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

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

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

A Stranger in the Brewery

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing is Caring

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

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

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

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

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

Just Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not too often.  Not too rarely.  Just enough.  

Keep it simple.


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

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

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

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

The Secondary Fermentation Necessity Myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Never-ending Whirlpool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pitching Temps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Learning

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

Keep it simple.


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(Almost) All's Fair: Homebrew Competition Ethics

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

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

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

Off we go...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"People who blend beers are cheating."

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

"People who enter lots of beers are cheating."

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, it's wrong.

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

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

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

Questions, anyone?

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

Keep it simple.


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).