London Beer Adventure

I’ve just returned from a week-long business trip to London. Since it wasn’t a vacation trip, two things were true: first, I was on my own. I didn’t have the family with me, so I was left to my own devices. Second, I was working most of the time, so I didn’t have all day to go doing all of the touristy stuff, and I’m not a big fan of touristy stuff anyway. This left me with a golden opportunity to experience the London beer scene, and that’s exactly what I did. I thought I’d share a bit about my experience there for Americans who might be traveling to London looking for beer, or those who just wonder what it’s like.

Blackfriar, and my big Guinness Discovery

Inside the Blackfriar

Inside the Blackfriar

My first stop was the slightly touristy Blackfriar Tavern, just on the north side of Blackfriar Bridge. They have good pub grub here, so I had a bite to eat, and tried a couple of the cask ales they had on tap. I first tried the Deuchar’s IPA, on cask. This is a British IPA, and it’s a pretty good one, but it’s not anything like an IPA in the states. The hop presence isn’t nearly as pronounced, and it’s not nearly as strong a beer. However, it is a well-balanced beer that’s very refreshing, and very easy to drink. I would order it again, but I didn’t, because I wanted to try as many beers I can’t get in the US as possible. So my next beer was Guinness.

Guinness Extra Cold at Blackfriar Tavern, London

Guinness Extra Cold at Blackfriar Tavern, London

The very first thing I noticed upon taking my first sip of the Guinness was how unbelievably cold it was. Even in the states they don’t serve it this cold. This was particularly shocking given that I’d just had a wonderful cask ale served at cellar temperature. Why was it so darn cold?

I took a look around the bar for clues, but there were none, so I asked the bartender why the Guinness was so cold and she said “Ah, it’s Guinness Extra Cold”, and she pointed at a tap that was clearly branded by Guinness with the “Extra Cold” label on it. My heart sank. When I asked if she had any other Guinness on tap, she said no. Oh man. Was all of the Guinness in London going to be like this? Turns out it wasn’t. It’s actually quite unusual in my experience to *not* be offered a choice when one orders a Guinness in London.

So how do they get the Guinness to be so cold? Do they put it in a separate fridge or something? Is it some kind of spooky glycol cooling system? What’s going on? Well, there’s no separate fridge. Guinness (or perhaps the distributor) provides a small refrigerator box that is small enough to be placed unobtrusively under the bar. The kegs are kept with the rest of the kegs in the cellar, so it is around 12C (around 54F) at the point where it’s tapped, but then it runs through this cooling box, which brings it down below 5C (around 40F). It’s far too cold for me. I serve the beer out of my kegerator at home at somewhere between 48-54F, and that suits me about right. I was not at all surprised at the beer temps in London as a result. When beer has actual, desirable flavors, this temperature is very pleasant!

Here’s the “Extra Cold” tap, for those on the lookout:

Guinnes "Extra Cold" Tap Branding

Guinnes "Extra Cold" Tap Branding

Note that it’s right next to what is perhaps the only lager in the place: Foster’s, which is also served super cold, and which I learned later also utilized a cooling box under the bar. Lots of pubs in London serve lagers that americans would recognize on tap, and they serve them very cold. The interesting thing is that if you’re in a pub frequented by locals, these beers seem to be seen as “alternative”, and you very well might not see them at all!

I read everything there was to read in this tavern, and it was a bit of an eye-opener. They had a pamphlet that would guide you along what I believe is a fictional trail of a mayor of London from long ago, hitting pubs along the way. All of them, I believe, are owned by the same company. You can tell because the food menus are largely the same, and the signs with pics of the food are exactly the same. Even some of the “guest ales” are the same between the different pubs owned by the same company.

IMG_0064To sum up my experience with Guinness, having now consumed it at several different pubs all over London, it’s not really all that different from the stuff you get in the US. It’s a great beer, yes. It *is* slightly different, and there *is* a difference between Guinness at different pubs in London, but it’s not the huge, sweeping, it’s-a-completely-different-beer type of experience that people talk about. For that, as I’m told by the locals, you really do have to go to Ireland. Someday.

The Toucan: Obsessive About Guinness

In the meantime, if you’re in London, and looking for folks who are obsessive about how the Guinness is served at their bar, check out The Toucan.

The Toucan recommended to me by a couple of locals as “the” place for Guinness in London. It’s in Soho, not a block from Soho Square. When you see the crowd outside, DO NOT be discouraged. As an American, when I first saw one of these crowds, I turned around and went to another pub. Turns out, it’s not a good indicator of how many folks are inside or how long it’ll take you to get a beer. See, in London, it’s perfectly legal for you to take your beer and step outside for a smoke, or to escape the bar’s interior, as most pubs are NOT air conditioned. Seeing the pic of the Toucan above, it looks like a good-sized pub, with a good crowd, but I was really shocked when I went inside: the entire interior of the bar is probably 10′x15′. People don’t come here for the scene, they come for the Guinness, and I figured out why upon being served my first pint.

I didn’t think too much about my first pint. It was served according to the rules and procedures I had learned myself as a bartender in the states. I took my beer and cleared away from the tiny bar to allow others to be served. I set it on the ledge to let it settle, and before I could take my first sip, the bartender walked over from behind the bar, and asked if he could “fix” my beer. I took a quick glance and didn’t really see a problem, but out of curiosity, I replied “that’d be great!” He took my beer, flopped off a bit of the foamy head, and repoured a bit back in. The result was what he was after:

IMG_0061The line should bisect the word “PINT” on the glass. His complaint about the beer he had just poured was “it’s falling a little low” — meaning the head was at or below the bottom of the word “PINT”.

As if that weren’t enough, after he handed it back, and while I was letting it settle again, another bartender came by with a perfectly clean cloth to wipe of a tiny bit of foam that was just starting to slip down the side of the glass. That’s obsessive.

The Guinness there was extremely good. Does being completely OCD about the beer make it better? Perhaps not, but this kind of attention to detail insures that everyone has a wonderful experience, and this is the only bar I’ve ever seen where *everyone* on the staff seemed wholeheartedly devoted to fantastic Guinness. Not good. Not great. Fantastic. And it was.

By the way, for the record, while in London I *did* see a pub patron return to the bar with his untouched beer to say “we have a problem”. All he did was point to his beer, and the publican knew what the problem was. She took back the beer. It was DUMPED. He got a new glass, and a brand new beer, filled to the proper level. My mind was blown (that was at The Lamb — see below).

Branded Houses

Some pubs in London are “branded”. Many pubs have, in large letters, or on some sign, prominently displayed, a particular brewer’s name and logo. Inside you’ll only find that brewer’s beers on cask, though they may have some other beers on tap. Usually crappy ones. Well, those and Guinness. I’ve been to maybe a dozen pubs or so, and I only saw one single pub who just plain old didn’t serve Guinness, or any other beer not brewed by the brewery that owned them.

Anyway, this whole branding thing becomes a consideration when going out to a pub — or it can become a deciding factor in what beers people drink. It’s a double-edged sword. If you don’t like Young’s beers, but that’s the closest pub to you, you might drink it because it’s the best beer you can get within stumbling distance of your place. On the other hand, maybe you used to like Green King beers, but the pub nearest you that serves it has gone downhill — you might start frequenting the Fuller’s pub nearby instead and develop a taste for that. This kind of thing makes the entire beer drinking experience in the UK quite different.

It wasn’t clear to me whether branded houses were necessarily owned by the brewery, or if the pubs just had distribution agreements with the brewers directly. A local mentioned that these places were owned directly by the breweries. Seems like a whole lot of overhead for breweries to take on, but I guess if they can dictate their presence in the market, and in addition have an iron-clad grip on quality control from the brewery all the way to the pint glass, that’s pretty compelling.

The Lamb, and A Look Inside the Cellar

The Lamb - A Young's House

The Lamb - A Young's House

Not all pubs are branded houses, and some of them serve great beer. But I think my best experiences at pubs in London happened to be at branded houses. One was a Young’s house called The Lamb. This place is renowned by locals, in part because there are very few tourists there, and very few suit-and-tie types. The Lamb really is just a bunch of locals, and some excellent beer, and all of the good stuff was on cask. I had almost every beer Young’s makes that night, all on cask.

The Lamb is like a good number of other pubs in the city which are described as “Victorian” pubs, which usually means that there is a very large amount of ornate wood and glass work in the bar. This is pretty stuff, and lends to the sort of “authentic” London pub feel.

I got into a conversation with a publican at The Lamb, and we got to talking about the differences between how beer is stored, cared for, and served in the US vs. London. There are lots and lots of them. First, there are three different sized kegs, which I had no idea about. There are 9-gallon “firkin” kegs, 18-gallon kegs, and the more common 11-gallon (50 liter) kegs. In the US, all US brewers as far as I know use standard “half barrel” kegs: 15.5 gallons. Of course, if a bar in the US serves a foreign beer on tap they might get a different sized keg, but generally kegs are 15.5 gallons.

Another enormous difference is attributed to the serving temperature. In the UK, beer– especially cask “real ale” is me-lamb-cellarserved at cellar temperature — about 54F (12C). I didn’t really understand how enormous a difference this makes in the cellar itself until my new publican friend invited me into the cellar to see their operation. Here’s the thing: what we call a “cellar” in the US is really a walk-in refrigerator. What they call a cellar in the UK is, in fact, the ENTIRE cellar level of the building. See, when you’re only cooling a basement to 12C in an area that’s only barely above that even in the summer months, you can cool the entire cellar pretty cheaply and use the entire cellar as a refrigerator. However, in the US, it would be prohibitively expensive to cool an entire cellar to 34F (1C), which is the temperature that most US mass-produced beers are served at (unless you can get them colder!)

There’s SO MUCH room when you can use the whole cellar. See that white thing sitting on the floor? That’s a vessel that holds line-cleaning fluid. Since you can pretty much leave it there all the time and change it without wrenching your back climbing on top of the kegs, you can clean the lines more often. In fact, The Lamb cleans the lines between every single keg! I was floored by this. I thought the guy was pulling my leg, until another pub, unsolicited, told me they do the same thing! I assure you, Americans, this is not the case in US bars. At least not in the vast majority of cases.

Another difference is more specific to the kegs themselves: IMG_0040

There’s a bung there. It’s made of plastic. After a keg is delivered, it’s allowed to chill and settle for a few days. Then, a few days before serving, they insert a plastic pin in that hole called a “spile”. This first plastic pin is called a ‘soft spile’, and it allows some beer and gas to escape. At some point (and I’m not clear how they know when to do this), they take out the soft spile and put in a wooden one called a ‘hard spile’ which completely plugs the hole. This is all a part of the conditioning that takes place, and I believe it’s specific to cask ale — I don’t believe any of this takes place for plain old kegged beer served on tap, pushed by CO2.

Too. Much. Writing.

I had such a great time in London and I got to see lots and lots of pubs, and the people I spoke with were amazingly candid and friendly about their operations. I could write a book about London pubs, and would happily do it, but I can’t do it here on the blog. If I think of an interesting topic that would make a good blog post, I’ll post more, but until then, we’ll get back to homebrewing beer, drinking beer, and the regularly scheduled program, as it were ;-)

Beer Wars

So, like any self-respecting homebrewer and craft beer enthusiast, I went to see Beer Wars last night. Actually, Matt went as well, so all of Bamf Beer was present :)

The movie is a commentary on the business side of beer. Beyond brewing (in fact, the movie didn’t get very deep into the actual nuts and bolts of brewing to any great extent), it talks more about how the beer we all drink actually gets to us. It’s branded, labeled, sent to distributors, and from there goes to the retailers, who then sell it to us. But of course, there’s much, much more to it than that. Hidden in the nooks and crannies of this system are political contributions, lobbyists, enormous business concerns, buyouts, and illegal bribes, all in a battle over shelf space and positioning, and market control and dominance.

Sam Calagione

There are three main threads running through the movie. First, Anat Baron, the producer and director, as well as the film’s narrator, follows the story of Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head Brewing, which by now is a major force in the craft brewing movement. Independently, so is Sam himself, who is on the cutting edge of the whole food/beer pairing and beer sommelier push resulting in a rash of “beer dinners” and books about beer and food pairings which has been interesting to watch.

Through the course of the movie, we watch as Sam grows his brand, and his brewery, taking ever-bigger risks to keep his dream alive, putting nearly everything at stake.

I gained more respect for Sam and his plight in watching this movie, overall. I’m not a big fan of most of his beers. To me, beers should be hoppy, but not really *about* the hops, and I feel that Dogfish Head puts a little too much emphasis on the hop. His off-the-wall beers are really interesting, but not something I’m going to buy six pack after six pack of. I do like his Indian Brown Ale though… and some of his writing has been great!

What I liked about Sam, though, was that even though he is growing, he does seem to be “keeping it real”, to a large degree. His staff are pushing the envelope. Doing things nobody has tried, or nobody has nailed, and he’s nailing them. He’s fighting for real beer, whether you like his particular beers or not. His approach is not “drink my beer”. It’s more about “drink real beer — any one will do.” I find that when I evangelize beer, that’s the approach I’m taking as well. Picking a beer is a highly nuanced, subjective, and ultimately personal choice. Sam knows that, and isn’t so arrogant as to think he has a beer to satisfy everyone on Earth.

Rhonda Kallman

Then there’s Rhonda Kallman, co-creator of Sam Adams, who left Sam Adams to start her own venture. Her story is a heart wrenching tale of struggle for a marketing hustler trying to establish a new beer in the market, trying to get funding, going deeply into debt, all in the name of keeping her dream alive in the face of cut throat tactics by bigger brewers to dominate retailer shelves.

I have respect for Rhonda for her work at Sam Adams, but I really have a hard time sympathizing with someone who seems to have thrown out all she ever learned about the beer business in starting her own brand. I mean, she worked for a company that helped launch the craft beer movement and is now the biggest brewery in America. The company that reintroduced America to things like hops, and beers with a color other than pale yellow. Heck, Jim even got busy with some top-fermenting yeast and had the balls to market (gasp!) ale to a 100% lager-drinking public. He’s *still* pushing the envelope, and continues to support the brewing craft.

OF COURSE SA’s success had a lot to do with marketing, and hustling, and shmoozing, and all of the stuff brewers would rather not be bothered with. But there’s a soul to a brewing operation, and it’s the craft, not the marketing. She missed that, left it all behind, threw it away, and began marketing a gimmick. Moonshot is the not result of a passion for great beer. It was created from a love of money, and a lot of (perhaps misplaced, as it turns out) confidence.

What’s ironic is that she considers AB the devil, but isn’t doing anything much different from them. Heck, at least AB owns actual breweries!

I guess I respect her perseverance, but I think she made some horribly bad choices, and perhaps put more faith in her ability to sell than the ability for a good product to sell itself.

Anat Baron

Finally, there’s Anat herself, who travels around the country to expose some of what goes on in the political spectrum as it relates to brewing, and spotlighting some craft breweries that are making it, against all odds, and keeping the dream alive. Namely, Stone Brewing, and New Belgium Brewing. Both make good beers. Stone is perhaps my favorite American brewery at the moment (that’s always subject to change on roughly a quarterly basis).

Keepin’ the Dream Alive

But what is this dream, exactly?

In listening to Sam, Rhonda, Greg (from Stone Brewing), and others in the panel, they’re all sounding rather pie-in-the-sky about it. Some quotes are a little cliche by now… “It’s about what’s in the glass.” says Charlie Papazian, a homebrewing pioneer. Sam says he has zero interest in being bought by a big outfit. The implication by most of the panel was that becoming big, beyond a certain point, was “selling out” or something. But then they go on to talk about the fact that Sam has employees outside the brewery all over the country working as sales people, and Stone now has a pretty wide distribution and is a 100-barrel brewery themselves.

Well… you can’t have it both ways. You can talk a good game about keeping it small, keeping it simple, living the dream, keeping it real, and keeping it alive, but it’s hard to swallow when you’re upgrading to a 100-barrel house and trying to get distribution in all 50 states. Those are business growth moves. There are business decisions that are made in support of a move to geolocated sales offices and a quadrupling of capacity, and those aren’t necessarily “all about what’s in the glass.”

I found quite a few similar contradictions in the panel discussion after the movie, but I didn’t go into the movie in “reporter mode”, and so didn’t write down all the quotes I’d need to make a stronger argument. My bad.

So… the point?

So what was the point of Beer Wars, exactly? The stated purpose is to start a conversation. But it’s obviously biased in how it frames the conversation. They frame it as a war between David and Goliath, and we should all be dutiful little beer-drinking hippies and start spending all of our money on craft beer and shaving our heads and knocking on doors to spread the word. I think that’s silly, and way off base, not to mention completely unnecessary.

First, it’s completely unnecessary because the movie’s target audience is clearly people who already drink, or make, craft beer, so in that regard, they’re preaching to the choir.

Second, most of the things they say the big boys do to make it hard on craft brewers has clearly not stopped the likes of Dogfish Head, Stone, New Belgium, and Sam Adams from becoming succesful ventures anyway. This isn’t to say that state laws couldn’t be more amenable to fostering a brewing industry in their state (I’m looking at you, New Jersey), and the lobbyists make that harder, but there are craft breweries in damn near every state of the union!

Third, most of the challenges talked about in the beer industry aren’t really unique to the beer industry. If I decided to go out and market a new cereal, or a new soft drink, I’d have challenges very similar to those faced by brewers.

The Verdict

From the above you might think I hated to movie. Not so. I thought it was entertaining, and educational. If they’d taken away the sensationalism around the whole “war” mantra, it would have been entertaining, and educational, and not annoying at the same time.

It was great to see Sam and Greg sharing their thoughts on their beer, and the industry, and their fans, and it was enlightening to learn a bit more about the NBWA and the 3-tier system. As someone who can envision “going pro” one day (I’m not yet delusional enough to say “will go pro”), it was a great “head’s up!” movie, and I mostly enjoyed the heck out of it, and appreciate Anat Baron’s immense commitment and follow through on this project.

My Take

When I was a kid, the only beers you could get that weren’t made by BMC were Bass, Guinness, and Harp. There were still a few regional breweries like Rolling Rock and Yeungling, but it wasn’t a given that they’d be on the shelves of your local liquor store even if it was a mere 50 miles from the brewery. Today, I live less than 5 miles from two liquor stores where I have my pick of over 100 different beers from all over the US and the world. Works for me!

As a brewer and beer evangelist, the coming of the internet (almost completely neglected in the movie) has made it far easier for me to both brew and talk to others about beer (for better or worse). I have a vast collection of anecdotes about peoples’ experiences with beer, both drinking and brewing, from people I would never have known or heard of otherwise. This helps me, and it helps beer.

Being connected with others, and communicating, and debating and discussing, is ground zero for the formation of any community, and building a community and building a brand are ever so deliciously intertwined.

The tweets, the dinners, the handshakes, answering your own phone and talking to drinkers, having a great time and sharing your beer might be tiring, but it’s great fun, and it’s great community-based marketing, and it doesn’t require you to shed any notion of ethics, integrity, or the idea of creating an honest product that you have a passion for and makes other people happy.

People who drink Bud… well, they drink Bud. It’s part cultural: they drink it because their father drank it. They drink it because the guys at work drink it. They drink it because it’s the coldest beer at the bar where they play in the weekly Bud-sponsored pool tournaments with their friends. Saying “they don’t know any better” might be true, but it’s also a little condescending and taking the easy way out. These people make up vast, virtually uninterrupted swaths of the American population. Taking 50% market share to split up amongst the various breweries is going to take quite some time. The good news is that Sam and Greg are proof that you can at least make a living and drink phenomenal beer while you wait for that to happen.

So take it easy. Let the fighters fight. Drink good beer. Drink real beer. Make an adventure of it. Above all, to quote Papazian, “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew.”

Blogged with the Flock Browser

So you wanna brew your own beer…

Disclaimer: In this article, I’m talking exclusively about all-grain brewing, because I’ve never done an extract batch and know nothing about it. There are good reasons why you might want to do extract brewing, and you can make good beer that way. But to me, the mash is the best, most rewarding part of brewing. You haven’t lived until you’ve been smacked in the face with the aroma of a happy mash.

Everyone I talk to who knows I brew my own beer eventually asks me if it’s hard to get started, if it’s expensive, etc. So here’s a post that’ll discuss it at a little more length. The short answer is “it’s not hard, it’s not expensive, and yes, even you can do it”.

Home Brewing is Not Hard

There’s hard, and then there’s expensive. In brewing, the two aren’t necessarily related. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to spend all kinds of money to get an easy-to-use system. Likewise, spending money on stuff can sometimes make your brewing life much harder than it was before you bought the fancy equipment. I can’t tell you how many batches it took us to finally make friends with our pump!

You don’t need fancy equipment. Most of what you need is probably around your house, or available at the local Home Labyrinth. If you’re not completely broke, home brew starter kits are available. At time of writing, has a starter kit for $69, and has one for $75. There is absolutely no reason you can’t make fantastic beer with either of them. Seriously, none. They even include instructions.

The instructions may or may not use some fancy lingo, but the basic steps in brewing beer are all things you’re familiar with already:

  1. Make oatmeal
  2. Drain the liquid from it
  3. Boil it
  4. Add hops, and boil s’more
  5. Cool, transfer to a bucket (or something), add yeast, and let it sit for a few weeks.

There you are. Brewing in 5 easy steps. The concepts are all cooking concepts. Things need to be at certain temperatures, for a certain amount of time. That’s all cooking is, too: heat, and time.

So, $75, maybe another $20-30 for ingredients (depending on what kind of beer you brew), and you’re all set to brew 5 gallons of your own beer.

Wait. That’s not quite right. For $75, you’re ready to make as many 5-gallon batches of beer as you want! Which brings us to…

Home Brewing is Not Expensive

In fact, home brewing is less expensive than buying beer in the store. Let’s prove that:

I live in NJ. Where I live, unless you buy Bud, Miller, or Coors, a 6-pack is $9. So, $1.50 per 12 ounces of frosty goodness. That’s 12.5 cents per ounce.

Now let’s say you spend $100 on ingredients and equipment to make a 5-gallon batch of beer. How does that work out?

5 gallons at $100 = $20 per gallon. That comes to about 15.65 cents per ounce, or about $1.87 per bottle and $11.25 for a 6-pack. But here’s the thing: that includes your one time $75 equipment purchase! If your spouse got you the kit for your birthday, it’s nothing. What’s the cost per ounce then?

5 gallons at $25 (ingredients) = $5 per gallon. That comes out to about 48 cents per 12-ounce bottle, or $2.88 per 6-pack.

So now the question is, if you bought your equipment yourself for $75, how much beer do you have to drink before this stuff pays for itself?

Well, we’re working with $9 vs. $3 per six pack (I’ve purposely put home brewing at a disadvantage in the equation for the sake of round numbers). That’s a savings of $6 for every 72 ounces you brew yourself. 72/6 = 12. So you have to brew 12 6-packs. How many gallons is that? 6.75. Your equipment pays for itself before you’re halfway through drinking your second batch of home brew.

It sounds so good it must be wrong. Let’s try it another way. Let’s add up the costs for the equipment kit, and 3 5-gallon batches of beer:

$75 for equipment

$75 for ingredients to make 15 gallons of beer.

That’s $150 to make 15 gallons of beer (and note, there are ingredient kits that’ll have you making beer for under $20, but I digress). All told, you’re looking at $10 per gallon, and it comes to $5.63 per 6-pack. Let’s call it $6 per 6-pack, for a savings of $3 per 6-pack. At a $3 savings, you now need to brew 25 6-packs to break even. How many gallons is that? 14 gallons, or less than three batches of beer. If you only brewed once per month, your equipment would easily pay for itself by Labor Day.

It’s a Hobby!

This has been a good exercise. There are things that could add to your initial expenses. You might spring for a shiny new pot to boil in if you don’t have one already. There are things that could cut your costs too — go to a deli to get those buckets (that’s what their pickles are shipped in) instead of paying for the kit, and save bottles from parties so you don’t have to buy them.

Another thing that might justify the cost is that it’s a hobby, and people really should have hobbies, and no matter what your hobby is, it’ll cost money. Hobbies are good for your mental health, and brewing is a great hobby to get friends or the spouse involved in. Matt and I brew year round, and the wives won’t have anything to do with that, but in the summer, they’re out there with us. My wife and I brewed our first batch of beer together with Matt leading us along. It was great fun.

As time goes on, you’ll likely want to buy or build fancier equipment. Check out a book called “Brew Ware”, which has great ideas on how to save money by repurposing stuff around your house for use in your home brewery. Otherwise, and likely have anything you could ever dream of adding to your brewery.

Really, home brewing is as hard or easy as you want to make it. On the ingredient end of things, if you decide to study chemistry to understand your mash better, and microbiology to understand your yeast better, more power to you — but it’s not necessary to make awesome beer.There are also people who culture their own yeast (Matt’s starting to do this for the Bamf operation), grow their own hops (I might go this route this year), get deeply obsessed with things like kernel sizes of various brands of grain… It’s all pretty unnecessary. You can make awesome beer without this amazing depth of knowledge.

The equipment part of the equation can be as complex as you want as well. There are folks with all kinds of fancy electronics, heating elements, pumps, computers, etc. I’m a geek, but I kind of like the fact that brewing is my one break from geeking out (at least as far as computers are involved). When Matt first taught me to brew, we were using a coleman cooler for our mash tun. It was probably the same cooler his mom bought him for our fishing trips when we were in middle school, so… free to us.  Our sparge consisted of us taking turns ladling hot water over an upside down bowl sitting on top of the mash, so that equipment was around the house already. Our chiller was a counterflow chiller Matt made by putting some copper tubing through a garden hose. There are instructions on the web and in books on how to do that, and if you want to go even simpler than that, you can still just sit the whole thing in a tub full of ice for a while to cool it down.

Nowadays, we have added a pump, and a Shirron chiller, both of which we love. We’ve replaced our Coleman cooler with a converted (legally obtained) beer keg, and added another keg for a boiler, and yet another for heating sparge water (the “hot liquor tank”, or HLT). We also brew in 10-gallon batches now, and we do it outside on one of those cajun cooker propane burners. So, our equipment costs went up, but we brew, on average, 10 gallons every 3 weeks until we have no more vessels to ferment in, and our efficiency is greater than it would be in a plastic bucket setup, so our savings per batch is higher.

In the end, we still consider it a hobby, but it’s progressing, like most hobbies do, whether it’s model planes or stained glass. You get better equipment, you do more different things with it, you spend time and energy to learn more about it, you spend more money. At least the outcome of our hobby helps justify the cost in real dollars in addition to being incredibly satisfying.

For People Who “Don’t Like Beer”

I seem to have a knack for meeting people who say that they don’t like beer. I’ve also developed something of a talent for convincing them otherwise, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about this with others out there in the hopes that you, too, can open doors for people to expose them to beers they might enjoy.

My main philosophy that I’m working from is that saying you don’t like beer is like saying you don’t like food. There are just too many textures, body styles, carbonation characteristics, serving temperatures, hop varieties, grain variations (and, within that, different roasts), and yeast effects available, which combine to create an exponentially larger number of beer tasting experiences… it’s just not believable that a person doesn’t like “beer”, as a blanket statement. In all likelihood, they just haven’t had a broad exposure to different beers, and never came across one by chance that they liked. So…

When someone tells me they don’t like beer, what I tend to really hear is that they haven’t had a beer they enjoyed, and that’s perfectly valid. So I ask them what kinds of beers they’ve tried. Most will reply with some mass-produced American Pilsener like Bud, Miller, or Coors. Others get slightly more exotic, throwing in something like Ice Beer, or Sam Adams. At this point I ask them if they’ve ever tried beers like Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Guinness, any Belgian beers, any of the Schneider beers, any British, Scottish, or Irish Ales, etc. I mix up the beers I suggest, but I’m trying to get a read on the taster’s overall experience while at the same time letting them know that there’s a huge universe of beer out there that is available to them… just not on tap at the local high-volume restaurant chain or sports bar. So far, nobody has ever said that they’ve tried any of the beers that I inquire about.

Is it the Fizz?

At that point, it’s probably safe to assume that the taster just doesn’t like American Pilseners, or perhaps Sam Adams. Let’s stick with the American Pilsener as an example, since it’s common and pretty simple to address. There are multiple things people might not like about BMC-style beers (BMC is how home brewers refer to all beers similar to Bud, Miller, and Coors). First, it’s pretty darn fizzy. Some people (particularly girls it seems) don’t like overly fizzy beers, and BMC-style beers tend to be highly carbonated when compared to most other beers on the market, with the possible exception of Lambics (which most girls I’ve ever met tend to like, because the fruit ones can be a little wine cooler-ish, without being cloyingly sweet).

If it’s just the fizz they don’t like, great! That means they don’t have a particular problem with hops. Point them at a more British-style bitter like Fuller’s, or if you want a more pub-style ale with a head that’s more creamy than fizzy, try Boddington’s. Both are good beers, inoffensive, but of decently high quality. From there, you can move on to get more adventurous – the point initially is just to let them see that it’s not all beer they don’t like, it’s something about a beer, or a particular beer that they’re not fond of.

More about fizz

Beers are carbonated beverages. As such, they have bubbles. However, both commercial and discerning home brewers who keg and carbonate their beer tend to keep a close eye on just how carbonated their beer is. Carbonation can be done with carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen, or a mixture of the two called “beer gas”. The cans you see in stores that are equipped with “widgets”, like the Guinness Pub Draught cans (and bottles), are carbonated with nitrogen. Nitrogen forms bubbles that are far smaller than CO2, and it forms a head that is more creamy than fizzy. This can have a dramatic effect on the overall body and “mouth feel” of a beer, making it feel distinctly less watery in some cases than beer carbonated with CO2.

Outside of the handful of different beers available in the US with nitrogen widgets (less than a dozen brands are available, in my experience, between Philadelphia and New York), all other beers are carbonated with carbon dioxide (CO2), and the level of carbonation is measured in “volumes of CO2″. Breweries obsess over insuring that the level of CO2 across their various batches of beer is perfectly consistent. Since most of them (there are exceptions) inject CO2 into the beer, it’s a pretty simple thing to regulate. Even home brewers can purchase a CO2 canister and regulator inexpensively from a welding supply shop or online brewing supplier and carbonate their beers as much or as little as they like.

I mentioned that there are exceptions: some breweries (like Sierra Nevada, for example) do not inject the CO2 into the beer. Also, home brewers who do not keg, but instead bottle their beers, do not inject CO2 into their beers. What they do is known as ‘bottle conditioning’, and it’s a way to naturally carbonate the beer after it is in the bottle. It’s beyond simple, really: yeast produce CO2 in addition to alcohol. Before beer contains any alcohol, it is known as “wort”. Yeast is added to the wort, and it eats the fermentable sugars, and produces CO2 gas and alcohol, and creates what we know as “beer”. Once the yeast have done their job, they fall out of suspension to the bottom of the tank, but this is never a 100% proposition. There are always some yeast still in suspension, so when home brewers bottle their beer, they also add a minute, and measured, amount of sugar for the yeast to eat. They cap the bottle, the yeast eat the sugar, give off CO2, and since the bottle is capped, the CO2 has no choice but to be absorbed into the beer, carbonating the beer.

When you see “Bottle Conditioned” on a bottle of beer, it means that yeast in the beer created the carbonation, not a tank of CO2. In most if not all cases, you wouldn’t really know the difference between a beer that was bottle conditioned and one that was injected. On some bottle conditioned beers, looking at the bottom of the bottle, you *might* see just a tiny ring of residue. It’s mostly vitamin B compounds from yeast that have fallen out of suspension during conditioning. It’s perfectly safe to drink, and some even insist on pouring it into their glass, but be forewarned that this stuff has the potential to give you some horrific gas. Usually, only home brewed beers have enough residue to cause a problem. Commercial brews contain far less residue. Especially Sierra Nevada, who seems to have perfected the science of bottle conditioning beer without leaving a trace of residue in the bottle. Genius.

Is it the hops?

Though it’s hard for me to believe, some people don’t like the flavor of hops. No problem!

There’s more than one way around this:

  1. Try a beer that doesn’t rely on hops for its flavor
  2. Try a less hoppy beer and drink it very, very cold
  3. Try beers that use more interesting hops

Not all beers rely heavily on hops. For example, Guinness, and most other traditional Irish stouts (Murphy’s, Beamish, etc) hardly use any hops at all compared to something like Sam Adams. Also, Hefeweizens have very little hop character to them at all. In addition, both stouts and Hefeweizen styles offer up flavors resulting from interesting grains, ester-producing yeast strains, and sometimes mysterious brewing processes, that tasters might like! My mother-in-law is a noted beer hater, and said that when she was in Dublin and more or less forced to drink Guinness, she found that it was not nearly as disgusting as some of the pilseners that made up most of her beer drinking experience.

How many times have you heard someone say “I like beer, but only if it’s extremely, extremely cold”. As a former bartender, I can tell you that people have asked me multiple times how cold my beer is. Most of the time, people who insist on the iciest of ice cold beer are trying to let the icy coldness hide some of the flavors in the beer they find undesirable. In BMC-style beers, it could be some of the corn and/or rice adjuncts used in the brewing process (these beers do not pass the German Beer Purity Laws, in spite of the heartfelt mottos on their labels), or it could be the hop flavors! As much as I am *NOT* an advocate of drinking beer ice cold (specifically because you can’t taste it), if you’re at a party and all they have is beer, try to sneak a bottle or two and put them in the freezer for NO MORE THAN 10 MINUTES. It’ll be freezing cold, but if you leave it in there any longer, the bottle will very likely explode as the CO2 gas expands beyond the bottle’s abilty to contain it.

I take no responsibility for results of you trying this bottle-in-the-freezer trick. I have, myself, exploded bottles of beer in my freezer. Note, too, that beer never freezes hard like ice at normal freezer temps. It typically just gets syrupy. So don’t think you can wait for it to harden and scrape it off. It’s messy. Deal with it.

Finally, the other option is to drink beers that use more interesting hops. There are tons and tons of hop varieties out there. Over 100 to be sure. Matt and I have been brewing for years, and are still coming across hops we’ve never even heard of, let alone brewed with. We recently brewed with Simcoe hops, and they’re so distinctive and interesting that they’re worth seeking out and giving a try. One beer that is pretty widely available is Magic Hat’s Roxy Rolles. A healthy dose of Simcoe hops offers a very nice, earthy hop characteristic, different from any beer you likely have ever tried.

It’s also worth mentioning that there are some beers where hops might be balanced differently and given less prominence in different beers. I urge you to try a Scottish Ale to get a hint of a beer that doesn’t use any of the same grains, hops, or yeasts as a typical American Pilsener. A widely available commercial example is Belhaven Wee Heavy, which I think is a wonderful commercial example (though Scottish publicans will almost certainly differ – but then we can’t get their beer without taking a $4000 plane ride) ;-)

More about hops

Hops weren’t always used in beer. Instead, brewers used widely varying combinations of herbs, flowers, and other things indigenous to their locale to provide bitterness in the beers they produced. Why is bitterness desirable? Well, to balance the sweetness provided by the grains. You see, if there were no hops in your typical English Bitter, it would taste kinda like you took Maple Brown Sugar flavored Instant Oatmeal, put it in a bowl with some water for a few hours, and then strained, filtered, and chilled (and carbonated) the water. I’m not kidding.

Hops caught on quickly, though, quickly replacing every other form of bittering vegetation in beer. In addition to bitterness, hops also have both preservative and anti-bacterial qualities. In days before refrigeration, this meant that loading in the hops would allow beer to travel longer distances without spoiling. When the British needed to send beer to colonists in far away India, they added an abundance of hops to preserve the beer on the journey. They wound up producing a very distinctive ale still known today as “India Pale Ale”. The style didn’t originate in India — it was a result of the British sending beer to India. At that time, most beer was not heavily hopped.

Bitterness in beer is measured in IBUs (International Bittering Units). Some American craft brewers actually list the IBUs right on the bottle. A decently hopped American Pale Ale will probably have somewhere between 40-50 IBU. “Imperial” beers are typically higher, sometimes near 90-100 IBUs. As hops are a relative of the hemp plant, a beer with 90-100 IBUs has the potential to make you feel as though you have “cotton mouth”.

“Just Not a Beer Drinker”

Some people seem to defy your every move as a beer advocate. They won’t commit, or can’t explain, what it is they don’t like about beer. There are some perfectly understandable reasons for this:

  1. They don’t want to admit that beer gives them horrible gas, abdominal pains, or headaches.
  2. They don’t know how to label or describe the flavors they aren’t fond of.
  3. They don’t want to get into a long discussion about how they have Celiac disease, or an intolerance for glutens created by wheat and barley products.
  4. They think you’re weird and want to change the subject.

First: Do not underestimate the probability of #4.

There are a zillion chemical compounds in beer, some of which bother some people. Gas is caused by different things in beer: yeast, and bubbles. Bottle conditioned beers may not be high on their list of good beers to try if their gas is really out of hand. Abdominal pains can be caused by gas, so they fit that recommendation as well. Headaches are always a mystery, and unless someone actually enjoys beer and has recent onset of headaches, only when drinking beer, it’s probably best left alone. One reason people can get headaches from beer is that beer, like all alcoholic beverages, dehydrates the body (counterintuitive as it may seem). But if they say they get headaches ONLY when drinking beer, you might have to look to other things. I have not yet identified anything specific to beer that would lend itself to headaches, and what conditions need to exist, so I’m not much help there. Sorry.

People who don’t know how to describe what it is about beer that they don’t like aren’t uncommon, and there are lots of things peoples palates are sensitive to in beer that yours may not be. For example, Matt and I brew beer together. We both enjoy probably most styles of beer. However, we’ve brewed a couple of batches with slightly high phenol levels, potentially as a result of too much grain husk exposure in the mash. Whatever the reason, Matt can drink these beers without complaint, whereas I have to suffer through a pint of it. His palate just lumps the sort of bitter character in with the hop flavors, whereas to me it’s a completely different flavor that drives me bananas.

The best thing to do here is take note of the beers they’ve tried, and try to steer them in another direction. If they’ve tried BMC-style beers, Blue Moon, and Sam Adams, well, those are all really fizzy American beers, pretty light-bodied, and they all have flavors that can sit badly on one’s palate (the adjuncts in Bud, the coriander in Blue Moon, the yeast esters in Sam Adams). Try pointing them to beers that have cleaner or different yeast profiles, less fizz, and no adjuncts, like the aforementioned English bitters, Irish ales, or Scottish ales. You might also point them at more “pure” pilseners, such as Czechvar.

As for item #3, you’ll be happy to know that people with Celiac disease or other intolerances to gluten can drink beer made from a variety of other types of grain, the most commercially available being beer made from sorghum. This style has its roots in Africa, but has been marketed in the US as well. The most popular brand seems to be Red Bridge, which attempts to be Budweiser made from sorghum.

Beer of Last Resort

When all else fails, go for the gusto! Females who drink, but don’t drink beer, tend to really enjoy the Belgian fruit lambic beer. There are a variety of flavors, including peach, cherry, strawberry, apple, raspberry, and more. You might think that these are gimmicky beers targeting a female non-beer-drinker audience. Not so. These beers are very high quality beers, created by a process specific to the style, using yeast and fermentation conditions specific to the style. As a result, you’d be hard-pressed to find any beer that is similar to them in flavor, character, or quality. I’m not a huge fan of them myself, but it’s not because they’re not well made. Women who try them adore them.Those who don’t really hate fizz. They’re probably the only beers more highly carbonated than American Pilseners.

There are lots of other fruit beers that are not lambics, as well. Magic Hat’s #9 is a very nice ale with a very pleasant hint of apricot. Abita makes a beer called “Purple Haze”, which is a Raspberry Wheat beer. Pumpkin ales and spice ales are also popular in the fall months as “special edition” brews.

There are also lots of fantastically exotic or “dessert beers” that I sometimes can get people to try. Young’s Double Chocolate Stout is one. There are several chocolate stouts on the market. Brooklyn also makes a good one. There isn’t necessarily chocolate in a chocolate stout, by the way — the overall character of the beer is chocolatey, and you might even be fooled by the flavor, but it comes from highly-kilned malts used in the mash, perhaps along with yeast strains that accentuate the chocolate flavors through ester production.

Over the years, brewers have attempted to brew with seemingly every conceivable ingredient known to man. You can still find some of these radical brews, but generally only in brew pubs where they have a bit of license with the beers they brew. A few really great beers I’ve had have been made with hemp seeds, habenero peppers, caraway seeds, and watermelon.

Go forth, and find the beer for you!

Bamf “Yankee Vapor” Beer

So, Matt decided several days ago to brew today, because it was supposed to be 54º out today. I was planning to be under contract and working for a client today, but it didn’t happen (yet), so I was free today and decided to help out. Of course, as is often the case in New Jersey, the weather was not even close to the forecast: it was in the 20′s for most of the day, reaching the low 30′s around midday.

Anyway, Matt put together a recipe for a “Steam” beer, but then realized during his research that “Steam beer” is actually a copyrighted term, so he called it “Vapor” instead. The term “Yankee” pegs it as decidedly East Coast, and I think his recipe is going to do a good job at leading the style in the direction it so desperately wants to go in, at least on this coast.

I’m actually not sure about Matt’s experience with lager yeasts, but for me, this will be my first time brewing with a lager yeast at all. I have very little interest in lagers in general, and in the lagering process specifically. There are some lagers that I enjoy drinking, but I really like the simplicity offered by the ale brewing and fermenting process, especially since I don’t have a dedicated fridge to devote to lagering, and am on the road too much to really pay close attention to the minutiae involved in lager fermenting. Besides, for most, if not all lagers, there’s sort of an ale “equivalent” that can be made. You can also get some of the clean crispness out of some ale yeasts (usually by fermenting them slightly colder than the label would indicate is “optimal”, mainly because they’re making assumptions you’d like to dismiss).

I’m looking forward to using a new and different yeast. We’re not lagering the beer, we’re using lager yeast and fermenting it like an ale, but at a temp of about 58-60ºF. We’re using the White Labs “San Francisco Lager” yeast.

We’ll get the brew day notes and the recipe up some time this weekend.

Death to BamfBeer: Long Live BamfBeer!!

So, we entered our first competition last night. We brewed an American Pale Ale that we thought kicked ass, and our local brew club happened to be having a club-only competition last night, so Matt ran over and entered our beer into the competition. He couldn’t hang around, but we left the beer in good hands. We really just wanted the feedback, but thought we had a good shot at winning.

Turns out we didn’t even place: we did even better than that. We were more or less disqualified (in a de facto sort of way). The beer was technically supposed to be in bottles, but ours was in a growler. No big deal — but here’s the thing. The growler (a one-gallon jug in beer language is a “growler”) came from a local brewery (Triumph Brewing in Princeton, NJ). I had a buddy give me a whole case of these things when he moved cross-country. He had his engagement party there, and got to keep all the growlers they served out of at the party. He had no real use for them anyway, so he gave me the case of them.

What ultimately happened is that there were some people judging who thought our beer (and it *was* our beer) was actually Triumph’s beer!

We could’ve made arguments that the bottles others’ beer was in just had labels scraped off, and anything could’ve been in there, or we could’ve called them out for playing favorites, or whatever. We don’t really care. In our eyes, what happened was even better than a win. We lost not because our beer sucked, but because it was good to the point of suspicion. And that rocks. Our next goal as a brewery will be to make beer so good that it would never be mistaken for being a product of a local brewery :-D

Yeast Starters in a Nutshell

So now with us doing 10 gal batches I realized that a big cost is in the yeast. I have always done a starter culture with one vial, Bri all ways sided with 2 vials of white-labs. At 8 dollars and change a vial this adds up kind of quick. Overall this could be 15% to 25% of total costs. The first thing I did was read this book. first-steps-yeast-cultureInteresting read but a bit overwhelming. This book has everything you need to know about doing this at home. So here are the steps I took to start building my own yeast bank for future brewing.

First thing I did was make a 1,000 ml starter using 2 oz of DME and a few hops. Since I have an electric stove and it is not recommended that you place flasks on the coils I opted to make the starter on the stove in a pot. Basically I am preheating it to dissolving all the DME. Also I get the yeast vial out of the fridge so it could warm up to room temp. Otherwise you risk the shocking the yeast. 1Once everything is dissolved I moved it into the 1,000 ml Erlenmeyer flask and drop in the stir bar.

  • 2in order to keep everything sanitary I wrap the top with some tin foil and boil it for 15 minutes on a fondue pot stand and burner. 5I then let it cool down to room temp. I aerate it by shaking it carefully trying not to hit the top of the tin foil with the wort. Once it cools down and I am ready to pitch the yeast I sanitize a new piece of tin foil with star sans. I then spray the air with Lysol and use a healthy amount of hand sanitizer. I wait a few moments to let the air settle and I get my creme brulee torch ready. The next few steps happen kind of fast. I get the white-labs yeast vial and break the seal but don’t open it all the way. while still the holding vial I light the torch, take a deep breathe and pull the foil off the starter. I then torch the flask opening, open the vial completely dump it in and re-torch the opening of the flask. I use the new piece of tin foil that was soaking in star sans to recover the flask. Then I exhale. Then it goes on the stir plate. 7You can see here it is just starting to krausen. This particular starter is being used in a batch of beer that we were doing but I decided to make an agar slat of it for future batches. Basically the prep for the slats is the same as doing a culture. A 1,000 ml hopped starter is made with DME boiling for 10 minutes in a pot. Instead of putting into a flask you remove it from the heat, add 6 grams of agar to it and let it soak up for a few moments.c heat it back up until agar is fully dissolved. I then put 2 oz of this mixture in 1/2 pint mason jars. eit is important to place a piece of string between the jar lid and mouth and loosely close the lid. Do not close tight. Then it is off to the pressure cooker for 15 minutes @ 15 psi. This will reach internal temperatures of 250 degrees F. Efficiently sanitizing the agar solution and mason jar. After that I let the jars cool down on an angle until the slats were set.fOnce the slats are set I then spray the air with Lysol and use a healthy amount of hand sanitizer. I get a new piece of foil sanitized. I wait a few moments to let the air settle and I light my creme brulee torch. I flame a metal inoculation needle until red hot. I keep the needle with in 6 cm of the flame. Once again the next few steps happen kind of fast. I get the yeast starter, take a deep breathe and pull the foil off the starter. I then torch the flask opening, I dunk the needle into the fermenting wort. Then I remove the needle, re-cover the open flask with the new sanitized foil. Then I open the agar slat, swipe the needle on the slat flame that opening and close it up. Then I exhale. with in a few days you get healthy colonies of yeast growing on the slat. the slats will last 3 months before I have to re-culture them. I another post I will cover the “growing up” a few cells from the slat to a pitchable volume for a 5 gallon batch of beer.

Brew Day Notes: Bamf Simcoe IPA – “The Second Running”

This is the second time we brewed this beer. Another 10-gallon batch. We didn’t tweak the recipe at all, really. We just wanted to do the same beer, back to back, to really try to nail down our efficiency and streamline the process just a tad. Matt also wanted to try a different yeast strain. I continue to stand by Pac Ale for this beer. Matt has now switched from Burton Ale to Cal Ale V yeast. We’ll see how it goes!

Here are the notes I took during the brew day:

Strike at 11:02am. Nailed target temp of 152ºF. Outside temp is ~40ºF. Wind is pretty slight. Noticed we now have steam in our new blichmann thermometer on our mash tun :-(

12:01 – first runnings. Mash got down to about 148F. Heated first 3.79g batch sparge water to ~168F.

12:07 – dumped first batch sparge water in, started heating second 3.79g batch sparge water. Thermometer on the mash tun says 152ºF. Nice.

12:19 – almost done with second running. Next batch of water is too hot, and we’re wondering if we’ll pull what we need in terms of volume into the boiler.

12:23 – just dumped final sparge water into mash. Mash tun says 152ºF we dumped in a little extra on the second batch – 4.25g instead of 3.79.

12:35 – final runnings read ~5.75º Brix. We were short on the amount in the boiler. Good thing we added a little extra water.

NOTE AFTER THE FACT: we could’ve added water to the boiler, but the gravity of the runoff was still quite high. Why not grab those extra sugars!?

12:41 – just took pre-boil gravity reading (had to wait for sample to cool and stuff) – 10.5º Brix. Roughly 1.042 I think. Target post-boil is 1.057, so this is probably pretty close. We have 13 gallons in the boiler, on the button.

1:17 – just started to boil – added 1.5oz simcoe

2:00 – added three whirlflock tabs. I also let Matt talk me into *not* putting the boiler on top of the workbench. We’ll try to leave it in place on the burner and see if we can keep the flow going using the little bit of gravity we’ll have between the chiller and the pump. Should work, but our luck isn’t always good here. :)

2:05 – just added 1oz simcoes.

2:24 – flamed out 2:15, matt’s carboy is half filled. Pump working fine. I hereby pronounce that Matt was right about leaving the boiler in place.

2:33 all done – post-boil gravity is 14º Brix ~1.056, but we haven’t used a conversion calculator yet – that’s just stupid ‘brix * 4′ guesstimation.

So, all in all, a really fast brew day considering it’s a 10-gallon batch. There are a couple of things we’ve done to help speed up the brew day:

  1. Batch sparge. We have zero problems with efficiency using this method. Even better than the fact that it’s fast is that it’s about as simple as you can possibly get. We have the whirligig attachments, all the necessary stuff, and we used fly sparging for eons, but I brewed a batch of ESB by myself one time, and didn’t tell Matt I batch sparged until after he raved about the beer. MUAHAHAHA. That got him to agree to try it on our next batch, and now we’re both hooked.
  2. Burner. We bought one of those square “Bayou Classic” burners. We bought it as much for stability as anything else, but it’s also higher output than our old one, which also was bad because it had raised edges, and the keggle didn’t fit on it properly, forcing us to put a grate over the whole thing for the keggle to sit on. Lower output, greater distance from flame = more time on the burner (and more money on propane).
  3. Pump. We’ve made good friends with our March pump. I still hold that it’s not an ideal brewing pump, because it has an exposed housing that needs protection from drips, and it’s not self-priming. The benefits of the March, though, are cost (it’s cheap), and its heat capacity (you can pass 212ºF liquid through it, no problem). The builder who gets all of these things in one pump will become the new de facto standard home brewing pump. Anyway, moving liquid with a pump is really fast, and reduces the need to move things around into position for gravity-based transfers.
  4. Chiller. We have used the Shirron plate chiller for a couple years now, and we just cannot fathom the idea that there’s enough of a benefit to using the Therminator over the Shirron to warrant anything close to the $100 price jump to move to the Therminator. We move 10 gallons of beer through the Shirron in probably 10 minutes, and it’s perfect pitching temperature, and we don’t ever turn our garden hose all the way up.
  5. 1/2″ copper. Stuff does move a little faster here than with our old 3/8″ tubing. We’re looking to propagate 1/2″ tubing throughout the system – there are still little pockets of 3/8″ in there.

Bamf Simcoe IPA: This rocks

So, about 6 weeks ago, we brewed a Simcoe IPA. We decided to really go for it with the Simcoe hops after our local brew club had a meeting hosted by Magic Hat Brewing, where they passed around samples of Roxy Rolles. That beer has a distinctive Simcoe flavor, and is a pretty awesome beer.

In our recipe, we built a pretty strong malt backbone, and tried to start off with a pretty balanced beer instead of starting off going full-on with tons of hops. The power of the hops in this beer (but not the flavor) is probably along the lines of Rogue’s Brutal Bitter. The hop flavors have some similarity to the Roxy Rolles, but we finish off the hop additions with Cascades at flame-out, and the result is that you get the earthiness of the Simcoe, and just a touch of citrusy goodness. The balance between the hops in this beer is as important as the malt/hop balance in the beer — a lesson I learned from this beer; I didn’t fully appreciate that until I started drinking it.


Here’s the recipe, for a 10-gallon all-grain batch, taken from Beer Tools Pro. The assumed efficiency here is a little high, 79.5%, but we’ve brewed this twice now, and nailed the numbers both times. On the button. I guess we’re really getting close to 80% efficiency, which is fantastic!

20 lbs. Pale Ale Malt

2 lbs. Cara-Pils Malt

3 lbs Cara 20

1.5 oz Simcoes (60 mins)

1.0 oz Simcoe (10 min)

1.0 oz Cascade (Flameout)


Well, Matt and I brew 10-gallon batches, and then we ferment in separate carboys, and keg 5 gallons each. This gives us the opportunity to play with different yeasts on the same batch. On our first try with this recipe, I went with WLP041 (Pacific Ale), and Matt went with Burton Ale yeast. This is the first beer we’ve ever both 100% agreed that one was absolutely better than the other, and the better one was fermented with Pac Ale. In this beer, it produced a very nicely balanced beer, accentuated the hops, and lent a soft background fruitiness that goes really well with the other flavors in the beer.

The Burton Ale yeast produces a perfectly drinkable beer, but the hops fall a little flat, and the yeast doesn’t really give off much to tie the hops and malt together. The difference between the two is surprising mostly in how dramatic it is. We pretty much knew *how* it would be different, but we didn’t foresee the “night and day” gap between the two. But again, both perfectly drinkable beers.


The Pac Ale version was in primary fermentation for almost two weeks. We’re brave like that. :)   Then it was transferred to secondary and left in the basement to rot for probably 3 weeks. I finally kegged it, put the CO2 up to 10 (initially – it’s at 15 now), and I’m drinking it now after exactly one week under carbonation. For the first 4 days, I was a little concerned, but the CO2 has a way of magically scrubbing away some flavors that are really front-and-center before carbonation. I went from wondering if I would like the beer a few days ago to not being able to get enough of it now. I keep waiting for the carbonation to become a little overbearing, but that hasn’t happened yet – maybe because I have a lot of bev line between the keg and the tap on my kegerator.

I’m not sure what Matt did for carbonation on his keg. Maybe he’ll leave a comment on this post about it, along with any other stuff I missed.

Do it!

Feel free to brew the recipe, but make sure you bookmark this blog and come back and let us know what worked, what didn’t,

Lots of beers brewed, updates to packaging and brewery

We’ve brewed a LOT of beer in the past 3 months – at least for us. We’ve moved to 10-gallon batches without looking back. If you’re brewing 5-gallon batches right now with a converted keg setup – just do it. Move to 10 gallons. Unless you’re bottling. ;-)

So, Matt has some pics and updates to post yet, and I have some pics as well, but I’ll post a rundown of what’s been happening:

  • Matt completed the plumbing project to replace vinyl tubing with copper from inside of the kettle, to the outside of the kettle to our Shirron wort chiller (by the way, we’ve used the Shirron in a lot of batches now. Best investment ever). The hard-wiring was tested during an American Pale Ale brew we just did, and it works wonderfully. Matt has his own theories, but mine is just that forcing us to put everything in the same position every time stopped a lot of issues we were having during the final runoff into the carboy fermenters.
  • Matt has a store-bought kegerator now, and he helped me complete my converted fridge kegerator. Namely, he bought me the shanks and tubing for my birthday. We are now both serving our beers on tap. More construction details later, but for now – Thanks Matt!
  • We’ve brewed 10 gallons each ESB, scottish ale (80~), dry irish stout, red ale, and American pale ale in the past 2 months or so. In addition, Matt has also made a really awesome mead (which he also needs to post an update on), and has been brewing a sake for like 6 weeks or so now.
  • We’ve both installed Beer Tools. So far, Matt loves it, and I hate it, but am withholding judgment until I actually read the manual.
  • I got a Blichmann thru-wall thermometer for my birthday as well — it’s on the mash tun, and it works great.
  • We’ve moved to heating the strike water in the mash tun and then adding the grain on top of it. We used to put the grain in the mash tun and dump the strike water on top of it. We haven’t seen any change in the outcome, but it’s a lot easier this way :)