The Hops Mirage: Pellets, Flowers, Powders, and Time

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I don’t know that it’s possible to drink or brew beer these days without confronting, face-first and chin-out, hop heads. If it’s just the beer drinking variety, they can be a bit soporific: there’s only so much discussion of whatever experimental hops such-and-such brewery was using that I can take before my mind starts to wander. I’m also not at all sold (experimental results forthcoming) that they (or I) can tell the difference between hoppy beers unless they’re sitting side-by-side. Still, with them it’s more about endurance than engagement.

It’s the brewers, though, that I get into the most spirited debates with, especially on the question of what really makes for hops aroma. I think I manage to bring most of them around on the practical physics of the thing (that in the boil, they’re all bittering hops - if you want aroma/flavor, add it in the whirlpool), but I still get no end up pushback on the question of hop form.

Let’s just put it out there. Pellets, powders, whole flower hops - it doesn’t much matter, so stop wasting my time with it. Time, it turns out, is exactly what we don’t have when it comes to hops flavor and aroma.

A Matter of Time

I say that knowing full well that many of you have strong feelings, especially about Cryo Hops/powders/hash. The problem is that while I agree with you that they yield a domineering and impressive hops presence in the short term, within even a few days there’s just no difference. And believe you me, I’ve tried. The effects are (to borrow a phrase from political scientist Larry Bartels) either minimal or fugitive outside of that super-tight window.

I don’t drink most of my beer in the 96 hours after packaging. If you do, then go ahead and move on - keep pounding your IPAs and American Ambers while drink-reading through some other pieces here at good ol’ Beer Simple. The rest of you, though, can rest easy. If you’re planning on serving that beer in a week, or two, or (Ninkasi forbid) a month, then you’re just as well off with conventional hopping products.

Time isn’t your friend. We know that, as brewers. Just how big an enemy it is, though, is obvious when you get a whiff of the intense aromatics of a cryo-hopped beer…and then some time passes.

The Mirage

It’s an attractive illusion, those hops powders. You can just tell that they’re going to work. And they do - but just as you’re walking across the room to stick your friend’s nose into the glass…

Gone.

OK, so it’s not that quick, but it’s not far off, either. I’ve played with these hops six ways from Sunday, and I’ve never been able to produce a stable advantage from them. In a week (or less) they’re more or less indistinguishable in intensity.

Whirlpool only. Whirpool and dry hop (this was best, btw). Just dry hop. Multi-stage dry hop. Pellet and powder (this was best, btw). Pellet and flower. All three. Significant and interesting immediate differences - no lasting difference.

Maybe your experience is different. Maybe my system, or process, or yeast, or something is nulling it out.

But I just don’t see it. To me, different forms of hops are just a mirage of flavor, shimmering in the background and all resolving into the same hoppy finale when I get closer.

Right, for the Wrong Reasons

That’s not to say you shouldn’t use them, of course. There are advantages in the form of less ingredient loss, probably in product shelf life as well (though I’ve never had an issue storing hops in the freezer for even years at a time), convenience, or even just the knowledge that you’re doing all you can (even if that “all” doesn’t amount to much) to amp up your hops flavors.

Maybe these fancy products are right, just for the wrong reasons.

Whatever the case, though, I had to say it, just one time, to all of you: when it comes to hops, I’m going to have to keep acting like the kid who said the emperor was naked, even if that means I’m beaten to a hoppy hash by King Gambrinus’ green-clad courtiers.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Frozen: Fractional Distillation for (Almost) Any Beer

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Three times in two days I was asked, "can you freeze any beer to make it stronger?"

"Sure," I answered.

One individual followed that up with, "so, I could make an Eis-Pilsner?"

Quoting one of my favorite lines from the Alec Baldwin classic The Hunt for Red October, I responded, "Sure - why would you want to?"

This simple fact is that any beer can be "iced" (fractionally distilled by freezing), but not every beer benefits from it.  And all of them run some additional risks: the process also intensifies faults which might otherwise be undetectable.

Fractional distillation is possible because water freezes faster than ethanol.  As a result, it's possible to intensify a beer's flavors and increase its ABV by concentrating it, post-fermentation.  Some beers benefit from this, making finished products of significant depth and intense substance - some don't.  Which styles fall into which category, in my humble opinion, is what we'll be discussing today.

Don't Bother

For lower-ABV beers, don't bother.  Freezing isn't a necessity to increase their ABV - just add more base grain or simple sugars.  Intensifying their flavors, likewise, can usually be accomplished by recipe adjustment.  The risks associated with fractional distillation just aren't worth it.

If you're making any beer under 7 percent ABV, you can up the alcohol and intensity by half or more using conventional means.  Do so.

I also wouldn't make an Eis-IPA for any reason whatsoever.  Predicting the flavor impact of IBUs is a tricky business at the best of times - I wouldn't care to try to do so in any kind of distillation effort.  The result will likely be tough to drink unless your palate is burnt to a crisp.

Maybe...Not

Some styles fall into the "dunno, try it and find out" pile for me.  These are your strong-ish ABV beers (7-8 percent) with relatively strong flavors.  Think of something like Robust (American) Porter, or some of the Belgian styles.

If I want an amped-up version of those, I may not be able to get it easily just by recipe adjustment.  At the same time, they're tricky, because I might end up making a beer that's too intense along several flavor dimensions.

Eis-Saison, Eis-Porter, and Eis-Tropical Stout?  Absolutely - but be prepared to tinker a bit, and be prepared to fail.  

Definitely

Interestingly, I think the best candidates for fractional distillation are the beer styles that are already pretty intense.  Ironically, Eisbock isn't even in this category (but, fun fact, I'm going to be making an Eis-Eisbock soon!), since it's perfectly plausible to get the flavors of them from conventional brewing - I once won a duel in my homebrew club with a non-iced Eisbock.  Don't get me wrong - strengthened strong lagers are great choices here, but they're not the most interesting.

No, I think we should be icing beers that already swing for the fences.  Wee Heavy, barleywines, and the like.  

Won't they be too intense?  Maybe.  Avoid astringency-prone chocolate malts in favor of dehusked versions of the similar malts, limit IBUs, ferment clean and cold, etc. to avoid a nigh-undrinkable beer.  But if it's intense...so what?  Isn't that the point?

Bottle them all up in twelve-ounce bottles, and share.  A few ounces of a 17% English Barleywine can be a ton of fun, and they'll almost certainly age really well.

Frozen Nuts and Bolts

And now, just a quick reminder of what's involved.  

First, brew your beer (again, with the awareness that most flavors - intended or not - are going to be more intense in the finished product).  

Second, ferment your beer.  I generally recommend at least a very cold start for these beers to limit off-flavors and their precursors.  Easy does it is good advice here.  Ramp up temperatures at the end to get the right fermentation character, but do your best to hold hot alcohols, diacetyl, and other sins of too-hot fermentation at bay.

Third, freeze that sucker.  Transfer to a keg.  Then, let your chest freezer off of its chain and give it (the keg, not the freezer) a shake every couple of hours until you hear some slush forming.  When you get a feel that it's about one-fifth ice to four-fifths beer (some art rather than science here), rack it out from under the ice and package it.

And that's about it.

Finally, to those thinking, "I can make an Eis-Imperial-IPA!," what the heck, go for it.  If you're successful, let me know!

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Beer Bikes, MOOCs and the Dutch

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As part of Ornery Ales' annual effort to celebrate (Inter)National Homebrew Day, they create a video featuring brewers from around the world brewing and talking about beer, and it's an incredibly fun mash-up (no pun intended) of a global cast of brewers showing off their systems, beers, and personalities. Beer Simple offered to shamelessly shill for an international brewer or brewers who showcased the simplicity of beer and brewing.  The entrant that caught this blog's attention satisfied that criterion by mashing and sparging in what looks like a six-litre (we're going with European spellings in this here post - deal with, Americans) pot, chilling in a sink ice bath, and bottling up about 13 bottles.  Being a fan of small-batch brewing, I knew we'd found our perfect fit.

And I was completely wrong.  Well, sort-of.  Because although their video was a perfect encapsulation of simple, small-batch brewing, the program that created that video was anything but simple!  

See, the brewers in question are four Honours (again, European.  Seriously, move past it.) students at the University of Wageningen who had, in fact, created a MOOC (that's a Massive Online Open Course - a distance learning-compatible educational device that may provide higher education options at much lower prices by enrolling thousands of students, free or near-free, in online courses) titled "The Science of Beer."  Sander & Esther (Food Science), Florence (Land & Water Management), and Nico (Management and Consumer Studies) brewed their first beer for the video!  

Their story is fascinating, and follows:

What motivated you all to develop the Science of Beer course?

So we are four students participating in the Honours Programme of the University of Wageningen. As part of this Honours Programme we were supposed to start a two year (research) project to the 'university of the future'. As genuine students, and yes, this may sound somewhat surprising: we ended up making a course about beer. In fact we started the research project with doing interviews with people mainly from politics and universities. We wanted to know how they saw the 'university of the future' and, it turned out, several interviewees thought the university should transmit more knowledge to the public. Now, how do you better transmit knowledge to the public by developing a Massive Open Online Course? (for information about MOOCs, please check out this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DavEhc1wds). That's what we did. We decided it would be a MOOC about the science that is behind a beer. And then, why beer? Well, we realised that we could investigate the science behind beer from many perspectives such as production, raw materials, marketing and health effects, which could be perfectly linked to the different research domains of Wageningen University. And, of course, there is no  better topic than beer to attract students!

Who is it for?

The course is open for anyone with an interest in the science behind beer. The course was designed as an introductory course, so experienced beer brewers shouldn't expect too much complexity, but with the four perspectives (production, raw materials, marketing and health effects), we think, there is always something to learn for everyone. 

How long have you been brewing?

he truth is: the video of us brewing at home was only our first time making beer! Therefore, we were even more happy to see that our video was selected as the winner. In the video, we are brewing an Irish Red Ale and we were surprised by the good taste. Perhaps we will continue our brewing experiences in the future. 

Here are two videos of our home brewing experience [Author's Note: YOU WANT TO WATCH THE BLOOPER REEL!]:
- The home brewing video https://youtu.be/T6g-aVC9_uc 
- Bloopers home brewing https://youtu.be/BKKgL7_hVd8  

How does teaching affect your appreciation of beer and brewing?

During the making of our online course, we started trying as many different beer styles as possible. We were getting better in distinguishing the typical tastes associated with the different beer styles and we developed our preferences. Now that we have learned so much about all the science that is behind a seemingly simple pint of beer, we have the feeling that we started appreciating our beers more. But, more importantly, we have become more aware of the health effects of drinking beer. Perhaps, we turned into more conscious drinkers 

What was the best tip you ever received about beer/brewing?

In our opinion the most important tip we received is to make sure you're brewing under sterile conditions. Often, we hear people say their brewing failed and they stop attempting afterwards. That's a pity!  [AUTHOR'S NOTE: Definitely a shame.  It's like going skiing for the first time and being pushed down a double-black-diamond trail called "The Preacher."  You're not gonna have a good time, and your frustration will push you out of the hobby.  Keep it clean out there...]

Favorite beer/style?  Least favorite?

Sander prefers a Porter, Nico goes for a Blond beer, Esther for a Stout and Florence for an Irish Red ale.

On the other side: you don't make Sander too happy with a pilsener, Nico doesn't enjoy a Stout very much, Esther is not a fan op IPA and Florence not of a pilsener or IPA. 

Strangest thing about beer culture in the Netherlands?

That's a good question, we are not so sure about typical Dutch things. But I (Nico) experienced myself: in the Netherlands, we mainly drink pilseners and we've all got strong opinions on which brand is good to drink and which brand is definitely not. But it turns out that, when tasting different pilseners blindfolded, hardly anyone recognizes which taste belongs to which brand and a 'bad' brand might suddenly be not too bad after all. [AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is spot-on.  It's almost impossible to identify specific beers using nothing more than your palate.]

Besides that, something the Netherlands is known for is of course cycling. Dutch people always take the bicycle and it is not unusual to see 'bike jams' over here. In line with the Dutch cycle culture, if you come to a city in the Netherlands, it is possible to see the so-called 'beerbikes': pubs-on-wheels for 10 to 20 people. 

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: I thought this was hilarious and ingenious in equal parts.  In fact, here's a video of it in action.  It's on my to-do list the next time I'm in the Netherlands!  If your sound is on, note the distinctly American soundtrack...]

 

Where can our readers find out more information about the course?

Nico wrote a blog about our online beer course: 

 https://blog.edx.org/science-beer-wageningen-students-create-first-online-course/?track=blog

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Thanks to Nico, Sander, Esther, and Florence for being such great sports and supporters of beer and brewing!

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Money, Loyalty, and Home Brewing: The LHBS Dilemma

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I'm surrounded by local home brew shops (LHBS).  Too many, probably.  There are four within 20 miles of my house.  

And I patronize them all.  Why?  Because I help organize competitions and events in the area, and frankly it's convenient for each one of these shops to know I'm a customer.  I also write about beer, and in the event I need a shop owner's perspective on a story, there are plenty of folks to take my call.  Plus I'm out and about a lot anyway.

The point of this piece, though, isn't to talk how many there are and whether there are too many: it's to ask whether (and how) you should be shopping there in the first place.  

At What Price, Local?

The reason this is coming up now is because of a conversation I had on- and off-line with some folks about just how much they're willing to pay to keep their business local.  It was kicked off in a social media group by someone mentioning that they were paying $250 for a basic kegging/draft setup, but they found the same thing at an online retailer for $170.  

This individual wanted to know if he was being unreasonable for thinking about buying from the online retailer.

I shop locally.  It's convenient, and it maintains relationships with people in my local beer community.  And I'm willing to pay a premium to do so, and to help keep them in business.

But if I walk into a shop and see something running a 50% markup?  

I'm probably going to buy online.

I'm also sure that some of you are thinking, "sellout," or "traitor," or "cheapskate."  

What you should be thinking is, "economist."  Because I'm more than willing to pay more for identical products in order to support my local beer economy - but I'm not willing to pay any price, and you shouldn't be either.

Sustainability

LHBS, the traditional brick-and-mortar kind (even if they do some online sales), are obviously facing a market headwind.  When large retailers leverage their economies of scale and purchasing power and sell at near-cost because they can, it puts enormous strain on LHBS to compete with - much less match - their prices.  I get that.

Then there's the fact that homebrewing is "leveling off" or dropping in terms of sales, if not in number of homebrewers (it looks like more are simply brewing less, but it might only be a matter of time before the number of homebrewers actually drops).  

What's a LHBS to do?  One option is to raise prices and lean on sentimentality and loyalty and look askance at any homebrewer who confesses to concealing a life as a secret online shopper.  Another is to find a business model that lets you make money while not pricing my purchase as though I'm buying for two neighbors of mine that stopped homebrewing a year ago.

If you can't compete with online retailers for everyday brewing supplies and ingredients, maybe find something online retailers are bad at (teaching about homebrewing, or customer service in many cases) and lean into that.  Focus on selling heavy-weight or perishable products that don't ship well (fresh fruit for fruit beers and meads).  Build your own client base by starting or hosting homebrew clubs in your area.  Host events and festivals.

But you can't change the economy.  EVERY retailer is struggling with this.  While homebrewing was growing by double-digits every year and everyone needed a hand with what to buy because they were new and/or there weren't good resources online, then LHBS were easy to sustain (if not terribly profitable).  The moment that's not the case, you're going to be caught up in the same dilemma every other traditional retailer is grappling with.

Where to Buy

I'm not going to stop shopping at my four local shops.  I wouldn't even if I didn't have a mercenary motive.  But I definitely shop with a strategy.  I'll buy yeast, bottles, and some equipment from shops.  I'll buy things that I know the shop can get more or less in bulk, like tubing.  

But loyalty has its limits.

If shops are saying, "we can't stay in business by selling those things," then, harsh as this sounds, maybe you can't stay in business, at least not with your current approach.  I'll help in any way I can.  I'll even overpay for lots of products, within reason.

But loyalty has its limits.  

I'm positive that many homebrewers identify with the "craft" ethos and want to support local businesses.  For sure, I encourage people to buy local, and to look for items that their shop seems to offer competitive prices on and make the trip to get those things there.  I encourage them to attend a live class so they can get their specific questions answered (though online classes are a great option for those in homebrewing deserts).  

But loyalty has its limits.  And the clock is ticking.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Lying Lagers and the Lagerers Who Lager Them (and other Lying Beers)

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I don't care what it is - I care what it tastes like.  

At least once a year someone comes at me with some kind of declaration about how it's not "right" or "acceptable" to call a beer something that it isn't.  Not a month ago someone threw this one at me on a social media discussion thread:

"Just because it tastes like a lager doesn't mean it is."

Statements like that make me shake my head in disbelief.  I'm doing it right now, just as a result of looking it up again to make sure I got the phrasing just right.  

Now, this #alehole might be technically correct: if I didn't use a lager yeast, and/or if I didn't cold-condition the beer for several weeks, I suppose in a legalistic, anal-retentive, wrapped-too-tight-for-homebrewing sense it "isn't a lager."  Fine.  And that hamburger you're eating isn't one either because it wasn't made in the traditional Hamburg-comes-to-America method of smashing the ball of beef on the grill into a round shape.

Relax.

If it tastes like a lager, and I call it a lager, does it matter that I cheated a little bit in the process?  

If it's a Berliner Weisse and a panel of judges pick it as Best of Show, does it matter that I spiked it with lactic acid instead of developing all of the acidity in the mash or the kettle or in fermentation?

If it's a Blackberry Pale Ale but I follow fellow Stoney Creek Homebrewer Mike Todd's recipe and hammer it with Bramling Cross hops, does it matter that I didn't use any actual fruit?

My answer to these and all other such questions is, "No, absolutely not."

I care what it tastes like.  

Here endeth the (brief) lesson.  I don't want to hold you (or me) up on this holiday weekend.  Enjoy your Memorial Day, and take a few minutes to remember a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who didn't get to have a beer with friends and family today.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Get Regular: Frequency, Consistency, and Quality

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"Consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative."

"Consistency is contrary to nature; contrary to life."

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

With all due respect to my friends Wilde, Huxley, and Emerson...their beer probably sucks, and unlike their friends I'm not afraid to tell them so.  

I get that brewing is a creative and artistic effort as much as it is a scientific and regimented process, but how much you brew is probably a lot less important than how often you brew.  I've already written about the importance of a reliable process, so today I want to make a pitch for a reliable brewing life.  

I'm thoroughly convinced that whatever success I've had as a home brewer, especially early on, is thanks in large part to the idea that I brewed frequently and regularly.  

Brew Day

I read about brewers and their "brew days" all the time.  I don't think they're really recognizing that phrase for what it is, though.  Rather than thinking about it as "A day on which I'm brewing," I'd recommend thinking of it as "THE day on which I'm brewing."

For me, that used to be Fridays.  Friday was Brew Day.  

It wasn't always wort/beer production on that day.  Sometimes it was bottling.  Sometimes it was equipment cleaning/maintenance.  Sometimes it was the day I'd head up to the local homebrew shop and pick up ingredients.  But Friday was Brew Day.  If I thought of something that I wanted to do with regard to beer or brewing, I'd just make a note - "Yup - gotta remember to dry hop that beer on Brew Day!"

Let's think about the virtues of that.  It meant that a consistent one day a week I was asking, "OK, what do I want to do today with regard to my homebrewing life?"  I'd schedule things out - "So, this Friday I'll grab grain and yeast and make my starter, next Friday I'll brew that pale ale and maybe double-batch it with something else I can use the rest of that starter for, and then the Friday after that I'll dry hop the pale ale, and..."  

It'd be rare to have something fall through the cracks, sit longer than I wanted, have to rush to get a beer conditioned, etc.  Why?  Because in advance I committed to using a specific day for whatever brewing activity should get done that week.  Not only did that mean fewer problems, it actually meant better beer, because I was hitting things when they were optimum, not when I'd overlooked them and had to get them done or miss some deadline.  

I get that not everyone has the kind of flexibility in their schedule that I do, to be able to set aside a lot of one day in perpetuity, but I bet more brewers could find a consistent few hours each week than they think.  Even a small bloc of time, consistently, is better than convincing yourself that you'll knock it ALL out on that mythical weekend day when you have nothing scheduled.  It won't hold up - you'll schedule something.  Or you'll get tired and leave some things undone.  Or you'll feel frustrated and continue procrastinating.  

Find a Brew Day, and stick to it.

Regularity and The Human Brain

I don't always get to bring my professional life into confluence with my beer life, but this happens to be a case where I do!  It relates to the way in which your brain actually works to manage your life (whoa...).  

Have you ever driven home from work and realized that the entire time you were thinking about something else, and can't remember the turns you made, stopping at that light, managing the traffic on the freeway, or pulling into your own garage?  Scary, right?

That's normal.  In any behavior that we do regularly, our brain takes advantage of the rote nature of the thing to take a break and focus on other things.  Essentially, you have a kinda-dumb-but-still-capable "doing" part of your brain that can be left to its own devices sometimes, while the smarter "thinking" part of your brain can go elsewhere, leaving Dumb Doing Brain to mow the lawn, drive the car, or brew the beer (in this case).  This would be insanely hazardous, except that overlaying it all is a "surveillance" system that's almost constantly interrogating the environment and is ready to sound an alarm bell when something weird happens - at that point, your "thinking" brain snaps back to take charge of the "doing" part, to deal with the new (unexpected) thing.  Driving driving driving...brake lights - snap back, hit the brakes.  [This, by the by, is why something like texting and driving is so dangerous, even if you think you're still watching the road - your surveillance system isn't up and working because you're distracting it with reading and composition.  You're not going to notice changes in the environment.]

It's repetition and habit that make that possible.  Which means that when it comes to brewing, the more often you do it, the more likely you are to be able to just let Dumb Brain run on autopilot while your Smart Brain does other things.  That's incredibly useful in brewing, which rewards a consistent process.

Brewing more often, and especially on the same day and under the same conditions, if possible, makes you a better brewer.  

You'll also enjoy it more, because habitual behaviors seem "easier" to us than behaviors that make us think and decide and actively manage what we're doing.  My wife and I walk to get tea/coffee a couple-three times per week, and it's a 3.2 mile walk each way (we mainly do it for the exercise - the coffee is just a bonus!).  Walking 6.4 miles takes a while - about an hour and a half, at a pretty brisk clip - which might seem like a LONG time.  And it would, except that we do it all the time, so while we're walking we can talk about whatever or just let our minds wander because we're not constantly being "pinged" by our surveillance systems when a new street comes up and we have to decide if we're turning onto it or not.

Consistency equals Quality

If you want to brew better, brew more often.  Jack Nicklaus was fond of pointing out, when people mentioned to him that they didn't get better at golf despite playing for years, that they were only playing once or twice a month and no one gets better that way.  Want to get better?  Play more golf, consistently.

Now, brewing isn't golf.  We don't need to do it every day to get better.  So, how often should you brew, if your goal is to get better?

I say once per month.  Twice, if you can, but once a month should work.  If you have four "Brew Days" in your month, you can use one to get ingredients and prep, one to brew the wort, one to do a mid-fermentation check or treatment (dry hopping, temp adjustment, etc.), and one to package.  Repeat.  Once you're more comfortable, or if you find you have more time in your Brew Days than you thought (especially now that you're getting more efficient and reliable), maybe add in a second beer per month to that cycle.

And then, the next time you run into Oscar, Aldous, and Ralph, you can tell them they can stick their thoughts about consistency right up...wait, they're dead?  Oh.  OK.  Well, never mind then.

Get regular.  You'll end up with more, better beer that you had an easier time making.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Fresh Off the Tank: Brewing With Hot Water

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In my last Brewing piece I mentioned that, when sending water off to be analyzed, you should be sure to send the water you actually brew with.  If you run your brewing water off the "hot" tap, then send that in to be tested.

A few of you responded...aggressively.  The short version is that apparently some of you think I'm somewhere between a reckless libertine and a war criminal for brewing with water that came out of my water heater tank.  

Why So Heated?

I was confused by the intensity because I've never brewed with anything but pre-heated water from my water heater, and it doesn't seem to have hurt me, either in terms of how the beer is judged nor in the level of enjoyment I get out of it.

One individual was convinced I was essentially taking my life in my own hands.  [All caps his/hers, not mine] "YOU WOULDN'T FILL A POT WITH HOT WATER TO MAKE PASTA, WOULD YOU?"

UH OH.  Yes, yes I would.  And do.  A couple of times per week.  Should I not?

Have you ever noticed that if someone tells you something that seems totally at odds with what you've done your whole life, you can go one of two ways?  Some people lock into deflection/rejection mode and won't engage with it at all.  That's never been my MO, though - if I'm wrong, I want to know it, so I looked into it a little deeper.

Dangerous or Gross?

It seems like the arguments against run in one of two veins.

First, it could be the case that hot water leaches contaminants out of some kinds of pipes, adding things to your water that you shouldn't want to ingest (lead, primarily).  As far as I can tell this is a valid concern in older homes, and the American EPA as well as the CDC say that you should avoid it even in newer homes, since "lead-free" pipes can still contain as much as eight percent lead.  The Canadians don't seem as worried about this, but I can't find links to the studies that state they don't find any long-term risks from it (though popular articles on the topic reference them).  

Second, people who take a gander inside their hot water tanks note that they're pretty gross in there.  That's a less-compelling argument to me.  I filter, and my beer tastes pretty good.  Let's stick with the risk of lead in the water.  

I have to say that I'm torn.

On the one hand, it seems like a universal fact of life (which somehow I've missed) that we shouldn't be using hot water in any application that results in drinking it (be careful what you get into that shower beer).  On the other hand, the risk seems very small.  I don't live in a particularly old home, I use a municipal water service that regularly checks for lead, and it seems as though the risk to adults is far less than the risk to children (I'm already about as screwed up as I'm likely to get, apparently, though this picture suggests that's not exactly a small amount).

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On the other hand, though, what's the harm in taking a little extra water heating time to mitigate even a minor risk?

A Compromise

I settled on a compromise. 

I generally divide my water into two batches (like most of you) - mash water and sparge water.  It's really in my mash water that I'm looking to save time, since that's at the top of my brewing process.  The sparge water I heat while I'm mashing.

Up to this point, I've drawn 100% of my mash water from the hot tap (carbon-filtered, but that isn't likely to make a difference if there's a lot of lead), and a 50-50 hot-cold blend for my sparge water (just to fill up the water bucket quickly).  

It seems as though the risk (such as it is) is elevated in water that's been standing in the pipes for a while.  So, for my mash water I'm going to start running the hot for five minutes prior to filling the mash water bucket, to at least get fresh hot water.

Then, I'll use only cold for my sparge water draw, since it can take some extra time to heat while I'm mashing.

Sound reasonable?

Thank you, sincerely, to those who brought this to my attention, particularly to the medical risks.  Prior to this I've only ever been confronted with, "oh, it's too minerally, so it'll screw up the flavor of your beer," to which I've always responded, "well, it hasn't hurt it yet..."  The lead concerns seem legit (if small in magnitude), and I'm grateful for those who brought it up.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Water for Dummies: A Simple Approach to Brewing Water

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When it comes to water, it's been my experience that brewers spend far too much time and effort tinkering with it - or, paradoxically, they're terrified of it.  Neither of those are productive. 

Bad water can really wreck your beer - but most water isn't bad. 

Water chemistry is complicated - but we don't need to understand the chemistry to get what we want out of our brewing water.

My point is that for most brewers, the water they're using is probably fine - or could be, with one or two small (and consistent) adjustments.  One approach - the Beer Simple approach, for sure - is to identify a couple of rules-of-thumb for your own brewing rather than approaching every recipe as a new opportunity to tinker with your water.

Today at BS we'll be talking about a strategy for getting your water in good shape (and maybe coming to realize that it's already in good enough shape).  This is for non-chemists, particularly because I'm definitely not a chemist.  I'm also not going to be delving into how to adjust your water - this is about identifying a path to water independence.  

Understanding your brewing water for just a few minutes can set you up for the rest of your homebrewing life.

Don't Chase a Problem

Let's get the cliches out of the way first, shall we?

If your water tastes good to drink, it'll probably make good beer.

There.  Done.  Don't go chasing a problem.  If you're not noticing a consistent deficiency in water flavor or finished beer flavor, then maybe just ignore your water chemistry until such time as you've ironed out every other aspect of your brewing life.  If your water tastes good, then there are almost certainly far more substantively significant things for you to address: recipe formulation, ingredient storage, mash/boil/fermentation processes, yeast health and more are far more likely to have noticeable effects on your beer than your water.

Three Steps to Water Independence

Let's say you have noticeably troubling water and/or you're confident that the rest of your process is sound.  That still doesn't mean you need to enroll in night classes in chemistry or geology to be "water competent."  Most brewers will be fine with three steps.

First, you need to know what's in your water.  There are lots of testing kits out there, and you might get some solid info from municipal water reports, but for my time and money there's nothing better than Ward Labs' brewing water report (note: not a paid endorsement - it's just fast and easy and affordable).  They'll send you a container.  You put your brewing water in it and send it back.  They e-mail you a PDF of a report with the relevant brewing info/ions listed.  Done.  But be sure you're sending your brewing water.  If you filter, filter it.  If you use hot water, send water from the hot side of the tap.  Send the water you'll be using to brew.

Second, you need to know what your report means in terms of brewing.  Note that I didn't say you need to know what it means in terms of the water.  I have a good understanding of technical terms like residual alkalinity and pH and anions v. cations - but I didn't when I first made my water adjustments.  Grab your copy of How to Brew and flip to the section on water - you'll find a set of nomographs to get you in the ballpark on a range of beers that are good for your water, and some basic instructions on how to adjust for other styles.  It's not the only one - BeerSmith, Bru'n Water, and other calculators/tools are out there, too.  What I love about How to Brew is that it's possible to use those nomographs to figure out your water's potential and shortcomings even if you don't understand the chemistry behind it.  Maybe enlist the help of one of your water-nerdy friends to be sure, but you'll end up with the answer to two questions: What can I brew without adjustment, and what styles need adjustments?

Third, and last, you need to know how to adjust your water chemistry.  This doesn't need to be complicated.  First, there's likely a range of beers you can brew without any adjustment at all. And when you do need to make some changes, most of the time we're just talking about a small addition of acid or some mineral/salt.  Some with particularly hard water might need to dilute instead.  You don't need to dial in, exactly, every single beer.  Most will fall into broad categories.  What adjustment, based on color?  What adjustment for hoppy beers?  What adjustment for Czech lagers?  Focus on the practical side of things and you can forget everything you ever knew about chemistry.

And that's it.  Figure out what's in your water.  Figure out what you don't need to adjust and what you do, and then work up a handful of cheats for yourself.  This isn't something you have to delve into with every new recipe. 

Water Doesn't Have to be Hard

For me?  Two adjustments.  Pale beers get a quarter teaspoon of gypsum to bump up my sulfate-to-chloride ratio and accentuate hop bitterness.  Dark beers get a quarter teaspoon of baking soda to keep the mash from going too acidic and add roundness to the malt flavors.  Everything else is as-is, with the exception of anything Plzen-originated, which gets a dilution with distilled water.  That's it.

Water doesn't have to be hard (pun intended).  I know why I do these things - but I didn't when I started, and I don't need to know now.  The mash doesn't know if I understand what the sodium bicarb is doing.

Can you get better results by minutely controlling additions and adjustments with every batch, emulating specific brewing centers and using specific adjustments to yield precise flavors?  Sure.  Probably.  But is it worth it?  

It might be, if you've covered everything else, and you care that much, and you enjoy the minutiae of the brewing process.  But if you're more of a "Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew" type but still want to do some water adjustment, it's possible to do so without jumping into the chemistry deep end with every batch.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).  


Blend It: A Heterotic Theory of Beer Synergy and/or Dilution

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Ever heard of "hybrid vigor?"  It's a principle - often associated with crossbred dogs - that the crossbred version of something will show qualities superior to each parent.  This phenomenon is known formally as "heterosis."

Over the years, I've been thinking about this as it applies to beer.  Not in terms of specialized breeding of yeast strains, or hybrid hops, or next-generation super-awesome grains.  This is simpler than that.  I'm just talking about pouring what's in one beer glass into another one.  

You might be able to go further and apply this to homebrewing as well, of course, but let's stick with one glass (well, two) here, to start.  

"Weikert's Law"

Whenever you judge beer, you end up with lots of small cups with an ounce or so of beer in them at the end of the flight, after you've decided which of them are the winners.  Since I'm a relatively "fast" judge, my flights often wrap up before lunch was served or best of show judging or whatever, so I just take all of those small samples of beer and combine them into one cup, to have something to sip at while socializing and waiting.

Now, it should come as no surprise that when you combine a bunch of award-winning beers into one "mega-winner" sample that it tastes pretty good.  What's surprising is that when I started doing it with the obviously faulty samples, they were pretty good, too.

Thus began my practice of always combining samples, especially when they weren't great on their own.  I started preaching this to other homebrewers, too, who noticed similar effects.  Out of this grassroots effort came something that they (I would never presume to name it this) refer to as "Weikert's Law."  It goes something like this:

"Any two or more blended beers get better."

That's a little overstated, of course - there's an upper limit.  But it certainly seems to hold for beers with minor faults (and, sometimes, major faults), and that's where its utility comes in for homebrewers.

Why it Works (maybe)

I have two explanations as to why this might work: synergy and dilution.  They're not mutually exclusive, and it's certainly possible I'm dead wrong, but both seem intuitively plausible.

First, synergy: each beer is filling in flavor gaps that the other missed, with a resounding overall flavor effect.  Adding those subtle grace notes of complementary, accenting flavors creates a "fuller" flavor experience that is more than the sum of the individual flavors in each beer, even as the dominant flavors are somewhat reduced.  It's like hearing an orchestra with the volume set to five rather than a ripping electric guitar note at 11: softer, but fuller.  

Second, dilution: off-flavors in one beer added to another are effectively diluted (assuming they don't share a common fault).  This means that the off-flavor is less prominent and, if you're lucky, invisible, as the concentration of it in the combined sample falls below detection thresholds.  One beer has diacetyl at a rate of 0.15 ppm, while another has DMS at 35 ppb.  Both are just above detection thresholds - combine them, and both fall underneath it, and instead of one beer with diacetyl and another with DMS, you have one beer with neither (as far as your palate can tell).

Alchemy?  Science?  Nonsense?  Who knows - but it seems to work.

Blending Homebrew

Where I'm going with this next is going to entail some risk, but I'm going to do it, and maybe you'll give it a shot when the need arises naturally and let me know how it goes.

I'm going to brew a batch and split it out into gallon jugs, and spike each with 1.5x the flavor detection threshold of a variety of faults (Siebel makes a great off-flavor kit that will let me do so accurately).  We'll do a taste-test to be sure each is presenting as expected, then recombine them into one full-sized batch.  If I'm right, the off-flavors should largely disappear.

If you have a batch with a minor fault that you want to try to correct, maybe consider blending it with another batch you've already finished.  Top up that half-keg of pale ale with your slightly-corny cream ale, and see what you get.  Brew a short batch of the same beer and add it back.  Combine two slightly-off beers and see if you get one pretty-good beer.  

After all, what do you have to lose?

I'll update you when my experiment is complete, but in the meantime...

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


10 Simple Beer & Brewing Resolutions for 2018

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Happy New Year, gang!  2017 was an excellent beer year, and I managed to keep (almost) all of my resolutions.  I didn't have more than one of any beer (a habit that's proving surprisingly difficult to break, but some pitcher-ed Miller Lite at a bowling alley helped), tried a number of new beer bars (rather than just tap rooms at breweries), made a (passable) perry, and I would have gone back to my least-favorite brewery to try out their beer but (I swear this is true) they closed two weeks before I'd planned on going.  

So, what's on tap for 2018?

10. Drink Around the State, Country, and World

As noted last week, this year's beer challenge will be to see what percentage of PA counties, US states, and countries in the world I can "visit" via their beer.  Should be fun, especially when the "easy" places are checked off of the list!  Just the other day I ordered an IPA from a brewery in Wyoming, because when you're looking at a state with fewer residents than South Philly, you'd probably be wise to take that beer where you can find it!

9. Brew a "Wet Hop" beer

I've played around with fresh hops, thanks to friends with bumper hops harvests, but I've never specifically brewed a beer exclusively with them and designed for them.  I'm hoping to go mobile with my brewery and do it on-site for maximum freshness.

8. Visit every brewery within 20 miles of home

Some might scoff, but that's a lot of breweries for me.  Every now and then someone asks me if I've been to a brewery, and I'll say no and ask where it is, and it'll turn out to be within a few seconds of a route I travel regularly.  That's wrong.  I'm not a "drink it because it's local!" guy, but I definitely want to support good breweries - and if I haven't visited, I don't know if they're any good.  

7. Brew with five new yeast strains

There's a fine line between consistency and being in a rut, and just to be sure I'm not doing the latter, I'm going to brew ten batches with five new yeast strains this year.  Preferably strains I'm not in any way familiar with.  But never that Trappist High Gravity yeast - there's something really wonky in there...

6. Empty my beer fridge completely, and start fresh

I swear I have beers and meads in there that I've had for so long I have no idea what's in them and/or I've forgotten what the code on the top means.  I wish I could say it's because I've been deliberately aging them, but I don't want to lie to you.  They're just the ethanol-laced debris at the back of the shelf.  This could be an ugly summer...

5. Replace my Better Bottles

I had this on the list last year.  I just didn't do it.  But the same logic applies: I've still never had an obviously contaminated batch, and I'm worried it's lurking in there someplace...

4. Rebuild my taps and faucets

I've never been especially happy with my tap handles, and I have a couple of new stainless faucets, so I think it's time for a freshening up in the service department!  I have three beautiful new black-gloss painted handles, and I'm looking forward to dressing them up with some von Rycknell Brewery logos and magnetic tags to indicate what they're serving.  

3. Get back in the habit of bottling

For some reason, I've gotten out of the habit of bottling up a six-pack of my beers and setting them aside for competitions, which I've always done as a form of quality control.  Kegging is easy, but bottling a little bit isn't that hard, and it's a great way to keep a steady stream of beer evaluation data coming in.

2. Use homebrewed beer to raise money for a good cause

As a member of a homebrew club, I've gladly participated in events where our beer is donated and poured, but I don't think I've ever explicitly used homebrewed beer to raise money for a charitable cause.  Once I figure out if that's legal, I'm going to do it. 

1. Keep writing Beer Simple

I love writing Beer Simple.  I'm grateful to all of you for reading, for your feedback, for your ideas, and for your time.  I know that if it's ever time to stop, you'll let me know.  Since I haven't received any voodoo dolls or horse heads yet, I guess we'll just keep it rolling.  Have a great 2018! 

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Pause: The Virtues of an End-of-Year Brewing Hiatus

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If it's December, I'm not brewing.  And I'm absolutely convinced that it's a move every homebrewer would benefit from.

Every year, around this time, I take a break from brewing.  For one thing, it's a natural reaction to the autumn orgy of beer and brewing events, activities, and obligations.  I don't know if it's because beer and fall seem to go together so well, or because we're all inspired by Oktoberfest, or because I spend an inordinate amount of time brewing and bottling and kegging for the inevitable drinking-down of my beer stocks over two major parties (Christmas and my club's Winter Social) and lots of friend-and-family visiting throughout the holidays, or what - but by December, I'm brewed out.

That's not the whole story, though.

Retreat to Move Forward

During my little brewing hiatus, I do things.  I give the brewery a substantial cleaning.  I inspect, repair, or replace equipment.  I think about my recipes and process, and make changes based on the past year's evaluations and results.  I inventory my ingredients.

In short, this strategic brewing pause lets me (forces me to?) ask questions about whether I'm happy with what and how I'm brewing.  It has obvious practical benefits, of course, because it means I'm doing my due diligence on keeping my brewery, equipment, and ingredients up to scratch, but the more important part is that it frees me up to think about ways to improve.

When you're churning out beer all the time, you're squeezing those reflective moments into, well, moments.  I'll stand at my taps before a party and sample what's on, and maybe spend two minutes thinking about what I'm pouring and how it got there, but then I'll repair to the kitchen to get the coffee-beer-infused scones out of the oven and make sure the door is open and the Beer Jeopardy! questions are ready to go.  While I'm milling for my current batch I'll look around at the grain library and think about storage methods and whether I'm using too much Caramunich, but then a few seconds later I'll be shutting down the drill and heading over to get the mash going.

It's like trying to decide what you want out of a new car and when to buy it while commuting to work: doing a thing and considering a thing don't always work well, concurrently.  During my brewing hiatus, I can consider without the pressure of doing.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Then there's this: after about six weeks of no brewing activity, I can't wait to get back to it in mid-January.  Imposing a little brewcation on yourself makes you eager to jump back in.  

I know a lot of former brewers.  Oftentimes, they're people who weren't all that into the hobby to begin with (which is fine).  They're also, frequently, victims of circumstance: new job, new kid(s), sudden wealth or poverty, etc.  Some, though, are just burnt out on it.

I am absolutely confident that if I maintained my brewing pace all year long, eventually it'd start to feel like some kind of job.  A lot of the joy would go out of it.  Instead, I get to start every new brewing year fresh from a break from brewing, with a sparkling-clean brewery, some new ideas and ingredients and (if it's a successful Christmas) a new and/or improved piece of equipment, and the optimism of looking forward to the new brewing year.  

That's a fantastic way to keep motivated.  It's January and my kegs are largely empty, but I don't have to brew - I get to brew.

Get Biblical (or Musical)

As the Bible/folk music says, "To every thing there is a season."  This implies more than just that life progresses through stages - it also suggests that there is a natural rhythm to what we do, if we're doing it right.

Maybe I'm just already tuned to think this way, being a professor.  Fall semester, winter break, spring semester, summer break: activity, then reflection and preparation, over and over again.  

Give yourself a break this December.  See how it feels.  Spend some time thinking and drinking beer, and leave off of the making of it.  I think you'll be happy with the results.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

 

 


Mashing Out is Dumb - But Do It Anyway

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Proverbially, "even a broken watch is right twice a day."

That's a thought I have every time I hear someone ask (or answer) about the mash out.  In most cases, the answer I hear invokes some discussion of "do it, because raising the temperature decreases viscosity."  It is sometimes then followed by, "but be careful not to make it too hot, or you'll get lots of tannins."

In this case, our broken watch is probably only right once a day.  You probably should go ahead and do a mash out.  And you should probably not be all that concerned about what you raise the mash temperature to.

Fire it Up

Let's start with the "hot lautering/sparging will make your beer astringent" thing.  

First off, tannin extraction depends on a hell of a lot more than just the temperature in the mash tun.  Among those factors a central feature is the pH of the mash.  Simply put, assuming you're in the "normal" pH range (5.2-5.8) for a brewing mash, it's not much going to matter if your temperature in the tun gets about 170F/77C. 

One reason I feel confident saying this is that, just for kicks, I brought my mash up to 180F/82C for several consecutive batches, and there was no change in the resulting beers based on organoleptic analysis in blind judging.  I used my most-common recipes for things like Altbier, Porter, and Bitter, and the resulting beers tasted as they usually do, scored as they usually do in competition.  Heck, the Bitter was one of the most-reliable and best-scoring versions I've ever made (I have a semi-infamous love-hate relationship with that style, in that it's easily in my top three favorites but I have historically struggled to produce high-scoring versions).  

Second, it's harder than you might think to get your mash up that high in the first place.  I perform a modified no-sparge method that entails adding one big ol' mash out addition in more or less identical volume to a batch sparge, and I had to have that sucker at near-boiling to raise the existing mash and wort to 180F/82C.  "Accidentally" raising the temperature in there too high would take some effort, like "accidentally" emptying the dishwasher when you were trying not to.

Don't fear the heat.

Physics v. Physics

Then there's the vaunted "viscosity" argument.  That's one that I bought into myself, before someone who knows much more about this than me explained to me that I had been completely snookered.  It involved words I didn't completely understand, but the gist was that since we weren't talking about dissolving sugar into the liquid, the temperature didn't make a difference once conversion had already occurred.  The sugar is there.  It's in the liquid.  It's not being washed off of the grains.  As a result, the viscosity of sugar at varying temperatures doesn't much matter.

Having said that, we can pivot to a physics term I actually do understand, especially as I once toyed with the idea of majoring in astrophysics: time.  Mashing out won't do anything meaningful to the viscosity of your mash, but it does require you wait a few minutes before moving on.  In that simple passage of time, you're potentially allowing for a bit more conversion and/or some increased efficiency due to marginal pH change, either of which will lead you to the false-positive conclusion of, "AH, See!  I increased the temp in the mash, which made the wort less viscous, and therefore I got more sugar!"  No, you almost certainly got more sugar because you made more, not because you melted it into solution by raising the mash temperature.

Wrong and Right

So, when it comes to the mash out addition, we're wrong about a lot of it, but still getting the right result.  It's dumb, but we should still do it.

First, it'll get you a few more gravity points, so why not?

Second, even though it entails waiting another few minutes, it's time you're saving when you run off and come to a boil, because the resulting liquid is that much warmer already.

Just don't come at me with all that viscosity talk.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).