October 31, 2010

Belgian Blonde Partigyle Tasting Note

I cracked open the partigyle I made during the tutorial. I was actually pretty displeased with the results from the first few bottles I drank. Last night I put a couple bottles in the fridge and had very different results. When the beer is cold, at refrigerator temperatures, it is watery and peppery. When it is warmer, at celler temperatures, it has a fruity-spicy flavor and rather than being watery it is light but without taking away from the beer.

It’s definitely one of my least favorite beers I’ve brewed but I only have a few bottles left and I’m sure I will enjoy them a lot more now that I’ve figured out that it needs to be drank warmer than normal fridge temperatures. I enjoyed drinking a couple while I bottled an agave mead and brewed a gallon batch to try out some wild yeast I caught.
October 20, 2010

Working with Agave

I’m about to buckle down for finals this semester, so I’ll shortly lose the time to brew or ponder about brewing (let along write about it!) I have just wrapped up some fun experiments with agave syrup and I wanted to add some first hand and slightly more definitive information than what I found online. Let’s say I wanted to see what it would look like freeze distilling (aka freeze concentrating aka jacking) fermented agave wine to see how close I could get to making something tequila-like. (You can get reasonably close to something tasty but not really the same. More like an agave brandy, but more on that later.) When I started this experiment a month ago, I couldn’t find much clear information on what would happen if you tried to ferment any of the agave products available in grocery stores nor was I familiar with making mead, so I had a steep learning curve ahead of me. I learned a lot from this experiment and I did make some cool stuff, which I’ll talk about. Since I want to preserve and share what I learned, I’ll write more expansively than just what I did.

Available Agave Products

There are two main agave products available in the grocery stores in my area (Texas) and I understand these products are generally available across the US. One is agave syrup, which is often found in the sweetner/sugar aisle of grocery stores. The other is agave nectar, which is typically found with honey. Agave is a plant native to Mexico. It is most commonly used for making mezcal and tequila (I realize tequila is a kind of mescal), by cutting up the heart of the root system, boiling it, and then fermenting the must. It is then distilled to make the particular spirit. Mezcal is any form of distilled liquor made from agave. If it is made primarily from blue agave, it can be called tequila in Mexico. 

In the interest of expanding the Mexican economy, some smart feller or gal figured out you could refine the sugars in agave to make various sweeting products, such as the two mentioned. As the impurities and flavor is refined away, it becomes agave nectar, which has a honey-like flavor and consistency. As it is further refined, it becomes agave syrup, which is clear and flavorless. Agave sugar is primarily fructose, so it is similar to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Some people say agave syrup is worse than HFCS because it has a higher fructose concentration; others believe it is a more organic and healthier sweetner option. I don’t take a stand on this position because for us, sugar is simply a fermentable fuel to create alcohol.

Agave syrup, as stated, is clear and flavorless. In large quantities, it probably has some slight honey or agave (think tequila) flavor, particularly when fermented. It is more apt to be used as an adjunct to raise the alcohol content of a beverage. I doubt if it were fermented alone it would have any flavor or produce anything enjoyable. Since it is mostly fructose and water, it must ferment very dry and probably produces cider-like flavors, similar to table sugar. It could be used in recipes in the place of table sugar, corn sugar, corn syrup or golden syrup (which is really just corn syrup). It would require finding the brix or OG of agave syrup, which is probably available online or available through an agave syrup distributor. However, I won’t spend any further time on this product because I believe if you are looking for a high-sugar adjunct corn syrup is just as good of an option and it is much cheaper.

Agave nectar, on the other hand, has much more varied uses. It is similar to honey in many ways. It has the same thick viscosity, a similar taste, and close to the same sugar breakdown as honey. This is why it is a common substitute for honey in many vegan or vegetarian recipes. In (much) higher concentration it does begin to develop a more agave/tequila flavor. It does have a much higher ratio of fructose to sucrose and maltose sugars, which is harder for yeasts to work through. Keep in mind that since agave nectar, like honey, is almost completely sugar and it can ferment very dry (although in my experience slightly less dry than honey). Research indicates it has the same OG as honey (about 1.034). Most agave nectar in grocery stores will be well processed, so it will have much more of a honey flavor. You may be able to find “raw” or “natural” agave nectar that has more impurities in it and more of a distinct agave flavor. Agave nectar, as I will explain in greater detail below, can be used as an adjunct, in place of honey in beer recipes, to create braggots, in meads, or even fermented by itself as an agave wine (or mead, depending on which you want to call it.)

The most importance difference in agave nectar and honey is the flavor issue. Honey tastes like honey no matter how much you use. Once you use enough honey in a beer to reach the flavor threshold it tastes like honey. It will taste like honey no matter how much you add. It just becomes a question of how much you will be able to taste the other stuff in the beer against a large quantity of honey.

Agave nectar is a strange beast to work with. Agave nectar will taste a lot like honey in small amounts. It does take a good amount to reach the point where it starts to create a tequila-like flavor. If you let it ferment dry it will taste a little like tequila and a lot like fermented table sugar. It doesn’t have the same complex flavor of fermented honey as a result of the refining process that removes the flavor components that otherwise would be left after fermentation. You could stop the fermentation process before it dries out – and using ale yeast it probably won’t ferment out completely – but then you will get sweetness without the agave/tequila flavor. For more discussion about the transition of flavor, look to the tequila-attempt at the end.

Using Agave in Beer

I’ll discuss using agave as an adjunct and like honey/replacing honey in beer and save the braggot discussion with mead. Although you can use agave nectar in beer as an adjunct, it will leave a distinct flavor in beer, much like honey will. I would strongly urge using a more neutral adjunct if the goal is simply to bolster alcohol content. The real value of agave nectar in beer is to consider it as a flavor component. Agave is getting some commercial play in beers. I’ve seen an agave wheat and I believe there is an agave brown(?) and several others on the market. Agave is perfectly fine to use in place of honey in other recipes. At low amounts it will produce a flavor very similar to honey. As it begins to increase as a component of beer, it will undoubtedly begin to take on a more agave/tequila flavor.

It can be added during the boil, but it is not absolutely necessary since it should be pasteurized. It should probably be added at the very end of the boil just to make sure it dissolves easily. It could also be added in a secondary fermentation alone or with other items. It could be used for priming sugar as well. Keep in mind that because of the high fructose content, the more you add and the later in fermentation you add it, the more it will be necessary to add yeast nutrient and possibly yeast energizer to make sure the yeast can ferment the agave nectar.

Because of the quirky nature of agave nectar, it may take some experimentation to figure out the balance between dryness and agave flavor and alcohol content. Agave nectar can dry out too much and give the beer a cider feel or it can leave more sweetness than desired. Because ale yeasts will not want to ferment so much fructose, it could take a long time for it to completely dry out. It can leave a honey flavor or an agave flavor. One thing is clear: the more you use the more alcohol content you beer will have, since it is composed almost entirely of fermentable sugars. If I were trying to make a beer with agave flavor, I would probably start out replicating a honey beer recipe (such as a honey brown) and adjust up or down to figure out the sweet spot. You may also want to consider making a braggot with agave nectar substituted in (keep reading below).

Using Agave in Mead and Braggot

Before this set of experiments, I had zero experience making mead. Not realizing at the time that yeast didn’t like fermenting honey, or agave nectar for that matter, because of the lack of nutrients and the high fructose content, I was really disappointed when my ale yeast failed to ferment a blend of table sugar, water and agave nectar. I thought it would ferment just like making apple juice into cider. Yeast nutrient alone was not enough. I did discover that the combination of yeast energizer and yeast nutrient helped get a sachet of champagne yeast in a gallon fermenting. For that reason, agave nectar should definitely be thought of as honey for the purposes of fermentation. In fact, since it is less nutrient-rich than honey, it may be worthwhile to add a little more energizer and nutrient than a normal mead.
Agave nectar does make a great contribution to mead, but it should not be used alone to make mead. Although it tastes like honey before fermentation, the same problem beer brewers will face in the sweetness/dryness to honey/agave flavor balance will also take place in mead. If it is fermented alone, it will dry out to a point of tasting sort of cider-y. It will not taste like mead in any respect.

However, it can be substituted in a mead to either make a dry or sweet mead. For some reason the combination of fermented honey and fermented agave nectar really makes the agave/tequila flavor stand out. I find that a pound per gallon will dry out and leave behind a tequila-like flavor and dryness in a mead. A 2.5 lb honey and 1 lb agave nectar per gallon mix should yield an alcohol-potent mead with a nice tequila flavor up front. I don’t have too much experience with tasting meads but this is by far my favorite. If one wanted to make a braggot I believe a similar combination of honey and agave nectar, in place of using just honey, would help bring out the agave/tequila flavor without falling into the trap of trying to balance the nectar by itself.

Agave Wine

Yeah, we’re getting closer to what popped into your head when you thought of fermenting agave nectar (ok, it’s what popped into mine). If you ferment agave nectar alone, you will produce some sort of agave wine. As I mentioned before, it requires a lot of nutrient and energizer because it is so nutrient-deficient on its own. If you do make an agave wine, it is going to dry out considerably and have a sharp cider flavor unless you prefer it sweet and stop fermentation. Those of you who are winemakers may have better experience and better luck fermenting something you enjoy.

Pretending to Make Tequila

Now we’ve arrived at what you were hoping for! Unfortunately, the answer is no, you cannot make tequila just by fermenting agave nectar. Tequila is fermented from an unrefined source of agave, so it has a lot of flavor, even after distillation. Those of you with stills may be able to get in the neighborhood of tequila but unless you can get a really unrefined nectar it’s not going to pack a lot of flavor.

Let’s say you don’t have a still, but you point out that recently the TTB admitted it doesn’t consider freeze distillation to be “distillation” in the sense that the federal excise tax laws use it. While there are separate legal considerations from following an agency pronouncement unsupported by anything textual, let’s assume that to be the case. (I know there are some non-US readers of this blog. I am unsure of the state of the law on this subject in other countries. I believe many countries specifically outlaw the practice for reasons I am about to mention.) Freeze distillation will not make tequila; it is an imperfect and risky process.

While I don’t intend for this to be a treatise on freeze distillation, it’s necessary to talk a little about it. Freeze distillation is the process of freezing a volume of alcoholic beverage slowly so that the water will freeze, but the ethanol with a lower freezing point will not, so you can drain out the liquid/alcohol and leave behind the ice/water, thus raising the alcohol content of the beverage. While this is easily done in a standard kitchen freezer, it is an imperfect process.

Part of the imperfection is a reflection of fermentation and represents a health risk. When fermentation occurs, yeast also discharge fusel oils, methanol and other higher alcohols which are either scientifically confirmed or suspected to cause or worsen hangovers in lower amounts to causing nausea, deafness, coma and death in higher amounts. Freeze distillation, by removing the water content, concentrates these byproducts so that the more freeze distilled beverage you drink, the more concentrated amounts of this stuff gets into your body. Now you can say that one gallon of a beverage not distilled and the remaining liquid from freeze distillation contains the same amount of these byproducts, and I would agree. 

However, it is like taking shots of whiskey and an equivalent amount of beer with the same amount of alcohol. Which will get you drunk faster? The whiskey will, because the concentrated alcohol will enter your bloodstream quicker and you are drinking less water to help flush it out. Similarly, the fermentation byproducts are more concentrated so they can affect you more easily. That effect is compounded if you are drinking a lot of it.

Now people who brew to distill often use “turbo yeast” and don’t worry about temperature control during fermentation, which increases these undesired byproducts. It doesn’t matter if they are there because a proper distillation will get rid of them. However, in freeze distillation, they don’t go away. For us beer and wine brewers, we are generally more concerned with temperature control, because higher temperatures produce more of those undesired byproducts, and we don’t use turbo yeasts which commonly throw off more byproducts. So freeze distilling beer or wine made in usual beer or wine fashion should have a lower amount so your health should be at less of a risk. I’ve warned you, so chose to consume freeze distilled products at your own risk.

An additional part of the imperfection is a reflection of how ethanol exists. Ethanol always binds with water in a structure that is 96% ethanol and 4% water. As you freeze distill, you will inevitably catch some ethanol within the ice crystals from the water. However, if you freeze distill over and over again to really boost alcohol content, there will be a point of diminishing returns because that 4% water will start to freeze and trap the ethanol with it. So as you freeze distill down a volume you will inevitably start to freeze more and more ethanol and you will stop concentrating the alcohol you will just be concentrating the flavor.

If one attempted to make an agave wine with agave nectar, water and table sugar and freeze distill it, that person may find fermentation creates an incredibly dry, slightly mead-like, slightly tequila-like product that isn’t very enjoyable. After several freeze distillations, the tequila flavor will start to emerge but it will start to taste sweet, producing something of an agave brandy rather than tequila. After the wine has frozen down from a gallon to about 32 ounces it will have a very noticeable sweet tequila taste and about 25% alcohol. The remaining ice will very clearly have high alcohol content and would taste like watered down tequila. While it may be worthwhile to keep both portions for consumption, the sweet portion would make an excellent margarita at 2/3 agave brandy and 1/3 sweet and sour mix.

The downside to freeze distillation is that it reduces the overall volume of your liquid, so it really takes a lot to make a very small volume of final product. One gallon of agave wine freeze distills down to about 24 ounces of agave brandy at about 25% ABV. That’s less than a quarter of what you would start out with. At that level, it may just be cheaper to buy tequila and save the time and energy.

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t think agave nectar will take a permanent place in my brewing, but it is an interesting and challenging product to work with. I will definitely make another attempt or two at the agave mead to really sort out the recipe. When I do, it will get posted up for sure. I’m positive agave will get some more play in commercial brews but I think there will be a lot of failed attempts because it is so difficult to work with, especially the refined products. Anybody trying to get a really bold agave flavor, especially in a beer, should try to find a less refined product from either a health food store or an online source. That will definitely make finding the right amount to use considerably easy. For mead makers, either source should be worthwhile, depending on how bold of an agave flavor is desired and of course cost. If anybody has good experience putting agave nectar in beer, I’d love to hear about it!!
October 18, 2010

Faking Your Way Into a Lambic-Style Kriek (Recipe Included)

Pretty much everybody loves krieks, except for the anti-fruit-in-beer folks. This is especially true of significant others that maybe just don’t like beer, but do enjoy the fruity taste of a kriek, or some other fruit-flavored beer. I believe for most of us, at least those of us in the US, our first stab at a kriek is the Lindeman’s stuff. I find that most homebrewers take that first step into the world of brewing lambics, realize lambics require years of aging, and inquire about how to speed up the process. The next step involves trying to sort out how Lindeman’s makes their product, only to learn that their fruit lambics are backsweetened and not at all representative of the “real” lambic krieks on the market.

One can use cherries in many kinds of beers; and not all krieks are lambics. There are cherry wheat beers, cherry stouts, cherry brown ales, cherry porter, etc. Krieks, as a specific subset of cherry beers, are more accurately limited to cherry beers made with a sour base beer. To that extent, krieks are commonly made with lambic, gueuze (blended lambic) and oud bruins. I have never heard of a true Flanders red used to make a kriek, but they are probably out there.

A great cherry beer can be made without being a lambic. You can get reasonably close by using a solid 60% barley/40% wheat beer with low hops. Similarly, you could capture something similar to a sour brown/oud bruin based-kriek by making a malty brown ale (again with low hops). Just add cherries. Unfortunately, without any souring process, you will have a difficult time getting the complexity and refreshing tartness of a real kriek.

Perhaps, like me, you are still committed to the fantasy of a delicious, ruby red kriek without committing the years it takes to make them. I can appreciate that half-commitment. The good news is that I am working on such a project! It will be updated as I go.

Base Recipe

A true lambic would include 60% malted barley and 40% unmalted wheat. Simple two row or pilsner can work for the malted barley. Lambics also take advantage of aged hops (read, old ass hops left laying around) to obtain some of the antibacterial benefits without too much bittering. They use complex mash schedules (known as a “turbid mash”) and spontaneously ferment. Unless you live in Brussels, you’re not going to spontaneously ferment with the same bugs – or flavor – that they get in Brussels. Since I didn’t want to use unmalted wheat, didn’t have aged hops, didn’t want to follow the exhaustive turbid mash schedule, and wouldn’t spontaneously ferment, I had a lot of changes to make.

(If you want to alter any of my steps by being more authentic, you can buy unmalted wheat at most health food stores, many homebrew shops sell aged hops, Wyeast published a turbid mash schedule on their website, and you can buy many different sour/lambic blends from yeast suppliers to get the same/similar blend of bugs that appear in Belgium.)

The key to the flavor of a lambic is the naturally created lactic acid and the complex flavors of brett, so I needed to figure out a way to mimic those characteristics as much as possible. The brett flavors are out. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover a way to get really solid brett flavor any other way than actually letting brett sit for months or years. However, brett and tart cherries do have some similar flavors, so by letting brett go I can keep some of the flavors through the cherries. The sourness is a must, but there is another option available. By sour mashing some of the grain, I could introduce sourness quickly and naturally, without the time delay. So actually a very simple recipe was created:

Batch size: 3 gallons
ABV: 6.51% (pre-cherries)
SRM: 4.2
IBUs: 8.2
OG: 1.064
FG: 1.014
Grain bill:
4 lb Pilsner
2.75 lb malted wheat
Boil volume: 3.43 gallons
Boil additions:
90 minutes – 1.25 oz aged Fuggles
Yeast: WLP 575 Belgian blend
Regular mash schedule: basic triple decoction. (A step mash or single infusion could also be used instead.)

I executed a sour mash on half a gallon and a pound of pilsner. (See my explanation of the sour mash process for step-by-step instructions.) I let it sit for three days before completing the regular mash and boiling. When doing a partial sour mash, it is important to remember to adjust your mash and sparge water needs because you’ll be adding the wort from the sour mash back into the kettle to reach your full boil volume.

Fermentation & Adding Cherries

I let this beer ferment out for two weeks before adding cherries. When I was developing this recipe, I admittedly did lean on several other people who have done basically the same thing (so I admit, this was not a novel idea when I developed my process.) The problem I ran into time and time again is that they either had access to fresh cherries, frozen cherries, or expensive canned cherries/puree. Although you can make cherry beer using sweet cherries, krieks are traditionally made with sour cherries, like what you would use in a cherry pie. I live in Texas, which is not cherry country. Cherries are not plentiful, even in health stores or farmer’s markets. The most commonly available products were canned cherries, canned cherry pie filling, or fresh sweet cherries. I did find some cherry puree available at local homebrew shops and health stores, but by the time I bought enough for my small three gallon batch, it would have been over $30 for the cherries, making it a very expensive batch of beer. I looked online, but even the cheapest sources would have been roughly the same when shipping was factored in.

When setting out to buy sour cherries for making kriek (or any other cherry beer) fresh will always be best. Many people swear by that Oregon cherry puree. Many commercial breweries use it, so it’s considered quality stuff. Frozen cherries are similarly thought to be a solid option as well. Cherry juice is often discouraged because it is commonly a blend of cherry juice with apple or grape juice. It may also have sugar added (risking cider-y flavor) and/or have preservatives that will put your yeast to sleep. Canned cherries are a viable option, so this is where I went.

You can buy canned cherries at any grocery store. Be careful though, there are two different kinds you can buy. In the baking goods aisle, you will find cherry pie filling. This filling tends to be cherries floating around in a sugar-oil-water mix. The problem is that you don’t really want the extra sugar giving a cider taste and oil will make your beer slick and lose head. Cherry pie filling often also has artificial flavors and preservatives that will stop fermentation. If you look in the canned fruit area, usually near canned vegetables, you should find canned sour/tart cherries in water. Check the label, it should just be pitted cherries and water. You can even buy the store brand, which makes it very, very cheap.

The rule of thumb with cherries is 2lbs. per gallon of beer. You may want to go more or less depending on how much cherry you want. I’m not sure how to gauge using cherry juice, but any other option should be strictly 2lbs/gallon.

Although I didn’t do this on this attempt, in the future I would crush the cherries a bit and then freeze them with the water from the can to help break down the cell walls so the yeast can get at the sugars easier. You can dump the cherries in straight from the can, since they are pasteurized. That’s what I did. I dumped six pounds of cherries, along with the water, into the beer. The water has absorbed some of the sugar flavor, so it makes sense to let that go into the beer. Don’t worry, there’s not that much water and you will lose some liquid to the cherries when you rack off of them.

The yeasts will quickly go to work on the yeasts. You should see a new krausen form over the cherries and into the holes from where they de-pitted the cherries. I expect to let the cherries sit for at least three months before racking. As of the time of this writing the cherries have been in the fermenter for roughly five weeks. The cherries are still full of yeasts. I gave the kriek a taste this week, and it is slightly pink, slightly cherry flavored, but very balanced between the tartness of the cherry and the sourness from the sour mash.

This week has also seen the rise of the unknown white plate infection. It is definitely spreading and taking over quickly. I am unsure what this is. Some people say it is lactobacillus. Some people say it is mold. Although the mold definitely grosses me out, I would rather it be mold, because it won’t affect the flavor and I can simply rack out from under it. If it is lacto, that is a problem because it will continue souring the beer and I will be forced to either accept more souring than I wanted to keep the beer on the cherries or stop the additional cherry flavoring to try bottle and quickly consume the beer. It is neither fuzzy like mold nor anything like what I have seen from lacto while sour mashing, so I am unsure. Other people say it may simply be beer stone, which would be harmless.

I also suspect it may be a brett fermentation starting up. Of all things to “infect” the beer, brett would be the least problematic. Although it would mean allowing the beer to ferment for several months longer than I wanted, I would get the beneficial addition of brett flavors to my kriek.

At this point, I have two concerns. First, is the obvious unknown player in the beer. I will continue to monitor and taste the beer for any additional souring or off flavors. Second, the beer is not as red or cherry-ish as I would like. This will also require patient waiting to see how they improve. If after a couple of months the cherry is not more prominent, I will likely add more cherries or mix in a can or two of puree.

An update…10/30

I’m still trying to get more cherry flavor in the beer. I added two more cans of cherries, good for another 1.5 lbs. This time I crushed them up a bit and gave it a slight boil just to sanitize and then I’ll let it sit for a few weeks and assess it. This time I used those Oregon packed tart cherries. Maybe my memory is off, but they don’t seem tremendously different than the store brand ones, just twice as expensive.

Another update...11/5

I added a bottle of cherry juice, which seemed to have the effect of rousing the yeasts and getting them fermenting and producing CO2 which seems to have knocked out most of the mystery guest in the kriek. The juice really seems to help get a stronger cherry flavor.