Dec 23 2010

GABF Pro-Am Brew Day and Competition with Starr Hill (with video!)

This could be a very, very long blog post, but I’m going to try to keep it short and sweet.

In August of this year, I was asked by Brewmaster Mark Thompson of Starr Hill Brewing Company to do the Pro-Am entry with them for the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). The Pro-Am is where a brewery partners up with a homebrewer and makes a batch of the homebrewer’s award winning beer in their brewery. The homebrew recipe is scaled up and put into the competition during the GABF in Denver.

Of course, I jumped at the chance.

Starr Hill has done this for more than few years and they even won a Pro-Am silver medal at the GABF in 2008.

The beer that Mark was most interested in was my California Common, or “Steam” beer. I jokingly called it “McSteamy” not long after it had been brewed and the name, making fun of the steam name and Grey’s Anatomy, simply stuck.

Every homebrewer, at some point, dreams of brewing with professional equipment and making a huge batch of their beer. In this case, instead of making my normal 5 gallon batch, I worked with Starr Hill to make 360 gallons of beer.  This means that instead of using 14 pounds of grain, we used 875 pounds. Instead of 5 ounces of hops, we used 10 pounds of hops. Upconverting that recipe was stressful for me, but it all worked out in the end.

On the brew day in August, I showed up at the brewery with my friends Will and Jon. Will has there to help out and enjoy the brew day, and Jon was there to do the same, AND he brought along his video camera to record the brew day.  More on that later.

Walk into any big, craft brewery (a bit of an oxymoron, but bear with me), and you will be overwhelmed with the scale and the amount of steel that surrounds you. It is complicated, but glorious, steampunk dream.

On the brew deck I met Levi, who was my Starr Hill brew partner for the day. Levi was amazing, and he truly made the brew day collaborative.  His constant narration of the process of brewing beer on their system was as educational as it was reassuring. I wasn’t a by-stander to my own beer. I was actively working with him on the control panel and transferring the beer from here to there.

Then it was brewing as usual. Well, except for the giant equipment with scientific accuracy.

Just like my equipment at home. Or not.

Once it was all over, McSteamy was transferred to its fermenter, dropped down to 60 degrees F° and it was ready to go.

This is me trying to act cool and pretending that I did it alone (I’m not and I didn’t):

A dry-hopping and a month later, McSteamy was kegged up for the Starr Hill tasting room, the GABF and a few watering holes around Virginia. There were a few bomber bottles, too, that were for the actual GABF competition, and I got a few of those to share with friends and the homebrew club.

The Charlottesville unveiling of McSteamy happened at Beer Run, and that was an amazing evening. It was truly humbling to see so many friends and extended family show up to the event. I’m still stunned that so many support my hobby/addiction. I’m blessed to be surrounded by such good people.

In September, I flew out to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival. If you ever get the opportunity to go to the GABF, do it. It is awe-inspiring festival of excess, but worth every moment. And a few of the days it, later, takes to recover from it.

McSteamy did not when a medal, but it turned out great and very drinkable. The whole experience was remarkable.

If reading this wasn’t enough, please click on the video below and check out the amazing job Jon did in capturing the experience. It eloquently captures the brew day more than my mere words do.

Thanks, again, Jon.

Check out McSteamy:


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)


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:


Temperature Control


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


Sep 22 2010

Quick Thoughts About the 2010 GABF and Ideas for Next Time

Beer People are Amazing – It has been said before, but it bears repeating. Beer lovers are just good people. They have a zest for life and they want to experience everything that can with the limited time we have on the planet.

Next time: Do more crowd-sourcing – Talk to the people in the beer line with you. What beers have they enjoyed? Use the friendliness and expertise around you to your advantage.

Me and (In All Likelihood Harassing) Ron Jeffries From Jolly Pumpkin

The GABF does not favor modest, well-crafted beers – Like in a big family, the loudest voice is the one that gets heard at the dinner table. The GABF is no different. The convention center is filled with dozens and dozens of well-crafted pale ales and German lagers, but they get overshadowed by double IPAs, Russian imperial stouts and sour ales.

Next time: Consciously seek out these less extreme beers – They take just as much artistry to make, they are a great way to reset your palate, and they are lower in alcohol, which will extend your tasting day.

You’ll Want to Make Every Beer Like Saboteur

Food and Water is a chore at GABF – Keeping hydrated is a common and smart tip. I didn’t have a problem with this one in that I’ve done some judging and I realize the importance of water and crackers between beers to get you ready for the next. Water was easy. Food was my big problem. I guess I was in a permanent state of fullness with the absurd amounts of water and beer I was drinking.  It was hard work eating bready meals, but if I hadn’t I would have been in serious trouble.

Next time: Plan out your meals as well as you did your bars – Palate fatigue can hit you in a variety of ways.  Falling Rock, Cheeky Monk, etc. are mandatory beer stops, but make sure you know which restaurants you want to hit, as well.  Make your meals worth looking for to.

Break up the monotony – Wandering around the hall and getting samples of beers you can’t get at home from breweries you haven’t heard of is amazing, but you can only do that for so many hours. Running into amazing people at the bars around town, too, is great, but it is good to mix some quality in with the quantity.

Next time: Try to find key events to attend inside and outside of the convention hall – Seek out a food demonstration from Sean Paxton, or sit down for a minute and listen to some of the speakers. My favorite event during the GABF was the Pints for Prostates Denver Rare Beer Tasting (followed closely by the Ladies of Craft Beer Beer4Boobs charity event). This was quality time, with the actual brewers (!?!) and access to some extraordinary and experimental beer.

Falling Rock – Busy Day and Night

There are (almost) too many breweries at GABF– The number of breweries that attend the GABF is over whelming. There are too many to see and try even if you attended all 4 sessions.

Next time: Have a game plan of which breweries to visit – Obviously you should avoid any beers that you can get at home.  And you should plan to stand in line for a few minutes for the rockstar breweries like Dogfish Head, Russian River, Lost Abbey, etc. But watch out for smaller breweries that might run out of their beers quickly (New Glarus, Shorts, etc.)

The New Glarus Line BEFORE the Session Began

Extra Credit:

Memorable (New to Me) Breweries – Shorts, Cascade, New Glarus, Cigar City, Copper Canyon, Odell, Boulevard and Alaskan.

Memorable (New to Me) Beers – Many of my memorable beers were from the Pints for Prostates tasting. Brooklyn’s Reinschweinsgebot, Avery Quinquepartie, Sam Adam’s Kosmic Mother Funk, Upstream’s Farmhouse Surprise, Cascade Noyeaux Sour Ale, Cigar City White Oak-Aged Jai Alai IPA, Jolly Pumpkin Biere de Goord, and many others. In the Convention Center, New Belgium’s Eric’s Ale and Imperial Berliner Weisse, New Glarus’ Raspberry Tart and Moon Man, Odell’s Saboteur and DeConstruction, Boulevard’s Two Jokers Double-Wit, Flossmoor’s Pullman Brown, Shorts’ Key Lime Pie and Anniversary Ale, and a bunch of other beers I’m embarrassed to be forgetting right now.

Proud to be an “Amercian”


Aug 5 2010

Will There Ever Be A New Barlow Brewing Post?

Well, if you are reading this, I guess so.

I’m living up to my self-proclaimed moniker of the Lazy Blogger.

But no excuses.  

I took the family on a trip to Europe, and we visited Orval ruins and as well as the Cantillon brewery. 

I’ve been homebrewing, and I even had a beer and a cider make it to the final round of the Nation Homebrew Competition.

I got to use one of my recipes to brew a batch of beer at Starr Hill for our entry into the Great American Beer Festival’s Pro-Am competition.  As I type this post, it should almost be done fermenting and ready for some dry-hopping.  Let’s just say the same brewing principles apply, but there’s a big difference between brewing 6 gallons of beer and brewing 360 gallons of beer.

I’m in the IronBrewer competition, where a bunch of amazing homebrewers get together and test their brewing prowess and creativity by make beers with three assigned and disparate ingredients. (My round requires the use of centennial hops, vanilla beans and smoked malt.)

I’ve been tackling the new Citra hop, and a Black IPA, and the Leuven yeast strain with my homebrews. And let’s not talk about my continued obsession with making sour beers.

Those things ought to be great fodder for a few blog posts, huh?

I promise they will come.

After the Dominion Cup BJCP competition this weekend, I’ll get back on the horse.