Monday, November 24, 2008

On the subjectivity of beer evaluation

A while back I had an online discussion with a BeerAdvocate member about homebrew competitions. I was arguing that the evaluations in homebrew competitions are largely arbitrary. Don't get me wrong... I think a beer that clearly falls outside of the style guidelines will never win. However, assuming it falls within the basic guidelines (and I would guess most beers entered in competitions do), I believe the difference between a winning and non-winning beer is too subjective to be repeatable from one competition to the next. He (a BJCP certified judge, I should add) disagreed and argued that the same beers would indeed rise to the top regardless of who the judges are.

Exhibit A in my argument that beer judging is largely arbitrary? Offhand I can recall four beers we've brewed that have won ribbons at homebrew competitions: our Gose which somehow won a best of show, our Sticke Altbier and Schwarzbier, both of which took first place awards, and our premium American lager which won a second-place ribbon. Each of those beers was entered in at least one other competition. None of them won a second ribbon (and with at least two of those beers the ribbon was won in a competition with a larger number of entries, so it's not just a matter of winning smaller, easier competitions).

Exhibit B? I recently entered our Altbier in the CBS Spooky Brew Review. While they still haven't posted results a month later (not cool, by the way), somebody posted unofficial results and assuming he's not full of crap our Altbier didn't win anything. The funny thing is I think it's the best beer we've ever brewed, both in terms of fitting the style guidelines and in terms of overall quality. Yet it didn't even finish in the top three out of six measly beers. Now I haven't gotten the score sheets back, so it's possible a bottle got infected or oxidized. But assuming the judges tasted the same beer I've been drinking, I can only conclude that our tastes are different. And that's not a knock on the judges; that's just the nature of subjectivity.

Now, fast-forward to this past Saturday and our annual Novemberfest party for Exhibit C. We served my beloved Altbier, our tried-and-true Hefeweizen, and an Oktoberfest beer that finished fermentation at WAY too high of a temperature, leaving it with a fairly pronounced clove phenolic. I seriously contemplated not serving it, that's how bad I thought it was. Well, only one keg got tapped at our party and guess which one it was? You guessed it, the Oktoberfest. I had one neighbor insist it was the best beer she'd ever had. Now obviously this is a different situation than a BJCP-certified competition, but still, I couldn't help but be struck by the irony that the beer I almost dumped down the drain was the most popular with my friends.

Anyway, is there a point to this? I'm not sure. So I'm going to cop out and end with a Simpsons quote:
Lisa: Perhaps there is no moral to this story.
Homer: Exactly! It's just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Marge: But it certainly was a memorable few days.
Homer: Amen to that!
[The family laughs]

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Novemberfest Line-up

Here's what'll be on tap at Saturday's Novemberfest party:

Step Leader Hefeweizen – This is a classic Bavarian wheat beer is popular with both beer geeks and un-geeks alike. A favorite since the very first Novemberfest back in 2004, it’s light and refreshing with hints of banana and clove. Feel like you’re in Munich without ever leaving Chicago!

Hoar Frost Oktoberfest – Perhaps we should call it a Novemberfest beer rather than an Oktoberfest beer because it’s not exactly true to the style. Unlike a traditional Oktoberfest Maerzen, this beer was brewed in the steam beer tradition, leaving it with a unique clove flavor in addition to the bready, toasty flavors associated with Oktoberfest beers. Ein Prosit!

F5 Altbier – For those who like their beers hoppy, this amber-colored Duesseldorf-style ale is as good as it gets. But F5 Altbier isn’t a one-trick pony; it also has a subtle but complex malt profile with hints of sweetness and roastiness resulting from the liberal use of Munich malt. This style may be virtually non-existent here in the States, but there’s a reason this ale continues to flourish in the North Rheinland region while lagers have taken over everywhere else.

Swearengen’s Old Tyme Root Beer – I don’t understand it, but on occasion some people choose to drink beverages other than beer. As such, we’re proud to offer Swearengen’s Old Tyme Root Beer. Heavy on the brown sugar and vanilla with a hint of maple syrup, Al Swearengen himself would be willing to serve it at the Gem Saloon if it had been around back then.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Novemberfest this Saturday!

So I'm pretty sure everybody in Chicago who reads this blog knows, but in case there are any lurkers out there our Novemberfest party is this Saturday and any and all homebrewer/beer enthusiasts are welcome to stop by. If you're interested, drop me a line at rchibe gmail com.

On a side note, if you're in my homebrew club (or the Chicago Composers Forum, for that matter) and this is news to you, I can explain. We planned this event for the 22nd well over two months ago. Unfortunately, between the time that we planned it and the time that we announced it, both of the not-for-profits on which I'm a board member decided to hold events the same evening. I didn't want to detract from either event so I simply chose not to invite people from either organization. So if you're reading this and wondering why you weren't invited, now you know. Obviously I'd love to have people from both organizations in attendance, but not at the expense of the fine events already on the calendar.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Brew Day: F6 Sticke Altbier and Snow Squall Christmas Ale

Let me just say right off that bat that, no, I did not brew twice today. Technically, I brewed eight gallons of my F6 Sticke Alt. However, three to four of those eight gallons are going to be aged on vanilla beans to make this year's Christmas Ale. So with that being said, here's a recap of the brew day...

Due to a morning appointment, I didn't get started until 1pm. Fortunately, things went pretty smoothly. But before I get into today, a couple things to note. First, those of you who know me know I have this thing with Sticke Altbier. Indeed, the first ribbon Leah and I won was for our Sticke when it took first place in the Specialty Beer category at the Drunk Monk Challenge in 2006. Funny thing is, since then I've learned a lot more about Altbier and I decided that the 2006 variety was not really authentic or to style. Far too many caramel/crystal and roast grains and not bitter enough. Given that I'm really, really happy with how my last batch of F5 Altbier came out, I decided I'd go back to that recipe and retool it.

Oddly enough, when I dug up the old recipe, I found it wasn't really that far off from my regular Alt recipe. For sure it had some specialty grains where my regular Alt had only a touch of Caramunich, but over all it was much closer than I remembered. As such, all I did to change the recipe was increase the Munich malt while reducing the Pils malt, substitute Caramunich III and Chocolate Wheat malt for the Crystal 60L and Belgian Chocolate malts in my old recipe, and ditch the 0.1 lb of black patent malt in my original recipe. Still not 100% compliant with Düsseldorf tradition, but then again neither is Uerige. The one other thing I did was up the hops a tad (putting it right between the IBU's for Uerige's Sticke and Doppelsticke, as the gravity of this one is right between those two beers as well).

The other thing to note is I was a little worried about the capacity of my mash tun, so at the last second I decided to scale down my recipe from 10 gallons to 8. I ended up with some room to spare so I probably could have gotten away with 10, but I may have had to go with a slightly thicker mash than the 1.5 quarts/lb. I prefer for decoction schedules.

So onto the brew day. I went with the Green Bay Rackers mash calculator at mashed in at 135°F with a target protein rest of 125°F and was right on. I pulled a 14-qt. decoction (adding 1/4 tsp. acid blend each to the mash tun and decoction) which took fifteen minutes to reach boil. After a vigorous 15-minute boil I added the decoction back to the mash tun. This initially brought the temp up over 160°F, but after stirring for five to ten minutes the temp came down to 157°F, a couple degrees higher than my target but not too crazy so I went ahead and let it rest. Forty-five minutes later the temp had only dropped 1° and my 4.5 gallons of sparge water were ready to go.

I recirculated for fifteen minutes and then proceeded to sparge. An hour and fifteen minutes later the mash tun ran dry. Unfortunately I had only collected 9.25 gallons instead of the intended 10. I've had similar problems in the past and from now on I think I'll add a gallon to the volume of sparge water recommended by Beersmith. Because of the change in volume, I scaled down my hop quantities just a tad. For bittering hops I went with German Magnum hops that caught my attention. At 13.6 AA, they're huge by German standards, but they still smelled fairly aromatic. To the 2 oz. of German Magnum hops I added 1 oz. of Northern Brewer hops at 8.5% AA. These were 60-minute additions.

At the end of my 90-minute boil, I added two ounces of Spalt hops for aroma. Chilling was fine and I pitched a 900mL starter of White Labs 029. I came in right at my target original gravity of 1069. Unfortunately, with my yield being about a gallon short I'm guessing I would've come short had I had enough sparge water. As such, I'm not about to declare I hit my target efficiency of 75%. Oh well, no biggie.

Anyway, I think that's about it. I was done in six hours which isn't too shabby. I'm really curious to see how this turns out, both with and without the vanilla. In the meantime, it looks like I'll have a busy brewing schedule coming up. I have to brew the baby beer (Dunkelweizen) by Christmas, I'd like to brew another light lager--possibly a Helles--soon (maybe January?), I'll need to brew for St. Patrick's Day in February, and by March I'll probably have to brew my Black Belgian Wit for a Chicago Composers Forum fundraiser. Hopefully I can get it all done! Hey, it sure beats working, right?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Operation Dunkelweizen: Tasting Phase (part one)

As I may have explained before, Leah and I are expecting our second child (a son) on Valentine's Day. As we did when Dorrie was born, we'll be handing out bottles of homebrew rather than cigars. We've decided on Dunkelweizen for the style because we want something that's 1.) appealing to beer geeks, 2.) accessible to non-beer-geeks, and 3.) somewhat wintery. Seems to me that Dunkelweizen fits the bill.

While we've brewed a partial-mash Weizenbock in the past (and it was quite popular... one batch even winning a first-place ribbon for Leah and our good friend Marta at the Queen of Beer competition), we've never brewed a regular Weizenbock before, and there are few commercial examples being brewed here in the U.S. While my first inclination is to simply scale down our Weizenbock to the gravity of a regular Weizen, I thought I would use this as an excuse to sample some German Weizenbocks. Tonight I'm tasting Erdinger Weissbier Dunkel and Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel. Here are my thoughts...

Right away, there's a clear difference in appearance. Erdinger pours a dark chestnut, almost black, color while the Weihenstephaner is a muddy, dark caramel color. Likewise the aromas are distinct. The Weihenstephaner has that classic, yeasty Hefeweizen smell with clove predominating. The Erdinger, on the other hand, has more of a grainy, slightly roasty aroma I would expect from a Schwarzbier.

Taking a sip of the Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel, I'm greeted with more spicy clove up front. A bready maltiness follows, and the finish has a dry quality resulting from the unfiltered yeast. I suppose there's a bit of Munich toastiness in it, but in all honesty the difference between this and a regular Hefeweizen is quite minimal. In fact, I wonder if I would even identify it as a Dunkel in a blind tasting.

Moving on to the Erdinger Weissbier Dunkel, here you get some roastiness up front (likely from de-husked Carafa malts, as there's no noticeable bitterness) followed by a slightly subdued maltiness. Like the Weihenstephaner, the finish is on the dry side, but it seems more roasty and less yeasty. Interestingly enough, while the Weihenstephaner seems very similar to a regular Hefeweizen, the Erdinger almost seems completely lacking in Hefeweizen character save a slight clove note here and there.

So overall, here's what I learned from this tasting. I definitely want a noticeable Hefeweizen character like the Weihenstephaner, but I want it to be more distinctly "Dunkel." At the same time, I don't want it to be as dark and roasty as the Erdinger just because some non-beer-geeks (like my mom) freak out when presented with such dark beers. As such, at this point my thought is to have something with a strong Hefe character like Weihenstephaner but that has a unique character like Erdinger. Unlike Erdinger, however, I think I want to use less dark malt and more crystal malts to give it a more caramelly, chocolately flavor. So after tasting these two beers, I'm still leaning towards my initial idea of scaling down my Weizenbock recipe. Look for me to try two more Dunkels later this week...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Brew day (sort of): Swearengen's Old Tyme Root Beer

So it's been a while since I made root beer, but now that my brand new kegerator's just about up and running (look for a blog post on the topic soon) I want to have some sort of pop on tap. Unlike many homebrewers I like my root beer on the sweet side (I've had some craft root beers that were downright medicinal and I'm definitely not going for that), and I'm not about to boil my own roots and herbs (at least not yet). As such, my recipe for Swearengen's Old Tyme Root Beer is pretty simple on the whole. I use Gnome root beer extract and just mess with the types of sugars I use. For this batch I went with the following to make 2.5 gallons:

0.75 c maple syrup (10% of sugar bill)
1.25 c dark brown sugar (25%)
3.25 c cane sugar (65%)
4 T. Gnome root beer extract
1 tsp. vanilla extract

I heated everything together in 4 pts. of water, yielding 6 pts. of syrup. I then dumped that in a carboy and topped it off with 14 more pts. of water to get me to 2.5 gallons.

A few thoughts on this one... First, I may have gone a hair too sweet on this one. I'm thinking of maybe cutting the overall sugar content by 15-20% next time and seeing how it goes. Another thing is I'm curious to try side-by-side root beers with and without the maple syrup. I absolutely love all things maple, but that much maple syrup runs close to $5 in my neck of the woods, so you're talking a price difference of $10 for a full keg, which is hardly insubstantial. Finally, I'm thinking I might double the vanilla next time. I'm somewhat hesitant to implement all these changes at once (which is why I'm only doing 2.5-gallon batches at this point) so I'll have to think about what I want to do next.

One final note... I sort of did a half-assed job of carbonating this one. I carbed at 25 psi, but not for very long so it's a little on the flat side. Nonetheless, I'm thinking 25 psi is a good target pressure. I just happened to stop by an A&W over the weekend and the guy there told me they force carb at 42 psi. I'm thinking they must put it under that much pressure for a short period of time because that just seems WAY too high based on my experience. Anyway, if you're craving a good root beer float and you're in Chicago, drop me a line. Cheers!

P.S. The one other soft drink I would love to have on tap is a clone of Barq's Red Cream Soda. My initial thought is to simply make cream soda (also available from Gnome) and just add grenadine, but if anybody has some insight please share!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Oktoberfest beers: a Cheesehead cage match

So I don't usually blog tastings of other beers (since this is--technically--my brewing log), but I find myself at my parents' cottage in Wisconsin with time to kill before the Blackhawks-Blue Jackets game and cold bottles of both Capital Oktoberfest and New Glarus Staghorn Octoberfest in the fridge, so what choice do I have but to review them?

Before I get to the showdown, I'll preface it by noting that every fall I seem to find one Oktoberfest beer (or Märzen if you want to get technical) that catches my fancy. Last year it was Mendocino's Oktoberfest, which caught me off-guard because I generally don't think of California as a producer of German-style lagers. This year I've been enjoying Left Hand Oktoberfest Märzen, which has a nice malty quality while being toasty but not overly so. I also had the pleasure of enjoying a Mönschof Festbier (which I suspect was actually Kulmbacher Festbier) on tap at Jak's Tap. Unlike the other Oktoberfest beers discussed here, which are export-style Oktoberfest beers (basically a ramped up Vienna Lager), Mönschof's (or Kulmbacher's) is in the local German tradition where it's a stronger Munich Helles, sort of in between a Helles and a Maibock. I was really impressed with the beer but I suspect it wouldn't travel well so you'll have to hope you're lucky enough to score a mug on tap.

Anyway, on to the beers at issue... Capital vs. New Glarus, two breweries I really respect that can absolutely nail a good German lager. As far as appearance is concerned, the two poured a nearly identical deep amber color with ample off-white head. Upon closer inspection the New Glarus variety appeared just a hair darker, but it was pretty much a draw.

Taking a whiff of each, I noted the Capital offering had a strong grainy Pils malt aroma with a touch of herbal noble hops. New Glarus's was a little sweeter, suggesting some crystal or at the very least Munich malts, with little hop aroma to speak of.

Now for the taste... Capital's wasn't as malty as I would have expected from the brewers of the infamous Blonde Doppelbock. It's a very refreshing beer that certainly has a malt backbone but actually finishes a little dry. It's not particularly sweet; it has some toasted notes but no real brown sugar or cotton candy notes you get from liberal use of caramel malts. In my book that's a good thing (at least when it comes to German-style beers). The hops were just there enough to keep the beer from being cloying, but certainly they didn't get in the way.

As for the New Glarus, it had just a hint of residual sweetness I didn't find in Capital's. Like Capital's, it was slightly malty but not overly so, leaving it just as drinkable. It was clean, but finished with a bit more hop bite than Capital's, even leaving just a slight twang of grapefruit in the finish (not in a cascade hop sort of way, but more like what I've tasted in certain German Altbiers and my own Alt bitter-hopped with Northern Brewer hops).

So, in the end I'm going to steal a page from the world of soccer and call this one a draw. Both are smooth, drinkable and balanced. New Glarus's may be a tad more sweet, but it balances it out with a little more hop presence. Overall, I would say both are excellent examples of the export style and worth picking up (especially if you can find one on clearance now as liquor stores try to clear their shelves for winter offerings). Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!