The old and modern art of the cooper

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We’ve just put together our annual barrel edition at the magazine and that meant I’ve been getting in touch with several different coopers, talking about the barrel market and also digging through my cooperages photos. If you’re curious about the wine barrel market, some interesting trends I reported on is that American oak barrels are getting much more expensive because of the surging popularity of Bourbon and other whiskeys that age in American oak barrels. This is quite a change for the wine industry as American oak barrels have traditionally always been a cheaper alternative to French oak barrels.

In going over some of my photos I’m reminded how cool it is to visit a cooperage. After entering the workshop, the first thing you’ll notice is the wonderful smell of toasty smoke that’s tinged with scents of vanilla, a bit of baked bread and whiskey. While there are several areas of the production process that have been modernized with machinery, many elements of barrel making require the work of skilled craftsmen. There are tools and tasks of a modern barrel workshop that are the same as they were 300 or 400 years ago.

Last year I had a chance to tour the Nadalie USA cooperage in Calistoga. It’s one of several cooperages I’ve visited, and it’s a good example of how barrel making is still in many places a combination of machine precision and craftsmanship.

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Legal spat over ‘IPA’

beerfight-600x276 Breaking today is an interesting story I saw first reported on sfgate.com about how Lagunitas is suing Sierra Nevada over the latter’s new Hop Hunter IPA. You can find far more details on the Chronicle’s website as well as some interesting reader comments, many of which are highly critical of Lagunitas.

The suit is largely based on Sierra’s use of IPA in big, black lettering displayed prominently on the side of the six pack carton and label.

This type of spat seems to me more as having to do with the expanding craft beer market nationwide rather than the local market. Most consumers here in California, and especially the North Coast know the difference between a new Sierra IPA and the classic Lagunitas IPA.

However for the Bud Lite crowd in the rest of the United States, the idea of an IPA is still somewhat of a novel concept. From the Lagunitas point of view I could imagine they feel Sierra is trying to get its brand equated with IPAs in general and possibly even piggy-back on the success of Lagunitas’ iconic IPA. For the newbie beer fan who knows they just like an IPA, they likely would just reach for anything with IPA on the package. Lagunitas is therefore probably worried Sierra is trying to get its brand synonymous with the letters and beer style IPA.

I was invited by Sierra Nevada to its Hop Hunter launch party later this month at the Torpedo Room in Berkley but I can’t make it because I’ll be at the major Unified wine industry trade show in Sacramento. I’d love to try the new beer, but I guess I’ll just have to wait until it shows up in the Napa market.

So while I can’t speak to the beer, I will say that I think Lagunitas and its founder Tony Magee are stretching it a bit with this lawsuit. You can’t trademark IPA, and while there are certain design elements similar in both packaging it’s not so similar that I think a consumer (even a Bud Lite drinking moron) would think it’s the same beer or a collaboration between the two breweries. Magee is also mentioned in the great article I blogged about last week as arguing Boston Beer Company’s new IPAs were a threat to his business. The sensitivity and litigiousness exhibited by Magee are at odds to my perception of a very successful and independent-minded brewer.

UPDATE Jan. 14: In the Santa Rosa, Calif. The Press Democrat today is a report that Magee is already backing off of the lawsuit because he quickly discovered he had already come close to losing the case in the court of public opinion.

Sam Adams? Meh since about 1999

Excellent piece of journalism by Andy Crouch on the Boston magazine website about the Boston Beer Company, its founder Jim Koch and his struggle to keep the iconic Sam Adams brand of beer relevant in the new world of U.S. craft beer. Crouch does an excellent job painting a detailed picture of Koch and how he created the myth of Sam Adams beer.

To a large degree I wholeheartedly agree with Crouch’s assessment that Koch and Sam Adams have largely been left behind by the world of craft beer.

“So why does Koch get so upset when upscale bars such as Row 34 don’t serve his beer? It might be because he’s worried that those establishments could be the canary in the craft-beer coal mine. The tastes of today’s drinkers and brewers are changing—and, unexpectedly, Boston Beer Company has been forced to play catch-up in the industry it helped to create.”

While I think Fritz Maytag’s revitalization of Anchor Steam did more to energize beer culture in the United States, the impact of Koch and Sam Adams is indisputable. I definitely agree with the analysis of Crouch’s piece, I also think it’s more than 10 years too late, especially from the West Coast perspective. The beer never had as much relevance, even in the late 90s, when one could just as easily buy Sierra Nevada or Red Tail. To me Sam Adams has always just been a bridge for Bud Lite drinkers to try new beers. In the comments on Crouch’s article, Sam Adams is accurately described as the “bunny hill” of American craft beer.

There’s elements of the Great American Beer Revival that are somewhat troubling; too much hops, flawed beers that are rushed on to the market and this disturbing sour beer trend that I hope goes away sometime soon, but I personally see it as a positive sign that a mediocre beer like Sam Adams is no longer the standard bearer for good beer.

Breaking into All Grain, Brew Day

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Sparge selfie, you can see the hot liquor tank on top of the ladder flowing to the mash tun and then to the boil kettle at the bottom.

Like a kid on Christmas I tore into my new brew setup after getting it home to give all the stainless steel valves, washers, rubber gaskets and miscellaneous fittings a good sanitizing cleaning. After getting everything broken down, I realized I hadn’t paid too close attention to how everything fit back together and then spent several hours sorting through it like building a LEGO model without the directions.

A standard all-grain kit is comprised of three vessels: the “hot liquor” tank, mash tun and boil kettle. I always had been intimidated by all-grain brewing until I figured it’s pretty much just like making oatmeal. Instead of making a paste, you heat and mix the grains with hot water and then drain that water off after letting the grains mix for about a hour. Getting the water to mix with the grains at the right temp and then drain it off is the extra challenge to all-grain brewing.

For my set-up I have two 10-gallon water coolers from Home Depot and a stainless steel 10-gallon brew bot. I use gravity to facilitate the movement of liquid, so I rigged my hot liquor tank to the top of a four-foot step ladder above the mash tun set on a table. I place my boil kettle on a propane burner below the mash tun. The propane burner is my main source of heat leading to the big drawback of a gravity-fed system, one has to move large amounts of very hot water.

Here’s my set up, which I bought from J&M Brewing Supplies in Novato:

Hot liquor (water) tank: 10-gallon cooler equipped with a stainless ball valve and silicone hose.

Mash tun (tank): 10-gallon cooler with a stainless steel “false bottom,” which is a circular screen that prevents the grain from flowing into the brew kettle. The screen is connected to a stainless-steel ball valve with a small bit of silicone hose.

Boil kettle: 10-gallon stainless steel pot that I customized with a thermometer and ball valve. (As you can see when all these fittings were jumbled up together for that initial cleaning, I was faced with quite the brain puzzler to put them all back together.)

The most expensive items are the ball valves, false bottom and thermometer set up for the boil kettle.

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Checking the temperature of the mash regularly is critical to keeping your grains at the conversion sweet spot.

The trickiest part of all-grain brewing with a cooler system like mine is maintaining or hitting your mash temperature. I didn’t realize how pivotal the proper temp was to converting grain starches to fermentable sugars. To adjust the temp you need to constantly check add hot water as needed, while mixing the mash to hit and maintain that temp. More sophisticated systems include mash tuns made of stainless steel kettles set on a burner that provides the heat to hit your mash temp spot-on.

After the mash comes the sparge, which is draining off the sweet wort while adding fresh, hot water to flush more wort off the grain. The hot liquor tank, situated above the mash tun, provides a trickle of hot water through silicone hoses. During this stage, one has to match the flow of water entering the mash tun to the flow of wort leaving the tun to try and ensure the sparge takes about a hour. The added expense of the ball valves pays off here because they make it much easier to adjust the flow of the water and wort.

Once I’ve collected enough wort for the boil and fermentation the brew process is just like extract brewing. I’m very happy I made the switch to all-grain though because it’s far more involved, intricate and exciting brew process. I also have the sense of complete control and of truly making something original. This is making a meal from the raw ingredients, not just adding water to a box. (I kinda understand the all-grain elitism now.)

For future upgrades, I think I’m going to get a digital thermometer to quickly know my mash temp as well as a plate chiller to cool my wort. I’ve heard really good things about the Blichmann Therminator. Much further down the road, I also could add a 15-gallon brew kettle to brew up 10-gallon batches of beer. That would enable me to bottle 5 gallons and keg the other five, oh the wondrous possibilities.

Breaking into All Grain

Many of my old posts concerned my homebrew hobby. I think I was always pretty clear I was practicing the “extract” method in which you use dehydrated or dried malt to create the foundation of flavors and fermentable sugars for your beer. It’s a pretty simple method in which you’re basically making soup (add ingredients to water, boil for a hour, cool and ferment) but you’re limited in what you can make and your base base ingredients have already been processed so your quality is compromised to a certain degree. The advantages to extract, however, is that the brewing process is quicker, requires less equipment and it’s easier to make higher-alcohol beers like double IPAs.

But there’s a snotty attitude in the homebrew world for those limited to just extract. I remember when I worked at Starmont and was talking about homebrewing with my colleagues in the lab when a winemaker, who was a home brewer, came in and someone mentioned I also made homebrew. He asked me about my setup and when I said it’s a five-gallon extract system, he wasn’t too impressed. “That sucks,” was all he said and our homebrew conversation was over.

Undeterred I stuck with extract making regular batches and steadily improving my methods and sanitation until I was pretty locked in to making my own beers that conformed to BJCP standards. People generally said my homebrew tasted like “real beer” and there were a few instances when people tried my beer without knowing I had made it at home and wanted to know what the name of the brewery was.

I’d basically met the challenge of making quality beer with extract and needed to upgrade to making beer in the “all-grain” process. This involves more equipment to make beer from simply malted and milled grain, water and hops. But a few years ago I got distracted with making wine, and didn’t have much cash after buying a new house so the brewing hobby fell to the wayside.

Matt Noble checking on his boil kettle during the all-grain class in St. Helena.

Matt Noble checking on his boil kettle during the all-grain class in St. Helena.

That changed about two months ago when my mom bought me an “expert brewing” class through the Napa Community College culinary facility in St. Helena. Taught by Matt Noble, a brewer at the excellent Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley. Noble proved to be a relaxed, friendly guy who took us through the all-grain process from start to finish answering detailed questions from folks like me who have fermentation experience and other folks who didn’t seem to know what hops are. The class also featured a delicious lunch of Trumer and Anchor Steam beers served by Alsatian choucroute and sausage cooked by the culinary students.

Based on the class and Noble’s advice on a good start-up kit I visited the guys at J&M Brewing Supplies in Novato, which is just a short trip up 101 from my office in San Rafael. I had learned about these guys by doing a profile on them freelance for a special Marin County publication by the San Francisco Chronicle. It was pretty chill to see the cover of that publication framed on the wall behind their register and one of the owners Marty Wall was real helpful in getting me set up.

I opted for a system based on two 10-gallon insulated water coolers and upgraded my 10-gallon boil kettle with a weld-less thermometer and ball valve. I’ve brewed two IPAs with the set-up so far and am very satisfied. I’ll go into the brewing in more detail in a subsequent post.

I felt a little bad letting my brew kettle gather dust for so long, but it was important for me to invest in new equipment to take on new challenges. When you pursue a hobby to create something, one needs to ensure your tools are balanced with your skill to make the investment in time and money worth it. Everybody knows someone with the means who has dumped a bunch of money into a hobby only to produce something mediocre. In fact, I know a few winery owners whose equipment and tasting rooms are more impressive than their products.

An antiquated medium? Why start blogging again?

It’s been about three years since I posted regularly on this blog, and in that time my career has changed, I’ve grown a few years older and the bloom has rather faded off the rose of blogging. Many of the wine blogs I regularly read question the need or even future of wine blogs and the very idea of blogging is also in some doubt because of the exponential increase in the functionality and use of social media networks.

During the hiatus of The UncorkedLife much of what I very well may have posted here, instead went to Facebook and Instagram, although I never really have enjoyed the former and am still trying to get a handle on the latter. I know Twitter is quite popular but the brevity of the medium hinders creative content and the multitude of users creates a cacophony of blather. The best description of Twitter I’ve ever read is that unless you’re famous, using Twitter is like talking to yourself at a crowded cocktail party.

My dissatisfaction with social medial and other factors bring me back to an old-fashioned blog. I was also motivated to make this return after a series of seemingly random events converged. One was several months ago I re-read all the old blog posts here and while I cringed at the naivety of some of them, others I found pretty entertaining and it reminded me why I enjoyed doing this. While blogging may be out-of-date, many people still find some success and you can find some great content on blogs. At the magazine, the editorial team has been planning and organizing a blog for our website (I know real cutting edge stuff for a magazine right?). Using our rinky-dink, in-house blog template made me yearn for the simplicity of the WordPress system and planning for the magazine’s blog made me recall all of the countless blog posts I’ve left unposted over the past three years.

I’ve also been on this journey into The Uncorkedlife for some time now and have more to share about wine, beer, spirits and the good life in wine country. Looking through the photos I’ve downloaded to my desktop in the past few years reminded me I’ve done some pretty cool stuff and I’d like to write about it in a casual, independent format. I’ll dip into these old experiences every now and then just to highlight some of the experiences I’ve enjoyed relatively recently.

As we all begin a new year, I’m excited to restart the blog. Maybe it will slip into hiatus again but so what, it’s not like I ever made a damn cent doing this!