Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Pondering Pumpkin

I've been too busy to write a blog post, so my wife, Beth, is helping me out by writing a blog post this week.
Hey everyone, it's Beth here taking over the blog today.  Nate's been swamped lately so I thought I'd help him out.  Let's discuss a fall favorite today.

It seems like as soon as the calendar hits September, you are bombarded with pumpkin everything.  Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin breads, there is even pumpkin butter I have heard.  I am not a huge fan of pumpkin things, though I like good pumpkin bread, I don’t do the lattes or the pies.  I will make an exception for one pumpkin thing at this time of the year though and I look forward to and even crave it a bit.  Pumpkin beer.

It has to be done well.  There are a ton of pumpkin beer options out there.  Some of which I haven’t had the pleasure of trying, such as Dogfish Head’s famous Punkin Ale.  (Side note – hey Dogfish Head, come to Minnesota!)   Others I've tried and not liked all that much.  I feel the pumpkin flavor should not overpower the beer flavor.  You just want a hint of the spices, a little something that makes you say “yep, this tastes like fall.”

There are two beers I've had that I feel have done a good job on what I think is possibly a delicate balance.  Southern Tier’s Punking is one of my favorites.  It has a light pumpkin flavor without being over the top.  It reminds me more of pumpkin bread then pumpkin pie, which is also why I prefer it.  I don’t ever want more than about a glass worth of this one though but that is OK, it’s a good sipping beer.  It’s also a tough one to say you’re going to pair with much food – though I had this one on tap at a restaurant recently and ate some hop infused cheese curds (oh yes these exist, maybe we’ll do a post on these little wonders another time) while drinking it and they went surprisingly well together. 

The other one I just had this past weekend at our favorite local brewpub, Barley Johns in New Brighton, MN.  They made a pumpkin bock this year.  It was really the perfect pumpkin beer for my taste – it was mostly a bock, with a hint of pumpkin and spice.  It was very smooth and actually did pair well with the turkey wrap I had for dinner.  Unlike Southern Tier’s, I could have easily had another glass of this one.  Maybe the difference in the two is Southern Tier’s feels more like a dessert beer to me where this one could be the main course.

We have some friends that homebrew like us and they have made a Pumpkin beer this year that we've been promised a bottle of.  They have told me it will be more about the spices than the actual pumpkin as they agree with me that pumpkin flavor can be overdone.  I’m anxious to give it a try as it seems right up my alley.
Others may disagree with me and if you want pumpkin pie in a bottle, I am not going to judge you, just like I don’t judge lovers of the pumpkin spice latte, but for this girl, simple is better.  So I highly recommend Barley Johns Pumpkin Bock to the locals (get there soon before it’s all gone) and Southern Tier to the rest of you!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bottling vs. Kegging, and the Party Pig

I missed posting last week, but with good reason.  Beth and I threw our yearly Oktoberfest bash this last weekend, so I'd been a bit busy preparing for the party to get a post up.

Preparing for the party has brought a topic to mind that I've been thinking about posting for a while though, so here we go.

Bottling vs. Kegging
Almost all new homebrewers start out by bottling their beer.  It's inexpensive to do, and requires very little skill to do properly, and if you do screw something up, it'll only be a few bottles at most, so you'll have the majority of the batch of beer that's still drinkable.

To get into bottling, you need a wing capper like this one, a bottling bucket,  a bottling wand, bottle caps and a bunch of bottles.  You can get the bottles for free by either drinking beer, getting your friends to drink beer, or picking them up off Craigslist.  For only about $40, you've got the equipment you need to start bottling.  If you need to buy bottles, you can get enough for an entire batch of beer for about $20.

Kegging on the other hand, is pretty expensive, and does require a bit more skill to get right.

To get started in kegging, you need kegs, and even used kegs start around $50 each these days (it was about $20/keg when I got into kegging).  You also need a CO2 tank, regulators, faucets, tubing and a whole lot of other little odds and ends.  I'm not even going to bother trying to link to the individual components, and instead link to this kegging system, which runs about $300 on it's own, and just included picnic taps instead of real faucets, and only supports 2 kegs (although, you can expand it, but not cheaply).

Oh, and remember how I said it takes more skill?  Well, you need to be able to get hose lengths correct so you can have the beer properly carbonated,  but not come out as all foam.  I've got my system fairly well dialed in, but some of my taps actually run a bit too slowly.  You also need to be able to diagnose problems with the kegs, and fix them.  As an example, your keg may leak CO2, or even worse, leak beer.

So given all that, why would anyone switch to kegging from bottling?

Well, the big one for me was that bottling is a lot of work, and takes a lot of time.  You need to clean and sanitize ~50 bottles per batch of beer, and fill them all.  I would say that this took about 4 hours per batch of beer.  For kegging, I clean and sanitize one keg, and then fill it, for each batch of beer.  If I'm only doing a single batch of beer, this all takes an hour or less, and a I actually have a couple of extra kegs on hand, so I wait until I have at least 3 kegs to clean, because each subsequent keg takes about 1/3 the time to clean after the first one.  The time difference really starts to show when you've got 3, 4, 5 batches of beer that need to go into bottles or kegs.  3 batches of beer in bottles, 12 hours.  3 batches of beer in kegs, an hour and a half or so.

Another reason is that it's pretty impressive to say "yeah, I've got 7 kegs of beer on tap at home".

There is one downside to kegging that I didn't think about before I made the leap, which is that it's a lot harder to share my beer with friends.  I used to give out six packs of my homebrew to friends and family, but I can't do that anymore.  I can, and do give away growlers of beer, but the beer doesn't last nearly as long in a growler.  You really need to drink it within a day or two.

The Party Pig System
One thing that I tried as sort of an intermediate step between bottling and kegging was the Party Pig.  Each Party Pig holds 2.5 gallons of beer.  You still need to sugar condition the beer, because the Party Pig doesn't carbonate the beer on its own, but it has a pressurized pouch in the Party Pig that keeps the pressure constant after you've carbonated the beer.

It's definitely more convenient than bottling, but it has the down side of needing a place in the refrigerator.  I also had an issue with the faucet in the Party Pig sticking from the dried beer, and dripping a little beer in the fridge every time I would pour a glass of beer.

In hind sight, I would say don't bother with the Party Pig.  If you really don't want to spend the money on a full kegging system, there are also smaller pony kegging systems.  I've got friends that are perfectly happy with the smaller 5 liter kegs. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Indeed Brewing Company

Beth and I have now made a couple of trips out to Indeed Brewing Company's taproom.  The first time we just picked up a few bottles of beer and left, this last time we decided to grab a couple of beers, hang out and check out the scene in this new taproom in NE Minneapolis.

Indeed's tap room consists of a long bar, a bunch of tables and some outdoor seating on the patio.  There is no table service, so you must get your beer from the bar, but it's well run, so if a line does form, it disappears pretty quickly.  They don't serve any food themselves, but there are food trucks parked outside earlier in the evenings if you start to feel peckish.

Unlike a lot of breweries, they don't have anything in their lineup that a non-craft beer drinker would find to be a gentle introduction into the craft brew world.  There are hops, roasted malts and ester producing yeasts abound at this brewery, but I think that's going to be OK for Indeed.

There is already plenty of competition in the area from other craft breweries and brew pubs with milder tasting beers such as Surly's Cynic, Summit's Pilsner and Little Barley Bitter from Barley John's.  With their limited brewing capacity, I think Indeed is better off realizing that they can let other craft brewers woo new craft beer drinkers, while Indeed targets the already established craft beer loving crowd.
Their permanent lineup includes:
Day Tripper - A pale ale with the now familiar citrus hops that mark most pale ales on the American market.  This beer is well done, and quite drinkable.  At 5.4% ABV, it's not exactly a session beer, but I could easily see myself sitting around, shooting the breeze with friends and drinking a two or three of these in an evening.

Midnight Ryder - An American Black Ale (or Cascadian Dark Ale).  My wife is a huge fan of this one, as she is of most American Black Ales, and I have to admit, I really do think this one has a really nice balance of roasty and hoppy flavors.  While I would likely get a different beer while actually at the taproom, I have no qualms about buying a bottle to enjoy with Beth at home.

Also on tap when we've been there:
Shenanigans - This was their summer ale.  It's lighter tasting, with a little fruit/citrus flavor, and a bit on the sweeter side. Definitely a good summer beer.  

Fresh Hop - Another pale ale, but fresh hopped this time.  It was a good beer, enough hops to put it in the APA category, but missing a little something for me.  I think I was hoping for slightly more green, vegetal flavor.  Still a good beer though, and worth a try at least.

Along with the normal tapped beer, Indeed also offers a small variety of infused and cask beers.  Beth tried the raspberry infused Shenanigans, which she said was good, but was a bit too sweet for a full pint.  I had the Day Tripper on cask, which I really enjoyed.  I'm not always in the mood for a cask beer, but when I am, it's nice knowing there's a place with beer on cask close by.  Day Tripper really held up well to the lower carbonation and the higher serving temperature really let some of the complexity of the beer shine through.

Indeed is definitely worth checking out, but be aware that you might need to walk a little as they don't have a lot of parking nearby (it's pretty much all street parking).  Their beer is already available at a number of bars in the area, and they've also invested in a canning line, and plan to start selling their beer in liquor stores in the area in late September (possibly before you even get a chance to read this article.)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Brewing Gadget Review: Mark II Keg and Carboy Washer

Since I started brewing, most of the money I've spent on equipment has gone into making the final bottling/kegging step easier.

I started with bottling, bought a bottle jet, then a  bottle tree and a  Bottle Rinser (Sulfiter) to help sanitize the bottles. eventually I got tired of washing, sanitizing and filling 50+ bottles so I gave the Party Pig a try, which I decided took up too much room in my refrigerator, and wasn't very scalable, so I moved to kegging (I'll get more into the party pig and kegging in a future post.)

Kegs are great, you clean one 5 gallon keg, sanitize it and fill it with beer.  Connect it to CO2, wait a few days and you can start drinking beer, but that still isn't easy enough for me.

Faced with having 8 kegs to clean, I decided to give the  Mark II Keg and Carboy Washer a try.

Normally, my keg washing goes something like this.
1.) Mix a batch of cleaner
2.) Pour a gallon or so of cleaner in each keg
3.) Seal the keg and slightly pressurize
4.) Shake it up to get cleaner everywhere
5.) Let it soak for a bit
6.) Connect the gas and line out to a faucet and run cleaner through the faucet
Every few washings I also:
7.) remove all the fittings and soak them in cleaner, along with the poppets and gaskets and everything else that can be removed
8.) Rinse it all off with plain water
9.) Reconnect everything
Back to normal cleanings:
10.) Rinse out the keg
11.) Sanitize everything
12.) Transfer beer to keg
13.) Pressurize and put in kegerator

Because I want to be as efficient as possible, I tend to wait for several kegs to need to be cleaned before I clean them, which ends up taking me a couple of hours.  Granted, this means I've spent a couple of hours to get enough kegs ready for several batches of beer, as opposed to the 4+ hours I would spend with the whole bottle cleaning and filling process, but it still ends up being a lot of work.

With the Mark II Keg Cleaner, my process was a little different.
1.) Make batch of cleaning solution
2.) Remove all fittings from the kegs and soak fittings, dip tubes, etc. in some of the cleaner
3.) Fill the Mark II with a couple of gallons of the cleaner, put a keg on, plug in the Mark II, watch some tv, take the current kegs off the Mark II and put another one on every 10 minutes
4.) Spray out the inside of the keg with clean water
5.) Rinse off all the fittings, dip tubes, etc.
6.) Reattach everything to the kegs
7.) Sanitize the kegs
8.) Fill the kegs

I did still fill one keg with keg wash so I could use it to clean my beer lines and faucets, and then rinse and sanitize, and it all still took just as long, but I wasn't working the whole time, I was basically letting the Mark II do all the heavy lifting for me.

I had 8 kegs cleaned and sanitized within 2-3 hours, ready to fill with beer.

I'm not sure if I'll bother trying to use the Mark II on my carboys as I have carboy handles attached to them all, and you need to remove the handle to get the carboy to sit properly on the Mark II, and my carboy washing method is already pretty damned easy, but it worked like a dream on the kegs.

Now, make no mistake, the Mark II is definitely a luxury item.  It costs about $100, and is in no way needed to brew or keg beer, but it definitely making my least favorite part of making beer a lot more enjoyable, and have absolutely no regrets about spending the money on it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Excelsior Brewing Company

This last weekend the wife and I had the opportunity to take a nice, leisurely boat ride around Lake Minnetonka while drinking the current offerings from Excelsior Brewing.  Excelsior Brewing Co. is about two months old, so I thought I could share my thoughts on the brewery with you.

Excelsior Brewing Co. is located in Excelsior, MN, about 20 minutes west of Minneapolis.  Beth and I had signed up for a "beer cruise" of Lake Minnetonka that had shown up on Living Social.  Ben, from Excelsior Brewing, was pouring the beer for the boat ride, and we had a number of appetizers to enjoy for the trip including artichoke dip, buffalo wings, chips with salsa and guacamole and a cheese platter.  We were given four beers from Excelsior Brewing with some pairing notes for the various hors d'oeuvres.

The beers were as follows:
Big Island Blond - A decent blond ale weighing in around 5.1% ABV.  Definitely a beer that could be enjoyed by most beer drinkers, it has a lighter body with a fairly subdued hop flavor.  It seemed to be a favorite with most of the people on the boat.

XLCR Pale Ale - Ben described it as sort of a cross between Summit Extra Pale Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  While it was a decent pale ale, I wouldn't really compare it to either Summit's or Sierra Nevada's offerings.  It was a bit on the sweeter side, but had enough hops to balance it out fairly well.  When I mentioned to Ben that I wouldn't really peg it for being similar to Summit or Sierra Nevada's pale ales, he did mention that the specific batch we were drinking had Glacier hops (he might have said Galena, I don't quite remember for sure) added to it, which the pale ale doesn't normally have.  The beer comes in around 5.8% ABV, and while it's a good pale ale, it's a bit on the sweeter side for my personal tastes, and really isn't a beer that would distinguish itself in any meaningful way to me.

Bridge Jumper IPA - Excelsior's website shows this beer as being 8% ABV, but according to Ben, the batch we were drinking was more like 9% ABV.  This may have been my favorite beer of the evening, although, the IPA label might be a bit off.  The beer has a bit too much fruity character for an IPA, but it's still a very nice beer.  A bit on the sweet side again, and I wouldn't want to drink it all night long, but it would make a nice beer to finish a session off with.  I thought it went really well with the artichoke dip, and may have gone well with some of the cheeses, but most of the cheese was gone by the time I got to this beer.

Bitteschlappe Brown Ale - OK, I'm not sure if that's the actual spelling they used, and I can't find it on their website.  I basically started thinking of it as "Bitch Slap Brown Ale" after Ben mentioned the name was sort of an altered phrase for what they were calling it internally.  According to Ben, we were drinking the first keg of this beer to actually leave the brewery.  It was potentially a little light on the SRM scale to really call a brown ale (although, by the time I got a glass the sun had gone down, and we were sitting on the outside deck without a lot of light, so I could be off on that) but it did have a really nice flavor to it.  This was Beth's favorite beer of the evening.  She describes it as fairly smooth, a little roasty with just a touch of sweet.  Very little hop character, but this will make for a good fall beer.

All in all, I would say that their beer is good, but not a whole lot (in the beer offerings) to make it stand out from the other breweries opening in the area.

That being said, after we got off the boat we took a little walk over to their tap room to check it out.  Here is where Excelsior Brewing does stand out a bit.  Their tap room was absolutely jumping.  They had good music, the staff was extremely friendly, and they had several different sizes of Jenga games strewn throughout.  It was especially fun to watch people try to play the one made from 2"x4" boards after they'd had a couple of beers.

I had won a t-shirt on the boat by answering a trivia question correctly, but Ben gave me the wrong size.  I had asked for an XL, he accidentally gave me what appeared to be a medium baby doll tee, which I gave to my wife (medium would be a bit big for her, but she's hoping to shrink it.)  I mentioned it in passing to Ben as we were leaving the boat, and he promised me an XL shirt if I went to the tap room, which he did make good on, so we got two free shirts.

While I probably won't search out bars that carry their beer, I will buy it if I see it on tap, and will probably make the occasional trip to their tap room, which is where I think they really shine right now.  Their website says their tap room is open until 10pm Thursday through Saturday, but Ben said it's open "until at least 11" multiple times.  It would be nice if they could get a food truck to setup shop near the tap room, I wasn't hungry, but I could see wanting some food if you were hanging out there for a few hours.  If you're in the area, I definitely suggest you try making a trip to their tap room.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Is it infected?

No, I'm not talking about the hangnail on your big toe, I'm talking about your beer.

Nearly every new homebrewer I've ever talked with thinks their first beer is infected.  They taste their beer after it's been fermenting a few days, it tastes a little weird to them because they've never tasted such young beer before, and immediately assume something has gone wrong.

 I think this fear is perpetrated, in large part, by experienced homebrewers stressing the importance of cleaning and proper sanitation.  New homebrewers read about the horrors of failing to properly sanitize, and see all the ways the beer can go wrong, and assume that because they've never done this before, they've screwed something up and it's infected.

The truth is, it's actually pretty difficult to unintentionally infect your beer.  Yeast doesn't play very nicely with other microbes.  It eats all the good food and then poisons its environment by giving off alcohol as a waste product, and you're throwing massive amounts of yeast into your wort.  Very few microbes can amicably survive alongside yeast, and those microbes, while they may make the beer taste funky, can't hurt you.

How can you tell if your beer is actually infected?
One of the easiest ways is to taste the beer, but this doesn't work very well if you're a new brewer.  New homebrewers don't actually know what young beer should taste like, and chances are they've underpitched their yeast, haven't properly aerated, and possibly did a poor job of cooling the wort, all of which will give their beer off flavors, but don't mean their beer is infected.

Another way is to look at the beer in the fermenter.  Does it have a thick, white or tan, frothy head?  That's a good thing, probably not infected (a thin head is fine too.)  Does it have what looks like huge soap bubbles that have been sitting there for days?  OK, that might mean it's infected.  Does it have a very thin, milky looking skin over the top?  Yeah, that's probably infected.

Another great way to tell whether or not it's infected is to take gravity readings.  Has the gravity stopped dropping?  Is it reasonably close to where you expected your final gravity to be?  Then it's probably not infected.  If your final gravity is significantly lower than you expected it to be, you might have an infection.  If your final gravity is significantly higher than you expected, you probably just messed something else up, but don't have an infection (and the beer will be fine, just a little sweeter than you'd planned on it being.)

If you think you have an infection, take a picture and show a more experienced homebrewer.  They'll likely be more than happy to assure you whether or not you have an infection (although, even experienced homebrewers don't know everything, I actually ended up taking a picture of one of my recent beers and asked people whether or not they thought it was infected because, while it didn't really look infected to me, it looked pretty weird.  I'm still pretty sure it's not infected.)

Another great way to go is, once you're sure it's done fermenting and the gravity isn't going any lower, even if you think it's infected, go ahead and bottle the beer and let it bottle condition for a while.  Some infections can actually lend an interesting character to the beer.

If you do bottle an infected beer, you might want to put it in a closed box of some sort in case you accidentally end up with bottle bombs though, and if you open a bottle and it starts gushing everywhere, you might want to think about opening the rest of the bottles to at least let the excess CO2 out so you don't end up with bottle bombs.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mr. Beer - Yea or Nay?

Invariable, when anyone decides to try brewing their own beer, they will eventually come across the Mr. Beer kit.  The kit comes with everything you need to brew your first beer for $40, which gives you 2 gallons of finished beer.  A much easier amount to handle than the 5 gallon recipes that are typical in this hobby.  For an extra $15 you also get everything you need to bottle your beer.

So what's not to love?
While the initial cost if the Mr. Beer kit is low, the ingredient kits are fairly expensive, starting around $15 for a 2 gallon batch.  For not much more money, you could be making 5 gallon batches of beer.
The ingredient kits are made in such a way that you can't easily experiment with the recipes.  The kits are typically a can of hopped malt extract, some dry yeast and cleaner.  Because the extract is already hopped, you're limited in the ways you can experiment with different hops.  Sure, you can try dry hopping, or adding additional hops at different parts of the boil, but you can't get any less hoppy, or try different bittering hops.  Also, the extract that comes with the Mr. Beer kits don't really let you play with different specialty grains, because the flavor/color of the specialty grains has already been added to the kits.  

Now, for the yeast, sure, the yeast that comes with the ingredient kits is likely fairly neutral, but you could try buying different yeasts.  Then again, buying different yeast will run you an extra $5 from most suppliers.

I've also never been terribly impressed with the flavor of the beers that are made from the Mr. Beer kits, but a large part of that could come from the person brewing the beer being very new to the hobby, and not brewing the beer in ideal conditions.

But wait, there are redeeming qualities!
The Mr. Beer kit isn't all bad though.  It is a relatively inexpensive, easily approachable way to get into the hobby, and anything that promotes the hobby is good, in my book. 

I know several people that got their start in homebrewing from a Mr. Beer kit they received as a gift, or decided to buy on their own.  I also know a lot of people that have been scared away from the hobby because of how terrible their beer ended up tasting, but I'm guessing they either messed up somewhere, or just don't care for the type of beer they made.  I'm also pretty confident that the people that were scared away from homebrewing because of the beer they made with a Mr. Beer kit, are the same type of people that wouldn't have lasted very long in the hobby to begin with.

I also have a friend that still uses his Mr. Beer kit to brew experimental batches of beer, now that he's moved on to brewing larger scale batches of beer.

Final notes
If you're thinking about getting into homebrewing, I'd suggest finding someone that already homebrews, and ask to help them brew a batch of beer.  I've had people ask me that a few times now, and sometimes they go on to start brewing, and sometimes they decide they'd rather drink my beer than make their own.
If someone bought you a Mr. Beer kit, and it hasn't been sitting around, unused, for too long, give it a try.  Even if you don't end up liking the beer you make, it'll at least give you an idea as to what is involved in brewing beer, and whether or not you'd like to pursue the hobby further.