I’ve been doing these On-Tap Recap posts documenting my weekend beer tasting adventures for a few weeks now, and it seems I’ve just been reviewing bottled beers from my home cellar. I haven’t actually posted a review of anything on tap. Guess that’s my bad, but I do have a good excuse. With a small child at home to take care of, I just don’t make it out to the pubs like I used to. For the most part, I drink what I can drink at home.
Luckily for me, my adopted home town of Austin has many pockets of craft brew indoctrination, with more popping up all the time. Craft brew taps are appearing in the unlikeliest places, and so it’s getting easier for even a boring old homebody like me to get a pint. One such unlikely place is the Happy Trails Saloon at the Whole Foods Market a mile from my house. Springing from the floor of the store like an oasis in the desert, halfway between the pizza counter and a refrigerator case stocked with hummus in little plastic tubs, Happy Trails is a bar with about a dozen taps, four devoted to wine and the rest to a rotating selection of craft beers from the likes of local heroes Austin Beerworks, Hops & Grain and Adelbert’s to national favorites like Southern Tier and Ballast Point. Here the weary grocery shopper can take a break with a beer and food from either the Happy Trails pub menu or from any shelf or counter in the store (including the esteemed pizza counter).
This Sunday, halfway through our weekly family grocery trip, we stopped at Happy Trails, bolted the baby’s high chair to a table and let him bat his eyes adorably at Whole Foods employees and customers while he munched finger foods and we relaxed with slices of mushroom pizza and a couple of pints.
First up, a Baltic porter from Hops & Grain’s Greenhouse rotating line of experimental beers. This beer, I was told, was made with Whole Foods’ in-house roasted Allegro coffee. The coffee was noticeable, but mostly a background flavor in a very smooth, smoky black porter. Medium body with a lot of flavor, not too much alcohol, and not syrupy or thick. Great for an afternoon pizza break with the weather outside getting into the 70’s.
Next, a Southern Tier 2XSTOUT. Much as I love (almost) everything I’ve had from Southern Tier, and as fond as I am of milk stout, this one was a little anticlimactic after the Baltic porter. It was smooth and sweet, what I want out of a milk stout, and a good example of the style. But next to something as complex as Baltic porter, a milk stout was like a blunt object, beating me over the head with malt/sweet instead of the nuanced profile of the previous beer.
Really, the true star of this story is not either of the beers I drank, but the location. Good beer and good food right in the middle of a market I visit once or twice a week? That gives me hope that maybe the pub life isn’t behind me after all.
Friday was Valentine’s Day. While couples around the world were struggling through “romantic” evenings out at crowded restaurants with overpriced bottles of red wine or bubbly, Mr. and Mrs. Zyme Lord celebrated ours with a home-cooked meal and a pair of bombers.
Dinner was a pair of 12-ounce dry aged New York strip steaks served alongside grilled lobster tails (special thanks to the Texas weather, which warmed up enough on Friday to allow me to grill both the steak and the lobster to perfection in the backyard). We rounded out the meal with oven-roasted fingerling potatoes and grilled broccolini, and a bottle of Boulevard Brewing Company Bourbon Barrel Quad. Based on their year-round Smokestack Series offering The Sixth Glass, the Bourbon Barrel Quad was a strong-but-smooth take on the barrel aged concept, and I liked the result. Unlike so many of the barrel aged stout and porter offerings that pair heavy malt notes with heavy barrel flavors, the quad was a well-balanced canvas for the palette of barrel flavors. Vanilla and toffee notes overlay a cherry tinted beer with pleasantly subdued residual sugars that was neither slick nor thick. There was bourbon booziness there, but nowhere near what I expected from a bottle proclaiming an ABV of 11.8%. And I can’t imagine a better pairing for surf-and-turf, with bourbon and dark crystal malt complementing the lightly-seasoned aged beef, and cherry and toffee accentuating the sweetness of the lobster.
For dessert, a few Swiss chocolate truffles found love with a bomber of Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence. Yeah, I know, truffles aren’t a very “beer guy” kind of dessert, but dudes – if we can’t explore our softer sides on Valentine’s Day, when can we? I didn’t really feel self-confident eating dessert from a heart-shaped pink box, but then I never pass up a chance to eat candy. As for the beer, I was cautiously optimistic when I popped the cork. I’ve always been skeptical of so-called “Belgian stouts”, and it seems like chocolate beers are everywhere I look these days … most of them pretty good, but you never know when the trend is going to jump the shark. Fortunately, although Chocolate Indulgence wasn’t the best chocolate beer I’ve had recently, it delivered with Ommegang-worthy uniqueness. Perle hops and Belgian yeast imparted a light, fresh note that lifted the chocolate stout up in a way that would have made it the wrong pairing for a triple chocolate cake, but that worked well with the whole spectrum of European chocolates.
A perfectly romantic evening achieved, and not a wine glass in sight. Thanks to the creativity and passion of modern craft brewers, we live in an age where we can treat ourselves to excellent beer pairings for both our dinner and dessert courses. Now if I can just come up with a homebrew that pairs with conversation hearts …
Let’s start today at the BJCP Style Guidelines. Scroll through the list of styles. What do you see? Sure, it’s a manual, a valuable tool for any brewer. But for the beer lover, it’s also one part journal and one part little black book, with mental check marks next to the styles you’ve tasted and/or brewed … while unfamiliar styles call to you siren-like, the anticipation of conquests you haven’t yet made. Just like flipping through the pages of an old journal, you’re bound to have some regrets, some “what was I thinking?” moments (style 1A. Lite American Lager, anyone?). But also like a journal, the later entries leave you feeling a lot less embarrassed than the earlier ones, and certainly by the time you get to the English Pale Ales (starting with 8A. Standard/Ordinary Bitter) you’re starting to be proud of what you’ve accomplished.
Then halfway through, you see it: that entry that makes you question your judgment all over again, sitting drab and dull like a cat turd in the gold mine of your zymurgical adventures. The reminder of the giant noob you once were. And you ask yourself again, “What in the world was I thinking?”
I speak, of course, of 16A. Witbier.
Whether you call them wits, wittes, Belgian whites, or even bières blanches, chances are that you or someone you know has laughed derisively at this light, easy-drinking style in the recent past. And I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because so many commercial examples are so-called “crafty” offerings from industrial lager producers padding out their product portfolios with under-attenuated, over-flavored wits to provide a clawhold onto the elusive craft beer market and a talon in the door of the non-beer-drinker. Or maybe because witbiers are something we see as behind us, the non-threatening gateway beers we drank before graduating to today’s Imperial Everythings, and IPAs with IBUs approaching the GDP of Luxembourg. Witbiers are familiar, and after all we’ve been through … boring.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little creativity, witbiers are a useful addition to the recipe book. They’re very forgiving of temperature fluctuations during fermentation (i.e., great for beginners), and are especially handy when you need a batch of beer to go from grain to glass in a couple of weeks (i.e., great for anyone strapped for time).
The traditional wit recipe is roughly equal parts continental Pilsner malt and unmalted/flaked wheat, with oats on top of that at around 5-10% of the grain bill. A multi-step mash is usually performed with a beta-glucan rest at 110°F (or a protein rest at 120°F) and a saccharification rest around 154°F. The multi-step mash breaks down proteins that make the flaked grains gummy, avoiding the frustration of a stuck mash (replacing it, in my opinion, with the frustration of missing multiple step temperatures in my converted cooler mash tun … but more on that in a moment). In the boil, a small early addition of noble hops for bittering is typical, with coriander and orange peel (often Curaçao bitter orange, also known as laraha) added near the end.
My variation was developed in response to the need for an easy brewday and my desire for a bit more flavor than is offered by most commercial witbiers. First, the grain:
- 4.25 lbs Belgian Pilsner malt
- 4.25 lbs white wheat malt
- 1 lb flaked oats
- 0.25 lbs (4 oz) Munich malt
The substitution of malted white wheat for flaked wheat eliminates the need to do a multi-step mash, but just to be safe – since I still had about 10% flaked oats – I included 8 oz of rice hulls to keep the lauter flowing freely and did a single infusion mash at 151°F. The Munich was included to bring a little color and a touch of malty flavor.
I boiled for 100 minutes – longer than my usual 90, but just by accident. I added 0.55 oz of 8.2% AA American Santiam hops at the 60-minute mark. Santiam is a hop I hadn’t used before, but being related to German Tettnanger and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh (and thus more noble than American “Tettnang” hops which are actually descended from Fuggles) it seemed a worthy candidate. I got floral and peppery notes from it.
But the end of the boil was where things really got interesting. With 1 minute left in the boil, I added:
- 0.2 oz dried bitter orange peel (left over from a previous batch)
- 1 oz fresh blood orange zest (about 4 oranges’ worth)
- 12 g crushed coriander
- 3 g crushed grains of paradise
The original gravity was 1.053, technically a point past the upper end of the style, but I’m not complaining. I pitched a starter of White Labs WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale Yeast, an obvious choice for the style – but underpitched slightly by using a 900 mL starter. This should lead the yeast to produce more clove phenols to counterpoint the fresh zest and peppery spices. I started the fermentation at 68°F, but gradually heated the chamber up to 72°F by the third day, which should also accentuate the phenols. If it seems like I’m hedging my bets on phenol production, I am. This is my third wit, and the other two didn’t have nearly the fermentation flavor I was looking for.
I keg it two weeks from brewday, and I’ll be serving it just in time for the beginning of March and my ultimate reason for brewing this: a month of Game of Thrones viewings to prepare for the new season starting in April. It’s the reason I named this brew Wit Walker White Ale, and I think it’ll be a perfect beer to have on tap for Game of Thrones catch-up. It’s light enough to go with a variety of snacks. It’s sessiony enough to keep drinking through hours of viewings without getting drowsy or losing the plot in a beery stupor. And yes, it’s accessible enough to share with all my friends, even those who aren’t on the hardcore brew bandwagon yet. And by loading it up with flavors I like, I can guarantee myself something I can still be proud to drink along with everyone else … something so familiar, but completely new.
Monday. It gets a bad rap for bringing to an end all that fun we had for two-sevenths of each week. As though Monday is personally responsible, as though it rose up out of the shadows of the future to personally smother the weekend in the prime of its youth with a lumpy, off-white pillow.
Now I hate the moon’s day as much as the next guy. But I’m changing that starting today by giving myself – and hopefully you – a reason to look forward to Mondays. What is this gift, you ask? Why, nothing less (or more) than the vicarious and voyeuristic thrill of hearing about some beers I drank over the weekend.
Excited yet? I am. Let’s begin.
Sunday was brew day. To get myself going, I started with breakfast at home: scrambled eggs and center-cut bacon cooked perfectly by the gal I love while I made these yeasted brown butter waffles from Bon Appétit magazine. They’re the best waffles I’ve ever eaten, easy to prepare – most of the work is done the night before – and they go great with real maple syrup or mixed-berry compote (for an added brewer’s-breakfast touch, I sometimes have mine with homemade barley malt syrup).
I discovered they also went wonderfully with a Founders Breakfast Stout. I hoarded a few bottles of this October-December seasonal offering, and these were unfortunately the last, but I will be brewing this clone recipe from Brew Your Own in the very near future. There’s just something about this beer I can’t get enough of. Is it the childlike joy of having the flavor and aroma of chocolate on my palate first thing in the morning? The silky smoothness of satisfying oats? Or the skillful use of coffee in exactly the right amount to achieve a perfect balance of bitter with sweet, no mean feat for an ingredient as easy to overdo as coffee? I don’t know, but it’s sublime. At 8.3% ABV, it’s a wake-up of the most pleasant kind. I wouldn’t recommend getting it in your mouth before that first bite of waffle, but I won’t judge you if you do.
After the grain dust had settled on my brew day and my blood orange witbier wort (details to follow later this week) was safely locked away in its fermentation chamber, I went on a mission for Indian take-out: chicken tikka masala and saag aloo. I paired this with a bomber of Ballast Point Indra Kunindra, a 7% ABV India-style export stout with curry, cumin, cayenne, coconut, and kaffir lime leaf (say that list of ingredients five times fast). Ballast Point is a brewery I’m still getting acquainted with, having only had their Sculpin IPA … but Indra Kunindra was such a unique idea I was looking forward to trying it. The curry and kaffir lime came through with a noticeable fresh/tart/hot burst, but the export stout at the beer’s base was just too middle-of-the-road for the aromatics overlying it. It might have worked better as a fuller bodied sweet stout (with more residual sugar to bring out the coconut and lime) or even as a dry stout (with more roast to accentuate the spices). As it was, it just felt dissonant. It didn’t go all that well with the food, either. The spices and aromatics were analogous, but the stout demanded a heartier protein pairing. My favorite Indian spot doesn’t do beef curry, so I’ll stick with IPA for my next take-out.
Sadly, I missed out on the hat trick by not being able to make it up to one of my favorite weekend stout spots: Pinthouse Pizza Craft Brewpub. Late last week they tapped The Big Lebarrelski, a special offering on both nitro and CO2 of their White Russian Imperial Stout (“The Dude” – definitely my favorite stout in Austin) aged in Four Roses Bourbon barrels. Here’s hoping they still have some next weekend. If they do, I’ll tell you all about it next Monday …
Super Bowl XLVIII is history and the world has turned its collective attention to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, but before I hang up my big foam finger and retire the word clinch from my vocabulary until August, let’s take a moment to celebrate a gridiron tradition: the Hail Mary play. A long-shot pass down the field with a minimal chance of success, a last-ditch effort for a team with nothing to lose. I don’t know who did it first, but presumably many years ago some coach realized that when faced with an all-or-nothing situation, it can’t hurt to do something crazy. Whoever that coach was, he would have made a great homebrewer.
My own homebrew Hail Mary happened at the end of last year. I can take credit for the execution, but the idea for the play came from my wife/recipe consultant Lisa.
On Thanksgiving Day, I finished my pumpkin ale, leaving me with an empty tap and nothing ready to serve. I must have been complaining loudly, because Lisa stepped up, baby in hand. “What are those?” she said, pointing to two 1-gallon carboys hiding in the shadows at the back of the closet under the stairs.
A few years ago I started making occasional small batches. After realizing that the 1-gallon carboys my homebrew supplier sold for $5 were nearly identical to the gallon-size glass jugs of organic apple juice at the grocery for $7, I just bought the juice and figured I’d save the jug when it was empty. But why waste that apple juice by drinking it when I could ferment it instead? Plain apple juice is all you need for a simple dry cider, so I pitched 3 grams of Safale S-04 into the jug and sealed it with a stopper and airlock. Incidentally, I chose S-04 for its high flocculation, assuming it would yield clearer cider. I was wrong; later I learned about pectin haze, a common “flaw” in ciders caused by pectin in apples and treatable with pectic enzyme if you care to. (As it turns out, I don’t mind hazy cider, so I’ve never bothered with it.)
I bought four juice jugs, but didn’t ferment them all at once. I pitched Batch #1 right away and bottled it four weeks later (oh, the anticipation of something new). I made Batch #2 a few months later and bottled it after eight weeks, then pitched the yeast cake into Batch #3. That was September 2011, right around the time I remembered that I like beer much more than cider and would rather drink it instead. I managed to finish off the cider I’d bottled, but held off bottling more until I was ready for it.
And then forgot about it completely.
In early February 2013, I was telling a friend how easy it is to make apple cider, and suddenly remembered the carboy that had been sitting there for nearly a year and a half. Trepidatious about tasting a seventeen-month-old cider, I put off the moment of truth by making Batch #4 instead, figuring I’d bottle both batches later that year. Of course, “later that year” soon became “Oh shit, it’s November.”
And that’s how we found ourselves on Thanksgiving Day looking at two little carboys full of cider with a combined age of thirty-six months. I reminded Lisa what they were, and voiced my concern that they might not be drinkable after all this time. I hated to spend the time bottling them if they weren’t going to be any good. I wondered if I should toss them.
“If the alternative is throwing them away,” she said, “why not keg them and blend them? Add some spices to mask the imperfections if you need to. Actually, make it a holiday cider with mulling spices.”
This, Internet, is just a glimpse of the general awesomeness of this woman and why I’ve been with her for twenty years …
As great an idea as it was, I reminded her that I already had plans for the now-empty keg. I needed it for another beer that was ready for cold storage but wouldn’t be ready to drink for a month.
“Just buy a new keg,” she said. “Do they make small ones? Then you’ll have a portable keg so you can take it out of the house.”
… twenty wonderful years.
My memory is hazy as to when exactly I ordered the keg, but I’m sure I waited at least 75 seconds after she suggested it. A few days and trips to the store later, I made a spice potion with:
- 4 oz vodka
- 1 1/2 cinnamon sticks, whole
- 1/2 tbsp crystallized ginger, minced
- 1/2 tsp allspice, crushed
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg, grated
- 1 clove, whole
- 1/2 tsp star anise, crushed
- a dash of grains of paradise, crushed
- zest of 1 orange
I let the potion steep until mid-December and racked it just in time for the holidays. I may not be much of a cider guy, but I was impressed.
Tart and dry, a little astringent, fashionably sour. The star anise was a little overpowering, but the cinnamon and clove really backed it up. The spices were strong, but that’s what elevated it from “just cider” to “holiday cider.” A friend sampling a glass came up with the brilliant idea of mixing it with ginger ale, which became my favorite way to drink it. I named it VertiCore, fitting for a vertical blend of apple ciders. And if I hadn’t bragged about it to everyone who tasted it, they’d never know that half the blend was over two years old.
So the Hail Mary paid off in a big way, thanks to a good play call by a great recipe coach. In fact, I may just lose another cider or two in the back of the closet. Christmas is coming again in 2016, right?