Reviewed: Brew Better Beer

Brew Better BeerBrew Better Beer

By Emma Christensen

Ten Speed Press

From the earliest days of my homebrewing obsession, I’ve constantly sought to brew better beer. To that end, I’ve read books, tasted beers, and asked a lot of questions. If you’re new to the homebrewing hobby, Emma Christensen’s Brew Better Beer proves an unintimidating yet useful guide into the world of producing quality beer.

As one might expect, Christensen offers a rundown of ingredients, process, and equipment. It lays out recipes (from extract to all-grain) from a wide array of styles. And it includes many tips on stepping up your game once you’ve been at it for a while.

That said, I’d argue that some of the recipes could stand tweaking (I’d approach IPAs more aggressively, especially in today’s world, and I’d adjust the Pilsner recipe as well–to offer but a pair of examples).

Christensen’s tome breaks no new ground in the how-to heavy world of brewing books, but the author brings forth useful know-how in an easy-to-understand manner. For those new to the hobby, Brewing Better Beer will help you do just that.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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The great fest

Great American Beer FestivalThere are two sorts of great: that of exceptional quality and that of grand size. After my second trip to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver recently, I’ve concluded that it is both but especially the latter that describes this notable beer event.

Hop ManSure, I tasted incredible offerings from the likes of Russian River Brewing Company’s STS Pils and Supplication to Firestone Walker Brewing Company’s Pivo and Parabola. They were amazing, and beyond this short list of delicious beers, I confirmed that breweries such as Almanac, Wicked Weed, and The Rare Barrel absolutely deserve the buzz they’ve generated.

But while I drank my fair share of fabulous beers over the course of four sessions, I also sampled a number of lackluster offerings. During one stretch of randomly sampling unknown breweries, I bet I tasted a half dozen disappointments in a row. Of the over 3,750 beers served by some 750 breweries at this year’s immense festival, many were far from great.

This quibble is but a picking of the nits. If you’re a beer lover, the GABF should be seated on your bucket list. It is indeed great by any definition, and the entire week is great, too. Whether or not you score tickets to the fest itself, show up in Denver and take it all in. The streets are crawling with great brewers, the breweries and beer bars are laden with great events, and it is a guarantee that you will have yourself a great time. Revel in the great beers you encounter, and learn from the disappointments.

One of the highlights of my 2015 GABF experience was hearing Vinnie, Sam, and Matt discuss pilsners during one of the educational sessions.

One of the highlights of my 2015 GABF experience was hearing Vinnie, Sam, and Matt discuss pilsners during one of the educational sessions.

Learning is great, and the GABF is a great place to take it all in. Do it.

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Reviewed: Bourbon Curious

Bourbon CuriousBourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker

By Fred Minnick

Zenith Press

When I was in high school and college, I very purposely stayed away from smoking weed. Figuring I’d probably like it, I steered clear. For the most part, I’ve approached hard liquor with this same strategy (and admittedly because of an ill-fated early encounter with tequila). While I can afford a ten-dollar six-pack of good beer now and again, I’ve simply allowed the expense of higher end booze to divide me from a deep relationship with whiskey and other spirits. We’ve crossed paths. I quite like it. But broadly, I restrain myself. I can’t afford another expensive hobby.

Despite my noble efforts to protect both my liver and my wallet, I am certainly “bourbon curious.” And that’s where Fred Minnick’s well-named book on the topic comes in. A guy with the affliction of curiosity—how does he get savvy when he decides he wants to? This book is ideally suited for this task.

Laying out his depth of knowledge in the bourbon realm in an easy to follow, non-pretentious manner, Minnick covers bourbon history, legend, and politics. He covers ingredients, distillation, and aging. He offers a tasting tutorial and a run-down of bourbons falling into four categories to guide new bourbon tasters to renditions that might best suit their palate: grain-forward, nutmeg-forward, caramel-forward, and cinnamon-forward.

Bourbon Curious is informative without feeling overwhelming. Minnick glows expertise onto the page without talking down to the reader. If you are curious about bourbon, I’d highly recommend mining Minnick’s latest release. It’s a hundred-proof effort packed with useful backstory and tips for a savvy drinking future for those ready to make the leap.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Selden: ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’

“I am never satisfied.”

-Will Ferrell as Chaz Michael Michaels, “Blades of Glory”

33BOOKS_BEERS_LUNAR_COVER_1024x1024Dave Selden of 33 Books calls his Lunar Eclipse Special Edition of 33 Bottles of Beer “a design idea I feel I’ve probably taken way, way too far,” but I beg to differ. Selden is the Chaz Michael Michaels of the design world, and this new project is really just another example of this beer-loving artist flexing his ample creative muscle.

As if the original journal wasn’t clever enough in massaging the beer nerd toward recording and evaluating his or her beery conquests in a new and experimental fashion, this limited edition version takes us to deeper, darker places for beery interludes.

Released in time for the September 27 lunar eclipse, Selden’s latest fruit in a long line of tasting journals, kits, and posters has been printed black on black. It utilizes black staples, and the finished product has aged in a retired beer/whiskey barrel. The cover ink has been boosted with a portion of a 2009 barrel-aged stout, and the whole two-journal shebang is housed in a resealable mylar package (to preserve aroma) with a glow-in-the-gosh-darn-dark label. It suffers from cool-overload, but what are you going to do?

This journal is intended for “big stouts and the movement of celestial bodies,” but I don’t think Selden will begrudge what you insert into its pages or whether you do it in the night or broad daylight. However, this you must keep in mind: there are only 500 copies in existence. I have Number Nine, and am very much satisfied with my marching orders: drink a big stout on September 27 (and record it).

Having said all that, it’s worth noting that while I groove on all this creativity and nuance, my grandma would have had a hell of a time reading the back cover with all its snazzy attack of black. But this ain’t your grandma’s beer journal. And I find that very satisfying.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Reviewed: The Beer Bible

The Beer Bible

By Jeff Alworth

Workman Publishing

1 the beer bibleOnce upon a time I was in a restroom chatting with Jeff Alworth. It was a brief washing-your-hands-at-the-same-time conversation about beer, books, and publishing. I’d just finished a book, and Alworth was on the front end of, if memory serves, this book, The Beer Bible. Like many others, I regarded (still do) him highly as a pensive beer blogger, but the reason that I actually remember this encounter was his more relaxed attitude toward the draft he intended to send off to the publisher. While I admitted worrying over hitting the “send” button with errors attached to my final draft, Alworth simply pointed out that that’s what editors are for.

Yes, but bounced around in my head.

As Alworth’s proved over the years on his Portland, Oregon-based blog, Beervana, he’s no sixth grader handing in hastily drafted, big-lettered, double-spaced tripe in Mrs. Meyer’s English class like my buddy Tommy Williams probably did day after day. Alworth’s the real deal, an intelligent and talented writer tuned in not only to Beervana, but to the world of beer at-large.

An instant must-have for the beer lover’s library, The Beer Bible threatens seven hundred pages with a wealth of historical, stylistic, and geographical information, while including guidance on how to contend with it all. Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How all make appearances. And what’s more, the book shouldn’t feel the least bit threatening to even the newest of newbies. Oh, sure, he uses good words like surfeit and pedant now and again, but hey, the guy’s smart, and the book is as strong as his vocabulary.

That said, his editor missed a typo on page 162, and I would have scrubbed the beers whose malt and hop information was “undisclosed.” Those added up to the point of distraction, in my opinion. The section on American Ales must have been a wrestling match, but of all beers to neglect, I really thought California Common deserved a seat at the table.

In the final analysis, this book is excellent, and on top of that, he managed to tweet, drink beer, and sustain Beervana during the exhaustive work that went into pulling The Beer Bible together. This monster could have easily sprawled to a thousand pages, but Alworth ably distilled his extensive travel and research to a still-serious feat of manageable girth. He dealt well with the difficult decisions of inclusion and exclusion that are sure to fire up hoards of disgruntled beer pundits, but I for one would be willing to pat Alworth on the back for a job well done. When he hit the “send” button, he pushed something solid out there for us all.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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The Clash of Beer Festivals

The Clash of beer festivals, the Great Taste of the Midwest features over 1,000 beers from 150 Midwest breweries. While there are other fests that are larger in size, the Great Taste is quite possibly “only beer fest that matters.” If you think you have to go to Germany or Belgium or Portland or San Diego to get a killer beer, you are wrong. The Midwest boasts some of the best beers in the world, and Great Taste is one-stop shopping.

What would Jesus do? Well, if he's anything like me, he would go to the Great Taste of the Midwest and have a really good time.

What would Jesus do? Well, if he’s anything like me, he would go to the Great Taste of the Midwest and have a really good time.

I had the good fortune of early entry at The Clash this year, and it was fun to watch the regular ticket holders cross the threshold an hour later at the fest’s noon start time. You see, eight-year-olds making haste in grade school hallways aren’t the only ones to employ the run-walk style of ambulation. White-haired sixty-year-olds also try to play it cool while hustling their asses to the New Glarus, Founders, and Perennial booths at a beer festival.

And who can blame them? These breweries are stupendous, and they all come to The Clash with their big guns. I’ve been to a lot of festivals all across the country, including the granddaddy of them all, the Great American Beer Festival, and I’m here to tell you, though tickets are difficult to come by, you really should make an effort to attend The Clash.

I don't know about Joe, but I was kinda nervous the first time I used the Beer Glory Hole that turned up behind Peace Tree's booth.

I don’t know about Joe, but I was kinda nervous the first time I used the Beer Glory Hole that turned up behind Peace Tree’s booth.

With the best of the Midwest’s best bringing their absolute best (and with a laundry list of special events taking place not only on Great Taste Eve but throughout the week that leads up to the Best Saturday of the Year), this festival is a “can’t freaking miss.”

I believe that it’s absurd to make a best-of list, because, for goodness sakes, there were 1,000 beers on offer, and I didn’t scratch the surface. I hit some new-to-me-breweries and scouted some locations for a project I’m quietly working on somewhere in the margin on my busy beer life. I hit some personal favorites. I hung out with some of my brewer-friends, including a long stint drinking mystery beers from the Beer Glory Hole behind Peace Tree’s booth. With one exception, I didn’t bother with long lines. I had a lot of great beers, and for the record, I lingered at but a handful of places like Destihl, Prairie Artisan (I put up with the lines here), Une Annee, and Upland.

It was my fourth Great Taste, and I can’t wait for my fifth. If you can score tickets, do. It’s intimate, beautiful, and delicious. This fest carries the J. Wilson Guarantee. For what that’s worth.

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Reviewed: The Umami Factor

The Umami Factor: Full-Spectrum Fermentation for the 21st Century

By Robert Rivelle George

Schiffer Publishing

After many years of viewing adjuncts (and lagers) with disdain, many modern American craft brewers are turning to sugars long used by Belgian brewers in many styles and previously “inappropriate” malts for beers beyond their traditional uses, which means that it is not uncommon today for high gravity beers of all kinds (not just Belgians) to contain a percentage of this or that unrefined sugar, or for brown ales, stouts, or even IPAs to include a touch of Munich or melanoidin malts to boost complexity (while in the past, those malts would have remained primarily in the beer styles of continental Europe).

Robert Rivelle George’s The Umami Factor brings these recipe nuances to the exploring homebrewer, while giving the strategy behind them a name: full-spectrum fermentation. Taking in many considerations to recipe development, it’s where the palette meets the palate, and it’s a far cry from the SMASH beers (Single Malt And Single Hop) which are also popular in their endeavor to showcase the individual ingredients in a beer.

Calling for increased complexity through alert ingredient selection and a sturdy understanding of flavor perception, full-spectrum fermentation works to achieve umami—a perception of roundness in flavor and body, as well as a savory character not often considered or perceived in most beers.  Seeking balance and complexity, George’s recipes rely on long, multifaceted grain bills, unrefined sugars, and sea salt to do his bidding.

For example, George adds Munich malt, c-pils, and black malt to his (what I would consider to be a historically inaccurate) Classic American Pilsner. His German Altbier contains no less than eleven specialty grains. And his Northwest Pale Ale calls for six specialty malts, flaked barley, and two sugars, while his Nut Brown Ale utilizes seven specialty malts, flaked barley, and three sugars.

George explores other fermented libations as well, including cider, wine, distilled spirits, and a handful of ethnic beverages. In addition to over 75 tempting recipes shared within the book, the back end includes a thick appendix with useful calculations, and information on a number of hops, malts, yeasts, and more.

At times the terms full-spectrum fermentation and umami sound like a buzzword used to sell books to impulse buyers at large box stores during the run-up to the holidays, but George, an award-winning brewer and vintner with 40 years of fermentation experience, clearly knows his stuff. His recipes are as complex as the philosophical thinking used to label their mastery, and homebrewers looking to take their hobby to the next level will be sure to find helpful guidance within the pages of this handsome volume.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Reviewed: Speed Brewing

Speed Brewing: Techniques and Recipes for Fast-Fermenting Beers, Ciders, Meads, and More

By Mary Izett

Voyageur Press

Appropriately, I started reading Speed Brewing by Mary Izett with the Introduction. Right away, I found myself wanting to interrupt, to argue, to state may case about the therapeutic benefits I receive from the time it takes me to brew a batch of beer. While I’ve taken forays into mead, cider, kombucha, soda, coffee roasting and even my grandma’s old Kahlua and schnapps recipes (for variety, not time savings), I am primarily a beer-maker, and over the years I’ve cut my brewing time by working more efficiently, kegging, and occasionally brewing lower alcohol beers (I no longer sacrifice a full Saturday—instead I clean my house and nap during the hobby’s ample downtime).

A few paragraphs later, I bristled again. Brew a gallon of this or two gallons of that? No. Now I have to brew much more frequently, and where’s the time savings in that? I don’t make beer to save time; I do it to feed my soul.

In addition to legit beer advice of brewing lower alcohol beers to decrease fermentation time and avoid secondary fermentation altogether, here’s what this book should have mentioned on the “brisk” beer (I really like that term) front: time management tips, keg your beer instead of bottling, force carbonate that beer, and split fermentations to experiment and introduce variety without a heavy commitment (she actually mentions that, but I wanted to prove that we see eye to eye here and there).

Now that I’m finished complaining, let me say that I really enjoyed this book. I marched forward with an open mind (and advice on the short meads I’ve been wanting to explore anyway since I’m not good at sipping). What I found in Izett was an intelligent, clean writer well versed in her content. It’s not often in a brewing tome or cookbook that I’d say I genuinely would like to try every single recipe that was included, but I can say that about this book.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Short Bochet? Yes, please!

Throughout the book, Izett offers steady guidance on making beer, mead, cider, and more. She offers a good exploration of smaller, more sessionable beer styles as well as a fun rundown of other alcoholic beverages for the curious drinker/brewer to explore. While I’m not going to waste my time brewing two measly gallons of beer, I found a lot of value in this book, and I’d definitely recommend that brewers check it out. It was a motivational seminar, and I can’t wait to start using its contents in my brewing schedule.

I think I just didn’t like the title.


FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Turner Alley adds to the Cedar Rapids beer scene

Back in 2005, Travis Scheidecker went from bartender to head brewer in the course of a staff meeting debriefing about the freshly departed brewer at Third Base Brewery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Scheidecker had lot to learn. He’d never brewed an ounce of beer in his life, and it turned out that the brewhouse wasn’t in top shape. After a great deal of cleaning, mentoring from fellow commercial brewers, and nurturing from local homebrewers desperate for the brewery to survive in their neighborhood, Sheidecker acquired the knowledge and skill necessary to produce a lineup of solid beers. In addition to the help of those brewing comrades, Scheidecker credits copious reading and listening to Jamil Zainasheff podcasts to his education.

Earlier this year, Scheidecker transitioned to the new Cedar Rapids production brewery, Turner Alley Brewing Company, and over the weekend, I conjured an excuse to stop by and visit him in his new playground. Draught only and without a taproom, it’s not really a place that folks are going to be seeking out just yet, but tours are planned down the road.

Presently, the brewery is a fairly wide open space where Scheidecker toils in solitude on his 15-barrel brewhouse. Lucky for me, Scheidecker had a few beers available for scrutiny, and I seized the opportunity to try his Czech Village Pilsner, Mays Island IPA, Wood’s Wheat, and Roosevelt Imperial Red. I see in Scheidecker a guy that tends to offer up a fairly rounded malt presence in his hop forward beers, and this was evident in both his IPA and Impy Red. The latter clocked in at 8% ABV, but the alcohol was well-concealed and it drank much smoother. I thoroughly enjoyed the Pilsner, and when the canning line shows up—as is the plan somewhere in the future—I can’t wait to have this beer available for all my camping and grilling purposes.

But for now, TA is draught only primarily in the Cedar Rapids area. If you see it, check it out; Scheidecker is putting out an array of tasty beers—with more on the way…

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On Fred

Until April of this year, for five and a half years I worked as editor at the Adams County Free Press in Corning, Iowa. It may have been a humble weekly newspaper in a county with a population of less than 5,000, but I had the freedom in my weekly column to write whatever the hell I wanted. About four years ago, I returned to my desk following a trip to Portland, Oregon. Though not a single one of my readers knew who he was, I felt obligated to say a few words about what it meant to be in the same room as Fred Eckhardt, who passed away yesterday. And today I feel like a re-run. RIP, Fred.

(originally published in the Adams County Free Press on August 25, 2011)

“The crazy people of this world are the most fun to spend time with.”

-Fred Eckhardt

He’s not the household name kind of living legend like Hank Aaron, Michael Jordan or Bob Dylan, but he’s a legend within the niche of my beer geek subculture.

Fred Eckhardt is an 85-year-old beer mensch, well known for his depth of knowledge within and advocacy for the brewing industry, his sparkling personality and his white handlebar mustache. Having written a number of important tomes within that realm of study, including his “The Essentials of Beer Style,” he is a beer celebrity of the finest form, honored by his enthusiastic protégés with both a beer and a charity beer festival named for him, “Fred” and “Fred Fest,” respectively.

This past weekend, I had the honor to deliver the keynote address at a Beer Bloggers Conference in Portland, Ore., following my “Diary of a Part-time Monk” project this spring, which has resulted in sturdy media coverage and the release of my first book this coming October.

The trip to “Cascadia” brought with it many high points, including brewery and hop field tours, doughnuts, stellar beers, education and camaraderie.

But no highlight, not even speaking in an honored role myself, topped being in the same room with Fred, rubbing shoulders with such an inspiring individual, hearing him share stories and wisdom. Most of us there were the age of his grandchildren, and that’s exactly the way we felt that day. We were sponges soaking it in, hoping that we might one day be able to carry his torch in a respectable fashion, to do him proud.

We, of course, often have our own grandparents, teachers and local sages handy from whom we might gain traction for a well-lived life. But we’re always attracted to pedestals of celebrities, somehow.

Where fame is concerned, those deeply interested in politics might like to shake the hand of Bill Clinton or George Bush, while economy fans might like to rub shoulders with Alan Greenspan or techies might like to pick the brain of Bill Gates; but me, I like the ones who are admittedly crazy. Like Fred. They’re more fun to spend time with.

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