Friday, August 28, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Abby Abbey*

Is this normal?

Lowered expectation warning: The following is a complete cop out.

I don't know if it's the weird muggy heat or the headache that's accompanying it or what, but despite digging as deeply into my smartass as possible, this month's Fermentation Friday isn't happening for me. Sorry to disappoint, Matt. No matter how hard I force it, this baby's not moving out of neutral. While I'm stuck in the driveway here with the engine running, I wonder if I'd been deluding myself in the past in thinking I was witty enough to word my way around any topic, but this one ("I want to know if and why you break away from the norm") has me completely con- and dumbfounded. For the life of me, I can't remember the last time we brewed anything that one might consider "normal". (This should not be taken as boasting: I never said they were any "good".) Years ago, deeply hidden in the ancient mists of my already cloudy memory, I seem to recall brewing up batches that didn't include homegrown herbs, oddly modified grains, obscure hop varieties, unusual sugar sources, or peculiar tinctures, beers that you could matter-of-factly call "a stout" or "a West Coast pale ale". In fact, when joking last week about how we were simultaneously putting up a batch of kombucha while prepping a yeast starter for our holiday ale, and how haha funny would it be were I to swap the two by mistake, I'd be lying if I didn't say that the thought had, yes, momentarily, crossed my mind. Seriously. What if?

So, rather than waste any more of your precious Friday reading time (go out and kiss a girl or pet a dog or vice versa), we'll make our entry simple. Here's the recipe for this year's holiday ale (the original gravity reading of which you see pictured up above), and here's a link to the song that's been stuck in my head all day. And if you need a reminder on how to make the amber candi sugar yourself, here are the instructions. Enjoy.

Many thanks to Matt at A World of Brews  for hosting this month's mind-boggling Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2

*About that title.

Labels: ,

Friday, June 26, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Riding the heat wave

The requisite farmhouse accouterments
Night in Day

The night never wants to end, to give itself over
to light. So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows.
Even on summer solstice, the day of light's great
triumph, where fields of sunflowers guzzle in the sun--
we break open the watermelon and spit out
black seeds, bits of night glistening on the grass.
-Joseph Stroud
With the longest day of the year having just past, the inevitable severe weather alerts warning of impending heat waves have begun to crop up. After an abysmally dry year, the hills are already crackling with dry brush, the deer eerily shedding their typically protective secrecy of their young fawns, bringing the whole family out from under cover in pursuit of green food and fresh water. It's an atmosphere that summons the chef away from the fire of the kitchen, preferring instead to let the heat of cooking to dissipate and mingle with the vapors of evaporate waving off freshly watered plants and heady trimmed grass. To my mind, the activity that aligns best alongside the bbq, the requisite lidded yellowjacket-proof bierstein, and the passive deep tissue massage of mellow, warm humidity, is the act of brewing, throwing yet another funnel of steamy aroma into the cloudless sky.

Ironic, then, isn't it, that while doing a bit of brewing makes for the perfect mid-summer's daydream, those same exceedingly high temperatures can easily spell doom for most beers during the subsequent fermentation stage, what with the yeasts most commonly employed for brewing ales preferring a summer in San Francisco's seemingly static sixty-something degrees. But we don't live in San Francisco anymore, and while yeast character in some brewing styles tend to be more subdued by the use of cooler temperatures, particularly those that employ the use of lager yeasts and long periods of cold storage, yeast itself can actually behave like a secret ingredient in many specialty styles, not the least being saison, a beer that happens to often employ a yeast that thrives at stunningly high temperatures. And with the mercury here hovering in the mid-eighties with the promise of high nineties in the near future, it's the perfect time to let nature take its course, and prepare to get your farmhouse funk on by brewing something where the yeast will truly benefit from being cooked, yielding that otherwise elusive level of orchard fruit, pepper spice, and lingering dryness that helps define how we currently think of saison.

Quite simply put, our response to this month's Fermentation Friday topic could be summed up, oddly, thusly:

Q: "How do you beat the summer heat?"
A: "Why beat it when you can join it?"

Brewed as the third installment in the increasingly ludicrously named Aleumination series, a sort of online collaborative open source brewing experiment, the recipe below [this is our version, mind you, and should in no way implicate the other homebrewers involved or imply anything about their talents at composing recipes] is a unwieldy weird beast, one that I'm not entirely promoting you all rush out to replicate. But for all intensive purposes (ie, that of being imbibed to fend off dehydration and give summer yard/farm work a smeary air of rustic delight), it's working out just fine, taking prime advantage of these long, hot days to work itself into condition.

Admittedly, the grain bill is ludicrously redundant, ill-measured, and disproportionate, but I gave it the green light by convincing myself it's true to (some variation on) the historical nature of saisons for them to consist of a variety of farm grains and little else. The real reason though: An interest in brewing something all-organic led me to purchase our ingredients via Santa Cruz's Seven Bridges co-op, where, as it turns out, they just happened to be having their summer sale, at which they were offering up a nicely discounted 15lb sampler pack of their different malts. Long story short, pretty much everything that seemed to fit the "farmhouse" bill made its merry way into the grist, with little worry for measurements or balance. When it turned out to be a full seven pounds worth of specialty grains, though, I put away my bags of spelt, kamut and oats for another day...

Summer Saison 2009, aka "The Insatiator"

4.40 lbs. Generic Liquid Malt Extract (Light)
1.00 lbs. Pilsener
1.00 lbs. White Wheat
1.00 lbs. Wheat Malt
1.00 lbs. Cara-Pils Dextrine Malt
1.00 lbs. Pale Malt (2-row) America
1.00 lbs. Pale Malt (2-row) Great Britain
1.00 lbs. Flaked Soft White Wheat

60 min 1.00 oz. Opal
30 min 1.00 oz. Tettnanger Tettnang
10 min 1.00 oz. Opal
0 min 1.00 oz. Tettnanger Tettnang

WLP565 - White Labs Belgian Saison I

Notes: Mash for 60 minutes at 149°. Pitch yeast when wort has cooled to 90°. Allow to ferment in a space where temperature doesn't drop below 75°. Rack onto oak in secondary fermenter and bottle when gravity has dropped to below 1.010.

Have at it, if you're game (and happen to have the Seven Bridges sampler pack in your fridge). Of course, none of this pertains to the "you think it's chocolate milk but it's watered down Belgian imperial stout" which we'll be brewing this weekend (except for it consisting of the remainder of the aforementioned sampler pack), but that's where having a cellar that never gets above 60° comes in awfully handy.

Many thanks to John at Brew Dudes for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

Labels: , ,

Friday, May 29, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Free Improv

Joy is adding hops whenever your kid thinks it'd be fun.

For a length of time I'm reluctant to calculate for fears I'll have to confront quantitative evidence of just how single-minded (and old*) I am, I've been damned near certain my life would be spent as a musician. How exactly, on the other hand, has been a more nebulous decision. There have been numerous iterations defining musicianship over the years [Um, hello - DJ? What the hell was I thinking?], but one constant has remained. Regardless of what was going to define "being a musician", it was bound to reflect the dominant aspect of improvisation. Whether as a guitarist or a composer or an electronic musician or an arranger (or even as a what the hell was I thinking man that's a lot of expensive gear DJ) there has always been a need to incorporate the element of spontaneous musical composition, because ostensibly, it's only when you loosen the reins and allow the truth of the moment to materialize that you can really embrace the livingness of the art form. In the Shona music of Zimbabwe, for instance, regardless of the fact that musicians play known pieces with names and moods associated with them, they often lack specific beginnings and ends as they see the act of performing akin to making a telephone connection to the spiritual world, and that effect of simply "tapping in", much like turning on a tv in mid-show and turning it off just as arbitrarily, along with a degree of a jazz-like spontaneous interpretation, reflects an ethos that embraces the notion of music as a separate animate entity that we have access to and through which we can communicate our emotions, amplified and transmuted. That "it's there if you're listening for it" approach to creating musical sound can lend to a fascinating viewpoint on what level of control one feels they ever truly have over the creation of their own musical art.

Even musicians trained in the most rigid Western classical traditions respect and acknowledge the discrete variations between various performances and aim for - even under the auspices of cohesively following the written instructions of the composer and/or how they're being translated by a conductor - a performance that transcends the printed page, referring to successful interpretations in terms of being alive, of their emotional resonance, and of their ability to "communicate". And outside of that rarefied sphere of purpose-driven musicianship, in the world of popular, blues, jazz, even now including dance and electronic music, the idea of improvisation as a method whereby a musician can actively exploit the use of time as medium and sound as materials to unveil music that already exists, but which simply needs to be tapped into in order to be brought to light, is such commonly understood routine that discussions over what truly defines improvisation are often eclipsed by the more immediately gratifying discussions over how to do it successfully.

The prevailing argument states that there's no such thing as true spontaneity in improvisation. Any music made on the spot is going to be influenced by so many mitigating factors - previous performance experience, muscle memory, preconceived notions about stylistic guidelines, imitative gestures, unconscious mimicry - that outside of a tiny circle of free improvisers who've made it their guiding discipline to try to divorce themselves from those binding detractions and play from a purely ascended level not unlike a state of trance, all improvised music is pre-composed to some certain degree. Where that line is drawn (not to mention how broad or thick or porous or opaque that line is), between what defines a piece of music and what elements of it have been spontaneously manipulated is where the discussion of improvisation - particularly from the point of view of the composer - becomes richly rewarding, far beyond the talk of "who takes a solo when" or "what scale should I use", breathing life into music by opening the door to the chaotic nature of possibility and potential.

It's near certain that my evolving philosophy on the creation of music has rewired the rest of my brain to the extent that it affects the way I approach pretty much anything that comes up in a given day, with understandably mixed results (let us never again speak of the savory French toast experiment). It should come as no surprise, then, that brewing in this house incorporates a good level of improvisation, for good and for bad, and which brings us to the topic of today's Fermentation Friday. Simply said, the thing that brings me the most joy and the most pain is one and the same: the fact that I can't get through a single brewing session, whether it's in the composing of the recipe or the methods used during the brew to last-minute deviations in hopping to fermentation temperature changes to bottling, kegging, or conditioning choices, it's become quite clear that I'm anything but the type who "leaves nothing to chance". That's all I leave it to, most of the time. And you know what? The beer turns out pretty good. Near disasters provide opportunities to get quickly creative, and unintentional moments of brilliance can make an entire session memorable. Ad-libbed triple decoction? Pain. Spontaneous mini-decoction? Joy. Cutting short a boil time without considering full wort evaporation rates? Pain. Deciding to extend a boil for an extra hour because the weather's nice? Joy. In the end, though, my tolerance for pain is pretty low. Which is why we do so much homebrewing around here: It really is quite simply a joy.

Here's tonight's recipe. I'll post back if anything changes.

* Additional criteria of concern: Adding a power carpentry tool to my Amazon wish list alongside completely unironic enjoyment of the piano music of Handel.

Many thanks to Ted at Ted's Homebrew Journal for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fog's a-brewin'

I've mentioned here recently that we've got a budding shutterbug in the house these days, a pint-size paparazza of sorts who's made her dad's Elph somewhat of a treasured playtime gadget. Here we have one of more recent works, entitled "Yeast". I resisted correcting her, in that it was actually a 2000mL "yeast starter", suspended in a simple wort of dry malt extract and nutrients, as she's likely approaching her subject from an artistic vantage point and not a purely scientific one.

For those of you who don't completely geek out on homebrewing, a 2000mL slurry of yeast starter is more than ample if you're only planning on brewing five gallons of beer. Most folks are content tossing the contents of a pitchable vial of liquid yeast (if not just a packet of the dry stuff) into their beer-in-waiting and letting nature take its delicious course. Why would I bother to waste some valuable wall-staring time with yet another routine of cooking, sanitizing, and nail-biting?

Why? Well, these are the silly types of things you do in preparation for brewing a 14% 12% alcohol by volume* batch of beer.

That beer is the topic of today's experiment: Tokyo Fog
...comes on little cat feet
It's oddly addictive, this reverse engineering technique of formulating recipes, attempting to deconstruct the hidden successes encoded in the interplay between ingredients in culinary masterpieces, reimagining them as distilled, ghostly incarnations within this wholly other medium of brewing. One such masterpiece, legendary in its time, without comparison, is the mighty Tokyo Fog. This Atomic Age bachelor pad tour de force, as inimitably described in loving detail by a man who was there to witness its resurrection on a windless July afternoon, is nothing shy of a symphony in three movements, those movements being: Coffee, Ice Cream, and Bourbon.

And what a name! Fog, particularly the coastal fog that's often referenced symbolically around here, develops over the course of the summer months, when the cool, wet air pushed eastward over the Pacific collides with warm, dry air from the inland valleys, accumulating in such bulk over specific spots in the Bay Area that they suffer through far colder summers than the other three months. It boxes and isolates, like acoustic baffling, creating a theatricality in each little space it carves out, making soundstages out of corner cafes, beach boardwalks, sage-ridden headlands, and steep, lamplit streets. Cars pass by as if entering and exiting a frame, existance beyond which nothing more than a muffled world of guesses, creating at once a heightened state of focus - conversations seem close, clear, undisputed for attention - while at the same time lending to a disorientation and sense of waywardness, what without a sun, sky, or horizon to guide you, along with that unsettling enigmatic curiosity about what lies beyond your crippled scope of sight and sound.  What better metaphor for the experience of enjoying this unholy assemblage of post-war American pantry staples? And Tokyo? I have no idea. It just adds to the mystique.

But let's return, as we always should, to beer. With a mindset similar to some of our other recent experiments, it seemed high time to attempt to isolate and translate the essence of this iconic, nostalgic treat into beer form. High time, that is, considering that a beverage of this strength and potential complexity could need up to a year to fully complete. No point in waiting any longer that we have to, right? That said, let's cut to the nitty gritty, what makes this kid tick. It's actually rather simple:
See, it's sweating because it knows what's in store for it.
Coffee: There's a nearly inescapable DIY trajectory leading homebrewers to become home coffee roasters. And as an unrepentant shill for the folks at Sweet Maria's, I'd be remiss if I didn't pimp the full city roast Guatemala El Injerto Estate 100% Bourbon beans that made their way into this batch. Taking a cue from  - where else? - Randy Mosher's oft-cited manifesto on breaking traditional brewing boundaries - we ground up some fresh-roasted beans, poured some cold water over them in a French press, and let them sit in the fridge for a few days leading up to brew day. The resulting coffee was hugely aromatic, but almost completely devoid of roast bitterness. It found its way into the kettle just about five minutes from the end of the boil. Alongside some appropriately dark specialty grains, it ought to allow for a notable but unpunishing impression of coffee.

Vanilla ice cream: This one poses a bit more of a conundrum, as I'm loathe to add any vanilla directly into a beer. To date, my tasting experiences regarding vanilla flavor as it manifests itself in beer are akin to those with chocolate, in that my personal preference leans towards the impression of those ingredients through brewing slight-of-hand (special grains, fancy fermentation methods, and the like) rather than via stubborn attempts to cram some hunks of semisweet or a few pods of Madagascar bean into the fermenters for effect. For creaminess, though, we thought the judicious use of oats and chocolate wheat malt would help offer that impression through body and mouthfeel, and knowing full well that the preposterously huge amount of malt would lead to an inevitable hit of residual sweetness, we shied away from the too-obvious addition that gives modern-day "cream" stouts their name, that unfermentable loser named lactose. As far as vanilla was concerned, though, we hoped that we could pull some of that off in concurrence with the closing, keystone element of the trinity...
Prepping the potpourri in a lake of liquid love
Bourbon: The key player in Tokyo Fog is the fine oak-aged corn whiskey, "America's Native Spirit", as it were. I've waxed poetic on the joys of bourbon and the myriad joys of marrying it with beer in the past, and to be totally honest, its use in mainstream craft brewing over the past few years has ballooned to a nearly obnoxious scale. Nevertheless, in capturing the spirit of its namesake, that icy treat made permanently slushy by said bourbon, getting some of that liquid fire in there was absolutely essential. As before, we went the Brewcraft route, this time watching nearly a fifth disappear into the oak within just a few days. Seeing as how vanillin is a well-known compound that finds its way into wines thanks to oak barrel conditioning, our plan is to not only take advantage of the "bourbon extract" we'll be generating, but also allow the beer to rest on the physical oak for a while (considering we're looking at aging this for nine months, we've got plenty of time) in hopes that it pulls through and completes the picture we're trying to draw.

Go ahead and click on the carboy geyser for the recipe, if you dare:

If there's a more satisfying image in all of homebrewing than one of a fermentation gone comically, explosively awry, I haven't seen it, and frankly, I've come to acknowledge these perilously violent emissions as harbingers of good luck, as there's seemingly been a consistent messiness-to-deliciousness ratio at work in our kitchen. The results of such havoc? You'll just have to stick around. (For about 6 months or so, unless I weaken and sneak an early sip. Or two.)

* Meet L'il Tokyo:
See, math is not my strong suit. Despite my best intentions, I miscalculated the rate of evaporation over the course of the 90-minute boil, not sure if it was the low level of propane in the tank or the brisk Alaskan wind that kept striking out in whiplash bursts from the north, or that simply, I didn't do the 6th grade level multiplication correctly, which meant that we ended up at the end of the evening with a bit more beer (yay!) than we'd expected, but inversely, at a lower gravity, and hence a lower potential final alcohol level (boo!) than we'd anticipated for. And while Li'l Tokyo might feel left out, as the 1600mL of overflow from the kettle forcibly segregated from the bulk in its little flask, we're already devising plans for how to make the little guy feel special. (In the background is a glass with which we toasted the end of a successful evening of brewing, maybe one of the closest things I've had yet to a beer-incarnate Tokyo Fog, North Coast's Old Rasputin XI. They certainly look related, don't they?) Updates on all to come...

Labels: , ,

Monday, March 23, 2009

All part of a balanced breakfast ale

Mia prides herself on being a quality helper in the kitchen, especially in regards to the arena of baking. Any opportunity to don her mini-toque and mix, punch, dollop and squash her way through an afternoon of food prep is one she'll gleefully take up, upon realizing that's what's on the agenda quickly running to unseen corners of the house to noisily retrieve her stepping stool and perhaps even her mini-apron, keeping an eye open for a free whisk or spoon, prepared to warn anyone within earshot when the oven is hot. Astoundingly, she'll see a job through to the end, with hardly any little person attention deficit to speak of. What began as a rainy day rescue plan has now become as routine as reading or playing music or piecing together puzzles. For a kid who isn't particularly driven by food, and has even less of a sweet tooth, it's still the first thing she'll want to fill me in on when I step through the front door in the evening. If there's a totemic symbol of all that wholesome home-centric adorable fuzzy awesomeness, an icon that fits conveniently in the palm of your hand that represents the process and the product in the hendiatris of head, heart and hands, it would have to be the oatmeal raisin cookie. And if there is an act more nourishing to the development of the toddler psyche - from it's fine motor skills to its lessons on procedure and cause and effect and collaboration to its establishment of work and reward - than baking oatmeal raisin cookies, I haven't found it yet (with the possible exception of the wholesome family singalong).

Think I'm getting soft in my old age? A whole post about baking cookies with a little kid? Give me a break. Your reward is forthcoming, for having made your way this far. It's still all about the beer. Nourishing, centering, fulfilling, "breakfast for dessert of vice versa" beer.

Beer, in today's case, born with the heart and soul of an oatmeal raisin cookie. Let's make some, shall we?

Because face it: homebrewing is a lot like baking, in many ways moreso that cooking. Ability to follow directions with an underlying understanding about the purpose of each step, the use of time and chemistry as the major catalysts, and the focus on a core set of a few simple ingredients are all hallmarks of baking and brewing. In the interest of putting together a recipe that capitalizes on the highlights of fresh, chewy, pungent, homebaked delightfulness, entrapping all those facets of a child's culinary masterpiece within a prism of their dad's favorite beverage, it makes sense to single out some slightly unorthodox brewing ingredients that could potentially make the difference:

Toasted oats: Well, duh, you say. Oats, in oatmeal cookies? Genius. Sure, but while oats have a celebrated history in brewing, the typical flaked oats that find their way into a brewer's mash tun have a far more neutral character than those that have spent some time sweating it out in a hot oven. Following a tip from Randy Mosher's most excellent Radical Brewing, we took a half pound of hand-picked Grade A local hippie co-op approved bulk oats and spread them out on a baking tray in a 300° F oven until the house was unmistakeably haunted by the ghost of deliciousness. Allowed to rest for a few days in the interest of casting off any harsh residual chemicals conjured up by the toasting action, they were then added in with the remainder of the grist.

Raisin puree: If it weren't enough for us to be "radical", the least we could do would be to include something "extreme". Thanks to Sam Calagione's treatise on that very subject, we experimented with a new approach to freeing up all the trapped fermentable sugars trapped in a half pound of raisins. Simply enough, put the raisins in a blender with a cup of hot wort from the kettle, frappe them beyond recognition, dump the resultant goo into your kettle about ten minutes shy of the end of your boil, and relax.

Candi, candi, candi, I can't let you go.
All my life, you're haunting me. I loved you so!

Homemade candi sugar: The image of oatmeal cookies as the health-conscious option on the bakery shelf is a bit strained, as everyone knows the most important ingredient is still sugar. Sweet sweet sugar. So what better opportunity, then, for us to attempt to knock out some amberescent candi sugar by following these simple instructions? The beauty of doing this yourself, like the toasted oats, is that you're completely in control of yet another deeply flavorful brewing component where you can dial in to whatever nuance you'd like to convey. As the sugar cooks, it gradually darkens in color, slowly developing more deeply toned aromas, going from a spun-sugar cotton candy scent into something more richly toffee-ish, caramel-like. Next time we'll have no choice but to go even darker to see where that takes us...

Chances are, despite the duplication of some key ingredients and the resultant intensely comforting waves of olfactory bliss that permeated the home with window-steaming warmth, the finished product in the glass will likely be as akin to an oatmeal raisin cookie as our Old Fashioned Ale was to its namesake cocktail (as in, "not very"). But was it delicious? Indeed it was. Perhaps we ought to chalk this up to my budding theory on the built-in success of backwards engineered brewing recipes. We shall see.

The recipe is here. (It's no small coincidence that the ingredient menu has an "odds and sods" look to it, smidges of all sorts of character grains and an odd stylistic ambivalence, because that's exactly what it is: a leftovers batch. But what of the beer that warranted all these castoff ingredients? What possible Frankenstein of an experiment could have yielded these scraps? To be revealed in our next episode: Tokyo Fog.)

Labels: , ,

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Old-fashioned home brewing

Legend has it that the beloved troubadour of San Francisco, Herb Caen coined the term "beatnik" at North Beach's Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe (better known as Specs). Would be wonderful were it true, had he not actually used the term in print ten years prior in the Chronicle. And as Richard Simmons (no, not that one), the proprietor of Specs points out, it's not as much a destination for beatniks as much as it's been a mecca for bohemians since the late '60s. In the space between Vesuvio's and Specs, in fact, one could probably write the story of the City's modern art movement, between the legions of cheap, thirsty night owl poets. musicians, dancers, and artists looking for something a bit stronger than an espresso at Trieste for fueling their imaginations.

Whereas Caen's drink of choice is historically agreed to have been "Vitamin V" (as in, a vodka martini), there's another cocktail that Specs doles out in equally enthusiastic measures, that being the perennial bourbon mixer of choice, the Old Fashioned. An incredible bit of magic, that. Between some good Kentucky corn whiskey, a little sugar, orange, bitters, some water, and garnished with a cherry, there's a true sense of alchemy at the results, a bit of mixological hocus pocus that attests to it being considered the origin of all cocktails. Like many of the classic drinks in its family, it's a Calder-esque game of balance between sweet and bitter, grain and fruit, wood softness and mineral hardness. Sound familiar? If you've ever brewed beer, the issues of balance between malt and hops are always ground floor concerns, with grain aroma competing with yeast esters slightly higher up the ladder, and for those of you who have played around with oak, it's the exact same rainbow of contrasts that anyone who has enjoyed a barrel-aged beer would find themselves observing.

What goes around, comes around. When recently thrown to the wind this lazy question, "What should we brew next?", a particularly vocal bad influence suggested I give up homebrewing altogether and step up to the world of liquor distillation and make him some nice small-pot secret-time whiskey-style hooch. Which, sadly, isn't in the plans for the near future. But through a glimmer of inspiration, the thought dawned on me, what possibility is there for brewing a beer that could take bourbon's place, and in its most glorious and honored form? What possibility was there in brewing a beer that mimicked a top-shelf Old Fashioned?

After hashing out the final details about what's integral to making an Old Fashioned work while enjoying some inspired barrel-aged libations at the Firestone XII release party, there were certain things we agreed on as being elemental to the success of this little experiment:

- It needs to look right: Sounds obvious, but it's often underrated just how much we take appearance into our accounting for taste. Hitting that flat-out sexy shade of polished mahogany, glints of red and orange evident against the light meant we'd get to experiment with CaraRed for a change.

- It needs to smell right: Alex has gotten me addicted to the stupidly awesome habit of flaming orange peels onto the surface of my Old Fashioneds, which results in giving the aroma a slightly marmaladey touch, one that I thought might be replicable with the judicious use of the right type of hops at the right time in the boil (although admittedly, we'll be flaming a fresh-picked orange over the kettle for good luck). Options are pretty limited at this point, so we'll be experimenting (there's that word again) with some organic Belgian Admiral hops for both bittering and aroma. Beyond that, a successful beer-as-bourbon analogue would need that distinctive aroma of charred oak and that sparkling hit of hot spice. Thanks to the simple genial wisdom of Griz, that part's easily covered.

- It needs to taste right: Any undistilled beverage trying to compete with bourbon is going to meet its biggest challenge in providing fire, that simple burn of a high proof alcohol, and it's a heat we'll only be able to get close to mimicking by making sure we've got a strong elixir on our hands. The original gravity for our batch will come in around 1.090, meaning that with a good clean fermentation from the English Ale yeast, we'll be looking at around 9.0% alcohol by volume. The malt will be paired with a slight hint of brandied cherry to outline a relative sweetness, with a good deal of cheap pilsner extract, British pale and honey malt adding a grainy mouthfeel, and the yeast hopefully completing the fruit overtones.

Here's the recipe. Consider it an Extra Specs'cial Bitter, in honor of that great, great watering hole, and the world of art that's poured forth as a result of its capacitation. Worst case scenario, it doesn't taste like an Old Fashioned as much as a Belgian double IPA. Things could be worse. As long as it stirs the soul and enables a little bit of deep, strange thinking, it's doing its job.

Labels: ,

Friday, August 29, 2008

Fermentation Friday - The best is yet to come

There's a maxim that gets bandied about in homebrewing circles that goes a little something like this: "A batch of homebrew is ready when you've drank the last one." Whereas this smirking quip has its origins in the debate over the proper aging and conditioning of homebrewed beers, it could be taken on a philosophical level to mean something wholly other. What if rather than meaning that most folks often tap into the fruit of their labors while said fruit is still a bit on the green side, it was alluding to the Platonic conceit that exists on the periphery of all best-laid artistic endeavors?

Say, as you work your way through those hand-capped bottles over the course of a few months, that while the beer within those bottles is maturing, that you too are maturing, as an observer of the specific qualities of the beer. And as the facets reveal themselves in different lights like Hokusai's Mt. Fuji, that final sip from that final glass essentially closes the loop on your experience like a freehand outline of the ungraspable soul of the beer. [Note: This analogy has no bearing on the life cycle of the rancid, ropey, freaky infected messes of spoiled nastiness that can occasionally inhabit the homebrewer's domain.] While that outline succeeds in capturing a perfect reflection of the experience of the beer, Magritte would be quick to point out, "Ceci n'est pas une bière." It's but a mere picture of a beer. But could the beer get any closer to being done? Could you be any closer to finishing it? It floats out ahead of you like a faintly glowing ghost, illuminated by its very potential, brought to life by your relationship to its essence. It'll be done once you've finished tasting it, the Form of it up ahead in your mind's eye, perfect.

Now let's step back a moment. What else could finished mean? If we're talking about "the point at which it's reached conditioned maturity and optimal frame of time in which to drink it," we're essentially using it to connote the point at which the beer is at its best. That brings us to this month's Fermentation Friday topic: "What, in the opinion of others, is the best beer you have ever made and why?" In a macro view, taking our stance that a homebrewed beer is at it's best at the point when you've just run out of it (sound of one hand clapping, people!) to the next level, wouldn't the best beer you've ever made then be the next one you make?
With that in mind, it seemed appropriate to head down to the cellar and put a glass under the tap of the last batch of homebrew we've got here, a keg of witbier that managed to sputter and cough one final decent pour of cold, simple, tartly refreshing goodness before giving up its own ghost. When it was done, it was time for the best beer we'd ever made to come into being - if there's one step in the process of making one's own beer that's more enjoyable than tasting the product you've envisioned, it's this, the envisioning process itself.

Summer is on its way out. A beer brewed at this moment, of regular strength and bereft of complex procedures, would be ready for enjoying amidst the heaviest fall of dried leaves, slanting shadows of the oncoming lesser days, whipping winds signaling a change in the seasons, and unpredictably alternating moments of a summer's heated last gasp and winter's northern-borne chill. It's a seasonal season, if anything. The harvest is in full swing, and the thriving bursts of life that surround us in spring are turning into fruit that will either return to the ground, or be picked for our own nourishment. With that in mind, earlier this summer, knowing Des' attraction to the ephemeral nature of nature's olfactory bounty, I got her a still for her birthday. (Granted, the romantic qualities of such a gift are hard to compete with, but it should be noted that it's an essential oil distiller, so the hooch 'n moonshine act is still virgin territory.) One of the first things she distilled was the essential oil of lavender which prolifically blooms here in late June, which also resulted in large amounts of lavender hydrosol. There's a fascinating bit of transmutation that goes on when converting hard, obvious, symbolic items into the sensory element that singles them out in your unconscious mind. And with the seasons passing, catching a whiff of the recently expired elements of summer's headiest moments can be a bit of a timewarp. Bringing lavender into beer, though?

Like I mentioned before, whatever gets brewed at this moment will fall squarely into the hallows of late October's transitional, myth-evoking stage. It's a season, to be sure, but what does that mean in terms of a saison? The Oktoberfest concept is a little played out, and truly more evocotive of saying goodbye to summer than welcoming winter. This saison needs to be black. A black saison, hints of the last dry elements of the waning summer, caught up with hints of the dried flowers that accompany it, prepared to sit alongside a stormy night of power outages and Lovecraft readings or an Indian summer afternoon with quince tarts and farmhouse cheeses. Dry, bitter, not too strong, but not too easy.

So there you go. Here's the recipe.

I'll let you know how it turns out, when it's ready.

Many thanks to the Bunz over at the Panhandle Beer Snob and Redneck Brewery for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Äppelwoi experiment, part III

Last week, my daughter arrived home from a walk, sitting in her stroller and clutching a perfect little tennis ball of an apple, tiger-striped green and red, a secret prize from an otherwise ordinary amble around the neighborhood. Naturally, I wanted to take it from her. Des, however, promised to lead me to the tree that actually made it its job to present such treats to whomever could reach them. After returning to the scene of the climb, we managed to gather a small bushel, most of which ended up getting starring roles in our tasting afternoon. It was clearly apparent, though, that apple season was fast upon us, and with that, the need to whip up that experimental batch of Äppelwoi.

Just in time, just as the time to strike was upon us, a final ambassador of inspiration arrived on our doorstep: the authentic item, delivered in the world's most elegant beverage container, the 40-ouncer.
This is what it sounds like when Frankfurter doves cry. Not delicious. The reassuring image of a pastoral landscape framing a traditional bembl was nothing but a lie. Only steps removed from vinegar (or worse), this horrific reminder as to the benefits of pasteurization and the hardships of international travel still thankfully bore traces of  the cider that we were aiming towards: a very dry, slightly wild, sour, lightly carbonated, vinous and refreshing take on what must be one of the simplest, most foolproof alcoholic beverages in Nature's cookbook. After  assuring ourselves that there's no way we could make anything worse,  we appropriately, given the packaging,  poured the rest out for our homies.
Fast forward one week, and to the scene of the county farmer's market in all it's harvest height glory. All manner of late summer and early fall produce clogging the narrow lanes between the vendors, a twisted, psychedelic color maze, tomatoes and peppers lined up in identical rows but flashing against each other in starkly contrasting hues like run of Warhol prints. And in the midst of it all? Apples. Gravensteins, to be precise, along with some other mysterious early girls like the pink wonders you see above. In keeping with the information I was able to glean from translated web pages regarding Äppelwoi  production, we purchased our typical amount of fresh pressed juice, but also appended our must with a few pounds of apples we pulverized ourselves and added unwashed, skins, seeds, stems and all. All it took was a little honey-based starter of Montrachet yeast, and we were off to the races.
Lest the irony of this image, taken from Hale's orchard's Gravenstein cider jugs, be lost on anyone, understand that the origins of the bountiful array of apple trees that crisscross this country of ours stem from a single purpose. And it was not, as they say, to insure against visits to the local medical practitioner (that came much later, during Prohibition). It was, as the label suggests, because when crushed and left to their own devices, apples do ferment on the wild yeasts resident on their skins, creating a magical, homey elixir that most definitely took the edge off of frontier living. Needless to say, we disregarded the warning. Oops! Let's see what happens, shall we?

And for those of you keeping score at home, the original gravity of the cider was 1.070, which is higher than the "traditional" guidelines set forth in BJCP, but right on track for a cyser or mead...

Labels: ,

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Session #18 - ...but once a year

Almost the definition of advertising cliché, "Christmas in July" is a post-Independence Day marketing assault that's inevitably leaked into the brewing communityin recent years. Chances are, alongside the car sales and outdoor furniture expos and everything! must! go! riding-mower clearances, there's invariably a booze dispensary near you pulling some leftover holiday wares out of their hopefully temperature-controlled back rooms and offering up a chance to indulge in some Bizarro World intoxication while they crank the AC and Bing to seasonally appropriate levels.
But for those of us who like to indulge in the creation of special, strong, spiced ales with that oh so holiday flair, there's no shame involved, since July is the perfect time to get the kettle out and start reminding ourselves what flavors go best with Contessas, as any good strong beer worth its gypsum salt is gonna need the next six months to shape up. For this month's Session, since we're talking about anniversary releases - once a year specialties that you'd otherwise only pop open for occasions of merit - we decided that it coincided quite fortuitously with the annual formulation of our holiday ale recipe, which we brew each year in early August . Along with formulating a recipe, of course, one must also do some tasting. And so we did. With glassware befitting the occasion, naturally.

(It's important to note that we're cheating a little bit here, pretending to ignore one of the subtler instructions for this month's Session: "a limited release anniversary beer from your favorite brewer homebrew stash.")

For a few years now, we've given out corked 750mL bottles of spiced Belgian ale to our worthy friends and family, and each year, thanks to some electronic goof or another, I artfully manage to misplace the recipe for the previous year's batch. So, I pour back over my notes, my shopping history, my dog-eared pages in Brew Like a Monk, and try to locate a old bottle of the stuff to sample in hopes it'll jog my memory. This time, we decided to go back two years, pulling the last of our 2006 bottles (of which I know there are some still floating out there, so if you're reading this, heed the warning below) and our second-to-last 2007 bottle. After dimming the lights, cleansing our palates, and getting Rock Band warmed up in lieu of the fireplace, we got down to work like it was the night before Christmas.

The '06 and '07 batches, while sharing identical ingredients in subtly altered proportions, turned out to be wildly different from each other when placed side-by-side. The '06 literally exploded as soon as the wire had been untied from the cork, yet stayed put in the bottle until it was ready to be poured. The '07, on the other hand, opened with a neatly clean pop, but devilishly tried to climb from the bottle in a steady cascade of foam once I'd set it aside to get the glasses ready. They were both similarly hued, with equally fluffy heads and generously effervescent, creamy mouthfeels, but that's where the similarities ended. I picked up on piles of black liquorice in the '06, whereas Des latched on to its grapey, coffee-ish qualities, ones we hadn't noticed when it was a younger bottle, while likening it to a less alcoholic Samichlaus. The '07, on the other hand, was more dubbel in character, reminding me initially of Ommegang, with strong, yeasty esters, and a brown sugar flavor that wrapped around the figgy maltiness that typically accompanies the style. Interestingly, any hints of the original spice additions would be nearly impossible to single out by name, which, as far as I'm concerned, is exactly the way it should be: The nearly imperceptible hops are replaced by a certain "spiciness" that offsets the malt, but it's an ambiguous enough effect that it lends to some fun guessing.
Just kidding about those boots.

They are, in the end, beers that so strongly reflect the sentiments of the holidays they're like liquid fruitcakes, which makes tasting them while your legs are still sore from waterskiing a bit of a contradictory experience. But, alas, these are the dilemmas we homebrewing beer blogger types must confront. So, without futher ado, here's the plucky little phoenix that arose from the tasting notes we gathered last night: a hastily drawn and perilously unchecked recipe for our 2008 holiday ale. Enjoy.

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. This month's party is being hosted by The Barley Blog. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, June 27, 2008

Fermentation Friday - 99% pit-free

Admittedly, the answer to this month's homebrew carnival question didn't come quickly or easily for me, something that's difficult to admit as being quick to respond with no shortage of verbosity is the way things are expected to work around here. Digging back through the history of my more creative creations unearthed a series of recipes that revealed I wasn't quite as weird with ingredients or techniques as maybe I'd like to appear, the anarchic individualist improvising artiste to which I aspire. After looking at logs that revealed inclusions of sweet gale, an attempt at decoctions, a locally-picked fresh hop pale ale, and the odd bit of cacao nibs, it was pretty clear that whenever I'd tried to inspire a "whazzis!?" moment in my guinea pig tasters, my formidable brain trust was going to do it through more or less traditional means: extreme fermentation temperatures, oddball grain bills, and esoteric packaging matched with laser light shows synced to the music of King Crimson.

Last week, while dining with my sister-in-law, she commented out of left field, "Mom didn't really understand when you put her cherries in your beer." That's when the proverbial lightbulb went up: To this day, it's safe to say that my mother-in-law probably still doesn't comprehend why I wasted a perfectly good jar of her brandied cherries on a batch of homebrew. My contribution to Fermentation Friday (the brainchild of Beer Bits 2, this month kindly hosted by Travis at was written before I even touched the keyboard.

Backing up... Flathead Lake hosts a local cherry appellation that's an understandable point of pride. Sweet, floral, and late in the season, they're also collected annually by the in-laws in the vicinity of their home in northern Montana and transformed, with the aid of an almost trustworthy pitter in the hands of my father-in-law and the cooking and canning guidance of my mother-in-law, into jars of maroon gold: brandied cherries. Understand, as we're talking about a process that's as involved and time-consuming as, say, homebrewing, they're quite the valued commodity, doled out sparingly to family members deemed worthy of appreciating the fine art of capturing the ephemeral essence of peak season cherries in little time capsules to be enjoyed when the shorter days of winter don't provide.

We all see where this is going, right? Here's the point at which we can divide the readers into two camps: those who see adding these cherries to a batch of homebrew as either as act of love and respect or as a reckless, wasteful sacrifice.

When Des and I discovered we'd be welcoming the arrival of a new member of the household back in 2006, it wasn't long before the brewer brain started pondering the best way to commemorate the occasion. I wanted a beer for sipping, something that could be slowly enjoyed while it aged, to be paired with long, quiet evenings in the rocking chair spent trying to figure out this whole parenting thing. But it also needed to have some soul, some deeper connection. Some heredity, as it were. One barleywine base recipe, some lightly charred oak chips, and one coveted jar of Patty's brandied cherries later, a singularly special, if not rather unconventional, beer was created in honor of this next mysterious chapter of our lives.

And it was good.

PS The recipe as I posted it two weeks before Mia was born doesn't even reference anything about the backstory here, which is interesting in retrospect. Was I so superstitious about talking about Mia before she was born that it warranted being entirely circumspect about the recipe's origin? Why all the shy roundabout "shucks golly" explanations about why I really brewed it? Nothing like discovering proof in your own writing that illustrates the levels of denial you go through in the moments leading up to an enormous, inevitable life change, eh?

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Summer recreationist experimentation - Äppelwoi

A source of great regional pride in the drinking traditions of Hesse, apple cider as it's been made and served in Frankfurt, notably Sachsenhausen, has always held a sentimental place in my boozing heart. A colleague of mine and I have an annual habit of proposing summer resolutions which, much like similar resolutions made six months earlier, rarely come to fruition: learning to play the cello, biking up the California coast, mastering ragtime guitar, and writing a symphony are some quality examples of late. This summer, I've adding something novel to "how I didn't spend my summer vacation": I'm going to figure out how to make a true, honest to goodness Äppelwoi.

The idea for this quixotic attempt at recapturing an ephemeral gustatory imprint from visits to family in Darmstadt was seeded by a discussion on the Aleuminati board regarding the current contents of all the members' homebrew stashes, upon which one member, alongside an "American bitter" and a "standard stout", mentioned he had an "apfelwein" going, which naturally got my attention. Unfortunately, after expressing my love for the stuff and pleading for the recipe, I was presented with instructions that, while all means would make a nice glass of apple cider - looked little like the Äppelwoi I knew, and rather than answer the question, left a new void of curiosity in its stead.

How is "apple-wine" different? That's part of the reason for doing this experiment: I'm not quite sure. What I do know is that in crossroads between one of the largest brewing and one of the largest winemaking meccas in the world, it's a fermented apple juice that his its place of pride in Germany's banking center. Historically, it's not hard to imagine the practical--and very German-- shift in production and engineering in regards to making alcohol out of apples that likely experienced a major shift during the French wine blight of the mid-19th century. Skilled winemakers, armed with the talents of coopers and cellar-tenders sharing techniques with the Bavarian lager brewers, easily translated their knowhow into the making of cider. (Granted, they'd been making cider since before the blight, too, but figuring out the story of how it became established at this point as the draught beverage of Frankfurt is part of what this project is about.)

Unlike beer as we currently experience it, Äppelwoi also has a seasonal life cycle that's ingrained into the culture that surrounds it, from the pressing of the apples, to the tasting of the young cider, to the lengthy fermentation, to the tapping of the old cider, to the point where the last of the old and first of the new overlap. Along with that comes a winemaker's discipline, a character trait I'm sorely lacking and could use some training in. A promising outcome of this experiment is that I might pick up some wisdom in learning how to think seasonally, something I've wanted to incorporate into our brewing for a while now, yet have had difficulty truly investigating since the modern age of temperature control has all but eradicated truly seasonal brewing.

I'll equally admit that Ron Pattison's translation work has been a nudge of inspiration here, the strange twitches of imagination that spark up when considering the sense of time-travel or teleportation that recreating these distant styles could evoke. On top of that, there's the desire to glean a better understanding of the story that's shaped my mother's, and by proxy my own and my daughter's, existence - granted, through a perspective slightly curved around the edges and marked by crosshatches as it passes through a ribbed glassful of Stöffche.

Over the next couple of months - until the apples come in, that is - I'll provide periodic updates whenever any interesting ground is broken. Until then, though, any commentary to help me get on the right track would be quite welcome! Until October, then...
Der Äpfelwein als Kind,
süß aus der Kelter rinnt...

Mit Jünglingsmut darauf
rauscht er mächtig auf!

Den ächten Manneswert
kriegt er, wenn er gärt!

Wenn er an Kräften reich
strahlend dem Golde gleich!

Labels: ,

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.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, May 30, 2008

Homebrew Blogging Day #1 - On the origin of cerevisiae

Not just any cerevisiae, mind you, but cerevisiae of the home-brewed persuasion. That's the little blogging Beagle we're boarding, begat by Beer Bits 2, the launch of a new monthly groupthink that's putting the emphasis on the "home" aspect of brewing, a neat parallel to Stan Hieronymus' exponentially popular Session group. And, christening that voyage is the question that lies at the heart of the matter, the question of how we all got around to mucking about with DIY malt fermentation to begin with.

The funny thing about cozying up to scribble out an essay on a topic of someone else's choosing is that you can find yourself experiencing a bit of déjà vu, considerably so if you're as much of a rambling and redundant writer as I am. But the clarion call of the carnival is just too seductive to resist, so I'll try to follow this month's topic with as little repetition as possible from this earlier post. But first, a recipe:

(Click for larger beer-stained image.) My good friend Alex recently informed me that my induction into formal beergeekhood occurred when I caught the homebrew bug, no sooner, no later. Dark, dark years of suffering followed. There was doomsday doppelbock. There was the mysteriously "sweet 'n' sour" beer. There were unidentified floating chunks lurking in carboys. There was rope. On the other end of the tunnel, or the "green grass" side of history, if you will, it all seems worthwhile, as it's now been years since we've made anything other than (dare I say) delicious-ish, pat-yourself-on-the-back, honest-to-goodness, don't-nitpick-the-flaws beer. Had you sampled the "beverage" that resulted from the virgin brewing attempt based off the above recipe, you wouldn't have bet on it.

We still drank it, though.

If you can smile when the food's that burnt,
the beer must be pretty good.*

It's a small, charming coincidence that this subject has arisen with Father's Day on the horizon, as my father can take full blame for the homebrewer in me - if not only for his effective branding on the olfactory development of my impressionable nervous system à la the McDonald's Happy Meal by introducing me to home-brewed beer in my youth, but also for the fact that he presented a bored, bookish kid with a funky little home library to peruse which happened to contain within it my introductory text on the subject. Besides John Barth (Giles Goat Boy, The Sot-Weed Factor), Hunter S. Thompson (Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and Graham Greene (The Quiet American, Brighton Rock), Byron Burch† was in good company with his 1975 edition of Quality Brewing: A Guidebook for the Home Production of Fine Beers‡ nestled neatly betwixt them. Cracking the spine on that delightfully rudimentary and debatable text conjured up distinct (and most likely false) memories of the home-brewed beer I remembered from my earliest youth: the crispness of the carbonation, clarity of bitterness, warm golden hue, and grassy, floral aroma. In retrospect, I'm all but certainly recalling the taste of the first German pilsner I ever tasted as a tiny wee one - not my dad's homebrew - but one can never be sure when it comes to things like that.

My father's inspiration for homebrewing came from his intention to recapture the taste of the German lagers that sustained him for his time stationed in Frankfurt, hence my hybridized recollections. Interestingly, pilsner is one of the only major classic styles we've never attempted, mostly out of reverence to the standard of quality that I'd be embarrassed to approximate (and only slightly due to the chills of terror I still get in remembrance of the sole triple decoction mash fiasco/experiment/failure we endured). Regardless of the differences of between our personal beer preferences, however, there aren't many more ardent supporters of my little hobby than my father, a man who unembarrassedly proclaims each new concoction the new unbeatable best, and who I can also thank for the real reason why I've immersed myself in this subject: for instilling in me a true passion for food, the notion of the kitchen as the soul of the home, and the act of creating and sharing§ food with others as the ultimate act of love. Around here, brewing is part and parcel with cooking, which in turn is inexorably linked to the table, whereby the most primitive, basic, soulful community- and family-buidling exercises take place, through the act of breaking bread. I owe my father for ingraining the importance of the communal table into my psyche, and for reminding me that when you sit at that table, you best be enjoying some damn fine food and drink with your company. So take that as your obligatory (and early) Father's Day toast||.

* And yes, that's a grill loaded up with beer can chicken.

And as for Byron, he's still doing his thing in Santa Rosa with The Beverage People, taking awards for homebrewed mead and selling cheesemaking molds via catalog.

Inside that book was the yellowed business card of one mister Steve Norris (anyone know whatever happened to him?), with the address of a homebrew shop in the Outer Sunset, who guided me through that initial gear-buying spree, recipe formulation, and failsafe instruction guide. And despite a couple items that might induce a chuckle from the more experienced brewers out there ("full" body!), though, there's truly not much that's changed in what goes into making a West Coast pale ale since 1995.

§ If there's a unifying characteristic of the homebrewers I've had the pleasure of meeting, a sense of sharing has got to be it. That's why never make less than 5 gallons at a time...

|| A toast which will this year be raised with glasses of hefeweizen which might break my streak of "unbeatable bests". Beer-and-tear-stained scanned recipe to follow.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, April 28, 2008

Weizen-wit wonderwort

Anyone who knows even the slightest bit about me could have guessed how this was going to end up. In the tail end of my post on a brewing technique by which we sometimes strive to create two completely different beers out of a single brewing session, I wrote:
Or! I'll give in to my slothful nature because it's in the 80's out and I've had a hard week, and I'll just toss all the grains together, boil the whole stinkin' lot in one batch and let the fates sort it out in the carboys (and try to make amends later with dry hop and spice tincture additions) while I work on my tan and soak my feet in the kiddie pool.
The ultra-observant amongst you will note there are what appear to be oats and flaked barley mashed in with the rest of the grains in the above image. It was 89 degrees yesterday. There was only one brewpot. All the ingredients went into it. And my tan looks fantastic.

For those of you keeping score at home, here's the lowdown:

The following grain bill was tossed together and mashed in some good old-fashioned Marin County tap water:
9.00 lbs. Wheat Malt
5.00 lbs. Belgian Pale Malt(2-row)
5.00 lbs. German Pilsener
1.00 lbs. Cara-Pils
1.00 lbs. Flaked Oats
1.00 lbs. Flaked Soft White Wheat
After dough-in, we mashed at 148 for about 50 minutes before starting a continuous sparge (I still can't comfortable with the waste of batch sparging), running the lot into a single (lazy!) kettle. The kettle was hopped with (organic!) Hallertauer Mittelfruh. After boil, the remaining 10 gallons were split into two fermenters. One had a an ounce of East Kent Goldings in it, and the other some more Mittelfruh, the former receiving a dose of Belgian witbier yeast and the latter some Bavarian hefeweizen yeast (to be followed by a hit of German lager yeast before it goes in the fridge). The carboy with the witbier yeast will be getting a nice dose of coriander, lemon peel and grains of paradise when we rack it over to the secondary. It's already exploded nicely all over the basement in what can only be construed as a good omen.

But will either of them taste any good? Most likely, they'll be okay. More interesting to see will be how different from each other they'll really taste, considering the only true difference between them is the yeast. We shall see...

Labels: ,

Friday, April 25, 2008

7-10 split brewing

Some homebrewers have, for whatever reason, a lot of time available to devote to their hobby, while others, like myself, have to carve into the 4th dimension in order to extract enough of the highly prized space-time material needed to construct a fully functional (yet still entirely abstract) mechanism known in these parts as a "free afternoon." But oh, the fun we have when February 30th rolls around! One of the amusing experiments I've concocted in the quest for maximizing the efficient use of such a precious resource is a little thing I call 7-10 split brewing, whereby we save some time by trying to brew separate, distinct batches simultaneously out of the same brewpot, a name derived from the perceived impossibility of hitting two discrete targets with a single trajectory. Anyone who's brewed in batches 10 gallons or larger who still ferments in 5-gallon carboys can relate to the allure of tinkering with the wort a little when it's broken into several smaller containers, especially considering that even if you tried your hardest, two identically fermented but separate batches of homebrew are likely going to taste a little different from each other, anyway.

In some ways, it's sort of a sister concept to partigyle brewing, a historically-minded technique where a brewer breaks a large mash into different runnings, each weaker than the next, in order to make strong ales and small beers from the same tun of grains. But the way we do it is a little more Dr. Moreau than Dr. Villa in the unorthodoxy of its approach.

The victims of this month's experiment: a singly mashed wheat beer which will be cruelly divorced into a Bavarian hefeweizen and a Belgian witbier. Here's the plan:

We're gonna stuff our Rubbermaid bucket with 8 lbs of wheat malt, 4 lbs of pale malt, 4 lbs of pilsner malt, 1 lb of Carapils, and some rice hulls, do a dough-in and strike the mash at 148° F. Meanwhile! I'll be conducting a little mini-mash on the side consisting of 1 lb wheat malt, 1 lb pale malt, 1 lb pilsner malt, 1 lb flaked wheat, and 1 lb flaked oats. When we mash out, I'll do some fancypants arithmetic to ensure that the gravity of wort A (mostly the early runnings from the lauter tun) will be similar to the gravity of wort B (later runnings blended with the mini-mash). Then I can do two side-by-side boils with separate hop and spice additions.

Or! I'll give in to my slothful nature because it's in the 80's out and I've had a hard week, and I'll just toss all the grains together, boil the whole stinkin' lot in one batch and let the fates sort it out in the carboys (and try to make amends later with dry hop and spice tincture additions) while I work on my tan and soak my feet in the kiddie pool.

Regardless of how we do it, it'll be fun, right? After the (explosive!) dust has settled, I'll try to post some details in a more recipe-friendly presentation. Enjoy your weekends, all!

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

You're never too young... learn how to brew. I think this might be a good way to get Mia started, in fact. Heck, she already knows how to run the keg lines.

Labels: ,

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.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


It started innocently enough. Going through the BJCP style sheet, musing over the handful of styles that remain to be attempted at Brauerij Dee's Heuvel, I realized that I couldn't ever remember brewing a porter. And what a wonderful style! With a wide breadth of interpretation, it's one of those beers that encourages the brewer to throw open the shutters on their individuality and take it in any direction - historical accuracy or reinterpretation, boldly wild and strong or easily quaffable and session-friendly - a quality of improvisation that nearly always draws me in.
It's that same quality of improvisation that also nearly always gets me in trouble. For reasons that I don't quite remember, I not only decided to bring the volume of grist to the style's breaking point, but also severely underestimated my brewhouse efficiency - in other words, I wanted to brew something strong and I was having a bout of low self-esteem in the brewing department. That was problem number one - an OG tipping the scales at 1.110.
Somewhere in the nexus between historical accuracy, my love of beers like Allagash's Curieux, and fantasizing over this picture of Firestone Walker's union system, I figured this would be a perfectly suitable time to begin experimenting with oak. Lacking the ability to brew 55 gallons at a time or the proper kitchen space for a fine French cask, I settled for the next best thing and let the beer age on them for about 5 months.
I still don't remember where the third part came in to play. Maybe it's the Three Philosophers thing. Maybe it was a case of the mad scientist blues. Maybe I was just lamenting the lack of anything Very Superior or Extra Old lying around the house. Whatever the reason, a small mason jar of my mother-in-law's extraordinary brandied cherries found their way into the primary fermenter. The result, six months later, is the glowing red satanic beast you see above. Here's the recipe. It starts off with the aroma of bourbon and vanilla, molasses and brown sugar, pouring with the same reverse foaming head you'd see in a nice Guinness. The taste is all wicked bitterness and dark chocolate, cushioned only slightly by its creaminess and hint of residual cherry sweetness, and it leaves the palate with a buttery, port-like finish. It tastes, in essence, like anything but a porter, but still perfect for welcoming autumn's cold licks of evening wind and slanted shadows. Welcome, September.

Labels: ,