Thursday, May 28, 2015

Beer and Homebrewing in Brazil

As an American it can be easy to think of good beer as being exclusively brewed in Europe and former English colonies. You might think that every other country has a local generic ultra-pale lager, and not much else… That may have been almost-true 20 years ago, but not any more!

Ronaldo emailed me late last year to ask if I was interested in presenting at the second annual II Congresso Técnico da ACervA Catarinense a homebrewing conference held in Florianopolis, Brazil. I chatted with Stan Hieronymus, who had attended the first year (incorporating the experience into his review of American Sour Beers), and he spoke highly of the hospitality and experience. Once I talked Audrey into it, I agreed to go!

Being a relatively small city in southern Brazil, reaching Florianopolis from the US requires several flights, so I wanted to extend our visit as long as possible. Neither of us had been to South America before, but rather than jump around between cities, we decided to have a more stationary-relaxing trip. Audrey and I arrived Sunday around 4 PM, by way of Miami and Sao Paulo. We’d left DCA the previous night around 8. Florianopolis is a relatively wealthy city with a small airport. We were told taxis are perfectly safe, but were still happy to be greeted by Ronaldo and a few more smiling homebrewers outside security.

We spent the next three days visiting beaches, eating interesting (sea)food, sightseeing, and drinking local beers (it was funny to see Omnipollo and Evil Twin collaborations on the shelf at the local supermarket). Our bed and breakfast (pousada) was up on a hill with a gorgeous view of the island's lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Breakfast the first day included delicious cheese made by the owner’s father, along with eggs, ham, fruit, jam, and bread.

Wednesday Denny Conn and Drew Beechum arrived. I’ve been aware of them practically since I started brewing, but we'd never met. Denny is known for his simple approach to the brewing process, combined with dedication to perfecting recipes (like his Wry Smile Rye IPA and Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter - I've brewed batches based on both). Drew is known for his prolific writing and brewing, especially unique projects and recipes (e.g., Methode Champenoise for Beer). Together they wrote the engaging Experimental Brewing. In person they were even more entertaining than they are when writing. The final member of the American contingent was Scott Bickham, a BJCP judge pulling double duty administering an exam as well as speaking. The night they arrived we had one of the best meals of the trip, at a Portuguese restaurant with fantastic octopus rice.

The next day was probably the longest and most memorable of the trip. It started with a bus ride to a glass factory, Cristal Blumenau (where we got to blow our own glasses). The glasses (the ones we didn't blow anyway) were beautiful, and the experience felt practically medieval. OSHA takes all the fun out of American factory tours! Denny and Drew have many more pictures on their website (including my glass-blowing face).

After that excitement, we had a hearty lunch at Bier Vila in Blumenau. The city was previously home to the world’s second largest Oktoberfest outside Munich. We tried one of the local "specialties," Chope de Vinho (wine-beer): essentially pale lager sweetened with sticky-sweet wine. We were told that despite not being marketed or publicized in any way by the brewery, it represents a significant portion of their sales. Followed by a stop at the well-stocked beer store one door down (there were a few 750s from Brooklyn Brewing prices for the equivalent of more than $100).

Back on the bus to the local brewing school (Escola Superior de Cerveja e Malte) for a tour. Then onto Cervejaraia Bierland for beers and a tour. The strong German heritage in the area around Blumenau at least partly explains the interest in good beer in southern Brazil compared to the rest of the country. While we drank several Vienna lagers (Bierland's is particularly clean and malty - the brewery staff wore white aprons and hairnets) and Pilsners, there are also many breweries producing Belgian and American inspired beers. For example I grabbed a bottle of Tupiniquim Frutas De Jardim - Amora (a beer with Brett and blackberries).

The last stop of the day was for a cachaça (sugar cane liquor) tasting at Du Pipe a funky little distillery on the edge of the rain forrest. There were some bats living above the barrels, I got a weird rash on my ankles from wondering off the path, but the homemade sausages were delicious! Finally the long bus ride back to the city, and a couple slices of Mafioso pizza before crashing.


The conference itself started Friday. I was impressed by the knowledge and excitement of so many of the homebrewers who attended. Translation was handled simultaneously, via headphones. This extra bit of equipment allowed me to speak more naturally than if I had to wait for translation between each sentence. It also made answering questions seamless (I wore the headphones for that). I was impressed how much effort and thought had gone into the conference! I was also surprised to see my picture in the local paper the next day (article)!

The “cocktail” reception following the first day was really eye opening. I thought that the beers were as good as most American homebrew club meeting I've attended. Sure there was one butter-bomb, and another was too fruity-sweet for my palate, but overall they were fun and delicious. I was especially excited to try some beers brewed with Brazilian fruits and woods (amburana – adds a cinnamon and chile-like spice). Sadly southern Brazil doesn’t have the huge variety of fruits that the more tropical latitudes in the north provide.

It was interesting seeing the differences in "standard" equipment as well. There were some corny kegs, but also lots of small sanke kegs (a result of relatively inexpensive Chinese-made imports). Rather than standard ice-cooled jokey boxes, most of the beers were served through plug-in refrigerated taps. It was enlightening to hear about the different hurdles Brazilian homebrewers face. Sourcing hops was one of the biggest. While malt ends up being a similar price to what I pay, high quality hops have to be ordered directly with high shipping costs. There is a local yeast lab, but many strains that aren't available locally are passed around between brewers.

I was especially impressed by the beers shared by the guys from Random Nano (including sours, and a stout with mushrooms), and a few bottles of sour beer sent down from a homebrewer (Rodrigo) in northern Brazil. It is always fun being a guest at events like this because brewers go out of their way to bring their best batches! In general I thought the weirder ingredients were really well balanced in most of the beers I tried.

It was great to see many of the best elements of American homebrewing culture translate well to Brazil. People were friendly, nerdy, and passionate about what they drink and eat. I also thought it was funny that the seven brewers who won their categories in the associated homebrewing contest all had beards. Not sure what the connection is...

Our last full day in Florianoplis we visited Cervejaria Badenia, a German-style brewery (run by a couple Germans) where we had some delicious lagers and local smoked trout with horseradish. Then onto a classic roadside churrascaria, where meat is brought around and lopped off onto your plate. Most of the cuts were relatively familiar, but a few like the hump of the Gyr Indian cattle (which tasted like pot roast) were new to me.

With a few hours off we dashed over to the mall to get suitcases for Denny and Drew to haul home all the glassware, bottles, and souvenirs they’d picked up (still not sure how all ours fit). Then off to Ronaldo’s house for more meat, homebrew, book signing, and group photos with the smaller local homebrewing club. Luckily the two bottles of homebrew I brought with me survived the trip, and seemed to live up to the expectations.

I'm not saying that it's time to book a flight to Florianopolis for your next beer-centric vacation, but give it a few more years. We heard lots of buzz about beer from locals when we mentioned why we were visiting. There are several new breweries in the works including Ronaldo's Bruxa (named after a local witch, and not the yeast.)

I was hesitant to agree to go when I was invited – which is my initial reaction to being asked to do just about anything – but much like summer camp, friendships formed quickly, time flew by, and I was sorry to be heading back to DC when the time came. A special thanks to Ronaldo, Rafael, Júlio, Gabriel and everyone else who drove us around, shared beers, bought/made us food, and went out of their way to make it a fantastic experience! Luckily some of them will be at NHC in San Diego in a couple weeks, so hopefully I’ll be able to repay some of their hospitality!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Triple Funky/Sour Rye Saison Tasting

Saison is dead, long live saison! For a style that has about as much cohesion as IPA these days, there are so many opinions on what saison is. Last week while I was in Brazil for a homebrewing conference, I spent many hours talking to two of my homebrew heroes: Drew Beechum and Denny Conn (authors of the fascinating book Experimental Homebrewing). Drew is one of the handful of people who deserve credit for popularizing saison's range since I started brewing in 2005, but he is suspect when it comes to adding Brett to the style.

BJCP seems to agree with Drew; with the 2015 Beer Style Guidelines they have given Brett’d saisons an explicit home in the American Wild Ale category’s Brett Beer sub-category (Belgian Specialty is gone!). Gordon Strong asked me to comment on American Wilds draft about a year ago, and I made the case that Brett has been isolated from several of the classic Belgian examples. Too much Brett and I agree the peppery-spice is overwhelmed, but I love a touch of funk in the style! His counterargument was that it is not intentionally part of many modern Belgian saisons, and breaking the funky versions out makes both entering and judging easier.

American Wild Ale is a new home for the sort of weird funky/sour beers that encompass most of what I brew. Clearly I need an edge after most of my sours scored in the mid-30s at the National Homebrewers Competition (my gueuze and cherry brown were knocked for being too sour, my lemon Berliner for not being sour enough). My general goal in commenting was to make the target balance and drinkability, rather than rewarding the sharpest or classic-Brett-forward beers.

This funky/tart rye saison was brewed with a fellow government employee during the great furlough of 2013. We split the batch three ways and pitched various microbes (mostly from the dregs of homebrewed saisons). I wanted to taste the influence of such a small amount of bugs compared to the primary yeast (a blend of White Labs WLP585 Belgian Saison III and WLP568 Belgian Style Saison Ale Yeast Blend).

Left: Dregs from Funky Dark Saison #4 Middle: B. nanus and B. naardenensis Right: Two Bootleg Biology Pithos isolates.

Rye Saison Tasting - Three Ways

Appearance – Three seemingly identical beers. Clear muted-yellow, with delicate dense white heads. The sudden burst of rain didn't help retention.

Funky Dark #4 – Lambic-like. Musty-dusty with some lemon rind.
Nanus/Naardenensis – The fruitiest, but also some rubber band.
Bootleg Biology Pithos Isolates – Mild basement funkiness, while retaining the most peppery saison character of the three.

FD4 – The most acidic, more American Wild than Brett saison. Luckily the acidity is tangy, lactic, really bright. Lots of white wine (despite the lack of wine, grapes, or oak).
N/N – The least acidic and mildest funk. The fruit is more orchard than citrus.
Pithos – Mild citrusy tartness. Dry, earthy, but lacks depth.

Mouthfeel – All three are all pretty similar, firm carbonation (perfect for a pale/funky beers), medium-thin body. The proteins from the rye keep it from being watery, even after the carbonation calms down.

Drinkability & Notes – For my tastes, the dregs from Funky Dark #4 were the winner (itself WLP670 American Farmhouse, and Wyeast 5112 Brettanomyces bruxellensis). It has the balance of acidity, funk, fruit, and spice that I want in a beer. Rather than trying to recreate this beer exactly would be close to impossible, but I’d suggest that once you start bottling sour beers you’re happy with that you start using dregs from your homebrewed sours!