Tag Archives: brewing

The Privilege of Failure

fail·ing

noun: a weakness, especially in character; a shortcoming. “Pride is a terrible failing..”

If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.

–Woody Allen

So much deliciousness crammed in one pint glass

So much deliciousness crammed in one pint glass

I was over at a neighbour’s house a little while ago and brought some of my homebrewed beer with me.  His father, a very experienced brewer, was extremely complimentary about my Saison, a Belgian style of beer that features a low hop rate and a lot of spicy, fruity yeast character. I was momentarily filled with pride, because it was a pretty good beer, and it was the very first time I’d brewed it, and one of my peers was impressed. Yay me!

The next day I was working in my cellar and feeling pretty smug. As I racked a new brew into a keg I thought, “I can’t remember the last time I brewed a bad beer .”

That’s when I realised that I had a problem. Not failing was a sign that I was doing something terribly wrong.

For most people, failure is seen as a universally bad thing. Internet slang has produced a meme that has shortened criticism to the point where one can point to something and shout ‘FAIL!’, and it’s perfectly expressive opprobrium. Calling someone a failure is a pretty cutting insult.

The problem with this attitude is that a lack of failure doesn’t let us grow. Failure isn’t bad. If you want to learn something, really master it, the first thing you need to do is to figure out how not to do it. Thomas Edison made thousands of attempts to make a light bulb filament that would last more than a few seconds under current. When asked about his failure, he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Failure is a great motivator, it not only helps us grow, it also motivates us to try harder, to try again. But there’s an even more important benefit to failing: it frees you of pride–well, not pride precisely, because it’s fine to be proud of an accomplishment. What it really wipes out is hubris.  Hubris, according to the interwebs, often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.

Dang.

I am in theory an ‘authority’ on home fermentation. That’s what my career is based on, anyways, and it’s how I navigate most of my business interactions. I’m an excellent candidate for hubris. Luckily I mostly suffer from Imposter Syndrome, so I’m protected from hubris to some extent.

Image from gamasutra.com

Image from gamasutra.com

Never heard of it? Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you’re not really competent in your given field, that you’ll be found out to be an imposter. This is most common among people who are actually competent, rather than those who are not–they’re covered under the Dunning-Kruger effect  , which is when someone cannot recognise their incompetence in a given area.

I was moping about how I was failing by not failing and generally wondering where to go next when I came across a philosopher who put his finger right on the main nerve. It isn’t the first time he’s put me on the right path when I needed guidance. Meet my spirit guide:

Jake the Dog

Jake the Dog

Yes, I’m perfectly aware he’s a cartoon dog created by Pendleton Ward and voiced by John DiMaggio. He’s also a perfect character to voice subtle wisdom. And here’s the quote that got me.

A more profound koan has not been produced

A more profound koan has not been produced

This works on two levels. First, it’s an acknowledgement that nobody starts out perfect, and it’s practice and effort that makes you better. But more importantly, sucking at something you thought you’d already mastered will open up new levels of complexity and new ways of thinking about what you’re doing.

Jake’s wisdom immediately cheered me up. I went out and brewed a batch of Belgian Witbier. I wanted to do something interesting, so I did a 5-step decoction mash (a complex technique that involves many steps of taking some of the grain mash, heating it and adding it back to raise temperatures, over and over again). I also added two kinds of dried orange peel and two different kinds of coriander, and a Saison yeast strain to kick up the spice.

It turned out terrible. And that’s great.

I learned things about the value of decoction mashing (low, in this case) subtlety with spices, and the lack of crossover between Saison and Wit yeast.

Most of all, I learned that I don’t have a magic touch or a lucky streak, and my beers can really suck when I lose focus, and that any pride I have is misplaced.

I followed that beer up by brewing a proper Saison, an Imperial IPA and a session beer. In every case I used new techniques, ingredients or yeast that I haven’t worked with before. I’m very lucky to have had the privilege of failure, the ability to make mistakes, see what they were, and to correct them. Failure makes me a better brewer, and I’m looking forward to screwing up next time–as long as I don’t run out of beer because of it!

Catching Up

Oh, I’ve been a bad blogger.

hopunion-interior

I’m smiling because I’m in the middle of a factory that processes hops–reason enough for a lunatic’s grin.

It’s been a full month since I last blogged. But to my defense, I’ve been a bit busy. In addition to my partnership with Midwest Supplies  and our cool new Master Vintner line of winemaking products, I’ve been busy doing a few other things. First, I shot some videos:

And then I did a little bit of travelling. Since the end of August I’ve been to:

  • Minneapolis
  • Houston
  • Atlanta
  • Victoria
  • Denver
  • Seattle
  • Yakima
  • Boston
  • Virginia
  • Philadelphia
  • Minneapolis (again!)
  • Detroit
  • Chicago
  • Kelowna
  • Summerland

In that time I’ve been to Hop and Brew School, done wine opportunity seminars for consumer beverage retailers, Limited Edition wine and food pairing events, shot many videos, attended the Great Canadian Beer Festival, helped plan catalogues, merchandised stores, drank beer and laughed a lot.

And now I’m typing this up in an airport lounge waiting to jet off to Winnipeg. I’ve had some exceptionally good luck with local weather on my travels, and had a lot of fun working with my friends in all of the cities I’ve visited, and I’m looking forward to the same over the next week.

I’ve got three or four blogs lined up, and soon I’ll have some very exciting news to share, but that’ll have to wait another few days: I’ve got some sales training to do, another couple of Limited Edition wine tastings and a webinar session for the members of the Canadian Craft Winemakers Association.

Uh-oh, it’s wheels-up. Hold the door, I’m coming!

The Enemy Without

fruit-fly

A face only nobody could love

Summer is here and for winemakers that means one thing: the inevitable return of our sworn enemy, Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Minute little flying monkeys of doom, they’re hard to exclude from your winemaking areas, and while they’re easy to kill, by the time you’ve swatted one thirteen more have materialised out of thin air, looking for a free meal—females lay 400 eggs each, and they mature in as little as 7 days!

The reason why we need to be concerned over the little monsters isn’t just that they’re unsightly and chewy when you discover one inside a mouthful of Chardonnay. No, it’s their other name we need to think of, ‘Vinegar Fly’. The little blighters are filthy with acetobacteria, the organism that turns our delicious alcohol in to vinegar.

fly infestation

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

How to combat ‘em? First, understand that they don’t eat fruit: they eat mainly yeast. When they smell carbon dioxide and alcohol, they think it’s a piece of rotting fruit where they can lay eggs and get a delicious meal. When they smell a fermenting carboy, it’s their equivalent of a Vegas buffet ten thousand miles long.

Anybody who has ever worked as a bartender over the summer months knows the sad and icky truth: you come in for the first shift of the day and any bottles that have been left with an open pour-spout (‘speed spout’) overnight will need to be poured through a coffee filter to extract the little winged corpses from their watery graves. If a fermenting carboy smells a buffet, and bottle of vodka smells like ten tons of chocolate cake.

Step one in managing these horrific little pests is exclusion. You can’t keep them out of your house and your fermenting area, so you’ll need to exclude them from the wine itself. Always do covered fermentations. The commonest fermentation vessel used to start kit wines in the US is a 7.9 gallon (30 litre) bucket with a tight fitting lid and a port to plug in an airlock. By keeping the wine sealed and airlocked, you’ll deny entry.

Second, when your wine goes to the carboy, make sure you keep that airlock topped up with water. Some folks use sulphite, and while that’s mostly harmless the sulphite usually oxidises off in a few days into plain water. Other folks want the sanitising power of alcohol and load the airlock up with Everclear or grain alcohol—this only attracts the enemy!

Third, you’ll need to wipe up every single little tiny spill of wine or juice immediately, and sulphite the area to prevent any residue from getting a yeast film going on it. Then make sure you wash your cloths or discard your paper towels in a tightly sealed receptacle—the cloth used to wipe up the juice will become a source of attraction.

Fourth, if you have to wash all racked primary fermenters or carboys (those with lees and even a small amount of cloudy wine in them) immediately. If you can’t get to the right away, pop the bung and airlock on again.

Fifth, if you filter your wine (always a good idea—I’ll talk about that in a later blog) break down and clean your filter right away, and seal the used pads in a plastic bag before discarding them: they smell just dandy to fruit flies.

Flypaper only works on fruit flies by accident. Plus, some of the stuff is toxic as all get-out, and not good for winemaking areas. You can set up a wasp trap (available from hardware stores) for them. Normally they’re filled with fruit juice or other sweet liquid, but that doesn’t impress a fruit fly. Fill it with the magic formula: apple cider vinegar with a couple of drops of liquid dish soap. The apple cider vinegar drives them to a gustatory frenzy, while the dish soap removes the surface tension of the liquid: when they fly in and hit it, they drown right away—poof!

You can also, check out natural pyrethrin-based insecticides: they’re made from plant oils, are mostly safe and can be used in food prep areas. Never use any other kind of insecticide around wine or food prep areas! Triple-check to make sure you’ve got pyrethrin and not the synthetic pyrethroid, which is much more persistent and killier. Pyrethroids are bad for the environment and can be toxic to children and pets, especially kitty-cats, who lack the enzyme to break them down, and can rapidly succumb to pyrethroid toxicity. No kitty should be collateral damage to a fruit fly!

It should be noted that cleanly made wines that have fully fermented and are sulphited to an appropriate level (follow the manufacturer’s instructions) are fairly resistan against colonisation by acetobacteria. Sulphite in particular is a good bacterial inhibitor for this organism.

But there’s always that chance: a missed sulphite addition, a little extra oxygen pick-up in fermentation, one lone fruit fly wings in and . . . well, that’s thirty bottles of wine you can’t even pour on your salad (wild acetobacter fermentations make a kind of vinegar that tastes mostly like nail-polish remover).

Neuroanthropology, Beer, and Business

 

beer-brain

‘The only thing I want floating in beer is my liver.’ Okay, brain too.

According to the Wikipedia, neuroanthropology is the study of culture and the brain. What is beer, if not culture, I always say, and yet it was a pleasant surprise to see the fellows over at the Public Library of Science Blogs saying the same thing in an entry, Carefully Crafting Consumption: Understanding the Craft Beer Revolution, where they examine (and get some experimental data on) ‘What are the driving forces behind the increased popularity of craft beer?’

It’s a good and timely question: over 400 new craft breweries opened in the last year in the USA. In my home of British Columbia we’re getting something like thirty new craft breweries a year right now–and it’s picking up every day.

Why are people so hot on craft beer–particularly at a time when macro beers (the pale, fizzy stuff that requires advertising on television) are declining precipitously? It’s so bad for the major breweries right now that they’re on incredibly aggressive acquisition schedules, buying foreign premium breweries (such as Becks) and then tossing the recipes and filling the pretty ‘imported’ bottles with BudMillerCoors Standard Western Industrial Light Lager (S.W.I.L.L.) It’s not doing them any good, mind: as soon as they acquire and ruin a new brand, sales fall off a cliff. 4th quarter sales for MillerCoors are down 2% on domestic sales. Pete Coors, chair of the Molson Coors Brewing Company and Chairman of MillerCoors summed up their problem quite succinctly in an interview with The Denver Post:

“Basically the biggest trouble we have is on-premise sales,” he said. “We have a lot of bar owners who are enamored with craft beers. They are beginning to take off the premium light handles and putting bottles behind the bar instead and replacing the handles with craft beer handles. We lose 50 percent of our volume when that happens.”

The company is trying to compel bar owners to keep their beers on tap by impressing them with facts.

“We have done research that shows it’s not in the economic benefit for a bar to do that,” he said. “Having a premium light brand, whether it’s Coors, Miller or Bud on tap actually improves the economics of their business. People stay in their seats an average of 18 minutes longer when they have a light premium beer on tap. That means they are spending more money, leaving bigger tips. We have a little algorithm and an app that we give to our distributors to evaluate and analyze these businesses and bars.”

It’s hard to be cynical enough with that series of statements. Coors is, of course, a deluded plutocrat, scion and heir to a fortune (which tends to make people quite able to deny observable reality and substitute their own) and really wants to preserve that fortune.

I WILL DRINK YOU ALL

Girls, girls, you’re all pretty.

Simply put, the reason why bar owners are replacing S.W.I.L.L. with craft taps is that’s what beer consumers want. The extra 18 minutes he mentions probably comes from the fact that people can’t drink his beer fast enough because it’s ludicrously over-carbonated and they needed 15 of those 18 minutes to belch.

Back to neuroanthropology: why do craft beer lovers reject S.W.I.L.L. ? The article at PLOS is excellent and covers a lot of ground, hinging on the paradigms put forth by anthropologist Daniel Lende, who ‘proposes the following items as useful to understanding what drives consumption: sensorial, corporal, experiential, decision engaging, social, and meaningful.’ 

All good stuff and there’s a great bit on blind trials using different beer glasses to gauge drinkers responses to actual rather than presumed flavours and aromas, but the two most significant points pretty much cover what drives craft beer drinkers away from S.W.I.L.L. and into better beer, flavour and engagement.

Typical S.W.I.L.L. beer uses very few ingredients (one malt, one or two hops, and some sugary adjuncts), that have low flavour (rice and corn taste like almost nothing after fermentation). The sad truth about these beers is that blindfolded, the most fervent of their partisans cannot tell them apart–they are specifically designed to be as flavourless as possible–offend fewer people, grab greater sales.

beer-misalign

One of these things is not like the other . . .

Craft beers on the other hand have the option of using many different kinds of malt–there are hundreds available–and in addition to the explosive growth of new hop varieties, they also add anything that strikes them as a positive–licorice? Sure! Coconut? You bet! And so on. They also use different yeast, and since yeast contributes heavily to the profile of a beer they can really stick the flavour knife in and twist it, adding aromas and flavours of bubblegum, melted butter or tropical fruits, if they desire. S.W.I.L.L. is universally made with alcohol-tolerant, neutral profile yeast.

All it takes is for a lover of beer is to try a few craft beers and as soon as they become normalised to the very different flavours and aromas, all S.W.I.L.L. tastes weak, watery and fizzy. It doesn’t matter if it’s the same alcohol content or the same body, the relatively weak palate of flavours and neutral character makes it wimpy.

Engagement is the second part and it’s the secret key. It’s impossible to engage with a corporation that concentrates of return for its investors above all else–no matter how many small brewers they buy, no matter how hard they try to use those breweries and their beers as a mask to try to cajole people to like their overall portfolio, it won’t work.

I engage with breweries that can tell me an authentic story about their beer–who made it, where the recipe came from, how they feel about it, and what cool stuff they’ve done and plan to do next. A corporation, designed only to make money for investors, doesn’t have a story like that, and as soon as they purchase a craft brewery they destroy its story as well.

And a corporation will never, ever understand why. Because they could be making bricks or shoes, and don’t care what the vehicle for their revenue stream is. Real craft breweries engage their drinkers with not only flavour, aroma and choice, but also with a real dedication to the idea that beer is more than just a drink–it’s a gateway to an experience.

Shout-Out

There’s a new blog in town, and I like it.

austin_logo

Don’t mess with Texas homebrew

Austin Homebrew Supply is a fine shop in my very favorite city in Texas (sorry, Brownsville!)

If you’ve never been to Austin, make haste, for it is a very cool, often strange place, filled with delightfully odd people and a sense of community and solidarity rare in any country, and perhaps a wee bit at odds with the common perception of Texas-qua-Texas. Dang fine barbecue to boot.

I’ve been friends with the folks at AHB for many years, and have always enjoyed their service and style, and now they’ve gone and stretched out to their customers even further. My buddy Adam Lipscomb now does their AHS Brewing Blog. He’s a good writer, and I know he’ll be telling some great stories. I was actually updated in real time when he was making his infamous Frisky Whiskers Tuna Porter, a surefire hit with all kitties.

Check him out and add him to your bookmarks, and you can even drop him a line if you’ve got questions.

In the meantime, relax, don’t worry, and have a nice cool beverage.