Evaluating Beer

Tom here. Last Fall I brewed a few different kinds of beers in preparation for the holidays, including an Irish Stout. I'd successfully made this stout the prior year, and it's the perfect beer for cold nights, alongside a pot roast or something else hearty.

Elizabeth mentioned this to one of her classmates at school, and her classmate said that he knew a cicerone -- a beer sommelier -- and could she bring in a bottle for him to evaluate. We recently got the results, and they're fascinating.

A quick note about cicerones. The idea of a beer judging and beer sommeliers is fairly new. There's the Beer Judge Certification Program, which started in the mid-80's. They publish a list of about 100 official beer styles, each with their own characteristics. Here's what they have to say about Irish Stout:

A black beer with a pronounced roasted flavor, often similar to coffee. The balance can range from fairly even to quite bitter, with the more balanced versions having a little malty sweetness and the bitter versions being quite dry. Draught versions typically are creamy from a nitro pour, but bottled versions will not have this dispense-derived character. The roasted flavor can be dry and coffee-like to somewhat chocolaty.

The Cicerone program is a certification program from the Craft Beer Institute, training people on tasting and handling beer.  They've got four levels of certification, from Certified Beer Server through Master Cicerone. The cicerone that tasted my beer gave me notes in four main areas (aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel), and then an overall impression.

It was fun to read -- my beer's aroma was "moderate dark chocolate, light roast/turkish coffee, plum esters above threshold, slight sour aroma like worcestershire". The flavor was "intense cocoa powder flavors, medium sweetness of candied nuts and dark fruits, plums, some cherry."

In the overall notes, he called it a "very solid expression of the style", but noted that the "aroma could have been more alluring and the mouthfeel was disjunct given the depth of the flavor". He gave me a few suggestions for next time (increased proportions of very dark grains; dropping the ferment temperature).

I will admit that I was not sure about having my beer judged. I do okay with the homebrew, but it's more of a hobby than anything, and I've definitely made a couple of beers that didn't stack up to my initial hopes. Having gone through this makes me want to experiment a little more and do some side-by-side comparisons. I'm not sure I'll be able to sense candied nuts and dark fruits in my beer anytime soon, but it would be fun to try.




Hops Arrive

The other three sets of hops arrived!

Tom planted some Cascade hops a few weeks ago in one planter, and he ordered some more because it's the hop he uses most in his recipes. Then we've got Centennial and Northern Brewer. We'll see how they all do! We'll have far more hops than we need, but as I've said before, there is some evidence that the pollen from hop flowers prevents varroa mites in honeybees. So we're not just growing hops for the beer.

In other news, I'm going to battle. My foe? Earwigs.

They are eating everything in my garden; it's become not just a nuisance, but a massive problem. I'm going to put out black plastic bowls filled with oil, molasses, and soy sauce, buried in the soil and flush with the surface. Apparently this catches earwigs by the hundreds. I'm going to put three bowls in every raised bed. I'll let you know how that works. Hopefully I'll have lots of dead evidence to show you after a few days. (Do you think the chickens would eat dead earwigs soaked in soy sauce?)

Meanwhile, Tom and I have something exciting planned. I can't tell you about it yet, but I promise to update you before the end of the weekend. It involves food, cooking, farm produce, and probably a hike or two. Stay tuned!

I'll leave you with a lovely picture of some California native wildflowers I found in a local park. Someone thoughtful (the Native Plant Society?) scattered these seeds last fall. I love Baby Blue Eyes.

By the way, it's still raining! Putting a dent in our drought....


Tom and I had a long discussion last night about growing hops. 

photo credit: agales.com

photo credit: agales.com

As you know, Tom has been making beer. And it looks like he'll continue and make it a regular every three-month project. He's really enjoying trying different hops for different flavors, and he'd like to grow his own hops.

I'm ok with that. In fact I have researched it. But hops require a good deal of growing space - they are vines and grow quite tall - and also they tend to spread underneath the ground via their rhizomes. So I never could think of a good place to put them in our (already packed) small yard. 

Some of Tom's beer

Some of Tom's beer

As we were talking, I wondered out loud if you could grow hops horizontally somehow rather than vertically. So we searched that, and lo and behold, there are lots of people growing hops sideways on trellises. Then we wondered if they could be grown in containers, and sure enough, they can be. Which made us think more about our backyard patio.

We have a shade 'sail' over our outdoor table that was very economical but that has never worked perfectly. It needs to attach in all four corners, and we don't really have anything tall enough in our back yard to attach it to. Our house is one story, and two of the corners are attached there. The only trees we have in this particular spot are fruit trees and one large privet that we've allowed to grow because it provides nice shade back there (plus the bees love the flowers). So one corner is attached to the privet and one to our peach tree, which tends to lean over quite a bit when leashed to the sail. Hence, the sail is quite low, causing Tom (and Adam, and anyone over 5'5") to have to duck under. Not a perfect solution.

This is mainly a picture I took of our first 'chicken tractor' design, later scrapped. But you can see the shade sail in the background. 

This is mainly a picture I took of our first 'chicken tractor' design, later scrapped. But you can see the shade sail in the background. 

What if we could make sort of container/trellis for the patio? The hops could grow up to say, ten feet, then across, making a living canopy for us to picnic under? The vines would get full sun all summer and provide shade for us, then would be cut back in the winter, allowing more sun to reach the patio when we are chilled. It's kind of the perfect solution. 

I'm envisioning three half-barrels, like old wine barrels, something with heft, on each side. Maybe even on four sides. With a tall post going up from each container, and then forming a sort of "T" at the top. Then heavy twine or wire going across to the other side. If we did four sides, it would form a sort of cross-hatch in the middle. It could be very pretty, or it could be very rickety. Seems like this would be a good project to design using Sketch Up

photo credit: www.seasonalwildflowers.com

photo credit: www.seasonalwildflowers.com

Then I wondered if hop flowers would be good for the bees. It seems that the flowers are wind-pollinated, and do not produce nectar, but do produce pollen, which of course the bees collect as their protein source. Then, upon further research, I found a scientific article from the Yale Environmental Review about the positive effects of hops on destroying varroa mite!  Here's a link to the article - but to sum up: "The use of HBA (hop beta acids) to combat varroa mites may aid in drastically improving the health, vitality, and robustness of honey bee populations."  This sealed the deal for me!

So, this is yet another project slated for President's Day weekend, along with building and planting the raised beds for perennial veg and herbs over in the Understory Garden. We're trying to find a reputable place to buy hop rhizomes, and here's where you come in: We'd love a local California source, preferably organic. So far, I can only find out-of-state rhizomes and most wouldn't be shipped until April. We'd very much like to get started earlier than that!

Plus, if any of you grow hops, and/or keep bees along with those hops, we'd love to benefit from your experience. Please share with us!