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

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
Pct. Grist
Pale Malt40284.10%
Flaked Oats415.30%
Unmalted wheat425.30%
Munich Malt495.30%

Water Profile
Custom NEPA profile
PH: 5.4

Water Additions

Epsom Salt1g1.9g
Canning Salt0.2g0.4g
Baking Soda0.2g
Calcium Chloride1.4g2.6g
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
60 minute boil
Belma [12.10%]0.35oz60 min.26.6
Celeia [4.5%]1.2ozFlameout0
Cascade [5.5%]1.5ozFlameout0

Fermentation Schedule
# Days
Yeast: W 34/70
Pitch half dry packet
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.

December 19, 2015

2015 Brewing In Review/2016 Brewing Goals

Another year of brewing concludes this month and like each year I have blogged I am looking both backwards at the prior year of homebrewing and the next year of homebrewing. For those who haven't read prior years' reviews I count my brewing year ending with the rebrew for my lambic solera as the conclusion of the brewing year and pick back up in early January with the new year. When the lambic solera comes to a conclusion I'll probably stay on this schedule. It's already so close to the calendar year but it also coincides with all the great holiday season deals that I typically hit to stock ingredients for the next year's recipes. For now I'm still running by the lambic solera rebrews, recently posted, so let's get into the 2015 review.

My goals for 2015 centered largely around three goals:

1. Maintain the lambic solera;

2. Design and start an ambitious sour blending program; and

3. Brew (and drink) an ambitious amount of homebrew.

The first goal was easily met although I had some early reservations about the continuing quality of the lambic solera. Year Four was the first year to enjoy a full turbid mash and it took that vintage some additional time in the bottle to mature. For the first several months of 2015 I was uncertain I would want to go beyond Year Five.

The second goal was mostly accomplished. I designed the sour blending program and brewed the two core beers (a rye pale ale and a Belgian brown ale). These beers are awaiting bottling and seeking out their companions in the blending program.

The third goal was partially accomplished as usual. I always seem to plan out more beer than I can brew and consume. Much of this has to do with my enjoyment of designing recipes and wanting to explore new ideas. I still have a few recipes from 2014 carrying over that I am going to diligently try to get brewed in 2016.

Aside from these goals I spent a lot of time having good conversation and learning among the AHA forum and the Milk The Funk facebook group. Milk the Funk is probably the most interesting and advanced brewing forum on the intertubes and well tended by the admins who devote undoubtedly enormous amounts of time culling the facebook discussions and maintaining the expansive wiki. If you have any interest in the more bizarre end of fermentation and you aren't a member of Milk the Funk then you are surely missing out.

As a whole I'm happy with how the year turned out. Most of the beers were good to great which is a solid result for what were mostly brand new recipes.

Turning to 2016...

2016 will be just as ambitious as 2015 in terms of brewing although I am trying to restrain myself from getting out of control with brewing projects. Right now the goal for my wife and I is to pick up and move to Denver in 2018. Although this is still years away I have to account for that in my long term sour brewing and blending planning. I can only afford to devote so much space for hauling bottled beer to Denver so I need to start balancing what I can drink in the next couple years against what I really want to brew and how much of that will come to Denver.

The December 2015 lambic brewday is the last for this iteration of the lambic solera. It will be bottled as Year Six in December 2016. At that time I will have reserves from Year Four and Year Five to create a second gueuze out of the final three years as I did with the first three years. That will give me seven gallons of lambic. So that will be the final blending act of 2016.

The sour blending project begun in 2015 will be ready for its first bottling in 2016. Initially I had planned to get through three years of this project before moving but I think that's too ambitious and I won't get through that much beer if I am counting each year brewing five gallons each of the two base beers plus at least a gallon of the other two beers. The current plan is to blend and reserve parts of the 2015 base beers and see how those beers develop and adjust the recipes and blends and possibly brew the tweaked recipes late 2016 on a small batch level to see if I like those recipes better. I'll probably hold off on fully developing this project until the move to Denver where I will have more space and more brewing companions who enjoy sour beer.

I'm also really become interested in the mixed fermentation farmhouse beers hanging around these days and want to explore that in 2016. The plan is to use the Oregon Special culture I put together from dregs on my last trip to Oregon and see how that culture works around hops. Right now that culture is powering the brown ale in the blending project and it is a really interesting beer. It's got some De Garde and Ale Apothecary dregs in it and they are definitely driving the fermentation profile. I'm interested to see how hops restrain some of the assertive sourness and bring forward some of the funky yeast character.

Among all this sour beer I also have a few lagers and hoppy beers to brew just to keep something light and clean available. I have an excess of hops in the freezer to use up and it makes sense to put these to work both in saisons and some clean hoppy beers. These won't be terribly exciting but I'll stuff them in my party pigs-turned casks and let them break up the ocean of BBA stouts and sour beer that currently occupies most of my beer cellar.

So that's pretty much 2016. Lots of sour beer. Maybe a little not sour beer. The thirstier I get the more I can brew so I'll hope to be especially thirsty this year.

I do want to take this time to thank everybody who has read my blog through the year(s) and tolerated my lazy writing style and occasional bouts of garbage posting. I am posting less but trying to post in a manner more useful to myself and other readers. I hope to be able to post some interesting ideas in 2016 around experiences blending and pitting mixed cultures against hops so that might entice you to hang around for another year of posts.

December 17, 2015

Lambic Solera Update Twenty-One: Bottling Year Five and Brewing Year Six

Every year it seems crazier to me that I've been brewing and aging this beer for five years. The first brewday was in December 2010 right after fall finals in law school and five years later I'm whipping work as an attorney and brewing the fifth annual fill of this solera. For reasons I'll get into in a different post, Year Six will be the final brewday for the solera. It will be completely emptied in December 2016 in which I will blend a second gueuze out of Year Four, Year Five and Year Six as I did with the first three years and bottle the rest straight. I might do a final fruit addition out of part of Year Six as I did the first two years but the beer is already so complex I'd hate to lose that behind fruit. At any rate, this will be the last brewday post for the lambic solera.

I overlooked posting a review of Year Four between last December and this December. I still intend to make that post but I held off for a while to see how the beer developed. Year Four was the first attempt at a turbid mash and that beer took some time to mature and had some unpleasant solvent notes for about six months and really hit its stride mid-summer this year. I haven't opened a bottle at a place where I could sit down and write a deserved review so I haven't had a chance to put that post together. I will do that soon.

To catch up on the history of the lambic solera, I've attempted to add something new to the recipe each year:
  • Year One: Initial recipe was 60% malted barley/40% malted wheat with a triple decoction mash, pitched WY Lambic Blend with a small amount of chardonnay and well boiled oak chips.
  • Year Two: Same recipe and mash but with wheat flour added to the boil with nothing pitched or added to the fermentor other than fresh wort.
  • Year Three: Same recipe and mash but substituted unmalted wheat for malted wheat with no wheat flour added. Pitched a Belgian yeast cultured from a local brewery's bottle and some fresh oak chips soaked in whiskey.
  • Year Four: Same 60/40 malted barley/unmalted wheat recipe but conducted a turbid mash. No additions except the fresh wort.
  • Year Five: Same as Year Four but pitched WY1214. No other additions but fresh wort.
For Year Six I am following Year Five's recipe but adding brandy-soaked oak. I nice final hurrah for this beer. Rather than repost the recipe I'll just include a link to Update #20 which include the three gallon recipe for this year's brew. I'm pulling three gallons from Year Five which means by the time I add the fresh wort I will be nearly maxed out on space in the six gallon Better Bottle. I don't expect much krausen on this beer so there shouldn't be a problem with minimal headspace. I'm adding approximately a quarter ounce of medium char oak cubes and approximately four ounces of brandy in which the cubes sat.

Brewday Notes

Brewed 12.13.15--I forgot how much of a PITA turbid mashes are.

First runnings: 1.063
Pre-boil gravity: 1.035
Pre-boil volume: 5.4 gallons
Mash efficiency: 73%
Post-boil gravity: 1.064
Post-boil volume: 3.5 gallons
Brewhouse efficiency: 72%

Boiled 90 minutes with 2oz. aged EKG at beginning of boil.Check out how pale these have turned. They are from the 2010 harvest and came out of the freezer late 2011. You can see how the pellets have broken down into a powder. They smell like hay and lemons.

Bottling Year Five

Like Year Four I've decided to pass on doing fruit additions to the lambic solera. I'm glad I made this decision because the beers have turned out nicely complex and I don't think the fruit would have added to the beer anything more valuable than what the fruit would obscure. I will yield two gallons of bottled Year Five plus reserve a gallon for the second gueuze blending next December with the final three years.

Ran off three gallons from the solera, bottling two gallons and filling a 4l jug with the remaining gallon to blend next year. Added 1.1oz table sugar per gallon for priming and added a small dose of KV-1116 wine yeast to each bottle before capping or corking.

Initial taste (with priming sugar blended in) is promising. The aroma is honey, lactic acidity, pineapple, lemon, leather and restrained barnyard funk. Flavor is very similar. The acidity is prominent but balanced. Lots of honey and lemon. Almost a candy-like flavor. It has a lot of character from the aged portions but also a bit of raw and aggressive barnyard flavor that suggests it's not quite ready to drink. Year Four had this same flavor for several months in the bottle although it was more prominent in that year than this one. I'll expect to hold on to bottles until late spring before sampling. I suspect this is related to the turbid mashing leaving behind starches requiring a longer meal and more of the fermentation byproducts are left behind that would have been chewed up earlier in a beer with a simpler meal. This is my hypothesis at least. I can't say for sure.

All this said, I'm pretty happy with Year Five's early taste. It's very promising and unusually fruity. Perhaps that is the work of WY1214 pumping out lots of esters for brett to work with.

December 12, 2015

Pivo Kielich Grodziskie #2 Review

I've hung on to this review a little longer than I expected but hey I finally got to sit down with this beer and give it a fair review. My first rendition of a grodziskie was a little under 5% and actually too big for the traditional style. This second shot at the style was around a more historically accurate ABV at 2.7%. A very light beer. Let's get to this:

Appearance: Pours a very light yellow color, nearly an off-white. Early pours before yeast had fully settled had the color of egg whites. Slightly cloudy, less so as the beer has aged. Not as cloudy as one might expect for a 100% wheat beer. Pours a nice white head but quickly dissipates to thin white bubbles.

Aroma: Aroma is mild with mellow smoke, light orange, lime and melon. Not much going on there, honestly.

Flavor: Hop bitterness is immediate followed by a wash of smooth smokiness. Mild maltiness and wheat tangles with lime, orange, lemon, generic melon and minimal floralness. Hops definitely assertive in the flavor. Hop floralness and smoke linger in the aftertaste with smoke prevailing.

Mouthfeel: Body is thin but the wheat protein helps curb a sense of wateriness. It has the heft of a 4-5% barley beer although the flavor is much milder. It's an interesting sensory experience.

Overall: It's an incredibly easy beer to drink. It's the kind of beer you can drink by the liter--if you like smoked beer that much--without getting much of a buzz. I actually wish I had made the beer a bit bigger so the smoke flavor had some heft. I also wish I had opted for different hops. I'm just not a big fan of the celeia hops I used. That lime/floral mix isn't my favorite. It's also too assertive for this beer. Really dominates the flavor. I should have stuck to something noble or noble-like.

November 29, 2015

Spontaneous Fermentation Part 17--Twenty-One Months

A couple weeks ago I tasted this beer again only to find myself accepting that this beer has gone as far as it's going to get with the zoo drifting around inside it. Even the addition of playmates added over the summer had no perceivable effects on the beer. It tastes almost exactly like apple juice. I'm convinced I could have served it as apple juice and nobody would be the wiser. No grain flavor. Just apple flavor and sweetness. So I am accepting my fate that I failed to produce a worthwhile spontaneous fermentation. I added some dregs from a Jolly Pumpkin bottle and predictably it has already gotten busy and a pellicle formed in a matter of days, even taking over the floating masses of yeast. Maybe in a few months I'll have something I can salvage. Maybe a good base for fruit beers.

So what went wrong here?

The coolship innoculation was clearly the problem. I can eliminate all other factors with this beer. The grains, hops and water profile have all been used in both clean and sour beers. The mash profile was the same turbid mash schedule I use for my lambic solera. It was fermented in a better bottle, like my other sour beers, in the same space as my other sour beers.

The only variable is the microorganisms in the beer. Much discussion has been had around the intertubes about coolships over the past year, particularly about the mechanics of trapping the right volume of organisms and the right mixture. This project is a good example of why mere exposure to the outdoors is not enough to ensure a functional mixture exists in the beer. The night I brewed this beer was in the 20F range with an aggressive wind. I spread out the wort in several vessels to maximize surface contact but that allowed the beer to cool to quickly. It was freezing in less than an hour. If I caught much in the way of LAB it must have been outcompeted early on. I should have waited for a less windy day to brew and definitely should have kept the wort together in the kettle to ensure a slower cooling.

Well, maybe next time.

November 16, 2015

More Drinking in Colorado for 2015 Part 1

This is another block of posts outlining my journey drinking beer in Colorado. My wife and I have a good grasp on our routine when we visit the Centennial State. This trip we decided we wanted to blend some of our must-stops with some new locations. There is still a large portion of breweries in Colorado--even just Denver--that we have not visited and new breweries are constantly adding to that list. No matter how much people talk about the saturation of craft breweries there always seems to be more opening even in crowded markets like Denver and San Diego. Even Fort Collins, a relatively small town that basks in New Belgium and Odell's shadows, has a growing list of breweries. People talk about the craft beer bubble and how it is ever closer to popping but as long as breweries unload get profit margins there will be money and credit to go into opening new breweries and expanding old breweries. The bubble won't pop until the profits dry up to cause the flow of capital and credit to dry up. Then it will become a battle to survive--but we seem far from that point. Today's post isn't about the economics of craft beer. It's about drinking so let's get to talking about that.

Great Divide Barrel Room

My first trip to Great Divide was not a pleasant experience. The service was truly awful and it swore me off Great Divide for a long time. That's too bad because I enjoy several of their beers. I was assured the new Barrel Room on Brighton Street--practically across the street from Crooked Stave's location in The Source--would be a better experience. Thankfully, this was the case. Both the service and beers were great. The Barrel Room offers many of the Great Divide staples, like Hoss rye lager, while offering a broader selection of harder to find Great Divide beers. This location has a more inviting feel to it than the main location elsewhere in downtown Denver and I didn't feel like I needed to strap on a plaid shirt just to get served a beer. Let me talk about a few beers I had:
  • Colorado Fresh Hop: This beer is a fresh hopped schwarzbier (not to be confused with Great Divide's fresh hop pale ale) and a limited release. Schwarzbier isn't a style known for its hop character but the big hop character worked really well in this beer. It reminds me more of a hoppy porter than a schwarzbier but the smooth lager character was definitely present.
  • Kriek: Great Divide isn't well known for sour beer although I get the impression this is a direction the brewery wants to go. This sour beer wasn't bad and the cherry flavor was nice but there was a rough ethyl acetate edge to it that detracted from what would otherwise be a good but not necessarily outstanding kriek.
  • Barrel aged Yeti: Yeti is probably Great Divide's best known product, complete with its several variants. I think it is best in its variants where some of the bitter and roast is smoothed out. I've long wondered why Great Divide has slept on the rise of barrel aged imperial stouts but that slumber has come to an end. Barrel aged Yeti spent a year in whiskey barrels and it is just fantastic. The oak and whiskey is smooth and tempered. The alcohol is present but without feeling boozy, like a well-aged BCBS. The chocolate and coffee notes come forward in Yeti and mingle with the vanilla and spice from the barrels. Absolutely blows out oak aged Yeti.

Crooked Stave at The Source

If you're practically across the street from Crooked Stave then you pretty much have to stop in. I've written about my love for Crooked Stave enough in the past so I'll save space and get to the beers. We sampled quite a few beers and interestingly enough there were a few cherry beers on tap which was unusual. It's rare to see more than one cherry beer produced at a time. Maybe Crooked Stave came into a larger supply of cherries than expected. Anyway, I'll just point out the top three beers and move along.

  • Nightmare on Brett with cherries: Nightmare on Brett might be my favorite Crooked Stave beer. It's a baltic porter (or closely based on that style) with Yakobson's skilled hand producing the right balance of brett funk and lactic acid production. The base beer has that brett cherry pie character and adding cherries brings it to the forefront. It's dark chocolate and cherry. Who couldn't love that.
  • Mama Bear's Sour Cherry Pie: This is billed as a burgundy sour ale with cherries--it's actually Origins with cherries renamed as a standalone product. Like Nightmare on Brett, Origins is replete with brett cherry pie but it is a more acid-forward beer with a greater depth than Nightmare. Origins is one of the beers I think of that perfectly captures the description of vinous but adding cherries to it draws out more of the bready and caramel notes and lets the vinousness take a back seat.
  • Dialectic materialism: This beer is an imperial sour wit brewed in collaboration with Comrade Brewing in Denver. It's everything you would expect in an imperialized wit but soured with an addition of Riesling grape must. There's a lot going on here and much of the original wit character has faded out in favor of the white wine character and acidity. The name brought flashbacks of terrible high school English writing assignments while the beer reminded me how much I enjoy white wine grapes/barrels with beer.

River North Brewery

I've written about River North on several past trips so I'll trim down chatting about them. River North is getting ejected from its current location on Blake Street and we happened to be in town for the final weekend. From what I understand the river north district (or RiNo) is quickly converting into a sea of housing buildings that means tearing out buildings like River North's home. They will reopen in a more industrialized area, likely in an effort to avoid repeating their fate in river north. I hear rumors that the new taproom will have more taps and more space so that will certainly be a plus.

As part of their send off they created three beers under the name Funk the Man that are brett saisons released one at a time until the final weekend. I obviously had to give each one a whirl so here goes.

  • Funk the Man #1: Brett saison aged in cabernet barrels. What's not to like about saison aged in red wine barrels? Nothing. It's great. I'm not over the moon about River North's base saison (it's too sweet and too heavy) but brett works wonders on it. Add in the red wine barrel character and you have the recipe for a great beer.
  • Funk the Man #2: Brett saison with hibiscus. I wouldn't say hibiscus is a go-to ingredient for me but it works well here adding a floral balance to the funky brett character. It's not two things I immediately think of melding but it made a lot of sense in this beer.
  • Funk the Man #3: Brett saison with black currants. Currants are one of those fruits that always seems to pair well with brett and sour beers so no surprise it connects in this beer. The slight acidity from the currants helps punch up the beer and makes it similar to #1 but with a fruity and less vinuous flavor.

Beryl's Beer Co.

Beryl (pronounced like barrel) is a small brewery down the street from River North, Epic and several other breweries. Beryl has been open for a little over a year and brews a small set of beers that are primarily, but not exclusively, English in origins. They also put on a fair number of barrel aged beers, many of which are based upon their core beers. It's a smart way of getting lots of different beers out of a small number of recipes.

The star attraction is probably Riga, a baltic porter, that gets split out among several excellent variants such as coffee and different barrels. There's also a bitter (Antero Ale) that is good on its own and excellent in rye barrels. They also make a solid dampfbier that again gets the split treatment, such as a peach version and a blend of the dampfbier aged in red and white wine barrels.

If I wanted to toss a few grenades at the brewery I'd point out that the lighter beers have a minerally finish that one person describes as being seafood-like. That's not entirely inaccurate but it is a very brine-like salt-mineral finish. I'm not sure if it's something they are using for ph adjustment that is leaving behind an unnecessary flavor or something they actually desire in the beer. They also make 1876, an all-Colorado ingredient pale ale that not only had this mineral off flavor but had a very unusual and unpleasant malt character. Overall, however, I would definitely make this a return trip if only to hit Riga (and its variants) and Antero Ale.

Former Future Brewing Co.

I've seen Former Future's location several times on prior trips to Denver but hadn't made time to visit on the schedule. This time I made sure to allocate time for a visit. I had heard mixed reviews of their beers but after seeing one of the owners making his presence known on the Milk the Funk group I figured I needed to check it out. Former Future makes a dedicated effort to keep a sour beer on the taplist at all times so I felt confident I would have something to measure the assertive positions staked out by co-owner James Howat on MTF. Howat is staking himself out as something of an expert on sour brewing (you may have caught his NHC presentation) with heavy criticism of kettle souring. Former Future sells "Death to Kettle Sours" shirts and has ruffled quite a few feathers over their position on the technique. I am not opposed to kettle souring although I have to agree in part with their position. I have seen a growing number of poorly done kettle sours that suffer from off flavors at unjustifiable prices. Where I disagree is the idea that the baby has to be thrown out with the bathwater. There are ways to make those beers in less flawed ways. At any rate, if you're going to build your brand around the superiority of your beers over your competitors then you have set a high bar against which your beers must be judged.

Former Future plays deeply into an aviation theme in the taproom embracing aviation's mid-twentieth century heyday. The focal point is the bar, which is designed to look like the wings of an airplane. It is V shaped with the bartop constructed out of an actual airplane wing and riveted together (or designed to look that way). I'm not sure it's the most functional bar but it is one of the more interesting. Like many small breweries the taproom is open to the brewery in the back. It's mostly everything you have seen in any other brewery. One interesting difference is the long row of square fermentation vessels. These appear to be the type of fermentation vessels used by distilleries but I may be wrong on that point. I am fairly confident that there is no temperature control so they are left at the mercy of ambient conditions.

So let's talk a little about the beers.

  • Twin Ruby: The sour beer available was Twin Ruby, a sour red ale blended out of two red wine barrels. (I am fairly certain this is not one of the Black Project spontaneous beers.) It was good with balanced acidity and the red wine character comes through without overwhelming the beer. Tart berry and cherry flavors push against an earthy funk. The brett character is restrained and overall less complex than I expected. 
  • Putin on le Pitz: This pilot series beer is Former Future's imperial stout fermented with a Belgian yeast with cherries added. There was a nice balance of the underlying beer, yeast character and cherries. Probably my favorite of the two beers. 
We sampled a few other beers but found the other beers were underwhelming. Not bad and not flawed just not memorable beers. As a whole Former Future has a high ceiling for the quality of their beer but they haven't hit it yet. The Black Project beers may be at that upper limit but I felt like the beers I tried out of the Former Future label have room to improve. I would return but I would likely look for the sour and pilot offerings and pass on the others, at least for now.

Avery Brewing

Avery's massive new location opened the weekend I was last in Denver but we already had plans and with it snowing that day we just weren't up for standing in the snow to get in. So this was a new adventure for me. The old location was the generic brewery-in-an-industrial-park although Avery had grown so much it had taken over several adjacent suites. The new location is about as far from that as it gets. It's still in Boulder but it's an enormous freestanding building. There is a bar downstairs with a nice beer garden. Upstairs there is a restaurant with another bar (with good food), a shop selling merchandise and bottles, and an entrance to a walkway that walks you through the entire brewery until you get to more seating and a third bar. That doesn't even begin to capture the enormity of the brewing system.

The new brewery, aside from being an awesome place, has almost doubled production volume. The best part about the expansion is that Avery has expanded brewing volume and variety of its barrel program, making beers like Rumpkin a little easier to find beyond Colorado. The stream of sour beers coming out of Avery are top notch although still difficult to find. The Eremita series is taproom only and number eight was just as good as the earlier versions I've had in the past. It also allows Avery the opportunity to expand production of all of its beers which means the taprooms have long lists of fun beers to try like Semplice, a saison with lemon drop hops. The 22 anniversary ale is available in bottles and getting some distribution. It's a 100% Brett Drie fermented dry hopped ale. It's worth getting for drinking but also probably the easiest way to pick up the drie strain short of sending a bucket of cash to BSI for a pitch.

If you're anywhere near Boulder and not going to Avery you are severely missing out.

Upslope Brewing

I was underwhelmed by the first couple Upslope beers I tried but after going to a tap takeover they hosted last year during GABF my eyes were opened and I changed my mind about their beers. A few of their standard can offerings are still not my favorite choices but they do some really interesting stuff that I wish made it into the canning line. The brewery shares a building with White Labs and a coffee roaster. There is even direct access to coffee roaster from the taproom which is pretty cool. It's worth pointing out that there are two taprooms in Boulder but we visited the Flatirons location which I believe is the only one with brewing operations.

Alright, let's talk some beer. I really enjoyed everything I tried but there were some standouts and I'll just run through those:

  • Belgian pale ale: This one actually hits cans and it's a fairly straightforward BPA with trappist yeast and a little coriander but it's nice and crisp and the yeast character shines through nicely.
  • Thai White IPA: I'm not a white IPA fan but I actually liked this one which carries seven Asian spices along with a witbier yeast and a load of hops. It's interesting for sure. There is sort of a Thai curry element to it that adds a pleasant refreshing quality. It reminds me a lot of a green curry but without the spice.
  • Lychee IPA: This collaboration beer features lychee and azacca hops. I don't know if azacca is the new "it" hop but it's sure showing up everywhere. While this beer could have been a punch in the face of tropical flavors it's more nuanced with some gentle tropical and citrus flavors. I say gentle for an IPA. It's still punchy by any other standard but it isn't bowling you over with tropical thunder like most citra-ladden IPAs.
  • Fresh hop porter: This beer was on the short list for best beers of the trip. The underlying porter is nice and chocolate-y while the hops overlay a pleasant fresh quality and a gentle hop character reminiscent of a pale ale rather than an IPA. It's not a combination I would immediately think about but it works perfectly.  

Wild Woods Brewery

Wild Woods makes some truly interesting beers. Their command of unique ingredients puts to shame many breweries fumbling to shove these types of ingredients into casks where they don't make sense with the beer. While farmhouse ales have become the dumping ground for atypical ingredients (perhaps with good reason), Wild Woods takes to classic American craft styles like pale ale, IPA, stout, American wheat, porter and red ale, as opportunities to meld the local environment and the owners' passion for the local outdoors. It's the kind of thing that so easily drifts into the realm of gimmicky beers but here it seems authentic and well thought out. The IPA, for example, is hit with juniper berries. It's well balanced and the juniper berries add a nice herbal and spice quality that integrates into the beer rather than pumped in like an afterthought to create a little marketing buzz. I know you know that you have had those kinds of beers.

I've talked about Wild Woods previously so I'll avoid going back through other beers I've discussed and just talk about some new beers. There are some interesting seasonals going on right now like the Bourbon Bark Imperial Porter but the most interesting beer by far is Very Wild. Very Wild is a pale ale with pineapple weed and rose hips brewing in collaboration with Very Nice Brewing for this year's Beers Made By Walking that takes place GABF week. It's herbal, fruity, slightly floral and everything you expect in a pale ale. I had never heard of pineapple weed; it's a wild chamomile that tastes like a cross between pineapple and chamomile. You do get just a little pineapple in the mix but it's subtle and mixed with the fruit character from the rose hips. Definitely an interesting beer

Fort Collins Brewery

As I say every time I talk about this brewery, I must be one of the biggest proponents of this brewery that isn't on their payroll. They are probably best known for their standard beers--which are nothing to complain about--but the beers with less distribution are interesting and wonderful beers. Their barrel aging program is expanding and not just in the direction of barrel aged stouts. I've already talked about Fort Collins Brewery at length in the past so let's just get into the beers.

Plenty of good beers to be had with interesting beers like a barrel aged vienna lager and bock but two beers really stood out. One is Oldwyn's Wild Sister, an old ale with brett with a great balance of rich malt flavor dried out with brett funk. When I think of old ales as something distinct from barleywines, this is it. Second is Tart in Cheek, a sour pale with blood oranges and dry hops. It's an incredibly unusual mix of sourness, citrus, berry and grassy hops. There's so much going on in the beer at once.

And a couple other points...

I left a couple breweries we visited out of specific reviews because I've talked about them at length on previous trips. One is Left Hand which puts on great cask beers at the brewery and their new release Bittersweet is worth finding if you can. Funkwerks is the second brewery and it's a mandatory stop on our trips. So many good beers in the taproom but the standout is their Oud Bruin which is currently available and easily on the short list for best in this style. Also worth tracking down if you can.