Wednesday, April 30, 2014

American-Ingredient Pilsner Recipe

Homebrewers often talk as if brewing a lager is a completely different process than an ale. In fact, neither requires decocting, filtering, krausening, spunding, or really anything else the other does not. Producing a great lager demands extra attention to a few key areas (e.g., temperature control and yeast pitching rates) to produce the cleanest yeast profile possible, but many ale yeasts have their own quirks too. Making accommodations for a demanding yeast strain is easier if you have specialized equipment, but if you have a temperature controlled fermentation chamber, you’re most of the way there. A larger vessel for starters, and a more effective wort chiller are optional, but helpful.

Two packets of Saflager W-34/70 rehydrating.There are some brewers for whom any added effort isn’t worth the loss of ale yeast’s aromatic esters and/or phenol. More flavors doesn’t always result in more complexity though. Lager yeasts stay out of the way, allowing a fuller expression of both malts and hops. When you brew a lager lacking substantial “wort” character, you’ll end up with a quenching if bland result. However, many wonderful lagers are brewed with assertive malt and hop bills. For example, the recent wave of IPL (India Pale Lagers) from The Bruery, Jack’s Abby and other craft brewers often beat many American IPAs at their own hoppy game.

This recipe is my second batch inspired by Moonlight Brewing's Reality Czeck (I never posted the first). It's a bright Pilsner, grainy, and assertively hopped with US grown Perle. Achieving a really saturated hop aroma with classic “landrace” varieties like Czech Saaz or German Hallertau can be difficult because of their low essential oil content compared to modern varieties. Perle isn't exactly an “exciting” hop, but it's a refreshing spicy/herbal break from the usually citrusy/fruity varietals that are so popular now. I was using American hops, so I decided to stick with the theme and used American malted Pilsner malt as the base.

If your ground water isn’t colder than your target pitching temperature, you have a couple options. Sometimes I attach my immersion chiller to a submersible pump to recirculate ice water to chill the wort the last bit. An easier option is to get the wort as cold as I can and then just stick it in the fermentation chamber and pitch a few hours later. Either way the fermentation character will be much cleaner than pitching the yeast while the wort is still warm and then lowering the temperature.

This batch also served as an excuse to deploy my HopRocket (hop-back) on a batch that won't be dry hopped (with my setup/recipes dry hops tend to overwhelm the aroma gained from a hop-back). I find dry hopping with European (and related) varieties imparts grassy flavors, so hopefully the hop-back is a good alternative. The HopRocket has the side-benefit of filtering hot break, which results in clearer wort and higher yields.

Gelatin bloomed in cool water.After two weeks in the primary fermentor, tasting to ensure there was no diacetyl, I transferred the beer to a purged keg and allowed it to settle for a day at 35 F before fining with gelatin. It is important to have the beer cold before adding the gelatin to gain the maximum clarity boost. I'm not normally a clarity snob, but yeast itself can lend a flavor to a beer as delicate and crisp as a Pilsner. I used a similar process to good effect in the Urquell-inspired Czech Pils I brewed a couple years ago.

Looking forward to drinking this real American Pilsner on the porch this summer!

Reality Czeck Inspired#2

Adding boiling water to the bloomed gelatin instantly turns the solution transparent.
Recipe Specifics
Batch Size (Gal): 5.50
Total Grain (Lbs): 10.25
Anticipated OG: 1.046
Anticipated SRM: 2.9
Anticipated IBU: 44.4
Brewhouse Efficiency: 67 %
Wort Boil Time: 75 Minutes

92.7% - 9.50 lbs. Briess Pilsener
4.9% - 0.50 lbs. Briess CaraPils
1.2% - 0.13 lbs. Weyermann Acidulated
1.2% - 0.13 lbs. Weyermann Melanoidin

1.00 oz. Perle (Whole, 8.25% AA) @ 45 min.
1.00 oz. Perle (Whole, 8.25% AA) @ 15 min.
2.00 oz. Perle (Whole, 8.25% AA) @ 0 min.
2.50 oz. Perle (Whole, 8.25% AA) @ Hop-Back

0.50 Whirlfloc @ 10 min.
0.50 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 10 min.

SafLager W-34/70 

Water Profile
Profile: Pilsen

Mash Schedule
Sacch Rest - 60 min 153F

Brewed 4/12/14 with the final Modern Times Kickstarter group

Half distilled and half spring water. 2 g CaCl and gypsum added to the mash and sparge water (plus 1 tsp of phosphoric acid to the sparge).

Mash pH 5.3 at room temperature.

Collected 6.5 gallons of 1.040 runnings from a batch sparge.

Added .5 gallons of spring water as volume was a bit lower than anticipated.

Put wort into fridge set to 45F to chill the rest of the way. 6 hours later rehydrated 2 packs of Saflager W-34/70 in 85 F water for 30 minutes. 75 seconds of pure O2 in the wort then pitched. Set fridge to 52F.

Up to 54F after 24 hours without activity. Finally activity around 44 hours, dropped temperature to 50F to absorb the added heat of fermentation.

Up to 55F 4 days after the first signs of activity

4/21/14 Up to 60F

4/23/14 Up to 65F for diacetyl rest.

4/27/14 Kegged, already pretty bright. Left at 35F, not hooked up to gas. 1.012 (74% AA).

4/28/14 Poured off the first pint to remove any settled yeast. Added 1/2 packet of Knox gelatin to 1/3 cup of filtered tap water. Added 2/3 cup of boiling water 10 minutes later. Mixed into the cold beer. Topped off with CO2 a few times and shook it in. Returned to the fridge to lager at 35F.

6/18/14 Tasting notes posted! It is clear-ish, but I think the beer may not have gotten down to 35F before adding the gelatin. Head is terrific. The herbal hop aroma is solid, but I don't taste a big contribution from the hop back compared to adding a similar total amount of hops (4.5 oz) at flame-out.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Adding Spices and Herbs to Sour Beers

Originally (most of) American Sour Beers Chapter 11 - Adding Spices and Herbs


Hops are included in pretty much every beer recipe these days, but just like pure cultures of brewer's yeast, their dominance is a relatively recent phenomenon. Five hundred years ago, the addition of hops was considered controversial because gruit, secret blends of herbs and spices controlled by church and king, served as both seasoning and taxation for European brewers. Since then, hops have become the near universal herbal counterpoint to malt’s sweetness, but brewers avoid imparting significant hop character to sour beers because of their clashing bitterness (aside from a few dry-hopped examples). Despite the minimal hop flavor contribution nearly all sour beer recipes include hops, either aged (which degrades their bitterness) or in low quantities.

Many of the best sour beers have complex herbal, spice, or floral notes that result from the magical interaction of microbes, oak, and oxygen, that occurs during extended aging. To produce a specific flavor, you are at the mercy of chance, unless you add herbs (flavorful leaves), spices (other part of a plant, usually bark or seed), or flowers that impart the desired flavor. While a few brewers are trying to revive the gruit tradition, most add a combination of botanicals and hops. Examples of the most common brewing herbs and spices are: orange peel, grains of paradise, heather, coriander, cinnamon, and nutmeg, but there are scores of others available from specialty spice retailers, and herbalists. Many botanicals do not impart bitterness so their flavors are more harmonious with sourness.

Well executed spicing of a sour beer demands subtlety. Try to stay around the flavor threshold, leave some mystery. Let people argue over whether the beer is spiced and about what was added. Getting the balance right often demands the art of blending.

Ideas for Spiced and Herbal Beers

Spices can enhance a character that already exists in a batch while other spices can return balance to a beer. Earthy spices, like black cardamom and white pepper, temper a beer that is overly bright. To test if the addition improves the beer, either make a tea with the spice or sprinkle a pinch of the ground spice into a sample of the beer, swirl, and smell. Beers often lose brightness as they age, so time is also a good option if you are looking to mellow a certain aromatic.

There are a few spices that have the ability to conceal less desirable flavors. Vanilla is the archetypal addition to obscure unpleasant or rough flavors. It is a good option for a beer that has an objectionable funky character that refuses to go away. Consider combining spicing with a fruit addition. According to  Jean Guinard in Lambic (Classic Beer Style), at one time Brasserie Cantillon added a touch of vanilla to Rosé de Gambrinus, their raspberry lambic. At the right level this would enhance the oak derived vanillin, without disrupting the delicate balance of fruit and funk. This is the sort of subtle spicing that enhances sour beers.

Avoid pre-mixed spice blends, and instead create your own. The more control you retain, the better your ability to adjust future batches. De Struise Brouwers employs a custom spice blend in several beers, including their sour brown Aardmonnik/Earthmonk, to produce a house flavor in the same way that other brewers have a signature house yeast strain. In their case the blend is cinnamon, coriander, orange peel, and thyme.

If you like the flavors of your beer, but think they need a boost, there is no better flavor enhancer than ordinary sodium chloride (table salt). Salt reduces the perceived bitterness, making it a valuable addition for an over-hopped sour beer, and makes beers taste fuller and richer. I prefer non-iodized varieties, such as those sold as kosher, pickling, and unrefined sea salt. Measure by weight because the salt crystal size has a huge impact on the density. Salt is a traditional addition in the production of the tart gose of Leipzig, Germany. I use.1-.2 oz/gal (.75-1.5 g/L) of salt is the right range to be able to sense the sodium, but not so much that the beer tastes briny.

Cold-side additions are much easier to incorporate if you dissolve the salt in boiling water first. Salts impregnated with other flavors are an interesting option; The Bruery adds truffle salt to their gose, Salt of the Earth, to contribute a delicate loamy flavor. The drawback of adding flavored salts is that they do not allow you to control the salinity and flavor intensity independently. You want to avoid situations where you are forced to compromise by adding more salt than desired.

Patrick Rue, the founder of The Bruery, often takes influences from the food world for his beers. In addition to Salt of the Earth, he includes Thai basil in Trade Winds Tripel, and ginger’s cousin galangal in a 100% Brettanomyces black beer, Gunga Galunga. Even if these particular ideas do not appeal to you it is worth looking to the culinary world for inspiration. The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs (Little, Brown and Company, 2008) is an especially good resource; for each of the hundreds of ingredients, the book lists dozens of suggested flavor combinations identified by a group of respected chefs. To take advantage of it, taste a beer and search for the flavors you detect (e.g., lemons, vinegar, red wine, cherries etc.) and see if any of the suggested combinations spark your imagination.

For a floral addition, flowers like lavender, elderflowers, chamomile, hibiscus, and heather can be added. Flowers are especially well suited for giving a freshness to a beer that tastes old or stodgy. It is possible to add flowers either alone or in combination, but smell them first because there are certain ones, lavender especially, that remind many people of soap. Cantillon’s Zwanze 2009 (since released as Mamouche) is two-year-old lambic flavored with freshly handpicked elderflowers—the floral character was potent, reminiscent of fresh green jalapeño peppers. I did not achieve the same flavor from using commercially dried elderflowers. However, the flavors that are extracted by alcohol in a low pH environment are sometimes surprising, so testing extractions in a bottle of beer before committing to an entire batch is advisable.

There are several botanical additions that work well in clean beers that are much more challenging in sour beer. For example 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. Success depends on subtlety and subterfuge, as Jolly Pumpkin Artisinal Ales achieves with cacao, cinnamon, and sweet orange peel in Maracaibo Especial.

Consider flavoring a beer to make it evocative of a certain time and place. For example adding smoked malt, spruce, and elderberry evokes a Scandinavian winter, while roasted squash, cinnamon, and nutmeg recall Thanksgiving at grandma’s house. Remember to consider the base beer in tandem with your concept; a bright pale sour is not a good choice for the base of a Christmas beer (unless you go with something like citrus and spruce tips). But adding .2 oz/gal (1.5 g/L) of dried elderflowers to a pale sour ale for two weeks prior to bottling added the aroma of a summer meadow. Select the proper grist and techniques to create a base beer that marries rather than clashes with the added flavors.

Spicing Saison

In some brewers’ minds spicing is synonymous with saison, but this is not the case. For the most part the spicy flavors you taste are produced by the fermentation. When actual spices are included in a recipe, they should be subtle and build character without trampling on the flavors of the yeast. Spices that complement the peppery yeast character especially well are peppercorns (black, white, or pink), grains of paradise, and long pepper (commonly used in Indian cuisine). Gabe Fletcher of Anchorage Brewing Company adds black pepper (along with coriander and lemon peel) to his Brettanomyces finished Chardonnay-barrel-aged Whiteout Wit. Ginger can add a bit of heat, but be careful when adding dried ginger because it can easily overpower the yeast character.

Spices for St. Somewhere's Saison Athene.Bob Sylvester, the founder of St. Somewhere Brewing Company, says “I like to use mostly local, indigenous ingredients. Cane sugar, saw palmetto, hibiscus, wild local yeast from open fermentation, locally grown rosemary, lemon leaves, elder flowers and so on.” Rather than copy what another brewery is doing, find local ingredients to incorporate into your recipe. Brewing seasonally allows you to incorporate summer flowers such as chamomile, honeysuckle, jasmine, chrysanthemum, lavender, marigolds, and dandelions that can add delicate flavors.

A low finishing gravity can cause spices to taste harsh. Brian Strumke, founder of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, had this to say “Spicing has loads of variables, not all spices or herbs, flowers, etc. are equal. They are unique ingredients and you must know what you are working with in order to get them to do what you want. I have done both hot and cold infusions on various herbs and spices, it comes down to what and when.” Always experiment with hot and cold extraction teas to gauge the intensity of a new ingredient before adding it to the beer. Alternatively added to taste at packaging, a tea provides control to determine the flavor contribution that works best for the beer.


As important as which botanicals you select, is where you source them. To get the highest quality dried herbs and spices, buy them as whole as possible from a specialty spice supplier. Whole spices retain their flavor longer than ground or powdered versions because of their lower surface area, which slows the loss of volatile compounds. Ethnic markets are full of inexpensive and interesting botanicals (as well as sugars, fruits, and other exotic ingredients). Tea shops are another source; herbal and flavored teas have intense flavors and are designed for extraction in water. The subtle flavors of black/oolong/green/white teas can work as well, for example the Lost Abbey Veritas 008 and Vanberg & DeWulf Lambrucha.

Try to support stores that allow you to smell the product before you buy it; this is mandatory if you are buying pre-ground spices whose aromatics will mute within weeks of grinding. Specialist online retailers have huge selections, and are invaluable if you are looking for obscure ingredients that you cannot find locally. The disadvantage of shopping online is that you cannot inspect before buying.

Unlike hop suppliers, who list the alpha acid content to convey the pungency of the hop’s bitterness, spices and herbs come with no such potency rating. To determine their strength you will have to do a sensory evaluation by smelling them, or steeping in hot water and tasting. This is especially important when adding the botanicals to the boil; if you are unsure, err on the low side, as you can always make another addition later in the process.

Many spices benefit tremendously from toasting before grinding. The heat alters the aromatics, often making them more potent and complex. You can research how your chosen spice is usually treated in cooking, but there is no harm in toasting the spice in a dry pan to smell for yourself how the aroma changes. Again taste tests are crucial, what works for a spice in a barbecue dry rub may not work for a sour beer.

Timing Additions

There are numerous opportunities to add spices and herbs, although unlike clean beers you must take into account the long aging period sour beers require before consumption. Age tends to mellow the character of aromatic ingredients, but there are those that are surprisingly long lived (especially the more pungent spices like black cardamom and clove). In addition, certain strains of Brettanomyces can ferment the glycosides (an aromatic aglycone bound to a sugar molecule) contributed by spices like coriander and herbs including hops, changing or enhancing their flavors.

Your first opportunities for these additions come on the hot side of the process, with additions during the last five minutes of the boil being the most common. Boiling spices or herbs, even for a few minutes, tends to mute their aromatic character, but also better integrate their flavor into the beer. Late-boil additions are an ideal time to impart subtle aromatic complexity. The earlier in the boil most spices are added, the less of their flavor will remain after fermentation. However, longer boil times tend to increase the longevity of the flavors that do remain. The major disadvantage with this method is that you have to decide what and how much you will add before tasting the fermented beer. As a result, I do not use this method the first time I brew with an ingredient. Boil or whirlpool additions are a good technique when you have a recipe that you know works with later additions, which you want to be subtler.

The next opportunity to add botanicals is directly to the aging beer. The combination of alcohol and water in beer are able to extract a wider range of compounds than a hot side extraction in wort. It is best to let the beer age until it is ready for packaging before making an addition. Waiting to see where the character lands will give you an idea of how much of a given flavor you want to impart. To ease separating the ingredient from the beer, enclose them in a large mesh bag (packing ingredients tightly into a small bag prevents good contact with the beer). Fermentor additions have the advantage of allowing you to taste the beer as it infuses; when the right balance is reached, remove the botanicals or package the beer.

Adding botanicals directly to the beer requires minimal effort and equipment, and is effective. However, until you gain the experience to judge their quality and impact on the beer it is easy to over- or undershoot the desired character. This is especially true of working with herbs and spices that are not among the handful commonly added to beer.


If you are not confident about the amount of herbal or spice personality you want in a beer, especially when using a new ingredient, the best method is to extract its flavor into another substrate. This flavorful extract should then be dosed into the beer to taste at packaging. This extraction can either be accomplished quickly by a hot water “tea” or slowly in alcohol to produce a tincture. With either method you want the extraction to be highly concentrated so that you do not have to add a large volume to attain the desired profile.

For a tea, soak the ground botanical in chlorine-free water that is barely off the boil; after five minutes, filter the tea through cheesecloth or a coffee filter to remove the solids. If this produces a harsh flavor, try a lower temperature, shorter steep, or coarser grind. The more finely ground the ingredients the faster the extraction, and thus the smaller window you will have before over-extraction. It is best to perform this process separately for each ingredient initially, to allow you to optimize the extraction and dosing for each.

One of my most successful uses of this method was a tea of hibiscus (also known as jamaica), providing a vibrant tart-cranberry flavor in addition to a bright red color paired with jasmine that offers a floral character sometimes added to teas. I added the teas directly to a pale unhopped base beer, fermented with a combination of the Scottish Heavy strain from East Coast Yeast and Lactobacillus, at the same time as the priming sugar.

Many aromatic molecules are soluble in alcohol, but not in water; you may want to try both tea and tincture to see which extraction produces the best results for a particular ingredient. To create a tincture, soak the ingredient in neutral vodka, or a more flavorful spirit if you want to add an additional dimension. After a few day or weeks, when the aromatics have been extracted, but before any harsh compounds have, filter the infused spirit to remove the remaining solids. Once you have your concentrated flavoring, add it to a measured sample of beer and taste. You may want to force carbonate the sample blend to gauge how much carbonation will heighten the aroma profile. When you determine the ideal ratio, scale it to the target volume of beer. Hold back 10% of the calculated volume of extract, taste the well-mixed beer, and add the remainder if needed. Remember that the character will gradually mellow with age, so you may wish to aim slightly more assertive than your desired level.

Extractions are a simple and controlled way to split a batch into several variations. Take a six-pack from a batch at bottling and add a different extraction to each one of the bottles before capping to learn what works with the finished beer. Experimentation is invaluable with hundreds of culinary plants available, each with its own unique character to contribute.

Final Thoughts

Even though hops do not usually have much direct impact on the flavor of sour beers, leaving them out entirely may allow excessive Lactobacillus activity. Added with hops rather than to replace them, spices and herbs can add depth, or conceal off-flavors. They can even impart substances that Brettanomyces can combine or break-apart to create new flavor compounds. As gruits age, certain aromatics will peak and fade, allowing for more dramatic changes than those seen in a beer flavored with only a single herb (hops).

Think about flavor combinations that work well in other beers and foods, focusing on finding complementary as opposed to contrasting flavors. Classic combinations can be adapted to brewing, but experiment to determine what does and does not work in your beer

Monday, April 14, 2014

Gruits and Other Hopless Beers

A section removed from American Sour Beers:

Commercial Gruits

This was originally a portion of Chapter 11, which covered adding spice/herb flavors to stock sour beers that already contain hops, but there are also beers that contain no hops at all. For centuries European brewers added a blend of bitter and aromatic herbs called gruit to balance the sweetness of the malt. Beers brewed with a similar blend of herbs and spices are now known as gruits. Most of the historic spiced beers would have quickly developed a sour character because they lacked both the anti-microbial power of hops and pure strain fermentations.

While the exact gruit formulations were kept secret, the combination of yarrow (bitter, sage-like), marsh rosemary (spice, sour-ish), and sweet gale (spicy-eucalyptus) is generally regarded as the standard base. This is the combination many brewers add to their first batch of gruit, and it can work well (although generally not in equal parts).

For more historical accuracy you can add a small amount of smoked malt as HaandBryggeriet and Brouwerij de Molen did on their collaborative Menno & Jens (a gruit that had a unique flavor that was smoky, tart, and herbal). It included 80% wheat and rye, and was spiced with a combination of yarrow, Myrica gale, and mugwort. The result was complex, with all of those wild flavors playing with each other differently on each sip.

Rather than trying to recreate the flavor of historic gruits, some brewers make the concept their own. For example, Upright Brewing added lemongrass, hyssop, bitter orange peel, and Sichuan peppercorns to their Reggae Junkie Gruit. The herbs and spices were selected on a trip to a spice store. The resulting beer had a potent, though not overpowering fruity-herbal aroma. The brewers soured a portion of the batch in a gin barrel to create Special Herbs, part of their Sole Composition series.

As with hoppy sour beer it is best to go easy on bittering herbs (e.g., wormwood, sweet gale, yarrow, marsh rosemary, and Labrador tea) and instead concentrate on later additions for a more aromatic character; this is similar to the standard hopping strategy, as sour and bitter do not mesh together well. The bitterness from small amounts of herbs tends to be quick, not lingering like hop bitterness, which makes herbal bitterness somewhat more compatible with acidity. However, while hops need a long boil to isomerize their alpha acids to create bitterness, many other herbs contribute bitterness without undergoing a long boil (especially wormwood and mugwort).

Cambridge Brewing Company (CBC) is one of the most innovative American breweries when it comes to gruits and related hopless beers. Brewmaster Will Meyers was initially inspired by European beers like Williams Brothers Fraoch Heather Ale and the dubbel-ish Jopen Bier’s Koyt, but felt that they were too restrained in their spicing. When developing recipes, his first step was to evaluate the classic herbs, starting with smelling and tasting samples of each. Meyers steeped 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of each in a cup (237 mL) of 180°F (82°C) of water, tasting each after one, thirty, and sixty minutes. This gave him an idea of how much time each herb required for optimal extraction. Meyers raised the option of brewing single-herb experimental batches, but also said that he had not learned much more from them than he did from the teas. His biggest discovery from these trials was that he did not care for the strange sour flavor of marsh rosemary (Ledum palustre); substituting Labrador tea gave a flavor that was less aggressive and preferable to his palate. When Meyers uses marsh rosemary it is in small quantities, and only for the sake of tradition.

Meyers and his brewers harvest 1 pound of wild heather per barrel (.4 kg/hl) in Westport, Massachusetts (overlooking Buzzard's Bay) for their Heather Ale. The beer also receives a few ounces of lavender and sweet gale. Aged in Chardonnay barrels with Lactobacillus, and served at The BeerAdvocate Extreme Beer Fest Night of the Barrels festival in 2007, it tasted brightly acidic and remarkably fresh for a five-year-old 4% ABV beer. In this case, the sourness balanced the malt because none of the herbal additions provided much bitterness.

CBC's Weekapaug Gruit is a clean fermented beer based on a mash of pale and dark caramel malts, along with wheat, oats, and rye. It is fermented with their house Belgian ale strain, which is allowed a free-temperature rise. Weekapaug has the right balance of herbal complexity, but on tap it lacked the sourness that I loved in the aged Heather Ale. Luckily, the first bottled batch was nicely tart (possibly from the marsh rosemary). For a recent 10 bbl (12 hL) batch, Meyers added a substantial addition of 1 pound (.45 kg) of heather, but the rest of the additions were between a half and 4 ounces (14-113 g). Remember that these amounts are for a commercial batch, so for a homebrew amount an accurate scale with .1 gram precision is necessary. Early boil additions included stinging nettles, Labrador tea, heather, and aged hops. Additions at the end of the boil included yarrow, licorice root, as well as more nettles and Labrador tea. Meyers planted many of the more obscure herbs in a bog near the cabin where he produces 100 cases a year of grape wine as Linus Creek Wines. For each batch of Weekapaug he makes subtle adjustments to the recipe depending on the aromatic intensity of the individual herbs.
Gruit is one of the most interesting and least explored areas of commercial brewing today. They take the spicing of beer back to the same time that sour brewing brings the fermentation. A word of warning however, in addition to the well-known risks posed by alcohol, some of the herbs (most notably mugwort) that are added to gruits are extremely dangerous for pregnant women to consume. Hygieia: A Woman’s Herbal by Jeannine Parvati and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s encyclopedic Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers have more detailed information on herbs that are of concern.

Fire Pit Gruit

Craft brewers are not the only ones to feel the lure of gruit. In the summer of 2011 I drove out of DC to the border between Virginia and West Virginia to brew a gruit over an open fire with two gruit-nerds, Marty Fair and Martin Gross. When they started brewing gruits a couple years earlier they bought most of their herbs in bulk from online specialty shops, but have since started either growing and foraging many of the key ingredients for themselves. The only one of the mainstay herbs that is problematic to acquire is marsh rosemary, which they buy for 10 USD a jar from a Canadian who forages it. Like Will Meyers, they too feel that Labrador tea is the best easily accessible alternative.

They brew 30 gallons (114 l) at a time, boiling in three converted kegs that sit on a metal rack above an open fire pit. Fair builds guitars for a living, and as a result has plenty of scrap hardwood to burn. While certainly closer to the way beer was brewed for millennia before the discovery of natural gas and propane, the open fire did not add a noticeable character to the finished beers. However, their method certainly gave the brewing process a more primal feeling. The bow-hunted venison that was roasted over the fire, and then served for dinner only enhanced the experience.

The most impressive thing about the gruits they shared (Classic, Sage, Burdock Root etc.) with me was that despite being young they did not have an overpowering herbal flavor (something that plagues several of the commercial examples, like Professor Fritz Briem 13th Century Grut Bier). Fair and Gross are still tinkering with the timing of their herb additions, sometimes adding all of the herbs near the start of the boil, and others saving the more aromatics herbs for an addition 10 minutes from the end of the boil. Their gruits develop a tart character from being allowed to cool loosely covered outside overnight before they pitch dried yeast.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pairing and Cooking with Sour Beers

My book (American Sour Beers) will finally be published two to three months from now! To tide you over until then I'll be posting trimmings and add-ons to the blog. In some cases these are non-essential sections that simply couldn't fit into what ended up being nearly 400 pages of material. In other cases they are sections deemed too in-flux to be valuable during what will hopefully be a lengthy publishing run! The material in these posts was cut at various points during the process, but none received the complete battery of review and editing that the book itself was subjected to.

This first post is a section I originally had in Chapter 12, "Packaging" (actually it was part of Chapter 16, "Enjoying" before reorganization combined the two). Most of that chapter now focuses on the processes of controlling carbonation and critical evaluation of the finished beer. My thoughts on drinking sour beer with food, and cooking with sour beer are below. Enjoy!

Sour Beer and Food

Sour beers are delicious on their own before or after a meal; the lighter ones tend to work better as aperitifs, with the darker-stronger ones saved for nightcaps. With that said, sour and funky beers do extremely well when paired with food. The typically dry flavor of beers fermented with Brett makes them food friendly, and their carbonation and acidity pair well with spicy or rich dishes that can cause problems for wine. Garrett Oliver's The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food (Ecco, 2005) is the best reference on the intersection of cuisine and beer, but with a few suggestions you will be able to pick a beer for most situations.

Cheese makes a natural match with sour beer, which scrubs the fattiness of the cheese off the tongue. Stinky cheeses, which often overpower other beverages, often work beautifully with the funky character of Brettanomyces. Milder cheeses mesh more readily with softer beers, especially those with a citrus character. By adding nuts, compote, or other accompaniments you insert another dimension to play with. Fig jam, brie, and a dark sour beer is a harmonious combination (especially when the beer includes dark crystal malt or actual dried fruit).

With the wide range of fruit and spice flavors sour beers contain, it is easy to imagine potential food pairing. Sour fruit beers cut through rich braised meats, which often need to be enlivened. The melanoidins in dark sour beers mirror the melanoidins produced from searing meat, making them a reliable choice with a steak. If you want to impress a wine drinker give them a big tannic sour like Russian River Consecration to drink with their beef. Seafood finds easy matches amongst sour beers, whether it is a tart spiced wheat beer with a lemony white fish or a sour red with crustaceans. Pale sour beers like gueuze are a classic with Belgian mussels, because they are bright enough to cut through the cream or spices in the sauce, but not so aggressive that they obscure the briny bivalves.

When it comes to dessert, things get trickier. The only sour beers that I have found to work are bigger or sweeter, drier sour beers are not satisfying enough. Even overly-sweet fruit lambics can work with creamy or chocolaty desserts. Avoid anything too tannic, as I find that creamy desserts highlight their rough mouthfeel. A dry fruit beer can work with less rich desserts, even fresh berries; if you drizzle high quality balsamic vinegar over them it can bring the acetic beers into play.


When you have packaged enough sour beer to the point that you can spare a bottle or two for cooking you will be following in the rich tradition of Cuisine à la Bière, and doing something not many people are willing to with a 15 dollar bottle of commercial sour beer. Sour beers lack the hop bitterness that hampers cooking with other styles in many applications. They excel in deglazing pan drippings, or in reduction sauces, taking the place of both wine and vinegar. Remember to reserve a small amount to add right at the end if the flavor needs to be brightened. A pale sour beer can work wonders either replacing the vinegar in a vinaigrette or part of the citrus juice in ceviche. A rich strong sour beer can take the place of port to add complexity to a stew. If you are making a sauce with fruit, try using a beer brewed with the same fruit.

While sour beer can complement a recipe, it can also be the star. Sour beers can be churned into sorbet rather easily as alcohol lowers the freezing point, thus reducing crystallization and in turn lessening the amount of sugar required to achieve a smooth texture. Use a decent sour beer, but it is not worth using your best vintage. Start by allowing the beer to degas (a mixer, blender, or whisk will expedite this process), because dissolved carbon dioxide will disturb the texture of the sorbet. Mix in a quarter cup (60 mL) of sugar for each 12 ounces (355 mL) of sour beer. The more sugar you add the finer the ice crystals and texture of the finished sorbet will be, but I find that excessive sweetness veils the acidity and complexity of the beer (something the cold contributes to as well). Churn the sweetened beer in an ice cream maker following the manufacturer’s instructions. You can allow the sorbet to harden in the freezer, or it can be consumed immediately if chilled bowls have been prepared in advance. Add whole fruit if you want to complement the flavors of the beer, or boost an already present fruit component.

Even the wood from a retired barrel has a use, smoking meats, cheeses, or vegetables. Add the beer-saturated wood as you would hickory, alder, or mesquite to your grill or smoker. It will take trial and error to determine what level and application works best for the flavors of your particular oak, but that is just a good excuse to cook and eat delicious food. This is certainly more fun than turning an old barrel into a planter, or burning them for fuel as Cantillon does.

For more information on cooking with sour beer visit Sean Paxton’s Homebrew Chef blog: or read one of the many articles that he has written on the topic.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Conan’s Island Tasting

Fresher is not always better for beer as it is for milk. That is even the case for styles that fall apart relatively quickly, like the hoppy 5% ABV American wheat beer I'm drinking tonight. Not to suggest that this fourth homebrewed version of Fortunate Islands would benefit from months of aging, but four to five weeks from brewing to drinking doesn’t hurt. I kegged it two weeks after brewing, the day before the March DC Homebrewers meeting. I decided to bring two plastic bottles I shake-carbed them with my Carbonator cap. With only 24 hours on the keg hops the flavors and aromatics were still discordant and raw. It had a strongly resinous bitterness, like chewing on hop cones or orange peel. It was a unique flavor and not entirely unpleasant, but it didn't exactly make for a session-able beer.

Two weeks of sitting in the keg later, the flavors are now hitting their stride. Hopefully the bright hoppy aromatics hang around for another six weeks or so (and by then there shouldn’t be much left).

Fortunate Islands batch 4 sitting in my sweet new beer glasses case.Conan’s Island (Fortunate Islands #4)

Appearance – The clarity of this golden beer reflects every bit of the 53% wheat malt. Even after 18 days of cold conditioning it isn't nearly as clear as the original. Great sticky lacing from the tight white head.

Smell – Someone at the DCHB meeting accurately described bergamot (Earl Grey tea) in the aroma right after kegging. The citrus has mellowed since, but it is still vibrant and a bit pithy. Tropical fruit is hiding in the back. I find that dry hopping late in fermentation brings out more of the varietal character of the hops (which I prefer), and less "nose in the hop bag." Overall the aroma is a similar, but more intense version of what I get from the Modern Times brewed version. Sadly not much of the stone-fruit peachiness I detected from the ECY culture, although that could come down to other factors.

Taste – Resiny bitterness, may have dialed it up too much. I enjoy it, but it has considerably more IBUs than the original. The hop flavor is nicely saturated with orange, lemon, and mango from the nose, along with some catty-Citra-ness. As it warms the faintest hint of caramel maltiness comes out in the finish.

Mouthfeel – More body than the original, not quite as crisp. Seems right for early spring, but summertime would call for a bit drier. Medium carbonation lifts the aromas and helps cut the body.

Drinkability & Notes – As you may have noticed this has become my favorite sort of beer, hop profile of the Double IPA, alcohol of a pale ale! Happy with the way this batch turned out, sort of Fortunate Islands turned up to 11. It feels and tastes more substantial even though the alcohol is similar. At some point I need to try out these Conan isolates are without loads of hops.