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Ideas of March

15 March 2011 » In Beer, Me, Opinion, PHP, Tech » 20 Comments

I miss blogging and the conversations that used to go with it. My friend Chris Shiflett probably feels the same way, because he is trying to start a blog revival with his Ideas of March post.

I used to blog much more actively, but with Twitter gaining momentum in early 2008 I found it easier to fire off a quick thought, observation, funny link, or another short piece there rather than put it on my blog. It helped building up an audience on Twitter was much faster due to the one-click nature of creating relationships and keeping track of content. I feel that the problem of doing the same for blog conversations has not yet been solved, despite services like Disqus.

Still, I think regular blogs are still relevant and valuable, because they do what the microblogging services cannot. Here are a few reasons why I like blogs:

  • Blog posts usually present a more complete and rounded point of view rather than a quip.
  • Blog posts require time to research, ruminate on, and rewrite before publishing, which leads to higher quality content.
  • They are indexed by a real search engines (Google), rather than the half-baked solution Twitter uses that cannot search more than 2 weeks in the past.
  • Posts can be saved to Instapaper or a similar service.

I want to get back to blogging, but a couple of things are slowing me down. Most of the things that I like to blog about fit into 3 broad areas: tech stuff — coding, architecture, interesting problems and solutions to them, etc; opinion pieces on various topics; and food & drink. So far I have been mixing them all in one blog, because I am not sure if it’s worth breaking out each one into a separate blog on the main site or even into a different site. I would be really interested to know if people mind reading mixed content like that or if they prefer more compartmentalized approach. I also want a better design for my blog, because I don’t feel that the current one allows me to present richer content well, like embedding photos, videos, code samples, and so on. Hopefully, I can find a designer who can help me with that.

In the end, really, it’s all about overcoming inertia and actually writing posts rather than just thinking about them. So I promise to write at least 2 blog posts before the end of March and resolve the abovementioned issues soon to help me blog more.

The blogs are dead. Long live the blogs.

Angel’s Share Experiment

05 August 2010 » In Beer » 9 Comments

Fermenting barleywine

I haven’t yet compiled a list of my top 10 beers, but if I did, Lost Abbey Angel’s Share would definitely be on it. I first tasted it at the 2010 Barleywine Festival at Toronado, and it was love from the first sip. The intense, rich maltiness, full body, and surprisingly dry finish — enhanced by the bourbon, oak, and vanilla character developed by aging it in Heaven Hill Wheat Whiskey barrels — make it a beer to savored and appreciated, especially at the end of the day in the company of good friends.

Here in California, we are sometimes lucky enough to find Angel’s Share on draft, and it might even be better than the bottled version. I even love the name, which refers to the portion (share) of a wine or spirit’s volume that is lost to evaporation during aging in the barrels.

Needless to say, I really want to brew a beer approaching this greatness.
The reason is not even economics. A small (375 ml) bottle of Angel’s Share goes
for around $16-18 locally, but I consider that a fair price, given the
ingredients, effort, and time that goes into its making. I would simply like to
extend my skills, learn, and, in the process, hopefully brew a great beer.

Now, there are a few obstacles. First, Lost Abbey does not release the base beer that goes into the bourbon barrels, and there is virtually no information on its composition, aside from a note on the website that it is “brewed with copious amounts of dark caramel malt.” Sources say that it is an English-style barleywine, an Imperial brown ale, or an American strong ale, so developing a clone recipe is a challenge. Second, I don’t have a bourbon barrel to age the beer in, and even if I did, the logistics of brewing 55 gallons of beer, fermenting, aging it a year, and then bottling over 300 bombers (22-oz bottles) are, shall we say, formidable. The closest thing a homebrewer can do to simulate this process is use oak cubes and then add some bourbon at bottling time.

Unable to find a clone recipe of the base beer, I decided to use the recipe from The Mad Fermentationist, who said that it was “inspired by, but not a clone of, Angel’s Share.” I am still learning how to craft beers from scratch, but I couldn’t stay away from tweaking his recipe anyway. I removed the Crystal 55L malt, cut the wheat malt by two thirds, added a good amount of Munich malt, and a bit of Carafa II Special. Whether that was a mistake or not will be shown by the end result. All of the hops I used were leftovers that I’ve been keeping in the fridge, so the alpha acid percentage had to be adjusted down, somewhat. A beer like this doesn’t really need much hop character, so a variety of hops can be used for bittering.

I also decided to brew a smaller batch, since the recipe is very experimental, and I don’t really need 5 gallons of 11% barleywine. An added bonus was that I could brew it on my stovetop, and ferment it in a 3-gallon Better Bottle.

Since this would be the biggest (highest ABV) beer I’ve ever brewed, I wanted to do it properly to ensure that the fermentation doesn’t get stuck halfway. To help with this, I made a 1.5 L starter from a very fresh vial of WLP001 yeast. I also followed the advice in How to brew a really BIG beer article, which suggests doing a long 146/149°F to 154/156°F step mash to make a very fermentable wort. For some reason, I thought that raising the mash temperature by decoction was a good idea. It wasn’t. The decoction boiled, but after adding it back to the main mash, the temperature hardly increased, so I had to improvise. More in the notes.

Given my recipe hacking and the troubles I encountered, I doubt this will be close to Angel’s Share, but I still hope it will be an enjoyable barleywine.

Angel’s Share Experiment

Overview
――――――――
Type: All-grain
Batch Size: 2.5 gal
Total Grain: 9.72 lbs
Expected OG: 1.102
Expected SRM: 22.6
Expected IBU (Rager): 82.1
Brewhouse Efficiency: 75%
Wort boil time: 120 min
Fermentation Temperature: 67°F

Fermentables
————————————
6.75 lbs. Maris Otter 66.1%
1.75 lbs. Munich 10L Malt (US) 17.1%
0.32 lbs. White Wheat Malt 3.1%
0.32 lbs. CaraVienna Malt (Belgium) 3.1%
0.32 lbs. CaraMunich Malt (Belgium) 3.1%
0.13 lbs. Special B Malt (Belgium) 1.2%
0.09 lbs. Chocolate Malt (US) 0.9%
0.06 lbs. Carafa II Special (Germany) 0.6%
0.25 lbs. Sugar – Muscovado 4.9%

Hops
————
0.6 oz. Galena [13.8% AA, pellet] @ 60 min.
0.4 oz. Challenger [6.5% AA, pellet] @ 30 min.
0.4 oz. Cascade [6.5% AA, pellet] @ 30 min.

Extras
——————
1 Whirlfloc tablet @ 15 min.
1 Servomyces yeast nutrient tablet @ 10 min.
0.8 oz American/Hungarian oak cubes secondary

Yeast
—————
White Labs WLP001 – California Ale

Water Profile
—————————————
San Francisco tap

Mash Schedule
—————————————
Type: step mash
Saccharification rest: 45 min. @ 147°F
Saccharification rest: 60 min. @ 155°F

Notes

6/19/10
Brew day, by myself.

Got some dough balls when mashing in, but the temp was 147°F exactly. After 15 minutes, pulled 3 quarts of medium-thickness mash into the kettle, and raised temp to 154°F and held 15 minutes for conversion.

Realized the chocolate malt I added from a leftover bag was uncrushed, so substituted 2.25 oz of crushed pale chocolate malt instead. Raised decoction temp to boiling, boiled for 15 minutes. Added back to the mash tun, but the temperature didn’t seem to go up at all. Infused 3 quarts of boiling water (by infusion calculator), temperature rose to only 151°F. Decided to leave at that, because adding more water would give me more than the desired boil volume. Mashed for another 40 minutes. Collected 3.75 gallons of 1.063 SG wort. Did a sparge with 1 quart to get more sugars out. Added after 30 minutes of the main boil. Obviously, the efficiency suffered a bit with such a small sparge.

Extended pre-hops boil by 30 minutes to evaporate more. Decided to add second batch of hops at -20 minutes to bring down IBUs a tad. Added muscovado sugar at flameout.

Chilled to 70°F, transferred to fermenter. Pre-pitch volume was 2.3 gallons. Aerated well by shaking, then pitched the active starter (made the night before). Placed in cooler with ice pack. Signs of fermentation (krausen and airlock) after only 2.5 hours.

6/20/10
Good strong fermentation going by morning, nice thick krausen. Temp is staying around 64°F.

6/21/10
Realized that Beer Alchemy was set to Tinseth formula instead of Rager while I was tweaking the IBUs, so most likely I over-bittered the barleywine. Womp womp. Dropped 6 oak cubes (3 American, 3 Hungarian) into the carboy.

6/22/10
Swirled the carboy to expel sulfur. Blowoff followed shortly, so attached a blowoff tube.

6/27/10
Temperature is up to 69°F. Gravity is down to 1.019.

7/7/10
Racked to the secondary on top of 0.8 oz of Hungarian-American oak cube mixture that’s been soaking in bourbon.

8/6/10
After a month on oak, the wood character is definitely present. The bitterness is there, but not overwhelming. Probably best to bottle soon.

8/15/10
Bottled with 1.5 oz of dextrose.

Variations on Chocolate Stout

29 June 2010 » In Beer » 6 Comments

As mentioned in the Brewing Résumé post, I once attempted a clone of Dieu du Ciel’s Aphrodisiaque stout, brewed with cocoa and vanilla. While the result was decent, if not very close to the original, it was popular enough that I am now left with only a single bottle of it. Various people have strongly hinted that they would like some more of this beer, so I was obliged to re-brew it.

Chocolate stout split into secondaries

After tasting Firestone Walker’s Velvet Merkin and similar beers, I decided to base the recipe on an oatmeal stout rather than a foreign extra stout as before. Oats are high in beta-glucans, provide a nice body and silkiness, and help with head retention. The recipe was based on the oatmeal stout from Brewing Classic Styles, with a couple of modifications. To avoid doing a cereal mash, I used regular flaked oats instead of old-fashioned, rolled ones. I also baked them in the oven until they turned golden and had a nice toasty smell and flavor. The Victory malt was reduced a bit to avoid saturating the beer with its biscuity taste, and I upped the roasted barley a tad and added a bit of Carafa II Special malt — a dehusked version of normal Carafa — to intensify the aroma and color without adding astringency. A portion of East Kent Goldings hops used for bittering was replaced with Willamette and the EKG was moved 30 min to give a bit of hop flavor.

There are various ways to add chocolate flavor to beer, including raw cocoa nibs, cocoa powder, chocolate syrup, or even just chocolate malt. Cocoa nibs are supposed to give a more integrated taste, but they require the beer to be on them for a couple of months, so I just went with what I used last time with good results — cocoa powder added at the last minute of the boil. Some advocate adding cocoa powder to secondary, and I might try that approach in the future. The vanilla flavor will come from organic vanilla beans. (I picked up 2 Indonesian beans at Whole Foods for the low, low price of $11 #sarcasm.)

San Francisco water is really soft, so I added some baking soda to keep the mash pH from falling too much due to the presence of dark malts.

Vanilla bean in vodka and oak cubes in bourbon

While working on the recipe, I happened upon the Breakfast Stout Riffs post on The Mad Fermentationist blog, which I’ve been reading a lot lately. Mike, the author, brewed an imperial stout and split the batch into different secondary fermenters to experiment with various additional ingredients. I was inspired by his approach, and decided to split my 5-gallon batch as well. The first two variations were easy: 2 gallons would go on top of medium-plus toast American oak cubes soaked in bourbon and some vanilla bean, and 1 gallon would have regular medium toast Hungarian oak cubes and some vanilla as well. After some hard thinking about the third variation, I simply stole the recipe from Mike — a half each of dried ancho and guajillo chile peppers, vanilla bean, and a bit of cinnamon. The final gallon was a complete gamble: sour cherries and dregs from a couple of bottles of Orval (basically adding Brettanomyces and some funky bacteria). I’ve never used fruit or Brett in beer before, so it will be interesting to see how this portion turns out (a few months from now, since Brett works fairly slowly).

I’m going to post a brewing/fermentation log, similar to how The Mad Fermentationist does it, and see if it’s helpful or not. The log will be updated as the beer progresses through fermentation, finishing, and tasting. (Feedback is appreciated.)

Chocolate Stout

Overview
――――――――
Type: All-grain
Batch Size: 5 gal
Total Grain: 13.88 lbs
Expected OG: 1.060
Expected SRM: 41.7
Expected IBU (Rager): 35.7
Brewhouse Efficiency: 70%
Wort boil time: 90 min
Fermentation Temperature: 68°F

Fermentables
————————————
10.0 lbs. Maris Otter 72.1%
1.25 lbs. Flaked Oats 9.0%
0.75 lbs. Chocolate Malt (US) 5.4%
0.63 lbs. Roasted Barley (US) 4.5%
0.50 lbs. Caramel 80L malt (US) 3.6%
0.50 lbs. Victory Malt (US) 3.6%
0.25 lbs. Carafa II Special (Germany) 1.8%

Hops
————
1.3 oz. Willamette [5.0% AA, pellet] @ 60 min.
1.0 oz. East Kent Goldings [5.0% AA, pellet] @ 30 min.

Extras
——————
1.00 Whirlfloc @ 15 min.
1.00 Servomyces yeast nutrient @ 10 min.
6 oz. Cocoa powder (unsweetened) @ 1 min.

Yeast
—————
White Labs WLP002 – English Ale

Water Profile
—————————————
San Francisco tap + 5 g of baking soda to the mash

Mash Schedule
—————————————
Type: single infusion
Saccharification rest: 60 min. @ 154°F

Notes

6/16/10
Brew day, by myself.

Made a 1.5 L starter two days before; good activity.

Decided to add 2 oz of pale chocolate malt and 2 oz of flaked barley for additional body to the grist.

Added 5 grams of baking soda to keep the mash pH from falling too far. Batch sparged in 2 steps. Collected 7.4 gal of wort at 1.055.

Extended pre-hops boil time by 10 min. to allow for more evaporation.

Wort chiller tubing broke after 10 min spraying a tad of water into the wort. Replaced the tubing. Chilled to 70°F, ended up with 5.5 gal of wort. Transferred 5 gal and aerated. Pitched 1 L of the starter after decanting 0.5 L. Fermentation started in about 4 hours.

6/18/10
Active fermentation, temp at 72°F despite using the cooler, so just letting it ferment at room temp.

6/19/10
Really thick yeast cake, this WLP002 yeast is definitely floculant. Gravity down to 1.026.

6/22/10
Gravity down to 1.022. Transferred to secondaries, split 4 ways:

  1. 1 oz medium-plus toast American oak cubes soaked in bourbon for a week + 1 Indonesian vanilla bean (2 gal)
  2. 1/2 oz medium toast Hungarian oak cubes + 1/3 Indonesian vanilla bean (1 gal)
  3. 1/4 tsp cinnamon + 1/2 ancho + 1/2 guajillo + 1/3 Indonesian vanilla bean (1 gal)
  4. 1/2 lb pitted sour cherries

6/24/10
Pitched a small starter made from the dregs of 2 Orval bottles into the cherries portion.

7/6/10
Bottled everything but the funky portion with 3 oz of dextrose. The final volume turned out to be less than 4 gallons, so hopefully it won’t be over-carbonated.

7/30/10
The bottle I used CarbTabs in didn’t carbonate much. Opened a bottle of the American oak variation, and that one carbonated beautifully. Nice foamy mocha-colored head that recedes to thin persisting ring. Good body, those flaked oats definitely help the fullness and smoothness of the mouthfeel. The chocolate and vanilla are present, but subtle, which is nice. The oak tannins help the mouthfeel as well. Overall, pretty enjoyable.

8/31/10
Received 31 averaged score in MoreBeer Forum Competition (33/33/27 individual scores). Entered into 21A category (Spice/Herb/Veg beer). Criticism was that there was too much cocoa flavor and aroma, covering up vanilla and malt. Also, a bit of astringency.

Brewing Résumé

04 June 2010 » In Beer » 5 Comments

My first brew

My first brew

I ventured into homebrewing in October 2008, and judging by my brewing logs, I’ve made 16 batches since then, which is somewhat less often than once a month. I’m glad I kept the logs from the very start (using Beer Alchemy), because it allowed me to go back and look at the recipes as well as the notes I kept for each batch.

My first kit was an English-style Best Bitter ale from MoreBeer, and boy was I nervous when reading all the steps to be followed during cleaning, sanitizing, steeping, boiling, cooling, fermenting, and bottling. Being a perfectionist, I didn’t want to screw any of it up, but my good friend Sean Coates — a much more experienced brewer — told me, “Relax, beer wants to be made.” What he meant is that even if I did screw something up, the end result would most likely still be beer. This brings to mind another saying in the homebrewing world that was popularized by Charlie Papazian, “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew,” or RDWHAHB.

Well, my first beer turned out to be drinkable and actually pretty good. Encouraged by that success and the approach of the holidays, I bought another kit, a Christmas Ale. Brewed together with Gene X, it also came out well, and so I was off. Over the next few months, I scoured homebrewing boards for advice and recipes, and I brewed everything from Dunkelweizen (Tim‘s favorite) to Rye IPA (Jordan‘s favorite) to a smoked porter (no one’s favorite, but still good). I also migrated from using extract with steeping grains to doing partial mashes.

In March of 2009, I was in Montréal for a PHP conference and was introduced to the local brewing scene by Sean. I especially liked the Dieu du Ciel brewery. The second time we visited it, I tried their Aphrodisiaque stout, and, rumor has it, exclaimed, “This is delicious! I dub it The Panty Peeler, and I’ll have to brew a clone of it.” A few weeks later, I did just that, and while I didn’t quite clone it, the result was immensely popular with the female contingent. 🙂

Fermenting beer

Fermenting beer

Jamil’s Amber-Red Ale was my last partial mash beer, but also my most winning one, since it got 3rd place in the American Amber category at the 2009 Puget Sound Pro-Am competition. After that, I switched to all-grain brewing and haven’t looked back.

My friends Joe, Laura, and a few other local geeks from Michigan, are huge fans of Bell’s Oberon, an American wheat ale. Seeing as Oberon is not available west of the Rockies, I decided to try to clone it as well. The challenge was that Bell’s uses a unique yeast for fermentation, but since they also bottle condition with it, I was able to culture a starter from a single bottle of the beer. With that yeast and a supposedly authentic recipe for Oberon, I made the batch and the result was quite good, if not quite Oberon-like.

My next challenge was Berliner Weiße, an authentic German beer with a sour, refreshing, low-alcohol profile. I wanted to make it with the traditional sour mash technique (instead of using Lactobacillus culture). This involves keeping the mash at 100°F for a couple of days while it sours due to deliberate contamination by bacteria living on the surface of barley. Towards the end, the mash smelled like old gym socks filled with stinky cheese, but it tasted great. After a quick boil and fermentation, I had some really delicious sour beer that would be excellent for summer.

I developed a taste for saisons, so I wanted to try my hand at making one. My version involved a recipe from Brewing Classic Styles, a pinch of spices, and the newly acquired FermWrap heater. Well, my creation was not as dry and spicy as saisons should be, but the aroma and taste were excellent. I entered it in the World Cup of Beer competition as a Belgian Pale Ale, and it scored 34.6 out of 50, lacking just 0.4 points for a 3rd place finish. Better luck next time.

Lacking a refrigeration unit, I hadn’t made lagers yet, but I really enjoy Baltic Porters, so I brewed a batch from BCS again, and asked Brien to ferment it in his temp-controlled freezer. Recently — after a month in the primary, and 10 weeks of lagering — the porter was bottled. Preliminary tasting shows a bit of fusel alcohols, but hopefully that’ll mellow out with some aging.

And finally, my last batch was Hopcode Cache Rye IPA, a recipe from Sean. The name is a play on words. I dry hopped it with Amarillo (one of my favorite hops), and it turned out great, so I entered it into the Alameda County Fair competition. The judging is expected to happen on June 12.

What comes next? Well, that’s a topic for another post. But here’s my brewing résumé so far, in chronological order (recipes in Beer Alchemy format).

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On Beer

31 May 2010 » In Beer, Me » 3 Comments

Hi, my name is Andrei and I am a beer enthusiast.

To some of you this may not be news, but beer is something that has become a significant part of my life during the last couple of years. That is not to say that I didn’t drink beer before – I did, but somewhat indiscriminately and without paying much attention to the actual product. And while I do enjoy other fine adult beverages, such as wine, bourbon, whisky, gin, and well-crafted cocktails, beer is what I feel passionate about and I finally want to start writing a bit about it, on this blog, for now.

Beer is the world’s oldest and most widely consumed alcoholic beverage and the third most popular drink overall after water and tea. Many anthropologists and historians believe that beer is what made early hunter-gatherers finally settle down and become sedentary farmers, because well, they needed barley to brew it, so one can say that beer was one of the driving forces behind the rise of civilization. Moreover, most fresh water wasn’t exactly safe to drink back then and beer provided both hydration and sustenance.

Beer has more styles and varieties than any other alcoholic beverage, and though almost all beer is made using the same 4 ingredients (water, barley, hops, and yeast), the sheer number of additional ingredients that can be used to brew beer and the creativity that goes into the process can put almost everything else to shame. Despite this, there is still a widely spread perception that beer is that pale, cold, “subtly flavored” beverage that is marketed by the giant companies collectively known in the brewing circles as BMC. I’ll let you guess what that stands for. Thankfully, there is a thriving craft brewing industry both in the United States and abroad now, and beer is finally starting to be treated with respect.

About a year and half ago I got into homebrewing, thanks to the efforts of Brien Wankel and especially Sean Coates, who has been instrumental in answering a bajillion questions I had when getting started. I never thought that I could actually make beer myself, but after reading the online version of How to Brew by John Palmer, I was immediately fascinated by how easy and yet how sophisiticated the brewing process can be. The more advanced part of it has to deal with biochemistry, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, and even metallurgy and this appealed to the geek in me. I bought the starter kit from MoreBeer and made my first batch, which was a Best Bitter English-style ale. When I opened a bottle 4 weeks later and found that not only was it not bad, but actually pretty drinkable, I knew that I was hooked. Since then I’ve brewed about once a month, exploring various techniques and styles. I’ve also sent some of my beers to competitions and even won a 3rd place in the American Amber category at Puget Sound Pro-Am last year.

Crafting a beverage that can be enjoyed by yourself and others is a great feeling, and I hope to share more about it in the coming posts. Additionally, I plan to review various beers and write about the beer industry, events, places to find good beer and hopefully much more.

Cheers!