Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I am Craft, and I am strong.

Just supposing we wanted to brew a really strong beer, how would we go about it?  Let's put aside the question of why we would want to do such a thing (I'll come back to that).

We could start with lots of malt.  Problem with that is, unless we're planning to leave a lot of extract on the grain, we'll just end up with a giant lot of regular strength wort.  Sure, we could boil it for hours and hours, but this is going to give us all sorts of unpleasant burnt notes in the beer (and, unless we're good at cleaning, in successive beers). We've all tasted that kind of thing.

We could use malt extract.  This is essentially wort made in a dedicated facility,  then concentrated, often under reduced pressure. We can buy it in big jugs (or in IBCs, if you want).  This is a pretty good way of going about it.  Obviously, you want to get most of your gravity from the contents of your mash tun, but in most strong beers, in my experience, we can go up to 20% malt extract without spoiling things.  Of course, 50kg of malt extract is hard to handle (it's terribly sticky and difficult to pour out for a start), but it can help make a reasonable amount of high-gravity wort without requiring more malt than would fit in the MT.

Malt extract has got a bit of a bad name among homebrewers.  The reasons are various, so I'll limit myself to pointing out that stuff that's been sitting in tin cans for months on warehouse shelves doesn't compare with the stuff that a commercial brewer will use.

We could add sugar.  This might be glucose, or even plain sucrose (which we can buy in big sacks from just down the road).  Of course, because these sugars are pretty much 100% fermentable, the resulting beer will be drier  (i.e. have less residual sweetness and a less heavy body) than an all-malt ,or malt extract, beer of the same alcoholic strength would be. Now sometimes, we'd want a beer to be lighter and drier - it goes to drinkability, which is why the the history of modern British brewing is, in a sense, a history of sugar.  Strong Belgian beers are marked by their use of sugars, it's that digestability thing, innit?

Again, homebrewers have reported all kinds of unpleasant effects which they put down to the use of sugar.  Of course, they've typically added a high proportion of sugar to a crappy malt-extract based kit (see above) and then bunged some crappy half-dead yeast into it, so I think we can safely discount most of that.

Because these tricks (adding sugars or malt extract) would enable us to get either stronger beer, or more beer, out of the same size kit, they're often called brewlength extenders.

We could, if we wanted to, add enzymes. Malt, of course, brings its own enzymes with it. (That's the point of malt).  But if we were using significant quantities of non-malt grain, we might choose to supplement with stuff from a bottle. Enzymes are often used in the MT to help get good conversion (starch into sugars) if we're brewing with a lot of, say, rice or maize. You generally find the enzymes called amylases used in this way. But these aren't the enzymes I'm interested in here.

When we boil our wort we effectively fix its sugar composition.  We destroy (or, technically, denature) the mash enzymes, so that the proportion of fermentable and non-fermentable components stays the same (until the yeast gets to work).  But we can, if we choose, add enzymes after the boil, in the fermenter or in a conditioning tank.  There are a few options open to the brewer who opts to follow this path, but the basic idea is that these enzymes break down the unfermentable "dextrins" and release fermentable sugars such as glucose. Upon which the yeast proceeds to chow down.  So it's the same basic idea as adding glucose.

There's a few gotchas associated with post-boil enzymes, following on from the fact that the sugar composition of our wort has been, now, unfixed:
Unless we pasteurise the beer these enzymes are going to carry on working until there are effectively no sweetening and body supporting dextrins left. None, nada, zilch, absolutely F.A. Hence, a fearsomely dry, thin, beer.
Also, in packaged products that contain live yeast, since fermentable sugars can continue being released by enzyme activity for quite some time (months?), there's a real danger of overconditioning. 

So, given that post-boil enzymes are difficult to control, somewhat risky, and can't produce better effects than adding, say, glucose, why would anyone use them?  In some cases, I suspect it's little more than marketing bullshit. We'd be able to say, "Look, here's a strong beer we made with only malt - no malt extract or sugar added!", conveniently neglecting to mention the Amyloglucosidase derived from a selected strain of Aspergillus.

But why set out to make a remarkably strong beer anyway?  I'm broadly in agreement with HardknottDave in his rhapsody on one of his own beers, strong beers do offer flavours that you just don't get in their smaller bretheren. We're not ashamed or afraid of alcohol, so don't see any need to make a beer weaker than it need be.  At the same time, I feel that we get into diminishing returns around 10% - and this is just a personal taste thing.  Over that level of alcohol, hot, even burny tones are difficult to avoid. Very strong beers are often too sweet, which I don't like, but that's probably better than them being burny with alcohol and too dry. I'm sure there are brewers who can pull it off, but I can't think of any off the top of my head. I'm sure extended (and I mean extended) aging will pull some of these beers together, but who's got time for that nowadays.  Again, it's often down to marketing bullshit

Friday, November 22, 2013

Postcard from the Edge-case

"It's obvious," said the Professor, sketching rapidly on the table cloth, "that the CAMRA locALE scheme is bound to produce some anomalies, particularly in branches not completely surrounded by other branch areas, as will be the case with, for example, those which lie on the coast."

"Firstly," the professor outlined one of the square demarcations, "here we have a branch area, with numbers indicating individual breweries in the branch - I've shown each branch having 3 breweries for simplicity"

"OK professor, and the circles would be showing the breweries considered LocALE?"

 "Right," the professor beamed "My diagram isn't an exact representation of any particular area, but it it suggestive of how different branch policies may interact and lead to sub-optimal outcomes."

He continued, "Let's compare the strategies of branch A and branch B."

I could see that Branch A had a bigger circle around it than B, and I told the professor so.

"Yes" he smiled, "A larger area, but the same number of breweries! As it happens, seven. This branch has chosen a broader definition of local so as not to penalise their members for a geographical accident.  Being at the edge would have given them only 4, or possibly 5, locALE breweries if they'd used the same criterion as their neighbours in branch B"

 I told the professor that this seemed fair enough.

 "Oh yes" he continued "perfectly fair for the members, and after all, it's a membership organisation. But look at it from a brewery point of view." He regarded me expectantly.

I shook my head, I couldn't see what he was getting at.

"It's simple," He wagged a finger at me, "How many circles is each brewery in? That is to say, how many branches consider each brewery local?"

I must have looked more than usually puzzled, because he continued, "How many circles is brewery 3 in?"

That was easy, "Just one"

"Yes" he chuckled, only one branch considers brewery 1 a locALE brewery.  But what about brewery 11?"

I studied the tablecloth.  Then it struck me, "Ah, brewery 11 is contained in 3 circles!"

"Yes" said the professor, "Brewery 11 has been made locALE by branch A, but of course branch B hasn't reciprocated by offering this courtesy to brewery 1.  Why would they?"

"But what this means" he continued sadly, "is that in order to make sure that their members have a good choice of locALE, branch A has handed a competitive advantage to breweries not based in their branch area, which is denied to breweries that actually are!"

Thursday, November 21, 2013

You put *what* in it? #2

It's a funny thing, when you think about it, that we're not required (here in the UK) to put proper ingredient listings on beer.  It's the only essential (made) component of my diet that is granted this exception.  I realise that many people don't care, as long as it tastes good, and that's fair enough.  Of course, there's also the point that quite a few of the wacky things we put in beer (and other food producers put in their stuff) are classed as "processing aids"* rather than ingredients, so there are often some quite interesting things used to make food, that don't really make it into the finished article.  Some hold that an ingredients list would be, in effect, a recipe for the beer and that brewers shouldn't be obliged to give away trade secrets.  This is probably nonsense.

We're updating our bottle labels and you'll notice (those discerning few who choose to buy our beer), that we're introducing an ingredients list.  It's all because we're, like, "Unconditionally Guaranteed Honest, Non-Evil, and Hype-Free!", and not because we have to.

You might also notice that we don't provide "responsible drinking advice".  This is because (1) we don't have to, (2) we're not qualified to give you health advice (no, Dr Becky isn't that sort of doctor) and (3) because we're happy to treat you like grown-ups.

We do, however, include a notice about allergens on our labels (and always have).  i.e. "Contains Gluten".  This is a legal requirement.

We're currently working on our one "gluten free" product to ensure that we can continue making this claim as the science around this issue develops.  This isn't in bottle yet, so this is a bit off thread I suppose.

What we don't do is make claims on our labels, here, or elsewhere which are intended to be deceptive, or might risk misleading our lovely customers. This would be legally awkward (I'd guess) and definitely plain wrong.

*"Processing aid" means any substances not consumed as a food by itself, intentionally used in the processing of raw materials, foods or their ingredients, to fulfil a certain technological purpose during treatment or processing, and which may result in the unintentional but technically unavoidable presence of residues of the substance or its derivatives in the final product, provided that these residues do not present any health risk and do not have any technological effect on the finished product.
 (some emphasis added)

Monday, November 04, 2013

Staying "true"

Following HardknottDave's shock Craft apostasy, we're pleased to confirm that all our beer is now, as it has always been,