Monday, April 30, 2012

Brewing Lambic: Mythbusters Style

It is almost creepy that the barrel has a pellicle like that when it is filled with water!Lambic is the beer style who production is most plagued by myth, misinformation, and archaic procedures. However, the problem is that all of those unsubstantiated methods produce some of my favorite sour beers. After submitting an article about spontaneous fermentation in America to BYO for the July/August issue that was more of a “How To,” I thought it would be fun to make some bold statements about the evidence both against and in support of four things that everyone KNOWS about lambic.

1. Belgium (and the Senne Valley specifically) is the only place on Earth where the correct wild species of yeast and bacteria needed to ferment lambic live.

Dave and Becky's four barrel, all re-coopered bourbon barrels.
While it makes for nice marketing, this simply isn’t true. First there is the sensory analysis of the similar flavors produced in various spontaneously fermented American beers (Russian River Beatification, Jolly Pumpkin Lambicus Dexterius, and Cambridge Imperial Lambics). While I haven’t had one yet that is a dead ringer for a lambic, this is a type of beer that even in Belgium demands decades of practice brewing and blending to get right.

There was a study published earlier this month (Brewhouse-Resident Microbiota Are Responsible for Multi-Stage Fermentation of American Coolship Ale) that indicated that one brewery's American spontaneously fermented beer (specifically one brewed in New England using a coolship...) shares many of its fermentation characteristics with Belgian lambic. The authors used DNA analysis to show that many of the same key families, and even many of the same species (including Brettanomyces bruxellensis), are found in both. They also showed that the progressions of the two fermentations share strong similarities. There were subtle differences, but these may alternatively be a result of differences in process, or the length of time these microbes have had to ingrain themselves into the breweries.

2. A turbid mash of a grist including 30-40% raw wheat is the only wort production option for spontaneous fermentation.

Dave's 20 gallon More Beer brew house.
While a turbid mash does extract starches into the wort, it is no more necessary for brewing a lambic than a decoction is for a Bohemian Pilsner. In Belgium, 30-40% unmalted wheat is part of the legal definition of the lambic/gueuze style, so that is a large part of why there is so little variation. Luckily, there is a beer like Cantillon Iris that proves a 100% malted barley wort can work equally well. While turbid mashes are employed at most of the best lambic wort producers, this may be a result of the fact that brewers who value traditional wort production are also the ones who value adequate aging time, and appreciate classic dry flavors.

This past Saturday I helped brew lambic at Dave and Becky Pyle’s house. If you don’t remember, I attended a blending session they hosted a couple years ago, and their lambic earned them NHC Brewer of the Year honors in 2005. Their wort production method doesn’t deviate far from a standard ale. This batch was half Pilsner malt and half malted wheat, mashed for 75 minutes in the low 150s F. There was no intensive near boiling sparge, and it was followed by a standard 60 minute boil.


3. A large quantity of aged hops is a requirement of the style.

The problem with aging hops to debitter them is that while their alpha acids are oxidizing into insoluble compounds, beta acids oxidize to become potent bittering compounds. The main role of hops in a spontaneous fermentation is to inhibit heat tolerant Lactobacillus that would lower the wort pH before the Saccharomyces can complete its initial fermentation. Most of the compounds that are anti-microbial are also bitter. Russian River uses around 25 IBUs of fresh hops in most of their standard sour beers with good results, this should be more than enough to inhibit even wild strains of Lacto.

Seven ounces of well aged Magnum hops added to the boil.
While sour and bitter do clash, just a year of aging cuts the IBUs in half. By the time most spontaneously fermented beers are ready to be consumed, about two years after brewing, the IBUs in the wort will be below the flavor threshold even if you start around 30. However, the large quantity of aged hops may provide other compounds, glycosides, which can be stripped of their glucose molecule by certain strains of Brett and contribute unique aromatics.

4. You can’t start a spontaneous fermentation without a coolship.

Back to the Pyles. After the standard boil, with aged hops added at the start and mid-point, they run the wort through a plate chiller to drop the wort temperature to 68 F. From there it is pumped directly into the barrel (the water which had been hydrating the wood until a few minutes prior, remarkably had a pellicle). They started their house culture a decade ago with commercial pitches of the key microbes, but since then they have relied on the yeast and bacteria resident in the barrels, and from 750 ml of beer from one of their established barrels, to induce fermentation. The result is finished gueuze and kriek with an amazing, almost savory mushroom/loam aroma, along a sharply acidic lemon funk.

The plate chiller that the Pyles won as part of their NHC Brewer of the Year honors.While Belgian lambic brewers do get some activity from the wild microbes that land on the wort as it slowly cools, so too does their house character develop from the reuse of barrels. In particular the air invites enteric bacteria, which produce a wide variety of funky fatty acids (along with alcohol and acid) that form the basis for some of the fruity esters formed by Brett over the months and years to come.

Big Boom?
The problem with experimenting with lambic production, and sour beers in general, is that the waiting time is so long. Most brewers, myself included, are hesitant to take a risk that saves a few hours on brew day if there is any chance it could detract from a finished beer that takes years to ferment and age. It is also hard to say how much the subtle effect of these shortcuts may cause because controlled research is basically impossible with spontaneous fermentation (even using identical processes and microbes the variation fermentor to fermentor can be gigantic).

My first spontaneously-fermented-turbid-mashed-aged-hop-infused-lambic should be ready to bottle in a month or two. I'm just waiting for the mulberries on the tree in my backyard to ripen, so that I can harvest them and rack half of the batch onto about two pounds per gallon. I just gave a small sample of the base beer to Claudio, who is going to see what microbes he can isolate from it. Look for a post about it on his blog, DC Yeast Lab (Plating DCambic).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Apple Brandy Barrel Solera Tasting

My friend Jaime and a couple of his friends are planning to fill a wine barrel with lambic this coming weekend. He was looking to get some additional microbes to add complexity to the Wyeast Lambic Blend he is pitching, so I offered to pull a quart of microbe-rich slurry from one of our barrels for him. To help him decide which one, I pulled samples of the beers in the red wine barrel and the apple brandy barrel and opened bottles from the first pull of each.

Apple Brandy Solera - First Pull, First Tasting.Jamie and his friend John both leaned towards the slightly sharper, funkier flavor of the apple brandy barrel (ECY Bugfarm IV) over the softer, fruitier flavor of the wine barrel (ECY Bugfarm III). So I used my auto-siphon, which just barely reaches the bottom of the barrel, to suck out some of the accumulated sediment. I removed the small cap from the end that reduces the amount of sediment transferred, and slowly dragged the tip around the interior. As an added benefit, occasionally removing trub should help stave off autolysis flavors from developing as dead yeast cells continue to pile up with each pull.

With the moderately thick slurry safely in a mason jar, I topped-off both barrels with three gallons of the amber base beer that we had left over from the first refill. Since the first pull from the apple brandy barrel is pushing the upper limit of my tolerance for acetic acid, we are hoping to minimize the keep the head space to limit further Acetobacter activity.

Here are my tasting notes from the first pull, without the addition of Amarillo, acorn squash, or blackberries:

Apple Brandy Barrel Sour Solera

Appearance – We were aiming for golden, but the color ended up a brilliantly clear burnt-orange. The uneven white head exhibits pretty good retention.

Smell – Big complex fruity aroma, with a bit of Brett funk. Fresh vanilla-laden American oak, despite the fact that the barrel is probably pushing 15-years-old. The aroma is slightly sharp, with a suggestion of cider vinegar.

Taste – Bright acidity, mostly tangy lactic, but there is also a touch of acetic that hits me on the back of the throat. The finish is deceptively sweet, with more of that sugary oak char and some caramel from the malt. It is acid/malt/barrel forward with funky Brett supporting, a balance that shares many commonalities with the best Flemish reds.

Mouthfeel – Average body and mouthfeel, surprisingly full despite the 1.004 FG. The body is thanks to the saison yeast primary fermentation, which added extra unfermentable-body-enhancing glycerol. Solid carbonation, about right for a strong-ish sour beer.

Drinkability & Notes – Every time I open a bottle of this batch I like it a little bit more than the previous one. It has a similar balance to something like La Folie or Rodenbach Grand Cru, with a sharp sourness, but some sweetness as well. Hopefully our efforts to minimize the head space ensure the next pull does not have a sharper acidity.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Imperial" Berliner Weisse Tasting

Last Saturday I went to a party at my friend Bill’s house. The theme was German beer, and he, with the help of a few other people, had six homebrewed lagers on gravity cask. This included some standard styles, but also more obscure things like Bill's great rendition of Landbier. The closest thing I had to contribute was a bottle of my Berliner weisse. While people seemed to really enjoyed the beer, I had several people comment that it was too interesting to qualify for the fat part of the style guidelines.

My Berliner recipe does turn out a beer more reminiscent of a lambic-lite. So when I brewed the most recent batch, in May 2010, I left half of it at a higher gravity (1.045). My goal was to produce something lambic-like, with the no-boil method (shaving about six hours off the usual turbid mash and extended boil). After more than a year in the fermentor on oak, and now close to six months in the bottle, it is finally ready to drink.

Homebrewed Imperial Berliner Weisse.
A few American breweries have released strong Berliners, such as New Belgium Imperial Berliner Style Weisse (7% ABV), White Birch Berliner Weisse (6.4% ABV), and Southampton Uberliner (6% ABV). From the flavors (of the ones I have tasted) and reviews it is hard to call any of these a major success. While the Southampton has the highest ratings of the three, the scores on Beer Advocate and Rate Beer are much lower than their standard Berliner Weisse. It is hard to double the strength of a beer and still retain a balance that recalls the original style. Boosting the strength of bold beers, such as IPAs and stouts, of works but beers known for their light/refreshing character, like Pilsner or hefe weizen, often do not translate.

Berliner Lambic

Appearance – Brilliantly clear golden yellow. The dense white head dissipates very quickly. It’s a pretty beer.

Smell – The aroma is complex, with lots of fruit, but not that much funk. Like a standard Berliner you can almost smell the lactic sourness.

Taste – That firm lactic acidity leads off, tailing into a slight worty malt sweetness. The malt doesn’t have the fresh dough character that the standard version has. A bit more sweetness than I like in either Berliners or lambics, but it is still drier than most darker Belgian sours. The fruity esters from the Brett come across as white wine. Very mild vanilla from the oak.

Mouthfeel – Medium-light body, with medium-high carbonation. I don’t expect it to have the light spritzy body of its little brother, but I think it could be a bit livelier.

Drinkability & Notes – On its own this beer is not objectionable, but I’d take the standard gravity version any day. However, it is a good beer for blending since it has that bright sourness without much else going on. I think next time I'll skip the big beer and brew 10 gallons to the standard Berliner gravity.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mexican Hot Chocolate Imperial Stout

I've been falling behind on posting beer tastings. With all my batch splitting and blending over the last year I've generated a backlog of 18 different beers in bottles and kegs that I have yet to post a tastings for... as a result this week I'm hoping to knock out one a night.

Snifter of Mexican Hot Chocolate Imperial Stout.To start, I’ll take advantage of one of the last cool nights of the year to taste the “Mexican Hot Chocolate” version of my Kate the Great clone. If you’ve never smelled an ancho pepper, it smells like lightly spiced raisins. Dried peppers make so much more sense to me in a big dark beer than the grassy flavor of fresh chilies.When you spice a beer try to think like a chef, try to match them to the other flavors of the beer.

Mole the Great

Appearance – In a bulbous snifter the beer looks pitch black. The thin light brown head has great retention and lacing, I’m sure at least partly thanks to the extra protein contributed by the wheat malt.

Smell – The dried peppers lead the aroma, complex sweet smelling spice. There is a bit of toasted malt and some chocolate as well. Otherwise it is a clean aroma that doesn’t hint at the strength of the beer. When this beer was first in the bottle the peppers provided a big cherry aroma, luckily that has since died off.

Taste – Where the “plain” Kate the Great lacked complexity, this beer has layers of toasty, roasty, chocolaty, malt with just a hint of capsicum heat in the finish. The cinnamon and vanilla play supporting roles, adding to the sweetness without being readily apparent on the first few sips. It does still lack the sharper char that most Russian Imperials feature, but with the added flavors I don’t really miss it. Relatively dry for the style, but not overly.

Mouthfeel – Moderate-thin body for such a big beer. The carbonation is medium, which is marginally more than I prefer in a big dark beer. This is the one aspect of this beer that could use some work. The 149 F conversion rest is a few degrees lower than I would mash next time.

Drinkability & Notes – Hard to complain about this beer, loads of complexity without any one of the flavors walking over the rest. I would take the cocoa and vanilla just slightly higher next time, but otherwise I think the amounts are spot on. I like it a bit more than the similar Breakfast Stout variant I brewed, although I enjoyed the base beer of that one more than the base of this recipe.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Nelson Nectar IPA Tasting

Hoppy beers are the best type to homebrew since they benefit the most from being served fresh. It is amazing just how quickly a bright fresh hop nose begins to deteriorate, even under the best possible conditions (stored cold in a flushed keg). I made some reasonably good hoppy beers before I started kegging, but during those two to three weeks spent warm bottle conditioning you are missing out on the best hop aroma the batch will have. Force carbonating while the beer is cold and on dry hops, has made a big improvement in the freshness of my hoppy beers.

The folks at Indie Hops summarized an experiment that shows that some of the key hop aromatics peak just a few hours after the dry hops are added, although that was with continuous agitation. At some point I really will have to get a HopRocket and try out the torpedo method of dry hopping that Sierra Nevada uses for their IPA of the same name. In that case, cold crashing the beer first would be the best way to go to remove as much hop-oil-stealing yeast cells as possible.

For Nelson Nectar, despite being in the keg for less than a month, I’ve already noticed the hop nose begin to fade. It has not become off or oxidized, just mellower than the big fresh notes it had two weeks ago. Friends suggested that part of the blame may rest on the Nelson Sauvin hops, they cited the rapid decline of Alpine Nelson. I’ll be interested to see how this batch progresses, although I doubt it will last too much longer.

A glass of homebrewed IPA next to my hop bines.Nelson Nectar IPA

Appearance – In a pint glass the beer occupies a spot right between amber and golden. For the next batch I’ll go slightly darker, to make it a true India Amber Ale. Using a standard ~3.5 L Vienna malt compared to the ~2.5 L MFB version may be all it takes, but I may boost the pale chocolate malt as well. It is a bit hazy, but not surprising given the more than five ounces of hops in the keg. Reasonable head retention, and it leaves beautiful white lacing.

Smell – The aroma has lost the sort of hop nose you can smell from a few feet away, but it still has a wonderful combo of citrus and melon. As it warms I get more of that signature Nelson character, which I find simultaneously fruity and dank.

Taste – Coating, resiny hop flavor. It finishes with a solid, clean bitterness, but it isn’t quite as firm as I wanted for a beer this big. I’ll be going to a full 10 ml of hop extract for bittering next time (two HopShots). The lightly toasted malt is there in support, but this is still a hop bomb. I like the combo of malt and hops, without much sweetness. Super clean fermentation, several people have mistaken it for a hoppy pale ale despite more than 7% ABV.

Mouthfeel – Medium-light body, just what I like in a double IPA. Good carbonation, just slightly prickly.

Drinkability & Notes – I go back and forth on this beer. A few friends who are objective enough to tell me when they don’t like my beer gave it good reviews (abandoning a half bottle of the well rated St. Arnold Endeavor to go back for more of mine). Jacob and I have discussed taking this recipe completely down-under, replacing the Ahtanum and Simcoe with the bright fruity aroma of Australian Galaxy (assuming the pellets are better than the old whole hops I used in my last Double IPA). That would certainly be a unique combination, but it would be fruity with less pine/citrus than hopheads are accustomed to. There are so many great hoppy beers on the West Coast it almost seems mandatory to try a new spin on the hopping.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Adding Oats to the Boil - Coffee Stout

For many brewers the basic procedure for every recipe is the same: grind the grain, single infusion mash, sparge (or not), boil the runnings with hops, chill, pitch, ferment, package. Sure there are subtle variations to temperatures and times, but essentially the same process can yield either an Imperial Stout or a Pilsner just by altering the malts/grains/hops/yeast. I still enjoy my “standard” brew days, but after brewing nearly 200 batches over the last seven years, it is more fun when I get to try a new technique.

Half a pound of flaked oats going into the boil.
One of my goals is to brew a moderate gravity stout that drinks with the thick body of an Imperial Stout. Rather than simply mashing really hot, or loading up on crystal malt, I was alerted to another option, adding quick oats to the wort near the end of the boil. I have been told that The Alchemist has used this method to add a thick body to some of their beers without increasing sweetness. Oats contain beta glucans (a type of soluble fiber) which are responsible for the smooth viscosity they add to oatmeal stouts.

I know, one of the first things that new brewers are taught is to avoid steeping grains that contain starch. The common thinking goes that adding starch to a beer is just asking for trouble since it is unfermentable by brewer’s yeast, making it an invitation to spoilage microbes. The problem with this line of thinking is that so are dextrins, which add body to beers. In fact, dextrins are a much easier to ferment source of carbon for common spoilage microbes like Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus, which usually lack the enzymes required to tackle (hydrolyze) longer chain carbohydrates like starch. Since flaked oats do not contain a husk, there is also no major concern about tannins (as there would be adding malted barley to the boil).

Oats strained out after the boil.
After sprinkling the half pound of quick oats into the boiling wort, I let them sit in there through chilling. I strained them out of the cool wort, along with the hops, when I transferred to the fermentor. Rather than the thick gloppy mess I expected, each flake had contracted into a neat little pellet. Hopefully this means that the starches and beta glucans that usually provide the thick texture in a bowl of oatmeal are suspended in the wort. Fermentation exhibited a dense krausen, but the Fuller’s strain I pitched is known for that as well. I was happy that I used an eight gallon wine bucket for primary fermentation, rather than one of the six gallon Better Bottles I have used in the past. It is nice not to worry about attaching a blow-off tube.

For the rest of the recipe I drew inspiration from the Munich Porter that Nate and I brewed a couple years ago. It relied on dark grains that were lighter than the usually 500+ L versions of Roasted Barley and Black Patent. Our porter was good, but the roast character was too mellow/smooth with only a half pound each of Briess Roasted Barley and Chocolate malt. So for this batch I doubled the roasted barley and edged up the chocolate malt. Hopefully the higher amounts will produce a smooth cocoa and coffee roast, without a burnt/acrid edge. If the roast still isn't potent enough, I'll have to go to a combination of lighter and darker roasted grains to get the effect I am looking for.

A starter of WLP002 on my stir plate.
I will be steeping a few ounces of roasted coffee beans in the beer for about 24 hours prior to kegging. This is a technique I’ve used a couple times in the past (like the Coffee, Chocolate, Maple, Imperial Oatmeal Stout) because it delivers a nice aromatic character without getting bitter or harsh in the same way that hot-side additions sometimes do. I also find that its flavor is more persistent than coffee additions cold steeped in water, which start to fade after just a few weeks.

After the India Amber Ale, this is the second test batch I’ve brewed for Modern Times. Although I overshot the gravity, I’d like to bring it down closer to 5% ABV mark in future iterations.

Black House #1
Recipe Specifics
--------------------
Batch Size (Gal): 5.25
Total Grain (Lbs): 11.75
Anticipated OG: 1.059
Anticipated SRM: 39.3
Anticipated IBU: 32.5
Brewhouse Efficiency: 75 %
Wort Boil Time: 75 Minutes

Grain
-------
76.6% - 9.00 lbs. Maris Otter
8.5% - 1.00 lbs. Roasted Barley (~300 L)
5.3% - 0.63 lbs. Chocolate Malt
4.3% - 0.50 lbs. Quick Oats
3.2% - 0.38 lbs. Crystal 90L
2.1% - 0.25 lbs. CaraMunich Malt

Hops
------
1.25 oz. Hallertau Tradition (Pellet, 6.00% AA) @ 70 min.
0.75 oz. Hallertau Tradition (Pellet, 6.00% AA) @ 5 min.

Extras
--------
0.50 Whirlfloc @ 15 min.
0.25 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 15 min.
2.00 oz Coffee Beans for 1 day

Yeast
-------
White Labs WLP002 English Ale

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

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

Notes
-------
Brewed 4/8/12 with Elena

Cut mash water with 1 gallon of distilled.

Fly sparged. Collected 7 gallons of wort.

Added the Quaker quick oats for the last 10 minutes of the boil. Chilled to 66, strained out the oats/hops, pitched a .75 l starter of yeast, and shook to aerate. Overshot the gravity slightly.

"I've heard good things about adding quick oats for the last 10 minutes of the boil" - Re: Alchemist

Fermenting well by 18 hours. At ~62 F ambient for the first week.

4/14/12 Fermentation appears finished.

4/15/12 Temperature warming close to 70 F, so I roused the yeast by twisting the bucket back and forth for 30 seconds to ensure it eliminates any remaining diacetyl.

4/22/12 Only got down to 1.019, guess that's the oats. Added 2 oz of coarsely crushed Mocha Java Blend coffee beans in a weighted stocking. Kegged 24 hours later.

5/10/12 Reasonably happy with the results of this first try, but the oats didn't add the creaminess I was looking for. I'll be moving them to the mash and boosting them in the next batch.

6/9/12 Brewed a second iteration of this recipe.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Amarillo Dry Hopped Sour Solera

One of my favorite flavors in a beer is the right mix of sour beer and dry hops. I’ve only done it a couple times in the past, but the results have all been great. In particular the combination of citrusy hop aromatics with acidity can be terrific, but is only available from a couple breweries (New Belgium’s Le Terroir being the most prominently). The key is waiting until the beer is ready to bottle before giving a couple weeks for the hops to infuse. Add the hops too early and you’ll end up with aromatics reminiscent of an old IPA by the time the beer is ready to drink. In this case Nathan and I blasted five gallons of the base beer with 4 oz of Amarillo pellets for three weeks in a carboy right before bottling.

This first pull from our apple brandy barrel solera is already pushing the high end of my preference for acetic acid (vinegar). The key to reducing acetic acid is limiting the amount of oxygen (from the air) that comes in contact with the aging beer. Hopefully we will be able to control the production for subsequent fills by topping off to reduce head space, controlling the temperature, and using a hard bung when fermentation is complete.


Goblet of Amarillo Dry Hopped Sour.Amarillo Apple Brandy Barrel Solera

Appearance – Amber in the glass, but burnt orange when held to a light. It has a decent white head and even leaves some lacing, which is better than most sour beers.

Smell – Big citrusy Amarillo aromatics, still pretty fresh. Tropical. Has a bit of dankness that I don’t normally get with this fruity hop. There are hints of the sourness in the aroma, some of the signature fruity Brett esters. I also get some apple, maybe from the barrel (I get apple cider vinegar in the nose of the plain version).

Taste – Sharp lactic sourness, with just a little acetic burn in the finish. The hop character takes a primary role as it did in the nose. The Amarillo covers up some of the more complex notes from the barrel and microbes, but I really like the combination of citrusy (pineapple and lemon?) hops with the sharpness.

Mouthfeel – Relatively light mouthfeel for a strong beer, but it does not taste thin despite finishing at 1.004. Restrained carbonation, which is about right for a bigish sour beer.

Drinkability & Notes – I think the dry hops actually cut through the sourness of the base beer slightly. After a few months in this bottle the hops are already starting to fade, but it is still a solid beer. I’m trying to work through the bottles I have left before they oxidize completely.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Modern Times Beer - Pro-Brewing Here I Come

If there is one question that I get asked more than any other, it is some variation on "Why don't you open a brewery?" While I love the idea of brewing professionally, I also like having a stable salary, health insurance, and a comfortable life. What I enjoy doing is brewing, not running a brewery. When I first started working for the government, I would occasionally trawl ProBrewer.com classifieds looking for entry level positions. After sending a few dozen resumes and getting a couple interviews, I was offered a job by Flying Dog. After considering their offer to come on as a cellarman for $10 an hour, I decided I was happy being a homebrewer. Over the five years since then I haven’t applied to work for a brewery, or even seriously thought about changing careers.

Over the last couple years I've received a couple offers to work for upstart breweries, but none of them have been enough to change my mind. I’m always happy to talk to brewers and lend my opinion informally when someone asks. So when Jacob McKean sent me an email a few months ago saying he was opening a brewery, I was happy to hear what he was up to. He and I had swapped beers a couple years earlier. I couldn't say no to exchanging a six-pack of my homebrew for bottles from Alpine, Lost Abbey, and Alesmith. Until he left to start filing paperwork, Jacob was employed as Communications Specialist at Stone Brewing.

We talked on the phone for an hour about his plans for Modern Times Beer. He offered me a job as a brewer if I was willing to relocate to San Diego. I was reluctant. I have a comfortable life. I don’t mind my job, I like my friends, my house is full of carboys and barrels, and my girlfriend will finally be returning to DC in a couple months after two years at grad school. "No problem.” he said, “how about being a consultant?" Being paid to travel to Southern California a few weeks every year to brew beer at a cool brewery, how could I refuse that?

The more I have talked to Jacob since then, the more I'm convinced that I waited for the right opportunity. Whether it is the impassioned op-ed he wrote for BeerPulse.com a few weeks ago, his emphasis on putting quality first, his business sense, or his spot-on analysis of the homebrew I’ve sent him. Jacob’s plan is to open with a 30 bbl brew house, canning line, and tasting room (including a pilot system). He is looking to places like Surly Brewing in terms of the business plan.Of course all of this depends on a much money he can raise, a process that is just now beginning in earnest.

As I wrap up the research for my book on American sour beers, the more I am cognizant of the limitations imposed by my homebrewing batch sizes. Especially the ways they constrict my blending options and ability to introduce controlled variations (different microbes, barrels, fruits, etc.). Helping develop a decent sized commercial barrel aging program is the next step logical step in this craft for me. In addition to working on this aspect of Modern Times, I will be helping to develop recipes for clean beers. I will also have a hand in writing for the brewery’s blog/website.

Jacob and I have been kicking recipe ideas around and I've started to brew some test batches (like the India Amber Ale) that will end up in the hands of some potential investors. Jacob is still scouting locations. While San Diego already has a dense local beer scene, most of the breweries are well outside the city. His plan is to locate the brewery within the city's limits. Jacob is also vetting potential brewmasters. Hopefully the person he hires will be able to juggle the demands of making consistently excellent year round beers, with all of the fun stuff I’ll be pitching.

If all goes well, then the first Modern Times beers should be available in mid-2013. As for a full time role at the brewery, we'll see where consulting leads, but anything like that would still be years away.

I’ll certainly be posting the occasional update here, especially when I brew test batches (like the coffee oatmeal stout I brewed yesterday), but if you want to stay completely up-to-date you should follow Modern Times on Twitter or Facebook. Cheers, and thanks for all of the encouragement over the last five years!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Collaboration, McKenzie’s Irma Tasting

This bottle came from the five gallons of wort that Nathan and I took home from our brew day with Ryan Michaels and Gerard Olson at McKenzie’s Brew House in late 2010. The rest of the batch of Irma was sold at the brew pub as Irma (stainless steel fermented) and Irma Extra (soured, barrel aged). In addition to the White Labs Saison II pitched at the brewery, we added the dregs from a couple of the spectacular sour beers that we were given from McKenzie’s cellar.

Since then Gerard has opened up his own brewpub, Forest & Main in Ambler, PA, where he is brewing a wide variety of American saisons. For example, Saison a l'Ancienne: "Brewed with barley grown and malted in Southeastern Pennsylvania by our own maltster, fermented partially with wild indigenous yeasts, this farmhouse ale reflects our regional terroir more than any beer currently on the market." Hard to say no to that.

I think the best Belgian beers are the ones that have flavors that you can’t quite identify, even when you brewed the beer. Irma was a simple recipe, but the aroma and flavor have notes of wood, spice, and other flavors that I can’t put my finger on. A combination of malt, hops, and yeast (cultured and otherwise) can give a wide range of surprising flavors given enough time.


Irma, with the apple brandy barrel we got from McKenzie's in the background.
McKenzie’s-Fermentationist-DesJardin Irma

Appearance – In my wide Tripel Karmeliet tulip the beer appears dark amber, almost red. Clear, like most sour beers. The thin white head lasts for a few minutes, but is quickly reduced to a thin wispy covering.

Smell – Lambic funk, damp basement, boozy oak, cooked apples, and slight floral/perfume. It is a soft aroma, but with lots of complexity.

Taste – The flavor has many of the same elements as the aroma, but the Munich malt adds a great bready malt flavor in addition. The beer is dry, but the saison yeast we used for primary fermentation prevents it from being thin. It is amazing how much the beer tastes like it was aged in an apple brandy barrel even though it never touched wood. As it warms I even get a hint of licorice.

Mouthfeel – Moderate carbonation. Could be a couple notches higher, especially if we really wanted to call this one a saison. There is some body there, but not much.

Drinkability & Notes – Terrific beer, lots of complexity, but not aggressively sour/funky/dry or otherwise difficult to drink. I would put this up against the better bottles of Fantôme's highly variable saisons (which have been too few and far between lately). Sad I haven’t had a chance to try the versions fermented at the brewery, but the reviews on BeerAdvocate have been pretty positive. It would be interesting to see how ours compares, hopefully I can find an excuse to get back to Philly soon (I need to make it to Forest & Main as well).

Monday, April 2, 2012

What is Your Favorite Yeast Lab?

Four kinds of dried yeast.
Wyeast - 44%
White Labs - 35%
East Coast Yeast - 7%
Fermentis - 7%
Danstar - 2%
Wild Microbes - 0% (4)
Brewing Science Institute - 0% (3)
Lalvin - 0% (1)
Red Star - 0% (1)

Of course choosing a favorite yeast lab is like picking a favorite restaurant, there is never one that does everything best. Rather than selecting a yeast based on the lab, what I really do is pick the best strain for the beer that I am brewing. With that said, there are certainly some labs whose cultures tend to make better beers than others.

The first question to answer is, do you want a dry or liquid strain? I tend to keep dry yeast in my fridge as a backup for when a liquid culture fails, or I wake up in the mood to brew. While there are some great dry strains from Fermentis especially (and Danstar to a lesser extent) they represent only a few of the hundreds of strains available as liquid cultures. This is especially true when it comes to more expressive strains like saison, and weizen etc. I also find the clean strains to be not quite as clean as their liquid alternatives. Dry yeast is a great option for beers with a strong malt or hop character, or for beginners who do not want to bother with making starters (although as someone pointed out the last time I suggested the same thing, according to Fermentis’ own material their 11.5 g sachets start with a minimum of only about 60% of the cells of the liquid cultures - although other sources put the actual number as high as double). I realize that homebrewers in some places, especially those who live in other countries, don’t have easy/cheap access to liquid cultures, but in most cases I find them more reliable.

When it comes to the liquid strains, as a general rule, I like Wyeast more than White Labs. I have had better luck with WY1728 than WLP028, WY3787 compared to WLP530, and WY1968 over WLP002. For Brett I also tend to prefer Wyeast (especially their super-cherry forward Brett lambicus WY5526 compared to the horsey White Labs WLP653). There are strains I prefer from White Labs, like WLP833 Bock Lager and WLP650 Brett clausenii, but in general when the two labs offer the “same” strain I tend to prefer the Wyeast version. The cell counts are similar for the ale/lager yeast strains, so I’m not sure if the differences in the results are due to propagation technique, packaging, particular isolate, or some other factor. For the Brett on the other hand Wyeast starts with ~25X the number of cells as White Labs, making their cultures ideal for making 100% Brett beers.

Five years of blogging, and I couldn't find a single picture of a Wyeast or White Labs package.I’m done hyping East Coast Yeast until they seriously increase production. The last shipment Al dropped off sold out less than 10 minutes after the announcement email went out! I need his crazy bug blends for myself! Brewing Science Institute banks some interesting strains as well (including Brett brux var. Drie, as isolate from 3 Fonteinen that is being used heavily by Russian River, Ithaca, Avery, and several other craft breweries). While BSI only sells commercial sized pitches, White Labs will be releasing their version of Drie this summer as WLP644 Brett bruxellensis Trois.

I am excited about the way my first, now year old, wild microbe fermented beer is tasting. The primary fermentation was strong, and the earthy funk that took over after the initial tropical fruit is good enough that I made it the primary component in the gueuze blend I sent to National Homebrew Contest (on its own the acidity is still too soft). I am also impressed by what American breweries like Jolly Pumpkin and Russian River are accomplishing with their spontaneously fermented beers (I still have not tried any of the true Allagash Coolship beers). In fact, I’m so interested in the topic that I am writing an article on American spontaneous fermentation that will appear in an issue of BYO Magazine in a couple months. However, the time, effort, and risk that goes into fermenting with wild microbes keeps them as an occasional thing for me.

The only time I use wine yeast (other than in wine or the odd experiment) is for bottle conditioning sour beers. Wine yeast from Lalvin and Red Star (which I just realized is tied to Fermentis) tend to be cheap, acid tolerant, and decently flocculent. I am still mixed on the red wine yeast fermented Flemish red I brewed last year; sometimes samples of it have a wonderful clean fruity flavor, while others come across as yeasty and muddy.

It is a great time to be brewing beer in America with so many yeast (and bacteria) strains available. While I enjoy the seasonal releases from Wyeast and White Labs, it would be nice if they gave us access to all of the strains year-round (as breweries do).

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