December 15, 2013

Spontaneous Fermentation Project Part 2 -- Getting things organized for the brew day

I not-so-briefly explained my new sour beer project in Part 1 of this now ongoing series and today I'm going to walk through how I am going to get through the brew day and into fermentation. My goal here is to get as authentic to Belgian lambic production techniques as I can within reason. In putting this process together I relied on a combination of resources, including several homebrewing blogs, Wild Brews, Lecambre's 1851 brewing treatise, my own brewing experiences and a host of other sources too numerous to count.

Traditional Lambic Brewing, Briefly

Typical lambic brewing in Belgium employs pilsner malt plus unmalted wheat in a lengthy, historical mash process known as a turbid mash. Turbid mashes are long mashes that use a mixture of infusions and decoctions to produce a very starchy wort. The wort is then boiled with aged hops, which provide very little bitterness. They are instead used for their antimicrobial properties, although I suspect the flavors of the aged hops contribute something to the flavor of the beer. The boiled beer is then cooled on coolships, which are wide, shallow tubs that expose a high surface area of beer to the cool air, allowing the beer to cool to ambient temperatures overnight. While the beer is cooling, the exposure to the air allows native bacteria and yeast to descend into the beer and begin fermentation.

The cooled beer is then pumped into fermentors. It may go directly into barrels, where it will stay until packaging, or it may go into a primary fermentor (frequently referred to as a horny tank) and once krausen dies down it may be transferred to a secondary vessel, usually barrels, for additional aging. Within the barrels, bacteria and yeast (including brett) may continue to thrive and help add to the populations present in the beer during cooling. Over six months to several years the beer will develop sourness and funk, until it is packaged as either an unblended lambic, faro (a lambic sweetened with sugar and/or mixed with a non-sour beer), a fruited lambic, or gueuze.

And my process

I'll set up the specific details of the recipe in the next post, for now I'll leave you with the explanation of the process. The grain bill will be pilsner and unmalted wheat, using basically the same recipe as the lambic solera. I'm using RO water adjusted with brewing salts and I'll undergo a turbid mash. I don't have enough aged hops on hand for this particular batch (I am aging some Belma and EKG) so just as I have done with the lambic solera I will use just enough hops as a bittering addition to get to 8-10 IBUs, which is the least amount of IBUs you need in a beer to repress unwanted bacteria.

To cool the beer I am going to use vessels I have on hand, as unimpressive as that might be. It would be fun to build a functional coolship that I could pump beer into and out of but I have neither the technical expertise to build a metal coolship nor do I have the space to store it. You do not need a fancy copper coolship to make it "authentic". Although copper coolships have been considered the preferred vessel since the mid-nineteenth century, they certainly were not the only vessels used. Well into the nineteenth century, coolships were built out of steel, iron, copper, aluminum and even wood. In my case, the vessels I have on hand best suited for this purpose are baking sheets and pans. Like I said, not impressive. However, they are wide, shallow and have handles, which makes them functional and easy to use. I'm not entirely sure I have enough to hold five gallons of wort so I may not be able to coolship the entire volume.

I plan on leaving the beer in the baking pans and sheets as long as it takes to cool, plus some additional time. The wort will have to come down to around 130F before bacteria will start being able to survive in the wort and perhaps closer to 100F before yeast will take up residence in the beer. I want to make sure enough bacteria and yeast take residence in the beer to ferment it, so I'll need to leave the beer outside for some additional hours after it cools. Ideally I will start this beer very early in the morning so it can go into my backyard in the mid to late afternoon and I can move it inside before I go to sleep. I'd like to leave it outside overnight but I don't have a good way to protect the wort from bugs and animals that might wander by. We get a lot of stray cats in our backyard and I'd rather they not slurp up my beer or worse, decide to bathe in it.

The cooled beer will be moved into its one and only home, which will be a six gallon better bottle. I know, barrels are awesome and commonly used in lambic brewing. I chose not to go with a barrel for easy of use with the better bottle and most importantly, the ability to observe the transformation of the beer through the clear plastic and take pictures. Like the better bottle that houses my lambic solera, I plan on dropping some oak into this fermentor. I buy into the idea that the oak tannins and flavor compounds get manipulated by brett. However, since I don't have a well-used barrel to employ I'll have to make due with a small amount of unused oak. I have some left over oak chips soaking in Canadian whiskey (the same I added to the lambic solera last year) that I'll add.

The fermentor will go upstairs in the guest bedroom that I use for fermentation and brewing equipment storage. I'm going to let the beer ferment completely at ambient within my house, just as I do with the lambic solera. That room normally swings between the upper 60s to the mid 70s during the winter, depending on how much we run the heater. In the summer it can get as hot as 80F in the room, even with the AC running. It faces the late afternoon sun so it takes a brutal amount of heat during the mid-summer.

Most of my sensory review of the beer as it ages will be visual and olfactory rather than by taste or gravity readings. I don't like to expose my sour beers to the air more than necessary. The occasional removal of the stopper to get a whiff has a lot less impact than shoving a thief in and drawing out some liquid. Since I'm going completely spontaneous I have to assume there will be some acetobacter and that means preventing unnecessary aeration will be even more important than usual.

So that's it. Not a very different process from the usual brew day, except for the excessively long turbid mash. The beer itself isn't very exotic. It's an extremely basic recipe. However, the organisms within the beer will turn it into something exotic. Hopefully in a good way.

In the next part I will give the recipe and brewday. My goal is to get this batch brewed sometime this week or next week, depending on my work schedule.

December 12, 2013

Lambic Solera Update #17 Part 2 -- Three Years (Finally!)

In Part 1 I discussed the recipe and brewday for what will become Year Four of the lambic solera. This post will discuss the bottling of Year Three and most importantly, the blending process for making gueuze out of a blend of the first three years of the solera.

In the below picture you can see the solera itself on your left, Year Two in the middle and Year One on the right. Year One is much darker and murky. Both the sediment and pellicle were very loose so in moving the jug downstairs the beer got a lot of stuff floating around in the beer. It settled down before I bottled.

Bottling Year Three

Out of the three gallons I am pulling out this year, I am going to bottle one gallon straight, as I have done each year. Initially I was going to blend all of Year Three into the gueuze but I decided to keep some of it straight to compare against the gueuze and to keep a complete vertical. I am running low on bottles of the other years and the fruited versions of the years so right now I only have two complete verticals. I'll get 4-5 750ml bottles out of a gallon, which will give me bottles to complete the verticals and a couple bottles to compare against the gueuze.

Bottling the straight lambic is simple. I'll bottle it the same as I did last year, with priming sugar in the bucket like any other beer and then sprinkle a few cells of dried champagne yeast into each bottle. Then wait three to four weeks for carbonation. Since I also need to blend the remaining Year Three, I racked the three gallons I was removing from the solera into the bucket with priming sugar for the full three gallons and bottled a gallon. Then I drained the bottling wand and tubing back into the bottling bucket before continuing with the blending.

Year Three has a sharp acidity and strong hit of funk. It's got some of the cherry notes that Year Two lacked. It tastes kind of like a mix of Year One and Two. It will be a good beer in the gueuze. Below is the partially emptied solera. You can see the thick pellicle broke in the middle where I pierced it with the autosiphon and the pellicle clung to the sides of the fermentor as the beer drained out.

Blending Gueuze

Gueuze has sort of a magical allure to both homebrewers and beer drinkers for many reasons. Among them is the mystique that surrounds blending. It's a very different skill from other brewing skills, more akin to the blending done in the process of making wine and liquor. However, in many ways it is similar to creating recipes: you start out with a concept of what the final beer should taste like and combine ingredients to reach your goal. The difference, of course, is that the ingredients in a gueuze is finished beer, not grains and hops.

Normally when blending beers you want to start off with samples of each beer and blend them in your glass to find the ideal blend that matches your concept or at least comes as close as possible. What you do not want to do is assume blending everything you have in whatever amounts you have is the correct approach. You want to look for the blend to reach the right flavor profile as well as the right balance of acidity. With sour beers there is a lot to consider in the blend because there are so many subtle flavors going on. It's easy to lose important flavors or end up with a muddled mess of funk and acid.

In this particular case, I am blending the full volumes of what I have on hand. It's not because I am being lazy about creating the blend. Instead, I have been thinking about the blend for the past three years and after tasting the first two years over and over I have thought a lot about how Year One and Year Two will blend and I think the even blend of the two creates the correct flavor profile. I tasted Year Three while bottling it straight and I was initially torn on what to do. I could see both a 25-25-50 blend and a 33-33-33 blend working well. The issue was whether I wanted more of the aged flavor coming through or some of the brighter, young acidity of the newest year enhancing Year One and Year Two's smoother, aged flavors. I decided the 25-25-50 blend was the right path, which ultimately meant I could just blend the two gallons of Year Three with the gallon each of Year One and Year Two.

The easiest way to blend is right in the bottling bucket. I racked Year Three into the bucket to bottle the straight portion and it already has priming sugar. I added priming sugar for the additional two gallons coming in. I then racked both Year One and Two into the bucket with the tube in the bottom of the bucket so the incoming beer would mix into the beer already in the bucket. Then I bottled as usual.

I'm most interested in tasting how the gueuze compares to the Year Three, since the solera process creates a blend by itself. Obviously the mix of the gueuze will be different from Year Three's mix of each year but I need to see how far off Year Three is from the complexity of gueuze. If Year Three is sufficiently complex on its own then I may not worry about blending this beer as gueuze in the future.

At bottling the gueuze was already tasting incredible. It has clear notes of all three beers. The big cherry pie flavor of Year One. The barnyard funk of Year Two. The bold acidity of Year Three. It's far more complex than any of the previous years on their own, for obvious reasons. I am so excited to try it after the flavors have had some time to meld and carbonation spruces up the flavors.

I have to say, the aroma off the Year One portion was so fantastic that I almost bottled it straight just to keep that fantastic quality to itself. It was like scotch and cherry pie served on leather. I know that sounds weird but for a lambic that's a really nice flavor description. I decided to go ahead and let the gueuze be gueuze and added it to the bottling bucket.

By the end of the day's bottling I ended up with:

1 375ml bottle of year three
4 750ml bottles of year three

2 12oz bottles of gueuze
12 500ml (16oz) bottles of gueuze
11 750ml bottles of gueuze

Almost exactly five gallons of lambic.

Not the worst way to spend an afternoon. 
December 9, 2013

Lambic Solera Update #17 Part 1 -- Three Years (Finally!)

Today's post has the privilege of discussing the third anniversary of the lambic solera. It's a pretty big accomplishment to have the patience to let beer sit for so long but today's brew day will include an avalanche of activity. I am draining three gallons from the solera, brewing another four gallons of replacement wort, bottling one gallon straight and creating gueuze out of a combination of each year's lambic. Busy, busy day. There's so much going on and so much to talk about that I'm going to break up the processes into two posts. One to discuss the brew and one to discuss the bottling/blending. This post will be about the brewing part of the day.

Each year I have slightly changed the recipe towards the more traditional. This year will be no exception. I decided to take the plunge this year and go for a full scale turbid mash. I'm not scared of the process as much as I am just concerned about the length of time it will take. It's a long, complicated process that makes the triple decoction mash I have been doing seem simple. Otherwise, this year's brew will follow last year's recipe.

If you look back at Update Twelve, one year ago, you'll see that last year I added some Belgian sacc yeast with the fresh wort. In the post I mentioned that I added the yeast for fermentation security but what I didn't write was that I also wanted to see how much the addition of new yeast esters would change the flavor profile. There is a clear difference in the flavor profile between Year One and Year Two and one theory I wanted to test was whether the yeast esters from the primary sacc fermentation played a substantial role in that difference. Year One had a strong cherry flavor while Year Two was much more of a hay/barnyard funk. Year Three will determine whether my theory is correct. I'll share that secret in the next post. I decided this year I would leave out adding fresh yeast because I want to see if the difference between Year One and Two is replicated in Three and Four. This whole issue is part of a larger theory I have that I plan on testing with my second lambic project this month. I'm being a little secretive about the larger issue because I'm an ass and because I want to be able to speak about it, whether I turn out to be right or not, from a credible position.

Lambic Solera Year Four Recipe Construction

For now let's just focus on the recipe and how I put all the pieces together. The recipe itself is very simple. It's just a mix of pilsner malt and unmalted wheat with a small bittering charge of hops. And water, obviously. As usual I am going to use a very small bittering charge of hops to clear the generally agreed 8 IBU threshhold to keep the beer clear of unpleasant bacteria. I have some old EKG hops and some of the Belma hops I bought last year that I'm aging at room temperature but I'm going to hold on to those for later years. For now I want to see how the turbid mash changes the beer. That will probably be the new thing I do for year five.

It's basically the same recipe I used last year but rather than performing a decoction mash I am going to give a turbid mash a shot. I'm also going to tweak the water profile to try to accentuate the acidity. In the past I have just used straight RO water from the store with no salt additions. While I've been happy with the results with no water chemistry I am concerned about the temperatures in the turbid mash plus too high of mash and sparge ph pulling an excess of tannins. Since I'm adjusting the water for ph I might as well also make the adjustments for flavor at the same time. I used the turbid mash schedule in Wild Brews. There isn't a turbid mash option in BeerSmith, so I had to take the percentages listed in Wild Brews and play around with the mash functions in BeerSmith to figure out infusion temperatures and volumes. A real pain in the ass.

Turbid mash is a weird and complicated mash schedule. The modern adaptations are primarily from Belgian sources, which come from 19th century (and earlier) mash procedures that made the best out of the sometimes inferior equipment. Most breweries have abandoned the complex mash process in favor of either decoction mashes or step mashes but some lambic brewers continue to use turbid mashes. To perform a turbid mash you need both an available kettle and a hot liquor tank, because it uses a combination of hot water infusions and very long decoctions, often at the same time. You can't just use your kettle as a hot liquor tank, as most of us normally do. You also need a separate mash tun. I suppose you could do a BIAB turbid mash as long as you have enough vessels available. Unlike a decoction mash, where you pull from the thickest part of the mash for the decoction, in a turbid mash you pull just the liquid. It's very unusual compared to modern techniques.

And Now the Recipe...

Batch size: 4 gallons
ABV: 4.5%
SRM: 3.4
IBU: 10
Est. OG: 1.046
Est. FG: 1.012
Est. Efficiency: 72%

The Grain

4 lbs. German Pilsner (2 SRM) 57%
3 lbs. Unmalted wheat (1 SRM) 42%

The Water

RO Water adjusted in Bru'n Water to Yellow Balanced profile
Added 0.5 gallons to sparge water to account for boil off during long turbid mash
3.5 gallons mash water
2.71 gallons sparge water

Mash Water

Gypsum 1.1g
Epsom salt 1.1g
Canning salt 0.2g
Calcium chloride 1.4g

Sparge Water

Gypsum 0.8g
Epsom salt 0.8g
Canning salt 0.1g
Calcium chloride 1.1g
Lactic acid 1.4ml

The Mash

Turbid Mash schedule

1. Add 2.8qt at 134F to reach 113F rest for 15 minutes
2. Add 2.8qt at 212F to reach 126F rest for 15 minutes
3. Remove 1.25qt liquid from mash, raise to 190F and hold
4. Add 4.2qt at 212F to reach 149F rest for 45 minutes
5. Remove 3.875qt liquid from mash, raise to 190F and hold
6. Add 4.2qt at 212F to reach 162F rest for 30 minutes
7. Remove 5.5qt liquid from mash to kettle, raise to 190F and hold
8. Add all kettle contents to mash to raise temperature to 172F and rest for 20 minutes
9. Vorlouf
10. Batch sparge with sparge water at 190F

The Boil

90 minute boil
0.15oz Belma [12.10% AAU] at 90

The Fermentation

Add cooled wort to fermentor with remaining solera contents. Allow fermentation at ambient temperature until next December.


The brewday was a long, long process. The majority of time went into preparing for and executing the mash. because the decoctions must be held at 190F it requires a lot of oversight on the mash, which limited how much work I could do at the same time. I tried to get some of the bottling done during the mash but it was slow work. Anyway, let's get to it.

The Turbid Mash

Started heating water at 10:30am. First step was barely enough liquid to make half-moist lumps of grain. Second step finally broke up the mash but it was still thick. Overshot temperature, at second infusion, around 140F.

Decoction was a mess to pull. Not enough liquid in the mash to get a siphon going to pull out liquid
so had to hand strain the decoction. Milky texture, like clam chowder but without the clams (see picture to the right). Second decoction was easier since the mash was looser. Less milky. Third decoction was even clearer, almost a chicken broth color and clarity.

First runnings are clear (see the second picture...sort of). I expected a more starchy, murky wort. 1.0628 gravity. Second runnings more cloudy. 1.022 gravity. Pre-boil gravity: 1.036. Pre-boil volume 5.5 gallons. Efficiency: 76%

Boil & Fermentation

Sparge ended at 2:15pm. Boil began at 2:45pm. Post-boil gravity: 1.051. 3.5 gallons recovered. 68% efficiency.

Positive pressure in the airlock appeared Monday morning, roughly three days later.

December 2, 2013

New lambic project - 100% spontaneous fermentation

Coolship at Jester King in Austin (picture from
It's that time of year for the lambic solera to go through this year's bottling and rebrew but this year I have decided to add a second lambic project to my homebrewing. This project will be independent from the lambic solera except the actual brew day will be similar to the solera's brew day. Instead of using lab-created blends or bottle dregs (or a combination of the two) I am going to give Mother Nature complete control over the fermentation. This sort of spontaneous fermentation is the traditional process for modern lambic although it was the way beer was made for thousands of years before brewers came to understand the role of yeast and bacteria in fermentation.

I know this project is not a novel idea, even among homebrewers, although few have attempted it and written about it in great detail. (Michael Tonsmiere's DCambic comes to mind, although he didn't just throw wort out into the wind and let nature make all of the decisions. This guy was on an episode of Basic Brewing Radio a couple years ago and actually did a full spontaneous fermentation.) There are whisperings around the intertubes of spontaneous fermentations by homebrewers but few have suggested their results were drinkable (which may be the result of not giving the beer enough time). Also, plenty of homebrewers have tried to capture wild yeast and isolate a fairly clean beer (which I tried with my own wild ale) with mixed results. For this project I plan on trying to capture all of the changes, good and bad, in a truly spontaneously fermented beer.

The obvious danger in any spontaneous fermented beer is that it tastes like shit. When you let nature dictate what ferments your beer you're getting whatever is out there and the beer will be a result of whatever gets into the beer and how the matrix of lifeforms work together to transform the wort into beer. If you've ever had infected beer you know that wild yeast and bacteria don't always create pleasant beers. Some wild yeast infections can be downright disgusting. There is always a risk that a spontaneously fermented beer won't turn into something magical and delicious, even after years. However, the risk is not extremely high. It can't be, otherwise lambic brewers would have a hard time making money. But the risk must be acknowledged.

As of right now I am very open-minded about this project. I am open to the idea of working this project into a solera, although I am leery of getting that one bad batch that spoils the whole solera and requires me to start over. I am also open to using multiple vessels to create gueuze out of multiple separate batches, similar to what I am doing with the lambic solera this month. I am also very open to letting this beer mature for as long as it needs to mature. If it takes three years for the beer to mature, I am open to waiting that long, although if it isn't at least going in a positive direction after a couple years I may change my mind. I've stayed fairly open minded about the lambic solera and that's worked out really well so I don't see any reason to react differently here, especially when I will have even less control over the spontaneous beer than I will the lambic solera, which used a mix of Wyeast's Lambic Blend and bottle dregs.

So there's the intro for this project. My expectation is to brew this beer later in the month since I want to get the solera beer bottled and rebrewed this week or next. That will give me time to put out some posts about that beer and go into some more discussion about my technique with this project.
November 19, 2013

2014 Recipes/Brews

Piggybacking on last week's post, I thought I would go ahead and list the "final" list of brews for my 2014 brewing year. I say "final" because somehow I always end up brewing more beers than I plan for at the beginning of the year. Next year I plan on brewing a lot of beer so I can be more generous with sharing at least a few of the batches with people, especially now that I have joined a local homebrewing club and our meetings quickly devolve into sitting around and drinking. Anyway, here is what I have decided on:

  • Apricot blonde (2 gallons) - a holdover from this year that didn't get brewed over the summer as I had planned
  • Adambier (1 gallon) - a modified recipe for the adambier in Barleywine.
  • Biere de Mars (1 gallon) - a modified recipe for the biere de mars recipe in Farmhouse Ales using a fun mix of American, French and Bohemian hop varieties. Not the same recipe I currently have lagering.
  • Pale ale (2.5 gallons) - a simple, cascade-driven pale ale that I am going to cask up in a party pig. I am going back and forth about aging it on oak. I will probably just cask as is.
  • Oak aged dry stout (2.5 gallons) - a dry stout that I will age on oak cubes that have been soaking in one form or whiskey or another. I haven't decided for sure which oak cubes I will use on this batch. Maybe I will split it up against a couple types of whiskey.
  • Imperial saison (3 gallons) - a big saison inspired by Dupont's Avec les Bon Voeux with a blend of American, French and Bohemian hops and a portion sour worted to give it a little acidity.
  • Kellerbier (2.5 gallons) - simple pilsner recipe that will go unfiltered into a party pig for cask service.
  • Lambic Solera Year Four (4 gallons) - the next refill on the lambic solera
  • Pivo Kielich Gratzer (1 gallons) - a slightly modified version of my gratzer recipe for a lower gravity version.
  • Rye saison (1 gallon) - a hoppy rye saison with a mix of American, Bohemian and New Zealand hops.
  • Salivator Doppelbock (1 gallon) - a rebrew of my doppelbock, modeled on Kai's doppelbock recipe.
  • Sour rye stout (3 gallons) - a rye-packed stout that will undergo a sour wort. 
  • Tmare pivo (2 gallons) - a tmare recipe modeled off of the recipe in Hops that sounds interesting.
  • Tropic Bling saison (2.5 gallons) - another attempt at cloning Funkwerks' Tropic King.
  • Spontaneously fermented lambic (5 gallons) - classic lambic process will be given up to whatever organisms float in my backyard. 
Thirty-four gallons of beer in total, although less packaged after trub is accounted for. The two lambics make up a big portion of that beer although they will be at least a year in the making. It's a good mix of beers that will benefit from fresh drinking and a few that can stand up to some aging. The lambics will get brewed next month and then I will probably hit some of the smaller batches in the early part of 2014 to balance my desire to brew with my desire to drink down some of my existing stock of homebrew. Hell, I still have the two gallon cask of rye imperial stout I brewed this year that I haven't even tapped. By my records I have a little over eighteen gallons of homebrew in bottles, fifteen gallons in fermentors and probably another eight gallons of commercial beer in my "cellar".

November 13, 2013

2013 brewing in review & 2014 brewing goals

Ever since I started my lambic solera in December of 2010 I have started thinking about my brewing years from December to November because each December begins a new year in the solera. At the same time I was also in law school and my brewing would ebb and flow with my school schedule and that late November-early December time period was the huge pressure crunch of cramming as much law into my head as I could and then vomiting it back out on the exam in the form of 10-20 pages of essay. Now that I'm liberated from the clutches of school I'm free to adopt whatever schedule I would like but the solera persists and I'm comfortable letting it set the start of a new brewing year, especially because I plan on adding a second solera (I'll talk about that in a later post).

2013 in Review

So overall I have been happy with my 2013 brewing year. My key goal for the year was to tighten up my technical approach to brewing and focus less on weird experiments. I feel like I have made a lot of strides in improving my mash technique and use of water chemistry although there is still room to improve. I also wanted to focus on brewing more straightforward examples of beer to facilitate that focus on technical brewing and overall I feel like those beers turned out well.

On balance I was happy with the beers I brewed. I also tried my hand at my first lager, which was a pretty solid success, and my first IPA. The IPA is still in the fermentor but I'm optimistic. I was also happy with several other beers, including Wildfire (mesquite smoked saison) and the second year's release of the lambic solera. Both the regular bottling and the blackberry bottling are quite delicious. I have several projects still in the works, such as a biere de mars, the double brett saison, the rye imperial stout on cask, the lambic solera and the Petrus aged pale clone that is finally getting sour. I was also fairly happy with Carburetor, my stout/sour blend that went in the bottle at the beginning of the year.

I also explored some other homebrewing fun, like teaching somebody else to brew, dry hopping a beer, joining the local homebrew club and discovering the Party Pigs make for decent casks. I know dry hopping and brewing IPAs is pretty standard stuff for most brewers but I really only started to develop a taste for hoppy beers over the past year or so. I still don't want to pound IPA all night but a hop forward pale ale or saison is quite pleasant. I even enjoy the occasional IPA. I haven't bought in on DIPAs yet.

2014 Goals

I'm very excited about my 2014 brewing year. It's going to be a good balance of crazy brewing, work on technique and trying to brew really solid beers. I still want to work on improving my brewing technique and with all the water chemistry/mash process/ph/etc. info that has appeared over the past year or so it's a really good time to work on that part of the brewing process. I did miss some of my more bizarre brewing but I don't feel like I need to swing the pendulum all the way back towards making every beer an experiment. Instead, I'm going to look at brewing a lot of straightforward beers but adding a tweak here and there of interesting techniques. My brews will mostly be a combination of German and French brews with the occasional American style slipped in. It will be an interesting mix of beers, mostly designed for quick consumption but a few will make fine beers to age. I'm going to bring back some sour mashing in a couple beers. More cask fun. And definitely more lambic.

What probably has me most excited is all the lambic. This December will gift me a third year's lambic from the solera and that means it's time to blend out of my reserves of the first two years to make gueuze. That's really exciting, not just because I find blending beer very interesting but because it also means I will have enough lambic on hand to drink it more frequently than I have been for the past couple years. The solera will continue to march on into the future. I may or may not look at doing another gueuze in the future since the solera process itself creates a blend of beer. I guess I will see how year three by itself compares to the blended gueuze.

I am also going to start a second lambic project with the hopes of turning it into something of a solera itself. Rather than rely on a lab blend and/or bottle dregs I am going to try a spontaneously fermented beer. I haven't worked out exactly how I am going to do it but I plan on leaving the beer out overnight to cool and then letting whatever gets in the beer do it's magic. I'm going to commit to letting that beer go as long as it needs. It will make for an interesting project at very least.

I'm also hoping this year will be the year my stupid hop garden will finally survive a summer well enough to hand over some hops. I'd like to slip in a really hoppy number or two from my homegrown hops but we'll see how that plays out. I'm not holding my breath.

I'm also reading a poor translation of Lacambre's 1851 publication about Belgian brewing with the goal of drafting some blog posts that go into greater detail than any of the information I've found online but in less detail than rewriting the whole book. It's interesting from a historical perspective and I find his snarky attitude rather humorous. I'd also like to take a look at trying to develop recipes out of his descriptions and other sources.
November 10, 2013

Party Pig CO2 repressurizing

I've written about my Party Pigs a couple times in the past (the original post and the Party Pig as a cask post). Although these serving devices have long since fallen out of favor with the affordability and availability of keg systems, they still present a good option for easing the burden of bottling for those of us without the space or money for a keg set up. Earlier this year I tried using the Party Pig without the pressure pouch that normally keeps serving pressure to see how cask-like it was. I was pretty happy with the results, especially since it kept drinkable beer for about three weeks in my fridge. There was some concern that once the Party Pig lost pressure and air started to flow up the spout that the beer would quickly oxidize. There was that twinge of fantastic ooxidation you get with casks on the second day but the beer never tasted stale or acetic. However, a huge problem was that once pressure was lost the beer would pour at a snail's pace and it would take up to ten minutes to get a pint glass filled. That was a problem.

I had a solution. One thing I briefly considered was trying to dump more priming sugar (as a solution) into the pig through the spout but that seemed like a difficult task, even using tubing to funnel it into the right place. My primary fear was that even if I could successfully get sanitary priming solution into the Party Pig that it would overcarbonate and explode. Quite a dangerous mess. Instead, I found out that Quion, the company that manufactures the Party Pig sells a CO2 charger that is intended to replace the handpump sold with the Party Pig that you use to activate the pressure pouch. (If you've ever tried to use that handpump then you know it is incredibly difficult to use.) I figured if CO2 could go in after filling it could also be used to repressurize the Party Pig after some of the beer was dispensed. I asked the folks at Quion if they had any thoughts about repurposing the CO2 charger. The thought had never occurred to them but they didn't see a problem as long as I didn't overpressuring the Party Pig.

In September I filled one of my Party Pigs with my so-so ESB and tapped the Party Pig-turned-cask in my fridge early October. After drinking on it for about three weeks I had about a gallon left and the pressure had equalized, resulting in the typical slow pour. I removed it from the fridge, stood it upright, shoved the charger in the spout, hit the dispensing button and shot in some CO2. I pressed against the Party Pig to see when it started to get firm and stopped the CO2 once it became firm. Tossed it back in the fridge and checked on it a week later. Good news: not only did it pour quickly and slightly foamy but it had a cleaner taste than the last time I had tasted it. I don't know what happened but by the third week or so the beer started taking on sort of a rough character. Maybe it was oxidation. What I had after the CO2 was fruity and delicious.

The bad news is that it only seems to pour 1-2 pints before the pressure gives out. It's not that big of a deal to shoot more CO2 in after a pour or two but it will definitely require an increasing amount of CO2 the more I drink. Food grade CO2 cartridges aren't terribly expensive (although not as cheap as refilling tanks) but I'm sure if I drank the cask faster I'd have to use the CO2 charger less frequently.
November 2, 2013

I Pee, Eh? - Black IPA Recipe

This IPA will be my first IPA to brew; it's probably shocking that I've brewed for a little over four years and I've never brewed an IPA. I'm not a huge fan of IPAs but I've come around and enjoy the occasional IPA. I have mixed thoughts about the whole black IPA style and not just because the name is an oxymoron. I think a lot of people have mixed thoughts about them. Sometimes you find black IPAs that are basically your typical west coast IPA plus some color. Sometimes you find black IPAs that are basically the old American stout or American porter style (which were hoppy versions of their English counterparts) with even more hops. On rare occasion you find those disasters that are so loaded with roasted malts that it's bitter and acrid. Unpleasant.

My preference is for the black IPAs that lean towards the American stout or porter style, with some noticeable dark roast character (e.g. chocolate, coffee, caramel, dark stonefruits). So this recipe is in that same vein. It adopts heavily from Odell's Mountain Standard Double Black IPA, which features a lot of chinook and cascade character. I'm also tossing in a little Belma to add an edge of melon and grassy to the hop profile. It's a fairly simple recipe. Three hops, four grains and the hops are assorted into five additions. No hopback, no hop stand, no mash hops. First wort hops, 60, 15, 0 and dry hop. It's probably under-hopped for most homebrewers but it should be within my drinking preference.

Let's talk about the name quickly. Many, if not most, of my beer names come from the show How I Met Your Mother and this one takes a couple of jokes on the show and puts them together. One of the characters, Robin, is Canadian and the other characters make jokes about how Canadians say "eh?" a lot and they are scared of the dark. What happens when you get really scared? You piss your pants. So put that all together with a black beer and you get I Pee, Eh? pronounced like IPA. Corny? Dumb? Yeah but it's not my worst. Anyway, sorry to my Canadian readers. I know you aren't really scared of the dark. Let's get into the recipe.

I Pee, Eh? Black IPA Recipe

Batch size: 2.5 gallons
ABV: 6.5%
SRM: 31
IBU: 63.6
Est. OG: 1.063
Est. FG: 1.014
Est. Efficiency: 72%

The Grain

5lb. 4oz. US 2 Row (2 SRM) 86.5%
8oz. Crystal 80 (80 SRM) 8.3%
3oz. Carafa III (525 SRM) 3.1%
2oz. Chocolate malt (450 SRM) 2.1%

The Water

1.9 gallons of mash water at 165F
2.0 gallons of sparge water at 180F

Mash Water

1.5g Epsom salt
0.6g baking soda
0.6g calcium chloride
0.6g chalk
0.2ml lactic acid

Sparge Water

1.6g epsom salt
0.6g calcium chloride
1.1ml lactic acid

The Mash

75 minute mash at 150F
Capture 2.9g pre-boil wort

The Boil

FWH 0.30oz. Belma (12.1%) 26.4 IBU
60 min 0.20oz. Belma (12.1%) 16 IBU
15 min 0.12oz. Belma (12.1%) 4.6 IBU
15 min 0.25oz. Cascade (5.5%) 5 IBU
15 min 0.25oz. Chinook (13%) 11.7 IBU
10 min 0.5 tsp Irish moss
0 min 0.25oz. Belma (12.1%) 0 IBU
0 min 0.25oz. Cascade (5.5%) 0 IBU
0 min 0.25oz. Chinook (13%) 0 IBU

The Fermentation

1 packet S-04
Fermented at 62F until FG reached
Cold crash for three days
Transfer to bottling bucket
Dry hop with 0.5oz. Cascade and 0.5oz. Chinook for three days
Bottle to 2.3 volumes

Brewday Notes

1.050 OG 2.4 gallons -- 55% efficiency
Back to bad efficiency...had some issues with the mash and sparge which likely contributed to those problems. Will be light on the ABV but seems to have good flavor and aroma.

In a hurry when bottling, did not grab a gravity reading. Ended up dry hopping for five days. 
October 29, 2013

Scotch Ale: Another book review

Scotch Ale is a book about...scotch ale. It is among the 1990s Classic Beer Style Series published by Brewers Publications. It is written by Greg Noonan, who also wrote New Brewing Lager Beer, who is known for his detailed writing. Scotch Ale does not fail to deliver the same level of detail and precision. While most of the books in this series dedicate an unnecessary amount of space to discussing general homebrewing technique and equipment, Noonan goes into a style discussion and stays on point from beginning to end. The book presents a historical analysis of Scottish brewing that sets up the brewing-related chapters with a clear theme that Scottish brewing is about quality ingredients and process.

Scotch Ale opens with an extensive discussion of Scottish brewing, covering not only the historical styles but also Scottish brewing technique, which was more closely aligned with continental brewing than English technique. That held true even as the world began to desire English-style ales over the traditional malty Scottish offerings and Scottish brewers turned their attention towards brewing English pale ales and other popular English styles in the nineteenth century. The historical analysis is not filler material; it sets up the remainder of the book by showing how important the process and ingredients are to Scottish brewing. It also demonstrates how Scottish beers have changed over time.

The book then turns to a discussion of ingredients, with a lengthy discussion of Scottish water and the role it plays in brewing scotch ales/wee heavies and the lighter Scottish styles. Scottish water varies dramatically, even in very close areas, and that plays into the differences between Scottish brews and their attempts at English-style beers. Noonan also discusses Scottish grain, which most brewers agree is quality grain, and the significance of yeast and fermentation. Traditionally, scotch ales contained a very high final gravity similar to some of the sweetest imperial stouts on the market, such as Dark Lord. Modern wee heavies would be quite dry by historical standards. This was a desired effect, although one has to imagine that over time these beers would have been dried out by brett and bacteria. The book closes out the ingredients discussion with an explanation of Scottish hop use and alternative herbs once used for bitterness. Could be interesting to try out some Scottish brews with some herbal character.

The book then explores traditional Scottish brewing technique, which is very similar to modern brewing techniques. Scottish brewers championed batch sparging over the English double mash technique. The Scottish techniques discussed by Noonan may not be novel for most homebrewers but for their time they certainly departed from the norm. It should not surprise anybody who has tasted any Scottish-style beer, that the Scots are not huge fans of hops. Their processes reflected that view. This section then briefly discusses how to brew Scottish beers with modern ingredients and equipment.

Next, Scotch Ale turns to a recipe section that includes both nineteenth century recipes and modern recipes. The recipes include everything from big wee heavies to 2-3% Scottish beers. There are recipes broken out to perform partigyle brewing. It's a great selection of recipes although the recipes are all very similar combinations of Scottish pale ale plus a little roasted barley. These are not the Scotch ale recipes you typically see floating around homebrewers (and even many U.S. pro brewers) with all sorts of crystal malts, vienna malt and other grains. The recipes are simple because, as the book continues through with a clear theme, Scottish beers are a product of using great ingredients, processes and time to produce exceptional beers.

The book then offers a couple appendices listing Scottish brewers and bars. It's good background on the big players in Scottish brewing but otherwise not the most useful information in the book. It doesn't read like filler material, either. It's well written; it just wasn't the information I was after. However, the book is so full of good information that I didn't feel like the appendices detracted from the value of the book.

Honestly, I think Scotch Ale is the best written and most in-depth of the series, at least of the books I have read/own (which is about half, collectively). I suppose if I had to criticize something it would be the absence of a deviant recipe or two. However, that is not Noonan's style. He writes to teach technical precision and does so extremely well here as he does in New Brewing Lager Beer.

October 21, 2013

Altbier: Book Review

Altbier is the 1990s era Classic Beer Style Series book, predictably about alt. Alt is a fairly misunderstood style. Many homebrewing recipes I find include a lot of English/American crystal malts and end up looking like some noble hop-infused English brown ale. I'm not sure whether these crystal malt-driven recipes are simply historic remnants of homebrewers and early craft brewers lacking access to a wider range of German malts or simply a misunderstanding of the style. Altbier does a good job of dismantling the idea that alt should be loaded with crystal malts.

Altbier suffers from some of the same flaws as other books in the Classic Beer Style series. It's thin on technical info and written for a 1990s homebrewing audience that lacked access to the range of ingredients, equipment and knowledge we have today. It spends unnecessary time discussing general homebrewing process. However, the recipe section does a good job of offering basic examples of the wide variety of alt styles from sticke alt, which is darker, bolder and hoppier, to equally rarely seen wheat-employing variants.

The book begins with a brief survey of the history of alt and its relationship with Dusseldorf. It then moves into discussing the flavor profile (in a scant few pages) before rolling into a discussion of typical ingredients. The ingredient discussion is mostly limited to the use of pilsner malt, vienna malt and munich malt. These are the most common ingredients but the use of specialty ingredients in small amounts is downplayed, if not discouraged in this section of the book. I found that odd since the recipes later in the book are more liberal with ingredients.

The book then turns to brewing alts. It opens with a section about homebrewing equipment, which can be mostly disregarded since it's all antiquated homebrewing equipment. The next chapter gets into alt brewing techniques. The book then ventures into a lengthy set of recipes. I wish the book had spent more time discussing some of these variants instead of including a general discussion of homebrewing. At any rate, the recipes are a good starting point that can easily be tweaked with some German specialty malts to add a little complexity. The book concludes with several appendices of little importance.

Altbier overall was a good book. Worth the cash, if only to get a good set of core recipes to work from. Like most or all of the Classic Beer Style series, it helps to read the book with careful attention to how much of the 1990s homebrewing knowledge was suspect.
October 16, 2013

Beer the glass

One thing I don't think I've ever mentioned on this blog is my affinity for blending beers in the glass at bars. I like to find interesting but complimentary beers to request mixed together. It usually leads to a lot of WTF looks from bartenders but I've never been told no. There's a certain artform to finding a combination that is better than the two beers on their own. My personal favorite is Left Hand Milk Stout and Deschutes Mirror Pond. It's murky, sweet and hoppy. I also like to play a game of finding the most revolting half and half combination but not actually ordering them. I think the worst I came up with was Leinenkugel summer shandy and Old Rasputin.

Most people think of mixed beers through the Guinness-marketed blends of half and half (Guinness and Harp) and black and tan (Guinness and Bass). Although Guinness marketed these blends as a way to promote their products in the 20th century, those terms have a long history in English drinking that are not tied specifically to Guinness. A half and half, the most common, is merely a light ale and a stout or porter. It was very common to see stout and bitter but you can also find various other English beers in historical discussions. Although half and half generically describes the combination of light and dark beer, it is not the only one traditionally poured. Old Six is a blend of mild ale and barleywine/old ale (traditionally not different styles). My favorite must be mother-in-law. A blend of bitter and old.

The role of the publican in creating blends of beers declined with the rise of bottled beer. Porter, for example, was frequently served in the pub as a combination of aged, sour porter, mild (unaged) porter and some lighter and cheaper beer. After the desire for sour porter dropped off in the late 19th century there was still blends found of porter and a lighter beer (which became half and halfs). Brewers started bottling pre-blended combinations of porter and a lighter beer since the absence of sour beer meant no exploding bottles. Various brewers used blends of strong and weak beers to produce various strengths of ales, often blending old ale or stock ale with young bitter or pale ale. These bottled blends allowed brewers to stretch their supply of expensive aged or high gravity beers (the same reason publicans sold blends) and compete directly with the publicans. However, pub-blended beer did not die off completely. Well into the 1960s one could still find people drinking mixes that included mild, bitter, porter, stout and pale ale.

I find it unusual that with all of the craft beer available at bars the most one can normally find are blends containing Guinness or Blue Moon. The culture of bar-blended beer seems to have been left behind although mixed drinks containing craft beer and liquor seem quite popular. It's disappointing, really. I suppose our craft beers are flavorful enough that the blending is irrelevant. You don't need to mix a hoppy beer with a porter to make a hoppy porter. You can just buy one. However, I think there are some interesting combinations that are difficult to replicate in a single beer, if for no other reason than the fermentation in the single beer and the time for the components to blend together in a single beer makes for a different approach. Perhaps more importantly, you can't always find blends of sour or aged beers that also offer fresh, hoppy character. Incidentally, I think it would be interesting to see a taproom-focused brewery brew a set of strong and weak beers for the purpose of serving them both individually or blended. It could create interesting production advantages for a small brewery.

Ok, so why am I writing about this on a homebrewing blog? I think it's good, as brewers, for us to stretch our palettes and try different things. Plus I think it generally makes for tasty beer drinking. I also think it would be interesting to see a homebrew system set up that focused on blending, whether it is blending in the package or in the glass. I also believe that blending beer is something we will see grow as a practice in the craft beer community. Maybe not in the bar or in the taproom, but with all the barrel aging and sour brewing going on it presents a lot of opportunity for brewers to get creative and offer something unique beyond using the newest hop variety.

October 8, 2013

STD ESB Tasting

I realized a week or so ago that when I first designed this ESB recipe back in 2011 I had modeled it off a recipe from Jamil, which is often mentioned as being a non-traditional recipe. I'll admit I'm not a huge fan of this beer although it doesn't help that I used three year old grains and hops. There's definitely an old hop flavor that I don't love. At least this recipe can be a jumping off point for working (but not twerking) on a better ESB recipe.

Appearance: Light in color, a little too light for an ESB. It is more of a golden color than the usual copper color of an ESB. Maintains a frothy white head from the cask pour. Beer is clear with very slight haze. Actually very clear for a cask beer. A layer of bubbles forms along the bottom of the glass.
Aroma: The aroma is a mix of English yeast character, hop and some malt aroma. The dominate aroma is the grassy, slightly fruity aroma of EKG hops. Some yeast esters come out in the aroma with just a hint of bready malt. The hops are not as pronounced as I would have liked but it smells fresh and inviting.

Flavor: Not at all like the aroma. The yeast character is prominent with a mix of fruit and what people describe as the "twang" with S-04. It's not unpleasant but it overwhelms the taste. It has mellowed after a few days of oxygen exposure. The hop flavor has a hint of what was in the aroma but the primary hop flavor profile is one of faded, stale hops. Not undrinkable but not the fresh hop flavor you expect in an ESB. Malt character is very mild and the specialty malts are subdued, if present at all.

Mouthfeel: Mouthfeel is a little thin for cask beer. It's more carbonated and spritzy than I expected. It's not necessarily a bad thing and it's not as carbonated as bottle conditioned or draft beer but just not what I expected. It's very easy to drink.

Overall: I consider this a miss for several reasons. I let the fermentation get warm a little too quickly, which gave the beer more yeast character than I wanted. The use of old ingredients definitely played against the quality of the beer although that has nothing to do with the recipe itself. I was also looking for more of the bread and caramel flavors from the malt that this recipe lacks. I'd certainly change the recipe to focus on more crystal malts and maybe use some munich to drive some of the color and flavor without making the beer cloying. I'd also contemplate the use of candy syrups to help drive flavor, which is a common English practice.

Colorado Drinking September 2013 -- Part 5

In this final installment of this series of posts I'll discuss my two trips to Fort Collins. We went to Fort Collins twice and visited the same breweries each time. I don't feel bad about missing the other breweries. These are among my favorite breweries and outside of New Belgium, I can't get any at home. I know there are some new brewers popping up in Fort Collins that I'd like to try but it's hard to fade on some of the best beer in the state (at least in my opinion). We were also fairly busy each time. On the first trip we had a beer novice with us so we figured we would introduce him to places we knew to be solid. On the second trip we scored tickets to the New Belgium tour and that's a long tour. We also drove back down that evening to Boulder and had dinner and visited Avery. So that didn't leave a huge amount of time to crawl around Fort Collins to try new places. I still need to get into Mayor of Old Town (their largest and best known bar) one of these trips.

If you ever make the drive from Denver to Fort Collins, you will notice that Budweiser shows up on the name of a few items along the highway (I-25) such as an athletic complex. Bud has a sizeable presence in Fort Collins. If you miss your exit for all the breweries you have to drive a few minutes before you can turn around. There at the next exit is the Budweiser plant. I missed the exit on the first drive and ended up in Budweiser territory. I snapped the below picture while driving so it's not a great picture. However, you can see that it's a large facility (squarely in the middle of the photo). It's larger than the Budweiser and Miller breweries in Dallas and Fort Worth, respectively, but I don't think it's as large as AB-InBev's site in St. Louis or Coors in Golden, Colorado. But after the picture we'll move on to discussing good beer.

The Fort Collins Brewery

I can't say enough good things about The Fort Collins Brewery (FCB). FCB is probably the most undervalued brewery in the state. If I had to guess a reason why they are undervalued then I'd say it's probably due to a heavy reliance on distributing their core package of beers, which mostly revolve around the typical craft beer styles that built craft brewing for decades before breweries could live off of a core lineup of an IPA, imperial stout and some Belgian-style beer. These beers might be boring to people who didn't start their craft beer journey on these more pedestrian styles but FCB makes them very well and they are solid representations of sessionable (or at least session-ish) styles. However, what gets overlooked about FCB is their seasonal and one off beers. I believe outside of their standard seasonal line up most of these other beers are either on-premises only or draft-only. FCB makes a whole line of hoppy beers that compete soundly with any other IPA/DIPAs. Their smoked beers are among some of the best I've ever had, including some of the German beers considered standards for the style.

I also can't say enough good things about the on-site restaurant (which is separate from the taproom). The fantastic food and service are worth stopping in but don't overlook the beer list. For whatever reason, you can often find a different selection of beers in the restaurant than you find in the taproom. The restaurant selection usually includes one off beers that the taproom may not have. The taproom also frequently has beers the restaurant doesn't have so it's worth checking out both to find the full selection available. To the right is a picture of the seasonal and specialty brews available on the first day I ate in the restaurant.

I really need to hit their Saturday tours, which are free and come with a food and beer pairing.

My only gripe about FCB is that they do not distribute to Texas. We have terrible distribution laws and it's a massive state to try to distribute to (which is why most breweries start off in one or two major markets before expanding to the rest of the state) so it's not entirely their fault. But I would love to see even their standards in this area.

Before I discuss the beers I loved most at FCB this trip, let me give you a couple pictures of their brewhouse.

Delicious beers:

  • Sour Doppelbock:When I first saw this beer I was skeptical whether it would be dry and tart like a non-backsweetened Flanders red or have too much residual sugar to give it that balsamic vinegar taste. I should have had more faith. This beer was probably the best or among the best beers of the whole trip. It was dry and tart while keeping the malt flavors alive, much like a big Flanders red. However, the malt character was very different from a Flanders red. While Flanders red relies on the German caramel malts, doppelbocks tend to rely more heavily on the lighter Munich malts, which are bready and less caramel-sweet than caramunich and caravienne. There was still some of the chocolate, caramel, cherry, stonefruit and toffee flavors present in a Flanders red but much more of a bready, toasty character that I preferred over the typical character of a Flanders red. I might have to try my hand at souring a doppelbock.
  • Mesquite Chile Lime: I was intrigued by this beer but not entirely sure what to expect. It was exactly what is was called. There was citrusy mesquite smoke flavor, some chile flavor and heat and some lime flavor and acidity. It was a very unique and interesting beer. It was very food-like and could easily be used as a marinade on almost any kind of meat. It's the kind of beer that could easily be justified in a 4-8 ounce pour because it has a big, bold flavor that can overwhelm your taste buds. It went extremely well with the nachos we had as an appetizer so I didn't feel overwhelmed. It did a good job of adding an interesting dynamic to the nachos.
I didn't get much further into the beers on either stop because the sour doppelbock was that good but I am sure the 2011 doppelbock they have brought out for sale is excellent and the double chocolate stout is a great sort-of imperial chocolate stout. It's not quite as big as most imperial stouts but packs a lot of quality flavor.

Odell Brewing

Odell is doing very well for itself. It is expanding both the taproom and production facilities, so we should see some of the basic lineup in Texas in late spring 2014. Odell Brewing is best known for 90 Shilling, their flagship beer, and their variety of hoppy beers. However, Odell has a wide range of beers and it is no wider than the one off and test batches that get released in the taproom. One of those beers won us over as a fantastic beer: Wooden Cow. Wooden Cow is a bourbon barrel aged chocolate stout. Fantastically rich with chocolate flavor and mouthfeel. The barrel character was well balanced and added vanilla undertones. These days it's not hard to find bourbon barrel aged stouts but it is harder to find bourbon barrel aged stouts that adds something interesting to the marketplace. I don't know if Wooden Cow is going to be produced more than once but they are doing themselves a disservice not to share this beer with more customers.

We were short a day for the official release date of Odell's new barrel beer, a Fernet barrel aged porter. Fernet is an Italian herbal spirit which is commonly compared to Jagermeister but less sweet. It's not a widely consumed spirit but I seem to recall from the tour guide's explanation that somebody local to Colorado produces it and that is where they sourced the barrels.

It's an interesting concept, adding strong herbal notes to a porter. It's not a terribly unusual concept from a historical perspective. Stout, which is closely related to porter (if there is even a legitimate difference between the two), was sold with dandelion as a flavor addition in parts of England as late as the early twentieth century. However, from a modern brewing perspective, the addition of herbs is not widespread beyond a handful of spices. The use of herbal spirit barrels is also fairly unusual, with the occasional gin barrel aged beer being the most common approach. I am interested to read reviews of this beer and see how beer snobs are loving or hating this beer.

New Belgium Brewing Co.

Kettle getting filled with wort
New Belgium has a constantly growing portfolio of beers, not all of them seeing production beyond their initial production. The Lips of Faith Series has a string of beers that usually only get produced once or twice and then never see reproduction. New Belgium also has an evolving line of seasonal beers. Every two years they put new seasonals in the mix. That's sort of disappointing because some of the past seasonals have been extremely popular. On the tour, our guide explained that the Folly mixed pack is now including prior seasonals, so that's something to look for (especially the beloved Two Below winter seasonal). And the tour is a must, if you can manage to score tickets. They sell out very, very quickly.

New Belgium is also moving forward on their east coast facility, which will allow them to distribute further into the east and they will run a second Lips of Faith program out of the Asheville site that will have it's own beers independent of the Fort Collins facility. I'm curious to see if the Ashville site will produce a La Folie of its own or an entirely different sour beer as the flagship of its own Lips of Faith series.

Below are a couple pictures of the second brewhouse. You can see the two fellers at the desk are running the whole system by computer controls. It's a long way from the manual systems most of us homebrewers use or even the digital controls of multi-barrel systems at most craft breweries.

Among sour beer fans, New Belgium's barrel project is legendary, if for no other reason than the size of its program. Below is a picture of the massive foeders that comprise New Belgium's barrel program.

In the barrel room we were given samples of both 1554 and La Folie. Our tour guide repeatedly claimed that 1554 becomes La Folie. Later on she corrected herself that La Folie is brewed off of the same recipe as 1554 but minus one ingredient, but according to NB's website 1554 has black patent and La Folie has crystal 80 and the other beer lacks that ingredient.

I didn't gather any other significant details on the tour so let's get into mentioning a few beers:

  • La Folie: How can you not name La Folie among New Belgium's best beers? I liked this release more than the last one I tried, which was either 2012 or 2011. This year seemed to have a little more of the chocolate-cherry soda character that I really like in La Folie. 
  • Smores Porter: This taproom-only release was the best smore-like porter I've had. I haven't been much of a fan of the few porters I've had in this variant but this one really did it right. New Belgium did a perfect job of capturing the toasted marshmellow character with a smooth, creamy mouthfeel. Lots of toasted marshmellow and chocolate in the flavor with a hint of graham cracker. 
  • Fresh Fat Tire: I know lots of people are not huge fans of Fat Tire because it's a simple amber and it isn't complex or interesting compared to all the IPAs and stouts on the market. Ambers are generally not well regarded for this reason. However, the extremely fresh Fat Tire given on the tour is notably different from the Fat Tire that reaches most consumers. The malt character is more complex and the hop character is more vibrant and complex. I'm not sure why Fat Tire loses so much of the flavor over time but I would buy Fat Tire more often if it showed up in Texas the way it tastes in Fort Collins.


For me, no trip to Fort Collins is complete without stopping into Funkwerks. Their saisons are among my favorite, especially of those brewed domestically. I was disappointed to see that Casper, their low gravity saison, seems to have gone out of their rotation of regular beers. I'm not sure if it is permanently retired but it is among my favorite of their beers. That said, I found plenty of other delicious beers to enjoy. Both White and Saison, two of their regular beers, are excellent beers but I found a couple intriguing saisons in addition to those two that were worth mentioning:

  • Farmhouse: A saison similar to their flagship Saison but instead of relying on Opal hops, Farmhouse is driven by fruity southern hemisphere hops. I'm still trying to find a beer style that isn't made better with New Zealand/Australian hops. The citrus and tropical fruit flavors from the hops play very well with saison yeast. I need to try my hand at a southern hemisphere saison.
  • Nelson Sauvin: This saison is driven by nelson sauvin hops and muscat grape juice, giving the beer a dry, white wine character. There's a few beers floating around with muscat juice and nelson sauvin hops but this one was my favorite. The saison yeast played well with the wine flavors, adding lemon, pepper and other intriguing flavors into the mix. 
A great trip all the way around. Had lots of fun and drank great beer, which is about all you can ask for. Here's a picture of the beers I brought home:

From left to right: two unlabeled bottles of Fat Tire fresh off the bottling line (they gave them to us on the tour), Crooked Stave Surette batch 4, Funkwerks Saison with Asian tea, Funkwerks Dark Prophet, Funkwerks Deceit, The Bruery Tart of Darkness and Jolly Pumpkin Luciernaga.

October 5, 2013

Ratchet: A biere de mars that was a dunkelweizen

Biere de mars is a French style that doesn't get nearly the attention of its more popular cousin, biere de garde. The only biere de mars that I see in distribution in my area is the occasional appearance of New Belgium's Biere de Mars, which is a brett-spiked version. Biere de mars is similar in many ways to a marzen or oktoberfest beer but with a really important difference: hops. Beyond the hop character of a biere de mars, both beers tend to be malty with a big caramel note but a clean yeast finish.

March plays a special time of year for both biere de mars and marzen/oktoberfest beers but for different reasons. Marzen or oktoberfest beers were traditionally brewed at the end of the brewing season as a summer and fall beer. They are not hoppy and common sense would suggest that by that late in the brewing season the majority of hops would have been exhausted and marzen or oktoberfest beers would have enjoyed the end of the available hops. Biere de Mars, on the other hand, was traditionally an early winter beer to be enjoyed in spring. Biere de Mars contains a smooth hop flavor that common sense would suggest that the greater availability of hops at that time in the brewing season would allow French brewers to feature their hops in this beer. So although Biere de Mars and Marzen are both styles that refer to March, they refer to March in a very different manner.

Another key difference between these beer styles is that biere de mars can enjoy some alternative grains from barley, particularly enjoying a large percentage of wheat in the grist. It is this key difference that would allow me to transform my dunkelweizen recipe into a biere de mars. I have had the grains for my dunkelweizen recipe laying around for a while and I have been meaning to brew it but my current supply of weizen yeast is in my frozen bank at my parents' house. I don't have time to fish out the yeast and I also need to grow up my culture of Pschorr lager yeast so adding a little extra grain and hops to the dunkelweizen recipe gives me an excuse to put my lager yeast to work and use the dunkelweizen grains plus some other stuff I have laying around the house. I don't expect this beer to be a top notch biere de mars but at least a fairly tasty way to use several ingredients I have sitting around the house while building up the lager yeast. I plan on brewing a superior biere de mars recipe for 2014 that will incorporate a more complex hop blend and less wheat but for now let's see how this one plays out.

As an aside, I decided to name this beer Ratchet, after one of my favorite Transformers as a kid. I had the toy. It was awesome. Ratchet could kick your ass and then transport your broke ass to the nearest emergency room for medical attention. It was a sweet toy, too. I figured since I am transforming a recipe for one beer into the recipe for another beer it would make sense to borrow a name from Transformers, which was the most awesome cartoon in the 1980s. Technically I guess I should have picked one of the Transformers where multiple robots come together (or Voltron) since all the pieces of this beer came from other brews but fuck it, I really liked this Ratchet toy.

Most of the recipe is fairly basic. There's a huge slug of wheat malt from the dunkelweizen recipe and probably far more than there should be for a biere de mars but it should be ok. There's also crystal 60 in the recipe from the dunkelweizen; if I were building a biere de mars from scratch I'd use caramunich instead. One thing that may stand out as unusual is the hopping schedule. The first bittering charge comes in at 35 minutes. Part of that is because I have an ounce of Spalt I want to use up and this schedule allowed me to balance using the full ounce with the right amount of bitterness, flavor and aroma. I also wanted to front load the flavor and aroma so I thought it would be interesting to try something akin to the late hopping-only pale ale technique in a lager. I'm not trying to make a world class beer with this one so it's a good opportunity to play loose with the rules and see what I make.

The mash schedule is a bit unusual. I am mashing for ninety minutes at 147F to produce an easily fermentable wort. I am doing this for two reasons: (1) the Pschorr yeast is a low attenuator so I am trying to increase attenuation by making a more fermentable wort; and (2) with all the wheat I want a drier beer so it is not too full bodied. I don't want to mistake this beer for a hoppy American dunkelweizen (not that it would be the worst thing to have). I'm going to whip out a decoction at the end of the mash to raise the mash temperature to 168F for a mash out so I can make sure fermentation has completed and I like the way decoctions add to beer. 

Ratchet Biere de Mars

Batch size: 1 gallon
ABV: 7.1%
SRM: 12.8
IBU: 37.4
Est. OG: 1.067
Est. FG: 1.013
Est. Efficiency: 72%

Grain Bill

40% 1lb. German pale wheat malt [2 SRM]
30% 12oz. U.S. two row pale malt [2 SRM]
20% 8oz. Munich malt [9 SRM]
10% 4oz. Crystal 60 [60 SRM]

The Mash & Sparge

5 quarts of water infused at 153F for 146F mash at 90 minutes
Decoct 1.93 qt of mash at 70 minutes into the mash
Bring decoction to boil and return to mash at 90 minutes to raise mash temperature to 168F for 10 minute mash out
Sparge with 1 qt at 175F

Mash water

Water profile: Bru'n water Brabant boiled

0.2g gypsum
0.8g epsom salt
0.2g canning salt
0.2g baking soda
0.3g calcium chloride
0.5g chalk
1.5ml lactic acid

Sparge water

0.1g epsom salt
0.1g calcium chloride

The Boil

60 minute boil

0.35oz Spalt [4.5%] at 35 minutes 23.4 IBU
0.35oz Spalt [4.5%] at 15 minutes 14 IBU
1/4 tsp Irish moss at 10 minutes
0.30oz Spalt [4.5%] at 0 minutes 0 IBU

The Fermentation

Pitch 45ml Hacker Pschorr lager yeast
Ferment at 46F until 1.020 (estimated 10-14 days)
Raise to 68F until fermentation complete (estimated 3-5 days) for diacetyl rest
(Pseudo) Lager at 46F for 14 days
Bottle at 2.5 volumes

Brewday Notes

Lost some grain to a spill so will be under on gravity. Tried wet milling for the first time, which was a PITA on a corona mill. Probably over-soaked a little. Due to lost grain hard to know whether it had any effect on efficiency.

First runnings: 1.051
Pre-boil gravity: 1.049
Pre-boil volume: 1.3 gallons
Post-boil gravity: 1.051
Post-boil volume: 1
Efficiency:  54%

Fermentation Notes

Dosed the beer with all the lager yeast -- slightly overpitched, which is ok. Fermentation began after roughly eight hours at 46F.

10/11/13: Gravity reading 1.039. I must have misread the refractometer with the post-boil gravity because there is no way it has only dropped 12 points in a week. This wasn't that big of a beer and fermentation started very quickly.

10/18/13: Gravity reading 1.029. Tastes good, still slightly sweet.

10/29/13: Gravity reading 1.022. Beginning to dry out. Some hop flavor fade; caramel and bready notes coming through as the beer dries out. Moved to fermentation chamber at 69F for diacetyl rest and finished fermentation. 
October 4, 2013

Colorado Drinking September 2013 -- Part 4

Alright, that's all of Denver for this trip. Now I'll address the breweries outside of Denver but not Fort Collins. So this includes Arvada, Boulder, Longmont and Colorado Springs. Let's get to it.

Oskar Blues

I have been meaning to get into the Oskar Blues production facility for a while and finally made it on this trip. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to get in on a tour or talk to anybody about brewing but I did get into the Tuesday afternoon special tapping. The picture above is obviously the taproom, which blocks off the brewhouse. I'm a fan of Oskar Blues for sure. Although they are most known for Dale's Pale Ale, I'm a bigger fan of Old Chub, their very tasty scotch ale.

Oskar Blues started out in Lyons, Colorado and has a handful of locations that are a mix of brewpub (like the original location), restaurant, burger joint and even a farm. Sadly, I hear the original Lyons location was hit hard by the floods. The production facility in Longmont seemed fine. In addition to the quality of their beers, Oskar Blues is probably best known for being an early adopter (if not the earliest adopter) of cans in the craft market. They are proud of their can packaging; you can often see Oskar Blues at beer festivals handing out empty, untopped cans with a bead necklace attached.

The reason why you may want to track down the production facility in Longmont over the other locations is that the production facility is the place to find their one off beers. On this particular Tuesday I was lucky to score a couple great one offs. One was an unfiltered G'Knight, which was very similar to the packaged version of the imperial red but with slightly subdued hop bitterness and a thicker mouthfeel. Personally I like the unfiltered beers you can find occasionally and not just because it's similar to homebrew. Filtered beers are great for shelf stability and bringing through a really clear, clean set of flavors. Unfiltered beers are a little more rough around the edges, which adds some complexity in a younger beer. The downside, as you can see in homebrew, is that the same polyphenols and other compounds that would be filtered out that add that complexity can become bland or unpleasant with time through various reactions that occur in the beer.

The other tasty offering I scored was a fresh hopped version of Deviant Dale. Surprisingly, this was my first fresh hopped beer. It's hard to get fresh hopped beers in Texas because we're not close to hop fields (although a few breweries are starting to get fresh hops shipped in) and I haven't been able to get my hops growing enough to try it myself. The wet hops added exactly what people describe, a grassy and slightly herbal addition to the hop profile and a slightly mellow version of the lupulin-based flavors. I thought it was interesting but not necessary a beer style I would rush out to buy. Maybe I need to try to track down another fresh hopped beer or two before making up my mind.

This second picture below is from the left side of the taproom. You can see the canning line and some more fermentors.

Yak and Yeti

Yak and Yeti is a brewpub in Arvada, which is a suburb of Denver, which serves a variety of beers and Indian food. The beers are mostly in English and Belgian styles, which makes a lot of sense. Malt flavors compliment Indian food a lot better than hoppy beers, which risk adding clashing flavor elements to the food. Everybody at the table seemed to agree that the beers were very solid but not the most memorable beers in terms of big flavors or crazy styles. I feel like this is intentional. Indian food is very flavorful and full of spices. You don't need beers with big flavors clashing with the food. I felt like the beers were good enough to enjoy on their own but worked extremely well with the food. The two worked well together to create a single experience.

The winner for me, hands down, was a barrel aged ESB. I'm a big fan of ESBs and I was pleasantly surprised to see the barrel added complimentary vanilla notes to the malty ESB character without losing some of the hop flavor that make an ESB something more than a brown ale. The hop character was appropriately mellow but the barrel and malt character created a nice blend of the typical English crystal malt character and oak flavors. It paired extremely well with the Indian food. The malt character blended well with the earthy Indian spices while the sweetness helped cut the spicy heat.

Avery Brewing

Avery Brewing was sadly our last stop of the trip where, after six days of a lot of drinking, I actually got beer'd out. That's not Avery's fault. I had just had a lot of beer and anywhere would have caused the same reaction. Still, I pushed through to have some good beer. Avery is a fun stop, although it's not the classiest looking place from the outside. It's on the side of a business/industrial park where they have expanded out into multiple adjoining suites to make one brewery. However, the taproom is very nice and has a great laid back atmosphere and good service. Being from Texas it's a treat to get into Avery because we only get about half their regular line up and very rarely any of their limited releases and not only can a larger range of their lineup be located in the taproom but there are also taproom only releases that are worth the short (for us) drive to Avery in Boulder.

Since both my wife and I were beer'd out, we got several tasters of some excellent beers. Here's what we liked the most:

  • Lilikoi Kepolo: a Belgian witbier with passion fruit. The passion fruit comes on big with a tart edge that makes for a very refreshing beer when paired with the classic witbier character. I usually think witbiers have enough going on that fruit adds an unnecessary dimension but it works wonderfully in this beer. I don't know if this is going to go into regular rotation but I wish it would.
  • Old Jubilation on cask: Old Jubilation is a good beer on its own but it takes to the cask approach very well. I'm pretty sure it's the first winter warmer-style beer I've had on cask but other breweries would do well to consider the same approach. Old Jubilation on draft/bottles has a flavor profile driven by hazelnut, toffee and mocha (all malt-produced flavors). On cask it brought out some caramel tones and the thicker cask mouthfeel made the beer feel more...wintery? 
  • Out of Mind: Out of Mind is Avery's Out of Bounds stout but with a coffee addition. Out of Bounds is one of the Avery beers we don't get regularly so I was happy to find it but the coffee lover in me pushed me towards the coffee-enhanced version. Out of Bounds is a great stout on its own with a big roasty kick. Interestingly, the coffee subdued some of the roast by surrounding it with the typical coffee flavors (e.g. chocolate, roast, cinnamon, etc.) to produce a deeper roast character but without making the roast character overwhelming or acrid.
  • Boulder weisse: Ok, let me say at the outset that I am not a huge berliner weisse fan. I enjoy sour beers but for some reason I don't care for the BW. I was intrigued to try Avery's version because they present it in typical German presentation. Goblet, beer, straw and syrup. They make two kinds of syrup in house (I believe they were cherry and raspberry) and serve it on the side. It was strange at first drinking beer through a straw but aside from dulling some of the aroma of drinking beer sans straw it was otherwise a decent experience. Their berliner weisse is was fairly standard for the style but the syrups were tasty and not as cloying as I expected it to be. Serving the syrup on the side is very wise because (unlike virtually everywhere in Germany that serves berliner weisse) you could taste the beer first and add the syrup as desired. Beer was good but the combination of beer and syrup was a winner. I usually don't get into the sweet-sour combination in beer because it creates that balsamic vinegar character but in this case the slightly sweet syrup and tart beer turned into a really good mix. 
I also tried the twentieth anniversary beer. It's a DIPA and while it was a good DIPA, it's just not my style of beer. Worth tracking down if that is your style.

Trinity Brewing

Trinity Brewing down in Colorado Springs has been in my crosshairs for a while as a target but we haven't had a chance to drop down to Colorado Springs because we spend so much time in Fort Collins each trip. This time, I made a strong push to drive down to Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs is built up on the foothills of the Rockies under the shadow of Pike's Peak. There's a drive-through park right outside of town called Garden of the Gods, which is quite interesting. I took some pictures but they were at night and not very good so I'll leave them out. Trinity Brewing sits on the main road that leads into the Garden of the Gods and its proximity to the mountains makes for some great scenery while drinking great beer. Before I talk about the beer some more, here's that awesome scenery:

In the above pictures you can kind of see that it was starting to rain up in the mountains. The storm rolled over us and the below pictures are afterwards. You can see the mountains caught a cooler form of precipitation than we did.

Ok, back to beer. Trinity has a reputation for brewing some crazy stuff. They do a lot of saisons along with some sour and funky beers and the saisons have a distinctly let's-throw-lots-of-spices-in-this-saison approach that Fantome helped usher in. They are also huge fans of Office Space, with beers named after popular themes and expressions in the movie, like TPS Report and Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta. Make no mistake, they are not making gimmicky beers. These beers are solid in spite of the often entertaining names. Trinity makes a great chicory stout if you're not in the mood for something saisony or funky, but the saison and funky beers were among my favorites so I'll highlight those:

  • Pumpkin saison: the pumpkin saison is a September-released seasonal and definitely my wife's favorite. I think saison and pumpkin is a weird combination but both this one and the barrel-aged version I had at Freetail in San Antonio were both great beers. Trinity's take is packed with spices outside of the usual pumpkin beer, with garam masala, brown sugar, sugar pumpkins, white sage, coriander and mace. It is somewhere in between the traditional pumpkin beer spicing and those indian-pumpkin beers that have started to show up in the fall. It's a fantastic blend of spices and pumpkin. Apparently it's a hard beer to track down unless you go to the source when it is first released. It had been released in the taproom a day or two before we got there.
  • Saison Man: This saison is packed up with a variety of grains and grains of paradise plus two saison strains and the Drie brett strain. The version we had was also chardonnay barrel aged. It's sufficiently funky with a rustic grain character. It's a gentle beer but there's a lot of subtle flavor. This was among my favorites, if not my favorite overall. 
  • TPS Report: TPS Report is probably Trinity's most well known beer. It's a brett primary beer with tangerine and lemon zest crammed into barrels. It showcases that classic brett character in a very rustic manner. It comes across like a very rustic tripel. 
  • Oh Face: How can you not like a beer named Oh Face? You can't. You must like it. Oh Face (just trying to find a reason to type it again) is another saison featuring the same five grains found in Saison Man and several other saisons--rye, spelt, oats, wheat, barley--with a saison yeast primary fermentation and three brett strains doing the dirty work on the back end (get it?). What makes this beer unique is that they age it on lavender in barrels. The lavender was interesting. When I think lavender I go right to soap so the first sip momentarily transported me back to the time my parents shoved a soap bar into my mouth A Christmas Story-style. I quickly got over it and enjoyed the beer. No more saison dry spiced with a soap bar.
One thing that strikes me as surprising about Trinity is how small the brewhouse is. It's maybe the smallest brewhouse I've seen outside of a homebrewing set up. I tried to get pictures of the brewhouse but it's enclosed and all the windows were dirty as heck (probably grain dust) so all the pictures were terrible. I'm not sure how small the system is (maybe 5-10 BBL?) but it runs a unitank plus three or four small fermentors. The "room" it's enclosed in is a really tight space. It's actually a small room within the bar area and I would be shocked if it is more than two hundred square feet. It's a rectangle-shaped space with maybe three or four feet in between the front of the vessel and the wall behind it. It can't be a great space to work in but it surely gets the job done. The brewhouse might be small but the barrel room isn't. Below is a picture of most of their barrels that I snapped from the side of the bar.

I realized I am a terrible photographer. I need to learn how to take decent pictures with the camera on this phone. Colorado is not the fuzzy mess I have made it appear to be. Maybe my Fort Collins pictures will be better on the next and final post in this string of posts.