Archive | September 2013

SMaSHy thing

HULK SMASH!! – orig. attrib. to Dr. Robert “Bruce” Banner, shouted by little boys everywhere

I recently took a break from my own frantic child-raising adventure to help my wife host a baby shower for friends expecting their first baby in October. The main request we got from the expecting parents was to make the event couples-friendly and laid back, with food, beverages and fun for the ladies and guys alike.

So in true Zyme Lord fashion, I decided to brew a beer.

I love having guests over to try my homebrew. It’s a great way to get objective feedback and improve my beer. This was a unique opportunity to reach beyond my closest friends – all of whom are already familiar with my homebrew – and get feedback from lots of people I didn’t know as well … most of whom I’ve worked with and gotten to know at other get-togethers, but who I hadn’t yet had a chance to have a beer with, let alone one of my own.

My kegerator was stocked with three kegs, but I wanted the special release beer to be the go-to tap. So it had to be something everyone could enjoy, regardless of their level of beer geekdom or personal style leanings. It should be in a popular and accessible style, and of course low-alcohol enough to keep the party family-friendly (it was, after all, a baby shower). I just didn’t know what.

Then one day when I was at the house of my expecting friends, flipping through the dad-to-be’s staggering collection of Hulk comics, the answer punched me in the face like a big green fist: I’d brew a SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) beer in honor of one of my friend’s favorite comic characters.

I’ve made beers from a single malt and single hop before, but this was my first recipe following the SMaSH ethos: a platform to showcase the unique flavor and aroma of a single base malt and single hop (ideally added throughout the boil to reveal its bittering, flavor, and aroma characteristics). I designed my SMaSH as a pale ale, fermented with a clean, neutral yeast: full of flavor but easy drinking, interesting but not intimidating.

Also in true Zyme Lord fashion, I chose ingredients for symbolism as well as flavor. The grain bill was 10.5 lbs of Maris Otter malt mashed at 154°F for 60 minutes. I thought the nutty flavor of Maris Otter would be great unadulterated, and it was also a fun choice to commemorate the English ancestry of the growing family who were our guests of honor.

I also wanted to incorporate ingredients from Oregon and Maine, the two states where my friends have their roots. Oregon was easy. I used Willamette hops (4% AA), adding them as follows for just under 40 IBU:

  • 2 oz at 60 minutes
  • 1.25 oz at 15 minutes
  • 1 oz at flameout

Finding an ingredient to represent Maine was tricky. I located a few boutique maltsters up there, but even if I could get them to sell me a single sack of grain at an acceptable price, I doubted I’d get it shipped in time. So I ended up breaking the SMaSH rules and adding a small amount of adjunct: 8 ounces by weight of Maine maple syrup, at the start of the boil. This was a minuscule addition in a 5-gallon batch; enough to add 2 tiny gravity points but no flavor. I added it for no reason really other than to say it was there – a technique I refer to affectionately as “KISS blood”. A little cheating was worth it to tell the story.

The OG was 1.058 and I pitched a single pack of Safale US-05 dry. Fermentation took off quickly thanks to a little yeast nutrient in the boil. After 15 days, it finished out at 1.010 for 6.3% ABV: not quite as sessionable as I was shooting for; but what the hell, the party was only three hours. I dry hopped with 0.75 oz of 4% Willamette for nine days.

We served the beer frat-house style, with the keg in a bucket of ice. No pumps or picnic taps, though – this was the maiden voyage of my new portable paintball tank CO2 rig and post-mounted faucet from KegConnection.com.

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Chilling in the chest freezer, before we moved it to the bucket.

As it turned out, the visual of a battered old Cornelius keg sitting in a bucket of ice with a hose hanging off one side and a tap handle mounted to the other was an excellent conversation starter. I spent a lot of the party talking about homebrewing and getting to know some friends better. As for the beer, it was smooth, just hoppy enough, and very refreshing. We went through 4 out of 5 gallons before the party was over, and some guests were inspired to try a flight of all four brews I had on tap in the house. A smashing success, I’d say.

See what I did there?

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The World’s End, and my lifelong love affair with beer

We’re going to see this through to the bitter end. Or … lager end. – Gary King, The World’s End

Now in theaters is The World’s End, the latest from writer/director Edgar Wright and his frequent collaborators, co-writer/star Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost. I’ve seen it twice – including a fantastic beer dinner at the Alamo Drafthouse – and it’s my favorite film of the year. In it, five childhood friends facing middle age are brought together by ringleader Gary King (Pegg) to relive their most epic teenage memory: a night out attempting the “Golden Mile”, a 12-pint/12-pub crawl in their tiny English hometown. They aim to succeed now where they once failed, and complete the Golden Mile in all its bitter, boozy glory.

As a white male approaching 40 with a wife, child, and lots of 90’s music in heavy rotation on my iPod, I’m squarely in this film’s target demographic. I’ve also been a fan of this team’s work for years. They have a knack for parodying a genre while simultaneously making an exemplary film of that genre. What Shaun of the Dead did for zombies, and Hot Fuzz did for buddy-cop action flicks, The World’s End does for sci-fi, but I won’t spoil it. If you’ve seen the trailers, you may know what to expect.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that beer is a recurring motif in the movie. The twelve pints of the Golden Mile stand as a powerful metaphor for the childhood dreams and lost youth of the characters. That metaphor works well for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who was ever a teenager. Not sure about you, but when I was in my teens I spent a lot of time obsessing over things I couldn’t easily get. Alcoholic beverages were pretty high on that list … right behind, you know, sex.

But unlike sex, which I assumed I would spend a lot of time and effort trying to get for the rest of my life, I knew I was more or less guaranteed easy access to alcohol as soon as I was old enough. So booze was a symbol, in a sense, of my impending adulthood in general, a taste of the future; and that gave it a mystique that always attracted me. I suspect Wright and Pegg felt the same way I did – and apparently one of them wore the same trenchcoat I did, too.

But if alcohol in general held a mystique for me, beer always had a special place in my heart. Maybe because it’s cheap and sessionable (a word I didn’t know then). Maybe because it was cooler than wine and less of a “big deal” than spirits. I know that I can’t remember exactly when I had my first drink of wine or spirits … Catholic communion? A drive-through daiquiri shop in the New Orleans suburb I grew up in? Very likely, but I don’t have any real memory of it.

On the other hand, I can remember every major beer milestone of my childhood and young adulthood:

  • First Taste of Beer – age 5, Budweiser, thanks to an uncle by marriage (he was probably in your family too)
  • First Whole Serving of Beer – age 14, Miller Lite, at a low-key Halloween party
  • First Beer I Bought in a Store – age 17, Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, from a corner store in the French Quarter
  • First Beer at a Bar – age 17, a 20-oz $2 plastic cup of whatever rotgut draft was on tap at the shitty Decatur Street dive bar I was hanging out at
  • First Craft Beer – age 18, a 20-oz $3 plastic cup of Abita Turbodog, at the same shitty Decatur Street dive bar I was still hanging out at

It was kind of all downhill from there (or uphill, I guess): a progression of gradually more interesting discoveries about how much more there was to beer besides just canned lager, forties, and rotgut draft. Okay, I had a brief Rolling Rock-curious phase in college, but we don’t have to talk about that.

Now that I speak beer as a second language, one might think the power it held over me as a younger man would be lessened. I no longer have to wait for a friend’s brother to come through with a case of Milwaukee’s Best or maintain a mental list of stores and bars that won’t look too closely at my fake I.D.. If I want beer – good beer, brewed a mile away in Austin or halfway across the world in Belgium, I just have to go to the supermarket. Or I can make beer myself, five gallons at a time. Surely what unattainability made magical in my youth, familiarity would render mundane as an adult?

But it hasn’t. The mystique is still there, just changed. Beer is still tied to my hopes and dreams. When I wish I could travel but I’m stuck at my nine-to-five job, an English bitter or a Belgian saison helps me through. When my child was born, I commemorated his birth with two different batches of homebrew, one of which I hope to age until he’s old enough to drink it. And when the hectic pace of adult life makes it hard to find the time to write fiction – after all these years, one childhood dream I’m still chasing – I write about beer.

And thanks to the breadth and depth of beers available in the world today, there are still some unattainables. My indoctrination into the world of beer has only taught me how much I have yet to experience. I’ve never been to Northern California in February to try Russian River’s Pliny the Younger (I can’t even get the less legendary Pliny the Elder easily here in Texas). I’ve never sipped Trappist ale from a chalice at a Belgian bistro across the street from the medieval abbey that brews it, nor kvass from a street cart in some town in Eastern Europe whose name I can’t spell.

When I started this blog, I set out with the goal of finding the places where brewing and storytelling intersect, to show how beer – for millennia, a mystical beverage credited with inspiring great works of art – can still inspire great stories and be a form of storytelling in itself. It seems Edgar Wright and Company beat me to the finish line. I’d be jealous if I wasn’t so blown away by the movie they made, and humbled by what I’ve realized since seeing it: that beer is, and has always been, an inspiration and an aspiration for me. That getting older means sacrificing some of what it once meant for me, and the reward for that sacrifice is realizing how much more meaning there is to find.