Friday, February 26, 2010

More Reading....

I have picked some new books from the Library (I know, I am cheap).  I just finished Redhook by Peter Krebs.  It is about Redhook Brewery's (Washington State) start up story through the 1980's and 1990's until the craft beer shakeout of the mid-nineties.  Until the mid-nineties they were growing at 25-40% a year and were looking at going national.  It took me two days to read.

The early days of the craft beer movement seemed to be a crap shoot.  Redhook started with a MacEyvered Brewery in a Transmission Shop and an unknown wild yeast strain that mistakenly made their English style ale more of a Belgian.  They got their quality problems fixed by the time they moved into their new brewery (they were still successful or on a trajectory to profitability during their early quality problem filled days).  It was a time that the beer didn't necessarily have to be good, but they were master's at marketing and selling ideas.

I took three things away from this story.

1. Don't forget about the importance of being local and accessible....this can help you survive.
2. A new brewery can help brew better beer (although I think that it is both the equipment and the attitude of having new equipment).
3. It doesn't hurt to have connections (early in life).

#1 is for later.  #2 justifies my equipment purchases, and there is nothing I can do about #3 for myself.  But there is something to instilling the entreprenurial spirit in your children.  Risks versus rewards.  There is a bit of gambling spirit in my family tree (perhaps mild addiction), but not in the business starting way.....more like the stock investment way (which is impersonal and a non-hand dirtying way of trying to get rich, but feels like shooting craps).  Starting a business is dirty work that takes real work (to produce a product or service), lots of money (for equipment), as well as a lot of bullshitting your way to getting what you want from people (mostly money).  I don't mind the real work, but while I am probably good at the Bullshit part, I really have found I don't want to do business with most people, especially those that could provide monetary assistance.

I also have the book Evaluating Beer, edited by Brewing Publications but I can't get into reading it.  It isn't keeping me interested.  I also have The Bio-Chemistry of Brewing (1957) by I.A. Preece.  I am going to start it now that I am done with Redhook.  Wish me luck.  I am not sure why I even want to read this as it looks to be technical and dry (even by 1957 standards), but I have read many of the recent books on brewing, and they are often poorly written.  I also don't know if I will gain anything useful from a book written over fifty years ago.

Monday, February 22, 2010

I Need Glasses!

Last week, I broke one of my favorite beer glasses.  Luckily, I had a spare (of the favorite).  I  now have three beer glasses (I used to have 5) and this one broke very much the same way the other three did.  Specifically, they succumbed to the dishwasher.

I don't know if it is the high pressure jet spray, the heat, the chemicals in the detergent, or the movement of the glasses when opening or closing the dishwasher that causes beer glasses to break.  I don't have this trouble with other glasses.  I have at least one mason jar liberated from The Blackstone (a bar in my college town) over twenty years ago. (The statute of limitations has expired on this crime, right?  I hope so.)  It has been washed in the dishwasher (and dropped) countless times.

Beer glassware comes in many sizes and shapes.  Many experts will tell you that like wine, a proper shaped glass will enhance your experience of the beer, and the style of beer will dictate which glass is best.  We all know the straight sided pint glass that is common in bars.  It is thick walled and durable (hence for use in bars).  We all can imagine the Guinness advertisements with the billowing stout in the slightly top-heavy curved Guinness glass.  And many of you would recognize the standard English Pint glass with the bumps on the side an inch or so below the glass rim, the massive frothy steins from Oktoberfest in Munich, and the slender or conical curvy glassware of German Pilsners or Wheat beers.

Many European breweries design their glassware for their specific beer, to enhance the flavors and aromas.  You see all kinds of crazy shapes in a Belgian Beer Bar from brandy snifter shaped glasses of all sizes, to fluted champaign type glassware, to crazy glasses with no flat bottom (with a wood holder).  The Boston Beer Company specifically designed a glass for their Sam Adams Boston Lager.  It has all kinds of technically advanced features to enhance the drinking experience.

I have tried the Sam Adams beer glass.  I can't say it did anything specifically for me, but I didn't compare it to a Sam Adams in a simple glass side by side.  Someday, I'd like to try that, but for now, I call this overkill, and most of it bullshit.  I don't like drinking craft beer from a bottle (or especially can), but don't mind drinking cheap American-Style Pilsners this way.  I don't like beer in brandy type snifters (too frilly) or huge heavy-glassed steins.  I don't much like the straight sided bar pint, either.

For me, I am okay with the breweries trying to enhance their product's presentation through the use of innovative or unusual glassware.  It makes it more like an artistic expression (which beer is, I believe).  However, for me, a beer glass is much more a personal expression.  It should feel good in your hand, it doesn't necessarily have to enhance the beer's attributes, but shouldn't create a barrier to drinking, smelling, or experiencing the beer inside.  I like thin-walled glasses that are more vertical than wide (but not too tall) and have some slight curve to them.  I like to think of them as slightly feminine. The thick glass and angular straight sides of a bar pint or the brutality of the mug that could be used as a weapon is the epitome of the masculine glass.  While the buxom beer glasses that are more wine glass, brandy snifter, or tulip shaped that are traditionally used by Belgian Breweries and nascently by craft breweries for their bigger and more aromatic beers are decidedly more feminine.  They remind me of the perception of feminine beauty exhibited in Renaissance Art.  The Sam Adams glass has some of this, too much curve, too many "attributes".

I don't view my glass choice as much of a sexual thing as my last paragraph might suggest.  I view it as more of a practical matter and matter of preference on many levels that fits my philosophy and life style.  I don't want a million specialty glasses that take up a lot of space and resources.  For my beers I have sought a practical glass with elegant style that fits in with many situations.  The little black dress, the comfortable shoe, an all wheel drive sedan, the comfy couch.  As with many things, I like to occupy the middle ground.  Like Goldilocks, I want to find the one that is just right....for me. 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Born to Be a Beer Rep....

I am sitting at the Cheeky Monk in Denver, listening the beer rep from Stone Brewery in San Diego talk to the owner of the Cheeky Monk....(AWESOME Belgian beer Bar on Colfax in Denver)

I was born to be a craft brewery's representative.  Not to disparage this guy I am listening to, but my whole life has geared me to promote a craft brewery.  I have a degree in communications.  I have a degree in land planning and a decade's experience in presenting land use cases.  I have been a homebrewer for 15 years.  I have studied and known beer like no one else (that is not currently in the brewing/beer industry) that I know.  I remain undiscovered and available.

How do I get the street cred to do this job?  I actually applied for such a job advertised for Boston Beer (Sam Adams) here in Denver....go figure, I never got a call back.  I know there are thousands that would love to do the job, and many from a beer, I am unexperienced....and it is not a good time to be unexperienced.  I just need a chance.....  

I wonder if there is any small brewery upstarts that would be willing to hire me for free?  Asher Brewing in Boulder (organic brewer), Crabtree in Greeley?  Anyone?  I feel like I could sell it, if it is decent.  Unfortunately, Upslope (Boulder) is already too big and/or successful.  I need some more experience.

I figure, that I will need to start my own brewery.  I am cash poor (or just plain poor) for such the endeavor.  And everyone I know is just getting along, no source for capital.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Postscript on Competitions

I got a nice comment from one of the folks at Ska shortly after posting my Fair Criticism piece today.  You can read it here.  The comment reminded me that there are a few other nice things about AHA/BJCP Sanctioned Competitions.  First off, I do know who judged my beers.  They include their names, their Judging Qualifications, and e-mail addresses on the score sheet.  This is nice because most of the judges are more than happy to answer questions about their comments (if they can remember them) or assist in trying to suggest ways to fix the problems in your beer.  It is easy to ask these people for more insight in a non-threatening way, and more often than not they oblige.  In our case,  the comments and scores on our score sheet made sense, were completely fair and constructive, and will make us better brewers.  The fact that we were judged after the winner of the category is just luck of the draw.  I do not mean to imply that I would have "really" placed higher in the event if I got an earlier or later tasting.

The second nice thing is that all of the judges at all of the competitions are volunteers.  They take their judging seriously and some have impressive formal training and/or street cred to back up their judgement.  Of course, it is easy to say that volunteering to drink home brews all afternoon doesn't exactly qualify you as a Saint (Nothing does really), but there are a lot of competitions all over the country every week and a lot of entries to those competitions.  It is difficult to find people with enough insight, expertise, and willingness to perform these volunteer tasks as well as all the tasks involved in putting on a competition.

The third nice thing about competitions is the craft and local brewing communities.  Almost every person, at every brewery, and every judge is into beer like I am, and they will talk with you, share information and experiences (and sometimes a beer or two) with you.  Almost anything you ask, they will talk with you about it.  They are this way with Novice Newbe Homebrewer, as well as their so-called competition across town.  I have heard and read stories of established brewery helping new upstart brewery, as well as tasted many a beer collaborations.  This is crazy stuff.  Imagine if Augustus Busch IV phoned Pete Coors to share a recipe tip, borrow a vat of yeast, got together on some crazy Festivus Beer, or sat down to judge beer for homebrewers together?  Although, I bet if I shot Fritz Maytag (Anchor Brewing) or Jim Koch (Boston Beer) an e-mail, I might even get a real response.  I should try this some day.

Putting on a competition takes a lot of volunteer effort, and relies on a lot of volunteers.  I have been meaning to attend and volunteer as a steward (beer helper).  This would give me a broader insight on how the judging is done, and might give me the impetus to start down the beer judge path.  In fact, many friends are surprised that I haven't already.  To know me though; I don't like to be involved in competition about anything.  Sometimes, though, I get too wrapped up in them, however, and it is a side of me that I don't like.  Still, the tight-knit, seemingly non-competitive brewing scene compels me to get more involved with beer competitions, even though I am weary of actually competing (to win, at least).  I just wish that the rewards for winning weren't so great.  It seems like the craft side of the industry is poised to lose something greater as a result.

In the interest of full disclosure, if I ever do win any Best of Show  (especially to a Pro/Am invite, a Long Shot, or for any reason obtain a Golden Ticket to Sierra Nevada Beer Camp), I will scream like a little girl, cry, phone my brother, cry some more, and accept the prize with honor, awe, and hopefully a great dose of humility.

Fair Criticism

Last month on a whim, I entered my Red Ale into a the Snowdown Home Brewing Competition.  Yesterday I got my feedback.  It was judged by two of the professional brewers (and owners, I think) at SKA Brewing in Durango, CO. 

In a positive spin, we were awarded Third Place in the American Ale category.  This should be good news, but the rules, facts, scoring, and judges comments ferret out the beer as average at best.  Their were 6 entries in the category and we tied for third with a score of 26 out of 50.  We weren't listed as the official winner as our score was rounded up (we had 51 divided by 2) while the other had 52 divided by two.  Our beer had the unfortunate circumstance of being tasted immediately after the eventual winner of the category (with a score of 36).  That will rip a few points away right there, but our score of 26 was probably right on.  My ultimate goal is to brew beers consistently in the 30's or get low marks only for being out of style.

I never felt that our Red Ale itself was a good example of an American Amber Ale (think Fat Tire or Avalanche), it was supposed to be a red ale (more like an Irish Red with more hops and less body), and I had thoughts of entering it as an Irish, but the comments that came back would have been the same (as judged against that category).

Some interesting comments were: "Aesthetically great but not much flavor" and "very clear, good head, but it went away quickly, perfect amber color".  I agree, this beer looked fantastic, all bright red and clear with a semi-good head.  "Very thin and watery, astringent".  I agree again, this beer lost its fresh hopiness very quickly, and since we brewed it in the cold, we had a hard time getting and keeping the mash temp up where I wanted it.  We mashed at 151 and lower and I would have opted for 155-158 and lower.  "Needs more hops and a more interesting yeast strain" and "This beer would benefit from an amplification of all flavors".  I think the yeast strain comment nailed it.  I have been using the American II yeast for these last few beers, which is neutral and had decided from our last 5 beers that it was too clean and attenuated (fermented out sugars) too completely to be my favorite yeast.  I think it worked well with the dry hopped APA and it didn't hurt the more robust porter and holiday beers but didn't leave enough in the glass for the Red.

All in all, I feel that the feedback matched my gut feelings about the beer.  I have a hard time tasting specifics in beer, and rarely get good feedback from my casual drinking friends and relatives.  Their palate's are not even as good as mine.  I always have reservations about entering beer in competitions, as I brew beers for my tastes and the tastes of my friends.  I rarely seek to hit a specific style as defined by the AHA, but rather what I think a style should taste like.  I am not brewing (nor will I ever) to win anything.  Competitions have become such a, well, competition, and I am not really into competitions.  The stakes are higher than ever for both pro and amateur brewers.  This particular competition was a pro/am competition where the overall Best in Show will be brewed by Ska Brewing for the Great American Beer Festival's Pro/Am competition.  This sure would be a dream for me, but makes it too high stakes.  And many competitions are heading away from the "friendly" events I think they should be.

Winners of the national AHA competition last year got a "Golden Ticket" from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company to attend an intense "Beer Camp".  That is an experience that is unavailable at any price for the casual home brewer even though I would benefit even more than the guys that won (and again, another item that qualifies for the brewing bucket list).  There are specific articles circulating about how to brew to win competitions where suggestions include blending of beers, correcting flaws post brewing, entering out of category (using a lager yeast for an ale category), or timing beers for the competition.  I don't suggest that this is cheating, may the best beer win, after all.  And winning has its benefits.  However, I brew for myself, and winning would be nice, but I don't see myself doing anything but taking a beer out of my cellar and entering it in a competition.  I would never brew specifically for competition, or trying to do anything I wouldn't normally do to brew good beer.  For me, if I got our beer entered and judged when it was freshest and best, I might have gotten a few more points.  I probably wouldn't have won my category, it wasn't even close.

In the end, I think the feedback makes me a better brewer, and that is how I personally win.  In the meantime, I have entered some other beers in another local competition, and while I hope to do well, I more hope to see good feedback on all of them, and hope that what I am tasting is what the judges taste too.

I will let you know the results when I get them back.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Beers of the Month

I got my first installment of the Beer of the Month Club today.  It was a gift from my wife for my 40th birthday.  Next month will be the last month of it.  It is expensive ($30 per 12 pack).  The beers I received were Primo Island Lager from Hawaii and Session Black Lager from Full Sail Brewery in Oregon.  I had read about each of them in recent issues of All About Beer Magazine, and was interested to try them.

Since it was a gift, I tore into it as such.  The first beer I had was Primo.  Primo is a throwback lager developed from an original 1890's recipe that was brewed on the Islands.  It is a light american style lager and the packaging indicates it has a "touch" of Hawaiian cane sugar.  To tell the truth, I didn't have high hopes for it before I opened it.  It came in a twist off bottle that I can't even re-use for my brewing.  It poured a deeper gold than I expected, with a nice white two finger head that subsided to a creamy film that lasted the rest of the glass.  It was plenty cold when I tasted it, and I was impressed.  It had no aroma of malt or hops and was very clean tasting with no aftertaste.  The difference was it had a nice fullness to it, a slightly heavier body than the light lager I supposed it to be.  As it warmed it started having that slight skunky flavor and aroma along with a little warmth of the alcohol.  I suppose the flavors and alcohol are coming from the cane sugar added.  It in no way was as skunky as the big name American Lagers.  I would enjoy this beer much more than any of them on a hot day, or any day.  This beer is for my light lager friends (and you know who you are).  It is slightly fuller bodied, but in no way overbearing, nor horribly high in calories or alcohol content.  If this is how beer tasted before Prohibition, it tasted pretty darn good, and what in the hell were those Do Gooders thinking with the 18th Amendment.  Those Bastards ruined it for everyone.  Actually, I have had throwback lagers before (See my posting on the 2009 Lager Festival Here, where I had Michelob Grand), and found them to be much more to my liking than today's American beers.  According to the packaging, proceeds from the sale of Primo Beer go towards the preservation of Island Culture.  Take that you Do Gooders.

My second Beer o' the Month Club was Session Beer from Full Sail Brewery out of Hood River, Oregon.  It comes in an eleven ounce "stubby" bottle like Red Stripe and Olympia beer of the olden days.  Although this beer also comes from the Pacific Northwest like Olympia, the packaging and the region of origin are the only things in common with Oly.  I was kind of excited about the 11 ounce stubby bottles.  I was thinking that they might make nice compact shipping bottles to send my beer to friends around the country.  To my dismay, the bottle was a twist off (not good for re-use).  The other problems I found with Stubbies is that the first opener I grabbed wouldn't work on it as the bottle's body got in the way of my long handled opener.  Not to worry, I had a backup, and then discovered the twist off.  The other thing about the stubby bottle is that while they are fun to drink from, I elected to pour it into a glass.  The stubby pours like an old school pull tab can and glugs out of the bottle creating a bunch of foam using my normal pouring technique.  I think that the rest of my six pack I will drink directly from the bottle.  It poured dark brown with a light tan head that subsided quickly but left the lace on the sides of the glass.  The aroma was of slight malt and my first taste reminded me of a lighter and less heavily bodied Porter.  In fact, it is very similar to a light version of my Porter (which used Anchor Liberty Yeast and American Cascade Hops) that I need to taste them side by side.  I would call it a Porter Lite.  After all, it is designed to be a "session beer", low in alcohol and light in body so that you don't fill up having a few.  I could drink these, but I am not sure that I would seek them out.  I would prefer a Porter given the choice.  Still, the stubby bottles are fun, and you now don't have to drink Red Stripe (which I hate) to drink out of Stubbies.

Both beers are worth getting if you want something lite or you have friends that are at least a little adventurous in their beer selections, but really mostly stick to light American Pilsner Lagers when ordering for themselves.  They would be most impressed by these session beers.  Both would be good for your Super Bowl celebrations where you and most of your guests have to get up for work the next day.  I don't (have to work, that is), so I will enjoy sharing some of my homebrew with some new friends on Sunday.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Still Stuck on the Stuck Mash

Ok.  So I ran out of gas talking about my stuck mash problems yesterday.  I was in mid-stride, and taking in air for some long-winded explanation, and all of a sudden, it left me.  I didn't care.  I knew you didn't care.  It didn't matter.  I was stuck myself.

Life is like that sometimes.  Well, for me, it is that way a lot of the time.

The answer to my stuck mash is much the same as my stuck professional career, my stuck life.  I don't like the answer, but it is simple, really. (for my non-brewers and those with the queasy feeling that I might not be talking about beer anymore it might again be time to go on to something else....again).

It all comes down to patience.  Stuck mash.  Stuck life.  There is nothing you can do about it once it has happened.  You just have to start all over again, and it is never easy to take it slow and think about what to do.  In fact, for me, getting stuck makes me feel like I am falling behind and makes me make rush to make hasty decisions even more in an effort to catch up.  This is true in my life as well as my brewing, but for now, lets look at the mashing problem.

The mash sticks when the grist is too fine or when the weight of the grains and water compacts the grains so tightly that very little wort comes out.  This happened to us because we were running the wort out too quickly and adding too much water on top (in a method called batch sparging).  The answer (if I want to do it right, that is):  Slow down.  Close off the drain valve to a trickle and don't add all the water at once (in a method called fly sparging).  This will help prevent a stuck mash from happening.  There are other tricks too, but this is the main one.  We are always in a hurry to get the sparge done and transfer the wort back into the kettle to get it boiling (and get the whole day done).  We are impatient because we use the same vessel for mashing and boiling.  We do a transfer to our small (and old friends) 5 gallon kettle and a 5 gallon bucket.  We heat the first runnings of wort in the kettle while we are finishing sparging into the bucket.  We need to clean out the mash tun to get the wort into it to start our final boil before the wort in the 5 gallon pot boils over.  Often, we don't have enough water to sparge, too (so we need to heat some more).  It gets hectic and stressful during this transition between sparge and boil.  This is an equipment problem that causes the impatience problem which compounds the issue of needing more water and a place to put the wort while we clean and start the next step (see existing set up above).

I have previously recognized the need for three large capacity vessels, but now I fully understand why: One for heating water (a Hot Liquor Tank (HLT) for both the mash in and sparge water, one for actually mashing the grain (Mash/Lauter Tun), and one for boiling the wort (Kettle).  Of course, then, we need at least two heating sources (we have one vessel and one heat source) as well.  It will simplify the process to heat more water than we need (in the HLT), and allow hot water to be slowly sparging into the mash tun while we are slowly draining wort out while simultaneously heating the wort to start the boil.

Adding a dedicated HLT and a Boil Kettle would allow the process to proceed at the necessary slow pace, but would not delay us or have us rushing to clean out the grains or race to avoid a mess of a boil over.  So, our equipment problem and our lack of patience are connected.  If we apply our patience (without the expensive equipment additions), we may be able to avoid some of the problems, but it slows our day down a bit more (and who has an infinite amount of time?).  But, we are still racing to clean and re-clean the same vessel to be used in successive steps.

It all is clear to me now, but confusing as hell, I am sure to all of you.  I always thought that our multipurpose mash tun/kettle was  more simple and manageable (and not to mention less expensive and space consuming), but it is causing us delay, stress, and lower yields.  The quality of the finished product suffers too(there is hot-side aeration, lack of grain bed filtering, loss of efficiency, loss of wort in boil overs....on and on).

Ok.  It is time to add more equipment to the brewery.  I don't mind, we were heading this way anyway.  But I also need to work on the stuck career.  Sadly, in this economy and the situation I find myself in, the only real prescription is patience.  Either, I wait it out, or I wait it out by learning to do something else.  Either way, I will have to wait.  Wait to start something new while I train, wait until the economy picks up to resume what I did, wait for the right company to need the right person with my particular skill set, any or all of the above.  This is the definition of stuck.

I am really crappy at waiting.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stuck Mashes

Since I have been going on and on about having a stuck mash, I thought I would elaborate on it.  Many of my readers don't know what the heck I am talking about, and this happens often.  It makes me feel bad, and leads to lengthy explanations such as this.  If you are not interested in brewing, I thank you for reading, but you may want to check out another blog for today.  I suggest using the next blog button on top of my blog.  It now takes you to another blog on the same topic, which is kind of cool.  It used to be that the next blog button would take you to some teen-aged girl from Singapore's blog about her and her if you are a pedophile, but now it is subject specific....well sort of.  Try it and let me know what cool stuff you run into.  I should make a contest out of this.  

Ironically, I have never run across my blog when starting from another's blog and hitting next blog.

So, I have been complaining about stuck mashes for my last two brewing sessions.  For the uninitiated, or the casual extract brewer, I will start from the beginning.


One of the longest running sitcoms in history (except for the Simpsons, now) spanned 11 seasons (the Korea War only lasted 3 years) and 251 episodes.  MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Unit.  It has no bearing at all to brewing other than they used to distill in their tent (the swamp) which involves some similar techniques to brewing and it is a black comedy and a classic, and I still enjoy every episode I watch.

Mashing in the brewing process is the act of breaking down starches to simpler sugars that yeast can consume to produce alcohol.  The action is performed by enzymes that are contained within the malted barley.  All we do, as brewers, is create an environment that is most agreeable for these guys to do their work.  The two main enzymes that break down the starches work well together in warm moist environments between 140 and 158 degrees Fahrenheit.  So we add hot water to the malted barley and allow time for the enzymes to work (and we drink beer while it is happening).

The hard part is getting the sugars out of the grains.  So, we rinse them with hot water (above 170 degrees F).  What comes out is a sugary dark liquid (between pale yellow and black depending on the beer) called wort.  A stuck mash is therefore when no wort will come out (or stops coming out).

The malted barley is crushed (using a mill).  The degree to which it is crushed determines how much sugar is released and how easy it is to get the sugar out.  If the malted barley is crushed finely, the amount of sugar that is able to be extracted goes up, which is good.  If the malted barley is crushed too finely, however, the malted barely is turned to a flour consistancy, and when water is added, you make a sugary glue.  This is not good.  Although the sugar is in there, it ain't coming out, thus, STUCK MASH.  So, the art is to crush finely enough to extract as much sugar as possible, but prevent the Stuck Mash.  There is, of course, technique involved in that grey area to maximize the yield or efficiency.

I will discuss more about the techniques, and what went wrong at my house at a later time.  I need a beer.