Jul 22 2011

Brewing All of the BJCP Styles – Halfway There and What I’ve Learned

So, I decided to brew all of the BJCP styles a year or so ago.

I think it is because I like goals and challenges, but I also noticed that I had been brewing for quite a few years and there wasn’t a lot of diversity in what I was brewing. I was always trying out new and interesting styles, but it seems like every other batch was an IPA or some hoppy creation. I had the skill to brew more difficult styles and it seemed silly that I wasn’t flexing those brewing muscles.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that I had hit the halfway mark. Of the 80 styles of beer outlined by the BJCP, I had brewed 40. And, as an interesting side note, 20 of those 40 brewed styles had won BJCP competition medals. Which is a nice bonus, since I set out to simply brew these styles and it was a subjective measure (my opinion) or whether or not I had hit the style, rather than an objective one (like a BJCP sponsored competition medal) of whether or not I had been successful.

Takeaways so far?

Hoppy beers are easy – Bottom line: hops can cover up a lot of flaws in a beer. Sure, it can be difficult to get a clean, crisp, huge and complex hop aroma and flavor into a beer. But there are a lot of places to hide in an IPA. Darker ales, like porters and stouts, can be forgiving, too. This is a good thing if you are just starting out, or you’ve had a sloppy brew day.

Lagers don’t have to be hard –  Lagers are all about a big pitch and temperature control. If you can’t control the temperature of a fermenting batch or if you don’t have a huge slurry of active yeast to pitch, you really ought to rethink making a lager. Unlike the hoppy and dark beers I mentioned above, lagers have nowhere to hide flaws. You have to pitch big and control the flavors created by the yeast. Otherwise I suggest just making the style with an ale or San Fran strain instead.

Patience is the key – This makes sense for lagers, that require weeks at near freezing temperatures, and wild and sour beers, that need time for the brett and bugs to tear through the “unfermentables”. But I think we, as homebrewers, often drink our beers too young. I’ve gotten myself into the practice of letting ales ferment for a week and then sit on the yeast for another week to clean themselves up. And lagers definitely require 2 weeks of fermentation with a diacetyl rest to finish strong.

Where I think the real opportunity is it letting your beer set in the bottle or keg as few extra weeks. How many times have you tasted your beer a month in and thought, “Wow, this is awesome. It is really peaking right now.” What if you had waited a few more weeks and you ‘d of had even more of your beer at its peak? Sure, some beers, like wet hop or hefes, need to be enjoyed sooner than later, but your beers will benefit from a little age. Give them time. Show them patience.

Brew to style on the first batch – This drives me insane. If you’ve never made a doppelbock before, why are you trying to make a raspberry doppelbock? I love playing with fruits, spices, vegetables and wood, but nail down the style first. Make a saison without pepper and see what the yeast does naturally. It might be just what you wanted, and the grains of paradise you are adding to the boil are going to be excessive.

If you cannot help but fuck with your beers, split the batch. Treat one half to a traditional process and add whatever batshit stuff you want to the other, but make sure you have a control or you’ll never learn how did, as well as what went right and wrong.

Don’t like a style? Homebrew your own! – I know this sounds crazy, but making a particular style has been the key to me enjoying that type of beer. I’d never enjoyed a fruit or a smoked beer until I made one of my own. It is not that I did it better than others, but you are more forgiving with your own beers. You understand the aroma, mouthfeel and flavors that define the style. It clicks in your head. Well, at least it does in mine.

What will the next 40 styles be like? – Well, they will be the beers I’ve avoided or didn’t have the ability to do before. In the case of the Light Lager category, a little bit of both. I’ve got most of the Scottish and British styles to brew through, as well.

There are lots of malty and lager beers in my future. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

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May 23 2011

Score Sheets from the First Round of the 2011 National Homebrew Competition

 

The score sheets from the 1st round of the 2011 AHA National Homebrew Competition (NHC) came out last week. It is cool win ribbons and medals, but the feedback is the most part of entering these contests. And, with a competition like the national one, it is really, really hard to place without making a spectacular beer, so it is a good idea to keep your expectations low.

My sheets came back from the Nashville region and quality of the feedback and the scores I received were good. My average score was 31.87, which I am pleased with. The highest scores were 43s and the lowest score was smack down of a 15 (for a Scottish ale that aged badly).

The two scores of 43 that I received were for my “Tobias Fünke” flanders red and for my “Fargin Eishole” eisbock. The flanders red won 1st place for the Sour Ale category, and the eisbock won 3rd place for the Bock category. The feedback for these was very good but, honestly, how unhappy can you be with a beer that scores in the 40s?

The other beer that placed was my “Slow Motion Walter, Fire Engine Guy” oak-aged, smoked Baltic porter. It scored a 30.5 and it must have squeaked in to 3rd place in the Smoke-Flavored and Wood-Aged Beer category. The feedback for that was good, but both judges wanted a bit more smoke flavor in the beer. I can completely see that. I enjoy all styles of beer, but smoked beers are at the very bottom of that list. So, in making a smoked beer of my own, I went a little light on the Bamberg malt. I can live with that feedback because I’m not sure I’ll ever make a beer that I can’t enjoy just to do well in a competition. That’s BS to me.

My bourbon-oak tripel did really well and scored a 39.5, but it did not ribbon. This was simply a gallon of my tripel that I siphoned onto French oak cubes and Blanton’s bourbon. My feedback for that beer said it was nicely balanced and creamy. I agree, and it will be hard not to bourbon-oak the entire batch next time I make a tripel.

The only head scratchers were scores for the original tripel and the brett saison. The tripel received a 30, and it was downgraded for not having enough of a phenolic character. I think most American tripels are over-the-top with phenols so I specifically fermented that one cold to keep them subdued. But I can’t blame the judges for not “getting” what I was trying to do.

The other strange one was my brett saison which received a 31.5. (And it did pretty well in The Bruery’s Batch 300 competition.) Both judges only sensed a “slight sourness”…..which is mystifying. If it was supposed to be a sour saison, I would have marked it as such. This was a brett saison and brettanomyces does not make things sour. That is disappointing.

But, all and all, I’m happy with what I heard back from the Nashville region of the AHA NHC 2011 First Round. Hopefully one of my three beers advancing to the final round lucks into a medal. If not, there’s always 2012.

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Jan 3 2011

Barlow Brewing 2010 Homebrew Year in Review

2011 is here and, like my Barlow Brewing 2009 Homebrew Year in Review, it is time to look back at 2010 and see what the hell happened.

On the surface of things, 2010 was a very off year in homebrewing for me. I usually shoot for at least 60 gallons of beer per year, and I have no problems exceeding that number. Last year was a lot lower, 69 gallons versus 2009’s119 gallons, but life and work took priority over my homebrew hobby, as they should.

But it was big homebrewing year for me in two regards:

I got the honor of making a California Common Pro-Am beer for the GABF with Starr Hill. That was an amazing experience and well worth the hiatus I took afterwards. If I really wanted to cheat, I could add those 360 gallons to my total and figure that I made 429 gallons last year. But this post is about homebrewing.

The second achievement is that I had a beer and a cider make it to the Final Round of the National Homebrew Competition. The beer was my “Procrastinator” doppelbock that I co-brewed with my friend Greg B, and the cider was one that I had made over 2 years ago on a whim.

Anyway, an interesting review for me, and I’m sure it will inform my 2011 brewing.

Number of Batches Made – 14

Number of Gallons Made – 69

First Brew Day – 1/24/2010

Last Brew Day – 12/18/2010

Number of Beer Batches – 11 (10 ales and 1 lager)

Number of Cider/Perry Batches – 3

BJCP Homebrew Competitions Medals Earned – Nine (2 Gold, 3 Silver, 4 bronze, and a beer and a cider advanced to the final round of the National Homebrew Competition)

Batch with Highest Alcohol – 11.64% – Eis-Barleywine

Batch with Lowest Alcohol – 4.7% – Berliner Weisse “Waterloo”

Average Alcohol Across Batches – 6.7%

Favorite Brew – “Tobias Funke” Flanders Red (Very sour Belgian Dark Strong base that shot past an Oud Bruin into a Flanders Red)

Favorite Brew (Runner Up) – “Citra Ass Down” American Pale Ale (a simple APA showcasing Citra hops. Citra is amazing late addition hop)

Worst Brew – “Lakshmi” Chai Milk Stout (A good beer for a few months until diacetyl crept in and made it a butter bomb)

Favorite Name – “Tobias Funke” – Flander Red (Arrested Development reference)

Favorite Name (Runner Up) – “Duncan Keith’s Teeth” Eis-Barleywine (After Duncan Keith, who lost seven teeth in one game of the hockey playoffs.)

Approximate Amount of Grain used in 2010 – 151 pounds (average of 13.7 lbs/brew)

Approximate Amount of Hops used in 2010 – 37.25 ounces, or 2.32 pounds (average of 3.38 oz/brew)

Biggest Equipment Upgrade – Nothing major. I’m shooting pure oxygen into my cooled wort now.)

Biggest Trend – Only One Lager (I don’t know what happened here. My only lager was the smoked Baltic porter I did for the Iron Brewer competition. It was good. Perhaps this speaks to my patience…)

Biggest Trend (Runner Up) – Black Ales – (A Black IPA, a Black Saison, and a Northern Brown with Black Japonica rice)

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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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