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

Brew Day! Tropical Closet Hop Head Belgian IPA

It’s been something like 9-10 months since I last home brewed and with a free weekend, decided I had to do something about that.  So last Sunday, I did a little twist on my last home brew, a Belgian IPA I called Closet Hop Head.  Giving it more of a tropical vibe, Galaxy hops replaced Cascade while cinnamon spice substituted for coriander.  Making snap changes on a whim is part of the fun of home brewing which professional brewer rarely have the luxury for.   Can you imagine Ken Grossman waking up one day and deciding to use Galaxy hops instead of Cascade in his Sierra Nevada Pale Ale?

I call this beer Tropical Closet Hop Head and here’s few pictures the afternoon of brewing along with the recipe at the bottom.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Floating Thermometer in a Sea of Mash

All set to start sparging

Boiling away 

Galaxy and Chinook hops, along with some cinnamon
ready to go in at the final minutes

My extremely primitive wort chilling method.
(But it works!)

Time for the yeasts to do their thing!

Tropical Closet Hop Head Belgian IPA

4 lbs. 2-row Malt
1 lb Munich Malt
1/2 lb clover honey  (added at 5 minutes)

Mash with 1 1/2 gallons water

Sparge with an additional 1 1/4 gallons water

Boil for 60 minutes
0.3 ounces Amarillo hops 60 minutes
0.3 ounces Amarillo hops 45 minutes
0.1 ounce Amarillo hops 30 minutes
0.5 ounces Galaxy hops five minutes
0.5 ounces Chinook hops five minutes
0.2 ounces ground cinnamon, five minutes
Cinnamon, Amarillo, Galaxy and Chinook hops, steeped at flame out for additional 15 minutes

Add 1/2 gallon cold water at flame out

White Labs Belgian Ale Yeast in 1-gallon fermenter
White Lab California Ale Yeast in a second 1-gallon fermenter
Makes two gallons

Original Gravity:  1.070
Final Gravity: 1.016
Approximate ABV 7.1%

The Session #84: Autism in a Glass

For this month’s Session, Oliver Gray encourages us to go in the novel direction of reviewing a beer without describing its taste, mouthfeel, look or giving it the obligatory 1-10 scale rating.  It reminds me of two home brews I made a couple years ago. As a tribute of sorts to my eight year old daughter Verona, I brewed a Verona Coffee Porter using cold filtered Starbuck’s Verona Blend Coffee added at bottling. Forgive the bragging, but the beer turned out to be a perfect representation of Verona: sharp, sophisticated and vibrant.
Encouraged by this, I turned to my next project, a brew for my then 10 year old son Brandon. Brandon is different. He has autism, a disorder that affects at least 1 out of every 100 children born in the United States. Autism is a neurological condition which greatly affects social skills and people with autism often engage in odd and repetitive motions. No two autistic people are alike. In severe cases, a person can be rendered completely non-verbal and perpetually rock back in forth, their mind completely closed off to the world. At the other end of the spectrum are people with Asperger’s syndrome, eccentrics with awkward social skills but in some cases, great talent in math, science or art. There is reasonable speculation that Albert Einstein, Michelangelo, and Thomas Edison had Asperger’s Syndrome.
Brandon is pretty much smack dab in the middle of the autistic spectrum. He talks to people only when spoken to, although will solemnly recite the words from movie trailers and TV commercials non-stop in his own form of soliloquy. He’ll flap his arms wildly when he gets excited or stressed and sometimes bursts unpredictably into a carefree state of big smiles and laughter. I catch a few glimpses of my lucid, personable son through the fog of autism, but these moments are always fleeting.

For Brandon, I chose to brew Brandon’s Maple Brown Ale, since he enjoys Saturday morning pancakes so much. In addition to the standard roasted malts used in a Brown Ale, I added some cinnamon and vanilla, since I add these spices to the pancakes, and maple syrup in the secondary fermentation. When I first tasted the final product, the flavors harmonized unexpectedly into a unique, undefinable brew that unfortunately was overwhelmed by an obvious brewing infection. Contemplating this odd brew, I suddenly realized I had stumbled into brewing a good representation of Brandon.

Like Brandon, I could sense a fascinating brew struggling to get out from underneath the suffocating off-flavors. I certainly didn’t intend to brew a flawed beer after Brandon, but there it was, an undeniably accurate representation of him in my glass.  Bad beer can simply poured down the drain.   Children thankfully don’t work that way.

I always enjoy hearing brewers talk about their beers. The way they describe what they did to create them and how they brought them into the world, many sound like they are talking about their own children. Then there was the time I asked a brewer at a summer beer festival about his wheat beer, and he made a face and nearly sneering, told me “I just brew it for the summer crowd because they like the light stuff “.  His indifference to his wheat beer showed as it was timid and frail.

We’ve all met home brewers who despite the fact they brew fairly underwhelming beers or ones with noticeable flaws, still talk enthusiastically about them whenever given the chance. Most of us totally relate. We realize a crucial element of the creative process is simply loving what you’ve created.

I work hard with Brandon to help him overcome his autistic deficits, but one of the things I’ve come to terms with is that loving Brandon means embracing the autism. If you’ve ever brewed a flawed beer and loved it anyway, I think you’ll understand.

Homebrew Diaries: Closet Hophead 2, Honey Belgian IPA

Sparging the grains for Closet Hop Head 2

A while back, I tried my hand at brewing a Belgian IPA called “Closet Hophead“.  It turned out OK, but I thought I could do better.  Now to brew a better beer, I certainly could delve deeply into books on brewing science and work hard on improving my brewing techniques.  But it’s a lot easier to simply steal ideas from better brewers.

At the Bistro Double IPA fest during SF Beer Week last February, I got to talking with a home brewer who suggested using two types of yeast for a Belgian IPA.  According to him, Belgian Ale yeast gives a beer nice aromatic qualities but tends to suppressed the hop flavors.   Yeasts such as California Ale yeasts are better at bringing the hops to the forefront.  Later on, I spoke with Hermitage Brewmaster Greg Filippi about Hermitage’s Single Hop IPA series, and discovered Greg used a lot of late hop additions to the boil to bring out bright hop characteristics.

Armed with this stolen knowledge, I set out to brew a second iteration of Closet Hop Head.  I brew 2-gallon batches using two 1-gallon glass jugs as fermenters, so it was easy to simply pitch Belgian Ale yeast in one, and California Ale yeast in the other, to get both the best of both yeast strains.  Then, I tweaked the recipe to increase the hop additions later in the boil in an attempt to bring out the hop flavors. 

The result was the most complicated brewing recipe and process I ever tried.  Here’s the recipe:

4 lbs. 2-row Malt
1 lb Munich Malt
1/2 lb organic wildflower honey (added at 5 minutes)

Mash with 1 1/2 gallons water

Sparge with an additional 1 1/4 gallons water

0.3 ounces Amarillo hops 60 minutes
0.3 ounces Amarillo hops 45 minutes
0.1 ounces Amarillo hops 30 minutes
0.2 ounces Cascade hops five minutes
0.2 ounces Chinook hops five minutes
0.2 ounces ground coriander, five minutes
0.2 ounces Cascade hops, steeped at flame out for 15 minutes
0.2 ounces Chinook hops, steeped at flame out for 15 minutes

Add 1/2 gallon cold water at flame out

White Labs Belgian Ale Yeast in 1-gallon fermenter
White Lab California Ale Yeast in a second 1-gallon fermenter

Original Gravity: 1.066
Final Gravity: 1.010
ABV: 7.4%

The result was a good, not great homebrew.   The brew is a good mix of honey, aromatics from the yeast, and a floral hop character.  The malt is crisp, simple and dry, and which works as a good canvas for all the different flavors.  It doesn’t have the hop bite I was hoping for and while the brew is definitely complex, it’s also a tad muddled.  A nice beer, but still needs a little tweaking with a little more hops……and a couple more swiped brewing secrets.

Home Brew Diaries: Closet Hop Head Belgian IPA

I never quite saw the point of taking notes as I home brewed, as I barely knew what I was doing.  And taking notes is something I do a lot during work.   Taking notes is a great way to improve brewing skills but since home brewing is hobby, I was a bit loathe to make it seem more like work and less like a hobby with obsessive note taking. 



Do you have any idea hard it is to take a
picture of a beer beer inside a closet.

But one of the best ways to learn something is to organize one’s thoughts so you can tell other people about it, so I’ve decided to commit my home brewing exploits to electronic papers here in periodic installments I’ve brilliantly named “Home Brew Diaries”.  Which is a signal to you, dear reader, to skip these posts if your not into reading about my home brewing exploits as I readily admit, these posts are more about me than they are about you.  Then again, some of you out there home brew, and part of my satisfaction from home brewing is the insight gained from understanding how hops, yeast, malt, and water come together to create what we all know as “beer”.

And so we start with my first attempt at a Belgian IPA, Closet Hop Head.  I’ve brewed beers inspired by son Brandon and daughter Verona, so it seemed time to brew a beer in honor of my wife Linda.  One of the most memorable times in her life was whiling away the afternoons long ago on a trip to Belgium with one of that countries many wonderful beers.  Back here in the States, her favorite beers are the most hoppy ones.  So a Belgian IPA seemed a pretty obvious as a tribute beer for her, and since I sometimes joke “Don’t let her good looks fool you, she’s a closet hop head!”, that’s where the name comes from.

For this beer, I chose Chinook hops in an attempt to give it that nice grape fruity peel character Linda always likes and Cascade to give it additional citrus-like notes.  Linda always loves a beer with great hop aromas, so used a little additional Cascade for dry hopping.  To let all the hop goodness shine through, I used clear Pilsner malt.  The two gallon recipe:

Closet Hophead

Makes approximately two gallons.

10 ounces 40L Crystal Malt
4 lbs. Pilsner Malt
0.5 ounces Chinook Hops 60 minutes
0.5 ounces Cascade Hops 30 minutes
0.2 ounces Cascade Hops 5 minutes
0.2 ounces Cascade Hops, dry hopping
3 twists of ground pepper from a pepper grinder (An impulsive decision near the end of the boil!)

White Labs Belgian Ale Yeast

OG 1.064
FG  1.018
ABV 6.25%

The Final Results
As with a lot of my home brews, this didn’t turn out the way I expected.  I’d characterize the final results as more of a Belgian Pale Ale, as it just didn’t quite have the hop bite one expects from a good IPA.  The ground pepper was a weird last minute thought while brewing, and like a lot of impulsive last minute thoughts, it doesn’t seem like a good idea in hindsight.  Maybe next time I’ll use a different spice like coriander to make the brew more “Belgian”.  The White Labs website indicates with their Belgian Ale Yeast strain “phenolic and spicy flavors dominate the profile”.  That was certainly true here, with those flavors at the forefront and the hop flavors unfortunately muddled and too far back in the background. Not cooling the wort down enough before pitching the yeast may have caused that.   I could certainly use more hops to ramp up those flavors, but having recently read hops available at most home brewing stores tend to be low quality, that might be the real problem.

The brew is a bit cloudy and has a nice meringue-like head to it.

While the end result was a bit of a letdown, Closet Hop Head started growing on me the more I drank it, which is always a positive thing.  I’ll just tweak the recipe, possibly find a better source of hops, and give it another go sometime.

Linda drinking something hoppy.

How do you capture autism in a bottle?

Should I brew a beer in honor my autistic son Brandon by brewing a beer with noticeable defects and strange tastes?   Most people would say of course not, but this is not as contrived a dilemma as it might seem.

Consider that we have to take Brandon’s picture a bunch of times to finally get one where he isn’t flapping his hands, looking away from the camera, or scrunching up his face in an earnest attempt to smile.  But aren’t all those other pictures we delete or otherwise hide part of Brandon’s true character?   I’ve learned that loving my son means loving the autism, so there’s a part of me that doesn’t want hide his autistic traits, but celebrate them, as weird and unnatural as they might be.

Brandon with one of his favorite Lego models he built.

 So how to capture this in a beer someone might actually want to drink?

Brandon devours his Saturday morning pancakes that incorporate cinnamon, vanilla and maple syrup in the recipe, so I decided to incorporate these flavors into a beer.  I thought these flavors would go well with the light nutty and roasted character of a good Brown Ale, so I took the Dad’s Brown Ale 1-gallon recipe from the Brooklyn Brew Shop’s Beer Making Book, and added cinnamon, vanilla and maple syrup and called it Brandon’s Brown Ale.

The recipe:

Brandon’s Brown Ale

1.6 pounds Maris Otter Malt
0.1 pounds Caramel 40 Malt
0.1 pounds Caramel 80 Malt
0.1 pounds Chocolate Malt
 0.1 ounce Challenger Hops (60 minutes into the boil)
0.15 ounces  Fuggles Hops (0.1 ounces at 40 minutes, 0.05 ounces at 55 minutes)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 40 minutes into the boil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 55 minutes into the boil
3/4 cup maple syrup at end of boil

English Ale Yeast

The grains were mashed with 2 quarts of water, were sparged with an additional 1 gallon of water, and then the resulting wort was boiled for 60 minutes

As for the taste, well it is different.  Cinnamon, vanilla and maple syrup work great together in pancakes, but some flavors just don’t work well together in a beer, and this one’s a little different.    The maple syrup and vanilla extract gave it a woody character while the cinnamon imparted a savory, aromatic dimension, but the beer seemed to lack the malty character one associates with a Brown Ale.  Next time, I think the maple syrup will be added to the fermenter after the boil to give the brew a more mellow maple flavor and I might use a little less of it to let the malt shine through.  Using a fresh vanilla bean and cinnamon sticks would probably improve upon the flavor as well as the spice character seemed a little muddled.

But those problems aside, the beer had a smooth, slighly creamy character and the spices gave the Brown Ale an unusual dimension that was a little surprising and unconventional, but is easily enjoyed.  I think that captures Brandon pretty well.

A more candid shot of Brandon building the Lego model.   In an unposed shot
when he doesn’t realize we’re taking his picture, he is more natural.

No Longer Home Brewing Behind Closed Doors

Brewing up a one gallon batch

Whenever I would tell my wife I would be home brewing over the coming weekend, there would be an awkward pause, and then realizing there was not much she could do about it, she’d respond with a quiet “OK”.  She’d arrange to meet up with her friends for the day while I’d do my business, and when she was on her way back that evening, would give me a call to warn me of her impending arrival. I’d get everything cleaned up and put back so by the time she got home, she would have no idea what had actually happened while she was away, although there would always be some tell tale evidence if she looked closely.  Of course, she knew what really went on when she went away, but was wise enough not to ask too many questions.

OK, granted my wife is quite supportive of my brewing exploits, but understands it’s best if she isn’t around.  Our apartment kitchen gets pretty trashed whenever I brew up the standard 5-gallon home brew batch and I’d tend to get in a foul mood one or twice or three times brewing all that beer in cramped quarters.  My wife doesn’t like watching our place get trashed and knows to get as far away from me as possible whenever I’m in foul mood.

And while brewing sounds like a pretty romantic activity, it’s a lot about cleaning and sanitizing large metal and glass objects which I find about as exciting as cleaning the toilet.  And cleaning up the kitchen after I’ve splashed and spilt wort all over it is about as thrilling as, you guess it, cleaning up a dirty kitchen.

So after reading about brewing more manageable 1-gallon batches I set about brewing my first 1-gallon batch with a cautious optimism, choosing to brew a Honey Sage Ale recipe from the Brooklyn Brew Shop Beer Making Book .

Predictably, I screwed up recipe from the get go.  It called for using 1.8 lbs of Pilsner Malt and 0.3 lbs of Munich malt.  I  picked up what I thought were two 1-pound bags of Pilsner malt at my favorite home brew store, only to find out when I got home that I had actually picked up a one pound of Pilsner malt and a one pound of  Rahr Malted Wheat.  Luckily, this mistake was partially cancelled out by another mistake, in that I also picked up Belgian Wit Ale Yeast rather than Belgian Ale Yeast, since Wit beers are brewed with wheat malt.   Despite seriously deviating from the original receipe, the end result could be no worse than any of my previous brews.

Nice clean stove to brew beer on

So the final recipe turned out to be:

1 lb Pilsner malt
0.6 lb Munich Malt
0.5 lb Rahr Malted White Wheat
3/4 cup California Wildflower Honey
0.2 lb Cane Sugar

0.3 ounce East Kent Golding hops
3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

Belgian Wit Ale Yeast

Mash the grains with 2 1/2 quarts water between 144-152 F for 60 minutes.  After sparging with an additional 1 gallon of water at 170F, boil for 1 hour adding 0.1 ounce of hops at initial boil, another 0.1 ounce at 30 minutes, and the last 0.1 ounce at 55 minutes.  Add 2 tablespoons of the sage at 30 minutes and the last tablespoon at 60 minutes.  Add the honey and cane sugar at 60 minutes, and stir to dissolve. 

Ferment for two weeks, and then add 3 tablespoons of honey for priming.

Original Gravity 1.070
Final Gravity  1.008

The Honey Sage Belgian Wit in all its glory

abv = 8.0%

After fermenting for two weeks, the sage and honey flavors were quite forward, with a definite boozy character to the brew from high alcohol content.  Two weeks of bottle conditioning mellowed things significantly.  The final result was a fizzy cloudy yellow unassuming looking wit beer with plenty of herbal sage flavors, some yeastiness, and a little savory and floral character from the wildflower honey and hops.  Despite the high abv, the alcohol was not longer apparent, and I didn’t detect any obvious off-flavors. 

It only took about four hours to brew from start to finish, with a lot less before and after prep work than the 5-gallon batches I’ve made previously.  And the result was something pretty refreshing to drink during a Northern California “winter” and arguably the best beer I’ve ever brewed, even though I screwed up the initial recipe pretty bad.

Which underlines a key difference between running and brewing.  If you screw up running, some part of your body is going to feel pretty sore.  Screw up home brewing and chances are still good you’ll have a decent beer when it’s all over.