As I’ve written before on this site, I’m not much of a cider guy. I don’t hate it or anything, but I will nearly always reach for a beer first, and I admit to not completely understanding the current cider craze. Sorry, cider fans … I just think they all taste pretty much the same.
But there’s a time and a place for them, or rather several times and places. Two times and places that immediately come to mind are:
- My backyard in mid-May, when spring begins to turn into a scorching Texas summer
- A party at my house, when my kegerator is broken and I need a fast/easy small batch of something to serve to my friends
Cider – at least the way I make it – is so easy, it’s the go-to whenever I need a small batch to pop into the kegerator (or, in this case, into a KEGlove cooler sleeve) to fill an empty tap. All I do is pour a few gallons of organic unfiltered apple juice into a fermenter, pitch a bit of dry yeast, and wait. Okay, sure, sometimes I just pitch yeast directly into the glass jug the juice came in and ferment in that … I’m a Louisiana boy by birth, and we like to keep things simple.
Except when we don’t. And this time I didn’t.
I decided that for my recent batch of cider, I would mix things up a little bit. I’ve been hearing a lot about hopped cider – and having not tasted any (see above re: “I will nearly always reach for a beer first”) – and seeing as how I have a ton of hops in my freezer, I thought now was the time to try it out for myself.
The somewhat experimental cider – experimental not in the sense that no one is doing it, because everyone is; but experimental in the sense that I just winged it without bothering to do any research on how they are doing it – ended up being called Bineta Applebum Hopped Cider – in reference to the song “Bonita Applebum” off the first album by A Tribe Called Quest, but spelled B-I-N-E for bine, like a hop bine … get it?
P.S. – I know that if you have to explain a joke, it’s a shitty joke.
P.P.S. – R.I.P. Malik Taylor, a.k.a. Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, who was taken from us in March 2016 in between the deaths of David Bowie and Keith Emerson and Prince and oh my God this year has sucked for music fans and it’s not even June.
You know what? To paraphrase Charlie Papazian, let’s just get on with the recipe.
This really is one of the easiest brews I’ve ever done. Here are the ingredients:
- 2 gal (4 half-gallon bottles) Trader Joes Honeycrisp Apple Cider (unfiltered juice)
- 1 oz Cascade hops (7.1% AA)
- 2 tsp yeast nutrient
- 1 packet Mangrove Jack’s Burton Union Yeast (M79)
The main point of interest here is the hops, so let’s talk about them. I chose Cascade because I have a crap-ton of them on hand, and I figured if this was an experiment I might as well use the most basic American hop imaginable just to keep down on weird variables. I wanted to add half the hops before fermentation, and half afterwards as dry hops.
For the pre-fermentation hops, I brought a pint of the juice to a boil, then turned off the heat and added a half-ounce of Cascade and the yeast nutrient. I steeped this mixture for as long as it took me to sanitize the fermenter and pour the rest of the juice into it.
A word about the yeast nutrient: it’s not absolutely essential, and I’ve made good cider without it. The sugar in apple juice is fructose, which is pretty easily handled by ale yeast. But I didn’t want to take any chances, partially because I was going for a clean ferment to let the hops shine through, and partially because my Mangrove Jack’s yeast was 11 months past the expiration date. (If you won’t tell anyone, I won’t … tell anyone else, that is.)
Once the bulk of the juice was in the fermenter, I added the hot hopped juice and pitched the limping-on-its-last-leg expired yeast (in case you’re wondering, it worked just fine). The OG measured 1.046.
The cider fermented over the next three weeks to a FG of 0.996, giving an ABV of 6.6%. Not too shabby for a bit of juice from a plastic jug and some bargain-bin yeast. I added the other half-ounce of Cascade I had set aside for dry hops. One week in the fermenter, and then into my small-batch keg it went.
The cider was a hit. It was refreshing, the hops came through nicely, and everyone at the party could detect a little something special in the cider even if they couldn’t quite figure out what it was. We nearly emptied the short keg in an afternoon … there was one glass left in the keg by the end of the day, which allowed me to get this picture and toast to a successful experiment:
I will brew this again someday, maybe even with more interesting hops, the next time I need a small batch of something to fill an empty tap or satisfy a party need. But I’m hoping that won’t be the case again anytime soon, because I have recently received a freight shipment of …
my brand new kegerator!
… and the kegs of beer I have sitting in a fermentation chamber cranked down to 37°F to keep fresh will soon be on tap again. I hope to get the kegerator set up and running in the next few days, and don’t worry, I will document it here with all the appropriate fanfare and celebration. Watch this space for updates, and until then, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.
By the time this is published, I will be on a plane for a week-long Disney vacation with the family. The little ones will spend the week basking in the glow of fireworks, the thrill of rides and the utter fabulousness of a certain snow queen, while my wife and I will count the footsteps from the Dole Whip kiosk to wherever we can occasionally find a decent beer on draft. They’re there. Trust me. They aren’t easy to find, but they’re there.
Okay, I’m bending the truth a little. Not about the beers (they really are there if you know where to look), but about Momma and Daddy’s lack of enthusiasm for the whole Disney thing. Actually my wife is totally into it, and I am definitely not too proud to sing a rousing chorus of “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” while sailing out of the darkness of Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course Disney now owns the Star Wars universe, and Jawas and stormtroopers will litter the landscape more than strollers. And, as my closest friends know, I absolutely love the wordplay and hilariously maladjusted cast of characters in the Winnie the Pooh series … so yeah, I’ll be as happy as a bear in a honey-tree with the whole Disney thing.
My kids are similarly obsessed. Both of them are very big on Mickey. More to my own taste, though, my son is fascinated with Star Wars (he loves the Dark Side and runs around saying “I’m Kywoh Ren!” – should I be concerned?). My baby daughter learned the word “Pooh” before pretty much any other word, and she means the bear, not … the other thing.
In honor of my family’s unanimous love for these stories and characters, in fact, I decided a few weeks ago to design beers to commemorate both Winnie the Pooh and Kywoh – er, Kylo – Ren. So without further ado, below are the first drafts of the recipes I’ve come up with.
Warning: minor spoilers in the notes below for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is landing on home video this week. Watch it, then read this.
Kylo Ren beer: Dark Awakening Black IPA
- 13 lbs 8 oz American pale malt
- 12 oz Dehusked Carafa III
- 8 oz Chocolate Malt
- 6.25 AAU of Mosaic hops at 60 minutes
- 7 AAU of Galaxy hops at 60 minutes
- 12.25 AAU of Mosaic hops at flameout
- 14 AAU of Galaxy hops at flameout
- 1 oz of Mosaic hops for dry hopping
- 1 oz of Galaxy hops for dry hopping
- American ale yeast (Fermentis SafAle US-05)
OG 1.071, IBU 75.8, SRM 37, ABV 7%.
Notes on ingredients:
Grain – American pale malt because it’s an American IPA. Dehusked Carafa III is a standard dark malt for the style that adds color without astringency. Chocolate malt is a little unorthodox, and will add a bit more body and roast flavor than typical for the style, but the roasty notes should add a welcome roughness around the edges, just like that unstable young man in black and that fuzzy-looking lightsaber he carries.
Hops – Mosaic and Galaxy are both fantastic hops and delicious in IPA. Mosaic is trendy and still a little bit new on the scene, but you can’t argue objectively with its capabilities. (Hello, Kylo.) And Galaxy … well, you know. Far, far away and all that. There are a lot of hops, but I want it bitter. Bitter like an emo kid who thinks the best way to get back at his parents is to take over the galaxy.
Winnie the Pooh beer: Silly Old Bear Hunny Wheat
- 6 lbs Maris Otter
- 1 lb 8 oz Flaked Wheat
- 4 oz Crystal 15
- 5.4 AAU of East Kent Goldings at 60 minutes
- 1.8 AAU of East Kent Goldings at 15 minutes
- 2 lbs Honey at 5 minutes
- English ale yeast (Fermentis SafAle S-04)
OG 1.047, IBU 27, SRM 4, ABV 5.4%.
Notes on ingredients:
Grain – Maris Otter because it’s as English and traditional as A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin. Flaked wheat to stuff the beer with velvety smoothness. Crystal 15 to add a touch of honey sweetness. And of course, honey in the kettle near the end of the boil when it’s “Time for something sweet!”
Hops – Not the focus of this beer, so just a little bit of East Kent Goldings for enough hop bitterness and character to balance the sweet, fruity crispness of fermented honey. The bitterness is on the high end of the spectrum for American wheat and on the low end of the spectrum for an English ordinary bitter.
If you’d like to offer any tips or suggestions while I’m away on vacation – or even brew one of these before I get around to it – please share your thoughts here. Soon after I get back from the Most Magical Place on Earth, I’ll try my hand at brewing one or both of these myself.
Until then, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.
You could say I’m a “high concept” recipe designer. I like to include ingredients that have some fun meaning or reference so that each beer recipe tells a story. Sometimes, though, the concept is way more unique than the recipe itself.
My wife has (and therefore my two kids have) a strong strain of what Americans call “Scotch-Irish” heritage. They’re the people who left Scotland to settle Ireland in the 1600’s when the English started crowding them out, then came to America in the 1700’s after the English followed them to Ireland, only to move out west and build homesteads on the frontier when they found the American colonies populated by – you guessed it – more English.
Scotch-Irish is the heritage of the early American moonshiners who started the Whiskey Rebellion, of Davy Crockett and Texas President (back when it was an independent republic) Sam Houston, and the kind of anti-establishment iconoclasts who’ve defined the American cultural landscape from Mark Twain to Alec Baldwin. They’re tough. They’re rugged. They’re unapologetic individualists who don’t take crap from anyone. They know it, and they make sure you know it.
And they all claim to be related to Davy Crockett. They really, really love Davy Crockett.
For a descendant of Italian immigrants like myself – whose ancestors left the strangling misery of a life of endless toil on farms in Southern Sicily to enjoy the unbounded freedom of endless toil on farms in Southern Louisiana – it’s usually easier to just let the Scotch-Irish have their way, especially when you’re outnumbered 3 to 1. Even when their Protestant Irish self-importance leads them to openly proclaim wild and baseless assertions like “Bushmills Whiskey is better than Jameson!” one learns to just concede the point before some’un reckons it’s time to fetch a musket and settle things the frontier way.
But I love ’em. I love ’em almost as much as they love Davy Crockett, and that’s a lot. So when formulating a recipe for a “Scotch-Irish stout” recently to celebrate the lineage of 75% of my household, I sought to brew something bold. Uncompromising. Full-bodied but smooth and pleasant. Sufficiently Irish, but with that untamable individualism common to the Scots and their frontier American descendants.
I started with my recipe for Anna Livia Irish Stout. My most recent variation on that was:
- 6 lbs 14 oz Irish pale malt (Malting Co. of Ireland Stout Malt)
- 2 oz Acid Malt (for a lactic tart hint; the notorious “Guinness tang”)
- 2 lbs Flaked Barley
- 1 lb Black Roasted Barley
- 10.8 AAU of English hops (East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, etc.) at 60 minutes
- Irish Ale Yeast (White Labs WLP 004)
OG 1.049, 42.2 IBU, SRM 34, ABV 4.9%. Good astringency, a bit of tartness … a little higher gravity and alcohol, but otherwise a fair approximation of an Irish Stout, BJCP 2015 style 15B.
The first thing I did was “Scotch-Irish up” the recipe up by replacing the Irish base malt with British malt. I didn’t have Golden Promise – which would have been my first choice as a Scottish/Northern English barley variety – but Maris Otter was close enough. I also increased the amount of base malt to result in a stronger beer, befitting the burly in-your-facedness of the Scotch-Irish people. I also removed the acid malt to divorce the Scotch-Irish stout from the Guinness/Dublin legacy that inspired my Irish stout, and replaced that with base malt.
I believe every stout should have some flaked grain in it for that creamy, coat-your-palate mouthfeel. But flaked barley is famously used in Guinness for that reason, so I nixed it for being too Irish. Oats are a staple of Scottish cuisine from oatcakes to haggis, so I replaced the 2 pounds of flaked barley with flaked oats, which is always (to me) a big step up in mouthfeel from flaked barley.
So, to balance that silky mouthfeel of the oats, I wanted a little residual malt sweetness. So I cut the black roasted barley by a few ounces to reduce astringency and added a half pound of chocolate malt.
British hops are pretty all-purpose, so I kept those the same. I also kept the Irish Ale yeast. Although I could have Scotch-Irished the recipe up a bit further by replacing the yeast with something like White Labs WLP028 (Edinburgh Ale), I felt I needed something to retain the Irish character before my Scotch-Irish stout became a Scottish stout. After all, if this had been a real beer brewed by Scottish immigrants to Ireland, the method of pairing imported British ingredients with an indigenous Irish yeast would have been a likely way of brewing it.
So in my mind, I had created a recipe that was wholly unique. Something as original and individual as the Scotch-Irish heritage I was celebrating! I patted myself on the back for a job well done, then looked at the BeerSmith window open on my computer and saw the following recipe staring back at me like Davy Crockett down the barrel of a musket.
- 8 lbs Maris Otter
- 2 lbs Flaked Oats
- 13 oz Black Roasted Barley
- 8 oz Chocolate Malt
- 10.8 AAU of East Kent Goldings at 60 minutes
- Irish Ale Yeast (White Labs WLP 004)
OG 1.057, 40 IBU, SRM 37.5, ABV 5.8%, with medium hop bitterness and malty, chocolatey sweetness. (And if you’ve already spotted the problem, shh! Don’t spoil it.)
It seemed that my “wholly unique” and “original” beer recipe had turned out to be a completely in-style Oatmeal Stout, BJCP 2015 style 16B.
The punchline is that I don’t even really like oatmeal stouts. What’s worse, my Scotch-Irish wife (who loves Irish stout) kind of hates them. But in hindsight, it’s hilarious to think that I ever thought I was designing anything other than the perfectly reasonable but ordinary oatmeal stout that I got.
Don’t get me wrong. The beer (christened Belfast Breakfast Oatmeal Stout) turned out to be delicious. It’s sweet and smooth, easy drinking but unavoidably stout without coating your palate like a pint of motor oil. And as you can see, it sure is pretty to look at. My roundabout way of backing into a recipe for an Oatmeal Stout (with a capital O. S. for “Oh, Sh-t”) instead of intentionally trying to design one, actually produced a version that I like a lot more than any commercial oatmeal stout I’ve ever had. So there’s that. But it’s an interesting lesson in being so high-concept, getting so wrapped up in my own cleverness, that I fail to see how what I’m doing is nothing new. How it’s been done before … many, many times.
There’s still something unique about it in the unique combination of ingredients I used to get there – and I will make it again, especially next time I get a hold of some Golden Promise malt; I might even brew an imperial version and age it with oak and some Bushmills.
But as it turned out, the only story my supposedly high-concept Scotch-Irish stout tells is “Once upon a time, Shawn accidentally brewed a surprisingly decent oatmeal stout. The end.” Decent beer, not much of a story. Or is it? In today’s foodie world where we celebrate the pedigree of every ingredient that goes into our food and beverage, from floor-malted barley to heirloom tomatoes, maybe it’s enough to have an interesting story behind the ingredients used to make something familiar.
At least, that’s the story I’m sticking with. And I think Davy Crockett and every Scotch-Irish American would approve of me going against the … uh, grain … with a little blustery self-importance.
The recipe is posted in the Recipes section of the website, along with its more Irish cousin Anna Livia Irish Stout. Try them both and tell me what you think … and until next time, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.
A new Godzilla movie comes out today! I’m a fan of the kaiju classics, so I’ve got my ticket for tonight. Babysitting realities prevented me from going to any of the advance screenings this week, but no matter – I’ve been prepping for tonight by watching Showa-era Toho kaiju movies for weeks with my thirteen-month-old. He’s enjoying them so much that he now smiles every time he sees the Toho Company logo, laughs when he hears an Akira Ifukube score, and kicks happily when he sees Godzilla’s head (sure signs that I’m doing something right as a dad).
Last night while watching Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, I also tapped the first glass of my new dry-hopped saison Le Petit Kaiju. This was an update of last year’s Le Petit Plésiosaure, a Summit-hopped pseudo-clone of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace I brewed and bottled to give as favors at my wife’s baby shower. Why kaiju this time? Not just because of Godzilla’s return to the big screen. See, we’ve been calling our little one “kaiju” for as long as I can remember. And replacing the peaceful, cuddly Loch Ness Monster I featured on the Plésiosaure label with the shrieking, atomic-breathed, stomping lord of destruction Godzilla seemed very fitting now that he’s a toddler.
The grain bill for the saison was the same as last time. I mashed in with 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) of Belgian pilsner malt for a single rest at 148°F (64°C) for 90 minutes, which is recommended at lower temperatures to ensure full conversion of the starches. I added a pound of dextrose at the beginning of the boil to bring the OG up to 1.067. And lest you turn your nose up at the dextrose, let me say that I believe kettle sugar does wonderful things to the right beer recipe (i.e., dry), and I follow the teachings of Randy Mosher, who said in his book Radical Brewing that Belgian candi sugar – which many would use in a similar recipe – is “a complete rip-off”. Dextrose or evaporated cane sugar for light beers, or a little piloncillo or demerara for darker beers, have never done me wrong if I keep those simple sugars to less than 25% of the fermentables.
I duplicated the Summit bittering hops of Plésiosaure with .4 oz (11.3 g) of 16% AA pellets at 60 minutes, but changed up the later hop additions to pay homage to Gojira’s Japanese island roots. While Sorachi Ace – a Japanese cultivar – would have been perfect, I’m still having trouble sourcing them. I did, however, manage to get my hands on some 15% AA Pacific Jade from New Zealand. It’s still Eastern hemisphere and Pacific rim, and has a profile reminiscent of Sorachi Ace, if not quite as sublime. I added 0.4 oz (7 g) at 30 minutes and 3 oz (85 g) at flameout.
I pitched a starter of White Labs WLP565 and fermented for 3 weeks before dry hopping with my last ounce (28 g) of the Pacific Jade hops, which sat in the fermenter for 2 more weeks. The FG was 1.005, leaving this kaiju saison a monster at 8.2% ABV, even stronger than last year’s batch.
Surprisingly, Le Petit Kaiju is very easy drinking, as I found out last night. It poured a lovely golden straw color. A little cloudier and thicker than I expected, but this was the first glass off the keg so there was a lot of sediment in suspension.
The head dissipated very quickly, so more time on the CO2 will do it good. But the aroma is sweet and citrusy, almost like lemonade, with a lot of yeasty character. As for the flavor, it’s spicy and lemony, bold and memorable. But it’s not quite dry enough. At first I was shocked by the heavy mouthfeel given the low FG, but then I remembered all the yeast in suspension. I’m hoping once the dregs are drawn off and I get some clear beer out of this keg, it will have the dry character I’m looking for. I’ve got a lot more Toho movies to show my little kaiju this summer, and I’m going to need lots of refreshment.
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.
You are a fear prisoner. Yes, you are a product of fear. – Jim Cunningham, Donnie Darko
Halloween is just around the corner, and in home breweries across the world, brewers are enjoying their seasonal pumpkin beers.
Mine isn’t ready yet. I kegged it a few days ago and it should be ready to drink by the weekend. Later than I had hoped it would be ready, but still in time for Halloween.
Just getting this beer brewed meant overcoming a fear tucked deep in my psyche between the memory of watching the movie Poltergeist when I was six years old and my recurring nightmare of showing up naked to school on standardized test day. Why was I afraid? Decision paralysis. With so many options and things I thought could go wrong, I was always intimidated by the idea of brewing pumpkin beer.
Google “pumpkin homebrew”. Do it now; I’ll wait.
You probably noticed two things: 1) how many of the recipes have names inspired by a prominent 90’s alternative rock band (“Smashing Pumpkin Ale”, “Pumpkin SMaSH”, etc.) and 2) how many different ways there are to brew it. Fresh pumpkin or canned. Pumpkin in the mash, or boil, or secondary. Or no pumpkin; just spices. And which spices? Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove, allspice, chai tea. All of the above. None of the above. Then there’s the reported complexity factor of working with pumpkin as an ingredient. It’s thick, it’s gummy, and by most accounts is a hassle that mucks up your brew day, threatening stuck sparges if added in the mash or high wort loss to trub in the kettle or fermenter.
It was all too much. A clear path to success never presented itself, and I’m just not a “jump in and see what happens” kind of guy. So year after year, paralyzed by fear, I let September tick by until it was too late to brew pumpkin beer in time for Halloween. But as I’ve said before, raising a baby has emboldened me as a brewer. And since for Halloween 2012 I overcame my lifelong fear of Poltergeist by watching it for the second time in a year, I figured for Halloween 2013 I should conquer another crippling fear. So I took a deep breath and built a recipe, trusting that the result would at least technically qualify as beer.
As it turns out, my old fears were unfounded. My first pumpkin beer was laughably easy. My sparge didn’t stick and I hit my target OG exactly. Based on the samples I’ve tasted so far, the beer is great, tasting just like liquid pumpkin pie in a glass.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In mid-September, I brought the ingredients together. At the top of the marquee:
- 3.75 lbs (4 – 15 oz cans) Organic Canned Pumpkin Puree
I’m always amazed by how many “pumpkin” beer recipes leave pumpkin out and just use pumpkin pie spice. Some brewers who go this route claim pumpkin has little flavor and little convertible starch, thus adding virtually nothing to the beer that makes up for the hassle of working with it. Well, those brewers are welcome to brew “pumpkin” or “pumpkin spice” beers however they want, but I believe you can’t call something something unless that something has that something in it. “Pumpkin” beverages that trick your tongue with spice-based sleight of hand belong in paper cups with green mermaid logos. Craft and homebrewed beer should be honest.
So for me, whether or not to use pumpkin was never really a question. But “how” was. Adding it to the mash tun sounded like an interesting twist on my brew day, so I did. I considered roasting whole pie pumpkins and using the pulp, but price, availability, and the added prep work steered me toward canned pumpkin instead – pure pumpkin puree, that is, not canned “pumpkin pie filling” which has other stuff added to it.
Pumpkin puree’s high density means it has a very high thermal mass. So when adding it to the mash it takes more heat – hotter water or more hot water – to raise it to a target rest temperature. To counter this, I preheated the pumpkin to 154°F on the stove top while the strike water was heating outside. Leaving the puree unattended for a few minutes while I checked on the strike water produced a fantastic unintended result: some pumpkin stuck to the bottom of the saucepan and burned a little, imparting a caramelized/roasted flavor to the puree. I’ll do it on purpose next time.
In the mash tun, I mashed in the grain – the “crust” of my liquid pumpkin pie:
- 11 lbs Maris Otter (nutty, bready)
- 1.25 lbs Caravienne (light caramel, residual sugar)
- 1 lb Victory (toasty, biscuit)
- 0.25 lb Crystal 150L (dark caramel, raisin)
- 0.5 lb Rice Hulls (to aid sparging and counteract the pumpkin’s gumminess)
After I stablized the mash at 153°F with grain and water only, I mixed in the “quick-roasted” pumpkin. Preheating turned out to be a good idea. The mash didn’t drop temperature when the pumpkin was added.
After mashing for 60 minutes, I sparged (very smoothly, thank you rice hulls) and sent it all to the kettle, where I added 6.7 AAU of Hallertau at the 60-minute mark and Irish Moss at the 15-minute mark. With 1 minute left in the boil, things got interesting when I added a pumpkin pie spice blend of my own design:
- 2 Cinnamon Sticks (whole)
- 1 tbsp Crystallized Ginger (minced)
- 1.5 tsp Allspice (whole berries, crushed)
- 0.75 tsp Nutmeg (whole, grated)
I hit my OG target of 1.068 and pitched 17 grams rehydrated Safale US-05. Chico yeast made short work of the fermentables and flocculated out around day seven. I tasted the conditioning beer after two weeks, pleased to taste spice and and a vegetal squashy pumpkin-ness that flies in the face of the “pumpkin doesn’t add any flavor” argument. The only thing missing was the grandma’s-kitchen spice aroma I was hoping for. So I made a spice potion from 8 ounces of vodka and the exact same spice blend I used in the boil (see above). That steeped for 18 days in a covered Mason jar before I added it at kegging time. FG was 1.017 for a calculated 6.7% ABV.
I see no reason to buck the trend of naming pumpkin beers after a certain Chicago alt-rock group. But I do think it’s time we get a little more creative with our references. So I christened my beer Melancholy Bill’s Infinitely Sad Pumpkin Ale. Have I forever raised the bar for pumpkin beer names? Have I paid sufficient homage to the season for spooks with a name that sounds right out of a ghost story told by flashlight? Or am I just a dork?
You decide. I’m okay with anything. After all, I’m raising my glass of pumpkin homebrew to a victory over one more fear this Halloween.
I vote we go back to the Slaughtered Lamb. – Jack Goodman, An American Werewolf in London
Homebrew inspiration can come from strange places. My favorite homebrews are the ones that were inspired not just by an imagined set of flavors, but by places I’ve visited, stories I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, etc. I love using the language of malt, hops, and yeast to tell a story about something more than beer. The trick, though, is that brewing is not an abstract art. A good concept might make for a great conversation starter, but no matter how high-concept a brew is, if it doesn’t taste good I don’t want to be stuck with five gallons of it (I graduated from a Catholic university in New Orleans, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to brew a crawfish & Bananas Foster porter with Trappist ale yeast for the alumni picnic). Finding the right balance between concept and taste is the ultimate goal.
In spring 2011, Lisa and I visited the United Kingdom for three weeks and spent a lot of time in pubs. We drank real ales from so many regional breweries whose names I can’t remember (except for Brains – #1 among zombies in South Wales) served at cellar temperature, often from beer engines – though at one awesome hole-in-the-wall in a one-road hamlet in Scotland I think I remember drinking beer dispensed from a cardboard box. The taste and aroma of real British ale, even the sight of the interior of a British pub, are vivid and powerful memories for me.
In summer 2012, I saw John Landis’ 1981 film An American Werewolf in London for the first time and my nostalgia was kindled by an early scene in the film at a fictitious Yorkshire pub called the “Slaughtered Lamb”. So I brewed a special bitter with English malts and American hops that I named Kessler’s Rampage Special Bitter in homage to the film’s main character and titular werewolf. Not long after I kegged it my sister-in-law and her husband, a native Sussaxon*, came to visit for a week and emptied the keg while I wasn’t looking. I took that as a compliment, and decided to brew it again this summer.
The 2013 version was 94% (8 lbs) Fawcett’s Optic malt, reportedly the base used by Fuller’s and other UK breweries. 4 oz each of Crystal 40 and Crystal 150 rounded out the grain bill. Last year I used Crystal 120 instead of Crystal 150, but otherwise the malt profile was the same in both versions and pretty typical of the style. The mash was one hour at 155°F.
The hops were my chance to freestyle. American homebrewers can be pretty predictable in their hop selections for English pale ales – occasionally someone might get bold and use a little Fuggles, but generally it’s either East Kent Goldings, East Kent Goldings, or another … what’s it called? oh yeah, East Kent Goldings. I suppose that’s what judges look for in competition, but the lack of originality disappoints me. American pale ales and English pale ales are cousin styles, and I see no reason why American hops can’t play a role in a damn fine English bitter if the right ones are chosen – i.e., probably not the 4 C’s (though I suspect someone has done it well).
In 2012, I used exclusively American hops in keeping with the inspiration (you can see both recipes here). For 2013, I deviated with one English hop in the mix:
- 0.5 oz Warrior (15% AA) at 60 minutes
- 0.5 oz Progress (6.6% AA) at 15 minutes
- 0.4 oz Willamette (4% AA) at 5 minutes
Although Progress is English and Willamette is American, both are Fuggle derivatives, so I thought they would pair nicely together despite being a slight variation on the original inspiration. Consider it an homage to Jenny Agutter’s character Alex in the film, the English love interest of the American David Kessler (yes, I can rationalize anything with my artsy symbolic bullshit).
I pitched Safale S-04 into the wort with an OG of 1.046. True to the old adage that “English yeast do it faster,” the fermentation bottomed out at 1.010 less than 48 hours later, leaving me with an ABV of 4.7%, palpable but still sessionable. I kegged it after 4 weeks, and after 2 weeks under refrigeration it’s just starting to get good enough to drink.
I don’t have any of last year’s batch left over to do a true vertical tasting, but I’m a little disappointed in this year’s model. I’m not sure the Progress hops were a good addition (sorry, Jenny). I’ve used them in more robust English-style beers like porters and stouts to great effect, but with so little malt character to hide behind, I’m getting a strong tropical fruit flavor though it is mellowing with time in the keg. The other fault is less diacetyl than I like in this style, though it may be hiding under all those Progress hops and may become more obvious as the hop flavor mellows.
So the beer’s not perfect. But considering I half expected the skies to open up, swarms of locusts and some ancient BJCP curse to fall upon me when I put hops other than East Kent Goldings in a special bitter, I think I’m still coming out ahead. I don’t get the feeling of being an American lost in Britain in this version, but my second Transatlantic ale experiment is good enough to brew again. And again. Until I get it right.
*Sussaxon: a native of East or West Sussex. My brother-in-law assures me this although this term is technically accurate, no one uses it. We both like it because it makes us think of the people of Sussex as mud-splattered, armor-clad Saxons performing great acts of manly savagery like raiding cottages across the southern coast of Great Britain. They’re not.