Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Conan the IPA (and Yeast)

There are too many ale yeast strains to count. While they’re all members of the same species (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), they contribute a huge assortment of flavors and aromas. This is because over millions of fungal generations, brewers around the world have placed selective pressures on them based on their own preferences, process, and equipment. One strain that is rapidly gaining popularity is named Conan. Its sudden spike in popularity is in large part thanks to the reputation of a beer fermented with it, Heady Topper from The Alchemist.

Conan is rumored to have an English origin, and gained a foothold in New England thanks to its use by Greg Noonan at Vermont Pub & Brewery. The general description of the yeast is appealing, mostly clean, but with a citrusy/apricot character. A more flavorful alternative to the straight-ahead Chico strain (WLP001/WY1056) favored by many breweries for their “American” style beers.

Heady Topper is an IPA that is completely saturated with hop aromatics, while not being gratingly thin or overly-bitter. In a beer with that much aromatic punch, how much difference could the yeast possibly make? The amazing thing about aroma is that small additions can greatly influence the overall perception. For example, the same four oils account for most of the aromatic compounds in every hop variety, but small fractions of other compounds create each hop's unique impression.

In his book IPA, Mitch Steele reports that The Alchemist uses a relatively low pitching rate (less than a .5 million cells per ml per degree Plato), fermenting at 68 F for a few days then up to 72 F. Elsewhere it has been reported that as the generation count rises, the attenuation drops. This is a larger concern for craft breweries, as few homebrewers reuse yeast for more than a couple of generations. A yeast which requires a bit of special attention.

Waiting for the Conan to drop out of my IPA.Several small yeast labs, including GigaYeast (GY054 Vermont IPA) and The Yeast Bay (Vermont Ale), have cultured the strain to allow us to pitch Conan without the effort of growing it from a can of Heady Topper. I got a vial of East Coast Yeast's version, Northeast Ale, and decided to try it in a pale ale, and then repitch into an IPA. For whatever reason, reports have been that the ECY culture isn’t as attenuative as many brewers expect it to be. I experienced only 71% AA in the pale ale, and have yet to take a final reading of the IPA. Luckily the pale ale doesn’t taste overly sweet or thick.

In his article Vermont Cult Clones in the October 2013 issue of BYO, Dave Green mentions that "[I]n my conversations with the brewers it was indicated that Conan is no longer the strain that is being used." However there isn’t an explanation of whether this means that The Alchemist is no longer using the original isolate because it mutated, or if they have switched to a different yeast strain. (Luckily down in the comments, Art filled me in on his conversations with the author of the BYO article and John Kimmich of The Alchemist. Apparently they are still using Conan for Heady Topper, it is Hill Farmstead that is no longer using Conan, something I wasn't aware they did in the first place).

The IPA recipe below was tossed together with what I had on hand. Apollo and Pacific Jade hops purchased for Modern Times test batches never brewed, and CaraRed left-over from my Red Rye IPA. I’ll be interested to see how it all comes together!

Conan the IPA

Recipe Specifics
Batch Size (Gal): 5.50
Total Grain (Lbs): 14.13
Anticipated OG: 1.075
Anticipated SRM: 5.0
Anticipated IBU: 74.8
Brewhouse Efficiency: 79 %
Wort Boil Time: 90 Minutes

85.0% - 12.00 lbs. American Pale Malt
7.1% - 1.00 lbs. Wheat Malt
3.5% - 0.50 lbs. Table Sugar
3.5% - 0.50 lbs. CaraRed
0.9% -  0.13 lbs. Sauer(acid) Malt

2.00 oz. Columbus (Pellet, 11.9% AA) @ 45 min.
1.00 oz. Apollo (Pellet. 13.00% AA) @ 0 min.
1.00 oz. Pacific Jade (Pellet, 11.00% AA) @ 0 min.
0.50 oz. Nelson Sauvin (Pellet, 12.00% AA) @ 0 min.
1.00 oz. Apollo (Pellet. 13.00% AA) @ -15 min.
1.00 oz. Pacific Jade (Pellet, 11.00% AA) @ -15 min.
0.50 oz. Nelson Sauvin (Pellet, 12.00% AA) @ -15 min.
1.00 oz. Apollo (Pellet. 13.00% AA) @ Dry Hop
1.00 oz. Pacific Jade (Pellet, 11.00% AA) @ Dry Hop
0.50 oz. Nelson Sauvin (Pellet, 12.00%) @ Dry Hop
1.00 oz. Apollo (Pellet. 13.00% AA) @ Keg Hop
1.00 oz. Pacific Jade (Pellet, 11.00% AA) @ Keg Hop
0.50 oz. Nelson Sauvin (Pellet, 12.00%) @ Keg Hop

0.50 Whirlfloc @ 15 min.
0.50 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 15 min.

East Coast Yeast ECY29 Northeast Ale

Water Profile
Profile: Washington, Hoppy

Mash Schedule
Sacch Rest - 60 min @ 153 F

Brewed 11/3/13

Water 50% filtered DC Tap, 50% distilled. 6 g of epsom salt and 6 g of CaCl added total. 2 tsp of phosphoric acid added to the sparge water. Collected 7.5 gallons of 1.055 runnings with a fly sparge, then added the sugar.

Half aroma hops added at flame out, the remainder 15 minutes later. Did not start chilling for another 15 minutes.

Chilled to 70 F. Pitched 3/4 cup of loose slurry from "Simcoe & Sons Pale Ale." 45 seconds of pure O2. Left at 63F ambient to ferment.

Good fermentation by 12 hours.

10/9/13 Raised ambient temperature to 66 F to help it finish out.

11/11/13 Added half of the dry hops to the primary fermentor.

11/16/13 Added three droppers full of BioFine Clear. Dropped temperature to mid-50s to help clear before kegging.

11/26/13 Kegged with the remainder of the dry hops. Still pretty cloudy. Got down to 1.012 (84% AA, 8.3% ABV), happy to see it that low!

1/6/14 Tasting notes, the Pacific Jade (I suspect) added a spicy edge that doesn't mesh well with the fruitiness of the other hops and the yeast. it is still a pleasant IPA, but not my favorite batch.


Bear Flavored said...

I see lots of people are citing that quote as confirmation that The Alchemist isn't using Conan anymore, though I read it a different way. The ambiguous phrasing of it and its placing in the article, to me at least, suggested the author meant other brewers in Vermont are no longer using Conan, not the Alchemist specifically. I believe it's mentioned that Kimmich wasn't the only brewer to pick up Conan from Noonan originally.

And anyway, I just have a hard time believing that Kimmich would drop Conan from his beer at a time like this, when he's already got new variables to tackle with expanding production. It seems like an incredibly odd and risky switch-up to make on your mega-popular / only beer.

Either way, hopefully one day someone can dig up some more background on Conan! When you get a 'version' that attenuates properly (for a time, anyway), it really does make great beer.

Ed Coffey said...

We know that Al cultured from generation 18+, I emailed Al back in December '12 and asked if I could send him my Conan culture to evaluate. He replied saying he just got a can and would culture it himself. We sent a few other emails back and forth then a few months later he started selling it.

I used my Conan culture, which I believe to be g12 but who knows, with great success and 80%+ AA. Just a few weeks about I used ECY29 and it finished at %70. I am going to do a split batch with my original culture and see how it differs.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Certainly possible that the statement in BYO was unintentionally misleading. I was surprised to read it as well.

Thanks Ed, interested to hear how the side-by-side goes!

Bigby said...

Art Whitaker wrote:
For those of you who attended the presentation by John Kimmich of The Alchemist, I asked the question about the quote in the BYO article about brewers saying they no longer used the Conan yeast in heady Topper. John said they did so I emailed BYO to let them know they had a mistake, Here is their response:

Hey Art,
I just talked with John and yes sounds like your hunch is correct and that John is indeed still using Greg's Conan (VPB1188). Sounds like there were some wires getting crossed between my interview with him and Shaun Hill. In my interview with John he mentioned the evolution of his yeast over time and Shaun Hill made reference to the fact that Conan is no longer used by 'us'
in a reference when talking about the proprietary status of Conan and it's status with the Alchemist and Hill Farmstead. Anyway long story short I thought 'us' was the Alchemist & Hill Farmstead while it was just Hill Farmstead.

I jumped to conclusions on that point and when I sent the article back to John for fact-checking he must have glossed over those sentences because he heavily edited an version of that paragraph in regards to Conan's use by yeast ranchers and legal rights surrounding the strain (supposedly why White Labs, Wyeast haven't been able to release it to date).

ALL that said, it matters very little to us homebrewers who are either going to get a culture of yeast from the can (no matter whether it's Conan or not)
or from a yeast ranch that has harvested a can or trying to sub out for decent substitute. Looking again, now feeling ridiculous that I included this point even if was true since it has almost no bearing on the yeast homebrewer should use and instead stay focused. Oh well, too late now for
that. Will email the edit team to see about a retraction...

Thanks for following up Art!

Dave Green
Advertising/Sales Manager
Brew Your Own and WineMaker magazines
5515 Main St.
Manchester Center, VT 05255 USA
ph: 802-362-3981 ext. 107
fx: 802-362-2377
e: [email protected]

------ Forwarded Message
From: BYO
Reply-To: Art Whitaker
Date: Sun, 3 Nov 2013 22:56:50 -0600
Subject: BYO: Article and recipe on Heady Topper

This is an enquiry email via http://byo.com/ from:
Art Whitaker

In your October issue I believe, you had a clone recipe for Heady Topper. In
the article it was mentioned that a brewer told the writer that The
Alchemist did not use the Conan yeast anymore. John Kimmich was the guest
speaker this weekend at the Music City Brew Off. I asked John about this and
he had seen that and did not know where that information came from and that
they indeed still use the Conan yeast strain for Heady Topper.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of the attenuation, isn't it expected behavior when culturing yeast from a bottle or can that you're getting low flocculators? Subsequent generations cropped from fermenters will be more flocculant, and therefore less attenuative?

Flocculation isn't the sole factor in attenuation, but I haven't seen anyone address it for Conan specifically.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Thanks Art, glad to hear The Alchemist is still using their signature strain!

Claudio, you'd know better than me. I'd guess it depends on how you propogate them?

Unknown said...

I have only used the ECY29 version of Conan and after 3 different beers with various mash temperatures and gravities, I have yet to achieve a final gravity below 1.017. The 3 have varied between 1.017-1.019, with the 1.017 being a 4% hoppy session ale.

The yeast is also extremely low on the flocculation spectrum. At refrigeration temperatures it takes weeks to clear out the beer.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, Luke. I was wondering because I know it's possible within just a few generations to get better flocculators, given Jasper's wild Saccharomyces' behavior at Lost Rhino. That's in a pro brewery setting with good yeast propagation technique. But I don't remember if it changed anything with attenuation.

Unknown said...

Hi Mike - really enjoy reading about your experiments... I was wondering if you could tell me if this is a top cropping strain? Cheers Tom

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It certainly doesn't produce a huge krausen, but depending on your process I bet you could make it work.

Unknown said...

Looking for some clarification: You quoted Mitch Steele as reporting the Alchemist pitches their yeast low "0.5 million cells per degree plato". After looking at Mitch's IPA book again I am confused; he reports on pg 287 the Alchemist pitches at 6-7 million cells/mL. I took this to be the concentration of the yeast culture and not that they are pitching 6-7 million cells per mL of wort. If you push through the calculations this would be beyond low in orders of magnitude. If this is the actual concentration of the yeast slurry I find this to be very interesting. I work in a lab and recently just grew up Conan cells from a can of Heady. I took this slurry into the lab and used our cell counter to get a cell count. The cell count was 180 million per/mL and 80 million per/mL viable. Am I interpreting this data wrong or do we still have no idea how much yeast the Alchemist is pitching.
Love reading the blog!!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

That is the pitching rate of the beer (as far as I am aware), not of the slurry (which wouldn't be relevant). I just extrapolated the pitching rate per degree plato based on that starting gravity of the recipe given.

Thom said...

I pitched two vials of ECY North East Ale (ECY29) in a 13 gal IPA similar to Kern River Citra DIPA. Having brewed this beer a couple of times before with WL001 I noticed the following differences:

1) Beer did not have the neutral smell that 001 has during fermentation. I achieved 80% AA with the FG at 1.012.

2) Did not floc when cold crashing and using gelatin like 001. I can usually ferment out and clear a beer in 12 days. After 15 days (adding gelatin and 3 days cold crashing at 33 deg) the beer fermented out but stayed hazy and the residual yeast in suspension contributed to a harsh resiny bitterness. I did not notice any strong peach flavors in spite of dry hopping with 3oz of Amarillo.

3) After two more weeks the beer settled clear. However it had a sweetness that none of the other beers I brewed with 001 had.

Although I only used this yeast one time and I may be drawing a premature conclusion but I wonder if the Alchemist doesn't play to this yeasts character and put it in a can (and suggest you drink from it) for this very reason.

I am interested in other experiences as to the final flavor of their beers with this yeast.

Brendan said...

I'm curious about your water additions. It looks like, just from eyeballing and looking at a DC water report for a minute, that you're actually favoring chloride over sulfate here. Any reason for that? Typically you see a heavy favoring of the sulfate for IPAs.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I'm not sure exactly what the water profile worked out to, but for most hoppy beers I aim for around 100-150 PPM of both chloride and sulfate. In this case I had run out of gypsum and I didn't want to go too heavy on the magnesium (Epsom salt), so I may have been a bit higher on the chloride than I usually would have been.

Chloride adds body/fullness to a beer, and rounds out the flavor. Sulfate makes the bitterness crisper/firmer. I'm not a believer that the ratio is especially important, raw numbers have a much bigger impact.

Just what works for my tastes.

PMI said...

http://www.brewtoad.com/recipes/heady-topper-clone-20 I just did a clone that I found on the web. It may not be the same but it made a kick ass IIPA. Grew the little yeasties from 2 cans.

Johnny in Texas said...

Had a 4 pack ( Heady Topper ) brought to me from the brewery and kept cold the entire time ! I kept 1 oz in each of the 4 cans I drank and used the last part of those cans to make a starter. Several days and 2 more starters later I had a nice size yeast cake and pitched it into a Hoppy pale ale... basic 2 row, 3% Crystal 40, 10% Munich. Bittered to 35 IBu with simcoe then added 4 oz of citra and 4 oz of galaxy at @ 180 degrees and steeped for 30 mins. Cant wait to see how this turns out, the 63 degree fermentation is on day 4 and still going strong.

Unknown said...

Do you think you could have similar results if you cut the sugar and carared and dropped the mash temp to about 150 or so? Or did you find this strain benefits from a higher rest?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

CaraRed adds some flavor, but you could certainly drop it if you want a cleaner malt backbone. I like some sugar in bigger IPAs, but again you could drop it if you want.