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:
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.
Fiesta Gardens in East Austin was the hoppiest place in town on October 6 as about two dozen breweries from all over Texas gathered for the annual Texas Craft Brewers Festival, sponsored by the Young Men’s Business League of Austin. Featuring over 115 beers, the event promised to be a carnival of discovery. I walked through the gates holding my tasting glass eagerly, like an explorer taking his first steps on a newly discovered shore with a trusty saber in hand.
The format was a familiar one: a booth from each brewery in attendance (arranged in alphabetical order, wow) offering pours of their most popular and/or most interesting beers. $20 bought admission, a 4 oz. plastic tasting glass and six tickets, with additional tickets available for purchase at two for $3. Most of the pours cost one ticket, with some of the rarer/higher-gravity offerings going for two.
I sprung for the $65 VIP pass. It didn’t come with any additional tickets (bummer), but I did get a T-shirt and imperial pint glass along with noon entry, two hours before everyone else. The early entry was worth it, because the place got nuts at 2:00 when the gates opened to general admission. VIP’s also got a “meet-and-greet” round robin tasting in the main pavilion from 1:00 to 2:00. Brewers and brewery representatives walked around the pavilion with pitchers, pouring samples and answering questions.
I love talking to brewers who have a real passion for brewing. The ones who are visibly energized by talking to kindred spirits. The ones whose eyes light up when asked why they chose one yeast strain over another, or who get excited when you taste something subtle in the beer that they were specifically trying for. They’re the stewards of our community, the true shamans of our tribal craft brew culture. I’d especially like to thank Jeff Stuffings of Jester King Craft Brewery, Diane Rogness of Rogness Brewing Company, Jud Mulherin of Circle Brewing Company and Grant Wood of Revolver Brewing Company for stopping for a few minutes on a busy day to talk to me – one of many admirers clamoring for their time – about their ingredients, their craft, and why they do what they do.
The beers themselves presented a fascinating snapshot of where Texas craft brew is today. Several things became apparent over the course of the day:
- Sour beer no longer a thing? The event website boasted “at least four sours”. That’s a much smaller number than I would have predicted a year ago, when sours were seemingly the next big wave in craft brewing. But now it seems Texas brewers are looking elsewhere for innovation. Real Ale Scots Gone Wild and Austin Beerworks Einhorn Berliner Weisse were on tap along with some sours from Jester King, but I didn’t see anything on the menu that I hadn’t tried before. I made a beeline to the Jester King booth for what I thought was a new sour – the Viking-inspired Gotlandsdricka – and got a surprise. Jeff Stuffings informed me his Gotlandsdricka was intended to be a modern interpretation, not a historically accurate recreation of the ancient ale, and was clean-fermented with just Saccharomyces cerevisiae. I’m a sucker for anything Nordic, and I liked it a lot, but I’m still curious to taste the sour version they may release in a few months.
- Flavorings are where it’s at. For a region so rich in German heritage, Texas brewers sure don’t know the meaning of Reinheitsgebot. Spices and fruits abounded. Rogness OST Porter with coffee and coconut and Yogi Amber with chai spice, Thirsty Planet ChiGoatle Amber with peppers, Revolver Blood & Honey Wheat with blood orange zest and spices, and Jester King Gotlandsdricka with sweet gale and juniper all made impressions on me. Even Reinheitsgebot champions Circle Brewing have jumped into the flavor fray with Smokin’ Beech, a refreshing Rauchbier with a bacony character from malt beechwood-smoked according to a traditional Bamberg process that Jud Mulherin described to me in reverent detail.
- Tea is the new coffee. Coffee porters and stouts remain popular, but Texas brewers are starting to notice coffee’s hot stepsister from across the ocean, with very different takes on the concept. Live Oak poured an Oaktoberfest infused with lapsang souchong China black tea, lending a vegetal smokiness tailored for slow sipping. Jester King poured their kombucha farmhouse ale Buddha’s Brew. Rogness Yogi Amber doesn’t actually have tea in it, but recreates the experience of chai tea in an amber beer with chai spices and unfermentable sugars. Diane Rogness called Yogi “her baby”, and she should be proud of it. I enjoyed drinking it and have thought about it a lot since Saturday.
- Dallas-Fort Worth is growing. Lakewood Brewing and Revolver Brewing are two names from the Metroplex that seem to have made their Austin debut at the event, alongside DFW stalwarts Deep Ellum and Southern Star. I didn’t get a chance to try Lakewood (sorry!) but Revolver’s Blood & Honey Wheat is a surprisingly complex lawnmower beer with blood orange zest and savory spices. Head brewer Grant Wood invited me to guess which spices he used. I guessed incorrectly, and when I pressed him for the correct answer, he said smiling, “We’ve gotta have some secrets.” Touché.
Finally, the day brought great news to the mead lover in me. I had a chance to speak to Eric Lowe of Meridian Hive Meadery, a new Austin company getting their brewhouse (meadhouse?) assembled currently, and who will hopefully be releasing their first meads in early 2013. There’s a mead gap in Austin, and I welcome them with open arms and a thirsty palate.
Photos of the event are below (including one of your friend and humble narrator in a yellow shirt), courtesy of Roy Moore and Control Images. Thanks to the YMBL and all who made the event what it was.
On a beautiful, cool Saturday afternoon wedged between days of thunderstorms, Jester King Craft Brewery released their new Buddha’s Brew ale during their weekly open house. Beer hipsters (and garden variety hipsters) descended on the brewery for a turnout that scuttlebutt suggests was the biggest the brewery has ever seen on a “non-event” Saturday.
The new ale is a collaboration between Jester King and Austin kombucha company Buddha’s Brew. It’s Jester King’s first beer fermented entirely in oak. The wheat ale wort was pitched with bacteria and fermented in the barrel, then aged for nine months before blending it with Buddha’s Brew Classic Flavor Kombucha. Buddha’s Brew was also on location Saturday giving out free kombucha by the sample and cup. I’ve been a fan of their kombucha for years, so I was excited about the collaboration.
I haven’t been to Jester King in several months, so I was surprised to find a new system in place for the beer tasting. In the old system, $10 bought you a tulip glass and three full pours of whatever you wanted. Now, for $10 you get a card listing the day’s menu with a check box next to each of the 7 beers available:
The bartenders poured 5.5 oz of whatever you ordered and marked the box next to it on the card. If you tried them all, it would equate to a little over two pints of beer and a keepsake glass for $10. So it’s not the steal it used to be, but it’s still a great value, especially if you can get there early enough to go back through the (very long) line 7 times during the 3-hour window they’re open. Even though this new system effectively raises the price per ounce over the previous system, it encourages beer flights instead of pounding pints as quickly as possible. The limited-release selections du jour are thus available to more attendees, and fewer frat boys are stumbling around drunk from too many Black Metals. I’m not sure if the new system was just for this event or if this is how they do it every week now, but I’m a fan of it in theory … if they can get the line moving a little faster.
I started with Buddha’s Brew, the hot new starlet on the set. It was straw-colored with little head and smelled like a Berliner Weisse: lactic, light and wheaty, though I was hoping for more fruitiness on the nose. It tasted like a Berliner Weisse too. Tart, refreshing and wheaty with some vinegar notes and a pleasant mouth-puckering tartness. My only complaint was that it was less complex than I expected. The kombucha didn’t add much flavor; no fruitiness, no earthiness. Nor any oakiness or vanilla from the barrel aging. It could have been any sour wheat ale, albeit a well-made one. Note that I would gladly drink it again if there weren’t more interesting beers available.
My third pour was Mad Meg, an organic bière de provision – a high-alcohol continental style intended for extended aging. At 9.6% ABV, it was a step up from my earlier tastings but smooth enough not to be a shock. It poured a handsome red-orange I attribute to Cara-Munich malt, but I enjoyed thinking of it as an “albino amber”. The aroma was mouth-watering: floral hops and a rich mandarin-like citrus with noticeable alcohol. The flavor didn’t disappoint, either, delivering piney hop bitterness at the start and boozy, bready malt on the finish with no alcohol burn. It was smooth and brilliantly balanced, easy to drink on a fall afternoon or warm enough for a cool night.
I made my way through the tastings leisurely and only got three in my 90 minutes there, but it was well worth the price of admission. Between beers I cleansed my palate with lots of free kombucha from the Buddha’s Brew tent (thanks!). Peach and Pineapple-Super Greens flavors were on tap and delicious.
I left happy (alcohol + probiotics, mmm mmm good!) and inspired. I’ve been thinking about homebrewing kombucha for a long time, and I might start soon using some Buddha’s Brew dregs to culture a starter SCOBY. Someday I actually hope to have draft kombucha in the kegerator for those non-beer occasions. I’m not sure I’ll ever use it in a beer myself, but who knows? And I toast Jester King for their innovation. After all, that’s what supporting local business is all about.
Close on the heels of the recent battle with my kegerator over the pressure of my kegs (which I’m happy to report has been stable at 8 PSI since my last post), I saw an article shared on Facebook dealing with storing and dispensing draft beer. The article, written by Julia Herz and published on craftbeer.com back in January, is here:
Ostensibly a “cheat sheet” for craft beer retailers to teach them to properly store, dispense and serve craft beer consistent with the demands of an ever-more-knowledgeable clientele of brew enthusiasts, it’s still great information for a homebrewer to have. Especially one who’s kegging and serving their homebrew on draft.
It’s also timely advice for a lot of Central Texas taprooms, now that we’re in the hottest month of the summer. Many bars here are used to serving tall frothy helpings of pee-colored American lager in frozen mugs to guys coming in off the hot asphalt and looking for something cold, wet and flavorless to slake their thirst … not knowing better, many of them assume colder is better and serve craft beer in frozen mugs too.
Frozen glasses are never right for craft beer. Never. Seriously. They numb the tongue and desensitize the tastebuds. Next time you’re at a pub and you order a glass of some rare new offering from Belgium or California or Rehoboth Beach at $9 for 12 ounces, and your bartender brings it to you in a frozen glass: send it back.
I don’t care how hot it is outside. You paid premium for that beer. You deserve to taste it. And you should tell them so. Otherwise, how are they ever gonna learn?
The one thing in this article I don’t fully agree with is the assertion that all bottled and kegged beers should be kept refrigerated. For bars and pubs, maybe. They need to turn out the freshest product possible. But taken out of context and at face value, this “rule” can be interpreted too broadly.
Case in point: high-end bombers sold in groceries and liquor stores. Many beers sold in 750 ml bombers benefit from long-term storage before drinking. Brett ferments and wild ales, barrel-aged and oaked stouts/porters, barley wines, and Belgian abbey-style ales all develop interesting flavor characteristics when cellared correctly (read: cool – but not cold – and dark) for several months or more. The natural microbe and oxygen reactions that develop these flavors don’t happen at refrigerator temperatures.
But too many stores selling bombers are keeping them refrigerated, presumably in an attempt to keep these high-ticket items fresher (and sellable) longer. The problem for those of us who want to age them is that unpasteurized beers don’t respond well to going from room temp, to fridge temp, to cellar temp. It won’t turn them instantly to cat piss, but it’s not recommended. A bomber that’s been refrigerated at the store has effectively had its long-term aging potential reduced – even if you slowly raise the temperature and cellar it, it’s not going to have the shelf stability it would have had otherwise. I won’t buy refrigerated bombers unless I plan to drink them soon, and I’ve been politely informing the staff at a high-end grocery store in my neighborhood of this for several weeks. I’m sure I’m not the only one fighting this fight, and I’d hate to see this cheat sheet work against our efforts if misinterpreted.
But aside from this small split in our ideologies, I think it’s full of great information, and I hope you will too. Read, learn and enjoy. Prosit.
We left off at …
Fourth Course: Scots Gone Wild Sour Real Heavy with venison liver mousse, black pepper cherry jam, arugula, country levain – The first three courses were all paired with beers made from the same Lost Gold IPA wort. The first new wort in the lineup was a single-barrel wild fermented Scotch ale. It was good, with floral and dark berry notes on the nose and a murky chocolatey red-brown color. It was tart and astringent, very refreshing and great for summer, and paired well with the very rich venison liver mousse. I love venison, though I'm not a fan of organ meat, and a quick glance around the room told me I wasn't the only one outside of my comfort zone. But with a little faith in the chef, I tucked in with an open mind, and I'm glad I did. A bite of the liver mousse spread on the levain bread with a chaser of the sour Scotch ale was fantastic, but the portion was big. I finished mine, but I saw a lot of unemptied plates.
Fifth Course: Highlander Barrel-Aged Real Heavy with bone marrow, blood sausage, herb salad, fougasse – Before this next dish came out, the servers brought out an enormous pretzel-like bread (the fougasse, I believe). It was delicious, but there was no way the two of us at our table could fit more than a few bites in. The beer, also made from the Real Heavy wort above but aged in red wine barrels, was my least favorite of the night. It had little aroma and a bitter, medicinal flavor. After so much good beer and good food, it was a minor letdown. As for the food, this was my first time eating bone marrow, and it wasn't bad, but I preferred the blood sausage. The herb salad was very sparsely dressed, well-balanced to the strong, earthy flavors of the protein on the plate.
Sixth Course: Vol. 15 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout with bitter orange bread pudding, caramelized honey, figs, walnuts – Yep, you read right: Easy Tiger worked bread into the dessert as well (bravo, maestros). By this point, I was stuffed, but I finished this tasty and surprisingly light bread pudding. The beer hit all the notes one expects from a RIS, though my (perhaps desensitized) taste buds didn't taste much barrel character in the stout. And the stout may have gone better with a chocolate cake than with such a light bread pudding. After everything else, I couldn't finish the beer, and I wasn't the only one. I hate to waste, but there's only so much one can consume in an evening.
So there you have it: a delicious dinner and a great beer flight. Easy Tiger and Real Ale truly went all out with each of their contributions and made a good team. The plating portions and the beer pours were impressive, and a great deal for $55 a head. On the other hand, smaller portions would likely have kept the appetites in the room going longer. Maybe even long enough for the less adventurous folks in the room to embrace those organ meats on the later plates.
But hey, Easy Tiger is learning as they go … and I recognize that “The portions were too big at my six-course gourmet microbrew dinner!” is totally a first-world complaint. So I'm not complaining at all. It's just an observation, and maybe will raise some awareness that could eliminate waste in the future.
As for Real Ale, I'd say they showed Austin that this now-old-standby in the local beer community still has some surprises up its sleeve. But they are bigger than the upstarts; and bigger, for a commercial brewery, means bigger risk. Smaller breweries can brew a small experimental batch and eat the cost of having to dump it if necessary, but a brewery the size of Real Ale takes a huge financial hit if they make a 60-barrel batch of something that turns out undrinkable. The trick of fermenting 3 different worts 6 different ways seems a good way for a brewery that size to experiment: if one of the beers turns out bad, there's still barrels and barrels of another beer they made from that wort they can still sell. Is that as exciting as the reckless abandon of a smaller brewery? Well, no … but it still can turn out a bunch of damn good beers, as Real Ale proved.
So thanks to Easy Tiger and Real Ale for a great night that left me happily stuffed and happily buzzed. I'm looking forward to the next one. Prosit.
Easy Tiger opened earlier this year on East Sixth Street, promising fresh baked-in-house breads, ample taps, and a menu that goes beyond pizza, all just down the street from the chickenpox of dive bars and music venues that dot the sidewalks of what the kids call “Dirty Sixth”. This was Easy Tiger’s first beer dinner, and it showed – mainly through oversized portions; a good problem, really – but the dishes were tasty and the pairings on the mark.
It would’ve been hard to imagine it when I first moved to Austin, but Real Ale is now the big kid on the block in Central Texas craft brew. With every new brewery that sets up shop in the region, Real Ale becomes more and more the elder statesman, and they’ve been accused of letting themselves go stale, of not pushing the envelope. (Aside from their flagship ale Firemans #4, most of their beers fall firmly in the American-British spectrum of bitter/pale ales: an APA, a rye APA, an IPA, etc. … but they do make a fantastic barleywine and some nice German seasonals.) The lineup for this beer dinner seemed carefully choreographed to prove that the old dog still has some tricks in it, and while I’m not sure I bought the routine 100%, the beers were well-made and I had a fantastic time.
Aperitif: Firemans #4 – Before the first dish came out, we started with a 6-oz pour of Real Ale’s ubiquitous flagship blonde ale. If you haven’t tasted this beer, you haven’t been to Austin. It really is everywhere, and it’s been the gateway to craft beer for frat boys and good ol’boys in this town for years (not to mention a few people I know). Call it boring; but you can’t argue with its quality, and they brought out the freshest batch I’ve ever tasted for this event. Crisp, clean taste, a nutty continental malt aroma, and a noticeable but not intimidating noble hop flavor make this a beer you can buy a case of for that stubborn Bud drinker in your family, even for your mom. And I have.
Then the marquee lineup started: 6 dishes paired with 6 beers, about 6 ounces worth of each (cue Iron Maiden). The trick I mentioned earlier was that these 6 beers came from only 3 different “wort streams” – this was a new term to me, but basically means simply that 3 different worts were fermented under different conditions to produce 6 different beers.
First Course: Lost Gold IPA with mussels, smoked tomato, fennel, leaks baguette – Real Ale’s aptly named year-round IPA pours a deep golden color. The aroma abounds with grapefruit and floral notes. The flavor is a modest but noticeable blast of hops that doesn’t fail to refresh. It went astoundingly well with a smokey mussel stew served family-style with a whole baguette (for two). We scraped the bowl, and it was a big bowl. And all I can say about the bread is, “OMG, bread!” You can tell it’s what Easy Tiger does best.
Second Course: Empire Barrel-Aged Lost Gold IPA with duck sausage, corn pudding, watercress – The second beer made from the Lost Gold IPA wort was aged in red wine barrels that left a blanket of sour cherry fruit notes on the whole thing. The hop aroma faded with the aging, as expected, but the bitterness remained, and the beer poured enticingly murky. A hint of pungent funk from the barrel complemented the rich, earthy duck sausage. The corn pudding was light and fluffy; it complemented the sausage just fine but was easily overpowered by the beer. The disparate elements of the dish worked better separately than as a single bite.
Third Course: Imperium Wild Lost Gold IPA with apricot-braised goat, local shell pea cake, mint gremolata – The third version of Lost Gold was aged in similar barrels to Empire, but wild fermentation was induced for a funkier flavor. Floral notes took center stage on this one, and it was very dry, balancing very well with another rich protein dish. The apricot balanced both the gaminess of the goat and the funkiness of the beer. By now, I was really excited about what the night had in store. I was eating great food and enjoying the results of an experiment on how one wort could become three very different beers.
Check back in a few days when I post my reviews on the last three pairings of the evening, and my overall impressions. It was a delightful and insightful night.
As Central Texas is plagued by thunderstorms, I'm stuck in the house enjoying the last of a bottle of Mikkeller It's Alive! Belgian Wild Ale. And I'm raising my glass virtually to Dustin Sullivan, a fellow member of the online homebrewing forum HomeBrewTalk.com, and the creator of this awesome pictorial on how to make a yeast starter.
I love brewing. I love comic art. And I love anything that's educational in a novel and interesting way. This pictorial is all three, and I'm thrilled to have stumbled onto it. I wish everything in brewing could have been explained to me so simply when I was starting out. Sure, learning as you go is 50% of the fun of brewing (another 25% is drinking the results, and the last 25% is being able to impress your friends by dropping words like “saccharification” and “attenuate” into everyday conversation) … but I'm a knowledge addict, and I'm also pathologically risk averse. So I read everything I could get my hands on when I was starting my homebrew habit, so I'd have a good idea of each step of every process before I jumped in. Sometimes, it was hard to separate the good info from the bad: to separate the clear and “just-enough” from the over-explanatory, and to separate the simple sharing of helpful information from the vomiting of brewlore all over you by guys who just want to impress you with how much they know.
Now, I love John Palmer's How to Brew and Charlie Papazian's The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. They're phenomenal books, and essential for anyone entering the hobby. But if I'd had something as simple and clear as Dustin's yeast starter pictorial for my first extract brew, my first mash, my first rack to secondary, let alone my first yeast starter, I'd have lost a lot less sleep as a newbie.
Dustin also created a yeast calculator website called YeastCalc at yeastcalc.com. It's one of the most comprehensive pitching rate calculators I've seen online for liquid yeast. It tells you not only how big of a starter to make, but also allows you to dial in a target specific gravity for your starter, and tells you how much dry malt extract to use for that target. It even has options for calculating multiple step-up starters, for that 10-gallon barleywine you've been wanting to make. I'll be using this site next time I make a starter, and I recommend you do the same.
So I’d like to raise my beer glass to Dustin Sullivan, another homebrewer out there doing his part to make brewing a little easier and simpler for the rest of us: newbies and veterans alike. Thanks, Dustin. Prosit!
Also, anyone out there who isn't yet a member of HomeBrewTalk.com, check it out. There's heaps of information there. If you have questions, it's a great place to turn; if you have answers, we always welcome new insights. And it's the most helpful, responsive and engaged online community I've ever been a part of. If you join, look me up. My username is shawnbou and I'd love to hear from you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The closet under the stairs – affectionately referred to as the Harry Potter closet – is the coolest, darkest part of the house. It’s where I keep all my fermenting beers and where I “cellar” store-bought beers in bombers. I seem to collect them faster than I can drink them, taking them out mainly for special occasions: a Chateau Jiahu on my birthday, a Brooklyn Sorachi Ace to celebrate the purchase of a new Japanese film on Criterion Blu-Ray, that sort of thing. But once in a while, we open one just for the hell of it.
Saturday night was one such time. Thirsty from the effort of arranging our new outdoor furniture into Tetris-style configurations on our limited square of backyard patio, my wife Lisa and I decided to open a bottle of Boulevard Saison-Brett that we’d been eying predatorily for months since we’d bought it.
The words “farmhouse” and “sour” are bandied about so much in the craft brew community lately, it’s easy to forget that just a few short years ago, the word “rustic” was a euphemism for “needs time,” and Brettanomyces (the aggressive wild yeast responsible for the funky flavor in many wild fermentations and notoriously hard to clean out of one’s brewhouse once it’s been introduced) was spoken of in hushed tones like Jack the Ripper was in the back alleys of Whitechapel in the 1880’s. Now many craft beer lovers are on a first name basis with “Brett” and we like a little funk to shake our glasses. But there are no doubt still some brew aficionados out there who haven’t jumped on the funk train just yet. To them I say: this beer’s for you.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of this beer is “accessible”. It’s the same word people use to describe Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe(‘) album, or the Lars von Trier film Melancholia. Boulevard Saison-Brett is as good an entry point for the newbie down the rabbit hole of “sour” beer as those works are into the intimidating corpora of those artists’ careers.
The beer pours a cloudy orange-straw color. The color reminded me of photos from Belgian breweries that I’ve spent hours gazing at online with longing, like a lonely teen with an Internet girlfriend. The head is pure white and rocky, with big bubbles you want to dive right into. There’s a respectable amount of sediment in the bottle, but not too much. To call the aroma “floral” is an understatement. It’s perfumey, with citrus notes and just the tiniest hint of barnyard aromatics from the Brett.
The flavor starts out much the same: perfume on the front end, with a tart and citrusy middle. But this is where it gets interesting. Once the citrus leaves the palate, astringency and sherry-like oxidation notes scrub it right away, leaving the finish very dry. It’s almost like champagne and just as refreshing. There’s not a hint of boozy flavor in this brew, which boasts a not-too-shabby 8.5% ABV.
I paired mine with some crumbled blue cheese, fig spread, and sesame crackers. I had to remind myself to take bites of my snack between sips, as the dry finish left me wanting to wet my whistle again and again.
As for the funk, it was present, but in the background – not the star of the show. Think George Clinton backup singer, not Bootsy Collins standing radiant in all his platform-booted, star-shaped-spectacled glory. There was very little of the barnyard, musty flavor typically associated with Brett beers, but that could very well be because we drank it so soon. Brett character tends to evolve over time, and I just couldn’t wait to try this one; but with a few more months in the cellar, the funky character may have come more to the foreground.
All in all it was a fantastic beer, and I wish I had bought a second bottle to hold onto and see how it ages. Once I get through a few more of the bombers in the Harry Potter closet, I will make sure to save some room for another couple of Saison-Brett bottles if and when Boulevard decides to release another.
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:
- A new set of small batch gear was cheaper than a new set of 5-gallon gear.
- If most of the yeast blend was dead, I’d have better luck with a smaller volume of wort.
- 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 …
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.