A Hard Day’s Work

P3200041-beer and yeastIt is the first day of spring and it is snowing outside, so no better excuse than to make some bread and drink some good beer.  The bread recipe came from Jeffrey Hamelman’s book Bread.  It is an bread made with rolled oats and whole wheat flour, with a little honey, milk, and oil.  It is the first time I have tried this recipe, but it is bread so how bad could it be?

The beer is a simple English bitter that checks in at about 4% ABV, pleasant to drink but very sessionable.  The recipe was a little bit of a cupboard clearer – a little brown malt and crystal malt on top of a load of English malt (Golden Promise and Maris Otter malt). Also a little flaked wheat just because.  I used UK Goldings for bitterness and finished with some homegrown Fuggles.  The yeast was Wyeast’s West Yorkshire variety, which makes for a very enjoyable English Bitter.



And the Results are in…

Recently I conducted an experiment on the topic of when to add dark grains to the mash.  Some recommend holding out the dark roasted grains until the very end of the mash.  A number of reasons are given.  One claim is that by holding out the dark grains one does not need to add any bicarbonate salts to the mash to counteract the acidity of the dark grains.  This is a reasonable claim, especially if your water already contains a significant amount of calcium or sodium.  Since the most common bicarbonate salts are calcium and sodium bicarbonate, adding either salt will increase the levels of sodium and/or calcium.  But my water is already low in calcium, and it does not have much sodium either. I am usually looking to increase my calcium levels, so adding calcium bicarbonate to the mash does not bother me one bit.

A second claim I have heard is that allowing these dark roasted grains to mash for an hour is akin to letting a pot of coffee sit on the burner.  After an hour the nice roast flavor will become burnt and harsh.  If that were true, then waiting to add the dark grains would certainly be a no-brainer.

I just finished the last two bottles from the experiment, and I can say I found no taste difference.  As always, your experience may differ, but I plan to continue to mash dark grains as I always have.

This man might just be…

…the Stupidest Man in the World:




What I don’t get…

Many things, but today I have to rant about people trying to discern the thoughts of actions of the “founding fathers” of our country in order to make decisions today.  Don’t get me wrong, what was accomplished at the end of the 18th century by these people was important.  They created a country premised on the assumption that each individual has rights, rights which are not granted by the state or by a king or a pope, but inalienable rights granted by our creator (we can argue about the creator later – I believe it is a what not a who but I digress).  The work they did was fantastic, but not perfect.  The most obvious example is the small sample of humans that were called slaves at the time. So the founding fathers were a good, creative lot, but not perfect.

So why do some require their thinking and reasoning be filtered through a 200 year old worldview?  The second amendment is a perfect example of a law that, at the time, made good sense, but today obstructs the attempts by many reduce unnecessary death and suffering in this country.  Likewise, this week the Supreme Court ruled that legislative prayer was acceptable in part because it is traditional and many of the founding fathers participated in similar prayers during their time.  So what? Like slavery, what might have been accepted then is not accepted now.

I don’t get it.  Let’s argue ideas on their merits.

The Conscience of the Puppet

I often start my day by opening Wikipedia and reading the “On this Day” section of the front page. Today it noted that on this date in 1940, the Walt Disney movie “Pinocchio“, the first animated film to win a competitive Academy Award, was released to theaters. I clicked through to read a bit more about the movie, as I had not seen it in a long time. Because of Gepetto’s wish, the Blue Fairy makes Pinocchio come alive, though he is told that in order to become a real boy he had to learn right from wrong by listening to his conscience. Since he was not sure what a conscience was, Jiminy Cricket was appointed to be his conscience. And so the movie goes.

How funny. Many theists argue that morals must come from a god or a book such as the Christian Bible.  Some argue that while each of us has a sense of right and wrong, that conscience must be written into us by a creator.  In the case of Pinocchio, he learns his sense of right and wrong from an animate, non-ethereal being.  A cricket to be precise.

So congratulations to Disney, celebrating over 70 years of confounding the morality stories of conservative theists. Have One Million Moms heard of this?


I started brewing in 1997 and man has the beer landscape changed in 17 years.  Craft beer was around but you had to seek it out – you’d be very lucky to even find a Sam Adams at your local chain restaurant.  Finding respectable samples of many styles was tough – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was around but the IPA craze had not hit.  Belgians were a rare breed.  If a home brewer chose to make one of these rare styles, then finding a good quality sample of a classic style was not easy.  That made me seek out information about beer judging and due to the internet the Beer Judge Certification Program was a quick find.  It intrigued me.  So much to learn about styles and brewing methods. I knew I wanted to try and become a judge.

It took awhile, but eventually I found my was to an exam and four years ago this January I took the BJCP exam, and even better I passed it. It was a tough test, 3 solid hours of writing and some beer tasting. And today I am a Certified Beer Judge.

But when I look back on why I originally sought out judging information, it was self-doubt.  I made these beers – but were they flawed?  I read about all of these off flavors – diacetyl, oxidation, acetone.  Were they in my beer? Was I missing something?  Well today I worry much less about such things.  I have a little experience and know what I like – and I make beer to drink what I like.  But judging others’ beers is a different thing.  Not only are you charged with finding flaws, you are charged with picking out the best beers.

The reason I mention this is Robert Hodgson. He happens to be a winemaker and a statistician. And he noticed something about the wines he entered into competitions.  Sometimes a particular wine would do very well, other times it would be judged poorly.  So he proposed an experiment to the California State Fair competition in 2005, and he repeated for eight years.  And what he discovered is that wine judges are pretty inconsistent at what they do.  His bottom line: if a wine wins an award it most probably by chance, not merit.

Hodgson was interviewed on the Science for the People podcast. Check it out.  The same episode includes a great interview with Charlie Bamforth, the professor of brewing at Cal-Davis.  If you have never heard Charlie talk beer you are missing a treat.

So science says that my ability to consistently discern the flavor characteristics of a particular beer is quite low.  I can live with that.  I just hope all the brewers whose beers I have judged can live with it too.

A Small Rant

There was news from Oklahoma this week.  A judge rules the state law banning same sex marriage was not constitutional.  And of course the howling began.  You see, Oklahomans voted to outlaw same sex marriage, and now a judge has contravened the will of the people!

OK – here is the point: people, you don’t get to vote to take away other people’s rights.  You can’t vote to re-establish slavery, for instance. One may question whether or not marrying a person of the same sex should be a right.  Well here is my take: the government allows two people to enter into marriage, a contract which convenes certain legal rights to the two people in question.  I guess I just don’t see why the government should bother to look at the two peoples’ naughty bits before agreeing to proceed.  Should the government confirm the two people are of legal age?  Yes, of course.  What about whether one or both of the parties is already married? Well, yeah.  But do they need to check that one has a penis and the other a vagina?  No, I don’t think so.

And this will not lead to people marrying animals.  Can an animal get married today? No.  Can an animal consent to marriage? No. Well what about three people getting married?  Note: the government does not allow that today, so allowing two people of the same sex to marry does not change that.  Want to marry a child? Sorry, there are age of consent laws and if your partner isn’t old enough tough luck.

I just wish people could put their bibles down, relax, and just wish the newly married couples the best.

Sugar Sugar

I am thankful for my local homebrew supply shop.  I can stop by and purchase almost anything I need to make a batch of beer.  Yeah, they don’t have everything (Kiln Coffee malt!) but they do a darn good job (even if they only carry White Labs yeast).  With all of that positive vibe, I still cringe when I look at the dark candi sugar at $5 per pound.  Plain white sugar at the grocery store sells for one tenth of that price.  So I feel compelled to just make my own. This is a task that is easy and but takes a little attention and time. Of course, it is always fun to play with your food.

You don’t need too much stuff.  Plain white sugar.  Water.  A thermometer. And a little bit of acid.  I use powdered citric acid but lemon juice might work just as well.

I usually start with a pound or so of sugar.  You can do as much as you want, really, as the only limits are the size of your pot and also how much room you have to spread it out to cool (see the photo below).  The first thing to do is dissolve the sugar into the water.  Since you have to boil off the excess water don’t get too carried away.  I usually add enough cold water to cover the sugar,  then put it on the heat to help it dissolve.  Oh, also add a pinch or two of citric acid.  Table sugar is actually made up of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose.  Adding heat and acid will allow the bond between the molecules to break, thereby making a simpler sugar molecule that is easier for yeast to metabolize.  In theory anyway.

As this solution warms it will reach the boiling point of water (100 °C) and pause there until all of the excess water evaporates.  Don’t fuss with it.  Stirring can only bring misery.  Once the excess water evaporates the temperature of the solution will begin to rise a second time.  Candy makers have special terms for various temperatures – soft ball, hard ball, soft crack, hard crack.  I just let my solution rise to 135 °C and then I add a couple of teaspoons of cold water such that the temperature drops back to 127 °C or so.  This is the bit of pain part of the process. A thermometer with an alarm is very helpful. As the sugar stays on the heat it will get darker and darker.  Continue to monitor the temperature and add water to keep it in the 127 to 135 °C range.  After awhile it looks something like this:

On the Way to Hard Crack

On the Way to Hard Crack

I did not record how long it took the sugar to reach the dark color, but I am sure it was on the flame for a least an hour.  In the above photo  I am allowing the temperature to rise to 150 °C (hard crack for you candy fans) so that we end up with nice hard pieces of sugar and not goo.  Once that temperature is reached carefully pour the hot, molten syrup onto parchment paper or silicone mats to cool.  I put silicone mats into half sheet pans so nothing runs away:

Cooling Down

Cooling Down

The last time I did this I used two pans for cooling.  This goes back to my earlier comment, you can make as much as you want but be sure you have the room to cool it.  It would be a real pain to clean out a saucepan full of hard sugar. Once it cools it can be broken up and stored.  If you start playing with it while it is still malleable you can roll it into little round shapes, or you can wait until it is fully cooled and break it up into little pieces.  You can see samples of both in this photo:

Final Product

Final Product

For longer term storage you can dust the surface with a little powdered sugar or corn starch to minimize sticking, and then put it in bags. In the photo below you can see my haul: a little over one pound of dark sugar:

Bagged and Ready

Bagged and Ready

Stout Experiment – Brewing Details and Results

The recipe target the creation of 5 liters of 10 °P (1.040) wort, post boil.  I used a “brew in a bag” process, though unlike some I choose to mash with only a portion of the water and add the remainder as a sparge or rinse.  My default water to grain ratio is 3.0 liters per kilogram, which is somewhere around 1.5 quarts per pound.

Grains Amount Percent
Maris Otter 0.57 kg 68%
Flaked Barley 0.17 kg 20%
Roasted barley 0.10 kg 12%
Hops Amount Boil Time IBUs
Nugget  6 g 50 min 40

All batches were mashed at 68 °C for an hour.  My 4 gallon brew pot fits into my oven which is easier to control than using a propane burner.  It’s not perfect – my oven’s lowest setting is about 76° C – so I have to monitor the mash temperature with a remote probe and turn the oven off and on a few times during the one hour mash.  Still it was pretty worry free.

I made three separate “brew-in-a-bag” mashes.  The first batch was brewed in the normal manner, all grains mashed together.  The main mash of the next two batches consisted of only the base malt and the flaked barley.  For the second batch I added about 300 grams of water to the roasted barley and let it steep cold, overnight.  About a cup of liquid was drawn from this and added to the wort after mashing was complete.  For the third batch I  added the roast barley just prior to the end of the mash.  I did not write down exactly how long it was in the mash, maybe 3 to 5 minutes at most.

The first full mash achieved an extraction efficiency of 85%; the second two mashes were about 75%.  That is a pretty huge difference but until I can repeat the experiment I am not going to claim it as significant, merely interesting.  All three batches were 2.7 kg in the fermenter and pitched with 2.5 grams of Safale US05 dry yeast.  Thirty seconds of pure oxygen was also added after pitching.  Note I pitched the dry yeast directly on the wort.  While not really a best practice, I felt it would lend the best chance for consistency among the batches.

Interestingly all three batches ended at the same terminal gravity of 3.1 °P (1.012), so that the cold steep batch ended at a slightly lower ABV than the other two.

See Much Difference?

See Much Difference?

But the real question is:  how did they taste? And the simple answer is not much different at all.  The color of the foam on the fully mashed batch was ever so slightly darker than the other two, but the taste differences were simply nil.

My take away from this experiment is: do what works for you.  If your water is naturally high in alkalinity then a full mash with dark grains may be the simplest approach.  If your water is more balanced and you don’t want to fuss with mineral additions then by all means mash your pale grains first and let the starch conversion happen at the correct pH before adding your dark grains.  And if you are like me you can just make a quick water salt adjustment for the dark mashes.

Fooling Yourself

When I began homebrewing I was thrilled. I think most homebrewers are. It is a neat feeling to create a wort and turn billions of little critters loose on it. Watch it bubble, bubble, bubble along until finally it finishes. Rush the bottling and wait wait wait until patience be damned and you crack open the first bottle…

And then what? Excitement and pleasure and… doubt. What is that flavor? Is that a bad thing or a good thing? Once I started making beer I started wondering how good or bad my beer was. Friends offer complements, but what do they know?

Reading a description of flavors only goes so far. So eventually I took and passed the BJCP exam and followed that up with some judging experience.  It was all good but I began noticing how different people tasted and judged beers.  Most people are great to judge with.  A few experienced judges have done their best to share insights and make me a better judge.  But a few I found to be bullies.  Very confident in their opinions and dismissive of disagreement.  Frustrating to me.

Steve Novella reviewed a number  of studies that show when it comes to judging alcoholic beverages, experts are just average.  It has been shown time and time again that people are so easily fooled.  Add some red food coloring to a white wine and suddenly the experts will be talking tannins.  Entering into a competition?  Winning is probably highly dependent on luck.  I have been there.  Being the first or last IPA in the bunch can be the kiss of death.

So it all comes back to me and how I like my beers.  I am now confident in my ability to judge my beer, and I while I love to see others enjoy them I don’t seek anyone’s validation.  Will I have beer in the next competition?  Probably.  Will I worry about winning?  Nah.