Interview with Jared Carlberg (2012 Canadian Home Brewer of the Year)

I had the chance to sit down with Jared Carlberg, the winner of the 2012 Canadian Home Brewer of the Year, and get some feedback on the Canadian competition circuit and his thoughts on how to make a better brew. ~ Mark

Congratulations on winning Canadian Brewer of the Year. What does it feel like to be the best homebrewer in the country?

Well, I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as the best homebrewer in the country. I’m not even the best brewer in our club. But to answer your question, winning CBOTY feels great! A lot of the top brewers in Canada do send entries to all the competitions, and I am both honoured and humbled to have come out on top this year, and proud to have done it as a Brew Bomber. Early on in the season I thought I could finish top 5. I set my goal as getting into the top 3, which I thought would be difficult but achievable. One hundred and thirty-two brewers received points this year, and who knows how many more sent entries but never received points. So finishing first was really, really nice.

What is the secret to being successful in competitions?

In a nutshell, make good beer, and lots of it! To challenge for CBOTY you have to make high quality beer, and you have to make it in lots of different styles. You can send a lot of entries but if they aren’t good they don’t get medals and you don’t receive any points. I won medals with 14 different beers this year, and gold medals with 9 different beers. So I felt like I made quite a bit of good beer, and in most cases I was making the style for the first time. Hopefully as I get more experienced as a brewer my beer will continue to improve.

You also have to be dedicated to have success in competitions. It takes a lot of time and effort to brew, and still more to package beer for competition and ship it. It can be a real grind, especially in months like April when there are so many competitions. I see the CBOTY as much as a tribute to dedication to the hobby as a tribute to making great beer.

What was your “beer of the year” for 2012?

Without a doubt, my “Evil Goat of Ainpoeckish” Doppelbock. It won 11 points for me in competitions; three gold medals and two bronze medals. To put it in perspective, that beer would have finished 12th in CBOTY standings all by itself. It is a delicious, ridiculously malty lager that took 24 pounds of grain for a six gallon batch. My mash tun was full right to the brim! The Eisbock I made from half of it, called “Otto I”, won a silver and a bronze as well, and made it to the second round of the National Homebrewing Competition.

What is the National Homebrewing Competition?

The NHC is the ultimate homebrewing competition. To make a long story short, brewers compete in one of 10 US regions plus the Canadian regional which is the ALES competition in Regina. Medalists in each category go to the second round of the NHC where they compete against the best beers from all of the regions. So getting to the second round of the NHC is, in my opinion, like getting to the Olympics of brewing. Winning a medal there is as tough as it gets.

How did you do in the NHC second round?

I had three qualifying beers; an Eisbock, a Cascadian Dark Ale (black IPA) in the specialty category, and a Rauchbier. I don’t have the scoresheets back yet, but I know I didn’t win any medals there. To my knowledge, only one Canadian has won a medal there since 2000: Mark Heise of Regina, who has a gold and a silver from a few years back. He’s arguably the best homebrewer in the country, and one of the top judges as well.

What is your fondest memory from this year’s set of competitions?

A couple of things stand out. Getting the results from the Vancouver competition as I was getting off a plane in Edmonton this spring was a lot of fun. I kept scrolling through the results on my iPhone and kept seeing my name. I won 9 medals: 4 gold, 1 silver, 4 bronze, and got 18 points which is a huge, huge number for a single competition. The next highest total from that competition was something like 9 or 10 points. A few weeks ago I received a box of prizes from the organizers, which was also fun. Getting 9 medals, a bunch of t-shirts, a growler, a pre-paid Visa card, some gift certificates, and some other loot was pretty nice!

The other thing I’m really proud of from this year’s competitions is twice sweeping categories in competitions, winning gold, silver and bronze medals for different beers in the same category. I swept light lagers in Vancouver and bocks in Edmonton. So when I look back at the medal count from this year—32 in total including 14 gold, 8 silver and 10 bronze—I know some of the silver and bronze medals were gold-medal quality, if you follow me.

Wait, so there are prizes associated with the competitions?

You bet! Some of the competitions have really great prize packages. I must have won a dozen or more t-shirts, at least 10 beer glasses, quite a bit of grain, a growler, more coasters than I can count, and even some gift certificates and like I said before, a Visa card. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of stuff altogether. A couple of competitions haven’t sent prizes along yet so I should receive a few more things in the mail in the next month or so. It helps make all the work associated with entering competitions worthwhile.

If you had to pick one style of beer to brew forever, what would it be?

That is a very tough question. Something you can drink on a hot summer day and still enjoy on a cold Winterpeg night? Maybe an Oktoberfest would fit the bill. Although I have had rotten luck with them to date!

Rotten luck? What do you mean by that?

Well, my first Oktoberfest was a Brew House kit a few years back when I was just getting into brewing. In fact, it may have been my first lager. I had bought a chest freezer for $100 off Kijiji and an external temperature controller to keep it around 48 or 50 degrees, perfect for the Wyeast 2633 I was using. I didn’t know much about pitching rates at the time, and probably just dumped the smack pack in the fermenter or didn’t make a big enough starter. So it got stuck around 1.020, maybe even higher, and never turned out to be much of a beer. Then about a month ago, we made 10 gallons of Oktoberfest and ended up having to dump it all because of an infection. That was heartbreaking. But I think we’ve finally got rid of the infection problem so I’m planning another 10 gallons very soon.

Infection? What happened?

Let me start by saying sanitation is the most important part of brewing. I’ve always been extremely meticulous on that front, and never had an infection before. My understanding is that an infection got passed around at the club’s Big Brew this past March as a result of a fill-hose being submerged in an infected carboy. So our guess is that the hose went into the carboy, picked up bacteria, then into the next carboy, and the next, and so on. I wasn’t personally at the Big Brew because I was tied up with a work project, but I brew with a few other club members sometimes so ended up with four carboys of Big Brew wort at my house. Not only did every one of them turn out to be infected, by the time I realized it the infection had spread throughout my system. And after I sent out an email asking if it happened to anyone else, several other club members responded to say they were infected as well. Worst of all, I gave infected yeast slurry to other people before I realized there was a problem. Just the other day I dumped what I hope will be the last 10 gallons of infected beer. I’ve replaced some equipment and cleaned everything I could find with a 10:1 bleach solution so I should be free and clear now. All told, the Big Brew infection cost my brewing friends and me probably 50 gallons of beer. That doesn’t include the hundreds of litres other people in the club had to dump. I bet when you add up the cost of wasted yeast, malt, and hops; replaced equipment, etc. across all members, the Big Brew infection cost  thousands of dollars.

Tell me about your brewing process.

Been doing all grain brewing for about two years, before that I did kits then a few extract brews before moving on. A few months ago moved up from my 5 gallon system to a 10 gallon system and am just about to start doing 15 gallons per brew day. Probably make about half-and-half lagers and ales, maybe slightly more lagers than ales historically. The first thing I do is work on a recipe. I might get ideas from the internet, from issues of Brew Your Own or Zymurgy, from a beer discussion board—my favourite is homebrewtalk.com which has a good recipe database—or from a brewing book. I really like Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels; some of the recipe principles in there are incredibly helpful. I’m a brewing traditionalist, so I am usually trying to brew a classic style to the letter rather than experimenting. Next, I calculate a water profile for the beer I am making. I use EZ Water Calculator, which is free for download, to figure out my mineral additions. I usually start with Winnipeg tap water, which is fairly soft, but for some styles I will start with Culligan reverse osmosis water. I’ll make additions of some or all of calcium chloride, gypsum, epson salts and baking soda in order to hit the style guidelines for the beer. The water profile affects pH, bitterness, and other aspects of beer flavour. It’s one of the areas where brewers who are looking to become more serious can spend some time.

I use Beersmith software to determine IBUs, SRMs, water additions, etc. I have a JSP Maltmill and grind my own grain, usually bought in bulk, on the morning of brew day or sometimes the evening before. I have to say, now that I am going to 15 gallons, I’ll probably pick up a new mill with bigger capacity sometime, maybe a Monster Mill or Barley Crusher, and use a drill to run it. We mash in three 10 gallon Rubbermaid coolers with false bottoms, usually doing multi-step mashes with a mash in the mid-to-high 140s, another in the low-to-mid 150s, then a mashout at 170. Some beers only get a single temperature rest before mashout but that’s pretty rare. I also do a lot of decoction mashes, which involves removing part of the mash from the tun, resting it until conversion is achieved, then boiling for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on what flavour profile I am trying to achieve. My favourite mash schedule is the Hochkurz double decoction, where I will mash in somewhere around 146, decoct to achieve about 158, and then decoct again to hit 170 for mashout. I love the results, but it is a very time consuming process. A three hour mash isn’t that uncommon for me.

Most lagers get a 90 minute boil and most ales get 60 minutes, although I am looking at extending the boil for ales. We use a 20 gallon kettle and 400,000 BTU natural gas burner my brewing buddy Bob Hoggarth made. We also work in a Blichmann Boilermaker 10 gallon kettle and Blichmann propane burner as needed for heating infusion/sparge water, decocting, etc. I have fooled around with first-wort hopping but am not quite sold on the results. It depends on the beer. I usually single-batch sparge and hit efficiencies around 70 percent. I could improve that number with fly sparging but grain is cheap so I don’t bother.

I think fermentation is where my brewing system excels, and I think this is where most brewers could really improve if they understood its importance. I try to pitch around 1 million yeast cells per ml of wort per degree Plato for ales, and 50% more for lagers. So for a 5.5 gallon batch of 1.100 doppelbock, I’d try to pitch 816 billion cells. You get at most 100 billion cells in a liquid yeast package, so you either have to make a giant starter or step-up starter, or pitch dry yeast, or repitch slurry, if you are going to have success with a big beer like that. I’ve done each of those things in different situations.

I now aerate everything with pure oxygen through a 0.5 micron diffusion stone on a stainless steel wand at pitching. I’ll aerate anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes; occasionally a really big beer gets more oxygen on the second day. I have seen real improvement in my beer since I started doing this. Fermentation takes place in a temperature controlled freezer or fridge; most of my lagers are fermented at 48 degrees and most of my ales around 60 or 62 although that can vary depending on the strain being used and the flavour profile I’m trying to achieve. In general I like clean beers but sometimes more esters are part of the style profile so I’ll ferment a bit warmer. Most beers spend time in a secondary, but some go directly from the primary to the keg. Everything gets kegged and then I will bottle directly from the keg, although usually only enough bottles to send to competition unless I need to free up a keg. I generally bottle using a Blichmann beer gun, but sometimes will use a Biermuncher bottle filler. The Biermuncher bottle filler works like a charm and is cheap and easy to make. Anyone interested can Google it and how to make one will pop up.

We have two industrial fridges in my garage for beer storage. I believe in the benefits for keeping beer as cold as possible for as long as possible; not everyone has the luxury of doing this but I do think it has helped extend the shelf life of my beer. One of the fridges stays at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the other around 40.

You said “at most” 100 billion cells from a Wyeast package. What do you mean by that?

Not everyone knows that the viability of the yeast declines relatively quickly after the Wyeast package is produced. I like to use the yeast pitching rate calculator at www.mrmalty.com to look at viability. A yeast package produced today has 97% viability if I pitch it today. Produced a week ago? Knock that number down to 92%. Keep decreasing it about 5% per week, so yeast produced two-and-a-half months ago has less than 50 billion viable cells. So if you’re thinking of buying some liquid yeast, pay careful attention to the production date. It sucks to pay for 100 billion cells and only get 50 billion, especially when you need almost 200 billion cells to ferment 5.5 gallons of 1.050 wort. The good news is that you can just make a bit bigger starter to ensure you pitch enough yeast if you use older yeast packages. Having said that, I’m not a fan of pitching any more oxidized wort into my batch than I have to.

How do you get to 200 billion cells from at most 100 billion cells in a Wyeast package?

Let me be clear—you don’t need 200 billion cells for every beer. Sometimes you will need more, and sometimes you will need fewer. It varies according to two factors. The first, obviously, is the original gravity of your beer. The second is whether you are making an ale or a lager. Lagers should be fermented at much cooler temperatures and so require more cells to yield good beer. I really strongly recommend using the pitching rate calculator at www.mrmalty.com or www.yeastcalc.com to determine how much yeast you need.

Once you make that determination, you must, must, must make a yeast starter, unless you are using dry yeast or repitching slurry. If you are using dry yeast, be sure to rehydrate as per the manufacturer’s instructions, the best version of which is usually on the yeast product sheet which is easy to find on the internet. Don’t assume all the information you need is on the package, because it often isn’t. If you are repitching slurry, don’t overpitch—usually half a cup or less will suffice but you can figure it out using the yeast pitching rate calculator. You often hear of people using a whole yeast cake from their last batch, but that’s a big mistake. At any rate, if you are not using dry yeast or repitching slurry, you have to make a starter from your liquid yeast to get enough cells. Simply stated, use the calculator to determine starter size, then make a starter in a 10:1 ratio. For example, if I want to make a two litre starter, I put 200 grams of DME into a flask or pot, add water until I get two litres total, add ¼ teaspoon of yeast nutrient, then mix it well and boil it for 15 minutes. Once it’s down to around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, add the smack pack. Use a stir plate if you can—they are not that expensive from places like Midwest Supplies, MoreBeer.com or Northern Brewer and will pay you back over time with improved beer quality. You can even make your own stir plate at home; there are plenty of places on the internet with instructions on how to do so.

For ales I usually add my starter at high krausen directly to the wort. For lagers, because the starters tend to be very large (up to five litres for a 5 gallon batch, depending on the gravity and when the yeast was produced), I tend to make the starter several days ahead of time, let it ferment out completely, then put it in a very cold refrigerator and chill it to get the yeast out of suspension. Then on brew day I pour off the beer, keep the yeast in the bottom of the flask, and add it directly to the wort at pitching temperature, making sure the wort and yeast are as close as possible to the same temperature.

What improvements to your brewing process do you need to make to brew even better beer?

I think I need to get to understand brewing ingredients a lot better. I’m very comfortable with some styles that I’ve made a number of times; something like a Bohemian Pilsner. So I feel like I have a good grasp on the malt, hops and yeast used to make that style and a few others I have done multiple times. Other styles I know very little about and so am not as familiar with their ingredients. I’m working on improving my brewing knowledge all the time, but it takes quite awhile to learn all the details on different malts, hops, and yeast. The other thing I think I could improve is temperature control. We generally hit our rest temperatures pretty closely but I’d like to be more precise in that regard.

What is the most common mistake you think brewers make?

I think a lot of new brewers underpitch. They buy a smack pack and figure it’s enough yeast to ferment a batch. Fermentation is everything. If you underpitch, don’t aerate, ferment at the wrong temperature, you are never going to get good beer. You just aren’t.

What advice would you give new or less experienced brewers?

First of all, pay attention to cleaning and sanitizing. Clean your equipment the second you are done using it and it’s easy to just sanitize it quickly before the next use. That goes for primaries, secondaries, siphons, hoses, carboys, whatever. I use StarSan to sanitize, it is a great no-rinse sanitizer and I’ve had very good luck with it. Some people use iodine-based sanitizers which work great as well. Just make sure you keep anything that is going to touch your beer very clean and sanitary!

Secondly, you don’t need bling to brew. Spend your money wisely. The smartest money is on things that will improve your fermentation: yeast pitching rates, temperature control, and oxygen, in that order. So get or build yourself a stir plate. Then get yourself a used chest freezer and temperature controller if you have the space. Then get a system for pure oxygen. I wouldn’t waste money on an aquarium pump setup because you can achieve the same ppm of oxygen by just shaking your carboy. You can get setup with pure O2 for $50 or less. Once your fermentation is taken care of then you can start worrying about stuff like your own grain mill. I really don’t understand brewers who own a $1,500 conical fermenter but can’t control their fermentation temperatures. It makes no sense. One will improve your beer, the other won’t. Why spend money on stuff that doesn’t matter?

Third, be patient. This can be tough; we all want to just make beer. But I think a scholarly approach to brewing is appropriate. Research your choice of yeast for a batch. Research your hops and hopping schedule; grains and mashing schedule. Read books, starting with How to Brew which you can read for free online. After that stuff like Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels. A recent great addition to the brewing literature is Yeast by Jamil Zainasheff and Chris White. You can also learn a lot on the web, but be careful because there is a huge amount of BS on the web when it comes to making beer. I spend a great deal of time studying the art and science of brewing.

Do you have any brewing “pet peeves?”

Yeah, people who refuse to recognize and correct the weaknesses in their brewing process. You’ll hear someone say “Well, that’s the way I do it and I make good beer.” Listen, just because your buddies like drinking your free beer doesn’t mean you make good beer. Scores from certified judges of 40 or better mean you make good beer. Brewers have to be perfectionists, and should always be looking for ways to improve their process.

What’s your favourite things about the Brew Bombers?

There are a lot of great things about being a Brew Bomber! I take a class on Tuesday nights so don’t make as many meetings as I would like, but there is a lot of good information being circulated by folks like Sean Richens who are really dedicated to helping others learn about brewing. We also have a couple of fantastic, generous sponsors in Scott Tackaberry from Grape and Grain and Dave Rudge from Half Pints. Dave has helped me out many times by offering advice when I had an advanced brewing question or wanted to get his thoughts on how to formulate a recipe or improve a beer. He’s a major asset to our club. Having a great brewing supply shop like Grape and Grain in Winnipeg is critical to my own success as a brewer. If I need grain, yeast or hops on short notice it’s great to be able to have it ten minutes after leaving my house. Scotty has also really increased the amount of equipment he brings in—you can’t beat being able to buy stuff like disconnects, poppet valves, and brewing salts locally!

What’s next for you as a brewer?

I think I’ve decided to do another year of serious competition. Like I said before, it can be a real grind so it wasn’t an easy decision. After winning CBOTY it would be a shame not to try to defend it, although I suspect that will be extremely difficult to do given how many serious homebrewers are out there with their eye on the prize. At some point I will back away from sending so much beer away and start focusing just on Regina and getting those second-round NHC entries. The long-term goal is NHC medals. At some point I’d also like to become a certified beer judge, which would be an important way to help me improve my own beer. I’m not sure whether I’ll try to do that this year, or wait a bit more before I get into it.

Any thoughts of turning pro?

People ask me that once in a while, and I always tell them there is a massive difference between homebrewing and pro brewing. I’m playing A ball while guys like Dave Rudge are in the big leagues. Turning pro would involve going to brewing school and probably having to move somewhere. Right now it’s a great hobby, but it’s still a hobby. If I feel like brewing, I brew, and if I don’t, there’s always next week. I’m not sure I would love it any more if I did it every day. The other thing is that it doesn’t really matter to me whether a batch costs $20 or $50. I don’t have a banker, a boss, or shareholders to answer to. Competing with Ray Duperron and Mark Whitehead is nicer than competing with Labatt and Molson. I don’t think there’s any way I would trade my current job for a full-time brewing job, to be honest.

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