Dec 31 2009

Collaborative Brewing During Bockapalooza

Here’s a strange little admission: I had never done a collaborative brewday until a few weeks ago. 

It’s not a secret or anything.  It is just a bit surprising since I’ve been brewing for 14 years at the time of this blog post.  Sure, I’ve hung out with someone who was brewing and I’ve had prospective brewers watch me brew before, but I’d never worked together with someone to brew beer until the big bock brewday I just did with my friend Greg.  I guess that’s a long time to have, essentially, worked by yourself. 

There’s a huge opportunity in working with another brewer and seeing their methods, peeves and shortcuts.  And I’m sure that I would be a better brewer now for working with peers and gathering some solid best practices over the years, but brewing alone has some benefits. When you brew alone, you establish YOUR method.  You get a rhythm to your day and timing down in the repetition.  Also, you get a good feel for tweaking your methods since you are the only person performing all of the brewing actions.  Put another way, if you are the only person doing everything, you are going to be a bit more consistent batch to batch. (Albeit, perhaps, consistently either bad or good.) 

But these are minor advantages and, honestly, they could be my unconscious attempt to justify why I always ended up brewing solo. 

Fast forward to October during a homebrew club meeting and Greg and I discovered that we had both had plans to brew a doppelbock in December.  This seemed like a great time to join forces.  And, of course, like all great ideas it quickly swelled from the realistic brewing of a doppelbock to the absurd idea of a marathon brewday that would net us 12 gallons of doppelbock and 12 gallons of eisbock.  This is makes the day a game of logistics, because the beers are similar but not quite the same. And you are talking about 80 pounds of grain and still unknown, once you factor in the chilling, amounts of water. 

Doppel and Eis - Sparge Water

LOTS of water

After we each bought a bag of grain (Greg bought a 55# bag of Munich and I bought a 55# bag of pilsner) and a couple of weeks of planning, I drove over to his house, in an unusual early December snow, to commence to Bockapoolza.  It started off very orderly, although our 10 gallon mash tuns were filled to capacity with the grains need for these high gravity beers. 

Doppel and Eis - Mashing In

Greg: Mashing like it was his job

Doppel and Eis - Distracted Me

Me: Pretending to work.  What a hobo.

Doppel and Eis - Mash Totem Pole

From the “don’t try this at home” department, we created a mash tun totem pole.  Just. Because. We. Could.

There was down time in between, of course, where I acted like I was doing something important. We, unlike a side by side brewday, we had to stagger our batches a bit. This was simply because Greg had a homegrown wort cooling system (made from a pond pump and using blocks of ice, simple but genius) that we wanted to use to get the bock worts down to below 50 degrees. 

Doppel and Eis - Double Boil

Double Boiling

The double boil went smoothly and the heat from the burners kept his deck warm and dry from the snow. 

Doppel and Eis - Perspective to Big Ass Starters

Extreme Yeast Starting

 Since these were big and lager beers, we needed to go strong on the yeast we were going to pitch.  Greg headed up this effort and started up two beastly batches of yeast.  After he talked to the Wyeast people, he went with the Wyeast 2206 Bavarian lager and Wyeast 2124 Bohemian lager yeasts.  The doppelbock received 100% Bavarian yeast, and the eisbock received 35% Bavarian and 65% Bohemian yeast. 

Doppel and Eis - Four Carboys

Four Carboys of Love

In the end we came out with 24 gallons of finished beer, although I think it was a much longer session than we both were expecting.  But it went by quickly due to the amount of brew (or busy) work that needed to be done and we had a few beers and a nice lunch during the session.

What did I learn? Honestly, less than I expected.  But, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have anticipated all that much knowledge would be dropped into my head because of what we were trying to do. We weren’t co-brewing a simple 6 gallon homebrew batch that we both could have done blindfolded.  We were attempting something bigger and stranger than either of us had ever done before.  This was a very cool collaboration, because of the teamwork and creative thinking we need during the day, but there were very few opportunities to swap methods.

What was interesting is that I came away with a clearer idea of what kind of brewer I was.  Greg is a big front end planner in grain and water ratios, and then he lets the beer be the beer it wants to be once it hits the fermenter.  I’m the opposite, which isn’t to say that I don’t wring my hands over recipe formulation and double checking my numbers in brewing software.  I just work in more of a zen state DURING the brewing since I’ve done this so many times, it just have a feel for it.  Put another way, when you are riding a bike you don’t actually put any thought into leaning into a turn.  It is instinct.  I don’t get obsessed with the numbers once the brewday begins.

This isn’t to imply that my fellow homebrewer is inexperienced. He’s a great brewer.  Greg just goes into the relaxed zen state during fermentation. That’s where I get bunged up, take meticulous notes and sweat the fermentation temperatures.

That’s another reason why I dig homebrewing so much.  I’ve documented before that I love that this hobby uses all of the creativity and science that you can throw at it.  Both sides of your brain can get nice workouts.  But, for me, the act of brewing is a few hours of meditation and getting in a groove.  A runner’s high.

So, in the meantime, scheme a plan and brew with a friend. Don’t wait as long as I did.


Dec 31 2009

Barlow Brewing 2009 Homebrew Year in Review

A friend of mine did this sort of year-end wrap up on his blog, and I thought it was cool and decided to do one of my own.  For the hardcore homebrewers out there, or those who are trying to break into the ranks of the pros, my list is modest. But the number of batches and gallons I did during 2009 feels a bit absurd to me as a guy trying to hold down a job and a family.

Anyway, an interesting review for me, and I’m sure it will inform my 2010 brewing.

– Number of Batches Made – 20
– Number of Gallons Made – 119
– First Brew Day – 1/3/2009
– Last Brew Day – 12/5/2009
– Number of Beer Batches – 18 (14 ales and 4 lagers)
– Number of Cider Batches – 2
– BJCP Homebrew Competitions Medals Earned – 3 Gold, 5 Silver, 5 bronze, 1 Honorable Mention, and The Dominion Cup Plato Award (Best All Around Brewer)
– Batch with Highest Alcohol – 11.21% – American Barleywine “Wendigo”
– Batch with Lowest Alcohol – 3.8% – Mild “Sonic Death Monkey”
– Average Alcohol Across Batches – 6.49%
– Favorite Brew – “Cleopatra Jones American” Brown ale (Big, hoppy brown ale riffing off McDole’s Janet’s Brown ale)
– Favorite Brew (Runner Up) – “Fritz the Cat” American Wheat ale (a 50% wheat American wheat beer hopped only with Amarillo hops, a Gumballhead clone)
– Favorite Brew – “Stupid Sexy Flanders” Flanders Red (Sours are tough to brew and age, but this Flanders Red aged was on French oak, Pinot Noire and the Roeselare blend was amazing)
– Worst Brew – “Hop Surge” American IPA (It fermented out too low, and I added malto dextrin to bring it back up. Just ended up sweet and gross)
– Worst Idea That Turned Out OK – “Bombay the Hard Way” Coconut Curry Hefeweizen (I thought this one might end up a carbonated marinade, but it did well and won a medal or two.)
– Best Idea That Turned Out Just OK – “Bad Yama Jama” Sweet Potato Ale (It was a good beer, but I should have cranked up the spices and potatoes a bit more)
– Favorite Name – “Stupid Sexy Flanders” (The Simpons are always an inspiration)
– Approximate Amount of Grain used in 2009 – 287.45 pounds (average of 15.97 lbs/brew)
– Approximate Amount of Hops used in 2009 – 56.89 ounces, or 3.55 pounds (average of 3.16 oz/brew)
– Biggest Equipment Upgrade – Converted a 15 gallon keg into a keggle (brewpot)
– Biggest Trend – Sour Ales – Batches Brewed – 4
– Biggest Trend (Runner Up) – Oak Aging – 4 batches aged on French oak


Dec 11 2009

Charlie Papazian, and Just Brewing and Getting a Little Better at It Each Time

I was quoted today in a Charlie Papazian article in The University of Virginia Magazine


The connection between those two is that Charlie Papazian graduated from UVa in 1972 with a nuclear engineering degree.  If you don’t know anything about Charlie, do yourself a favor and read up on the father of homebrewing, and find out about the significance of his hard work for the homebrewing movement. Here’s a few of the thoughts I shared with the magazine:

When I got my first homebrew kit back in 1995, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing book came with it.  This was before the internet and, later, during the early years when we didn’t know what to do with the World Wide Web. Unless you could hang out in the local homebrew shop, or buddy up with a more experienced brewer, not having that book was like not having an instruction manual.  You were lost.

Books have come out since that time that are more technical, and go much deeper into the science of brewing, but he was the first American to write a book that taught the novice how to brew.

And he gave us the phrase: “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew.” That might sound trite or too hippie in today’s society, but it was just what the new homebrewer needed to hear. Brewing great beer requires meticulous sanitation and attention to detail and, if you think about it too much, you become overwhelmed and paralyzed with worry.  Charlie gave you the confidence to just brew, and get better at it each time.

In the big picture, he founded the Association of Brewers, which later turned into the Brewers Association, and the American Homebrewers Association.  These are important organizations that protect the rights and interests of craft and homebrewers.

The brewing industry has changed, too. Every year the big American breweries lose market share, but craft breweries are growing in leaps and bounds.  These craft breweries were started by homebrewers who were bored by what the big boys were making.  These craft brewers went pro, which is every homebrewer’s dream, and they embody Papazian’s creativity, work ethic and sense of fun. 

He’s the father of American homebrewing, and he continues to be important to homebrewers and the brewing industry today.

But you know all this already don’t you?  Don’t you?

The University of Virginia article about Charlie Papazian


Dec 3 2009

A Homebrewer’s Take on Cider Making

I’m not an expert on cider. I’ve been brewing beer for more than a couple of years but, in terms of cider, I might be a step above a newbie.

The good news is that there are experts out there and, just like with brewing, I find there is a direct correlation between the ones who know what they are talking about and their willingness to be remarkably helpful and patient with your questions.   In other words, if you are asking advice of an “expert” and he or she is an asshole to you, run the other way.

I’m fortunate enough to have a master cider maker in my homebrew club, and he is the inquisitive man behind this wonderful cider-making thread.  He has connections with local orchards, and has made cider with many types of apples, yeasts and sugars.

I thought I wasn’t much of a cider fan, but it turns out I just have a narrow window of what I enjoy right now in a cider.  I like there to still be a good amount of apple flavor and some lingering sweetness.  After trying my friend’s various batches, I chose the one that I wanted to have 5.5 gallons of.  My cider recipe and methodology is his.

So here is cider-making, from fresh-off-the-tree apples, from a homebrewer’s perspective:

This one started with 6 gallons of fresh apple juice from a local orchard.  The mix was 80% Stayman apples and the last 20% were a mixture of Empire and York for a little tartness.  As a side note, merely picking up the fresh squeezed juice is definitely a nice change from a 4 or 5 hour all-grain brew day. Once I got the carboy home, it was time to go to work.

The Juice - Stayman, Empire and York

The clock starts ticking once that juice is pressed.  With homebrew, you want fementation to start as soon as possible.  If it takes too long, there are unfortunate side effects that will definitely take the shine off your beer.  With cider, you’re dealing with a lot of highly fermentable juice that is full of simple sugars that are raring to go and, here’s the urgency, they are covered with wild yeast.  You can take all of the apples and carefully wash their skins before crushing them, but that yeast and bacteria is still there.  In order to have a controlled fermentation, with the yeast of your choosing, you need to pitch your yeast and get it fermenting quickly.  There will still be that wild yeast in there, but a healthy starter will safely outpace the spontaneous fermentation that would naturally occur.

The next step was to add some sweetness to the juice and to bump up the gravity a bit.  The starting gravity of the juice was 1.050, and I brought that up to a 1.065 with the addition of 24 ounces of turbinado sugar and 16 ounces of dextrose. Turbinado is an easy to find unrefined sugar, that adds a sweet complexity, which can be found at any good grocery store. Dextrose is the simply the same priming corn sugar you would use to bottle condition a beer.

Cider 2 - Turbinado

I simply poured both sugars into the carboy with some yeast nutrient, and then I stirred it up for a minute an aeration wand attached to my cordless drill.

Next up was a pitching the yeast and, despite the fact I never rehydrate the Safale US-05, I did so with this batch just to be safe.  It seems like I’ve been using this strain a lot lately, but it is the way to go for very clean and attenuated beer.  Also, it was the recommended yeast from my cider friend and my favorite of his batches.  Once the yeast was in there, I put the airlock on the carboy and let go at room temperature.

Fermentation of ciders is a very low-key event if you are a homebrewer.  There is a krausen of sorts and CO2 is bubbling out, but it is in no way the violent creation of alcohol and flavors that beer is.  At peaking fermentation, it is simply bubbling like a soft drink.  That is as calming and charming as watching goldfish swim around a tank, but I really do prefer when things blow-up (real good).

Cider Ferment

The tricky part of a cider, at least for me, is stopping the fermentation.  Ciders are so full of simple sugars that, left to their own devices, they will ferment down to bone dryness.  The first cider I ever tried to make dropped down to a 0.990.  For those not familiar with gravities, this means that enough alcohol was produced to make the cider thinner than the density of water.  It wasn’t bad, but it was a little high in alcohol and it put a hurt on your head the next morning.

There are two main ways to halt cider: K-Meta or cold crashing.  K-Meta (more properly referred to as potassium metabisulfite) will drop out your yeast and halt fermentation, but those with more sensitive palates will detect a residual taste.  Sodium metabisulfite will work interchangeably with K-Meta, although some might have minor concerns about adding sodium to the cider.

My local expert only cold-crashes, so that was my method, as well.  The sweet spot (pun intended) for me was 1.006, so every few days I would wine thief out some of the cider and test the gravity.  Once it hit 1.010, I put the carboy in the cooler and dropped it down to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. In an act of kind chance, the cider stopped fermenting at 1.008.  That was close enough for me.

I left the cider in the cooler for another week to try to clarify and drop out anything else in suspension. I bottled it soon after and let it bottle carbonate.

(There will be a picture of the cider in a glass here in the future…..)

How did it turn out? Flavor-wise, I’m very happy.  It is slightly sweet, and a nice bit of apple flavor up front.  I will have to review it on a separate blog post at some point down the road.  Despite adding sugar at bottling time, it did not carbonate much at all.  That doesn’t really bother me, but for the next batch will pitch some fresh yeast at bottling. If you have the capability, keg carbonation is probably the easiest move.

Will I do this again?  Sure.  It is amazingly easy and cheap. ($18 for 6 gallons of juice, and a few dollars more for the sugars and yeast.)  It is a nice change from the usual brewing skills I use, so I’m flexing different muscles.

In a way, cider making seems a bit more like making wine.  With homebrewing, you need fresh ingredients and mad brewing skills to make a good batch of beer.  With cider and wine, you still need great skills, but the majority of the battle is in having the best apples or grapes.  I recommend using fresh apples if you have the ability to get them.

What’s next?  Something that is affectionately being calling “Lambicide”.  A cider made with a lambic blend of sherry and wheat yeasts, as well as brett and lacto.  Here comes the sour cider……

BTW – The simple recipe:

5.5 gallons of fresh apple juice (in this case: Stayman, Empire & York)

24 ounces Turbinado

16 ounces Dextrose

1 Package of Safale US-05 (not rehydrated)

Some Wyeast Nutrient Blend (per instructions)