Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Tasting Notes: Welcome As Your Are (British Strong Ale)

I needed a hit. Like a batter in a slump, or a down-on-their-luck band I needed a hit. I brewed two great beers over the summer, but those kegs are empty. I even used the last bit of Olde North Shore Ale to brine our Thanksgiving turkey. The big reason I needed a hit was that I had to dump thirteen gallons of beer and it was terrible.

To address the acetaldehyde issues that was affecting everything I brewed, I took my sanitation procedures back to square one and sanitized all of my glass and plastic equipment with a bleach solution. My first brewing kit came with the third edition of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing published back in 2003. Presumably the variety of sanitizing products available to homebrewers now were not as available back then so the book suggested using a bleach solution.

The beer pours copper with an off white head. The head is thin with fair retention. The beer does have a bit of haze, but nothing I'm concerned with. The aroma is malt forward with notes of graham cracker, fig, and a hint of toast.

The flavor is what really stands out to me. Up front is a very understated sweetness, like a the bottom of a sugar cookie that is more browned and lacking the sugar that is on the top of the cookie.  That leads to moderate flavors of jam and biscuit. The malt is just toasty enough along with the hop bitterness to give the beer a perfectly crisp finish. The medium hop flavor from the East Kent Golding provide elegant floral and currant notes throughout. Fermentation character is somewhat clean, with floral esters adding a bit more complexity.

The body is medium-full which is enhanced by the medium-low carbonation. The finish is perfectly crisp with just a twinge of hop flavor and bitterness lingering. It makes the drinker want another sip. When I first tapped the keg I ended up having three pints. The beer finished at 6.2% and is almost too drinkable.

I needed a hit and I think I have one. This feels like a beer that would do well in competition. With the holidays the competition calendar is understandably light. Maybe I'll find a competition early next year and ship a couple of bottles. That of course assumes the keg will last that long.


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Monday, November 4, 2019

Brew Day: Welcome as You Are (British Strong Ale)

On the heels of discovering that my brown ale was infected my homebrew pipeline was suddenly empty. At least two of my kegs are getting low; an emergency brew day is in order! Winter is also approaching and I am going to want some malt-forward beers to enjoy.

Compared to American "Winter Warmers" that use Christmas spices like clove, ginger and nutmeg, British winter warmers like Winter Welcome use none. Instead British winter warmers are more like Best Bitters just turned up a notch. The British Strong Ale category as defined by the BJCP is a bit of a catch-all for any British beer that is stronger than everyday beers like bitters or porters, but isn't as strong as British Barley Wine or Imperial Stout.

Perfection in a bottle.

Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome is a beer I look for every winter. Last winter I was lucky enough to find it on draught twice in addition to finding bottles in the store. I have played around with creating my own clone recipe but never finalized anything or planned any brews. Then this month's Brew Your Own magazine they published a ($) clone!

I plugged the recipe into BeerSmith and I couldn't make the numbers in BeerSmith match what was in the recipe. The final gravity in the published recipe felt low to me to begin with. I bumped up the amount of base malt to boost the gravity while finishing at 6% ABV. Then I had to increase the amount of hops to compensate for the additional gravity.

I always keep one of these exactly for last-minute
brew days like today.


The recipe called for a highly-attenuative English yeast. As this was an emergency brew day I didn't have time to make a liquid yeast starter, so dry yeast it was. I had a sachet of Safale S-04 English Ale yeast. S-04 doesn't attenuate quite as much as say Nottingham, so I lowered my mash temperature a bit.

Still reeling from all of my contaminated batches, I haven't had a chance to get new sanitizer. Instead I made sure my equipment was soaked in bleach. Well, a bleach solution anyeay. I let everything drip dry to make sure the solution was in contact long enough to sanitize everything that touched the beer. A bleach solution requires at least 15 minutes of contact time.

The wort was so clear I barely had to vorlauf. 

Beautiful copper color going into my fermenter.

As I have been planning my brews and thinking about what I want to brew, I have been going back in my mind to the classic British styles. For whatever reason these styles aren't appreciated in the market. I have some theories as to why, but that can be a rant for another day. I am looking forward to make even more British-style beers in the coming weeks and months.

I can't wait to tap this brew on Black Friday. The wort coming out of the mash tun, and later going into the fermenter looked and smelled absolutely gorgeous. This will be a great beer to bottle off and bring to holiday gatherings.

In an earlier version of the post the beer was called Come as you Are. I should have known not to name a beer after any popular song or lyric from the 90s. Anyway, I gave the beer a unique name because I think I made enough changes to the published recipe that the beer is unique and not a clone. 


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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Just when you think you have it all figured out....

I was feeling pretty good. On the heels of my imperial stout advancing to the final round of the National Homebrew Competition, I won a medal at the New England Regional Homebrew competition with my Olde North Shore Ale and an Honorable Mention for Fredward Wit. 

For a beer that was three months old to medal at the largest competition in New England is pretty good.

Those were the only two competitions I had entered all year. Advancing at NHC was always a goal, but entering NERHBC was a bit of a lark. The two beers I entered were brewed for an event in July, not a competition in October. This year at Jamboree, Mike Shea from our club cleaned up with five medals. Ray Pickup, who is planning to open Rockport Brewing, was also at jamboree encouraging everyone else in the club to enter more beers next year.

A friend of mine who is a professional brewer also entered the competition at jamboree. I may be way off here, but I had the sense he was on pins and needles hoping his beer would win. It is also possible I was projecting what my feelings own would have been if I had entries. Deep down in places I don't talk about at parties, I am hyper-competitive. More accurately I hate losing. It rook me years to learn how to deal with failure. It probably took me longer than most well-adjusted adults.

Anyway, being around competitive people including another industry professional motivated me to enter the largest homebrew competition in New England. After entering two big competitions and winning two medals I was starting to feel pretty good about myself.

The next competition was Ales over ALS. While not a BJCP competition, I do want to win Ales over ALS after a couple near-misses. I brewed a wet hop IPA with my homegrown Chinook. It was a way to bring a one-of-a-kind beer to the event, and have a story for attendees at the event who aren't brewers or craft beer nerds.

The first time I tapped the keg was at the event. I got lemon and a some astringency in the finish. With over a pound of wet hops in a five gallon batch I expected some citrus and even some chlorophenols from all of that hop material in the kettle.

The attendees liked it enough, but two of the judges absolutely destroyed it. Both complained of acetaldehyde. The most common flavor descriptors for acetaldehyde are green apple like what is found in low levels in Budweiser and Bud Light,. The other common descriptors are raw pumpkin or pumpkin guts.

I was incredulous. Firstly, I didn't think the beer was problematic. If it was, I should have known better and caught it myself. Secondly my ego was bruised to have my beer torn to shreds by people I know and generally respect.  By the time I received my scoresheets I had already started breaking down. I went so far as to reconnect the keg and taste the beer again. I concluded that the judges probably were right. That meant I had been pouring problematic beer for four hours. Great.

All that was left was to figure out what went wrong. Acetaldehyde can be caused by fermentation problems. The original yeast I pitched never quite took off and I had to pitch dry yeast. Maybe the sluggish fermentation caused the acetaldehyde normally produced during fermentation not to be processed by the yeast. Acedaldehyde can also be caused by bacteria. The oxidation of acedaldehyde can also create acetic acid. That would explain the lemon that I was getting.

A couple weeks after brewing the wet hop beer, I brewed eight one-gallon batches for a Muntons sales meeting. I brewed the beers to showcase our malts as well as some of our competitors malts in a finished beer. I fermented in eight brand new one-gallon growlers. Each beer was over-pitched with half a sachet of dry yeast. Fermentation in all eight vessels was vigorous enough that it should have cleaned up any chemical byproducts during fermentation.  ALL EIGHT of those batches were acetaldehyde-bombs. Not only did I waste two days brewing and one day bottling those batches, I now have to fill that time at our meeting where we would have been tasting those beers.

If that wasn't enough, Jennie found a pellicle growing on a brown ale that was my most-recent batch.  A different beer, in a different vesel, with a different infection made it crystal clear I had a sanitation problem. I have been using an acid-based sanitizer Star San for years. Either something changed in the water supply in terms of alkalinity or mineral contact that is affecting the effectiveness of the Star San, or my Star San is just old.

After dumping 13 gallons of beer, I took every piece of equipment that touched beer recently, hoses, siphons, carboys, growlers, and sanitized it all the old-fashioned way: with bleach! Excuse me while I cry into a commercial beer.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

2019 hop harvest is underway

Hop harvest is a favorite time for many brewers. Large commercial brewers are invited by hop growers and brokers to the Pacific Northwest for hop selection. At hop selection, brewers and purchasers are ushered through tours of the fields, and then sat at picnic tables where they rub and smell various lots of hops selecting the lots they wish to buy. Hop selection is part sensory experience and part junket. Plenty of beer is consumed by the visiting brewers.

For a homebrewer growing hops in the backyard, hop harvest is a lot more work. The tendricles that allow hops to climb can really irritate the skin. Gloves and long sleeves are a must. On a still-warm late August day it can be quite hot. I drank three bottles of water while picking cones off of my first bine.

The cones on the bine will ripen at different times. One advantage a home-grower has is the ability to pick the cones as they ripen over a period of time. For a large commercial grower this is entirely impractical.

Last year I planted five rhizomes: Willamette, Northern Brewer, Chinook, Cascade, Centennial. I clipped the Cascade with my edger and it never grew back. The other four plants did grow nicely their first year.

First-year hops typically don't yield many cones if they even do at all. The Northern Brewer actually yielded quite a bit. Enough for me to brew a batch, a California Common I named Uncommon First Harvest. Using the pick as you go method, I was able to dry the hops on a screen. After tasting the beer I brewed the lack of hop flavor made it pretty clear that I picked the hops too soon. There was almost no hop flavor, but the Muntons Crystal malt flavor really came through and I thoroughly enjoyed the beer.

For this year I planted three new hop plants, not rhizomes: Cluster, Brewers Gold, and Canadian Red Vine. The Cluster and Brewers Gold were purchased with the idea of using them in historic recipes. Canadian Red Vine on the other hand I had never heard of. It's supposed cherry flavor sounded interested. That it has French-Canadian origin (like me!), made me think it would grow well in New England. 

Here is a rundown of how my plants did this year

Northern Brewer: Again this was my most vigorous grower. The cones were ready for harvest the fourth week of August. I knew the cones were ready when I saw more yellow lupulin than when I harvested last year, and some of the leaves were just starting to yellow and brown ever so slightly. The clincher was when I rubbed a cone in my hands I could see and feel the hop oil in my hands. With the huge volume of cones, I elected to harvest them all at once. I could barely fit the yield in a five-gallon bucket.
Look at all of those cones!
Chinook: This plant really made a leap in year two and has produced numerous large cones. I can't wait to use them in a hoppy pale ale or IPA.

I could barely fit the plant in the frame. Lots of shoots with good
cones too,
Centennial: It has done better in it's second year and produced some cones. The cones however are rather small. I think the plant isn't getting sufficient sunlight and may need to be replanted in a better spot. Our deck, and the neighbor's house and deck block the sunlight at different parts of the day.

The Centennial in the shade. It isn't high enough to clear the
neighbor's deck. 
Willamette: I spoke with a rep from Four Star Farms, a hop grower in Western Mass about my Willamette after it grew very slowly last year. In their experience English or English derived hops do not grow as well in New England. My plant did do better this year and produced a few cones, if not quite enough to be worth harvesting. I am going to leave the plant in-tact as long as possible so it can continue to receive sunlight and strengthen its root system. I think that next year I will have a more substantial yield.

The Willamette produced a few cones in year two and does look
pretty hanging off of my porch,
Cluster and Brewers Gold: Planting dormant plants as opposed to rhyzomes is that plants are supposed to grow more vigorously their first year. That was not the case with these two. I planted these along my fence on either side of the Northern Brewer where I thought they would get the most sunlight. Instead the Norther Brewer shaded out both of these. The Cluster eventually slowly started to grow. With the Northern Brewer cut down it should have six to eight weeks of warm weather and sunlight to help the root system for next year.

The Cluster is the thin plant to the right.

The Brewers Gold never took off in it's original location. I replanted it along my porch next to the stairs. While that location is blocked from the morning sun, it does get plenty of sun from mid-afternoon onward. It did slowly start to take off a little bit in its new location.

Believe it or not this is improvement.
Canadian Red Vine: By the time my new plants arrived I had completely forgotten that I ordered this one. I planted it along the porch just to see how it would do. I was concerned about the lack of morning sunlight which proved not to be an issue at all. The plant reached the top of the porch, then found a cable line along the side of the house, and worked it's way up that. The plant has produced plenty of cones that probably won't be ready to harvest for another few weeks.

The roofline on the porch is probably 15'-20' high.
Expecting a larger yield, I purchased some new toys to properly store my homegrown hops. I bought a food dehydrator to speed up the drying process. There are all kinds of DIY hop drying projects that involve box fans, building wood frames, and stapling screens to them. The dehydrator I purchased was $80, but give me a turnkey solution and I will take it every time. I can also use the machine to make beef jerky! To store my dried hops I bought a vacuum sealer.

I end up with 6oz of dried hops per batch.
The dehydrator is working great! With the temperature set at 95F the hops dry in nine hours. With the huge yield of Northern Brewer I will probably have to run five to six batches to dry them all. Wet hops, hops that are picked fresh off the bine, will start to get moldy after three days. I should just be able to get them all dry by then.

I weighed out my dried hops into two ounce bags which were then vacuum-sealed. The bags for the vacuum sealer come in a roll and it took some trial and error to figure out how large of a bag to cut. As I work through these hops the next challenge might be to find enough fridge

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