Friday, January 30, 2009

Fermentation Friday: How the best of '07 became the worst of '08 and why Adolphus Busch is better than you

Miller is better than you. So are Bud, Pabst, and Coors. Now, I don't want you to think I'm singling you out; it’s not that you're a bad brewer –well, you might be, but that's not the point. So am I. So is everyone else who isn't a brewmaster for one of those big companies.

By now, I'm sure you making angry, Nixonesque harrumphs in your wheely office chair and compiling your list of favorite microbrews in your head. I'm sure you're saying beers like Burning River, Arrogant Bastard, and Golden Monkey are way better than Miller Lite, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the Silver Bullet; but they're not. They're just not.

And I’m sure you have your reasons for picking those microbrews. I’m sure you’re thinking about the mouth feel, the wide range of flavor and scent the carefully selected hops bring to the brew, how much richer the color is, how much fuller the head is. But you’re wrong.

The reason the larger breweries are better than the smaller ones can be summed up in one word: consistency. Winter, summer, fall, spring, bad harvests, blights, new suppliers, water pollution, pesticides, fertilizers, economic hardship, floods, tornados, war… none of these things have any effect on their end product. And that's simply astonishing! Just stop and think about what a monumental achievement that is! You probably bitch when your local shop runs out of your favorite brand of priming sugar.

But don’t think I’m saying I’m better than you. I’m not. I’m probably worse, and now we’re getting to the point. Last winter, MC Paddy and I brewed up a Christmas beer with hints of honey and cherry. It was dark, full, rich, sweet, strong, and even got a bit chocolaty with age. It's probably the best beer we've ever made, and this winter it became one of the worst. We dug out the recipe, gathered the ingredients, and set to work. We did our best to replicate everything from the year before, but something went wrong. What? Who knows.

And there's the problem. What good is expanding your knowledge and developing new and exciting recipes if you can't do something more than once? And I mean doing it exactly the same more than once. We were so excited to make this winter beer again. We came up with a name and a clever label, and really did it up properly. But the stuff inside just didn't live up to our hopes.

So I’m not saying all those things you like about your favorite microbrews aren’t important, I’m just saying that they aren’t as important as being able to do it all consistently. That's what I want to work towards next year, and I urge you to do the same. Whatever level of brewing you're on, no matter how good or bad your beer may be… learn to make it the same every time. That way, when you hit on something really good, you'll be able to make it again and again anytime you want.

Fermentation Friday: 2009 Plans

2008 was a good brew year. I started brewing on my own, making all-grain bitters, porters, Schwartzbier and a scotch ale that wasn't in the end. Two of them even took medals home, which was a nice surprise. I've had some hurdles that I want to overcome in both technique and composition of beers. In terms of technique, I have to get the time it takes to brew down. The process takes me 7 hours, from firing up to putting the carboy in the closet. Add to that the hour each way it takes to get to the brew store and it becomes a day and a half commitment. 

My next hope is to figure out how to get stuff in bulk. I'd like to brew more spontaneously, and being able to have hops on hand as well as grain would be great. Hops have been a big issue this year, my LHBS is usually out of what I want, and unless the brew heads are behind the counter I don't get great recommendations about swapping out my hops. My main goal is to learn all about hops. I might try to grow some upstate over the summer and I'd like to know off-hand which hops I can trade out and why. To this end, I've been cracking open all my hops when I get them home and taking big whiffs to get a good feeling for what is what.

Stylistically, want to make more American beers. All of this brewing started because of how much I loved drinking English cask ales while living abroad. Now that I'm back home, I want to make some American beers and reconnect with our bigger is better attitude. Still, I hope to expand to some sort of cask set-up, hopefully picking up a beer engine (or 2) while abroad this summer and a cask breather. I also want to drink a bit less beer and a bit more liquor. This will let me feel less like I'm grinding out a new beer every couple of days and give my palette a break from the endless hop explosions that I favor.

Finally, I like this blog. We started it at the end of 2008, but really it is a new-year's resolution to give a little back to the internet who helps us learn so much. The blog will soon have links to our favorite blogs. Coming in 2009 will be details of out different beer-making setups, some more reviews of beers, recipies, and a thorough discussion of getting donked and those who write about it. Sneak peek: "You're not a mixologist-- you're an asshat" & "The Pounder Shoot-out".  The internet, she is good to us and we thank her.

NB: All three of us should be posting on this topic, so check back as Friday approaches.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Here’s to the economy!

So you’re sitting in your fallout shelter, shivering and perhaps even struggling to retain control over your bladder. You’re worried that the economy, and indeed society at large, is on a downhill slide and soon you’ll either be the sexual plaything of a large man in a hockey mask, or attaching a cow catcher to the front of your Ford Falcon. You’re terrified. You’re stressed out. Let’s face it, you’re a fucking mess. And what’s worst is you have absolutely no control over the situation at all. That’s when things are most terrifying. No one person caused this situation, and no one person can fix it… or even put a dent in it. Yet it affects us all. And so you sit alone in your basement, waiting for the seemingly inevitable shithammer to fall. Well, I have good news for you. There’s a treatment for your symptoms that will actually do a small part to resolve the cause: have a drink!

Seriously, go get a glass and a bottle and get to work. But not just any bottle will do, no. This requires careful selection. You look like shit, so beer and wine are out. No, strong spirits are required to steady your shaking hands. 80 proof or more. But before you grab that bottle of Imperia off the shelf and go to town, let’s take a moment to think this thing through logically.
If you down a few shots of some imported spirit, you’re siphoning much of the price of that bottle out of our economy. That’s only going to make the situation worse! Then you’ll get more frightened and depressed and then you’ll need to drink even more; turning this into a vicious cycle. The next thing you know, you’re drunk, lonely, broke, and you’ve ruined the American economy. And that won’t do.

But, on the other hand, if you think about your selection for a second –and specifically I’m talking about who will get your hard-earned booze money, then you can make a selection that’s good for you, good for me, and good for the American people: Bourbon. By law, Bourbon has to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. So right off the bat, you know this is a product made with pride by hard-working Americans. Also by law, the mash the liquor is distilled from is required to be over 50% corn. Now… what country grows the most corn in the world? I think you’re starting to get the picture, here. And once that wonderful white lightning comes out of the still, it’s put into barrels made of lightly charred American White Oak to age. So you’ve got American ingredients being used by Americans with American equipment made of American natural resources to produce an exclusively American Product. Seriously, baseball and apple pie ain’t got shit on a shot of Beam!

When you fork over the cash for a bottle of Bourbon, your money goes to American workers, American businessmen, American farmers, American loggers… and do you want to talk about taxes? Do you want to talk about how much Uncle Sam gets out of this deal? The ingredients get taxed, the materials get taxed, the workers and businesses pay taxes, then the federal government collects excise tax on the liquor... it’s a monetary love-fest that ends with you getting wasted!

So there you go. Next time you’re feeling down, grab a bottle of your favorite Bourbon and raise your glass to more comfortable times. It’ll make you feel better, and you might just save the economy.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Mashout Results

I put two beers in as three entries in the Upper Mississippi Mash Out. I took thrid in one of the dark ale categories with one, and a second in one of the new brewer categories! I'm super excited and glad that I submitted- I was only hoping for some good feedback. I'd tell you which categories, but I like having some anonymity on the blog. I'll post up some recipies soon for the beers. Whoo!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Red Rye Ale- "Live" Blog

Today we are making a Red Rye Ale. 

I love Cane & Ebel's Red Rye. This is not exactly a clone, but takes inspiration from there. I am looking for a hoppy brew, with some sweetness and body, but not as syrupy as some other brews. I contemplated using the Northwest ale yeast, to let it be more malty, but I'm interested in a crisper beer. I also have a yeast cake from last week's Hop Bomb IPA that I can't resist trying, so I'll be using the yeast cake, I think. Also, if the efficiency is better than it has been the SG should be around 1.080, so the yeast cake might be nice. I'm mashing at 155F, so I should get some good sugars in the beer.

The grain bill is as follows:
9# 2-Row
5# Malted Rye
.5# Dark Munich
2# Belgian Aromatic (I like this and want a beer with depth, so it is an experiment)
    1.5 oz Roasted Barley (For color, hoping it makes it nice and red)

I'll be "live" blogging this by updating as the day goes on. It is currently 1210pm, here is what has happened so far.

1000am- Looked at some websites to predict the SG and look at the volumes for mash and sparge water. 
1010am- Pulled 4.8 gallons of tap water (5.4ph) and 1 gallon of distilled water, brought to 185F.
1100am- Mash water was at 185F, took out 1 quart of hot water and replaced with cold tap water.
1125am- Put hot water into the mash tun, temperature dropped to 168F (small spill).
1128am- Doughed in the grains, slowly.
1130am- Measured temperature at 158F
1145am- Measured temperature at 154F
1200pm- Measured temperature at 156F
1225pm- Measured temperature at 154F
1250pm- Measured temperature at 152F, Iodine test says conversion is done.

I'm now trying to hurry up some of the mash out water, by decocting 2 quarts at a time in the electric kettle. I'm going to mash out with 1.5 gallons of water at 190F, trying to do a bit at a time to get the temperature up to 168F so it does not stick.

For hops, I wanted to use simcoe and amarillo, but the LHBS was sparse on hops  (as usual!). Last week they had almost a full stock, but not this week. I have Chinook, which I plan to use for bittering, Cascade and Cluster for flavor and 2oz of Willamette for flavor/aroma and dry hopping.

It is about here that I gave up the live blogging. We racked last week's IPA, which is good, fruity with nice aroma and a complex balance of hops. 

As for the Rye beer, I tried to mash out with 180F water, 1.25 gallons into 6 gallons of 152F mash with 17 pounds of grain. This raised it 3F, so next time I'll use 200+F water. I was worried about melting the husks, but just watered down the mash. The fly sparge worked well, and we pulled something like 8 gallons out. We used a 90 minute boil, adding .5 oz of Chinook for 75 minutes, .5 oz of Cluster for 60 minutes, .5 oz of Chinook for 30, .5 of Cluster for 25, .5 of Cascade for 15, 1 oz of Willamette for 10, saving 1 oz of Wilamette dry hopping. We ended up with something like 6 gallons of wort, maybe a bit more. There was a ton of trub, but we put 5.5 gallons into the fermenter. I had hoped to use the yeast cake of American Ale yeast, but in getting the hops out we disturbed it and ended up pouring it out. Instead, we used non-expanded Wyeast NW Ale, and after a day it brewed. 

So- I learned that I'm not ready to use the yeast cake if I can't control the trub. We should use a starter. Mashing out needs to be hotter. I also should be more careful with volume. I still don't have a good way of getting from the kettle to the carboy via siphon, so i think I need a filtering mechanism or to volaruf. The beer smells good, very malty, a nice change from last weekend's smells of a grapefruit humping an apricot.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Pennsyltuckey Bound

Speak to someone who's visited rural Western Pennsylvania, and there's a good chance you'll hear the word "Pennsyltuckey" used in a derogatory fashion. It's a geographically-specific slur close in line with words like hick, hillbilly, and redneck; but this insult carries with it a sadness, harkening to a proud rural tradition that was forced to find a new home some 215 years ago, and with it a distinctive regional libation.

Before the days of highways and airports, the Appalachian Mountains were a significant geographical boundary cutting through the heart of Pennsylvania. So significant was this barrier that Western Pennsylvania applied to the Continental Congress as a separate state called Westsylvania. They were categorically denied. Still, they fought fiercely in the revolution with rifled-barrel long arms called "Jagers". Once independence was won, they hung up their Pennsylvania Rifles and returned to their lives of farming and distilling a uniquely American spirit: Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey.

When the new federal government imposed exorbitant taxes on small distilleries, the primary source of income for these fiercely independent Westsylvanians was eliminated. The violent Whiskey Rebellion that followed was quelled only when an army larger than was needed to win the revolution marched on Pittsburgh. Rather than bend to federal oppression, many farmers packed up their rifles and whiskey and moved to more remote territories like Kentucky where the federal government had little influence. In this new home, their unique spirits would evolve as corn became the dominant grain, and aging in charred white oak barrels transformed Pennsylvania Rye into Kentucky Bourbon.

But Rye continued to be the dominant spirit in the rapidly expanding United States for over a century, with large companies replacing the over-taxed independent distilleries. Beer or wine were seldom seen as liquor traveled much better; and Rye relied solely on domestic ingredients, unlike the previous American booze king: rum. Even after the Civil War, the American West was not fueled by "redeye" (which is, in fact, not even alcohol, but a highly poisonous derivative of sterno) nor by Bourbon, now revered as the most American of spirits. No, when Doc Holiday strode up to a bar and knocked on the countertop, it would have been a bottle of Pennsylvania, or "Monongahela" Rye that would have been placed in front of him.

Prohibition finally sounded the death-knell for Rye. The advent of the cocktail and the bootlegging of Canadian whiskey during those dry times acclimatized American pallets to sweeter alcohol; and the smoother, smokey taste of bourbon won people over after repelation. Soon the names of Craig and Beam were supplanting Overholt and Schenley on backbars. Rye was at best a specialty, at worst a relic.

Rye survived the remainder of the 20th century through companies like Jim Beam, which produced its own Rye and even purchased Old Overholt in 1987. Now Rye is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, and old and new brands share space on the liquor store shelf. Sazerak, Templeton, Old Overholt, Wild Turkey Green Label, and Jim Beam Yellow Label sit side by side and offer a generous range of whiskey experiences.

Old Overholt still bears a label our afore-mentioned buddy Doc would quickly recognize, though whether the flavor resembles its original Monongahela style is unclear. Still, it offers a light-handed and subtle taste of how fermented rye differs from the sourness of fermented corn.

For that comparison, though, maybe Beam Yellow serves us best. Being made by the bourbon people, it's a sharp taste of what happened when distillers changed their grain bill. It can be harsh for someone used to smooth and sour bourbons, but rewarding if your tongue will allow it past your tonsils.

Templeton is a brand that has taken a strange journey to the 21st century. It's been a registered corporation since 1965, but they recently switched to an older recipe dating back to the company's... less than legal days. Whether or not that story is true, and regardless of the old recipe's resemblance to Pennsylvania Rye, the quality of the product can't be denied. The bouquet demands careful attention; and its sweet, light, and fruity flavor belies its brute alcoholic power.

The most complex flavor composition of this bunch, however, belongs to Sazerac. Though it probably bears little resemblance to the Monongahela spirits the late 18th century, that in no way necessitates a lack of quality. In fact, as far as flavor goes, it shines above all other brands on the market now, offering the full-on kick to the teeth of Rye, with a fruity middle and a cinnamon finish. Perfectly suited for either sipping or shooting, the price is the only thing that makes it not optimal for heavy imbibing.

That title has to be taken by Wild Turkey Green. From the makers of the quintessential finish to a bad day (and start of a bad night) comes high-octane rye whiskey with a Southern accent. Sure, I could scrutinize its forceful Rye bouquet, or the wonderful afterglow that stays in your mouth after the initial burn fades; but the long and shot is it tastes fantastic and will fuck your shit up in a hurry, which for me exemplifies everything that is pure and wonderful about distilled spirits.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New Year

The blogs I read all are talking about their new year plans and a recap of the old. As I'm doing this due to my love of beer and booze blogs, I'll follow suit (or enthusiastically engage in mimetic isomorphism as we say in "talk like a dick school").

This last year found me brewing beer, first with my co-authors and then on my own. I had the good fortune of meeting some people in Chicago who did all-grain brewing, and borrowed their gear to make my first batch all-grain. It turned out alright, if weak, and I was off. I made four batches on my own last year, turning out six beers. The small beer experiment is terrible, the scotch ale turned out as an American Porter, the English Porter came out swimmingly. The Schwartz beer was good, and the excess that I did with ale yeast is interesting. I hope to put up detailed information on each of these as well as building a new mash tun for larger batches and high-gravity brews.

This January I have an American DIPA planned, hopefully with hops fresh from California which I am doing with a friend. I'm also going to do another English Bitter and possibly a second shot at the Scotch Ale, with Belgian sugars included to ramp up the punch. I enjoy the weaker beers and abhor the term 'session beer'. More on that to come.

I'm also exploring becoming a BJCP judge. This would require memorizing the beer styles, learning proper tasting techniques and going out to some home brew competitions. I'm not sure how I feel about competing with beer, but I'd love some knowledgeable feedback. And training to get to go out, meet brewers and drink beer just sounds awesome.

I also resolve to go back to drinking cocktails. Too often of late I've stuck to beer, which is tiring out my pallet. To this end, I've spent the weekend drinking Wild Turkey from the bottle. That is the plan.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Sabering Champagne

Wow, thank you Chicagoist, for letting us know how to saber a bottle of champagne. This is a terrible idea that I'll be doing at parties. More blogging to come, including beer reviews, my year and recap and the path this blog will aim towards between now and Chineese New Year.