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.

There’s lots of good stuff in "The Illustrated Guide to Brewing Beer" by Matthew Schaefer

There are books loaded with lots of good information.  Others have plenty of detailed explanations which are clear and avoid becoming tedious.  And then there are those that have a lot of great looking, yet helpful pictures.  The good news is the “The Illustrated Guide to Brewing Beer” by Matthew Schaefer hits this trifecta.

The first thing I noticed when opening the book is all the great photography.  And yet, the photos don’t come across as homebrew porn (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but serve a purpose in supporting the text.  Whenever Schaefer describes some homebrewing gadget, there’s a picture right there to show you exactly what thing-a-majig he’s talking about.  Which is one of the strengths of this book is in its descriptions and explanations of various homebrewing hardware.

Of course, it’s hard to use pictures to describe the various molecular chemistry involved in brewing, but Schaefer still takes care to provide clear explanations to good effect.   For example, Schaefer carefully explains why you shouldn’t keep a lid over the brew kettle, as this prevents the evaporation of Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS) from the brew, which can result in off flavors.  As a novice homebrewer having brewed about 10 batches of beer over the past 2 1/2 years, I always kept the lid on over the stock pot on the stove to retain heat to help the underpowered electric stove in my apartment get the wort boiling. 
I was intrigued as this seemed to be the first time I’ve ever heard of this, having three other homebrewing books on my bookshelf.  Consulting these books to see if I had missed something, I found that one book never mentioned DMS evaporation.  The other two mentioned something about this, but only in an off-hand way that didn’t make keeping the lid off the brew kettle to prevent off-DMS flavors obvious.  The extra care and detail Schaeffer provides made this concept really stick in my head, and now I’ll make sure to keep the lid off.

In addition, Schaefer provides more deeper explanations on critical homebrewing topics such sanitizing, hop additions, secondary fermentation and other topic than other books often touch upon, but do not provide the level of information Schaeffer provides.   In fact, I’m getting psyched to make an IPA after learning some new stuff about adding hops.  Schaeffer, a practicing attorney, provides a helpful appendix on the homebrewing laws for all 50 United States and its an interesting read to see how the laws in each state differs.

The book is written fairly economically, and its 240 pages do not come across as a weighty manual.  But I’m afraid it reads a lot like a chemistry text book.  While  I’m sure Schaeffer is a passionate and enthusiastic homebrewer, this just doesn’t come across in his the highly factual and procedural style of writing,  especially when compared to the work of Charles Papazian and Randy Mosher, or the Brooklyn Brewshop Beer Making Book, where a certain excitement for homebrewing leaps off the pages.   I kept waiting for a personal story or unique experience from Schaeffer’s homebrewing exploits, and save for a rather routine tale about a carboy blowing its top, never got it. 

Which is why I would hesitate to recommend this book for a first time homebrewer as it would likely come across to as a dense tome that wouldn’t generate any excitement needed to overcome any hesitation on taking the home brewing plunge.  It lacks any “first time homebrewing recipe” that I found to be very useful starting point for my first brew, which simplified all the homebrewing techniques I was trying to learn that were overwhelming at first.  And there were only two recipes.  Schaeffer must know a few more he could share with his readers and would be a great way to further to elaborate various homebrewing concepts much the same way he uses pictures to great effect.

These mostly stylistic issues aside, this book will make me a better homebrewer.  Five years from now, I expect my copy to be rather worn and have a bunch of brewing mash and hop stains on it.  Which is always a sign of a good homebrewing book.

(Skyhorse Publishing provide a copy of this book for the purposes of this review.)

Leisurely Labors

I guess there’s little point in noting the oxymoron title of Labor Day, since it’s a given few people work on it. Or if they do, it’s work they’ve chosen willingly. Like a Labor Day morning 10k run.

If I had to describe how the race felt in a single word, it would be workman-like. (OK, that’s two words connected by a hyphen.) World Runners, an organization trying to end world hunger put on the Labor Day race that morning in Sunnyvale Baylands Park was mostly on flat gravel trails, so there were no hills to contend with, but lots of soft crunchy gravel. In those conditions, best just to keep the arms moving, the legs churning, and work right through the course. I kept maintaining a steady pace, and passed a couple people at miles 2 and 3, but by the time I got to mile 4, it was one of those “the guy behind me isn’t going to catch me, but the guy in front of me is too far away to get either” deals and so told myself to ” just keep working” to get to the finish line. A 39:49 was slower than I expected to run, but then I didn’t figure on being second master in the small race, so I guess I’ll take that. I’ve got seven weeks of training to put in before the next race, the Grape Stomp Half-Marathon in Livermore. Not a lot of time, but enough to get some good runs in, get some extra tempo work on the track, and improve upon the Water to Wine Half-Marathon three weeks ago. (Why do I keep doing all these wine themed races?)

Speaking of Labor Day labors, I spent the afternoon brewing a Chile Habenero Stout. Yep, pretty ambitious to brew with chiles, especially since I’m having enough trouble brewing with malt and hops. But to my way of thinking, winging ingredients to come up with a unique, personally designed beer is a lot more fun than trying to perfect a Marzen, or copy beers already commercially available. Especially since the secret to homebrewing is spenign a lot of time cleaning a whole lot of stuff, which quite frankly, isn’t a whole lot of fun, so you might as well have fun with flavors.

As for the stout, so far so good. Tasting the wort, the heat level was about where I wanted it, just a little noticeable, but not overpowering. The idea for this beer came from good Mexican chocolate, where there’s plenty of flavors going on and little bite of heat at the end. That’s what I’m hoping for anyway. Being a lot more confident I killed all the nasty bugs ruining my previous batches and rinsed the cleaning solution off the carboy that muddled the last brew, I’m feeling pretty confident about this one.

Brewing is a lot like running. Put in the well directed hard work and concentration and with a little patience, good things start happening.

My Latest Home Brew is Barely Drinkable!

There’s a saying that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I can brew pretty badly. Even worse, I malign my own kids while doing so, as my latest versions of Verona’s Coffee Porter and Brandon’s Brown Ale had all sorts of odd, sour tastes most likely due to some lax sanitation practices. One of the things about home brewing is that you learn that the art of brewing is not so much about romantic ideals of developing great recipes or creative use of ingredients, but mostly about just keeping the damn brewing equipment clean. And if you’ve ever seen my desk or closet, you know that’s going to be a big challenge for me.

So I attempted to clean the bejesus out of everything to make my last brew, a simple Pale Ale, and was just hoping for something drinkable. And the good news, the sour taste the plagued the last couple batches is gone! The bad news is, the brew tasted rather muddled, and most likely some residual cleaning solution and chlorine got into the beer which likely contributed to its muddled, murky taste, which could best be described as malted ice tea. That’s a small victory, if you want to even call it a victory, but I’ll take it at this point.

All this effort to brew something that I might actually enjoy is creating a new found appreciation for the talents of all the great brewers out there. I began to fully appreciate the amazing accomplishments of world class distance runners after years and years of hard work still left me hopelessly behind runners that world class runners left hopelessly behind. Of course, finishing a race well back in the pack has its own rewards. Drinking crappy beer is pretty horrible.

Running teaches the value of persistence, so I’ll just keep at it, and eventually, the hard work will pay off. Drinking your own bad beer is pretty hard work.

Genesis of a new beer style: The Sour Porter

Inspired by craft brewers all over the world who are constantly pushing the brewing envelope to create new and innovative beers, my home brewing exploits resulted in the creation of a new beer style, the Sour Porter. While the traditional porter roasted malt flavor profile is apparent if you concentrate real hard, the initial sensation the brewing connoisseur will experience from this beer is an intense sourness in homage to the long Belgian tradition of sour ales. This innovative feat of home brewing was accomplished using traditional porter brewing ingredients fermented using traditional British Ale yeast, combined with a rare, mysterious yeast strain that can only be found lurking around somewhere in my apartment. Upon sampling this beer, there are those who will not share my out of the box thinking, and claim that it tastes like a home brewed porter gone terribly wrong due to some horrible yeast infection, but that will only prove they have highly unsophisticated palates.

Lord, what the hell happened to my last home brew? It was supposed to be a coffee porter made with Starbuck’s Verona blend coffee, which I called Verona’s Coffee Porter as a tribute to my eight year old daughter of the same name. It tastes like some porter that someone poured a bottle of vinegar into. I suppose screwing up a home brew named after my daughter shows what a fair, even handed parent I am, since I just recently made a rather funny tasting brown ale named after my son Brandon. After further reflection and analysis, I believe I know where the contamination is from and will correct for it, but for now, I’m stuck with a bunch of undrinkable stuff.

They say anything worth doing is worth doing badly. And like running, what you get out of home brewing is what you put into it, and my last couple of brewing efforts have been decidedly half-assed efforts. But the good thing about bad home brew is you can simply turn to beer made from a professional brewer who knows what he is doing, rather than choke down your own swill. And the struggles of home brewing is one way to appreciate the skills and talents of brewers who owe their livelihood to what comes out of their brew kettles.

Sorry Verona, next time I’ll get it right.

Running can’t be bottled. This home brew shouldn’t be.

One of my biggest mistakes was making a really good home brew. Well, actually my mistake was making a pretty good home brew, and then sharing it with a few other people. Now I have way too high expectations to meet as for the all subsequent brews I make. Even worse, there’s no real way I could ever reproduce that home brew ever again since brewing involved about five “oh shit” moments during a rather chaotic afternoon in the kitchen. The beer was from a recipe from Randy Mosher’s book Radical Brewing called Black Ship Pirate’s Stout, and for Randy Mosher’s sake, it’s probably good he didn’t actually witness me brewing his beer. But somehow, all the flavors came together wonderfully and upon my first taste, I had my first “Damn, did I just brew this?” moment in home brewing. And since a few friends really enjoyed it, there were plenty of requests for my next home brew.

My next home brew I decided to call Brandon’s Maple Brown Ale, a tribute to my son and his love for pancakes with maple syrup. And indeed, this home brew involved the requisite five “oh shit” moments and was yet another chaotic day in the kitchen. I used way too little water for the grain mash, creating a brown, jiggly, gelatinous gunk and zero malt extraction. So I poured pot after pot of water at 180 degrees over it to release the malt, sparging the beejeesus out of this mess in order to get something the yeast could feast on. Something weird happened when I poured the maple syrup into the secondary fermenter, the fermentation never really got going, and I had to shake the carboy a week later to jump start the fermentation again. The good news is that I will never be able to reproduce it, since my first reaction upon tasting it was “Damn, did I just brew this crap?”. The beer has grown on me a little since, and I now call it an acquired taste, which is what brewers say about their beers when multiple consumption of the beer is required to build up a tolerance to it.

Perhaps in a brutally logically way, this is a fitting tribute to my son Brandon, since he has autism, and something didn’t go quite right in his brewing process. But he’s suffered enough, and brewing an odd-tasting beer in his name to add insult to his injury was certainly not my intention. I am dutifully distributing bottles of Brandon’s Maple Brown Ale to all my friends who asked for it, with a gentle warning of what is in for them if they try it, and that they won’t be hurting my feelings if they pour it down the drain. But there will be other home brews which will be better, and one of the best things about home brewing is that you can share your brewing success with others quite directly.

On the other hand, running success can be difficult to share with others, and certainly cannot be bottled. There’s no way to distill my best races and runs and give them to others. But since these moments involved gastro-intestinal distress, burning sensations in both the lungs and legs, and I smelled rather awful afterwords, it’s doubtful these bottled running moments would be particularly popular or welcome. There’s a reason more people like drinking beer than running.