A blorg about brewing beer and writing songs

29 Dec. 2009

xmas beer cheer

My attempts at brewing a fat yak style beer are ongoing. I've spent a lot of time in the past working on very slightly hopped beers so my experience in brewing a big hoppy beer has been limited. This was the first time that I produced something drinkable, however, so I'm happy to at least have some beer even if it is not the beer I imagined.

Xmas beer - pre-pour Frosty Xmas ale Freshly poured

Having said that, my latest pale ale is quite tasty. The extra hops balance out the lingering sweetness that my beers always seem to have a bit of. The result is a quite delicious ale that goes down easily. I was a little cautious this time, after being burned by Sour Sunday, so I avoided finishing the keg with hops and elected to drop in a bag full of fuggles right at the end of the boil. The result is a bit less aromatic than I wanted and I think next time I'm going to suck it up and go for the proper finishing time with uncooked hops.

The above pictured brew helped wash down all that delicious xmas ham that my wife cooked. It's been a super food xmas and I feel bloated and over indulged in the best possible way. Merry xmas everyone.

1 Dec. 2009

Saved by the can

When you're in a pickle (or at least your brew is full of vinegar) and you have friends coming over in less than a week and you've promised a bountiful flow of beer out of the taps then there's nothing to be ashamed of in running down to bi-lo to pick up a coopers homebrew kit and brewing up a quick and easy pale ale.

At least that's what I keep telling myself.

24 Nov. 2009

Woe to me

I'm very proud of my beer. I've never lost a brew. Every keg of beer I've tapped has been drinkable and, often, delicious. That all changed on Sunday; a day of unseasonably high temperatures (it got up to 40 degrees). A day that I will forever remember as Sour Sunday.

You see, I'd been attempting to make a particularly fine beer. I made it from pure pale malt, which I sparged multiple times to extract as much malty sugars as was possible. I used no bittering hops at all, as I wanted the hopping to be fresh and aromatic, with a summery vibration. I fermented carefully using some fine californian ale yeast. When the fermentation was done my hydrometer told me I had created a brew with a sturdy 10% alcoholic content. I was well-pleased. I kegged up the beer and lowered a sterilised bag, full of aromatic hops into it to sit for a few days, gathering flavour like a mother gathers her young up to her teets.

Then Sunday hit, and at some point before my heat-addled brain thought to move the keg into the fridge my lovingly crafted brew turned to vinegar. I don't really blame it, sitting in our house (the doors closed tight to keep out the heat, but still sweltering at 35 degrees) my mood had also gone acidic. If anything my brew was a mirror to myself, quickly turning sour in the face of the relentless Australian sun.

I'm clinging to a dwindling shred of hope that I can save my brew of it's tangy fate. I've been scouring google, but to no avail. Just now I have sent off some emails to a few homebrew experts who might be able to help me. Perhaps there is some way to neutralise the vinegar and return the flavour of my beloved brew in time for the entertaining I'd planned around it's fruition.

Regardless of the outcome, it seems that little today can lift the weights from my heavy heart.

23 Nov. 2009

I'm gonna do it by myself (sometimes)

In lieu of any new music or beer (both are currently fermenting), I had this idea to write a blog post about the concept of doing things for yourself, going back to first principals and learning how things work. Even if you don't always do it yourself, you get an appreciation for how it should happen. The formation of this idea was closely followed by a warning from my inner self-critic (a rare event!) informing me that I should have a look around before I shoot my mouth off. Turns out that DIY culture is at least as old as my parents and, these days, is tightly associated with "punk"-like counter culture.

So wikipedia helped me dodge a bullet there and I got to thinking instead about how little I want to be associated with a subculture or scene. I had my fill of subcultures when I was a teenager and it's made me suspicious of the kind of exuberance often displayed by proponents of otherwise interesting things like bike-maintenance, dumpster diving or guerrilla-anything. Like old man Buddha, I'll look for the middle path, not that I'd ever want to be associated with Buddhism.

Some things, like beer and music, suit a DIY methodology so well that it seems silly to rely on other people to make them for me. Other things, like computer memory sticks, I'm quite happy to let someone else have a go at on my behalf. I'm pretty sure that if it came down to it, I'd fail at making my own memory sticks.

I don't want to write a blog post unless I have learned something new. So I guess what I have learned today is that I'm a ignorant of modern punk culture, that I'm hesitant to sign up to any pre-defined lyfestyle movement and that despite all of this I still love to make my own shit.

5 Nov. 2009

Chocolate Stout

There was a time when if you happened to walk into my house on a weekend you'd likely smell some sweet barley aromas and see me bent over a large blue esky with a sack of barley on my shoulder. We got kicked out of that house a year ago and I hadn't made a proper beer since. Now a coopers homebrew kit is cheap as chips and makes a drinkable beer, but you can never hold up a chilled glass of that stuff and feel a swell in your chest cause all you really did was follow the instructions. This had to change and so a few weeks ago I made an order with the good people at Dave's Homebrew to organise a nice, big bag of grain and some other goodies delivered to my door, then I got busy making some real beer.

This tasty beverage is my first all grain mash in exactly a year, according to my beer diary. I keep a record of every beer I make, noting the recipe. I spent a long time honing two beers down to just how I wanted them, a cream stout and a lemongrass ale. Coming back into it, though, I wanted to mix it up a little so I decided to make a hoppy chocolate stout.

Most commercial stouts are pretty mild in flavour but I've been really enjoying some extra hoppy beers lately (in particular, Matilda Bay's Fat Yak) and I wanted to keep on drinking them from my own keg. So I set out to make the perfect chocolate stout. This is what I love about the DIY approach, you can create things just the way you imagine they should be, rather than relying on someone else's judgement of what the market wants (which invariably leads to the lager plague!).

My mash was made up of flaked barley, chocolate malt and pale malt, plenty of stouty flavours in there.

Barley for stout making Ready to mash

I'm pretty unsophisticated when it comes to the mash. Just a single grain infusion for two hours. Then out comes the sugary brown liquid. I drank a cup of it straight from the tub, all sweet and malty, and admired the wort as it boiled and turned green with bittering hops.

Draining the wort Draining the wort Boiling wort

The new warm weather has made fermentation easy, in our slate-covered laundry it stays around 24 degrees most of the time. The perfect temperature for the californian ale yeast that I love so much. The brew took about 2 weeks to bubble right out and then went down into the keg with the finishing hops for a second in-keg fermentation. I let it sit there gathering flavour for a few more days until I couldn't wait any longer. I connected up the keg to the gas line to pressurise on Tuesday, then tapped the keg on Wednesday. What happened next was not an immediate success and the first of several lessons I learned that night. The finishing hops I'd added did not dissolve into the mix as I had imagined, they simply formed a mealy green layer at the bottom of the keg and completely clogged the lines as soon as I tried to pour from them. This took a little work to fix with my wife helping me strain from one keg into another through a layer of muslin. We lost most of the fiz that way (not a huge loss, but still).

After a lot of lifting, moving and wiping up spilt beer we finally had a pourable brew!

Ground Stout Chocolate Stout

Turns out that the beer was delicious and weighing in at 5.6% alcohol it is not to be taken lightly. I held back a bit on the finishing hops, so it didn't really come out as hoppy as I hoped, but that was probably a bonus as the chocolate tones are also quite subtle and the balance of flavours is pretty much perfect. And now all there is to do is sit back and enjoy my tasty, tasty chocolate stout.

29 Oct. 2009

This is not a love song

Writing songs isn't all that hard. You can slap out some 12 bar blues in a few minutes. You can write some lyrics about the first thing you see "Gotta lotta chickens in my underpants". There you go, that's one song right there.

I'm a big fan of this kind of songwriting, but sometimes I want to do a little bit more. Every since I met my wife I've wanted to write a song for her, but what I have found is that writing a song for and about something I really care about is hard. Once I have a topic that really matters, I want the song to be listenable, meaningful and express what I actually want to express. Since my wife is the best person I've ever met, I feel that a song made for her is pretty important to get right so I have put a bit of thought into this one. I know I'm doomed from the start because I can't write the best song in the world, but I'm all about embracing my imperfections so it was time to just do it.

I put together a list of things that I know she likes in a song, and came up with:
  • my wife loves pop music
  • she likes songs with counting in them
  • she likes a song with a catchy hook
None of these elements really sum up anything that Meat Pig have previously made, so this song was going to be a bit different, and yet, as it turns out, it seems that Meat Pig are not capable of making a non Meat Piggy song.

Song Form

I wanted to try something a little unusual for the song form. My original idea was a through-composed song, but that's hardly pop. I then got excited about the idea of a song with the form ABAB, where A and B are both verses and there is no chorus. I ended up with something more complicated, an ABCAD format.

A is an instrumental into
B is the verse
C is a one bar chorus, very minimal!
D is a divergence, a second verse format with a change in style but keeping the key and tempo.

The whole thing is repeated twice and comes in around the 2 minute mark. This is my preferred length for a pop/rock song, as it forces you to be concise. Say what you want then get the fuck out. I'm reminded of Frank Black; in my vague memory of an interview he was talking about the song length of many of the songs on doolittle. Arguing over the length with his producer he claimed that if you look back on all the old delta blues masters you'd see that most of their songs last about 2 minutes. This is important to me cause the tendancy to get self indulgent is always there, waiting to leap out and ferociously bore your audience.

Scales, keys, rhythms

We went for a rock song in F for no other reason than we haven't done many songs in F. We started with a guitar riff that I'd worked out and since I'm a crap guitarist I tuned the guitar up a note to make it easier the play in F. Luke came up with some pretty solid bottoms for this track. We drew heavily from the Jimi Hendrix experience, mainly a combination of Machine Gun and Fire. This is most evident in the drums where Luke slips into a Mitch Mitchel style without even trying, as if he had eaten with the same cutlery as Mitch and been infected with a salivatorily transmitted groove virus.

I added some accordion, trying very hard to reign myself in. I'm really not very good at doing that, since my fingers get bored. I basically improvised over a minor blues scale and an aeolian mode in F, which is my standard thing. Note to self: expand your repertoire.

Background lyrics were just Luke and I, yelling together about 2 metres from our mic. I had to postpone the main vocals cause a cold had left my throat a little ragged and I didn't have it in my to sing any more. I came back to it a week later having written some vocals in my head. I distractedly finished them off in front of an episode of Monkey Magic and then when it came to singing them found my heart beating a little too fast and they came out garbled and broken. More than usual, I'd say. A strange thing, singing this song made me nervous and reminded me of the first time I met my wife. I was coming down a set of escalators and she was standing there alone in a big, empty stone room and I just walked up to her and kissed her while my travel-sick body swiftly caught fire. I was almost that nervous all over again.

Finishing it off


Luke finished off the song , selecting a delightfully cheesy guitar fuzz to cover up the acousticness of our electric guitar-with-broken-pickups. Then he cleaned up some of the more startling errors I made in the lead vocals and finally he uploaded it to last.fm so the world can sing along with us.

If you've managed to read all of this, it would be very remiss of you to not go ahead and download the song, put it your MP3 player and upload a torrent to the pirate bay. Here it is:

Download Meat Pig - Rockin'

I love, love feedback. If you want to tell me anything, good or bad about this song then please use those commenty features down there. If you want to call me an arsehole, then do that too!

26 Oct. 2009

Beer Festival at The Australian


Despite the rains a lot of people managed to make it to The Australian Beer Festival, at the Australian Hotel. In fact it seemed that as the rains got heavier the crowds grew thicker. The sometimes sideward flying rains seemed to have little effect. Arriving early we managed to get our hands on a standing table and clung on to it till the late afternoon. Between the three of us we probably sampled about 50 beers and left in a merry mood.

The highlight of the day was my discovery of Red Angus who were serving a nice, hoppy ale and (despite my general dislike of lagers in general) a rather delicious pilsner. The Pilsner actually had a taste reminiscent of a wheat beer. Even more than their beer, I love their tagline: "grain fed beer" and the imagery of the anagus bull. A very beefy effort all 'round.

I also got my first taste of coopers' foray into Pilsner territory with Coopers 62. It has the full mouth-feel that I'm used to tasting in a coopers brew with the addition of that sharp pilsner taste. It was not at all bad.

Other enjoyable brews I sampled were:
I also got to attend a little talk by a brewer from blue tongue, a somewhat local microbrewery that are in a stage of expansion right now. I want to say that it's hard for me to cricisize a bunch of people who just gave me free beer and four cheese pizza, but I have to say that I disagreed strongly with the speaker's insistence that lagers are the best beer for an Australian climate. I'm a bit of a hippy, and I tend to think that any beer style that requires heavy refrigeration to brew isn't really the best beer for your climate. I also think that the predominance of lagers in australian mainstream beer has led to a vast array of flavourless alcohol water. Not that blue tongue is neccessarily a tasteless beer, but lagers generally don't have the flavour and body of a good ale and that is really what I want in a beer, a bit of personality.

I was hoping to see a few more obscure microbrews, there weren't very many new discoveries, but I was satisfied at least by the lack of any real mainstream beer (with the exception of a small effort by Lion Nathon to serve their 5 seeds cider). I took away a pleasant buzz, wet feet and a growing love of beers that employ finishing hops. I reckon my next brew will have a second fermentation with some quality finishing hops to try and capture that herby flavour.

19 Oct. 2009

Giving it away

I was trying to decide where to start today. I currently have a chocolate stout brewing, and a new Meat Pig track that needs some vocals and some production attention. Neither of which I'm completely ready to talk about. So instead I wanted to get stuck into an issue that I hope will define the spirit of this blog: freedom of information.

As far as I am concerned, anything I put on the Internet is information. This includes the digital audio files that have encoded the music I've made. That information, once it is residing on a global computer network is fair game. You can try as hard as you like to protect it, but the reality of the situation is that someone either knows or can know how to get at anything that's out there. This also means that anything you send out into the world which can potentially be converted into digital format and made available on the Internet most likely will be. In any case you should assume that it is or will be available.

I think that fighting a futile battle against copyright infringement is akin to eating your own organs. They may seem like a delicious idea when explained to you by an order of cannibal elders, but then you realise that you can't metabolise food any more and you are haemorrhaging blood out of the wounds in your torso. That's as far as I'm going to go into the politics because there are so many better spoken people who have put it so well that I hardly need to.

I'm in an enviable position (depending on your point of view) because I'm not trying to make a living off my music. So all this politics and money talk doesn't effect me. I make music in my brother's lounge room. We have about $3000 worth of equipment between us, purchased over years. And we have a network of friends who can loan us things when we need them. We haven't produced any physical media and we use free software and free online services in all of our production work. We aim to get the most output from the least input in our music, so there's no feeling of loss when we don't get paid for it. Certainly there are ways we could try to make money from our music if we were dedicated, but we aren't. So for us, a creative commons license is the perfect system. Our music is free. Free to download, free to share, free to modify and use in your own works. And I believe that this approach is particularly suited to music which, at it's very core, is derivative. When you write a song today, you are drawing (even if you don't realise it) from a source of historical knowledge that can hardly be comprehended. If copyright had no time limit then every new recording artist would have a case on their hands.

So it seems to me that rather than crying about it, like the Lily Allens of the world, a better approach is to embrace freedom from first principals. Have no intention of control. Give and receive freely. So instead of looking at the accumulation of money as success, look for the accumulation of fans, collaborators and remixers. With this in mind then every file sharing transaction is a net gain, a new set of ears to hear your voice and another shot at influencing the collective consciousness with your vision.

This topic is particularly hot right now in the UK where Alice Taylor, commissioning editor for education at Channel 4, is all set to publish an essay proclaiming sharing as the new way in a world where people no longer want to pay for music. I'd like to hear someone in authority go straight to the crux of the issue and stop deferring to the music industry with talk of legal paid downloads and other pretty ideas. The cold truth is that 99% of your fans don't want to pay for your music. If you accept that, even embrace it, then you are less prone to hissy fits like Ms. Allen's, proclaiming your career over because people don't want to give you as much money as you think they should.

Sit back and think about it for a while, do musicians really deserve to be rich? Does anyone? Maybe you work hard for the money, but so do a lot of cleaners, receptionists and help-desk workers who have and will never appear on a music video show, or be ushered into the VIP section of their favourite nightclub. So stop crying and think about what really matters: the music.

16 Oct. 2009

Beginings

I've had this account for a while now and haven't used it for anything more than commenting on other blogs. But I decided that there are some things that I want to get out of my head and hopefully attract comment from like minded people on. So I decided to start blogging and dedicate this blog to my two favourite hobbies right now. These are the brewing of delicious beer and the writing of interesting songs. I've reached a point where I have been experimenting in both and feel confident enough to try to gain a deeper understanding of the craft of each.

I have been home-brewing for a few years now and have become comfortable with the all grain mash style of homebrew. This is where beer is made from barley without such shortcuts as cans of pre-made malt. This allows for greater experimentation and fine-tuning of the beer. I have a few pieces of equipment that I use for this purpose. There is the mashing stage which is done in a mash tun (basically an esky with a tap and false bottom), a fermenter (a plastic tub with an airlock and tap) and, of course, the delivery system (a fridge with beer taps on the outside and kegs on the inside). I want to start working on more interesting beers that require more complex proceedures to produce beer flavours that are not often encountered.

I have been making music with my brother under the name "Meat Pig" for a few years too. Our music is very amature and raw and so far we have depended heavily on thoroughly explored avenues of music, mainly twelve bar blues and general rock forms. Our song writing is spontaneous, and usually we try to write, record and publish a song in a single sitting. This means the music is always raw and unpolished and never overthought, which I like. It also means that often I have ideas for songs after they have been made that I can't go back and redo. I've been reading more and more about the art of songwriting and am interested in spending some more time and thought on the craft and want to document this process here.

So if you are either a beer maker or a songwriter (or both!), I'd love some feedback on what I will be posting here, when I have the time.