Taxonomy Platforms

The human brain is basically a giant correlation machine. Well, ok, that’s a drastic simplification, but I’ve often written about how correlation and induction play an important role in life. This is a large subject, but today I want to focus on one result of our predilection towards correlation: our tendency to develop complex taxonomies. For books and movies, we’ve got genres. For beer, we’ve got style. Retail stores have departments. You name it, chances are that there’s a complex taxonomy describing variations (you’ll notice that this post tends to consist of examples from my obsessions with movies, beer and technology, but this would all be relevant to a wide variety of subjects).

This tendency invariably leads to nerdy arguments about specific examples and where they fall within the taxonomy. Is Inglourious Basterds Science Fiction? Are comic book movies science fiction? Should we make a distinction between science fiction and science fantasy? What exactly constitutes a West Coast IPA? What do we call Black IPAs? What are the defining characteristics of a Weblog? What are some examples of the Hillbilly Horror genre? Take a trip down TV Tropes lane, and you’re guaranteed to find a comprehensive list of genres, sub-genres, and myriad conventions or cliches.

Why go to all this trouble to categorize everything? What is it about the internet that seems to magnify these discussions?

Well, the most obvious reason for such excessive categorization is that it will communicate something about the particular instance being discussed. Categorizing movies into various genres helps us determine what we’re in for when we sit down to watch a movie. Style guidelines communicate what kinds of characteristics to expect from a beer. Genres and styles provide a common ground for both creators and critics, and the reduce the pool of possibilities to a more manageable number.

Those are good things1, but they’re really only scratching the surface of why we taxonomize. Most people get frustrated by taxonomies. It seems that every genre, every style, is inadequate, especially when their favorite instance is pigeonholed into a particular category. Hence, we get the aforementioned nerdy debates on the nature of science fiction or west coast IPAs. Genres and styles are blurry along the edges, and there’s a great deal of overlap. Individual works often fit into many categories. If one were so inclined, they could make each category excessively inclusive or moderately narrow, but worrying about the blurry edges of taxonomy is kinda missing the point. In the parlance of hackers, the blurry edges of taxonomy are a feature, not a bug.

I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and he makes a fascinating observation that genres are the stacked platforms of the creative world:

For understandable reasons, we like to talk about artistic innovations in terms of the way that they break the rules, open up new doors in the adjacent possible that lesser minds never even see. But genius requires genres. Flaubert and Joyce needed the genre of the bildungsroman to contort and undermine in Sentimental Education and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Dylan needed the conventions of acoustic folk to electrify the world with Highway 61 Revisited. Genres supply a set of implicit rules that have enough coherence that traditionalists can safely play inside them, and more adventurous artists can confound our expectations by playing with them. Genres are the platforms and paradigms of the creative world. They are almost never willed into existence by a single pioneering work. Instead, they fade into view, through a complicated set of shared signals passed between artists, each contributing different elements to the mix.

I love the description of genres fading into view, perhaps because you could say that genres never really come into full clarity. That may frustrate some, but that inherent blurriness is where taxonomies derive power and it’s what allows geniuses to create their most amazing works. And this does not just apply to art. In Brew Like a Monk, Stan Hieronymus relates an anecdote from Michael Jackson (the beer critic, not the pop star):

In one of the many stories he likes to tell about German, English and Belgian brewers, Michael Jackson first asks a German how beer is made. “Pils malt, Czech hops,” the brewer replies. Then Jackson asks the German brewer down the road the same question. “It’s the same as Fritz said. That’s how you make a Pilsener, that’s what we learn in school.”

After getting a different answer from a British brewer, Jackson turns to a Belgian brewer. “First of all, you take one ton of bat’s droppings. Then you add a black witch,” the Belgian answers. “The brewer down the road uses a white witch.” Jackson concludes with the lesson: “Belgium is a nation of tremendous individualists.”

If style guidelines for Bat Dropping Ale stated that color shouldn’t be less than 25 SRM, do you think that would have stopped the brewer down the road from using a white witch? Of course not. Style guidelines don’t limit creativity, lack of imagination does.

As Hieronymus later notes, if we didn’t make “rules,” we wouldn’t know when to break them.

That is the power of taxonomy. It gives us a place to start. It gives us the basic rules and techniques. Defining such conventions may seem limiting, but it’s actually freeing. You have to understand those conventions before you can break them or combine them properly, which can sometimes result in something inspirational and brilliant. Ironically, this seems to happen with such regularity that I’m sure many “innovations” we see today are repeats of previous revolutions. As Johnson notes, genres and style are part of a stacked platform. They’re built on top of even more basic building blocks, notably technology. Technology often recontextualizes existing taxonomies, opening them up to subtly different interpretations. The same innovative idea can be magnified and mutated into something different by technology. It’s very rare that something completely new emerges from history. It’s more likely something that has existed for a long time, but slightly tweaked to match the times. Taxonomies are platforms. They are not limiting. You build things on top of platforms, and that’s why we go to the trouble of categorizing everything we can.

1 – Nerdy fury on the internets is one thing, but for the most part this isn’t really controversial stuff. However, once you start placing taxonomies on human beings, things get a little more complicated. If one were so inclined, an interesting discussion on the nature of prejudice as it relates to the human penchant for correlation could yield interesting insights. Unfortunately, this is not a post for that more weighty (and controversial) subject.Enhanced by Zemanta

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #7: Simcoe Single-Hopped IPA

After some post-holiday procrastination, I finally settled down to make myself a small batch of a Simcoe single-hopped IPA. Hops are one of the 4 key ingredients in beer, and there exists an amazing variety of hops. Most of the bitterness in beer comes from hops, but they also provide flavor and aroma characteristics. Some hop varieties are good for bittering, but not for flavor or aroma. Some are great for flavor or aroma, but not really for bittering. And then there are the utility players – hops that do everything. Simcoe is one such hop. Simcoe is actually a relatively new variety of hop, often referred to as Cascade on steroids (Cascade hops were the most revolutionary of American hops – most notably featured in Sierra Nevada’s classic Pale Ale). They’re a high alpha acid hop (around 12-13%), which makes them great for bittering, but they also impart a huge, distinctive citrus and pine flavor/aroma.

I patterned my recipe on Weyerbacher’s Double Simcoe IPA, though I have no idea how accurate the recipe I used matches that beer (I do know that my recipe wouldn’t be as strong as 9% ABV though). The guy at the homebrew shop mentioned that my grains, at least, were similar to Bell’s Two Hearted (which is another fantastic IPA), but that beer uses Centennial hops instead of Simcoe. Anywho, this is what I settled on (note: this is a small, 2.5 gallon batch, so there’s much less malt than you might expect):

Beer #7: Simcoe Single-Hopped IPA

February 4, 2012

.25 lb. Crystal 20 (specialty grain)

.5 lb. CaraPils (specialty grain)

.5 lb. Vienna Malt (specialty grain)

3.3 lb. Briess Pilsen Light LME

1 lb. Golden DME

0.5 lb. Turbinado Sugar

1 oz. Simcoe (bittering @12.2 AA)

1 oz. Simcoe (flavor, 2 additions)

1 oz. Simcoe (aroma)

1 oz. Simcoe (dry hop)

1 tsp. Irish Moss

Wyeast 1056 – American Ale Yeast

Nothing too fancy here (although damn, Simcoe hops are expensive!) I suppose the Turbinado sugar isn’t a typical ingredient, but simple sugars like that help dry out the beer (which would otherwise have been pretty heavy). Steeped the specialty grains in 2-2.5 gallons of 150° F – 160° F water for around 20 minutes, drained, sparged with another half gallon of water, threw in the can of Light LME, and put the lid on to bring the wort to a boil. During the wait, I scooped out a small sample of wort and made myself a Hot Scotchie. It’s a strange beast, this hot scotchie. I’ve heard many homebrewers talk about it, but details on exactly how to make one are a bit scarce. Near as I can tell, you take a sample of unhopped wort before it reaches boiling, then add a shot of Scotch to it. Jeff Alworth has a decent description:

Brewers would draw off a small amount of the mash as it issued from the grain bed, fresh and warm. To this they added a dollop of Scotch. What happens is nothing short of mystical. Mash runnings are very sweet and flabby–there’s no definition to the flavors. The addition of Scotch somehow reverses all this. Like an electric current, the Scotch animates the grains so that you can taste them in HD. The Scotch is likewise a very clear note, but not sharp or aggressive. It has all the flavor of a straight shot, but it’s floating amid Mom’s comforting malted. Insanely beguiling.

So I took a sample of wort, and threw a shot of Ardmore (it’s a cheap Scotch, but it’s got a nice, distinctive peat smoke character to it that’s not overpowering) in there.

A Hot Scotchie

It was an interesting experience. My experience with the hot scotchie wasn’t quite as revelatory as it seems to be for everyone else though. It was good, to be sure, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d always do. Also, because this is a small batch, I probably shouldn’t have taken that much malt out of the wort – I ended up with a lower OG than I’d like…

Anywho, once the boil begins, I add in 1 ounce of Simcoe hops and start the timer. 30 minutes into the boil, I add the Golden DME and Turbinado sugar. When I do this, the temperature of the pot seems to drop (makes sense because I’m adding room temp ingredients), so I pot the lid back on the pot and bring it back to a boil (I’m not counting these 5 minutes time as part of the boil). Once it’s back boiling, I add a half ounce of hops (the first flavor hop addition). 10 minutes after that, I add another half ounce of Simcoe (second flavor hop addition) and the teaspoon of irish moss. Finally, with 5 minutes left to go, I add the aroma hops (actually sprinkling some throughout the last 5 minutes).

Moved the pot to the ice bath to cool it off, brought it down to about 80° F, strained the wort (removing the hops) into the fermenter, and topped off with about 1/4 to 1/2 gallon of cold water, bringing the final temperature down below 70°.

Original Gravity: 1.068. Definitely lower than I was shooting for (my target was in the 1.070s), but assuming a 75% attenuation, this should work out to around 6.7% ABV, which will be a solid IPA. Add in that citrusy, piney goodness from the Simcoe, and I’ll be a happy camper.

I did notice a lot of sediment in the wort, even after I strained it into the fermenter, which has me a bit worried, but what else can I do? I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks.

I’m going to try something new with this batch – dry hopping! I talked to the guy at the homebrew shop and he said I could do it in primary, so I figure I’ll wait a week or so (i.e. until fermentation ends), chuck in the last ounce of hops, give it another week, then rack to the bottling bucket and bottle the suckers. Exciting!

Not sure what my next batch will be. I’ve been toying with the idea of a Earl Grey beer – start with a british beer base (perhaps an ESB), then use some sort of bergamot oil for extra flavor. I have no idea if it will work, but I want to see how it turns out. It’ll probably be another small batch, so even if it’s bad, it won’t be a big deal. After that, I’ve been thinking about a Belgian dubbel for a while now, and I think it’ll be time…

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #6: Bottling

The Christmas beer was in the fermenter for two weeks, so it was bottling time. Fermentation started quickly, lots of bubbles in the airlock for about 4 days, after which, things trailed off quickly. The biggest question with this brew was the spices and damn, this smelled great. The cloves were probably the most prominent of the spices, but it seemed well matched to the rest of the beer. That being said, I wanted to get some more cinnamon out of this, so I chucked a few cinnamon sticks in the bottling bucket to give it some extra… cinnamonity? And the finished product did indeed seem to display a little more cinnamonitivity. My guess is that the spiciness will fade in time, so this will probably be nice and complex by Christmas.

Final gravity was 1.014, which was a hair lower than expected, but that’s a pleasant surprise. If my calculations are correct, this will bring the beer to around 6% ABV, which was my exact target. I gave it a taste, and it seems pretty good. I don’t really have a feel for how non-carbonated beer will taste once it’s carbonated, but this seems right. Nice spiciness, good body, seems like it will be good stuff. The appearance is a very pretty dark amber color.

My homebrewed Christmas Ale, straight from the fermenter

There’s about 6 weeks before Christmas, which should give it enough time to condition in the bottle. My saison was awesome at week one, but that’s rare and in this case, I’m assuming the spices need some time to settle down. 6 weeks should do the trick.

Not sure what’s next. I’m saving the dubbel for the summer and since it’s winter, I’d like to make something that requires lower fermentation temperatures. An IPA (single hopped Simcoe?) or maybe a British ESB of some kind (my nutty idea is to get me some bergamot oil and make an Earl Grey British ale, maybe even using some tea in the initial steeping phase.) Funnily enough, a lot of Christmas beers say that they get better with age, so I might even want to make next year’s Christmas beer now, and age it. Or something. I was also thinking that it might be time to get a secondary fermenter, which would allow all sorts of fun stuff like dry hopping and oak aging (and bourbon oak aging!)

(Cross Posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #6: Spiced Christmas Ale

I really wanted to start this beer earlier, but due to a variety of factors1, I didn’t get to this until now. All I really knew is that I wanted a winter warmery type of beer, which is pretty damn vague. My local homebrew shop owner was very helpful, despite my lack of preparation here. We discussed a bit, talked about Anchor’s Christmas Ale (which, granted, changes every year), and eventually settled on a dark red ale with my choice of spices added at the end of the boil. I’m actually pretty happy with the recipe – it sounds really good. Now to find out if it will taste good!

Beer #6: Spiced Christmas Ale

November 5, 2011

1 lb. Crystal 40 (specialty grain)

2 oz. Roasted Barley (specialty grain)

3.3 lb. Golden Light LME

3 lb. Amber DME

1 lb. Golden Light DME

1 oz. Northern Brewer (Bittering @ 8.6% AA)

1 oz. Hallertau Hops (Flavor)

1 tsp Irish Moss

1 tsp Bitter Orange Peel

1/4 tsp Ground Nutmeg

1/4 tsp Coriander

2 Cinnamon Sticks

3 Whole Cloves

Wyeast 1056 – American Ale Yeast

Nothing super unusual here, though there are only two hop additions. The reason for this is that the aroma will be derived from spices rather than hops. Speaking of spices, I have no idea what I’m doing. Everything I’ve ever read about spices indicates that it’s very easy to overdo things. So I’m deliberately attempting to keep it down2. Looking around at some other recipes, I see people adding about 0.5 oz. (or more) of spices to beers, which works out to 3 tsp. I’m trying to do less than that (though it’s difficult to tell with cinnamon sticks/whole cloves, but I’m using slightly less than most recipes I’ve seen), which will hopefully leave me with some spicy goodness without overwhelming the beer.

Not wanting to go in completely blind, I tried making a couple cups of spice tea (i.e. hot water and spice) using two different spice mixtures. I completely overdid the Nutmeg, which overpowered the other spices, so I cut that down in the recipe. But otherwise, it smelled pretty great. Of course, this doesn’t even come close to approximating the final product I’m hoping for, but it seemed like a useful exercise. Alright, enough preamble, let’s get this party started!

Steeped the specialty grains in 150° F – 160° F water for around 20 minutes, drained, sparged with another half gallon of water, and put the lid on to bring the wort to a boil. Once there, added the 3 pounds of Amber DME, stirred like crazy for a while, brought it back to a boil and added the bittering hops. Here starts the clock. 30 minutes into the boil, added the rest of the DME and LME. This brought the boil to a standstill, so I took some extra time to get it back to boiling (which took 5-10 minutes). After another 10 minutes, I added the flavor hops. 5 more minutes, added the irish moss. With about 3 minutes left, I started adding the various spices, removing from heat just when I was finishing with the spices.

Moved the pot to the ice bath to cool it off, brought it down to about 90° F, strained the wort (removing most of the spice and hops) into the fermenter, topped off with about 2.5 gallons of water, mixed it up real good, and took a sample and hydrometer reading. The wort was still about 75° F, so I had to wait a bit to get the temperature down (I moved it out of the kitchen, which was pretty hot at this point, and it cooled off after about 25 minutes so that it was in the high 60s). Not sure if the extra time sitting out in the open will be good for it, but it was definitely too hot to finish. I pitched the yeast, put the top on the bucket and installed the airlock. The temperature in my closet is in the mid 60s, which is perfect for this. Done.

Original Gravity: 1.060. Assuming 75% attenuation, that should bring me down to 1.015 and about a 5.9% ABV. I’m actually hoping for slightly higher attenuation (and thus a dryer beer with slightly higher ABV), but either way, this should be pretty good.

So I’m looking at two weeks in the fermenter, then bottling, and at least 2-3 weeks bottle conditioning. This will bring me to early/mid December, which is just in time for some Holiday celebration. Indeed, it should be peaking right around Christmas and New Years (though it may peak later).

I don’t think I overdid it with the spices. I could clearly smell them in the finished product, but it didn’t seem overpowering. I guess we’ll see what happens after the fermentation. My guess is that it will become even less potent after the yeast has its way with the wort. Worst case scenario, if the spices aren’t coming through, I’ll throw a cinnamon stick in the bottling bucket to give it some extra oomph. But from what people say about these kinds of spices, I should be fine.

So there we have it. Not sure what’s next. I’ve wanted to make a Belgian dubbel since I started (about a year ago), but winter is not the time for that. I should really make something that requires lower fermentation temperatures. I’m thinking perhaps an Simcoe single-hop IPA (or mixed hop IPA).

1 – And by variety of factors, I mean that I was lazy.

2 – But then I found that I had some leftover bitter orange peel from my saison, so I added a tsp of that too. I still think I’m under most other recipes when it comes to spices…

(Cross Posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #5: Bottling

When I finished my latest homebrew attempt, a stout, I was a little worried that the yeast would have trouble getting started. I had activated the smack pack early in the day, and it did expand a bit, but not to the extent that my previous attempts had. Fortunately, I saw activity in the airlock within about 12 hours, which is better than I was expecting. Indeed, about a day and a half later, it was bubbling furiously. It may have been the most active I’ve ever seen the airlock. Of course, it cut out a couple days later, and by the Wednesday after brew day, it had slowed considerably. I probably could have bottled this a few days ago, but I waited for the weekend, just to be sure. So as hurricane Irene made it’s way up to my area, I was hunkered down inside, bottling my beer.

Final gravity was a little on the high side – around 1.019 or so (maybe a bit higher, adjusting for temperature). My target was around 1.017, so this was probably close enough and will probably contribute a fuller body, which might actually be a good thing here, as I prefer full bodied stouts. From the aroma and taste, it may be a bit more roasty than I was hoping for, but we’ll see how the bottle conditioning affects things. It tastes good, but extrapolating how it will taste after conditioning is something I haven’t really figured out just yet. That being said, I think the bitterness turned out quite well. I was a little worried that the small amount of hops wouldn’t be enough, but they either were, or the natural bitterness from the dark grains is also pitching in… Anyway, given the starting gravity of 1.062-1.063 or so, this should wind up at around 5.5-6% ABV. A little lower than my goal, but given the fuller body I’m expecting, I think it will work out fine.

The appearance was very nice indeed, though I’m really curious as to what the head will look like in the final product. Stouts usually have a relatively dark head, tan or light brown in color. But I’m wondering if my use of light DME as the base will lighten the color. From the picture, you can see a little of the head, and it does seem darker than normal. I guess we’ll find out. The color of the beer is a really nice dark brown color (almost black) with some lighter brown highlights. Holding up to the light, I can’t see through it at all, and the highlights are minimal.

Homebrewed Stout - after fermentation, before conditioning

When I bottled my saison, I tried one a week later, and it was fantastic, so I’ll probably be trying this next week, hopefully with similar results!

I think I’ll be going for a Belgian-style Abbey Dubbel for my next batch. It’s one of my favorite styles, so I’m going to need to make sure my recipe is good here. I found a nice clone recipe of St. Bernardus 8 that might provide a good base to work from. But given my schedule for the next couple months, I probably won’t get to brew again until October, so I’ve got time. Not sure what I’ll try after that. Perhaps an IPA of some kind. I should probably try to take advantage of the cooler temperatures inside the house during winter, which means I did things kinda backwards this past year (I brewed a Belgian tripel in winter – using a yeast that requires high temperatures, then I went and brewed this stout in summer, which requires lower temperatures). I may also be upgrading my equipment a little for these future batches. I think I’ve established that I really enjoy this little hobby, so some new toys are probably worthwhile…

(Cross Posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #5: Stout

So the past three beers I’ve brewed have been pale in color, and I was looking to do something a bit darker this time around. For one thing, dark beers are apparently more suitable for extract homebrew as the extract process naturally makes the malt a bit darker, and the fact that I’m doing a partial boil (I only really boil about 3-3.5 gallons of liquid, then add water later to make up the difference) also leads to a darker color. And after a summer of drinking hefeweizens, saisons, tripels, and other pale ales, I’m getting to be in the mood for something darker anyway. Stouts have never been one of my favorite styles, but I have to admit that certain variations on the style have really grown on me. One of the big advantages of doing homebrew is that you can make whatever you want, so I started trying to figure out how to make a stout that emphasized the chocolate and caramel flavors, rather than the one–dimensional roastiness that overpowers a lot of stouts. I didn’t want a really dry stout, nor did I want a super-strong imperial stout. Something in the middle, with a lot of body and caramel/chocolate sweetness, but not a ton of roastiness.

I toyed with the notion of a milk stout, but none of the homebrew kits I could find online were really doing it for me. So I started playing with some online recipe calculators, and came up with a (rather lame) recipe. I probably know a lot more about beer than your typical beer drinker, but when it comes to expert homebrewer stuff, I’m still somewhat of a newb. I was unsure of my recipe, so I figured I should just take it to the local homebrew shop and ask the friendly guys there what I should do. I’m not entirely convinced that the recipe we ended up creating is exactly what I want, but it feels like it will be good.

Brew #5 – Stout

August 13, 2011

0.5 lb. Roasted Barley (Specialty Grain)

0.75 lb. British Chocolate Malt (Specialty Grain)

0.25 lb. Belgian Special B (Specialty Grain)

0.5 lb American Crystal 120L (Specialty Grain)

7 lb. Light DME

1 oz. Target Hops (bittering @ 8.6% AA)

Wyeast 1284 – Irish Ale Yeast

If you’re in the know, the first thing you’ll notice is that the majority of the sugars in this beer consist of light dry malt extract. But stouts are supposed to be dark! Well, it turns out that you don’t need much in the way of dark, roasted malts to get that nice, dark brown/black color, and since the specialty grains were fresh (and just crushed), you can get a much better flavor out of that than you can by just selecting dark malt extracts. As such, I think this is the most complex (and largest) specialty grain bill I’ve brewed. And according to our calculations, it will indeed be very dark. The way brewers measure beer color is called the Standard Reference Method (SRM), and this beer should have an SRM of around 45 (anything above 30 is usually referred to as black).

The other thing that stands out about the recipe is the single, relatively-small hop addition. Most brews have a hop schedule consisting of three additions: one for bittering, one for taste, and one for aroma. But since I was looking to highlight the caramel, chocolate, and roasty flavors of my malts, those taste and aroma hops would only detract from the experience. As such, the homebrew shop guy recommended I go with a single hop addition at the beginning of the boil. I’m not entirely convinced that there’s enough bitterness in what I ended up with, but again, I’m looking to make something that is sweet, chocolately/caramelly, and a little roasty. This isnt’ meant to be a hop bomb like some imperial stouts (or American Black Ales, or whatever you call that style), so it makes sense that the hop presence would be a bit muted.

I steeped the specialty grains in approximately 2.5 gallons of water at around 150° F – 160° F for about 20 minutes. Sparged with some 150° F water, bringing the total volume of the pot up to a little more than 3 gallons. Let the grains drain out (careful not to squeeze the grain bag), observed the black-as-night color of the wort and the various aromas it gave off. This may end up being a bit roastier than I expected, but nothing I could do about it at that point, so I punched up the stovetop to bring the mixture to a boil. Once at the boil, added the 7 pounds of DME and the hops and boy did it create a lot of bubbly head (Not sure exactly if you would call this head, but there was a bubbly head-like substance at the top of the pot, and it took some supervision to make sure it didn’t boil over). Settled in for the 60 minute boil. Once complete, I moved the pot to the ice bath in my sink. Unlike previous attempts, I came prepared with lots of ice this time, and that certainly helped cool the word down quicker… until all the ice melted. Still, it got down to around 100° F quicker than any of my previous attempts. At this point, I strained the wort into my fermenter and topped it all off with cold water, bringing the temperature down to around 75° F. Just a hint too hot, so I let it sit for a while (once I hit the cooling phase, I cranked the air conditioner, hoping to help with the cooling process), took my hydrometer reading, and pitched the yeast.

If I got one thing right with my initial recipe, it was the yeast choice (or at least, my yeast choice was exactly what the homebrew store guy said I should use). Apparently Irish Ale Yeast is really well matched with dark malts. So before I even started brewing, I had activated the wyeast smack-pack. It was dated 5/16/11, which is still somewhat recent, but unlike previous smack-packs, it didn’t swell up right away and took some cajoling to get it to swell at all. About 4 hours after the initial smack, it seemed to be swelling a bit, but I’m not sure if this yeast was really ready. This represents my greatest fear in this batch – the yeast seems to be a bit old and tired. Now, the Wyeast package says that the swelling need not be extreme for the yeast to be ok, but I’m still a bit worried (note to self – learn how to make a yeast starter so that I can avoid such anxiety). I pitched it at around 70° F, so I guess we’ll see how it does.

Original Gravity: 1.062 (approximate). Adjusting for temperature, maybe a tad higher. Either way, this is a little lower than my recipe implied (somewhere around 1.067), but still within the realm of what I wanted to make. Assuming solid attenuation, I’m looking at an ABV of around 6-6.5%, maybe higher.

My last batch turned out really well, so I’ve got high hopes for this. Even if it comes out a little roastier than expected, I’ll be happy. I am a bit worried about the yeast, but I saw some activity in the airlock this morning, so that’s promising. And besides, I worried a lot about the last batch, and it turned out great (first batch I’ve made that I really love).

Not sure what’s up next. I think I’ll want to get the Belgian Dubbel underway, so that I have it ready for the Holidays. After that, who knows? I was thinking about an IPA of some kind, but there are definite issues with hop utilization in extract boils, so maybe I’ll hold off on that a bit. I probably won’t be able to get to the next batch until October anyway, so I’ve got some time.

(Cross posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)

Recent Podcastery

I like podcasts, but it’s depressingly hard to find ones that I really enjoy and which are still regularly published. I tend to discover a lot of podcasts just as they’re going through their death throes. This is sometimes ok, as I’m still able to make my way through their archives, but then I run out of content and have to start searching for a new podcast. I will often try out new podcasts, but I have only added a few to the rotation of late. Here’s some recent stuff I’ve been listening to:

  • The /Filmcast – I tried this podcast out a few years ago and my recollection is that I found it kinda boring. I don’t know what was going on during that episode though, because I find that this is the podcast I most look forward to every week. I enjoy the format, which starts with a “what we’ve been watching” segment, followed by a short “movie news” segment, and then an in-depth review of a relatively new release. And when I say “in-depth”, I mean very long and detailed, often in the 40-60 minute range. It’s also one of the few podcasts to really get into spoilers of a new release (they are very clear about when they start the spoiler section, so no worries if you haven’t seen the movie). It’s something most reviews and podcasts avoid, but it’s actually quite entertaining to listen to (if, that is, you’ve already seen the film or don’t care about the film in question). Also noteworthy is that the show features 3 regular hosts, and a guest host – and the guests are usually fantastic. They’re mostly other film critics, but occasionally they’ll have actual actors or directors on the show as well – people like Rian Johnson (of Brick and Brothers Bloom fame) and Vincenzo Natali (of Cube and Splice fame). What’s more, they don’t have these guests on to just interview them – they make them participate in the general format of the show – so you get to see what Rian Johnson has been watching that week or what he thinks of various movie news, etc… It’s a really unusual perspective to get on these directors, and it’s stuff you rarely get in an interview. So yeah, if you like movies (and television, which they often discuss in the first segment and after dark shows), this is a must-listen podcast.
  • The Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show – No, that’s not a typo, but don’t ask me why he’s repeated his name either. I don’t really get it. But I do really like the show so far. This is the only relatively new show that I listen to, and so far, it’s been great. You may recongnize Rubin from his work at CollegeHumor, such as the great video series, Bleep Bloop and Nerd Alert. In this podcast, he basically interviews someone in each show. So far, we’ve got an interview with Anamanaguchi (a band that uses old Nintendos as an instrument), a discussion of Game of Thrones with another CollegeHumor guy, Jon Gabrus, a completely awesome interview of a guy that runs pizza tours in NY, and an interview with the guy responsible for writing/directing all those porn parodies that have been coming out lately (brilliant). I have to wonder how well he can keep up the quality of his guests and the variety of topics, but so far, so good.
  • Rebel FM – Video Game podcasts are weird. They often spend a ton of time talking about new or upcoming games that you can’t play yet, which is kinda annoying. It’s also hard to go back and find an episode where they talked about x or y game (and usually the discussions aren’t that enlightening because they’re just talking about the mechanics of the game). IRebel FM falls into this category a bit, but what sets it apart is their letters section, which isn’t really anything special, but which can be a lot of fun. Somehow, they’ve become known for giving out sagely advice on relationships and other life challenges. It’s just funny to see this sort of thing through the lens of a video game podcast.
  • All Beers Considered – I haven’t done a lot of exploring around the beer podcast realm, but I like the Aleheads website, so I tend to listen to these podcasts which generally cover various beer news stories and whatnot. It’s not something I’d recommend to someone who’s not a beer fanatic, but, well, I am a beer fanatic, so I like it.
  • Basic Brewing Radio – This seems to be THE homebrewing podcast, and it’s got a massive archive filled with great stuff (at least, I’ve found many episodes to be helpful in my brewing efforts). Some stuff works better than others (really, it’s kinda strange to listen to a beer tasting, especially of homebrew that you’ll never get to try), but there’s lots of good stuff for new brewers in the archives.
  • The Adventurenaut Cassettes – There’s no real explaining this podcast. It’s just really weird, disjointed and almost psychadelic. Good when you’re in a certain mood, though.

I really only have 3 or 4 shows that I really look forward to every week, but I’m always looking for more…

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #4: Bottling

When I put my most recent homebrew, a saison style beer, in the fermenter, I started seeing bubbles in the airlock after only a few hours – a much quicker start than any of my previous brews. Indeed, this thing fermented vigorously for nearly 5 days. With all my previous attempts, bubbles didn’t appear in the airlock until at least 12-24 hours after pitching the yeast, and once they had started, there was only 2-3 days of vigorous activity, after which things trail off. Usually by the end of 2 weeks, things have slowed down considerably. And that happened for the saison too, but I was surprised at how long that initial phase of activity lasted. Now, I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I suspect that perhaps my pitching/fermentation temperature was a bit high, leading to a more active fermentation than is normally desired.

Or I could be completely wrong. The beer seemed to come out ok. It smells wonderful. It looks a little darker than usual for the style, but that’s kinda expected for extract brewing. I took a quick swig of it, and at first glance it seems to share a certain character with the Hefeweizen I brewed on my last attempt. Here’s to hoping that this goes a little better than my last attempt.

The final gravity was really low though. Somewhere around 1.005 (target was more around the 1.010 area), maybe even less. I guess we’ll see how that plays out. Doing the calculations, this means the beer should be somewhere around 7-7.5% ABV, which is certainly higher than I was shooting for, but not outside the realms of possibility.

I won’t bore you with the details of the bottling process, which basically went the same as usual – it’s a semi-tedious process, but the only really bad part is the sanitization of the bottles. Otherwise all went well and this stuff should be ready to drink in a few weeks. Wish me luck.

At this point, I’m looking to try something a little darker for my next batch. That’s apparently more suitable for extract brewing, and besides, my last 3 batches have been lighter style beers. Also, since I’ve been doing so much in the way of belgian styles, I figured I should try something different. Perhaps a chocolate stout or maybe an American Black Ale (or whatever you call those things).

(Cross Posted at Kaedrin Beer Blog)

Tasting Notes – Part 4

Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don’t really warrant a full post. So here’s what I’ve been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:


  • Game of Thrones – The season finale aired last week, and I have to say, I’m impressed. My usual approach to stuff like this is to let it run for a couple of seasons to make sure it’s both good and that it’s actually heading somewhere. At this point, the book series isn’t even finished, but friends who’ve read it think it’s great and they say the books get better, so I gave the series a shot – and I’m really glad I did. It’s a fantastic series, much more along the lines of swords-and-sandals (a la Spartacus or Gladiator) than outright fantasy (a la Lord of the Rings). People talk about magic and dragons and whatnot, but most of that seems to be in the distant past (though there are hints of a return to that sort of thing throughout the series and especially in the last minutes of the season). Most of the season consists of dialogue, politics, Machiavellian scheming, and action. Oh, and sex. And incest. Yeah, it’s a fun show. The last episode of the season doesn’t do much to resolve the various plotlines, and hints at an even more epic scale. Interestingly, though, I don’t find this sort of open-endedness that frustrating. Unlike a show like Lost, the open threads don’t seem like red-herrings or even mysteries at all. It’s just good, old fashioned storytelling. The worst thing about it is that I’m all caught up and will have to wait for the next season! Prediction: Geoffrey will die horribly, and I will love it. But not too quickly. He’s such a fantastic, sniveling little bastard. I want to keep hating him for a while before someone takes him down.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Doctor Who – Most of the semi-recently rebooted series is available on watch instantly, and I’ve only just begun to pick my way through the series again. I vaguely remember watching a few of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor episodes, but I never finished that first season. I’m not very far in right now – just saw the first appearance of the Daleks, which should be interesting.


  • 13 Assassins – Takashi Miike tends to be a hit-or-miss filmmaker for me. Fortunately for him, he is ridiculously prolific. His most recent effort is a pretty straightforward Samurai tale about a suicide mission to assassinate a cruel and ruthless evil lord. Seven Samurai, it is not, but it is still quite engaging and entertaining to watch. It starts a bit slow, but it finishes with an amazing 45 minute setpiece as our 13 heroes spring their trap on 200 enemies. Along the way, we get some insight into Japanese culture as the days of the Samurai and Shogunate faded, though I don’t think I’d call this a rigorously accurate film or anything. Still, there’s more going on here than just bloody action, of which there is a lot. An excellent film, among the top films I’ve seen so far this year.
  • HBO has a pretty great lineup right now. In the past couple weeks, I’ve revisited Inception, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and How to Train Your Dragon. All of these films have improved upon rewatching them, a subject I’ve always found interesting. Scott Pilgrim, in particular, has improved it’s standing in my mind. I still think it’s got some problems in the final act, but I also think it’s a dreadfully underappreciated film.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Transcendent Man – I mentioned this a couple weeks ago, but it’s an interesting profile of Ray Kurtzweil, a futurist and singularity proponent. I don’t really buy into his schtick, but he’s an interesting guy and the documentary is worth a watch for that.

Video Games

  • I’m still playing Mass Effect 2, but I have not progressed all that far in the game. I’ve found this is common with RPGs lately – it takes a long time to get anything accomplished in an RPG, so I sometimes find it hard to get started. Still, I have liked what I’ve seen of this game so far. It’s far from perfect, but it’s got some interesting elements.
  • Since I had to hook up my Wii to get Netflix working during the great PSN outage of ’11, I actually did start playing Goldeneye again. I even got a Wii classic controller, and that made the game approximately 10 times more fun (but I have to say, plugging the Wiimote into the classic controller to get it to work? That’s just stupidly obtuse, though I guess it keeps the cost down). Since I could play it in short 30 minute chunks, I actually did manage to finish this one off in pretty short order. It’s a pretty simple FPS game, which I always enjoy, but there’s nothing particularly special about it, except for some muted nostalgia from the original.



  • I’ve been cranking my way through Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga novels, of which there are many (and I’m actually quite glad, as they’re all great fun). I’ve covered the first few novels in SF Book Reviews, and will probably have finished enough other books to do a Bujold-only edition in the near future. I’m currently reading Ethan of Athos, which seems to me to be a kinda spinoff/standalone novel, but an interesting one nonetheless (and we get to catch up with a character from one of the other books).
  • I also started Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, but have found myself quickly bogging down (it doesn’t help that I have, like, 10 Bujold novels sitting around, begging me to read them) almost from the start. It’s not bad, per say, but there’s something about the style and scope of the book that bothers me. There are some interesting ideas, and Diamond admits that his methods are, by necessity, not that rigorous, but it’s still seems extremely speculative to me. I would normally be fine with that sorta approach, but I’m finding something about this grating and I haven’t figured it out just yet…
  • If you count the aforementioned Guns, Germs, and Steel, I’m down to just 4 unread books from my last Book Queue, which is pretty good! And I’ve only really added the Bujold books and Fuzzy Nation since then. I’m actually at a point where I should start seeking out new stuff. Of course, it probably won’t take long to fill the queue back up, but still. Progress!

The Finer Things…

  • I’ve managed to have some pretty exceptional beers of late. First up is Ola Dubh Special Reserve 40, an imperial porter aged in 40 year old Highland Park casks. It’s an amazing beer, though also outrageously priced. Still, if you can get your hands on some and don’t mind paying the premium, it’s great.
  • Another exceptional beer, the legendary Pliny the Elder (currently ranked #3 on Beer Advocates Best Beers on Planet Earth list). It’s a fantastic double IPA. Not sure if it’s really #3 beer in the world fantastic, but fantastic nonetheless.
  • One more great beer, and a total surprise, was Sierra Nevada Boot Camp ExPortation. Basically, Sierra Nevada has this event every year where fans get to go to “Beer Camp” and collaborate on new beers with Sierra Nevada brewers and whatnot. My understanding is that the batches are extremely limited. Indeed, I never expected to see these, but apparently there were a few on tap at a local bar, sorta leftover from Philly Beer Week. The beer is basically a porter with Brettanomyces added and aged in Pinot Noir barrels. This is all beer-nerd-talk for a sour (in a good way) beer. I’m not normally big into the style or Brett, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t a fantastic beer. I loved it and unfortunately, I’ll probably never see it again. If you see it, try it. At the very least, it will be an interesting experience!

And that’s all for now.

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #4:Saison

Last time, I mentioned how my next batch of homebrew would probably be a saison style beer. I’ve been drinking a lot of saisons lately, and it’s quite a broad style. What I wanted to go for was something along the lines of Saison Dupont, but in looking around at the various homebrew kits out there, I didn’t see anything that really came close. So I picked up a book called Clone Brews, which has a recipe for a Saison Dupont clone (amongst many others). I ended up finding a Northern Brewer kit that was for a really weak, session strength saison that had enough similarities that I could buy that, then augment it with some additional ingredients. The recipe used below is a sorta hybrid between the recipe from the book and the Northern Brewer kit.

Brew #4 – Saison

June 19, 2011

0.5 lb. Belgian CaraVienne (specialty grain)

3.15 lb. Northern Brewer Pilsen LME

3 lb. Muntons Extra Light DME

1 lb. Briess Pilsen DME

1 lb. Light Belgian Candi Sugar

2 oz. Styrian Goldings hops (bittering @ 4.6% AA)

0.5 oz. East Kent Goldings hops (flavor)

0.5 oz. East Kent Goldings hops (aroma)

0.5 oz. Saaz hops (aroma)

0.5 oz. Bitter Orange Peel

1 tsp. Irish Moss

Wyeast 3711 French Saison Yeast

To make sure I wasn’t throwing the recipe completely out of whack by adding extra malt/hops/whatever, I played around on Hopville’s Beer Calculus thingymabob. It turns out that I was a little low on bittering hops, but I had enough other hops left over that I was able to adjust the recipe just fine (part of the problem is that the packaging for the Styrian Goldings hops says they’re 4.6% Alpha Acids, while the recipe from the book has them at 5% – so by adding extra, I probably screwed it up and made myself a very bitter saison). I did save the recipe in case you want to see some more stats on it. Note that they let me add this – which basically tells me to take most of the recipes on there with a grain of salt! Also, I had to use “Munton’s Light DME” instead of “Extra Light”, which I presume inflated the OG a bit.

Anyway, my last batch turned out kinda weird. It tastes ok, but it’s also not much like a Hefeweizen. It may continue to work itself out in the bottles, but basically, the light wheat flavors one expects out of a Hefeweizen are nowhere to be found. I think one of the big problems was that I used too little water when I did the boil, thus leading to a bit of caramelization of the malt, which kinda destroyed the delicate wheat flavors. There are probably some other process things I can improve as well. This saison recipe is a little more complicated than the last one, but it’s not particularly difficult either.

So I start with steeping the Belgian CaraVienne grains in 2 gallons (or so) of 150°-170° water for around 20 minutes (surprisingly, the temperature was rising quickly, so it was probably a bit less than 20 minutes). I’ve never done this before, but I slowly removed the grains, put them in a strainer, and sparged with another half gallon of hot (not boiling) water. At this point, I removed from heat, then added the malt extracts and candi sugar, stirring vigorously to make sure the candi dissolved in the water before putting it back on the heat (again, don’t want to caramelize the sugars – this is supposed to be a light colored beer). At this point, I estimated about 3.5 gallons of liquid in the pot, maybe even more.

Settled in for the long wait for it to boil. I put the lid on the wort to start, but I made sure to remove it once it got to boiling temperatures. One of the things I may have done wrong on my last batch was to keep the pot partially covered for most of the boil. This helped me maintain a good boil, but apparently during the boiling process, bad chemicals are released in the steam, and if you’re covering the pot, some of it can’t escape and you get off flavors in your beer. So despite my pitifully weak electric range, I tried keeping it uncovered for the whole boil. It actually wasn’t that bad – perhaps the summer climate is more conducive to brewing…

Once it got to boiling, I added the bittering hops and started the timer. 45 minutes later, added flavor hops, bitter orange peel, and Irish Moss. 10 minutes after that, added the aroma hops (I had some extra Saaz hops from the kit, so I made a last minute audible and added an additional 0.5 oz. of hops for aroma). 5 minutes later, and it was off to the ice bath, which continues to be a challenge. Got it down to a reasonable 110° or so, and strained the wort into my fermenting bucket, pausing to clear out my strainer several times (all those hops were clogging it up). It filled up about 2.5 gallons of the fermenter, meaning that I had boiled off at least one gallon. Filled the rest of the bucket up with cold water, bringing the temperature down further (maybe a little more than 70°). Stirred vigorously to aerate the wort.

I mentioned last time that I was struggling with the yeast for the saison. If I really wanted to make a true Saison Dupont clone, I would have used the Wyeast 3724 Belgian Saison yeast, which, rumor has it, is based on Dupont’s house yeast. However, it’s also infamous for getting stuck at around 1.035 during fermentation, unless you maintain really high temperatures (like, upwards of 85°). Given that my brewing skills are still fledgling and that my ability to control temperature is lacking, I decided that I should try something else. At first, I was looking at a bunch of Abbey and Trappist yeasts, but then I found the Wyeast 3711 French Saison yeast. Near as I can tell, it will give me a similar feel, but without the trickiness of the 3724 variety. I had smacked the Wyeast packet early this morning (couple hours before starting the boil) and it had swelled up as the yeast became active. After all was ready, I pitched the yeast, threw the cap on, and installed the airlock. Done!

Original Gravity: 1.060 (approximate). This is a bit low according to my calculations, but adjusting for temperature and imprecision at reading the hydrometer, you can maybe fudge that up to 1.062. Assuming reasonable attenuation, this should result in an ABV of around 6.5%-7%, which is right around where I was aiming. Hopefully it won’t be overwhelmed by hoppiness…

Timewise, it took about 3-3.5 hours (including the cleanup), which is about average. I’m a little bit worried about temperature control here, but I should be able to keep it at around 70°-75°, which is towards the upper range of the yeast’s comfort zone, but I’m hoping that will be ok. There are some doubts about this batch though. Between the extra hops and the temperature and how my last batch turned out, I’m not sure it will turn out well. But then I did correct some things about my process, so hopefully this will make up for any problems.

My next batch will probably be something a bit darker. Apparently these are a bit easier to brew for extract brewing. Perhaps a Belgian Style Dubbel. Or maybe just something a little more amber, like an IPA or something.

(Cross Posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)