Specially Brewed Beer

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Photo Credit: Tim and Candy Strain

Paradise by the Dashboard Light

A Recent Adventure with “Specially Brewed for Us” Beer

Say ‘Yah’ to da U.P., Eh?

My family and I recently returned from a vacation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While exploring, we stopped for lunch at the Little Falls Inn in a town called Paradise. Yes, there is paradise in the U.P.  Where else could it be? There truly are not too many places in Paradise, and that is what makes it so special. The food was great along with the people and atmosphere. But I digress; this is a blog about beer.

When the waitress asked what we would like to drink, my son-in-law asked what was on tap. Now here is the moment things get interesting! While reciting the list of available beer, she spoke those words that every beer drinker loves to hear:

We have one beer that is brewed especially for us, called Red Flannel Ale.”

8606091105_1e25753a22_hI have had many “brewed especially for us” beers and most are something that the brewer makes and is not too proud of, but every now and then you hit the jackpot. Now usually I do not like red ales too much.  To get the color right many brewers use either black patent or chocolate malt.  This can give a beer too heavy of a roasted tasted with nothing to balance it out. This Red Flannel Ale used I believe different caramel malts to get the color and body correct.  The hop additions were light and very well balanced.  I don’t say this too often, and I don’t think I have ever actually written this, but this was one of my top ten beers of all time.

It was (is) a perfect Red Ale.

I got a little more information from the bartender before we had to leave.  The brewer is Mackinaw Trail Brewery in Petoskey, Michigan.  They are both a brewer and wine maker. Now before you make the mad rush to Petoskey, keep in mind, that as craft beers go, every batch is unique. It could be we hit the perfect beer, or it could also mean that they are really a great brewer.

My point is, if you have a chance to try a unique beer, in a unique place, don’t pass it up.  You will always have a chance to have a “usual beer” when you get back home.  A once-in-a-life time beer happens only once.

Take care and drink wisely,

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Reinheitsgebot: The Beginning of Beer Purity. Or Is It?

Happy Quincentennial, Reinheitsgebot

April 23, 2016 is the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot Beer Purity Law of Bavaria. Many consider this the start of “beer purity” laws and the birth of Germany (then Bavaria) as the place best known for the quality of its beer.

But I say, “Not so fast!”

In doing a little background check, (Wikipedia, thank you very much), I discovered there are many older beer laws on the books, some dating back to 974 in nowadays Belgium. So there’s that.

And then there’s also the fact that the Reinheitsgebot is more about the price of beer and grain restrictions than about the quality of beer. See, at the time, some brewers were using wheat and rye, but these grains were needed for bread bakers and thus restricted from use in brewing beer.

Don’t get me wrong, the Reinheitsgebot will always have a very important place in beer-making history. Just don’t take it as the Holy Grail of beer purity it’s been made out to be.

Take care and drink wisely,

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server holding 11 full mugs of beer

Happy National Beer Day

It’s “National Beer Day” today! The day we celebrate the end of the Great Experiment in the U.S (also known as Prohibition). So enjoy a pint (or two) to celebrate the end of a very dark time in U.S. history.

As FDR stated after signing the end to prohibition, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”

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national beer day prohibition ends in 1933
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Double Trouble: How Brewing Two Different Beers Put Me to the Test

Life’s a …. and Then You Brew
Due to a bunch of things going on in my life I got a little behind in my brewing this past winter. During that cold and dreary time between the end of golf season and the beginning of golf season (or as my brother likes to think of it, the end of water skiing and the beginning of water skiing), we play pool at my place and I like to have a few beers on tap for everyone to try. This year, however, I got so far behind that I had no beer at the beginning of the season.  NONE!  That’s never happened in the past seven years when we started this tradition.

BYOB? Say It Ain’t So, Bob!
Well, the gang didn’t like the BYOB program we had to institute so I tried playing catch-up. As anyone who brews will tell you, usually there’s some down time. And if you brew by yourself, this can be very boring down time, like walk-around-the-room-singing-doing-whatever-you-can-down-time. (Good thing there are no windows to my brewery.)

How Brewing Beer is Like Raising Kids
Well, like any parent will tell you, having a child will change your life forever. After a while, that warm fuzzy feeling you get with one child will lead to having another. The surprise is finding out the workload is not additive, but exponential. All those moments of peace and quiet are totally wiped out. Your organizational skills are put to the test. The same goes for brewing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What Was I Thinking?
I was feeling ambitious and had the bright idea of brewing two beers at the same time. I’ve done it before, but it was two batches of the same beer. I just got them out of phase by 20 minutes and life was good. This time I decided to brew two different beers – a Russian Imperial Stout and a Pale Ale. The stout requires a 90-minute boil and the pale ale requires a 60-minute boil with very different hop additions. This was a big pain. So much to coordinate. So much to re-think. After brewing more than 180 beers in my life some things are just natural habit. But when you are brewing two different beers, and you reach for a piece of equipment for one beer but it’s tied up for the other, you end up improvising. Brewing and improvising do not go together very well in my mind. Process control is critical in brewing good beer.

I had to keep reminding myself of the line in the book The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, “relax and have a home brew.” Think of it like baby-sitting for two babies. Sure you want to relax and have a home brew but sooner or later your wife will be coming home to find that under your watch, one child’s hand is in the toilet and the other is stuffing a sandwich into the DVD player. So you have to keep your wits about you until everything is in the primary fermenter. Then and only then can you enjoy the fruits of your labor. Washing up and cleaning the brewery can wait until tomorrow.

A Happy Ending with a Successful Double Brew
After all the improvising and thinking on my feet, the two beers finally finished up and both tasted pretty good. All was right with the world.

As for you, just remember, the next time you’re thinking about doing a double brew of different beers, be prepared to use your parenting skills.

Take care and drink wisely,

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Here’s to Good Beer and Good Memories

Beer glass collection | Bob the Beer EngineerRecently, I was working on a home improvement project with an old friend. After finishing up we wanted a beer together, so I wandered downstairs to my bar and decided a pale ale would be a good choice. My next question to myself was: What glass to drink from?

Just to let you know I have a fairly large selection of glasses and mugs to pick from. I am that guy. When Christmas comes around and we draw names, whoever draws my name knows in a pinch they can get me a set of glasses, a beer mug or whatever along those lines. (By the way, if you’re looking for gifts for a beer lover, check out my ultimate wish list and practical gift ideas.)

Beer Glass | Bob the Beer EngineerI’ve had an obsession with glasses ever since I was a kid. My dad had a small collection from his time in the service and then from the bars he patronized after he returned home. Back then, most bars would advertise their logo (same as today) and you could pick them up for 2 bits or so (not the same as today). He also had a small collection of Pilsner glasses with the stem base and gold wheat logo. For those into antiques, you might be aware of this particular collector’s item. Anyway, I got a set of these from my father-in-law’s estate when he passed away. I proudly keep them on display above my bar, but rarely do I use them. This past weekend I started to think, “Why don’t I use them?” I must say drinking from this glass brought back many good memories of having a beer with my father-in-law, even though we never used them when he was around.

That night got me thinking about glassware in general. I know there are all kinds of beer glasses and a description of each and what style of beer each should be used for. But where did these different style of glasses come from and why are they matched up to certain beer styles?  First, beer style evolved out of what was available to the brew master. Glass style and shape evolved, I assume, from what the glass blower liked to make or again what materials they had on hand. So putting these things together one can only assume that, like beer evolved within a region, glassware did also. Yes, there might be a scientific reason why a tulip stemmed goblet works great for a Belgium monk ale, but I think it is more to do with where it was created. And that get me back to my point.  Point, did I have a point?  Oh yeah, my point.

no-plastic-cupsA very wise wine server once told me, “the glass you use to drink your wine from is called a wine glass, get over it.”  I think the same can be said for beer.  But I must stop at plastic cups. I hate drinking good draft beer from plastic cups.

So, what about a point again?

Drinking good beer is done for many reasons. Sometimes we drink to socialize with friends, sometimes to remember old friends, and sometimes just to remember. Remembering when I was a kid looking at my dad’s glass collection hidden away in that cupboard over the refrigerator all covered with dust. And remembering the stories my dad told me about the bars he visited in his day… Diamond Jim Brady’s, the Dakota Inn… These are places I will never be able to see.  They are long gone. My point is, good beer is to be enjoyed, not to drink to get drunk.  And what better way to enjoy something than by remembering.

Take care and drink wisely,

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The Making of the World’s Best Beer Dispenser

As you may already know from my earlier posts, I am a design engineer for Marvel and one my pet projects was our new keg cooler (also known as kegerators) redesign. I would like to share our new design and explain just exactly how we made what’s known today as the world’s best beer dispensers – and why it matters to you.

Engineers Loves a Challenge

In 2012, the Department of Energy released a new mandate for household refrigerator energy consumption (the yellow tag you see on all of your electrical appliances), requiring a 30% reduction in energy from the previous energy guidelines. That kind of change in the engineering world is a big deal and it required manufacturers to completely retool their products. Faced with this change, we decided to look at it as an opportunity (that word can also mean a heck of a lot of work!) to redesign our keg cooler from the ground up, so… (drumroll, please)

Not only was our goal to meet the new Department of Energy (DOE) standard, we were determined to achieve an ENERGY STAR® rating, which is an additional 10% less than the DOE rating.

ENERGY STAR Partner logo

Not All Keg Coolers Are Created Equally

As you shop around for a keg cooler you might notice that not everyone has a yellow tag. That’s because keg coolers are exempt from the DOE Regulations. But we chose to include our beer dispensers, because with ours you can use it as a refrigerator! Let’s face it, most people do not use a keg cooler year round so justifying the purchase is hard to do. Designing it to be a refrigerator for 50 weeks a year has its advantages!

Marvel Beer Dispenser with half keg (no tap shown)
Marvel Beer Dispenser with twin kegs (no tap shown)
Marvel Beer Dispenser with quarter keg (no tap shown)
Marvel Beer Dispenser with all beverages (no tap shown)
Single Tap
Marvel Twin Tap Beer Dispenser in use

Step 1: How to Make a Square Peg Fit in a Round Hole

First, keep in mind that the keg (1/2 barrel) did not change in size. And the space for the keg cooler in your kitchen, man cave, or rec room also didn’t change in size (fit under the counter), so just adding insulation was not as easy as it sounds. Make it smaller on the inside and the keg won’t fit. Go larger on the outside and the unit won’t fit into the hole. See the dilemma? Plus, we kept in mind the growing desire of keg cooler owners to be able to fit two smaller kegs in the same unit. And then there’s the new tall quarter keg, along with the 1/6 barrel that’s becoming more prevalent. Then there are people like me who would like to dispense three batches of home brew at the same time. At the same time we needed to increase the foam thickness between the warmest and coldest spot in the unit which is the floor. Where was all that stuff going to fit? Well, we made it happen.Our designers balanced fitting kegs, heat load and moving air on the high side (Compressor, Condenser, and Condenser Fan) in and out through the toe grille to create a keg cooler we were all proud of.

Step 2: Working with Non-Engineers (aka Marketing)

Then our Marketing Team suggested an active drain system. We created a drain sump under the faucet that will drain your drips away into a plastic bottle inside the refrigerated area. We chose the cooled area over outside to minimize mold growth. And, the sump grate is flush with the top of the unit to keep your mug from tipping on the edge.

Step 3: Keeping Our Customers in Mind

We included an option to store the CO2 tank either inside or on the back wall with a hole in the rear wall to route your gas line. This allows you, the consumer, to pick what is best for you, whether it’s an additional CO2 tank or including an external nitrogen tank.

Step 4: The (Awesome) Technical Stuff

We also increased the temperature range for darker ales (34 to 46°F). To go any warmer it would compromise the energy calculation for DOE (don’t ask, it is a long story).

And the biggest improvement above all others is the performance. Performance in the refrigeration world refers to temperature stability, temperature gradient, and temperature swing with various loads. Remember that this unit was designed for both hold kegs and food. That creates two very different air flow patterns, which creates different heat loads and temperature sensing. Proper temperature sensing is important so if your set point is at 38°F, the air in the refrigerator is actually at 38°F. That might sound easy, but there’s a big difference between a 100 pound stainless steel keg blocking the air, versus two shelves with just a few cases of beer.

Step 5: Building a Better Mousetrap

Another feature we do differently is a better insulated draft tower. Many of the competitive units add extra air flow to the draft tower to keep the beer lines cold. We didn’t want to go down this path for two reasons. First, it complicates the energy calculation and testing. Since we are both a refrigerator and keg cooler it has to pass the refrigeration tests first. If you are blowing cold air up a draft tower that is not there, things go higgly-piggly. Second, if you super-chill the tower you end up with a sweaty tower and that can lead to corrosion issues and loss of heat. Our solution was to add insulation to the tower to keep the beer cold. And in reality there is less than one ounce of beer in the tower at any time.

As you might guess from this blog, I am a little proud of our new keg cooler. Well, yes I am. Some might say I am a little biased. But I say, show me another 24-inch keg cooler that can house a half-barrel, or three corny kegs, that exceeds DOE energy standards, can be built-in, and looks good while doing it. Well, I am waiting…

Take Care and Drink Wisely,

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Practical and Last-Minute Gifts for Beer Lovers

I’ve had beer-lover gift ideas brewing in my head for a while and thought it was time to share them. This list includes practical, easy to find and easy on the budget gifts that I’m sure your beer lover will appreciate.

Now if your favorite someone is already a brewer and you are looking for a kit, it just might be too late to get them a winter or Christmas beer kit.  These beers typically need a month or two to settle and age before being consumed.  That means they should have been brewed back on October. For gift ideas for the more seasoned brewer, check out my article, Beer Gift Ideas: The Ultimate Wish List for Home Brewers.

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Beer Bottle with Santa Hat and Coat

Christmas Beer

Giving a beer lover some unique beers for Christmas is a no-brainer.

  • Atwater Brewery Black & Cran
    This bourbon barrel aged imperial stout aged with cranberries is a great sipper while listing to Christmas music and watching a fire. Not a good selection for drinking while trying to brew. At 9% ABV you just might lose your place and have a large mess to clean up. But that’s another story.
  • Blue Moon Ginger Spiced Ale
    A great beer to sit around enjoying while talking over plans for the up and coming holidays.
  • Sampler 12-Pack for Winter or Christmas
    You can’t go wrong with a sampler pack. Some of the better  ones are by Sam Adams and Blue Moon.

The best thing to do is check with your local beer supplier.  Maybe even your local big box retailer might have some but don’t count on it.

Beer Brewing Kit

Brewing Kits

If you know someone who is interested in starting to brew but currently does not, DO NOT buy them the kit for a 2 liter pop bottle or the one that comes with a plastic barrel on its side. The results are poor, and they will be more discouraged than anything else. Every brewer deserves a chance to make good beer. These options are setting them up for failure.

There are many starter kits from websites, just search Google for beer starter kits with carboys.  Look for kits with two carboys (either glass or plastic). Not a pail! Odds are whatever website you land on will also offer beer kits in the $25 to $45 range. For the first time brewer, I would suggest an American Pale Ale.  It is the best to learn on. Every one needs to learn about how their equipment works before tackling other more complicated beers. Brewing can be an expensive hobby to start with but the cost will go down with time.

How to Brew by John J. Palmer

How-To Books

Another great gift for the home brewer beginner is how-to books. I highly recommend  How to Brew by John Palmer.  His writing techniques take you from the depths of molecular bonds to understanding what is going on in that kettle. And of course the Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian (relax, have a home brew).

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In the world of beer, the options are pretty endless for gift giving. Get to know your brewer and get to know their likes and dislikes. Actually being a brewer, I try to get to know my audience and brew towards them. I truly enjoy brewing my Russian Imperial Stout for my wife every winter. Seeing people enjoying your beers gives a brewer a very warm and fuzzy feeling.

So with that, Merry Christmas, stay safe and drink wisely.

And maybe, just maybe, you were a very good boy and will get what you wish for.

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Beer Gift Ideas: The Ultimate Christmas Wish List for Home Brewers

Christmas is coming and between my family and my job I have been asked many times to put together a wish list for beer lovers, so here is my ultimate list of what I think every home brewer dreams of.

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Turnkey Home Brew System

I think every brewer would love to have a turnkey home brew system. There are a few out there, but my favorite would be a 2 barrel system from Psycho Brew LLC (the name itself is awesome!).

This is not your typical home brew set up.  But wow!  I think you would have to be a VERY good boy for Santa to bring this down your chimney.  I think you might also need a pretty big chimney, too.

Psycho Brew LLC Brew System - bob the boeer engineer blog, courtesy of Psycho Brew LLC

Blichmann Conical Fermenter

I see these bad boys from Blichmann and my mouth just starts to drool.  I think of all the carboys I wash during my fermentation cycle and wasted water and beer that could be saved. It’s available in three sizes.

If you are planning on brewing at this type of scale you are going to need to start kegging, which leads to the next ultimate beer-lover gift…

Blichmann Conical Fermentor - bob the beer engineer blog

Corny Kegs

There are a lot of Corny kegs out there and I cannot recommend anyone over the other, but I can tell you that you will need a few, not just one.

corny keg - bob the beer engineer blog

Beer Dispenser

And now that you’re kegging your beer, of course you need a great beer dispenser. I highly recommend the Marvel Beer Dispenser because you can:

  • Customize the tower and gas configuration to your liking.
  • Store more keg configurations than any other kegerator out there, including half barrels and multiple Corny kegs, and it converts to a full refrigerator when you’re between batches.
  • Upgrade your dispensing system by visiting Micromatic.com and get any components you need.

ML24BTSMRB Marvel Marvel Mobile Indoor Twin Tap with Black Door

Walk-In Cooler

If you are brewing this much beer odds are you will need some cold storage to keep all those cornies cold until you have a need for them.  What about your own walk in cooler.

Walk In Cooler for Beer - bob the beer engineer blog

After reviewing my dream list, which also includes world peace ☮, next I’ll talk about my practical day-to-day, last-minute gift ideas for beer lovers, too. Procrastinating shoppers are going to love this list!

Bob the Beer Engineer Blog

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Hi, I’m Bob. Let’s Talk Beer.

Bob the Beer Engineer

Craft beer, the next frontier.

This is my passion, and my mission is to seek and inform you about brewing and the dispensing equipment that makes great beer taste even better. And take to you to where everyone wishes to be.

I happen to be living a very good life right now. I design Marvel undercounter refrigerators, including beer dispensers and wine chillers. I also am a home brewer. The two fit together very well. I am able to marry my love of chemistry, micro-biology, and physics together to brew many ales and test out the equipment that dispenses them.  It’s how I got the nickname Bob the Beer Engineer.

My passion for brewing started in 2007, looking for a change after 15 years of wine making. I was never much of a beer lover, I only drank to be social. A friend convinced me to give it a try, and after a few brews I was hooked. Now after seven years developing beer dispensers and 174 brews behind me, life is pretty good.

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This is my home brewery, Just Bull Brewery, where all the magic happens.

Currently I am getting ready for my 25th yearly gathering to celebrate home brewing and home wine making with the many people I have met over the years. I brewed five different beer batches for this gathering, including dry hopped pale ale, Irish red, Amber aged with toasted wood chips, Baltic porter, and bourbon aged porter.

None of this would be easy without my two Marvel Beer Dispensers, both of which are currently storing corny kegs. If you are a brewer you know this term. If not, think of it as the old soda pop syrup keg used before they switch to plastic bags and boxes.

Well that is my story, and I’d like to hear yours.  Hope you join in on our discussion about the biology, chemistry and enjoyment of craft beers.

Take care and drink wisely,

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Next Post:
The Next Era of Craft & Specialty Beers – More Flavors, More Pairings, More Complexity


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The Brewing Process Behind a Great Craft Beer: Worts and All

hops-bob-the-beer-engineerI have talked with many people over the years about making beer and wine, and it really surprises me that most people really have no idea how it is made.  I know you don’t have to understand the thermodynamics of the vapor pressure cycle to appreciate your beer staying cold, but I do appreciate a craft beer more because I understand the fundamentals of brewing.


It starts with malted grains.

Malted grains are made from raw grain (usually barley). When they are wetted and the germination process starts, the grains are dried and/or roasted to halt the process and give the grain color and character.

Mashing is next.

The brew master picks various grains depending on his profile or recipe and mashes this in hot water.  Mashing is a soaking process at a certain temperature (about 155° F) for about an hour.  At this temperature various enzymes are release in the malted grain and they convert the complex starches in the grain into simple and complex sugars. The mashing process extracts these sugars along with flavor and color.

Then add the hops…

7536172262_e03d833f6c_cThe sweet liquid (called wort) is then heated to a boil, again for about an hour, and hops are added at various times during the boil.  Hops have a couple of functions. Originally hops were added to beer to balance out the sweetness that is left over from the unfermentable (complex) sugars. Then because of its preservative abilities (they are slightly acidic) they can kill many microbes that can spoil beer.  Now its functions have increased.

The first hop that is placed into the boiling wort is considered the bittering hop.  Later into the boil a second hop may be added.  This is considered the tasting hop.  At the end of boil you will add the aroma hop.

Now for the cooling process.

After the time is complete (usually an hour), the wort must be chilled to the desired temperature (72°F for ales and cooler for Lagers).  This cooling process does two things.  First and foremost it gets to the proper temperature for fermentation, but the thermal shock breaks up proteins in the wort that can give the beer a wet cardboard taste. Does anyone really know what wet cardboard taste like?


This is pretty much the end of the brewing process.  The Brewmaster does not make beer, they make wort. Wort is a sweet to very sweet liquid full of color and character.  Beer is made by those lovable tiny creatures we call yeast.  The yeast eats the simple sugars, and converts this into alcohol and carbon-dioxide (this takes about a week). Now it is called BEER.

I know this is very brief, and there are many, many details in this process that can make or break a beer. So keep in mind when you are sitting around and enjoying that dark and rich Baltic Porter, and watching the sun go down, think about what the Brewmaster was thinking when picking those special grains and hops, and how much care went into that drink in your hand, and say thank-you.

Take care and drink wisely.

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