Monday, April 14, 2014

Gruits and Other Hopless Beers

A section removed from American Sour Beers:

Commercial Gruits

This was originally a portion of Chapter 11, which covered adding spice/herb flavors to stock sour beers that already contain hops, but there are also beers that contain no hops at all. For centuries European brewers added a blend of bitter and aromatic herbs called gruit to balance the sweetness of the malt. Beers brewed with a similar blend of herbs and spices are now known as gruits. Most of the historic spiced beers would have quickly developed a sour character because they lacked both the anti-microbial power of hops and pure strain fermentations.

While the exact gruit formulations were kept secret, the combination of yarrow (bitter, sage-like), marsh rosemary (spice, sour-ish), and sweet gale (spicy-eucalyptus) is generally regarded as the standard base. This is the combination many brewers add to their first batch of gruit, and it can work well (although generally not in equal parts).

For more historical accuracy you can add a small amount of smoked malt as HaandBryggeriet and Brouwerij de Molen did on their collaborative Menno & Jens (a gruit that had a unique flavor that was smoky, tart, and herbal). It included 80% wheat and rye, and was spiced with a combination of yarrow, Myrica gale, and mugwort. The result was complex, with all of those wild flavors playing with each other differently on each sip.

Rather than trying to recreate the flavor of historic gruits, some brewers make the concept their own. For example, Upright Brewing added lemongrass, hyssop, bitter orange peel, and Sichuan peppercorns to their Reggae Junkie Gruit. The herbs and spices were selected on a trip to a spice store. The resulting beer had a potent, though not overpowering fruity-herbal aroma. The brewers soured a portion of the batch in a gin barrel to create Special Herbs, part of their Sole Composition series.

As with hoppy sour beer it is best to go easy on bittering herbs (e.g., wormwood, sweet gale, yarrow, marsh rosemary, and Labrador tea) and instead concentrate on later additions for a more aromatic character; this is similar to the standard hopping strategy, as sour and bitter do not mesh together well. The bitterness from small amounts of herbs tends to be quick, not lingering like hop bitterness, which makes herbal bitterness somewhat more compatible with acidity. However, while hops need a long boil to isomerize their alpha acids to create bitterness, many other herbs contribute bitterness without undergoing a long boil (especially wormwood and mugwort).

Cambridge Brewing Company (CBC) is one of the most innovative American breweries when it comes to gruits and related hopless beers. Brewmaster Will Meyers was initially inspired by European beers like Williams Brothers Fraoch Heather Ale and the dubbel-ish Jopen Bier’s Koyt, but felt that they were too restrained in their spicing. When developing recipes, his first step was to evaluate the classic herbs, starting with smelling and tasting samples of each. Meyers steeped 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of each in a cup (237 mL) of 180°F (82°C) of water, tasting each after one, thirty, and sixty minutes. This gave him an idea of how much time each herb required for optimal extraction. Meyers raised the option of brewing single-herb experimental batches, but also said that he had not learned much more from them than he did from the teas. His biggest discovery from these trials was that he did not care for the strange sour flavor of marsh rosemary (Ledum palustre); substituting Labrador tea gave a flavor that was less aggressive and preferable to his palate. When Meyers uses marsh rosemary it is in small quantities, and only for the sake of tradition.

Meyers and his brewers harvest 1 pound of wild heather per barrel (.4 kg/hl) in Westport, Massachusetts (overlooking Buzzard's Bay) for their Heather Ale. The beer also receives a few ounces of lavender and sweet gale. Aged in Chardonnay barrels with Lactobacillus, and served at The BeerAdvocate Extreme Beer Fest Night of the Barrels festival in 2007, it tasted brightly acidic and remarkably fresh for a five-year-old 4% ABV beer. In this case, the sourness balanced the malt because none of the herbal additions provided much bitterness.

CBC's Weekapaug Gruit is a clean fermented beer based on a mash of pale and dark caramel malts, along with wheat, oats, and rye. It is fermented with their house Belgian ale strain, which is allowed a free-temperature rise. Weekapaug has the right balance of herbal complexity, but on tap it lacked the sourness that I loved in the aged Heather Ale. Luckily, the first bottled batch was nicely tart (possibly from the marsh rosemary). For a recent 10 bbl (12 hL) batch, Meyers added a substantial addition of 1 pound (.45 kg) of heather, but the rest of the additions were between a half and 4 ounces (14-113 g). Remember that these amounts are for a commercial batch, so for a homebrew amount an accurate scale with .1 gram precision is necessary. Early boil additions included stinging nettles, Labrador tea, heather, and aged hops. Additions at the end of the boil included yarrow, licorice root, as well as more nettles and Labrador tea. Meyers planted many of the more obscure herbs in a bog near the cabin where he produces 100 cases a year of grape wine as Linus Creek Wines. For each batch of Weekapaug he makes subtle adjustments to the recipe depending on the aromatic intensity of the individual herbs.
  
Gruit is one of the most interesting and least explored areas of commercial brewing today. They take the spicing of beer back to the same time that sour brewing brings the fermentation. A word of warning however, in addition to the well-known risks posed by alcohol, some of the herbs (most notably mugwort) that are added to gruits are extremely dangerous for pregnant women to consume. Hygieia: A Woman’s Herbal by Jeannine Parvati and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s encyclopedic Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers have more detailed information on herbs that are of concern.

Fire Pit Gruit

Craft brewers are not the only ones to feel the lure of gruit. In the summer of 2011 I drove out of DC to the border between Virginia and West Virginia to brew a gruit over an open fire with two gruit-nerds, Marty Fair and Martin Gross. When they started brewing gruits a couple years earlier they bought most of their herbs in bulk from online specialty shops, but have since started either growing and foraging many of the key ingredients for themselves. The only one of the mainstay herbs that is problematic to acquire is marsh rosemary, which they buy for 10 USD a jar from a Canadian who forages it. Like Will Meyers, they too feel that Labrador tea is the best easily accessible alternative.

They brew 30 gallons (114 l) at a time, boiling in three converted kegs that sit on a metal rack above an open fire pit. Fair builds guitars for a living, and as a result has plenty of scrap hardwood to burn. While certainly closer to the way beer was brewed for millennia before the discovery of natural gas and propane, the open fire did not add a noticeable character to the finished beers. However, their method certainly gave the brewing process a more primal feeling. The bow-hunted venison that was roasted over the fire, and then served for dinner only enhanced the experience.

The most impressive thing about the gruits they shared (Classic, Sage, Burdock Root etc.) with me was that despite being young they did not have an overpowering herbal flavor (something that plagues several of the commercial examples, like Professor Fritz Briem 13th Century Grut Bier). Fair and Gross are still tinkering with the timing of their herb additions, sometimes adding all of the herbs near the start of the boil, and others saving the more aromatics herbs for an addition 10 minutes from the end of the boil. Their gruits develop a tart character from being allowed to cool loosely covered outside overnight before they pitch dried yeast.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pairing and Cooking with Sour Beers

My book (American Sour Beer) will finally be published two to three months from now! To tide you over until then I'll be posting trimmings and add-ons to the blog. In some cases these are non-essential sections that simply couldn't fit into what ended up being nearly 400 pages of material. In other cases they are sections deemed too in-flux to be valuable during what will hopefully be a lengthy publishing run! The material in these posts was cut at various points during the process, but none received the complete battery of review and editing that the book itself was subjected to.

This first post is a section I originally had in Chapter 12, "Packaging" (actually it was part of Chapter 16, "Enjoying" before reorganization combined the two). Most of that chapter now focuses on the processes of controlling carbonation and critical evaluation of the finished beer. My thoughts on drinking sour beer with food, and cooking with sour beer are below. Enjoy!

Sour Beer and Food

Sour beers are delicious on their own before or after a meal; the lighter ones tend to work better as aperitifs, with the darker-stronger ones saved for nightcaps. With that said, sour and funky beers do extremely well when paired with food. The typically dry flavor of beers fermented with Brett makes them food friendly, and their carbonation and acidity pair well with spicy or rich dishes that can cause problems for wine. Garrett Oliver's The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food (Ecco, 2005) is the best reference on the intersection of cuisine and beer, but with a few suggestions you will be able to pick a beer for most situations.

Cheese makes a natural match with sour beer, which scrubs the fattiness of the cheese off the tongue. Stinky cheeses, which often overpower other beverages, often work beautifully with the funky character of Brettanomyces. Milder cheeses mesh more readily with softer beers, especially those with a citrus character. By adding nuts, compote, or other accompaniments you insert another dimension to play with. Fig jam, brie, and a dark sour beer is a harmonious combination (especially when the beer includes dark crystal malt or actual dried fruit).

With the wide range of fruit and spice flavors sour beers contain, it is easy to imagine potential food pairing. Sour fruit beers cut through rich braised meats, which often need to be enlivened. The melanoidins in dark sour beers mirror the melanoidins produced from searing meat, making them a reliable choice with a steak. If you want to impress a wine drinker give them a big tannic sour like Russian River Consecration to drink with their beef. Seafood finds easy matches amongst sour beers, whether it is a tart spiced wheat beer with a lemony white fish or a sour red with crustaceans. Pale sour beers like gueuze are a classic with Belgian mussels, because they are bright enough to cut through the cream or spices in the sauce, but not so aggressive that they obscure the briny bivalves.

When it comes to dessert, things get trickier. The only sour beers that I have found to work are bigger or sweeter, drier sour beers are not satisfying enough. Even overly-sweet fruit lambics can work with creamy or chocolaty desserts. Avoid anything too tannic, as I find that creamy desserts highlight their rough mouthfeel. A dry fruit beer can work with less rich desserts, even fresh berries; if you drizzle high quality balsamic vinegar over them it can bring the acetic beers into play.

Cooking

When you have packaged enough sour beer to the point that you can spare a bottle or two for cooking you will be following in the rich tradition of Cuisine à la Bière, and doing something not many people are willing to with a 15 dollar bottle of commercial sour beer. Sour beers lack the hop bitterness that hampers cooking with other styles in many applications. They excel in deglazing pan drippings, or in reduction sauces, taking the place of both wine and vinegar. Remember to reserve a small amount to add right at the end if the flavor needs to be brightened. A pale sour beer can work wonders either replacing the vinegar in a vinaigrette or part of the citrus juice in ceviche. A rich strong sour beer can take the place of port to add complexity to a stew. If you are making a sauce with fruit, try using a beer brewed with the same fruit.

While sour beer can complement a recipe, it can also be the star. Sour beers can be churned into sorbet rather easily as alcohol lowers the freezing point, thus reducing crystallization and in turn lessening the amount of sugar required to achieve a smooth texture. Use a decent sour beer, but it is not worth using your best vintage. Start by allowing the beer to degas (a mixer, blender, or whisk will expedite this process), because dissolved carbon dioxide will disturb the texture of the sorbet. Mix in a quarter cup (60 mL) of sugar for each 12 ounces (355 mL) of sour beer. The more sugar you add the finer the ice crystals and texture of the finished sorbet will be, but I find that excessive sweetness veils the acidity and complexity of the beer (something the cold contributes to as well). Churn the sweetened beer in an ice cream maker following the manufacturer’s instructions. You can allow the sorbet to harden in the freezer, or it can be consumed immediately if chilled bowls have been prepared in advance. Add whole fruit if you want to complement the flavors of the beer, or boost an already present fruit component.

Even the wood from a retired barrel has a use, smoking meats, cheeses, or vegetables. Add the beer-saturated wood as you would hickory, alder, or mesquite to your grill or smoker. It will take trial and error to determine what level and application works best for the flavors of your particular oak, but that is just a good excuse to cook and eat delicious food. This is certainly more fun than turning an old barrel into a planter, or burning them for fuel as Cantillon does.

For more information on cooking with sour beer visit Sean Paxton’s Homebrew Chef blog: homebrewchef.com or read one of the many articles that he has written on the topic.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Conan’s Island Tasting

Fresher is not always better for beer as it is for milk. That is even the case for styles that fall apart relatively quickly, like the hoppy 5% ABV American wheat beer I'm drinking tonight. Not to suggest that this fourth homebrewed version of Fortunate Islands would benefit from months of aging, but four to five weeks from brewing to drinking doesn’t hurt. I kegged it two weeks after brewing, the day before the March DC Homebrewers meeting. I decided to bring two plastic bottles I shake-carbed them with my Carbonator cap. With only 24 hours on the keg hops the flavors and aromatics were still discordant and raw. It had a strongly resinous bitterness, like chewing on hop cones or orange peel. It was a unique flavor and not entirely unpleasant, but it didn't exactly make for a session-able beer.

Two weeks of sitting in the keg later, the flavors are now hitting their stride. Hopefully the bright hoppy aromatics hang around for another six weeks or so (and by then there shouldn’t be much left).

Fortunate Islands batch 4 sitting in my sweet new beer glasses case.
Conan’s Island (Fortunate Islands #4)

Appearance – The clarity of this golden beer reflects every bit of the 53% wheat malt. Even after 18 days of cold conditioning it isn't nearly as clear as the original. Great sticky lacing from the tight white head.

Smell – Someone at the DCHB meeting accurately described bergamot (Earl Grey tea) in the aroma right after kegging. The citrus has mellowed since, but it is still vibrant and a bit pithy. Tropical fruit is hiding in the back. I find that dry hopping late in fermentation brings out more of the varietal character of the hops (which I prefer), and less "nose in the hop bag." Overall the aroma is a similar, but more intense version of what I get from the Modern Times brewed version. Sadly not much of the stone-fruit peachiness I detected from the ECY culture, although that could come down to other factors.

Taste – Resiny bitterness, may have dialed it up too much. I enjoy it, but it has considerably more IBUs than the original. The hop flavor is nicely saturated with orange, lemon, and mango from the nose, along with some catty-Citra-ness. As it warms the faintest hint of caramel maltiness comes out in the finish.

Mouthfeel – More body than the original, not quite as crisp. Seems right for early spring, but summertime would call for a bit drier. Medium carbonation lifts the aromas and helps cut the body.

Drinkability & Notes – As you may have noticed this has become my favorite sort of beer, hop profile of the Double IPA, alcohol of a pale ale! Happy with the way this batch turned out, sort of Fortunate Islands turned up to 11. It feels and tastes more substantial even though the alcohol is similar. At some point I need to try out these Conan isolates are without loads of hops.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Fortunate Islands - Homebrewed Yeast Variant

While I was working in San Diego last summer, my favorite beer in Modern Times' core-lineup turned out to be Fortunate Islands: under 5% ABV, bright, citrusy/tropical hops, quenching, everything I want in a warm-weather beer. Luckily it seems like plenty of beer nerds agree as it’s currently sitting at a solid #3 (of 1,121) on BeerAdvocate’s list of most popular American Pale Wheat Ales (slowly gaining on the two fantastic beers ahead of it: 3 Floyds Gumballhead and Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’). Granted all three have hopping rates well above where the style was founded (i.e., clean fermented "hefeweizens" from breweries like Widmer, and Pyramid), but I’d rather brew beers “to flavor” rather than “to style.”

Adding the second dose of flame-out hops to Fortunate IslandsTo avoid demanding that Jacob ship me a case of Fortunate Islands can each month, I decided it would be easier to simply “homebrew” my own version of the recipe that I helped develop. I'm incapable of brewing a batch without a twist though, so I took advantage of the opportunity to try out The Yeast Bay’s Vermont Ale strain (their version of Conan) – the Modern Times original is brewed with Cal Ale. I'm hoping for a strain with higher attenuation than the East Coast Yeast isolate (North East Ale), but with the same great burst of peachy-fruity-estery complexity that I got in Simcoe & Sons.

As the most hyped hops become more competitive to obtain (Citra and Amarillo in this case), using a more characterful yeast strain to bolster subdued/available hops will be a valuable route to investigate. Many of the compounds found in hops are also present in other herbs and spices, so that’s another approach to consider. Luckily there are all sorts of exciting new hop varieties that will be coming out each year as breeders rush to catch-up with brewer's new found interested in unique aroma hops. Hopefully that push combined with the ramp-up in acreage relieves some pressure from other varieties.

I kept the malts and hops identical to the original recipe, with only a few adjustments to timing and amounts for my system. Rather than go through the effort of setting up the hop-back and plate chiller, I staggered my flame-out hop additions. Before adding the second dose, I allowed the wort to naturally cool for 15 minutes to preserve some of the heat-sensitive essential oils that are usually driven off with a standard hop-stand. Anytime you see one of my recipe with hop-back additions, a similar adjustment is an option.

My kitchen (and as a result my water filter) has been out of commission since early January for major remodeling. I needed to buy bottled water, which provided a good excuse to experiment with a water treatment schema advocate by Gordon Strong in his book: Brewing Better Beer. I used 90% distilled water and relatively small mineral additions. The idea is that minimal buffering capacity (carbonate) makes lowering the pH much easier. It also reduces variation by allowing you to start at the exact same place every batch (where tap water varies with the seasonal sourcing). I’ll be interested to see how the character of the finished beer differs from the higher mineral levels I usually employ.

This batch was kegged a week ago, so expect tasting notes sooner than later. Hopefully now that my work on the book is completely finished, as are the classes I taught through LivingSocial, I’ll get back into a more frequent posting rhythm! Although I’ve got another BYO article due in a few weeks (I’ve already submitted one on solera blending sour beers, plus a Zymurgy article on the influence of the mash on sour beers). Expect some trimmings from the book to make it to the blog as we ramp-up for the mid-June release of American Sour Beers!

A vial of The Yeast Bay's Vermont AleFortunate Islands #4

Recipe Specifics
-------------------
Batch Size (Gal): 5.25
Total Grain (Lbs): 10.38
Anticipated OG: 1.051
Anticipated SRM: 5.5
Anticipated IBU: 44.8
Brewhouse Efficiency: 70 %
Wort Boil Time: 65 Minutes

Grain
------
53.0% - 5.50 lbs. White Wheat Malt
38.6% -  4.00 lbs. American Pale Malt
7.2% - 0.75 lbs. Belgian CaraVienna
1.2% - 0.13 lbs. Acidulated Malt

Hops
------
1.00 oz. Horizon (Pellet, 10.00%AA) @ 60 min.
2.00 oz. Citra (Whole, 10.00%AA) @ 0 min.
1.00 oz. Amarillo (Whole, 10.00%AA) @ 0 min.
1.50 oz. Citra (Whole, 10.00%AA) @ -15 min.
0.75 oz. Amarillo (Whole, 10.00%AA) @ -15 min.
1.63 oz. Citra (Whole, 10.00%AA) @ Dry Hop
0.88 oz. Amarillo (Whole, 10.00%AA) @ Dry Hop
1.50 oz. Citra (Whole, 10.00%AA) @ Keg Hop
0.75 oz. Amarillo (Whole, 10.00%AA) @ Keg Hop

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

Yeast
-------
The Yeast Bay Vermont Ale

Water Profile
----------------
Profile: San Diego, Hoppy

Mash Schedule
-----------------
Sacch 45 min @ 149F
Sacch II 15 min @ 161F

Notes
-------
2/28/14 Made a 1 L stir-plate starter with Yeast Bay Vermont Ale.

Brewed 3/1/14

Strike water - 3.5 gallons distilled .5 gallons spring, 2.5 g gypsum, 1 g CaCl

Mash had a pH of 5.3 at room temperature.

Batch sparge water the same blend, minus the minerals. Collected 7 gallons of 1.044 runnings. Added a quart of reserved sparge water to dilute.

1.5 g of CaCl and 2 g of gypsum added to the boil.

Added hops right at flameout, then the second 15 min later with the temperature down to 192F. Waited 15 min before starting the immersion chiller. Chilled to 64 F, pitched entire starter, shook to aerate, and left at 67 F to ferment. Post boil pH, 5.1 at room temperature.

Fermenting after 12 hours, moved downstairs where the temperature is about 62F at that point.

24 hours later, fermentation already seemed to be slowing, so I moved the fermentor to 67F ambient. Moved next to the radiator the next day, hopefully a degree or two warmer.

3/4/14 Added the first half of the dry hops, loose, as fermentation finished up.

3/15/14 Kegged with the keg hops, bagged. Put onto gas in the kegerator. Turned out only down to 1.016, so similar to the ECY strain. I probably should have warmed it up more near the end of fermentation as suggested.

4/3/14 Tasting notes. Turned out to be a very good beer, but the yeast didn't add the huge peachy-stone fruit aroma I was hoping for. The alternate water treatment regimen didn't change the character of the beer appreciably to my tastes.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Funky Dark Saison 6 - The Unknown

Dark Saison 6, still sitting around in primary, after fermentation is complete.
Another year, another batch of funky dark saison, our sixth so far! For this iteration Alex and I decided to go with our lowest OG to date, 1.051. Mixed-fermentation beers often overshoot the alcohol content you'd expect from a similar gravity clean beer because of the high attenuation of Brettanomyces. While ale and lager yeast are only able to ferment carbohydrate chains up to three glucose molecules long (maltotriose), Brett is capable of tackling chains three times that length (aka "unfermentable" dextrins). In doing so it continues to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide long after a standard fermentation ends.

For this batch we decided to ferment with slurry from two of the three variants of the Furlough Rye Saison. One appropriately contained dregs from Dark Saison 4, the other had two isolates from the Bootleg Biology's Pithos Blend. Using either yeast slurry or established sour beer is a great source for bugs because it allows you to taste what the microbes have already accomplished. It is like getting a writing sample rather than a transcript; it allows you to personally evaluate each applicant. Alex and I are hoping we get some of the tartness from the DS4 culture, while the Pithos elevates the earthy funk.

As for our usual addition of dried fruit, I'm planning to give this batch a bit more time before I decide. Maybe cranberries, I want something bright to help cut through the rich flavors from the raisiny Special B and D180 candi syrup. My half of the last batch, Dark Saison 5, is still sitting on quince paste (membrillo). It already tastes great, I'm just waiting for the temperature in my basement to rise a few degrees so I can be sure fermentation is complete before bottling.

Dark Saison #6

Recipe Specifics
--------------------
Batch Size (Gal): 10.50
Total Grain (Lbs): 19.25
Anticipated OG: 1.051
Anticipated SRM: 17.6
Anticipated IBU: 18.3
Brewhouse Efficiency: 75 %
Wort Boil Time: 75 Minutes

Grain/Sugar
--------------
26.0% - 5.00 lbs. Maris Otter
26.0% - 5.00 lbs. German Munich Malt
26.0% - 5.00 lbs. German Vienna Malt
10.4% - 2.00 lbs. Wheat Malt
5.2% - 1.00 lbs. D180 Candi Syrup
5.2% - 1.00 lbs. Special B Malt
1.3% - 0.25 lbs. Acidulated Malt

Hops
------
1.00 oz. Horizon (Pellet, 10.00% AA) @ 45 min.

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

Yeast
------
White Labs WLP585 Belgian Saison III
White Labs WLP568 Belgian Style Saison Ale Yeast Blend

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

Mash Schedule
-----------------
Sacch Rest 75 min @ 153 F

Notes
-------
Brewed 12/8/13 with Alex and the MT Kickstarter Crew.

4 g of CaCl added to both the carbon filtered mash and sparge water. Otherwise untreated.

Collected 11 gallons of 1.045 runnings with a batch sparge. Plus an extra gallon of final runnings.

D180 candi syrup added near the start of the boil.

Topped off with the final runnings with 15 minutes left in the boil.

Chilled to 75 F, shook to aerate, pitched 5 oz each slurry from two versions of Furlough Rye Saison (White Labs Saison III and Saison Blend) with DS4 dregs and Bootleg Biology Pithos Isolates. Very clear wort. Left at 67 F ambient to ferment.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Double - Weizen Trippelbock Tasting

Usually I don’t have the opportunity to drink successive batches of a recipe side-by-side because by the time I rebrew, the previous batch is long gone. Not this time! I saved the last bottle of bourbon-soaked-oak aged Wheat Triplebock to drink along side the updated version (Weizen Trippelbock) that I aged in a first-use five-gallon Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky barrel. Nearly four years passed in between brewing the first and second batches, so not exactly a perfect comparison for purposes of recipe tweaking.

The recipes were nearly identical, with the only substantial change being a minor reduction and substitution in the amount of Simpsons ~158L Extra Dark Crystal malt (6.35% to 3.9% plus 1% Simpsons Dark Crystal malt). Otherwise I was already pretty happy with the original recipe, which was inspired by Steve Berthel’s Bourbon Cask Aged Wheat Trippelbock from The Livery. Berthel has since left The Livery, which means I will probably never get to try the original (although we can all hope New Holland brews something similar with him on board).

In addition to being fun to taste similar batches brewed four years apart, these two also highlight the difference between aging on oak cubes and in a barrel. Honestly there isn’t some huge flavor advantage to the barrel-aged over the cubes. The biggest mistake many homebrewers make when using either small barrels or barrel “alternatives” is time. If a brewery barrel-ages their beer for six-months or a year, you aren’t going to extract the same compounds by aging your homebrew for only a few weeks with a higher oak-to-beer ratio. Cubes are cheaper and easier, but in some ways they actually better replicate a large barrel. With a small barrel it is easy to overdo the barrel/spirit character, with cubes you can reduce the amount and extend the aging.

This tasting also brings up one of my favorite topics, high alcohol beers! One of the back-handed compliments I can give to a strong beer is that it “hides its strength.” I realize phrases like this are used as actual compliments by many beer drinkers, so let me explain. If a 10% ABV beer tastes like it could be 6% ABV, then I’d rather drink a full pint of 6% beer than a 10 oz. tulip of the strong beer. When a beer is loaded with alcohol I want it to taste like it, not with hot fusel alcohols, but huge flavors, intense maltiness, viscous body, and depth of character that forces me to slow down and pay attention. Brewing a 15% ABV double-extra-imperial stout that tastes like it's 10% is certainly a feat of technical brewing prowess, but so is brewing Bud Lite...

Wheat Triplebock (Older)

Appearance – Dark tan head, only a few centimeters thick, but tight bubbles. The beer is dark brown, nearly black. Looks like a porter.

Smell – Loads of raisin, plum, vanilla, well-aged liquor. Bready maltiness to the extreme. The first signs of floral-perfume alcohol from age, but no other signs of oxidation. Varied aroma that keeps me coming back.

Taste – Big flavors. Lots of dried fruit, charred oak, caramel, and toasted malt. Finishes sweet, but not sugary. The light tannins always helped balance this portion compared to the version without oak. The alcohol is subdued, but it is mildly warming. There is a background hint of soy sauce as it warms, starting to show its age.

Mouthfeel – Almost syrupy, stick-to-your ribs, thick body. Carbonation is perfect, subtle, but present.

Drinkability & Notes – This one aged into a champ, and that's a feat considering it took a silver medal at a local competition in its first year (as an eisbock). Packed with flavor. While it is great now, I think it might be a year or so passed its peak, on the gradual down-slope. It isn't falling apart by any means, but the positive effects of oxidation are beginning to be overshadowed by the negatives.

New Weizen Trippelbock on the left, older Wheat Triplebock on the right. If you were wondering, the different names/spellings have no significance whatsoever!

Weizen Trippelbock (Younger)

Appearance – The head and beer itself of this batch are a few shades lighter thanks to the lower amount of Extra Dark Crystal. Looks more the part of a traditional bock-relative. The head is coarser, not nearly as attractive. This beer doesn’t have a lot of carbonation, but produces a thin cascade of bubbles after a hard pour.

Smell – No surprise, much fresher, cleaner maltiness without as much dark/dried fruit. There is a subtle dried-plum aroma, but it is behind a mellow-caramel (doesn't smell like burnt sugar). The spirit/vanilla aromatics are mellower as well surprisingly, while the clean ethanol is more present.

Taste – The flavor leans more caramel, less dried fruit, similar to the nose. Despite being more than a year old, it tastes brew-day-fresh in comparison to the more than five-year-old beer. Malty and sweet, but mellower than the previous. The alcohol is a bit more apparent, warming, but not hot. It is over 11% ABV.

Mouthfeel – Full, but just slightly less-so. The carbonation is low, but not non-existent. Any lower and it would actively detract, but I'd say it could still benefit from just a touch more.

Drinkability & Notes – It’s a solid beer, but lacks the depth and assertiveness I demand in a beer with this much alcohol. Hopefully another couple years of aging will give it more depth, but for a third batch I'd go back closer to the original recipe, say 5.0-5.5% Extra Dark Crystal.

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