Tag Archive | brewing mistakes

An homage to UK pubs (and a classic monster movie)

I vote we go back to the Slaughtered Lamb. – Jack Goodman, An American Werewolf in London

Homebrew inspiration can come from strange places. My favorite homebrews are the ones that were inspired not just by an imagined set of flavors, but by places I’ve visited, stories I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, etc. I love using the language of malt, hops, and yeast to tell a story about something more than beer. The trick, though, is that brewing is not an abstract art. A good concept might make for a great conversation starter, but no matter how high-concept a brew is, if it doesn’t taste good I don’t want to be stuck with five gallons of it (I graduated from a Catholic university in New Orleans, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to brew a crawfish & Bananas Foster porter with Trappist ale yeast for the alumni picnic). Finding the right balance between concept and taste is the ultimate goal.

In spring 2011, Lisa and I visited the United Kingdom for three weeks and spent a lot of time in pubs. We drank real ales from so many regional breweries whose names I can’t remember (except for Brains – #1 among zombies in South Wales) served at cellar temperature, often from beer engines – though at one awesome hole-in-the-wall in a one-road hamlet in Scotland I think I remember drinking beer dispensed from a cardboard box. The taste and aroma of real British ale, even the sight of the interior of a British pub, are vivid and powerful memories for me.

In summer 2012, I saw John Landis’ 1981 film An American Werewolf in London for the first time and my nostalgia was kindled by an early scene in the film at a fictitious Yorkshire pub called the “Slaughtered Lamb”. So I brewed a special bitter with English malts and American hops that I named Kessler’s Rampage Special Bitter in homage to the film’s main character and titular werewolf. Not long after I kegged it my sister-in-law and her husband, a native Sussaxon*, came to visit for a week and emptied the keg while I wasn’t looking. I took that as a compliment, and decided to brew it again this summer.

The 2013 version was 94% (8 lbs) Fawcett’s Optic malt, reportedly the base used by Fuller’s and other UK breweries. 4 oz each of Crystal 40 and Crystal 150 rounded out the grain bill. Last year I used Crystal 120 instead of Crystal 150, but otherwise the malt profile was the same in both versions and pretty typical of the style. The mash was one hour at 155°F.

The hops were my chance to freestyle. American homebrewers can be pretty predictable in their hop selections for English pale ales – occasionally someone might get bold and use a little Fuggles, but generally it’s either East Kent Goldings, East Kent Goldings, or another … what’s it called? oh yeah, East Kent Goldings. I suppose that’s what judges look for in competition, but the lack of originality disappoints me. American pale ales and English pale ales are cousin styles, and I see no reason why American hops can’t play a role in a damn fine English bitter if the right ones are chosen – i.e., probably not the 4 C’s (though I suspect someone has done it well).

In 2012, I used exclusively American hops in keeping with the inspiration (you can see both recipes here). For 2013, I deviated with one English hop in the mix:

  • 0.5 oz Warrior (15% AA) at 60 minutes
  • 0.5 oz Progress (6.6% AA) at 15 minutes
  • 0.4 oz Willamette (4% AA) at 5 minutes

Although Progress is English and Willamette is American, both are Fuggle derivatives, so I thought they would pair nicely together despite being a slight variation on the original inspiration. Consider it an homage to Jenny Agutter’s character Alex in the film, the English love interest of the American David Kessler (yes, I can rationalize anything with my artsy symbolic bullshit).

I pitched Safale S-04 into the wort with an OG of 1.046. True to the old adage that “English yeast do it faster,” the fermentation bottomed out at 1.010 less than 48 hours later, leaving me with an ABV of 4.7%, palpable but still sessionable. I kegged it after 4 weeks, and after 2 weeks under refrigeration it’s just starting to get good enough to drink.

I don’t have any of last year’s batch left over to do a true vertical tasting, but I’m a little disappointed in this year’s model. I’m not sure the Progress hops were a good addition (sorry, Jenny). I’ve used them in more robust English-style beers like porters and stouts to great effect, but with so little malt character to hide behind, I’m getting a strong tropical fruit flavor though it is mellowing with time in the keg. The other fault is less diacetyl than I like in this style, though it may be hiding under all those Progress hops and may become more obvious as the hop flavor mellows.

So the beer’s not perfect. But considering I half expected the skies to open up, swarms of locusts and some ancient BJCP curse to fall upon me when I put hops other than East Kent Goldings in a special bitter, I think I’m still coming out ahead. I don’t get the feeling of being an American lost in Britain in this version, but my second Transatlantic ale experiment is good enough to brew again. And again. Until I get it right.

*Sussaxon: a native of East or West Sussex. My brother-in-law assures me this although this term is technically accurate, no one uses it. We both like it because it makes us think of the people of Sussex as mud-splattered, armor-clad Saxons performing great acts of manly savagery like raiding cottages across the southern coast of Great Britain. They’re not.

Parenting: it’s like brewing a person

On April 9, my son Lucian was born.

Less than 1 day old.

Far be it from me to claim I’m an expert on the subject after doing it once, but the months leading up to the birth of a first child are a whirlwind. Preparing for the birth is like a new hobby, one that fills only a weekend or two per month early on, but quickly escalates to every weekend and eventually every day. Months pass quickly, measured in weeks between ultrasounds, the impending due date consuming more time and mental bandwidth as the trimesters tick by. There’s a nursery to paint. Furniture to pick out and assemble. Classes to take. Bags to pack for the hospital. As our due date of April 22 approached, the to-do list kept getting longer, and we sacrificed other pursuits – social life, writing, movie night – in an attempt to reach our goal of being “ready” by April 1 so we could a) leave for the hospital at a moment’s notice, and b) relax and enjoy the last few weeks of our pre-parental life before we took the big plunge.

I also prepared a number of activities to “keep me busy” during my four weeks off from work. I formulated a couple of special homebrew recipes: ready to brew. Made substantial progress on mapping out the plot of my novel: ready to draft. Worked with my screenwriting partners to complete the first draft of a feature screenplay: ready to edit. And I stocked up on DVDs and books to watch/read in my downtime.

I’ll pause here to give a moment to my readers who are experienced parents. Please, laugh derisively at my naive delusion.

By April 1, we were a little behind schedule on the prep-work but not too far behind. We were all ready to buckle down and get it done in time for April 22. Then suddenly, boom. Lucian came 13 days early, smacking me in the face with a +2 spiked club of reality. I’m still shaking my head, trying to clear the ring of stars and chirping birds circling me.

It’s amazing how quickly I transformed from “me” into this new version of me that exists primarily to serve as one half of a round-the-clock life support system for another human being. In my rare contemplative moments, I think back to those last frantic weeks of expectancy with nostalgia, like memories of a relaxing vacation.

Don’t get me wrong. The instant I first laid eyes on my son in the delivery room, a profound and inexplicable emotion anchored in my psyche immediately. I was literally overwhelmed, almost hyperventilating as my brain refused to believe what my heart felt – that there was a new person on this planet, that I had co-created him and would co-author his formative years, and that I loved him in a way I never realized was possible. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything, and I’m glad he decided to come 13 days early. Someday, many years from now when our days together are numbered, I’ll look back and be thankful for the extra time.

But with all that said, the last nine days have challenged my naive assumptions of what raising a newborn would be like. That stack of things to “keep me busy”? Collecting dust. I haven’t read anything that’s not baby-related. I haven’t written (until now). I’ve watched a little TV, but seeing as how it takes 4 hours to get through a single episode of Game of Thrones or Mad Men, I don’t think I’ll be making much headway on that stack of DVDs. And as for the pipe dream of scraping together eight consecutive hours to brew beer, well, I barely even have time to drink a beer.

But I dove in head first, learning the right way for each new paternal task with zeal. Every time I tried something new, I looked it up in at least two baby books and online to see if I was doing it right (I’m not bragging; it was a crutch and a hindrance). I filled my head with so much information it eventually just started dripping out of my ears unused. I soon got overwhelmed and started making mistakes: confusing Lucian’s hunger cry for his diaper cry, chilling his sensitive butt with a frigid baby wipe, failing to shield his eyes from the sun for every microsecond outdoors. Every mistake left me feeling sick to my stomach and afraid of the next mistake, certain the baby wouldn’t survive two weeks in my care. What had I gotten myself into? How stupid was I to make him cry for literally hours in the middle of the night, while I racked my brain trying to figure out what was wrong? I was clueless, in over my head. The worst father in the world. I almost welcomed the idea of Texas Child Protective Services busting down the door of my house at 4:00 am, declaring me unfit for parenthood, and taking Lucian away to someone else who could raise him right. Unlike me.

And then one night, four or five days ago but a lifetime away, was my dark night of the soul. Listening to the earsplitting (I now know what this word means) cry of my frustrated newborn, terrified that any new minute on the clock might mark the breaking point for this poor innocent creature mistakenly entrusted to my ignorant care, I wished only that I could be somewhere else. Anywhere, anywhen, back in time, off in space, a place with bright sun and serene air and good ale on tap.

The thought of beer, coupled with a crippling fear of failure, triggered memories. I remembered my first forays into homebrewing, those exciting but terrifying new days filled with similar fear and self-doubt.

For my first few homebrew batches, I sought validation for every choice I made online and in the pages of the beginner books written by Charlie Papazian and John Palmer. Was I mixing the extract and water enough? Was I cleaning my steeping bag the right way? Were plastic carboys really fine, or was I going to oxidize my brew? Was I wasting my time, and would my beer end up tasting terrible? Was I the worst brewer ever, and should I just give up?

But I wasn’t, and I shouldn’t, and I wasn’t wasting my time. I was learning on the job. It was a painful, arduous process that was nonetheless absolutely necessary. The beer wasn’t perfect, but it was far from terrible. And as I got more and more experience, I realized that so much of homebrewing was not about right vs. wrong, but just about choices. I learned to be comfortable with the choices I made, knowing they were the right choices for me – at least at the time – and for nurturing the best possible beer out of my homebrew setup. I learned to have faith that even if I made little mistakes that needed to be corrected or even apologized for, the beer would be fine.

An epiphany began to blossom in my head. I looked down at my screaming, red-faced infant son and smiled. I remembered Charlie Papazian’s oft-quoted advice to new homebrewers: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. And I did.

Well, I didn’t have the homebrew until the next day, but you get the idea. As I drank that homebrew, I reflected on how raising a newborn is not entirely different from homebrewing. Sure, it’s a much bigger commitment and the stakes are waaaay higher. But it can be approached in the same way.

Relax. Don’t worry. Enjoy your child.

Nine days in, I’m still making mistakes and I’m still stressed out – sleep deprivation will do that to you. But amazingly, I’m starting to get the hang of it. I can tell the difference between a hunger cry and a diaper cry. I’m guessing with sufficient accuracy when Lucian needs feeding or changing, and when he just wants to suck on a finger or listen to white noise. I’m starting to feel like I sort of know what I’m doing when it comes to the basics, and I’m enjoying experimenting as I figure out how to parent more efficiently. I feel myself on the verge of a stage of parenthood analogous to being an intermediate brewer: straying from established recipes with my own adjuncts and flavors, controlling variables in my own way, putting my own twist on process and technique. And I realize the beginning wasn’t so bad. It didn’t take long at all.

Someday, though I’m sure it’s a long way away, I’ll level up to advanced, “all grain” parenting. I’ll have enough knowledge and experience to have my own ideas about how to make my child happy. I’ll be the one dispensing advice and recommendations to my friends who become parents after me. I’ll still screw up, of course. But with the wisdom of experience behind me, I’ll view my mistakes as something constructive; to paraphrase James Joyce, “portals of discovery”. I’ll screw up and fix it and clean up and apologize and analyze and solve the problem to become a better parent in the future.

And someday, I’ll pass that knowledge on to my son, perhaps over a pint of a well-crafted homebrew that he may someday brew himself.

Welcome to life, Lucian. For now, keep doing what you’re doing. Cry if you have to, but sleep when you can. You’ll need your rest. Brewing is hard work, and we’ll be doing it together soon.

Baggings! We hates it forever!

My Hobbit-inspired Old Took’s Midwinter IPA is now in the keg. If it seems like that happened really quickly, it’s only because of how late I posted my blog post about the brew day. I fermented it for three weeks before dry hopping it for 6 days. All in all, it was about 4 weeks from mash tun to keg.

I dry hopped it with an ounce each of the same finishing hops I used in the boil, hoping to achieve a nice mix of floral and citrus aroma notes to round out the beer:

  • 1 oz Willamette (4% AA)
  • 1 oz Cascade (6.2% AA)

It’s been in the keg for less than a day, so it’s too early to know for sure how it’s going to turn out. It tastes good, and it’s got more hop character than it did a week ago. So I think it’s going to be good, but I’m a little concerned that this wasn’t my most successful attempt at dry hopping.

In the past, I’ve dry hopped with pellets either tied in a disposable loose-weave muslin bag, or tossed into the fermenter loose. I prefer loose over bagging if possible for maximum contact, but hop particles in the keg are a problem with more than about a half ounce of hop pellets. With 2 oz of loose pellets, I’d be serving up pints of hop debris for a month.

I didn’t have any muslin bags on hand, nor any time to go to Austin Homebrew Supply to buy any. Searching local retailers for a solution, I came across these spice bags at a kitchen store. They’re for chefs making bouquet garnis, but they are muslin (a tighter weave but still porous), and they are advertised as reusable. The biggest drawback I could see was that they were smaller than the bags I usually use, but since I got 4 in a pack I figured I’d use several.

When bagging dry hops – or when using a tea ball-type infuser, which is also popular – the size of the bag or ball is important. Hops shouldn’t be packed too tightly or else you reduce the surface area in contact with the liquid, which decreases the amount of hop goodness that gets into the beer. After sanitizing the bags with boiling water, I split up my 2 oz of hops into 3 bags along with sanitized marbles for ballast. Two thirds of an ounce per bag seemed to provide lots of breathing room, although I knew the hops would expand a little.

I didn’t count on just how much they would expand.

After I racked the beer into the keg, I found my 3 muslin spice bags at the bottom of the fermenter. The hops had expanded so much the bags looked about to burst, like overstuffed pillows. I didn’t worry about it too much until I was cleaning the bags out, in the hopes of maybe reusing them someday. As I emptied the bags into the kitchen sink, I inhaled deeply, smelling the rich, floral-citrus bouquet coming from the green sludge washing down the drain.

And then it hit me: that’s hop aroma going down the drain. Not in my beer.

The hops expanded so much in those small bags that they ended up packed too tightly. Some of the available hop compounds got into the beer, but not all. So the beer is better than it was, but not as good as it could have been. Should have been. And I’m left feeling disappointed at the waste. A spontaneous decision potentially compromised the end result, and that’s going to bother me until I taste the chilled, carbonated beer and know for sure.

If only I had just used my usual bags! Or something else – anything else!

I should breathe deep and repeat the mantra of Charlie Papazian: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. Even if the IPA isn’t perfect, I haven’t ruined it. It’s far from the worst disaster ever to befall a homebrewer, and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve faced. Yes, it was avoidable and it’s annoying, but the beer will be fine.

Then from the back of my brain comes a nagging: Is “fine” really good enough?

It’s not beyond repair. I can still add more dry hops to the keg, if needed. And I probably will. But I’ve learned my lesson. I’m sure I’ll find many other uses for these spice bags in the brewery, such as infusing dry herbs that won’t expand. But I don’t think I’ll be bagging dry hops in anything smaller than a nylon stocking in the future.