Monday, December 15, 2014

Secrets of the Best Brewers

Beers at Cambridge Brewing Company. I’d hope that virtually all professional brewers understand the basics: sanitation, hitting target gravity, pitching rates, fermenting temperature, taking detailed notes etc. Then what is it that separates the breweries that consistently release delicious beers, from those that are reliably mediocre? Is it simply recipe design? Equipment? There is no single path, but talking with brewers I respect over the last few years, some commonalities emerge.

Great brewers tend to:

1. Develop their palates. They drink great beers in the best possible condition, ideally at breweries and brewpubs. They drink with other talented brewers frequently, but in moderation (blow-out tastings and festivals are fun, but what are you really learning from an ounce of beer #15?).

2. Find flavor combinations in beers, beverages, foods, history, and other experiences. They don’t mimic, but rather find inspiration from others’ beers. Few great beers are “clones,” but many do start as reinterpretations or riffs. Great brewers dissect the beers they enjoy. Some talk to the brewer to gain specific process information, others take their own approach.

3. Focus on a subset of beer styles. It is challenging enough to brew even one world-class beer, it is nearly impossible to do it for multiple disparate styles. They pick a stylistic area and try to master it: English ales, hoppy American beers, strong/dark beers, sour fruit beers etc. How many great breweries make a top-tier American IPA, Munich Helles, and ESB? Compare that to the number that many make a wonderful American pale ale, IPA, and DIPA (or delicious hefeweizen, dunkleweizen, and Weizenbock).

Barrels at Trillium Brewing Co.4. Think that results are more important than how natural or local the ingredients are. It is fun to use locally foraged oats or hops picked by monks, but if the flavor isn’t as good as those from a larger or more remote producer, then what is the point? Hop extract is used for bittering many of the best IPAs. I love adding local fruit to my sour beers, but East Coast hops have repeatedly let me down.

5. Critically evaluate ingredient quality. Tasting grains, smelling hops, and inspecting barrels. Realize that not all crystal 60, Simcoe, or bourbon barrels are equal. This level of care can be difficult to maintain as the production scale increases, but size does come with advantages. Micro-brewers can go to Yakima or Hallertau to select hop lots, while bigger breweries work directly with producers to have them grow and process the way they want. If you open a bag of hops or malt that doesn’t smell terrific, don’t use it!

6. Understand how to work with pH. The amount of acidity in the mash, wort, and beer can have a profound influence on the expression of flavors in the finished beer. The more measurements you take and the more often you rebrew a recipe the quicker you will learn what produces the best results.

IPAs at Alesmith.7. Dump second-rate beer. This may sound simple, but it can be a challenge especially for a commercial brewery with thin profit margins. I’m not just talking about getting rid of beer that’s infected or reeks of diacetyl. I mean dumping beer that is fine, but not outstanding! Don’t be afraid to try something and fail, but on a scale where failure is an option.

8. Maintain a house culture. Many great brewers have their own microbes either they maintain or at a lab. These strains add a unique flavor, especially once you learn how to coax a particular flavor profile. If you get your hands on a strain you love, bank it. Even if you don’t have a unique house strain, treat your favorite commercial strain like one. After assessing all of the options, use the best one until you really understand how it reacts to various conditions.

9. Adjust “finished” beers based on flavor. Whether it is acidity, water salts, dry hop amount/time, blending batches, flavor concentrates/extracts, unfermentable sugars etc. Realize that brew day isn’t where the choices end. As a homebrewer you actually have more options than commercial brewers because you are allowed to blend in spirits and other fermented beverages.

10. Go to great lengths to prevent oxidation. While most brewers purge bright tanks and kegs with CO2, some go much further for hoppy beers especially. For example, Societe Brewing Company pushes their fermented beers with CO2, rather than pumping.

Barrels at Societe Brewing.11. Serve beer at its flavor peak. Hoppy beers and wheat beers go downhill especially quickly (starting within weeks). Limited production helps setup a positive feedback loop where the beer is fresher and thus tastes great, helping it to fly off the shelf, which in turn means that it is generally fresher... Conversely beers that are strong, dark, or sour age well; the more of that aging a brewery can do before selling these beers, the better. In general learning when your beer will be at its best, and assuming it is drank as near to that as possible.

12. Market their beers well. As much as it pains me to say it, having a unique bottle, gorgeous label, stellar reputation, or great story really do make a beer taste better. Set the correct expectations for the beer drinker, and exceed them with the beer. Blind tastings help to avoid undue influence when judging, but miss how beers are experienced in the wild.

Hopefully this (incomplete) list gives perspective on where to focus if you aren’t satisfied with the beers you brew. To borrow a phrase, you taste great breweries' highlight reels, don't judge your average batch against that. While homebrewers have several disadvantages compared to commercial breweries, we have some advantages as well. Get the basics down first, but don’t narrow your focus on styles or ingredients too early while you work to master the first couple stages of homebrewing.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Coconut-Vanilla Milk Stout Recipe

Shredded coconut before toasting.My favorite bourbon-barrel-aged stouts aren't the ones that taste like beer with a shot of bourbon dropped in, instead the chocolatey roasted malts are offset by sweet vanilla, toasted coconut, and a touch or boozy heat. Why not try a shortcut then (avoiding the time, effort, and risk of acquiring a used barrel to age stout in), by adding real vanilla and coconut from the supermarket?

The base beer I brewed is an inky oatmeal stout, at a sessionable 4.9% ABV. I added three roasted malts and two crystal malts to give it the malty intensity of a stronger beer. I dry hopped the other half of the 10 gallon batch with three ounces of Simcoe (inspired by Goose Island Night Stalker). As a result I settled on 30 IBUs, a little higher on the bitterness than I would have if I had brewed the sweet portion alone.

Coconut at the end of toasting.For the coconut I purchased one pound of unsweetened shredded coconut from the bulk bins (hopefully fresher than the bagged stuff). It had a mellow sweet-floral flavor as is, but I wanted something darker and more intense to jive with the roasted grains. I placed all of the coconut in a large skillet set to medium-low heat. After 20 minutes of constantly stirring the coconut took on a golden brown color and exuded an enticing toasted coconut aroma. It is helpful to do this in a pan with good heat conductivity to avoid hot spots (I used my 12-inch tri-ply Tramontina skillet – I’ve been satisfied with it so far and a set of their pots is the same price as a single All-Clad saucier).

I watched Alex Tweet use this process for a coconut cocoa-nib variant of Black House while I was at Modern Times summer of 2013 (Alex has since moved on to be head brewer at Fieldwork Brewing Co.). After the coconut achieved the desired level of color in a keggle he blotted the oily shreds with paper towels to wick-away much of the head-destroying oil. So I did the same, rolling up the coconut in a few layers and letting it drain. There is no practical way to remove all of the oil, but hopefully most of what makes it through is left behind in the fermentor or floats to the top in the keg. I lowered a weighted bag of coconut into the primary fermentor then dropped in two vanilla beans split lengthwise.

Toasted coconut, really closeup.A sample pulled at five days indicated it had reached the level of character I was hoping for. Fermentation had dried the beer out to 1.018, so I did a few measured blends and settled on adding half a pound of lactose (briefly boiled in a pint of water) to the keg – technically transforming this into a milk stout. No reason to add lactose or maltodextrin any earlier than packaging. It is a little more work than adding it to the boil, but waiting and tasting avoids the risk of an overly-sweet result!

To add another layer of velvety decadence I bought a beer-gas tank and a stout tap (treat yo self 2014!). If the oils from the coconut destroy the head retention, I'll be really disappointed! I’ll have more on how that goes when I post the tasting notes in a couple weeks. The addition will be part of my upgraded kegerator build; my original is third-hand and starting to look pretty sorry considering the rust spots. It was time for a couple more real taps anyway!

Coconut-Vanilla and Dry-Hopped Oatmeal Stout

Recipe Specifics
Batch Size (Gal): 11.00
Total Grain (Lbs): 28.50
Anticipated OG: 1.056
Anticipated SRM: 37.6
Anticipated IBU: 30.0
Brewhouse Efficiency: 61 %
Wort Boil Time: 65 Minutes

70.2% - 20.00 lbs. Maris Otter
14.0% - 4.00 lbs. Quaker Quick Oats
3.5% - 1.00 lbs. Simpsons Crystal 55L
3.5% - 1.00 lbs. Briess Crystal 80L
3.5% - 1.00 lbs. Crisp Roasted Barley
3.5% - 1.00 lbs. Weyermann Chocolate Wheat 
1.8% - 0.50 lbs. Franco Belges KilnCoffee

2.25 oz. Palisade (Whole 8.00% AA) @ 60 min.
3.00 oz. Simcoe (Whole, 14.00% AA) @ Dry Hop

Bagged coconut, tied up to stay submerged.Extras
1.00 Whirlfloc @ 15 min.
1.00 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 15 min. 
1 lbs. Toasted Coconut @ Fermentor
2.00 Vanilla Beans @ Fermentor
.5 lb Lactose @ Keg

White Labs WLP004 Irish Stout

Water Profile
Profile: Washington, DC

Mash Schedule
Sacch Rest - 70 min  @ 152F

11/20/14 3 L starter on the stir-plate.

11/22/14 Crash chilled starter.

11/23/14 17 gallons mash water, no-sparge.

w/o treatment 5.9 pH at room temperature - close enough.

Temp fell more than expected, turned on heat while recirculating to get back up to 160F before sending to kettle.

Collected 13 gallons of 1.053 runnings. Added 5 g of CaCl as it came to a boil

Bagged the hops.

Chilled to 65 F with plate chiller. Oxygenated for 60 seconds, then split the decanted and ambient temp yeast between the two fermentors. Left at 67F to start fermenting. Moved to the 60F basement after 18 hours.

11/26/14 Dry hopped half with 3 oz of bagged whole Simcoe. Upped to 67F to ensure fermentation is complete.

12/3/14 Added 1 lb of unsweetened shredded coconut (Whole Foods bulk) that I toasted for 20 minutes until crisp and brown. Plus two split vanilla beans, via Pete's eBay buy.

12/8/14 Down to 1.018. Kegged both versions. Added .5 lb of lactose to the coconut/vanilla half. Purged both with CO2, although that tank was running out. Hooked the coconut keg up to beer-gas the next day in the freezer set to 35F.

1/14/15 Tasting of the dry hopped portion. It expresses a nice mixture of dry hops and roasted grains. Not much I would change for a rebrew, except to back off the roasted barley slightly to remove the charred edge. pH is 4.30.

2/10/15 Tasting of the coconut-vanilla portion. Really delicious, nice balance of the extras and the base beer. A little sweet, but worth it for the silky body in a 5% ABV beer.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Berliner Weisse #4 Tasting

I brewed my fourth batch of Berliner Weisse spring 2012. The twist for this iteration was that I skipped my usual single decoction mash (to see how the method might perform if I were forced to brew it on a commercial system incapable of decoctions). I’m well aware that decoctions repeatedly fail to impress in blind tastings (e.g., Decoction: Worth the Effort in Zymurgy Nov/Dec 2014), but psychological or otherwise I tend to enjoy decocted batches more than similar infusion-mashed batches. Sour beers are notoriously tricky to run experiments for, because even two batches with the same process and microbes can come out pretty different. So don't read too much into the results for this batch!

Other than the mash alteration, my process was the same as my previous batches: mash hops, no boil, and a mixture of clean ale yeast, Lactobacillus, and Brettanomyces. The other half of this batch was fermented with nothing but Lactobacillus. This is actually my forth tasting involving portions of this brew day! This half worked very well with rhubarb.

Floor Berliner.Berliner Weisse 4 – “No Decoction”

Appearance – The frothy white head recedes quickly, leaving only a wispy covering. Crystal clear blonde body (despite the 0 minute boil and lots of wheat malt). Certainly looks like a real Berliner weisse.

Smell – Green apple, dusty Brett, and light pilsner malt. Funkier than a Berliner weisse typically is, but about where I like them. However, it’s a bit stodgy, musty, and not as alive as it could be. I'd hoped the Brett Trois would bring the citrus a bit more.

Taste – Bright lactic tartness, but not sharply acidic. Slight doughiness in the finish, luckily no Cheerios-cereal. No alcohol or hops. Two-and-a-half years old and sadly tasting like twice that. It lacks a freshness and vibrancy that a sour beer should still have at this age.

Mouthfeel – Thin, mildly spritzy, plenty crisp. Great mouthfeel!

Drinkability & Notes – Solid, but not my favorite batch of Berliner. Not as refreshing as it should be. Likely a combo of the skipped decoction and the lackluster activity from the Lactobacillus. I’m enjoying the early results of my fifth Berliner much more!