Thursday, March 30, 2006

'No expectations'

Did you ever have a book, CD or movie laying around the house with the intention that you'll pick it up someday? Months, maybe even years later you finally get to it and it's fabulous. It's a problem when the thing in question has been loaned to you. My friend Scott the Dude loaned Peggy and me a video some months back. Since we plan to see him this Sunday at a beer/food event, we figured we should finally watch it.

The video is called 'The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus' and it is simply amazing. I've never heard of this recording and discovered that it was made in Dec. 1968 and unreleased until 1996. Along with the Stones (including Brian Jones), it features The Who, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithful, The Dirty Mac (John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell (JHE)), Jethro Tull (including Sabbath's Tony Iommi). The show was originally recorded for a TV special that never happened. If you haven't seen this, you're missing something historically significant. It's highly recommended.


Sunday, March 26, 2006


Cask-conditioned beer is all a buzz now. Many pubs in the NYC and Philly areas have installed beer engines or pumps as they're known. Cask beer can be great, but in my opinion, what makes the beer special is two things: temperature and conditioning (carbonation). When a beer, or water for that matter, is warmer it's easier to sense the nuances of flavors and aromas. Similarly, without all those bubbles getting in the way, the beer is easier to drink.

But here's what sticks the potato in my exhaust pipe. The claim to fame of cask-conditioned beer is a 'secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed'. That usually means that near-still beer is racked into a cask and some yeast+sugar or fermenting wort is added, the cask is sealed and allowed to re-ferment. This produces the signature mild conditioning.

That's great but guess what? This is completely unnecessary and it creates other problems. Cask purists will argue against this, but just think about it. This secondary fermentation is the same thing that happens in primary. No new mysterious flavors develop, only a touch more alcohol, lots more yeast and carbonation are created. Now the alcohol and subtle carbonation are welcome, but what do we do with all the yeast? The answer is finings; that usually means adding gelatin or isinglass to settle the yeast. All nasty stuff in my opinion. The other problem is that if the beer is fined and the retail customer doesn't cellar the beer properly, you will end up drinking yeast and maybe even the finings. Now while I agree that natural carbonation is best, I don't think this needs to be developed in the cask.

The confession: I have packaged 'real ale' that has not undergone another fermentation in the cask. This beer is unfiltered (I don't filter any of my beer) and hence still alive. I have a way to rack reasonably cold, moderately conditioned beer into a cask without losing a lot of the carbonation (no finings and little yeast). When the beer warms, the carbonation increases and with a bit of venting, voila, wonderful 'real ale'.

I have had my beer both ways (primed/fined and via the confession) and I cannot tell the difference. Given the shortcomings of the first method, especially in those 'Real Ale' fests where the beer is loaded into the Jeep and trucked 85 miles, slapped up on a table, tapped and dispensed, I prefer the second.

The other thing that bothers me (mildly) about cask beer is what ends up in the cask. Now I know I've been guilty myself, but cask lagers and all these insanely high-alcohol beers have no business in cask. I've decided that from now on, I'm only doing casks that showcase what this form of beer was meant for: lower alcohol, tasty ales.

I guess I've been a bit of a hypocrite about these beers. But the truth is, I do love cask beer and whether it's the so-called genuine article or not, I just want it to be served correctly; bright and modestly carbonated and at cellar temperature.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Things to be desired

I usually feel a sense of hope and wonder when I leave the restroom at the brewery. Wow, that's a strange line. A gift from my wife, a copy of Max Ehrmann's 1927 poem 'Desiderata' hangs from the wall. Every time I read this wonderful poem, it fills me promise. The poem is a road map offering direction to attain happiness in life. If you're not familiar with it, it begins:

"Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit."

I know they are only words, but the ultimate aim of prose is to move you and perhaps to make you think differently about yourself or others. I admit that I'm not well-read, unless you include brewing texts. But I've never read a poem that speaks so clearly and simply about the qualities that constitute a happy existence. My only complaint with my copy is the last line, 'be careful' , I think it's a typo, it should read 'be cheerful'.

I believe that the poem is now in the public domain, so if you don't have a copy, I urge you to get one. The bathroom seems a good place for it. You can read it each morning and evening and remember where your going and where you've been.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Do you need room for milk?

I like coffee. I really like coffee. My wife says I'm a snob, but the truth is that I merely like good, strong coffee. As someone who avoids the Wal-marts, McDonalds and Millers of the world because they trample on the little guy, Starbucks is a bit of an ethical speed bump for me. On one hand, it's a giant corporation with shops popping up like stink weeds all over town. On the other, they have the best coffee I can wrap my hands around in the morning (and evening). There's many things I don't like about the place. The silly fountain drinks, the droning lite jazz soundtrack and the 'tall, grande or vente?' all bother me. I order a large drip and yes, I usually do have a great day.

Many people I know think Starbucks coffee sucks - it's too bitter and too expensive. As for the expense, it's just like beer, people pay a premium for what they perceive as quality. And the thing about it being bitter, well I think these people probably like the brown water from other so-called coffee shops. I could say that I would much rather give my business to an independent coffee house if there were one close and convenient to me. But the truth is, I like the coffee at Starbucks.

This makes me think about beer and whether I would buy it from a conglomerate if its products were as ballsy as its marketing campaign. It doesn't seem possible that AB or Coors can suddenly made big, roasty imperial stouts without their board of directors flipping out. But why? Starbucks offers an edgy product that is certainly not in the mainstream ... and they make a lot of money. The reason is, like a large oil tanker, the macro brewer in today's world is too big and moving too steady to enable it to change course. But it's an interesting supposition. Small brewers have nothing to fear from AB. Personally, I would love to try a Miller Russian Imperial Stout.

But, alas, we all know that smaller is better. It allows for distinction and diversity. It fosters new ideas and improvements. And ultimately, it is the reason the entrepreneurial spirit lives here today. I believe all that, I really do, but I still like Starbucks.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Yes, we have no brewmaster

When friends of mine introduce me to others, they often say, "He's a brewmaster". That's funny, because when I was a computer analyst, no one ever introduced me as a programmer. This makes me think that brewing is still a somewhat mystical thing to many people. Many folks who visit the brewery have no idea how beer is made and I'm constantly asked 'how did you learn to do all this?'. Of course like many other professions, brewing is an easy and simple process and one that has been around forever.

The thing that bothers me is being called 'brewmaster'. It's not about modesty I assure you. In Germany, it takes many years of classical study and apprenticeship in order to be called a master brewer. I know brewers who use the term brewmaster to describe their jobs and I'm ok with that situation. But for me, when someone calls and asks to speak to the brewmaster, I tell them that we don't have one but will the brewer do?

Friday, March 03, 2006

The more the merrier

Although I consider myself a social person, I do admit that when I'm in the brewery alone, I relish the solitude. I enjoy moving at my own pace and insuring that things are done properly. I don't mean to suggest that I'm not grateful to the wonderful people that lend a hand at Heavyweight. We have the best volunteers anyone could ask for. I love their interest in what I do and the passion they share about beer.

And it's the sharing that's the important thing. Sharing and collaboration in brewing seem so natural and comfortable to me. I have collaborated with let's see ... beer writers, beer advocates, other brewers, a beer store manager and homebrewers. The product of these efforts have yielded the strange and interesting beers that really define Heavyweight Brewing.

My latest project (in the OTOP label) is a series of beers brewed with area homebrew clubs. The first was a bigger Pils-style lager made with the Princeton-based PALEALES. They brought twelve members to the brewery along with the suggestion to use a bunch of rye malt and helped me make 'Ivy League Pils'. The next group, the WHALES from Woodbridge, will join me at the brewery tomorrow to make a Scotch Wee Heavy. I plan to involve another one or two groups in future brews.

It's no where near as much fun to drink or make a beer alone. As much as I enjoy quiet times at the brewery, these group-brews remind me why I started a brewery in the first place and why beer is such a perfect social beverage.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Never losing focus

I don't know, is it a cliche to say that 'it's just about the beer'? Now, I know that marketing is important, but I've always believed that if you made a good product, you will reach the folks who matter most. Yes, I said it ... PRODUCT. All manufacturers make a product. Is it art?, passion? or maybe creative expression? Maybe, but in the end we're still trying to sell something. And sometimes the quality and perception is just not enough.

We recently had a restaurant take our beer off their tap selection because, get this, our marker/handle was too sophomoric and cheap-looking. Do people really judge the merits of a beer by the cool-looking tap-marker or label on the bottle? Well, I don't know or care; I never got into this business to make a lot of money, my focus is and will always be on the beer and the people who appreciate it. I don't make the beers I brew just to be different, I make them because I have to. It's what I do. Heavyweight is not about gimmickry, it's about brewing beers that expand the wonder and boundaries of style and definition. Sometimes, the focus of the beer supersedes the availability of a cool tap-marker, sorry Witherspoon Grill.

Folks tell me I should make a regular Pils or Pale ale to drive most of our sales. From what other breweries do, this seems to make a lot of business sense. I realize that after six plus years at Heavyweight, I have very little business sense. I shamefully admit that I am only a brewer, brewing what I want (and hoping that others want it too), and when I want and above everything else .... never losing focus.