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More Irish than Guinness?

March is nearly over, and I haven’t blogged for a while. I just finished two consecutive restless weeks that left little time for writing: first a trip to California for my day job, and then several days of cleaning, organizing and baby-gear-assembling at the behest of my wife Lisa, who has become a prolific nester in the last weeks of her pregnancy. But if one event could pull me out of my unintended hiatus, it would be that annual celebration of all things Irish and all things alcoholic: St. Patrick’s Day.

I don’t have any Irish ancestry that I’m aware of, though there are gaps in my family tree that make it possible. But I do love all things Gaelic. Green is my favorite color. The Pogues are in heavy rotation on my iPod. James Joyce is one of my favorite authors. There’s even that whole “being named Shawn” thing. So I’m claiming partial Irish heritage until someone presents me with a notarized document proving I’m not. I call it being “Irish by bullshit,” but it is sincere bullshit.

While St. Patrick’s Day is most people’s favorite day of the year to be Irish by bullshit, for me it’s third behind June 16 (Bloomsday, the celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses) and February 2 (Joyce’s birthday, and coincidentally the day after mine). On those days, it’s possible to find a seat in an Irish pub in Austin if I want to. On St. Pat’s, however, it ain’t. Having an aversion to drunken crowds slurring “Whiskey in the Jar”, I prefer to do my celebrating at home.

So Lisa cooked lamb-and-Guinness stew with potatoes, and sautéed cabbage on the side. The fact that she considered cooking an Irish-themed dish at all, after I once asked her to make pork kidneys for breakfast on Bloomsday, was surprising enough. But there were more surprises in store.

We bought a four-pack of Guinness Draught. She only needed one can for the stew, so that left three for me to “dispose of” without her help, on account of the little leprechaun in her belly. So I took one – er, three – for the team and drank them.

When I visited Dublin in June 2011, I drank draft Guinness constantly, because it was astoundingly delicious in the city of its birth. But back home, with homebrew and so many American craft brews available, it just doesn’t rise high enough on my list to seek it out, and I hadn’t had one since Bloomsday 2012. It’s become for me a special-occasion beer, for my “Irish days,” because it figures so heavily in the Irish culture I’m celebrating.

Let me stop you before you protest. I’ve heard the counterarguments and the accusations of Irish stereotyping. I’ve heard the assertion that Guinness is not Irish and never has been. I’ve read that it’s not popular among today’s hip Dubliners, who prefer imported lagers and craft beer. I know that its British parent company Diageo has taken a lot of criticism – most of it probably deserved – from craft beer circles. But those are modern complaints.

Maybe my outsider’s perspective is skewed, but I’ve studied Irish history. I’ve read Irish authors. I’ve listened to traditional Irish music, and I have noticed that Guinness has been celebrated in Irish culture for centuries. It’s part of Ireland’s history, and its identity as the Irish beer seems, for better or worse, to be here to stay. And I don’t mind, because I’ve always liked it.

So imagine my surprise when I poured one on March 17 and found myself disappointed at its complete lack of flavor.

I remember enjoying it last June. It seems preposterous that my taste buds could have changed so much in nine months (he said, as his pregnant wife listened in annoyed disbelief). But I’ve had a lot of great beers over the last year, many of them full of aggressive hops or intensely rich malts. Maybe I’ve desensitized my palate to the relatively tame Guinness. Whatever the reason, it tasted like nothing. No roast flavor, no sourness, no booziness. It was lacking in every way, and made me a little sad.

Maybe it was just a bad batch, but with Bloomsday coming up, I’m not taking any chances. So I’m putting my Irish-by-bullshit status to the test in a brew-off against the Bubblin’ from Dublin, with myself as judge. If I can brew my own dry stout that puts me more in the mood for a James Joyce reading than the venerable black from St. James’s Gate, maybe I can call myself worthy of that imaginary Irish heritage after all.

In the meantime, I’m sorry, Guinness, but I think we need a break from each other. It’s not you, it’s me. My palate craves a challenge. You really are a well-made beer, and lots of people are going to want to drink you, but I just need a little … more. More what? I don’t know, more roasted barley, maybe a little more alcohol. Just … more. A stouter stout.

But I promise, next time I’m in Dublin, we’ll spend lots of time together. Until then, sláinte, baby.

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Here’s one for the English majors

Last night when reading Mitch Steele’s book IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, I came across this excerpt from a poem by British poet A. E. Housman which Steele used as a chapter epigraph. I recognized two lines, which will be familiar to many of my readers:

Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think.

Spot the familiar lines? I’ll explain just in case. The quote “Malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man” is referenced frequently in beer culture. It appears on T-shirts and in books, and is quoted endlessly on websites dealing with homebrewing and craft beer.

It’s one of those quotes we use to validate our passion, to reclaim some respect in a world that doesn’t always understand our love of beer and occasionally confuses us with the common alcoholic. With such quotes, we seek to remind the world that many drinkers are also great thinkers: from poets (Housman) to politicians (another famous quote is uncertainly attributed to Benjamin Franklin) to philosophers (ditto, Plato).

The Housman quote has always caught my eye because of the reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Milton wrote to – in his own words – “justify the ways of God to men”, something Housman appears to claim beer can do even better. I’m not Milton’s biggest fan, but I’ve read and enjoyed Paradise Lost and was always impressed that Housman seemed to echo one of my beliefs: that a good beer is a work of art as inspiring and enlightening as the world’s great stories. But I never read the rest of Housman’s poem until today.

So imagine my surprise when I read the last two lines above: “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink / For fellows whom it hurts to think.”

Wait, what? Did Housman just say that ale is for guys who can’t think?

I was shocked and confused. I felt unfairly ridiculed and indignant. Was Housman calling beer drinkers morons? Was the malt/Milton quip actually intended as a mordant satire of the self-professed mental acuity of beer drinkers Housman saw as deluded, stupid oafs? Worse still, had beer lovers around the world been bandying this quote around proudly but out of context, little realizing that if Housman were still alive he’d be laughing at us behind his awe-inspiring mustache?

Beer guys aren’t smart? Preposterous! I mean, we all know someone who fits the Hank Hill profile: a canned-lager guzzler of simple tastes, few words and fewer thoughts. But that’s just a guy who drinks beer. A beer guy is a different breed of cat entirely. Beer guys are typically nerds of a unique variety: walking encyclopedias of zythological wisdom, holding databases worth of information in their heads about beer styles, hop profiles, and personal tasting notes collected over years of self-study. Many of the smartest and most educated people I know are beer guys, and are also brilliant in other unrelated professional/creative fields. And that’s not even counting the many scientifically-minded beer writers I don’t know personally, but who have amazed me with complex descriptions of brewing chemistry and biology in terms far beyond the comprehension of my degree in English literature and classical studies.

Which brings me back to Housman, and the fact that if there’s one beer-related skill I learned in college (let’s qualify that with in class) it’s how to analyze a poem about beer. If I wanted to understand what Housman was trying to say, I needed to read the poem in its entirety. It’s entitled “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff” and the complete text of it is here. It’s from a collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad, and I’ll spare you the chore of getting through a full analysis of the poem. I’ve written enough of those for one life.

The gist of it is that some drinking buddies complain to their poet friend that the poems he recites are depressing, and they’d rather have him sing a dancing song to cheer them up. The poet replies that if they want cheer, they need look no further than the beer in their cups. But he cautions his friends that the joy gained by drinking is false and temporary, and once the buzz is past, the harsh realities of life remain. Poetry, he says, should be somber, to inure oneself against these harsh realities.

The poet doesn’t have anything against beer or the people who drink it; in fact, he’s a lover of it himself. He calls it “livelier than the Muse”, and better than Milton at showing humanity a fleeting glimpse of the divine. The “fellows whom it hurts to think” are all of us – beer guys, wine guys, even guys who don’t drink. He’s not saying we’re stupid and it hurts our brains to think, but that we are human and it hurts our souls to think about the world’s imperfections.

And so my short-lived indignation on behalf of my fellow beer nerds proved unnecessary. Far from making fun of us, Housman offers a poignant, if somewhat sobering, message on the role of alcohol and art in our lives. All things considered, it’s a pro-beer message, though with a warning that beer offers only a temporary distraction from reality (but what else can we ask for from the sensory pleasures of food, drink or entertainment?).

But in context, the quote isn’t quite the joyous celebration of beer’s awesome power that I thought it was, and I bet I’m not the only one surprised. It’s a valuable lesson in the importance of learning the context of anyone’s words before we go around quoting them.

Zyme Lord, Episode I: The phantom menace of extract-and-sugar kits

Several days ago I celebrated my 37th birthday, which was also the fourth anniversary of the day I became a homebrewer.

The day I became a homebrewer was not the day I brewed my first beer. That day was long ago in the remote fog of memory we call the 1990’s. It was the year I turned 21, and I got a 2-gallon Mr. Beer starter kit for Christmas. It came with a can of prehopped malt extract and called for a pound of table sugar. There was no boil and I think Fleischmann’s baking yeast was involved. At bottling (a week later!) I spooned loose sugar into each bottle for priming as directed.

The beers tasted like cider vinegar. Carbonation varied wildly from bottle to bottle. At the time, I assumed bad taste and inconsistency were inevitable. After all, I made beer at home, dude! I laughed at the comments and pinched faces of the friends drinking with me and enjoyed the buzz. Remember, I was 21.

And despite the results, I had fallen in love with the idea of brewing my own beer.

I was also trying to finish college, and didn’t find time to brew again. When I left home for grad school, Mr. Beer traveled with me. But it stayed in the box, and for years I kept it in the closet of one apartment after another until one day I finally just threw it out, vowing to brew again “someday”.

Four years ago, I got another starter kit on my birthday: the Coopers Micro-Brew Kit. In some ways it was like Mr. Beer grown up. The fermenter was bigger (30 liters/7.9 gallons). It came with proper brewing yeast and sugar drops for consistent priming. But the extract was still canned and prehopped, it still incorporated simple sugar (dextrose boxed with the kit) and recommended no boil. The beer also came out cidery, not how I wanted.

But I also got several books about brewing that birthday. Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and John Palmer’s How to Brew piqued my interest immediately and I read them from cover to cover. My homebrew wasn’t great, but I was reading about how great homebrew could be. I soon understood why extract-and-sugar kits yielded cidery beers. I realized what my own mistakes were. I looked forward to the next batch and considered what I would do better.

I had become a living embodiment of learning, ambition and self-challenge in the pursuit of better beer. I had become a homebrewer.

I brewed four Coopers batches before I ever touched grain or hops. Then I started working with extract, steeping grains and hop pellets. Then partial mashes for a year, and my first mead and cider. Less than two years after I got my Coopers kit, I brewed my first all-grain beer.

Now when I drink a pint of beer made from scratch from my own recipe, I’m often amazed how far I’ve come. And from what humble beginnings.

Extract-and-sugar systems like Coopers or Mr. Beer (which was purchased by Coopers in April 2012) are looked down on by many homebrewers. Some of that contempt is deserved. These systems oversimplify brewing to a fault: by limiting exposure to real ingredients and brewing processes, they take a lot of risk out of brewing, but at the cost of greatness. It’s almost impossible to fail to make beer with them, but equally impossible to make very good beer with them as sold. It’s disheartening to think of how many “homebrew curious” people must walk away from the hobby forever after tasting one batch of Coopers or Mr. Beer and assuming that’s as good as it gets.

There are also those who deride the kits for taking all the brewing out of “brewing”, and compare them to powdered drink mixes or boxed cake mix. Okay, maybe. You can’t just pour tomato sauce out of a jar onto microwaved pasta and say you made spaghetti from scratch (at least not in the Marchese family). You get more out of brewing when you put more of yourself into it, sure, but everyone has to start somewhere. With extract-and-sugar kits, you learn the basics of sanitation, fermentation, and carbonation: three essential skills a new brewer has to master, and for which there is simply no workaround in the home setting.

So extract-and-sugar is “brewing” more so than buying a six-pack is, just like jarred spaghetti sauce is “cooking” more so than going to a restaurant is. To say Coopers/Mr. Beer is “not brewing” implies that there is such a thing a “real homebrewing”, which I find a bit pompous.

Is it any wonder that some people are intimidated by our hobby? Walking into a homebrew shop for the first time can be terrifying for the uninitiated: shelf after shelf of mysterious products, bro-chatter filling the air with arcane jargon, and opinionated staff members with eccentric facial hair. My wife Lisa once ranked the homebrew shop as equal with the neighborhood comic book store as an intimidating bastion of male geekdom (and she lists beer and comics among the things she geeks on).

And there’s the cost. Extract-and-sugar kits offer a reasonably priced entry point into a hobby that can be expensive to break into, with a minimum of specialized equipment and ingredients so that if you don’t get bitten by the bug, you haven’t blown the baby’s college fund on shit you’ll never use again. These days, there are other inexpensive options available such as the Brooklyn Brew Shop 1-gallon all-grain kits that can be found at many non-specialty stores. Those kits didn’t exist when I started brewing, so I don’t know anything about how good they are. I’ll admit they seem cool.

But all-grain brewing introduces a lot of variables. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Brooklyn Brew Shop kits produce better beer than extract-and-sugar kits in a best-case scenario. But if something goes wrong, there’s a lot to troubleshoot. Why not master a few basic techniques first and then learn additional techniques one at a time?

Ultimately, there are many paths to the same goal of making the beer you like in the way you enjoy making it. The point I’m making is just that there’s no shame in the simple extract-and-sugar kits. With a little knowledge, like I had, they can be the start down a road to bigger challenges and better beer. And that, after all, is why we do it.

Brewing like a Bronze Ager

In the latest podcast episode of Basic Brewing Radio (“Bronze Age Brewing”, aired January 3, 2013) host James Spencer interviewed Ian Hill of the Heritage and Archaeological Research Practice based in the UK, about an ancient “microbrewery” structure discovered by University of Manchester archaeologists at the Bronze Age settlement of Kissonerga-Skalia, near the modern city of Paphos in Cyprus. A link to the story on the Telegraph’s website is below.

Bronze age ‘microbrewery’ discovered in Cyprus

The structure is dated to around 1600 BCE, and included an oven the archaeologists believe was used as a malting kiln, mortars for manual grain crushing, a hearth and clay pots. And you thought your drill-powered malt mill and 60,000-BTU propane burner constituted a bare-bones brewing system …

The conclusion that the structure was a malthouse/brewery came mostly through process of elimination, as Hill explains in the podcast. Some barley was found nearby along with fig seeds, which suggests a barley-based beer, perhaps with some smoked malt flavor as an accidental result of the kiln being contained in such a small space – a theory supported by smoky residue on the walls of the structure. The figs may have been a flavor additive, or may have been added to the wort to start fermentation via the introduction of wild yeast living on the figs’ skin.

Hill went on to explain how in August of 2012, he and some others on his team reconstructed the structure offsite to try malting some grain using the Kissonerga-Skalia setup, then brewed some beer with the grain they malted.

They made several batches with different parameters. Mash thicknesses varied, but the thinnest was 7 liters per kilogram of grain, which works out to 3.36 qts/lb, a thin mash but well within the range of no-sparge “Brew in a Bag” techniques. They doughed in at 70°C (158°F) and kept the mash temperature above 65°C (149°F): pretty typical mash. Although the Bronze Age beer probably was not boiled, Hill’s team boiled theirs to sanitize it. They did not add any hops.

They pitched one batch with crushed figs to emulate the wild fermentation technique speculated for the ancient beer. A second batch was pitched with grapes (also a source of wild yeast) instead of figs. A third batch was fruit-free and pitched with brewer’s yeast as a control. I won’t spoil the results – the podcast is short and fun, and completely worth listening to.

Idea time. I’d like to take the plunge into making an “ancient” beer of my own. I’m a history lover – the older the better – and like the idea of getting in touch with my ancient brewer ancestors by trying out their ingredients and techniques. Patrick McGovern’s book Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages is an inspiring read, and I love the work he’s done with Dogfish Head on beers like Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu. But until now I haven’t had the motivation to get off the fence and dive in with an ancient recipe of my own.

Until now. The figs are speaking to something deep in my soul. Maybe it’s because at Christmas, someone in the family raided the canister of my aunt’s famous Italian fig cookies before I could, and I’ve been craving them ever since. And my recent introduction to historical brewing – Colonial Progress Ale – ended up tasting pretty damn good and has gotten great reviews from friends. I’m feeling ambitious.

So I’m going to brew a Kissonerga-Skalia beer with some smoked malt. I don’t think I’ve got the figs to do an all-wild fermentation, but I would like to try cultivating dregs from a bottle of Midas Touch. And I will use some fig somewhere in the brew for flavor and additional sugar. It sounds like a good spring beer, so that gives me between now and early February to put together a recipe.

In the meantime, I’ll remember a quote from Ian Hill in the podcast that stuck with me: “Archaeologists love their beer, so it’s not a bad thing to find.” Indeed.

Unfinished business

With November half over, I'm faced with several unfinished brewing projects and more on the way.

A few days ago, I racked my ginger mead to a carboy for conditioning. Because of my pathological aversion to work which isn't absolutely necessary, I'm a believer in long primaries and won't rack beer to a carboy unless there's a damned good reason (no empty keg available, need the primary vessel for a new beer, cat fur stuck to the inside wall of the bucket, etc.) and I get good beer with up to 6 weeks on the yeast cake.

But for mead, we're talking upwards of 6 months of conditioning, and for that there's no way around racking to a carboy. Not only is it better to get the mead off that autolyzing yeast for the extended aging, but it's essential for clarity: the mead won't clarify until it's removed from the gross lees. It's amazing, in fact, how quickly it does start to clarify as soon as it's racked. Just a few days have passed since I racked it, and it's already several shades darker than it was in the primary due to the yeast flocculating out.

At racking time, the gravity measured 1.001 and the mead had a fruity, floral taste with a little ginger bite but sadly no hint of ginger in the flavor or aroma. My fermentation chamber did its job well keeping the fermentation cool, and it had none of the fusel alcohols my other (uncontrolled temperature) meads had this early on. It might even be ready in less than 6 months, but I have reasons for waiting until April to bottle it. Until then, I'll rack it every 6-8 weeks, add a few Campden tablets occasionally to prevent oxidation, and maybe hit it with some Sparkolloid closer to bottling time. And definitely some more ginger before bottling.

I also took the first gravity sample from the Colonial Progress Ale I brewed 11 days ago. The wort turned out a bit more fermentable than I expected and is currently at 1.009, with an ABV of 4.8% (and the WLP008 yeast, a notoriously slow flocculator, might still be working). It's got a fruity tang I expected from this yeast, and very minimal cidery character from the simple sugar of the molasses. It's really a nice easy-drinking session beer that should be very enjoyable when the yeast settles out. The juniper and sweet gale have largely faded, though. I'll add more spices to the fermenter before kegging. Who knows, I might even rack the beer for the occasion.

The next project on the horizon is an inventory cleaning extravaganza! I've got lots of open hop packets from over the course of the past year that I'll use in a beer to be brewed the day after Thanksgiving. I spent some time tonight rubbing hop pellets between my fingers (while watching Moonshiners on Discovery Channel … now those guys are pros) smelling them and even tasting some of them to make sure they were still hoppy and had none of the telltale cheesiness of bad hops. Fortunately, only a half ounce of Warrior left over from February had any distinctive cheesy notes, so back into the freezer it went to keep on aging until it magically changes from “cheesy” to “aged” and I can use it in a lambic. The other open hops made the cut and will be used next week. More on that recipe soon!

 

Beer Guy’s Burden

A friend reaches into his cooler at a BYOB party and pulls out two cans from Austin Beerworks: a Pearl Snap Pils and a Fire Eagle IPA. Knowing his preference, I hold my hand out for the IPA while he keeps the Pils. As our cans crack open in unison, he asks me, “Why don’t I like that one again?”

I think for a split second. “Because it’s got more hops, which makes it more bitter,” I say. “But it’s also sweeter and has more alcohol. It’s really just more everything.”

I’ve opened with a quip, and I’m considering going into more detail. But while I’m thinking about what to say next, everyone at the table laughs, and the conversation resumes. The moment has passed, and the chance to say more about what makes those beers different is gone.

Of the friends I hang out with regularly, I’m #1 or #2 in beer geekdom, and the only one currently homebrewing. That makes me the “beer guy” in the group. All my friends like craft beer, but most aren’t into it like I am. They come to me with their beer questions. I’ve been asked to order for my friends at bars and to suggest thematically appropriate beers for parties. It’s a role I’m honored to play, but it comes with responsibility.

I’d love for my friends to love beer as much as I do. If they knew it like I do, they’d love it like I do, right? I must tell them everything I know! Right?

But no. When asked a question, I have to be careful with my answer. I have to give just the right amount of information. To cover the basics in enough detail to keep their interest piqued, but not to get so bogged down in the minutiae that I lose them along the way.

At the BYOB party, if I answered my friend with an hour-long lecture on the difference between the noble hops in the Pils and American hops in the IPA, I can just about bet no one at that table would ever ask me a question about beer again. I know I’m a damned interesting guy, but even I don’t want to listen to me speaking for that long. If I scare my friend away from wanting to ask me about beer, then I’m doing it wrong. The mission is to nurture his curiosity, give him information so he can make a decision about when and where he’ll try that IPA on his on (if ever).

So I chose a simple, funny answer. A few facts and a tacit invitation to ask me more. He didn’t ask me more – not then, anyway, but maybe I had planted a seed.

I hope everyone reading this has at least one or two people they can seriously geek out about beer with. But even if you do, I know you’d love to get all the rest of your friends on board too. But they’re not all going to. Some may be on their way, and some of them will get there eventually. Not all, but some.

What can we do to help them along? Be there for them, but don’t push. Be their sherpa on the climb up the mountain. Give them the information and the encouragement they need. They’re your friends. You know them. You know what they need to hear. Answer their questions but don’t bore them or scare them away. Let them take baby steps. Craft beer is booming, and to the neophyte, the options are intimidating (don’t we all remember our first time?). Help them navigate those options with comfortable sojourns outside their comfort zone, and don’t go too wild too fast. Be gentle. They’re new to this.

Offer a schwarzbier to a friend who always reaches for Guinness. Offer a light beer drinker a Bohemian-style pilsner or even an APA. If they like that, give them an IPA (not an Imperial!). If your friend trusts you enough to take your recommendation, honor that by introducing them to something they’ll like, and thank you for later.

I see it as a sacred duty. But of course, I get a little too serious about stuff like this sometimes.

As for my friend, I talked with him again a couple of days later. He told me that after spending the previous afternoon downing Pearl Snaps, his tastebuds had gotten tired of it and so he went looking for something with a little more flavor. He reached for one of those IPAs left over from the BYOB, and enjoyed it so much he had a second one.

Mission accomplished. Phase one, at least.

On Snobbery, Science Fiction and Saison

In hindsight, the last post I wrote before going to Mexico may have come across as snobbish – despite my protestations to the contrary – in my hard-line stance against Mexican lager. But I’m now pleased to report that during my time in Mexico, I learned that even I can enjoy a cerveza in the right circumstances. Tequila on ice proved too intense for drinking throughout the day, and soon became an exclusively after-dinner indulgence. Mojitos were a nice afternoon distraction for a few days, and I eventually found myself craving (of all things) white wine during the brunch-to-dinner stretch. Oh, but the afternoons of room service nachos on our poolside patio, of brick oven chorizo pizzas overlooking the beach … on those occasions, I gave in and popped a few Coronas, and man were they tasty.

So it seems that there’s a time and a place for Mexican beer: hot summer afternoons on the beach in Mexico, with spicy foods that don’t require forks. So viva regional traditions, and si, quiero un limón con esa.

(NOTE: That’s about as good as my Spanish gets. Unimpressive, certainly, but all self-taught based on four years of high-school French, three years of college Latin, and twelve years puzzling over Spanish billboards in California and Texas. Several of our servers in Mexico applauded my pronunciation, while laughing at my attempts to place orders for things like “Don Julio in the rock, and water that has been carbonated” or to break the ice with Hugo the bartender by observing that “Sunday is a crazy man, yes?”)

Last night, several days home and still nursing a George Romero-esque horror of a peeling sunburn, I relaxed with two saisons and a Blu-ray viewing of John Carter, an unfairly maligned film that I’ve seen twice now. It was a fine epilogue to the Mexico trip, because Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars – the novel from which the film was adapted – was the first book I read on vacation.

Beer #1 was Saison du BUFF 2012, the feted three-way collaboration between Dogfish Head, Victory, and Stone breweries. This was one of two bottles I bought Saturday – I’m cellaring the other. It poured tawny golden and surprisingly clear, even with the dregs roused. The initial herbal aroma blast from the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme passed quickly to apple and pear aromas. The flavor was powerfully herbal, with a resiny character I’d attribute to middle/late high-alpha hops if I didn’t know better … and finishing quickly leaving a brie-like aftertaste. My only complaint was that this enticing flavor experience didn’t stay on the palate long enough. It was fleeting, and left me wanting more (of the same). But it went very well with popcorn and a kosher dill spear, and Captain John Carter’s sudden appearance on the red planet.

Beer #2 was Lift Bridge Brewery’s Farm Girl Saison, a personal favorite and one of a dwindling number of bottles I brought back from a recent trip to Minneapolis. I can’t get it in Texas, and that’s a shame. It faced some competition in the Saison du BUFF, but held its own despite its underdog status. It poured a pale burnished straw, cloudy with respectable head retention. Fruit aromas took the lead, with apricot and pear overlaying a familiar funkiness. The flavor was simple, delivering on the promise of the aroma: apricot and pear with some funk. Sweet, and maybe a little cloying. I preferred its mouthfeel, as it lingered on my palate longer.

So if Saison du BUFF is the princess of Mars, mysterious and seductive like the alluring (and buff) red-skinned warrior-maiden Dejah Thoris; Farm Girl Saison is, well, a farm girl. Not as exotic, not as well-pedigreed and certainly not as complex; but sweet, pretty, and a delightful comfort. I’d gladly be alone with either on a dark autumn night … on Earth or Barsoom.

In other news, I’m getting excited for eight genre-bending days at Fantastic Fest 2012, starting next Thursday. It’s my fourth time attending the biggest horror/sci-fi/fantasy/action/Asian/cult film festival in the United States. This is my favorite week of every year, and I’m sure once again it’ll be a blast. Great food, great movies, and great beer! What could be better?

A vacation … from beer?

On Wednesday I leave for a 6-day, 5-night trip to Playa Mujeres, Mexico. There will be sun, sand and crystal blue water, and all the food and drinks I can shove down my gullet. Now that’s a vacation!

The resort offers an array of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, from freshly made juices to smoothies, sodas, wines, spirits (including Cuban rum and a plethora of premium tequilas), and of course, your usual assortment of international industrially brewed beers, all included in the price of the room. One thing I don’t think they have is a wide selection (translation: any) of craft beers to choose from. Yeah, yeah … I know you’re really feeling sorry for me now.

But what’s a Zyme Lord to do in the court of King Corona? Where cerveza means something light and fizzy served in a clear bottle with a crusty lime wedge stuffed into it?

It’s not that I’m a beer snob; I just don’t like most Mexican beers, certainly not when there are other (cost-equal) options. I enjoy most spirits. Tequila actually has been my “go-to” spirit for a few months now. I’ve had many reposados and good silver tequilas on the rocks lately, because I find the Texas summer too hot for whiskey.

But that’s the problem. I’ve been drinking tequila all summer, and I’ve had some good ones. Isn’t vacation supposed to be a break from the norm? Isn’t there something else I should be looking for?

I’d love to say I’d liberate myself from the dogmatic prison of my resort and explore the real Mexico. Go deep into the countryside, find some old dude living in a shack who makes the best moonshine mezcal around. Even more so, I’d love to journey into Central Mexico and find an honest-to-goodness pulqueria to try pulque, an undistilled fermented maguey beverage I’ve read a lot about. But the truth is, I’m just not that adventurous … with my life, that is; not my tastebuds. So unless I can get canned pulque at the resort, I suspect I will return to the States once again without having tasted this mystique-filled Holy Grail of hooches.

And I doubt canned pulque would be worth it anyway. Probably best to just stick with what I know. And what I know is this: except for a Bohemia or two with a seafood taco lunch, I’ll probably go without beer until I get back.

But hey, six days without beer on a Mexican beach with great food and a Kindle full of classic science fiction novels is pretty much better than any other six days without beer. Right?

So off we go. And as Pink Floyd said, “Pass the tequila, Manuel.”

Weizen Up

Sorry, Internet, I've been holding out on you. Weiss Blau Weiss Bavarian Hefeweizen, my experiment in simplicity that I brewed in June, has been pouring for over a week now, and I've had several pints of it already; but I haven't yet written about it. It's high time I did, so you can enjoy it vicariously as much as I've been enjoying it … well … the regular way.

Shinin' like Rhine-gold.

It pours beautifully: a creamy golden color with a gleaming white head. It's cloudy, as a hefeweizen should be, and except for a little bit of floating sediment, it looks as good as any commercially brewed hefeweizen I've ever had. The sediment should clear up once I pour a few more pints off the keg. I did use Irish moss for this brew – as I do for most of my brews – but there are many who choose not to use kettle finings for hefeweizens, and it's possible this worked against me in that it precipitated more particles out to the bottom of the keg. But I'm sure it'll be fine in a few more pours.

The aroma is spectacular. Exactly what I wanted: lots of banana esters, a touch of the sweet, grainy aroma of crisp continental Pilsner malt, and the faintest whiff of clove spiciness. That's about it. No hops on the nose at all. Nothing confusing or muddling. You can tell instantly what ingredient created every single component of the olfactory signature of this beer.

The taste is good, too. It's light, of course, and perfect patio refreshment for my next summer brew session. The yeasty character doesn't lead in the flavor department the way I was hoping it would, not like it leads the aroma. I don't usually bother with that little slice of citrus that most brewheads outside of Bavaria are so fond of in their weizens, but I could see a lemon wedge adding something to this beer, just because it could use a bit more zing (sadly, I don't have any in the house). I don't blame the recipe for this little flaw, rather my fermentation temperature. Next time I make it, I'll ferment a couple of degrees higher for the first couple of days.

The mouthfeel is just right for a summer afternoon: refreshing, not too astringent. It goes down smooth and easy, and at 5.2% ABV is pretty session friendly.

So there you have it. Weiss Blau Weiss Bavarian Hefeweizen was an overall success, not despite its simple recipe but because of it. In fact, it seems to me that my efforts to introduce unnecessary complexity to the process – namely, using kettle finings and overchilling during fermentation – was the main thing that kept it from being (to me) a perfect beer. But that's okay; it's still plenty drinkable, and I'm sure I'll be emptying this keg pretty quickly … no complaints here, because I'd love to make it again. Can I make it even simpler next time? Probably not much so, but the lesson has been hammered home: one doesn't need a mile-long list of ingredients to make a damn good beer.

Of course, the Bavarians have been trying to tell us that for centuries.

 

Rogue Ales: Losing their relevance?

I’ve got nothing against Rogue Ales. I actually owe them a lot. Living on the West Coast in the early aughts, their beers inspired me long before I was a homebrewer. That smirking libertine on the bomber label, enticing me with interesting names like “Dead Guy Ale” and unique ingredients like hazelnut and soba … these things helped awaken me to the possibilities of what beer could be. I don’t drink Rogue often anymore, but that’s mainly because I drink so much Texas beer. (Coincidentally, I bought a bomber of their Chatoe Rogue Single Malt Ale this week. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I think it was mishandled in shipping. Two bottles in a row were gushers.)

But when I saw this story about a new beer in the works called New Crustacean, fermented with yeast harvested from the beard of Rogue Brewmaster John Maier, I had a pretty strong reaction. There isn’t one part of me that sees this as a good idea. (Hat tip to Heather Null for sending me the story.)

I’m all for experimentation, as long as good flavor is the ultimate goal. Brewing is not an abstract art; the point is to make beer that people will drink. Not that Rogue can’t make a perfectly drinkable beer with beard yeast, but just because something is drinkable doesn’t mean anyone will drink it. So I feel like this beer, at this time, is the wrong idea.

The ick factor doesn’t bother me. I realize they’re not throwing a sprig of John Maier’s hair into every batch. This is yeast propagation we’re talking about here. With the help of White Labs – a name in the brewing community that I trust implicitly – they’re isolating the yeast using science that I can’t begin to understand, and reproducing the strain under sterile conditions. So I’m not worried about the fact that “OMG beard yeast beer sounds gross!” and if anyone reading this is worrying about that, please don’t.

And I’m not worried about some mysterious X-factor in those microbes, either. We’re talking about a guy who’s worked in a brewery every day since 1989; there’s probably more beer yeast in that beard than there is in the air ducts at Rogue. He may even have hop bines in there for all I know. In fact, I’d be willing to put money on that beard yeast being at least 90% genetically equivalent to Rogue’s proprietary house beer strain, Pacman. Besides, we’re always told that nothing can live in beer that’s harmful to humans, and I’m pretty sure the biologists at White Labs know the difference between a viable strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and the Ebola virus. So whatever it is, it ain’t gonna kill us.

What bothers me is the message this sends to the non-craft-beer-drinking world. This is obviously a niche product. Few people are going to want to drink beer made with yeast from some dude’s beard, no matter how safe or sanitary it really is. I’m not just talking about the masses out there with their cans of industrial lager. Even craft beer lovers are going to be split on this idea. What Rogue is really telling the world with this gesture is that they’re catering to the extremists: the hardcore beer geeks with their T-shirts from nanobreweries you’ve never heard of, who brag about driving all the way to Russian River to get this year’s Pliny the Elder before it hits stores, all the while laughing over the rims of their pints at the craft beer neophyte at the end of the bar sipping on a 60-Minute IPA. The ones who always have to be more cutting edge than you about their beer habit and would slurp tripel from every goatee, vandyke and ZZ Top in Oregon to prove it. At best, Rogue’s beard beer is a stunt; at worst, it’s an exclusionary tactic executed with pomposity and self-aware irony.

Is that their right? Sure, but all brewers, commercial or hobbyist, are ambassadors of our craft. Anything that brings new beer lovers into the fold helps our craft along. And anything that alienates potential newcomers, or that portrays beer fans as snobs and weirdos, is bad for breweries’ business, and makes it harder for homebrewers to get friends on board. Why risk all that, why do it to the industry and the community, just for a publicity stunt and some bragging rights that no one really wants?

At the end of the day, they can do what they choose, and I can choose not to support it. But it does make me wonder at Rogue’s relevance in the modern craft beer industry if they have to grasp at stunts like this to keep moving. Maybe years ago, they were an unstoppable innovative force, but they’re not the only rogues on the block anymore: now we have Dogfish Head, Jolly Pumpkin, Mikkeller, and others who wow us every season with their originality and marketability … and don’t have to be, as that fabled beer peddler Moe Szyslak once said on The Simpsons about post-modern art, “weird for the sake of weird”.