Corrected Old Mistakes

Back in a previous post on the subject, I was making crappy pale ales and other light coloured beers. Having swallowed what was left of my brewing pride and subjected the samples to a couple of people that know what they’re on about (namely our almost resident expert Greg and some of the guys from Capital Brewers) I began to get usable feedback. Unfortunately, the feedback was too usable. Within the space of one experimental brew of a pretty standard IPA recipe, the issue is pretty well resolved. This leaves me hanging somewhat, I imagined I’d get at least five blog  posts out of this series of blunders.

So what was the issue all along? Infection it seems. I just really didn’t know what infection tasted like before. I’m going to put the cause of the infection down to laziness on my part. Some time ago, I decided all this washing, cleaning, steralising and rinsing malarky was too much hassle. So I’d give my fermenter and other bits and pieces that’d come into contact with the wort a once over to get rid of whatever crud was inside and then run it over with Starsan. After being told what the issue was, I bought a new fermenter and went back to the (still sealed) powder I’d gotten with my brewing kit. The resulting beer still isn’t clear but one issue at a time.

Aside from my failings of elementary brewing practice (which I have thoroughly chastised myself for in the meantime) it brings up a more important point; The importance of brewing clubs. I had shied away from brewing clubs initially because of the tasting sessions. I know my stuff isn’t wonderful and to be honest, the seemingly endless chasm of quality from my home brew to the brews that a lot of the guys in the clubs are making is downright embarrassing. But of course that is the case for almost any hobby. In photography (one of my other money pits), there is always a handful of people better than you are.

Long and meandering story short; Join a brewing club. There’s a good chance you’ve got one near you. The National Homebrew Club has a list. If you head onto the forum on the site, there are some more details. I can count on one hand the amount of brewing club meetings I’ve been to but they’re always informative and well, you get to drink some amazing beers.

But what’s next on my experiment list to see if the issue really was infection from a dodgy fermenter? Split batch I think. Half in the new fermenter and half in an old one. All going well that hurdle will be overcome and it’ll be onto the next one; Clarity.

Correcting Old Mistakes

Since starting all grain brewing I’ve been completely unable to brew a batch of anything light. I’ve only really tried pale ales & one blonde early on but they’ve all turned out more or less the same level of screwed up. Some more drinkable than others, or maybe I was just in denial. For that reason, I resigned myself to sticking with dark beer recipes. Any stouts, porters or anything else beyond ruby coloured has turned out wonderfully. It’s always been annoying though, mostly because I never really knew what I was doing wrong. Was it the recipe? Maybe something with the water pH? Or the yeast? There are too many variables. It didn’t really help that I couldn’t put my finger on the off flavour. My as yet unrefined palate is unable to detect exactly what kind of funk is living in the various attempts at pale ales I’ve got lingering around the apartment in kegs & bottles. My fear of being called out as a failure was going to have to take a back seat to my want to perfect (or at least produce a drinkable copy of) this elusive beer style.

So instead, I preyed on the unsuspecting. Yes, I was that guy at the last home brewer meetup that brought the crappy beer. My bottles were popped open about half way into the tasting, having already tasted some wonderful beers from the other guys. Stressed? Me? Yes! Both the beers I brought were funky in their own particular way but to me at least, the funk tasted similar. Like whatever was going wrong, it was at least consistently wrong. More trained noses were introduced to glasses and some expletives were thrown. The more brave members of the group took a sip. I think at one stage I heard a “ohh good God why? Why God why?!?” followed by some light sobbing.

The verdict was pretty unanimous, I had an infection. Well, my beer did anyway. This explains the consistently bad flavour I suppose. Theories were thrown about but the one that stuck is that one or more of my fermenters must have been scratched, allowing nasty germy buggers to survive the decent starsan wash the fermenters always get before any beer touches them. So, what to do about it? In amongst the yelps of pain from my fellow brewers, I think someone cried out “get a new fermenter”.

So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll take the extra step of removing my possibly dodgy recipe formulation out of the picture by buying a pale ale all grain mash kit and I’ll get that new fermenter. I’m still undecided if I’ll split the batch into two fermenters, one old and one new. Just to see if the batch in the old fermenter turns out infected. Then, if the batch in the new fermenter turns out drinkable I might just recreate the last pale ale recipe I made, ferment that in the new bucket and see what happens. If everything turns out terrible, I’m back to square one and need to look at other causes. Any opinions on how I should perform testing, split batches or styles that’d make good tests are very welcome. I’m pretty much adrift in an ocean of infected beer at the moment.

Updates imminent, test batch will hopefully be made this weekend.

I Drink Beer for Money

I’m hoping that this will be the first of a few posts about what I do for a living, but that all depends on feedback! Today I’m just gonna try to address people’s curiosity about what I do without giving away brewery secrets (I’m joking – as a lowly “sensory analyst” I’m privy to no inside knowledge whatsoever). The three most common questions I get asked after I tell someone that I’m a professional beer taster are – “How did you get a job like that?!”, “What do you do in there?” and “Do you get drunk?” You could probably tell a lot about a person just by the order in which they ask those questions, but let’s start at the beginning.

How did I get this job? The simple answer is luck. I answered an ad in the paper, which mentioned screenings for tasters, but remained vague about the details. I seem to recall hoping that it was for cake. Given the fact that, when presented with something sweet, I transform from a mild mannered twenty-something (at the time), into a ravenous fiend who treats moderation like Superman treats kryptonite, it’s probably best for my overall health (and belt) that it wasn’t. When I got to the venue, there were approximately 100-150 applicants there. What I soon learned was that only about 10% of the population have the taste buds for this kind of work, so the screening was a giant test to find only a handful of people. First, we were tested on the basic flavours in water – sweet, salty, sour and bitter (umami did not feature). Those of us who could differentiate between them were tested further, with more specific flavour compounds being introduced. For example, the trainer would spike water with something like isoamyl acetate (banana/pear flavour) to see who could identify it. This was done with a number of flavour compounds, first in water, then in beer (the complexity of which made it harder to detect). After two days of this, they had their 10%. Luckily enough, I was in that bracket. There followed a more detailed training period to get the newbies up to scratch, in which we were given steadily lower dosages of flavours in more complex beers. Overall, we were trained to recognise about sixty distinct flavours and aromas. Then we were ready to join the panel.

And this brings me onto the second question – what exactly do I do in there? It’s actually not that exciting. Drinking beer for money probably ranks highly on a lot of people’s “dream jobs” list, but like any job, it has its ups and its downs. I’ll get to the ups shortly, but the main downside is the hours. Due to the alcohol consumption, it will never be a full-time job. And this answers the question of whether or not I get drunk. If I worked office hours, drinking a range of beers from 9 ’til 5, it’s safe to say I’d either be in counselling by now or more likely dead. It’s a part-time job shared by a small group of tasters. Everyday a panel of eight people is selected from a group of twelve, so I don’t work a five day week. On the days that I do work, I start in the late morning and finish up early in the afternoon. I do swallow the beer, because it’s the only way of correctly assessing the level of alcohol, but I don’t drink enough to even approach drunkenness. In the past, there were occasional training days which required everyone to do a full day, 9 ’til 5. By lunchtime, people were getting giddy, which undoubtedly affected the accuracy of the panel’s feedback (I’ll go into more detail about training days in another article), so naturally such hours are not kept for the day-to-day tasting.

Without going into too much detail, the general make-up of my day is three sessions of tastings in a lab, which can involve between three to six samples of different lagers, ales, stouts, mixed drinks and non-alcoholic alternatives per session. Along with the other seven panellists, I score each sample from 0 – 10 on a range of flavours and aromas, which then creates a “fingerprint” or profile for each particular drink. Every taster has their own strengths (flavours they are sensitive to) and weaknesses (flavours they are either blind to or have difficulty detecting). The aim of the panel is to strike a balance. If I miss something, someone else will hopefully pick it up. The brewer then has more of an idea about how their product is balanced, and this is the main reason why a panel of human beings is used instead of computers. A chemical analysis cannot tell a brewer how the different aspects of their beer react to one another. For instance, there could be a taint present which a computer can detect (this doesn’t necessarily mean something nasty, just that one of the flavours is out of spec), but which remains imperceptible to the tongue because of the overall complexity of the beer.

Overall, I’d say my job is part quality control and part profiler. Sometimes a brewer wants to make sure there’s nothing wrong, sometimes they want the complete picture for a new experiment, and sometimes they want to see how their already profiled beer ages (I’ll go into more detail on ageing at a later date). I’ve been doing this for over seven years at this stage, and it’s opened my eyes to beer, and food in general. It’s safe to say that I’ve developed a miniature obsession with craft beer at this point, and tasting has given me a whole new appreciation for the artistry involved in balancing flavours. It has even gotten me interested in brewing my own stuff, which I hope to start before the end of the year. Watch this space.

- Greg Hulsman

Mountain Man Dublin Launch

What better way to launch a brewing website (this is the first post after all) than with the launch of a new beer and a new brewery. Mountain Man is Cork’s newest brewery, even if it only gets to keep that title for another couple of days before the launch of Blacks brewery in Kinsale. As usual, it seems it’s all happening in Cork! Sadly I missed the Mountain Man launch in the Franciscan Well in Cork the previous Friday so I didn’t get to sample the beer until last night. To add insult to injury I also missed the home brew festival that happened the following day in the same location. The curse of a 9-5 job eh?

But if I can’t go to the mountain, I’ll have to bring the mountain to me. Or something along those lines. The Bull & Castle was a perfect venue for a chilled out Monday evening launch and as expected, lots of familiar faces were in among the crowd. But onto the beer in question. This is where I should point out that I’m not a professional beer reviewer. Neither am I am amateur one. Although my untrained senses might not be able to detect subtle differences in flavour from one beer to another, I do tend to be able to pick out things I like. At the moment, that’s enough skill for me.

Green Bullet is the Mountain Man launch beer and is apparently named after a mythical weapon rather than the New Zealand hop which shares it’s name. See Mountain Man’s own explanation below…

“Local folklore tells of a one eyed, blind and headless beast that terrorized villagers and farmers alike. Only a bullet made from shamrocks and tree sap could dispense of this horrific creature. No one knows if it actually worked or what it had to do with beer. Green Bullet Pale Ale is based on that famous weapon and not because we use New Zealand green bullet hops. The result is a light golden coloured ale with subtle notes of pine and lemon in the key of F minor.”

I’ll admit that I’ve never tasted a beer made with the green bullet hop before now and so had to look up some of it’s characteristics so I could see exactly what I was talking about. My last experience with Kiwi hops was with Nelson Sauvin in an attempt to brew a hoppy pale ale. Needless to say, the high alpha acid percentage of the hops coupled with my inexperience made for some pretty undrinkable beer. Thankfully, Phil at Mountain Man has skirted around that particular minefield and created a light, well balanced beer with some uniquely zingy and wonderfully clean tasting hops.

This is about the time that my lack of worldly knowledge and ignorance to beer styles kicks in. If I’m honest, Green Bullet is possibly a little too light for me. It’s entirely personal preference here and as I usually do when talking about any beer, I’ll compare it to beers I’ve been drinking for years. If I’m not drinking hugely hoppy pale ales that’d make your entire head pucker up to the size of a raisin, I’m going for whatever is malty, dark and would easily support a soup spoon standing upright in the glass. For those reasons alone, I feel I’m the wrong person to spark off any kind of critical discussion on the lighter beers in life.

At 4% abv, Green Bullet will make an excellent session beer. It’s light, refreshing and has that strong tastes like more flavour about it so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it entices some non craft drinkers to give it a try. On shelves filled with run of the mill bottles and cans, the unique and eye catching labelling along with the creative marketing spiel on the label will undoubtedly further help sales. The line should stand out even further when the next Mountain Man beer “Hairy Goat” is launched later this summer. I can’t wait to give that one a go too.

Mountain Man is run by Philip and Susan Cullen and is based in (if I may show my bias for a moment) wonderful West Cork, up in the Derrynasaggart Mountains of the Muskerry Gaeltacht.