Catching up on re-brews for NHC

My plan for this years National Homebrew Competition (NHC) was to rebrew beers that had done well in previous competitions, or that I really enjoyed and thought would do well.

Employee Orientation 101

I have written a brew day post on this batch. I sent it to be published on another blog and have been waiting for that to go up before publishing here.
The grain bill pushed my mash tun to the limit.
I boiled ten gallons of wort down to less than five. 

With this brew advancing to the final round in 2019, I was always going to rebrew it for 2020. I took the feedback I received from the judges and changed my recipe and process for this batch. The idea was for the malt flavor to be even richer. I increased the amount of Munich Malt to punch up the sweetness and breadiness in the flavor and the aroma.
During my brew day to improve my efficiency and increase the Maillard reaction in the wort, I extended my boil. When on a tour of the barrel room at Goose Island the tour guide said that Bourbon County has a three hour boil. I thought it would be interesting to try the technique at home with my imperial stout. 
The brew day went fairly well. With my extended boil I ended up with around 4.75 gallons of wort and had an SG of 1.116. I pitched a huge amount of yeast from Derby Wharf Porter and fermentation took off right away. This was going to be great! 
Then a few days after the brew day I went on a work trip. I would come to learn the difference between a 1.116 wort like this batch, and a 1.096 wort from the original batch was more significant than I realized. While the 2019 batch was almost fully fermented out and tasted pretty good after only seven days, the 2020 batch had stalled out and was noticeably boozy.
The higher gravity wort had stressed my yeast and resulted in a poor fermentation. The yeast needed added yeast nutrient and oxygen to finish fermenting. I should have added the yeast nutrient and hit the wort with my aquarium pump a couple days post-pitch, and then probably again a couple of days later.
I racked the beer to a secondary hoping the alcohol would mellow and perhaps the wort would pick up some oxygen and frement a bit more. After more time aging, I still wasn’t happy with the beer and decided not to enter it at all into NHC.
I do want to brew this again. When I do, I will make sure I am home to add the yeast nutrient and oxygen this wort needs.

Uncommon Harvest

This was a rebrew of a 2018 recipe I made with my first harvest of homegrown hops. That year I planted Willamette, Northern Brewer, Chinook, Cascade, and Centennial rhizomes. Northern Brewer was the one plant that produced more than a few cones that first year. Anchor Steam is known for using Northern Brewer hops, so California Common was a clear choice for style to use those hops in. The beer I made didn’t have much in the way of hop flavor, but the malt flavor was outstanding. Even though the lack of hop character made it miss the mark for style, I still thoroughly enjoyed that beer.
When I rebrewed the batch I wanted to use a domestic base malt in this quintessentially American style. I used Mapleton Pale Malt from my friends at Maine Malt House as my base. The specialty malts were all Muntons. To be sure the hop flavor and aroma was to style I used Northern Brewer pellet hops I purchased instead of my homegrown hops. The samples I tasted were if anything too bitter, but the beer could mellow with time.
Before I kegged the beer, I wanted to use my new toy to cold crash the beer. At the same time, I needed a temp controller for another batch. I thought I could just put the beer in one of the fridges, and use the dial thermostat that is built into the fridge. I turned it all the way down that should have gotten my wort to near freezing. I mean this is a mini-refrigerator not a mini-freezer after all. When I went to keg the beer it looked like this:
Yup! Frozen solid
That’s two batches that would not have made it to NHC. I froze my California Common a couple weeks before the entry deadline. That gave me just enough time to brew another beer. I brewed a different style that I thought I could turn over quickly. That batch was a new brew and I’ll talk about that batch in a separate post.

Fredward Wit

Last year I casually mentioned Fredward Wit took an honorable mention in the New England Regional Homebrew Competition. Fredward Wit, named after our cat, was a beer Jennie and I developed together and brought to the North Shore Brewer’s 25th anniversary party.
The grist and hops are loosely similar to my previous Walk-Off White. When I was scooping the base malt brewing the first batch, I noticed that instead of the Pilsner Malt I had intended to use, I was scooping Muntons Super Pale malt. I thought to myself that Super Pale should work just fine. 
Super Pale is a very interesting malt that a lot of brewers aren’t familiar with. Lighter in color than even our Pilsner Malt, Super Pale was developed specifically for hoppy beers. With it’s light color, the malt flavor is as restrained as possible which allows other flavors in the beer to come through more such as hops in IPAs. Super Pale is also a great choice in yeast-driven beers like saison. In Fredward Wit it really allowed the citrus and spices to come through. Super Pale is going to be my base malt of choice in all of my fruit beers going forward.

Where I did depart from Walk-Off White was the spice blend. For the most part Fredward has a sweet disposition, except when he demands treats, windows to be opened or immediate attention and pets. As such I wanted a sweeter spice blend. I replaced the lemon and grains of paradise with chamomile and vanilla. Jennie and I decided to use bitter orange and decided to use a bit more to balance the vanilla.

The judges feedback from the first batch was they thought the beer was a touch too hoppy. In the re-brew I eliminated the small flavor hop edition from the first batch and kept everything else the same. I think I may have liked the last batch better, but this second batch might be more to style. I can’t find any glaring flaws in the second batch. I think it would have done well at NHC. I may have to brew it again for NHC 2021.

Spring Training Stout

Last year I wanted to bring back both of my house Irish beers, Rundown Irish Red and Spring Training Stout. I only had time and space to brew an extract version of Rundown Irish Red. I couldn’t have been happier with how that batch came out. It had the complexity and drinkability I have always wanted my Irish Red to have. If I had entered it in competition I also think it would have done well.
While I could have easily rebrewed Rundown for NHC, by 2020 it had been five years since I brewed Spring Training and I missed it! While I thoroughly enjoyed Derby Wharf Porter, after finishing the keg I found myself craving a dryer and roastier stout. 
As I revisited a five year-old recipe, I researched Irish beers and thought about how I would approach brewing Spring Training. Many Irish Stouts are brewed with British Pale Malts like Maris Otter or Planet Pale. Those are both great malts, but they are designed for all-malt brewing or brewing with a small percentage of un-malted adjuncts. Irish stouts can use quite high percentages of un-malted flaked barley to give the beer a full body. I read how one Irish craft brewery that uses a step mash to activate the enzymes they need to achieve full conversion of the flakes in the mash. Several Irish malters make a “Stout Malt” which isn’t quite as flavorful as a pale malt, but does have a higher diastatic power than a British pale malt to convert more un-malted flaked barley typically used in Irish stouts.
Revisiting my last batch of Spring Training, the batch was a partial-mash with a base 5lbs of Stout Malt, 2lbs Flaked Barley, and 3.3lbs of Maris Otter Extract. My current batch was all-grain with Planet Pale as my base malt. I didn’t want to try a complicated step mash. Being moderately concerned about the Planet Pale converting a large amount Flaked Barley, I replaced 1lb of the Flaked Barley with Wheat Malt. The Wheat Malt will add body, while also bringing it’s own enzymes to the party because it is malted.
This change worked perfectly. The finished beer is rich, but drinkable. It is roasty with coffee notes, but not harsh or overly dry like some American-made stouts. That tells me that my water chemistry was on point.
One other change I was forced into was with my yeast. I pitched two jars of my House Irish Blend that I harvested from a prior batch. I didn’t make a yeast starter, and the slurry never really took off. I sprinkled a sachet of S-04 which did a perfectly fine job fermenting the beer. In my mind the beer would have been better with my House Irish Blend, even if the beer is enjoyable as it is.
Enjoying my Spring Training stout on St. Patrick’s Day while
watching the Dropkick Murphy’s.
Similar to Rundown, I think this recipe for Spring Training is perfect. For this batch I benchmarked one of my favorite beers, Guinness Extra Stout. The color is jet black with an off-white head. It has a nice roasty aroma. I am absolutely brewing this for next year’s NHC and making a yeast starter for my House Irish yeast.  

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New Toys: Fermentation Control

The shelves in the door were removed so a
fermenter would fit.

The biggest separator between the homebrewer and commercial brewers might be fermentation temperature control. The ability to precisely control the temperature of fermenting beer ensures the beer ferments at the proper temperature for the yeast being pitched. It also allows the brewer to precisely set the temperature within the range of a yeast. Nottingham for example has a range of 50F-72F. At the low end of the range Nottingham is very clean, almost lager-like. At the higher end of the range Nottingham can be quite estery.

Brewing in the apartment, my temperature control was primitive at best. For half of the year our thermostat was set at 66F which is a temperature that works for most ale yeasts. Occasionally I would move my fermenter to a warmer spot if I wanted to give my beer a diacetyl rest. In the spring and fall temperatures could swing quite a bit depending on the weather. From May to September the coolest the temperature would be was 76F. If I brewed in the summer I would have to use a Belgian yeast or a swamp cooler to cool my fermenting beer.

Leveling the fridges on my uneven floors was the biggest

In our house I have had a little bit more control. My basement is fairly cool. In the winter the basement ranges from 50-55F, perfect for brewing lagers. If I want to brew an ales in the winter I will use a heat wrap. In the summer the warmest temperature in the basement is 70F which works for most ales. For the most part I have brewed seasonally. In the winter I brew as many lagers as I can to last during the summer.

Although I can brew almost any style depending on the time of year, , what I haven’t been able to do is have precise temperature control below the ambient temperature. I couldn’t cold crash unless I made room in my keezer. That made achieving brilliant clarity very difficult. I also couldn’t do true lagering where the temperature is slowly ramped down a few degrees at a time until reaching near freezing temperatures. That is until now!

Ray Pickup, the co-founder of Rockport Brewing Company is transitioning from homebrewer to commercial brewer. For his homebrews, Ray modified two mini-fridges to be able to fit fermenters. Ray removed all of the shelving on the doors, and bent the metal freezer compartments down so they pivoted against the back wall of the refrigerators. Now that Ray is starting to brew commercially and will be brewing much larger batches, he had outgrown these fridges and I was able to buy them.

I am able to precisely control the temperature of my beer by:

  1. Plugging the refrigerator into a temperature controller. The controller I have can control both heating and cooling. The refrigerator naturally is plugged into the cooling outlet.
  2. Plugging a heat wrap into the heating outlet
  3. Use a stopper with a stainless steel thermowell which extends into the wort.
  4. Place the temperature probe into the thermowell which will measure the temperature inside the fermenter. This is more accurate than measuring the temperature of the outside of the fermenter.
  5. Set my desired temperature on the controller. 

A six gallon carboy with airlock just fits
The controller displays the current temp and set temp

The hope is that these fridges will allow me to make clearer and more consistent beer. I also like having two separate fridges which allows me to separately control two batches at once. Oh, and I can now brew almost any style I want at any time I want.

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The NHC that probably won’t be

The year 2020 was very busy for me, until all of a sudden it wasn’t. Followers of my Facebook page might have seen that I have made trips to Denver, California, Chicago, New Hampshire, Maine, and a vacation in Florida so far this year.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been brewing so far in 2020. I may as well use this time to update the blog with some of my recent brews. One of my brew year’s resolutions that went out the window pretty quickly was to enter more competitions. I paid entry fees for two competitions, but never managed to bottle and ship my entries.

I’ll have to wait until 2021 to try and win another one of these.

The one competition I did enter and get my entries in was the National Homebrew Competition (NHC). I applied for and received six entries. One entry ended up being Welcome as You Are. I brewed a bunch of other beers for the competition. One batch was frozen, yes frozen. Two were problematic. One of the problematic beers ended up being one of my entries for the simple reason that I had already paid for the entry, and didn’t have any other beers ready to go.

I did manage to brew four fresh beers for NHC that I was happy with. I just managed to bottle off all six of my entries and get them in by the entry deadline. After having one of my beers advance to the final round last year, I was excited to potentially improve on 2019. I was particularly excited for the new Backbeat Brewing Company to be the Boston site for the first round of judging.

At time of posting the First Round of NHC has been cancelled due to Coronavirus. The American Homebrewers Association is still optimistic that they can still have a modified, single-site NHC at HomebrewCon in June. Hopefully there still is a HomebrewCon which is scheduled for June.

All of the suffering caused by the virus puts the importance of a homebrew competition, and a hobby like homebrewing for that matter, into perspective. That doesn’t make it any less disappointing for those of us who look forward to it every year.

Muntons has banned all business travel. Until this blows over I am working from home. Even if I could go out and make sales calls, bringing in new suppliers is probably the last thing brewers want to think about. The brewers I work with that sell most of their beer over the bar at their taprooms are scrambling to fill cans, crowlers and growlers.

Who knows when life will be going back to normal, but this is as good of a time as any to brew. The homebrew industry tends to do well when the economy is struggling. People who are out of work and at home all of a sudden have time to brew. My sense is that homebrew retailers are seeing an uptick in sales as business are closing and people stay home.

If there ever was a good time to be stuck at home, it is when you have four fresh kegs of beer that you are proud of and enjoy drinking. With my keezer full, the last thing I need is more beer any time soon. If I am going to use this newfound free time at home to brew, it makes sense to make beers that require extended aging.

Time to fire up the kettle!

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Brew Years Resolutions for 2020

Another year and another decade in the books! All-in 2019 was a very solid brew year for me. The only hiccup was the beer I brought to Ales over ALS and having to dump eight one-gallon batches.

One of my big resolutions last year was to post more content. I did update this space more. I played around with posting video on YouTube until I realized I don’t have the patience for video editing. I also consciously updated my Facebook page regularly. Even it it was something as simple as a link to an article or a photo. My engagement on Facebook has been strong and I’ve picked up a few new fans.

Dry(ish) January was mostly a success. I made it all the way to January 28th! On that day I was hanging out with the Buck family at Maine Malt House in Mapleton, Maine. There was a bar at the malt house and I may have gone overboard with sampling. From there I was snowed in and was lucky to find a hotel in Presque Isle.

I could do Dry(ish) January again, but I do think I have generally reduced the amount I drink. If my liquid calorie intake becomes an issue there is always Sober October or something else similar.

I never did retake the BJCP exam again in 2019. I didn’t have time to study in advance of Homebew Con. After Homebrew Con I didn’t see any other exams scheduled in the area. I’m fairly ambivalent about moving up in rank at this point.

My resolutions for 2019 were fairly modest and mostly successful. I brewed the beer I wanted to drink. As it turned out that meant I didn’t brew a single IPA in 2019.  I have put some thought into what I want to accomplish in 2020, but not a great deal.

  • Enter more competitions: I have always been in and out in terms of entering competitions. At some times I am all about it, and then I can go months at a time without entering any. After entering two BJCP competitions last year I want to get back into it and see what we can learn. 
  • Enter Masters Championship of Amateur Brewing (MCAB) qualifying events: The MCAB is a competition only open to first place winners at select qualifying events. If I am going to enter more competitions I may as well throw my hat in the ring here.  
  • Go all out for NHC: In 2019 I entered four beers into the National Homebrew Competition. The imperial stout I brewed with Sven advanced to the final round. A batch of Pa’s Lager scored well and made it to mini-best of show in the first round which means it almost advanced. For 2020 I will apply for the maximum of five entries into the competition. The plan is to brew beers that I feel have the best chance of advancing and potentially medalling.
  • Win a medal at Jamboree: This one is more about club honor. Mike Shea from the North Shore Brewers cleaned up last year, but as a club we can do better.
  • Brew with my house yeast: One of the things I think that is missing from craft beer is the loss of house character. Breweries could make different brews and different styles, but they had a house character. As a drinker you could tell that the different beers a brewery made were made by that brewery. One way brewers did that was using a house yeast strain. Every beer I have brewed with my “House Irish Ale Blend” has been outstanding. I want to use that yeast in more brews and learn how it ticks. From there maybe my beers will have that house character. 
  • Make more strong ales: This fall I was lucky enough to go to the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer (FOBAB) in Chicago. That rekindled my love of high gravity beers. I brew more of them in 2020 and cellar the bottles in my basement.
  • Work to finish my home brewery: My basement brew area is overdue for tidying up. I need to clear out the clutter and improve organization down there. I spend most of my brew days looking for random items. The big thing I need is a sink. Cleaning with just a hose isn’t ideal. Even more inconvenient is not having any place to easily dump waste water. I have watched YouTube videos that make installing a sink easy enough, but it’s probably better for everyone if I just hire a plumber. 

That list is a lot longer than I thought it would be!

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On Untappd and beer ratings generally

Recently I was speaking to a friend who is opening a brewery in Massachusetts. Like any new brewery in the northeast, he is going to launch with hazy IPAs, but he also loves classic British ales and German lagers. One of his concerns is how his beers will be reviewed and rated on Untappd.

Image result for untappd

Untappd is a mobile application where users can share, log, review, and rate the beer they drink. The ratings are a simple one-to-five star rating system where users can rate a beer in 0.25 star increments. There are no instructions in how to rate beers in the app. Untappd was conceived as being unstructured; an app that could be enjoyed by casual beer drinkers and hardcore craft beer nerds. The upshot is that as the app and its user base has evolved the highest rated beers are mostly hazy double IPAs, barrel-aged stouts, and the like.

My friend’s concern is that even if he brews the best Ordinary Bitter in the world it still won’t score as highly as a mediocre hazy IPA. That in-turn will drag down his brewery’s overall rating, and deter people from buying his beer. Lots of other brewers share his concern. Some have thought of ways to try to game Untappd ratings. My friend has considered putting up signs or table tents requesting people rate his beers to style.

Initially I nodded at the idea, but the more I think about it the more I think is a little bit of an ask. The fact that a non-distributed brewery like Tree House was the most checked-in brewery in 2019 makes me think that the Untappd user base currently skews heavily toward the beer nerd crowd. While that may be true there are still casual beer drinkers on the app. I’ve been on Untappd since 2011, over a year before I started brewing. At that time I would have told you I was knowledgeable about beer. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

The issue with beer ratings is not the ratings in and of themselves. The issue is how people use and interpret beer ratings. At their best beer ratings are a guide. Going back to the days working at my uncle’s car dealership, in my experience human beings are terrible at using guides of any kind. Too many people treat guides like guides are gospel. Guides are opinion and not fact. An expert opinion in a magazine is still an opinion. Aggregated user ratings on a mobile application are nothing more than aggregated opinion.

If Beer A has a 4.07 rating on Untappd it is not definitively a better beer than Beer B which only has a 3.87 rating. Where brewery owners are rightfully concerned is when a drinker is looking at a beer list or inside a cooler and pulls out a phone before making a decision. The only solution I see is for consumers to be smarter. That means being aware of the biases in the ratings, and confident enough to form their own opinions.

As I became aware of the biases in the ratings I mostly stopped using them to inform my buying decisions. I still log most of my beers on Untappd. I use it mostly as a journal so I can look back to what beers I have enjoyed when and where. I used to really enjoy collecting badges on the app from drinking different beers, but so many badges have been added over the years the accomplishment of collecting badges felt watered down.

I stopped rating beers for the most part on the app for a few reasons. When I started working in the industry I felt weird about rating customer’s or prospective customer’s beers. Mostly I noticed how compressed my own ratings were. How useful is a rating if on a 1-5 scale the majority of the ratings are clustered between 3.5 and 4.0?

My ratings graphed. Not a lot of useful information there. 

If you enjoy rating beer, by all means continue rating beer. Use Untappd the way it was intended which is however you want to use it. My only suggestion is to keep an open mind when tasting a beer and don’t be afraid to form your own opinion even if it differs from the crowd.

I don’t envy brewers who have to sweat ratings and also comments. I can only imagine what it is like to put your heart and soul into something to have it be torn down by someone who clearly does not know what they are talking about. It must be really annoying to have a user say a beer is great, and then give it three stars. If I was a commercial brewer I’d monitor the ratings and comments to get a feel for how my beer was being received. If a beer is getting similar feedback from numerous users that’s information I would want to have.

There isn’t a solution for the biases toward certain beer styles. The styles that are the most highly rated are the styles that consumers like the most. Why that is the case is a post for another day.

Since I’ve been talking about my Untappd account, I don’t see a reason to keep my account private. Feel free to follow me.

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Brew Day: Derby Wharf Porter (American Porter)

It has actually been over a year since my colleague Sven and I brewed our imperial stout: Employee Orientation 101. Now that the weather is colder and next year’s National Homebrew Competition (NHC) will be here before I know it. Time to brew another imperial stout is here. A big beer like an imperial stout needs a big pitch of yeast. One of my favorite methods to build up yeast is to brew what I call a starter beer. A starter beer is a lower alcohol and more lightly hopped beer that I can harvest yeast from in my next batch.

The yeast I want to use in my imperial stout is the same yeast as I used in my last imperial stout. I call this yeast my “House Irish Blend”. When I brewed Employee Orientation 101 last year, I took two expired yeast pitches, from two different suppliers, and made two yeast starters to build up enough cells.

At that time I also built up some extra yeast cells which I saved for future use. That was last November. Then in February I took that yeast, made a starter for Rundown Irish Red, then banked some extra cells which I didn’t revive again until now. I had to make two starters just to have enough yeast for my starter beer and build enough extra to save.

The jar of yeast I saved almost certainly contained less yeast cells to begin with than a fresh package of yeast contains. Combine that with the fact the jar was nine months old, it took almost a week to build up enough cells. My first starter only showed the faintest signs of fermentation after three days on my stir plate. I cold crashed my first starter, and stepped up to a larger starter. Given how sluggish the first starter was this was a bit of a leap of faith. Thankfully the second starter took off right away.

For the actual beer I decided to brew an English Porter. Two years ago I threw together an extract porter with leftover ingredients I had lying around. The base of the beer was Briess liquid malt extract. I was happy with how that beer came out and in the back of my mind have wanted to brew it again as an all-grain batch with English ingredients.

Behind Enemy Lines was my starting point. When converting to all-grain with Muntons malts I had to account for the fact that Muntons Chocolate Malt is much darker than Briess Chocolate Malt. I also chose to use a darker crystal malt, Muntons Crystal 400 (150L) to get more of a toasted flavor along with more raisin and molasses flavors as opposed to caramel.

I prepared my water the night before brew day and started to mill my grain. My grain mill jammed again. I adjusted the gap, ran a small amount through, thought it was fixed, then it jammed again. I need to completely disassemble the rollers and spray everything that moves inside the mill with compressed air and lubricate.

When I was finally able to run my malt through the mill the crush looked to be poor. It looked like far too many intact kernels made it through. To improve my crush, I ran the malt through the mill again. After the second pass through the malt looked like kibble, and most of the barley husks looked to be destroyed. The concern now was that the malt was too finely milled and would cause a stuck sparge. Luckily I had some rice hulls which made sure I was filter through my grain bed without any issues.

With the finer crush a funny thing happened, the efficiency of my mash went through the roof! Usually my mash efficiency is right around 70% which means I extract 70% of the available sugars from my malt. This batch was the highest efficiency I can remember: a whopping 85%!

The batch was supposed to be a sessionable English Porter with around 5% alcohol. My target original gravity was 1.050. Instead my original gravity was 1.062. At that point I could have diluted my wort. A commercial brewery that legally has to be within 0.3% of a beer’s declared alcohol level would almost certainly do that. Instead I decided to just go with what I had.

At this point the beer will be too high in alcohol to be an English Porter. Not that adhering to style is critically important, but I was curious what style would be the best fit. In my mind I thought the American Porter category while higher in alcohol than English Porter, was also has a prominent American hop character like the American Stout category. A declared style only really matters in competitions.

After reading the guidelines American Porter is, “A substantial, malty dark beer with a complex and flavorful dark malt character”. While bigger and roastier, American Porter can have an “American” or “British” character. With the dark Muntons Chocolate Malt and Crystal 400, this beer should fit the style nicely.

With a nice porter and a winter warmer in Welcome As You Are, I have plenty of malty ales to last through the winter.

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Tasting Notes: Welcome As Your Are (British Strong Ale)

I needed a hit. Like a batter in a slump, or a down-on-their-luck band I needed a hit. I brewed two great beers over the summer, but those kegs are empty. I even used the last bit of Olde North Shore Ale to brine our Thanksgiving turkey. The big reason I needed a hit was that I had to dump thirteen gallons of beer and it was terrible.

To address the acetaldehyde issues that was affecting everything I brewed, I took my sanitation procedures back to square one and sanitized all of my glass and plastic equipment with a bleach solution. My first brewing kit came with the third edition of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing published back in 2003. Presumably the variety of sanitizing products available to homebrewers now were not as available back then so the book suggested using a bleach solution.

The beer pours copper with an off white head. The head is thin with fair retention. The beer does have a bit of haze, but nothing I’m concerned with. The aroma is malt forward with notes of graham cracker, fig, and a hint of toast.

The flavor is what really stands out to me. Up front is a very understated sweetness, like a the bottom of a sugar cookie that is more browned and lacking the sugar that is on the top of the cookie.  That leads to moderate flavors of jam and biscuit. The malt is just toasty enough along with the hop bitterness to give the beer a perfectly crisp finish. The medium hop flavor from the East Kent Golding provide elegant floral and currant notes throughout. Fermentation character is somewhat clean, with floral esters adding a bit more complexity.

The body is medium-full which is enhanced by the medium-low carbonation. The finish is perfectly crisp with just a twinge of hop flavor and bitterness lingering. It makes the drinker want another sip. When I first tapped the keg I ended up having three pints. The beer finished at 6.2% and is almost too drinkable.

I needed a hit and I think I have one. This feels like a beer that would do well in competition. With the holidays the competition calendar is understandably light. Maybe I’ll find a competition early next year and ship a couple of bottles. That of course assumes the keg will last that long.

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Brew Day: Come as You Are (British Strong Ale)

On the heels of discovering that my brown ale was infected my homebrew pipeline was suddenly empty. At least two of my kegs are getting low; an emergency brew day is in order! Winter is also approaching and I am going to want some malt-forward beers to enjoy.

Compared to American “Winter Warmers” that use Christmas spices like clove, ginger and nutmeg, British winter warmers like Winter Welcome use none. Instead British winter warmers are more like Best Bitters just turned up a notch. The British Strong Ale category as defined by the BJCP is a bit of a catch-all for any British beer that is stronger than everyday beers like bitters or porters, but isn’t as strong as British Barley Wine or Imperial Stout.

Perfection in a bottle.

Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome is a beer I look for every winter. Last winter I was lucky enough to find it on draught twice in addition to finding bottles in the store. I have played around with creating my own clone recipe but never finalized anything or planned any brews. Then this month’s Brew Your Own magazine they published a ($) clone!

I plugged the recipe into BeerSmith and I couldn’t make the numbers in BeerSmith match what was in the recipe. The final gravity in the published recipe felt low to me to begin with. I bumped up the amount of base malt to boost the gravity while finishing at 6% ABV. Then I had to increase the amount of hops to compensate for the additional gravity.

I always keep one of these exactly for last-minute
brew days like today.

The recipe called for a highly-attenuative English yeast. As this was an emergency brew day I didn’t have time to make a liquid yeast starter, so dry yeast it was. I had a sachet of Safale S-04 English Ale yeast. S-04 doesn’t attenuate quite as much as say Nottingham, so I lowered my mash temperature a bit.

Still reeling from all of my contaminated batches, I haven’t had a chance to get new sanitizer. Instead I made sure my equipment was soaked in bleach. Well, a bleach solution anyeay. I let everything drip dry to make sure the solution was in contact long enough to sanitize everything that touched the beer. A bleach solution requires at least 15 minutes of contact time.

The wort was so clear I barely had to vorlauf. 

Beautiful copper color going into my fermenter.

As I have been planning my brews and thinking about what I want to brew, I have been going back in my mind to the classic British styles. For whatever reason these styles aren’t appreciated in the market. I have some theories as to why, but that can be a rant for another day. I am looking forward to make even more British-style beers in the coming weeks and months.

I can’t wait to tap this brew on Black Friday. The wort coming out of the mash tun, and later going into the fermenter looked and smelled absolutely gorgeous. This will be a great beer to bottle off and bring to holiday gatherings.

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Just when you think you have it all figured out….

I was feeling pretty good. On the heels of my imperial stout advancing to the final round of the National Homebrew Competition, I won a medal at the New England Regional Homebrew competition with my Olde North Shore Ale and an Honorable Mention for Fredward Wit. 

For a beer that was three months old to medal at the largest competition in New England is pretty good.

Those were the only two competitions I had entered all year. Advancing at NHC was always a goal, but entering NERHBC was a bit of a lark. The two beers I entered were brewed for an event in July, not a competition in October. This year at Jamboree, Mike Shea from our club cleaned up with five medals. Ray Pickup, who is planning to open Rockport Brewing, was also at jamboree encouraging everyone else in the club to enter more beers next year.

A friend of mine who is a professional brewer also entered the competition at jamboree. I may be way off here, but I had the sense he was on pins and needles hoping his beer would win. It is also possible I was projecting what my feelings own would have been if I had entries. Deep down in places I don’t talk about at parties, I am hyper-competitive. More accurately I hate losing. It rook me years to learn how to deal with failure. It probably took me longer than most well-adjusted adults.

Anyway, being around competitive people including another industry professional motivated me to enter the largest homebrew competition in New England. After entering two big competitions and winning two medals I was starting to feel pretty good about myself.

The next competition was Ales over ALS. While not a BJCP competition, I do want to win Ales over ALS after a couple near-misses. I brewed a wet hop IPA with my homegrown Chinook. It was a way to bring a one-of-a-kind beer to the event, and have a story for attendees at the event who aren’t brewers or craft beer nerds.

The first time I tapped the keg was at the event. I got lemon and a some astringency in the finish. With over a pound of wet hops in a five gallon batch I expected some citrus and even some chlorophenols from all of that hop material in the kettle.

The attendees liked it enough, but two of the judges absolutely destroyed it. Both complained of acetaldehyde. The most common flavor descriptors for acetaldehyde are green apple like what is found in low levels in Budweiser and Bud Light,. The other common descriptors are raw pumpkin or pumpkin guts.

I was incredulous. Firstly, I didn’t think the beer was problematic. If it was, I should have known better and caught it myself. Secondly my ego was bruised to have my beer torn to shreds by people I know and generally respect.  By the time I received my scoresheets I had already started breaking down. I went so far as to reconnect the keg and taste the beer again. I concluded that the judges probably were right. That meant I had been pouring problematic beer for four hours. Great.

All that was left was to figure out what went wrong. Acetaldehyde can be caused by fermentation problems. The original yeast I pitched never quite took off and I had to pitch dry yeast. Maybe the sluggish fermentation caused the acetaldehyde normally produced during fermentation not to be processed by the yeast. Acedaldehyde can also be caused by bacteria. The oxidation of acedaldehyde can also create acetic acid. That would explain the lemon that I was getting.

A couple weeks after brewing the wet hop beer, I brewed eight one-gallon batches for a Muntons sales meeting. I brewed the beers to showcase our malts as well as some of our competitors malts in a finished beer. I fermented in eight brand new one-gallon growlers. Each beer was over-pitched with half a sachet of dry yeast. Fermentation in all eight vessels was vigorous enough that it should have cleaned up any chemical byproducts during fermentation.  ALL EIGHT of those batches were acetaldehyde-bombs. Not only did I waste two days brewing and one day bottling those batches, I now have to fill that time at our meeting where we would have been tasting those beers.

If that wasn’t enough, Jennie found a pellicle growing on a brown ale that was my most-recent batch.  A different beer, in a different vesel, with a different infection made it crystal clear I had a sanitation problem. I have been using an acid-based sanitizer Star San for years. Either something changed in the water supply in terms of alkalinity or mineral contact that is affecting the effectiveness of the Star San, or my Star San is just old.

After dumping 13 gallons of beer, I took every piece of equipment that touched beer recently, hoses, siphons, carboys, growlers, and sanitized it all the old-fashioned way: with bleach! Excuse me while I cry into a commercial beer.

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2019 hop harvest is underway

Hop harvest is a favorite time for many brewers. Large commercial brewers are invited by hop growers and brokers to the Pacific Northwest for hop selection. At hop selection, brewers and purchasers are ushered through tours of the fields, and then sat at picnic tables where they rub and smell various lots of hops selecting the lots they wish to buy. Hop selection is part sensory experience and part junket. Plenty of beer is consumed by the visiting brewers.

For a homebrewer growing hops in the backyard, hop harvest is a lot more work. The tendricles that allow hops to climb can really irritate the skin. Gloves and long sleeves are a must. On a still-warm late August day it can be quite hot. I drank three bottles of water while picking cones off of my first bine.

The cones on the bine will ripen at different times. One advantage a home-grower has is the ability to pick the cones as they ripen over a period of time. For a large commercial grower this is entirely impractical.

Last year I planted five rhizomes: Willamette, Northern Brewer, Chinook, Cascade, Centennial. I clipped the Cascade with my edger and it never grew back. The other four plants did grow nicely their first year.

First-year hops typically don’t yield many cones if they even do at all. The Northern Brewer actually yielded quite a bit. Enough for me to brew a batch, a California Common I named Uncommon First Harvest. Using the pick as you go method, I was able to dry the hops on a screen. After tasting the beer I brewed the lack of hop flavor made it pretty clear that I picked the hops too soon. There was almost no hop flavor, but the Muntons Crystal malt flavor really came through and I thoroughly enjoyed the beer.

For this year I planted three new hop plants, not rhizomes: Cluster, Brewers Gold, and Canadian Red Vine. The Cluster and Brewers Gold were purchased with the idea of using them in historic recipes. Canadian Red Vine on the other hand I had never heard of. It’s supposed cherry flavor sounded interested. That it has French-Canadian origin (like me!), made me think it would grow well in New England. 

Here is a rundown of how my plants did this year

Northern Brewer: Again this was my most vigorous grower. The cones were ready for harvest the fourth week of August. I knew the cones were ready when I saw more yellow lupulin than when I harvested last year, and some of the leaves were just starting to yellow and brown ever so slightly. The clincher was when I rubbed a cone in my hands I could see and feel the hop oil in my hands. With the huge volume of cones, I elected to harvest them all at once. I could barely fit the yield in a five-gallon bucket.

Look at all of those cones!

Chinook: This plant really made a leap in year two and has produced numerous large cones. I can’t wait to use them in a hoppy pale ale or IPA.

I could barely fit the plant in the frame. Lots of shoots with good
cones too,

Centennial: It has done better in it’s second year and produced some cones. The cones however are rather small. I think the plant isn’t getting sufficient sunlight and may need to be replanted in a better spot. Our deck, and the neighbor’s house and deck block the sunlight at different parts of the day.

The Centennial in the shade. It isn’t high enough to clear the
neighbor’s deck. 

Willamette: I spoke with a rep from Four Star Farms, a hop grower in Western Mass about my Willamette after it grew very slowly last year. In their experience English or English derived hops do not grow as well in New England. My plant did do better this year and produced a few cones, if not quite enough to be worth harvesting. I am going to leave the plant in-tact as long as possible so it can continue to receive sunlight and strengthen its root system. I think that next year I will have a more substantial yield.

The Willamette produced a few cones in year two and does look
pretty hanging off of my porch,
Cluster and Brewers Gold: Planting dormant plants as opposed to rhyzomes is that plants are supposed to grow more vigorously their first year. That was not the case with these two. I planted these along my fence on either side of the Northern Brewer where I thought they would get the most sunlight. Instead the Norther Brewer shaded out both of these. The Cluster eventually slowly started to grow. With the Northern Brewer cut down it should have six to eight weeks of warm weather and sunlight to help the root system for next year.
The Cluster is the thin plant to the right.

The Brewers Gold never took off in it’s original location. I replanted it along my porch next to the stairs. While that location is blocked from the morning sun, it does get plenty of sun from mid-afternoon onward. It did slowly start to take off a little bit in its new location.
Believe it or not this is improvement.
Canadian Red Vine: By the time my new plants arrived I had completely forgotten that I ordered this one. I planted it along the porch just to see how it would do. I was concerned about the lack of morning sunlight which proved not to be an issue at all. The plant reached the top of the porch, then found a cable line along the side of the house, and worked it’s way up that. The plant has produced plenty of cones that probably won’t be ready to harvest for another few weeks.
The roofline on the porch is probably 15′-20′ high.
Expecting a larger yield, I purchased some new toys to properly store my homegrown hops. I bought a food dehydrator to speed up the drying process. There are all kinds of DIY hop drying projects that involve box fans, building wood frames, and stapling screens to them. The dehydrator I purchased was $80, but give me a turnkey solution and I will take it every time. I can also use the machine to make beef jerky! To store my dried hops I bought a vacuum sealer.

I end up with 6oz of dried hops per batch.
The dehydrator is working great! With the temperature set at 95F the hops dry in nine hours. With the huge yield of Northern Brewer I will probably have to run five to six batches to dry them all. Wet hops, hops that are picked fresh off the bine, will start to get moldy after three days. I should just be able to get them all dry by then.
I weighed out my dried hops into two ounce bags which were then vacuum-sealed. The bags for the vacuum sealer come in a roll and it took some trial and error to figure out how large of a bag to cut. As I work through these hops the next challenge might be to find enough fridge

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