Tag Archive | homebrew

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?

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SMaSHy thing

HULK SMASH!! – orig. attrib. to Dr. Robert “Bruce” Banner, shouted by little boys everywhere

I recently took a break from my own frantic child-raising adventure to help my wife host a baby shower for friends expecting their first baby in October. The main request we got from the expecting parents was to make the event couples-friendly and laid back, with food, beverages and fun for the ladies and guys alike.

So in true Zyme Lord fashion, I decided to brew a beer.

I love having guests over to try my homebrew. It’s a great way to get objective feedback and improve my beer. This was a unique opportunity to reach beyond my closest friends – all of whom are already familiar with my homebrew – and get feedback from lots of people I didn’t know as well … most of whom I’ve worked with and gotten to know at other get-togethers, but who I hadn’t yet had a chance to have a beer with, let alone one of my own.

My kegerator was stocked with three kegs, but I wanted the special release beer to be the go-to tap. So it had to be something everyone could enjoy, regardless of their level of beer geekdom or personal style leanings. It should be in a popular and accessible style, and of course low-alcohol enough to keep the party family-friendly (it was, after all, a baby shower). I just didn’t know what.

Then one day when I was at the house of my expecting friends, flipping through the dad-to-be’s staggering collection of Hulk comics, the answer punched me in the face like a big green fist: I’d brew a SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) beer in honor of one of my friend’s favorite comic characters.

I’ve made beers from a single malt and single hop before, but this was my first recipe following the SMaSH ethos: a platform to showcase the unique flavor and aroma of a single base malt and single hop (ideally added throughout the boil to reveal its bittering, flavor, and aroma characteristics). I designed my SMaSH as a pale ale, fermented with a clean, neutral yeast: full of flavor but easy drinking, interesting but not intimidating.

Also in true Zyme Lord fashion, I chose ingredients for symbolism as well as flavor. The grain bill was 10.5 lbs of Maris Otter malt mashed at 154°F for 60 minutes. I thought the nutty flavor of Maris Otter would be great unadulterated, and it was also a fun choice to commemorate the English ancestry of the growing family who were our guests of honor.

I also wanted to incorporate ingredients from Oregon and Maine, the two states where my friends have their roots. Oregon was easy. I used Willamette hops (4% AA), adding them as follows for just under 40 IBU:

  • 2 oz at 60 minutes
  • 1.25 oz at 15 minutes
  • 1 oz at flameout

Finding an ingredient to represent Maine was tricky. I located a few boutique maltsters up there, but even if I could get them to sell me a single sack of grain at an acceptable price, I doubted I’d get it shipped in time. So I ended up breaking the SMaSH rules and adding a small amount of adjunct: 8 ounces by weight of Maine maple syrup, at the start of the boil. This was a minuscule addition in a 5-gallon batch; enough to add 2 tiny gravity points but no flavor. I added it for no reason really other than to say it was there – a technique I refer to affectionately as “KISS blood”. A little cheating was worth it to tell the story.

The OG was 1.058 and I pitched a single pack of Safale US-05 dry. Fermentation took off quickly thanks to a little yeast nutrient in the boil. After 15 days, it finished out at 1.010 for 6.3% ABV: not quite as sessionable as I was shooting for; but what the hell, the party was only three hours. I dry hopped with 0.75 oz of 4% Willamette for nine days.

We served the beer frat-house style, with the keg in a bucket of ice. No pumps or picnic taps, though – this was the maiden voyage of my new portable paintball tank CO2 rig and post-mounted faucet from KegConnection.com.

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Chilling in the chest freezer, before we moved it to the bucket.

As it turned out, the visual of a battered old Cornelius keg sitting in a bucket of ice with a hose hanging off one side and a tap handle mounted to the other was an excellent conversation starter. I spent a lot of the party talking about homebrewing and getting to know some friends better. As for the beer, it was smooth, just hoppy enough, and very refreshing. We went through 4 out of 5 gallons before the party was over, and some guests were inspired to try a flight of all four brews I had on tap in the house. A smashing success, I’d say.

See what I did there?

An homage to UK pubs (and a classic monster movie)

I vote we go back to the Slaughtered Lamb. – Jack Goodman, An American Werewolf in London

Homebrew inspiration can come from strange places. My favorite homebrews are the ones that were inspired not just by an imagined set of flavors, but by places I’ve visited, stories I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, etc. I love using the language of malt, hops, and yeast to tell a story about something more than beer. The trick, though, is that brewing is not an abstract art. A good concept might make for a great conversation starter, but no matter how high-concept a brew is, if it doesn’t taste good I don’t want to be stuck with five gallons of it (I graduated from a Catholic university in New Orleans, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to brew a crawfish & Bananas Foster porter with Trappist ale yeast for the alumni picnic). Finding the right balance between concept and taste is the ultimate goal.

In spring 2011, Lisa and I visited the United Kingdom for three weeks and spent a lot of time in pubs. We drank real ales from so many regional breweries whose names I can’t remember (except for Brains – #1 among zombies in South Wales) served at cellar temperature, often from beer engines – though at one awesome hole-in-the-wall in a one-road hamlet in Scotland I think I remember drinking beer dispensed from a cardboard box. The taste and aroma of real British ale, even the sight of the interior of a British pub, are vivid and powerful memories for me.

In summer 2012, I saw John Landis’ 1981 film An American Werewolf in London for the first time and my nostalgia was kindled by an early scene in the film at a fictitious Yorkshire pub called the “Slaughtered Lamb”. So I brewed a special bitter with English malts and American hops that I named Kessler’s Rampage Special Bitter in homage to the film’s main character and titular werewolf. Not long after I kegged it my sister-in-law and her husband, a native Sussaxon*, came to visit for a week and emptied the keg while I wasn’t looking. I took that as a compliment, and decided to brew it again this summer.

The 2013 version was 94% (8 lbs) Fawcett’s Optic malt, reportedly the base used by Fuller’s and other UK breweries. 4 oz each of Crystal 40 and Crystal 150 rounded out the grain bill. Last year I used Crystal 120 instead of Crystal 150, but otherwise the malt profile was the same in both versions and pretty typical of the style. The mash was one hour at 155°F.

The hops were my chance to freestyle. American homebrewers can be pretty predictable in their hop selections for English pale ales – occasionally someone might get bold and use a little Fuggles, but generally it’s either East Kent Goldings, East Kent Goldings, or another … what’s it called? oh yeah, East Kent Goldings. I suppose that’s what judges look for in competition, but the lack of originality disappoints me. American pale ales and English pale ales are cousin styles, and I see no reason why American hops can’t play a role in a damn fine English bitter if the right ones are chosen – i.e., probably not the 4 C’s (though I suspect someone has done it well).

In 2012, I used exclusively American hops in keeping with the inspiration (you can see both recipes here). For 2013, I deviated with one English hop in the mix:

  • 0.5 oz Warrior (15% AA) at 60 minutes
  • 0.5 oz Progress (6.6% AA) at 15 minutes
  • 0.4 oz Willamette (4% AA) at 5 minutes

Although Progress is English and Willamette is American, both are Fuggle derivatives, so I thought they would pair nicely together despite being a slight variation on the original inspiration. Consider it an homage to Jenny Agutter’s character Alex in the film, the English love interest of the American David Kessler (yes, I can rationalize anything with my artsy symbolic bullshit).

I pitched Safale S-04 into the wort with an OG of 1.046. True to the old adage that “English yeast do it faster,” the fermentation bottomed out at 1.010 less than 48 hours later, leaving me with an ABV of 4.7%, palpable but still sessionable. I kegged it after 4 weeks, and after 2 weeks under refrigeration it’s just starting to get good enough to drink.

I don’t have any of last year’s batch left over to do a true vertical tasting, but I’m a little disappointed in this year’s model. I’m not sure the Progress hops were a good addition (sorry, Jenny). I’ve used them in more robust English-style beers like porters and stouts to great effect, but with so little malt character to hide behind, I’m getting a strong tropical fruit flavor though it is mellowing with time in the keg. The other fault is less diacetyl than I like in this style, though it may be hiding under all those Progress hops and may become more obvious as the hop flavor mellows.

So the beer’s not perfect. But considering I half expected the skies to open up, swarms of locusts and some ancient BJCP curse to fall upon me when I put hops other than East Kent Goldings in a special bitter, I think I’m still coming out ahead. I don’t get the feeling of being an American lost in Britain in this version, but my second Transatlantic ale experiment is good enough to brew again. And again. Until I get it right.

*Sussaxon: a native of East or West Sussex. My brother-in-law assures me this although this term is technically accurate, no one uses it. We both like it because it makes us think of the people of Sussex as mud-splattered, armor-clad Saxons performing great acts of manly savagery like raiding cottages across the southern coast of Great Britain. They’re not.

Old Froglegs, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love brewing barleywine

Daddy loves Froggy. Froggy love Daddy? Ribbit. – Hedy Lamarr (that’s Hedley!), Blazing Saddles

Big beers seem to be the norm for some homebrewers. The word “imperial” is thrown around at homebrew club meetings more than at Star Wars conventions, and barleywines seem far more prevalent at the homebrew level than commercially. I suspect many people become homebrewers just to hoard gallons of nose-hair singeing strong ales for a fraction of the cost of buying it commercially. Not me. I mostly drink beers around 8% ABV or lower, and my brewing habits reflect that.

Like many homebrewers, my mash efficiency suffers with bigger grain bills. I get great efficiency with beers around the 1.050 mark, but with beers around 1.070 it’s decent (not astounding). Satisfied with brewing beers mostly in the 1.050-1.080 range, I’ve haven’t bothered to rock the boat by trying a bigger brew. Over time, the idea of brewing a really big beer like an American barleywine became a little intimidating. Imagine a whole category of the BJCP Style Guidelines staring back at you when you close your eyes, whispering, “You’re not man enough to brew me, and you know it.”

Oh, but there’s nothing like having a baby to change your perspective. Faced with responsibility for an adorable but needy new organism while surviving on Clif bars and fifteen hours of sleep a week, the most intimidating non-baby-related activity in the world sounds like a vacation. That first month, I probably could’ve been talked into skydiving. So when someone suggested I brew a barleywine to commemorate Lucian’s birth, my enthusiastic response of “WHY THE HELL NOT!?” was, I’m sure, loud enough to be heard across the Texas Hill Country. I decided to make it the first beer I brewed after he was born.

I started with a name: Old Froglegs American Barleywine, after a nickname we gave Lucian within hours of being born (his legs were constantly crossed as a newborn). The recipe was big but simple, in keeping with my recent emphasis on fewer carefully chosen ingredients. 19 pounds of Maris Otter formed the base: a premium malt more expensive than plain American 2-row, and on a grain bill this big cost adds up. But Maris Otter has great flavor, and besides, how many “first beer after my baby was born”s do you get? I added 3 pounds of light Munich for melanoidins and a half-pound each of Crystal 60 and Crystal 150 for caramel and dark fruit notes. If you’re counting, that’s 23 pounds of grain (plus rice hulls) that would go into my 10-gallon cooler mash tun.

Expecting that high a ratio of grain weight to mash tun volume to seriously impact my efficiency, I took a few measures to compensate:

  • Milled my own grain
  • Increased sparge water/runoff and extended the boil
  • Included kettle sugars for extra fermentables

By milling my own grain I hoped to achieve a finer crush than what I’d get at the homebrew store – admittedly a crap shoot, not knowing how their mills are set. I didn’t actually buy my new Barley Crusher MaltMill for this brew, but it happened to be its maiden voyage. Earlier this year I realized that brewing with a newborn around would require flexibility, since daddy tasks might pop up unexpectedly on the weekend (I was right). With a malt mill in my arsenal, I can buy unmilled grain and crush it on brew day, ensuring fresh malt even if brew day is postponed by a week or more.

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Pictured above: the quantity of grain known to maltsters as a metric assload.

I doughed in at a stiff 1 qt/lb and added the rest of the liquor (to 1.25 qt/lb) only after I was sure that my mash tun would fit it all. It did, barely. I sparged to collect just shy of ten gallons of wort, which didn’t fit in the brew kettle, so I saved the extra in a pitcher and added it to the kettle as it boiled down. I didn’t actually start the boil timer until all the wort had been added and boiled down to my usual starting volume. All in all, the boil lasted about 150 minutes.

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On the edge of boiling over. He’s a madman! A maaadmaaan!

Once boiling was underway I added a pound – 2 pressed cones – of piloncillo (a.k.a. panela), an unrefined cane sugar particular to Latin American cuisine. I’d had it in the pantry for some time and it seemed a great addition to a barleywine, with its rich molasses flavor and high fermentability leaving the beer high in alcohol and low on cloying sweetness. Protip: smashing the cones with a meat tenderizer before adding them is great stress relief.

I added only 60-minute hop additions to the boil for bitterness. I had 1.75 ounces of Warrior and 1 ounce of Galena in the freezer, so I used them. I also added yeast nutrient to the boil because of the high gravity and 4% adjunct sugars.

I met my gravity target and then some, achieving an OG of 1.114. I pitched 2.5 packets of Safale US-05 dry (I ran out of time to rehydrate) and it took off like a rocket, with bubbles coming through the airlock less than 16 hours later. Two weeks later, the beer was at 1.023, which appears to be its final gravity. I racked it to a carboy at the end of May.

It’s going to stay there for months. I plan to bottle it in November so it’s ready to drink on Lucian’s first Christmas. Since I’m not an everyday barleywine kind of guy, I’ll save it for special occasions, birthdays and other milestones. I think I can get several years of good aging out of it if I treat it right. Even if it starts to decline after a while, I have to save at least one bottle to share with Lucian on his 21st birthday.

And then I can embarrass the hell out of him with the Froglegs thing.

One Drink Minimum: A Father’s Day and an author’s day

I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint. – unnamed narrator, “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses

June 16, 2013 was Father's Day, the first I celebrated as a father myself, thanks to the arrival of this guy:

Fathers Day

This picture now has more Likes on Facebook than that one picture of that cat doing that spastic thing.

 

His mother insisted on taking me to brunch at Banger's Sausage House & Beer Garden, one of my favorite beer spots in Austin. Although I balked at first – as much as I love being a father, I'd just as soon celebrate in my own quiet way and not have anyone make a fuss over me – I agreed, and started my day with a Stone Double Dry Hopped Ruination IPA and then a Dogfish Head Sixty-One (also known as 61 Minute IPA – a less-than-accurate moniker that implies more hops than can be detected in this blend of IPA and Syrah grape must). The beers were great, and the food was good too even though Banger's was out of the one thing on the menu I really wanted: the “Irishman's Hangover Cure” – basically an English breakfast with black and white pudding (US readers: despite the name, those are sausages). A mighty meal, I'm sure, but unavailable on account of a shortage of black pudding (how a hypertrendy brew-and-grub spot in downtown Austin runs out of blood sausage is beyond me, but okay). I settled for an elevated Eggs Benedict instead, a dish that has never disappointed me.

It really was a shame about missing out on that Irish breakfast, though, because June 16 was also Bloomsday to fans of Irish novelist James Joyce and his magnum opus Ulysses. Observed each year on the anniversary of the date the novel took place – June 16, 1904 – it's a spectacle in Joyce's native Dublin, where participants and spectators don boater hats, eat kidneys, and participate in readings, re-enactments, and other themed events at parks, pubs, museums and locations mentioned in the novel. We've celebrated Bloomsday in my house for the last four years with Irish food (no kidneys, thanks) and stout by pints, with one exception in 2011 when we actually went to Dublin for it.

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My wife Lisa and me at Davy Byrne's pub in Dublin, June 16 2011.

 

Readers who remember my St. Patrick's Day post may recall that Bloomsday is one of the three days a year that I consider myself “Irish by bullshit”, and I toast to Joyce with at least one pint of Guinness and a Jameson nightcap. Granted, although Bloomsday is big in Dublin and recognized in a handful of American cities, it doesn't have a reputation as a hardcore Irish drinking occasion like St. Paddy's or your average Irish funeral. It's seen as more of a sophisticated affair. In Dublin two years ago, I got the impression that Dubliners view it as a society event. Most of the costumed participants looked like upper-class types, the cream of Dublin's social/academic elite doing their duty for an event that is important to the city, regardless of whether any of them have any meaningful personal connection to Joyce's work. Most of them were sipping wine.

Wine. Irish men and women in pubs in the city where Guinness and Jameson were born, gathered to celebrate an Irish cultural hero, and they were drinking … wine. A nod to protagonist Leopold Bloom ordering a glass of red wine at Davy Byrne's pub for his afternoon tipple in the “Lestrygonians” episode of Ulysses? Perhaps, but although I did see a few glasses of red in Bloomsdayers' hands that day, most of them were drinking white.

Snooty? Maybe. Pretentious? Most likely. But don't be put off by that, or by the fact that your English-major roommate in college used to drag you to bars on Thursday nights and forced you to listen to him debate his friends on the topic of James Joyce's work using words like ineluctable and dropping references to secondary sources like the most boring deleted scene from Good Will Hunting. Never mind all that. Ulysses is a damned entertaining book full of laugh-out-loud hilarious moments. It's a great read to enjoy while drinking and is full of interesting details about the life of the turn-of-the-century urban Irishman drinker. It contains several references to “Guinness's porter” (a description that may confuse today's beer geeks, until we realize that stout was considered a substyle of porter until the 20th Century). There's an extended sequence of drunken hallucination in a brothel written as a play script, complete with cross-dressing, and a memorable scene of a sexy barmaid working the … ahem … “polished knob” of a tap handle with delicate hands.

Oh yeah, that's the other thing. Ulysses is full of dick and fart jokes. In my opinion, that makes it perfect for dads everywhere. Why not combine it with Father's Day? So I ended my day with a miniature Irish feast for Bloomsday.

Not long after Lucian's birth, I kegged an Irish-style dry stout that I brewed in late March (first discussed in the above St. Patrick's Day post) and named it Anna Livia Dry Stout in honor of a character from another Joyce novel, Finnegans Wake. The recipe for the brew can be found here in my new recipes section. I brewed the stout as a substitute for Guinness specifically for this occasion, and it didn't disappoint: deep black and roasty, dry but with a touch of sweetness in the middle and a robust mouthfeel that I found wanting the last time I drank canned Guinness Draught. Best of all, Anna Livia came in at a very sessionable 4% ABV. The only thing that was lacking was the trademark tang that Guinness achieves by adding a little bit of soured beer to each batch. The next time I make it, I'll try to recreate that effect by adding a little lactic acid to the wort. Sure, it's cheating and I don't generally like to add extraneous ingredients, but seeing as how the alternative would be to use sour beer and risk infecting my good equipment, I think I can make an exception.

To go with the stout, we had cabbage braised in the same stout with bacon, and a selection of cheeses: Irish cheddar, Gorgonzola (in honor of Leopold Bloom's Gorgonzola sandwich from Davy Byrne's), and English Red Leicester (not a Ulysses reference but great cheddarish cheese that reminds me of my time in the British Isles).

I also baked a raisin-free soda bread from this recipe from IslandVittles.com. Of course, I substituted Anna Livia for the Guinness. Though I've been baking bread for a couple of months now, this was my first soda bread. It was so good I will be making it again: crumbly and sweet, an excellent counterpart to the Gorgonzola. And the leftover slices were spectacular with butter and honey a day later.

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Not quite the culinary equivalent of a James Joyce novel, but easier to get through in one sitting.

It was a great way to spend a first Father's Day, and I got off light in that I was able to divert much of the fuss away from myself and onto one of my favorite annual geek observances. It also gave me a great excuse to brew something special for the occasion, something I'd love to do again in the future. But with Father's Day falling the day before Bloomsday next year, I think I'm going to need a new angle if I want to do a Father's Day brew.

Anyone have any Father's Day brews they'd like to share the recipe for? I need your ideas! Only 364 days left to plan.

 

Homebrew Tips for New Dads: Commemorating the event, a great excuse to drink!

Well, I’m back. – Samwise Gamgee

I haven’t written for this blog in nearly two months, as I’ve gradually adjusted to the ups and downs of being a father to my first child. Learning how to change, bathe, and sing Queen songs (including a special diaper-time version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with peepee-related lyrics) to my newborn son Lucian was only the beginning. I also learned to deal with: an increased share of the housework to help Momma, an upheaval of my sleep schedule, a return to my day job, and the happy stress of many wonderful visits from friends and family anxious to meet the little dude in the blue onesie.

With all of that going on it was hard to find time to write, which was fine because I wasn’t doing all that much to write about. If your blog is about homebrewing, when you ain’t homebrewing you ain’t got much to say.

Did you catch that? Practically no homebrewing for two months. The horror! Almost as horrific as the fact that “bottle washing” means something entirely new to me now that I have a baby (interestingly, I don’t dread washing baby bottles like I did beer bottles – no labels).

Even though I haven’t done much brewing, I have partaken liberally of the fruits of my homebrewing labor. Thanks to some careful planning before the birth, I’ve managed to keep the pipeline flowing during my hiatus. But preparing for these brewless weeks wasn’t just about making sure I had enough booze to get through the newborn period. Far from it. You see, I’m a commemorator.

The things we create – a beverage, a story, a carpentry project, even the name we give to a child – form a record of our past. Each creation is a snapshot of who we were when we created it, a representational image of our brain at the moment of creation. Those snapshots exist long after the “me” responsible for the creation has changed forever – years after, if we’re lucky – and are like little running shoes for the feet of our memories. That’s one of the reasons why I believe every human being should create … something.

Of course, if what you create is consumable food products like beers and meads, there’s a shelf life to consider, so they won’t last forever. Sure, the right brews (imperial stouts, barleywines, meads, fruit wines) can be cellared for years if designed and handled properly, but at some point you’ll open and empty the last bottle. They’re not quite as permanent as other creations can be. But the unique thing about brewing to commemorate important life events is that the enjoyment of those creations (i.e., the drinking of the beer after it’s fermented/aged) creates its own memories that are worth holding onto in their turn.

The day we brought Lucian home from the hospital, Lisa and I shared a bomber of Le Petit Plésiosaure Saison, a Summit-hopped saison loosely adapted from Brooklyn Sorachi Ace that I brewed in February. The name (French for “the Little Plesiosaurus”) is an homage to an adorable cartoon poster of the Loch Ness Monster we have hanging in Lucian’s room. We gave bottles of the saison out as favors to friends who came to our baby shower and asked them not to open it until we announced the birth, and we did the same.

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C’est bon ça!

I’m thrilled to report that this saison exceeded my expectations and also wowed my friends, not all of them beer geeks: a refreshing, dry, aromatic and spicy saison perfect for late spring/early summer that hides its 8% ABV under layers of citrus, chamomile and subtle phenolics. We’ve made it through nearly all of the bottles we had left over, and that’s okay. This beer was intended for drinking fresh in hot weather, for refreshing breaks from the hard work of keepin’ this baby happy. When I have my last taste of it later this summer, I’ll pause to celebrate the end of the first phase of Lucian’s life and the beginning of the next. In fact, his 3-month birthday sounds like a great time to finish off the batch. Challenge accepted.

The other commemorative brew I’m enjoying between sessions of therapeutic baby bouncing is Lucian’s Landing Ginger Metheglin, a ginger mead I made in October with the goal of bottling it right before the baby was born (but Lucian landed early, so I didn’t bottle it until after). I aged it from October to April, by which time all of the fresh ginger root aromatics in the must had evaporated – only a pleasant ginger tang on the palate remained. To replace the lost aromatics, I steeped 3.5 oz of fresh ginger root in 8 oz of boiled water to make a ginger tea and added that to the carboy along with 4 oz of crystallized ginger in a muslin hop sack. After 4 weeks, I bottled it and had labels printed with my own design evoking the inspiration for my son’s name, a second-century work of early science fiction satire called True Story (often translated as True History) by Lucian of Samosata.

IMG_1519

Protip: Even when buried beneath housework and baby care chores, always find time for Photoshop.

We plan to drink some fresh and save some bottles for special occasions (first Christmas, birthday, etc.), so the snazzy bottles were a must. Most recently we opened a bottle on Sunday, Lucian’s 2-month birthday, and found that mead paired quite well thematically with a marathon viewing of Game of Thrones Season 3 before the finale Sunday night. Pale golden and nearly crystal clear, it has just enough ginger to tickle the nose and palate before the unmistakable earthen notes of honey come in, then recede giving way to a fruity, ginger ale-like finish. I’m proud of it.

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Deceptively elegant at 13.7% ABV.

I like to think that someday Lucian will appreciate things like the fact that his dad made a special mead in honor of his birth, even though he couldn’t enjoy it himself (though maybe one day, who knows …). There’s no way of knowing now, of course, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll keep doing it for myself. Being a father is hard work, and I’m sure it’s only going to get harder. Though it’s already proving to be well worth all the effort I put into it, finding time to remember “me” amid the multitude of self-sacrificing tasks to be completed has been an important step in retaining my sanity. And that’s who me is (erm, I am): A homebrewer. A commemorator. A big frickin’ sap.

My more perceptive readers may have noticed that above I mentioned “practically no homebrewing”. Don’t tell anyone, but I did manage to squeeze in one brewday before April – the month of my son’s birth – was over. That was yet another commemorative brew, but one I won’t be drinking for a long time. I’ll tell you all about it in an upcoming post. The only hint I’ll offer before then is: Ribbit.

This Sunday, remember to wish a Happy Father’s Day to your dad or a dad you know (or yourself if the gift-wrapped dress socks fit) … and to my fellow new dads out there, just starting out on this difficult but rewarding journey: have a homebrew with me. We deserve it.

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.

Une saison à la maison

Saison.

In French, the word means season, as in the seasons of the year. Spring, summer, autumn, or winter. A generic term, a category with specimens so varied that each is the opposite of another.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the beer style we call “saison” is a varied, open-ended style as well. Call it a seasonal beer unattached to a particular season.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Look it up anywhere from Wikipedia to the BJCP Style Guidelines, and you’ll learn that saison has its roots in the farmhouses of the French-speaking Walloons of Belgium who spent the winter brewing spicy, refreshing ales to be consumed in the summer by workers pulling long shifts in the fields. So traditionally it’s a summer beer.

But the Wallonian brewing tradition was highly improvisational and localized. Each farmhouse brewed their own beer with the ingredients available at the time, often raised on their own farms. The resulting beers were, unsurprisingly, vastly different from place to place and from month to month.

So unlike the seasonal beers of, say, Germany – which tend toward profile standards of characteristic Teutonic rigidity, with names easy to mark on your calendar like Märzen, Maibock, and Oktoberfest – this traditional Belgian seasonal can be light or dark, strong or sessiony, and anything in between. A December 2006 Style Profile article from Brew Your Own magazine lists a wide disparity of characteristics for the modern style in regards to color, mouthfeel, residual sweetness, strength, hop profile, and spices. The main common thread is the yeast, descended from traditional Belgian strains that produce a characteristic spiciness, an estery je ne sais quoi that makes these beers decidedly farmhousey, even when made in the (sub)urban backyard.

With that range of profiles, I’d say seasonality goes out the window. A strong, dark, spicy saison would be a great nightcap on a cold winter night. I like light, refreshing saisons in spring (I’m pretty sure spring in Texas feels like summer in Belgium anyway). So I brewed one now to be ready by the last week of March.

There was another reason for my timing besides the oncoming vernal equinox. The last beer my wife and I drank together was a bomber of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, the day before we learned she was pregnant. Our baby is due in April, so what better beer to have on hand to celebrate her return to the world of the ethanol-metabolizing than a hop-forward saison?

I started my brew with a clone recipe of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace from the December 2011 issue of Brew Your Own and a Gallic sense of laissez-faire. The recipe called for 11 lbs (5 kg) of Belgian Pilsner malt, which I increased to 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) to compensate for lower efficiency on my system (more on that below). This made up the bulk of the fermentables along with 1 lb (453 g) of dextrose in the boil. The recipe also used a 3-step mash, which I did not. I did a single infusion mash at 146°F (63°C). The low mash temperature makes a more fermentable wort, but saccharification takes a little longer so I mashed for 90 minutes instead of my usual 60.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is hopped entirely with Sorachi Ace hops, which I couldn’t get locally. Instead of replacing it with a similar substitute, I took a different path entirely. I used 16% AA Warrior hops for neutral bittering, two additions of .37 oz (10.5 g) each at 60 and 30 minutes (~6 AAU in each addition). At flameout, I added 3 oz (85 g) of 15% AA Summit.

I had prepared a 2-liter starter of White Labs WLP 560, an Austin Homebrew Supply-exclusive Classic Saison Yeast Blend. That starter was decanted and pitched into a wort with an OG of 1.073, eleven points higher than my target OG of 1.062. Eleven points!

Not your grand-père’s farmhouse brewery.

Little mishaps are common in brewing, and usually a good sign. Minor, easily correctable problems during the brew day keep the brewer on his/her toes, and (I think) make us less prone to serious mistakes that can’t be fixed. But overshooting target gravity by this much is a new kind of problem for me.

Is it even a problem? Obviously my efficiency is much higher than I thought – I’m noting the data for future batches – and the extra malt I added was unnecessary: a “problem” many brewers would love to have. I’m not entering any contests, so the fact that my OG landed past the upper limit of the BJCP range for saison doesn’t concern me. If it fails to attenuate completely, I may end up with a beer that’s too sweet. But if I got the kind of fermentability I was shooting for out of my low mash, that extra sugar should ferment out, leaving me with an ABV higher than I intended.

So if I’m lucky, I’ll be welcoming the spring with a dry, high-alcohol saison. Maybe it won’t be strong enough to qualify as an “imperial saison”, but it should be worthy of some noble title. I’d settle for “ducal saison” or better yet, “marchional saison”. With its extra kick, it might be a little too intense for farm work, but it sounds about right for celebrating the birth of a new Marchese.

Brewing like a Bronze Ager

In the latest podcast episode of Basic Brewing Radio (“Bronze Age Brewing”, aired January 3, 2013) host James Spencer interviewed Ian Hill of the Heritage and Archaeological Research Practice based in the UK, about an ancient “microbrewery” structure discovered by University of Manchester archaeologists at the Bronze Age settlement of Kissonerga-Skalia, near the modern city of Paphos in Cyprus. A link to the story on the Telegraph’s website is below.

Bronze age ‘microbrewery’ discovered in Cyprus

The structure is dated to around 1600 BCE, and included an oven the archaeologists believe was used as a malting kiln, mortars for manual grain crushing, a hearth and clay pots. And you thought your drill-powered malt mill and 60,000-BTU propane burner constituted a bare-bones brewing system …

The conclusion that the structure was a malthouse/brewery came mostly through process of elimination, as Hill explains in the podcast. Some barley was found nearby along with fig seeds, which suggests a barley-based beer, perhaps with some smoked malt flavor as an accidental result of the kiln being contained in such a small space – a theory supported by smoky residue on the walls of the structure. The figs may have been a flavor additive, or may have been added to the wort to start fermentation via the introduction of wild yeast living on the figs’ skin.

Hill went on to explain how in August of 2012, he and some others on his team reconstructed the structure offsite to try malting some grain using the Kissonerga-Skalia setup, then brewed some beer with the grain they malted.

They made several batches with different parameters. Mash thicknesses varied, but the thinnest was 7 liters per kilogram of grain, which works out to 3.36 qts/lb, a thin mash but well within the range of no-sparge “Brew in a Bag” techniques. They doughed in at 70°C (158°F) and kept the mash temperature above 65°C (149°F): pretty typical mash. Although the Bronze Age beer probably was not boiled, Hill’s team boiled theirs to sanitize it. They did not add any hops.

They pitched one batch with crushed figs to emulate the wild fermentation technique speculated for the ancient beer. A second batch was pitched with grapes (also a source of wild yeast) instead of figs. A third batch was fruit-free and pitched with brewer’s yeast as a control. I won’t spoil the results – the podcast is short and fun, and completely worth listening to.

Idea time. I’d like to take the plunge into making an “ancient” beer of my own. I’m a history lover – the older the better – and like the idea of getting in touch with my ancient brewer ancestors by trying out their ingredients and techniques. Patrick McGovern’s book Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages is an inspiring read, and I love the work he’s done with Dogfish Head on beers like Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu. But until now I haven’t had the motivation to get off the fence and dive in with an ancient recipe of my own.

Until now. The figs are speaking to something deep in my soul. Maybe it’s because at Christmas, someone in the family raided the canister of my aunt’s famous Italian fig cookies before I could, and I’ve been craving them ever since. And my recent introduction to historical brewing – Colonial Progress Ale – ended up tasting pretty damn good and has gotten great reviews from friends. I’m feeling ambitious.

So I’m going to brew a Kissonerga-Skalia beer with some smoked malt. I don’t think I’ve got the figs to do an all-wild fermentation, but I would like to try cultivating dregs from a bottle of Midas Touch. And I will use some fig somewhere in the brew for flavor and additional sugar. It sounds like a good spring beer, so that gives me between now and early February to put together a recipe.

In the meantime, I’ll remember a quote from Ian Hill in the podcast that stuck with me: “Archaeologists love their beer, so it’s not a bad thing to find.” Indeed.

Baggings! We hates it forever!

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.