You could say I’m a “high concept” recipe designer. I like to include ingredients that have some fun meaning or reference so that each beer recipe tells a story. Sometimes, though, the concept is way more unique than the recipe itself.
My wife has (and therefore my two kids have) a strong strain of what Americans call “Scotch-Irish” heritage. They’re the people who left Scotland to settle Ireland in the 1600’s when the English started crowding them out, then came to America in the 1700’s after the English followed them to Ireland, only to move out west and build homesteads on the frontier when they found the American colonies populated by – you guessed it – more English.
Scotch-Irish is the heritage of the early American moonshiners who started the Whiskey Rebellion, of Davy Crockett and Texas President (back when it was an independent republic) Sam Houston, and the kind of anti-establishment iconoclasts who’ve defined the American cultural landscape from Mark Twain to Alec Baldwin. They’re tough. They’re rugged. They’re unapologetic individualists who don’t take crap from anyone. They know it, and they make sure you know it.
And they all claim to be related to Davy Crockett. They really, really love Davy Crockett.
For a descendant of Italian immigrants like myself – whose ancestors left the strangling misery of a life of endless toil on farms in Southern Sicily to enjoy the unbounded freedom of endless toil on farms in Southern Louisiana – it’s usually easier to just let the Scotch-Irish have their way, especially when you’re outnumbered 3 to 1. Even when their Protestant Irish self-importance leads them to openly proclaim wild and baseless assertions like “Bushmills Whiskey is better than Jameson!” one learns to just concede the point before some’un reckons it’s time to fetch a musket and settle things the frontier way.
But I love ’em. I love ’em almost as much as they love Davy Crockett, and that’s a lot. So when formulating a recipe for a “Scotch-Irish stout” recently to celebrate the lineage of 75% of my household, I sought to brew something bold. Uncompromising. Full-bodied but smooth and pleasant. Sufficiently Irish, but with that untamable individualism common to the Scots and their frontier American descendants.
I started with my recipe for Anna Livia Irish Stout. My most recent variation on that was:
- 6 lbs 14 oz Irish pale malt (Malting Co. of Ireland Stout Malt)
- 2 oz Acid Malt (for a lactic tart hint; the notorious “Guinness tang”)
- 2 lbs Flaked Barley
- 1 lb Black Roasted Barley
- 10.8 AAU of English hops (East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, etc.) at 60 minutes
- Irish Ale Yeast (White Labs WLP 004)
OG 1.049, 42.2 IBU, SRM 34, ABV 4.9%. Good astringency, a bit of tartness … a little higher gravity and alcohol, but otherwise a fair approximation of an Irish Stout, BJCP 2015 style 15B.
The first thing I did was “Scotch-Irish up” the recipe up by replacing the Irish base malt with British malt. I didn’t have Golden Promise – which would have been my first choice as a Scottish/Northern English barley variety – but Maris Otter was close enough. I also increased the amount of base malt to result in a stronger beer, befitting the burly in-your-facedness of the Scotch-Irish people. I also removed the acid malt to divorce the Scotch-Irish stout from the Guinness/Dublin legacy that inspired my Irish stout, and replaced that with base malt.
I believe every stout should have some flaked grain in it for that creamy, coat-your-palate mouthfeel. But flaked barley is famously used in Guinness for that reason, so I nixed it for being too Irish. Oats are a staple of Scottish cuisine from oatcakes to haggis, so I replaced the 2 pounds of flaked barley with flaked oats, which is always (to me) a big step up in mouthfeel from flaked barley.
So, to balance that silky mouthfeel of the oats, I wanted a little residual malt sweetness. So I cut the black roasted barley by a few ounces to reduce astringency and added a half pound of chocolate malt.
British hops are pretty all-purpose, so I kept those the same. I also kept the Irish Ale yeast. Although I could have Scotch-Irished the recipe up a bit further by replacing the yeast with something like White Labs WLP028 (Edinburgh Ale), I felt I needed something to retain the Irish character before my Scotch-Irish stout became a Scottish stout. After all, if this had been a real beer brewed by Scottish immigrants to Ireland, the method of pairing imported British ingredients with an indigenous Irish yeast would have been a likely way of brewing it.
So in my mind, I had created a recipe that was wholly unique. Something as original and individual as the Scotch-Irish heritage I was celebrating! I patted myself on the back for a job well done, then looked at the BeerSmith window open on my computer and saw the following recipe staring back at me like Davy Crockett down the barrel of a musket.
- 8 lbs Maris Otter
- 2 lbs Flaked Oats
- 13 oz Black Roasted Barley
- 8 oz Chocolate Malt
- 10.8 AAU of East Kent Goldings at 60 minutes
- Irish Ale Yeast (White Labs WLP 004)
OG 1.057, 40 IBU, SRM 37.5, ABV 5.8%, with medium hop bitterness and malty, chocolatey sweetness. (And if you’ve already spotted the problem, shh! Don’t spoil it.)
It seemed that my “wholly unique” and “original” beer recipe had turned out to be a completely in-style Oatmeal Stout, BJCP 2015 style 16B.
The punchline is that I don’t even really like oatmeal stouts. What’s worse, my Scotch-Irish wife (who loves Irish stout) kind of hates them. But in hindsight, it’s hilarious to think that I ever thought I was designing anything other than the perfectly reasonable but ordinary oatmeal stout that I got.
Don’t get me wrong. The beer (christened Belfast Breakfast Oatmeal Stout) turned out to be delicious. It’s sweet and smooth, easy drinking but unavoidably stout without coating your palate like a pint of motor oil. And as you can see, it sure is pretty to look at. My roundabout way of backing into a recipe for an Oatmeal Stout (with a capital O. S. for “Oh, Sh-t”) instead of intentionally trying to design one, actually produced a version that I like a lot more than any commercial oatmeal stout I’ve ever had. So there’s that. But it’s an interesting lesson in being so high-concept, getting so wrapped up in my own cleverness, that I fail to see how what I’m doing is nothing new. How it’s been done before … many, many times.
There’s still something unique about it in the unique combination of ingredients I used to get there – and I will make it again, especially next time I get a hold of some Golden Promise malt; I might even brew an imperial version and age it with oak and some Bushmills.
But as it turned out, the only story my supposedly high-concept Scotch-Irish stout tells is “Once upon a time, Shawn accidentally brewed a surprisingly decent oatmeal stout. The end.” Decent beer, not much of a story. Or is it? In today’s foodie world where we celebrate the pedigree of every ingredient that goes into our food and beverage, from floor-malted barley to heirloom tomatoes, maybe it’s enough to have an interesting story behind the ingredients used to make something familiar.
At least, that’s the story I’m sticking with. And I think Davy Crockett and every Scotch-Irish American would approve of me going against the … uh, grain … with a little blustery self-importance.
The recipe is posted in the Recipes section of the website, along with its more Irish cousin Anna Livia Irish Stout. Try them both and tell me what you think … and until next time, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.
On April 9, my son Lucian was born.
Far be it from me to claim I’m an expert on the subject after doing it once, but the months leading up to the birth of a first child are a whirlwind. Preparing for the birth is like a new hobby, one that fills only a weekend or two per month early on, but quickly escalates to every weekend and eventually every day. Months pass quickly, measured in weeks between ultrasounds, the impending due date consuming more time and mental bandwidth as the trimesters tick by. There’s a nursery to paint. Furniture to pick out and assemble. Classes to take. Bags to pack for the hospital. As our due date of April 22 approached, the to-do list kept getting longer, and we sacrificed other pursuits – social life, writing, movie night – in an attempt to reach our goal of being “ready” by April 1 so we could a) leave for the hospital at a moment’s notice, and b) relax and enjoy the last few weeks of our pre-parental life before we took the big plunge.
I also prepared a number of activities to “keep me busy” during my four weeks off from work. I formulated a couple of special homebrew recipes: ready to brew. Made substantial progress on mapping out the plot of my novel: ready to draft. Worked with my screenwriting partners to complete the first draft of a feature screenplay: ready to edit. And I stocked up on DVDs and books to watch/read in my downtime.
I’ll pause here to give a moment to my readers who are experienced parents. Please, laugh derisively at my naive delusion.
By April 1, we were a little behind schedule on the prep-work but not too far behind. We were all ready to buckle down and get it done in time for April 22. Then suddenly, boom. Lucian came 13 days early, smacking me in the face with a +2 spiked club of reality. I’m still shaking my head, trying to clear the ring of stars and chirping birds circling me.
It’s amazing how quickly I transformed from “me” into this new version of me that exists primarily to serve as one half of a round-the-clock life support system for another human being. In my rare contemplative moments, I think back to those last frantic weeks of expectancy with nostalgia, like memories of a relaxing vacation.
Don’t get me wrong. The instant I first laid eyes on my son in the delivery room, a profound and inexplicable emotion anchored in my psyche immediately. I was literally overwhelmed, almost hyperventilating as my brain refused to believe what my heart felt – that there was a new person on this planet, that I had co-created him and would co-author his formative years, and that I loved him in a way I never realized was possible. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything, and I’m glad he decided to come 13 days early. Someday, many years from now when our days together are numbered, I’ll look back and be thankful for the extra time.
But with all that said, the last nine days have challenged my naive assumptions of what raising a newborn would be like. That stack of things to “keep me busy”? Collecting dust. I haven’t read anything that’s not baby-related. I haven’t written (until now). I’ve watched a little TV, but seeing as how it takes 4 hours to get through a single episode of Game of Thrones or Mad Men, I don’t think I’ll be making much headway on that stack of DVDs. And as for the pipe dream of scraping together eight consecutive hours to brew beer, well, I barely even have time to drink a beer.
But I dove in head first, learning the right way for each new paternal task with zeal. Every time I tried something new, I looked it up in at least two baby books and online to see if I was doing it right (I’m not bragging; it was a crutch and a hindrance). I filled my head with so much information it eventually just started dripping out of my ears unused. I soon got overwhelmed and started making mistakes: confusing Lucian’s hunger cry for his diaper cry, chilling his sensitive butt with a frigid baby wipe, failing to shield his eyes from the sun for every microsecond outdoors. Every mistake left me feeling sick to my stomach and afraid of the next mistake, certain the baby wouldn’t survive two weeks in my care. What had I gotten myself into? How stupid was I to make him cry for literally hours in the middle of the night, while I racked my brain trying to figure out what was wrong? I was clueless, in over my head. The worst father in the world. I almost welcomed the idea of Texas Child Protective Services busting down the door of my house at 4:00 am, declaring me unfit for parenthood, and taking Lucian away to someone else who could raise him right. Unlike me.
And then one night, four or five days ago but a lifetime away, was my dark night of the soul. Listening to the earsplitting (I now know what this word means) cry of my frustrated newborn, terrified that any new minute on the clock might mark the breaking point for this poor innocent creature mistakenly entrusted to my ignorant care, I wished only that I could be somewhere else. Anywhere, anywhen, back in time, off in space, a place with bright sun and serene air and good ale on tap.
The thought of beer, coupled with a crippling fear of failure, triggered memories. I remembered my first forays into homebrewing, those exciting but terrifying new days filled with similar fear and self-doubt.
For my first few homebrew batches, I sought validation for every choice I made online and in the pages of the beginner books written by Charlie Papazian and John Palmer. Was I mixing the extract and water enough? Was I cleaning my steeping bag the right way? Were plastic carboys really fine, or was I going to oxidize my brew? Was I wasting my time, and would my beer end up tasting terrible? Was I the worst brewer ever, and should I just give up?
But I wasn’t, and I shouldn’t, and I wasn’t wasting my time. I was learning on the job. It was a painful, arduous process that was nonetheless absolutely necessary. The beer wasn’t perfect, but it was far from terrible. And as I got more and more experience, I realized that so much of homebrewing was not about right vs. wrong, but just about choices. I learned to be comfortable with the choices I made, knowing they were the right choices for me – at least at the time – and for nurturing the best possible beer out of my homebrew setup. I learned to have faith that even if I made little mistakes that needed to be corrected or even apologized for, the beer would be fine.
An epiphany began to blossom in my head. I looked down at my screaming, red-faced infant son and smiled. I remembered Charlie Papazian’s oft-quoted advice to new homebrewers: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. And I did.
Well, I didn’t have the homebrew until the next day, but you get the idea. As I drank that homebrew, I reflected on how raising a newborn is not entirely different from homebrewing. Sure, it’s a much bigger commitment and the stakes are waaaay higher. But it can be approached in the same way.
Relax. Don’t worry. Enjoy your child.
Nine days in, I’m still making mistakes and I’m still stressed out – sleep deprivation will do that to you. But amazingly, I’m starting to get the hang of it. I can tell the difference between a hunger cry and a diaper cry. I’m guessing with sufficient accuracy when Lucian needs feeding or changing, and when he just wants to suck on a finger or listen to white noise. I’m starting to feel like I sort of know what I’m doing when it comes to the basics, and I’m enjoying experimenting as I figure out how to parent more efficiently. I feel myself on the verge of a stage of parenthood analogous to being an intermediate brewer: straying from established recipes with my own adjuncts and flavors, controlling variables in my own way, putting my own twist on process and technique. And I realize the beginning wasn’t so bad. It didn’t take long at all.
Someday, though I’m sure it’s a long way away, I’ll level up to advanced, “all grain” parenting. I’ll have enough knowledge and experience to have my own ideas about how to make my child happy. I’ll be the one dispensing advice and recommendations to my friends who become parents after me. I’ll still screw up, of course. But with the wisdom of experience behind me, I’ll view my mistakes as something constructive; to paraphrase James Joyce, “portals of discovery”. I’ll screw up and fix it and clean up and apologize and analyze and solve the problem to become a better parent in the future.
And someday, I’ll pass that knowledge on to my son, perhaps over a pint of a well-crafted homebrew that he may someday brew himself.
Welcome to life, Lucian. For now, keep doing what you’re doing. Cry if you have to, but sleep when you can. You’ll need your rest. Brewing is hard work, and we’ll be doing it together soon.
No task in homebrewing gives me such mixed feelings as bottling. On one hand, it’s the last leg of the beer’s journey from grain to glass, and when the cap goes on I know the next time I interact with this brew will be when I taste it. On the other hand, it’s involved: boiling priming sugar, sanitizing 55 bottles, racking, filling and capping by hand, then breaking everything down and filling with PBW for an overnight soak takes more steps and time than any other brewing task I do except the brew day itself (and brew day leaves me with a much greater sense of accomplishment).
So when I started kegging over a year ago, I never looked back. It’s just so easy and fast: 30 minutes is about all I need to sanitize and fill a 5-gallon keg, and some homebrewers cut that time in half by keeping kegs full of sanitizing solution when not in use.
But I also make the odd 1-2 gallon test batch from time to time, and I don’t keg those. I could find smaller kegs, I suppose, but that would mean dedicating one of my three taps to small-batch experimental beer, which I’d rather not. So my test batches still get bottled. At least in theory.
In reality, I’ve been putting off bottling test batches for a while now because of the hassle. The two test batches I did over the last year – a Berliner Weisse from March 2012 and a Bronze Age Fig Beer in January – were still in fermenters in the Harry Potter closet, rapidly approaching the point where more additional time wouldn’t help them. I finally had to do what I had been putting off. And since necessity is the mother of invention, I devised ways to make it easier.
First, I got smaller bottling buckets. I used to just use my full 6-gallon bottling bucket regardless of batch size. After all, unlike the fermentation vessel, the bottling bucket is not going to hold beer for more than a couple of hours at the most, so there’s no reason not to just use the biggest one you’ve got, right?
But after thinking, I came up with several reasons why having a smaller bottling bucket would make bottling a small batch easier:
- Less surface area to sanitize
- Narrower vessel = higher fill level in the bucket, making it easier to submerge the outlet of the racking hose
- Narrower vessel = more pressure out of the spigot = faster bottle fills
- Less surface area to clean afterwards
So I made 2-gallon bottling buckets from plastic pails identical to those I use for small-batch fermenters. Instead of drilling a hole in the lid for a stopper and airlock, I drilled a hole near the base for a spigot with a 1″ spade bit:
If you try it at home, keep a firm hand on the bucket and drill and be aware that it will cut through plastic very quickly, so a momentary loss of control can send you back to the store to buy a new bucket and start over. 1″ was the perfect diameter for my spigot, but I slipped and gouged a little extra chunk outside of the intended hole. Fortunately I was able to carefully hand-tighten the spigot to compress the interior gasket enough so that it spread to cover the leak.
The other shortcut I used was Coopers Carbonation Drops instead of bulk priming the entire batch. I’ve used these things on and off since my beginnings as an extract brewer, and I’ve been spoiled. Even now, weighing, boiling and cooling priming sugar is for some reason a huge annoyance to me and ranked among my worst first-world problems. But bulk priming does carbonate a little more consistently than the Coopers drops, so I do it, usually. But not with test batches. I consider them experiments anyway, so I’m not concerned about minute and virtually undetectable carbonation variations from bottle to bottle.
It took me an hour to sanitize two sets of equipment, rack two batches, and package 13 bottles of fig beer and 9 bottles of Berliner Weisse.
I still find kegging to be easier, and I’ll keg full-size batches whenever possible unless I have a reason to bottle them, in which case I’ll have to break out the big bucket and clear a couple of hours on my calendar. I also have a new Blichmann BeerGun I haven’t yet used which can bottle force-carbonated beer from the keg, but I’ll probably limit its use to bottling a few off the keg to give to friends. For test batches, I think I’ve found my process.
And the right equipment makes every process easier. It’s great to know that now, with a few additions to my homebrew arsenal, bottling is no longer a chore to dread, but a milestone to look forward to.
With highland-like winter winds dropping the temperature outside to near freezing and the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” still in my head, it’s no surprise that my thoughts turned to Scotland for my first cellar beer of 2013. My attention was captured by a couple of bottles from BrewDog that I’ve been cellaring for the better part of a year.
I consider myself a BrewDog fan. Based in northern Scotland, they’ve earned a reputation for extreme beers. Three of their beers – Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Sink the Bismarck!, and The End of History – were freeze distilled to achieve ABVs of 32%, 41%, and 55% making each the “strongest beer ever made” at the time it was released. I stopped into their brewpub in Edinburgh twice while visiting the UK in 2011 and tried both Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck!. Served at a premium price in tiny pours (I believe they were 50 mL, not quite 2 ounces) and made for sipping, they weren’t drinks I would ever reach for when I wanted a “beer”, but they were enjoyable, unique and worthy of the recognition they received worldwide.
But BrewDog’s history of record-chasing hasn’t brought them unanimous appreciation at home. They’ve courted controversy, been targeted by industry watchdogs, and feuded with London-based international beverage giant Diageo. A couple of UK natives I’ve spoken to have even told me they didn’t appreciate BrewDog bringing American-style brewing excess to the British Isles, though their growth and success suggest that’s a minority opinion. In any case, from here in the USA – where excess in brewing often manifests itself through the same old tricks: higher gravity, more hops, stranger microbes, etc. – BrewDog’s innovative excess looks very original to me, and I’m glad they’re in business.
A 12-ounce bottle of BrewDog Paradox Isle of Arran Imperial Stout, barrel aged in scotch whisky barrels and 10% ABV, sounded perfect to stave off the cold. I put it in the fridge for a few hours to chill slightly and served it up.
The beer poured almost black, with chocolatey brown hues showing when the light hit the pouring beer just right. It didn’t pour nearly as thick or syrupy as I expected it to, suggesting a thinner body than many other imperial stouts. Once in the glass, it was tar black with no head.
The aroma was strong with scotch whisky at first, and burned my nose a little. As I continued to sniff, it faded to a barleywine-like booziness with raisin and black cherry notes along with blackstrap molasses and mouthwatering caramel.
Strangely, the flavor was very mellow – a bit too much so. I tasted more raisin than anything, with a little oaky whisky flavor underneath but very little indicative of an imperial stout; it tasted more like a very dark English old ale. As the beer warmed to room temperature, a little bit of roasty stout character emerged, but not enough to balance the whisky notes. And as the pour suggested, the beer was very thin, with very little residual sugar to hold up the whisky and raisin notes.
I suspect that I aged this beer too long, which is a shame. It didn’t taste stale, but was unbalanced, as though some flavor notes faded faster than others. For a brewery known for extreme beers, this one came across as soft in the wrong ways. But I won’t fault BrewDog for that. I’d love to buy another bottle and try it again someday, but it seems the Paradox line has moved on to other things.
Whatever is next, I’ll be watching.
Saturday was Learn to Homebrew Day in the USA, and today is Election Day. To honor both events, I did what any patriotic and pedantic zyme lord would. I made beer.
I called it Colonial Progress Ale, and it’s something between an English bitter and an English brown ale. “Colonial” comes from the fermentables, adapted from a recipe I envisioned for a colonial-style ale during a trip to Philadelphia earlier this year. I ended up with:
- 6.5 lbs American 2-row
- 1 lb Victory malt
- 8 oz Flaked wheat
- 8 oz Flaked oats
- 1 lb Molasses
Each of these ingredients was chosen for a reason, starting with American 2-row malt as the base. Wheat is common in colonial ale recipes, including one attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Victory and oats I had no historic precedent for, but I added them for body in the finished beer, along with some bready/biscuity flavor (Victory) and silky smoothness (oats) to accentuate the English-inspired malt profile. I mashed at 153°F for medium fermentability, counting on the highly fermentable molasses to dry the beer out.
Ohhh, molasses. A common ingredient in beer in early colonial Philadelphia (according to a quote from William Penn), I can eat the stuff right out of the jar. But I was nervous about using it after reading John Palmer’s tasting notes ranging from “rumlike” and “sweet” (woohoo!) to “harsh” and “bitter” (ergh). But further research online suggested that harsher flavors were associated with fermenting mineral-rich blackstrap molasses, not the regular unsulphured kind. I went with regular, and added them at the beginning of the boil with high hopes.
The “Progress” part came from the hops: one ounce of 6.6% AA Progress at the 60-minute mark for bittering, and another quarter ounce at 15 minutes for flavor. Progress is a UK varietal related to Fuggle hops, a good choice for English-style ales.
But that wasn’t all I added to the boil. Hops were available to some colonial brewers, but apparently not all that prevalent, so other bittering herbs were common. My original plan was to use horehound, but I realized the medicinal flavor might overpower a low-gravity ale. I thought of rosemary, but was talked out of it by the sages (ha, ha) at Austin Homebrew Supply. I landed on:
- .25 oz Juniper berries (crushed in mortar)
- .5 grams Sweet Gale (dried)
I added the herbs in the last minute of the boil and let them steep during cooling and whirlpool. I may add more later during conditioning.
The wort had an OG of 1.046, a true session ale for the upcoming winter (insert witty apropos Valley Forge reference; I can’t think of one). I pitched the slurry from a 2-liter starter of WLP008 East Coast Ale Yeast – reportedly the Sam Adams house strain – in keeping with the colonial theme. I set the fermentation chamber to an ambient 65-68°F, a little warmer than typical to coax some vintage ester flavor from this low-flocculating yeast.
By this time tomorrow, the future of the United States will be written for the next four years. But regardless of whether my guy wins or not, I’ll have something to look forward to: a beverage in the tradition of the first beers brewed on American soil. Beer has always been a part of American culture, even before there was a United States, and from #1 on down to #44 many presidents have been homebrew aficionados: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were homebrewers and Barack Obama bought a homebrew kit for the White House with his own money. And beer remains one of the few things people can agree on regardless of personal politics.
Don’t forget to vote today, no matter who you’re supporting. Red and blue be damned. We can all party together in the colors of the SRM scale.
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.
Fiesta Gardens in East Austin was the hoppiest place in town on October 6 as about two dozen breweries from all over Texas gathered for the annual Texas Craft Brewers Festival, sponsored by the Young Men’s Business League of Austin. Featuring over 115 beers, the event promised to be a carnival of discovery. I walked through the gates holding my tasting glass eagerly, like an explorer taking his first steps on a newly discovered shore with a trusty saber in hand.
The format was a familiar one: a booth from each brewery in attendance (arranged in alphabetical order, wow) offering pours of their most popular and/or most interesting beers. $20 bought admission, a 4 oz. plastic tasting glass and six tickets, with additional tickets available for purchase at two for $3. Most of the pours cost one ticket, with some of the rarer/higher-gravity offerings going for two.
I sprung for the $65 VIP pass. It didn’t come with any additional tickets (bummer), but I did get a T-shirt and imperial pint glass along with noon entry, two hours before everyone else. The early entry was worth it, because the place got nuts at 2:00 when the gates opened to general admission. VIP’s also got a “meet-and-greet” round robin tasting in the main pavilion from 1:00 to 2:00. Brewers and brewery representatives walked around the pavilion with pitchers, pouring samples and answering questions.
I love talking to brewers who have a real passion for brewing. The ones who are visibly energized by talking to kindred spirits. The ones whose eyes light up when asked why they chose one yeast strain over another, or who get excited when you taste something subtle in the beer that they were specifically trying for. They’re the stewards of our community, the true shamans of our tribal craft brew culture. I’d especially like to thank Jeff Stuffings of Jester King Craft Brewery, Diane Rogness of Rogness Brewing Company, Jud Mulherin of Circle Brewing Company and Grant Wood of Revolver Brewing Company for stopping for a few minutes on a busy day to talk to me – one of many admirers clamoring for their time – about their ingredients, their craft, and why they do what they do.
The beers themselves presented a fascinating snapshot of where Texas craft brew is today. Several things became apparent over the course of the day:
- Sour beer no longer a thing? The event website boasted “at least four sours”. That’s a much smaller number than I would have predicted a year ago, when sours were seemingly the next big wave in craft brewing. But now it seems Texas brewers are looking elsewhere for innovation. Real Ale Scots Gone Wild and Austin Beerworks Einhorn Berliner Weisse were on tap along with some sours from Jester King, but I didn’t see anything on the menu that I hadn’t tried before. I made a beeline to the Jester King booth for what I thought was a new sour – the Viking-inspired Gotlandsdricka – and got a surprise. Jeff Stuffings informed me his Gotlandsdricka was intended to be a modern interpretation, not a historically accurate recreation of the ancient ale, and was clean-fermented with just Saccharomyces cerevisiae. I’m a sucker for anything Nordic, and I liked it a lot, but I’m still curious to taste the sour version they may release in a few months.
- Flavorings are where it’s at. For a region so rich in German heritage, Texas brewers sure don’t know the meaning of Reinheitsgebot. Spices and fruits abounded. Rogness OST Porter with coffee and coconut and Yogi Amber with chai spice, Thirsty Planet ChiGoatle Amber with peppers, Revolver Blood & Honey Wheat with blood orange zest and spices, and Jester King Gotlandsdricka with sweet gale and juniper all made impressions on me. Even Reinheitsgebot champions Circle Brewing have jumped into the flavor fray with Smokin’ Beech, a refreshing Rauchbier with a bacony character from malt beechwood-smoked according to a traditional Bamberg process that Jud Mulherin described to me in reverent detail.
- Tea is the new coffee. Coffee porters and stouts remain popular, but Texas brewers are starting to notice coffee’s hot stepsister from across the ocean, with very different takes on the concept. Live Oak poured an Oaktoberfest infused with lapsang souchong China black tea, lending a vegetal smokiness tailored for slow sipping. Jester King poured their kombucha farmhouse ale Buddha’s Brew. Rogness Yogi Amber doesn’t actually have tea in it, but recreates the experience of chai tea in an amber beer with chai spices and unfermentable sugars. Diane Rogness called Yogi “her baby”, and she should be proud of it. I enjoyed drinking it and have thought about it a lot since Saturday.
- Dallas-Fort Worth is growing. Lakewood Brewing and Revolver Brewing are two names from the Metroplex that seem to have made their Austin debut at the event, alongside DFW stalwarts Deep Ellum and Southern Star. I didn’t get a chance to try Lakewood (sorry!) but Revolver’s Blood & Honey Wheat is a surprisingly complex lawnmower beer with blood orange zest and savory spices. Head brewer Grant Wood invited me to guess which spices he used. I guessed incorrectly, and when I pressed him for the correct answer, he said smiling, “We’ve gotta have some secrets.” Touché.
Finally, the day brought great news to the mead lover in me. I had a chance to speak to Eric Lowe of Meridian Hive Meadery, a new Austin company getting their brewhouse (meadhouse?) assembled currently, and who will hopefully be releasing their first meads in early 2013. There’s a mead gap in Austin, and I welcome them with open arms and a thirsty palate.
Photos of the event are below (including one of your friend and humble narrator in a yellow shirt), courtesy of Roy Moore and Control Images. Thanks to the YMBL and all who made the event what it was.
My name is Shawn, and I have a problem with gas.
Specifically, the carbon dioxide tank in my 3-tap homebrew kegerator. About two weeks ago, I noticed that my beers were getting a little overcarbonated. My regulator, it turned out, was set to a very high 14 PSI. I try to keep it at 10 PSI, which produces an acceptable level of carbonation for most beers; not ideal for all, but it’s good enough and a simple round number.
But when my precious beers were suddenly pouring out as 80% head, I knew something was amiss. So I got on my knees, pulled a keg out of the kegerator to get to the 5-pound CO2 tank at its home on the compressor hump, relieved pressure at the tank valve and turned the regulator screw a tiny bit counterclockwise to lower the pressure. It doesn’t take much to get big results: a few degrees of torque on a quarter-inch bolt can result in a difference of 3-4 PSI, and sometimes it takes a day before it stabilizes.
But it seemed like it was going to work, for a few days. Then, by coincidence, the tank ran out of gas (I suspected a leak, but thankfully found none). Unfortunately, it was a Monday and I live too far from Austin Homebrew Supply to go there on a weeknight, so I had to wait 5 days before I could get it refilled. Once done, I happily hooked up the newly filled tank and set the pressure to 8 PSI in the hopes that the pressure differential would bleed out some of the extra carbonation in the beer and equalize at the level I’m looking for.
And bleed it did. I poured a pint of Weiss Blau Weiss a few days later, and it was straight-up flat. The regulator was surprisingly at 3 PSI. I was in full WTF mode by this point, until I realized that I set the pressure before I opened all the valves in my gas manifold. 8 PSI with one valve open to one keg dissipated after I opened the other two valves.
Now I think it’s back to normal. We’ll see in a couple of days. And someday I’ll invest in longer beer lines for the system. Longer beer lines mean more distance for the beer to travel from keg to glass, which means it doesn’t come out so fast and so foamy even when the pressure’s a little high. That’s the next logical step, but I’m hoping to put that project off for a less-busy weekend.
Was there a point to this story? No, mostly I’m just venting. But it’s a solid cautionary tale for any homebrewer out there still slaving over a bottling bucket, manually filling and capping 11 bottles for every gallon of homebrew and thinking, “Once I get my kegging system, all my problems are going to be solved!” I once thought that, too.
Nope. Sorry. There will always be problems. Something can always go wrong. Especially when your hobby’s primary equipment options are mostly Frankensteined together by DIYers from common appliances, picnic gear and plumbing fittings. Problems are a given. You just have to roll with them.
But that’s part of the fun. Anybody can go to the store and buy great beer by the case. What makes homebrewers invest the time and the money in all the constant tinkering? Ingenuity. Creativity. And a morbid, wretched drive to find problems that need solving. It’s the same reason I build my own desktop computers from scratch instead of buying them off the shelf. It’s the same reason I’ve been researching and outlining my novel for an obsessively long eight months, poking holes in my own ideas before I write the first page. Like many men, I may shout and curse and bang my fist when a frustrating problem rears its head, but secretly, I love it when a problem arises, because it’s another chance to prove how smart I am by solving it.
So here’s hoping this problem is solved … for now. A pint is calling my name, so I’ll test it soon. But I’ve got hours to kill before bedtime, and who knows what might be waiting for me in there?
We left off at …
Fourth Course: Scots Gone Wild Sour Real Heavy with venison liver mousse, black pepper cherry jam, arugula, country levain – The first three courses were all paired with beers made from the same Lost Gold IPA wort. The first new wort in the lineup was a single-barrel wild fermented Scotch ale. It was good, with floral and dark berry notes on the nose and a murky chocolatey red-brown color. It was tart and astringent, very refreshing and great for summer, and paired well with the very rich venison liver mousse. I love venison, though I'm not a fan of organ meat, and a quick glance around the room told me I wasn't the only one outside of my comfort zone. But with a little faith in the chef, I tucked in with an open mind, and I'm glad I did. A bite of the liver mousse spread on the levain bread with a chaser of the sour Scotch ale was fantastic, but the portion was big. I finished mine, but I saw a lot of unemptied plates.
Fifth Course: Highlander Barrel-Aged Real Heavy with bone marrow, blood sausage, herb salad, fougasse – Before this next dish came out, the servers brought out an enormous pretzel-like bread (the fougasse, I believe). It was delicious, but there was no way the two of us at our table could fit more than a few bites in. The beer, also made from the Real Heavy wort above but aged in red wine barrels, was my least favorite of the night. It had little aroma and a bitter, medicinal flavor. After so much good beer and good food, it was a minor letdown. As for the food, this was my first time eating bone marrow, and it wasn't bad, but I preferred the blood sausage. The herb salad was very sparsely dressed, well-balanced to the strong, earthy flavors of the protein on the plate.
Sixth Course: Vol. 15 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout with bitter orange bread pudding, caramelized honey, figs, walnuts – Yep, you read right: Easy Tiger worked bread into the dessert as well (bravo, maestros). By this point, I was stuffed, but I finished this tasty and surprisingly light bread pudding. The beer hit all the notes one expects from a RIS, though my (perhaps desensitized) taste buds didn't taste much barrel character in the stout. And the stout may have gone better with a chocolate cake than with such a light bread pudding. After everything else, I couldn't finish the beer, and I wasn't the only one. I hate to waste, but there's only so much one can consume in an evening.
So there you have it: a delicious dinner and a great beer flight. Easy Tiger and Real Ale truly went all out with each of their contributions and made a good team. The plating portions and the beer pours were impressive, and a great deal for $55 a head. On the other hand, smaller portions would likely have kept the appetites in the room going longer. Maybe even long enough for the less adventurous folks in the room to embrace those organ meats on the later plates.
But hey, Easy Tiger is learning as they go … and I recognize that “The portions were too big at my six-course gourmet microbrew dinner!” is totally a first-world complaint. So I'm not complaining at all. It's just an observation, and maybe will raise some awareness that could eliminate waste in the future.
As for Real Ale, I'd say they showed Austin that this now-old-standby in the local beer community still has some surprises up its sleeve. But they are bigger than the upstarts; and bigger, for a commercial brewery, means bigger risk. Smaller breweries can brew a small experimental batch and eat the cost of having to dump it if necessary, but a brewery the size of Real Ale takes a huge financial hit if they make a 60-barrel batch of something that turns out undrinkable. The trick of fermenting 3 different worts 6 different ways seems a good way for a brewery that size to experiment: if one of the beers turns out bad, there's still barrels and barrels of another beer they made from that wort they can still sell. Is that as exciting as the reckless abandon of a smaller brewery? Well, no … but it still can turn out a bunch of damn good beers, as Real Ale proved.
So thanks to Easy Tiger and Real Ale for a great night that left me happily stuffed and happily buzzed. I'm looking forward to the next one. Prosit.