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.
Related Posts with Thumbnails