Back To The Beers

I've recently hired these wonderful ladies as recipe consultants. At first I was resistant to using newts in my beers, but somehow they convinced me otherwise. Highly recommend! As much time as I spend thinking about the business part of the brewery, I spend at least as much time thinking about the brewing part of the brewery. That's what this is all about, right? I'm thinking about recipes to the point that it's actually become a stress point in my life. I really, really want to make phenomenal beers but my recipes are just not there yet. To add context to "not there yet", I should cautiously note that I've had many craft beers over the years, both production and brew pub sourced, that I would also describe as "not there yet". I think we all have and I don't want to be one of those breweries making those kinds of beers. That's my biggest fear of this whole business.

Almost all of my brewing starting from the last few months of 2011 through the present has been about recipe formulation and experimentation. Lots of experimentation. Up until the end of 2011, most of my brewing involved making mostly classic styles (usually based on recipes from "Brewing Classic Styles") and honing my processes. Then in late 2011 I began to brew using only my own recipes, no training wheels. It's been incredibly freeing, but equally frustrating. Now here we are in January of 2013 and what have I learned? Well, a lot actually. I've learned a lot about what doesn't work and a few things that do work.

2012 was definitely the most prolific brewing year I've ever had but it also represented the year of more dumped beer than any other. That's one thing I've learned: don't be afraid to dump beer. I only have so much space, so many kegs, and I learned that holding onto a substandard beer just delays the inevitable. So I got VERY comfortable dumping corny kegs of beer that just weren't up to my expectations.

I've learned that yeast doesn't like to be messed with. Once you make a starter, use it, don't store it for a couple of weeks, remember to build it up again, delay more, build again. I brewed a bock/doppelbock at the end of September, 2012. The poor yeast used in that beer (Wyeast Bavarian Lager) was abused as described and then just to add insult to injury, I damn near froze one of the starters which most certainly damaged some of the yeast cells. Did I dump the yeast and start over? No, I had to find out if the yeast would produce good beer. Despite all my usual careful fermentation process, that bock was easily the worst beer I made in 2012. It was fermented precisely at 50 degrees, it was lagered for several weeks, it was kegged, it was tasted, it was given a chance, then it was dumped. Lesson learned.

I learned that dry hopping with U.K. Fuggle hops requires a delicate hand. I dry hopped an English bitter with far too much. Combined with the over bittering of the kettle additions created a completely out of balance ale.

I learned that my hop bittering formulas in my brewing software (BeerAlchemy/BeerAlchemy2) were set incorrectly in preferences. Specifically, first wort hopping was set to below 1.0 x kettle hopping. It should've been set to at least 1.0. I'm now using 1.1 as a multiplier. The consequence of this was what should've been a beautifully balanced, hoppy pale ale became an overly bitter, hop cloying mess. My single biggest disappointment of the year, for sure. As a side note, I'm will be brewing this beer again this coming weekend and it WILL be much improved, come hell or high water.

That brings up another lesson. It's one thing to follow formulas and recipes, it's quite another to use....artistry? Yes, that's it. Artistry. We brewers are artists, are we not? Or at least artisans. It's very easy for me, with my engineering and computer programming background, to look at things very analytically and to not stop, take a step back and ask myself, "does this make sense as a brewer and not a technician?". This, I feel, is my biggest weakness as a brewer, and one I've been working on for months to improve.

I learned that using high alpha hops, like Warrior, has no place in pale Belgian beers. Even if precisely calculated to the correct IBU's. I made a Belgian rye ale that would've been really nice, dry, and tasty, but the bittering just killed it. Why did I use Warrior? Because I had to try it. I was thinking on the pro scale and wondering if using high alpha hops for bittering would work, thus saving lots of money on hops, as opposed to using lower alpha hops classically used by Belgian breweries such as Saaz or Styrian Goldings. Not so deep down, I knew this was a bad idea, but I had to try. Better to do it with 5 or 10 gallons rather than 15 bbl batches, right?

I learned that trying to fix the aforementioned beer by blending with a 2.5 gallon batch with no bittering hop additions doesn't work. Again, I didn't think it would, but I HAD to try. Dumped.

One thing I've very recently started doing is keeping an eye on the BU:GU ratio. I've known about this number for a very long time (first brought to the mainstream by our local Chicagoan, Ray Daniels) but never paid much attention to it. It's not a perfect representation of the perceived bitterness of a beer, but it's a great data point. Again, artistry will trump analytics, but I feel this number helps improve both. If nothing else, it's a sanity check, and one that had I paid attention to more last year, I would've learned a lot about where bitterness should live in a given beer. (Update 1/8/2013: I forgot to include a link to this website I just discovered in the past week. Great chart representation of BU:GU ratios for all recognized BJCP styles. Great resource for sanity checking bitterness. But wait, there's more! The author has expanded on the BU:GU concept with something he calls "Relative Bitterness Ratio" (RBR) which includes apparent attenuation in the formula. There's also a chart for that too!)

I could go on and on but that's the gist of things. Lots of experiments, lots of failures.

But wait, there were successes too! Version V of my Belgian Wit was fantastic. I split a 10 gallon batch into two 5 gallon fermenters and used different wit strains. One was noticeably better in my opinion which just happens to be the same yeast strain that I've always preferred for wits. I brewed my first Russian Imperial Stout and am about to enter it in a large competition here in Chicago. Again, my own recipe, but I did a lot of research first to get an idea of percentages of specialty malts to add. It turned out great (just brewed it in November and will be kegging/bottling today!) and I'll definitely be tweaking it along the way for a debut at Panic Alarmist some day. Some day.

That's all from the beer front. Lot's going on on the business front. More updates coming.