Monday, January 31, 2011

The Joys of Kegging

I thought up this post in almost a mocking rebuttal to Nick's recent post "Night Time Swearing, Why You Need A Bottle Filler". While there are many advantages to bottling beer, there is also an amazing alternative, which is kegging. Lets go over the pros and cons of both, and you can make your own decision whether or not you should make the move to a kegging operation.

Bottling is a great way to get your beer out there. There's nothing more exciting and thrilling, than after all the work of brewing, waiting of fermenting, and waiting to carbonate, popping that cap the first time and hearing that classic psst! That tells you, hey, everything is going to be a-ok. At the very least it means, A) I'm alcoholic, B) I'm carbonated. I always tell myself when making recipes, the worst case scenario is I'll have alcoholic water (except when you're making hard cider, then the worst case is you have plain ol' cider).

Bottling is a great way to get your beers out of the house. It's super easy to grab six bottles out of your fridge, stick em' in a six pack, and bring them to your friend's house for all to try. Bottling is also cheap in the short term.

That being said, bottling is a huge pain in the ass. Individually sanitizing 50 bottles takes a huge tub of sanitized water, and a boat load of counter space. Things also go much smoother if you have two people so you have one person filling, and one capping. There's also the danger of over-carbonating. Meaning you added too much priming sugar, which meant the residual yeast made too many CO2 farts, which created 50 glass grenades sitting in your closet waiting to blow. Time start to finish to bottle a 5 gallon batch is probably around an hour, depending how experienced you are and the help available. In summary:

Bottling Pros: Uncapping a homebrew is immensely satisfying, it's easier to distribute bottles, in the short term,  cheap.

Bottling Cons: Takes up a lot of room, time consuming, messy.

Kegging for the first time, especially after countless annoying bottling sessions, is akin to the euphoria you feel when you have that first craft beer. When you take that first sip and you think to yourself, my god, where have you been all my life? Start to finish kegging a five gallon batch could take 10 minutes if you're in a rush, and that's mostly waiting for your siphon to get your beer into the keg.

Kegs are inherently safer than the potential bottle-bombs I mentioned earlier, being all stainless steel. Homebrew soda-kegs are left-over from the era of soda companies using kegs to distribute their soda-syrup versus the bag-in-a-box they use today. There's thousands of them out there. You can probably pick up a used one at your local homebrew shop for about 30-40 bucks. You heard me right. One of these bad larrys runs the same as you would have spent on the same about of bottles for that 5 gallon batch. So in that aspect they are cheap.

Heading over to the dark side of this cloud is in the short term a kegging system is expensive. If you're planning on running a draught system, you need the fridge, temperature controller, taps, keg taps, tubing, cleaners, and more. In addition, if you want to continue bottling from time to time for competitions, you also should consider getting a bottle filling mechanism of some sort (beer gun anyone?). Start up cost if you have none of this is about 300 bucks on the low side, and there is no high side.

Which also brings up that if you switch over to kegs, it's not easy to bottle off the kegs because the draught nozzles tend to generate that beautiful, fresh off the tap head, in your bottle, which means it will lose a lot of carbonation in the process. If you want to bring your beer to parties, I'd invest in growlers, which will also run you about 25 bucks a pop.

Kegging Pros: Draught beer all the time! If that isn't enough then it's cheap in the long run, it's significantly easier, and a lot cleaner.

Kegging Cons: Expensive to start up, difficult to distribute outside your house.

Well there you have it! I hope that helps you make a decision if you've been thinking about going down one road or the other. Please feel free to drop us a comment or drop us a line at our new email address!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Beereview: Ommegang BPA

By posting this review of Ommegang BPA (Belgian Pale Ale,) I put myself at risk of attracting all sorts of unrelated traffic. Why you ask? Well for starters, BPA is commonly known to environmentalists, chemists, and Coca Cola as Bisphenol A. Corrupt corporate interests (and I realize I am using "corrupt" redundantly here,) merely refer to it as chemistry's new asbestos; it's great until people generally recognize that it's about as safe as an angry adder in your underpants.

Now, I don't mean to get on a soap box here, but considering that most soap contains BPA now I might as well. As a world leader in seemingly random digressions, let me tie BPA to beer in two ways. The first you can probably guess is my review of Ommegang BPA. If you didn't guess this, than I'd try reading more -- your retention is appalling.  The second is that all aluminum cans are now coated on the inside with plastic (containing copious amounts of BPA.) Aside from that, BPA and their sister chemical Phthalates are creeping into nearly everything we use from baby bottles and pacifiers to cans of tomatoes, hand cream and "marriage aids." I'd say that covers all the relevant entry points into the body that are worth discussing, but I bet you can find some toxic plastic item for any orifice I neglected to reference.

As fellow worshipers in the temple of Hops, Malt, and Yeast this isn't all bad news. Sure you should probably lose the habit of drinking 12 cans of Bud at the game, but isn't it about time you picked up the habit of drinking 18 bottles instead? All joking aside, most good beer comes in bottles and only the cap liner has any plastic in it. That little plastic ring doesn't really touch the beer and is mainly there to prevent moisture escaping. so I wouldn't worry about it. The really good beer usually comes with a cork in the bottle, so no worries there chief!

If I've scared the pants off you, please send pictures. Also, there is a movie you might want to check out called "Bag It" which I highly recommend. Think of the host as a more reasonable less political Michael Moore until he takes off his hat; after that, he seems a lot more like a reasonable average guy.

Now on to the review! I'll keep it brief.

Ommegang BPA (Belgian Pale Ale)

This wonderful beer came in a gift three pack that I received for Christmas. I tasted it at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit since it's supposed to be "Belgian," even though it's US made. It pours a rich golden amber with a good head. The head isn't overly thick (like Gene's last review -- it looks like I could shave with that beer.) It isn't dark either, and has excellent retention.

The aroma is sweet, fresh and light on the nose. There isn't any alcohol smell which is good since this beer is only 6.5%. The tastes are very subtle. It's initially quite fruity, with an almost peach-like taste. After the sweet and fruit pass the palate there is a nice hoppy aftertaste which is not overpowering. The other beer I tasted that was similar to this all had spices in it, but I don't miss it here. I like how refreshingly smooth and light this beer tastes.

Overall, I highly recommend this beer from Ommegang. Look for it next time you're at the store. They carry it in less reputable places too, since it's domestic!

Until next time, enjoy responsibly and copiously.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Beereview: Stone Sublimely Self Righteous Ale

My wheat beer and my cider have been fermenting for a week now... and I don't have time to transfer them to their respective containers so I'll have to write about that next week. The wheat beer has had a very vigerous fermentation... aaaaand I just noticed that I think I stained the floor beneath the carboy. Good thing it's a closet. The cider, however, hasn't showed much activity. I have read that there's a good chance that I may not see much, but we'll see tomorrow when I do some more brew-things.

Today on the slate we've got a beer from one of my favorite breweries, the Stone brewery from San Diego. Staring me in the face right now is of course there infamous gargoyle all proud and such. One might even say Self-Righteous. Coincidentally that is indeed the name of this lovely 22oz bottle today, "Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale." The bottle weighs in at 8.5% ABV, which relative to some other Stone beers, is a little light. Justifiably, the standard book that adorns the back of every Stone bottle tells a story of an ale that's black, with hops that hit the "sweet spot," and damn good, according to them, because they're amazing, and know what they're doing. At least that's what they tell us on the bottle. From previous experiences however, Stone definitely knows what there doing.

The beer pours a beautiful deep deep amber, almost black color. The head, as you can see, is thick, and long lasting. The aroma of hops is extremely potent. I should have known that to try a Stone brew thirsty (hoppy beers typically aren't thirst quenching). The head is thick enough that it creates mountains and valleys in the top of your glass, akin to the landscape you see when you're flying over the clouds in an airplane (or whatever vehicle you might have access to). The beer isn't as thick as I would have expected, I think I would classify this as a very hoppy porter. There is a moment of sweetness from malt for a split second (like Olympic-style photo-finish split second), then the hops abound. I wouldn't quite describe it chewy, but definitely hop-potent (lets see that word get into Websters). Strangely after a few sips, it's curious how the malt sweetness does lightly shine through the malt explosion in your mouth. The hops calm down some, but not a lot.

I'm not much of a hop-head, so I'll call this one a late-night drinker. The kind you have with the boys and a bunch of cigars (gross). You get the idea. Hop-heads abound however, this one should knock you off balance, but leave you coming back for more.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Night Time Swearing: Why You Need a Bottle Filler (or Friends)

If you've been tracking my progress on the Brewer's Best European Bock recipe I've been working on you're probably wondering if it's turned to vinegar by now. Fear not, loyal followers! I just left it in the secondary fermenter an extra couple weeks. I bottled it Sunday night, so let's explore how that went.

I don't know about you, but I'm generally a pretty calm person. There aren't many things that cause me to yell obscenities at the top of my lungs besides the usual misplaced hammer blow to the thumb, catching myself in a zipper, or dropping something large, glass and expensive in anything other than a moon bounce room. Apparently one of those things (of which I was not previously aware) is the inability to stop free flowing beer from splattering all over my bathroom floor. No, I'm not talking about a late night at the bar, but good guess. I'm talking about not using a bottle filler - to disastrous effect.

A bottle filler is a specialized tube with the gravity sealed valve on the bottom. You don't technically need one, since you can just open and close the spigot valve on the bottom of the bottling bucket (or so I thought.) The first time I bottled a batch I was outdoors, where very few liquid spillage rules not involving toxic waste, oil, or blood apply. My only concern then was losing too much to overflow and drips. Last time I bottled, I had help; one person worked the valve and tipped the bucket while the other held the bottles. My bright idea was to hold the bottle, operate the value, and tip the bucket simultaneously.

See the problem? Let's look at the hand requirements for these activities.

  • Hold The Bottle - 1 Hand
  • Operate The Valve - 1 Hand
  • Tip the Bucket - 1 Hand or 1 Mouth, but not sanitary
Being a mortal man of average aptitude I only possess two hands. Ordinarily I'd borrow one, but there wasn't anything "to hand." Riiiiiiight (Dr. Evil voice from Austin Powers.) Anyway, what ended up happening was that I could open the valve while tipping the bucket back (so it wouldn't spill out), then position the bottle and tip the bucket forward to fill it. Unfortunately, tipping it back the other way didn't work out so well and a quantity of beer spilled out each time. This all added up to be quite a mess since it was falling from about four feet onto a hard floor. Given that this was near midnight after I had been cleaning and sanitizing bottles for several hours, the only words that came to mind were four letter and generally rhymed with firetruck or spit.

Next time I'm going to try the bottle filler.

Gene and I really want to try and increase our blog traffic this year, but for that we need your help. If you know anybody who would like our style of material, pass along the message. For those of you who also blog or have a website, post a comment with a link to it and a little bit about yourself. I'll relax my usual Anti-Spam no-link rule and give you all a chance to hook some of our traffic. I still manually approve posts with links though, so no Viagra, Cialis, Rolex, or Chinese Stocks please.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Long Day of Long Overdue Brewing

Today was a big day of brewing. While usually I have a lot of downtime in between steps, today was jam packed with to-dos.

I brewed my 5th ATOTB beer today, "Saaa-wheat!" This is actually my first request beer from one of my co-workers. It was one of those epiphanies, not of the craft beer kind, but of the kind where someone says "holy crap, this guy brews beer? I love beer! Brew a beer I love!" The way I see it, it's the ultimate test of beer brew-manship. Brewing a beer that already is held to a high expectation from someone, and then effectively saying, "how do you like my take on it?" Regardless, it's my first truly wheat beer, and I was surprised how little grain I needed.

The day started off a little rough however. I turned on my pump and screamed like an elementary school play solo gone bad mixed with fingernails on a chalkboard. My HLT was already warming up so I had a limited time before my dough in. I learned something new today. Those little march pumps, funny thing is you have to oil those suckers. Not that they come with a diagram of specific oiling points, just "oil the bearings every 6 months." I took my best stab at it and we were sailing smoothly.

Brewing itself went very smoothly. Mashing took some extra time because of a protein rest needed to convert the wheat grain into usable sugar. Nailed the OG at 1.049, versus a calculated 1.050. However I also had a few other tasks on hand. I had a failed cider experiment to transfer and clean out, and two kegs to remove and clean. One keg being my wife's root beer keg. I know it's a matter of opinion, but that root beer smells awful. And getting it to leave the keg seems impossible. I B-Brite-ed  that sucker twice, and I think I'm making some progress. There's a few more steps I'll need to take, one of them is disassembling & cleaning the root beer tap, and the other being to replace the draught line to it.

Now it's the end of the day, and, well, I'm tired. But very satisfied. The fermenter is sitting in the closet getting ready to bubble away, and my man room... is a mess. This week I also plan to restart my cider experiment. We'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Give the Gift of a Beer Epiphany

Hmm what's this? Tastes funny. I like it!

For any of you who whipped out your iDevices to look up what epiphany means, let me save you some time. An epiphany according to is "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience." I can't think of a more simple, homely, or commonplace occorence than drinking beer.

Unlike refined beverages like wine, spirits, or Kopi Luwak (look that one up, it's funny,) beer is the beverage of choice for Vikings, Australians, and Dwarves, who are some of the most proudly unrefined people/fantasy creatures in the world. The latter only applying to Australians and Dwarves, of course. These facts are totally uncorraborated, and I would have included pirates, except they like rum. Anyway...

During Gene and my interview with the beer wench we were asked an interesting question: "What was your first craft beer epiphany? Recall as many details about it as you can."

You can read my answer in full detail over at her blog, but this excerpt should summarize it:
This [my group of friends getting into finer things], by natural extension started to make us question the quality of the beer we were drinking. I ran into a website called, which I still consider a great review resource and we started our own Quest for the Holy Ale. We printed out the top ten beers and tried to find them at various shops. What really stood out was #3 at the time, “St. Bernardus Abt 12.” We all split one, and it had the same miraculous effect. We instantly became beer snobs; my personal affinity being for Belgian Abbey Ales.
For those of you who enjoy this blog but aren't really into beer, I urge you to try and have a beer epiphany. It can really open up your horizons about this unusually complex beverage. Ninety nine percent of what you'll find out there are the major brands and nothing special, but try and explore the back aisles. Review sites are a great place to start, and although we have our fair share right here on ATOTB we are by no means a complete resource.

If you've already achieved beer Nirvana, nevermind (ok, that's a bad 90's joke.) Seriously, try and give a beer epiphany to some of your friends. I gave Gene a St. Bernardus as a Christmas present and look what happened. He answered the question:
My current brewing aspirations do stem back to my first real craft beer. It started around Christmas in 2005. I went and visited Nick at Lehigh and we exchanged gifts. I got him some little disco ball, and he got me a bottle of St. Bernardus ABT 12. I was surprised, thinking “he got me beer as a gift???” But then I tasted it, and here’s where I am today. I’m totally obsessed with the world of craft beers. I suppose Nick can take all the credit for this obsession.
Being a beer snob opens up an entire new realm of conversation. You'd be surprised by how many beer afficianados are lurking around out there for you to stumble across in your awkward social ramblings. If you're looking for a new way to break the ice, bring up Trappist ales (unless you're literally playing "Don't Break the Ice," in which case you should use one of those little red plastic hammers.)

I hope you'll take my advice in 2011: if the movement gets enough momentum maybe in 2025 craft beers will be the norm.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Beereview: ATOTB #04 High Octane Imperial Stout

Back to real life everyone. The holidays are now over and everyone is coming down of the holiday euphoria and vacation time. For many of us, including myself the end of the holidays also means I don't get paid vacation from work until May (eek). But today I get to reveal some very exciting information I got back in December!

Lets backtrack a little bit. In November I submitted two beers to my very own CFHB's competition the Sunshine Challenge. The beers mentioned were ATOTB #02: Clean Blonde, and ATOTB #04: High Octane Imperial Stout. I got my results back in December, but was wrapped up in my Sam Adams Winter Classic reviews. I received two responses back for each beer, and yes, I will build the anticipation. Today we will start off reviewing #04 (as non-biased as I can), and then see what the judges have to say.

#04 pours pitch black, with a thick and lasting coffee-brown head. Thick enough to sculpt a hat with. Chocolaty and roasty aromas bombard the nose, but has very little hop presence. The first sip is smooth, and wonderfully bitter. Someone looking for a sweet beer need not apply. The beer has a very roasty and toasty flavor to it, however not too complex a flavor. After downing the first swing of beer, you're left with a warm (but not necessarily sharp) alcohol flavor to it. Which makes sense, since this beer weighs in at a mildly high alcohol content of 7.5% ABV. Definitely a good beer to enjoy on a cold winter day sitting next to a fire in the fireplace. Having the advantage of knowing that I intended this beer to be an imperial stout, I can also say the alcohol is a little light for the style, and the citrus that I added to the pot does not show through in the final product like I intended.

Alright judges, bring it.

Between the two judges, I averaged a 38.5 out of 50 which I am thrilled about. This falls in the "Excellent" range which is 38-44 points and described as "Exemplifies style well, requires minor fine tuning." For aroma, the judges enjoyed the malt smells, but said the roasted aromas were light and should be more pronounced for the style. Appearance was very good, and right in line with the style. Flavor is a big one counting for 20 of the total 50 points. The judges felt my malt and hops were well balanced, however the array of roasted malts was not complex enough, and they would like to see a little fruit complexity to the beer. The body of the beer was a little light for the style which demands a pretty hearty beer.

Finally I'll quote the final "overall impression" comments from the two judges on the beer. Overall impression counts for 10 points towards the 50.

Mike says "A very drinkable example. Not as complex as some, but well balanced and tasty. The alcohol is a little hot, perhaps it's [the beer] a little young. 7/10"

Charlie says "Very nice. Big flavors and good balance makes this a real pleasure. 8/10"

A real pleasure? These results sent me through the roof. I was extremely excited when I got these back. I also agree with every comment they gave me. I feel I could have a real winner hear with a little bit more fine-tuning. I'd like to raise the alcohol content a bit, and maybe throw in a few different varieties of roasted grains. I'd also like to add more citrus to it so that I get a slight citrus undertone to the beer.

What gets me even more excited though is the big red stamp adorned at the head of my score sheet, "Advanced to second round!". Hell yes! The competition works like this. Submit a beer to a style, get judged and move to the final round for that style, then move to the best in show round; much like a dog show for beers, and without all the creepy crimping and grooming given to the dogs. That means my beer made it to the finals for the style! If that's a motivator, I don't know what is!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Late Post for Late Beer

Last Christmas I put together a basket consisting of my favorite holiday specials; I’m not talking about “A Christmas Story,” “Trapped in Paradise,” or “Ernest Saves Christmas” but good guess. These were beer baskets consisting of some combination of Delerium Noel, Troegs Mad Elf, St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, and N’ice Chouffe. I happen to enjoy all of the aforementioned (especially back to back) but Holiday Ales are much like Pumpkin Ales: individual tastes vary a lot more when spices are involved.

Let’s take a brief detour and examine a phenomenon I’m calling “Pumpkin Mouth Syndrome,” or PMS for short (forgive me.) When you’re experiencing PMS you view the world differently, depending on what time of year it is. Starting in late September consumables featuring copious amounts of gourd flesh cause mouth watering sensations regardless of whether it’s muffins, soup, or beer. If this didn’t happen in a cyclic pattern every year Pumpkin could have been the next miracle food; it’d be right up there with Goji, Acai, and crunch berries. Alas, like most good seasonal fads: shelf life is limited.

'tis the Season?
Meandering around to my point (just past the oxbow,) let me present this simple test for PMS: It’s July and you’ve just finished a rousing game of backyard badminton. Nothing goes better with casual athletics than beer, so you open the fridge. How good does a nice cold Pumpkin Ale sound? If you cringed, you probably have PMS. If you thought, “How many are in the fridge?” you coincidentally probably have alcoholism.

The Pumpkin Ale season lasts while the weather is cold which is generally from September to February. Inside this seemingly narrow window is another beer season: Christmas Ale. I bring all this up because I’m just at the point where I wouldn’t buy pumpkin ale or Christmas ale but I’d drink them if they were on hand. If any of you got them as thoughtful holiday gifts, read on.

Here’s some advice: Drink your pumpkin ale now if it still appeals to you (since it generally doesn’t store well.) If it’s stopped appealing to you make a pumpkin rarebit soup out of it. Enjoy some of your holiday ale now and especially if it’s not high ABV. The high ABV stuff stores really well and might be even better after it’s aged for a year. I had the St. Bernardus Christmas from last year about a week ago and it was much tastier than this year’s. It’s still the height of the Christmas Ale season, but February will be here before you know it.

Cyclical seasons are a normal part of life which we often forget about. In the not too distant past oranges were expensive in December. Beer is no different but unlike oranges it won’t turn blue if you leave it in the garage for a year. To sum it up, drink some seasonal beer while it’s fresh but store the high ABV and hoppy stuff until the season rolls around again. Trust me, pumpkin ale with lime doesn’t beat a corona on the beach.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Happy Brew Year!

Well 2010 is finally over. I have to say, I'm glad to see it go. Without getting into a lot of personal garbage, 2010 straight up sucked. I'm extremely excited to get 2011 up and rocking. So far it's started off really great. I got a pair of 36oz. boots from my wife, along with "Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation" which I am totally excited to dive in to. But what's in store for 2011? I've got some ideas.

I'd really like to double the amount of followers for the blog. 2010 was a great year for new readers, bringing on Nick was a godsend. A practical internet heart attack led to a comeback that increased our followers by almost 10 times. I'd really like to kick the site up to the next echelon of beer blogging. How? No idea. I'm not a marketing guy. But watch out world.

I'd like to buy my own T-shirt. If you didn't know already, you can buy your own ATOTB merchandise. Stop reading this post right now, and go buy something. That said, I haven't even bought my own shirt yet. I'd like to expand the store a bit, and include a wider variety of shirts. Maybe actually make something that gets the site a little bit of income.

I'd like to update some of my brewing equipment. There's a few ideas I've been tossing around, and with my coaching season coming up, I'm going to have a little bit of play money. My first idea is to automate my burner for the hot liquor tank. At this point it's the only part of my HERMS system that isn't automated, and it would really kick it up a notch. Another idea I had was to build a low-cost, low profile, ultra-low energy lager-rator. I don't have everything laid out yet, but as a hint, it involves some wood, insulation, a pump, and some water. Oh, and a mini-fridge also. I'd also like to upsize my mash tun so I can brew a truly big beer (12, maybe 15% ABV? Oh yeeah). If I'm really feeling ambitious, I'd love to get myself (cue monster-truck voice) a FERMENTATOR.

Enter more competitions. I'd like to enter all the competitions I can. I reeeeeally want to get a 1st place under my belt. It wouldn't get any better than being able to say "hey, wanna try my award winning beer?"

And a number of random things. I want to see Adam over at The NonconFERMist finish his electric brew garage. I want to brew a really good hard cider. I want to try some new styles. I'd like to see what it takes to sell beer at a farmers market. I'd like to attend the 2011 beer bloggers conference. I'd like to start a beer list.

It looks like it's going to be a mighty busy year. But a good one! What are you going to do? Any big brewing plans? I hope all of you who got a kit for Christmas has brewed and caught the bug like I did almost 2 years ago. Good luck to everyone in 2011! I hope everyone made at least one resolution...

Drink more, better beer!