Brew Day: Avangard Classic American Pilsner (split batch)

First, a new toy that makes brew day in Colorado much nicer:


That’s a new burner.  What makes it nice is on today’s snowy, windy day, it has a wind shield to keep the flame constrained and from blowing about, solving one of my problems, controlling the boil.  Previously with my unshielded burner, I had to keep the flame too high to compensate for wind, causing either the boil to stop because the wind blew the flame too much or boilovers when the wind dies down.  The shielded flame lets me boil more consistently and at a lower overall level.  We’ll see if it has any effect on my beers.  I’m guessing more malt flavor.

Now to the beer.  A while back the Brew Hut management gave me 10 pounds of Avangard Pilsner malt to test brew.  I decided to incorporate it into a multivariable experiment involving 1) the new burner, 2) the new malt and 3) splitting the batch, fermenting with both American Lager and Urquell yeasts.  A fourth factor, use of Magnum hops for bittering –  I like the idea of clean bitterness.  Of course, the finishing hops are pure Saaz….

Aside from the late start, the brew day went without a hitch.  I got great conversion from my step mash (145/156/170 degrees F).  As mentioned, the boil was uneventful, a great change of pace!  In the end, I had to add a bit of water back to the wort to get to near my target gravity of 1.057 – I got 1.060 after the water addition.  The wort came out beautiful!


See the break falling out of the pale-blonde wort?  And the refractometer in the foreground – best tool I ever bought for the brew day (aside from my wort chiller, and pH meter, and new burner, and kettle….).

In the end, I’m still waiting for the wort to get down to pitch temperature, the low 50s.  And I’ll have to change the boil rate in my calculation software.  All in all, a pleasant brew.  Looking forward to tasting it!


Homebrew Night

Last night was Homebrew Night at the The Brew Hut.  I love Homebrew Nights.  Every second month, the third Thursday of the month, the Brew Hut puts on a gathering where homebrewers can bring their best (or not) in to compare and contrast with others’ finest.  After a few times, you learn who makes good beer (my friend Mark) and who doesn’t.  It’s not a marketing event at all, just a gathering of homebrewers where we can swap samples, stories, recipes and critiques….

I’ve developed a code.  I taste a beer.  If something is off, I say, hmmm, interesting.  What was your fermentation temperature (or other question appropriate to the off flavor in question).  If the beer is good, I’ll say so.  If the brewer who gets the “interesting” presses me, I’ll tell them what I get.  We also know each other, the fraternity of good brewers.  We’ll use the off flavored beers as examples of what not to do, comment on them, see if our palates give us the same reading.  Again, being a part of the fraternity is a great chance to develop skills at tasting.

There are great advantages to being a part of a fraternity of brewers, be it a homebrew event, a brew club or other venues where brewers can get together and evaluate each others’ wares.  I learn something every time, what I’ve done right and where I have room to grow as a brewer and I hope I can teach someone to exercise their craft better.  As always, I’m humbled by our craft and trade where brewers from the five-gallon homebrewer to the head brewer at Miller Coors will share secrets and recipes freely (but not all of them – there are competitions, you know).  Mostly we just love good beer and love making it, so it’s natural we will talk about it.

Berliner Weisse is souring very slowly.  Time to forget about it for a while.  Sunday is brew day – I’m doing a split batch of classic American Pilsner using the Avangard Pilsner malt I was given to test.  Half the batch will be fermented with the American Lager yeast I’ve used before, the other half with Urquell Yeast.  Part of the fun of brewing is experimenting and this is to learn what yeast to use for this brew.  Everything else down to the starter wort will be exactly the same, same wort, same pitch temperature, same fermentation regime.  The only variable is the yeast.  That makes a good experiment – I can assume differences (aside from anything potentially sanitation-related) are caused by the yeast.

And I get to try my new, shielded burner.  Hopefully it won’t blow out as often or blow away from the kettle and stop the boil.

Exiled in Kentucky

Just back from a five-day sojourn in the Bluegrass State.  It’s good to be back in Colorado.

For starters, my destination was a dry county not that long ago.  There are at least three kinds of beer available, just think Miller, Bud and Coors.  Having grown up there, I have some friends who appreciate a nice drop or three so I took three bombers of my homebrew along to share.  And then I got into a conversation with one of my cousins who tries to homebrew there….

And I realize how spoiled I am having The Brew Hut as my home homebrew store.  My cousin speaks of Evansville, IN’s premier  homebrew supply store:  Five grains, two hops and the complete line of Lallemand yeast to choose from.  They have brewed four batches and out of desperation, have even tried to malt their own grain.  I don’t know where they got their barley but they reported the goats wouldn’t even eat it.  Then they took the two and a half hour trek to Nashville to visit Rebel Brewer.  They arrived at 2:00 on a Tuesday afternoon to find the store closed.  No bueno.  I’ve told them when they want to brew to contact me, I’ll provide recipes, advice and where to go to get mail-order supplies, since it looks as if homebrewing in the Tristate Region isn’t about to take off any time soon.

Yes, it’s good to be back in Denver.  Tomorrow night is Homebrew Night at the Dry Dock and I intend to be there with some samples.  I’ve just finished a sample of my Kottbusser and find it yummy, much more drinkable than Grimm Brothers’ sweet rendition of the eastern German brew.  And I’m planning a brew day soon (as in this weekend) to use the 10 pounds of Avangard Pilsner malt I have in the basement.  Think beer experiment:  I’m splitting the batch and fermenting with different yeasts.


Disaster Strikes! The Dreaded Drain Pour: Stevia

One thing I recommend having on hand in a brewery is a small bottle of iso-alpha acid extract.  It’s the bittering agent we create in the boil and it’s useful if your bittering calculations are off and your beer is sweeter than you’d like.  Some things it can’t save, though.

My Pumpkin Spice ESB went down the drain tonight, a sorry sight and one I fortunately haven’t seen often.  It was going so well.  I’d made the ESB with pumpkin and brown sugar, the spicing was light but I had the spice tincture ready to go and the vanilla extract – my secret weapon in pumpkin beer – was standing by.  Through careful trial and tasting, I had dialed in the spice and vanilla.  The beer was ready for a touch of sweetness to bring out the flavors in it.

Having heard of Stevia, I thought I’d try it in beer.  I hadn’t tasted it, I drink black coffee and unsweetened tea, but I’d been told it tasted just like sugar.  Last round of pumpkin beer, I added lactose as my unfermentable sweetness.  Having gone to lengths to lighten the body of this beer, that’s what the brown sugar is for, I didn’t want to thicken it up, which is one thing lactose is for.  So I decided to sweeten with stevia.  I carefully calculated the equivalent sweetness of the extract, added the proper amount to the beer, stirred and tasted.

For those of you old enough to remember Tab, an artificially flavored cola beverage made by the Coca Cola company and renouned for its aftertaste, that’s what I tasted in the sample.  It tasted like beer-flavored Tab.  Yuck!  Pfuey!  So I got out the iso-alpha acid and in a desperate attempt to save the beer, added at least 30 IBUs of bitterness back.  That renouned Tab aftertaste would not go away.  Finally, defeated by artificial sweetener made from a leaf, I gave up and the beer went down the drain.

I could have avoided this.  When using a new ingredient this late in the process to flavor a beer, it’s a good idea to test it small-scale before ruining a full batch.  Had I done that, added a touch of stevia extract to a sample and known I didn’t want that in my beer.  I could then have kept my beer overnight in the bottling bucket, picked up some lactose tomorrow and added it to sweeten the batch and bottled in time for Thanksgving.  But I didn’t.  I thought I knew what I was doing.  It cost me about $40 to learn the following:

Stevia has no place in beer.  It tastes just like saccarine tablets.

No pumpkin beer this year.  Oh, well, the Kottbusser is aging nicely….

Tonight’s Guest Beer – Innstadt Passauer Weisse

A trip to the local liquor store’s “Bomb Dump” resulted in purchase of four beers from Innstadt Brewing.  The Passauer Weisse is one of them.

The first thing you notice on the pour is this isn’t a Munich-style Weisse.  It isn’t white, rather red.  It isn’t excessively carbonated but generates a nice head.  The nose is rather sharp, almost acidic.  There’s no indication at all of hop aroma, rather a very light whiff of banana and cloves.  The scent actually reminds me of some of those old-fashioned banana creme pastries, the ones that look a bit like a Twinkie.  Sounds a bit off-putting but it’s rather pleasant.  The flavor is not Munich-style Weisse, either.  I’m guessing the red is a high percentage of Munich malt, giving the beer an alltogether nutty malt flavor.  Fermentation character is very subdued, a hint of banana and clove in the aftertaste.  Up front, malt and tartness.  This is, despite a healthy malt sweetness, a tart, dry beer.  The sweetness is esters, not sugars, this is fully attenuated.  It’s either decocted or dosed with melanoidin, there’s that much malt flavor.

If you drink one, rouse the yeast.  It comes in a half-liter bottle so plan on an appropriately sized glass.  Pour all but about an inch of beer from the bottle to the glass, roll the bottle gently back and forth to rouse the yeast, then pour the rest of the beer into your glass.  The yeast flavor is mild but quite good.

It’s a very nice beer, all things considered, mostly what I’d expect of a German beer.  Of course it’s been in the supply chain a long time and I’m sure it’s been mishandled, detracting from the overall impact of the brew.  I know a guy in Passau.  Maybe it’s time to make a trip!  Hello, Kyle….

It’s also a lesson in styles and what they mean.  This is a Weissbier, yet it’s as different from a Munich-style Weisse as a Kolsch.  Styles serve as guidelines for judges and competition brewers and unless this beer had a very good judge, it would lose points because it’s not what is expected.  It conforms to the guidelines and is genuine and should be judged as such.  I doubt it would be.  And that’s a flaw in “competitive brewing”:  It involves imperfect judges, myself included.

What Makes a Good Beer

Not much going on in the Applied Zymurgy Brew Works (otherwise known as my basement).  The Pumpkin Ale is nearing ready to bottle, the Kottbusser is about to go into “lager”, so I thought I’d write a bit about my personal philosophy as to what makes a good beer.

First is always “clean.”  It has to be flawless, no obvious unwanted fermentation characteristics, no graininess or astringency.  I’m not a huge detractor of diacetyl, if it belongs in a style or complements the flavor I don’t mind.  But at Homebrew Night I’ve tasted a lot of beers I’d call bad, excessively phenolic or estery, fusel alcohols, chlorophenols, solvent flavors, so many I’ve developed a code.  I’ll call the beer “interesting” if it’s flawed.  Then if the brewer can assure me they want to know what I think, I’ll tell them as professionally as I can.  But a flawed beer should be dumped, life’s too short to drink bad beer.

The second quality I look for is balance.  Maybe you can call it drinkability.  While I may appreciate the flavor of an imperial IPA or a uber-strong Scottish Ale, they’re not my favorites.  For all my brewing, I’m not a heavy drinker so I want my one or two beers a day to be good examples of style.  I don’t mind hoppy, as long as there’s enough malt to balance out the flavors. I don’t mind high alcohol as long as the beer doesn’t drink like motor oil.  What I do like is hoppy in the sense of a Dusseldorfer Altbier, assertively bitter but with great malts. Or malty in the sense of a good ESB.  But spare me the quinine or cloying sweetness.

The final quality I look for can best be described as “everything else”, that certain something that differentiates a good beer from a great beer.  It may be the exact balance of roast and nutty base malt or the hint of herbal hop from good Saaz in a pale yellow pilsner.  It’s subtle but when you find it unmistakeable.  Maybe it’s color or head, hop nose or subtle dark fruits but when you find a beer with these qualities, you know it.

I try to brew my beers to these standards and every time I come up with an improvement to my brewing process, I close in on number three.  Anyone can get number one right, just keep your stuff clean, pay attention to your sparge temperatures and ferment at the right temperature.  Number two is not hard, either, just don’t put too much of anything in.  Keep the IBUs in double digits, the alcohol in single digits and you can do a great job of keeping things in balance.  The final quality, the third, is the Holy Grail of the craft brewer.  I keep pursuing it, getting closer, but still pursuing it in each brew.  It keeps me brewing and that’s a good thing.