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Brew & A: Alex "Qhrumphf" Spencer

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All of us start brewing for different reasons. Some of us grew up with brewing in the home. Others loved beer and actively sough it out. Then there are those of us that started by chance, a series of events, coincidences one and all that led to us looking at that box on the floor of a Thrift Store, Garage Sale, or Estate Sale and thought "I can do that.".
If you find yourself in the later group, you're in good company. That's how Alex Spencer got started, and Alex Spencer is a brewer.
Starting with a kit and diving into all grain just as fast as he could, Alex sat down for Brew & A to tell us more about apartment brewing, meeting the famous John Palmer, and the dangers of brewing with Bhut Jolokia.
Austin: How did you start brewing?
Alex: I started in 2010. I fancied myself a beer geek (what little I knew then), but hadn't given any serious thought to brewing. One day my wife and I were dropping of some old clothes at a thrift store, and sitting outside in the donation pile was a homebrew equipment kit, a very old True Brew basic kit that was many years old but never opened. My wife asked the guy working, who said to go ahead and take it for free. I started looking more into it, developed a recipe on my own (which even looking back was not the worst possible recipe, somehow I instinctively knew that Cascade plus Chinook was a good hop combination), and then searched and found the LHBS that I continue to use to this day, walked in, made an ass out of myself looking for ingredients, but ultimately got two cans of amber LME, a couple ounces each of Chinook and Cascade, and a pack of US-05 (I asked for "ale yeast", and the shop owner that I'm now on first name basis with did me right and got me what I needed as a beginner), and voila, my first beer, an Amber Ale (sort of), was born. It wasn't perfect, but it wasn't half bad.

Austin: I think most of us can tell you what our first brews were, but as for the taste and tasting notes they are lost to time. What do you remember about it? Have you ever thought about revisiting the recipe?
Alex: It was a pretty good balance of malt and bitter. A little too high gravity and a little too bitter for an Amber, but closer to that than anything else. But definitely a good malty caramelly thing going on. But, for fermenting without temperature control, the only off-flavor I can say for sure was there was a little oxidation.
I actually did end up changing some things (such as adding a small partial mash) later down the road, as well as a more well rounded hop schedule, and a little higher gravity, and a little lighter, and pushing it the rest of the way to an IPA. It was tasty. But I've grown out of the hop phase, so don't know if I'd go back to it again.
Austin: What's your favorite beer?
Alex: I have grown a very deep love for English session beers. My favorite styles are hands down the English Bitters and Milds. My favorite commercial beer is Coniston's Bluebird Bitter, which I am working on cloning.
Austin: Tell us more about your cloning process. Any tips for those trying to reverse engineer their favorite beers and maybe having trouble?
Alex: This is my first attempt at actually perfecting a clone recipe on my own, so I'm still learning this myself, and apologize in advance for the long winded response. I'm lucky with this particular beer, in that it's actually very close to a SMaSH beer, and much of the variables have already been laid out for me. The ABV, IBUs, and SRM are all on their website, and some internet searching has confirmed that it's approximately 95% Maris Otter and 5% Crystal Malt, and then all Challenger hops. Plus, it's bottle conditioned.

The first thing that I did was shoot a message over to the brewer asking if they bottled with the same yeast that they fermented with. Some brewers do, and some brewers don't. Unfortunately I didn't hear back, so I raised up a pitch-able quantity from the bottle, which from sensory evaluation I don't think is the right yeast, so it might be a bottling strain.
I suppose the first thing I'd recommend is to rummage this wonderful thing called the internet for information. A lot of brewers will list a lot of information on their own websites. In some cases, they'll even flat out list a recipe (I know Stone did this for all the Vertical Epics, a friend and I brewed the VE 2.2.2 and it was delicious), and if nothing else, doesn't hurt to ask the brewery. Maybe they'll respond, maybe they won't. I wasn't so lucky.
And I'd always keep in mind that different systems produce different results, and things don't always scale linearly. Point being, a recipe that may adequately clone a beer on one system may not work on a different system or a different scale. Even if the brewer gives you their recipe (or you get it from anywhere else), it may need a little tweaking for your system. And some recipes on user-submitted sites may not be even close to begin with.
Where I'm at now, I've got the color down (using about 6% of a 77L crystal) but the malt flavor isn't quite where I need it to be, so I may need to go a little higher with a little lighter of a crystal. The bitterness is about right, but I'm still way off on the late hop character. I tried one batch with the bottled yeast that had the wrong yeast character but closer on the hops, this time I used another yeast reported to be their strain, and it's closer in that realm, but I went a little higher on the hops and need to cut it back. So it's still very much a work in progress.
So at the end of the day, taste and tweak and taste and tweak ad nauseam until it's close enough for you.

Austin: What's one piece of your brew setup you can't live without?
Alex: A very simple but essential tool. An auto-siphon. My first batch, I tried to manually start a siphon with a racking cane, and ended up having to resort to the good ol' "suck on the hose" method. I bought an auto-siphon prior to my second batch. I've broken a number of them since then, and when that happens, I will put off racking or bottling until I'm able to replace it.
Austin: Do you have one you like and recommend?
I use the Fermtech brand one commonly available at many homebrew shops. I've got a few different sizes for various things, but as long as I don't abuse it I've never had a problem. It's only when I've gotten impatient and tried to force tubing on or off of it when I've had a problem.
Austin: What's the worst product you've ever used?
Alex: I'd have to say White Labs WLP099 Super High Gravity yeast. I used it once, hoping to dry out an English Barleywine that had surpassed the alcohol tolerance of my house English yeast. It took the beer from the mid 1.030's to 1.004, instead of the low 1.020s as I'd planned. I was furious. I ended up oaking and then adding Brett C to it, and it's tasty now with some age on it, but it's not what I'd originally wanted. I will never use that yeast again.
Austin: Why do you homebrew?
Alex: I like the control. I like to experiment (more in the "isolate such and such variable and change it to see what happens" sense, and less in the "what crazy ingredient can I add" sense). I love drinking the finished product, but I enjoy the process even more. And because the beers I love (English styles) are rather hard to come by and expensive when imported, and aren't really done properly by most American craft brewers (in my opinion, and certainly with some exceptions on all accounts).
Austin:What's the craziest ingredient you've added? How did it turn out? Are there any ingredients you'd like to try brewing with but haven't for fear of friends and relatives telling you how crazy you are?
Alex: Fortunately for me, I seldom get the urge to try anything crazy. I've only done two really "out there" beers, and they're not particularly out there.
The first was a Scottish styled ale, let's call it a 90 shilling, at about 6%. It had a pretty unreasonable amount of peated malt (it was 5 or 6 ounces in a 2.5 gallon small batch, if you've used peated malt you know a little goes a VERY long way), which I then aged for a couple months on some oak that I'd been soaking in Laphroaig Quarter Cask. If you know your Single Malts, you probably know where this was going. Peat smoke bomb. The goal was to replicate a really smoky Islay Single Malt in beer form, and it did the job quite well. Scotch drinkers enjoyed it (as did I). Everyone else (including NHC judges) hated it. Just one of those beers that really doesn't translate well to competition.
The other one was a little more crazy. I brewed 5.5 gallons of a Smoked Porter, and split it 5 ways, a gallon each after loss to yeast and what not. Each gallon got a different chili pepper. The first got three Jalapenos. The second got three Serranos. The third got a single Habanero, the fourth a single Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Chili), and the 5th got a whole pepper of each. Each addition was sliced up and soaked in vodka while the base beer was in primary, and then added the whole thing, seeds, ribs, flesh, and vodka tincture, into the beer in secondary.
The first two were spicy but very drinkable. Were I to brew them again, I would absolutely cut back on the peppers. The Hab-only one was fairly intense, and just about right for what I'd intended. The Bhut-only one was very, very fiery (and the most popular, it was actually a hit at NHC Club Night, best description I heard was a very intense upfront heat that burned for a few seconds and then went away). The one with all four was just flat out over the top capsaicin assault on the palate (as should be expected). I have no problem with heat so I was able to drink em all, but if you've ever had Twisted Pine's Ghost Face Killah, it was along that level of stupidly hot, maybe even a little hotter. I'm glad I only had a gallon of it.

Alex and his Club with Charlie Papazain at NHC in Philly
Craziest request was a friend wanting me to brew a wheat with durian fruit. I refused. If someone made it, I'd try it, but I don't want that stuff in my apartment. So I don't think I could say there's anything crazier I could come up with than that.
Austin: What's your homebrewing style - extract, partial mash, all-grain, biab, or ?
Alex: I've brewed a variety of ways. I've always lived in apartments and have never had the opportunity to brew outside unless I'm at someone else's place on their gear.

Currently, I brew all-grain using an MLT and a gas stove. I have a 10 gallon kettle as a boil kettle, and a 5 gallon kettle I use as an HLT. Everything is done by gravity (with lifting up and down between the kitchen counter and kitchen floor as needed) except for my wort chiller, where I use a pond pump to chill with ice water. My system is very, very bare bones, but it's what I have the space and funds for, and I've brewed enough on it to get the results I want. It works for me.

At my previous apartment with an electric stove, I was using heat sticks. Prior to that, I was doing split boils, boiling portions of the wort in two different kettles. And prior to that, I did partial boil all-grain using BIAB.

I've grown fond of electric brewing, and would like to continue with that route in the future, but my current apartment lacks the electrical capacity to handle it.
I've always used swamp coolers for temperature control. I would love to have a proper fermentation chamber, but I lack the space and the electrical capacity to do so.
Austin: So you're experienced with brewing in smaller spaces? Any pointers for the new brewers starting out in their apartment kitchens? Any space saving tricks you can share?
Alex: Think like an urban planner, and go vertical. Stack your gear and your ingredients. Shelving units are cheap, and they work very very well. It makes up for a lot of space.

Clean up as you go. Not only will it make it easier when you're done (and keep your significant other happy in the process), when you're dealing with small places, particularly during brewdays in a cramped kitchen, messes and pieces of equipment can stack up quickly, and dropping your wort because you tripped over something or slipped on something will at least ruin your batch, if not potentially hurt you, and make an even bigger mess in the process.

And if you've got an electric stove and no ability to use an open flame, like many apartment brewers, don't think that limits you to just extract batches. You can do smaller batches. You can split boils. Assuming you've got the wiring capacity, you can go electric. Or you can just do the same thing that extract brewers do, and do smaller boils and top off. The space issue is hard to get around, but creativity can solve that. Beyond that, there's really no limitations. Plus, the small indoor space means that if you crank out 3 batches in one weekend, your apartment will still smell like a brewery the following weekend. I love that smell.

Austin: Tell us about one of your most memorable homebrewing experiences
Alex: At the 2013 NHC in Philly, myself and a couple members of my club were hanging out in our hotel room that Saturday afternoon. We had a bit of a keg left over from Club Night, and were offering beer to anyone who walked by. One person took us up on the offer, and it just happened to be John Palmer. He sat for 10 or 15 minutes in our room with us drinking and chatting. I got the chance to ask about a big project our club was working on (filling a full bourbon barrel), and he helped us dodge a major blunder.

Austin: I've only heard nice things about John Palmer. What was the blunder? Had you read How to Brew at that point?
Alex: I'd read How To Brew, certainly. Just had to double check to make sure he didn't cover it in there. Unless it's hidden somewhere, I don't think he did.
Our endgame plan was a full Bourbon Barrel Oatmeal Stout. Since we were given two barrels by a local brewpub who was done with them, we planned on fermenting in one barrel while coating the second in bourbon. We'd brew a concentrated higher gravity batch (maybe 35-40 gallons in a 55 gallon barrel), and then transfer to the second barrel for a few months of aging, diluting/topping it off with water to fill the whole thing but still be at the gravities we wanted. Logic was, some of the big guys do that to help maintain consistency, but we could do it to allow us a full barrel's worth of beer but still have enough head-space for the fermentation.
I asked Palmer about our plan to see if there was something we missed, and he clued us into something we hadn't though of (the topic is also addressed in his "Water" book). Water contains a substantial portion of oxygen, even after you boil it. And adding that much water would likely oxidize the batch. If it were a 5 gallon batch, it wouldn't be the end of the world. But this was a few months of planning and hundreds of dollars were were investing in this beer, and losing it all for a stupid avoidable mistake would have been a major bummer. His suggestion was to just make a smaller batch in the one barrel.
So, we followed his advice, and everything went off without a hitch...until the barrel started leaking. Which was another issue entirely. But ultimately half the batch turned out great, half ended up infected the chain of events following the leaks, and the sour lovers in the club (myself included) embraced the infection, added bugs, and have our own different version souring we speak (about a year later, it's got a nice sort of "Flemish" character to it, I'll probably bottle it cork and cage in another year or so)
Austin: Describe the perfect beer - style, aroma, flavor, etc.
Alex: To me, the perfect beer is drinkable and session-able, below 4% ABV, but still plenty of body and flavor. It's got a nice malt character, a subtle and pleasant hop character, some noticeable but not overpowering esters from the yeast, and is a balanced, easy drinking beer. The kind of thing you can sip, savor, and has enough complexity to keep up with you, but also easy going enough that you can down pint after pint while watching a football (soccer) match.
Austin: What's your dream brew rig, and how would you assemble it?

Alex: If my funds, space, and electricity were unlimited, I would build an automated, all-electric system, more or less like the system outlined at www.theelectricbrewery.com. I'd have the capacity to brew 15 gallons at a time, but likely wouldn't go that big unless it was one of my house beers. Don't think I'd ever need more than that unless I went pro, or unless I'm brewing something specifically with years of aging in mind.
Austin: What is the one piece of advice you wish someone would've giving you when you first started?

Alex: Keep it simple. My first batch was simple. And it came out well. Subsequent batches I started trying to get fancy, and the beer suffered. Once you nail down the fundamentals, then you can start experimenting. But even then, brew a base beer as it is first before you start adding wacky ingredients, because a bad base beer will be a bad beer no matter what you do to it.
***
Keep it simple. Is there any better advice than that? Fancy can be fun, but knowing your limitations as a brewer can make the difference when it comes to more than just brewing. Next Friday I sit down with another brewer to poke their brain and get to know more about what makes their brewing world go round. Thanks Alex for giving me a few minutes of your time.

Salud!
 
This was great. Couldn't agree more on the auto-siphon. Broke mine racking my last batch and haven't touched my equipment since, waiting for the mail to bring me a new one.
 
Qhrumphf,
Good stuff man! *THumbS uP!*
Do you find the cardboard box around the insert casks necessary? I ordered the plastic and valve, but decided against the box that cost 400%.
Thanks!
Cannman
 
I bought a few of them simply to help keep sunlight out while theyre out after tapping. If you've got a way to keep em in the dark then entirely unnecessary.
 
I'm about the same. I'm not a great one for the likes of peanut butter coriander orange spice hazelnut oatmeal chocolate coffee stouts or the like. I agree to keep it simple.
 
nice! I'm a fan of utilizing vertical space as well. great read! but I had to stop in the beginning. i felt your interview deserved a beer.
 
http://www.usplastic.com/catalog/item.aspx?itemid=23286
I use the 1 gallon ones. As indicated above, the box isn't really necessary, I have a few of them so that I can keep them out of the sunlight after tapping (I keep em in a bin while carbonating). But if you want to keep them in a keezer or something with a line to a beer engine (which I know others have done with much success) then there's no point to having the boxes whatsoever since they're so expensive.
 
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