September 4, 2014

Labor Day 2014 Drinking in Austin

I took the opportunity to roll into Austin for some beer and relaxation over Labor Day weekend with my wife and another couple. We struck all our usual spots (Bangers, Craft Pride, NXNW, Hops & Grain, 512 Brewing, Austin Draughthouse and Pinthouse Pizza) and made a very brief visit to Jester King to pick up some bottles for a very specific trade. (We tried Snorkel, which is their saison with oyster mushrooms. It was what you would expect from a beer with mushrooms. It was mushroomy.) Rather than write reviews of these places that read nearly identical to the prior reviews of the same brewpubs and breweries, I thought I would do something a little different this time. Rather than break out individual beers or experiences I am just going to lump together the brewing curiosities in one pile and the brief reviews of interesting beers in another.

Interesting Brewery Notes

While mostly ignoring the tour at 512 Brewing I spent some time looking at the clipboards attached to the fermentors in hopes of gleaming something more interesting than the four mystic ingredients that make beer. The surprising find was the expected FG for 512's pecan porter. The pecan porter is a fairly straightforward robust porter with, unsurprisingly, pecans. It's their best seller and a really good beer. The target FG is 1.019 on this beer. That's pretty high for a 6.5% beer. You would expect the beer to be much sweeter especially when paired with the description of "copious amounts of crystal malts." As homebrewers there is a current of thought that beers need to be drier than this FG to avoid the dreaded "extract twang" or overly sweet beer. I am confident, but unable to verify, that the high FG is in part from mashing high to create dextrins rather than unfermented but sweet sugars. That can help create a beer with a higher FG but not necessarily a sweeter taste. The important takeaway is that FG is not always a reliable metric for the sweetness of the finished beer nor should we fear a higher FG merely because of the number.

Perhaps more advanced (and interesting) is the tidbit about barrel fermentations I picked up from Hops & Grain. Hops & Grain does some interesting beers on their pilot system that are fermented in barrels rather than just aged in them. The barrels often are new barrels so the tannic character is more assertive. As you can see from the picture on the right, the barrels are aged in exposed conditions. These barrels sit in the taproom, which is air conditioned, but other barrels with primary fermentation sit in un-air conditioned areas that get up to 100F during the summer. Our tour was led by the brewer responsible for these beers so we were able to grab some information about these beers. He acknowledged the less than ideal temperatures but pointed out that at 50-60 gallons it takes a lot to move the temperature of that volume. I found it surprising that with fermentation creating heat plus the ambient temperature that the temperature would exceed the limits of the yeast. He said he will cool the beer below desired fermentation temperatures before filling the barrels so the key fermentation time (days 1-3) will stay cool. After that it is less important. It makes sense. The several beers I have tasted from the barrel program have clean fermentation character so I have to assume he is right about his process. This isn't entirely applicable to homebrew because we tend not to brew even at this 2BBL volume but for those people filling full-sized barrels or working in warmer clients then there may be something to take away.

Interesting/Awesome/Unique Beers from the Trip

I tried to pick out the most interesting and delicious beers that had some unique character to discuss for brewing's sake.

  • Flix Brewhouse Selvatica Barrel-Aged Sour: A sour beer with mild funk character. The acidity is punchy and makes it easy to drink, which was a welcomed first beer in Austin in the stupidly hot weekend. I found the beer slightly watery, which I have experienced in my own beer as well as other sours. I believe this watery character comes from low carbonation. That is the only time I have experienced that problem in my sour beers and it seemed to be a problem here, too. In spite of that problem, it was extremely refreshing.
  • Southern Star Buried Hatchet with Coffee served on cask: I'm a sucker for a coffee stout and anything in cask so this beer was right up my alley. The gentle carbonation allowed the roast and toffee notes to come through with a creamy texture that made for a very mellow and inviting stout that avoided feeling too heavy on a hot evening. It's an excellent reminder that we do our stouts and porters a disservice by overcarbonating them.
  • Real Ale Nokken: Real Ale took their blonde barleywine and slipped it into red wine and white port barrels for an eleven month slumber. The beer was served in a mere five ounce pour but it is potent as heck, which made the five ounce pour a reasonable size. The underlying beer was like a mellow barleywine. The caramel-malt intensity of a typical barleywine is subdued without going into a bland malt character. The beer that came out of the barrels is nothing short on flavor. The malt character is intensified with gentle fruit notes from the wine and port. The barrel is obvious, with smooth vanilla and a big tannic finish. Real Ale does not fear freeing the tannins in their barrel beers, like some Firestone Walker offerings, and it works well to give a beer full of sweet flavors a nice dry finish. I really enjoy port barrel-aged beers.
  • Hops & Grain Coffee Porter: Hops & Grain makes an excellent robust porter (due to be released in can format this fall) that gets a healthy dose of coffee for one of my taproom-only favorites. The roast-forward robust porter is neither swallowed by the coffee nor overwhelms it with its own roast character. I've discussed this beer in the past so I won't go back into too much detail. I wish I could find more robust porters in general and especially blended with a nice addition of coffee. 
  • Hops & Grain Hoppy Brown Del Roble: This hoppy brown ale was the barrel-fermented offering in the taproom and demonstrated the ability to ferment a beer very clean at those warmer ambient temperatures. Hop flavor was distinct and crisp while the dark malts provided caramel and subtle chocolate notes. Big oak flavor and a tannic finish helps distinguish the beer. Hops & Grain, like Real Ale, does not fear letting the oak have a big voice in the beer and lets the tannic finish fly without tasting or feeling woody.
  • Whip In/Kamala ESB with earl grey tea and wild rice: The wild rice is a new addition (at least for me) in this GABF medal winner. The ESB with earl grey has interesting earthy tea notes mixed with a classic ESB flavor. The wild rice adds an interesting nutty character that works extremely well with the grassy English hops, earthy tea flavor, caramel and malt flavors.
  • Whip In/Kamala Sour Quad: Sour quads are tough to find around Texas but pair two things I love into a single beer so I had to give this one a go. Another fantastic beer from the brewers in the tiny brew house at Whip In. The rich fruit and caramel flavor survives nicely through the brett fermentation although the funk is definitely there. The souring helps ferment out the typically sweet quad into a nice tart acidity. 
  • Circle Alibi on cask with cucumber and mint: With that weird mix of stuff I had to give it a try. Alibi is an American blonde ale of moderate means taken to a strange place in this rendition. My wife described the flavor as "foot fungus" but she's not a big fan of cucumber or mint so take that for what it's worth. There is a strong vegetal character in the beer but it is not really fungus-y. It's similar to what you get in a cucumber and mint infused water. An interesting vegetable-forward beer that was pleasant on a very hot day.
  • Karbach Pontificator Smoked Doppelbock: Austin was doing a great job of serving up beers that bring things I love together and this was no exception (although it should be said that Karbach is a Houston brewery). This malt bomb brings serious smoke with a mix of rauchmalz and cherrywood-smoked malt. The cherrywood a more aggressive smoke than beechwood but not quite the assault of peat smoke. The cherry flavor is subtle but present and plays very nicely with the caramelly munich malt flavor.
  • Odell Trellis Pale Ale: Speaking of beers with random green stuff in it, Odell took an entire herb garden and unloaded it on this unsuspecting pale ale. They added coriander, cilantro, pineapple mint, lavender and rose petal. It is herbal, citrusy, grassy with a hint of spice. For as much as this beer tastes like an herb bouquet, you can actually taste the malt underneath. The hops are hidden among the herbs but overall it is a very well integrated beer.
  • Real Ale Imperium Wild Ale: And last but not least a return to talking about Real Ale and their love for tannins. Imperium is Real Ale's Lost Gold IPA stuffed into barrels for six months with wild yeast (presumably of the brett variety). The output is a surprisingly tart beer with a healthy amount of funk. Some of the malty sweetness survives although the hops are almost non-existent. You can catch a little hop flavor but it is hard to pick out over the lemony acidity, funk and that dry, tannin finish. It is similar to Jolly Pumpkin beers but with more acidity and more oak tannins. 


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