Category Archives: Brewing

How a beer geek becomes a BJCP judge

It starts out innocently enough. A new home-brew supplies store opens up in your town. You stroll in there a few times. You think about how you used to home brew, long ago, in the late ’70s. That was right after home brewing became legal, when the easiest way to enjoy the hard-to-find English-style ales that you’d come to love while living in Europe was to brew your own. So you buy some equipment and you start to brew again…

Home brewing has come a long way since those early days. Back then I brewed with liquid extract that came in a can. I did use whole hops; I can’t recall which variety but there was probably only one choice, and it was probably Cascade. The beer I brewed was very drinkable, but I’d only brewed a few batches before good imported beers became easier to find and brewing no longer seemed worth my time. I gave away my equipment and didn’t think about it again for many years.

But then the home brew store opened, and CFL and I were intrigued. We joined the local home brew club, but it took us a couple more months to plunge in, buy the equipment, and actually brew. That was a little more than two years ago. From that point it was another ten months (and 20 batches) before we plunged again, bought some more equipment, and became all-grain brewers.

At first all I wanted to brew was English ales (mostly ESBs and porters) and all CFL wanted to brew was American Amber Ales. Neither of us cared for IPAs — they were just too bitter! But then the club decided to have a competition, and we were all asked to brew an IPA.

We tasted a few IPAs to try and get an idea of what they were supposed to taste like and why anyone would want to drink anything so bitter. We learned that they do have a refreshing “zing” that began to grow on us. We brewed an IPA, but it didn’t come out hoppy enough. So we brewed another. And another. Then Stone came out with their “Enjoy By” series and then somebody told us about an amazing beer called Pliny the Elder. Then we brewed a rye IPA and an imperial IPA and a black IPA. And then some more IPAs. Dang, these IPAs are addictive!

I found myself critically evaluating beers, discussing their relative merits with other home brewers, small craft brewers, and anyone else who would listen. Gradually I crossed the invisible line between beer drinker and beer enthusiast, and then I embraced my new identity as beer geek. PhD-holding, marathon-running, left-handed, vegetarian beer geek. Yeah, that’s me.

We heard about Hop and Brew School put on by Hop Union, the hop-processing cooperative that is the primary hop supplier to the craft brewing industry. We went to hop school in Yakima where we saw mountains of hops and our senses were overwhelmed by lupulins.

We came home with fresh Citra hops and we brewed a fresh-hop IPA.

Throughout this process I was using an app called Untappd to record, rate, and comment on every commercial beer I drank (you can find me on Untappd — I’m Slow Happy, of course). After a few hundred checkins I couldn’t help but develop a vocabulary to describe what I was tasting. CFL started to say that I had a great palate and I really should think about becoming a beer judge.

The American Homebrewers Association has a formal judge certification program called, you guessed it, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). I first learned about the BJCP because, in addition to certifying judges, they maintain the style guide which describes over 70 distinct styles of beer (not to mention a bunch of meads and ciders). Each beer style description specifies a given beer’s aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, history, ingredients, and “vital statistics” (ABV, gravity, and so on). As a home brewer, I prefer to brew specific styles and try to produce authentic, recognizable beers — as opposed to just tossing whatever I want into the kettle and calling it “beer.”

So CFL was urging me to become a judge, and I was reading and learning and thinking about all aspects of beer anyway. I’m always up for a challenge — why not study for the BJCP exam?

The BJCP program is structured and rigorous — it is NOT just about drinking lots of beer for fun! First I had to secure a seat in a judging exam. I sent some emails to exam administrators and was told, several times, that seats were usually reserved for the local club. Months went by before an administrator replied that he could fit me into an exam this past July. But I was getting ready for a three-week vacation in June and I knew I wouldn’t have time to study. So I asked to be wait-listed for a future exam.

I was offered another seat for October 25. I grabbed it! But to be eligible for the judging exam, I first had to pass the online entrance exam. This is a test of beer style knowledge. I spent weeks reading and rereading and rereading the BJCP style guide. The exam consists of 200 true/false, multiple-choice, and multi-choice-multi-answer questions that must be completed in 60 minutes. It was an intense, humbling 60 minutes, but on September 23 I passed it on my first attempt.

That left me a month to prepare for the judging exam. I got my hands on as many commercial beers representing as many styles as possible. This included styles I don’t enjoy like hefeweizens, Belgian ales, and (ugh!!) smoked beers. To find the more obscure styles, we made a few 150-mile round trips to a nearby city with a large bottle shop. CFL and I would come home with our goodies, sit down together, and open a bottle of beer. He’d happily quaff his half while I swirled, sniffed, sipped, savored, and filled out the judging sheet on my half.

Well, sometimes I just drank beer out of my shoe. We were camping and my hands got cold! Yes, that’s Fremont Interurban IPA — yum!

But mostly I was a serious student.

On October 25 we departed very early to drive 125 miles to the exam location for the 9:00 AM exam. I tasted six beers representing six styles and scribbled frantically for the 90-minute duration. I think I did fine for the first four beers, but my taste buds got a bit confused for the last two.

I won’t know whether I passed for three months or more! Because judging is, in some respects, a subjective exercise, the exams go through a rigorous review process by a panel of nationally-ranked judges to ensure that all judges nationally are doing things as similarly as possible.  This process takes time.

I seized an opportunity to sit again for the next exam, on January 25. Most people actually do pass, but this way if I didn’t pass I’ll have another chance. If I did pass and I can improve my score in January, that will help me advance more quickly up the beer judging hierarchy.

As a new “rank pending” BJCP judge, I was encouraged to volunteer to judge at an upcoming local competition. I did just that this past Saturday! I judged stouts and strong ales — and had fun and learned a lot. There were 29 judges, most of whom were bearded males, many no more than half my age. Yeah, these are my people. CFL came along and worked as a steward, bringing fresh glasses and crackers, and whisking away our discarded bottles. He enjoyed it too.

So that’s how a home brewer becomes a beer geek and then somehow goes all the way down the rabbit hole and becomes a judge. Or so I hope. I’ll let you know as soon as I get the email that says I passed!

P.S. While I was writing this today, I received the email giving me my official BJCP judge ID. I haven’t yet passed the exam, but I’m officially a member of the organization. Say hello to BJCP member D1404!

 

A week of beer tourism (part 2)

I left off my tale of our week of beer tourism with a big sigh, sadly bidding farewell to Russian River Brewery. It seemed that the rest of our trip would be anticlimactic, but there were still more treats in store!

Our next day’s travel took us 62 miles from Santa Rosa to Ukiah. We got a late, lazy start, which allowed us to have lunch just a few miles up the road at Bear Republic in Healdsburg. We ate on the shady patio, from which we could see the river-side trail that we would walk after lunch. Bear Republic is a large craft brewery with wide distribution, so we mostly tasted beers that we couldn’t get easily elsewhere. The standout beers for me were the Hallertau Blanc Rebellion (an IPA) and Cafe Racer 15 (a double IPA). Are you noticing a pattern here? I did actually quite enjoy their Maibock as well — it was delicate and not overly malty with a crisp peppery finish.

After our walk we continued north to Ukiah. We checked into our motel we set off on foot to Mendocino Brewing. The brewery has a great history, having first opened in 1983 as the Hopland Brewery. It was the first brewpub opened in California (second in the US) after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The original brewing equipment (and the brewers themselves) came from the then-recently closed New Albion Brewery. New Albion was a craft beer beacon in the darkness when the rest of the country was drinking nothing but light lagers.

Hopland Brewery’s name was soon changed to Mendocino Brewing. Their flagship Red Tail Ale brought them fame and attention from investors. In 1997 they were 75% bought out by United Breweries Group, a global brewery holding company. While they continue to brew Mendocino’s original recipes in Ukiah, they have essentially become a “crafty” brewery — one that is corporate-owned while masquerading as a genuine craft brewery.

Crafty or not, we wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt so we stopped by their taproom. Well, I wasn’t impressed. We and the lone bartender were the only people in the place. Their beers were all too malty, too bland, or in one case inappropriately sour. I have to say that the lack of passion and personal attention to their products definitely showed.

The bartender was kind enough to tell us about the other local brewery, so we tipped her well and moved on to Ukiah Brewing Company. What a difference! The place was busy and lively, and the beer and food were generally good. My favorite among the beers was the Coops Stout, which tasted appropriately of coffee and dark chocolate. The Pilsner Ukiah was another winner: unfiltered yet very pretty, crisp, and clean. Their IPA had a hint of sourness, but overall our experience at this brewpub was positive.

Our next day was another short driving day, which took us over some beautiful roads. We first went over the hills from Ukiah to Boonville for a stop at Anderson Valley Brewery. This is another well-known brewery with readily-available beers. They pride themselves on being located in a quaint small town (with its own alleged dialect!) in the middle of nowhere.

We were put off immediately by the brewery buildings, which were winery-cute. As an architect, CFL was offended by their unnecessary and too-fussy design details. We walked into the taproom, which wasn’t very busy, and it took us nearly five minutes to get the attention of the three sullen-looking employees behind the bar. Then while we were tasting we were bothered by a couple of ill-behaved dogs. When we complained, we were rather haughtily informed that this was a “dog-friendly” establishment. I guess we were supposed to enjoy our dog encounters there.

We took the brewery tour, but it was very brief and the tour guide was neither well-informed nor enthusiastic. However, we did appreciate the retro good looks of their copper equipment.

As for the Anderson Valley beers, we did enjoy all three of their IPAs (Hop Ottin IPA, Nettied Madge Black IPA, and Heelch o’ Hops), and their Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout is justly famous. But we couldn’t wait to get our of there, as our next stop was the seaside village of Mendocino.

CFL actually lived in Mendocino for a couple of years, almost 30 years ago. There are no breweries in Mendocino, but we spent the afternoon there walking along the headlands. My words can’t do it justice, so I’ll show you some photos.

Wasn’t that a nice break from drinking beer? We thought so.

Still, the road ahead promised more beer, so we carried on!

North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg is famous for Old Rasputin, a Russian Imperial Stout. I knew from my vast internet research that their brewpub menu was almost exclusively steak and seafood, so we chose to eat dinner beforehand at a Mexican restaurant across the street. With our tummies well-primed we then settled down to our evening’s tasting.

We sat in the bar, which was very busy but well-attended by a couple of entertaining bartenders. It was a Friday night and the mostly-local crowd was lively and friendly. The beers started out so-so with a couple of mild and unassertive beers. Things got a whole lot better with Old Stock Ale, which tasted of port, vanilla beans, berries, and saddle leather. Really nice. The star of the show was absolutely the Old Rasputin. I got a bit rhapsodic over the idea of drinking it there at the source, on nitro, most expertly served by the bartender who explained to me exactly how the nitro serving process works. A world-class tasting experience at a small but world-class brewery. Well done you guys — cheers!

Our motel in Fort Bragg was directly across from the beach, with a view that was so fetching I got up early the next morning to go for a run.

Once in the car we continued northward through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We took our time, driving along the Avenue of the Giants and stopping several times for short hikes through the trees. We have big trees where we live, but we still think the coast redwoods are very special.

Now back to the beer! We greatly enjoyed Eel River Brewing in Fortuna. Perhaps we enjoyed their beers so much because by this time we’d pretty much decided to limit our tasting to IPAs, double IPAs, and Imperial Stouts. “Amber? Meh. Blonde? Forget it.” Eel River’s Organic IPA, Citra IPA, and Emerald Triangle were all rather wonderful.

After a post-beer walk we moved on to our night’s destination in Eureka. We’d been to Lost Coast Brewery on a previous trip and eagerly anticipated a return visit. The brewpub is in a funky old downtown building. It was very busy on this Saturday night — we had to wait for a table. We tried their 20th Anniversary Ale, which utterly did not work for us. It tasted of bubblegum and watermelon — yuck! Fortunately their Double Trouble (a double IPA) was wonderful. Great big piny bitterness, resiny mouthfeel, assertive bitter orange finish. Mighty fine!

We did a lot of driving the next day, all the way back to Portland for our final night on the road. We were delayed nearly two hours by miles of road  construction. As a result, we had no time for pub crawling. We took the light rail into downtown and headed straight to the Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House for dinner and beer.

The date was June 29. I was tingly with anticipation because I knew that Black Butte XXVI had been released only two days prior. Deschutes does an annual release of a barrel-aged, augmented version of its famous Black Butte Porter, and it’s always well worth the hype.

We ordered a flight with our meal and I teased myself with Inversion IPA, Fresh Squeezed IPA and Hop in the Dark CDA (a black IPA), all of which were perfectly wonderful,  before moving on to the star of the evening.

I have to tell you that Black Butte XXVI brought tears — literally it brought tears! — to my eyes. It’s barrel-aged with added Theo Chocolate cocoa nibs, pomegranate molasses, and cranberries. I usually turn up my nose at added ingredients in beer, but Deschutes does it with perfect restraint. It’s lovely, both to drink and to look at.

I intended to leave the restaurant with several bottles of it, but alas, they had already sold out of bottles and were awaiting a delivery from the brewery in Bend two days later.

Three weeks later I still haven’t found it around home, but I’m hopeful that I’ll still be able to obtain some when we go to Bend later this summer.

We came home with a few remaining bottles of Pliny the Elder, a couple of  other  lesser beers, and some great memories. We visited 18 breweries and tasted (or in some cases drank a few pints of) something in the neighborhood of 130 to 140 distinct beers. We only had a few really bad ones.

There were three clear standouts, highlights of the whole trip: Pliny the Elder (because it’s Pliny!), Old Rasputin (perfect at the source) and Black Butte XXVI.

We’re already planning our next beer trip (did I say something about… BEND???). But for the time being, it’s good to be home.

Cheers!

 

A week of beer tourism (part 1)

When I last left off the tale, we were leaving Monterey after a week’s worth of car-club activities. We could have taken two days to drive home, but we opted instead for a slow, steady week’s worth of short drives, long walks, and serious beer tourism.

Central and northern California are home to some world-class craft breweries, and we made it our mission to visit as many of them as possible.

When we visit a brewery, we usually share a flight. This gives each of us about a 2-ounce taste of several beers. That way we get to sample lots of beers without actually drinking all that much. Then we always follow a tasting with a walk. In an hour or so we can tour a downtown and see it in a way that most tourists don’t, while adding up our daily mileage as well.

We’d actually incorporated beer tourism throughout our trip, beginning with a tour of the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles. They did a nice tour, almost 40 minutes worth of walking around the brewery before returning to the taproom for tastes. The guide was both knowledgeable and passionate; he enjoyed our nerdy nit-picky home brewer questions about the details of their brewing process. I bought a bottle of Parabola, a barrel-aged imperial stout, to take home.

In Santa Cruz we visited Seabright Brewery. We enjoyed the beachy vibe on their pink and turquoise patio. Their beers were all good but there were no standouts.

During our week in Monterey we made a few visits to Peter B’s brewpub in the Portola Hotel. Their Legend of Laguna IPA was quite nice. We also tasted several good beers from English Ales Brewery in nearby Marina, although we never made it to their taproom. We dashed into Alvarado Street Brewery just before closing time one night for a quick half pint of Duane’s World IPA.

Upon leaving Monterey we stayed a couple of nights with a niece of Chuck’s in the bay area. This allowed us to spend several hours in San Francisco walking to breweries. We couldn’t get into Anchor (their tours are booked six months in advance, and there is no other way to taste at the brewery), but we visited 21st Amendment (home of Brew Free! or Die IPA), Thirsty Bear, and Cellarmaker. The beers at Thirsty Bear were pretty good, but the food was awesome — it was an outstanding choice for our late lunch. Then at tiny Cellarmaker we encountered a beer called Coffee and Cigarettes. I don’t care for smoked beers, but this smoked porter was rather wonderful, and very aptly named.

The next day we began ever-so-slowly making our way northward. On a friend’s recommendation, we stopped in Fairfax to visit Iron Springs Brewery. Their Sless’ Stimulating Stout won a gold medal in the Oatmeal Stout category at the 2104 World Beer Cup. It was very nice, but my favorite was the Casey Jones Imperial IPA. We had to take an extra long walk after that one, but downtown Fairfax was absolutely charming.

From there  we drove just a few miles north to Petaluma, for Lagunitas Brewing. This is one of the big ones, with national distribution of their core beers. We sat in their shady patio enjoying laid-back live music and limited our tasting to small-batch beers that we can’t get at home. Night Time (a black IPA) and Fusion 22 (an IPA) were the standouts for me. It’s pretty clear that hops are an acquired taste, and we’ve turned into major hopheads. We love IPAs! Unfortunately Lagunitas is in the middle of an industrial park so we didn’t much enjoy our walk afterwards, but we soldiered on and got it done.

Then it was on to beer Mecca! We spent a night in Santa Rosa with a college friend of Chuck’s, which allowed us to visit a small local brewpub called Russian River Brewery. Their Pliny the Elder (a double IPA, natch!) has been voted the best beer in America by the members of the American Homebrewing Association for the last six years in a row. Their Pliny the Younger (a triple IPA), released each year in February, provokes 12-hour lines at the brewery and sells out in days. We’ve never tasted the Younger. We’d only had the Elder once before, in San Diego. Russian River’s distribution is extremely limited — it goes to select counties in California, a few places in Oregon and Colorado, and oddly to Philadelphia. For us, drinking Pliny at the source was a huge thrill that we believe every craft drinker must experience!

Russian River served up the largest flight I have ever seen. Despite their fame in the IPA realm, most of their beers are Belgian style (not our favorite) but it was Russian River so we had to sample everything. In this photo, however, you’ll notice that I’m hoisting a pint glass. I was taking microscopic sips of the Belgians but devoting most of my attention to that pint of Pliny.

Russian River was the one stop on our brewery tour where we actually bought beer apparel. We also bought a treasured six-pack of Pliny to go. A few of the bottles actually made it all the way home with us.

Gosh, I’ve only got partway through the week and I’m pushing 900 words already. I have more wonderful breweries to tell you about, but after Russian River I need to exhale!

Why am I still inside on this perfect summer day, anyway? I think I’ll stop writing for today and go for a bike ride.

Cheers!

 

Days and miles — flying by!

Wow! Three weeks into the new year and I’m finally finding time to do a little blogging. I always take it as a good sign when I don’t have time to write — it means I’m out there squeezing every bit of life out of the hours and moments of each day.

Today marks 21 days into the new year, and I’ve already logged 168 miles. Wow! I’m averaging 8 miles a day! I don’t think I can maintain this pace indefinitely. On the other hand, once I start doing some long bike rides I’ll possibly move the average mileage even higher.

I did my traditional “January in Santa Barbara” trip recently. Unlike last year, which was very windy, the weather was perfect! I ran all four of the days I was there, including three simply wonderful barefoot runs on the beach. In past years I felt like a hero if I could manage a mile of barefoot running; this year I did beach runs of 2.5, 3.25, and 3.7 miles. I continue to be amazed at the things I can do that once were out of reach.

Views like this kept me inspired and coming back for more:

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Although this photo was taken across the street from the beach, an encounter with a female Acorn Woodpecker provided the other visual highlight of my time in Santa Barbara:

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It was a warm day and she was determined to drink, so she was patient with me while I took several shots.

During my time in Santa Barbara I managed to sneak in a couple of visits to Santa Barbara Brewing Company, where I sampled several of their excellent beers. What is a vacation without a little beer tourism?

Speaking of beer, CFL and I brewed an experimental batch recently. I created a simple SMASH (single malt and single hop) pale ale recipe. We divided the wort and pitched two different yeasts (American and Thames Valley). After several days, we further divided the proto-beer into six one-gallon jugs, which we dry-hopped (or not) in different ways. Don’t our little jugs look cute all bundled up and cozy in their matching towels?

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We bottled them a week ago and we’re anxiously awaiting side-by-side taste tests next week.

Tomorrow I’m going to see if I can ride my bike a little further up the hill than last time… I made it up Hurricane Ridge Road to mile 2 the other day, but I still have 15 more to go!

We’re busy! We’re happy! We’re not always so slow, but that’s okay. There is SO much to do and SO many miles yet to go!

Hopping off to Yakima

The dedicated, hard-working, fun-loving brewers at Slow Happy Brewing (that would be CFL and me) did a little field research over this past weekend. We hopped over the Cascades to Yakima for the Fresh Hop Ale Festival!

Yakima, Washington is situated in the middle of a warm, relatively dry plain that just happens to be one of the world’s great hop growing regions. If it weren’t for the Yakima Valley and a few families of hop growers who had the foresight to plant hops in the early 1930s – before the end of Prohibition — we might not be enjoying all those distinctly American takes on pale ales and India pale ales and imperial IPAs that we so know and love today.

We were too late to see the hop harvest, which happened over the period of a week or two in early September. But the festival allowed us to sample the earliest fruits of the harvest!

The rules for the fresh hop festival are simple. Each of the 30+ participating brewers must bring and pour at least one fresh hop beer (also known as “wet hop” beers because the hops are used without first being dried). During hop harvest time, craft brewers bring trucks to collect their just-picked hops and rush them back to their breweries. The wet hops must be in the brew kettle within 24 hours of harvest.

Most of the breweries were from the greater Seattle area or the area around Spokane, but there were a few big out of state craft brewers (including Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Lagunitas, and Deschutes) and two local Yakima breweries. 

Over the course of the five-hour festival, we managed to get one-ounce tastes of about 30 beers. I tried to take good notes, but the hops do tend to overwhelm the taste buds after a while. The wet-hop brewing process truly showcases the different flavors and aromas of each hop variety. All of the hops come through as more floral/fruity/piny/whatever and a tad less bitter than their dried brethren. It was educational (and fun) for us as home brewers to learn, for example, which hops produce the strongest melon, tropical fruit, citrus, etc. flavors. We learned that we’ll probably avoid using too much Amarillo or Simcoe, as I’m not personally a big fan of melon or papaya flavors in my beer. (Remember that these beers do not actually contain any melons or papayas, or whatever — they just taste and smell that way due to the essential oils present in the hops.)

The day after the festival we hoped to visit one of the local breweries, but the folks at Bale Breaker were taking a no doubt well deserved day off. The brewery is located smack in the middle of the family hop farm’s Field 41. If you look closely you can see the “41″ in their logo.

Although we wished we could have seen the hop bines (not a typo — hops are bines, not vines — you can google it) in their pre-harvest glory, we did enjoy the geometric patterns formed by the supporting poles and cables.

On our way home we stopped in the small town of Roslyn, on the eastern side of the Cascades. There we took a short hike on the Coal Mines Trail, on a former railroad line that had served several very productive coal mines in the late 19th and early 20th century. Like most railroad trails, it provided a gentle and scenic walk, just out of sight of the local roads.

The town of Roslyn is quaint and unbelievably cute. And, as it happened, they have a brewery!

The modern Roslyn Brewing Company opened in 1990, but there was a long history of brewing in Roslyn before Prohibition. The coal miners and the brewers who served them came primarily from Germany and eastern Europe, bringing their lager recipes with them. Today’s brewery specializes in lagers (rare in the craft beer industry), and one of their beers is a replica of the original Roslyn dark lager. It’s quite tasty!

By the way, if the name “Roslyn” rings a bell to you, it’s possible you know it as the location for the 1990s TV series “Northern Exposure.” Neither CFL or I ever watched it, so it was all lost on us. But the local museum’s web site has some information and photos about the show that may be of interest to you.

All in all it was a great weekend, an educational and relaxing one. For the third year in a row, I managed to be somewhere away from home in an interesting place around the time of my birthday. I got a welcome break from all the marathon training I have been doing for the past several months (which you can read about here). And after all the rain over the past three weeks, it was great to spend some time in dry, warm central Washington!

Slow Happy Brewing: We’re going all-grain!

The other day CFL and I bottled our 20th batch of beer. Twenty 5-gallon batches in ten months… gosh, that’s something like 900-950 bottles of beer! Good thing we have friends who like to come over for beer tasting parties.

Batch #20 is something we call a “pseudo-lager” — it’s a very light, sessionable pale ale brewed with Saaz hops and ale yeast. Saaz is one of the “noble” hops, meaning it’s an old European variety and more or less the signature pilsner hop. If you remember the old brand “Lucky Lager,” you’ll appreciate the name we gave this batch – Chucky LaGer. We do hope it will have more character than the old Lucky.

Although we have brewed, bottled, and (I confess!) drank a whole lot of beer over the past ten months, some people would say that we aren’t yet real brewers. We’ve been using malt extract, a highly refined powder or syrup made from barley, for the bulk of the fermentables in our recipes. We’ve used actual, recognizable grains only in small quantities to produce desired colors and flavors. As an analogy, think of baking a cake from a mix (and adding a few ingredients here and there just for character) rather than baking completely from scratch.

Extract brewing is faster and requires less equipment than all-grain brewing. It’s an easy way to get started with brewing. But now, twenty batches in, we’ve mastered the basics and we’re ready to get creative with recipes and processes.

The key piece of equipment that we needed was a mash tun. This is a large vessel in which grain is steeped or “mashed” in hot water at a precise temperature for an extended period of time. I may not have all the right words for this, but basically the process works like this: Mashing causes the barley to release its fermentable sugars. After repeated rinses (sparging) you collect a sufficient amount of thick sweet liquid, which is then boiled to produce the wort that will become the beer. In essence, the mashing process creates the equivalent of the extracts that we’ve used since the beginning, but we’ll have control over exactly which varieties of barley we use. An English type of barley (for example Maris Otter) for an English-style beer, a German type for a German-style beer, and so on.

In search of the perfect mash tun, we pored through catalogues and drooled over stainless steel tiered systems with dairy fittings, pumps, digital temperature controllers, and price tags running well into four figures.

Ultimately we decided it would be prudent to start modestly.

This is not an Igloo cooler! This is a mash tun.

Here is a closeup of the spigot, which replaces the default Igloo spigot.

Inside the mash tun there is a false bottom. This screen allows the wort to exit the mash tun through the tubing at the bottom, leaving the spent grain behind in the mash tun.

There are formulas to calculate exactly how much water to add, when, and at what temperature to complete each step of the mashing process. We’re told that the cooler will maintain our desired temperature (usually 152 degrees) without budging for the hour or so that the process will take. 

I had intended that our first all-grain batch would be an IPA, but then our home brew club decided we’d all brew exactly the same recipe and compare everyone’s results at the September meeting. So I’ve juggled the schedule and we’ll begin our all-grain odyssey with an American Stout.

Are we excited? Yes!

It’s another new learning curve, and we’re all about that.

We’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I’m going to relax and have a home brew.

Chasing rarities

Some things are rare, special and worth pursuing…

I made a beer run the other day.

San Diego-area brewery Stone Brewing’s Enjoy By series of imperial IPA is always rare, special, and worth pursuing! These insanely hopped big beers are brewed and bottled in small batches every month or so, with a drink-by date emblazoned in huge numbers right on the label — each beer is actually named for its unique “enjoy by” date. To further enhance the “buzz” around this beer, Stone ships each batch only to a few selected markets around the US. Which markets? Well, each batch’s destination is decided by fan voting (via Twitter and Facebook). This brilliant marketing idea creates a scarcity mentality that keeps beer nerds clamoring for the next batch. This scarcity mentality, in turn, leads retailers to guard their supplies and limit sales to just a bottle or two per customer.

Of the half dozen or so batches brewed so far, three have come to my corner of the country. I managed to find a single bottle of Enjoy By 2/15/13 at a convenience store right in my small town, just a couple of days before the expiration date. That one bottle was enough to hook me, and now I regularly check Stone’s web site for news of their latest release.

Enjoy By 4/1/13 was here also, but I actually drank plenty of it in San Diego when I was there in March. I never needed to look for it here.

The latest release, Enjoy By 7/4/13, was my target when I set out on my beer run. I knew from Stone’s helpful map that two stores on my side of Puget Sound had probably received some. As it happened, both stores were in the same town about 65 miles away. What a perfect excuse for a road trip on a sunny spring day!

At the first store they were sold out! But I struck gold at the second store, where they surprised me by willingly selling me… umm… a bottle or two more than I expected. I now have a nice supply of Enjoy By 7/4/13, and I expect to enjoy them a few times between now and the 4th of July.

Having a bottle or two of a rare beer like this one in the fridge is a tasty temptation to anticipate while out on a hike. Recently we hiked up the Elwha for the first time since last autumn. The river was running just a tad higher than it was back on that day. The mossy rocks I photographed were nowhere to be seen!

Along our way we encountered a few rarities. Wildflowers, mushrooms, and odd specimens are popping out everywhere! This is a candystick. It’s one of the strangest but aptly-named plants I’ve ever seen.

It’s not always necessary to hike upriver to find rare and special things. The other day we went to a picnic with some friends at a local county park. Here is the view from very near our table.

That’s a Nootka rose, our local wild rose, in the foreground. Nootka roses aren’t particularly rare here, but special? Indeed! Worth chasing? Completely.

Until next time, keeping it slow and happy….

Volunteering at the National Homebrewers Competition, round 1

We didn’t quite have the guts to enter one of our own beers, but when the call went out for volunteers to help at the first round of the National Homebrewers Competition, we eagerly raised our hands!

Is NHC a big deal? Well, there were 12 judging centers all across the country this year, and each of those 12 centers accepted 750 entries. Do the math: that’s 9,000 homebrews! Registration was filled within hours. Yes, it’s that big.

As beginning homebrewers, we volunteered to be stewards. It’s the steward’s job to bring the right beer to each judging table at the right time, to keep the tables supplied with judging forms, pencils, glasses, water, crackers… and occasionally to gratefully accept a few sips of a beer that a judge might decide is worth sharing.

According to the official style guidelines, beers are classified into 20+ styles, each of which has several sub-styles. For this competition each style had its own “queue” (or several queues for popular styles like IPA). Each steward was responsible for coordinating all the beers within his or her queue.

We volunteered for the Saturday afternoon session, which was the third of three judging sessions in Seattle. The event was held at the Pyramid Brewery in downtown Seattle, within walking distance of the ferry. We walked there in a gentle spring PNW downpour.

Once we’d checked in, the head steward gave us a quick briefing and then instructed us to wander through the tables and ask who needed a steward.

So we wandered. We stopped a likely looking table and asked. We got an unexpected response: “We need a steward. But what we REALLY need is someone who is willing to sit in as a novice judge.”

It took me (LKS) a couple of nanoseconds to respond: “I would LOVE to! Which style are you judging?”

The answer: strong ales — a style I have actually BREWED! Strong ales are amped-up English-style ales. The three sub-styles are Old Ale (of which Slow Happy Brewing’s “Grand Festivus XII” is an example), English Barleywine (our “Ides of Festivus XIII”) and American Barleywine (like the English version but with American hops).

So I found myself sitting down with two very experienced beer judges who walked me through each step of the process, asked me what I was smelling and tasting, validated my perceptions, and encouraged me to put them in writing on the judging form.

We judged eight Old Ales. Two were excellent, one was pretty good, three were okay and two had obviously gone bad somewhere during the process of shipping and storing.

Almost three hours passed while I experienced utter tunnel vision. I was oblivious to everything in the world but the feeling of being completely immersed in those beers. It is an amazing experience of concentration and flow.

The pours are only about three ounces, and I was probably only drinking half of each pour. It was absolutely not about consuming alcohol; rather it was completely about absorbing and seeking to understand the subtleties and intricacies of each beer.

I think I was on the fifth beer before it occurred to me to share a bit of my glass with our loyal and patient steward, my very dear CFL!

When we finished our queue of eight beers, I was elated and exhausted, but not too sated to go downstairs and enjoy a couple of pints of Pyramid’s Outburst Imperial IPA along with an excellent margarita pizza.

It was a good day!

I’ve been seriously working at cultivating my nose and my taste buds for a while now. I’ve been thinking about attempting the judge qualifying exam, but I’ve been reluctant to commit that much time to actually studying for something. By offering me a chance to try judging and coaching me through it, those two judges from the American Homebrewers Association opened a door that I could not otherwise have dreamed of going through. I’m very grateful.

I will never taste beer in quite the same way again.

And yes, I’m going to take that judge qualifying exam and make it official!

Mile Marker 13

We bottled our third batch of India Pale Ale (IPA) the other day. We’ve found it very challenging to produce a good American IPA — we couldn’t seem to get it hoppy enough, or pale enough, or carbonated enough. Based on our tasting of this batch on bottling day, we think we’ve got the “hoppy” and “pale” parts right… so now begins the two-week wait to see whether this batch will have a rich, foamy head when opened and poured.

True to our tradition, the beer required both a name and a code. We write a code on the bottle cap so that when we open it later we’ll know which beer it is. We have grand ambitions of creating labels one of these days, but for now the code works pretty well.

We had a working name of “Take 3 IPA,” and a code of “T3.” But on bottling day, CFL wanted a more descriptive code so he’d remember that this batch is an IPA and not some obscure beer style that starts with “T.” We settled on “I3″ for the code, but when he wrote it, it looked more like “13.” When I got out my batch log to change the code for my records, I made an amazing discovery! This is our 13th batch!

Well, the 13th batch of beer demanded a name celebrating that fact. I offered up a few ideas like “13th Floor” but nothing was really clicking for us. Then we thought about the trails that we know and love… the places where I run and CFL rides his bike. Those trails have mile marker signs. Our 13th batch of beer is a milestone of sorts.

Voila! Mile Marker 13 American IPA is born!

Well, actually it’s in the midst of bottle conditioning right now, but it will be born in mid-March.

Meanwhile I got to thinking about mile markers, and for the life of me I could not picture the mile marker 13 sign on the Olympic Discovery Trail. Surely the trail construction crew wouldn’t have simply skipped over that sign out of some “unlucky 13″ silliness, would they?

So yesterday I had to go out and run that section of trail to try and find mile marker 13.

I found it!

It was a good five feet off the trail and during much of the year it is probably hidden by brush, but in the dead of February it’s definitely visible. I’ll have to remember to look for it again later in the year…

The hunt for mile marker 13 was a highlight of a rather awesome long not-so-slow 11.3 mile run. This section of trail is flat and fast. Without a great deal of effort I was running at a half marathon PR pace (not counting my camera stop). I wouldn’t have had any problem continuing at that pace for another 1.8 miles and completing the half marathon distance. But unlike my past half marathons, I don’t think I’d need two weeks or more to recover afterwards. I’ll be ready to run again tomorrow.

It’s been a year now since I quit my job and declared myself post-corporate. The time I’ve been able to put into running, hiking, and walking since then has rewarded me with increased stamina and resilience, reduced stress, and a whole lot more smiling! I’m grateful that I can choose to live my life in this way… recognizing that it’s not an option for most people. Still, anyone can choose to do something — anything! — to be a bit more active every day.

Today is day 56 of CFL’s and my activity streak. I’ve logged 155 running miles and 260 total miles. I’ve seen a lot of trail mile markers along the way.

CFL has me beat on mileage, but only because he can go a bit further on his bike in a given time period than I can on foot. We’re totally non-competitive and mutually supportive — we simply make movement a priority in our day. Every day.

We go when it’s raining. We go when it’s cold and windy like today. We walk to most places we go within our small city. And when we’re finished, we relax and have a home brew!

What about you? What are you doing for exercise today? Tomorrow? What mile markers are out there waiting for you to discover?

A bit of this, a dash of that

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun! Has it really been two weeks since I’ve posted here?

So what’s new? Two more batches of beer! On January 30 we brewed our spring seasonal, which was supposed to be an English Barleywine but seems to want to be an Imperial IPA. I guess we’re starting to figure out how to get the most “bang” out of our hops. We’ve named this big boy, which will finish somewhere in the neighborhood of 9%, “The Ides of Festivus XIII.” We will give this beer a long aging period and debut it in mid-March.

Then on February 8 we brewed our third American IPA, and I think we finally got this one hoppy enough (see my comment above about finally figuring out how to properly nurture our hops). This batch has the working title of “Take 3,” for obvious reasons. We’ve been focused on the American IPA style recently because our homebrewers club is having an IPA contest in March, complete with a genuine, certified beer judge. Take 3 should be ready to drink by early March, so this was our do-or-die batch. We’ll enter it and see what happens.

On the exercise front, our activity streaks continue. We’re both working on increasing our daily distance (he’s on his bike, I’m running). As the days grow longer, it gets easier to find large blocks of time to get out there and go. We’re already looking closely for the first signs of spring flowers on the trails — it won’t be long now.

We have a major travel adventure planned within the next several weeks… I’ll tell you more about it as we get closer, but you won’t hear all the awesome details until after we return…

Life is good! It’s a wonderful thing to be happy and healthy. CFL and I both feel very fortunate to be able to do the things we are doing. I intend to enjoy every one of these moments as fully as I possibly can. Even if it means I don’t sit down to blog very often.

Until next time…