Book Review: The Homebrewer’s Companion

The Homebrewer's Companion

The Homebrewer's Companion, by Charlie Papazian

Most of my issues with this book are really not Papazian’s fault at all. It was included as part of a beginner’s brewing kit by a local store – and it definitely is not a beginner’s brewing book.

That’s not to say it’s difficult to read, or even to understand, but it isn’t organized as a step-by-step process to completing your first brew, and then advancing from there. Though Papzian hits basics at various points in the book, a general understanding of how to brew a batch of beer is probably required unless you want to read the whole book multiple times before you can even get started. Each section covers a different aspect of the brewing process, and does so from the basics to some of the more advanced homebrewing techniques within that category.

Still, some of the organization issues persist even when the reader has a better understanding of the brewing process. Tangents abound, and sometimes there’s an abrupt change of subject that even this now-experienced (this was the first brewing book I read, but that was over a year and 20-some batches ago) finds tedious, or even scatterbrained. And scatterbrained might be an important part of the Cult of Personality that Papazian has built his homebrewing reputation upon. Still, too often “I could continue explaining this to you, but wouldn’t you rather be drinking?” is dropped, when the reader is obviously interested in finding out the details – hence picking up a brewing book, dude.

The final hundred pages or so contain recipes for various brews that Papazian has crafted over the years, often with creative nicknames (“dfhdgh” is one of my favorites). Those recipes are reference points more than anything for advanced brewers, though, continuing with the theme of Papazian not picking out an audience (experienced or beginner) and sticking to it. There are very few all-grain recipes, a source of frustration for those who are branching out a bit.

At the end of the day, this book is a fun read, a relatively easy read, but certainly not an essential one. Don’t pick it up if you’re trying to learn how to brew for the first time – go with one of Papazian’s other offerings. Don’t pick it up if you’re trying to take your brewing to serious new levels (though his breakdown of various all-grain mashing techniques is very good), either. However, as part of a more complete brewing library, or just as a fun read about homebrewing, it’s worthwhile.

If you’re interested in purchasing, do so through this Amazon affiliate link: The Homebrewer’s Companion

I Love It When a Plan Comes Together

So a couple weeks ago, my friend and I tried out the homebrewing kit that he got for Christmas. It’s a fantastic kit with an 8-gallon kettle and a propane burner rig. It is a very nice kit, but it’s still a beginner-ish kit that is definitely geared toward extract brewing. There’s nothing wrong with extract brewing, but I’ve done all-grain. I like all-grain, and – as a control freak – I like to be able to see all the raw materials, etc. Also, my favorite beer recipes are all-grain.

There are some really snazzy mash tuns available, but they are all out of my price range. That left one option: do it yourself.  Fortunately, I really like this option. I make no claims that I was around in the early days of homebrewing, but I imagine there was a lot of re-imagining and creative repurposing of existing materials because homebrewing supplies just didn’t exist. There’s something entrepreneurial, pioneering and empowering about making a mash tun out of items you can find at your local hardware store of choice.

We made a mash tun before, using a 5gal cooler and plastic false bottom that we got from Tim’s uncle. We poked around online and put together a system that barely even leaks and rarely sticks. There’s room for improvement, but it works.

For my second go-round, I decided to go bigger. Between having a bit more of a budget, an 8-gallon kettle (vs. 5 in Ann Arbor) and a bit more comfortable bank account, I had to go for a 10-gallon cooler, right? I looked up prices online, and the best I found (taking into account shipping costs) was this 10gallon Rubbermaid cooler at the Home Depot for $39.96. Next step was finding a construction guide.

I mentioned in my post about beer tools on the Web, and beyond their forums (which are excellent) they maintain the Home Brewing Wiki which has a ton of great information on different ingredients, methods AND step by step instructions on converting a cooler to a mash-tun!

Mash Tun Parts

Mash Tun Parts

This awesome guide has pictures, part numbers and pretty much every question you might have. Armed with this info, I went to the hardware store and bought everything I needed. All told, it was right around $65. Yeah. $40 for the cooler and $25 for everything else to turn it into an awesome piece of homebrewing equipment.

The most difficult part of the whole process was removing the plastic tubing from the steel weave. It took two of us. My friend was holding on to the tubing with needle nose pliers and I had the vice grips attached to the weave. If we would have read the instructions closely (who does that?) we would have just pushed it off with no problem.

We put it all together and threw a couple gallons of water into it and there were no leaks. SUCCESS! The next test was to see how the steel weave handled the mash and sparge.

I have to say, I was very impressed. The Old Ale recipe we were brewing uses all husked grains, so there was a good bed, but still, it flowed incredibly smoothly and quickly. Probably better than the plastic false bottom in the other mash tun. Part of it may be we were able to add more water which allows for more pressure, but man did it ever work well.

The crazy thing was how easy it was. We put this thing together in the time it took our mashing water to get up to strike temperature. The only tools we used were a hacksaw, needle nose pliers and some vice grips. If you can find an inexpensive cooler, the hardware seriously costs $25 or so, and you could probably save $25 within your first dozen batches of brewing all-grain versus extract.

If you’re thinking about taking that next step and going all-grain, you no longer have an excuse. I’ve built a mash tun from scratch, and that means you can too.

Review: Monks’s Cafe Flemish Sour Red Ale

The night before I picked this beer up from my neighborhood Binny’s, I was at Sheffield’s for the tapping of Vrienden, a new collaborative ale between Allagash and New Belgium. That reignited my interest in sour ales, so when I saw this Oud Bruin, I had to pick it up.

Sour ales seem to be one of the final bridges craft beer folk cross. There’s something very different about the tart, lactic taste that sort of goes against the flavors I typically associate with beer. It may be that exact reason why I like them so much. They’re so very different from the rank and file beers and, to an extent, even the crazier craft brews.

This particular beer is brewed in Belgium for Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia, PA. It is a mix of old, aged beer and young. My tasting notes are below the picture.

Monk's Cafe Flemish Sour Ale

Monk's Cafe Flemish Sour Ale - 5.5% ABV

Appearance: It pours a cloudy, brownish red with a thick, tan head that receded quickly with a bit of lacing. The last half inch of the head is holding strong. I can see the CO2 bubbling up from the bottom.

Aroma: The aroma is almost all that lactic sourness. There may be a light fruitiness, but nothing comes through clearly over the sourness.

Taste: The taste is nowhere near as overwhelming sour as the nose. In fact, I might almost want a bit more sourness. My first sip had a lot of fruity, caramel-malt sweetness, tempered with a note of sourness and finishing witha  smooth sweetness. The more I drink it, the less cloying it seems, and the balance comes through. No hop character to speak of, but that really wouldn’t be necessary. There’s the smallest hint of funkiness, but it comes and goes. Very complicated and tasty.

Mouthfeel: Very smooth and just shy of creamy. It’s lightly carbonated, but still with a nice, light effervescence.

Overall: I really like this beer. I’ve been into sours of late, and this hits the notes without being overwhelming. The sweet and tart notes play well together and produce a really tasty, well crafted beer.

Brewery Review: River City Brewing Company

I was recently in Jacksonville, Florida, for a game of which we shall not speak. Jacksonville is a city that seems to be set up to cater to tourists, an odd choice for a city that has no real tourist attractions (outside of an NFL franchise and a bowl game). It’s also trying to cultivate a reputation as a brewing city, with the Riverside Brewing District serving as the centerpiece. This district, however, is in the middle of a really bad area of downtown, and doesn’t seem to be particularly accessible to tourists, so I strongly recommend against trying to check it out.

River City Brewing Company

River City Brewing Company

The place I did manage to check out, however, was River City Brewing Co., on the South side of the St. Johns River in downtown Jacksonville. Part of the building seemed to be a fairly nice restaurant, but there was also a taphouse, where we parked for a quick meal and some beers.

The Porch View

The Porch View

I’d be remiss not to mention the view from the back porch, which was very nice (I’m a huge sucker for outdoor seating, and an even bigger sucker for outdoor seating on water). Though the main porch area didn’t face back toward the heart of downtown J-ville across the river, there were several seating areas outside, and it was a pretty impressive setup overall. Tangent about impressive setups: there was a DJ setting up his equipment out on the back porch for literally the entire time we were there (at least 3 hours, since we watched the entire Rose Bowl). Impressive indeed.

Beer Menu

Beer Menu

Anyway, back to the beer. As you can see in the photo above, the brewery offered four choices brewed in-house (in addition to some macro brews in bottles and on draft). The Mississippi State Alumni Association had their postgame party their (about which fml), and to a man, 100+ people ordered Corona or Miller Lite. Why bother going to a brewpub if that’s your plan?

I tried all four beers, including the JAG, which is what m dad was given when he asked for “the lightest thing you have.” The JAG was a standard light ale, with a fully translucent body, and primarily vienna malt.

Riptide Porter

Riptide Porter

My favorite offering – no surprise – was the Riptide Porter (pictured at right). It was a nice dark brew with good body and a very roasty character. The head dissipated a little quickly, but it was a nice caramel color. Coffee and chocolate were evident, and the roasty character had a nice bitter edge at the end. A very good beer.

The third selection was the Jackson Pale Ale. The literature claims it to be a sign of the “rebirth of hoppy American pale ales” which doesn’t make a ton of sense if you ask me, as Pale Ales and IPAs have been steadily going more toward the hoppy end of the spectrum in this country. The hops were listed as coming from Oregon, but they didn’t taste like West Coast hops to me, and they almost had more of a German-type flavor – matching the Vienna malt used.

Red Rooster Ale

Red Rooster Ale

The final selection was the Red Rooster Ale, which is – you guessed it – a Red Ale. This beer (like most of their choices, it seems) was German-inspired, and tasted almost like a Kolsch despite being a true ale. It had a lot of the flavor characteristics you expect from a true German beer, and had good balance throughout. There was nothing spectacular about the beer in any way, but it was a solid selection.

In all, I would recommend checking out the River City Brewing Company if ever you find yourself in Jacksonville – though I wouldn’t make a special trip just for the brewery.

Top 100 Beer Bars: Ashley’s and Hopcat

DRAFT Magazine has released its annual list of the nation’s Top 100 Beer Bars, and a pair of establishments in the Great Lakes State have made the cut (HT: Michigan Brewer’s Guild). Maybe my YBD compatriots can break down Chicago- and Denver-area bars at a later date, but I’d like to focus on Ashley’s and Hopcat. As a Grand Rapids native, but current resident of Ann Arbor, I’m familiar with both of these places, and I can attest to DRAFT Mag’s endorsement of the pair.


DRAFT Mag’s synopsis of Ashley’s Ann Arbor goes thusly:

Planted near the Michigan campus, Ashley’s is higher education in beer. Its 72 taps and three casks pour some stunners; in fact, Bell’s Brewery crafted a cask especially for the bar that was the first carnation of Two Hearted Ale. Other Michigan great sit alongside wet-hopped brews, Belgians and classic pub fare.338 S. State St., (serves food, new to our list)

The beer selection at Ashley’s is nothing short of amazing, as their 75 draft beers are complemented by a bottle roster rivaled by no other establishment I’ve ever seen. There’s not the focus on Michigan beers that this synopsis seems to imply, but they are definitely present.

Of course, beer selection isn’t where it stops, as they also have a robust selection of whiskeys. The magazine doesn’t mention a certain… deliberate pace… of the service staff, but when I’m looking to try something new, slow waiters aren’t going to prevent me from heading to State St.


DRAFT Mag has this to say about Hopcat:

This craft beer juggernaut burst onto Grand Rapids’ beer scene in 2007 and hasn’t slowed down since. It’s still doing what it does best: pouring Michigan beers from 48 taps, 150 bottles and one cask; hosting regular beer classes; and cranking out solid pub food (the Crack Fries? A must.). But the bar’s upped its game with an annual barrel-aged beer fest and impressive house beers like Kymerica Beer 2010, an imperial brown ale blended with Vander Mill Cider. 25 Ionia S.W., (serves food, pours house beer, sells beer to go)

Ashley’s was my golden standard for beer bars prior to my first foray to Hopcat, and while it may have a slight edge on the basis of sheer breadth of selection, this is a close, close second. Whereas Ashley’s is a bar that has a bunch of beers, Hopcat is a true beer bar. A knowledgable staff – understatement of the year – and a more local focus nearly close the gap that great selection gives Ashley’s.

Hopcat’s food makes a strong push to be more upscale than standard pub fare, but it either falls short of that or misses the mark completely a bit of the time. With a microbrewery onsite, however, you’re coming to drink, and the food is just a bonus.

Peppercorn Bacon Beer

Bacon Pepper Beer

Bacon Pepper Beer

We don’t want to get into a habit of reviewing homebrews (other than our own of course), because there are so many out there, and they’re often consumed in small portions and large varieties at once.

However, Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti has a very cool feature called the “Rat Pad,” wherein homebrewers can use the Corner system to brew large-scale editions of their home brews. When I got word of a Peppercorn Bacon Beer, I couldn’t help but head down the road to check it out. This offering was conceived and created by by Mike O’brien and Brent Fisher.

Firs things first, it was light in color. I usually expect things to have a darker body to balance out a ridiculous flavor (and bacon can only be described as “ridiculous”). I’m quickly learning that’s not always the case. The beer had an off-white head that was pretty small by the time I received it, but it left a decent lattice. I suspect the beer may have been slightly undercarbonated, as well.

The aroma had the savory (and actually very sweet?) flavor of bacon. Peppercorn scent was definitely there, but more as a complement to the bacon than a standalone aroma.

The taste, on the other hand, had much more pepper. There was a bit of bacon, but it was not salty unlike other meat beers I’ve tried. It was actually very well balanced. Only a bit of bitterness – bittering flavors came from pepper, and I couldn’t taste much hop character at all.

It went down very smooth. The beer was light in body and “tasted wet.” Again, there was little salt character in the mouthfeel. In all, this was a very good beer, and despite the audacious selection of ingredients, was subtle and well-balanced.

* On a related note, they’re having a Rat Fest tomorrow, with several homebrews available. Tickets are $20, look on their site for more info.

Review: Avery’s The Reverend

I’ve only had one other Avery beer. I noted that I skip over the Avery bombers at my local Binny’s. This is odd, since I liked the Kaiser, they’re very competitively priced, and I even enjoy the names of most of their beers (I’m a well known sucker for puns/clever names). I figured it was time to give it another go last time I was at the beer store.

Avery describes it thusly:

The Reverend, was created in tribute to the life of Sales Mgr. Tom Boogaard’s grandfather, an ordained Episcopal Reverend. Tom was inspired by the life of his grandfather and wanted to create a tribute beer that contained his sterling traits. True to both our “small brewery, BIG BEERS” philosophy and to the spirit and character of the departed Reverend, this beer is strong willed, assertive, and pure of heart, a heart of candy sugar. It contains as many authentic imported Belgian specialty malts as the brewers could cram into our mash tun, and lots of Belgian dark candy sugar stirred into the brew kettle. A divinely complex and beautifully layered beer with hints of dark cherries, currants, and molasses, complimented by an underlying spiciness. Sinfully smooth considering the high alcohol content. Cellarable for up to 4 years.

Not to spoil my tasting notes, but I can only hope that it would get better after a few years in the cellar. I kind of doubt it though, as cellaring seems to bring out the sweetness and alcohol more, which this beer really doesn’t need.

Avery Brewing's The Reverend Belgian Style Quadrupel

Belgian Style Quadrupel 10% ABV

Appearance: Reddish, coppery brown and very clear. Some bubbles continue to percolate up throughout the drinking. A 1 finger, creamy head quickly died down, but a thin layer remained.

Aroma: The aroma is dominated with a fruity, berry sweetness with a bit of apple tartness. There’s also a hint of hot alcohol in the nose.

Taste: There’s a cloying sweetness and an apple-y, berry flavor. There’s a malty sweetness that comes along with the fruit flavor. There’s not really any bitterness and very little presence of yeast characteristics like spice or esters. There’s a actually a lingering spice and alcohol heat in the aftertaste that helps to balance out the incredible sweetness. Helps.

Mouthfeel: Nice a creamy, but not too chewy. The carbonation level is pretty good. I’m barely down the glass, and I’m already feeling this. I’m not sure what this has to do with the mouthfeel, but there it is.

Overall: Luckily I drank this as a dessert beer, because it really is overly sweet. I really liked the last Avery bomber I picked up, but this one really misses the mark. It doesn’t have what I really love about belgians, the complex flavors and aromas that the yeast gives off. This just has fruity sweetness followed by malty sweetness followed by alcohol. I won’t be getting this one again.

Back in the Saddle

It’s been a while since I have brewed. Between Tim’s stove issue and my moving to Chicago, I haven’t been able to make any beer since October. That didn’t stop us from putting together a mead and a cider, but those really just aren’t the same.

Well, that all changed this Saturday. A friend of mine received a really well put together homebrewing kit for Chistmans/birthday. The kit was from Michigan Brewing Company’s homebrew shop called Things Beer and really just had everything, including a propane burner and 7.5gal brew pot. He also received an extract Two Hearted clone recipe kit.

We decided that this Friday was going to be the day. We got started around 2 and finished up right about 7. I had never used a propane burner before, and wow, is it a lot nicer than having to wait 90minutes to get the water up to the strike temperature. If we had a wort chiller, we probably could have been done by about 5:45-6pm.

I’ve picked up most of the supplies for a 10gal mash tun, and we’re going to hopefully have our second brew day next weekend. Given that we have an IPA fermenting, I was thinking either brewing a batch of the Joe Paterno is Old Ale or the Oak’d Wee Heavy, both in my top 5 beers I’ve made.

In YB&D form, I made sure this day was documented:

The slideshow seems to not be working at the moment. I’m hoping it’s just an issue on Google’s end that will be resolved soon. You can see the images here.