The Session #132: A rambling home brew conversation

For the 132nd edition of The Session, Jon Arbernathy  over at The Brew Site wants us to start a home brewing conversation. OK, let me ramble a bit about home brewing.

Home brewing is a lot like golf. Most people who home brew a lot are either people with plenty of free time like 20-somethings and retirees, or else they’re really hard-core enthusiasts of all ages. I’m neither. I’m the duffer who pulls out his bag of golf clubs buried deeply back in the closet once or twice a year. I’ve put together my own little 2-gallon system so I could brew all-grain recipes in my kitchen, so while pulling out the various stock pots and gadgets out of my garage, I’m usually asking myself “How does all this work, again?”.

kitchen homebrew
Brewing a 2-gallon batch in my kitchen

I strongly believe if you’re going to write knowledgeably about beer, you have to brew at least a little. I’ve had a lot of great conversations with brewers and there’s no way I could appreciate their insights without the understanding and experience of actually brewing myself. Of course, I shamelessly steal these brewer’s secrets and use them for my next brew. Brewing also helps me appreciate the beer in my glass. Hazy IPAs with a bunch of crud floating around in the beer that muddies the taste may taste juicy and have low bitterness, but I know you can brew juicy, low bitterness IPAs using late hop additions without using hazy flotsam, because I’ve brewed juicy, non-hazy IPAs myself.

In my opinion, trying to become a mini-brewery kills all the fun of home brewing.  I once talked to a brewer who encouraged me establish metrics to refine my process. I just smiled and nodded as he gave his well meaning advice, which I totally ignored. I spend all day at work gathering metrics to refine processes. That’s the last thing I want to do when I’m at home doing a hobby. I’m not particularly interested in clone brews, either. Sure, it might be interesting to see if I could make a brew that tasted like Racer 5 or Black Butte Porter. But of course, whatever I brewed would almost certainly taste worse and I don’t quite see the point of brewing a beer I could just pick up at the grocery store. A lot of the fun of home brewing is playing around and experimenting. I brew beers I’d like to drink that few, if any breweries have in their regular line-up.  It might be Stouts with molasses and spices, Red Ales with late hop additions, Brown Ales with maple syrup,  or single hop Belgian IPAs.

All the cleaning and sterilizing required for a good home brew nearly takes all the fun out of it. ‘Nuff said.

Any idiot can brew a great beer once, it’s damn difficult to brew the same recipe repeatedly and get the exact same result each time.  I’ve had some dumb luck on home brew afternoons where I went around yelling “Oh, shit!” every 15 minutes or so as some kettle nearly boiled over or some other mini-catastrophe unfolded and yet the final product was pretty damn good. I’ve had other brewing afternoons where I thought “I’m nailing this” only to produce a lack luster product. Now of course, I could heed the advice of that helpful brewer and “refine my process” and brew more consistently, but that would take the suspense out of the whole thing. That said, brewing beer makes me appreciate the difficult job professional brewers have in achieving batch to batch consistency, where a lack of control over the tiniest thing could send a beer right off the rails.

I love all my home brews, even when they suck.  Perhaps because I only brew once or twice a year, when I brew beer, it’s something special. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but I always learn something. My latest home brew, which I made January 1st to start off 2018 was a bit of an historical experiment. I decided to make a California Common with a simple grain bill of two-row and some 40L malt, brown sugar, Northern Brewer hops, and California Lager yeast. To replicate how Steam Beer was reportedly brewed on the roofs of San Francisco buildings in the late 1800’s, I kept the two 1-gallon fermentation jugs in my garage where the temperature fluctuated between 40-65 degrees F over the course of each Northern California winter day. I was curious how these temperature fluctuations would affect the flavor profile as yeasts did their thing, just as those Steam Beers must have exposed to similar conditions way back when. Did the Steam Beers of yesteryear posses some wonderful complexity, a delightful atmospheric terroir? Unfortunately all I got was a murky muddled brew with a slight sour taste, suggesting an infection.  Given the rustic frontier reputation of those early Steam Beers, I suspect my attempt at historical recreation was all too successful. And you know what, bad beer and all, creating an underwhelming Steam beer was still a journey worth taking.

Cali Common Homebrew
My California Common home brew in all its glory

Starting 2018 off right…sort of

After an encouraging 2017 running year, I decided to lace up the racing flats for the Kiwanis 2018 Resolution Run held New Year’s Day at Mountain View’s Shoreline Park, one of those small charity races where a couple hundred people show up in a good mood full of holiday spirit.

Won’t bore you too much with a blow by blow of the race, mostly because with the small field, everyone basically separated after the first couple miles and I was running by myself for the last five miles of the 6.2 mile course. My goal was to break 42 minutes, which seemed challenging as my legs felt a little creaky and not so energetic.  Going out at what felt like an easy pace, I looked down at my Garmin watch and noticed I was running about 6:25 per mile pace, significantly faster than 42 minute pace. I eased off just a little more, and still passed a runner just before the mile marker.  Up ahead was a guy in a blue shirt. Keeping eye contact on the blue shirt while trying to keep a 6:40-6:45 pace, a followed him over the winding path through Shoreline Park. When it was over, crossed the finish line in 41:24, which is 6:40 pace. Having run a number of well-paced races in 2017, it was an encouraging running start going into 2018. I have a goal to break 40 minutes in the 10k this year, and the morning’s effort made that seem very possible.

Unfortunately, that afternoon’s home brewing session was a lot less successful. It’s been a couple years since I brewed, and it showed. I had no good way to cool down the boiling wort so after stacking the big stock pot on bags of ice, and then pouring it into a couple 1-gallon jugs I used as fermenters, the wort eventually cooled down enough after a couple hours and I pitched the yeast in the warm brew.  Twenty four hours later, not a lot of fermentation is going on and I fear I may have killed off or severely weakened the yeast by pitching it into wort that was too warm. We’ll see what happens in a couple weeks.

A good 10k race and a dicey homebrew session.  I can think of far worse ways to start 2018.

wort 1-1-2018


The Session #71: Five Things I Learned About Beer From Homebrewing

For this month’s Session, John at Home Brew Manual asks us to write about how our experience brewing beer has affected our enjoyment of drinking beer.  I’ve been homebrewing beer for over three years, making somewhere between 10-15 batches over that time.  Some of the beers were good, some OK, others were beyond horrible.    By my reckoning, this puts me into the “knows enough to be dangerous” category and so I can’t realistically claim to have any deep insights into the matter.  But then, what good is having a blog if I can’t spout off a bunch of uninformed opinions?  So without further ado, here are five things I learned about beer from actually brewing it.

1.  Any Idiot Can Brew Beer

If a video existed of the first time I ever brewed beer, watching it today would be a lot like watching a video of my first date.  Not only did I not have a clue about what I was doing, everything I was doing was based on books and things I’d seen, but never actually did.   I’d thoroughly sterilize things that really just needed to be cleaned, and barely cleaned things that needed to be thoroughly sterilized.  (Just to be clear, I’m talking about my first homebrew, not my first date.)  I have no idea how any sugars were extracted from the luke-warm, soggy over-sized teabags stuffed with grain that served as the “mash”.

After spending nearly a day peeking at the carboy every five minutes, the yeasts quietly worked their magic and the airlock began to slowly pop up and down.  The result was a thin, grainy, severely under-hopped and over carbonated Brown Ale, and all those who tried it gave me a rousing chorus of “It’s not that bad.” 

Technically it was beer and most people, if not told what they were drinking beforehand, would likely identify my first homebrew as “beer” within a few sips.  Beer became a little less mysterious, and I discovered the most satisfying beer in the world is any beer I just made.

2. Any Idiot Can Brew a Good Beer Once in a While

I’m living proof.  After a few batches of homebrew, I began to develop a process.  Or at least I stopped running around my kitchen yelling “Oh Shit” so much.  Until one day I tried my hand at a Molassas Stout and was in perpetual fire drill mode the whole time.  The grains were mashed at either too high or too low a temperature as I fiddled with the stove burners all afternoon.  The wort was way too hot when I pitched the yeast.  When I was done, it looked like someone with Stout colored-blood had been hacked to death in my kitchen.

To my utter amazement, when I tasted the final product, my immediate thought was “Damn, did I just brew this!”.   Some how, all those brewing flaws either counteracted each other, or the off-tastes somehow complimented either other really well, and everyone agreed the final product was truly awesome.   And I’ll never be able to duplicate it again.

So whenever someone raves about one great beer from a new brewery that’s supposedly the next big thing, I always think, “Let’s see them do that again.”  Some breweries do, others don’t.

3. The Act of Brewing Beer is About as Sexy as Cleaning Your Toilet

When I started homebrewing, an experienced homebrewer advised, “Just realize you’ll be spending a lot of time cleaning things.”  Unfortunately, he was right.   I spend more time cleaning metal and glass objects require to brew, ferment, and store beer than time actually brew beer.  Over one period, a couple batches homebrew tasted like someone slipped vinegar into it before I figured the source of the contamination.  So whenever a professional brewer says, “Brewing is a lot about sanitation,” rather than some way cool awesome recipe, I get it.

4.  Small is Beautiful

Many professional brewers profess a preference to keep their operations small, whether it be to maintain quality or simply to hide the fact their ambitious expansion plans went bust. 

Whatever their reasons, I’ve found the traditional 5-gallon homebrew batches are too much.  Too much time to brew, too much heavy equipment, and way too much beer.  As much as I love my watery, odd-tasting Pale Ales, after drinking three gallons of the stuff, I’m done with them.  My friends can only accept so much “gift homebrew” before our relationship is seriously strained.

I experimented with smaller 1-gallon all-grain home brew batches with good results, before ramping this up to two gallons, which I brew comfortably in my kitchen with standard cooking equipment.  I’m not too proud to say my biggest source of homebrewing equipment is Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

5. Anyone Who Wants to Brew Beer for a Living Has to Be Crazy

There is nothing more satisfying than drinking my own beer and slowly demystifying the alchemy of yeast, malt and hops with the creation each new batch of beer brewed in my own home.

Thankfully, I don’t have to care if each batch tastes a little different.  I don’t have to take out any loans to buy equipment, and if a batch of beer goes bad, I can simply pour it down the drain.  I don’t have to go around cold calling on bars, grocery stores, and restaurants or worry if my beer isn’t selling for whatever reason.  I don’t have to hire or fire anyone, or stress out over meeting payroll.   I never have to smile while politely dealing with drunks at Beer Festivals.  Why anyone would want ruin a good thing by doing that other stuff is something that makes absolutely no sense.

Then again, my idea of a great Sunday morning is running ten miles, even in the cold rain, and I suppose some might find that a little weird.

The Session #54: You say it’s sour like it’s a good thing

This month, Jon Abernathy of The Brew Site takes The Session into the surprisingly uncharted territory of sour beers.

I’ve brewed a couple sour ales. Problem is, they were not supposed to taste sour. Some unwanted bug landed into some of my recent home brews making them taste like somebody poured a bottle of vinegar into the carboy, a rather harsh reminder that successful brewing is a lot more about maintaining clinical sanitation practices than it is about creatively crafting a killer recipe. Sourness is something I try to keep out of my home brews.

Sourness also seems to have a bit of an image problem. Having sour grapes is not a good thing, and it generally not nice to tell someone to “go suck on a lemon”. We do not usually call our loved ones “vinegar” or “citric acid” and instead use words like “honey” and “sugar”. And so it must be no simple trick for brewers to harness the often unpleasant taste of sourness and turn it into something drinkable, even enjoyable, let alone convince paying customers to actually try it.

I hadn’t ventured into sour ale territory much until a few months ago when my wife and I went out with some friends to a sour ale tasting night at the Rose & Crown, a small pub shoe horned into a stone building just off the main drag in downtown Palo Alto, CA. All four of us ordered seven glasses, each of different sour ales and past them around for everyone to try. We enjoyed most of the selections, but curiously enough, each of us had a different favorite that was often the least favorite of someone else. Perhaps injecting sourness into a brew not only requires a difficult balancing act, but any brewer going to that trouble isn’t going to please everyone, no matter how skillfully done. But then, what do I know about sour ale since I generally avoid anything with the word “sour” in it.

So for this month’s Session, I decided to once again to brave the world of sour ales. The first one I tried was Ichtegam’s Grand Cru Flemish Red Ale I picked up at my local grocery store. Perhaps what drew me to this sour ale was that it came in a small bottle, so if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be pouring all that much of it down the drain. The good news is that didn’t happen, as I enjoyed the flavors of dried fruit, figs, a light malty toastiness, and only a light sourness which combined to produce an enjoyable brew. This was no flavor explosion, but a pleasant, easily quaffed beverage that would go well with any simple dinner. (Don’t ask me to get all culinary here and give you a bunch of foods to pair this with, as I would simply be making a bunch of wild guesses.)

Having survived that, it was time to move on to another one, and I courageously selected one that came in a larger bottle, Echt Kriekenbier from Belgium’s Brouwerij Verhaeghe, a Belgian ale aged in oak barrels flavored with cherries. Simply pouring this beer in the glass was worth the considerable price of the bottle, as this simple act created all sorts of great cherry aromas. As for the taste, there’s nothing really complicated about it. It’s mostly just lots of sour cherries and lots of oak, which is pretty good if you ask me. This was a great find.

So thanks to Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site and for further broadening my horizons to realize that sourness is not always a bad thing. Just as long as it doesn’t creep its way back in my home brews.