Octoberfest Season

Octoberfest beers are my favorite seasonal beer and I love Octoberfest season. In the US, Octoberfest beers begin appearing on the shelves in early September and remain available at least into early November. The actual German festival begins in mid-September, runs for two weeks, and ends on the first Sunday in October. German Octoberfest beers imported into the US are often of the Octoberfest Märzen type — malty, orangish-colored lagers around 5.5–6.0% ABV. However, you can also find imported Octoberfest beers in the ligher-colored festbier style. (Also note that German Octoberfests are almost always spelled with a “k” — Oktoberfest or Oktoberfestbier. Some US breweries also do this.) Of the German imports, Hacker-Pschorr — among the darkest and richest — is my favorite. However, as might be expected, there are plenty of German imports that are great and my preference is just a matter of opinion. Somewhat recently, US breweries have begun producing some spectacular Octoberfest lagers. These well-balanced beers taste great on a crisp fall evening. 

It’s not a tent in Munich, but I like my beer garden. Despite the name, Live Oak’s Oaktoberfest does not have any oak character. My arm has some poison oak character in this photo, unfortunately.

The best Octoberfest beers are malty, without any caramel or biscuit notes — just a smooth maltiness that mostly comes from Munich malt. (10 °L). The malty character may be accentuated by dark Munich malt (20 °L), melanoidin, or aromatic malt. Also, some Vienna malt (6 °L) — which is intermediate in kilning between Pilsner malt (2 °L or lower) and the Munich malts — may be present. However, a fantastic Octoberfest can brewed from a grist if 100% Munich malt. Neutral hops — noble hops in the case of actual German beers — provide just enough bitterness to make a well-balanced beer. The beer is not sweet, but it isn’t dry either. It has just enough body to feel a little more filling than a Pilsner, but not by much. Festbier types, brewed with mostly Pils malt, are generally a bit drier. The level of carbonation is within the usual range of lager beers. Overall, the Märzen style of Octoberfest is a malty lager beer with a bit more color and “heft” than a Pilsner, and with less hop bitterness. 

Another great local — or at least regional — Octoberfest lager.

US craft brewers have came a long way when it comes to producing Octoberfest beers. In the late 1980s through the early 2000s, most US “Octoberfests” were amber colored ales made with crystal malt in the grist and often showing a strong biscuit malt character. Sadly, some breweries still produce this type of beer. Many of these were also over-hopped, based on the target style. The best US breweries, however, started making lager beers that aligned with the traditional Octoberfest Märzen style and now there are many great examples. I live in Texas and the regional breweries Live Oak, Karbach, and Real Ale all make excellent interpretations of the style. (For what it’s worth, Real Ale was never a real ale brewery in the sense of brewing cask conditioned ales. They make both ales and lagers, including Hans Pils — which is one of my “go to” beers.) From discussions on social media, many homebrewers report local and regional breweries near them producing fine examples. 

For me, Octoberfests are an “indicator beer.” If a brewery or homebrewer can produce a nice Octoberfest, I have some confidence that the rest of their beers are decent. If you are brewing an Octoberfest, here is my advice. First, be fanatical about cleaning and sanitation. Even a hint of contamination — below the level that noticable off flavors are produced — can rob a malty beer of its malt flavor and aroma. Secondly, run an orderly fermentation — pitch enough yeast, aerate adequately, and hold the fermentation temperture in the proper range. Thirdly, if you are brewing an Octoberfest on the darker end of the scale, adjust your water chemistry. Make your water with just slightly more bicarbonate than the color would indicate is optimum. Not enough to throw your pH out of whack, just a bit. If you calculate residual alkalinity (RA), shoot for 1.3–1.4 for a beer that’s 13–15 SRM. Add calcium chloride such that you have 100–150 ppm calcium ions. Taste your treated water to ensure that it tastes good  — and of course eliminate any chlorine compounds through carbon filtration or with Campden tablets first. And finally, use  fresh, high-quality Munich malt.

With Octoberfest season winding down, winter warmers are up next. Prost!

Welcome to Beer and Gardening Journal

Welcome. Today, I’m launching this website that will, as the name implies, cover two topics — beer and gardening.

Malt, hops, water, and yeast — in the hands of skilled brewer, that’s all it takes to brew beer.

My coverage of beer will mostly consist of how-to brewing articles aimed at home brewers. I will also post some general beer appreciation articles. As the successor to Beer and Wine Journal, there are already almost 600 articles on beer and brewing here. (There are fewer than 10 wine-related stories, which should be a tipoff as to why I changed the name and focus of the site.) I have been a homebrewer for over 30 years and have published 3 books — and literally hundreds of magazine articles — on brewing. I will continue to cover beer and brewing in a way that I intend to be accessible to beginners, but with enough advanced content to keep long-time brewers engaged.

Tomatoes and melons are a few of my favorite garden vegetables

On the gardening side, I will cover both vegetable gardening and growing native plants to attract pollinators. Over the years, I have grown a lot of different types of vegetables. These include tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes, sweet corn, green beans, snap beans, broccoli (and most of the other major _Brassica_ vegetables), and others. More recently, I have begun growing native plants to feed the native bees and other pollinators in my area. In Beer and Gardening Journal, I will discuss these as well as pest management and plant diseases.

Native flowers blooming in my garden

This spring (2023), a major focus will be on growing plants to attract and host monarch butterflies. I have set a goal to raise and release 240 monarch butterflies in 2023. My previous record, set in 2021, is 77. I will, of course, be growing milkweed to feed the caterpillars. I have several species growing in my garden already and will add two more new ones in the spring. I will also have numerous native plants flowering when the adult monarchs arrive. These will draw the butterflies into the garden where they will discover the milkweed. Throughout the Texas stage of their migration, I hope to have at least three types of flowers in bloom at three different heights.  I will have weekly posts updating my progress on this once the monarchs arrive.

The number of monarch butterflies in the main North American population has been declining since the 1970s.

I will also discuss growing poisonous plants. Poisonous plants are fascinating, often beautiful, and — grown responsibly — they are not a threat to anyone. (When’s the last time someone ate leaves from your garden?) Each has its role in nature, too. For example, my monarch butterfly project relies heavily on milkweeds, which are poisonous. Also, roughly half of the plants in my garden that attract hummingbirds are poisonous.

Castor bean, foxglove, and larkspur are wonderful plants. They are, however, toxic.

At my home in Bastrop, Texas, I have an in-ground garden and several container gardens — or one large container garden spread out over multiple locations, if you prefer. In addition to being an avid gardener for over 20 years, I have a PhD in biology and an amateur interest in botany. As such, there will be a fair amount of science-heavy posts including those on botany, garden insects (both pests and predators), garden spiders, plant diseases, pest control (esp. for those wanting to avoid or minimize the use of synthetic pesticides), GMO plants, and plant development, and evolution. As with the beer content, I will strive to make the science-heavy posts accessible and relvant to all gardeners, without “dumbing down” the material. So if you are serious about gardening, you will learn things.

Here’s to beer! Here’s to gardening! Here’s to beer and gardening. Skål!

In the beginning, I will be posting a variable number — most likely 3–4 — articles per week. I will initially post more gardening articles, as the site already has 600 beer pieces, but that will even out over time. So please bookmark this page and stop by often.

Contest Karate (IV)

This is part four in this series — part one, part two, and part three can be found by following the appropriate links. in it, I examine ways to increase your chances of winning medals at homebrew contests. It all starts with brewing good beer, but for the brewer who really wants to make a splash in his local homebrew circuit, there’s more to it than that. 

There are different levels of contest competitors. Some brewers simply want to brew a few beers and win some hardware at their local competition — and maybe send a beer or two to the National Homebrew Competition (NHC). Other brewers may wish to enter several competitions or compete in a “circuit” of homebrew competitions. In a circuit, brewers score points for every beer that medals at each circuit competition. At the end of competition season, there are awards for the brewers who scored the most cumulative points. No matter how competitive you wish to be, a little planning can go a long way.

If your main concern is your local homebrew contest, you will know (at least roughly) when it is held each year. If you have your sights set on more than one contest, you should likewise determine when they are held. Most contests are held in the spring while the fewest are held in summer. Thus, many of the contests you wish to enter may be relatively close together. How does knowing this help you? It gives you time to plan your brewing. [Read more…]

Contest Karate (III)

In the first installment of this article, I discussed brewing quality beer and entering as many beers as possible as ways to use “contest karate” to win medals at homebrew contests. In the second installment, the metaphor somehow changed to Sun Tzu’s opinions on waging war and I stressed the importance of brewing your beer to stand out in a flight of similar beers. In this installment, I’ll inexplicably switch to talking about — oh, why don’t we make it ninjas? — and give further advice on entering homebrew contests. [Read more…]

Contest Karate

These beers may win a medal at a homebrew contest. How will you know? If you can snatch one before I make them disappear, the answer will come to you. (If you were smart enough not to punch a hole in your computer screen, trying to grab one of the beers in the picture, you are ready to begin your journey.)

This is an article about how to increase your chances at winning medals at homebrew contests. At this point, a very valid question you may have is, “How the hell would Chris know how to win medals?” Well, I used to enter contests fairly frequently. And, towards the end of my contest-entering phase, I did fairly well. Not ludicrously well, but I won a few medals. Much more importantly, I’ve judged and otherwise helped out at numerous contests, and seen how things work behind the scenes. My homebrew club (the Austin ZEALOTS), also has a pile of guys who are big into the competitions, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume you want to enter contests and win medals. If you simply want to continue brewing the beers you like, and occasionally enter a couple, that’s great. The point of homebrewing is to have fun. But this article is meant for someone who is looking to have fun by racking up a huge medal count and is willing to put the time and effort into doing it. So grasshopper — or cricket, or katydid, or whichever insect term you prefer — let’s begin your training. [Read more…]

Should I Dump It?

One of the most-asked questions on homebrewing forums is, “Should I dump it?” And, we’ve all likely been there. Something seems wrong with a batch and you are starting to fear that the worst has happened. With experience, you can learn which warning signs point to real trouble and which do not. For new brewers, however, unusual aromas, sights, or flavors can cause a panic. Here is a quick rundown of situations that lead brewers to ask this question, and what they should do. [Read more…]

Brut IPA (V: Carbonation and Packaging)

This article has four sections preceding it — the concept of a brut IPA, the grist, and the mash, the enzyme used to make a highly fermentable wort, hopping and the boil, and fermentation.

German hefeweizen bottles are a great choice for packaging highly carbonated ales, like this one.

Brut IPA is meant to be fizzy. And, there are a couple ways you can accomplish this. As with any beer, you can force carbonate it in a keg, or bottle condition it. However, given the high level of carbonation desired, you will need to approach this differently, in some ways, from when producing a beer with an ordinary level of carbonation. 

How carbonated should a brut IPA be? Given that this type of beer currently only exists as a cluster of individual examples, you have some leeway to decide for yourself. The average level of carbonation in an ordinary craft beer or standard lager is 2.4–2.6 volumes of CO2. Anything over this should count as more highly carbonated. For reference, Belgian tripels and Belgian strong golden ales are often around 4.0 volumes of CO2, German wheat beers can have carbonation levels as high as 5.0 volumes of CO2, and Champagne is often around 6.0. [Read more…]

Brut IPA (IV: Yeast and Fermentation)

This article has three sections preceding it. The first installment dealt with the concept of a brut IPA, the grist, and the mash. The second installment discussed the enzyme used to make a highly fermentable wort, amyloglucosidase. The third installment discussed hopping and the boil.

Once you have boiled the wort and cooled it, it is time for fermentation. Brut IPA is a pale ale to IPA-strength ale, so the fermentation should not present an enormous challenge. All the usual advice — pitch an adequate amount of yeast, aerate well, and hold your fermentation temperature steady — should be heeded. However, there are two additional considerations — attenuation and yeast nutrition.   [Read more…]

Brut IPA (III: Boiling and Bitterness)

The first installment of this article discussed the idea behind a brut IPA, the grist, and the mash. The second installment discussed the enzyme used to make a highly — to completely — fermentable wort. This installment will discuss the boil and packaging. 

Once the wort is in the kettle, and the enzyme treatment is over, the brewer should proceed to the boil. Brut IPA is supposed to have a lot of hop aroma, but not as much hop bitterness as a normal IPA. How much bitterness is, of course, up to you. The main things to consider when choosing a level of bitterness are the OG and FG of the beer, and — of course — your personal preference. [Read more…]

Brut IPA (II: The Enzyme)

The first part of this article describes brut IPA and discusses the grist and the mash.

Moonshiners like it, too.

A step mash can yield a highly fermentable wort that results in a dry to very dry beer. However, if you wish to go beyond “ordinary dryness” — as the pioneers of brut IPA do — you need something extra. That thing is an exogenous enzyme (i.e. an enzyme you add) that will degrade the “dextrins” in your wort to a degree beyond that accomplished in any mash. For the brewers of brut IPA, the enzyme of choice is amyloglucosidase. [Read more…]