Over the Christmas weekend I had time for my annual tasting of the Courage Russian Imperial Stout clone that James and I brewed four and a half years ago. The timing couldn't have been better since a few days prior I got my first taste of the (newly re-resurrected) original which is now being brewed by Wells and Young. The commercial version did not have any Brett funk that mine does, but it did have a firm charcoal roasted bitterness from the heavy-handed use of black patent. It was interesting to taste a beer at such a young age that is built for aging (the bottle we had was brewed this summer).
It seems like so few of the American brewed Imperial Stouts are designed for graceful aging. The high level of sweetness in many examples (about 1.060 in the case of 3 Floyds Dark Lord) requires massive hopping to counter. The problem is that as the bitterness fades the beer loses that balance and ends up sugary sweet. Alternatively, some versions have gotten so strong that they need to age for a couple years before approaching drinkable. The bottle of The Bruery's 19% ABV Black Tuesday I had at the same tasting was so boozy that I couldn't taste anything else. Does anyone really want an aged beer that has alcohol of sugar as the primary flavor? I am not advocating 7% ABV Imperial stouts that finish at 1.005, but you are not going to get beer drinkers coming back to beers that are undrinkable in excess of 2 oz.
I'm hoping to pick up a few bottles of the Courage to store away for a few years to see if this newest incarnation has the agability of its predecessors. I may also have to rebrew my recipe without the Brett to see how close it is.
Courage RIS Clone
Appearance – Dark, dark, brown body. The dense tan foam floats well for a few minutes before falling, leaving only a thin wispy covering.
Smell – Has more of basement Brett funk than I remember in previous years, plenty of Bretty wet hay. Nice coffee roast character as well as dark fruit (prunes?). Still not showing its age negatively, although it is interesting that the funk seems to be increasing despite the lack of live Brett.
Taste – The flavor has less funk than the nose, with more cocoa and coffee. There is some vanillin oak as well. The bitterness (hop and roast) is mostly gone, leaving even a 1.020 beer sweetish, but the alcohol is still enough to balance.
Mouthfeel – More carbonation than I like in a big dark beer, but it is stable (at this point I don't think it will change). The body is moderate for an RIS, it is amazing how thick some of the American versions of the style are.
Drinkability & Notes – As always this beer is a nice Christmas treat when I visit my parents for the holidays. Almost halfway to my goal of hanging onto at least a few bottles for ten years, hopefully the beer continues to evolve and improve.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Over the Christmas weekend I had time for my annual tasting of the Courage Russian Imperial Stout clone that James and I brewed four and a half years ago. The timing couldn't have been better since a few days prior I got my first taste of the (newly re-resurrected) original which is now being brewed by Wells and Young. The commercial version did not have any Brett funk that mine does, but it did have a firm charcoal roasted bitterness from the heavy-handed use of black patent. It was interesting to taste a beer at such a young age that is built for aging (the bottle we had was brewed this summer).
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Dubbel is one of the few styles that it is hard to find a good American brewed version of. While the best Belgian examples (Westvleteren 8, St. Bernardus Pater 6, Westmalle Dubbel etc.) are malty without overwhelming sweetness, the Americans tend to either overdo the sweetness or underdo the malt. Brew Like a Monk reports that some Belgian dubbels get all of their color and dark fruit flavors from dark candi syrup, but I have not been happy with the results of leaving out the dark crystal malt.While dark candi sugar does add great flavor caramel and dark fruit flavors, it becomes richer and more complex when combined with complementary character from malt.
For this dubbel recipe I used American (pale and dark crystal) malts from Valley Malt to add their unique character. I also didn't want the beer to be too strong, starting at 1.058 it is a beer that I can drink a glass of and still write a blog post.
American Malt Dubbel
Appearance – Shoots out of the picnic tap with a voluminous off-white head. The body is dark brown, almost opaque in my St. Bernardus tulip (although it appears more reddish-brown towards the bottom of the glass, revealing a bit of haze). The head has great structure and leaves thick lacing.
Smell – Big spicy clove character from the cool fermentation with WLP545 takes the lead. There is toasted malt and some of those classic dark fruit and toffee flavors I expect in Belgian dubbels. Neither the dark crystal nor the candi syrup drowns out the other. The pale malt gives a backbone that I find lacking in the dubbels I've brewed with Pilsner malt as the base.
Taste – Nice balance of flavors, malty without being sweet. Just a slight bitterness to help counter the sweetness that does remain. The candi sugar adds come caramelized raisin type flavors with the dark crystal malt contributing plums and prunes. The yeast character is slightly stronger and spicier than I prefer; I'll probably go with my old standby WLP530/WY3787 next time I brew a similar recipe.
Mouthfeel – Despite the energetic pour the carbonation is about right (just below prickly). The body is medium-light, which is fine by me.
Drinkability & Notes – Really happy with the way this batch turned out. Excited to see how the half with bugs, plums, and oak does (especially after recently having a standout pale sour with homegrown plums – thanks Mike!).
If you are interested in brewing something similar, but don't have access to Valley Malt's products use the flavorful pale malt of your choice for the base and your favorite dark crystal malt (Special B, C120, or English Dark).
Monday, December 19, 2011
Over the next few weeks my posts will be a bit sporadic as a result of a couple holiday trips. I’ll be visiting my parents in Massachusetts for Christmas, and then Audrey and I are heading down to New Orleans for some food, music, and fun (plus good beer if we can find it). So this post is just a couple of updates on various things I have going on.
A few weeks ago three journalism grad students from American University came over to interview me and record a brew day. Their project, a website about DC homebrewing, is up (looks pretty slick to me). The beer I brewed was based on the method Ithaca uses for Brute, relying on acid malt for sourness and a long secondary with Brett for complexity. I'll post the full post with all of the details next week, but take a look at the photos from the day in the “Process of Homebrewing” section on the site.
I’m still hammering away on the American sour beers book. Down to my last couple interviews to conduct, and I’m hoping to have a completed first draft by the end of January. The manuscript is already over 110,000 words (~240 single spaced pages), but it still needs loads of editing. I submitted a proposal to Brewers Publications a few weeks ago, but have not heard yea or nay from the publisher. I’m a bit torn. If they make an offer, and I go that direction, most likely the book would not be published until at least 2014 (self-publishing I’d hope to put it out in six months). I’d guess money would be similar either way (lower cut, but higher volume with a publisher). However, it would be nice to have backing from the AHA/BA and the beer nerd cred that would come along with it.
In other exciting news, I’m in preliminary talks to be a creative consultant for a production brewery that is looking to open in a year or so. Sorry to be completely vague on this one, but it sounds like a great opportunity. Much more information on that if it works out!
So lots of stuff going on, but no worries, after almost five years of blogging I have no intention of stopping.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Imperial Stout is one of the handful of styles that I love, but just can't seem to nail. I've made several ~B+ versions based on well regarded recipes, but none that stack up with the best commercial (or homebrew) examples. As a result, a few months ago I took a crack at the recipe for Kate the Great (one of my favorite commercial versions) that Todd Mott of Portsmouth Brewing gave out. This batch is pretty young, but I'd gotten several emails asking me how it was coming along...
Kate the Great Clone
Appearance – The viscous pitch-black liquid consumes my snifter. The dense/creamy tan head has outstanding retention and lacing. Really a picture perfect beer.
Smell – The nose is very closed (even after it warms), not nearly enough coffee/chocolate/roast for an RIS. There is some toastiness, a bit of dark fruit (port and raisin), but not much else. Hint of alcohol in the nose as it warms up to my (cool) room temperature.
Taste – Smooth flavor, with loads of port soaked dark fruit. Again just not enough of the roast or complexity I want. Some bitterness to counter the slightly sweet finish, giving it a balance reminiscent of good dark chocolate.
Mouthfeel – A bit over-carbonated at the pour, but a few swirls and it is down to the low level I like in my big dark beers. Great creamy body with a thick almost milkshake consistency.
Drinkability & Notes – Not unpleasant at all, and as an Imperial Porter it isn't bad, but the reliance primarily on Carafa Special III for color (not to mention only 6.5% dark grains) leaves it lacking the firm roast of a stout. I'm not sure exactly what the difference is in the results Portsmouth gets from this recipe, maybe a finer grind? Water chemistry? Scaling issues? Maybe just the slightly lower original gravity?
I am hoping a few months of cold conditioning in the fridge will help to clarify the flavors and bring out the roast. I'll be revisiting this one in a few months, I find it often takes a year for RIS to get to where I am happiest with them. As it stands, if I brewed this again I would probably go with at least 50% more of the dark grains (other than the Carafa) to get the flavor I am looking for.
Monday, December 12, 2011
I’ve been amazed at just how good the sour beers that have come out of our first three barrels have been. Without the advantage of blending multiple barrels it is fortunate that we have been consistently bottling great beers. We have bottled a total of five batches (not including variants on fruits or dry hops) with another three aging, and not a single clunker.
The solera apple brandy barrel was different from the start though. The barrel was already old when we got it (probably 20 years by my estimate), and displayed the scars of a hard life - a cracked stave and a bit of a vinegary smell. That combination of issues almost caused Nathan and I to search out a replacement barrel, but it held water and smelled alright after a Star-San rinse so we filled it. At eight months in oak the beer was already starting to show signs of going acectic/vinegary. At that point I was considering trying to talk Nathan into pulling the plug and starting over with a “fresh” barrel and beer. Luckily the acetic character calmed down once the ambient temperature dropped, and we decided to let it age a few more months.
At 11 months the beer was very dry (~1.002), oaky, and sharply acidic with a pH of 3.1. In an attempt to reduce the amount of acid production for the first refill we brewed and fermented the fresh beer a few weeks prior to pulling beer from the barrel to reduce the fermentable sugars. Using fermented beer rather than wort does not reduce Acetobacter's acetic acid production (which only requires alcohol and oxygen), but it will reduce lactic acid production. I also like this method because it keeps yeast from building up in the barrel which may eventually lead to autolysis.
With the fresh batch of beer finished fermenting, Nathan and I had to figure out what we wanted to do with the 20 gallons of beer that needed to be siphoned out to make room in the barrel. We left five gallons plain to give us a baseline for comparison of the other version. Despite being just under a year old (relatively young for a sour beer) we pitched rehydrated champagne yeast along with the priming sugar to ensure timely carbonation.
Bottling an amber sour in December, our first through was a fall theme. The night before I halved and roasted two acorn squashes, which weighed about two pounds each. While I love pumpkin, it really is not flavorful enough to come through in a complex beer without using a massive amount. Acorn squash has a distinct sweet/nutty flavor, but we wanted to complement that with warm spices. After talking to Pat Mcilhenney the owner and Brew Master of Alpine Brewing earlier in the week about their wine barrel aged Ichabod pumpkin ale (which includes canned pumpkin puree in the barrel in addition to whole roasted pumpkins in the mash) we took his advice and added cinnamon and nutmeg directly to the fermentor. The baseline for amounts was the two grams of cinnamon and one gram of freshly grated nutmeg I added to the boil for my butternut squash sour brown, but we wanted to make the spices more noticeable. Initially we planned on doubling the spices, but after Nathan weighed and added them to the fermentor seeing the amount gave us cold feet. Luckily spices float so by overfilling the carboy slightly I managed to flush out around half of the spices… I’ll still be tasting it this week.
We dry hopped five gallons with four ounces of Amarillo (about the amount I would use for a DIPA). I am hoping the bright citrusy hop aromatics will meld with the acidity as well as they did in my Amarillo/Simcoe/Cascade bottle hopped sour red. Dry hopped sours are a remarkable rarity given the popularity of both sour and big hop aroma beers, not to mention how many of the breweries that brew great sours also make standout IPAs (Russian River, Lost Abbey, Ithaca, Captain Lawrence, etc…). For the record, I did try to convince Pat to brew a dry hopped sour beer (given their amazingly aromatic hoppy beers), but he said they simply don't have the capacity to store more barrels at this point.
Fruit is always a fun addition (although I was hesitant because it increases acidity), so five gallons went onto six pounds of defrosted blackberries, plus a pound of mulberries. I like blackberries because they add a fruity/winey character that is not as aggressive as raspberries or cherries. This was my first time using mulberries (which are tart and earthy), but in the spring I am planning on harvesting enough from the tree in my backyard to add about two pounds of them per gallon to half of the DCambic.
With 20 gallons of beer removed from the barrel we began to refill it with the fresh beer. The gravity of the new beer was a bit lower than the initial fill, but since the original batches were pretty strong we decided it wasn’t worth screwing around with adding sugar or extract. We ended up with three gallons of extra beer that we’ll use for occasional top-offs to reduce the head space and in turn minimize the acetic acid production. We have not topped-off the other barrels, but for this one it seemed worth the extra effort.
Apple Brandy Refill
Batch Size (Gal): 25.00
Total Grain (Lbs): 65.00
Anticipated OG: 1.055
Anticipated SRM: 10.7
Anticipated IBU: 13.9
Brewhouse Efficiency: 57 %
Wort Boil Time: 70 Minutes
55.4% - 36.00 lbs. German Pilsener
38.5% - 25.00 lbs. German Munich Malt
3.1% - 2.00 lbs. CaraMunich
3.1% - 2.00 lbs. Honey Malt
1.25 oz. Columbus (Whole, 15.00% AA) @ 60 min.
2.00 tsp Yeast Nutrient @15 min.
2.00 Whirlfloc @ 15 min.
DCL Yeast T-58 SafBrew Specialty Ale
Profile: Washington DC
Sacch Rest 60 min @ 152
1/13/11 with Nathan
Collected 14 gallons from the first runnings, split between two keggles. Sparged with 15 gallons of ~180 F water, stirred, and used to fill up both keggles. Hops were 2 years old, 15% AA adjusted down.
Ended up with much lower efficiency than I expected.
Chilled both halves to ~74 F. Split between 6 fermentors Aerated each with 30 seconds of pure O2. Pitched Wyeast Farmhouse Ale into 1 fermenter, a total of 3 packs of rehydrated T-58 split between the rest.
12/4/11 Racked the Wyeast Farmhouse carboy into several of the others to harvest the yeast cake for the acid malt soured beer.
12/11/11 Racked into the barrel, three gallons leftover for topping off.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
American saison has almost become a style in its own right. It shares many commonalities with the Belgian original, but the fermentation character tends to be cleaner and less idiosyncratic. There are certainly some oddball American versions, but few that have the more provincial and surprising flavors that Belgian brewers are known for. Visiting McKenzie's Brew House a year ago and sampling their Saison Vautour was a revelation for me in terms of American saison, that amazing combination of rye and funk with some other weird flavors that I couldn't place. Nathan and I just bottled our portion of the collaborative Irma Extra we brewed while visiting the brewery.
Inspired by head brewer Ryan and his assistant Gerard (who is about to open a new brewpub, Forest & Main, with several saisons planned) I brewed a rye saison with my friend Nate. We used the simple grist of 75% Pils and 25% rye malt, fermented with yeast and Brett from East Coast Yeast (as always Al's bug did not let me down). If you can't get your hands on ECY cultures, brew it anyway with the saison strain of your choice (McKenzie's uses White Labs Saison II) and Brett from a lab or harvested from bottle dregs.
Brett Rye Saison
Appearance – Brilliant burnt gold (love how Brett and time can clear a beer). Plenty of apparent carbonation streaming through, keeping the tight white head stay aloft. The rye really helped with lacing, what a beautiful beer!
Smell – The aroma has a complex blend of cereal (from the rye and Brett) and complex fruit (pear and apple) and spicy (pepper and coriander) aromatics from the yeasts. I wouldn't call it funky, but rustic is certainly right.
Taste – The flavor is much more Brett forward than the nose, with hay, leather, and overripe fruit. A well balanced beer, with the bready rye adding substance to the body without making it sweet. Some of the spice from the primary fermentation is still there, but it isn't as powerful as it was in the nose. There is a lingering minerally bitterness from the combination of hops and Brett. Probably the most authentic (read Fantôme) tasting saison I have made, thanks in large part to the bugs.
Mouthfeel – Solid carbonation, but not enough to make it foamy or sharp. The rye adds substance to the body without making the beer sweet. One of the tidbits I picked up from talking to the geyser of brewing information that is Chad Yakobson was that many saison strains produce more glycerol (which improves mouthfeel) than other brewer's yeast strains, which makes them especially good to pair with Brett (which does not produce glycerol in a significant quantity).
Drinkability & Notes – Really pleased with the results of this batch. There is not much I would change if I brewed it again, except getting some of the gravity from sugar (as we originally planned) to leave less for the Brett (to shift the balance just slightly towards the primary yeast character and away from the Brett).
Monday, December 5, 2011
$10-$20 - 31%
$21-$30 - 30%
$31-$40 - 12%
$41-$60 - 10%
< $10 - 5%
$100+ - 5%
$61-$99 - 4%
I'd be interested to hear what people's most expensive bottle was (and was it worth it?). Mine was a ~$65 magnum of BFM Abbaye de Bon Chien Grand Cru, although considering they are now selling 375 ml bottles of it for ~$25 the price I paid was a steal.
It is great that despite the poor economy, consumers are rewarding breweries who are willing to brew batches that are less more interesting, experimental, and even a little weird. While as a homebrewer most of my costs are for ingredients, fuel, and equipment, these really aren't the driving forces for commercial breweries when it comes to the more interesting batches. Breweries tend to be more focused on the time beers take to ferment and age in the tanks. A strong beer that takes six weeks before packaging needs to make as much profit as three batches of a beer that take two weeks to ferment (to make economic sense).
Time is the biggest cost of sour and funky beer production, having the space in tanks or barrels to age them before packaging. However, there are a few breweries that are working hard to make interesting sour beers with aging times that are not that much longer than a standard batch of beer. Jolly Pumpkin leaves some of it beers in barrels for as little as two weeks for example. I talked to Chad Yakobson of Crooked Stave over the weekend, and he is doing a lot of interesting things with 100% Brett fermentations with his Wild Wild Brett series (can't wait to see what he does once he has his own space). If anyone hasn't seen it his presentation on Brett from the 2011 NHC it is well worth the hour (here are the slides, and the first of the videos).
We are still early stages of the adaptation of the classic European methods to suit modern breweries and American tastes. I think there are going to be some amazing beers coming out in the next few years as brewers continue to learn and increase production. Sadly, I think we will also be seeing more top-shelf beers regularly pushing into the price category previously reserved for fine wines. The same way the 3 Fonteinen is releasing the Armand’4 season gueuzes, I suspect that more brewers will take their best batches, blends, or barrels and give them limited release packaging and big price tags.
Monday, November 28, 2011
Brewing Better Beer: Master Lessons for Advanced Homebrewers is book written by BJCP president, Grand Master V Judge, and three-time Ninkasi award winning homebrewer Gordon Strong. While reading his bio I was surprised to see that he lives in the same small Ohio town where my girlfriend Audrey grew up. It had been awhile since I read a brewing book that didn’t have a narrowly defined subject, so I was excited to pick up some general improvements to my process.
The concept behind Brewing Better Beer is an interesting one: the investigation of what separates the great brewers from those who simply understand the process. It does a good job of avoiding being bogged down by overly technical detail. It puts forth that at its heart homebrewing is a craft rather than an art or a science. Knowing the scientific underpinning of the process may inform your choices, and there is some artistry in recipe design and blending, but these are less essential than your ability to correctly complete the mundane tasks of mashing, sparging, yeast propagation, keeping oxygen out at packaging etc.
At a certain point after brewing seriously for a few years many homebrewers realize that there are no longer any obvious upgrades that their system requires. From that realization a driven brewer can focus on methodically refining their technique and recipes to produce consistently great results. This book also puts a focus on personal efficiency, avoiding extraneous steps to allow for quicker and less taxing brew days. Being able to brew great beer with minimal time and effort is the goal that most of us strive for.
Part homebrewing autobiography, Brewing Better Beer struggled to keep me interested. The author frequently poses questions for the reader to ask themselves about their own recipes, process, equipment, and technique. In some cases Gordon describes a particular situation and how he dealt with it, but generally does not dwell long. In the end most of these answers require personal investigation and thought (I assume most brewers like me evaluate the available options on their own). As a result, despite the 300+ pages, I didn’t come away with much advice that I’ve actually applied to my brewing.
It may be that I’ve already been brewing too long, already developing a method and system that work well for my needs. While its title suggests the book is for advanced brewers, it covers a number of things that are rather basic without interjecting any advanced information. For example information about how hops and malt are used, or options that I’d think most “advanced” homebrewers would be aware of (e.g. no-sparge brewing, all late hopping). I think this would be a better book if you are still trying to figure out what sort of system you want, or are thinking of doing a major overhaul.
There are a few really interesting sections, I especially enjoyed the passage on using spruce tips (something I’ll have to try next spring). I also found the section about his use of dark grains to be interesting (basically always using cold steeping or adding at the end of the mash to reduce harshness). I would have liked to see more information like this presented in other parts of the book that went into detail on the benefits of a particular method or ingredient.
One of the chapters focuses on the importance of BJCP styles, which I could have done without. Gordon uses the styles to define both brewing to style, and brewing off-style beers. He talks about the area between the “style space” of two beers as the place to create new styles. For example, the space between robust porter and IPA yielded black IPAs, or between Belgian tripel and IPA for Belgian IPAs. To me the best new beers come out of the ether outside the guidelines, drawing ingredients and techniques from different traditions and combining them into unique creations (or using new ingredients for the first time).
I strongly disagree with his suggestion that all beers with yeast/spice/fruit character do not meld well with hops (he points to hefe, wit, and lambic in particular). There are a number of great beers that combine hop aromatics with fruity characters (see New Glarus Crack's Wheat, Mikkeller Not Just Another Wit, Cantillon Iris, and Cigar City Mango IPA).
The book only includes a few recipes scattered through the text, mostly to illustrate specific points. I was surprised how complex Gordon’s recipes were, mostly featuring six or more malts. I tend to strive for simplicity, but it is interesting to see the intricate formulations of his award winning beers.
Michael Ferguson in the forward, and the author in the text both compare the book to Zen and the Art of Motorcycles Maintenance, a lofty comparison which Brewing Better Beer fails to live up to. I think this one would be a good book to borrow from a friend or the library because it is not one I have found myself going back to reference. It is great to see Brewers Publication putting out more advanced homebrewing books since it seems like the “intro to” market is pretty well saturated.
Monday, November 21, 2011
With two kegs waiting for an opening in the kegerator I’m happy to have my whole family in town for Thanksgiving (my first time running the show). While I’ve been loving the Riwaka Hefe Weizen the Galaxy DIPA has been drinking a bit slower. The flavor is great, but there is only so much 8.8% ABV beer I want to drink. Especially the presence of my father, who managed to kill a case of my first double IPA that I left at home when I moved down to DC, for the week is much appreciated!
In doing some research trying to figure out who was the first American craft brewer to release a sour beer (Cottonwood in 1995 is the current leader), I stumbled upon this quote on Beer Connoisseur: "In Booth II-14, Vinnie Cilurzo served the first commercial “Double IPA” anybody ever heard of. He brewed the beer in June of 1994, his first batch at Blind Pig Brewing in Temecula, Calif. He aged it on oak for nine months and served it on the brewery’s first anniversary as “Inaugural Ale.” It was 15 months old when he hauled it to GABF." Funny that 16 years later at Russian River he is now plastering "Drink fresh, do not age!" on every bottle of Pliny the Elder... not that I'm complaining!
Appearance – Darker yellow, with warm burnt orange tones. There is still a slight haze (it was cloudy when young), not shocking for a dry hopped beer. Fine white head starts dense, but dissipates over a couple minutes despite the hop resins.
Smell – Ample “America” hop aroma, some tropical and citrus, but also pine. The hop character is more complex than I usually expect from a single varietal, but it isn't quite as assertive as I would like. There is some clean sweet ethanol as well, not obnoxious, but on the high side for the style.
Taste – Firm bitterness, clean, slightly rough. Saturated with big green and fruity hops, lingering into the finish. The malt character is almost completely covered up, but what is there is clean and crisp. I recently had my first taste of Alchemist Heady Topper, and enjoyed the slightly bready (without caramel) malt character.
Mouthfeel – Light body with moderate carbonation. This is what I like in a strong hoppy beer, a thick body would have made this too close to an American barleywine.
Drinkability & Notes – I am a fan of this beer, but if I brewed it again I would back down the alcohol. For a big DIPA this is a very drinkable beer, but at close to 9% I am taking my time. Seems Galaxy is great for anything that you might use Simcoe for, terrific hop!
Monday, November 14, 2011
Many homebrewers know that pH plays an important role at several
points during brew day, including: mash enzyme effectiveness, hop
utilization, and protein coagulation. Some maybe even know that pH can
also be used to test to monitor yeast activity on a clean beer (as I was
told when a Pilsner I brewed last winter failed to start fermenting).
Probably not as many of us (myself included) pay enough attention to
it. I only check mash pH if I am doing something really dark or light
(using test strips), but I wasn't motivated to buy a pH meter until I
decided it would be fun to test my sour beers.
As pH is a measure of acidity (actually the concentration of hydronium ions) it gives a hard number to confirm what our tongues report. Knowing the pH of the beer allows you to track the progress of the acid producing bacteria, or judge when the souring is complete. Keeping track of the acidity can make your results more repeatable, especially if you do not have a sensitive palate.
The meter I bought is a Hanna HI 98107 (~$40 on Amazon), which also requires a storage solution and two buffered calibration solutions to use (which doubles the price). The storage solution prevents the probe from degrading (although even with it I'll be lucky to get more than a year out of it apparently). Before measuring the pH of a sample the meter requires two point calibration. First the storage solution must be rinsed off. Then the probe is dipped into a buffered 7.0 (neutral) solution and a small small screw is adjusted on the side of the case to get the display to read 7.0. After rinsing off the probe with water, it is calibrated in a 4.01 pH buffered solution (a 10.01 solution is available for taking readings of solutions above 7 pH) and the second screw is adjusted so it reads 4.0. Once the probe is rinsed a third time it is ready to use.
The samples must be uncarbonated to get an accurate reading because dissolved carbon dioxide (aka carbonic acid) lowers the pH reading. pH is also affected by temperature, the warmer the sample the lower the reading. Unless you buy a more expensive meter that has automatic temperature correction you will need to take readings at the same temperature so they are comparable. Like gravity readings you can correct for temperature, but this introduces variance.
I decided to try the meter out for the first time during our blending session since I had plenty of uncarbonated room-temperature samples to test. I should have read the instructions more carefully in advance because I didn't realize that before using the meter for the first time it needed to be soaked in the storage solution for two hours to activate the electrode. While it soaked we proceeded with blending, and by the time we came up with our ratios and ate lunch the two hours had passed.
The pH of the eight sour beers I tested ranged a full point (as pH is a logarithmic scale the Berliner Lambic was 10 times more acidic than the Big Funky Ale).
4.1 - Big Funky Ale
3.7 - Cherry/Raspberry Lambic 2.0
3.7 - Irma
3.5 - Dark Saison III
3.4 - Buckwheat Amber
3.3 - Fruit Salad 3.2 - Apple Brandy Solera
3.1 - Berliner Lambic
At the high end of that range beers taste tart, while down at 3.1 they have a bracing acidity. For the most part the readings confirmed what we tasted, but it was surprising to see what the different levels of acidity translated to. The one surprise was that despite both testing 3.7, the Irma tasted much sourer than the Fruit Lambic, maybe the acidity was offset by the higher alcohol?
When the testing was finished I rinsed off the probe, put on a few drops of the storage solution and snapped the cover back on. I'm interested to take it out next time I get a few friends together to drink sour beers to see how beers from different breweries (and made with different methods) stack up.
A simpler, but less accurate, method is to use pH test strips. The chemical indicator impregnated onto them changes color when submerged in the beer. When the color is stable they are compared to a chart, which is impossible to read with the same degree of accuracy as a digital readout (especially if you happen to be colorblind). The main advantages of the strips are that they are relatively cheap and require no additional care or calibration. I have had good luck with ColorpHast pH test strips for monitoring mash pH, but the standard pH range of 7.0-4.0 sold to homebrewers is not useful for monitoring the souring process, luckily they are also sold in the 4.5-2.5 pH range. These also need to be used on flat room temperature samples for the highest accuracy. However ColorpHast strips have a .2 pH resolution and so may not provide enough accuracy for fine tuning a beer.
The character of the acidity is not solely a matter of the pH however. Different acids contribute various characters to the beer. A beer that has a pH of 3.5 from the presence of lactic acid will have a much mellower character than a beer that has the same pH resulting from acetic acid. Other characters in the beer including residual sweetness can balance the acidity as well. A well trained palate is your best tool for determining what the character of a blend should be, but pH measurements are a way to improve your ability to judge acidity (rather than treating it as an abstract number to be targeted).
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Wheat beers are supposed to be best fresh, hoppy beers too, right? For some reason the Riwaka Hefe Weizen that I brewed in early August just keeps getting better. Young the beer tasted strongly phenolic and yeasty, but it has cleaned up beautifully in the 6 weeks it has been on tap. That is one of the advantages of kegging, the beer has just been cold conditioning and continuing to pick up hop aromatics from the hops in the keg.
This is the second in my series of Southern Hemisphere hopped beers, the final (Galaxy Double IPA) will be ready for its tasting next week.
Appearance – Perfect, almost immobile, sticky, dense, white head. The body would be ugly for any beer other than a hefe weizen (ruddy orange-gold).
Smell – The nose suits the color with a potent citrus character (particularly fresh orange peel) and plenty of banana aroma. The combination of citrus and banana is complementary (smells like a fruit smoothie).
Taste – The aromatics from the nose come through in the flavor as well, but they are joined by a fresh caramel malt and bread. There is some light clove-spice (and maybe some cinnamon), but I think the hops are covering it up a bit. The bitterness is more assertive than a hefe weizen usually is, close to a hoppy pale ale. Rising bread yeasty finish.
Mouthfeel – Medium-light body with prickly carbonation. Right for a fall beer, but it might have been a bit thicker than I wanted if this was a summertime beer.
Drinkability & Notes – It took a few weeks on gas for this one to come together, but I'm really happy with where it is now. Riwaka seems like a good hop for anything you'd usually use Cascade or Centennial anything you want fresh orange aromatics. I didn't miss the decoction that I did for my previous batch of Hoppy Hefe, the hops covering any subtleties gained.
Monday, November 7, 2011
Recipes and ingredients are important, but brewing the best beer requires control over your process. You might get lucky once, but consistently great beer does not come with chance. The more variables you can manage the more repeatable your process will be, and the closer you can dial in a target. For example, mashing offers a level of control that you give-up by using extract. For where my process is, gaining more control over the fermentation is more important than focusing on wort production. For example, I can set the ambient fermentation temperature, but setting the temperature of the beer itself would be better; I make starters to ensure healthy/active yeast, but doing cell counts and viability tests to know what I am pitching would be better.
When it comes to smoked beers the biggest problem that brewers have is the variable nature of commercially smoked malt. Aecht Schlenkerla (which brews almost nothing but smoked beers) overcomes variability by smoking their own, blending different lots of smoked malt into the same batch of beer, and then blending multiple batches of beer together for packaging. As a homebrewer all that blending isn’t feasible, but then we don't need the exacting level of consistency. The biggest issue we have with smoked malt is that the aroma tends to fade as the malt ages, and unless you are able to find out how fresh the malt is it is hard to anticipate how much to use. By smoking your own malt you can exert more control over the process (not to mention play with smoke from less common woods as well as herbs, spices, I've even seen recipes that call for tossing strips of bacon onto the fire).
My friend Scott (who I brewed with for the first time shortly after moving to DC five years ago) invited me to his house to brew 10 gallons of smoked roggenbier (similar to a dunkel weisse, but with rye in place of the wheat). I have brewed a number of smoked beers before (Rauch Dunkel, Smoked Baltic Porter, Smoked Imperial Porter, Adambier, Smoked Doppelsticke, and DCHB Apple Smoked Stout), but this was the first time using home-smoked malt. New Glarus brewed a beer along the same lines (Unplugged Smoked Rye Ale – which was brewed with a combination of German beechwood and Briess cherry wood smoked malts), but it is stronger and smokier than something we wanted five gallons of.
(A few weeks earlier...) to smoke the malt Scott thoroughly mixed base malt with enough distilled water to moisten (~1 cup in 5 lbs). Dampness helps the smoke to stick, and distilled water ensures that there is no chlorine, which would combine with the phenols in the smoke to produce medicinal tasting chlorophenols. Scott spread the damp malt onto old window screens placed in his smoker (the same one we used two years ago to smoke bacon). He made a small fire in the corner of the smoke box as far back from the main cavity of the smoker as he could to keep the heat low enough to avoid scorching the malt. He added cherry wood chips each time the smoke died down. Woods from fruit trees tends to produce a sweeter and softer smoke than other woods, making them a good choice when smoking malt for a beer fermented with a fruity yeast. After a couple hours the malt was dry and fragrant. He sealed it in a large Tupperware container where it stayed until I came over to brew (he had also used some in a smoked mild).
In addition to the rye and smoked malts we included Pilsner, Munich, CaraMunich, and Carafa Special II. Between the nearly 50% rye malt, specialty malts, and the assertive yeast we wanted to go easy on the smoked malt, so we settled on 3 lbs in 10 gallons. We ended up with a few more IBUs than anticipated due to a miscalculation in splitting the batch for two boils, but it the original gravity is towards the big end of the style so I’m not worried.
POSTPONED On a side note, Sunday December 11th from 2-5 PM I’ll be teaching another homebrewing class at Mountain View Farm in Purcellville, VA. This one will primarily be an introduction to brewing, but there will also be time to discuss whatever questions people have. If you are interested in attending the deal is the same as last time ($25/person or $40/couple), send an email to Shawna (email@example.com) to register. I'll also be bringing samples of the Peach-Amber Wheat we brewed during the August class. POSTPONED
Cherry Wood Smoked Roggenbier
Batch Size (Gal): 10.00
Total Grain (Lbs): 26.75
Anticipated OG: 1.062
Anticipated SRM: 16.7
Anticipated IBU: 33.5
Brewhouse Efficiency: 69 %
Wort Boil Time: 75 Minutes
44.9% - 12.00 lbs. Rye Malt
18.7% - 5.00 lbs. Munich Malt
18.7% - 5.00 lbs. Pilsener
11.2% - 3.00 lbs. Cherry Wood Smoked
5.6% - 1.50 lbs. CaraMunich
0.9% - 0.25 lbs. Carafa Special II
4.00 oz. Crystal (Whole, 4.75% AA) @ 60 min.
1.00 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 15 min.
WYeast 3068 Weihenstephan Weizen
Profile: Springfield, VA
Saccharification Rest: 60 min @ 153 F
Brewed 10/29/11 at Scott's
Scott had home smoked the malt over cherry wood (mixed in enough distilled water to get it wet, then laid it over a screen with a very low fire all the way back in his firebox).
Tried to distribute the runnings from the double batch sparge evenly between two kettles. We ended up a bit under volume, but with plenty of gravity
Chilled to 65 F. Ran through a screen to remove the hops. Aerated with pure oxygen. Scott made a 2L stir-plate starter, decanted and pitched half into each 5 gallon batch.
I ended up with 4.5 gallons of wort at 1.072, added 3/4 gallon of distilled water when I got home to dilute. Fermented at ~58 F ambient with the lid just resting on top of the 8 gallon bucket. Active fermentation by the following morning, nearly blowing off by day #2. I left the lid resting on the bucket for a low-pressure open fermentation effect.
11/06/11 Moved upstairs (~62 F) to make sure the yeast was warm enough to finish fermenting.
11/20/11 Down to 1.010. Racked to a purged keg with 3 oz of cane sugar to prime. Really full keg.
1/19/11 Reasonably happy with the way this batch turned out. If I brewed it again I would back down on the rye and hops, and up the smoke slightly. I think the cherry wood is a mild enough complement to the yeast and malt, good choice there.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
taste like pumpkin pie - 33%
I've never had one I liked - 24%
have just a hint of spice - 24%
taste like pumpkin - 9%
are historic/colonial/sour - 7%
Pumpkin ale is a style that has some historical basis, but the cinnamon/nutmeg/ginger pie inspired creations are a relatively recent phenomenon. Colonists added pretty much anything fermentable they could get their hands on (molasses, spruce, various root vegetables) to augment or replace the malts they had. It is hard to tell what these original beers tasted like, but Randy Mosher provides his take on one in Radical Brewing.
As the poll indicates, not many people want gourd to be the primary flavor in their beer. This isn't a bad thing since it can be tough to use enough pumpkin to get that subtle earthy flavor into a beer, which is probably the reason so many brewers go heavy on the pumpkin pie spice. I'm not a fan of most of the standard, highly spiced, amber pumpkin ales that flood the market this time of year. I've had better luck with those based on dark beers like Cape Ann Fisherman's Pumpkin Stout, Midnight Sun TREAT, and St. Arnold Divine Reserve #9. The roast tends to cut the spices and provide more "beer" character. I've been meaning to re-brew the Chocolate Pumpkin Porter I made on a whim three years ago, but I missed my chance again this year (I have a chance to make another pumpkin keg either).
Talking to Ron Jeffries at Jolly Pumpkin for an article I am researching about American spontaneous fermentation for BYO he mentioned that this year he boosted the spicing in La Parcela (his sour pumpkin beer) just because he was sick of people complaining that they couldn't taste them. I don't know, when I brewed a Butternut Squash Sour Brown a few years ago I aimed for threshold levels of cinnamon and nutmeg, which seemed about right to me. Alphine's Ichabod from 2007 and 2009 was another great sour pumpkin beer, a revelation when I first tried it. The sample of Allagash's Ghoulschip (bottles of which were just sold for the first time) I had last year was good, although I was disappointed that it wasn't especially sour (while it is cooled in their coolship it is then pitched with ale yeast).
Between pumpkin ale and Oktoberfest fall seasonals aren't something I look forward to much, but happy to take suggestions in the comments if anyone has a favorite pumpkin ale.
Monday, October 31, 2011
Valley Malt started production in Western Massachusetts last year, producing a range of malts from locally grown barley, wheat, and rye (80 acres worth this year - about one ton per week). It isn't often that a new maltster opens on the East Coast, so I thought I'd show some support by buying 50 lbs of their pale malt and a couple more of dark crystal to see if they are worth seeking out. It probably would have been smart to do the first trial with something simple and clean like a pale ale... but the dark crystal, plus a couple bottles of dark candi syrup and a bag of frozen plums I already had on hand, called for something more interesting: a double batch of dubbel.
I realize that Pilsner malt is more traditional, but I recently had a bottle of St. Bernardus Prior 8 which had more bready malt character than most of the American brewed dubbels I have tasted. While I love the complex caramel and dark fruit that dark candi syrup brings to a beer, I have not been satisfied with the flavor it gives a dubbel without the addition of dark crystal malt. I was sad that I didn't get around to ordering anything for Candi Syrup Inc to make it a completely American beer.
On brew day I put the strike water on the stove to heat and went down to the basement to weigh/crush the malt. The non-driven wheel on my Barley Crusher mill hadn’t been turning as easily as it used to (time to take it apart and clean it again) so I didn’t think much of it when I had to reverse the drill a couple times to get it to catch. About halfway through I heard a crunching metallic noise. I emptied the hopper, but didn’t see what had caused the noise. When I started milling again it ran fine for a few seconds, but then came that noise again. I emptied out the hopper a second time, sifted through the uncrushed grain, and finally found a grain sized pebble. If anything it made me appreciate how amazing it is that I’ve never had that happen before.
Much of the work that used to be done in the brewery with step mashes and decoctions (dealing with excess protein, and poorly modified malt etc...) is now largely taken care of by the maltster. Few modern malts require anything more elaborate than a single infusion rest at the desired saccharification temperature. I was told by the homebrew store owner who sold me the malt that Valley Malt's malts benefit from a short protein rest. The mash didn’t look or run-off any different than any other pale malt, but while the wort was coming to a boil it did inflate one of the densest protein foams I have ever experienced.
I had bought WLP545 Belgian Strong Ale (one of the Sep/Oct Platinum strains) to ferment with, my first time using the strain. For half of the batch my friend Luke and I also pitched the dregs from a few bottles of sour beer that we drank while we brewed. That half will also receive oak cubes, and a couple pounds of methyl plums I bought at the farmer’s market and froze this summer. This is somewhat inspired by Captain Lawrence Rosso e Morrone which is the barrel aged version of their St. Vincent’s Dubbel with red wine grapes. I may have had one too many of said sour beers... I mixed up the carboys while running off and tossed the dregs from the last bottle into the clean half (I'm planning on serving it young on tap, so it may just add some rustic charm). Both halves started fermenting in the low-60s ambient, with only the clean half boosted into the 70s F after the first four days of fermentation.
American Malt Dubbel
Batch Size (Gal): 10.00
Total Grain (Lbs): 23.00
Anticipated OG: 1.058
Anticipated SRM: 20.8
Anticipated IBU: 20.9
Brewhouse Efficiency: 69 %
Wort Boil Time: 75 Minutes
87.0% - 20.00 lbs. Valley Pale Malt
4.3% - 1.00 lbs. D2 Candi Sugar Syrup
4.3% - 1.00 lbs. D Candi Sugar Syrup
4.3% - 1.00 lbs. Valley Dark Crystal
1.75 oz. Hallertauer Tradition (Pellet, 6.00% AA) @ 60 min.
1.00 Unit(s) Whirlfloc @ 5 Min.
White Labs WLP545 Belgian Strong Ale
Profile: Washington DC
Protein Rest - 25 min @ 128 F
Sacch Rest - 60 min @ 153 F
10/21/11 Made a 3.5 L starter with a one month old tube of yeast, shook intermittently to aerate.
Brewed 10/23/11 with Luke
Collected 9 gallons of 1.060 runnings. Added candi syrups as it came to a boil. 2 gallons of final runnings boiled separately and added back at cooling. Chilled to ~70 F, racked into two carboys onto half of the starter in each. Shook to aerate.
Added dregs from Anchorage Love Buzz Saison, Russian River Consecration, Wine Barrel Solera, and De Dolle Oreabier Reserva to the short fill. Accidentally added the dregs from a Bourbon Barrel Sour Porter to the clean portion... might add a hint of tartness funk as the beer ages.
Quick start to fermentation in the low-60s ambient.
10/27/11 Put the clean half into a pot and onto a heating pad set to high to boost the temperature to ensure complete attenuation and a bit more Belgian yeast character.
10/31/11 Fermentation appears complete so I turned off the heating pad.
11/6/11 Down to 1.015, big nutmeg aroma. Racked the "clean" portion to a keg. Racked the sour potion to a 3 gallon and a 1 gallon fermentor.
12/21/11 Great tasting result, especially for only two months old. The malt and candi sugar work together really well, complex without making the beer too sweet.
8/22/12 Racked the three gallons of the sour portion onto four pounds of mixed plums including Methley and a slightly lager darker variety I didn't catch the name of.
1/24/13 Bottled 2.75 gallons with 2 3/8 oz of table sugar. Also added a splash of rehydrated Premier Cuvee (Champagne yeast). Plums really meld nicely with the dark fruit of the grain and candi syrup.
6/13/13 Tasting of the plum-aged portion. The flavor nicely blends the dark fruit from the malt and the fresher character from the plums. Solid sourness, moderately funky.
4/13/14 Finally bottled the 1 gallon of plain/sour with .75 oz of table sugar and a splash of rehydrated champagne yeast.
Monday, October 24, 2011
With three of my beer nerd friends (Alex, Dyan, and Matt) having their first children in 2011, it seemed like a good excuse to trick them into bottling some beer for me. I respect all of their palates so I invited them over (along with my friends Nathan and Peter) to help blend and bottle a selection of sour beers I’d been aging for between 9 and 18 months. Sadly Dyan’s child had been born only a week earlier and Matt was busy (apparently children these days are no longer capable of raising themselves), but we decided to go forward with the plan anyway and just give those two a few bottles.
Blending is one of the only aspects of brewing that is an art (as opposed to a craft or janitorial work). Being able to taste a variety of beers and mix them together to get something greater than the individual components is difficult and takes practice, especially since bottle conditioning will alter the flavor of the beer. Most of my experience with blending is from combining commercial beers or homebrews in the glass. This was the first time that I had enough beers ready at the same time to conduct a legitimate blending session.
There were seven beers available: Berliner Lambic (5% brightly acidic Berliner weisse), Fruit Salad (a blend itself of a Golden Sour on soursop and the Quick Oud Bruin on raspberries and black raspberries), Dark Saison III (with buckwheat honey, figs, and fall spices), Apple Brandy Golden Solera (sharply acidic, and pretty oaky), Buckwheat Amber (young and fairly restrained), Irma (the amber saison Nathan and I brewed at McKenzie Brew House last fall... the "Extra" barrel aged version of which is running a 4.3 on BA), and Capitol City ESB on Brett (the last of a keg I won, which I pitched Brett Brett B into a few months ago).
After tasting and discussing each of the beer on its own we began playing with different combinations, taking notes, and passing around our favorites. After the initial round of tasting no one liked the Fruit Salad (the soursop gives it a weird Parmesan flavor), or the Cap City (too young and hoppy still) enough to include them so I put those carboys back for further aging. When we started to get close to our targets for the actual blends we measured the ratios by making 100 g samples on a scale. It was easy to figure out the percentages and a reasonable sample size to get a real taste of the beer. We took 50 g of each blend and poured it into a separate cup, that way after taking a sip there was still a reserved amount that could be adjusted from a known starting point. Below are the blends each of us settled on:
50% Apple Brandy
30% Berliner Lambic
20% Dark Saison III
33% Dark Saison III
33% Apple Brandy
66% Berliner Lambic
18% Buckwheat Amber
16% Apple Brandy
40% Buckwheat Amber
40% Dark Saison III
15% Berliner Lambic
5% Apple Brandy
With all the blends determined, Peter checked the math to ensure that we'd have enough of all of the beers to bottle two gallons of each blend and still have at least two gallons leftover of each beer to bottle straight (luckily we did).
Before we started bottling I distributed one packet of rehydrated champagne yeast between the carboys (to avoid having to add yeast to each of the eight buckets to come). Ideally we would have had a scale with a large enough capacity to use weigh to dial in the blends, but I didn't so we used the marks on the side of the bottling bucket as a guide to measure by volume. All of these beers were similarly dry, so we did not bother to factor in an adjustment for the switch from weight to volume. When blending like this an auto-siphon is a must, but hold the end of the tubing above the beer until the air is cleared from the line and the next beer starts to flow (otherwise you’ll be oxidizing the beer as the air bubbles in the line out).
Before priming the blender tasted the scaled up combination to see if any adjustments were needed, in Peter's case the beer was not as bright as he wanted so we a quart of additional Berliner Lambic. To prime the blends I boiled 5.5 oz of table sugar in 1 pint of water, adding 1/2 cup for each two gallon. For the plain batches I made individual priming solutions tailored to their specific flavor/volume. One gallon of Peter's blend and one gallon of the straight Buckwheat Amber each went onto one pound of sour cherries. I had considered dry hopping some of the beers as well, but did not notice one that called for it. Lots of tasting to come in a couple months.
One of the keys to blending is to have beers with a variety of characters. In this case we had a huge range since the beers were all brewed with different recipes, microbes, and with or without spices, oaks etc... but this is not the only way. If you are looking to make a more focused blend you can use the same recipe with different microbes (like the collaborative Isabelle Proximus), methods (as the Bruery does with Oude Tart – fermenting some spontaneously in the barrels for more sourness), or ages (as Lambic brewers do). Some brewers also keep a pale colored "acid beer" on hand that is used to lighten the color/flavor and add acidity without contributing much of its own flavor (with a pH of 3.1, that role was filled by the Berliner Lambic in our case).
It ended up being a successful Saturday afternoon. I got bottles, bottling assistance, and a variety of blends while everyone else got some free beer (half of their blend, and bottles of all the other blends and single batch bottlings). Hopefully with so many carboys now empty I’ll finally be able to start brewing for the Great Souring Experiment (which would lend itself perfectly to another session like this once all of the batches are ready).
The tasting results of these four beers, pretty, pretty, pretty, good.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Right up there with the absurdity of my Cable Car clone is this wine barrel aged Belgian single, which was Based on Russian River first batch of Beatification. 001/PH1 was only released once, aged in two barrels they got second hand from New Belgium's La Folie program (when they were stepping up to massive oak foeders). The base beer was Redemption, Russian River's Belgian single. To be clear that beer had nothing in common with all subsequent batches of Beatification, which are sour mashed and spontaneously fermented.
The recipe we used was straight from Vinnie (hard to imagine a combination of a better brewer and more generous guy). We aged it for 20 months in a second use French oak red wine barrel that we had previously aged a sour red ale. The microbes inhabiting the wood were from Wyeast Roeselare Blend, and the dregs of Lost Abbey's Red Poppy that I cultured up (but who knows what is still alive in the wood). We should have gotten some La Folie dregs in there (before they switched to the flash pasteurized bombers), but sadly the plan to brew this beer formed after that first beer was already souring.
It was also an appropriate day to do this tasting because earlier this afternoon I was talking about sour beer with Lauren Salazar (who is in charge of blending La Folie) for an article I am writing about bending beers for BYO. It was funny hearing her contrast the way they brew sour beers compared to the "Russian River way." Russian River brews a different base beer for each of their releases, nearly sanitizes their barrels before filling, stagger pitches controlled amounts of various microbes, and then blends and bottles the batch essentially as a group. New Belgium on the other hand brews only two base beers (a dark and a pale), using them to refill the partially emptied foeders when the beer is ready to blend and bottle, and uses beer from their favorite barrels to inoculate new ones. If there is one thing I am learning from interviewing the Americans who know sour beer production best, it is that there is no one best way to accomplish any task.
Russian River Beatification PH1 Clone
Appearance – Brilliantly clear gold with a glowing orange-rust core. The thin white head recedes pretty quickly, but retains a ring around the center. Sometimes the color of a beer is just right, this is one of those.
Smell – Bready yeast, fermented pears, hint of vinegar (no nail-polish remover luckily), oaky coconut, not especially funky. It shares many aromatic traits with the sour red that was in the barrel first, but the oak and wine are subtler despite the longer aging period.
Taste – Bright lactic acidity, subtle red berry, wine, and a touch of basement mustiness. The flavor is mostly soft, but the finish just has a slight sharp acetic edge to it (I'm usually not a vinegar fan, but this is just the right level). Not as dry as a lambic, there is still a hint of residual malt sweetness. It still has a touch of cereal character in the finish that I taste in most of my pale sours (should fade with another month or two).
Mouthfeel – Carbonation could be a stronger, I'd call it medium at the moment. The body is lusher than I expected, enough to support the heavy acidity.
Drinkability & Notes – It took longer than we expected to sour, but it was worth the wait. The blend of fruit, wine, and sourness is just about perfect.
The problem with comparing this to the original Beatification is that I only got to try one bottle of PH1... and that was five years ago (almost to the day). I went back and read the review I posted on BeerAdvocate after doing this tasting for comparison: I don't get the perfume/lavender I tasted in the original, but the overall balance and general flavors are remarkably similar. Hopefully a bit more complexity and carbonation will come with more time in the bottle.
Monday, October 17, 2011
It took longer than we planned, but a few weeks ago Nathan and I finally pulled the first 20 gallons out of our solera wine barrel and then refilled it with 25 gallons of fresh wort. The extra volume required was to replace what was lost to evaporation and samples pulled over the last year and a half. Our two-man solera barrels seems to be harder to coordinate than the group barrels. When coordinating seven people it forces you to do more planning and scheduling while these solera barrels tend to just get pushed back knowing that we can brew enough to fill them on short notice. So after 19 months we settled on a cool Saturday morning for the pull and fill.
At this stage the beer in the barrel already tasted great: oak, overripe fruit, firm sourness, hint of earthy funk, and some red wine. Of the 20 gallons we pulled only five gallons was bottled as is, we had more interesting (Cantillon inspired) plans for the remaining 15 gallons. Five gallons went onto an ounce of elderflowers in an attempt to mimic Mamouche (Zwanze 2009). I actually though Mamouche was overdone with elderflowers, to the point that it smelled more like green bell pepper than anything floral, so we tried to aim for something subtler. The next five gallons went onto 3.5 oz of Hallertau Tradition. Cantillon Iris and Cuvee des Champions are both dry hopped with European hops. I've had some reasonably fresh bottles of Champions that were terrific, but every Iris I've ever had has been old enough that any hop character is long gone. I have loved the addition of citrusy American dry hops to my sours in the past, but this was my first time using European hops in the same capacity.
The final five gallons went onto a gallon of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (St. Lamvinus is aged on Merlot and Cabernet franc grapes). This is rate of about two pounds per gallon, double the one pound per gallon that I thought was too light in my Lambic #3 (that beer may end up being combined with this one at bottling). We used the final bag of frozen grapes from the five gallon bucket I purchased last year (happy to have some freezer space again).
For the fill we decided to simply rack the freshly chilled wort into the barrel, rather than fermenting it out in carboys first. Our chosen method is certainly easier, but in the long run it risks introducing autolysis as the layer of yeast on the bottom of the barrel grows. Using fermented beer (especially a dry one) would be a good idea if the solera was getting too sour, since it would reduce the amount of fermentables available for the bugs.
We were pretty happy with the direction the beer was going, so we kept the recipe very similar to the one we had used initially (Pilsner, wheat, oats, and minimal hopping). When we racked the beer into the barrel we did not add extra yeast, which turned out to be a mistake. The barrel had been sugar-free for too long, and as a result the microbes that were left took about a week to start producing enough CO2 to put bubbles in the airlock. This probably wouldn’t have been a problem if we had stuck to the 12 month rotation we had targeted, but after so long I can’t say I was surprised. We'll make a determination what to do at our next pull, I'd like to avoiding more yeast if possible (again to minimize autolysis).
It was appropriate that we finished filling the barrel just in time to make it to ChurchKey for the tapping of Cantillon's Zwanze 2011, one of their lambics aged with Pineau d'Aunis grapes and Bramling Cross dry hops. I was lucky enough to have tried the previous version (test batch?) of this beer at the Lambic Summit last year. I thought the dry hops added to the new version added a subtle complexity that made for a really interesting beer. Before the tapping I got to sample a blend from Gueuzerie Tilquin for the first time, great to see a new blender (especially since it is the first that is allowed to buy from Cantillon). The gueuze was solid, with a firm acidity, and a big lemon character. It was not quite as rustic/funky as I like, but that should come with additional time.
After two weeks on the hops and elderflowers we bottled those two portions, leaving the wine grape carboy to complete its secondary fermentation. Hopefully this barrel stays productive, increasing in complexity as the average age of the beer steadily increases. It is a lot of fun to have this much sour beer laying around because it allows us to do experiments that we might not try otherwise (especially in such large amounts).
I am beginning to worry about our second solera barrel, at nine months it has already taken on a slightly acetic edge. We are aiming for an early November pull from it, at which point we will decide whether to refill it as planned, or pull the plug and find some friends to help with bottling/kegging all of it. Our plan was to get these on a similar schedule so we could blend them at bottling, but it looks like that may never happen... luckily we only spent ~$200 getting each one of these going including the barrels (about the price of a gallon of Zwanze 2011).
Thursday, October 13, 2011
The brew day for our fourth annual Funky Dark Saison is right around the corner and I'll be blending and bottling the third batch this weekend, so there was no time like the present to taste the second batch aged on Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. At two years old it is a wonderful marriage of sour beer and wine: hearty, complex, and still balanced.
Funky Dark Saison #2 on Cabernet Sauvignon
Appearance – A thin off-white head sits on top of a nearly opaque dark brown body. During the pour I can see deep purple tones, but the beer is too dark for them to be visible in such a wide glass. The edges look clear (not surprising after two years). Despite the poor head retention the ring that persists is trailed by lacing.
Smell – Huge aroma that I can smell as soon as I start pouring. Toasted and chocolate malt, jammy fruit, spice, and clean alcohol. It is hard to tell if the spice is from the yeast, grapes, oak, or black cardamom (probably something from all four).
Taste – Starts like a bold red wine, the sourness hits the middle of the tongue fading as the malt picks up in the finish. I love a beer that progresses through each sip, changing as it travels over the tongue. The lactic acid is smooth and not overpowering, but there is no question that this is a sour beer. The peppery spice of the yeast comes through more than in the aroma. ~11% ABV adds warmth, but the sourness hides the booze surprisingly well.
Mouthfeel – Doesn't come off as thin or hot, but the featherweight body and moderate-high carbonation let you know it is Belgian. The tannins extracted during the long time spent sitting on the grape skins helps to add firmness.
Drinkability & Notes – I think this batch is terrific, I'd put it up against Russian River Consecration any day. The grapes temper the black cardamom, and their sugars helped spur additional souring. I'm trying to hang onto as many bottles as I can, this one should be even better in a year or two.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Can craft brewers please stop with the bombers and 750s of strong beers? Why is it that the same brewery will put their pale ale in 12 oz bottles while their barleywine goes into bombers? Why would I want a beer with a higher alcohol content to come in a larger serving size? When I’m bottling I use the big bottles for session beers, while I save my 12 oz bottles for strong beers with just a handful of bigger bottles for sharing. I know that some people like bigger bottles for homebrewing because it means fewer bottles to clean, sanitize, fill, and cap. If breweries passed on the savings they got from using fewer bottles/labels/caps etc… I would have less of a complaint.
Instead of seeing a per ounce savings the large format bottles are often more than twice as expensive as their smaller counterparts. Here are some examples of 12 oz versus 22 oz bottle prices from one of the local beercentric stores: Hop Rod Rye $2.59 ($.22/oz) vs. $5.49 ($.25/oz), Lagunitas Maximus $2.39 ($.20/oz) vs. $5.99 ($.27/oz), and shockingly Rogue Dead Guy is $2.99 ($.25/oz) vs. $7.99 ($.36/oz)... almost a 50% premium on the beer in the bomber! I think some of it is psychological, for some reason I think a $4 bomber is a good deal, even though that works out to a $13 six-pack (and a somewhat pricey $10 bomber is the equivalent of an outrageous sounding $32.72 six-pack).
The weird thing is that this seems to be a craft beer issue that doesn’t happen with the big breweries. For example Kirin also comes in 12 oz and 22 oz bottles, for $1.99 ($.17/oz) vs. $2.99 ($.14/oz). Same goes for Budweiser: 12 oz $1.39 ($.12/oz), 24 oz $2.29 ($.10/oz), 32 oz $2.69 ($.08/oz). That is the way the price structure should work, you should get a discount for buying beer in bigger bottles not a penalty. I understand that this is not necessarily the case when buying special release larger packaging (magnum or larger) since they require more labor, but if they have a bottling line there shouldn’t be any difference.
Even the six-pack is no longer safe, with breweries like Founder’s moving many of their beers to four-packs. Again despite the smaller amount of beer the price seems to have stayed about the same or even gone up from what the six-packs used to sell for.
What does it come down to? Marketing pure and simple. People are willing to pay more for a beer they perceive as special, big bottles call out to us, corked and caged bottles doubly so. Nice labels, waxed tops, bags, boxes, metal tubes, tissue paper, hand signed, you name it a craft brewer has tried it. As craft beer consumers we need to stop rewarding breweries that try to dupe us with this added packaging that boosts the price, but doesn’t make the beer taste any better.
It seems like more and more beers are only being released in larger bottles, especially limited release and collaboration beers. When I am buying a beer I haven’t had before, or one that sounds weird/experimental I’d rather buy as little of it as possible (which is why it is great that some beer bars sell sampler sizes). I’d love to see more breweries putting their weird beer into smaller bottles (7 oz nips would be perfect), but I’d be thrilled just to see more 12 oz bottles.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
0 - 9%
1 - 17%
2 - 22%
3-4 - 28%
5-6 - 11%
7-10 - 6%
10-15 - 1%
16+ - 2%
It is terrific to see how many people have a lot of batches going, 21 people who responded had 10 or more fermentations going? Glad so many people brewing! It probably helps that it is peak brewing season with beautiful weather for brew days, and good ambient fermentation temperatures for most ales. It's also the right season for making ciders, pumpkin beers, wines, and using fresh hops.
At the moment I have beer in four barrels and 12 Better Bottles (and carboys and jugs). Although that number just dropped a bit as Nathan and I bottled two beers tonight (five gallons of our wine barrel solera on both Hallertau Tradition and elderflowers), and about to fall precipitously as next weekend I'm having a few friends over to help me blend and bottle another five or six batches. I've already stockpiled several cases of clean delabeled bottles, but I'm worried that it is still a few short of what I'll need.
Not sure what I'll be brewing to refill all of those emptied carboys. The next few batches for me are going to be lagers, a Vienna and a Tmave (the Czech version of a schwarzbier). I'll have to get some sours going as well, it may finally be time to get moving on the Great Souring Experiment...
Monday, October 3, 2011
A few months ago the publisher of Booze for Free: The Definitive Guide to Making Beer, Wines, Cocktail Bases, Ciders, and Other Drinks at Home emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in a free copy of the book, I couldn’t turn down the irony. Andy Hamilton's focus in this book is on making beer, country wines, infusions, and other alcoholic beverages with ingredients that can be foraged. Despite the title, most of the recipes call for buying malt, sugar, yeast, etc… although there are a couple truly free recipes (like one based on corn stalks).
I found the book to be a bit of a mish-mash as it tries to cover a wide range of topics without doing any of them justice. It starts out with a brief overview of the brewing process and equipment. These sections are pretty basic, and would probably not be enough to adequately guide someone who had never brewed before. For example I didn’t see any discussion about fermentation temperatures, pitching rate, aeration etc… There is a brief mention of starters... made with refined sugar right before pitching. I’d rather see this section skipped than done so poorly (especially as the author points out in the intro, how frequently peoples’ first attempt at fermentation go awry).
The remainder of the book is divided into four sections, each with recipes based on what is available during a season. This is a really cool way to organize a book, and it lends itself to flipping through the pages for inspiration. Each two to three page section is centered on an ingredient with information on where to find it, a bit of history/lore, and usually a couple recipes. Luckily the book mainly stays clear of the medicinal claims that turned me off of Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers.
Foraging is something that I’m interested in trying, but the instructions/descriptions aren't detailed enough to make me confident about eating something I find in the woods. In many cases the descriptions are on the vague side and lacking a way to positively identify a plant you’ve encountered. For example on the section on yarrow he mentions it is easy to confuse with hemlock, but doesn't provide any positive identifiers for picking it out. I also can’t tell how many of the plants are available in my area (the author is English). To have a great book on foraging you’d need maps, detailed descriptions, pictures etc… The same goes for the gardening suggestions, they would only be adequate if you were already knew how to garden. Luckily many of these items are available for purchase, but that defeats much of the point of the book.
Most of the recipes seem to rely too heavily on sugar for me, which is one of the same problem I had with Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. It doesn’t help readability that the batch sizes vary wildly, swinging from a couple pints to 50 gallons. Standardizing recipes makes them easier to quickly compare and adjust. Maybe some of my issues are in the terminology differences between English and American homebrewers. For example in his Nettle Ale #2 recipe (which incidentally calls for no malt whatsoever) he suggests that the person who gave him the recipe uses brewer’s yeast, but that he has had better luck with ale yeast… what does that mean? In that recipe he also suggests pitching the yeast when the wort has cooled to “blood temperature” and adding ½ lb of sugar to the keg for conditioning, what terrible advice!
There are some interesting tidbits to be found for sure, but when I don't like an author's basic brewing instructions I have a hard time taking their advice on other topics.