Tag Archive | ales

Rough Draft Recipes: Unauthorized Disney Edition

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.

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Scotch-Irish Stout: the Davy Crockett of beers

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.

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But it sure is black. It’s like, “How much more black could this be?”

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.

Shamrock the house

Sláinte! It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may know that March 17 is one of the three days of the year I proudly proclaim myself Irish by bullshit, the other two being February 2 (James Joyce’s birthday) and June 16 (Bloomsday).

It may seem I’m trying too hard, but my wife claims a slice of Irish heritage and therefore of course so does my son. I’m outnumbered and I have to try this hard just to keep up. So we’ve got a lot planned in the Zyme Lord house. Here’s how we’re celebrating this year, aside from the obvious ways (i.e., wearing green and drinking something fermented):

My wife is preparing a beef-and-stout stew with turnips, rutabagas and carrots, served alongside cabbage sautéed with bacon and garlic. Props to the slow cooker – and the wife – for making it happen.

As an appetizer, we’ll make our way through at least one of the two loaves of stout soda bread I baked last night. I stayed up late to do it, but judging by the way the kitchen smells today it will be worth the loss of sleep. We’ve also got some aged Irish cheddar cheese with Oscar Wilde’s face on it (on the label, not on the cheese) to go with it.

We’re rapidly approaching the end of the current keg of Anna Livia Irish Stout. We’ll either empty it today or have fun trying.

Just before bed, I’ll toast to my faux Irish heritage with a dram of Jameson Distillery Reserve. It’s only available from the Jameson visitor’s center in Dublin, so I’ve been saving mine for special occasions. My eleven-month-old son’s first Saint Patrick’s Day certainly qualifies.

Speaking of the little leprechaun, he’s sporting his shamrock onesie and learning how to rock out to the Pogues.

And the Gaelic fun won’t end at midnight.  Yesterday I bottled entry samples of Anna Livia Irish Stout and another Celtic-inspired beer (Thane McCrundle’s Wee Heavy) for the Celtic Brew Off homebrew competition in Arlington, Texas in April. I’m filling out the entry paperwork today. Anyone got a four-leaf clover to send me for good luck?

Finally, because the Anna Livia stout is almost gone and the wife has expressed some trepidation about facing an entire month without it, I’m already making plans for the next batch. Fortunately I have all the ingredients on hand except the yeast, so I’ll work it into the pipeline as soon as I can.

After all this is over – though the soda bread may well last through the week – I’ll go back to being Italian until June 16.

Well, okay, I might let myself be Scottish by bullshit for a weekend in early May for the Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games, but other than that …

Pumpkin fear and Halloween beer

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.

SMaSHy thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See what I did there?

An homage to UK pubs (and a classic monster movie)

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.

Old Froglegs, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love brewing barleywine

Daddy loves Froggy. Froggy love Daddy? Ribbit. – Hedy Lamarr (that’s Hedley!), Blazing Saddles

Big beers seem to be the norm for some homebrewers. The word “imperial” is thrown around at homebrew club meetings more than at Star Wars conventions, and barleywines seem far more prevalent at the homebrew level than commercially. I suspect many people become homebrewers just to hoard gallons of nose-hair singeing strong ales for a fraction of the cost of buying it commercially. Not me. I mostly drink beers around 8% ABV or lower, and my brewing habits reflect that.

Like many homebrewers, my mash efficiency suffers with bigger grain bills. I get great efficiency with beers around the 1.050 mark, but with beers around 1.070 it’s decent (not astounding). Satisfied with brewing beers mostly in the 1.050-1.080 range, I’ve haven’t bothered to rock the boat by trying a bigger brew. Over time, the idea of brewing a really big beer like an American barleywine became a little intimidating. Imagine a whole category of the BJCP Style Guidelines staring back at you when you close your eyes, whispering, “You’re not man enough to brew me, and you know it.”

Oh, but there’s nothing like having a baby to change your perspective. Faced with responsibility for an adorable but needy new organism while surviving on Clif bars and fifteen hours of sleep a week, the most intimidating non-baby-related activity in the world sounds like a vacation. That first month, I probably could’ve been talked into skydiving. So when someone suggested I brew a barleywine to commemorate Lucian’s birth, my enthusiastic response of “WHY THE HELL NOT!?” was, I’m sure, loud enough to be heard across the Texas Hill Country. I decided to make it the first beer I brewed after he was born.

I started with a name: Old Froglegs American Barleywine, after a nickname we gave Lucian within hours of being born (his legs were constantly crossed as a newborn). The recipe was big but simple, in keeping with my recent emphasis on fewer carefully chosen ingredients. 19 pounds of Maris Otter formed the base: a premium malt more expensive than plain American 2-row, and on a grain bill this big cost adds up. But Maris Otter has great flavor, and besides, how many “first beer after my baby was born”s do you get? I added 3 pounds of light Munich for melanoidins and a half-pound each of Crystal 60 and Crystal 150 for caramel and dark fruit notes. If you’re counting, that’s 23 pounds of grain (plus rice hulls) that would go into my 10-gallon cooler mash tun.

Expecting that high a ratio of grain weight to mash tun volume to seriously impact my efficiency, I took a few measures to compensate:

  • Milled my own grain
  • Increased sparge water/runoff and extended the boil
  • Included kettle sugars for extra fermentables

By milling my own grain I hoped to achieve a finer crush than what I’d get at the homebrew store – admittedly a crap shoot, not knowing how their mills are set. I didn’t actually buy my new Barley Crusher MaltMill for this brew, but it happened to be its maiden voyage. Earlier this year I realized that brewing with a newborn around would require flexibility, since daddy tasks might pop up unexpectedly on the weekend (I was right). With a malt mill in my arsenal, I can buy unmilled grain and crush it on brew day, ensuring fresh malt even if brew day is postponed by a week or more.

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Pictured above: the quantity of grain known to maltsters as a metric assload.

I doughed in at a stiff 1 qt/lb and added the rest of the liquor (to 1.25 qt/lb) only after I was sure that my mash tun would fit it all. It did, barely. I sparged to collect just shy of ten gallons of wort, which didn’t fit in the brew kettle, so I saved the extra in a pitcher and added it to the kettle as it boiled down. I didn’t actually start the boil timer until all the wort had been added and boiled down to my usual starting volume. All in all, the boil lasted about 150 minutes.

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On the edge of boiling over. He’s a madman! A maaadmaaan!

Once boiling was underway I added a pound – 2 pressed cones – of piloncillo (a.k.a. panela), an unrefined cane sugar particular to Latin American cuisine. I’d had it in the pantry for some time and it seemed a great addition to a barleywine, with its rich molasses flavor and high fermentability leaving the beer high in alcohol and low on cloying sweetness. Protip: smashing the cones with a meat tenderizer before adding them is great stress relief.

I added only 60-minute hop additions to the boil for bitterness. I had 1.75 ounces of Warrior and 1 ounce of Galena in the freezer, so I used them. I also added yeast nutrient to the boil because of the high gravity and 4% adjunct sugars.

I met my gravity target and then some, achieving an OG of 1.114. I pitched 2.5 packets of Safale US-05 dry (I ran out of time to rehydrate) and it took off like a rocket, with bubbles coming through the airlock less than 16 hours later. Two weeks later, the beer was at 1.023, which appears to be its final gravity. I racked it to a carboy at the end of May.

It’s going to stay there for months. I plan to bottle it in November so it’s ready to drink on Lucian’s first Christmas. Since I’m not an everyday barleywine kind of guy, I’ll save it for special occasions, birthdays and other milestones. I think I can get several years of good aging out of it if I treat it right. Even if it starts to decline after a while, I have to save at least one bottle to share with Lucian on his 21st birthday.

And then I can embarrass the hell out of him with the Froglegs thing.

Homebrew Tips for New Dads: Commemorating the event, a great excuse to drink!

Well, I’m back. – Samwise Gamgee

I haven’t written for this blog in nearly two months, as I’ve gradually adjusted to the ups and downs of being a father to my first child. Learning how to change, bathe, and sing Queen songs (including a special diaper-time version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with peepee-related lyrics) to my newborn son Lucian was only the beginning. I also learned to deal with: an increased share of the housework to help Momma, an upheaval of my sleep schedule, a return to my day job, and the happy stress of many wonderful visits from friends and family anxious to meet the little dude in the blue onesie.

With all of that going on it was hard to find time to write, which was fine because I wasn’t doing all that much to write about. If your blog is about homebrewing, when you ain’t homebrewing you ain’t got much to say.

Did you catch that? Practically no homebrewing for two months. The horror! Almost as horrific as the fact that “bottle washing” means something entirely new to me now that I have a baby (interestingly, I don’t dread washing baby bottles like I did beer bottles – no labels).

Even though I haven’t done much brewing, I have partaken liberally of the fruits of my homebrewing labor. Thanks to some careful planning before the birth, I’ve managed to keep the pipeline flowing during my hiatus. But preparing for these brewless weeks wasn’t just about making sure I had enough booze to get through the newborn period. Far from it. You see, I’m a commemorator.

The things we create – a beverage, a story, a carpentry project, even the name we give to a child – form a record of our past. Each creation is a snapshot of who we were when we created it, a representational image of our brain at the moment of creation. Those snapshots exist long after the “me” responsible for the creation has changed forever – years after, if we’re lucky – and are like little running shoes for the feet of our memories. That’s one of the reasons why I believe every human being should create … something.

Of course, if what you create is consumable food products like beers and meads, there’s a shelf life to consider, so they won’t last forever. Sure, the right brews (imperial stouts, barleywines, meads, fruit wines) can be cellared for years if designed and handled properly, but at some point you’ll open and empty the last bottle. They’re not quite as permanent as other creations can be. But the unique thing about brewing to commemorate important life events is that the enjoyment of those creations (i.e., the drinking of the beer after it’s fermented/aged) creates its own memories that are worth holding onto in their turn.

The day we brought Lucian home from the hospital, Lisa and I shared a bomber of Le Petit Plésiosaure Saison, a Summit-hopped saison loosely adapted from Brooklyn Sorachi Ace that I brewed in February. The name (French for “the Little Plesiosaurus”) is an homage to an adorable cartoon poster of the Loch Ness Monster we have hanging in Lucian’s room. We gave bottles of the saison out as favors to friends who came to our baby shower and asked them not to open it until we announced the birth, and we did the same.

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C’est bon ça!

I’m thrilled to report that this saison exceeded my expectations and also wowed my friends, not all of them beer geeks: a refreshing, dry, aromatic and spicy saison perfect for late spring/early summer that hides its 8% ABV under layers of citrus, chamomile and subtle phenolics. We’ve made it through nearly all of the bottles we had left over, and that’s okay. This beer was intended for drinking fresh in hot weather, for refreshing breaks from the hard work of keepin’ this baby happy. When I have my last taste of it later this summer, I’ll pause to celebrate the end of the first phase of Lucian’s life and the beginning of the next. In fact, his 3-month birthday sounds like a great time to finish off the batch. Challenge accepted.

The other commemorative brew I’m enjoying between sessions of therapeutic baby bouncing is Lucian’s Landing Ginger Metheglin, a ginger mead I made in October with the goal of bottling it right before the baby was born (but Lucian landed early, so I didn’t bottle it until after). I aged it from October to April, by which time all of the fresh ginger root aromatics in the must had evaporated – only a pleasant ginger tang on the palate remained. To replace the lost aromatics, I steeped 3.5 oz of fresh ginger root in 8 oz of boiled water to make a ginger tea and added that to the carboy along with 4 oz of crystallized ginger in a muslin hop sack. After 4 weeks, I bottled it and had labels printed with my own design evoking the inspiration for my son’s name, a second-century work of early science fiction satire called True Story (often translated as True History) by Lucian of Samosata.

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Protip: Even when buried beneath housework and baby care chores, always find time for Photoshop.

We plan to drink some fresh and save some bottles for special occasions (first Christmas, birthday, etc.), so the snazzy bottles were a must. Most recently we opened a bottle on Sunday, Lucian’s 2-month birthday, and found that mead paired quite well thematically with a marathon viewing of Game of Thrones Season 3 before the finale Sunday night. Pale golden and nearly crystal clear, it has just enough ginger to tickle the nose and palate before the unmistakable earthen notes of honey come in, then recede giving way to a fruity, ginger ale-like finish. I’m proud of it.

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Deceptively elegant at 13.7% ABV.

I like to think that someday Lucian will appreciate things like the fact that his dad made a special mead in honor of his birth, even though he couldn’t enjoy it himself (though maybe one day, who knows …). There’s no way of knowing now, of course, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll keep doing it for myself. Being a father is hard work, and I’m sure it’s only going to get harder. Though it’s already proving to be well worth all the effort I put into it, finding time to remember “me” amid the multitude of self-sacrificing tasks to be completed has been an important step in retaining my sanity. And that’s who me is (erm, I am): A homebrewer. A commemorator. A big frickin’ sap.

My more perceptive readers may have noticed that above I mentioned “practically no homebrewing”. Don’t tell anyone, but I did manage to squeeze in one brewday before April – the month of my son’s birth – was over. That was yet another commemorative brew, but one I won’t be drinking for a long time. I’ll tell you all about it in an upcoming post. The only hint I’ll offer before then is: Ribbit.

This Sunday, remember to wish a Happy Father’s Day to your dad or a dad you know (or yourself if the gift-wrapped dress socks fit) … and to my fellow new dads out there, just starting out on this difficult but rewarding journey: have a homebrew with me. We deserve it.

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.

Une saison à la maison

Saison.

In French, the word means season, as in the seasons of the year. Spring, summer, autumn, or winter. A generic term, a category with specimens so varied that each is the opposite of another.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the beer style we call “saison” is a varied, open-ended style as well. Call it a seasonal beer unattached to a particular season.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Look it up anywhere from Wikipedia to the BJCP Style Guidelines, and you’ll learn that saison has its roots in the farmhouses of the French-speaking Walloons of Belgium who spent the winter brewing spicy, refreshing ales to be consumed in the summer by workers pulling long shifts in the fields. So traditionally it’s a summer beer.

But the Wallonian brewing tradition was highly improvisational and localized. Each farmhouse brewed their own beer with the ingredients available at the time, often raised on their own farms. The resulting beers were, unsurprisingly, vastly different from place to place and from month to month.

So unlike the seasonal beers of, say, Germany – which tend toward profile standards of characteristic Teutonic rigidity, with names easy to mark on your calendar like Märzen, Maibock, and Oktoberfest – this traditional Belgian seasonal can be light or dark, strong or sessiony, and anything in between. A December 2006 Style Profile article from Brew Your Own magazine lists a wide disparity of characteristics for the modern style in regards to color, mouthfeel, residual sweetness, strength, hop profile, and spices. The main common thread is the yeast, descended from traditional Belgian strains that produce a characteristic spiciness, an estery je ne sais quoi that makes these beers decidedly farmhousey, even when made in the (sub)urban backyard.

With that range of profiles, I’d say seasonality goes out the window. A strong, dark, spicy saison would be a great nightcap on a cold winter night. I like light, refreshing saisons in spring (I’m pretty sure spring in Texas feels like summer in Belgium anyway). So I brewed one now to be ready by the last week of March.

There was another reason for my timing besides the oncoming vernal equinox. The last beer my wife and I drank together was a bomber of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, the day before we learned she was pregnant. Our baby is due in April, so what better beer to have on hand to celebrate her return to the world of the ethanol-metabolizing than a hop-forward saison?

I started my brew with a clone recipe of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace from the December 2011 issue of Brew Your Own and a Gallic sense of laissez-faire. The recipe called for 11 lbs (5 kg) of Belgian Pilsner malt, which I increased to 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) to compensate for lower efficiency on my system (more on that below). This made up the bulk of the fermentables along with 1 lb (453 g) of dextrose in the boil. The recipe also used a 3-step mash, which I did not. I did a single infusion mash at 146°F (63°C). The low mash temperature makes a more fermentable wort, but saccharification takes a little longer so I mashed for 90 minutes instead of my usual 60.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is hopped entirely with Sorachi Ace hops, which I couldn’t get locally. Instead of replacing it with a similar substitute, I took a different path entirely. I used 16% AA Warrior hops for neutral bittering, two additions of .37 oz (10.5 g) each at 60 and 30 minutes (~6 AAU in each addition). At flameout, I added 3 oz (85 g) of 15% AA Summit.

I had prepared a 2-liter starter of White Labs WLP 560, an Austin Homebrew Supply-exclusive Classic Saison Yeast Blend. That starter was decanted and pitched into a wort with an OG of 1.073, eleven points higher than my target OG of 1.062. Eleven points!

Not your grand-père’s farmhouse brewery.

Little mishaps are common in brewing, and usually a good sign. Minor, easily correctable problems during the brew day keep the brewer on his/her toes, and (I think) make us less prone to serious mistakes that can’t be fixed. But overshooting target gravity by this much is a new kind of problem for me.

Is it even a problem? Obviously my efficiency is much higher than I thought – I’m noting the data for future batches – and the extra malt I added was unnecessary: a “problem” many brewers would love to have. I’m not entering any contests, so the fact that my OG landed past the upper limit of the BJCP range for saison doesn’t concern me. If it fails to attenuate completely, I may end up with a beer that’s too sweet. But if I got the kind of fermentability I was shooting for out of my low mash, that extra sugar should ferment out, leaving me with an ABV higher than I intended.

So if I’m lucky, I’ll be welcoming the spring with a dry, high-alcohol saison. Maybe it won’t be strong enough to qualify as an “imperial saison”, but it should be worthy of some noble title. I’d settle for “ducal saison” or better yet, “marchional saison”. With its extra kick, it might be a little too intense for farm work, but it sounds about right for celebrating the birth of a new Marchese.