October 27, 2014 0 comments
Not sure why, but Fall has always been my favorite time of year to brew beer. The air gets cooler; stronger, more flavorful beers call out to my palate; and the upcoming feasts of the holiday season demand memorable home-made beers to match the great food. Invariably, I will start things out with a batch of Brown English-style ale and progress to more complex, holiday ales as December approaches.

This year seems no different, I started out with a brown ale kit I picked up a month or so ago at my local homebrewing store, The Grape & Granary. Up till now, I had mostly brewed all-extract brews of this type and have always been happy with the results. This kit included some specialty grains for steeping--which added another extra step to the process, but one which I hope will make a notable improvement.

I had anticipated a long time getting the kettle up to boil; it was easy enough to get the water up to 150 degrees or so for steeping the grain. But even on my commercial-grade range, it seemed to take forever when it came time to get the wort up to a rolling boil after adding the extract and bittering hops. I rigged up a colander and some coffee filter paper in an attempt to strain out most of the solids from the wart--but the results were mixed, due to the added grain.  As I wait out the primary fermentation, I'll have to consider a more reliable method to remove the remaining "silt."

For now, the wort is working in the basement...the yeast is really cranking and you can see the rolling action as fermentation builds inside the 5 gallon acrylic fermenter. It's always fun to watch, but I'm already planning my next batch; something more of a "Christmas Style" ale.

To that end, I'm looking at adding a couple of smaller fermenters; the 2-gallon BrewDemon Conical models have caught my eye, and they might just be the ticket. A recent issue of Brew Your Own magazine had an interesting article about the advantages of brewing smaller batches--there's the matter of convenience, time savings, and less investment lost if a batch doesn't turn out "as expected." It's a little easier to experiment with new ideas and flavors, too.

I bottle-condition most of my beers and make labels for them, which is almost as much fun as drinking the beer. While I often have a name and type in mind, I usually wait until tasting a sample to make my final decision on this, since the final taste and flavor characteristics will often influence the choice of name and label graphics.

Thus, if you ever see a bottle of Bedpan Brown Ale in my refrigerator, you'll know the final results were probably less than expected.

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September 15, 2014 0 comments
Seems almost every-other tweet I see over the past day or so has to do with Heineken's rejection of an SABMiller takover bid. Now, beer industry watchers everywhere are breathlessly predicting a new round of mergers between the world's mega-brewers.

For most craft beer drinkers, the issue is moot. They don't drink that stuff anyway. Most watch with a degree of satisfaction as the market share of the large industrial brewers continues to slip while the number of microbrewers and craft breweries continue to expand almost daily. It's like watching the slow end of the Age of Dinosaurs--remembering, of course, that it took a long, long time for them to finally become extinct.

Some observers are already predicting a possible purchase of SABMiller by Anheuser-Busch InBev, which--for nostalgia's sake alone--would be slightly disappointing. For someone older like me, it's just hard to accept that the Gog and Magog of the brewing universe would ever be joined together. The huge international brewing conglomerates have long been blamed for everything that was wrong in the beer world. But they were not always so huge.

I can remember when brands like Budweiser, Miller, Coors, Strohs, Pabst, Schlitz, Carling, Hamms and others were all separate entities. Yes, they all brewed a similar product, which was generally undistinguished in overall character--but an experienced palate could still tell the difference between them.

When there wasn't a huge variety of beer available, the concept of a "Champagne of Bottled Beers" seemed to have some merit. I may not have been clear about the advantages of being "fire-brewed"...but a cold bottle of Stroh's was not such a bad thing--especially if it belonged to your dad, and you thought he might not miss one if you snuck it out of the fridge. One of the most enjoyable beers I can remember was a fresh, tasty Black Label I had at the Frankenmuth Carling Brewery tasting room back in 1983.

That brewery is no longer there. It's gone, now. Just like a lot of other things.

But that's not a lament. In may ways, things are better for American beer drinkers now than they've ever been--at least in my lifetime.

I still drink a lot of "major" imports along with my craft beers, and I really don't care who owns them, since they generally taste just as good as they did 30 years ago. I do refuse to drink almost any domestic light beer, with the exception of Bud Light Lime, which is a mainstay in my pool on a hot summer afternoon, along with Corona and Modelo. I don't automatically "write off" any product that comes from a large brewery, just because it comes from a large brewery. I drink for satisfaction, not to make a political statement.

I sit here now writing this and watching Monday Night Football with a Miller Fortune next to me. It's not a superb beer, but it's decent, not over-hopped, and reasonably priced. I'll save my better craft beers and local offerings for the weekend, and time with friends.

As for the dinosaurs, well--I guess it takes one to know one.

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September 14, 2014 0 comments
I would never say hops are a bad thing. They're an essential part of beer--and well used, are critical to imparting great aroma and flavor to our beers and ales.

But the current tendency in American Craft Brewing seems to be adding hops to the point where they often dominate the taste profile...and where their over-use almost becomes an end in itself. As a result we are left with double and triple-IPAs, "Hoppinators," "Hoppus Maximus," "Hop Killers," etc. etc.

While some of these beers are fine for sampling, their bitterness and "hit you on the head with a hammer" qualities make them impractical for any type of session drinking, and I've found many to be almost undrinkable. (I've had some beers that were loaded with so much Simcoe that I thought someone had poured a cap full of PineSol into my beer.) At best, I find myself saying - "Well, that's good, but I couldn't drink more than one."

For those who like these kinds of beers, fine. But my worry is that this hop craze is having a detrimental effect on Craft Beer overall--to the point where the high-hop focus is insinuating itself into beer styles that are not traditionally hoppy. Even experienced craft brewers seem to be falling into this trap. I've always loved GLBC beers, but over the years, I find their offerings all morphing into a very similar hop taste profile. Over the past year, I've had an Oktoberfest and a Pilsner from them that were far too hoppy for the claimed style--and many other quality craft brewers seem to be heading in the same direction.

It's easy to think that the hop-craze we've seen here in the US might have filtered into our general approach to brewing. A lot of Americans under 35 have become accustomed to highly-hopped beers...perhaps to the point where brewers feel a certain amount of bitterness is required if the beer is going to "taste right" to those folks. If so, that would be a shame--since those of us that don't need a ton of hops in our beer to know we are drinking a good one will be forced to suffer.

Of course, I'm not the first to complain, and I won't be the last. It may get worse before it gets better. I've heard about an upcoming hop shortage (we can only hope) - but then I am also reading so many articles about how many people are growing hops in the US now (and why not, you can grow them in your backyard) that it seems inevitable that more and more are going to end up dumped into our beer by the bushel-full. Why? Just because we have them.

I'm beginning to think US brewers should do us a favor and label some of these beers "American Oktoberfest,"  "American Helles," etc. -- so we get fair warning that we shouldn't expect these beers to adhere to the traditional beer styles at all; that they have been "hop-boosted" to please what they have come to believe is the common American preference.

That way, they would not disappoint experienced beer drinkers who are expecting something more refined, subtle and well...traditional.

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August 15, 2014 0 comments
I've sampled a lot of beers this summer, but one that really stood out is the Indigo Imp Blonde Bombshell that I picked up at the high-end market in town. It was smooth, very rich and clearly had the nose of a bottle-conditioned beer. But what struck me the most was the bright, yeasty- flavor that brought back some great memories.

Over 25 years ago, my wife and and I couldn't really afford much of a honeymoon, so we spent a weekend in Frankenmuth, Michigan - a great little town (cough-tourist trap) that offers some great places to visit and some great food.

At the time, they had a Carling Black Label brewery in town, we went on a tour and the fresh Black Label in the hospitality room was actually pretty good. Also in town was the little Frankenmuth Brewery, which offered two kinds of beer--regular pale lager and a dark beer.

I purchased a six-pack of the lager and took it back to Ohio with us. It was good, but what I remember most was the incredible, fresh, yeasty flavor--with which I was not familiar at all, and not found in any other beer I'd had at the time (this was 1983, after all). At the time, I later discovered that the strange, fruity taste I was experiencing was due to the still-active yeasts in the brew; I wasn't sure it was something I preferred, but it was a memorable taste, nonetheless.

That original Frankenmuth brewery is no more - it's been replaced by a new version, with much more sophisticated and higher-quality beers. But the yeasty brightness of this Indigo Imp bombshell brought it readily to mind. I still have my wax-sealed "imp" bottle in the fridge - I have a feeling  it will possibly improve with a month or more of aging - if I can resist drinking it a little longer.

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Every summer,  my normal beer-drinking habits morph into something slightly more plebian - I generally gravitate towards lighter beers and ales, usually mixed with lemonade during hot afternoons lounging around the pool. That preference is supported by long experience; for some reason, Mexican-style beers like Corona, Modelo and even bottles of  Land Shark can be enjoyed in quantity on the hottest of days without giving me a headache.

So it should be no surprise that Shandies of various types are regularly sampled, along with some other lighter types that I wanted to try. Here's a brief look at some of what I've enjoyed this summer...

Sam Adams Porch Rocker
Wasn't expecting a lot, but I actually enjoyed this--and have purchased it on more than one occasion. Nice, solid brew with a light, lemon twang that was reasonably natural-tasting. Refreshing and dependable.

Leinenkugel Summer Shandy
I used to really like this brand. But that was before they began selling it at a premium price. Their original red ale was solid, but this shandy was a big disappointment. Forgettable beer with a very artificial lemon taste - more akin to a lemon cough drop than real fruit.

Hopping Frog Turbo Shandy
Easily the best beer I had all summer.  Delicious ale, rich - but not too hoppy, with a rich, sweet, lemon zest that called upon me to drink more and more. Unfortunately, at about $7 for a 22oz bottle, that is unlikely. But this stuff is delicious - and that's not just hometown bias.

Great Lakes Brewing- The Wright Pils
This was a real letdown. I generally love GL beers, but I've found that more of their beers are starting to have the same "hop profile" - making it harder to discern what style of beer I am drinking. Pilsners should be light, golden, clean and drinkable -- but this was way too hoppy [and bitter] to fit the style. It was the same situation with the GL Oktoberfest I tried last fall...way over-hopped for the beer style.

Seems their brewmaster has fallen into the American craft-beer trap of throwing too much hop into the brew kettle. My feeling is that if you can't stay true to the real "style" of the beer--that's fine--but then you should just call it something else.

Stiegl Radler
No, I did not try the grapefruit radler that seems to be the hot thing now. The local ultra-high end market in town had a couple cases of the stuff in the beer aisle, but I prefer the original lemon, which really does have more of the "lemon soda pop" mouth feel than more typical shandies, and is absolutely delicious. I usually take a few bottles of this to my friend's annual summer-ending luau and it's always a big hit. Awesome stuff.

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December 6, 2013 0 comments
Future Publishing's [UK] Homebrew Handbook has been out for a little while now - but it was only recently that it caught my eye at the local Barnes & Noble. I'm a sucker for a nicely-produced book or magazine of any kind, so I couldn't resist grabbing a copy and taking up to the checkout.

The handbook is a very attractive, well-written and well-illustrated guide on how to brew your own beer. Like most publications from Future Publishing, it's a very high-quality piece, printed on high-quality paper and made to serve as a handy, durable reference that will last you through many homebrewing sessions. I will look good on your coffee table, too. The handbook looks at three essential methods of brewing (Home Kit, Extract and Full-Mash) and includes some solid reference material on malt, hops, water and various aspects of the brewing process that the beginning homebrewer--whether they are in the UK or the US--will find helpful. As it has been a while since I've brewed myself, it also served as a nice refresher, and the articles on establishing microbreweries and labeling your beer were interesting and inspirational, too.

One of the most useful parts of the book is the nice collection of recipes that are included, from very basic types to some more specialized brews that were provided by some popular craft breweries. Some of these you might be familiar with; others are rather obscure offerings from lesser known brewers, but they are all interesting to read about and assess, and may inspire you to tinkering with your next batch of homebrew.

All in all, a nice publication that we would highly recommend at just $14.99.
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