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

Maybe You Shouldn't Be Homebrewing...

Every once in a while I see articles and blog posts saying things like, "Try homebrewing!," "Don't Quit, Keep At It!," or "Anyone Can Brew!"  I'm going another direction today, just for the sake of intellectual honesty: Maybe you shouldn't be homebrewing.  

Don't start.

Think about quitting.

Because the simple reality is that brewing isn't for everyone - and there's no shame in admitting it's not for you.  

Bad Beer: Not a Reason To Quit

Let's start here, though: I'm not giving this advice to anyone solely on the basis that they make bad beer.  That's where the articles get it right: if you're having trouble producing beer that's relatively flaw-free and (or?) that you like to drink, then that's fine.  We can help you with that.  Making good beer is actually pretty easy if you do the simple things right.

So please don't think this is some kind of elitist attack on the brewers that are working to bring their beer up to a palatable level, however they define that.

If it's just a question of making better beer - don't quit.  Keep at it.  It'll get better, I promise.  Join a homebrew club, enter competitions to get objective feedback, revisit and refine your process, etc.  

Love the Process

Novelist Frank Norris said, "Don't like to write, but like having written."  That might fly with writing, but I don't know that it's true for brewing.

Brewing is work.  Even when it's as easy and simple as it can be (see...this blog for how committed I am to THAT idea), it's still work.  You have to like the work or you won't keep brewing for long - it's just too easy nowadays to get good beer.  The "don't like to brew, but like having brewed" mentality probably sufficed in the 1980s when there was virtually no craft beer around, but now even the corner dive bars I go into have a couple of solid-to-great local craft taps on.

Take a look at that picture at the top of the post.  That was literally 24 hours ago in a friend's home brewery - the blowoff from that Flextank in the picture was too much for the headspace, and seven of 65 gallons ended up on the floor, under the tables, and soaking into the carpet in the adjoining room.

Now, I'm not saying you need to LIKE the idea of cleaning that up, but at the very least you have to be able to get some wry humor out of it.  On a much smaller scale you probably DO have to like the act of cleaning a kettle, the challenge of engineering a tap system and drilling holes in your walls, monitoring the temperature of a fermenting carboy and draping it with wet towels to get some evaporation cooling, and/or a dozen other small details that go into homebrewing.  If you're not at least neutral on those, the satisfaction of "having brewed" probably isn't enough to keep you going.

Homebrewing Probably Won't Save You Money

My process produces the equivalent of two cases of 12oz bottles.  In exchange, I use about $18 worth of ingredients, $1 worth of electricity, and four hours of my time (including brewing, monitoring, and packaging).  

Those two cases on the open market would cost me something like $40 each, so I'm ahead by $61 per batch, right?  

Not really.  First, my time's worth something (despite the fact that I spend it on this blog for free).  Even at minimum wage, it'd be $7.25/hour, or $29.  And I brew FAST.  Most spend more like five hours on their brew day, rather than the three hours I do.

Then there's the equipment costs.  Burner, kettle, cooler, carboys, tubing, bottles, caps, kegs, cleaners, sanitizers, salts, spoons - the list goes on.  At the end of the day, you're probably breaking even.  But I'm not even sure I can say that about most brewers, just that it's possible.

And, at least in my case, I probably buy more beer now that I brew, paradoxically.

Homebrewing Isn't Cool

...and even if it was, the anti-trendsters would be out in force to rag on it.  You'd be accused of being a hipster, or at least being a carrier of the virus.  Is that worth it to you?

Homebrewing is a pretty nerdy hobby.  It's populated, in large part, by scientists and minutiae-lovers (worst Cinemax soft-core porn movie EVER).  Ever had a two-hour conversation about the geometry of a Coleman cooler?  You will.  If the thought of that makes you want to run screaming from the room, then maybe avoid that room.

I guess you could brew a one-gallon batch once in a while for the novelty of serving a bottle or two of your own beer now and again, but I still don't think that'd get you any cool points.

If You're Still Reading...

Good.  

Now that the dilettantes have gone, we can talk.

Brew because you like to create - whether it's the cooking, the science, the problem-solving, or whatever.  I don't like cleaning pots, but I don't mind it, either, because I know that at the end of the day I'll have spent my time making something my own way.  That's fun.  AND I get beer out of it.

Brew because you'll love the people you meet.  The people who stick with brewing are YOUR kind of people.  It's funny how many of us in this community are fairly introverted, but at the same time homebrewers are pretty social within their set.  Sure, there are some out there who use this hobby as a tool to beat people over the head with their beer superiority (hello, aleholes), but they're a minority.  AND you get beer out of it.

Brew because you like being connected to one of the oldest human activities.  We've been brewing beer for a long time (almost since cultivation began), and if you have a sense of history and continuity you'll like continuing that tradition, and it will make the petty annoyances worthwhile.  AND you get beer out of it.

Finally, brew because YOU want to.  Ignore the supporters and the detractors alike, because at the end of the day you'll be the one cleaning up that seven gallons of blown-off wort at the top of the screen.  Ignore the friends and family that ask you to brew beer for them like you're they're personal nanobrewery.  It has to be personally gratifying, and not for others, because otherwise you'll just be resentful and irritated at the idea of brewing, cleaning, kegging, bottling, shopping, hauling, and lifting.  If you like doing it for you, then by all means, brew for your cousin's wedding, your high school reunion, and your office picnic.  But start with doing it for you.

And don't worry if your beer isn't very good to start - we'll help you with that, and it'll get better in no time.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 

 


Hooked: Brewing with the End In Mind

Some things are hooks for our senses.

It's the time of year that we start to see "pumpkin beers" on the shelves and taps (don't panic - this isn't a piece about pumpkin beers).  As most of you know, though, "pumpkin" beers aren't really "pumpkin" beers: they're pumpkin pie spice beers.  What we tend to think of as "pumpkin beers" often don't have a single gram of actual pumpkin in them.  Some use another type of squash.  Some don't use anything except the spices we associate with pumpkin pie.  And even the ones that actually do use pumpkin...well, it isn't as though we all have a great sense memory of what a bland squash adds to beer flavors.

So why do we call them pumpkin beers?  Because that's what they make us think of.  Fall.  Leaves.  Thanksgiving.  Pumpkin Pie.  We're servicing our expectations - nothing more.  And if you point out to someone that their favorite pumpkin ale doesn't actually have pumpkin, they won't care.  Why should they?  The name creates an expectation, and the organoleptic experience verifies it.  

It's like how, to me, "Christmas" smells like bourbon and ginger ale.  At my great uncle's annual Christmas party, the most common drink by a mile was Jack and Ginger.  So, in my mind, every time I smell that combination, I think "Christmas."

There's a useful lesson in that for us brewers (home and commercial).  When we make our recipes and build our flavor profiles, we should start with the end in mind.  It does us no good to get dogmatic and stickler-ish about what's actually in the beer - we should be focused on whether we're generating the flavor experience that we're shooting for.  How we get there is our business, and no one else's.

Double Down

It's often useful to include in recipes multiple elements that might yield essential flavors.  If you want a significant amount of citrus, you might consider a classic American hop (for the aromatic oils), a mild Belgian yeast (for its orange and nectarine esters), the introduction of some lactic acid (since we often associate that bright, tart flavor with some citrus fruits) and an actual addition of some kind of citrus fruit. 

Obviously this will take some trial and error to ensure that you're not overdoing the element in question, but there are clear benefits.  First, you're not putting all of your flavor eggs in one basket: if you accidentally select a yeast strain or hop pairing that nulls out the presence of the flavor you want, you're screwed if that was the only thing contributing that flavor.  This way, you're covering your bases.

It's also been my experience (having judged a large number of Specialty flights over the years) that brewers tend to undershoot their flavor targets rather than overshoot them.  It reminds me of a story that golf teaching legend Harvey Penick told about a student who wanted to be taught how to put backspin on the ball.  

"When you hit your shots, do you usually go long, or come up short?" 

The student replied that he almost always came up short.

"Then why the hell do you want to know how to put backspin on the ball?"

Give yourself every opportunity to get that flavor hook into your beer - you can always back it off in future versions.

Faking It

Another golf truism is that "they don't draw pictures on the score card."  However you get the ball in the hole, it's in - so don't worry about how it happened.  By the same token, in brewing we should be conscious of the fact that the people who drink our beer don't know what went into it.

If using white squash gives you the mouthfeel you want, then to hell with pumpkin.

If you're making a Rhubarb Stout (true story - my wife had to make one once) and you're concerned that the flavor of rhubarb is too subtle and too much an unknown, then add in some cranberries to fake out the drinking audience.  If they believe that tart/sweet flavor is just your magical, alchemic, superlative method of extracting flavor from rhubarb (instead of just an equal dose of cranberry), then who needs to know?

If you're making a seaweed beer (true story - I have to make one for a brewing competition this winter) and you want to make people think "ocean," then there's no harm in adding some salt to the recipe even if seaweed doesn't actually taste salty.

Again: what matters is hooking the flavor to something the drinker is expecting to find, or can relate to the expected flavor profile.

Rough it Up

Once upon a time I made a 14% ABV Eisbock.  That's not that hard, really, but it's important to the moral of the story.

Being a lager, and a tough one to make due to the high ABV and the effect of concentration on off-flavors (freezing and concentrating the beer is going to amplify the hell out of any faults), I was ecstatic when my samples of it were as smooth as glass.  Nice malt character, toasty, some dark pit fruit flavors - I had a winner on my hands, and I knew it.

It sucked.

Not the beer, but how it was received.  Every pair of judges that had it noted that it was "lacking alcohol."  Yeah, NO, it wasn't - and if it weren't really irresponsible I'd have challenged them to drink a pint of it and then try that knife trick from Aliens.  

So I tried it as a Dopplebock.

Same result.

Finally, as a Traditional Bock (now a Dunkles Bock), it found a home - in a beer style that typically has an ABV of about half what this was rocking.

The lesson?  That beer would have been a better example of the style if it wasn't quite so clean: I wasn't giving people what they'd expect, even though by-the-numbers it was spot on (and in fact on the very high side) and the result (a clean beer with just subtle warming despite the ABV) was what you'd claim to want.  

So always ask if you're working against yourself, from the receiver's perspective.  

Brew with the End In Mind

Every time you sit down to work up a recipe, the first thing you should do is decide what you're trying to accomplish beyond "making a [blank] beer."  If it's a particular flavor, work backwards from that and incorporate lots of avenues to get it.  If it's a particular experience or impression, don't constrain yourself to what the name suggests should create it (the Pumpkin Syndrome).  If it's a certain style profile, make sure you're not "fixing" your way out of the style.

Brew deliberately.  Brew with an eye towards what you want the people who drink your beer to take away from it.  Brew in a way that increases your odds of getting what you want.  Brew with the end in mind.  

And, as always...

Keep it simple.

JJW


When Kegerators Attack: Dealing With Unexpected Beer Service Failures

Four days ago I had an experience that most homebrewers would recognize: I got well and truly shafted by my kegerator.

We've all been there, right?  It's one-to-thirty hours before a party, and you're prepping for what is sure to be an event where no fewer than a dozen people will ask, "so, what have you brewed lately?" because that's your thing.  You check on the kegerator...

...and something's wrong.

CO2 tank is empty.

It's too warm.

It's too cold.

There's beer leaking all over the place.

It's way too foamy.

Or all of the above.  And you're screwed.

This week at Beer Simple we'll be talking through some ways to deal with these sudden failures that always seem to hit when you're least prepared to deal with them.  But hey - maybe you've never had this happen, and if that's the case, please e-mail me at josh@beer-simple.com with the name of the guy/gal that supplies you with your sacrificial goats.

The Slow and Quiet Death of the CO2 Cylinder

This is probably the most common.  The number of panicked Facebook posts and sudden mailing list e-mails looking for the nearest refill location is clear evidence of that, and given that we're talking pre-party, they usually come at REALLY inopportune times!  You have options, though.

The easiest fix here is prevention.  Make sure your gas connections are screwed on nice and tightly, use thread tape, and make it a habit to check in.  But even if you do that, you might get a sudden failure.

The next-easiest is to always have a spare and relatively full CO2 cylinder.  It doesn't need to be much - pushing the beer is the easy part and uses relatively little gas, so you don't need a dedicated, full replacement.  After the third such incident in six months, I decided to just purchase a second five-pound cylinder and use it for my initial keg pressurizing.  That way it has a purpose, and I always have a backup if things go wrong.

Another option is to keep on hand some of the small 16-gram CO2 cartridges and the requisite connections to make them work.  These are more than sufficient to keep your beer moving in the short term.

But let's get a little stupid.  My favorite move is to use the carbonation already in the beer to build up pressure to pour it.  I've done this for more than two hours at an event when I realized that the cylinder I'd brought was empty.  A little sloshing shake every few minutes kept the beer pouring, and no one even noticed the slowly decreasing level of carbonation.  Dumb, but simple and effective.

Fridge to Sauna

This past Friday before the party - literally four days ago - I was doing my usual pre-party faucet cleaning and check, and I noticed the beer was foaming like mad.  My first thought was that I'd developed a contamination in the keg, but then I realized the mug I was holding was warm.  Sure enough, my trusty, free, rolled-it-down-the-street-into-my-garage-after-dumpster-diving-it keg fridge had died, and my beer was rocking a solid 82F.  Hot Amber, anyone?  I didn't have a kegerator anymore.  I had a Keg Sauna.

Luckily it was a relatively small beer-drinking crowd coming, and I could get by with what I had in bottles/cans.  But what if this was just before our homebrew club's winter social?

What's essential is getting cold beer out of the keg.  For that, not ALL of the beer needs to be cold, just what's coming out.  So keep on hand a tub of any size, a large (20 pound) bag of ice, and a couple of picnic taps.

I use a large aluminum tub that neatly fits two kegs.  In the event of a cooling failure, I can pop two kegs off of the kegerator, stick them in the tub in a nice thick ice bath, and attach two picnic taps.  Since the dip tube is drawing from the bottom of the keg, it doesn't matter that the ice bath only comes up about halfway - what's down low is still plenty cold.  Voila - cold beer on draft.

Could this have been prevented?  Maybe.  I'd heard the thing making some odd noises a few days before, but it still seemed to be cold.  At the very least I should have been conscious of the probability of an imminent failure, but what can I say - apparently I'm an appliance optimist (or ostrich)!

Foam Party

There's something about beer that's pouring flat or way too head-y that makes me feel like a complete beer amateur.  I don't know what it is, but I feel like the moment someone pours a pint of head off the tap they're looking around and thinking, "oh, I see, you wanted a tap system but have no idea how to manage it..."

So I'm sensitive to what you might call the Foam Party Effect.  Cue the strobe lights and the techno music.

To start with, a lot of people screw themselves here, so step one in avoiding "heady" pours is to instruct your guests on how to pour a beer (maybe even hanging a small sign).  Angle the glass, snap open the tap fully, don't try to "throttle" it, etc.

But what if it's not you, it's me?

Sometimes (as happened with my Keg Sauna), your issue is temperature disparity.  Limit as much as possible any changes in temperature from keg to glass, which is tough if you have a long distance to traverse.  Luckily, most of you will either be pouring through a collar or countertop, but if you're going through a wall you can secure 10-12" shanks that can pass through a mounting board, the wall, and the back of your fridge.  This will keep all of your sitting-in-the-tubing beer at the same temp since it's all in the fridge, inside and outside the keg, which will help.

Also, make sure you're appropriately balancing your kegs.  Properly balanced, you should maintain a steady level of pressure/volumes of CO2 in the keg AND get a steady, easy pour out of your faucets.

If it's ALL of your taps that are making like a South Beach nightclub and foaming all over the place, then it's probably one of these issues.  If it's just ONE tap, though, you can get into some other possible explanations.

First, you might have a contamination in that keg or that set of lines.  Taste the beer - if you're getting sharp acidity, acetic/vinegar flavors, a grape-juice-like flavor, or the more traditional baby-vomit-plus-goat-shit-rolled-in-cherries, then pop that thing out of there, throw away any plastic beer lines it's touched, swap out the o-rings in the keg, and give the keg and shank and faucet a good cleaning/sanitizing.

Second, you might also have an obstruction in the line.  A constricted passage (and this can be something as simple as a bit of hop matter, a bit of silicon tape, etc.) will cause agitation in the beer and force CO2 out of solution.  When you're pouring, look for pressure/flow irregularities at the faucet, look for bubble buildup in the beer line, and check your visible connections for anything that's blocking the flow of beer, even minutely.

Last, check for kinks in your beer lines.  Shanks are solid, and beer should flow smoothly through them, but that tubing can kink faster than...some metaphor involving New Orleans and Mardi Gras.

And if your problem is beer that's barely moving, increase the pressure and then double back to balancing your kegs!

The Beer Vat

One of my brother-in-law's first beers was a massive IPA that used about a pound of hops in five gallons.  He was so excited about it, because it was going to go head-to-head with another home brewery's beer (two brothers who lived down the street) in an informal competition.

But "Brother Crusher IPA" never made it to the showdown.  It ended its short but happy life as a small swimming pool of hoppy beer inside of chest freezer, where it smelled glorious for a couple of hours before turning into a rancid mess.

The keg leak is probably the worst offender here.  First, it often also accompanies a dead CO2 tank.  But second, and more importantly, it's a massive waste of your time and effort (and beer).  And while four gallons of Oktoberfest dumped on a floor smelled incredible for about half a day, once the late September heat has a bit of time to work on it my garage smelled like I'd been storing yak corpses in it.

When this happens, it's time to check the liquid connections throughout your system.  Don't just fix the immediate problem (for me, a loose nut on a beer line connection), because if you put this system together all at the same time then another small leak could be lurking just a few days or weeks down the road.

So get in there and check the keg "Out" post and poppet, your post connector, the nut and clamp connecting it to the beer line, and the connection between the beer line and the shank.  Tape, tighten, and test it all, because if you think you're pissed the first time it happens, wait until the second time (and the Dubbel didn't smell any better than the Oktoberfest, let me tell you...).

An Ounce of Prevention

Almost every problem I've ever had with my kegs (probably) could have been prevented by better and more-conscientious maintenance.  However, I was too sold on the idea that "no news is good news" on my kegs, and that the less I touched and tinkered the more solid they'd be.

Learn from my poor example.  Take care of your kegs and kegerator, and they'll take care of you.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 


Clubbing: A Brief Introduction to Brewing Clubs v. Beer Clubs

If you’ve been brewing for a year or more, there’s a good chance you’ve started looking into joining a homebrew club.  Depending on how anal-retentive you happen to be – or what the options look like in your area – you may or may not have previewed and auditioned more than one club. 

It shouldn’t come as any surprise to hear that not all homebrew clubs are created equal.  I’m not talking about size, the kinds of activities they engage in, or even brewing quality.  No, what I’m talking about is the difference between a brewing club and a beer club.

They sound basically the same, right?  Trust me when I say that they’re not (or don’t, and just keep reading!), and the differences matter. 

I’m not passing judgment, or arguing for one type over the other, but being able to spot the difference might mean a much more satisfying experience as you hunt around for a club to call home.

THE BREWING CLUB V. THE BEER CLUB

Brewing clubs are pretty easy to spot.  Beer tasting and evaluation tends to be more structured and is present at every meeting.  You’re likely to find a significant number of BJCP-certified beer judges.  Members brew at least once a month, and often more.  The club tends to sponsor intra- and/or inter-club competitions that encourage members to brew outside of their comfort zones.  For example, my club, Stoney Creek Homebrewers, has a “duel” program in which members can challenge any other member to brew a specific type or style of beer (or a beer with a specific ingredient), and the challenged member MUST accept.  The result is an opportunity to engage in a bit of friendly competition while at the same time forcing you to get creative and challenge yourself.  Duels have included everything from a boring-but-tasty English bitter duel all the way up to the surprisingly-good malt liquor duel. 

Brewing clubs also tend to have a substantial emphasis on education and technical development of their members.  You don’t need to pay for luminaries to come visit, either: conscientious members can volunteer to engage in some basic research and provide a brief class to the membership, at which point a general discussion can evolve. 

Brewing clubs are about brewing. 

The beer club is a different animal entirely.  While it is comprised of (mostly) homebrewers, it lacks an emphasis on brewing.  Evaluation of beers tends to be a bit haphazard, sometimes with nothing more formal than members roaming the room with a growler and pouring samples. 

They also tend to be heavily social, with very little organized activity, either at meetings or in club activities.  Education is often reserved for specific events external to the club’s normal meetings, and sometimes includes larger-scale talks with outside experts.

Beer clubs are about lots of things, including brewing, but usually lack a particular focus or strategy, which can make them seem a bit more ad hoc and freewheeling.  And the focus is more on beer than brewing.

FIND YOUR FIT

Finding the right homebrew club for you is, like many things in life, about finding the right fit. 

To a highly social, extroverted, or casual brewer a more-structured club like the stereotypical “brewing” club described above will likely seem a bit dull or stiff.  It will seem too obsessed with rules and agendas and the technical minutiae.  You’ll likely be bored.

To a more technically-minded or – let’s just say it – neurotic brewer, the typical “beer” club described above will feel like a waste of time.  You’ll want to give and receive feedback on your beer but might get nothing more than a nod and a two-word response.  You might also find that large beer clubs get clique-ish and can be a bit unwelcoming to new members – maybe not deliberately, but it can still feel that way to someone without a lot of friends in the room. 

Find your fit. 

MAKE YOUR FIT

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with multiple homebrew clubs, then it’s probably a good idea to audition all of the ones that are a reasonable distance away rather than just jumping into the first (or closest) club you find.  If you’re not, then don’t be afraid to start your own club!  Stoney Creek was created because a few people in the same area that were already acquainted formed a club around a kitchen table – and what started with four attendees now draws ten times that many regularly, has a main and satellite chapter, and is a significant contributor to its local community.

But don’t settle.  A supportive and helpful club – whatever kind you prefer – is a great way to keep yourself motivated and interested in brewing.  It will bring you into contact with like-minded people in your area, and connect you to the larger brewing community.  It may end up being an important part of your social life or be a priceless resource to develop your brewing skills.

KEEP A WANDERING EYE

It should also be noted that clubs don’t all fit into neat boxes.  There are large and decentralized clubs that are highly focused on the technical aspects of brewing.  There are small clubs that function as social clubs more than brewing clubs even if they follow Roberts Rules of Order to a T.  And clubs evolve over time: what starts as one type may develop into another, depending on the wants of its membership or the actions of its leadership.  So be flexible, and be willing to bail.

Hell, you should also be willing to join more than one club!  I’ve known lots of homebrewers that belong to multiple clubs as a way to take advantage of what each has to offer.

So keep looking until you find (or found) what you want.  There are few things that will do more for your enjoyment of homebrewing than joining a homebrew club, and the effort to find a club you like will yield benefits for years to come. 

Keep it simple.

JJW


Professional vs. Amateur Brewing: A Game With Which I am Not Familiar

After watching the field-crushing performance by Jack Nicklaus during the 1965 Masters, Bobby Jones, the tournament's legendary co-founder and a man idolized by Nicklaus himself, had the following to say about Nicklaus' performance:

"He plays a game with which I am not familiar."

That sentence runs through my head quite a lot when I hear homebrewers talk about brewing - especially when they're citing professional brewery practices to justify something they believe to be essential to homebrewing.  

When Jones gave his famous quote, he wasn't being humble or even falsely modest: he was simply pointing out that the game of golf was so different compared to when he had competed (equipment, the advent of professional golfers whose sole vocation was the game, course design) that the two could hardly be compared.  He was complimenting Nicklaus, to be sure - but he wasn't necessarily conceding that Nicklaus was more skilled or talented.

So it is with homebrewing v. professional brewing.  What is necessary, desirable, or appropriate for one is not necessarily so for the other.  They're playing a game with which we homebrewers are not (well, are maybe notfamiliar.

A Question of Goals

Homebrewers should not consider themselves "minor league" brewers.  If I made a list of the best brewers I know, it would be about an even split between pros and talented amateurs.  

At the same time, we should not consider ourselves "mini-pro" brewers.  There is far more that separates us from professional brewers than the scale of our batches (and for that matter, some homebrewers regularly brew on a brewpub or nano scale).

The most significant difference between us is the goal being served.  Professional brewers brew to earn a living.  Yes, they also (hopefully) want to make great beer, give back to their community, provide employment, and enjoy their work - but they're also doing it to support their families, which means that when push comes to shove they're always, at least in the back of their minds, staring down the barrel of a profit motive.  This will alter their practices.  It will likely make them risk-averse.  It will probably make them value consistency and, perhaps, mediocrity.  They are brewing to a standard, whether it be industry norms, market conditions, safety or health requirements, or some combination of these.

Homebrewers do not brew for profit.  A bad batch will not mean an unpaid bill.  We have no need to brew to meet the demands of the madding crowd.  We have no fears of mistreatment of our beer by a distributor or vendor or bartender.  For that matter, we have time on our side: even if we screw up, there's a decent chance the beer will be gone before our mistake is manifest.  We're brewing for ourselves, and our mistakes are ours alone - and if we can tolerate them, then in most cases they do no further harm.

To hold ourselves to a professional standard is not only unrealistic - it is unnecessary.

Form Follows Function

This isn't going to be a point-by-point review of things that pro brewers do that we don't need to - it's more a request that you refrain from automatically adopting pro brewers' dogma about brewing.  We're not playing the same game.  Our equipment, scale, and purpose differ in all kinds of ways that change our processes.  

A few quick examples:

  • Yeast health and fermentation are very different games when you have 200+ gallons of beer pressing down on a yeast bed vs. 5 gallons.
  • Maximizing mash efficiency isn't nearly as important when you're not trying to preserve a very thin profit margin.
  • Temperature changes, runoff, the addition of ingredients, and any number of other things might take a LOT longer in a professional brewery. 
  • You're probably not brewing lots of beers across multiple shifts in the same week.
  • Your beer doesn't need to survive weeks in transit and then on the shelf and still be drinkable.
  • A hop chosen for a very high alpha acid percentage might make sense to a brewery who can buy less of it for the same IBUs, but not to a homebrewer looking to minimize cohumulone.

We could go on, but I assume you get the point (and people get on me for writing too much).  When I write about something you can probably leave out of your process and still get good beer, at least one person always writes, "but ABC Brewing Co. would never do that, so how can you say we should?"  

Because we're not professional brewers.  It's like asking why I don't go out and run a mile before the start of a marathon - elite runners do it to get loose and ready, so why not me?  Because I'm not looking to qualify for the Olympics - I'm just trying to survive and finish with a decent time, and I don't have 27.2 miles in me (26.2 is more than enough). 

And why are we reverencing professional brewers as though they have access to magical knowledge that we don't?  For certain, they often have more experience - more brewing "reps" under their belt - but as noted above, their goals and process aren't the same as ours.  Their rules and norms don't automatically apply to me any more than mine apply to them.  They may or may not have more brewing education than you.  They may or may not have a better culinary sense than you.  Hell, they may or may not even be a better brewer than you.  The only thing we're sure they have that we don't is a license to produce beer for sale - they're professionals.

I'm an amateur.  But so what?  "Amateur" doesn't mean "worse."  And let's not forget that "amateur" frees us up to experiment without fear, innovate, take advantage of small batch sizes to make unique beers, and more.  There's value in being an amateur.

Hell - Bobby Jones was an amateur.

Keep it simple.

JJW


Hot or Not: Heat Effects on Flavor Stability in Finished Beer

While we're right to be wary of light when it comes to finished beer, worries about heat are - persistently and irrationally - overstated.  While heat does have an effect, it isn't an inherently damaging factor in its own right: it needs help.  And, by and large, if you're producing good, healthy beer then you don't need to worry quite as much.

Bright vs. Hot

Light is our enemy.  We've all tasted skunky beer.  Skunking is an effect caused by the interaction of UV light with specific compounds found in hops (though not hop extracts, as I understand it).  This has led some to conflate light with heat, which is a bad idea for at least two reasons.

First, it might make some less wary of light exposure in cold environments.  Be wary.  Chilled beer that's sitting under fluorescent lights, or out in the sun on a cold day, is probably going to skunk quickly.

And second, there's very little reason to be concerned about heat, in and of itself.  Some have written about the potential for the formation of coagulated proteins due to extended hot aging (which I'm not scientist enough to support or rebuke), but I can't recall a specific time when I experienced it.  Reading others' accounts the effects seem to be limited to mouthfeel and head formation which, while important, aren't at quite the same level as light effects, which can make your beer taste like homeless-person asparagus urine.

A Natural Experiment

One reason I'm pretty confident that heat isn't a principle concern in terms of beer flavor and its stability is because I'm a bit of a nerd.  I generate and keep data on my beer, and one of the things I track is competition score as a function of age in the bottle.  It gives me a sense of overall flavor stability, among other things, and one year I was provided with a nice little natural experiment.

I moved.  And in the course of moving house, my finished, to-be-sent-to-competition beer had to be stored for 32 days in a garage.  In the middle of summer.  During several heat waves.

Now, ordinarily my "evaluation" beer doesn't see the light of day between bottling and submission, and it's stored in a near-freezing refrigerator.  So as you can see, this was beer abuse - if we start from an a priori position that heat is a detriment to beer.  

Well, I now had my natural experiment.  18 beers that had been hot-aged for a month, vs. those in previous (and subsequent, eventually) years that had not.  I compared the scores for those beers to those of other beers of similar style and age, and also compared the average effective "life" of each (the point at which its flavor and/or scores fall off the cliff, using judges' scores/comments as well as my own organoleptic evaluation).

Results

I'll spare you the statistics (though I hope to present them in some detail at a future Homebrewcon), but suffice it to say that there was no statistically significant decrease in scores or life expectancy for the treatment ("hot-aged") beers.  

Scoring fluctuation was within "normal" limits (there's always a bit of variability in those due to the human nature of beer judging).  

Flavor stability was unaffected (and, in fact, for the lagers I got a very counterintuitive result when their timeline actually extended).  I can count on more than a year (13.1 months, to be exact, as a 20-batch moving average) of flavor/scoring stability, and this batch had no issues there.  The hot-aged beers varied in initial bottling date, too, so some were hit with this within a few weeks of bottling, and others after more than a year.  As a group, and individually, there was no statistically (or substantively) significant change.

And for what it's worth, they tasted fine, too.  But that's so highly subjective that I shudder to even mention it.

When Heat Matters

Maybe I just got lucky.  It's certainly possible.  But I don't think that's it.

Heat has one undeniable effect on beer (and most any other chemically-reactive situation): it speeds up reactions.  Arrhenius tells us that for every 10C increase in temperature, reaction times double.  Now, many have taken this rule and oversimplified it to state that "heat means beer stales faster."  That's incomplete.

Heat certainly might make beer stale faster, or sour faster, or anything faster - but only if the requisite process(es) is (are) already underway.  A beer with only limited contamination might be "turning" faster than it ordinarily would have in a cold environment, but that doesn't automatically mean that it will hit detectable levels before its normal timeline runs out.  

So I'm not denying Arrhenius' rule, I'm just saying that it might have only limited (insignificant and/or insubstantial) effects depending on the underlying beer's situation.  If you have some history of producing contaminated beer, then, you should certainly be avoiding heat.

Heat is also blamed for accelerating oxidation, but that, too, is incomplete.  Subject to Arrhenius' rule above, oxidation (if already present) may be brought to the fore more quickly in hot-aged beer.  What many are blaming on heat, though, might really be a function of temperature fluctuation, not temperature level.  As temperatures change, your beer bottles (and their caps) are expanding and contracting.  That temperature change is also causing pressure changes, and these two elements are very likely resulting in the introduction of more oxygen into your beer.  Hence, greater risk of oxidation.

So yes, temperature swings might be present in a hot-aged environment, but apparently they weren't a huge issue in my dad's garage.  And if you gave me the choice between aging at a steady 85F vs. aging in a cooler room with 30F temperature swings, I'd take "hot" every day of the week.

Respect Heat, but Don't Fear It

In a perfect world, as soon as your beer is carbonated to your target level, you should be storing it cold.  But if circumstances make that a challenge, you shouldn't abandon all hope.  Make your priority temperature stability, and keep your fingers crossed that whatever's happening faster in that bottle isn't going to catch up to you!

And if you notice that it is...well, I guess it's time to get rid of it.  Cheers!

Keep it simple.

JJW


No Man is an Island: The (Occasional) Pleasure of Joint Brewing

About 95% of the time, I brew alone.  I like it.  Everything that happens - good or bad - is down to me.  It means that I get to decide precisely how things go down: recipe, mash temperature, boil length, hop additions, dilution or addition, how long to oxygenate - all me.  And like a lot of people who are fundamentally introverts, I know that "being alone" isn't the same thing as "being lonely."  I rather enjoy brewing as a solitary pursuit, with only Biscuit the Brewdog (who doesn't make demands or suggestions, only wags and approves) as an audience.

Which is why, about every 40 batches or so, when my wife gets an awesome idea for a beer, I get a little anxious about our joint brew day.  

A Stranger in the Brewery

Mostly, Barbara sticks to meads.  She prefers them to drink, and she also seems to prefer them to make - the patience and care that they require suit her temperament.  But about once a year, she gets inspired by something or other to make a beer.  One year it was a Thanksgiving beer: an Irish Red with cranberries and rosemary, the perfect complement to a leftover turkey sandwich (it was great).  Another year it was a maple almond beer (it was remarkable).  This year it's an Earl Grey Braggot (which I'm sure will be exceptional).  

This isn't about her beer sensibility: she has remarkable taste and an impressively intuitive sense of what will work in beer, which is all the more impressive when you realize that she doesn't drink more than 16 ounces of beer in a year.  

No, this is really just about sharing the brewery.  It's in our house, just off of the Great Room (gotta love induction - indoor brewing!!!).  It isn't explicitly "my" space.  But still, in descending order of who spends the most time in there, it's me, then Biscuit in a respectably-close second, and then Barbara WAAAAAY back from the two of us.  So it feels odd, having her there.

It's like when the bears get home and realize someone's been in their beds and at their porridge: something's not right here...

For at least the first half hour or so, it's like wearing your watch on the wrong wrist. But then, something changes.

Sharing is Caring

After the initial awkwardness, it's really a pleasure to be brewing together!  I run a pretty tight brewing ship (as regular readers will have read before), but with two sets of hands we can brew even faster!  Or at least accomplish the same work in the same time with less individual bother.  

There's someone to talk to.  There's an interested person there asking questions and offering insights of her own.  Brewing becomes collaborative, and while my experience means that I'm making a lot of recommendations, I'm also being confronted with new questions and ideas that my brewed-a-few-hundred-times brain hasn't considered in a long time - and maybe forever.

And beyond that is the simple fact that it's fun to share something you love with someone you love (or even someone you just like, if the person that's in the brewery that day isn't Barbara or Biscuit, but just a friend or acquaintance).  When I stop and think about it - even now as I type this - my fingers get tingly from the simple joy of knowing that someone cares to ask how you know when the mash is done.  

It doesn't even really matter that I'm providing most of the technical information - at the end of the day, that's just trivia and minutiae.  What matters is that we're doing it together.  

What a great thing to be doing together.  Of course, anything can be a great thing to do together, with the right person or people.  

Just Enough

But then I think..."OK, that's enough for now."

Whether it's because I don't want to become bored or complacent with it, I tend to come around to the idea that this once-in-a-while experience is quite enough.  It's like smoking a cigar two or three times a year instead of one a day: you preserve the "specialness" of the experience, but you also avoid building up a tolerance, so you still get that nice buzzy high from it every time.

I (eventually) love brewing with someone else.  It's a wonderful collaborative experience.  But I wouldn't want it all the time.

One of two things would happen if I didn't think this way.  Either I'd eventually feel that itch to get away and reclaim my solitude in some other venue, or the novelty of the situation would wear off and it would dilute the happy memory making quality of the thing - which even if it happened only a little bit would be a tragedy, like a small death (and not the good kind).  

And so we brew together, and a few weeks later we package it up together, and I return to my hermit-like brewing life.  

We'll brew again together, I'm sure of it.

Not too often.  Not too rarely.  Just enough.  

Keep it simple.

JJW


Wasted: Things I'm Sure You Don't Need to Do to Make Great Beer

We homebrewers do a lot of unnecessary things when making beer, and we know why: we're scared.  We don't want to make a bad beer.  We don't want to mess up something that we're putting a significant amount of time and effort into.  We want to make a beer that we're proud of.  I get that, but it doesn't mean we can't learn and improve - we're not slaves to convention and dogma (at least, we shouldn't be).

Last week I was invited to talk to a group (the Berks Homebrew Club in Reading, PA), and one of the attendees asked me what might have been the best question I've ever heard: "What are we doing that we don't need to be doing?"  That got me thinking about things that we probably don't need to do - and I'll go on about those at length in person, when I can properly condition/caution everything - but today I'm going to go with things I'm 100% sure we don't need to do.  

These are things that are simply a waste of your time or effort, for what I'm supremely confident are minimal to non-existent returns, and often actually increase your odds of creating faulty beers.    

The Secondary Fermentation Necessity Myth

OK, first things first: it isn't secondary fermentation.  "Secondary" fermentation only happens when you add a new fermentable after the initial sugars in the beer have already fermented off (primary fermentation).  It doesn't even have to be in a second vessel.  But it's become shorthand for moving your beer off its yeast cake, post-fermentation, into a new vessel prior to packaging.  

Setting aside the linguistic quibble, this is still a pointless thing to do.  The argument for it is that it prevents yeast autolysis (death and rupture of yeast cells, imparting a soapy off-flavor to the beer) - but despite leaving any number of batches on the yeast for weeks (and, on at least two occasions, months) at a time, I've never detected this fault in my beer.  Nor really in anyone else's (and when I have, it isn't as though that's the only explanation).

The reality is that autolysis is a bogeyman that homebrewers fear because someone told a campfire story once that put the image in their head of "AUTOLYSIS" creeping into their fermentation chambers and murdering their yeast, leaving foul-smelling yeast corpses all around.  This fear is completely unfounded.  When yeast were generally less-well-developed and robust than they are today?  Maybe.  If you're producing 30 barrels and exerting crazy hydrostatic pressure on the yeast bed?  Maybe.  But you're not, so autolysis isn't your concern.

You know what is?  Oxidation and contamination.  And every time you expose your beer to a new environment or the outside air, I promise you that you're oxidizing and adding contaminants.  Maybe only in small amounts, but why bother even adding that?  It's like if you started every day pinching yourself to be sure you're not asleep.  It doesn't hurt a lot, but it hurts, and it adds nothing.  So why are you doing it?  

I've heard a few other explanations for the benefits of getting your beer off the yeast cake, but they make even less sense.  "It helps clear your beer."  Why the hell would that be true?  "It helps the yeast clean up off-flavors."  Not really - you're better off just rousing your yeast (including the cake) and upping the temp a degree or two.  "You have to if you're going to lager."  No you don't - is there a reason you can't lager in the bottle/keg?  

And last but not least, if this was an issue, wouldn't we have all kinds of problems with bottle-conditioned beers, sitting on a not-inconsiderable pile of yeast for weeks and months at a time?  

Knock it off. Ferment until fermentation is done, cold crash it, and then package it up.  Hell, I don't even rack into a new vessel when I have an actual secondary fermentation - I just add the new juice/sugar/whatever directly to the primary.

The Never-ending Whirlpool

This one truly baffles me.  I'm a believer in whirlpooling (getting your wort moving in a circular fashion to allow centripetal force to collect physical bits in the center) and allowing it to form a nice protein/hop/break cone.  But a lot of you are reading bad advice and doing it for WAY too long.

I whirlpool for seven minutes.  Maybe eight, if I'm watching a particularly good episode of "Archer" while brewing ("Lo Scandalo" is incredible).  That's about how long it takes to get a good stir going and then stop moving.  When it's done (the surface looks still), I open the ball valve (which has a small, unfiltered elbow joint on it inside the kettle) and run the wort through the chiller.  Easy.  Simple.

But I'm reading things that say you should whirlpool for 20 minutes.  30 minutes.  One particularly absurd soul says "45 minutes, always."  But let's keep our eye on the goal here.

You want to create space for your outlet to pull clean wort (whether it's something intrinsic to the kettle, like mine, or something extrinsic, like a siphon/racking cane).  That doesn't take 20-45 minutes.  

Much like the "secondary" practice above, though, this is doing more than just wasting your time, it's hurting your beer (potentially).  That's time you're spending on whirlpool, not chilling, which means you could be allowing DMS to re-absorb.  You're also wasting the aroma/flavor oils in your late hops (and many people don't allow for that time in their addition timing) as those oils isomerize - more slowly, since we're not at a full boil, but it's still costing you.

Now, if you're doing a warm hop-stand (if you are, you'll know what I'm talking about - if you don't know what that means, then you're probably not doing it!) you might get more out of a long whirlpool, but there's still considerable disagreement on just how long it needs to be.  I've read anywhere from 10 minutes to - I'm not joking - 24 hours.  But utilizing a whirlpool in that specific instance shouldn't translate into treating it as a norm for all beers you brew.

Whirlpool if you want - though avoiding kettle trub in the fermenter may not be necessary and can add some good things to your beer, as the folks at Brulosophy have demonstrated - but doing it for more than 10-15 minutes seems pointlessly wasteful to me.

Pitching Temps

"At what point do I pitch my yeast if I'm making a lager?" a friend recently asked.  "Uh...whenever you do it for an ale?" I answered.

I'm done boiling.  I whirlpool (briefly).  I chill my beer.  I pitch my yeast.  

What temperature is the beer at when I pitch?  Whatever the hell the temperature is that my groundwater and plate chiller got it to.  And then I oxygenate and put the thing in the fermentation fridge, with the temp set to whatever my initial fermentation temperature will be.

That's true whether it's 72 or 48 degrees Fahrenheit.  Does that mean my lager yeasts are at 75, 80 degrees for a little while?  Sure.  Does it matter?  No, or at least it doesn't seem to.  

But I know people who insist on chilling their beer to below their initial fermentation temp first - and only then pitching their yeast.  You can do that, I guess, but this is another scenario where you may be hurting more than you're helping.  

First off, you want your yeast in there ASAP.  They'll get moving, growing, eating and crowd out other microbiota that might be competing for space and food.  The longer you wait, the bigger the head start you give to those other things that want to eat your beer.

Second, you're probably making it harder for your yeast to wake up and get to work.  Yeast activity is a function of temperature, and a colder start means a slower start.  Now, if we're talking about fermentation, then you want that - in most yeasts, and especially in lagers, it means fewer off-flavors - but they're not fermenting at first, they're waking up and making new yeast cells.  By the time they are, your beer will be chilled to the appropriate temperature.

And you're wasting your time.  Let's not forget that part.

So don't be shy - if it isn't too hot to kill them, it's not too hot to pitch.  Let them get up and get moving while you bring the wort down to "fermenting" temperature.

A Little Learning

Our friend Alex Pope warned in An Essay on Criticism that "A little learning is a dangerous thing."  You'll find all kinds of people in your homebrewing community who want to give you advice, and though they mean well they may be inadvertently keeping alive the bad ideas and dead dogmas of the past, or applying lessons from professional breweries to your home brewery.  Be critical.  Test.  Question.  Don't take these things at face value, especially if they waste your time.  And let your beer quality be the ultimate arbiter.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 


(Almost) All's Fair: Homebrew Competition Ethics

There's no rule that says you need to enter competitions with your beer - but if you're going to, then you're bound to have some questions about what's OK, what's verboten, and the grey areas in between.

Just like lawyers debate legal ethics, brewers will hold differing views on competition ethics.  I'm not here to tell you this is the definitive answer to these questions, but as always I'm more than willing to respond to any challenges to these answers.

Competing is fun, and a great way to get objective feedback.  I've always advocated entering all of your beers multiple times to get a collection of reactions (to account for any outliers, bad bottles, etc.).  The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) exists to help make competitions and judging as objective and valuable as possible, but keep in mind that they don't supervise competitions.  Competitions set their own practices and rules (often with BJCP/AHA guidance).  Not everything is covered there, though - which leads to lots of questions in lots of places on what's "in bounds" when it comes to competitions.  As a veteran judge and entrant and organizer I thought I'd throw out some questions I hear regularly.

Off we go...

This thing is totally NOT what I was trying to brew - do I have to enter it as what it was supposed to be?

Nope.  You're entering what you brewed, not what you were trying to brew.  If your Rauchbier recipe totally whiffed on smoke character (bad batch of smoked malt, bad recipe, yeast scrubbed out the flavor, etc.) then you don't have to enter it as one - go ahead and enter it as an Oktoberfest.  

I'm not sure what this beer is, really - can I enter it in more than one category?

This might vary from competition to competition, but usually the answer is that you can enter it in as many categories as it fits (and doesn't, for that matter - if you want to waste your money...).  While some might say that it's borderline to cross-register the same beer for the purposes of winning medals/earning points in some larger multi-competition contest, I say that if there's an inefficiency/overlap in the guidelines that allows (for example - not that I necessarily did this...) a Black IPA to win a medal as both a Robust Porter and an American Stout, then that's not the fault of the entrant.  

Most entry guidelines in most competitions prohibit you from entering the same sub-category with more than one beer, but that's about it.

My awesome beer won a medal in a competition - can I enter it again?

Sure.  If you've got the flavor stability to win multiple medals with the same beer over time, then that's a sign of your brewing prowess.  Why shouldn't you be rewarded for it?  My first BOS was for a 16-month-old Berliner Weisse that had competed well in several previous competitions.

My even-awesomer beer advanced to the second round of NHC!  Can I re-brew or enter a different version of it?

If you've got the time, I highly recommend it.  Freshness is often a major asset, and you're well within your rights to brew another batch before delivering your entries - after all, it's still your beer, and if you're consistent enough to produce the original award-winning beer again, then good on you.  And what with the timeliness of First Round results these days, most brewers of most beers will have the opportunity to do so, so it doesn't create any kind of unique advantage.

I've heard some say that you should, though, produce an identical version of the recipe.  I don't agree, but I acknowledge it's a grey area. The way I see it, if you're willing to take the risk of tweaking it, then you're also entitled to the potential benefits.

I've opened/work at a professional brewery/meadery/cidery - can I still enter homebrew competitions with you amateurs?

Be very careful with this.  Strictly speaking, yes - so long as you're brewing on homebrew equipment, not professional equipment (which, I would argue, includes your small-scale pilot system).  And most competitions require that you not be using the competition for quality control or market research purposes.  If you've cleared those (and any other competition-specific) hurdles, then fine.  But....

I still wouldn't do it.  There's a whiff of...something.  I wish I could articulate it better, but there's just an element of "not your party anymore" about it.  If I can't enter GABF, then maybe you shouldn't be entering the Dixie Cup.  

The two exceptions I have no problem with would be a) things you brewed, at home, before you began brewing anywhere else (professionally), and b) things that are outside of your "professional" umbrella (so if you're a pro brewer, then by all means keep entering homemade meads).

I put [obscure specialty ingredient] in this - do I have to say so?

No - remember, you're entering the beer you've got, not the one you were trying to get.  If you made a mango-cherry IPA but there's not even the faintest whiff of mango, then just call it a cherry IPA.  This, by the by, is also just good description strategy: in Specialty category descriptions, don't list things unless they're obvious.  If you list strawberry and there's barely any there, I may end up docking you for it; if you don't list it and I pick it up (and it's appropriate), then it's just adding complexity.  

Can I enter my own homebrew club's competition?  I know a lot of the judges, and they've had my beer...

Absolutely.  But avoid talking to club members who are judges (or any judges) about what you've entered.  We want to preserve their objectivity as much as possible.  This is especially true in specialty categories where you might have the only Mint Saison on the table (or in particularly rare "straight" sub-categories, like Southern English Brown or Eisbock, when it might be the only one in competition).  

But the idea they they're so dialed-in that they can pull your Saison out of the pack?  Probably not.  Most judges would be very hard pressed to do so even if they knew your beer was in there, and in this case they shouldn't even have that much to go on.  Enter away!

I made two English IPAs/Fruit Beers/Meads, but the competition says I can only enter one beer per sub-category.  Can I enter it under my friend's/spouse's/dog's name instead?

No.  Misrepresenting who actually made your entries undermines the integrity of the competition - the only exception I can think of would be if you contacted the organizer and let them know what you were doing (just to get around the competition software's blocks on multiple sub-category entries, for example) and that you want them to make it ineligible to win its table.  

You can also ask for an exception, but unless it's a blanket change to the rules, I don't like that - it's rewarding you for asking for special treatment.  Petition for a rule change next time, and just pick one (either the best, or the one you want feedback on) to enter this time.  

I made this beer from a kit or someone else's recipe - I'm a fraud.  Can I still enter it like I'm one of you "make your own recipe" brewers?

Sure - and I'm surprised how often I hear this.  Two things.  One, if only "original recipes" were allowed, then there'd be very, very few entrants.  Most brewers use others' recipes from time to time, especially first attempts at a beer (or a clone) before they start dialing it in for their system or tastes, so you're not alone.  And two, every recipe comes out differently on every system, and for that matter (subtly) on every brew day even on the same system.  

It's your beer.  You made it.  You can enter it!

"People who blend beers are cheating."

Says who?  Breweries - home and professional - have blended beers to adjust flavors, add complexity, and cover faults for centuries.  If you're blending nothing but beers you've made (no popping the cork on that Rodenbach), then you're fine.  

"People who enter lots of beers are cheating."

Says who?  Let's say someone enters 12 beers (a nice even case, at two bottles per entry!).  Each one of those beers, in most cases, will be judged in a separate flight, which means each is competing independently.  And even if you get a little overlap because they're in the same category, or if categories get condensed to form a reasonably-sized flight, they're now competing for fewer available ribbons.  

Ultimately, a mediocre brewer who enters a bunch of beer isn't much more likely to win a medal with 12 beers than they were with two.  But hey, they might get lucky.

Can I just peel a label off of a commercial beer and enter it?

No, that'd be wrong.  It also wouldn't likely do you much good.  Go ahead if you really want to, but if you think that's the path to being showered in blue ribbons and Best of Show, you're wrong!  While the worst homebrew on the table would (hopefully) shut down a pro brewery, the best of it usually blows away most commercial beers (even good, successful ones).  

Is there anything that's definitely, absolutely wrong that will get me a Pete Rose-style lifetime ban?

The one definite no-no (aside from actually using commercial or someone else's beer) would be attempting to collude with judges to win.  Unusual cap colors.  Using unique words in descriptions.  Entering a particular (rare) style so they'll know it's yours.  That kind of stuff is totally off-limits.  

First, it's wrong.

Second, people pay (and, effectively, earn, via prizes) money in these competitions.  Once money gets involved, things should get a bit more serious.  

Third, you're undermining the reputation of the organizing club, its members, and our hobby.

Fourth, you're being an unconscionable, needy, untrustworthy, pathetic, scurrilous alehole by doing it, and when you're found out I hope that you're forced to drink nothing but low-carb macro beer for the rest of your life.

Questions, anyone?

If anyone has any others, post them below or at our Facebook page and we can talk!

Keep it simple.

JJW


Why People Stop Homebrewing

Children.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 

 

Just kidding!  Well, not really.  There are lots of reasons, and this is just one, and certainly there are those who have kids that keep homebrewing.  But I've known a lot of homebrewers that are very much invested in the hobby, but then, quite understandably, get much more invested in their new family members.  Time gets short.  Budgets get tighter.  Sleep becomes a rarity.  If you know someone who's running really short on time thanks to their new addition(s), maybe offer to do a team brew with them, pick up their ingredients on your next LHBS run since they might not be able to get out there, and just be a supportive fellow homebrewer.  And you might also remind them that they're now responsible for training the next generation - my friend Seth's son Gabe got, as a Christmas present, one of my old CO2 regulators.  That kid is seriously into brewing, and he's not old enough to drink for another decade and a half.

Really, this time - Keep it simple.

JJW