Monday, March 30, 2020

New Toys: Fermentation Control

The shelves in the door were removed so a
fermenter would fit.
The biggest separator between the homebrewer and commercial brewers might be fermentation temperature control. The ability to precisely control the temperature of fermenting beer ensures the beer ferments at the proper temperature for the yeast being pitched. It also allows the brewer to precisely set the temperature within the range of a yeast. Nottingham for example has a range of 50F-72F. At the low end of the range Nottingham is very clean, almost lager-like. At the higher end of the range Nottingham can be quite estery.

Brewing in the apartment, my temperature control was primitive at best. For half of the year our thermostat was set at 66F which is a temperature that works for most ale yeasts. Occasionally I would move my fermenter to a warmer spot if I wanted to give my beer a diacetyl rest. In the spring and fall temperatures could swing quite a bit depending on the weather. From May to September the coolest the temperature would be was 76F. If I brewed in the summer I would have to use a Belgian yeast or a swamp cooler to cool my fermenting beer.

Leveling the fridges on my uneven floors was the biggest
In our house I have had a little bit more control. My basement is fairly cool. In the winter the basement ranges from 50-55F, perfect for brewing lagers. If I want to brew an ales in the winter I will use a heat wrap. In the summer the warmest temperature in the basement is 70F which works for most ales. For the most part I have brewed seasonally. In the winter I brew as many lagers as I can to last during the summer.

Although I can brew almost any style depending on the time of year, , what I haven't been able to do is have precise temperature control below the ambient temperature. I couldn't cold crash unless I made room in my keezer. That made achieving brilliant clarity very difficult. I also couldn't do true lagering where the temperature is slowly ramped down a few degrees at a time until reaching near freezing temperatures. That is until now!

Ray Pickup, the co-founder of Rockport Brewing Company is transitioning from homebrewer to commercial brewer. For his homebrews, Ray modified two mini-fridges to be able to fit fermenters. Ray removed all of the shelving on the doors, and bent the metal freezer compartments down so they pivoted against the back wall of the refrigerators. Now that Ray is starting to brew commercially and will be brewing much larger batches, he had outgrown these fridges and I was able to buy them.

I am able to precisely control the temperature of my beer by:

  1. Plugging the refrigerator into a temperature controller. The controller I have can control both heating and cooling. The refrigerator naturally is plugged into the cooling outlet.
  2. Plugging a heat wrap into the heating outlet
  3. Use a stopper with a stainless steel thermowell which extends into the wort.
  4. Place the temperature probe into the thermowell which will measure the temperature inside the fermenter. This is more accurate than measuring the temperature of the outside of the fermenter.
  5. Set my desired temperature on the controller. 

A six gallon carboy with airlock just fits
The controller displays the current temp and set temp

The hope is that these fridges will allow me to make clearer and more consistent beer. I also like having two separate fridges which allows me to separately control two batches at once. Oh, and I can now brew almost any style I want at any time I want.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The NHC that probably won't be

The year 2020 was very busy for me, until all of a sudden it wasn't. Followers of my Facebook page might have seen that I have made trips to Denver, California, Chicago, New Hampshire, Maine, and a vacation in Florida so far this year.

That doesn't mean I haven't been brewing so far in 2020. I may as well use this time to update the blog with some of my recent brews. One of my brew year's resolutions that went out the window pretty quickly was to enter more competitions. I paid entry fees for two competitions, but never managed to bottle and ship my entries.

I'll have to wait until 2021 to try and win another one of these.

The one competition I did enter and get my entries in was the National Homebrew Competition (NHC). I applied for and received six entries. One entry ended up being Welcome as You Are. I brewed a bunch of other beers for the competition. One batch was frozen, yes frozen. Two were problematic. One of the problematic beers ended up being one of my entries for the simple reason that I had already paid for the entry, and didn't have any other beers ready to go.

I did manage to brew four fresh beers for NHC that I was happy with. I just managed to bottle off all six of my entries and get them in by the entry deadline. After having one of my beers advance to the final round last year, I was excited to potentially improve on 2019. I was particularly excited for the new Backbeat Brewing Company to be the Boston site for the first round of judging.

At time of posting the First Round of NHC has been cancelled due to Coronavirus. The American Homebrewers Association is still optimistic that they can still have a modified, single-site NHC at HomebrewCon in June. Hopefully there still is a HomebrewCon which is scheduled for June.

All of the suffering caused by the virus puts the importance of a homebrew competition, and a hobby like homebrewing for that matter, into perspective. That doesn't make it any less disappointing for those of us who look forward to it every year.

Muntons has banned all business travel. Until this blows over I am working from home. Even if I could go out and make sales calls, bringing in new suppliers is probably the last thing brewers want to think about. The brewers I work with that sell most of their beer over the bar at their taprooms are scrambling to fill cans, crowlers and growlers.

Who knows when life will be going back to normal, but this is as good of a time as any to brew. The homebrew industry tends to do well when the economy is struggling. People who are out of work and at home all of a sudden have time to brew. My sense is that homebrew retailers are seeing an uptick in sales as business are closing and people stay home.

If there ever was a good time to be stuck at home, it is when you have four fresh kegs of beer that you are proud of and enjoy drinking. With my keezer full, the last thing I need is more beer any time soon. If I am going to use this newfound free time at home to brew, it makes sense to make beers that require extended aging.

Time to fire up the kettle!

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Friday, January 10, 2020

Brew Years Resolutions for 2020

Another year and another decade in the books! All-in 2019 was a very solid brew year for me. The only hiccup was the beer I brought to Ales over ALS and having to dump eight one-gallon batches.

One of my big resolutions last year was to post more content. I did update this space more. I played around with posting video on YouTube until I realized I don't have the patience for video editing. I also consciously updated my Facebook page regularly. Even it it was something as simple as a link to an article or a photo. My engagement on Facebook has been strong and I've picked up a few new fans.

Dry(ish) January was mostly a success. I made it all the way to January 28th! On that day I was hanging out with the Buck family at Maine Malt House in Mapleton, Maine. There was a bar at the malt house and I may have gone overboard with sampling. From there I was snowed in and was lucky to find a hotel in Presque Isle.

I could do Dry(ish) January again, but I do think I have generally reduced the amount I drink. If my liquid calorie intake becomes an issue there is always Sober October or something else similar.

I never did retake the BJCP exam again in 2019. I didn't have time to study in advance of Homebew Con. After Homebrew Con I didn't see any other exams scheduled in the area. I'm fairly ambivalent about moving up in rank at this point.

My resolutions for 2019 were fairly modest and mostly successful. I brewed the beer I wanted to drink. As it turned out that meant I didn't brew a single IPA in 2019.  I have put some thought into what I want to accomplish in 2020, but not a great deal.

  • Enter more competitions: I have always been in and out in terms of entering competitions. At some times I am all about it, and then I can go months at a time without entering any. After entering two BJCP competitions last year I want to get back into it and see what we can learn. 
  • Enter Masters Championship of Amateur Brewing (MCAB) qualifying events: The MCAB is a competition only open to first place winners at select qualifying events. If I am going to enter more competitions I may as well throw my hat in the ring here.  
  • Go all out for NHC: In 2019 I entered four beers into the National Homebrew Competition. The imperial stout I brewed with Sven advanced to the final round. A batch of Pa's Lager scored well and made it to mini-best of show in the first round which means it almost advanced. For 2020 I will apply for the maximum of five entries into the competition. The plan is to brew beers that I feel have the best chance of advancing and potentially medalling.
  • Win a medal at Jamboree: This one is more about club honor. Mike Shea from the North Shore Brewers cleaned up last year, but as a club we can do better.
  • Brew with my house yeast: One of the things I think that is missing from craft beer is the loss of house character. Breweries could make different brews and different styles, but they had a house character. As a drinker you could tell that the different beers a brewery made were made by that brewery. One way brewers did that was using a house yeast strain. Every beer I have brewed with my "House Irish Ale Blend" has been outstanding. I want to use that yeast in more brews and learn how it ticks. From there maybe my beers will have that house character. 
  • Make more strong ales: This fall I was lucky enough to go to the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer (FOBAB) in Chicago. That rekindled my love of high gravity beers. I brew more of them in 2020 and cellar the bottles in my basement.
  • Work to finish my home brewery: My basement brew area is overdue for tidying up. I need to clear out the clutter and improve organization down there. I spend most of my brew days looking for random items. The big thing I need is a sink. Cleaning with just a hose isn't ideal. Even more inconvenient is not having any place to easily dump waste water. I have watched YouTube videos that make installing a sink easy enough, but it's probably better for everyone if I just hire a plumber. 

That list is a lot longer than I thought it would be!

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Monday, December 30, 2019

On Untappd and beer ratings generally

Recently I was speaking to a friend who is opening a brewery in Massachusetts. Like any new brewery in the northeast, he is going to launch with hazy IPAs, but he also loves classic British ales and German lagers. One of his concerns is how his beers will be reviewed and rated on Untappd.

Image result for untappd

Untappd is a mobile application where users can share, log, review, and rate the beer they drink. The ratings are a simple one-to-five star rating system where users can rate a beer in 0.25 star increments. There are no instructions in how to rate beers in the app. Untappd was conceived as being unstructured; an app that could be enjoyed by casual beer drinkers and hardcore craft beer nerds. The upshot is that as the app and its user base has evolved the highest rated beers are mostly hazy double IPAs, barrel-aged stouts, and the like.

My friend's concern is that even if he brews the best Ordinary Bitter in the world it still won't score as highly as a mediocre hazy IPA. That in-turn will drag down his brewery's overall rating, and deter people from buying his beer. Lots of other brewers share his concern. Some have thought of ways to try to game Untappd ratings. My friend has considered putting up signs or table tents requesting people rate his beers to style.

Initially I nodded at the idea, but the more I think about it the more I think is a little bit of an ask. The fact that a non-distributed brewery like Tree House was the most checked-in brewery in 2019 makes me think that the Untappd user base currently skews heavily toward the beer nerd crowd. While that may be true there are still casual beer drinkers on the app. I've been on Untappd since 2011, over a year before I started brewing. At that time I would have told you I was knowledgeable about beer. I didn't know what I didn't know.

The issue with beer ratings is not the ratings in and of themselves. The issue is how people use and interpret beer ratings. At their best beer ratings are a guide. Going back to the days working at my uncle's car dealership, in my experience human beings are terrible at using guides of any kind. Too many people treat guides like guides are gospel. Guides are opinion and not fact. An expert opinion in a magazine is still an opinion. Aggregated user ratings on a mobile application are nothing more than aggregated opinion.

If Beer A has a 4.07 rating on Untappd it is not definitively a better beer than Beer B which only has a 3.87 rating. Where brewery owners are rightfully concerned is when a drinker is looking at a beer list or inside a cooler and pulls out a phone before making a decision. The only solution I see is for consumers to be smarter. That means being aware of the biases in the ratings, and confident enough to form their own opinions.

As I became aware of the biases in the ratings I mostly stopped using them to inform my buying decisions. I still log most of my beers on Untappd. I use it mostly as a journal so I can look back to what beers I have enjoyed when and where. I used to really enjoy collecting badges on the app from drinking different beers, but so many badges have been added over the years the accomplishment of collecting badges felt watered down.

I stopped rating beers for the most part on the app for a few reasons. When I started working in the industry I felt weird about rating customer's or prospective customer's beers. Mostly I noticed how compressed my own ratings were. How useful is a rating if on a 1-5 scale the majority of the ratings are clustered between 3.5 and 4.0?

My ratings graphed. Not a lot of useful information there. 
If you enjoy rating beer, by all means continue rating beer. Use Untappd the way it was intended which is however you want to use it. My only suggestion is to keep an open mind when tasting a beer and don't be afraid to form your own opinion even if it differs from the crowd.

I don't envy brewers who have to sweat ratings and also comments. I can only imagine what it is like to put your heart and soul into something to have it be torn down by someone who clearly does not know what they are talking about. It must be really annoying to have a user say a beer is great, and then give it three stars. If I was a commercial brewer I'd monitor the ratings and comments to get a feel for how my beer was being received. If a beer is getting similar feedback from numerous users that's information I would want to have.

There isn't a solution for the biases toward certain beer styles. The styles that are the most highly rated are the styles that consumers like the most. Why that is the case is a post for another day.

Since I've been talking about my Untappd account, I don't see a reason to keep my account private. Feel free to follow me.

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