Monday, January 18, 2010

Batch 54 and Beyond

Under gray skies and light rain in the back yard yesterday, I squeezed in my first brew of 2010. On a purely trivial note, this is the 54th all-grain batch of my brewing life. Somewhat less trivial (at least to me) it was really now or never if I want to make a run at besting last year's personal best of 16 batches, considering the relentless train of winter storms now aimed at Southern California along with an increasingly busy work and family schedule. Moreover, having carboys and/or kegs sitting empty in the brew corner of our garage just never feels right.

The pressure to brew also stems from recently having to call a corny of my Helles on Wheels up to the front a few weeks early, to duty on the ole kegerator's Sunset Wheat tap. With the rest of my year-end series of German lagers sleeping in their kegs, I decided to start another series of English ales. I so enjoyed my first attempt last fall at a dark mild, as well as the subsequent English IPA, that I just couldn't wait to repeat the series. Plus this present batch of Brooks Leather Saddle Mild should just about be ready to go when the current keg on tap blows. Here is yesterday's recipe, only slightly modified from the first batch:

OG: 1038 (9.5°P)
84% Pale Maris Otter malt
8% Medium Crystal (60L)
5% Chocolate malt (450L)
3% Wheat malt
single-infusion mash at 155°F

approx. 20 BUs (calculated using Tinseth)
boil 75 minutes
Northern Brewer hops, 60 min.
American Goldings hops, 5 min.

White Labs English Ale yeast (WLP002)

Despite the light rain, my brew day went pretty smoothly. My brewhouse efficiency was a little higher than expected, but this was largely offset by less kettle evaporation on the wet day, so my starting gravity still came in on style. I use a rather primitive, but cheap and effective, water-bath system for managing fermentation temperatures. The temperature of one of the two carboys was spot-on this morning, at 67°F, and it was already showing some activity through the airlock. The other carboy, however, was sitting in the low 60s, so I quickly brought up the temperature several degrees with a boiling-water addition to the water bath. I've used this technique before to good effect, and I expect both carboys will be going strong by the end of the day.

Rather than repeat my fall series of English ales exactly, I'm going to experiment a bit in the weeks ahead. First, I'm going to add a couple ounces of cocoa nibs to one of the two carboys of the current mild as primary ferment dies down. I'm hoping that a week or so of "dry nibbing" will yield a nice chocolate aroma, but this is my first time using nibs, I don't really know what to expect. My second change from the fall series will be swapping out the ESB that I brewed last time for a completely revised version of my Roubaix Red, an American Amber ale. ESB is one of my favorite styles, but I wasn't thrilled with my own Penny Farthing ESB in the fall, and I've got a good supply of American hops I want to play with instead. Plus, I recently was inspired by a clone recipe of Stone's Levitation ale, and I'd like to try something comparable myself.

After these two session-strength beers in January, I plan to stretch the capacity of my mash tun in February, first with an encore batch of Century IPA-UK, then with a pair of half-batches of Barista Porter and an experimental oak-aged Man With the Hammer strong ale, the latter based on a clone recipe for my favorite beer of the 2009 winter holiday season: Lagunitas Brown Shugga'.

Then, in March, before the weather turns too warm, I plan to brew another series of lagers before moving on as summer approaches to a long-overdue series of something Belgian. As always, though, these plans are subject to change. Such are the joys of freedom that homebrewing allows. Cheers!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Brew Year Halftime Update

It's about halftime in the cool-temperature brewing season, as well as the end of another calendar year. I've managed to complete two full cycles of three beers each since the beginning of September, bringing my total for 2009 to 16 batches. That's still a few batches shy of our household's legally allowed maximum (200 gallons, if anyone is keeping track), but is nonetheless a new personal best.

Besides the quantity of beer brewed this year, I've been generally pleased with the quality. The first four beers I brewed in 2009 all won ribbons at various competitions, and a couple of my more recent brews (I think) would be worthy contenders, too, if I were to bottle and enter them as well. So far, my personal favorite is the Brooks Leather Saddle Mild I brewed back in September. It's a near-perfect clone of Moorhouse's Black Cat dark mild, and if judging in a competition, I'd give it an "excellent" BJCP score of around 40 out of 50. I used the same yeast in subsequent batches of Penny Farthing ESB and an English-style version of my Century IPA. The former was just OK--very clean and drinkable but rather lifeless--while the latter was probably my best IPA brewed to date. We've nearly finished off one of the two kegs of IPA, which proved extremely drinkable despite being full of interesting stone- and tropical-fruit flavors derived, presumably, from a combination of the malts, hops, and yeast-derived esters. A second keg of the same beer remains untapped as my first-ever experiment in wood aging. It spent a month on a small handful of Hungarian oak cubes, along with a pitch of Brett C. wild yeast and a couple of weeks dry-hopping. While not really historically accurate, it's nonetheless an experiment inspired by the IPA style's history as a colonial-era ale made for long ocean passages between Britain and British India. If nothing else, I'm anxious to see in 2010 what sort of complex (and hopefully still drinkable) ale is the result.

With summer temperatures now a relatively distant memory, I'm finishing up my last brewing cycle of 2009 with three lagers: a Munich Helles, a Bohemian Pilsener, and a Maibock. Primary fermentation is now finishing up with the last of these, while the first two are lagering. Because I had such success earlier in the fall with my English ales, I'm going to repeat a similar cycle early in the new year: another mild, another English IPA, and then one half-batch (5 gallons) each of my robust porter and a new idea for an oak-aged strong ale based on a clone recipe of Lagunitas's phenomenal Brown Shugga. I'll likely follow these ales with yet another round of lagers, and then as the weather gets warmer later in the spring, an overdue series of Belgian-style ales.

That's what's brewin' around here. May everyone have a Beery Christmas and Hoppy New Year!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Brewing Season has Arrived

Since the middle sixteenth century, the official Bavarian brewing season has begun on St. Michael's Day (September 29), which is effectively Germanic Catholicism's celebration of the autumnal equinox. With the emergence of Munich's Oktoberfest celebrations three centuries later, and the Great American Beer Festival three decades ago, the arrival of Fall has taken on even greater significance in brewing traditions world-wide. 'Tis the season for beer!

Like modern brewers of today, even those in Bavaria, I have no problem brewing during the summer, even if it requires a little more effort to manage my fermentation temperatures. Nonetheless, every year around this time I find an extra dose of energy around my brewhouse. And it arrived not a moment too soon. We emptied two kegs yesterday, which I was able to replace with two full ones waiting on deck in my lagering freezer. But that leaves just a single full keg in reserve, and four empties sitting around ready to be filled.

The good news is that those kegs won't be empty long. Fermentation is nearing completion on two carboys of a not-quite-mild Brooks Leather Saddle ale. This was supposed to be my maiden English Dark Mild, but a surprisingly high mash efficiency (due to the new grain mill at the homebrew shop?) led to a somewhat stronger ale that will end up being more of a Northern English Brown (OG=1045, expected ABV=4%). Over the next month, I plan to complete my series of English ales with an ESB and an IPA. All of these English ales will be welcome additions to the Bike Brew kegerator, which has been decidedly Germanic and Belgian for much of the year. Here, for example, is the current line-up:
  • Beach Cruiser Blonde (a Bavarian-American hybrid ale perfect for our warm SoCal Indian summers)
  • Dunkelrad (a traditional Bavarian dunkelweizen)
  • Gran Bel Giro Maibock (the first keg we enjoyed in May; the second keg is serving as our Oktoberfest beer)
  • Black Lion (a non-traditional ale of Flemish inspiration: a black witbier? a Belgian schwarzbier?)

Finally, the annual autumn energy surge at the Bicycle Brewery got an extra boost from the recent Pacific Brewers Cup. After getting off to an inauspicious beginning--I lost two intended entries in a glass-shardy mess on the floor of the homebrew shop--the PBC ended fantastically for me. The two entries that I did successfully deliver to the competition both took first place (!) in their respective categories; blue ribbons for my CrossXtoberfest Vienna lager and my robust Barista Porter. Alas, the remaining few bottles of each are set aside for the upcoming California State Homebrew Competition, so I'll just have to brew them again in the months ahead.

Friday, July 31, 2009

A Teachable Moment Missed

Yesterday was the ballyhooed "Beer Summit" between President Obama, Professor Gates, and Officer Crowley. Vice President Joe Biden also joined the party to presumably balance the Biertisch, 2v2, between elite Black men on one side and "working class" white men on the other, but also to add a lifelong teetotaler who reportedly drank a non-alcoholic brew. Whatever the event did or did not mean to the United States' national discussion of race relations, I'll leave to others to discuss. Instead, I'm more concerned about the gentlemen's rather uninspired choices of beer, beginning with the President's own selection of Bud Light.

I was pleased to see the question of their beer selection make the front page of the Wall Street Journal on the morning of the big event. Unfortunately, the article had two significant flaws. First, it concluded with an entirely unnecessary nod to neo-Prohibitionists, quoting the head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union--which few knew still existed--as well as Maureen Ogle. Ogle is the author of a popular recent history of brewing in the United States, and the book has made her a frequent source of sound-bites on American brewing. She's a talented writer and a competent researcher, but she frankly still doesn't know a heck of a whole lot about beer. Her book is little more than a hagiography of the Busch family and other "beer barons" from the German-American Midwest, completely ignoring the centuries of Anglo-Dutch brewing history that preceded the lager revolution of the 1800s. That said, Ogle has at least been a consistent and vocal public friend of U.S. brewers and beer culture--including the recent generations of independent craft brewers--and it probably wasn't her intention when interviewed to raise the Prohibitionist angle. Nonetheless, that's exactly what she did.

A beer writer who really does know his stuff, Jay Brooks, has already provided an excellent response to the WCTU and other Prohibitionists. My biggest gripe with the WSJ piece, then, is its out-of-date angle of economic nationalism. I am a globalist, and most expressions of nationalism make me uncomfortable, if not disturbed. I was thus disappointed (but not surprised) to see the article's coverage of beer selection focus on the brands' national provenance. Rochester, New York's Genesee Brewery, for example, is quoted as saying, "We just hope the next time the President has a beer, he chooses an American beer, made by American workers, and an American-owned brewery like Genesee." I don't begrudge the company for seizing on a potential marketing opportunity, but this question of "American or not?" was the sole angle of the story (other than the Prohibition thing). Yet it is such an out-of-date way of thinking about the world.

The missed teachable moment yesterday was that we live in a globalizing era which challenges our preconceived modern notions, sometimes for the worse, more often for the better. Perhaps falling into the former category--perhaps--is the trans-nationalization of global industry. This is how an historic U.S. brand like "Budweiser" ceases to be "American", or so it might be argued, since as of last year, it belongs to the Belgium-headquartered, multi-national giant awkwardly known as AB-InBev. But it could also be reasonably argued that the President's Bud Light yesterday remains a genuine, red-white-and-blue American beer, since it was made in a U.S. brewery and it's a brand that remains overwhelmingly consumed in this country. By the same token, though, there are many popular "foreign" beers that are actually brewed in the United States, such as Japan's Kirin and the Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell, which for the Southern California markets at least, are more economically produced at the local Budweiser and Miller breweries. The bottom line is that one simply cannot honestly slap a national flag on 21st-century corporate enterprises; to do so is to engage in a 20th-century rhetoric that ignores the realities of 21st-century economic geography.

Globalism at its best provides spaces in which the authentic and meaningfully local can thrive, after a long period of being shrouded and effaced by stifling modern nationalism. As Randy Mosher recently wrote in Tasting Beer, the vibrant world of craft beer, and Slow Food in general, offers hope for a more interesting and humane future:

"For more than a century, this immigrant nation tried to find ways to become one people. Finding common language in mass-market, ‘modern’ products was one way to do this: Campbell’s Soup, Wonder Bread, American cheese. They’re still on the shelves, but the bright, soulless rationality of these industrial icons no longer holds so much appeal. Many of us would rather have our bread unsliced, our cheese moldy, our coffee freshly roasted, and our beer dark and maybe just a little bit hazy. Irrationality can be a beautiful thing. (p. 142)

"Craft brewing adapts itself to the culture, market, and tastes of wherever it finds itself, but the basics are always the same: people passionate about the flavor of great beer, brewing up fresh character-filled beers of all strengths, shades, and sensibilities. Quality beer is a part of a lifestyle that values the experience of living, of making every moment an adventure, every taste worth tasting." (p. 211)

Just as human beings cannot be crudely boiled down into stereotyped racial identities such as "Black" and "White", the products of human activity can not, or at least should not, be bland, simplified commodities. Despite popular misconception springing from decades of corporate megabrewing, all beers are not made alike, differentiated only by their packaging and brand images contrived on Madison Avenue. No, beer comes in a profound variety of colors, aromas, flavors, textures, and strengths--dramatically more so than other enthusiastically consumed beverages such as wine, whiskey, coffee, and tea (all of which I also drink and enjoy in their tremendous variety.)

This is what made the beer selection at the White House yesterday so uninspiring. It wasn't so much the crude national geography of the brand's identities or present corporate ownership, but the simple fact that two of the three chosen beers--Bud Light and Red Stripe--are generic, insipid, twentieth-century light lagers, engineered to be as inoffensively flavorless ("drinkable") as possible. (Officer Crowley's choice of Blue Moon, while part of the MillerCoors portfolio, at least is styled after something more disntinctive and interesting, the Belgian witbier.) Beer, just like human identity, is so much more than a simplified commodity.

What a missed opportunity, then, for yesterday's "beer summit" to celebrate authentic, flavorful, hand-crafted products made by local entrepreneurs. Rather than an endangered species, these "small business" icons of economic populists are presently thriving in our global age of consumer choice and world-wide information flow, at least in the brewing industry. There is no shortage of potential selections from either the greater Washington, DC, or Boston areas that the President's party could have chosen, and in the end, it was nice to see the Harvard professor trade in his faux-Jamaican Red Stripe for a much more flavorful and authentic Sam Adams Light from the Boston Beer Company. Imagine, though, if the President had invited, say, Garrett Oliver, to guide the foursome in a sampling of craft beers from across the United States. It would have provided a wonderful moment for these four men, from different walks of life, to see both their similarities and their differences in an entirely new way. ("I really like this hoppy IPA, Mr. President." "I don't know, I'm more partial to the malty doppelbock.") Exploring the surprising and interesting worlds of beer, both new and old, global and local, could have been an ideal metaphor for seeing "race" in America in a fresh way, one that seeks out our fundamental unity while also celebrating our very real differences--differences which, like our similarities, may not conform to our preconceived ideas of what race, or beer, is supposed to be.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Randy Mosher and My Favorite Beer Books

I hesitated before buying Randy Mosher's new book, Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink. After all, I'm a relatively veteran homebrewer, as well as an officially recognized BJCP beer judge. Plus, just about every other book or article I read these days has something to do with beer. So really, what else is there for me to learn? Since my thirst for beer information apparently knows no bounds, I picked up a copy of Tasting Beer nonetheless. And how glad I am that I did. As author of two previous books and countless articles in beer-related publications, and as a member of the Board of Directors of both the Brewers Association and the Chicago Beer Society, Mosher is something of a celebrity among the homebrewing community today. Moreover, his professional background is in graphic design, and one feature of his books--I now own all three--is that they are visually very attractive publications. Mosher's first book, The Homebrewer's Companion, is now somewhat out-dated, as many of the attractive worksheets it contains have been effectively replaced by excellent homebrewing software that is now widely available. (On my Mac, I like both BeerTools Pro and BeerAlchemy.) Mosher's second book, Radical Brewing, remains a classic, and it should be on the bookshelf of any homebrewer looking to experiment with new ingredients and otherwise move beyond the beginner's level. But it's his new, third book that will likely establish Mosher as one of the English-speaking world's foremost experts on beer. Rather than addressing homebrewers, this book targets a much larger audience. It's for beer drinkers, rather than beer makers, and it would be ideal for anyone interested in getting more "gusto" (a wonderful Italian word that Schlitz marketers unfortunately hijacked) out of their daily pint. Mosher provides a true celebration of beer. He guides the reader through the world's greatest drink's history, science, and many stylistic personalities, while also providing practical advice on how best to serve and enjoy your beer (glassware selection, serving temperature, food pairing, etc.). Mosher displays a deep and detailed understanding of beer that only an experienced brewer and afficionado such as himself can provide, yet he does so in a very readable, concise, and straightforward manner, so that a complete beer novice would enjoy this book, too. This one is for beginners and experts alike. If you like beer, you'll love this book. Here, then, is my new list of Favorite Beer Books:

Best Book on Enjoying Beer

Randy Mosher, Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink (2009) Honorable mention: Garrett Oliver, The Brewmaster's Table (2003); Michael Jackson's Beer Companion (1993, 1997)

Best All-Around How-To Guide for Home Brewing

John Palmer, How to Brew: Everything You Need to Know to Brew Beer Right the First Time (2006)

Honorable mention: Charlie Papazian, The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing (1983)

Best Guide to Homebrew Recipe Design

Ray Daniels, Designing Great Beers: The Ultimate Guide to Brewing Classic Styles (1996, 2000)

Honorable mention: Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, Brewing Classic Styles (2007); Randy Mosher, Radical Brewing (2004)

Other Categories

Best world history of beer: Ian S. Hornsey, A History of Beer and Brewing (2003) Best U.S. history of beer: Stanley Baron, Brewed in America (1962) Best brewing science textbook: Michael J. Lewis and Tom W. Young, Brewing (2001)