May 23, 2016

Beer in Hawaii (well some of Hawaii)

In April I spent some time in Hawaii--mostly in Maui with a little time on the big island--so naturally I had to seek out some beer to drink and a brewery, if convenient. I managed to do both so here comes another non-homebrewing post about drinking beer in places I don't call home. Hawaii is an interesting place from a sociological perspective. It is dissimilar from the rest of the nation. Not only because it's economy and culture is closely intertwined with its identity as an island environment but because the overarching culture is a mixture of native, American, Latin American, Asian and various other island influences. As a result the growth of the domestic craft brewing industry into Hawaii has not raced forward at the same speed it has in this country but it definitely present and growing. So let's talk a little about craft beer generally in Hawaii and then talk about my experiences at two of the Maui Brewing Co. locations.

So having only been to Maui and the big island I can't speak to craft beer across the entire state but from my experience on both islands I would hardly expect much difference on the other islands. It wasn't hard to find craft beer on either island, on draft or in bottles/cans. It's definitely out there but the surge of local breweries has not yet happened. Part of this, as I said, is undoubtedly the melting pot of Hawaii's culture. One cannot overlook the presence of wine and spirits as well. There is a fair amount of wine imported (and very little produced within the state) for tourists, especially at nicer restaurants and resorts. Beer is still treated in many of those locations as they are in any other state, as an obligatory offering because some people don't like wine. The far larger market is spirits and cocktails. This should be unsurprising. With a history of growing sugarcane there was easy access to production of rum and vodka and the large number of fresh fruits makes cocktails alluring. I had some great cocktails with fresh fruit and no matter how much you love beer you would do yourself a disservice to go to Hawaii and not enjoy the availability of fantastic fresh fruit. 

Craft beer isn't new to the state but the boom of more local breweries certainly is. As I said it wasn't hard to find local beers and that was true even in small grocery stores. I believe Kona Brewing is the oldest active craft brewery in the state, opening in 1994. They brew lots of easy drinking beers, including some that include local ingredients like coffee and passion fruit. I believe Maui Brewing is the second oldest (but I may be wrong) having opened their first location in Lahaina in 2005 and now continue to operate that location as a brewpub with the main brewery in Kihei (both in Maui). Maui Brewing similarly produces easy drinking beers often with local ingredients. Kona was actually easier to find on Maui, even within a mile or two of Kihei, which I assume is due to Kona's longer presence across the state. Both of these brewers distribute into many other states. There were some other Hawaii breweries we found and tried out. For the most part the beers were average to good with plenty of old school brewpub-type beers or similar beers with local ingredients. Lots of beers with tropical fruits, coffee and honey, but not quite as many as I expected to find. I think this reflects non-tourist drinking trends that favor more approachable beers rather than the current craft beer wave that demands weird ingredients at every turn (not that it is a bad thing). Competitors into the market were unsurprisingly larger west coast breweries (primarily California and Oregon). 

Maui Brewing Co.


Our best craft beer experiences in Hawaii were at the two Maui Brewing locations so let's talk about those. We stumbled into going to Maui because it was close to where we stayed initially in Maui and we wanted some beer so it just made sense to check it out. We get their canned beer in Texas with sporadic availability. I like some of the beers in can but between homebrewing and not seeing their beers on tap I don't drink their beers at home as often as I could.

The production brewery is the newer location in Kihei on the southwest side of the island. It's a semi-touristy area that's more touristy the closer to the ocean you get (unsurprisingly). The production brewery is tucked away in the back of a business park. It looks like many newer  breweries in other states. Big building built for large production on a nicely landscaped location in a business park with a good sized taproom and food trucks parked outside. The taproom offers a large number of beers (over thirty) mostly unavailable beyond the two breweries. More local ingredients and a wide range of styles. This could very easily be a major craft brewery anywhere in the country. 



The brewpub in Lahaina, the original location, is a smaller location in a strip mall that easily looks like many other mid-2000s brewpub. Small brew system (I swear I took a picture but it's not on my phone) plus a large restaurant space. The beers on tap are mostly the same as the production facility. The food was outstanding. Plenty of local ingredients and delicious. THey served sauteed ferns. That was both cool and delicious.

What I liked about both taplists was both the diversity of beer styles brewed very well and the greater commitment to brew within a local identity. Sure, there were big dark beers and IPAs but they didn't just knock off imperial stouts and west coast IPAs like many other breweries or use local ingredients like gimmicks. I really felt, especially with the taproom-only beers, like they were really embracing those ingredients as serious ingredients and putting their own takes on styles. I'm pretty sad I can't find several of those beers at home. (We took home what we could.) So here were the standouts for my wife and I:

Imperial Coconut Porter: Maui Brewing is pretty well known for their coconut porter but they brew a very nice taproom-only imperial version that was fantastic. I'm badly allergic to coconut so I can't consume it but I took the risk and gave it a little taste. Excellent chocolate and coconut flavors. Dangerously smooth at 9%.

Pau Hana Pilsner: Yeah, a really tasty bopils. I drank the hell out of this. I was a little concerned I would get some kind of Budweiser knock off but it was everything a bopils should be. Crystal clear with articulate malt flavors balanced by sufficient bitterness and spicy hops. I drank this beer the most but it was second favorite by very little.

Hop Kine IPL: This is the spring seasonal and sees limited can releases although I'm not sure the cans leave Hawaii, let alone Maui. (I saw it beyond the brewery on Maui.) It's pretty much what you expect from an IPL with a good mix of PNW hops. It was like an old school PNW hop-loaded IPA remixed as an IPL. I really like that kind of beer. I'm still down for some cascade and chinook.

Doubleshot Doppelbock: This is a truly interesting beer. It's the winter seasonal although Maui doesn't get much winter beyond the tops of the volcanoes. This beer is truly unique. First, it's not your usual darker doppelbock. It's a pale doppelbock so it's missing the heavier caramel flavors which helps out a beer that is a winter seasonal in name only. Doppelbocks aren't natural destinations for coffee beers--but there are some others--but I really enjoy the pale beer/coffee combination. This particular coffee beer is made with locally grown yellow caturra coffee. Yellow caturra is a rarely grown coffee with yellow, rather than red, coffee cherries. It's distinct from the usual Arabica beans with a strong honey and spice flavor. So the sum total of this beer is a smooth, strong pale lager with coffee and honey flavors. It feels like as close as you can get to a winter-flavored beer in Hawaii.

POG IPA: This beer haunts my dreams it's so damn good--and I'm not even a big IPA fan. Depending upon your age you might remember playing a game called pogs with circular cardboard discs. Those discs, modeled on old milkcaps, were promotional materials for POG juice, which is a blend of juices from passion fruit, orange and guava cut with water sweetened with sugarcane. It's served as the in-flight treat on Hawaiian Airlines between the islands. It's only barely more interesting than any other sweetened and diluted fruit juice. 

So Maui Brewing thought it would be fun to brew a beer replicating this now-famous juice. It's a seemingly typical IPA hit with late El Dorado and Enigma hops so it's already fruited up. Then they add a mixture of local passion fruit, orange and guava. 



The depth of fruit flavor is amazing. It's complex and deep with so much to offer but not bowling you over the way so many DIPAs do. The acidic fruits temper the bitterness and mellow the hops. The fruit is present, articulate and integrated without overwhelming the beer or getting lost in the beer. It is perfectly balanced. It gets right what so many fruited beers get wrong. It's definitely beer but definitely fruity. It might be the only time I think juicy is an appropriate descriptor for a beer. It's the standard that all fruited clean beers should be judged. I'm serious. I don't use memes lightly. We only found this at the brewpub towards the end of the trip, otherwise I would have consumed a lot more of this. So much more.

Honorable mentions:

Both taprooms offered a pretty good hefeweizen. It wouldn't go on the shortlist of the best hefeweizens I've ever had but it wasn't that far off the list, either. I drank a fair amount of this as well. Nice balance between banana and clove. I like a little more banana personally but I think I'm in the minority on that. It was a touch thin as well but Hawaii is not the place for heavy beers. It is brewed exactly right for its location.

I also have to give mention to Mana Wheat, the American wheat with local pineapple. This beer is canned but I don't think we see much of it in Texas, if any. It's exactly what it says it is. The pineapple is well placed and light. It's probably the best pineapple beer out in the market. I'm a sucker for wheat beers (minus that hellspew white IPA bullshit) and obviously not afraid of a fruit beer so this beer hits on all levels. It's hard to put it on the same list as that POG IPA and one of the things I like most about pineapple is the firm bite of the pineapple fruit so having it juiced into this beer makes me miss just a little about the fruit.

So...

Those were my fairly brief beer experiences in Hawaii. I am interested to see how craft beer develops in Hawaii. The opportunity to use locally grown ingredients is still wide open (Hawaii produces a lot that we don't normally think about--like a Macadamia honey mead which I regret not trying out) and they have a serious opportunity to set off a wave of craft brewing among the Pacific Islands that can wash back lots of other delicious beers with interesting ingredients to us. Since Hawaii seems to be the only place I can snap a decent picture I'll leave you this last picture of sunset at a restaurant overlooking the ocean in Lahaina.


May 8, 2016

Sour Blending Project: First Year Blending

It's been a little under a year since I brewed the first renditions of the two base beers for what I hope to shape into my house sour beer blending project and now it's time to start blending and see where I need to make adjustments. After attending the New Belgium Sour Symposium I was full of ambition to blend sour beer and as I usually do let my ambitions run wild and tried to bite off more than I could chew. To help organize this rather lengthy post I'll quickly run through the two base beers and explain through the naming conventions, talk about how the base sour beers developed and then run through each of the blends I created.

A Recap of the Base Sour Beers and Naming Conventions

Originally I envisioned this project to have four base beers with two of those beers forming the core of the project. I thought this was too much to start with and paired down to the two core beers: a pale ale and and a style unspecific Belgian brown ale. 

The pale ale, which I guess we can call a sour pale ale, was brewed in the image of Firestone Walker Agrestic and Jolly Pumpkin Luciernaga rather than the style that is forming around the term "sour pale ale" which is either a dry hopped sour beer or a kettle soured pale ale. Agrestic and Luciernaga begin life as a pale ale that with time and brett lose hop flavor and aroma and the bitterness from the hops melt away into a tannic presence. Both of these beers lose their bitterness but not before restraining the lactic acid bacteria so there is good balance to the beer. This is definitely not one of those wretched sour IPAs with clashing bitterness and acidity. This beer was fed oak cubes soaked in Tempranillo wine and fermented with dregs from a bottle of Firestone Walker Lil Opal and a Jolly Pumpkin beer (I forget which one). 

The Belgian brown ale is a beer I brewed in an earlier blending project and lucked into creating a really great recipe by accident. It's a good recipe clean but turns over a lot of interesting flavor to brett. It's not quite an oud bruin, Flemish red, or dubbel; and there's not really a Belgian brown ale style that squarely fits this recipe. It's probably most akin to Leffe Brune and similar beers. This beer was fermented with my Oregon Special mixed culture which includes, among other things, Ale Apothecary and De Garde dregs. 

When I started brewing these beers I didn't have names put together for any of the beers. Shortly afterwards I gave the pale ale the name Proletariat after a joking response on Facebook to a post by Mike Karnowski who was considering what to call his saison-like beers. He didn't feel like farmhouse or saison was appropriate but wanted something that reflected the rustic nature of the beers and their inspiration from nineteenth century working class beers. I jokingly suggested Proletariat ales. Then I decided I liked the name and took it for myself. 

I didn't have a name for the brown ale until blending day when I decided to give it the name Bourgeois and subsequently name everything with the blending project something related to the Soviet Revolution. Not because I'm an avowed communist. I have a general interest in history and political science and there's lots of interesting options for names with the subject. Plus, it gives a convenient naming convention for the two beers. Proletariat Pale and Bourgeois Brown. That makes it easy to identify each beer. 

How the Two Beers Turned Out

Pale ale on the left, brown ale on the right

The first step in any blending is to taste the available blending components. It's necessary to identify whether the components are ready to blend, whether they should be blended, what are the positive attributes and the shortcomings. Beers should not be blended blindly or to hide flaws. Blending should create the best beer possible. So here's what I ended up with.

Bourgeois Brown Ale

I expected this beer to develop a good amount of acidity and a prominent brett presence, hopefully with some of that evergreen forest character Ale Apothecary possesses. What I got in return was somewhat on the mark. The beer developed a good amount of acidity with ph reading at 3.4 although it tastes far less acidic. The aroma is herbal in ways that remind me of Ale Apothecary and De Garde. The flavor is strongly earthy in a good way. The malty backbone is present but transformed away from the sweet caramel flavors towards stonefruit and darker caramel flavor, similar to a Flemish red but less obvious. The yeast character dominates. It could pass off as a brett heavy oud bruin. I'm happy with how it turned out. This beer is a lock.

Proletariat Pale Ale

This beer I expected to be less acidic with a firm tannic presence due to the oak cubes, wine and hops. I wanted to see the red wine and oak present but not dominant in the flavor and some of the hop flavor transformed into something interesting. What came out was not what was expected. The ph is only 3.8 but it is sharply acidic by taste. The wine is prominent in the aroma, which was a positive. The flavor is funky in that classic brett barnyard funk. Rye spiciness is tucked away in there. The tannins are present but slightly harsh. Flavor is slightly off in a way that suggests to me this beer needs just a couple more months to smooth out. By the time the beers are blended and bottle conditioned this beer should be hitting its stride. 

I'm not as happy with this beer. I think it needs a little more hops and a little less oak. The biggest problem I suspect is that when I initially pitched I underpitched on everything. The US-05 was underpitched and the initial round of dregs only included the fairly old Lil Opal dregs. I think it took a while to form a pellicle and as a result the beer oxidized a little more than want. That led to more acetic acid production and staling of hop compounds. I added the JP dregs after a few months which helped along the pellicle and sour/funk. On the next round I will probably just prop up some JP dregs or maybe Crooked Stave dregs and pitch appropriate volumes.

Pale ale on the left, brown ale on the right. Difference in color is obvious


The Evolving Ideas for the First Blends

I like to come into blending days with ideas about what I want to happen but those ideas have to be loose until the beers are tasted. The best blends may not be what was expected. I also tend to drift across ideas during the year or more time between brew and blending so where I started is almost never where I end up. In this case I trimmed down to just having these two beers so my initial ideas of blending four beers together all went in the trash (at least for now). My ideas for the bulk of time was to create a blend from the two beers together and optionally create an alternate blend if a good secondary blend presented itself. I also wanted to hold off some of the Proletariat to blend into the next year's Proletariat similar to how Firestone Walker creates Agrestic by blending one and two year old beer together. Whatever excess Bourgeois remained would maybe go on some different spirit-soaked oak cubes for future blending. 

As blending day approached my ideas changed. After tasting some of the foeders from New Belgium's Oscar and finding that wonderful blackberry flavor so well situated in the beer I decided to try to make a really out there blend with blackberries and maybe include some dry hopping and/or spices. I also recognized with the pending relocation away from Texas in 2018 I probably would not have a chance to rebrew either of these beers until I get settled in Denver so setting aside beer for a rebrew of at least Proletariat didn't make sense. (I need to draw down some of my supply of beer and I have several other beers to brew in the meantime.) I still expected to blend a simple blend of the two beers and whatever leftovers I had would just be set aside with the rest of my supply of aging beers to go into some future unknown blend. 

After tasting the beers I had pretty clear ideas about what to do. I let ambition take over and decided to do as much as I could with these ten gallons of beer. What I ended up deciding upon was this:

1. Blend of Proletariat and Bourgeois

2. Blend of Proletariat and Bourgeois with blackberries, Belma hops and black pepper

3. Bottle some of Bourgeois straight

4. Reserve the remainder of Proletariat for future blends. 

This may not sound like a difficult task but once I started considering the mechanics of the blends I knew I was in for trouble.

Putting Together the Blends

My first task was to figure out the two blends and second to figure out how to actually make this work. I put together different blends with pipettes in tasting glasses to find what I liked best. For the regular blend I decided on approximately 60% brown and 40% pale ale. This blend best captured all the great flavor of the brown ale while cutting in more acidity from the pale ale and adding some of the wine aroma. The flavor of the pale ale mostly faded behind the brown but acted like a support structure for the malt flavor from the brown ale. A really nice mix. 

The second blend, which would get the mixture of blackberries, Belma hops and black pepper, went in 75% pale ale and 25% brown. Here I wanted to let the acidity be more prominent and have the brown ale round out the pale ale with a little earthiness that would work well with the blackberries and pepper. The rye flavor and black pepper would integrate well and the melon-strawberry Belma flavors would work as a mellow bonding agent for all the flavors. I settled on the combination of blackberries, Belma hops and black pepper by thinking through what would complement blackberries in the beer blend and then what I had in the house that would complement the combination of blackberries and the beer. 

My priority was making the best of the two blends.I had to figure out how much blackberry I had and how much beer I could add to them to get a good blackberry flavor. Then I could figure out how much beer to use in the regular blend. Whatever was left of the brown would get bottled and the pale ale would go into gallon jugs. What I ended up with is:

Packaged Beer From Bourgeois From Proletariat Total Volume
Regular Blend 3.5 gallons 2.5 gallons 6 gallons
Blend with fruit/hops/spice0.5 gallons 1.5 gallons 2 gallons
Straight Bourgeois1 gallon N/A 1 gallon
Reserved ProletariatN/A 1 gallon 1 gallon

One challenge in getting this done was that the better bottles used as fermentation vessels do not have gallon markers so I had no way to precisely mix beers together without moving them to a vessel with markers. Another challenge was trying to move the beer without repeatedly stabbing each beer with a siphon as I created different blends out of concern of unnecessarily aerating the beer. Thankfully I have two eight gallon bottling buckets and could siphon each beer into its own bottling bucket with priming sugar. Then I could keep them entirely separate and just gravity fill from there. First I bottled the gallon of Bourgeois straight out of its bottling bucket and did the same with the reserve gallon of Proletariat into a gallon jug. Then I piped the appropriate portions of the fruit/hop/spice portion into a better bottle and added its adjuncts. Then I piped the remaining Proletariat into the Bourgeois, gave it a careful stir and bottled it all. This was several hours of siphoning and bottling. Everything bottled was bottled to target 3.5 vol CO2 although it will probably end up closer to 3.

Piecing Together the Fruit/Hops/Spice Blend and Sampling at Bottling

To figure out the exact proportions of blackberries, Belma hops and black pepper I started off thinking about the intended result. I wanted the blackberries to be recognizable but slightly less prominent than what would be expected in a fruited sour. The goal was to taste blackberry but not be entirely sure whether the flavor comes from actual blackberries or from some fermentation or aging effect. The hops should play a close second with the black pepper a distant third with just a peppery finish.

Berries are often added to sour beer at a rate between 0.5-1 lb/gal. I wanted to hit right in the middle and opted for 12 oz (0.75 lb.) per gallon so 1.5 lb in two gallons.

Dry hopping sours inevitably requires a large amount of dry hops because the acidity diminishes the presence of the hop oils. (Think about how little oil you taste in a vinaigrette.) 1 oz/gal is a common ratio. I wanted a little less hop prominence with an already mellow hop so I went 0.4 oz/gal for 0.8 oz in total.

Rates for black pepper in beer are all over the map with the only agreement residing somewhere around the need to use a lot more pepper than most other spices. I opted for what I considered to be a low amount at 3.5g/gal for a total of 7g.

All of the adjuncts went into the blend at the same time and sat together for five weeks. The berries need about 4-6 weeks to get good extraction. It's a long time to dry hop but Ale Apothecary dry hops for a full month and seems to get interesting flavors out of it. I'll admit I was concerned that the pepper would get too much extraction over time but fortunately that did not happen.

Blend with dry hops, blackberries and black pepper. Hops and berries are floating. Pepper is...who knows?

I ended up with about 2.5 gallons of beer out of what should have been two gallons. In retrospect I think I had a little extra Proletariat that went into this blend. More sour beer is rarely a problem. Overall I'm really happy with this blend. The initial tasting is promising. The aroma is probably the weakest part of the beer. It's a little acetic although I expect this to smooth out with a month in the bottle. The smell is "heavy" rather than the bright fruity aromas of the usual fruited sour. Forest, mixed berries, generic spice, earthy and a touch of generic hop aroma. The appearance is hazy and a reddish brown about the same color as when it went into the carboy. The blackberries added very little color or added the same color. The flavor is consistent with the aroma. Acidity remains sharp with flavors of mixed berry salad, earthiness, slight melon, a touch of generic hop flavor,  with mixed berry juice and the desired touch of pepper in the finish. The mouthfeel is fairly heavy for a sour beer with slight oiliness, all likely from the hops. Expect that to lighten with carbonation. The interesting thing is that every time I took a taste of the sample I pulled it tasted different. Sometimes the berry was more prominent, sometimes the pepper showed up, sometimes the earthiness, sometimes the acidity.

Pretty much the color of the pale and brown blended together. You can see how opaque the beer is. Milkshake Sour???

Lessons Learned So Far

So far I'm pretty happy with what I have and what I've done. I will certainly adjust how I fermented Proletariat to get a better fermentation process out of it. Additional adjustments may be made around how I am hopping it. The blackberry/hops/pepper blend is interesting and I may decide to keep up that blend as well. It's always so ambitious and so much work to do multiple blends and packaging at once but also rewarding to create so many different beers.

So the blends need some names. The regular blend was named 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution. It's the event that put the proletariat and bourgeois in conflict with each other so in a sense it reflects the blending of the two beers. The adjunct blend is named Trotsky because just as Trotsky ended up outside of the party mainstream, this combination of ingredients is also pretty far outside the mainstream of even sour beer.

With expansion of this blending project on hold until I relocate to Denver in 2018 I'll have some time to mull over how these blends develop in the bottle and where things go from here. Right now I think I still want something close to the original idea with four beers in the project. The adambier, which was going to be the high gravity beer in the project will probably remain but get brewed in three gallon or less batches because I'm really enjoying my 4-5% ABV sour beers and don't feel the need to get too far beyond that. Instead of dedicating an entire saison to this project I will probably just rope in various mixed fermentation saisons in its place. I think there is still more for me to learn about the interplay between Proletariat and Bourgeois and perfecting Proletariat without needing to rush into dedicating more beers to this project. But just like these blends, by the time I'm brewing these beers in 2018 I may have some very different ideas.

Review posts on the three bottlings to follow.


April 25, 2016

Hanging out with Eric and Lauren Salazar at the New Belgium Sour Symposium

New Belgium puts its sour beer program on tour each year with its Sour Symposiums, offering a rare and direct insight into the history and mechanics of its sour beer program presented by Eric and Lauren Salazar. The focus of the event is La Folie and provides the opportunity to taste beer drawn from some of the individual foeders and get a taste (pun intended) of what makes the La Folie blend. Given the rarity of the event and the information gleaned I thought it was worth sharing my notes here. I'll touch on a few pieces of the history Eric and Lauren shared and then move on to discussing the La Folie blend, how Lauren thinks through the blend and then my tasting notes on the individual foeders.

The History 

In the beginning, in 1998, it was just seven barrels (not foeders, just regular ass barrels) which has grown into a massive space of foeders (and some barrels) especially with the expansion over the past few years. The barrels had been inoculated with various microorganisms but the character of their sour beers really developed after an account returned a keg of Fat Tire that had soured and they used some of this sour Fat Tire to further inoculate the beers. (This story is believable but I do wonder, just a little, whether this is some fanciful storytelling to create a nice link between New Belgium's core beers and the sour beers.)

The first bottling from the sour program was La Folie in 1999. The staff felt confident they would knock out the bottling and party afterwards. A hot tub was rented. Nobody got in the hot tub. Instead of an easy bottling session the staff was subjected to a complete nightmare. Everything seemed to go wrong. The bottling run was small to begin with but was further depleted due to problems packaging the beer. That first year La Folie went into a corked and caged 750ml champagne style bottle. The problem was that the corks they purchased were too big (likely designed for the mushroom-style Belgian bottles) and the corks were cracking the bottles. Yikes.

That kind of mistake seems so obvious in 2016 but looking back seventeen years ago there were very few people available to teach how to do these things and perhaps more importantly what not to do. They were learning by trial and error and most of what has become the pool of knowledge between Eric and Lauren was built by trial and error through the years. There were some times where people were able to teach important lessons. For example, when Lauren first experienced a pellicle her first impression was that this was not a good thing and spent some time stabbing the pellicles. Vinnie Cilurzo quickly set her straight when she brought up the mysterious film on her beers. So let's talk about some of the things they learned that helped develop their sour program.

The New Belgium Sour Program

I don't want to repeat too much of the basic info that's available about their sour program but just enough to provide a jumping off point to discuss some of the info I obtained that isn't floating around the intertubes and other media. New Belgium brews two beers for its sour program, Felix and Oscar. Felix is a pale lager while Oscar is a dark lager closely modeled on 1554. The beers are fermented with lager strains, centrifuged and then top up the foeders as necessary. The blended beers produced from these two base beers are blended out of the foeders, pasteurized and bottled.

New Belgium's sour beer program is unique in many ways, at least among American sour brewers. Their core use of foeders creates a different aging environment from most and their choice of base beers is also atypical. The overall process and choices they have made is a function of lessons learned over almost twenty years plus undoubtedly Bouckaert's experience at Rodenbach. Their attitude about secondary fermentation is also unique. While most sour brewers think about brett as driving flavor in sour beer, the Salazars look at brett primarily as a mechanism to prevent acetic acid. One has to imagine at least part of this attitude comes from using foeders that were often discards from the wine industry of various quality and the large surface of the beer in those vessels. But before discussing the foeders a little more let's go back and talk about those base beers.

The use of lagers as a base for sour beer certainly cuts against the common attitude that one wants a POF+ saccharomyces strain as a primary strain (POF+ = phenolic off flavor positive) because brett will take those phenols and make lots of fun spicy, earthy, barnyardy flavors out of them. The foeders create some of those flavors (and in some more than others) but much of New Belgium's sour beer character is something different from the expected barnyard blast (a good beer name). They get a lot of other flavors and more subdued phenolic compounds that allow them to stand out among a growing sea of sour beers. So then we turn to the foeders and how they affect the base beer. It was clear from tasting individual foeders and seeing Lauren's notes how different each foeder is although each receives the same base beer.

The foeders all have their own backstories and some came from some rough histories where most people would probably steer clear of a barrel with that kind of rap sheet. Eric and Lauren are patient and know how to make foeders loving environments. That loving environment clearly plays a role in the development of the beer inside and that's not just the foeder itself but where it resides in the brewery and how temperature and humidity in that exact location may play a role. It's not clear exactly how different the microorganisms within each foeder differs but the difference is likely not substantial given their use of good foeders to innoculate new foeders that enter the brewery. I also assume that part of what was a very obvious concern for acetic acid production has to do with the use of questionably treated foeders which may have adopted an unhealthy community of acetobacter in which brett is critical to keeping those jerks at bay.

While we're talking about the foeders it's worth sliding in this small but seemingly useful tidbit I picked up. Lauren came over to my wife and I late in the session and we chatted a little. Her voice was going out at the end and lots of people wanted to talk to her so I tried not to woo her to stay and talk to me about the many questions I had and just picked the one I thought was most useful. Eric had pointed out that during the 2013 expansion of the foeder inventory that they had figured out by trial and error that twenty percent was the magic volume of beer from good foeders to innoculate the incoming foeders. I asked her what misses they had experienced at other volumes. Her answer was that anything less than twenty percent led to too slow of a secondary fermentation and they ended up with oxidation (presumably that acetic acid) and any larger volume had no greater effect so it was just wasting good beer that could go out to customers.

Here's why I felt that small piece of information was so important:

1. Obviously for anybody trying to inoculate a new fermentation vessel has one of the best data points here in how much beer is best to make that vessel a good home. Even a normal WL or WY pitch may not be an ideal volume to protect the beer from negative effects of oxygen exposure, particularly if the beer is going into a barrel where the native population may be oxygen-loving.

2. For anybody running a solera it's a good basis for how much beer to leave behind in the solera when pulling beer. American Sour Beer points out that New Belgium sometimes draws to a far lower point in the foeders but if you're working on a solera that is a non-porous vessel (i.e. not wood) and you are not leaving behind trub with the next fill then it's probably a good volume to avoid oxidation issues.

3. It draws into question the typical homebrewing (and sometimes commercial brewing) concept of unloading a small amount of dregs into a beer to trigger that wonderful secondary fermentation. Certainly at a small level our oxygen exposure risks are less and in a less porous vessel the risk is further diminished but I count myself among the number of brewers who have seen a batch get oxidized and develop either oxidized flavor or acetic compounds from lazy pellicle formation. We should probably think carefully amount either creating starters or pitching a larger volume of dregs than a bottle or two into five gallons. (I know many are not so casual about sending in the troops but there are sources online perpetuating this casualness.)

Something to think about at least. I wish I had the opportunity to ask more about what went wrong for them than all the things that went right because that's where the most important lessons reside, at least in my opinion. Part of the reason why I blog is to catalog what went wrong for me so I can help others not make those same mistakes. But I wanted to be respectful of her time and health. I should point out that American Sour Beer speaks on this subject at points out in the New Belgium section that ten percent was the amount used. This seems to be a trial and error correction on New Belgium's part. I don't think the book is wrong for the time the information was given to Michael Tonsmeire but I promise this information came directly out of the mouths of Lauren and Eric. I think this is just a testament to how much they focus on learning from their trials and errors.

Let's then move along to talk about blending a little. I wish Lauren had talked a little more about her paradigm on blending. She gave the same flower analogy I believe she gave on one of the Sour Hour episodes that she starts with the middle of the flower--what the beer should be--and adds the beers from the different foeders like adding petals to the flower. She disclaims the analogy as girly but it makes sense. Blending beer, in my opinion, is just like building a recipe. You should start with what you want that beer to be and work backwards. I think her voice was starting to go at this point so she turned to encouraging us to taste and blend the foeder samples given to us. I don't have any mystic gems from her about blending so I'll just offer this picture of her notes on the final blend for 2015 La Folie. Note the smile and indifferent faces that describe her feelings on the beers.




Tasting the Foeders

This was awesome and honestly the main reason why I wanted to come to this event. The opportunity to break down a blended sour beer into its components and really understand the experience and mindset in blending the beer is truly incredible, especially when it comes to walking the path of somebody as knowledgeable and experienced as Lauren. We were only given four of the twenty-six foeders that go into the blend but they were clearly key components of the blend and could be identified as pieces of La Folie's character. Overall it was most surprising how much each foeder differed from one another. There was clearly some common ground in the base beer but the differences were apparent. Three of the four beers did feel incomplete like they needed the blend to become a complete beer. One was great on its own and I would happily buy that as a standalone beer. Unfortunately I don't think New Belgium makes any single releases aside from the Leopold barrel series.



These are my notes from the four foeder samples. I apologize that the notes are not as lengthy as I would have liked. I was trying to take notes on the beers while taking notes on the presentation and then after the presentation it got very loud and Lauren came over so I wanted to stop and talk to her.

Sure Thing #01 - Firm but soft sourness, recognizable part of La Folie acid character, slight vinegar note. Mild dark fruit flavor and aroma. Good base component for a blend.

Bill Weathers #32 - Moderate acidity and aroma; interesting and prominent blackberry flavor, cola and cocoa. Complex enough that it could (and should) be released on its own as a standalone beer.

Lion's Breath #10 - Mild acidity, typical brett funk character prominent, herbal/floral note. Recognizable within La Folie flavor profile. Complex and brett forward.

Short Round #21 - Most aggressive acidity of the four; tangy lactic acidity. Some brett funk aroma; large cola flavor. Balanced with Sure Thing creates good balance of complex acidity without sacrificing a firm acid profile.

My blend was:
  • 30% Sure Thing
  • 30% Bill Weathers
  • 20% Lion's Breath
  • 20% Short Round
Comparing my blend against La Folie it was clearly less complex although in fairness I had far fewer options. My blend was considerably less acidic but more brett forward with the blackberry note from Bill Weathers far more prominent in the blend. I liked my blend a little more than La Folie if only because I really enjoyed that blackberry character and wanted to restrain the acidity to let it shine through.

Concluding Notes

Good news, Clutch is making a return later this year and Lauren promises the sour portion will be larger for a greater sour profile. I'm really excited. Clutch is one of my favorite beers.

I cannot overemphasize how much the oak plays a role in the flavor profile of New Belgium's sour beers. They have a real sense of being lived in like the microbes have balanced out in the environment and developed their own distinct community. Gone is the aggressive and dominant sourness often found in younger sour beer programs (both pro and at home). Instead they have a softer acidity and more rounded brett character than I've only myself really found in my sour beers reaching three years of age or my lambic solera right around year four.

April 24, 2016

Donner Pass Vermont Pale Ale Review

This strange concoction of a beer (detailed here) brewed in the Vermont/New England pale ale/IPA style was an interesting experience in brewing a style I haven't branched into too much (pale ale and IPA) and a turn at brewing in that New England/Vermont hoppy style that's described as juicy (which I dislike generally) and by its cloudy experience as turbid, milkshake, hazy and so forth. I don't want to rehash the recipe but it's worth mentioning that this beer drifts away from the typical Vermont/NE style in a couple ways. First, it uses very different hops. I went for a blend of Cascade/Ceilia/Belma rather than the usual super-fruity hops. Second, I used a lager strain in a steam beer-type fermentation rather than an ale strain. So maybe calling it a pale ale isn't entirely accurate. Nevertheless, the beer was brewed roughly in the style and for convenience I'm calling it a pale ale.

Let's get into the review:

Appearance: Hazy but not quite milkshake. Early bottles poured more yeast-turbid but after a couple weeks in the bottle it was more hop oil hazy than mistakable as a yeast starter. Generally the color is between tan and copper with the beer turning increasingly copper as it naturally clears in the bottle. Beer retains a thick, fluffy white head with lots of lacing.

Aroma: Citrus-forward with grapefruit, lime and sweet orange. Similar to a citrus punch. Background notes of lychee, melon, strawberry, banana and that generic hop grassiness. Hops are obviously big on the nose. Subtle notes of sweet grain and maltiness.

Flavor: Hops dominate with big presence. Grapefruit, lime, orange, floral, grassy, some of that spicy steam beer character present. Subtle oat flavor. Up front the beer with bitter but a gentle bitterness that fades into a grainy sweetness that is replaced with lingering bitterness in the finish. Overall the beer is like a liquid version of a fruit kolache. The bread is identifiable but sweet. The fruit is the dominate characteristic. Same holds true for this beer.

Mouthfeel: Thick but not quite heavy. Somewhat oily but doesn't hang on the tongue in an unpleasant way. Carbonation scrubs it away leaving behind the impression of a very soft beer. It's definitely not a dry beer by any stretch. Part of the fullness is probably an illusion of the bold flavor but this is definitely a much denser beer than the typically dry west coast pale ale.

Overall: I'm still not a huge fan of ceilia hops which plays against my enjoyment of the beer. It is the best beer I've brewed with those hops so I guess that's saying something. I like the overall framework of the beer but I think the style better suits the fruit-forward hops normally used in those beers. I'm not sure I like this IPA/pale style as a whole more than drier renditions but it is a nice change of pace for sure.

This review was from my notes about two weeks after bottling. When I came back around to some of the bottles that had sat in the fridge for an additional two weeks I found those bottles were clearer and some of that spicy steam beer character was more apparent. The bitterness was also more prominent in the beer. As a result the beer has lost some of its softness and sweetness and now seems a little confused. So I'd probably avoid brewing this particular style with lager yeast.

If I was judging this beer I'd probably score the earlier bottles in the mid-30s, maybe as high as a 36 or 37. The latter bottles probably in the low 30s. So room to improve for sure by swapping yeast strains and opting for more appropriate hops.

These Vermont/NE IPA/pale ales definitely have their own school of brewing that differs from the west coast IPA/pale technique in many ways. It's definitely an expensive way to go about brewing a hoppy beer. This beer was probably gallon for gallon one of the most expensive beers I've brewed, maybe only exceeded by fruit beers. The high level of hop usage drives the cost and I can only imagine how much more expensive these beers are when brewed with more popular hops like mosaic and citra. There's also so much more wort/beer lost along the way with hop absorption and the ever-growing piles of trub at each step. The mash was gummy, the boil kettle had its own sludge and the fermentation vessel still had a huge pile in spite of running the wort through a strainer as I normally do. The bottles also have a good glug of trub. Definitely low brewhouse efficiency on this one.

March 20, 2016

Donner Pass Vermont-Style Pale Ale ...sorta

If you didn't drink craft beer then your first thought when you hear "Sierra Nevada" might be the morbid tale of alleged cannibalism as the nineteenth century Donner party found themselves trapped on the Sierra Nevada mountains in the dead of winter after taking a dangerously meandering route across the west to California. An important pass through the mountains--one the Donner party found blocked by snow--came to be named Donner Pass after the party. This particular pale ale recipe is also a dangerously meandering path to Sierra Nevada. It's something of a frankenbrew that started life as a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone that took on a life of its own and became something that more closely resembles a Vermont-style pale ale. It's not quite a Vermont-style pale ale but definitely not SNPA either.

Initially this recipe was supposed to be SNPA plus one gentle manipulation but went way off track. I've wanted to experiment more with hoppy beers as I have very little experience in this realm of brewing and figured this would be a good place to get my feet wet. Then I thought maybe I would try converting SNPA into one of these milkshake/tubid AF pale ales coming out of the northeast with the softer mouthfeel and overloaded fruity hop flavor; basically making SNPA into the exact opposite of itself. But then I decided I didn't want to buy more hops and looked at what I have on hand that I need to use up. I picked a very unusual hop--Celeia--plus the Cascade in SNPA and a little Belma to create a kinda fruity hop flavor that certainly isn't SNPA anymore but doesn't sound like any of the NE IPA or pale ales I've seen. That style also relies on using a softer ale strain than the Chico strain but again I didn't feel like buying ingredients I didn't have on hand so I'm going to ferment this beer with 34/70 but at warm temperatures.

So where does that leave this recipe?

A strange beer for sure. Could be good, could be terrible, could be just unmemorable. I've adjusted the grain bill towards a Vermont pale and less SNPA with some oats and cutting down the specialty grain and adjusted the water profile to go heavy on chloride as is usually used for this style. The hops will have a mix of grapefruit and lime from Cascade and Celeia respectively with that soft melon and strawberry from Belma underneath and just a touch of the grassy and floral notes from Celeia that will make the hop presence a little complex than fruit juice on more fruit juice. Honestly I'm not sure what happens with the yeast. Lager strains fermented warm can throw esters that should play well with the fruity hop flavor. I think lagers have a softer mouthfeel which is a huge target for this style. So it could be a very suitable alternative to using the typical Conan or London Ale III strain. However, it could be totally off the mark and produce a beer as though a cleaner ale strain had been used. One way to find out I suppose...

Donner Pass Vermont-Style Pale Ale -ish Recipe



Details
Batch Size: 2.5
Est. ABV: 5.3%
Est. IBU: 35
Est. OG: 1.050
Est. FG: 1.010
Est. SRM: 3.4
Grain BillPounds
Ounces
SRM
Pct. Grist
Pale Malt40284.10%
Flaked Oats415.30%
Unmalted wheat425.30%
Munich Malt495.30%

Water Profile
ppm
Custom NEPA profile
PH: 5.4
Calcium96
Magnesium17
Sodium27
Sulfate67
Chloride139
Bicarbonate17

Water Additions




Mash
Sparge
Gypsum
Epsom Salt1g1.9g
Canning Salt0.2g0.4g
Baking Soda0.2g
Calcium Chloride1.4g2.6g
Chalk0.5g
Pickling Lime
Lactic Acid0.9ml

Mash Schedule
Step Temp.


Step Time
Single Infusion at 154F
Mash volume: 6.17qt (1.485 gal)
Sparge volume: 2.86 gal
Infuse 6.17 qt at 169F154F75 min
Sparge 2.86 gal at 180F
First Wort Hop 0.10 oz Belma [12.10%]8.4 IBU

Boil Schedule
Volume
Unit
Time
IBU
60 minute boil
Belma [12.10%]0.35oz60 min.26.6
Celeia [4.5%]1.2ozFlameout0
Cascade [5.5%]1.5ozFlameout0

Fermentation Schedule
# Days
Temp.
Yeast: W 34/70
Pitch half dry packet
Pitch1264F
Dry hop 1 oz Belma, 1.5 oz Cascade and3Ambient
1 oz Celeia hops
Bottle to 2.1 volumes with 1.4 oz table sugar
Bottle condition14Ambient

Brew day & fermentation notes

Brewed 3.19.16

Cut a gallon short on sparging. Realized as I was sparging that I set beersmith to the wrong equipment profile.

Preboil volume: 3 gallons
Preboil gravity: 1.043
Mash efficiency: 75%
Postboil volume: 2.25
Postboil gravity: 1.048
Total efficiency: 62%

Rough efficiency but not because the brew went poorly just lost a good amount of liquid to the hops.

Gravity check 3.24.16: 1.011 -- Suspect gravity is pretty much at its final destination. Will wait two days to add dry hops. Hop flavor more gentle than expected but definitely present with bright citrus fruit and some floralness. Soft mouthfeel, definitely tastes like a lager. Slight sulfur presence that I expect to dissipate soon. So far pretty happy with this. 

February 25, 2016

Revisiting Austin 2016

Among the many reasons why I haven't brewed in three months (at least at the time of this writing) has been in part due to sneaking away on a couple vacations with my wife that have consumed two different weekends. One was a visit to Las Vegas that I felt did not warrant adding info to what I have already discussed beer-wise in Vegas while the second was a trip to Austin that I thought was worth a brief post. We're pretty set on how we dissect Austin to drink a lot of local beer so we end up visiting many of the same places I've already discussed on prior posts so I'll avoid spending space regurgitating how much I like all the same things I liked last time. I'll just point out that both Hops & Grain and Pinthouse Pizza are still putting out excellent beers and continue to be great destinations. We also hit Whip In, which has had some changes to their brewing staff and brewing direction. I don't know the details about those changes enough to feel comfortable discussing them here so I'll just point out that the beer lineup has changed considerably and many of the award winning beers do not seem to be a part of Whip In's beer lineup. There were four Whip In sour beers on tap but they were all unfortunately terrible sours. I would have personally dumped all four. That made me sad; but then I drank more delicious beer. So with that out of the way let's talk new.

Austin's brewing industry is one of the fastest growing brewing industries in the nation. It's not quite Denver or San Diego but breweries are popping up quickly and many breweries are in the planning stages. If I can toss out a hypothesis here I think much of what is fueling the rising numbers so quickly in Austin is that Austin has reached a sufficient number of quality breweries that the older breweries have trained the next generation of brewery owners and attracted enough high level brewers from around the country that the local brewing industry can act as its own incubator for new breweries. It is no longer necessary to import brewers from other regions to find somebody with needed experience and education and brewers no longer have to commit themselves to the tribe of whatever brewery elevated them from homebrewer to pro brewer. We're definitely not there in Dallas but maybe a little closer down in Houston.

So with all these new breweries available we had options and picked two breweries that are not entirely new but are new for us plus a new location on an old brewery that I think is worth discussing a little if only to compare the quality of the new location versus the old.

Infamous Brewing Co.

Infamous Brewing has actually been operating since 2013 but has grown itself from a small handbuilt 1BBL brewing system to a brewery that sells in Austin, Houston and Dallas and is contracting to brew beer at a Dallas area brewery to help service our market. Infamous is located in the northwest side of Austin near Lake Travis which is a sleepier and less urbanized area of the Austin metro. The brewery itself is wedged into a small industrial park in a space that seems entirely too small for a brewery pushing as much product as it does. The brewing space seems to ooze out of every door into the parking lot and exterior walkways. The taproom is small but space is well used. The brewery provides a grill for customers to use to make their own food which is a fun idea. As a whole it is probably not a must-see brewery experience in Austin but likely does very well serving the local community around their corner of the lake.

Infamous's beer lineup is an interesting mix of classic craft styles and new styles. Plenty of staples like IPA, amber and cream ale intermingled with more contemporary demanded styles like session IPA and adjunct stouts. What's most interesting about the lineup is how much the beers reminded me of the way these beers are often brewed in the PNW. The IPA was the traditional PNW pine-citrus flavor rather than unloading the popular fruit bomb hops (which do appear in the session IPA). They also serve up a great American stout which tends to be a difficult style to find outside of the PNW (at least in my experience) when it's not used merely as an excuse to produce a barrel aged beer and/or a base for adjuncts. That said, Infamous's best beer is an adjunct stout and that is Sweet the Leg which takes their American stout and adds peanut butter. It's the best peanut butter stout I've had and leans towards a real peanut flavor over the oversweetened peanut butter flavor I've tasted in a few of these peanut butter stouts.

I would definitely go back to Infamous and spend some more time drinking their beers. They probably aren't wowing anybody with their lineup of easy drinking beers but the beers are solid and this could easily be a neighborhood brewery almost anywhere in the country.

Oasis Brewing Co.

You might know Oasis as the brewery that faced off against New Belgium over the name "Slow Ride" but it's location is probably even more well known. Oasis Brewing is set in the Shops at the Oasis in northwest Austin (close to Infamous) which has been the site of The Oasis on Lake Travis since 1982 and is an iconic landmark in Austin. The site began as a little restaurant perched above Lake Travis and has since grown to a moderate sized multi-use shopping and dining enclave with spectacular views of the lake and a number of decks taking advantage of the view. Oasis Brewing (and we'll just call it Oasis now) has a two story taproom with two outdoor areas that face out to the lake. It's a really cool location. It's a place you want to go to drink beer and let's talk about those beers.

Most of Oasis's lineup are the kind of beers you would classify as lake beers: light and easy to drink. They even market themselves as focusing on session beers. The core beers share no particular commonality except their all, well, session beers. My wife liked London Homesick Ale, an ESB, that I didn't particularly like because it had a dirty hop taste to it that I would describe in the way many people describe Fuggles, although this beer uses challenger. I was more a fan of Luchesa Lager, an unfiltered Czech pils. They also had some Belgian beers that I felt didn't really fit their session beer focus and weren't particularly great but these are taproom only to my knowledge.

As a whole the beer lineup isn't bad but isn't memorable either. They are making the right styles (in the core lineup) for the brewery location but they also can for retail and those beers are going into a tough regional market where there are already plenty of excellent competition. I can't say I would grab Oasis beers over many of their direct local competitors but it's hard not to want to go out to the brewery and enjoy the atmosphere and a iconic location.

Live Oak Brewing

Live Oak isn't a new brewery but the grand opening on the new location was the weekend we were in town so I thought it made sense to talk a little about the new location and how radically different it is from the old site. The old site was located on the east side of town in a building that was much larger than it appears from the outside but was terribly dingy. The ceiling was covered in mold from hanging on to the steam from boils and it looked like a brewery far, far older than it actually was. I guess that was convenient given that their brewing focus is primarily German beer.

The new location couldn't be more different. I was too excited to drink beer to take pictures (sorry) but my wife caught one that shows the ceilings are mold-free.

 
With the new location they have the space to package their once draft-only beers which means you can get their wondrous hefeweizen and pils in cans (in Austin). The new site not only expands capacity but expands the consumer's experience. In the old site you could only drink by taking the tour in which you bought a glass and received a whirlwind of beer. Here Live Oak has a full taproom with long biergarten type seating inside and a huge outdoor space with smaller wooden tables. The interior seating area is nice but the weather was unseasonably warm so we sat outside. The seating outside is in a sunken area beneath oak trees with open green space beyond. There was a lot of security outdoors which was weird. I wasn't sure whether they were afraid the crowd would get out of control on grand opening weekend or if they are required to provide a certain level of security because the new location is right behind the Austin airport. I didn't see them harassing anybody and sometimes were chatting with patrons so no big deal.

The beer is still delicious as always. The taproom has a full line of Live Oak offerings from the staple core beers through seasonals and other limited releases. It's one of the few places you can find a grodziskie or lichtenhainer beyond homebrewing circles and both are tasty. I'm particularly partial to the hefeweizen and pils. Wifey loves the IPA. Prices on the beers are extremely reasonable at $4 pints for most beers and they will give you half pints as much as you want at half price.

Definitely going on the list of must-stops in Austin.

January 23, 2016

Zig Zag Belgian Quad with Cocoa Nibs, Vanilla Beans and Noyaux

This beer has been in the works for a long time. It's a combination of several ideas paired together into a single homebrew recipe. There are a lot of pieces to the end product(s) of this recipe to get together so this post will be a little long. Shortly I'll explain the reason this Belgian quad (or Belgian Dark Strong Ale or Belgian Strong Dark Ale or whatever we are calling these things) earned it's name as a counterpoint to the one very serious and potentially morbid discussion that must be had. This beer is almost two years in the making and you will probably feel that way by the time you reach the end of this post if you don't give up half way through and cough it up to a TL;DR. Part of the reason for the length of this post is to give myself enough notes to future me why I did the things I did. Or, if this beer turns out to be a deadly venture then it may help explain my untimely demise.

It all began in a little place called Buellton...

This beer was conceived, as many of my beers do, through inspiration of another beer I fell in love with that was brewed by somebody with superior brewing skills. In this case it was a sparsely described beer called Saucerful of Secrets served up at Firestone Walker's Barrelworks residence in Buellton, California. It was a smooth and wondrous beer identified as a Belgian quad but unlike any other I could recall. Upon looking at the sparse definition I learned it was brewed seven years prior and had aged in a brandy barrel. As I sat at the small taproom I was inspired to revisit the idea of brewing a big Belgian ale. I sought out to learn more about this elusive beer only to find it was a recipe concocted by Homebrew Chef Sean Paxton and readily available on his blog. The beer I had loved came with a complete recipe and a documented brewday. Perfect.

So I set out to understand what is a complicated and involved recipe for a style that usually relies on a simple recipe design. Paxton's recipe captures almost every type of alternate sugar widely available wrapped around an otherwise not terribly complex recipe. I decided I wanted to simplify the recipe and moderate the ABV slightly to bring it down to 8.6% from 9.7%. I don't think I'm smarter than Paxton but I wanted to make sure I was brewing something manageable. Plus I had other ideas how to invite complexity to the beer.

Taking a good idea somewhere it might not need to go

I've had the idea for a few years now that the next time I got in the mood to brew another big Belgian beer that I would play around with a few different ideas. I'm interested by the idea of barrel aging these trappist/abbey styles and the brandy barrel aspect of Saucerful of Secrets was highly appealing. I've had a few bourbon barrel quads that have been done well (along with a few where the bourbon was oppressive) and wanted to play with that idea as well. I have both liquors aging on oak cubes for what is probably close to two years that gets pretty close to that barrel aging taste. This became a good opportunity to satisfy those ideas. I've also wanted to hit this style with some souring so that is another item on my homebrewing to-do list I can check off.

As I sat at Barrelworks tasting all of those caramel, toffee and fruit flavors I thought they would play incredibly well in combination with other flavors one might find in a box of chocolates and started piecing together ingredients. Cocoa nibs and vanilla were obvious choices. Initially I thought cherries needed to go into this beer but I thought that might be one too many ingredients for this first attempt. I also thought about playing in an almond flavor and my mind went to Cascade Noyaux made with noyaux, the toasted nuts of stonefruit. This almond-chocolate-vanilla-caramel-toffee-fruit beer sounds like a great winter beer edging on being too sweet.

After some research I decided upon a six gallon recipe with three gallons getting the cocoa/vanilla/noyaux treatment, one gallon soured and one gallon each dosed at bottling with oak saturated brandy and bourbon.

Speaking of taking something to a level it need not be, let me share why this beer is named Zig Zag. The trip through Buellton was part of a alcoholiday with my wife that took us from San Diego all the way north to Russian River in Santa Rosa, California. We spent a little time in San Francisco and I requested a trip down Lombard Street. Lombard Street is that zig zag street you see in almost any movie shot in San Francisco. It's actually a series of driveways into apartment buildings on either side which makes a little more sense why it's a zig zag in a city full of roads on steep hills. As we got to the top I looked at my wife and told her there was something I had to do. I rolled down the window and screamed "Hey San Francisco! I am the Zig Zag!" Then I rolled up the window like nothing had happened. I hadn't been drinking (yet) and it was 10am. It was really confusing to all the tourists taking pictures of the street. I just felt like San Francisco needed to know that they might have a zig zag street but I am the Zig Zag. So is this beer.

Selecting and preparing the ingredients

There's nothing too fanciful about most of this recipe beyond the cocoa nibs, vanilla, noyaux and all the fun sugars unloaded into the boil, so I'll just focus on these recipes. The rest of the recipe is fairly standard quad ingredients through the use of WY1214 as the fermentation workhorse. I've carried forward Paxton's use of the unreasonably expensive grains of paradise which I've never used and uncertain about its value in the beer.

Paxton's recipe uses a series of alternative sugars from the mash forward including date sugar, blond candy sugar, clear candy sugar, dark candy sugar, dark candi syrup and turbinado. For my version I decided to reduce the number of sugars down to three. I'm not buying that the clear and blond rock sugar adds anything special so those got the boot. I think the use of candi syrup is important for the style and the unrefined sugars add to the complexity in Paxton's beer. So I opted to retain the dark candi syrup with a pound of D2 syrup along with a pound each of jaggery and zuckerrübensirup.

Zuckerrübensirup is a German unrefined beet sugar syrup I picked up at a local German deli down the street from my office. It's $5.39/lb. so just a little cheaper than the CSI or Dark Candi products. It's actually spreadable so calling it a syrup may not be completely accurate. Zuckerrübensirup is made from the first unrefined pressing of sugar beets as opposed to treacle or molasses which are made from the remaining unrefined material after sucrose has been extracted from the base material. I remain convinced that zuckerrübensirup or a similar product is used as candi syrup in Belgian breweries at least those producing quads on the lighter side of the color spectrum (e.g. Chimay Gran Reserve) while the darker candi syrups like D2 contribute to the darker end. It's flavor is intense sweetness almost in a malty way. It has a touch of that molasses/unrefined sugar flavor but not overwhelming. It's not as dark or intense of a flavor as the D2 but it definitely tastes strongly of flavors I've tasted in Belgian trappist/abbey beers.



The cocoa nibs and vanilla beans

For cocoa nibs I opted for raw over roasted. Raw cocoa nibs have a less bitter flavor that makes more sense in this beer where roasted nibs have a bitterness more suited for a stout or similar beer. I think most homebrewers use raw nibs in general. (I acknowledge that raw nibs are typically roasted to an extent but often nibs defined as roasted have gone to a hotter temperature not for kilning purposes but for particular flavor development.) I picked up these nibs from Amazon at a reasonable price. The nibs will get a soak in vodka for sanitation before diving into the beer.

The vanilla is added to the recipe mostly to round out the chocolate flavor rather than shine through as an independent flavor. For that reason I am opting for half the often suggested ratio of two beans per five gallons. I settled upon grade B Madagascar beans for this beer. Often homebrewers pick up grade A vanilla beans but I could not find any source that identified a flavor difference between the two grades. Grade A have culinary use because they have more moisture and mix into food easier while Grade B are drier and often are used for extract. I am only interested in extracting the flavor from the vanilla bean so it makes no difference to me how much moisture it has. It will visit more than enough moisture in the beer. I picked up a very reasonably priced variety pack of grade B vanilla beans from Amazon and look forward to experimenting with the Tahitian beans. Preparation of the beans will entail chopping into half inch pieces and soaking in vodka before adding to the beer.

And then there was the noyaux

Noyaux (pronounced like NWHY-oh) is the almond-like nut inside stone fruit like apricots, peaches, plums and cherries. You have to get past the outer shell to get to the nut inside which has a flavor and aroma like an almond but slightly floral and more complex. Some fruit varieties have bitter noyaux and apricots, perhaps the most common source of noyaux have both bitter and sweet depending upon the species of apricot. Generally fruit available in the U.S. are the sweet variety. Bitter is more common to wild species.

The outer shell isn't the only problem you have to get past and here is your really important notice about noyaux. Noyaux are known to carry various levels of the precursor amygdalin that converts into cyanide in the presence of water (like in your body). Although small volumes of cyanide are alleged to be under the threshold of safe consumption, you may not know exactly what content will come from any noyaux you decide to eat. You could die. Bitter noyaux tend to have more amygdalin and possess a greater risk.

Noyaux is used quite a bit in various almond-flavored foods and it appears heat treatment is often employed as a way to break down amygdalin so it cannot convert into cyanide in the presence of water. I do not have any medical or scientific expertise here. I am not a doctor. I have no idea how safe or accurate that is. If you decide to give this a try you must weigh the consequences for yourself and you should talk to a health professional first.

Cascade uses noyaux for it's unsurprisingly named Noyaux sour beer with raspberries and apricot noyaux. It is a wonderful beer with almond and floral notes that integrate well with the beer but do not overwhelm either the raspberry or the underlying beer. As far as I know this is the only beer on the market with noyaux although that will probably change in time. The problem is that since it is such a sparsely used ingredient there is little useful information readily available. The internet is predictably full of information ranging from threats that you will die just by looking at noyaux to sources insisting you not only can eat them in unlimited quantity but that you should eat them as a magic cancer cure (which has been thoroughly debunked by science). I wasn't able to find any specific information about their process but everything I have seen from Cascade or discussing the beer makes a point that the noyaux are toasted which at least gave me one clue how the noyuax is probably prepared that matched some of the information I found elsewhere.

Information gleaned from a cookbook suggests the appropriate process is a double roast. First roast the pits at 350F for 10-15 minutes. Then use a hammer to bust open the shells and then roast the freed noyaux for another 5-10 minutes to ensure full penetration of the noyaux. Then to create an extract add the noyaux to vodka or brandy as desired. There are other culinary uses but we'll just talk about brewing here. I wish I could say I had a precise recipe that calls for X amount of vodka to Y amount of noyaux but I couldn't find any consistency among recipes and just took a guess on it. I have maybe half an ounce (by weight) of noyaux to about six ounces of vodka.

For my preparation I saved the pits from many consumed apricots and then a few pounds of cherries. I followed the instructions above to quickly figure out two important lessons. First, it takes some pounding to bust up the pits and free the good stuff. Second, the noyaux in cherries is so small it's hardly worth the effort of smashing the pits to pick out the noyaux from the pieces of shell. However, I got a small collection and topped it up with vodka and let it sit in my brew storage for about a year.

The aroma is fantastic. It's like a slightly floral almond. The flavor is assertively almond and less floral than the aroma. It's a little buttery and woody. The aftertaste developed a rose character after several minutes. The flavor is potent for sure. I drank approximately half a milliliter of the extract and the flavor hung around in my mouth evolving for a good ten minutes. It has an oily texture that explains why the flavor hung around in my mouth. At this point I do not know the exact volume I need for three gallons of beer (I will update the post with my precise addition later) but given this experience I do not expect to use a large volume. I will use the noyaux extract to soak some of the cocoa nibs and vanilla bean so I am not adding excessive vodka to the beer.



Alright, that's probably enough pre-game show. Let's get to the recipe.

Zig Zag Belgian Quad with Cocoa Nibs, Vanilla Beans and Noyaux

Batch size: 6 gallons
Est. ABV: 8.6%
Est. SRM: 37.4
Est. IBU: 30
Est. OG: 1.070
Est. FG: 1.005

Grain Bill

6 lb German pilsner (2 SRM)
2 lb 12 oz U.S. pale malt (2 SRM)
12 oz unmalted white wheat (1 SRM)
12 oz caramunich III (56 SRM)
12 oz caravienne (22 SRM)
6 oz aromatic malt (26 SRM)
4 oz special B (180 SRM)

Mash Profile

Water profile based on Bru'n Water amber malty
Double decoction mash with batch sparge

Mash in 24.26 qt at 129F for 15 minute rest at 122F
Decoct 8.4 qt and raise to boil
Return decoction to raise mash for 40 minute rest at 148F
Decoct 3.65 qt and raise to boil
Return decoction to raise mash for 30 minute rest at 156F

Batch sparge with 3.25 gallons at 180F

Water Profile

Ca: 54 ppm
Mg: 5 ppm
Na: 11 ppm
SO4: 57 ppm
Cl: 65 ppm
Bicarb: 36 ppm
PH: 5.5

Mash Water Additions

Gypsum 1.5g
Epsom salt 1.2g
Baking soda 0.9g
Calcium chloride 3.1g
Chalk 0.1g

Sparge Water Additions

Gypsum 0.8g
Epsom salt 0.7g
Calcium chloride 1.7g

Boil Schedule

60 minute boil

0.75 oz Belma [12.10%] at 60 minutes
Add 1 lb each of jaggery, D2 syrup and zuckerrübensirup at 15 minutes (see note below)
0.40 oz Belma [12.10%] at 10 minutes
2g Seeds of paradise at 5 minutes

Note: To get all of the sugars to dissolve without risk of scorching I transferred approximately half a gallon of wort to a saucepan at twenty minutes and brought back to boil. I first added the jaggery and stirred until it was dissolved. Then added the zuckerrübensirup and stirred it in. Then the D2 was added and stirred in. The contents of this side boil were returned to the main boil at 15 minutes.

Fermentation Schedule

Add 30 seconds of pure oxygen to wort after racking into fermentation vessel. 

Ferment with 1214 slurry from prior batch. Pitch at 64F and let free rise to 72F. Hold through 80% attenuation and allow to free rise no higher than 78F after. Cold crash after four weeks for three days.

In week three combine 1 oz of noyuax extract with 3 oz cocoa nibs and 1/2 Madagascar vanilla bean chopped into 1/2 inch pieces. Top up with vodka if needed to ensure all ingredients are soaked.

Transfer three gallons to bottling bucket on bottling day. Rack one gallon to a one gallon jug and add sour dregs. Prepare bottles for brandy and bourbon portions by adding oak-soaked brandy and bourbon to respective bottles before capping. Carbonate to 3 volumes.

Add contents of noyaux/cocoa/vanilla mixture to fermentor. Let sit for one week. Taste and add more noyaux extract if necessary. Bottle when ready to 3 volumes.

Brewday Notes


Brewed 10/31/15.

Ended up with way, way too much preboil volume. Boiled down approximately 1.5 gallons.

Postboil OG: 1.065
Postboil volume: 6 gal
FG:  1.008
ABV: 8.1%

12/6/15: Bottled three gallons broke up one gallon each with 8ml/12oz bourbon, brandy and pinot noir. Added cocoa nibs/vanilla/nouyaux to remaining three gallons.