May 23, 2012

The Good and The Bad: A Review of Gordon Strong's Brewing Better Beer

This book has picked up a lot of flak since it came out last year, mostly around Strong's attitude. Subtitled, "Master Lessons for Advanced Homebrewers" I thought it might have at least a few pieces of information that haven't been disseminated around the internet. I found some criticism extremely warranted but there is some good information in this book. Unfortunately I find Strong's writing style really detracts from the book; so much so I would not recommend purchasing it. Good ideas are lost in lazy writing and his required assumption that he is right because he says so. If you have a chance to borrow a copy or purchase a cheap used copy it would be worth your time to thumb through it. To be fair, I have broken down what I liked and what I disliked about the book. You may find it more or less useful than I did.

The Good

The recipes in the book look pretty good. I'd like to try brewing some of them to see if they at least live up to his hype. They aren't super complex recipes (no bourbon barrel aged double imperial moon dog green stout with vanilla, cherries and dandelion aged for three years with brett and pedio) but they also aren't basic pale ale recipes.

Strong's steeping dark malt technique. I don't know if Strong came up with this or borrowed it from somebody else but it's a good technique and probably the single most important reason to thumb through the book. Strong argues that you can  get all the flavor out of dark specialty malts without the acridness by not mashing them. Instead he argues you should steep them, either hot or cold. The discussion is fairly thorough on the different effect of either hot or cold steeping. It's interesting for sure and I've read about a few people who have tried this method with really good success. I think there's plenty of room to explore making beer with lots of dark malts but steeped so all the flavor comes through without the level of acrid bitterness that would come from using that much in the mash.

Strong is also a big fan of late hop additions from flame out to chilling instead of dry hopping. He claims you can get similar flavor and aroma without risking oxidation and vegetal flavors that can come along with dry hopping improperly. That sounds like a great opportunity to eliminate a possible point of off flavors for you fans of hoppy beers. He also makes a good case for the benefits of first wort hopping.

Another topic I found novel in his book (pun not intended) was a discussion of post-fermentation adjustments to the finished beer. I don't recall any homebrewing book discussing this subject, although I'm sure the professional and academic literature is fairly full of it. Strong discusses making various additions to the final product to fine tune the taste.

Although I have more to say on this subject in the second half of the review, Strong does a good job of explaining the all grain process and somewhat decently discusses recipe formation in a way that's likely very helpful to brewers looking to make the jump to all grain or just getting their feet wet with it. The first half of the book, where he discusses the all grain process, feels like an update to The Joy of Homebrewing with new techniques that didn't make it into the most recent addition.

The Bad

My biggest issue with this book is Strong's overall writing technique. He comes out in the introduction and says he wrote the book to be like having a conversation with him and although he has read many brewing texts, he will provide little or no references. The underlying assumption is that you should just believe what he says because he says it and it must be right and you couldn't possibly need to know more than what he is going to write. Unfortunately he fails to deliver a clear and detailed discussion to even approach the kind of thoroughness to excuse not providing references. The book is written like Strong compiled a bunch of stuff he wrote on the AHA forums and things he found online and just edited it together into a book. Truly lazy writing. What's worse is that he says several times that he was the technical editor for Randy Mosher's Radical Brewing. So he even knows better.

The subtitle of, "master lessons for advanced homebrewers" is just not true. That kind of language makes me expect some homebrew Jedi lessons about making awesome recipes or techniques that make homebrew destroy commercial beer. That kind of stuff is nowhere in this book. Half the book is a basic discussion of mashing and the second half is sort of a discussion of recipe formulation. As I said before, a good book for new all grain brewers. Not exactly advanced if you have spent a few hours online reading about homebrew. Seriously, is advanced homebrewing. Not this book.

Following on those two points, Strong never gets into making a detailed discussion of anything. He just sort of hints at various things and moves on. It gets worse as the book progresses. Early on he does a better job with the easy stuff but by the time he's talking about adjusting the final beer he just throws ideas out without any way to execute and certainly without a clear process. He sets up lots of paths for good discussion but never completes. If you wanted to actually do almost anything discussed in the book you need to find another source to learn the actual process or specifications.

The second half of the book is mostly useless. The recipe section just sort of talks at an idea and then gives a recipe. No real discussion about how to form recipes. Nothing about how combinations of different ingredients produce different flavors. To me an advanced homebrewer needs to know particulars about putting together recipes, not that it can be done. There's a whole section where he talks about the tongue. WTF?


I actually tried to cut down on the bad stuff because a lot of it repeated my thoughts about how poorly written the book is. I wanted to excuse it as just bad writing but I've heard him on some podcasts and he always seems to have that approach. Just throws out ideas without specifics and when asked for them hems and haws and never produces. It's not a useless read but I would say if you have brewed a few all grain batches you probably have severely limited use for this book. If you can find a copy to thumb through it's worth doing so but not worth $18 unless you plan on reselling it to the internet.

May 11, 2012

Weird homemade candy syrup results

I feel like I've spent the past several months posting about batches that went wrong but I guess it's just because I have been doing a lot of experimenting. Here's another experiment gone awry.

A few months ago I made another attempt at some candy syrup. This time I used an amino acid (l-lysine) from the pharmacy to try to encourage more melanoid formation over caramelization. It was a strange process for sure. It spit out a lot of ammonia fumes, which others have mentioned occurring in similar experiments. Then it got a decidedly meaty flavor. Like a steak. Yep, that's right. I made sugar water taste like a steak (but not a great steak). I figured it was just a passing phase and kept going. Some of the meaty flavor went away but a hint remained. It had some good toffee and rummy flavor but none of the dark fruit flavors I was shooting for.

I tossed it into a dubbel with some special b, aromatic and caramunich. What came out the other side of fermentation is very interesting. The toffee comes through with a bit of coffee and chocolate and some raisiny flavor. There's also a distinct meat flavor in there. There's many layers of flavor but a few -- especially the meat -- flavors I could really do without.

I think that's it for me trying to duplicate candy syrup. I'm definitely of the mindset that one needs to start with a less refined product and go from there. I don't think bleached beet sugar (or corn sugar) is going to cut it. I learned a lot along the way but it's not like that D2 syrup is so expensive it's worth my time making weird shit in pursuit of something close.

May 1, 2012

Headspace...How Bad Is It Really?

A very common fear indoctrinated to new brewers is a fear of headspace. The way people talk about headspace is like a slight bump of a fermenter with a whiff of headspace will instantaneously turn any beer into vinegar. Acetobacter, the critter responsible for combining alcohol and oxygen to produce acetic acid (vinegar), is not that powerful. Yes, beers that have been aging for a long time and were inoculated with bottle dregs with acetobacter in it or became infected somewhere along the way, if agitated enough, can get very vinegary in a short period of time. That isn't because there was some oxygen contact. There had to be existing acetobacter slowly growing and using the oxygen to make acetic acid. Acetobacter can only make acetic acid when there is both oxygen and alcohol. Once either runs out acid production stops. In beer that hasn't been aged for very long (and we can even say months), unless inoculated or infected, shouldn't have enough acetobacter present to create vinegar overnight. Headspace only means there's a place for oxygen to hang out over the beer and slowly diffuse into the beer. Whether you have 10 cubic feet or 10 cubic inches of headspace only matters when you look at the surface area of the beer. Oxygen diffusion is much slower where the beer contacts glass or plasic, whatever your fermenter is made from.

Most commonly this fear is impressed on brewers when talking about brewing a beer in a fermenter much larger than the volume of beer going in. This seems mostly myth/misinformation than possessing any real basis. My experience certainly suggests the headspace issue is overblown. Look, most of us began fermenting five gallons in eight gallon buckets. That's three gallons worth of headspace plus the oxygen permeability of the HDPE. How many people find their buckets full of vinegar?

I've fermented lots of undersized beers in a 7.9 gallon bucket. I've fermented three gallon batches and left them for up to three months without a hint of vinegar. I've brewed one gallon batches in that bucket. I have one going right now. It's actually a second beer brewed on the cake of a prior one gallon batch. I intend on brewing two more one gallon batches on it before I clean it out. It's been in use, full of beer, since the beginning of March. It will probably get emptied and refilled in a few days and then emptied and refilled in early June, so it will go a full four months. I don't expect to taste any vinegar at all. My lambic solera sat for a year -- at one point I had to take the cap off and move it -- then was partially drained and refilled. No vinegar.

I even have some diluted wine I'm trying to turn into vinegar that's been sitting exposed for about a month. It's not even vinegary. Now some fruit flies did take a swim in it (and died) this week and it is starting to smell a little vinegary. So clearly oxygen exposure itself is not enough.

Make no mistake, I'm not suggesting beer never turns to vinegar, but if your beer is turning to vinegar, you probably have an infection issue/sanitation issue that could be addressed.