Thursday, February 28, 2013

Brewed Madness: A Prologue

A few weeks ago, in the February issue of 5280 Magazine, there was an intriguing article about the United States' craft brewing capital: Denver, Colorado. Entitled The Ultimate Guide to Craft Brewing in Denver, it highlights each of the 22 breweries located within the city limits, focusing primarily on each brewery's style and selection. After a discussion with my buddy Chris about the article and Denver's craft breweries (check out his blog: Livin' It Up Denver - he's also joined me on a few homebrew adventures), the idea for Brewed Madness was born. Just as Colorado has the Great American Beer Festival and Denver has the Denver Beer Fest (a homebrewing competition), sports fans everywhere have March Madness - so why not combine to the two into something that is both sporting and libatious?

5280's Ultimate Guide to Craft Brewing in Denver
You see, the 5280 article provided many great details, but left out any judgments regarding the overall quality of the breweries and their offerings. Chris and I thought, 'why not take it a step further? Why not pit these breweries against each other and see which one is Denver's Best Craft Brewery?" And that is exactly what we intend to do.

Denver has a rich history when it comes to beer. Indeed, it is whispered that Denver's first permanent building back at its founding was a saloon. Whether or not that is true, I can tell you that the first city government was formed in 1859 within the walls of Apollo Hall saloon. By 1873, Adolph Coors had founded his eponymous brewing company - relying on 40 of Colorado's natural springs - and began producing what became a local favorite, known as "Miner's Banquet." Then, tragedy stuck: prohibition hit Colorado in 1916. Coors was converted to a malted milk manufacturer, saloons became soft drink parlors (though speakeasies were plentiful), and crime skyrocketed as citizens sought out whatever hooch they could get their hands on. After the Noble Experiment was abandoned, Denver (and Colorado) began the long road to recovery.

Denver in 1898
By 1979, craft brewing had come to Colorado in the form of Boulder Beer. 9 years later Denver saw its first brewpub: Wynkoop Brewing Co. And then the Denver craft brewing scene experienced a boom. Making up the vanguard were the likes Wynkoop, Breckenridge, and Rock Bottom in the late 1980's and early 1990's, all of which have succeeded in becoming Colorado heavyweights within the beer industry. After that there was a steady trickle of new breweries that popped up around town and even some restaurants that converted themselves into brewpubs (e.g., Bull & Bush). 20 years after the art of craft brewing had made itself known in Colorado, 8 breweries resided within Denver's city limits. And then the scene became somewhat stale - there were no more conversions and no more breweries founded in Denver (though Colorado itself was experiencing a steady increase throughout this period). In 2006, however, one of Wynkoop's founders was elected as Denver's mayor. Now, I'm not saying that Mayor John Hickenlooper (now Governor of Colorado) made Denver a more beer-friendly place, but his election did reveal that Denverites supported a man who made his way in the brewing industry. And, in the third year of his term as mayor, the Denver craft beer scene erupted. Between 2009 and 2012, 13 new craft breweries sprung up all over the city, resulting in a unique and relatively young beer culture.

And thus, Chris and I set out to separate the wheat from the chaff, to watch the cream rise to the top, to explore these  breweries and determine which one has what it takes, in terms of beer and character, to be crowned Denver's Best Craft Brewery in 2013. Based on a combination of factors ranging from the year a brewery was founded to what its focus is (e.g., simply a brewery, a brewpub, a chain?) we came up with our bracket over some beers at the Bar Car. The idea here is to first pit similar breweries against one another before allowing the different styles to clash. But we also tried to keep the matchups fair by pitting heavyweights like Breckenridge and Great Divide against each other, thus allowing the fledgling breweries to compete amongst themselves without being at a ~20 year disadvantage.

As for each showdown, we decided it would be best if we standardized our rating system well before entering any of the breweries and settled on four criteria: Atmosphere, (a single) Beer, Economy/Pricing, and Staff. I think each of these criteria are intuitive, perhaps with the exception of the single beer. As much as I'd like to sample every offering made by a brewery (and probably will over time), we simply don't have the time or money to do that at 22 individual breweries in a single month. Thus, we will only be sampling one beer per brewery to make sure this crazy thing can happen. That said, those breweries that advance to the next round will carry that brew score with them and have another sampled the next time (for a total of 25 possible points). Those breweries starting in the Second Round will have two beers sampled to keep the scoring fair. Additionally, the Final Round will see all remaining beers sampled - because you can't be Denver's Craft Brew Champion if everything hasn't been put on the table.

So, tomorrow we will begin our very own version of an exciting tournament in the heart of Denver at Renegade Brewing Co. and Denver Brewing Co. This contest, like each that follows, will be accompanied by a blog post giving a play-by-play from both me and Chris and a final verdict on which brewery will advance to the next round. Once all is said and done, and the victor is crowned, we will write something more formal and put it up on Chris' blog, Livin' It Up Denver (and probably on here, too), in an attempt to condense down a month of beer and breweries that only a couple of madman would take on.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Original Belgian Ale - Part 1

Original Belgian Ale
A Belgian-Style Ale from Hops, Malts, a Schnauzer
O.G.:  1.084 - 64F
F.G.:  n/a
Estimated ABV: n/a


Required ingredients for this brew

  1. Place malt extract, honey, and boiling hops in brew pot with 2.0 gallons water, bring to a boil, and maintain it for 45 minutes
  2. Add 0.5 grams paradise seeds and flavor hops - boil 10 minutes
  3. Add 0.5 grams paradise seeds, orange peel, and juniper berries
  4. Add aroma hops - boil 1-2 minutes
  5. Immediately remove brew pot from heat and cool with wort chiller and 1 gallon ice-cold water
  6. Transfer wort to primary fermenter (filter out hops and herbs)
  7. Follow standard procedures through bottling process
    • include 1 paradise seed in each bottle (sanitize via steaming or microwave)
  8. Allow 2 weeks for bottle conditioning before sampling

The wort just before chilling

I've been brewing for over a year now, and felt it was time to design and brew my own recipe. This one features elements similar to the Who's In The Garden Belgian white and Rocky Raccoon honey lager - a very light malt base, high honey content, a mixing of mild hops, and a presence of herbs and spices - but has unique twists as well.

Wort chiller in action - I promise everything remained sanitary!
I decided to use honey derived from clover rather than alfalfa for a couple of reasons. First, I'd never tried it before. Second, clover honey is much more common (the most manufactured honey in the US) and this seemed like an ingredient one should have experience with. Third, clover honey is much sweeter and can give a higher alcohol content. Additionally, the plan is to use honey for the bottling process - something I've only ever read about. It is important to note that as the 0.5 cup honey boils, one must remove the foam as it rises from the boil. Various sources indicate that bottle conditioning will take 10-14 days and other indicate that it will take a full month. I'm planning to test the bottles 14 days in and make a decision based on the conditions that exist at that time.

The brew's herbs and spices
Each of the hop varieties chosen have spicy, earthy character, while the Summit and Columbus hops also have a citrusy quality. The hope is that that these characteristics will mesh well with the spiciness of the paradise seeds and the citrus in the orange peel. So now we come to the juniper berries. Why add them, you ask? Well, mature juniper berries do have a piney, resinous flavor profile, but they also contain notes of citrus. I'm hopeful that the small amount used serve to compliment the brew in a manner fitting to the holiday season.

Assuming I stay on schedule, I estimate we'll be drinking this in February -I'm quite excited to try it!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rocky Raccoon's Crystal Honey Lager - Part 3

Rocky Raccoon's Crystal Honey Lager
A variation of a Lager from The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
O.G.:  1.084
F.G.:  1.000
Estimated ABV: ~11.13%

Buster soon after his sabotage attempt
I can barely contain my excitement at the potential of this batch - tasting it tonight and revealed several similarities to the We're In The Garden Belgian White brewed about this time last year. We'll see what happens while it bottle conditions, but I have high hopes for the Rocky Raccoon. The tasting also confirms the high alcohol content indicated by the OG and FG readings. I drank the leftovers from the sample taken to read the FG and had a definitely felt the alcohol's effect after a few minutes.

Tonight I was flying solo while bottling, though Ramius was there to provide his own form of help - mostly sniffing each bottle before I could cap it. The bottling process took about 2 hours total and I was able to get a yield of 45 bottles (~4.22 gallons). The only difficulties in the bottling process were my folks' cat knocking my siphoning equipment onto the kitchen floor, causing me to have to re-sterilize it, and the heather tips blocking up the final siphoning of the beer into the bottle. The auto-siphon was able to filter out quite a bit of the heather, but some of the smaller particles found their way through it and into the beer. I don't anticipate it adding anything but a more robust heather flavoring - a flavor that is naturally subtle and was added to this mild brew so that its character could be featured.

Prepping for the bottling process with bottles provided by David Collins

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Palace Bitter - Part 3

Palace Bitter
A variation of a Bitter from The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
O.G.: 1.101
F.G.: 1.02
Estimated ABV: ~10.68%

Let's start this off with some applause: I remembered to take both the original and final gravity readings! Huzzah!

Chris' new 'best brewers face'
So we get a final estimated ABV of ~10.68%, which seemed high to me considering Charlie's original estimated ABV of ~5%. But when one recalls all of the changes to the recipe provided by Charlie and my addition of dry hopping the secondary, it seems more probable that such a large increase could occur. Final judgment will be reserved until the tasting of this batch.

44 bottles ~ 4.125 gallons
Chris returned to help out with the bottling process - I'd like to think that was because he wanted to see the whole process through, but it might have been out of a feeling of obligation or guilt (since he didn't help with the transfer to secondary). In either case, he was a great help and worked the bottle-capper like a pro. We wrapped up the entire bottling process (sterilization, gravity reading, bottling, and capping) in a little under 2 hours and were able to drink a few Single Peak Brown Ales along the way. The total yield was 44 bottles, which is quite good considering the amount of the beer absorbed by the dry hopping process.

I'd like to thank Dave Collins for supplying 120 bottles for this and future brews - he's a helluva guy.

To wrap up this entry, I'd like to encourage you to support your local microbreweries - the people who work there are always pretty damned awesome.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Palilalia India Pale Ale - Tasting

A variation of an India Pale Ale from The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
O.G.: Unknown - whoops!
F.G.: Unknown - whoops!

The brew has a rich, burnt russet color with a frothy almond head and malty aroma that contains a hint of caramel. The flavor profile starts out with a rich roasted maltiness that tapers to a hint of bitterness (from the roasted barley) and finishes with a hint of smokiness left over from the oak used in secondary. With a medium mouthfeel, this gentle brew has proved to be moderately sessionable.

Looking at this post's title (and especially if you checked back to the ingredients), I'd wager that the thought 'he didn't mention hoppiness in the description' has popped into your mind. It's true that this brew was supposed to be an IPA, but it turned out tasting much more like a brown ale - this is most likely due to the use of roasted malt barley and complications with hop additions. Part of the reason for multiple additions of hops throughout the boil (i.e., boiling hops, finishing hops, aroma hops) is to extract the hops' oils at the appropriate times so they don't end up cooking off completely. I think this recipe would have benefited from additional hop additions, similar to the process the Palace Bitter underwent. In any case, this is an enjoyable brew that has been compared to Ellie's Brown Ale.

I've decided to name this brew 'Single Peak Brown Ale' since it was first tasted at 14,060 ft on Mount Bierstadt's summit (click here for photos and a trail report). I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate the end of my homebrewing hiatus than cracking this one open somewhere special.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Palace Bitter & Rocky Raccoon's Honey Lager - Part 2

Palace Bitter
A variation of a Bitter from The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
O.G.:  1.101
F.G.:  n/a

The 2 oz Kent Goldings hops floating on top of the bitter
Rocky Raccoon's Crystal Honey Lager
A variation of a Lager from The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
O.G.:  1.084
F.G.:  n/a

2 oz. heather tips resting at the bottom of the carboy

First, an update about brewing conditions: these batches have been fermenting in a basement that keeps them at about ~86 degrees Fahrenheit. I had a little bit of trouble with the Honey Lager. Specifically, the initial pitching of the yeast yielded no fermentation activity after 36 hours, so I ended up having to run to HopToIt's Denver location and picked up an additional yeast packet. After letting it activate and pitching it into the carboy, fermentation activity was well underway within 24 hours.

Transferring the beers from primary to secondary fermenters went extraordinarily smoothly today. I had no issues in terms of equipment failure or human error, and was able to get both batches swapped over in the period of about 45 minutes (this includes sanitation, dry times, addition of hops/herbs, and the actual racking).

One thing I was initially concerned about was the possibility of contamination when adding the hops/heather to the secondary fermenter. Typically, one doesn't need to worry about contamination when adding hops and other ingredients to the beer because it is boiling and any bacteria that find themselves in that situation perish post haste. It seems that contamination during primary isn't likely as the rigorous yeast activity will most likely out-compete any bacteria that make their way into the fermenter, and it is equally unlikely in secondary due to the alcohol content of the beer and the continued discharge of CO2 from the yeast into the carboy. 

So, we'll see how the brews turn out in a month or so - two more weeks of secondary and then bottle conditioning can't come soon enough!

Post-transfer celebratory beer at a local beer garden

Friday, September 7, 2012

Birthday Brews: Palace Bitter & Rocky Raccoon's Honey Lager - Part 1

Today is my birthday, and I decided to brew two batches of beer. Below you will find ingredients and a description of the brewing process. 

Adding the amber malt extract to the Palace Bitter.

Palace Bitter
A variation of a Bitter from The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
O.G.: 1.101
F.G.: n/a

Note that the flavor hops are added in halves (i.e., add 0.25 Fuggles and  0.375 Kent Goldings, boil 15 minutes, then add the remaining hops and boil another 15 minutes). Additionally, the recipe called for a light dried malt extract. HopToIt was out of this, so I decided to substitute an amber dried malt extract.

Chris placing the crystal malt into a muslin bag.
Rocky Raccoon's Crystal Honey Lager
A variation of a Lager from The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
O.G.: 1.084
F.G.: n/a

One will immediately notice that this recipe is very light and simple. The original recipe for this brew doesn't call for any heather tips and requires an additional ounce of hops in order to achieve a very delicate flavor profile. Since heather has bittering properties - it was actually used heavily for that very reason before hops became so prevalent - I reduced the amount of hops and have decided to test out 'dry flowering.' I debated whether or not to try this recipe as originally written before making alterations, but then HopToIt didn't have any additional hops for me to purchase and I made the choice to attempt the heather tips. Maybe this will work out, maybe it won't, but I'm eager to find out!

You've gotta love being able to comfortably heat two brew-pots on one stove!

Two-Stage Fermentation

Where to even begin? I've never brewed two batches simultaneously, and it was much more intense than when I brewed the Whoop Moffit and the Elbro Nerkte on the same day. Chris and I started the process of sanitizing, activating the yeast, etc., at around 6:30pm and didn't finish with cleanup until close to 10:30pm. I know this is a relatively short amount of time if, say, you're doing an all-grain brew, but we weren't and I typically average about 2 1/2 hours for any given brew. Honestly, I think the added time here came from working in a new kitchen (brewed in Denver this time) and working later in the day. It was suggested to me that it could have been the beers we were drinking (Moe's Backroom Pale Ale and Wheat), but one must always have a few beers when homebrewing. In any case, I think we both had a great time and it was my pleasure to introduce Chris to the brewing process. After all was said and done, he echoed what a few other people have expressed after going through the homebrew process: it took away a bit of the mystique of beer (just a little bit, mind you). I understand this viewpoint, but could never get behind it - homebrewing puts you in control of the arcane art of beer-crafting!

In any case, things got off to a relatively smooth start. We began steeping the crystal malt at the same time we began raising the temperature of the honey, extra-light malt, and Tettnanger hops to a boil. I should mention here that I forgot to add the honey until the boil started; it took Chris fiddling with the honey jar and asking when we were going to add it for me to remember. Beyond that, everything went like clockwork. Staggering the hop additions to the Palace Bitter was made easier because we presorted the hops and placed them in muslin bags in order to minimize the amount of filtering required later on. While it took care of that problem, It definitely reduced the amount of wort that made it into the carboy. I think this brewing experience has actually convinced me that muslin bags aren't for me and I will probably do my next brew without them to see how the process compares and determine how I want to continue into the future. 

This was the first time I was able to hook my wort chiller up to a hose rather than a faucet. It made a huge difference! It took probably five minutes or so for the wort to cool to an acceptable temperature while in the past it has taken up to 20 minutes - even in an ice bath. This is definitely the way to go in the future.

Additionally, I'm testing out a new cap'n'hose method that involves using a stopper and airlock, and just attaching a hose to the airlock (see it pictured below). I've had issues in the past with the cap'n'hose in terms of it popping off and have had to hold it in place with rubberbands to ensure that it stays secure. I'll be sure to report back in the next post about how the stopper and airlock method works.

Going into this post I thought I'd have a lot more to say since we were constantly adding ingredients or preparing them during the brewing process, but I think I've mentioned everything that is pertinent to the process at this point. I'll be sure to post updates as the process continues. In the mean time, be sure to grab yourself a homebrew!

Note the two different kinds of blow-off tubes.