Sep 27 2009

Homebrewed Spiced Sweet Potato Ale – Bad Yama Jama

So, I swore off brewing pumpkin beers a few years ago.

It’s a perfectly fine beer to brew, but I’ve brewed them twice over the last few years (once with real pumpkin and spices, and once with just the spices) and that was enough.  But weird ideas and challenges change everything.  Like brewing with sweet potatoes.

Well, the original plan was to brew with yams, but it was difficult to find yams locally, so I grabbed some North Carolina sweet potatoes.  (BTW – Yams and sweet potatoes are not even distantly related.  Good. To. Know. But that didn’t stop me from naming it “Bad Yama Jama”.) 

As far as pumpkin beers go, what’s really important are the spices.  The pumpkin doesn’t really add any flavor to the beer and only a small amount of fermentables.  As long as you brew a good beer and then throw allspice into it, TA-DA you will have a pumpkin beer.  The idea, this time, was to use something unusual in the mash and put a twist on pumpkin ales. 

There isn’t much information out there about brewing with sweet potatoes, so I just made it up as I went along.  First, I bought four pounds of NC ‘taters and I cooked them in the oven for 90 minutes at 350 degrees. 

Sweet Potato Ale - Out of the Oven

Once they were nice, soft, and juicy, I skinned them and crushed them up for the mash.

 Sweet Potatoes


Sweet Potato Ale - Sweet Potato Mash

I was assuming that the smashed up sweet potatoes would give me the nastiest stuck mash ever, but they were relatively easy to use.  I put the 4 pounds of sweet potatoes in 10 pounds of grain, and I really don’t think the whole thing would have become messy unless I had used about 10 pounds of potatoes.   I held the whole thing at 152 degrees for 90 minutes in the hope that that would be long enough to convert some of the spuds into something fermentable.

Sweet Potato Ale - Sweet Potatoes in the Mash

The boil was straight forward, and I added some of the spice in at flame out.  It is really easy to go over the top with spices and it is impossible to take them back out.  So, I just used a ¼ of a teaspoon of nutmeg, allspice and ginger and one cinnamon stick.  That won’t be enough, but the tweaking of the spices happens after fermentation when I make a tea of the spices and add them to taste.

The key to this kind of beer still lies, in my opinion, in the spicing.  The sweet potatoes didn’t add that much in the way of fermentables that I can uncover as my efficiency rates were not much higher than I would have expected without the potatoes.  Perhaps, at tasting, I will find an improvement in mouthfeel.  And, if I do, it could just be psychological.   

I haven’t bottled this one yet, but I probably will within the next week.  It was a fun and creative experiment, but I need to double the amount of sweet potato to make this one stretch my brewing skills.   And I doubt I’ll do that again soon.  Well, until I get another absurd idea.

For giggles, here was the recipe.  (The mish-mash of hops was because I was using leftovers.)

Bad Yama Jama – (Spiced Sweet Potato Ale)

Starting Gravity: 1.050 (9/7/09) Days @ 68º F
Final Gravity: 1.010 (9/23/09)
5.23% alcohol (by volume)
Apparent Attenuation: 79.31
Real Attenuation: 64.36

Mash (@152º 90 min)
11 lb Maris Otter
0.5 lb Crystal 40
0.5 lb Crystal 105
0.25 Special B Malt
0.25 Melanoidin Malt
4 lbs NC Sweet Potatoes (Baked for 90 minutes at 350 degrees, peeled and mashed)

Boil (60 minute boil)
0.25 Hallertauer Pellets (3.7 AA) (60 min)
0.20 EK Goldings Pellets (4.75 AA) (60 min)
0.33 Horizon Pellets (10.9 AA) (60 min)
0.25 Nugget Leaves (Homegrown) (12.0 AA) (60 min)

Spices at flame out:
1 Cinnamon Stick
1/8 tsp Nutmeg (ground)

1 tablet Whirlfloc (Boil – 15 min.)
½ tsp Brewer’s Choice Wyeast Nutrient Blend (Boil – 10 min.)

Primary (68º F)

Safale S-04 English Ale

Spices made in tea and added to Primary after fermentation:
1/2 tsp Allspice (ground)
1/8 tsp Ginger (ground)
1/8 tsp Nutmeg (ground)


Sep 10 2009

The Dominion Cup 2009 Homebrew Competition

I went down to the Dominion Cup BJCP competition on August 29th with a few of my fellow homebrewers from the CAMRA club in Charlottesville, Va.  The Dominion Cup is the largest homebrew competition in Virginia, and it is run by the James River Homebrewers, which is the Richmond homebrew club.  The three of us were going to help out during the competition in three different roles, and it was my first real chance to see a BJCP judging in person.

The Cup happened at the Capital Ale House Downtown and took place in the Music Hall room behind beside the restaurant and bar.  It was intimate place to see a band, but it was big and roomy venue for a beer judging to go down.  It was a long and dark room with exposed brick walls and dark wood, but the judges were ready with flash lights in hand.

Dominion Cup - Morning Session Judging

I was assigned to be a steward which basically entails making sure that the judges have everything they need to score and judge their assigned beers.  That means getting the table ready with a pitcher of water, crackers, cups, pens, a dump bucket, the appropriate forms, and any other items they might need.  That’s the easy part.  The interesting, and more challenging part, is keeping the paperwork orderly.  The judges are filling out Beer Scoresheets, and you are trying to keep those straight while juggling the Cover Sheets (to organize all the related papers with each entry) and the flight sheets which track the individual and agreed upon scores for each beer in that category.

The great thing about these competitions is that the beers are judged without knowing the brewer for each beer.  That’s important if you want real and honest feedback from the judges.  Now none of the judges that I met would have been anything less than honest in their reviews of the beers, but it really is hard to say that any among us wouldn’t be unconsciously influenced by knowing the brewer and our perceived notion of their brewing skills and reputation.  To avoid that, beers are separated into the appropriate BJCP guidelines, and they were all in 12 ounce, brown bottles without labels or marks on their caps.  Each bottle then gets a competition label conveying which style of beer it has been submitted to and its cryptic number, which is only linked back to the brewer info’s on a computer held by organizer of the competition.

So part job of the steward job is keeping all of the information together and organized so the right scores and feedback get to back the organizer and the homebrewer who made it.  That is the real bottom line in these competitions: getting quality feedback from experienced judges so you can make better beer and hone your craft.

Of course, the cool part for a steward is being able to listen in to the judges as they talk about each beer after they have thoughtfully filled out their sheets.  It is beer geeking at its best.  You can also taste along with them and compare your mental notes with the experts.  I worked the morning and afternoon sessions, and in the first I was assigned to one of the American Pale Ale tables and, being a popular category, that is all that those judges scored.  For the afternoon, I was assigned to the Porters table and that encompassed Brown Porters, Robust Porters and Baltic Porters, which can vary from each other in significant ways, but they are all still competing against each other in the Porter category.

Dominion Cup 2009 - Afternoon Session Judging

I was very impressed by palates on the judges and their ability to pick out nuances out of the beers.  One of the huge obstacles in judging can just be taste fatigue.  Realistically, they are only having a few ounces of each beer, but after having a few ounces of 9 beers, my mouth started to get a little tired.  I could certainly drink more than that, and did afterwards, but it a challenge to keep your taste buds focused after wave after wave of beer.  I respect their ability to do so, because I don’t think I’m there yet.

Dominion Cup 2009 - My Only Look is Confused

Yeah, this is pretty much my only look.  It is all I have to work with.

Dominion Cup 2009 - Greg Doing Some Judging

Greg did some judging, so he got to see the competition from the other side of the table. 

Dominion Cup 2009 - Tom and *** as the Cellarmen

Tom was a cellarman with Mark from the James River Club.  They had a good but, probably, an occasionally frantic time.   

After the second session was over, it was time for the Best of Show judging.  That was composed of the best beers from each category.  I’m not quite sure how the BOS judging works because it must be hard to compare a Flanders Red with an Oatmeal Stout with a Bohemian Pilsner, etc.  It must just be one of those blink moments where the heavens open up and a few beers just shine through.  

Dominion Cup 2009 - Best of Show Judging

As you can tell from the picture above, it was show of colors and flavors.

In the end, it was a very successful trip for the CAMRA guys.  We got to see how a BJCP competition works, and the club walked away with 15 medals in the competition.  I was very happy to receive the inaugural Plato award, which is a “Brewer of the Year” award, for the most 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finishes.

Final results from the 2009 Dominion Cup:

Some takeaways:

It looks like putting on a competition of this size is a ton of work.  The Dominion Cup had 366 entries which is very impressive and a big jump from the previous year.  One of the things my club wanted to check out was the feasibility of putting on a competition of our own in the coming years.  We now know that it will be just as difficult as we had imagined.  I have to give lots of credit to the James River Homebrewers for making it all look so seemless and easy.  We know it couldn’t have been, but they did a great job.

The feedback  sheets were good, illuminating and I’m honestly still plowing through those.  Often, the hardest part about feedback is deciphering the handwriting of the judges. (Hint: Cursive = bad.)  Overall, the beers I thought would do well did, and the beers I thought were average, or off style, did just ok.  My highest scores were for my “Fritz the Cat” (Gumballhead clone) American Wheat beer, which scored a 43, and my “Cleopatra Jones” American Brown Ale, which scored a 39.  My lowest were my 27 for “Up on Cripple Kriek” (Kriek Fruit Lambic) which was one of my first sour beers and it really didn’t get sour enough, and my Cherry Waterloo, which scored a 28.5 and it was the subpar side of a split batch of Berliner Weisse.

And it was interesting to see how my younger beers fared.  I submitted an American Barleywine that was only 9 months old, and it took 3rd place.  And that same 9-month old barleywine, that I aged a little longer on bourbon and oak cubes, took 2nd place.  Also, my Flanders Red, which is a beer that often doesn’t find its stride until about 18 months, got a 2nd place medal and it was only about 4 months old.  I’m pretty geeked to see how these beers will taste when they start to hit their peak.

The big surprise, for me, was seeing my entries in the Spice/Herb/Vegetable Beer category do so well.  My Chai Milk Stout (no clever name) got a 1st place medal, and my Bombay the Hard Way Coconut Curry Hefeweizen got 3rd place.  (Which is very surprising because I thought that was a failed experiment, but it just need time to age and mellow.) That was very cool, and further fuels my mad scientist method to brewing.  (I should be posting something soon about my Sweet Potato Ale brew day, too.)

Once again, it was a great time, and we look forward to competing again next year.  The club is now more determined than ever to get some of our members BJCP certified.


Sep 2 2009

Brew Ridge Trail Music Festival 2009

August 22nd, 2009 was the date of the Brew Ridge Trail Music Festival, and I wasn’t quite sure if I was going.  Clouds and rain were all over the weather maps, and there was some sideways rain hitting my house making me rethink a day outside with music and beer.

Despite common sense, I packed up the family and drove down to the Brew Ridge Trail Music Festival which was being hosted by the Devil’s Backbone Brewery in Nelson County, Va.   Central Virginia is wine country, but the brewers are quickly catching up.  The “Brew Ridge Trail” refers a group  of breweries, and now a cider maker, that are mostly west and south of Charlottesville that could be toured in one day. (a map of the trail)  The Devil’s Backbone physically hosted the festival behind their brewpub and Starr Hill, South Street, Blue Mountain and Albemarle Ciderworks brought their brews and ciders along, too.

Brew Ridge Fest -  The Devil's Backbone

Despite some ugly rain during most of the trip out to DB, it cleared up and slowly turned into a pretty day.

Brew Ridge Trail Fest - Arriving

The admission tickets was pretty reasonable with the cost being $15 in advance, or $20 at the gate, for adults, $10 for kids 3-14, and kids under 3 were free.  Where the cost of the gig could have really piled up was the $5 per ticket price for beers.  But, for some reason, the cider was cash only.

The breweries rolled out their year-round brews, and there weren’t any surprises in their line-ups.  Since I was familiar with all of the great beers by Starr Hill and South Street, I mostly concentrated on the beers I had not tried from the others.  Stand outs, for me, were Blue Mountain’s ÜberPils Imperial Pilsener (smooth and slightly grainy) and the Devil’s Backbone’s Fresh Hop ale (which I could only get by going inside the actual brewpub, but it gave me the hop fix that I wasn’t going to get anywhere else that day.)

I wish I could tell you a little bit about Albemarle Ciderworks, I only had a sip of my wife’s cider and I’m not well versed in that beverage.  It seemed dry and refreshing, and there was definitely still some apple lingering in the taste.

I can tell you the line for beers was barely existent and the beers were cool and poured to order.

Brew Ridge Trail Festival - Glass (sweet pic by Holly C - Thanks)

The bands, mostly of the alt-country and nouveau bluegrass variety, were great and the Infamous Stringdusters put on a long and high energy set.

Brew Ridge Music Festival - Infamous StringDusters

Brew Ridge Music Festival - More Infamous StringDusters

The Sons of Bill began to rock the crowd as night fell and taps were turned off.

All and all it was a fun gig, but it definitely felt more focused on the music than the beers.  There were families in attendance (I brought mine), and there was nice tent set up for kid crafts, but the focus was the stage and the bands planning.

Brew Ridge Music Festival - The Gig

I will be really interested to see how this gig evolves next year.  The bands were great, but it there was a lot of space for more adult and kid activities, and perhaps even more vendors.  I imagine this is typical for first year festivals.

I’d also love to see some of the breweries bring there more unusual and seasonal beers to the gig.  Starr Hill brought their Festie Oktoberfest beer, but it would have been cool to see some more seasonal, one-offs or pilot batches on tap.  It might be a great place to test these beers outside the madness of larger brewfests with the actual brewers on hand for feedback and praise.

It was a fun first year gig, and I’m glad the weather cooperated.  I am looking forward to the Brew Ridge Trail Music Festival becoming bigger and better.