Tag Archive | Harry Potter closet

Missing football already? Here’s a homebrew Hail Mary

Super Bowl XLVIII is history and the world has turned its collective attention to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, but before I hang up my big foam finger and retire the word clinch from my vocabulary until August, let’s take a moment to celebrate a gridiron tradition: the Hail Mary play. A long-shot pass down the field with a minimal chance of success, a last-ditch effort for a team with nothing to lose. I don’t know who did it first, but presumably many years ago some coach realized that when faced with an all-or-nothing situation, it can’t hurt to do something crazy. Whoever that coach was, he would have made a great homebrewer.

My own homebrew Hail Mary happened at the end of last year. I can take credit for the execution, but the idea for the play came from my wife/recipe consultant Lisa.

On Thanksgiving Day, I finished my pumpkin ale, leaving me with an empty tap and nothing ready to serve. I must have been complaining loudly, because Lisa stepped up, baby in hand. “What are those?” she said, pointing to two 1-gallon carboys hiding in the shadows at the back of the closet under the stairs.

A few years ago I started making occasional small batches. After realizing that the 1-gallon carboys my homebrew supplier sold for $5 were nearly identical to the gallon-size glass jugs of organic apple juice at the grocery for $7, I just bought the juice and figured I’d save the jug when it was empty. But why waste that apple juice by drinking it when I could ferment it instead? Plain apple juice is all you need for a simple dry cider, so I pitched 3 grams of Safale S-04 into the jug and sealed it with a stopper and airlock. Incidentally, I chose S-04 for its high flocculation, assuming it would yield clearer cider. I was wrong; later I learned about pectin haze, a common “flaw” in ciders caused by pectin in apples and treatable with pectic enzyme if you care to. (As it turns out, I don’t mind hazy cider, so I’ve never bothered with it.)

I bought four juice jugs, but didn’t ferment them all at once. I pitched Batch #1 right away and bottled it four weeks later (oh, the anticipation of something new). I made Batch #2 a few months later and bottled it after eight weeks, then pitched the yeast cake into Batch #3. That was September 2011, right around the time I remembered that I like beer much more than cider and would rather drink it instead. I managed to finish off the cider I’d bottled, but held off bottling more until I was ready for it.

And then forgot about it completely.

In early February 2013, I was telling a friend how easy it is to make apple cider, and suddenly remembered the carboy that had been sitting there for nearly a year and a half. Trepidatious about tasting a seventeen-month-old cider, I put off the moment of truth by making Batch #4 instead, figuring I’d bottle both batches later that year. Of course, “later that year” soon became “Oh shit, it’s November.”

And that’s how we found ourselves on Thanksgiving Day looking at two little carboys full of cider with a combined age of thirty-six months. I reminded Lisa what they were, and voiced my concern that they might not be drinkable after all this time. I hated to spend the time bottling them if they weren’t going to be any good. I wondered if I should toss them.

“If the alternative is throwing them away,” she said, “why not keg them and blend them? Add some spices to mask the imperfections if you need to. Actually, make it a holiday cider with mulling spices.”

This, Internet, is just a glimpse of the general awesomeness of this woman and why I’ve been with her for twenty years …

As great an idea as it was, I reminded her that I already had plans for the now-empty keg. I needed it for another beer that was ready for cold storage but wouldn’t be ready to drink for a month.

“Just buy a new keg,” she said. “Do they make small ones? Then you’ll have a portable keg so you can take it out of the house.”

… twenty wonderful years.

My memory is hazy as to when exactly I ordered the keg, but I’m sure I waited at least 75 seconds after she suggested it. A few days and trips to the store later, I made a spice potion with:

  • 4 oz vodka
  • 1 1/2 cinnamon sticks, whole
  • 1/2 tbsp crystallized ginger, minced
  • 1/2 tsp allspice, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg, grated
  • 1 clove, whole
  • 1/2 tsp star anise, crushed
  • a dash of grains of paradise, crushed
  • zest of 1 orange

I let the potion steep until mid-December and racked it just in time for the holidays. I may not be much of a cider guy, but I was impressed.

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Tart and dry, a little astringent, fashionably sour. The star anise was a little overpowering, but the cinnamon and clove really backed it up. The spices were strong, but that’s what elevated it from “just cider” to “holiday cider.” A friend sampling a glass came up with the brilliant idea of mixing it with ginger ale, which became my favorite way to drink it. I named it VertiCore, fitting for a vertical blend of apple ciders. And if I hadn’t bragged about it to everyone who tasted it, they’d never know that half the blend was over two years old.

So the Hail Mary paid off in a big way, thanks to a good play call by a great recipe coach. In fact, I may just lose another cider or two in the back of the closet. Christmas is coming again in 2016, right?

Bottling shortcuts for the bottling-averse homebrewer

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:

bucket

Easy, even for someone as DIY-challenged as myself.

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.

From the Cellar: December, bomber by bomber

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.

I also bought a few new beers for my collection: a Stone 12.12.12 Vertical Epic Ale, a Brooklyn Black Ops, and a Samuel Adams Thirteenth Hour. I predict at least 2 of those won’t live to see spring.

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.

The boldness of new beginnings

Foaming with abandon in the Harry Potter closet is a 2-liter Erlenmeyer flask on a stir plate, filled with a starter of White Labs WLP008 East Coast Ale Yeast.

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She ain’t pretty, but she’s mah baby.

Anyone reading this who has been using liquid yeast without a starter should jump on the starter train. Seriously. It’s as easy as making a tiny unhopped extract brew, because that’s exactly what you’re doing. Just bring 1-2 liters of water to a boil – higher gravity worts will need bigger starters; see YeastCalc for the volume recommended for your batch – add dry malt extract at a rate of 100 grams per liter and some yeast nutrient if you’ve got it. This will make a wort of 1.035-1.040, which is perfect for a starter regardless of the OG of the batch it’s going in. Boil, cool and pitch the yeast. Ferment for 2 days, then cool in the fridge for at least 24 hours before making the “real” wort. Most of the yeast will drop out when chilled, leaving clear (but vile – don’t drink it) “beer” which should be decanted, leaving behind the yeast cake and just enough liquid to swirl up into a slurry. Pitch and watch the magic happen. If you’ve got good sanitation techniques, making a starter carries minimal risk. The rewards are higher pitching rates and better beer. And it’s so easy, there’s no reason not to.

This starter was pitched with yeast that expired in July. I’ve worked with expired yeast before. The yeast/bacteria blend in my Bacillusferatu Berliner Weisse was expired for ten months before I pitched it, though that was into a 1-gallon test batch of a low-gravity wort intended for souring. This starter is going into five gallons of wort for a very different beer: my long-overdue Colonial Progress Ale, from a recipe slightly modified from one I posted in April. Details forthcoming after I brew it this weekend.

As the photo above shows, the expired yeast is spewing so much krauesen I had to wrap it in a paper towel. The expired yeast are healthy as can be, and that’s no surprise. Sure, the expired vial had no more than about 10% of its original population of viable yeast cells, but so what? Yeast cells are dying every day in every carboy, keg and cask in the world, but fermentation continues. Many homebrewers culture yeast from commercial bottle dregs and make great beer with it. Given enough time, even a few sad, dying yeast cells will get their freak on, reproduce and ferment wort. It’s just that the first generations will be weak and languid, and make lots of foul-tasting byproducts doing it.

The purpose of the starter is to make sure those nasty byproducts end up in a beer that’s destined for the drain, not your gullet … while the real wort gets inoculated with a healthy colony of the naturally selected descendants of those few Saccharomycean pioneers who survived the long winter.

So don’t ever be afraid to use expired yeast. Don’t throw it away. You should be making a starter anyway. For fresh yeast, a starter is a leg up. For expired yeast, it’s a new beginning.

Speaking of new beginnings, best of luck to my friends and fellow writers undertaking National Novel Writing Month (“NaNoWriMo”) this November. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days: fast, raw, unedited. I’ve done it four of the last five years and made it across the 50k mark each time. But I won’t be doing it officially this year. I’ve got too many short stories I want to work on, and a novel already in progress, and I don’t want to distract myself with something new. But I am using November as an excuse to write every day: a blog post, story, novel chapter, anything. I did catch wind of a blog-centric version (“NaBloPoMo”), but I love my readers far too much to subject you all to a bunch of hurried blog posts on whatever random bullshit I can think of to write about.

What do you mean, too late?

Tapping the All-Galena Pale Ale

Today I kegged the all-Galena hopped American Pale Ale I brewed on the Fourth of July. That’s 7 weeks ago, a long time even by my standards. Due mostly to my day job, I haven’t had friends over nearly enough this summer, so I didn’t have a free tap until now. The Galena APA has been sitting in the primary in the Harry Potter closet all this time.

On the spectrum of anxiety over long rests on the yeast cake, I’m in the middle. I’m not one of those homebrewers who racks off the primary after a week, and I don’t usually secondary at all. But anything longer than 4-5 weeks and I start to get a little antsy. My inner critic kicks in and I begin scolding myself for letting my busy schedule and personal inertia destroy an innocent homebrew by allowing it to age past the terminus of perfection and into the sinister, uncouth dark age of spoilage. Then I get OCD about it. I sniff my hydrometer samples for the telltale “rotting meat” and “shrimp” aromas supposedly typical of autolysis. Once my fears are quelled, I leave it for a few more days, still fearing that the next time I take a sample, it will be too late.

Yes, I could just rack to a carboy after 4 weeks, but that would risk oxidation, which I consider a much more real and terrifying bogeyman than autolysis. I won’t rack unless I intend to age for a long time.

So I’ve been wary for a couple of weeks. But when I took the last sample before kegging, the beer didn’t smell like my Uncle Brian’s backyard during one of his legendary shrimp boils, so that was a good sign. It doesn’t taste like excrement either – huzzah, bullet dodged again.

But more interesting than this tiny conquest over beer-death (hey, I take the victories where I can get ’em) was the result of the dry hopping.

I added a half-ounce of Galena pellets (12.8% AA) a week ago. I always dry hop APAs and IPAs, but especially wanted to do so this time on account of the hop aroma lost during the long rest. Galena isn’t commonly used for aroma or dry hopping from what I can tell, but reports on the Interwebs had me expecting dark fruit aroma from the dry hops.

Those reports weren’t exaggerated. There’s a definite cherry/berry aroma here. It’s deceiving for a pale ale, as it doesn’t exhibit any of the notes we typically associate with “hop-forward” beers: not floral, nor herbal, nor citrusy. But it’s enticing. Coupled with the bready malt notes of the Munich in the mash, the beer ends up smelling a little bit like cherry pie, more so like a tart blackberry cobbler.

That isn’t coming through in the flavor, but I haven’t tasted it properly (i.e., carbonated and chilled) just yet. That first pint will be one for my personal record book, I’m sure. And I’m already thinking about other ways to use Galena as a late-addition hop: as a component in a late-hopped Belgian dubbel, paired with some Special B malt; or in a dry farmhouse wheat with a little bit of rye or mahlab – yeah, I’m still jonesing to use mahlab.

This could be the start of something unorthodox and awesome. You and me, Galena, we’re goin’ places.

Tips for Retailers and Homebrewers alike

Close on the heels of the recent battle with my kegerator over the pressure of my kegs (which I’m happy to report has been stable at 8 PSI since my last post), I saw an article shared on Facebook dealing with storing and dispensing draft beer. The article, written by Julia Herz and published on craftbeer.com back in January, is here:

“Frosted Glassware Is Not Cool: Temperature Tips for Craft Beer Retailers” by Julia Herz

Ostensibly a “cheat sheet” for craft beer retailers to teach them to properly store, dispense and serve craft beer consistent with the demands of an ever-more-knowledgeable clientele of brew enthusiasts, it’s still great information for a homebrewer to have. Especially one who’s kegging and serving their homebrew on draft.

It’s also timely advice for a lot of Central Texas taprooms, now that we’re in the hottest month of the summer. Many bars here are used to serving tall frothy helpings of pee-colored American lager in frozen mugs to guys coming in off the hot asphalt and looking for something cold, wet and flavorless to slake their thirst … not knowing better, many of them assume colder is better and serve craft beer in frozen mugs too.

No.

Frozen glasses are never right for craft beer. Never. Seriously. They numb the tongue and desensitize the tastebuds. Next time you’re at a pub and you order a glass of some rare new offering from Belgium or California or Rehoboth Beach at $9 for 12 ounces, and your bartender brings it to you in a frozen glass: send it back.

I don’t care how hot it is outside. You paid premium for that beer. You deserve to taste it. And you should tell them so. Otherwise, how are they ever gonna learn?

The one thing in this article I don’t fully agree with is the assertion that all bottled and kegged beers should be kept refrigerated. For bars and pubs, maybe. They need to turn out the freshest product possible. But taken out of context and at face value, this “rule” can be interpreted too broadly.

Case in point: high-end bombers sold in groceries and liquor stores. Many beers sold in 750 ml bombers benefit from long-term storage before drinking. Brett ferments and wild ales, barrel-aged and oaked stouts/porters, barley wines, and Belgian abbey-style ales all develop interesting flavor characteristics when cellared correctly (read: cool – but not cold – and dark) for several months or more. The natural microbe and oxygen reactions that develop these flavors don’t happen at refrigerator temperatures.

But too many stores selling bombers are keeping them refrigerated, presumably in an attempt to keep these high-ticket items fresher (and sellable) longer. The problem for those of us who want to age them is that unpasteurized beers don’t respond well to going from room temp, to fridge temp, to cellar temp. It won’t turn them instantly to cat piss, but it’s not recommended. A bomber that’s been refrigerated at the store has effectively had its long-term aging potential reduced – even if you slowly raise the temperature and cellar it, it’s not going to have the shelf stability it would have had otherwise. I won’t buy refrigerated bombers unless I plan to drink them soon, and I’ve been politely informing the staff at a high-end grocery store in my neighborhood of this for several weeks. I’m sure I’m not the only one fighting this fight, and I’d hate to see this cheat sheet work against our efforts if misinterpreted.

But aside from this small split in our ideologies, I think it’s full of great information, and I hope you will too. Read, learn and enjoy. Prosit.

Trying to keep my cool

With the summer solstice behind us and 3-digit temperatures facing Central Texas, I’ve been giving lots of thought to fermentation temperature control. Fermentation temperature is the most important variable a brewer can control during fermentation, and has a huge impact on flavor. Ales should be kept between 65-72°F during active fermentation, and ideally between 66-68°F for most yeast strains. Too hot and you start to get banana, clove, and bubblegum flavors from esters produced by the yeast (hotter than 80°F and you get fusel alcohols, which give that acrid “firewater” taste associated with cheap spirits). Too cold and ale yeast start go dormant, so fermentation may not complete – although lager yeasts ferment best between 45-55°F.

Here in Texas, “too cold” has never been a problem – with sympathy for my friends in Minnesota and Canada – but “too hot” frequently is. So I use a “swamp cooler” to keep my fermentations cool. This is where you place the fermenter in a big tub filled with cold water, and keep the water cold by periodically swapping out frozen ice packs. I also cover the fermenter with a T-shirt to wick cold water up the sides – some brewers even add a fan to the system. Whatever specific variation you go with, it’s a great way to keep fermentation cool on a budget: for the price of a $7 plastic tub at Target, a decent-sized collection of ice packs (or frozen water bottles), an old shirt and that broken fan in your garage that stopped oscillating in 1998, you can easily keep your fermenter 10°F colder than the room it’s in. My Weiss Blau Weiss Bavarian Hefeweizen didn’t get above 73° all last week, despite ambient temperatures in the house of up to 80°. And the only reason it got that high was because I wanted it to.

But this method has its drawbacks. For one, temperatures fluctuate quickly, and you need to be able to swap out ice packs every few hours. I work from home, so I can do this; but I can’t imagine making this work with a job outside the house. And overnight, the temperature usually goes up 5-7° by morning (sorry, beer: I love you, but not enough to wake up every 2 hours during the night for you) and it takes time to bring it back down.

It’s also messy. Keeping a few gallons of stagnant water in a dark closet for 7-10 days isn’t always a pretty sight. Sometimes, the T-shirt develops mildew and needs to be changed out – unpleasant at best, and a contamination risk at worst (though not a huge one if the fermenter is closed and the airlock filled). And when primary fermentation is done … well, let’s just say that if you’ve ever lifted a plastic bucket containing 5 gallons of liquid wrapped in sopping wet cotton out of a larger plastic bucket, you know how much fun it isn’t.

So I think I’m ready to graduate to a chest freezer with a Johnson temperature controller. It’ll be cleaner, easier, and will give me new power as a brewer. No longer will I be tied down brewing wheat beers during the sweltering Texas summer – I can make crisp APAs and blonde ales, knowing I’ll be able to keep the fermentation cool enough to get a good clean flavor. I’ll also finally be able to make some decent Belgian-style ales, which require gradually ramping up the temperature with better precision than I can get in my swamp cooler. Someday, if I get really crazy, I may even try my hand at making a lager.

I just need to find a freezer that’s big enough for my 8-gallon fermenter but small enough to fit through the door of the Harry Potter closet. It’ll cost a bit of money, but it’s an investment in better beer and more versatility. And really, isn’t that what being a homebrewer is all about?

Old Faithful: The Saga of JR 11/27

I hate to jinx myself by saying it, but I’ve been pretty lucky as a brewer. Since I started brewing three years ago, I’ve been happy with almost every beer I’ve made. Even my first few all-extract batches were pleasing enough; granted, I had no idea how much better my beers could be. But I learned from every mistake and obsessed over details, and consequently, I can honestly say that almost every beer I’ve made has been better than the one before it.

Except for one.

It was November 2010, and I was partial mash brewing for nearly the last time (I switched to all-grain brewing in January 2011). The recipe was a juniper rye ale kit from Austin Homebrew Supply, and I had chosen it as my holiday beer for that year. I conducted the stovetop mini-mash with zeal, anticipating the adoring looks I’d get from family and friends as I proudly poured gleaming bronze ale into their eager glasses. I inhaled deeply as I crushed the juniper berries in a mortar and pestle, imagining what that piney, herbaceous scent would add to the aromas of Christmas dinners filling the air in the homes of my loved ones.

The brew session went spectacularly, as did fermentation. I bottled on November 27, christened the batch number JR 11/27, and poured the first taste eleven days before Christmas. It was okay – in need of some aging, but promising.

Sleeping beast.

But when the holiday arrived, disaster struck. The first bottle I opened foamed over. Yes, we smelled juniper, but were distracted by the geyser of beer spilling out all over my hands and the floor. I tried another, and another, with the same results. I realized with horror that JR 11/27  was one of those beers homebrewers dread making: a “gusher”, overcarbonated in the bottle by an unknown infection.

Once the fizz settled enough to pour, all the yeast sediment had been kicked up from the bottom of the bottle and poured out into the glass in huge chunks. Particles hung in suspension in the glass, pale against the dark amber beer, looking thick and jellylike. I tried pouring through sieves, coffee filters, even paper towels; all that did was break the sediment up into tinier particles that made it look like a glass of some odious brown first aid gel.

People drank it, politely, but no one asked for more. I couldn’t blame them. It was nasty looking and didn’t taste like anything. Presumably the infection that caused the gusher fermented the beer too thin, taking out all the body and flavor. But I didn’t give up on it. In the weeks to come, I chilled and drank bottle after bottle, stubbornly rejecting the obvious like some crippled but libidinous salmon struggling upstream towards spawntopia. It never improved.

A few months later, with twelve bottles left, I decided to accept JR 11/27’s fate. But, unable to bring myself to dump the remaining bottles down the drain, I hid them in the back of the Harry Potter closet and forgot about them. Perhaps time really did heal all things, and someday they’d be worth drinking.

This weekend, about a year later, I chilled one and tasted it. I quickly noticed what hadn’t changed.

Cue a thousand homebrewers out there saying, "Yeah, I could've told you that."

After two minutes of gushing, I was able to pour the remaining eight ounces into a glass. The color was a deep, dark copper, but chunky with suspended sediment and still very unattractive.

... but strangely photogenic.

The head dissipated quickly after pouring. The aroma was quite pleasant: tart, cider vinegar and dark fruit (raisin, black cherry, currant) with a hint of Grape Nuts. The vinegar notes suggest that an acetobacter infection was the cause of my gusher. There’s no discernible juniper aroma.

The flavor is better than it was a year ago, but exceedingly dry. It starts out rich and vinous, but quickly fades into a harsh, vinegary zing. If I concentrate after swallowing, I can almost detect an earthy mustiness lingering on my palate. Mouthfeel is practically nonexistent: it’s thin, but not refreshing.

Overall, JR 11/27 has gotten to a point where it’s drinkable, but barely. I certainly won’t serve it to any but my most adventurous friends (and maybe only with a blindfold). But if time hasn’t healed the beer itself, it’s changed my reaction to it. With sour beers being en vogue in craft brewing, this beer with its wild acetobacter isn’t quite the debacle today that it seemed like last year. I won’t reach for it next time I’m thirsty, but I’ll drink another to see how it changes.

I’ll also take a cue from those brewing sour beers, and try blending JR 11/27 with something else. On its own, it’s harsh. But blended with something maltier and more full-bodied, it may bring some complexity to an otherwise boring beer. I can think of a few bottles I have on hand that might benefit from its more “unique” characteristics.

So it seems I’ve learned something that will make me a better brewer, and surprisingly, a better writer. I didn’t get what I wanted out of one of my creations; and yes, that sucks. But with time and an open mind, I reacquainted myself with it on its own terms, and thought of a way to make it work. No one wants to scrap something they’ve created, be it a beer, a book or a batch of brownies. So appreciating one’s creation for what it is – not what it was supposed to be – is a valuable lesson for any creative person.

Of course I’ll do what’s necessary to avoid the unexpected in the future, like being even more careful about sanitation. But when the unexpected occurs, it’s good to remember that something interesting may come out of it – and that there may be something worth saving, even in our disappointments.

Philadelphia, and Thoughts on Colonial Brewing

My “day job” (i.e., the one that pays me) sent me to Philadelphia this week. Today I was lucky enough to get a chance to venture out of the cozy suburb where my employer has its offices and into the exciting bustle of one of the oldest cities on the continent. I saw the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, had a cheesesteak that blew my damn mind, and drove in a circle past the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the famous steps from Rocky).

Philadelphia has had a profound effect on me. The city appears to have been designed with the intent of sending a message to visitors: “Hey, you know that place between Canada and Mexico that the entire world has been watching for centuries? The one with the Bill of Rights and the guns and the Coca-Cola? Yeah, the United States of America. We invented that place, bro.” Everything here is named after George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. The city logo is a bell with a crack in it. The shadiest-looking strip malls have words like independence and liberty in their names. And though it may not be the first thought on the mind of every modern Philadelphian, there is a feeling in the ground itself here that the spot you’re standing on is one where something important happened.

Now I’m back at my hotel, packed and ready to board a plane to return to Austin tomorrow. And because sitting alone in a hotel room drinking Yeungling Lager and listening to the Stone Roses would just be too pathetic, I’ve been inspired by my wanderings today to read about colonial brewing. And thinking it’s high time I do something of the sort.

Summer is around the corner, and a low-alcohol historic colonial brew may be just the thing for backyard refreshment in the Texas heat. And since come May it will be very hard to keep fermentation temperatures down in the swamp cooler in the Harry Potter closet, I can rationalize any esters in the brew as part of the “colonial charm”.

The gravity and bitterness should be similar to that of an English bitter, around 1.040 and 16 IBU. But I’ll get there with 6.5 lbs of American 2-row malt mashed at around 153-154°F. In the boil:

  • 1 lb Molasses
  • 0.5 oz Northern Brewer (~9% AA) for 60 minutes
  • 1 oz Horehound for 5 minutes

I could replace the Northern Brewer with East Kent Goldings, an older and certainly more “English” hop, but that would push the recipe closer to an English bitter than I’d like. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters much because the hops are just for bittering. The flavor and aroma will come from the horehound, which I’m using as a thujone-free substitute for wormwood (an attested colonial ale ingredient). For yeast, White Labs WLP 008 East Coast Ale Yeast is the obvious choice.

Earlier this evening, I read a quote from William Penn himself: “Our Beer was mostly made of Molasses which well boyld, until it makes a very tolerable drink, but note they make Mault, and Mault Drink begins to be common, especially in the Ordinaries and the Houses of the more substantial People.” One can imagine the pride Penn must have felt at explaining to his reader how his city, once a town of molasses-quaffing hooligans, was changing into a place where “substantial” people were starting to prosper enough that they could afford to drink real malt beer. I like to think my brew will be one that Penn would be proud of, and a fitting tribute to how far his city (and the nation conceived here) have come since he landed on the bank of the Delaware in 1682: familiar but changed, refined but true to the spirit of improvisation out of necessity.

The plan is to make this my first brew for May, after this weekend’s New Orleans-inspired café au lait stout (details Saturday!). And if I find myself inspired by any other great American cities, who knows what will be next?

For more on Philadelphia brewing throughout history (including the colonial period) see this article by Rich Wagner from the Spring 1991 issue of Zymurgy.

From the Cellar: Boulevard Saison-Brett

The closet under the stairs – affectionately referred to as the Harry Potter closet – is the coolest, darkest part of the house. It’s where I keep all my fermenting beers and where I “cellar” store-bought beers in bombers. I seem to collect them faster than I can drink them, taking them out mainly for special occasions: a Chateau Jiahu on my birthday, a Brooklyn Sorachi Ace to celebrate the purchase of a new Japanese film on Criterion Blu-Ray, that sort of thing. But once in a while, we open one just for the hell of it.

Saturday night was one such time. Thirsty from the effort of arranging our new outdoor furniture into Tetris-style configurations on our limited square of backyard patio, my wife Lisa and I decided to open a bottle of Boulevard Saison-Brett that we’d been eying predatorily for months since we’d bought it.

The words “farmhouse” and “sour” are bandied about so much in the craft brew community lately, it’s easy to forget that just a few short years ago, the word “rustic” was a euphemism for “needs time,” and Brettanomyces (the aggressive wild yeast responsible for the funky flavor in many wild fermentations and notoriously hard to clean out of one’s brewhouse once it’s been introduced) was spoken of in hushed tones like Jack the Ripper was in the back alleys of Whitechapel in the 1880’s. Now many craft beer lovers are on a first name basis with “Brett” and we like a little funk to shake our glasses. But there are no doubt still some brew aficionados out there who haven’t jumped on the funk train just yet. To them I say: this beer’s for you.

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The first word that comes to mind when I think of this beer is “accessible”. It’s the same word people use to describe Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe(‘) album, or the Lars von Trier film Melancholia. Boulevard Saison-Brett is as good an entry point for the newbie down the rabbit hole of “sour” beer as those works are into the intimidating corpora of those artists’ careers.

The beer pours a cloudy orange-straw color. The color reminded me of photos from Belgian breweries that I’ve spent hours gazing at online with longing, like a lonely teen with an Internet girlfriend. The head is pure white and rocky, with big bubbles you want to dive right into. There’s a respectable amount of sediment in the bottle, but not too much. To call the aroma “floral” is an understatement. It’s perfumey, with citrus notes and just the tiniest hint of barnyard aromatics from the Brett.

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The flavor starts out much the same: perfume on the front end, with a tart and citrusy middle. But this is where it gets interesting. Once the citrus leaves the palate, astringency and sherry-like oxidation notes scrub it right away, leaving the finish very dry. It’s almost like champagne and just as refreshing. There’s not a hint of boozy flavor in this brew, which boasts a not-too-shabby 8.5% ABV.

I paired mine with some crumbled blue cheese, fig spread, and sesame crackers. I had to remind myself to take bites of my snack between sips, as the dry finish left me wanting to wet my whistle again and again.

As for the funk, it was present, but in the background – not the star of the show. Think George Clinton backup singer, not Bootsy Collins standing radiant in all his platform-booted, star-shaped-spectacled glory. There was very little of the barnyard, musty flavor typically associated with Brett beers, but that could very well be because we drank it so soon. Brett character tends to evolve over time, and I just couldn’t wait to try this one; but with a few more months in the cellar, the funky character may have come more to the foreground.

All in all it was a fantastic beer, and I wish I had bought a second bottle to hold onto and see how it ages. Once I get through a few more of the bombers in the Harry Potter closet, I will make sure to save some room for another couple of Saison-Brett bottles if and when Boulevard decides to release another.