Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Courage RIS Clone Tasting 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).

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.

10 Lords A-leaping... around the stout.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.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Valley Malt Dubbel Tasting

American Dubbel in a St. Bernardus Tulip.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

Website, Book, and Brewery Updates

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

Kate the Great Clone Tasting

Kate Clone with Ecuadorian 70% dark chocolate and a few raisins.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

Golden Solera: Blackberry, Acorn Squash, and Amarillo

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.

When Audrey isn't around I use her room for fermentation.
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.

About an hour at 325 F for the acorn squash to get soft and golden brown.
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.

The three carboys: dry hops, squash, and blackberries.
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.

Refilling the apple brandy barrel with more beer.
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

Recipe Specifics
-----------------
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

Grain
-----
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

Hops
------
1.25 oz. Columbus (Whole, 15.00% AA) @ 60 min.

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

Yeast
-----
DCL Yeast T-58 SafBrew Specialty Ale

Water Profile
-------------

Profile: Washington DC

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

Notes
------
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

ECY Brett Rye Saison Tasting

Rye saison next to a box of hops.
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 РThe 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 Fant̫me) 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

What is the most you have ever paid for a bottle of beer?

Dark Lord, Raspberry Eisbock, and Peche Mortel.$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.

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