Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Brew Day: Curly’s Pumpkin Milk Stout

I gave up on being trendy a long time ago. When I was 14 I realized I would never be cool, and socially only aspired to be left alone most of the time. At 34, I find being purposely uncool kind of amusing. Case in point, I refused to use emojis until very recently. Now that everybody uses them, I try to use them as obnoxiously as possible. When Jennie asks if I want Chipotle for dinner, I might respond with several thumbs up emojis, several burrito emojis, and several eggplant emojis. To wit, when I suggested a Pumpkin Milk Stout, Jennie’s response was “pumpkin spice is so 2014″. At that point she may as well have put the squirt gun emoji to my head. I had to brew this!

To Jennie’s point, the sales of pumpkin beer are down substantially. The market finally reached a point of saturation last year.


My last batch of Curly’s Milk Stout was a dud. There was something off about the flavor. I entered it into a competition where it scored quite poorly. The judges remarked that the beer was phenolic. My guess is that the batch was infected. I still haven’t tasted the coffee or chocolate variants from that batch.

After taking 2015 off from pumpkin beer and the hassle involved with brewing with fresh pumpkin it is time to brew one again fall. There are commercially available pumpkin milk stouts out there, but it is not nearly as ubiquitous as the lightly hopped amber pumplin ales that are everywhere.

The first thing I did was revisit the recipe for Curly’s Milk Stout that would be the base beer. Each batch has been slightly different than the last as I sought to perfect the beer. Recently I drank the last bottle from the original one-gallon batch as part of a vertical of all of the batches of Curly that I have brewed. At the end Jennie and I both agreed that the first batch was the best batch.

With beer and with life it is easy to be carried away with trying to improve things. After too many small improvements, it is easy to lose your way. Sometimes when something is lacking or deficient, it is better to just start over with a clean slate which is exactly what I did.


Curly’s Milk Stout was always an amalgam of English and American ingredients. The first thing I decided was I wanted all of the ingredients to be American. I replaced the English Fuggle with American Willamette hops. I simplified what had become an overly complicated grist: clean American 2-row barley as the base, Caramel 40 for body and a medium caramel flavor to compliment the sweetness from the lactose, Chocolate Malt for a light roasted character, and a small addition de-husked Blackprinz malt for color without adding an excessive roasted flavor.

For my yeast I didn’t want anything too floral or malty like WLP029 Burton Ale and 1318 London Ale III that I have used in earlier batches. I also wanted something with a little more character than Chico, so I went with one of my favorite yeasts 1272 American Ale II. The 1272 strain also doesn’t finish quite as dry as Chico which I think will work well here.


I purchased two sugar pumpkins at a local farm. Jennie helped carve the pumpkins and discard the innards. We roasted the pumpkin wedges and added them directly to the mash. Pumpkin can be treated like any other un-malted adjunct in that any extra enzymes in the grain will help convert the starches in the pumpkin into fermentable sugars. With my small partial mash and high percentage of pumpkin in the grist, some higher enzyme 6-row malt might have been a better choice.

IMG_0751  IMG_0755

It is so easy to go overboard adding too many different spices and/or adding too much spice. In our experience cinnamon sticks and pre-packaged “spice blends” available at homebrew shops can be too much and throw off the balance.  I reviewed the recipe from the last pumpkin beer we made, Pennant Race Pumpkin Wheat as I felt we had really dialed in the spice additions. I used the same ratio of the different spices relative to each other, but I did increase the amount of spices slightly because this beer is both a darker and hoppier beer than the pumpkin wheat.


When I sealed the fermenter the beer smelled amazing! My yeast starter wasn’t ready to pitch until the morning after brew day which also gave the wort some extra time to get down to pitching temperature. When I peeled back the lid to add the yeast the wort smelled so rich and malty. After two weeks I will rack the beer, taste a sample and decide if I want to add a vanilla bean.

Shipyard plans to keep Pumpkinhead on shelves well into winter, describing it as a “perfect Christmas beer”. The spices one might use in a pumpkin beer, and the spices a brewer might use in a spiced winter ale are actually quite similar. Is nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and clove out of place in a winter beer?

I planned to brew this beer at least two weeks earlier before I injured my left rotator cuff.  As a result this beer won’t quite be ready for Halloween, but we will have plenty for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. On brew day, in addition to carving the pumpkin, I needed Jennie’s help milling the grain and lifting the grain bag out of my 8-gallon kettle. This is the first five gallon batch that we’ve brewed just for us, as opposed for some type of event, in a long time.

See the full recipe here
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Monday, October 17, 2016

Re-Taking the BJCP Beer Judging Examination

I first took the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Beer Judging Examination almost two years ago. At that point I had judged in three competitions as a Novice judge. I crammed for all of 17 days from the time I took the initial online exam until I took the tasting exam, and managed to pass with a 65. The whole experience was like high school all over again.

My score along with my level of experience at that time earned me the rank of Recognized. Since then others who are not familiar with the BJCP’s ranks have referred to me as a “Certified” judge. I am certified in the sense that I have a certificate, but the rank of Recognized is actually below the rank of Certified.

To move up in rank I need to obtain 5.0 experience points from judging in BJCP competitions, and earn a score of 70 on the tasting exam. In the past two years I had judged locally in Boston, Lowell, and Rhode Island, as well as at the National Homebrew Competition. With the required experience points in the bag, to move up in rank I need to retake the tasting exam and improve my score.

Late April I was scanning the BJCP website curious to see if there were any local exams on the calendar. Sure enough there was an exam on the agenda for the fall. I emailed the organizer Jennifer Pereira, who also organized the Ocean State Homebrew Competition, and reserved my spot. Like the Ocean State competition, the exam was at the Isle Brewers Guild, future home of the Narragansett Brewery and Newburyport Brewing Company‘s sister brewery.


After I took the tasting exam in 2014 I learned that most other judges spend a lot more time studying for the exam than I did. In my mind I was going to use the period of time to really buckle down and study. In reality I almost forgot that I registered. Sometime last month I checked my calendar to remember exactly when the exam was and started to study in between work, watching baseball, social media, and playing games on my phone.

My weakness when I took the exam in 2014 was the depth of my knowledge of the various styles. I remember not being sure if diacetyl is appropriate in a Dry Irish Stout (it isn’t). I did review the style guidelines several times, if not quite enough to have all of the styles completely memorized. I have also been working on finishing How to Brew per the recommended study I received with my 2014 exam score. Brad Smith’s seminar on off-flavors at Homebrew Con was also a great review of the various off-flavors that can be found in beer and the causes of them.

Most importantly I have judged a lot more since first taking the exam. Judging different styles is a great way to learn about them. The guidelines are right there to reference before tasting each beer. Tasting numerous examples of a style gives the judge an opportunity to taste different interpretations and to really appreciate the breadth of of a style. I have also been able to work with and learn from a lot of experienced and higher ranking judges.

I hope that experience makes the difference. From pulling up with the other judges after the exam was done, and learning from Jennifer what the beers we tasted were, I think I did okay. All I have to do is improve by five points which shouldn’t be that hard.

If I obtain the rank of Certified, I think that will be it for me. The next highest rank is National which requires 20 experience points, a score of 80 on the BJCP Beer Judging Examination, and pass the Beer Judge Written Proficiency Examination which includes five essay questions. Yeah, I can’t even….

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Is Big Beer trying to take over homebrew?

Northern Brewer, perhaps the largest homebrew supply shop and website in America has been acquired by ZX Ventures, a global incubator and venture capital arm of AB InBev (AB). Rumors have been circulating for a week or so, and now they have been confirmed.

The American Homebrewers Association (AHA) estimates there are 1.2 million homebrewers in the US. The 1.2 million run the gamut in dedication from brewers like me who brew once or twice a month, those more advanced than me who spend thousands on equipment, to those who might brew a can extract kit once a year.

Homebrewing and craft beer certainly have a chicken and egg relationship. Jim Koch famously brewed his first batch of Boston Lager in his kitchen and many other craft brewers started the same way. And as craft beer has exploded, it has inspired more people to start homebrewing.

While homebrewing has grown exponentially since it was legalized in 1978, over the past few years it’s popularity has shown some signs of softening. The AHA’s membership has declined slightly from previous all-time highs. The AHA reports softening in sales at retail shops. This could be due to more brewers brewing all-grain which is less expensive than brewing with malt extract. Brewers could also be brewing less often. The hobby reached it’s apex of popularity after the last recession. As the economy has recovered and people have gone back to work, people are brewing less.

Which is to say that it is curious that AB would want to buy into a niche market like homebrewing. If Northern Brewer could use AB’s purchasing power and scale to buy ingredients, not only would that help Northern Brewer’s profit margin, but Northern Brewer could undercut their competitors’ prices for ingredients.

Surely Northern Brewer’s marriage with big beer will cause many homebrewers to buy their supplies elsewhere, just as there are beer drinkers who refuse to drink brands like Goose Island or Lagunitas that are bought out by a macro brewer. A lot of brewers also prefer supporting their local shop as opposed to buying ingredients online. A move like this would only stiffen their resolve.

I probably buy about half of my ingredients at local shops and the other half online. Where I buy my ingredients depends on what supplier has what I need, if there is a sale going on, or my schedule. There are times I need ingredients the same day, while there are also times when I don’t have time to drive to a local shop. Sometimes one shop or one website has one thing I need. From there I will buy ingredients for my next several bathes to qualify for free shipping, or if I drive to a shop I feel like it is a more efficient use of my time and gas if I guy a lot of stuff. Rationalization is a powerful thing.

I’ve only ordered from Northern Brewer once in 2016, but it was my go-to online supplier for a long time. I’ve brewed three Northern Brewer kits for the blog, Australian Sparkling Ale, Plinian Legacy, and Dawson’s Kriek.  When I brewed a lot of extract and partial mash batches, I really liked Northern Brewer’s selection of malt extract. In my experience their customer service has been outstanding. One time I placed a particularly large order and one bag of hops was missing. Not only did they send the missing hops via 2-day shipping, the sent a note and a Northern Brewer glass.

As a brewer and a customer I’ll probably take a wait and see approach to see if I will still shop there. If Northern Brewer’s quality and quality of service under AB is on par with the taste of a Lime-A-Rita, I won’t shop there. I am more ambivalent than most on the influence of big beer in the marketplace than most.

This move is more concerning for me than AB’s brewery acquisitions because the homebrew marketplace may be easier to monopolize than the beer marketplace. It is easier to make a more flavorful beer than Bud Light and compete on quality. How can the other homebrew retailers compete when they are selling the same malt and hops as a conglomerate? The key for any business is finding a niche. That may be more important than ever for Northern Brewer’s competitors.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Tasting Notes – Catching up on past beers Part I

When I started the blog I would write a brew day post that would be published shortly after brewing the batch. Afterward I would publish a tasting notes post where I would publish some detailed thoughts on the beer.

My favorite part of being a brewer is designing recipes and brewing the beer. Often after I brew the beer, and sometimes even before I actually get to brewing a batch, I have already lost some enthusiasm for the beer and I have already shifted my attention to my next batch.

This loss of enthusiasm, along with the fact that when I do drink the beer I like to just enjoy it without over-analyzing it, has made me lag far behind in publishing tasting notes. Below I will catch up on the beers I have brewed in 2016 that haven’t received a full tasting notes column.

These impressions are based on recollections that are weeks and months old. In some cases I was able to view Untappd comments to jog my memory.


Wisconsin Belgian Red Clone – I am almost positive I still have about 12 bottles of this beer in my apartment somewhere that I can’t find them for the life of me. When it came time to buy the cherry juice I bought black cherry instead of tart cherry juice. This gave my beer a sweeter cherry flavor than the original. The keg didn’t quite kick at the cookout I brought it to, so I brought the rest to my gym for our Memorial Day Murph workout.

It isn’t a fruit-bomb like New Glarus’ beer, but the fruit flavor was prominent.  When I served it on draught the beer tasted like it could have used another week or so to naturally condition in the keg.  I really hope I can find those bottles as they should be carbonated nicely by now. As it is the beer was good, not great. Rating 3.5 out of 5.


Westbrook Gose Clone – I had a full tasting notes post written and ready to go for this beer. Once I hit “Submit”, it all went blank. I had an earlier draft saved, but I was too filled with rage to finish it again, add all of the photos again, and inbed all of the links again. I was literally screaming at my computer. I wasn’t this angry when David Tyree caught that pass against his helmet.

I brought several bottles to a summer cookout. Luckily for me someone there had cans of Westbrook Key Lime Pie Gose which enabled me to do something of a side-by-side. For a home-brewed batch that I nearly ruined, my beer was pretty close. The Westbrook can had a brighter sourness. I am not sure if this is down to that beer being naturally soured, while my beer was soured with lactic acid. My other thought is that my beer was more oxidized than the canned commercial beer.

This is definitely on my mental list of beers to brew again. In addition to the Key Lime Pie Gose, Westbrook also released a Mojito Gose aged in rum barrels, which was then infused with lime and mint. I would love to make a split batch of a regular gose, and some type of flavored variant. Rating 4 out of 5.

Camp Randall Red IPA (Barrel House Z Launch Pad Competition) – Although this was not an official BJCP competition, the guys at Barrel House Z did fill out score sheets to give their thoughts on the beer. I rushed to brew this batch for the competition which was unfortunately reflected in the feedback I received.

The beer was phenolic and over-carbonated. The batch was more than likely infected. It was also yeasty with all kinds of floating particles. Using a highly floccuating yeast like SO4, that should not happen.

Needless to say this was a major disappointment. If my brewing process was better with this batch, this beer would have been exactly what they were looking for. Instead this was a poor representation of my brewing. I wish I could have entered the original batch I brewed in 2015. Rating 2.5 out of 5.

Later this week I’ll publish Part II with thoughts on some more of my beers from 2016.

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