Beer

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).


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).


Homebrewing Addict: Obsession, Commitment, or Compulsion?

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I recently played a basic icebreaking game with a class in which the speaker made three statements about him or herself, two of which were true and one which was a lie.  My "lie" was "I run marathons for fun."  It was a lie because although I do run marathons, I don't think there's anyone who does so "for fun."  In my explanation (and experience), most marathoners run them because they're compulsive people who are willing to engage in a deliberately injurious activity out of a desire to do something relatively extreme - it's where people who want to exercise and also have addictive personalities end up.

I've started to think it's the same with homebrewing.

Does This Sound Familiar?

I've brewed beer while kegging/bottling a beer so that I have somewhere to put the beer I'm brewing right at that moment.

I couldn't tell you the exact date of five of my six nieces'/nephews' birthdays, but I can tell you the exact OG of the beer I brewed two days ago.

I've adjusted the heat/AC in our house to aid in fermentation temperature management (in the days before I had a temp controller).

I have two or more refrigerators on at least two levels of my home, plus two more in the garage. 

I've scheduled social and professional events around when I need to be at a local homebrew shop to get supplies for a batch.

We have more than one room or area of our house explicitly dedicated to (and decorated for) homebrewing.

A solid majority of my friend group is comprised of members of my homebrew club(s).

I deliberately shop at three - no, wait, FOUR - different homebrew shops so that in a pinch, if I need something rare or special, I can call on a favor from an employee or owner at those shops.  

Since I started brewing beer in April 2007 I've never - not once - been without beer of my own to drink.

Does this sound familiar?  And does it sound sane?  I'm seriously asking.  I hang around with mostly homebrewers, and that's like being a coke addict who mostly hangs out with insomniacs with ADHD - you start to lose track of what's objectively normal.

Rubbing the Lamp

Fine - so we live in a pretty involved and involving subculture.  But it's still culture, right?  I mean, sure, this chews up time that could be spent at a museum, or hearing live music, or visiting family, but honestly, when was the last time anything constructive ever happened in any of those places?

Because say what you want about however you spend your time, but at the end of the brewing day, you know what I have?  I have beer.

And that's like rubbing the lamp with the genie in it and being smart enough to ask for more wishes.  When you're the guy/gal with beer taps coming out of your walls and with the fridge full of bottles and the head full of know-how, the world beats a path to your wort-stained door.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go pack up some herbs and yard clippings I've been drying on a windowsill for use in a hay-themed Saison for a Homebrewing Secret Santa brewing challenge.

And then maybe I need to make an appointment with a therapist.

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).


Repeat Repeat For For Success Success

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Getting something right the first time is hard, if not impossible.  So why is it that I so rarely hear about homebrewers repeating beers?  Multiple surveys indicate that homebrewers brew an average of once per month, and I don't have much evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) that homebrewers are producing the same recipe twice in a row.

I sincerely think that's a mistake, particularly for newer brewers, but also for those with more batches through their mash tun.  The only way to know - know - that you're making what you intend to make is to repeat your process and get the same result.

Process is King

I don't think I know a single good-to-great brewer that doesn't pay close attention to their process.  There's a good reason for that.  It isn't that carefree, devil-may-care brewers can't make incredible beer, it's that hitting your target requires two steps to be performed consistently: aiming and pulling the trigger.  These generate validity and reliability in your brewing.

Validity is the extent to which there's correspondence between what you think you're aiming at and what you're actually aiming at. If you're consistently looking down the sights in the same way, then you should get a much more valid result.

Reliability is simple, too - reliability is repeatability, and reliability depends absolutely on your commitment to doing the same thing in the same way every time.

Not all beer that's targeted validly and produced reliably is good beer - but if it isn't, it's a hell of a lot easier to bring it into line since you can rest easy knowing that the changes you introduce should, all else being equal, produce the anticipated changes.

Prove It

So you think you have your process under control - now prove it.  Make the same beer twice.

I don't mean "brew the same style from the same recipe twice," and I certainly don't mean "change every recipe to improve it with every brew day."  I mean it literally.  Brew the same beer, from the same recipe, on the same equipment and using the same process, with the goal of producing an identical beer.  

Clone your own beer, effectively, and then you can claim to have your process under control.  And lest you think, "well of COURSE they're going to be more-or-less identical!," I've seen this done lots of times and it almost never happens that way the first time.

Brewing is a pretty damned robust process.  As we say, wort wants to become beer.  But that doesn't mean that small inconsistencies in process won't cause large downstream effects.  You'll get beer.  You might even get outstanding beer.  You won't get the same beer, though, without practice.

Don't Think - Know

When I bring this up among brewers, the answer I get most often is, "oh, I definitely brew the same way every time."  When I ask how they know, they seem confused.  "Well, I like all my beers, and they do well in competition, and..."  Honestly, there's nothing wrong with that as an answer to the question "are you a good brewer?"  But it's not much of an answer to the question "are you a consistent brewer with good control over recipe-building and process?"

The only way to know that is to do it.  I know there's an impulse to brew, solicit feedback, and tweak with the goal of improvement.  I also know that brewers often end up chasing their tails "improving" their beer before they have a good handle on their process - and know that they do.  Instead, they're trying to fix their beer based on a "maybe" (as all such evaluations tend to be) in a process that is itself a "maybe."  We can't remove the inherent subjectivity of the feedback and evaluation we get.  We can, though, lock down the process end of the equation.

Once you cross that threshold, as validated by back-to-back brews, you can make adjustments confidently and effectively.

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).


How To Talk Homebrewing Without Going Overboard

"A fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." - Winston Churchill.

You're at a party, or perched on the bar, or standing around a grill.  There's beer.  Someone starts talking about beer.  And, almost irresistibly, you find the words spilling out of your mouth, despite any intention you had of keeping them in...

"Actually, I brew beer."

If that's not you, then you can go.  But I can write that sentence fully aware that I'm keeping an enormous percentage of you on board for this, because as far as I can tell we nearly all do this.  It's not inherently a bad thing, but it certainly has the potential.  Homebrewer fanaticism might not be what it once was, but there's still plenty of us out there.  

The Downside of Depth

Specialty is the enemy of gaiety.  It isn't so much that people aren't or couldn't be interested in brewing (though they might not be), it's that the kinds of conversations homebrewers tend to have about beer and brewing are only interesting to other homebrewers, and even then it may be heavily dependent on the other's brewing practice, experience, method, or skill.  

If I'm not a Brew-in-a-Bag guy, then there's only so much I care about where you're ordering your bags from and whether or not they eliminate the need for rice hulls in a wheat-heavy grist.  If I don't use extract I'll have a hard time mustering up interest in Muntons v. Alexanders or DME v. LME.  If I don't use induction...well, I do, but you get the point.  

And that's assuming you're talking to another brewer.  Now imagine you're not.  How much do they care about anything other than the very, very basics of brewing, if that much?  

If you're talking about homebrewing, there's a very good chance that you're not educating or entertaining - you're masturbating.  And no one wants to see that in public.

Courtesy v. Interest

I'm sure I've said this before, but never mistake courtesy for interest.  Yes, you're all talking about beer.  It can be fun, and if you're at good craft beer bar or brewery there's bound to be some casual interest.  This shouldn't convince you that you have a green light to go full beer geek.  

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If you're going to talk about brewing, maybe don't go full beer geek.  If you use terms that need to be explained, you've probably already gone too far.  If you mention ales v. lagers, take a breath and change the subject.  If you think you might let the words SRM, sparge, or Vorlauf escape your lips, step outside and punch yourself in the genitals until you feel the sensation pass.

The danger here is that people might keep listening just to be polite.  Hell, I'm married to someone who keeps asking questions about something even when she hates the topic, just because it seems polite.  Don't assume that just because they're nodding and smiling that they're not screaming on the inside.

A Matter of Taste

I've been down this road.  I know what it feels like to be the overcommitted, hyper-talkative alehole in the room.  You realize it the next morning, or maybe later that night, and you wonder why you didn't just stick to the basics.

So that's my advice.  Stick to the basics.  Hell, stick to less than the basics.

I prefer to talk about beer like it is what it is - a food product.  Leave the science and the mechanics aside completely.  I've never, not once, had a brewing-based conversation that focused on taste and flavors that has gone awry.  But I've seen (and ignored?) a lot of glazed eyeballs when I go into too much detail on the question, "how long does it take to make beer?" ["Well, only about 4-5 hours to make it, all-grain, maybe 2-3 if it's extract, but you want to do all-grain because of the control you get.  It's cheaper, too.  Anyway, all-grain is when you do your own starch conversions, instead of just getting the liquid or dried extract.  Hey, cool - where'd you learn to tie a noose?  So, as I was saying you can use a cooler or a kettle to mash in, mashing being when you hold the grain in a warm, wet bath so the enzymes can convert the starches into - sure, I'll get you a glass of water for those pills - simple and complex sugars.  See, yeast can consume and convert short-chain sugars but not long-chain sugars, so there's some left over which is why we need hops to balance the sweetness of the remaining - oh, Bob?  He's in the bathroom with my pocket knife, I think he needed to clean his fingernails - long-chain sugars and alcohols, because you know alcohol is sweet, too!  Anyways, that's just the brew day, but it can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to ferment and age the beer..."  You get the idea.]

And when I say to talk flavors, I don't mean "round maltiness" or "flinty bitterness" or "slick diacetyl."  I mean "pineapple," "banana," "coffee," and the like.   Imagine you were describing cake to someone who just generally, sort-of-knows-about baked goods.  You'd talk up the sweetness of icing and the softness of sponge cake, not the advantages of convection ovens over gas ovens or silicon trays v. aluminum, right?  

Briefly

Nothing wrong with something basic ("all alcoholic drinks are basically just sugary liquids, fermented, which makes alcohol") and a discussion of flavors ("lots of beers taste like banana or spices even without using fruit or spice").  Crack that tiny egg of knowledge, then shut up.  Pretend you're cultivating an air of mystery, if it makes it easier for you.  Answer questions, but don't try to gin up a long conversation.  Maybe it'll happen anyway, but try to talk about other things in between brewing-related questions.  And maybe you're just better at this than I am.

But I always get better results when I keep it brief.  A couple of points, and then move on.  

On that note, why not stop here?  

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).


Glassholes: Marginal Improvement Calculus in Beer Evaluation and Enjoyment

Overheard in a beer group on social media recently: "I'm bringing beer to a friend's house, and he doesn't usually drink craft beer.  Is it OK to bring glassware for my beer, too?"

Oof.  OK, where to begin here...

I know it's come up before, but I ran into this one again recently.  There's really two questions here: is it socially OK for me to show up with my own beer and my own glassware, and does glassware matter that much?

First Things First

For the first question, in this particular inquiry, the answer has to be "no."  It's not OK for you to show up with glassware.  I don't know you, and I don't know your friend, and I don't know what kind of beer we're talking about, but I can still answer this question, logically:

If your friend took beer seriously enough to not potentially be a little put off by this, he'd probably have a decent stock of glassware on hand already.  Maybe I'm just being overly sensitive, but I think you're running a risk of looking like a snob rather than a geek in this case.

Look, I shudder a bit, too, when I see someone pull out a frozen mug for me when they see I have "good" beer, but I think the more neighborly thing to do is just stall for a minute while the glass warms up a bit and then pour.  No one's going to thank you for educating them on glassware - except for people who wouldn't likely need that education.

So, on to the second part of the question: just how much does it matter?

Glassware Matters...and Doesn't

Short answer?  It matters, and more than a lot of people think.  Volume, shape, curvature and size of the bell, stemmed or not, wall thickness, even glass type make a difference, and if I was at home I'd always reach for a stange for my Kolsch, a snifter for my Barleywine, a tulip for my IPAs, and a dimpled mug for my Mild.  I've done side-by-sides, and you do find a noticeable difference.

You've probably heard this before, but the shaker pint glass isn't really a great vessel for beer.  Tuning your glass choice to your beer style is a good call, assuming you're in a position to do so without suggesting your friend is a hick for not having an 18-karat gold-lipped chalice on hand.  

But at the same time, it doesn't matter so much that you should be losing sleep, friends, or tolerability over it.  Blind Pig is an excellent beer, whether served in a tulip glass or a conch shell, and would still be pretty good even if you drank it from a lightly-used dip spit can.  On the other hand, that low-carb macro lager I had at the finish line of the Delaware Marathon last week was disgusting, and would have been even if it had been served out of a platinum chalice crusted in jewels in a mosaic of Emma Stone's stunning vampire-person face.  

So, if you have the option, fit your beverage to your glassware.  But if it's not practical, or polite, or reasonable, then enjoy your beer anyway.  I suppose I could see an exception for some rare and expensive beers where I'm only going to get one shot at it, but if it's just a question of "will I enjoy it," glassware alone is going to matter a lot less than the beer's quality, how it's been treated since it left the brewery, its temperature, and a bunch of other factors.  Drink up.

The marginal improvement is worth it, but not at the expense of just about anything else.  Factor the non-beer-enjoyment-related stuff into your calculus.

The Go-To Glass

Is there a brewer in the world that doesn't end up with too many damned pint glasses?  I swear, I could smash every one I drink from into the fireplace, Greek-wedding-style, from now until Rapture and I'd still have a cabinet full of shakers on hand for the next round with my fellow-denizens of the post-Apocalyptic hellscape.  Here's to you, Scarlet Woman - and Scarlet Beast, for that matter.

But if you're looking to stock up on good go-to glassware, I have a humble recommendation: the water goblet.

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There's a nice little bell, you can usually swirl your beer neatly, there's a stem so you can keep your hand from warming the beer if you want, and it should keep you from getting the weird looks that sometimes come from pouring your beer into a wine glass (thank you, BYO-restaurant waitstaff, but I'm fine with my wine-glass beer...).

Also, since they're a common purchase you can usually score them for a decent price from any number of online retailers, and if you host a bunch of beer parties you can get a couple of dozen or more for about $2/glass.  

Just...don't bring them with you to parties.  Trust me.

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).

 


Brewing with Voltaire: Simple Recipe Cheats

"The best is the enemy of the good."  This old phrase and even older idea, popularized by Voltaire, means that in trying to improve something further you may actually screw it up.  Let's say you're working on something.  It's more than good enough - you can stop now and enjoy it.  But you don't.  You keep trying to make it perfect,  And you never actually get to perfect, so you don't get to enjoy it.  I find that brewers are particularly susceptible to this trap, and I'm writing today with two goals: 

1. To convince you to recognize that perfection isn't the goal, and probably isn't attainable anyway.

2. To share a few simple tricks you can employ to get to "good enough" that will save you all kinds of time and effort compared to the "might get me to perfect" methods.  And not for nothing, but who said that complexity was the road to perfection, anyway?

Addition by Subtraction

Starting with the philosophical side of this, it probably shouldn't surprise you that here at Beer: Simple we're in favor of the idea of "good enough."  If you want to make great beer, geeking out is fine, but hardly required.  If you're having issues and you aren't happy with what you're making, then certainly some geeking out might be in order, but you don't necessarily need to do so if you're enjoying the beer you're producing.  Some of the very best brewers I know are brewing in battered kettles on top of ancient plywood held up by nothing more exotic than sawhorses, and they don't think all that much about the thousands of technical details that go into brewing.  Despite what some might call this lack of "care," they're still producing great beer.  

Some of that might just be luck - a good water profile, a lucky guess on mill gap, etc. - but a lot of it can be had by affirmatively simplifying your beer and brewing.  Be willing to let go of what might be unnecessary, especially when it's taking up your time or money.

In my brewery, empiricism rules the day: if I'm not sure I need to do something, I'll drop it out of the process (or replace it with something easier) and see what happens.  If I don't see a noticeable difference in flavor, or stability, or competition scores, then I leave it out.  Sometimes it backfires and I need to double back (direct oxygenation really is crazy beneficial), but far more often there's no meaningful impact (or it turns out better).  

Am I abandoning the possibility of making that perfect, mesmerizing, 50-point beer?  Maybe.  But I don't care, because that wasn't the point of brewing it in the first place. The point was to make enjoyable beer, and Step One in the process is "brew."  I'm more likely to do that if I can do it quickly and easily.  It doesn't much matter how perfect that beer would have been if I decided that I didn't have time to make it in the first place.  

Let's also not forget that trying to make it perfect might mess it up, too - or to quote another fine author (Billy S.), "striving to mend, [we] mar the subject."

So you might consider some editing.  This week is about recipe choices, but in the future we'll also get into some process and equipment ideas, too.  But it has to start with a willingness to, in the words of yet another immortal author, "Let it Go."  [God, I hated that movie.  I know it's for kids, but kids aren't (all) morons.  Plot holes everywhere.  Singing that's a little "shriek-y."  That f***in' snowman.  And if she could control the ice the whole time, then why did we need the entire movie???]

Recipe Cheats

As always, let me start with the disclaimer that these things may or may not work for you. There's a whole universe of potentially unobvservable differences between us.  But they've worked for me, and they (or variations on them) might work for you, too.

Season Everything.  This is a truism of cooking - don't miss an opportunity to add a flavor.  For that reason, I almost never use generic 2-row base malt.  To forestall the e-mails, yes, I know that it does have a flavor, but it's a flavor that's relatively easy to overshadow.  When in doubt, replace that 2-row base addition with a 50/50 split of Maris Otter and Pilsner.  I think you'll find it adds a great biscuit/honey background note to most beers, and might enable you to skip some light crystal additions.  

Work Low to High.  With new recipes, start with less of (whatever) then you think you actually need, and walk it up in successive batches.  You're looking for a minimum required amount - overkill can be hard to spot, so you're probably wasting money on over-used ingredients.

Sugar, Sugar.  Sugar additions aren't just for Belgian beers.  Any time you want to be sure that a beer finishes nice and light and dry, replace 5% of your gravity points with corn or cane sugar.  It's a little nudge in the right direction because it completely eliminates some long-chain sugars which might linger.  Sure, you could do the same by mashing lower, but that introduces a lot of error, whereas this is as simple as breaking out the scale.

Think "Results."  Don't focus too much on the original flavor of an ingredient - it may not taste that way when your process is finished (I still remember thinking about the great maple flavor I was going to get out of that maple syrup....or not, because it all just fermented off!).  And don't obsess about the "right" way to get a flavor: yes, you should probably use a lacto strain to get lactic acid in your Berliner Weisse, but if it didn't get sour enough you can also just spike it with.....LACTIC ACID (good enough for BOS at one competition).  There are some shortcuts you should never use (Liquid Smoke, anyone?) but a great many more that are perfectly useful.  Try, then trust.

Focus your Malts.  Fewer ingredients is usually better than more.  You don't need four types of crystal malt - one or two will be fine.  You probably don't need three kinds of chocolate malt - you'll likely only taste one of them.  In fact I'm of the opinion that, with almost no exceptions, no recipe needs more than four malts: a base malt, a light character malt (think Victory), a crystal malt (Fawcett 45L is my favorite - that thing can do damn near anything), and a chocolate malt (Chocolate Rye is fun).  In addition to making it easier to discern the flavor contributions of different malts and train up your palate, your LHBS grist guy/gal will thank you for making their life easier.

Focus your Hops. Same thing as malts.  Keep it simple.  Choose a hop from a particular family, whether it's a geraniol-focused hop like Styrian or big-time citrus from a linalool-rich hop like Amarillo (for some great guidance, check out this recent piece at Craft Beer & Brewing!) and use it the whole way.  The one exception would be low-Alpha-Acid-percentage hops that would require too much hop matter in your beer (and can cause vegetal flavors).  If you're going to have more than six ounces of any hop in your five-gallon batch, cut it down by using high-AA% bittering hops.

Don't Obsess Over Water.  I didn't adjust my water for years.  It tastes fine, so I used it to brew.  Eventually I got a water report (think Cologne, Germany) and worked out a basic treatment plan (1/4 teaspoon of Gypsum in light beers, 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in dark beers, nothing for ambers).  The simple fact is that for a great many brewers, obsessing over water is a massive time and energy suck.  If you've got crazy hard well water then get on that stuff right away, but if not?  Deprioritize it.  I know it's the single largest ingredient, but most drinking water is perfectly fine as-is for brewing.  And trying to "re-create" brewing center waters so your beer is uber-authentic is a sign of pretension that's almost as egregious as using the modifier "uber." 

Recipe Your Way Out.  Sometimes process is what we use to get flavors - for example, pushing temperature on a yeast to get certain phenols, esters, or fermentation characters.  But be willing to "recipe" your way out of that situation - process is simply less reliable than ingredients.  YOU control the ingredients.  The yeast control the fermentation byproducts.  So if you're looking for pepper flavor in that Saison, consider just adding some...cracked pepper.

Know Thy Yeast.  I've already covered this elsewhere, but I firmly advocate using a few go-to strains of yeast rather than switching it up for every single recipe.  Yeast performance dictates a lot of what you get out of the other end here, and if you stick with one strain for similar beers (I do one ale, one lager, and one Belgian) then your other recipe adjustments will be more reliable and educational.

If It's Stupid but it Works, it Ain't Stupid

We could probably go on forever with little things like these.  What's more important is a willingness to try out different things and see how they work.  Don't be tied to the orthodox or the dogmatic.  And keep an eye on what you want out of your brewing: if you want a peach beer, consider adding peaches before delving into the academic research on the molecular nature of peach aromatics and hop oils and how they present in alcoholic solutions post-fermentation and post-isomerization.  Be willing to double back to the orthodox (it often exists for a good reason), but be just as willing to try something obvious, even if it sounds stupid.  If it's stupid but it works, it ain't stupid.

Please feel free to add your own tips below in the comments, and I'll be back here soon with another round of Brewing with Voltaire.  Don't let the best be the enemy of the good in your brewing.  And for those who would criticize you or tech-talk your ears off for bucking the trends or relying on something as simplistic as adding lactic acid to your sour beer, I would offer my favorite Voltaire witticism in return (ironic and hypocritical as it might be):

"A witty saying proves nothing."

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 Goals for 2016

Happy New Year from Beer: Simple!  To start off this new brewing/beer year, here are some simple things I’m planning on doing in 2016 – and I think you should consider doing the same.  They’re all about getting more out of your beer and brewing life, and shouldn’t take too much of your time, effort, or money (well, except #9, but it’s totally worth it).

But before we get into the list, let’s address a long-standing epidemic that is the shame and bane of the beer world: beer-based puns.  In discussing this post with people, a disturbing number of people jokingly asked what the post title would be.  Among the rejected suggestions were the following: Hoppy New Year, Happy Brew Year, Happy New Beer, Malty Brew Year, Hoppy Brew Beer...

People.  People, people, people.  End the puns.  Never make one again.  Don’t wish me a “hoppy birthday.”  Every time I see that on Facebook it makes me want to punch my dog in the face (but then I look at her, and…well, she's just too damned cute). 

So just stop it.  Now, on to the list!  Things to do this year, Beer and Brewing Edition:

10. Buy a high-quality thermometer – or at least calibrate the one you already have.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to open my new Thermapen MK4 on Christmas morning!  It was the only thing I asked for, and for good reason: temperature is really at the heart of what we’re doing.  It affects mashing, boiling, fermentation, conditioning – even enjoyment when you finally open the bottle or pull the tap handle.  So do yourself a massive favor and get your hands of a good thermometer, or at least calibrate yours so you can make the appropriate adjustment for what it reads – if it’s consistently reading 2-3 degrees high or low, you’ve got an easy fix for a lot of likely issues in your brewery.

9. Make a point of attending either the Great American Beer Festival or National Homebrewers Conference.

Conveniently, this year NHC (June) is in Baltimore and GABF (October) is (as always) in Denver, so one or the other will be (relatively) close to home for nearly everyone.  Both are events that let you taste a LOT of beer, and both also offer myriad ways to expand your beer and brewing knowledge.  I’m a much greater proponent of NHC, but only because I’ve never been to GABF (the only downside to an academic life – no travel in the fall…).  But going to beer events of this size is a wonderful experience – stay hydrated (just drink your cup wash water), eat at every opportunity, and soak in as much as you can!

8. Find a new appreciation for a passé or overlooked beer style – I’m thinking Witbier.

We all have beer styles that we gloss right over on beer menus.  I’m not a huge fan of very many Belgian beers or breweries (some notable examples, though – Allagash and Ommegang are always on my list!), so this year I’m going to focus on a style that may deserve doubling-back on – probably Witbier.  For you, maybe it’s amber lagers.  For others, maybe you’re a hopophobe and it’s time to try out some IPAs again.  But try to avoid brewing or drinking ruts – these beers and styles evolve over time, as does your palate. 

7. Give up beer for Lent, even if you’re not Catholic.

Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations, notes eleven virtues that you should exhibit and which are “wholly within your power” – one of these is self-denial.  Every year, for 40 days, most Catholics you know give up something for their Lenten observance (you can usually tell – they get a little pissy whenever you order beer, chocolate, steak…).  This year, whether you’re Catholic or not, give up beer.  Marcus’ point about self-denial is that it shows that you’re in control of your impulses and desires – you’re not governed by them.  This also gives you the opportunity to spend some time on other beverages you might have neglected: revisit wine, give Scotch a try, delve into meads or ciders – or even “go dry” for 40 days.  It won’t kill you (and, in fact, has impressive health benefits), and your favorite beer will taste that much better come Easter!

6. Write a letter to a brewery that is making your favorite beer and thank them.

When we travel, my wife loves to write thank-you notes to the staff of the hotel or the crew of the cruise ship, while we’re still on it, to let them know that we appreciate their hard work.  She figures that most of what they hear, day-to-day, is complaining (much of it just whining, really) and she wants to change that.  It’s really quite sweet and something I would literally never think to do on my own (she’s a much nicer person than I am).  So this year, I’m going to write (actually write – with paper and pen and all!) a brewery I like, and thank them.  Brewing is hard, hard work, and breweries deserve a lot of credit for doing it, especially when they do it well.

5. Learn one scientific lesson that will improve your brewing.

Brewing is a science.  Just because we learned to do it by accident 5,000 years ago doesn’t mean that it hasn’t grown up!  So, I’m going to hit up one of the biologists, chemists, or physicians in my club and have them teach me the scientific root of a beer process, and then use that to simplify and improve some element of my brewing process.  To paraphrase the book The Martian, I want to science the shit out of something in my brewery.

4. Attend a homebrew club meeting – other than your own!

If you don’t belong to a club, you probably should, because remember – Your Beer Sucks, and they’ll tell you why and how to fix it.  But even if you belong to a club (I do), I think it’s a good idea to go to another one now and again.  For one thing, you’ll meet more homebrewers (fun), and you’ll get new feedback – and new kinds of feedback – on your beer (useful).  It’ll be worth driving an extra 20 minutes or so to get to that club’s meeting.

3. Teach a willing person to homebrew, and brew with them at least three times.

I’m sure a lot of people talk to a homebrewer and decide to brew.  Once.  Then they do it, feel frustrated, and never do it again.  I know this happens because I remember how irritated and frustrated I was brewing in the new house when we moved – I didn’t know where anything was, nothing worked as it usually did, and the beer was a pain in the ass to make (though it turned out well).  If that had been my first go, there’s at least a one in three chance I’d have given up.  The way we tell people to just “get your stuff and brew” is like sending a new skier down that Black Diamond trail called “The Preacher.”  So instead, convince someone to brew, and then brew with the at least three times, preferably on their equipment and at their home/brewery.  Brewing is habit and process more than anything else, and being there to keep them on track for the first few beers will mean a better brewer and one who is more likely to keep at it when you’re not around.  And going back to basics may also remind you of some important things you’ve been letting slide!

2. Stand up for one newbie that is being razzed by an alehole.

Sometimes when we see this shit – new bartender or wait staff being hazed and harassed by a know-it-all (even if he/she doesn’t) alehole – we let it slide.  Even if you don’t confront the alehole, at least have a quiet word with their intended target, and let them know that we’re not all like that, and that (especially if they’re new to the craft beer world) it’s pretty easy to get up to speed.  You might even recommend them to the Certified Beer Server course over at the Cicerone Program – in short, be constructive.  They’ll probably throw you a free beer for it, so do it even if you’re a curmudgeonly, introverted, misanthropic elitist like me.

1. Contribute in a meaningful way to the brewing world – however you can.

And finally, try to find a way to pitch in to our (still quite little) community.  This doesn’t have to be big.  No one’s asking you to organize a 5K.  Or even run in one.  Or even walk in one.  OK, basically, no running unless you’re into that – why do we as a society feel better when we force unwilling people to pay money to run approximately three miles for a cause?  But I digress.  Just try to give something back.  The reason I got so into beer and brewing was that I was so impressed and touched by so many people in the brewing community, and I feel like every year should include a resolution to give back, however and wherever you can.  I think there’s a 5K that is sponsored by a local brewpub that I’ll run in – wait, an 8K???  Well, alright…

Have a wonderful year everyone, and thank you for following Beer: Simple into it.  I’m also resolving to do my best to keep providing what I hope is high-quality writing on relevant beer topics, but if you feel I’m not quite up to the mark, please let me know in the comments or by e-mailing me at [email protected]

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).  


Dump the Pump: Newton, Pascal, Bernoulli, and Homebrewing

Gravity brewing 001.JPG

Physics is your friend, and can save you money on homebrewing equipment.  I'm no enemy of Chugger or March, but let's face it: most brewers don't need a pump if they can employ some basic brew system design advice to let physics do the work for them!  And here's the thing: principles of physics will never break down on you.  They won't burn out.  They don't (really) need to be primed.  And they're free.  So let's drink a toast to Sir Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, and Daniel Bernoulli and talk about how gravity, pressure, and suction can eliminate the need for pumps in your brewing (without requiring you to brew from atop an A-frame ladder).

When building out my new system, I wanted something simple (shocking, I know) and convenient.  Therefore, I wanted to build it more or less horizontally for ease of access and operation, and as a result came to the conclusion that pumping was my only real option.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the brewery: it turns out I couldn't stand the added steps, equipment, cost, and cleaning that the pump required, and went back to the drawing board.  Not for the first time in my brewing life, I thought, "well, why don't I just try the simplest thing and see if it works?"

With the minimum possible drop, could I transfer using nothing but gravity, hydrostatic pressure, and siphoning, and still work from counter height to the carboy without the need for a pump?  The answer was yes, and I now have a never ending source of transferring energy to go from my mash tun to my kettle, through my plate chiller, and out into my carboy.  Simple.

But let's talk numbers.

My mash tun sits on the countertop, a standard 36" from the floor, with a drain and ball valve roughly one inch above that.  Draining from the mash tun to the kettle, I have a ZERO inch drop from the ball valve outlet to the lip of the kettle, and a drop inside the kettle (once the beer clears the lip) of 10".  The hydrostatic pressure of the liquid in the mash tun is sufficient to get things flowing over the lip despite the lack of an actual drop, and once started, Bernoulli's Law takes over and keeps pulling liquid until the mash tun empties.  Nice and easy.

Now, once in the kettle, I boil as usual, and the time comes to chill things down.  I have a weldless fitting on my kettle, and I drain from it using the same principles as the mash tun's transfer.  Open the valve and let gravity/pressure do their job.  How big a drop?  Well, it's a whopping 4.5" from the barb to the "Wort In" side of the plate chiller...but here's the thing.  The easiest way to use my Shirron chiller (see the photo) is to lay it flat and clamp it to the counter that the kettle sits on, which means that to get OUT of the chiller, the fluid is now running UPHILL!  Before I let logic overcome reality, though, I just opened it up and observed what happened - no problem.  Once the flow gets going, we're home free again, thanks to Monsieur Pascal and Signor Bernoulli.  

Upon exiting the chiller, there is a 2.5" drop from the lip of the chiller output to the lip of the carboy, and then about a 6" drop into the carboy.  In case you're curious, it flows at a nice, healthy rate, too: 4.5 gallons of beer takes me nine minutes to drain/pull through the chiller, for a rate of about two minutes per gallon.  Even using a pump, you wouldn't want to (or be able to) go faster, chilling with cold tap water, so there's no real time loss.

And that's it: pump-free transfer.  I've literally never had a stuck lauter/sparge or transfer out/through the chiller.  Physics is some reliable stuff.

Obviously you'll need to do some tweaking to make this fit your system, but the gist is a simple one: you don't need big drops in height to make a gravity-fed system work, because gravity's not doing it all on its own.  Pressure is the real lead dog on this one, and so long as you have enough to get things moving, the rest is simple.  

Most three-tier stands on the market have about 24-30" of total drop, and most still make use of a pump to get the finished wort into the fermenter.  

My total drop, mash tun to carboy, with no pumps employed?  17 inches.

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).


Brewing Simply: A philosophy

This first "real" post in the brewing section of the blog is dedicated to a statement of philosophy more than a specific practical improvement, but I think it's important to ground what's to come in the weeks, months, and (who knows?) years to come in a statement of what I mean by "brewing simply."

Despite the near-limitless universe of gadgets, equipment, and tools available to homebrewers, brewing outstanding beer definitely does not require an extensive investment in that equipment, or even a detailed knowledge of how the stuff we buy at the homebrew shop becomes "beer."  Is some knowledge beneficial?  Absolutely.  But is some knowledge (and its application in homebrewing) just a form of hobby-intensive masturbation?  Absolutely.  Knowing the difference is part of what we'll be discussing.

This section will detail areas where processes and ingredients can be simplified - either by eliminating extraneous or minimally-beneficial steps or implementing a work-around for existing steps.  Will some recommendations cause minor variations in your beer?  Yes, almost certainly.  But not all of those changes will be negatives, and when they are I'm confident that they're nominal.

I start from the position, in every case, that brewers would brew more frequently (and be happier doing it) if it was easier, took less time, and turned out a good product, reliably.  So that should be our goal.  In evaluating your own process (the topic of our next post), ask yourself why you're doing something: can you justify (and not just rationalize) this, in the context of making a positive contribution to the beer?  Or are you just doing it because you read it in a magazine/blog/message board?  Or because you've always done it?  Or because a great brewer you know does it?  I think that many people lose sight of the fact that this stuff (beer) was made basically by accident, for millennia.  The science we reverence now is a relatively recent guest at the brewing party, and while it can open doors to make our beer a lot better, its mania for correcting even very minor errors may be creating additional work for very little return.

So, take a look at your process.  Write down your steps in detail.  Next time, I'll be discussing where you might be putting in a lot more than you're getting out!

JJW