Jun 29 2016

The Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree, and the Freedom in IPA Meaninglessness

Throw shade towards the IPA “style” as much as you want, it has already conquered craft beer.

It is the flagship for most American breweries, and not having an IPA in your year-round portfolio seemingly borders on insubordination. And to further the sprawl and creep from this style, it isn’t limited to merely American and Imperial IPAs. There are red, black, white, brown, Belgian, rye, fruit, fruit peel, and session IPAs, as well. Tart IPAs are beginning to surface now, as well. (In full disclosure, I am brewing a tart IPA with a local brewery in the coming weeks so, yeah, I’m part of the problem, too.)

When any base style, or color I suppose, can be turned into an IPA, is anything an IPA anymore?

Given that rather nihilistic introduction, you’ll understand why I wasn’t immediately excited about an all IPA festival. The yearly “holiday” of IPA Day that occurs each summer only furthers the notion that history is written by the victors. I’m not a conspiracy guy and IPAs, which I really do enjoy, are not a virus leeching diversity from rows of tap handles, but their growth over the years is something that I have watched with some concern.

And if you are a west coast coaster reading this, you might scoff at an east coast IPA festival, and you have a point. Although after spending a week in San Diego last year, I was left a little underwhelmed by the state of IPAs there. While the finest IPAs do come out of the west coast, the number of unbalanced and Chinook-as-throat-rape that composed much of the rest of the west coast scene was saddening.

While IPAs have become the vanguard of experimentation for a lot of the American brewing scene, I think the first casualty is drinkability.

“What? Cool, you’ve added a new fruit/hop/grain/yeast to an IPA. No, I don’t want another pint. Honestly, I’m going to struggle to finish this one.” – Me

Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree

Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree

So, Saturday, June 25th, was Starr Hill’s IPA Jambeeree, which was a beer festival focusing solely on IPAs. Including Starr Hill, there were 16 Virginia breweries pouring at least two IPAs each. This netted out to over 50 IPAs with 33 from other breweries and 21 from Starr Hill alone.

The gig was broken into two events for me, as there was a homebrew component the night before, and then the festival the next day:

 

Homebrew Jambeeree

The Homebrew Jambeeree was a Pro-Am Competition for Starr Hill and homebrewers were asked to make IPAs which could be English, American, Speciality, or Double versions. The top 25 entries would be invited to the brewery for a private tour, and the best of show winner would brew their beer with Starr Hill for this year’s GABF.

I made the top 25, which is honestly not much of bragging point, but the thrust of the tour and gig was about celebrating the spirit of homebrewing, the backstory to many a pro brewer, and letting that group geek down with the pros and industrial equipment. I had done a Pro-Am with Starr Hill back in 2010, too, so I wasn’t really worried about the actual competition and I was happy to see someone else get a chance.

Starr Hill Hops Cooler

Starr Hill Hops Cooler/Cavern

Starr Hill Brew Deck

Starr Hill Brew Deck

 

Starr Hill Bottling Line

Starr Hill Bottling Line – Yeah, You Like That

 

The tour was great and the brewmaster, Robbie, and QA Manager, Jason, were energetic and happy to answer any questions that the group had. Starr Hill has gone through lot of changes in the last few years and as the previous brewmaster left, they’ve spent a lot of time reformulating old recipes and upping their quality control game. The hard work shows, and the multiple beers I had during that afternoon were crisp and without flaws. These guys care and they are doing right by themselves and their consumers.

Starr Hill Tasting Room

Starr Hill Tasting Room

In the end, I was not one of the top 3 brewers for the competition, but I knew that would be the result as the beer I brewed had been an experiment with Idaho 7 (now “The Golden Hop”?) hops and the London III yeast strain. That one came out mysteriously mild, but I’ll run through the process and recipe in a subsequent blog post.

 

Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree

Cutting to the chase, I was on the fence about attending the IPA Jambeeree, but it was definitely worth my time. Since it was, metaphorically, in my backyard, I knew a lot of the people and brewers there, and it was fun to talk shop and shit (mostly shit) with those friends. The weather was perfect, and there was a far amount of variety in beer from the participating breweries.

Starr Hill's IPA Jambeeree

Starr Hill’s IPA Jambeeree

The only disappointment for the day was the number of breweries that kicked their kegs very early in the event. I showed up late at 3pm (2 hours after it started, 3 after the VIPs got in), and three or four major players in Virginia brewing were already out of all of their beers and many of the other breweries had already pulled tap handles. Perhaps they misjudged the demand, or maybe they were truly slammed with drinkers, but it would have been nice to see everyone get a chance to try those beers.

I think my ability to enjoy the event was due to the meaninglessness of the term IPA. Taking a deep dive with a style is helpful if you are trying to wrap your head around the parameters of the category and improve your evaluation skills. That could have been done to a degree here, but the diversity of IPA types was impressive. There were double and triple IPAs, but also the Belgian and Black IPAs that you’d traditionally expect, beside fruit and rye IPAs, that many breweries are adding to their quivers.

In a strained parallel, the assumption is that Belgian brewers don’t set out to brew a double, or a tripel, or a quad. They just make beer. Some are pale, and some are dark. Some are dry and phenolic, while others gravitate towards malt and dark fruits. There’s a huge variability on the ABV side, as well. I think styles are important to guide some expectations, and they equip us with a language to evaluate and enjoy beer, but I don’t think a brewer needs to have a style in mind. Just a vision of what he or she wants to create. 

Given the diversity of the IPA category and the fact that its tie to India is more than debatable,”IPA” doesn’t mean anything anymore. And, to me, that feels good. Isn’t there some freedom in that? If a brewer wants to use “IPA” as a placeholder to brew whatever beer he or she wants, then they are serving their creativity and I’ll always respect that drive as long as they have the technical ability to construct that vision. Let’s embrace the ingenuity of American breweries and concentrate on taste rather than extremity that only, in the end, creates similarity. 


Jun 28 2016

Saison – Nørwegian Farmhøuse with Sigmund’s Voss Kveik

The devil in marketing is that it can convince you that you need something that you have never previously heard of, or ever dreamed that you needed. I’m not drawing a straight parallel between, say, the Zune and Sigmund’s Voss Kveik, but I think the drive to grab the next, hot thing either plays to your early adopter personality, or you are the type who is happy to let other people test the latest, shiny thing.

As a home brewer, there’s not a lot of downside to trying the latest yeast, hop or adjunct. If things go horribly wrong, you are only out 5 gallons and you’ve learned something. Perhaps only that being an early adopter is a roll of the dice.

When The Yeast Bay announced that they had isolated a single strain of saccharomyces cerevisiae from a Norwegian farmhouse blend, I knew I needed this thing in my life. I also did not have a keg to share at Homebrew Con in Baltimore, and this was an interesting experiment to bring to Club Night.

The kveik, that was supplied by Sigmund Gjernes who does the Lars Garshol blog, is a Norwegian word for “yeast” and refers to, at least in this scenario, yeast is reused for generations and generations in Norwegian farmhouse brewing. The yeast is traditionally captured on these interesting and intricate rings that are covered in the yeast and then hung on a wall to wait for the next batch of beer.

Kveik Yeast Ring

Kveik Yeast Ring picture stolen from http://www.garshol.priv.no/blog/291.html 

The beer is made from pilsner malt, saaz hops and water infused with juniper branches, and the kveik is added to ferment. My understanding of the kveik was that is a faster fermenter that throws some spice and orange peel flavors and aromas, while keeping the phenolics and fusel alcohol low despite higher fermentation temperatures.

(For a deeper understanding of this, check out Sigmund’s Voss Kveik post about his brew day, and Milk the Funk Wiki for Kveik.)

I ordered this yeast and planned out a recipe and brew day that mostly mirrored a traditional saison. The reason for this was I wanted to get a good understanding of the yeast before adding traditional flavors like juniper. And I would be using a juniper berry tincture, instead of branches, to make the spice easy to add before kegging. The story behind Norwegian farmhouse beers is very interesting, but this was to be just an initial test of the yeast. 

Yeast Bay Sigmund's Voss Kveik

Yeast Bay Sigmund’s Voss Kveik

I built up a 2000ml yeast starter in the traditional way and added it after I had crashed the wort down to 70F. The starting gravity was 1.061 (15 Plato) and I aerated and pitched the yeast planning for it to free rise naturally. In order to understand if it did suppress phenols and fusel alcohol, I needed it to run hot.

Within 10 days, the gravity dropped from a 1.061 to 1.005 (7.4% ABV). I had a few weeks before the batch needed to be kegged, so I let it remain in primary for a little longer. Between the 10th and 20th days of primary, it dropped another 4 points to a final gravity of 1.001. Great attenuation, but more saison-like in terms of speed for fermentation to terminal.

Nørwegian Farmhøuse

Nørwegian Farmhøuse

The final beer, before the tincture, was low in phenols and perceived alcohol despite reaching the mid 80s in fermentation temperatures. There was some spice in the way of a light pepper, but very restrained if you expected saison levels of spice. I sensed a hint of the orange peel, but it was more lemon-like to my tastes and subdued citrus brightness.

Norwegian Farmhouse

Dark Norwegian Farmhouse picture

I added a tincture of juniper berries at bottling to give it a hint of what I thought a traditional Norwegian farmhouse beer would be, but I kept that light so as to not overpower the spice and lemon of the base beer.

All and all, I was impressed with the subtlety of the beer despite the high fermentation temperature and delicateness of the yeast driven flavors and aromas. I have heard others mention that this yeast would be great for IPAs, and I can’t disagree. The dryness and clarity of the final beer would benefit the style and the citrus flavors would support big, bright American hops.

The Nørwegian Farmhøuse (my apologies for abusing the “ø” for my amusement) was poured during Club Night and promptly kicked before 9pm. It got solid feedback and obviously big interest from the crowd. Even drinkers who said they don’t like juniper found it refreshing and easy to drink. Perhaps too easy.

I hope to reuse the yeast for an American IPA, at Belgian yeast temperatures, in the coming weeks. I’ll report back about how that went.

 

 

The recipe I used is below.

Nørwegian Farmhøuse – Voss – 2016

OG: 1.061 (3/26/16)
        1.005 (4/5/16)
FG: 1.001 (4/16/16)

12 lbs Golden Promise
0.5 White Wheat
0.5 Flaked Wheat
1 lb Cane Sugar

Mash: 149F

0.5 Magnum pellets 13.1% AA (60 min)
1.0 Czech Saaz pellets 2.6% AA (10 min)
1.0 Czech Saaz pellets 2.6% AA (0 min)

Whirlfloc
Wyeast yeast nutrient
ClarityFerm

Yeast Bay Sigmund’s Voss Kveik

Juniper tincture made and dosed at bottling

Kegged and brought to HomebrewCon 2016


Jun 22 2016

British Pale Mild – Reckoner

Although my wheelhouse has traditionally been hoppy or sour beers, I am always up for a challenge. Or an absurd dare.

Three Notch’d Brewing had an Art of Craft challenge during American Craft Beer Week last year, and they asked homebrewers to brew English IPAs, the best of which would be made at the brewery. Timing and interest did not lead me brew last year, but this year’s challenge intrigued me.

Art of Craft at Three Notch'd Brewing Company

Art of Craft at Three Notch’d Brewing Company

The style for this year’s Art of Craft was a British Pale Mild, which one of those styles that most of us don’t get to try unless we travel a great distance and get lucky, or we brew it ourselves. The mild style, which almost always refers to the dark version, is a rare one that is relatively unknown to most beer drinkers, and the pale mild is even more rare.

This beer is like a unicorn. With wings. A pegacorn.

The reason why the brewmaster, Dave, chose this obscure style was because it poses some technical and quality hurdles. This low alcohol (3.4-4.1% ABV) beer leaves you nowhere to hide flaws or imbalances. In the GABF Beer Style Categories description below, fruity-esters aromas/flavors and hop aroma/flavor/bitterness all low to very low.

56. English-Style Mild Ale

A. Subcategory: English-Style Pale Mild Ale

English Pale Milds are light amber to medium amber. Chill haze is allowable at cold temperatures. Fruity-ester aroma is very low to medium low. Hop aroma is very low or low. Malt flavor dominates the flavor profile. Hop flavor is very low to low. Hop bitterness is very low to low. Very low diacetyl flavors may be appropriate in this low-alcohol beer. Fruity-ester flavor is very low to medium low. Body is low to low-medium.

Original Gravity (Plato): 1.030-1.036 (7.6-9.0 Plato) • Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (Plato): 1.004-1.008 (1.0-2.1 Plato) • Alcohol by Weight (Volume): 2.7%-3.2% (3.4%-4.1%) • Bitterness (IBU): 10-20 • Color SRM (EBC): 6-9 (12-18 EBC) 

 

This is supposed to be a malty beer where the body is “low to low medium.”

No, I’m not going to mislead you and pretend that I’m a British beer expert or that I favor British beers in general. But I undertook this challenge because it isn’t a strength of mine, and here is how I went about it.

In retrospect, the process was the easy part. I knew I wanted to make a minor water adjustment to harden the water and I did that with a touch of gypsum in the mash. And I knew I wanted to mash in the 154F range to leave behind some body to this beer, and then to ferment it cool around 68F.

WLP002, English Ale yeast, was an obvious choice for fermenting this British style while leaving some residual sweetness. (Although I always find the yeast’s clumpy cottage cheese look disconcerting, at best.) The hops were simply British pellets (UK Challenger and EKG) that I needed to create low bitterness and a low hop perception.

The thing to (over)think was the SRMs. In order to keep the color pale and below 9 SRM, it limited my ability to use deeply flavorful malts as they would darken the beer out of style. The base grain I split between Maris Otter, for a slight nuttiness, and Golden Promise, for a touch of sweetness. And although I rarely use it anymore, I also used some carapils which is dextrine malt which brings some unfermentable sugars that improve foam, head retention and mouthfeel.

In trying to add more flavor, I also used a British Carastan malt to add some toast, caramel and toffee flavors, and some Crystal 120 for another level of caramel, burnt sugar and raisin. In the end, I think the high Lovibond color of the Crystal 120 kept me from adding enough of that malt to make a flavor difference. In doing this over, I would have probably doubled the Carastan up closer to a pound to make that malt more prominent without concern that the color would increase significantly, as well.

The brew day was uneventful, and the wort came out pretty light. I honestly think I still had a few SRMs to give.

Pale Rack to Carboy

Pale Rack from the Keggle to the Carboy

When kegging the beer with a friend, the beer had no noticeable flaws but seemed a bit mild. Yes, I know the style is “mild”, but the malt flavors were restrained. This made the beer easy to drink, but less flavorful than I had wanted.

 

Final Color - Pre-Carb

Final Color Before Carbonating

The Art of Craft event was a fun one and I forget how fun it can be to share beer with a crowd of wildly varying degrees of knowledge about beer.

Art of Craft Event at Three Notch'd

The Art of Craft Event at Three Notch’d

In the end, I did not win, but the goal for me was to stretch beyond my comfort zone and try something new. I got great feedback from the crowd, and it is easy to forget how nice it is to share something you love with strangers. This recipe might be a jumping off point for you if you decide to challenge yourself to outrageous acts of mildness.

Since this was a difficult challenge, a reckoning of sorts, I called it Reckoner. And because it is one of my favorite Radiohead songs, as well.

In addition, if you have made this style yourself, leave a comment on your recipe and approach.

Recipe:

Reckoner – Pale Mild 2016
4/16/16

OG: 1.032
FG: 1.007
3.3% ABV

3.0 lbs Maris Otter
3.0 lbs Golden Promise
1 lb Carapils
4 oz Crystal 120L
8 oz Carastan 30L

1 tsp Gypsum mash

Mash 154F

0.50 oz UK Challenger (6.1% AA) 60 min
0.35 oz East Kent Goldings (5.7% AA) 15 min

1 Tab Whirlfloc
Yeast Nutrient
Yeast Energizer

WLP002 English Ale yeast (1000 ml starter made)


Jun 17 2016

Darwin and the Art of Mixed Fermentations

Survival of Whatever Fit

 
In the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin introduced the phrase “survival of the fittest” intending it to mean “better designed for an immediate, local environment.”

As a brewer of mixed fermentation beers, you understand the importance of getting your favorite mix of yeasts and bacteria into your creations. You want diversity, but only the diverse group that you had hand selected to do the job. Once that beer is complete, you probably want to use that same culture of amazing funk and/or sour for future beers, as well. All you need to do is harvest those dregs, and off you go with your prized mix for the next project.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work exactly like that.

You can use a single yeast strain for multiple generations and, slight mutations aside, it will just get better with the first few ferments. But for mixed fermentations, you have often have saccharomyces and brettanomyces competing in some fashion for sugars, as well as lactobacillus and pediococcus bacterias doing the same. It is survival of the fittest until the bodies/cells hit the floor. Many of the players in your vessel are making contributions, but there’s only one or two MVPs being selected to represent after the game.

That concept was new to me and it was brought to my attention by Jeff Mello, of Bootleg Biology, weeks ago and he echoed it again in his presentation during this year’s National Homebrew Conference. (Yes, I continue to struggle with calling it Homebrew Con.)

When he streaks out cultures from finished beers, there are usually only a couple of winners from the yeast and bacteria genera. In addition, most “wild” mixed cultures end up being primarily yeast because of how and when they are harvested and a smaller percentage of cultures that ending up having viable bacteria if there is yeast present. (**What’s important to remember here is that this is my recollection of what he said. If what I’ve typed here is wrong, it is my error not his.**)

That isn’t to say that all of those yeasts and bacteria didn’t have a hand in the final beer, but it is a long shot that you will get the same results with those dregs in your next beer.

Does that mean commercial mixes of twenty brett strains in one vial is just a marketing gimmick? In my opinion, yes. But I have used those cultures with great success, so it is hard to dissuade you from using them, and that is certainly not my goal here. Having said that, if you know only one or two strains will shine through, it seems more logical, albeit maybe less economical, to choose those strains yourself rather than hope they emerge from the hunger games of pitching all the bretts.

What does this mean for my beers?
 
The implications of this, at least for me, was a reminder to continually push for diversity in my beers. At onset of a new batch or new barrel, I’ll still be carefully adding the commercial cultures and dregs that will create the complimentary effects I want imparted into the beer. That’s the same.
 
What might be the larger reminder is to keep pushing for diversity in subsequent generations of beers with that original culture and/or with your wonderfully funkified barrel. While brett might have crawled into your wood and your barrel is riddled with pediococcus, you still need to feed the diversity and to keep your beers from devolving into simplicity. Keep putting your favorite dregs into your beers for diversity’s sake, but also to ensure what you have what is best designed for that immediate, local environment.

TL;DR

The diversity of yeast and bacteria that you add to a beer is a continual endeavor. Your mixed fermentation beer is a living thing, and the cultures that made the beer what it is are not necessarily the ones left to harvest and repitch.

Sour Collab Barrels at a Local Brewery

Sour Collab Barrels at a Local Brewery