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!