Tag Archive | Sam Calagione

Cultivating bottle dregs

UPDATE NOTE: This post describes a failed attempt at cultivating bottle dregs. If you’ve found this page looking for information on how to cultivate bottle dregs for pitching into beer wort, thank you for reading but please do not follow my process below. It didn’t work for me, as you can read in my follow-up here.

After deciding to brew a Bronze Age-inspired fig beer, I quickly went to work on the recipe in the hopes of brewing it on Monday (which I have off from my day job). It’ll be a 1-gallon experiment batch, with 2-row barley and rauch malt for that Bronze Age kiln-smoked flavor. Bitter orange peel will feature as a flavoring, and I haven’t decided yet whether it’ll have minimal hops or none. Honey and figs will round out the flavor and provide additional fermentable sugar. For yeast, I plan to cultivate a 2-step starter from the dregs in a bottle of Dogfish Head Midas Touch.

I’ve never cultivated a starter from bottle dregs before. Why now, and why Midas Touch? One usually hears about brewers cultivating dregs from sour beers like Orval to harvest the unique blend of Brett and bacteria strains that make those beers special, as described in this blog entry from TheMadFermentationist.com. But it should work with clean Saccharomyces as well.

I’m not sure what kind of yeast is used to ferment Midas Touch, though clone recipes online call for Trappist ale strains. I don’t even know if the yeast Dogfish Head bottles Midas Touch on is the same as the yeast that ferments it – many breweries use different yeasts for bottle conditioning. So my decision to use Midas Touch dregs was less about capturing a particular unique yeast than it was about superstition.

wpid-Photo-Jan-14-2013-829-PM.jpg

9 out of 10 prehistoric shamans agree: Consume your totem’s essence to gain its power.

Midas Touch is one of Dogfish Head’s “ancient ales” and is based on chemical analysis of bronze vessels found in Gordion in Central Turkey – roughly the same part of the world as Cyprus, where my fig beer has its inspirational roots. I thought the dregs might be a good luck charm for my first foray into ancient brewing: a little piece of the magic from Sam Calagione and Dr. Patrick McGovern, two of the high priests of modern ancient ale reproduction. But really, the main reason I did it was because it sounded like fun and I’ve never done it before.

I made a first-step starter wort of 200 milliliters to bring the bottle yeast back from the dead. When that ferments out, I’ll “step it up” to a second starter of 500 mL. For a full 5-gallon batch I’d continue stepping up to 2 liters, but for a 1-gallon batch, 500 mL should suffice.

I scaled down my usual starter process as well as I could, realizing it’s okay if some the math isn’t exact in a wild-shot experiment. I dissolved 15 grams of extra light dry malt extract in 200 mL of boiling water. Usually I use 1 gram per 10 milliliters, but I’m hoping the lower OG starter will give a little advantage to sleepy yeast.

I also added 3/32 of a teaspoon of yeast nutrient. While that sounds like a strange fraction to use, it’s simply one each of the “pinch” and “smidgen” measuring spoons (or 3 “smidgens”) available at specialty kitchen stores. Those little spoons aren’t all that useful on a day-to-day basis, but I keep them around just for tiny measurements like this. For the record, an exact scaling of my usual 1/2 teaspoon nutrient per liter of starter would have been 1/10 teaspoon.

It was almost too small to boil on the stovetop.

It was almost too small to boil on the stovetop.

5 minutes of boiling reduced the starter volume more than expected, so after I cooled it and transferred to a sanitized pint glass, I topped off with pre-boiled water and chilled in the freezer to an acceptable pitching temperature of 84°F. I roused the yeast in the last half-inch of a bottle of Midas Touch (which I had already poured into a glass and was drinking) and pitched it.

Ready for the stir plate.

Ready for the stir plate.

As of today, there’s no visible sign of fermentation in the starter, but there is a pleasant boozy smell coming from the glass. There’s no telling how few viable yeast cells were in that bottle, but even a few cells should reproduce given time.

We’ll see how it shakes out by Monday. I never do anything too crazy without a safety net, so I have a packet of Fermentis Safbrew T-58 – a spicy Belgian yeast strain with reported clove notes, which should go well with honey, fig and smoke – on hand just in case I don’t get a usable starter. But that’s Plan B.

Here’s hoping the Bronze Age beer gods smile on my undertaking.

Gluten Tag

The May/June 2012 issue of Zymurgy magazine includes an article entitled “Secrets of Gluten-Free Brewing”, by BellaOnline beer and brewing editor, Carolyn Smagalski. In it, she gives tips to homebrewers on ingredients for true gluten-free beers, and reports on gluten-free offerings from a number of commercial breweries including Strange Brewing Company in Denver and Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia. Even Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, ever the zymurgic Rick O’Connell, has adventurously entered the gluten-free ring with Tweason’ale, a champagne-like beer with sorghum, buckwheat honey, molasses, and strawberries.

It’s a great article, and interesting because I’ve always been curious about gluten-free brewing. First of all, I must stress that I am not a physician, nor am I an expert on gluten, gluten-free brewing, or food allergies and I cannot attest to the safety of any ingredient mentioned in this article. Please check with your physician before brewing or drinking a beer made with any ingredient mentioned here.

I don’t suffer from celiac disease, wheat allergies or any other kind of gluten intolerance. But I have friends who do, and I know it must be hard. What if my doctor ever told me I couldn’t drink beer anymore? What would I do? I could always put more energy into cider and mead, but beer is really my passion as a zyme lord. So my empathy glands pulsate to make good beer my gluten-free friends can drink, even though none have asked.

(Let’s ignore the question of “What if my doctor ever told me I couldn’t drink any alcohol anymore?” … but the answer, sadly, is: “Fetch the razor blades while I run the bathwater,” because to quote the immortal Buddy Holly, that’ll be the day when I die.)

Because gluten is present in most common grains, the key to gluten-free brewing is finding alternative sources of fermentable sugar. Barley, wheat, rye, oats and even spelt are off the table. But sorghum, buckwheat, corn, rice, millet, and quinoa are recommended alternatives. These grains may not yield as much sugar as brewers are used to, so it’s common to add other fermentables as well, such as honey or corn syrup. Hops are gluten-free, but yeast should be carefully selected, since most of them are grown in traditional barley wort (Lallemand’s Danstar beer yeast and Lalvin wine yeast product lines are listed by Smagalski as gluten-free, being grown in potato starch).

While sorghum has been used in gluten-free beers for years now, it’s notorious for being kinda … well, awful. I’ve never had one, but I’ve also never heard of anyone drinking a sorghum beer by choice. But other grains Smagalski listed were inspirations to me. I eat quinoa about twice a week, and would love to try it in beer. I don’t know much about buckwheat, but have been thinking about buckwheat honey in a mead: why not a gluten-free braggot of buckwheat and buckwheat honey?

There’s also a recipe for a chestnut beer in the article. Apparently chestnut starch can be converted to sugar, but must be “mashed” for 12 hours with added amylase enzyme powder – they don’t have enough diastatic power on their own. 12 hours is a long mash to start a brew day, but this might be a worth while experiment. Even without a specific need in my household for gluten-free beer, I smell a possible holiday brew in the cards. “Chestnuts Steeping in an Open Mash Tun Holiday Ale”? It’s catchy.

Anyone out there brewing gluten-free beers? I’d love to hear from  you, as this is something I really want to explore. Who’s up for an adventure?

Old Favorites and New at the 2012 Off-Centered Film Fest

This weekend saw the annual return of Dogfish Head Brewery’s Sam Calagione to Austin for the fifth anniversary of the Off-Centered Film Fest, a three-day celebration of craft beer and film in partnership with the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. This year’s programming was all western-themed, and I attended two of the four events: Thursday’s Blazing Saddles Quote-Along Beer Party Rolling Roadshow, and Friday’s Once Upon a Time in the West Dogfish Head Beer Feast.

On Thursday, attendees gathered at Republic Square Park downtown to watch Mel Brooks’ classic western spoof Blazing Saddles outdoors on a giant portable screen. Cap guns were handed out and free beans were provided by the bowlful. The audience was encouraged (nay, compelled) to shout their favorite lines as they were spoken on screen. Most importantly, though, over a dozen area breweries (and Dogfish Head) set up booths and iced down the jockey boxes to let us sample some of the rarest brews the Central Texas craft beer scene has to offer (complete list here). The pours were $3 each, and not huge; but proceeds benefited the Texas Craft Brewers Guild and frankly, most of the beers were in the 8-12% ABV range, so no one complained. I tasted seven, and five stood out as being truly fantastic:

  • Jester King Craft Brewery/Mikkeller Beer Geek Rodeo
  • South Austin Brewing Saison D’Austin
  • Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling Strawberry Milk Stout
  • Thirsty Planet Brewing Jittery Monk Smoked Coffee Dubbel
  • Real Ale Brewing WT3F Mysterium Verum

As for the movie, well, it’s Blazing frickin’ Saddles. To say that I’m a fan is like saying Bismarck is a herring. It’s like saying William J. LePetomane has questionable acumen as a governor. It’s one of the most often quoted movies in this house, and ranks just behind the original Star Wars trilogy and just ahead of the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the number of times we’ve purchased it (once on VHS, twice on DVD, and twice on Blu-Ray). To see it again on the big screen while quoting along, shooting caps at the screen, and sampling exciting new local beers was a fun twist on an old favorite, and a heady rush. (That’s Hedley!)

The new experience and the old were reversed on Friday, when I went to the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar to see a film I hadn’t seen before while drinking some familiar (but spectacular) beers. The film was Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West, and was accompanied by a six-course Italian meal prepared by Alamo Executive Chef John Bullington and a paired flight of eight Dogfish Head beers selected by Sam Calagione (full menu here). The food was absolutely delicious, as I’ve come to expect from Alamo feasts. And although I had tasted most of the beers before – or at least previous years’ versions of them – many of Delaware-based Dogfish Head’s top-shelf offerings are hard to come by in Texas, so I always welcome a chance to drink them again.

Ta Henket is a recent favorite of mine in Dogfish Head’s catalog, and I hope it sticks around. Bitches Brew is a thing of beauty, and I was thrilled to get my hand on only my third glass of it since it came out in 2010. But my favorite beers of the night were two I hadn’t tried before: the 2010 Olde School Barley Wine, and a barrel-aged 2010 Burton Baton. Burton Baton is a perennial seasonal offering, but this version of it had a funky Brett-like character that surprised and really impressed me. I asked Sam during the Q&A session whether they had intentionally exposed the beer to any wild bugs during fermentation; no, he said, but he noticed and liked the wild character as well, and pointed out that these kinds of unpredictable results are common when barrel aging due to microbes residing in the porous wood. Intentional or not, I’d love to see more of this kind of thing from Dogfish Head, and will drive my happy ass all the way to Delaware if I have to.

Meanwhile, the Olde School Barley Wine was my favorite pairing of the night, with cured duck breast, fig and gorgonzola on a pinenut crisp with balsamic vinaigrette. My favorite dish on its own was the lamb meatballs and gnocchi served with a delicious but not quite as perfectly paired 2011 Immort Ale.

The Leone film was incredible, and I learned why friends have been telling me to watch it. It’s joined the short list of films I’ve seen that are very near perfect. From the beautiful composition to the sparse but perfectly sufficient dialogue to the haunting score by Ennio Morricone, not to mention excellent performances by Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards and a chilling Henry Fonda, Once Upon a Time in the West is an absolute must-see for anyone who loves, or wants to learn to love, the western genre.

Although I missed out on the Fest’s other two events, I enjoyed the ones I made it to and look forward to next year. Here’s hoping that Dogfish Head and the Alamo Drafthouse continue their collaboration. It’s a great time for anyone who loves good beer, great food, or awesome films … and for someone like me who loves all three, it’s yet another reason to be glad to be in Austin.