Wednesday, April 08, 2009

From trellis to table

Just thought it would be fun to take a minute here to illustrate one of a million elements that goes into coordinating a brilliant dining experience, one thread intertwined with the likes of a 60lb suitcase full of cheese, an impromptu propane tank replacement, a last-minute veggie sausage, and the looming thread of an imminent power outage. In seven acts:
Cutting the red bines, like something out of an Millet painting.

The target crop of our day, Moonlight Farms' baby Cascades.
There's only about a two week window per year you can do this.

"Belgian asparagus" is tender enough to eat raw, leaves and all.

Less than 24 hours earlier, these guys were still pushing the soil.

The prep work's not much other than checking for stowaways.

A little butter, a little water, a little bone marrow gastrique...

And the finished product? You'll just have to go either here or here to check it out.
PS - I'll likely get around to posting a more detailed account of my most recent evening with "The Homebrew Chef", but couldn't resist leading in with this little tale of one the dinner's ingredient's heroic journey from the dusty back country of the Russian River Valley to the tables in Lower Haight.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Spring hops eternal, again

There's a predictability in my postings that faithful readers of this blog have probably taken note of. And of no exception, this: the annual "first hops" picture post, along with the painful yet indispensable title pun. Welcome to spring, denizens of the northern hemisphere.

(Don't believe my clockwork tendencies? Check the archives.)


Friday, February 20, 2009

Gold fashioned

And it's gone. Sitting here with a minute glass of the keg's last sputtering gasp, it's a fair reminder why even the strangest of experimental batches often deserve to be doubled in volume, just in case. The subject in this case is our Old Fashioned ale, five gallons of which has passed on, with another phantom five gallons presumably lurking in a darkened dusty corner of the garage, just waiting for me, ready to appear when I'm at my weakest and say, it wasn't just a dream. Really? You don't remember deciding to make a double batch at the very last minute?

Make no mistake: While excellent, it wasn't by any means a perfect recipe. Of course, an optimist (and as it's an attitude I'm not entirely familiar with, I had to go online to find one to vouch for me) would argue that the success of the first batch only lends to the opportunity for it to be improved upon, a chance to pat oneself on the back with one hand while stirring up a fresh mash in the kettle with the other. Having shared (a tiny amount) with the conspirator who helped me chart out the taxonomy of the classic Old Fashioned cocktail for use as a jig for the composite beer recipe, I was able to wrangle (a tiny amount of) tasting notes from his inital impression: "just slightly sweet, not cloying, with hints of orange in the finish, mingling with spice and a little oakiness".

But did it taste like an Old Fashioned? "Not really."

Oh well. "Inspired by" doesn't necessarily need translate to "unmistakable from", which means we won't be stealing the crown from Southern Tier as the Jones of tastealike brewing expertise. Despite the high level of alcohol, there wasn't nearly the heat one gets from true liquor. Regardless of our bourbon oak aging, there wasn't much by way of toasted char effect as there was the merest hint of vanilla and black pepper. And the cherry came through only in the keg's last few days, as the merest whisper, warning me not to toy too much in the future for fear of creating a potentially horrifying Nyquil-like undertone.

As a cocktail, it was a failure. As a beer, on the other hand, it was a success.

One arena in which that was distinctly true was as a singly-hopped beer, in which just one variety of hops was employed for all the bittering, flavor and aroma, with the organic Belgian Admiral hops we used laying down a distinctive but mellow bitterness on the front end and allowing for some serious marmalade overtones in both the aroma and finish. And as a double IPA (which at its core it really was) it was our most successful attempt yet, sticky and rich with an interplay between bitter and sweet that made it exceptionally drinkable despite what the stats would lead you to believe. Chewy and deep, yet clean on the finish and with a rousing bitterness, the question in my mind now is: What would it have tasted like if we'd skipped out on all the flaming orange and mystery tincture mumbo jumbo? Were those the secret hidden elements that held it all together, or would it have been even brighter, crisper, more satisfying without?

I guess we'll just have to find out, soon. The keg is empty now, remember. So much for the year of the session, eh?

(This post is in part a response to Drew, a commenter who didn't leave any contact info but who cared enough to ask how this recipe came out. For the rest of you, just pretend I wrote it for you because I knew you were so, so curious.)

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The bird, flying in the face of common sense

Well, then. Were you, dear readers, aware of the persistent, vicious rumors that have recently been circulated by nefariously pessimistic ne'er-do-wells regarding a supposed deficit - some going as far as to use the alarmist term "shortage" - of the medicinal, antibacterial, and lusciously sticky-icky fragrant flower we all hold near and dear to our beer-loving souls, better known as hops?

Whatever. Let's brew an II2PA2 (that's a double imperial India Pale Ale. Squared.) Introducing:


As in: Flip it. Flip the bird in the general direction of all the malaise surrounding the condition of our economy, and not only as it pertains to beer. Enough already with the moaning about the rising cost of ingredients, and the lack of purchasing power of our dollar at the pub or the grocery store or the homebrew supply shop. We're separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff here. All the chips are in. My metaphor engine is at full tilt: Put your money where your mouth is, literally. Are you in or are you out? Do you, or do you not, value the quality of the beer you drink, on par with the other litany of comestibles you shove down your piehole on a daily basis? If you've started scouring the liquor store shelves for sale tags, feel free to stop reading. It's time to stimulate that karmic economy with a sip of something oh so very delectably bitter:

As in: Flying in the face of all that's reasonable and decent in this world, I decided to break an unplanned and seemingly endless streak of brewing nearly hop-free beers. Between some yeast-driven Belgo-American types, tame and grainy wheat beers, a malt-dominant scotch ale, a spice-heavy holiday ale, and autumn's stable of darker, balanced, and hop-shy British impressions, we've probably earned our rations for the big hop payback I claimed last weekend at Brewcraft. (I should quickly digress to comment on the tension that seemed to creep into the normally fun process of recipe formulation once the discussion turned to how I planned on clearing the store's shelves of all available top-tier hops. Naturally, they didn't even have the ones I'd planned on using, so it turned into a strange sort of alpha acid wheeling dealing sort of thing, where I outlined the bittering units needed to complete my mad plan (90!) and then haggled with Eric to make sure they weren't comprised entirely of harsh and grapefruity garbageblossoms.)

You see, among my numerous personality quirks that would make any therapist feel like a kid in a candy store is my compulsion to act on the most illogical of ideas. While other local masters of the brewing art are happily crafting unique new beers that dispatch with any reliance on hops in exchange for more experimental bittering and aromatic ingredients (like Moonlight's Brian Hunt, whose current releases Working for Tips* and Out to Lunch** are creating quite the stir), it was almost a guarantee that I'd develop the odd itch to discover what everyone's whinging on about and brew something ridiculously hop-aggressive, with such a blatant disregard for cost, efficiency and decency that's it's the homebrew equivalence of visiting the melting polar icecaps by a privately chartered jumbo jet. With the air conditioning on full blast.

When the best laid plans of a ProMash report are dashed before you've even left the store with your ingredients, it sets the stage for my favorite type of brewing day, as it's been proven over the years that equal parts improvisation and disaster typically makes for a fantastic finished product. Sparing you the details of all the bits of drama that unfolded as things didn't go exactly as planned, I will, for those of you brave enough to try to replicate this affair in your own home, relate one procedure which will undoubtedly alter the results from the attached chart. Despite my most lucid calculations regarding the evaporation rate of the kettle boil, at the end of 90 minutes there was a gallon more wort than had been anticipated. So, while we pitched just under 5 gallons in the primary, I set aside the remaining gallon and cooked it down on the stove for a couple more hours until it's volume had been reduced to about 1/4, allowing for even more bitterness extraction along with some nice Maillard (mallard? ha!) coloring which has left the blended wort a beautiful, rusty red.

Of course, that was before it started to ferment, cloud up with the wicked weather of an unholy sea of yeast and hops detritus, and proceed to blow the lid off the carboy about a half dozen times until I finally gave up and let it breathe naturally. The video below is a good demonstration for the novice brewer when it's best to allow for better blow-off during high krausen:


So, thing's are going swimmingly. I didn't bother to take a gravity reading, so don't ask for one. Look for an update in the next couple weeks as it graduates to the keg.

(FYI - The soundtrack from the above video is Wah Wah Man by Young-Holt Unlimited.)

And if you thought this post was simply a foil to test run some new audio and video scripts, shame on you. Every time I mention this beer, I hear a red-tailed hawk cry off in the distance...

* Whose acronym bears a striking resemblance to another, quite fitting common acronym.

** Please let this be an Eric Dolphy reference.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Brewdog's mid-May hops growth analysis

"Looking good. You're still not going to avert the shortage, though. You aren't even going to get any flowers, actually." So sayeth the brewdog.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Weekend update - "spring hops eternal"

Granted, Adam's kicking my ass, but that can't stem my urge to continue the traditional of annual posts shamelessly flauting near-pornographic images of my ne'er-to-bloom hop plants (coincidentally always around the last weekend of April). This time around, a pair of shots of our poor, weedy-looking, neglected Santiam shoots and quixotically determined Willamette:

The ever-vigilant early riser, our Willamette.

The spindly and decidedly less robust Santiam.

Don't worry, I have loads more photos I could share. Believe you me. But it's getting late, so y'all will have to wait to see just how far the East Kent Goldings have gotten...


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Where's Willamette?

Like a botanical game of whac-a-mole, each year the hops pop up in new and different places - which is to say that the crown on the Willamette and Kent Goldings rhizomes have gotten quite prolific in the quiet, unseen underground. Anybody want any rhizome cuttings? Now'd be the time to plant them...


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hoptical illusion?

While curiously scouting the newest offerings from the regional brewers in hopes of backing up the claim from my last post that we'd be seeing a reaction to the current hop fiasco via low- and no-hop beers, I stumbled upon something that looking as foreboding as black clouds across the beer horizon: Cascade-afficionados Sierra Nevada has started putting an ESB - "Early Spring Beer" [their words, not mine] - on shelves. I can't remember seeing this submission from our friends in Chico in years past, and is even conveniently labeled (in case you find some in an abandoned trailer party time capsule in the future) as the "2008" vintage. After trying it, both Des and my initial reaction was that it's essentially a de-hopped amber ale pitched as being in the British brewing tradition of balance over bitterness. (Frankly, I pictured them standing in a near-vacant hops warehouse and trying to figure out how they were going to be able to brew enough of their bread-and-butter SNPA for a summer's worth of barbecues and baseball games.) But oddly, its (uncited) entry on Wikipedia lists it as almost 10 IBUs higher than the iconic pale ale. What gives? Of course, my taste buds could also be shot - the best use we found for the ESB was in a cream sauce for some chicken cordon bleu - but still, Des' nose never lies.

Of course, it's probably not wiki-vandalism at work, but rather the concept of hop bitterness perception versus actual IBUs. Could it simply be the crystal malts masking the hops, or a difference in water treatment, or even just a different level of carbonation?

So while I haven't yet found the smoking gun to prove my theory on the move to reduced hop usage, one interesting point did crop up in the research on the ESB [and please, people, it's extra special bitter] that Sierra Nevada's offering as its spring seasonal: The hops used - English Challenger & East Kent Goldings - are imports, rather than varietals from the West Coast's Yakima Valley stable. And it's even dry-hopped! Maybe the winds of change are already blowing...

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Friday, February 15, 2008

A completely hopless situation

Ah, the good old days.
My good friend Christopher - a dedicated habitué of hops, baron of bitterness, cuckoo for beaucoup IBU - is feeling the pinch this season as our good friend humulus lupulus is in short and desperate supply. Still brewing his stable of homebrew favorites but having to substitute AAs from lesser gods of the hop pantheon with previously unknown varieties, he's feeling the pinch like the rest of us. Gone are the Fuggles, the Willamette, the Hallertauer and Hersbrucker, the Cascade and Chinook, the Saaz and Tetnang; in their place one finds Simcoe and Sorachi Ace, Cluster and Centennial, Millenium and Magnum. If they're green and bitter, we're resignedly throwing them in our kettles - even if they do sound like they were manufactured by Monsanto.

So what's the enterprising yet frugal brewer to do? Well, one option is to take a stroll in The Man's Garden and examine some bittering and flavoring options often overlooked in deference to the Reinheitsgebot that most homebrewers feel some sort of weird allegiance towards. If you're the type of homebrewer that decided to first start making a mess of your kitchen for reasons that had nothing to do with the gist of an antiquated set of laws designed to protect the use of winter wheat for use in bread-making, you've probably got a touch of the aleatoric in you. With the global harvest situation looking dire and prices climbing exponentially, it may just be the right time to let your freak flag fly.

There's plenty of reading material out there to get yourself started, too. To get started, The Homebrewer's Garden has an entire section devoted to alternative bittering and aroma herbs. You can also see this as an opportunity to try your hand at some historical styles, like gruit (yes, the beer that supposedly increases sexual drive - enjoy).

If, on the other hand, you're a more risk-averse brewer, you may just want to check what's coming down the pike from your local craft breweries to see if there's a style you'd like to emulate. (I'd bet good money that we're all going to see more low- or no-hop beers on store shelves sooner rather than later, while everyone tries to figure out some slick marketing trick that will allow them to pass the 100% increase in production costs on to us consumers.) The exceptional Williams Brothers brewery in Scotland makes a full roster of delectable historic ales (again with stimulated "animal instincts"!) the that use little or no hops. And big man on campus Sam Calagione has built almost his entire reputation upon some of Dogfish Head's crazy (yet scientifically crazy!) interpretations of ancient beers.

Meanwhile, it might be worth your while to rekindle those friendships of yours that may garner access to their sun-drenched backyards. Perhaps you could even send them a fun, conversation-starting present...

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Hops, shoots & leaves

While you wouldn't know it from the weather out there, it's still early February - way, way, way too early for the green shoots and buds of spring to be pushing their way out of the darkness. But that's exactly what's happening, and in hops gardening, that can only mean one thing: It's Ausputzen time!

As tempting as it may be to carefully nourish and foster that first tender, young growth of the year as some sort of persephonic talisman to ward off any chance of winter's unruly return (like when it comes back in March, charged with freezing rain and wicked winds, saying "oops, sorry, I forgot my car keys"), one will find themselves being well rewarded in the flower department if those early shoots (and then subsequently, all but two of the healthiest late spring bines) are pruned away. (And if there's a year when we homebrewers can use all the hops we can grow ourselves, this is the one.)

If you're the "use the whole bison" type, you might feel a little guilty chopping the heads off your cute little sproutlets just to toss them in the compost pile, so you'll be happy to know that the little guys are considered a bit of a delicacy in some parts, even being celebrated at festivals in hop-growing regions (be sure to pay your tribute to the King next time you're in Poperinge!) with all manner of raw, fried, sauteed, steamed, and pickled hop shoots for your perusal.

And, if the weather holds and the industrial farms look as promising as our backyards, maybe we won't all be looking at brewing Catsfoot ales next year... but it's not looking good.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The "lost" year, ep. 2 - the frowny face files

Following up from the other day's highlight reel of items that sat on the Pfiff! backburner last year while we attended to more pressing distractions, here's a quick hitlist of things so unfortunate they made me reach for a nice, comforting beer:

The death of Michael Jackson
This is a little bit of a cop out because I did, in fact, find the time to give a quick memorial to one of food journalism's most inimitable contributors. And there's not much to add to the eulogizing that Jackson has received: Simply an irreplaceable voice in beer (and whiskey) commentary, I was tempted to take up some of all y'alls time about how it was his humor and wit that was the reason a lot of us to decided to sit down and publish our thoughts on something as commonplace as beer, what with us all obviously having other interests or passions that we could easily voice our opinions on. But the ideas never really gelled, never became anything worth writing down, and by now there are plenty of folks who have taken the time to talk about how much of an inspiration Michael was for them.

Prices on malt and hops at an all-time high
The email from Griz opened "What hop'ned?" Flooding three years straight in Europe, farmland conversion to ethanol-producing corn in the US, 5-year hop contracts being written up by the major breweries, and replacement of flavor and aroma hops in the fields by "super alpha" varieties in the Yakima valley pretty much erased the cost benefit of homebrewing over, say, hitting the corner store for a six-pack. That and the fact that you had to scour all the online homebrew shops to find any hops that weren't five years old...

Not much to say about this, really, but the day will come when I'll get bored enough to combine Anheuser-Busch's newest "I double-dog-dare you to try it" beverage with some of this with a dash of this other monstrosity to create Cioppino beer under the project codename Cloverfield.

Arr. My beloved, ye broke.
I'll miss you, oversized Piraat tulip glass. You're irreplaceable (kinda). And yes, I recognize the irony of the situation.

When we next meet: I'll be summing up the little newsie bits that were worthy enough of getting me to copy the url into a blank new post, but failed to inspire the least bit of interesting commentary from yours truly...

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

All grown up and nowhere to go

In honor of faithful reader Adam, here are some fresh images of my own private Poperinge:


So tall!

But of course, I still won't get any flowers again this year, which renders these wild tendrils nothing more than deer-proofing for the plants they're wired between and taking over (alas, poor flowering maple, I knew you well), and reminds me that at some point I need to live somewhere that gets more than a couple hours of sunlight a day...

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Third time's a charm

It's always a pleasant reminder of the season change when the hop shoots start emerging from the winter soil. Alas, in the years we've lived here, our hops have never blossomed thanks to our shaded foresty locale, but it is always nice to watch the bines attempt to overtake the garden.

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Monday, June 26, 2006


No flowers yet, but the bines are progressing along quite nicely, knocking out everything in their path (that means you, oregano - and double for you, fuchsia!).

And remember kids, it's pronounced wil-am-it. Next person who says wil-a-met-ee is getting the old 86.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Hop crop, pt. 2

Behold! Oh, ye of the bitterest bine, ye of the aromatic cone! Santiam hops arise anon!
What you're looking at here is two weeks' growth from a bare root. The Willamette and Goldings have also succeeded in passing the "slug snack" stage and are well on their way to dominating the yard. With the sun hanging in the sky a bit longer and the temps starting to rise, they've been close to doubling in size every day. And you thought I was kidding about posting updates! Only 6 months to harvest! Yes I am a dork!


Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hop crop, pt. 1

Oh, crystal ball!

Already sprouting tiny (and apparently delicious) shoots in their little shipping packets, the new season's delivery of hop rhizomes has arrived. Now I just need to decide which ones to plop in the ground - meaning, decide which beer I'm likely to brew in September when the cones are ready for picking - and which ones I ought to pass around to friends and family to grow in their gardens like the little Johnny Hoppyseed that I am. The choices: Santiam, Willamette, Northern Brewer, Goldings, and Hallertau.
Any suggestions? I'm leaning towards the Santiam simply because it's unfamiliar, apparently a more recently developed American variety with some noble hop characteristics. And it's purty, too! Stay tuned for the exciting [Hey, they grow about a foot a day in the summer, okay? That's excitement!] developments as the first harvest in our new digs gets underway...