Tag Archive | intrepidness

Pumpkin fear and Halloween beer

You are a fear prisoner. Yes, you are a product of fear. – Jim Cunningham, Donnie Darko

Halloween is just around the corner, and in home breweries across the world, brewers are enjoying their seasonal pumpkin beers.

Mine isn’t ready yet. I kegged it a few days ago and it should be ready to drink by the weekend. Later than I had hoped it would be ready, but still in time for Halloween.

Just getting this beer brewed meant overcoming a fear tucked deep in my psyche between the memory of watching the movie Poltergeist when I was six years old and my recurring nightmare of showing up naked to school on standardized test day. Why was I afraid? Decision paralysis. With so many options and things I thought could go wrong, I was always intimidated by the idea of brewing pumpkin beer.

Google “pumpkin homebrew”. Do it now; I’ll wait.

You probably noticed two things: 1) how many of the recipes have names inspired by a prominent 90’s alternative rock band (“Smashing Pumpkin Ale”, “Pumpkin SMaSH”, etc.) and 2) how many different ways there are to brew it. Fresh pumpkin or canned. Pumpkin in the mash, or boil, or secondary. Or no pumpkin; just spices. And which spices? Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove, allspice, chai tea. All of the above. None of the above. Then there’s the reported complexity factor of working with pumpkin as an ingredient. It’s thick, it’s gummy, and by most accounts is a hassle that mucks up your brew day, threatening stuck sparges if added in the mash or high wort loss to trub in the kettle or fermenter.

It was all too much. A clear path to success never presented itself, and I’m just not a “jump in and see what happens” kind of guy. So year after year, paralyzed by fear, I let September tick by until it was too late to brew pumpkin beer in time for Halloween. But as I’ve said before, raising a baby has emboldened me as a brewer. And since for Halloween 2012 I overcame my lifelong fear of Poltergeist by watching it for the second time in a year, I figured for Halloween 2013 I should conquer another crippling fear. So I took a deep breath and built a recipe, trusting that the result would at least technically qualify as beer.

As it turns out, my old fears were unfounded. My first pumpkin beer was laughably easy. My sparge didn’t stick and I hit my target OG exactly. Based on the samples I’ve tasted so far, the beer is great, tasting just like liquid pumpkin pie in a glass.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In mid-September, I brought the ingredients together. At the top of the marquee:

  • 3.75 lbs (4 – 15 oz cans) Organic Canned Pumpkin Puree

I’m always amazed by how many “pumpkin” beer recipes leave pumpkin out and just use pumpkin pie spice. Some brewers who go this route claim pumpkin has little flavor and little convertible starch, thus adding virtually nothing to the beer that makes up for the hassle of working with it. Well, those brewers are welcome to brew “pumpkin” or “pumpkin spice” beers however they want, but I believe you can’t call something something unless that something has that something in it. “Pumpkin” beverages that trick your tongue with spice-based sleight of hand belong in paper cups with green mermaid logos. Craft and homebrewed beer should be honest.

So for me, whether or not to use pumpkin was never really a question. But “how” was. Adding it to the mash tun sounded like an interesting twist on my brew day, so I did. I considered roasting whole pie pumpkins and using the pulp, but price, availability, and the added prep work steered me toward canned pumpkin instead – pure pumpkin puree, that is, not canned “pumpkin pie filling” which has other stuff added to it.

Pumpkin puree’s high density means it has a very high thermal mass. So when adding it to the mash it takes more heat – hotter water or more hot water – to raise it to a target rest temperature. To counter this, I preheated the pumpkin to 154°F on the stove top while the strike water was heating outside. Leaving the puree unattended for a few minutes while I checked on the strike water produced a fantastic unintended result: some pumpkin stuck to the bottom of the saucepan and burned a little, imparting a caramelized/roasted flavor to the puree. I’ll do it on purpose next time.

In the mash tun, I mashed in the grain – the “crust” of my liquid pumpkin pie:

  • 11 lbs Maris Otter (nutty, bready)
  • 1.25 lbs Caravienne (light caramel, residual sugar)
  • 1 lb Victory (toasty, biscuit)
  • 0.25 lb Crystal 150L (dark caramel, raisin)
  • 0.5 lb Rice Hulls (to aid sparging and counteract the pumpkin’s gumminess)

After I stablized the mash at 153°F with grain and water only, I mixed in the “quick-roasted” pumpkin. Preheating turned out to be a good idea. The mash didn’t drop temperature when the pumpkin was added.

After mashing for 60 minutes, I sparged (very smoothly, thank you rice hulls) and sent it all to the kettle, where I added 6.7 AAU of Hallertau at the 60-minute mark and Irish Moss at the 15-minute mark. With 1 minute left in the boil, things got interesting when I added a pumpkin pie spice blend of my own design:

  • 2 Cinnamon Sticks (whole)
  • 1 tbsp Crystallized Ginger (minced)
  • 1.5 tsp Allspice (whole berries, crushed)
  • 0.75 tsp Nutmeg (whole, grated)

I hit my OG target of 1.068 and pitched 17 grams rehydrated Safale US-05. Chico yeast made short work of the fermentables and flocculated out around day seven. I tasted the conditioning beer after two weeks, pleased to taste spice and and a vegetal squashy pumpkin-ness that flies in the face of the “pumpkin doesn’t add any flavor” argument. The only thing missing was the grandma’s-kitchen spice aroma I was hoping for. So I made a spice potion from 8 ounces of vodka and the exact same spice blend I used in the boil (see above). That steeped for 18 days in a covered Mason jar before I added it at kegging time. FG was 1.017 for a calculated 6.7% ABV.

I see no reason to buck the trend of naming pumpkin beers after a certain Chicago alt-rock group. But I do think it’s time we get a little more creative with our references. So I christened my beer Melancholy Bill’s Infinitely Sad Pumpkin Ale. Have I forever raised the bar for pumpkin beer names? Have I paid sufficient homage to the season for spooks with a name that sounds right out of a ghost story told by flashlight? Or am I just a dork?

You decide. I’m okay with anything. After all, I’m raising my glass of pumpkin homebrew to a victory over one more fear this Halloween.

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.

The boldness of new beginnings

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

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She ain’t pretty, but she’s mah baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you mean, too late?

Beer Guy’s Burden

A friend reaches into his cooler at a BYOB party and pulls out two cans from Austin Beerworks: a Pearl Snap Pils and a Fire Eagle IPA. Knowing his preference, I hold my hand out for the IPA while he keeps the Pils. As our cans crack open in unison, he asks me, “Why don’t I like that one again?”

I think for a split second. “Because it’s got more hops, which makes it more bitter,” I say. “But it’s also sweeter and has more alcohol. It’s really just more everything.”

I’ve opened with a quip, and I’m considering going into more detail. But while I’m thinking about what to say next, everyone at the table laughs, and the conversation resumes. The moment has passed, and the chance to say more about what makes those beers different is gone.

Of the friends I hang out with regularly, I’m #1 or #2 in beer geekdom, and the only one currently homebrewing. That makes me the “beer guy” in the group. All my friends like craft beer, but most aren’t into it like I am. They come to me with their beer questions. I’ve been asked to order for my friends at bars and to suggest thematically appropriate beers for parties. It’s a role I’m honored to play, but it comes with responsibility.

I’d love for my friends to love beer as much as I do. If they knew it like I do, they’d love it like I do, right? I must tell them everything I know! Right?

But no. When asked a question, I have to be careful with my answer. I have to give just the right amount of information. To cover the basics in enough detail to keep their interest piqued, but not to get so bogged down in the minutiae that I lose them along the way.

At the BYOB party, if I answered my friend with an hour-long lecture on the difference between the noble hops in the Pils and American hops in the IPA, I can just about bet no one at that table would ever ask me a question about beer again. I know I’m a damned interesting guy, but even I don’t want to listen to me speaking for that long. If I scare my friend away from wanting to ask me about beer, then I’m doing it wrong. The mission is to nurture his curiosity, give him information so he can make a decision about when and where he’ll try that IPA on his on (if ever).

So I chose a simple, funny answer. A few facts and a tacit invitation to ask me more. He didn’t ask me more – not then, anyway, but maybe I had planted a seed.

I hope everyone reading this has at least one or two people they can seriously geek out about beer with. But even if you do, I know you’d love to get all the rest of your friends on board too. But they’re not all going to. Some may be on their way, and some of them will get there eventually. Not all, but some.

What can we do to help them along? Be there for them, but don’t push. Be their sherpa on the climb up the mountain. Give them the information and the encouragement they need. They’re your friends. You know them. You know what they need to hear. Answer their questions but don’t bore them or scare them away. Let them take baby steps. Craft beer is booming, and to the neophyte, the options are intimidating (don’t we all remember our first time?). Help them navigate those options with comfortable sojourns outside their comfort zone, and don’t go too wild too fast. Be gentle. They’re new to this.

Offer a schwarzbier to a friend who always reaches for Guinness. Offer a light beer drinker a Bohemian-style pilsner or even an APA. If they like that, give them an IPA (not an Imperial!). If your friend trusts you enough to take your recommendation, honor that by introducing them to something they’ll like, and thank you for later.

I see it as a sacred duty. But of course, I get a little too serious about stuff like this sometimes.

As for my friend, I talked with him again a couple of days later. He told me that after spending the previous afternoon downing Pearl Snaps, his tastebuds had gotten tired of it and so he went looking for something with a little more flavor. He reached for one of those IPAs left over from the BYOB, and enjoyed it so much he had a second one.

Mission accomplished. Phase one, at least.

Tapping the All-Galena Pale Ale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ongoing gas problem

My name is Shawn, and I have a problem with gas.

Specifically, the carbon dioxide tank in my 3-tap homebrew kegerator. About two weeks ago, I noticed that my beers were getting a little overcarbonated. My regulator, it turned out, was set to a very high 14 PSI. I try to keep it at 10 PSI, which produces an acceptable level of carbonation for most beers; not ideal for all, but it’s good enough and a simple round number.

But when my precious beers were suddenly pouring out as 80% head, I knew something was amiss. So I got on my knees, pulled a keg out of the kegerator to get to the 5-pound CO2 tank at its home on the compressor hump, relieved pressure at the tank valve and turned the regulator screw a tiny bit counterclockwise to lower the pressure. It doesn’t take much to get big results: a few degrees of torque on a quarter-inch bolt can result in a difference of 3-4 PSI, and sometimes it takes a day before it stabilizes.

The little bastard causing all the trouble.

But it seemed like it was going to work, for a few days. Then, by coincidence, the tank ran out of gas (I suspected a leak, but thankfully found none). Unfortunately, it was a Monday and I live too far from Austin Homebrew Supply to go there on a weeknight, so I had to wait 5 days before I could get it refilled. Once done, I happily hooked up the newly filled tank and set the pressure to 8 PSI in the hopes that the pressure differential would bleed out some of the extra carbonation in the beer and equalize at the level I’m looking for.

And bleed it did. I poured a pint of Weiss Blau Weiss a few days later, and it was straight-up flat. The regulator was surprisingly at 3 PSI. I was in full WTF mode by this point, until I realized that I set the pressure before I opened all the valves in my gas manifold. 8 PSI with one valve open to one keg dissipated after I opened the other two valves.

Now I think it’s back to normal. We’ll see in a couple of days. And someday I’ll invest in longer beer lines for the system. Longer beer lines mean more distance for the beer to travel from keg to glass, which means it doesn’t come out so fast and so foamy even when the pressure’s a little high. That’s the next logical step, but I’m hoping to put that project off for a less-busy weekend.

Was there a point to this story? No, mostly I’m just venting. But it’s a solid cautionary tale for any homebrewer out there still slaving over a bottling bucket, manually filling and capping 11 bottles for every gallon of homebrew and thinking, “Once I get my kegging system, all my problems are going to be solved!” I once thought that, too.

Nope. Sorry. There will always be problems. Something can always go wrong. Especially when your hobby’s primary equipment options are mostly Frankensteined together by DIYers from common appliances, picnic gear and plumbing fittings. Problems are a given. You just have to roll with them.

But that’s part of the fun. Anybody can go to the store and buy great beer by the case. What makes homebrewers invest the time and the money in all the constant tinkering? Ingenuity. Creativity. And a morbid, wretched drive to find problems that need solving. It’s the same reason I build my own desktop computers from scratch instead of buying them off the shelf. It’s the same reason I’ve been researching and outlining my novel for an obsessively long eight months, poking holes in my own ideas before I write the first page. Like many men, I may shout and curse and bang my fist when a frustrating problem rears its head, but secretly, I love it when a problem arises, because it’s another chance to prove how smart I am by solving it.

So here’s hoping this problem is solved … for now. A pint is calling my name, so I’ll test it soon. But I’ve got hours to kill before bedtime, and who knows what might be waiting for me in there?

Rogue Ales: Losing their relevance?

I’ve got nothing against Rogue Ales. I actually owe them a lot. Living on the West Coast in the early aughts, their beers inspired me long before I was a homebrewer. That smirking libertine on the bomber label, enticing me with interesting names like “Dead Guy Ale” and unique ingredients like hazelnut and soba … these things helped awaken me to the possibilities of what beer could be. I don’t drink Rogue often anymore, but that’s mainly because I drink so much Texas beer. (Coincidentally, I bought a bomber of their Chatoe Rogue Single Malt Ale this week. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I think it was mishandled in shipping. Two bottles in a row were gushers.)

But when I saw this story about a new beer in the works called New Crustacean, fermented with yeast harvested from the beard of Rogue Brewmaster John Maier, I had a pretty strong reaction. There isn’t one part of me that sees this as a good idea. (Hat tip to Heather Null for sending me the story.)

I’m all for experimentation, as long as good flavor is the ultimate goal. Brewing is not an abstract art; the point is to make beer that people will drink. Not that Rogue can’t make a perfectly drinkable beer with beard yeast, but just because something is drinkable doesn’t mean anyone will drink it. So I feel like this beer, at this time, is the wrong idea.

The ick factor doesn’t bother me. I realize they’re not throwing a sprig of John Maier’s hair into every batch. This is yeast propagation we’re talking about here. With the help of White Labs – a name in the brewing community that I trust implicitly – they’re isolating the yeast using science that I can’t begin to understand, and reproducing the strain under sterile conditions. So I’m not worried about the fact that “OMG beard yeast beer sounds gross!” and if anyone reading this is worrying about that, please don’t.

And I’m not worried about some mysterious X-factor in those microbes, either. We’re talking about a guy who’s worked in a brewery every day since 1989; there’s probably more beer yeast in that beard than there is in the air ducts at Rogue. He may even have hop bines in there for all I know. In fact, I’d be willing to put money on that beard yeast being at least 90% genetically equivalent to Rogue’s proprietary house beer strain, Pacman. Besides, we’re always told that nothing can live in beer that’s harmful to humans, and I’m pretty sure the biologists at White Labs know the difference between a viable strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and the Ebola virus. So whatever it is, it ain’t gonna kill us.

What bothers me is the message this sends to the non-craft-beer-drinking world. This is obviously a niche product. Few people are going to want to drink beer made with yeast from some dude’s beard, no matter how safe or sanitary it really is. I’m not just talking about the masses out there with their cans of industrial lager. Even craft beer lovers are going to be split on this idea. What Rogue is really telling the world with this gesture is that they’re catering to the extremists: the hardcore beer geeks with their T-shirts from nanobreweries you’ve never heard of, who brag about driving all the way to Russian River to get this year’s Pliny the Elder before it hits stores, all the while laughing over the rims of their pints at the craft beer neophyte at the end of the bar sipping on a 60-Minute IPA. The ones who always have to be more cutting edge than you about their beer habit and would slurp tripel from every goatee, vandyke and ZZ Top in Oregon to prove it. At best, Rogue’s beard beer is a stunt; at worst, it’s an exclusionary tactic executed with pomposity and self-aware irony.

Is that their right? Sure, but all brewers, commercial or hobbyist, are ambassadors of our craft. Anything that brings new beer lovers into the fold helps our craft along. And anything that alienates potential newcomers, or that portrays beer fans as snobs and weirdos, is bad for breweries’ business, and makes it harder for homebrewers to get friends on board. Why risk all that, why do it to the industry and the community, just for a publicity stunt and some bragging rights that no one really wants?

At the end of the day, they can do what they choose, and I can choose not to support it. But it does make me wonder at Rogue’s relevance in the modern craft beer industry if they have to grasp at stunts like this to keep moving. Maybe years ago, they were an unstoppable innovative force, but they’re not the only rogues on the block anymore: now we have Dogfish Head, Jolly Pumpkin, Mikkeller, and others who wow us every season with their originality and marketability … and don’t have to be, as that fabled beer peddler Moe Szyslak once said on The Simpsons about post-modern art, “weird for the sake of weird”.

Old Faithful: The Saga of JR 11/27

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

Except for one.

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

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

Sleeping beast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

... but strangely photogenic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bacillusferatu: the Undead Berliner Weisse

Part of the awesomeness of homebrewing is being able to drink a beer that you can’t buy. If you want to make a chocolate mint stout with a little bit of cardamom in it because it reminds you of your groom’s cake, you can. If you want to make a wheat ale inspired by the 13th-century Italian civil war between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, you can (I might). And if you hear about an obscure beer that people are enjoying in another part of the world, instead of shaking your fist at the heavens and cursing the wretched stars for the circumstances of your birth, you can just make the beer yourself.

In February 2011, I saw a vial of White Labs WLP630 Berliner Weisse Blend at my local homebrew shop. I’d read a lot about Berliner Weisse, a refreshing, low-alcohol sour wheat beer fermented with ale yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria. It sounded delicious, and apparently is available everywhere in Northern Germany, even hot dog carts (frankfurterwagens in the vernacular, I believe) and brothels. But it’s hard to come by on this side of the Atlantic. I was stoked to find the necessary yeast blend – all I needed now were some common malts and hops. “At last! You will be mine!” I shouted, and cackled as I slipped the vial containing the precious mix of microbes into my shopping basket.

Then I got home and started reading about brewing sour beers, which I had never done before. The first rule of Sour Club is you need to be very careful to avoid cross-contamination: that is, you don’t want the bacteria in the sour beer to infect equipment you use to make traditional “clean” beers that ferment with just yeast, because they can turn all your “clean” beers sour. Plastic equipment is very susceptible to cross-contamination, because plastic surfaces get tiny scratches over time that harbor bacteria. I use almost exclusively plastic (I’m clumsy, and would so drop a glass carboy filled with 5 gallons of beer), so for me this basically meant that I needed a whole new set of brewing gear. I panicked. I didn’t have the money to invest in a second set of equipment just to make a beer I wasn’t even sure I’d like. So I stuck the vial in the fridge and forgot about it.

The yeast blend expired in May 2011, but I held onto it for weeks. Weeks became months. Soon it was February, and for all I knew, 99% of the yeast blend was probably dead. It was only then, having become a man with nothing to lose, that I found my courage.

I decided to make a 1-gallon batch of Berliner Weisse, my rationale being:

  1. A new set of small batch gear was cheaper than a new set of 5-gallon gear.
  2. If most of the yeast blend was dead, I’d have better luck with a smaller volume of wort.
  3. I wasn’t sure how much Berliner Weisse I’d need around the house anyway.

I brewed it on March 3. The recipe was based on “Saures Biergesicht” from Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer’s Brewing Classic Styles, scaled for smaller volume but lower efficiency:

  • 1 lb Bohemian Pilsner malt
  • .75 lb White Wheat malt

I mashed at 149°F for 90 minutes in a pot on the stove; brew-in-a-bag, no sparge. I added .22 oz of Hallertau Saphir hops (4.2% AA) and boiled for 15 minutes. I transferred 5.5 quarts of wort with a gravity of 1.035 into a 2-gallon bucket I’d outfitted with a stopper and airlock. Then came the moment of truth: pitching the year-old yeast/lacto blend.

On account of the Teutonic heritage of the style and the unholy act of bringing microbes back from the dead, I named the brew “Bacillusferatu” after my second favorite German expressionist horror film (I plan to honor my favorite one soon with a pyment mead of buckwheat honey and Cab Sauv grape juice called “The Cabernet of Doctor Caligari”). But I never had much hope that my creation would live. Surely there was not enough magic left in that vial.

But man, was I wrong. It took a couple of days to get started, but it did. And it fermented wonderfully.

I racked Bacillusferatu into a small carboy 3 weeks later at gravity 1.006. Now it sleeps quietly, the bacteria continuing to ferment the beer and develop its characteristic tartness. In 6 months or so, it should be ready to emerge from its slumber and be unleashed upon the world …

the undead Berliner Weisse

"Is this your carboy? What a lovely neck."

I still have no idea how this beer will turn out. Right now it tastes good and funky, but with no tartness yet. But I have learned two important lessons from brewing it. #1 – As a homebrewer, I alone control my drinking destiny. #2 – Douglas Adams and Charlie Papazian were right. Don’t panic. Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew. To which I’d add: Never be afraid to try something new.