Posts Tagged craft beer

Tallahassee Brewfest

I apologize for the lengthy and unexplained hiatus.  Work got really busy, and then my whole family got sick one after the other.  It’s the kind of situation that makes you want to grab a beer….


Anyway, I’m back and I have a couple things in the hopper.


This last weekend, I attended the sixth annual Tallahassee Brewfest.  I’ve been fortunate enough to attend all but the fifth, and the event has grown to be quite a feast for the beer enthusiast.


All the usual suspects were there–Anheuser-Busch was pushing their “craft” brands, and InBev had their lineup of trendy imports.  Brooklyn, Sweetwater and Rogue were represented, as they have had a local presence for a long time.


The real treat is the smaller up-and-coming local breweries, the craft brewers who are just moving into the market, and the homebrewers.


Swamp Head was there, with a broader selection of their beers than I had seen before. Midnight Oil was their standout, a coffee stout.  I was oh-so-very close to voting them best in show for that beer.  Coffee stouts and porters were very trendy–I sampled a dozen–and I think that by the end of the night, I was kind of over them.  MO is a great beer though, and I’ll definitely be looking for it on tap.  The gentleman representing Swamp Head was involved in the brewing there, and he was very happy to discuss recipes, ingredients and beer design philosophy, which was really good of him.


The beer I did vote for was Erie Brewing’s Railbender Ale.  It was awesome, golden in color, with a ton of caramel malt.  It was a coolish night, and a very fresh-drinking, flavorful beer, and it was just perfect for the occasion.  It was sweet from that malt bill, so I don’t know how it would stand up to a hot summer day, but for wintertime drinking, it was exceptional.


The homebrewers mostly came from the North Florida Brewers’ League, and their beers were quite excellent.  One of the fun things about homebrewing is that you can brew beer for you, without having to worry about whether it is particularly marketable.  That tends to make homebrew a little bit avant garde, and that was the case at the Brewfest.  There was some excellent creativity on display, and while not all tickled my palate, they were each skillfully crafted and fun to try.  My favorite was a low-octane Belgian.  They were very successful at getting the big flavor of a Belgian beer into a 5% alcohol package, and I was impressed.  I may have to try that someday, because my classic 9-11% Belgians can be a bit much for many occasions.


One of the trends I’ve noticed at the Brewfest over the past 6 years is a movement away from ultra-hoppy beers.  There are still plenty of IPA’s and Imperial this-and-thats for the hopheads, but there are more subtle beers, even very malty ones starting to work their way into the craft beer scene.  I think this is great, not just because I’m not a hophead, but because a strong, earnest and diverse beer scene is good for everyone.


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Holy Spruce Juice Batman!

I’m making a beer this weekend using spruce extract, so I decided to test it last night to get an idea of the amount to include.  The bottle recommended 1 tsp. per gallon, so I poured a half-liter of light lager and added 1/8 of a tsp.

Holy Christmas Tree!  It was like sucking on a pine.  It was drinkable, but it was piney.  So, I’ll be cutting waaaaaay back on the actual recipe.  I’m thinking about using 5% of the recommended dose, so 1/4 tsp. in a full 5 gallon batch.

It’s always a good idea to test any concentrated flavor extracts before you add them to your beer.  I tried to make a cherry beer once with candy flavoring.

It burned.

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Beginners’ Tuesday–Homebrewing Cask Ale

Cask ales are a big new thing in the American craft beer scene, and a very, very old thing in the beer world in general.  The tannins from the oak used to make the barrels add a layer of complexity to the beer, and can change the flavor in some very pleasant ways.


You’re going to notice more difference between casked and uncasked beers if they’re less hoppy.  Malt flavors are more affected by the oak tannins; hop flavors are almost completely unaffected.
The good news is that you don’t actually need an expensive cask, which is difficult to clean and care for.  In terms of flavor, there is no meaningful difference between adding beer to oak, or adding oak to beer.  You can use oak cubes or chips instead.  In fact, homemade wine kits always come with oak chips that you add to the wine to simulate the flavors of the barrel.


There are two factors that determine how much oak flavor you will get–the surface area of the oak, and the time it is in contact with your beer.  Oak can be overdone, giving you an unpleasant and astringent beer, so you need a plan of action before you begin.  Typically, 1 ounce of oak chips left in contact with the beer 1-2 weeks gives a nice cask flavor.  If you’re using oak cubes, remember that there is a lot of oak in the cube that is nowhere near the surface, so you need more.  3 ounces of cubes is about the equivalent of 1 ounce of chips.


You can use oak in either primary or secondary.  I prefer secondary because I want them in for 2 weeks, and my beer doesn’t live in the primary that long.  Oak commonly comes in packages that are not well-sanitized, so I usually pasteurize them before I put them in the beer.  All that takes is 15 seconds in water over 161 F.


I usually do a 3-week secondary, so I actually add the oak to the secondary after the beer has been in it for a week.  You really don’t want to leave the beer on the oak too long, so if you can’t bottle it within two to two-and-a-half weeks, you’ll need to move it to a tertiary.


Beer is often casked in used barrels, and those barrels may have been used for other beers, for wine, or for whiskey.  To simulate used barrels, try this.  First, wash and sanitize a funnel, a beer bottle and a cap.  Then, pasteurize your oak and put it in the bottle.  Finally, fill the bottle with beer, wine or whiskey and cap it.  Let the oak absorb the flavors for a week, then add it to the beer you are making.  I’ve had great results with this!  Whiskey is so high in alcohol, you can use anything you have, but with wine and beer, you want to open a bottle fresh.  You don’t want any bacteria that have nested in that red wine bottle you opened two days ago to get into your beer.


Making cask ales at home is actually super easy!  Any store that sells winemaking gear will have lots of options, and you can always order online as well.



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Lager Week, Part 1: Lagers and Ales

Welcome to Lager Week!

This week, we’re going to do a series of posts on making homebrew lager. If you love pilsner, Dopplebock, Oktoberfest, Munich Helles, or Rauchbier this week is all about you!

Lager-making not significantly different than making ale, though it does require some special equipment and procedures. It is accessible to any homebrewer, from the newbie with one batch of extract under their belt to the most hardcore all-grain Hausbräumeister.

Lagers and ales are the two most important categories of beer, comprising virtually all of the world’s commercial beer production. Preferences are highly regional, with lagers dominating in most of Europe, and in American macrobreweries, and ales dominating in Britain and in American craft breweries. (The fact that well-made American beer is mostly ale, while American garbage is mostly lager should not be taken as evidence that lagers are lousy. We just don’t make many good ones in the US.)

So, what’s the difference? The biggest is temperature—ales are fermented at 62 F or warmer, lagers are fermented at 56 F or below. (There are a few styles in that gap that kind of blur the lines. The German Kölsch is a noteworthy example.) Many references refer to “top-fermenting” and “bottom-fermenting” yeast, which I avoid. Where the inactive yeast congregates is basically due to the temperature, and the fermentation actually occurs throughout the liquid portion of beer.

So, cold-fermented beer is lager. Warm-fermented beer is ale.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Ales are faster to make, and require less equipment. This is why ales outnumber lagers in homebrew and craftbrew circles by a mile. Lagers almost always go through a cold-storage stage to condition them. Ales don’t. So, a homebrewer with an artificial carbonation system can turn around an ale in 2 weeks, and with natural carbonation, ales are ready in 3-4 weeks. Even with sophisticated equipment, it’s difficult to get a lager from brew day to drinking in less than 6 or 7 weeks. It’s that storage that gives lager their name. Lager is the German word for a storage facility, and lager beer has its origins in the German-speaking world, especially in Bohemia, Bavaria and Austria.

There are significant flavor differences. A good lager is crisp. A good ale is complex. Comparatively, there are more flavors bouncing around in an ale than there are in a lager. This has everything to do with yeast biology. Most of those flavors are tasty chemical compounds called “esters,” and yeast are much more efficient at making esters at higher temperatures, so you get a lot more in ales. In an extreme case, they can make the beer taste almost fruity

The difference in flavors has a significant impact in how you design a good lager or ale. Of course, you want both to be balanced, but lagers are more sensitive to subtle changes, whereas adjusting an ale’s flavor can take pretty big changes. I think of lager making like trying to balance mice on a see-saw, and ale-making like trying to balance buffalo. The goal is the same, but you have to approach it differently.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the special equipment required for lager-making. Wednesday, we’ll look at brewing and conditioning a lager, Thursday, we’ll talk about handling lager yeast, Friday is all about diacetyl and Saturday, we’ll talk lager recipes.

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Beer Review: Swamp Head Chipotle Smoke Signal (Smoked Porter)

I was out last night at Tallahassee’s excellent Proof Brewing Company (seriously, work on that website, guys!) and I got a chance to try Swamp Head’s Smoke Signal Chipotle smoked porter.

(Proof isn’t stingy with its pours–I didn’t think to snap a picture until I had had a couple sips.)

Swamp Head is a Gainesville, FL brewery that appears to have a 30-barrel operation. They’re distributed to select cities across the state, but it doesn’t seem their stuff is readily available farther afield.

This beer was surprisingly good. I suspect most people who are familiar with smoked beers are familiar with the Schenkerla Rauchbier line, which is aggressive in its use of smoked malt. The Smoke Signal was less so. It’s still clearly a smoked beer, but it’s quite a bit smoother than the Schenkerla line. I found it quite easy drinking, whereas Schenkerla can sometimes be a chore to polish off. The beer is definitely malt-forward and the alderwood smoking is the most noteworthy part of the flavor. The hops certainly balance the beer, but they’re a background element. I actually didn’t notice any real chipotle flavor to the beer, but it might be easier to detect if you tasted it side-by-side with the regular Smoke Signal. (That was not available at the bar.)

Smoke Signal is an ale, like most small-scale craft beers. They did a good job of balancing those big estery ale flavors with the smokiness. I didn’t notice any fruitiness, and that’s a good thing.

All in all, I would recommend this beer. It’s definitely something different, unlike typical porters, and also unlike the commonly available smoked beers. Well done to Swamp Head!

I noticed on the Swamp Head Website that they also brew a coffee stout called Midnight Oil. It’s an interesting-looking beer, being an oatmeal stout with wheat malt and cold-infused coffee. Wheat stouts are pretty weird, as is cold-infusion of coffee, but it sounds delicious. Readers may remember that I am quite a fan of coffee beer. I’ll keep an eye out for Midnight Oil, and hopefully I can review that for you all in the future!

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Coffee and beer—Two Great Vices That Taste Great Together!

An introduction

As near as I can tell, the use of coffee as an adjunct in beer is a pretty recent invention, and is mostly associated with the American craft brewing tradition. Despite their relative newness, coffee beers are not at all hard to find. Many craft brewers include one in their repertoire, and some of them are in widespread or national distribution.

Coffee typically adds a roast bitterness to a beer that is smoother and warmer than hop bitterness. Depending on the variety of coffee and how it is roasted, it can add toasty, nutty or burnt flavors as well. Because of these characteristics, and because coffee is quite dark, one usually finds coffee beers based on a dark ales. Almost all the ones I have seen have been stouts or porters.

The strength of the coffee flavor can vary widely. Some brewers use coffee for a hint of unique flavor. Kona Brewing Company’s delicious Pipeline Porter is an example. You can taste the coffee, but the drink is definitely a beer first. Other brewers let the coffee dominate the flavor, and use the beer ingredients to accentuate the coffee and provide the alcohol. Peak Organic Espresso Amber Ale is a fine example of this approach.

If you like coffee and you like beer, you really owe it yourself to try some of these. They’re not hard to find, and almost any decent craft beer shop is likely to have a couple. (I can even get Kona at Wal-Mart!)

Coffee and homebrewing

One of the great things about homebrewing with coffee is that you can do it at any level of complexity. It works great with extract brewing, and with all-grain as well. All you really need to do is pick your favorite stout, porter or brown ale recipe, make a couple simple changes, and add the coffee.

The first thing to think about is that coffee is bitter, so you need to cut back on the hops. There’s no real formula here (it’s more art than science), but cutting back by a third is probably a good start if you’re shooting for a Kona-style beer, and by a half or more if you’re going in the Peak direction. You can keep your normal grain/extract load—the coffee isn’t going to affect your malt profile or your alcohol content. (For more advanced beer designers, I usually keep my IBU/Gravity ratio just above the extreme low end of what is typical of the style.)

Picking your coffee

Let’s talk a little about coffee roasting, and where the flavors in coffee come from. Coffee beans are actually the stone of a coffee berry, and they’re green when they are harvested and dried. Green coffee doesn’t taste very good, so the beans are roasted brown to black to provide the quintessential coffee flavor we all know and love.

Coffee has a lot in common with wine. There are many varieties, and the flavor is determined by the variety, the soil, the altitude and the care taken by the farmer and roaster in the production of the final product. Coffee has herbal, floral, nutty, woody and roasty flavors (among many others) and the specific combination depends on all the factors I just mentioned.

Arabica coffee is superior to robusta coffee, and in general, shade grown beans farmed at high altitude are of the highest quality.

The roast is essential to determining the flavor of the coffee. From lightest to darkest, roasts are roughly divided into light or cinnamon, medium or city, dark or Vienna, extra dark or French, and whatever travesty of roasting Starbucks inflicts on its beans.

Lighter roasts are more acidic, and preserve more herbal and floral flavors of the bean. Medium roasts tend to taste nutty because the floral chemicals have burned off. Famous varieties, like Kona, Jamaica Blue Mountain, Kenya AA, Tanzania Teaberry and Papua New Guinea Gold are roasted light or medium to preserve the unique flavor characteristics of those coffees. Dark roasts tend to taste warmly toasty, but retain only a few flavor elements unique to the bean. Extra dark roasts are more aggressively “black” in flavor. The ultradark roast of Starbucks blasts any uniqueness out of the bean, making any coffee roasted that way identical. This is an advantage to Starbucks—they can buy whatever beans they can get cheap without affecting the taste of the product. It doesn’t make good coffee for the consumer.

When picking a coffee for beer, go to a place that sells bulk coffee. Envision the flavor of the beer you want to make, smell and taste the beans, and pick the one that you see being the most delicious in your beer. Don’t be surprised if this is not the bean that is your favorite for making a cup of Joe! I make an awesome coffee oatmeal stout with Vienna roast beans because that’s what works with the malts in the stout. I drink a lighter, nuttier bean in my daily cup. (Though I think a Jamaica Blue Mountain Brown Ale would be awesome, and someday I will make one.)

How to brew with coffee

Once you’ve picked your coffee, and have your favorite dark beer recipe ready to go, brewing with coffee is super easy. I simply brew up the coffee in my coffee pot, let it cool and add the liquid coffee directly to my primary. In my coffee stout, the coffee is intended to be noticeable, but just one piece of the total flavor profile. It blends in with the dark malts to give a pleasant bitter edge to work with the oat smoothness. I use three pints in a 5-gallon batch to achieve that affect. If you want more coffee flavor, brew more coffee. (Note that the cups marked on the carafe of a coffee maker are 4-ounces, not the normal 8-ounce cooking cup. My 3 pints is the full contents of a “12-cup” coffee carafe.)

For the best flavor, you should use the beans as soon as possible after grinding them, and of course, the coffee should be fresh-brewed. (I make mine once my bittering hops are on the boil.) If you don’t have a home grinder so that you have to grind at the store, I recommend buying the bulk beans the day before you brew and storing the grinds in a Ziplock.

I have seen other homebrewers recommend adding the grinds in a fine mesh sack directly to the hop boil. There’s a couple reasons I don’t. Boiling water is actually a little too hot for ideal coffee flavor. You want 195-200 F. Second, if the grinds get out of the bag and wind up sitting in your beer for 3 weeks, you may find that you have extracted some unpleasant flavors. If you do want to use the coffee in the boil, add it with the aroma hops, and boil for five minutes.

After your coffee is in the wort, you treat it like any other beer. It’s not going to affect your yeast or fermentation at all. Follow your standard fermenting and bottling/kegging procedure and enjoy!

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Let’s Talk Hops

Hops are one of the four key ingredients in beer, along with grain, yeast and water. Simple fermented malted grain is pretty cloying, so the bitterness of the hops is an important part of balancing out the flavor of a beer. They also add various other flavors that can give a beer much of its character, and understanding how they really work is one of the differences between making good beer and making great beer.

And boy howdy, do American craft brewers and drinkers love them. Walk into any American brew pub or craft brew retailer and you’re almost certain to find lots of IPA’s and Imperial this-and-that’s. There’s an arms race going on the produce the hoppiest beer you can bottle and sell, with Dogfish Head 120-minute IPA, Hop Slam and Hoptimus Prime being among the more famous results.

This is a purely American phenomenon. You’re not going to find Der Hopfenkaiser on a German beer shelf. Even England, which has a tradition of high-hop beers (Wychwood makes some good ones), still only gets as strong as a middle-of-the-road American craft beer.

There are a number of reasons for this. I think the biggest is that it is a full pendulum swing away from the American macrobeers that have dominated the market since the end of Prohibition. Things like Budweiser are made first and foremost to be cheap and quick to get to market. That means using a lot of adjunct grains like corn and rice that add alcohol, but not much flavor and body. In a weak-bodied, flavorless beer, a little hop goes a long way. Hops are also the most expensive part of beer. Between those factors, macrobrewers’ recipes are built round using as little hop as possible. As the craft beer movement developed in the US, hop flavor was an obvious sign that you were drinking something that was not macroswill.

And let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with liking high-hop beers. One of the great things about beer is that it comes in so many different styles that almost everyone can find something they think is delicious. The issue I have with hops and the American craft beer industry is that many people have crossed the line from thinking “I think hoppy beers are better” (a perfectly legitimate opinion) to thinking “Lots of hops are what makes good beers good” (crazy talk.) There was actually a Sam Adams commercial a couple years ago that made that exact argument—that their beer was better because it had eight times the hops or whatever. Crazy talk.

The result of this has been an industry that tends to overhop everything. Lots of hops requires lots of body for any kind of balance. This is why good high-hop beers are also high alcohol beers—they had a ton of grain in them to ferment. If you put a mountain of hops into a 4.2% abv brown ale, you’re brewing a train wreck. The beer will feel thin, and it won’t be anything like a brown ale. The hops will completely overwhelm the nutty flavors that are characteristic of the style, and what you’ll really have is a mildly alcoholic hop tea.

I was once served a 125 IBU American-made doppelbock. That’s about six times the hops that are normally in that style. I almost never return beers at bars, but that was so disgustingly out-of-balance that there was no way more than two mothfulls were going anywhere near my face. The issue is so pervasive that my wife (who doesn’t drink beer) jokes every time I order a new American craft beer, “You’re going to think it’s ok, but that it would be way better if it weren’t so hoppy.”

The trick as a brewer (commercial or home) is to design your high-hop beers to carry the hops. Don’t just stand back and throw hops at your beer. Think about what flavors your hops are going to give you, and how your malt profile is going to work with that. And for the love of mercy, don’t just say “I’m going to make an X, but it’s going to be super great because I’m doubling the IBU’s!”

Also try some malty beer. You never know; you might like it. I’ve lost count of how many people who think they’re total hopheads have tried one of my homebrew lagers and said, “Jeeze! That’s great!”

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