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

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

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

Needs Assessment

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

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

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

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

For the Regular Brewer

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Stressed Brewer With NO TIME For Anything

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving from Beer Simple

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

Keep it simple.


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).


Pound It: Bulk Hops and What to Do With Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Everybody Just Hold Their Breath

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

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

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

Time v. Consistency

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

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

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

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

Keep it simple.


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).