On The Bond Between Brewer & Feline & Vermin

Prepare yourself for a tale of waste… and cats.

Brewers love to talk about ancient history, mostly in the form of the classic anthropological debate – bread or brew. But what about brewers and their connections to the “domestication” of animals. Sure, I love my dogs and without oxen, plowing a field of size would be tough.

I would argue that for all the love we give our brew pups, no animal has been more important to the continuation of mankind’s brewing arts than Felis catus – the “domestic” house cat. Quotes because really – domesticated? Hardly!

Here are mine – Isis, the black kitten and Osiris, her brother decked out in trendy bandit wear, being all stealthy.

While no one knows exactly how cats got domesticated, most of the speculation seems to be that they just moved into our communities and were tolerated and eventually adapted to hunting our varieties of vermin. Turns out that last part was very useful – particularly to brewers.

Why in all Ninkasi’s glorious beer giving name am I talking about an event that happened nearly 10000 years ago, give or take? Well, I’ve talked in the past about having a lot of grain in my garage – a lot. I like being able to brew on a whim, because that’s how it usually works for me and so it’s handy to have bulk storage. (Bulk storage is a theme of humanity’s post-nomadic existence)

I’ve always sworn by a combination of Gamma Lids on 5 gallon plastic buckets. For a little over $12 ($9 for the lid, $3 for the bucket – yes, I know they’re not rated food grade – I don’t have any twitches, yet), I can safely and securely store 25 lbs of grain in a water and air tight container. You can see them here in the middle of my very messy garage – more on that later.

Here in Southern California, like most places populated by humanity, we have our friendly neighborhood vermin. In the case of LA, the Brown Norway Rat, is super common. Like those of us driving up real estate prices, they love our hospitable climate. Many of our homes are on land that was formerly ranch and farm land adding to the rat allure.

My neighborhood, Lamanda Park, was home to fields of grapes and citrus – hence we have our fair share of our buddy the rat. They love my fruit and avocado trees. They love to stage the occassional break-in to my 1920’s home particularly my stand alone garage.

In all the years I’ve lived here and been storing my grain in buckets, I’ve never had a problem with the odd incursion. I’ve killed a few rats, a few have tried gnawing on the bucket lids to no avail – life moves on.

That is until I decided to better secure the garage and wound trapping some inside.

I stepped out of the brewery for a few weeks and found that in their desperation, they’d managed to finally bust into a few of the buckets – through the weak part of the lid. Gotta give them credit – that was some tenacious work.

All told, they got into three partial buckets (missed the full ones and thankfully none of my truly esoteric malts!) But they did get three different base malts – maybe they were trying different flavors. They got my last supply of Great Western Superior Pilsner and Great Western Pure California and a bit of my Thomas Fawcett Maris Otter

Hats off, Mr. Rat. Of course, now they’re toast and I’m steam cleaning the whole brewery.

Jerks. I was thinking maybe I should make like humanity of old and get a barn, erm, garage cat. Think my neighbors would mind if I threw their outdoor cat (Elvis – update – actually named Melvin) in there for a while? After all he sits in my yard all day!

Moral of the story – rats are with us and they like our grain. Do your best to keep them out! Be vigiliant and maybe keep a cat or two on hand.

In this case, I still swear by the gamma lids, but maybe I’ll put some thin sheet metal on top of the bucket stacks. (My wild rats haven’t demonstrated the thinking skills necessary to get past anything metal, so…) What have you done to keep things safe?

And just to further the point about cats and humanity and beer… here’s Isis again with a glass of Pilsner!

Where All This Began In a Photo

This is the magic secret photo – I’m not quite certain but I believe this index card is from around 2008. Back then I was working with fellow brewer, now turned Motor Trend star, Jonny Lieberman¬†on a few beer concepts. I don’t remember the circumstances, but I sat down and wrote out a list of experiments that would be fun to explore to build up brew knowledge.

The card got filed away. Jonny became a car authority with a much more amusing life.

A few years later, Experimental Homebrewing ¬†became a project and the first time that Denny and I worked together on something this massive. By that point, I had completely forgotten about this card. It was lost in a shuffle of papers in a cubby hole in my desk. About halfway through the project, in one of those fits of “cleaning and organizing is more fun than writing!”, I found the card and it was funny, because a number of these experiments were already written for Experimental Homebrewing! They must have stayed locked away in the recesses of my mind, fermenting and waiting for their debut.

Always fun to find artifacts of the the past!

Old Dog…New Tricks…The Followup

Today I kegged the beer I wrote about in my previous blog post. It was a few hours short of 11 days from the time I brewed it. The gravity dropped from 1.063 to 1.013, which is consistent with how this beer usually performs. That’s 78.5% AA (apparent attenuation) with a first generation pitch of WY1450. A 1 qt., non stirred starter. In spite of being skeptical, I pitched the whole thing, starter wort and all. While there was no blind triangle testing this time (but there will be in another batch!), I can pretty confidently say that this may be the best tasting batch of Noti Brown Ale I’ve ever made. Keep in mind that this was the first beer I ever won a ribbon for, back in 1999-2000. I’ve brewed it dozens of times and know it well. So, I can say that the new yeast method worked extremely well in this trial. Certainly better than I was afraid it might and definitely better than the leagues of stir plate users told me it would be. It probably comes as no surprise, though, to the people who have been doing it this way all along! At any rate, the beer turned out great and the starter was faster and easier than any starter I’ve made in the last 5-8 years on a stir plate. The method certainly warrants further exploration . I hope I’m not the only one who tries this and reports their results. The way citizen science works depends on multiple trials from multiple people. Please join in and try this for yourself and post the results here. And let’s all give a big thanks to S. cerevisiae/ Mark Nan Ditta for suggesting this method (well, he actually kinda insisted!). It’s given us all not only a potentially better way to make yeast starters, but also a science problem to keep us busy!

Don’t Age Your Beer (too much)


I’ve now reached the age where I have to assume that there are number of people who no longer share (or were at least exposed to) common cultural touchpoints for my generation. So here you go – I still to this day sing this song when I’m making a salad. It’s usually in my head because the world doesn’t need the torture that is me singing. Don’t laugh – whatever childhood cultural flotsam has lodged itself into your cranium is just as silly. Anyway – the point of this post is to say – dont’ age your beer!* How’s that for a statement guaranteed to rile a few folks? That’s almost as good as my admonitions against decoction mashing for getting brewers’ dander up! In a few articles, I’ll be (and maybe Denny too) exploring a primary sin that many homebrewers are guilty of – taking too damn long to make the beer.

To start with, here’s a re-working of my “Expressway Brewing” article from Zymurgy a few years back that’s all about how to turn a beer around in 6-10 days! Express Brewing – Speed Brewing from Grain to Glass in Less Than 10 Days *:

Obvious counterexamples exist – for instance, Barleywines, strong ales, brett beers, etc. Things that have age as part of their inherent makeup – go forth and age them – Your IPA? Stop it!

Denny’s Comment: 

“Yep, look through all the “old standard” homebrew books and you’ll see lots of info about aging your beer. When I started brewing, back when books were carved in stone, the commonly heard refrain was that all beer benefits from aging. So that’s what we did. Sometimes it made the beer great and other times it resulted in a oxidized beer that had lost all of its flavor. Over time, experience taught us that there are more beers that don’t need much (if any age) than those that do. Don’t be afraid to taste your beers young! These days I’m making a lot of 2.5 gal. batches in the Zymatic. With a good pitch of healthy yeast and a temperature controlled chest freezer, I’m drinking a 1.064 IPA in less than days from when it was brewed and I don’t feel like there’s any sacrifice in quality.

There is one exception, though…your own tastes, which are completely subjective. Some people prefer an IPA that has had time to lose a but of its character and say it helps the flavors blend. I don’t agree, but you get to drink your beer how you like it and I get to do the same with mine. Just PLEASE, try it both ways and make an objective decision!”

Friday Fun Ingredient – Tea!

Today’s fun ingredient – Tea! The last time I brewed with tea was for the San Diego NHC in 2011. As part of the giant fleet of saisons that I made for the conference, I made the Jasmine Dragon Saison. It used one of my favorite teas – jasmine infused pearl green tea. Now this isn’t the same stuff I used in the Dragon, but a very similar tea made it’s way about 2oz (weight) of tea to a cup of vodka. That soaked and was shook for a business week and then strained. When the beer hit the keg, in went almost all of the tea extract. Here’s what a very similar tea looks like before soaking (images from here) When you make the tea normally (e.g. with hot water) it turns into this: It was beautiful stuff.Serious flights of angels type experience. Bright floral pop of jasmine, funky earthiness of the green tea blending in with Saison yeast. Wyeast 3711 in this case. The slickness of the yeast helped offset the little bit of tannin that was extracted as well. How much did I like this beer? Enough to drink a fair amount of it, despite having a low grade allergy to jasmine! The details are covered online here in Beer&Brewer Magazine out of Australia. Brewing with Tea. There’s plenty of uses for tea – I saw plenty of Chai Masala beers at SCHF – very popular stuff. What have you made with tea? What uses can you think of?

No big surprise, but a fair amount of Experimental Brewing will be about playing with your beer and that means playing with ingredients. So, what can we use? Inspired by my neighbors in BEAVR and their Chocolate Covered BEAVR Nutz recipe (a chocolate peanut butter stout). I went and bought some PB2 Powder. This is basically mostly defatted peanut butter powder. It’s designed to be used by people wanting peanut butter flavor without peanut butter calories. Now the question is: what to make with it and how to use it? Here are some of my thoughts if I want to avoid the whole “dark beer” idea. Hrm?

  • PB Hefeweizen (particularly with a nice banany ferment) – Basically – The Almost Elvis
  • Bacon PB Hefe – aka the Full Elvis!
  • PB Dunkelweizen with something fruit in the mix for a PB Jelly.
  • Georgia Farmhouse with PB and Peach

What about you? If you were to play with PB2, what would you make? And just because.. hey it’s Facebook and lots of comments: PB2 Post on Facebook