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.


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?

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