Archive

Posts Tagged ‘NHC’

Hundreds of Beers & Thousands of Beer Lovers, Take 1

The week of NHC is finally here. My countdown to this event began all the way back on Memorial Day weekend with The Bruery’s 3rd Anniversary celebration. The anniversary, while important to everybody at The Bruery, was especially so for me because it served as my introduction to beer festivals. As a virgin fest-goer I learned some important lessons (Lesson 1: If you want to sample beers all day, you must drink water and increase your caloric intake beyond nachos and their accompanying “cheese.” (Lesson 2: Do not expect decent vegetarian fare at a beer festival)) and I was saved from liver failure only because I was working for the first two thirds of the celebration. I found that helping may actually be more fun than simply attending, which has me very excited to steward the NHC finals this Thursday. Most of my day was spent pouring at the VIP tent; a task made more daunting due to the length of the VIP line and The Bruery’s track record of letting down many of these same acolytes at their last large event (a train-wreck that has led to the renaming of all subsequent reserve society parties: they are now “Clusterforks”). However, we came prepared and the red-flag-raising queue cycled through in less time than it took many a surprised Very Important Person to finish 3 ounces of highly sought-after booze.

Pouring and sampling these drinks taught yet another lesson: the people who pay hundreds of dollars for      fill in with any number of “whale” beers      are out of their goddamn minds. Yes, these beers are wonderful (the most illuminating of the VIP pours was the difference between Stone’s ’07 and ’08 Imperial Russian Stout; I was astounded at how a beer can mellow so perceptibly even after three years of cellaring). But I have to believe that those who inflate their value to such an absurd degree must come away disappointed. The aura of expectation that surrounds these select beers does more harm than good, as far as I can tell. The only griping patrons I encountered were those who came too late to get Chocolate Rain or Black Tuesday. But for every lauded Imperial Russian Stout (why are they all Stouts? It’s because any stout can be made more special with some time in a bourbon barrel, right?) there are a number of beers of equal greater quality and lesser stature to be had.

So now, after The Bruery 3 experience, I have a new top reason to be excited about NHC. There are no over-hyped beers amongst homebrewers. Almost everybody is unknown and word-of-mouth only has a few hours to develop after a beer starts pouring. This means every sample is a chance to be surprised. Oh yeah, and on top of the homebrews there are the presentations, NHC finals, nighttime soirées and the banquet dinner. There’s even a vegetarian option.

Advertisements

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?

NHC

It’s official: I’m going to the National Homebrewers Conference. They even have a vegetarian option for the final dinner. Niiiice.

This weekend I transfer one entry into secondary and attempt to brew a last minute IPA, just for shits and giggles. That should put me with entries in Stout, Spice/Herb/Vegetable, Scottish Ale and APA — very excited to get my first score sheets back!

Next article should be up in a day or two: it’s on preparing for the interview with your prospective brewery.

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.