Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Beer Tasted Like Face-planting in a Field

Have you ever noticed how sometimes a beer tastes a little bit off and you can't exactly put your finger on what the taste is or why it tastes so weird?  I had encountered this problem prior to working at the brewery, but it turned out that the reason it tasted so funny was because I just drank crappy beer.

All jokes aside, however, it is not uncommon to stumble upon flavors that are slightly amiss, be it due to improper brewing processes, age, oxygen exposure, or  even dirty tap lines.  It is essential for anyone out in the sales market and in the brewery to recognize when a beer has gone bad or tastes off.  Otherwise, our beer drinkers will not be experiencing the best product possible.

Last Friday, we were led in a sensory training session by Big John (our bottling line coordinator) and Walt (the Brewmaster).  They began by grabbing a sixtel of our crispest, lightest beer because it would showcase a defect the best. Believe it or not, the most difficult beer to make is a light beer BECAUSE it is easier for off flavors to be detected.  If the brewing timing is off, even just a little bit, while creating a lighter bodied, lighter colored beer, an entire batch can be ruined.  By contrast, thicker and darker beers can cover over a multitude of imperfections. Likewise, the addition of massive quantities of hops can also hide flavors that are not consistent with style. When tasting for imperfections in beer, it is necessary to be aware of the fact that certain flavors that are considered "off" in one beer may be present, and even encouraged, in other styles.  
Light Beers are Craftsmanship and Art in a Glass
Next, they had to create these imperfections. John and Walt had procured a kit of chemicals that would simulate these off-flavors in beer.  Then they added them to pitchers of our crisp beer and let them sit until they reached the optimum temperature for tasting.

We started off with a "control beer" (contrast that with my usual "out-of-control beer").  The point of this first beer was to make sure that we could identify the way that the beer was intended to taste, as well as giving us a baseline to compare the spoiled beers with later. As usual, it tasted crisp and clean, started smooth, and finished with just a little bit of bitter.  Between each "off" beer we tasted this again.

Then they poured the first doctored beer into a cup.  We began by smelling it -- first with a pass-by, then three short sniffs, and finally one long one (in many ways, the ritual reminded me of the hokey pokey: you smell the beer first, drink the beer out, you let the beer sit, and then you swish it all about). This first beer smelled like a Jolly Rancher.  When we took a drink, the body of the beer fell flat and it finished with less bitterness than the control.  John identified the chemical in this beer as Acetaldehyde.  It kills the carbonation in the beer and gives it a taste of green apples.

Green Apple = Bad

The next beer smelled very familiar.  It burned the nostrils just a little bit and finished, in my opinion with an iron-y taste (Not the Alanis Morisette kind of Ironic). I compared it to drinking from a dirty water fountain.  We were informed, upon consumption, that this beer contained Acetic Acid. It is often compared to the taste of white vinegar.

White Vinegar = Bad for beer, good for cleaning floors

I have to be honest, the third beer tasted pretty good to me.  When I smelled it, it smelled like a bread my younger brother used to make -- a vanilla almond swirl bread.  The taste was consistent with that almond-y smell, but it finished sour.  Come to find out, the chemical in this beer WAS almond and as much as I enjoyed it, a crisp, lager style should not taste like almond.

Jalapeno Smokehouse Almond in Beer = SUPER BAD

The fourth chemical was DISGUSTING.  I took one smell of this beer and was instantly transported back to a horrible night I had with Natty Light in college (Fact: smell is the sense that is most adept at triggering memories).  This beer smelled like vomit AND THEY STILL MADE ME DRINK IT.  It tasted like curdled milk. The chemical was identified as Buteric Acid.

Buteric Acid = Bad
By this point, my taste buds were angry at me. Fortunately, the next beer was very enjoyable.  It smelled like my Werther's Originals eating Grandmother and finished far sweeter than usual. This chemical was identified as the ever-dreaded Diacetyl.  This imperfection is generally relegated to lagers, as the colder fermentation temperatures of lager yeasts is the perfect environment for Diacetyl production.

Butterscotch = Bad

The Dimethyl Sulfide in the sixth beer caused an aroma of creamed corn and caused the beer to conclude with tart, metallic-like taste.  Thankfully, it did not also have the consistency of creamed corn (textured beers -- brilliant?).

Creamed Corn = Bad
The next beer tasted like face-planting in a field (or pre-internet childhood).  John called this off flavor "Earthy" and informed us that this would only be present due to bottling line issues.

Gummy Worms in Oreo Dirt  = Delicious

While the eight beer made me want to vomit, it did not actually smell or taste like vomit.  Rather, it smelled like an open, New York City sewer, on a hot day in July, where the entire population is suffering from Montezuma's revenge.  Seriously disgusting.  It is caused by the chemical Mercaptan, which is caused when yeast cells commit autolysis (for non-chemistry majors like myself, that is pretty much cell self-cannibalism, deriving its name from the words auto (self) and lysis (destruction)).

Sewer Gator = Bad, but possibly fun
The last off-flavor I had the opportunity to try smelled like nail polish remover and tasted similarly.  This Ethyl Acetate is noted for its solvent-like smells and finish.  

The sensory training class continued for five years (or, more precisely, two hours) after I left to do tours. I later heard that I missed such delicious tastes and smells as "vanilla," "phenol," and "brewers tears" (ok, I might have made that last one up).

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Drinking Beer Prevents Cholera

Books are dangerous. And they are even more dangerous when they are read.  A single book can change the life of the reader forever. That happened to me once (and no, it was not as a result of reading Fox in Sox, which is the best book ever).

Farenheit 451, anyone?
The book that changed my life was on the cleanliness of water.  I never thought about how, over the history of mankind, the water which a society had access to determined the ability of a culture to progress and survive and how, even in modern times, people can contract cholera or be infected with cryptosporidium from tainted water. After reading that book, it was all I was able to think about (it also made me realize that there are many people who still do not have access to clean water).  For over a YEAR, I refused to drink anything that was not boiled first (sometimes, I feel really bad for my Mom).

Upon entering the brewing world, water has once again taken an important place in my life.  Outside of bacteria, I had never given much thought to what else might be present in water. Believe it or not, many brewers have to alter the chemical composition of the water that they use to correctly create the style of beer they are brewing. Prepare to get knowledged based on my limited knowledge (I feel the need to establish that this is based on my understanding of the BJCP style guidelines and is not a scientific dissertation).

More than anything else in history, the styles of beer produced was based on geography.  Initially, any beer was the result of the type of water, grains, ingredients, and technology indigenous to an area. The ancient brewers did not intend to create specific styles of beer, they were merely using the supplies that they had on hand.  (Styles did not remain static. Over time, as technology developed, access to ingredients increased, and consumer demand altered, more stylistic options became available.)  Interestingly, the type of water that they had access to influenced the flavor and brewing process of the beer. Water makes up 85-90% of the composition this libation.

I wonder what sorts of flavors Nile crocodile adds to a beer.

Now, for a little chemistry lesson on some of the chemicals present in water.  The concentration of hydrogen ions in water determines the pH level.  A low pH (below 7) is indicative of high hydrogen ion concentration. This means the water is acidic. Higher pHs (above 7) contain greater hydroxide concentrations and create alkaline water.  The pH of the water in brewing, which is determined by the hardness, alkalinity, and buffering salts of the ingredients, affects the finished product greatly.

Likewise, the cations and anions contained within certain waters are vitally important.  The two most common cations are calcium, magnesium and sodium. Calcium aids in protein coagulation during the hot and cold breaks of brewing.  Magnesium also participates in the same chemical reactions as calcium, although to a lesser extent, and also provides nutrients for yeast.  Sodium accents sweetness in low levels, but is salty at higher levels.

In terms of anions, brewers deal most with bicarbonate, sulfate,  and chloride. Bicarbonate works with the acids of dark and roasted malts to neutralize them and reacts with calcium to reduce hardness in the water.  The presence of sulfate accents hop bitterness and dryness when present in large concentrations.  Finally, chloride enhances sweetness.


Certain bodies of water are famed for the styles of beer they helped created.  For example, the water of Burton on the Trent is renowned for creating drier flavors that accentuate hop bitterness in ales, a result of high sulfide levels in the water.  Likewise, the soft water in Plzen helped to produce lagers that were bitter, but still retained a soft palate.

Because we got scienced, we now know that this will have a drier flavor, with accentuated hop bitterness
Here at the brewery, we have to be very careful that our pH levels align properly with the style of beer we are brewing.  The water used in our Dortmunder Lager has a very specifically dictated chemical composition, as does the water for our Munich Lager.

In case you are still stuck on the paragraph about water with cholera in it, just know this:  when there were epidemics of cholera, the people who drank beer did not contract it.  The boiling process killed any vibrio cholera that were present. So, drinking beer will prevent you from catching it too.

Think of this as your cholera prevention kit

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Baby's First Beer Dinner

Beer is not my only love. Anyone who has been acquainted with me for longer than a year knows that I harbor a secret ambition.   My greatest aspiration in life is to become the next Adam Richman, or at least his personal assistant (If you are reading this, Adam, we have a beer challenge here that NO ONE has beaten yet).  There is something about the concept of Man V. Food that appeals to me on about thirty different levels.  I don't know if it is the massive quantities of food (awesome) or the varieties of deliciousness that he gets to consume (super awesome), but all I want out of life is a chance to prove how much I LOVE food too.  That is one of the reasons why my first beer dinner, last Wednesday, excited me so much (I am imagining my mother putting a picture from this occasion in my baby book under the statement "Baby's First Beer Dinner").

Adam Richman -- My celebrity crush
One of the events that people come across quite often in the brewing industry is the ever piquant beer dinner.  This is an opportunity for restaurants to combine the two most delicious things ever invented, food and beer, in a way that opens the diner's eyes to a whole new experience.  Many restaurants will use the beer dinner to break away from their normal menu and experiment with flavors and ingredients that fall outside their usual offerings.  They then choose to highlight either one particular brewery or  many different companies.  When a single brewery is offered a beer dinner hosting gig, the restaurant will often send staff members to the brewery to sample all of the beers, while making pairing decisions with the input of the brewers.  Then, on the day of the event, either the brewer or one of the other brewery experts will speak on the chosen beers at the dinner, generally between courses. I HIGHLY recommend this experience to anyone who loves food and beer.

On Wednesday, the chosen locale for the beer dinner was Roma -- the very restaurant where I first made the awkward acquaintance of my new coworkers.  I was super excited, as the wine dinner there last month impressed me so much AND I am kind of the biggest fan of their staff.

I arrived there shortly before the dinner began with the intention of helping Britt arrange some of our marketing materials on the tables.  As usual, she was four steps ahead of me. Everything was in order when I walked through the door.

Was there ever a more beautiful sight?
The dinner commenced with the ONE menu item I did not take a picture of (probably because I was starving and devoured it instantaneously); the seared scallop with white bean salsa.  This was combined with GiGi's Farmhouse Ale. I was BEYOND ecstatic.  For starters, it was THE MOST DELICIOUS PAIRING EVER.  The white bean salsa had a little bit of mustard in it, which complemented the mellow taste of the ale to perfection.  I hesitate to admit my initial bias toward this course, but scallops and GiGi are both some of my favorite things (I am currently imagining Julie Andrews singing that).

The second course was an asparagus bisque with white truffle butter poached shrimp.  Helles Lager was paired with this and it was very good.  The crisp taste of the lager complimented the salty, creaminess of the bisque.  When I said that the previous course was my favorite, I had not yet tried this. (I apologize for the pictures, my camera is abysmal.)

Asparagus Bisque
When the Brew Master tried the next course, he made the unequivocal statement that he would never eat any goat cheese but fried goat cheese again in his life.  I must second that opinion.  If you have not tried fried goat cheese, you have not lived (I am fairly certain that is a direct quote from Thoreau).   Technically titled a "goat cheese fritter" and garnished with citrus vinaigrette and micro greens, this crispy, tangy, flavor explosion was made 72% more enjoyable when consumed with Wisteria Wheat.  The subtle clove and chamomile flavors in the Wisteria Wheat danced across my palate, enhancing the vinaigrette atop the fritter.  This was my favorite dish at the conclusion of this course.

Goat Cheese Fritter

The final real food course (not to be confused with fake food: i.e., dessert) was a short rib slider, perched atop a brioche roll, and liberally decorated with shallots, bleu cheese, and tomato jam.  The Doppelbock was chosen to accompany this treat.  The caramel undertones of the Doppelbock paired perfectly with the savory slider.

Short Rib Slider
Dessert followed hard upon (I have been reading Shakespeare lately.  Forsooth, my language reflects that).  Now, more than anything in life, I am a dessert person.  I hesitate to call myself a future diabetic, but it may be true; my great-grandfather was a diabetic dentist.  For dessert, Roma paired cinnamon donuts with espresso ganache and Oak Barrel Stout.  It was fried perfection. The espresso ganache cascaded my taste buds and contrasted with the semi-sweet donuts; the vanilla undertones and oak chips in the stout juxtaposed the decadence of the dessert.

Donuty Goodness
In many ways, this dinner reminded me of the line from the movie Office Space (except the opposite) -- Every single course was better than any one before it.  So that means that every course was the best course of my life.

Mr. Richman, if you are reading this.  I think I just proved that I love food as much as you do.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Beer Is Fun

There appear to be many incorrect perceptions floating around based on my last post that I would like to clarify:
  • I am new to the business.  I have been working in the brewing industry for 10 weeks.  I am not claiming to be an expert; I’m not sure anyone can be.  I was just sharing the process of becoming acquainted with a new industry to those who are interested in it from my perspective.  Beer is fun, the people are wonderful,  and I have been thrilled to enjoy this experience.
  • I chose to try home brewing because I was informed that it was an invaluable undertaking.  It was and I had fun trying it.  I did not expect such a reaction to my first time -- I was under the impression that this was a skill I might develop. I was not writing a scientific dissertation on the process or trying to tell anyone else how to brew.  I was not turning a mirror on the home brewing community, but rather myself.  I acknowledged the fact that I did not know what I thought I knew. I was hoping for guidance.
  • To say that Fordham and Dominion hates home brewers is entirely incorrect.  Most of the people who work here are home brewers (even my brother is a home brewer). Many of our best beer recipes have come from an experiment that someone in the brewery made at home first. The process of home brewing is invaluable to our process.

  • We encourage and engage home brewers every week when they come in for our tours.  Wednesday nights at the brewery have unofficially become home brewers night, when the community comes to share the wonderful things that they have made.  By far, the best beer I have ever had was a gingerbread ale made by one of the friends I have made at this event.  I look forward to the ideas that are shared at these meet-ups more than anything.
  • I am not a man.

I would invite you to stop by any time to share your home brewing ideas or to meet up with other home brewers.  We have a small, 10-gallon system that we would be more than happy to show you and many beer samples we are happy to pour.

I look forward to trying to brew again. If anyone has any beginner recipes that I should try, please let me know! And, if you are still looking for something to get angry about me with, I highly recommend my brewery sex tape.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Lesson Before Homebrewing

If you are ever given the opportunity to try homebrewing, do it once.  Mostly because, once you are done reading what I write, you will have as much ability to be the pretentious know-it-all that I was when I was given my shot.  This is my confession.

A couple of weeks ago,  at the Superbowl Party, the gentleman who kept trying to get me to fight people mentioned that he brewed at home (side note:  everyone that I have ever met in the past week brews at home.  If you are trying to be the different one, try brewing in a morgue). Three weeks later, he walked up to me at church to tell me that he was making his next batch of beer, a cream stout, and I should come and check it out.  Now, a smart person would not choose to enter the home of someone that thinks they are a wildly unpredictable pugilist (I am pretty certain that will be the plot to Fight Club 2).  However, someone in search of knowledge and adventure would do that at a minute's notice. Particularly when they want to write about the experience in dulcet tones.

There is a whole mess of things that go into home brewing.  For starters, you have to purchase fermentation buckets and bottling equipment.  Then, for each particular batch of beer, one has to procure an ingredient kit.  The contents of these kits depend upon the difficulty of the particular beer.  In general, a kit contains some grain, the malt extract, yeast, hops, and the directions.  Because we were making a cream stout, it also contained lactose.

I was put in charge of the directions, which was an instant mistake on the part of everyone there.  I spent the next twenty minutes memorizing the directions and cross-referencing them with the facts that I have attained at work and the book on the science of fermentation that happened to be in my backpack (seriously, I did not pack it.  I just happen to carry it with me everywhere).  I found the directions to be very general and less technical than I was expecting.  What I could not wrap my mind around was how this process could be completed without the range of equipment to which I am accustomed. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this fellow did NOT have a Lauter Tun in his backyard.

You can tell that serious brewing was occurring, as there is malt extract spilled on the directions
We were finally able to begin the process by measuring out five gallons of water into a giant sauce pan (when you are Italian, every pan is measured in terms of what is most commonly cooked in it, e.g. meatball frying pan).  I may have asked a question regarding whether or not the pH of the water was chemically corrected for the beer in question.  But, for the sake of this story, I did not and was not told that I was the giantest nerd in the world.

Once the water had boiled, we threw in a mesh bag of grains.  It appeared to be a mix of pilsner malt and some form of toasted malt, and maybe a little caramel malt.  The directions firmly stipulated that the temperature be maintained at 155 degrees.  I calmly explained that raising the temperature to anywhere above 172 degrees would shut off the necessary enzymatic activity.  I was then informed that maybe I should stop talking, let my hair down, and try to be normal.

Steeping the grains
Once the grains had steeped for 30 minutes, it was time to remove the wort (the sugar water that was created) from the stove and time to add the malt extract.  Seriously, this stuff is gross looking.  It was a pitch black syrup in a carton (imagine high-fiving a T-Rex from the Le Brea Tar Pits.  That is the level of sticky this stuff is) that is then dumped into the sauce pan. Once it was stirred in and disolved completely, we added the lactose.

Imagine High-fiving THIS T-Rex
It was then time to bring the wort to a boil and add the hops.  This was by far my favorite part of the process.   The hops were Northern Brewer.  Because they are added at the beginning of the boil, they are used for bittering the wort (meaning these hops have high alpha acids), but not aroma.  Stouts generally do not have an estery smell.

For the first time EVER, I got to watch the proteins coagulate and boil away. One generally does not want proteins in beer, as they aid in the creation of diacetyl, the chemical that leads to spoilage and off-tastes in beer.

You can see the coagulated proteins in this picture....
Right as the wort finished brewing, my sister decided that it was time to go home, so I am not quite sure how the wort was cooled before being introduced to the yeast.  I can only assume that the reason there was no Lauter Tun is because the fellow invested in a heat exchange system to cool the wort instead.

The finished product....or a container of beef broth....

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Who is R2Hop2?

Over the past few days, I have been fielding many questions regarding the identity of R2Hop2. Many people wonder if that is the nickname for our peg-legged brewer; it is not, we call him "Peggy".  Today, this chilling expose will attempt to shine a light on the skyrocketing stardom of our metallic friend.

I am sitting in the brewery when R2Hop2 arrives for the day.  As usual, he looks a little hungover; they say that this is common in the life of a dry hopping machine. After all, he does spend all day consuming beer.  He rolls up to the desk where I am sitting and I have a cup of coffee waiting for him.  He takes one look at the cup of coffee, and instead opts for a cigarette.  I can already tell that this interview will be like getting blood from a stone.

R2Hop2 mugging for the camera

We begin with a little small talk.  R2Hop2 spent the evening at the casino.  Apparently, he was on a roll playing craps for a while.  But then his luck took a turn for the worse.  That explained why he had shown up for the interview without his shirt.  He literally gambled it away.  His bloodshot eye shifts down, a little defiant as he tells the story, and there is hop residue all over his face. This machine is a hot mess.

Life was not always like this, he tells me.  He spent the majority of his youth as a keg, just traveling from bar to bar, restlessly.  He has seen a lot of the world and spent quite a bit of time in Virginia. Then one day, he was plucked from obscurity by the Head Brewer at Fordham and Dominion.  The Head Brewer will claim that he immediately saw the potential in R2, however, there was nothing that separated him from any of the other kegs at this point in his life.

The Head Brewer immediately made R2Hop2 his pet project, beginning with total cosmetic alterations.  He attached legs on wheels, a new head, and even an arm.  At this point, he commenced his dry hopping training. This training takes DAYS even HOURS to complete.

R2 begins to tell me about a normal day at work. He arrives there, usually around 8 in the morning, sometimes later if he was out making paid appearances the night before.  Before any of the beers can be hopped, he has to make sure that all of his internal compartments are completely sanitized, so he spends the first hour essentially at the spa.  Next, one of the technicians mixes up a slurry of hot hop water.  R2Hop2 then spends the next couple of hours hooked up to one of the fermentation tanks, circulating the beer through the hops.

He tells me that this process of dry hopping during secondary fermentation is common to craft brewing. The reason for this being that dry hopping gives many beers their pleasant and inviting aromas.  If you smell a beer and detect notes of citrus, pine, or even a little spiciness, that is due to dry hopping.  In fact, outside of adding hops for bitterness and flavor during the boiling process, the ONLY thing that dry hopping can do is provide aroma.

Not going to lie, I have always wanted to be an illustrated character too....

R2 does not know that I researched this prior to the interview, but as it turns out, he is the only keg-based dry hopper in existence.  That might explain his aloof attitude and overall sense of entitlement. It does not help his ego that the brewery chose to honor his work this year by naming their beer and music festival after him.

The interview concludes abruptly when one of the dry hopping technicians showed up.  Apparently, R2Hop2 is going to be dry hopping a double IPA today.  On his way out, he tells me that he will be making a special appearance at the May 19th beer and music festival, if I want to see him again and all of this beer does not kill him first. I sense foreboding as I watch him go; he is exactly the type of machine who would get involved with nitrogen doping.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

All In All, It Was A GRATE Day!

Last week, I was once again given the opportunity to enjoy the metallic coffin that is the Lauter Tun.  You see, once a week or so, the kettles all undergo something that is referred to as CIP (which in my mind still stands for Capital Improvement Program).  This is the process whereby all of the equipment is scrubbed and cleaned within an inch of its life.

Favorite Early Brewer Dan was telling me how difficult the CIPing of the Lauter Tun is, so of course, I wanted a turn to try.

Damn, it feels good to be a brewer
The reason why this is more difficult than normal Lauter Tun cleaning time (Everytime I say that, the lyrics to Peanut Butter Jelly Time get stuck in my head for days) quickly became apparent.  As it turns out, the little pie pieces that I cleaned so compulsively weeks ago actually lift out of the plate in which they are set.  And that plate has grain residue stuck to the bottom that needs to be cleaned.

All of the pie pieces have to be lifted in the proper order, because they are interlocking, and the first piece is screwed into the base plate.  Dan unscrewed the first piece, and then showed me how the other pie grates have to be slid toward you and then balanced against the wall.  This has to be done 10 times AND THE GRATES ARE FREAKING HEAVY. I know this because I dropped one on my leg while I was hosing things down.

This is what the pie pieces in the Lauter Tun look like, just FY-izzle
As indicated, each of these grates has to be hosed down.  Any of the grains that might have become stuck in the little grates on the plates (call me "Dr. Seuss") has to be scrubbed and washed out.   Dan scrubbed the individual pieces. I then hosed the grate down by leaning it toward myself and spraying my jeans with water. 

We had some riveting conversations while cleaning.  As it turns out, I am not the only person who thinks that the acoustics in the Lauter Tun are fabulous. I also found out that Dan also usually has to CIP the Lauter Tun by himself.  

When that was finished, the whole Lauter Tun was filled with boiling hot water.  Once it had been emptied, we cooled it down with the hose (thanks to the steam, my skin has never been better), and jumped back in to replace the pie pieces.  It is a lot harder to put the pieces back than it is to take them out.  It was like playing a deviated form of Tetris. 

I am proud to report that I only smashed my fingers three times between the plates and it was only two days before I could use my hands again. All in all, it was a GRATE day (see what I did there?).