Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Taking Stock

It was just a few days more than a year ago that I brewed the 2012 International Homebrew Project beer, a recreation of Wm Younger's 120/- ale from 1853 (if anyone is interested, the recipe is here). Just after New Year, with my annual booze fast in full swing, I was organising my cellar and discovered that I had a solitary bottle of said beer, tucked away in the back of a case of other homebrew.


Despite the massive shilling rating, the beer was intended, back in the 19th Century, to be drunk young or to use the parlance of the day, 'mild'. Yes indeedy, a 10.7% abv, 90 IBU, Scottish mild was the beer we brewed last year, stick that in your 'traditional' Scottish ale pipe and smoke it. When the appropriate time to drink it arrived, I described it thus:
I was kind of surprised at the colour of the beer, a deep, entrancing amber which failed to form a head, though swirling the glass after the initial mouthful produced a decent layer of firm, whipped cream type foam. The aroma was a heady mix of grass, spice, perhaps a touch of tobacco and a little background alcohol. Drinking it though was quite a shock, thoroughly, thoroughly bitter, but at the same time a juicy malt biscuity thing make sure the hops didn't rip my tongue out and stomp all over it. The finish was long, as in progressive rock guitar solo long, and bitter, puckering while not being like sucking a lemon. Goodness me, what a lovely beer! The body was positively voluptuous, the mouthfeel a sensual satiny smoothness, like melted chocolate, goodness me this is a beer that could get me into trouble, so dangerously, and temptingly, delicious it is.
With the 2013 IHP beer finally, successfully, bubbling away in the carboy, I decided the time was right to open my final bottle of the 1853 120/- and see how it had aged. In the lingo of the mid 19th Century, the beer was no longer a mild, but rather an 'old' or 'stock' ale.


The beer still poured the same deep amber, topped off with an inch or so of fluffy white head, most of which lingered for the drinking - and I took my time with this one, as I watched something on the Food Network that once again made me wonder why I don't live in Minnesota. The aroma was predominately Seville orange marmelade, with some sweet spice notes, almost like Allspice, and a slight edge of hay, gone was the baccy and booze. Tastewise, big, hefty, dollops of juicy sweetness abounded, backed up with biscuits and caramel, think Twix minus the chocolate, there was just enough of a hop bite to balance the beer, but otherwise the hops were barely noticeable, lingering in the background were a few sherry like notes. The mouthfeel was smooth, almost satiny and the booze was now so well integrated as to be hardly noticeable.

I was sad to see this beer leave the cellar, then I remembered one of the reasons beer kicks the crap out of wine, I can make some more! Which is exactly what I plan to do at some point in the coming months, brew more of it, except this time I will drink half mild and leave myself with half a batch to become stock ale, which can then be added to one of my bitters to make that classic beer blend The Mother-in-Law.

Note: my Mother-in-Law is neither old nor bitter, nor does she live up to the anagram of Mother-in-Law - 'woman Hitler'.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Brewday Disaster

There is a story that when Robert the Bruce was on the run, between 1306 and 1307, he spent some time hiding in a cave on Rathlin Island, off the coast of Northern Ireland. Whilst hiding out, so the story goes, he watched a spider spin a web. and every time the spider failed. Rather than give up and take up quilting, which let's face it spiders are not exactly equipped to do, the spider would begin again until he succeeded. Inspired by the spider, Robert the Bruce returned to Scotland, eventually defeated the English and resumed his reign, which lasted until 1329. The story is told to illustrate the maxim 'if at first you don't succeed, try, try again'.

Today I will be channelling the spirit of that spider as I brew my International Homebrew Project recipe again, though with a couple of changes. Given that the target gravity of the beer is 1.079, I used my 5 gallon cooler as the mash tun on Friday when I initially brewed the beer, rather than my normal smaller one. I am not convinced that my 5 gallon cooler holds the temperature very well, and as such I got terrible conversion and ended up with an original gravity of just 1.044. Having substantially dropped short of my gravity I decided to ferment my wort with a different yeast, and so I have 2.5 gallons bubbling away with Munton's and Fison's Premium dry yeast. Also, the hoping is crazy, calculated at 135 IBU.

The changes I am making for today's brew are really very simple, I am going to do a smaller mash in my 2.5 gallon cooler, which I know holds the temperature very well and gives me about 75% efficiency rather than the 53% of the 5 gallon job. I will then supplement that mash with a couple of pounds of extra light malt extract to reach the target 1.073.

Once I am done, I think I will drink the final bottle of last year's International Homebrew Project which I found in the back of the cellar the other day...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Time To Take Your Pils

Something I had been planning to do for a while was collect a batch of 'Bohemian' Pilsners from various breweries and do a blind tasting. Last night, with not much else to do, I imposed on Mrs V's sweet-hearted nature and sent her up and down the stairs several times to bring me glasses of beer, without telling me which was which. The aim of the tasting was twofold, firstly to decide a ranking for each of the beers in question, and secondly to see if I could correctly identify each one. The five beers in the tasting were:
I took notes using my slightly simplified version of Cyclops, and here are the findings...

Pilsner 1


  • Sight - golden, slightly hazy, thick rocky white head
  • Smell - fresh bread, grass, light lemony citrus
  • Taste - juicy bready malts, sharp citric tang
  • Bitter - 4/5
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Notes - lovely balance between the malt and the hops, medium bodied, long lingering soft bitter finish.

Pilsner 2


  • Sight - light amber to orange, loose rocky white head
  • Smell - heavily grassy, musty, doughy, slight honey note
  • Taste - a little sweetness and a touch of lemon
  • Bitter - 2/5
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Notes - really kind of bland, light-medium bodied and with a watery finish

Pilsner 3


  • Sight - rich golden, inch of rocky white head with loose bubbles
  • Smell - fruity, a touch of bread, something corn like in the background
  • Taste - rather fruity, sweet with cocoa notes and a bit of nuttiness
  • Bitter - 2/5
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Notes - more of a pale ale than a pilsner, slick buttery finish and medium bodied.

Pilsner 4


  • Sight - rich gold to light amber, thin white head
  • Smell - grassy, herbal notes, backed with some bread and a little orange aroma.
  • Taste - rich toasty malts, sweet honeyed edge, firm hop bite
  • Bitter - 3.5/5
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Notes - nicely balanced between the hops and the malt, mouthfeel was crisp and clean with a long lingering bitter finish

Pilsner 5


  • Sight - light amber, half and inch of white head
  • Smell - citrus, lemon/orange, some grass and floral notes, touch of bread, bit of weed
  • Taste - toasted bread, some grass
  • Bitter - 4/5
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Notes - Crisp with a hop bite that smooths out to a slightly sweet finish, medium bodied.

Having got through the 5 beers, though admittedly numbers 2 and 3 didn't get finished, I ranked the beers in order of preference as follows:
  • 1st - Pilsner 1
  • 2nd - Pilsner 4
  • 3rd - Pilsner 5
  • 4th - Pilsner 2
  • 5th - Pilsner 3
When it came to identifying them I went with:
  • Pilsner 1 - Port City Downright Pilsner
  • Pilsner 2 - Staropramen
  • Pilsner 3 - Lagunitas Pils
  • Pilsner 4 - Pilsner Urquell
  • Pilsner 5 - JosephsBrau PLZNR
Happily I was correct in each instance, though Mrs V managed to nip any smug moment in the bud by commenting that 'it's no bloody wonder, you know more about pilsners than most people'.


One thing though that surprised me was how much I liked the Josephsbrau PLZNR, which is Trader Joe's own brand beer, brewed by Gordon Biersch, and costs an insanely cheap $5.99 for a six pack. I really thought it was a pretty decent beer, a tad strong at 5.4%abv, but with 32 IBUs not shying away from the proper hopping level for Czech style pale lagers (one thing guaranteed to piss me off is 'Bohemian lager' with about 20 IBUs). However I need to take issue with the label, which reads:
JosephsBrau PLZNR (Pilsner) is a celebration of noble hops from Central Europe. This style of beer was developed by German brewmaster Josef Groll in 1840 in the town of Plzn (Pilsen), Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) and was the first beer to be brewed golden and clear. This beer's pin-point fine bitterness is perfectly accentuated by its crisp body.
Firstly, if you are going to spell the name of a town in the language of the country the town is it, please do it properly, it is 'Plzeň' in Czech, not 'Plzn', if your printer can't handle the háček over the 'n', use the German name instead rather than mangling something together that, to be frank, makes your marketing people look like rank amateurs.

Secondly, Josef Groll developed the beer that became known to the world as Pilsner Urquell in 1842, not 1840. He brewed the first batch of the beer on October 5th of that year and the first tapping was on November 11th.

Thirdly, the beer brewed by Groll was not the 'first beer to be brewed golden and clear', pale ales had existed in England long before the Bürgerliches Brauhaus decided to use English malting methods to produce pale malt. Sure it might have been the first lager to be 'brewed golden and clear' but not the first beer.

Here endeth the lesson....thanks be to Groll.

Monday, February 18, 2013

In Praise of Hangovers

I guess everyone has their favourite writers, whose works you read on the strength of what you have already read. Whenever Iain Banks has a new novel coming out, I know I will buy it and devour it in a few days, I have his latest book 'Stonemouth' upstairs as I type, ready for when I finish 'The Hemingses of Monticello'. My list of 'must-always read writers' includes Umberto Eco, Nick Hornby and Douglas Coupland. Also on that list is a chap I am very honoured to be able to call my friend, Evan Rail, and it is with a great sense of remiss that I have only recently got round to taking the 45 minutes or so it takes to read his latest Kindle single, In Praise of Hangovers (random thought - if it takes about 33 minutes to read something is it a Kindle LP?).


'In Praise of Hangovers' is a look at the aspect of the drinking world which is common to all drinkers, whether lovers of lager, ale, wine or spirits. Each and every one of us has, at some point, woken up with a splitting headache, a mouth that feels like fur and an unquenchable thirst, not to mention the intention never to drink again, or at least not until the pub opens.

Evan manages to thread together history, science, mythology, anecdote and some wonderful metaphors of the hangover experience in his 30 odd pages - if you don't how the pain of the hangover headache relates to Lev Trotsky then take a quick dash to Wikipedia to find out how that particular revolutionary met his end. There were several occasions when I found myself chuckling away at some point or other that was instantly recognisable in my own hangover experience, though I would add Irn Bru to the list of approved morning after pick me ups.

Like Evan's previous Kindle single, Why Beer Matters, this is a really enjoyable read, and one that I whole heartedly recommend you pop over to Amazon and buy.

Friday, February 15, 2013

IHP 2013 - 1 Week Warning

This is just a friendly reminder for those planning to brew as part of the International Homebrew Project for this year that next weekend is the designated timeframe for brewing Truman's No. 4 Burton Ale.

I will be brewing on Friday, assuming all goes to plan. I have my Cluster hops, my EKG, my London Ale yeast from Wyeast has been fermenting batch 3 of my bitter project this week, and I will be re-pitching it after I bottle the bitter and clean the yeast.

For those who do 5 gallon batches, I have scaled up my recipe on Hopville, you can see it here.

Let me know in the comments if you are planning to brew!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In Praise of Singleness

Last week I walked into one of my favourite pubs in Charlottesville. The barmaid was at the taps pouring a beer, so I took a seat at the bar and allowed myself a cursory glance at the menu, I knew what I wanted. The barmaid turned, wandered in my direction and placed a glass of what I wanted right in front of me and asked how I was doing. For the first time in almost four years I didn't have to ask for a beer, the right one just came. Obviously the barmaid had seen me coming into the pub and knew what I have been drinking most since I finished my booze fast, Samuel Adams Alpine Spring. Being known to that level in a pub is, at least for me, a good thing. So, Tracy at McGrady's I take my hat of to you as a superior practitioner of your craft.

That little vignette of life popped into my head yesterday as a result of a Twitter chat about pubs in Prague. I commented that several of the pubs I would frequent in that most beautiful of cities had just one beer available, usually it was Pilsner Urquell, and how nice it was to be able to go to a pub, know exactly what you wanted to drink and that it would satisfy every time. There would be no umming and ahhing at the beer menu clearly written by Franz Kafka in his most verbose magnificence, no starring blankly at a wall of taps trying to find the needle in an IPA stack that I would actually want to drink. Nope, very simply you walk into the pub, acknowledge the barmaid/man and wait a couple of minutes while he pours you a pint.


One pub in particular, at least in my experience, ticked all the boxes for guaranteeing a good session. Tasty beer, tankové Pilsner Urquell, well kept, they had several awards for the quality of their pour, efficient staff, two fingers to go, here have another and keep 'em coming, a crowd of locals enjoying good beer but primarily enjoying the company of their friends (which is after all the whole point of the pub). That pub was called Bruska, it is up in one of Prague's suburbs, and it is a place I never once regretted going to.

Having a single beer on tap, though admittedly I think they had bottled non-alcoholic Birell, can be one of the most challenging things for a pub to do. Your regulars will come to know the beer very, very well, so you better have a good one. Also, because your regulars will come to know the beer very, very well, you better keep it in tip top condition because they will be able to tell when the lines need a clean or something is just not quite right.

Sure it is nice to go into a drinking hole and have a choice of 25 or 30 taps, assuming of course it isn't just 24 or 29 variants on American pale ale of differing India-ness plus Guinness, but there is much to be said for going to a pub knowing that the beer you will be drinking will hit the spot, every time. That you won't spend time trawling through the beer list and ignoring your friends. That is the mark of a quality pub.

Picture credit: taken from my book 'Pocket Pub Guide to Prague', picture by Mark Stewart.

Monday, February 11, 2013

International Homebrew Project - Water

Those of you planning to take part in this year's International Homebrew Project will know that next weekend, February 24th/25th, is when we will be brewing the 1877 Truman's No. 4 Burton ale which topped the poll I ran last month. Hopefully most of you will already have sourced your ingredients, but a question which has been asked of me several times is in regard to the ingredient most of us tend to take for granted, our water.


Although Truman's is best known as a London brewery, they did have a Burton operation and it was there that the No. 4 would have been brewed. As such, they would have been using the famous Burton water, which is high in alkalinity, pretty hard and with a moderate sulfate content. A representative breakdown of the mineral content of Burton water reads like this:
  • Calcium (ppm):294
  • Sulfates (ppm):800
  • Magnesium (ppm):24
  • Sodium (ppm):24
  • Chloride (ppm):36
  • Carbonates (ppm):200
The accepted method of adjusting your water is through the use of gypsum and Epsom salts, although you can also buy specific Burton Water salts.

For the purposes though of the International Homebrew Project I really don't want to make Burtonising your water a requirement. Feel free to do so if you know the appropriate changes to make in order to replicate Burton's water, but don't feel as though you need to. One of the interesting things, at least from my perspective, about the project is reading the differences between the finally beers based on the same recipe and obviously water contributes a lot to that.

Still on the IHP theme, but nothing to do with the actual brewing, I have recently been in contact with Truman's Beer, the company which bought the rights to the Truman's name from Scottish and Newcastle and is in the process of returning to the East End of London. They were excited to know that homebrewers from around the world were recreating one of their old recipes and asked if it would be possible to have samples sent to them so they can see how they turn out. This is mainly, I imagine, for the UK and Ireland brewers, but if you are interested in sending some samples to Truman's drop me an email and I can give you the relevant details.

I am looking forward to brewing the Burton Ale, and decided to get a headstart on the yeast by brewing my latest batch of bitter using Wyeast 1028 on Friday so I will have a nice healthy yeast cake to pitch the wort on to when I brew.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Emperor's New Beer

Once upon a time there lived an emperor. The emperor was much loved by his people and would hold great parties in the grounds of his castle, where all the people would come to eat, drink and be merry. At his parties the people would eat the finest foods, drink the very best beer and dance until the sweat poured down their backs.

One day a pair of travelling brewers came to the emperor's castle looking for work. With another party being planned, the emperor asked them about the beer they made. The brewers told him that they brewed a special beer unlike anything he had ever drunk, a beer so new and innovative that it was fit only for kings and lords, not for the common man. The emperor was sad to hear this because he loved his people and loved his parties with them, but decided to hire the brewers to make their new beer for his next party anyway. The beer would be only for the emperor and his nobles, since only they could appreciate it.

The brewers set to work, using the malt and hops that were kept in the castle storehouse, and taking water from the castle well. When the liquid was ready they poured it into a barrel and added yeast taken from a barrel used for the most recent party, and so the new beer was almost ready. The day before the party, the brewers went to see the emperor and told him how the beer they brewed was the best they had ever made and that on no condition should the common people be allowed to drink it. The brewers talked about how the common people would not understand the complexity of flavours, or appreciate the wonderful aroma of the beer. The emperor paid the brewers for their work and the brewers presented him with special glasses, telling him that the glasses made the beer a better experience. That night the brewers left the castle and nothing was heard from them again.


The next day, the emperor's servants prepared for the party. Tables groaned under the weight of food, pigs roasted on spits, filling the air with the smell of sizzling meat. The castle bakery was working overtime making bread. Barrels of wine, beer and mead were stacked ready to be drunk. In one corner of the castle courtyard the emperor ordered a special table, with a bright white cloth, for the beer made by the brewers. Next to the barrel were the glasses and on the table a sign saying 'Nobles Only', a guard stood next to the barrel to keep the common men from trying the beer.


The people came to the party, they ate, the drank and they made merry. The emperor and the nobles gathered around the barrel of special beer and poured some into the glasses. The air was filled with gasps of delight as the nobles nosed their beer, 'such fine aromas' was heard more than once, they all agreed that this beer was singularly the best they had ever experienced. As the emperor and his coterie celebrated the wonderful success of their beer, a servant boy took a glass of the beer, drank it and asked the emperor 'why does this taste just like the normal beer?'.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bitter Comparisons

Having got home on Sunday evening from my shift working behind the bar at the tasting room at Starr Hill, I opened my first homebrew of the year, from my second batch of bitter.


This was the first time I had tried this batch even though I had taken a couple of bottles to the monthly homebrew club meeting in January and was encouraged by the feedback it was getting. As you likely know, if you are following my project to make a great bitter, this recipe differed slightly from the one that took gold at the Virginia Beer Blitz in November, I had upped the flavour hops a bit, substituted First Gold with Styrian Goldings for aroma, and used the Windsor yeast strain rather than Wyeast's West Yorkshire. The Styrian Goldings substitution was a necessity as my local homebrew shop didn't have any First Gold, while using the Windsor yeast was the planned change for this batch.

One thing that won't be changing in future batches of the beer is the grain bill, I love the colour I get from a combination of Maris Otter, Amber and Caramel 20. While the colour is lovely, I think the mix of toasty nuttiness from the Maris Otter, light caramel and a honeyed toffee note from the Amber malt is just where I want this bitter to be. When I get round to doing batch three of the beer, I will revert to First Gold for the aroma hops as I prefer the slight tangerine thing you get with them as opposed to a sweet spiciness I find in Styrian Goldings.

The Windsor yeast left a higher terminal gravity than the West Yorkshire, finishing at 1.011 rather than 1.009, that combined with the slight difference in original gravity (1.040 for batch 1 to 1.038 for batch 2), made for a 0.5% difference in abv. As I don't have any of the 1st bacth left to compare, I am not really sure what difference to the taste of the beer the two yeasts made, but I will be re-brewing with West Yorkshire soon and this time I will keep a couple of bottles of batch 2 for comparison.

Overall though, I am as happy with batch 2 as I was with batch 1 and think I am well on my way to settling on a recipe for my house ale - now all I need is a job and the extra cash that comes with it to sort out a kegerator so that I can always have bitter on tap...a prospect that pleases muchly.