Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Next Beer Batch, Updated, Again

Necessity has forced my hand yet again! My latest batch of beer has officially gone from a Cooper's Sparkling Ale clone to a full-on British-style pale ale. I mentioned before that I wasn't terribly enthused with the Cooper's that I bought, but I didn't really go into detail. I actually spent quite a bit of time and effort hunting down a place that even sold the stuff, and when I finally found it, I had to shell out $12.79 just to get a six-pack. What I didn't consider at the time was, since I had such a hard time finding it, how long had it been sitting on the shelf? After my first taste, the answer was, "obviously quite a while."

When properly refrigerated, yeast goes dormant and can survive for quite some time. Thus, even though my bottle-conditioned beer tasted pretty old, the fact that I bought it out of a walk-in refrigerator boded well for the viability of the yeast inside. Or so I thought.

About a week ago I opened two more bottles of the Cooper's, making sure not to disturb the yeast sediment in the bottom of the bottles. I brewed up about a cup of wort and pitched it with the slurry from both bottles. Over the next two days I eagerly awaited some activity in my airlock, and... nothing. It looks like the yeast in both bottles was completely dead (though on the bright side, my sanitation practices were apparently good enough that no "bad" yeast got in there and took hold either).

Not to be deterred from brewing on my allotted night (Kari had already made plans), I rushed down to the homebrew shop and picked up a vial of While Labs WLP005 British Ale Yeast. This is my first experience with liquid yeast strains, but so far the results look promising. Primary fermentation is almost complete, and I'll be racking over to secondary (for dry hopping) any day now. With any luck, it'll be kegged and ready to drink in a couple of weeks!

Netflix "Blu"s

Today, Netflix announced a change to their pricing structure that affects all subscribers who wish to rent Blu-Ray discs in addition to standard DVDs. Starting on April 27th, all Blu-Ray renters will be assessed a $1-$9 monthly premium depending upon their rate plan. For customers like me on the "standard" 3-at-a-time plan, that translates to $4/month extra. Currently, all Netflix subscribers who want Blu-Ray access are assessed a $1 monthly premium, regardless of their rate plan.

As can only be expected, comments on sites such as Hacking Netflix and The Official Netflix Blog have been largely negative, with many users threatening to cancel their Blu-Ray access, if not their whole Netflix account. Personally, I didn't join the public tongue-lashing that's still happening on those sites, but I am going to rant for a bit here.

Netflix explained today's price increases with some statistics, claiming that, on average, Blu-Ray discs cost 30% more than DVDs, while only about 10% of customers opt for the premium content. While I have no reason to doubt that those numbers are true, Netflix has a potentially fatal flaw in their logic.

Netflix needs to remember that increased prices lead to increased expectations. Companies can get away with charging premium prices only when they also offer premium services, and thus far, Netflix's Blu-Ray offerings don't live up to their billing. While Netflix claims a 60% increase in their Blu-Ray inventory over the last six months, the reality of the situation is that their supply pales in comparison to demand. In the three months that I've had Blu-Ray service, only three of the twenty discs I've rented have been Blu-Ray. That's an average of one disc per month, and only 15% of my total rental activity. $4 is a steep price to pay to upgrade one disc per month. And when you consider the $2+ per rental that I'm already paying, Netflix is about to become more expensive for Blu-Ray than my local video store.

I understand that Netflix is trying to keep costs as low as possible for as many users as possible, but the new Blu-Ray pricing structure represents a significant step in the wrong direction. With such limited availability of titles (and long waits for the titles they actually have), I see no reason to pay a fee that upgrades my whole account when I can only ever hope to use a fraction of the upgrade. Charging for the general right to rent discs just isn't the way to go for such a limited service. With availability as low as it is, it seems like Netflix asking me to buy a $4 lottery ticket every month.

I'd be willing to pay a small premium on a per-rental basis, and I'd even be willing to consider paying a (smaller than $4) premium so that any one of my three discs at home could be Blu-Ray. But asking me to pay almost 25% more money for a chance that one of my movies for the month might be on Blu-Ray is ridiculous. I guess for now, I'll just have to settle for enjoying my new TV with standard DVDs upconverted to 1080i, because my Netflix account is about to get downgraded.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Why My Wife is Awesome (Part 2)

Boys like their toys, and that's pretty much all there is to it. For me, that means fast cars, loud speakers, big TV's, nice computers, and pretty much anything associated with beer. Fortunately for Kari, the beer stuff is reasonably cheap, my job provides me with a MacBook Pro, and I already had the speakers and the car before we got married. What I didn't have was the TV, since my old roommate already had a nice 50" Toshiba.

Kari has been wanting a big TV, too, just not to the same degree as me. For one, she didn't want some behemoth to take over our living room. Secondly, big TVs cost a lot of money, and she's always had other priorities for any excess cash we may have. The ubiquity of Plasma and LCD TVs, combined with the large bonus room in our new house, have rendered her first point moot. However, the money was still an issue... until our 2008 tax return. Now, there's a 58 inches worth of bonus in our bonus room, and Kari's just as excited about it as I am!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fool's Wife Stout

It's been two weeks since I bottled my latest batch of beer, which means it's fully carbonated by now. Normally dark beers and high gravity beers (this one is both) are best served by an extended period of bottle conditioning, but since this one spent about a month in secondary fermentation, the flavor should already be reasonably mature.

Tonight I cracked open a bottle and was pleasantly surprised by the results. It's definitely not without its faults, but upon my first taste, I was greeted with a predominant coffee flavor, with some notes of chocolate and smoke, and just a touch of fruit on the nose. I think some extended time in the bottle will help to enhance those flavors, but it's already a very nice beer. At the very least, it will certainly encourage me to keep making more.

The two biggest problems with this batch are already issues that I had set out to fix before I tasted it. First is that it is fairly oxidized, due in part to my lack of a proper secondary fermenter (I used a 7-gallon food-grade plastic bucket with WAY too much head space), and in part to some carelessness when I bottled it. Second is that I just used a little packet of dried Munton's yeast for fermentation. While I did take the time to properly rehydrate it, the esters and flavors of a dried yeast pale in comparison to some of the liquid strains available today.

The remedy to my first problem was to get some proper fermenters. I bought a 6.5-gallon glass carboy to serve as a primary, and my friend Troy hooked me up with an extra 5-gallon one that will be my secondary. As for my second problem, I intend to start using liquid and/or re-cultured yeast from here on out. It costs a good bit more than dried, and it requires a bit more care (it usually has to be cultured for a few days before it's hearty enough to pitch), but it provides a lot more variety and will allow me to take another pretty solid leap forward in my quest to produce the best beer possible.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why My Wife is Awesome (Part 1)

I'm a bit of a fool sometimes, but at least I admit it :). This past Sunday was no exception. After a long day of chores sandwiched in between church in the morning and a pot-luck dinner in the evening, Kari and I had planned on each doing our own thing Sunday night. We normally like to spend our relaxation time together, but I had 5 gallons of Russian Imperial Stout that needed to be bottled, and Kari had a movie from Netflix that I had no desire to watch. So despite wanting to just crash, I set out to bottle my beer.

When I look back on most things, I don't usually remember them taking as long as they actually did. Bottling beer certainly falls into that category. But on Sunday evening, I somehow convinced myself that I could start bottling beer at 9:00 PM and still make it to bed by 11:00. For those of you who are slow at math, 5 gallons divided by 12 oz. = ~53 bottles to wash, sanitize, dry, fill, and cap.

At 11:30, I finally had my bottles washed and sanitized, and my beer was primed and in the bottling bucket. Kari came in to inform me that she was going to bed without me, but then she took pity on my poor, wretched soul and started helping instead. That's right, she's 27 weeks pregnant, she's just getting over a horrible cold, and she's incredibly tired, but she stayed up with me to help bottle a beer that she can't drink now and won't drink later (she's not much of a beer drinker, so a stout is definitely not her cup of tea). At 12:30, I was capping the last of the bottles as she rinsed out the bottling bucket.

I haven't taken to naming my beers yet, as everything I've done has been decent, but not noteworthy. Perhaps I'll break that trend and let her name this first batch. I'm guessing she'll go with something like, "Fool's Wife Stout."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ideas are Spinning!

Outside of my original post, I haven't really done anything very creative on this blog yet. Nonetheless, I think the act of writing has definitely stimulated my creative thought processes, and it led me to a pretty awesome software idea the other day. I'm always thinking of potential applications to work on, whether they be for me personally, for work, for the open source community, or whatever. This particular idea definitely falls into the personal category, but it's got potential to grow outside of that. I'm not going to share any details about it yet, as I want a month or two to chew on it first, but let's just say that Mark and his crew are getting TurboGears 2 ready just in time :)

Next Beer Batch, Updated

So I went to my local homebrew supply store today to do my usual: spend about $40 on ingredients for my next batch, and about $80 on equipment so that making my next batch is easier/better/more fun. I'd like to think that the amount of money I invest in equipment will eventually taper off, but I really don't think it will. This is, after all, a hobby, and not just a way to combat rising beer prices :)

Anyway, I mentioned a couple of days ago that I planned on making a clone of an Australian beer called Cooper's Sparkling Ale. I picked up a six-pack the other day, so I have a nice sample of their yeast, and BYO ran an article this month with a nice clone recipe. However, I changed my mind today for a couple of reasons:

1) I'm not sure I'm in the mood to drink (or share) 5 gallons of Cooper's over the next couple of months. It sounded like what I wanted when I read the article, but after sampling the first bottle of my six-pack (all in the name of research, of course!), I think it's not quite what I'm after.

2) Cooper's is a bottle-conditioned beer, so to clone it, I'd need to bottle-condition my brew as well. This used to be the only way I brewed, but thanks to my awesome job, I now have other options. It just seems like a shame to keep that keggerator empty any longer :)

3) Filling the grain bill for Cooper's wouldn't be too hard, but the recipe calls for Pride of Ringwood hops. That's an Australian variety that seems to be a bit hard to find at the moment. Granted, the hops are only for bittering, so in theory, variety doesn't matter. But in practice, the recipe calls for something I don't have, so why not make further changes?

So instead of making a Cooper's clone, I've made up my own recipe to create a British-style pale ale, which is more in line with what I've been wanting lately anyway. This will be my first batch where I've had input into the ingredients (beyond picking which kit to buy). Here's what I picked up today:

1 lb. 60°L Crystal Malt
3.3 lbs. M&F Light LME
3 lbs. M&F Light DME
1 oz. Northern Brewer Hop Pellets (8.5% AA)
1 oz. East Kent Golding Hop Pellets (5% AA)
1 oz. East Kent Golding Whole Hops

My plan is to use the Northern Brewer hops for bittering (60 min. boil) and the E.K. Golding pellets for flavoring (10 min. boil). Then, once I rack over to secondary fermentation, I'm going to add the fresh E.K. Golding flowers for the last week to get some nice fresh aroma and flavor.

For yeast, I'm sticking with my original plan of harvesting from the Cooper's bottles. I know it's not entirely kosher to use Australian yeast in a British-style beer, but who cares! It's my beer and I can make it any way I please :) Besides, the Cooper's yeast is supposed to provide some nice, fruity esters that I'm hoping will go well with my hops selection.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cooper's Sparkling Ale

Part of the fun of brewing beer is learning new techniques that make each batch better than the last. Since I'm still fairly new at this hobby, there are a lot of proven ideas out there that I have yet to try. One such idea is trying to reclaim the yeast from a bottle-conditioned beer for use in my own creation.

For those of you who don't know much about brewing, beer is traditionally made from just four ingredients: malted grain (usually barley), water, hops, and yeast. Each of those four ingredients plays a major part in how the beer tastes, though the grain and the hops are usually the parts that get the most attention. Yeast is often an afterthought to new brewers, as the differences between good strains are much more subtle than the differences in hop varieties. However, yeast is perhaps the most important part of the whole process. After all, without yeast, beer would just be non-alcoholic sugar-water.

Most commercial beers are brewed, fermented, carbonated, and then pasteurized before bottling. The result is a pretty decent beer designed to withstand some aging on the supermarket shelves. However, a few beers are "bottle-conditioned," meaning that they are not pasteurized, and that carbonation occurs naturally AFTER bottling. A by-product of this latter method is that live yeast cultures remain in the bottle with the beer. You can easily spot a bottle-conditioned beer by the prodigious amount of sediment in the bottom of each bottle.

As a home brewer, it's intriguing to be able to get my hands on the very same yeast that produces some of the world's best beers. For my next batch, I intend to try the Cooper's Sparkling Ale clone recipe in the latest issue of BYO, using yeast reclaimed from a real bottle of Cooper's. It'll be interesting to see how close my sixth batch of beer comes to tasting like the signature product from a 150-year-old brewery. I'll let you know how it turns out!

Pandora's Box Has Been Opened

My in-laws have always been very generous with their Christmas gifts, so this year, when they asked Kari and I for suggestions, we suggested the Netflix player from Roku. We love our Netflix subscription, and we liked the streaming video content a lot. What we didn't like was the ordeal of loading up VMWare Fusion, booting into Windows XP, and then still having to huddle around the 15" screen on my MacBook Pro in order to watch anything. The Roku box seemed like a great way to fully maximize our subscription.

Never ones to do something halfway, Kari's parents went above and beyond our request and got us the Samsung BD-P2550 Blu-Ray player that, with a firmware upgrade, doubles as a Netflix player. It integrated so seamlessly into our existing home theater equipment that streaming video from Netflix now seems no different than popping in a DVD (or Blu-Ray!) or queueing up something on the DVR.

But wait, that's not all! The extra bonus (beyond the ability to play Blu-Ray discs) that came with the player was an interface to play music from Pandora, which, until yesterday, had gone unused. I'd never used (or even heard of) Pandora before, but yesterday afternoon at work, I created a station to give me a change of pace from my iTunes library. All I can say is, wow! What an awesome service! I've already discovered three or four new bands to check out, plus I've learned a lot of interesting information about countless songs that I'd heard before.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Pandora, it's an internet radio site that lets you create your own custom stations. You start off by entering a song, album, or artist, and then it uses something called the Music Genome Project to select and play songs similar to what you entered. The results for me thus far have been great enough that iTunes has been temporarily relegated to Podcast-only duty. If you haven't used Pandora before, you should totally go check it out!

The best part is that I no longer have to hook up my iPod or my laptop just to have music in the family room. Now I can just crank up the Pandora player and stream music to my heart's content.