I recently had the opportunity to help organize the annual home-brew competition held by the Hong Kong Homebrewers' Association (HKHA) at the beginning of June. It wasn't really my intention to fill that role, as I'd much rather just brew and enter beers, but sometimes things just turn out that way. On the bright side, there's always something to be learned from a new challenge so in this post I'd like to point out a few things that I have gleaned from this experience.
"Session Beer" is a relatively recent term that is entirely made-up, but refers to beer that is of a lower alcohol content (typically under 5%) that allow for drinking more than one in a single "session". The challenge with brewing beers of lower alcohol strength is in ensuring that they have enough flavor to keep them interesting, and enough balance to invite multiple rounds. In this blog post I'll cover some takeaways from Jennifer Talley's new book Session Beers, including relevant styles and brewing tips. Talley has spent majority of her brewing career in Salt Lake City, Utah where she was restrained to brewing low-alcohol beers due to state laws. Out of necessity she has learned to brew great beer under 5% ABV and shares her tips (and recipes) in this 2017 publication.
This past holiday season I spent a few weeks along the Eastern coast of the USA visiting friends and family. Although we experienced some abnormally frigid weather for late December, my wife and I were still able to make our rounds to visit some of the breweries around Boston and the surrounding suburbs to the northeast.
Gluten is a troublesome protein found in cereal grains such as barley, wheat, and rye. Approximately 1% of the world population is affected by celiac disease which is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and affects nutrient absorption. Gluten sensitivity is a recognised condition affecting about 6% of the US population, and involves other, less serious reactions from ingested gluten. Since the primary source of sugar in brewing comes from cereal grains, most people with celiac disease and gluten intolerances avoid beer altogether, but craft brewers have gotten creative over the years in trying to offer gluten-free options that still taste great. This post will introduce you to the basics of gluten-free brewing.
German "craft beer"? Why would they need that? For a country that oozes "craft" in everything that they do, and a history that is steeped in strict traditions when it comes to brewing, it seemed unlikely that we would ever see German brewers joining the craft beer revolution. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that the most diverse and international city in Germany would serve as a catalyst for this new German craft beer movement.
It's that time of year again, when Hong Kong's home brewers are putting in sweat and beers to craft award-winning brews for the annual Hong Kong Homebrewer's Association Home Brew Competition. This year's competition results will be announced on May 13th at The Globe, as usual. Entries must be registered by April 13th and dropped-off at the Young Master Brewery by May 6th for judging. There are nine categories for entries this year that includes meads and ciders and contestants are limited to three entries. In this post I would like to share a few tips for brewers when preparing to brew for a BJCP-sanctioned competition. As a participant and award winner in the last three competitions, and as a pending BJCP recognised judge, I have realized that there are a few pointers that can help brewers to bring home medals this year.
1. Choose the Right Category
While there are nine categories for this year's competition, there are many different recognised beer styles by the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program). Entering your beer in the wrong category can automatically disqualify you, even if you brew the best beer of your life. This year's categories are: Light/Wheat Beers, Pale Ales, India Pale Ales, Belgian Ales, Amber/Brown Beers, Dark Beers, Specialty Beers, Local Specialty Beers, and Meads & Ciders. Here are my recommendations for entering BJCP styles under these categories (referencing the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines):
Light/Wheat - American Lager, Cream Ale, American Wheat (1A, 1B, 1C, 1D); International Pale Lager (2A); Czech Lager (3A, 3B); Munich Helles (4A); Kolsch and German Pils (5B, 5D); German Weissbier (10A); Berliner Weisse (23A); Belgian Witbier (24A)
Pale Ales - British Bitters (11A, 11B, 11C); British Golden Ale (12A, 12B); American Blonde and American Pale Ale (18A, 18B)
India Pale Ales - English IPA (12C); American IPA (21A), Specialty IPA (21B), and Double IPA (22A)
Belgian Ales - European Sour Ale (23B-F); Belgian Pale Ale (24B); Biere de Garde (24C); Belgian Blond (25A), Saison (25B), Belgian Golden Strong Ale (25C); Trappist (26)
Amber/Brown Beers - Amber Lagers (2B, 3C, 4B, 6A, 6B); Vienna Lager (7A); Altbier (7B); Irish Red Ale (15A); American Amber Ale (19A), California Common (19B), American Brown Ale (19C); Scottish Light and Heavy (14A, 14B); Strong British Beer (17A-D); Dark Mild (13A), British Brown Ale(13B), and British Porter (13C)
Dark Beers - Dark Lagers (2C, 3D, 6C, 8A, 8B, 9A, 9B, 9C); German Dunkles Weissbier (10B) and Weizenbock (10C); Irish Stouts (15B, 15C), British Stouts (16A, 16B, 16C, 16D), and American Stouts (20A, 20B, 20C)
Specialty and Local Specialty - Most home brewers make beers that fall into this category due to the experimental nature of home brewing and the urge to add herbs and spices to brews. While there are a few BJCP categories for specialty beers (i.e. American Wild Ale (28), Fruit Beer (29), Spiced Beer (30), Alternative Fermentables (31), Smoked Beer (32), and Wood Beer (33)) most entries into these categories require a "base-recipe" that can be used for comparison along with a harmonious blend of the specialty ingredients used. My advice is to choose a base style that you can do well (i.e. wheat, pale, stout, amber) and then choose 1-2 specialty ingredients to test. Be thoughtful with the amount of a special ingredient that you add and so that you don't overdo it. In most cases the special ingredient will add a subtle flavor that gives the base beer complexity without distracting too much from the base style.
*There are a few styles that seem to fit in two categories (i.e. Belgian Witbier (Light/Wheat or Belgian Ale?) or Ordinary Bitter (Light or Pale Ale?). In these cases just ask the organisers at HK Brewcraft for their recommendation as to which category the beer should be entered.
2. Use the BJCP Guidelines to Formulate Your Recipe
The 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines can be downloaded from www.bjcp.org. It's highly recommended that you download a copy and familiarise yourself with the guidelines for the style that you want to enter. You can have an idea in your mind about what an American Pale Ale tastes like and how it's different from an American IPA, but how does that compare with what the judges will be looking at? For each style in the guide the following information should be taken into account while crafting your recipe:
- Target original gravity (OG) and final gravity (FG)
- Target range of international bitterness units (IBUs). If you don't know how to calculate this for your recipe then refer to my previous post.
- Characteristic ingredients: types of malt and hops used (i.e. British malt and hops for Bitters, American hops for American IPA, Czech/German hops for Pilsner, etc) - this is usually obvious, but should not be ignored
- Color - the final SRM values are posted to know the boundary between Amber and Brown Ales or Porters and Stouts
- Yeast character - similar to malt and hops, you want to use a yeast that is characteristic of the style. Is an American ale yeast ok for a porter? Does an English IPA need to have an English yeast?
- Mouthfeel - this includes the body and carbonation level which can help to add malts to increase body when appropriate. The carbonation level is often incorrect with home brewed beer, depending on priming sugar calculations and improper seals on bottles.
3. Try Commercial Examples
The BJCP guidelines also include commercial examples for each style. You should be able to find beers off of the list in Hong Kong to sample so that you can translate the descriptors that you see in the guide with well-made (but slightly oxidised) examples.
4. Timing is Everything
Knowing the competition schedule this year, you want to have a plan to ensure that the beer that you drop off on May 4-6th, which will be tasted and judged on May 7th, will be exactly as intended. There is a balance that must be reached between having beer that has had enough time to condition properly, but not too much time to be oxidised and stale.
Ideally you would plan to have time to brew your recipe twice: once for a test batch and again to make slight tweaks in things like hopping rates, carbonation, balance of malt/hops, etc. Assuming that you will be bottling, make sure that you give your beer at least two weeks in the bottle before submission. If the beer has been in the bottle for over two months you definitely want to taste some of the bottles to see if it has started to stale. Oxidation is inevitable for home brewers so you can expect to be dinged on the score sheet, but you want to limit the damage. If you have an IPA then all of your effort in late hopping and dry hopping to get that nice aroma may be wasted if you have let it age too long. Serve IPAs and Pale Ales as fresh as possible. Stronger and more malt-forward beers may benefit from more time in the bottle.
5. Pay Attention to Packaging
Problems with carbonation level has already been mentioned, but just to reiterate, the amount and type of priming sugar should be calculated, taking into account the target volumes of carbon dioxide, temperature of the beer at bottling, and residual sugar still in the beer. Home brew is often over-carbonated, which is evident when you have "bottle gushers" that make a mess everywhere. That's not the first impression that you are looking for! I can recommend the Advanced Home Brewing book which has a helpful chart on determining priming sugar for different styles.
Bottles must be unlabelled to avoid bias, but many home brewers buy kits with plastic flip-top bottles. These are easy to use and re-usable but unfortunately they are inconsistent with holding a seal and I've had many a pint that had to be dumped because it was flat. If you go with flip-top then choose a ceramic top, which can easily be sourced by buying German beer here and keeping the bottles! A better alternative is to use oxygen-absorbing caps and a hand-capper. They hold the seal and help to reduce oxidative effects.
Lastly is the sediment problem. When packaging beer that has been dry-hopped in the fermentor it is preferred to filter out all of the bits that are unsightly in the glass. At the very least, transfer to a secondary fermentor before bottling (rather than directly from the primary fermentor). Additionally you can use fining agents which are usually gelatin that is added to the fermentor to help settle the sediment after 2-3 days before racking off. Alternatively you could ensure that your dry hopping additions are in a nylon bag for easy removal. Whatever you do, just try aim to have a fairly clear beer - otherwise you'll have to be entering in the New England IPA category!
Good luck with the competition this year if you are entering. If you need help with your entries then don't hesitate to contact us at Back to School Brewing. We have the space, equipment, temperature-control, ingredients, and expertise to help you to brew your best beer and enter something that you are truly proud of - rather than hoping that the "other brewers" have made worse mistakes this year!