Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Borrowed Wort: Commonwealth Sour Brown

When I set out to visit Commonwealth Brewing Co. in Virginia Beach to collaborate on a sour brown, I tossed a sanitized carboy in the trunk. I brought home three gallons of wort and pitched my own microbes (Omega Lacto Blend and bottle dregs) in addition to their house ale yeast.

With all of the effort many brewers put into wort production for sour beers, I thought it was worth noting how little my "version" has in common with the wort that stayed at Commonwealth. Especially for sour beers, so much of the final character is dependent on the microbes, barrels, blending, and in this case (lack of) fruit! I'm not saying wort production is irrelevant, but getting the right fermentation is much more important than whether the beer is 10% or 20% wheat!

Home-Fermented Commonwealth Sour Brown AleThere are still a few bottles of both variants (Penthesilia and Hippolyta) available at the brewery's tasting room if you want to taste the beer (or steal the microbes)!

Home-Fermented Sour Brown

Smell – Red fruit, dusty Brett, and caramel malt. Vibrant, no oxidation. Faint alcohol as it warms.

Appearance – Deep clear brown with red highlights. The off-white head displays impressive retention for a sour beer.

Taste – Bright lactic acidity. Cherry and blue cheese funk from the Brett. Slight grape Fruit Roll-Up. Minimal sweetness, but some caramel malty-depth.

Mouthfeel – Light without being tannic or desiccant. I like a bit more heft.

Drinkability & Notes – Not hugely interesting, but a pleasantly drinkable dark sour that showcases a variety of classic Brett funk with balancing acidity.

Changes for Next Time – Shouldn’t come as much surprise, but I think this is a good illustration of why trying to “clone” commercial sour beers is a fool’s errand. Even with literally identical wort you can't do it without the other pieces of the process!

Staff of Ra (Sour Brown with Coffee)

Given the less-than-exciting trajectory of this batch as it approached packaging, I diverted a gallon to try a coffee-infused version. I know, listening to the so-called expert of American Sour Beers this might seem like a bad idea:

“The bold coffee and chocolate additions that work so well in big sweet stouts do not succeed when combined with a dry and sour base.”

My opinion softened after I split a glass of Lervig CafĂ© Sur, a unique sour pale with coffee while in Norway. I only risked a gallon, adding .5 oz of uncrushed Ceremony Thesis coffee beans (the same I used for this Hoppy Blonde) for less than a day…

Home-Fermented Commonwealth Sour Brown Ale with CoffeeSmell – The coffee adds a fresh toasty-roasty aroma that combines with the fruitiness, covering the majority of the funk (leaving just a bit of dust). Slight “green bell pepper” of oxidized coffee, it has faded from where it was a few months ago.

Appearance – Some light really brings out the red! Head retention is slightly less, but that may be thanks more to reusing the glass rather than the coffee beans.

Taste – The coffee is a good match for this beer, although they aren’t a fresh as I would have liked. It reduces the perception of the Brett. Acidity is similar. Coffee would be a waste of a more interesting base beer. I'd put it in the same category as dry hops for a sour, not what I would add to my favorite base beer.

Mouthfeel – Similar to the straight version.

Drinkability & Notes – The coffee adds some interest to what is an otherwise unremarkable base beer. This isn't exactly the right combination, but it is something I'll experiment more with in the future.

Changes for Next Time – A paler base beer might work better given the additive power of the dark malts and beans. Alternatively, a coffee with more dark fruit might have been a better match for a dark sour.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Courage RIS (No Brett): Tasting

Courage Russian Imperial Stout Clone: No Brett or Oak.
The continuation of my Christmas eve tradition of drinking homebrewed Courage Russian Imperial Stout was beginning to look in doubt. After 2015 I was down to three bottles, so February 2016 I rebrewed a tweaked 10 gallon batch (recipe). Originally the plan was to give half the wort to my friend Scott, but when his plans changed at the last minute I split the batch with myself instead: half clean, half with White Labs Brett claussenii and oak spheres.

The funky-oaky half is ready to bottle this week. As with the original batch from 2007, once the gravity reached 1.020 I transferred the beer to a clean fermentor with one campden tablet (sodium metabisulfite) per gallon. This additional 20% apparent attenuation from Brett isn't guaranteed. Mike Karnowski, the brewer/founder of Zebulon Artisan Ales (and author of Homebrew Beyond the Basics), homebrewed a similar recipe a couple years ago and split it between five commercial Brett strains, but didn't see significant attenuation from any of them (not a bad thing) - I got to taste a sample of each at a bottle share while I was in town for the Asheville Homebrewers Conference!

Courage RIS 2016: Base

Smell – Expressive clean roasted nose. Charred cocoa, fresh bready malt, a hint of ethanol. There is a subtle dark fruitiness from the candi syrup, but not nearly the intense-raisin that many year-old dark-crystal-malt dependent imperial stouts fall. No noticeable oxidation. No hop aroma, unsurprising given the single early Columbus addition.

Appearance – Beautiful, opaque, black body. Voluminous mocha head (bigger than I like to see on what should be a low-carbed beer). Great retention despite the snow landing on it.

No better day than a snowy day for Imperial Stout!Taste – Flavor is a delicious blend of 85% cocoa chocolate bar, richly toasted malt, and subtle English ale fruitiness. Enough bitterness (hop, roast, alcohol) to balance the plum-sweetness in the mid-palate. It doesn’t taste like a 1.040 FG beer, but then it may grow sweeter as the bitterness drops off with time.

Mouthfeel – Thick, coating, rich. Carbonation is elevated from my preference (and the 2.1 volumes I targeted), but I wouldn’t call it over-carbonated in general beer terms.

Drinkability & Notes – Surprisingly drinkable for a beer this big in alcohol and sweetness. It maintains a fresh malt flavor from the Maris Otter and amber malts that plays off the firm Black Patent roast wonderfully. Without Brett the malt is much more in focus.

Changes for Next Time – This is it for me other than the carbonation (which is easy enough to swirl out). As big as it needs to be, with an intense maltiness that I don't think would be possible in a smaller stout. At 9% a 12 oz bottle is a reasonable serving, something I can't say for the many commercial stouts that don't achieve this flavor-saturation with 12-16% ABV!

Hopefully the next few years are kind to the remaining case and a half!

I drank my third-to-last bottle of the original on Christmas eve. Not much had changed since last year so it didn't seem worth writing up the full tasting notes. Carbonation was still pleasantly low, big dark fruit, gentle funkiness, no sign of impending oxidized-doom for the last couple bottles!

One of the last glasses of one of my favorite beers.

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