May 3, 2013

Answering some miscellaneous questions

I've received some questions over the past few months of email/facebooks/PMs on various parts of the interwebs about my homebrewing that I never got around to answering due to the law school finals/bar exam beat down over the past several months. A few of the questions were repeat questions so I thought I'd throw up sort of a FAQ-style post to address some questions that weren't specific to a person's problem. Maybe it's a little arrogant to interview myself but if the questions are there I might as well answer them for more than one person at a time.

You're kind of an ass about reviewing books/breweries/beers/etc. What gives you the right to be so critical?

I am kind of an ass. You don't endure law school without being a bit of an ass. But really, I'm expressing my opinion like everybody else on the internet. I'm particularly blunt about it and I don't see why pull punches. I'm not trying to beg breweries to let me give them free labor or get into the business of brewing. I also don't care for bullshit either so when I see something I think is bad for the homebrewing community or the beer scene I think it's worth calling it out.

Can you share some of the yeast strains you are getting in your yeast project?

No, at least not right now. There's a couple reasons why and none of them have to do with being selfish about the strains.

I think I am getting supplied strains from the same place as East Coast Yeast and I don't want to get crossways with his business because Al B (who owns ECY) is doing a great service for all of us. He's not just dumping these strains out nor is he offering the low quality analysis that I am doing on the strains. He has to run test batches to determine the usual yeast metrics and run a clean lab so he's sending out relatively pure cultures.

I also don't want to out my supplier for the yeast provided just in case it might get somebody in trouble. It's not fair to put anybody at risk over some yeast. I might be open to sharing some strains in the future if that condition changes.

How technically precise is your brewing/experimentation?

Not very precise at all. I do a lot of research on brewing because research and digesting information is well within my wheelhouse but the actual science. I could probably go deeper into the science but I reach a limit on my interest in the technical aspects before I want to learn more about gas chromatography and other highly technical approaches to brewing science. I'd rather just try a technique out and see if it tastes good. That's just more rewarding to me.

My brewing is more mad scientist than MIT. I like to experiment but I don't have a yeast lab set up or anything like I really should for the kind of experiments I like to do. I have been trying to improve my processes a lot. I just got into really tight fermentation temperature control over the past nine months or so and I'm trying to get more precise on my mash techniques; however, I'm still rolling (again, pun not intended) on a hand-cranked corona mill and cooling wort without a chiller (that's on my list of things to upgrade). I'm of the mindset that you can make good to great beer with simple equipment but it's harder to reach consistency without a least some key pieces of equipment, like temperature control (or at least natural consistency).

What are the long term plans with the lambic solera?

At the end of this year I am going to attempt my first gueuze by blending separate portions of each of the first three years of lambic. After that I am going to keep the solera going but I haven't decided whether I am going to start on a new gueuze or just bottle straight lambic each subsequent year. Overall, I'd like to keep the solera going as long as I can. If it starts to get acetic I'll have to bite the bullet and bottle everything and start over. I'm hoping that day never comes or at least doesn't come for several more years. I fear when/if I move houses in a few years the move will require too much agitation of the solera and that will be the opportunity for acetobacter to strike. I might try bottling all of the lambic and then returning it to the solera but I think the back and forth would be too much, especially after the solera is five or six years old. I'd probably start over by inoculating new wort with a bottle of the lambic solera to keep some of the same flavor profile.

I'm learning a lot about lambic just by getting more traditional with each year and seeing how each pull is different and how each year's pull is evolving in the bottle. It's a slow but fascinating process. I'd like to see how much evolution I can witness in the same vessel but I realize there may be a terminal point for the current solera. It would be awesome to see how a beer evolves over ten or twenty years of repeated brewing in the same vessel. Having bottles of lambic with a natural blend of twenty years of beer would be crazy. It may not be very good, either. I've read about people tasting bottled lambic 10+ years old and feeling like it had lost some of it's quality. So that might be another good reason to start the process over although maybe the decline in quality wouldn't happen with this technique.

I told my wife when I die she has to cremate my remains and age the last round of lambic on my ashes.

What brewing materials would be a good read for a new brewer?

Any of the staples are perfectly fine. Joy of Homebrewing is aged but the information is still easily digestible and it doesn't fill your head with too many bad ideas. How to Brew is another common starter book. I haven't read newer versions but there's actually a lot of questionable material in the older online version that makes me not want to encourage people to start there. I think either book is decent enough as a starting point. After that I'd probably ignore both of those books for all grain and look at Gordon Strong's Master Lessons for Advanced Homebrewers as a good read to delve into modern all grain brewing. You don't need the most current or technical starter book because there's so much good information online that the book is mostly just going to teach you the basics.

If you want to get more technical about brewing, Yeast and For the Love of Hops are great reads. There are several good books on specific styles out there. New Brewing Lager Beer is a good read for lagers and gets into a lot of scientific detail about brewing without getting too technical about it.

Sour mash or sour wort?

I'm a fan of the sour wort process over the sour mash. It's more consistent and easier to control. With the sour mash it's a lot harder to control oxygen contact with the mash that helps the wrong bacteria grow (at least it's more of a challenge for those of us without CO2 tanks to flush the mash). In my opinion leaving the grain in the mash adds variables that the sour wort process removes. I recognize of course that most or all breweries that do pre-fermentation biological souring do it by sour mashing so it must work at least most of the time.

In a sour worting, you can get a defined amount of wort with a defined gravity with certain fermentables. That allows for more consistency and more control over the souring. Depending on your mash equipment it may not be feasible or efficient to leave the whole mash in the tun, while the wort can fit into a smaller and separate vessel. 

Gratzer is starting to get more known and now Weyermann makes that oak-smoked wheat malt. Do you think the Weyermann malt is a better choice than home smoked malt?

Personally I haven't tried the Weyermann product but I like Weyermann products in general so I'm sure it is fantastic. The benefit of buying the grain pre-smoked is buying consistency. Every time you buy that Weyermann oak-smoked malt it's going to be consistent. When you smoke at home, it's going to be as consistent as your smoking process. If you have a smoking apparatus at home and you have the control to produce a repeatable level of smoke and heat every time than there's probably no benefit in buying smoked malt. Otherwise you're going to get some differences across batches of home-smoked grain.

If I want to start brewing sours, where should I start?

I have two ideas. First is the most common: start with the Belgian sour styles. You can make a very solid lambic, oud bruin or Flanders red with one of the Wyeast/White Labs/ECY blends and/or dregs from sour beers and a very simple recipe. You can start off with a simple infusion mash and a simple recipe. Time is going to do all the hard work for you. The second idea is just brew any basic beer you like that isn't very bitter and sour it. That's sort of the Jolly Pumpkin approach to sours. You can sour a pale ale or American wheat or whatever. I'd probably avoid a very dark beer because some of the dark grains don't always play well with brett and the sourness but that's something you can grow into.

Lots of people start off with making Berliner weisse. It's a fine way to start brewing sours, particularly if you want to get your feet wet with sour mashing/worting. You can also sour it during fermentation with a lactobacillus addition but people tend to have poor results getting it to sour well. I don't recommend it as the best starting point because there's a lot of inconsistency in the results and I don't think it's any harder to pitch one bacteria than it is to pitch a blend of yeast and bacteria. The only difference you get is that a Berliner weisse tends to reach stability in a few months rather than a year or so. You can also sour mash/sour wort any other style of beer and get yourself some quick sours without waiting months. You aren't limited in only sour mashing/sour worting Berliner weisse.

What are the good breweries in the Dallas area?

People will obviously disagree but I am a big fan of Peticolas and Lakewood. I am not a big fan of the other handful of locals. Most of our locals are only a year or so old and many are months out of the gate so I'm trying to look for improvement in several of the other breweries. I'm pretty well sworn off Deep Ellum Brewing Co. Some of the things I dislike about some of the local brewers is just a matter of personal preference. There's a couple with technical problems with their operations that I dislike regardless of my personal drinking preferences. I am undecided about Community Brewing right now. I've had both good and bad beer.

Although the question didn't ask I have some beer bars I like in the area. In Fort Worth I like the Gingerman and Flying Saucer. I used to be a big fan of T&P but it seems like they are actually moving away from their craft beer focus towards a generic sports bar. In Dallas I like Gingerman, Gordon Biersch, The Common Table, Mockingbird Taproom, Meddlesome Moth, Old Monk, Idle Rich, Black Friar, Eno's Pizza and Trinity Hall. I hear a lot of good stuff about Strangeways and Goodfriends but I haven't made it out to either. Extremely locally, I like the Gingerman Southlake, Mellow Mushroom and occasionally BJ's because it's around the corner and there's usually a good beer or two on tap.

Would you ever open a brewery?

The answer is no, I would not. I'm six figures deep in school debt which makes switching careers a bad financial idea. I also prefer brewing as a hobby rather than work. The job version of brewing is a lot of cleaning and a lot of brewing the same beer over and over. That's not what I like. I like brewing whatever I want when I can/want to. I like to do crazy experiments. Sure, there are some breweries doing some really wild experiments (and not all of them are great) but the more it feels like work the less fun it is. I'm definitely happy keeping brewing as a hobby and being a mouthy asshole as a career.

Are you having any luck growing hops in Dallas/Fort Worth?

On my third year of trying I am finally looking like I might get some actual cones this year. I am a terrible gardener and I'm growing in an unconventional design but I am improving my skills with each year. I probably would have had a few hop cones last year but where I live on the outskirts of the civilized world gets terrible locust infestations during the summer and they demolished my bines. This year I plan on screening in my garden to keep those assholes out.

Generally, it is possible to grow hops in the DFW area but you might need some extra help to move your hops along. When we have those terribly hot summers it's very challenging to get anything to grow but not impossible, especially if you grow in a place where you can shield the bines from some of the brutal afternoon sun. The soil here is also terrible, which makes growing anything a challenge. It's full of clay and seems to lack a lot of nutrient. So if you are going to plant in the ground you need to figure out how to keep from having too much water sit around the rhizomes/roots and cause rot but keep a constant supply of nutrients coming in. My suggestion is to plant in a raised box full of compost and gardening soil so you won't have too much water stuck against the roots and you can grow in more nutrient-rich soil. Fertilizing will be a must as well. You could also grow in half barrel planters or smaller vessels if you aren't concerned about limiting the crown's ability to grow out.

When homebrewers complain about off flavors and other brewers suggest infections, why do you always start talking about the brewing process?

Many reasons. For one, if an infection is a possible reason for an off flavor and other people have addressed it in detail I don't see a good reason to say the same thing unless it's almost a certainty that the beer was infected and no other cause for an off flavor is reasonable. Second, unless you see a visible sign of infection, like a pellicle, it's hard to say for sure an off flavor is an infection. Less experienced brewers tend to have a hard time articulating exactly what off flavors they experience which makes it hard to know for sure what they are really tasting. They just look at one of the off flavor charts and pick which one sounds closest to what they are tasting. I recently saw somebody describe a flavor problem as "farty and somewhere between egg and paper" which could be anything from DMS to sulfur to oxidation to infection to stressed yeast from underpitching to beer that hasn't cleared yet. As a new brewer, you don't really know the difference between the off flavors from chlorophenols or the kind of phenols you get from a wild yeast. Your description is always suspect. It could just taste off because you're not used to drinking beer that hasn't carbonated or hasn't dropped clear. So when somebody says, "I brewed this beer three weeks ago and it tastes kind of cidery what's wrong with it" that's not enough information to pinpoint a cause, let alone a specific off flavor.

Third, it's easy to blame an off flavor on an infection and not look for a problem in the brewing process. Infections are not nearly as common as people seem to think they are when there is some off flavor, unless you have poor sanitation processes or you are reusing yeast over many generations in which the unavoidable exposure to contaminants results in the inevitable growth of unwelcomed fermentation assistants in the reused yeast slurry. It's far more probable that your sanitation is ok and your yeast isn't too contaminated but there's a small issue with your mash process, water treatment, ingredients, kettle process, or fermentation process that needs some tweaking. We are not professionals and most of us are not brewing on dedicated, professional equipment. Each of us have areas we could improve our processes and techniques (ok, 99.999% of us). Even if there is an infection there's probably something that could be exposed in discussing one's techniques to offer more value than just telling him or her to spray some extra star-san next time.

Does that one gallon brewing really make sense?

Yes if you don't mind that it's less efficient to brew on a smaller scale and one gallon of beer will last you long enough to get enjoyment out of the time spent brewing. The time spent brewing one gallon of beer is not substantially less than brewing three or five or ten gallons. The mash is the same length of time, the boil is the same length and the fermentation is the same number of days. So you spend about the same amount of time to make a lot less beer. If you drink a six pack a day it doesn't make sense to brew on a small scale because you'll run out of beer midway through day two.

However, it has its advantages. It requires less expense and less special equipment. The biggest kettle you will probably ever need is a two gallon pot and you can always use your stove. You can easily go BIAB or use a small cooler as a mash tun. A wine jug is the appropriate sized fermentor and it does not take much to empty one out (plus you can often find them for free on craigslist). It's a good size for experimenting with new recipes. You get 9-10 bottles, which is enough to get a few samples and share a few bottles. It's a good size to brew a small batch of something you don't want in large quantities. You can also use it to make large starters for bigger batches and get something good out of all that starter wort. Most of your equipment works on a smaller scale, too (e.g. airlocks, spoons, thermometers, hydrometers).

The reason why I do it the most is simply because I don't drink through that much beer. If I brew five gallons of one beer it's probably going to sit there for months before I finish it off, which means I barely ever brew or I end up with too big of a beer stockpile. I don't have people over so often that I bleed through my beer very fast (my wife and I are just busy people) so small batches allows me the freedom to brew more often and drink more fresh beer. I probably only brew 5-6 batches over a gallon each year and maybe one will be five gallons. As it is I have several gallons of commercial beer in my "cellar" plus about fourteen gallons of bottled homebrew and another sixteen gallons of homebrew in fermentors. If I didn't brew for the rest of the year I'd be lucky if I cleaned out all my bottled homebrew and I could live off the beer in fermentors right now for the next year.


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