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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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.

View the recipe here

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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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Using the wayback machine for some recipe research

My homegrown hops are almost ready for harvest. In particular my Northern Brewer plant in its second year is yielding even more cones and is taking over two maple saplings in my neighbors yard. The cones will be ready to pick very soon.

As much as I'd like to brew another batch of Uncommon Harvest, I have a vial of the limited edition White Labs 006 Bedford British Ale that was just released from the White Labs Vault. While thinking of what beer I could use with that yeast and my homegrown Northern Brewer.

Almost forgotten now, Pete's Wicked Ale was one of the first prominent craft beers in the 1980s and 1990s. The brand was sold and died a slow death before being discontinued in 2011. The beer was a brown ale, a style that could work with the ingredients I want to use. Yes, I wanted to do another beer inspired by a 1990s recipe.  In my mind I thought that Pete's Wicked Ale was flavored with Northern Brewer hops.

Brew Your Own published a recipe ($) that called for Northern Brewer for bittering and Brewers Gold for the flavor addition. Most of the other clones and descriptions of the beer that I found highlighted that Brewers Gold was the flavor hop.

To confirm this I looked up the old Pete's Wicked website via the web archive.

It's not a suprise my memory was off. Incidentally I did buy a Brewer's Gold plant earlier this year. The plant didn't really take off until I moved and replanted it in a new spot. With any luck I'll have some homegrown Brewers Gold next year that I can use in a true clone of Pete's Wicked Ale. I could also use them for some other historical recipes.

Like many beers, the recipe for Pete's Wicked Ale may have changed over time. I can't imagine making a brown ale with only pale and caramel malt. If I were to freestyle a guess, maybe the new owners tried to make the beer lighter in color. Another clone I found in the AHA thread is allegedly the original recipe from Pete. Maybe I will give that recipe a try next year. I am intrigued by the stupid amount of crystal malt.

The plan is to still do a brown ale with my Northern Brewer. One not inspired by Pete's Wicked Ale, even though I could make a reasonable approximation with Northern Brewer hops. Considering I never tasted the beer before it was discontinued, let alone in it's hey day, a clone should probably be as close as I can make it.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Talking Malts with Special Co-Host Jason Chalifour from Muntons -- Ep. 144

A bit late in sharing this, but I had a lot of fun co-hosting the Homebrew Happy Hour postcast with Josh. We talked a bit about Muntons Brewery-in-a-Bag kits.

I will have to send him my definitive guide to seasonal beer.

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Monday, July 22, 2019

Brew Day: Old North Shore Ale (American Amber Ale)

When I attempted to recreate the classic recipe for Samuel Adams Summer Ale, I may have come off as the old man yelling at a cloud. With this brew you may think I am doubling down on my malcontentment.

Image result for shoals pale ale
Shoals was typical of New England craft beers 25 years ago. Sad to see it go. 

Recently I was disappointed to learn that Smuttynose is discontinuing Shoals Pale Ale. Sadly for me the English-inspired pale ales that helped start the craft beer movement are being hazed out so to speak. Even Goose Island isn't bottling Honkers Ale anymore. Smutty's problems were far more pronounced when they decided to pull the plug on Shoals than Boston Beer's were when it changed the recipe for Sam Summer. I am not going to show up to their previously over-leveraged brewery with a pitchfork, but I am sad to see Shoals go.

When I saw Shoals was going away, I wanted to come up with a recipe that was at least inspired by it, if not an outright clone. Then at a Northshore Brewers meeting, the topic of the club's 25th anniversary party came up and I was asked if I would brew something for the event.

The club's anniversary felt like the perfect time to brew an English-inspired ale. When the club was founded in 1994 these were the type of beers that were being brewed at 'microbreweries' and brewpubs. Malty and darker ales, or at least beers darker in color than urine, were positioned as an answer to big beer.  Having enjoyed beers brewed by some of the long-time members of the club, I am comfortable saying these were the type of beers brewed in the early days of the club.

Like the best early craft beers made in New England, Old North Shore Ale uses a base of the finest British malts; Muntons Planet Pale, Caramalt 30 (15L), Crystal 150 (60L), and a pinch of Chocolate Malt. "Malt backbone" might be one of the most tired flavor descriptors in beer. Well, this beer is going to have one!

For hops I am using Chinook and Cascade hops grown on the North Shore. Ok Amesbury, which is pretty close to the North Shore. I was given these hops when I bought some second-hand glass carboys. What better hops for a North Shore ale?

Using whole cone hops is itself more traditional, but it does present some challenges that modern hop pellets do not. At the end of the boil, the cones clogged the ball valve on my kettle. I had to siphon most of the wort into the fermenter. As I got toward the bottom of the kettle, I poured the wort through a funnel with a screen, which kept getting clogged. Next time I use whole hops I will be sure to use a bag.

For yeast I am using WLP008 East Coast Ale yeast. It is not as dry and has a touch more character than most American Ale strains. It was easy to repitch some slurry from OG Sam Summer right into my fermenter. The re-pitched yeast took off like a rocket. Krausen formed within three hours, and the temperature was up to 90 degrees. I covered my fermenter with a wet t-shirt, and left it outside overnight. By the next morning the temperature was back under control.

Following another traditional method, after two weeks I racked the beer to a secondary fermenter. I have always thought racking improved clarity of my beers. The WLP008 really doesn't like to flocculate. With this batch and OG Sam Summer the beer was quite hazy after primary fermentation with a layer of yeast stubbornly floating at the top.  Here is a pic of OG Sam Summer which went from the primary directly to the keg:

Wheat beer is supposed to be hazy. I think this looks sexy.
Old North Shore Ale had a similar haze after primary fermentation. Here is how the beer looks after 10 days in the secondary:

Noticeably clearer and exactly what I was going for.
As a traditional craft beer evocative of a bygone era I wanted the beer to be reasonably clear. The slight haze gives it a characteristic "unfiltered" look. Not only were copper-colored ales novel 25 years ago, unfiltered beer was too.

That time in the secondary really gave the beer needed time to condition. The samples I tasted when racking were very bitter and green. When I tasted the beer again before packaging it had smoothed out considerably. I imagined the beer as pale ale, but it really straddles the line between a pale and amber ale in terms of balance.  It could almost pass as an ESB if the American hop flavor was less pronounced. If I wanted to make this more of a pale ale I could easily dry hop it, but I enjoyed the samples exactly as it was.

At packaging I added some priming sugar to a keg to naturally carbonate the beer. It seemed like another nod to traditional. My keezer was also full.

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Friday, July 5, 2019

Brew Day: Free Shipping Fest (Marzen 6A)

Sometimes events unfold independently of each other that all contribute to a singular result. Years ago, when I was still living in an apartment with no yard and brewing on a stove, I received a free propane burner with a purchase from Northern Brewer.

Years later I was using that propane burner at my new home. I let the gas line get a little too close to the flame and the gas line started to melt. I needed a new gas line, but the only place I could get one was from Northern Brewer.

This occurred after I started working for Muntons. I use at least some of our malt in all of my beers, and most of my brews are 100% Muntons Malt. For base malts I keep a bin of our Pale Ale, Pilsner, Maris Otter Pale, Super Pale, and Wheat Malt. I can brew almost any style with these base malts. Notable exceptions are German styles that require Munich or Vienna malts. Muntons makes outstanding Munich and Vienna malts. I will likely pick up a sack of Munich next time I make it to our warehouse.

One style I have always wanted to brew is an authentic Oktoberfest. Also known as Marzen, German for March, the beer was traditionally brewed in March and then lagered over the summer before being served in the fall. When I brewed my Oktoberfest I wanted to brew it in March and lager it in a similar manner as opposed to trying to brew a mock-Oktoberfest as an ale.

Since I needed to buy a replacement gas line from Northern Brewer, I may as well tack on ingredients for an Oktoberfest so my order would qualify for flat rate shipping.  As I put my order together I thought it would be fun to brew my beer with malt extracts Muntons does not currently make. I ordered Northern Brewer's Munich liquid malt extract and Briess' Pilsen dry malt extract. Competitive intelligence never hurts!

As I put my recipe together I added some Muntons crystal malt to steep. For hops I used two of my favorite American hops with European ancestry: Northern Brewer and Crystal. Other than the bit of British Crystal, this German lager is pretty American.

The brew day was simple enough. While doing other tasks around the brewery I discovered one of my kegs was leaking beer. I ended up emptying my keezer and giving it a good cleaning. I then kegged two batches I brewed for NHC. For an extract brew day I was pretty flipping busy!

Brewed in March, this was the last lager I was able to squeeze in before the weather started to warm up. I did taste test the beer with my colleague Daniel before putting it into a keg and the consensus was that it is pretty good. The keg is tucked into my keezer, waiting to be force-carbonated until the appropriate time.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Brew Day: OG Sam Summer (29B Fruit and Spice Beer)

Image result for sam summer ale
Nice of Boston Beer to so perfectly describe the recipe!

Ten years ago the legendary "Rock of Boston" WBCN went off the air. When it happened it was a bit of a shock to me. Toward the end of its run, I had taken my first cubicle job where I could listen to music at work, and rediscovered the station. 'BCN felt like it would be around forever. That was what my dad listened to in the car when I would tag along with him to jobs. My uncle Mike grew up on 'BCN in the '70s, and stayed with the station all through the '90s as they continued to play new artists as opposed to growing with their original audience. During my formative years the station played the bands I loved to listen to in high school and college.

Essentially the station changed formats and became a sports radio station. The morning DJs Toucher and Rich stayed on after the format change. I remember at that time Rich Shertenlieb of Toucher and Rich comparing WBCN to a restaurant everyone said they loved, but not enough people went to anymore to keep in business.

Samuel Adams Summer Ale was one of my formative craft beers. Not only was it one of the first craft beers I can remember really loving, I have so many fond memories associated with Sam Summer. As I think about those memories, most of them were in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Since that time there has been an explosion in the number of beers and craft breweries. To say nothing of New England IPA.

In recent years I still enjoyed Sam Summer at Fenway Park, and would make it a point to buy it once or twice over the course of the  ̶s̶p̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ summer. That said, Sam Summer wasn't the mainstay in my fridge it once was.

I am hardly alone in that regard. Boston Beer has had to grapple with declining sales of its seasonal beers, Sam Summer included. Like the radio executives that took WBCN off the air, Boston Beer couldn't keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. This year Sam Adams changed the recipe for Summer Ale for the first time in 23 years. The new recipe has a lot more fruit and citrus. The way I read the description, the beer is designed to be more quaffable.

As an avowed capitalist and beer industry professional I completely understand why Boston Beer did what they did. Beer drinkers like me are responsible for Boston Beer feeling the need to do something. That doesn't mean I was ready to see a beer that meant so much to me go the way of WBCN. I wanted to preserve the classic recipe, or at least brew a beer inspired by the classic recipe I loved so much.

The base beer was an American Wheat Beer, with lemon zest and grains of paradise adding the summery taste. Doing some additional research I found the beer was hopped with the same Hallertau Mittelfrueh as Boston Lager, and was a shockingly low 7 IBUs. The lemon and grains of paradise do most of the heavy lifting in terms of balancing the malt.

I was of two minds for the grist. Muntons Pilsner Malt would have been an excellent choice as the base malt. Knowing Boston Beer uses North American base malt almost exclusively, I decided to use Mapleton Pale malt from Maine Malt House. I visited the malthouse in January, a horrible time to  almost drive toto Canada, and was able to tour the malthouse with the Buck family who owns and operates it. This was a perfect time to use their malt.

Very happy with the crush and had a smooth runoff. 

I went with a grist of 2/3 Mapleton Pale and 1/3 Muntons Malted Wheat. I had a beautiful crush and yield with the Maine Malt. I am sure this will be a great base for my beer, and any upcoming brews where I need a North American base malt.

This dehydrated lemon is imported from Spain.
1 oz of hops, one pack of yeast. Those seeds of paradise are also really small and can be tricky to grind 

For the lemon, I used dehydrated lemon flesh sourced from Maltwerks, a company we partner with at Muntons. The dehydrated flesh is more potent than dried peel. I used 2/3 oz of dehydrated lemon along with 2 grams of grains of paradise. For my yeast I used a strain I haven't used in far too long: White Labs 008 East Coast Ale yeast. I have seen this yeast strain referred to as the "Brewer Patriot" yeast. That should work just fine here I think.

I picked a perfect day to brew outside. Even though it would have been faster to brew with my propane burner, I used my electric Mash & Boil for a couple of reasons. There is something to be said for using the same system for each batch to try and gain some consistency. I was also out of propane and am lazy.

As New England IPA becomes almost a monoculture, I find myself wanting to brew the styles and beers that were prevalent in the 1990s and 2000s. Commercial brewers have to brew what sells. As they do that, I feel like the classics are falling by the wayside. Fortunately homebrewers have total freedom to brew the beer we want to drink!

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Friday, May 31, 2019

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Homebrewing doesn't have to be pro brewing cosplay

I have been guilty of this myself. Wake up on a brew day, throw on a brewery-branded Dickie's work shirt, and commence a five hour brew day or eight hour double brew day. As I have embarked on my journey as a brewer I have adapted practices and applied theories developed in professional brewing in my own brewing.

Now there is equipment made for homebrewers that is basically scaled down versions of professional equipment. There are turnkey brewing systems with pumps, controllers and chillers that wouldn't look out of place at a nanobrewery. Homebrewers can turn their basements into forests of stainless steel conicals. If you have enough stainless fermenters it only makes sense to hook your fermenters up to a glycol chiller. And to cosplay for your family and friends who may not visit your home brewery, more brewers are buying a can seamer to you can hand out cans of homebrew just like more and more commercial breweries are doing.

There is nothing wrong with any of the above by the way. We all do it for the same reasons: brew better beer! Over the years the quality and consistency of my beer has improved. That is not to say all of the above is necessary to brew great beer and improve as a brewer.

In college my major was sport management. In a sports marketing class one of the concepts discussed was a ladder of fandom. On the bottom wrung might be the person who isn't a fan of the team or property you are marketing, but might go to an game or event socially. The next step up might be the casual fan who goes to a couple of game a year and watches once in awhile on TV. The idea is the higher up on the ladder, the more loyal and attached that fan is.

Let's apply that ladder concept to homebrewing. On the bottom rung is probably a beer drinker that is intrigued by the idea of making their own beer. The next step is would be the kit brewer that makes beer kits made with hopped malt extract. When I started brewing I started on the second rung, brewing with un-hopped malt extract and steeped specialty grains. Staying with the concept, the next rung would be extract brewing with a full boil which typically requires a separate burner and wort chiller. Next would be partial mash, then all-grain at the top. The way the hobby has evolved more and more brewers are starting with all-grain brewing, or at least racing to the top of the ladder as fast as they can.

In sports marketing as fans climb the ladder they become more engaged with a team or sport. With homebrewing that distinction isn't as clear. The homebrewer that climbs the ladder certainly gains knowledge about the brewing process. Armed with the right information they have more control over the beer that they brew. My question is does a longer, more complicated, and often more expensive process make these brewers more engaged?

In a lot of cases the answer is yes. I know plenty of brewers that are brewing new beers all the time. When I see them post on social media they have a new piece of gear in their home brewery. On the flip side, I know plenty of brewers that climbed the ladder, then things changed in their lives like work and family commitments. For them it became more difficult to make time for the five hour plus brew day, or spend money on more shiny equipment.

The innovations that homebrewing has seen in just the seven years I have been brewing have been tremendous. A lot of the high-end equipment I mentioned didn't exist back then. It does seem to me a lot of the innovation has been geared toward the brewers at the top of the ladder. Innovations geared toward the new brewer like PicoBrew, or new LG system do come with a higher price tag that may be more of a barrier to entry than the $100 starter kit you find at the homebrew shop.

Participation in homebrewing peaked in the early part of the decade and has been slowly declining ever since. Homebrewing is a hobby, and hobbies will naturally have peaks and troughs. In my role with Muntons I do speak with both online and brick and mortar retailers from time to time. People in the industry that I talk to are trying to find ways to get new people into the hobby, and keep more people engaged in the hobby. We as a community and as an industry need to embrace ways to keep the barrier to entry low, and make homebrewing easier for everyone to keep brewers involved.

It's not good for anyone if a person who is interested in making their own beer looks at what is involved in brewing and decides it's too much work, too complicated, or too expensive. You can make great beer in 15 minutes with a hopped extract kit. Anyone has time to do that! I couldn't be happier with how my Rundown Irish Red came out. I made that beer with extract and steeped specialty grains, the same process as my first ever batch.

I made an awesome batch the old-fashioned way!
I once described homebrewing to someone as like making pasta sauce. Extract brewing was like making your sauce with canned tomatoes, then adding your own spices and seasonings, while all-grain brewing was more like making sauce with all fresh tomatoes and vegetables. I don't know anyone who turns their nose up at a homemade Italian dinner because the tomatoes came out of a can.

I don't want to sound like I am schilling for beer kits and extract brewing because I work for a beer kit and malt extract manufacturer. Those are just two examples of how you can make great beer at home without playing pro-brewer. I've brewed award-winning beers using a brew-in-a-bag all grain and partial mash method. To date my only first place winner was a lager I brewed on my stove-top, and fermented at room temperature. About as easy and low-tech as all-grain brewing can get!

Denny Conn and Brew Beechum are releasing a book entitled Simple Homebrewing. I pre-ordered my copy and look forward to reading it. I think this is an important book and hope it starts a conversation in the community.

Homebrewing doesn't have to be as complex as commercial brewing, and that's a good thing! It is easy to forget how simple it can be to make great beer. One of the early credos of this space was the homebrewing can be as involved of a hobby as you want it to be. If the hobby becomes so involving that it eats itself that's not good for anyone.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Tasting Notes- Pulpwood Stacker (2C International Dark Lager)

Inspired by Leinenkugel's Creamy Dark. A smooth dark lager with just enough malt character to be interesting, but still approachable. Blows Negra Modello out of the water for me. I entered the beer into NHC, let's see how it does!

This was a bit of a re-brew. Last time I tried to brew a partial-mash version of this beer, the batch was infected and I had to dump it.

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Brew Day: Rundown Irish Red

Time goes by so fast. You only wanna do what you think is right. You know what doesn't feel right? That I haven't brewed either of my house Irish beers in a very long time. As I have started to circle back, I contemplated re-brewing my Spring Training Stout or Rundown Irish Red.

My other impetus for brewing these beers again is the fact that these style of beers are not as prevalent as they once were. At least not as prevalent in the portfolios of American craft brewers. Gentile Brewing in my hometown is an exception as they brew a year-round stout and seasonal Irish red.  Nowadays many craft stouts have some kind of adjunct like coffee, chocolate, vanilla, spices, and most are imperial in strength.

A subtle, slightly malty style like Irish Red couldn't be more different than say New England IPA. That doesn't give craft brewers impetus to brew them. Several examples are made with American malt. In a malt-driven style like this using authentic ingredients is critical. I've bought "Irish Red" ales that tasted like under-hopped American Amber Ales.

As I drink less these days, I didn't have room to put two Irish beers on tap. On tap right now I have Employee Orientation 102, the second runnings of a training beer I made with a colleague, and a re-brew of a dark lager Pulpwood Stacker. If I could only brew one, the Irish Red made the most sense.

I kicked the batch further old-school by brewing the beer with malt extract. Two cans of Muntons Maris Otter Pale extract to be exact with some steeped specialty grains. I brewed this batch the same day I brewed Thomas Brady's Ale. To heat my water for steeping my specialty grains I used the first gallon of water to come out of my immersion chiller as I started to chill my first batch. The water was piping hot and seemed to do the job just fine in terms of extracting flavor and color from my grains.

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Who needs a muslin bag?

From there I strained my specialty specialty grains and collected the wort in my Mash & Boil, topped off with more water, heated up the wort to near boiling temperature, and cut the heat before adding my malt extract. The idea is to not scorch the kettle or the extract. Also, the Mash & Boil has a breaker that shuts off if the water is too low to stop the unit from heating up when it's dry. I made sure my liquid extract was fully dissolved before powering back up to get to a boil.

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The same thing as using Maris Otter out of the sack, except I let my colleagues in Stowmarket
do the mashing for me. 

Every time I brew with malt extract I ask myself why I don't do it more often. Are there limitations that come with extract brewing? Yes, but every brewer has limitations of some kind. I visited a large brewery that had only just opened. The brewers stared at monitors like Homer Simpson at the nuclear power plant as almost everything in this state-of-the-art brewery was hard piped. Even touring that facility, the brewer lamented a couple bits and bobs he wished they had done differently that they had to work around.

Usually as soon as I am done brewing, my mind immediately shifts to thinking what I will brew next. Enjoying the beer is almost an afterthought. For some reason I am particularly excited to enjoy this batch. I think I am excited to enjoy a beer made with such relative simplicity. A beer where the base was malt extract, the proportion of specialty malt was small, the flavor is designed to be subtle, and the balance makes the beer crushable.

The beer is already in the keg. Pints will be enjoyed on Saint Patrick's Day!

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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Brew Day: Thomas Brady's Ale (2019)

It's been two years since I brewed the first batch of Thomas Brady's Ale. Originally I had intended to brew the beer on an annual basis. Unfortunately last year I was busy settling into a new house and new job, and just never got around to it.

The idea for the beer came from my friend Eamon. Every New Years Day he brews his barleywine, ages it over the course of the year, bottles it in the fall, and opens the first bottle on New Years Eve. I brewed my batch a few days after New Years.

Brewing on a stove-top, I made my first barleywine with an obscene amount of malt extract. Now that I have both a yard to brew in where I can use my propane burner, and my Mash & Boil that is capable of a full volume boil. That makes brewing an all-grain barleywine with a grist of over 20 pounds of grain far more practical. The bones of this all-grain recipe are very similar to the original extract version.

The last label from my last sack of
Propino Pale Malt.

For the last several years at Muntons our main spring barley variety has been Propino. Before I worked for the company, the North Shore Brewers had our SMaSH base malt project where members brewed beers with different base malts as a way to evaluate them. In hindsight it was fortuitous that for my SMaSH blonde the "UK 2-row" I used was Propino. Out of all the SMaSH beers brewed, I liked the one I brewed with Propino the best.

New barley varieties are developed every few years as growers seek greater yields in the field and disease resistance. In East Anglia, where Muntons sources most of its barley, Propino is on its way out and Planet is on it's way in. My craft beer customers have all switched over to Planet, as I was down to about 14 pounds of Propino. Using the last of my Propino in a special beer like Thomas Brady's Ale that will be cellared for years felt an appropriate swan song.

When I decided to brew this year's vintage as an all-grain beer, I revisited the recipe Pattinson published on his website:

It is interesting that the grist uses both pale and lager malt. English pale malt is relatively low in diastatic power. My educated guess is that the lager malt was added to help convert the un-malted wheat in the grist. Most American brewers are not familiar with lager malt, and most homebrew shops don't sell it. Lager malt is light in color like Pilsner malt, but usually doesn't have the same honey-like sweetness.

As I slowly work through a sack of wheat malt, I used wheat malt in my recipe. This makes diastatic power not a concern. Considering I didn't have any lager malt this was a good thing. I still didn't have quite enough Propino Pale Malt to replace all of the lager malt in the original recipe. As a substitute I used Muntons Super Pale Malt.

Super Pale is an awesome malt. It is the lightest colored malt Muntons makes; lighter than even its Pilsner and Lager Malts. The bag I have at home is 1.3L in color. Super Pale was designed for hoppy beers, and in this recipe will allow most of the base malt flavor to come from the Propino Pale.

The specialty malt in the 2017 vintage was a caramel rye malt, and I aged the beer on oak cubes soaked in rye whiskey. As I thought of which spirit I would use for this batch the choice that immediately came to mind was a bourbon made by one of my customers. This bourbon uses a small amount of Muntons Crystal 400 which is 150L. Since the malt is in the spirit it was natural to use it in the beer.

Brewer: Jason Chalifour
Batch Size: 5.25 galStyle: English Barleywine (17D)
Boil Size: 6.85 galStyle Guide: BJCP 2015
Color: 18.8 SRMEquipment: Mash & Boil With Cooler
Bitterness: 60.6 IBUsBoil Time: 105 min
Est OG: 1.103 (24.5° P)Mash Profile: Single Infusion, Medium Body, No Mash Out
Est FG: 1.024 SG (6.1° P)Fermentation: Ale, Two Stage
ABV: 10.8%Taste Rating: 
9.61 galAmber Full (7-17 SRM)Water1
2.06 gChalk (Mash 60 min)Misc2
1.28 gEpsom Salt (MgSO4) (Mash 60 min)Misc3
1.10 gGypsum (Calcium Sulfate) (Mash 60 min)Misc4
14 lbs 7.04 ozPale Ale, Propino (Muntons) (2.5 SRM)Grain5
4 lbs 8.00 ozSuper Pale Malt (Muntons) (1.7 SRM)Grain6
2 lbs 8.00 ozWheat Malt (Muntons) (2.2 SRM)Grain7
1 lbsCrystal 400 (Muntons) (170.0 SRM)Grain8
1.25 ozNugget [13.0%] - Boil 75 minHops9
1.00 ozAurora [8.2%] - Boil 30 minHops10
0.24 tspIrish Moss (Boil 10 min)Misc11
2 pkgsNottingham Yeast (Lallemand #-)Yeast12
0 pkgsSuper High Gravity Ale (White Labs #WLP099)Yeast13

This was the second batch in a row where my yield was exceedingly poor. The last batch was a re-brew of Crackerjack Cream Ale I intended to enter into NHC.

My starting gravity going into the fermenter was 1.080, barely enough for the beer to be a barleywine. When my pre-boil gravity was off, I disassembled my mill as I waited for my wort to reach a boil. I found a barley kernel that may have been causing one of the rollers to jam. I cleared that out, gave the mill an overdue brushing, and reset the gap to the factory default position. Hopefully things will be back to normal during my next all-grain batch.

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