Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Palace of the Cracked Heads Tasting

One of my favorite fruits to add to sour beers is nectarine. They don’t dominate a subtle beer the way sour cherries or raspberries usually do. I’ve added them to a couple of pale sours, with beautiful results. When Jacob suggested them as one of the fruit choices for Empty Hats (Modern Times’ oud bruin) I wasn’t sure how it would work out. Nectarine is delicate for such a malty barrel-forward beer. Luckily the results are wholly different, but no less delicious!

There are some brewers who deem only their “best” sour beer suitable for fruit (given the increased price and manpower requirements). Others seem to be adding fruit to their worst beer in an attempt to cover-up wretched off-flavors. For me, the ideal barrels for fruit are those that are bland (i.e., those that lack bold and beautiful aromatics and/or adequate acidity). Dumping is the only real option for sour beers with strong off-flavors, no amount of fruit will cover them completely.

Modern Times Palace of the Cracked Heads

Appearance – Red headed towards amber. Hazier than the unfruited beer, but nowhere near murky or muddy. The head sizzles down within a minute, not leaving so much as a spec of foam.

Smell – Apricot fruit leather. Saturated stone fruit, but not so much that it dominates the beer-y nature of the beverage. Cherry-funk around the edges. At around one pound of nectarines per gallon, the rate lower than what I’ve used at home. Less fruit, combined with the more assertive base certainly changes the perception of the fruit, creating a more balanced profile (at the cost of the knock-your-socks-off farmstand aroma).

Taste – Big acidity, lactic and malic: bright, sharp, and quick. The nectarines are there, jammy, concentrated, but not juicy-fresh. I think the flavor melds better with the biscuity maltiness that the Vienna and Munich provided. The damp-barrel goodness is there, but the fruit covers up much of it. There is just a touch of acetic towards the back.

Mouthfeel – Solid carbonation, it is lively without being disruptive. The mouthfeel is a little stickier than the base beer, full enough to support the big flavors.

Drinkability & Notes – Rocking beer. Nice blend of fruit, malt, acid, and funk. It’s the early leader in the clubhouse for my favorite of the five “first round” Modern Times sour beers. There are still a couple more to go though!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Stolen Microbes - Lambic Tasting

Lambic fermentations are complex business. While a commercial cocktail of a half dozen microbe species can replicate the major flavors (e.g., lactic and acetic acid, ethyl lactate, ethyl acetate, 4-EG, 4-EP) it is impossible for them to replicate every one of the hundreds of compounds produced by the dozens of species responsible for each lambic brewer or blender’s house flavor. Think imitation vanilla compared to real vanilla beans. Thank goodness each bottle of gueuze comes with a free sample of microbes!

However, the microbes in the bottle do not necessarily represent all those responsible for each stage of the fermentation. While many of the oxidative yeast and Enterobacteriaceae at work early in the fermentation have been dead for years (thankfully - considering some are pathogenic) the acids, alcohols, and enzymes they produced have a profound influence on the aromatics produced by the hardier microbes which follow.

To get the best of both, I naturally cooled my sixth batch of lambic uncovered in my barrel room and then pitched a starter grown from six especially delicious bottles of 3 Fonteinen gueuze. Always judge what to pitch based on the beer in the bottle, rather than the label on the bottle (although fresher is always better). If I was gutsier, I would have allowed my local microflora a 48-72 hour head start before pitching the starter. Maybe next time!

I've been storing these bottles on their sides, so an appropriate excuse to breakout a lambic basket!

3F-Microbe Lambic

Putting a lambic basket to it's intended use.
Appearance – Slightly hazy golden body. The dense white foam sitting on top does its best to maintain lift for a few minutes, but gradually deflates to a thin covering. Despite the wheat, lambics rarely have prodigious heads, thanks to the protein-munching bacteria.

Smell – Potent mix of dusty-Brett funk and brighter lemony-tropical-fruitiness. Has some mineral-like notes as well. It is reminiscent of 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze more than anything else; more towards my preference for citrus zest and minerals rather than strong horse stall or vinegar.

Taste – Sour, but not bracing. Drenched in citrus (lemon rind) which gives it a bright/lively character. Ripe pineapple as well. Nicely funky, fresh hay, and old baseball mitt. Each sip finishes minerally, a little chalky. Just a hair of acetic sharpness in the finish, less than many commercial gueuzes. It retains an edge of sulfurousness that this batch was saturated with when it was young (thanks to some time with a hard stopper).

Mouthfeel – Refreshing, crisp, although it could use slightly more carbonation to reach classic gueuze-level pop. Light tannic astringency.

Drinkability & Notes – Over the last eight years, my lambic/gueuze-style beers have slowly, but surely improved, and this is no exception. It is by no means at the level of my favorite three or four Belgian lambic producers (when they’re on), but I’d give it ~85-90%. Not bad for an unblended lambic that was aged in a plastic carboy! Turns out a turbid mash may not be worth the added effort when you have the right microbes!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Dark Saison VII - English Citrus

I'm not a big fan of seasonal beers. Why isn't an Oktoberfest appropriate to drink in November (or October for that matter)? Sometimes I want a wit in February or a Double IPA in August! While there are a few "true" seasonals, like wet-hopped beers, most recipes can be brewed and enjoyed anytime of the year. What I’m more interested in is brewing and drinking beers that evoke a certain time and place. Each year for the last seven years that has included a dark/funky saison. While Alex and I brew them each fall, it isn’t a “seasonal” in the sense of dusting off last year’s recipe and re-brewing. We also aren’t slowly dialing in on a target. Our goal each year is to reimagine what fall tastes like.

We’ve started with an original gravity as high as 1.078 and as low as 1.051. As dark as 29 SRM, and as light as 15 SRM. We’ve added raisins, dates, figs, currants, cranberries, wine grapes, citrus, honey, and numerous spices and herbs. For the 2014 iteration we decided on English and citrus. Going for toasty malts, including a base of Maris Otter, paired with bold citrus zest in the fermentor just before bottling.

Toasty and funky isn't a common flavor combination. Brettanomyces produces tetrahydropyridine (THP), which at low levels provide a toasty flavor (at higher levels the perception of THP shifts to urine, or euphemistically "mousy."). I suspect this compound also plays a role in the "Cheerios" flavors bottle-conditioned sours often temporarily develop. As a result, many brewers avoid adding toasty malts to beers that will be fermented with Brett. However, I've actually had pretty good results with beers like my Courage Russian Imperial Stout clone (which included Maris Otter, amber, and brown malts) as well as a Brett-influenced version of Capitol City's ESB. An unauthorized collaboration, I won a 15 gallon keg of it and had to figure out something to do with the last few gallons.

The fermentation of Dark Saison VII is being carried out by a diverse mix of microbes. The brewer's yeast is Omega Saisonstein's Monster. A hybrid strain resulting from the controlled mating of a Saison Dupont isolate and French Saison (the goal being the classic peppery phenolics of the first with high attenuation of the second). Brett isolates from Le Trou du Diable were provided by Richie (Mark of the Yeast). Lastly a little Lactobacillus brevis from White Labs. If you don't get random boxes of yeast in the mail a couple times a month, and as a result can't procure all of these strains, then choose a saison yeast and whatever microbes suit your tastes!

On a related side-note, I'm now the Advanced Brewing columnist for Brew Your Own magazine! You can read more about Saisonstein's Monster in my February/March article about blending yeasts. The April/May issue will have an article I wrote with Matt Humbard featuring an experiment comparing the pH drops at four temperatures by four commercial strains of Lactobacillus, including White Labs L. brevisSubscribe to BYO via this link to support the blog!

Dark Saison VII

Recipe Specifics
--------------------
Batch Size (Gal): 11.00   
Total Grain (Lbs): 31.50
Anticipated OG: 1.071   
Anticipated SRM: 16.3
Anticipated IBU: 6.0
Brewhouse Efficiency: 67 %
Wort Boil Time: 65 Minutes

Grain
------
79.4% - 25.00 lbs. Thomas Fawcett Maris Otter                  
6.3% - 2.00 lbs. Rahr Wheat Malt
6.3% - 2.00 lbs. Simpsons Medium Crystal (~55L)                  
6.3% - 2.00 lbs. Weyermann Abbey Malt
1.6% - 0.50 lbs. Franco-Belge KilnCoffee

Hops
-------
0.50 oz. Palisade (Whole, 8.00% AA) @  60 min.

Extras
--------
1.00 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 15 min.
1.00 Whirlfloc @ 15 min.

Yeast
-------
OYL-500 - Omega Saisonstein's Monster
BBY009 - Wild Canadian Blend
WLP672 - White Labs Lactobacillus brevis

Water Profile
-----------------
Profile: Washington, DC

Mash Schedule
------------------
Sacch Rest - 60 min @ 152F

Notes
-------
12/11/14 2.5 L stir-plate starter with Saisonstein's Monster and Canadian Brett (Le Trou du Diable isolates).

12/14/14 Brewed with Alex. Mash pH 5.36. No adjustments. Cold sparged with 3 gallons of water. Collected 13 gallons of 1.060 runnings. Boosted my efficiency more than expected.

Chilled to 72F with plate chiller, pitched half starter with the addition of White Labs L. brevis (directly) into mine. Shook to aerate. Left at 67 F to ferment.

1/29/15 Racked to secondary, moved to cool basement.

Orange, tangerine, or other citrus zest to be added as the beer conditions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

How to Build a Keezer Collar

After eight years of valiant service, my original third-hand fermentation chamber turned kegerator was still working, but looking worse for wear. The interior was rusty, and mold was growing down where condensation invariably pooled (despite the rechargeable dehumidifier). In addition, shoehorning three kegs and a CO2 tank in there was a pain, and I didn't love serving sour beers from a party/picnic tap. It was time for an upgrade! I opted for a similar design, a larger chest freezer (so technically a keezer) with a wooden collar attached to the body of the freezer.

Woodworking and brewing share a few commonalities, both: require precision, benefit from shiny tools, can be called creative, and you end up with something you could have bought for half the price. While the skills aren’t transferable, my friend Mat (you may remember from the mead pit) was kind enough to spend a few Saturday mornings lending his skills and hands.

Materials:
2 – 2X6s
1 – Wood glue
20 – 1/4" x 1" lag screws
4 – 2" x 4" 12-gauge L-angle brackets
2 – Spray paint (chalkboard)
12-16 – #8 1 inch wood screws
12 – Washers
Weather stripping
1 – Silicone caulk

Tools:
Tape measure
Miter saw
Corner clamps
Drill (with various bits, sockets, etc.)
Screw driver
7/8” Hole saw or spade bit

1. Buy a freezer. I opted for a 10.6 cubic foot chest freezer from GE (Model# FCM11PHWW). It is big enough to comfortably fit five kegs, and a 20 lb CO2 tank (plus a 5 lb beer gas tank on the compressor hump). There is enough room for one more keg if I wanted to squeeze it in.


2. Measure. Use the tape measure to determine the dimensions of the freezer. This will let you know how much wood you’ll need for the collar. The dimensions of my freezer (50.5" by 25.25") were such that we could get a long and a short side from each 96" board, with some scrap leftover.

3. Buy materials. As I learned after my solo trip to Home Depot, buying really straight pieces of lumber is essential (especially for larger freezers). Place the board on a flat surface, turn it, and press down on the ends to judge how warped it is each direction. Also avoid wood with lots of knots, or cracks (unless they are near the ends and can be trimmed). You don't need many boards, so be picky. This is a good opportunity to get the rest of the materials and tools as well.

4. Cut the wood. Use the miter saw to perform a 45 degree cut to remove a few inches from one end. Then measure and mark the wood. You want to cut slightly over on the "waste" side of the line to ensure the result is long enough. If you are getting two sides from each board, wait until after you cut the first to measure the second. Place the pieces together on the lid of the freezer to ensure they fit correctly.




5. Drill holes for the taps. Measure and mark where you want each tap to be located. Use the 7/8" hole saw (or spade) to cut a hole for each shank. Do your best to make these holes as vertical as possible.


6. Assemble. Glue two cut edges, clamp them together, and then drive in the brackets with the lag screws to hold it. Repeat on the remaining three corners. You can pre-drill, but we didn't run into issues skipping this step. Allow the glue to dry for 24 hours before proceeding.





7. Sand. Smooth any rough spots, edges, corners, splinters etc.


8. Paint. Spray paint the collar with two coats, with 30 minutes in between. Even if you don't mind the look of raw wood, paint (or stain) will help to prevent moisture from seeping into the wood. Allow the paint to dry completely, at least 24 hours, before proceeding. 

9. Detach the hinges. Unscrew the hinges from the freezer body (they should remain attached to the lid). Be careful when doing this as they can spring up violently. Have someone hold the hinge down until the last screw is removed, then raise slowly.

10. Apply the weather stripping. Stick the self-adhering weather stripping to the bottom of the collar. This will compensate for any slight warps in the wood.

10. Position the collar. Place the collar between the freezer and lid. Make sure everything sits the way you want it to. Check that the lid's gasket touches the collar all the way around. Attach the hinges to the collar using wood screws and washers. Reinsert the bolts that came out of the hinges into their original holes.


11. Optional, mount the temperature controller and probe. Drill a hole for the temperature probe and add screws to hang the temperature controller. I'm also planning on mounting the CO2 manifold to the back of the collar when I get around to replacing the gas lines.


 


12. Apply caulk. Caulk the interior seams to provide another seal in addition to the weather stripping. A wet finger does a serviceable (if slightly ugly) job smoothing the caulk. This will prevent moist air from entering the freezer. This reduces condensation, which would eventually lead to rust or mold.


13. Kegerator-ize it! Insert the shanks, kegs, tanks, and connect all of the fittings. I added neoprene gaskets between the collar and the nut to block air from finding its way in around the shank. Another new addition, Velcro zip-ties to tame the 15' of line I'm using for each tap. The tap on the far left is for carbonated water, and the tap on the far right is the beer-gas stout faucet you were introduced to last week. The other two new faucets are flow control Perlicks.



14. Attach drip-trays. I used neodymium magnets rather than screws this time to allow me to mount the drip trays below the collar (a rivet gun would be another option). However, I need a few more magnets to support a glass on the drip tray.


That's it! Not too tough of a beginner's woodworking project, although I was glad to have someone with more experience to help me through it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Toasted-Coconut Vanilla Milk Stout... On Nitro!

A half pint of toasted-coconut vanilla milk stout!This coconut-vanilla milk stout is my first beer carbonated and served with beer gas through a stout faucet. A "normal" tap essentially gives the beer a clear path from keg to glass. As a result, most of the carbonation stays in solution, ideally with just enough agitation to cause the desired head to form. Many bars push their beers with a blend of carbon dioxide and nitrogen to provide more pressure to push over long lines without dissolving excess carbonation in the beer. Nitrogen is only about 1% as soluble in beer as carbon dioxide, so not much ends up in the glass (especially with how quickly most large bars run through kegs).

With a stout tap the beer is forced through a restrictor plate (essentially a disk with a few small holes) before a flow straightener puts it back into a stream. This knocks most of the carbonation out of solution, producing that beautifully-cascading creamy head, with almost no carbonation left in the beer itself. The beer gas (70-75% nitrogen) provides the push. If you tried pushing with 30-35 PSI of pure carbon dioxide, so much would dissolve that the beer would pour nothing but foam.

Guinness is the archetype for beers served via a stout faucet, but it is a popular choice for dark beers from Old Rasputin to Black House. Low dissolved carbon dioxide tends to mute aromatics, so I shy away from IPAs served this way (which seem to be a popular choice).

Many brewers carbonate their beer with straight carbon dioxide, and then serve with beer gas. The mix is still required (rather than straight nitrogen) to prevent the beer from going flat as it sits on tap. No matter how much nitrogen head-pressure there is, carbon dioxide will come out of solution if its head-pressure is lower than what is in the beer. I did the carbonating/nitrogenating with beer gas in the hopes that some nitrogen would dissolve. Whether it did or not, the results are terrific!

Coconut-Vanilla Milk Stout

Appearance – Pours pitch black with a three-fingers of super-dense, brown head. Like a darker Guinness. There is no substitute for a stout faucet, love those swirling bubbles!

Closeup of the fine bubbles produced by beer gas and a stout faucet.Smell – Balance of toasted coconut, vanilla, and coffee. Not fake or artificial. The roasted barley comes through nicely, fresh grain. Otherwise clean and pleasant. Not leaping out of the glass, but plenty of enticing aromatics.

Taste – The flavors are similar, but more potent than the nose. They are joined by substantial sweetness. The coconut is there, but not to that coconut doughnut level. The vanilla blends with it well. The stout serves as a good base, with the roast helping to balance some of the sweeter flavors. Long finish, makes up for the lack of aroma. There is a hint of hop bitterness, but it quickly vanishes.

Mouthfeel – One of the fuller-bodied 5% ABV I’ve tasted. Almost no carbonation, just a faint tingle on the tongue when held. Coating, chewy, silky, and decadent.

Drinkability & Notes – A WOW beer! Bold sweet flavors, without being overwhelming or obscuring its beery-essence. Doesn't really remind me of a bourbon barrel stout as was my goal (would need to be drier and more potent), but it was still a great idea! Despite the oddball ingredients, I wouldn't call it a gimmick beer.

What makes a beer gimmicky anyway? I suppose it is one of those things that everyone thinks of the brewer one down the line. Germans think Belgians are gimmicky, Belgians the Americans, Americans the Danish etc. For me it’s about what’s in the glass. I added toasted coconut and vanilla beans rather than Mounds candy bars, or extracts, because I suspected they would add more of the flavors I wanted, without drawbacks. The beauty of homebrewing: making beers that only have to suit your tastes and opinions!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Modern Times Empty Hats Tasting

I don’t usually post commercial beer reviews/tastings, but I thought I’d make an exception for a few sour beers from Modern Times! These were the batches that I grew the microbes for while in San Diego during summer 2013, and contributed to writing the recipes for.

Today’s subject is Empty Hats, which was originally brewed to be a Flemish Red (codename Bebop). However, the color, gravity, and resulting flavor were deemed closer to Oud Bruin. As a result the Oud Bruin recipe I wrote was lightened and converted into the Flemish Red (dubbed News From Nowhere). After aging, Empty Hats falls somewhere between the two “styles” more acidic/dry and barrel-forward than traditional Belgian/Flemish Oud Bruins, but maltier than the average Flemish Red. Hard to quibble over the line between two arbitrary styles, but the question remains, from a hedonistic standpoint is it a delicious beer?

Modern Times Empty Hats

Appearance – Pours with a frothy white head. Decent retention for a sour beer, but by the time I take my first sip most of the bubbles have collapsed into the clear reddish-auburn body. Color-wise it is right on the line between reds and browns.

Smell – Nose displays a wonderful mix of red fruit from the wine barrels, fruity Brett, and a touch of farmyard. I also get a toasty-cereal edge that may need a little more time to drop out. Nothing off-putting about it, lots to really like.

Taste – Bright lactic acidity leads, has a sharp/quick edge that makes me think malic, SweeTarts(without the sweet). Very much an “American” oud bruin, minimal acidity compared to all of the Belgian versions of the style. The finish is wine-like, rounded oak spice, and plums. I don’t get the cereal, “Cheerios” finish, so maybe that aroma is just the toasted oak or Vienna/Munich malts? Luckily I also don’t detect any acetic acid or ethyl acetate (praise be to San Diego’s mild weather!).

Mouthfeel – Not too thin or tannic, despite the low FG and more than a year in 100% first-use red wine barrels. The firm carbonation works with the beer because it isn’t roasty.

Drinkability & Notes – Trying to be as objective as I can, I’d put Empty Hats in the same league with my favorite widely released American sour red/browns: Bruery Oude Tart and New Belgium La Folie. It has plenty of bold flavors (malt, bugs, and barrel), but enough balance for the acidity to retain good drinkability. I’m interested to see how it does with another six months in the bottle, more Brett, less cereal?

I’d really like to thank head brewer Matt Walsh, and resident brewer and microbe guy Andrew Schwartz who did the work of turning my ideas and bugs into an actually physical bottle of beer (not to mention the palates of Derek, Jacob et al.). Great team effort!

As of today Empty Hats is sitting at a 4.2 on BA, and 4.3 on Untapped (#7 in the style, sitting right between De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserva 2009 and 2010, talk about a compliment). Not bad for a first effort!

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