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.