Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Now You're Cooking!

A potentially overlooked but very versatile ingredient in many recipes is beer. I'm not just talking about having four or five while you nuke your Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, but good guess. Almost any recipe calling for some sort of wine can use beer instead. Beer makes an excellent soup base, can deglaze even the cruddiest pan, and makes chili amazing.

Cooking with beer first entered my consciousness when I was around eleven years old. My cousin's uncle had an electric crock pot full of hot dogs and Budweiser which had been slow cooking all day. At this age, I don't think I had tasted beer and probably would have found it disgusting, but those hot dogs were really good. Ever since then, it stuck with me: beer makes food better.

Let's expand the notion beyond beer-dogs and beer-battered-shrimp. We're higher class than that, right? Obviously we are not (since I'm sure your mouth is watering,) but indulge me.

What a lot of people don't often think about is the chemistry involved in cooking. A soup pot is just a big experiment which, much like in the chem lab, you hope does not end up filling your house with noxious brown smoke. In chemistry, solvents are used to dissolve solids, and alcohol is one of the best. By adding wine, beer, sherry, cognac, or anything else to the mixture you're dissolving compounds and allowing them to react (creating tons of new flavors which you couldn't get any other way.) You can throw all the Buckler Non-Alcoholic beer you want in that pan but it's not going to work out.

Deglazing a pan takes this one step further. You have crusty burned food stuck to the bottom of your favorite stainless steel pan that just won't come off (you can't use non-stick for sauce since the crusties stick to the food instead.) You could waste all this flavor potential and soak it in soap for a few hours, or you could do as the French do and make a wine (or beer) reduction sauce from it. The options are endless, but usually match the beer or wine with the food you're eating. One of the simplest reduction sauces is just red wine (like burgundy,) butter, sliced shallot, thyme (or tarragon for lamb,) and salt. Throw some wine on that nasty crust and mix in the rest to wind up with an excellent steak sauce (once it reduces to sauce viscosity.)

Also, if you have some skunked beer you don't want to drink, you can just throw it in the hot crusty pan to make cleanup a snap. Don't eat the sauce though; it'll probably taste like fried skunk stink-gland.

For the best flavor use beer that goes with the food, not the national brands. The beer you use in the sauce should go with the meal, so serve the other five along with it (assuming you didn't drink them all while cooking.) I use beer in a Rachel Ray pumpkin muffin stuffing recipe (which I'd post, but apparently it's not online,) as a soup base for pumpkin rarebit soup (link is similar, but I use the one from the Enchanted Broccoli Forest,) and as added flavor in chili. I've also had beer in the following and it's been amazing:

  • Steak Sauce
  • Sausages Simmered in Beer
  • Chipotle Gravy
  • Shrimp Cocktail (Beer in the Sauce)
  • Beer Bread
  • Beer-Battered Anything
  • Guinness Stew
  • Chili (try Chocolate Stout for added smoke)

Beer's low alcohol content means you won't be using it for Steaks Diane any time soon, but be glad your neighbors won't call the fire department. I hope you'll consider trying out a recipe. Let me know what you think!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Krausen? I barely even know 'em!

So last week (Tuesday exactly), I decided to do a spontaneous brew session. I hopped on Beersmith and sat down with my handy guide "Designing Great Beers" and charts in the back of "Clone Brews" and start drafting up a beer. I want something with kick, balls. Something that will grow some hair on your chest. Not quite a barleywine, however. After about a half hour of fiddling with numbers and ingredients I came up with ATOTB #04: High Octane Imperial Stout.

Brewing went great, couldn't have gone better. My mash tun was full to the top with grain. That morning i was fiddling with brewing efficiencies in my program, so I didn't hit my intended OG which would have yielded me 12% ABV. However I'm on track to get a beer running around 9% ABV. This is my first "big beer." A big beer refers to a beer with a high alcohol by volume. I didn't know what I was in for. Yeast was pitched around 3pm.

The next morning I go about my normal routine. Wake up, let the dogs out, sit at the computer and check my daily comics. From the closet I hear a whistle, kinda like your leaky pool float. I had decided to use my fermentation bucket over the carboy, because I knew the fermentation would be vigorous. Well. Vigorous is an understatement. I open the door to the closet and the airlock is chuck full with dark chocolate brown krausen, blocking the air holes. The lid of the bucket has bulged out and looked like the dome at Tropicana Field. I popped off the lid of the airlock and foam begins flowing out like a middle school kid's science fair volcano. I was on my way to my parents that day, so I didn't have much time to attend to it. I placed it out on the back porch to go through the motions. I come back the end of the day and I've got a stream of fermented beer going across the deck. Finally I spray off the bucket, replace the airlock, and it continued bubbling away for the next few days.

But what the hell is Krausen? Krausen is a thick layer of foam that develops on the top of the beer in the primary stages of fermentation. The foam itself majorly contains many by-products of the fermentation, including dead yeast cells, hop resins, tannins from the grain, and proteins. It also majorly contains fusel oils, which are direct by-products of the fermentation in the beer. Fusel oils are higher-order alcohols (alcohols with more than two carbon atoms) and are off flavors to a beer. They are bitter, nasty and contribute to hangovers (down with fusel!!). Fusel actually means "bad liquor" in German. There are a few different schools of though on how to deal with krausen, mainly two opposing sides. One side says get rid of it, and the other says don't worry about it. I'm thinking that one side is the paranoid chemists, biologists, and school teachers (you know the ones; they're the main market for anti-viral tissues and hand sanitizers) who say remove the krausen, because they dont want it to fall back into their beer and produce off flavors. But the people who run the percentages and odds (engineers, accountants, and insurance risk assessors), leave the krausen be because it is in fact a very small portion of the fermenting beer, and you're more likely to contaminate your beer than improve it.

If you can't tell, I leave the krausen be.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pumpkin Ale Primer

Seasonal beers are nothing new, especially in the craft beer section. Sam Adams practically has it down to a science (or rather, literally has it down to a science since their team of chemists has to consistently deliver the same product year after year.) Autumn is a particularly bewildering season; almost every brewery out there is doing a pumpkin ale. You'd practically need to take out a third home equity loan in order to try them all. I thought I'd propose a few simple guidelines to help:

Guideline #1: Crap with pumpkin is still crap.

You might be surprised to know that Budweiser (or Anheuser-Busch) comes in a pumpkin variety called Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale. I guess they realized that Bud Pumpkin sounds pretty gross. I had the misfortune of tasting this beer, and I wasn't surprised at how watery, flavorless, and low quality it was. It tasted like somebody added artificial pumpkin flavoring, sugar, and cinnamon candy to a bud (but it was cheap and I think that's the idea.)

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Dogfish Head releases Punk annually, which is a spiced primarily with cinnamon, moderately sweet, and full-bodied (high ABV) brown ale. It's priced similarly to other Dogfish head seasonal brews, but is well worth the money. I even cook with it sometimes by adding it to my stuffing.

You need to use your opinion of the brewery when selecting a Pumpkin Ale. There are a lot of inexpensive middle of the road options from large breweries. For instance  Blue Moon (Coors)  makes Harvest Moon, Sam Adam's has Harvest Pumpkin Ale, and Saranac has Pumpkin Ale (how creative.) Many of these are terrible, so be your own judge and buy single bottles first.

Guideline #2: Choose food wisely.

See how you feel about the following choices to gauge whether you should inflict your seasonal beer on party guests.

  1. Pumpkin Ale with a traditional turkey dinner.
  2. Pumpkin Ale with pumpkin pie.
  3. Pumpkin Ale with pizza.
  4. Pumpkin Ale with Chinese food.
If you were iffy on 3 and cringed at 4, you've got the right idea. Spicy beer competes with the food being served, so you need to match it up. If the addition of cinnamon and nutmeg would make the food taste like the inside of a garbage pail at a busy cafeteria then it might not be the best time for pumpkin ale.

Generally sweet foods also make beer taste horrible; the extra spicy pumpkin ales can overcome this however. Treat them like "before dinner" or "after dinner" choices; they are fine with cheese and crackers (but not stinky cheese) or vanilla ice cream. It can go with some meals like turkey with mashed potatoes and stuffing but be wary.

Guideline #3: Read the byline.

"Pumpkin Ale" indicates the seasonal nature and inclusion of pumpkin, but nothing else. The only common traits between these beers are the pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg (and often cardamom and clove.) Some of them are spicy, some of them are sweet, and lots of them are just marketing gimmicks to bring in some extra money. Read the short description on the bottle, but take it with a grain of salt. They know what people want to hear (spicy, full bodied, and pumpkin,) but lots of times they will say whether it's sweet or spicy.

Guideline #4: Purchase seasonal beer at high volume stores.

Some beer ages well and some does not. This generally has to due with live yeast and a high enough alcohol content to keep the beer from going bad. Also the beer needs to be stored properly and kept out of the sun. Pumpkin Ale is usually not intended to be aged.

Combine the previous idea with the limited time period that people want to buy Pumpkin Ale and you'll soon realize that it may not fly off the shelves before the winter beer starts taking up its niche. This means that unless you're buying from a place than consistently sells out of seasonal beer (i.e. popular large shop) you may be buying paleolithic pumpkin ale which is long past its expiration.

Guideline #5: A lot of people like the idea of Pumpkin Ale but not the flavor.

This may come as a shock, but lots of people don't like spices in beer. Pumpkin ale is unfortunately so varied in quality and style that it's impossible to endorse as a serious variety. The novelty of pumpkins and Halloween sells lots of crap around this time of year, and beer is no different. I would wager a guess that most of the pumpkin ale sold is sold to people who will not like it.

For those of us with more adventurous tastes, there are certainly gems to be found with this variety. My standout superstar is Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale because it is exceptionally spicy, but that same statement has been used to describe it negatively in several reviews. Personal tastes are so important with Pumpkin Ale that I can't seriously recommend any particular one.

The best advice I can give is buy one bottle each of a whole bunch that seem appealing and taste them. If you don't like it, give it to the trick or treaters.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Rockin' the Beer Gun

I think few people will get the title of this post, because it's a spinoff of an unpopular country song. If you get it, kudos to you, and Nikki, you don't count.

As promised last week, my beer gun has arrived in the mail! And while you can't hold up a bank with it, it's rumored to fill beer bottles with unrivaled ease. The beer gun comes from the almighty Blichmann Engineering, makers of the FERMENATOR (which none of you can help saying in any voice other than the announcer for the WWE). The engineers over at Blichmann tend to make high quality, intricate, and high price amateur beer brewing equipment. I heard about the beer gun a little ways back, and relative to the other equipment, was much more in my range of affordability. Other beer dispensing system seem overly complex, where the Beer Gun has a one handed two finger approach. Lets start with the setup.

The Beer Gun by itself comes with the gun, 10' of beer line, and a pipe cleaner to clean the inside of the gun. The "optional" accessory kit comes with a gas line, a fitting to connect the line to your gun, a ball lock, and a barbed flare and nut to connect the beer line to said ball lock. I say "optional" because to me it seems that these items tend to be necessary to the whole process. The beer gun kit itself is around $70 depending where you look, and the accessory kit is another $30.

In addition to the kit I ordered I also had to make some modifications to my CO2 system (pictured). At the regulator I installed a T and a ball valve so I could connect the beer gun to it anytime without dismantling my whole system. Not a huge issue, but an extra cost that should be expected.

This morning I prepped everything to go. I sanitized my gun, the tubing, the connector, my caps, and my bottles for the competition (plus one for trial).

Setting up and filling was actually a total breeze. I connected up the CO2, opened the ball valve, and heard the slow hiss from my gun (this is expected). I opened up my kegerator, popped the original ball lock off the keg and replaced it with my beer gun lock, and filled away. With my ring finger I depressed the gas button for about 2 seconds to purge the bottle with CO2, then with my middle finger I pulled the trigger and filled the bottle with the oh so sweet nectar of the gods. Once the beer got to the top edge I withdrew the gun and gave it another shot of CO2 to clear the head space in the bottle, and moved to the next one. I had all four bottles filled in under 2 minutes, easy. Despite the directions I decided not to follow (chilling the bottles and decreasing the pressure in my system, both to reduce foaming), I had little or no foaming in the bottles. I am very impressed, because I've had some serious issues with foaming in the past.

 I'm extremely impressed with Blichmann's bottle filler. It's one handed operation made everything move without flaw one bottle to the next. Some people might be a little worried about the CO2 escaping, but lighten up people, the simplicity is worth the trade off. On top of everything else, it's fun running around the house pulling the trigger at everything and saying "beer! beer! beer!"

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

 I’ve been going back and forth on the issue of whether I dare brewing outside on my condo’s shared lawn. The reason I have been going back and forth isn’t neighborly concern (of which I have little.) It’s because of our lurker: The Poodle Nazi.

You all have met people like The Poodle Nazi. They are the little brat tattletales that grow up into spineless weasels with such little self satisfaction in their pitiable lives that they only feel better about themselves when they borrow authority and use it to enforce asinine rules over people who contribute more to society than themselves and are otherwise minding their own business. Is that a long enough sentence for you? I’m not referring to people who write “Wash Me” on dirty cars, I’m talking about people who leave a note on your door that your doorknob is the wrong color and that they will be fining you $100 unless you change it.

I’m not afraid of him and his little rat-dog; in fact, I’m fairly convinced I could hurt him rather badly. My issues with brewing outside are that I don’t want to get fined, and I don’t want to be told to stop while boiling (wasting my ingredients and time.) It’s just a hunch, but I suspect our Poodle Nazi doesn’t fully comprehend the minimal danger of retail LP cooking equipment. His Neanderthal brain can’t comprehend that a responsible adult can easily manage five gallons of boiling liquid without setting the building on fire.

The concerns I have raised are not unreasonable. The Poodle Nazi invents rules on a whim. Last week he saw me outside putting my grill cover on and demanded that I remove my extra LP tank (for brewing.) I checked the guidebook beforehand and all it says is that you need to keep them 100 feet from the building. When I told him this, his response was that he was going to add “no spare LP tanks” to the guide. What is this, Feudal England? I wish there was something I could do here but unfortunately he’s probably got a lady-in-waiting for the position of “spineless idiot.”

This New Kit Sure Looks Like a Big Pile of Drugs
Now that you fully understand my predicament, I decided that my next batch of beer will be fully brewed indoors with a hose on my porch for rinsing. I’m still worried about it boiling over and leaving my stove a sticky mess, but I found a recipe that only requires 2.5 gallons of the liquid to be boiled. With so little liquid I don’t think the weight will be a problem on my electric range, and I should have plenty of time to control a boil-over before it reaches the top of the pot.

I still need to buy a large ice bucket, since I can’t use my wort chiller indoors, and I also need to buy 5 gallons of good water. I’ll keep you all posted. Wish me luck!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Blogging Tourette's

Today I've got some random updates ranging from the blogosphere to the troposphere.

I've noticed Orlando is up to 24 votes to the potential location for the 2011 Beer Bloggers Conference. You guys are going to have to help me out on this one. If each of our followers cast one vote for Orlando we'd be only 4 votes shy of first place. Lets get together people! Vote!

I've heard that a new Shipyard Brewpub is opening here in Winter Park, Florida. That gets me all kinds of excited. I've already told my wife that I plan to be there opening day. Check out the article on it here.

Nick and I are coming up with some great ideas for new swag in our cafepress store. Hopefully it will boost our sales (up from nothing). Posts to follow in the future.

With the Sunshine Challenge coming up, I need to up my bottling game. ATOTB #02 is carbonating, and #03 is clarifying. And my new Blichmann Beer Gun is on its way.

Adam over at The NonconFERMist (love that name by the way) is right at the beginning of his project to turn his garage into a brew haven. So far he's decided he's going with electric (so he doesn't gas himself), and he's already installed a computer. But he baits me on and wont tell me if the computer is just going to run brewing software (like Beersmith) or actively monitor his brewing system (can someone say BrewTroller?).

Want to sample beer? How about 40? At once? Stone went crazy and hosted the ultimate beer tasting venue, dispensing 40 different styles of their beer at once. Insanity.

The guys over at Monday Night Brewing are well along their way to selling beers. Their tap handles look sick, and they're even doing boring legal stuff. Hey guys, if you want me to write a beer review, send me some bottles!

That's all for now, tune in Wednesday for the regularly scheduled insanity.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gadzooks! Pine Mouth and You

What's any brewer's worst nightmare? It's probably being stung to death by bees, although never being able to taste a good beer again must be a close second. Before getting into the gory details, let's identify why this health-related article belongs on a beer blog.

As a reader of this blog, it's probably fair to assume that you like the finer things in life.Since it happens to be a beer blog, it's probably safe to assume that the finer things you like aren't Louis XIII Cognac and Beluga Caviar (more like manager's special London Broil and Barefoot Cabernet.) Even though I won't be seeing you on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous anytime soon (I don't have cable and it's not 1985,) I bet more than a few of you shop at gourmet grocery stores like Whole Foods or Wegmans. Be warned: a taste bud adulterator lurks in the shadows (or more precicely the bulk foods aisle.)

A few weeks ago I woke up with a horrible taste in my mouth. This taste was so indescribably bitter that the only thing that even comes close is aspirin. No foods are this bitter unless they are poisonous, medicine, or found in your vegetable crisper five years after purchase. Naturally, I assumed I needed to brush my teeth.

I wasn't able to maintain my usual level of enthusiasm while performing my daily rituals. The toothpaste tasted horrible, the rinse water tasted horrible and my breakfast tasted horrible. Even my usual worship of the coffee gods was tainted by some nefarious presence. "Is nothing sacred?" is what I would like to have been thinking, although in reality it was more like "Am I dying from jaundice?" Upon quick inspection my skin and eyeballs weren't yellow. A mystery was developing.

As this torture continued during the day, I started poking around on the internet. We all know the internet is where stupid people give bad advice to other stupid people, so it seemed like the logical starting place. I'm convinced that Yahoo Answers is the single leading cause of grievous bodily injury on the planet, but in this cesspit of lies, filth, and coupon offers I did start noticing trends. Severe bitter taste is caused by the side effect from medications, jaundice, diabetes, and many other terrible diseases (mostly relating to bile in the back of the throat.) There was one other needle in this haystack however: pine nuts.

There were an unusual number of posts and articles about pine nuts causing a bitter taste in the mouth. This taste starts a few days after consuming the nuts and lasts for a few weeks. What was funny is that almost all of these posts mentioned how they too discovered an unusual number of posts on this subject. For any of you programmers out there, "UnusualPineNutPosts++."

A few days previous to my tragic discovery, my wife and I made some salad from fresh greens, goat cheese, pickled onions and pine nuts. I bought these pine nuts at Whole Foods, where coincidentally they had a shortage of them and only had one brand in the store. I thought it was odd at the time; now I suspect that do to a supply shortage they bought from a less reputable supplier. I called my wife and she too had an unexplained (although much less severe) bitter taste.

This should explain why I can't post a beer review this week. I think the symptoms are mostly gone, but my mastery of subtle tastes has not returned. Hops specifically require my bitter senses to be at peak, but if I wrote a review right now I suspect I would consider nearly every beer excessively hoppy (even mead.) To all you gormands out there: beware of tainted pine nuts.

From what I read, pine nuts from Italy seem to be fine. Most of the reported cases of "Pine Mouth" seem to be the result of people eating pine nuts from Asia (mainly China.) Leading experts (since there really aren't any, this means stupid people on Yahoo Answers,) think that there may be a fungus specific to this region that causes the reaction. More likely, some think that farmers are substituting a portion of inedible pine nuts to bulk up their harvest. Either way, stay away from pine nuts from Asia.

I may get a chance to brew on Sunday; let's hope my condo association allows the turkey fryer...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Busy brewing schedule

If you've been following my twitter, you already know I've been brewing my mash off.

2 weeks ago I rebrewed the popular ATOTB #02. So far so good, it sits in the fermenter waiting to be kegged an enjoyed. Last week I rebrewed the horribly screwed up ATOTB #03, but this time brewed it correctly. And its at this stage after successfully brewing 3 beers on my new HERMS system that I feel I can say that it is a 100% efficient system. Every time I've brewed I've hit my calculated OG so close the military is jealous.
Sparging on left, Xfer to secondary on right

This week is a cleaning week. I've got 2 kicked taps on the kegerator, one keg that needs to be dumped, and about an inch of water in the bottom of my kegerator that needs to be dumped. The problem with having a kegerator converted from a cheap freezer is moisture. If any of you own a cheap freezer, you know that it has to be defrosted from time to time to get rid of all the ice buildup. But what happens when you convert said freezer into a kegerator that doesn't go below freezing? The moisture collects in the bottom of your kegerator. I was using a product called DampRid which worked really well for some time. The DampRid in the kegerator sucks up all the moisture. Eventually that runs out, and when you haven't changed it in some time, moisture collects. I do have some Sham-Wows, which Vince tells me should suck up all the water in a single soak. Unfortunately the stellar shammys are more of a whimsical wipey. They don't do jack.

On the fun side of things I was able to attend the latest Central Florida Homebrewers meeting yesterday. I realized a homebrewers meeting is probably the only place you can yell free beer and have no one pay attention. One of the members, Andy, had some leftover Sierra Nevada that he was giving away. As I was leaving I caught him in the lot and no one had claimed them yet. Score for me, 2 six packs of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Summerfest. Oorah! At the meeting I also tried a fantastic pepper ale. It reminded me of a reverse sour patch kid, at first sweet, then hot and sour. I loved it.

Also to anyone that might be reading in central Florida, or wants to ship their beer, the Central Florida Homebrewer's Sunshine Challenge is coming up in November! So get your entries in and book your tickets. It should be a good time. Forgetting about this until now, I'm happy to say that I'll have one, maybe two ales in the Blonde Ale or American Pale Ale category. Bring it on!