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Too Many Beers On the Wall

The beer scene is extensive these days, with microbreweries and craft breweries all over the place. This is positive for sure, but it is going to force me to pick and choose over the next few days as I rush to try as many of them from the southeast U.S. as I can.

This week I’ll be in Jacksonville  for my sister’s wedding. While I’m there I will have access to beer from dozens of breweries that don’t distribute up here in Minnesota. I rarely get to travel, so with limited time and money in Florida how do I decide which beers to try? I know that many great beers down there will go untasted by me, probably for many years, which is a sad thing to consider.

No doubt I will be seeking out some Dogfish Head, especially a 120 Minute IPA. I would really like to bring one or two bottles of that back to enjoy later on since I can’t get it anywhere near Minnesota. I am mostly unfamiliar with the other breweries in the south and east, though, so it is difficult to pinpoint which ones should rise above the others as I pick my drinks.

This week I am going to have to fight the temptation to enjoy beers that I already know I love, and push my boundaries with the hope of discovering some new favorites. I might randomly choose from the tap list, or I might go with the beers or breweries that have the coolest names (like Maredsous Brune and Sixpoint Resin!).

When you are traveling how do you decide what beers to try? Any suggestions for what I should try in Florida?

What Does That Even Mean?

BeerAdvocate.com is a website that serves as a forum for people to describe and rate beers. As I was cruising around there earlier I found this description of a certain beer’s taste by a person on the forum:

“Sweet on the tip of the tongue with a warm middle. A little note of alcohol warmth but well hidden. The dark fruits now come out with greater intensity and phenols from the yeast’s work let it be known.”

I don’t really get a good sense of how the beer tastes based on that description. I feel left out of the conversation.

Look as this description of the same beer by somebody else:

“Aromas are pleasant and come through more as the ale warms: musty, boozy, earthy, sweet, caramel, honey, fruity as it warms w plum & cherry. Tastes are boozy, rich, sweet, malty, fruity with plum, raisin, currant, rum, bready yeast, mossy, musty, earthy – great complexity!”

I’m not certain that it is actually possible to pull out that many distinct flavors from the beer, but at least I get a really good idea of how the beer tastes from the second description. It is truly a description of the taste, not of the experience of drinking the beer. This makes me think two things:

1. Get familiar with many different flavors so that you can recognize and describe them when tasting beer (or anything else).

2. Keep it simple and approachable. Don’t try to appear sophisticated or appeal to only the “True” beer tasters.
Have you had experiences in the beer world that have left you feeling left out of the conversation?

5 Ways to Mess Up the Brewing Boil

Your brewing procedure is planned, your equipment is cleaned and sanitized, and you are ready to make beer. It’s time to heat water, steep the specialty grains, and boil the malt and hops. You have reached the heart of the brewing process, but this is where many of the big mistakes can be made. Here are five common mistakes that are made during the boil:

1. Burning the Specialty Grain Bag

If you are steeping specialty grains to start your brew be aware that the mesh bags used to hold the grain can burn against the hot metal sides and bottom of the brew kettle. I vividly remember lifting the bag out of the water once and seeing a tennis ball-sized hole in the bottom that had allowed the grains the spill out. Oops.

2. Steeping Grains In Water That Is Too Hot

While the specialty grains are steeping the water needs to be under 170 degrees F. If the water gets any warmer than this the grains begin releasing substances that you do not want in your beer. Use a thermometer and watch it closely.

3. Allowing the Wort to Boil Over

If the wort boils over the beer itself won’t be ruined but you will have a major mess to clean up (more first-hand experience here). They say that beer brewing is just glamorized janitorial work, but you don’t want to create any more cleaning for yourself than you need to. After the malt extract is added to the water watch the kettle like a hawk and stir it occasionally until it changes from frothy to a rolling boil. There is also a chance of boil over when the hops are added.

4. Covering the Kettle During the Entire Boil

Keeping the cover on the brew kettle will help it to boil more quickly, but once that rolling boil has been reached at least partially uncover the wort. Compounds of sulfur boil off and can cause off-flavors such as cooked cabbage in your beer if they are trapped in the kettle. Yuck.

5. Not Boiling Long Enough

It takes 60 to 90 minutes of boiling to release the chemicals in hops that lend the flavor and aroma to beer that you are looking for. If you cut your boil short you will be missing out on one of the main elements of the beer’s flavor.

What are some mistakes you have made during the boil?

How to Enjoy a Rare Beer

Tasting beers that are hard to come by requires some tough decisions. If you get multiple bottles of the beer do you set some aside to age? For how long? If you only get one or two bottles, do you share the beer with others or save it for yourself? With all the hype around the Westvleteren 12 release last week I found myself considering these questions, so I thought I would review a few of the rare-beer situations that I have experienced.

Westvleteren XXII

Last week Westvleteren 12 was released in very limited quantities in the U.S. and a few other countries, as I mentioned here. It was sold out immediately and will probably never be sold via retail again. What do you do with a beer that you will only be able to buy only once in your lifetime? I like this guy’s approach. He bought a six pack and enjoyed one immediately, saved one or two to try with some friends, and then set three aside so that he could taste the beer after it had aged one year, three years, and five years. That is patience!

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA

This beer is released regularly and it is probably not difficult to find in some parts of the country, but this is a tough beer to get a hold of in the midwest. When I lived in Michigan there was a single store in the area that carried Dogfish Head, and when they got one or two six packs of the 120 Minute IPA they would put it on the shelf one bottle at a time so that more people would have a shot at trying it. It is not sold at all in Minnesota (or Wisconsin. or Iowa). I have only ever seen one bottle of this beer in my life, and we bought that twelve ounce bottle for $10.

The 120 Minute IPA is extreme. This beer comes in at 15-20 percent alcohol by volume and hits the maximum of the bitterness scale. The brewery actually recommends sharing a 12 ounce bottle with a friend or two due to its potency, and that’s exactly how we enjoyed the single bottle that we bought – passing it around between four or five people one evening. We were still exploring the world of more extreme beers at the time so we found this beer too shocking to fully appreciate it. 120 Minute IPA is on my list of beers to track down again in the future. I hope to get one bottle to try right away and at least one bottle to age for a year or two.

Surly Darkness

In the Twin Cities area the big craft brewer is Surly, and once every year they release a powerful Russian Imperial Stout called Darkness. This beer is released in a limited quantity and is sold in 750 mL bottles for $18-20 apiece. The release of the beer every October is called Darkness Day. Beer fans line up at the brewery starting the evening before the release just to get a chance to buy the beer, and it is quite a festival.

How do you enjoy a beer like this? One of my good friends scored a six pack of Darkness a couple of years ago. He enjoyed one or two right away, has been saving another bottle or two to for tasting when it has aged, and is holding back the rest for their trade value. If you look on Craigslist for this area you will see that there is a solid market for this beer (obviously this market is for the unopened collectible bottle, since re-selling the beer itself would be illegal). Older editions of this beer sell for a good return on investment. There is also a trade market for the beer – my friend has seen offers such as two bottles of the 2012 edition for one bottle of his 2011 edition. Not a bad deal.

Have you ever gotten hold of a rare or hard-to-find beer? How did you manage its enjoyment?

The Brewing Process: Cleaning Equipment

My wife and I were touring the Keweenaw Brewing Company’s brewery in upper Michigan a couple of years ago when the head brewer told us how his job was basically to be a glorified janitor. He did get to design and drink great beers, but most of his working day was spent cleaning and sanitizing the brewing system.

Cleaning and sanitizing home brewing equipment is probably the single most important step you can take to brewing great tasting beer. Dirty equipment can lead to infected beer, and infected beer can result in a total loss of the batch. It is not worth losing an entire batch of beer because you were trying a save a few minutes of prep time.

By “cleaning” I mean removing any dirt, dust,grime, or other visible matter from the equipment. When I refer to sanitizing I’m talking about killing as many of the present microorganisms possible. It is darn near impossible to kill all of the microorganisms, but fortunately we don’t have to. Negligible levels of bacteria on the equipment are normal, and they shouldn’t cause a problem.

Cleaning the Equipment

To clean the equipment I generally start with hot water and a soft towel to remove any loose material. We also want to avoid scratching plastic equipment, such as the inside of a fermentation bucket, because scratches can harbor bacteria that is tough to clean out and can infect a batch of beer. This is why I always use a very soft, non-abrasive towel.

I prefer not to use any detergent such as dish soap to clean the equipment. These  usually have some type of a scent that is very difficult to get off of the equipment and can carry over to the beer. It can be helpful to instead use a diluted bleach mixture to kill any organic matter left on the equipment. There are a few things to keep in mind when cleaning with bleach (credit to John Palmer’s book How to Brew for clearly laying out this information):

  • It can take at least 20 minutes to thoroughly kill bacteria
  • Equipment should not be left in a bleach mixture for more than an hour as corrosion can occur
  • Copper and brass should never be cleaned with bleach, as these metals will corrode very quickly
  • It is always best to rinse the equipment with boiled water after cleaning it with bleach

Keeping Equipment Clean

The biggest battle I face with keeping the equipment clean is my brewing environment. I brew in our kitchen, which is difficult to seal off from our dog and two cats. Once i clean my equipment I have to be aware of where I set it and whether it comes into contact with any animal fur. This is a problem to remain aware of when you are cleaning your equipment and in the time between cleaning and use.

In a future post we will dig deeper into the different options on the market for sanitizers. In the meantime let us know: what is your process for cleaning home brewing equipment and preparing it for sanitizing?

Try the Best Beer In the World While You Can

Right now you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to try what is called one of the best beers in the world, but it is not cheap and it is not going to be too easy to find.

For years the monks of the St. Sixtus Monastery in Belgium have brewed a very limited quantity of a beer they call Westvleteren 12. Normally the beer is only available at the monastery itself, and you have to call ahead and reserve it (if you are lucky enough to get through on the phone). The monastery needed some renovations, though, so they’ve released just enough of the beer in the US to pay for the updates to the building.

Photo from 121212xii.wordpress.com

Photo from 121212xii.wordpress.com

Is that packaging great, or what? Westvleteren costs $85 for a six pack, and there is a very limited supply of it. You can find a list of U.S. retailers that are carrying the beer here, and you can read more about the story here. Thanks to my friend Karl for passing this along to me.

Will you be tracking down a case of Westvleteren to try out? If so, let us know what you think of it!

Terms That Describe Beer

On Monday we talked about the words most commonly used to describe beer taste in a home brew supply catalog, and my research for that post made me realize how little I knew about the terms that describe beer qualities. I did a little more research and brought together the definitions of four terms that describe the inherent qualities of a beer, specifically “Bouquet (Nose),” “Body,” “Gravity,” and “Finish.”

When you look at these terms you can probably take a good guess at what they refer to, and you’d probably be pretty close. Gravity might be the only word here that is vague at first glance. Even so, if you want a thorough understanding of the science of home brewing it will help to know precise definitions.

Bouquet (also called Nose”) – This is the array of smells that you experience before tasting the beer. The aromas come from the specific combination of the malt, hops, and yeast in the beer. The bouquet of a hoppy beer might be described as “spicy” or “citrusy,” while the nose of a malty beer might be referred to as “roasty” or “smoky.”

Body – The best way to describe “body” without going deeper into complex terminology is that it describes the texture and feel of a beer in your mouth. The body of a beer can be described as light or thin, rich, full, or heavy. Other words that might describe the body are creamy, dry, oily, or velvety.

Gravity – In short, gravity refers to how alcoholic the beer is. The long definition is that gravity refers to the specific gravity of the wort (un-fermented beer) when it is brewed, and this is a measurement of the density of the beer compared to the density of water. The specific gravity tells you how much sugar is present in the wort, which generally translates to how much alcohol will be present in the beer after fermentation. It is not uncommon to hear very alcoholic beers referred to as “high gravity” beers.

Finish – The lingering aftertaste of a beer is called the finish. Some beers have a long lingering finish, some beers have almost no finish.
Fun fact: the flavor receptors at the very back of the tongue are especially sensitive to bitterness, which is why hoppy beers like IPA’s tend to linger for a long time. This is why swallowing is considered part of beer tasting.

With these terms in mind I would like to try to describe my current favorite beer, Deschutes’ Black Butte Porter. Full disclosure: I’m writing this at 6:30 a.m. so I don’t have this beer in hand. I’m going from memory.

I would say that the nose definitely has a roasty quality, with maybe a touch of coffee and chocolate to it. You might expect this beer to be heavy-bodied given the dark color, but I would say it is surprisingly light. Maybe you would call it medium-bodied. At 5.2% alcohol by volume this beer isn’t high gravity, but it isn’t a lightweight either. The finish isn’t bitter at all. This beer leaves the delightful warmth of chocolate and a little vanilla. So delicious!

Using bouquet/nose, body, gravity, and finish, how would you describe your favorite beer?

Beer Tasting Descriptions

Lately I have been very interested in the art of beer tasting. This started when I read Gary Vaynerchuk’s book Crush It!, which frequently references adventures in wine tasting. This morning I did a little exercise with beer tasting in mind, and it made me realize just how many home brewing and beer drinking terms I don’t understand – when I encounter them I must usually skip over them or make a guess as to what they mean.

So here’s what I did: I went through an entire home brewing supply catalog and highlighted every word that was used to describe beer tastes. My survey included 62 different beer kits that were described in the catalog, and from these I pulled out 192 descriptors of which about 134 were unique terms. It is important keep in mind, though, that these descriptions are being used to sell the beer kits. There were no descriptions of off-flavors or off-putting tastes (although “tar” was listed as a flavor in one of the stouts!). Even so, I think that the results are interesting, and they show me just how much I have to learn about beer tasting.

Here’s what I learned:

  • There are many, many flavors that I am not familiar with. If I am going to become a more prodigious beer taster I will need to become familiar enough with flavors like coriander, plum, and buttered pastry to pick them out of the complex flavor profile of a beer.
  • There are a bunch of terms in the advertising literature that are supposed to be luring me in, but instead they are blocking me out. Over the next few weeks I will use this blog to explore terms like “nose,” “body,” “bouquet,” “finish,” “esters,” “phenolic,” “quaffable,” “dryness,” and “hop-bursting,” specifically with how they relate to beer making and tasting. I can make a pretty good guess as to what each word means given the context, but it is still just a guess.

Most Common Terms To Describe Beer Tastes:
My little study was not scientific – I sat down with a highlighter, turned on some loud music, and went through a single company’s catalog. Many beer styles are represented, from pale ales to Belgian ales to IPA’s and stouts. This wide variety of beer styles clearly necessitates a wide variety of descriptors. Even so, below are the top 6 general words that were used to describe the beer flavors. These six comprise about 22% of the total descriptors used in the magazine. The rest of the descriptors are just used once or twice.

  1. Fruity (used 10 times)
  2. Spicy (used 8 times)
  3. Caramel (used 7 times)
  4. Citrus (used 6 times)
  5. Coffee (used 6 times, including descriptions like light-roast, dark roast, etc)
  6. Floral (used 5 times, usually referring to hop flavor)

Finally, below are each of the descriptive words that I found in the catalog.  Are there any words below that you wouldn’t know how to use when describing beer taste?

All Descriptors Found In the Catalog:

apricot coriander hop-bitter shot of hops
baking chocolate cream hoppy smooth
big finish creamy textured hops smooth mouthfeel
biscuit character crisp lemon-citrus snappy
bitter chocolate character crisp finish light sweet malt sour apple
bitter orange peel dark fruit light-bodied spices
bittersweet finish delicate floral note lighter body spicy
bittersweet roastiness dried fruit lingering bitterness spicy cloves
bittnerness drier malt spicy English hop profile
black tea dry maltiness spritzy
bread dough overtones dry  and mildly bitter finish malty spine subtle fruit notes
bread tangles dry finish medium-bodied sweet
bready earthy medium-full body sweet finish
burnt earthy hop bitterness medium-light body sweet graininess
burnt caramel english biscuits modest bitterness sweet malt body
butter toffee estery multigrain bread sweet malt profile
buttered toast fig neutral finish syrupy malt
buttered-pastry sweetness floral maltiness nutmeg tangerine
candied citrus floral nose oats tar (!)
candy-like sweetness floral notes oilier mouthfeel tart
caramel flowers peppery finish toasty
caramel toffee flowery hops phenolic toffee
caramelized sugar fruity pine tropical fruit flavors
chewy minerals full-bodied plums turbinado sugar
chocolate ginger pumpernickel bread vanilla
chocolate liqueur grain-and-bread malt raisins warm cereal
cinnamon grainy flavor rich in malt complexity warming
citrus grainy sweetness rich spiciness warming alcohol note
citrus hop profile grainy-spicy ripe pear fruit wheat malt character
clean grapefruit roast grain
clean-finishing herbal roasted chocolate
cocoa herbal hops roastiness
coffee hint of grain roasty notes
complex finish honey rum
complex malt hop flavor rye

4 Questions to Ask Before You Begin Each Home Brew

Home brewing is a hobby that requires you to do some simple planning for ingredients, procedure, and equipment ahead of time to make the whole process run smoothly. John Palmer, author of the classic How to Brew, says that the three important things to keep in mind every time you brew are:

1. Preparation
2. Sanitation, and
3. Record Keeping

It’s pretty hard to argue with that. The more I’ve brewed, the more I’ve refined my preparation process. We’ll talk about sanitation and record keeping later, but let’s focus on preparation for now. These are the four questions that I ask myself before I begin each brew:

  • Do You Have Good Water for the Brew?

Clean, uninfected water is one of the keys to good beer. Tap water varies from place to place, so you may have to take several steps to ensure your water is of good enough quality to brew with. You can also buy distilled water from a store if you do not trust your tap water.

I always boil all of the water that I intend to use as a precaution against introducing bacteria into the beer, and I allow it a few hours to cool before I begin the brewing process. This includes the extra water that I intend to add to the wort at the end of the brewing process to bring the batch volume up to five gallons and the water I use for sanitizing all of the equipment. The water in the five gallon brew kettle will be brought to a boil before I add my malt extract, so I don’t boil that ahead of time.

For a couple of my brews in the past I actually ran all of the water through two different types of carbon filters because of concerns with some heavy metals that we suspected might have been in the tap water. I should have just gone and bought distilled water. Filtering eight or ten gallons of water takes forever.

  • Do You Have All of the Ingredients?

You clearly don’t want to be in the middle of brewing and realize that you forgot an ingredient. Make a list of what you need, check it twice, and make sure you have it.

You are going to have to activate your yeast well before you pitch it. If you are brewing a strong beer you may have to prepare a yeast starter days in advance. Even if you don’t need a yeast starter you will want to check the viability of the yeast just prior to the start of the brewing process. I have forgotten to do this several times and it has caused delays in the brewing process. Don’t repeat my mistakes.

  • Is Your Procedure Planned Out?

I always make a step-by-step, minute-by-minute checklist for my brewing procedure in large writing, even if I’m using a kit that comes with instructions. Those instructions are usually in very small writing on a cluttered page. When I’m stirring the kettle and my list is sitting on the counter halfway across the kitchen, I need to be able to find where I’m at in the procedure and read it easily.

It also helps to think about the logistics of the brewing  process ahead of time. Before I had a wort chiller we had to plan out a way to get several bags of ice into the house for the ice bath, and we had no freezer space in which to store the ice. My friend Karl and I always waited until there were 15 minutes remaining in the boil and then we ran down the street to a gas station and bought bags of ice while our wives monitored the wort. Having this planned out ahead of time saved us stress and confusion later.

  • Is Your Equipment Ready?

Make sure every piece of equipment is present and in working condition. A common mistake that I make is to have my wort chiller in the kitchen but to forget the fitting that connects it to the sink in the basement where I store my bottling equipment. It helps to have a list of your brewing equipment that you can check off.

Preparation is one of the keys to creating great beers. What do you do to prepare for brewing?

Home Brewing Equipment

Let’s talk about the home brewing equipment that I currently use.

My home brewing setup is almost as simple as you can get. I use the standard equipment for extract beer brewing. It doesn’t allow me as much flexibility with recipes and brewing procedures, but it is affordable. Something I will document as time goes on is my quest for more complex and robust equipment that allows me more liberties in constructing my home brews.

I use a five gallon stainless steel pot for boiling. Pretty standard, nothing fancy:

Brew Kettle

The spoon that I use for stirring the wort is a plastic one that you can buy at most home brewing shops, but I would like to upgrade it to a stainless steel version sometime soon because the plastic has shown some signs of melting and has changed colors over time. Disconcerting. I also use this spoon as the rod for suspending specialty grains in the water as they steep – it’s the only thing that I have sitting around that is long enough to span the kettle but thin enough to tie a steeping bag around.

Brewing Spoon

I have a couple of thermometers I have used to monitor the temperature of the wort. One is a basic candy thermometer, which I like because it clips on to the side of the kettle and the other is a digital thermometer that gives me a much more precise reading of the temperature:

Brewing Thermometers

The best piece of equipment that I have invested in to date has been my wort chiller. It saves me A TON of time and effort in cooling the wort. You need one of these:

Wort Chiller

I have a super nice strainer that sits perfectly over the fermenting bucket and allows me to remove excess hops and whatnot before the fermentation:

Brewing Sieve

I have typically used the standard plastic Ale Pail for fermenting:

Fermentation Bucket

but I recently purchased a carboy that should be easier to clean out, and I won’t have to worry about scratching the interior and introducing extra bacteria to future batches of beer.

I use a standard hydrometer to measure the alcohol content of the beer. Fun fact: back in my engineering days we used these things to measure the fine-material content of soils. It’s a lot more fun to use them in to make beer.


We’ll get to topics like bottling equipment later on.

What home brewing equipment do you use?