2016 was a banner year for me as a home brewer. I built on my experiences from 2015, the year I re-dedicated myself to the hobby. I made a record number of batches, 13 in all, 5 more than the year before. I upgraded my equipment considerably and learned a lot especially the first half of the year. I even won a ribbon in my first competition.
For the Win
I made this beer, a coffee porter, in January. It was the last batch that I made with my 2015 rig, especially my old kettle. I formulated this new recipe for my good friend Cory Doctorow after he reminded me of some other special beers I made for people I admire. I dosed the beer with some cold brewed coffee made from Chesapeake Bay Roasting Company’s Cattail dark roast.
I thought about entering this beer in a competition. I had promised myself the year before that I would try to attend some local club meetings and to enter competitions. I was still entertaining the possibility of opening a brewery, the more rigorous feedback in my mind would be key. I didn’t enter a beer into competition until the middle of this year.
This beer was one of the first two I kegged, tapping with the kegerator I bought myself over the Holidays at the end of the year before. The other beer was my barley wine, that I had been bulking aging all through 2015.
I love this recipe, it was the 2nd I brewed on my own rig when I re-built it in 2010 after years of not brewing anything. I set out to make a batch in February, the first with a new electric brew kettle and a plate chiller. My research led me to believe I could produce cleaner, clearer beers, especially light colored ones, with these additions. The kettle produces a more vigorous boil than my stove top could drive. I can cool the finished wort much more rapidly with a heat exchanger than I could with my immersion chiller.
This batch was the only beer I poured out this year, only the second one in six years. The plate chiller got horribly clogged. I tried to get the near boiling wort out using a racking cane, which promptly melted. I spent the next handful of batches struggling with this plate chiller until I figured out how to dial it in to ensure a smooth brew day with all the benefits the new setup can provide.
My Scottish export ale was my 1st original recipe and is one of my very favorites. Only it and my dubbel are recipes older than a year that I made this year. The rest of the beers are either entirely new recipes for me or ones I made for the first time last year.
I made a batch in March, with renewed determination after my recent failure with the dubbel. The batch came up short, four gallons instead of the planned five. The beer turned out great, comparing well to the 2015 batch in a vertical tasting I did with my friend Chris when he was in town visiting in April. The short fall was due to struggles with my plate chiller that would persist for a few more brew days.
In April, while my dear friend Chris was visiting, I attempted my second new recipe for this year. This mild was informed by my ideas for a possible future commercial brewery, along with a bitter and an old ale filling out a notional roster of British inspired beers. I researched this style and recipe a great deal, even roasting some grain to produce more historically accurate specialty grains. The batch came up even shorter than the Scottish ale and was the only beer for the year I was unhappy with.
While Chris was visiting, he shared his plans for his wedding later in the year. A plan was hatched during this brew day, to produce a special beer for the occasion. Invitations would be limited just to close family, with a celebration for friends to be planned later on. Making and sending as beer was a fun way to sort of attend by proxy.
I quickly recruited Jason and Natalie, brewers and friends of Chris’ as well, into the formulation, brewing and packaging of this beer, which we quickly decided should be a braggot, a hybrid of beer and mead. Jason suggested the style and found us a great recipe as a starting point.
Quux 1 and 2
I made two test batches of the braggot in April and May. I chose quux as a placeholder name, a silly nonsense word from the world of programming. Natalie suggested the test runs, a great idea since I had never made a braggot and was using some new to me ingredients. Each was an extract beer, much simpler than my usual process, and only a half batch. The trial beers were great, turning around very quickly. I was able to get the recipe finalized in time for a late Summer brew day. I wanted to have enough time to do a little bulk aging on the final version of the beer.
A Sprig of Grass
In May I returned to a new recipe from last year, my IPA. I made a few tweaks to the hopping schedule based on my notes from the previous batch. Otherwise I was happy to be making a newer recipe that I liked so much. I added a second pump and a hop jacket to try to improve my success with the plate chiller but still ended up with a short batch. Within another brew day or two, I would have the chiller sorted. This was one of the last batches that was less then my planned quantity.
I entered this beer, along with my mild, into a county competition and a little later into a state-wide competition with some of the next beer, my bitter. I received some solid scores for my first competitions along with great feedback. This beer actually took a ribbon at the county competition, best in the category of American and English IPAs.
I attended my first National Homebrewers Conference in June. It took place in Baltimore so was pretty much a no brainer in terms of timing and cost. I took some of the first test batch of braggot. Everyone I shared it with enjoyed it, especially some new friends I made at the conference. I attended some great presentations, in particular on the history porter and the hot steep method for evaluating malt.
In June I made another new recipe, a best bitter. This beer was the first full volume batch since I started using the plate chiller. The 2nd pump ensured enough pressure for the wort to flow through the tight spaces of the chiller. Getting the hop jacket situated in the right place between the pump and the fermenter ensured only the clearest wort was running into the chiller, too, reducing the chances of blockages.
I put almost as much research into this recipe as the mild. I hope my next attempt at the mild is as successful as this beer was. Even though I had the full five gallons, this beer went very fast, between sharing liberally with friends and just enjoying its immense drinkability on draft.
Jason joined me in July to make the final batch of braggot for Chris and Cathy’s wedding. He and several other friends sampled the second test batch with different herbal tinctures, helping me decide on the final mix and proportions. There was a single hiccup on this brew day, a blown fuse. I was trying to share some hot steeped sample wort using grains from this recipe. The stick blender and my massive electric kettle were too much for the poor circuit in my kitchen. The batch ended up being more than planned since less boiled off. The finished beer was not quite as strong as intended, though still delicious.
Before I packaged up bottles to send the happy couple in October, Natalie very generously designed the perfect label. Back in April, we had joked about something more humorous based on some earlier work Natalie had done while she and Jason were contributing years ago to a project of Chris’. We were all pretty thrilled with the final direction she chose.
Since the beer I made in July, the braggot, would not be kegged for a few months, I decided to make a one off in August. I enjoyed the best bitter so much, I decided to make a version with some grain I received as a freebie at Homebrewcon. This caramel rye was one of the very first malts I did an evaluation on using the hot steep method. The beer turned out as delicious as expected but was a short batch, the last time this would happen this year. I made one final mistake with the sequence of connecting everything around the dreaded plate chiller. Now I just remember that my longest hose goes straight from the chiller to my fermenter, everything else falls into the correct place if I get that right.
I really loved how my barley wine from last year turned out. I made a small beer version of it last Fall out of my impatience to try the bigger version. I liked that table beer less than the stronger version so had a re-think about the recipe this year. Doing a little research, I realized that my scaled down variant wasn’t quite right for the style. Making the beer more to style would put it somewhere between the two version from 2015. I loved that idea and decided to split the aging too. One of my fermenters is still quietly conditioning away, waiting for a kegging day in mid-February.
This brew day was the first of a run of incredibly smooth ones. One of the recipe tweaks was to use a hop I finally managed to procure over the Summer. Bramling Cross is an heirloom British variety that is quite hard to come by. The description of the black currant notes it adds to a beer had really captured my interest. I’ve used it in a couple of beers since, ones I have already shared and sampled. It was definitely worth the trouble.
My October brew day was almost boring, it was so uneventful. I hope all the rest of my brew days are this smooth. I returned to another new recipe from last year, my spiced brown ale, the one inspired by a s’more. The cinnamon was too strong last year, I think I managed to get the spice mix just about right this year. I finished this beer with Bramling Cross but I think next year I’ll use something more neutral as the spices obscured the hops.
I was worried that I’d get sick of this beer before the keg kicked. Since the spices do mellow over time, it just became more and more drinkable. I almost didn’t have enough bottles to share. This beer has me re-thinking how much beer I package for sharing, especially since I gave away a good portion impromptu, in addition to the bottles I usually set aside from every batch.
In November I made another new recipe, an old ale. I had been planning this one since mid-year or so. It is the first recipe I used straight from another source, without making any changes. Between this brew day and the last, I bought a new, stainless steel fermenter. I quickly added a temperature controller to it. I can definitely tell the difference in the finished beer. I am looking forward to continuing to explore this new aspect of brewing that I now have so much more control over.
I love the dark crystal malts in this beer. The black treacle adds an interesting roughness in the fresh beer. I am intensely curious about how that flavor will change as the beer ages. I bottled an entire case of bombers so that I would have enough of this beer to share and to cellar. I could have sworn I finished this beer with Bramling Cross as well but on checking my notes, that is not so. The beer has a wonderful, dark berry note right in the middle of the palate that I really love. I think mistaking it for Bramling Cross is understandable.
Cursing the Darkness
I found another recipe, for a historic Scottish stout, that I liked almost as written. I made the beer in December, as my last brew day of the year. I undertook this as another solo brew day to finish the year’s brewing with a focus on practice, experience and refinement.
Since the recipe was an untried re-creation, I did tweak it a little based on some ideas and impressions from other beers this year. I changed out the hop from Fuggles to Bramling Cross, mostly because I was curious to try it at such a high hopping rate. I looked into brewer’s caramel but was not keen on the ingredient. I decided to use black treacle instead because I liked it so much in the old ale. This is the 2nd beer in my new stainless steel fermenter, benefiting from the temperature controller. I tasted a sample just the other day and am excited to finish and share this one.
I know a lot of people are cursing 2016. As appropriate as the name is given that general feeling, that isn’t why I chose it. I wanted to return to the original source of inspiration for my beer names. Partly I chose the quote since it seems to fit the style, a stout. More so I chose it because the quote actually speaks to finding causes for optimism. This recipe has replaced the oldest one in my repertoire, one I’ve retired but that used to finish out my brewing schedule for the year. I guess the beer represents a certain peace after struggling these last couple of years and a renewed eagerness for what is ahead.
Next year will hopefully surpass this year for me as a home brewer, if only by a little. My planned count is one higher than this year. That includes some opportunities to either take pauses or ramp up in the latter half of the year.
I have already been so impressed by my new fermenter that I bought a twin, so that I can work on batches in parallel. I have expanded my cooperage with a third keg anticipating that I may have more beer finished than I can necessarily serve at once on my twin taps.
Many of this year’s recipes will be made again in the coming year. I love how the gains in my knowledge and skill express themselves in standing recipes perhaps more than I like experimenting with new styles. That being said, I will start the year off with a big beer, a wee heavy version of my Scottish ale I have been promising to make for a while. The Pirate King will finish on Scotch soaked oak spirals and be bulk aged at least six months. I am still debating if I will lay it down for an entire year like my barley wine last year.
Perhaps more exciting is that I have connected with the first independent maltster in Maryland, Dark Cloud Malthouse. They are in the very early stages of their business, I will be sharing much more about them soon. While they are looking for local commercial craft brewers interested in their malt, they are also working with local home brewers to get feedback on their product. Before I make my wee heavy, my very first beer will actually be an American cream ale using Dark Cloud’s 6-row. This is a beer I literally could not have made at the start of 2016. I cannot wait to share my experiences making it and to share the beer itself as much as I can.