Jul 312008

Oktoberfest girls

This was the only Oktoberfest picture I could find...Honest!

Somehow, the general public has signed us up to host an Oktoberfest party at Casa de Loot. I don’t mind the idea, since it combines my love of beer, friendly gatherings, polka, and large German flags, but I have the sinking feeling that people aren’t coming to hang out with us…they’re coming to hang out with the beer! This will be the first time my homebrew will be exposed to the public at large – until now, we’ve kept it pretty much to ourselves. (Brewer’s note: Reason #67 to start kegging – when people ask for bottles of your brew, you can make a face and say, “Sorry, I keg.”)

This means a lot of brewing in the coming months. Luckily, I just scored a 15 cu ft chest freezer I will be converting into a dispensing/lagering fridge (more on that later, planning a huge feature detailing the conversion). But, what to brew? I have to balance time constraints (party planned for early October), taste constraints (need to accomodate a large group of palates), and budget constraints (don’t want to spend a ton brewing beer I won’t be drinking the bulk of). I’m thinking three beers – I only have three kegs right now, and fifteen gallons of brew should be plenty for the 20-30 people we’re tentatively expecting. Fifteen gallons = 160 bottles of beer, plus whatever liquor, cheap wine, and pharmaceuticals people bring along with them.

Obviously, an Oktoberfest beer (Märzen) is a must. I’m a bit late on this, seeing how they are traditionally brewed in the Spring and lagered over the entire summer, but people will deal. I’ve been wanting to brew my Kölsch for some time now, and that would be a nice beer for any BMC drinkers that happen to get lost and wander into the yard. So, that leaves one tap looking for a mate.

Gentle readers, I turn to you – what should the third beer be? I would like it to be a Deutsches Bier to keep with the theme. Should I go a bit heavy with a Dopplebock? Bend people’s minds with a smoky Rauchbier? Or give myself a break and throw an ale (Hefeweizen? Altbier? Roggenbier?) in the mix? With two lagers already I’ll be pressed for time (yes, some consider Kölsch an ale, but for the brewing effort it takes to pull it off, it’s a lager today).

Comment or email with your advice. I’ll document how it turns out. Servus!

Jul 252008

Ah yes, another glorious Friday, and it also happens to be July’s Fermentation Friday! Fermentation Friday was started by Adam over at Beer Bits 2, and it’s a chance for all homebrew bloggers to sound off on a singular theme at a set date – the last Friday of each month (check out Adam’s post explaining the origins).

This month Fermentation Friday is being hosted by John at Brew Dudes, and he has chosen the following theme: What one tip would you give a beginner homebrewer before they brew their first batch and why? (We can only give one tip, and it can’t be “Relax!”) Thanks to John for hosting, and make sure everyone heads to his roundup post to read everyone’s responses!

I thought about this topic for awhile – I pondered discussing how to make a yeast starter, or how to best avoid boilovers. However, I realized many of the tips I had were based on my system and my process, and might not apply to all brewers out there. After some consideration, I came up with a tip that I think all new brewers can benefit from:

Take it slow, start small, and do things the hard way for awhile.

Too often, I see posts on brewing forums to the effect of “Hi, I think I want to start brewing, should I get the Sabco BrewMagic system, or just go straight to the fully-automated 40bbl pilot brewery?” These posts irritate me… It’s a simple fact that it’s always a bad idea to jump into any hobby with both feet and your wallet – you don’t even know if you’re going to enjoy brewing, and if you change your mind in a month, good luck recouping the several thousand dollars you just dropped. Trust me, I know all about having more money than sense, but start off small! There will be ample opportunities to drop coin on this hobby down the road. Get a decent starter kit for $150 or so, and take it from there.

More important than losing your money, however, is the fact that you are going to miss out on so much that makes brewing fun. Brewing is art and science combined, and part of the beauty is that anyone can do it. If you plan carefully and take your time and learn the ins and outs, you can make beer on a stovetop that will rival a batch made on one of those super systems.

The reason you go for an automated system is predictability – the ability to eliminate lots of variables and produce the same results consistently. Sound good? Not when you are starting out! You want variables, you want to make mistakes, because that is how you learn! Your first few batches won’t be your best – do you want to consistently reproduce mediocre beer? Making mistakes will frustrate you and force you to analyze your methods and equipment. Naturally, you will zero in on areas which need improvement, and your system and skills will grow as you progress in your brewing journey. This is the real joy of brewing – starting out with a vision and trying to make it reality. Sometimes you nail it. Sometimes you don’t. Almost always, you will wind up with drinkable beer, even if it is not exactly what you planned. Once in awhile, something will turn out better than you expected – relish these moments, cherish them, then go out and try to make it happen again!

I’m also a big believer in paying your dues. How are you going to appreciate all of the cool features and automation a system provides if you don’t do it “the hard way” first? Brewing is a lot of work, but that adds to the satisfaction you feel when you pour a pint of great homebrew. What satisfaction will you get from pushing a couple of buttons and watching TV for an hour? Put the work in, make some beer, progress to whatever point you wish – the enjoyment should always outweigh the effort.

So start off small and enjoy the journey. You’ll know when it’s time to upgrade equipment, and you’ll understand why an upgrade will help you. You’ll drink a lot of beer along the way, and have the satisfaction of watching (and tasting!) your skills grow with experience. Most of all, have fun with it – it’s a great hobby!

Jul 242008

Perusing the shelves of the local liquor emporium yesterday, I spotted a sixer of Long Trail’s Double Bag Ale. I had tasted this one in the past, but I couldn’t quite remember what it was all about. Always down for an adventure, especially of the beer variety, I whisked it away to my secret beer-tasting laboratory (also called “the basement”). Test results were conclusive: I like this beer.

From the label: DOUBLE BAG – This full-bodied double alt is also known as “Stickebier” – German slang for “secret brew”. The secret is that this brew is so smooth, you’d never believe it has an alcohol content of 7.2%!!! INDULGE IN MODERATION!!!!!

Long Trail Double Bag Ale

Are those Siamese cows?

Holy crow! 7.2%?? I agree, I wouldn’t have guessed an ABV that high from the taste – it is pretty damn smooth, and nicely balanced. However, I have a problem with authority and don’t like being issued commands from beer labels. I’ll indulge any damn way I please! Which tonight meant having two. (Hey, it’s a work night!)

Anyway, down to the nitty gritty:

After pouring, a whiff exposes you to a really nice caramel nose with some toasty grain notes. No real hop aroma to speak of – this one leans to the malty side. The aroma makes my nose tell my brain, “Call mouth and ask him what the hell he’s waiting for!”

The appearance is inviting – the beer is a beautiful amber color and pours with a nice off-white head. It is read-a-newspaper-through-the-glass clear. The head dissipates quickly and leaves very little lace on the side of the glass.

The beer is nicely balanced. Upon first sip, I was greeted with a big caramel maltiness, with enough bitterness to cut through and prevent it from being too sweet. The beer tastes substantial – the only clue to its large ABV. It is really smooth – there is no hint of alcohol heat, and it goes down quick, but you can tell this isn’t a session beer. The hop bitterness lingers on the tongue and makes itself known in the aftertaste as the sweet malt flavor fades away.

The beer has a low carbonation level, lending to it’s smooth taste. A bit higher and I think the maltiness would have been cut too much, sending the beer out of balance (I wonder if this is on draft anywhere, and what they carb it at on tap?) The beer is thicker than an normal altbier, but that is to be expected with the higher ABV – it’s sort of an imperial alt, or at least as close to one as I’ve tasted. It sticks to the roof of your mouth a little.

This one is good enough to require some more study. The more I think about it, the more I like it. Nice, rich flavor without being too overpowering – it’s not trying to set any records, just stepping the ol’ altbier up a notch. It’s probably better suited to cooler weather – I’m sure I would enjoy it even more on a cool Fall night, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate it in July. If you like altbier (and you should!) and are feeling frisky, go pick up a pack and see what you think. I have a feeling a clone of this one is going to make its way into my Oktoberfest brewing schedule.

Jul 162008

Anheuser-Busch logo

Het waar, A-B?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the news already – beverage giant InBev raised its offer price for Anheuser-Busch, brewers of Budweiser, to $70/share, and A-B agreed to the takeover. The deal still has to be approved by A-B shareholders and U.S. and Eurpoean anti-trust regulators, but the media is treating it like a done deal.

The proposed merger is interesting on so many fronts. Will Budweiser, the quintessential American beer, now be owned by foreigners? Will InBev succeed in becoming the world’s largest brewer (and fourth-largest worldwide consumer products company)? Will InBev, brewer of Stella Artois and Becks, keep the Budweiser recipe intact as they have claimed, or would they dare tinker with such an American icon?

I really don’t know what this means for the beer industry or the craft beer market. A-B is the largest brewer in the U.S. and enjoys a 48% market share. That’s a lot of beer drinkers, and I’m willing to bet a lot of them won’t exactly be happy about a foreign company brewing their Bud. At the same time, SABMiller and Molson Coors are joining forces to consolidate their U.S. and Puerto Rico operations into a new company called MillerCoors. MillerCoors is expected to better weather the industry storm with a combined 30% market share. Have the craft breweries really brought down big beer?

Craft beer has been enjoying explosive growth for some time now. I have been pleasantly surprised at the selection of interesting beers where there used to be only Budweiser and Coors: a hefeweizen at Penn Station? A blonde ale served at Yankee Stadium?? However, big beer still reigns supreme across the land – sometimes in ways which aren’t immediately apparent. After all, you can find Blue Moon on tap in just about every barroom in my neck of the woods, and that happens to be a Coors offering.

That’s right, big beer has been quietly brewing up their own versions of “craft beers”, as well as buying up stakes in craft breweries. A-B itself owns minority stakes in Widmer Brothers and Redhook Ale Brewery. In addition, Michelob, another A-B brand, has been actually winning medals at the GABF and World Beer Cup…I don’t think anyone can argue that an unleashed A-B brewer is a powerful force, and Michelob’s bold offerings – an “Amberbock”, honey lager, and a Märzen, are supposedly closer to craft quality than the yellow fizzy stuff we’re accustomed to (disclaimer: I have not tried any of those beers, but I’m going to try and find them to do a review in the near future).

No matter what happens, it’s obvious the beer industry is in a period of upheaval. Some of the old standards are being tested, and it will be interesting to see if the big breweries lose market share, and if so, where it goes. I think it is important to support your local breweries and brewpubs now, since if the big boys are going through trying times, the smaller guys might be feeling the pinch soon, too.

So, let me know what you think of these developments. Even if you hate A-B and big beer’s beverages, they have made huge contributions to the beer world in general – for example, big beer is largely responsible for the cold-storage distribution chains across the country which help keep our favorite brews in prime condition by the time our locals get them. I just hope this winds up being a good thing, overall, for the beer community. And InBev had better not get rid of those Clydesdales, or Stella will never again touch these lips.

Jul 112008

Charlie Papazian

Charlie Papazian

I’m happy to announce the start of a new feature – the Private Tastings interview series. I hope to include short interviews here with noteworthy and interesting figures in the homebrewing and craft beer universe.

I’m very proud to report our first Private Tastings is with none other than Charlie Papazian. Charlie is easily one of the most recognized names in the beer community. He is the author of five best-selling books, including The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and Microbrewed Adventures. He is also the founder of the Association of Brewers, which evolved into today’s Brewer’s Association (of which he is president). If you don’t know who he is, you probably found this website by mistake.

I’m thrilled Charlie was able to take a few moments out of his extremely busy schedule to answer a handful of questions for me. So, without further ado, here is the first in what will hopefully be a long series of Private Tastings!

Private Tastings: There appears to be a divide in the craft beer community – some believe beer is well-served by following in the footsteps of the wine revolution. Others feel that beer should not compare itself to wine. Do you feel the interests of the beer industry are better served by following the path laid out by wine, or by forging a brand new path?

Charlie Papazian: I’m not aware of any “divide” though I’d be interested in being pointed to the direction where that divide exists. 40 years ago, American wine went from cheap rotgut context to now enjoy world class admiration. There’s much to learn in how they did that. The major lesson is “patience” and a vision that American beer deserves a lot more respect than it has received in the past. Beer enthusiasts today realize all the great flavor and diversity that American and other beers can offer. The reason why there is that knowledge is because many people have been working at educating the public for decades; slowly one beer drinker at a time. Beer will never go down the same path as wine. How can that even be imagined? They are so very different beverages. Wine has gone down its path. Beer will go down its path. You don’t have to take any cues from wine to forge a vision and path that leads to teaching people that beer is accessible and can be enjoyed on so many different occasions. And there’s no such truth to the statement “I don’t like the taste of beer”. Show me a person who says that I can make a liar out of them in a heartbeat.

PT: What was the catalyst which led you to found the Association of Brewers and get into the political aspects of the industry?

CP: The Association of Brewers doesn’t exist as the AOB any longer. AOB merged with Brewers Association of America in 2005. I founded the American Homebrewers Association, which in turn morphed into Great American Beer Festival, Association of Brewers and other projects (see www.beertown.org). In 1978 in founding the AHA, it was a desire to create a communication vehicle among beer lovers, who back then were limited to homebrewers.

PT: What inspired you to begin homebrewing?

CP: I was in college drinking cheap uninteresting yellow beer. Someone introduced me to homebrew. I never looked back.

PT: Microbrewed Adventures is an amazing book filled with some unique beer experiences you have been able to partake in. For me, the book really underscored how beer can bring us all together. When you look at the multitude of places, people, and events you experienced, it is obvious that beer is a common thread that is enjoyed and appreciated the world over. Out of all your adventures, which would you say is the most important to you and best represents the universal nature of beer?

CP: This is like asking me “what’s my favorite beer?” I can’t really answer that. Because my favorite beer is the one I’m drinking at the moment. My favorite adventure is the one I just had and looking forward to the next. If you have the emotional state of being in the moment, life provides you with so many great beer adventures. Some simple, some seemingly exotic. In the end it’s about the camaraderie, friendships, and seeking the emotional state some call “pleasure”. What’s wrong with that?

So, there you have it! Once again, many thanks to Charlie Papazian for indulging some random blog author who emailed him a bunch of questions. Drop him a line and let him know how much you enjoyed reading it, and maybe he’ll let me bug him some more!

If you know, or are, someone you think should be interviewed for future Private Tastings, please drop me a comment or an email and I’ll do my best to oblige.

Jul 072008

The Session logoThe Session is a monthly event for the beer blogging community which was started by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. On the first Friday of each month, all participating bloggers write about a predetermined topic. Each month a different blog is chosen to host The Session, choose the topic, and post a roundup of all the responses received. This month’s Session is being hosted by Rob DeNunzio of Pfiff! – head over there to see this Session in its entirety! For more info on The Session, check out the Brookston Beer Bulletin’s nice archive page.

Sorry to be posting late with this month’s Session – my wisdom tooth adventure took more out of me than I anticipated, and throwing a holiday in the mix didn’t help any. However, I am a firm believer in “better late than never”, so here’s my belated contribution.

This month’s topic is “drinking anti-seasonally”. Sure, there are certain beer styles that just go well with different seasons – light, refreshing lagers and citrusy wheat beers for summertime, or imperial stouts and sweet, heavy Belgians as the weather cools. You could say there is often a natural pairing of weather and beverage – an icy winter’s night just begs for the warming sensation of a high-alcohol big beer, sipped slowly by a raging fire, while a day of exhausting yardwork under a hot sun deserves a light, ice-cold gulper that won’t go to your head. Enjoying a seasonally-appropriate beverage can accentuate the best of both the weather and the beer, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with coloring outside the lines from time to time.

After all, the weather is but one variable I use when deciding what the perfect beer for the moment would be. Am I eating a barbecue dinner, or enjoying a rich chocolate cake for dessert? Am I sitting on the couch enjoying a Saturday-afternoon ballgame, or am I having a nightcap before heading up to bed? Am I on a brewery tour with the opportunity to try a rare stout, or am I staring at a cooler full of Corona at the beach? All of these things and more come into play, and if my refrigerator contained every brand of beer available, I can guarantee I would be drinking a wide variety of different styles throughout a given season.

I liken beer’s “proper seasons” to wine’s “proper pairings” – red wine is to be paired with beef, white with fish and poultry. But who is to tell me I can’t enjoy a nice spicy shiraz with some blackened catfish, or a crisp pinot grigio with a steak? Such pairing guidelines are meant to be just that – a suggestion, a basic default option which will work, but not a set-in-stone regulation that cannot be broken.

That being said, when I brew I do like to plan around the seasons. I enjoy looking at the calendar and planning what I (and my guests) will be enjoying in the coming months. Perhaps I will brew a barleywine in July to enjoy next February. Or, I might want that pumpkin ale I’m dreaming of to be in bottles by Thanksgiving.

I guess it all comes down to personal choice, and I’m thrilled to have so many styles and options to choose from. If worrying that our beer is the wrong style for the season is the worst we have to deal with, I think we’re doing just fine.