Posts Tagged ‘helpful resource’

Brewer’s Library: Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels

April 5, 2011 1 comment

Designing Great Beers, by Ray DanielsIf you were going to have a brewing library that consisted of only one book, I would strongly consider choosing Designing Great Beers for the role.  It’s not necessarily an easy cover-to-cover read, but you’ll find yourself reaching for it nearly every brew day for one reason or another.  It’s especially telling that, while Garry and Tyler (of Manzanita and The Bruery, respectively) both have large libraries of brewing books in their offices, this is the one text that I’ve seen out and open on both of their desks.

This work has two very distinct sections.  The first is a relatively concise overview of various topics in recipe formulation: the malt bill; water chemistry; beer color; hop flavor, aroma and bitterness; fermentation concerns, etc.  This first bit can be intimidating if you’re still relatively new to brewing.  That can partially be explained by Daniels’ ability to focus only on recipe formulation.  He is not trying to rewrite How to Brew or The Joy of Homebrewing.  Thus, he completely avoids explaining how to perform most brewing procedures.  If you don’t already understand how the enzymatic reactions work in a mash, you’ll have to head back to the bookstore.  When I was first given this book (by my younger brother – thanks Zach!), I tried to read this first part cover-to-cover and beat a hasty retreat because I didn’t have the background knowledge that Daniels assumes of his readers.  However, as I acquired a better understanding of the brewing basics I found myself repeatedly returning to this first section with specific questions.  Some of the topics he covers deserve entire books of their own, but Daniels makes it clear when he’s merely skimming the surface of a given topic.  His chapters on water chemistry, beer color and yeast are especially notable for the brevity in light of an incredible amount of material that could potentially be covered.  That said, Daniels has done a great job of pairing down these sections to their most fundamental concerns.

The second section consists of guidelines for 14 different major styles (i.e. IPAs and Pale Ales, both English and American, are covered in a single chapter).  Included in each are relevant historical notes; contemporary versions of the style; and essential ingredients, procedures and parameters.  One of the nice things about Designing Great Beers is that these sections are set-up such that you don’t have to rely solely on Daniels’ word.  Whenever possible, he has included recipe data sourced from NHC Second Round entries.  Each of those beers beat out hundreds of others to compete at the national level and collectively provide wonderful guidelines for successfully producing any given style.

If there is any problem with this work it’s merely its age.  First released in 1996, the most recent revision is still over a decade old.  “What,” you ask “could have possibly changed about brewing beer in the last ten years?”  Well, while the fundamentals of brewing have certainly stayed the same, many of the practicalities of modern brewing have changed quite a bit.  Obviously, it’s easier to get equipment and ingredients than ever before.  Homebrewers who have been at it for a couple decades tend to be DIY-madmen and tinkerers because you couldn’t just buy whatever you needed.  Now most major cities have a number of supply shops that could outfit you with a full all-grain system in an afternoon.  The old problem used to be finding hops at all, the current problem is choosing from the array of available varieties.  Not only are more ingredients in stock, but they are also of considerably higher quality.  Homebrewers of the late 80’s reported frequent discoveries of pediococcus- and brettanomyces-laden dry yeast packets, leading to a unshakable preference for fresh, liquid yeast.  As for hops, a number of important strains have been developed since Daniels published this work.  Citra and Simcoe, two industry standards, were only developed in the last ten years and were unable to be included in this work.  Additionally, a number of very high alpha acid hops have been developed that have allowed IPAs (…double IPAs …triple IPAs) to become increasingly bitter.

But along with these innovations came an increased distribution of brewing knowledge.  While Daniels’ book may have indeed been the only work on your shelf back in 1996, today it’s easy to augment his text with knowledge from other sources.  Everything discussed in Designing Great Beers is still pertinent today, Citra or no Citra.  So while I still contend that this work is the one to have if you could only have one, how about just making it the first of many brewing resources in your library?

Stewarding a Homebrew Competition in America’s Finest City (Drinking and paperwork make quite the pair)

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

If this past Saturday morning was a reliable indicator, homebrew competitions are the following three things:

  1. Lively, at times bordering on raucous.
  2. Educational
  3. A fantastic way to spend a weekend.

I have to admit that I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into when I rolled up to St. Dunstan’s last Saturday at 9AM for the America’s Finest City Homebrew Competition.  As I approached the building I was stopped by a fellow QUAFF member who inquired about the tricky, google-inspired back road route he had seen me use just moments earlier.  We chatted for a few moments and I learned that he was Jim Crute, owner of Lightning Brewery.  I still react to meeting brewers as normal folks would when meeting rockstars, so this impromptu meeting bolstered my confidence that it would be a wonderful day.  I strode into the main hall to find a small crowd of somewhat familiar faces and a pleasant breakfast spread.

This was my first experience with a homebrew competition.  I hadn’t entered any beers, but I was there to volunteer as a steward in order to better understand the judging process.  Stewarding, it turns out, isn’t particularly difficult.  At the onset of the judging you pair up with a single category of judges.  In this case I got to choose, so I picked the Scottish and Irish Ale table.   You proceed to bring out the beers, one by one, until they’ve tried the whole flight.  After each beer you check the judge’s math — which gets pretty hairy as the day progresses — and fill out some last remaining paperwork.  Along the way you sequester the beers that have a chance of placing and remove those that obviously won’t make the cut.

The main take-away I got from the AFC is that stewarding is a fantastic way to train your palate.  I was hoping this would be the case, as my abilities to both discern and describe flavors need significant strengthening.  As judges make their way through their flight they are more than happy to let stewards in on their discussions.  I found that they are willing to answer questions if asked and will often encourage you to taste the beers after they’ve sipped enough to form their opinion.  As a steward you can read their scoresheets, which include separate commentary for aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression.  This is made particularly useful because you can often peruse the comments while sampling the beer in question.  I personally think that it’s the notably bad beers which are most interesting to taste.  They often serve as examples for various off-flavors, which are hard to find commercially and even harder to identify if you don’t have a BJCP judge sitting by your side.  Early in the day I had a good example of an infected beer that betrayed both acetic acid bacteria along with a possible Brettanomyces infection (For the uninitiated, the former instills a vinegar-like quality, while the latter is a wild yeast intentionally used in sours; neither should be present in any Scottish or Irish Ale).   When I brought it over to the “dumped” beer area the other stewards were eager to sample the infected brew.  This culture of beer nerdiness and serious study pervades the competition and makes the day fun for everyone involved.

Experiencing the judging process has me pumped for the first round of the National Homebrew Competition coming up in April.  I’m eagerly anticipating the feedback I’ll get for my submissions, which will hopefully include a Scottish Ale.  I’m also looking forward to stewarding once again.  If you’re looking for ways to expand your palate, learn off-flavors, or nail a certain style of beer, I can’t stress enough how great of a resource competitions can be.

Brewer’s Library: Brewing Up a Business by Sam Calagione

February 16, 2011 2 comments

You’ve heard of Sam Calagione. He is well on his way to being the most recognizable brewer in America. He founded Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, who are among the top 25 craft breweries by sales volume and have collaborated with the likes of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Boston Beer Co., and the Beer Advocate brothers. He has published several books on brewing and business. At the end of 2010 the Discovery Channel gave him his own TV show. Yeah, that guy.

Brewing Up a Business by Sam CalagioneBrewing Up a Business should be required reading for anyone working in a small craft brewery — or any small business, for that matter. Calagione has put together a lively, informative guide that covers the lifespan of a company from the original innovative idea to end-game strategies for gracefully exiting a successful entrepreneurial venture. Along the way he shares a number of entertaining stories from Dogfish Head’s unusual history that are the centerpiece responsible for this work’s accessibility.

Rather than being a nuts-and-bolts guide to business ownership, this work is really the transmission of one man’s business — and life — philosophy. Some of the key themes are as follows: everything you do should reflect your core values; you get the most from others when you communicate with openness, trust and respect; getting away from work can be the key to success both away from and at the office; etc, etc. These sorts of things can seem cliché when tersely spouted off by someone in a forum such as this, but when seriously ruminated upon they reflect real insight and are the heart of this book.

One of the greatest successes of Brewing Up a Business is that Calagione doesn’t torpedo his book’s readability when he does choose to focus on more tangible aspects of running a  business. In one notable departure he strays from business philosophies to talk about the difference between income statements and balance sheets. This is a subject that could easily put even the most interested young brewer to sleep. Yet, in the context that Calagione has created the subject becomes surprising and powerful. Having made it through two thirds of the book by this point, the reader trusts that if Calagione is taking the time to expound upon these supposedly crucial financial documents then it’s time to pay attention.

If the book has any downfalls the most egregious would be the author’s glamorization of business ownership. He mentions some of the hardships of the early days, such as getting years of little-to-no money and even less sleep, but only in a passing, light-hearted manner. It seems likely, given the success that has followed that era, that he simply views it all with the same amount of joy. After all, he couldn’t have gotten to where he is today without those tumultuous initial years. I recently spoke to another small craft brewer whose business is not yet out of that stage and he echoed Calagione’s realistic yet rosy view of the situation. Faced with a full-time position’s worth of brewery work on top of a normal day job, most of his life savings sunk into the business and with no certainty that the venture will ever turn profitable, he said that even if it were to go under tomorrow it will have been 100% worth it.

The reason that everyone working at a small-scale, for-profit business should invest their time into this book is high valuation of empathy. Calagione cites the ability to empathize as a fundamental characteristic of both good salespeople and good managers. He’s right on the money, except that I’d like to up the stakes and claim that it’s the fundamental skill for being a good human being. Understanding the entire life-cycle of a small business will help any employee improve the quality of their work. If you have an inkling of what the other owners and long-term employees went through early on and deal with on a day-to-day basis, you will better relate to those people. The ability to think holistically is an asset no matter what you find yourself doing, and Brewing Up a Business enthusiastically promotes that type of thought.