This beer began, like a lot of beers, with a plan. But like a lot of plans this one went awry. As they say; the best laid plans of mice and brewers, right?
(editors note: nobody says this)
But they also say that close counts in horseshoes and beer, right?
(editors note: what)
The truth is, beer is an inexact science. We aren't typically too far off, but it is a good day when we hit all of our numbers exactly.
Typically, brewers do such a good job on consistency that most people are unaware that we actually have narrow bands within which we are allowed to deviate. Everything from bitterness to colour, and yes, even alcohol level is actually allowed to stray a little. Legally speaking, that 5% ABV beer that you're currently drinking? (I assume that you're drinking a beer right now- am I right?) It could actually be anywhere from 4.5 to 5.5 ABV. If I guessed wrong, and you're in fact having a, say, 7% beer, the allowable deviation goes up. That beer might actually be as high as 8%ABV or as low as 6%ABV! Are you shocked? Outraged? I wouldn't worry. To be honest, we don't deviate that much too often. If you see a beer in the LCBO with a little label stuck on it correcting the ABV, then that brew was likely found to be really out of bounds. But, again, it doesn't happen very often, and when it does it is almost always limited to special one-off brews that are not tried-and-tested. In the absence of hard data, I'll go out on a limb and say that it happens "almost never" for the vast majority of beer volume produced in Ontario.
I'm confident because production brewers who make a lot of the same beer are accustomed to blending batches to achieve an even higher level of consistency. For example, if the batch that you made first thing in the morning was a little high in sugar content -what we would call the gravity- you would adjust on your second batch to hit your blended target precisely. When doing a single batch without an opportunity to blend the challenge is heightened. Yet watching a good, experienced brewer at work is a bit like watching a good, experienced carpenter. It is precision work that seems to demand a flawless execution- but this world isn't perfect. To account for us not living in the best of all possible worlds many minor adjustments can be made throughout the day, small course-corrections, so that the little deviations that pop up are properly adjusted for and are never noticed in the final product. I believe that the difference between novice and experienced tradesmen is not in the absence of flaws, but in knowing the many ways to correct flaws. A bit more water here, a longer boil there, a pint of good ale, and the cabinet looks effortlessly flawless. That said, typically -truthfully- there are always small variations from batch-to-batch. There are always going to be minor differences from day-to-day. but it is on the sort of scale that is not noticed by the average thirsty fan, or often even by the most experienced palates. It is much more subtle, the sort of perhaps half-imagined thing that drives us brewers crazy, because we know it must be there, while everyone else around us is certain that it doesn't exist.
As commonplace as minor deviations are, major deviations are certainly a no-no. One of the points of pride in brewing is that we can, and do, achieve consistency regularly. We treasure it. It is... precious to us. We mostly lack the concept of vintages in brewing, like you see in wine. When our raw ingredients are not to our preferred specifications, we don't have the luxury of shrugging our collective brewing shoulders and simply saying: "Well, it was a bad year for grain". We need to adjust, we need to make those course-corrections, so that while the ingredients change regularly, our results remains the same. Ironically, it is perhaps this attention to our natural ingredients, this consistency that we achieve, which allows people to sometimes forget that beer is made with natural, botanical ingredients; just like wine. And just like grapes, hops and barley are subject to all the whims of the weather and every stress of the season. Now, to be fair to vintners, many wines are blended in the same manner as beer to achieve the same sort of consistency that brewers cherish. But we brewers do like to pick on those grape guys and gals, eh??
We messed up. It's a bit hard to admit, but we believe that honesty is at least as important as consistency in craft brewing- so here's our confession: We fumbled this one. We were clumsy carpenters. We had intended to re-brew our Green-Thumb (as we are running rather low!) and we decided to do so at the College, as the space was available. I scaled the recipe down for the smaller system, made my plan, but as Robbie Burns said about mice and brewers, it went all askew.
Our problems began with a grain substitution. The Munich malt required for Green-Thumb had unexpectedly run out! This happens pretty regularly around a brewery that makes so many different beers. Rather than scuttle the brew day, a suitable substitute was found. This new Munich was apparently very similar, and ought to provide the proper colour and flavour:
Unfortunately (while it didn't seem to create any appreciable difference in flavour) it most certainly provided a noticeable difference in colour. Our Green-Thumb should look a good touch lighter, like this.
Colour is very hard to correct for without blending, but it was a small difference, and not the end of the world. We continued on with the plan!
Our next problem occurred when the pre-boil gravity reading we took was WAY TOO HIGH. It was more than a full degree plato above the target FINAL gravity reading, which is taken when the boil is complete, after all the evaporation has happened and the sugar content is significantly concentrated. What that means is that our tools were predicting a beer with a final ABV somewhere over 8%! While that might be legally allowable for our 7.2% Ginger beer, it certainly wasn't allowable under our brewers pride. Especially when we could easily correct by adding water! Here's a handy calculation to jot down:
Volume of water addition = (Current Volume * [Actual gravity - Target gravity]) / Target gravity.
So, if your pre-boil gravity is too high for whatever reason- lets say it's at 19 and you need it to be at 16- and if you're currently at, say, 550 Liters, you would add about 100 liters, right? Right.
Until Segal's Law comes into play. As they say, a brewer with two watches never knows the time.
(editors note: that's it. I'm done.)
Our problem wasn't with watches, but with hydrometers and refractometers. We had a bogus reading. Actually, we had several. But we didn't know it until it was too late. Yes, the preboil gravity was high, but not nearly so high as we had thought. When we measured our gravity post-boil, it was now impossibly low- lower than before we had even started the boil!! When you get impossible measurements; get another tool.
So we did. Three different tools, three different readings. As it turned out, both refractometers were in need of calibration (they were both pretty far off, and in opposite directions) while the hydrometer was fairly accurate, it just wasn't all that accurate to read because of the physically tiny scale, which gave us an error of about a degree plato. How can we be sure? We busted out the big guns, the SBS-3500.
So all along, while we thought we were being oh-so-clever and skillful, we were like carpenters using a weird magic tape measure that constantly shifted it's size.
By the grace of Ninkasi, we had somehow still managed to come within our tolerances, even with all of our bad decisions based on bogus measurements. But we were definitely going to be low on gravity, having over-compensated by dilution. It was too late now to boil longer to bring the gravity back up, as that would add significant bitterness, and we were already over our target IBUS as a result of our earlier dilution.
A game-day decision was made: If this beer was going to be different, then by god, let's make it really different! The only hop used in the beer thus far has been Bullion. We decided to go off-book and add a whole bunch of Cascade hops to an extended whirlpool in order to increase the hop aroma a lot and the bitterness a little. We then dry hopped with even more Cascade, as well as the Ginger as planned- but we also increased the amount of Ginger a fair bit. Since we were undeniably clumsy with this batch of Green-Thumb, and this batch has an extra powerful hop character & ginger flavour - as well as greatly increased bitterness and intensity- we decided to call it: "All-Thumbs: Double Green-Thumb". It seemed appropriate!
With a name settled, I got to work on a label design. I was looking for something that visually crossed the phrase "All Thumbs" with the phrase "Two Thumbs Up"!
After refining the idea, I once again began creating a block print of the selected design.
It was super-easy to carve because the design was so simple! I was making prints in no time.
After making a whole bunch of prints, I picked the final print by selecting two prints at random, putting them side by side, and eliminating the weaker of the two- as in the photo above. I replaced the eliminated print with a new one, and repeated the process until I only had a single print remaining- which became the print that goes on the label!
What do I do with all the left over prints? Up until now, I̶ ̶w̶r̶ot̶e̶ ̶e̶m̶b̶a̶r̶r̶a̶s̶s̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶p̶o̶e̶t̶r̶y̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ nothing! But this time I thought: "Say, these would make sharp keg collars, at least until I make up proper ones, what with all the required legal information on them that the man demands of me." Check it out:
Pretty cool, if I do say so myself!! I think we may have just earned the title of "Biggest Beer Hipsters in Ontario" by using hand-carved, hand-printed custom-made keg collars!
I love how the final design came out,
...and I think that the beer itself is quite tasty.
The head brewer at Niagara thinks it's great! And that gives me a lot of confidence, but I must admit to being embarrassed at my mistakes, and nervous about how you'll receive the beer! It's aggressive. Time will tame it, but young it is quite bitter and biting! If you find most ginger beers wimpy, or if you tried Green-Thumb and thought "Not enough Ginger" or "Not enough hops" then this is the brew for you! I really hope you like it! And if you do, who knows, it may even become a regular Garden Brewers staple! I'd already like to re-brew it, to be completely honest. I have some tweaks in mind that I'm sure would make it even better. (I'd start by boosting that ABV!) In fact, we may even incorporate some elements from All-Thumbs into the Green-Thumb, maybe. I like the boosted hop aroma, for one.
You know, the name of the beer escapes me, but I recall being told a story about a well-known Double IPA from Montreal that was born one fateful day when the brewer was too sick to work (for a brewer, that must have meant that he got the plague or lost a limb) and his brother was called in to substitute. The inexperienced brother misread the ingredient measurements, accidentally greatly increasing them, and et voilà!! A nouveau and beloved beer was born. A rather similar story is told about the origins of wheat-wine, a style now enshrined in the BJCP. Several styles in fact (Such as the charming tale behind Eisbock) are said to have been born from blunders of one kind or another: not all mistakes are bad!
Time will tell if this is a happy accident, or just the regular kind. OH- also: we made a special experimental cask!
We dry-hopped the cask with Cascade, but we left the Ginger out. In it's place, we substituted Soursop! According to Wikipedia, Soursop's "...flavor has been described as a combination of strawberry and pineapple, with sour citrus flavour notes contrasting with an underlying creamy flavour reminiscent of coconut or banana."
According to the consensus around the brewery that day, my Soursop was likely under-ripe, as it was firm and mealy, and we only got a very subtle strawberry-coconut flavour from it. Still, we added about half the Soursop, 200g worth, to 20L of beer. If it has interesting flavours to contribute, that addition ought to bring them out!
I think that wraps this post up! A lot of experimentation, play, and straight-up mistakes this time around. Nobody has claimed the Soursop cask yet, but when it's tapped, you'll be sure to see me there! I'm dying to try it!
Cheers! May you find fortune in your failure, may all of your accidents be happy ones.