What kinds of new beer brewing products or gadgets do you have in the store right now?
Sean: Blichmann Engineer is always coming out with interesting, fun stuff and we get a lot of their products in the shop. They just came out with their Hop Rocket, which is a Hop Randall, but it’s a beautiful stainless steel model, so it’s beautiful, it will last longer and it’s more sturdy. You hook it up to a keg and pump beer through it. You can pump it from one keg to another if you want to dry hop the hell out of your beer and really maximize the hop aroma. You can even pump beer through the hop rocket directly from a keg into your glass. We’ve sold quite a few of those.
The Hop Randall was first developed by the notoriously innovative craft brewery Dogfish Head, of Milton, Delaware, to compete with West Coast brewers in the hop-heavy Lupulin Slam beer competition. A Hop Randall is a cartridge filter that allows commercial or home brewers to pump wort or finished beer through fresh or dried hop flowers. Because the hops in the filter cartridge stay well below the temperature that brings the bittering Alpha acids into solution, the Hop Randall allows brewers to infuse their beer with all the intense, herbaceous, floral hop aromas that hop addicts yearn for, but with less bitterness. The store also carries lower-cost plastic versions, which can also be used as 5 micron filters that can reduce the time normally needed for secondary fermentation to clear up dead yeast cells and “green” flavors associated with unfinished beer.
What kinds of hops can brewers expect to see on your shelves this winter?
Sean: We have a brand new hop called Mosaic, that’s being labeled as the daughter of Simcoe. It’s supposed to be phenomenal.
From the Hop Growers of America Variety Manual – Moscaic (HB 369) is a high Alpha acid (11.5% – 13.5%) low cohumulone aroma hop that Hop Breeding Company, LLC bred from Simcoe and a
Nugget-derived male, and combines floral, tropical, fruity, and earthy characteristics. Any brewers or beer afficionados whose pulse quickens at the mention of Simcoe is familiar with the legendary hop shortages. Simcoe hops were first cultivated by Yakima Chief Ranches in 2000 and took the commercial and home brewing scene by storm with its uniquely clean pine and citrus aromas and high 12-14% Alpha acid level. It became so highly sought after for ultra-hoppy, aromatic Pale Ales and American Ales, that commercial brewers with hop contracts snapped up most of it. Simcoe, as well as other small-yield, highly aromatic American proprietary hops produced by a single grower notoriously difficult to find. In 2007, extremely low harvests made Simcoe as well as Citra, Amarillo and Centennial very scarce, and again in 2011 when the USDA reported the total US hop harvest 30% lower than in 2010. With the explosive growth of craft breweries and America’s still-growing thirst for hoppier craft beers, there may be periodic shortages of specialty aromatic hops, so the arrival of a brand new variety like Mosaic is welcome news, especially since it takes years to develop new hop varieties and bring them to the market.
Sean: Hop rhizomes, which you use to grow hop plants, only come in at a certain time of year, and need to be planted at a certain time. We will be getting those in the store soon in March or April and we usually carry about four different kinds. Usually a high alpha like Nugget or Magnum and we try to represent something British like Fuggles or Golding and then a couple of good American varietals like Cascade or Chinook. The rhizomes cost around $6 and it’s like a piece of root that you plant.
Nugget is a high Alpha variety released in 1983 from the U.S.D.A. breeding program in Oregon. It is characterized by a mild herbal aroma, a low proportion of cohumulone, and good storage stability. Magnum is a high Alpha variety that was developed at the Hop Research Center in Huell, Germany. It is widely grown in the Hallertau region of Germany, and is also grown in the U.S. Magnum is a good bittering hop for Ales and Lagers. Fuggle is a classic English aroma variety that has long been grown in both Oregon and Washington. It has a typical English aroma of wood and earthy fruit and contributes a balanced bitterness. Fuggle is very suitable for English and American-style Ales. Golding is a group of traditional English aroma varieties which have been cultivated since 1790, including Cobbs, Early Bird, East Well, Bramling, Canterbury and Mathon, some of which are now grown in the U.S. All Goldings are recognized as having a typical spicy, English aroma. Chinook s a high Alpha variety developed by the U.S.D.A. breeding program in Washington State and released in 1985. It has a medium strength aroma profile, and is often used in Pale Ales, IPA’s, Stouts, Porters, and in Lagers for bittering. From the Hop Growers of America variety manual.
Do you ever have new types of grains in the store?
Sean: We mostly carry the tried and true grains. A few months ago, we started carrying something new called German Cara-Red, a two row malted barley from Weyermann, which brings a really nice red hue to your beer, but without adding too much caramel flavor. If you like anything with rye, we now have roasted rye. I’ve had a couple beers that used that, like rye stout or rye porter, and that was really cool. The grains don’t change over very often because you have to buy it in bulk. More than anything else, grains are the most constant ingredient, since you have to buy 50 to 100 lbs. of it at a time. If you have a specialty grain, and people don’t really know what it is, you’re only going to be selling a quarter pound to a pound of it at a time, so it’s not good to keep too much of it in stock because eventually it will get stale. With hops and yeast though, we get them in much smaller quantities and we can experiment much more because we’re not locked in to large amounts of it like we are with grain.
Winter – or L.A.’s version of it – is definitely upon us. Are there certain types of beer that would allow brewers to take advantage of the cold ambient temperatures and groundwater right now?
Sean: Well it is bloody cold right now! (When we spoke, temperatures in L.A. were in the 50s and down to the 30s at night, but quickly snapped back up to the normal 70s and 50s at night.) But the cold temperatures aren’t consistent enough for brewing lagers, for example. You really need controlled refrigeration for lagers. It’s nice and cold at night, but because it is still so much warmer in the afternoon, you get a big temperature swing, and that can be bad. You want to keep the temperature consistent, so I’d recommend immersing your fermenter in a water bath so it doesn’t get too cold at night or too warm during the day. That said, good winter beers to brew are Kolsch (BJCP Style 6C), Altbiers (BJCP Styles 7A Northern German Altbier, and 7C Dusseldorf Altbier) or Anchor Steam Beer, although that name is trademarked. A California Common Beer (BJCP Style 7B). They kind of cut to the middle between ales and lagers, so they will do well at warmer temperatures, but they will produce nice, crispy beers at low temperatures as well. Most ales like to ferment at around 65 degrees, with Belgians and French are up around 75, and other ales like the low 60s, and below that, ales don’t really do well. So in the rare couple of weeks when it gets so cold in L.A., it may not be the easiest thing to brew ales unless you can really control your temperatures.
It’s January, with a new year of competitions, festivals and other beer-centric events ahead. Are you seeing home brewers gearing up?
Sean: Absolutely. People start coming in asking for advice about certain styles they’re brewing for competitions. One time, I had a guy come in and asked me to taste his beer, a Wee Heavy (BJCP Style 9E Strong Scotch Ale). I tasted it, and said, “No, this is not a Wee Heavy. It really tastes more like an American Strong Ale.” (BJCP doesn’t have an American Strong Ale category yet, to the consternation of lovers of this style, but BJCP Style 19A Old Ale or 19C American Barleywine comes close). He entered it as American Strong at the L.A. County Fair and won Gold with it. Just because he entered it as a different style. That was fantastic. That’s the thing about competitions – they judge beer based on how it measures up to certain guidelines for that style of beer, not just how good it tastes.
You work here every day, so eventually you must get to see every home brewer within a 50-mile radius. What kind of characters come into the store?
Sean: I spent a lot of time traveling, and I got to meet some very, very interesting people in my travels in the world. The only people I ever met that were even more varied and eccentric are home brewers. I don’t know what it is, but it’s something about the artistic flair or the dream of making beer that has brought in just the widest range of people, from the complete white collar people to very blue collar, and everything in between. It is still very male-dominated. But I am seeing more and more women getting into brewing. Guys start bringing their girlfriends or wives with them to the store, and they start brewing together with them. But what’s really exciting is that we see more and more women coming in and they’re doing it because it’s their thing, they love to brew, and they love beer, and they don’t have to be linked to some guy in order to get into brewing and learn about it. So little by little we have seen the gender roles breaking down. I think that’s a cool thing because the more people want to get into this thing, the better it is for all of us. It brings different opinions, different ways of doing things. With more demand for different products and ingredient comes more innovation, more new products, greater availability and lower prices. Not to mention a store that sells all these home brewing products and ingredients within 150 miles of your home.
What kinds of beer are the most popular for home brewers to make these days?
Sean: IPAs are hands-down the most popular beer to brew, and have been for years. California is known for its IPAs with those incredibly powerful hop aromas. That’s what gets a lot of people really excited about beer and gets them started home brewing.
How long have you been brewing, and what are you brewing?
Sean: I started doing it about eight years ago. I used to do a lot of home brewing, but that started tapering off when I started working at the shop because I started educating myself about wine making and cheese making. So I am doing less home brewing, and started making wine. And currently I have a batch of mead going. It’s a raspberry mead, made with raspberry honey. My fiance is very excited. We plan to split this batch and make some different fruit meads with it. It’s very nice to have a partner in crime with her, and she enjoys doing this as much as I do.
As far as brewing beer, I’m getting married in May so I gotta get off my duff and get brewing beer for my wedding. I’ll have three batches. I’ll have three session beers. They’ll have to be easy going beers, because we’ll have a lot of family attending who may not be as into the beer culture as I am. And I plan on partying at my wedding for many hours, so I want to make sure people aren’t dropping out before they’re ready. I’ll be brewing an easy going English Mild, and I’m thinking about some kind of fruit infused Heffeweizen. Then I’ll probably have a rich, hoppy IPA, maybe with some rye. And we’ll set up a beer and wine tasting table so people can sample some stuff that’s more complex. There will be some expectations about the beer, though, so no pressure, right?
What brewing resources, websites, podcasts, etc. do you use which you would recommend to home brewers?
Sean: Homebrewtalk has a lot of good reference material. You really can’t beat Zymurgy, the magazine of the American Home Brewers Association. They always have really good stuff, it’s just filled with articles by the most knowledgeable people out there.
Sounds like you don’t mind if people bring their beer in and ask you to taste it?
Sean: Yeah, bring it on! That’s one of the great things about this job, is that, like with anything, there will be waves of people just starting out brewing. Around the holidays, a lot of people get beer brewing kits and they start off. So there will be periods when lots of people come in with samples of their batches, and they’re asking “What is wrong with this??” And eventually, after some time, instead of coming in and asking for my advice, they just start coming in to give me gifts. And of course their beer gets better and better, so it’s really rewarding.
Also bubbling up in 2013, the Home Wine Beer and Cheesemaking Shop is updating their website to include more product information, and they just launched their Facebook page, so give them a like and say hi.