Monday, January 26, 2015

Advice for the New Homebrewer

This post is intended as a "sticky note" for friends, acquaintances, and general internet inhabitants who ask how to get into home brewing. It is based on my own personal experience and opinion. If there is anything that home brewers are, it's opinionated. So, you may hear drastically different advice on some points (e.g., extract versus all-grain), but I suspect most would at least partly agree on what I have to say here.

My starting assumption here is that the reader is at least passingly familiar with basic terms such as "extract brewing" or "all-grain brewing" or "sparging." If not, a quick internet search will turn up better definitions than I could provide.

General Advice
  • "Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Home Brew." I really like Charlie Papazian's philosophy. Papazian is in many ways a founder of homebrewing culture, and his book "The Complete Joy of Home Brewing" is a legitimate classic. Although I've since learned that the corners of some content in the book are a little outdated or have better alternatives, Papazian's "Relax" mantra is a healthy one to keep in mind. Most minor mistakes in brewing (and even some major ones) won't completely kill a batch of beer! As I tell friends who are just starting out--"The worst thing that usually can happen is that you will get beer."
  • You will not get Bud Light style lager through 99% of all home brewing efforts. If that is your goal, you are far better off just picking up a case of the cheap stuff at the store. The light American lagers--despite their bad reputation among beer snobs--are technically quite difficult to achieve by most homebrew setups. That said, you are not restricted to just stouts and porters. You can fairly easily make a really tasty blonde ale, for instance--light, refreshing, and quite achievable!
  • If your intent is to save money on beer, find another hobby. In terms of raw ingredients for a batch, yes, you might save money in the long run. But once you factor in time and equipment, this is not by any means a money-saving proposition. Quite frankly, there are better ways to save money--like cutting back on your beer drinking.
  • You know what your own tastes are. Trust them. If the beer tastes good to you, it's good beer. That said, do be open to constructive critique from those who have practiced taste buds. As a corollary to that, though, remember that we all pick up on different things in beer. Beware relentlessly negative tasting critiques from beer snobs. There are always those who will find fault no matter what; learn to identify them and (politely) ignore them.
  • The goal is not (or isn't always) high alcohol or maximum hoppage. Those things can be nice in some beers, but get boring after awhile. There is an unfortunate "macho" philosophy prevalent among some home brewers (and even some craft brewers) that the goal is to create the highest alcohol beer that will provide maximum buzz, or the most bitter concoction, or the funkiest Brett brew. This isn't healthy, nor is it fun, in the long run. Good beer comes in all shapes and sizes; I've had great beer with almost no hops character, and lots of hops character. Likewise, I've had great beer with 3.2% abv, or 9% abv. Variety is the spice of life.
  • There is a tremendous amount of BS masquerading as brewing advice on various internet forums and websites. There is also a tremendous amount of good knowledge out there. As a scientist, I am a little frustrated at times by the uncritical eye cast towards brewing techniques. I get the sense that there is a vast world of scientific knowledge out there, but it doesn't often percolate down to home brewers. So, use a bit of common sense when incorporating new techniques into your repertoire. As I said in the intro--home brewers are an opinionated bunch, for better or worse.
  • Start small. You have no idea if you will give up on brewing after two batches, or if you'll still be brewing strong ten years down the road. Thus, it doesn't make a lot of sense to drop $1,000 on equipment right from the start. You should be able to brew your first batch of beer for around or under $100 of equipment and supplies.
  • If possible, brew with a friend before committing. If you have a friend who is a homebrewer, ask if you can "ride along" for one of their brewing sessions. It's a good way to see how the process works. That said, be aware that your friend may have good habits, bad habits, cheap habits, expensive habits, or unnecessary habits built into his or her work flow. Just because they do all-grain with a massively complex sparge setup doesn't mean that you have to also. Or, if they use iodine-based sanitizers without proper dilution or rinsing, you may want to do something a little different.
  • Start with extract brewing. It requires minimal equipment investment as well as requires the easiest technique. It's a good way to get your feet wet (or end up completely immersed in the hobby!).
  • Both extract and all-grain brewing can produce good (or bad) beer. Each technique has its advantages and disadvantages, but with care and experience both can produce excellent beer. If you spend your entire career doing extract, and get excellent results, yay! Don't let all-grain snobs get you down.
  • Take good notes. You will never regret this. What worked in your process? What didn't work? What did you change from before? What were the starting and finishing gravities? It is hard to improve (or maintain high quality) if you don't know what happened.
  • You will not get perfect beer at first--but you will almost certainly get drinkable beer. As you learn and practice your technique, your brews will nearly certainly improve.
  • If the beer tastes funny, wait a week or two or three before tossing it. I've made a few batches that improved drastically after a few weeks of maturing. Time doesn't fix all ills in brewing, but it sure can mitigate most.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Beer Tasting: Andy's Pumpkin Ale 1.0

Before this beer got too far along, I wanted to do a critical tasting of my pumpkin ale. I've only got a few bottles left, and have been enjoying these through the winter months. Pumpkin ales (and pumpkin spice anything) are a bit of a trend these days, which has resulted in no shortage of commercial examples that (in my taste opinion) range from mediocre to delicious. Not one to dodge a beer bandwagon, it seemed like a good idea to brew one. As you'll see below, yes, it was a good idea!

  • Basics
    • Original gravity = 1.060; final gravity = 1.012; abv = 6.3%
  • Aroma
    • A hint of nutmeg and pumpkin (the savory vegetable aroma from freshly cooked pumpkin). Very nicely balanced--not a "spice bomb."
  • Appearance
    • Thick off-white head with excellent staying power; a creamy appearance and feel to the head. The beer itself is brilliantly clear, with a rich golden hue (the picture really doesn't do it justice). This is about as beautiful as it gets.
  • Flavor
    • Hard to describe, in a good way. Very lightly malty, with a pleasant but not overwhelming bitterness. I definitely pick up the nutmeg--distinct, but not overpowering--but the cinnamon is much more subtle; basically, just a little zing on the finish. 
  • Mouthfeel
    • Perhaps a touch overcarbonated. That aside, the mouthfeel is pretty smooth, just as I'd hope for something with pumpkin.
  • Would I brew this again?
    • Absolutely! I might dial back the carbonation just a notch, but otherwise this is pretty much the perfect pumpkin ale. The vegetable, malt, and spices are well balanced, and the body is full enough that it's not like a lager with spice added. This recipe is going into the yearly rotation. I'll also note that it has aged very well, and is just as tasty (if not more) after two months.
  • Overall rating
    • 8/10

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Beer Tasting: Experimental Amber Ale

After about 10 days of carbonation, I felt that my Experimental Amber Ale was ready for a serious evaluation. The overly malty flavor at kegging--almost to the point where I was worried that it might be diacetyl or some other flaw--has disappeared, and the beer tastes quite nice. The full story is below.

  • Basics
    • Starting gravity = 1.047; final gravity = 1.013; abv = 4.5%
  • Aroma
    • Clean and lightly malty; nothing to speak of for hop aroma.
  • Appearance
    • A rich amber in color, and clear in appearance. The head is off-white, with good retention, but is not particularly "big" in size.
  • Flavor
    • Malt-forward, with a moderate bitterness that finishes smoothly. Nicely balanced.
  • Mouthfeel
    • Moderately light (but not thin) body and moderately carbonated.
  • Would I brew this again?
    • Probably so, but maybe with a bit of crystal 60 added. I wouldn't place this into the "absolutely outstanding" category, but there is nothing terribly offensive about it, either. It could probably have a little more of a caramel presence to fit the style guidelines for an amber ale (and indeed, I had intended to add this, but forgot when at my homebrew store), as well as to round out the flavor. If I enter this in a competition, I expect it would get dinged a bit for style. On the other hand, I still like this beer!
  • Overall rating:
    • 7/10

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Beer Tasting: Eagle Face Oatmeal Stout

My Eagle Face Oatmeal Stout ended up as another fine brew--it's been a great winter brewing season so far. I took a sample to my homebrew club meeting last week, and it actually placed highest in our informal beer tasting competition (out of eight entries, many of them quite good)! 

At any rate, I thought I would do my own, self-critical tasting while the beer is still in its prime. The results are below.
  • Basics
    • Starting gravity = 1.057; final gravity = 1.022; abv = 4.6%
  • Aroma
    • Slightly chocolatey / roasty; no hops detectable. Very nice.
  • Appearance
    • Head retention excellent (in fact, amazing! it keeps going until I finish the glass); light brown head with fine foam and nice lacing on the side of the glass; color of beer is black to dark brown (the latter only in the thinnest part of the glass). Clarity is quite good (at least as can be determined for the color)
  • Flavor
    • Malty and rich; balance between bitterness and maltiness is good; a tad thin on the finish; flavor is primarily coffee and just a light hint of cocoa
  • Mouthfeel
    • Moderate body, carbonation perfect for style; just a touch creamy/silky, but not overly so; no astringency or any off flavors.
  • Would I brew this again?
    • Absolutely! The recipe turned into a really nice beer! I might up the oatmeal on this just a tad next time to give it just a hint more mouthfeel, but otherwise it's quite good.
  • Overall rating: 9/10

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Beringea IPA Update

Tonight I transferred my Beringea IPA from the primary fermenter into the keg, where it will be dry-hopped for 14 days before carbonation begins. In a slight switch from original plans, I changed the final hops addition from Simcoe to Amarillo. Although I like the aroma of Simcoe, I've heard so many good things about Amarillo that I wanted to try it out. I put the hops pellets (2 ounces total) in a largish nylon hops bag, weighted it with a small ceramic dish, and tied it to the outside of the keg with a piece of thread. Then, I sealed up the keg.

The final gravity for this beer was 1.013, down from 1.060. This works out to 6.2% abv, right on target for the recipe. Taste and appearance for the beer are quite nice--it will be hard to have the patience for my first taste! After my two weeks of dry-hopping at between 60 and 65 degrees, into the keezer it goes for carbonation.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Experimental Amber Ale Kegged

Last night (11 January 2015) I kegged the Experimental Amber Ale. It had been in the primary fermenter for 10 days. For the first eight days, I had it at 65°, and for the last two days I raised it up to 68° to clean up any lingering diacetyl. During the course of fermentation, gravity dropped from 1.047 to 1.013, which works out to 4.5% abv.

I'll be force carbonating this at ~13.5 psi at 42°, which works out to around 2.5 volumes of CO2. Yield was about 4.5 gallons of beer in the keg. Aroma is predominantly malty, and the flavor is fairly smooth. The maltiness is maybe a little more prominent than I like (which is probably my fault for making Maris Otter a good chunk of the malt bill); I am hoping it balances out a bit as the beer matures.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Eagle Face Oatmeal Stout Update

Three and a half weeks after brew day, it was time to take care of the Eagle Face Oatmeal Stout. Over the holiday break, I worked on getting set up for kegging. I converted a 7 cubic foot deep freezer into a "keezer"; I'll probably detail that in another post, but the short version is that it has a redwood collar made out of 2x4's, with a three keg (and three faucet) capacity. This oatmeal stout is my first beer kegged in a 5 gallon keg (I've done some 5 L mini-kegs using the Philtap system), and was wonderfully easy to package!

The beer was brewed on Saturday, December 13, and was happily fermenting by the next morning. On the evening of December 14, I noticed that temperature of the fermenter had risen to 74°, a few degrees over what is ideal for this strain. Part of the problem was that I had my temperature sensor for the temperature controller hanging in the air, rather than taped to the fermenter. Lesson learned, and I was able to drop the fermenter down to the mid-60s by the next morning. Not ideal, but it seems like the extra conditioning time cleared out any negative flavors.

On January 1, 2015, I pulled the fermenter from the chamber and set it on the floor. This was in the midst of a cold snap, so the whole setup was soon down to the ambient temperature of 52°. The temperature increased a little bit over the next few days, to 60° or so, but didn't exceed that.

In terms of overall character, the English Ale Yeast (White Labs WLP002) was fast-acting and extremely flocculant. In other words, true to the strain. This was coupled with relatively low attenuation (see below), as expected.

On January 7, 2015, I kegged the beer. Final gravity was 1.022, down from 1.057. This works out to 4.6% abv and 60% apparent attenuation. The beer was slightly sweet (as expected for the yeast strain), with a nice background bitterness and just a subtle fruity aroma. If I do this recipe again, it would be interesting to try another strain to see what a drier version of the beer is like. I transferred 5 gallons (virtually all of the beer in the fermenter) into a refurbished cornie keg.

After kegging, I put the keg in the keezer, which is set for 42°. Following suggestions for force carbonation from Midwest Brewing, I set the CO2 pressure to 40 psi. I'll do this for 24 hours, lower to 20 psi for another 24 hours, lower to ~13.5 psi, and then sample. Thus, I should be ready for at least preliminary sampling by the weekend!