Thursday, March 28, 2013

Barleywine and Old Ales: Age has its privilages

My friend Dave was kind enough to invite me to participate in a small group beer tasting over the past weekend.  He has quite the cellar of old beers that were hoarded up before the birth of his sons, and was in need of help to clear them out.  Sj and I were more than happy to help him out with this serious problem.  It was a very relaxed and chill atmosphere out on Dave and Sarah's sun-room, with a bunch of our oldest JAB members in attendance...quite reminiscent of when our club was small enough to be able to all fit in my gazebo for meetings!  Some of the guys (Kent, JD, and Kramer) we don't get to see much these days and it was a great excuse to hang out again.

We started out with some smaller bottles, knowing that they wouldn't spread as far.  The first was a tiny little can of barleywine from 21st Amendment that looked a bit too much like an energy drink (they are bottled at Cold Spring where they make many of those...)  A Rampant IPA and a huge bottle of 2008 Chimay Blue soon followed, though we didn't finish off that mammoth bottle until later.

The next step was a vertical tasting of Fuller's Vintage Ale with Dave supplying the 1998, 1999 and 2000, and myself contributing a 2008 vintage Christmas present.  This is classified as an old ale and each recipe differs somewhat.  I believe that 1997 was the first year they made this beer so getting to try these 15-17 year old beers was quite a treat.  The 1998 had very little carbonation, but a lot of raisiny sweetness.  The 1999 was a bit more carbonated and was my personal favorite.  Amazing to age that long and still be this drinkable!  The 2000 was also very good, but a bit lighter to me.  The 2008 foamed out of the top and had a subtle twang to it that may have been a minor infection with wild yeast.  Not too sour considering its age though.

Then the high point of the evening: a Thomas Hardy vertical.  Considered by most to be the quintessential English Barleywine, Eldridge Pope Brewery started producing these back in 1968.  1999 marked the final production at that brewery and thereafter the beer was brewed at O'Hanlan from 2003-2008.  Since then the beer has been gone, but a recent website attests that the beer will be brewed again soon.  Thanks to Dave and Kent we were able to try the 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2007 vintages.  Sarah suggested that we tell each other about big events in our lives from those years and this was a fun way to get to know more about each other, as well as to put some perspective on just how long these beers had been lurking in Dave's cellar.  The oldest was 18 years old!  In 1995 I was just barely legal to drink and didn't care much for beer in the first place.  That one had no carbonation and Jon pointed out that it tasted like a liquid Tootsie Roll.  1996 had more carbonation and I believe it was my favorite of the bunch.  By the 2007 batch the carbonation was better, and really had a lot of character.  None of them were undrinkable and most very good, which is pretty amazing considering their age. 

We topped off the afternoon with amazing pulled pork sandwiches (which I certainly needed after all those barleywines.)  Dave pulled a 2008 growler of Town Hall's Twisted Reality Barleywine out for dessert.  I am shocked at how well the beer held up considering most growlers lose carbonation in a week or so.  That is a testament to the quality of Town Hall's brewing and bottling technique.  Chris G. was with us and was in contact with Hoops via text, as well as with one of the Maltsters from Simpson's who supply grain for most of those beers we tried.  Kind of cool to have a closer connection to the beer you are trying. 

This was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon and a good excuse to see some old friends.  And I do mean OLD!  I might have glimpsed quite a few other ancient cobwebbed and nitre-crusted bottles lurking in Dave's cellar...  Perhaps we will try these one day in the far future along with some current barleywines and reminisce about the good old 2010's.

Have any of you readers had any great aged beers that we should be cellaring?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Beer is Coming: A Game of Thrones Beer

Way back in 1996, while living in Chicago on a shoe-string budget, I would frequent the cast-off/overstock shelves at the Borders bookstore for novels that I could afford.  One auspicious day I found a large tome with a shiny foil cover and the unlikely name of A Game Of Thrones for $5.99 on said shelves, and bought it on a whim.  At the time I had no inkling of what I held in my hand, but once I read it I knew that George R.R. Martin had created something of great and lasting impact.  Not until I took home the novel did I realize that I had purchased a signed copy; today a signed first edition of the book going for $500 on ebay.  Not a bad profit if I had any intention of selling it!  But wait, this is a beer blog...what am I doing blathering on about books?  Sit back and let me sing you a song--A Song of Ice and Fire!

Since the series began, Martin has written five enormous books of incredible scope and depth.  Set in a fantasy world, the series mainly follows an epic struggle for  power that is sparked in the first book.  The world is gritty and realistic, with incredible details of history, heraldry, politics, and very complicated characters.  I have not read any fantasy novels since Lord of the Rings with this amount of realism and scope, and highly suggest you give them a try!  No cute hobbits here though, just despicable villains, flawed heroes, and a dash of the supernatural scattered through-out.

For those who last read a book in high school English class, in 2011 HBO released the first season of its big screen adaptation of the books.  Watch it now!  Honestly this is the only reason I still have HBO.  Season 1 and 2 are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray for those who are coming late to the party!  The series captures the complexity of the books, layered with a great cast and excellent production values.  Each episode is better than 90% of modern big budget movies in my opinion.  By far my favorite character of the books is Tyrion Lanister, played with depth and power by actor Peter Dinklage in the show.  I'd watch it just to see that man act.  Do not let your children watch this show with you--lots of nudity, swearing, gratuitous violence and a beheading in most episodes.    Season 3 is just starting up this month, so get watching!

Again, where is the beer angle to this post?  Here you go my bewildered reader:  This past Friday the officially licensed Iron Throne Ale was released around the USA.  I was initially put off by seeing such a gimmick beer being released in the name of my favorite series, remembering the glut of cheap macro-lager with special labels that were released back in the early 90's.  Looking into this more I was pleased to discover that this unique recipe was being brewed by Ommegang, a very good Belgian owned brewery in Upstate New York.  My favorite beer for years was Ommegang's Three Philosophers, so I had increasing hopes for this beer.

Beer is coming...

The icing on the cake came when we learned of a special release and tasting at our favorite local beer store The Four Firkins (featured in a bunch of my previous blog posts.)  So on Friday after work, Sj and I donned our Renaissance festival garb, daggers, and pouches and drove out to The Firkins.  With a moment of nervousness we walked into the store and immediately felt at home.  All of the staff (minus Michael who was woefully under-costumed!) were dressed up as their favorite Game Of Thrones characters.  Bryan was a white walker with creepy ice blue eyes; Alvey was a Silent Sister, complete with rusty hacksaw; and Ian made a pretty realistic Robb Stark.  Sj kept calling Ian Jon Snow, and I had to remind her that she was calling him a bastard...I know serious geek alert here.  Ian, who never left character, served us up a taste of the fabled beer and we wandered around the store whilst drinking it.  Several other visitors had dressed up as well so we were not alone!  One young lady wandered in dressed as an elf, (with very realistic ears,) and we found out that she was on the way to a Hobbit watching party and just randomly came into the only store in the whole city where she wouldn't be out of place.  Weird.  One patron asked me for help finding beer, thinking that I worked there since I was in costume.  So I went ahead and helped him pick out some IPAs!

Better than a Red Wedding?

We were able to taste several of the Ommegang beers over the next hour and as usual managed to fill a box of beers to take home with us.  Since we were dressed up, the costumed distributor gave us free Ommegang shirts, bottle openers and coasters--score!  Overall we had a great time hanging with the staff and talking to other fans.  A fun way to spend a Friday night, followed by a trip just down the road to the Steel Toe taproom for a Wee Heavy.  Yes we did do a Superman style quick-change at the Firkins before we went out on the town!

And what of the beer itself?  At the store I did enjoy the beer, but decided to taste it under less chaotic circumstances at my home bar with Sj.  The style is a Belgian blonde ale with lemon peel and grains of paradise.  I'll write it up as an abbreviated BJCP tasting.

Aroma: Up front lemon zest with spicy clove and a hint of banana.  Sweet grainy malt and sugary sweetness.  Bright but subtle noble hop aroma.  Tinge of sulfur at first, but fades fast. 

Appearance:  Golden color with excellent clarity.  Huge pillowy white head that takes up half of the glass despite careful pour.  Head persists for a dragon's age.  Incredibly effervescent with a champagne-like sparkle. 

Flavor:  A malty front end with a sugary sweetness and lemonade flavor at the tail.  Light clove and cardamom flavors with a spicy rye-like zing.  Ends with a notable hop bitterness and a mild noble hop flavor as well. 

Mouthfeel:  Body is between medium and light.  Carbonation is high and ends very dry with a sparkle on the tongue.  Lingering bitterness borders on astringent but doesn't quite get there.  Slight alcohol warming, but not a burn.  The dry finish makes this easily drinkable.

Overall Impression:  I really enjoyed this beer's drinkability, and a very good example of this style.  I had a lot of beers like this in Belgium and found many of them to be hoppier than I expected.  This has a great balance between sweet and bitter.  The lemon is certainly there and might take the beer slightly out of the style guidelines, but not far.  The spiciness may be from the yeast, or may be the grains of paradise (I've never really had a beer made with those before.) 

This is an unusual beer with an unusual story, hence the large write-up.  As a beer geek and a geek geek this whole thing hits the sweet spot for me.  A great series of books, a great TV series, and a matching beer fit for a king!  Could this be a sign of things to come for craft beer?  Will we have a Hobbit's Ale or a Joker's alcoholic energy drink in the future?  I know that Iron Maiden is coming out with their own beer soon...hopefully a craft beer and not a malt liquor.  I like this trend as long as the people in charge use good craft beer for these and don't flood the market with fancy-label macro lagers.  I have been through the early 90's where tons of these beers flooded the market and gave craft beer a bad name, contributing greatly to the micro-bust.  Ommegang and HBO have a hit here and I hope they decide to do a series of these beers...I'll be first in line to try them, probably wearing my puffy shirt and armed to the teeth.  Until then, drink up and gird yourself for the arrival of the White Walkers.
Winter is Coming...

Friday, March 22, 2013

Interview With Surly Brewer Derek Allmendinger

From time to time I like to mix things up a little on this blog and do some interviews with brewers that some of you may not know.  With the huge boom in the local brewing scene there are a lot of unsung heroes out there crafting all those great beers for your pleasure.  Today we talk with one of Surly's newer brewers, Derek Allmendinger, a great guy who I met several years ago while judging at a homebrew competition.  I think he has some great insight to offer on brewing and some good background on exactly what a brewer does day to day at the great and mighty Surly Brewing.  You may want to crack a Furious or Bender to drink while you read this...
1) Tell me a little about your history--where did you grow up and what was your path to get interested in beer?
I grew up in Jasper, Minnesota which is just south of Pipestone in the southwest corner of the state. That’s where I started drinking evil beer. In 2000 my family visited relatives in England which really opened my eyes to all sorts of new beers. Upon my return I began searching out beers that reminded me of those I had across the pond.

2) What did you do professionally prior to joining the Surly crew, and what brought you to your current position?
I was in banking for eleven years before switching to brewing. In 2009 I attended the American Brewers Guild which led to an amazing four month internship at Summit Brewing. That experience helped me get a job at August Schell in New Ulm. After almost two years Schell’s I took my current position at Surly to be closer to our families upon the birth of our first child last October.

3) Many of my readers are homebrewers and we always like to know if pro brewers started there too. Did you homebrew before starting your professional brewing career? And if so, what was your favorite style to brew?
My story is similar to many. My wife (then girlfriend) bought me a homebrewing kit for my 30th birthday and it took off from there. I spent a ton of time and money brewing at home… and she still married me. My favorite style to brew was my “Simcoe Chocolate Porter”. It was the first beer I ever brewed that wasn’t from a kit. I was aiming for something like Bender. I brewed that beer more than any other and in a blind tasting once people actually confused it for the real thing. It was a proud moment. Now that I know the Bender recipe, I laugh, because mine is soooo different.

4) Tell me what you do on a day to day basis at Surly. What is the best part of your current job?
I’m one of a team of five shift brewers on a rotating schedule. We handle wort production, grain handling, yeast harvest and pitch, fermenter set-up, etc. There’s always dry-hopping to do and casks to make. And never ending cleaning!
The best part of my job? I love being part of a great brewery that has so many exciting things going on right now. I’m very excited to be part of a major brewery construction. I love festivals and release parties and being able to talk beer with our fans.

5) I love to know what beers brewers like the most. What is your current favorite Surly beer and also your favorite "other" beer to drink?
Right now I am drinking as much of our Mild as I can. It’s such a great tasting beer. The toasty bready flavors are amazing. I hope someday we package this beer so I can bring some home. Otherwise I’ve been drinking a hell of a lot of Summit Saga lately and you can always find something Belgian in my fridge.

6) Are there any interesting stories or events that you can tell us about from your time at Surly?
Last year Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe came in. He’s a craft beer fan and big Surly fan. I had just finished my shift when he came in and got to help show him around. He was so enamored during the tour. He’s such a stand-up guy and really made us feel like the celebrities that day.

7) Is a love of heavy metal music a prerequisite to work at Surly?
Ha ha, no, but it does help. We play a lot of metal at work! But you’d be surprised how diverse our music selection is during the average day. It’s not uncommon to hear jazz, dub-step, bluegrass, 80’s rock, punk, Beastie Boys, and even country. On Friday evenings you might even hear Jock Jams.

8) Do you have any advice or thoughts for the homebrewers or budding pro brewers out there?
Keep it simple. I know it sounds cliché but when I first started homebrewing I immediately bought all sorts of accessories and tools that I thought would make my beer better. I should have been buying books. Master the basics first. Read as much as you can (from reputable sources; you’d be surprised how much bad information is out on the interwebs). And never take it too seriously, that’s when it stops being fun and starts becoming work.
Thanks so much to Derek for taking the time to respond to this interview and for continuing to get those great Surly beers into my greedy little hands (and belly.)  I think everyone who brews has a bit of new information to share, and always appreciate hearing more! 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

St. Patrick's Day Feast: Eating Your Beer

For nearly every St. Patrick's Day in the last 10 years I have been working and unable to drink beer.  For a huge beer geek like me this is a problem, and one which I seem to always forget about when the time comes to request days off on the schedule.  This year my schedule was free until I helped out a co-worker by taking this day for her.  Oops!  Maybe next year I'll remember...

So this year I decided to cook with beer instead, using some Irish beers I happened to have hanging out in my beer fridge.  I discovered a set of Irish cuisine recipes in this month's Beer Advocate magazine, written by Sean Paxton (The Homebrew Chef.)  I have cooked several of the fancy-foody recipes from his website with fantastic results.  I also tried his beer-centric fare at two NHC award banquets, so I felt confident in the source material.  I have made recipes from beer magazines that left out critical ingredients or steps (Draft) before, but have become a better cook in the last few years and make sure to carefully appraise these recipes before getting into the swing of preparing them. 

The main course was a pot roast with carrots, mushrooms and turnips braised in a crock pot all day with Guinness stout.  I just happened to have a four pound elk roast taking up space in my freezer and thought this would be a perfect time to use it.  Elk is very lean meat with very little fat and marbling, so cooking it correctly can be difficult.  Elk burgers and steaks are often a bit tough and dry if not left fairly rare, so I wasn't sure about how this would go.  In theory a long slow braise should get even the toughest cuts of meat to become more tender.  I first browned the meat in a pan and then placed it in the crock-pot.  Using the pan again (with all the yummy juices and fat still in there,) I placed the veggies in it and cooked those up.  My recipe called for 6 hours on high, but I would recommend either cutting the roast into a few pieces before cooking to increase surface area or to give it longer in the crock.  My roast was certainly cooked enough, but not really forkable, requiring use of a knife to cut it up at serving.  Very tasty though, as elk has a strong flavor compared to farm raised beef.

Along with the elk, I cooked up a heap of colcannon: a mixture of mashed potatoes and kale.  This was really tasty, but not the healthiest thing in the world (lots of butter and half&half in it.)  I figure this just evened out the decreased fat from using elk instead of beef.  I used most of a bottle of Smithwicks for boiling the potatoes and another couple ounces in the finished product.


Once the roast was done and the colcannon was warming, I reduced the strained pot juices and made a very tasty gravy from it.  As usual I had a bear of a time making the gravy the correct consistency, and think it may have stemmed from not reducing enough.  Eventually, with half of my kitchen covered in flour, I got it right and served up a tasty meal.  Sj had a Guinness with it and I gazed longingly at it while she drank.  The meal was very flavorful and filling, just what you want for St. Patrick's day.  And I have a week's worth of leftovers to keep the celebration going.  I did get my beer with dinner the following night, so all was not lost!  I highly recommend Sean Paxton's website (linked above) for some great up-scale recipes.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Just Another Thursday Night: Firkins, Alaskan, Red Cow, Oh My!

Facebook can be a wonderful thing.  Or it can be really annoying and have lots of ads, political filth and Farmville on it.  But yesterday I was happy that we were plugged in to this almost necessary modern evil.  My wonderful wife happened to read one of the frequent updates from the Four Firkins that afternoon encouraging people to come out to a special pouring of some new Alaskan beers at the store.  Since it takes about a half hour to get there from where we live I wasn't so sure it was worth the trip, but upon seeing the ice and snow in the forecast for the rest of the week I changed my mind.  Best decision all week! 

We drove down to the Firkins and were greeted personally by the always gregarious and friendly Jason Alvey, then pointed toward the tasting bar for our free samples.  Shawn from Alaskan was pouring samples of the new Freeride APA which was a malty and easy drinking pale ale, as well as handing out sweet logo bandannas for my future as a leather and chaps-wearing biker.  We also got to try the new Troppelbock, a strong (tripel) bock beer aged with oak chips.  I liked that beer quite a bit, as the oak cut the sweetness and made it much more drinkable than expected.  After our tasting we had planned on visiting the newly opened Steel Toe Brewery taproom just down the road, but we became sidetracked by our visit to the Firkins and let that plan go for another time. 

What began as a simple tasting of a couple new beers soon expanded and we were able to sample some other beers as well including Lift Bridge Irish Coffee Stout and the amazing adult chocolate milk beverage called Odell Lugene.  Alvey was in an especially expansive mood and even shared a couple of his special cellared beers with us, making this an extraordinary visit to the Firkins.  Sj and I had such a good time sampling these beers and hanging out with Alvey, Michael, Ian and Cory that we ended up staying more than an hour.  I, of course, bought plenty of new and interesting beers while we were there as well.  I'm guessing I'll need to wear my attack-dog training suit to safely get that Lugene out of Sj's paws. 

Realizing that time had flown and we needed dinner, Michael was kind enough to direct us to the newly opened Red Cow as a great local option.  Despite sub-par navigation by my usually homing-pigeon-like wife, we arrived near the crowded restaurant.  After skate/sloshing our way through some of the most treacherous "sidewalks" I've ever seen, we were able to get seated right away.  The restaurant is small, crowded and quite loud, but has an excellent vibe that defies description.  Funky pictures, including a psychedelic blue cow, line the dark walls.  Seating is tight, but everyone there was having such a fantastic time that the mood seemed infectious upon entering the building.  Our server was very good and food came out quickly, thankfully!  The menu focus is upscale burgers and fries, heavily meat/cow oriented but with some vegetarian and sea food options available--though why a vegetarian would frequent a place called Red Cow boggles my mind!  We started with a large skillet of poutine (that Canadian delicacy of fries slathered with gravy, cheese and meat,) which was more than tasty.  They also have Scotch eggs on the menu so I must go back!  They also had a very well balanced beer list with a few choices from most styles as well as a lot of wines by the glass.

For main course I tried the Elk Wellington.  One of my Last Supper meal options would be Beef Wellington (tender beef fillet slathered in liver pate and wrapped up in a puff pastry) and I see it so seldom on menus that I had to get this.  Their version was a perfectly cooked elk patty wrapped in a brie-type cheese and puff pastry, served with a flavorful dipping sauce.  Oh, and don't forget the Parmesan truffle fries.  I am a sucker for truffle.  I will need to go back to try The Royale--a beef pattie topped with pork belly--but probably need to order it with cheese in reference to Pulp Fiction. 

Overall, this little spontaneous trip to try a couple sips of beer spiraled out of control and became an epic beer tasting and incredible dinner date.  I must thank Sj for suggesting we try this, and Alvey, Michael and Ian at the Four Firkins for treating us so well and pointing us toward Red Cow.  What I get from this little mini-mid-week adventure is that you need to go out and try things if you want a chance at enjoyable randomness.  Gotta play to win!  Your results may vary, but I highly suggest a trip to the Firkins and to Red Cow in the near future.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Limited Release Episode 5: Pliny the Younger

Episode 5 of my favorite web-based beer show is now up and live!  This recent outing by Rob and Ron takes them to sunny California for their first non-Imperial stout limited release beer event--the unveiling of this year's Pliny the Younger.  Well worth checking out the episode, as it includes an exclusive interview with Vinnie Cilurzo (there is also an extended version of that on the website if you just can's get enough of him!) 

I swear I'll get to one of these of events with them one of these days. 

As usual I was enlisted as their beer expert, and those dirty sneaky hobbitses played a little trick on me...

Here is the link to the website: Check out Episode 5 and watch the rest if you haven't seen them yet!  Like them on facebook and twitter too, show the love.  They often do give-aways for their fans (Dark Lord, Darkness, ABR tix, etc.)

Upcoming: They have already filmed for Cigar City Hunahpu and are in post production on that one.  I hope they brought me a bottle to sample! 

Monday, March 11, 2013

AHA Club Only Competition: Barleywines

For those not involved in homebrew clubs or members of the American Homebrewers Association, I'll give a little background on this first.  Each year the AHA hosts several club only competitions (about one every other month) based on a specific style or type of beer.  These have included meads and special categories like session beers and extract beers, so they aren't always a BJCP style.  The idea of these competitions is to have each interested club vote for their members' best beer of the selected style and then send it on to this national competition.  The cream of the crop gets sent in and the winning clubs get points toward winning the much coveted Club of the Year award at the National Homebrew Conference.  Each of these mini-competitions are hosted by a different club across the USA.  This month's competition was barleywines, and was hosted by my good friends and sister club the Primary Fermenters in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

On a certain dreary and grey Sunday morning, after losing an hour to the dreaded Daylight Savings Time Demon, Sj and I began our hour-long trek to Roseville despite heavy eyelids and black ice.  We made it in plenty of time due to a distinct lack of traffic, (decent people still being asleep or in church at this time of the morning.)  We entered a side door to the darkened Pour Decisions Brewery, owner and brewer Kristen England being kind enough to provide us space and libations for this particular outing.  After fumbling around a bit to figure out lighting we settled in to the bar and "helped" Drew Boxrud to set up (i.e. drank Pubstitute and watched him scramble about.)  Other judges trickled in, mostly from the Primary Fermenters, but including representatives from The Minnesota Homebrewers, St. Paul Homebrew Club, and of course Jack Of All Brews (Sj and myself.)  The brewery is a large warehouse and was a bit chilly at this time, but we managed to get one large heater/fan going to avoid frost-bite.  The chill did preclude us from having to keep the beers in a cooler though, making the job of cellarmaster easy to handle!  The judges at the bar directly in front of the fan would periodically have all their papers flutter away whenever it cycled on, creating a blizzard of paper towels, score sheets and labels.  Note to self:  get me some of those fingerless hobo gloves...

There were a total of 52 beers in this particular competition, split fairly evenly between English and American barleywines.  The morning session for all of us was the English version, a very nice breakfast beer with raisin, molasses and sweet malt flavors abounding.  Most of the beers I judged were very good with only one that may have been infected.  I judged that round with Tony Kutzke (co-founder and president of the PF's.)  Always a good time judging with him and his wife Amanda, whom I judged with in the afternoon session.  Their little girls discovered pink scooters and spent much of the day zipping around the brewery on those.  Being a national ranked BJCP judge has its privileges so I was able to judge the mini-best-of-show, picking our top three beers to go on the the final best of show that afternoon.  During all of this Sj helped us by stewarding, checking our math, making snarky comments, and playing Angry Birds.

After a brief but tasty lunch of Jimmy John's subs we stepped into our second flight--American barleywines.  I was feeling pretty good about my knowledge of the style at this point.  I recently hosted a small barleywine tasting at my place where the majority were of this style, and I have been making one of them every year.  These were more hoppy than the English, and overall were of very high quality.  My beer, The Kraken, was in the running for this and Drew made sure that I didn't judge my own.  Mine made it to the mini-BOS but didn't travel all the way to the finish.  To make it to the top 16-18 beers of 52 from around the country is still pretty flattering. 

After tasting a lot of good barleywines and Pour Decisions beers, I was able to help judge the Best Of Show round with Al and Kristen.  It was a tough choice and Kristen dug a couple commercial examples out of his cellar for us to compare with these.  Thanks for sharing!  We ended up with an One English and two American as our three winners, though I'm not sure who they belonged to.  I got my scores back and had a 37.5--judged by two of my favorite judges--and I'm pretty happy with that result.  I'm only sorry that I don't have enough bottles left to get it into the NHC this year, since this was a 3 year old vintage.  Overall this was a very laid back and fun judging session, peopled with good friends and rambunctious children, situated in a great venue.  A perfect way to spend an overcast and lousy looking winter day! 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Jack Of All Brews Belgian Brew Off: Prologue

For the month of May 2013 Jack Of All Brews is having a special brewing event:  The Belgian Brew-Off!  This initially started as one of our 3-4 times a year monthly style focus, where as many members as possible will brew up that style for the month's meeting.  But thanks to Tim Roets' hardcore pursuing of sponsorship, we've expanded this into a full-blown event.  Tim managed to finagle Belgian yeasts from both White Labs and Wyeast as well as several different sugars from Candi Syrup, Inc.  Some of the yeasts and sugars were handed out at the last meeting, and I believe there are some more for this week's Friday meeting.  Having ingredients to hand out for this challenge is just what is needed to get some homebrewers out of their comfort zones!  I know several JAB members who claim to not like Belgian beers, but there is no doubt in my mind that after tasting all the different brews that will available in May, we will probably have some converts. 

I am especially excited about this challenge after my trip to Belgium last Fall with Sj, Chris and Hassan.  While there we tried nearly 200 different beers, all amazingly unique--ranging from sweet, strong, light, refreshing, complex to even hoppy!  My eyes and taste buds were opened to new beer styles during that trip and I've been crafting several Belgian ales since.  This was just the kick I needed to start my next batch.  Hands down my favorite beer from that trip was Westvleteren 12, a very difficult to find beer to say the least.  It is a strong, boozy dark beer with incredible complexity in aroma and flavor, and quickly became my bench mark for what a Belgian dark strong ale could be.  I have actually been procrastinating making such a beer after tasting its perfection--how could I ever get close?   Now is the time to try it out! 

I received a 1# bag of the liquid D90 Dark Candi Syrup at the last meeting and created my recipe to include it as one of the key ingredients.  I made up my own recipe for this one based in a large part on knowledge gleaned from the book Brew Like a Monk by Stan Heironomus.  There are limited actual recipes in the book, but lots of information about the types of ingredients and fermentation processes used for those styles of beer.  My most recent batches have been a very refreshing and hoppy Belgian pale ale and a less-than-successful tripel, so I wanted to go with something darker--a dark Belgian strong.  Most commercial examples use very little specialty malt, mostly just a Belgian pilsner malt base and candi sugar to add flavor, fementability, and perhaps color.  Putting my recipe through Beersmith it was looking a bit light so I also added a pound of the D180 (named after the lovibond color value of the syrup.)  This took me to a very dark place...perfect!  The beer will be dark in color but lacking any of the roast or bitter character from the classic dark malts.

For hops I used what I could find hiding in the depths of my Hop Freezer:  some German Tradition and Hallertau hops.  The hops for most Belgian ales are lower alpha acid noble hops, and the majority of the dark strong ales use only a small amount of hops at the boil for bittering.  I went with just one 60 minute addition of hops for this recipe.  I don't really want much hop flavor or aroma, just the bitterness to even out the sweetness of the beer.  Contrary to common sense the added sugars in these beers are nearly fully fermented out, leaving no residual sweetness from the sugar itself.  Most leftover sweetness comes from the malt used or is residual from fermentation stopping before all the sugars are gone. 

Yeast!  I picked the Wyeast Belgian Abbey yeast as it was most likely to give me the type of flavor and aroma profile I was looking for.  I want this beer to be similar to a Rochefort 10, Chimay Blue Cap or Westvleteren 12, so what better to use than a clone of the yeasts used by such breweries.  I want a strong yeast that will stand up to the high alcohol levels found in these beers, that won't drop out early leaving too much residual sweetness.  Proper yeast management is key to brewing these strong ales, and is the main reason that many homebrewed examples end up being disappointingly sweet.  I smacked my Wyeast smack-pack and let it sit overnight, with minimal plumping by the next day.  I went ahead and made a 2 liter starter on my 1940's era stir plate.  By 48 hours there was still no action in the starter.  My yeast seemed to be DOA.  I made a quick trip down to the homebrew shop and picked up another pack the following day, having to postpone my brew day.  That afternoon my starter began to work--nearly 72 hours after pitching it.  Smelling the sulfurous wine-like funk coming out of the starter, I dumped that batch and smacked my second pack.  No sense in wasting a whole batch of beer with an iffy yeast.  The second pack plumped up nicely and my starter was vigorous and active within six hours of starting it spinning.  With a beer this big (1.100) it is suggested that one step up the starter to a 4L batch, but I didn't have time to do that.  I have also found that sometimes with the estery strains of yeast (like Belgian and German Hefe) having too large of a starter can lead to a less estery aroma and flavor profile.  I can only assume that the slightly stressed out yeast puts out more of these compounds. 

Come brew day I was ready for action!  I started with RO water, cut with a couple gallons of local crazy hard water to make sure there was some calcium in the mash.  I did a 90 minute mash, wanting to make sure that the pilsner malt I was using had complete conversion.  I probably could have gone shorter, but my last pilsner batch came out a little low on gravity and I was feeling gun-shy.  I went with a mash temp of 149, using for the lower end of the scale to get a dryer finish.  I hit my target gravity right on this time and added the Candi Syrup after it came to a boil.  I decided on doing a 90 minute boil for two reasons:  The first was to add some additional carmelization and color to the wort by boiling longer.  The second was to get rid of any DMS that might show up in the beer from the use of pilsner malt.  Everything went without a hitch (highly unusual for my brew days) and I hit a bit above my target OG--1.108.  Close enough for me!  I transferred to a carboy (with blow-off tube) and moved it to my cool basement fermentation chamber (closet.) 

Fermentation temperature can have a significant impact on any beer, but especially with Belgian ales.  Many of the characters that one associates with the Belgian beer styles come from the yeast:  fruity esters, clove, spice, pepper.  I have found that low fermentation temps with these yeasts will often leave less impressive aroma and flavor.  I have started to do my yeast pitch around 65 degrees, letting it rise with the heat generated from fermentation.  The goal temp is different for each yeast, but for this one I'm going for about 68-70 degrees.  My basement is usually around 63 degrees this time of year, which helps keep the fermentation temp from getting too high.  Another tricky thing to be aware of with many of the Belgian yeasts is flocculation.  Lots of these (especially Saison) will not flocculate well, leaving you with a slow, prolonged fermentation and a cloudy finished beer. I have a Ferm-Wrap hooked up to my glass carboy, with a temperature probe inserted into a thermowell, that allows me to ramp up the beer temp if I feel that the beer is slowing down too quickly, or if the temp has dropped below the ideal level for that yeast.  Also of note, I can't have the temp probe inside the carboy at the same time that I have the blow off tube inserted.  This type of beer requires some frequent babysitting to make sure I'm maintaining the right temps and level of yeast activity to fully finish a good fermentation.  Sounds like a lot of work? Yup, which is why I tend to make more quick and easy English style beers!  A lager fridge can also be great for keeping temps down, but can run the risk of getting too cold since they lack the ability to heat your carboy up.

Hopefully this batch will turn out like I want it.  Highly doubtful I'll end up with my own Westy 12, but this has helped me to formulate my own recipe and try some new techniques in the pursuit of brewing perfection.  I'm really looking forward to May when we all get together to try the varied Belgian ales at that time.  With the myriad different styles and yeasts available to us, this should be a fun and educational experiment.  I hope that most of the club members will take this particular challenge and try a new style--even if they don't "like" Belgian ales.  Don't worry, we will help you drink it!

18.5# Castle Belgian Pilsner malt
12 oz Aromatic
8 oz Special B
4 oz Crystal 60
1# D90 Candi Syrup
1# D180 Candi Syrup
Hops: German Tradition 5.7 AA 1 oz and Hallertau 4.6 AA 0.75 oz at 60 minutes
Yeast: Wyeast Belgian Abbey with 2 L starter
Whirlfloc 1 tab at 15 minutes
Mash 90 minutes at 149 Degrees F
Boil 90 Minutes