Monthly Archives: July 2017

Beer Ahoy

The Further Adventures of Attention-Surplus-Disorder Man

If you read my blog for a while you’ll come to understand that I have a pretty serious problem getting fixated on projects, whether it’s brewing, winemaking, cheese, marksmanship, motorcycles, gardening, powerlifting, whatever. It’s gotten particularly bad in recent years with brewing beer: when I find out about a new style or a beer I’ve never heard of, I have to research it and make it until I feel like I have a grasp of it.

With that in mind, I was watching a travel show and the host hit a cafe in Northern Vietnam and sat around drinking something called Bia hơi. At first blush, it looks like a light industrial lager, common in hot countries. But then they poured it over ice and my ears perked up.

Icy cold! Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Street scene. I’m sweaty just looking at it.

It turns out this stuff is a sort of jackleg homebrew, brewed quickly and matured almost not at all, and delivered daily to bars and street-corner dispensing spots in jerry cans and kegs. Production is described as ‘informal’, with no government oversight or monitoring, and it’s meant to be drank absolutely ice cold, or even over ice, and the alcohol content is 3% ABV or less.

All of this makes perfect sense in Vietnam, which is not only incredibly hot but also terribly humid. You could drink rather a lot of beer like this and stay hydrated and refreshed without actually getting blotto, with the added bonus that it sells for something like 15 cents a glass.

After a bit of research on the interwebs, I asked around for people who’d actually been to Vietnam and tasted the beer. I lucked out in that a friend of mine who is a very discerning BJCP judge had been there a few years ago, and he was willing to share his opinion.

“Undrinkable swill full of acetaldehyde, sourness and mostly off-flavours. You’re an idiot if you want to make that.”

I get it: when you’re charging less than a buck a gallon for your beer, Quality Control is way down the list and you can’t throw a batch away just because it’s off–look, there’s a surly tourist, he’ll drink anything, get the bucket! It’s inevitable that the quality would be variable. I wanted to make my own, and I was pretty sure I could do a little better. It would have to be more expensive than fifteen cents a glass, but honestly, not that much more.

I flat-out pulled a recipe out of my butt. I chose to emulate a rice-adjunct lager with a starting gravity below 1.030 and hops around 15 IBU. I immediately ran into an issue: in order to get a moderate hop character I was going to have to either alter my regular brewing style (more on that below) or substantially decrease the amount of hops in the recipe: hop utilisation is affected by the density of the wort (yes, it’s lots more complicated, please don’t write me screeds about it) and a really low gravity beer like this is hard to make without over-bittering for style.

Another issue I contemplated was volume: if this stuff was good, and as low in alcohol as I was planning, I was probably going to enjoy more than one glass a night–it might replace most of my water intake. Making a single 19-litre keg would have me out of beer in ten days at most, and if it was really good, I would then become despondent until my next batch was ready. It’s summer here at Chaos manor, and it’s pretty warm for Canada.

It’s Canada: where’s the snow?

The answer to both quandries lay in the techniques of industrial brewing: high gravity. The beer we mostly see advertised on television is Industrial Lager. Megabreweries make a batch of beer at very high gravities (usually over 1.070 to start), finish fermenting, and then add water to hit their target alcohol content. It’s actually a very intelligent use of resources: you can ferment twice as much beer with the same amount of tanks. This sort of efficiency makes accountants very happy, and it’s not that far off of the parti-gyle brewing systems of olden times. My plan was to brew a 30 litre batch of beer at high gravity and water it back to two batches of 19 litres, then ferment each separately with a different yeast. Not only could I brew a lot of beer quickly, I could use the higher gravity wort to moderate hop utilisation. Or so was my plan . . . I whipped out Beersmith and loaded my Grainfather profile.

Pretty spritely for a Grainfather

If you’ve never used one, it’s an all-in-one mash/lauter/boil unit with a recirculating pump. I’ve had literally every system there is and I like this one because I can brew from home, in my kitchen, while I work at other things. It’s Bluetooth controlled, programmable for step mashes and has timers and such. It’s really pretty amazing.

Sadly, for what I wanted to do the Beersmith profile was a bit crap, so I back-of-the-enveloped it. I figured in Imperial units eight pounds of Pilsner malt, one pound of 10L Crystal malt, two pounds of rice, and two ounces of first wort hops and two ounces for a 20-minute whirlpool, to make around 5.5 gallons of finished wort to be watered back into two four-gallon batches to fill two kegs. If I wasn’t too screwy and my efficiency was low but okay, I should get an OG of 1.025-ish at pitching and get 22.-2.5% ABV and 15-ish IBU’s.

But there were a lot of departures in my plan. Most recipes would use flaked rice, but I wanted to do a cereal mash. That is, I wanted to take plain white rice and cook it to mush, and add that to my grain mash. Why? That’s the way the macro brewers do it, and I had planned on doing a three-step mash for maximum fermentability: 122 F then to 134 F and then to 149, using the boiling rice mush to drive temp to final mash.

You can see, I don’t like the easy way.

Onward to brew day. First step was to cook the rice. I got up early and put the rice on in a huge pot with three gallons of water on low.

Looks like congee, but not as tasty

You have to be really careful wih this step: it’s very easy to scorch starch as it breaks down to moosh. Even the faintest hint of burnt character will completely ruin the beer, so you need way more water than you think you do, and you need to keep it low and slow, and stir frequently, and it’s going to take much, much longer than you think. I started the rice at 8 am and it was just ready for the pot by noon.

As it cooked I milled my grains.

It’s no monster, it’s just misunderstood

I have a three-roller Monster Mill and I can’t recommend it enough. Mine is set to 40 thousandths and it’s perfect as can be.

Perfect and utterly consistent. A good crusher makes a huge difference.

Next step was to set up my Grainfather. With my system, as with everything I do, I did not leave it unmodified. My first step was to throw away the trub/hop filter: it’s useless. In its place I put a Titan false bottom.

Mirror stainless, right angle bend, great engineering.

Nifty fit, too. This picture from a previous batch, thus all the hops and trub.

Not only does this catch goo better than the GF screen, it also has almost no dead space underneath–less than two cups of liquid escapes the pickup on the bottom. The build-up of hops makes the screen tighter and more efficient and the wort coming out is super-clear.

But you can’t use the grain basket from the GF with the false bottom in place unless you use some serious spacers. But, I had a different mod: a bag.

Spring clips work great to hold the bag in place

Yes, my Grainfather is now a Brew In A Bag False Bottom HERMS unit, running off of an Android phone over Bluetooth. 14-year-old me, with an old canning pot and a clapped-out electric stove would be awestruck and envious. (He’d also look at the size of me and ask, “Dude, just how much beer do you drink?”)

To make a long story short, I did my usual short and shoddy brewing methods: I doughed in at 122F, immediately ramped to 134 for twenty minutes, and then added my boiling rice goo to drive everything to 149. I mashed for 30 minutes–I usually do 20 because efficiency is for drones from Sector 7G, but I wanted to clear all of the rice starch. An Iodine test at 20 minutes was clear, so the extra ten was for luck, mostly. I did a bag sparge in another bucket with around 15 litres of water at 170F and topped the GF up and tossed in my first charge of hops as it heated to the boil.

Shot before I topped up with bag sparge

After 20 minutes of vigorous boiling I shut off the, popped on the lid, threw on the heat exchanger and started cooling the wort, recirculating it back into the Grainfather.

Counterflow chiller setup. Works very well, kind of surprisingly so.

When it got below 180F I tossed in the rest of the hops, shut off water to the chiller and left it to recirculate for 20 minutes. Then It was time to run it off to the primaries.

My groundwater is very cold, even in summer.

I took a gravity reading of the wort straight from the chiller.

Temperature corrected to 1.050

I split it into two fermenters, yielding a little under three gallons each, and then topped up with treated water to 5.5 gallons. I treat it by adding metabisulphite powder to plain old tapwater, to bind out any chlorine that my municipality may have added. I have brilliant water–some of the best in the world, and it doesn’t need another thing. After it was topped up I noticed how much protein break I got. Good stuff!

Lookit that break!

When it was divvied up I took it to my fermentation chamber, aka the second bathroom. I forgot to take a picture of the SG reading of the watered back batches, but it was 1.028

It’s a shower stall, very convenient for blow-offs and cleaning.

One of the beers I hit with US-05, and the other I chilled with my groundwater again, by virtue of letting the shower hose dribble into a bucket containing the fermenter run very slowly, getting it down to 62 F overnight, after which I pitched it with Safeale S-189.

Fermentation was vigorous in both, and completed after ten days.

And that’s final.

I let the beers settle and racked them to kegs. I stoppped to take an SG reading and it was corrected to 1.004 This makes a start-finish difference of 18 points. Multiply that by the ABV conversion number and you get 2.36, just under 2.5% ABV, good enough for my purposes.

After they had both chilled to 38F I burst carbonated them and let them carb under pressure for a few days, then tasted them, and shared with some friends. How was it?

Poor man, that beer must be terrible. After two weeks the beer dropped star-bright, looking like it had been filtered.

The lager version is better than the US05, but only subtly so: both beers are incredibly light, have just enough hops to balance the grain character and the crystal malt fights the carbonic acid with great precision.

I drank most of a keg in two weeks, pretty much a record for me. It’s like fabulous Gatorade, refreshing and deliciously beery, and yet the alcohol is so low I can have a pint with my lunch and continue working.

I’ve always disdained macrobrew lagers. They have all kinds of off flavours and aromas and don’t satisfy me in any way. This is different: it’s beer-flavoured beer, and hits the spot without overwhelming. I dare say it’d be easy to screw up, because the style is so light that it would show flaws instantly. But when it works, it’s really great beer. And that is the beauty of homebrewing: I can do whatever I want

Next up, I’m going to make a Belgian Kinderbier, a dark ale at 2% ABV that should have enough roast and caramel to make it richer and more interesting, while still being suitable for lunching.

Hey, if you’re in Vanbrewers and were at the June meeting you may have tried an early version of this recipe without the 10L crystal and with different yeast. That stuff was okay, but this is the bomb, I swear. There won’t be any of this to share at future meetings though, until I work out a brewing schedule that can compensate for me drinking a whole keg every two weeks. 

Pretentiousness, Con Jobs, and Wine: Sommeliers


Yes, he's the Maitre d', but honestly, he comes off more like a som-doofus

Understanding allows people like us to tolerate a person like yourself

I’ll admit it: I am a victim to clickbait. This headline popped up in my newsfeed:

Are You Making This Big Mistake with Wine Corks?

and like a dope, I fell for it. But you won’t believe what happens next!

What happens is, I’m not going to link to the article. It doesn’t deserve my help generating clicks. You can find it yourself if you like, but I’m going to take some care to interpret it here for you in case you hate clickbait too.

Pimped out as their ‘Wine Wise Guy’, their author wrote an article that illustrates everything wrong with the concept of the modern sommelier and showed himself as a prime example of the self-important, narcissistic jackassery that follows it around like a foul stench.

What’s wrong with sommeliers? Nothing actually. Sommelier is a job description, and it means ‘guy who sells wine in a restaurant’. It’s as descriptive as ‘receptionist’, or ‘usher’, or ‘sanitation engineer’.

It doesn’t mean a damn thing more: guy who sells wine.

Unfortunately, in our celebrity and reality show obsessed culture the concept of sommelier as something ‘other’, something aspirational, something to be revered and worshipped has taken hold. Several things have conspired to create a cult of personality around ‘somms’, not the least of which are the sommeliers themselves. But they’re not the worst offenders: the worst offenders are the schools that offer sommelier ‘courses’, offering to teach everything about wine and to turn you into a wine professional.

These courses force a hapless student to memorise thousands of facts about wine regions and styles, most of which might be interesting in a Jeopardy Daily Double kind of way, but are useless in the real world, and are tarted up as trick questions, the better to exclude people who haven’t paid the tens of thousands of dollars for the course, or memorised a stagnant morass of factoids like an obedient Labrador Retriever doing tricks.

This is where they keep their souls while they work

They tag the most pretentious wine gits with these medallions so you can see them coming from far away

The thing to remember about sommelier programs is that they’re not actually recognised as an official education by anyone who matters. Sure, doing your time in wine prison is like a union card to enter the world of selling wine in a restaurant, but unlike a Red Seal for a Chef (transferable around the world), there is no formal recognition of this nonsense, and different schools of sommelier-dom don’t teach the same things.

Lest any somm-worshipper out there get in a flounce and accuse me of sour grapes (haha, see what I did there?) because I don’t hold that job description, let me reassure you: I am a recovering sommelier. At one point in my life I sold wine in the most overblown, pretentious, expensive restaurant you could name. Back in the early 80’s the soup was twenty-five bucks.

This is the first time I’ve admitted to doing that job in decades, because even back then it was a soiling experience, mainly because the owner was a fraud who kept the wine in a furnace room or a walk-in cooler, and 80% of the bottles that cost more than $40 were at our ‘other cellar’, which was the liquor store down the block, where the owner would sprint down to pick up a bottle as it was ordered. I did the job for a month before I quit in disgust to become a dishwasher instead.

When I had my first gig as GM of a resort hotel I took over the sommelier role and loved it. I got to help people enjoy wine by asking what they wanted and doing my best to give them exactly that. There’s no wrong way to enjoy wine, only the way the customer wants it. If they wanted red Bordeaux over ice, then I brought them ice. If they wanted Port with their fish, I made sure they knew what they were ordering and I served it. I had a bunch of backpackers come in who wanted kalimotxo, and when I found out it was cheap dry red and cola, I made up a pitcher. Why? Because I am not the arbiter of human taste or fashion: I am a service professional!

Which brings us back to the article. In it, the author first waxes his ego by mentioning in order a) how hard the exam was, b) how intimidating the examiners were, c) how obscure the questions were, and d) how much he hated serving wine to stupid peasants who came to the restaurant and expected him to serve wine.

Personally, I bundle most of these maneuvers into what I call “the frippery” of wine service: stuff that makes most people I know slink down in their seats in hopes that the sommelier will call on someone else to taste the wine.

Really? A quaint old ceremony, one that is the essence of the job makes him squirm? I wonder how he feels about the people who are paying him to do the job?

But then I see that person: The Imbiber. He’s the one—and it’s always a man—who relishes the pageantry of it all, the pomp and circumstance, who imagines that everyone else in the room is intently watching this noble ceremony take place. And when the sommelier places the just-pulled cork on the table to the right of the glass, The Imbiber picks it up ceremoniously, rolls it between his thumb and forefinger, and takes a deep, satisfying sniff.

The Imbiber deserves to be dunked in a barrel of wine.

Rolling a cork—which is just a piece of bark from a cork tree, after all—between your thumb and forefinger is just plain silly. And sniffing it? Sillier. That is, unless (and this is an important unless) you’re the person pulling the cork.

Yes, murdering customers because they expect you to do a job, preciously described as being so haaaard is a completely reasonable response. After all, why make them happy when you can measure your manhood against theirs and make fun of them?

Know this: I like corks. I know a lot about corks. In my time in my industry, the companies I worked for made (aggregately) enough wine to fill more than a fifty million bottles per year, and we bought corks for them all. Over the course of a thirty-year career, that’s a lot of metric tonnes of cork. I’ve toured cork forests, cork factories, cork warehouses and dealt with almost every cork manufacturer on the planet. I know more about corks than the author of this article ever will, or can ever hope to. I not only examine, roll and sniff the cork from most bottles of wine that I am served, I habitually carry a razor-sharp knife and cut the cork in half to examine the inside for flaws and density.

Also useful for stabbing

Razor sharp is important or you’ll never get a really good cross-section. From today’s lunch.

Even if I weren’t a professional with a deep interest in the world market, I’d probably still be interested in the cork. It’s the only thing standing between the wine inside the bottle and a harshly cruel environment that wants to spoil it. If the cork looks compromised or has an odour (more on this in a minute) then I’m going to sit up and start paying attention to the process at hand: trying the wine to see if it’s a) what I ordered and b) in good condition.

The author goes on to pontificate why the consumer has no business assessing the cork. First, of course, he has to explain to us peasants what a corkscrew is and how it works, since as a professional, he’s sure that’s quite beyond us. Then he warns that he might not deign to hand you the cork at all:

It might fall apart because it’s too old; it might snap in half because it’s brittle; the center of it might disintegrate, because it’s soaked through and crumbly. If any of those things happen, there’s no cork to present to The Imbiber.

Wrong: if the cork crumbles, you immediately show it to the customer, perhaps carefully assembled on a napkin to keep the bits together. Why? Because he is buying that bottle of wine, and it’s his right as a consumer to see it. But he doesn’t see it that way: the mark he’s sneering at has no right to his own wine, just to the almighty somm’s opinion about it.

If I’m the server, yes, I’ll immediately smell the wet end to see if there are any “off” odors that might indicate the wine is flawed, damaged, or just plain dead. The wet end of a cork is still moist and porous, but the liquid at the tip either absorbs or dissipates pretty quickly. And a few seconds later, the cork smells like… cork.

This is an easily dismissed falsehood: if the wine is contaminated by cork taint, the cork will smell like it, practically forever. This taint is 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole (TCA) and is caused by an interaction between chlorophenol compounds and corks or wood used in elevage, or processing wine. It’s a lot less common since cork producers stopped using chlorine to bleach corks, and started keeping sheets of cork bark off of the ground post-harvest/pre-processing (they can pick up a fungus off the ground that makes TCA contamination a lot more likely). Even in minute amounts (below the microgram level) TCA can ruin a good wine.

To sum up this whole sordid pile, articles like this, written by people who have an overweening, narcissistic view of their own worth and status are why I avoid modern sommeliers and their cult of celebrity. The job is exactly the same as the one done by the person who serves the bread, or the nice lady who takes the reservations.

If the bread guy started rolling his eyes, writing articles about how stupid people who eat bread are for asking for white or rye, or the reservation lady wrote snide blogs about how people who made reservations were dumbasses who really should let her handle things because they’re unqualified, the consumers who patronise those restaurants would lose their collective minds–as they should. But because some people buy into this cult of sommeliers and assume that they are the final word on how to drink wine, they get away with smug, nonsensical crap like this.

What’s the answer? I don’t have one, that’s for sure. However, a good first step is to avoid any restaurant that this guy works for. Also, if there’s a celebrity sommelier in a place you’re thinking of going to, don’t take any guff from them: you are buying that wine, and if you want to drink it out of a coffee mug, or eat the cork with a dab of mustard, you damn well do so.

I have been saying this for thirty straight years, and I’ll say it again: nobody can tell you how to enjoy wine–if they’re offering advice, trying to help you find a good match or something tasty in your price range, then they’re a good person, doing a good job and they deserve thanks. But if someone tries to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, or you’re not qualified to know your own mind and enjoy the things you like, as you like them . . . put your hand on your wallet and back out of the room, because they can’t be trusted.

One last thought, because as the man says, there always is one:

. . . unless you really like having sommeliers think you’re a twit. In that case, go right ahead, smell all the corks you want.

Dude, I’d rather you hated my guts than change anything about the way I enjoy wine to suit you.


All right, here’s the stupid article, if you must. Do me a favour and open it in an incognito browser. I don’t want to get this blog all sticky.