Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Oh my! You caught me learning to use my brew pot!

As any 15-year-old guy can tell you, intimate knowledge of your equipment is very important to discovering how it works.
The same applies to brewing.  All it takes is a little bit of prep and it makes life a whole lot easier.  The whole object of brewing is to have fun and if you are stressing about not making enough beer to fill your carboy, you are not having fun.
It's all pretty basic.  For instance, you should know the capacity of all of your vessels.  My mash tun will hold 8 gallons, my hot liquor tank 4.5 gallons and my brew kettle will hold 9 gallons.  This impacts how I do things.  If I am making something which would normally call for a 5.5 gallon sparge I have to put the extra gallon into my strike water.  I actually forgot to do this on my brew this last weekend and had to run another gallon through my hot liquor tank towards the end of my sparge.  It didn't effect my numbers, but did make me feel like an idiot.
Know where you need to fill your brew kettle in order to get enough finished volume to fill your fermenters.  Otherwise, and I have done this, you will end up with only 4.5 gallons in a 6 gallon fermenter.  I have even put painters tape on my carboys to indicate the volume levels.  It makes it easier for me to know exactly where the 5 gallon mark is, so I can add my yeast starter without getting the fermenter too full.
Know how much volume there is in your kettle below the spout.  If there is 3/4 of a gallon below the spout and you have exactly 5 gallons in your kettle transferring to your fermenter, you are going to be short a good fill level.  Here is something I just did recently, I took my brewing spoon and used permanent marker to mark what the volume of my kettle is at 1/2 gallon increments.  Before doing this, I would fill a gallon jug and pour it in my pot, making just more work for myself. 
I wish I would have thought of marking my spoon years ago.  If I get another brew pot I will just use a different colored marker to mark the measurements on the spoon.
Do all these measurements with water, not wort.  Basically, just set up your brew system and run water through it.  Something else to measure is how much volume you are going to lose because of evaporation.  Depending on the shape of your pot, it can range from one to two gallons, which is a huge range when we are doing 5 gallon batches.
During brew day take good notes.  I try to write everything down.  Stuff like the weather on brew day impacts how the beer heats, how well it boils and the time it takes to get to ferment temps.  If I have some sort of problem, I jot it down.  Not just so I have more info to tell you jokers, but also hopefully I won't make the same mistake again.
Part of taking notes is knowing what you are working with.  I used to just brew, not bothering to take any readings, and just figured the beer would be what it was.  Granted, this is a pretty low key approach and if you don't hit your numbers you don't care because you don't know.  The trouble with doing this is, if you are trying to brew a 1.070 beer with 40 IBUs and you end up with a 1.050 beer, then your IBUs will be about 60.  It may not turn out to be a bad beer, but it will not be the beer you intended to brew.
Homebrewers just starting out can be easily intimidated by the chemistry of brewing, the thousands of possible ingredients and the huge variety of styles.  The volume of a gallon of water is a constant and by taking the simple step of finding out how to measure a gallon on your system you will save a surprising amount of headache.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is this a good idea?

Not every screw up turns out of be an unmitigated disaster.  Some fall more into the "Pleasant surprise from a dumb idea" category, or "What was I thinking?"
            A couple of years ago, as the cooler days of fall turned the palate towards more robust brews my friend Jim and I began to talk about brewing a beer for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.  I had brewed several other beers lately so there was enough of a selection we could try something fairly exotic and it would not be a big deal if it didn't turn out.
            For myself, the best part of Thanksgiving is the pumpkin pie.  Hands down, I would prefer to eat pie and drink beer than mess around with turkey and congealed cranberry shaped like the can it came from.  The natural sweetness of brown ale would work well with the pumpkin pie spice but our revolutionary idea was; rather than put pumpkin in a beer, why not put beer in a pumpkin.
            Getting a big pumpkin turned out not to be that big of an issue, we never weighed it but I would guess it weighed 40 or 50 pounds.  However, once we had it we faced several logistical issues that called for the suspension of certain brewing maxims. 
            What is the volume of a 50 lb. pumpkin?  A pumpkin is hollow, sort of, but without knowing the thickness of the skin there was no way of knowing what kind of carrying capacity a pumpkin has.  In theory, one could calculate the volume by measuring the pumpkin but ours had a non-standard circumference and we didn't have the mathematical skills for such calculations anyway.  So we just guessed and figured it would either be a stronger 5 gallon batch or a slightly weaker six gallons.
            Is it possible to make a pumpkin airtight after cutting the top out to scoop out the seeds, or to use a technical term, pumpkin guts?  While the wort was happily boiling, we cut the top of the pumpkin off with a butcher knife and scooped out what seemed like 20 pounds of seeds and those weird stringy pumpkin intestines.  Since our pumpkin had an odd shape we duct taped it to half a plastic barrel to add stability.   We stuck an airlock in the pumpkin lid to release the pressure but this turned out to just be mainly ornamental, since the top of the pumpkin was in no way airtight.
Can a pumpkin be sterilized?  Short answer, no.  However, my thoughts were, "Hey, what kind of bacteria can live inside a pumpkin anyway?"  With this kind of negative thinking dashed aside, we left our pumpkin vessel alone and drank another beer, adding a can of cooked pumpkin to the wort for a double dose of gourd.
Will a pumpkin hold water? If so, for how long?  This may sound silly but it was a legitimate concern.  Was our pumpkin going to get soggy and precious beer start seeping from its pores?  In this respect, we hedged our bets by only keeping the beer in the pumpkin for 24 hours, and then we moved it to a carboy and proceeded like any other beer.
            I have to say, I was surprised with the way this beer turned out.  I was expecting something nasty, the kind of beer you give to the one beer-mooching friend who is always hanging around, but it developed into a beer with subtlety and depth.  With the first drink, the pumpkin pie spices were on the forefront but as that faded into the ale's sweetness the slow taste of pumpkin floated to the top. 
            However, in just as much as the beer was not horrible, it wasn't really very good either.  After considerable research I realized, while I thought I liked pumpkin pie, I really only like the sugar, whipped cream and spices.  Basically, all of the stuff which hides the taste of pumpkin.  There is a reason you rarely see just pumpkin on a menu, it tastes gross.  The reason I wasn't really excited about my pumpkin ale is I don't like pumpkin.
            I had a similar experience trying to make a good hefewiezen.  I tried a couple of times but eventually realized:  I don't like hefewiezen.  I'm not a huge fan of big Belgian beers and I haven't made one is several years.  I am still searching for a saison I like enough to get me excited about making one.  I used to not care for Scottish beers but after having a few good ones I plan on brewing one this fall.
            Homebrewing is all about experimentation and expanding your beer repertoire.  Just ask yourself if you even like the flavors or styles you are thinking about putting together.  If you don't like broccoli, then don't try to make a beer out of it.  My advise is know what you enjoy.  It is a lot easier to buy a few beers until you know something will work before devoting the time and effort to creating a beer you would never like, even if it is made perfectly.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Is that a subtle touch of "Crack Whore" I'm tasting?

A while ago I was drinking homebrew with a friend and he said, "You know the difference between an amateur and a professional photographer?  An amateur shows you all his pictures and a professional only shows you the ones which are good."
"What the hell do you mean by that?" I said.
What he meant was:  I was presenting a selection of beers, some of which were good, and some which sucked.  He would have rather only drank the good beer.  I thought making him get rid of some of my shitty beer was the price of free drinking.  So, there was a bit of an impasse.
Anybody who has spent much time around homebrewers has been faced with a crappy beer and a moon-faced brewer who claims they want your honest opinion.  Probably, 90 percent of the time they don't and will get all offended if you say, "Are you trying to poison me?"  or "This beer has more infections than the floor of a peepshow booth."
What you need to evaluate is whether or not the brewer really wants feedback or if they just want smoke blown up their ass. 
The best way, I have found, it to let someone evaluate their own beer.  Ask, "What were you trying to accomplish with this beer?"  Most of the time someone has a pretty good idea what they wanted their beer to be:  "A clone of Heineken," or "An oatmeal stout."  Once they reveal what the beer should be they should come to a conclusion on how close they were to the mark.
Brewers, let's be honest with ourselves, not everything we produce is liquid gold.  One of the hardest steps in identifying how you need to improve is learning to be critical of your own product.  It's difficult because you are pouring your heart into crafting something beautiful and it just turns out shitty.  It's like having an ugly kid.
The first step is just asking the questions, "Does this beer taste good?  If I ordered it at a bar and paid $5 for a pint, would I be pissed off?" Sometimes the beer may not be totally what you were anticipating, but still pretty drinkable.  That is the real determination of quality, when you finish your beer you should want to have another one, not switch to a different kind or lick a cat butt to get the taste out of your mouth.
Most of the time, the beer you are brewing has been brewed before.  This gives you a place to start.  If you are trying for an American brown ale, then pickup a brown or two and see how yours compares.  They probably won't taste the same but they should be similar enough to say they are in the same class.
Don't sell yourself short.  Anybody can produce prison hooch, but anybody can also make commercial quality beer with a big pot and a bucket, you just have to stay sanitized, don't be cheap and control temps.  Don't make excuses like:  "It's only homebrew," "Toe cheese is my house flavor," or "It'll get me drunk."  Hold yourself to a standard.
I have made enough crappy beer to fill a hot tub.  To be honest, some of my bad beers were probably better suited as an ass-wash than for drinking.  However, I struggle with just dumping beer, so what do you do with the junk?
Age it.  Some problems will clear themselves up.  Hop bitterness, oak tannins and sharp roastyness will all mellow with age. Occasionally, six months or a year will make a bad beer into a pretty good beer. But like herpes, time will not clear up an infection of bacteria.
Man up and drink it.  Stop being a baby and just choke it down.  This is a way to pay for those mistakes.  You can drink a couple of good beers and then switch to the bad stuff, put it in a beer bong, or mix it with Sprite.  Whatever it takes to put it down.
Give it to goobers.  When people find out you are a homebrewer the first thing they always says is, "I want some!"  If someone is genuinely interested, and I like them, I will put together a mixed six of quality beers for their enjoyment.  However, there is nothing more frustrating than when someone says about an award winning porter, "I didn't like it.  It didn't taste anything like Bud Light."  Give people like this your junk beer.  A Bud Light drinker won't know the difference between a perfectly brewed stout and pond water.
Get feedback.  If a beer didn't turn out and you are just not sure why, take it to a homebrew club meeting and ask people to taste it, but warn them it is off.  Odds are, you are not the first person to screw something up and you might get advise to help out.
Other uses.  Slugs are attracted to beer.  So are wasps.  You can use it to fertilize the garden or rejuvenate brown spots in the grass.
The bottom line is take pride in your beer and try to only show the world your best efforts.  In order to do so, you will need to be critical of your failures but don't get discouraged when a couple of batches go wrong.  Just identify how they went wrong and learn from the mistakes.