Dec 27 2012

How to Remove Labels from Beer Bottles

Let me be honest here: no matter how good of a homebrewer you are, if you hand me a bottle of your beer and it still has the original, commercial label on it, I am not going to be excited to try it. If you were too lazy to bother to get the label off, I have no idea what kind of sanitation is happening on the inside of the bottle.

Once upon a time the hardest part of bottling was getting the labels off the bottles, but years ago I came across a trick and product that made my life easy: OxiClean

Bottle De-Labeling - OxiClean No, I have not been compensated by Church & Dwight for this post in any way. I know. I’m disappointed, too. 

You can spend hours scrubbing your bottles and trying to make them beautiful with brute force, or you can let them soak in hot water and OxiClean.

Bottle De-Labeling: Sunken Bottles

Marvel at my amazing photography for a moment here…..

Bottle De- Labeling: Floating Labels

About an hour later you will see the labels slowly begin to float off the bottles.

There’s no scrubbing and no peeling with most of these bottles, although I do keep steel wool handy in case a few minor patches of glue remain on the glass. The key is to make sure that the bottles remain submerged during the steeping times, which is an added bonus in that the OxiClean will clean the inside of your bottles, as well.

OxiClean is cheap and safe to use, and I usually do my de-labeling in my standard-sized kitchen sink where I can clean about 12 bottles at a time, but you can do it in larger or smaller batches. I prefer the dye, perfume and chlorine free version of OxiClean for obvious reasons, and you will still need to sanitize the bottles before putting beer in them.

No, this is not rocket science, but I’m always surprised by how many homebrewers don’t know about this little trick.

Make your life easier and, at the same time, don’t give the people you are sharing your homebrew with a terrible first impression.

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Jan 25 2012

Are You an Engineer or an Artist?

I love how science and art come together in the brewing of beer. You need to have your technique down and your calculations correct in order to make great beer. You, also, need creativity to pair together the right flavors and aromas to make a beer transcendent. But just like “right-brained” and “left-brained” people, we all favor one or the other. There must be a dominant side, right?

Which way do you lean? Are you an engineer or an artist?

I wandered across this idea when I recently took a tour of the Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon. The tour was fantastic, and I have nothing but good things to say about them, their process, and their beers. Breweries the size of a Deschutes put a lot of money and time into insuring that their beers taste exactly the same from one batch to another, and that all of their customers are getting the same, quality beer. It is a difficult task and certainly an important one. Like many big, craft breweries, they test through sensory training and their own lab. A wildly inconsistent product can be the undoing of any company, in any industry.

Commercial breweries obviously need engineers in order to maintain that sort of consistency.  This isn’t to say that an artist can’t thrive in a production brewery, but I’m guessing those brewers need to recharge their artistic batteries with one-off beers and collaborations from time to time.

So, let me oversimplify the engineer and the artist:

 

The Engineer

The Engineer is the brewer that always hits their numbers. They are always looking for better ways to improve their process. Faster, more efficient, leaner. They want to know how everything works. If you turn away, for even a moment, they are taking things apart and putting them back together again. They are forever doodling schematics and looking for the closest whiteboard. They make all of their equipment, and their rig is cooler than anything you could buy. They can take your recipe and make a better beer than you by pure brewing skill. If you ask them a simple question, they will give you a three hour response, and they will become more excited with each passing moment of the description. They take amazing notes, and they can always pinpoint where things went right or awry.

But… they don’t always have the most inspired recipes, if they can write them at all. They often depend on other people to taste and evaluate their concoctions. They can brew astonishing beers, but they can’t describe them in a way that makes you actually want to drink them. Wild yeast and sour beers freak them out. (There are too many variables. Too much that is out of their control.) They are not patient. They make all of their equipment, and it can look like some Frankenstein’s monster shit. They don’t understand that beers can be technically perfect and still suck. They make the same beers over, and over, and over. And give them version numbers.

 

The Artist

The Artist is always coming up with great ideas. Although they occasionally strike out, they generally blow you away with their beers and their illogical flavor and aroma combinations. They make brewing look easy. Like a zen art. They don’t become obsessed with perfection. They are infinitely patient and can age beers to perfection. They love the mystery and they have the parenting skills to brew wonderful wild and sour beers. They get the big picture of beer. Its place in history, and the greatness it can inspire.

But…despite making wonderful brews, they always hate their own creations. They can never make the beer that they dreamed up in their head. Their brewing process is a zen art, and learning how to brew from them, or replicating their methods, is impossible. They get bored easily and can burn out. Good luck trying to get them to make the same beer twice. They can be horrible collaborators, always want their way, and refuse to compromise. They put more time and effort into naming the beer and creating the label they made for the bottles, than the recipe and the actual brewday. They take terrible notes, if they even take notes at all. You will never get a recipe from them that makes any sense whatsoever. All of their beer has a certain house flavor that you are going to either love or hate.

 

What now?

Well, you probably don’t match either of those descriptions exactly. We are all far more complex than an overly simple Myers-Briggs, but one of them sounds a little more like you than the other.

Do you try to consciously change your methods and tendencies in order to become more centered? Do you try to surround yourself with people who are your antipodes and, therefore, would be complimentary? Do you just stick with your strengths (and weaknesses) and carry on with a slightly better understanding of yourself?

What will you do?

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Jan 17 2012

Barlow Brewing 2011 Homebrew Year in Review

At the end of each year (2009 and 2010), I go through the stats of my homebrewing adventures and try to identify some trends and larger takeaways. I brew a modest amount of beer each year, and usually set a goal of making 60 gallons, which only equates to brewing a 5 gallon batch each month. That goal, many years ago, was bold and reaching. Nowadays, it is a pretty low bar, but it keeps me on track.

Looking back at 2011, four trends define that brewing year: hiatuses, organic beers, the lack of sours, and some competition success.

 

The Hiatus(es)

I go in waves with homebrewing. If it was my job, I’d be happy to brew, cellar, or package every day. But as a hobby that needs to be squeezed into the cracks and spaces between family, work and daily life, there have to be breaks. I took three hiatuses this year and did not brew at all during the months of March, August, October and November.

I do not know if that model is more beneficial to my overall zeal for the hobby, or if I’m better off keeping to a steady schedule. I know that feel a bit more excited about a brewday after some time off, but I also feel sloppy and out of practice when I do brew, as well.

 

Organic Beers

Organic beers just kinda happened this year. After planning to experiment with Rakau hops, which were organic, I decided to go ahead and make that entire beer organic. Then, I was in the Bison/New Brew Thursday competition, which required that I brew an organic beer, too. And then, in retrospect, my cider, perry, and mead were organic creations, as well.

I’m repeating myself here, but I couldn’t detect the difference between a normal and an organic beer. The bottom line with organic, from a creative perspective, is that you reduce the number of ingredients you can work with to make a beer. I like the idea of organic brews but, for the foreseeable future, that will always be secondary to my desire to use the exact hops, malts and other ingredients I want to use to make the beer that I want to drink.

But my awareness has changed and I no longer think, if I ever did, that organic beers are inferior. And that is something in and of itself.

 

Sours

This one actually surprised me and freaked me out a little. Although I bottled, added dregs to, and won medals for sours, I only brewed 5 gallons of sour beer last year. Since it can literally take years for a sour ale to fully develop and become drinkable, this was huge hit to my pipeline.

Although I still have plenty of bottles of my fruit lambics and a few of my Flanders Reds, I quickly realized that the weekly work of maintaining brett and sour beers was important, and they can make you forget that you having nothing in the pipeline.

After that epiphany, I immediately brewed a Berliner weisse that I hope might be turning the corner by the time the weather gets warm.  But I’m screwed for sours for most of 2012. Perhaps that is a mark against the hiatus model, which would have had me, at least, making filler beers in the in-between months.

Crap.

 

Competitions

This was a good year for me for BJCP and other competitions.

My goal for 2010 was to try to get a beer into the final round of the National Homebrew, and I squeaked in a beer and a cider. For 2011, I was hoping that I could get a beer or two into the final round again, and perhaps get one of those to medal.

Fortunately, I had three beers make it to the final round of the NHC: my “Tobias Fünke” Flanders red, my “Fargin Eishole” eisbock, and “Slow Motion Walter, Fire Engine Guy”, which was an oak-agerd, smoked Baltic porter.

I thought my flanders red, which had gotten a 1st place ribbon in the first round of the NHC, had a good chance, but it was my eisbock that won a bronze medal in the final round of the National Homebrew Competition. That was amazingly cool, and it proves that anything can happen in the final round.

In other BJCP competitions, I won a Gold, a Silver and a Bronze in the Dominion Cup, and two Gold and two Bronze medals in the CASK competition. Both were poor outings for me, but I’ve got no one to blame for them except the brewer of those beers. Yes, me.

Outside of BCJP competitions, my brett saison won first place in The Bruery’s Batch 300 Contest for French/Belgian ales, but it did not win a the overall competition. And I made it to the final round of the Bison/New Brew Thursday Organic Homebrew Competition, but I did not win that final round.

I also won a qualifying and the final round of the Iron Brewer competition. That was a bunch of fun, and it is always nice to have an excuse to talk shit with HopfenTreader and Simply Beer, as well as drink great and experimental beers.

 

2012

What will be my big trend for 2012? I’m getting a late start on planning that one out. Obviously brewing a bunch of sours, and I’d like to make a few full-flavored session ales, as well. Short term, I need to look into brewing beers for this year’s National Competition, but I might be dead in the water there, too.

 

If you are into stats:

Weights and Measures
Gallons of Beer: 82
Gallons of Non-Beer: 14
Pounds of Grain: 172
Pounds of Hops: 3.06

Averages
Average Batch Size: 5.1
Average ABV: 6.5%
Average OG: 1.061
Average FG: 1.012
Average Pounds of Grain per Batch: 12.3
Average Ounces of Hops per Batch: 3.3

By Category
Ales: 14
Lagers: 2
Ciders: 1
Perrys: 1
Meads: 1
Sours: 1
Organic: 4 (2 beers, 1 cider, and 1 perry)

Medals and Ribbons
BJCP Competitions Entered: 3
Medals Earned: 10
National Homebrew Competition Ribbons: 3
National Homebrew Competition Medals: 1

Superlatives
Favorite BrewTriple Lindy / Churchill Downs (bourbon barreled Triple Lindy)
Favorite Brew (Runner Up) – Aardbei (Strawberry lambic)
Worst Brew – Piper Down 1 & 2
Favorite NameYou’ll Shoot Your Rye Out
Favorite Name (Runner Up) – Up on Cripple Kriek
Biggest Trend – Organic Beer

 

AHA NHC Ribbons

AHA NHC Medal

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Aug 26 2011

Bohemian Pilsner – Czech Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

 

This beer did not turn out to be a Bohemian Pilsner.

So, now that you’ve been warned, let’s talk about my entry for the Pilsner Urquell Master Homebrewer Competition. When the competition was announced, signing up for it was a no-brainer. Pilsner Urquell was running a contest in three cities (New York, Washington DC, and Chicago) to see which homebrewers could brew the best “Czech style” pilsner. The winner from each city would win a trip for two to Plzen to visit the Pilsner Urquell brewery, as well as attend the International Bartender Awards in Prague.

Hey. I’m a homebrewer. I’ve been meaning to brew a Bohemian Pilsner. I only live 2 hours away from Washington DC. I’m into free trips to Europe. It made all the sense in the world.

But I didn’t think this was going to be a slam dunk. I have experience making lagers and brewing for competitions, but light lagers are a different species. And I had never done a triple decoction, which is a mashing process that this style is known for. But I figured this would be a fun experiment and I could lean on my friend, and local pils and Czech beer expert, Velky Al.

The formulation of the recipe was pretty simple as this one is almost 100% pilsner malt and definitely 100% Saaz hops. For the base malt, I used the Weyerman Bohemian Pilsner Malt, which is a lower Lovibond barley with a bit more complexity than the standard German pilsner malt. To round out the malt bill, I used 12 ounces of CaraPils, to improve head retention and give the beer a bigger mouthfeel, and a few ounces of acidulated malt to lower the pH of the mash and wort.

The matter of the triple decoction was the difficult part of the brewday. I imagine triple decoction was born out of necessity back when the grains were much less modified than they are today. By pulling out the thickest part of the mash and boiling it three different times, it darkens the color of the mash, makes the wort more fermentable and gives the beer a more complex malt character. So I followed all the steps and pulled off thick portions of the mash into a little pot and boiled them to raise the larger wort up the next step temperature.


Triple Decoction: One of the step heatings

A rare sighting of Assistant Brewmaster Jasper 

 

I can give you a flowery passage right here that describes how wondrous the triple decoction mash process was. How it brought me closer to the origins and magic of brewing. It did. But I don’t see myself doing this again anytime soon.

Go ahead; tell me that triple decoctions do something special to the beer. Tell me that this archaic process is not just for show. I believe you. I really do. But sometimes that is not enough when I look at the limited amount of time I have to brew. But I’ll save my thoughts around triple decoctions for another post…

So how did the beer turn out? Disappointing.


 

The picture above was of a sample of my beer (the one on the right) that I pulled off and carbonated while the rest of the batch was still lagering. The color was on. The clarity of the beer got much better after weeks of lagering, but not to the level of a commerical example of PU.

The taste of the beer? Well, there wasn’t much taste at all, and aroma was underwhelming, as well. Honestly, professional macro-brewers would be blown away by how clean and free of flaws this beer was. It was amazing. And amazingly boring to me. Al astutely thought it was closer to a Dortmunder Export, but I’ve made those in the past and I didn’t feel that that style was a perfect fit either. Since I knew I didn’t have the time to re-brew and lager, I dry-hopped the beer with an ounce of Saaz just to give it a little something…more.

As I knew from the start, this beer isn’t in the recipe. It is in the process. I think, now having one triple decoction brew under my belt, I could do better with that process in subsequent brewings. Also, I would probably do a less dramatic diacetyl rest. Urquell has a definite diacetyl flavor, which I dislike, and keeping some of that butteriness would make it closer to cloned and maintaining a cooler temp would likely keep the final gravity a few points higher.

I did not, unsurprisingly given my tasting of the final beer, place in the final six homebrewers in the D.C. competition. But, again, I felt it was a longshot in the first place.

The event was very cool and classy, and wonderfully hosted by Smith Commons. For more information on the event there’s a press release and Tom (@LugwrenchBrew), who accompanied me to the gig, wrote a post about the Pilsner Urquell Master Homebrewer Competition, too.

It was educational, and I’m always down for a brew that throws me out of my comfort zone. And a Bohemian Pils is certainly that.

 

Czech Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself- (Bohemian
Pilsner)

Starting Gravity: 1.056 (4/17/11)
Secondary Gravity: 1.012 (5/18/11)
Final Gravity:  1.012 (6/24/11)
5.9% alcohol (by volume)
Apparent Attenuation: 57.8%
Real Attenuation: 47.3%

Mash (See Below)
14 lb Weyerman Bohemian Pilsner Malt
12 oz CaraPils Malt
3 oz Acidulated Malt

Boil (80 min)
1.5 oz Saaz Pellet Hops (3.9 AA) (60 min)
2.0 oz Saaz Pellet Hops (3.9 AA) (30 min)
1.0 oz Saaz Pellet Hops (3.9 AA) (10 min)
1.0 oz Saaz Pellet Hops (3.9 AA) (10 min)
1 tablet Whirlfloc (Boil – 15 min.)

½ tsp Brewer’s Choice Wyeast Nutrient Blend (Boil – 10 min.)

Primary (50º F) 2 Weeks

2 packs Wyeast 2001
Urquell Lager – Starter Made

Secondary (33º F) 6 Weeks

1.0 oz Saaz Pellet Hops (3.9 AA) (Dry Hop) (6/15/11) for 7 days

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