Singing Boys Brewing Blog
Here are updates on our beers, ciders and meads, as well as posts and links that might be of interest.  Please leave comments - I love to hear from you! 
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Singing Boys Brewing Blog

Prep Session for New Judges

by Jim Vondracek on 03/18/18

I'm serving as the judging coordinator for the 2018 Charlie Orr Memorial Chicago Cup Challenge, the oldest competition in the Chicago-area.  We've got 69 judges registered and helping evaluate nearly 450 beers over four rounds - Monday and Wednesday nights and Saturday morning and afternoon.  I met with four of those judges earlier this afternoon, to help them prepare for their first judging experience at a BJCP competition.  

Two of these new judges are professional brewers and the other two participated in an off-flavor workshop I led a few months ago.  We went over a one-page "How to Judge Beer" sheet and then the BJCP scoresheet used to evaluate beers.  

Finally, we tasted a beer, an American Pale Ale, practiced filling out the scoresheet and then discussed each section.  At the competition, they will all be paired with a senior judge who will assist them, also.  

Daley College Class Brewery Tour

by Jim Vondracek on 03/01/18

I'm co-teaching a class at Daley College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago,  on brewing, I'll post more about that later.  Last week, we brought the class out to Lo-Rez Brewing for a tour and conversation with Dave Dahl, one of the brewery's founders.  The feedback from the class was that they really liked that Dave shared his personal story, how opening a new brewery is impacting his life, and Dave told me that this group was the most engaged to whom he's ever given a tour.  

Interviewed on the Beerpinions Podcast

by Jim Vondracek on 02/14/18

The Beerpinions podcast guys, Bruce White and Patrick Berger, set up for mobile recording at CHAOS' recent Stout & Chili night.  CHAOS is unique among homebrew clubs, in that our members have built and maintain a brewhouse for members to use - and Patrick and Bruce wanted to learn more about it.  They interviewed three pairs of us for three segments - the 'official' CHAOS with the club president and a founder, experienced brewers, and new brewers.  

Kyle Nordquist and I were the 'experienced' brewers.  They asked about how we got into homebrewing, our role as BJCP National judges, the class we're teaching together for Daley College, and some of our latest brewing adventures.  

You can hear the interview here or on your favorite podcast app.  

Lo Rez Fernet Barrel-Aged Beer

by Jim Vondracek on 12/13/17

I like Bourbon County Stout as much as the next person - its a wonderful beer.  But this current season of frenzied BCS hunting - waiting in lines, whispered sharing of the latest news of who has what variety now, stocking up to trade with others later - has me thinking about the really fantastic beers that our many local breweries make.  These beers are unique, experimental, challenging and,  because they are small batch beers, rare.  I'll always appreciate the opportunity to enjoy a BCS, but I'm more interested in unique beers handcrafted at our small breweries.  

For example, Dave Dahl and Kevin Lilly at Lo Rez Brewing released a Fernet barrel-aged beer recently.  If you're like me, maybe you're not familiar with Fernet - I've learned that its a type of Amaro, an after-dinner Italian digestif, a bitter and herbaceous liqour.  In my never-ending commitment to research, I tracked down some Fernet at Skylark, a local Pilsen pub where my friend Bob Brown served it up.  Dark, bitter, minty and piney all come to mind. 

Lo Rez makes a Scottish-style ale called Memory Fault, its a moderately strong ale, malty and clean.  They took this beer and aged it in two different types of barrels - a Rye Whiskey barrel and a Fernet barrel.  The Fernet barrel came from a local distillery, CH Distillery which recently opened a production distillery in Pilsen and runs a bar-and-table open to the public on Randolph Street.  

Lo Rez first served Memory Fernet at the Festival of Barrel and Wood Aged Beers and then put it on at their taproom at 21st and Carpenter.  It is unique and delicious.  A beer to be sipped from a snifter on a cold winter's evening.  Half of my enjoyment of this beer comes from the aroma - it is terrifically aromatic, the herbs, wood and malt fill the nose.  

I know the brewers, so I bring biases to this review, but I am intrigued by how unique this beer is, I can't recall tasting a barrel-aged beer like this, and I find it delightful to drink.  Here are my tasting notes:

Powerfully aromatic, layered and complex.  A strong herbal aroma, reminding me of peppermint, hits first, followed by a somewhat lower spicy aroma, like cinnamon.  Underneath, the aroma of coffee and caramel maltiness mix together pleasantly, both at a low, modest level.  

Dark brown with red highlights, with a medium off-white head that dissipates quickly

Spicy herbaceous notes are high and predominate up front, with a strong bitterness that reminds me of anise and licorice and that lasts all the way through to the aftertaste.  I enjoy campari before Italian meals and this beer triggers my taste memory of pleasant evenings with my family at an Italian restaurant.  A malty backbone emerges, medium strength, that holds the center of this beer together - it provides the background against which the wood and herbs shine.  The malt has both caramel and toffee qualities.  Oakiness comes through also, at a medium low level, not the typical vanilla and charred flavors of bourbon barrels, but a woodsy oak.  The wood imparts an impression of dryness, mildy tannic.  There is an impression of modest alcohol, pleasant and warming.  

Medium body, medium low carbonation, a slight puckering quality in the finish

A winter sipping beer.  The Fernet barrel comes through strongly, which makes it layered and complex.  I've never had a beer like it, a unique beer.  A dry finish increases the drinkability but the complex herbs make it interesting;  The bitter quality of the Fernet works well against the malty background of the Scottish ale.  Slanting the balance a little more towards maltiness, decreasing the barrel-quality a bit, might be an interesting experiment.  I could drink this all winter long.  

When we evaluate a beer at a BJCP competition, we provide a score on a 0 - 50 scale.  I would score this beer a 41 or 42 - it is an excellent beer.  Its also rare - small breweries, by definition, make small batches and this one won't be around long, I suspect.  In my opinion, its well worth a visit to their taproom before the kegs are gone.  

T-Shirts Fundraiser and CHAOS' Unique Funding

by Jim Vondracek on 11/29/17

I just finished up a t-shirt fundraising project for one of my homebrewclubs, CHAOS.   A fellow-CHAOSite, Steven Lane, is a gifted designer and created the designs for these shirts, which we sold to both club members and others, via Facebook and where I am on the moderating team.

Check out some of Steven’s other projects here or to contact him if you need some design work done.  

This was the second fundraiser I did for CHAOS this autumn, the first was an off-flavors in beer workshop I led with Kyle Nordquist at Lo Rez Brewingyou can read more about that here.  Between the two projects, we netted more than $1,200 for the club.  Steven also organized a fundraising event for the club, collaborating with a local cycling organization, which netted more than $400 – between the three projects, the club earned about $1,700 this autumn.  

CHAOS’ finances are both bigger and more complex than most homebrew clubs because we maintain a brewhouse for members.  Over the course of a year, CHAOS spends about $50,000 – which is much more than a typical homebrew club and is a lot for any volunteer-run organization.  

When extra space became available in our building in 2015, we jumped on it and its been great.  We have an education space or classroom now, a room for members to store their grain and other equipment, and storage room for the club to store all the stuff it needs for its quarterly parties.  

But the additional cost, coupled with a documented downturn in the homebrewing ‘industry’, has moved the club from running a modest but consistent surplus to being just break-even if everything goes well, with little room for error.  Membership has been flat - we have new members join, but that is mostly offset by attrition as people move, have families, or lose interest in the hobby.   

Most of our income comes from brewers’ memberships – the fee we each pay in order to be full members of the club with access to the brewhouse 24/7.  We also have apprentice memberships for new brewers and friend memberships, for non-brewers who attend the club’s quarterly parties.  Another stream of income for the club comes from subleasing some of the new space we took over to a band for its rehearsal space.  

Fundraiser projects like the three this autumn will never be a core income stream for the club – but it helps relieve some budget pressure and provides resources for capital expenses and improvements for the club – like our new chiller or the much needed renovation of our fermentation room.   

Best Damn IPA in America!

by Jim Vondracek on 11/19/17

Last night, Nancy and I celebrated our friend Bill Goetz's birthday at Hailstorm Brewing, in south suburban Chicago.  We took the opportunity to enjoy some Prairie Madness, crowned last month at the Great American Beer Festival with the gold medal for American IPAs.  

I wasn't evaluating the beer, just enjoying it with friends at a celebration, but thought I would share some of my impressions here.  Bottom-line, if you haven't had an opportunity to try some, you should.  Its an excellent IPA.  

Overall, I was expecting something more 'extreme' and was instead delighted by its high drinkability, its relative balance (in the context of an IPA), and the complete lack of harshness.  The balance is key to this beer, I think - it gives the impression of a soft, complex malty background against which the hops do their business.  Its still very much hop-forward, but its overall impression is not extreme. The bitterness is firm, but not overwhelming, it doesn't blast your tastebuds.  The hop character is citrus-like, reminding me of beers I've made with Mosaic hops - orange and grapefruit, bright but not overwhelming.  Everything melded nicely and and was utterly delightful.  

While there was  no alcohol hotness, I got the impression I was drinking a 'big' beer and it turns out I was right - Prairie Madness comes in at 7% abv.  At this strength, it pushes the very upper limits of the style and starts to blur the lines between an IPA and an IIPA.  I suspect that going big like this is part of the key to making an IPA that gives this overall impression of balance - there's enough malt there to provide a canvas on which the hop bitterness, aroma and flavor can create a beautiful sensory painting.  

Hailstorm's brewer is Brandon Banbury, whom I've known from his homebrewing days with the Brewers of South Suburbia (BOSS).  Its a small brewery that makes a number of excellent beers.  If you have a chance, you really should visit their taproom or buy some Prairie Madness at your favorite bar or bottle shop.  It is officially the best damn IPA in America!  

Off-Flavor Workshop

by Jim Vondracek on 10/22/17

A fellow BJCP national judge, Kyle Nordquist, and I organized and presented an off-flavors in beer workshop earlier this week.  We presented 12 off-flavors, using a Siebel off-flavor kit, to 18 workshop attendees in a very cool setting - Lo-Rez Brewing's taproom.

Each vial was mixed with a liter of the base beer.  We used Corona as our base, because one of the workshop attendees is gluten intolerant and she tolerates Corona, which is apparently low enough in gluten to be considered gluten free.  

We started by briefly discussing how we taste beer - that it involves both stimulation and our perceptions and how our processes for aroma are much more complex than for flavor.  We went over a bit of vocabulary, then tasted the base beer without any additions and discussed what we were perceiving in the aroma and flavor.  Attendees always had some of the undoctored base beer in front of them, so they could recalibrate if they were having a difficult time picking up the aroma or flavor.  

For the off-flavors, we  doctored a liter of beer in a pitcher with an off-flavor vial, mixed, then poured into individual servings of about 2 ounces  We'd encourage folks to describe what they were smelling first, then what they were tasting.  Then, using the materials I prepared, we'd discuss the off-flavor, its chemistry, and its causes.

You can view which off-flavors we used and the materials we put together here. For best viewing, download and open in Word.  

Attendees seemed to be interested in the idea that different flavors are perceptible at different levels to different people.  Many also seemed to be surprised that those levels can be very different in the aroma versus the flavor.  

We were hosted by our local brewery, Lo-Rez.  Big thanks to Dave and Kevin for opening the taproom for us on one of their normal days off.  Folks stayed around afterwards and the really good Lo-Rez beers were a much needed antidote to the 12 bad beers we had just tried!  Dave also took anyone who wished on a tour of the brewery.

Image result for lo rez brewing logo

Five Lo-Rez staff participated in the workshop, too, which was great.  Some of them might be interested in getting Cicerone certification and knowing off-flavors is helpful for that. 

It was a diverse group - in addition to the Lo Rez folks, we had two professional brewers from another local brewery, Horse Thief Hollow.  So, we had three professional brewers, four beer servers, nine homebrewers and two non-brewing beer drinkers.  

In the off-flavor workshops I'd attended before, it was a homogenous group - all homebrewers.  The diversity of this group, both in terms of their experiences and in what they were hoping to get out of the workshop, made this a livelier and more interesting workshop.  

We charged $30/person for the workshop and contributed the proceeds - $510 - to our homebrew club, CHAOS.  

Experimental Hop #6277 IPA

by Jim Vondracek on 06/13/16

A few months ago, while shopping for hops, I came across #6277 (so designated because it’s experimental, not been determined to be commercially viable yet nor named) and bought a package of it.  John at Farmhouse Brewing Supply seems to often have small amounts of these experimental hops available - one of the reasons I buy hops from him.  

This spring, Hugh and I brewed an American-style IPA featuring good ‘ol #6277 and recently tapped our keg of it.  We’re really enjoying this beer and the hops are particularly interesting.  Unlike many of the popular American hops, #6277 does not give a big hit of citrus or have a juicy quality to it.  Rather, I perceive it as having a predominantly minty, pine, and wood quality, with an undercurrent of mild lemon. 

A high alpha acid hop, at 13.9%, we started throwing the hops in at 20 minutes until the end of the boil and it seems to give a clean and not harsh bittering.  

In our beer, the hops flavor is more in-your-face than its aroma, but that could also be because of our relatively modest dry-hopping, where we used one ounce.  I find that this beer is less one-dimensional in its hop character than many single-hop beers, although to be clear this isn’t technically a single-hop beer - we used a small amount of Pacific Jade to add clean and soft bittering at the beginning of the boil.  In any case, #6277 seems to give a more complex hop flavor profile than many American hops.  

I think this would be an interesting hop to add to the hop schedule in a big, dank American Double IPA - one of those big beers that reminds you of walking through a dark, wet forest.  

Here’s the recipe for the beer we made:

Grain Bill
Pale Malt 81.5%
Victory Malt 7.4%
Wheat Malt 7.4%
Caramel 60L 3.7%

Hop Schedule
0.5 oz Pacific Jade, 12% AA, @ 60 minutes
0.5 oz #6277, 13% AA, @ 20 minutes
0.5 oz #6277, @ 15 minutes
1.0 oz #6277, @ 10 minutes
1.0 oz #6277, @ 5 minutes
1.0 oz #6277 dry hopping

Safale US-05 Yeast
Irish Moss

The Numbers
Original Gravity: 1.058
Final Gravity: 1.010
ABV: 6.3%
Estimated IBUs: 76.4
Estimated Color: 8.3 SRM

Single Infusion Mash, Batch Sparge, 150F
Brewed at the CHAOS Brewhouse
Primary Fermentation for one month @ 65F
Dry hopped for seven days
Transferred and cold crashed @ 40F for three weeks
Kegged with priming sugar and allowed to naturally carb in the keg for three weeks.  

Using the Feedback from Competitions

by Jim Vondracek on 05/05/16

Bill Goetz and the BOSS board asked members for ideas on topics they'd like to talk about at meetings and one suggestion was to discuss how to use the feedback from competitions.  These are notes I put together to get us started on the conversation - to be filled out by conversation, questions and specific examples from members.

Four Important Aspects to Understand about the Feedback from Competitions
  • Beer evaluation is neither totally objective or totally subjective.   Human perceptions are not exact but judges can give you insights into your beer.  Like a lot of things, you have to dig into it to get the most out of it. 
  • There are many variables at a competition that can impact perceptions - flight order, number of beers in a flight, shipping, how the beer is stored, the condition of the bottle, temperature served at, other aromas at the competition site, etc.  
  • There are two great advantages of beer competitions:
    • The judging is anonymous - the feedback you get is honest and legitimate.  
    • There is a process for educating, testing and ranking judges.
  • If both judges agree on a point, it’s probably good to look into it.  Also, looking at a judge’s experience and ranking might also give you insight into her/his comments.  
How Do I Interpret the Scoresheet?

The top four sections (Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel) are where the judges share their perceptions - what they are smelling, seeing, and tasting.  Read those to compare what they perceived to what you perceive in your beer.  Sit down with one of your beers and go through it with them.  

The final section, overall impression, is where the judge gives you a sense of your beer’s strengths and weaknesses, how it fits or doesn’t fit the guidelines, and ideas for how you might improve your beer. 

You should also look at the check boxes to the left for any off-flavors that were perceived.  Sometimes those may be appropriate for the style.  

Three Common Problems and How to Address Them:
  • Low level, slowly developing wild yeast or bacteria.  When the brewer tried the beer at home, it was great.  S/he shipped it off, it sat in a hot UPS truck for a few days, then in the organizer’s garage, and finally, four weeks later, the judge is evaluating it.  Many wild yeast and bacteria are slow developing and relentless and start to be more perceptible in a beer as time passes.   Reviewing all the sanitation practices is the best advice.
  • Staling and/or oxidizing.  See above.  These can develop over time, also, becoming more prominent and perceptible, especially if the beer isn’t transported and stored well, or the beer style is better represented by a younger beer - hefeweisen, for example.   Some advice is to watch post-fermentation oxygen exposure and, depending on the style, perhaps enter it younger.  
  • Fruity and estery.  These are usually related to the yeast flavor profile.  Brewers may be underpitching yeast, or fermenting at too warm a temperature, or have some other yeast management issue that is leading to the fruitiness and estery flavors in styles where a clean yeast profile is called for by the guidelines.  

I'm a National Judge!

by Jim Vondracek on 03/03/16

Back in October, I sat for the third BJCP exam, a written essay exam.  Recently, I learned that, averaged with my score on the second BJCP exam, a tasting exam, my total scores were high enough to earn promotion to National rank.  As a National judge, I will be able to participate in many ways I haven't previously - administer, proctor and grade exams, for example.  Most importantly, competitions are always struggling to get enough top ranked judges and it will be a good thing for those competitions to have another active National judge available.  

I recently read that BJCP has credentialed approximately 5,700 judges in total and that only about 15% of those credentialed judges are ranked National or higher.  Back when I took the written exam, I wrote up a blog post with the exam questions - you can read it here 

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