Monday, May 27, 2013

100% Lactobacillus Berliner Weisse Tasting

I get lots of brewing ideas. Sometimes they work out pretty well (for example Modern Times is about to brew 1,000 gallons of my 100% Brett Trois IPA!), but that isn’t always the case. Last summer I had the crazy idea to ferment half a batch of Berliner weisse with nothing but Lactobacillus. My initial concern was that the resulting beer might be too sour, but I figured that could be handled in a variety of ways (like blending with the other half of the batch), but that wasn't the case.

100% Lacto Berliner Weisse.100% Lacto Berliner Weisse

Appearance – Slightly hazy, but considering the single infusion mash, and lack of a boil, not bad. Probably the palest beer I’ve brewed, about the color of “real” lemonade. The bright-white head has solid retention and leaves sticky lacing.

Smell – Smells pretty clean compared to my usual mixed-fermentation Berliner weisses. None of the musty, floral, complexity that Brett usually brings. The rest of the components are there though, wheat and gamey Lacto.

Taste – The flavor is where it falls a bit flat. The acidity suggested by the Lacto-y nose doesn’t show up. Otherwise solid, but like a light American wheat beer. Slightly doughy, with some lemon, and low levels of spicy phenolics. Sweeter than I want my Berliners to be, even considering the lack of acidity.

Mouthfeel – Relatively full body for a 1.032 beer, I’d prefer it crisper. Good carbonation, right after opened it had some foam build in the neck, but it seemed to dissipate quickly.

Drinkability & Notes – I’ve read a lot of complaints about the White Labs Lacto strain over the last year, but in this case there aren’t any excuses I can make for it. It was allowed to work without competition, in a low gravity/IBU wort, for nearly a year. I might try a blend of White Labs and Wyeast Lacto next time, or just try out one of my other ideas! And heck, at least I did something (ferment a beer without yeast) that very few people have done before.

Sorry for the long delay since the last post, but Audrey and I got married Thursday! Sadly blog posts the next few months may be a bit sporadic with my trip to San Diego and a deadline for my book both coming up in about a month.

Photo by Julia Benton at the National Gallery of Art.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Intro to Digital Photography for Beer

Second batch of Modern Times Blazing World, Amber IPA.Every once in awhile someone asks me what kind of camera I use, so I thought I’d post a write-up to save me the time of putting something together for each request. I also thought I’d include a few tips that I’ve picked up over the years for taking pictures of beer. I should also note, these tips are really intended for pictures you want to share, not just some quick shots, if like several of my friends, you just want a pictorial record of what you drink/brew. I'm not an expert, but I know enough to be dangerous.

For the last year I've shot with a Canon Rebel T3 with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens. Not the priciest combo available (~$450 together on Amazon today), but it does everything I need it to for beer. The lens is non-zoom, which has its pluses and minuses. It means that the distance away from the subject (glass) is relatively fixed, but it is an intuitive distance for portrait shots, which is essentially what beer photography is. However, for the price its optics draw rave  reviews for their sharpness compared to much more complex/expensive lenses as a result of the simple design. Do you need a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera, probably not, but it’s like all-grain brewing, having more control over the process gives you creative freedom and allows you to learn.

One of my favorites, coffee oatmeal stout in a mason jar.Subject
The most important lesson of photography is that the subject is important. It’s much easier to take a great photo if the beer and location are pretty. No matter how well a beer is brewed, it won’t look spectacular in a dirty pint glass on a white background. Interesting glasses are a big help, and if they are spotless so much the better. Make sure the inside of the glass is clean too, you don't want ugly patches of bubbles stuck to the sides. With the number of pictures on this blog I’ve had to become pretty creative finding new photo shoot locations in my house to avoid the feeling of looking at the same picture on every post. I've shot next to the barrels, in the attic, outside, and on just about ever table and shelf I own. Props, like ingredients, can be nice to add, but usually it looks a bit too staged for me.

I don’t like flash photography for beer. Unless you’ve got a diffuser the reflection off the glass is annoying. As a result I try to shoot in good lighting conditions. Naturally light ideally, but I make do with interior lights when I don't make it home from work early enough to take advantage of the sun. If the lighting is poor, a tripod will really help by allowing slower shutter speeds (the longer the shutter is open the more light can enter the camera, but it can be difficult to avoid motion blur).

Not my favorite shot of a beer, but the background is perfect for a beer aged in those barrels.In most situations I prefer a wide aperture (low f-stop) for taking pictures of beer, usually 1.8/f or a click or two higher. This reduces the depth of field, meaning there will be a smaller range of distances in focus. This causes the beer to pop out by blurring the background (meaning you also don’t see the mess in my house). With a lens with an even wider aperture (1.4/f or even 1.2/f) you can get the depth of field so shallow that you won’t even get the entire glass in focus. This can be gorgeous, but my preference is to see the whole glass.

The wide aperture has the added benefit of allowing more light into the camera, making it easier to avoid using the flash in poor lighting conditions. Otherwise I just try to ensure the ISO (sensor sensitivity) is low enough that the picture isn’t noticeably grainy, and the shutter length isn’t so long that the image blurs when shooting hand held (1/80 of a second or higher). Although I recently purchased a tripod so that I can shoot longer exposure pictures without blurring. Check the light meter or LCD display to ensure the shot is bright enough. You may be happier with a slightly brighter or darker shot, so take some darker and lighter shots and see what looks better.

Same camera, but not following any of my other suggestion.Composition
I’m not an expert at photo composition, so my basic rule is “take a lot of photos.” It’s digital so you don’t need to be too careful with making each shot precise. Move around, change your angle, and fiddle with your settings. Often it seems like the shot is best from an angle where I'm the least comfortable. The further the distance between the subject and the background, the more out of focus the background will be when the subject is in focus. I'll often take a few shots before I open/pour the beer so I can get some good shots before the head starts to sink (a race with most sour beers). When you get something that starts to look good, that’s the time to start dialing it in. Check your white balance, make sure your focus is perfect etc. My lens/camera has trouble with automatic focus when shooting transparent beers, so I tend to shoot in manual mode.

I’m not a big believer in severe image editing in this case. Maybe a slight rotation, crop, or white balance adjustment with GIMP, but I tend to avoid more intensive post-processing. Same goes for filters, they can be fun to play with, but for the blog I try to make my photos an accurate representation of what the beer looks like. As with my tasting notes, I strive to be honest about the results.

Hope this help someone out there! If you’ve got any tips to share please post a comment. I've been slowly working my way through the lecture notes from a digital photography class at Stanford, interesting reading if you want to get nerdy.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Hibiscus Wit Tasting

A glass of Hibiscus Wit on a sunny day!Always fun to get three different beers from a single brew day. I took a batch of Belgian wit, bottled some straight-up, kegged half after dry hopping with Galaxy, and infused the rest with hibiscus. Guess which one I’m drinking today?

Hibiscus Wit

Appearance – Neon-cherry-red body (almost glowing), with a modest white head. A couple months in the fridge before going on tap left it clearer than I intended, but it’s hard to complain too much about such a vibrant appearance!

Smell – The smell retains much of the base “wit” character, with orange zest leading the way. Citrus is followed by a combination of yeast spice, cranberries, and fruity coriander. The aromatics are well blended and balanced, making it difficult to precisely distinguish the yeast character from the spices.

Taste – The hibiscus lends a pleasant tartness to the finish, very refreshing. The flavor is fruitier than the nose, citrus and restrained tropical fruit. It might taste like a soda, but the sweetness is minimal and it comes with a slightly bready maltiness. Bitterness is all but non-existent. Otherwise a clean fermentation (I heard that the portion that Jacob and I bottled went funky... I'm ready to give up on the counter-pressure filler, too difficult to sanitize completely)!

Mouthfeel – Moderate body, seems slightly fuller than the dry hopped portion. Maybe the acidity? There is a hint of astringency, not sure where that is coming from. Carbonation could be slightly more prickly.

Drinkability & Notes – Close to a perfect summertime beer for me: tart, dry, lively, and complex. It is always a good sign when I finish my first pour before I’m done reviewing. Sadly with the way Audrey and I have been hitting this tap since I put it on, it probably won’t last into the real heat of the summer. Hopefully a variation on this recipe will be brewed on the big system at Modern Times eventually (which may not be that far off)!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Second Pull - Wine Barrel Solera

Our jammed together system. Not too pretty, but 25 gallons in 6 hours isn't too bad!More than three years after initially filling the red wine barrel in my basement with a pale lambic-ish wort and inoculating with a pre-East Coast Yeast test culture of Al Buck’s Bugfarm, Nathan and I are finally preparing for our first true solera pull!

In September 2011 we pulled the first 20 gallons from the barrel, but that was solely the unblended initial fill. After refilling the barrel and allowing it to age until now, the blend is comprised of approximately 60% of the initial beer (3.25 years old) and 40% of the first refill (1.7 years old). The result is a sour beer with an average age just over 2.5 years (for more on calculating a solera's age, download my recently updated solera spreadsheet). Judging both by that advanced age and the flavor of the sample we pulled Saturday, this should be a delicious pull!

T58 was rocking after a few hours, the rest not until the following morning.When we refilled the barrel with unfermented wort last time, it took almost a week to see the first signs of active fermentation. There isn’t much chance for anything really unpleasant to happen when wort is mixed with double its own volume of already soured/alcoholic beer, but it still didn’t seem ideal. For this refill we decided to ferment the beer before racking into the barrel. We used every available fermentor, including my two 20L American oak barrels, to ferment the wort. The five fermentations are currently raging with a variety of dried yeasts: T-58, S-33, Belle Saison, and US-05. I’m especially interested to taste the Belle Saison.

Several people have asked if we are concerned about autolysis (i.e., off-flavors resulting from yeast death). My answer is, “Not yet.” Gueuze producers sometimes age lambic in the primary barrel for up to four years. I doubt they would ever have autolysis problems because after that long there wouldn’t be any Saccharomyces left alive (oxidation is another story). The concern with a solera is that as the trub continues to build with each successive fill it could eventually cause issues, as Cambridge Brewing Company discovered with their Cerise Cassée project. It may also be that as beerstone builds up reducing the wood's porosity the Brettanomyces is no longer able to clean up the compounds released by the primary yeast. Moving to primary fermentation outside of the barrel should also help, assuming we provide enough time for most of the yeast to drop out of suspension before racking into the barrel. We'll siphon out some of the trub during pulls too.

I’ll have another post in a couple weeks to recap how we treat the beer we remove from the barrel. Nathan and I had great luck with our four variations on the first pull (plain, Hallertau, elderflower, and Cabernet sauvignon), but we probably won’t repeat any of those this time.

Our other solera (that lives in an apple brandy barrel) is ready for its second pull as well. It is just barely holding on, pushing the upper level of my tolerance for acetic acid. Luckily topping off the barrel and getting an air conditioner to hold the ambient temperature in the 60s F prevented it from becoming undrinkable since the first pull.

With the coming decommissioning of the group barrels at Nathan’s house and our respective jobs in the professional ranks coming, we’re hoping to keep these two soleras going, but we’ll see.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Rum Vanilla Cinnamon Porter Tasting

No brewer, no matter how skilled or experienced, is able to avoid off batches completely. The hope is that when you do make the rare mistake, you are able to learn from it, and avoid the same mistake on subsequent beers. Hopefully this batch will turn out to be a good example of that for me. After aging my Belgian Quad in a Balcones Rumble barrel for three weeks, I bottled it. That same day, I rinsed out the 20L barrel aggressively with three changes of just-off-the-boil water. I assumed that would be enough to ensure the Belgian yeast strain would be dead, and the barrel would be fine to age my somewhat sticky Spiced Imperial Porter...

Rumble Barrel-Aged Imperial Oatmeal Porter with Cinnamon and Vanilla... I need to come up with a simpler name.Rumble Barrel Vanilla Cinnamon Porter

Appearance – Pours with a massive tan head (that occupies about 4/5 of the glass), way too much carbonation obviously and that’s pouring the beer right out of the fridge and into a wet glass. Once and the pitch black body regains its proper proportions, it’s an attractive beer.

Smell – Cinnamon and charred oak lead with some biscuity malt, like a slightly over-cooked cinnamon bun. There may be a slight fruitiness from the yeast, but it is hard to put my finger on it, maybe just my imagination. There is some clean ethanol as it warms, but not unexpected for a beer with this strength. Smells very fresh, no sign of oxidation despite the time spent in the small barrel.

Taste – The flavor is similar to the aroma, although the cinnamon waits until the finish to peak. The body has the flavors of a big sweet beer, but not the sweetness. The vanilla helps to cover-up for the dryness. Not terrifically complex. I don’t get a varietal barrel character, but there is certainly some American oak.

Mouthfeel – Carbonation is still too high despite my waiting for the head to sink and a photo session that combined for about 10 minutes of waiting. Body isn’t entirely thinned out, but it doesn’t sell the beer as a thick sipper.

Drinkability & Notes – The nose is a hint at what this beer should have been. What is amazing to me is that while sitting in the barrel for two months the residual Belgian yeast didn't give any indication of what it was waiting to do in the bottle. I’d usually suspect Brett, but other than the lack of sweetness and high carbonation there isn’t any evidence of the responsible microbe. I poured most of the rest of the batch into a CO2 purged keg, maybe I’ll dose it with some maltodextrin or lactose before I tap it next fall. In the future, if I want to age multiple clean beers in the same barrel, I'll ferment them with the same yeast strain!