Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Special Bitter Tasting

I brewed this beer back in early December, modeling the water profile on Well's Bombardier, a bitter that is brewed from highly minzeralized water. Whereas I typically brew my bitters with a maximum sulfate level of around 150-175ppm, I wanted to see how the Bedford Bitter yeast performs in beer with nearly double the amount of sulfate, close to what the Wells brewery is using. I expected the high amounts of sulfate to mostly impact the hops and the bitterness - making the beer seem sharper and more biting - but I was surprised to find that it changed the character of the beer in other ways. As is often the case when brewing low gravity beers, the smallest changes can have the biggest impact.

The Bitter End : Special Bitter 

Appearance - Pours a very clear, light amber-orange color with a two-finger white head that has excellent retention and lacing.

Aroma - Honeyed biscuits and toffee with a pleasant earthy and spicy hop aroma. The yeast character is quite nice, lightly fruity with good complexity. Just a touch of mineral character.

Taste - First impression is of sweet, biscuity malt and a rich toffee-caramel flavor that transitions to the same earthy/spicy hop character as the aroma. The yeast is lightly fruity and clean, with some mineral flavor that gives the beer a dry and crisp finish. Well balanced and the individual flavors really stand out. Bitterness is medium-high.

Mouthfeel - Served a tad colder and more carbonated than I usually like, although the mouthfeel is medium/dry and the beer goes down very easily.

Drinkability & Notes - As this beer now sits, it is probably among the best hop-forward English bitters that I have brewed. The high amount of sulfate has paired wonderfully with the malt, hops, and yeast, giving the beer a clean and layered flavor that really makes the individual flavors pop. There is some mineral flavor, although it is subtle and pairs nicely with the spicy hops. Really happy with this one.

Additional Thoughts:

- Styrian Goldings. Admittedly, I've not given these hops much attention in the past few years and that is a damn shame. At least in this beer, the Styrians have provided a pleasant spicy-earthy aroma and flavor that is a nice counterpoint to the floral, marmalade character of the Kent Goldings. Moreover, the Fuggles, EKG, and Styrian hop combo is certainly a keeper, although I do think it suits the Bedford yeast better than the West Yorkshire strain.

- Sulfate. I generally try to keep my sulfate levels around 150-175ppm for my bitters, although increasing the sulfate to 300ppm has had a smashing impact. The individual flavors of the beer are more distinct and the overall character of the hops has improved too. I wouldn't have expected an increase in sulfate to have made such a difference in the beer, but at least with the Bedford yeast, the high sulfate really changes things for the better. The water profile for this beer was around 100+ppm calcium, 300 sulfate, 20 magnesium, 15 sodium, 40 chloride, and 30 bicarbonate. Nearly 100% RO water with a mash PH of 5.25-3.

 4.7% ABV, 35 IBU, WLP006 Bedford Bitter. Recipe Here.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Brew Day: Vienna Lager

A little less than a month ago, I brewed a Munich Helles with the intention that I'd use the use yeast cake to brew a series of malty lagers, including a Dunkel and a Vienna lager. Today I'll be brewing the Vienna portion, using a recipe that is about as simple as it gets; Vienna malt, with few ounces of debittered black malt for color and Mt. Hood hops for bitterness. While an all Vienna malt recipe is not typical of the BJCP style, I really enjoy its toasty malt character and figured it would be a nice change from the heavy handed, melanoiden and caramel flavors that many home brewers include in their lagers. As for the yeast, I did a fair amount of research as to find a strain that would both work well for malt forward lagers and ferment cleanly at lower temperatures. In the end, I settled on Whitelabs 838 Southern German Lager, as it is clean, malty, and produces little to no diacetyl. Lastly, while I no longer have a (lager) fermentation chest, I jerry-rigged a styrofoam box in the garage that with the help of a terrarium heater has allowed me to maintain a pretty constant 45-50F internal ferment temp. A tad low for most lagers, but better than fermenting the beer too warm.

Scottish Session
Simple Vienna : Vienna Lager

Recipe Specifics: 
Batch Size (Gal): 5.0
Total Grain (Lbs): 10.18
Anticipated OG: 1.052
Anticipated FG: 1.012
Anticipated SRM: 12
Anticipated IBU: 22
Efficiency: 70%
Boil Time: 90 Minutes

98.2% - 10.00 lbs. Vienna Malt
1.8% - 0.18 lbs. Debittered Black

1.00 oz. Mt. Hood @ 60 min for 22 IBU
0.50 oz. Mt. Hood @ flameout

Yeast: WhiteLabs 838 Southern German Lager
Mash 152F for 60 min (single infusion)
Brewed on 20 January

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Historical Porter Tastings

Now that my porters have a bit of age to them, most greater than four months in the bottle, I figured it would be a good time to see how some of them are coming along and how they compare to each other. The first porters in the lineup are the 1836 Whitbread porter and a 'vatted' St. Stephens porter from 1834, both of which were made with a sizable amount of brown malt that I had kilned over hornbeam wood. The last porter, is an approximation of a 18th century porter, made entirely from diastatic brown malt that was kilned over straw. It is worth noting that the Whitbread porter has not been soured, whereas the St. Stephens has been bulk aged with a culture of Brettanomyces claussenii and a small amount of lactobacillus; as to simulate the bugs that might have been found in vatted porters of the age. The straw-kilned version is not soured. All versions were bottled conditioned, albeit largely unsuccessfully, I might add. Earlier tastings of the 1836 and straw malt porter can be found here and here.

Whitbread 1836 Porter:

Appearance - Pours a very clear, ruby black color with a thin, tan colored head with little retention. 

Aroma -  First impression is of dry cocoa powder and molasses, sweet candy corn and a slightly vinous dessert wine character. Not smokey. 

Taste - Roasted malt, licorice, and vinous chocolate with a definite wood-barrel aged flavor that lasts right through to the end. The wood character is stronger now than it used to be, although the flavor isn't 'oaky.' Medium-low bitterness and just a hint of ashy campfire. 

Mouthfeel - More carbonated than I would like; thin, dry, and slightly oxidated.  

Drinkability & Notes -  Nearly a year old in the bottle, there are some oxidation (candy corn flavor) and carbonation issues, but the beer tastes pretty good. Tastes almost like a chocolaty port wine. Amount of wood character is surprising. Certainly a sipper.  

St. Stephens 1834 (Vatted) Porter: 

Appearance - Dark, ruby-black colored with very good clarity and a thin, bubbly head that quickly dissipates with little lacing.

Aroma - Similar cocoa and chocolaty roast of the first beer, but with a funky and fruity Brett aroma that is nearing horse blanket territory. There is still a noticeable 'woody' character to the beer. 

Taste - Cocoa, licorice, and a slightly (tart) vinous character followed by a mellow brett fruitiness. The brett is not as funky as in the aroma and the beer still has a sizable amount of barrel aged flavor. Some light campfire smokiness lingers on the finish. Medium bitterness.

Mouthfeel - Carbonation is rather high/fizzy and the beer is dry/thin.

Drinkability & Notes -  Probably needs more time in the bottle for the brett and lacto to really come into their own, but the effects of 'vatting' are certainly interesting so far. The bugs seem to highlight the smokiness more so than the un-vatted version, although the beer doesn't come across as smokey. More of a rustic, charred-campfire character than anything else. Interesting beer so far, looking forward to trying it in another four to five months.

1700's Straw Porter: 

Appearance - Pours a dark black color with clear, ruby highlights and a brown, voluminous head with surprisingly decent retention. Darkest colored of all the porters. 

Aroma -  One word. Unique. Fruity chocolate liqueur, molasses, and burnt sugar combine with a strange hay-like, dried grass character. More smokey than the other porters. No "wood" character.

Taste - Similar to aroma. Restrained chocolate, burnt sugar, cocoa, and molasses with a rather strong campfire flavor that tastes a lot like the fuel source... burning straw. Really bizarre. Not really exactly pleasant. Bitterness is medium-low and the beer finishes with a dry, vinous character.  

Mouthfeel - Dry, fizzy, and over carbonated. Bottle conditioning issues.

Drinkability & Notes - Where to start? Pretty much unlike any beverage I have had before, let alone beer. And that's both in the best and worst ways possible. Whereas the hornbeam added a somewhat pleasant 'woody' character to the other porters, the straw has not done the same. Overall, the beer is just a strange mix of roasty/vinous porter flavor with a smokey, burning hay-barn flavor... if you can imagine that. This beer would probably taste better with more age, although I do remember liking it better when it was younger.

Things to Consider:

- Smoke. It is amazing how little smokiness the hornbeam wood imparted to the beer, especially compared to the straw, which was touted as the cleanest burning fuel after coal and coke. Whereas as I actually enjoy the flavor of the hornbeam kilned brown malt, the straw kilned stuff isn't so nice. It might just be that 1700's porter needs more time to allow the flavors to mellow. I would struggle to get down a half-pint in its current state.

- Barrel aged flavor. In the historical sources, it is mentioned that porters brewed from brown malt take on the flavor of the "wood," which we assumed meant that the beers had a smokey taste. However, given that both of the porters made from the hornbeam brown malt taste a lot like they spent some time in a wood barrel/or cask, can we assume that some wood character may have been found in the 19th century commercial examples? Or, is this wood flavor only a product of my individual kilning process?

- Kiln design. Regarding smokiness, what did an early 19th century brown malt kiln look like and how did it work; did a change in fuel source require a change in kilning methods? For instance, was the smoke produced from burning straw or wood allowed to come into contact with the grain or was it diverted away by attemperators or blowers?

- Souring. Still too early to make any conclusions, but so far the addition of brett and lacto has given interesting results. The 'vatted' porter is the driest and most wine-like of the other porters I tried, although I think my version has too much brett character for what would have been found in the real stuff. I still have three other porters aging in the secondary.

- Bottling. I honestly think that bottling these beers has ruined them to a degree. As is often the problem when using English yeasts, both the 1836 Whitbread and the Straw-Porter are over carbonated, the gravity in the bottle having fallen past its original FG. I would bet that the oxidation-type flavors so found in the 1836 Whitbread is probably due to bottling too. I wouldn't be surprised if the other porters are similarly affected. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Brew Day: Winter Warmer

One of the problems with brewing English styled beer here in the States, is that there often isn't much to take inspiration from. Unlike our trans Atlantic cousins whom have every form and flavor of British beer at their literal doorsteps, over here, it is nigh impossible to find anything on tap that might be considered true to its origins. And if you do find something, chances are it is a straight-jacket interpretation of one or two styles; a bitter or maybe if you are lucky, a porter. The cumulative effect of this lack of diversity in British beer (over here) is that we have formed a very narrow view of what "British" beer is and what it can be. I am guilty of it too. Bitters are pale to coppery colored, brewed with Maris Otter, EKG, and a flavorful yeast. Rinse and repeat to make the other styles. Obviously, this isn't the case. The variety of flavors found in British beer are as diverse as those brewed elsewhere, including Belgium.

With that said, this is a beer I really needed to brew. Something that is different enough from the norm of what I typically brew, yet still familiar. In the end, I decided to brew a winter warmer of sorts. I got the idea from a suggestion that I might consider brewing Gale's HSB, a darker colored special bitter that features Bramling Cross hops and various brewing sugars in the recipe. Reading about the history of the Gale's brewery, now owned by Fullers, I noticed they once produced a (vatted) old ale and used some of it for blending. Intrigued by this, I decided to try and combine an ESB style bitter with that of an old ale or winter warmer, focusing less on the bright caramel and floral hop flavors in favor of the dark caramel and earthy/woodsy ones.

Recipe wise, to ensure this beer is rich and chewy, I used a sizable amount crystal malt and further supported it with a large addition of brewers invert syrup. I made the invert syrup from demerara sugar and a small amount of molasses, reduced it for two hours at 240F until it was nearly black in color and tasted of port and licorice. I would have liked to use Bramling Cross hops - which have a wonderful mix of earthy blackcurrant and lemon flavor - but I figured Northern Brewer and UK Fuggles would be an acceptable substitute. They should pair nicely with the bready-minerally-oaky character of the yeast.

Old Pretender : Winter Warmer

Recipe Specifics: 
Batch Size (Gal): 4.5
Total Grain (Lbs): 10.00
Anticipated OG: 1.058
Anticipated FG: 1.014
Anticipated SRM: 20
Anticipated IBU: 38
Efficiency: 70%
Boil Time: 60 Minutes

75.0% - 7.50 lbs. Golden Promise
10.0% - 1.00 lbs. Medium Crystal (55L)
5.0%  - 0.50 lbs. Torrified Wheat
2.5%  - 0.25 lbs. Pale Chocolate
7.5%  - 0.75 lbs. Invert Syrup, No. 3

1.00 oz. Northern Brewer @ 60 min for 33 IBU
0.50 oz. UK Fuggle @ 20 min for 5 IBU
1.00 oz. UK Fuggle @ flameout

Yeast: Wyeast 1028 London Ale
Mash 154F for 60 min
Brewed on 14 January

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Something Different...

I was not planning to brew anything this weekend due to compounding laziness and it being a playoff weekend and all...go Packers!...but alas, I was recently given a nearly expired smack pack of yeast by a fellow homebrewer with the condition that I brew with it right away. While I should have just stuck the yeast in the fridge and told my gracious friend that I had, in fact, made a beer with it - and then gone and spent the weekend on the couch as planned - the beer obsessed part of me caved in and made up a yeast starter.

Mild - Porter
So I now I have a some Wyeast 1028 London Ale currently sitting on the stir plate. For those of you who have not used this yeast before, it is supposedly the Worthington White Shield strain and is known to make a pretty nice beer. Mildly fruity with good maltiness, some mineral character, high attenuation, and pretty piss-poor flocculation. In the past, I've used it with good success in a number of darker beers and high gravity ones; generally anything where you want good attenuation and not a lot of fruity esters.

But I have a problem. I can't for the life of me think of something to brew it with. I guess I'm in a beer funk. I've spent the last few hours scouring various UK and US homebrew forums for recipe ideas, but with no luck. Of all the beers I've considered making, a mild seems to be the least knackering, but then again I already have one planned with a different yeast for later this month. And I'd prefer to not make another bitter as I have one in the keg and another being kegged this week. Not to mention, I don't really have the space for a beer that's going to need a lot of time in the fermentor too. As for hoppy beers, I'm on the fence. Are there any low gravity, interesting hoppy beers out there?

Therefore, I am asking you, o' blogosphere, for brew suggestions. If you have a favorite beer recipe or a commercial product that you really fancy and think might be nice with this yeast, let me know. I would especially be interested to hear about any UK brews that don't travel far from where they are made. Surely there is some obscure little gem of a beer that deserves some attention. Even if it serves only to inspire. Something gets brewed on Monday, recipe or not.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Brew Day: Patersbier

Keeping with tradition, the first brew of the new year is another Belgian beer. However, this time around I'll be brewing a Patersbier, a low alcohol session beer (of sorts) that gets most of its flavor from the yeast. Historically, these beers were brewed for the monks consumption and were not released to the public, although I have only heard of one monastery where such a beer was brewed. Regardless, I have never brewed a Patersbier before and I wasn't really planning to do so, that is, until I was given a vial of WLP540 Abbey IV yeast that needed using. This yeast is supposedly the same strain they use at Rochefort and is known to produce lightly fruity and balanced beer, but it can have attenuation issues. Not wanting to brew a huge Belgian Quad with it, I figured a light and sessionable Belgian beer would be a good way to start the brew year. The recipe I am using is very simple, just pilsner malt, a small amount of cara-rye (by no means traditional), and Saaz hops. To keep this beer light, crisp, and malty, I am treating the water much the same way you would for pilsners; very low in sulfate and alkalinity, with a decent amount of chloride. Looking forward to drinking this one.

Session Porter
Patersbier : Belgian Blonde

Recipe Specifics: 
Batch Size (Gal): 4.0
Total Grain (Lbs): 6.75
Anticipated OG: 1.044
Anticipated FG: 1.008
Anticipated SRM: 5
Anticipated IBU: 20
Efficiency: 70%
Boil Time: 90 Minutes

96.3% - 8.00 lbs. Pilsner Malt
3.7%  - 0.25 lbs. Cara-Rye (70L)
0.75 oz. Saaz @ 60 min for 15 IBU
0.50 oz. Saaz @ 20 min for 5 IBU
0.50 oz. Saaz @ flameout

Yeast: WhiteLabs 540 Abbey Ale IV
Mash 150F for 60 min
Brewed on 6 January

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

End of the Year...

Another year of homebrewing has come to an end and while this has been my most prolific twelve months of brewing, I brewed forty-seven batches of beer and cider, it doesn't feel like I've done anything that important. If 2011 was the year of progress and change - of trying new things and making big improvements - in comparison, 2012 seems to have been the year of "more of the same." I didn't make any major changes to my brewing process and really didn't experiment beyond what I am already familiar with. It was a year of bitters, pale ales, porters, and dialing in water profiles, mash PH, and fermentation schedules.

Instead of doing a summary of last year, I thought I would share a few beer-y thoughts and some things to come for 2013.

Sour Beers, Bottling

I love drinking sour beers. I do not like brewing them. They take too long to ferment/condition and their brewing requires a measure of creativity that I am not entirely comfortable trying to mimic. Sour beers can be wonderful and they can also be gimmicky and lacking refinement. Like IPA's, it seems as if many commercial sour beers are judged not on their overall quality, but rather how intensely flavored they are. When will the consumer learn that big flavors does not necessarily mean a well made beer.

I loath bottling homebrew. Given the choice of bottling a beer or letting it sit in a primary or secondary for an eternity, I will choose the latter. The batch of pseudo-Albany Ale I brewed in the spring is still in the secondary. When it came time to bottle the beer, I decided I would rather let it sit around with a melange of Brett yeasts than have to endure an afternoon of bottle washing and de-labeling. On that same note, the Berliner Kriek I brewed back in late March is still in the primary. It is very tart and the expensive cherries I added to it have made it quite tasty. It is also infected with something other than Lactobacillus that is slowly producing something other than lactic acid. It will probably sit around until next March before I get finally decide to dump it.

The Pub, Session Beers

As much as I like spending a lazy afternoon in a quiet pub, nestled up to the bar with a flavorful drink, finding such a thing is getting near impossible these days. Around where I live, most of the "pubs" have been replaced by "bars." You know the ones... those sleek, yet characterless boozers that have twelve craft beers on tap and plenty of space for big-screen TV's and a blaring jukebox. Where once was wood and worn leather, is now cold metal and industrial flair. No comfy chairs here. And even the barkeep, once a friendly face, is replaced with a know-nothing hipster whom constantly talks/texts on their phone. Can an American craft beer culture exist in a traditional pub?

Session beers. Everyone is talking about them, some breweries are trying to brew them, but who is actually drinking them? I'm still waiting for the day when I can walk into my local and order a real bitter or mild on tap. I'd even take a flavorful, 4.5% brown ale. In the meantime, I'll keep brewing and enjoying them at home.

Brew goals for 2013:

- More historical beers. I really enjoyed kilning my own brown malts and using them in historical beer recipes. Continuing with this, expect more posts on brown malt and I would like to brew a historical Imperial Stout with the 19th century style brown malt. Moreover, I would also like make a few historical Albany Ales with my heirloom hop varieties.

- Lagers. So long as the weather is cold enough to allow garage lagering, I have plans for a Bohemian Pilsner, Munich Helles, and a dark lager or two. I hear there is a tmave called Morana that is mighty tasty.

- I never got around to making a Barleywine or a Belgian Quad. Got to get that done.

- Session beers. I would like to get back to making a handful of easily repeatable, low gravity beers. More mild, bitter, and Scottish ales. And sessionable American pale ales with Australian and New Zealand hops, as I won't be using much Amarillo, Simcoe, or Citra this year.

- I would like to start slanting yeast for long term storage and build a yeast library.

- Homebrew competitions. I only entered one big competition this year (won two medals) and I would like to get back into the competitive brewing scene. I need to get around to buying or building a proper beer gun, as to eliminate some oxidation issues I've had with keg-filled bottles.

- Lastly, this year I will brew the beer I want to drink. I know the vast majority of homebrewers and beer enthusiasts aren't going to get excited over an English bitter or mild, but that shouldn't stop me from brewing them. I've noticed my beers have become more hoppy this past year, partly due to my friends constant complaints that I don't brew IPA's. Not anymore.

Here's to another good year of beer drinking and brewing!