Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Mystery Solved

Life is full of mysteries, great and small. A small mystery for me has been why coffee made in a French press requires so much more coffee to achieve the same strength of brew compared to a drip coffee maker. It just seemed intuitive to me that if you take nearly boiling water, dump it straight into the ground coffee and let it steep, you have the maximum possible exposure to the surface area of the coffee and therefore you're going to get the strongest possible brew. But it just ain't so. In fact, you have to use almost twice as much coffee in the press. Hmmmmm.

Well, I was discussing this mystery with a couple of my nephews the other day and in the context of that conversation one of them asked a question about beer making (there had to be a connection, to make it onto this blog, right?) All of a sudden, enlightenment! The mystery was solved.

As I've laid out before on this blog, beer is made by adding hot water to ground malted barley (a process called mashing) and then, after the resulting activated enzymes have done their work to convert the starches in the grain into sugar, the sugar is washed away and fermented. That washing process is called sparging. Broadly speaking there are two main sparging techniques--batch sparging and fly sparging. In batch sparging you drain off that initial infusion of hot water from the malt, then add another slug of hot water, stir to dissolve more sugar, and run off again. In fly sparging the brewer sprinkles hot water onto the malt at a steady rate and collects the sugary run-off.

Now I personally batch sparge because it's faster and easier. But guess which method extracts more sugar from the mash? Yup, it's the fly sparging. (That's why all commercial beer makers fly sparge; they have to maximize their yield of fermentable sugar from a given measure of malt.) The reason is that water can only hold so much sugar in solution and so adding the water gradually and continuously allows the sparge water to extract the maximum amount of sugar from the mash.

Obviously, the same principles are at work in coffee making. The French press makes a wonderful, rich, flavorful cup of coffee, but the single infusion of water can only take up so much extract from the coffee grounds. Just as in beer making, a slow, continuous stream of hot water extracts much more from the same volume of coffee.

Now that all may have been immediately obvious to everybody but me. Still, it was fun to think it all through. Another of life's little mysteries solved. Now if only beer making could help me understand how a neatly coiled rope can get knotted in fifty seven places just by being laid on the ground.........

Monday, October 27, 2008

Waste Not, Want Not

A question that comes up a lot on various homebrewing forums (or is that fora?) is what to do with the spent grains from brewing. First, for those who don't brew themselves, I should explain what I mean by "spent grains". Beer's backbone, its main ingredient, is malted barley. You can use other kinds of malted grain (like wheat), but barley is the principle grain in most beer. Malting is the process of just barely sprouting the grains, then drying and lightly kilning them to halt the sprouting process. As a kernel of grain sprouts, its chemical composition changes. Most important for us, if you take sprouted (malted) grain, grind it up, and add hot water to form a porridge at just the right temperature (typically you end up with something in the 150 deg F range) the enzymes in the malted grain will be activated and they will begin to crack down the starch in the grain and convert it to malt sugar (mostly maltose). Further on in the process this sugar, in turn, is converted by yeast into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

What's left over after the enzymes have done their thing and the sugar has been washed away into what will become your beer is called "spent grain". But it's only spent from the standpoint of being able to get more sugar out of it. The grain still retains almost all of its protein and, of course, its fiber content. That means it's dynamite animal feed. And so here at the Palm HQ it's easy to know what to do with spent grains -- we feed our animals. Both cows and horses absolutely love the spent brewing grains. I just let the spent mash from a batch cool down and then feed it out over the course of three or four days.

Homebrewers who don't keep farm animals will sometimes add the spent grains to their compost pile, make dog biscuits, or sometimes even cookies or other baked goods for human consumption. I haven't tried any of those other things, so Ican't really comment.

Commercial breweries routinely sell their spent mash to farmers as animal feed. They do the same with spent hops and the enormous quantity of yeast that is left over after their large-scale fermentation. I have usually just dumped my leftover yeast onto the lawn. One time I thought it would be a healthy fertilizer, so I dumped some at the base of a maple sapling I had started that year. Over the course of the next few weeks all the leaves fell off and the poor thing almost died. It's doing okay now, but I've gone back to just dumping them out. But yeast is highly nutritious and commercial breweries sell the yeast. They also sell the carbon dioxide that is generated during fermentation. So you see, nothing much goes to waste in the brewing process.

Some homebrewers are concerned about their water useage. Brewing requires a fair amount of water, not only to mash and rinse the grains but also to chill the boiling wort before you add the yeast. Again, here on our farm I don't really waste anything. I use the very hot water that first comes out of the wort chiller to clean my equipment. Then, when it starts to cool off, I capture it in 5 gallon buckets and use it to fill the water troughs for the animals.

Overall, then, brewing is a fabulously efficient process -- nothing is "wasted" except, I guess, the fuel needed to heat the water and boil the wort. But then again, it's awfully hard to claim that anything is truly wasted when it results in something as wonderful as beer.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Assumption Feast 2008

Our annual Assumption Feast was held again this year on Sunday, August 17 (the actual feast, of course, is on August 15, but we transferred this celebration to the next Sunday.) As always, we began our celebration of this wonderful feast of our Lady with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, celebrated according to the ancient Gregorian Rite by Fr. Glenn Gardner of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest. Here on St. Mary's Ridge, we have a sung Mass every Sunday and we tried to have some special music for this special feast. Happily Fr. Joseph Redfern of the Diocese of La Crosse was along to help our schola. Father's voice is awesome and fills out our humble attempts to give the Gregorian Chant pride of place in the celebration of the sacred liturgy.

Mass was followed by a solemn procession around the Church while saying the Rosary. We stopped at a beautiful outdoor altar for prayers and Benediction.

The highlight of the feast is, of course, the Mass. But being the synthesis of soul and body that we are, the joy and benefit of a spiritual banquet can be heightened by its carnal counterpart. Here, as is now traditional for us, a whole roasted pig was prepared by Jim Schroeder. Father Meney of the Institute of Christ the King seems to be enjoying the preparation of this delectable beast. These pork roasts are a real treat and I'm absolutely serious that any of you who are anywhere near this neck of the woods really should join us next year to try this delicacy. To go with it were a host of luscious salads and side dishes brought by the families of our apostolate as well as folks from St. Mary's Oratory in Wausau, WI.

Now, of course, this blog is about beer and one can hardly imagine a finer culinary combination than roasted pork and beer. I served up three varieties at this feast. The first was my London Bridge Brown which was an all-grain batch made, for the first time for me, with pale chocolate malt which does indeed give it a subtle and delicious chocolate note. The second was what I called Wizard of Oz Ale, another batch made in honor of our Australian priest Father Redfern, from the same Cooper's Bitter kit that is reviewed below. And finally I served out the All Amarillo Amber Ale which, again, is mentioned below. All of the beers were well received and, as always, it is a joy to be able to share the fruits of one's labors with an appreciative crowd.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rhubarb Wine: It's fermented like beer

Yeah, yeah, this is a beer site. But, the cool thing about making your own beer is that you automatically have the equipment you need to make wine too. I have not had much success in the past making decent homemade wines from my homegrown fruits, but hope springs eternal.

"They" say that one of the most successful homemade wines comes from rhubarb. Well I happen to have a very large and prolific rhubarb patch, so this year I gave it a shot. The recipe was pretty straightfoward (I'm reproducing this from memory, so I may have to edit this when I can check my notes): Six pounds of chopped rhubarb to five pounds table sugar, water, wine yeast. I froze the rhubarb to help with juice extract, added everything to one of my plastic fermenters, and let it bubble along for a few days. Then I racked the still-fermenting wine off into a two gallon glass fermenter. As you can see, it was still very cloudy with yeast.

Now that has been sitting in my basement for a couple of months and much of the yeast has dropped out. Just last week I racked into two, one gallon glass jugs. I'll let it age in there for a few more months, then put it into bottles. I have it in mind to bottle half of it still and slightly sweetened and the other half carbonated, for rhubarb "champagne".

As I said, with your beer-making equipment you can make all sorts of fermented beverages at home. I have some cranberry mead that will be one year old this coming Christmas and I'm rather anxious to crack into that. I'll let you know how that and the rhubarb wine turns out.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Two Great Books on Homebrewing

Brewing your own beer at home is not difficult, but the process does require a certain amount of specialized knowledge in order for your brew to turn out good, let alone great. It is a hobby that requires significant attention to detail. I have hit many of the landmines that end in not very good beer, so I know of what I speak.

The path to good homebrew is knowledge. So to that end, I would like briefly to review and recommend the two books which are, in my opinion, the "must haves" in the homebrewer's library.

I consider How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time by John Palmer to be the best single book on how to brew beer at home. For me, at least, this book has all the right stuff. It starts at a very basic level for the beginner. But it contains considerable intermediate and advanced material as well; Palmer is a metallurgist by profession and so he brings what is to me a pleasing amount of scientific background to the topic.

The book is written clearly and the layout is easy to follow. There are great examples and photos throughout which the lead the homebrewer through every phase of brewing, from initial set-up to final consumption. Really, at least the early chapters of this book should ideally be read carefully a couple of times before the homebrewer forges into the hobby because it will cement the basic principles that will hold him good stead throughout his brewing "career". But even if you are an intermediate or advanced brewer, you should have this book. Palmer's grasp of the hobby is impressive and I guarantee that you will learn something, probably a lot.

Palmer also had a hand in this second volume, Brewing Classic Styles: 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, which he coauthored with award winning brewer Jamil Zainasheff. But as the subtitle of this book indicates, this is primarily a book of recipes, not a "how to" volume. Palmer's contributions of "how to" material in the first and final chapters are fine, but inadequate by themselves. It is the main body of the book, containing the recipes crafted by Zainasheff, that make this book shine.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes available in books and on the Internet for different kinds of homebrew. One of the potential problems with this embarassment of riches is that one does not always know whether the recipe is any good. And you don't necessarily know whether the recipe really conforms to its purported style.

This books contains a recipe for each of the 80 formal beer styles recognized by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). Well and good. But what really makes these recipes special is that they have all won at least one award at a homebrewing contest (Zainasheff is the most highly awarded homebrewer in the world). That at least brings a level of objectivity beyond, "I brewed this once and thought it was great!" and other similar comments that may accompany the random recipe.

I've brewed four or five of these recipes and they have all turned out quite good. Are they foolproof? Well, perhaps not. I brewed Zainasheff's oatmeal stout recipe and found it not nearly as "roasty" as I would have wanted. On the podcast for that style, someone wrote in with that very same observation. So here there is either some variation in the ingredients we're using (quite likely) and/or the recipe perhaps needs a little tweaking.

That being said, if I could only retain two books on homebrewing, there is no question that it would be these two. Get either one or both of them and you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Blessing of Beer from the Rituale Romanum

Oh what a nice find! From Fr. Schnippel's Called By Name blog, drawing in turn from Sanitas Contra Gentes:

Blessing of Beer:

V. Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.
R. Qui fecit caelum et terram.

V. Dominus vobiscum.
R. Et cum spiritu tuo.


Bene+dic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisiae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi, et praesta per invocationem nominis tui sancti; ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corpus et animae tutelam percipiant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum.

R. Amen.

Et aspergatur aqua benedicta.

English translation:

V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Who made heaven and earth.

V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.

Let us pray.

Bless, + O Lord, this creature beer, which thou hast deigned to produce from the fat of grain: that it may be a salutary remedy to the human race, and grant through the invocation of thy holy name; that, whoever shall drink it, may gain health in body and peace in soul. Through Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

And it is sprinkled with holy water.

You had better believe we'll use this prayer at this year's annual Assumption Feast (scheduled for August 19 at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, just outside of Cashton, WI. If you're in our neck of the woods, e-mail me about joining us for a sung High Mass, procession, and feast afterwards featuring abundant victuals and homebrew.)

Thanks for the link, Father Schnippel!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Clearly the Wrong Container

I have mentioned my disdain for beer in clear bottles several times here on the blog, but a reader's recent comment prompted me to elaborate on this.

Fairly early in my beer tasting adventures I noticed certain beers, like Newcastle Ale and Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout, would get high marks and sometimes (especially in the case of the latter) even rave reviews. But I bought these products a couple of times and found them lackluster at best and, at times, downright distasteful. I continued to encounter the rave reviews, so I figured I must be missing something. Eventually I tried samples of both which displayed all of the fine qualities that others had been highlighting. What was going on?

I can't prove it, but I think it may have something to do with the clear bottle. Beer has compounds in it from the hops that are light sensitive. Try this experiment: pour a beer (pretty much any beer, but try it with a pale variety) into a clear glass. Set it in the sun for twenty minutes or so. Now, take a sniff, take a taste. If the old factory and your tastebuds are well calibrated, you will probably detect a phenomenon which beermakers call "skunking", an off-aroma and flavor slightly reminiscent of the odor/flavor of skunk (anybody here know what skunk tastes like?) The ultraviolet light in sunlight reacts with chemicals in the beer to produce this skunking.

Brown bottles filter out the light at these wavelengths and so protect the beer. Clear bottles don't; neither do green bottles. And although commercial beer isn't likely actually to sit out in the sun for any length of time, there is UV light in indoor florescent lighting as well. So although the required exposure time is longer, the effect can be the same: a degraded product over time.

Why do breweries use clear bottles, then? I understand that the move to package these fine brews in such containers has to do with marketing appeal, meshing (I think) with our Western fetish for "white". White sugar, white flour, white eggs, and beer in clear bottles....they're all of a piece (and they're all bad, except for the white eggs, I guess, which are nutritionally equivalent to their brown counterparts.)

The last straw, for me, was a (clear) bottle of Old Speckled Hen I had a couple of years ago. I had had this ale once before (out of a can.....more to say about that in a moment) and it was wonderful. This bottle was horrible. I'm ashamed to say that I drank the whole thing, because it literally made me sick to my stomach. That was the last beer I've purchased in a clear bottle.

Now, I cannot prove that all of my disappointments stem directly from clear bottles. But at least in my experience my chances of getting a decently fresh bottle of beer go up dramatically if it comes in brown, rather than clear or green, bottles. Some of these beers are pretty pricey and I'm just not interested in playing those odds anymore.

There is a container for beer that is superior in every way, namely, the can. There is a lively debate going on in wine circles about the abandonment of the natural cork (an inferior way of capping wine) in favor of other approaches such as synthetic corks or screw tops. The screw tops, like the can, are vastly superior in terms of preserving the wine over time. But I have to throw my vote in with those who contend that there is something très romantique about uncorking a wine bottle, so my nod goes to the synthetic corks.

I don't think there's quite that same dynamic with beer containers. Cans are tacky to drink from, but you shouldn't be drinking good beer directly from can or bottle anyway. Once the beer is decanted into an appropriate drinking vessel, its freshness and full flavor are vastly more important, in my opinion, than what container it came from. So by all means, drink wonderful beers like Newcastle and Old Speckled Hen, from a can. But boycott the clear bottles.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ditch the Siphon: This is a Better Way

One task of homebrewing that I really dislike is siphoning. There are guys who don't think starting a siphon is any big deal; they wonder why I have a problem. Well I don't know why I have a problem with it, but I do.

A siphon, of course, uses a tube and gravity to transfer a liquid from one container to another. Set one container lower than the other, get the liquid started running through the tube, and gravity will do the rest of the work to empty the higher container. In brewing, you normally using a curved piece of rigid tubing (either plastic or stainless steel) called a racking cane, to reach down to the bottom of your fermenter. Then you attach a piece of flexible tubing to the racking cane, start the siphon, and direct the beer into whatever second container you want.

But that's the problem--starting the siphon. In a brewing environment you have to maintain strict sanitary conditions, or your beer will get infected and taste nasty. I once thought I could "get away with" taking a sample from a beer that was aging in my cellar using an unsanitized turkey baster. It looked clean enough. I just dipped the tip of the baster in, took the sample, and recapped the beer. But over the next few weeks, a white scum started to grow, creeping out until the whole surface was covered. By the time I dared try it, the batch had turned distinctly sour. I fed all five gallons to a hog that we butchered a week later for our annual Harvest Fest (at least his last days were happy.) Yes, you must sanitize everything that will come in contact with your beer. You will pay for your shortcuts in both dollars and disappointment.

Another big key to making good beer is to be sure that you do not, repeat, do not get oxygen into your beer after it has fermented. This was a big problem for me when I first started brewing. Some of my early batches tasted fine when they first went into the bottle. But about three weeks later they developed a strong, sherry-cardboard taste. I was not siphoning carefully enough and the splashing was incorporating oxygen into my finished beer.

So it can be tricky to start a siphon without infecting or oxygenating the beer. Some guys just suck on the tube; I've done this too and never had a problem, but obviously it's not sanitary and I'm just waiting to get an infected batch from this. Some guys fill the siphon tubing with water, attach it to the racking cane, and let that initial outrush of water start the siphon. That has only worked about 33% of the time for me, which is why I've ended up sucking on the tubing the other 67%. Another way that works well for me when using a glass carboy to ferment the beer is to use a carboy cap with two holes; the racking cane goes into one and you blow into the other to start the siphon. Works like a champ. Finally, some folks use an auto-siphon. You just give it a pump and the siphon starts automagically. I'm sure this works just fine.

But I have found a Better Way. Last night I transferred the all-Amarillo amber ale that I mentioned in a previous posting from the fermenters into kegs using the invert tube backnut and spigot from Williams Brewing.

If you ferment in plastic buckets, as I am doing more and more, you just drill a hole in the bucket, install the spigot and backnut which then sits just above the yeast and trub that settles out of your beer when it's done fermenting. To transfer your beer into a keg or bottling bucket, just sanitize a piece of tubing, squirt some sanitizer up into the spigot, attach the tubing, turn the handle, and Presto! your beer runs effortlessly into your keg. No messing around with siphons. As I've mentioned before, between a family of six, a full time job, a farm, and church responsibilities I'm trying to optimize my brewing set-up for speed. This is another nice notch up for me.

And oh, by the way, the All Amarillo Amber Ale is Awesome!

À votre santé!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Free Beer! A Cooper's Kit Reviewed

Back in April I brewed a batch of beer from a beer "kit" that I received, happily enough, for free. Basically, I was reading a thread on a beer forum at just the right moment to send in my name to receive the kit from a representative of the Cooper's Brewery, who kindly sent out "Cooper's Bitter" kits to the first ten folks who sent him an e-mail (the whole story can be found here.)

I got the kit in January and finally got around to brewing the batch on Friday, 11 April. I was planning on doing a regular all-grain batch that Saturday, a process that takes about five hours from start to finish, but when I got home from work on Friday I realized there was just no way I was going to have time to brew the next day. But the family was at the library, so I thought what the heck, this is a perfect chance to try the Cooper's kit. Some beer is always better than no beer.

This kit was super-easy to make. I pre-heated the can of malt extract for ease of pouring, then added half of the 1 kilogram package of "brewing sugar" (corn sugar and maltodextrin mix) that came in the box, then the prescribed amount of boiling water. I topped this up using my tap water, which was an experiment in itself. I'm on a well and I did not sanitize this water in any way before using it in this brew. My (original gravity) OG was 1.038. I used my new MixStir for the very first time to oxygenate, pitched the Cooper's dry yeast that came with the kit, and fermented at about 68 deg F. The whole process took me less than an hour--I had everything cleaned up and dinner started before the family got back.

I kegged this exactly two weeks later. Final gravity (FG) was 1.012. The beer was much darker than I expected. Once I got it chilled and carbonated I took a taste and was very pleasantly surprised. It has a firm, balanced bittering and a prominent but nice molasses note. The body is light but not overly so--it's nice for such a low gravity beer. There is no hint of any infection problem from the well water. The change in gravity represents a beer at approximately
3.4% ABV, so you can see that it's a relatively light beer, but with a very full flavor.

I took this keg to church on Sunday, April 27 (our Mass is at 3 pm and we always have potluck supper afterwards). Serendipitously, we had a visiting priest, Fr. Joseph Redfern, who hales from Australia and he was very familiar with Cooper's products. Everyone who tried the beer enjoyed it. The beer smoothed out very nicely over the next weeks, but for a two week old beer it was really quite nice.

I still have a little of this batch left and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I don't think this kit makes an award winning beer, but it's darn good--great for everyday drinking. It's the cat's pajamas for those times when you don't have time for an all-grain batch. Would I use a Cooper's product again? Absolutely.

You can find their products for sale here, here, and here. I think this is a great way for a beginner to learn the basics of brewing. Get a good book on brewing, like How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time by John Palmer, start with ingredients from a reputable maltster like Coopers, pay close attention to sanitation, and I think you'll be very happy with the results.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI Loves His Beer

It is not clear from this press clipping whether the Holy Father actually ordered 185 gallons (!) of this German beer for his household or whether it was delivered as a gift from the brewery. Either way, it appears that Pope Benedict XVI loves his beer. God bless him!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Politics of Beer

Beer isn't political. But beer companies certainly can be. As soon as I started this blog, I was made aware of several instances in which beer companies had been openly supportive of some very unsavory activities. For example, Miller Brewing was taken to task by the Catholic League for its support of some homosexual advocacy and the appropriation of its logo to an advertisement what was openly offensive to Christians. Thankfully, this particular controversy ended with Miller doing the right thing by publicly apologizing.

The Boston Beer Company, brewer of Samuel Adams products, was directly involved in promoting the incredibly crass "Sex for Sam" publicity stunt hosted by radio shock jocks Opie and Anthony which ended in a couple being arrested for seeking to copulate in a vestibule of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. While the radio station pulled the show and suspended the hosts, to my knowledge the Boston Beer Company has never indicated any regrets over its direct promotion of the sacrilege. My own request to their customer service department for clarification went unanswered. [Update: But thankfully, I'm wrong. Jim Koch did indeed apologize for his participation.]

A reader of this blog sent me information on Sierra Nevada Brewing Company's support for The Womens' Health Specialists, a notorious abortion provider in northern California. Sierra Nevada stood by its support for this death mill, sidestepping the fact that WHS murders innocent human beings with the typical refrain that they do a lot of good things too (see here and here.)

On the other hand, another reader (Ray from MN) noted in the comboxes that:

If you accept nominations, I would like to nominate beers from the Summit Brewing Co. of Minneapolis.The Chairman of the Board is as Catholic, and as Pro-Life going back many years, as they come (well, he is a convert) and their beers are well rated in secular contests.

I am thrilled to hear that Summit is run by a solid Catholic. In fact, I think I will try to contact him for an interview for this blog. Ray is right that Summit products are absolutely top notch (their Winter Skäl and Winter Ale are particularly good) and as a nod toward drumming up more business for them I think I will begin the grueling process of purchasing and sampling a variety of their offerings to be reviewed here (it's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.)

Okay, back to the bad guys. Miller products don't interest me anyway and they ended up doing the right thing, so if you must drink Miller beer then you can buy their products in good conscience (the only pang of conscience one might have is whether it's really fair to call Miller Lite "beer".) But Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada products are top flight and represent some of my favorite beers. This is harder. What is a Catholic to do? Well, in the face of Sierra Nevada's unrepentant support of a notorious abortion provider, I think they need to face a Catholic boycott. If you agree with me, let them know that you're not buying their stuff any more. The Boston Brewing Company's involvement in one scandal may or may not be sufficient for you to decide that you need to skip their products entirely. At the very least, it puts me on the look-out to see what else they might be involved in. [Update: But as mentioned above, they did the right thing on this one. So that leaves just Sierra Nevada.]

This raises the much larger question of a Catholic consumer's responsibility in the face of corporate behavior that runs directly counter to Catholic moral teaching. In general, I would say that we can't really be responsible for everything that transpires in every company with which we do business. Still, if Catholics en masse got serious about not supporting that which runs counter to our faith, it could make a significant difference in what companies do and don't support.

I'd really like to hear from you in the comment box. Please let us know how you make these decisions. What are your criteria for doing business or not doing business with a company that behaves in ways like these?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Hop Shortage? Grow Your Own!

If you appreciate good beer but don't brew your own, you may not be aware that there is a significant worldwide hop shortage that is driving up the price of hops, the main bittering and significant flavor component in beer. I just priced one of my favorite bittering hops varieties, Magnum, and found that in the past year this has jumped from around $1.00/oz. to a whopping $7.00/oz., a 700% increase. Brew Your Own magazine has a good article on how things got so bad, but the main question for homebrewers is, what can you do about it?

Well, one alternative is to change the varieties of beer you brew. There are lots of beer styles that use less hops or use hop varieties that are in greater supply. But another great way to face the hop shortage is simply to grow your own. I have been growing my own hops for several years, but until this year I have not been serious about cultivating, harvesting, and drying them for significant use in my own brews.

I'll be posting several more times on this as the season continues, but right now is planting and training time. First, planting. Hops are propagated from rhizomes, chunks of their robust root systems that send up spiny shoots called bines. Rhizomes are still available from a number of sources on the Web, including And if you get them out soon, you still have time to get some hops started this year. Plant the rhizomes in cultivated, weed-free soil to which you've added some good organic fertilizer or compost. Above are three new "hills" that I've created on my place, with Liberty, Mt. Hood, and Nugget hops. I also have Cascade, Chinook, and Willamette planted elsewhere.

Then, when the hop bines appear above ground, you will need to train several of them onto some sort of vertical support, so that the vines can grow out to a length of twenty or even thirty feet and then set the hop cones which will be harvested and utilized in beer. On my place I have set a tall pole in concrete out in my garden area and each year I run lengths of baling twine down to stakes in the "hills" of hops. I train three or four hop bines onto each string and let them climb. (You might want to wear gloves for this, since hop bines will sting your hands and arms a lot like stinging nettle.) Cut off all the rest of the emerging bines so that the root system puts maximum vigor and productivity into just a few bines. Keeping the hops well watered will help ensure a good set of cones.

As the season unfolds I'll talk more about harvesting, drying, and using homegrown hops. An excellent resource on growing hops, as well as utilizing other garden-raised produce in your beer, is The Homebrewer's Garden: How to Easily Grow, Prepare, and Use Your Own Hops, Malts, Brewing Herbs. I'll be reviewing this book in more detail in another entry, but the book covers not only growing of hops, but also barley (including how to malt the barley yourself, which I definitely want to try sometime), and other herbs and spices that can be used in beer for bittering and flavor.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Russian Imperial Stout

It was another brewing weekend at the Palm HQ. This weekend I did my first all-grain Russian Imperial Stout. Technically speaking it was my second batch of this style, but the first one was an accident. Two years ago I spent the better part of a Saturday making two batches of beer slated for our annual Assumption Feast at our Latin Mass apostolate.

One was supposed to be a simple pale ale, the other a simple stout. Well, somehow I got mixed up on how much a cup of dry malt extract (DME) weighs, so I ended up adding exactly twice as much DME as the recipes called for. I didn't find out until both beers were in the fermenters and I took a hydrometer reading. So instead of pale ale and stout, I had "barleywine" and "imperial stout".....sort of.

I was concerned that there would not be enough hop bitterness to offset that amount of malt and that the end results would be too sweet. But in fact both batches turned out well. The stout was pretty good and I enjoyed it, although it was not nearly roasty enough. But the Faux Pas Barleywine, as I called it, was actually quite excellent and a big hit at the Assumption Feast of 2006 alongside a cherry wheat and a chocolate stout.

Anyway, this past Saturday I made my first intentional batch of Russian Imperial Stout, a viscous black brew originally created by the British for sale to the Russian Czars. This is an intense brew for a pretty intense people. I used the Old Rasputin Imperial Stout clone recipe from Beer Captured by Mark and Tess Szamatulski. Old Rasputin from North Coast Brewing is my very favorite commercial Russian Imperial Stout. This dude has won a lot of awards and they are well justified. It is powerful in every way--intensely black, roasty, bitter, thick, and complex. As you can see at the Beer Advocate site, this one gets very high marks from just about everybody who tries it.

It is rather on the pricey side, though. So what better than to try to homebrew this thing? I did an overnight mash, which means that about 9 pm on Friday night I dumped the pre-measured, pre-heated water into my ground grains, stirred it up, shut the lid, packed thick bats of insulation around it, and went to bed. What you're shooting for is to prevent the mash from losing so much heat that it goes below 140 deg F, which is where bacteria can start souring your mash. I mashed in at about 151 deg F and the temp was right at 140 deg F twelve hours later. This really helps the brewing on Saturday from intruding too much on other chores.

The long and short of it is that I now have 5 1/2 gallons of imperial stout bubbling away. The wort (unfermented beer) tasted fantastic--intensely roasty and intensely bitter, but very smooth. You can't always tell much about the final beer from the wort, but in this case I was encouraged that the wort tasted so smooth, without any harsh bitterness, astringency, or acrid flavors poking out.

One of the great beauties of homebrewing is that, once you have mastered some basic skills, you can make whatever kind of beer you want, whenever you want it.

A few other commercial Russian Imperial Stouts are Bell's Expedition Stout and Big Bear Black Stout, both of which are really exceptional as well, and Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout which I now refuse to drink because the maker does not have enough respect for their own beers or those who drink them to put it in something besides a clear bottle.

Two that I would love to try are the Founder's Imperial Stout and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. They are highly rated beers from top-notch breweries, but unfortunately unavailable in my area.

On the docket for next Saturday is an 11 gallon batch of American amber ale using all Amarillo hops.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Stout Float — not quite a PalmHQ original

This was a brewing weekend at the PalmHQ. I tried out my new grain mill for the first timeso far, so good on that. I put 11 gallons of British bitter in the fermenters, so that's bubbling away and should be on tap in a few weeks. Currently on draft I have the last of a maibock which is absolutely delicious, the last of the Scotch ale reviewed below, and an oatmeal stout. In the fermenter I have an ordinary bitter made from a Cooper's kit that I got for free (story and tasting notes in an upcoming entry) and the bitter I made yesterday. Yet this spring I hope to do an 11 gallon batch of an American pale ale, which is a wonderful easy-drinking beer for summer, and 5 gallons each of British barleywine and Russian imperial stout. These last two beers require extensive aginga fellow homebrewer here at work told me today that he cracked a three year old barleywine over the weekend and it was spectacularso I'm keen to get them started.

Today's posting is about a drink you've probably never heard of before, the stout float. I tried this combination of black beer and ice cream several years ago, while making rootbeer floats for my children. I had a nice Irish stout on tap so......why not? I thought that perhaps I was the inventor of the mix, but alas a quick Web search showed that I was far from original.

Original or not, it's well worth trying. The bitterness and coffee notes of the stout blend beautifully with the sweet creaminess of the ice cream. Still, it is not everyone's cup of tea or mug of beer, by any means. Probably only one in three or four of the people who have tried it at my place think much of it. I love it. My lovely model is presenting the stout float I had this weekend, made with chocolate rather than vanilla ice cream and an oatmeal stout made right here at the PalmHQ.

I've not yet been brave enough to try, say, a pale ale float, but a porter float is good too. So give it a try with a nice, roasty, black beer and tell me what you think.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Beer Scene in China

I returned a few weeks ago from my second of probably-annual treks to China on business. So obviously I need to post on the beer scene in China.

The intermediate stops don't really count, but I'll mention them anyway. The staggeringly expensive Business Class roundtrip from La Crosse to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Shanghai features as much as you care to drink of a great variety of beers, wines, and spirits. But you've got to be really careful about drinking very much when flying long-distance because it can end up as a serious double-whammy: the flight dehydrates you and the alcohol does as well, so you could come out on the other end pretty raisinesque and miserable if you're not careful. I was careful and the only beer that I had in transit was a glass of Sappora, a very crisp, dry Japanese lager served, appropriately enough, in the Tokyo airport on the way there, and a glass of Summit Extra Pale Ale in the Minneapolis airport on the way back.

In China itself there is frankly not much of a variety to choose from, at least in the normal vendors near my hotel in downtown Shanghai. Sure, at an upscale restaurant you can get pretty much anything you want. But there is nothing like the microbrew revolution taking place in China, so in the equivalent of our 7-Elevens the options are fairly limited. Heineken is the only Western import that is regularly available. But I don't care for that particular brew here and I'm even less likely to get it when it's almost certain not to be fresh.

There are a few very light, gassy Japanese beers like Suntory that are frequently available in China, but these lack any significant character. There was one dark Chinese beer I could find in just a few shops which was called, appropriately enough "Dark Beer". One dimensional, a slight molasses note, no malt character at all--it was like mediocre homebrew. There are three Chinese beers that I could get consistently: Harbin, Yanjing, and Tsingtao. All three are pilsner style lagers, very pale and highly effervescent. The Harbin is the least notable of the three--the hop bittering is subdued and there is not much malt character either. I had it once and didn't bother with it again. Yanjing, particularly popular in Beijing (that city's native brew, I understand), is better, but nothing really to write about.

Tsingtao distinguishes itself from the pack. This beer has a nice, upfront malt presence which melds nicely with an assertive, slightly spicy hop bittering. The carbonation level is high and, as with all lagers, this is much better drunk on the cold side. It goes extremely well with Chinese food and is readily available here in the U.S. as well. While I would probably never actually buy a six-pack of it here, I frequently order one in a Chinese restaurant. Tsingtao is available in both a regular and "draft" version. In Shanghai, at least, the draft version costs twice as much and is inferior, to my taste, so I stuck with the regular. The beer that I would really like to try but never saw there is Tsingtao Dark Beer. The next time I go back I'm going to keep my eyes peeled and perhaps even ask around for that one.

The only other beer experience I had was a liter of Paulaner München at the Paulaner Brauhaus in Shanghai on Xintiandi Street. I took my colleagues there for a traditional German meal, something as completely foreign to them as many of their indigenous dishes were to me.

Now I love Paulaner beers so I was rather excited about the prospects of this liter. But it was a disappointment. The menu said that the beer was "homebrewed", probably an awkward translation from Chinese which I took to mean brewed either on the premises (although I saw no evidence of such equipment) or at least in country. Whatever it meant, the result was disappointing. The beer did not taste fresh. The characteristic malt profile of a German beer was entirely missing and the hop character was out of balance, with a sort of "edge" to it that made the drink rather unpleasant. And it was darn expensive to boot.

Obviously, one doesn't go to China for the beer. Tsingtao is very good, but I was happy to get back to the incredible variety available here in the U.S.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Two of My Brews Reviewed

Well, we've reviewed a bunch of commercial brews on this blog, but what about my own beers? I sent bottles of two of my homebrews—an American-style India Pale Ale (IPA) and an 80-shilling Scotch ale—to a couple of friends for Christmas. Here are the recipes for these brews, followed by their tasting notes.

Easy as PI P.A.

This homebrew was a super easy batch to make and the results were really nice. I used a pre-hopped can of Munton's Ironmaster IPA liquid malt extract, two pounds of Munton's dry malt extract, and a cup and a half of table sugar (ironically, to avoid the final product from being too sweet. The yeast eat up all this sugar, the final beer has a little more alcohol and so tastes a little less sweet.) I fermented this beer with a package of Fermentis US05 dry yeast and dry hopped it in the keg with half an ounce of Willamette hops. I agree with MF on the distinct honey note in this beer and I think it came from the sort of resinous quality of the Willamette hops. I thought it turned out great and I was sad to see it go.

Review by MF:
Before reviewing this particular beer, I have to confess that I've never been a fan of this variety of beer. IPAs are usually too bitter and "pangy" for my tastes. However, I've finally found an IPA that I'd gladly reach for at a bar or in my refrigerator.

Palm's IPA poured a pleasing light orangish-red. The carbonation was at a nice, balanced level, not overpowering. The aroma of citrus, grapefruit really, promises and delivers the same upon the palate along with a wonderful pairing of honey which perfectly softens the edge or "pang" that so often accompanies IPAs.

My First Scotch Ale

This batch has been my very favorite of everything I've brewed. I brewed an eleven gallon batch and at the time I'm posting this, I still have about a gallon left. It is just wonderful. I brewed this on 11/10/07 from a recipe I got from Jamil Zainasheff's book (to be reviewed soon), with a few tweaks based on what I had on hand: 11 lbs. Maris Otter pale malt, 5 lbs. Breiss pale malt, 2 lbs. Munich malt, 1 lb. 120L crystal malt, 1 lb. honey malt, 1 1/2 lb. 60L crystal malt, 1/4 lb. chocolate malt. I mashed this dude at 155 deg F. I hopped it with 2 3/4 oz. of Fuggle hops for 21.5 IBU of bittering. My OG was 1.066 and I fermented it pretty cool (61 deg F ambient) with a WYeast 1968 London ESB slurry that I had saved from a previous batch. I had a pint yesterday and it was simply incredible. I've worked for years to learn to brew something like this. This beer is what homebrewing is all about.

Review by MF:

This hearty ale pours a nice, rich, reddish brown. I had two samples of the ale and drank them about a month apart. I thoroughly enjoyed both. However, there were slight differences in the bottles. The bottle I sampled first had a slightly higher level of carbonation. Not excessive, nice. And it was slightly sweeter, what some have described as toward "toffee" or "caramel". It's a rich beer, but still "clean." As expected, the flavors became more pronounced as it warmed in my glass.

The second bottle evidenced slightly less carbonation (still very nice) and the flavor had moved toward a very yummy molasses. It seemed to feel a bit heavier, richer with age. All in all, I slightly preferred the younger version to the older, although both were very enjoyable. As a side note, and this is especially true of all ales in my opinion (and somewhat less true of lagers), I would never recommend drinking either of these directly from the bottle. The narrow opening doesn't allow the wonderful aromas to complement and enhance the flavor. In this, I find that beer has much in common with wine.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Holyday Beers, continued

Epiphany is not here yet, so there's still time for more holyday beer reviews. In fact, you may wish to grab one (or more!) of these for your Epiphany party.

Samuel Adams Winter Porter (reviewed by JM)—It seemed against my better judgment to include a "commercial" brewer like Sam Adams in this series of reviews, but since this was a somewhat unique brew that I had not sampled before, I went against my instinct. This Holiday Porter came as part of a 12-pack of Samuel Adams' "Winter Classics" (also included: Cream Stout, Old Fezziwig Ale, Boston Lager, Winter Lager, and Cranberry Lambic).

As you would expect for a porter, the pour was dark black, with a respectable head that dissipated after about seven minutes, leaving some good lacing in its wake.

The scent was a muted caramel and molasses mixture, with a touch of hops buried deeper in the mix. Not overpowering at all, just a nice and soft presentation of Christmas smells. The first sip was very, very good. Creamy mouthfeel, and a fair bit more depth than the scent had revealed. While the scent tended more toward the sweeter and brighter side, the flavor mixture presented a strong showing of cocoa, chocolate, coffee, and brown sugar, with a light dusting of spices and nutiness. I thought I picked up a bit of cinnamon on the finish, but I can't be sure.

All in all, this Porter was exotic and rich. It presented very well for a Christmas beer, including all of those necessary elements that make a brew fit for the holiday season: nice aroma, plenty of spice and sweetness in the taste, lots of power to evoke Christmas memories. I would like to sip on this Porter some winter's eve by the fire, perhaps with a warm slice of gingerbread.

Hats off to Samuel Adams for pulling this off. For being a mass-produced beer, it certainly holds its own against any of the micro-brews I've tried this year. This will definitely find a place in my Christmas brew offerings next year. I give it an 8 out of 10.

Bell's Winter White Ale (reviewed by JM)Bell's Brewery down in Kalamazoo, MI, has a pretty good reputation for putting out some outstanding brews. I have enjoyed their Java Stout, their HopSlam IPA, their Octoberfest beer, and their Two Hearted Ale IPA, among others. It was with some excitement, then, that I looked forward to tasting their winter offering: the Winter White Ale. This would be the seventh beer I had sampled in the 2007 Search for the Best Christmas Beer.

At the crack of the cap, I caught the strong smell of yeast right away, a smell that was heavily tempered by the light fragrance of citrus fruit (possibly oranges or lemons, or both).

This "Witbier" poured very cloudy, with a light golden-orange color, and it stayed cloudy throughout. It lacked any substantial head - just a bit of fuzz that melted away pretty fast. From the thousands of bubbles running up the side of the glass, I could see that this brew was very carbonated.

The first several gulps featured a biting, carbonated mouthfeel that was very light and poppy. The flavor was even a bit bitter, or tart, no doubt due to the strong presence of the citrus flavors. However, it had a nice yeasty finish that provided a pleasant end-note to the experience.

As this beer warmed, it got much better. The flavors balanced out and actually felt better "mixed"; the harsh citrus notes became warmer and more cooperative with the wheat base, and the end result was a very smooth and seamless presentation.

However! This was supposed to be a Christmas beer, and it tasted more like a summer wheat beer. I would really enjoy this brew on a hot summer's day, but it really didn't make sense in the context of winter. There were no real spices of which to speak, no ginger or nutmeg, no molasses or figs.

It was a fine beer. I should probably buy a six-pack and leave it in the fridge until the summer rolls around. [Editor's Note: Nope, a light-bodied beer like this will have lost its freshness by then.] But as a winter beer in a Christmas contest, I have to give it a 6 out of 10.

Abita's Christmas Ale 2007 (reviewed by JM)This was my first experience with the Abita Brewing Company, out of Abita Springs, Louisiana. The marketing presentation was rather bland: plain silver label with some red text. No matter - it came as part of a winter beer sampler six-pack that my local beer store was putting together and selling this season. Boring label or no, I figured I should give it a try.

Featuring a heavy floral fragrance, mixed with some citrus and a strong "hop factor", this Amber Ale produced a "two-finger head" that stuck around for just a little while, and left lots of nice lacing.

It poured a deep-dark amber color, and came with mild carbonation. The taste was as dark as the hue - strong prominence here of sweet malts, bitter hops, some wood-smoke, a bit of caramel, and just a whisper of some spice.

A highly drinkable beer, to be sure. It got 100% as it warmed, and the "darkness" of the flavor began to emerge even more. Very, very enjoyable experience. I give this an 8 out of 10.

Tommyknocker Cocoa Porter (reviewed by JM)—As Christmas brews go, this one was by far one of the most interesting of the bunch. The label promises an "ale brewed with cocoa powder and honey", and the contents of the bottle do not disappoint. This was my first experience with the Tommyknocker brewery, but based on the results of this sample, I will definitely be trying more of their product offerings.
As might be expected, the bouquet was heavy on the dark sweets: chocolate, molasses, toffee, and shades of coffee here and there. The scent was far more on the sweet side than on the sweet-tart side, as opposed to, for example, the "Special Ale" put out by Anchor Brewery.

It poured a dark and thick brown-black, like chocolate syrup or molasses, and left little-to-no head. The taste and mouthfeel was very smooth and sweet: the cocoa and honey were immediately noticeable on the top-end, and these two flavors stayed dominant throughout the life of the beverage. Once those dominant flavors faded, a heavy dark chocolate, toffee, and roasted coffee flavor lingered on the finish.

Some would undoubtedly find this brew too sweet, but it is what it is, and there are no surprises: the label clearly says that this is a cocoa porter brewed with cocoa powder and honey. It is entirely true to its promise, and I found it to be a smooth and pleasant experience from start to finish. I will definitely be buying this in six-pack form next year for handing out at my Christmas gatherings. I give it a 9 out of 10.