Archive | February 2013

Here’s one for the English majors

Last night when reading Mitch Steele’s book IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, I came across this excerpt from a poem by British poet A. E. Housman which Steele used as a chapter epigraph. I recognized two lines, which will be familiar to many of my readers:

Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think.

Spot the familiar lines? I’ll explain just in case. The quote “Malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man” is referenced frequently in beer culture. It appears on T-shirts and in books, and is quoted endlessly on websites dealing with homebrewing and craft beer.

It’s one of those quotes we use to validate our passion, to reclaim some respect in a world that doesn’t always understand our love of beer and occasionally confuses us with the common alcoholic. With such quotes, we seek to remind the world that many drinkers are also great thinkers: from poets (Housman) to politicians (another famous quote is uncertainly attributed to Benjamin Franklin) to philosophers (ditto, Plato).

The Housman quote has always caught my eye because of the reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Milton wrote to – in his own words – “justify the ways of God to men”, something Housman appears to claim beer can do even better. I’m not Milton’s biggest fan, but I’ve read and enjoyed Paradise Lost and was always impressed that Housman seemed to echo one of my beliefs: that a good beer is a work of art as inspiring and enlightening as the world’s great stories. But I never read the rest of Housman’s poem until today.

So imagine my surprise when I read the last two lines above: “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink / For fellows whom it hurts to think.”

Wait, what? Did Housman just say that ale is for guys who can’t think?

I was shocked and confused. I felt unfairly ridiculed and indignant. Was Housman calling beer drinkers morons? Was the malt/Milton quip actually intended as a mordant satire of the self-professed mental acuity of beer drinkers Housman saw as deluded, stupid oafs? Worse still, had beer lovers around the world been bandying this quote around proudly but out of context, little realizing that if Housman were still alive he’d be laughing at us behind his awe-inspiring mustache?

Beer guys aren’t smart? Preposterous! I mean, we all know someone who fits the Hank Hill profile: a canned-lager guzzler of simple tastes, few words and fewer thoughts. But that’s just a guy who drinks beer. A beer guy is a different breed of cat entirely. Beer guys are typically nerds of a unique variety: walking encyclopedias of zythological wisdom, holding databases worth of information in their heads about beer styles, hop profiles, and personal tasting notes collected over years of self-study. Many of the smartest and most educated people I know are beer guys, and are also brilliant in other unrelated professional/creative fields. And that’s not even counting the many scientifically-minded beer writers I don’t know personally, but who have amazed me with complex descriptions of brewing chemistry and biology in terms far beyond the comprehension of my degree in English literature and classical studies.

Which brings me back to Housman, and the fact that if there’s one beer-related skill I learned in college (let’s qualify that with in class) it’s how to analyze a poem about beer. If I wanted to understand what Housman was trying to say, I needed to read the poem in its entirety. It’s entitled “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff” and the complete text of it is here. It’s from a collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad, and I’ll spare you the chore of getting through a full analysis of the poem. I’ve written enough of those for one life.

The gist of it is that some drinking buddies complain to their poet friend that the poems he recites are depressing, and they’d rather have him sing a dancing song to cheer them up. The poet replies that if they want cheer, they need look no further than the beer in their cups. But he cautions his friends that the joy gained by drinking is false and temporary, and once the buzz is past, the harsh realities of life remain. Poetry, he says, should be somber, to inure oneself against these harsh realities.

The poet doesn’t have anything against beer or the people who drink it; in fact, he’s a lover of it himself. He calls it “livelier than the Muse”, and better than Milton at showing humanity a fleeting glimpse of the divine. The “fellows whom it hurts to think” are all of us – beer guys, wine guys, even guys who don’t drink. He’s not saying we’re stupid and it hurts our brains to think, but that we are human and it hurts our souls to think about the world’s imperfections.

And so my short-lived indignation on behalf of my fellow beer nerds proved unnecessary. Far from making fun of us, Housman offers a poignant, if somewhat sobering, message on the role of alcohol and art in our lives. All things considered, it’s a pro-beer message, though with a warning that beer offers only a temporary distraction from reality (but what else can we ask for from the sensory pleasures of food, drink or entertainment?).

But in context, the quote isn’t quite the joyous celebration of beer’s awesome power that I thought it was, and I bet I’m not the only one surprised. It’s a valuable lesson in the importance of learning the context of anyone’s words before we go around quoting them.

Bottling shortcuts for the bottling-averse homebrewer

No task in homebrewing gives me such mixed feelings as bottling. On one hand, it’s the last leg of the beer’s journey from grain to glass, and when the cap goes on I know the next time I interact with this brew will be when I taste it. On the other hand, it’s involved: boiling priming sugar, sanitizing 55 bottles, racking, filling and capping by hand, then breaking everything down and filling with PBW for an overnight soak takes more steps and time than any other brewing task I do except the brew day itself (and brew day leaves me with a much greater sense of accomplishment).

So when I started kegging over a year ago, I never looked back. It’s just so easy and fast: 30 minutes is about all I need to sanitize and fill a 5-gallon keg, and some homebrewers cut that time in half by keeping kegs full of sanitizing solution when not in use.

But I also make the odd 1-2 gallon test batch from time to time, and I don’t keg those. I could find smaller kegs, I suppose, but that would mean dedicating one of my three taps to small-batch experimental beer, which I’d rather not. So my test batches still get bottled. At least in theory.

In reality, I’ve been putting off bottling test batches for a while now because of the hassle. The two test batches I did over the last year – a Berliner Weisse from March 2012 and a Bronze Age Fig Beer in January – were still in fermenters in the Harry Potter closet, rapidly approaching the point where more additional time wouldn’t help them. I finally had to do what I had been putting off. And since necessity is the mother of invention, I devised ways to make it easier.

First, I got smaller bottling buckets. I used to just use my full 6-gallon bottling bucket regardless of batch size. After all, unlike the fermentation vessel, the bottling bucket is not going to hold beer for more than a couple of hours at the most, so there’s no reason not to just use the biggest one you’ve got, right?

But after thinking, I came up with several reasons why having a smaller bottling bucket would make bottling a small batch easier:

  • Less surface area to sanitize
  • Narrower vessel = higher fill level in the bucket, making it easier to submerge the outlet of the racking hose
  • Narrower vessel = more pressure out of the spigot = faster bottle fills
  • Less surface area to clean afterwards

So I made 2-gallon bottling buckets from plastic pails identical to those I use for small-batch fermenters. Instead of drilling a hole in the lid for a stopper and airlock, I drilled a hole near the base for a spigot with a 1″ spade bit:


Easy, even for someone as DIY-challenged as myself.

If you try it at home, keep a firm hand on the bucket and drill and be aware that it will cut through plastic very quickly, so a momentary loss of control can send you back to the store to buy a new bucket and start over. 1″ was the perfect diameter for my spigot, but I slipped and gouged a little extra chunk outside of the intended hole. Fortunately I was able to carefully hand-tighten the spigot to compress the interior gasket enough so that it spread to cover the leak.

The other shortcut I used was Coopers Carbonation Drops instead of bulk priming the entire batch. I’ve used these things on and off since my beginnings as an extract brewer, and I’ve been spoiled. Even now, weighing, boiling and cooling priming sugar is for some reason a huge annoyance to me and ranked among my worst first-world problems. But bulk priming does carbonate a little more consistently than the Coopers drops, so I do it, usually. But not with test batches. I consider them experiments anyway, so I’m not concerned about minute and virtually undetectable carbonation variations from bottle to bottle.

It took me an hour to sanitize two sets of equipment, rack two batches, and package 13 bottles of fig beer and 9 bottles of Berliner Weisse.

I still find kegging to be easier, and I’ll keg full-size batches whenever possible unless I have a reason to bottle them, in which case I’ll have to break out the big bucket and clear a couple of hours on my calendar. I also have a new Blichmann BeerGun I haven’t yet used which can bottle force-carbonated beer from the keg, but I’ll probably limit its use to bottling a few off the keg to give to friends. For test batches, I think I’ve found my process.

And the right equipment makes every process easier. It’s great to know that now, with a few additions to my homebrew arsenal, bottling is no longer a chore to dread, but a milestone to look forward to.

Une saison à la maison


In French, the word means season, as in the seasons of the year. Spring, summer, autumn, or winter. A generic term, a category with specimens so varied that each is the opposite of another.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the beer style we call “saison” is a varied, open-ended style as well. Call it a seasonal beer unattached to a particular season.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Look it up anywhere from Wikipedia to the BJCP Style Guidelines, and you’ll learn that saison has its roots in the farmhouses of the French-speaking Walloons of Belgium who spent the winter brewing spicy, refreshing ales to be consumed in the summer by workers pulling long shifts in the fields. So traditionally it’s a summer beer.

But the Wallonian brewing tradition was highly improvisational and localized. Each farmhouse brewed their own beer with the ingredients available at the time, often raised on their own farms. The resulting beers were, unsurprisingly, vastly different from place to place and from month to month.

So unlike the seasonal beers of, say, Germany – which tend toward profile standards of characteristic Teutonic rigidity, with names easy to mark on your calendar like Märzen, Maibock, and Oktoberfest – this traditional Belgian seasonal can be light or dark, strong or sessiony, and anything in between. A December 2006 Style Profile article from Brew Your Own magazine lists a wide disparity of characteristics for the modern style in regards to color, mouthfeel, residual sweetness, strength, hop profile, and spices. The main common thread is the yeast, descended from traditional Belgian strains that produce a characteristic spiciness, an estery je ne sais quoi that makes these beers decidedly farmhousey, even when made in the (sub)urban backyard.

With that range of profiles, I’d say seasonality goes out the window. A strong, dark, spicy saison would be a great nightcap on a cold winter night. I like light, refreshing saisons in spring (I’m pretty sure spring in Texas feels like summer in Belgium anyway). So I brewed one now to be ready by the last week of March.

There was another reason for my timing besides the oncoming vernal equinox. The last beer my wife and I drank together was a bomber of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, the day before we learned she was pregnant. Our baby is due in April, so what better beer to have on hand to celebrate her return to the world of the ethanol-metabolizing than a hop-forward saison?

I started my brew with a clone recipe of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace from the December 2011 issue of Brew Your Own and a Gallic sense of laissez-faire. The recipe called for 11 lbs (5 kg) of Belgian Pilsner malt, which I increased to 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) to compensate for lower efficiency on my system (more on that below). This made up the bulk of the fermentables along with 1 lb (453 g) of dextrose in the boil. The recipe also used a 3-step mash, which I did not. I did a single infusion mash at 146°F (63°C). The low mash temperature makes a more fermentable wort, but saccharification takes a little longer so I mashed for 90 minutes instead of my usual 60.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is hopped entirely with Sorachi Ace hops, which I couldn’t get locally. Instead of replacing it with a similar substitute, I took a different path entirely. I used 16% AA Warrior hops for neutral bittering, two additions of .37 oz (10.5 g) each at 60 and 30 minutes (~6 AAU in each addition). At flameout, I added 3 oz (85 g) of 15% AA Summit.

I had prepared a 2-liter starter of White Labs WLP 560, an Austin Homebrew Supply-exclusive Classic Saison Yeast Blend. That starter was decanted and pitched into a wort with an OG of 1.073, eleven points higher than my target OG of 1.062. Eleven points!

Not your grand-père’s farmhouse brewery.

Little mishaps are common in brewing, and usually a good sign. Minor, easily correctable problems during the brew day keep the brewer on his/her toes, and (I think) make us less prone to serious mistakes that can’t be fixed. But overshooting target gravity by this much is a new kind of problem for me.

Is it even a problem? Obviously my efficiency is much higher than I thought – I’m noting the data for future batches – and the extra malt I added was unnecessary: a “problem” many brewers would love to have. I’m not entering any contests, so the fact that my OG landed past the upper limit of the BJCP range for saison doesn’t concern me. If it fails to attenuate completely, I may end up with a beer that’s too sweet. But if I got the kind of fermentability I was shooting for out of my low mash, that extra sugar should ferment out, leaving me with an ABV higher than I intended.

So if I’m lucky, I’ll be welcoming the spring with a dry, high-alcohol saison. Maybe it won’t be strong enough to qualify as an “imperial saison”, but it should be worthy of some noble title. I’d settle for “ducal saison” or better yet, “marchional saison”. With its extra kick, it might be a little too intense for farm work, but it sounds about right for celebrating the birth of a new Marchese.

Zyme Lord, Episode I: The phantom menace of extract-and-sugar kits

Several days ago I celebrated my 37th birthday, which was also the fourth anniversary of the day I became a homebrewer.

The day I became a homebrewer was not the day I brewed my first beer. That day was long ago in the remote fog of memory we call the 1990’s. It was the year I turned 21, and I got a 2-gallon Mr. Beer starter kit for Christmas. It came with a can of prehopped malt extract and called for a pound of table sugar. There was no boil and I think Fleischmann’s baking yeast was involved. At bottling (a week later!) I spooned loose sugar into each bottle for priming as directed.

The beers tasted like cider vinegar. Carbonation varied wildly from bottle to bottle. At the time, I assumed bad taste and inconsistency were inevitable. After all, I made beer at home, dude! I laughed at the comments and pinched faces of the friends drinking with me and enjoyed the buzz. Remember, I was 21.

And despite the results, I had fallen in love with the idea of brewing my own beer.

I was also trying to finish college, and didn’t find time to brew again. When I left home for grad school, Mr. Beer traveled with me. But it stayed in the box, and for years I kept it in the closet of one apartment after another until one day I finally just threw it out, vowing to brew again “someday”.

Four years ago, I got another starter kit on my birthday: the Coopers Micro-Brew Kit. In some ways it was like Mr. Beer grown up. The fermenter was bigger (30 liters/7.9 gallons). It came with proper brewing yeast and sugar drops for consistent priming. But the extract was still canned and prehopped, it still incorporated simple sugar (dextrose boxed with the kit) and recommended no boil. The beer also came out cidery, not how I wanted.

But I also got several books about brewing that birthday. Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and John Palmer’s How to Brew piqued my interest immediately and I read them from cover to cover. My homebrew wasn’t great, but I was reading about how great homebrew could be. I soon understood why extract-and-sugar kits yielded cidery beers. I realized what my own mistakes were. I looked forward to the next batch and considered what I would do better.

I had become a living embodiment of learning, ambition and self-challenge in the pursuit of better beer. I had become a homebrewer.

I brewed four Coopers batches before I ever touched grain or hops. Then I started working with extract, steeping grains and hop pellets. Then partial mashes for a year, and my first mead and cider. Less than two years after I got my Coopers kit, I brewed my first all-grain beer.

Now when I drink a pint of beer made from scratch from my own recipe, I’m often amazed how far I’ve come. And from what humble beginnings.

Extract-and-sugar systems like Coopers or Mr. Beer (which was purchased by Coopers in April 2012) are looked down on by many homebrewers. Some of that contempt is deserved. These systems oversimplify brewing to a fault: by limiting exposure to real ingredients and brewing processes, they take a lot of risk out of brewing, but at the cost of greatness. It’s almost impossible to fail to make beer with them, but equally impossible to make very good beer with them as sold. It’s disheartening to think of how many “homebrew curious” people must walk away from the hobby forever after tasting one batch of Coopers or Mr. Beer and assuming that’s as good as it gets.

There are also those who deride the kits for taking all the brewing out of “brewing”, and compare them to powdered drink mixes or boxed cake mix. Okay, maybe. You can’t just pour tomato sauce out of a jar onto microwaved pasta and say you made spaghetti from scratch (at least not in the Marchese family). You get more out of brewing when you put more of yourself into it, sure, but everyone has to start somewhere. With extract-and-sugar kits, you learn the basics of sanitation, fermentation, and carbonation: three essential skills a new brewer has to master, and for which there is simply no workaround in the home setting.

So extract-and-sugar is “brewing” more so than buying a six-pack is, just like jarred spaghetti sauce is “cooking” more so than going to a restaurant is. To say Coopers/Mr. Beer is “not brewing” implies that there is such a thing a “real homebrewing”, which I find a bit pompous.

Is it any wonder that some people are intimidated by our hobby? Walking into a homebrew shop for the first time can be terrifying for the uninitiated: shelf after shelf of mysterious products, bro-chatter filling the air with arcane jargon, and opinionated staff members with eccentric facial hair. My wife Lisa once ranked the homebrew shop as equal with the neighborhood comic book store as an intimidating bastion of male geekdom (and she lists beer and comics among the things she geeks on).

And there’s the cost. Extract-and-sugar kits offer a reasonably priced entry point into a hobby that can be expensive to break into, with a minimum of specialized equipment and ingredients so that if you don’t get bitten by the bug, you haven’t blown the baby’s college fund on shit you’ll never use again. These days, there are other inexpensive options available such as the Brooklyn Brew Shop 1-gallon all-grain kits that can be found at many non-specialty stores. Those kits didn’t exist when I started brewing, so I don’t know anything about how good they are. I’ll admit they seem cool.

But all-grain brewing introduces a lot of variables. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Brooklyn Brew Shop kits produce better beer than extract-and-sugar kits in a best-case scenario. But if something goes wrong, there’s a lot to troubleshoot. Why not master a few basic techniques first and then learn additional techniques one at a time?

Ultimately, there are many paths to the same goal of making the beer you like in the way you enjoy making it. The point I’m making is just that there’s no shame in the simple extract-and-sugar kits. With a little knowledge, like I had, they can be the start down a road to bigger challenges and better beer. And that, after all, is why we do it.

Bronze Age Fig Beer, Part 2: The Reckoning

In my last post, I described the brew day for my Bronze Age-inspired fig beer, which ended with me pitching a yeast starter made from Dogfish Head Midas Touch dregs. I didn’t have an especially good reason for fermenting this brew with Midas Touch dregs, except for thinking that it would be good luck for my ancient ale experiment. Moreover, it was my first time cultivating bottle dregs, and I didn’t really study up on it that much ahead of time. I was making it up as I went.

I watched the fermenter, counting the hours of the lag phase and waiting for signs of fermentation. 24 hours passed. Then 48. The airlock refused to bubble. I didn’t panic, knowing that the lid on the small-batch fermenter I “made myself” (translate: “bought a 2-gallon pail and drilled a hole in the lid to fit a stopper and airlock” – sorry, I’m not exactly Bob Vila) doesn’t always seal perfectly and gas might be escaping from somewhere besides the airlock.

After three days, I picked up the pail and looked through the translucent wall for krauesen. Seeing nothing, I decided it was time to intervene.

When I cracked the lid, it was like looking at the surface of a dead alien planet. The wort was still and clear, reflecting the concerned look on my face like a pane of amber glass. The only blemishes on the surface were a few bits of fig seed that had started to grow mold. Aside from that, there was no sign that anything was living in there.

The first thing I did was remove the moldy fig seeds with sanitized tongs. Well, no – the first thing I did was drop an F-bomb. Then I removed the moldy fig seeds.

I took a sample of the wort and tested the gravity. It was 1.073, 5 points down from original gravity, which I attribute to the fact that the OG was taken before I added a relatively high volume of lower-gravity starter. In other words, fermentation had not commenced.

I tasted the sample, finding it as sweet as the day I made it. I tasted honey, figs and malt. No alcohol, no bready yeast flavor and no transitional fermentation by-products like acetaldehyde. Fortunately, there was no apparent infection flavor, either: no musty mold taste and no sign of bacterial souring. So it was in stasis, not ruined.

There was really nothing to do except to pitch fresh yeast. I had a packet of Fermentis Safbrew T-58 on hand for exactly this emergency, so I measured out 6 grams and pitched it. I attempted to stir it with my drill-mounted whip to re-aerate the wort, but the drill battery was inexplicably dead (I’ve recently deduced that I have a kleptomaniac poltergeist in the house with an eyewear fetish; perhaps it’s fond of power tools as well). No matter, I closed the fermenter back up and within 12 hours the airlock was gurgling like a freshly risen zombie.

To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised that I didn’t get viable yeast from the bottle. I never did see any definite fermentation activity in either the first or the second stage starter. And the second stage starter had me a little nervous all along. I couldn’t say what was wrong with it, but it never looked right.

What did I learn from all this? Quite a lot, actually. Here are the CliffsNotes:

  • Leaving something as important as yeast selection to superstition isn’t going to get us anywhere.
  • Read up on new techniques before trying them. Always.
  • When winging it, expect setbacks and have a Plan B.
  • Trust instinct more when something doesn’t seem right.
  • Always check the drill battery the night before it might be needed.

There’s one more thing I learned. This was my first infection ever in four years of brewing. It happened in a wort that contained solid fruit and that I essentially didn’t pitch yeast into for 3 days. And the extent of unwanted microbial growth was two mere spots of mold on floating fig seeds, nothing more. That’s evidence that my sanitation practices are legit. I’ll drink to the knowledge that I’m doing something right.