Brewing

Hell Is Other Brewers: Loving and Ignoring Beer Feedback

Our previous image was apparently offensive to at least one reader who took issue with the use of the face of Che Guevara.  Instead, please enjoy these creepy meerkats staring at you, which work pretty well, too...

Our previous image was apparently offensive to at least one reader who took issue with the use of the face of Che Guevara.  Instead, please enjoy these creepy meerkats staring at you, which work pretty well, too...

There's a certain vulnerability in homebrewing that we don't often discuss: homebrewing invites judgment.  I don't know a single homebrewer that drinks everything they brew.  Such a person could be only a sporadic brewer or an alcoholic (or both).  That means that, for most of us, we're offering up what we've brewed to other people, and when we do, they're going to judge us.

Hell is Other Brewers

In reflecting on that last week, I was reminded of a famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit: "Hell is other people."  An oft-misinterpreted sentiment, Sartre isn't saying that other people are annoying (though they can be, of course).  He's saying that there's anxiety and pain caused by a near-unavoidable human trait of seeing ourselves not as innately free and independent entities, but as an object that is regarded externally by others, and that we are as others perceive us to be.

If you are as others perceive you, you're a slave to their perceptions even if your innate qualities are completely adequate to your needs and wants.  If they think you're stupid, or vain, or untrustworthy, then you are (or might as well be), and your inability to be free of that judgment can be torturous.  Hence, "hell is other people."

This is deep for homebrewing, I realize, but in many ways it applies to the kinds of judgments we get from people who drink our beer - especially other brewers.  Your friends and family probably won't be totally honest with you, even if they're journeymen beer aficionados with some sensory training and a good beer evaluation vocabulary.  But other brewers...they'll probably be honest.  Maybe painfully so.

And here's the thing: you should both want that painful feedback and try to remain independent from it.

No Exit

For a variety of reasons that we've already delved into, you should be seeking good feedback for your beer - and "good" shouldn't mean "polite."  It probably shouldn't be hurtful and demeaning, but even in those cases such feedback (if warranted) can be a good wake-up call for a brewer who is, perhaps, a little too optimistic in their assessments and filters everything through the lens of "clearly I'm a great brewer and I love my beer and that's all that matters."

I'm 100% guilty of giving unvarnished, direct feedback, to the point where I'm also pretty sure that, taken out of context, it'd be considered cruel (I'm working on being nicer about it, I swear).  Intent and context matter here, though.  If someone is just ripping on your beer to belittle your efforts and mock you, then that's clearly wrong - don't confuse that with someone who is just being pointed to the point of cringe-inducement to prevent any rose-colored-glasses misunderstandings.

Because that feedback is just what you need.  There's degrees of "wrong" in brewing, as we all know.  Slight ester in a lager?  No big deal.  Vegetal aroma plus sulfur that smells like a head of cabbage lit a bucket of s**t on fire?  Big deal.  You need to know the magnitude of the problem, and politeness will strip away that important feature of the feedback.

Hell, I don't even mind when someone is just being mean - there's probably some truth in there, and I think we can and should find value in even ill-intentioned feedback.

That doesn't mean you should be a slave to it, though.

Freedom

Sartre, like many others, was philosophically guided and preoccupied by notions of human freedom.  Those lessons apply here, too.  Feedback is valuable.  Feedback, however, should not be deterministic as it pertains to your brewing choices.

Creativity is something that draws lots of people into homebrewing.  Creativity and artistry are not things that are universally understood, and in many cases the very best of art is perceived as deeply flawed by the majority.  Maybe you've hit on something truly brilliant in your brewing; even if you have (hell, especially if you have) it's very likely that the feedback you receive about it will be negative and maybe hostile.

If you believe in what you're brewing, then don't let others change your mind for you.  This isn't a blanket denigration of feedback, but it is a reminder that what you're doing, even if you share it around, is still fundamentally for you.  If you believe you're making the beer you want to make, then keep making it.

Be willing to reject specific points of feedback, no matter how intense or how universal.  But if you do, do so for a reason.  Rejecting feedback because you don't like feedback is arrogant and self-defeating.  Rejecting feedback because you have a specific claim or goal can be both principled and correct.

Brewing and Nothingness

Zymurgic-existentialist meanderings aside, the right path here, as I see it, is to embrace the feedback you get.  Beer is inherently social, and making/sharing it even more so.  If we didn't have that feedback, it wouldn't be beer.  In Being and Nothingness Sartre notes that nothingness is a real thing, not simply the absence of something.  

If you walk into a bar and your barfly friend who stops by every afternoon for a pint on the way home isn't there, then his or her absence "haunts" the bar and your experience of it.  It is not simply a state or condition; saying "Chris isn't here" is different than saying "a horse isn't here," because no one expects a horse in a bar.  Chris, though, should be here, and isn't.

In the same way, if we have beer but don't have the social, group mechanism of feedback then the lack of it "haunts" the entire exchange.  It creates a form of isolation that isn't healthy and is certainly not enjoyable.  

So love that feedback, whatever its character or content.  Ignore it if you have a reasonable justification for it, but love it all the same, like a relative with strange political beliefs.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Buttered Up: Identifying and Treating Diacetyl In Your Beer

As off-flavors go, diacetyl is an odd duck in that it's fairly benign but also infuriating.  A little diacetyl (which comes across as butter, butterscotch, or maybe vanilla in flavor) is acceptable in some styles, and not all that off-putting in others, but many brewers struggle to identify it (or pretend they can!).

This week at Beer Simple, we're going to talk through a fool-proof method for testing for diacetyl that will allow even the most butter-insecure person to confidently state whether or not they're out of the diacetyl woods, and what to do if you're not. 

A Quick and Dirty Overview of "D"

Diacetyl is a fermentation byproduct (specifically, a vicinal diketone, or VDK) that is present in almost every beer.  The trick is preventing it from ending up in your finished beer, above detection levels.  A thousand other articles have discussed how to limit it, so feel free to read those, but here's the short version:

  • Pitch enough healthy yeast
  • Choose a yeast strain that produces less diacetyl (unless you want it)
  • Control initial fermentation temps
  • Increase temperature in the latter stage of fermentation to encourage the yeast to clean up after themselves
  • Avoid contamination

Simple enough.  The real question is whether you've met that goal, and what to do if you haven't.

The Force Test

Once you build up some confidence in identifying diacetyl you'll be able to just take a sample, give it a swirl, and sniff/taste/feel your way to a conclusion.  To help you build up that confidence and train up your palate, you might want to consider the Diacetyl Force Test.

Ferment your beer, and pull a four-to-five ounce sample.  Divide the sample between two microwave-safe vessels (most coffee mugs work well), and cover them both.  Put one sample in the microwave for about 20 seconds, and pull it.

The heated sample is going to be jamming with aroma at this point.  Take a sniff and compare it to the unheated sample.  If they smell identical (just at a different magnitude), then you almost certainly don't have diacetyl remaining!  Heating oxidizes and drives out AAL (the precursor to diacetyl) and will create a rich, buttery aroma that will be both distinct from traditional "beer-y" flavors like caramel or melanoidins (which can be mistaken for D) and also turn up the volume on it.  

Training

This is a terrific way to train your palate because it will demonstrate the difference between what are and are not "diacetyl" flavors, and teach yourself how you perceive them.  

We often discuss beer flavors as though they're monolithic, but they're not: I perceive diacetyl, oxidation, and acetaldehyde differently than you (artificial vanilla, old books, and wild grasses, respectively).  Hell, to me Isovaleric Acid (gym socks) tastes like raspberry.  The terminology we use describes common perceptions and creates a functional language for identifying beer faults, but that doesn't mean that your brain will process these flavors/aromas in exactly that way.

So, yes, to many, diacetyl is patently identical to popcorn butter - but it's better to know for sure.

Knowing is Half the Battle

Now that you know whether or not you still have a diacetyl issue, what can you do about it?

There are two simple solutions.  OK, I take that back, one simple solution, and one kind-of-harder solution.

The first is to increase the temperature of your fermenting beer slightly, and wait.  This is the famous "diacetyl rest," and it will encourage your yeast to go back and clean up/break down any AAL or VDK remaining in your beer.  Time alone might do the trick, but time plus a little warmth will encourage your yeast to stay active and clean up after themselves.

The other is to add actively-fermenting wort to your finished beer, a process known as "krausening."  The highly-active yeast will be hunting for anything they can get their hands on to process, and as a result will drive you to a fuller attenuation, jump-start the carbonation process, and clean up diacetyl.  It's not a bad practice to get into in general!

Diacetyl is nothing to fear, and as I said above, there are certainly worse brewing faults to contend with.  As you get a better sense of how you perceive it you can abandon the force test altogether and trust your senses, and between that and some minor process tweaks you'll soon have your VDK problems in the rearview mirror.

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).


Hunting and Finding (New) Rules of Thumb in Hopping

For as much time as brewers spend talking about hops, you'd assume we know all about them.  The bizarre reality is that we know surprisingly little about how hops work, what they add in terms of flavor, and the effects of different treatments and manipulation of them.  

Don't believe me?  Spend some time digging into the scientific research into hops.  You'll soon start wondering about the competence and sanity of the brewers who never miss a chance to talk up their hopping process, their proprietary hops and blends, and how they use X hop to get Y flavor.  If we know so little, they must be completely snowing and bullshitting us.  How dare they!

That's right - you heard it here first.  I'm calling out ALL professional and home brewers and saying they're all LIARS!  

No, not really (though I'd love to stop the post there and see what kind of reaction we get).  They're not lying.  They're probably not even wrong.  It's just that hop usage and what comes out of it is super-idiosyncratic: if the non-lying brewers in question produce similar recipes with changes in hop type and/or use, they can dial in flavors they want.  What we shouldn't do is necessarily assume that what works for that brewer will work the same way for us, because there's a very good chance it won't.  

Today's offering will (at least attempt to) provide some actual translatable lessons that can put up some signposts on the solipsistic road that brewers find themselves on when it comes to hops.

Two's Company

I'm an intense advocate for blending your hops.  Single-hop beers are all well and good, and have the virtue of taking the guesswork out of where hops-derived flavors are coming from in a particular beer, but their utility is limited for recipe and even for education purposes.  

You're not getting a general impression of one hop - you're getting one impression of one hop, since the point of addition, length of whirlpool, water chemistry, yeasts strain, grist, and more are creating a unique flavor and aroma.  Hell, that specific batch of hops and its oil ratios matter, too, both in terms of how it presents and what compounds are created when its added and fermented-on.  And as for single-hopping for recipe purposes, you're putting all of your flavor/aroma eggs in one hop basket, which is risky since we know that other process and recipe elements can scrub out flavors from a hop that you presumably chose for its flavor profile.

Instead, I recommend pairing hops for better results, at least if you're not willing to put in the repeated-batch-brewing necessary to find effective single-hopping (remember, you'll need to find out for yourself how that hop presents in YOUR beer in THAT recipe).  You can either pick hops with complementary flavors (for example, I love the Hallertau-Northern Brewer combo for its woodsy and floral presentation) or those that amplify common flavors (say, Citra and Motueka for a big-time citrus and tropical fruit bomb).  Consult a good hops flavor chart, and pick hops that work well for your target recipe, knowing that even if you don't get all of what you wanted, you're at least covering your bases.

Ignore IBUs (a little)

Don't obsess over IBUs.  What you should care about is the impression of bitterness you're getting, and especially if you aren't working your water chemistry that's going to differ substantially from one brewer to the next (and one recipe to the next, for the same brewer) even at the same IBU level.  

Use an IBU target for the first time you brew a recipe, then adjust up or down based on impressions.  It doesn't matter if your Ordinary Bitter only has 20 calculated IBUs instead of the guideline-minimum so long as it tastes like it does.  By the same token, ignore the maximum if you're still getting an IPA that lacks a soft bitter burr on the palate.  

You should also be looking for all sources of bittering impression in your recipes and aiming for a general "bittering impression" level.  IBUs are certainly one source.  So is carbonation level.  So is the presence or absence of roasted malts, what Lovibond level they're kilned to, and whether they're husked or dehusked.  So is sulfate-to-chloride ratio.  

Don't think of bitterness just in terms of alpha acid percentage, boil time, and utilization.

Slowhand

When it comes to late hopping, you'll have lots of brewers tell you that the longer hops are in contact with hot wort, the less aromatic impact you'll get as volatile compounds in the essential oils disappear into the ether.  They'll also tell you that whirlpooling will add isomerization "time" to your already-added hops.

There's emerging evidence that that isn't quite right.  It's probably true when we're talking about boiling wort - as minutes go by you're creating more iso-alpha acids (bittering) and burning off essential oils.  But it's not at all clear when it comes to hot-but-not-boiling liquid.  Experimental research strongly suggests that long whirlpools/hop-backing yields a higher level of aroma from hops than shorter exposures, even though it means longer contact with hot wort. 

So, when it comes to whirlpool hopping, take your time.  Slow down.  You'll probably get more flavor out of your hops while risking very little in terms of your mid-to-late boil hops.

You're Not Aging Your Hops

Finally, I field this question all the time, and I'd love to try to bury it here: no, you don't need to worry about how old your hops are.  If you're taking any kind of care in the storage of your hops, then they're perfectly fine to brew with for at least a year, and probably longer.  

Will the AA% be a little lower?  Yes, probably.  But not that much.  And see the earlier note on not obsessing about IBUs.  

To think, though, that you're going to get cheesy flavors, or dramatically less bittering, or significantly less aroma/flavor out of a hop that you've had in a zip-locked bag in the refrigerator is bordering on zymurgic paranoia.  Have you ever seen/read about what it takes to make hops "age" for use in things like Lambics?  It takes some rough treatment; we're talking 50 Shades of Perle rough (Editor's Note: that's an absolutely killer and hilarious multi-level play on words as long as you're pronouncing it right - "Per-LAY").

So don't worry about your hops.  I store mine in a bag with the air pressed out, zipped, in the freezer.  They're basically immortal. (Second Editor's Note: This was TOTALLY written before Brulosophy dropped this week's exBEERiment!!!)

Try then Trust

There may be more, but that's all we have time for this week.  Feel free to add questions/comments and expand!  What's important, though, is that when it comes to hopping you keep good notes on use and subsequent impressions.  There are rough rules to abide by, but to really get the most out of your hops, YOU need to be on the ball to find out what that looks like in your situation.

Try, then trust.

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).


Practice Doesn't Make Perfect: Active Steps to Improve Your Brewing At All Levels

"Back up, think again, take dead aim" is a better strategy than "Brew, rinse, repeat."

I know a genuinely tone-deaf person.  Can't carry a tune in a bucket.  No matter how many times I hear him/her singing the same songs - Christmas carols, country songs, anything - it's a tuneless, cringe-inducing (but well-meaning) mess.

Practice doesn't make perfect.  The best we can say is that practice, by rote and over a long stretch of time, generally guarantees some level of improvement.  Real progress takes more than reps, though.  When it comes to brewing, improvement (at all levels - not just for beginners, and we should all be looking to improve now and again) takes, in my humble estimation, three things:

1. Strategic retreat/evaluation

2. Education (or re-education)

3. Deliberate practice (as the likes of Prof. Anders Ericsson describe it)

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Human beings aren't big fans of revisiting things, especially when they seem to work.  "Don't fix what isn't broken."  "Don't change horses in midstream."  "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."  The problem with that thinking is that too often we're not finding solutions to our not-yet problems.

Problems aren't just "things that are negative."  They're things we seek to fix.  Problem recognition is not automatic, and we have an innate bias against seeking out problems.

Step one, then, is to take a step back and evaluate the effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability of your brewing practice.  However good your beer is, I promise you that you're doing something that could be improved upon, if only you'd take a beat and think about it.  I can also promise you that you've added something to your process that isn't giving you any real benefit and can be eliminated.  Back up.  Reevaluate.

It might feel like regression: it isn't.  Every few months I buy new and different hops.  Every bulk grain buy, I buy more of some grain that I know I don't need to force me to try new recipes.  I think about whether I need more output, or less.  Being self-critical as part of a regular regime of improvement isn't putting yourself down, it's urging yourself up.

All Knowledge is Provisional

Some posit that all knowledge is provisional - that everything we "know" should be treated as "correct for the moment, but subject to revision."  That kind of epistemological humility is especially important for brewers, because brewing science and practice are still evolving pretty rapidly.

Some of that is because it's the subject of a lot more interest today than in previous generations, but it's also because we're constantly trying to adapt the lessons of commercial brewers (or of other homebrewers, whose skill and diligence we can't evaluate easily) to our own process and approaches.  

Short version: what you believed to be true last year about brewing might no longer be accurate.  At the same time, things you thought wrong or impossible might now be known to be preferable.  How do we know the difference?

Some of this is live-and-learn (just naked practice - hey, I didn't say it was worthless, just that it doesn't make "perfect!").  

However, if we want to improve we also need to reconsider what we "know" in a formal sense.  We need to educate and, potentially, re-educate ourselves.  Read new books.  Seek out new articles.  Attend conferences and classes.  Go through a formal certification process like the BJCP or Cicerone exams to compel learning and skill development.

At the same time, see if any new technologies, ingredients, or developments have given us any new tools to solve previously-intractable problems.  Hop extracts and hash and power are now readily available.  Mini-barrels can be had for wood-aging in small batches.  New and rediscovered yeast strains are on the market.  Reconsider what's "possible."  

Doing this, though, requires us to be willing to challenge what we know.  As John Stuart Mill said in "On Liberty":

"However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth."

Practice with Purpose.  Practice with Purpose.

There's practice, and then there's deliberate practice.  For a great rundown, check out this episode of Freakonomics radio.  The short version is that if we want to improve, doing the same thing over and over is a pretty poor way to do so.  What we need to do is to practice and train at the limits of our abilities so that we force our brains and bodies to find new economies, solutions, and methods.  

For brewers, the best way to do this might be to brew to exacting standards and compare our output to real benchmarks.  One great way to do it, and the one I recommend most often?  

Clone.

Cloning beers is tremendous deliberate practice.  It requires us to source or create a recipe, brew exactingly to it, adjust, brew again, adjust, brew again, and all the while comparing what we made to what we were trying to make.  We'll start identifying variability that we need to clamp down, we start to learn how ingredient or process changes affect what we produce (and by how much), and more.  

To quote golf teaching legend Harvey Penick, "take dead aim."  That's what cloning requires.

There are other approaches, too, of course.  Challenge yourself to make a beer under 4% ABV or over 10% that is usually 6%, but with no perceptible flavor changes.  Duel, with two brewers brewing the same style or even the same recipe.  Brew new beers all year long to break yourself out of ruts.  Introduce a new process or method that you discovered in your "education" step.  Anything.

Cloning is best, though.  Anyone can shoot an arrow.  Shooting an arrow off the top of someone's head is a real test, though - especially if you like the person (and maybe even if you don't, if you know what I mean...).  You could stand in an open field and fire off arrows all day long and not improve, but it wouldn't take too many near-and-dear relatives getting shafted (so to speak) before your aim ticked up out of sheer concentration and stakes.  

Or Not

The preceding all presumes that you have any desire - even just a little - to get better.  If you don't, and this is just a fun pastime for you, then that's AOK, of course.  I know a guy who goes "fishing" all the time and never catches anything, and isn't really interested in it.  He likes the quiet and the sunshine, and the fish are incidental.

If that's you, then there's not a thing wrong with it.  

Let me say this, though: however we like to brew and for whatever reasons, we can usually do it better, cleaner, faster, or cheaper.  If you're just a "fun" brewer, then think about inviting over some friends to brew, too!  If you like what you brew and don't want to change it at all, why not see if there's a way to brew more varieties of it?  

If you're a pure "Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew" person, why not try brewing while doing yoga?

For those who are working to improve in any way, though, this little treatise might be of some use to you.  

Just don't tell me that "practice makes perfect."

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).


Quick (Good) Lagers for Lazy Brewers

I wouldn't say I'm obsessed with fast brewing, but there's no doubt that one of the virtues of "simple" brewing is that it tends to be quicker.  That's why it always bugs me when I hear people say that they won't/can't brew lagers because they don't have the time and/or can't temp control for long enough.

Of course you do, and of course you can.  

Most anything we want to do in brewing can be done (and done well) with the right method.  I'm a believer in the idea that the hard part is figuring out what you want - figuring out how to do it can be surprisingly easy once you settle on your desired outcome.

So, this week, let's assume that you want to brew lagers, but that you've convinced yourself (or have been convinced by others) that they take too long or that you can't hold the proper temperature.

Work Backwards

What makes a lager a lager?

Well, if you want to get all historical, lager (from the German lagern) literally just refers to beers that were stored, usually in caves, and therefore at cool-ish temperatures (12C or so - it's German, so we're using metric).  

Moving into modern lager style characteristics, though, we generally think of these as "clean and clear" beers.  Ester and phenol production is low, alcohols are restrained even when the beer has a high ABV, and they're usually brilliantly clear with a nice jewel tone.

Why?  Because that's what you get when you make them the way earlier brewers made them.  They're low in esters and phenols and feature "cool" alcohols because they were fermented cooler than, for example, summer farmhouse ales.  They're brilliantly clear because they've been sitting and precipitating out solids for weeks, or months.  

But that doesn't mean that's the only way to get those characteristics.  Why don't we just work backwards and see if we can get this done while shaving time off, preferably in simple ways?

Set the Board for Success

First things first: let's make sure you're stacking the deck in your favor here.

Choose a yeast with a reputation for "clean" fermentations.  Not all lager yeasts are equally clean (just like not all ale yeasts create a riot of fermentation characters), so read reviews and product descriptions to get something as flavor-neutral as you can.  You might even (cover your ears, orthodoxy-lovers) consider the cleaner ale strains in case your temp control "ceiling" is a little on the high side.

Also, pitch big.  Esters and phenols are the result of work, and the less your yeast have to work and the sooner they finish fermentation, the less they'll put out detectable flavors.  Take the recommended lager yeast pitch rate, and bump it up by about half.

Consider your style, too.  If you're concerned about being able to make a fast lager without creating fermentation flavors, go with something that'll cover them up, at least a bit.  Doppelbock and Baltic Porter hide a lot more than Helles and Pilsner.

Last, give your yeast plenty of air.  This goes to rapidity in moving through the lag/log phases of the yeast life cycle in which the flavors we don't want are produced: the more oxygen there is in your beer at the start, the quicker they'll settle down and stop producing the stuff we're trying to avoid.  Esters and phenols are usually a reaction to heat and/or stress.  Reducing at least one of those is a good way to get clean beer.

Now that you've given yourself some structural advantages, let's talk process.

A Question of Time

Lagers don't need to chew up a lot of time, either in your fermentation fridge or in your finished-beer fridge (we all have one or three of those, right?).  This is probably the second-most-commonly-cited reason I hear for why people don't make lagers: "I don't have the time to brew lagers because I need the space in the fermentation fridge for other beers."  Fine - why are you leaving them in there for so long, then?

The things we want to avoid - principally esters, but other compounds as well - are formed (or their precursors are) pretty early in the fermentation process.  How early?  Well, if it isn't there by the time we finish the lag phase and growth phase, it probably won't ever appear in levels sufficient to be noticeable.  That means that if you start cool and stay cool for about 72 hours, you can pull that beer and leave it at any steady room temperature and still avoid the things that make your lager seem like not-a-lager to your palate.  

Voila - free space in the fermentation fridge.  I mean, don't leave it in a hot garage or anything, but just your normal basement temps (even if they're in the high-sixties Fahrenheit) aren't likely to cause any real trouble for you.  Hell, it might even help you avoid incomplete fermentations and/or increase blowoff of things like sulfur, making your beer even cleaner.

"But what about the extended aging process?  I might brew it faster, but I still need to age it..."

Why?  Get aggressive with the gelatin (or your preferred clarified) and it'll be bright and clear before you know it.  I once turned around a Helles in nine days for a 500-entry competition held three weeks from brew day, and it won a silver medal with a 40+ score.  

This isn't really about time.  Again, if you have it, it helps, but not having it isn't disqualifying.

A Question of Temperature

A much more valid concern is when people tell me they want to brew lagers but don't have any real form of temperature control.  

This one is hairier, because there's no "simple" way to set up an evaporation rig.  It's not assembling an aircraft engine, but there's no doubt that it's a bit of a pain.  

If you can't get your hands on a chest freezer and temp controller (though thanks to the secondary market and falling prices on products like the Inkbird, those are much more affordable now!), and aren't willing to drape t-shirts and towels and set up a fan, I do have at least one solution that takes minimal effort: ice jugs.

Take six one-gallon plastic jugs.  Fill with water.  Freeze.

Chill your beer down as cold as you can, put it in a large vessel (bathtubs work), and fill with cold, groundwater-temperature water, as high on your fermenter as you can get it.  Except for the deepest parts of the deep south, that will give you a starting temperature in the high-50s or lower (even better in winter, but I'm assuming we're thinking "summer" here).  

Immediately add three of your ice jugs.  Thermal mass is your friend here.  You don't want to cool water down - it's far easier to keep water cool.  Do this morning and night, cycling your melted jugs back into the freezer and replacing with the others, for three days.  After that, just let it slowly come up to whatever temperature you can hold it at using nothing but water replacement (drain the tub, refill with cold water) for another day or two.

If the three-jug method doesn't keep you below 60F, increase your total to eight and add four at a time - if it's too cold, dial it back.  But you want to try to maintain a steady temperature for those 72-96 hours.

After that, you're out of that lag/log phase flavor-production window, and just like your temp-controlled colleagues you can pull your beer and hold it at room temperature!

Lager Away

There's nothing magical about brewing lagers.  And, for that matter, then recommendations noted here work just fine for ales, too.  

Don't let time or temperature be your reason to not make lagers, though - you've got this!

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).


You Need Help: Advice for Brewers in the Style of the Brownlow Committee

The Brownlow Committee: Merriam, Brownlow, and Gulick

The Brownlow Committee: Merriam, Brownlow, and Gulick

"No man is an island entire of itself," Donne tells us.  He certainly got that one right: we all need help, brewers especially, and no matter how long they've been brewing.  

Why?  Because brewing rewards consistent repetition, and repetition is arguably the enemy of progress.  "Practice makes perfect" - sure, but what is the thing it's perfecting the right thing?  Or just the good-enough thing?  If you have a process, routine, mindset, recipe, and/or approach to brewing that yields beer that's good, then you may end up in a real brewing rut.  It's like evolution.  The human eye isn't the finest visual organ that anyone could design: it was just the first one that worked to give us a survival advantage, and so it got passed down and refined over time.  It doesn't mean it can't be obviously improved.

But "obvious" isn't always easy.  Consider the American presidency - it may be the most challenging job in the world.  All the more so when, like in the late 1930s, you're a president looking down the barrel of a global depression, fascism on the march (literally), and an impending world war (again?).  And yet, at the time, the office of the president consisted of a few clerks/secretaries, the president, and...that's about it.  So, the Brownlow Commission is formed because - and I swear this is the quote - "The President Needs Help."  Duh.

So, today, as an homage to Louis Brownlow and Co., Beer Simple presents a five-point plan (just like theirs) to help us brewers get not just help - but the right help.

The Five Point Program

First, increase the amount of good feedback you get.  Luckily, we've already jumped into this topic, but it bears repeating: not all feedback is worth your time.  Some of it is overly-harsh, but much more commonly it's far too friendly and optimistic.  Join a homebrew club with structured tastings.  Enter every beer you brew in several competitions (maybe not forever, but just for a short while) to get trained, anonymous feedback.  Taste your beer against highly-rated commercial examples in the same style to see how you stack up.  But get more - and better - feedback.

Second, identify the best brewers in your area and ask if you can join them for a brew day.  This isn't so you can steal their entire process - it's to see what they do and don't do that you might consider to be essential brewing practice.  There's no better way to break out of your own stale brewing dogma than to watch people (whose quality as brewers you personally attest to) flout the "rules" that you've subscribed to and still create great beer.  By all means, hit these people up for tips, too, but more important is to expand your horizons.  It's like Mr. Clemens said: travel is fatal to prejudice.

Third, read.  And read old and new.  Revisit some classics of brewing literature (How to Brew, Jean de Clerk's A Textbook of Brewing, if you have access to it) and read some of the great modern texts on brewing science and practice.  Books like this are vetted (usually) by several technical experts and brewers, which doesn't guarantee that they're right, but it limits the probability that they're flatly wrong.  Unlike, say, a beer blog which gets vetted by...I don't know, does Biscuit the Brewdog count?

Fourth, and this might sound counterintuitive, but stop brewing for a while.  Not long - but take a couple of months off.  Clear your brewing head.  This happened to me as a natural experiment last year when I had overcommitted by a borderline-irresponsible degree to teaching.  I had minimal free time, and when I did I was occupied with staying organized.  The result, though, was that when finals were done and the smoke cleared and I got back into my brewery, I was looking at it with fresh eyes.  It wasn't that I'd been looking at brewing as an obligation or a slog (though that can happen, for certain) - it was just that I'd gotten used to doing things a certain way.  Now that I was essentially re-familiarizing myself with my system and process (due to my long absence) I was more than willing to make changes in process, equipment, method, and more - which I did, with some very nice results.  

Last, help yourself.  Look for your own flaws, subtle though they might be.  Don't rush through a brew day - if you're doing that, you're not making good beer, so start looking for ways to shave time off of your process.  Check out your ingredient procurement process - is everything fresh?  When was the last time you refined and updated your recipes?  Have you been trying out new ingredients?  Maybe don't drink while brewing (I know that's controversial).   There's an almost-infinite list of things you can do to help your own brewing if you conscientiously and actively decide to do so.

Aaaand....repeat

After you do these things, you'll feel confident, rejuvenated, and happy with your brewing, like a brewer who just got the latest software update downloaded into his/her brain.  The trick is not to re-dig your rut.  Once every year or two, repeat this program to keep yourself fresh.

We all need help.  The sheer, stupid obviousness of that statement doesn't undermine its truth or value.

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).


Everybody Knows You Never Go Full All-Grain...

Among homebrewers, "have you gone all-grain?" seems like a rough analog to asking if you've lost your virginity.  

"Oh yeah - I went all-grain years ago.  I've been going all-grain so long I don't even know what extract is.  It's just so much better - you've gotta try it..."

Sexual overtones aside, all-grain brewing really does have some distinct advantages over extract brewing, and I'm going to make a case for it (in case some of you readers are on the fence), but I'm also going to make a pitch for holding back just a little.  Don't forget about extract brewing.  Because while all-grain has its advantages, it has its downsides, too - and extract isn't without its virtues.  

Go all-grain - but maybe don't go full all-grain.  

The Case for AG

All-grain (AG, from now on) brewing has at least two clear, indisputable advantages over extract brewing: cost and control.

First, it's plainly cheaper.  A grain bill of 15 pounds (pretty typical for 5-gallon batches) will run you about $30 or so, even less if you buy and store in bulk.  For example, since I get grain by the 55-lb. sack, I'm usually paying well under a dollar a pound even for fairly expensive malts.  An equivalent amount of extract for a 5-gallon batch will run you about $45-50, including any steeped specialty grains.  That means that even the AG equipment costs you'll add ($100 or so will get you a nice cooler-based system) are rapidly recouped.

Second, it gives you a level of control that isn't there with an extract.  Especially if you do your own milling, you can get a much more consistent product, fresher, and make lots of fun recipe/process decisions along the way - crush, mash temp and length, mash and first-wort hopping, and more.  If you're using extracts, you're hoping the guys and gals at the extract factory were having a good day, and that your product wasn't oxidized all to hell and gone in the meantime.  

Does it add time?  Sure.  But even that doesn't have to be a major consideration, as we've discussed before.  

So why would I ever defend extract brewing?

The Worst Beer...

Lots of beer people are fond of saying that the "best beer is the one in your hand right now!"  Now, I consider that to be trite nonsense that creates a kind of unacceptable beer-quality-relativism that I just can't stomach, but we'll have that debate another day.

What I can get behind, though, is the idea that the worst beer is the one you never get to drink, and that probably happened because you never brewed it.

In surveys of homebrewers (my own and the AHA's), the most common roadblock for homebrewers in relation to what limits their brewing isn't cost - it's time.  And, say what you want, but extract brewing is FAST.  Even faster than my efficiency-laden AG process.  I clock in at 3:15 for an AG batch (which you gotta admit is still pretty damned fast!), but I can wrap an extract batch in under two hours, comfortably.  If you can regularly find two hours, you can homebrew.  If you can't ever find four then it doesn't matter how much cheaper or better-designed that beer would be, because you're never going to brew it.

And let's talk about quality.  I believe (though I've never personally tested myself in a structured way) that, generally speaking, AG beers are better than extract beers, on average.  Having said that, I'm not saying that extract beers are bad or undrinkable or that they can't in specific circumstances be as good or better than extract beers.  They undoubtedly can.  

I think the reason that we tend to assume AG beers are so much better is that, around the time we shift to AG brewing, we're better brewers.  Our first batches range from awful to pretty good, and we rapidly improve (hopefully).  We also change our methods around the same time, which could very well mean that we're conflating an increase in quality based on method with what might be an increase based on skill.  When I brew extract, they're not quite as good as my AG batches, but they still do very well in competition and the people who drink them seem to enjoy them just as much.

For that reason, I always brew a couple of extract batches per year.  First, it's easy to do, so why not, especially when I end up needing some extra batches around party season (3-4 Christmas/New Years events in three weeks)?  Second, it lets me see how the product is these days - and extracts are better and more-specialized every year, much like our other ingredients.  Last, it reminds me that there are a lot of paths to the top of the mountain, and so long as we do it right, there's no reason to think you're going to see a massive fall-off in quality.

Doing Extract 

Good brewing practices are generally good brewing practices, no matter the ingredients.  With extract, though, I take just a little more care in two areas: style and mouthfeel.

First, I pick styles that don't require a ton of gravity points.  "Extract flavor" may or may not actually exist, but I'm positive that if it does it's probably a good idea to minimize the amount of extract needed, so I shoot for lower-ABV beer styles. Not only that, but it can be tough to reach the right terminal gravity with extract beers that are swinging for the fences.  Speaking of which...

Second, since extract tends to be slightly less-fermentable, you want to pay particular attention to mouthfeel and body.  I do this two ways, and from both directions: I try to make the beer a bit lighter in body, but also a bit smoother and less "syrupy" in feel.  One pound of a neutral honey (100% fermentable, baby!) will dry out the beer a touch (and feel free to use a non-neutral honey and add a fun flavor), and adding in a bit of flaked barley will soften the mouthfeel.  

Coming Home

Brewing extract now and again is a great way to stay connected to your homebrewing origins.  You might even find that a "new" extract beer becomes a favorite in your recipe book.  

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).


Under Pressure (Or Not): Bottle Conditioning Q's from the BS Mailbag

Of all the things I get questions about, none surprise me more than questions about bottle conditioning, and not because it isn't important (it is): because it's not something I've ever struggled with.

I understand why people freak out about it a little, of course.  After all, it comes at the end of the process, you've put a lot of work (and wort) in, you have high hopes.  You add your priming sugar, cap that sumbitch, and wait.  Time passes, you chill a test bottle, prep your favorite beer glass, reach for the bottle opener aaaaaaaaand.......

Nothing.  No puff of escaping air.  Your heart sinks.  Your ego deflates.  You pour, knowing even before you do that it's going to be a flaccid affair, and sure enough there's no carbonation, no fluffy whiteness.  Just a sad little collection of not-quite-foamy bubbles from CO2 being slapped out of suspension as you dump beer aggressively into the center of the glass hoping for anything resembling head.  

But it doesn't have to be that way.  Below is a brief description of my bottle conditioning process (from Beer #1 to today, ten years exactly since that first beer) and a few quick Q&A responses from e-mails I've gotten from readers and homebrew club members.

Weight, weight - Don't Tell Me

First off, my process.  It's pretty simple, really.  

First, I check my beer's finishing temperature; a colder beer will have more CO2 in it already, while a warmer one will have blown more off.  

Second, I head to my favorite Priming Calculator website (this one).  Why that one?  It was the first one I tried, and it worked, so why screw around?  All you need is the volume of beer you're carbonating (which you should know already), the temperature of it (which you just checked), and the volumes of CO2 you want (which you should decide based on your recipe, but somewhere around 2.25, in all likelihood).  The result is a weight.  Don't just use that whole "PRIMING SUGAR" pack from the kit. Always carbonate by weight.

With that info in hand, I head to the kitchen and add the given weight of sugar (dextrose if I have it, table sugar if not, and I've never noticed a difference in the finished product) to a cup or so of water, stir, and bring to a boil for about a minute.  

After that, it goes into the bottling bucket.  I rack onto it, and that's it.  No stir or anything.  

I bottle and cap, and then set them aside for about a week.  Usually seven days is plenty.  The longest I've ever had was about three weeks, but that was very much an outlier (and even she carbonated up for me, eventually).

Your Questions (well, someone's questions...)

Do you ever add yeast at bottling, to help out the existing yeast?

Nope.  Never.  Not once.  Not even for a several-month-old Eisbock that clocked in at about 14% ABV.  Yeast are incredible.  If you're not getting carbonation, it almost certainly doesn't have anything to do with whether there are yeast in there capable of carbonating - if you haven't filtered them out, then they almost certainly are.

I didn't get carbonation.  What should I do?

Step one is put your bottles someplace warmer.  In at least 9/10 cases, that does the trick, and a beer that sits for a month in a kind-of-cool place might not carbonate, but one that sits in a slightly-warmer place might carbonate in just a couple of days.  I find 68F to be the lower limit.  Find a warm spot in your house (near the dryer, in an upstairs bedroom that gets a lot of sun, etc.).  In a real pinch, set your beer on top of a heat register or near a baseboard heating element. 

If that doesn't work, try rousing the bottles and applying heat as above.  

If that doesn't work, check your scale/calculations: maybe you didn't add the right amount of priming sugar.  

Should I try adding more yeast to each bottle? 

It almost certainly can't hurt, but it's probably unnecessary, and you're exposing the beer to oxygen.  I'd let time/temperature take a shot at it first.

Should I add more SUGAR to each bottle?

NO!  There's a real risk of bottle bombs if you do, and that's no joke.  Flying glass is something to be avoided, and even if you don't go THAT far, you might still end up with a bunch of gushers.

Honestly, before you take that step, just consider drinking it flat or using THAT beer for vinegar or cooking applications.  

Have you ever tried the Carbonation Tabs/Pellets? 

Once, and I got pretty uneven results.  It's kind of a pain, but the short-boiled sugar solution option I describe above seems like the best method.

Do I have to use white sugar? 

No, you don't.  You can carbonate with maple syrup, honey, candi sugar - virtually any simple sugar.  You might need to experiment with weights/volumes, though, and keep in mind that some sugars will add flavor in addition to CO2 and a little alcohol.

What about caps?

I recommend them.  Otherwise the beer slops all over the place as you ride your bike to the party.

Seriously, though, any caps are probably fine.  Pick a color you like.  If they're available and you want to be super-careful, go ahead and buy the oxygen-absorbing caps.  But make sure you seat them fully on the bottle - even a slight gap can let air be pushed/pulled in and out as the temperature in the bottle changes, so don't just crimp them until you can hold them upside-down without liquid leaking out (though it's a start).

Why do you bottle at all?  KEGGING, BABY!!!!

I keg, too, but I like bottling, especially for things I'm going to age for a while (Barleywine, Old Ale, etc.) and sometimes my brewing outpaces my keg supply.  If you do it regularly, it doesn't even take all THAT much longer - I bottle a batch in about an hour, two batches in about 90 minutes, three in about two hours.  

Personally, I like that once I put that cap on, it's done.  I don't need to worry about a gas leak, or a contaminated keg wrecking my entire batch, or something in the draft line/faucet screwing up my pour.  Bottle conditioning is reliable as hell, and that's worth a little time once in a while (if not every time).

In Yeast We Trust

I've said it before: yeast are incredible.  They're worthy of your trust.  Give them the right conditions, and they'll probably take care of you!

But I meant what I said back there: dump it before you add more priming sugar.  It's not worth a glass sliver in the eye.  The more you know...

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).

 


The Basics of Base Grains

"You said to go back to the beginning - so I have."  I can still hear Inigo Montoya slurring that line, and it's good advice, especially for brewers.  So today we check in with base grains, if for no other reason than to be sure that we're getting all we can out of our recipes.

It seems like it should be obviously important, but I frequently run into brewers (amateur and professional) who don't seem to give much thought to their base.  They'll tell you all about the crystal they had imported from the UK, the special steeping method they use for chocolate malts, bore you to tears with discussions of experimental hops and fermentation temperature ramp-up - but when you ask about base malts, you often get a shrug and an "I dunno, whatever I usually use or have laying around..."  Since base malts make up the largest chunk of your grist, that attitude seems bizarre to me.

It matters.  As I'm often recommending, you should be choosing base grains for a reason - and that reason should probably be something better than "because I had a bucket of it."

Base Basics

The good news is that there aren't many grains out there that could reliably function as base malts (that is, malts with sufficient enzymes to convert themselves and most anything else you dump into the grist).   They are distinct, though, and your flavor profile is subtly but persistently and pervasively affected by them, even in darker and more-intense beers.

Let's see what our options are:

  • American 2-row: Faint and light grainy flavors.  A good malt to use if you don't want anyone to notice malt - so, some IPAs, I guess?  
  • American 6-row: A lot more diastatic power, so if you're using a bunch of adjunct, then maybe, but practically speaking there's almost never a reason for homebrewers to use this, especially since it has the same barely-there flavor profile but with a touch of gritty/sharp flavor. 
  • Maris Otter/English Pale Ale Malt: Kilned a bit higher than the American malts, it provides a noticeable cracker/bready/nutty flavor.  An excellent go-to malt for all but the most austere styles.  Speaking of...
  • Pilsner Malt: The lightest malt around.  If you want a malt that at least tastes like something (lightly grainy, slight honey-like flavors) but otherwise stays the hell out of the way, this is your choice.  Obviously it's good for Pilsners (where you want those classic hops flavors coming through), but be careful with it in other less-hoppy applications: it can make beers seem surprisingly sweet.  
  • Vienna Malt: Lands in the no-man's-land between pale ale malt and Munich Malt (coming up next): it has a nice toasty flavor, very little of the sweetness of the lighter-kilned base malts, and stops short of the too-full richness that can come from Munich malt.  It can be used in almost anything; don't be shy about using it in pale beers (my Kolsch is 50% Vienna), and you can also count on it to hold its flavor in stronger/darker beers all the way up to Baltic Porters. 
  • Munich Malt: In a lot of ways, this is the Cadillac of base malts.  Munich has the power to convert itself while also functioning as a kind of utility-infielder specialty grain, with rich bready melanoidin flavor and even a touch of light-crystal flavor.  It can be used in a SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) Doppelbock, or as an equal-partner base malt in lots of other amber-to-dark styles.  

The "right" base grain (or mix of them) for you will vary from batch to batch, but I do have some general advice, if you'd like to hear (read) it.

Clearing the Barley Field (So to Speak)

First off, let's clear the board a bit: I don't own a single grain of American 2-row or 6-row malt.  I prefer to follow the chef's maxim of "season everything."  Why would I choose a malt that exhibits virtually no flavor?  The argument that it's a good choice for IPAs because it "doesn't get in the way of the hops" seems asinine to me.  We're talking about beers that are aggressively hoppy - NONE of the base malts (except maybe Munich) would really compete with it (note to self: brew a German IPA with Munich as a base and an ass-ton of Polaris hops...).

So now we're left with four: Pilsner, Maris Otter, Vienna, and Munich (in ascending order by Lovibond).  Which is used how, and when?  Again, your call, but here are my recommendations and rationale.

The Go-To 

First up, when in doubt, reach for Maris Otter.  With just a few obvious exceptions (below), there's virtually no beer flavor profile that doesn't benefit from a slightly bready, biscuit-like background flavor.  It's beer, after all.  In side-by-side fermentations/comparisons and triangle tests with other folks' beers, I've found an incredibly high success rate in picking out Maris compared to 2-row, and almost everyone prefers the Maris-based beers, even in purely American styles.  I use more Maris Otter than any other grain.  Hell, I even use it in...

Pilsner: The Esoteric Malt

I'm not a big fan of Pilsner Malt (there's something in the flavor that just bumps me, like how I love seafood but just don't like crab), but if you're making certain styles, it's the right choice.  Not many styles.  OK, one style - if it's a Bohemian Pils, then go to town on the floor-malted Pilsner Malt.  For German Pils, I still say you're better off with a Maris/Pils blend and then hammering it with Hallertau, but I know I might be weird in that regard.

In other styles, Pilsner can be a nice blended base malt, especially if you want a bit of light honey-focaccia bread background, but be sure it's in a milder beer: its flavor can get trampled easily, unless you're super-sensitive to it like me.

The Underdog

I once received a 55-lb. sack of Vienna Malt free, as a prize from a competition.  I had my eye on the sack of Munich, but someone got to it before me, and so I took the Vienna.  I'm so, so glad I did: this is a wildly underappreciated base malt.

If you're an amber beer fan (and especially if you're an Altbier nut like me), then Vienna is a great thing to have on hand.  Use it for about 1/3 of the grist in any amber or darker beer, and you'll add a nice toasty-spicy flavor, almost like rye but without the sharpness.  I played around with that sack of Vienna in about a dozen recipes, and in only one (an English IPA) did it seem to make it worse.  

The toast comes through really well, but it doesn't add heft to the beer.  I don't think I could use it for 100% of the grist (some people taste it as being a bit too rustic), but as a blender, it's terrific.

The King

Munich Malt is wonderful.  Someone told me once (an outstanding amateur brewer who has since gone pro) that "a pound of Munich makes every beer better."  It's pretty hard to argue with that formulation.  One of the most common pieces of advice I give to people that seem to have trouble with producing full-flavored beers is to add a pound of Munich.

It's like beer flavor mortar.  It seems to fill in the gaps, and creates a flavor that's more mature and complete.  It can be overdone - don't go over 50% unless you're sure you want a rich, bready background - but as a plug-in malt it almost can't go wrong.  

The Others

I've left out wheat and rye here, even though they're perfectly legitimate choices for base malts.  The reason is because they could (depending on your system or recipe) cause process issues.  We'll jump into those another day (or you can buy the most recent issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine and read all about it!).

Brew Deliberately

My (often-repeated) point in bringing this up is that I want you to brew deliberately.  Make decisions about your entire beer - don't just let it happen.  There's certainly a RDWHAH-based approach to recipe construction, but if your goal is consistency and reliability, then you should be looking at every piece of your recipe as an opportunity to exert some control to get the product you want - and a product you can make again next time.

Begin as you mean to go on, as they say.  Make a deliberate choice on base grain(s), and you'll be well on your way.  

"....you killed my father - prepare to die..."  Sorry.  I had to.  

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).


The Case of the Multitasking Kegerator: Return to the Beer Simple Mail Bag

DSC_0004.jpg

Back to the Beer Simple Mail Bag this week!  Recently, a brewer asked whether he/she could use a kegerator as a fermentation fridge, and vice versa.  The answer, of course, is "of course."  But just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it.

Quick answer: yes, it can be done, but it's probably not worth the time, effort, and beer impact.

The Obvious

I feel like we need to get this out of the way first: if the choice is between "no temperature control for fermenting beer" and using your kegerator to do the job, then this is a no brainer: use that kegerator.  

I don't know that there's anything more valuable to beer quality than temp control during fermentation, so if you're choosing between leaving your fermenting beer in the garage and letting your kegs warm up a bit, then by all means, choose the latter.

If you're going to do that, though, you need to be aware of a few things.

A Question of Pressure

First, when you dial that temperature up, you're messing with the CO2 balance on your draft system.  You can either adjust the CO2 to rebalance it (and serve your beer warm, temporarily), or (probably the better idea) pop the gas lines off of your kegs and just let them maintain the pressure they already have in them.  As they warm some CO2 will come out of solution into the head space of the keg, but it'll re-absorb when you chill your kegs down again.  Once they cool off, re-connect them to their gas lines, and they should serve just as smoothly as before.

When in doubt, don't adjust more than one thing, and since you're already adjusting temperature, probably best to leave the CO2 regulator out of it.  When you cool down again, it'll be right where it needs to be (as long as you return to the same temperature!).  Disconnect from the CO2, ferment at whatever temps you want, then reconnect your kegs when you re-set the temperature back to serving temps.  

A Question of Stability

You should also be aware that you're increasing the level of flavor instability you're likely to see in your finished beer.  Letting those kegs rise and fall in temperature is a mild form of beer abuse, and when you let them warm, you're increasing the rate at which staling reactions occur (and, assuming you have some small degree of contamination, the rate at which your beer is developing off-flavors).  

Don't get me wrong - it's still better than letting your beer ferment at "whatever temperature it is at that moment in the basement or guest bathroom," but it's a cost you should be aware of.  If you have lots of pull-through and your kegs are rarely on for more than a month or two anyway, then don't worry about it.  If you take a little longer to work through your kegs, though, it's a risk.

A Question of Time and Money

What's your time worth to you?  This is where the multitasking argument breaks down for me.  

Coordinating and choreographing all of this not-hot keg-and-fermenter action is a real time suck. It'll require you to plan ahead so you have cold beer ready to serve at a time when you don't need temp control for fermentation.  If you don't have a massive kegerator it'll probably involve removing and re-inserting kegs.  It certainly puts more strain on your draft system and its connections (changes in temperature can cause CO2 leaks as fittings change in size and fit and work loose).  

Is it worth it?  Honestly, probably not.  

No-frills refrigerators are inexpensive, and depending on where you live they range from "free" (watch the curb, especially for discarded freezers that can't freeze anymore - they may still have plenty of cooling power to hold your beer at lager-fermentation temps!) to $50 (off of something like Craigslist) to $150 (new and delivered from a big-box or mega-hardware store).  It's a small price to pay for flexibility.

A Question of Tolerances

At the end of the day, the answer to this question is, "yes, you can multitask with your kegerator," but only you know if it's worth it to you.

Done deliberately and conscientiously, sure, it can be done.  But for me, it's worth the max cost of $200 (for a decent-sized new-and-delivered chest freezer and a decent temp controller) and 5-6 square feet of floorspace to run a separate fermentation fridge.

So, your call.  Keep those questions coming to [email protected].  Always happy to hear from you all!

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).

 


I Don't Like Your Beer - and That's OK

Brewing beer and sharing beer are basically inextricable.  I don't know any homebrewers that drink all of what they produce, like some kind of homebrewing hermit.  But if you share your beer, you're going to get a reaction, probably whether you ask for it or not (though most do), and when that happens you're eventually going to get back some negative feedback.  

I tasted your beer.  And I don't like it.  

And you know what?  That's OK.

You Asked For It

OK, maybe you didn't (hang tight - we'll get to you in a second), but you probably did.  We were at a party or a beer festival or you brought it to my house, and you said, "hey, would love to know what you think of my ______________ !"

What's crazy is that despite judging/evaluating lots of beers, in competition and professionally and as part of research for writing, I'm not really particularly judgmental when I'm just drinking.  But if you ask for it, I'm going to tell you.

What's even more crazy is how often people get bent out of shape if I say I don't like it.  

Look, if you're holding out for universal acclaim in life, you're going to have a long and disappointing row to hoe.  Why'd you ask if you didn't want to know?  I didn't spit it across the room and then give you the finger while disparaging your mother's sexual history - I just smiled and said, "I don't know - it's not really for me."  If you don't ever want to hear that, don't ask.

You Didn't Ask For It - But You're Going to Get It

Then there's this.  Let's say you didn't ask.  Now, if that's me and you didn't ask, I'll just say "thanks" and leave it at that.  But most people won't.  

Beer is inherently communal.  The context of it isn't "sitting at home alone with the lights off watching a Downton Abbey marathon," it's a pub, or a sporting event, or a party.  When you hand someone a beer - whether you made it or not - they're likely to say something about it.  

You might not be looking for a reaction, but (especially since there's alcohol involved), you're probably going to get it.  Brewing beer for yourself and offering it up for public consumption takes a touch of bravery - own it.  Smile, thank them for their feedback even if it's unsolicited or indelicately phrased, and either dismiss it (if you want) or take it to heart (if you want).  But I think it's unreasonable to hold it against that person.

I Didn't Say It - But You Heard It Anyway

Maybe it was just a facial expression, or the fact that I didn't want more of it, or I didn't praise it and instead remained silent (though I'd point you to Sir/St. Thomas More's defense of "qui tacet consentire videtur").  But you interpreted my reaction as an expression of my dislike.  Maybe that's not totally reasonable.

I remember being told, as many of us were, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."  I don't remember that being followed up with, "...and if someone does that to you, act all pissy and snub them later if you can."  

I Didn't Know This Was Yours

This one comes up fairly regularly, actually.  As much as so many of us claim to want honesty, and/or we think the world has gotten too soft and politically correct, we ignore (to our benefit) the reality that lots of people aren't honest with us when they know they're directly offering feedback to the progenitor of a product, whether it's food, or art, or beer, or...ahem...a blog.

If I don't know you brewed it, I'm probably going to offer a pretty frank opinion - which might be good or bad.  I think most people would.  It's like how if I'm talking about the Cowboys I'll say that nothing gives me more pleasure than watching video of Tony Romo crying while slumped dejectedly on the field after falling JUST short of winning a playoff game.  Now, if I ever met Tony Romo, I wouldn't share that with him.  It'd be inappropriate.  

So when you hand me a beer and say, "what do you think of this?," or if we're at a beer event of some kind and I taste your beer at a booth and don't know who brewed it and you seek out/overhear an opinion, I hope you'll cut me a little slack and know that I would have been a bit more politic if I'd known you were going to hear it.

That doesn't make me two-faced - it makes me human.  Or so my "How to Act Human" pamphlet tells me.

I Don't Like Your Beer - and That's OK

Ultimately, if you're going to say (as so many homebrewers do) "I brewed this for me, and I like it," then you shouldn't get too hung up on what I (or others) think of your beer.  

I'm not in that camp, though.  I brew beer I like, for sure, but I also want you to like it.  So if you have anything to say - nice or not, polite or not, accurate or not - I want to hear it.  

But even if you're in the "care what people think of your beer" boat with me, it's still OK if people don't like what you made.  Beer is diverse.  Not every beer fits every palate, even if very well made.  And some will find a supportive audience even if they're not well made.  

At the end of the day, it's only beer.  

I don't like yours - and that's OK.

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 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.

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).