Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How NOT to Fill Out a BJCP Scoresheet

Homebrew competitions invite organizers and judges to strike a delicate balancing act: How to honor, on the one hand, the inherently fun and casual nature of the homebrewing community, while at the same time being serious and diligent enough to give entrants their money's worth in terms of feedback and attention.

Those who have been through a quality judging course – as part of BJCP training or otherwise – are familiar with some of the best practices: fill out the entire sheet; comment on all aroma/flavor/etc. characteristics as prompted by the sheet; write legibly; tell the brewer where deducted points went and how to reclaim them.

With this in mind, take a look at the two scoresheets presented here (click the images for a larger view), corresponding to a couple entries of mine from a recent competition. Both were filled out by the same judge (same flight), an "experienced" judge who, based on information included on the scoresheet, seems to have recently taken the BJCP exam and is awaiting his score and rank.

Neither scoresheet is exactly a case study in how to evaluate beer. On the first scoresheet, there is plenty of unused white space, the handwriting is poor, and within each scoring section there are characteristics the judge does not comment on. Still, at the end the judge does provide an evaluative statement and offers a recommendation for improvement.

Consider now the second scoresheet. The handwriting is practically illegible and as your eye moves down the page, it encounters less and less writing, to the point where the final scoring section (the one where, incidentally, the most space is given for comments) is left entirely blank. The brewer is left simply to guess as to how the judge arrived at the assigned score, for there is little besides careless pencil scratches to offer any clues.

It's natural to wonder whether the judge had simply "evaluated" too much beer by this point and was worse off for it. Indeed, and in some measure of fairness, Exhibit A was judged fairly early in the flight; Exhibit B fairly late. Nevertheless, the second judge (usually entries are evaluated by a pair of judges) managed to write perfectly legible and thorough comments on both sheets, and at any rate a brewer should not have to fret over whether his beers will be evaluated by adequately sober judges.

In terms of providing useful feedback on how to improve the beer in question, much less providing a careful analysis of the entry, these scoresheets (the second one especially so) are unfortunate failures. I can only say it's good for my sake that I trust my own evaluative abilities enough that I do not enter competitions, generally, looking for feedback on how to improve my beers. (On this particular go-around I had been experimenting with blending beers and entering off-style; the judges tended not to be terribly impressed and my scores reflected that, as you can see; I had half expected as much.)

As a judge, I know that fatigue can set in near the end of a flight or after a long day of evaluating beers. Nevertheless, I do believe that each entry is entitled to the same thorough critique and feedback as is every other one. To see such woefully inadequate scoresheets is discouraging, but even more so coming from a person just now entering the ranks of the BJCP. Know that I do not write these words out of sour grapes – I am not troubled by the scores nor personally distressed by the sparse comments so much as I am dismayed by what appear to be bad habits in the making and the prospect that the next victim will be a brewer who truly relies on judging feedback to improve his beer.

Competition organizers and the BJCP had better take heed: I don't think it's too much to say that the very credibility of homebrew competitions, the BJCP and my fellow BJCP judges hinges in no small measure on the quality of judging entrants receive in exchange for their time, effort and entry fees. We can, and should, do better.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top-Crop Till You Drop

Nowadays, the price of yeast (particularly liquid yeast) can make up a fairly sizable chunk of the cost of a batch of homebrew. At up to $9 a vial or pouch (depending on where you shop), this can be a substantial portion of a batch's cost, especially for brewers who buy hops and grain in bulk. Good thing is, there's a simple method for dealing with this. Reusing yeast isn't just a way for frugal homebrewers to save a buck (something we tend to be fans of) but it's also great for building up large, healthy quantities of yeast to ensure great fermentations down the line.

Probably the most popular method of harvesting yeast is to do so after fermentation, when the beer is racked out of primary leaving all that yeast behind. This is effective for gathering up a big quantity of yeast (and depending on your brewing schedule, pitching new wort directly onto a yeast cake can work), but the technique is not without its disadvantages.

Perhaps the main fallback is this: the muck left behind after racking is not purely yeast. There will also be trub from the kettle, consisting mainly of proteins and hop material (subject to that batch's hopping rate and whether pellets, bags, etc. were employed). Harvesting yeast slurry after primary means picking up some non-yeast material, in all likelihood.

Some brewers, as an alternative, choose to collect yeast via top-cropping, whereby the yeast is skimmed off the surface of the wort during the height of active fermentation. This ensures that the goods you are getting are clean, active, healthy and lively yeast cells.

And it's easy to do. I start with a small canning jar that gets a quick soak in some sanitizer. Then I add a small amount (a couple ounces only) of filtered water to the jar, which then goes into the microwave to just to make sure nothing's alive in there. I set the lid on top while things cool off; the steam helps to ensure everything's sanitary even though, yes, I'd already given the jars a sanitizer bath. Extra precautions can't hurt when you're dealing with something as important as your yeast.

The ideal time to top-crop is shortly after active fermentation has kicked into high gear. Give the yeast enough time to move any hop material to the side of the fermenter, but don't wait so long that the yeast mat has fallen too much back into the beer, or you might not find yourself with enough skimmable yeast to fill your jar. A visit to Jamil Zainasheff's yeast pitching rate tool will give you an idea of how much slurry you'll want for your next batch.

I scoop the yeast off with a sanitized spoon and stir it into the water in the jar, which helps knock the yeast off the spoon and will also form a thin, protective layer on top once things settle out in the fridge. With a label affixed identifying the yeast strain, its generation number and date of collection, this little jar of wonder is ready to live in the back of my fridge until it's time to unleash its magic on another bucket of sugar water.

Yeast slurry can be saved in the fridge for several months. Inside a couple weeks, you can usually simply repitch the slurry right into the next batch; longer and a small starter might be helpful to wake things up. Jamil's calculator will help to figure out the yeast viability based on its age and give an idea of how much extra slurry should be pitched accordingly.

Congratulations! You just got to play with nature's coolest fungus*, improved the quality of your future batches and saved some cash at the same time. Now go blow that money on beer.

* Up for debate

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Double Brew, Deep Into the Night

It's not often that laziness lets me down.

But it sure did this past Sunday when, still in the midst of shaking off the previous night's indulgences and waffling over whether I actually felt like brewing, early- and mid-afternoon came and went before I pulled my act together and got moving on a double-batch brew I'd been planning for a while. (And one that, otherwise, would have had to wait until the new year.)

So it was dreary, drizzly and dimming as my strike water heated up, and the mash was conducted under cover of dark:

Well behind schedule already, things weren't about to improve. The mash temperature came in lower than planned, and it took several boiling-water infusions to bring it up. After the sparge, more time was chewed up bringing all this extra volume to a boil – I finally got action just shy of 8 o'clock. And of course, all that liquid meant a longer chilling time than my usual five-gallon affairs.

The yeast were pitched after 10 p.m. and cleanup didn't wrap until close to 11:30. But, as always, any fatigue or annoyance had been largely supplanted in importance by that sense of accomplishment and excited anticipation (colored with a tinge of anxious uncertainty) that comes from having fresh wort in the fermenter, ready for magic to be done upon it.

On top of its nocturnal novelty, this batch was special for its experimental nature. Using the same grain bill and hopping schedule, I split the 11-plus gallons of wort in two for purposes of making two entirely different beers: One, a Kolsch fermented with White Labs WLP029; the other a Belgian Blonde Ale using WLP530.

To account for the higher original gravity and simple-sugar addition employed in the making of Belgian Blondes, I had pulled off about two quarts of wort most of the way through the boil and added to that 1.25 pounds of sucrose (table sugar). That was chilled and added to the Belgian wort as I drained the kettle. Other than that and the yeast strains, the worts were identical: in total, 17.5 pounds of Pilsner malt; 1.5 pounds of Munich; 26-ish IBUs from Magnum hops; and another 0.75 ounces of Santium hops at 10 minutes for the heck of it.

Both batches are now fermenting away happily. The Kolsch (left) is puffing along at around 62 degrees; the Belgian at closer to 66, though I have plans to let that warm up.

Time and tastebuds will determine whether this little experiment was worthwhile. The upshot is twice as much beer for not much more work; the risk is winding up with 10 or more gallons of substandard stuff. This was not my first (nor my second) double-sized batch, but ordinarily I stick to single-fermenter brew days. But then, I also tend to stick with brew days as opposed to nights. Though it would suit my laziness, for the sake of everything else let's hope darkness doesn't prove to be any kind of magic ingredient.

Update: Kölsch recipe and evaluation

Thursday, December 10, 2009

One Thing the Beer Community Must Not Let Happen

Beer, they say, is the drink of the "everyman" – easy, accessible, unpretentious. Wine, on the other hand? That's the domain of the upper crust, the pinky-raisers, the people who take their drink way too seriously and have the vocabulary to prove it. For confirmation, wine-culture haters point to the excessively – and often comically – verbose wine review, wherein the supertasting wine critic cites obscure flavor after obscure flavor, some of which most people never realized counted as "flavors" at all. "Objects found in a forest or tannery," perhaps, but often not the first (or fifth or tenth) thing popping to mind when a sensation flashes past the taste buds.

Take the following example, seen recently hanging on a shelf at a local wine shop/bar:

This example is fairly representative – which is to say, not exceptionally egregious, comparatively speaking. And yet, note the clever assortment of metaphorical adjectives and gratuitously specific descriptors like "bittersweet cocoa" and "Turkish coffee notes."

Besides simply sounding snooty and over-the-top, there's evidence that wine reviews like this may, in fact, be packed with as much B.S. as substance. Behold this fine article from the Wall Street Journal, which cites research data suggesting, among other things, that wine tasters a) probably can't actually detect as many simultaneous flavors as they let on; and b) disagree with other tasters, and themselves, at an alarmingly frequent rate.

So what's this got to do with beer?

As brewers and beer lovers become more serious (no problem in and of itself) about creating, evaluating and promoting quality beer, we see more and more wine-style (for lack of a better term) descriptions and rating methods entering the picture.

This isn't a bad thing per se, but caution must be exercised lest beer find itself in that unenviable position wine now occupies: stuffy, buttoned-up, dour and dubious.

Let's all help accord craft beer the status and accolades it deserves, but always remembering that beers should first and foremost be casual, approachable, authentic and fun.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Even Web Designers Have Had Enough

Not long ago (that is to say, two posts down), I indulged myself with a brief* rant about the farce that is age "verification" on beer company Web sites.

Well it turns out this isn't the only way booze companies seem bent on making your browsing experience as painful as possible. This article by Louis Lazaris of Smashing Magazine highlights the many horrendous and vexing ways – including, yes, the "painful" ID screen – that alcohol producers have successfully cast notions of usability and pleasurable browsing by the wayside.

From failing to realize that "you can't drink a website" to treating every page like a Super Bowl commercial or Flash orgy, many of the world's major boozeries have tossed sensible Web design right out the window, Lazaris says. And the result, too often, is a poor experience for users and an undermining of whatever noble intentions the company may have set out with.

Big shocker though.When did sensibility ever get in these people's way before?

* Not actually brief.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hounds Unleashed in Defense of BrewDog

The beer world has been mildly abuzz for the past day over British beer writer Roger Protz's scathing criticism of a new beer coming out of Scotland that claims to be the world's strongest. Tactical Nuclear Penguin, from BrewDog Ltd in Fraserburgh, is an iced Imperial Stout that purports to have reset the bar at a whopping 32% ABV. In his blog piece, posted yesterday, Protz calls out BrewDog for "their over-inflated egos and naked ambition" and says that, at any rate, TNP doesn't actually count as beer because brewer's yeast tends to poop out at around 14% alcohol.

As might be expected, the comments section practically caught fire as the brewerati swept in to BrewDog's defense (some going more gentle on Protz than others in the process). Twitterers weighed in as well.

Today, Protz responded on his blog, admitting he may have been a wee bit hasty and careless in some of his prior comments, though this allowance didn't come until after Protz had reminded readers of his credentials and wondered aloud about those of his critics. Protz's followup, as much a call for civility as anything, also did not answer questions about why he seemed to take such issue with the basic notion of a high-alcohol beer (especially when it pushes no boundaries of beverage-alcohol strength in general).

As of now, an open question still remains: Why is it a foregone conclusion that TNP is "not beer at all," as Protz asserted? Certainly this is not the first beer to concentrate its strength via freezing, nor would it have been the first to incorporate a wine or champagne yeast if it had done so (there's no indication this is the case, but Protz originally suggested it was and seems to exclude such concoctions from his definition of beer). Plenty of beer aficionados – probably even plenty of beer writers as tenured as the distinguished Mr. Protz – would prefer to fixate on the source of the fermentables (here, grain) as being the chief criterion for what constitutes beer.

If nothing else, this is a huge boon for BrewDog as they will benefit from the added (free) publicity. But it's also a healthy debate to be having – one about traditional versus experimental; sessionable versus sippable; old guard versus new guard; and who gets to make the rules versus who should bother playing by them.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Brewers Calls in the Lawyers. Is Anyone Buying This?

By now, it's probably safe to say that we're all accustomed to – though not necessarily comfortable with – the overlawyerization of American society. This is typically, and perhaps most visibly, demonstrated by corporations that seem to go out of their way in every conceivable fashion to avoid being sued. (What the hell else to make of this Bridgestone ad that demonstrates the tires' superior maneuverability and then, inexplicably, commands that you "do not attempt"?)

Little wonder that alcohol companies – you know, the makers and peddlers of that dangerous sauce – would be as keen as anyone to keep the lawsuits and judgments at bay, and to heed legal advice aimed at achieving these ends. Thus we see a lot of "drink responsibly," "21 means 21," and other admonishments in booze ads. (Perhaps, as much as anything else, this is to preempt any suggestion that these companies are using their access to mainstream media to market to underage audiences – access they very understandably do not want taken away.)

In the digital age, the latest (and not altogether surprising) manifestation of this cautiousness comes in the form of major brewers placing "age-verification" controls on their Web sites, "restricting" access to only those over the legal drinking-age threshold. Before you can learn, for example, exactly how Coors Light manages to taste so damn cold, or how Miller Lite is able to harness the power of triple-hops brewing, you'll have to either input a date of birth or click a button affirming you are indeed physically, emotionally and (as far as your driver's license is concerned, anyway) otherwise mature enough to be subjected to this information.

It is an utter joke.

Let's start with the easy stuff. First, any fool can tell you there is absolutely nothing to prevent a 14-year-old from fabricating an over-21 birth date, or from clicking "yes, I'm old enough to drink." This is the equivalent of bartenders and shopkeepers simply asking customers their age. It's stupid and ineffective, and you might as well not bother wasting the time. (Ask the 17-and-under crowd how many of them have been foiled by age controls at porn sites and you'll get an idea of how fail-safe this technique is.)

Next, there's the curious matter of why underage Web surfers must necessarily be kept away from this material in the first place. Alcohol companies are already well aware that their advertisements – highly effective, otherwise they wouldn't sink so much cash into them – are consistently viewed by underage audiences. This is no great revelation, and in general society and governments tolerate this on the basis that simply seeing a booze ad isn't going to put the booze in a kid's hand. It might plant the desire in his mind, but last anyone checked, it's illegal for a minor to possess or consume alcohol, not to simply wish that he could.

Why is it that, in the online sphere, beer/wine/liquor makers are suddenly so eager to keep their material away from kids? They certainly don't take the same care when it comes to billboards, or sports stadiums. (One obvious reason is that the Internet is uniquely capable of letting you pay lip service to responsibility while actually doing nothing material or reliable to further it.)

While it is usually the bigger companies who go to the greatest such cover-your-legal-ass lengths (for they have not only the most attractive bank accounts for a litigant to target, but also the armies of lawyers to conceive these measures), we do see the occasional smaller player – craft brewer, since we're interested in beer here – who feels compelled to "verify" visitors' eligibility to look at beer info on a computer screen. Sierra Nevada does it. Sam Adams does it. New Belgium, too. (OK, these are all fairly large participants on the craft scene, big enough to exhibit a dash of corporatism. But even some tiny, brand-spanking-new outfits will ask if their visitors are over 21.)

In this context, it was only partly out of left field when I encountered the most egregious example of audience-filtering I've yet seen. It was the message I received after following New Belgium on Twitter (presumably sent to all new followers):

Can you look at this request and not find it laughably absurd? New Belgium, like most Twitter users, allows their "tweets" to be viewed in the open, by the public – not just by followers or users logged in to the Twitter service. What would New Belgium do to a follower who would be dense enough to reply with an under-21 birth date? Block them? Fine, that person can simply log out of Twitter and view all tweets on NB's Twitter page, just like anyone else can. By publishing to a third-party service, and by not protecting their tweets, NB gives up the means to directly control who does and doesn't view them.

I'll acknowledge what I think would be a likely counterargument from defenders of these practices: "Unlike traditional advertising, Web sites and Twitter provide consumers with a more interactive experience with the brand, and one wherein brands may even be actively soliciting contact with the consumer. Alcohol producers want to make sure that underage persons aren't interacting with the company on this deeper, potentially more dangerous level. And no matter what else, we don't want to help create additional demand for alcohol among the underage set."

Fair enough. Though this does nothing to answer the charge that making users input a birth date is a spectacularly ineffective (and transparently so, if you ask any rational person) means of keeping the kiddies away from the booze peddlers' nefarious influence. Nor does this position have anything to say about New Belgium's chuckle-worthy attempt to imply that one needs NB's permission to view NB tweets. And if brewers – especially the big guys – really wanted to do everything possible to curb demand among the underage ... well, they'd eliminate their ubiquitous marketing efforts altogether.

It's probably too much to ask that the people who actually come in contact with the most proximate symptoms of a minor's thirst for alcohol – the parents, the kid himself, the people who ultimately sell alcohol to consumers – be left in charge of making sure beer doesn't wind up in the wrong hands. Way too much, right?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Celebrator Glass

I've written previously about the goat imagery associated with German Bock (the word applies to both the animal and the drink), and here's more evidence the Germans take this linguistic connection fairly seriously. But in this case the Bavarian brewers Ayinger have upped the ante, offering this lovely piece of glassware featuring not one but two billies.

Possibly not by accident: Ayinger Celebrator is a Doppelbock – the "doppel" prefix ("double" in German) indicates the style's comparative high strength versus regular Bockbier, though it can also be translated as "double goat." Twice the Bock? Twice the goats!

Though at least one source claims the Doppelbock style originated at a monastery in Northern Italy, other evidence suggests the style did not come into being until at least a few years after the Paulaner monks had moved, in 1627, to Munich from Italy (this may account for the confusion). It is there, this story goes, that the monks concocted a rich, nourishing brew to sustain them through the Lenten fast. That beer would eventually come to be called "Salvator," thus giving birth to the convention of affixing "-ator" to the names of Doppelbocks.

The Celebrator glass is a smallish (it holds about a 12 oz. bottle's worth), tastefully proportioned vessel, featuring the aforementioned goats embracing a frothy glass of rich brew beneath a gold-accented rim. Perhaps a little abnormally, especially for a beer whose ample vapors are ideally gathered up for proper sniffing, the Celebrator glass flares outward as it sits atop a shapely stem and foot. Ideally you'd like more of a bowl-shape to collect head and aromas, but an exception might be warranted here due to the novelty and attractiveness of this glass. (Boldness, too – most high-gravity beers go with a rounded/tapered option.)

Lent may yet be a ways off but as winter approaches, few beers satisfy like a rich, hearty Doppelbock. Pour one in the Celebrator glass (bonus points for choosing its delicious namesake brew), and you've got a drinking experience that will be hard to beat.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The History of American Brown Ale & American Pale Ale (Kind Of)

Today, it's easy for us beer people – the committed and the casual alike – to take styles for granted. After all, we have organizations like the BJCP and competitions from the GABF to the World Beer Cup to myriad homebrew comps that help keep beers more or less tidily segmented and compartmentalized for us. Then there are beer-rating sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer that allow beer drinkers to see how their favorite commercial brews stack up against their category-mates.

Yet it wasn't so long ago that many of the styles we are so familiar with now were either a mere figment of a brewer's imagination, or even if sitting right under our noses, had yet to be given the proper recognition and codification that today seems like such a no-brainer.

In the former category falls American Brown Ale. As far back as the early 1980s, when all that the world knew of Brown Ales was Newcastle and the like, homebrewers out in California were whipping up their own imaginative take on the style. Scott Birdwell, owner of Defalco's Home Wine and Beer Supplies in Houston, and a seasoned pillar of the homebrewing scene in his own right, tells of a trip to San Rafael, Calif., sometime during the Reagan years:

I was visiting a couple of friends who owned a homebrew shop there (Jay Conner & Byron Burch - Great Fermentations). They had a flyer for a recipe for Purple Passion Dark Ale with John Bull Dark Malt Extract, crystal & chocolate malts, and a ton of hops. This was a popular recipe with their customers and did well in local and regional homebrew competitions, but got slammed in the AHA & HWBTA Nationals for not meeting the style guidelines for "Brown Ales" (assumed to be British brown ales). It was true these beers didn't conform to traditional brown ale standards: they were too dark and too bitter. But, man, they were popular on the West Coast, becoming increasingly popular on the Gulf Coast, and were damn good beers!

Now here's where those devoted, zany and innovative Houston-based homebrewers known as The Foam Rangers (my former club) enter the picture. Their annual Dixie Cup competition, which these days ranks among the world's largest annually, would play a vital role in bringing this unique California concoction into greater prominence. Scott "Da Birdman" again:

We were in the infancy of the Dixie Cup at that time and I decided to include a category for these brews. We already had a category called "No Commercial Comparisons," in which the entries didn't meet commercial standards (at least the commercial beers available at that time). We decided to call the new category "California Dark" in deference to our friends on the West Coast. The category was an immediate success, even if we weren't overwhelmed with entries. ... The AHA immediately picked up on the California Dark category, but curiously decided to name the style "Texas Brown Ale" in deference to us (nice, but we weren't the brewing innovators, just the competition innovators). Obviously this struck a note with homebrewers all over the country as this proved to be a popular style, and eventually the name evolved into "American Brown Ale." This is probably an appropriate name given its widespread popularity. These days I consider "Texas Brown Ales" to be "extreme" American Brown Ales: O.G. at least 1.060 and 40 IBU's, but that may just be me.

For all the strictness and even arbitrariness modern style parameters seem to reflect, this tale reminds us that styles do in fact arise organically – such that even a well-known style like American Brown Ale can be traced to a San Francisco suburb by way of a humble competition in Texas.

But that's not all. Consider this final anecdote from Scott:

As far as I know, Dixie Cup VII in October 1990 was the first time any homebrew contest featured a category entitled "American Pale Ale." In those days, when the number of beer style categories were considerably more limited, we (meaning the Foamers) did not limit ourselves to AHA and/or HWBTA style categories (this was before the BJCP established it's own guidelines). We felt free to establish our own categories with style descriptions for the Dixie Cup. This is how (American Pale Ale) came into being. ... That first year for APA (1990), it was the largest single category we had for that year's Dixie Cup (I seem to recall we received over 30 entries). The AHA jumped on this and incorporated APA the very next spring for the NHC.

Wow, talk about trail blazers. It's no huge leap to say this club and this competition were responsible for the formal recognition of two major American beer styles. And in the case of APA, consider that the very paradigm of the style, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, had been in production for fully 10 years before the national beer-agenda setters, spurred by the Foamies, picked up on the style. Within two years, the GABF got on board, and APA has never looked back since. Ttoday there are over 2,000 commercial APAs listed on BeerAdvocate, more than any other single style.

Behold the power of homebrewers.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Session #33 – Framing Beer

A mighty interesting, open-ended topic for this month's Session, hosted by Andrew at I'll Have a Beer and announced here. Our task is to consider how context and framing influence the way we consider and evaluate beers.

There are any number of ways to go with this thought-provoking topic, but in the interest of space and time I'll try to keep my focus tight. And given that many of my thoughts – my beer-related thoughts especially – fixate on homebrew, that seems like a good place to take this Session effort.

Homebrew competitions, by and large, are fine exercises for neutralizing many of the effects of context when it comes to evaluating beer. There are no names, so a brewer's reputation can't influence the judges. Extract vs. all-grain is not specified, so those biases are off the table. Recipes are not divulged, so expectations based on ingredients used cannot be considered. All that the judges have to work with is a declared style and a set of style guidelines against which to measure the entry.

And yet here is where we see how even in such a context-neutral environment as a homebrew competition, framing and context do indeed play key roles. More on that in a second.

As a card-carrying beer judge, I enjoy working competitions and trying my best to provide entrants with constructive, impartial and informed evaluation of their beers. But I know full well that, try as we might, judges are often vulnerable to context and framing influences, just as we are in "real-world" beer-drinking situations.

Let's start with the matter of categorization. So that beers can be properly evaluated against one another, entries are sorted into categories, with sub-categories further specified by the entrant. In so doing, the beers are pitted not only against each other but also a standardized set of guidelines specific to each style, with detailed notes on appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, et cetera all assisting the judge in diagnosing the beer's quality. Thus the beer is framed before it even passes the drinker's lips – it is generally assumed that beers entered into a given category do indeed fall within its parameters; thus judges will tend to evaluate the beer as if it at least roughly fits the guidelines. Variation, where not plainly egregious, is often considered to amount to a mild departure from this or that prescribed quality.

This framing tendency is easily testable. I once entered a dark beer fermented with Witbier yeast and seasoned with coriander and citrus peel in the Brown Porter category. It scored fairly high marks, with none of the evaluators picking up on ingredients that, beyond a doubt, would be officially forbidden in the category. (And had I entered the beer in Specialty and declared the additions, I am certain they would have been commented upon.) Another amusing trick is to cross-enter the same beer in different, though similar categories in the same competition. (For example, Robust Porter and one of the Stout categories.) If the beer receives high scores in both cases, one has to wonder whether power of suggestion had prevailed or there was simply not enough daylight between the categories to reveal one entry as fraudulent. Perhaps a little of both.

Evaluating a beer against its category is only half the judge's task; the other is to suss out flaws in the production of the beer. A whole roster of off-flavors is usually available for consultation (though the experienced judge should already be familiar with these) and it is up to the evaluators, where appropriate, to call a brewer out for them and penalize the beer accordingly. (And, of course, to make suggestions for how to overcome the flaw next time.)

Judges are by no means assured of finding the same flaws in every beer they taste together. Some individuals simply are less sensitive to certain flavors than others – for a long time I did not believe I could easily pick up on diacetyl or oxidation – others may even have a reputation for being extra (or excessively) sensitive to some. I have been on judging panels where, once the score cards are compared, one would think we had sampled entirely different beers. (This makes it all the more gratifying when, in what itself is no rare instance, judges independently pick up on the same things.)

On larger panels, groupthink can become an issue, where a particular idea gains traction and suddenly the entire table becomes convinced that a certain flaw or characteristic is present. Sometimes consensus arrives by way of a particularly strong personality, or others' lack of confidence, or power of suggestion.

I don't mean to impugn homebrew competitions unfairly; on the whole I'd say judges tend to get the calls right, and at the end of the day the best beers are rewarded while the less-than-stellar ones are not. But beware the veneer of objectivity and the assumption it can be achieved to an absolute degree. It just may be that framing and context in beer evaluation – as in just about all other aspects of life – could be unavoidable after all.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Orval Dregs at Work

I had been extremely excited about my upcoming run of Belgian-style beers, all to be brewed one after another (no non-Belgians in between) and using the same esteemed yeast purportedly sourced from the Trappist brewery Westmalle (and also used by Achel and Westvleteren). Inching up in alcohol, from Belgian Pale Ale to Dubbel to Tripel, this was to be, admittedly, my most ambitious (in terms of uninterrupted focus) series of Belgians yet created.

Well, here we learn, by inverse anyway, of the value of practice and experience in brewing. Being my first time with this yeast, and in some cases with the style, an unfortunate possibility came to pass when none of the three beers came out quite as good as I'd hoped (the Pale Ale being the least offensive of the three), with an unfortunate phenolic bite being a hallmark showing through most clearly in the Dubbel. (The Tripel, for its part, at this point remains so alcohol-laden as to accomodate fixation on little else. Many bottles of it, and the other two, have been squirreled away where neglect and age will hopefully bestow their favor.) Brewing all three in succession did not afford the chance to apply lessons learned within the course of this three-brew series; doing so will have to wait until next time.

In an effort to (1) turn something unspectacular into something potentially interesting, (2) free up space among the taps, where I faced the unappealing prospect of having to trudge my way through mostly full kegs or let them sit and hope things improved, and (3) provide an excuse to buy and drink a beer I don't have often enough, I blended the remnants of the Pale Ale and Dubbel into a carboy (with a dash of Black IPA added for extra bitterness and flavor), created a small amount of additional wort, and pitched into it a starter of cultured-up Orval dregs from two bottles.

Here is what things look like a little more than 48 hours into the experiment:

Note the rather sizeable mat of krausen. This tells me one thing primarily: Orval dregs must not contain simply the "wild" yeast Brettanomyces that helps to lend the beer its signature flavor, but some strain of Saccharomyces as well. Indeed, this much has been speculated upon on brewing forums and even suggested on the Orval Web site itself. I say this because Brett is understood to be a relatively slow worker (activity here kicked off in a matter of hours) that creates a pellicle on the beer's surface.

The addition of around 0.5-0.75 gallons of fresh wort will provide the Saccharomyces and Brett more sugars to consume and assert themselves (while also hopefully countering somewhat the off flavors of the previous fermentation). Additionally, this new wort was given about 2 ounces total of late hops – a small 5-minute addition of Santiam and a flameout addition of Santiam and Mt. Hood that was steeped. This again was intended to provide additional complexity to cover up off flavors while also serving as a nod to Orval's notable late hopping. I think the unusually dark surface of the krausen may owe to this extra hop matter being pushed up to the top. My Frankenstein's monster might be dry-hopped as well, like Orval is.

There's no telling how this odd amalgamation of mine will turn out. My hope is the Brett will impart enough funky goodness to overcome the previous yeast's footprint, while further drying out the beer and helping to accentuate the newly added hops. Did I mention this is my first foray into the use of "exotic" strains like this? Doubly exciting.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Session #32 – Eastern Beers

Looks like I've taken a couple months off from participating in The Session, the monthly beer-blogging thing you can read about here. And when I do get on board, I usually do so a couple days late. Like this month.

Our task for Session #32, as assigned by Girl Likes Beer (and recapped here), was to "pick your favorite beer made east [from] your hometown but east enough that it is already in a different country. It can be from the closest country or from the furthest. Explain why do you like this beer. What is the coolest stereotype associated with the country the beer comes from (of course according to you)?"

For Americans, of course, this is an easy question given all the great beer over in Europe (i.e. east of us). I thought I'd try to make this interesting by seeing what beer-producing lands might fall along my same line of lattitude (around 34°) but seeing as how that line will take you through North Africa and the Middle East on the way to China, I'm not sure I have many options there. So anywhere east will have to do.

Having been lucky enough to have traveled to Europe a few times, I can easily pick from any number of delicious beer styles I've enjoyed in their homelands – from authentic, delicious English Bitter and Porter to the wonderful, unique and diverse Belgian ales and the lagers of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. For a beer lover, it's something of a pilgrimage to be able to enjoy a beer where and how it was meant to be enjoyed – hand-pulled ale in a cozy London pub; bright, revelatory Geueze in Brussels; liter upon liter of German lager so tasty and drinkable its nearly shameful; Pilsner Urquell that's about as delicious and fresh as it seems beer can be.

These are the easy answers, and there are more just like them. But seeking out great beer is not the only reason to travel; it's a sad truth that some of the world's highly interesting and beautiful places have hardly any beer culture to speak of. Shocking though this may be, it is manageable – not to mention a nice reality check for those of use who might take beer not only too seriously, but for granted also. It's during these times that the rare, unexpected moments of beer pleasure are all the more welcome and rewarding.

With all that in mind, I'll play it loose a little with this Session topic and revisit one such icing-on-the-cake beer moment I wrote about not long ago. In Bermuda this summer – despite its British heritage not exactly a land of great beer – I was more than content to soak up the beautiful water, weather and scenery of such a charming place. So it was all the more enjoyable when I found, at a simple cove-side food shack looking out upon a typically gorgeous Bermudian scene, real, tropical-style Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. The stronger stuff too, not the Canadian-brewed version we get in the U.S.

I hope Girl Likes Beer will pardon my flexible interpretation of her topic, as it bears noting that this Guinness wasn't actually brewed in Bermuda, only consumed there. Though, certainly, its eastern origin remains in place.

Beer historians connect Foreign Extra Stout with the tropics (it can even be called "Tropical Stout") due to the style's former, and to an extent present, popularity there – no doubt thanks to the one-time colonial presence of Stout-loving Brits in places like Jamaica and Bermuda. But for people who don't know of such things, so stout a beer is among the last things they'd associate with these island paradises. Rum and Red Stripe, yes. FES, not so much.

Back at the food shack, I would have been perfectly content to enjoy my pre-snorkel lunch in the company of an uncomplicated European macro-lager. Instead, I got confirmation of what select islanders already know – that a strong, roasty, bitter stout can be plenty satisfying in these tropical environs.

It goes to show that when you're least expecting it, great beer can sneak up on you and make a wonderful experience even better. And if the object of great beer isn't to enrich life, I'm not sure what it is.

This view and FES? I'll take it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Do You Get It in the Can?

Now come on, this is too funny:

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Drunken Reinbeer

I hardly ever do clone recipes, whether my own or drawn from other sources. For starters, it's very difficult to faithfully duplicate a commercial beer anyway – especially not without taking multiple cracks at it, something I'm even less inclined to do – and besides, part of the appeal of homebrewing, for me, is creating something original.

But after having my first (and, to date, only) bottle of Odell Brewing Co.'s 90 Shilling, I knew I'd love to have a beer like it on tap at home. Incredibly drinkable, well-balanced and just plain tasty, 90 Shilling is a winner of a beer.

I did a little research, asked around on a homebrew forum or two, and came up with a recipe that, while not attempting to reproduce 90 Shilling down to each detail, was at least inspired by it. So you might call this a semi-clone.

Here's what I came up with:

OG 1.057 FG 1.014
ABV 5.6% AA 74.5%
IBUs 28 SRM 16

58% Canadian two-row
33% Pacific Northwest Vienna
5% Crystal 60
2% Crystal 40
2% British chocolate malt

14 IBUs Magnum – 60 mins
10 IBUs (0.5 oz.)
Northern Brewer – 30 mins
0.5 oz. Cascade – 10 mins

Wyeast 2450 "Denny's Favorite 50"

You may be wondering about the name. This beer was originally brewed to give out as Christmas gifts to family. I wanted to come up with something clever: Drunken Reinbeer seemed to fit the bill. That original batch was fermented with US-05, the dry "Chico" yeast. For the second time around, I wanted to try out the special Wyeast strain I'd had in my yeast circulation at the time. I also made a couple mild adjustments, like subbing North American two-row for the British base malt I had used, and upping the amount of Vienna.

The balance here is slightly on the malty side, with a supportive bitterness that carries the beer's moderate caramel and slightly roasted tones through to the finish. Consistent with what I'd come to discover with a previous batch fermented with 2450, this beer presents a little extra fruitiness that I tend not to prefer in my beers; in fact, my experience with this yeast tells me it does best (that is, agrees with my tastes most) when paired with a Pale-Ale-or-better helping of hops. So, and in accordance with my fondness for blending beers, when I drink this beer I tend to add a dash of something hoppy to help distract from those esters. Presently it's a Black IPA.

If I were the kind of brewer (I'm not) who continually revisits and hones recipes, applying a tweak here and a tweak there, it's quite likely that whatever beer this would turn into might be plenty far from Odell's 90 Shilling, its original inspiration. And if that were to be the case, more the better, right? Better to always brew to your own tastes, in the end.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How Low Can They Go?

If you're lucky enough to live in Chicago, Dallas, San Diego or one of 12 other special places, you've no doubt been on a heavy Bud Select 55 binge ever since the new low-calorie brew was dropped in select test markets earlier this month.

Spurred by the apparent success of MGD 64, the new figure-watcher from MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch InBev has upped (lowered?) the ante with an ultra-light beer of its own, prompting the usual ripples of discontent to spread throughout the beer-appreciating world.

The Internet has not been quiet on this one. Drink Update said of the announcement, "How depressing ... Does this mean we can stop calling it beer?" Advertising Age called ABIB's restraint in opting against two additional "55" variations "an apparent gift to beer drinkers everywhere."

"I mean, where does it stop?" Ad Age's Jeremy Mullman lamented.

Above: It could have been worse. (Via Ad Age)

"Light Beer Arms Race Gets Absurd," declared the Washington City Paper. "At some point, you've just got to call it water."

But perhaps my favorite remark is this exasperated plea from the blog Seattle Beer News: "Just stop it."

What many observers have rightly pointed out, beyond the obvious questions over just how much flavor beers with such absurdly low alcohol contents can have (the answer: not very much at all), is the fact that there is one critical component that makes beer beer, and there's simply no getting around the calories it contributes: alcohol.

No surprise, then, that as the calorie wars escalate, alcohol contents must necessarily decline. MDG 64, practically kiddie strength at 2.8% alcohol by volume, is no match for Bud Select 55's 2.4%. That's no typo – even if you doubled Select 55's booze quotient, it'd still fall somewhere between the already-light Bud Light and its plenty-light-as-it-is big sibling, Budweiser. Wow.

At this point it becomes worth asking just how wise it is to pay regular-strength-beer prices for a product that is – there's no other way to describe it – literally watered down. You could buy regular Bud, cut it half-and-half with seltzer water, and basically wind up with Bud Select 55 for half the price. No joke. Or, you could drink half as many regular beers with water alternated in between. Or you could recognize that beer contains calories; try eating well and exercising as proper antidotes.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Czechvar Glass

Quick language lesson: In German, the suffix -er is commonly used to denote that a person or thing originates from a particular place – for example, a "Berliner" is a person from Berlin. (It is also, though not necessarily, a jelly doughnut.)

Though few people realize it, this convention is responsible for the name of the world's most famous beer style: Pilsener (variably spelled "Pilsner"). This style was first created in the Bohemian town of Plzeň, in what is today the Czech Republic. The area then belonging to the German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was commonly known by its German name, Pilsen, and hence the immensely popular and revolutionary beer style originating there came to be known, consistent with the language, as "Pilsener."

Beer lovers might know where I'm going with this. There is a city in the Czech Republic that was once, and in Germany still is, known by its German name "Budweis." In accordance with convention, the beer brewed there – and there are two major breweries that have since the late 1800s offered their version of Pilsener-style beer – has been known as "Budweiser." Predictably, and as many are aware, this has lead to a never-ending dispute between the brewing conglomerate Anheuser-Busch, owners of the American Budweiser, and the smaller Czech brewers who likewise have the legal right to this name. I won't rehash the history of that squabble here; Internet searches are very handy for that.

One of the breweries at the center of this ongoing spat is Budweiser Budvar, National Corporation, whose flagship product goes by the name "Budweiser" in much of the world and "Czechvar" in the U.S. Which, finally, brings us to this glass.

Budweiser a.k.a. Czechvar is a delightful Pilsener brewed in the Bohemian tradition. Thanks to a recent importation agreement with, of all companies, Anheuser-Busch, Czechvar has enjoyed increasingly strong availability here in recent years. Say what you will about the parties involved; this is a good thing for beer drinkers.

Befitting a beer of such historic and stylistic importance, not to mention its quality, the Czechvar glass is an elegant tulip-style piece of stemware with golden accents. The small text reads "Imported Original Premium Czech Lager" (doesn't that honor go to Pilsner Urquell?) while the seal of the city of České Budějovice, the Czech name for the home of Budweiser/Czechvar, sits above.

An attractive glass such as this one does well with equally lovely beers inside it – clear, golden, sparkling offerings like Pilsner, Helles, Golden/Blonde Ales. The combination makes for a striking, and mouthwatering, visual effect. Being the fine piece of glassware that it is, fun to look at and drink from, I've even put heftier fare like Bourbon Smoked Porter inside.

Beer aficionados tend to lament the arbitrary moniker Czechvar is forced to wear in the U.S. (and Canada too), rightly observing that if any beer should have access to the strictly descriptive label "Budweiser," this one sure qualifies. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that Budweiser Budvar's naming status on our side of the pond is fairly settled – best to simply enjoy a world-class beer and the fine glass it's served in.

Monday, August 17, 2009

And now for another episode of "Resentful Craft Beer Lover Sounds Off on Mega-Brew Advertising"

For several months I've resisted the urge to lambaste Miller for their fairly recent, and thoroughly asinine, "triple hops brewed" advertising campaign for Miller Lite. Surely you've seen the commercials, and you've heard Miller proclaim that this process, which they seem giddily proud of, is responsible for Lite's "great pilsner taste."

I don't need to spend much effort telling you why this claim doesn't amount to squat. That's been done so many times already. Here's just a quick summary:
  1. "Triple hops brewing" is essentially standard procedure. Bittering, flavor and aroma – presto, three hop additions. Congratulations Miller, you know how to brew.
  2. It doesn't matter how many hop additions you use if the quantity is barely above the threshold of human perception.
  3. As a marketing term, "triple hops brewed" lies somewhere between the "yeah, so?" plainly descriptive and the nonsensical. Miller wants you to believe they're educating you with a bit of inside-baseball brewing terminology, then they turn around and trademark the phrase, something you do for contrived marketingspeak – which this basically is.
  4. Miller has been insulting consumers for years with their "true pilsner taste" claims – never mind the fact that we know and can both qualitatively and quantitatively state what Pilsners are and what beers like Miller Lite are. You better believe Miller knows the difference, and they just don't care.
  5. If a Miller Lite drinker was actually looking for beer with some measure of hops in it, and you gave him one (an IPA, say), odds are decent he'd find it unpalatable. And that's OK. Miller should stop pretending the beer is something it's not – after all, the consumers Miller is going after already have a pretty good idea what Lite tastes like, and it's disingenuous to suggest that any perceptible differences between it and the other brands come down to Miller's generous use of hops.
For as many facepalms as the Big 3's ads tend to prompt, there's only so much use (which is to say, not much) in taking them on point-for-point. But what all this nonsense does is help bring further into focus what we've long known about mass-market beer advertising: that truth, honesty, objectivity and relevance have about as much place here as they do in an Axe body spray commercial. No revelations here; I've harped on this before.

Still, while this sort of chicanery doesn't surprise us, that it has become so routine does not excuse it either. And routine it is: Miller's not the only brewer bent on annihilating the line between beer hype and education.
  • Coors Light's handlers continue to hammer away at the meaningless premise that their "frost-brewed" (another non sequitor masquerading as procedural descriptor) beer "tastes" cold. (Where's the "* refrigerator not included" disclaimer?)
  • ABIB has been touting the "drinkability" of Bud Light while assuring us that its "perfect" flavor is neither too light nor too heavy. (Makes you wonder. What would be "too light"? ABIB's Michelob Ultra, about as light as they get? And "too heavy"? Perhaps ABIB's Budweiser, all of 4.9% alcohol?)
What gets me is not that the ABIBs and MillerCoorses of the world employ such tactics at all. It's the fact that they seem to believe market share is entirely about who can play the game better. To some extent it's true – Bud Light didn't get to be America's top-selling brand by packing the most flavor into every 12 oz. bottle. But if consumer research and sales data tell us that beer drinkers are moving to more flavorful offerings, the answer is not to try and convince deserters that, yes, Bud/Miller/Coors does actually have all the flavor you're looking for (silly you for walking away).

We can't really expect anything to change until the bottom-line pressures become overwhelming. Right now they must not be, so the games continue. Yes, the major brewers have done plenty of experiments with offering more flavorful beers – and when that hasn't worked they always go back to beefing up the core brands. And let's be honest, light-beer drinkers (who, like it or not, seem to generally respond to light-beer ads) remain a far more attractive constituency than curmudgeonly beer geeks calling B.S. on Madison Avenue's latest head-scratchers.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beer in Bermuda

What can be said about beer on the otherwise lovely island nation of Bermuda? Unfortunately, not much – and that's a phrase that also describes both the quality and depth of the selection available on this Atlantic paradise.

Which is a shame, especially considering Bermuda's history and heritage. Founded by the English and still part of the United Kingdom, Bermuda is home to a handful of British-style pubs, which strictly speaking should probably be deemed more authentic than most such taverns found off the Queen's immediate turf. How appropriate, then, would it be to find quality British ales (to say nothing of cask-conditioned real ales) in the Bermudian environs, even if weather concerns demanded more in the way of easy-drinking Milds and Bitters, as opposed to Porters, Old Ales and the like.

Instead, we mostly find world lagers like the fairly ubiquitous Heineken, Carlsberg and Stella Artois, with the occasional Guinness and, perhaps surprisingly, Sam Adams sprinkled in. Yes, there's also Amstel Light along with the American Big Three.

Fairness compels me to make a few observations. First, one does not visit Bermuda for the beer selection. Beer geeks might instead focus on the gorgeous scenery and great snorkeling – two areas where Bermuda arguably trumps, say, a Brussels or a London. Second, there is at least one brewery on the island, more than can be said for many places around the world, though I can't speak to the quality of their wares as I did not have a chance to visit. Also, let's not forget that in a climate like Bermuda's, often your lighter lagers are just what the doctor ordered, and indeed one could do worse (one could also do better, but one could do worse) than Heinie, Stella, Sam Adams, and so on.

Lastly, I should mention the hidden gem known as Miles Market, in Hamilton, where a beer-starved visitor will likely to be shocked to find such high-quality offerings as Chimay, Saison Dupont, Victory, Dogfish Head, Westmalle, Paulaner and Fullers, among others. This selection is particularly surprising given that I did not see any of these beers for sale at restaurants or bars. And their mere availability at one spot makes the relative meagerness encountered elsewhere all the more unfortunate.

The island isn't completely wanting for welcome treats when out and about. Real Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, that of the high-octane variety, can be found at otherwise hopeless (for beer, that is) joints like your beachside food shacks. (Now, Beer Advocate indicates there are also local versions of FES from Bahamas and Jamaica; I must say I don't recall reading on the label where Bermuda gets theirs from.)

Rich and hearty, yet strangely refreshing enough for tropical weather, FES affords a great chance to unwind in unique island style. Oh, and perhaps best of all, you can do so while enjoying this kind of view from the porch:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Blogger Scorns Craft Beer; Fires of Rectification Rain Down via Comments Section

As reported recently by The Beer Brotha, MSNBC stock blogger James Dlugosch stirred up a little more reader interaction than he bargained for in observing recently – in a post about beer, mind you – that "despite what the microbrewers will tell you, all beer is pretty much the same."

You can guess what happened next. Out from the woodwork came beer lovers eager to defend their beloved suds' honor. And boy did they, with a ferocity and bluntness that only the Internet can facilitate. Browse through the comments yourself, or see The Beer Brotha's take for some highlights. Reactions ranged from the "you're-dead-to-me" disdainful to the bitingly sarcastic. Plenty managed to capture the sense of dumbstruck amusement most of us felt after Mr. Dlugosch had so naively – and unfortunately – laid bare his sheer ignorance on the topic he was (we are to presume) being paid to write about. Such tragedy! Such comedy!

Fifteen pages into the ensuing flame-fest, Mr. Dlugosch emerged, lumps confessedly taken, to offer his mea culpa:

Uncle, Uncle Uncle. I give up. Not all beer tastes the same. My bad. In making somewhat of a throw away comment - poorly written at that - I raised the ire of the entire beer drinking nation. How can I rejoin the club? Perhaps if I figure out how to shotgun a beer from a box I would earn back my stripes. It would have been better stated to say that the big beer brands all taste the same (they do at least to me). Anyway, the point of the blog seems to be lost as I really was merely trying to poke fun at the idea of beer in a box. Again my apologies for offending anyone.

Jamie Dlugosch (returning from a trip behind the comment woodshed)

So we're good now, right? Evidently not – currently there are 71 pages of comments; Mr. Dlugosch's apology did little to slacken the onslaught.

Perhaps that's because it may have had the opposite effect. There are clues aplenty in Mr. Dlugosch's reply that he may not have been as contrite as he wanted us to think. Let's take a closer look.

Excerpt: "I give up. Not all beer tastes the same."
Interpretation: Give them what they want right off the bat. "You win, I'm wrong. Happy now?"

Excerpt: "My bad."
Interpretation: Smacks a little of wave-of-the-hand, forced-apology insincerity, doesn't it? This is how young people "apologize" for things, and we all know how insincere young people are.

Excerpt: "... a throw away comment - poorly written at that ... It would have been better stated to say that the big beer brands all taste the same (they do at least to me)."
Interpretation: On this last point he appears to finally "get it," though he may simply be trying to score points by echoing the sentiments of microbrew-loving commenters who had already clarified Mr. Dlugosch's statement for him. At any rate, the problem wasn't with how inartfully the offending sentence was crafted – it was the content itself. Mr. Dlugosch takes a clear shot at microbrewers and then implies that they simply offer style over substance. If this knock was, as claimed, meant to apply only to mass-market brewers, the sentence should have read: "Just as the microbrewers will tell you, all megabrewed beer is pretty much the same." In this sense, Mr. Dlugosch would be agreeing with microbrewers, not calling them out. Sorry, but you can't chalk this up to erroneous wordsmithing.

Excerpt: "How can I rejoin the club? Perhaps if I figure out how to shotgun a beer from a box I would earn back my stripes."
Interpretation: Practically drips with disdain for "the beer drinking nation" he seeks to make amends with. "OK, beer losers, if I do a keg stand, will you stop crying?"

Excerpt: "Anyway, the point of the blog seems to be lost as I really was merely trying to poke fun at the idea of beer in a box."
Interpretation: "Thanks for ruining my hilarious blog post. Losers."

Excerpt: "Again my apologies for offending anyone."
Interpretation: "Lighten up, crybabies."

I should add that I myself have not gotten worked up into a lather over this brouhaha. Mainstream media's ignorance concerning beer stopped shocking me long ago. Yes, it's discouraging on one level, but mostly I find the whole episode entertaining and amusing.

To his credit, Mr. Dlugosch on Friday addressed the issue in a full post inviting beer nation to a discussion on the financial health of the industry, craft and macro. It would have been easy for him to brush off the episode – after all, most of the angry readers likely had simply been tipped off by friends or Internet sleuths; the whole of MSNBC's regular readership didn't need apologizing to. So at least he reached out and tried to right a wrong. Mr. Dlugosch opened with another full retraction and an apology that rang a little less hollow than his previous one, but then no doubt sent a few palms to foreheads in pondering, "While it may be true that the microbrewers craft a wonderful-tasting product, it's not so certain that they make money."

Alas, more enlightenment is in order for poor, embattled Mr. Dlugosch. A more accurate statement might be: "While it is true that many microbreweries have failed, particularly as the bubble burst in the 90's, plenty do make money." One need only consider the slew of successful craft brewers operating today. Mr. Dlugosch acknowledges the publicly-traded Boston Beer Co. – how about big players like Sierra Nevada and the ever-expanding New Belgium; growing outfits like Left Hand; or little-known brands like Houston's Saint Arnold, which doesn't sell a drop of beer outside Texas yet has been expanding for years and is in the middle of moving into a new, larger facility entirely. Or how about upstarts like Charleston, S.C.'s Coast Brewing Co., which would sell more beer if they could only keep up with demand.

So yes, craft beer makes money. Like any other businesses, microbreweries that are well-run, offer a quality product and honor market demands can and do succeed. Not to the extent that brands like Bud, Miller and Coors do – no doubt about that – but I think most craft brewers would tell you they have no interest in that kind of success. Perhaps Mr. Dlugosch meant "it's not so certain that they make enough money to turn the head of a market analyst or stock trader."

No knock on him (necessarily), but perhaps in Mr. Dlugosch's world, if you're not making big moolah, you're not making money. So be it. But I think there's a place in our economy for small, locally run businesses that offer unique, high-quality (and yes, diverse) products to a fervently devoted, if relatively small, constituency.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Vienna Golden

For two reasons, in late April I realized it was time to brew something light and simple. One: the Columbia summer can get blazingly hot; even Natty Light doesn't do the trick all the time. And two: I had lots of folks (out-of-towners included) headed my way for a big party, so something more "agreeable" to mainstream palates was in order.

I settled on what you'd classify as a Blonde Ale. The recipe:

OG 1.054 FG 1.009
ABV 5.9% AA 83.3%
IBUs 22 SRM 6

100% Pacific Northwest Vienna

17.6 IBUs Magnum – 60 mins.
0.25 oz. Mt. Hood – 20 mins.
0.25 oz. Mt. Hood – 10 mins.

US-05 Chico yeast

Mashed at 149 degrees; fermented at ~60 degrees for seven days. The beer was then kegged.

I went with all Vienna malt to get a little more malty complexity than simple two-row pale would offer. Besides, no better way to get to know an ingredient than to feature it exclusively, and I had recently bought a sack of Vienna.

The calendar was not my friend – party guests were bearing down – and hence this beer was rushed through primary, through cold-conditioning, through carbonating and hastily offered up on tap. As a consequence, it was pretty green off the bat, especially considering the higher-than-expected original gravity and alcohol content (I was anticipating a lower mash efficiency; and how about that attenuation).

Two and a half months since it was rushed to the keg, the Vienna Golden is, happily, doing better.

It pours a clear deep golden color with a white, fleeting head. As with other light beers I've brewed, I'm pleased with the clarity I get from nothing more than whirlfloc (when I can remember to add it – I don't know if I did for this batch or not) and cold-conditioning. The beer is clear enough to read through.

On the nose, faint esters and a touch of cracker malt. It's not entirely as clean as I might prefer in this kind of beer, but on the other hand extra fermentables plus ale yeast are liable to do that for you.

The flavor is crisp, with notes of fruity/rosy esters plus a pale maltiness. Again, it's fruitier than I like my blonde summer quaffers to be, even though, yes, it's an ale. But I've had cleaner-fermented ales in my day. The body is medium with a smooth bitterness that lasts through a dry finish into the aftertaste, where a gentle lingering bitterness predominates.

Lessons learned? Don't get bamboolzed again on mash efficiency, and plan far enough ahead to let the sucker clean itself up and mature properly prior to packaging and serving. Something tells me the Columbia heat will offer plenty of chances for another crack.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bourbon Smoked Porter

Back in October, I brewed a double batch of Smoked Porter. The idea was to split the wort, ferment it with two different yeasts, and hit one keg with Bourbon.

Here's how I started out:

OG 1.062* FG 1.015*
ABV 7.2%** AA 75.5%
IBUs 44 SRM 37

39.6% German Rauchmalt
29.2% North American Vienna
16.7% Canadian two-row
6.3% British chocolate malt
4.2% Crystal 60
2.1% Roasted barley
2.1% Crystal 80

29 IBUs Magnum – 60 mins
11 IBUs Magnum – 50 mins
4 IBUs (1 oz.) Glacier – 10 mins

* Wort only
** After Bourbon addition; original ABV was 6.2 %

At this point I had about 11 gallons of chilled wort. Half the batch was fermented with US-05 dry yeast; the other half with Wyeast 2450 a.k.a "Denny's Favorite 50." This strain was first released last year as part of Wyeast's Private Collection series – apparently it's to be released again this summer, albeit with a new designation.

The half fermented with US-05 got a helping of Bourbon on its way into the keg. I wanted something decent but not too expensive; I settled on Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, a pleasantly good Bourbon in its own right and maybe even a little surprisingly so, since I don't otherwise drink Evan Williams. I worked with small samples, testing proportions until I settled on what worked out to 18 oz. Bourbon for the 5 gal. keg. If that seems like a lot, maybe it is – the hooch contributed 1.1% extra alcohol, and others had no trouble picking up the Bourbon.

The smoked malt got a little lost underneath what turned out to be a relatively more assertive Bourbon character. It's not over the top (at least, not in my opinion), but there is some discernible wood on the nose and Bourbon flavor on the palate. The not-insignificant 44 IBUs, in conjunction with some dark notes from the roasted barley and chocolate malt, tighten things up nicely on the finish. There's not much contribution from the yeast, as to be expected, and I'm not sure if you'd pick out any 10-minute hops if you didn't know better.

Nevertheless. The combination of roasty malt flavors, smoke and charcoal/oaky Bourbon notes seemed like a winning trio, and indeed they yielded a tasty brew. True, I could go for a little more smoke (which is usually the case when I drink any kind of Rauchbier, even supposedly 100-percent stuff like Schlenkerla; this means I'm basically hopeless) but overall I'd say the integration of flavors is rather nice, with a tasty chocolate note thrown in for added complexity, and despite others' comments, I don't think the Bourbon stands out too much. Just as important is the fact that, although 15% of this beer's alcohol came from straight liquor, the end result isn't too boozy or hot. Credit the high-quality Evan Williams as much as my mixology skills, probably.

The shame of it is, this keg just blew today and I've been so focused on giving this beer away and clearing space for the next brew, I'd never enjoyed it as much as I have just now. Pity.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Session #28 – Think/Drink Globally

For this month's Session, hosted by Brian over at Red, White and Brew we get geographical: Brian asked us to write about "the farthest brewery (including brewpubs) you have visited and specifically the best beer you had there."

A quick consultation with my memory banks and a map tells me it's Zum Uerige in Dusseldorf, Germany. That's about 4,350 miles from my current location in Columbia, S.C. For purposes of this exercise, farther still as I was living in Houston at the time of my visit – that's a 5,130-ish-mile trek.

The best beer I had there? Naturally, that would be ZU's famous Altbier, served straight from the cask outside on Berger Straße, in the picturesque, stone-paved setting of Düsseldorf's Altstadt. I've hinted at my affinity for Altbiers before, with ZU serving as some not-so-insignificant inspiration (not that my homemade crack at the style came anywhere close).

Liz enjoying ZU Weisse on Berger Straße

The Altstadt (literally, "Old Town") section of Düsseldorf is known for its picturesque buildings, its side streets crammed with bars and restaurants, its view of the Rhine, and of course, its tasty Altbier. Sadly, I did not visit the other Alt-producing brewpubs in the area – Im Füchschen and Zum Schlüssel round out the Altstad trio; Schumacher, the oldest such pub, is not far away – but did sample some of the other commercial examples – Frankenheim and Schlösser, if I recall. (Boy, sounds like I didn't exactly take full advantage of my visit to one of the world's great beer cities, eh?)

Nor did I spend much time inside Zum Uerige itself, such was the pleasantness of the scene outdoors. Had I taken more than a brief walk inside, I might have seen where that shiny new brewing equipment being moved into the building via crane was headed. (Left: Here I am standing next to some.) The interior of the building is quaint, pub-like and old-timey, with wood everywhere and an intimate feel, befitting its Altstadt surroundings.

So what would a return trip to the Düsselforf region call for? Doubtless, a closer look at the historic Alt breweries that give us such wonderful German ale. And how about a short trip south to visit neighboring – and big-time rival, so they say – Köln (Cologne to us Anglophones), another of Germany's historic brewing centers and home of the delicate, lager-like Kölsch. In a land prized for its stellar lagers, it's remarkable that such a relatively small slice of Germany has given us two of the world's great ale styles. I'd say that's worth the trip for any beer traveller

Spent grain is hauled out to the sidewalk in large bins. Some of it stays behind.
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