In the pursuit of perfect homebrew, failure still makes beer.

Tips

Pro-Style Homebrew Bottling Protips

In my homebrew, I kind of obsess about the quality of what’s inside those mysterious, unlabeled brown bottles. But what about the outside? It’s one thing to brew beer you like, and any amount of lab/masking/painters tape and Sharpie can be appropriate… for your own consumption. As long as you know what’s in your homebrew bottle, it’s the brew that counts, right? Of course.

But how about kicking your presentation up to the next level? Can anyone really appreciate your corny hop pun name without you describing the image you had in your mind? When you tell a fellow homebrew drinker to try your “Megazord’s Mega Sword” Barleywine, why hand them a bottle that doesn’t look the part?

If you’ve ever taken a trip over to any of my recipe pages (top o’ the page up there, drop down menus are SWEET) you’ll see that I’ve done some amateur label design of my own. This is just the start of how I try to kick up my homebrew presentation another notch. BAM, mofo. You can be like me, too. Read on, push the limits of your creativity, and add more fuel to the homebrew fire with these tips for homebrew bottle labeling and presentation.

beer bottle blank

Your bottle is an empty canvas.

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All-Grain REMIX – Celebration Pale Ale

About 6 weeks ago, a little holiday rolled around in March that usually calls for the proclamation of your Gaelic heritage, whether lineage states it as a fact or not. Said holiday persuaded me to not only celebrate my half-Irish-ness (for real!) by brewing a homebrew on the morn’ o’ that sacred day whence to feast in memory of St. Patrick, but to also venture into all-grain brewing. (more…)


Why I Won’t Tell You a Beer is Bad.

Don't be that guy.

This post was inspired by Alan McLeod’s fantastic “A Good Beer Blog,” something I digest quite regularly. His post titled “How to Write a Good Review on a Very Bad Thing” is well-written and interesting. It also brings up a point I’ve always had a hard time communicating to others when I’m talking about beer. I’ve learned some of this from working in the restaurant industry for a seemingly short amount of time.

When describing a beer, meal, movie, or anything really, I hesitate to use the terms “bad” and “good.” These words describe a personal preference as opposed to the actual characteristics of the item in question. A pertinent example is when beer snobs insinuate that macro-brewed beer like Budweiser and Miller/Coors is “rubbish,” “horse piss,” “for white trash hillbillies,” and other terms of the like, they solely accomplish being derogatory. They are in essence imposing their opinions of a beer onto others, while holding court on all those who disagree. These insinuations both get in the way of the enjoyment of a truly awesome thing (beer!) and create a tension between the two opposing parties.

I try my best to keep away from telling others that beers are bad or good; I’ve worked hard over the last two years to develop my taste for beer, to pick out subtleties and balances, and to be able to identify characteristics of a beer that describe the beer itself and not my opinion of the beer. When others ask me for an opinion of a beer they are thinking of buying, I try to stick to these principles and describe the beer at face value – this way, he/she who extends the query can decide for themselves if they like what they hear (or taste). I, for one, am not a fan of your “farmhouse ale” saison. But I can describe one if I taste it.

If you tell me what kind of beers you are into regularly, I would be able to forecast whether you’d like a beer or not with moderate accuracy. I am young in the world of beer, and I am still learning, but there is a principle on which I try to balance all pillars of my life – respect the opinions of others, and they will respect you.

In short, every time I say to you “Bud Light has its place and time, for sure…” know that I’m not BS-ing you. It’s the truth – you wouldn’t drink a stout on a lawnmower in the summer. Or if you did, you’d quickly learn your (intestinal) lesson. But I’m only trying to quell your insistence that I’m a snob, and instead respect your opinions.


A textual revolution

I just very recently had a birthday (hooray me!), and for my family’s gifts I asked for one of a number of beer-brewing topic texts. Of all people, my 70-something-year-old Nana decided to show her support for my habit, although faux pax by old-fashioned terms. With a blessing of “I won’t drink any of it, I’m more of a Manhattan gal” I received into my hands a shiny new copy of John P. Palmer’s How to Brew. If C. Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing is regarded as the homebrewer’s bible, Palmer’s book is equivalent to the expanded, annotated, prize-inside-the-box version of the bible. You know, for enthusiastic fans of religion.

Probably available at your local beer supply store, or online at howtobrew.com!

Even though my family doesn’t understand how I could READ anything so monotonous, I dove right in. I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my brewing skills. Just because I have a good batch or two doesn’t mean I’m Sam Caliglione (Dogfish Head). My most recent beer, WeizGuy Weizenbock, could definitely be improved. Instead of tasting dark, fruity, and handsome, it tasted like chewing on a piece of 12-grain bread and was a little rough around the edges. Luckily for me, I have 6 bottle-conditioning bombers ready for the test of time.

Even if the beer I just made was great, I still always have room to improve in my process. J. Palmer helps me learn the whats, hows, and whys. Here’s a list of a few things that I plan to change / make for my next batch, hopefully to come in a week’s time.

  • Cleaning and Sanitization – it’s every bit as important as I always thought it was. But I’ve been having some trouble with cleaning itty bits of equipment, namely small-diameter hoses (beerstone residue) and racking canes. How to Brew recommends percarbonate solutions, or OxyClean-like products, for their removal. Soaking the parts overnight in OxyClean, bleach solution (hypochlorite), or even something like CLR (oxalic acidic cleaner with phosphoric and/or nitric acid) can help prevent stains and deposits on anything from hoses to brewpots.
  • Record keeping – I’ve done a decent job keeping up with record keeping using this blog, BrewPal for iPhone iOS (seriously well-spent $0.99), and various little notebooks and napkins. However, in the future it would be nice to have an Excel-based spreadsheet recipe record. If I create this, I’ll make sure I attach it to a post so you ALL can have it (all my fans out there… chirp chirp…).
  • Extract Brewing – I haven’t done enough of this. I’m an habitual partial extract brewer with hopes and dreams of going all-grain in the future, but that takes time, space, and money. Because I’m moving into apartments on at longest a 12-month basis, maybe all-grain isn’t the best way to go for now. Extract brewing is also cheaper by far – I usually pay about $1.10 a beer on a basis of roughly  48 bottles per 5-gallon batch – and much quicker. It could also allow process-centric practice for all the little brewery its-and-bits. Any opportunity for homebrew practice is a good opportunity.
  • Hops and AAU/IBU calculations – I LOVE MATH. Especially Beer Math. I’ve always paid half-attention to alpha-acid percent in hops, and I like using whole-cone hops in my brews when financially possible. But getting down to the nitty-gritty math of it all can be a little bit overwhelming for the bro-tacular brewer. Here’s a few simple rules of thumb, taken directly from J. Palmer:
    • Alpha Acid Units (AAUs) are the standard unit of stating hop additions to your brew. It’s a system that allows for substitution of different hops for flavor without sacrificing bitterness, and it also allows for variable hop oil bitterness ratings for yearly hop crops (a.k.a., Centential 2011 may be more fruitful in oil than Centential 2012). To keep consistency, AAUs are used to describe how much alpha your beer gets from the hops.AAU = (%alpha)(weight in oz)For Example: 1.5oz of Cascade hops (5% alpha) in AAU: (5)(1.5) = 7.5 AAUs.
    • International Bittering Units (IBUs) are more commonly used in describing the actual beer as to how bitter it is. IBU is actually a measurement of how isomerized the alpha acids in the wort become as you boil it, which is also affected by the gravity (sugar content) of the initial wort boil. Isomerized alpha acids impart bitterness, ergo the more IBUs the more bitterness. These equations are complicated, and mostly empirical (fit to lots of test data) according to a scientist named Greg Tinseth who loves him some hops. If you want these equations, you can look up the tables on Google because I’m too lazy to type them. Or, you could just buy the damn book and look for yourself.
  • Fermeting conditions – I learned a lot here that can make my brewing SO much better.
    • The Hot Break– feared and respected, boilovers are a real thing. They don’t have to happen. The break is caused by the precipitation and coagulation of large proteins, which if you’re not careful will precipitate onto your stove or your pot. You can put a few copper pennies in the pot to act as nucleation sites and create more even, controlled boiling.Once these proteins do their egg-drop-soup thing and sink back into the wort, you can whirlpool them into the center of your finished wort and suck them out with a sanitized turkey baster. This will clarify your beer and reduce the size of the trub in the carboy. It’s not a bad thing if a little bit of hot break gets into the fermentor, but not the whole goddamn thing. I made this mistake with WeizGuy.
    • Wort cooling – quick wort cooling is very important apparently. Longer wort cooling times expose the wort to more chance for contamination and for dimethyl sulfoxide (DMS) precursors to be produced in the wort, which will become DMS given enough time and heat. Chilling quickly also makes the “cold break,” yet another protein precipitation. These proteins don’t necessarily affect the flavor of the beer, but create a haze when chilled in the final product and contribute to early staleing reactions. You can cool quickly with an ice bath, or a cooling coil (made from copper tubing and hose parts), or by bringing it to the FreezeMizer – whichever is most convenient. With ManofSteele’s hefeweizen, we left it overnight in the basement to cool – which I guess wasn’t a good idea. Oh well, chalk it up to the adventure.
    • Yeast pitching – higher gravity beers (1.060 and over) can benefit from a double-pitch of yeast for assurance that all healthy cells necessary are available for sugar conversion. I can grow my starter a couple of days in advance for this purpose.
    • Mid-summer brewing – the temperature in my basement is around 76-78F. My fermentors are brewing consistently around 76F in the summer, which is almost the “orgy of fermentation” that Palmer describes as too-high-temperature-fermenting. Lots of little metabolites (by-products) can be produced by yeast if it’s kept too warm. In the case of hefeweizen this is OK, since we’re looking for those banana & clove flavors – so our Hefe is safe – but in most beers this is bad. WeizGuy just got a little dumber. I need to look into a cooling system for my fermentors in the mid-summer months, which may just consist of putting them in front of the air conditioner. Classy and inexpensive, plus the whole house will smell of fermentation! Yum. (not so much for my roommate…)

I’m only a third of the way through this book. Lets hope I don’t become addicted.


Palilalia IPA – results

I put my home-brewed first attempt at an IPA in the keg last Saturday. It’s a 6.4%, 56 IBU beast. Dry hopped with Chinook in the secondary, it should have a nice floral aromatic quality when consumed. Some great pictures I took while brewing with ManofSteele are below.

The man of the hour, keeping his hops close to his heart.

 

ManofSteele's Gone Fishin' Pale Ale wort... on a protein rest.

One thing I was worried about was the attenuation of my yeast. Re-hydration of a dry yeast like I usually use (SafAle) might not be cutting it for my beers as of late. With an OG (original gravity) of 1061, my target was about 6.8% alcohol with an FG (final gravity) of 1000 – 1005.

(If this sounds like gibberish and scientific mathy nonsense to you, I’d suggest you look up the definition of original gravity on wiki or google or your homebrew book of choice.)

My real attenuation bottomed out at a “generous” 1012. This means that some of the sugars in the beer have not fermented, and there will be a tinge of sweetness in my beer. A sweet off-flavor can be attributed to a number of things, but because of my high FG, I know it was my yeast being lazy. Next time, I’m pitching a starter to see if that makes any difference. But blogging about that process is for later.

My beer, on the other hand, is for now.

 

The finished product.

On the pour from my clean, sanitized tap, I have a haze in the appearance. It laces lightly with a small, feathery head. The head disappears quickly. It smells like I died and went to hop heaven – the dry hopping really does wonders for the aroma in an IPA. The scent is very earthy with a little floral twinge.

The taste is pretty interesting. It is a little sweet, which I was afraid of, and makes me miss my style target. But after I console myself for that failiure, the beer tastes pretty goddamn good. The hop bill really went to work for me, ramping up from the middle to back palate and lingering for a bit after you swallow it down. The malt is pretty unassuming, and it attributes a good drinkability and thin mouthfeel, but let’s be honest – this beer wasn’t about the malt, it was about the hops. I freaking love hops.

All in all, I would give myself a B- for this beer. This is no gold-medal IPA by any style guide. But style aside, the drinkability agrees with my ultimate goal of relaxing with a homebrew.

 

The truly finished product.

The haze has haunted my brewing for quite some time now. I’ll want to fix this, and I think I know a potential cause of the problem: the cooling of my wort. Right now, my cooling scheme is one that happens nautrally, and quite slowly. This slow cooling allows more time for any evil bacterial to enter my beer when its not sealed off from the harsh world it will ferment in To make matters worse, When I brewed this beer in particular, I made a beer-brained decision to throw it outside in the snow to try and cool it faster. This probably allowed for more chance of infection, and I was pretty lucky I didn’t turn out with a sour beer due to wild yeast infection. Bad, bad brewer.

Therefore, I find the need for a wort chiller coil. This is a piece of copper piping you stick in your boil pot and run cold water through to quickly lower the temperature of your wort after your boil is finished. I’ll see if I can find a cheap DIY and then throw it up here. Until then, I need to get a looot of ice.

UPDATE: The haze is attributed, according to my homebrew club guys, to yeast still in suspension in the beer. If I cold crash the beer (put the primary fermenter in the fridge for a day after it’s finished brewing) the yeast will fall out. I’ll try that with my next go at the IPA.

UPDATE AGAIN: I also want to try a 90 minute boil with this beer, to add more bittering character and get rid of some of the grassy notes I’ve started to pick up after drinking this for a while. Usually, you choose bittering hops to add at long time periods (90, 45, 30 minutes) and aroma hops at short time periods (10, 5, 1 minutes).


New to “real” beer?

The 2nd Annual San Fransisco Beer week is occurring NOW. I’ve never so badly wanted to fly out to California and join in on some hoppy, malty discussions and tastings and master classes and parties. But, alas, I cannot due to the financials and my already upcoming travel plans.

But here’s the saving grace: a Beer 101 page for your mental digestion. This is a decent introduction to the ingredients in beer. Although magical, beer is not made from magic. It’s made from the GROUND.