Glassware (Part I?)

20140420-101908.jpgGlassware is a needlessly complicated topic within the craft beer community. As I write this, I’m drinking an American Pale Ale from a stemmed Saint Bernardus glass. This is definitely improper glassware, but it inspired me to write this post and I’m happy about it.

I bought a Saint Bernardus gift pack yesterday. It came with four beers and this glass. I haven’t opened the beers yet, but I couldn’t wait to try the glass. I know it is not the proper glass for this beer, but I don’t care. I love beer glasses. Just ask my girlfriend.

But at the same time, I am skeptical of a lot of claims about them. They are cool. They are downright necessary to fully enjoy most beers. Collecting different shaped beer glasses is fun, but I don’t think that most of them make much difference.
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The real difference is using a glass at all. Drinking beer from a bottle completely cuts your nose out of the experience and that is a huge mistake. Aroma accounts for a huge portion of taste. Some studies claim up to ninety percent of what you taste is actually determined by what you smell. I’m not sure if that number is correct, but I do know that drinking an stanky, dry hopped IPA from a bottle is doing you, the beer, the hops, the brewer, the hop farmer and the truck driver that delivered the beer to the store a huge disservice.

Some people have a vendetta against pint glasses, or shaker glasses, or whatever you want to call the thick, straight walled sixteen ounce beer glasses that most American bars serve their draft beer in. Personally, I have no problem with them. They have a wide enough mouth to let your nose in as you drink, they’re comfortable to hold, easy to clean and hard to break. The only issue I can think of has to do with the bars. It is not actually the glass’s fault that most bars present their drafts as a “pint” when they are closer to twelve ounces. The glasses hold sixteen ounces, if filled to the brim with no head. Yes, it is kind of a rip off, but you’re better off getting that head with your beer, anyway.
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I would love to see German glassware make a bigger dent in American bars and breweries. Just about all of the popular German glasses have a very obvious mark showing the proper fill line. For half a liter, fill to this ridge, use additional space for beer foam. Excellent.

I love fancy, stemmed Belgian glasses, like the St. Bernardus glass I’m drinking from right now, but I think the majority of the change they bring on to beer is based on the experience. In my opinion, as long as you’re getting a whiff of the beer while you take a swig, not much else matters physically. The experience of holding a stemmed glass, or a giant handled maß or a tiny taster glass can make a huge difference in how you think about the beer you’re drinking and that is important, but… it’s all in your head.
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Not that that is a bad thing. My point is, drink from the glass you like, but for gods’ sake, drink from a glass.

PROOF Wax Dipping

IMG_4300I’ve been wanting to try this for a while and PROOF was the perfect opportunity. Commercial breweries love to do all kinds of special packaging on their big beers, but I have a problem with a lot of them. I love big, strong beers but it is a very rare time that I want 750 ml of ten plus percent alcohol beer.

Corked and caged bottles look great and smaller bottles finished that way are becoming more prevalent, but they are not the norm. I guess that is the point, though. The idea is to look different and special. I definitely didn’t want PROOF in anything bigger than a twelve ounce serving, but I didn’t want it to look like a bottle out of a case that you are going to drink six of on a Saturday afternoon. Wax coating the caps, as I said, was the perfect option.

I read a lot of tutorials online before attempting this, but ultimately I didn’t really follow them beyond the very basics. Most of the them suggested three glue sticks for every crayon, then later complained that the wax was hard to peel off. Anyway, I’m going write out my own tutorial below.

What you need (for approximately 48 bottles):
12 crayons
25 glue sticks for a glue gun
aluminum can (from soup, vegetables or whatever)
something to stir that you don’t mind ruining (I used a kabob stick)
a stovetop or other heat source
newspaper to keep dripping wax from making too big of a mess

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First, cut off the paper labels from your crayons. You can use different colors and mix them together. I used three each of Red, Scarlet and Violet Red to end up with a nice deep red color. My original plan was to use two glue sticks, but the glue sticks came in a pack of twenty five, so I ended up with one extra in there.

IMG_4296With the crayons stripped, add them and the glue to the can and put it on the stovetop over low heat. I was surprised how quickly the mixture melted, so be ready to stir it up and have your bottles ready to go. Once the contents of the can get to a thorough consistency and the color is well blended, you can get started.

IMG_4297Dip the bottles, one at a time, into the wax, straight up and down and quickly pull it out. As it leaves the can, give it a twist make sure there is no tail going back to the can. Then quickly turn the bottle around. If you aren’t quick enough, the wax will solidify and you won’t get the nice dripping effect.

Keep moving. That is the key. The wax does not take long at all to dry. I also found that it began to darken as I went along. This is very easy, but you need to move quickly.

I’m very happy with how these turned out. If you have a special beer, whether it is for a gift, a special event or just personally important, wax dipping is a great way to set it apart.

PROOF Labels

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I mentioned my previous hobbies of making comics and music in my first post about making labels. PROOF is the beer that I feel most connects to those previous activities. I planned for this beer for months. Created and scrapped several iterations of the recipe and pushed back brew day a couple times. I also sketched dozens of ideas for the label before settling on the idea that I eventually went with.

What I knew from the beginning was that I wanted this label to be different. I normally, and especially lately, try to make my labels somewhat uniform and have them at least feel like part of a set. But not PROOF. PROOF was its own monster and its label was going to reflect that. I posted about my label templates, but PROOF is the one beer that doesn’t use them.

I first toyed with the idea of a round logo on a round label. The idea of having to cut them out was enough to nix that idea, but I never figured out a logo I liked in that format anyway. Eventually, I got an idea from the unlikeliest of places.

Bud Light Platinum.

Yes. The Bud Light Platinum bottle features a tall, narrow logo. At least I think it does. I’ve never actually had the beer, I’m going off of memory from ads. Some how, the tall, narrow idea seemed to click, though. I guess it’s not completely off base for my super high gravity beer to be in some way influenced by a so-called “light” beer that is six percent alcohol.

IMG_4283Anyway, I thought a taller than normal label would stick out nicely from my other square-with-boarders-on-the-top-and-bottom labels. Then I came up with the logo in the same way that I always did for my comics and cd covers. I was bored on a slow day at work, doodling on some scrap paper. As soon as I first sketched it, it felt right. Then I decided to expand the normal stats I include at the bottom of my labels. I included brew dates on Old SMaSHy 2013 and Old Old Man because I planned to age them and I really like that idea, so it was obvious that I had to do it here to. The real unique part was my idea to hand number the bottles. Okay, not unique to the world, I know, but unique in my brews.

My next idea was to keep the label’s printing in all black but do it on colored paper. I looked at a bunch of different paper at the craft store as well as going through some ordinary contraction paper in a bunch of different colors. I was nervous about using the thick, heavy paper I found, guessing that it would pull itself loose and curl off the bottles. I liked the look of black on tan or light brown paper, though. It seemed rustic yet refined. Ha.

I tried printing on paper grocery bags but my printer was not cooperative. The construction paper was starting to come back as a realistic option but I would have to get a bunch of the same colored paper, which usually comes in packs of a bunch of different colors. I have no other plans for all that paper, so I was still looking for a better idea.

IMG_4266I’m not sure how I stumbled onto the idea that I eventually went with, but I’m very happy that it worked out. I tea stained the labels. This was an easy process that gave them a unique, subtly different look.

To make the tea stained labels, I had to print the them on plain paper first. After they were printed and allowed to dry for a while, I began brewing some tea. I used regular, generic cheap grocery store tea. A lot of the tutorials and instructions recommend using black tea to get a darker color, I like the more subtle look I got here, though.

The tea was brewed a little bit stronger than normal. Once it was ready, I poured a small amount onto a baking sheet, just enough to cover the bottom. Then I placed the first sheet of labels into the tea and poured some more on top. I let the the sheet stay submerged in the tea for at least five minutes.

IMG_4270When the paper is done soaking, I carefully peeled it off the wet baking sheet and put it onto a dry one and into the oven on low to medium heat. I immediately started another sheet in the tea. The sheet in the oven got five minutes. I planned to take it out at that point, but found that it was still slightly damp. After the first couple sheets, I found that taking them off the baking sheet after five minutes and putting them straight onto the top rack in the oven for just a couple minutes worked great to get them the rest of the way dry.

IMG_4273So as soon as I moved one sheet from the lower rack on the baking sheet to the top one, I took the next sheet out of the tea and onto the drying rack. After the first couple label sheets, I got into a good groove of moving through the three steps.

After the labels were all stained, Amy cut them for me. Thankfully, she has a much steadier hand then me and is always willing to help cut labels out.

Anyway, once they were cut out, I put glued them on normally and gave them a chance to dry overnight before moving on to the final touches, hand numbering and wax dipping. I will cover that process tomorrow, come back then.

Labeling Day

IMG_4282I’ve been writing about my labels for the last month or so, now let’s get down to actually labeling the bottles.

I have tried the sticker sheets you can buy at the homebrew store and they are nice and easy to apply, but they’re also expensive and much more hassle to get off. Keep in mind the work involved not just in getting your bottles labeled, but in later cleaning them for re-use.

The simplest and most effective method I have found probably also the most obvious. Other than special circumstances when I’ll splurge on different types of paper, I just use regular copier paper printed from my ink jet printer. Amy then cuts the labels out for me. She does a much better job and also claims to somehow enjoy the chore. Once they’re cut out, I glue them in place with Elmer’s School Glue. That is the secret, in my opinion. Elmer’s is cheap, easy to find and most importantly, it stays secure until you apply any type of cleaning agent, all of which will easily remove it.

I squirt a couple swirls of glue on the back of a bunch of labels, laid out on a stool in front of my spot on the couch and then spread the glue with a Q-Tip on each of them before sticking the labels onto the bottles. You have a few seconds to squirm the label around if you don’t place it exactly how you want it at first.
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The glue dries pretty quick, but I usually let them sit out over night just in case. You could probably put them into whatever container you’re storing them in with in ten or fifteen minutes if you need to.

This may seem too simple to warrant a post, but sometimes things are so obvious they just get overlooked. This is a fast and easy way to make your bottled beer look nice and it is easy to clean up for the next batch.

Stovetop Pasteurization

I make a batch of Yellow Cat Sweet Cider every year and it always needs to be pasteurized. If you want sweet, carbonated cider in bottles without artificial sweeteners, it is pretty much your only option. While it can be a bit of a pain, this process is pretty simple.
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In case you’re not sure what we’re talking about, I’ll explain the reasons for this chore. For this recipe specifically, I bottle cider while it is still fermenting. I want to maintain a low alcohol content and the natural sweetness of the cider but I also want the cider to carbonate. The continued fermentation carbonates the cider very quickly, but if it was allowed to continue past that point, the bottles would explode causing a serious safety issue and a huge mess AND a waste of some tasty cider. Pasteurizing uses heat to kill the yeast once it has completed the task you want it for and before it can create bottle bombs.

I also used this to stop the onslaught of infection in Hogun’s Mace Porter. Whatever wild yeast got into that beer carbonated it very quickly and probably would have dried it out to an extremely thin and sour mess. I was able to salvage it through pasteurization, though. Now, to get started.

You will need a pot. If you’re a homebrewer and not just a cider maker, your brew kettle will work fine. I usually use my canning pot because it has a wider base, allowing for more bottles. This time, I used that and a five gallon stainless steel pot I have to cut the time I needed to spend on the process.

Fill your pot or pots with enough water to submerge your bottles to the fill line. Remember that the bottles will displace quite a bit of water and the pot won’t need to be as full before hand as a result. With the water in place, it is time to bring in the stovetop portion of stovetop pasteurization.

Heat the water on the stove top to 180º. You can go slightly higher, but make sure you don’t hit 200º. If the water is too hot, it could cause heat shock and shatter the bottles when you stick them in. Once you’ve hit the target temperature, turn off the heat and REMOVE the pot from the burner. Even if it is turned off, the burner will still be hot and could shatter your bottles.

With your water at 180º and your pot off the stove, you can start adding the bottles to be pasteurized. Do not put too many in at a time. They shouldn’t be touching. Beyond that, you can use your judgement. When all the bottles are in, cover the pot and leave it alone for ten to fifteen minutes. I usually give larger bottles a bit more time. I did a couple quart bottles and a couple growlers this time and I decided to leave the growlers for last and just leave them in the pots overnight.

After that time, you can carefully remove the bottles. They will, of course, be hot. Use proper precautions. Sit them aside to cool off, still not touching. You can now start reheating the water for the next set of bottles. By the time that set is done, if you’re using twelve ounce bottles, the first set should be cool enough to be handled and put away, but be careful anyway. You can repeat this process as many times as necessary.
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When you remove the bottles, they should be very cloudy. The yeast, if it was before, will no longer be settled at the bottom of the bottle. Everything will be mixed up, but don’t worry, it’ll settle back out and now your bottles will maintain the carbonation they had when pasteurized. You may still want to keep them separate from other bottles for a week or so just to be safe, but if the time and temperature were right, they should be fine.

Satellite Hop Yard Update

This will be a quick one, but I promised to update on the hops I planted at the cabin. I was planning to stick it into a batch update post, but I haven’t brewed in a while and I don’t have much to update on. I finally made it up to the cabin last weekend, though. This is what I found.

IMG_4384If you don’t remember, I planted two Cascade rhizomes in the Spring. One is in front of the cabin under a wooden trellis that has been hanging since my parents bought the cabin without being used. The other is by the shed, where there is a fence with a birdhouse hung on an extended post. Both rhizomes showed growth. That is exciting. Both looked like something was eating the leaves. That is perplexing.

I’m not sure what would eat hop bines and I’m not completely sure that is what happening, but it looks that way. Both bines were around six inches and stripped completely of leaves. There was a bit cut (chewed?) off that actually still had leaves intact.

IMG_4388This is a lot less growth than I had in my first year hop yard at home, but I’m happy that both rhizomes sprouted. I haven’t done anything to keep up with these things and they both at the very least, survived. I’m anxious to see what next year will bring.

My Favorite Labels

For this week’s installment of my series about homebrew labels, I’ll be talking about some of my favorites and going into a little bit more detail about how I made them. I use a lot of different methods to make my labels, many start at sketches, most pass through Photoshop and they all end up in InDesign.

BeerLabelTARTThe first one that I’d like to single out as a favorite is Tart Cider. I mentioned this label last week in my post about updating labels because I recently repurposed it for my new batch of Yellow Cat Tart Cider. The original image was created in Illustrator. I sketched it several times by hand before finally drawing it with the Pen tool, creating a vector graphic. That means that the image is actually just a mathematic equation which is scalable to any size without degradation instead of an actual static image. I broke that feature, though by editing the color in Photoshop.

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Anyway, the original label is still Amy’s absolute favorite but the added text, explaining how to drink the cider has bugged me since the moment it was too late to change it on the original. I got rid of it and incorporated the text into the picture using Photoshop layers and the Overlay layer styles.

BeerLabelBitterOldManIPAAside from Amy, most of the people who I share my homebrew with seem to agree that the Old Man series are my best labels. They all know my Dad, though, so I’m not sure their opinions are completely unbiased.

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For these labels, I start with a photo of my Dad and draw over it in Photoshop. These are not vector graphics, they are drawn, or traced to a certain extent, with the pencil tool. All three of these labels are rough and sketchy but for some reason, my Dad is easy to caricature. Really, I have tried this method with other people and the results are usually not as good. Kory worked out okay on Kory’s Peachy Pale Ale, but that took more tinkering than any of the ones of my Dad. I had the idea of Old Old Man almost immediately after finishing Spicy Old Man, but I’m still not sure what next year’s will be.

SpicyOldManLabelSpicy Old Man is my favorite label of the series. The drawing is okay, but I really like the layout of the whole label. I wish I liked the beer better.

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Dawn of the Red was a label that I made quickly, somewhat last minute. Despite that, I really like the way it turned out. I found the font from Dawn of the Dead and I made a simple label incorporating it with a red sunset. It is, I think, a pretty striking image. The overall label is hurt by the label template I was using at the time. The added text at the bottom and the smaller proportion of the art take away from the overall effect. I hope to update the label for an updated recipe next year.

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One of my recent favorites is Triple Valor. For this label, I propped my camera (phone) on a platform (DVD case) to keep the position fairly consistent and took a picture of Valor. Then I moved him and took another, then another. I edited the pictures with some very rudimentary Photoshopping into one image. Luckily, these labels are pretty small because I think it looks pretty good on the bottle. Blown up, the editing would be pretty obvious, but that’s okay. I plan to take the same approach for my upcoming Quadruple Grim.

If I wrote this post again on another day, I’d probably come up with a totally different list, but as of this very moment, I think these are my favorite labels.