice cabinet of every damned simple fermentable I could find when I was making an Apfelwine and realized I didn't have any cane sugar left - that thing got maple syrup, honey, confectioners sugar, and some leftover light candi syrup, and you couldn't taste a one of them in the finished product.  

And in exchange for not messing with the chemistry of your mash, you'll get a stable base to work from in any other area that you do want to change.

So, as I said, good ol' 152F for me, every time.  If you want to play, do it with things that don't involve whatever sorcery is going on inside that mash tun.

Don't go looking for monsters to destroy.

Keep it simple.

JJW

What to Brew, What to Brew...

In an average year, I'll brew about thirty times.  Sometimes it ends up being more (NHC coming to town, lots of celebrations/parties), or less (busy semester, equipment rebuild/repair chewing up brewing time), but it's usually within a few of that.

Which means that in any given year I'm filling a surprisingly limited dance card.  And I brew more frequently than the average homebrewer (if surveys by the AHA are to be believed, the over-under is something like 15).  

When I came to that realization it got me thinking about how I decide what to brew, and largely without realizing it I've been following a few rules.  You don't need to follow these, of course, but it might be worth your while to think on why you choose to brew what you do.  You might be surprised...

If I Can't Buy It, I'll Brew It

First up, I generally brew things I can't buy regularly.  Even living in the beer market I do (gotta love Philadelphia, for both the local beer AND what we get imported), there are beer styles that just don't pop up all that much.

Altbier probably tops the list.  Good English Bitter (though there's more of it than there used to be).  Eisbock.  American Amber, oddly enough.  And I'll definitely brew clones of things that are outstanding but just not available in our area, even if I can get something in the same style!

But IPAs?  I'll usually just buy them.  Seasonals are usually thick on the ground, so it's not necessary to brew them if I'm running short on time.  We're also getting to the point where good light lagers are now abundant, though I know that's not true everywhere.

Scarcity, then, becomes an important part of figuring out what I'll be brewing. 

Speed v. Strength

I also tend to brew things that I know will be consumed quickly, and without turning my friends and family into Oakland Raiders tailgaters about ten minutes before kickoff.  I currently have a keg of Baltic Porter on, and that sumbitch is probably going to be there until December.  

When I'm properly planning, I keep the stronger or more-esoteric stuff in bottles.  Or I don't brew it at all.  Unless it's specifically going to be aged/rationed (for example, every four years I brew a small batch of English Barleywine, of which I drink three bottles per year!), I'll typically pass on brewing it.  

I simply won't drink (or give away) enough of it, or fast enough, to justify it.  I find that I'm happier with three pints of 4% Munich Dunkel than one pint of 12% Strong Scotch.  Your mileage may vary, of course.

Finding the Right Challenge

At least a few times a year I brew something that comes under the heading of "experimental" beer.  But when working out what that will be, I'll often pair it with a base beer that will let me pull double duty.  

Split batches are your friend.  Instead of making two or three small batches, make a regular-sized beer with a common grist and hopping, and split it out on the cold side.

And as a corollary to that, choose your challenges with care.  There's certainly value in making a Gueuze, but before you head down that path, consider the impact on your other brewing.  How much fermenter space are you tying up?  How much time and effort to age your hops?  How long before you get a drinkable product?  And how willing are you to dump it if you don't like it?

Path dependence can be a real pain, so before you set yourself a brewing challenge, make sure it's something you're committed to, and put yourself in a position to learn from it no matter how it turns out.  Push yourself, but do so in a way that doesn't waste your efforts.

Choices FTW

A lot of us keep a tap or two set aside for "everyday" beers.  I'll usually have a German lager or English bitter on tap, just for the "not really into craft beer" crowd.  Standard beer.  "Watching the Ryder Cup on a Sunday Afternoon" beer.  Dare I say, session beer.

But for the rest of my beers, I tend to stick to styles that produce home runs when done really, really well.

Not every style can claim that.  I've never been to Cologne, so maybe it's a different experience there, but I've never in my life had a Kolsch and thought, "GOOD GOD, WHERE HAS THIS BEER BEEN ALL MY LIFE!"  Ditto for Helles.  Or whatever "summer ale" is.  

If I'm going to brew a roasty beer, I'm going to brew a Robust Porter with lots of late hopping.  If I'm going to brew a wheat beer, I'll brew a Weizenbock.  Not super-strong, or mega-bittered, or ultra-estery.  But something with a lot of flavors, and more importantly, a lot of choices on the part of the brewer.

If it's just going to be approximately the same thing that anyone else brews (hello, Hefeweizen), then I'm just not as interested.  I want something customizable.  It's like deciding to make an egg dish, and making a hard-boiled egg.  Is there a difference between a phenomenal hard-boiled egg and a horrific one?  Sure.  But the gap between the 20th percentile and the 80th percentile isn't all that large, and it's a lot larger between the same examples of (for example) Eggs Benedict.

Call me crazy, but it makes me feel like I'm making "My" beer, not just the best imitation of someone else's.  

Brew What You Want

I mean this both as a general disclaimer (to head off the nattering nabobs who will knee-jerk the response of "DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO BREW!"), and also a plea to think about what you want out of beer when deciding what to brew.

"I want something that tastes good."

Yeah.  Got it.  But what else?  Why are you doing this?  

Do you brew because you want to say you brew your own beer?  

Do you brew because you're not satisfied with the beer in your market?  

Do you brew because you like to play around with flavors and pairings?  

Do you brew to save money?  

Do you brew because you're a mad scientist that wants a new strain of yeast named after you someday?  

The more you know about why you're brewing, then the more satisfied you'll be with the brewing choices you make.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

This piece began as a half-joking list of beers called "S--t I won't brew."

For fun, the Beer Simple Condensed Version of the list (in-progress) is below:

  • American IPA - too many good ones out there
  • Most sours (with the exception of quick sours like Berliner Weisse) - blessed with lots of breweries making great sours, just down the road from me
  • Spruce beer - I had a bad experience once (picturing Jurgen Prochtnow in "Beerfest")
  • American lager - just...why?
  • Barrel-aged anything - I almost always end up just tasting barrel
  • Blueberry beer - I'm not convinced it can even be done well
  • Black IPA, White IPA, Red IPA, Brown IPA, Belgian IPA... (seriously - the whole "tag the name with IPA because it's high in bittering and flavor hops!" thing is annoying)
  • Beers that involve adding petals to them
  • Lots of Belgian Strong ales, but I do occasionally get a hankering...
  • Gose - not only is it trendy, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus among brewers and beer drinkers as to what constitutes a "good" one
  • Cream ale - just because