A monster saison

A new Godzilla movie comes out today! I’m a fan of the kaiju classics, so I’ve got my ticket for tonight. Babysitting realities prevented me from going to any of the advance screenings this week, but no matter – I’ve been prepping for tonight by watching Showa-era Toho kaiju movies for weeks with my thirteen-month-old. He’s enjoying them so much that he now smiles every time he sees the Toho Company logo, laughs when he hears an Akira Ifukube score, and kicks happily when he sees Godzilla’s head (sure signs that I’m doing something right as a dad).

Last night while watching Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, I also tapped the first glass of my new dry-hopped saison Le Petit Kaiju. This was an update of last year’s Le Petit Plésiosaurea Summit-hopped pseudo-clone of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace I brewed and bottled to give as favors at my wife’s baby shower. Why kaiju this time? Not just because of Godzilla’s return to the big screen. See, we’ve been calling our little one “kaiju” for as long as I can remember. And replacing the peaceful, cuddly Loch Ness Monster I featured on the Plésiosaure label with the shrieking, atomic-breathed, stomping lord of destruction Godzilla seemed very fitting now that he’s a toddler.

The grain bill for the saison was the same as last time. I mashed in with 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) of Belgian pilsner malt for a single rest at 148°F (64°C) for 90 minutes, which is recommended at lower temperatures to ensure full conversion of the starches. I added a pound of dextrose at the beginning of the boil to bring the OG up to 1.067. And lest you turn your nose up at the dextrose, let me say that I believe kettle sugar does wonderful things to the right beer recipe (i.e., dry), and I follow the teachings of Randy Mosher, who said in his book Radical Brewing that Belgian candi sugar – which many would use in a similar recipe – is “a complete rip-off”. Dextrose or evaporated cane sugar for light beers, or a little piloncillo or demerara for darker beers, have never done me wrong if I keep those simple sugars to less than 25% of the fermentables.

I duplicated the Summit bittering hops of Plésiosaure with .4 oz (11.3 g) of 16% AA pellets at 60 minutes, but changed up the later hop additions to pay homage to Gojira’s Japanese island roots. While Sorachi Ace – a Japanese cultivar – would have been perfect, I’m still having trouble sourcing them. I did, however, manage to get my hands on some 15% AA Pacific Jade from New Zealand. It’s still Eastern hemisphere and Pacific rim, and has a profile reminiscent of Sorachi Ace, if not quite as sublime. I added 0.4 oz (7 g) at 30 minutes and 3 oz (85 g) at flameout.

I pitched a starter of White Labs WLP565 and fermented for 3 weeks before dry hopping with my last ounce (28 g) of the Pacific Jade hops, which sat in the fermenter for 2 more weeks. The FG was 1.005, leaving this kaiju saison a monster at 8.2% ABV, even stronger than last year’s batch.

Surprisingly, Le Petit Kaiju is very easy drinking, as I found out last night. It poured a lovely golden straw color. A little cloudier and thicker than I expected, but this was the first glass off the keg so there was a lot of sediment in suspension.

kaiju

Skreeeoonnnkk! (the correct way to spell Godzilla’s roar)

The head dissipated very quickly, so more time on the CO2 will do it good. But the aroma is sweet and citrusy, almost like lemonade, with a lot of yeasty character. As for the flavor, it’s spicy and lemony, bold and memorable. But it’s not quite dry enough. At first I was shocked by the heavy mouthfeel given the low FG, but then I remembered all the yeast in suspension. I’m hoping once the dregs are drawn off and I get some clear beer out of this keg, it will have the dry character I’m looking for. I’ve got a lot more Toho movies to show my little kaiju this summer, and I’m going to need lots of refreshment.

On-Tap Recap: Beers for the aging former headbanger

I was a metal kid in the late 80’s. Although I liked the music, it was the album art that drew me in. Iron Maiden, Dio, Ozzy, any album with demons or creepy magical glyphs on the cover was fair game for my tape collection when I was about twelve. See, back in the late 80’s before Viggo Mortensen and Peter Dinklage, it was hard out there for fantasy geeks. We didn’t strut proudly down the street shaking our D&D dice in their little bag, shouting about how geeky we were to passersby. Just being seen with a paperback of The Lord of the Rings was enough to get your ass kicked. But wearing a T-shirt or pin with album art from a metal band was, if not exactly “cool”, at least likely to scare people away so they’d leave you alone. It was a subtle way to get your geek on while people around you just assumed you were into something more socially acceptable than fantasy, like consuming heavy drugs or worshipping Satan.

The parental shock value of the album art was a factor as well. As an honor-roll student in the suburbs of a southern American city, there were few ways I could terrify my parents more than by hanging a life-size poster of Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie the Head next to my bed, where it hung for almost ten years. My wife – who has been with me since we were teenagers – still has fond memories of that poster, recalling our first evenings as a couple (studying, always studying) under the leering visage of Eddie in his Somewhere in Time cyborg form. And they say teenage boys know nothing of romance.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of my first date with that wonderful woman I married, so I’m celebrating the past by recapping two beers that I think the twelve-year-old me who bought that poster would be proud of.

Eddie himself stars in my first tasting, snarling at me in 19th-century dragoon uniform from the label of a pint-sized bottle of Trooper by Robinsons Brewery, named for – and featuring the art from the 1983 single release of – the Iron Maiden song “The Trooper”.

trooper

Billed by Robinsons as a hand-crafted real ale “developed” by Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson with “true depth of character”, it sounded about right for my taste. It poured a deep orange-gold with a thicker head than I expected, with the brassy, crackery aroma I love in an English ale. The taste was fine, a little astringent and earthy with a hint of slick, oily mouthfeel like one gets with oats in the grain bill, though I don’t know if there were any in this one. I don’t know about “true depth of character” but it was a pleasant enough pint at a sessiony 4.7% ABV. A friend of mine who is both a homebrewer and an Iron Maiden obsessive described the beer as “not as good as you want it to be”, and that was true. It’s a gimmick, plain and simple, and I bought into it; the beer was pleasant but not as remarkable as the song it’s named for. I could drink it again, but would rather drink my own English-style homebrew … though I will save the bottle.

Drawn in a style reminiscent of a seventeenth-century woodcut, a three-headed demon towers over a burning sea of tortured mortals beneath a ring of runes and glyphs on the label of Blakkr Imperial Black Alea collaborative brew between the self-proclaimed “unholy trinity” of Three Floyds Brewing in Indiana, Surly Brewing in Minnesota, and Real Ale Brewing in Central Texas, brought together by their “love of brewing and love of metal”. The black double IPA is available in 4-packs of – what else? – metal cans. Twelve-year-old me would totally have worn a pin of this label on his jean jacket.

blakkr

How’s the beer? Well, it’s black. With a thick beige head and a citrus aroma that leans towards bitter orange and lime. But it’s surprisingly drinkable for an imperial brew with an ABV of 9%. I don’t find it syrupy at all. There’s a crisp bitterness on the front end from traditional American pale ale hops, though as I empty the glass and my palate becomes fatigued, I notice the hops less and the roastiness of black malts comes to the foreground, like a dessert of dark chocolate cake after a pungent salad. But for all that, the beer isn’t that memorable. It’s tasty, and I would drink it again (good thing since I have three more) but I’m not sure that it lives up to the awesomeness of the label art.

Which means we have a trend here. Wicked art that satisfies your inner twelve-year-old and tie-ins with your favorite metal band are neat, but only get you so far in craft beer. Both beers could have been worse, but could have been better. I’ve learned I’ll buy a beer once on a gimmick, but I won’t rush out and buy it again. And it seems that you can’t judge a beer by its label.

On-Tap Recap: Ommegang Game of Thrones vs. homebrew

HBO’s Game of Thrones came back with season four last night. Hordes gathered in the homes of HBO subscribers for viewing parties, cosplayers donned their finest, and social media lit up as the geekosphere celebrated the return of a beloved show to weekly television.

Beer geeks had reason to celebrate too, as the show’s return meant the release of the third installment in Brewery Ommegang’s series of Game of Thrones-themed seasonal beers. Dubbed Fire & Blood, the latest release pays homage to House Targaryen – that’s the one with the dragons – with ancho chilis (presumably the fire) in a Belgian-style red ale (the blood).

Ommegang Fire & Blood Red Ale

The color of this beer is absolutely striking. When I hear “red ale” I’m usually imagining some middle-of-the-road amber kind of beer. This one was deep, dark red. Beautiful ruby highlights – impossible to see in the picture above, unfortunately – beckoned me to smell and taste it. This was an exercise in delayed gratification, because the rocky head was so thick and persistent I had to wait several minutes before it subsided enough to drink. So I contented myself with smelling it, taking in the tart lemon freshness and barely detectable hint of chili pepper.

I hate to say it, but I found Fire & Blood drinkable and yet unremarkable. The flavors promised on the label and website – spicy chili, “assertive” hops, dark fruit – just didn’t manifest for me. The chili pepper was detectable only when I looked hard for it. The hop presence was faint and the dark fruit notes were muted by the extreme dryness of the beer.

Not that disappointment came as a surprise. I love everything I’ve ever had with the Ommegang label on it except for the three GoT beers they’ve released. The first – Iron Throne Blonde Ale, released in March 2013 – was decent enough but sort of ruined for me by excessive hype. Take the Black Stout, released last fall, was interesting with its star anise and licorice, but fell short of my expectations. I’m glad Ommegang is making these beers, because anything that promotes awareness of craft beer is good. But I keep hoping that one day they’ll brew one that delivers as intense and memorable an experience as the show itself.

So what’s a Zyme Lord to drink when watching the rest of the new season? Not to worry! I’ve got my own GoT-themed beer on tap: Wit Walker Wight Ale (recipe here).

Wit Walker Wight Ale

This beer that I made primarily to have something sessionable on hand for parties has turned out to be one of my own main pours these days. It’s an enticing cloudy straw color (again the photo above does it little justice) with a thick fizzy white head that dissipates quickly. There’s a faintly footy Belgiany aroma coupled with a hint of clove and spice. When it hits the palate, the blood orange comes out in full force – not overpowering the beer, but providing a backdrop of bitter citrus and zest that bounces effervescently on the tongue. I’ll be glad to finish a keg (or two?) of this beer as the season progresses.

It isn’t often that I face off one of my homebrews with a commercial beer. But when I do, it’s encouraging that my own beer can come out the winner. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ommegang and will continue to support their efforts to bringing beer awareness to GoT fans and vice versa. When the fourth GoT beer comes out this fall, I’ll buy a bomber or two. I’m just that big of a geek – for beer and for the show. But as a backup, it’ll be nice to have my own GoT-themed beer on tap so I can drink the beer I want, when I want. After all, that’s what homebrewing is about.

On-Tap Recap: 24 hours on the West Coast

I took a trip for my day job last week to San Diego, an area known to many as the home of Stone Brewing Company. Stone is of course a force to be reckoned with in craft brewing, and some have called them synonymous with the American IPA style. But before I got deep in pints of the old powerhouse, I celebrated the relative local freshness of some beers from my other favorite West Coast breweries.

The first beer I had after landing was a Firestone Walker 805. These guys aren’t actually located in San Diego; their brewery is in Paso Robles in the Central Coast area of California (which, having lived in Southern California, I can tell you is considered practically a different state). But Firestone Walker is a perennial favorite of mine. I routinely stock several bombers from them in my cellar (their Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA pairs astoundingly well with a coffee-chipotle rubbed steak we cook at chez Zyme Lord twice a month). So I appreciated the chance to drink a Firestone somewhat closer to its home than usual. 805 is a blonde ale – not my favorite style but appropriate before dinner – and it exemplified the style: light, with a hint of noble hop character. The color was darker than I expect from a blonde, but that could have been the fault of dim lighting in the hotel bar where I drank it. The beer was also flat, which I’m sure was the fault of the hotel bar. Unfortunately, the lack of carbonation made the light apple-fruity notes common in blonde ales (and part of why I don’t care for them) ever more apparent. Too bad … but I’ll try it again if I find it on tap at a more trustworthy establishment.

My second beer, also at the hotel bar, was a Fathom India Pale Lager from Ballast Point. This is a San Diego brewery, and if I’d had more time in the city I would have loved to pay them a visit. They produce fine beers from their easy-drinking Sculpin IPA to the South Asian punch-in-the-face Indra Kunindra, and Fathom did not disappoint. I’ve been generally skeptical of this newcomer style called IPL, but Fathom showed me exactly why lager yeast is an exciting addition to a hop-forward beer. The ferment was clean and crisp, allowing the hops to take the stage with no estery fruitiness or sweetness like you may find in even the best made IPAs. I also found the malt profile perfectly calibrated to let the hops and lager crispness shine: there was very little crystal malt if any. Maybe some dextrin or Cara-pils in very slight amounts, but none of the caramel that plagues so many American IPAs (not the best made ones). As for the hops so deftly spotlighted, they exploded with delightful grapefruit and lemon verbena aroma and flavor, a similar profile to my memories of Sculpin. I wondered how similar the worts are for those two beers before yeast is pitched. I won’t say Fathom has made me give up my IPAs for their bottom-fermented cousins, but I am no longer skeptical.

My last beer before leaving San Diego – indeed, from the Stone Brewing Co. brewpub in the airport – was Stone Go-To IPA. A new offering this year in another trendy hop-forward style, the session IPA. I enjoyed it, finding it exactly what it purports to be: a beer with a ton of hop flavor and aroma that you can’t quite pin descriptors on but that you can drink all day. Pleasant, but it didn’t really surprise me. And I’m not sure I’d “go to” this session IPA sooner than another such as Founders All Day IPA. But I’m a fan of the session IPA trend; I prefer session beers and am glad they’re making a comeback. It’s a welcome change from the imperial everythings we’ve been getting so much of on shelves and in gatherings of homebrewers for so long. And at 4.5% ABV, it was perfect to get me in the mood for several hours of red-eye flights back home.

A craft beer for every palate … and a palate for every craft beer?

Great news for craft beer lovers earlier this week: NPR reported that craft beer sales jumped 20 percent in 2013, and now make up almost 8 percent of beer sales in America, according to numbers released by the Brewers Association.

The characterization of craft brewers as “bearded hipsters who brew their IPAs with chamomile and white sage or age their lagers in 30-year-old whiskey barrels” is hilariously close to home. But it was this sentence later in the article that really got me thinking:

These days, there’s a craft beer for practically every palate — and price range.

It got me wondering. What does “a craft beer for practically every palate” mean? Is craft beer growing because consumers are finding their favorite among a wide range of options and then drinking only that beer from then on out? Or because consumers are more adventurous and willing to try new things? Or some combination of the two?

In my day job, I work with marketing and product development people enough to know that modern businesses position themselves for success by offering a diverse portfolio of products. Today’s consumers demand customization. An electronics company won’t just make smartphones; they’ll make tablets, TVs, or laptops, or all of the above. A company that makes messenger bags offers a variety of similar bags with different colors, patterns, and compartments. Companies that make chewing gum make four thousand varieties of chewing gum. The idea is simple: no matter who you are, we have a product for you.

But most people only need one smartphone, or tablet, or messenger bag – at least one at a time. As consumable commodities, beers are something you always go back to buy more of. Still, craft breweries follow a similar model by offering a variety of beers: a stout, a wheat, a pale ale or two, etc. On the surface, the idea seems to be the same: no matter what kind of beer you like, we brew one for you. And I’m sure that accounts for the growing popularity of craft beer among most beer consumers. There are “Sierra Nevada Pale Ale men” out there the way there used to be “Bud men”, and that’s a great thing.

But there are other craft beer consumers, and I’ve mentioned them once already: the chamomile-and-white-sage-IPA hipsters. Hardcore beer geeks. Bearded and/or bespectacled, wearing shirts emblazoned with zymurgic shibboleths like “OG/FG” in the AC/DC font or with the logos of obscure breweries. Using words no one else uses, like Brett, goaty and attenuated, and otherwise talking about discontinued seasonals like some people talk about vintage comic books (“No, Tyler, you’re thinking of the Great Divide 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA, not the 18th.”)

These folks – maybe you know one, maybe you are one (guilty as charged here) – but the point is that we don’t just drink one kind of beer, no matter how good we think it is. We approach the beer aisle of our favorite store like entomologists on a hunt for some rare insect. We buy things we haven’t seen before. We may be disappointed or nonchalant. We may not buy it again. But we know it’s worth it to slog through nine six-packs of mediocre beer to find that tenth beer that absolutely wows us. And we buy a lot of beer.

For us, variety and innovation are the whole point. That’s probably why many of us homebrew. And we would be no happier in a world with only one beer even if that one beer was Pliny the Elder instead of Bud Light. (Okay, maybe we’d be a little happier.) But where do our palates fit in with the concept of “practically every palate”? Or is there a line on the spectrum for us whose palates are motivated by the love of all beer and are excited by beers that are both innovative and exceptionally brewed?

It’s not that I’m questioning the wording of the NPR article, far from it. It’s a great article shedding light on an issue that’s very important to me, and I appreciate NPR devoting space to it. I’m just wondering.

I’d love to see statistics on how much of craft beer’s growth is due to brand allegiance from consumers buying one kind of beer, and how much is due to consumers buying a lot of different beers. Someone must have a graph.

What do you think, Internet? Does anyone out there know?

Shamrock the house

Sláinte! It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may know that March 17 is one of the three days of the year I proudly proclaim myself Irish by bullshit, the other two being February 2 (James Joyce’s birthday) and June 16 (Bloomsday).

It may seem I’m trying too hard, but my wife claims a slice of Irish heritage and therefore of course so does my son. I’m outnumbered and I have to try this hard just to keep up. So we’ve got a lot planned in the Zyme Lord house. Here’s how we’re celebrating this year, aside from the obvious ways (i.e., wearing green and drinking something fermented):

My wife is preparing a beef-and-stout stew with turnips, rutabagas and carrots, served alongside cabbage sautéed with bacon and garlic. Props to the slow cooker – and the wife – for making it happen.

As an appetizer, we’ll make our way through at least one of the two loaves of stout soda bread I baked last night. I stayed up late to do it, but judging by the way the kitchen smells today it will be worth the loss of sleep. We’ve also got some aged Irish cheddar cheese with Oscar Wilde’s face on it (on the label, not on the cheese) to go with it.

We’re rapidly approaching the end of the current keg of Anna Livia Irish Stout. We’ll either empty it today or have fun trying.

Just before bed, I’ll toast to my faux Irish heritage with a dram of Jameson Distillery Reserve. It’s only available from the Jameson visitor’s center in Dublin, so I’ve been saving mine for special occasions. My eleven-month-old son’s first Saint Patrick’s Day certainly qualifies.

Speaking of the little leprechaun, he’s sporting his shamrock onesie and learning how to rock out to the Pogues.

And the Gaelic fun won’t end at midnight.  Yesterday I bottled entry samples of Anna Livia Irish Stout and another Celtic-inspired beer (Thane McCrundle’s Wee Heavy) for the Celtic Brew Off homebrew competition in Arlington, Texas in April. I’m filling out the entry paperwork today. Anyone got a four-leaf clover to send me for good luck?

Finally, because the Anna Livia stout is almost gone and the wife has expressed some trepidation about facing an entire month without it, I’m already making plans for the next batch. Fortunately I have all the ingredients on hand except the yeast, so I’ll work it into the pipeline as soon as I can.

After all this is over – though the soda bread may well last through the week – I’ll go back to being Italian until June 16.

Well, okay, I might let myself be Scottish by bullshit for a weekend in early May for the Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games, but other than that …

On-Tap Recap: Mardi Gras (“Show us your cans”)

Last week’s On-Tap Recap was postponed due to a family vacation. We took our eleven-month-old to our native New Orleans for his first Mardi Gras. You read that right: a baby at Mardi Gras. If that surprises you, if all you know of Fat Tuesday in New Orleans is what you’ve seen on late-night television, be aware that the booze-soaked, boob-baring buffoonery is generally limited to a downtown district called the French Quarter and primarily attracts tourists. For the locals, Mardi Gras is all about the parades uptown: hours-long processions of colorful floats filled with masked revelers peppered with the best marching bands and the weirdest dance troupes from Louisiana and beyond. Families come in droves with kids, coolers and box after box of Popeyes fried chicken. Beads are thrown, but no one has to debase themselves for them. And while there is lots of drinking, it is as one local friend put it, “A family friendly drunkenness”. It’s no more improper than your average sporting event tailgate party.

Beer is the beverage of choice for most uptown parade-goers (unless you catch the “merry band of hipsters” called Box of Wine, who march carrying the eponymous boxes giving free pours to anyone with a cup) and New Orleans open container laws prohibit glass, so cans are the norm. This gave me an opportunity to catch up on the state of brewing in Louisiana (and beyond) by trying a few canned craft beers that I can’t easily get in Texas. In the interest of curbside refreshment between bouts of scrounging for plastic trinkets thrown from motor vehicles, I gravitated towards pale ales.

Louisiana doesn’t have as extensive a craft beer culture as Texas does, but it’s growing. I’m excited to watch it from afar, since the seeds of my love for craft beer were sown during my formative years in the Crescent City. Fittingly, the control for my taste test was an IPA I know well: Jockamo IPA from Abita Brewing in Abita Springs, Louisiana. This is the brewery that started it all for me; Abita Turbodog and Amber were the first craft brews I ever tasted in the mid-nineties. Today, Abita is the elder statesman of New Orleans craft brewing: ubiquitous and familiar. Extensive and experienced, they brew beer of consistently better quality than any other Louisiana brewery I’ve tried, but their beer isn’t very exciting. They play it safe in recipe creation, offering beers that can be summed up with simple descriptors like “dark” or “bitter” and skewing heavily towards fruit beers – all for the purpose (I believe) of not alienating a market that’s still bi-curious about craft beer. Someone has to do it, and I’m glad they’re taking one for the team by serving as the gateway to craft beer for an entire state. But I haven’t been wowed by them in some time. Jockamo IPA I find very sweet, a bit too raisiny from the interplay of IPA-level hops with too much dark crystal malt (a common flaw in American IPAs, so maybe it’s just me). It’s bitter but has little aroma. It’s not bad, and I can drink a couple at 6.5% ABV, so I’m always happy to find a six-pack of it at Rouses. But it’s not spectacular either.

My second tasting was another 6.5% ABV IPA from relative upstart NOLA Brewing. NOLA seems to be catching on better than any other brewery in the city limits, and that’s great news for anyone who loves New Orleans. The brewers at NOLA seem to have a passion for their craft, offering a varied assortment from a simple blonde ale that I haven’t tried but I’m told is the best in town, to more trendy advanced offerings like a saison and smoked ale. However, I happen to find their output rather inconsistent, and I think their hop-forward offerings skew too much toward inappropriately extreme IBUs in lieu of flavor and aroma. Hopitoulas IPA (named for the notoriously tongue-twisting Tchoupitoulas (“chop-it-TOOL-us”) Street in New Orleans where the brewery is situated) was no different. It was bitter, resiny, and unbalanced. It’s not hard to drink, exactly, but it has little to recommend it over even something as prosaic as Jockamo, unless you want to support smaller breweries. Okay, yeah, I do too. And I will. But I’d feel better if I could find a NOLA Brewing beer I actually love. I’ll keep looking.

The brightest light in my Mardi Gras pale ale flight came unexpectedly from outside the state, from Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Mississippi has until recently been a desert for craft beer, with no packaging brewery operating in the state from Prohibition to 2003 (Lazy Magnolia). But a handful of new breweries across the state and the legalization of homebrewing last year suggest hope is springing for Mississippians. Devil’s Harvest Pale Ale caught me by surprise, coming from a brewery I – shamefully – had never heard of before last week and being so astonishingly freaking good. Bright and light, crisp and clean, with a citrus-pine aroma and a ton of lemony flavor. It was fantastically easy to drink (good thing it’s only 5.8% ABV). Southern Prohibition boasts Munich in its recipe rather than crystal malt, and they have definitely struck gold. I would gladly order Devil’s Harvest in a bar, even over an old favorite like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Again, we gotta support the little guys. But in the case of Southern Prohibition, I have no reservations about doing so. They clearly know what they’re doing, and I can’t wait until I’m back in a place where they’re sold, so I can try their beer again.

On-Tap Recap: Black Sunday

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.

On-Tap Recap: My Beery Valentine

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.

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Insert your own Barry White-ish “Awww yeah.”

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.

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Boulevard Bourbon Barrel Aged Quad.

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.

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Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence.

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 …

Insert something witty here

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.

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