July 28, 2013

The end of group bulk buys?

A shift in policy by brewing supply wholesalers may cut off homebrewers from getting deep discounts on grain by purchasing bulk orders direct from the wholesalers. This news is probably a couple months old now but since it's still not completely resolved, I thought I would comment on the current state of things.

For a long time now, homebrewers have come together informally through the internet and through brew clubs to place bulk grain purchases from the grain wholesalers, bypassing homebrew shops entirely, even those that offer discounts when grain is bought by the sack, rather than the pound or ounce. It is a substantial discount. Even with shipping costs factored in, a pallet of grain can break down to as cheap as $35-45 for a 50-55 pound sack of base malt. Even buying by the sack it is common to see sacks of base grain go for $45-60 at homebrew shops, so the group bulk buys are a huge discount.

Over the past 12-18 months, the wholesalers have begun to move away from supporting direct sales to homebrewers under pressure from their homebrew shop customers. A year to a year and a half ago the wholesalers began the process of moving away from the direct sales by declining to open new accounts for homebrew groups. Existing accounts would continue to be serviced, which meant any brewing club or informal buying group that had placed orders in the past could continue to purchase but any new groups would be locked out. The initial shift wasn't too big of a problem. Lots of people found other ways to get their group buys through tagging their group's order to another local group that had an existing account or through a local brewery.

A couple months ago, Cargill released a statement that due to continued pressure from homebrew shops and a shift in their business they would begin the process of discontinuing all direct sales. The official policy appears to be unresolved within Cargill, based on their conduct the past couple months, but an official policy statement was released. All informal groups would be first cut off from placing orders, limiting purchases to organized brewing clubs and only orders placed through a homebrew shop. The bottom line to the policy is that homebrew shops will control the sales and they will be allowed to put a retail markup on the purchase. The requirement that the orders are placed through formal brewing clubs is curious at first glance but actually makes a lot of sense since homebrew shops tend to have strong relationships with the local clubs, which means the shop's most likely-to-be-loyal customers will be the ones able to get whatever discount is left in a group order. But if your local shop(s) do not want to support the group buys (as it seems the Dallas and Fort Worth shops do not want to) then you are out of luck, unless you can find a brewery willing to let you tag on the back of their orders.

I haven't seen any clarification or consistent results from Cargill (CMG) or other wholesalers about this change. Cargill has indicated that it would like to get away from selling to the homebrewing community entirely, even the shops, to focus on selling only to breweries. It's probably a lot easier and more profitable to sell multiple pallets each month to 2000 U.S. breweries than all the brewery orders plus a pallet every few months to each of the homebrew shops all over the country. However, Cargill acquired a sales unit to cover sales to homebrew shops so we'll see how that all shakes out. BSG and LD Carlson will probably take over CMG's business if they exit the homebrew market.

As a consumer, I don't like it but I understand the shift in policy. Homebrewers got together and used their numbers to get away from homebrew shop prices to buy in bulk directly from the wholesalers. The homebrew shops are using their purchasing power to leverage the wholesalers out of the direct sales business. The breweries may end up leveraging out homebrew shops to make sure they get the grains they need. After all, there is only so much barley grown and malted in the world. Demand does not automatically create supply.

July 25, 2013

Champagne bottle sizes/Wine bottle sizes

No matter how much debate is had over the large format bottle issue, beer isn't going away from the large format. A substantial amount of large format bottling is done in champagne-style bottles, as opposed to the corked Belgian bottles. The champagne bottles used for beer generally are found in two formats: one that takes a cork or a 29mm cap (or both); and one that takes a standard 26mm cap. (Bottles that once held champagne sometimes have a slightly more narrow neck and may or may not easily take a 29mm cap and definitely will not take a 26mm cap.) Some homebrewers, myself included, value the champagne bottles for refilling because they can support extremely high levels of carbonation with some rated as high as twelve volumes. The typical 750ml Belgian bottle also support substantial carbonation but require a cork and do not take plastic corks as well as champagne bottles. On occasion you can find those bottles designed for caps but they are less easy to find than champagne-style bottles.

These thicker bottles are perfect for bottling brett beers, that tend to overcarbonate, as well as other highly carbonated styles, such as hefeweizen and non-sour Belgian styles. I like to bottle my sours in champagne bottles, even though they are stable beers, because it adds a little fanfare opening a corked bottle. Reusing these bottles can be as easy as adjusting your bottle capper to accept larger caps (if you own the red wing capper or a colona capper) or using a hammer to gently tap in cheap plastic corks and tie them down with wire harnesses. Since you pay a premium to buy beer in large format, you might as well reuse the bottles and get some value back out of it.

Most people are familiar with the 750ml wine and champagne bottles but you may not be aware of the larger bottles. Champagne/wine bottles go as large as forty liters! Sometimes you find 1.5 and 3 liter bottles of champagne but it's extremely rare to find anything larger in a store. I don't think I've ever seen a non-carbonated wine in anything larger than a 750ml but they can be found. Yesterday I bought a 1.5 liter bottle of champagne at Costco for $17 that will get opened on Christmas and then it is going to become a party bottle that I'll refill with homebrew to take to parties.

Occasionally you can find commercial beer packaged in 1.5 and 3 liter bottles. Chimay puts Gran Reserve in three liter bottles (I am sitting on a bottle from a 2010 bottling) and Duvel also does three liter bottles and I believe 1.5 liter bottles. Anchor puts its holiday beer in 1.5 liter bottles. St. Feuillien puts its blond in bottles ranging from 1.5 liter up to nine liters. A few other breweries also bottle the occasional 1.5 and 3 liter offering. It's far more expensive to buy beer in these larger formats, so the only reason it makes sense is to open it on a special occasion where that big ass bottle is going to be the centerpiece of the event (which is why I bought mine).

Each wine/champagne bottle size has a specific name. Below is a chart that I screen chopped out from this website that shows the most common sizes. I don't have any idea who decided these names were appropriate but now you know what to call big ass bottles.

But this wikipedia page has a more extensive list and offers some alternative names for the bottle sizes below Magnum. As far as beer goes, I have only seen half-bottles, bottles, magnums, jeroboam, methuselah and salmanazar bottles. I don't think I've actually seen any type of wine in anything bigger than a jeroboam (sometimes called a double magnum). The only half bottles I've seen with beer are the Lindemans, Timmermans and Chapeau lambics. I've only seen quarter bottles in four packs of Asti and I'm pretty sure the openings on those bottles are smaller than 12oz bottles, so I'm not sure how a homebrewer could reseal those.

As I said above, it's pricey to buy beer in those larger formats but if you can come across those larger bottles already emptied then it's worth nabbing them for refills. Sometimes you can find champagne magnums and jeroboams emptied out at NYE parties. I'm not a believer that beer ages any better in larger bottles, the only real reason it makes sense to pick up larger format bottles is for the wow factor of showing up at a party with a big ass bottle.
July 21, 2013

Tropic Bling -- Clone of Funkwerks Tropic King

My wife and I are huge fans of Funkwerks beers and I've raved about them in my reviews of beer vacations (beercations?) every time I make it out to Colorado. Funkwerks has a fairly solid reputation, although some people do criticize their beers for not being very extreme. It's probably a fair criticism, although some of their beers pack some really interesting flavor. Still, Funkwerks definitely focuses on putting a lot of subtle flavor in their saisons and other Belgian-style beers and that's something I can get behind. (One thing I will criticize is that they really love those damn 750ml bottles but the whole large format bottle issue has been debated to death so I will leave it alone.)

I don't love all of their beers and one I am not a huge fan of is Tropic King. Tropic King is a saison with a little more malt kick than the typical saison and relies heavily on Rakau hops to provide tropical fruit flavors. Rakau is heavy on the mango, which is why I don't like it. I'm not a huge mango fan. My wife loves mango and loves this beer so I agreed to clone it and cajoled the recipe out of one of the brewers.

Getting any of the New Zealand/Australia hops can be a challenge and Rakau seems to be a particularly challenging hop to source. It doesn't seem to be grown a lot and it isn't loved by many brewers. It appears that Rakau is getting overshadowed by some of the even-fruitier NZ varieties coming out. So far the only place I have seen selling Rakau right now is Seven Bridges Cooperative at a pricey $3.50/oz. I know the Austrian/NZ crop is coming in so maybe Rakau is just grown within the contracts already purchased. However, I was extremely lucky that a generous user on the AHA forum was willing to part with a couple ounces he wasn't planning on using. So with the critical hop in hand I could move forward with plans to brew my clone.

Funkwerks makes an interesting blended beer called Exotic King, which is two parts barrel aged Tropic King and one part fresh Tropic King. I like the blend. The barrel flavor cuts through some of the tropic flavor from the hops and the hops age down to a tolerable prominence. I decided I would brew enough Tropic King so I could bottle most of the batch fresh and age a small portion with some whiskey-soaked oak chips (trying to use up my oak chips so I can buy a better oak product). I'm going to bottle the aged portion straight with no blend because I want to see how it tastes unblended and I don't feel like brewing a second batch.

The Funkwerks recipe actually relies on Rakau and Opal hops but I have modified the original recipe slightly to sub out the opal hops. I didn't want to buy an ounce of Opal hops and have the rest just sitting there unused in my freezer when I already have a spare ounce of Spalt in the freezer. So if you are interested in replicating the Funkwerks recipe exactly then sub out my Spalt addition with a 0.33 ounce addition of Opal per 2.5 gallons. Spalt is a little different than Opal but they are both within the same German/noble family of hops so I don't think it will detract too much from the clone.

Tropic Bling - Funkwerks Tropic King clone

Batch size: 2.5 gallons
ABV: 5.9%
SRM: 6.1
IBU: 24.4
Est. OG: 1.053
Est. FG: 1.007

Grain bill

3lb 12oz Belgian two row [3 SRM]
13oz Munich malt [9 SRM]
5oz White wheat malt [2.4 SRM]
2oz Carapils [2 SRM]

Water supply 

3.765 gallons total - used RO water with brewing salts
6.5 quarts mash water
2.14 gallons sparge water

Mash water additions:

Gypsum 0.7g
Epsom salt 0.7g
Calcium chloride 0.7g

Sparge water additions:

Gypsum 0.9g
Epsom salt 0.9g
Calcium chloride 0.9g
Lactic acid 1.1ml

Mash schedule

Dough in 6.5 quarts at 163F for 75 minute mash at 149F
Sparge with 2.14 gallons at 180F

Boil schedule

60 minute boil
0.18oz Rakau [12.7%] at 60 minutes
0.33oz Rakau [12.7% at 10 minutes
0.5oz Spalt [4.5%] at 0 minutes

Fermentation schedule

  • Ferment with 3711 at 75F for 24 hours then increase temperature to 89F until fermentation is complete (4-5 days)
  • Cold crash for 24 hours
  • Dry hop 0.33oz Rakau [12.7%] for three days. Start at cold crash temperatures and let free rise in fermentation chamber
  • Bottle at three volumes.

Brewday & Fermentation notes

Pre-boil gravity: 1.035
Post-boil gravity: 1.045
Post-boil volume: 2.9 gallons
Efficiency: 70.8%

Still having issues locking down my boil off percentage. Efficiency was a little lower than I hoped for but still an improvement over the long stretch of 60-something percent efficiency.

Pitched yeast late night on 7/20/13, raised temperature roughly 22 hours into fermentation to 89F.

7/30/13: FG 1.008. Added 0.33 oz Rakau to dry hop.

8/3/13: Racked one gallon for aging, bottled 1.3 gallons at 3.0 volumes of carbonation.
July 18, 2013

Great hop deals

Summer can be the perfect time to pick up new hops. Many places are trying to unload the rest of the prior year's northern hemisphere hops in anticipation of getting this year's harvest in a few months. The New Zealand and Australian hop harvest is starting to trickle in about as much as we will see them. You can get pretty much everything right now except for the hardcore demanded hops, like Amarillo and Citra, but if you scavenge long enough you can find a lot of them, too. Today I wanted to post up a couple places running really good deals right now. I don't have any affiliation with either, I just thought these deals were worth pointing out.

Farmhouse Brewing Supply

Farmhouse Brewing Supply is a relatively new shop that sells a nice variety of ingredients. From time to time they also sell small barrels, so if you're looking for a barrel it's one place to watch. Farmhouse Brewing Supply also gets in a really diverse hop selection and sells at very competitive prices. I'm not sure how the owners do it, but they tend to have a lot of experimental hops in stock. So FBS is a good place if you're looking to add a unique hop to your beer. Several of the experimental hops they have sold in the past have turned into major commercial varieties, like Mosaic.

Overall, hops are prices among the cheapest you can find in one ounce or four ounce increments. Most hops sell in the $1-2/ounce range in four ounce bags. That's a huge win for small batch brewing because normally you have to choose between buying hops by the ounce at $2-4 each or buy by the pound and hope you can go through everything you use before it goes bad.

Among the four ounce bags are plenty of great deals. There are several four ounce hop bags running as low as $0.60 per ounce. You can find almost every kind of hop in these cheap deals: old school American varieties like mount hood; German hops; English-style hops; newer American varieties; and even some of the newer eastern European varieties. Some of the cheap hops are very widely used, such as Columbus, but you can also find less used varieties like Styrian Celeia. At those prices, it's really enticing to play around with some really unique combinations.

As an added bonus, shipping costs are extremely reasonable because they will ship through USPS at what I assume is first class mail.

Seven Bridges Cooperative

Seven Bridges Cooperative is a shop that focuses on selling organic brewing ingredients (along with equipment and some coffee beans). Like most things organic, they are usually more expensive than the non-organic versions. I don't usually buy organic but I initially came across Seven Bridges when I was hunting Rakau hops. They are one of the few places selling them. I'm not sure whether that is because they have the supply left due to high prices or they just bought enough to support their sales.

However, in spite of their normally high prices, they are running some insane sales. Here are the crazy hop deals you can find:

  • 2007 Belgian Admiral: 6oz for $4.60
  • 2008 NZ Cascade: one pound for $2.40 (not a typo)
  • Fuggles: five pounds for $48
  • 2008 NZ Hallertau: 6oz for $4.76
Ok, you might have noticed those are some old hops. However, if they were cold stored in vacuum-sealed bags, they are probably still in decent shape but maybe a little mild on the flavor, aroma and IBU. Generous hop additions would probably get you to where you need to be. Plus, you could pick up those hops and leave them at room temperature to have plenty of aged hops on hand for lambics. $2.40 for a pound of hops is cheaper than anywhere else sells old hops.

One thing I will warn you about is that SBC scalps customers on shipping. I looked at buying a pound of those NZ cascade and it was going to be $10 to ship. Come on, that's ridiculous. To be fair, as I added more pounds to the shopping cart the shipping costs increased marginally. So if you're going to buy, you might as well buy several pounds at once.

Sorry today's post wasn't more interesting subject matter but I thought the deals were worth passing along. Right now I'm waiting for yeast to culture and exiting batches to finish their clean up after fermentation so I can get to work brewing some new beers and working on some new material to post.
July 15, 2013

Petrus Aged Pale Clone Update #4

I last checked in on this beer in May when it was the beer that won't sour and finally I can say this beer is finally starting to sour. I brewed this beer in the fall of 2012 with the hope of bottling it this fall but due to it's unwillingness to get sour it looks like I am going to be bottling in the summer or fall of 2014. Right now I'm just happy it's doing something.

As a recap, I dumped this Belgian blond ale (based on the Petrus Aged Pale recipe in Wild Brews) into a corny to ferment with the dregs of some bottles of Petrus Aged Pale. I got nothing for months and months so in the last couple months I have added the dregs of every sour beer I've opened. Mostly that has been my own lambic and the sour stout blend I made last year (that did not stabilize as well as I had hoped). The dregs of a bottle of Green Flash Rayon Vert also went in. Even after hitting it with more dregs, nothing was happening. So I did something I consider nearly unthinkable to a beer. I shook the shit out of the corny to get some oxygen in the beer (actually I just picked it up and shook it a few times). Then I unscrewed the posts on the keg so it would continue to get some oxygen flow.

The aeration worked. A couple weeks later a pellicle showed up and the beer is starting to take on a funky, sour aroma. I'm not really sure why the aeration kicked off a secondary fermentation with all the stuff I have added but it seemed to do the trick. I know the corny keg does not allow any aeration and I suspected that to be a problem in my last update on this beer because brett does like a small amount of aeration. Maybe the rousing was also a key factor. Regardless of the reason, I'm happy it's finally starting to sour. It's not acetic, so I am thankful I didn't create five gallons of vinegar.

Going forward, I have a few other sour beers I'm going to open soon and I plan on using the dregs of those bottles to add to this beer. I hope to form sort of a house blend that I can keep active and use this beer to start other sour beers. Once it sours I still want to break the batch up and bottle some straight, some with fruit, some with different liquors/wine for "barrel" flavors and try dry hopping some. However, it looks like I am still quite a ways off from that happening.  
July 11, 2013

Hanging with Peter Bouckaert from New Belgium

I was tipped off this morning that Peter Bouckaert, head brewer at New Belgium and former Rodenbach brewer, would be in the Fort Worth area doing a tasting at a local store. Since I run my own law firm I have the benefit of closing up shop in the middle of the day to enjoy good beer. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet a brewing legend (and drink good beer). It was a surprisingly small turn out for the tasting so I got to chat up the marketing guy and Mr. Bouckaert.

He is probably the nicest brewer I've ever talked to. He's very friendly and asked a lot of questions. Of course, I wanted to hear him talk about himself and brewing but he wanted to get to know people. We talked about future brews and the future expansion of New Belgium. We talked a little homebrewing, our shared love for sour beer and his past. Something that surprised me was that he said he really likes hefeweizens (and gave a shout out to Fort Collins' CooperSmith for their hefeweizen) but rarely has the chance to brew them.

Most people know his career by his presence at New Belgium and former position at Rodenbach. What you might not know is while he was at Rodenbach he was homebrewing and it grew until he decided to open a brewpub based on one of his recipes that he ran on the weekend while he worked at Rodenbach during the week. Rodenbach didn't care that he was running a competing business as long as it didn't interfere with his job at Rodenbach. He produced a single beer in a very spartan brewpub. "If you wanted something else to drink there was tap water. If you wanted something to eat you brought it with you."

For other sour beer fans, you'll be happy to know New Belgium is massively expanding the barrel space. (Some of this information has been public for a while.) They are expanding from 35 foudres to 64 foudres (selling three and adding 32 new foudres) effectively doubling capacity. The reason they have been slow to put out sour beers this year is because they are using the existing beer to inoculate the new foudres but next year should see a return of more sour beers in the Lips of Faith series plus a larger production of La Folie each year.

In continuing good news, when the Asheville brewery finally gets up and running, it will have it's own Lips of Faith program where they will put out some different stuff from Fort Collins. They won't just brew duplicate batches of the same stuff to market to the whole country. That means more Lips of Faith diversity. However, they will brew the regular line up and seasonals to help fill regular distribution. Bouckaert is especially excited because this will be his first chance to help put together a brewery from the ground up (minus his very small brewpub) rather than running an established brewery already running at capacity.

What I didn't realize about New Belgium's seasonals is that they run a seasonal for two years and then retire it. That makes sense, thinking about it. I was sad when they replaced Two Below as the winter seasonal. That's been my favorite NB seasonal. However, a new fall seasonal is coming out and it's supposed to be really good. I also love the new summer seasonal Rolle Bolle.

In other upcoming beers, Bouckaert said there will be Lips of Faith releases coming up that include a collaboration with Cigar City, a berlinerweisse and a coconut curry hefeweizen that he promises is very interesting and very good. I'm allergic to coconut and questionable about a hefeweizen with habanero and curry flavors but I might have to give that one a try.

As an aside, if you tried the Brewery Vivant collab Biere de Garde and didn't love it when it first came out, try to find some now. It has aged quite well and really mellowed nicely.

Finally, here's a nice picture of a bottle of the collaboration tripel with Dieu de Ciel (which is very tasty) plus the new New Belgium globe glasses with a picture of the brewery etched in. P.S. if you look at the screen print on the bottle just next to the glass you'll see a black scribble. That's his signature.

July 9, 2013

Getting hot! Hot! Hot! - fermenting on the warm side

I spent the first three or so years of my homebrewing trying to get my beers to ferment cool enough to get clean fermentations with repeatable results. I went from fermenting at ambient to the tub-of-water-add-ice method to finally buying a small fridge and temperature controller. I can say without a doubt it is the single greatest investment in the quality of my homebrew. However, this year I am gearing up to try to tackle saison brewing, which supports a warmer fermentation than all other styles of beer. So I had to tackle getting my system to work the other way around. My first brew ever was a Belgian blonde ale, which I understood could ferment in the upper 70s to low 80s without a problem. That was perfect for a Texas July, where the air conditioning in my apartment was lucky to stay in the mid-70s. It didn't turn out too bad but it definitely suffered from the very warm fermentation start. Most other Belgian strains (e.g. Trappist/abbey/wit) prefer to start cooler and finish off warmer. Saison yeast are a different animal.

Brewers have been known to ferment saisons as high as 115F. I don't know how the yeast are still alive at those temperatures but it works because there are commercial brewers doing it. Saison yeast can ferment in the 60s and 70s and some brewers prefer those temperatures. Personally I prefer a warmer fermentation to drive more assertive fruit character. I find cooler saison fermentations produce a little more spice but a blander flavor. In particular, I find the Dupont strain produces a very bland, muddy flavor in the 70s. It really needs to get into the 80s to push out great flavor. WY3711 is probably the most forgiving because it doesn't produce muddy flavors at any temperature and it lacks the stalling that the Dupont strain is well known to cause. (Not to mention the Dupont strain's harsh flavor early on that needs weeks of cold conditioning to mellow.) The common approach for a warm saison fermentation is to start in the upper 60s to mid 70s and let it free rise into the 80s (or higher). The cooler fermentation allows the yeast to get acclimated and start fermenting without the stress of warmer temperatures. That can help avoid fusels and other off flavors common to a stressed fermentation. High levels of oxygen and nutrients can also help avoid off flavors.

In Texas it gets hot enough during the summer, and in most years all the way through the fall, to ferment saisons by starting them off at ambient temperature and moving them to a garage to rise into the upper 80s or 90s. It's around 100F out today so the garage won't be far behind. This isn't a bad strategy, certainly this is the way rustic operations would have to ferment. However, letting nature set fermentation temperature means inability to obtain consistency, dial in a flavor profile, and risking the beer not getting warm enough or getting too warm. Like a cool fermentation, controlled fermentation temperature is key to getting consistent and repeatable results. So I set out to find a way to create a controlled but hot fermentation.

Of course, some of you live in cooler climates where you have the reverse problem of trying to get your beer to stay warm enough in the 50s and 60s during many parts of the year (and I am very jealous). If if that is your "problem" you can also use a heating element to obtain consistency at those cooler temperatures.

I started off with my fermentation chamber (fridge) and Johnson digital controller. Not only is this digital controller awesome for controlling cool fermentations, it can be set to work in reverse by moving a couple jumpers inside the unit to turn on when the temperature gets too cool so it will activate a heating device. It's a screwdriver and pliers job, so a very easy modification even for people like myself who lack technical skills. I wanted to incorporate my fermentation chamber because it would provide an insulated space that would keep warmth inside and provide a more consistent process.

I rejected a couple heating options that I have seen other homebrewers employ. Some homebrewers use heating blankets duct taped to their fermentors and plugged in to a temperature controller. I am sure this method works but I rejected it for a few reasons. First, I don't own a heating blanket, so that meant buying a $15-20 blanket that I probably wouldn't use for any other purpose. Second, most blankets now come with automatic timers, which means the blanket might shut off before the desired temperature is achieved, which makes creating a consistent process more difficult. Third, heating blankets are prone to starting fires and I have no interest in keeping a fire hazard plugged in and running for days at a time. Next.

Another method commonly employed is using a heat lamp, or even a regular light bulb, controlled by a temperature controller and put inside a small fermentation chamber. This idea wasn't bad except I wasn't thrilled with the idea of exposing my beer to that much light. I could have created a shield on the light but that seems like it would also shield some of the warmth from the beer, making it an inefficient solution. Additionally, it seems like a fire hazard letting a heat lamp run all the time in a fridge. I know people run heat lamps on reptile cages but I wasn't sure whether running it on a temperature controller would create a fire risk or reduce the life span of the bulb by flipping it on and off. I also suspect that it would be harder to get a larger batch warm off a light bulb in the same way as a small batch, which meant introducing a risk of inconsistency. Next.

I also considered a brewbelt, which is a small belt-like device that straps on to any fermentor and can be run
off a temperature controller to apply direct heat. I liked this idea because it would provide direct heat to the fermentor and that would allow better control and more consistent results. The price on the brewbelt is fairly reasonable around $23 so long as the product has a long life. The reviews I read online were not terribly positive. Many indicated an inability to maintain consistent temperatures and that they died after a couple years. There were also suggestions that the belt would create a hotspot on glass that could lead to weakening the glass. That's a problem for my one gallon batches since I brew those in a 5L jug. (Although I would think if it's hot enough to weaken glass it would be hot enough to have a negative effect on plastic as well.) Next.

Most of the brewbelt critics referred people to another product called fermwrap. Fermwrap is similar in design to the brewbelt except it is a larger strip of heating element where the heat is channeled through two strips, reducing the probability of a damaging heatspot. It is commonly used on both plastic and glass. The larger heating surface allows more consistent heating, which is also a plus. Additionally, I did not find reviews claiming a short lifespan. Sounds great although the price was around $28 and it seemed a little large for my 5L jugs.

While researching fermwrap I came across people discussing flexwatt tape, which is similar to the heating element used in fermwrap but far cheaper. Flexwatt is often used by reptile owners to heat their reptile tanks. It is essentially the same construction as fermwrap. It is designed to be plugged into a temperature controller and designed to create a consistent heat. Perfect. A wise user on some beer blog referred to Reptile Basics, who sells flexwatt along with the power cord and connectors. They will even connect the power cord to the flexwatt tape for free. They will cut the length of the tape to your needs. Best of all, they offer multiple widths, so I was able to purchase the six inch tape for my 5L jugs and a separate twelve inch tape for my bucket. For $25 I was able to buy a separate flexwatt heater for my 5L jugs and one for my fermentation bucket (with shipping). The construction is solid and they shipped my order within days. I highly recommed doing business with Reptile Basics.

Once I had all the parts I just needed to get everything put together and test it out. Like fermwrap and brewbelts, flexwatt needs temperature control to shut it off when the desired temperature is reached. Otherwise it will just keep pumping out heat. I don't know how hot it could get the beer but the whole point of this project was to get consistent heating. I expected to see about a ten degree increase, which was a concern since my beer was running at ambient temperatures in my fermentation chamber at 75-78. However, I hooked up the flexwatt tape on my 5L jug with a couple small pieces of duct tape and let it rip. Within a couple hours it was up to 90, where I set the tape to cut out. Perfect. I'm not sure if it would run as efficiently or get as warm if I left the fermentor out in the open room so the fridge's insulation is helping save electricity and produce consistent temperatures. I suppose wrapping the fermentor in a blanket or sleeping bag would work but I have a fear of creating fire hazards by putting flammable cloth against an electrical heating element.

It's definitely weird to touch a fermentor that is warm but it is getting the desired results. Overall, I am extremely happy with this set up. The flexwatt tape gets warm but even while running the heating elements are not so warm that they are uncomfortable to touch. If I had to guess just from touch I would say the tape itself is a few degrees cooler than my body. That's a very safe temperature for glass and plastic alike. Definitely the best route to get a warm fermentation with consistency.

I've since read people trying ceramic heating elements and aquarium heaters. Personally I would be careful with ceramic heating elements because they can get very hot very quickly and that could create a fire hazard along with wild temperature swings in your beer. With the aquarium heaters I have to imagine people are not putting them directly in the beer but instead in a tub of water with the fermentor inside. That's not a bad path as long as you can get good results although the aquarium heaters are a little more expensive than the flexwatt tape option.

July 8, 2013

Wildfire Mesquite Smoked Saison Recipe

The first time I heard of a smoked saison I thought the idea sounded terrible even though I generally enjoy smoked beers. I tried one anyway (Ranger Creek Small Batch #2) and got hooked. I find a gentle smoky character plays well with the flavor of saison yeast, especially when the smoke flavor is less bacon-y than the typical rauchmalt made with beechwood. The Ranger Creek Small Batch #2 is made with grain smoked over four different fruit woods and the fruit comes through from the wood. I decided I wanted to try to create a similar effect in a saison. I've previously written about smoking grains at home and decided I could open my own saison up to something more unique than beechwood. I selected mesquite wood in part because I had it on hand and in part because mesquite grows like crazy locally and I liked the idea of adding a local flair to the saison. Rather than smoke the base malt I thought it would be more interesting to put the smoke into some munich malt. A local-ish brewery makes a smoked alt with smoked munich that is quite tasty so I picked the munich malt as the carrier for the smokiness for this saison.

For this recipe I wanted to put together a subtle but present fruity smoke character with a grainy-tasting grain bill. For that reason I kept the grain bill pilsner-based with some white wheat malt and vienna to create some complexity. A warm 3711 ferment will drive some more fruit and spice into the recipe. It is rounded out with firm bitterness and some EKG for a gentle floral and grassy flavor. The combination reminds me of the flavors and aromas of a backyard BBQ. I called this beer "Wildfire" because it's summer and we get a lot of very smoky wildfires. Not my best name but it's functional.

This saison will be my first attempt to play with 3711 and my first attempt to drive a really warm fermentation. Last summer I played with a bottle culture from Dupont and shoved the fermentor out in the garage to get hot but I didn't feel like the combination was as great as the flavors from a hot 3711 fermentation. For this beer I am using my Johnson controller set to keep warm temperatures (requiring moving a jumper) and a fermwrap-like device. My plan is to pitch in the mid-60s and let it free rise for about twelve hours before turning on the heat and getting it as close to 90F as I can. The device I have is designed to increase temperatures by about ten degrees so with the upstairs part of my house kept between 75-80 I should get fairly close.

Wildfire Mesquite Smoked Saison

Basic Details

Batch size: 1 gallon
ABV: 5%
IBU: 34.5
SRM: 4.7
Est. OG: 1.045
Est. FG: 1.007
Est. Efficiency: 74%

Grain Bill

1 lb. Belgian Pilsner (2 SRM)
4 oz. Vienna Malt (3.5 SRM)
4 oz. White Wheat Malt (2 SRM)
3.4 oz. Smoked Munich Malt (9 SRM)


75 minute mash at 150F - infuse 3.42 quarts at 160F
Sparge with 0.58 gallons of 175F sparge water

Brewing water

100% distilled water for mash and sparge with brewing salt additions
Used Bru'n Water Yellow Bitter profile

Mash additions

Gypsum 0.3g
Epsom salt 0.3g
Calcium chloride 0.3g

Sparge additions

Gypsum 0.2g
Epsom salt 0.2g
Calcium chloride 0.2g
Lactic acid 0.3ml

Boil/Boil Additions

Boil time: 75 minutes
0.10 oz. Belma [12.1%] at 60 minutes
0.05 oz. EKG [5%] at 20 minutes
0.10 oz. EKG [5%] at 10 minutes
0.10 oz. EKG [5%] at flameout


Pitch 400ml starter of 3711 at 65F and let free rise over twelve hours
Raise to 90F for five days
Sit at ambient for nine days
Cold crash at 46F for two days
Bottle to 3.0 volumes

Brewday & Fermentation Notes:

1st runnings gravity: 1.0497
Pre-boil gravity: 1.0372
Pre-boil volume: 1.25 gallons
Efficiency 74% (finally!)
Post-boil gravity: 1.0464
Post-boil volume: 1 gallon
Measured efficiency: 73.8%

Finally got over my efficiency problems. Obviously an issue with the gap on my grain mill.

7/13/13: FG 1.0075, just a touch over what was estimated. Flavor is fruity and smoky as expected. The beer feels heavier on the tongue than expected but once the beer is carbonated I expect it will have a drier and lighter mouthfeel.Planning to let the beer rest at ambient until 7/19 and then give it a 48 hour crash and bottle on 7/21. Also looking at brewing a Funkwerks Tropic King clone that day with some of the slurry.

July 6, 2013

Budweiser-Budvar dispute: what's the meaning of budweiser?

Today I am working on brewing a small batch of saison but I wanted to cross post this post about the "budweiser" dispute from my law firm website. The dispute runs over 100 years but it seems like Budvar is finally giving up the argument.

Click here to visit the post about the budweiser name legal dispute.
July 3, 2013

More drinking in Austin -- part 3

And some more beers of note...

Hops and Grain Brewing

Hops and Grain is one of the few breweries in the state that has already adopted a new strategy for their taproom based on the new laws (and their new brewpub permit). They still let you have five beers for $10 although you don't get to keep a glass. It's too bad because they actually have some cool glassware. Anyway, let's get on to their beers. Hops and Grain has gotten into doing a lot of barrel aged and barrel fermented beers as part of their Greenhouse series of 3 BBL beers. Last trip to Austin I was stoked to taste so many great beers out of their Greenhouse series so I made sure to hit as many of them as I could this time.

  • French Oak Pale Dog: H&G took its pale ale and aged it in some French oak barrels, hence the name. I felt like this beer was aged in new barrels because it had a strong fresh oak character, with a lot of woody notes. I didn't necessarily love this one because I thought the woody notes distracted from the beer.
  • Red Rye Ale: Very solid hoppy amber rye beer. Not quite an IPA in my opinion but the hops were clearly noticeable. I love rye beers so I enjoyed this one a lot.
  • Barrel fermented 100% Vienna Malt blonde: You get the sense of what this beer is directly from the name. This beer was grainy and woody, from obvious sources. Again it felt like the barrels might have been new barrels due to the fresh oak character. It worked a lot better in this beer than the Pale Dog. If you're going to get a lot of tannins into a beer I think it works much better with a lighter, dry beer than a malty beer. Although I would have preferred less fresh oak character overall. 
  • The One They Call Zoe: This is one of H&G's regular beers. It's a pale lager in the CAP variety. It's light on flavor and refreshing in the 106F heat that day. While it isn't the most exotic beer it's also a brewing feat because such a straightforward beer leaves no room for flaws or errors to hide. It's easy drinking but like many pale lagers of quality there are plenty of gentle flavors to find.
  • Barleywine: I don't think there was a different name offered for this darker barleywine option. I really liked that this barleywine carried some darker malts to provide complexity and went easy on the bold sweetness common to many barleywines, especially when young. It wasn't quite an English barleywine but it lacked the overwhelming hoppy character of many American barleywines. I don't know if H&G would have given me a blend but I actually think this barleywine would have mixed excellently with either of the barrel beers.
  • Guest tap: Sorry to whoever provided the guest tap. It was another red rye type beer. It was good but not quite as good as H&G's version. 
I didn't think these beers were as strong as the lineup the first time I visited Hops & Grain but it was still a nice and diverse selection of beers. I like that they are playing with barrels beyond the usual barrel aged stout/porter or souring. Although I am a fan of barrel aged dark beers and sours, there is plenty of room to experiment with barrels outside of those categories.


Whip-In is a staple of my Austin visits. Great food, great beers, but as I found out this trip, terrible A/C. Dang it was so hot inside. However, the beers were well worth indulging the sauna.

  • Ranger Creek Strawberry Milk Stout: Let me start this off by saying I did not have high hopes for this beer. I expected it to either have a cloying, artificial strawberry flavor (like Fruli) or a very muddled berry flavor. Surprisingly, it was neither. Instead, this strawberry milk stout was a solid milk stout with a very clear strawberry flavor. There was no syrupy strawberry flavor and the strawberry flavor was not muddled. Granted, the milk stout base was not the most exciting milk stout I've ever had but it is the right platform for the strawberries. It is a well constructed beer.
  • Namaste Brewing Bitterama Extra Extra Special Bitter with earl grey tea: Namaste Brewing is the brewery arm of Whip-In. I was particularly excited to see this beer on tap because it's one I've wanted to try for a while. I'm perplexed at why I like these tea-based beers so much but I really enjoy them. This beer did not let me down. It is an EESB (?) which suggested it would be either a higher gravity ESB or a hoppier ESB. It seemed to be a slightly higher gravity ESB but not quite anything that would resemble an American or English IPA. Instead there was a straightforward ESB malt bill paired with the gentleness of English hops plus that something extra from the tea. It added an herbal note that played perfectly with the hops. The tea was subtle but present. 
  • Real Ale Sisyphus (2006): Sisyphus is an awesome American barleywine on its own but Whip-In brought it to a new level by putting on tap a seven year old keg. At $10 for an 8oz pour it was pricey but really not much more expensive than what many bars charge for an 8oz pour of other high gravity beers. It was smooth with almost a whiskey character that barleywines tend to develop with a little aging. What surprised me most about this beer is how much hop flavor was left. Most of the aroma had faded, allowing the malt aroma to dominate, but there was still fresh hop flavor. I was expecting the hop flavor to have faded or turned a little stale but it was fresh and vibrant. Well worth the price of the pour.
As usual, Whip-In's diverse beer line up proves to be a knockout.


Bangers is a nifty little place on Rainey on the southeast corner of downtown that specializes in beer and sausage. Sunday brunch offered a kitchen sink special that included enormously thick cuts of bacon and beef tongue hash. There's also a manmosa that pairs a full bottle of champagne in a liter stein with OJ or cranberry juice.

  • Branchline Woodcutter rye IPA on cask with grapefruit and cocoa nibs: Yes, you read that correctly. An IPA with cocoa. It was too strange of a concoction to pass up. I'm glad I tried it. As much as I am not a huge fan of IPAs I like them on cask, where the bitterness is mellowed and the hop flavor pours through. In this offering the hop flavor intermingled with citrusy grapefruit, spicy rye and chocolate. The chocolate flavor was mellow and provided sort of an earthy sweetness that worked really well. I feel like the rye is what brings the chocolate together with the other flavors. Rye is sort of earthy itself so it plays well with chocolate. The cocoa also added a little body to the beer that was pleasant. Such a strange beer but so tasty. I haven't had anything from Branchline I haven't loved so I am especially sad we do not see them in DFW.

Flix Brewing

Flix has made itself a staple in my Austin trips, if for no other reason than it is conveniently located right of I-35 just north of Austin. They put out some interesting beers and often have some interesting tap options so I'm glad it makes for an easy fit into my plans.

  • Smoked Porter: I'm a big fan of smoked porters and this one was no exception. Well constructed with a lot of chocolate character that played well with the smoke. I don't think I've had a smoked porter that pushed the chocolate character so assertively but it really worked well. 
  • Fuyu sour with persimmons: I have been on the hunt for this beer for over a year now. It's never been available on other trips so it was a huge score to leave Austin on this beer. A very light sour with assertive acidity and low funk is aged on persimmons. Persimmons have a very sweet, sort of custard flavor that I find fantastic. In this beer the persimmon flavor was present without being overpowering in the way cherries and berries can sometimes dominate sour beers. The custard-like persimmon flavor created a very interesting balance with the acidity. It had a sweet-sour character that I liked. I don't normally enjoy those backsweetened Flanders reds that have that balsamic vinegar taste. This wasn't like that at all. The custard-sweet flavor kept itself separate from the acidity so it was more like eating a dessert with separate sweet and acidic elements that creates a nice balance. I'd love to play around with persimmons in a sour but locally they sell for $1 each. That is rather expensive for fruit that are slightly smaller than roma tomatoes. I don't imagine they used a huge amount of persimmon in this beer but it couldn't have been cheap to make. 
Ok, I know these beers were not as exotic as the beers I've discussed on other beer adventures but there were some unique beers with interesting ideas that I might want to incorporate into future projects. It was a good trip in spite of the heat and a nice opportunity to unwind. I also had visits to North by Northwest, Craft Pride and Pinthouse Pizza that were full of delicious beers but nothing exotic enough or unmentioned on prior trips that I wanted to add to the length of these posts.
July 2, 2013

More drinking in Austin 2013 -- part 2

In this particular trip I chose not to try to make a whirlwind trip through as many breweries as possible. Instead I tried to hit a reasonable number, focused on finding good beers and taking advantage of what might be my last opportunity to drink great beer on the cheap. This wasn't my most exciting trip but it was a lot of fun nonetheless. I didn't end up getting into any tours because it was so damn hot in all the breweries and I didn't end up finding many beers that had a WOW factor. I did find many beers that had something interesting that I thought was worth sharing. (More of my beer adventures can be found here.)

Real Ale Brewing

Real Ale is one of the oldest craft brewers in Texas. They have a staple line of beers that are supplemented by several other product lines, such as the anniversary ales, seasonals, barrel beers, Brewer's Cut beers and various one-off projects. Their core lineup is supported primarily by Fireman's 4, a very straightforward blonde ale, but also features other classic craft styles. The brewery is way the hell out of Austin and tours only take place once a week so it has been tough to find the time to drive an hour or so out of town to get out to Real Ale. A few of the tastiest offerings on the tour:

  • Four squared: Real Ale takes its core product and converts it into a stronger blonde at 6% and drives the IBUs up to 50 with a complex blend of hops and hop additions to create a beer that is easy drinking but carries a lot of depth in the hop flavor and aroma. It's a beer that doesn't get the respect it deserves but it's a fantastic summer beer. 
  • 17th Anniversary Ale: This is Real Ale's biggest beer ever brewed; a Belgian golden strong ale clocking in at 14% ABV. It is slightly boozy but still more tame than any other similarly potent beer. It features a lot of peach and citrus character, which is a combination of Belgian yeast and four new German hop breeds. It's maltier than Duvel-like BGSA but not quite as malty as Piraat. Worth finding, if you can.
  • Mysterium Verium XV: Mysterium Verium is the series of barrel aged beers. This one is a pleasant bourbon barrel aged imperial stout. I know, there's so many BBA stouts running around but I quite enjoyed the assertive bourbon and coffee character in this beer. Unlike many of the bourbon barrel aged imperial stouts on the market, this one was not boozy and the flavor profile was well organized with distinct flavors. No muddled bourbon-oak-burnt flavor like a lot of lesser barrel aged stouts on the market. Again, another one well worth finding.
Real Ale, like many of the old guard of craft brewers, has kept itself relevant for the new generation of craft drinkers who demand more extreme beers by creating new products but also keeping its core base of loyal consumers by not giving up its original line up of beers. However, unlike some of the other older brewers who are not doing such a great job expanding their core line up with solid beers, Real Ale is knocking out each beer the package. I wish I could find more of their beers around DFW in general, especially the Mysterium Verium and Brewer's Cut beers, but I do drink my fair share of their excellent rye pale ale (Full Moon).

Austin Draught House

Austin Draught House is one of the coolest bars I've ever been to and I was excited to make a return visit on this trip. Not only are beers reasonably priced but the selection is very diverse. I scored a 14oz pour of New Belgium's La Folie for $9, which is a very reasonable price considering 22oz bottles run around $15. I had a couple other interesting beers of note:

  • Great Divide 19th Anniversary Ale: This strange concoction is an American strong ale/barleywine with birch syrup and aged on birch wood. The wood/birch flavor is strong although it is not unpleasant like an over-oaked beer. The woody birch flavor is itself sweet but complex. At cooler temperatures the beer was sweet but drinkable. As the beer warmed I found it became cloying. Definitely worth a try but probably a beer worth splitting among a group.
  • Independence Brewing Bootlegger Brown aged in bourbon barrels with bacon on cask: Let me parse through that description. This is a standard American brown ale that was aged in bourbon barrels with bacon and then served on tap. I know the whole bacon beer thing isn't new but this was a first for me. I am suspect of the whole bacon beer thing but I have to say I quite liked this beer. The subtle bourbon notes paired well with the subtle bacon flavor. It didn't taste like a bacon smoothie as I feared. The base beer is nothing special but the combination of bourbon, bacon and cask smoothness created a really interesting combination of flavors. It reminded me a little of Rogue's Voodoo Maple Bacon beer but without the smoke or strange flavor. The bourbon and brown ale added sort of a maple syrup-like character that works naturally with bacon. Totally crazy but pulled off successfully.


Thirsty Planet

Thirsty Planet doesn't get a lot of love among beer douches beer snobs because their beers focus on producing well made but classic styles (although they do make a couple unique offerings). It's ok, they never seem to be hurting for business. Some people just can't appreciate the value of a beer that isn't 8000 IBUs and dry hopped with every known variant of hops or aged in barrels with the brewers dirty socks. For people who pitch fits about brewers that produce straight forward beers I'd ask them to explain how a "session IPA", which is just a hoppy blonde ale, is mindblowing but a hoppy blonde ale called a hoppy blonde ale is boring. Ok, back to beer:

  • Perle IPA: I'm not sure whether this is a regular offering or just a tap room offering but I swear I've seen it before. This IPA is made with all or almost all Perle. It's light and the hops are very noticeable but the noble-style hops are gentle without all the bitterness of a standard west coast IPA. I'm glad to see breweries playing with some of these old school hop variants. The drive to use new hop breeds is creating a lot of unique flavors but I think these old school variants still have something unique to offer. I'd like to see them paired with some of the new variants. Perle plus some of the new noble varieties coming out of Germany could make for interesting beers. 

That's a good start on the beers on my list to discuss. I have many more to share but I am trying to get a brew in today while I am working from home so I am also writing up that recipe while brewing and doing lawyer-y work.

July 1, 2013

More drinking in Austin 2013 -- part 1

It was hot. Ass hot in Austin this weekend. For some reason breweries and many beer bars in Austin do not believe in air conditioning. That really puts a damper on enjoying beer when it is 106F outside and I'm sitting inside what is basically a giant metal box full of people. Hopefully with the new beers laws here in Texas, breweries will make some upgrades to their tap rooms and add some air conditioning.

The new laws

In the last legislative session, Texas passed a package of brewing-related laws that are considered a mix of victories and losses for the brewers. Specifically, brewers won the right to sell a portion of their beer on-site for on premises consumption in the taproom. This will start to replace the prior laws which only allowed brewers to sell glasses and give free beer in the glasses or offer free samples with their tours. Additionally, brewpubs in Texas will now be allowed to sell beer to distributors. Before the newest set of laws, brewpubs could sell for on and off premises consumption but could only sell direct to consumers. These are the biggest wins for beer drinkers because it expands our ability to enjoy great beer, even if it makes it a little more expensive to drink at breweries. (Among the losses include continued throttling of beer distribution by the state's wholesalers who have immense lobbying power.)

As a result of these new laws it is expected that several breweries will contemplate a shift from production brewing to brewpub licenses (Hops and Grain and Jester King have already made the move) because the new laws allow brewpubs to sell unlimited amounts of beer for on and off premises consumption direct to the public, self-distribute beer and sell to distributors for wider audiences. What will stop many breweries from transitioning licenses is that most breweries built into industrial-zoned spaces that are not zoned for retail purposes. It will take some time and lubrication of local governments to make those changes happen. After all, it's not like you can just haul out the fermentors from one location and set up at another. Brewers have to get licensed in spaces that are build to local health and safety code as well as state and federal alcohol licensing requirements.

It is also expected that these laws will facilitate the growth of craft beer because new breweries can move into retail/commercial-zoned space where they can build a local audience in accessible and desirable spaces. Brewpubs in Texas can also start brewing on smaller systems than what Texas requires for production brewing licenses. It will be interesting to see how this changes the state's brewing competition. Many of the nation's largest craft brewers began life as a brewpub and later expanded production facilities. I expect to see many new brewpubs popping up and some of the established breweries contemplating opening small secondary brewpub sites in trendy areas as a way to better wedge themselves in the market.

Why I went to Austin in the middle of this awful heat

The bills were just recently signed into law this month and although they went into effect with the governor's signature, many breweries have not taken steps to shift from the tour-based taproom to a more traditional pay-for-your-drinks taproom. Under the tour system you can get anywhere from several small pours to as much as 5-6 full pints for $7-10 plus you keep the glass. It's profitable for the breweries (but not nearly as much as selling per-pint) but still a great deal for consumers. I wanted to go raid Austin for cheap drinking before breweries started making the transfer, although both Hops and Grain and Jester King have taken steps to shift to the new system.

I'm pressed for time right now with my employment law firm so I don't have time today to write the goods on the beers I enjoyed so I'll have to break up the content among 2-3 posts this week.