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 …
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.
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.