I’ve been doing these On-Tap Recap posts documenting my weekend beer tasting adventures for a few weeks now, and it seems I’ve just been reviewing bottled beers from my home cellar. I haven’t actually posted a review of anything on tap. Guess that’s my bad, but I do have a good excuse. With a small child at home to take care of, I just don’t make it out to the pubs like I used to. For the most part, I drink what I can drink at home.
Luckily for me, my adopted home town of Austin has many pockets of craft brew indoctrination, with more popping up all the time. Craft brew taps are appearing in the unlikeliest places, and so it’s getting easier for even a boring old homebody like me to get a pint. One such unlikely place is the Happy Trails Saloon at the Whole Foods Market a mile from my house. Springing from the floor of the store like an oasis in the desert, halfway between the pizza counter and a refrigerator case stocked with hummus in little plastic tubs, Happy Trails is a bar with about a dozen taps, four devoted to wine and the rest to a rotating selection of craft beers from the likes of local heroes Austin Beerworks, Hops & Grain and Adelbert’s to national favorites like Southern Tier and Ballast Point. Here the weary grocery shopper can take a break with a beer and food from either the Happy Trails pub menu or from any shelf or counter in the store (including the esteemed pizza counter).
This Sunday, halfway through our weekly family grocery trip, we stopped at Happy Trails, bolted the baby’s high chair to a table and let him bat his eyes adorably at Whole Foods employees and customers while he munched finger foods and we relaxed with slices of mushroom pizza and a couple of pints.
First up, a Baltic porter from Hops & Grain’s Greenhouse rotating line of experimental beers. This beer, I was told, was made with Whole Foods’ in-house roasted Allegro coffee. The coffee was noticeable, but mostly a background flavor in a very smooth, smoky black porter. Medium body with a lot of flavor, not too much alcohol, and not syrupy or thick. Great for an afternoon pizza break with the weather outside getting into the 70′s.
Next, a Southern Tier 2XSTOUT. Much as I love (almost) everything I’ve had from Southern Tier, and as fond as I am of milk stout, this one was a little anticlimactic after the Baltic porter. It was smooth and sweet, what I want out of a milk stout, and a good example of the style. But next to something as complex as Baltic porter, a milk stout was like a blunt object, beating me over the head with malt/sweet instead of the nuanced profile of the previous beer.
Really, the true star of this story is not either of the beers I drank, but the location. Good beer and good food right in the middle of a market I visit once or twice a week? That gives me hope that maybe the pub life isn’t behind me after all.
Friday was Valentine’s Day. While couples around the world were struggling through “romantic” evenings out at crowded restaurants with overpriced bottles of red wine or bubbly, Mr. and Mrs. Zyme Lord celebrated ours with a home-cooked meal and a pair of bombers.
Dinner was a pair of 12-ounce dry aged New York strip steaks served alongside grilled lobster tails (special thanks to the Texas weather, which warmed up enough on Friday to allow me to grill both the steak and the lobster to perfection in the backyard). We rounded out the meal with oven-roasted fingerling potatoes and grilled broccolini, and a bottle of Boulevard Brewing Company Bourbon Barrel Quad. Based on their year-round Smokestack Series offering The Sixth Glass, the Bourbon Barrel Quad was a strong-but-smooth take on the barrel aged concept, and I liked the result. Unlike so many of the barrel aged stout and porter offerings that pair heavy malt notes with heavy barrel flavors, the quad was a well-balanced canvas for the palette of barrel flavors. Vanilla and toffee notes overlay a cherry tinted beer with pleasantly subdued residual sugars that was neither slick nor thick. There was bourbon booziness there, but nowhere near what I expected from a bottle proclaiming an ABV of 11.8%. And I can’t imagine a better pairing for surf-and-turf, with bourbon and dark crystal malt complementing the lightly-seasoned aged beef, and cherry and toffee accentuating the sweetness of the lobster.
For dessert, a few Swiss chocolate truffles found love with a bomber of Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence. Yeah, I know, truffles aren’t a very “beer guy” kind of dessert, but dudes – if we can’t explore our softer sides on Valentine’s Day, when can we? I didn’t really feel self-confident eating dessert from a heart-shaped pink box, but then I never pass up a chance to eat candy. As for the beer, I was cautiously optimistic when I popped the cork. I’ve always been skeptical of so-called “Belgian stouts”, and it seems like chocolate beers are everywhere I look these days … most of them pretty good, but you never know when the trend is going to jump the shark. Fortunately, although Chocolate Indulgence wasn’t the best chocolate beer I’ve had recently, it delivered with Ommegang-worthy uniqueness. Perle hops and Belgian yeast imparted a light, fresh note that lifted the chocolate stout up in a way that would have made it the wrong pairing for a triple chocolate cake, but that worked well with the whole spectrum of European chocolates.
A perfectly romantic evening achieved, and not a wine glass in sight. Thanks to the creativity and passion of modern craft brewers, we live in an age where we can treat ourselves to excellent beer pairings for both our dinner and dessert courses. Now if I can just come up with a homebrew that pairs with conversation hearts …
Let’s start today at the BJCP Style Guidelines. Scroll through the list of styles. What do you see? Sure, it’s a manual, a valuable tool for any brewer. But for the beer lover, it’s also one part journal and one part little black book, with mental check marks next to the styles you’ve tasted and/or brewed … while unfamiliar styles call to you siren-like, the anticipation of conquests you haven’t yet made. Just like flipping through the pages of an old journal, you’re bound to have some regrets, some “what was I thinking?” moments (style 1A. Lite American Lager, anyone?). But also like a journal, the later entries leave you feeling a lot less embarrassed than the earlier ones, and certainly by the time you get to the English Pale Ales (starting with 8A. Standard/Ordinary Bitter) you’re starting to be proud of what you’ve accomplished.
Then halfway through, you see it: that entry that makes you question your judgment all over again, sitting drab and dull like a cat turd in the gold mine of your zymurgical adventures. The reminder of the giant noob you once were. And you ask yourself again, “What in the world was I thinking?”
I speak, of course, of 16A. Witbier.
Whether you call them wits, wittes, Belgian whites, or even bières blanches, chances are that you or someone you know has laughed derisively at this light, easy-drinking style in the recent past. And I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because so many commercial examples are so-called “crafty” offerings from industrial lager producers padding out their product portfolios with under-attenuated, over-flavored wits to provide a clawhold onto the elusive craft beer market and a talon in the door of the non-beer-drinker. Or maybe because witbiers are something we see as behind us, the non-threatening gateway beers we drank before graduating to today’s Imperial Everythings, and IPAs with IBUs approaching the GDP of Luxembourg. Witbiers are familiar, and after all we’ve been through … boring.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little creativity, witbiers are a useful addition to the recipe book. They’re very forgiving of temperature fluctuations during fermentation (i.e., great for beginners), and are especially handy when you need a batch of beer to go from grain to glass in a couple of weeks (i.e., great for anyone strapped for time).
The traditional wit recipe is roughly equal parts continental Pilsner malt and unmalted/flaked wheat, with oats on top of that at around 5-10% of the grain bill. A multi-step mash is usually performed with a beta-glucan rest at 110°F (or a protein rest at 120°F) and a saccharification rest around 154°F. The multi-step mash breaks down proteins that make the flaked grains gummy, avoiding the frustration of a stuck mash (replacing it, in my opinion, with the frustration of missing multiple step temperatures in my converted cooler mash tun … but more on that in a moment). In the boil, a small early addition of noble hops for bittering is typical, with coriander and orange peel (often Curaçao bitter orange, also known as laraha) added near the end.
My variation was developed in response to the need for an easy brewday and my desire for a bit more flavor than is offered by most commercial witbiers. First, the grain:
- 4.25 lbs Belgian Pilsner malt
- 4.25 lbs white wheat malt
- 1 lb flaked oats
- 0.25 lbs (4 oz) Munich malt
The substitution of malted white wheat for flaked wheat eliminates the need to do a multi-step mash, but just to be safe – since I still had about 10% flaked oats – I included 8 oz of rice hulls to keep the lauter flowing freely and did a single infusion mash at 151°F. The Munich was included to bring a little color and a touch of malty flavor.
I boiled for 100 minutes – longer than my usual 90, but just by accident. I added 0.55 oz of 8.2% AA American Santiam hops at the 60-minute mark. Santiam is a hop I hadn’t used before, but being related to German Tettnanger and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh (and thus more noble than American “Tettnang” hops which are actually descended from Fuggles) it seemed a worthy candidate. I got floral and peppery notes from it.
But the end of the boil was where things really got interesting. With 1 minute left in the boil, I added:
- 0.2 oz dried bitter orange peel (left over from a previous batch)
- 1 oz fresh blood orange zest (about 4 oranges’ worth)
- 12 g crushed coriander
- 3 g crushed grains of paradise
The original gravity was 1.053, technically a point past the upper end of the style, but I’m not complaining. I pitched a starter of White Labs WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale Yeast, an obvious choice for the style – but underpitched slightly by using a 900 mL starter. This should lead the yeast to produce more clove phenols to counterpoint the fresh zest and peppery spices. I started the fermentation at 68°F, but gradually heated the chamber up to 72°F by the third day, which should also accentuate the phenols. If it seems like I’m hedging my bets on phenol production, I am. This is my third wit, and the other two didn’t have nearly the fermentation flavor I was looking for.
I keg it two weeks from brewday, and I’ll be serving it just in time for the beginning of March and my ultimate reason for brewing this: a month of Game of Thrones viewings to prepare for the new season starting in April. It’s the reason I named this brew Wit Walker White Ale, and I think it’ll be a perfect beer to have on tap for Game of Thrones catch-up. It’s light enough to go with a variety of snacks. It’s sessiony enough to keep drinking through hours of viewings without getting drowsy or losing the plot in a beery stupor. And yes, it’s accessible enough to share with all my friends, even those who aren’t on the hardcore brew bandwagon yet. And by loading it up with flavors I like, I can guarantee myself something I can still be proud to drink along with everyone else … something so familiar, but completely new.
Monday. It gets a bad rap for bringing to an end all that fun we had for two-sevenths of each week. As though Monday is personally responsible, as though it rose up out of the shadows of the future to personally smother the weekend in the prime of its youth with a lumpy, off-white pillow.
Now I hate the moon’s day as much as the next guy. But I’m changing that starting today by giving myself – and hopefully you – a reason to look forward to Mondays. What is this gift, you ask? Why, nothing less (or more) than the vicarious and voyeuristic thrill of hearing about some beers I drank over the weekend.
Excited yet? I am. Let’s begin.
Sunday was brew day. To get myself going, I started with breakfast at home: scrambled eggs and center-cut bacon cooked perfectly by the gal I love while I made these yeasted brown butter waffles from Bon Appétit magazine. They’re the best waffles I’ve ever eaten, easy to prepare – most of the work is done the night before – and they go great with real maple syrup or mixed-berry compote (for an added brewer’s-breakfast touch, I sometimes have mine with homemade barley malt syrup).
I discovered they also went wonderfully with a Founders Breakfast Stout. I hoarded a few bottles of this October-December seasonal offering, and these were unfortunately the last, but I will be brewing this clone recipe from Brew Your Own in the very near future. There’s just something about this beer I can’t get enough of. Is it the childlike joy of having the flavor and aroma of chocolate on my palate first thing in the morning? The silky smoothness of satisfying oats? Or the skillful use of coffee in exactly the right amount to achieve a perfect balance of bitter with sweet, no mean feat for an ingredient as easy to overdo as coffee? I don’t know, but it’s sublime. At 8.3% ABV, it’s a wake-up of the most pleasant kind. I wouldn’t recommend getting it in your mouth before that first bite of waffle, but I won’t judge you if you do.
After the grain dust had settled on my brew day and my blood orange witbier wort (details to follow later this week) was safely locked away in its fermentation chamber, I went on a mission for Indian take-out: chicken tikka masala and saag aloo. I paired this with a bomber of Ballast Point Indra Kunindra, a 7% ABV India-style export stout with curry, cumin, cayenne, coconut, and kaffir lime leaf (say that list of ingredients five times fast). Ballast Point is a brewery I’m still getting acquainted with, having only had their Sculpin IPA … but Indra Kunindra was such a unique idea I was looking forward to trying it. The curry and kaffir lime came through with a noticeable fresh/tart/hot burst, but the export stout at the beer’s base was just too middle-of-the-road for the aromatics overlying it. It might have worked better as a fuller bodied sweet stout (with more residual sugar to bring out the coconut and lime) or even as a dry stout (with more roast to accentuate the spices). As it was, it just felt dissonant. It didn’t go all that well with the food, either. The spices and aromatics were analogous, but the stout demanded a heartier protein pairing. My favorite Indian spot doesn’t do beef curry, so I’ll stick with IPA for my next take-out.
Sadly, I missed out on the hat trick by not being able to make it up to one of my favorite weekend stout spots: Pinthouse Pizza Craft Brewpub. Late last week they tapped The Big Lebarrelski, a special offering on both nitro and CO2 of their White Russian Imperial Stout (“The Dude” – definitely my favorite stout in Austin) aged in Four Roses Bourbon barrels. Here’s hoping they still have some next weekend. If they do, I’ll tell you all about it next Monday …
Super Bowl XLVIII is history and the world has turned its collective attention to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, but before I hang up my big foam finger and retire the word clinch from my vocabulary until August, let’s take a moment to celebrate a gridiron tradition: the Hail Mary play. A long-shot pass down the field with a minimal chance of success, a last-ditch effort for a team with nothing to lose. I don’t know who did it first, but presumably many years ago some coach realized that when faced with an all-or-nothing situation, it can’t hurt to do something crazy. Whoever that coach was, he would have made a great homebrewer.
My own homebrew Hail Mary happened at the end of last year. I can take credit for the execution, but the idea for the play came from my wife/recipe consultant Lisa.
On Thanksgiving Day, I finished my pumpkin ale, leaving me with an empty tap and nothing ready to serve. I must have been complaining loudly, because Lisa stepped up, baby in hand. ”What are those?” she said, pointing to two 1-gallon carboys hiding in the shadows at the back of the closet under the stairs.
A few years ago I started making occasional small batches. After realizing that the 1-gallon carboys my homebrew supplier sold for $5 were nearly identical to the gallon-size glass jugs of organic apple juice at the grocery for $7, I just bought the juice and figured I’d save the jug when it was empty. But why waste that apple juice by drinking it when I could ferment it instead? Plain apple juice is all you need for a simple dry cider, so I pitched 3 grams of Safale S-04 into the jug and sealed it with a stopper and airlock. Incidentally, I chose S-04 for its high flocculation, assuming it would yield clearer cider. I was wrong; later I learned about pectin haze, a common “flaw” in ciders caused by pectin in apples and treatable with pectic enzyme if you care to. (As it turns out, I don’t mind hazy cider, so I’ve never bothered with it.)
I bought four juice jugs, but didn’t ferment them all at once. I pitched Batch #1 right away and bottled it four weeks later (oh, the anticipation of something new). I made Batch #2 a few months later and bottled it after eight weeks, then pitched the yeast cake into Batch #3. That was September 2011, right around the time I remembered that I like beer much more than cider and would rather drink it instead. I managed to finish off the cider I’d bottled, but held off bottling more until I was ready for it.
And then forgot about it completely.
In early February 2013, I was telling a friend how easy it is to make apple cider, and suddenly remembered the carboy that had been sitting there for nearly a year and a half. Trepidatious about tasting a seventeen-month-old cider, I put off the moment of truth by making Batch #4 instead, figuring I’d bottle both batches later that year. Of course, “later that year” soon became “Oh shit, it’s November.”
And that’s how we found ourselves on Thanksgiving Day looking at two little carboys full of cider with a combined age of thirty-six months. I reminded Lisa what they were, and voiced my concern that they might not be drinkable after all this time. I hated to spend the time bottling them if they weren’t going to be any good. I wondered if I should toss them.
“If the alternative is throwing them away,” she said, “why not keg them and blend them? Add some spices to mask the imperfections if you need to. Actually, make it a holiday cider with mulling spices.”
This, Internet, is just a glimpse of the general awesomeness of this woman and why I’ve been with her for twenty years …
As great an idea as it was, I reminded her that I already had plans for the now-empty keg. I needed it for another beer that was ready for cold storage but wouldn’t be ready to drink for a month.
“Just buy a new keg,” she said. “Do they make small ones? Then you’ll have a portable keg so you can take it out of the house.”
… twenty wonderful years.
My memory is hazy as to when exactly I ordered the keg, but I’m sure I waited at least 75 seconds after she suggested it. A few days and trips to the store later, I made a spice potion with:
- 4 oz vodka
- 1 1/2 cinnamon sticks, whole
- 1/2 tbsp crystallized ginger, minced
- 1/2 tsp allspice, crushed
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg, grated
- 1 clove, whole
- 1/2 tsp star anise, crushed
- a dash of grains of paradise, crushed
- zest of 1 orange
I let the potion steep until mid-December and racked it just in time for the holidays. I may not be much of a cider guy, but I was impressed.
Tart and dry, a little astringent, fashionably sour. The star anise was a little overpowering, but the cinnamon and clove really backed it up. The spices were strong, but that’s what elevated it from “just cider” to “holiday cider.” A friend sampling a glass came up with the brilliant idea of mixing it with ginger ale, which became my favorite way to drink it. I named it VertiCore, fitting for a vertical blend of apple ciders. And if I hadn’t bragged about it to everyone who tasted it, they’d never know that half the blend was over two years old.
So the Hail Mary paid off in a big way, thanks to a good play call by a great recipe coach. In fact, I may just lose another cider or two in the back of the closet. Christmas is coming again in 2016, right?
I’m one of a kind. I buck the trend. I’m, uh … I don’t know … a Pepper.
But isn’t that why you come here? To catch every pearl of unconventional wisdom that rolls through my fingertips into the WordPress text editor? Okay, maybe not. But what would the Internet be without hyperbole?
Today I’m exercising my individuality by starting my New Year’s resolution at the end of January. How, you ask? You’re reading it, babe.
Studies have shown that 88% of all New Year’s resolutions end in failure. Those same studies offer reasons why, but my belief is that it has to do with expecting ourselves to be perfect from Day One, i.e. New Year’s Day. If we lapse early on – say a week in – it’s easy to give up.
Well I don’t know about you, but on January 1 I’m not exactly at the top of my game for self-improvement. I’m usually juggling the task of coordinating my wife’s birthday festivities (did I say ”task”? I meant “delightful activity I look forward to all year” …) with sleep deprivation and a soul-draining hangover. I can’t even begin working off the post-Christmas beer belly until the birthday cake is gone on the 3rd or 4th, let alone chart a path to any successful new habits. If I gave up at the first sign of trouble, I’d never get off the ground. So I always set my goal for “some time this year”. I try to start in January to get momentum going, but if it doesn’t stick, I keep trying. Hopefully by mid-year it’s second nature. If by December 31 I find my goal has become a habit, I consider myself successful.
And it seems I may be right to look at it that way. A popular myth making the rounds online and in corporate America suggests that it takes only 21 days to form a habit. But according to actual, y’know, science, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days depending on the individual and the goal, with an average of 66. I’ve only recently learned this, but it helps explain why my approach tends to work.
My resolution this year is to get back to updating this site regularly. 2013 was an eventful year, good and bad: the birth of my child, my story in the October issue of Brew Your Own, new developments at my day job leading to longer hours and a bit more stress. It was sort of a vacation – new excitement, new stress and all – from my routine, and part of that routine I left behind was writing. Now it’s time to come back. And as I mentioned, I don’t think January 31 (which also happens to be the start of the Lunar New Year in 2014) is too late to start down the road of a successful New Year’s resolution.
The good news is that during my hiatus, Bousiris Bouery – the brewing operation of Last of the Zyme Lords - has been operational. Christmas brought some much-needed equipment upgrades in the form of a new Blichmann Floor Burner and a 10-gallon kettle, a small but important upgrade from my boilover-prone 9-gallon pot which is now a hot liquor tank.
I even managed to brew a few batches of beer. For Thanksgiving I made a SMaSH that turned out to be a crowd-pleasing English “dirty blonde” ale whose keg my visiting relations from the UK obligingly floated around the first of the year. I brewed a second batch of Anna Livia Irish Stout; the jury may be out on whether stout is good for nursing moms, but the one in my house sure loves it. I even fulfilled a 3-year-old promise to a friend by getting a wee heavy on tap for Hogmanay.
As usual, every one of these batches had a story behind it and I’ll share all of them in the coming weeks, along with updates on brews in the pipeline. For now, know that I am alive and brewing. Next week, I’ll truly get LotZL going for 2014 with the story of how I resurrected a couple of lost small-batch apple ciders for a tart holiday treat.
Until then, Happy (Lunar) New Year.
Wasting my time
Resting my mind
And I’ll never pine
For the sad days and the bad days
When we was workin’ from nine to five
- Pink Floyd, “Biding My Time”
In February, a friend just starting out with extract brewing came over to observe my all-grain brewday. The hot liquor tank had just been fired up for the mash-in when he arrived at 10 a.m.. I mentioned casually that I would be working until about 5 or 6 p.m.. He looked at me in wonder and said something like, “Wow. I can’t imagine what would take eight hours.”
Of course, he was speaking from his experience with extract. Many all-grain brewers probably can imagine an eight-hour brewday. The mash and sparge – i.e., the very things the extract brewer doesn’t have to contend with – can easily add three hours once you factor in the time to heat water, vorlauf, etc. Not to mention time spent cleaning the extra equipment. But my friend’s curiosity got me thinking about whether I could be doing anything differently to speed up my brewday.
I was reminded of the article “Speeding Up Your All-Grain Day” in the March/April 2012 issue of Brew Your Own magazine by Dave Louw, which applied the Critical Path Method of project management to an all-grain brew day to find the shortest distance between Point A (setting up equipment) and Point Z (putting away clean equipment while yeast happily devour the meal you’ve set for them). The principle Louw applied was to identify the tasks that must be done sequentially and focus on those, working in the other required tasks while those are taking place. If you sanitize your fermenter while wort cools, you’ve got the idea.
By sticking to the Critical Path, Louw illustrates how an all-grain brewday can be begun and done in less than 4 hours, though his example is extreme to illustrate a point. There’s an abbreviated 45-minute mash. A no-sparge lauter. A 60-minute boil. All legitimate techniques, but not “my way”. Yes, my 60-minute mash, double batch sparge, and 90-minute boil make for a nearly nine-hour brewday – ten in summer thanks to slower cooling. But I get consistent results. And I’m happy brewing my way.
Was that the choice I was faced with? Between being happy and being fast? I set out to test this on a recent brewday.
NOTE: The following is about as scientific as I get. Unlike some of you homebrewers with backgrounds in engineering or chemistry, I’ve got a liberal arts degree in English and classical studies. I can’t build an Arduino-controlled HERMS system, but I can identify zymurgic puns in classic works of literature and explain the origin of the word “Saccharomyces”.
The brew was about as simple as it gets: a Maris Otter-Fuggles SMaSH ale. 9 pounds of malt and a handful of rice hulls, 1.25 oz of hops each at 60 and 15 and 1 oz at flameout, and Safale S-04. Nothing fancy, just a vaguely English fast-flocculating pale ale to fill an empty keg in 4 weeks. It seemed right for my experimental “rush brewday”.
I did everything I normally do – no shortcuts – but not wasting any time, either. At no time was I sitting on the porch reading a book and enjoying a beer or coffee. I did little tasks while the Critical Path was running: set gear up while water heated, measured out hops while the mash rested. During the boil I even got a head start on the one task that’s so unpleasant I usually save it until the end, or the next day: cleaning.
I didn’t stop. I was so busy going about the various tasks of my “rush brewday” that I completely forgot to hook up the iPod and listen to some Rush.
And I finished in six hours. My “Critical Path” looked something like this:
|Critical Path||Other Tasks|
|11:00||Setup pots, burner, etc.|
|11:15||Begin heating strike water|
|11:45||Preheat MLT with strike water|
|11:55||Set mash timer for 60 minutes|
|12:15||Heat sparge water|
|12:35||Boil water for yeast rehydration|
|12:55||Vorlauf & first runnings|
|1:05||Begin batch sparge #1|
|1:20||Vorlauf & second runnings|
|1:25||Begin batch sparge #2|
|1:40||Bring kettle to boil|
|1:57||Set boil timer for 90 minutes|
|2:45||Prepare wort chiller|
|3:25||Sanitize thermometer for cooling|
|3:27||Start wort chiller|
|3:58||Stop wort chiller|
|4:00||Whirlpool cooled wort|
|4:05||Sanitize fermenter, hoses, etc.|
|4:30||Transfer wort to fermenter|
|4:40||Aerate with aquarium pump|
The one thing I should point out is that I did leave some of the cleaning for the next day. Just the mash tun and brew kettle, which I like to soak overnight with PBW anyway.
The beer isn’t in the keg yet, but it’s going to be great. I hit my target OG and FG perfectly, so consistency was achieved. And I did it all in six hours instead of nine. That’s a pretty definitive result (see note above re: “This is as scientific as I get”). But I was exhausted by the end of the day. And though of course brewing is always better than nine hours at the ol’ day job, my rush brewday was nothing like the relaxing experience I usually get as the other reward for my brewing labors.
And isn’t the fun why we do it? It’s why I do it.
So I’ve done some English-major-level science and answered my own question. Yes, for me it is a choice between happy and fast. And experience has cured me of my desire to brew faster. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to know that by busting my ass, I can get a simple brew done in six hours and still have time to shower before leaving the house if I have evening plans for dinner … or whatever.
But unless I have to, I’m not gonna.
You are a fear prisoner. Yes, you are a product of fear. – Jim Cunningham, Donnie Darko
Halloween is just around the corner, and in home breweries across the world, brewers are enjoying their seasonal pumpkin beers.
Mine isn’t ready yet. I kegged it a few days ago and it should be ready to drink by the weekend. Later than I had hoped it would be ready, but still in time for Halloween.
Just getting this beer brewed meant overcoming a fear tucked deep in my psyche between the memory of watching the movie Poltergeist when I was six years old and my recurring nightmare of showing up naked to school on standardized test day. Why was I afraid? Decision paralysis. With so many options and things I thought could go wrong, I was always intimidated by the idea of brewing pumpkin beer.
Google “pumpkin homebrew”. Do it now; I’ll wait.
You probably noticed two things: 1) how many of the recipes have names inspired by a prominent 90′s alternative rock band (“Smashing Pumpkin Ale”, “Pumpkin SMaSH”, etc.) and 2) how many different ways there are to brew it. Fresh pumpkin or canned. Pumpkin in the mash, or boil, or secondary. Or no pumpkin; just spices. And which spices? Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove, allspice, chai tea. All of the above. None of the above. Then there’s the reported complexity factor of working with pumpkin as an ingredient. It’s thick, it’s gummy, and by most accounts is a hassle that mucks up your brew day, threatening stuck sparges if added in the mash or high wort loss to trub in the kettle or fermenter.
It was all too much. A clear path to success never presented itself, and I’m just not a “jump in and see what happens” kind of guy. So year after year, paralyzed by fear, I let September tick by until it was too late to brew pumpkin beer in time for Halloween. But as I’ve said before, raising a baby has emboldened me as a brewer. And since for Halloween 2012 I overcame my lifelong fear of Poltergeist by watching it for the second time in a year, I figured for Halloween 2013 I should conquer another crippling fear. So I took a deep breath and built a recipe, trusting that the result would at least technically qualify as beer.
As it turns out, my old fears were unfounded. My first pumpkin beer was laughably easy. My sparge didn’t stick and I hit my target OG exactly. Based on the samples I’ve tasted so far, the beer is great, tasting just like liquid pumpkin pie in a glass.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In mid-September, I brought the ingredients together. At the top of the marquee:
- 3.75 lbs (4 – 15 oz cans) Organic Canned Pumpkin Puree
I’m always amazed by how many “pumpkin” beer recipes leave pumpkin out and just use pumpkin pie spice. Some brewers who go this route claim pumpkin has little flavor and little convertible starch, thus adding virtually nothing to the beer that makes up for the hassle of working with it. Well, those brewers are welcome to brew “pumpkin” or “pumpkin spice” beers however they want, but I believe you can’t call something something unless that something has that something in it. “Pumpkin” beverages that trick your tongue with spice-based sleight of hand belong in paper cups with green mermaid logos. Craft and homebrewed beer should be honest.
So for me, whether or not to use pumpkin was never really a question. But “how” was. Adding it to the mash tun sounded like an interesting twist on my brew day, so I did. I considered roasting whole pie pumpkins and using the pulp, but price, availability, and the added prep work steered me toward canned pumpkin instead – pure pumpkin puree, that is, not canned “pumpkin pie filling” which has other stuff added to it.
Pumpkin puree’s high density means it has a very high thermal mass. So when adding it to the mash it takes more heat – hotter water or more hot water – to raise it to a target rest temperature. To counter this, I preheated the pumpkin to 154°F on the stove top while the strike water was heating outside. Leaving the puree unattended for a few minutes while I checked on the strike water produced a fantastic unintended result: some pumpkin stuck to the bottom of the saucepan and burned a little, imparting a caramelized/roasted flavor to the puree. I’ll do it on purpose next time.
In the mash tun, I mashed in the grain – the “crust” of my liquid pumpkin pie:
- 11 lbs Maris Otter (nutty, bready)
- 1.25 lbs Caravienne (light caramel, residual sugar)
- 1 lb Victory (toasty, biscuit)
- 0.25 lb Crystal 150L (dark caramel, raisin)
- 0.5 lb Rice Hulls (to aid sparging and counteract the pumpkin’s gumminess)
After I stablized the mash at 153°F with grain and water only, I mixed in the “quick-roasted” pumpkin. Preheating turned out to be a good idea. The mash didn’t drop temperature when the pumpkin was added.
After mashing for 60 minutes, I sparged (very smoothly, thank you rice hulls) and sent it all to the kettle, where I added 6.7 AAU of Hallertau at the 60-minute mark and Irish Moss at the 15-minute mark. With 1 minute left in the boil, things got interesting when I added a pumpkin pie spice blend of my own design:
- 2 Cinnamon Sticks (whole)
- 1 tbsp Crystallized Ginger (minced)
- 1.5 tsp Allspice (whole berries, crushed)
- 0.75 tsp Nutmeg (whole, grated)
I hit my OG target of 1.068 and pitched 17 grams rehydrated Safale US-05. Chico yeast made short work of the fermentables and flocculated out around day seven. I tasted the conditioning beer after two weeks, pleased to taste spice and and a vegetal squashy pumpkin-ness that flies in the face of the “pumpkin doesn’t add any flavor” argument. The only thing missing was the grandma’s-kitchen spice aroma I was hoping for. So I made a spice potion from 8 ounces of vodka and the exact same spice blend I used in the boil (see above). That steeped for 18 days in a covered Mason jar before I added it at kegging time. FG was 1.017 for a calculated 6.7% ABV.
I see no reason to buck the trend of naming pumpkin beers after a certain Chicago alt-rock group. But I do think it’s time we get a little more creative with our references. So I christened my beer Melancholy Bill’s Infinitely Sad Pumpkin Ale. Have I forever raised the bar for pumpkin beer names? Have I paid sufficient homage to the season for spooks with a name that sounds right out of a ghost story told by flashlight? Or am I just a dork?
You decide. I’m okay with anything. After all, I’m raising my glass of pumpkin homebrew to a victory over one more fear this Halloween.
We’re going to see this through to the bitter end. Or … lager end. – Gary King, The World’s End
Now in theaters is The World’s End, the latest from writer/director Edgar Wright and his frequent collaborators, co-writer/star Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost. I’ve seen it twice – including a fantastic beer dinner at the Alamo Drafthouse – and it’s my favorite film of the year. In it, five childhood friends facing middle age are brought together by ringleader Gary King (Pegg) to relive their most epic teenage memory: a night out attempting the “Golden Mile”, a 12-pint/12-pub crawl in their tiny English hometown. They aim to succeed now where they once failed, and complete the Golden Mile in all its bitter, boozy glory.
As a white male approaching 40 with a wife, child, and lots of 90’s music in heavy rotation on my iPod, I’m squarely in this film’s target demographic. I’ve also been a fan of this team’s work for years. They have a knack for parodying a genre while simultaneously making an exemplary film of that genre. What Shaun of the Dead did for zombies, and Hot Fuzz did for buddy-cop action flicks, The World’s End does for sci-fi, but I won’t spoil it. If you’ve seen the trailers, you may know what to expect.
It doesn’t spoil anything to say that beer is a recurring motif in the movie. The twelve pints of the Golden Mile stand as a powerful metaphor for the childhood dreams and lost youth of the characters. That metaphor works well for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who was ever a teenager. Not sure about you, but when I was in my teens I spent a lot of time obsessing over things I couldn’t easily get. Alcoholic beverages were pretty high on that list … right behind, you know, sex.
But unlike sex, which I assumed I would spend a lot of time and effort trying to get for the rest of my life, I knew I was more or less guaranteed easy access to alcohol as soon as I was old enough. So booze was a symbol, in a sense, of my impending adulthood in general, a taste of the future; and that gave it a mystique that always attracted me. I suspect Wright and Pegg felt the same way I did – and apparently one of them wore the same trenchcoat I did, too.
But if alcohol in general held a mystique for me, beer always had a special place in my heart. Maybe because it’s cheap and sessionable (a word I didn’t know then). Maybe because it was cooler than wine and less of a “big deal” than spirits. I know that I can’t remember exactly when I had my first drink of wine or spirits … Catholic communion? A drive-through daiquiri shop in the New Orleans suburb I grew up in? Very likely, but I don’t have any real memory of it.
On the other hand, I can remember every major beer milestone of my childhood and young adulthood:
- First Taste of Beer – age 5, Budweiser, thanks to an uncle by marriage (he was probably in your family too)
- First Whole Serving of Beer – age 14, Miller Lite, at a low-key Halloween party
- First Beer I Bought in a Store – age 17, Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, from a corner store in the French Quarter
- First Beer at a Bar – age 17, a 20-oz $2 plastic cup of whatever rotgut draft was on tap at the shitty Decatur Street dive bar I was hanging out at
- First Craft Beer – age 18, a 20-oz $3 plastic cup of Abita Turbodog, at the same shitty Decatur Street dive bar I was still hanging out at
It was kind of all downhill from there (or uphill, I guess): a progression of gradually more interesting discoveries about how much more there was to beer besides just canned lager, forties, and rotgut draft. Okay, I had a brief Rolling Rock-curious phase in college, but we don’t have to talk about that.
Now that I speak beer as a second language, one might think the power it held over me as a younger man would be lessened. I no longer have to wait for a friend’s brother to come through with a case of Milwaukee’s Best or maintain a mental list of stores and bars that won’t look too closely at my fake I.D.. If I want beer – good beer, brewed a mile away in Austin or halfway across the world in Belgium, I just have to go to the supermarket. Or I can make beer myself, five gallons at a time. Surely what unattainability made magical in my youth, familiarity would render mundane as an adult?
But it hasn’t. The mystique is still there, just changed. Beer is still tied to my hopes and dreams. When I wish I could travel but I’m stuck at my nine-to-five job, an English bitter or a Belgian saison helps me through. When my child was born, I commemorated his birth with two different batches of homebrew, one of which I hope to age until he’s old enough to drink it. And when the hectic pace of adult life makes it hard to find the time to write fiction – after all these years, one childhood dream I’m still chasing – I write about beer.
And thanks to the breadth and depth of beers available in the world today, there are still some unattainables. My indoctrination into the world of beer has only taught me how much I have yet to experience. I’ve never been to Northern California in February to try Russian River’s Pliny the Younger (I can’t even get the less legendary Pliny the Elder easily here in Texas). I’ve never sipped Trappist ale from a chalice at a Belgian bistro across the street from the medieval abbey that brews it, nor kvass from a street cart in some town in Eastern Europe whose name I can’t spell.
When I started this blog, I set out with the goal of finding the places where brewing and storytelling intersect, to show how beer – for millennia, a mystical beverage credited with inspiring great works of art – can still inspire great stories and be a form of storytelling in itself. It seems Edgar Wright and Company beat me to the finish line. I’d be jealous if I wasn’t so blown away by the movie they made, and humbled by what I’ve realized since seeing it: that beer is, and has always been, an inspiration and an aspiration for me. That getting older means sacrificing some of what it once meant for me, and the reward for that sacrifice is realizing how much more meaning there is to find.