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).

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:

Grains:

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

Hops:

  • 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

Secondary:

  • 4 oz American Oak Chips – 1 week

Brewery Review: Breckenridge Brewery

I had a couple friends come up to Vail a couple weeks ago, for their spring break. On one of their days here, we took a trip to Breckenridge, for a change of scenery and slopes. This had the wonderful side effect of giving me a chance to visit Breckenridge Brewery and do a bit of a YB&D rundown of the beers they had available at the time.

Before we could visit the brewery, however, I had to survive the slopes, which turned out to be a slightly more difficult ordeal than one would assume, being that I’m on them every day…

After an incident involving a tree, copious amounts of blood loss, a ski patrol-led toboggan ride and a quick jaunt to the E.R. (I’ll save you the gore from the pictures; this is a beer site, not a snuff blog. Needless to say, my nose was picking up iron notes, not from the beer…), we finally arrived at Breck Brewery. I had been to this place twice before, both times, with Tim. The first was our first night in town, on vacation about a year ago, and the second was a few days later, during their ‘Ladies Night’. This fantastic creation involves unlimited drafts of any of their beers at no charge for those of the fairer sex, and a flat $5 cover to get the same, if you possess a Y chromosome: Score.

"I am a monument to all your sins."

When we arrived this time, however, we were in the Apres-ski/Happy Hour deal, featuring all of their brews (except the DIPA) for $2. I almost felt like I was back at Grizzly Peak… To start off I tried once of their rotating beers, the Baldy Brown. After about half of my pint, I realized the lack of blood in my system was having a significant effect on my tolerance, so I wisened up, and went with a full flight of the 8 beers on draft. Had I not, I felt I wouldn’t have been able to try more than one more brew without serious issues, like ‘staying awake’. My notes follow:

Baldy Brown

Hazelnut and Grape notes in the nose, with little hop character. Lighter malt flavor than I was expecting considering the style and color. Vanilla notes and I wasn’t sure if I picked up a few esters in the mouth as well. The mouthfeel was a bit fluffy for a brown. I was expecting something with slightly more weight.

Vanilla Porter

Noticably more hops here, but more in the mouth than nose. Very similar to the brown, just a bit -more- of everything, especially the vanilla. Though heavier than the brown, it seemed, again, lightweight for the style, who knows, maybe I’m just out of touch…

Breck Light

Being that BB is in a tourist town, and gets a lot of non-beer enthusiasts through its doors, they need to cater to more general crowd, and I think this is it. Honey notes in the mouth and nose. Low malt character. A light earthy hop aroma with a slightly hoppy finish.

Trademark Pale

Nice dose of floral hops in the nose. Malt blends well with the hops in the mouth. Maybe a little fructose in there as well. Nothing bad to say about this one.

471 IPA (DIPA)

Strong hit of floral and citrus hops in the nose. Also: Alcohol -both in the nose and mouth, including a little bit of a burn. A little diacetyl as well. Finished very hoppy.

Avalanche Amber

Slightly sour flavor, possibly from lactic acid addition? Earthy hop flavor but not as present in the nose. The malt flavor also was very pronounced. Tasted very dark, much darker than that color. My favorite of the night.

Oatmeal Stout

Pretty high carbonation for a stout, IMHE. Got a lot of nutty malt flavor, particularly almond. Warm cherry notes in the finish. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the only ‘cherry stout’ I’ve tried, but the flavors go well together. I’d like to experiment at some point.

Agave Wheat

Honey in both nose and mouth, agave nectar tastes exactly like honey but sweeter, so: go figure. On my note card I have ‘hops and bitterness – good pairing’ I must assume this means at this point the bloodloss/alcohol was getting to me, and that I meant to say the honey and bitterness paired well together. The rest of the notes I have on this are pretty difficult to read… Maybe next time.

Belgium in Colorado, OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Trippel

Being out in Colorado, without a car, and basically limited to the resort town I live in (Vail) offers many great opportunities to hit the slopes… and not much else. As I’ve mentioned earlier, most bars here are catered to the generic apres ski crowd, so Bud, Coors, and Keystone (along with New Belgium’s Fat Tire) dominate the taps.

The only advantage of living here (Vail Valley specifically), in terms of beer tasting, is the alco-ma-hol stores have a great selection of CO Microbrews, and not just the common ones you see across the country, like NB’s Fat Tire, or Avery’s The Reverend, I’m talking the entire Odells, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium catalog, and a good chunk of Avery’s selection as well. While it does take me a bit of a bus ride to get there, and another one to get back: Worth it.

Today, I gathered a collection of three Belgian-style ales from CO, mostly because it’s not a style (or group of styles) that I generally drink, nor is it one of my favorite groups of styles, and getting yourself into a habit of only drinking a couple types of beers is going to diminish your palette, and we can’t have that, can we?

7.8% ABV

New Belgium's Trippel - 7.8% ABV

The first beer on the list was the New Belgium Trippel. This poured well, for a trip, a lingering sudsy head typical of the style that helped release the aroma of the beer. This picture makes it appear much darker than it actually is, which is a nice golden yellow. The aroma is dominated by the banana esters and maybe a hint of strawberry. Hop tones are light as is the coriander. I’d go so far as to say I had to strain hard to pick up on it.

The flavor also strongly featured the bananas with what I thought was a surprising amount of malt flavor. Sweet, but not so much as to prevent you (read: me) from rapidly consuming it. It did, however do a fantastic job of covering the flooring 7.8% ABV. I had one of these, and was definitely aware I was drinking a beer. The finish lingered enough to leave my mouth wanting another swig.

This is truly a great brew. I don’t really go out of my way to drink tripels, but I can see myself (frequently) getting a six pack of this again and enjoying a couple on the mountain for a mid-day picnic once the we start getting a little warmer around here.

Next on the list was New Belgium’s Abbey ale. This is a dubbel ale with a bit more color to it. On my first attempt at a pour, epic fail ensued, resulting in a five finger head out of my mug, with maybe half that height in beer. It faded enough to try again in about two minutes, this time with much more success.

7% ABV

New Belgium's Abbey - 7% ABV

Significantly darker than the trip (as one would expect), the Abbey’s head laces much more, and the head settles to a thin creamy cap on a deep amber transparent base. Fewer esters in the nose here, along with a bit more malt aroma. I also picked up a significant amount of tannins in the nose. I felt like I was about to drink some bizarre cab sav.

And on to the tasting: Boy, oh boy, getting suck in a style(or, more accurately, chronically avoiding a style) leads to some forgetfulness. My tongue doesn’t remember anything but a banana smoothie that has that much banana in it. The fruitiness of the malt hides some of the more basic sugar flavors you’d expect from something this dark. Normal for the style, not so normal for me.

Just as a side note, I’d like to voice my appreciation for these two NB bottles. It seems breweries are going to busier and busier labels. These are simple two tone bottles, with the name and style and a small, simple graphic. Beer doesn’t need to be show-y. It’s beer, you drink it. Hilariously, after buying both of these, I told Paul he’d like the design of the bottles. Paul mentioned he also had bought sixers of each, with a significant factor in his decision being the label design.

9% ABV

Avery's Salvation - 9% ABV

And finally, the bomber of Avery’s Salvation Belgian golden pale ale: The pour was excellent, with a soft one and a half finger head that subsided to a light dusting of eggshell white foam. Not the retention I was expecting, but the texture was decent, for a non-Belgian-aficionado like myself. The aroma had a sickly sweet fruit aroma, with a small mix of earthy and floral hop notes. It reminded me of our Lawnmower beers: a lot going on, but nothing really coherant. I know I’m not well versed in this style, but I don’t remember any Belgian anything smell like this. It’s hard to get past, maybe because of my bad memories of trying to choke down the Lawnmowers so we could put something else in our kegs…

Once I got it into my mouth, it seemed to normalize a bit, and I was able to track it down a little better, but I’m not sure that’s doing it any favors. The spicy pepper notes come through very strongly, drowning out most of the malt flavor. Floral hop flavor also dominates. I caught a bit of honey and maybe a lick of cruciferous veggies, cabbage, mostly. The alcohol covers up any other notes that might lead you to think this was anything but a macabre attempt at a complex, enlightened beer.

Well! What an adventure! That was certainly interesting, and it ran the gamut of Beer I Loved (Tripel), Beer I Liked (Abbey), and Beer I’ll Quaff, But Not Do So Enthusiastically (Salvation). Importantly, I reminded myself that some Belgians can rock my socks. It’s easy to get caught up in our preferred styles. We always try that IPA we’ve never had before, or the new stout our beer store is carrying. That’s totally fine! That’s great! We drink beer because we like it. Certain styles we like more than others, so our tabs should favor those brews. I just want to emphasize the importance of not letting yourself forget what certain aspects you like and dislike about styles you might rarely drink.

Your palette is like a muscle. Exercise it. Challenge it with flavors it doesn’t always come across. It will make your ability to discern the various aspects of the beers you usually consume all the more. Maybe you didn’t notice that the stout you always pour has a slight but now-noticeable ester presence, or that APA has some tannin notes you never got before. Expand your tongue – stretch it and flex it.

Review: Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale

Samuel Smith Nut Brown AleAfter moving to Colorado, what many call the beer capital of the United States, I discovered something very upsetting: There aren’t true Multitaps in the mountains. The most extensive selection any non-brewery has out here on-tap: Five. Always, 2 of those are New Belgium’s Fat Tire (based in Ft. Collins) and Coors Light (Coors is located in Golden, CO, just outside of Denver). Sadly, in the state of more than 80 microbreweries, no one has any other micro on tap.

Alas, to sate my need for a beer with an actual malt flavor, and having no car here, I purchased a bottle of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown; not regional, I know, but it was the best I could do.

Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale – 5.0% 31 IBU

This beer pours with a thick 3 finger head, but it fades fairly quickly. This head releases a nice, earthy, deciduous aroma. This lessens as the head fades leaving a light aroma that compliments the flavor while sipping nicely.

Even after the large head falls, the beer is a bit more carbonated than I like for this style. I’m not exactly sure if drinking this beer at 9k feet would affect that, but if I had everything in the world my way, I’d like a little less CO2.

It tastes like a typical Nut Brown does: a very woody and sweet malt flavor. The dark roasted malts you find in such beers are very prevalent and if you’re ever trying to teach someone what individual malts and roasts contribute to flavor, this would be a great way to isolate darker varieties.

Suprising me, this beer finished much cleaner than you average nut brown would. I find they tend to linger a bit longer than most beers, but this cleaned up quite quickly. The carbonation may have had something to do with that, but the effect was creating a very drinkable beer. and by the end of my imperial pint, I found myself wanting more.

This is a great example of an English Brown ale, more so, I think, than Newcastle BA. I enjoyed it and would love to try a draft of it.

Review: New Planet’s Tread Lightly Gluten-Free Ale

New Planet Tread Lightly Ale

Gluten free and everything

While craft beer can be enjoyed by anyone, demographically, it’s generally puchased by the middle to upper class. Breweries are a business, and the guys (or gals) running them do market research. A not-insignificant chunk of these people (particularly those of the 12-Tribes-of-Israel persuasion) suffer from Celiac’s Disease, preventing them from being able to eat (or, more impotantly, drink) glutens.

This has spawned a new niche market for gluten-free beer. Buckwheat, sorghum, corn, soy, and many other non-standard grains are used to provide the fermentables in these beers.

I decided to give one of these beers a try. The one I found was New Planet’s Tread Lightly Ale. New Planet is a brewery just opened this year based in Boulder, CO. They are committed to enviromentally conscious beer production. While they currently sell just the Tread Lightly, they aresoon to release two other beers. A portion of each beer style’s profits gets donated to a certain non-profit enviromental organization, Tread Lightly’s being the Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, a group that does trail maintenance in the Rockies. Hippy, but a cool ideal.

New Planet’s Tread Lightly Ale – 5.0%

This beer pours quite light, with a very modest head  (read: non-existant). The aroma is sweet, almost apple-y. This may come from the large portions of the fermentables coming from corn, or possibly the sorghum (having never brewed with it, I honestly couldn’t tell you what it tastes or smells like, feel free to let us know in the comments). There was little to no hop presence in the aroma, which is fairly true to style.

The texture was a suprise to me, being as lightly colored as it was I was expecting something close to an American-style lager, but I was impressed to find it had some weight to it. The hop flavor here is light, its presence is about equal to the orange zest also present. The beer is sugary-sweet, with traces of honey, though, not to the point of being ‘sickly-sweet’ (a condition I have an issue with, even dry ciders turn my stomach a bit).

While not my favorite style of beer, Tread Lightly certainly raised a few questions for me, particularly about the native African grain sorghum. I’d like to expirement with it as the base for a beer, and possibly various roasted versions of it. Please, if you have any interesting insights into its use, please let us know.

Bare-Bones Basics #5: Yeast

Yeast Cells Under a Microscope

Yeast Cells Under a Microscope

The thing that makes brewing beer work, or, more generally, the thing that makes ethanol in general, is yeast. (Now, you can synthesize ethanol, industrially, through the hydration of ethylene, but this involves using some nasty chemicals that don’t belong in something you plan on drinking.) Yeast, as you probably know, eats sugars in your beer and (as Tim likes to put it) poop out alcohol.

Yeast is a single-cell fungus, which is found just about everywhere. All types of yeast reproduce asexually, though there is a process of genetic material exchange between cells. The yeast species you are probably most familier with is saccharomyces cerevisiae, ale yeast. This is actually the same specie as baking yeast, but in general, brewers use a less aggressive yeast strain that produces fewer unwanted chemicals that would give the beer an undesireable taste. Saccharomyces carlsbergenis, called so because it was first isolated by Carlsberg, also known as saccharomyces pastorianus or lager yeast, is, unshockingly, used in lagers. Saccharomyces carlsbergenis is a combination of saccharomyces cerevisiae and a third type of yeast, used mostly in wine and ciders, saccharomyces bayanus.

The thing most important for your beer that you need to know about the differences in these yeasts is that lager yeast generally has higher attenuation, meaning it can eat more sugars, leaving your beer more dry (though the variation in strains of each lager and ale yeast provides a large overlap), and that it works at a colder temperature (about 10-15 F colder) than ale yeast.

All alcohol-producing yeast can work in two different ways, based on if there is oxygen around or not. When yeast eats sugars without oxygen, the yeast gives off the waste of ethanol, and carbon dioxide, along with some energy. This energy does two things, it powers the yeast cell, so it can grow, and warms the liquid it is in. When there is oxygen present, the yeast cell can completely break down the sugar into water and carbon dioxide. This produces significanly more energy for the yeast cell, which lets it grow much faster.

When you add your yeast to your wort, you want some oxygen to rapidly grow your yeast so fermentation doesn’t take a long time. Once the yeast has consumed all the oxygen in the wort, it then switches to anarobic fermentation (without oxygen) and makes ethanol. If you have a large quantity of yeast cells to start with, you don’t have to oxygenate your wort as much, and you’ll get higher alcohol concentrations (and less water) in your beer.

Another stat you may see on the side of your yeast pack is ‘flocculation’. Flocculation means the ‘clumping’ of yeast cells in your beer. This sounds like it might be a bad thing, but actually it’s good. When your yeast cells are done eating sugars, they can do one of two things: with yeast that has a low flocculation, it will just sit suspended in the beer. High flocculation means the cells will clump together and float to the top, in the case of ale yeast, or sink to the bottom, in the case of lager yeast. This will make your beer clearer. Some beer styles are traditionally cloudy with yeast, and has a slightly different taste because of it.

Some of you may notice I didn’t mention brettanomyces, a genus of yeast used in making lambics. This yeast is naturally found in the air in the southwest of Belgium. Lambics are made, not by adding yeast directly to the wort, but by allowing them open access to the air. The yeast particles in the air fall into the beer, instead of physically putting a yeast solution into the beer. This yeast gives lambics a distinctive sour taste. This open fermentation, you might think, wouldn’t work, because it isn’t separated from the air. If the wort is exposed to the air, it will have access to oxygen, and the yeast would never anaerobicly ferment the sugars into ethanol. However, if you remember part of what is released is carbon dioxide. CO2 is heavier than air and sits on top of the wort, creating a barrier between the oxygen in the air and the wort, allowing fermentation.

White Lab Varieties

White Lab Varieties

There are many different strains of each of these species of yeast. Each have slightly different characteristics that will produce slightly different results. More or less flocculation, more or less attenuation, higher or lower prefered fermentation temperatures, etc. These allow you to fine tune your beer, in a general sense, the important distinguishing factor is ale yeast, lager yeast, or lambic yeast. This hopefully helps you understand how yeast works, and gives you a better idea as to what is happening inside your carboy.

Tasting Sesh Goes Canning: Keweenaw Brewing Co.

I visited Paul in Chicago for my last free weekend in the Midwest. With me on my trip, I brought two canned brews from Keweenaw Brewing Company. Over recent years, microbreweries have been switching to canned beer for several reasons. Cans are cheaper to produce, more environmentally friendly/recyclable, and, for the consumer, often more convenient.

These beers came in standard 6-pack plastic duck traps. I liked the design of the cans, which, when giving up the aesthetics of a bottle, is at least something to consider. The two we had were the Widow Maker Black Ale, and the Lift Bridge Brown Ale.

Kewanaw Brewing

Canned Black and Brown ales

We’ll start with the black ale. Let me first say this: Ow. I felt like I was drinking tinfoil. 100% of the aroma was metal. No hops, no malt, just metal. It gave me a pain at the base of my skull just sniffing it. The flavor was little better. Metal again was the dominant force in the mouth, with a few nutty malt notes, but little else. It was over-carbonated, and had the texture of Sprite. Paul and I fought over who had to finish it.

The brown ale was a little better, but, well, not normal. Here, the metal was significantly reduced, and the nose had a noticeable malt aroma, with a few notes of chocolate. The head was extremely frothy, almost milky, and mixed with the chocolate malt notes, gave it a strange milk chocolate taste. This, strangely, didn’t translate to the heavy body you’d expect, and left me feeling confused. As with the black, there was almost no hop aroma or flavor, and while the metallic taste was less than the black, it was still there, scraping across my tastebuds.

Now, I don’t want to come out and say all canned beers are bad and metallic and damn close to undrinkable, but, wow: D+ would not buy again. I don’t know if we just got a few bad cans, but even through the metal, there wasn’t much there in the beer to really interest me. The brown wasn’t awful, but I didn’t feel like I was drinking beer. I felt like I was drinking carbonated chocolate metalmilk. I want to try these same beers, non-canned, for comparison, but as it stands, if you some brown cans with a nifty design chilling at your local beer store, take a sidestep and try something else.