Budweiser isn’t “Bad Beer,” or what’s the difference between taste and flaws.

I was hanging around on twitter recently, when I got to see a conversation about the difference between bland beer and bad beer. I figured I would take my time to do a little bit of a rant about bad beer and beer I don’t choose to drink.

Due to the way the craft beer is marketed, there are two main things that people look for in their craft beer. First, they look for beer that is strongly flavored such as Imperial Stouts, Double (and even Triple) IPAs, and crazy sour beers. Secondly, they look for beer that is local, because they want to support the little guy, rather than some big conglomerate like A-B/InBev, or MillerCoors. These are both great reasons to drink craft beer, and they are both reasons I drink beer (I am drinking a Fremont Dark Star as I write this), but sometimes they can lead us to drink bad beer.

When I refer to “Bad Beer,” I am referring to beer that is flawed, or has noticeable off flavors. As beer geeks and brewers, it is our responsibility to teach newer beer lovers in off-flavor tasting so we can hold our local breweries to the highest standards. While I am a huge fan of drinking local, we as a beer community also need to demand quality.

When you have a strongly flavored beer, those flavors can often hide flaws in fermentation profile, or even in the ingredients. Its pretty easy to hide a bit of Diacetyl or di-methyl Sulfide (DMS) in a Hop-Bomb IPA, or poorly stored hops in a Bourbon Barrel aged Imperial Stout.

In a light American lager, there is nothing to hide behind. The malt flavor is subdued, and there is only something between 8-15 IBU, with no hop flavor or aroma. There are very few esters or phenols present (the Budweiser yeast strain does produce a small amount of an apple ester, which is commonly mistaken for Acetaldehyde), and any minor flaws in ingredients or fermentation profile can produce a beer which doesn’t taste “right.” To brew millions of barrels of beer that tastes exactly the same in multiple breweries around the country (and sometimes around the world) is a feat of engineering and skill that is frankly amazing.

Now, I don’t drink those beers, because I have a limited amount of calories and alcohol I wish to consume, and I would rather spend them on something that doesn’t taste like water. However, I have seen a lot of people in the beer community decrying beers that are lighter in flavor, such as Pilsners, Kolsches, or Blonde ales as bad beer, when they are simply beer that the speaker doesn’t like to drink. When we speak about beer, we need to make sure we use the same terminology. As I matured in my beer drinking and appreciation, I found a new appreciation for lighter flavored beer. I appreciate the subtlety of a great Kolsch or Pilsner, with a light malt body, and either a subtle grape/wine note (Kolsch) or great spicy/floral hop flavor (Pilsner). In fact, when I go to a new brewery, I often reach for a Kolsch or a Pale Ale, because the lighter flavored beers help me figure out how the brewery takes care of their beer. If I reach directly for the IPA, I usually am not going to get past the hop flavor and bitterness to taste fermentation flaws or stale malt.

If you want to learn more about off-flavors, how to detect them, and how you can fix them (if you are a homebrewer), I recommend the BJCP or Cicerone programs.

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Hard Cider isn’t so hard

Its getting to be apple harvest season here in Washington, so its about time for me to start brewing my fall batch of cider. I started making 4 gallons of cider 2 years ago, and this year, I plan to step it up to 10 gallons, so it will last a bit longer. Cider is a great beverage, and is the easiest introduction to fermenting your own beverages at home. For the rest of this post, I will use juice to refer to the unfermented apple juice, and cider to refer to the fermented product.

If you want to brew a batch of cider on the cheap, you could go to your local grocery store, buy a jug of preservative-free apple juice and a packet of bread yeast. When you get home, empty about half a cup of juice out of the jug, and add about 1/4 of the packet of yeast, and gently lay the lid back on top of the jug (DO NOT SCREW ON THE CAP, IT WILL EXPLODE!), wait a couple weeks, and decant the cider off of the yeast cake. It won’t be the greatest cider ever, but it will be cider, and it will be drinkable.

If you want to do it right, I recommend a couple of small changes. First, I would recommend picking up either a fermentation bucket or carboy from your local homebrew supply shop. While you are there, pick up a packet of high quality brewing yeast (I prefer to use an English ale yeast, but any yeast should work) and some yeast nutrient (I usually use Wyeast yeast nutrient in my beer and cider). Go to a local farmer’s market and get some good, fresh pressed apple cider. Get a couple gallons, because once you drink good cider you will want it around. Add double the recommended amount of nutrient (for beer) to about 1/2 cup water, and boil that for about 5 minutes in your microwave to get all of the minerals dissolved. Add the nutrient to the bucket (or carboy) then all of the juice. Sprinkle the packet of yeast on top of the juice, close it up, and let it ferment for about a month.

After fermentation is completed, rack the cider off of the yeast and give it a taste. This is where you will want to adjust the flavor to your taste. I personally like my cider to be mostly still, and have just a bit of residual sweetness. I use frozen apple juice concentrate to add the sweetness, and I stun the yeast with campden tablets and kill them with potassium sorbate. This keeps them from fermenting the sugar in the concentrate, and creating excessive carbonation and reducing the sweetness I am looking for. I then keg my cider and throw it into the kegerator next to my beer. If you want to bottle, it should be safe for bottling now, as long as you used the appropriate amount of campden tablets and sorbate.

If you want to carbonate the cider, you need to be absolutely sure that the fermentation is done (two specific gravity readings at least 3 days apart that read exactly the same). Use a carbonation calculator such as this one and follow the directions. Add the cider to the bottles, and cap them. Give them 2 weeks to carbonate, and then test a bottle about once a week until the appropriate carbonation level is reached. If you ever notice a bottle is over carbonated, I recommend getting all of your bottles into the refrigerator, and drink them quickly.

Enjoy your cider, and keep drinking!

Oktoberfest and Marzens

Today we are going to talk about Oktoberfest, and the style of beer made famous by the festival, Marzen.

Marzens are one of my favorite styles in the lager family. They are amber lagers, slightly stronger than most lagers (usually about 5.5-7 ABV) and have a full, malty flavor without being sweet. They are lightly hopped, with low hop flavor and aroma, and the nice snappy bite that you expect out of a properly aged lager. Some sulfur in the aroma is acceptable, but it should fade quickly.

Traditionally, marzens are brewed in March, near the end of the brewing season. They are aged throughout the summer in cool caves, and then broken out to welcome the cool weather of fall. The long aging is what defines lagers, which use that time to clean up fruity esters and other flavors and leave that clean, slightly sulfurous finish that is expected in lagers. With modern brewing technology, including high-tech temperature controlled fermentation vessels, the aging has been cut significantly shorter. However, most breweries still age their lagers from 3-6 weeks before they are kegged or bottled.

The most famous marzens are brewed in the area around Munich, where the Oktoberfest festival is held.  Munich was the capital of the Kingdom of Bavaria, which is famous for the Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law that allowed for only 3 ingredients to be used in beer: Malted Barley, Hops, and Water (Yeast was added later, after its discovery by Louis Pasteur in 1857). The Reinheitsgebot is still in effect in Germany to this day, though it can only affect beer brewed in Germany, and not imported beer. I will talk more about the Reinheitsgebot and its long-ranging effects on the beer we drink in another post.

Now, of course you can’t write about beer without having one yourself, so I chose to drink a local version of a marzen, the Oktoberfest Lager brewed by Silver City Brewery in Bremerton, WA. 20150914_153950

Just the Facts:

  • ABV: 6.3%
  • IBU: 21
  • Malts: Pilsner, NW Pale, Caramel Malt, Munich, Carafa.
  • Hops: German Hersbrucker

My impressions:

Appearance: Light caramel color with brilliant clarity. White head which disperses quickly, and leaves a bit of lacing in the glass.

Aroma: Light caramel malt notes with just a touch of alcohol. I can smell a subtle, spicy hop note, and a bit of sulfur, which fades very quickly.

Flavor: Strong caramel and sweet graham cracker type malt flavors to begin. Some light spiciness from the hops along with a touch of alcoholic burn. No sulfur in the flavor, with a quick and very clean finish. Slight bitterness but well balanced.

Mouthfeel: Medium body, but with a moderately high level of carbonation which helps keep it drinkable. Light warming feeling due to the alcohol content.

Overall: Great version of the marzen style. Full flavored but quick finishing and certainly easy drinking. Not too sweet, and bitterness is good for the style. The clean finish allows for a stronger alcohol flavor than is common for a beer of this ABV. Definitely would have this again. It also makes for a great beer to braise some bratwurst in!

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Fermentation

Hello,

I am Marc, and I am starting a new blog talking about my favorite topic, fermented beverages. I am new to this whole blogging thing but Beer is my passion, and I love educating people on the wonderful bounty of flavors that can be found in four simple ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. I also love drinking other fermented beverages, such as Wine, Mead, and Cider; and luckily enough, some of the best wines, meads and ciders are produced right here in Washington State. I look forward to exploring the production of each beverage, both on the commercial side as well as brewing in my own garage. Follow my blog to learn about fermented beverages: how they are made, how they taste, and how you can make or find the best beer, wine, cider and mead in the greater Seattle area.

Thanks!