Five Easy Ways to Step Up Your Brewing

Even if you’re extract-only!

Show off your beerWhen brewers try their first batch, they’re inevitably excited – and surprised – that they actually, you know, made beer (unless batch #1 got infected, in which case they weep in the fetal position for hours). After a couple brews, however, that initial excitement wears off, and it’s time to step up your game. How can you move past making beer into make good, interesting beer?

  1. Show it off. If you have access to a homebrew club, this might be the most important step in improving your beer. Those who have been homebrewing for a long time can be fountains of knowledge. If something’s wrong with your beer, they’ll know what (and probably why). If there’s a specific taste you want explained, they’ll probably know what it is. If you’re looking to try something new and exciting, they’ll be able to tell you if it’s a good idea, and how to go about doing it.
  2. Don’t use a kit. Even if you’re still extract brewing, buy your ingredients a la carte, if possible. You can even just buy the exact items that are in a kit (and they’ll probably be cheaper individually). Buying piece-by-piece will help you understand why they’re in the recipe, and what purpose each ingredient serves. This also makes it much easier to change up recipes ever-so-slightly.
  3. Try to make a clone. This step is especially fun, because it means you get to try a bunch of commercial beers. Find something you like, and look for a recipe online. “Shorts Bellaire Brown recipe,” for example, would be a good place to start your googling.
  4. Go outside your comfort zone. This pertains to both drinking and brewing. Don’t have a lot of IPAs? Try one. It might inspire you to try something new in your brewing. You can also try brewing a style that you haven’t tried yet, or don’t typically drink a lot of. This will help you learn more about different styles of beer, and expand your brewing horizons.
  5. Try something crazy. If there’s a weird flavor you want to put in a beer, or you wake up in a cold sweat with a great idea, try it out. This is how we ended up with one of our better brews, the Charlie Pear-Shaped Weisen. The most important part of homebrewing is having fun. You’ll have fun, learn something new, and figure out what you can and can’t do in the future.

There are many other ways to improve your brewing with simple steps. Of course, moving to all-grain (or partial-mash) brewing is a big one, but I wanted to stay simple to start it off. What would you suggest?

Founders. Sept 1st. Be There

Founders, for my money, is the best brewery in Michigan. If you haven’t tried their beer yet, well, you should. I’m from the Grand Rapids area, and every time I head home to see the family I try to get out to their tap house which has $3.75 (!) pints of many of their brews. The only beer clone we’ve ever brewed was an imitation of Red’s Rye.

What I’m trying to get at is that Founders is awesome. One of the biggest reasons for this, is how much they still seem to have that homebrewer’s mindset. They’re always experimenting, coming up with interesting and innovative beers. The best example of this may be their Nemesis Ale. Here’s how the brewers describe it:

What you have here is a rarity. A special, one-of-a-kind ale that is only made once a year. Sometimes that’s all. Forever. No more. Nada. Limited-time only. You never know what you’re gonna get. But you can be sure that it’ll be damn tasty.

This beer will be released on September 1st at their Grand Rapids taproom. Before then, only a handful of people will really know what it tastes like or even the style. One thing you can know, is that it will not be boring.

If taking a risk isn’t your thing, well they’re also releasing this year’s Breakfast Stout on the 1st as well.

I was planning on heading to start my move to Chicago on September 1st, but it might just be worthwhile to postpone that for a day to get my hands on some of the best beer in Michigan, the USA and possibly the world.

Belgian Sour Ale, brah.

The original plan for our latest beer was to make a Kriek Lambic, but the circumstances… they didn’t work out so well. First off, I found a good deal on some sweet cherries at a farmer’s market, not the sour Kriek cherries that are intended for the style. Then, our local homebrew shop was all out of lambic yeasts (must be a popular style this time of year – who knew?). So, we’re going to end up with some hybrid style, with a belgian style and cherry adjuncts, but probably not anything like we thought we were going to get when we started.

Mash

  • 10lb Belgian Pils
  • 1.5lb Flaked Wheat
  • .5lb Caravienna

We mashed for a little over an hour at our standard temperatures (water temp around 170, about 150 by the time it actually mixes in with the grain) with about 4 gallons. We sparged with 165 degree water, with enough to get us up to 4.5ish total gallons. We let the water keep running out for extra wort, or a second running beer.

Boil

Fermentation

We had about 5 gallons of wort that we put into our carboy with a vial of WLP550 Belgian Ale Yeast. The extra wort (about 1 gallon) went into an Ale Pail with a bit more of the yeast  We threw  it in our brew closet for about a week and half. It developed quite a bit of trub down on the bottom. After about 10 days, we washed and microwaved or cherries to get the sterilized and tossed them into the Ale Pail. We mashed them up as best we could with our paddle, and racked the beer from the carboy to the pail. About a week later we bottled them.

Tasting Notes

The first thing we noticed when pouring this beer was a very nice, red color, even the head was a nice pinkish cream. There was a little bit of cherry in the nose with some of the ester notes you’d expect from a belgian. The taste is actually a little thin. There isn’t that much cherry flavor or belgian flavor. It is a solid tasting beer with an awesome color that finishes with a hint of the flavors we were going for. This was our first beer using fresh fruit, and, like usual, we learned some stuff. Mainly, you need to really macerate the fruit. Cherries, being a stone fruit, prevented us from using a blender or food processor, so we had to do it with a paddle. A lot of the cherries were completely whole, so didn’t contribute that much flavor to the beer.

Wine Enthusiast: Destination Ann Arbor

Wine Enthusiast Magazine recently discussed some dining options in Ann Arbor, including a few that are of interest to beer aficionados in A2. The places that fall within that category that I’ve also been to (as a drinking establishment, not just for dinner):

The wine scene is just as vibrant. Fatherdaughter team John and Kristin Jonna (who formerly worked for Benziger Winery) opened Vinology Wine Bar and Restaurant (110 S. Main Street; vinowinebars.com), in downtown Ann Arbor during 2006. Pair seasonally inspired small plates with an impressive wine list that includes 38 wines by the glass. Don’t miss the “bubble room” downstairs—an intimate space with 400 hand-blown glass balls suspended from the ceiling; it’s next to a retail wine shop.

The wine list at vinology is insane, but they do also have a beer menu, including craft brews from Bells, New Holland, Flying Dog, and others. The rest come in a trifecta:

And what would a university town be without microbreweries? In 1995 Rene and Matt Grieff opened Arbor Brewing Company Pub & Eatery (114 E. Washington Street; arborbrewing.com). Always evolving, their latest mantra is to buy from local, sustainable producers to build items like stone-grilled pizzas and corned beef sandwiches. Drop in for a pint of light (Brasserie Blonde) or dark beer (Espresso Love Breakfast Stout). Much of the food at Jolly Pumpkin Café & Brewery (311 S. Main Street; jollypumpkin.com), comes from local farmers markets. Pair the brewery’s artisan ales with tempura-battered vegetables, a beerfriendly cheese board and market salads.In suburban Milan, Original Gravity Brewing Company (440 County Street;ogbrewing.com), has about 15 beers on tap, ranging from an eclectic 440 Pepper Smoker (German smoked malt and jalapeños) to a Pale Ale.

I think the blog’s general vibe on Arbor is consistent (meh beer, very poor customer service). Jolly Pumpkin is rather Belgian-focused, but even as a huge fan of the style, I haven’t found a beer there that I’m particularly enamored with. Original Gravity is new to us as of this summer, click the link for Paul’s thoughts on our first trip there.

What’s missing? I guess some of these might not be relevant to the wine drinker, so their exclusion makes sense (though Zingerman’s Deli doesn’t serve wine either… hm), but Grizzly Peak, Ashleys, and Blue Tractor are at least notable for a first time visitor to our fair city.

(HT: Ann Arbor Chronicle for pointing out the original article)

Making The Leap

Like most college aged guys (and girls, for that matter), I used to think, “Man, I should really brew my own beer!” For the longest time, that’s as far as it went. A friend of mine brewed a couple batches, and the beer was great, but he never really talked to much about the set up or process, so home brewing was still shrouded in mystery.

Our home brewing kit

The kit that started it all

Eventually last Summer, Tim just made the executive that we were going to go buy a home brewing kit today! In eight hours we went from idle chat to having everything we needed to brew our first beer. We have never looked back from that initial step. I can’t imagine what the past year would have been like had Tim not had that impulse or we as a group didn’t follow through.

Some of you reading this may have some apprehension about starting down the home brew path, but I hope to show that home brewing is really something almost anybody can do.

It’s Just Too Expensive!

There is a fairly significant initial capital investment for home brewing. Nate took an inventory of what you need and came up with a total cost of about $105 . An average recipe kit is usually somewhere between $25-30, so you may end up dropping about $140 on your first visit to the homebrew store. $140 dollars is a good chunk of money, but let’s drill into this a bit.

We can figure out our total beer cost by adding our hardware costs ($105) to the product of software costs ($25 for 55 beers) and beers. So the equation looks like:

Costs = 105 + .455*(Beers)

Since we’re doing a cost argument, let’s say you drink exclusively Pabst Blue Ribbon which you buy in 30 packs. This leads to a simpler equation of:

Costs = .667*(Beers)

These two functions hit an equilibrium at 495 beers (i.e. 9 batches or 17 cases). Beyond your twelfth batch, home brewing is actually less expensive*. This is completely disregarding the fact that the beer you will make will almost certainly be more enjoyable than any beer you could get for $20/case. Once you make that initial investment, home brewing can be fairly inexpensive.

* I’m ignoring the whole discount rate thing here; it probably wouldn’t make that big of a difference.

I Don’t Know The First Thing About Brewing!

Nate thoroughly reading before we start our first brew

Nate thoroughly reading before we start our first brew

In all truth, we didn’t know that much when we started. In the build up before actually buying or kit, we each read online at the many excellent resources (e.g. homebrew talk), and talked about different hints and advice we’d seen. This may have actually complicated things, because we had so many different inputs during our first brew day. Honestly, for your first time brewing, read the instructions that come with your kit through several times, make notes of what you’ll need at certain stages and then follow them meticulously. Being a tabula rasa may actually be a benefit in this case. There aren’t very many steps to brewing, and most kit instructions spell them all out very clearly.

What If I Screw Up?

Using our makeshift funnel

Using our makeshift funnel

Our first brew day, things went swimmingly until we were supposed to add sterile water (boiled/distilled) to our wort. Well, we didn’t have any distilled water and my stove couldn’t handle another pot boiling water, so Tim and Nate went to another apartment, microwaved water until it boiled, poured into our sanitized carboy and brought it (imagine them struggling down the street carrying a 6.5 gallon glass bottle half full of 180º+ water) back. We added as much as we needed to our wort which was still in our brew pot. We then needed to pour from our pot into the carboy, but we didn’t have a funnel, so we cut the bottom off of a plastic liter of rum and used that. We probably tossed the yeast in when the wort was about 110º and the carboy itself was heated from transporting the water.

Our first beer!

Our first beer!

Why am I telling you this? We were a comedy of errors for a large section of the brewing process and we still made beer! It wasn’t the best Pale Ale I’ve ever had, but it was definitely the most satisfying. Beer is actually fairly forgiving if you’re not going for perfection. Accidentally add hops early? Added too much malt extract? You’ll still have beer.

The one exception to this concept is sanitation. If you’re going to be obsessive about anything, make it sanitation. Everything that comes into contact with your beer at any phase should be clean (washed, free of any visible particles), and anything that comes into contact with your wort after you take it off the stove has to be sanitized (using OneStep, StarSan, bleach water, etc.). Other than that, while you should try to follow the instructions, if you mess up, in the words of the immortal (at least so far) Charlie Papazian, “Relax, don’t worry and have a home brew!”

All images come from our first time brewing. The full gallery is available here.

Flying-By-The-Seat-Of-Our-Pants Dry Brown Ale

While often we try to produce a certain type of beer, immitating a certain style, or build a beer with a particular concept in mind, sometimes, raw experimentation and whimsy can lead to a decent brew. Making sure your beer fits the style guide, having just the right amount of CO2, final gravity, etc., is fun and a challenge (artists learn to immitate the greats before they go off and do their own thing), but the most important thing about brewing beer, that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is this: Beer is for drinking. You don’t need to stress about having just the right grain bill, or just the right length of boil, etc. Just go out there and brew something.

That’s the methodology in this beer. With no idea for what to brew, I happened to be driving by Adventures in Homebrewing, where we generally buy our supplies, and, since it’s normally 45 minutes away from where we live, I thought that I should swing by and pick something up. While many of our beers have had a focus on unique or interesting flavor profiles, I set out on this beer with more of a focus on the aroma, and this is what I threw together.

Mash

  • 6lbs 2 Row Malt
  • 2lb Belgian Aromatic Malt
  • 1lb Flaked Rye
  • 1lb Victory Malt
  • .5lb 40L Crystal

75 minute, mash at about 165ºF

Boil

  • 2/3oz Kent Goldings at 60 minutes

Fermentation

  • White Labs WLPoo8 East Coast Ale Yeast
  • 4/3 oz Kent Goldings Dry Hop

Fermentation really took off on this beer. While the spewing CO2 wasn’t quite to the level of the Barley Wine, the WLP008 rapidly took the beer down from an OG of ~1.052 to our FG of 1.002, which was pretty impressive, considering the attentuation should be around 70-75%

The East Coast Ale yeast has a neutral character that wouldn’t get in the way of the other ingredients allowing us to get a better sense of how each part of the grain bill came out in the nose.

Tasting Notes

This beer is kind of weird, but certainly not in a bad way. When I think of a brown ale, a malty sweetness along with a full body usually comes to mind. With this beer, almost all the sweetness is in the aroma, where it is very forceful. The taste of the beer itself is quite dry with a decent malt backbone. There are some hops, but those too come out mainly in the nose. At about 5.4% ABV, this is, for us, a nice session ale that can provide a bit of refreshment after a couple pints of our chili pepper beer.

Tasting Notes – One Wort Twenty Yeasts

Waaaay back in early June, Original Gravity Brewing in Milan hosted the Ann Arbor Brewer’s Guild for the One wort 20 yeasts experiment. The concept is… exactly as it sounds. The same wort was fermented with twenty different White Labs yeasts, in order to examine the effect that yeast strain had on the final taste of the beer.

The official AABG tasting notes can be found on their website, and our notes are listed after the yeast strain for each of the different beers that we tried. I’ll go out on a limb and say their notes are much more detailed than ours (but then, most of them have been brewing and drinking a lot longer than we have):

  1. WLP001 California Ale Yeast
  2. WLP002 English Ale Yeast
  3. WLP004 Irish Ale Yeast
  4. WLP005 British Ale Yeast
  5. WLP007 Dry English Ale Yeast – Less hoppy than 9.
  6. WLP008 East Coast Ale Yeast
  7. WLP009 Australian Ale Yeast
  8. WLP011 European Ale Yeast – Slightly dry, earthy, not as hoppy.
  9. WLP028 Edinburgh Scottish Ale Yeast More full than 5.
  10. WLP029 German Ale/Kolsch Yeast
  11. WLP036 Dusseldorf Alt Yeast – Citrus. Slight more malty than 8. We may have switched cups here, because this one tasted more like a trappist.
  12. WLP041 Pacific Ale Yeast
  13. WLP051 California Ale Yeast – More citrus than 1. Ester flavors.
  14. WLP060 American Ale Yeast Blend
  15. WLP080 Cream Ale Yeast Blend – Texture thicker than #4, but more dry.
  16. WLP500 Trappist Ale Yeast
  17. WLP550 Belgian Ale Yeast
  18. WLP566 Belgian Saison II Yeast
  19. WLP810 San Francisco Lager Yeast
  20. WLP862 Cry Havoc – Black pepper flavor.

Note that most of our notes are simply comparisons to another of the yeasts – because we tried them in batches of three or four. Some of them may have gotten… confused. More in-depth notes may or may not be posted at a later date.

Chili Pepper Beer Recipe

We have certainly tried a few a chili pepper beers before. The first I can remember is the Kuhnhenn Ring of Fire that jumped off the menu at The Hopcat. Since then there’s been the Original Gravity Pepper Smoker, New Holland Mole Ocho and a few others. There’s something really different about drinking a cold beer and feeling the capsaicin heat all throughout your body.

A few weeks ago, the Michigan Brewers Guild held their Summer Beer Festival, and among the all the bourbon barrel aged stouts and double IPAs, the beer that stood out the most to us was the Mango/Chipotle Ale from The BOB Brewery. The smokiness and heat from the chipotle really complimented the sweetness from the malt and mango. It was surprising and refreshing; it also definitely cleared your palate from all the heavier beers.

Shortly after that, we were trying to figure out what to brew. I was thinking a chili pepper beer, but I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be. I threw it out there, and we were all immediately excited and hopped online to try to find out how exactly they worked. Most chili beers are rather pale with a light, simple malt base that lets the chili flavor shine through. Our plan was to go a little different. We wanted those roasty, smoky flavors in the malt that would play off the smokiness of the chipotle and give the feeling of a BBQ. Tasting notes are after the recipe.

Mash

  • 8lbs 2 Row Malt
  • 1lb CaraFa II
  • 1lb 40L Crystal
  • .5lb Special Blend
  • .25lb Roasted Barley (400L)

70 minute, single infusion mash at about 155ºF

Boil

  • 1oz EKG at 60 minutes
  • 3 Jalapeño Peppers washed and halved at 15 minutes
  • 1tsp Irish Moss at 15 Minutes

The Jalapeños were removed after the boil, which we thought was a mistake at the time; although, the beer certainly tastes good.

Fermentation

We used Wyeast 1056 with no started in our 6.5gal glass carboy. We added 3 halved chipotles into the carboy as well (we washed and microwaved them to kill any microbes). Our original gravity was 1.054

After about 6 days, we racked it to secondary and added 4 more chipotles and 3 washed and halved habañeros. We tasted it multiple times a day. After 5-6 days we kegged and force carbed it.

Tasting Notes

OH MY GOSH THIS IS SO GOOD!

Now that that’s out of the way… It’s very dark with a thick, tan head which takes its time melting away. The smell is a ton of that beautiful, smoky chipotle aroma with a bit of a heat from the habañero. The flavor is well balanced with a good, dark malt base mixing with the smoky heat of the chipotle. It finishes with a tingling heat on the back and side of your tongue. At about 4.5% it’s a fairly low ABV beer for us, which is good, because I foresee myself drinking a lot of it.