Home » 2012 » November

You Are Winning

This past weekend I tried the new Leinenkugel’s Snow Drift Vanilla Porter. And I liked it. A lot.

If you went to a beer review site you would see that many people rate Leinenkugel’s beer as mediocre, nothing amazing. Maybe it’s true that Leinie’s beer is not the standard of craft brewing, but I see it as a gateway into the craft beer world. But it is owned by Miller Brewing Company for crying out loud! Who would have ever guessed that a company owned by Miller would be putting out Vanilla Porters and Russian Imperial Stouts like Leinenkugel’s is now?

This is your fault. Home brewers over the past couple of decades have been pushing the beer industry to offer wider varieties of beers by telling them “You only want to produce a basic light beer with no flavor? Then I’ll pass on your offerings and go create my own.” We now live in something like a free market for beer, breaking free from the monopoly of the huge brewers. It is not difficult to go out and find crazy beers like Russian Imperial stouts and double IPAs and barleywines.

When there are hundreds of options out there the big guys have to become more nimble and support markets that are much smaller and more “niche.” We all win.

What’s your favorite big-brewery craft beer?

Top Five Gifts for Home Brewers

Doing some holiday shopping for the home brewer in your life? Assuming that they already have the basic home brewing setup (something like an Ale Pail, a large brew kettle, etc.) these are my top five gifts for home brewers.
(Note: The links below are Amazon.com affiliate links. Easy shopping for you [Hello procrastinator’s best friend, Amazon Prime 2 day shipping!], and a small commission to fund this website/beer hobby for us.)

1. A Beer Kit

For beginning home brewers the best way to learn the ins and outs of home brewing is to brew a lot of beer, so what better way to fund the hobby than to give them beer to brew? I like to give beer kits that the person might not otherwise invest in. For example, I got my father-in-law a Bourbon Barrel Porter for Christmas this year, which takes a long time to ferment and requires some extra equipment.

2. Yeast Starter Kit

Stronger beers that will have a higher alcohol content usually require a yeast starter. A yeast starter is a small batch of basic beer made ahead of time that allows a culture of yeast to strengthen and multiply so that it can handle the shock of a strong beer. I purchased one of these for my father-in-law so that he could brew his Bourbon Barrel Porter and all of the IPA’s that he really likes.


3. Wort Chiller

One of the most useful gifts I’ve ever been given was a wort chiller, which is a specifically shaped coil of copper tubing that you run cold water through to cool a batch of beer much faster than any ice bath ever could. This saves a lot of time, effort, and the coordination of having a lot of ice in the house just as the wort finishes boiling during the brew. For the brewer who prefers to brew larger batches of beer a more efficient wort chiller will be necessary, like this one.

4. Carboy

Using a plastic Ale Pail to ferment your beer is alright, but using a carboy is even better because you can see the beer fermenting inside of them. Pretty cool, eh?  To make the carboy easier to transport around you might consider a handle system for it as well, and don’t forget the airlock.

5. Home Brewing Books

It’s always fun to learn more about your hobby and to come up with creative new beers to brew. Home brewing books help to spark that creativity and equip home brewers with the knowledge they need to improve their beers. My favorite books are the basic How to Brew by John J. Palmer, the fun Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels, and the insightful Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher.

[Update: For a few more ideas, check out my list of Four Unique Gifts for Home Brewers]

Those are my top five. What are your favorite gifts to give to home brewers (or to receive if you are a home brewer)?

Ale vs. Lager

There is some basic terminology in home brewing that all brewers needs to understand right away, such as the difference between an ale and a lager. Let’s keep this short and simple:

Ales, in general, use yeast that rises to the top of the fermentation vessel to do its thing. They are fermented at room temperature (approximately between 60 and 74 degrees F). I have only ever home brewed ales, and I ferment them in my basement during the fall, winter, and spring when it is nice and cool.

Some various examples of ales include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Bell’s Amber, and Newcastle Brown Ale.

Lagers typically use different strains of yeast whose commute to work is to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. Lagers are fermented at a cooler temperate (46-59 degrees F) which suppresses extra flavors that can be given off by the yeast. Historically lagers were fermented in caves and cellars that were consistently at those lower temperatures. I don’t have one of those, and unfortunately refrigerators these days do not hold a steady temperature (they cool off whenever they get up to a set temperature). Variation in temperature can be bad for the fermenting beer so if you want to home brew a lager you will have to buy a temperature controller to keep your refrigerator at a constant temperature.

Some various examples of lagers include Budweiser, Saint Pauli Girl, and Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest.

Personally I prefer ales because they tend to be more adventurous than lagers, although a nice crisp lager can be very refreshing at certain times of the year.

Which do you like better, ales or lagers?

My Brewing History

Home brewing has evolved from a casual weekend event with friends to a regular personal hobby for me over the past few years.

I started  by helping my friend Karl brew beer in 2010 while I was still in college in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I always got the glamorous jobs like sitting on the toilet stirring the ice water in the bath tub while the beer cooled after boiling. At the time Karl had just obtained the standard home brewing start kit, and we ordered beer kits online. Our operation was bare-bones, but it was a lot of fun.

We brewed an amber ale and a black ale, a few wheat beers, and we even tried our hand at designing a Christmas ale with orange peels and spices mixed in. None of these turned out to be amazing, but we enjoyed the process. Looking back, we probably introduced some problems by letting the beer ferment in the hallway of an 85 degree apartment  in the summer time (no air conditioning). But we can talk more about fermentation temperatures later.

Our adventures inspired my father-in-law to pick up home brewing again after taking some years off, and we brewed several beers with him while visiting on spring breaks and at Christmas and such.

In the spring of 2011 we left the U.P. when my wife got a job in St. Paul. I was too cheap as a recent college grad to buy a new setup of brewing equipment, but fortunately my wife’s parents were thoughtful enough to get us geared up for Christmas. This allowed us to crank out a few beers last spring, and many of them turned out REALLY well. We took the summer off due to the heat but now we’re back at it for the fall.

I have a great affection for making new beers, for trying new beers, and for improving my brewing abilities. I look forward to improving my brewing knowledge and capabilities. And I’m glad that you are joining along for the ride!

How did you get started with home brewing?