May 19, 2013

Ugli Ass American Wheat tasting

This American wheat beer went into the kettle 28 days prior to tasting it. It's still a few days off of being properly carbonated but I had to mow the lawn for the first time this year and I thought that was a perfect time to break out a light beer. Clocking in at 3.5% ABV I definitely had no reason to fear getting slizzard while mowing. I'm a little disappointed this beer suffered low efficiency (I am fairly certain my grain mill plates had drifted too far apart, a problem since fixed) but this beer packs a lot of flavor so there's no harm.

Appearance: Typical wheat beer color, slightly lighter than copper. There's slight haze from the wheat. The head is icy white and fluffy, creating excellent lacing on the beer. It's actually a little too foamy because it needs a few extra days to carbonate appropriately so that should be a temporary problem.

Smell: The aroma is interesting. There's lots of lemon, lime and orange notes from the citrus peel. Hints of melon come through from the Belma hops. There's also hints of bread, toast and wheat from the grain. There's also a strange citrus note, presumably from the ugli fruit, that isn't foul but also isn't completely inviting. It's not so strange or uninviting that you need to hold your nose to drink the beer but it isn't an aroma I wish I smelled in beer all the time. Maybe like a 4 out of 10 on a desired beer aroma scale. Fortunately, none of that shows up in the flavor.

Taste: Wowz. The citrus and Belma hop mellon character forms an almost overwhelming flavor. The wheat and barley flavors come through well but the fruit flavors are right on the cusp of being too much. I don't know if I could drink this beer all night because the citrus and mellon flavor is very assertive, to the point where it could wear on your taste buds. It is an excellent flavor, however. It reminds me of a fruit juice I used to drink as a kid in the 1980s called Five Alive. For those of you who never experienced the joy of Five Alive, it was a blend of orange, lime, tangerine, lemon and grapefruit. Tasting that beer took me back to those hot summer days as a kid playing in the street. The yeast character is clean and non-existent, letting the grain and fruit flavors work unimpeded.

Mouthfeel: There's a surprising amount of body in the beer for being only 3.5% ABV. It's light and goes down easily but it isn't watery, mostly due to the wheat. It lacked a little spritz today but this is another issue I expect will resolve itself after another few days of carbonation.

Notes: Overall I am really happy with this beer. I am disappointed about the efficiency issue, although it isn't hurting this beer. I'd definitely rebrew it although I'd be interested to try different variants with a lesser amount of citrus peel to dial back some of the citrus notes and maybe blend in a hop with more kick, like cascade, to give it just a little more pop in the flavor. Those belma hops are very gentle, although there's actually a lot more flavor than people think, and a little more aggressive hop could make it pop. In spite of what I might play with in the future, this beer is one of my favorites of the year and I thoroughly expect that my wife and I will slurp this beer down in a hurry.

May 16, 2013

Petrus Aged Pale Clone Update #3

It's been a while since I've talked about my Petrus Aged Pale clone but I thought I would touch on it just because it's being a real asshole about getting sour. It's been sitting in secondary since October of last year with the dregs of a couple bottles of Petrus Aged Pale and there's hints of a pellicle but no actual pellicle and definitely no sourness. It makes me sad.

Let me address some of the obvious potential impairments. I am aging this beer in a corny keg so I know oxygen exposure is highly limited. I've tried letting it ride for a few months with the posts unscrewed to help out improve oxygen but still not even a thin pellicle formed. I've opened the lid many times over the course of the seven months it's been aging. Maybe it's still not enough oxygen to get serious sourness but on the other hand I would expect to see at least some brett activity in the flavor. None so far. I know people often comment that corny kegs rarely make for sufficiently sour beers but zero sourness or funk shouldn't be the case.

I am doubtful a lack of food is an issue. The gravity also isn't so low that the beer is completely dried out. I've checked it with my refractometer and the strain I used for primary fermentation is known for leaving beers under-attenuated, so it was a perfect starting point for a sour beer. It's also a highly expressive Belgian strain so again I would expect some brett manipulation of the esters even if brett couldn't find any sugars to munch on. Still, I will probably add a little simple sugar and maltodextrin in the near future to add a little extra food to restock it just in case.

My suspicion is that the volume of viable brett and bacteria in the dregs was too little for five gallons of beer. My solution is going to be adding more dregs as I clear out sour beers. I've already dumped in the dregs from one of my lambics and I have a few sour beers in the house that will help this beer along. In particular I have a lonely bottle of Jolly Pumpkin I smuggled into Texas from Colorado that I expect will go a long way towards helping this beer out since JP dregs are known to house quite the voracious organisms.

I wouldn't mind bottling the beer as is and moving on except the strain I used, due to it's under-attentuative nature, makes for a very syrupy beer. I really dislike syrupy Belgian beers. The ester profile is like a blend of Chimay and Duvel, which is quite tasty, but the yeast lacks the dryness those strains reach. (This is yeast I cultured from a bottle of South Austin Brewing Golden Ale.) I don't have a need for the corny keg for the foreseeable future so I'm in no rush to do something with the beer, I would just like for it to do something.

I'd like to play around with this beer once it sours. I'll probably bottle some straight but I'd also like to hit some with some wine or liquor to give it a barrel-aged-like flavor to go along with the oak I already added to it. I'd also like to play with dry hopping some and maybe add some fruit to a portion. I plan on trying to use the slurry from this beer to create sort of a house culture of funk/sour that I can add from beer to beer for souring. Given the unwillingness of this beer to get sour I may be waiting a while before any of that happens.
May 14, 2013

Inventory cost controls and one gallon brewing

Although brewing ingredients are not terribly expensive, most brewers try to find cost-effective means of purchasing ingredients. For most homebrewers, that means buying in bulk (both hops and grain) and many of us wash and reuse yeast. Bulk purchases make a lot of sense for homebrewers brewing 5+ gallon batches but makes a lot less sense in many cases for small batch brewers. When brewing several gallons at a time, especially brewing multiple time per month, it is easy to eliminate sacks of grain and pounds of hops. A one gallon batch might only use one or two ounces of hops and two or three pounds of grain, so buying bulk means inventory is going to sit around your home. If you brew small batches because you have limited space that effectively rules out buying a lot of ingredients in bulk. Of course, if you brew both large and small batches you can already buy in bulk quantities and spread your inventory out over all your batches.

Getting cost effective at the small batch level is more difficult but with a few tricks you can reduce a lot of cost. Buying the small increments needed for small batch brewing can actually be more expensive because many homebrew shops charge a premium to sell grain by the ounce and hops are considerably more expensive in one ounce bags than by the pound or even 4-6 ounce bags. So today's post offers some ways you can trim costs. This is all mostly common sense and basic information but it's directed mostly at those small batch brewers that might be looking to step up from one gallon extract kits to all grain and designing their own recipes but not interested in scaling up to a larger batch size.


There's no great answer to how to make yeast purchases cost effective for small batches because it's not an easily divisible product. You can't buy a smack pack broken down into smaller units. You either buy it or you don't. There are some things you can do, particularly to select your yeast strains with some planning and reusing yeast. Your available storage space in your fridge will also be a concern along with your cost concerns. If you're buying liquid yeast each time you brew a small batch you are adding a huge cost to your brewing. A $6-8 vial or smack pack will almost always cost you more than the combined cost of hops and grain for a one gallon batch.

One gallon brews, along with other smaller batches, do not need a full Wyeast smack pack, White Labs vial, or sachet of dry yeast. Dumping in the full volume of yeast will definitely overpitch and there are some concerns that overpitching can lead to off flavors. You will not completely ruin a beer by overpitching so if you decide the entire volume can go in it will not be the end of the world. You do have some alternatives. With the dry yeast you can pitch a portion of the yeast and tape the sachet closed and store the rest in your fridge. The yeast will stay alive and safe to use for months that way. White Labs vials can be resealed but once opened the viability of the yeast may range from weeks to a few months, depending on the strain and how cool your fridge remains. Wyeast smack packs have no way to reseal so that is a problem if you chose to pitch a portion of the smack pack's contents.

One simple way to safely store liquid yeast is to basically treat it like washed yeast. Boil a mason jar in some water for 10-20 minutes and fill it with the water from the pot, leaving about an inch of airspace. (If you have a pressure cooker you can reach full sanitary conditions but if not you will be ok just boiling.) Once the jar cools you can pour in the remaining yeast and put the jar in your fridge. The yeast will form a compact cake at the bottom and stay viable for at least a couple months. You can make a small starter when you need to use the yeast. Make sure you label the jars.

Washing yeast is a way to stretch dollars on brewing supplies so it is something I encourage. Washed yeast will have a limited lifespan in your fridge so don't hesitate to toss out old yeast as viability will be questionable (but with enough coaxing a few viable cells can usually be found). You should only repitch yeast a few generations unless you have the ability to isolate cells because you will inevitably get some bacteria and wild yeast in your washed yeast and you'll start infecting all of your beers you're using the washed yeast to ferment. One problem you can have with washing yeast is ending up with a fridge shelf full of mason jars of yeast. There is an easy solution to the space issue in your fridge. After the yeast cake forms in the bottom of the jars when you first wash yeast, just combine the jars of the same yeast from the same batch by pouring out some of the water and adding the yeast to one or two jars. With a one gallon batch you might get 2-4 jars. You can easily reduce that down to one or two jars. That will also make it easier to reach pitching quantities for subsequent small batches.

If you are particularly ambitious about yeast you can bottle harvest from both your own homebrew and commercial beers to develop strains without having to pay for yeast quantities too big for your batch. Reaching a pitchable quantity even for a one gallon batch can take a few weeks if you're starting out with a single bottle of beer. It's only going to be cost effective if you are not buying DME to step up the colony or make starters. If you are an all grain brewer, you can sparge a little more than you need and boil those last runnings down to make starter wort. Just freeze it in some tupperware and thaw as needed. You can boil it down to a high gravity to reduce the freezer space you use and dilute for your starters.

My last piece of advice is about choosing your yeast strains. There are lots of good yeast strains available in both dry and liquid form. Homebrewers like to play with different strains -- I am no exception -- which means you either have a fridge shelf of different strains or you're buying several strains you aren't reusing. (You might bank the strains in a frozen yeast bank if you have access to a non-defrost freezer and that will avoid some of this problem.) You'll never use all the yeast you wash or could wash. If you're constantly buying new strains you're definitely not making cost conscious decisions (which is ok). However, unless you brew very different and very yeast-driven beers, you probably don't need as many strains as you use. It's fun to play with new strains and you'll need to experiment to find strains you like. What a lot of homebrewers seem to ignore is that although you can buy ten or fifteen different strains of similar flavor profile with slight differences you can manipulate one strain with oxygenation, pitching rate and temperature, to produce several flavor profiles and attenuation levels with one strain. There's no right or wrong answer with what strain or how many strains you should use. It's a balance of your cost concerns, process controls, desire to employ process controls to drive yeast behavior, and desire for particular flavor profiles.

One way to tip that balance in favor of cost control, if you are willing to wash and reuse yeast, is to brew on a schedule that allows you to reuse the yeast while it is viable. Most strains will stay safely viable in your fridge for a couple months (some hold up better than others) so if you can find a way to brew with that strain at least every couple months you can get most of a year of brewing out of one yeast purchase. If you brew a lot of beers that don't require a particular yeast profile then it's very easy to pick a neutral strain you like and reuse it frequently. However, if you are buying more expressive yeast then find some different ways to use the same strain. For example, most Belgian strains will give you fruity flavors in the 70s that work for trappist/abbey styles as well as saisons. At the lower ranges they are more phenolic so you can use that same strain to brew witbiers. English strains are more versatile than they get credit for. In the mid to upper 60s they will give you some fruity and bready notes but in the low 60s and upper 50s they will ferment out very clean so you can use the English strain for both English styles and American styles where you do not mind the slightly higher residual sweetness that English strains tend to leave behind that more attenuative American strains won't.


The easiest way to control costs for hops is to buy in bulk but by nature of small batch brewing you just won't use enough hops to justify buying each hop you use by the pound. It can also be problematic to brew a beer that uses several varieties that leaves you with fractions of ounces of hops when you scale it down to a small batch. Buying hops by the ounce can drive up the cost of your beer so small steps to save money can go far.

One very effective way to reduce your hop costs is to buy a pound of a clean bittering hop to use for all your bittering additions. Magnum is a reasonably cheap and well-used bittering hop because it has mild flavor but good alpha acid content. You can find recipes using all kinds of hops for bittering. Most people are designing recipes based on what they always use or what they have on hand. Very few recipes are designed with the intention of seeing the bittering hop add some character to the beer so it usually doesn't matter if you sub in something else you have on hand. If your local homebrew shop doesn't sell by the pound you can buy online at places like or which both have great products and prices. A pound of Magnum pellets runs around $11 so even with $12 in shipping (what it costs to ship to my zipcode) the $23 breaks down to $1.43 per ounce (at sixteen ounces, but hopsdirect bags are always a generous pound). That's cheaper than the $2-4 per ounce local stores charge around here. It's also very space conscious. Hop pellets survive well in the freezer and a pound takes up about the same space as a couple frozen meals. You can store them in a freezer bag and they will stay fresh for over a year that way.

There's no great way around the cost of the flavor and aroma hops when you're buying in small quantities. You can shop around for prices and try to buy in larger quantities when it makes sense. A lot of shops are now selling in four and six ounce quantities at lower costs than the per-ounce prices. You can store those extra ounces or fractions of ounces left over in ziploc bags in your freezer with minimal space requirements. As above, they will stay fresh for over a year so it's not like you have to immediately use or lose them. If you can pick some recipes to brew in a row that use some of the same hops you can buy those four or six ounce packs and save a little cash.


The keys to controlling costs of grain really comes down to shopping around prices and planning ahead. Very few stores give price breaks on grain less than buying a full 50-60 pound bag so price comparisons on pounds and ounces matter. When you price grain online, always make sure you factor in the shipping costs compared to the grain prices locally. Some stores gouge on shipping and some local stores tend to gouge on grains, especially specialty grains. Always check to see if the price by the ounce is more expensive than 1/16 of the pound price. Some stores will only break down certain grains by the ounce so you may not always have the option to buy in an increment less than a half pound or full pound.

Give some thought to your ability to store some grain at home if you cannot find reasonable prices by the ounce. If you can dedicate a little space to some small bags of grain you can avoid a lot of the premium for buying by the ounce. Grain stores well at room temperature in ziploc bags and will stay fresh for over a year as long as it is kept free from pests (both bugs and rodents) and free from humidity that will stale grains. Unless you use every specialty malt out there your supply of specialty malt will stay fairly small and could probably stay in a shoe box in a closet or kitchen cabinet.

Planning out your beers will help here as well. If you plan several beers you can brew within a time period to use some of the same specialty grains or base grains will let you buy larger quantities at once without ending up with too much grain sitting at home. Most specialty grains are versatile enough that they can be used in enough different beers that you can brew diversely but efficiently. Roasted barley, for example, can drive a stout but also get used in a red ale, amber, biere de garde, porter, black IPA, etc. Crystal 40 or 60 can go into a wide variety of beers because it has a fairly general caramel sweetness. Again you will want to balance your desire for space and cost efficiency against brewing a beer with the flavor you desire. US crystal 60 may not cut it for you in an English beer when English crystal 55 adds just the right flavor you're after.
May 11, 2013

get rich or die tRYEing Imperial Stout

The bold and rich flavors of an imperial stout should not be an excuse for making a beer with every grain in your local homebrew shop. In addition to walloping your taste buds with rich flavor, an imperial stout should also have a lot of complexity to extract out, with lots of subtle flavors available to tease out of the beer, especially as it warms up. Adding too many types of grain, a plague many homebrewers inflict upon themselves, can result in a beer with a few good notes but a muddy background that loses the more subtle flavors. A bigger beer like imperial stout can benefit from a more complex grain bill than smaller beers but there's a balance to find between layering flavors and creating a muddy beer. A simple grain bill can also produce a fairly complex beer if you put the work into using your brewing process to create other flavors (e.g. long boils, complex mash schedules).

Another important consideration in designing an imperial stout (and really, any beer), is how you plan on drinking it. If you are going to bottle or keg your stout for consumption 1-2 months after brewing then the recipe needs to be designed for early smoothness so you're not drinking a rough, boozy mess. The tradeoff will be a less impressive beer should you decide to age it because you're putting the mellowness age would provide into the recipe and it can get too mellow and a little bland over time. That means less acrid dark malts, like carafa and chocolate or midnight wheat, should take up a bigger portion of the grain bill dedicated to dark/roast grains. However, if you plan on aging your stout for months before drinking then the recipe needs to come into primary fermentation more bitter to stand up to the aging and with some more roasty character that can smooth out and blend nicely into a beer that will be nicely drinkable in months but may not peak for a year or two. Of course if you are going to barrel age you should take into consideration both the aging and the flavor contributions of the barrel.

This imperial stout was designed for aging at least a few months, if not more. It's destined to fill one of my party pigs as a cask beer for a good reason to stay at home on cold winter nights. A small amount will go into bottles to see how they age over time. The cask portion is getting brewed mid-May and probably won't get "tapped" until November or December. I have February's barleywine getting bottled later this month for late fall drinking that should satiate my need for a big beer early in the winter, along with my ever-growing collection of craft beer. So with that key goal in mind, let's turn to actually discussing the recipe formation.

Designing the recipe

As you can tell by the name of the beer, a tasteless pun using "rye" and appealing to the dark character of the
I will shoot the beer nine times for authenticity
beer, this imperial stout has rye character coming its way. I like the idea of rye in an imperial stout because it not only adds the rye flavor that I am really enjoying at the moment but it also lends that spicy character that helps cut through some of the richness of an imperial stout that can make them feel heavy and even a touch cloying. With a growing diversity of rye grains on the market, it's easy to create an interesting layered rye flavor to go along with the layer dark malt flavors in the stout.

Rye imperial stouts are not made by many breweries but Great Divide's Yeti (and numerous Yeti variants) is an excellent example of such a beer. In researching my recipe for a rye imperial stout it seems like every homebrewer begins their recipe with a clone recipe of Yeti. There's some disagreement online what the "right" clone is but everybody seems happy with their version even if they decided it wasn't an accurate Yeti clone. Unfortunately I did the research a while ago and forget exactly which clone recipes I thought were most accurate or produced the best beers, so I'm not sure where to point somebody for a good clone (although the BYO version is probably a sufficient starting point).

Like Yeti, I wanted the typical stout character to drive the beer but allow the rye to mold the stout flavors into something rye-laden and unique. To do that I wanted to build two complimentary layering of flavors. One would be the "stout flavors" with roast, some dark fruit, chocolate, etc. So I kept a solid roasted barley backing and layered in smaller amounts of chocolate malt, crystal 120 and black malt. The rye will come through in two ways to bring a more complex rye character. Flaked rye will provide some of the raw rye flavor and add body in place of flaked barley. Chocolate rye will provide some of the malted rye flavor (which is more predominate than unmalted rye) and add some interesting character to the darker malt flavors while adding to the complexity of the rye flavor. Add some two row as a base and you have just seven malts bringing a lot of complexity.

I'm not interested in getting hop character coming through in the beer because with time and cask pours, any flavor or aroma hops are going to diminish with time and low carbonation. There's enough going on with the malts to drive good beer flavor. Some chinook or other piney hop would make a good fit for later additions, like Yeti, but I want to see how the grains work together on their own and in the future I might add late hops for some added complexity. Here, Belma is added as both a first wort hop and sixty minute addition for bitterness and just a touch of flavor from the first wort hops.

The fermentation schedule will be very straight forward. It's going on the cake of S-04 from the Ugli Ass American Wheat and ferment at 63F for 10-14 days and then bulk age at room temperature for 3-4 weeks before transferring to the party pig for further conditioning. About half a gallon will go into bottles because the pig only holds about 2.5 gallons. I considered doing some oak treatment to the beer but just like I wanted to keep the hops to a minimum I want my first attempt at this recipe to be straightforward to get the malt bill right. Like Yeti, future versions may get diversified treatment.

Finally, the recipe

Batch size: 3 gallons
Est. OG: 1.091
Est. FG: 1.019
ABV: 9.5%
SRM: 71.4
IBU: 49.3
Est. efficiency: 72%

Grain bill:
8 lb. US 2 row (2 SRM) 74%
1 lb. Flaked rye (2 SRM) 9.2%
10 oz. Roasted barley (300 SRM) 5.8%
8 oz. Chocolate rye malt (250 SRM) 4.6%
7 oz. Crystal 120L (120 SRM) 4%
2 oz. Black patent malt (500 SRM) 1.2%
2 oz. Chocolate malt (350 SRM) 1.2%

Mash & Sparge:
Mash water volume: 3.38 gallons
Sparge water volume: 1.67 gallons
Mash schedule:
Single infusion of 3.38 gallons at 163.7F for 60 minute mash at 152F
Sparge schedule:
Batch sparge at 168F in two stages

Water supply:
100% RO water with mash and sparge mineral additions
Water profile: (London-like)
Calcium: 60ppm
Magnesium: 10ppm
Sodium: 21ppm
Sulfate: 41ppm
Chloride: 45ppm
Bicarbonate: 161ppm

Mash water: 3.38 gallons
Epsom salt: 1.4g
Kosher salt: 0.7g
Calcium chloride 0.3g
Chalk: 1.7g

Sparge water: 1.67 gallons
Gypsum: 0.6g
Epsom salt: 0.7g
Kosher salt: 0.3g
Calcium chloride: 0.9g

The Boil:
Boil time: 75 minutes

Hop additions:
0.30oz Belma [12.1% AAU] at first wort hop
1 oz Belma [12.1% AAU] at 60 minutes

Other boil additions:
3/4 tsp irish moss at 10 minutes

Fermentation schedule:
Cool to 63F and pitch on yeast cake
Ferment at 63F for 7-10 days (until gravity is stable)
Bulk age at ambient for 3-4 weeks
Bottle at 2.3 volumes

Brewday & Fermentation Notes:

First runnings: 19.8 brix or 1.0821~ 2.5 gallons
Pre-boil volume: 4 gallons
Pre-boil gravity: 1.063
Calculated mash efficiency: 66%
Post-boil OG: 1.075
Post-boil volume: 3 gallons

Gravity reading 5/21/13: 9.8 brix on refractometer, adjusted to gravity at 1.015, good for 8.2% ABV. May see a point or two drop over the next week but otherwise expect FG is reached. Beer is tasty but has slight alcohol burn. Expected to mellow out with aging. Looking at bottling in another 2-3 weeks.
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.