Let’s hear it for small victories!
This blog has been somewhat neglected for the last year, and in fact, the last several years. No, not neglected; just back-burnered, like a few quarts of extra wort run out from a mash tun into a saucepan to boil in case it’s needed for something, only to be forgotten until the brewer smells evaporated malt syrup burning on the stove seven hours later.
It’s been an adventure for me for the past few years, gradually adjusting, then unadjusting and readjusting to rapid changes in life. As I’ve continually tried to balance the demands of fatherhood, my career, the never-ending project that is my new house (it’s still “my new house” after two years, and I don’t see that changing soon) and now a podcast about the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, something had to fall by the wayside. That something was brewing, because it’s hard to set aside an entire day to brew a batch from all grain, and it’s hard to commit to dry hopping, kegging, and all the rest on schedule to make the best possible beer.
No brewing means no blogging about brewing, and because I don’t want to turn this blog into just a bunch of reviews on commercial beers I’m drinking, I haven’t had much to write about here. But that did change recently. (Woohoo!) I’m not quite certain that I’ve turned the corner and will be brewing regularly again, but it’s worth reporting that I’ve made some progress.
I just kegged for the first time in several months. Almost a year ago, I came up with two new recipes inspired by my family’s growing obsession with Walt Disney World, including a Star Wars-inspired black IPA with Galaxy and Mosaic hops. After months of thinking “By Yoda, that sounds good,” I carved out some time five weeks ago to pull the Grainfather out of the garage and brew the beer I’d been thinking about.
I’m proud (and a bit shocked) to say that I still seem to know what I’m doing. I had no major mishaps on brew day; the biggest speed bump was a half-hour delay caused by me forgetting where I had put away a couple of the many small metal and rubber bits that make up the Grainfather’s pump filter system. After I located them, it was smooth sailing. I missed my target OG by a few points (1.065 instead of my target 1.071) but I’ve never been one to get too upset by missing gravity targets. My FG was on target at 1.017, so I ended up with a more quaffable 6.3% ABV beer than the seven-percenter I was expecting. Even kegging went smoothly. It helped that I had a nice shiny new keg in a box with no leaks ready to receive the brew.
It was nice to have three beers on tap in my three-tap kegerator for about 24 hours. The following day, though, I emptied one of those three kegs, so I once again have an empty slot. Fortunately, I have a plan for that tap: the light, crisp honey wheat with floral East Kent Goldings hops I planned last year will be a wonderful beverage for spring in Texas. I hope to carve out time for another brew day for that recipe in early April.
But for now it’s back to fatherhood, work, and podcasting about Tolkien. So while this isn’t quite the story-ending “Well, I’m back,” of Sam Gamgee in the final chapter of The Return of the King, I can honestly quote Bilbo Baggins in the same chapter by saying, “And now I think I am quite ready to go on another journey.”1
Now if I can just find the time to clean all this equipment.
1 Quote taken from the book, not the Peter Jackson film.
My Hobbit-inspired Old Took’s Midwinter IPA is now in the keg. If it seems like that happened really quickly, it’s only because of how late I posted my blog post about the brew day. I fermented it for three weeks before dry hopping it for 6 days. All in all, it was about 4 weeks from mash tun to keg.
I dry hopped it with an ounce each of the same finishing hops I used in the boil, hoping to achieve a nice mix of floral and citrus aroma notes to round out the beer:
- 1 oz Willamette (4% AA)
- 1 oz Cascade (6.2% AA)
It’s been in the keg for less than a day, so it’s too early to know for sure how it’s going to turn out. It tastes good, and it’s got more hop character than it did a week ago. So I think it’s going to be good, but I’m a little concerned that this wasn’t my most successful attempt at dry hopping.
In the past, I’ve dry hopped with pellets either tied in a disposable loose-weave muslin bag, or tossed into the fermenter loose. I prefer loose over bagging if possible for maximum contact, but hop particles in the keg are a problem with more than about a half ounce of hop pellets. With 2 oz of loose pellets, I’d be serving up pints of hop debris for a month.
I didn’t have any muslin bags on hand, nor any time to go to Austin Homebrew Supply to buy any. Searching local retailers for a solution, I came across these spice bags at a kitchen store. They’re for chefs making bouquet garnis, but they are muslin (a tighter weave but still porous), and they are advertised as reusable. The biggest drawback I could see was that they were smaller than the bags I usually use, but since I got 4 in a pack I figured I’d use several.
When bagging dry hops – or when using a tea ball-type infuser, which is also popular – the size of the bag or ball is important. Hops shouldn’t be packed too tightly or else you reduce the surface area in contact with the liquid, which decreases the amount of hop goodness that gets into the beer. After sanitizing the bags with boiling water, I split up my 2 oz of hops into 3 bags along with sanitized marbles for ballast. Two thirds of an ounce per bag seemed to provide lots of breathing room, although I knew the hops would expand a little.
I didn’t count on just how much they would expand.
After I racked the beer into the keg, I found my 3 muslin spice bags at the bottom of the fermenter. The hops had expanded so much the bags looked about to burst, like overstuffed pillows. I didn’t worry about it too much until I was cleaning the bags out, in the hopes of maybe reusing them someday. As I emptied the bags into the kitchen sink, I inhaled deeply, smelling the rich, floral-citrus bouquet coming from the green sludge washing down the drain.
And then it hit me: that’s hop aroma going down the drain. Not in my beer.
The hops expanded so much in those small bags that they ended up packed too tightly. Some of the available hop compounds got into the beer, but not all. So the beer is better than it was, but not as good as it could have been. Should have been. And I’m left feeling disappointed at the waste. A spontaneous decision potentially compromised the end result, and that’s going to bother me until I taste the chilled, carbonated beer and know for sure.
If only I had just used my usual bags! Or something else – anything else!
I should breathe deep and repeat the mantra of Charlie Papazian: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. Even if the IPA isn’t perfect, I haven’t ruined it. It’s far from the worst disaster ever to befall a homebrewer, and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve faced. Yes, it was avoidable and it’s annoying, but the beer will be fine.
Then from the back of my brain comes a nagging: Is “fine” really good enough?
It’s not beyond repair. I can still add more dry hops to the keg, if needed. And I probably will. But I’ve learned my lesson. I’m sure I’ll find many other uses for these spice bags in the brewery, such as infusing dry herbs that won’t expand. But I don’t think I’ll be bagging dry hops in anything smaller than a nylon stocking in the future.
I have an ever-growing collection of 22 oz and 750 ml bottles of beer cellaring in the Harry Potter closet. I save them for interesting meal pairings or other special occasions (which includes “another Sunday”). So December – a time of parties, good meals, multiple Christmas celebrations and the new year – is a perfect time to catch up on the cellar back stock. By which I mean drink them, of course.
It’s also when a lot of breweries release special beers, so I’ve found a few to fill the empty spaces in my cellar as I drink them up. Here’s a quick review of some recent bombers I’ve tasted and bought, and a preview of what I’m uncapping next.
This past Saturday, I opened a Stone Enjoy By 12.21.12 IPA. The occasion? Nothing more than resting up after seeing The Hobbit twice on Friday, and a December evening warm enough to put some filet mignons on the backyard grill. Steak and IPA aren’t two things I pair often, especially not when the steak is seasoned boldly (I used some coffee-chipotle rub left over from Thanksgiving), but time was running out on this time bomb of a bomber. The spicy beef and spicy beer matched better than I expected. The beer was light in color, with less melanoidin flavor than I usually want from an IPA, but I didn’t mind the hops overtaking the light malt profile. It was fresh, grassy, floral and spicy. Like a morning stroll through an English garden in spring. With a steak.
Then on Sunday, my wife Lisa and I had an early “Christmas” dinner: leg of lamb with garlic, lemon and herbs, which I paired with a bottle of Boulevard Collaboration No. 3 – Stingo that I’ve had for several months. Not knowing anything about “stingo” – a strong English style – except what was on the label, I expected deep malt and spice with a hint of sour tartness. I thought it would be a natural pairing for lamb with a little tangy mint sauce, but I was disappointed. There was some malt roastiness and a tang on the finish, but nothing in between. Not enough malt backbone, not enough depth, and not enough sourness to be pleasant. I had a lot of trouble finishing it, and that’s the first time I can say that about a Boulevard beer. Realizing it had been in storage for a while, I checked the date on the label, and it wasn’t out of date. Just not my thing, I guess.
Speaking of not living to see spring, this Friday night (December 21) I’ll open a bottle of Dogfish Head Theobroma in honor of the winter solstice and the end of the Mayan calendar. Since “theobroma” (a.k.a. cacao) is the food of the gods, this should be an excellent way to gain favor with Bolon Yokte K’uh, the Mayan god of war and creation who might be coming to destroy us all. If he is not amused and punishes me for my insolence – or if, more likely, he forgets to show up and the world continues to turn – at least I’ll be enjoying one of my favorite beers.
Saturday morning, assuming we’re alive and not already on the Dark Rift road to the Mayan underworld Xibalba, we drive to New Orleans to spend Christmas with our families there. I’m bringing a couple of bottles of Samuel Adams Norse Legend Sahti for Christmas Day. I haven’t tried it yet, but it should be something interesting to introduce to non-beer geeks in the family. The label might even open up some geeky discussion about Norse mythology, which I recommend highly as an excellent conversation topic, especially over grandmother’s Christmas lasagna.
Then there’s a bottle of Samichlaus Bier Helles which won’t see any action until New Year’s Eve. January 1 is Lisa’s birthday, and this year she can’t drink to celebrate thanks to our bouncing, kicking bun in the oven. So we’re having a small celebration at home starting on New Year’s Eve. Samichlaus, a rare Helles bock brewed only once each year by Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg in Austria, will be a fitting send-off to 2012: a very special beer for a very good year.
I’ve written before about keeping it simple in homebrew recipes. Today I’m doing the opposite. I’m sharing a recipe with a lot of bits and pieces, but for a good reason.
Over the course of 2012, I accumulated several open packages of leftover hop pellets. Hops begin degrading as soon as they are opened and exposed to air, and although this degradation can be slowed by storing them frozen in a Ziploc or vacuum-seal bag, that won’t preserve them indefinitely. It’s recommended to use open hops within about 6 months, after which they start to lose their bittering potential day by day as the alpha acids break down.
Of course, it’s not an all-or-nothing deal: it’s not like they’re perfectly okay to use on day 180 and then bad on day 181. As long as they don’t smell funny – like cheese or feet – hops older than 6 months can be used, but the alpha acid degradation (i.e., decreased bitterness) should be taken into consideration for recipe balance and IBU calculation. Fortunately, many brewing programs – like my favorite, BeerSmith – have tools for calculating the effective alpha acid potency of old hops.
So I spent an evening sampling old hops to see how they were holding up, and was surprised to find that the oldest hops in the freezer weren’t the worst ones. For instance, some Saaz and Citra open since 2011 were perfectly fine, but a packet of Warrior from February 2012 was thoroughly becheesed. I separated the good from the cheesy and used BeerSmith to calculate the adjusted AA of the good hops so I could use as many of them as possible in a winter IPA. In homage to new The Hobbit movie coming out this week, I called it Old Took’s Midwinter IPA after Bilbo Baggins’ maternal grandfather, whose memory inspired Bilbo to embrace his adventurous side.
I brewed it on Black Friday in the company of my visiting male family while the ladies were at the outlet mall, which seemed like a great way to show my British brother-in-law (a pub operator who knows a thing or two about a good pint) how we do IPA here in the States.
The grain bill is below. I mashed at 152°F for an hour:
- 12 lbs 2-row malt
- 1.5 lb Munich malt
- 1 lb Victory malt
- 8 oz Crystal 40L
- 8 oz Crystal 60L
- 8 oz Rice Hulls (for efficiency & sparging)
But who am I kidding? The hops are what we’re really interested in here. First up, the oldies but goodies. I’ve noted both the original AA of all the hops below and the adjusted AA, based on BeerSmith’s calculations:
- 0.25 oz Nugget (12.4% orig AA, 11.4% adj AA) for 60 min
- 0.5 oz Saaz (3% orig AA, 1.84% adj AA) for 60 min
- 0.5 oz Falconer’s Flight (11.4% orig AA, 10.4% adj AA) for 45 min
- 0.5 oz Citra (13.6% orig AA, 11.73% adj AA) for 45 min
That was it for the old hops, and I kept them near the beginning of the boil. The reason being that if there were anything unpleasant about them after all this time, it was better to use them early on for bittering, instead of later in the boil when hops contribute more flavor and aroma. Based on my smell/taste tests, it probably would have been fine, but I didn’t want to take the chance.
I also used some fresh hops, mostly (but not all) after the 45-minute mark:
- 0.5 oz Warrior (16% AA) for 60 min
- 0.25 oz Cascade (6.2% AA) for 30 min
- 0.25 oz Willamette (4% AA) for 30 min
- 0.25 oz Cascade (6.2% AA) for 15 min
- 0.25 oz Willamette (4% AA) for 15 min
- 0.25 oz Cascade (6.2% AA) for 5 min
- 0.25 oz Willamette (4% AA) for 5 min
- 0.25 oz Cascade (6.2% AA) at flameout
- 0.25 oz Willamette (4% AA) at flameout
Measured and organized into each addition, all those hops made a pretty picture on my kitchen island:
The OG was 1.070 and I pitched 15.1 grams of rehydrated Safale US-05 yeast. I set the fermentation chamber to an ambient temperature of 63-66°F and it took off like a rocket within about 12 hours. It fermented very actively for about 8 days before settling down, and once I take gravity readings to ensure fermentation is done, I’ll add more Cascade and Willamette dry hops later this week.
If I had any doubts lingering in the back of my mind about using old hops, they were put to rest when I tasted the wort sample I took for my OG reading. It was sweet and biscuity, with a burst of multicolored floral/herbal bitterness, complex and layered as one might expect from so many hops. Tasting how much life was still left in those old hops, I was reminded of the last line spoken by old Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s film of The Return of the King when, aged and frail but still spirited, he looked out over the sea to the west and said, “I think I’m quite ready for another adventure.”