Oct 15 2010

Bacon Beer? Yeah, THAT Just Happened

My Iron Brewer beer turned out great, but simply bringing together the three disparate ingredients of centennial hops, vanilla beans and smoked malt wasn’t enough. No, sir.

I made 7 gallons of that beer and racked 6 gallons into a standard fermenter, but the last gallon went into a glass jug.  That gallon jug fermented alongside the rest, but it had a special purpose: bacon.  I had been joking about adding bacon to a beer for quite some time, but this was one of the few batches I’ve done that it actually makes sense to add the bacon to.

The beer already had a good amount of bacon-like flavor in it due to the Bamberg smoked malt that I had brewed it with originally. So, in order to maintain the swiney goodness the bacon brings, I decided to dry hop the beer after the lagering was done. (Or, as James at Basic Brewing correctly called it, dry porking.)

I cooked up a half pound of natural smoked bacon and cooled them on paper towels in the hopes of sopping up as much of the fat as possible. I actually cooked the bacon in the oven to keep the grease at an all time low.

After they cooled a bit, I chopped up the bacon very fine and put them in the beer. Interestingly, and unsettlingly, the strips of bacon rehydrated in the beer and appeared almost raw again. Mmmmm.

I’m planning to let the bacon float around in the beer for about a week at room temperature before I crash the beer down again. After talking to Garrett Oliver at the GABF about his Reinschweinsgebot bacon beer, he advised that I fat wash the beer. (Yeah, I just name dropped. I’ve got no one to blame but myself.)  Fat washing is not unlike what we brewers do when making an eisbock.  Once all that fat congeals (I know, SEXY) and floats to the surface, I’ll rack underneath it and get a beer with all of the bacon and none of the fat.

It is still dry porking right now. I’ll update with tasting notes later.

BACON!!!!

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Oct 14 2010

How to Do Your Own Off Flavor Beer Tasting

It seems the real key to becoming a good homebrewer is practice and the ability to improve your process batch after batch. A big piece of that is being able to honestly evaluate and diagnose defects in your own beers.

I’d heard about off flavor beer tasting kits and courses that you can take to better identify the flaws in beers, but the cost had always been prohibitive. Yet it was such a cool idea, and a worthy educational event, that my homebrew club decided we had to find a way to do one ourselves.  In the end, the actual act of creating these flawed samples was as simple as adding a few drops of butter extract or lactic acid to some macro beer. The real learnings came from the additional research that needs to be done to explain what causes these off flavors and what we can do, as brewers, to avoid them.

How to Do Your Own Off Flavor Beer Tasting

Making these flawed beers was relatively easy. You start with an American Light Lager that has almost no flavor (I was redundant just then. Did you catch it?) and make sure you have at least 1 oz of beer for each person AND off flavor you are replicating. So, if you were trying 6 off flavors and you have 6 people at the tasting, you would need at least 36 ounces of beer. I’ve heard that Coors Light is often used for these tastings, but we used Bud Light.

What You’ll Need

A Pitcher (with measurement lines)

Macro Light Lager Beer

Small Tasting Cups (3oz ramekin-style plastic cups will work)

A Dump Bucket

The Additives

Teaspoons and a Dropper (for measuring)

A Big Spoon (to stir together the beer and additives)

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You’ll need a measuring container of some sort to determine the right amount of ounces for that bad flavor flight, and then you need to put in the additive. This is where you probably want a couple of tasting bartenders with pretty good palates.  You’ll need to mix in just enough of the additive to make the right aromas and flavors apparent to the tasters, but not so much that it overwhelms. (The additives that we used are at the bottom of this post.) Once you have the right mix, you can pour little 1 oz samples for all the attendees and then give them some time to smell and taste the beer.

How to Run the Tasting

We ended up doing our tasting blind, save for the bartenders of bad beer, and I think that enhanced the experience. It gave the tasters a chance to savor (perhaps that is the wrong word) and work through the off flavor before being given any expectations. After everyone had a chance to think about the beer, we had the tasters raise their hands to offer up what flavors and aromas they were tasting. I think saying these things out loud helped, as we all taste things in our own way and with our own abilities. It is important to understand how you perceive the taste and aroma.

And don’t feel like you have to try every off flavor in one tasting. We ended up breaking ours into two sessions. We might need that time to let our tongues recover.

The Key Learnings

For us, getting in touch with these off flavors was very important, but just as important was discussing what makes these off flavors happen and how we could, as brewers, avoid them in the future. That is the practical insight, and there are a few sites out there that do a good job of explaining the why and how to prevent them. (John Palmer’s Guide will do.) Identifying the rotten egg smell of sulfur is great, but knowing that it is a natural by-product of some yeast strains that will dissipate over time, or that could be a result of poor sanitation, or perhaps it can come from racking to a secondary, and taking it off the yeast, too soon is invaluable.

From this exercise, the most reoccurring preventative measures a brewer can make to improve their beers were:

Sanitation

Temperature Control

Aeration

Letting Your Beer Sit on the Yeast Long Enough to Clean Itself Up

The key is to have fun, and laugh, and wince, and have a big bucket to pour the leftover samples into. And be honest. Tell a story about the beer that you made that tasted just like THIS one. I don’t trust brewers who claim they haven’t made a batch that smelled like movie theater popcorn or wet cardboard. Those are great stories and great inspiration to keep your process tight and not do make that mistake again.

As a side note, if you see a course being taught about off flavors, I’d still try to attend it. What we did here was lo-fi and very educational, but it wasn’t perfectly scientific and I’m sure the pros could pull this off more elegantly.  But this is an easy and quick way to up your game and it is a very cool thing to do with friends.

The Additives We Used for Off Flavors:

Acetobacter – Vinegar

Astringency – Grape Tannins

Cidery – Apple Cider

Diacetyl – Butter Extract

Esters – Banana Extract

Fusel Alcohol – Ethyl Acetate

Phenols – Chloraseptic Throat Spray

Sour – Lactic Acid

Off Flavors We Will Do Another Time and Possible Additives:

Acetaldehyde – Green Apple Flavoring

DMS – Cooked Corn

Oxidation – Sherry

Skunky – We will probably just leave a few light beers out in the sun in their clear bottles

Sulfur – Some sort of Sulfur

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Oct 7 2010

Why Should You Enter Your Homebrews into Competitions?

Do you enter your homebrews into BJCP competitions?

I didn’t for a long, long time. For about 11 years to put too fine a point on it. It wasn’t that I was avoiding them, as much as I didn’t care. I was making pretty good beer, and it was being enjoyed by me and my friends. In the end, that is enough.

But something happened about 3 years ago.

I think it was a combination of getting too much feedback from friends that was the equivalent of “That was awesome, dude”, and me finally figuring out that I was pretty good at making good beer, but not always at identifying and articulating what was good or bad about it.

So I starting entering the Virginia competitions that are put on by the CASK and James River homebrew clubs just to get the feedback and hear what some real judges had to say. I think that has been really helpful and the quality of the judging, while not always amazing (which certainly could be another blog post of its own), has been light-years ahead of my kind and supportive, but ultimately unknowledgeable, non-brewing friends.

It has been pretty cool in the swag and medal collecting way, too. In the past three years I’ve entered the 6 competitions (including the National Homebrew Competition) and I’ve won 28 medals. I credit some of that to being an above average brewer, and some to the fact that I still bottle my beers. So I’m more likely to have beers hanging around to be entered, instead of kicked kegs. The homebrew store gift certificates are really nice, but the medium-sized t-shirts just end up in my homebrew club’s raffle. (Seriously, when was the last time I was a medium? Middle school?) The medals are great to acknowledge what you’ve done and for braggin’ rights, but they aren’t enough motivation by themselves.

Am I done with competitions now?

Maybe. Or perhaps I’m just cutting back.

I feel like I have a better handle on, and palate for, a variety of beers now. I think getting feedback from these competitions, and being a judge on occasion, has improved my brewing.  But I’ve hit a plateau with that, and I will probably remain that limbo until I get around to getting my BJCP certification.

And these competitions do allow a lot of creatively, but they are also real sticklers about nailing the guideline for the style you brewed. That makes sense, but I found that I’m hitting another creative period where my beers probably won’t be fitting into guidelines outside of category 23 and some of the other catch-alls.

Do you enter homebrew competitions? Why or why not? And why do you still, or why did you stop?

Leave a comment below, or hit me up on The Twitter.

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