March 28, 2013

Homebrewers and Barrels: Worth It?

Barrel aged beers are all the rage these days. These days it's hard to go into a craft beer bar and not find at least one beer proudly proclaiming its barrel maturation. Regular beers, special beers, wine barrels, liquor name it. I just had a pilsner aged in a barrel (which was not too bad, actually) and I hear word of IPAs getting the barrel treatment. There's no denying beer and wood vessels have a long history together, just like there's no denying that the addition of oaky flavors and the remnants of wine or liquor once held in the barrels add something fantastic to beer. Surely we could have a tedious debate whether the whole barrel aging thing is so overdone it's on minute thirteen of its fifteen minutes of fame but since this is a homebrewing blog I'll just keep the discussion to homebrewing. So my discussion today is a glut of thoughts about whether the whole barrel thing is worth it on the homebrewing level.

Certainly homebrewers are not new to the idea of adding oak or liquor to our beers. For years homebrewers have been adding clean oak to our fermentors (just as some craft brewers were/still do) and bottles of whiskey have found their ways into our beers. However, the barrel is treated as something very different, where the oxygenation through the wood has an effect along with the oak character and whatever is coming in from the alcoholic beverage that once filled the barrel. I'm suspicious that barrel aging is really that beneficial to homebrewing.

For commercial brewers there is no question that barrels provide a unique service to the industry. Commercial brewers seeking to add that bourbon barrel aged effect has no choice but to literally use a bourbon barrel because the law explicitly prohibits fortifying beer with liquor or any other alcoholic beverage other than more beer. Homebrewers can get away with dumping a fifth of Makers into the fermentor (although actually most/all states probably prohibit this, too) without having the state alcoholic beverage commission come lock up our mash tuns. Barrels are also relatively cheap storage vessels. Those large 55-60 gallon barrels can be found on contract for around $100-150 so it's not cost prohibitive. Vintners sell old barrels to keep their wine in fresh oak barrels. Bourbon distillers, by law, must age bourbon for at least three years in fresh oak barrels so there are always bourbon barrels needing a home. Other liquors also use these barrels on their own but will also look for ways to recover some cash while disposing the spent barrels. Brewers can find uses for all of these (for example, Austin-area Twisted X uses tequila barrels to age its imperial schwarzbier and Jester King is aging sour beer in mezcal barrels).

Homebrewers, on the other hand, seem to be paying out a lot of cash to grab barrels. Five and ten gallon barrels are especially sought after by homebrewers because the size matches our normal brewing amounts. There are some wine and liquor barrels floating around at this size but they seem to sell for close to the price of those much larger barrels. Dropping $100 on a really awesome looking fermentor wouldn't be that big of a deal if it didn't have a strong probability of a limited use period. Whatever liquor or wine was aged in the barrel will eventually get stripped out of the barrel, leaving a fairly neutral barrel. While most homebrewers seem to think once that happens they will convert the barrel into a sour-aging barrel, there is a strong likelihood that the barrel will get infected -- in a bad way -- before that happens. With the oxygen permeability of the smaller barrels, the likelihood of an acetobacter infection is much greater. Overall, many homebrewers seem to not have a good understanding of barrel care which means the probability of an acetobacter or other infection is quite high. Some brewers are coating their barrels in wax or lacquer to reduce oxygen permeability but improper sanitation during/between filling won't be helped by the coating. Sometimes barrels just turn on you and produce some terrible beer. I strongly suspect we will see a flurry of acetic and other faulted barrel-aged beers coming into homebrew competitions over the next few years.

Still, barrels might be worth the cost and worth the risk if they can produce something you can't replicate in other forms. After all, if you can soak some oak cubes in bourbon and toss it all in the fermentor and get the same flavor it hardly makes sense to spend $100 on something that may produce infected beers except it will look really cool sitting in your house. Some people suggest the flavor from the barrel is richer and more complex than adding liquor-soaked oak cubes. The idea is that when the barrel held its original occupant, the non-alcohol part of the liquid soaked into the wood, leaving a delicious syrup trapped in the oak. When beer is added to the barrel, this syrup flows back into the beer. I assume that concentration in the wood takes more than the week or two most homebrewers rely on to soak their oak cubes so the barrel is definitely gaining a benefit over the old cubes.

I wonder whether aging the cubes in liquor or wine for months/years would produce the same flavor results without the work involved in cleaning barrels and the risk of infection. If so, then homebrewers could produce beers with the same quality barrel aged flavor with all sorts of liquors and wines by keeping a few mason jars of oak cubes sitting around. There's good reason to believe the thickness of the oak staves has something to do with the quality of the oak character and the amount of syrup that can be produced within the wood. That could also be emulated by using larger chunks of oak rather than cubes. I do have some jars myself with liquor and wine with some old oak chips I bought but never used. I plan on letting these age for a few months before using them so I guess in a few months I'll know whether that hypothesis is true. Of course, it could just be the case that the imperfection of barrel aging adds an attribute to the beer and makes each one unique in a way a mason jar full of wood and whiskey just cannot deliver.

I can't say I haven't thought about buying a barrel...many times. Given my thoughts above, I have a hard time justifying spending the cash on a barrel even though the idea of looking at a barrel in my house and feeling connected to the historical sense of aging beers in wooden casks is very appealing. As appealing as it is, it losing some of its luster when I think about pulling out abeer and having to dump it because it has a nasty infection. 
March 27, 2013

Homebrewing Deconstructed: Time Heals Everything

On a certain homebrewing forum there is a large contingent of brewers who answer all questions about off flavors and fermentation issues with the slogan, "time heals everything" as some sort of poorly distilled version of Charlie Papazian's "Relax and have a homebrew" slogan. The problem is that "time heals everything" is sometimes appropriate advice for new brewers but it has converted into a brewing paradigm that generally does not make the best beer and is a proxy for a solid brewing process.

The history and meaning of "time heals everything"

This particular brewing paradigm appears to have started in the mid-2000s when a group of then-new homebrewers got butthurt across the internet when they were (probably unfairly) chastised by experienced brewers on multiple homebrewing forums because they were complaining about their beers not being great but at the same time refusing to follow good brewing practices. At the same time, on the same forums, there were some bitter battles between the old guard of homebrewers, who followed traditional practices and stood by them very firmly, and a new guard who rejected some of these older practices in favor of what is now considered current practices (e.g. aluminum is ok, secondary is not required, etc.). These butthurt brewers wrongly viewed themselves as part of the column of new brewers ushering in more science-based brewing practices. These new, butthurt brewers found themselves a new home on, at the time a new forum. There were few experts willing to chastise them for poor brewing practices so their bad/lazy ideas as new brewers thrived like a virus without a cure. HBT also became sort of a home base for the new guard and they provided a lot of the quite extensive 2006-2008 content that is the backbone of the HBT knowledge base. Although there has been some debate over the "time heals everything" garbage on HBT in the past couple years on most other places online and in most homebrewing clubs there is a lot of dissent against this garbage idea, for good reason.

The whole "time heals everything" mantra is a way of saying if your brewing process isn't great then you can still make ok beer because with time the yeast will clean up your mistakes. There is some truth to that (sometimes) but it's a strange idea that instead of making the best beer you can you should/could just hope the yeast do the work for you. It's gotten to the point where I see experienced homebrewers telling new brewers the appropriate fermentation schedule for all beers is 4-6 weeks in primary plus 3-5 weeks in the bottle and your beer won't even taste it's best for months. This is just bad, bad advice. Yes, some beers need extended aging and some beers do improve with age but those tend to be the exception rather than the rule. A lot of beers are at their best very young and fresh and homebrewers following this stupid rule are depriving themselves of the best beer they could make by letting their beer sit around and not following good practices in the first place.

Some beers are best fresh and most ales are fresh and ready to drink after weeks, not months. Lots of homebrewers love their hoppy beers. Hops are at their best fresh, not after months. If you are making an IPA and waiting two months to drink it, you're losing out on the freshest aroma and flavor you could have. It's like making a fantastic meal and instead of eating it fresh out of the oven you put it in the fridge for a week and eat it as cold leftovers. If you disagree with this position, please let me know which brewery sits on their IPAs for months and encourages you to age them for improved flavor. The same is true for some yeast-driven beers, like weizen-style beers and even some sessionable English beers. The flavor compounds in the strains producing these beers degrade within weeks. A hefeweizen can be full of banana and clove for the first month but if you've ever tasted an old hefe there's very little banana and the clove is a little stale. Some English strains lose some of their delicate estery character after a few weeks (of course, not everybody enjoys those flavors anyway). Certainly these are not the only styles harmed by unnecessary delay. Other styles benefit from young consumption. Smoke beers, for example, mellow with age and the smoke flavor can get sort of stale over after a certain point.

Of course, there are some beers that definitely benefit extended aging. Lagers certainly require more fermentation time and the extended lagering period. Sours and brett beers obviously also need more time. Certain yeast, such as Dupont, don't break into their prime for several weeks and can be rather harsh early after fermentation ends (even Brasserie Dupont ages Saison Veille for several weeks before distribution). Big beers often benefit from a little age, but there are plenty of commercial brewers turning out big beers to the market after a month. A big beer can be fantastic very early on if proper brewing techniques are followed but can benefit from extended aging if you prefer the aged flavor on that beer. A DIPA probably isn't the right big beer to wait six months to bottle but a barleywine or BDSA may be preferred later on.

Malty beers stand up to time better than hoppy beers and can benefit from extended aging if the brewer prefers that flavor in the beer. Malty beers are not always better after months, particularly lower ABV beers, and like any other beer there are things lost during that first month or two even though some of the malt flavors improve with age. Personally I prefer the fresher flavor in session-level malty beers although I like many bigger malt bombs with a little age. Rather than just sit on your beer for months and assume it is best with age you should try it young and see what you are missing.

When it is appropriate advice

There is a time and place for this kind of advice. New brewers tend to follow less than ideal brewing practices which lead to fermentation flaws that usually are cleaned up or fade with time so telling them to give their beers some time is usually appropriate for that particular batch but should be tied to advice to improve the next batch. Similarly, new brewers tend to freak out when the beer has off flavors very early into the process or just doesn't taste like a finished, carbonated beer when it's a week old and flat. In that instance, time really is going to be a factor in the remaining days of clean up and subsequent carbonation.

If you brew a beer with some flaws there's no harm in letting it sit around and hoping time will fix it as a back up plan but this shouldn't be the rule to brewing.

But when it is not appropriate

The problem is that the advice isn't given within an appropriately limited purpose or along with the advice on how to improve the next batch. Instead, the "time heals everything" trash is pounded out by people who have been brewing for years and proudly proclaim that the "right" way to brew is to leave your beer in the fermentor for a month and then bottle for a month and then you can start thinking about drinking one bottle each week for the rest of your life. As I addressed above, it's inappropriate advice for many beer styles and trains new brewers that they cannot enjoy a beer in its prime by ignoring good brewing practices.

Relying on time to fade out off flavors or the yeast to clean up for you is not just lazy brewing but deprives you of the fresh character of beer. Instead, you could improve your processes to enjoy a fresh, delicious beer. The "time heals everything" nonsense is spouted out by people who tend to have nothing to say on the subject of actual brewing processes that affect the ability to drink a beer within a reasonable time frame. Specifically, we're talking about mash processes, mash temperature, mash/sparge/kettle PH, mash/sparge/kettle mineral composition, yeast health, yeast nutrients, aeration and fermentation controls. Although new brewers tend not to know about these subjects and it can take some time to understand and control each (and I would not say I have perfected any of them) it does not mean letting your beer sit around is a superior option than trying to understand and control them. If these processes were not better ways to brew beer and did not produce a better beer then you would see the majority of craft brewers sitting on their beers. Instead, you see them applying good processes to produce great beer going into the package after 2-4 weeks (depending on the beer). Sure, they have a business need to turn the beer around quickly but I've also never heard a pro brewer say they wish the beer could sit in the fermentor for another month.

Another reason why this advice is not appropriate is that some off flavors do not imrpove with age and will get worse. Infections rarely turn into good beers over time; they normally get worse. Similarly, phenolic off flavors generally do not age out and can get worse with time. Chlorophenols in particular do not go away and are known to get worse over time. It takes very little chlorine (especially if you are using bleach as a sanitizer) to produce terrible beer.

Why it is bad for homebrewing

There's plenty of bad advice floating around the interwebs about brewing but in my opinion this one is probably the worst of all because it implies there is no reason to get into the science and finer details of brewing as long as you just let your beer sit around. It's disappointing to see people with lots of experience and expensive RIMS and HERMS systems handing out this bad advice. I cannot fathom why somebody would spend thousands of dollars on a brewing set up to then treat their beer so poorly. There is so much good science and advice about brewing available and high quality ingredients out there that no reason exists for encouraging people to make average beer instead of great beer.

It appears this idea has spread like a virus to pretty much all the homebrewing forums (except the anti-HBT, and creating a league of misinformed brewers. I guess for those of you who compete it's a good thing because that's a lot of competition you don't have to worry about losing to.
March 24, 2013

Party Pig cask/gravity results

A while ago I posted here discussing the use of a party pig as a cask by leaving out the pricey pressure pouch and instead letting it carb naturally and pouring with the benefit of gravity. I finally got around to filling it with the mild from my bar exam partigyle. I was out to find the answers to two main questions. First, the party pig is made of thin plastic and without the pressure pouch maintaining pressure so there was a possibility the beer would not build enough pressure to force CO2 back into solution and the beer would be a little too flat, even for a gravity pour. Second, would the beer keep drinkable for more than a few days with all that air coming in as delicious beer pours out? I found my answers.

I filled the party pig and without really thinking about it I put the restrictor plate behind the nozzle. The restrictor plate, as the name suggests, is designed to limit the flow of fully pressurized beer so you don't end up with glass after glass of foam. With a pressure pouch it works great but as the pressure starts to diminish in the pig the pour turns more into a gravity pour but the restrictor plate causes the beer to pour out very, very slow. I should have left it out since I didn't have the pressure pouch trying to shove beer out. So in a second pass at using the party pig as a cask/gravity vessel I would leave the restrictor plate out and see if it improves flow without allowing more oxygen to flow in and spoil the beer quicker.

I filled the party pig four days after fermentation began. Brewing a 4% beer with S-04 meant fermentation was complete within a day or so. The beer was still full of diacetyl but I expected the yeast in suspension would slurp it all up before consumption. I then let it mature for a couple weeks before tapping it. When I filled it the walls of the pig were very flexible. A few days later there was a little more pressure but not nearly as much as the pig would have with the pressure pouch. I tapped it, drank a few pints, and then put it in the fridge. It stayed in the fridge for about a week and a half before I drained off some more pints. Then repeated each weekend until it was empty.

The first few pours were very nicely carbonated with a very cask-like appearance and mouthfeel. Soft carbonation and nice foamy head. The flavor of the mild is delicious and far exceeds expectations. After about six or seven pints over three days the pressure started to balance out in the party pig and the beer started to pour at a creep. There's about a gallon left. The character changed from a foamy beer similar to a cask engine pulled beer to more of a still gravity pour. It's not a bad beer by the time it reaches gravity-like mouthfeel but I really wish I had left out the restrictor plate because it takes a while to pour a pint.

On day five I took a small sample to see how the beer was doing. Surprisingly, it seemed to have carbonated up a little because the pour came out slightly foamy. It wasn't the big beer engine-like foam of the first few pours but not the still pour I was expecting. Not sure where the added pressure came from since the pig has stayed at the same temperature in the fridge the whole time.

Another sample on day seven came out foamy for a couple ounces while the rest poured very slowly. Despite the slow pour there was still a small amount of carbonation. Minor signs of oxidation are setting in but it's actually not too bad in the beer since it gives it some added fruity character that works ok with the English ale yeast. It's not the brilliant cask-like first few pints but I've had worse beers in my life. There's maybe a little under a gallon left. I expect to knock out the rest of the beer within a couple weeks so I will see how much the beer changes over three weeks.  

Tasted on day thirteen and unfortunately the beer is showing signs it's on it's way out. It's still drinkable but it's definitely showing signs of oxidation well past its prime. The fruity flavors are starting to fade out to hints of cardboard-like stale flavors. I plan on finishing it off this weekend (around day fifteen or sixteen) which is probably the limits on this beer. I used a pint to make some spent grain bread so that left about half a gallon to polish off.

Finished the cask on day seventeen. The mild was still drinkable but definitely showed some signs of oxidation. It was completely flat by the last couple pours.

Overall I think it held up fairly well for beer sitting on that much oxygen but I probably wouldn't have felt comfortable giving it to guests as something I was proud of after a week or so when it started to oxidize. Overall the experience was about what I expected but I'd rather not want to drink flat, slightly oxidized beer so I think the party pig makes more sense in this cask format as something drank at one time (you know, at a party). I have some ideas about ways to prolong the life and prolong the carbonation but I'll wait to discuss them until I have a chance to think through it some more.
March 20, 2013

Book Review: New Brewing Lager Beer with Greg Noonan

I picked up this book to brush up on my understanding of brewing lagers and based on other reviews I've read everybody seems to believe this is the authority on brewing lagers, at least as far as homebrewers are concerned. It's packed with the kind of science found in Yeast but dives into many subjects. I actually thought the lager discussion was a little thin but it's a great book to understand the science behind brewing. The overall function is to teach you each step in the brewing process, along with lots of science, as though you are planning to brew a lager.

The majority of the book approaches the science of brewing from grain to water to hops to yeast and then into the brewing process itself. It dives deep into several subjects without melting your brain with too much technical discourse (for those of us who are not scientifically-minded). There are small bits of information that I had read/heard about before but without as much substance as I found here.

The heart of this book is really around the mash process. New Brewing Lager Beer spends a considerable amount of time explaining what does on during the mash and particularly how to perform different mash schedules with most of the attention given to decoction schedules. He explains the science and reason for each rest period and makes it very obvious that the mash is probably more important and deserves a lot more attention than most homebrewers tend to give it. One point Noonan makes without drawing sufficient attention to it is that the decoction mash is intended for undermodified malts rather than the well-modified malts used by most brewers today. Some of the debate over decoction mashes that takes place today tends not to factor in that very salient point.

The book turns discussing the fermentation schedule and that's where it hits the information about preparing yeast for lager brewing, the fermentation schedule and of course, lagering. I was actually surprised by how little of the book this section filled. I'm not sure if Noonan just thinks there's very little specific requirements on the back end of fermentation or got tired of writing in such detail by this point (I'm sure it's the earlier explanation). However there is still plenty of information and enough to understand what needs to occur before lagering kicks in. The book offers a few simple recipes for traditional German lagers as well.

Overall the book does a good job of approaching many brewing subjects to prepare you to brew lagers while most homebrewing texts purposefully or inadvertently focus on the ale process. Even if you have very little interest in brewing lagers it's a good read on the science of brewing and you can gleam lots of small details about improving your mash and kettle processes to make better ales. I think it's a good read after the usual texts (and even Gordon Strong's book) and maybe before reading the new, more technical books like Yeast. One thing to keep in mind is that the book was originally written in the 90s and last updated in 2002. There are some points made that have been debunked (fully or partially) since then but I think most of that has to do with improvements in the quality of ingredients and equipment available to homebrewers.
March 18, 2013

Wakey Wakey Coffee Oatmeal Stout Tasting

This oatmeal stout was formulated deep into a hike in the Colorado Rockies. It was my first attempt to play with coffee and I thought I had done enough research to ensure a fresh and flavorful coffee addition to support the oatmeal stout. I got two out of three. The coffee is way, way, way overwhelming. So much so it could easily be mistaken for carbonated coffee. I used 0.30 ounces of coffee beans per gallon, which was consistent with the volumes I found in other recipes. I believe the combination of soaking the beans in vodka and then adding the beans and vodka to the beer extracted too much coffee flavor out of the beans. It's a disappointing result but since I really like coffee it's not the worst brewing error.

Appearance: Very dark beer with a tan, foamy head. Between the roasted barley and coffee the beer is almost midnight black. It's opaque as a stout should be.

Smell: The aroma is mostly coffee notes with some hints of beer. Lots of fresh coffee aroma, some chocolate, toffee, caramel, slight cinnamon and acrid, burnt smell.

Taste: The taste is straight coffee when the beer is cold. There is only hints of chocolate and some stout-like flavor in the very end of the aftertaste. As the beer warms up the beer flavor starts to become more noticeable. It has the flavor of a cold, carbonated coffee with a splash of stout added. It's the reverse of what I had expected: mostly coffee with a hint of stout instead of mostly stout with a hint of coffee.

Mouthfeel: The mouthfeel is moderate for a stout. It's not too thick for a session-strength beer but maintains enough body that you know you are drinking a stout (well if it tasted more like beer than coffee).

Overall I think the beer underneath the coffee is a workable recipe but the coffee addition, obviously, needs some work. I like the flavor of the coffee addition but I might try cold steeping the coffee beans and adding the cold-steeped coffee at bottling to see if I prefer the flavor of that method.
March 13, 2013

Yeast Project: Culturing RAM 3, 5 and 8

The next three strains I am going to try to grow up are RAM-3, RAM-5 and RAM-8. I chose these three strains together because I thought they had the most in common of the remaining strains. I'm still running experiments of three strains at a time because I have limited time thanks to my bar exam preparation and it's enough work to step up three strains at once.

RAM-3 and RAM-8 are both strains identified as coming from the Exchange Brewery in Sheffield, England. This same brewery is indicated as the home of S-04 and other strains identified by Wyeast and White Labs as Whitbread strains. It's possible one or both strains I have share the same origins as these commercially available strains. It's also possible both strains are the same strain. However, the Exchange Brewery made a lot of beers so it's possible these two strains are entirely different from each other and the Safale/Wyeast/White Labs strain. Not only does it make sense to taste these two strains head-to-head but I'm also brewing several beers with S-04 so I can taste them against S-04 to see how similar they are to what is already available. The worst thing that happens is I end up with a couple back up first generation sources of S-04.

I also chose RAM-5 for this round as well. It's identified as a "Pabst ale yeast". I'm pretty sure that means it's an ale strain, which makes it a good choice to taste alongside the two English ale strains. Pabst made an ale once upon a time, so it's possible this is the yeast they used for that particular beer. Of course, it could be a lager strain mislabeled and I'll end up with yet another lager strain to make light lagers (which doesn't seem likely).


The process here is identical to the process for the first run. I am filling a four dram test tube roughly 60% full of 1.030 gravity wort and adding the yeast sample. Then loosely covering with the lid and manually aerating as frequently as possible. The significant difference here is that I am using light DME with a slight hop addition rather than using runnings off another beer. I hope this way I can reduce the amount of sediment in the test tube as well as the slurry off the test batch.


1/25/13: added yeast to 2.5 drams of 1.030 extract.

1/26/13: periodic shaking for aeration after 24 hours shows no sign of krausen yet. By approximately hour 30 each was showing some trub in the bottom and some slowly bubbling foam that didn't look a lot like krausen but seems to indicate fermentation.

1/27/13: Visibly appearance is the same. Smell is slightly yeasty but also still some sweet malt aromas, suggesting there is still some fermentation left to occur before the starters dry out. Expect to let sit until Tuesday, at which time I will transfer them to their test batches. I should have an oatmeal stout in the fermentation chamber so the test batches will fit along side it.

1/29/13: All three yeast showing clear signs of fermentation with RAM-5 appearing to be completed. Prepared 14oz of 1.040 wort for each strain and added part of each vial to a mason jar of wort and covered with sanitized foil. Added to fermentation chamber at 65F.

1/30/13: After roughly 24 hours RAM-8 is showing a nice thick krausen but the other two are still.

1/31/13: RAM-8 still visibly fermenting. Both RAM-3 and 5 are showing a small amount of bubbles at the surface of the beer along the edges which suggests fermentation is slowly starting.

2/1/13: RAM-8 and 3 are both showing strong, visible fermentation but RAM-5 is still mostly still. I will try to agitate the yeast and add yeast nutrient at the end of the day if it is not showing additional activity.

2/2/13 (AM): RAM-5 was not showing any signs of fermentation last night so I added some yeast energizer and agitated. Hoping for some activity soon. If nothing show I will add the remainder of the initial sample and hope it takes off from there. Both RAM-8 and 3 are fermenting well. RAM-3 smells bready while RAM-8 has a fantastic fruity character right in the middle of an English and Belgian strain. It's surprising to get that much ester character out of the strain at 65F while S-04 is practically neutral at that temperature. May be an effect of underpitching in these experiments. Certainly deserves more experimentation.

2/2/13 (PM): Not seeing any activity out of RAM-5 I went ahead and added the remainder of the initial culture and left it out of the fermentation chamber at ambient temperature. After a few hours krausen was beginning to form so I returned the fermentor to the fermentation chamber.

2/4/13: All three beers appear as though the majority of fermentation is over. The krausen has risen and fallen. Each smells different but each delicious in its own right. I'm going to let it ride the rest of the week in the low 70s to wind up fermentation and clean up along with the stout in the fermentation chamber. Expect to bottle at the end of the week.

2/25/13: Finally got around to bottling each strain. I didn't mean for them to sit for so long but I also don't think it will affect the results. Bottled each in a 12oz bottle with priming sugar after taking gravity reading.

  • RAM-8: Aroma is malty and apricot-y. Some carries over into the flavor but there is some sort of skunky character to it that may go away after carbonation. FG: 1.012
  • RAM-3: Aroma slightly malty. Flavor is fairly neutral with hints of esters. Should clean up into a fairly neutral ale strain after carbonation. Definitely has a drier mouthfeel than RAM-8. FG: 1.01
  • RAM-5: Strong ester aroma with slight skunk with almost a cheesy aroma. Flavor is fruity and sweet, definitely a thicker beer. FG: 1.02 
3/6/13: Due to a minor accident in the fermentation chamber the bottles of RAM-3 and RAM-5 broke before opening so I will need to rebrew them along with the next batch of yeast I grow up.
March 12, 2013

Lambic Solera Update #14 -- Two months into year three

So far the separate pieces of the lambic process is moving along quite well. The solera itself went through a nice vigorous ferment and is now sporting a flat white pellicle. Sometime mid-January it started to develop some bubbles in the pellicle but it's smoothed out. The one year portion has developed a really thick pellicle. The color is almost amber. I'm interested whether it tastes different from the bottled one year lambic since it has had some extra oxygen exposure the bottles don't. The two year portion is starting to develop its own pellicle but otherwise looks the same. The blackberry portion had a very vigorous fermentation and I lost some lambic out of the airlock because I filled the fermentor too full. I guess I lost around 6-8 ounces, which makes me sad but it happens. No pellicle on it yet. Still looking at bottling early summer.

I also finally tasted the second year bottling. I had some corks pop out on a couple champagne bottles I didn't cork very well and the first bottle I opened was one of the ones I recorked. I didn't add any new sugar to recarbonate because I didn't think about it at the time. It was fine but lacked the benefit of carbonation. The second bottle I opened was during a side by side comparison against the one year lambic with a carbonated bottle. (I know straight lambic is typically bottled flat but it's my beer and I'll carbonate it if I want to -- and I do want to.) So here's the flavor profile of both year two, about 14 months old, against year one, now 26 months old.

Both beers are delicious but very different. The first year lambic still retains some excellent cherry pie flavor with plenty of funk and acidity. The cherry pie flavor and aroma is definitely the main player in this beer. It has maintained a bright acidity but the sharper acidity it started with has smoothed out into a nice aged feel. The second year lambic has very little of the cherry pie character with a lot of funky, leathery and wheaty character. The acidity is unmistakable but more mellow than the first year lambic. Everybody who has tried both beers prefer the first beer but like both. I think the combination of the character of both beers will produce an exceptional blend.

The major difference between year one and two, in my mind, is the absence of viable saccharomyces in the second year. In the first year there was a good saccharomyces fermentation but after a year of sitting in acidic beer they would have mostly died off. The second year's initial fermentation was more restrained, probably driven more by brett than saccharomyces. The absence of the yeast character from a solid saccharomyces fermentation seems to have restrained the development of that delicious cherry flavor brett often produces. I've only seen that same bold cherry pie flavor in brett beers fermented out with an estery Belgian saccharomyces strain. Instead the beer had more of a funky-earthy-leathery character. I don't have good scientific basis for that conclusion, it's just my hypothesis. I added fresh saccharomyces with the third year wort so I'll see if that beer comes out with more cherry pie flavor, confirming or disproving my hypothesis.

Right now my plan for year three is to bottle off a gallon straight and blend the other two gallons I will pull with the gallon of one year and gallon of two year to produce gueuze. Originally I planned on bottling all of year three as gueuze but I think I will regret not keeping some of year three separate to be able to taste each year as a separate bottle. I go back and forth about pulling a fourth gallon on year three and putting it on fruit or dry hopping it but right now I am against the idea because I'd rather let the solera continue to accrue an older average age by leaving more aged beer behind. Plus I think I am going to need to add another gallon of wort next brew to top up the headspace after removing all that trub from the first couple of years, so that will pull down the average age in the solera. I don't know, I will probably change my mind on each of these points a few times in between now and December.
March 10, 2013


The original plan was to stop at a couple places for a couple beers on the way out of town but we figured out we could knock out some extra brewpubs on the way out of town so we took a lot longer to get home but it was well worth it. We stayed on the north side of town and realized the beer scene in the northwest part of town is a lot bigger than we thought. The northwest side is home to Austin Homebrew Shop (which I am no fan of), production brewers Adelberts and Austin Beerworks, brewpubs North by Northwest, Pinthouse Pizza, Black Star Co-op and a handful of beer bars like Flying Saucer and Austin Draught House. I'm not really sure how this part of town scored all these beer spots but it's convenient because you can hit several places within a few miles. We decided to take on Pinthouse Pizza, Austin Draught House and Black Star Co-op before we checked out.

We started our day out by Town Lake at Hula Hut, which is delicious Mexican-Polynesian fusion food. It's good pre-drinking and hangover food. Plus, once you are ready to drink you can go next door and drink at Abel's on the Lake, which has a respectable line up of beers. We had a couple before moving on to our next stop.

Pinthouse Pizza

We liked Pinthouse so much we started drinking here and after hitting Austin Draught House and Black Star we came back for more beer and some pizza. (The pizza is excellent BTW.) Pinthouse is a small brewpub that sells their English-inspired beers along side tasty pizza and a small but diverse selection of guest taps.

The brew house is fairly small but has a very modern set up, which shouldn't be a surprise since Pinthouse has been open for less than a year. The head brewer is a former brewer from Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, which shows through the English focus of the beers. When we came back the second time I tracked down the manager and asked if I could snap a few pictures in the brew house and she very politely agreed to take us back there. Unfortunately I was a little buzzed by that point and not all of my pictures came out well so I'm supplementing my bad close ups with slightly less bad pictures through the window. You can see in the first bad picture on the right, the brew system is small but really not that much smaller than the hot side systems of several other breweries and brewpubs in the area. In this second bad picture you can see some of the system a little clearer.

I think one thing I've really banged out of my head by the end of this trip is that there is no magic equipment necessary to make superior beer. The equipment in commercial brewing is not so far removed from ours except by virtue of the volume produced it is easier to obtain consistent results from a large volume of wort. Maybe the big distinction is that they use dedicated equipment while many of us (myself included) are repurposing parts of the kitchen for brewing. Commercial equipment usually is automated and involves pumps to move grain and wort but there are those homebrewers with fancy RIMS and HERMS systems that are every bit as production capable as actual commercial systems. These smaller brewing systems like the one to the right is putting out fantastic beers at the same or better quality of breweries exponentially larger. The point is, I think as homebrewers it's not high tech equipment that stands between good homebrew and excellent homebrew but instead our processes, ability to brew consistently and temperature control.

Speaking of temperature control, this is Pinthouse's fermentation tanks. These are really small tanks. You can see the kegs stacked around them. I don't know for sure but I seem to think the manager said these are three barrel fermentors. Comparing them to the kegs on the side that looks about right. Like I said, this is a really small set up but they are pushing out great beer and offer a decent-sized line up.

I would guess based on the size of fermentors that the brew system is no more than a three barrel system but might even be as small as a one and a half barrel system. That must be a substantial change for an Odell brewer who is used to brewing on their much larger system. Even the pilot system at Odell is a five barrel system.

Ok well let's move along and talk about their beers.

We took on a couple samplers to get some experience with the beers on tap. They had most of the beers available on the board, just a couple were missing. We had the Man O' War IPA, Iron Genny pale ale, Bearded Seal stout, Old Beluga amber ale, Ramming Speed American barleywine, Te Moana Tote session ale, Wicked Wheat American wheat and Beaded Seal on nitro. All the beers were tasty but we were probably the least fan of the barleywine just because my wife and I don't like American-style barleywines anywhere near as much as we do English-style barleywines. None of the beers had room for criticism, it was just our preference. The Te Moana Tote was a great beer. It was a light blonde ale with New Zealand hops, giving it some nice berry and melon character. The best beer was Bearded Seal. It was a dry Irish stout but full of roast and chocolate. Easily among the best stouts I've ever had. Unlike many dry Irish stouts that aim to be Guinness clones, this one really stood out as a beer in the same style as Guinness but completely different. If it had less roast and some sweetness it could easily be confused as a chocolate porter. It was a perfectly constructed stout. The nitro version wasn't nearly as good. The nitro effect muted the flavor in favor of the creamy mouthfeel so much so it went from being a fantastic beer to almost an average beer. It was a real disservice to a great beer. When we came back to eat I had to get at more of the stout.

On the way out the first time I asked the bartender if I could ask for something off menu. I asked for a half and half blend of Hops & Grain Belgian Porter and the Te Moana Tote session ale. He gave me sort of a weird look but obliged. Over the weekend I had thought about how Hops & Grain's taproom line up was perfectly suited for making interesting half and half pours and regretted not thinking about it when we were there. So here was a chance to see if I was right or not.

Hell yeah, I am a genius. The smooth chocolate and Belgian yeast esters paired well with the session ale's bitterness, spritzy mouthfeel and fruity hop character. The blend had a great fruity flavor that was complex and deep without being overwhelming. Unlike some Belgian beers that can be overwhelming with fruity esters when fermented too warm, the flavors were light and pleasant. The fruity character sat well with the malty background. It was sort of like a Belgian brown ale with a little more heft in the mouthfeel but mixed with Belgian yeast and a little tropical and berry fruit added. Good stuff. I'm glad the bartender was cool enough to accommodate my request.

Austin Draught House

Austin Draught House is a craft beer staple in Austin. It's been around for a long, long time and took the whole English pub thing really serious. They don't have an immense selection of beer but it is a very well selected, diverse mix of local beers and some from beyond the city walls. There wasn't a bad beer on the list.

I scored a Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti on cask that was just fantastic. I think that's the second time I've ever found any imperial stout on cask so I couldn't pass it up. They had Houston area Southern Star's new Rauchbier which is made SMaSH style with 100% rauchmalt. It's really good and showing again you really don't need exotic ingredients, overly complex recipes, or secret techniques to make good beer.

Hops & Grain popped up again with a chardonnay barrel-aged version of their alt, which I decided to try. We don't get a lot of beers in DFW with strong wine character but I have been contemplating brewing such a beer (maybe aged on actual wine grapes) for a couple years now. My wife thought the idea was disgusting. She changed her mind after tasting this beer and she hates chardonnay. I was surprised how the wine and oak flavor came through without tasting like beer and wine poured into the same glass. The wine added some sweetness and fruit character that worked well with the slight roast and chocolate character of the alt. So that's something I might have to play with in the future. I have five gallons of Petrus sour pale ale that I might divert a gallon or two into a fermentor with some chardonnay to play with a wine grape-sour mix like the Cantillon wine grape-aged lambic (St. Lamvicus).

The winner of the day was probably San Antonio newcomer Branchline's Egg Nog Stout. Yes, you read that correctly: an egg nog stout. It was exactly like you would expect. Stout flavors mixed with the creamy mouthfeel of egg nog, the traditional egg nog spicing and the actual taste of egg nog. I'm pretty sure they didn't use actual egg nog. It was probably just lactose plus egg nog spices but it did have that eggy taste. It sounds kind of gross but it really worked. If you're gagging reading this, think of it as a milk stout with nutmeg, vanilla and a slight hint of bourbon. Sound better? Yeah, that's probably all it was. I wonder if I didn't know it was supposed to be egg nog if my mind would go to egg nog stout instead of a spiced milk stout but knowing it was supposed to be egg nog my mind went right to that flavor and it's exactly what it tasted like. My wife said it best about this beer, "you have to really like stout and really like egg nog to like that beer," especially when drinking a full pint.

Austin Draught House used to have (maybe still does) some "house" beers that were contract brewed for them. However, they are moving forward on plans to convert into a brewpub and start making their own beer. I'm not sure whether the brew house existed in this location from a prior owner who tried to make the place an English pub/brewpub combination but the equipment sure fits the same old English decor.

You can see in this crappy picture I took through a window that kettle looks like it came from the Victorian era (minus the use of steel instead of copper) but I don't know whether it is new and designed to fit the decor or put in there at the same time as the old timey decor. Either way it looks cool and hopefully they will be brewing on site next time we pass through.

The great thing about Draught House is that it is literally blocks away from Pinthouse and Black Star is just blocks away from Pinthouse driving the other direction on the same street. Makes hitting good beer very easy.

Black Star Co-Op

Black Star bills itself as the world's first co-operatively owned and employee managed brewpub. I don't have any reason to doubt that. I seem to think they were used as the model for a few other co-op breweries/brewpubs that have since opened. The basic premise is that people buy memberships and then the brewery conducts tasting panels with members to get feedback and offers member-only homebrew competitions to add to the beer line up. I had actually contemplated obtaining a membership when they were running their first membership drive but decided against it because I couldn't see the value in it. Most of the value for the members is getting to be involved in deciding the beers put on tap and discounts at the brewpub. (With now 3000 members how much input can you really have?) Since I don't live in Austin I wouldn't get any of those benefits, which means I wouldn't get anything out of it at all. There's no financial return on investment, which I think is strange. It seems like there must be profit generated and it's going somewhere. I dunno, I don't know a lot about co-ops since we don't have them in Dallas like they do in Austin and many other cities. (However, if you would like to know about how an LLLP works, that is something I can discuss.) There was also a way to come in as an investor at like $500 but I seem to think it was just like a super-member without any clearly stated financial ROI, just more discounts. I don't remember exactly, I just remember it didn't seem to make sense for somebody living away from Austin.

I will give them credit for paying their service staff a living wage rather than making them rely on tips, however there was a tip line on the receipt so I wonder where exactly those tips go. Do the servers get the tips as well as their full wage or does that money float back to the owners? Hmm.

I deferred checking out Black Star on prior trips because I heard a lot of bad things about the operations and the beer. I don't remember details, so don't take this as fact, but I seem to recall reading that they had some problems with the assistant brewers having friction with the whole co-op idea and I think I read that one or two stole equipment or cash or something. Whatever the facts were, I believe I read they had a hard time putting together a cohesive brewing team and a lot of bad reviews were coming out about the beers and they were just more hoppy, west coast IPAs that I don't enjoy drinking too much.

Our friends really wanted to check it out and I thought it would be a good idea to just try them out. The brewpub is situated in an upscale mixed shopping/living complex. It has a very modern feel inside. We took a sampler of the beers and found Live Oak's doppelbock on tap so we also ordered a pour of probably our favorite beer of the trip (it's hard to say, there were many exceptional beers).

Black Star splits it's beer menu into two factions: "Rational", the standards, and "Irrational", the experimental brews and more exotic beers. I found the beers to be what I had expected. The standard beers were more hoppy than I care for and really not very well constructed or intriguing beers. We had one Irrational beer that was a sour mashed English brown ale that I liked enough to reorder. It was an interesting beer with some sour twang and some malty complexity. Looking over their past beers, they do a lot of sour mashes which I think is really cool since I am a fan of the technique. So I was glad I tried that beer even though I found the rest mediocre at best.

I saw on the website that the recipe for the beer I liked was from the winner of a member-homebrew competition. That's kind of what rubs me the wrong way about the way they structured the business. Sure, the person who won the competition has tremendous bragging rights to tell people his or her beer was brewed commercially and it is a great beer but on the other hand that person paid for the privilege of being able to compete and then the owners (and potentially other investors) are taking the profits. That doesn't really sound co-operative. That sounds slightly abusive towards the members that they are paying for the privilege of doing the work of the brewers.

Overall, my wife and I had the same idea that we would be happy to stop in, see if there is a good beer on tap and walk right back out if not. We weren't huge fans of the beer, minus the one sour mashed beer, some of the service staff were real dicks, and we didn't really care for the slightly pretentious vibe of the place. I wish I understood a little more about their business model because it might change my opinion but given how little information they would release when I was thinking about giving them money I suspect pulling back the curtain on their operations might not be as satisfying as I would hope.

Gingerman Southlake

So after dropping our friends off at the airport back in DFW we decided to peek into the nearest beer bar to our house, which is a small Gingerman location. My wife works in the area so she had been a few times but with school and bar prep I hadn't had a chance to peek in. It's small but very upscale. The staff was very friendly and helpful. Mostly I just add this tiny addition to point out that they had the new St. Arnold's Bishop Barrel #2 which is an excellent modification of their Christmas ale -- an old ale -- aged in chardonnay barrels with cherries. If the Hops & Grain chardonnay alt didn't win us over on chardonnay barrel-aged beers this one definitely did. St. Arnold's has just recently started this periodic release of barrel-aged beers. They are really pricey beers ($12 for one 12 ounce bottle) and only released to bars who can then decide whether to only sell for consumption or let people take them to go (however in Texas if a bar serves liquor they cannot sell beer or wine to go). It's a stupendous beer with the chardonnay and cherry really working together to create a tart fruity flavor that melds with the sweet old ale. The aroma is full of cherries and sets the stage for the complex flavor profile.

Concluding Comments

Well that's what five days and four nights of constant drinking will buy you in Austin. Overall I really enjoyed the trip and these great beers gave me some good ideas of new ways to play around with my homebrewing and develop some complex beers. It was exactly the kind of relaxation I needed after three brutal days of bar examination. I loved a lot of the beers and had a great time, which is really all I can ask for. I was probably heavy handed with the criticism of a couple places but they are thoughts a long time in the making (especially with Jester King) and at least I didn't turn the discussion about Black Star into a long political screed about calling a place "worker-managed" when the workers are separated from the profits. I tried to stay focused. Anyway, people certainly disagree with me and for every place I loved I'm sure there's somebody with a blog or twitter account calling their beers shit. It's good that there's enough beer diversity that we don't all have to like the same beers or same breweries and everybody can still walk away having had a good time and enjoyed the beer.

I'm probably not going to run out and buy a chardonnay barrel but I might hit some oak with a cheap bottle of chardonnay and age some beer on it. Maybe try out some red wines like Shiraz. I know in areas like northern California where wine is much bigger than it is here in Texas (although we have a small wine scene ourselves and I live miles away from a few wineries) it's more common to see wine barrel-aged beers where some of that wine character really comes through but it's nice to see some barrel flavor showing up that isn't just bourbon.

I didn't really talk about it too much but another thing I took away from this trip is that I have a lot more exploration and experimentation to do with hops. I've really only come around on enjoying beers with more hop character in the past six months or so. I've brewed mostly on the malty side of beer so there's a lot with hops I don't understand as well as other aspects of the brewing process. I purchased For the Love of Hops and plan on reading it in the next few weeks and look forward to my hop garden producing some cones this year so I can play around with hoppier saisons and pale ales. Plus I have two pounds of Belma hops so I need to find some interesting ways of incorporating those. I'm going to brew my first IPA (a black IPA) soon so that will be an interesting direction with my homebrewing.

March 9, 2013


Whip In/Namaste Brewing

Saturday night we closed up our drinking at Whip In, a staple of the Austin beer scene. Whip In has spent most of it's long life as a combination Indian restaurant, Belgian-focused craft beer bar, wine bar, small music venue and bottle shop. Recently they ventured into brewing with Namaste Brewing (which I kept intentionally mispronouncing like "nasty" but with "ma" in the middle so it was like "I'm getting so namasty up in here"). Sadly I don't know where the brew house is hidden and they were out of several of their beers but they are doing some interesting things with beer.

I was really after the tripel with rye and rosehips but settled on Sita's Revenge, a pilsner and strisselspalt saison. It had a real sweetness and body that was unusual for a saison but also worked really well. I'm not sure what was contributing to either of those, probably some late boil additions. It wasn't like any saison I had ever had but probably closest to the saisons of Funkwerks. Unfortunately we were really full after drinking and eating all day so I didn't make it through more of their beers this trip but next time we will have to save stomach room to get as namaste as possible.

We also tried a St. Arnold's Divine Reserve barleywine from 2008 on tap that was delicious. It was probably a good beer before but age definitely made it a fantastic beer. My wife also tried Guadalupe's Rye Ale, which was excellent. It's a rye IPA but definitely more focused on the late hop additions over the bittering. One thing I really dislike about many rye IPAs is that the rye spicy flavor and lots of bittering hops just takes the beer to a bitter place I don't like. I was really pleased not to have that experience with this beer.

Live Oak Brewing

We started out Sunday with a noon tour of Live Oak. Live Oak is pretty well known internationally for their German-style beers, especially their hefeweizen. The beers are glorious and I've tried for like four years to get into a tour. They quit doing tours for a while and only in the past month or so have gone back to regular tours. They give out sixty tickets for each Sunday tour and release the tickets Thursday morning. I was up early for the bar and captured our four tickets. By nine in the morning when my wife checked the tickets were all gone.

Live Oak is in east Austin a few blocks away from Hops & Grain in a building they have occupied since they first opened in 1997. You can tell they have been there for a long time. The brewing equipment is very...rustic. It's not the high tech, efficient system like Hops & Grain. When they do decoction mashes, they have to hook up a hose to run wort from mash tun to kettle and back. The system is small so they are brewing every day of the week. The picture to your right is how they vorlouf. Yeah, it is wort running through a strainer into a pot that then is pumped into the kettle. It felt a lot like brewing at home.

They are going to construct a larger brewery in the eastern outskirts of town because they need a larger system to support demand for the beer and expand into a bottling line, since they only bottle beer at this time.

When I say this brew house shows it has been there since 1997, I mean this place looks well worn. When you walk in you could easily mistake it for some old, dank European brewhouse that has been running since the late middle ages. The ceiling is wood, so as you can imagine, this dank room with a mash tun and kettle running all the time gets very humid and moist so the entire ceiling and all the pipes are covered in a tasty black mold. If you look at the picture below and check out the ceiling you can kind of see how dark it is. That's mold. I'm not sure how safe all that mold is for the workers who have to breathe the mold spores all day but it sure makes delicious beer.

You can also see the kettle, which says it is one thousand something gallons. Probably a 35-40 barrel kettle. Scroll down for more fun...

I think you can see the mold a little better in this picture, along with the other side of the brewing system. That's the brewer peeking into the mash. They were brewing an amber during the tour, which is pretty cool.

The tour is interesting. They break up the explanation of the brewing process with beer breaks to refill your glass. For $5 you can buy a pint glass plus five half pours and a sixth full pour. Cheap beer brings out a lot of college students, so the tour was probably 80% college students and 20% beer nerds. Some of the college students got a little drunk and rowdy mid-way through the tour but the staff seemed used to it.

The tour featured the standard and seasonal line up. The all-mighty hefeweizen. The well regarded pilsner. The well balanced Big Bark amber. The Liberation IPA that we really liked for it's hop character and reasonable bitterness. The spring seasonal Schwarzbier with it's great roasty character.

We were also treated with a small pour of an experimental batch of doppelbock. Holy shit. This was the best doppelbock ever. It was magical. It was full of rich caramel notes but also tons of raisin, grape and currant character that either came from the best use of Special B on earth or the perfect amount of oxidation of melanoidins. Maybe both. We were lucky enough to find it on tap at Black Star later in Austin so we made sure to deprive Austin of some of that deliciousness before we left.

Live Oak is a little guarded about their recipes but happy to discuss the processes they use. The hefe, for example, is not decoction mashed as many claim is necessary for a good hefeweizen. The pilsner, Pilz, is decoction mashed. They use only horizontal tanks for all beers to produce the right flavor profiles from the yeast. Horizontal tanks are not as easy to work with as the cylindro-conical tanks commonly used but the wide body gives the yeast a wide surface for top fermentation, which is especially important for the hefeweizen to get that perfect clove-banana combination they get. (The importance of fermentor geometry is discussed in Brew Like a Monk.) Interesting stuff.

Freetail Brewing

Freetail is a brewpub in north San Antonio I have wanted to visit for the longest time. I heard nothing but good things about the beer and pizza so I was glad we could work it into our schedule. Freetail is fairly well known for their sour beers, which I was really hoping to try but they didn't have any on tap right now. I did find plenty of other excellent beers -- and excellent pizzas -- to consume.

If you didn't know any better you would expect Freetail to be some sort of Chili's establishment. It's in an upper middle class suburban area in a shopping center with lots of chain stores and chain restaurants. It's unassuming but when you walk in you know you're somewhere that brews. I didn't take any pictures inside, unfortunately. The brewhouse is clearly visible through windows behind the bar. There are palates of grain along the walls mixed with racks of barrels with airlocks sitting dormantly on top.

I started off with Ontono Anejo, a pumpkin saison from 2011 aged sixteen months in wine barrels. It was a great beer. The pumpkin still showed through well with some saison yeast character all mixed with some light barrel character and some smoothness from aging.

Next I rolled up on the End of the World imperial porter, a delicious imperial porter with chiles and chocolate. It is probably the second best chile-chocolate beer I've had (closely behind Copper Kettle's Mexican Chocolate Stout). Each flavor stood out as a distinct and perfect component. The chile flavor really came through with just a little heat on the back.

I took a trip through some of their less exotic beers. From left to right is EXXXtra Pale Ale, a very hoppy pale ale, Broken Treaty IPA, a tasty English IPA, Rye Wit, exactly what it sounds like, and La Rubia, an American Blonde. La Rubia was a really flavorful blonde ale but the favorite of these was the Rye Wit. It was a great balance between rye and wit flavor. It was sort of like a roggenbier with a balance of rye and weizen flavor. It was light enough you could drink it session-style but tasty enough to really work through and savor.

I don't know how they do it but every beer was just perfectly constructed. I couldn't find a flaw to complain about and that's really a feat when you run the gamut of brewing incredibly complex beers, sours, hoppy beers and very light beers without any flaws or room to improve. What I find equally as impressive is how they are able to get such distinct flavors in the beer. There is some flavor melding -- which is desired -- but also ingredients stand out on their own and can be easily detected and called out. To me, that is the sign of a well constructed beer.

It makes me really sad that Texas doesn't allow brewpubs to distribute off-site because that means I have to drive all the way down to San Antonio just to get more of these great beers. It's really worth the trip.
March 8, 2013


Saturday started bright and early with an 11am tour. We did a lot of day drinking this trip, which is actually kind of nice. On one hand, it's kind of lame to go to bed at 9-10pm when you're supposed to be celebrating but on the other hand it's great to wake up without a hangover and be ready for more drinking. No silly hangover remedies or struggle to drink more beer.

Thirsty Planet

Thirsty Planet is a small brewery on the western edge of Austin leading into the Hill Country suburbs where Jester King is and other breweries are moving out to. Thirsty Planet also has a small core line up and then embellishes it with seasonal offerings and one offs. The core line up is an American wheat (Yellow Armadillo), an amber (Thirsty Goat) and the obligatory IPA (Buckethead). The current seasonal is a smoked porter with grain smoked in house over local oak (Franklin Smoked Porter). They also had their fall seasonal on tap (Pumpkin Masala) which is a pumpkin ale with Indian spices. It's very interesting and well balanced. They also had a black IPA which was pretty good. $7 gets you a pint glass plus three full pint pours.

I'm not exactly sure how this happened but Thirsty Planet is running an advertising campaign with Guinness where they are advertising Thirsty Planet's Buckethead IPA with Guinness as a "Black & Buckethead" like a Half and Half. I thought it was just something they were doing in house until I saw a billboard for it downtown. I have to say, IPA plus Guinness is a really nice combination.

My wife and I are big fans of their beers. I'm not such a big fan of the IPA (just generally not an IPA fan, it's a well made IPA) but we like the amber and wheat a lot. There's only one Thirsty Planet tap in Dallas so we never see the seasonals up here.

The tour this trip was conducted by the head brewer/owner/president which was bad ass. Obviously he knew what he was talking about and was happy to share a ton of information. He had previously brewed for twenty-one years in Colorado so he really knew his brewing and knew all the big players in Colorado.

His brewhouse is really impressive. It's a small system (I didn't take notes but I believe he said it was a 15 barrel system) but constructed to be very efficient. All the water runs out of Austin municipal water and gets boiled to drive out chloramines. It's very calcium-heavy water so it builds a lot of calcium deposit inside the cold and hot liquor tanks. Rather than running glycol through the heat exchange he runs cold water from the cold liquor tank through it and then dumps that water into the hot liquor tank so he doesn't have to pay for the energy to chill the glycol and then pay for the energy to heat water. It's very efficient.

All the beers are fermented with the Chico strain, which is not very surprising since it's the workhorse strain for a lot of domestic brewers. The fermentors are thirty barrels so he brews a batch of a beer on day one and then brews it again on the second day and adds the second round of wort at high krausen. The beers sit for around two weeks between primary fermentation, clearing and then they lager the beers for a few days before transfer to the bright tank for packaging.

He also talked about the process for smoking grains, which was basically the same thing we do as homebrewers. He said he liked the flavor of oak best in the porter, which I agree it was a very soft smoke flavor that complimented the beer well. It didn't have some of the harsher flavor oak smoke sometimes can have (as I have experienced). He said it takes about two hours of smoking to get the right level of flavor which is my experience as well. He played with other woods and contemplated alderwood like what Alaskan uses in their well-regarded Smoked Porter but went with the oak. It makes sense, since the whole area out there is covered in oak.

He told the story of how he got started: when he first put in the brewery he tried to go around getting accounts to sell kegs to. He didn't have a bottling system to give samples at the restaurants and bars so he filled kegs and put a kegerator in the back of a van and went driving around to bars offering samples to the owners and managers. Normally you bring in bottles so they can pour them in the bar so when he would come in they would ask for the bottle and he would have to explain he didn't have any but there was a van outside with beer. So he'd convince them to come out to his van and drink beer. At one point he had the owner, bar manager and several bartenders from on restaurant drinking in his van and a few patrons ended up in there with them, all drinking beer. It obviously worked because now Thirsty Planet has a solid base in Austin. They have been open three years and doubled sales every year. That's great business. Only wish they had the capacity to satisfy their local accounts and send more beer up to Dallas.

Jester King

Ok, I'm just going to set the tone for this review at the beginning. I have a real love-hate relationship with Jester King. I love a few of their beers and I love that they have embraced farmhouse-style beers (which I love) and sour/wild beers (which I also love). I respect that they have been able to sustain and grow production of farmhouse beers and wild beers so much so that they are moving further away from brewing with isolated brewing yeast and more toward spontaneous and wild/sour brewing. I also respect that they have marketed themselves well as a brewery and created a very loyal following. However, that's also a lot of what I hate about them. Most of their beers, honestly, are not that great. Some of them I don't care for because they are too hoppy but generally they are mediocre beers. They have developed their loyal base as a cult of personality by hyping their beers up and kissing ass to the Beer Advocate crowd (craft beer's douchey-est drinkers).

They talk a great game and are trying to do some really interesting stuff but there's some serious dishonesty in what they do. A lot of their beers go out as terrible gushers. One early batch went out in champagne bottles and had to be recalled because the bottles were exploding. Champagne bottles are rated for twelve volumes of CO2. I don't even know how under-attenuated you have to be to blow up champagne bottles but that is a clear sign of not understanding the beer. They do a lot of brett dosing at bottling which is a great way to make a beer that ends up more on your counter than in your glass if the beer is not attenuated enough before bottling. They seem not to understand or care about that process. I think that's dishonest to your customers. They are doing some cool stuff but either blindly cutting corners to do the next experiment or just don't care enough about their beer to stop and do the right thing for their customers before trying the next crazy beer. In spite of my bad thoughts, I do buy their beers from time to time and like several. So as I said at the onset, my relationship with Jester King is love-hate.

What really disappointed me is how they have changed the tour. It used to be you got six eight ounce pours so you had time to sit down and really enjoy your beer before you got back in line. You chose your beers out of 8-10 beers. Now they have 10-11 beers and you get like two ounce pours of each so you spend your entire time in line. Not really a great experience. Even worse, they ran out of several beers during the tour and wouldn't offer to substitute anything else for it. Instead, the people pouring would just chastise people for not coming earlier (as though if everybody had been there at the start of the tour and immediately gotten all of their samples there would be enough beer for everybody). Jeffrey Stuffings (one of the owners) said online that the change to the tour was to accommodate the fact that they went from having 200-300 people at the tour to 400-500 so this way you could get to more beer. I guess he's right, the lines were all shorter than they used to be but now it's all standing in line the entire time. Again, it just sounds like they thought about themselves (what will accommodate more business) than what was best for the customer. I'd rather see them go to a ticket system to limit the number of people allowed in than make the experience worse. It's ok, we probably won't go back. Ok, let me move on to the beer we sampled and the tour.

Jester King always has some guest taps along the tour. I thought these beers were among the best on the line up. There was Kulmbacher Schwarzbier, always a good schwarzbier option. Mikkeller Yeast Series: Saison, a hoppy saison and probably the best Mikkeller beer I've had. Hirschaid Hirschentrunk rauchbier, which was an incredibly delicious rauchbier with plenty of smoke and munich malty flavor.

JK also put out their Noble King, which is a decent hoppy saison, Wytchmaker, a decent Rye IPA, and Bonnie the Rare, their berliner weisse that I really do not care for. I've tried and reviewed each of these on prior trips. JK also put out Weasel Rodeo, which is a imperial oatmeal stout with smoked malt, chipotle and coffee. JK fans think this beer is great but I think it's among the least impressive coffee/chile stouts I've had. The flavors are just sort of mixed together in a muddle. Nothing stands out nor are any of the ingredients distinguished enough. It's not a bad beer but also not worth $15 per bottle. The same is true of Black Metal, JK's imperial stout fermented with the house saison strain (3711). People talk of this as the best or second best imperial stout around. I disagree. Again, I think it's among one of the least impressive I've tried. I was excited to try this beer on the tour but it was a major let down. Like Weasel Rodeo, the flavors are just sort of muddled together like a bad soup. The saison strain doesn't fit well with the malt flavors. I'm not exactly sure how to put the saison strain with a stout in a way that makes sense but I'm also not trying to sell it away for $15/bottle.

There was a sour Black Metal with watermelon, which was a mix of 80% Black Metal and 20% sour beer blended with watermelon in the keg. I didn't think it worked well at all. Souring with dark malts is a tricky thing to do and I don't think whatever the sour beer was worked with the grain bill in Black Metal. The watermelon added a weird sort of muted melon flavor. I'm glad I got to try it even though I didn't care for it. I know lots of people liked it. It was strange and reminded me of that Buffalo Wild Wings homebrew commercial.

Last, we got to try El Cedro, which is a "hoppy cedar aged ale with brettanomyces" which sounded like Cigar City's cedar-aged IPA but with brett. I have to say, this was an excellent beer and among my favorite JK beers. Cedar gives beer a sort of dry character that in my opinion really only works well with hoppy beers. Brett also has that dry, funky character that works with both hops and the cedar, so the combination of all three produced a beer that was dry and refreshing but also full of funky, woody, grassy character. Definitely worth trying although I fear buying a bottle and opening it to watch it pour all over the counter since I believe this beer is dosed with brett at packaging.

So we hit the tour this time, which was pretty cool. The tour was led by Jeffery Stuffings, one of the two owners and the guy you might have heard on The Brewing Network talking about their beers. (Ron Extract was also there working one of the tap tents and looked like a real dick.) Stuffings is a nice guy and I get the impression that he is passionate about what they do and really buys into their farmhouse attitude which makes me believe that they don't understand what they are doing well enough to be advancing as far into old school techniques as they are. He's the guy talking in the front in this crappy phone pic to the right. As you can see, this is in the barrel room where they age bottles and kegs before distribution as well as the barrels. I didn't get a picture of it but to the right is a coolship. They are actually doing full spontaneous fermentations now. It's cool but we'll see how it plays out. He said they are working on moving away from using isolated yeast cultures and more towards using spontaneous fermentations and their own isolated cultures that they had a lab isolate from wort they left on top of the brewery one night. It's all cool work and the same sort of stuff I do at home and like to read about but I wish they would slow down a bit and drill down into the processes to prevent selling people gushing bottles.

To the left are some barrels marked as aging Boxers Revenge, which is a tasty sour brewed with lacto and brett they cultured out of the night sky locally. It's probably my favorite of their beers. It's 10% ABV, so among one of the biggest sour beers around.

And to the right are some barrel of unknown beer. I snapped the picture because they are mezcal barrels. You don't see a lot of mezcal barrels used in brewing (mezcal is tequila but not from Jalisco and not 100% blue agave but with a nice smokey flavor) but I'm intrigued to see it and I wonder what will come out of it.

I'm probably being overly harsh towards Jester King. Looking over my past reviews I don't think I have the love for them that I do other Austin breweries but I seem to be getting more acidic (pun not intended) towards them. I think part of it is a strong dislike of the Jester King hype machine producing such a douchey following and part of it is seeing them engaging in making beer styles and brewing techniques I am really passionate about in a way that isn't doing it as well as it could be done and seems more directed towards satiating the hype they are creating more than creating the best beer possible. Reasonable people disagree. I really hope they reach a point where they understand their own processes better and improve the beer over time to what it could be and rely less on creating unnecessary hype to sell beer to people who are just looking to tick off a list of beers to say they tried it.
March 7, 2013


Time to get down to the good stuff: the beer. We started our trip off Friday morning with the expectation that we would hit town around mid-afternoon to start off with a tour at Hops & Grain but thanks to my Formula One-style driving down the interstate we got to town early and decided to make a nice little pit stop at Flix Brewhouse.

Flix Brewhouse

Flix is a movie theater/brewpub just north of Austin in Round Rock. They make a wide variety of beers that they serve along with a good mix of other craft breweries. Flix does a good job mixing up their beers and always puts a sour/wild beer on the tap list. It also has a good relationship with the Austin Zealots, the local homebrew club and a strong competitor in the state in homebrewing competitions. (A Zealot took the Ninkasi last year at NHC.) We stopped in at Flix on our last trip but they were out of the sour/wild beer at the time: a persimmon lambic. This time they had the sour available so I gave it a taste long with their Kill Shot Scotch Ale.

The Kill Shot Scotch Ale was an interesting take on the style. It had a very porter-like aroma but the flavor was more scotch ale with a burnt characteristic I didn't love but didn't hate. Not my favorite scotch ale but I have definitely had worse. My hypothesis is that the burnt flavor came from boiling down the first runnings to develop the caramel flavor but went a little overboard.

The sour beer was a soured version of their Luna Rosa wit. The aroma was a little funky and sour but the beer was actually fairly mild in both funk and sourness. It was less sour than a berliner weisse and certainly less funky than a no-boil berliner weisse is. I'm not sure whether the beer needed more time in the barrel or if it was just a low ABV beer that dried out at that point (my hypothesis leans to the latter). One of our friends tried the non-soured wit and it had a lot more wheat and spice flavor to it, which might be a product of spicing the fresh wit that faded during the aging process on the sour.

So overall, not the best beers on the trip but I'm glad we got to stop and try some other beers. Most of the beers I have tried at Flix are mediocre beers but I appreciate their dedication to trying to make a diverse line up and their close connection to the local homebrewers. I'd still like to try some of their other beers to get a better feel for them.

Hops & Grain Brewing

Hops & Grain is a small brewery on the hipster-coated east side of Austin near downtown. It's in a building with a school that teaches ladies how to do the curtain swing acrobatics like in cirque du soleil and some marketing firms. Hops & Grain focuses on ecological sustainability (for example they sell spent grain dog biscuits) and making great beer. The tap room is open 2-6pm Friday afternoons and then Saturday afternoon for a tour where they also give out samples not available in the tap room. Texas does not allow brewers to sell beer from the tap room so breweries offer to sell you a glass with a certain number of beers. They have to offer samples for free as well to prove to the state ABC that they are not selling the beer, just a glass full of free samples. Hops & Grain sells a cool glass for $10 plus five 12oz pours.

Hops & Grain offers just two beers in their core line up: Alteration Ale (an alt) and Pale Dog (a pale ale). They also brew several other beers in their Greenhouse line up in three barrel increments. Some of the Greenhouse beers are sold away to bars in kegs but very little leaves. After all, three barrels is six 15.5 gallon kegs so if it has to be split between the taproom and sales that's little to go around.

Since the Greenhouse beers are non-existent in Dallas and almost non-existent in Austin we had our fill of those beers. The core line up is really good but we had a hard time turning down the rare beer. There was a great doppelbock with some nice, deep caramel and stonefruit flavors. One of the bartenders told us the doppelbock was a blended beer and part of it came out of some barrels. It was very tasty. There was a nice Belgian pale ale with a solid blend of yeast esters and hops. A Burton-style pale ale with really great, fresh English hop character. A tasty English brown ale with big chocolate malt character I really liked. My favorite was a Belgian porter. It was a really well made English-style porter with Belgian yeast esters layered on top. The yeast character was present without being too in your face. You could accomplish a similar profile with a warm fermentation with an English strain but Belgian strains tend to give off a little more phenols and bubble gum esters.

We sat outside the brewery in the lobby where we could see the Hops & Grain barrels on one side and a free acrobatics show from the school on the other side. It's a great deal for $10. We also managed to sneak into the brew house and take a look at the equipment even though we weren't supposed to be back there. An employee came through and said hello to us so I guess it wasn't too big of a problem. We didn't touch, just looked and snapped a picture.

Behind the equipment is the tap room (enclosed off from the brew house) and to the left of this picture is the kettle and mash tun. Behind where I took the picture is the barrel room, full of full size wine and liquor barrels and some smaller five gallon whisky and wine barrels. You can see on the sign in the corner on the picture some of the cool stuff they do with the Greenhouse beers. I'm not sure when those are coming around but they all sound like good beers.

Overall, great beers and great value in the tap room. I'd love to take the tour to ask some questions about the system and try out the mystery samples they only offer on the tours. I was expecting to like the beers but I really loved the beers. Definitely among the top three brewers we visited this trip.

If I had it in mind to open a brewery I'd probably model myself on Hops & Grain. Just 2-3 core beers and then make different versions of those beers and some one off beers available very locally. I'd also do some sour/wild beers in larger quantity so maybe I would aim for a slightly broader line up in that regard. The 3 beer core line up is what most of the new Texas breweries are doing which overall I think is very smart.


After Hops & Grain we went to Bangers, a sausage restaurant on the east side that specializes in awesome sausage and craft beer. Not a brewer but Bangers is well known in the beer scene. The food and service was fantastic. They bring in lots of interesting beers. I was able to track down Left Hand's barleywine, which is a fantastic barleywine I've never even seen for sale outside of Left Hand's own taproom. My wife nabbed Guadalupe's Scotch Ale. Guadalupe is a new brewery outside of Austin that makes just incredible beers. The scotch ale was no exception. Caramel, smoke, bread, toffee, toast, warming alcohol. Exactly what a scotch ale should be. Easily among the best scotch ales I've ever tasted.
March 6, 2013


Yeah, ok, it's like three years too late for a lolcat reference. Three years ago I was in the middle of my first year of law school, so I have a lot of regular life to catch up on now that I am free from the shackles of law school and the bar exam (unless I failed). There are few ways in life to celebrate liberation than drinking gallons of delicious beer in Austin. Five days, four nights, roughly three gallons of beer and a lot of food. It's good times, even though I will be paying for it at the gym for the next few weeks. Still, totally worth it.

This trip through Austin was a wave of beer tours and most were new visits for me (and all new visits for our friends who flew down to see us/drink with us from their beer-filled home outside of Denver). Austin's beer scene is growing at exponential rates. It is even substantially bigger since I last visited about six months ago. New breweries and brewpubs are opening. Established brewers are moving into new facilities. Breweries have grown enough to expand their line up beyond their core. Lots of new beer-focused bars and restaurants are competing mightily with the old guard of college bars serving only BMC.

Austin's beer scene is growing at almost the same pace as other more established beer cities around the country (e.g. Denver, Portland, San Diego) but unlike the more established cities, the local brewers have a couple powerful competitive advantages. First, Austin has a booming beer scene but it's still small enough that each new brewery opening is still a pretty big deal. Austin brewers are not opening into a more established market where there might be another brewery down the block (although in a couple parts of town that isn't true anymore). There is a lot less local competition than those other cities but a huge market of college students (a market increasingly being won over by craft beer), upper middle class neighborhoods and the overall local demand to "keep Austin weird".

Second, Texas in general is a harder market for outside craft brewers to come into so there is sort of an unintentional embargo against the craft brewers of other states. Our state laws make distribution very challenging to get into for small breweries, if you are out of state you cannot drive your beers into the state and sell direct to retailers, nor can you even show up at our beer fests without paying thousands of dollars in licensing. (Still, it should be pointed out there are a few small California and Colorado brewers who are trying to tap the under-served Texas market over their own more saturated markets by distributing more beer here than their home states.) As beer drinkers these laws are terrible because we lose out on access to a lot of great craft beer that is slowly working its way in (e.g. Founders is about to show up, Goose Island and Firestone Walker just appeared weeks ago). For local brewers, it's advantageous because there's less competition on the shelves. Ironically, it was the BMC brewers who pushed for these laws to protect their internal competition in Texas and now it's fostering local competition that is driving down their sales.

The result of these issues is that Austin has lots of local craft beer available and lots of local beer drinkers who passionately defend the local brewers. There are some great breweries, some mediocre breweries and even a few pretty bad breweries. As much as the locals support their own, a few locals are being pushed out of the market for putting out consistently bad beer. Perdenales is a great example. It showed up, started getting accounts all over town about a year ago, put out some mediocre to bad beers, and now it's pretty much non-existent. It's good that people are willing to support the locals but also not willing to support anything just because it's local. Unfortunately, we haven't hit that place locally in Dallas/Fort Worth where people are willing to discard mediocre beer but I think sooner rather than later some of our local brewers will break under the pressure of a more competitive market.

There's so much good beer going on in Austin we've done several rounds of tours over the past couple years of visits that we still haven't hit everything and there's more and more places opening so we can't even keep up despite our Tetris-like tight fitting schedules of tours. San Antonio is also emerging as a beer hotspot so we need to start working those tours in, too. This time we shoved in nine breweries/brewpubs: Hops & Grain, Flix Brewhouse, Thirsty Planet, Jester King, Live Oak, Freetail, Pinthouse Pizza, Black Star Co-Op and Whip In's Namaste Brewing. Today I'll leave you with my introductory thoughts above but I have lots of pictures, reviews, brewing commentary and other babble to offer about the above places and a few other good beer spots around town. I intend to post these up daily this week until I run out of Austin fun. Then I'll return to homebrewing content and I have lots of stuff backed up to write about and some new stuff I want to do.