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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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Brew Day: Derby Wharf Porter (American Porter)

It has actually been over a year since my colleague Sven and I brewed our imperial stout: Employee Orientation 101. Now that the weather is colder and next year's National Homebrew Competition (NHC) will be here before I know it. Time to brew another imperial stout is here. A big beer like an imperial stout needs a big pitch of yeast. One of my favorite methods to build up yeast is to brew what I call a starter beer. A starter beer is a lower alcohol and more lightly hopped beer that I can harvest yeast from in my next batch.

The yeast I want to use in my imperial stout is the same yeast as I used in my last imperial stout. I call this yeast my "House Irish Blend". When I brewed Employee Orientation 101 last year, I took two expired yeast pitches, from two different suppliers, and made two yeast starters to build up enough cells.

At that time I also built up some extra yeast cells which I saved for future use. That was last November. Then in February I took that yeast, made a starter for Rundown Irish Red, then banked some extra cells which I didn't revive again until now. I had to make two starters just to have enough yeast for my starter beer and build enough extra to save.

The jar of yeast I saved almost certainly contained less yeast cells to begin with than a fresh package of yeast contains. Combine that with the fact the jar was nine months old, it took almost a week to build up enough cells. My first starter only showed the faintest signs of fermentation after three days on my stir plate. I cold crashed my first starter, and stepped up to a larger starter. Given how sluggish the first starter was this was a bit of a leap of faith. Thankfully the second starter took off right away.

For the actual beer I decided to brew an English Porter. Two years ago I threw together an extract porter with leftover ingredients I had lying around. The base of the beer was Briess liquid malt extract. I was happy with how that beer came out and in the back of my mind have wanted to brew it again as an all-grain batch with English ingredients.

Behind Enemy Lines was my starting point. When converting to all-grain with Muntons malts I had to account for the fact that Muntons Chocolate Malt is much darker than Briess Chocolate Malt. I also chose to use a darker crystal malt, Muntons Crystal 400 (150L) to get more of a toasted flavor along with more raisin and molasses flavors as opposed to caramel.

I prepared my water the night before brew day and started to mill my grain. My grain mill jammed again. I adjusted the gap, ran a small amount through, thought it was fixed, then it jammed again. I need to completely disassemble the rollers and spray everything that moves inside the mill with compressed air and lubricate.

When I was finally able to run my malt through the mill the crush looked to be poor. It looked like far too many intact kernels made it through. To improve my crush, I ran the malt through the mill again. After the second pass through the malt looked like kibble, and most of the barley husks looked to be destroyed. The concern now was that the malt was too finely milled and would cause a stuck sparge. Luckily I had some rice hulls which made sure I was filter through my grain bed without any issues.

With the finer crush a funny thing happened, the efficiency of my mash went through the roof! Usually my mash efficiency is right around 70% which means I extract 70% of the available sugars from my malt. This batch was the highest efficiency I can remember: a whopping 85%!

The batch was supposed to be a sessionable English Porter with around 5% alcohol. My target original gravity was 1.050. Instead my original gravity was 1.062. At that point I could have diluted my wort. A commercial brewery that legally has to be within 0.3% of a beer's declared alcohol level would almost certainly do that. Instead I decided to just go with what I had.

At this point the beer will be too high in alcohol to be an English Porter. Not that adhering to style is critically important, but I was curious what style would be the best fit. In my mind I thought the American Porter category while higher in alcohol than English Porter, was also has a prominent American hop character like the American Stout category. A declared style only really matters in competitions.

After reading the guidelines American Porter is, "A substantial, malty dark beer with a complex and flavorful dark malt character". While bigger and roastier, American Porter can have an "American" or "British" character. With the dark Muntons Chocolate Malt and Crystal 400, this beer should fit the style nicely.

With a nice porter and a winter warmer in Welcome As You Are, I have plenty of malty ales to last through the winter.

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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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