Monday, September 17, 2012

Hoppy American Pale Ale Tasting X 2

How important is yeast strain selection for the perception of hops in the finished beer? Some yeasts, especially highly flocculant strains, have a tendency to strip hop compounds (including bitterness) out of the wort. This is the reason that some brewers suggest waiting until after fining or filtering a batch to add dry hops. Neutral-flavored moderately-flocculant American ale strains like 001/1056 are a safe choice if you want the yeast to simply stay out of the way.

There is another school of thought however. Some brewers select yeast strains that provides an estery character that blends with the hops creating a more powerful/complex aroma. There are breweries that opt for Belgian ale or saison strains (Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Lupulus), while others choose English ale strains (Ithaca Flower Power). The right combination can be transcendent, but the wrong pairing of hops and yeast can be close to undrinkable.

In a world where every brewery has access to the same malts and hops, having a house yeast strain is one way to give your beers a distinct character. At the moment, the highest rated hoppy beer on BeerAdvocate that isn't brewed by Russian River is The Alchemist’s Heady Topper. For me John Kimmich's hop saturated beer lived up to the hype (unlike the bottle of Kern River Citra DIPA I opened last week) with a wonderfully pungent hop aroma mixed with a peachy ester that seemed yeast derived.

“‘The heart of the beer is my private strain of Conan ale yeast,’ John explained. ‘It produces very distinct apricot and tropical fruit esters, but you have to know how to handle it, how to draw the character out.’ It took years of tweaking to get the age and the generation of the Conan yeast just right so it would produce the flavor John wanted.” via Sip this world-class beer straight from the tallboy

In July I cultured Conan from a fresh can of Heady Topper, starting it in the can before building it up on my stir plate. I pitched the yeast it into an extra gallon of wort from my Hoppy Pale Ale. Hoping for the best, but given the proprietary nature of the strain hard to know for sure what temperature to target.

So here is the side-by-side tasting of the same wort fermented by the two very different ale strains (note that in addition to the yeast difference, the WLP001 fermented potion also received a substantial dose of keg hopping.)

Hoppy Pale - WLP001

America ale fermented West Coast pale ale.Appearance – Nearly clear, golden beer. Pours with a large head, but it quickly settles to a dense, creamy white cap. Pretty lacing and retention.

Smell – More malt aromatics than I expect in a hoppy American beer. The Victory malt really comes through, with fresh baked bread and crackers. Plenty of hops too, pine and citrus, fresh and bright. It is an interesting combination, but not the balance I had envisioned.

Taste – The flavor is a good mixture of malt and hops, but I intended it to be hop first with a malt background. The hop flavor is really saturated with the hop bursting, hop standing, hop backing, and dry hopping. Good classic West Coast hop character: orange, pine, slightly dank, balanced. Firm bitterness, without lingering too much. Clean fermentation.

Mouthfeel – Decent body for a session beer, solid carbonation.

Drinkability & Notes – Like most of the other first attempts we’ve made at recipes for Modern Times, the results are good, but not exactly what we wanted. A few tweaks to the malt bill (removing the Victory) and hop bill (considering some Southern Cross in place of the Columbus) and we’ll be closer to the target.

Hoppy Pale - Conan

Alchemist's Conan yeast fermented West Coast pale ale.Appearance – Pours with a similar color to the standard version, but considerably hazier (thanks to bottle conditioning and storage at room temperature). The head doesn’t have the same creamy texture, and retention is much weaker despite higher visible carbonation.

Smell – As expected it lacks the big hop nose, thanks to the lack of dry hopping. Unexpectedly however, the strong maltiness is also absent. Both are preset, but are subdued. Taking the lead is an assertive fruity/spicy yeastiness, with peach and clove most prominently.

Taste – The flavor is a bit drier, which accentuates the bitterness. As with the nose, the yeast character plays a big role. The moderate West Coast hopping melds well with the yeast character. The bready malt comes through more on the palate than it did in the nose. As it warms I detect a slightly funky edge, hard to tell if it is from a stressed fermentation, or something that got into the yeast culture.

Mouthfeel – The medium-high carbonation is a bit more than I prefer, but it doesn’t come across as over-carbonated. The extra bubbles make the body seem lighter, although maybe that is just higher attenuation.

Drinkability & Notes – I was under the impression that the Alchemist’s house strain “Conan” was English in origin, but the phenols give this beer a Belgian slant. I actually enjoy this variation, but without dry hops the yeast overpowers even the considerable late/post boil hopping.


AO said...

Really interesting. I wonder if it's something, someone with a microscope could look at and identify a common reletive of the strain, or if it's something that is totally unique. I don't have enough bio/chem knowledge to know. Either way, I've never picked up clove from the original, so it's gotta be a product of the fermentation, like pitch rate, or ferm temp profile. I'm now tempted to make 6 1g batches to see what combination produces the heady like profile.

Royski said...

To seriously culture a new yeast like that, I would streak it out on a plate and isolate single colonies.

I recall reading on HomeBrew Digest about a decade ago about a subtle infection that would strip away malt flavor - ought to try and track down the original source of that but the HBD archives are a depressing mess.

Anonymous said...

Per your comment that you perceive the yeast to be more Belgian than English, can I ask (without seeming condescending) if you have ever tasted UK ales on home turf? I only say this because when I did, I was blown away by how many had full on yeast expression, and how much I identified such strong yeast notes with "Belgian" beers.

John Evens said...

I'm thinking along the same lines as Anonymous, above. If you take a house strain out of the house, does it remain the same strain? Or do you start to change it by the way you culture it? Obviously the potential changes between taking an English yeast to America are larger than taking a yeast out of a relatively local brewery into your own setup. But everything from water, average temperature, type of malt used in starter worts etc is going to potentially change the yeast away from the exact characteristics it has as a brewery's house strain.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Sadly, I don't believe a microscope is enough to identify similar strains. I believe genomic research would be the only viable analytic method for picking a related strain. Although maybe someone who knows a bit more about these sorts of things could chime in?

Certainly isolating the yeast for propagation would be ideal. Sadly that isn't in my skill set, yet.

I haven't been to England since I got into good beer. However I’ve drank enough freshly imported English beers and enough American beers brewed with their yeast strains to have a pretty good idea that what I tasted was not a common/typical English yeast. While many English strains can be very fruity/yeasty they do not tend to be phenolic (clove/spicy) as Belgian ale strains. While esters ebb and flow with age, phenols tend to be pretty stable.

With that said, there are several possible ways that it did start as an English strain. It could be that through repeated repitchings, it has muted and now creates compounds not produced by the original strain. It could be that those phenols came from a wild yeast that got into my culture. Or maybe it is just a very unique English strain from a brewery I haven’t had a beer from.

Bear Flavored said...

Been looking forward to reading about your results. It sounds like we ended up with fairly different outcomes, as I didn't get anything spicy or phenolic from the batches I've brewed with Conan. I posted everything I learned from my culturing experiment in a write-up here: I'll have full tasting notes on the IPA I brewed posted to my blog on Thursday too.

The peach / apricot character was the strongest take-away from the beer, for me. My IPA was heavily dry-hopped too (Citra, Summit and Apollo, going for a sort of orange/peach/tropical character) and my favorite aspect of it is that Conan seems to back up the dry-hops with its big peach smell. After the IPA, I brewed a winter warmer on the yeast cake and fermented it cool, and my hydrometer sample of that smelled like straight-up peach juice despite the darker malts. I could barely believe how fruity this yeast is.

You mentioned that your batch got up to 69 degrees the first night of fermentation, and I wonder if that was maybe responsible for the spicy phenols. Kimmich stressed that temp was crucial, and it seems like Conan likes it cooler. (I fermented both my IPA and winter warmer around 64ish, then let warm up to 66 and finally 68 after fermentation settled down.)

What sort of FG did your Conan batch end up at? It's looking like it averages about 80% attenuation.

Nate said...

I drank a ton of Alchemist beers, and never picked up a clove note.

I'm pretty sure conan is of english origin, given the fact that it comes from Greg Noonan, a pioneer of the american brewpub/craft beer scene, which (especially in new england), is heavily english influenced.

NicK said...

I love the debate about Belgian yeast in IPAs. Certain schools of thought say that it is a terrible idea with horrible clashing flavors. Personally, I think the more fruity strains can do wonderful things with American hops. I once used Citra to dryhop a saison brewed with the infamous Dupont strain. The tropical fruit from the hops had an amazing interplay with the fruity yeast. I think focusing on fruity yeasts as opposed to really phenolic ones goes a long way in preventing clashing flavors.

HolzBrew said...

I've never heard of the Conan yeast strain before. Is it available to homebrewers? If so, what is it best suited for? American ales?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Sadly it is a private/proprietary strain that the Alchemist uses, only available by by culturing the dregs from a can of Heady Topper.

HolzBrew said...

Like most homebrewers I've brewed many an IPA with various yeast strains. I still haven't found a strain that I like more than US-05 dry yeast. It has a great peachy ester flavor that I love and its half the price of most strains.

Daniel6360618 said...

What are your thoughts on this Conan yeast being a modified lager yeast? There has been some studying of the dregs of Heady Topper and and 9 of the 10 colonies were of the lager variety.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

The yeast character doesn't taste like a classic clean-lager fermentation to me, but it's certainly possible to get interesting esters by fermenting the right strain at ale temperatures. Was the study genetic? Given that the yeast came from Greg Noonan (who knows lagers) it is certainly possible.

Kristen England suggested to me that he thought the strain was the original Ballantine yeast (which is available from East Coast Yeast these days).