Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Gin makes you sin (or so I'm told)

Three* awesome things about beer: 1.) It's usually cheap enough that you can take a chance on a beer you've never heard of; 2.) even if you don't want to commit to a 6-pack, you can always go to a bar and order a pint; and 3.) even if you can't find a pint at your local watering hole, there are countless websites where you can read reviews of beers.

I'm not that big of a hard liquor guy (though I have been getting into whisky lately) but I like to have a decently-stocked liquor cabinet. I've always enjoyed gin and tonics, and my brother-in-law is a big gin guy, so I like to keep a good gin on hand. But what's a good gin? I tried to find a good website with gin reviews but failed. So I had to go with plan b, which was assume that a more expensive gin is a good gin.

The first good gin I ended up buying was Citadelle, which is a French gin. Do the French make good gin? How the hell should I know? It was $30, which seemed to be a good price point for something above Tanqueray. After I got home, I found I liked it, so that was a good thing. I'm running low on that gin, so the other day I was at my local liquor store and picked up a bottle of North Shore Distiller's Gin #6. North Shore is Illinois' first craft distillery so I figured I'd give them a shot.

Anyway, I have a little Citadelle left, and I also have some Seagram's gin left, so I figured it's a good time for a tasting. To make things a little more interesting, I decided to do the tasting blind. Here are the results:

GIN #1:

Okay, one whiff and I realized this is going to be tough. It smells like . . . gin. I know, I'm gonna have to do better than that. This one has the requisite juniper berry aroma, but it also has a good dose of lemon zest.

Taking a sip, the citrus comes to the fore. There's a little sweetness and a slight alcohol burn in the finish. Definitely a gin I could sip.

GIN #2:

This one smells a little more aggressive; a little more solvent-like. There's still some juniper, but no citrus.

The flavor on this one is kind of hard to peg. It's sweet and spicy, but I'm having trouble pegging the spice. While the aroma is juniper, the taste is a little more complex. A nice clean finish. I wouldn't say I like this one more or less than Gin #1, but I would consider it to be more traditional, at least in terms of what I think of when I think of gin.

GIN #3:

Again, I'm not picking up any lemon. Like Gin #2, there's some a pine-like aroma, but it's much more subdued.

Taking a sip, the first thing I notice is it's much more aggressive and sharp than the other two. It finishes with a fairly harsh burn. Frankly, I'd be surprised if this wasn't the Seagram's.

And now, time for the reveal. Gin #1 is . . . SEAGRAM'S! Gin #2 is Citadelle, and Gin #3 is North Shore. This really surprises me, as I was sure #1 was North Shore. When I first got the North Shore I did a side-by-side with it and Citadelle and thought North Shore had a much more pronounced citrus flavor. As such, as soon as I picked up the lemon this time around, I was positive it was North Shore.

So what can I conclude from this? Well, I'm not going to knock North Shore. It's a little higher proof as compared to Seagram's (90 proof vs. 80 proof) which might contribute to the burn, and the more complex spices might make the gin a better mixer with tonic. Plus, I'm an idiot when it comes to hard liquor.

What it does make me question, however, is if premium gins are worth the price. If you compare Jim Beam bourbon to, say, Buffalo Trace, there's no comparison. The fact that Seagram's didn't smack me across the face and say, "Yo! I suck!" tells me that, at one third the price of Citadelle or North Shore, it's a hell of a deal.

Anyway, that concludes my fun with gin. And now, back to beer!

* Obviously there are countless cool things about beer. I'm just mentioning three relevant to this post.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Brew day: 59° Fahrenheit Maibock

So I was planning on brewing our Maibock yesterday, but the night before we went out to celebrate my 31st birthday. For some reason, after enjoying Metropolitan Kränkshaft, Sam Adams Noble Pils, Hofbräu Maibock, a shot of Underberg, some Würzburger lager that I swear was unfiltered, Schlenkerla Fastenbier, a shot of Malört, Flossmoor Station Pullman Brown Ale and Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold (I think; I can't guarantee the accuracy of the last beer I ordered), I didn't feel like brewing the next day. So I postponed the brew day until today, and since both Dorrie and Jonas came down with pinkeye this weekend (ah, the joys of parenting), we skipped church and I was able to get somewhat of an early start.

The brew day was rather uneventful for the most part, and Leah was too busy with the kids to take pictures, so I'll just give you the highlights... I mashed in around noon and, for the second brew day in a row, came in waaaay low on my mash-in temp (150°F instead of 156). I'm not sure what's up with that, but I decided to roll with it. To somewhat make up for that, I did a 2-gallon decoction for the mashout instead of a 1-gallon decoction (which, last time I brewed this, left me with a mashout temp of 162°F instead of the target 168). After a 15-minute decoction I returned it and started recirculating ten minutes later.

Oh yeah... one other small problem I had. The accidentally disconnected the hose that runs from my hot liquor tank to my mash tun and, as a result, lost about a half gallon of sparge water. Coincidentally, I ended up collecting about a half-gallon too little wort. But beyond that, the rest of the day went pretty smoothly. I did a healthy 90-minute boil with hop additions at 60 minutes, 20 minutes, five minutes and knock-out. I chilled to somewhere between 45 and 50°F and pitched a healthy amount of yeast slurry courtesy of Metropolitan brewing. I hit my target gravity right on the nose: 1070.

I will be shocked if we don't have fermentation by the time I wake up tomorrow morning. In the meantime, a couple of other beer notes... First of all, our Christmas ale kicked and I replaced it in our kegerator with our Road House Red. Second, I finally kegged our 1908 Old Ale which is unfortunately only down to 1022 (lately my beers all seem to finish high). I put a half gallon into a growler with some dry malt extract (the extra extract will make it 50% extract, which is the minimum for an extract competition our homebrew club is holding), somewhere between 2.5 and 3 gallons into a 3-gallon carboy which will be oaked and bottled, and the rest into the Lovejoy keg. Third, I learned that the Metropolitan I-Beam Altbier (which I helped brew--more here) should be hitting bars as soon as later this week. You can be sure I'll post more here when I know about it. And finally, I learned that our Gust Front Leipzig-style Wheat (a.k.a. Leipziger Gose) took second place in the specialty beer category of the BOSS Chicago Cup Challenge; I'll go ahead and ignore the other beers we entered that didn't win.

And now, on this relaxing Sunday night, I have actual work (as in, for my actual employer that signs my paychecks) to do. As my daughter would say: "bummer."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Pro Brewer for a Day; Fool for a Lifetime

(That's me on the left and brewmaster Doug Hurst on the right. Didn't know that the pros wear safety glasses and rubber gloves just to check the original gravity? They absolutely do. Safety first!)

As I've discussed before on this blog, I tricked Doug and Tracy Hurst of Metropolitan Brewing into thinking I'm some sort of Altbier expert (I mean, I've been to Düsseldorf and read Horst Dornbusch's book on Altbier; that's enough, right?), and as such they asked me to serve as a consultant for their spring seasonal, I-Beam Alt. Well, after helping them brew a test batch back in January, I took a day off of work today and trekked up to Ravenswood to help them brew 22 barrels of Alt. Yes, for one day I got to pretend I am a professional brewer.

So how did it go? Well, things didn't start off too well. My plan was to take one train that arrives on the south side of downtown Chicago and walk across the loop to a train that leaves from the north side of downtown and ends up four blocks from Metro. Unfortunately, I decided to stop at a Dunkin Donuts between the first and second trains and they took forever to make a frickin' egg, bacon and cheese wrap. As such, I missed the second train, and the next one wasn't leaving for two hours. So I had to walk over to the el, which meant much more walking and me arriving 45 minutes late.

Once I got to the brewery, I discovered that I forgot the power cord for my laptop. I also discovered that my camera didn't have a memory card in it. This ended up being a moot point as my camera battery was also dead. You'll notice I don't have a ton of pics from today; that's why. (Fortunately, Leah and the kids stopped by later in the evening and Leah had her camera, so we got a few pics.)

Anyway, after those initial problems, the brew day itself went fairly smoothly. I had heard from my pro brewer friends that most of large-scale brewing is cleaning, and they are pretty much right. If I screw up a 5-gallon batch, I waste a few hours and maybe $30. If a pro gets an infected batch they're losing a lot more than that, so there's lots of cleaning going on. Of course, they do have a few gadgets that make things easier, namely drains in the floor and a hose with scalding-hot water. Man, would that be awesome if I could have those in my garage!

The brewing process itself wasn't that different from homebrewing except that most tasks could be completed by moving a hose, opening a valve and throwing a switch for a pump. It was definitely nice to simply turn on a pump to recirculate rather than collecting four cups in a pyrex measuring cup and dumping it back into the mash tun.

The one thing that was definitely harder on a pro scale? Cleaning out the mash tun. For starters, you have to shovel out over 300 lbs. of spent grain. But after shoveling out most of it, getting the last bits of grain out of there is a real pain in the ass. The next time I brew at home and clean out my mash tun by dumping out the grains into a trash bag, filling it with hot water, and then dumping it back out, I'll appreciate just how easy that is.

In the end, I'm pretty excited about the Alt. The test batch had a small addition of chocolate malt and a significant flavor hop addition, both of which aren't exactly to style and it definitely showed in the results. For today's brew, we got rid of the chocolate malt and cut down on the flavor hop addition. The end recipe ended up almost the same as the Alt I brewed last year that I really liked, so I'm hoping this one will be a crowd-pleaser as well. If you live in or near Chicago, you'll be able to find I-Beam Alt at your favorite watering hole right around April 1st (no foolin').

So that was my day as a pro brewer. As of tomorrow, it's back to my normal life as a mild-mannered reporter for a large metropolitan law firm. At least my co-workers like beer. :-)

P.S. The firkin you see to the left is not being filled with the Alt (since it was just brewed) but rather with Metro's Flywheel Bright Lager, which will soon be available on cask, Kellerbier-style, at Revolution Brewing on Chicago's North Side.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Brew day: 1908 Old Ale

It seems like with most homebrewers the first thing they want to do is go big. It's like the saying goes: "Life begins at 60... 1060." However, since Leah and I gravitate towards German beers, most of our brews are relatively tame--at least as far as gravity is concerned. Rarely do we cross the 1070 threshold, and prior to adding extra fermentables (such as cherries or honey) in the secondary, I don't believe we've ever brewed a beer over 1080.

Well, that changed today. I had been thinking of brewing an old ale or barleywine for a while now, and then my buddy Mark said he too was thinking of brewing one. Perfect! Well, I've always felt that the line between old ales and barleywines (at least English-style ones) is blurred, so I decided to shoot for a target gravity of 1080, which straddles both styles. And thus, 1908 Old Ale was born.

Mark and his wife Marlowe came over to brew with us, and my good friend Lovey (who is transitioning from partial mash to all-grain) stopped by to lend a hand as well. As has been documented on this site before, our pump is sort of wonky, and it ended up giving us some problems early on. Actually, our initial problem was with the hose (I think all the repeated clamping had caused it to seal poorly, which meant it took forever to drain into our mash tun, at which point the temperature had dropped quite a bit). The end result was our initial mash-in temp at around 10:30am was 144°F instead of 154°F, so we quickly boiled a gallon of water and added it to the tun (dumping instead of draining, as you can see to the right) to get the mash temperature to around 151°F.

After that we ran into one more problem when the pump started to crap out pumping up to the hot liquor tank. Fortunately, it turns out that when you have two grown men to lift the hot liquor tank, it's really not that hard, so we were able to get things ready to sparge without too much effort.

We started recirculating at noon, and by 12:15pm we began sparging. By 1:45 we had collected 12.5 gallons and at 1:50 we reached boil and added our hops.

Shortly after boil, we had a boil-over which, in and of itself, was no big deal (after five years of brewing, I've had more boil-overs than I can remember, and since moving to brewing outside I really don't give it a second thought). However, my 85-lb. Collie mix Ogie decided he wanted to lap up the spilled wort which was under the brew kettle. Next thing I know Mark exclaims, "Oh, crap. Your dog's on fire!" Fortunately, it was just a small portion of his fur which was singed, but damn did it smell bad!

After insuring that my dog was extinguished, we went on to add 9 lb. of malt extract around 2:15 (my mash tun isn't big enough to brew ten gallons of 1080 wort, thus the extract). We added some Irish moss at 2:35 and killed the heat at 2:50. It was cold enough that chilling was a piece of cake, and by 3:10 we had collected roughly 12 gallons of wort at 66°F. Our gravity came out at 1084 and we pitched gobs of yeast slurry which was generously provided to us by Bryan Shimkos at Flossmoor Station.

Despite the complications at the beginning of the brew day and the canine immolation, the brew day went pretty smoothly overall. Afterwards we watched The Nightman Cometh Live on DVD and then headed out to Flossmoor Station for dinner. Beautiful weather, great friends, great beer and dinner at a great brewpub. What more could you ask for?

Friday, March 05, 2010

FotoFriday #21

Dark Horse Brewing Company, Marshall, Michigan.