November WhatNot

November is likely to see less posting than I’ve been going for so far (and even that’s been erratic.)

I’ll be participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which I had a wonderful time with in 2010 and I’m excited about following it up. But it requires writing more than 1600 words a day to stay on track, and cramming that obligation into a regular life means some things get less attention.

That said, check out this little piece about what NaNo means to me over at Southern Spines. It really is an excellent challenge, but more importantly, the NaNo online community is really fun to be part of during the month.

I have noticed that Spyke’s beer/food recipes have brought a lot of traffic in, so hopefully she’ll drop in with some more of that. But mostly I want to say that if you stumble upon this blog in November and it looks neglected, it’s not permanent. Drop some comments, ask some questions, share your approaches to brewing situations.

And I’ll be back in December with more beer everything.



Carboys: Plastic vs. Glass

Scary Monsters II finished a nice, quick primary and is ready to be thrown into secondary on some Willamette. I’ve been ignoring this fact for two days, because the only vessel available is my one glass carboy.

A gift from my brother, this 6 gallon glass behemoth opened my eyes to the weird universe that explodes to life when yeast is pitched, then just as suddenly, sinks into a new order and becomes still. I am very grateful for the glass carboy. That said, I hate to have to actually use it.

At my house, I have three plastic BetterBottles, one 5 gallon (mostly used as a secondary vessel) and two 6 gallons. In a perfect world, I’d transfer from BetterBottles to BetterBottles and never have to worry about glass. The advantages, especially for women who brew, are many:

    • BetterBottles are very light, ounces compared to pounds. One gallon of water (or beer) weighs eight pounds, so when you need to move six gallons of full carboy, your baseline is nearly fifty pounds. Using a 6 gallon glass carboy throws another 10 pounds into the equation, so now you’ve got 60 pounds of mass to move around.

  • BetterBottles don’t break. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but I’ve been brewing in mine for several years and I can say that it hasn’t happened. I’ve poured wort that was warmer than it should have been, I’ve stored them in less-than-ideal conditions when not in use, and they remain healthy, viable fermentation and aging vessels. Glass accumulates injury invisibly over time, and fails catastrophically without warning. I am always aware that there’s a ten pound chunk of curved glass and when it finally fails, I don’t want to have my arms around it or underneath it.
  • BetterBottles are easier to clean. Again, they’re light and you don’t have to worry about breaking them. Brushes work great, as does putting some sanitizing solution in and stuffing a solution-soaked rag into the mouth and shaking. My favorite is the little dance I do on brew day, vigorously shaking sanitizing solution around the BetterBottle without worry. It’s hugely liberating to be so cavalier after starting in glass. My glass carboy has a much smaller mouth and requires painstaking brushwork to scrub out solids. Rinsing it is messier than with plastic and just much more work.
  • BetterBottles are cheaper to buy and cheaper to ship. Which makes them an amazing bargain.

I certainly understand the romance of plastic-avoidance, but as I see it, that ship has sailed. At the batch size which I prefer to brew, there’s simply no comparison. Plastic provides a superior user experience by every measure that matters to me.

What’s your take on the plastic v. glass question?

No, but there sure is an “I” in “IPA”

If you look at the world today – the conflicts in the -stan nations, tyrants, wars, and underdevelopment in countries that were once colonies of the European powers – you really have to wonder if all that was such a good idea.

But the age of Empires (the British one, to be precise) did gift us with one true bright spot, the India Pale Ale.

According to Ray Daniels’s “Designing Great Beers,” the IPA developed in large part because of a trade imbalance between England and its colony, India. I’m sure there’s no PERFECT DESCRIPTION OF EMPIRE inherent in noting that ships would arrive in England full of pilfered goods from India, and then, because India didn’t actually need England in order to be a fully functioning civilization was a terrific, mature colony, would often return to India empty.

Needless to say, freight costs from London to Mumbai (which the British, apparently hard of hearing, called Bombay) were pretty reasonable, and if you had a product that would sell, it would be hard to dream up a better scheme for producing profits. An East London brewer named George Hodgson saw the opportunity, but first he had to deal with some technical issues.

I know we’re all used to a pretty standardized product when it comes to beer, but imagine a world without refrigeration. Beer is produced by microbial action, and every home brewer understands that there’s a small risk of infection – “spoilage organism” – in every batch we make. Not only do we have access to sanitizing solutions and basic hygiene items like soap and toothpaste to keep our bodies (sort of) clean, we also have a lot of control over how our beers are stored. It’s likely that every bottle or keg has a certain level of spoilage organism in it, but these factors, along with the hops and ABV of the beer itself, prevent them from achieving sufficient numbers to thrive.

But imagine putting hundreds of cases of your homebrew onto an unrefrigerated ship, then sailing it along the equator for weeks at a time. That’s the situation the brewers of England were facing, and their innovations to meet that challenge created a new breed of beer.

The first change was to dramatically increase the amount of hops in the beer. Hops aren’t just a bittering agent, they also have anti-microbial action that helps to prevent the growth of bad germs in the bottle. There’s actually a good amount of research right now into the use of hops or hop extracts to replace antibiotics in poultry and cattle, a change that might give us a few extra years of utility on existing antibiotic strains.

The second change was to drop the amount of sugars used in the fermentation. By starting with a lower specific gravity, the brewers were able to fine tune the fermentation to leave fewer sugars in the bottle – and less food for spoilage organisms.

The result was a very dry, very hoppy beer that would remain stable throughout the long, hot voyage to India. And once it arrived, it was a huge hit.

It would be a few centuries before craft brewers in the former colony of America, armed with hops grown in the west coast regions that were just opening up when the style was born, would transform the IPA into the broad spectrum of flavors that American beer drinkers crave – citrusy, grassy, floral, bitter.

So next time you’re watching the news and wondering how in the hell the world got into this mess, crack open an IPA. Think of it as drinking the silver lining, or a little taste of the brighter side of empire.

Founder’s Centennial IPA


Just a lovely beer, with plenty of citrusy, floral hops on a well-built malt backbone. 7.5% ended my weeknight beer sampling, but I’ll have this one again. Preferably beside a Bell’s Two Hearted (hey shorty) to compare flavors.

Peach Mead!

Tonight I bottled up the peach mead I brewed on 6/30 using honey from my hives. I siphoned a couple of ounces into a glass. This is young but absolutely delicious. I’ve made a lot of Mead over the years, and I’m pretty certain now that the right yeast is key to retaining the honey flavored. This is a bright, rich wine with a round honey flavor and pronounced peach notes. Sometimes meads come through with a bit of cough syrup taste. None of that here. This is good, good stuff.



Brewing without GMOs

I’m one of those slackers who is generally opposed to GMOs in the food supply, while assuming that most everything in the food supply these days is GMO. So I garden, cook a lot, and aim for organic when I shop, but ultimately, money is an object and – personal motto here – nothing’s perfect. So I’ve been brewing for a long time without specifically researching what I’m putting into my beer, in part because I expected the news to be bad.

I know a lot of people consider this view superstition, but when you look at how little testing has been done and how agribusiness has treated farmers who’ve had their fields polluted by GMO pollen, it’s tough for me to feel good about GMOs entering the food supply. Because of this, I’ve long worked under the assumption that European-sourced ingredients – where GMOs are generally disallowed – are a better choice than US, but as I research further, my concerns about exotic genes in the US grain supply are easing. (Corn and soybeans are the glaring exception.)

Here’s the US Department of Agriculture on wheat:

“Genetic improvement has been slower for wheat because of the grain’s genetic complexity and lower potential monetary returns to commercial seed companies, which discourage investment in research. In the corn sector, where hybrids are used, farmers generally buy seed from dealers every year. However, many wheat farmers, particularly in the Plains States, use saved seed instead of buying from dealers every year. In addition, U.S. food processors are wary of consumer reaction to products containing genetically modified (GM) wheat, so no GM wheat is grown in the United States.”

According to this European Union site, there are zero approved GMO applications for barley, the primary brewing grain for beer. That’s global, not just EU countries.

Which brings us to corn, adjunct and source of so many sugars in the food supply today. That little baggie of priming sugar in your homebrew kit? Corn sugars, as is pretty much every soda you drink and the sugars in most processed food. The bad news is that the vast majority of the US corn crop is GMO (in the 90% range) and that GM corn is grown in the EU, so if you’re into reducing your impact, you’ve got to shop specifically for clean corn sugars.

Seven Bridges carries organic, GMO-free brewing ingredients, including dextrose for priming.

Corn is wind pollinated, so a neighboring field of GMO corn can contaminate a clean crop, and the pesticides used on the US corn crop have been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees. At this point, commodity corn just strikes me as a massive catastrophe, both from a legal standpoint (Monsanto suing farmers who don’t buy their seed), an ecological standpoint (dead bees and weird genes everywhere), and a huge dietary problem as our food supply is pumped full of massively processed sugars extracted from corn.

With our All Thumbs brew, we used a few ounces of extra light dried malt for priming. I’ve also been reading up on kraussening and similar approaches, where some wort is saved from the batch, with or without yeast, and then added back to the bottling bucket for priming.

In any case, the good news is that the wheat and barley in your brew aren’t GMO, and there are plenty of options for replacing modified corn sugars with organic or even alternative sugars.

I’ll take a look at organic options for brewers, especially with hops, in another post.