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2019 - My Year in Home Brewing

I like to take some time each year to reflect on my brewing activities for the year, identifying what I've learned, what went especially well, what didn't, and what I'd like to accomplish in the year ahead.  That's what this post is all about.

2019 Brewing, in Numbers

In 2018, I made a whopping 48 batches of home brew.  That figure dropped to 27 batches in 2019.  The drop-off was caused by a number of different factors, including:
  • 2019 saw a number of major family events, including three graduations, a wedding, and others.  Not that I regret participating in those events, but that was time I might otherwise have spent brewing, so it affected the total number of batches.
  • My Brewie+ system failed part-way through the year.  The manufacturer folded shortly afterward, so repair services pretty much died with it.  A good friend spent hours with me trying to get it working, but in the end I could not even get it to power on anymore.  
  • Before the Brewie+ died, I discovered a bacterial infection in a piece of bottling equipment that ruined the majority of batches I had brewed and bottled in 2018 and 2019.  I spent a few weekends identifying and dumping all the infected batches.
  • By about October, I'd seen the death of my brewing system, the destruction of many batches brewed during the past year (including some really good ones), and experienced some (mostly) disappointing competition results.  This made me a bit depressed, to be quite honest, and led me to wonder if I should give up the hobby... as things seemed to have taken a rather extreme and negative dive.
There were only a few really bright spots in my home brewing activity this year:
  • In March, I got to brew my 2018 winning beer "Dark Abbey" at Barley's with brewmaster Angelo Signorino and his team.  That's without a doubt the current high point in my home brewing career - seeing one of my beers brewed on a large-scale professional system and working with one of the most skilled and experienced brewmasters in town.
  • Later in the year, my first attempt at a Dry Irish Stout took third place in the British Stouts category at the 2019 Ohio State Fair.  This was the only beer I made in 2019 that had any success in competition.
  • While my brewing system was down, and before I fell into the period of depression and disenchantment, I spent some time learning to brew mead.  I read about it, watched some videos on YouTube, and then made a few.  A couple of those batches were really good.
  • On a trip to Colorado for one of those graduations I mentioned earlier, I got to meet one of the brewmasters at Avery who is responsible for their barrel-aged beers.  We talked about ways to coax yeast to produce very high-gravity beers.  I learned that I'd been doing pretty much all the same things they had, and maybe one or two more.
In terms of styles brewed in 2019, here's what came out of my home brewery:
  • American Pale Ale: 3 batches
  • American IPA: 2 batches
  • Belgian Dark Strong: 1 (2 if you count the batch at Barley's)

  • Belgian Dubbel: 2 batches
  • Belgian Tripel
  • Christmas Ale
  • Cream Ale
  • Doppelbock
  • Dry Irish Stout (took third place at the state fair)
  • English Bitter
  • English Dark Mild: 2 batches
  • German Pilsner
  • Irish Red Ale: 3 batches
  • Malt Liquor 
  • Mead - Melomel: 2 batches
  • Mead - Elderflower
  • Mint Julep Ale
  • Scottish 80 Shilling
  • Smash Beers: 2 batches
If my math is correct, that's 19 unique styles in the 27 batches I brewed during 2019.  IPAs and Pale Ales dominated the list because I was trying to brew a beer to offer guests at my step-son's wedding, but I never got one I thought would be good enough.

Things I Learned in 2019

Because I brewed a lot fewer batches in 2019 than in 2018, I don't feel that I learned as much this year as in previous years.  Still, I did learn a few things:

  • High-Gravity Brewing:  I've made beers as high as 20% ABV, and meads around 19% ABV.  This has taught me about the resiliency of yeast and how to help coax yeast through brewing high-alcohol beers.  I'm hoping to build on this knowledge in 2020.
  • Kveik Yeast:  I got to brew a couple of batches of beer using Kveik yeast.  It was fascinating to see this yeast work well in what would be insane temperatures for most normal yeast, and yet Kveik yielded no fusels or harsh flavor/aroma elements.  I look forward to doing more with it in 2020 as well.
  • Simpler May Be Better:  I've had the good fortune to have been able to brew on the kitchen stove, using iMake's The Grainfather, PicoBrew's Zymatic, and the Brewie+.  Of all these, using the Brewie was hands-down the easiest and in many ways the most enjoyable.  But the failure of that machine and its manufacturer taught me that a simpler system like The Grainfather may be better.  It's more work to brew with it, for sure, but the small number of parts results in fewer points of failure and hopefully a more reliable brewing experience.
  • Documentation is Important, and The More the Better:  I learned early on that documenting your recipes, the brewing process, fermentation details, etc., can help you reproduce a good recipe and possibly understand where a batch went wrong.  However, my documentation stopped at the point when fermentation completed.  I didn't track which fermenter I used with each batch, which bottling wand, and which priming sugar method (or amount) I used.  When it became clear that I had a problem with infection, it took a lot of time, analysis, and research to figure out where that infection came from (in this case, a bottling wand).  I'll be doing a lot more, and a lot more detailed, documentation in 2020 and beyond.
  • Rotation and Replacement are Important:  The infection issue taught me something else.  Although I own a bunch of fermenters, I was only regularly using a couple.  The same with bottling wands. I felt that my cleaning and sanitizing processes were solid and foolproof, so it didn't really matter, right?  Wrong.  Using the same equipment across lots of batches made it hard to figure out where that infection came from.  Was it one fermenter or the other, one bottling wand or the other, had the wand infected the fermenter(s)?  If it had not been for some photos I took to document a few things in some of the batches, I might not have identified the infection and had to either toss a lot of equipment to experience future infections.  That $5 bottling wand ruined literally dozens of batches and hundreds of bottles of homebrew.  If I had rotated through two or three of them, or just made it a point to replace the wand every six months or so, I might have been able to save hundreds of dollars worth of homebrew.
  • Hoppy Beers are Tougher to Make Than I Realized: If you know me, or you've been reading this blog a while, you'll know that I'm not a big fan of pale ales and IPAs.  Hop-forward styles generally don't excite me the way they do most craft beer fans and home brewers.  Despite a lot of reading and research, I didn't think there was much to brewing those styles and getting a great result.  I was wrong.  Although I made quite a few in 2019, and they were well received by hop-headed family and friends, they seemed muted and and uninteresting to me when compared to many locally-brewed commercial examples.  This is something I'll get around to mastering someday, but part of the problem may be that my heart's just not into it.  I'd rather brew beers I like to drink, or have a strong desire to try.
  • You Can't Always Believe YouTube:  Don't get me wrong, I'm not naive enough to think everything you see on the Internet is real.  But I did watch a number of YouTube videos about mead-making that contained some incredibly bad advice.  I questioned it at the time, but these videos came from channels with a lot of videos and views, so I figured it was maybe a gap in my knowledge.  It wasn't.  Here's one specific example... One video claimed that the way to get residual sweetness in your mead was to identify the alcohol tolerance of the yeast strain and include enough honey to exceed that tolerance by a certain amount.  The yeast would ferment away what it could, burn itself out, and you'd be left with a dry, semi-sweet, or sweet mead depending on the amount of honey you "over added" to the must.  Maybe I'm just really good with yeast, or maybe manufacturers are conservative in reporting alcohol tolerance, but the yeasts I used all blew right past their documented tolerance limits and kept fermenting.  Instead of getting (for example) a sweet 16% ABV mead, I would end up with a very dry 19.8% mead from a yeast rated at 16%.  This led me to learn about stabilizing the yeast and back-sweetening, which is the better way to generate a sweet mead.
  • There are Limits to a Sous Vide Setup:  I've made one-gallon batches of beer using my sous vide cooker, an induction cooktop, and a kettle.  Those have turned out pretty well.  I wondered if you could get a 2-3 gallon batch of beer mashed using a sous video cooker.  The bottom line is that while it may be possible, it's probably more trouble than it's worth.  A sous vide cooker can't circulate water through a grain bed well enough to keep it at an even temperature.  You'll see temperatures vary as much as 10-15 degrees across the grain bed.  That's enough to cause souring and result in a very dry beer.  It's an experiment I don't plan to repeat.  It may be more work to use my Grainfather for a 2.5 gallon batch than to use the sous vide, but you can't get good results with the sous vide... at least not the way I was using it.
  • Mint is Hard to Brew With:  Barley's brewmaster Angelo Signorino told me, when I suggested that I was going to try to brew a Mint Julep Ale, that beer and mint just don't work.  I'd had a chocolate mint stout and even a Mint Julep Ale at now-defunct Fate Brewing in Boulder, Colorado.  Those were good beers with a nice minty element.  But my attempt at a Mint Julep Ale just did not deliver on the mint, despite my adding a lot of mint to it.  Interestingly, a recent mint stout from WeldWerks Brewing in Greeley, Colorado, had the identical muted mint element to it that my Mint Julep Ale did... so even the pros struggle with this.  However, I've had a couple of mint stouts with a bright mint flavor to them, so I know it's doable. I just don't know how yet.
  • I like the BrewFather App:  Initially, I liked Beer Tools Pro.  Then I decided to try BeerSmith, and I liked that a lot more.  Late in 2019, I started tinkering with Brewfather and I'm finding that I like it better, mostly because it's accessible wherever I am and it integrates well with my Tilt Hydrometer.
I'm sure I learned more in 2019, but those are the biggies that stick with me.

Goals for 2020 Learning

As for 2020, I have some goals for my brewing knowledge-gathering in 2020.  These are things I would like to have better mastery of in the coming year:
  • Base Malts:  Before my Brewie died, I had planned (and even started) to brew SMaSH beers using the same hop, same yeast, and same mash schedule across a bunch of different base malts.  Those plans were ruined by the failure of that system.  I hope to restart that work in 2020 and gain a clearer understanding of base malt flavors.
  • Kveik Yeast:  In 2019, I played around with Kveik yeast and found it interesting.  I'd like to grow a bunch of the stuff this year and experiment more with it in a bunch of different styles to see if I can't find a really tasty application for it.
  • High-Gravity Brewing:  I enjoy sipping the high-gravity beers from Avery, and I'd like to come up with some similarly tasty high-gravity brews on my own.  I have in mind a way to build a custom fermenter that would aid in this.  I'd like to try prototyping that in 2020.
  • Irish Red Ale:  I seem to be cursed when it comes to brewing Irish Red Ales.  I've made at least four of them to date.  Two had to be dumped due to infection.  A third was ruined by the introduction of glucoamylase.  The last turned out OK but just didn't taste that good.  I'd like to make a good one in 2020 for once.
  • Dark Fruit Flavor:  I love beers with a pronounced dark fruit flavor.  I know that's possible, because I'd consumed quite a few of them.  I'd like to better understand how to evoke and maximize this flavor in a beer in 2020.
Once my current flu is behind me, I hope to start delivering on some of these wishes in 2020.


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