Starting From Scratch: Building a Setup

Well, after the Breaking of the Fellowship, our brewing has been sparse. Tim, the only one living with brewing equipment, was without a stove, Paul only recently was able to brew, with his friend’s setup, and I was dealing with a roommate who was looking for a reason to get me evicted. Eventually I decided my roommate would just have to grow up and realize he didn’t get his way all the time (this prompted me recieving an empty threat that I was ‘getting an eviction notice tomorrow for brewing beer’, a laughable claim, that has yet to even earn me a landlordian repremand).

So what kind of setup did I want? What pieces did I need/want, and what could I do without? Having pieced together our setup in Ann Arbor over more than a year, I knew what was important, what was convienent, and what I could overlook. These were the things I had to get, and my options for them:

  • Sugar Conversion – Mashtun OR Only be able to use malt extract
  • Brew Pot – Large pot + stove OR Turkey fryer
  • Cooling System – Copper wort chiller OR Use of sink
  • Fermentation Vessel – 6.5 Gal Glass carboy OR Ale Pale
  • Carbonation/Storage – Spigoted Ale Pale/Bottling OR Kegging kit

Part of the fun of brewing is mixing your own grains and mashing them. Only using malt extract is easier, but other than the initial startup cost of a mashtun, the per batch cost of extract is much higher. I went with a 10 gallon rubbermaid mash tun using a modified ( read the instructions and made it up as I went along once I got to the hardware store) version of these instructions.

For the brew pot, I spent some time shopping around, but I actually was able to find a 7.5 gallon turkey fryer for less than I could find a brewpot of the same size. While this route also took the purchase of propane, it was totally worth it, but more on that later.

For cooling, I was able to find a wort chiller for about $45 dollars, but I hadn’ scrimpt on anything yet, and with the time savings from the turkey fryer, I figured I’d go cheap here. 45 minutes in time savings isn’t worth fifty bucks to me… at least not right away.

The final two items I was able to pick up as a package deal, along with other odds and ends I needed (thermometer, hydrometer, etc.) from Adventures in Homebrewing. For a little over $200, I was able to get a kegging kit, ale pale, and 5 gallon carboy. The other option was to drop the kegging kit and get a wort chiller, brewpot and a spigoted ale pale, but for 20 bucks more. Given my feelings about kegging (it’s awesome and easy) vs. my feeling about bottling (it takes too long, and requires hoarding bottles) I went with the kegging kit.

Now, all in all, this totalled up to about $350. Sadly, I also needed to get it to where I live. This added a good $200s in shipping costs, because the Vail Valley is apparently more difficult to ship to than Valdez (hyperbole, but not by much).

In addition to my order from Adventures in Homebrewing, I had them pack in a Wee Heavy recipe and shipped it out. Sadly, the autosyphon that shipped was damaged in transit, but everything else arrived safe and sound in less than a week.I finally got my shtuff together, found a friend to give me a hand and brewed. All went well, aside from a slight snafu involving the airlock seal on the ale pale leading me to think the yeast was dead, leading me to rush to the nearest brewery to beg for some active yeast, only to get home, open the pale, to find a nice layer of krausen on top… Always double check your grommets.

I have yet to fill up my CO2 tank, to keg the brew, but it is now fully fermented, and I eagerly await getting it all done (I did snag a taste of it from the carboy, as well as a gravity reading: A bit strong, and a little more dry than I was hoping, but should be a fantastic brew).

What Makes a Good Beer Bar?

We’ve discussed beer bar rankings in this space before. Of course, at the end of the day, these rankings are ultimately subjective. Some of the things I value in a beer bar are probably different than what someone else values. So, what do I value?

  1. Selection. For a beer bar, this always has been and always will be the #1 criterion. You can’t be a beer bar with only 15 choices. Good selection can manifest itself in different ways, as well (emphasis on local beers, emphasis on international beers, emphasis on a particular style, etc.). However, a wide variety is always important.
  2. Knowledgable Staff. This can be a semi-controversial topic. Some people simply don’t care if the staff knows anything, as long as they can get their beer. Some people want the bartender to know every last thing about every beer. I’m somewhere in the middle. As long as the person serving me knows the name and brewery for everything that’s available, I’m OK. Knowing the style for everything is good, but not crucial. It’s a bonus if they know the location of every brewery.
  3. Atmosphere. Again, there is a range of preferences here, but somewhere has to at least be inviting and “feel like a beer bar.” It can be a pub-type, it can feel like a brewery taproom (warehouse-style), but it has to have that intangible feeling of being just right.
  4. Events. It’s not necessary to have something every week, but it’s really cool when there are beer releases and brewery events held in a beer bar. It brings the beer community together, and makes for a very enjoyable time.
  5. Service. Yes, I’m separating the staff’s knowledge from their ability to efficiently serve. One of my favorite beer bars of them all (Ashley’s) is notorious for having terrible service, but the selection and knowledge make up for it.
  6. Clientele. This one is a little less crucial. Sure, it’s nice to have some other patrons to chat with, but if that’s not the case, so be it.

What am I missing? Surely these aren’t the most important factors to everyone out there, right?

Recipe: Impromptu Cream Ale

Stove Substitute: Not So Useful

Stove Substitute: Not So Useful

I’ve been back to Ann Arbor several times since moving to Chicago. When I make it back, Tim and I try to do some sort of fermentable exercise. The only problem: Tim has been without a stove for the past 5 months or so. That certainly hasn’t stopped us. We have just had to be a bit more creative. This spawned our mead and cider, both of which can be made without any sort of heating element.

Well, this time was different. The landlord had installed a new stove, and we were ready to rock and roll, except for one problem: we couldn’t think of a beer to make. Looking back at what we’ve made, we’ve done mostly heavier, bigger beers. We decided it was time for something different. After bouncing around a bunch ideas, we landed on a Cream Ale.

Cream ales are light in color, with subtle malt and hop characters. Most of the interesting notes come from esters the yeast makes during fermentation. This is also our first time using a lager yeast (WLP810 San Francisco Lager Yeast). We’re hoping this beer will serve as a versatile canvas for different flavor additions from fruits, to chiles, to spices. Like we did with the mead, we’ll probably split this up after primary and try a few different things.

Grain Bill

  • 6 lbs 6-row barley
  • 1 lb flaked maize
  • .5 lb carapils

We mashed at about 155º for an hour in trusty water cooler mash tun with 2.5 gallons of water. We sparged with about 4.5 gallons and but as much as we could into our 5 gallon brew pot for the boil.


  • .25 oz  Willamette (4.6%) at 60 minutes
  • .5 oz Ahtanum* (4.5%) at 30 minutes
  • .75 oz Willamette at 15 minutes
  • .5 oz Ahtanum at flame out

We cooled it and pitched one vial of WLP810 lager yeast. The beer ended up pretty low gravity (about 1.024-6), so hopefully we’ll get pretty good attenuation. It should be sessionable, but it doesn’t need to be NA.

*75% certain this is the hop we used. It fits the profile of what were looking for, so even if we didn’t use it in this batch, we’d probably want to use it if we do it again.

Breweries That Have Made An Impression

Between having a Binny’s across the street, Sheffield’s a five minute walk away and Local Option on my walk home from work, I’ve been able to really jump into the Chicago beer scene. The selection of beers is very different from what I was used to in Ann Arbor. It’s a big market, which can make it desirable for many brewers, but there’s a lot of competition.

There have been a handful of breweries that have stood to me since I’ve moved to Chicago. Some of them I just hadn’t seen before and others I’d just passed over for no good reason.


Lagunitas Hop Stoopid

Hop Stoopid during my first brew day in Chicago

I’ve been constantly picking six packs and bombers of Lagunitas the past couple of months. After finally picking up a bomber of Hop Stoopid, I was hooked. They fit into my stereotype of West Coast brewers: big, citrusy hops and clean flavors.

Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ ale, a hopped up wheat beer, might become my go to summer beer. It has the “summery” notes that I associate with Oberon along with the great orange, grapefruit notes I get from Red’s Rye or Two Hearted. The only thing that could keep it from the top spot is the fact that it’s 7.2% ABV, which could knock me out a bitch more than I really need.

Every beer I’ve had from Lagunitas has been amazing. I’m looking forward to trying some more of their seasonal and limited release beers.

Beers I’ve had: Hop Stoopid, Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, Maximus, Wilco Tango Foxtrot (Reviewed in a guest post on A Tale of Two Brewers).


Three Floyds

Three Floyds

I had heard of 3Floyds while living in Michigan, but I don’t remember ever trying any, and I don’t think they distribute to the mitten. They obviously have a reputation that preceded them, and the stories I’d heard from Dark Lord Day seemed pretty epic. Tim stopped there on this epic road trip to Chicago, which made me really jealous.

There may not be a bar and brewery more spiritually linked than Local Option and 3Floyds. They both really exemplify an independent, rock-and-roll, headstrong spirit, which leads to crazy beers and an awesome (if sometimes quite loud) atmosphere.

The latest 3Floyds beer I’ve been raving about is the Zombie Dust. I’ve had it on draft and from a firkin, and it’s an amazingly complex tasting yet simply made beer. It is an American Pale Ale that is hopped exclusively with Citra hops, which the bartender at Local Option described as, “a glass of orange juice with a big bag of weed.” Citra hops have an awesome mix of citrus, earthiness and floral notes. It makes for an awesome beer.

Sir Robert the Bruce is a top 5 scotch ale, and Gumball Head is right up there with Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ in whatever style you slot those beers in. Whenever I see 3Floyds on draft, I’ll usually order it, and I the only time I wasn’t blown away was with their Baltic Porter.

Beers I’ve had: Sir Robert the Bruce, Gumball Head, Alpha King, Arctic Panzer Wolf, Baltic Porter, Zombie Dust.

Two Brothers

Two Brothers Brewing

Two Brothers Brewing Co. - Warrenville, IL

I had never heard of Two Brothers before I picked up a six pack of Cane and Ebel (review). Since then, I’ve been picking up six packs regularly as they’re very reasonably priced and always very good. Not only does Two Brothers, but they also were instrumental in setting up Windy City Distribution, an independent beer distributor that has played a huge role in getting new and interesting beers into Chicago. Drinking a Two Brothers beer is doing double duty for the craft beer movement!

There isn’t a particular beer that stands out, as they have all been really good. Trying Domaine Dupage was a revelation. I normally avoid beers labeled as Farmhouse Ales. For whatever reason, most beers that are termed Farmhouse don’t have a compelling flavor profile to me. Domaine Dupage certainly does, though. The most similar, popular beer is probably Fat Tire. It has a really nice, complex malt profile, with just enough hops to keep it from being cloying. It is a very nice, sessionable beer, especially good during the autumn.

Beers I’ve had: Cane & Ebel, Ebelsweiss, Northwind Imperial Stout, Bitter End Pale Ale, Domaine Dupage, Long Haul Session.

How About You?

Are there any new breweries that you have been trying? Let me know in the comments!

New Holland at Ashleys

I rarely have reason to go out to the bar in Ann Arbor, but when I read that several New Holland beers were going to be featured at Ashley’s last night, I couldn’t help but check it out. There were about 10 beers on tap, ranging from the ordinary (Poet Stout, which you can pick up at pretty much any grocery store in the state) to the ordinary-but-on-Firkin (Dragon’s Milk), to those I’d never seen before (Charkoota Rye).

Night Tripper

New Holland Night Tripper

New Holland Night Tripper

Imperial Stout (10.8% ABV) Tastes really strong, there’s plenty of alcohol in the flavor. Really roasty with some chocolate notes. Pretty darn malty sweet (as imperial stouts, especially Russian Impoerial Stouts, often are). I would almost say it could have been fermented a little more to a lower final gravity to dry it out a bit, but it’s already bordering on liquorbeer, so upping the alcohol content is unnecessary.


Dragon’s Milk Firkin

New Holland Dragon's Milk (Firkin)

New Holland Dragon's Milk (Firkin)

As beers served on firkin always are, this was warm, and it was flat as well. After the Night Tripper, it almost tastes bland (though it’s one of my favorite beers usually). I think the Firkin really damps a bit of the aroma, partially because there’s less carbonation maybe. Hardly get anything on the nose, very light on the vanilla, a nice roasty smell. Tastes a little hot in the back of the mouth, and you definitely get the barrel-aged flavor. Not necessarily bad, but I’m used to (loving) the beer as normally served.


New Holland Envious

New Holland Envious

Not what I expected. Ingredients listed as pears and raspberries, I was expecting something relatively light in color or even a wheat, but it had a nice deep mahogany (my apartment smells of it) color. A little fruit on the nose – all pear. In the flavor, mostly pear, but I definitely see where the “slumber on oak” with raspberries comes in. Not as tart as the description led me to believe there would be. The tartness reminded me of the tang from our cherry belgian, which comes mostly on the swallow, not in the mouth.


El Mole Ocho

New Holland El Mole Ocho

New Holland El Mole Ocho

I’ve already had (and loved) this beer, so it was the only thing I had that wasn’t “special” in some way. On the nose, it has a nice malty character, almost no hops with a hint of spiciness. The flavor, however, is full of hot pepper flavor, but honestly more well-balanced with malt than I remember. It’s not blistering hot like our second pepper porter, but reminds you the heat is there, along with the pepper flavor. I really like this beer.


Charkoota Rye

New Holland Charkoota Rye

New Holland Charkoota Rye

This tastes a lot like El Mole Ocho with smoke serving as the “special flavor” instead of pepper (although they’re very different beers in reality). Aroma is a slightly malty but mostly smoky. Taste is super heavy on the smoke up front, but if you let it linger a bit, you get much more maltiness, for a nice balanced beer. A solid Kolsch with delicious smoky flavor. This was a lot like what I was hoping the BOB Brewery BBQ Beer would be at Winter Beer Festival.


Imperial Hatter

New Holland Imperial Hatter

New Holland Imperial Hatter

Classic imperial IPA (can an imperial IPA be “classic?”). Nothing really distinct from other beers in the genre. Decent nose/body balance, some graperuit citrus and a lot of bitterness in the flavor.


Of course, if I had read a little more carefully before heading out, I would have seen that many of the beers weren’t going to be tapped until later in the night, and I wouldn’t have shown up at quarter-to-6… since I closed the place down, that’s more than 8 hours in the bar. Oops. Good times were certainly had by all.


The Three Meads

3 Meads

Split into bottles and 2 buckets.

As I’ve been without a stove for a while—documented here—brew days have been few and far between (a phrase which here means “nonexistent”). However, late in the fall, we managed to get started on a mead, thanks to a friend whose father is a recreational beekeeper. After several transfers between carboys and buckets and buckets and carboys, today was bottling day.

However, we at YBD aren’t satisfied with just any old mead. Of the 5-gallon batch, I bottled about 3 gallons (carbonated with sugar tabs), then made a trip to The Produce Station to look for some adjuncts. After furiously texting Paul back-and-forth for proportions (technology!), I headed back home with two grapefruits and two kiwi.

Fruits for mead

Kiwi. Grapefruit. Mead.

I juiced half a grapefruit into a bowl, and scooped the pulp into my food processor. Then, I skinned both kiwi and chopped them up, putting the meat into the food processor as well. After giving it a few quick pulses to puree the whole thing, I put the pulp and juice into the microwave for 30 seconds to kill any bacteria. Finally, I dumped the whole thing into a bucket with half of the remaining mead (just over a gallon). Since I didn’t want to leave such a small batch, I added about a quart of distilled water to the whole she-bang.

With the remaining grapefruit, I followed a similar process: juicing and scooping the pulp. This fruit-and-a-half went into the other bucket, and again I topped it with a quart of distilled water. This left us with 3 gallons of plain mead, 1.25 gallons of grapefruit-kiwi mead, and 1.25 gallons of grapefruit mead.

Can’t wait to taste the plain mead in a couple weeks, and the fruit editions a few weeks after that.

Recipe: Vail Ale Batch #1 Wee Heavy

Well, as it seems I am staying out in Vail for a somewhat long term basis, I’ve invested in a new setup. A post will soon follow about the contruction of said setup as well as my first brew day with it: The pitfalls, the triumphs, the shenanigans, etc. First off, though, I’ll let you in on the beer brewed.

As I now have a 10 gallon mash tun, instead of the 5 gal, we had in Ann Arbor, I decided to go Xtreme with the grain bill, brewing a beer we wouldn’t have been able to put together back in Michigan. Having been unable to brew for so long, I felt the first beer on the new kit should be one of my favorite styles, a wee heavy scotch ale.

As you may know, malt character is the driving force in these brews, which great because I now can put a bunch in a 5 gallon batch. The recipe follows:


  • 9 lbs Maris Otter
  • 2 lbs Aromatic Malt
  • 5 lbs Amber Malt
  • 2 lbs Flaked Oats


  • 1.5 oz East Kent Goldings (4.7% AA) 60 minutes
  • 1 oz East Kent Goldings (4.7% AA) 10 minutes
  • .5 oz East Kent Goldings (4.7% AA) dry


  • 4 oz American Oak Chips – 1 week

What Killed Brew Masters?

Brew Masters on Discovery Channel

Brew Masters

“The Dogfish Show,” as most people I know called it, had a very brief run on The Discovery Channel, as the network chose not to renew the show after its first season. The conspiracy theorists are out in full force, with accusations that Big Beer (those are scare-tactic capital letters) killed the show. Of course, there have been retractions and/or clarifications of that accusation, and even some denials by Big Beer.

So what if they didn’t kill the show? Maybe it was canceled because, quite frankly, it wasn’t a very good show. And if I, as a beer lover (at least enough to write a blog about the stuff, right?) didn’t think the show was very good, what does the average American think about it? Perhaps advertisers simply pulled their ads because they weren’t reaching a wide audience.

Was the show unsalvageable? No. But if it’s going to develop into a worthwhile piece of television, it needs to take fewer than 6 episodes to “find itself.” I saved all the broadcast episodes on DVR, and in the name of clearing space, watched them one final time. That inspired this post, obviously, and also made me think about what could have made Brew Masters a much better show:

  • Everything felt like the “first episode.” A little exposition for new viewers is fine, but every episode felt like I was watching a pilot. That may be because the first two episodes seemingly aired out of order (“Punkin and Portamarillo” was certainly intended to be the pilot, but it aired after “Bitches Brew”), but the problem didn’t get much better as the first season went on. Breaking chronology throughout the season–we saw the treehouse in the first several episodes, then it suddenly arrives, brand-new, at the facility–only added to this effect.
  • Too much focus on artificially-created (or just uninteresting) drama. If a batch of beer has improperly fermented, that’s interesting, and is making the plot revolve around beer. If a machine breaks and drops a component into a mystery bottle, or (ugh) a factory worker spills glue, it is crap. YOU ARE NOT MAKING COMPELLING TV if you’re focusing on such facile and shallow storylines. You ordered the wrong bottles. Great. What in the world made you think I’d watch an hour of TV revolving around that plot point? That’s Factory Drama X, and takes the show away from beer – its raison d’etre.
  • Didn’t let Sam be Sam. A big part of the reason Dogfish Head is so well-known (aside from the beer, of course) is the cult of personality that Sam Calagione has. He’s a personable guy, and just watching him in, for example, Beer Wars, you wanted to befriend the guy. Let him show his personality in the show. Having him narrate was a gross miscalculation, because it took him from “guy the show is about” (good), to “guy who makes the show” (bad, removes his personality). Using testimonial-style narration with the employees – and even Sam – would have been a much better choice. On the same note, have one of his brewing experts – Brian and/or Floris, for example – talk about the science and process behind the beer, not Sam himself.
  • This one might directly contradict the previous point, but I don’t care, because it’s super-important: Don’t rap. The Pain Relievaz sequences were painfully awkward.
  • Personal drama is alright. However, it has to revolve around interesting points. “Sam is kinda neglecting his family on vacation” is not interesting. Sure, it warrants a mention, but not an entire sequence. Same with “OMG THE SCHEDULE IS SOOOOO CRUNCHED!!!” Mention it, and move on. You aren’t creating a true sense of urgency with that; if you couldn’t finish the beer within your timeline, you wouldn’t have an episode about it.
  • This problem would be solved be resolving some of the above, but… too many storylines at once. Jumping around with no cohesion to the episode was a consistent problem. Of course, if we don’t have OMG SPILLED TEH GLUEZ plots, this problem disappears.
  • Lastly (and this kind of ties these points together), the storylines need to be not only about the beer (see above), but also interesting. Sam’s trip to Peru to study Chicha was a very interesting story. His trip to Egypt was also alright. The inspirations for these beers should be 50% of the content of the show, not 5%.

At the beginning of each episode, Sam Calagione said, “Every great beer starts with a great idea.” That should be the purpose of the show – and at times it was.  Too frequently, however, it was about day-to-day drama that was unrelated or barely related to the beer. If I want to watch “American Workplace Reality Drama,” I can do that in a myriad of places. If I want to watch “well-made show about the production of craft beer,” well… that show hasn’t been done yet.