Tag Archive | homebrew

The Return of the Keg

Let’s hear it for small victories!

This blog has been somewhat neglected for the last year, and in fact, the last several years. No, not neglected; just back-burnered, like a few quarts of extra wort run out from a mash tun into a saucepan to boil in case it’s needed for something, only to be forgotten until the brewer smells evaporated malt syrup burning on the stove seven hours later.

It’s been an adventure for me for the past few years, gradually adjusting, then unadjusting and readjusting to rapid changes in life. As I’ve continually tried to balance the demands of fatherhood, my career, the never-ending project that is my new house (it’s still “my new house” after two years, and I don’t see that changing soon) and now a podcast about the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, something had to fall by the wayside. That something was brewing, because it’s hard to set aside an entire day to brew a batch from all grain, and it’s hard to commit to dry hopping, kegging, and all the rest on schedule to make the best possible beer.

No brewing means no blogging about brewing, and because I don’t want to turn this blog into just a bunch of reviews on commercial beers I’m drinking, I haven’t had much to write about here. But that did change recently. (Woohoo!) I’m not quite certain that I’ve turned the corner and will be brewing regularly again, but it’s worth reporting that I’ve made some progress.

I just kegged for the first time in several months. Almost a year ago, I came up with two new recipes inspired by my family’s growing obsession with Walt Disney World, including a Star Wars-inspired black IPA with Galaxy and Mosaic hops. After months of thinking “By Yoda, that sounds good,” I carved out some time five weeks ago to pull the Grainfather out of the garage and brew the beer I’d been thinking about.

I’m proud (and a bit shocked) to say that I still seem to know what I’m doing. I had no major mishaps on brew day; the biggest speed bump was a half-hour delay caused by me forgetting where I had put away a couple of the many small metal and rubber bits that make up the Grainfather’s pump filter system. After I located them, it was smooth sailing. I missed my target OG by a few points (1.065 instead of my target 1.071) but I’ve never been one to get too upset by missing gravity targets. My FG was on target at 1.017, so I ended up with a more quaffable 6.3% ABV beer than the seven-percenter I was expecting. Even kegging went smoothly. It helped that I had a nice shiny new keg in a box with no leaks ready to receive the brew.

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The hoppy black elixir transitions gently to its final resting place. In hindsight, maybe my hose was too long.

It was nice to have three beers on tap in my three-tap kegerator for about 24 hours. The following day, though, I emptied one of those three kegs, so I once again have an empty slot. Fortunately, I have a plan for that tap: the light, crisp honey wheat with floral East Kent Goldings hops I planned last year will be a wonderful beverage for spring in Texas. I hope to carve out time for another brew day for that recipe in early April.

But for now it’s back to fatherhood, work, and podcasting about Tolkien. So while this isn’t quite the story-ending “Well, I’m back,” of Sam Gamgee in the final chapter of The Return of the King, I can honestly quote Bilbo Baggins in the same chapter by saying, “And now I think I am quite ready to go on another journey.”1

Now if I can just find the time to clean all this equipment.


1 Quote taken from the book, not the Peter Jackson film.

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“Chill Bill” avenged

Well, happy Father’s Day to me!

Finally, two months after ordering a new kegerator to replace the late, great “Chill Bill”* which passed away while my family was on vacation in April, the replacement has been installed. If you happen to follow me on Twitter (@shawnbou21), you’ve already seen the pictures and you know it’s glorious.

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Glorious!

I certainly waited long enough. Not for the shipment, though. The kegerator was here a long time ago, sitting in a cardboard box for something like five weeks waiting for me to find the time to open and assemble it.

A travesty, you say? Certainly. But May was a pretty hectic month that kept me busy with my day job, my family and my other life-consuming hobby of Tolkien podcasting, so I had to do what I had to do. And what I had to do was … nothing with the kegerator.

But I finally got that sucker up, and did I mention it’s glorious? The exterior is all stainless steel, not that black plastic top I had on my old one. The industrial look of the stainless steel is accentuated by a T-shaped three-tap draft tower that I ordered separately to install in place of the tower that came with the fridge unit.

Now all I have to do is:

  1. give it a name, and
  2. fill it with beer.

The first task should be easy. I’m going to try farming the name out to the social media sphere and see what we come up with. If you have any ideas, please post them here or find me on Twitter or Facebook (My Brew Home). Any play on the old kegerator’s name “Chill Bill” would be welcome (such as “Chill Gill,” “Chilly Willy,” etc. – but those are all now disqualified!) but I’m not setting any real rules. If you’ve got any ideas, let me know. This could be disastrous, either because I’ll get a barrage of responses along the lines of “Keggy McKegface” or worse, I’ll get no responses at all … but I’m feeling confident. Ready to roll the bones. Bring on your best ideas, if there’s anyone reading this at all.

The second task is already in progress. Tap #1 is already flowing with the remains of Belfast Breakfast Oatmeal Stout, and I’ve got a batch of session IPA fermented, dry hopped, and ready to be kegged any day now. Getting that third tap flowing is going to be a little harder, because I’ll need to brew another batch soon and of course that’s an investment of eight hours on a weekend (after I had trouble stringing two hours together to assemble the As-Yet-Unnamed Kegerator). But summer is here, and it seems like the perfect time to brew, so I’m going to make it happen. The weather is perfect for the honey wheat I’ve been dreaming of.

More to come as the kegerator gets filled … look for an update in the coming weeks as the session IPA gets kegged and Tap #2 starts flowing. After that I’m going to need something to write about, so that will be two good excuses to make time to brew.

So stay tuned, and until then, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.

*Note: Never actually referred to as “Chill Bill” until after its death.

Just when things were getting back to normal …

We’re back from vacation. I’ve got a couple of recipes queued up to brew soon. This blog is back up and running, and there’s a session IPA in the fermentation chamber awaiting a dose of dry hops.

Everything was just getting back to normal at myBrewHome when my kegerator broke.

It still runs, but it doesn’t cool. So I’ve got three kegs of beer sitting in a hot box at 77°F right now (that’s 25°C for my overseas readers, and too bloody hot for craft beer fans worldwide).

I’m not nearly handy enough to fix it. I got into the homebrewing hobby to make beer, not gear, and the only household appliance I know how to take apart and rebuild is a desktop computer (a skill I doubt will help me here). I’m sure it’s going to need a new compressor or something, and any repair guy will tell me to replace the whole thing. So I’m just shopping for a replacement now.

I’ve got a beer fridge stocked with commercial bottles and cans, so I won’t go thirsty, concerned readers. And replacing the kegerator will give me an excuse to finally install the fancy new draft tower I ordered a while ago but haven’t had the time to unpack. But in the meantime, my bar area seems tragically quiet and dark without the hum of the kegerator or the faint blue glow of its temperature readout.

I’ll post an update as soon as I have one. Have strength. We’ll get through this.

Until then, a memorial for my first kegerator, complete with the white-on-dark Monotype Corsiva Italic font I always see in memorials on rear windshields:

I've never called my kegerator "Chill Bill" before today. But I figured that in death, like a member of Project Mayhem, a kegerator should have a name (H/T to Fight Club).

I’ve never called my kegerator “Chill Bill” before today. But in death, just like a member of Project Mayhem, a kegerator should have a name (H/T to Fight Club).

Farewell, gentle appliance. I will always remember the joy you brought me, my family and my friends. May Ninkasi receive you into her arms.

Rough Draft Recipes: Unauthorized Disney Edition

By the time this is published, I will be on a plane for a week-long Disney vacation with the family. The little ones will spend the week basking in the glow of fireworks, the thrill of rides and the utter fabulousness of a certain snow queen, while my wife and I will count the footsteps from the Dole Whip kiosk to wherever we can occasionally find a decent beer on draft. They’re there. Trust me. They aren’t easy to find, but they’re there.

Okay, I’m bending the truth a little. Not about the beers (they really are there if you know where to look), but about Momma and Daddy’s lack of enthusiasm for the whole Disney thing. Actually my wife is totally into it, and I am definitely not too proud to sing a rousing chorus of “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” while sailing out of the darkness of Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course Disney now owns the Star Wars universe, and Jawas and stormtroopers will litter the landscape more than strollers. And, as my closest friends know, I absolutely love the wordplay and hilariously maladjusted cast of characters in the Winnie the Pooh series … so yeah, I’ll be as happy as a bear in a honey-tree with the whole Disney thing.

My kids are similarly obsessed. Both of them are very big on Mickey. More to my own taste, though, my son is fascinated with Star Wars (he loves the Dark Side and runs around saying “I’m Kywoh Ren!” – should I be concerned?). My baby daughter learned the word “Pooh” before pretty much any other word, and she means the bear, not … the other thing.

In honor of my family’s unanimous love for these stories and characters, in fact, I decided a few weeks ago to design beers to commemorate both Winnie the Pooh and Kywoh – er, Kylo – Ren. So without further ado, below are the first drafts of the recipes I’ve come up with.

Warning: minor spoilers in the notes below for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is landing on home video this week. Watch it, then read this.

Kylo Ren beer: Dark Awakening Black IPA

  • 13 lbs 8 oz American pale malt
  • 12 oz Dehusked Carafa III
  • 8 oz Chocolate Malt
  • 6.25 AAU of Mosaic hops at 60 minutes
  • 7 AAU of Galaxy hops at 60 minutes
  • 12.25 AAU of Mosaic hops at flameout
  • 14 AAU of Galaxy hops at flameout
  • 1 oz of Mosaic hops for dry hopping
  • 1 oz of Galaxy hops for dry hopping
  • American ale yeast (Fermentis SafAle US-05)

OG 1.071, IBU 75.8, SRM 37, ABV 7%.

Notes on ingredients:

Grain – American pale malt because it’s an American IPA. Dehusked Carafa III is a standard dark malt for the style that adds color without astringency. Chocolate malt is a little unorthodox, and will add a bit more body and roast flavor than typical for the style, but the roasty notes should add a welcome roughness around the edges, just like that unstable young man in black and that fuzzy-looking lightsaber he carries.

Hops – Mosaic and Galaxy are both fantastic hops and delicious in IPA. Mosaic is trendy and still a little bit new on the scene, but you can’t argue objectively with its capabilities. (Hello, Kylo.) And Galaxy … well, you know. Far, far away and all that. There are a lot of hops, but I want it bitter. Bitter like an emo kid who thinks the best way to get back at his parents is to take over the galaxy.

Winnie the Pooh beer: Silly Old Bear Hunny Wheat

  • 6 lbs Maris Otter
  • 1 lb 8 oz Flaked Wheat
  • 4 oz Crystal 15
  • 5.4 AAU of East Kent Goldings at 60 minutes
  • 1.8 AAU of East Kent Goldings at 15 minutes
  • 2 lbs Honey at 5 minutes
  • English ale yeast (Fermentis SafAle S-04)

OG 1.047, IBU 27, SRM 4, ABV 5.4%.

Notes on ingredients:

Grain – Maris Otter because it’s as English and traditional as A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin. Flaked wheat to stuff the beer with velvety smoothness. Crystal 15 to add a touch of honey sweetness. And of course, honey in the kettle near the end of the boil when it’s “Time for something sweet!”

Hops – Not the focus of this beer, so just a little bit of East Kent Goldings for enough hop bitterness and character to balance the sweet, fruity crispness of fermented honey. The bitterness is on the high end of the spectrum for American wheat and on the low end of the spectrum for an English ordinary bitter.

If you’d like to offer any tips or suggestions while I’m away on vacation – or even brew one of these before I get around to it – please share your thoughts here. Soon after I get back from the Most Magical Place on Earth, I’ll try my hand at brewing one or both of these myself.

Until then, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.

Scotch-Irish Stout: the Davy Crockett of beers

You could say I’m a “high concept” recipe designer.  I like to include ingredients that have some fun meaning or reference so that each beer recipe tells a story.  Sometimes, though, the concept is way more unique than the recipe itself.

My wife has (and therefore my two kids have) a strong strain of what Americans call “Scotch-Irish” heritage.  They’re the people who left Scotland to settle Ireland in the 1600’s when the English started crowding them out, then came to America in the 1700’s after the English followed them to Ireland, only to move out west and build homesteads on the frontier when they found the American colonies populated by – you guessed it – more English.

Scotch-Irish is the heritage of the early American moonshiners who started the Whiskey Rebellion, of Davy Crockett and Texas President (back when it was an independent republic) Sam Houston, and the kind of anti-establishment iconoclasts who’ve defined the American cultural landscape from Mark Twain to Alec Baldwin.  They’re tough.  They’re rugged.  They’re unapologetic individualists who don’t take crap from anyone.  They know it, and they make sure you know it.

And they all claim to be related to Davy Crockett.  They really, really love Davy Crockett.

For a descendant of Italian immigrants like myself – whose ancestors left the strangling misery of a life of endless toil on farms in Southern Sicily to enjoy the unbounded freedom of endless toil on farms in Southern Louisiana – it’s usually easier to just let the Scotch-Irish have their way, especially when you’re outnumbered 3 to 1.  Even when their Protestant Irish self-importance leads them to openly proclaim wild and baseless assertions like “Bushmills Whiskey is better than Jameson!” one learns to just concede the point before some’un reckons it’s time to fetch a musket and settle things the frontier way.

But I love ’em.  I love ’em almost as much as they love Davy Crockett, and that’s a lot.  So when formulating a recipe for a “Scotch-Irish stout” recently to celebrate the lineage of 75% of my household, I sought to brew something bold.  Uncompromising.  Full-bodied but smooth and pleasant.  Sufficiently Irish, but with that untamable individualism common to the Scots and their frontier American descendants.

I started with my recipe for Anna Livia Irish Stout.  My most recent variation on that was:

  • 6 lbs 14 oz Irish pale malt (Malting Co. of Ireland Stout Malt)
  • 2 oz Acid Malt (for a lactic tart hint; the notorious “Guinness tang”)
  • 2 lbs Flaked Barley
  • 1 lb Black Roasted Barley
  • 10.8 AAU of English hops (East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, etc.) at 60 minutes
  • Irish Ale Yeast (White Labs WLP 004)

OG 1.049, 42.2 IBU, SRM 34, ABV 4.9%.  Good astringency, a bit of tartness … a little higher gravity and alcohol, but otherwise a fair approximation of an Irish Stout, BJCP 2015 style 15B.

The first thing I did was “Scotch-Irish up” the recipe up by replacing the Irish base malt with British malt.  I didn’t have Golden Promise – which would have been my first choice as a Scottish/Northern English barley variety – but Maris Otter was close enough.  I also increased the amount of base malt to result in a stronger beer, befitting the burly in-your-facedness of the Scotch-Irish people.  I also removed the acid malt to divorce the Scotch-Irish stout from the Guinness/Dublin legacy that inspired my Irish stout, and replaced that with base malt.

I believe every stout should have some flaked grain in it for that creamy, coat-your-palate mouthfeel.  But flaked barley is famously used in Guinness for that reason, so I nixed it for being too Irish.  Oats are a staple of Scottish cuisine from oatcakes to haggis, so I replaced the 2 pounds of flaked barley with flaked oats, which is always (to me) a big step up in mouthfeel from flaked barley.

So, to balance that silky mouthfeel of the oats, I wanted a little residual malt sweetness.  So I cut the black roasted barley by a few ounces to reduce astringency and added a half pound of chocolate malt.

British hops are pretty all-purpose, so I kept those the same.  I also kept the Irish Ale yeast.  Although I could have Scotch-Irished the recipe up a bit further by replacing the yeast with something like White Labs WLP028 (Edinburgh Ale), I felt I needed something to retain the Irish character before my Scotch-Irish stout became a Scottish stout.  After all, if this had been a real beer brewed by Scottish immigrants to Ireland, the method of pairing imported British ingredients with an indigenous Irish yeast would have been a likely way of brewing it.

So in my mind, I had created a recipe that was wholly unique.  Something as original and individual as the Scotch-Irish heritage I was celebrating!  I patted myself on the back for a job well done, then looked at the BeerSmith window open on my computer and saw the following recipe staring back at me like Davy Crockett down the barrel of a musket.

  • 8 lbs Maris Otter
  • 2 lbs Flaked Oats
  • 13 oz Black Roasted Barley
  • 8 oz Chocolate Malt
  • 10.8 AAU of East Kent Goldings at 60 minutes
  • Irish Ale Yeast (White Labs WLP 004)

OG 1.057, 40 IBU, SRM 37.5, ABV 5.8%, with medium hop bitterness and malty, chocolatey sweetness.  (And if you’ve already spotted the problem, shh!  Don’t spoil it.)

It seemed that my “wholly unique” and “original” beer recipe had turned out to be a completely in-style Oatmeal Stout, BJCP 2015 style 16B.

The punchline is that I don’t even really like oatmeal stouts.  What’s worse, my Scotch-Irish wife (who loves Irish stout) kind of hates them.  But in hindsight, it’s hilarious to think that I ever thought I was designing anything other than the perfectly reasonable but ordinary oatmeal stout that I got.

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

Don’t get me wrong.  The beer (christened Belfast Breakfast Oatmeal Stout) turned out to be delicious.  It’s sweet and smooth, easy drinking but unavoidably stout without coating your palate like a pint of motor oil.  And as you can see, it sure is pretty to look at.  My roundabout way of backing into a recipe for an Oatmeal Stout (with a capital O. S. for “Oh, Sh-t”) instead of intentionally trying to design one, actually produced a version that I like a lot more than any commercial oatmeal stout I’ve ever had.  So there’s that.  But it’s an interesting lesson in being so high-concept, getting so wrapped up in my own cleverness, that I fail to see how what I’m doing is nothing new.  How it’s been done before … many, many times.

There’s still something unique about it in the unique combination of ingredients I used to get there – and I will make it again, especially next time I get a hold of some Golden Promise malt; I might even brew an imperial version and age it with oak and some Bushmills.

But as it turned out, the only story my supposedly high-concept Scotch-Irish stout tells is “Once upon a time, Shawn accidentally brewed a surprisingly decent oatmeal stout.  The end.”  Decent beer, not much of a story.  Or is it?  In today’s foodie world where we celebrate the pedigree of every ingredient that goes into our food and beverage, from floor-malted barley to heirloom tomatoes, maybe it’s enough to have an interesting story behind the ingredients used to make something familiar.

At least, that’s the story I’m sticking with.  And I think Davy Crockett and every Scotch-Irish American would approve of me going against the … uh, grain … with a little blustery self-importance.

The recipe is posted in the Recipes section of the website, along with its more Irish cousin Anna Livia Irish Stout.  Try them both and tell me what you think … and until next time, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.

Welcome to myBrewHome!

If this is your first visit, welcome! Pour yourself a beer and take a look around. Let me know if you like what you see or if you have questions about anything.

If this is not your first visit, you may notice that the name and look of the site have recently changed. So, still pour yourself a beer and look around, but rest assured that everything that was here before is still here. All posts from 2015 and earlier are still in the archives, along with the Brewing Glossary and the Recipes section that I hope to be updating soon. But I’ve changed the name of the site to reflect its new direction and focus.

What do I mean by new direction and focus? Well, my previous mission for this site – formerly titled Last of the Zyme Lords – was to merge my love of homebrewing and craft beer with the my love for writing and the geekier things in life, such as fantasy and science fiction. That mission kept this site alive for a long time, but I put it on hiatus early in 2015 when the birth of my second child started an avalanche of life changes in a very short time. I was never sure if I would come back to writing regularly on this site.

So here’s the good news: I’m back, and the site is back. And I’m still interested in all the same geeky stuff I was interested in before. In fact, if you’re interested in such things, check out The Prancing Pony Podcast, a podcast about J. R. R. Tolkien I co-host that launched in February.

But now that my life has changed, my priorities have changed, and so has my attitude towards brewing. Brewing and beer are not just another geeky pursuit for me anymore. I no longer brew just to pursue the excellence of a technically perfect (or as close as possible within my means) glass of beer, or to come up with recipes and names that reflect my love of Tolkien, Doctor Who, or Japanese horror movies.

Again, I still love all of those things, but they’re not my only inspiration as a brewer anymore.

As my family has grown, we’ve moved into a new house that was built with homebrewing in mind. Homebrew is a part of every event I host to see friends that I don’t see nearly enough anymore now that family life keeps me busy. I’ve brewed for baby showers, births and birthdays. My cellar is stocked with big beers brewed in commemoration of family milestones. I’ve explained it all on the page “Why ‘myBrewHome’?”

So we’re still having lots of fun over here, but our focus has expanded a bit. I’m happy to report that my kids are turning into geeks as big as I am. But at this point, I’m just as likely to brew a beer inspired by my son’s fascination with Kylo Ren or my baby daughter’s obsession with Winnie the Pooh as I am to brew a beer inspired by hobbits, Godzilla or John Landis films.

In fact, a Kylo Ren Black IPA or a Pooh Bear Hunny Braggot sounds delicious right about now. To the recipe creator!

Stay tuned, and I’ll be back very soon with more brew talk. Until then, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.

In praise of the debilitating stomach virus that made me sick yesterday afternoon

I was just getting going again. After taking a break from brewing for four months to enjoy the summer being a toddler daddy – not to mention to avoid the hottest brew days of the year – I started brewing again Labor Day weekend with a nice simple pale ale to restock the kegerator. I followed that a week later with a lavender mead I brewed to honor the birth of my daughter who’s due at the beginning of December. Two brews in one month. I had momentum, and I was all set to take the hat trick by brewing again today.

Today’s brew was going to be an ESB to serve later this fall at a party to celebrate our new baby. Whatever we don’t drink at the party, we’d save to be our “coming home” beer, and my wife’s first drink after her pregnancy.

The timing was great. The pale ale was ready to keg yesterday, so all I had to do was get it in the keg and I could soak the fermenter overnight, have it clean and ready to receive a malty delicious new ESB wort today. It was all so perfectly planned …

Then, inexplicably, yesterday morning I came down with a stomach bug that left me pretty much unable to even sit up straight, let alone be on my feet. I was back in bed before noon, and woke up three hours later parched and needing a drink. The water kind, not the alcohol kind.

I’ll breeze through this next part for your sake. All I’ll say is that as soon as the water found its way to my stomach, it decided it wanted to be out again. And it wanted to take everything else in there with it. There’s nothing like a four-round toilet-hugging session in the afternoon to leave you feeling bruised and abused … I pretty much gave up on trying to get anything done that day. I had a vague sense of that screwing up my plans somehow, but I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time.

It was only later that I realized that I hadn’t gotten the pale ale kegged, and I wasn’t going to with my energy sapped. Not to mention a number of other chores and errands I hadn’t gotten done that needed to be done before Monday. There was no way I was going to brew this weekend!

This morning, getting dressed to do the stuff I was supposed to do yesterday, I felt sad and disappointed at missing a brew day I was really looking forward to. But I quickly realized something that I should have realized a lot sooner.

The beer I planned to brew is to celebrate the birth of my baby girl! My first daughter, second child, and if everything goes according to plan, probably my last. Doesn’t she deserve something a little more special than an Extra Special Bitter? I know it’s got “extra special” in the name, but surely we can do better. And then an idea hit me. November party, late November/early December birth … we need to get some sweet potato in there!

So after some research and careful consideration, I’ve adjusted my ESB recipe into a Sweet Potato ESB recipe that I will brew next Sunday. It’ll be made from a mix of Maris Otter and Golden Promise malts, Kent Goldings hops, organic sweet potatoes from our CSA, whole cinnamon and nutmeg. It’ll still be low-to-medium alcohol – a necessity if I want to turn it around in five weeks, but always a good idea for a party beer or for momma’s first beer after coming home from the hospital.

So thank you, stomach virus, for making me unable to get anything done yesterday, and forcing me to take the extra time to realize how to turn my recipe into a perfect tribute to autumn and a much more fitting welcome to my new baby. I appreciate your contribution to my craft, stomach virus. And I think it’s safe to say that I will always remember you.

On-Tap Recap: Ommegang Game of Thrones vs. homebrew

HBO’s Game of Thrones came back with season four last night. Hordes gathered in the homes of HBO subscribers for viewing parties, cosplayers donned their finest, and social media lit up as the geekosphere celebrated the return of a beloved show to weekly television.

Beer geeks had reason to celebrate too, as the show’s return meant the release of the third installment in Brewery Ommegang’s series of Game of Thrones-themed seasonal beers. Dubbed Fire & Blood, the latest release pays homage to House Targaryen – that’s the one with the dragons – with ancho chilis (presumably the fire) in a Belgian-style red ale (the blood).

Ommegang Fire & Blood Red Ale

The color of this beer is absolutely striking. When I hear “red ale” I’m usually imagining some middle-of-the-road amber kind of beer. This one was deep, dark red. Beautiful ruby highlights – impossible to see in the picture above, unfortunately – beckoned me to smell and taste it. This was an exercise in delayed gratification, because the rocky head was so thick and persistent I had to wait several minutes before it subsided enough to drink. So I contented myself with smelling it, taking in the tart lemon freshness and barely detectable hint of chili pepper.

I hate to say it, but I found Fire & Blood drinkable and yet unremarkable. The flavors promised on the label and website – spicy chili, “assertive” hops, dark fruit – just didn’t manifest for me. The chili pepper was detectable only when I looked hard for it. The hop presence was faint and the dark fruit notes were muted by the extreme dryness of the beer.

Not that disappointment came as a surprise. I love everything I’ve ever had with the Ommegang label on it except for the three GoT beers they’ve released. The first – Iron Throne Blonde Ale, released in March 2013 – was decent enough but sort of ruined for me by excessive hype. Take the Black Stout, released last fall, was interesting with its star anise and licorice, but fell short of my expectations. I’m glad Ommegang is making these beers, because anything that promotes awareness of craft beer is good. But I keep hoping that one day they’ll brew one that delivers as intense and memorable an experience as the show itself.

So what’s a Zyme Lord to drink when watching the rest of the new season? Not to worry! I’ve got my own GoT-themed beer on tap: Wit Walker Wight Ale (recipe here).

Wit Walker Wight Ale

This beer that I made primarily to have something sessionable on hand for parties has turned out to be one of my own main pours these days. It’s an enticing cloudy straw color (again the photo above does it little justice) with a thick fizzy white head that dissipates quickly. There’s a faintly footy Belgiany aroma coupled with a hint of clove and spice. When it hits the palate, the blood orange comes out in full force – not overpowering the beer, but providing a backdrop of bitter citrus and zest that bounces effervescently on the tongue. I’ll be glad to finish a keg (or two?) of this beer as the season progresses.

It isn’t often that I face off one of my homebrews with a commercial beer. But when I do, it’s encouraging that my own beer can come out the winner. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ommegang and will continue to support their efforts to bringing beer awareness to GoT fans and vice versa. When the fourth GoT beer comes out this fall, I’ll buy a bomber or two. I’m just that big of a geek – for beer and for the show. But as a backup, it’ll be nice to have my own GoT-themed beer on tap so I can drink the beer I want, when I want. After all, that’s what homebrewing is about.

Shamrock the house

Sláinte! It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insert something witty here

Let’s start today at the BJCP Style Guidelines. Scroll through the list of styles. What do you see? Sure, it’s a manual, a valuable tool for any brewer. But for the beer lover, it’s also one part journal and one part little black book, with mental check marks next to the styles you’ve tasted and/or brewed … while unfamiliar styles call to you siren-like, the anticipation of conquests you haven’t yet made. Just like flipping through the pages of an old journal, you’re bound to have some regrets, some “what was I thinking?” moments (style 1A. Lite American Lager, anyone?). But also like a journal, the later entries leave you feeling a lot less embarrassed than the earlier ones, and certainly by the time you get to the English Pale Ales (starting with 8A. Standard/Ordinary Bitter) you’re starting to be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

Then halfway through, you see it: that entry that makes you question your judgment all over again, sitting drab and dull like a cat turd in the gold mine of your zymurgical adventures.  The reminder of the giant noob you once were. And you ask yourself again, “What in the world was I thinking?”

I speak, of course, of 16A. Witbier.

Whether you call them wits, wittes, Belgian whites, or even bières blanches, chances are that you or someone you know has laughed derisively at this light, easy-drinking style in the recent past. And I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because so many commercial examples are so-called “crafty” offerings from industrial lager producers padding out their product portfolios with under-attenuated, over-flavored wits to provide a clawhold onto the elusive craft beer market and a talon in the door of the non-beer-drinker. Or maybe because witbiers are something we see as behind us, the non-threatening gateway beers we drank before graduating to today’s Imperial Everythings, and IPAs with IBUs approaching the GDP of Luxembourg. Witbiers are familiar, and after all we’ve been through … boring.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little creativity, witbiers are a useful addition to the recipe book. They’re very forgiving of temperature fluctuations during fermentation (i.e., great for beginners), and are especially handy when you need a batch of beer to go from grain to glass in a couple of weeks (i.e., great for anyone strapped for time).

The traditional wit recipe is roughly equal parts continental Pilsner malt and unmalted/flaked wheat, with oats on top of that at around 5-10% of the grain bill. A multi-step mash is usually performed with a beta-glucan rest at 110°F (or a protein rest at 120°F) and a saccharification rest around 154°F. The multi-step mash breaks down proteins that make the flaked grains gummy, avoiding the frustration of a stuck mash (replacing it, in my opinion, with the frustration of missing multiple step temperatures in my converted cooler mash tun … but more on that in a moment). In the boil, a small early addition of noble hops for bittering is typical, with coriander and orange peel (often Curaçao bitter orange, also known as laraha) added near the end.

My variation was developed in response to the need for an easy brewday and my desire for a bit more flavor than is offered by most commercial witbiers. First, the grain:

  • 4.25 lbs Belgian Pilsner malt
  • 4.25 lbs white wheat malt
  • 1 lb flaked oats
  • 0.25 lbs (4 oz) Munich malt

The substitution of malted white wheat for flaked wheat eliminates the need to do a multi-step mash, but just to be safe – since I still had about 10% flaked oats – I included 8 oz of rice hulls to keep the lauter flowing freely and did a single infusion mash at 151°F. The Munich was included to bring a little color and a touch of malty flavor.

I boiled for 100 minutes – longer than my usual 90, but just by accident. I added 0.55 oz of 8.2% AA American Santiam hops at the 60-minute mark. Santiam is a hop I hadn’t used before, but being related to German Tettnanger and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh (and thus more noble than American “Tettnang” hops which are actually descended from Fuggles) it seemed a worthy candidate. I got floral and peppery notes from it.

But the end of the boil was where things really got interesting. With 1 minute left in the boil, I added:

  • 0.2 oz dried bitter orange peel (left over from a previous batch)
  • 1 oz fresh blood orange zest (about 4 oranges’ worth)
  • 12 g crushed coriander
  • 3 g crushed grains of paradise

The original gravity was 1.053, technically a point past the upper end of the style, but I’m not complaining. I pitched a starter of White Labs WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale Yeast, an obvious choice for the style – but underpitched slightly by using a 900 mL starter. This should lead the yeast to produce more clove phenols to counterpoint the fresh zest and peppery spices. I started the fermentation at 68°F, but gradually heated the chamber up to 72°F by the third day, which should also accentuate the phenols. If it seems like I’m hedging my bets on phenol production, I am. This is my third wit, and the other two didn’t have nearly the fermentation flavor I was looking for.

I keg it two weeks from brewday, and I’ll be serving it just in time for the beginning of March and my ultimate reason for brewing this: a month of Game of Thrones viewings to prepare for the new season starting in April. It’s the reason I named this brew Wit Walker White Ale, and I think it’ll be a perfect beer to have on tap for Game of Thrones catch-up. It’s light enough to go with a variety of snacks. It’s sessiony enough to keep drinking through hours of viewings without getting drowsy or losing the plot in a beery stupor. And yes, it’s accessible enough to share with all my friends, even those who aren’t on the hardcore brew bandwagon yet. And by loading it up with flavors I like, I can guarantee myself something I can still be proud to drink along with everyone else … something so familiar, but completely new.