Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Barrel Handling & Barrel Care

Barrel aged beers are everywhere. I just finished thawing my extremities from the two day Freeze-Stravaganza that was the Michigan Brewer's Guild's 2015 Winter Beer Festival, and there was hardly a brewery that was not offering something that had once resided in a barrel. Bourbon or wine, sherry or maple syrup: these barrels are out there, and they are going to get filled. It is not just the professionals out there that are filling barrels, many homebrewers are purchasing their own, or chipping in for a barrel purchase for group homebrew club projects.

With that in mind, I would like to provide a compilation of barrel handling tips from Jay Goodwin, Head Brewer of the Rare Barrel in Berkley, CA. Jay is hosting a new show on The Brewing Network, the premiere source for high level (and free) online beer information on the web. On The Sour Hour Jay talks to top flight guests about the ins and outs of sour beer production, as well as dropping plenty of knowledge himself. Do yourself a favor and check out this podcast. Now let's roll out the barrels.

It is important to find a barrel supplier you can trust. Now is the time to dial up those industry connections you have and find out who among the areas barrel providers are reputable. Especially for the professional side folks, try and establish strong relationships with these providers as they are going to be the backbone of your beer aging program.

Do a visual inspection of the barrel inside and out. Make sure there are no items that have been added to the barrel that you will want to remove (oak spirals, any other flavoring agents, etc.) Once the barrel is free of these items, soak the heads of the barrels. Most of the leaks you are going to get are on the heads of the barrel. Put hot water on one head, and soak it over night. If it is not totally dry in the morning that side can be considered sealed. Flip the barrel over and soak the other side following the same procedure. If the barrel is not leaking, and you want the character of the last liquid in the barrel to carry over, then purge the vessel with CO2 and fill.

If you are not going to use the flavors of the previous barrel aged liquid, use the wet sulfur method. Rinse the barrel with hot water to help facilitate the barrels expansion. (Do not leave hot water in over night, as the water temperature will drop into a range that can favor mold growth, etc.) Then switch to a cold water fill. When the barrel proves to be sealed, add one pound of potassium metabisulfite and a half pound of citric acid mixed into the barrel full of cold water. This serves as a storage solution. This will protect the barrel from mold growth for the next six months before you have to replace the storage liquid.

*Side note: Do not burn a sulfur stick in the barrel. The possibility of the barrel exploding is very real.

It seems as if barrel aged beers, and especially sour beers, have become the next frontier in the beer world. The purpose of this post is to aid in disseminating some of the advice that can help us produce the beers we want to be making. Barrel handling and care may not be the sexiest part of the entire process, but it is a vital one. With that said, I would invite others to chime in with practices that they have learned, or with questions on the concepts previously listed. Once again, thanks to Jay Goodwin of the Rare Barrel for sharing so freely from his knowledge base, and to The Brewing Network for providing the avenue. Grab a bottle of Jay's beer any time you have the chance, and check out some of the amazing podcasts offered by the BN.

Drink good beer with good people!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

MBG Winter Beer Festival 2015

Hello again!

We have been gearing up for the Michigan Brewers Guild's 2015 Winter Beer Festival. It is truly one of the unique beer events out there. This outdoor festival has been expanded to two days this year, and it promises to be a true celebration of Michigan weather and Michigan beer.

(Now let's take a moment of silence in appreciation for all of the volunteers that will be busting their tails in the freezing cold to help pull this event off!)

I like to view the Guild festivals as a time to really try and put on the best show we can for festival goers. Usually that entails brewing up some specialty small batches that will only be available at the festival. It is a time to get creative and spread our wings. In the past we have done a version of our Honey Kölsch that we infused with green tea. That beer was the brain child of the well bearded Aaron Stryker, now of Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati. We have made aggressive Imperial IPA's, blended barrel aged beers with cherries, coffee beers, and others.

However, with our production schedule as full as it is, this year we did not have time to brew a lot of small batches, but that doesn't mean we aren't still excited about what we will be pouring. We will be pouring a host of bourbon barrel aged beers (Wheat Wine, Robust Porter, Belgian Amber), some new lagers that we have been working on, a Munich Helles and a Classic American Pilsner. Our Propaganda Red IPA will be pouring as well as a couple of cask beers.

As of right now there are still tickets available to the Friday session of the festival, while the Saturday session is sold out. If you do have tickets, makes sure to stop by and see us at the Cranker's booth!

Drink good beer with good people!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Non-Apology Apology

I find myself compelled to make my apologies for the infrequency of my blog posts. However, I feel as if this implies a bit of hubris, as if my vast adoring public has been putting life on hold in hopes of a new post. The following are some random thoughts to catch you up on professional me over the past year.

2014 has brought much change and growth on the brewing side. Aaron Stryker took his talents to Cincinnati and Rhinegeist Brewing Company. Side note: They are growing at a staggering pace, and I hear they are turning out some killer beers, not that I have had them yet. Hint, hint... Aaron brought solid industry experience to the brewery, and I am excited for him that he has moved on to such and exciting opportunity.

In March, Andy Gallagher joined the brewing staff at Cranker's. Andy is a skilled brewer and we work well together. One of the thing he brings to the table is knowledge of water chemistry, and that leads leads into what has been going on beer wise at the brewery.

I had the goal of making 2014 the year that we took the next step in beer quality, by digging deeper into technical topics, especially water chemistry. With the prompting of John Palmer we dove into it (pun). Our work on the subject is ongoing, but I feel that our beers will continue to improve as we dial in our process. We are excited to see where our beers will be a year from now. Also, due to increased distribution of our product across the state, we are expecting 45% growth over 2013.

This week Andy and I will be departing for our first Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver. For the first time we will be competing in the GABF Competition were five of our beers will compete against the best beers in the country. Being as overly competitive as I am, I mixed emotions about competing in this realm. For years I was active in homebrew competitions, and now I am competing on beers grandest stage. It is humbling and intimidating.

Finally on the the thought that inspired me to dust off this ill tended corner of the Internet. Due to our travels to Denver this week, I find myself brewing on a Sunday. I was sitting in my office filling out the brew log for today's batch of Bulldog Irish Red and realizing how much peace I felt. It was the exact feeling that I had just two short years ago. I would wake up at 5:00am, go down stairs and fire up my strike water as the first step of my brew day. It was quiet. Peggy and the kids were still sleeping. The ritual of brewing was relaxing, just as it is today as my profession. Sometimes it takes a quiet, empty brewery to remember how completely you love what you do.

Drink good beer with good people!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Barrel Aged Debate

I am fresh off of another fantastic Winter Beer Festival in Grand Rapids this weekend. Winter Fest takes a certain mentality, one that I think captures the spirit of our great state. Weathering Mother Nature with 6000 of your closest beer loving friends turns out to be an amazing experience. Before I forget, a well deserved tip of the hat to the Michigan Brewers Guild for pulling off a smooth and safe event. A daunting task to say the least.

After perusing the wave of social media that follows events like this, I found a topic that should be explored further: barrel aged beers. Droves of beer lovers line up for special releases of bourbon/whisky barrel beers. There seems to be some expectations as to what these beers should be. I have seen some sentiment on Facebook expressing the idea that barrel aged beers are overrated. Also, that just because something has been put into a barrel, it does not make the beer automatically special. Thus the inferno of internet debate was sparked once again. What are these beers supposed to be? What makes a great barrel aged beer? In light of that, I have decided to input my thought on the topic in hopes of stirring a conversation about a wildly popular trend in brewing.

Range of Style

First of all, lets discuss the concept of range of style. I myself am a style brewer. There are a well defined beer styles that exist, and are described by the Brewers Association (BA) and the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). These styles have been established, and in some cases have evolved, over time. Personally, I prefer to work within this framework and try and experiment within it's bounds. As brewers continue to create and push the limits of brewing, new styles become legitimized. Among these in recent years are Double or Imperial IPA, Triple IPA, Belgian IPA, Session IPA, (think consumers like IPA?), Wheat Wine, Rye beers, and American Strong Ale among others.

Range of style is the idea that no one beer is completely representative of the style (don't nitpick me with Anchor Steam). Using IPA as an example, there are some versions of this style that exhibit a range of malt flavors (toasty, carmel, nutty) that are balanced by a very aggressive bitterness and elevated hop flavor. While other IPA's feature a diminished malt profile with intense levels of hop flavor to create balance. These beers are still bitter, but they do not have to be aggressively bitter to overcome the sweetness of specialty malts.

Issues arrive when people define a style narrowly. For instance, I have had people say that a great IPA isn't a great IPA because it isn't "Two Hearted, 60 Minute, Blind Pig, etc." This logic is simply wrong. The aforementioned beers are all tremendous example of the style. Because individuals may prefer one over the other, it doesn't mean that the rest are not a fine example of the style. It is a matter of taste. The same can be said for barrel aged beers.

Barrel as Ingredient

When crafting a beer that is destined for the barrel, considerations must be made. The barrel should be viewed just as vital to any recipe as any specific malt, hop, or yeast strain that is utilized to ferment the beer. Often times, brewers will begin a barrel aged project with a base beer like a porter or stout, and a high alcohol version of these styles at that. These beers feature robust notes of coffee, chocolate, and extreme roast notes in various intensity levels. These flavors tend to pair well with the crème brulee, vanilla bean, coconut, and spirit contributions of an the American oak barrel. It seems that the expectation for these beers are, or has become, to feature bourbon and oak notes with the beer becoming a secondary or even tertiary contributor to the final product.

For some, myself included, unbalanced barrel forward beers may be fine for a few sips, but rarely would I have interest in a pint of them. I find them taxing to my palate, and in some cases, like a pint dosed with a shot, or biting into a barrel stave. Beers like this play well at a festival, as we receive three ounce pours. At that rate issues like imbalance and cloying notes can be offset by the relatively small sample size. I feel that beers like this do not fall under the “Range of Style” mantle. They are inherently uneven and lack symmetry.

I tend to enjoy beers that use the barrel contribution in a supporting role for the base beer. However, I have had many wonderful examples that are more bourbon forward than my taste dictates, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it is a wonderful beer. Two great examples of that for me are Founder's Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Bourbon County Stout from Goose Island. They are on the aggressive side of barrel character but it does not impair the beers consumability. Again, range of style. It is my opinion that in time consumers will begin to see a wider range of barrel beers, those that aggressively feature wood, and those that use it with a lighter hand. Ultimately, barrel aged beers ought to find a balance where the beer and barrel comingle to create a sum greater than it's parts.

Drink good beer with good people!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Dry Yeast Rehydration and "Closed Procedure"

Below is an article that I wrote with professional side brewing in mind. It can have broader applications for both amateur and pro brewers, so I hope you enjoy.

 Craft beer is booming. The past decade has seen a meteoric rise in the number of new breweries dotting the landscape. Along with that, many homebrewers have stepped in to fill the growing demand for makers of artisan beer. The goal of this document is to help ease this transition to larger scale brewing by tackling an important topic, and discussing a key concept to the brewing process: yeast handling. The hardest working employee in any brewery is the yeast. A brewer can craft the finest wort possible, but if they do not create an ideal environment for the yeast to generate the desired flavors in the beer, an opportunity is lost.
Brewers pay a tremendous amount of attention to fermentation temperatures, yeast strain selection, and re-pitching approaches.  An often overlooked aspect is yeast viability and the roll that rehydration plays in providing your yeast an opportunity to generate the flavors and attenuation levels you want. This document is aimed at the importance of rehydrating dry yeast, but also the "closed" process that it utilizes. It is applicable to handling liquid yeast as well as finings (Biofine, gelatin, etc.). These processes utilize common brewery equipment and is adaptable to various brewing situations.

Why Rehydration?
I remember my first dry yeast packet. It came taped to the top of the liquid malt extract can the resided in my inaugural English Pale Ale kit. The instructions were simple. After cooling my wort, I was to combine the yeast and wort in my fermentation bucket and the rest would be history. First of all let it be said that pitching dry yeast directly onto the cooled wort can make excellent beer. With that said, as I further immersed myself into my new hobby, I learned that the dry yeast instructions for professional brewers was different. I had to find out why.
There are many reasons why dry yeast manufacturers recommend rehydration. First and foremost is yeast mortality. When dry yeast is pitched directly onto the wort, approximately 50% of the yeast die (White & Zainasheff, 2010). Following appropriate rehydration instructions per the manufacturer ensures that you are pitching a larger number of live cells into your wort. Rehydration also prevents a large number of dead yeast cells from influencing the flavor, attenuation, and consistency of your beers from batch to batch. The good news is that rehydrating yeast is a simple process that can utilize many items that amateur brewers already have and are also common to larger brewery operations as well.
Process and Equipment Options & "Closed" Procedure
At Cranker's Brewery we have a 15bbl system where we utilize dry yeast for the majority of our beers. The equipment we use to rehydrate are the items we use, but there are other options to achieve the same goals. Here is a list of items used:

  • 5 gallon corny keg and the requisite disconnects
  • Beverage tubing
  • Triclover x barb connection
  • Triclover gasket and clamp
  • Use of our hot liquor tank (HLT)
Our process is simple. After cleaning and sanitizing the corny keg and all keg parts involved we draw hot water off of our HLT to the volume specified by the dry yeast manufacturer. This water has been charcoal filtered and has been held at 170 F for a minimum of twelve hours allowing us to put pasteurized water into our rehydration vessel (corny keg). We connect the triclover x barb connection to the butterfly valve on the side of our HLT, and allow the hot water to flow into the corny keg by opening the pressure relief valve on the keg lid. When the keg is filled to the appropriate level, we disconnect and allow the water to cool to 105 degrees F over the course of our brewday.
When wort production is finished and the wort has been transferred to the fermenter, we begin the rehydration process. This is also where we begin use of our “closed” procedure. CO2 gas that is at 35psi is placed on the corny keg and the pressure relief valve on the keg's lid is opened. This allows the keg lid to be removed and placed in sanitizer. At this point there is a plume of CO2 gas that begins to flow out of the top of the keg. This plume is what prevents dust that bears beer spoilage organisms from falling into the keg. The dry yeast packages are then removed from the sanitizer that they were previously placed in and cut open with a sanitized knife. We then pour the entire contents of the yeast package into the 105 degree water. At that point, the keg lid is replaced and the pressure relief valve is closed. CO2 gas is then shut off. Once the yeast has received it's allotted thirty minutes of rehydration time, it is pumped into the fermenter with CO2 pressure using the same triclover x barb fitting that was used to take water from the HLT.
This method of utilizing positive pressure from the CO2 supply of the brewery is an effective way of creating as close to a closed transfer as possible in our brewery. This technique can also be applied to pitching liquid yeast, dry hopping, and using fining agents. With finings and dry hopping, the use of positive CO2 pressure allows the brewer to complete these standard brewery practices with minimal ingress of oxygen into the finished beer, thus minimizing one of the largest factors in beer staling.
Rehydrating dry yeast and utilizing “closed” transfers in the brewhouse are two ways that new and veteran craft brewers can make strides in beer consistency and stability. The equipment used in your brewery does not have to be identical, making the overall process adaptable and accessible to a wide range of situations. Hopefully these guidelines and concepts will be beneficial and employable in your workplace.

Drink good beer with good people!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Great Belgian Beer Run Part Two: United States Version

I was beginning to feel depressed. I started growing my beard at the same time that I did last year. For some reason, beards were a key element to our first Beer Run to Belgium. Why? I don't know, it just was. This year I felt like I was growing my beard with no purpose. It had finally hit me that we were not returning to Belgium in January of 2013. I never expected it to be a yearly event, or even something that was necessarily ever going to be repeated. Kevin, Lou, and I had discussed doing it every ten years potentially. So as we approached the anniversary of the trips conception, it surprised me to feel sad about the adventure not happening again.

For me the highlight of our trip was our time spent at Cantillon Brewery in Brussels. They brew a style of beer there called lambic. Lambic can only truly be produced in and around that area of Brussels because it relies on the natural flora and fauna to ferment their beers. In my opinion, spontaneously fermented beers made in other areas can be wonderful as well, but that does not make them true lambics. The brewmaster at Cantillon is Jean Van Roy. He gave an inspiring interview on The Brewing Network where he further elaborates on his brewery, his family history with the brewery, and brewing lambic. You can't listen to him discuss his beer without getting fired up. In another interview on the BN Head Brewer Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewery in California said that Jean Van Roy had called their sour beers American Lambic. This of course is an enormous compliment. This is where part two of The Great Belgian Beer Run comes into place.

The idea was hatched to head to California with two purposes, both of which are dreams of mine. The first, being a guest on The Sunday Session, the podcast that taught me how to brew, and discuss the beers we are brewing at Cranker's. The second is to further delve into our exploration of sour beers, but this time from the US perspective.

So once again, the three of us, all bearded will be heading off to California at about the time that the original beer run was being hatched. I will be keeping up blog accounts in the same fashion that I did in Belgium.

PS: Happy Thanksgiving!

Drink good beer with good people!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Remedial Chaos Theory

Timelines were not merging the way they were supposed to.

The plan was for me to start brewing at Cranker's during my sabbatical from teaching during the 2010-2011 school year. After listening to countless interviews with professional brewers from around the world on The Brewing Network, I knew better than to think that everything was going to fall into place according to our time projections. When you are dealing with construction, alcohol, and all levels of government bureaucracy breweries almost never open on time. Still though, I figured I would have had months to brew at Cranker's prior to my March deadline to tell my school district my plans for the following school year. As it happened, I had to tell my superintendant that I would not be returning to teaching before I even brewed my first professional batch of beer.

At first the transition away from teaching was pretty smooth. When my teacher friends were going back to work after their summer off, I was beginning to volunteer at Arbor Brewing two days a week. My time there ended in late October. After that I spent my time working from home on social media for the brewery, piloting recipes at home, starting this blog, and label design for our beers. Honestly, the transition to being home was tough though. I had a major career switch that was looming and there wans't much more I could do to prep for it beyond waiting for the brewery to be operational. Looking back I was trying to accomplish all of these 'work' tasks, while in reality I was doing more important work. Thankfully with the patient example of my wife, in time, I managed to meld pretty well into the pace and schedule of our household.

Earlier that year we were blessed with our fourth child, Isaac. He was the first baby to be born in the summertime. Our first three were January/February babies, so I was always at school for the majority of our kid's infancies. With Isaac things were different. I fielded far more dirty diapers, logged extended rounds with the Baby Bjorn, and jammed my iPhone full of baby pictures. I just realized it today that I was experiencing this stressful time on sabbatical, but in reality, the most important task I was accomplishing was a deeper connection with my kids, and in a special way our new baby Isaac.

Transitioning from teaching to brewing has been a challenge, but it has been an amazing ride that I do not regret. I have left a one job that I loved and was passionate about, for another one that I am equally as crazy about. The unexpected concequence of this whole escapade has been a closer relationship with my family. I am in a good place and I am at peace.

Drink good beer with good people!