Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fresh from my fermenter, an oatmeal stout

I've posted about homebrewing before. Here's a brew that I think turned out pretty good and should turn out even better after a few adjustments for my second batch. Introducing Old Kicker Oatmeal Stout, brewed with cocoa and coffee:

Old Kicker has a lively carbonation like Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout, with a taste of cocoa in the middle and then the lingering bitterness of coffee.

I can't take full credit for it, though. The recipe isn't fully my own concoction. It began with an oatmeal stout recipe from the fine folks at Brewer's Apprentice. I then added two scoops of cocoa during the boil, one with about 30 minutes left in the boil and another in the last five minutes. For my second batch I'll be adjusting that upwards, adding one to two more scoops of cocoa so the taste is more pronounced. Both will come in the last five minutes; I'm afraid that early dose may have boiled away some desirable cocoa aroma.

My other addition was coffee. For those who don't homebrew, here's how it works: When you bottle your beer you add something called finishing sugar as you bottle it. The yeast wakes up and eats it, producing CO2. Since the beer is now in a bottle, the CO2 has nowhere to go, and this stays inside the bottle. That's how your beer carbonates. (And YES, if you add too much sugar the yeast will generate too much CO2 and your bottles will literally explode. It can be dangerous.) Generally you boil the finishing sugar with a small amount of water before adding it to the fermented beer.

But with Old Kicker, I used coffee instead of water. Amazingly, I only used about 3/4 a cup of coffee for a five-gallon batch, yet you can still clearly taste it in the beer. It's a touch on the astringently bitter side for my taste, so next time I'll be cold brewing the coffee to provide a smoother coffee flavor without the bitterness.

Finally, I'll be adding a small amount of lactose sugar. Lactose is a sugar that beer yeast can not ferment. Adding it will do one thing: add body, making the beer taste and feel "fuller" and heavier.

The results will be, I hope, a delicious chocolate oatmeal stout with coffee. The first batch was pretty tasty (and there is still plenty left). Hoping the second will be delicious.

For those interested in trying to brew Old Kicker, start with this stout recipe (PDF warning) and adjust as per this post. Experiment a bit to make it your own.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tasting some history with Rochefort's Trappist beers

Note: This post originally appeared on my main blog.

For centuries, Trappist monks have been known for their outstanding brewing abilities. Monks in Belgium brew beer not only for their own consumption -- they are hearty, healthy beers -- but in order to pay for their way of life. Some of these beers are among the most sought after in the world, most notably beer from Westvleteren, which can only be purchased at the abby and only in small quantities. Others, like the world famous Chimay beer (brewed at Scourmont Abby), are widely available and are among the world's most praised beers.

Not too long ago, I had a chance to have the three beers of the Rochefort Brewery, one of the only seven true Trappist breweries in the world. This beer has been in production since 1595. So yeah, it's a piece (delicious) history.

Rochefort makes three beers, simply called 6, 8, and 10. They're relatively similar in style, with increasing levels of alcohol (from 7.5% ABv to 11.3%) and complexity being the major distinguishing factors. These beers are consistently among the top ranked beers in the world. Do they live up to the hype?


Pouring the 6, the first thing you notice is the gorgeous color. It's closer to a deep orange brown than you see in the picture above, not unlike a forest floor in autumn. The 8 is similar, showing the brown of autumn leaves with just a faint hint of red. Not thick black like a porter, not golden brown like a brown ale. Brown like Mother Nature. It's quite beautiful. The 10 is a deep, murky brown with hints of red at the edges but otherwise totally opaque.

All three beers are bursting with carbonation, too. Even with a gentle pour they jump up with two or three fingers of head. So all in all, these beers are wonderful looking.

When I first opened the 6, though, I wondered if they'd meet expectations. I expect a world class beer to have a world class aroma, but at first I felt slightly underwhelmed by Rochefort 6. Maybe it's the big IPAs and Imperial Stouts I've been drinking this winter, almost all of which fill the nose with heady aromas, but this left me unimpressed. Smelled heavy with yeast, very sweet with hints of caramel. Not unpleasant, but also not alluring.

The 8, on the other hand, had an active and complex aroma. Hints of figs and raisins and just a touch of caramelized pears, with the damp, uplifting smell of a forest stream bank in the spring. Yeah, I'm serious. If you can imagine what a walk through old Europe would smell like, well, it smells like this.

The 10 was the most difficult to judge in the aroma department. The aroma is boozy similar to a big barleywine style ale. (Think of Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot.) If you pay close attention you get some hints of figs and caramelized apples, but the big, malty alcohol smell dominates. It's certainly a STRONG aroma. Whether or not it's a good aroma depends on your tastes. As it warms, the aroma mellows a bit, revealing wafts of malt and raisin. Much more pleasant closer to room temperature.

The taste of each was just as complex and nuanced. The 6 got better with each sip. It tasted like a rich pastry bread in beer form, all sorts of bready and malty and delicious. A little sweet but subdued; caramel flavors but in perfect balance with everything else going on in the beer; touches of raisin and the like. By the end what had started as a decent but not mind-blowing beer turned out to be a stunner.

The 8 was more complex and yet oddly more subtle, too. The taste isn't overpowering or explosive. It starts innocuous, a slight gulp of beerish liquid riding on the heady aroma, but the middle quickly broadens into Earthy, vaguely nutty flavors with malt, caramel, molasses, and touches of fig, raisin and plum.

If it's got a fault it's that the 9.2% ABV is more upfront than many crafts manage to accomplish these days. It's not an invisible alcohol. While the Rochefort 6 drinks so smooth it's frightening, you can TELL this one is a big, potent beer. In these days of 10 percenters that drink like they're 6 or 7 percent, I'm sorry to say that this is a minor setback.

With the 10 you get nutty caramel and pumpernickel and other Earthy brown breads in the taste. It starts mild, then expands into a yeasty burst of pleasingly musty flavors before finishing with an alcohol-laden shimmer of mildly sweet breads and dried fruits. Like the 8, it also has a big, strong alcohol taste. A BIG alcohol taste. Many American crafts manage to meet or even exceed this ABV without the alcohol coming to the fore. Not here. Here it wants to arm wrestle you. American craft lovers have been spoiled with easy-to-drink big beers; the Belgians aren't playing that game. This is not for the faint of heart.

(With both the 8 and the 10, I suspect they age WONDERFULLY and will taste less boozy and more complex after a year or so. I'll find out in about a year; I already have a bottle of each stashed away.)

All in all these were incredible beer experiences. They'll run you $5 to $8 a bottle, but if you love great beer it's well worth treating yourself, even if only once.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What's in the fermenter this week

I dabble a little in homebrewing. I'm far from an expert, but it's an enjoyable hobby and I have a good time experimenting with going off-recipe. One of the fun things about exploring beer -- and making it -- is trying something a little offbeat. So with that in mind, last week I bottled three gallons of the stuff inside this bad boy:

You wouldn't be able to tell by looking at the color, but that's a Belgian witbier, aka white beer, similar in characteristics to Hoegaarden. It doesn't look like Hoegaarden, however, because it's been sitting with a few pounds of tart cherries. That's what all the jellyfish looking stuff is. Cherries having their sugars eaten up by the yeast inside the carboy.

I wanted to use fresh cherries but they weren't in season. My second choice was fresh frozen, but our local grocery store carried every frozen fruit imaginable but tart/sour cherries. Plenty of sweet, no sour. So I settled on a few cans of these:

How does it taste? I have no idea. Only just got it in the bottle and am unlikely to try a taste for at least two weeks. But I think tart cherries will go well with the spiced, tart taste of a Hoegaarden clone, especially when the weather is warm.

I'll give a taste report in a few weeks and, if the experiment was a success, the full recipe. Cheers!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Deconstructing hops

So when I recently posted about hops, I had that limited release Samuel Adams 12-pack in hand but had not yet indulged. Now that I have, let's explore just how these six "different" beers really are different. After all, they're the same beer with the same recipe and the same malt, yeast and water. How big a difference could a single hop make?

A big one. Check it out, listed by the hop, with an eye towards how they might be used in brewing your own beer:

Ahtanum - Cleansing floral pine in the aroma, huge fluffy head on the pour. The bitterness is a lot less than I expected from the aroma, though. Taste is almost a bit medicinal. Ugh. Not appealing in taste, yet very nice smell. I could see using this hop as an aroma hop in a homebrew, but I wouldn't touch this for bittering or mid-boil hop additions.

East Kent Goldings
- Very famous hop among beer geeks/historians. This is a traditional mild English hop. Kind of earthy. Only mildly bitter and the aroma is musty and unimpressive. In a single-hop beer it's rather boring, really, but it is an old standard as a bittering hop. Easy to see it used for that purpose.

Hallertau Mittelfrueh - A well known and often used German hop. Smells of pine and something pleasant I can't quite place. Apricot? Taste is mildly bitter but with a touch more fruit than East Kent Goldings. Still mild fruit, though not a lot. This would be a nice bittering hop or 30-minute hop.

Simcoe - Oh wow. I love this hop. VERY bitter, very piney with a touch of harsh citrus. It's a popular one in big American IPAs these days. Weyerbacher, a great brewer out of PA, does a Double Simcoe IPA that is outstanding. It translates well in the Samuel Adams version, too. Up front, aggressive, hoppy, this version of Latitude 48 is better than the regular version!

Zeus - Nice citrus aroma, sharply bitter, tastes of pine. Almost a little harsh, but not in an off-putting way. I could see this being used in almost any role in a beer -- if used in moderation and in balance with others.

Fully-Hopped Latitude 48
- Eh. It's not bad. Mild, mild pine aroma. No citrus. Taste is smooth but underwhelming. Nicely bitter, perfectly balanced. In a way that's why it's forgettable. It leaves absolutely no impression on you -- yet I can't help but think it will stand the test of time BECAUSE of that. No trends. No bold taste. Just a tasteful blend of hops grown at the 48th latitude. I'd prefer something bolder and more aggressive, but as an example of a traditional IPA this is a fairly capable (and very approachable) beer.

The bottom line here is pretty easy to get to: hops matter. A lot. They can change a beer entirely. So next time you see a beer boasting it uses This Hop or That Hop, pay attention. It really does mean big differences in how it tastes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

It's American Craft Beer Week

For a long, long time, American beer has had a pretty bad reputation. The world saw (and sometimes still sees) it as watered-down piss barely fit for anything other than chugging. And sadly, for a long time that perception wasn't entirely wrong. While the easy-drinking Buds, Millers and Coors of the world have their place, that's all American beer had to offer.

Not anymore. Anyone who knows their beer knows that following the trails blazed by Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, Boston Beer Co., New Albion and others, American craft brewers are making some of the best beer in the world. They're innovating. They're pushing boundaries. They're inventing at a remarkable pace. It helps that they have a rapidly growing base of support from the craft beer loving community in the United States, die hard beer geeks who demand quality from their brew. While beer overall remains stagnant or shrinks slightly, American craft beer is enjoying double-digit growth.

That's good news for those of us who enjoy great beer.

You can celebrate that this week, as May 16 to 22 is American Craft Beer Week. It's a growing event enjoyed by beer lovers across the country. Surf on over here to get loads of links events taking place in your area, or like the event on Facebook to show your support for American craft beer.

On Friday, I'll be tipping back a pint glass of excellent American beer. I hope you'll be joining me.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Brewing Up Variety At Ithaca

These days, a craft brewer can’t rely on one or two good beers and expect beer aficionados to stick with them. Craft beer drinkers demand variety. Give them an eclectic selection of quality beers and they’ll pay you back with loyalty.

That’s a lesson Ithaca Beer Co. out of New York knows well. This small regional brewery – distribution only reaches as far as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and a few surrounding states – is all over the map in terms of the styles they offer. Even better, they make a darn good beer. That’s probably why you’re seeing Ithaca beers appear in more and more good liquor stores in New Jersey.

Among their five year-round beers are CascaZilla, a big, hoppy red ale that clocks in at 7% ABV. It’s got a reddish hue and a full, malty body, but the star of the show are the Cascade hops. Most reds are pretty mild and, frankly, forgettable. Not CascaZilla.

But if it’s hops you like – hops are the part of beer that gives it its bitterness, as well as aromas that can smell of pine, citrus, and more – Ithaca’s Flower Power IPA is where you want to go. This beer has a huge, citrus-filled, floral aroma that is surprisingly pungent (in a good way) for the price. The beer is bitter but highly drinkable even at 7.5% ABV. It’s a year-round beer but is released in limited quantities, so if you see it scoop it up. It's one of the best IPAs brewed on the East Coast.

Ithaca’s best-known beer is by far their Apricot Wheat. It’s available all year long and is their best seller. This isn’t a beer for someone who doesn’t like sweet beverages. The apricot is not subtle. It’s right up front and in your face, making this a fruity brew perfect for a hot day. Try one of these while sitting poolside.

Like all good craft breweries, Ithaca also does an array of seasonal beers, including a smoked porter and Belgian amber ale in the winter. Right now, you should be able to find the last six-packs of Ground Break, an American style saison that should go down wonderfully on a pleasant spring day. Saisons are light-bodied Belgian beers known for their subtle fruity character and zesty, refreshing taste. Well worth tracking this one down, because they stop releasing it in April. Starting in May, Ithaca will be putting out Partly Sunny, a wheat ale brewed with coriander, lemon zest and spices. That’s good summer drinking right there.

Like so many of the great craft beers now appearing in better liquor stores, Ithaca is a regional beer. You can find their beers in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. You can locate distributors here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Wonderful World of Hops

If you enjoy beer, you know the word “hops.” And as you’ll discover a little further down in this column, right now your better liquor stores are offering a rare chance to get a tasty education in hops.

Along with water, malted barley, and yeast, hops are one of the four primary ingredients in beer. They are a vine-like plant closely related to the hemp plant. Hops, however, have no properties that will induce “altered states.” They’re in beer solely for taste.

Hops provide bitterness to counteract the heavy sweetness of the malted barley used to make beer. Without them, beer would be a sickly sweet and syrupy. They also have some preservative properties. The best known story showcasing this is the origin of the popular India Pale Ale, or IPA, style of beer. As the story goes, this beer was developed with a more robust dose of hops in order to ensure the beer kept during the long voyage to India. (There is some dispute among beer historians about this tale.)

Not all hops are created alike. Some impart a mild bitterness. Others such as those used in big American IPAs give citrus aromas or pine-like scents. Others are “grassy.” Brewers routinely blend hops to get the desired effect, so in any given beer you may be tasting a blend of two, three, four or more different hop strains.

Want to taste the difference? Right now, Samuel Adams is offering a limited edition 12-pack that serves as a hops lesson in a box. Their Latitude 48 IPA Deconstructed pack takes their Latitude 48 IPA, which is made with a blend of five hops that grow along the 48th latitude line, and breaks it down into a series of single-hop versions of the same beer. In each 12-pack you get two bottles of the IPA, then two bottles each of versions that use the same water, yeast and malted barley, but just one of the five hops used in the beer – Hallertau Mittelfrueh (a German hop), the famous English hop East Kent Goldings, and three great American hops grown in Washington state, Ahtanum, Simcoe, and Zeus. That means you get six different IPAs in the box, five of the six showcasing the unique taste of an individual hop.

The idea isn’t entirely new. For example, Mikkeller, a Danish brewer, has a single-hop line, but it’s far out of the price range of the average beer lover.

So for about $14 you can get a great education in hops, all while enjoying some Samuel Adams. Better grab it fast, though. This is a limited release and isn’t likely to last.

Oh yeah, and maybe in a future post I’ll discuss why “triple-hopped” is meaningless bullshit.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Chasing down the elusive KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout)

Note: I brought this post over from my main blog.

Founder's Kentucky Breakfast Stout, aka KBS, is an amazing, hard to find beer because the once-a-year brew sells out so fast, but it's well worth the trouble of tracking it down. Here's why.

There is a reason why Ratebeer rates it a world class beer and ranks it as one of the top 10 beers in the world based on thousands of reviews. It's quite simply one of the most complex, rich, and flavorful beers you'll ever have. Folks who have only experienced the usual Bud-Miller-Coors style beers are probably unaware that beer can be like this.

I was lucky to even get it. I had been bugging the guys at my local liquor store two months ahead of time. "Do you think you'll be able to get the KBS? Please set a few bottles aside for me!" Turns out my entire state only got 120 cases. Otherwise good liquor stores were #25 or #30 on their distributor's list to get a case ... and those distributors had maybe four cases to dish out. Yikes.

But my shop did get it, and they set aside two bottles for me. (Few shops sold this in the four-packs it comes in. Instead, most imposed one- or two-bottle limits on customers.) I'm glad they did. This stuff was a treat.

This is an imperial stout brewed with huge amounts of coffee and chocolate, both of which are very much a part of this heady, chewy brew's taste and aroma. It's rich and dark and very full-bodied. Founders sends the taste into the stratosphere, though, when they cave age it for a year inside oak bourbon barrels. The result is a beer loaded with flavors that all compete for center stage without crowding one another out.

KBS has a strong, up-front bourbon taste with hints of vanilla in the aroma. Give it a whiff and you'd almost think you're smelling a dense liquor. It's a beer through and through, though. After the initial burst of bourbon at the start of your sip, coffee and chocolate rise up in the middle, with hints of vanilla working to counter the mocha taste. The balance is perfect. As you finish your sip you're left with a lingering, oaky bourbon finish.

All in all, it wasn't just a beer, it was an experience. If by some amazing chance you see some, grab it. Otherwise, be ready to act fast when next year's batch is released. It's already in barrels.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A (delicious) trip through beer history

Beer tastings can be fun. Instead of just getting together with some friends to have a few drinks -- hopefully good drinks -- you're all trying new beers, discussing what you're tasting, offering your impressions, and generally having a nice shared experience. It's not a snobby, aren't-we-refined thing, it's just a good time.

Plus, beer!

A few weeks ago, I hosted a beer tasting with a fun theme. Over the course of eight beers (in smaller, sample-sized portions, natch, not eight full beers) we took a trip through beer history. Along the way we experienced a wide array of styles and beer experiences. Here are the brews we tasted, in order.

9,000 BC

We started 9,000 years in the past in ancient China with a beer based on the ingredients of the oldest known alcoholic beverage, Dogfish Head's Chateau Jiahu. Going by chemical analysis of ancient pottery, "Dogfish brewers use brown rice syrup, Orange Blossom honey, Muscat grape, barley malt, and hawthorn berry.The wort is fermented for about a month with Sake yeast until the beer is ready for packaging." This beer has strong floral qualities, smelling like a champagne but tasting closer to a lightly malted beverage. Interesting modern twist on what this beverage may have tasted like.


740 BC

We then jumped ahead a few thousand years to the time of King Midas in what is now known as Turkey, where we indulged in Dogfish Head's Midas Touch. This beer is also brewed with accurate ingredients as per chemical analysis of an archeological dig site. According to Dogfish, this tastes "somewhere between wine & mead; this smooth, sweet, yet dry ale will please the Chardonnay of beer drinker alike." My friends and I likened it to a crisp, somewhat sweet white wine with the feel of a champagne. Definitely an interesting beer that is best served with a meal.


The Dark Ages

From there we leapt into the medieval era. Before brewers discovered the hop plant was great for beer -- beer is the result of sugars fermenting, so in order to be something other than sickly sweet it needs additional ingredients to add bitterness -- they used a mixture of herbs and spices for bittering called "gruit." It was used for at minimum hundreds of years, possibly thousands, and was a mainstay in medieval beers. When hops came along, hopped beers and gruit beers were at war with one another. Took about 150 years for hops to take over, and pretty much every single beer ever since then has been made with hops. Enter Steenbrugge Dubbel Bruin. This beer is a Belgian dubbel made with gruit brewed in a traditional medieval style. The beer had many of the characteristics of a Belgian dark beer -- malty, with hints of caramel, figs, and plums -- but the bitterness had a dank, Earthy quality to it. It wasn't my favorite beer of the day, but it was interesting to try it.


900 AD

We then moved to 9th Century Finland for traditional Finnish Sahti with a slightly modern twist. Dogfish Head's Sah'Tea is brewed with juniper berries, along with a tea-like concoction made black tea, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and black pepper. Oh yeah, and it also happens to be heated using white hot rocks dropped directly into the beer. Check the link above and watch the accompanying videos for the interesting story behind this brew. How well did this one go over? Like a champ. It was already one of my favorites. When I mentioned I planned to buy a case of it this year, several of the folks on hand wanted to split it with me. Needless to say, it went over well.



Our next stop was Belgium circa the 1500s for a Trappist beer that has been brewed continuously for centuries. I've already blogged extensively about the great beers from the Rochefort brewery, so I won't repeat myself here. Instead I'll just say that this essential stop on our journey through the history of beer was as delicious as the first time I had it.


For our final beers, we hopped across the pond to pay a visit to the Founding Fathers with some beers brewed from their original homebrew recipes -- including ingredients grown on Jefferson's estate. All three were from Yards' Ales of the Revolution series, which includes George Washington's Tavern Porter, Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce Ale, and Thomas Jefferson's Tavern Ale. The porter was hearty and rich, with touches of molasses and a hint of chocolate flavor. Very delicious. The tavern ale was a potent (8% ABV) golden ale with a full body. Tasty stuff. And the spruce ale tasted like a Christmas tree. I'll not be drinking that one again.

And that was our little jaunt through beer history. It was a fun day of seeing just how varied beer can be. Later this summer, we'll be tackling an array of Belgian beers, focused on Belgian whites and golden ales. Should be fun!