Tag Archive | things that smell awesome

Missing football already? Here’s a homebrew Hail Mary

Super Bowl XLVIII is history and the world has turned its collective attention to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, but before I hang up my big foam finger and retire the word clinch from my vocabulary until August, let’s take a moment to celebrate a gridiron tradition: the Hail Mary play. A long-shot pass down the field with a minimal chance of success, a last-ditch effort for a team with nothing to lose. I don’t know who did it first, but presumably many years ago some coach realized that when faced with an all-or-nothing situation, it can’t hurt to do something crazy. Whoever that coach was, he would have made a great homebrewer.

My own homebrew Hail Mary happened at the end of last year. I can take credit for the execution, but the idea for the play came from my wife/recipe consultant Lisa.

On Thanksgiving Day, I finished my pumpkin ale, leaving me with an empty tap and nothing ready to serve. I must have been complaining loudly, because Lisa stepped up, baby in hand. “What are those?” she said, pointing to two 1-gallon carboys hiding in the shadows at the back of the closet under the stairs.

A few years ago I started making occasional small batches. After realizing that the 1-gallon carboys my homebrew supplier sold for $5 were nearly identical to the gallon-size glass jugs of organic apple juice at the grocery for $7, I just bought the juice and figured I’d save the jug when it was empty. But why waste that apple juice by drinking it when I could ferment it instead? Plain apple juice is all you need for a simple dry cider, so I pitched 3 grams of Safale S-04 into the jug and sealed it with a stopper and airlock. Incidentally, I chose S-04 for its high flocculation, assuming it would yield clearer cider. I was wrong; later I learned about pectin haze, a common “flaw” in ciders caused by pectin in apples and treatable with pectic enzyme if you care to. (As it turns out, I don’t mind hazy cider, so I’ve never bothered with it.)

I bought four juice jugs, but didn’t ferment them all at once. I pitched Batch #1 right away and bottled it four weeks later (oh, the anticipation of something new). I made Batch #2 a few months later and bottled it after eight weeks, then pitched the yeast cake into Batch #3. That was September 2011, right around the time I remembered that I like beer much more than cider and would rather drink it instead. I managed to finish off the cider I’d bottled, but held off bottling more until I was ready for it.

And then forgot about it completely.

In early February 2013, I was telling a friend how easy it is to make apple cider, and suddenly remembered the carboy that had been sitting there for nearly a year and a half. Trepidatious about tasting a seventeen-month-old cider, I put off the moment of truth by making Batch #4 instead, figuring I’d bottle both batches later that year. Of course, “later that year” soon became “Oh shit, it’s November.”

And that’s how we found ourselves on Thanksgiving Day looking at two little carboys full of cider with a combined age of thirty-six months. I reminded Lisa what they were, and voiced my concern that they might not be drinkable after all this time. I hated to spend the time bottling them if they weren’t going to be any good. I wondered if I should toss them.

“If the alternative is throwing them away,” she said, “why not keg them and blend them? Add some spices to mask the imperfections if you need to. Actually, make it a holiday cider with mulling spices.”

This, Internet, is just a glimpse of the general awesomeness of this woman and why I’ve been with her for twenty years …

As great an idea as it was, I reminded her that I already had plans for the now-empty keg. I needed it for another beer that was ready for cold storage but wouldn’t be ready to drink for a month.

“Just buy a new keg,” she said. “Do they make small ones? Then you’ll have a portable keg so you can take it out of the house.”

… twenty wonderful years.

My memory is hazy as to when exactly I ordered the keg, but I’m sure I waited at least 75 seconds after she suggested it. A few days and trips to the store later, I made a spice potion with:

  • 4 oz vodka
  • 1 1/2 cinnamon sticks, whole
  • 1/2 tbsp crystallized ginger, minced
  • 1/2 tsp allspice, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg, grated
  • 1 clove, whole
  • 1/2 tsp star anise, crushed
  • a dash of grains of paradise, crushed
  • zest of 1 orange

I let the potion steep until mid-December and racked it just in time for the holidays. I may not be much of a cider guy, but I was impressed.

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Tart and dry, a little astringent, fashionably sour. The star anise was a little overpowering, but the cinnamon and clove really backed it up. The spices were strong, but that’s what elevated it from “just cider” to “holiday cider.” A friend sampling a glass came up with the brilliant idea of mixing it with ginger ale, which became my favorite way to drink it. I named it VertiCore, fitting for a vertical blend of apple ciders. And if I hadn’t bragged about it to everyone who tasted it, they’d never know that half the blend was over two years old.

So the Hail Mary paid off in a big way, thanks to a good play call by a great recipe coach. In fact, I may just lose another cider or two in the back of the closet. Christmas is coming again in 2016, right?

Baggings! We hates it forever!

My Hobbit-inspired Old Took’s Midwinter IPA is now in the keg. If it seems like that happened really quickly, it’s only because of how late I posted my blog post about the brew day. I fermented it for three weeks before dry hopping it for 6 days. All in all, it was about 4 weeks from mash tun to keg.

I dry hopped it with an ounce each of the same finishing hops I used in the boil, hoping to achieve a nice mix of floral and citrus aroma notes to round out the beer:

  • 1 oz Willamette (4% AA)
  • 1 oz Cascade (6.2% AA)

It’s been in the keg for less than a day, so it’s too early to know for sure how it’s going to turn out. It tastes good, and it’s got more hop character than it did a week ago. So I think it’s going to be good, but I’m a little concerned that this wasn’t my most successful attempt at dry hopping.

In the past, I’ve dry hopped with pellets either tied in a disposable loose-weave muslin bag, or tossed into the fermenter loose. I prefer loose over bagging if possible for maximum contact, but hop particles in the keg are a problem with more than about a half ounce of hop pellets. With 2 oz of loose pellets, I’d be serving up pints of hop debris for a month.

I didn’t have any muslin bags on hand, nor any time to go to Austin Homebrew Supply to buy any. Searching local retailers for a solution, I came across these spice bags at a kitchen store. They’re for chefs making bouquet garnis, but they are muslin (a tighter weave but still porous), and they are advertised as reusable. The biggest drawback I could see was that they were smaller than the bags I usually use, but since I got 4 in a pack I figured I’d use several.

When bagging dry hops – or when using a tea ball-type infuser, which is also popular – the size of the bag or ball is important. Hops shouldn’t be packed too tightly or else you reduce the surface area in contact with the liquid, which decreases the amount of hop goodness that gets into the beer. After sanitizing the bags with boiling water, I split up my 2 oz of hops into 3 bags along with sanitized marbles for ballast. Two thirds of an ounce per bag seemed to provide lots of breathing room, although I knew the hops would expand a little.

I didn’t count on just how much they would expand.

After I racked the beer into the keg, I found my 3 muslin spice bags at the bottom of the fermenter. The hops had expanded so much the bags looked about to burst, like overstuffed pillows. I didn’t worry about it too much until I was cleaning the bags out, in the hopes of maybe reusing them someday. As I emptied the bags into the kitchen sink, I inhaled deeply, smelling the rich, floral-citrus bouquet coming from the green sludge washing down the drain.

And then it hit me: that’s hop aroma going down the drain. Not in my beer.

The hops expanded so much in those small bags that they ended up packed too tightly. Some of the available hop compounds got into the beer, but not all. So the beer is better than it was, but not as good as it could have been. Should have been. And I’m left feeling disappointed at the waste. A spontaneous decision potentially compromised the end result, and that’s going to bother me until I taste the chilled, carbonated beer and know for sure.

If only I had just used my usual bags! Or something else – anything else!

I should breathe deep and repeat the mantra of Charlie Papazian: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. Even if the IPA isn’t perfect, I haven’t ruined it. It’s far from the worst disaster ever to befall a homebrewer, and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve faced. Yes, it was avoidable and it’s annoying, but the beer will be fine.

Then from the back of my brain comes a nagging: Is “fine” really good enough?

It’s not beyond repair. I can still add more dry hops to the keg, if needed. And I probably will. But I’ve learned my lesson. I’m sure I’ll find many other uses for these spice bags in the brewery, such as infusing dry herbs that won’t expand. But I don’t think I’ll be bagging dry hops in anything smaller than a nylon stocking in the future.

A Hobbity, Hoppy Midwinter IPA

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:

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My first photograph that’s a true work of art. I call it “Oscar Charlie Delta”.

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.”

Austin Beer Week 2012: Ommegang Beer Dinner at Easy Tiger

I’ve had a few beers before from New York’s Brewery Ommegang, but not many. So it was with curiosity and an empty stomach that I entered the hallowed halls of Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden on Tuesday night for their Austin Beer Week Ommegang Beer Dinner. It was my second beer dinner at Easy Tiger (my first was in July) so I came expecting an all-stops-out delicious meal designed by chef Andrew Curren with the beer remaining the star. The menu was promising indeed:

The menu, before I smeared it with messy but memorable victuals.

Easy Tiger’s wait staff turned the hospitality up to eleven, bringing my first beer within moments of being seated. That was Ommegang’s Octoberly-named Scythe & Sickle, an ale celebrating the harvest season with barley, oats, wheat and rye in the grain bill. It poured a cloudy orange with an initial tart, acidic aroma that gave way to spicy clove esters and floral notes upon tasting. I had fun trying to pick out all the different grains. The oats gave a creamy texture to the brew, and spicy rye was also evident; but the most distinctive flavor I got was a raisin-currant character typical of Belgian crystal malts like Special B. The beer was accompanied by Easy Tiger’s “Harvest Mix” of popcorn, potato sticks, peanuts and dill: not your father’s party mix.

Beer #0: Scythe & Sickle. Yes, that’s a full glass pour.

Then the real fun began.

First Course: Biere d’Hougoumont with Herbed grits, roasted mushrooms, quail egg, lemon hazelnut gremolata – This limited-edition bière de garde includes French ale yeast and French Strisselspalt hops in the recipe, and was aged on white oak and hard maple. It was light orange in color with a quickly dissipating head and smelled of honey and floral hops. A boozy character like that of simple sugars (honey, or candi sugar?) in the wort was strong on the palate, but no alcohol burn. It balanced well with the earthy mushroom flavor dominating the grits.

Second Course: Goudenhop with Orange-lacquered grilled pork belly, creamed Swiss chard, crispy leeks – Ostensibly a Belgian-style blonde, the beer lived up to its name (meaning “golden hop” in Flemish) with citrusy hops on the nose and palate that slowly gave way to a long-lasting bitterness. It seemed an odd pairing with the nutty creamed chard and rich slab of pork belly that actually melted in my mouth, until I recognized it as a genius combination of opposites. The Goudenhop offered a refreshing lifeline from a dish easy to drown in (albeit happily), like orange juice next to a heaping plate of morning bacon. Folks, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

Third Course: Gnomegang with Pecan-crusted red fish, sweet potato & Granny Smith apple hash, parsley brown butter – A big golden beer with a thick head and aromas of tart fruits and the unoffensive cheese notes of Belgian yeast. It was incredibly full bodied, packed a boozy punch, and would make a great mainstay for a Belgian abbey’s Lenten fast. The rich, oily fish paired very nicely with it, and I’ve never disliked anything with Granny Smith apples in it.

Fourth Course: Art of Darkness with Chuck roast, potatoes, carrots and Art of Darkness bread – This smooth, velvety black ale (I wouldn’t call it a stout; there was no roasted barley character at all) had the hallmark flavors of oats and (I’m guessing) debittered black malt. The beer was good, but I must confess I was more entranced by the wedge of artisan bread on my plate, made with that same beer. I had waited all night to get my hands on some of Easy Tiger’s legendary bread, and its appearance made me a happy man. My apologies to the roast; it was succulent and savory, but I had already given my heart to another.

Fifth Course: Chocolate Indulgence with Pumpkin pie, milk chocolate, candied orange, hazelnuts – The last ale on the menu was as dark as the previous one, and had the roast character its predecessor lacked. More coffee-like than it was chocolatey, it was very good on its own but a little heavy next to a light and flaky specimen of one of my favorite fall desserts. The pie itself was delicious, and thankfully not cloyingly sweet. I loved each on their own but wasn’t crazy about the two together.

Beer #5: Chocolate Indulgence. And another sweet glass for my collection.

But the night wasn’t over yet! Easy Tiger and Ommegang surprised us with a final course: a plate of soft cheese, fennel relish, and another fresh baked bread (EDIT: Nancy’s Camembert from Hudson Valley, fennel marmalade and Pan au Levain roll – a sort of French “sourdough” – thanks Chef Andrew Curren for confirming) accompanied by a flute of Aphrodite lambic. The lambic was sweet and fruity with the color and flavor of raspberry (and just a little pear) all but masking a thread of Brett funk, and was an admirable way to end the night. It went fine with the cheese, but I kept thinking how well it would have paired with the pumpkin pie … though I would hate to have missed out on this latter offering of house bread.

Beer #6: The mighty Aphrodite.

Much like schnitzengrubens, them strong Belgian-style beers can wipe you out, especially when taken with good food. By the end of the night I had one foot in brewhound Valhalla, tethered to the mortal plane by robust conversation with several fellow beer geeks in attendance that I had the pleasure to meet that night – including John Rubio of The Beerists podcast and Austin Chronicle beer culture writer Ivy Le and her husband. But bedtime loomed, and before long I emerged from the rathskeller to find my way home, happily smacked down by another spectacular Easy Tiger beer dinner.

You win another round, Easy Tiger. Well done. Name the time, and I’ll be there for the rematch.

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.

A Toast To … The Second Annual #IPADay

Happy #IPADay 2012! Notice I didn’t say “hoppy”. I can be an awful punster sometimes, but not that awful.

I’ll post the second half of my review of the Real Ale Beer Dinner at Easy Tiger soon. But first, a break to celebrate the second annual IPA Day!

IPA Day started last year as a tribute to this celebrated style. From the IPADay.org website:

Founded in 2011 by beer evangelists and social media personalities Ashley Routson and Ryan Ross, IPA Day is a universal movement created to unite the voices of craft beer enthusiasts, bloggers, and brewers worldwide, using social media as the common arena for connecting the conversation together.

IPA Day is not the brainchild of a corporate marketing machine, nor is it meant to serve any particular beer brand. IPA Day is opportunity for all breweries, bloggers, businesses and consumers to connect and share their love of craft beer. It is an opportunity for the entire craft beer culture to combine forces and advocate craft beer through increased education and global awareness.

India Pale Ale has become one of the surest things in craft brew today. Once an English style, it’s taken the U.S.A. by storm in recent decades as American brewers have taken the concept across the pond and transformed it into something we can now call our own. And having had a few traditional English IPAs last year in England, I can assure you, what we call IPA in the States is a very different animal. Not necessarily better, but different.

I’ll be honest, the first time I tried an IPA I wasn’t a fan. But once I had a few proper examples, it didn’t take me too long to convert. What’s not to love? The smooth, sweet firmness of a solid malt backbone? The fresh, citrusy/floral aroma and flavor of good hops? The refreshing, clean fermentation profile?

Sure, IPA has its roots in nineteenth-century British imperialism (click here for the story if you don’t know it) … but you know what else has its roots in British imperialism? Earl Grey tea. And Freddie Mercury. Who doesn’t love Freddie Mercury? The British Empire doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

I’ll be celebrating IPA Day with a bomber of Deschutes Hop Henge Experimental IPA and a homemade sprouted-bean curry (and a surprise Guild Wars 2 stress test, but that’s unrelated … except that I’ll be drinking IPA while I play it).

If you’re in Austin and looking for something IPAish to do today, the ladies at Bitch Beer have a running list of local IPA events here.

And if you don’t usually drink IPAs, or you don’t think you like them, why not give them another shot today?

Don’t forget to share your IPA celebrations via social media with the hashtag #IPADay. Cheers.

Strike up the Sousa march …

This Fourth of July, I celebrated my right to make beer. Regular readers may recall that a few months ago, I posted a recipe for an American Colonial Ale inspired by a recent trip to Philadelphia. The perfect beer to brew on the Fourth of July! But silly me, I forgot all about it until after I left Austin Homebrew Supply with my ingredients for a different beer. So I’ll have to brew the colonial ale another time. Oops …

Instead, I brewed a single-hop Galena American Pale Ale, the second in my “Misty Mountain Hop” series of single-hop brews (the first was a Citra APA). This was a new grain bill entirely of my own devising, and if the beer comes out well, I’ll probably make it my standard grain bill for all APAs from now on:

  • 9 lbs 2-row malt
  • 1.5 lbs Munich malt
  • 8 oz Crystal 40L
  • 8 oz Crystal 75L

The wort looked and smelled delicious coming out of the mash tun, a sort of tangerine-copper color with an aroma like toasted artisan bread. I’ve got high hopes.

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Vorlauf action shot!

The hop additions were all Galena, of course. This common bittering hop doesn’t seem to be used often for late hop additions, but I’ve read reviews of a few beers with late Galena hops that had descriptors like “dark fruit” and “tart berry”. Sounds awesome to me. I used:

  • .85 oz at 60 minutes
  • .5 oz at 15 minutes
  • .5 oz at 5 minutes
  • .5 oz at flameout

All of my Galena hop pellets were rated 12.8% AA. I’ll probably add another half ounce of dry hops before kegging for added aroma. My OG came in at 1.055, pretty much smack in the middle of the BJCP range for American Pale Ales. I pitched 15 grams of rehydrated Safale US-05 yeast.

But my real declaration of independence this brew session was from my old swamp cooler. After long deliberation (and somehow, writing about the idea a couple of weeks ago made it seem more feasible – thanks, Internet!) I finally bit the bullet and got myself a true temperature-controlled fermentation chamber: a Kenmore 5.1 cubic foot chest freezer with a Johnson Digital Temperature Controller dialed in to a range of 65-68°F.

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Crazy. Sexy. Cool.

The Galena APA has been in there for a few days, and I’m still working out the kinks. Last night after I was out of the house all day, it had somehow got down to 60°F, though it was back up within minutes after I cracked the freezer lid for a while. But I can already say that this is one of the best purchases I have made in support of my homebrew habit. Ever. No more checking the closet every hour to monitor the temperature. No more keeping dozens of frozen water bottles on hand, waiting to be used in the swamp cooler, spending their idle time rolling around my garage freezer and making it harder to find more important stuff (like, you know, food). Perhaps most importantly, no more risks of infection from the stagnant water in the swamp cooler, which always bothered me. I just let it do its thing, check it once or twice a day, and it’s always been in the range I want … except for last night, but it’s never gotten higher than 68°F.

And now I am at liberty to brew what I want to brew, any time of year. I can lager in August. With a few modifications, I can make warm-fermented fruity Belgians in February.

Freedom. I dig it. Don’t we all?

A Crescent City Concoction, part 2

On Monday I finally kegged my Crescent Moon Café au Lait Stout after 4 weeks in the fermenter. I also finally added the eponymous coffee to the beer, crossing the line from a plain old milk stout (albeit one made by my own from-scratch recipe) into something truly unique.

The coffee and chicory was cold brewed on Lisa’s Toddy system: combining a pound of ground coffee with 9 cups of cold water, and letting it steep overnight, we brewed about 40 oz of concentrated coffee extract. Theoretically, this coffee extract is stronger than regular brewed coffee, but when we mixed a little bit of the extract with a sample of the beer at the planned ratio of 16-24 oz of coffee and chicory per 5 gallons of milk stout, there just wasn’t nearly enough coffee flavor. So we ramped it up, added more and more coffee until we got to a point where we were happy. The ratio we landed on was 64(!) oz of extract in the 5 gallon batch of beer. That’s a lot more than any coffee/beer recipe I’ve ever seen, but I let my tastebuds do the deciding. And I did want a bold coffee flavor.

The extract was added directly to the keg, and the beer was racked on top of that. This displaced a half gallon of the beer, so we ended up with .5 gallons of coffee extract to 4.5 gallons of beer, or a ratio of 1 part coffee to 9 parts stout. What I sampled really did taste like café au lait, so I’m pleased. Now it’s carbonating in the kegerator, and will be ready to drink in a few days.

This beer has made me feel like being a newbie homebrewer all over again: The anxious counting of day after day while I wait for the beer to be ready. The adventurous experimentation. The excitement over the unknown. If these phrases sound like ways to describe a brand new romance, it’s no accident. I’m in love with homebrewing, and this stout has reminded me why I fell in love with it in the first place. I want more of this thrill.

With June nearly upon us, I’ll look to a wheat beer for my next brew, as they’re much more forgiving to make in the heat of a Central Texas summer, even in my air-conditioned home. I’ve talked about a blood orange or other citrus wheat for a while now. I could resurrect one of my wheats from previous summers – lemongrass, ginger, or agave – but the wanderlust of experimentation is consuming me, and I think I’m itching for something new.

Read my original post about the recipe and brew day for the café au lait stout here.

One Drink Minimum: Blues at Red’s and some Pink

Things have been pretty busy for the last week between the day job and writing, but on Thursday evening I was able to take a little break from it all. The occasion was a performance by former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, performing the group’s legendary album The Wall in its entirety. Before the show, I stopped at Red’s Porch in south Austin to enjoy “half pint night”, where the featured beer was Oskar Blues Deviant Dale’s IPA.

This was a spectacular beer. The color is a bright, vibrant orange that I suspect comes from the addition of Victory or dark Munich malt to the grain bill – my money’s on Munich, but as of writing this I haven’t had a chance to confirm it online. The aroma exudes grapefruit and pine, and is the freshest hop presence I can remember smelling in a beer. Late hop additions? Definitely, though I haven’t looked into which ones (and I’ll admit I’m not quite able to tell them all apart by smell and taste just yet). But when the glass was put down, it smelled like someone was holding a bag of fresh hops under my nose. I wanted to dive in.

Once it hit my palate, what surprised me most was its incredible smoothness. They call it an Imperial IPA, but at 8% ABV it’s right at the bottom of what I’d consider the appropriate alcohol range for the style. To be honest, it doesn’t even taste that strong. But as I kept drinking, it also became apparent that the beer is nearly perfectly balanced: its 85 IBUs are perfectly countered by a lotof malt sweetness, but without being cloying. For a hop bomb, there’s no resiny or medicinal quality that I can taste. The mouthfeel was just right, refreshing but not too dry. This is a brewery that knows how to make an IPA, and I’d drink it all day long. Luckily, between Lisa and I, we drank four of the half-pint glasses, and have a nice set to remind us of the experience.

Lest anyone be concerned that the concert was an afterthought after such a sublime dinner-and-drink experience, rest assured that it was not. I’m a raving, drooling Pink Floyd fan, and every time I’ve seen Roger Waters live (four times now, twice with this production of The Wall) he puts on a great show. He has an uncanny ability to connect intimately with a crowd of thousands – even in a university basketball stadium, and even when performing half of his show from behind a wall of cardboard bricks – no small feat for a rocker who was once notorious for his feelings of alienation from his bandmates and animosity for his fans (which inspired the album in 1979). But to paraphrase his song “One Of My Turns”, he has grown older, much less colder, and seems to be having a lot of fun. Or at least as much as is tasteful, given the very socially conscious themes and images of the show. He jumps around. He dresses in costumes. He pantomimes the lyrics. And he thanks his audience over and over again for letting him do it at his age. Reading between the lines of his comments to the audience, it’s obvious that Waters sees his touring now as a kind of therapy: no longer feeling isolated as he did when he wrote the album, he’s reinterpreted the story to shine a spotlight on those who feel isolated all over the world due to political and social injustices. To call it a concert is to do it a disservice: it’s a work of performance art and a heartfelt call to action to make the world a better place. It’s bombastic but honest, grandiose but personal.

A perfect balance of sweet and bitter in an unexpectedly subdued Imperial IPA, and a balancing act from a performer letting go of his darkest memories by reliving them. I’m wondering if that’s not a coincidence; if in fact that kind of balance is present in everything great. In any case, it was a fantastic intermission in an otherwise exhausting week.

I hope to be back on track with more posts later this week. Until then, prosit.

A Crescent City Concoction

For a long time now I’ve been in love with milk stouts, and have wanted to brew one. Lisa has also been asking for a coffee stout, specifically one using New Orleans-style coffee and chicory (we’re both New Orleanians by birth), to slake her thirst for java. In a flash of inspiration, I decided to combine the coffee/chicory stout and milk stout into one brew: a “café au lait” stout. You know, just like Café du Monde on Decatur Street would serve if they had a liquor license.

A sweet stout is a great beer style to honor my hometown. Like New Orleans, sweet stout is dark and mysterious, but full of character. It may be intimidating to the uninitiated, even harsh at first; but it’s warm and inviting when you know what to expect. And you discover something new about it with each new taste. That’s all very poetic, I know, but it’s a lot to explain when filling a glass. So adding the ingredients of a real French Market café au lait was exactly what I needed to bring my lofty symbolic interpretation of the city back down to earth.

I named the brew Crescent Moon Café au Lait Stout in honor of New Orleans’ nickname “the Crescent City” and a current obsession I have with all things lunar. I’d like to give a quick toast here to the HomeBrewTalk.com community, and the great people at Austin Homebrew Supply, for helping me finalize the recipe. The grain bill:

  • 9 lbs 2-row malt
  • 1.5 lb Coffee Malt
  • .75 lb Roasted Barley
  • .5 lb Crystal 90L

I chose specialty grains with coffee-like flavor profiles to accentuate the coffee in the finished product. I’d never used coffee malt (which despite the name is just barley malt – it has no actual coffee in it) before, but it was advertised as being kilned to 130-170L with a smell and taste like coffee, and it didn’t disappoint. Roasted barley, too, is known for its coffee characteristics, so I opted for it instead of black patent malt to get a little more flavor. The medium-dark crystal malt was added to round out the malt profile of the beer and leave some respectable body.

I started the mash at 153°F, and it dropped to 152°F by the end of the 60-minute mash.

Gore from severed starch molecules splatters the walls of my mash tun like a scene from Dexter.

I did two batch sparges and ran 7.75 gallons of 1.032 wort into the kettle. For my last several brews, I have been forced to run off extra wort and boil it down for 90 minutes to hit my target OG. Someday I’ll figure out why that’s the case, but for now I don’t mind the longer boils. It gives me time to catch up on reading and Words With Friends.

I took a sort of bare-minimum approach to the hops, as I really wasn’t interested in a lot of hop character. I want the aroma and bitterness of the coffee and chicory to come through. So I added just .75 oz of 12.4% AA Nugget hop pellets to the boil with 60 minutes left to go, and no late hop additions. I added 1 lb of lactose (the ingredient that makes a milk stout a milk stout) later in the boil, with 20 minutes left.

It's not just pretty to look at. The backyard smelled like a Starbucks.

Notice that I haven’t actually added the coffee and chicory yet. So far, this café au lait stout is just a milk stout begging for a wake-up, but it’s amazing how much it already smells like coffee, thanks to the malts I used. At kegging time, we’ll cold brew between 16-24 oz of coffee and chicory and rack the beer onto that. Cold brewed coffee is recommended because of its smoothness, and it’s really the only way we drink coffee and chicory in this house anyway.

The OG of the wort was 1.064, and I pitched 14 grams of rehydrated Fermentis Safale S-04 yeast. After years of using liquid yeast and rarely using the same strain twice, I’ve recently started using more dry yeast, and this simple English ale strain is rapidly becoming my go-to strain. That’s partly because I’ve been making a lot of British styles, and partly because my busy schedule hasn’t left me with much time to properly prepare liquid yeast for pitching (making a starter, etc.). But I couldn’t have settled down with a finer microbe, because S-04 works fast and flocculates like a rock star, leaving some fruity esters behind but mostly a very clean beer.  I brewed this beer on Saturday, and as of yesterday, the kraeusen was already starting to fall.

Moments after pitching the yeast. They may be stooges, but they keep my fermentations cool.

I’m really excited about this brew. So much so that I couldn’t wait to make it, even though my timing means that I’m going to have a thick, malty stout on tap during the brutal Texas summer. But a friend said to me recently, “Any season is the right season for stout,” and I couldn’t agree more. Especially when my respite from the heat will be a tall, delicious pint of the Big Easy.

So, who’s bringing the beignets?