Tag Archives: Tasting

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.



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.

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.

Mighty, Mighty Head

imageMy favorite saison yeast is Wyeast 3711, French Saison.  I have talked about it before: it has a nice spicy flavor and attenuates without much fuss.  My standing joke is that this yeast will ferment your concrete floor if you let it sit.  The thing is, the saisons I bottle almost always end up a bit over carbonated.  I do not know if this is just the 3711 continuing to work, or if I am picking up a slight infection. The bottles do not gush, but you can only pour about half of the beer before you run out of space.  The flavor is still OK, so if it is infected it is a pretty benign critter.  But when those beers are poured man do they end up with one whipped cream like head.  I am surprised the head is so big and long lasting, as I thought the continuing fermentation would tend to break down components in the beer which contribute to head formation.

Uerige Sticke and Doppelsticke

imageI bought one bottle each of the Uerige Sticke and Doppelsticke during some recent travels back to Arkansas.  Both of these beers rate something like 92 on Beer Advocate, so I thought they might be worth a shot.  Besides, the narrow little flip top bottles are way too cool to pass up.

The aroma was sweet caramel with low hop notes and raisin like malt.  The beers seemed flat, not from lack of carbonation but from lack of flavor.  Besides a some raisin character like malt flavor and somewhat strong bitterness, nothing really stood out.  The flavor finished slightly bitter and sweet. These were old and potentially mistreated samples.  It is a long way from Europe to Arkansas.

The moral of the story is drink fresh beer!

Octoberfest Craft Beer Tasting

Octoberfest Craft Beer tastingMy recent brewing spree, as outlined in a series of posts, culminated in last Saturday’s tasting.  Thanks to friend of the brewer Dick, I had access to a nifty, homemade beer serving station as seen the photo above.  Three taps mounted into a chalk board stand provide for easy labeling.  The extra large trash can held ice and three kegs, plus a 5 pound bottle of carbon dioxide. Lastly a small drip tray on top.  It all worked pretty well, though my Kolsch style ale was a bit of a problem child – a little over carbonated and foamy.  But we muddled through.

There were somewhere near 300 people in attendance.  A number or breweries were represented: Southern Tier, Helltown, East End Brewing, Full Pint, Rivertowne, Penn Brewery and many others. In addition to the Little Boy Brewery, there two other home brewers in attendance. The guests were wonderful and very enthusiastic, but not all were completely aware of my status as a home brewer.  A number asked me where I made my beer (“my garage”) and a few wanted to know where they could buy it (“you can’t”).  But all were very enthusiastic.

I was overwhelmed with the response to the beers that I made.  As I has noted before, my Saison recipe has always proven to be very popular. I did double the amount of coriander from 15 grams to 30 grams, which when you add it to the wort looks like quite a slug.  In the past I have been surprised by how often people fail to note the coriander in a beer when I can smell it a mile away.  That is what expectations can do for you.  For this beer it seemed pretty strong but it did not to seem to put many people off.  Several tasters showed up with their glass in hand and said they were told they should come try my saison.  One lady came up to the booth and inquired about what beer she should try and so I pulled just a sip of the saison for her to try.  Her eyes lit up as she tasted it and, with a big smile, requested a full pour.  That reaction made my night.

I thought the wild card in my beer lineup would be the Russian Imperial Stout.  When planning for this I knew I wanted something that would stand up and stand out against all of the IPAs and other strong beers from the other participants.  I was happy enough with how this beer turned out, though it was a bit strong on the roast and light on the chocolate, at according to what I envisioned.  It did not seem to bother anyone on Saturday night.  In the end, this beer and the Saison ran neck and neck in popularity. And although this is a bit of a sexist observation, there were no shortage of the female sex coming up to try this beer.  This was a pretty intense beer, and I was surprised by the wide love it found.

The afterthought beer was the Kolsch. I brewed it partially as a backup beer but in the end I brought it along. Most of the people were not aware of the heritage of the style, so it gave me a chance to do some education. There were a few that were well aware of the style, though, and I am pleased to report they gave it a thumbs up.  Many other, more timid drinkers chose it as a safe alternative to other, stronger beers.  Unfortunately I spent the night fighting the carbonation level – it was foamy.  But we soldiered through.

It was a great night for craft beer.  it was a great night for home brewing. A couple of people told me they thought the home brews were better than the commercial ones.  While that might have been a bit of hyperbole, I was very happy I participated and really thrilled at the response.

What to Wear Where?

By the way, the craft beer tasting I mentioned is being held by the Community Foundation of Upper Saint Clair. Information regarding the event can be found at this web page. If you can make it out, come out and say hi to Little Boy Brew.

Saving Private Ryan

You saw the state of the beer fridge in my last post.  See that big hole in the middle?  That is how bad things are, I actually have an open tap.

In order to fill the gap I whipped up a little bitter with an American spin. I had some homegrown hops I received from a friend (Nugget and Cascade) and used them to target about 38 IBUs.  . Unfortunately, despite being somewhat conservative estimating the alpha acids in these hops, I am not sure they had any at all. When I tasted the beer it was OK (no off flavors) but it had very low bitterness and no hop flavor or aroma. It was really bland, and I decided I could not drink 3 gallons of this swill.

One approach to reconciling this problem would be to simply brew a second, hoppier batch of beer and just blend the two. This is a sound approach but I did not want to spend the time it would take to do that.  I have heard of people making “hop teas” and adding them to finished batches in order to modify the hop character. I decided to do a little hop steep using a half ounce of Centennial.

I started by placing the hops in a mortar and pestle and mashing them up a bit to maximize the surface area:


Next I took about 400 ml of beer from the tap and heated it in the microwave. I wanted to just reach a boil (but I think I removed it a little too early). I put the muddled hops into a french press and added the warm wort:


I was hoping it would be over 180° F, but once it was in the press it was under 150° F. Since I figured there was not too much isomerization going on, I only let it steep for about 10 minutes before opening the lid on the keg and dumping the liquid into it (after using the press to filter the solids. For good measure I added the other half ounce of Centennial into a large tea ball and dropped it in also:


After 24 hours I can already taste a significant difference in the beer.  It has enough hop flavor to make it a drinkable beer.  I would not enter it into any competitions, but I will happily drink it.

If I had it to do over again I think I would have added the muddled hops to the beer and made sure I reached a boil in the microwave.  I think this might have added a bit more bitterness (I mostly get hop flavor/aroma).

Homebrewing.  Live and learn!

Hop Slam vs. Ray Slam

Cloning a favorite beer is a tough task.  Trying to figure out a recipe by the seat of your pants, i.e., tasting and guessing, can be fun but the odds of early success are long.  Often you can find a clone recipe in a book or on the intertubes, but you have to be careful of the provenance, sometimes those recipes are good, sometimes not.  I have actually heard a number of success stories simply based on calling or e-mailing the brewery in question.  Brewers are generally a good lot, and often they are willing to give you some pretty strong clues to their recipes.

Ray, a good brewing friend and beer brewing mentor loves Bell’s Hop Slam, and he took the latter route and got some good feedback from the brewery.  Recently he acquired a couple of cases of Hop Slam and made his own clone.  He offered me a bottle of each, and I decided to put him into the cold light of a serious one on one comparison.

What are the rules of calling a beer “cloned”? After all, it is easy to find subtle differences in different batches of the same commercial brew.  I think the concept that was used on the Brewing Network’s “Can You Brew It?” show is a good one: if you were drinking the commercial version of the beer at a party or a bar and your second beer was the cloned version, would you notice a difference?  This is a pretty fair metric and it is consistent with the spirit of home brewing.

So how did Ray do?  Well, lets first look at color:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis picture is almost unfair.  Ray’s clone, on the left, looks very much darker than the Hop Slam.  And it was, but the photo does exaggerate the difference.  But it had a nice white head just like the Hop Slam.  Would a person enjoying a casual beer notice a difference?  Maybe, maybe not.  Side by side, sure.  But if you had finished your glass and a second beer was brought to you, you might not notice.  Certainly if Ray were brewing this again I might suggest adjusting the grain bill just a bit to lighten it up, but all in all, pretty close.

Aroma?  Well, some differences emerged.  The Hop Slam gave me a slightly resinous aroma with apricots and maybe a little mango.  These aromas were not as strong in the Ray Slam, and there was also a slight ethanol sweetness that was not as evident in the Bells.  Noticeable in the casual setting? Maybe.

The flavor differences were another story.  The Hop Slam was slightly piney in flavor with apricot and mango.  It had a nice light body (for a 10% ABV beer!) with a slightly catty and cloying finish.  The Ray Slam had more subdued hop flavors that were dominated by some alcohol warming that while not unpleasant was certainly different from  the Bells.  In fact the Bells has a bit of an earthy hop bitterness in the finish that in some ways is similar to the alcohol warmth from the Ray Slam.

So cloned or not cloned?  Well, I am afraid I will tell my good friend that it is not cloned.  Not that he made a bad beer, but it is noticeably different from the Hop Slam when compared side to side.  And I think a discerning beer drinker would notice that difference, too.  The alcohol warming was not strong enough to be called solvent like or unpleasant, it just stood out as different.

Why the difference? I point to fermentation, which I think is often the difference maker in home brewing.  Hop Slam is a 10% ABV beer, and it uses some honey to lighten the body. With that much food, the yeast will go to town and it is easy for the fermentation to proceed a little hot. Even in a cool room the wort can build significant heat during fermentation.

So how do I like the Hop Slam?  I don’t think it is my favorite IPA.  Of course, I also prefer a chocolate cake with chocolate icing over a white cake with chocolate icing.  Do I hate white cake with chocolate icing?  Nooooo.  I will eat it up.  Same way with the Hop Slam.  It is a great beer, but I think if you offered me a Southern Tier Unearthly IPA, well, my choice would be clear.  Hop Slam is the white cake.


In an earlier post I was raving about the Rogue Voodoo Donut Bacon Maple Ale.  Its smoke flavor  and maple sweetness are a joy to taste.  I want to tip the old hat to the original smoked beer:

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen

This is a wonderful beer.  I know the smoked flavor puts some people off, but in this beer it complements the malt sweetness and adds a highly enjoyable depth of flavor.  If you have not tried this one, you should.  It is a classic.