Online Home of J. Wilson, Beer Drinker & Lifestyle Expert

J. Wilson is an award-winning homebrewer, BJCP Certified beer judge and pretty good dad. Blogging about an ideal condition of harmony, beer and joy at brewvana since 2007, Wilson is the author of the 2011 investigation into the origins of doppelbock, Diary of a Part-Time Monk and and 2014’s Iowa Pints: A Guide to Iowa Breweries.

Through Brewvana, Wilson has initiated numerous classes, tastings and events over the years, and in 2012 he was named Beer Drinker of the Year at Wynkoop Brewing Company’s 16th annual competition. Currently, Wilson serves as the Minister of Iowa Beer for the Iowa Brewers Guild, contributes to Des Moines Beer Week, and is emcee and co-founder of the Drinking Pants Pageant.

Follow J.’s daily exploits on Twitter and Instagram.

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Reviewed: The Brew Your Own Big Book of Clone Recipes

The Brew Your Own Big Book of Clone Recipes

By Brew Your Own

Voyageur Press

Comprised of 300 clone recipes from the pages of Brew Your Own magazine, this aptly titled book is bursting with homebrewable renditions of some of the most famous craft beers around.

Carefully tested and tweaked, and with a note on recipe standardization to help homebrewers adjust to their own brewing kits, the resulting beers should get a brewer as close to the real thing as possible. According to BYO Editor Dawson Raspuzzi, the recipes in the book were “formulated in collaboration with, and in some instances have come directly from, the brewers who made the beers famous in the first place.”

If a homebrewer has her act together with regard to sanitation, yeast health, and temperature control, one should be able to produce a dynamite clone beer with the help of this tool.

The options are many. From pale ales to imperial stouts and from pilsners to saisons. There are coconuts. There are hibiscus flowers. There are coffee beans. Basil, bacteria, and barrels. And more.

Further, the breweries included are top-notch. The Bruery. Russian River. Funkwerks. Brooklyn Brewery. The list goes on and on. And then there are fun recipes like Rolling Rock, Hamm’s, and Old Style Light for a throwback brewing challenge.

Whether you’re a brewer looking to replicate your first epiphany beer, seeking to springboard your hobby from a classic recipe formulation, or just looking for something special to produce for an upcoming holiday, this clone compendium will have solid guidance.

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

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Reviewed: Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond

Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond

By Alex Lewin and Raquel Guajardo

Fair Winds Press

Co-written by  Alex Lewin and Raquel Guajardo, Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond is exactly what the subtitle suggests: a fun and flavorful guide to fermenting your own probiotic  beverages at home.

Well-written and containing beautiful photographs by Nader Khouri, this book provides background on and the health benefits of fermentation. There’s history, there’s science, there’s how-to, and there’s inspiration.

Perhaps that fourth ingredient in the book’s recipe is the most important to me. How is that achieved? Lewin and Guajardo bring expertise to the table and write in an accessible manner. They make it clear that fermentation is easy, flexible, and wide-ranging in terms of both the inputs and the final products. And then they pile on the recipes-each more intriguing the last-and it makes you want to dive right in.

For example, I first had tepache a couple years ago while on a beer drinking excursion in Portland, Oregon, and I’ve been talking about making it it ever since. Now, I’m gonna make it.

For example, I’ve been looking to kettle sour homebrews for a year or more, and this summer, I’m gonna do it. With the guidance of this book, I’ll likely do it a couple different ways, with both kefir and yogurt, and I won’t be purchasing those at the grocery store. I’ll be fermenting them myself.

For example, that coffee kombucha recipe on page 113 sounds like a great idea.

I’m no novice. I’ve been homebrewing for over two decades, having done beer, mead, and cider. I’ve fermented kombuchas, kvasses, and kimchis.

After reading this book, I’m inspired to dig a little deeper, and if you’re intrigued to take your fermentation investigations a little further, I’d recommend picking up a copy of Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond. The Beyond, it seems, is a beautiful place to be.

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

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Reviewed: Methods of Modern Homebrewing

Methods of Modern Homebrewing

By Chris Colby

Page Street Publishing

An experienced homebrewer and writer/editor, Chris Colby probably wrote Methods of Modern Homebrewing in his sleep. He’s one of the few out there that could pull it off. Which he did.

This book is excellent, and with all due respect to Charlie Papazian and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, I wish this book had been available when I started brewing a couple decades ago. One, Colby has chops, and two, the book is well-written while remaining accessible to an inexperienced brewer. Colby tosses in sour beer production, forced fermentation and wort stability tests, and so much more, and it’s written in such a way that even if you’ve only brewed three times in your life, you feel like you can pull off just about anything.

Fine. The guy’s smart and writes in plain English. But what I really valued about this book is the way it was constructed. It wasn’t boring requisite history lesson, boring ingredient rundown, boring how-to-brew, etc., followed by a daunting list of recipes. Instead, Colby demonstrated a brewing method, and followed it with a recipe. In the Extract and Partial-Extract sections, walked us through some basic styles so that no matter what our gateway beer was, we could recreate it.

Then, Colby got into the nuances of All-Grain brewing. After explaining Single Infusion Mashing, he gave us an applicable recipe. After Step Mashing, he gave us a relevant beer style recipe. Decoction: same. When he talked about first wort hopping, he gave us the recipes for pertinent beers. When he talked about fermentation, he gave us help and recipes in the realms of lager fermentations, high-gravity fermentations, and more. When he got into sour beer production, be handed over recipes for appropriate styles made via sour mashing and kettle souring, as well as more traditional methods.

This book is complete, well-constructed, smartly written, and I’d highly recommend it to any beginning homebrewer.

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

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Reviewed: Brew Your Business

Brew Your Business

By McGrath, Luttrell, Luttrell, and McGrath

Rowman & Littlefield (2017)

Entitled Brew Your Business, I assumed this “ultimate craft beer playbook” would be a handy guide for those looking to write a business plan and dive into the brewing industry, but that part of the book didn’t begin until page 89 of 154.

Before you get there, you have to wade through not only an inaccurate first sentence of the prologue, but a heavy dose of rudimentary homebrewing instruction targeted at what I’d view as a wholly different audience. Once the reader reaches page 89, he or she finds only the most basic information on brewery start-up, to include a whopping four pages on crafting a business plan.

With all due respect, I didn’t find any use for this book. It was written in the style of college junior with strong footnoting skills. Sprinkled throughout are a series of “Talking from the Tap!” interview interludes asking questions that a college freshman might have left behind. This collegiate craftsmanship (no offense to my son, a college freshman) is perhaps no surprise, as two of the four writers are college professors. However, it is a surprise, and should be a surprise.

The publisher should never have accepted this pitch (even if they’re itching to cash in on the craft beer craze with a book during the holiday gift-giving season), and the writers should have instead started a blog to document their craft beer learning curve (no offense to beer bloggers out there, myself included). These folks may be enthusiastic about the craft beer world, but they’re not ready to write a book about it, no matter how well they cited their sources.

If you’re thinking of starting a brewery, this is not the book for you, and if you’re thinking of taking up homebrewing, this book is also not for you.

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

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Reviewed: Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition

I’ve played around with dry-hopping whiskey at home, so when Jameson offered to send me a bottle of their Caskmates IPA Edition Whiskey, I couldn’t resist.

Aged in barrels which had previously held IPA from a neighboring brewery, this dram carries a fruity, herbal hop presence in both the aroma and flavor.The IPA Edition follows Jameson’s previously-released Stout Edition.

In the nose, I find the hops wafting delicately over vanilla, oak, oatmeal cookies and alcohol. The herbal hop notes carry through to nuance the smooth, clean Jameson flavor, which is a frosted mirror of its aroma attributes, with hints of caramel and spice thrown in to the mix.

Whether your preferences lean toward beer or whiskey, this offering is a fun, cross-drinking change of pace.

Parting question: will it skunk in this green bottle?

FTC disclaimer: I received a sample of this whiskey for free from the distillery.

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Reviewed: Against All Hops

Against All Hops: Techniques and Philosophy for Creating Extraordinary Botanical Beers

By Butch Heilshorn

Page Street Publishing (2017)

Judging a book by its cover might allow for this book by Butch Heilshorn to earn an assessment of shirking hops. But that wouldn’t be true.

Heilshorn simply reminds us that all manner of botanicals were employed in bittering, balancing, and flavoring beer some 5,500 years before hops took over around 1500 AD. While Heilshorn enjoys a hoppy concoction where he brews at Earth Eagle Brewings in New Hampshire, he has also embraced all the possibilities that gruit (a brew that uses herbs or plants in place of hops for bitterness and flavor) has to offer.

Enter Against All Hops. Well written and beautifully photographed, this book is encouraging, enlightening, and where appropriate, laced with warning-make sure you’re using appropriate amounts of correctly identified ingredients. In the worst case, the finished beer might be hallucinogenic or dangerous. Less dangerous but rightfully disappointing, a brewer might simply finish with bad-tasting gruit.

With a fun and flavorful ingredient gamut, Heilshorn provides base level guidance so readers may jump off his “paper diving board” at their own risk and reward.

Against All Hops utilizes a wide array of herbs, spices, flowers, shrooms, pig heads, and even hops (and much, much more) in this daring culinary adventure. At a loss for where to acquire the necessary ingredients? Heilshorn offers both advice on online vendors and the invitation to stray from the recipe as written.

As a brewer who respects tradition but views it also as a guide and not a jailer, this tome piqued my interest, and would make a solid addition to any experimental brewer’s book collection.

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

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Time Travel and the Mutability of Paradise

As a kid, it was a real treat when my mom would throw up her hands and exclaim, “Ah, let’s just go to Pee-Wee’s!”

This meant she wasn’t cooking dinner, and I’d be afforded a few of life’s simple pleasures: a few quarters for the jukebox and video games, a fish sandwich and cheeseballs, and the dark-and-dingy atmosphere of a dive bar. My most vivid memories of this delight are set around 1981-82 when I was nine and ten years old, and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” and Ms. PacMan were my personal in-house delicacies.

It was paradise.

The other day, I was reading Boak and Bailey’s take on the Seven Ages of Beer Geeks, which reminded me of a wonderful recent experience that itself took me straight back to Pee-Wee’s for the first time in decades. To summarize Boak and Bailey’s list of Ages, I’ll just say that One is a Noob, and Five is a Deep Freak Chasing All the Paradise Beers. Six brings boredom and disappointment because all the Rage Beers one’s been coveting turn out to be meh after all, and Seven brings a return to the old standards-beers you know and trust in places you know and trust.

These days, I’m a Seven.

Early last month, I was in some other state with a bunch of beery colleagues for a big, awesome beer festival and series of meetings. We checked out some wonderful breweries and bars and attended the reception for industry members. It was all great fun. But as the night wore on, and the craft beer bars became overcrowded, the search for the next destination turned away from the main drag. Some cool guy from Michigan suggested Dive Bar X, and everyone shrugged their shoulders and marched, because we just wanted to chill with a beer and a friend and be able to have a conversation.

There were no Fives in sight.

But there were definitely other brewers taking the same refuge in this slightly darker version of Slippery’s Tavern, if you’re a Grumpy Old Men fan. It was long and narrow, with a C-shaped bar. A pool table, darts, and vintage urinals that spoke to me in a sentimental tone.

I wasn’t alone in realizing that I’d entered Paradise after sooooo many years on the run.

But there was more. All the grit and atmosphere felt good like a Grandma Pie, but on top of the Hamm’s and Schlitz (and cheese balls) that we slung back nostalgically, this place had updated its jukebox selections (well, you know, those new-style, digital jukebox thingies) and had IPAs and other local nuggets on offer.

There were many elements to this time machine bar visit that outstripped the experiences I’ve had at so many breweries and bars with tap counts ranging from 20 to 120. Craft bars and breweries can attract some insufferable people, ya know?

There was the nostalgia factor. There was the friendship factor. There was the billiards factor. There was the Lack of Fives Factor.

At the risk of exposing some big secret, it was some brand of safe haven for industry insiders-a true paradise. But not the paradise I was ready for 10 years ago. However, I like to think if I had popped into this place for a clandestine meeting with a fish sandwich a decade back, I’d have recognized how nice it was to be in a place that reminded me of 1982 and had a solid IPA on tap.

Because we found such refuge in this place-thanks to both privacy and comforts old and new-we hung out there three nights out of four, relishing the fact that our beloved craft beer had reached a level of mainstream availability such that we could drink what we were after in any damn place in America.

And isn’t that the paradise we’ve all been looking for?

NOTE: For the record, many of us-you’ll be happy to hear-switched back to IPA after an obligatory Dive Beer.

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Small town rivalries

#RandyRomens co-owns a small town brewery. And it’s tough selling beer in Tigerland.

Some of my followers are aware that I’m from rural Iowa. I grew up there, moved away to many places around the country for many years, and eventually returned (sometimes wondering why) a decade ago.

Recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine who owns a brewery a few towns away, and I discovered a nuance of the beer selling business that I hadn’t previously considered. It’s rooted in our place, and while I’m sure it is an issue elsewhere around the country, I don’t think it’s high on the list of issues for many notable breweries.

Small towns, it turns out, have rivalries, and they’re not confined to high school sports teams. My friend sells a lot of beer in his community, and he has a nice profile growing in some of the larger markets an hour or three away. But take samples to a neighboring community, one of the same size school district, one which competes in the same high school athletic conference, and the answer is, well, nope.

Craft beer has spread to the hinterlands well enough that I can find a good beer in my local grocery store or bar, but weirdly, it’s not always the most local beer possible. Why?

Weird small town prejudices.

Go Blue Jays!

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Reviewed: Homebrew All-Stars

1 homebrew allstarsHomebrew All-Stars

By Drew Beechum and Denny Conn

Voyageur Press (2016)

New to the beer canon on May 1 of this year, Homebrew All-Stars from well-regarded homebrewers Drew Beechum and Denny Conn brings together a wide swath of beer recipes and brewers (including names as big as John Palmer and Gordon Strong), and regardless of one’s approach to the hobby, this book has something for homebrewers of all stripes.

Following the standard homebrewing primer, the book is essentially divided into four categories, which speak to brewers (and give examples of brewers) in the same number of archetypes: Scientist, Recipe (and Ingredient) Innovator, Old-School Master and Wild One. I took the book’s assessment and wasn’t surprised that I didn’t fit neatly into any one of the slots offered. As Beechum and Conn allow with a Whitman reference, some of us “are large, we contain multitudes.”

In the interest of being picky, I’d say that while I like knowing just who thinks/wrote what in a joint-authored book, I don’t like this strategy:

Denny: Blah, blah, blah opinions that are Denny’s own on a topic.

Drew: Yadda, yadda, yadda thoughts that belong to Drew on a subject.

A matter of personal preference I’m sure, the tic interrupts the flow, and I’d rather the authors brought together a unified message (they did it everywhere else in the book, right?).

However.

Packed with recipes and tips from some of the all-stars of homebrewing, as well as profiles of said brewers, the book is a real asset for anyone looking to up their game.

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

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