Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Brew Day: Sean Claude Van Damme (Mixed Style Beer)

This beer came together quickly due to a confluence of factors. A few months back I decided I wanted to perfect a recipe for an English bitter. At the time I was brewing mostly one gallon batches. My first bitter recipe became infected. I ordered a couple pounds of Halcyon malt, which allegedly has a "sharper" flavor than Maris Otter, the British base malt I typically use in English styles that I brew. I was curious to see how the flavor might be different. Suffice to say, I never got around to brewing the bitter.

Just a touch of roasted barley to help balance the malt sweetness.
Just a touch of roasted barley to help balance the malt sweetness.

I have two gallon BIAB tripel I plan to brew, but my BIAB bag finally bit the dust. After lots of use it developed several holes. I figured I could brew a one gallon batch and remove the grain from the mash with a strainer. Essentially it would be brew-in-a-bag without the bag. At that point it made sense to use the Halycon malt in my one gallon batch.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pumpkin beer, if you must

As a society it seems we are in a bit of a pumpkin craze. Pumpkins used to be for carving and the occasional pumpkin pie. Now in the fall pumpkin is everywhere. Pumpkin muffins, pumpkin spiced coffee, pumpkin lattes, and of course pumpkin beer.

Carving pumpkins work better to serve out of than as an ingredient.
Carving pumpkins work better to serve out of than as an ingredient.

In the craft beer world the proliferation of pumpkin beer is over the top. I know one Beverly beer and wine shop is purposely reducing their selection of pumpkin beer so as to not waste valuable shelf space on a bunch of pumpkin beers that all taste the same. There are only a couple pumpkin beers that stand out above the pack for me. Shipyard's Smashed Pumpkin is so vastly superior to the ubiquitous Pumpkinhead I have no desire to ever have the latter again. The same applies to another of my favorites, Harpoon's Imperial Pumpkin as it relates to the UFO Pumpkin. Pumpkin aficionados swear by Pumking, according to my notes and recollections I was lukewarm at best.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tasting Notes: Pinch Hit Belgian Pale Ale

I am not one to leave loyal readers of the blog hanging. I am sure you are all absolutely dying to know how the beers I have chronicled brewing in the blog actually taste. As we go I will be doing "Tasting Notes" posts where I share my thoughts on how the beers actually come out.

The Pinch Hit Belgian Pale Ale pours a light amber color. There is a small white head that fades quickly. Clarity is decent, I probably could have decanted from the bottle a little more carefully. In a bottle conditioned beer there will be sediment at the bottom of the bottle. It won't kill you, it's actually high in B Vitamins, but it will make the poured beer cloudy if you don't pour carefully.

Really nice color on this brew.

The aroma has hints of pear with an underlying malt sweetness. As I would expect from an extract beer, the beer is medium-bodied. Given the 4.56% alcohol by volume (ABV), the beer is quaffable and finishes just dry enough that you want another sip. I think I had just enough of a late hop addition to add flavor and complexity.

The Belgian Ardennes yeast flavor is front and center. There is a spiciness, and I detect a subtle banana flavor, but none of it takes away from the drinkability. For a style that is an "everyday" beer in the Flemish provinces of Belgium it's exactly as it should be. It's not exactly the most complex beer in the world, but it was exactly what I hoped it would be. It's a very good, very sessionable beer that I could drink all day. I shared a bottle this weekend at a get together and that seemed to be the consensus.

If anything, if I were to brew this again I might increase the ABV a touch to get it closer to 5.0%. The beer finished dark enough I could add a little more extract or base malt if I converted the recipe to all-grain. I am very happy with how it came out, and look forward to enjoying this beer over the next few months. Since it's a five gallon batch, I have plenty to enjoy and share.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Tips for homebrewing economically

Homebrewing can be as involving of a hobby as you want it to be. A simple starter kit with ingredients for your first batch requires a modest initial investment of around $100-$200. If you want to brew more than one batch at a time you will initially be looking to buy additional fermenters. There are other gadgets and accessories that while not entirely necessary that make the process easier and your beer better. If you then decide to take the leap to all-grain brewing or kegging the investment is even more significant. Here are some tips to save money as a homebrewer:

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Creating your own recipes

There are plenty of brewers who are more than content to brew kits. Some kits come with hopped extract and a sachet of dry yeast attached under the lid. There are also kits that come with a recipe and pre-measured and packaged ingredients. A colleague of mine brewed up Cooper's Mexican Cerveza, and said if he put a lime in it it was just like a Corona. He was perfectly happy with how it came out.
Homebrewing can be as involving as you want it to be. If you are a kit brewer you can make great beer at home and have fun doing it. I'll brew a kit if I stumble across something that looks interesting. However, if you are a kit brewer who is ready to dabble and make something your own, here's a good place to start.

For a novice it can be daunting to walk into a homebrew shop and see the myriad of different malts, hops, and yeasts. Our earliest recipes were the two of us wandering around the homebrew shop by dead reckoning trying to figure out what to buy. Sometimes I still do that. On a recent visit I left with ingredients thrown together for a Belgian Pale Ale and Belgian Style Dubbel. Eventually I started doing more homework when planning what I was going to brew.

Beyond throwing ingredients together and hoping for the best, a good starting point is to simply ask yourself what do you want your beer to taste like? If you're going to brew an American Pale Ale do you want it to be a balanced, almost English Pale Ale like a Shoals Pale Ale or Wachusett Country Pale Ale, or do you want to make a hoppy West Coast Pale Ale like a Sierra Nevada or Dale's Pale Ale? What I started doing was to research clone recipes for commercial beers to benchmark and to give me a starting-off point. If you Google "'Beer X' clone recipe" you should have no trouble finding results unless "Beer X" is new or obscure.

Now one of the first places I look when starting a new recipe from scratch are the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines. The BJCP description provides broad parameters of what the beer should taste, smell, and feel like, what ingredients to use and commercial examples. Unless you plan on entering a competition, don't feel shackled to the guidelines.

Once you have a broad idea of what ingredients you want to use and what you want the beer to taste like, there are several apps and websites you can use to calculate the alcohol by volume (ABV), estimated starting gravity and final gravity, bitterness, and even color. You can then adjust your malts and hops in your recipe to get it exactly the way you want it. If the app you're using does not have journaling or note-taking capability make sure to keep a manual journal. If it does, it's not a bad idea to print out the recipe with the notes and keeping them in a binder. Keep track of anything that may or may not be relevant on brew day, when racking, on bottling day, and of corse tasting notes. If your beer doesn't quite come out exactly how you had envisioned you have a better idea of what adjustments to make. If the beer is perfect you want to have as much information as possible to duplicate the results.

Whether you are making your own recipes or brewing kits, you want to brew with different malts, hops, and yeasts all the time. That is the best way to know first-hand how different ingredients will effect the finished beer. Once you have an understanding of different types of ingredients it is easier to make recipes with confidence.

As Charlie Papazian said, "Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew!" As long as your cleaning and sanitation are where they need to be what you make will be beer and taste like beer. If your first batch or first attempt at a particular style isn't what you had hoped, it's still a learning experience and a starting off point. Chances are if you have ever had Rolling Rock or Milwaukee's Best, whatever you make can't be worse!


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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Brew Day: Bill's Brown Ale (American Brown Ale)

Two years ago when I purchased my first homebrewing kit it came with a basic recipe for the first batch. I was given a choice between light, amber, and dark malt extract. I wasn't entirely sure what the difference was, but since I liked darker beers I got the dark extract. In addition to the rest of the kit the initial recipe was the extract, a pound of medium British crystal malt, one ounce of Cascade hops, some gypsum for water adjustment, and a sachet of Munton's yeast. The kit also came with Charlie Papazian's Complete Joy of Homebrewing.

The instructions in the kit matched the instructions in the book for brewing a first extract batch. In the book Papazian said adding molasses to beer would make it taste like Old Peculier and suggested using 1/4 cup of molasses for priming at bottling. I love Old Peculier and wanted to make my first beer a little different so we primed with molasses and our first beer came out excellent!

After gaining some brewing experience we wanted to improve on that first batch. We changed very little to the original recipe. I steeped some honey malt along with the crystal, and added Willamette finishing hops to add flavor and aroma. I was fairly happy with how the beer came out. I entered it into a competition where it scored a 30 out of 50, in the "very good" range. What prevented it from scoring higher was that it lacked a roasty or nutty character that a great brown ale should have.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Bottling: because you have to put your beer in something

Almost all beginning homebrewers start out bottling their beer. It is the least expensive way to package and carbonate your beer. My first kit came with a bottling wand that had a spring loaded tip to regulate and slow the flow of the beer into bottles, bottle caps, and a capper to crimp the caps over the top of the bottle. 
The neatest way to bottle homebrew.

At bottling a small amount of additional sugar called priming sugar is added to the wort. This additional sugar is fermented inside the bottle. Since the bottle is capped, the CO2 produced is trapped inside the bottle and absorbed into the beer. This is called bottle conditioning. Most traditional Belgian brewers and several American craft brewers (notably Brooklyn Brewery) use this traditional method.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Going from homebrewer to pro brewer

"When are you going to start selling?" "I know a guy who runs one of the biggest beer distributors in New England." "Hey, if you are serious about your brew, hit me up. I have some amazing space that would make for a great first brewery..."

These are all questions I've gotten from my amazing and well-meaning friends. It's one thing to enjoy baking and sell cupcakes as a side business, it's quite another to love beer and open a brewery or even become a "gypsy brewer". When people ask about going pro it's easy to shrug it off or come up with a non-answer. When a journalist asks that question needing a quote, not so much. Sarah Thomas asked me that question on the record, a question I had been asked tens of times, in her profile for The Beverly Citizen, and I struggled to come up with a clear and concise answer.