Monday, March 1, 2021

Brew Day: Field of Immortals 2021 (Imperial Stout)

After brewing imperial stouts in November of 2018 and 2019, my intention was to brew another vintage in November of 2020. For whatever reason I never got around to it. Then, at the end of January I brewed a batch of Rundown Irish Red as part of another project I'll be talking more about shortly. Low in alcohol and hops, the Irish Red was a perfect starter beer to build up plenty of yeast for an imperial stout.

That was the thought anyway. Fermentation on the Irish Red stalled, so I pitched a packet of US-05 dry yeast to help the beer finish fermenting out. The yeast I harvested from the Irish Red was some combination of Hugh Hill, my house Irish culture and US-05. For a one-off or vintage beer, I am not concerned about slight variations from batch-to-batch.

The night before brew day, I used a carbonation cap and a soda bottle to help dissolve the water additions. Chalk in particular isn't the most soluble, and carbonic acid helps it dissolve in water. This is something I have wanted to try for awhile, but I never seemed to have a soda bottle lying around. We typically don't have soda in the house. This was pretty easy to do and worked well. 

This worked really well to get water salts to dissolve

What I did take away from this brew day was the desire to cut down on variations in process from batch-to-batch. Over the past couple of years I have experimented with batch sparging, fly sparging, no sparging, mashing in the Mash & Boil grain pipe, mashing in a cooler, boiling inside on the Mash & Boil, boiling outside on propane, checking pH on every batch, assuming pH calculations are good enough because I'm too lazy to calibrate a pH meter, acidifying sparge water, forgetting to acidify sparge water. On top of that I keep having issues with my mill jamming, adjusting the gap, and getting poor crushes through the mill. 

The result has been that my yields have been all over the place. I brewed a barleywine that the yield was so poor I added two pounds of dry malt extract to compensate. Last summer my batch of Summer Somewhere came out close to 6% because my yield was really high. With this batch I think I have settled on a process that I can repeat.

I purchased two wire shelves for my Mash & Boil and cooler mash tun. The shelving also gives me storage space for my other kettles where they can drip dry after cleaning. From there I have a pump I can use when fly sparging. With this batch I focused on the flow of sparge water into the mash tun. I made sure there wasn't too much water on top of the grain bed, and that level was steady. The key was for the wort to drain at the same rate the sparge water was being sprinkled.

As full as my 8gal cooler can get

While milling, my mill was jamming and my crush was initially poor, I tightened the gap, and milled the grain again. The second pass made a huge difference. The endosperm of the grains were fully crushed, while the grain husks were still intact. If anything the crush may have been too fine, but the vourlauf and runoff on this batch was as easy as any batch I can remember.

Easiest vaurlauf ever

For the recipe I made a couple of changes from my last imperial stout. At the moment I was completely out of Maris Otter Pale Malt. Instead I used a malt we initially developed for distilling at Muntons called Northern Spring. In my experience Northern Spring is the highest yielding and best attenuating malt that we have. This was the malt I used in my 6% Summer Ale that was supposed to be 4.9%.

After sparging, I ran off 10.5 gallons of wort. I wish I timed exactly how long I sparged for; it might have been an hour. When I took a refractometer reading, I was floored:

This is before I boiled off half of my wort

Pre-boil gravity was supposed to be 1.058, and I ended up at 1.068, I managed to overshoot my gravity by ten points! This beer is going to make my 2019 batch of imperial stout look like a dark mild. One option would have been to boil off less and make a bigger batch. If I had a large enough fermenter I may very well have done that. Instead I stuck with the 120 minute boil outside on my propane burner. 

Half of the liquid was sacrificed in the name of high gravity brewing

One other change I made to make this vintage unique was to use my homegrown Willamette and Brewers Gold hops as the flavor and aroma hop additions. Those should give the beer a bit more of a unique touch. 

After 120 minutes of boiling, here is my Starting Gravity:

Literally off the charts

Converting from Brix to gravity, the SG is 1.135. I aerated the wort as much as possible while transferring to a carboy. Then I aerated further with an aquarium pump until the carboy foamed over. From there I dumped the entire yeast cake from the Irish Red. I don't think it is possible to over-pitch an 1.135 wort.


I hit the wort with the aquarium pump again around 12 hours later. Fermentation was fairly active for about a week. The inside of the carboy was covered in caked-on krausen it was hard to tell what was going on. On day 13 after brew day, the gravity was down to 1.064. That's a high starting gravity for most of my batches. The beer had only had 50% attenuation, but was 9.8% ABV already. 

The next day, I racked the beer to a secondary and pitched a vial of WLP099 Super High Gravity yeast that I used in Thomas Brady Ale (2017). Alcohol tolerant over 15%, this stuff will get the beer over the finish line. As I racked the beer, I could see there was still a fairly thick krausen on top. Maybe the original yeast needed a little more time, but at that point I was already committed to racking the beer. 

As I siphoned, I didn't worry too much about racking yeast from the primary to the secondary. Any yeast in suspension should help the beer ferment out in theory. I checked the beer a few hours later, and there was already a krausen ring forming despite the temperature being a little below White Labs specification. 

See you in three months buddy.

This is going to be the booziest beer I have ever brewed. At minimum this is going to be a 14% ABV beer. If the WLP099 attenuates here like it did in the Thomas Brady Ale, we are looking at a 17% beer. I'll believe I made a 17% all-malt beer when I see it, but either way this beer is going to be a sipper. 

I never liked the name of my imperial stouts. The first batch, Employee Orientation was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact I brewed the beer as part of a colleague's training. 4PM Darkness was a reference to finishing the beer in the dark in November when it was dark at 4PM. That was the best I could come up with and always felt kind of meh. The name needed to be more epic.

As a baseball fan the last half of 2020, and first weeks of 2021 was very difficult as too many Hall of Fame inductees and legends of the sport have passed away in too short of a period of time. As these greats have left us, I would always see on social media a photo-shopped image of the recently deceased entering a cornfield, just as the deceased legends in the film Field of Dreams had done. This is a beer to honor them. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Brew Day: 4PM Darkness (Imperial Stout)

Below is an unpublished post from 2019 I wrote for another website. In addition to a regular Brew Day post, I took more of a "how to" approach like I did in some of my earlier posts. 

I own four five-gallon glass carboys. When any of those carboys are empty it feels like a waste. Those carboys are taking up space in my basement when they could be aging some perfectly good beer!

With most of the standard strength ales I brew these days I don't bother racking to a secondary. Living in New England my basement is at a fairly steady 50 degrees during the winter. I can take advantage of the temperature to brew a lager and use one of my carboys for lagering. I can also use my carboys for aging sour beers or ciders. My favorite thing to use them for is to age high-alcohol beers. Long conditioning time in a secondary fermenter gives the complex flavors time to meld, and the alcohol time to mellow.

A year ago I brewed an imperial stout with my colleague Sven from Muntons. I took a recipe from a Gordon Strong book and adjusted the recipe to use ten different Muntons malts as a way to give Sven hand-on experience with as many of our malts as possible.

I was legitimately blown away with how great that beer came out. When I racked the beer after a week to a secondary it was delicious even then. I entered that beer into the National Homebrew Competition (NHC) where in the first round in Boston it won second in it's flight to advance to the final round.

While the beer didn't medal at the final round, and I didn't get my picture in Zymurgy, I did receive some solid feedback. I took that to heart while deciding how I wanted to tweak my recipe. At both rounds the judges thought the beer was maybe a little too roasty. At the first round in Boston the judges thought it was maybe a little too hoppy for a higher score. When the same batch was judged three months later, the hop flavor had subsided, but the judges still wanted more sweetness. With that in mind, here is the recipe I settled on:

Ingredients:
------------
Boil Size: 10.13 gal
Post Boil Volume: 5.63 gal
Batch Size (fermenter): 5.25 gal   
Bottling Volume: 5.00 gal
Estimated OG: 1.110 SG
Estimated Color: 77.6 SRM
Estimated IBU: 78.4 IBUs
Brewhouse Efficiency: 70.00 %
Est Mash Efficiency: 72.0 %
Boil Time: 180 Minutes

14 lbs           Maris Otter Pale Malt (Muntons) (2.6 SRM)        Grain         60.9 %             
3 lbs            Munich Malt (Muntons) (8.1 SRM)                  Grain         13.0 %            
2 lbs            Wheat Malt (Muntons) (2.5 SRM)                   Grain         8.7 %               
1 lbs            Chocolate Malt (Muntons) (520.3 SRM)             Grain         4.3 %              
1 lbs            Crystal 150 (60L) (Muntons) (76.1 SRM)           Grain         4.3 %               
1 lbs            Roasted Barley (Muntons) (634.5 SRM)             Grain         4.3 %              
8.0 oz           Black Malt (Muntons) (634.5 SRM)                 Grain         2.2 %              
8.0 oz           Crystal 400 (150L) (Muntons) (203.0 SRM)         Grain         2.2 %              
1.00 oz          Nugget [13.50 %] - Boil 60.0 min                 Hop           43.9 IBUs                 
1.00 oz          Northern Brewer [8.10 %] - Boil 30.0 min         Hop           20.2 IBUs               
0.25 tsp         Irish Moss (Boil 15.0 mins)                      Fining        -                      
1.00 oz          Fuggle [4.90 %] - Boil 15.0 min                  Hop           7.9 IBUs                
1.00 oz          Phoenix [9.80 %] - Boil 5.0 min                  Hop           6.3 IBUs                
1.0 pkg          Irish Ale Yeast                                  Yeast         -                       

Mash Schedule: Single Infusion, Full Body, No Mash Out
Total Grain Weight: 23 lbs
----------------------------
Name              Description                             Step Temperat Step Time     
Mash In           Add 7.39 gal of water at 167.9 F        156.0 F       90 min        

Sparge: Fly sparge with 5.60 gal water at 168.0 F

The only ingredients that a homebrewer might not be able to find are the Muntons Wheat and Munich malts. If you can't find those, I strongly suggest a quality imported substitute like Ireks White Wheat and Munich Malt.
Brewing high gravity beers like this does require some extra steps. Before I was with Muntons, I worked part time at a homebrew shop. When inexperienced brewers would come into the shop wanting to brew high gravity beers I would try to talk them through what to do. If I felt like the customer wasn't getting what I was trying to explain, or maybe didn't have the equipment needed, I would strongly suggest to the customer that they stick with a lower gravity brew.

Here are some of the challenges with high ABV brewing, suggested best practices, and what I did with this brew.
  1. Yeast Pitching Rate - A high alcohol beer requires a high amount of fermentable sugar, which in turn requires a high amount of healthy yeast to ensure a thorough and clean fermentation. 
    1. With liquid yeast this usually means making a yeast starter and/or buying multiple pitches. I used to hate making yeast starters on a weeknight to be ready to brew on the weekend. Free samples of Proper Starter pre-made starter wort from Homebrew Con hooked me on the product immediately.
    2. My favorite method for building up yeast cell counts for a high ABV beer is what I call a starter beer. Instead of making a 1.040 wort for the sole purpose of yeast propagation, I'll brew a batch of beer that is moderately hopped and has a similar gravity as a yeast starter. Bitters, Scottish Ales, English Porter, and Irish Stout are great styles for this method. For this batch I brewed an English Porter as a starter beer, which left me all of the yeast I needed for the imperial stout at the bottom of my fermenter. 
    3. If you don't have time to make a yeast starter or brew a starter beer, dry yeast is the easiest and cheapest way to go. Earlier this year I brewed an English Barleywine that got two packets of Nottingham. For any brew with an SG of over 1.080 I suggest pitching two sachets of dry yeast. No reason not to spend an extra $5-$8 to make sure your high ABV beer has enough yeast to ensure a full fermentation with no off flavors.

    4. I pushed my system to it's limit.

  2. Grist volume - When brewing a high ABV beer make sure your mash vessel can handle the volume of grain in your recipe and the strike water needed. I own a Brewers Edge Mash & Boil. The grain pipe in that system can only hold around 15 pounds of grain. Other brewing appliances of similar size like The Grainfather and RoboBrew have similar limitations. Instead of mashing in the Mash & Boil, I mashed in a ten gallon Igloo cooler. The grist and strike water filled the cooler to the very top. I could barley close the lid without pushing out hot mash water. Making sure you have enough room for your mash is just one reason to use a thick mash.

    Good luck batch sparging this

  3. Sparging - If your mash tun is as full as mine was, batch sparge or no sparge methods are out of the question. Fly sparging is your only option. That means you need a hot liquor tank with a ball valve that you can either gravity feed over your mash bed, or a pump to pump your hot liquor. If you don't have one, a sparge arm is a great investment to keep your grain bed level and avoid channels developing, which can lower your efficiency.
  4. Efficiency - Whatever mash efficiency you normally achieve on your system, expect it to go down. A consequence of needing more water for your mash is that you need less sparge water to achieve your normal pre-boil gravity. One way to compensate for this is to sparge for longer, then boil off for longer to end up with the same batch size. Goose Island does a 180 minute boil when brewing their Bourbon County beers. With this batch I planned to try the same method. To handle my pre-boil volume of 10.5 gallons, I had to use my propane burner. That meant I was outside in Massachusetts in December. When my propane tank ran low on gas I lost my boil. When I switched tank I was able to get a rolling boil, but I did have to boil for longer. I am also hoping the longer boil gives me some kettle caramelization to give the beer additional sweetness.  
  5. Malt extract is your friend - Some all grain brewers look at malt extract the same way an avid mountain biker might look at a toddler's trike. Well, you shouldn't. More professional brewers use malt extract than people realize. Muntons sells dry malt extract in 55lb boxes to professional brewers, and we sell them by the pallet. Instead of employing a long boil like I did on this brew, take a pre-boil gravity reading and adjust your gravity with DME to hit your target. The imperial stout I brewed last year with Sven got 13oz of DME after the mash. If you are brewing on a brewing appliance with a limited grain capacity, just replace some of your base malt with malt extract. It's that easy.
  6. Wort aeration - With a normal gravity beer splashing your wort in your fermenter will introduce enough oxygen into your wort. High ABV worts are a stressful environment for yeast. Your yeast will need more oxygen for a full and healthy fermentation. I ran an aeration pump for over half an hour while I was cleaning up from my brew day. That along with pitching plenty of yeast made sure my beer was fermenting within a few hours after pitching. 
  7. Temperature control - With all of the fermentable sugars in a high gravity beer, active fermentation is active indeed! That will generate quite a bit more heat than normal fermentation. Even if you pitch at the right temperature, the temperature can quickly rise too hot. With my beer I kept my fermenter in my 50F basement. and attached a heat wrap. I plugged the heat wrap into a temperature controller to keep my beer at a steady 68F

Monday, February 22, 2021

Falling out of love with New England IPA

About six years ago I interviewed for a job with a decent sized craft brewery. The brewery was looking for a sales rep in my area. I was a sales professional in another industry and thought that might make me qualified for the position. The brewery was gracious enough to bring me in for an interview despite my only industry experience being a brand ambassador. I subsequently met the candidate the brewery hired. He was infinitely more qualified than me. 

During the interview I was asked a question along the lines of "What was the most impactful or influential beer you ever drank and why?" I completely choked on the question. Beer for me has always been a slow journey of incremental steps. Budweiser, to Sam Adams seasonals, to relatively hoppy beers like Harpoon IPA, it was an evolution. In hindsight one of my answers could have been Double Dry Hopped Fort Point Pale Ale from Trillium.  

Six years after I drank that beer for the first time, it was unlike anything I had drank before.  Sitting here in 2021, I remember my boss at the time buying that thick belgian bottle for me. I remember opening it at my cousin and occasional brewing partner Andy's home and sharing it with everyone on our brew day. That beer was so aromatic, and yes so juicy. A true revelation.

To be fair to myself, based on my first visit to Trillium in 2015 I may not have appreciated the experience fully. In that era any aggressively hopped IPA was called a West Coast IPA, so I erroneously lumped Trillium in with that crowd. 

One of my first hazies from 2015. Clear by 2021 standards. 

My early attempts at brewing IPA were not great. I needed a lot of help to brew a clone of The Substance. That recipe from 2015 is nothing like how the beer is now. Bissell Brothers have intentionally made the beer softer and hazier. I did learn a lot about brewing IPA generally from that experience. Within months of that visit to Trillium, I brewed my first hazy pale ale. A year later, as part of my US of IPA project in 2016 I brewed another New England IPA. In 2017, I wrote a post for HomebrewTalk sharing best practices for homebrewing New England IPA. 

The last NEIPA I brewed was 28 July 2018. Well, that's half true. I attempted to brew a Double NEIPA recipe I believe one of our commercial customers screwed up. I ended up screwing up the beer myself and dumping it. One of these days I have to give that recipe another try just to prove a point.

Anyway, over the last few years my brewing has shifted mostly to sessionable beers be it British styles, pale ales, lagers, or fruit and spice beers. As store shelves have become more and more full of New England IPA, we would buy commercial examples and I would brew styles that were becoming harder to find commercially.

The notion of regional variations in IPA isn't dead yet, but it might be dying. When I was in Michigan last year there were amber ales everywhere, but also plenty of hazies. Summer in Minnesota was similar, but with cream ales and kellerbier in place of ambers. During a whirlwind week in Texas where I visited Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston, it was pale lagers and hazy IPA. A legacy brewery in Denver wanted pricing to buy one of our distributors entire yearly allocation of El Dorado hops.  Even in San Diego, the mecca of West Coast IPA, in the afternoon I spent there in early 2020 there was as much if not more hazy IPA than West Coast IPA at the couple of places I visited. 

The more I drank New England IPA all over the country a few things became apparent. The more I drank NEIPA, the more not great examples I found. Just being juicy or aromatic wasn't enough anymore. As I drank more beers that were too aggressively dry-hopped, or were packaged too soon, I was getting "hop burn", and getting beers that were overly phenolic. I've gotten off flavors and aromas like cut grass, smoke, struck matches, and even lighter fluid. This is to say nothing of oxidized cans that poured brown with no hop character.

I have even had poor experiences from hyped breweries with huge Untappd ratings. One homebrewer shared on a "Currently Drinking" Slack channel I am on that he was drinking a newly released NEIPA from a prominent brewery. When asked how it was he said, "It's a bit spicy, as usual with day-of releases. But the tropical fruit is off the charts." He, like a lot of beer drinkers have been conditioned that when they buy a beer at a brewery itmay not be at it's peak of flavor or aroma. I've had similar experiences where I let the beer sit in my fridge for a week or two to smooth out. Twenty bucks for a four-pack doesn't buy what it used to.

With any beer style there are only two ways to really make a unique product: ingredients and process. With New England IPA the ingredients and processes are becoming increasingly similar. This has resulted something else I have noticed: a lot of hazy IPAs that taste the same. The grists tend to be very similar. There's a better chance that a brewery will talk about the unmalted adjuncts in the beer like flaked oats and flaked wheat than the actual malt. That is if they talk about the grains in the beer at all. Most breweries ferment with some kind of London III or Conan strain. If a brewery uses dry yeast it's probably Safale S04. The esters that used to make NEIPA unique compared to American ales fermented with neutral ale strains are now fairly similar across the board. Breweries having a house yeast with a house character isn't much of a thing anymore.

Hops are one area where there can be a difference if the brewer eschews the ubiquitous, but admittedly delicious Citra/Mosiac combo. Hop growers are selecting for varietals with tropical fruit flavors. As these new varieties are used in beers, they do make fruity and juicy IPAs. I am sure there are drinkers that can, or at least think they can pick out unique flavors from all of these hop varietals. There are plenty of times that I can't.

It would be easy to fall into the trap of blaming NEIPA for everything I don't like about beer in 2021. Breweries are business and brewers have stakeholders they are responsible to. Instead of complaining about NEIPA, I go out of my way to buy other styles I like when I see them. That's also a big reason why after three and a half years in the industry I have never fallen out of love with homebrewing. If I wan't variety, I can brew it myself. I am finally at a point where I have the knowledge and equipment to brew almost any kind of beer that I want.

Just because I don't drink New England IPA as much as I used to, doesn't mean I don't drink it at all. When I am in the mood, I still enjoy a well-made example. While I am working to get healthier, Jennie will offer me a sip of her beer which is usually hazy and hoppy. Sometimes the beer is great; other times she asks for help identifying an off flavor.

For the most part what is gone for me is the love. It's rare that I pour a hazy IPA, take a whiff of hop aroma, and feel close to the same excitement that I used to. 

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Monday, February 1, 2021

Revisiting beer, food and health

Originally I was merely going to reshare this post from 2015 on my Facebook page along with a quick update. As I was writing the post on Facebook my commentary was starting to get a little long. Instead of reposting, this is a topic that needed to be revisited in full. 

Plenty has changed for me since I wrote that post in 2015. I never did achieve much consistency with diet and exercise. At one point in 2016 I was starting to get back into a nice groove with exercise. The company I worked for at the time would have fitness activities all the time. I was making it to the gym at least somewhat regularly. Then in fall of 2016 I slipped chasing a train and tore my left rotator cuff. I didn't need surgery, but I needed months of physical therapy to regain rage of motion and try to build strength. 

By the time my shoulder started to feel better, I took my current position with Muntons. I went from 8-5 at an office to a job that required lots of travel and visiting breweries. By 2019 I was as heavy as I ever have been. Early that year I knew I needed to do something. I needed to get the food under control, and find an exercise program I could do anywhere. I started DDP Yoga when Chris Jericho mentioned on his podcast that he could do the workouts in a hotel room. I was doing really well for about three months until I tweaked my shoulder again. After a month back in physical therapy my shoulder was fine, but I had lost my focus.

By the time the pandemic hit I had given back all of my progress from 2019. For awhile I was going on long walks and shorter run/walk intervals just to get out of the house. The consistency still wasn't there. By the time the weather was starting to cool, I didn't want to go outside. 

By December I realized I had wasted all of this time I had at home. Instead of waiting for the New Year, I decided I needed to exercise and I needed to start right away. I have been doing DDP Yoga workouts 3-4 times per week. The key has been to play it extra safe with my shoulder. I stared over-modifying a lot of the movements. There were a few times I cut workouts short when my shoulder started to feel sore. I feel like I am slowly starting to rebuild strength and flexibility. 

One goal I have is to try playing golf again. I was invited to play in a tournament by a customer a couple of years ago. When I tried one practice swing without holding a club, my shoulder was immediately sore. If I can get through a bucket of balls at the range or even a round I'll know I'm doing well. If I can play without pain I can worry about not sucking. 

As much as DDPY helps burn fat, improve flexibility, and build strength, I've always missed higher intensity workouts. I missed the feeling I had after a CrossFit WOD: completely exhausted after giving maximum effort. When I work out I like to feel like I pushed myself. I have been working in 1-2 HIIT, Tabata, or home WOD workouts per week to replicate that feeling the best I can at home. I purchased an ab mat so for sit ups and a pull-up bar with plenty of bands to try and get my pull-up back. 

The deal I made with myself is that I would start exercising immediately in December and start attacking the food after the holidays. I have been journaling my food as a way to keep myself accountable and to stay on track. 

One of the things Diamond Dallas Page talks about in the DDP Yoga program is goal setting. I didn't necessarily start with a goal in December, but after a week or so eating better I wrote down what my goal was. 

I want to fit into a men's large size t-shirt again by Memorial Day

That is a very aggressive goal. The last time I fit into a large was probably 2012, or maybe a brief period in 2014. What is the point of setting goals if they are not ambitious?  I will probably need to lose 15 pounds per month between now and then depending on how much muscle I build. Looking at my belly that's probably a fair estimate.

From the time I wrote my last post on this topic in 2015 until now, there probably hasn't been a day I didn't regret getting healthy only to give it all back. I am trying to imagine myself looking my best, but most importantly feeling my best as the summer rolls around. Maybe I can get a new headshot for work with one less chin!

The only way to aggressively burn the fat that I want to burn in the timeframe I want to do it in is to run aggressive calorie deficits. That does not leave a lot of room for a 16-ounce NEIPA coming in at 300 calories. In January I drank five beers all month. Coincidentally or not I went two months without brewing a batch. My last batch was Pa's Lager weighing in at 5.3% ABV, and 170 calories for 12 ounces. 

There are plenty of people who drank more than five beers this month that are not overweight. I am sure there are people who are able to enjoy the occasional pizza, or burger and fries that are generally healthy. Once I achieve my goals, I want to be one of those people. I want to be a healthy person that can also enjoy life. This video by YouTuber Adam Ragusea really captures what I am going for here. To do that I need to catch myself if the occasional indulgence becomes more frequent.

The key is going to be to not lose focus. When I do reach my goal, I need to continue monitoring my weight and how my clothes fit. If I start slipping, I need to tighten up sooner and not continue to slip for months and years. Developing a routine I can do at home, or do anywhere at any time will help me stay on course and eliminate excuses. 

I have 18 weeks from now until Memorial Day to get after it. 

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