Thursday, February 21, 2008

My Top 20 Beers (right now, at least)

Zymurgy Magazine is doing its annual Best Beers in America survey, and is asking readers to send in their Top 20 list (you can send your list to by March 14). So while this site is technically a brewing log, I thought it would be fun to post my Top 20. Hopefully this will encourage the two or three people who actually read this to go out and try a new beer. In case you're curious, the only requirement for making the list is that the beer be available in the United States. So without further ado, here's my Top 20:

20. New Belgium 1554 Black Ale. While they call it an ale, it's brewed with a lager yeast so as far as I'm concerned it's a Belgian Schwarzbier. Whatever you call it, this is the stuff that should be everywhere instead of Fat Tire.

19. Fuller's London Pride. It's what I think of when I think of British ales, and the malt profile is more complex than you'd think at first taste.

18. Rogue Dead Guy Ale. I love a good Maibock, and ironically the best--and most widely available--version in the U.S. is an ale. Go figure.

17. Left Hand Milk Stout. It sets the standard for sweet/milk stouts.

16. Trumer Pils. Brewed under Austrian supervision in Berkeley, it allows the drinker to experience a fresh European pils that hasn't suffered through a transatlantic trip.

15. Bell's Cherry Stout. A lot of people don't like this one for some reason, but I love it. It's malty and roasty enough to hold up to the tart cherries. Great stuff.

14. Two Brothers Bare Tree. The best of an emerging style: wheat wines (a cross between barley wines and hefeweizens).

13. Piece Brewery Golden Arm Koelsch. Like you're in Cologne, only not served in .2 L beakers!

12. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. As you can tell from this list, I'm not much of a hop head, but this beer has the malt to balance it out. My favorite beer to pair with fish.

11. Schlenkerla Rauchbier Ur-Bock. I know smoked beers can be love 'em or hate 'em propositions, but if you love 'em like I do then this is your beer.

10. Flossmoor Station Black Wolf Schwarzbier. Schwarzbier is one of my favorite styles, and Matt and Andrew at Flossmoor do it right. There's a reason this took the gold at the 2006 GABF. Too bad you can only get it at the pub.

9. Delirium Tremens. 9% alcohol and it drinks like a Bud Light. And I mean that in a good way.

8. Orkney SkullSplitter. I don't know why everybody associates Ireland with beer. Scotland is where it's at, and SkullSplitter shows you why.

7. New Glarus Yokel. A wonderful, fresh American Kellerbier. It's currently retired, but if Deb or Dan Carey happen to read this, bring it back!!!

6. Stone Imperial Russian Stout. I only tried this once, but obviously it made an impression. It was like drinking dark chocolate. Mmm... chocolate.

5. Spaten Münchner Hell. Light lagers tend to be overlooked, and especially light lagers from larger breweries. However, Spaten represents everything that's good about light lagers, especially if you can find it on tap. There's nothing better on a hot day.

4. Chimay Blue (Grande Réserve). I'm sure many people will scoff at the fact that this is the only Trappist ale on my list. Think what you will, but I honestly believe that if this were one of the hardest beers to obtain, and Westvleteren 12 was available at virtually every liquor store in the U.S., this would be considered the greatest beer in the world.

3. Oskar Blues Old Chub. This Scotch-style ale in a can takes just about everything I love about beer--chocolatey malts, roast malts, even a hint of smoked malt, with just enough hops to balance it--and somehow makes it drinkable at 8.6% ABV. My favorite American-brewed beer, hands down.

2. Weihenstephaner Korbinian. I love Doppelbocks. And with all due respect to Optimator, Celebrator and Salvator (all of which are excellent as well), my favorite is the one that doesn't end in -ator. It just has a tad more complexity to the malt profile than the rest.

1. Uerige Sticke Alt. I suppose it's somewhat ironic that after praising malty beers I would pick one of the hoppiest German beers as my favorite. But it's just so damn well balanced. As much as I'm jealous of people living in Düsseldorf, I can take solace in the fact that I can buy a bottle of Sticke pretty much any time, and they have to wait for the three days a year on which it's served on tap.

So there you have it. I suppose I should note that there are several excellent breweries in the greater Chicagoland/Milwaukee area that don't have a beer in my list (Goose Island, Capital and Lakefront all come to mind). With each of these breweries, I think they have an excellent year-round selection of brews... there just wasn't one that stood out above the rest. Anyway, hope this inspires somebody to pop something new. And let me know if you think there's something else I should try. Cheers!

P.S. Quick fun fact: only two of my Top Twenty are on the Top 100 rated beers at BeerAdvocate (Stone Imperial Russian Stout and Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA) and only one (Stone Imperial Russian Stout) is on the RateBeer Top 100.

Monday, February 18, 2008


So, I've had my fair share of issues in my brewing career, but yesterday topped it all. Here's what happened...

I started brewing a little past noon. My neighbor has a St. Patrick's Day party every year, and I was planning on bringing a keg of my Road House Red Ale. Everything was going well, and around 5:15 the boil was almost finished so I dropped my homemade immersion chiller (a 50-foot coil of copper tubing) into the kettle. A few minutes later I smelled burning rubber, and sure enough the inlet hose was touching the rim of the burner. I caught it before it was burned too bad and wrapped the burned area with duct tape. No harm, no foul, right?

Well, after 15 minutes I turned on the hose and noticed that very little water was coming through the outlet hose. I figured the hose may have compressed a little where it burned, and thus less water was flowing through the chiller. I was a little concerned that it would take considerably longer for the wort to cool, but at this point I didn't really have any other option. I let the wort chiller run while I checked on the carboy into which I would soon be racking the wort.

A few minutes later, I looked in the brew kettle and noticed the volume was almost twice what it was when the boil ended. WTF??? I suddenly realized water was somehow getting into the kettle, though I couldn't see any leaks in the hose and even if something was leaking I should be able to hear it splashing into the kettle. That's when I pulled the chiller out and discovered water was spraying from the copper coil itself. I quickly realized I was out five gallons of beer, $20 of ingredients, 5 hours of my time and one immersion chiller that will probably cost me $75 to replace now that copper prices (like just about everything else in the world) have skyrocketed.

When I realized that my brew day--and my brew--was wasted, I felt like Dalton must have felt when his mentor Wade Garrett stumbled into the Double Deuce all bloodied and beaten. (Hey, the beer was named after Road House, so I had to get some reference in). But the real mystery is how did the copper tubing burst? First of all, here's a picture of where the chiller ruptured:

(On a side note, I know my chiller looks like a tangled-up mess... I did it on purpose so as to avoid a circulation where the outside chills and sinks and the hot wort rises in the middle. In hindsight, I think such a circulation might actually aid in the cooling of the wort, but that's another issue.) So what happened? I don't think it has anything to do with the inlet hose having burned, since the worst thing that would have done is restricted the flow through the chiller. At this point the only thing I can come up with is that the chiller had been in the cold garage, and somehow the rapid temperature change caused it to rupture. Any other thoughts on what the hell happened are greatly appreciated.

In the meantime, I'm planning on switching to the Shirron plate chiller I bought over the summer. I've yet to use it because I (1) need to set up my pump to get the wort through the chiller and (2) need to make sure the wort is adequately filtered beforehand so the chiller doesn't clog. I was planning on using my immersion chiller as a pre-chiller in the summer (setting it in a bucket of ice water), and perhaps I can still use it in that fashion if I duct-tape the hole. Who knows. In the meantime, yesterday truly sucked. Oh well.

On to better news... Leah and I racked our big ol' stout this weekend. As I mentioned in our previous post, 5 gallons is going to be our Cocoa Puffs Stout and 2.5 is going to be our Cherry Stout. For the Cherry Stout we pitted four pounds of frozen Michigan cherries and stewed them at 160°F for fifteen minutes. We augmented that with 2.5 lb. of canned tart pie cherries. We racked around three gallons of the stout on top of this. Next we boiled five cups of Cocoa Puffs in 2.5 cups of water. After cooling, we dumped the goop into a 6.5 gallon carboy and racked the rest of the stout on top of it. Prior to doing this the stout had reached a gravity of 1024. It was definitely on the sweet side to begin with, so I hope the added flavors aren't cloying (though I realize pretty much all of the added sugars are highly fermentable). One thing I noticed in sampling the stout pre-racking is that my decision to cut out the roast barley in favor of chocolate malt definitely took off that roasty edge. Time will tell if that was a good call or not.

Anyway, that's it for now. Stay tuned to find out how the hell we chill our beer in the future. Or if you happen to have a wort chiller laying around that you don't want, we accept donations! Cheers!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Final analysis: White Riot Gluten-Free Belgian Wit

My buddy Pete (who's unfortunately restricted to a gluten-free diet) came over for the Super Bowl, and beforehand I busted out my case of White Riot Belgian Wit, which was brewed with sorghum extract. Lo and behold, after setting aside a 12-pack for him, I was left with only three bottles. I'm planning on dropping two off at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, which means I only have one bottle left for myself! Well, that means it's time to do a final analysis on this brew. So here it goes:

Style: Belgian Witbier/Sorghum beer. Original gravity: 1052. Final gravity: 1017. ABV: 4.6%.

Appearance: Very effervescent, but with big bubbles like seltzer water. A thick white head, but one that rapidly disappears, again like seltzer. I sort of expected this, given what I've read about sorghum. Color is very similar to grapefruit juice... it's sort of gold, sort of peach, and cloudy. Close to a traditional Witbier, but just a tad milky.

Smell: Aroma is dominated by the coriander. A little sugar sweet, with no citrus notes.

Taste: Again, a spiciness up front that seems to come from the coriander. This gives way to a cane sugar sweetness with a touch of citrus that quickly turns to an almost apricot-like bite. A slightly sour finish with sufficient hop bitterness to keep the beer from being sweet. The apricot taste--and a bit of sourness--lingers on the tongue after you swallow.

Mouthfeel: It's a bit thin, as one would expect from the lack of head, but really not as thin as I would have guessed. Really not that bad, and I would argue appropriate for the style.

Drinkability: Definitely a sessionable beer. The touch of sourness works well with the sweeter qualities of the beer, leaving it refreshing and thirst-quenching. Would be a great summer beer.

Overall: I would have to say I'm pretty happy with how this turned out. While I think most beer aficionados would still note something a little "off," I think that the style works well with the limitations of the sorghum, as I expected. I would also, ideally, like to improve the head retention, but I feel like if I added any more maltodextrin the beer would be too sweet, so I think I'm stuck. Fortunately, I don't think it's that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

Now, while I generally don't do side-by-side comparisons with my beers, I'd like to do so in this case because 1.) I'm dealing with a whole new ingredient (sorghum) and 2.) I'm not as familiar with Belgian Wits as I am certain other styles. So anyway, to help us out I popped open a bottle of Great Lakes Holy Moses white ale. The aroma on the Great Lakes was a bit more citrusy, which backs up my initial thought that I'd like to up the sweet orange peel. As for the taste, well, it's just more "beery." It actually has a little more hop character to it, so maybe that's what I'm picking up. It also has a little more mouthfeel to it as well.

Anyway, I guess my thoughts at this point are to up the hops a tad and up the sweet orange peel as well the next time I brew this. In the meantime, I think it's pretty good for a first try. Cheers!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Happiness is...

...waking up the day after brewing and seeing this:

I was a little nervous about fermentation between the low pitching temp and the high original gravity, but fortunately I made a starter. Looks like the yeasties took off just fine.

And while I'm posting pictures, here's a cool picture Leah took during yesterday's brew:

A couple of notes I wanted to add with respect to yesterday's recipe. First, my LHBS (i.e. local homebrew shop) didn't have British mild malt, so I substituted 2 lb. crystal malt (10 L) and 2.5 lb. pale malt for the 4.5 lb. mild malt that the recipe called for. Also, as one might expect with the current hop shortage, I had to get creative with the hop bill. So I used Columbus hops for bittering and Liberty hops for finishing. I figure since these are flavored stouts the hop varietals shouldn't make a big difference so long as they're not obtrusive (like using, say, cascade hops for finishing).

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Brew Day: Cherry Caray Stout / Cocoa Puffs Stout

Well, it's been nearly four months since we last did an all-grain brew (and we've only done one extract brew--our gluten-free Belgian wit--in between), but we finally dusted off the ol' mash tun to brew our double-feature Cherry Caray Stout and Cocoa Puffs Stout. For today, all we're doing is brewing a sweet stout. The real fun comes in a couple weeks when we split the batch for the secondary fermentation, adding Michigan cherries to one half and Cocoa Puffs (yes, Cocoa Puffs) to the other. We brewed an extract version of this with good, but not great, results a while back. This time we're implementing some changes. For today, the main change is we're going all-grain. I'm using the grain bill from our None More Buzzed coffee stout as a base, but I'm substituting chocolate malt for roast barley to get more chocolate flavor, and I'm ramping it up to get the original gravity around 1070.

With temps hovering around freezing, there were a few challenges today. As I've mentioned before, I've had issues hitting my mash temp, and I was even more concerned with the cold weather. What I ended up doing was sort of a backwards version of what my buddy Ted does. I heated my strike water to 170°F (my target was 154°F) and filled the mash tun. To my surprise, when the tun was about a quarter full the water was only reading in the 140s. As the water drained from my brew kettle, I turned the burner back on to get the remaining strike water hotter. When I had all but a gallon drained into the mash tun, I added the grain. At this point the remaining gallon was boiling. After I mashed in the grain, I took a measurement and found I was around 145°. I then added boiling water until I hit my target temp. I closed the mash tun and covered it with a couple blankets.

At a half-hour, I took a measurement and was pleased to see it was still at 153°F. I think I finally found a method that works! I stirred the mash and covered it again. My propane ran out while heating my sparge water, so I ended up with a 1.5 hour conversion rest instead of the planned 1 hour, but even after 1.5 hours I was only down to 151°F. I added 1/2 tsp. of acid blend to the strike water and prepared to sparge.

While sparging I ran into my first problem. I was trying to pay close attention to my sparge rate, and I was trying to start off slow, but it seemed REALLY slow. After about 2o minutes I had only drawn off one gallon. Then I noticed something. After draining the sparge water out of the kettle, I had left the valve open, which is why it seemed like the kettle was barely filling. Fortunately, I left the end of the drainage hose in a pot, and the wort was draining into the pot. (I probably would've noticed right away if it were just spilling onto the garage floor). So there were really only three possible issues with my oversight: 1.) my sparge rate was a little goofy, and in the end it only took 45 minutes; 2.) there was a little water in the pot into which the wort drained, so the wort may have been ever so slightly diluted; and 3.) I had to pour the wort back into my brew kettle, risking possible hot-side aeration (though I was careful to pour back slowly).

The boil was uneventful. Unfortunately, while cooling I ran into my second problem. I was using an immersion chiller, figuring it was really cold out and the wort would chill quickly. After giving my hose a hot shower (hey, I had to thaw it somehow), I started chilling the wort but after about a half hour it was still around 90°F. Of course, I knew it would be cooler in the bottom of the kettle, so I drew a little wort from the spigot and took the temperature. 40°F. Oh crap. I siphoned half of the wort into the carboys (I did a 7.5 gallon batch, so I used a 6.5 and a 5-gallon carboy) and then re-heated the remaining wort to around 80°F to get the temp close to 65°F. Fortunately I made a yeast starter so I'm hoping it will take off okay. I figure I may have disrupted the cold break by re-heating the wort, but since it's a stout it shouldn't be that big of a deal.

The good news is my final gravity was 1080... 10 points higher than target! Why is this good? Well, as documented before on this blog, I have had efficiency problems, so I drew up my recipe with an efficiency of 66%. Turns out I was right around 75% this time! So the end result is a big stout, which should work well with both styles we'll be doing.

Overall, I think today was a big step forward in honing my all-grain technique. Stay tuned for the next step... adding the goodies in the secondary!