My Hobbit-inspired Old Took’s Midwinter IPA is now in the keg. If it seems like that happened really quickly, it’s only because of how late I posted my blog post about the brew day. I fermented it for three weeks before dry hopping it for 6 days. All in all, it was about 4 weeks from mash tun to keg.
I dry hopped it with an ounce each of the same finishing hops I used in the boil, hoping to achieve a nice mix of floral and citrus aroma notes to round out the beer:
- 1 oz Willamette (4% AA)
- 1 oz Cascade (6.2% AA)
It’s been in the keg for less than a day, so it’s too early to know for sure how it’s going to turn out. It tastes good, and it’s got more hop character than it did a week ago. So I think it’s going to be good, but I’m a little concerned that this wasn’t my most successful attempt at dry hopping.
In the past, I’ve dry hopped with pellets either tied in a disposable loose-weave muslin bag, or tossed into the fermenter loose. I prefer loose over bagging if possible for maximum contact, but hop particles in the keg are a problem with more than about a half ounce of hop pellets. With 2 oz of loose pellets, I’d be serving up pints of hop debris for a month.
I didn’t have any muslin bags on hand, nor any time to go to Austin Homebrew Supply to buy any. Searching local retailers for a solution, I came across these spice bags at a kitchen store. They’re for chefs making bouquet garnis, but they are muslin (a tighter weave but still porous), and they are advertised as reusable. The biggest drawback I could see was that they were smaller than the bags I usually use, but since I got 4 in a pack I figured I’d use several.
When bagging dry hops – or when using a tea ball-type infuser, which is also popular – the size of the bag or ball is important. Hops shouldn’t be packed too tightly or else you reduce the surface area in contact with the liquid, which decreases the amount of hop goodness that gets into the beer. After sanitizing the bags with boiling water, I split up my 2 oz of hops into 3 bags along with sanitized marbles for ballast. Two thirds of an ounce per bag seemed to provide lots of breathing room, although I knew the hops would expand a little.
I didn’t count on just how much they would expand.
After I racked the beer into the keg, I found my 3 muslin spice bags at the bottom of the fermenter. The hops had expanded so much the bags looked about to burst, like overstuffed pillows. I didn’t worry about it too much until I was cleaning the bags out, in the hopes of maybe reusing them someday. As I emptied the bags into the kitchen sink, I inhaled deeply, smelling the rich, floral-citrus bouquet coming from the green sludge washing down the drain.
And then it hit me: that’s hop aroma going down the drain. Not in my beer.
The hops expanded so much in those small bags that they ended up packed too tightly. Some of the available hop compounds got into the beer, but not all. So the beer is better than it was, but not as good as it could have been. Should have been. And I’m left feeling disappointed at the waste. A spontaneous decision potentially compromised the end result, and that’s going to bother me until I taste the chilled, carbonated beer and know for sure.
If only I had just used my usual bags! Or something else – anything else!
I should breathe deep and repeat the mantra of Charlie Papazian: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. Even if the IPA isn’t perfect, I haven’t ruined it. It’s far from the worst disaster ever to befall a homebrewer, and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve faced. Yes, it was avoidable and it’s annoying, but the beer will be fine.
Then from the back of my brain comes a nagging: Is “fine” really good enough?
It’s not beyond repair. I can still add more dry hops to the keg, if needed. And I probably will. But I’ve learned my lesson. I’m sure I’ll find many other uses for these spice bags in the brewery, such as infusing dry herbs that won’t expand. But I don’t think I’ll be bagging dry hops in anything smaller than a nylon stocking in the future.
I have an ever-growing collection of 22 oz and 750 ml bottles of beer cellaring in the Harry Potter closet. I save them for interesting meal pairings or other special occasions (which includes “another Sunday”). So December – a time of parties, good meals, multiple Christmas celebrations and the new year – is a perfect time to catch up on the cellar back stock. By which I mean drink them, of course.
It’s also when a lot of breweries release special beers, so I’ve found a few to fill the empty spaces in my cellar as I drink them up. Here’s a quick review of some recent bombers I’ve tasted and bought, and a preview of what I’m uncapping next.
This past Saturday, I opened a Stone Enjoy By 12.21.12 IPA. The occasion? Nothing more than resting up after seeing The Hobbit twice on Friday, and a December evening warm enough to put some filet mignons on the backyard grill. Steak and IPA aren’t two things I pair often, especially not when the steak is seasoned boldly (I used some coffee-chipotle rub left over from Thanksgiving), but time was running out on this time bomb of a bomber. The spicy beef and spicy beer matched better than I expected. The beer was light in color, with less melanoidin flavor than I usually want from an IPA, but I didn’t mind the hops overtaking the light malt profile. It was fresh, grassy, floral and spicy. Like a morning stroll through an English garden in spring. With a steak.
Then on Sunday, my wife Lisa and I had an early “Christmas” dinner: leg of lamb with garlic, lemon and herbs, which I paired with a bottle of Boulevard Collaboration No. 3 – Stingo that I’ve had for several months. Not knowing anything about “stingo” – a strong English style – except what was on the label, I expected deep malt and spice with a hint of sour tartness. I thought it would be a natural pairing for lamb with a little tangy mint sauce, but I was disappointed. There was some malt roastiness and a tang on the finish, but nothing in between. Not enough malt backbone, not enough depth, and not enough sourness to be pleasant. I had a lot of trouble finishing it, and that’s the first time I can say that about a Boulevard beer. Realizing it had been in storage for a while, I checked the date on the label, and it wasn’t out of date. Just not my thing, I guess.
Speaking of not living to see spring, this Friday night (December 21) I’ll open a bottle of Dogfish Head Theobroma in honor of the winter solstice and the end of the Mayan calendar. Since “theobroma” (a.k.a. cacao) is the food of the gods, this should be an excellent way to gain favor with Bolon Yokte K’uh, the Mayan god of war and creation who might be coming to destroy us all. If he is not amused and punishes me for my insolence – or if, more likely, he forgets to show up and the world continues to turn – at least I’ll be enjoying one of my favorite beers.
Saturday morning, assuming we’re alive and not already on the Dark Rift road to the Mayan underworld Xibalba, we drive to New Orleans to spend Christmas with our families there. I’m bringing a couple of bottles of Samuel Adams Norse Legend Sahti for Christmas Day. I haven’t tried it yet, but it should be something interesting to introduce to non-beer geeks in the family. The label might even open up some geeky discussion about Norse mythology, which I recommend highly as an excellent conversation topic, especially over grandmother’s Christmas lasagna.
Then there’s a bottle of Samichlaus Bier Helles which won’t see any action until New Year’s Eve. January 1 is Lisa’s birthday, and this year she can’t drink to celebrate thanks to our bouncing, kicking bun in the oven. So we’re having a small celebration at home starting on New Year’s Eve. Samichlaus, a rare Helles bock brewed only once each year by Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg in Austria, will be a fitting send-off to 2012: a very special beer for a very good year.
I’ve written before about keeping it simple in homebrew recipes. Today I’m doing the opposite. I’m sharing a recipe with a lot of bits and pieces, but for a good reason.
Over the course of 2012, I accumulated several open packages of leftover hop pellets. Hops begin degrading as soon as they are opened and exposed to air, and although this degradation can be slowed by storing them frozen in a Ziploc or vacuum-seal bag, that won’t preserve them indefinitely. It’s recommended to use open hops within about 6 months, after which they start to lose their bittering potential day by day as the alpha acids break down.
Of course, it’s not an all-or-nothing deal: it’s not like they’re perfectly okay to use on day 180 and then bad on day 181. As long as they don’t smell funny – like cheese or feet – hops older than 6 months can be used, but the alpha acid degradation (i.e., decreased bitterness) should be taken into consideration for recipe balance and IBU calculation. Fortunately, many brewing programs – like my favorite, BeerSmith – have tools for calculating the effective alpha acid potency of old hops.
So I spent an evening sampling old hops to see how they were holding up, and was surprised to find that the oldest hops in the freezer weren’t the worst ones. For instance, some Saaz and Citra open since 2011 were perfectly fine, but a packet of Warrior from February 2012 was thoroughly becheesed. I separated the good from the cheesy and used BeerSmith to calculate the adjusted AA of the good hops so I could use as many of them as possible in a winter IPA. In homage to new The Hobbit movie coming out this week, I called it Old Took’s Midwinter IPA after Bilbo Baggins’ maternal grandfather, whose memory inspired Bilbo to embrace his adventurous side.
I brewed it on Black Friday in the company of my visiting male family while the ladies were at the outlet mall, which seemed like a great way to show my British brother-in-law (a pub operator who knows a thing or two about a good pint) how we do IPA here in the States.
The grain bill is below. I mashed at 152°F for an hour:
- 12 lbs 2-row malt
- 1.5 lb Munich malt
- 1 lb Victory malt
- 8 oz Crystal 40L
- 8 oz Crystal 60L
- 8 oz Rice Hulls (for efficiency & sparging)
But who am I kidding? The hops are what we’re really interested in here. First up, the oldies but goodies. I’ve noted both the original AA of all the hops below and the adjusted AA, based on BeerSmith’s calculations:
- 0.25 oz Nugget (12.4% orig AA, 11.4% adj AA) for 60 min
- 0.5 oz Saaz (3% orig AA, 1.84% adj AA) for 60 min
- 0.5 oz Falconer’s Flight (11.4% orig AA, 10.4% adj AA) for 45 min
- 0.5 oz Citra (13.6% orig AA, 11.73% adj AA) for 45 min
That was it for the old hops, and I kept them near the beginning of the boil. The reason being that if there were anything unpleasant about them after all this time, it was better to use them early on for bittering, instead of later in the boil when hops contribute more flavor and aroma. Based on my smell/taste tests, it probably would have been fine, but I didn’t want to take the chance.
I also used some fresh hops, mostly (but not all) after the 45-minute mark:
- 0.5 oz Warrior (16% AA) for 60 min
- 0.25 oz Cascade (6.2% AA) for 30 min
- 0.25 oz Willamette (4% AA) for 30 min
- 0.25 oz Cascade (6.2% AA) for 15 min
- 0.25 oz Willamette (4% AA) for 15 min
- 0.25 oz Cascade (6.2% AA) for 5 min
- 0.25 oz Willamette (4% AA) for 5 min
- 0.25 oz Cascade (6.2% AA) at flameout
- 0.25 oz Willamette (4% AA) at flameout
Measured and organized into each addition, all those hops made a pretty picture on my kitchen island:
The OG was 1.070 and I pitched 15.1 grams of rehydrated Safale US-05 yeast. I set the fermentation chamber to an ambient temperature of 63-66°F and it took off like a rocket within about 12 hours. It fermented very actively for about 8 days before settling down, and once I take gravity readings to ensure fermentation is done, I’ll add more Cascade and Willamette dry hops later this week.
If I had any doubts lingering in the back of my mind about using old hops, they were put to rest when I tasted the wort sample I took for my OG reading. It was sweet and biscuity, with a burst of multicolored floral/herbal bitterness, complex and layered as one might expect from so many hops. Tasting how much life was still left in those old hops, I was reminded of the last line spoken by old Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s film of The Return of the King when, aged and frail but still spirited, he looked out over the sea to the west and said, “I think I’m quite ready for another adventure.”
I had to take a break from blogging last week due to the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States, during which I played host to my in-laws for several days of family hijinks to the tune of college football, backyard-fire-pit s’mores, an Eddie Murphy retrospective on BET, and lots and lots of imbibed homebrew. I return with many stories I’ll share in the coming days: a rousing adventure of a non-traditional 3-course Thanksgiving beer dinner, and a saga of a Black Friday brew day so bitter it took six bowls to contain all the hop additions.
But first, an update on Colonial Progress Ale. After nearly 4 weeks in the fermenter, it’s just about finished with a gravity of 1.007. That’s a bit more attenuation than I expected, so it will be higher in alcohol, but that may not be a bad thing for a winter session ale.
I’m pleased to report that as the yeast slowly flocculates out, it’s leaving the beer with a much cleaner taste than I was getting from it even a week ago. When I sampled it on Thanksgiving, it was fruity and a little sulfuric. Now it’s clean tasting and very dry, with only a hint of mineral flavor from the molasses and a burst of herbal bitterness from the late spice addition of sweet gale and juniper berries.
What’s missing is any sign of herb or spice in the aroma/flavor arena. So today, a few days before kegging, I made a “spice potion” with the remaining sweet gale and juniper berries.
What’s a spice potion? Despite sounding like something from a Dune or Harry Potter book (or some sick and unnecessary crossover that I would nevertheless read because I friggin’ love both those series: Harry Potter and the Floating Fat Baron? House Elves of Dune? I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling and Brian Herbert) a spice potion is a method for adding spices or herbs to homebrew without boiling – and thus losing many of the volatile compounds that give those ingredients their distinguishing features – and that’s more elegant than simply throwing them in the fermenter.
It’s simply soaking the herbs/spices in distilled liquor to extract the essence. As I understand it, this works because alcohol is a better solvent than water, so more of the flavor and aroma compounds are extracted than in water steeping, and no heat means the subtler characteristics of the ingredient are retained. And since it’s distilled spirit, it’s safe to add to the beer without fear of infection. Any spirit will do. Vodka is common because of its neutral flavor, but depending on the specific ingredient being extracted, I’ve heard of people using rum, tequila, or whiskey (whose name, incidentally, comes from the Gaelic phrase uisce beatha meaning “water of life”, which is also a solution of pure spice essence in the Dune series – and now we’ve come full geek circle).
I used vodka. And since quality isn’t really important for the small amount that will end up in the beer, I used the cheapest vodka I keep on hand: the stuff that comes in a 1.75-liter bottle for $9, which I use to fill my airlocks (never for drinking). I muddled a quarter ounce of juniper berries with a gram of sweet gale in a mortar and then placed it in a sanitized glass with about 2 ounces of vodka. The resulting mixture wasn’t pretty to look at, but had an herbal/tart aroma pleasantly similar to gin.
I’ll let the potion steep, covered with sanitized foil, from now until Sunday. Then I’ll strain out the chunks, add the essence to the keg, and rack the beer on top of that. Since the bitterness is already prominent in the brew, I think this is the last little flavor kick the beer needs to make it ready for prime time.
Watch this space for the next few days as I share my stories from Thanksgiving week. Since there’s no turkey or shopping involved in either of them, I’m sure you’ll enjoy them despite the passage of time.
Until then, keep the spice – and the beer – flowing.
Fantastic Fest 2012 starts today in Austin! Billed as “a film festival with all the boring parts cut out”, it’s eight days of weird and unique films from all around the world. Horror, action, science fiction, fantasy and offbeat comedy will show in abundance.
When I’m not blogging, brewing or working at my day job, I write for the very small screen and work in independent film production with Blue Goggles Films (see the latest episode of our series De-Pixelated here, co-written by me). So great film on a budget is a passion of mine, and Fantastic Fest is my Christmas. I look forward to it every year the way some people look forward to the World Series, E3, or a major political convention. In fact, it is like a major political convention: full of deeply opinionated people exchanging passionate debate after nights of minimal – or no – sleep … but instead of arguing about the economy or health care, they’re discussing Dogme 95 or the most effective use of the Wilhelm scream in a Spanish-language film since 1996.
It’s not technically a beer event, but it does take place at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, so there’s beer and food available for purchase at every screening, and lots of parties with free drinks at night. So beer is a big part of the festival for me, because I love pairing beer with a good film as much as with a good meal. I’m hoping the Alamo has a lot of interesting stuff on tap to keep the libations as exciting as the entertainment.
I usually see about 30 films during the 8-day festival. My original idea was to do “Fantastic Fest in 30 Beers”: a different beer for every film I see. But I realized 30 pints in 8 days is going to be hard on my wallet, and I really want to enjoy some high-gravity brews if possible without falling asleep during my midnight screenings.
So I won’t try to force a beer for every showing. But I will be drinking some interesting stuff throughout the week, and seeing some fantastic films. I’ll write about both as often as I can. I’ll also be tweeting about the films and the festival as it happens – check out my Twitter feed @shawnbou21 to see my updates.
Friday night was the inaugural screening of the Summer of ’82 film series at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Ritz location: John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. Yeah, that’s right. That one, with Ahnold. With James Earl Jones as the snake god and Mako as the crazy wizard, and the lamentation of the women and all that. Oh, yeah.
I’ve been stoked about the Summer of ’82 series since I first saw a teaser for it, and the badge I scored is one of my prize possessions for the next few months. To kick the series off with Conan was an absolute blast. The (apparently brand new) 35mm print was astoundingly beautiful, and despite having seen it again and again, I felt like I was watching the film for the first time. Arnold Schwarzenegger owned that role (sorry, Jason Momoa, I’d ride in your khalasar, but you didn’t teach me what was best in life) and the film is much more intelligent than most people give it credit for. It’s a wonderful clash of the classic and the new: Conan is more or less your standard orphan-turned-legendary-hero, Siegfried meets Spartacus. But Milius knows his Joseph Campbell, and he tells a story that hits all the conventional heroic journey notes while still staying profoundly modern, with a screenplay so sparse in dialogue it’s almost high art, a post-Jonestown message about kids and cults that still resonates 30 years later, and a powerful female lead character who is a warrior first and a love interest second. I rooted for those characters like I’ve never rooted before, and James Earl Jones was so terrifying as Thulsa Doom on the big screen (those eyes!) that I only laughed a little bit when he told Conan he was his father.
To go with the Schwarzeneggerian splendor unfolding on the silver screen, I ordered a pint of Live Oak Brewing Company’s seasonal Schwarzbier. When asked what sets Live Oak apart in the exponentially expanding Austin beer scene, what comes to mind first is that they do a better job of replicating traditional German styles than anyone else around. Their HefeWeizen is a true hefe, full of banana and clove flavors, not the bland hazy wheat beers now rolling off the production line of every regional brewery. Their Pilz is a real-deal Bohemian pilsner, with crisp Czech malt and refreshing Saaz hops that fill every sip with flavor. These aren’t even styles I’m all that fond of, but I love that Live Oak does them well. I knew their take on the traditional German black lager known as a schwarzbier would be no exception.
The color was the deepest black, opaque. It seemed darker than most schwarzbiers and black lagers I’ve had, but that could have been the dim light of the movie theater. There wasn’t much aroma, but what I could pick up from it was dark chocolate and caramel, with the slightest hint of banana esters. Same with the flavor, which was subtle and refreshing, though chocolatey and with a little noble hop bite tapering off into a faint mocha java aftertaste. I found the mouthfeel a little thin for my taste, but I find that with black lagers a lot; I tend to be more of an ale guy, really, and perhaps my palate is still too calibrated for stout to really appreciate the thinner, more refreshing and crisp nature of a schwarzbier. But for all that, I enjoyed it. Once again Live Oak proved that they know German beer, and play with convention as well as any brewery in Central Texas.
The next screening in the Summer of ’82 series is Mad Max 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior). Since that show is not at an Alamo Drafthouse location, I’ve no idea yet whether there will be a beer available there that will pair as nicely and thematically with that film as this one did. If anyone can get their hands on some banged-up, greasy, post-apocalyptic cans of VB from the land of Oz, I won’t say no.