Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Kegging My Beer

As this blog unfolds I will get into the details of homebrewing, in hopes that perhaps some newbies will give it a try and that some veterans can share their knowledge. Starting at the back end of the process on this entry, I kegged a batch of beer this weekend, a simple brown ale for a big picnic coming up on October 6. Bridget, as you can see, is fascinated by this process. For the beginners, the large glass container on the left is called a carboy. It is used to ferment the beer in a sealed, microbe-free environment. The one pictured holds 6 1/2 gallons. The typical batch of beer is 5 gallons, so a 6 1/2 gallon keg has plenty of head space above the beer for the foaming that takes place during fermentation.

Please notice the nylon carrying harness. I highly, highly recommend you buy one of these if you use glass carboys. They are cheap (around $12) and I have heard too many horror stories of broken carboys and trips to the emergency room with ghastly cuts. It's not worth it, mates. Get a harness or switch to plastic fermenters.

While Bridget watches in amazement, the beer is being siphoned into a 5 gallon stainless steel keg. I bought a kegging set-up about three years ago and it is fabulous. A five gallon Cornelius keg, commonly used for soft drink dispensers, can hold one whole batch of beer at a time. Just sanitize the keg and your racking cane and tubing, siphon the finished beer into the keg, and hook it to a CO2 tank to carbonate, chill it, and dispense it. No muss, no fuss. But, as with most time savers, it comes at a cost. You'll need a CO2 tank, regulator, keg(s), fittings, tubing, and at least one tap. A kegging setup will set you back about $200-$250. Still, for me it has been a great investment, since I brew at least twice as much with the kegging system as without.
Bottling is the alternative and, for me at least, it's a big hassle. You have to clean the bottles, sanitize the bottles, siphon the beer into a bottling bucket to mix with a bit of priming sugar which will generate the carbonation, fill the bottles, cap them, move them to the cellar, then clean up. With my other responsibilities I find it daunting.

There is one additional time savings with kegs versus bottles that will take a bit of explaining. If you read much literature on homebrewing you will find reference to "secondary fermentation". This means taking the beer out of the first fermentation vessel after fermentation has died down and giving it some aging time in a second fermentation vessel. This aids in the clarity of the beer and the aging gives it time to mellow. Now, as I will explain in a later posting, for lagers this secondary fermentation period is essential. But many homebrewers are finding that for your standard ales it is not. It used to be thought that too much time in the primary fermenter would cause off-flavors. But now homebrewers find that up to four or five weeks in the primary is no problem at all. So I now leave my beer in the primary for three to four weeks, then siphon it straight into the keg, saving the intermediate step of sanitizing a secondary and siphoning into that. I am optimizing my process for speed.

That being said, bottling is a perfectly reasonable option and is much less expensive. More on this in future postings.

THE big thing to remember when you are either bottling or kegging is to keep the oxygen out of the beer! Always remember that before fermentation starts, oxygen is your friend because the yeast need it to be healthy and grow. But after the beer is fermented out, oxygen is your enemy. This was the number one problem I had when I first began homebrewing--when I would rack (siphon) the beer into another fermenter or into bottles I would inadvertently introduce too much air. The beer would taste fine for a few weeks, but then would start to take on some very strong, unpleasant flavors. So now I'm very careful to siphon very gently, always keeping the end of the hose below the liquid line. In fact, when I keg I purge the bottom of the keg with CO2. That way, the beer flows in under a blanket of inert gas and is protected from the oxygen in the air.

After the beer is in the keg (note the empty carboy), I take a hydrometer sample. A hydrometer is a device that lets you measure the amount of dissoved sugar in a solution. This beer had a final gravity of 1.018 (distilled water is 1.00), which means that it will be fairly sweet. This is a little high for what I was shooting for, but should be just fine. I always taste the hydrometer sample, just to get an idea if there's any problem with the beer at this point. This one tasted fine.
Finally, I pressurize the keg a bit and set it in the cellar to age a little more. I have found that it's really not worth getting my nose into a batch of beer until it is at least two months old. Prior to that, it really doesn't taste that great. A little aging, but not too much, generally improves most beers tremendously.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gluten-Free Beer

This weekend I blew out my knee playing with my kids; don't know all the details yet, but it's probably one of those surgery things. Anyway, sitting in a chair, feeling sorry for myself, provided the perfect opportunity/excuse to crack open a bottle of Founder's Devil Dancer Triple IPA. This beer weighs in at a whopping 13% alcohol by volume and it is simply incredible. If someone hasn’t tried homebrewing they have no idea how hard it is to do a 13% alcohol beer that is that perfect and clean, with nothing poking out. Big beers like that are very hard to pull off, with a lot of technical challenges. This one was smooth and pristine, even as it warmed to room temperature which is where flaws really begin to show. It is not at all complex—my guess is that the grain bill is very simple and that Founder's utilized a California Ale yeast strain which ferments very clean. Distinctively sweet, but not cloyingly so, with a perfect high hop level to balance that sweetness—Devil Dancer has a thick mouthfeel and a distinct alcohol presence that is warming but never harsh. Absolutely incredible and by all means one of the best barley wines (or triple IPA, if you want to go with the new-fangled nomenclature) I have ever had. Highly recommended if you can get it locally (which, alas, I cannot—I won this bottle in a bet.) I do not recommend tearing up your knee just to have an excuse, but if you do then this beer certainly represents a significant consulation.

Now, to the main topic of this posting. A reader "eramlow" wrote in the comm boxes:

Hi - Does anyone know of a beer made without barley/hops? I acquired a taste for beer at the same time I found out I was allergic to barley. I got emergency room sick from Hops Bar and Grill best Barley beer...Is any other grain a good substitute for barley? Would it still be considered beer? Thanks!

This a very interesting posting and it piqued my curiosity. My understanding is that usually when somebody gets very sick from beer it is caused by an allergy to gluten, which is present in the barley which is the primary ingredient in beer. If somebody was allergic both to barley/gluten and hops, well that would probably eliminate the category of beer entirely.

But a gluten allergy alone still leaves the field somewhat open. I have seen gluten-free beers on the shelf for a couple of years now and have also seen articles regarding homebrewing gluten-free beers, so this posting prompted a little more research on my part.

First, some practical exposure. I traipsed home with a six-pack of "New Grist" gluten-free beer from Lakefront Brewery (http://www.newgrist.com/). This beer won a gold ribbon in the Experimental Beer category at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival, so I thought it stood a good chance of being at least representative of what one might expect from a good gluten-free beer. (And yes, it is considered beer, which is the general label applied to any non-distilled alcoholic beverage that is made from malted grain.)

New Grist poured very pale and had a grassy aroma. There's also a faint green apple aroma there and this note carries through to the aftertaste. My wife and I agree that this beer both smells and tastes a bit like our homemade hard cider. (In fact, if I was suddenly struck with gluten intolerance I would probably switch over to hard cider.) After you swallow, way on the back of the tongue there is a faint bubblegum note. The beer has no head retention at all. Pleasant hop bitterness. It's refreshing. It's a decent summer beer.

Wikipedia has an interesting article on gluten-free beer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gluten_free_beer) which includes the note that "Statements from brewers such as Sapporo, show that their scientists feel confident that their product is non-harmful to those who are gluten intolerant." My guess is that Sapporo relies heavily on rice as a major fermentable and it's pretty thin.

Apparently, however, there are more robust beers made without gluten and a surpisingly large number are reviewed here, http://www.glutenfreebeerfestival.com/available/available.html. I would be interested in trying some of the more highly rated ones, but they're not available in my area.

In terms of homebrewing, you can brew a gluten-free beer but it becomes a lot more difficult. A number of interesting recipes can be found at http://www.fortunecity.com/boozers/brewerytap/555/gfbeer/recipes.htm and a fairly detailed article on the various techniques involved can be found at the Brew Your Own site, "Gluten-Free Brewing" http://byo.com/feature/1589.html. (By the way, I subscribe to Brew Your Own magazine and can recommend it.) Judging by that article, it looks as if extract brewing is the way to go--only the most intrepid homebrewer would brew from all grain, since at this point that involves malting your own sorghum (or other non-glutenous grain) and then conducting a very technically challenging triple decoction mash to convert the starches in that grain to fermentable sugars.

The bottom line is that someone who is allergic to barley/gluten can indeed continue to brew and drink beer, but that beer will have a decidedly different character from beer brewed from barley. If it was me, I would probably switch my emphasis to wine and hard cider and take the loss of my enjoyment of barley-based beer (and single malt scotch!) as a substantial sacrifice to offer up.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Three Reviews By JM

I'm pleased to post three reviews from a CBR veteran. I would also like to note that the CBR met recently in Chicago to taste a wide variety of beers. We tasted four from the Founder's Brewery in Grand Rapids, MI (http://www.foundersbrewing.com/home.php) — Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale (reviewed below), Reds Rye Ale (also reviewed below), Rübæus Raspberry Wheat Ale, and Devil Dancer Triple IPA (sporting a whopping 13% alcohol by volume!) Individually we enjoyed some more than others, but we all agreed that each beer was outstanding for its style. Hats off to Founder's!

Thanks to JM for these reviews and thank too for all the great comments in the com-boxes. We're off to a fantastic start!

Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale is brewed by a local Grand Rapids brewery (Founder's), and I'll be quite curious to head down there sometime in the next few weeks to actually try this beer from the tap.

The pour was very deep amber, and the initial scent was a very powerful - almost overpowering, in fact - alcoholic odor. Just beneath that scent were traces of generic "roastiness" and perhaps some caramel.

The first mouthful, as might be expected, contained a burst of that alcohol flavor that was so strong in the odor. It was almost too much, honestly - made the beer just ever-so slightly over-bitter. Fortunately, the mouth-feel was very creamy, with just a bit of carbonated bite, and the after-taste contained hints of dried fruit (mostly raisin), toffee, and that unidentifiable "roastiness" again.

It was quite addictive, actually, and I had to stop myself from drinking too much, too fast. I wanted to enjoy it, at $9.50 for the six-pack. Plus, the almost 9% alcohol content warranted a bit of patience in drinking. Something about that combination of the caramel/toffee, dried fruit, and scotch-style "zing" made me want to keep putting more in my mouth. The high alcohol content created a warming sensation in the belly, and that lasted for nearly an hour - very much like drinking real scotch.

Founder's own review of the beer is pretty close to reality: 'Dirty Bastard is complex in the finish with hints of smoke and peat paired with a malty richness, finalized with a good bit of hop attitude. This beer "ain't fer the wee lads".'

Red's Rye Ale: Wow! Hello, hops! As soon as I cracked the cap off of this bottle and started pouring this sweet amber-brown liquid, the room smelled like grapefuit and flowers. I did something a bit different this time and drank the beer at room temperature, to see if the flavors were any more pronounced. This made the mouthfeel a bit more creamy, I think, and the flavors did seem a bit more "present", as suspected.

The immediate splash of fruit and flowers in the mouth soon gave way to a very strong rye flavor, which really made this beer interesting. If the fruity-floral top notes were a bit of "mouth candy", the rye made it more mature and full. Not much of a finish on this one, though.

About 3/4 of the way through the glass, some of the malty/rye bitterness faded away and - I hadn't noticed this before - a very noticeable but not overpowering raspberry and wheaty kind of flavor started to shine through. Those last three or four swallows were wonderful. The 6.8% alcohol content wasn't really noticeable in the flavor, but I don't think I'd drink more than two in a night. Overall, a nice mix of citrus, berries, and malt. I give it a 9.5.

From the Founder's web site:

"Pours a spectacular crimson red with a creamy tan head. Brewed with four varieties of Belgian caramel malts imparting a sweet richness. Red's Rye is impressively balanced with its hop bitterness and huge citrus bouquet achieved from the immense amarillo dry hop. The generous amount of malted rye used accentuates a spicy crisp finish."

Genesis 10:10--The label is what attracted me the most, I'll admit it. The beverage description did its part to add to the seduction: "brewed with our chosen specialty malts, hops, brewers yeast and pomegranate juice." Yes, pomegranate juice.I figured, what the heck, I'm a modern Catholic who's hip to the new wave of Jewish-Catholic relations, at least, insofar as it means drinking a beer brewed by "He'brew - The Chosen Beer" company (Schmaltz Brewing Company). The brew is called Genesis 10:10 - which reads, speaking of Nimrod, "The beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar." I'm sure the meaning of this verse in correlation to the beer's name becomes clearer and clearer the further into the bottle you get. The color is a deep shade of red. It almost looks like wine if you're not paying attention. A fair bit of lacing, and a nice creamy head tops it off.It's not too bad, but I doubt I'd buy it again. The promised pomegranate flavor is there, but its very subtle, and gets quickly overpowered by the boat-load of hops bitterness. Actually, by "pomegranate" I mean generic fruity-ness; it's not readily distinguishable as pomegranate juice. The malt is pretty overpowering as well, which makes for a slightly bitter aftertaste. Hard to describe this one, frankly, because it keeps changing the more it warms up. The fruit becomes much more pronounced the warmer this beer gets. Very interesting. I would drink it again if someone offered it to me. But I probably wouldn't spend money on it again.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ten Beers I Go Back To Again and Again

This list does not exactly comprise my top ten favorites, although it's close. If it did then certain really spectacular beers, like Fuller's 1845, Chimay Grande Reserve, Old Rasputin's Russian Imperial Stout, or several of the fabulous beers from the Founder's Brewery in Grand Rapids, MI would be on here. But those are too expensive or (for me) too inaccessible to be regulars. Rather, this list is of the ten beers that I find myself going back to time and again. They're consistently good and readily available, at least at my locale.

There are some beers that could have been on this list—notably some of the offerings from the Samuel Smith brewery. But they come in clear bottles and the CBR is officially boycotting all beers that come in clear bottles. That is a rant for another posting.

So without further ado, here are ten of my old friends:

Guinness Extra Stout—A classic. This beer is black and very assertive with roasted grain, coffee, and molasses on the palate. It's rich, tangy, well balanced. Great. Like all ales, this should not be drunk too cold. This is the foreign export extra stout version, not the more watery draft version. I like the draft version with its nitrogen pour and creamy head, but it's just a totally different animal. To my tastes, this wins hands down.

Fuller's London Pride Pale Ale— An incredibly well balanced beer. I think that for me this represents the quintessential example of a British pale ale. Smooth, not overly hoppy or overpoweringly malty. Classic British flowerly hop presence. Perfectly balanced and every sip a pleasure. Incredibly good.

Fuller's London Porter—This beer blows me away; I can hardly believe how good this is. This very dark brown (not black) beer starts with slightly thick mouthfeel that leads to a creamy, slightly roasted, slightly bitter but perfectly balanced follow-through of porter perfection. Bittersweet chocolate, coffee, and I catch a touch of licorice. The first time I tried this, I had a Fuller's London Pride and the London Porter in the same evening (12 Aug 2002) and I have never tasted two such great beers together, ever.

Tyranena Bitter Woman IPA—You may not be able to get this fabulous beer where you are. It's brewed here in Wisconsin and I love it. A very complex malt palate (the brewery lists 2-row, Vienna, Carapils, Wheat, Caramel malts in the grain bill) is supported by a very assertive but absolutely clean bittering. Citrus and pine notes prevail on the nose and the palate. An outstanding American IPA (India Pale Ale). Get it if you can!

J.W. Dundee's Honey Brown Lager—Mildly sweet, distinctive honey finish, mildly malty, and fairly low hop bitterness. Nice rich brown color. Smooth and infinitely quaffable. I have drunk a lot of this and I keep coming back for more. It is reasonably priced to boot.

Sleeman Original Dark—To my taste this is a dead ringer for Newcastle. In fact, it more often tastes the way Newcastle should taste, since it seems nigh unto impossible to get a fresh bottle of Newcastle. Sleeman, on the other hand, is brewed on contract right here at the La Crosse City Brewery, so I have an easy time getting it fresh. It's a brown ale, slightly nutty with nice caramel and a hint of molasses. Great.

Young's Double Chocolate Stout—Made with cocoa and chocolate malt (hence the double chocolate in the title) this is a silky, smooth, dessert-style beer. Very low hop bittering. It should not be consumed too cold—if you start it on the cold side it will get much better as it warms up. This beer should not, repeat NOT, be drunk with a meal. It's totally ruined by food. Drink it by itself or with a rich dessert.

Samuel Adams Cream Stout—This is not as sweet as I would expect from a cream stout. The roasted and coffee notes are pronounced, the chocolate less so. Starts almost tart when very cool, but sweetens as it warms. Nice hefty mouthfeel and a perfect malt and hop bittering balance. This is widely available and, at least in my locale, can often be had on sale for a very good price.

Samuel Adams Boston Ale—Note this is the Boston Ale, not the Boston Lager. The Boston Lager is okay—the Boston Ale is really yummy! This ale stands in the British style; it is decidedly malty, with the hop presence perfectly balanced. This beer is slightly fruity, but only mildly estery so it is more tame than some British ales. A rich mahogany in the glass with a nice stable head. This is hard for me to find locally, but when I travel I try to grab a six pack. I come back to it again and again, which is why it's on this list.

Goose Island India Pale Ale—I have not generally been a fan of the Goose Island products. Neither the Honker's Ale nor the Hexnut Ale from this Chicago microbrewery do a thing for me. Some years ago I somewhat reluctantly bought a six-pack of the India Pale Ale because it was on sale and I had never tried it. Wow! This medium bodied beer has a slightly thick mouth feel. The first sip shouts, Hops! The strong grapefruit notes indicate that there are almost certainly Cascade hops here, but probably at least two other varieties as well bringing a pleasing complexity. The finish is markedly bitter, but with a nice balance of malt and a very slight sweetness. Great!

Please share some of your own favorites in the Comments. What beers do you go back to time and again?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Some Resources on How to Make Your Own Beer

Making your own beer is a lot of fun. I've been homebrewing for about six years now. It hasn't been easy for me and I've had more than a few batches that have gone to the hogs, but by sticking to it I've gotten to where I can pretty consistently make beer that I and my friends enjoy. In the photo at left you can see a batch of British bitter bubbling away in my cellar.

I'll be posting more on my own homebrewing adventures, but to kick this off I'd like to give you a few resources on how to get started.

  • There are a lot of places from which to buy homebrew supplies. I have had great service from the guys (and gals) at Midwest Supplies: http://www.midwestsupplies.com/. You can download their catalog from the site and you can also get a free how-to video from them which is a great deal. I don't make anything for the referral, but tell them that I recommended them if you happen to buy something there.

Web Resources:

  • I also appreciate the expertise of Jamil Zainasheff, http://thebrewingnetwork.com/jamil.php. Note that you'll have to endure some lockerroom language and talk in some of these shows and this detracts from their professionalism. But Zainasheff has won more homebrewing awards than any other individual and he knows what he's talking about.