Category Archives: brewing

War of the Bugs: Playing with Life in the Brewery

Kept brewing and thinking about brewing, after that last post. Been meaning to discuss my approach to “brewing bugs”: the yeast and bacteria strains which are involved in some of my beers. So, it’s a kind of follow-up.

Perhaps more than a reason for me to brew, getting to have fun with these living organisms is something of an achievement. It took a while before it started paying off, but it now does.

Now, I’m no biochemist. In fact, I’m fairly far to “wet sciences” in general. What I do with these organisms is based on a very limited understanding of what goes on during fermentation. But as long as I’m having fun, that should be ok.

This blogpost is about yeast in brewing. My focus is on homebrewing but many things also apply to craft brewing or even to macrobreweries.

There’s supposed to be a saying that “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” Whether or not it’s an actual saying, it’s quite accurate.

“Wort” is unfermented beer. It’s a liquid containing fermentable sugars and all sorts of other compounds which will make their way into the final beer after the yeast has had its fun in it. It’s a sweet liquid which tastes pretty much like Malta (e.g. Vitamalt).

Yeast is a single-cell organism which can do a number of neat things including the fine act of converting simple sugars into alcohol and CO2. Yeast cells also do a number of other neat (and not so neat) things with the wort, including the creation of a large array of flavour compounds which can radically change the character of the beer. Among the four main ingredients in beer (water, grain, hops, and yeast), I’d say that yeast often makes the largest contribution to the finished beer’s flavour and aroma profile.

The importance of yeast in brewing has been acknowledged to different degrees in history. The well-known Reinheitsgebot “purity law” of 1516, which specifies permissible ingredients in beer, made no mention of yeast. As the story goes, it took Pasteur (and probably others) to discover the role of yeast in brewing. After this “discovery,” Pasteur and others have been active at isolating diverse yeast strains to be used in brewing. Before that time, it seems that yeast was just occurring naturally in the brewing process.

As may be apparent in my tone, I’m somewhat skeptical of the “discovery” narrative. Yeast may not have been understood very clearly before Pasteur came on the scene, but there’s some evidence showing that yeast’s contribution to brewing had been known in different places at previous points in history. It also seems likely that multiple people had the same basic insight as LP did but may not have had the evidence to support this insight. This narrative is part of the (home)brewing “shared knowledge.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s a lot to be said about yeast biochemistry. In fact, the most casual of brewers who spends any significant amount of time with online brewing resources has some understanding, albeit fragmentary, of diverse dimensions of biochemistry through the action of yeast. But this blogpost isn’t about yeast biochemistry.

I’m no expert and biochemistry is a field for experts. What tends to interest me more than the hard science on yeast is the kind of “folk science” brewers create around yeast. Even the most scientific of brewers occasionally talks about yeast in a way which sounds more like folk beliefs than like hard science. In ethnographic disciplines, there’s a field of “ethnoscience” which deals with this kind of “folk knowledge.” My characterization of “folk yeast science” will probably sound overly simplistic and I’m not saying that it accurately represents a common approach to yeast among brewers. It’s more in line with the tone of Horace Miner’s classic text about the Nacirema than with anything else. A caricature, maybe, but one which can provide some insight.

In this case, because it’s a post on my personal blog, it probably provides more insight about yours truly than about anybody else. So be it.

I’m probably more naïve than most. Or, at least, I try to maintain a sense of wonder, as I play with yeast. I’ve done just enough reading about biochemistry to be dangerous. Again, “the brewery is an adult’s chemistry set.”

A broad distinction in the brewer’s approach to yeast is between “pure” and “wild” yeast. Pure yeast usually comes to the brewer from a manufacturer but it originated in a well-known brewery. Wild yeast comes from the environment and should be avoided at all costs. Wild yeast infects and spoils the wort. Pure yeast is a brewer’s best friend as it’s the one which transforms sweet wort into tasty, alcoholic beer. Brewers do everything to “keep the yeast happy.” Though yeast happiness sounds like exaggeration on my part, this kind of anthropomorphic concept is clearly visible in discussions among brewers. (Certainly, “yeast health” is a common concept. It’s not anthropomorphic by itself, but it takes part in the brewer’s approach to yeast as life.) Wild yeast is the reason brewers use sanitizing agents. Pure yeast is carefully handled, preserved, “cultured.” In this context, “wild yeast” is unwanted yeast. “Pure yeast” is the desirable portion of microflora.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many brewers are obsessed with the careful handling of pure yeast and the complete avoidance of wild yeast. The homebrewer’s motto, following Charlie Papazian, may be “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” when brewers do worry, they often worry about keeping their yeast as pure as possible or keeping their wort as devoid of wild yeast as possible.

In the context of brewers’ folk taxonomy, wild yeast is functionally a “pest,” its impact is largely seen as negative. Pure yeast is beneficial. Terms like “bugs” or “beasties” are applied to both but, with wild yeast, their connotations and associations are negative (“nasty bugs”) while the terms are applied to pure yeast in a more playful, almost endeared tone. “Yeasties” is almost a pet name for pure yeast.

I’ve mentioned “folk taxonomy.” Here, I’m mostly thinking about cognitive anthropology. Taxonomies have been the hallmark of cognitive anthropology, as they reveal a lot about the ways people conceive of diverse parts of reality and are relatively easy to study. Eliciting categories in a folk taxonomy is a relatively simple exercise which can even lead to other interesting things in terms of ethnographic research (including, for instance, establishing rapport with local experts or providing a useful basis to understanding subtleties in the local language). I use terms like “folk” and “local” in a rather vague way. The distinction is often with “Western” or even “scientific.” Given the fact that brewing in North America has some strong underpinnings in science, it’s quite fun to think about North American homebrewers through a model which involves an opposition to “Western/scientific.” Brewers, including a large proportion of homebrewers, tend to be almost stereotypically Western and to work through (and sometimes labour under) an almost-reductionist scientific mindframe. In other words, my talking about “folk taxonomy” is almost a way to tease brewers. But it also relates to my academic interest in cultural diversity, language, worldviews, and humanism.

“Folk taxonomies” can be somewhat fluid but the concept applies mostly to classification systems which are tree-like, with “branches” coming of broader categories. The term “folksonomy” has some currency, these days, to refer to a classification structure which has some relation to folk taxonomy but which doesn’t tend to work through a very clear arborescence. In many contexts, “folksonomy” simply means “tagging,” with the notion that it’s a free-form classification, not amenable to treatment in the usual “hierarchical database” format. Examples of folksonomies often have to do with the way people classify books or other sources of information. A folksonomy is then the opposite of the classification system used in libraries or in Web directories such as the original Yahoo! site. Tags assigned to this blogpost (“Tagged: Belgian artist…”) are part of my own folksonomy for blogposts. Categories on WordPress blogs such as this ones are supposed to create more of a (folk) taxonomy. For several reasons (including the fact that tags weren’t originally available to me for this blog), I tend to use categories as more of a folksonomy, but with a bit more structure. Categories are more stable than tags. For a while, now, I’ve refrained from adding new categories (to my already overly-long list). But I do add lots of new tags.

Anyhoo…

Going back to brewers’ folk taxonomy of yeast strains…

Technically, if I’m not mistaken, the term “pure” should probably refer to the yeast culture, not to the yeast itself. But the overall concept does seem to apply to types of yeast, even if other terms are used. The terms “wild” and “pure” aren’t inappropriate. “Wild” yeast is undomesticated. “Pure” yeast strains were those strains which were selected from wild yeast strains and were isolated in laboratories.

Typically, pure yeast strains come from one of two species of the genus Saccharomyces. One species includes the “top-fermenting” yeast strains used in ales while the other species includes the “bottom-fermenting” yeast strains used in lagers. The distinction between ale and lager is relatively recent, in terms of brewing history, but it’s one which is well-known among brewers. The “ale” species is called cerevisiae (with all sorts of common misspellings) and the “lager” species has been called different names through history, to the extent that the most appropriate name (pastorianus) seems to be the object of specialized, not of common knowledge.

“Wild yeast” can be any yeast strain. In fact, the two species of pure yeast used in brewing exist as wild yeast and brewers’ “folk classification” of microorganisms often lumps bacteria in the “wild yeast” category. The distinction between bacteria and yeast appears relatively unimportant in relation to brewing.

As can be expected from my emphasis on “typically,” above, not all pure yeast strains belong to the “ale” and “lager” species. And as is often the case in research, the exceptions are where things get interesting.

One category of yeast which is indeed pure but which doesn’t belong to one of the two species is wine yeast. While brewers do occasionally use strains of wild yeast when making other beverages besides beer, wine yeast strains mostly don’t appear on the beer brewer’s radar as being important or interesting. Unlike wild yeast, it shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. Unlike pure yeast, it shouldn’t be cherished. In this sense, it could almost serve as «degré zéro» or “null” in the brewer’s yeast taxonomy.

Then, there are yeast strains which are usually considered in a negative way but which are treated as pure strains. I’m mostly thinking about two of the main species in the Brettanomyces genus, commonly referred to as “Brett.” These are winemakers’ pests, especially in the case of oak aging. Oak casks are expensive and they can be ruined by Brett infections. In beer, while Brett strains are usually classified as wild yeast, some breweries have been using Brett in fermentation to effects which are considered by some people to be rather positive while others find these flavours and aromas quite displeasing. It’s part of the brewing discourse to use “barnyard” and “horse blanket” as descriptors for some of the aroma and flavour characteristics given by Brett.

Brewers who consciously involve Brett in the fermentation process are rather uncommon. There are a few breweries in Belgium which make use of Brett, mostly in lambic beers which are fermented “spontaneously” (without the use of controlled innoculation). And there’s a (slightly) growing trend among North American home- and craft brewers toward using Brett and other bugs in brewing.

Because of these North American brewers, Brett strains are now available commercially, as “pure” strains.

Which makes for something quite interesting. Brett is now part of the “pure yeast” category, at least for some brewers. They then use Brett as they would other pure strains, taking precautions to make sure it’s not contaminated. At the same time, Brett is often used in conjunction with other yeast strains and, contrary to the large majority of beer fermentation methods, what brewers use is a complex yeast culture which includes both Saccharomyces and Brett. It may not seem that significant but it brings fermentation out of the strict “mono-yeast” model. Talking about “miscegenation” in social terms would be abusive. But it’s interesting to notice which brewers use Brett in this way. In some sense, it’s an attitude which has dimensions from both the “Belgian Artist” and “German Engineer” poles in my brewing attitude continuum.

Other brewers use Brett in a more carefree way. Since Brett-brewing is based on a complex culture, one can go all the way and mix other bugs. Because Brett has been mostly associated with lambic brewing, since the onset of “pure yeast” brewing, the complex cultures used in lambic breweries serve as the main model. In those breweries, little control can be applied to the balance between yeast strains and the concept of “pure yeast” seems quite foreign. I’ve never visited a lambic brewery (worse yet, I’ve yet to set foot in Belgium), but I get to hear and read a lot about lambic brewing. My perception might be inaccurate, but it also reflects “common knowledge” among North American brewers.

As you might guess, by now, I take part in the trend to brew carefreely. Even carelessly. Which makes me more of a MadMan than the majority of brewers.

Among both winemakers and beer brewers, Brett has the reputation to be “resilient.” Once Brett takes hold of your winery or brewery, it’s hard to get rid of it. Common knowledge about Brett includes different things about its behaviour in the fermentation process (it eats some sugars that Saccharomyces doesn’t, it takes a while to do its work…). But Brett also has a kind of “character,” in an almost-psychological sense.

Which reminds me of a comment by a pro brewer about a well-known strain of lager yeast being “wimpy,” especially in comparison with some well-known British ale yeast strains such as Ringwood. To do their work properly, lager strains tend to require more care than ale strains, for several reasons. Ringwood and some other strains are fast fermenters and tend to “take over,” leaving little room for other bugs.

Come to think of it, I should try brewing with a blend of Ringwood and Brett. It’d be interesting to see “who wins.”

Which brings me to “war.”

Now, I’m as much of a pacifist as one can be. Not only do I not tend to be bellicose and do I cherish peace, I frequently try to avoid conflict and I even believe that there’s a peaceful resolution to most situations.

Yet, one thing I enjoy about brewing is to play with conflicting yeast strains. Pitting one strain against another is my way to “wage wars.” And it’s not very violent.

I also tend to enjoy some games which involve a bit of conflict, including Diplomacy and Civilization. But I tend to play these games as peacefully as possible. Even Spymaster, which rapidly became focused on aggressions, I’ve been playing as a peace-loving, happy-go-lucky character.

But, in the brewery, I kinda like the fact that yeast cells from different strains are “fighting” one another. I don’t picture yeast cells like warriors (with tiny helmets), but I do have fun imagining the “Battle of the Yeast.”

Of course, this has more to do with competition than with conflict. But both are related, in my mind. I’m also not that much into competition and I don’t like to pit people against one another, even in friendly competition. But this is darwinian competition. True “survival of the fittest,” with everything which is implied in terms of being contextually appropriate.

So I’m playing with life, in my brewery. I’m not acting as a Creator over the yeast population, but there’s something about letting yeast cells “having at it” while exercising some level of control that could be compared to some spiritual figures.

Thinking about this also makes me think about the Life game. There are some similarities between what goes on in my wort and what Conway’s game implies. But there are also several differences, including the type of control which can be applied in either case and the fact that the interaction between yeast cells is difficult to visualize. Not to mention that yeast cells are actual, living organisms while the cellular automaton is pure simulation.

The fun I have playing with yeast cells is part of the reason I like to use Brett in my beers. The main reason, though, is that I like the taste of Brett in beer. In fact, I even like it in wine, by transfer from my taste for Brett in beer.

And then, there’s carefree brewing.

As I described above, brewers are very careful to avoid wild yeast and other unwanted bugs in their beers. Sanitizing agents are an important part of the brewer’s arsenal. Which goes well with the “German engineer” dimension of brewing. There’s an extreme position in brewing, even in homebrewing. The “full-sanitization brewery.” Apart from pure yeast, nothing should live in the wort. Actually, nothing else should live in the brewery. If it weren’t for the need to use yeast in the fermentation process, brewing could be done in a completely sterile environment. The reference for this type of brewery is the “wet science” lab. As much as possible, wort shouldn’t come in contact with air (oxidization is another reason behind this; the obsession with bugs and the distaste for oxidization often go together). It’s all about control.

There’s an obvious reason behind this. Wort is exactly the kind of thing wild yeast and other bugs really like. Apparently, slants used to culture microorganisms in labs may contain a malt-based gelatin which is fairly similar to wort. I don’t think it contains hops, but hops are an agent of preservation and could have a positive effect in such a slant.

I keep talking about “wild yeast and other bugs” and I mentioned that, in the brewer’s folk taxonomy, bacteria are equivalent to wild yeast. The distinction between yeast and bacteria matters much less in the brewery than in relation to life sciences. In the conceptual system behind brewing, bacteria is functionally equivalent to wild yeast.

Fear of bacteria and microbes is widespread, in North America. Obviously, there are many excellent medical reasons to fear a number of microorganisms. Bacteria can in fact be deadly, in the right context. Not that the mere presence of bacteria is directly linked with human death. But there’s a clear association, in a number of North American minds, between bacteria and disease.

As a North American, despite my European background, I tended to perceive bacteria in a very negative way. Even today, I react “viscerally” at the mention of bacteria. Though I know that bacteria may in fact be beneficial to human health and that the human body contains a large number of bacterial cells, I have this kind of ingrained fear of bacteria. I love cheese and yogurt, including those which are made with very complex bacterial culture. But even the mere mention of bacteria in this context requires that I think about the distinction between beneficial and dangerous bacteria. In other words, I can admit that I have an irrational fear of bacteria. I can go beyond it, but my conception of microflora is skewed.

For two years in Indiana, I was living with a doctoral student in biochemistry. Though we haven’t spent that much time talking about microorganisms, I was probably influenced by his attitude toward sanitization. What’s funny, though, is that our house wasn’t among the cleanest in which I’ve lived. In terms of “sanitary conditions,” I’ve had much better and a bit worse. (I’ve lived in a house where we received an eviction notice from the county based on safety hazards in that place. Lots of problems with flooding, mould, etc.)

Like most other North American brewers, I used to obsess about sanitization, at every step in the process. I was doing an average job at sanitization and didn’t seem to get any obvious infection. I did get “gushers” (beers which gush out of the bottle when I open it) and a few “bottle bombs” (beer bottles which actually explode). But there were other explanations behind those occurrences than contamination.

The practise of sanitizing everything in the brewery had some significance in other parts of my life. For instance, I tend to think about dishes and dishwashing in a way which has more to do with caution over potential contamination than with dishes appearing clean and/or shiny. I also think about what should be put in the refrigerator and what can be left out, based on my limited understanding of biochemistry. And I think about food safety in a specific way.

In the brewery, however, I moved more and more toward another approach to microflora. Again, a more carefree approach to brewing. And I’m getting results that I enjoy while having a lot of fun. This approach is also based on my pseudo-biochemistry.

One thing is that, in brewing, we usually boil the wort for an hour or more before inoculation with pure yeast. As boiling kills most bugs, there’s something to be said about sanitization being mostly need for equipment which touches the wort after the boil. Part of the equipment is sanitized during the boiling process and what bugs other pieces of equipment may transfer to the wort before boiling are unlikely to have negative effects on the finished beer. With this idea in mind, I became increasingly careless with some pieces of my brewing equipment. Starting with the immersion chiller and kettle, going all the way to the mashtun.

Then, there’s the fact that I use wild yeast in some fermentations. In both brewing and baking, actually. Though my results with completely “wild” fermentations have been mixed to unsatisfactory, some of my results with “partially-wild” fermentations have been quite good.

Common knowledge among brewers is that “no known pathogen can survive in beer.” From a food safety standpoint, beer is “safe” for four main reasons: boiling, alcohol, low pH, and hops. At least, that’s what is shared among brewers, with narratives about diverse historical figures who saved whole populations through beer, making water sanitary. Depending on people’s attitudes toward alcohol, these stories about beer may have different connotations. But it does seem historically accurate to say that beer played an important part in making water drinkable.

So, even wild fermentation is considered safe. People may still get anxious but, apart from off-flavours, the notion is that contaminated beer can do no more harm than other beers.

The most harmful products of fermentation about which brewers may talk are fusel alcohols. These, brewers say, may cause headaches if you get too much of them. Fusels can cause some unwanted consequences, but they’re not living organisms and won’t spread as a disease. In brewer common knowledge, “fusels” mostly have to do with beers with high degrees of alcohol which have been fermented at a high temperature. My personal sense is that fusels aren’t more likely to occur in wild fermentation than with pure fermentation, especially given the fact that most wild fermentation happens with beer with a low degree of alcohol.

Most of the “risks” associated with wild fermentation have to do with flavours and aromas which may be displeasing. Many of these have to do with souring, as some bugs transform different compounds (alcohol especially, if I’m not mistaken) into different types of acids. While Brett and other strains of wild yeast can cause some souring, the acids in questions mostly have to do with bacteria. For instance, lactobacillus creates lactic acid, acetobacter creates acetic acid, etc.

Not only do I like that flavour and aroma characteristics associated with some wild yeast strains (Brett, especially), I also like sour beers. It may sound strange given the fact that I suffer from GERD. But I don’t overindulge in sour beers. I rarely drink large quantities of beer and sour beers would be the last thing I’d drink large quantities of. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about balance in pH. I may be off but I get the impression that there are times in which sour things are either beneficial to me or at least harmless. Part of brewer common knowledge in fact has a whole thing about alkalinity and pH. I’m not exactly clear on how it affects my body based on ingestion of diverse substances, but I’m probably affected by my background as a homebrewer.

Despite my taste for sour beers, I don’t necessarily have the same reaction to all souring agents. For instance, I have a fairly clear threshold in terms of acetic acid in beer. I enjoy it when a sour beer has some acetic character. But I prefer to limit the “aceticness” of my beers. Two batches I’ve fermented with wild bugs were way too acetic for me and I’m now concerned that other beers may develop the same character. In fact, if there’s a way to prevent acetobacter from getting in my wort while still getting the other bugs working, I could be even more carefree as a brewer than I currently am.

Which is a fair deal. These days, I really am brewing carefreely. Partly because of my “discovery” of lactobacillus.

As brewer common knowledge has it, lactobacillus is just about everywhere. It’s certainly found on grain and it’s present in human saliva. It’s involved in some dairy fermentation and it’s probably the main source of bacterial fear among dairy farmers.

Apart from lambic beers (which all come from a specific region in Belgium), the main sour beer that is part of brewer knowledge is Berliner Weisse. Though I have little data on how Berliner Weisse is fermented, I’ve known for a while that some people create a beer akin to Berliner Weisse through what brewers call a “sour mash” (and which may or may not be related to sour mash in American whiskey production). After thinking about it for years, I’ve done my first sour mash last year. I wasn’t very careful in doing it but I got satisfying results. One advantage of the sour mash is that it happens before boiling, which means that the production of acid can be controlled, to a certain degree. While I did boil my wort coming from sour mash, it’s clear that I still had some lactobacillus in my fermenters. It’s possible that my boil (which was much shorter than the usual) wasn’t enough to kill all the bugs. But, come to think of it, I may have been a bit careless with sanitization of some pieces of equipment which had touched the sour wort before boiling. Whatever the cause, I ended up with some souring bugs in my fermentation. And these worked really well for what I wanted. So much so that I’ve consciously reused that culture in some of my most recent brewing experiments.

So, in my case, lactobacillus is in the “desirable” category of yeast taxonomy. With Brett and diverse Saccharomyces strains, lactobacillus is part of my fermentation apparatus.

As a mad brewer, I can use what I want to use. I may not create life, but I create beer out of this increasingly complex microflora which has been taking over my brewery.

And I’m a happy brewer.

How I Got Into Beer

Was doing some homebrewing experimentation (sour mash, watermelon, honey, complex yeast cultures…) and I got to think about what I’d say in an interview about my brewing activities.

It’s a bit more personal than my usual posts in English (my more personal blogposts are usually in French), but it seems fitting.

I also have something of a backlog of blogposts I really should do ASAP. But blogging is also about seizing the moment. I feel like writing about beer. 😛

So…

As you might know, the drinking age in Quebec is 18, as in most parts of the World except for the US. What is somewhat distinct about Qc with regards to drinking age is that responsible drinking is the key and we tend to have a more “European” attitude toward alcohol: as compared to the Rest of Canada, there’s a fair bit of leeway in terms of when someone is allowed to drink alcohol. We also tend to learn to drink in the family environment, and not necessarily with friends. What it means, I would argue, is that we do our mistakes in a relatively safe context. By the time drinking with peers becomes important (e.g., in university or with colleagues), many of us know that there’s no fun in abusing alcohol and that there are better ways to prove ourselves than binge drinking. According to Barrett Seaman, author of Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You, even students from the US studying at McGill University in Montreal are more likely to drink responsibly than most students he’s seen in the US. (In Montreal, McGill tends to be recognized as a place where binge drinking is most likely to occur, partly because of the presence of US students. In addition, binge drinking is becoming more conspicuous, in Qc, perhaps because of media pressure or because of influence from the US.)

All this to say that it’s rather common for a Québécois teen to at least try alcohol at a relatively age. Because of my family’s connections with Switzerland and France, we probably pushed this even further than most Québécois family. In other words, I had my first sips of alcohol at a relatively early age (I won’t tell) and, by age 16, I could distinguish different varieties of Swiss wines, during an extended trip to Switzerland. Several of these wines were produced by relatives and friends, from their own vineyards. They didn’t contain sulfites and were often quite distinctive. To this day, I miss those wines. In fact, I’d say that Swiss wines are among the best kept secrets of the wine world. Thing is, it seems that Swiss vineyards barely produce enough for local consumption so they don’t try to export any of it.

Anyhoo…

By age 18, my attitude toward alcohol was already quite similar to what it is now: it’s something that shouldn’t be abused but that can be very tasty. I had a similar attitude toward coffee, that I started to drink regularly when I was 15. (Apart from being a homebrewer and a beer geek, I’m also a homeroaster and coffee geek. Someone once called me a “Renaissance drinker.”)

When I started working in French restaurants, it was relatively normal for staff members to drink alcohol at the end of the shift. In fact, at one place where I worked, the staff meal at the end of the evening shift was a lengthy dinner accompanied by some quality wine. My palate was still relatively untrained, but I remember that we would, in fact, discuss the wine on at least some occasions. And I remember one customer, a stage director, who would share his bottle of wine with the staff during his meal: his doctor told him to reduce his alcohol consumption and the wine only came in 750ml bottles. 😉

That same restaurant might have been the first place where I tried a North American craft beer. At least, this is where I started to know about craft beer in North America. It was probably McAuslan‘s St. Ambroise Stout. But I also had opportunities to have some St. Ambroise Pale Ale. I just preferred the Stout.

At one point, that restaurant got promotional beer from a microbrewery called Massawippi. That beer was so unpopular that we weren’t able to give it away to customers. Can’t recall how it tasted but nobody enjoyed it. The reason this brewery is significant is that their license was the one which was bought to create a little microbrewery called Unibroue. So, it seems that my memories go back to some relatively early phases in Quebec’s craft beer history. I also have rather positive memories of when Brasal opened.

Somewhere along the way, I had started to pick up on some European beers. Apart from macros (Guinness, Heineken, etc.), I’m not really sure what I had tried by that point. But even though these were relatively uninspiring beers, they somehow got me to understand that there was more to beer than Molson, Labatt, Laurentide, O’Keefe, and Black Label.

The time I spent living in Switzerland, in 1994-1995, is probably the turning point for me in terms of beer tasting. Not only did I get to drink the occasional EuroLager and generic stout, but I was getting into Belgian Ales and Lambics. My “session beer,” for a while, was a wit sold in CH as Wittekop. Maybe not the most unique wit out there. But it was the house beer at Bleu Lézard, and I drank enough of it then to miss it. I also got to try several of the Trappists. In fact, one of the pubs on the EPFL campus had a pretty good beer selection, including Rochefort, Chimay, Westmalle, and Orval. The first lambic I remember was Mort Subite Gueuze, on tap at a very quirky place that remains on my mind as this near-cinematic experience.

At the end of my time in Switzerland, I took a trip to Prague and Vienna. Already at that time, I was interested enough in beer that a significant proportion of my efforts were about tasting different beers while I was there. I still remember a very tasty “Dopplemalz” beer from Vienna and, though I already preferred ales, several nice lagers from Prague.

A year after coming back to North America, I traveled to Scotland and England with a bunch of friends. Beer was an important part of the trip. Though I had no notion of what CAMRA was, I remember having some real ales in diverse places. Even some of the macro beers were different enough to merit our interest. For instance, we tried Fraoch then, probably before it became available in North America. We also visited a few distilleries which, though I didn’t know it at the time, were my first introduction to some beer brewing concepts.

Which brings me to homebrewing.

The first time I had homebrew was probably at my saxophone teacher’s place. He did a party for all of us and had brewed two batches. One was either a stout or a porter and the other one was probably some kind of blonde ale. What I remember of those beers is very vague (that was probably 19 years ago), but I know I enjoyed the stout and was impressed by the low price-quality ratio. From that point on, I knew I wanted to brew. Not really to cut costs (I wasn’t drinking much, anyway). But to try different beers. Or, at least, to easily get access to those beers which were more interesting than the macrobrewed ones.

I remember another occasion with a homebrewer, a few years later. I only tried a few sips of the beer but I remember that he was talking about the low price. Again, what made an impression on me wasn’t so much the price itself. But the low price for the quality.

At the same time, I had been thinking about all sorts of things which would later become my “hobbies.” I had never had hobbies in my life but I was thinking about homeroasting coffee, as a way to get really fresh coffee and explore diverse flavours. Thing is, I was already this hedonist I keep claiming I am. Tasting diverse things was already an important pleasure in my life.

So, homebrewing was on my mind because of the quality-price ratio and because it could allow me to explore diverse flavours.

When I moved to Bloomington, IN, I got to interact with some homebrewers. More specifically, I went to an amazing party thrown by an ethnomusicologist/homebrewer. The guy’s beer was really quite good. And it came from a full kegging system.

I started dreaming.

Brewpubs, beerpubs, and microbreweries were already part of my life. For instance, without being a true regular, I had been going to Cheval blanc on a number of occasions. And my “go to” beer had been Unibroue, for a while.

At the time, I was moving back and forth between Quebec and Indiana. In Bloomington, I was enjoying beers from Upland’s Brewing Co., which had just opened, and Bloomington Brewing Co., which was distributed around the city. I was also into some other beers, including some macro imports like Newcastle Brown Ale. And, at liquor stores around the city (including Big Red), I was discovering a few American craft beers, though I didn’t know enough to really make my way through those. In fact, I remember asking for Unibroue to be distributed there, which eventually happened. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t try Three Floyds, at the time.

So I was giving craft beer some thought.

Then, in February 1999, I discovered Dieu du ciel. I may have gone there in late 1998, but the significant point was in February 1999. This is when I tried their first batch of “Spring Equinox” Maple Scotch Ale. This is the beer that turned me into a homebrewer. This is the beer that made me changed my perspetive about beer. At that point, I knew that I would eventually have to brew.

Which happened in July 1999, I think. My then-girlfriend had offered me a homebrewing starter kit as a birthday gift. (Or maybe she gave it to me for Christmas… But I think it was summer.) Can’t remember the extent to which I was talking about beer, at that point, but it was probably a fair bit, i.e., I was probably becoming annoying about it. And before getting the kit, I was probably daydreaming about brewing.

Even before getting the kit, I had started doing some reading. The aforementioned ethnomusicologist/homebrewer had sent me a Word file with a set of instructions and some information about equipment. It was actually much more elaborate than the starter kit I eventually got. So I kept wondering about all the issues and started getting some other pieces of equipment. In other words, I was already deep into it.

In fact, when I got my first brewing book, I also started reading feverishly, in a way I hadn’t done in years. Even before brewing the first batch, I was passionate about brewing.

Thanks to the ‘Net, I was rapidly amassing a lot of information about brewing. Including some recipes.

Unsurprisingly, the first beer I brewed was a maple beer, based on my memory of that Dieu du ciel beer. However, for some reason, that first beer was a maple porter, instead of a maple scotch ale. I brewed it with extract and steeped grain. I probably used a fresh pack of Coopers yeast. I don’t think I used fresh hops (the beer wasn’t supposed to be hop-forward). I do know I used maple syrup at the end of boil and maple sugar at priming.

It wasn’t an amazing beer, perhaps. But it was tasty enough. And it got me started. I did a few batches with extract and moved to all-grain almost right away. I remember some comments on my first maple porter, coming from some much more advanced brewers than I was. They couldn’t believe that it was an extract beer. I wasn’t evaluating my extract beer very highly. But I wasn’t ashamed of it either.

Those comments came from brewers who were hanging out on the Biéropholie website. After learning about brewing on my own, I had eventually found the site and had started interacting with some local Québécois homebrewers.

This was my first contact with “craft beer culture.” I had been in touch with fellow craft beer enthusiasts. But hanging out with Bièropholie people and going to social events they had organized was my first foray into something more of a social group with its associated “mode of operation.” It was a fascinating experience. As an ethnographer and social butterfly, this introduction to the social and cultural aspects of homebrewing was decisive. Because I was moving all the time, it was hard for me to stay connected with that group. But I made some ties there and I still bump into a few of the people I met through Bièropholie.

At the time I first started interacting with the Bièropholie gang, I was looking for a brewclub. Many online resources mentioned clubs and associations and they sounded exactly like the kind of thing I needed. Not only for practical reasons (it’s easier to learn techniques in such a context, getting feedback from knowledgeable people is essential, and tasting other people’s beers is an eye-opener), but also for social reasons. Homebrewing was never meant to be a solitary experience, for me.

I was too much of a social butterfly.

Which brings me back to childhood. As a kid, I was often ostracized. And I always tried to build clubs. It never really worked. Things got much better for me after age 15, and I had a rich social life by the time I became a young adult. But, in 2000-2001, I was still looking for a club to which I could belong. Unlike Groucho, I cared a lot about any club which would accept me.

As fun as it was, Bièropholie wasn’t an actual brewclub. Brewers posting on the site mostly met as a group during an annual event, a BBQ which became known as «Xè de mille» (“Nth of 1000”) in 2001. The 2000 edition (“0th of 1000”) was when I had my maple porter tasted by more advanced brewers. Part of event was a bit like what brewclub meetings tend to be: tasting each other’s brews, providing feedback, discussing methods and ingredients, etc. But because people didn’t meet regularly as a group, because people were scattered all around Quebec, and because there wasn’t much in terms of “contribution to primary identity,” it didn’t feel like a brewclub, at least not of the type I was reading about.

The MontreAlers brewclub was formed at about that time. For some reason, it took me a while to learn of its existence. I distinctly remember looking for a Montreal-based club through diverse online resources, including the famed HomeBrew Digest. And I know I tried to contact someone from McGill who apparently had a club going. But I never found the ‘Alers.

I did eventually find the Members of Barleyment. Or, at least, some of the people who belonged to this “virtual brewclub.” It probably wasn’t until I moved to New Brunswick in 2003, but it was another turning point. One MoB member I met was Daniel Chisholm, a homebrewer near Fredericton, NB, who gave me insight on the New Brunswick beer scene (I was teaching in Fredericton at the time). Perhaps more importantly, Daniel also invited me to the Big Strange New Brunswick Brew (BSNBB), a brewing event like the ones I kept dreaming about. This was partly a Big Brew, an occasion for brewers to brew together at the same place. But it was also a very fun social event.

It’s through the BSNBB that I met MontreAlers Andrew Ludwig and John Misrahi. John is the instigator of the MontreAlers brewclub. Coming back to Montreal a few weeks after BSNBB, I was looking forward to attend my first meeting of the ‘Alers brewclub, in July 2003.

Which was another fascinating experience. Through it, I was able to observe different attitudes toward brewing. Misrahi, for instance, is a fellow experimental homebrewer to the point that I took to call him “MadMan Misrahi.” But a majority of ‘Alers are more directly on the “engineering” side of brewing. I also got to observe some interesting social dynamics among brewers, something which remained important as I moved to different places and got to observe other brewclubs and brewers meetings, such as the Chicago Beer Society’s Thirst Fursdays. Eventually, this all formed the backdrop for a set of informal observations which were the corse of a presentation I gave about craft beer and cultural identity.

Through all of these brewing-related groups, I’ve been positioning myself as an experimenter.  My goal isn’t necessarily to consistently make quality beer, to emulate some beers I know, or to win prizes in style-based brewing competitions. My thing is to have fun and try new things. Consistent beer is available anywhere and I drink little enough that I can afford enough of it. But homebrewing is almost a way for me to connect with my childhood.

There can be a “mad scientist” effect to homebrewing. Michael Tonsmeire calls himself The Mad Fermentationist and James Spencer at Basic Brewing has been interviewing a number of homebrewer who do rather unusual experiments.

I count myself among the ranks of the “Mad Brewers.” Oh, we’re not doing anything completely crazy. But slightly mad we are.

Through the selective memory of an adult with regards to his childhood, I might say that I was “always like that.” As a kid, I wanted to be everything at once: mayor, astronaut, fireman, and scholar. The researcher’s spirit had me “always try new things.” I even had a slight illusion of grandeur in that I would picture myself accomplishing all sorts of strange things. Had I known about it as a kid, I would have believed that I could solve the Poincaré conjecture. Mathematicians were strange enough for me.

But there’s something more closely related to homebrewing which comes back to my mind as I do experiments with beer. I had this tendency to do all sorts of concoctions. Not only the magic potions kids do with mud  and dishwashing liquid. But all sorts of potable drinks that a mixologist may experiment with. There wasn’t any alcohol in those drinks, but the principle was the same. Some of them were good enough for my tastes. But I never achieved the kind of breakthrough drink which would please masses. I did, however, got my experimentation spirit to bear on food.

By age nine, I was cooking for myself at lunch. Nothing very elaborate, maybe. It often consisted of reheating leftovers. But I got used to the stove (we didn’t have a microwave oven, at the time). And I sometimes cooked some eggs or similar things. To this day, eggs are still my default food.

And, like many children, I occasionally contributing to cooking. Simple things like mixing ingredients. But also tasting things at different stages in the cooking or baking process. Given the importance of sensory memory, I’d say the tasting part was probably more important in my development than the mixing. But the pride was mostly in being an active contributor in the kitchen.

Had I understood fermentation as a kid, I probably would have been fascinated by it. In a way, I wish I could have been involved in homebrewing at the time.

A homebrewery is an adult’s chemistry set.

Beer Eye for the Coffee Guy (or Gal)

Judged twelve (12) espresso drinks as part of the Eastern Regional Canadian Barista Championship (UStream).

[Never watched Queer Eye. Thought the title would make sense, given both the “taste” and even gender dimensions.]

Had quite a bit of fun.

The experience was quite similar to the one I had last year. There were fewer competitors, this year. But I also think that there were more people in the audience, at least in the morning. One possible reason is that ads about the competition were much more visible this year than last (based on my own experience and on several comments made during the day). Also, I noticed a stronger sense of collegiality among competitors, as several of them have been different things together in the past year.

More specifically, people from Ottawa’s Bridgehead and people from Montreal’s Café Myriade have developed something which, at least from the outside, look like comradery. At the Canadian National Barista Championship, last year, Myriade’s Anthony Benda won the “congeniality” prize. This year, Benda got first place in the ERCBC. Second place went to Bridgehead’s Cliff Hansen, and third place went to Myriade’s Alex Scott.

Bill Herne served as head judge for most of the event. He made it a very pleasant experience for me personally and, I hope, for other judges. His insight on the championship is especially valuable given the fact that he can maintain a certain distance from the specifics.

The event was organized in part by Vida Radovanovic, founder of the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Though she’s quick to point to differences between Toronto and Montreal, in terms of these regional competitions, she also seemed pleased with several aspects of this year’s ERCBC.

To me, the championship was mostly an opportunity for thinking and talking about the coffee world.

Met and interacted with diverse people during the day. Some of them were already part of my circle of coffee-loving friends and acquaintances. Some who came to me to talk about coffee after noticing some sign of my connection to the championship. The fact that I was introduced to the audience as a blogger and homeroaster seems to have been relatively significant. And there were several people who were second-degree contacts in my coffee-related social network, making for easy introductions.

A tiny part of the day’s interactions was captured in interviews for CBC Montreal’s Daybreak (unfortunately, the recording is in RealAudio format).

“Coffee as a social phenomenon” was at the centre of several of my own interactions with diverse people. Clearly, some of it has to do with my own interests, especially with “Montreal’s coffee renaissance.” But there were also a clear interest in such things as the marketshare of quality coffee, the expansion of some coffee scenes, and the notion of building a sense of community through coffee. That last part is what motivated me to write this post.

After the event, a member of my coffee-centric social network has started a discussion about community-building in the coffee world and I found myself dumping diverse ideas on him. Several of my ideas have to do with my experience with craft beer in North America. In a way, I’ve been doing informal ethnography of craft beer. Beer has become an area of expertise, for me, and I’d like to pursue more formal projects on it. So beer is on my mind when I think about coffee. And vice-versa. I was probably a coffee geek before I started homebrewing beer but I started brewing beer at home before I took my coffee-related activities to new levels.

So, in my reply on a coffee community, I was mostly thinking about beer-related communities.

Comparing coffee and beer is nothing new, for me. In fact, a colleague has blogged about some of my comments, both formal and informal, about some of those connections.

Differences between beer and coffee are significant. Some may appear trivial but they can all have some impact on the way we talk about cultural and social phenomena surrounding these beverages.

  • Coffee contains caffeine, beer contains alcohol. (Non-alcoholic beers, decaf coffee, and beer with coffee are interesting but they don’t dominate.) Yes: “duh.” But the difference is significant. Alcohol and caffeine not only have different effects but they fit in different parts of our lives.
  • Coffee is often part of a morning ritual,  frequently perceived as part of preparation for work. Beer is often perceived as a signal for leisure time, once you can “wind down.” Of course, there are people (including yours truly) who drink coffee at night and people (especially in Europe) who drink alcohol during a workday. But the differences in the “schedules” for beer and coffee have important consequences on the ways these drinks are integrated in social life.
  • Coffee tends to be much less expensive than beer. Someone’s coffee expenses may easily be much higher than her or his “beer budget,” but the cost of a single serving of coffee is usually significantly lower than a single serving of beer.
  • While it’s possible to drink a few coffees in a row, people usually don’t drink more than two coffees in a single sitting. With beer, it’s not rare that people would drink quite a few pints in the same night. The UK concept of a “session beer” goes well with this fact.
  • Brewing coffee takes a few minutes, brewing beer takes a while (hours for the brewing process, days or even weeks for fermentation).
  • At a “bar,” coffee is usually brewed in front of those who will drink it while beer has been prepared in advance.
  • Brewing coffee at home has been mainstream for quite a while. Beer homebrewing is considered a hobby.
  • Historically, coffee is a recent phenomenon. Beer is among the most ancient human-made beverages in the world.

Despite these significant differences, coffee and beer also have a lot in common. The fact that the term “brew” is used for beer and coffee (along with tea) may be a coincidence, but there are remarkable similarities between the extraction of diverse compounds from grain and from coffee beans. In terms of process, I would argue that beer and coffee are more similar than are, say, coffee and tea or beer and wine.

But the most important similarity, in my mind, is social: beer and coffee are, indeed, central to some communities. So are other drinks, but I’m more involved in groups having to do with coffee or beer than in those having to do with other beverages.

One way to put it, at least in my mind, is that coffee and beer are both connected to revolutions.

Coffee is community-oriented from the very start as coffee beans often come from farming communities and cooperatives. The notion, then, is that there are local communities which derive a significant portion of their income from the global and very unequal coffee trade. Community-oriented people often find coffee-growing to be a useful focus of attention and given the place of coffee in the global economy, it’s unsurprising to see a lot of interest in the concept (if not the detailed principles) of “fair trade” in relation to coffee. For several reasons (including the fact that they’re often produced in what Wallerstein would call “core” countries), the main ingredients in beer (malted barley and hops) don’t bring to mind the same conception of local communities. Still, coffee and beer are important to some local agricultural communities.

For several reasons, I’m much more directly involved with communities which have to do with the creation and consumption of beverages made with coffee beans or with grain.

In my private reply about building a community around coffee, I was mostly thinking about what can be done to bring attention to those who actually drink coffee. Thinking about the role of enthusiasts is an efficient way to think about the craft beer revolution and about geeks in general. After all, would the computer world be the same without the “homebrew computer club?”

My impression is that when coffee professionals think about community, they mostly think about creating better relationships within the coffee business. It may sound like a criticism, but it has more to do with the notion that the trade of coffee has been quite competitive. Building a community could be a very significant change. In a way, that might be a basis for the notion of a “Third Wave” in coffee.

So, using my beer homebrewer’s perspective: what about a community of coffee enthusiasts? Wouldn’t that help?

And I don’t mean “a website devoted to coffee enthusiasts.” There’s a lot of that, already. A lot of people on the Coffee Geek Forums are outsiders to the coffee industry and Home Barista is specifically geared toward the home enthusiasts’ market.

I’m really thinking about fostering a sense of community. In the beer world, this frequently happens in brewclubs or through the Beer Judge Certification Program, which is much stricter than barista championships. Could the same concepts apply to the coffee world? Probably not. But there may still be “lessons to be learnt” from the beer world.

In terms of craft beer in North America, there’s a consensus around the role of beer enthusiasts. A very significant number of craft brewers were homebrewers before “going pro.” One of the main reasons craft beer has become so important is because people wanted to drink it. Craft breweries often do rather well with very small advertising budgets because they attract something akin to cult followings. The practise of writing elaborate comments and reviews has had a significant impact on a good number of craft breweries. And some of the most creative things which happen in beer these days come from informal experiments carried out by homebrewers.

As funny as it may sound (or look), people get beer-related jobs because they really like beer.

The same happens with coffee. On occasion. An enthusiastic coffee lover will either start working at a café or, somewhat more likely, will “drop everything” and open her/his own café out of a passion for coffee. I know several people like this and I know the story is quite telling for many people. But it’s not the dominant narrative in the coffee world where “rags to riches” stories have less to do with a passion for coffee than with business acumen. Things may be changing, though, as coffee becomes more… passion-driven.

To be clear: I’m not saying that serious beer enthusiasts make the bulk of the market for craft beer or that coffee shop owners should cater to the most sophisticated coffee geeks out there. Beer and coffee are both too cheap to warrant this kind of a business strategy. But there’s a lot to be said about involving enthusiasts in the community.

For one thing, coffee and beer can both get viral rather quickly. Because most people in North America can afford beer or coffee, it’s often easy to convince a friend to grab a cup or pint. Coffee enthusiasts who bring friends to a café do more than sell a cup. They help build up a place. And because some people are into the habit of regularly going to the same bar or coffee shop, the effects can be lasting.

Beer enthusiasts often complain about the inadequate beer selection at bars and restaurants. To this day, there are places where I end up not drinking anything besides water after hearing what the beerlist contains. In the coffee world, it seems that the main target these days is the restaurant business. The current state of affairs with coffee at restaurants is often discussed with heavy sighs of disappointment. What I”ve heard from several people in the coffee business is that, too frequently,  restaurant owners give so little attention to coffee that they end up destroying the dining experience of anyone who orders coffee after a meal. Even in my own case, I’ve had enough bad experiences with restaurant coffee (including, or even especially, at higher-end places) that I’m usually reluctant to have coffee at a restaurant. It seems quite absurd, as a quality experience with coffee at the end of a meal can do a lot to a restaurant’s bottom line. But I can’t say that it’s my main concern because I end up having coffee elsewhere, anyway. While restaurants can be the object of a community’s attention and there’s a lot to be said about what restaurants do to a region or neighbourhood, the community dimensions of coffee have less to do with what is sold where than with what people do around coffee.

Which brings me to the issue of education. It’s clearly a focus in the coffee world. In fact, most coffee-related events have some “training” dimension. But this type of education isn’t community-oriented. It’s a service-based approach, such as the one which is increasingly common in academic institutions. While I dislike customer-based learning in universities, I do understand the need for training services in the coffee world. What I perceive insight from the beer world can do is complement these training services instead of replacing them.

An impressive set of learning experiences can be seen among homebrewers. From the most practical of “hands-on training” to some very conceptual/theoretical knowledge exchanges. And much of the learning which occurs is informal, seamless, “organic.” It’s possible to get very solid courses in beer and brewing, but the way most people learn is casual and free. Because homebrewers are organized in relatively tight groups and because the sense of community among homebrewers is also a matter of solidarity.  Or, more simply, because “it’s just a hobby anyway.”

The “education” theme also has to do with “educating the public” into getting more sophisticated about what to order. This does happen in the beer world, but can only be pulled off when people are already interested in knowing more about beer. In relation with the coffee industry, it sometimes seems that “coffee education” is imposed on people from the top-down. And it’s sometimes quite arbitrary. Again, room for the coffee business to read the Cluetrain Manifesto and to learn from communities.

And speaking of Starbucks… One draft blogpost which has been nagging me is about the perception that, somehow, Starbucks has had a positive impact in terms of coffee quality. One important point is that Starbucks took the place of an actual coffee community. Even if it can be proven that coffee quality wouldn’t have been improved in North America if it hadn’t been for Starbucks (a tall order, if you ask me), the issue remains that Starbucks has only paid attention to the real estate dimension of the concept of community. The mermaid corporation has also not doing so well, recently, so we may finally get beyond the financial success story and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes people connect through coffee. The world needs more from coffee than chains selling coffee-flavoured milk.

One notion I wanted to write about is the importance of “national” traditions in both coffee and beer in relation to what is happening in North America, these days. Part of the situation is enough to make me very enthusiastic to be in North America, since it’s increasingly possible to not only get quality beer and coffee but there are many opportunities for brewing coffee and beer in new ways. But that’ll have to wait for another post.

In Western Europe at least, coffee is often associated with the home. The smell of coffee has often been described in novels and it can run deep in social life. There’s no reason homemade coffee can’t be the basis for a sense of community in North America.

Now, if people in the coffee industry would wake up and… think about actual human beings, for a change…

Brewing Tips and Tricks

Been homebrewing beer for eight or nine years, now. Learnt a lot and will continue learning a lot. IMHO, blogs are the perfect way to share things you’ve learnt but I’ve yet to share much “brewing wisdom” on my blog.

Here are a few things I’ve learnt, so far. Some of these are quite obvious, some I’ve learnt the hard way, some are somewhat controversial, and some are more matters of opinion. I could classify them, but I won’t.

A few of these things I’ve learnt while working at a wine-making store, after having brewed for several years. Some I’ve learnt through fellow brewclub members or the Interwebs. Most come from direct experience.

  • There’s a difference between a steel scrubby and stainless steel scrubby.
  • A rubber bung can stick so strongly to the inside of a carboy’s neck that the carboy can explode under pressure from fermentation.
  • Some of the best beers are brewed during the weirdest brewing sessions.
  • From brewing, you get a new perspective on all sorts of things, from biochemistry and physics to hardware and grocery stores.
  • Any ingredient can find it’s place in beer. (I’m especially fond of playing with spices, herbs, grains, sugars, and fruits.)
  • Whatever crazy thing you think of in terms of brewing has probably been thought up by somebody else. (Turns out, I’m not the only one brewing with hibiscus flowers.)
  • It’s important to taste everything you brew, at every step. (A yeast starter is especially important to taste before adding to your wort.)
  • Everything which touches your wort after boiling needs to be thoroughly sanitized. (Sanitizing anything else is overkill but it’s easy enough to do that it doesn’t matter.)
  • Yeast is a strange beast: some yeast strains are really finicky, others can withstand almost anything. (Any strain which has been used for beer can produce great results.)
  • There’s something strangely fun about reusing yeast.
  • Dropping wort on top of a yeast cake makes fermentation take off like crazy.
  • In some conditions, primary fermentation can be over within 24 hours.
  • Grain freshness doesn’t really matter but the freshness of every other ingredient does matter quite a bit.
  • A cheap digital scale with 1 g precision is among the most useful tools in a homebrewer’s arsenal.
  • There’s no correlation between the quality of the beer and how “hi-tech” your equipment is.
  • Find a no-rinse sanitizer you like and use it extensively.
  • “Clean as you go” is an important rule.
  • A Bruheat boiler makes a very cool mash-tun for step mashes if you put a false bottom or grain bag in it. (I use a zapap-style “bucket with holes” in mine.)
  • There might be ways to achieve the same results as a decoction but it’s still fun to do, once in a while.
  • It’s essential to clean a Bruheat’s heating element between mashing and boiling.
  • A PDA or smartphone has its place in the brewery.
  • It’s perfectly possible to brew in an apartment, especially if you have storage space.
  • A basement makes an excellent site for a homebrewery.
  • The more room you have for brewing, the more room it takes.
  • Auto-siphons do make life a lot easier and there’s probably no reason not to use them.
  • Splitting batches is an efficient way to experiment with diverse ingredients.
  • Brewing gets you to experience beer in a new way.
  • It’s much easier to do several brewing-related activities on the same day than doing them on separate days.
  • Siphoning a sanitizing solution through your equipment is an efficient way to sanitize everything.
  • Those bottle-washers you put on your faucet are really useful for both bottles and carboys.
  • A spray bottle is an excellent tool to quickly sanitize equipment.
  • To make a gallon of StarSan solution, you can use 8 g of StarSan.
  • Cold outside weather might be the most efficient way to chill wort.
  • Brewing on a whim is fun.
  • Throwing beer away should only be done when there’s a huge problem. (Even then, you could probably make vinegar or something.)
  • Don’t be afraid of brewing sour beers.
  • There are many ways to add coffee in beer.
  • “Hot side aeration” isn’t anything to worry about.
  • Do stir the mash, there’s a reason brewing is called «brassage» (“stirring”) in French.
  • A restaurant-size long-handled skimmer works well as a way to stir the mash as well as to skim the wort.
  • As there probably no way (at home) to produce the exact same beer twice in a row, it makes more sense to make every batch significantly different from all the previous ones.
  • The more frequently you brew, the easier it is to maintain your equipment.
  • Brewclubs make every aspect of brewing more enjoyable.
  • Papazian’s “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew” is a brewer’s mantra.
  • Anything you start worrying about makes brewing less fun and probably doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it does.

There are many things I still haven’t learnt. Some should be obvious

  • How to make bottling fun, even when I’m alone.
  • How to plan my brewing sessions so that I have everything set up beforehand.
  • The volumes of some of my vessels. Haven’t graduated any of them, actually.
  • Whether or not I should skim the hot break.
  • The perfect moment to rack to secondary.
  • An efficient way to stagger my brew so that I do several activities on the same day.
  • The joys of using a refractometer. (But I’m getting one soon.)
  • The importance of proteins in brewing.

Taste and Judgement (Draft)

This post isn’t ready to be written. So this is just a placeholder. But, given my RERO mantra, I guess I should still publish it as a “placeholder” of sorts.

I recently served as judge in the Canadian Barista Championship (CBC), here in Montreal. That championship is the national competition pitting against one another baristas (espresso artists) from regional competitions. Rules and regulations (PDF) for this championship closely follow those set by the World Barista Championship (WBC).

Participating in this event, I got to think about taste, evaluation, (inter)subjectivity, coffee, Montreal’s culinary scene, and food culture generally.

Some videos from the event are available, through the event organizer’s uStream channel.

The event was blogged by Anthony Benda. Despite being busy preparing for his café’s grand opening, Anthony managed to give an excellent performance during the championship, especially on the first day. I wasn’t on the panel of judge for his performance but I have reason to believe that Anthony’s performance was really quite good.

I also got to think about my own involvement in such events.

Being a judge at barista championships is still somewhat new to me. I judged during the Eastern regional championship, back in June, and this was my first national championship. I still think that the “barista judge” label fits and I did mention it on occasion, with lots of disclaimers. Most judges at that event were coffee professionals of one type or the other (from equipment distributors to barista champions). My impression is that, despite my limited experience and my somewhat indirect connections to the coffee industry, I was accepted as a peer by other judges.

More importantly, I sincerely think that the judging at this competition was exceedingly fair. My strong perception is that we achieved a high degree of consistency in our judging, both at an individual level and through the group. A large part of what I perceive to be a resounding success comes from the work of WBC’s Brent Fortune, who trained and calibrated the judging team.

One thing I kept thinking about was how different barista judging is from judging homebrewed beer. I haven’t acted as a homebrew judge myself but many of my friends have and I proctored an exam for the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). Put simply, homebrew competitions are stricter than barista championships. And I mean this to imply that BJCP competitions are in some ways less reasonable than barista championships, though the WBC could learn a thing or two from the BJCP.

Barista championships are based on fairness and impartiality. Though it’s mentioned on occasion, “objectivity” isn’t the core principle in judging. Not emphasizing “objectivity” allows for a sensible approach to tasting since, after all, tasting is as subjective as any other form of sensory perception. In other words, acknowledging the subjective nature of tasting brings realism to WBC-style competitions.

The reason I emphasize the “subjectivity” issue is that homebrewing competitions seem to exist in a radically different world, a world in which “objectivity” is an absolute goal. Though the BJCP style guidelines may allow for some room for variation in judging beer aroma, appearance, flavour, and mouthfeel, the main approach is object-based and a direct connection between a judge’s experience and precise measurements of the beer’s characteristics is assumed. Several homebrew judges do use the term “objective” fairly frequently and “subjectivity” is a “bad word” in many of the homebrew circles which give a lot of weight to those homebrew competitions.

One thing I find fascinating about this distinction between WBC and BJCP competitions is that, to some extent, the coffee professionals are less, well, “anal” than the homebrewers. The level of technical expertise may be as high in both domains. The drinks themselves are comparable on many levels, including in terms of chemical complexity. But the approaches taken to evaluate those drinks are radically different.

I also got to think about the connections (actual and potential) between Montreal’s strong beer scene and its renascent coffee scene. It certainly was fun to have beers at Benelux with a number of participants in the Canadian Barista Championship, including coffee writer Felipe Gonzalez. Myriade’s grand opening, on Monday, will likely serve as an opportunity for me to discuss Montreal’s coffee scene in more depth.

Of course, any of this could be the start of a long monologue on my part. But it’s probably better if I leave this post as it is, to serve as a placeholder for further discussion of taste, evaluation, subjectivity, coffee scenes

Bubbling Wildly

Lag time on last night’s batches was quite short. In fact, the “Mighty S-04” lives up to its reputation: in a large bucket with lots of headspace and a lid not sealing properly, the “So Far” was churning away in less than two hours after pitching. I had just started to sleep and the airlock was bubbling very vigorously. As that fermenter is in my bedroom, the noise woke me up. I loosened the lid on top of that bucket to make sure I wouldn’t get a spill. There wasn’t that much kräusen but fermentation was clearly vigorous, already. This morning, it smells this distinctive S-04 smell and has a good, thick kräusen.

The “Lo Five,” which I left in the basement, is also showing clear signs of fermentation. Thick kräusen, frequent bubbles, yeast smell… As it’s the first batch in which I use US-05 yeast, I didn’t know what to expect. The smell is actually fairly similar to the S-04 but less assertive. The fact that I’m using this yeast for the first time is also a reason I couldn’t attest to its fault tolerance. Judging from the smell, at least, I’d say that it’s as “robust” as S-04 and Ringwood but that it might still make for a cleaner profile which doesn’t hide small flaws really well.

My intention is to “drop” the fermenting beer away from the yeast pretty quickly on the “So Far” to intensify diacetyl. Can’t find the reference, but some British brewery is still doing this, with special equipment. Maybe it’s called “dumping” or “crashing.” Racking the beer early, the yeast isn’t able to “chew up” the diacetyl so more of it is left in the finished beer. Yeah, I know. Diacetyl isn’t typical of mild ales. But I tend to like some level of diacetyl in British-style beers. In this case, if the beer is complex enough despite its low ABV, a bit of diacetyl could round off the finished beer.

As is often the case in homebrewing, I’m already thinking about other batches I might want to do. One could be a doubled-up version of “So Far” (twice the grainbill, maybe twice the hops). Another would be a light weizen, brewed with Lallemand’s Munich strain.

It’s too much fun.

Brewing Mildly

[This is one of my geekier posts, here. As a creative generalist, I typically “write for a general audience.” Whether or not I have an actual audience in mind, my default approach to blog writing is to write as generally as possible. But this post is about homebrewing. As these things go, it’s much easier to write when you assume that “people know what you’re talking about.” In this case, some basic things about all-grain brewing at home. Not that I’m using that obscure a terminology, here. But it’s a post which could leave some people behind, scratching their heads. If it’s your case, sorry. But, you know, “it’s my blog day and I’ll geek if I want to.” As for the verb tenses and reference to time, I’m writing much of this as I go along.]

So…

Generated a recipe for a Mild (11A) using BeerTools and posted it in their recipe library.

So Far (So Good)/Lo Five

That generated recipe is serving as the basis for two recipes I’m mashing right now (June 8, 2008). One, “So Far (So Good),” close to this generated one, is a single-step (infusion) mash with a simple grainbill, to be fermented with S-04 (so it’s “British style”). The other (“Lo Five”) is a multi-step mash with a more complex grainbill (added Carastan, Caramel 80, and chocolate). “Lo Five” is to be fermented with SS-05 (so it’s something of an “American style”).

I’ve copied the main details of this generated recipe in the standalone BeerTools Pro desktop application (version 1.5.9 beta, WinXP; also available on Mac OS X). I then tweaked that generated recipe a tiny bit to suit my needs for the “So Far.”

Here’s the version I used, before I started brewing:

So Far (So Good)

11-A Mild

BeerTools Pro Color Graphic

Size: 5,0 gal
Efficience: 75,0%
Atténuation: 75,0%
Calories: 114,99 kcal per 12,0 fl oz

Densité Initiale: 1,035 (1,030 – 1,038 )
|=================#==============|

Terminal Gravity: 1,009 (1,008 – 1,013)
|==========#=====================|

Couleur: 13,81 (12,0 – 25,0)
|==========#=====================|

Alcool: 3,41% (2,8% – 4,5%)
|=============#==================|

Amertume: 16,9 (10,0 – 25,0)
|===============#================|

Ingredients:

1,0 ea Fermentis S-04 Safale S-04
2.5 kg 6-Row Brewers Malt
150 g Brown Malt
150 g Vienna Malt
150 g Munich TYPE I
200 g Special B – Caramel malt
0.5 oz Challenger (8,0%) – added during boil, boiled 90 min
11,0 g Strisselspalt (3,3%) – added during boil, boiled 10 min

Schedule:

Air ambiant: 70,0 °F
Source Water: 130,0 °F
Altitude: 0,0 m

00:13:00 MashinEaud Empâtage: 1,91 gal; Strike: 173,56 °F; Target: 158,0 °F
01:33:00 Sacc 1Rest: 80 min; Final: 158,0 °F
02:13:00 Fly SpargeSparge Volume: 4,0 gal; Sparge Temperature: 168,0 °F; Runoff: 3,48 gal

Notes

Trying for a relatively simple mild. May skip the Strisselspalt. Doing two similar recipes.

Results generated by BeerTools Pro 1.5.9b

I then cloned that recipe and tweaked it a bit more to get my “Lo Five” recipe. Here’s the recipe I used before I started brewing:

Lo Five

11-A Mild

BeerTools Pro Color Graphic

Size: 5,0 gal
Efficience: 75,0%
Atténuation: 75,0%
Calories: 106,17 kcal per 12,0 fl oz

Densité Initiale: 1,032 (1,030 – 1,038 )
|============#===================|

Terminal Gravity: 1,008 (1,008 – 1,013)
|========#=======================|

Couleur: 17,05 (12,0 – 25,0)
|==============#=================|

Alcool: 3,15% (2,8% – 4,5%)
|===========#====================|

Amertume: 15,0 (10,0 – 25,0)
|=============#==================|

Ingredients:

1,0 ea Fermentis US-05 Safale US-05
2 kg 6-Row Brewers Malt
150 g Brown Malt
150 g Vienna Malt
150 g Munich TYPE I
200 g Special B – Caramel malt
105 g Light Carastan
125 g 2-Row Caramel Malt 80L
50 g 2-Row Chocolate Malt
0.5 oz Challenger (8,0%) – added during boil, boiled 90 min

Schedule:

Air ambiant: 70,0 °F
Source Water: 130,0 °F
Altitude: 0,0 m

00:03:00 MashinEaud Empâtage: 2,02 gal; Strike: 130,09 °F; Target: 122,0 °F
00:21:36 Ramp 1Heat: 18,6 min; Target: 150 °F
00:41:36 Sacc 1Rest: 20 min; Final: 150,0 °F
01:00:12 Ramp 2Heat: 18,6 min; Target: 158 °F
01:20:12 Sacc 2Rest: 20 min; Final: 158,0 °F
01:38:49 MashoutHeat: 18,6 min; Target: 170,0 °F
02:18:49 Fly SpargeSparge Volume: 3,72 gal; Sparge Temperature: 168,0 °F; Runoff: 3,23 gal

Notes

Trying for a relatively simple mild. May skip the Strisselspalt. Doing two similar recipes.

Results generated by BeerTools Pro 1.5.9b

On a whim (and because I just found out I had some), I switched the hops on the Lo Five to Crystal at 4.9% A.A. One half-ounce plug as first wort hopping, and another half-ounce pellet for the full boil. According to BeerTools Pro, t brings my bitterness level either below BJCP-sanctioned 10-25 IBUs for a Mild (11A) if I don’t add the boil time (FWH isn’t supposed to contribute much bitterness), or at two-thirds of the bitterness range if I add the full boil time.

The “brown malt” is actually some 6-row I roasted in a corn popper. The one in the “Lo Five” is darker (roasted longer) than the one in the “So Far.”

I’ve been having a hard time with the temperature for the “So Far.” I ended up doing a pseudo-decoction and adding some hot water to raise the temperature to something closer to even the low end of the optimal range for saccharification. This is the first batch I mash in a mashtun I got from friends in Austin. I used the strike temperature from the BeerTools Pro software (174F) but I hadn’t set the “heat capacity” and “heat transfer coefficient.” As I usually mash in my Bruheat, I rarely think about heat loss.

On the other hand, I largely overshot the strike temperature on the Lo Five. Two main reasons, AFAICT. One, the Bruheat I mashed the Lo Five in also served to preheat some sparge water, so it was still pretty hot. Second, the hot water from the sink was around 140F instead of 130F, as I had expected. In this case, overshooting the strike temperature wasn’t very problematic. The idea was to do a kind of protein rest, but that’s really not important, with the well-modified malts we all use.

Sparging the Lo Five’s mash was a real treat. Very smooth flow from HLT to MT to vessel. Plus, the smell of the Crystal hops in the first runnings was just fabulous. Because I “recirculate” during the mash, with my Bruheat, I didn’t have to recirculate, yet the runnings were quite clear. My sparge water was pretty much at the perfect temperature and I had just a bit extra sparge water (that I’m using in the So Far). I poured the liquid beneath the false bottom and it looked really nice. Rather clear and dark. After this, the grain bed was almost completely dry.

I did have to recirculate the So Far quite a bit. A good four litres, maybe even more. Still, it remains cloudier than most batches I’ve seen, possibly because some starches are remaining. I didn’t check conversion but I mashed long enough that I was assuming it was enough. Still, with a very low mash temperature, I may have needed an even longer mash. Actually, the mash is much cloudier than the runnings, which eventually became relatively clear.

May need to heat a bit of sparge water. Stopping the sparge in the meantime. A bit like a late mashout, it may help convert some of the remaining starch.

Oops! Was waiting for the Lo Five to boil. Thought it was taking a long time. Usually, the Bruheat gets to boiling pretty quickly. Eventually noticed that the element wasn’t running. The thermostat was still working (clicking sound when I reach the wort’s temperature) but I wasn’t hearing the sound of the element heating the wort. Unplugged the Bruheat, pressed the reset button, etc. Still wasn’t working. Was getting ready to try the clothes dryer to see if there was electricity coming through when I noticed it was in fact the dryer that I had plugged back, not the Bruheat.

Ah, well…

Ok…

One thing I found interesting is that when the wort was cooling off instead of heating up, the hop aroma wasn’t as pleasant as before. As the wort heated up, the pleasant profile from the Crystal came back as it was.

These are actually old hops, kept in a vacuum-sealed package. This specific package was a bit loose, as if the vacuum-seal hadn’t worked. I expected the hops to smell old. But they smelled really nice and fresh. Their colour is a bit off, but I trust their smell more than their colour.

Eventually got a rolling boil. Because of FWH, I didn’t skim the break material from the wort, which makes for a very different boil. In fact, when I added some of the runnings I had left on the side (to avoid a boilover), the effect was quite interesting.

Added back the rest of the runnings, waited to get a rolling boil again, then added the hops. Had to be careful not to get a boilover as the hops in the unskimmed wort created a lot of foam.

At the same time, I’m heating some sparge water for the So Far. Yes, once again. Guess I really under-evaluated how much sparge water I needed for this one. Strange.

It should be hot enough, now.

This time, I had let the top of the grain bed dry up a bit. This might not be so good. So I added enough water to cover the grain bed and I’ll wait a bit before I resume running off.

Overall, I’ve been much less careful with the “So Far” than with the “Lo Five.” My reasoning has to do with the fact that I perceive S-04 (Whitbread; PDF) to be a “stronger” yeast than the US-05 (PDF; aka US-56; the Sierra Nevada strain, apparently). For one thing, the optimal temperature range for the S-04 is somewhat higher than for the US-05: although Fermentis rates both at 15C to 24C, S-04 is known to sustain higher fermentation temperatures than most other strains (apart from some Belgian strains like Chouffe’s yeast). The flavour profile from S-04 also tends to be more estery than for the US-05, so it can increase the complexity of the finished beer and even cover up some small flaws. Plus, “Mighty S-04” is one of those strains which can be (and has been) used in open fermentation and continually repitched. A bit like “famously robust” Ringwood yeast. So, unlike a lager strain, this is not a yeast strain that Peter McAuslan would likely call “wimpy.” The “strength” of this strength is obvious in the fact that it ferments very vigorously and quickly.

Besides, I have a slurry of S-04 (graciously donated by a friend) and only a rehydrated pack of US-05. With more yeast comes a certain safety.

Another whim: I added a plug of Crystal to the “Lo Five” about two minutes before the end of boil. Shouldn’t get any bitterness from this, may get some flavour and, quite likely, some nice hop aroma.

So I was somewhat careless with the “So Far.” Conversely, I was rather careful with the “Lo Five.” Not more than for the typical homebrew batch, but more than with the “So Far.” At every step, I started with the “Lo Five” and let the “So Far” wait for its turn, when I wasn’t too busy with the “Lo Five.” For instance, I only started boiling the “So Far” when the “Lo Five” had been pitched. I didn’t even rinse the Bruheat after transfering the “Lo Five,” so the “So Far” started heating up with some hops from the “Lo Five.”

What I expect as a difference between the two is that the “Lo Five” will be rather clean and crisp while the “So Far” will be a chewier and grainier beer with some fruit notes.

More specifically, I’d like the “Lo Five” to have a clearly delineated malt profile and a perceivable hoppiness. in both nose and flavour. Though I wasn’t very specific about trying to emulate it, I guess my inspiration for that one was Three FloydsMild, as brewed for Legends of Notre Dame. That one was one of my favourite beers, from one of my favourite breweries, served at one of my favourites places. I don’t think “Lo Five” will be anywhere as tasty as that beer, but I was probably aiming for that kind of profile.

Tasting the “Lo Five” wort once it was cool, I thought it was decidedly bitter. Given the fact that this beer may finish rather low, it might be unbalanced. Typically, unfermented wort is sweeter than the finished beer so I’m assuming the bitterness might intensify. What’s somewhat sad is that a Mild can’t really age so it’s not like I’ll be able to wait for the bitterness to smoothen out.

Ah, well… We’ll see.

On the other hand, I seem to have overshot my OG. Not by much, and I probably had a reading error. Given how well the sparge went, it’d make sense that I overshot my efficiency (I usually get 75%-78%). But BeerTools Pro is giving me an efficiency of 92% which is pretty much not possible on a homebrew scale without pulverizing the grain (and leeching lots of tannins). At any rate, if the actual OG is higher than expected, it might balance the beer a bit.

Yes, clearly there’s a problem with my thermometer.

Just finished cleaning up (2:36, June 9, 2008). When I took the OG on the “So Far,” the wort was barely lukewarm yet the thermometer was indicating 120F. Using this temperature for hydrometer correction, the OG for the “So Far” would be exactly the same as that for the “Lo Five” (which seemed cooler). That would mean an efficiency of 83% which is not impossible but kind of high. In fact, the volume in the primary seems to be more than 5 gallons so the efficiency would go through the roof.

I did skip the Strisselspalt but the “So Far” was run through the hops from the “Lo Five” at knock-off. It was boiled about an hour, instead of 90 minutes.