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The Chunky Guide to Tasting Beer

The homebrewing forum I’m a member on, Mrbeerfans.com, seems to get an influx of new members after Christmas. It seems that, like me, lots of guys are unwrapping brand new Mr. Beer kits on Christmas morning, then searching the web for help making their first few batches. On the forum, we do a good job trying to help and guide the new brewers through their first few batches of Mr. Beer homebrew, but it seems like the bulk of the new members lose interest and don’t fully immerse themselves in the great hobby of homebrewing once the ingredients kits run out. Opening a can of pre-hopped extract and adding it to hot water is super easy… maybe a little too easy… and while we try to guide the new brewer to make their own recipes once their ingredient kits run out, most “I’m out of Mr. Beer cans, help me!” threads devolve into “well I don’t know what kind of beer I like, so how do I know what to make?” and inevitably their interest fades into the homebrew sunset.

The root of the problem is more than likely the fact that most of our beer journeys start in college with Bud or Miller Lite and don’t make any strides to any beers beyond those light American lagers we’ve all come to love and trust to be drinkable. Nonetheless, there are literally hundreds of beer styles in the world. And to just stick with Miller Lite because that’s what you’re comfortable with is a disservice to your taste buds… it’s like when you were five and said to your Mom , “hey, I like bologna sandwiches, so that’s all I want for dinner” That’s fine when you’re five and your Mom is looking to avoid a temperamental confrontation at dinner time, but as we grow, we expand beyond the world of bologna sandwiches. You taste different foods and expanded your tastes. Some foods you’ve tried and haven’t liked… some you’ve tried and loved… some seem a bit to exotic to tempt you to taste in the first place. And that’s perfectly fine. That’s how we grow and realize we like more than bologna sandwiches. The same is true for beer. You come to like something because it’s all you know, how do you know what you actually like? Regardless if you’re new to homebrewing, bellying up to the bar at brew pub, or window shopping at the six pack shop. The world won’t end if you try something different… what, are you afraid you’ll actually like it?

It’s important to understand that tasting beer is a process. We’re stepping beyond the realm of  thinking of beer in terms of “hey, look how many of these brewskies I can pound, bro!” and actually tasting beer to for the sake of tasting of beer. We’re heading to the world where the word “light” actually describes the color of the beer, not the fact that it has fewer calories. Beer tasting is slow. It’s relaxing. It involves all of the senses… making it sort of sensual, in it’s own way. It’s social. It’s descriptive. It makes you think. It’s wonderful. So let’s get the process started…

Oh yeah, if you’re doing a sampler flight (which is a FANTASTIC way to taste different styles of beer), arrange the beers from lightest and least-hoppy to darkest and most-hoppy. If you’re at a brew pub, typically the beer menu will have a description of the beer you’re drinking… or there will be a little description of the bottle somewhere to help guide you in ordering (I typically order from lowest IBU to highest IBU… more on that later). Hops impart their bitterness in beer through hop oil, which can coat your tongue and make you taste nothing but hops. The hoppier the beer, the more hop oil, which can wreck your tasting palate. When in doubt, order the beers from “yellowest” to “darkest” when you taste.

Order and taste the beer from lightest (in color) and least-hoppy to darkest and most-hoppy.

Ok, now on to the beer!

Step 1: Appearance

The first part of the process is easy… it is literally nothing more than looking at the beer in the glass. If you’re enjoying a craft beer, some brewer somewhere has put in a lot of effort to make that beer what it is. So take a second to marvel at the goodness in front of you. Pick up the glass and ask yourself, what is the color of the beer? Is it a straw yellow? A coppery amber red? A maroonish-brown? Black? Beer color is measured in degrees of SRM… the darker color the beer, the more SRM the beer has.

Beer SRM chart

Next, look at the clarity. Can you see right through it? If it’s a lighter beer, you could probably read through it if it’s clear. If it’s a stout, it can still be clear, but it’ll be so dark that you’ll only see shapes or light through the beer. Or, is it cloudy> A lot of styles, espeiclaly wheat beers, are supposed to be cloudy. Now, look at the head of the beer. Is it white? Tan? Beige? (Typically darker beers will have more tan heads) Is it pillowy? Are the bubbles large and “granular”? Or are they fine bubbles? Be descriptive and take a look.

Step 2: Swirl and sniff

Pick up the glass (or you should have it in your hands after visual inspection), and swirl the beer. You’re not spinning so hard that you’re sloshing beer everywhere, but get the beer swirled and agitated… this allows the aroma in the liquid to be lifted out by the carbonation. Now, get your nose in the glass and sniff. As you get more experienced, you’ll be able to pick up a lot of aromas and become increasingly descriptive with what you’re smelling, but for now enjoy the aroma. Is the aroma like a pine tree? A lot of hops are described as being “piney”, so you can sometimes pick that up. Some hops are citrusy, so you might pick up a hint of grapefruit peel. Maybe you’re smelling something that is sweet, like caramel. Are you smelling bread? Some dark beers will have a sort of rasty note to the smell… or a chocolate note. Get your nose in there and smell. The longer and slower you sniff, the more you’ll be able to pick out. A huge percentage of our “tasting” experience comes from what we smell, so taker a good whiff!

Sniffing a beer… also, a convenient way to not have to smell a fart.

Step 3: Taste

Ok, now it’s time to take a sip… but resist the urge to swallow immediately. Let the beer linger on your tongue and engage all parts of your palate.  And, as you swallow, note the taste difference as the beer actually goes down your throat. A lot of the flavor notes you’ll pick up were also what you smelled in the aroma, but think about how what tastes you’re picking up. Again… maybe it’s piney, or citrusy… bready… like wheat bread or crackers or a biscuit. You’re tasting the grains used to make the beer. Yes, that is actual grains, not rice or corn like the mega-brews. Herbal and earthy, maybe as well. Is it bitter? One of the main ingredients in beer is hops, which provide bitterness. Hop bitterness is measured in terms of IBU (International Bitterness Units). Some beer styles are more bitter than others by design, so they’ll have a higher IBU number than beers with less hops. So, if you don’t like hoppy beers, shoot for a beer (or a style of beers) that has a low IBU number.

Take another sip and note the way the beer actually feels in your mouth. Is it thin feeling? Creamy? Thick and syrupy? Also, pause for a moment and experience the aftertaste. Is it resiny? Are you picking up a raw alcohol aftertaste? Most high ABV beers have a slightly “boozy” taste.

Step 4: The experience

Repeat the process until the beer is gone while looking for new smells and tastes with each sip. Start over and repeat the process for each beer in your sampler flight, or for each beer you’re going to try.

Remember that beer is social, so talk about what you’re tasting with the people at your table. Talk it out with your friends. If their tasting the same beer you are, maybe their picking up a smell or taste that you’re not. And that’s ok… that’s what makes it fun. People have beer tasting parties because it’s supposed to be social and relaxing and something your enjoy. Out on a first date and want to avoid awkward silence? Go to a brew pub for dinner, taste beers, and talk about what your experiencing. Or, just have an inner monologue and enjoy the solitude of getting lost in a good beer.

You don’t have to be intimidated. You can get as in-depth as you want… some people are so geeky about tasting, they bring a little notebook with them so they can jot down a note on the smells and tastes. But, that’s an extreme case. Most importantly, you should just try different beers. Taste the beers… not just drink a beer. Figure out what you like in a beer. Have fun. Slow down and smell the roses… err, taste the beer.

Lots of potential tastes in a beer… (you may need to copy/paste the image URL into a new tab to fully expand the image). The more you taste, the more you’ll be able to pick out. Don’t be intimidated… you can use these descriptors as a guide.

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Pittsburgh-style Buffalo Chicken Dip

When I lived in Pittsburgh and went to family functions for the holidays, or a birthday dinner, and especially during a get-together during a Steelers game, it seemed like among the plethora of Black and Gold, cheese and crackers, ham BBQ, and stuffed potato skins, was a big pan of bubbling buffalo chicken dip. If you’ve never had it, it is literally one of the most awesome football game foods in existence.  Loads of cheese, ranch dressing, shredded chicken, and buffalo wing sauce all mixed together and baked until it’s golden brown, bubbly, and delicious. Dip some Frito’s, toasted bread, or tortilla chips… and let the memories of your Aunt screaming at the TV after the Steelers made a bad play come flooding back into your mind…

“LOL How do I Football?”

Here’s my twist on the classic:

Ingredients:

1 8-oz package of cream cheese, softened.

1/2 cup of your favorite ranch dressing (or sub blue cheese dressing)

1/2 cup of Frank’s Red Hot original or buffalo wing sauce

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

1/2 teaspoon crushed black pepper

1 2-cup package of shredded cheddar cheese, divided into 1.5 cup and 1/2 cup portions.

2 cans (12.5-oz each) of chicken, drained and shredded.

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400°F.

2. Combine softened cream cheese, ranch dressing, mayonnaise, Franks’ Red Hot sauce, celery seed,  black pepper, and 1.5 cups of shredded cheddar cheese in a bowl and mix well. Fold in drained, shredded chicken.

3. Evenly spread ingredients into a 8 x 8 glass or ceramic pan (or a glass pie pan).

4. Sprinkle the 1/2 cup of remaining shredded cheddar cheese on top.

5. Bake 20-30 minutes until bubbly and the cheese on top is melted and golden brown.

6. Allow to slightly cool, and serve with plenty of whatever to dip… like your face.

7. Take two Tums before bed to cool the hot pipes.

Stole this from the internet, but this is what’ll look like when all is said and done.

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Homemade Soda

I’m from Pittsburgh, so it’s “pop”… let’s just get that out of the way. And one of my favorite pops is Red Ribbon Cherry Soda, made by the Natrona Bottling Company, in Natrona, PA. It’s awesome. Sweet. Kinda tart from the CO2. Nostalgic. Perfect. That, coupled with my homebrewing experience, inspired me to make my own soda. It’s so easy, it’s crazy to NOT do it. I don’t think this should get filed under “Money Svaing”, but it’s fun… and probably something great to do with some youngsters.

mmmmm... the sweet, sweet, taste of nostalgia.

Fist things first, clear out half of a shelf in the fridge. You’ll need it to store the pop in the chill box after it’s done carbonating… if you leave the bottles unrefrigerated, the bottles will continue to ferment, creating more CO2, which will cause an explosion. No one wants that. It’ll be a mess… and could be dangerous. Ok. No fridge space, no soda making…. rule #1. Also, you’ll need seven or eight 16.9oz plastic bottles.  Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Also, the credit for this recipe goes to: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/2004-12-01/Brew-Soda-at-Home.aspx?page=5

1/2 gallon grape juice
1/2 gallon water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ale or champagne yeast

Simmer juice, water and sugar in a stockpot for 30 minutes. Let cool, and then add the yeast. Let the soda stand at room temperature for 24 hours, then use a funnel to pour the soda into bottles. Leave 1 to 2 inches of empty space at the top of the bottle and attach the bottle caps. Write the date on the bottles and store them in a warm, draft-free place, ideally at room temperature, for an additional 24 hours. Then refrigerate. For best results, let the soda sit an additional day or two in the refrigerator before drinking. Makes 1 gallon.

I substituted a half gallon of Juicy Juice Cherry juice.. it’ll probably work with orange drink for orange soda… or apple juice… maybe even grapefruit juice? Anything, really.

Also, I used two packets, totaling four grams, of some leftover Mr. Beer dry ale yeast instead of the champagne yeast called for in the recipe. I had the packets laying around, so I figured “eh… what the hell?” It worked pretty good. I followed the directions above, but sprinkled in the ale yeast, then bottled, then let the bottles sit out out for two days at room temp. Next time, I’m only going to use one packet (2 grams) of ale yeast and only let them sit out for 24 hours since my first batch was overcarbonated… it “gushed” over when I opened the cap, and the soda had a massive head on it (I know,I know… “he said ‘head’ *snicker*”).  Just let the bottles sit out at room temperature and ferment until the bottle is absolutely ROCK hard… that means they have enough CO2 to be carbonated. And, yes… since you’re relying on fermentation to produce the CO2 that is carbonating the soda, there will be a trace amount of alcohol… like 0.5%ABV. Absolutely minimal, and you would need to drink like 8 or 10 sodas to equal ONE beer. SO don’t worry about it… and it should be fine for the kids, too.

Champagne yeast is available online, or at a local homebrew shop (LHBS). Google for “homebrew shop” and you should find something in your area. If there isn’t a LHBS around, you’ll have to order online… northernbrewer.com, morebeer.com, brewmasterswarehouse.com, austin hombrew shop… all good choices. And, if you choose to substitute ale yeast for the champagne yeast, use a neutral ale strain, like the Mr. Beer packets, or Safale US-05. The only reason I chose to use the ale yeast was because I had it on hand… and I think it’ll flocculate (when the yeast cells “clump” together and drop out of solution) a little better than the champagne yeast when the soda bottles go in the fridge. DO NOT USE A LAGER YEAST! A lager yeast will continue to ferment the beer (albeit slowly) in the fridge… fermentation means CO2 production… CO2 production in a closed container means pressure will build… too much pressure equals ah’splosions. Ah’splosions are bad.

Be careful when you pour the soda into a glass… try not to disturb the layer of crud at the bottom of the bottle. That crud, known as trub (pronounced “troob”), is the natural “leftovers” from the yeast. And I wouldn’t try to drink the pop out of the bottle… same reason. I’d also think about “conditioning” the pop for a week or two in the fridge after you move it from room temperature… that’ll give the yeast cake at the bottom of the bottle time to compact, and for more yeast to fall out of solution. My first go was at this produced a very “yeasty” tasting pop… the extra time in the fridge might help.

And remember, the bottles of finished soda need to stay refrigerated… or they could explode. I wouldn’t even put them in a cooler full of ice.

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