Monday, December 28, 2015

2015 Reflection and 2016 goals

Brassier au Baron in northern France.
Another year is coming to a close, which gives me a chance to look back on what I wanted to accomplish with beer over 2015, what I actually did, and also organize some thoughts for what I'm looking to do in the coming year. I suppose I'm a bit of a list maker, but I find the process of setting these goals and reflecting on what I've done helps me focus for the coming year and get more out of my brewing. I'd suggest you try something similar (and feel free to put your goals/reflections in the comments).

This year has brought me temporarily to Europe again - for about 6 months this time - which means another break from brewing. But I've been able to take advantage of the time for maintaining friendships and building new ones in Belgium. These have been great for my beer education and have provided plenty of inspiration for when I return to brewing in spring 2016. Some of these Belgian travels make it into posts on here and there are more in the queue waiting, but if you'd like to follow along with the Belgian travels the best bet is the blog's facebook page.

2015 in Review

I'd say 2015, and especially the past few months, was a really big year for this blog. Some of the most viewed posts (and a couple of my favorite posts that didn't get quite as big of a response) of the blog's 2+ years came since September. Posts were shared by people I don't know to prominent beer groups and I got personal mentions from the facebook pages of a couple breweries/blenderies/brewers/blenders that I really admire. This is a great building of momentum that I hope to carry through 2016. More than at any other time with this blog, I have half written posts and post idea outlines waiting for me to make the time to sit down and write them out. Hopefully that comes shortly.

Setting up for blending in 2015.
1) Looking back at 2015's goals: I put together a list of goals for 2015 and reflection on 2014 in this blog post. Looking back over that, my two big goals for focus was working on blending and targeted brewing of styles. I had one major blending session and a couple of smaller blending projects, so I'd say I made a good start with this. I didn't do any blending of an 'acid' beer with fresher beer so that's something I may want to try to do this year. For the targeted style focus, I continued working with saison and saison yeast blends. I began some work on finding a brett blend by brett saison trials but this project has been put on hold by not being around. I didn't shift focus away from mixed fermentation beers or saisons so I didn't do any work with hoppy pale ale type beers. I will probably not do it this year as well, though as I'll get to below I still want to get more from my hop use.

2) Connecting with other bloggers/beer enthusiasts: This showed up in the 2014 year in review, and is something that has been a major part of 2015. As I've mentioned elsewhere, one of the coolest things about this blog is that it helps to connect me with others thinking about similar things. This opened up some cool opportunities such as a 20 single strain brett tasting in June. As the readership of the blog grows, I hope/expect that this will continue. In addition to this, being back around Belgium has helped me to make new connections and strengthen the ones I made back in 2013-2014.

3) Milk the Funk: I've been increasingly involved with Milk the Funk (facebook and wiki), which splits my beer writing energies away from this blog a bit. My contributions to the wiki come in chunks here and there with a bit of a long gap, but I'm still a pretty active member in the wiki building (probably one of the top three or so averaged over the year). Most of the wiki work (by a large margin) is done by Dan and I have to thank him for that work and for keeping me on track by gently reminding me of the things I said I'd do on the wiki and haven't done yet.

My friend Matt mixing the mash.
4) Commercial brewing: I brewed another commercial collaborative batch in 2015. It was an honor to be invited for a collab brew and the brew day was a lot of fun. It was cool to see another commercial system in use and to learn from the commercial process. Unfortunately for the beer (but fortunately for the health of my friend) not too long after the brew day, the friend with whom I brewed decided to leave commercial brewing. This means we lost control over what happened with the beer and it didn't go the way I would have liked. I haven't had the results yet and I imagine it turned out alright, but not up to its potential.

In addition to this collaboration brewday, I have some professional brewing-related collaborations/connections in the works on Vancouver Island that should be announced throughout the year. Don't get too many crazy grand ideas - no announcements of opening my own brewery coming soon. Just some cool projects in the works.

5) On the home brewing front 2015 was a pretty good year. I continued my barrel aging projects (one 30 gal/~112 L barrel and one ~60 gal/~225 L barrel). After blending away most of my long term aging beers, I brewed a bunch more and I have something like 15 carboys waiting for me in Victoria. I began to do some fruiting of aged beers to gain more understanding of fruiting levels and usage. On the clean side I brewed a bunch of saison-insired beers, mostly table-strength with an OG around 1.030. I've been quite happy with these and plan to continue brewing a lot of table strength beers.

Goals for 2016:

1) Develop a house mixed culture - So far much of my brewing has been focused on carefully controlling blended yeasts to optimize blends and get repeatability. After trying out a good number of blends/ratios I am reasonably settled on what I want to form the foundation of many of my beers. So now I'd like to build that up into a mixed culture of yeast and bacteria that I can use and re-pitch for a good range of saison-like beers. Something along the lines of what Jester King is doing, where they can use their yeast and get 'clean' tasting beers that are ready on a faster time scale but continue to develop in the bottle (like Petit Prince) as well as longer time scale beers that show the mixed-microbe character when they are released. In order to do that I'll need to find some bretts that I like and that don't go through a strange phase in the middle that would prevent their ability to produce a younger beer as well as some bacteria that I can control well by hopping and temperature. So that's in the goals for this year.

Open cooling a spontaneous beer.
2) Keep working toward a spontaneous beer - To me lambic is one of the best examples of the great potential of beer. If you aren't very familiar with lambic, it is spontaneously fermented (no yeast is added, traditionally it is exposed to ambient air during open cooling and then fermented in wooden barrels that, while cleaned well, likely allow some microbes to take residence). While I wouldn't call any of my beers lambic, I am interested in brewing some spontaneously fermented beers with my own local microbes. In 2014 I started some fully spontaneous beers (no pitched commercial cultures/dregs/isolates). I brewed more throughout 2015 and hope to bottle a fully spontaneous beer in 2016, or maybe early 2017, if the beers are ready. I may have to settle for blending some spontaneous and non-spontaneous turbid-mashed beer together if I think a fully spontaneous beer is better served by waiting and/or brewing some more blending components. Either way would be a step toward spontaneous beer.

3) Continue research into historic and modern Belgian beer and brewing - This has been one of the big new steps I've taken over the past year and I'm pretty excited with how its gone so far. I did a bit of research into Grisette (here) which is a project that is still ongoing. I also started some research into historic lambic (part 1 and part 2). This is a major project and will be something I am adding to for quite some time (as constrained by my lack of French competency and my slow progress toward learning it). But I am still acquiring resources that I plan to make slow progress through. I have some news here that will be announced throughout 2016 as well.

4) Master the use of hops - Obviously I don't mean this literally, as that would be a lifelong project, but I'd like to learn more about getting the most out of hops. In my 2015 goals I mentioned the possibility of working on hop use in pale ales. I didn't end up doing that and probably won't brew may pale ales this year either, but I would like to catch up on newer hop varieties and non-European hops in general.

Also, I've been gravitating increasingly toward hoppier Belgian beers. Mainly those with noble-type hops, though there are certainly some excellent Belgian/French beers with new world hops (such as some from De La Senne and Thiriez). I feel like I am able to consistently get a good hop character from noble-type hops, but when I compare my beers to some of my favorite commercial examples sometimes they aren't quite there. I think some of this is just in hop levels (and I am moving toward using more and getting more bitterness) but some also is from use (including dry hopping, which is something I don't often do). So the goal for the year is two-fold: I'd like to feel like I am getting more out of the hops I'm using and, for the main goal, also expand the range of hops from which I feel like I know how to get what I want.


  1. I've been thinking a bit about noble hop character too. I wonder if some of it isn't also a question of freshness and quality, between the hops available to discerning brewers located relatively close to the growing locations, and U.S. homebrewers who are stuck with whatever noble hops they can find, with European hops typically showing up at least 6 months after the harvest.

    I was thinking about all of this with respect to De Ranke XX Bitter in particularly. I love the quality of the bitterness in that beer, if that makes sense, and I also think it has a pretty unique mouthfeel that might have something to do with the quantity of hops used.

    1. I think quality is a part of this and that's a good point. There might be some freshness to it as well, but many of the European brewers I've visited don't always store their hops as carefully as some US brewers of hop-forward beers. I think noble-type hops are less susceptible to problems of oxidation than typical US aroma hops.

      XX bitter is a good beer. That's the sort of bitterness quality and hop character I had in mind when I wrote the bit about hops. And good point on the mouthfeel. I think there is definitely something there. I recently had a gruit from Upright and while I enjoyed it, everyone there agreed that something was missing form the mouthfeel and we all suspected it was from hops.

  2. I am definitely not at your level but find that I have some of the same goals. For 2015: I brewed a wide range of clean styles and tried my hand at competition with some success; I learned about propagating yeast strains from dregs and developed a house saison blend; I brewed in May my first spontaneous fermented beer (which I call wild beer or biere sauvage)to which I later added yeasts and bugs raised from Belgian and US dregs; I brewed today (28 December) a double batch which is hopefully catching wild yeast and bacteria as I type; I will raise those batches with, respectively, a commercial lambic blend and a commercial farmhouse blend with a view to blending some of those beers with the batch from May when it is one year old; I was fortunate enough to do 2 collaborative beers with craft brewers: a saison for a keg fest in July and a Belgian Stout which should be on tap any day now. For 2016: I will take delivery in February of a bourbon barrel and use it to brew a few stouts and porters until the bourbon character has dissipated, then use it as a solera for my wild beers starting in May after racking some of the oldest wild beer onto fruit and bottling; the idea is to get a pipeline of wild beers running through that oak barrel; if it works well, I will get a second barrel (US 8 gallons only) and try to develop a different character in that barrel. I will keep competing in 2016 as I find it gives me a lot of great feedback and ideas to improve. I hope your year (and mine) goes well. All the best for 2016!

    1. Excellent work in 2015 Bill! Getting a good selection of mixed-fermentation beers for future blending sounds great. Congrats on the multiple commercial collabs!

      Is the barrel you're getting in February one of the 8 gal ones from Woodinville? I've heard from others with some of those barrels that it takes a while to soften the barrel character to allow long aging. It sounds like you have a plan in place to deal with that but wanted to throw it out there that perhaps you should be prepared to put more beers through than you'd ideally want before going funky.

      Cheers and thanks for sharing your goals!

    2. Yes, I have ordered a Woodinville bourbon barrel. I had thought that 2 to 3 8-gallon batches of stout or porter would take off enough of the bourbon and oak character to allow for my solera plan. How many batches do you think might be necessary? If it will take longer than I had planned, my backup is to use a 60 liter food grade plastic barrel (in which malt extract was shipped) and rack all 3 of my wild beer batches to it. Or just wait for the barrel to be ready. Each of my 3 wild beer batches has a piece of oak barrel stave in it and I could add more staves to the plastic barrel. Your thoughts?

    3. Hmm, I may have to ask around for that but from what I've heard the spirit and char character persist in the barrel more than my friends were expecting/hoping. Your plan sounds reasonable. I haven't aged anything long term in plastic for fear of getting too much O2 exposure but I think some others have success with it. Personally if you have enough carboys I'd leave it in carboys with the oak you've got now. Do you know how many grams of oak/how big the piece is?

      I tend to go cautiously with oak but I also think more oak would add to some of my beers. I'm worried about ruining something good with a lot of oak but many of the beers I really like have an oak as a flavor and/or structure component. I tend to soak oak cubes/rods in boiling water for a bit to extract some of the sharper flavors and mellow them out.

  3. I mentioned hops today in conversation with Amos and he directed me to you post (that I hadn't gotten to get!). I'm really struggling with getting enough bitterness in my Saison brewing without it turning into a hop bomb. I plan on doing a lot of that this year.

    I also plan to do more blending of acidic beer with my Saison. I just recently bottled a blend on 12/20 of a relatively hoppy Saison and a sour blonde. So far the results are great fresh. I am anxious to see how it evolves in the bottle.

    Biere de Coupage and Biere de Garde brewing will probably stick at the top of my to do list this year as well as more experimentation with what I'm calling my house Saison, Kathleen. I'm thinking some fruit as well a seasonal brews.


    1. Nice, sounds like some good plans! Are you using noble-type (or European in general) hops in your saisons or North American/Southern Hemisphere? I usually use noble-type hops and haven't encountered this problem. My standard approach is to 'bitter' with an addition coming with 30 min left in the boil and then finish with a 20-30 whirlpool. I generally would shoot for ~25 IBU (roughly equally split or a bit weighted toward the end) but will be increasing that amount in future batches.

      Sounds like a cool blend! Going forward with stuff like that sounds good for the year. I did some fruit stuff this past year and was happy with it. Sounds like you're planning ahead to have beer ready when fruit is in season.

      Thanks for sharing your goals!