Sunday, 21 November 2010

Phenolic beer part two

After the last post on this subject, I've made two more phenolic beers in a row.
I've also done some more research, and received some more advice.

One of the beers was taken along to the London Amateur Brewers, who told me I had 4 ethyl phenol, which is definitely a wild yeast or bacterial infection rather than a burning of grain, oversparge or other methodical error.

So my next steps so far have been:

Replace all syphon tubes and taps

Replace fermenters, airlocks and bungs.

Buy new mash tun (never used one before) and throw away grain bags.

Take boiler to pieces as far as possible and soak all of it in steriliser then sodium metabisulphate.

Take hop strainer out of boiler, examine it, take it apart, swear at it, throw it in the skip.

So for my next two brews, the only equipment used in common with any previous brews is the thoroughly sanitised boiler. I *think* the beers smell ok so far... Assuming they don't turn foul in the next few days, I'll be bottling them on Tuesday. Fingers crossed again...

Friday, 15 October 2010

phenolic beer

So, I have just managed to brew my fourth phenolic beer in a row. Ouch.

It's the worst flavour fault you can possibly get. There's no calling it an esoteric design feature, no passing it off as an authentic quirk of a craft skill. Not even any saving it until everyone's already drunk and slipping it past the weary tastebuds.
It's the one that renders it completely undrinkable, the one you really do have to throw away.

I thought this problem had gone away after having about ten of them last summer, and then having a winter of good beers. I don't know what changed; I've been given suggestions, had changed a few practices; but still haven't pinpointed what exactly is causing this. Here are a few of the ideas thrown in so far:

Burning the grain.
I use my boiler as a mash tun too, with a grain bag. I used to stick the grain in the heated & treated water, and when it dropped below temp, fire it back up with the grain in. I don't do that any more. Now I unplug the thing before the grain goes in, just to make sure. So it's not that.

Mashing too hot
This came up on Jim's Beer Kit, but I vary rarely get the mash temp wrong, and have been through a few thermometers now, they can't all be incorrectly calibrated, surely, even if they are from wilkos.

Too much trub going through in to the boiler.
I hadn't really given this one much thought. I use a grain bag, so don't get lumps in the runoff to start with. But recycling the first few litres back through the grain until it runs clear, and skimming the boil, are definitely things I'll be doing in future just to make sure.

Fermenting too hot.
OK, so it was mainly a summer problem. I don't have temperature control as such, more a cupboard 'under the stairs' which tends not to go above about 22c all year round, which kind of just about does the job. I have brewed really great beer in the summer, and phenolic in winter, so I don't think that's the problem.

Insufficient sanitation.
Since the problem began, I've not only taken everything completely apart and bathed it in bruclean, I've also replaced eveything, at least once, even the boiler. So I really don't think it can be that.

Chalky build up in the fermenter.
Apparently this can harbour lots of nasties, and if it's a bacterial infection then here's one of the many places to look. But one thing I'm bloody good at is cleaning. Bizarrely, I don't mind it. I find it meditative. Hell, if it paid well I'd do it for a living. Almost. My boiler doesn't have chalk in it, and neither does my shiny glow in the dark kettle. So it's not that.

Bad bottle storage.
I used to sanitise them, rinse them, seal them and store them. I later realised that there is a risk of some of the bottles not being completely dry before storage. So I could have been pouring beer into a bottle with stagnant water in the bottom. Oops. So now I have a bottle tree. That won't happen again.

Insufficient rinsing of chlorine based sanitiser.
I thought I was doing ok. But now I'm rinsing with bruclean, then water, then sodium metabisulphite, then water. Short of killing them with fire, that surely covers it.

So, after all that stuff, I'm out of ideas. Hopefully I'm all cured and the ones in the conditioning cupboard will be phenol-free joys to behold. But, if my next few do the same... Well, I don't know where to go from here.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Back to it, then...

The London Brewers Alliance showcase night was instrumental in giving me back some confidence and renewing my enthusiasm for brewing, which admittedly has been waning.

It's been a fairly difficult few months chez Happy Bat. First there was the phenolic infection. Month after month of beer so rank the first one opened led to tipping them all. Then the nightmare process of learning everything about every beer ever made up by the BJCP committee, which I have constant doubts about and which, between doing it and worrying about not doing it, takes up all of my time. It's got to the point where I'm beginning to wonder what it would be like to have spare weekends, to have a non-sticky kitchen floor, to never have to sanitise another damn bottle. But still.

Although the beer cupboard is a bit more bare than it has been, I am still brewing, regardless of setbacks. I still love experimenting with malt and hops. I still love being a member of LAB, I still love drinking beer. So of course when I heard about the London brewers showcase evening I had to go... And I loved every minute of it.

I had a chat to all the brewers, every one of them totally full of enthusiasm for their beers. I managed to invite myself round to at least a couple of breweries, under my usual terms - to have a look round and do a bit of free labour in exchange for getting in the way. I managed to try all the beers from every brewery in London in quick succession, what an amazing and unprecedented opportunity.

We had loads of interest at the London Amateur brewers' stall, people wondering how we did it, people who always wanted to brew but never got around to it, people who were already home brewers but had never heard of the group, and wanted to join.

And people liked my beer! I was absolutely made up about that. Should I take into account the fact that people were being polite about our beer – after all, we're the London Amateur Brewers, and we are standing right in front of them?

Hell no! I love my beer. That's why I make it like that. We know we make great beer.

We have a big advantage over the pro brewers in the hall, admittedly – because we only make a few pints at a time. It's economies of scale reversed. We can chuck in dry hops by the whole pack, and the financial hit is barely worth a couple of pints. We can experiment, and if it goes wrong, it's not the end of the world to lose a batch. (Yeah - I should know.)

So people's enthusiasm became my enthusiasm, became amplified, drunken enthusiasm. and I was sent home raring to get another batch on. It's doing well already...


News that the London Amateur Brewers Club are running the first ever European BJCP exam has come to light among the beer world in the last few weeks, and appears to have elicited a very negative response in certain quarters – and some have taken a very dim view indeed. Why is it so disliked?

Partly the rigid style parameters which are set out. The UK (National Guild of Wine and Beer Judges) equivalent of the styles guide doesn't have anything at all like that. Is it also at least partly the fact that it is so very unflattering about British beer? I was certainly put off.

English best bitter, along with all the other English bitters, is described as having no hop aroma or flavour, a mere hint of malt aroma or flavour if you are lucky. Mmm, bland.

Then again, in all fairness, after having tried all the very hoppy beers that are currently in favour, the Thornbridge Jaipur, Darkstar APA, Brewdog Hardcore, I find a pint of Bombardier, Pride, Abbot or Directors very bland indeed, it's true. I'm sure I didn't think that five years ago; maybe my tastes have changed as I've tried more styles of beer and new beers have been made.

The other major complaint with the BJCP is that the style parameters are completely incorrect. Particularly the British styles. This is true. There is no such thing as a 'Robust Porter'. So where did this subcategory come from? The Scottish beers were a bit of a surprise too. Do they exist? Apparently not. So why are they there? Did someone just take all the beers they could find and invent categories around them one day?

It has been said that beer styles are simply an agreement between a brewer and a judge. The BJCP knows that they are flawed, some styles more so than others.

I've been told that that the BJCP asked the London Amateur Brewers to review the British styles, and LAB asked the Scottish Craft Brewers to review the Scottish styles back in 2008, but apparently no-one has had the time. So for the time being they will be staying as they are, but they are by no means set in stone, and certainly aren't setting up stall as an infallible authority.

So bearing all this in mind, I am still studying the BJCP because I want to improve my knowledge of beer. Because there is a great deal more involved in it than the styles, which will involve me gaining a more thorough knowledge of brewing chemistry and techniques than I had gained previously. Because people in the group are doing it, and therefore the opportunity to do it as a group exists. Because not all of the categories are 'wrong', and learning the difference between different types of lager, different stouts, the way that different witbiers, saisons, or lambics taste, is a lot easier done this way, with everything set out to be tasted against a fairly comprehensive list of descriptive parameters on a tasting score sheet. – it's useful. It helps.

I haven't yet formed an opinion as to whether this changing and flawed set of style parameters is good or bad. Once I've sat the exam in January, I might well then make a study of whatever is the British equivalent, if such a thing exists. Or more likely I'll forget them altogether and go with herding all beers in the world under a small set of very broad style umberellas, because anything else is too fiddly and too much mucking about. But I think I prefer to have gained the knowledge in order to be able to make the informed decision to discard it.