Tuesday, July 28, 2015

There Are Too Many IPAs On the Market - Here's Why I'm Adding a Few More

Awkward Hug IPA - the first non-funky beer released at Kent Falls.

It's pretty well established that there are just way too many IPAs on the market. We beer drinkers can't shut up about IPAs — especially if we happen to think the style is overrated. Great flamewars are wrought in the embers of the hatred some bear for hoppy beers, and the fact that some believe they're ruining craft beer. (In addition to gose, which is also supposedly ruining craft beer, leading me to believe that one of my favorite non-styles of beer, dry-hopped gose, is extra super duper killing craft beer).

The IPA category (and its offspring) grows determinedly year after year, continuing its domination as the most popular style in craft beer. And while AB has yet to release Bud Lite India-Pale-Ale-Rita, even the big guys have found ways to jump in on the craze here and there, with offerings like Blue Moon White IPA, Yuengling IPL, and for a truly perplexing example, Guinness Blonde Lager (which makes the interesting assumption that the type of consumer who would wish to buy a "blonde lager" brewed by Guinness would really be sold by the presence of Mosaic hops in such a beer).

That is the weird conundrum that IPA finds itself in these days, when undeniably there are many breweries that feel compelled by a demanding and thirsty market to produce an IPA that they may have little interest in making otherwise. No brewery, big or small, should feel compelled to make a beer they don't want to make. But when it comes to IPA, it's never just some vague guesswork at what the market wants. Many people will tell you, accounts will tell you, flat out, that you need to brew an IPA. (Especially in a market where the phrase "sour beer" is largely met with blank stares). In this sense, the sense of demanding that all breweries make an IPA even when they have no interest in doing so, yes, there are too many IPAs. There are absolutely too many IPAs on the market. It's gotten a little crazy over here.

I've gotten into this conversation a couple times now, recently. As often as you catch the "everyone has to brew an IPA or die," viewpoint, you'll hear the exact opposite, argued from an individual's own tastes. At a recent dinner conversation, someone tried a test batch of a saison I was working on and remarked how they liked the different path my beers took. They said: "Just please don't do an IPA."

If you have been reading Bear Flavored for some time, it's not a surprise to you that I (really, really) love hoppy beers. My focus has always been this: one part funky weird beers, one part clean juicy hoppy beers, and one part funky weird juicy hoppy beers. These are the things I like to drink so they are therefore the things I like to brew.

For better or worse, I'm still brewing with this same mindset as a commercial brewer. Focusing on tart and funky farmhouse beers for the Connecticut market probably isn't the smartest idea on paper. But all I really know how to do is brew the beer that I want to drink (as I said; for better or worse), and hope other people like it too. And if they don't care for that type of beer, honestly, it doesn't bother me too much. Tastes differ! And also I'm an incredibly selfish person so there's that as well.

There aren't currently any other farmhouse breweries in Connecticut, and hardly any breweries here are doing any kind of farmhouse / funky beers, so I'm curious if it will seem disingenuous for us to brew IPAs. If the mission of Kent Falls was explicitly, say, "Belgian-inspired beers," having a series of Northeast-style IPAs be our only "American" offering might seem kind of cynical. Fortunately, we haven't actually debuted all that many beers just yet, so we're still in the early stages of defining ourselves, and shaping what people expect from us (even the wildest and most experimental breweries want to have a common through-line). The framework, at least in my head, is to simply brew in the farmhouse mentality: refreshing beers that are satisfying to drink after a long day's work. And really, I think, that's pretty much saying the same thing as: "we brew whatever we feel like drinking." Because whatever you feel like drinking is that which is going to satisfy you after a long day's work.

So that's one reason I feel the market should have more IPAs: if a brewer is really, genuinely super passionate about a particular style, I think they should make that style.

The second reason I don't feel even slightly bad about adding more IPAs to an already-crowded IPA market: IPAs are like bread. Hear me out. Every town in America could have a bakery and everything would be just fine. No one would get into arguments about the Bakery Bubble. We understand, fundamentally, that bread is better fresh, even if we've entirely abandoned buying it so. I haven't counted how many towns there are in America lately, but I'm pretty sure there would be at least, like, 45 bakeries in this one-bakery-per-town situation. I don't know. Maybe half a million? Literally anywhere in that range sounds reasonable to me. Point being, good bread made right is really, really, really best fresh, and therefore you could never really have enough bakeries, if everyone switched to only buying freshly-baked bread from good artisan local bakeries. If everyone switched to only buying freshly-baked bread from good artisan local bakeries, the whole bread world would be revolutionized, and good bread would become far more accessible to the average person by supporting and allowing such bakeries to be ubiquitous and accessible. (American bread currently, in case you were wondering, is largely atrocious. I wish very much and desperately that the same movement that fixed beer would please get around to fixing bread on the whole).

IPAs, like bread, are best very, very fresh. (At least, a large number of people these days would say so). Yes, in spite of the old semi-stretched-truth story of IPAs being sent to India for their powers of preservation. Just because an aggressively hoppy beer may stave off infection in a boat to India for longer periods of time, that doesn't mean this is the best way to drink it. (Besides, their IPAs were likely totally different from what we're brewing now anyway). Most IPA fans today seem to be gravitating toward incredibly super extra fresh IPAs, and I'm right there with them. Hop oils break down quickly, and even in the best storage conditions, IPAs can lose some of their magic spark within a couple weeks, leaving nothing but bland uniform bitterness with no nuance. Industrial bread bakers could find ways to cheat around the freshness of their bread, but ultimately, having access to fresh bread is always going to be better. Some large breweries like Sierra Nevada, Stone and Lagunitas have figured out the logistics of hauling IPA all around the country and maintaining quality, and god bless them. I have infinite respect for the big breweries that do it right. But all things considered, it's simply easier to ensure that a beer is fresh if you're producing small quantities of it, sold quickly, within a local market which will consume it fast. And that is my goal: whatever it takes to ensure the drinker of such a beer receives the freshest and best IPA possible.

So yes, I do think there is room in the market for more IPAs. Not if everyone wants to grow to the size of Stone or Lagunitas or Sierra Nevada, no: they're already playing that game way better than most of us ever could. But if every town in the country (or world!) had a great little bakery and a handful of small-batch, fresh IPAs, always going out the door so quickly that they were always consumed super bright and aromatic? That wouldn't be such a bad world to live in.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Buckwheat Sour Saison - Recipe, Brewing with Unmalted Adjuncts, & Cereal Mashing Techniques

Let's explore our memory banks for a moment. Even as hombrewers, making beer can get pretty stressful when lots of things start to go wrong. What's the worst brew-day you've ever had?

If I thought about it really hard, I could probably come up with a couple epically annoying brew days in my short career as a brewer. But the one that stands out foremost is the day I brewed this buckwheat sour saison and tried to package an imperial stout at the same time. I can remember it distinctly, because: that day sucked. Hey! Why don't I tell you about it?

I've been fascinated by buckwheat for a while, especially after trying eye-opening beers like Hill Farmstead Le Sarrasin, and reading some intriguing things about the chemical precursors it may set up for microbes to transform. I love stuff like this, the sympathetic magic of fermentation, able to take one simple input and really surprise you with its output. No one seems to completely understand how all of this alchemy works just yet, which makes it even more intriguing to those of us, like me, obsessed with obscurities and unknown horizons.

It's also really nice when things turn out in spite of bothersome complications. But that's like, half of all homebrewing.

For this brew, a 5 gallon batch that I made last fall, I picked up 3 lbs of buckwheat groats from a local health food store. It was probably not wise to brew this on Halloween, inviting some kind of curse down upon me, but whatever, I went for it. With so much unmalted buckwheat in the grain bill, I knew that I wanted to try a cereal mash. At 21%, it seemed like too much to use without trying to extract the sugars. Plus, I was simply curious to try out a cereal mash; I'd never used the technique before, but I knew the modifications we were getting on our brewing system at Kent Falls would make such elaborate mashing procedures at least somewhat easier for future brews. (We have rakes in our kettle that allow us to mash into the kettle, step mash or cereal mash, and transfer into the lauter tun).

Most homebrewers have little reason to ever cereal mash. The large majority of ingredients we use simply don't require it. When unmalted, many raw grains will not release their starches in our typical single infusion-style mashes. But on either the homebrew or the commercial scale, a cereal mash is a ton of effort, and most grains can be obtained in a malted form, or thrown into the recipe in smaller percentages without using a cereal mash simply to steal their flavor qualities, without much concern for their fermentables. If you do want to obtain those fermentables, you need to process the grain in a way that will unlock them. Within a certain temperature range, a cereal mash will gelatanize the starches in the kernel / seed / whatever, by destroying the structure, and thus allowing mash enzymes to later access these starches. It's sort of the "nuke the site from orbit... it's the only way to be sure" of mashing techniques. The exact range of gelatinization varies from plant to plant, but a spread between 120 F to 140 F (50-60 C) will hit it for most grains used in home brewing. Like so:

  • Unmalted Barley: 140-150 F (60-65C)
  • Wheat: 136-147 F (58-64 C)
  • Rye: 135-158 F (57-70 C)
  • Oats: 127-138 F (53-59 C)
  • Corn (Maize): 143-165 F (62-74 C)
  • Rice: 154-172 F (68-78 C)

  • I haven't been able to find this info for buckwheat, just this generalized summary from a research paper: "The gelatinization temperature of buckwheat flour is higher than that of wheat flour, its gelatinization resistance is greater, the water absorption of its starch granules is stronger, the viscosity is higher and increases quickly during cooling." Looking back at the bullet-chart above, one can surmise (okay, guess) that the gelitinization range of buckwheat is probably similar to that of rice.

    For most of those grains listed above, much easier for the homebrewer is simply buying flaked or torrified versions. Commonly available through homebrew supply shops, these two options also gelatinize the grain by breaking down its cellular structure through heat and pressure. Buying grains processed like this is a whole lot easier than cereal mashing, and if you have that option, there aren't too many situations in which there's reason not to take it.

    Buckwheat, being fairly obscure, is not easy to obtain malted, especially not at the homebrew scale. Unsurprisingly, flaked buckwheat and torrified buckwheat are not common features on homebrew shop shelves either, or even easy to obtain for commercial breweries (though there is one source). Speaking of obscure, here are some fun facts about buckwheat: it's not a grass or related to grain at all, and is actually related to rhubarb, except the seeds are the part consumed (rhubarb is a vegetable where the stalks are eaten — not a fruit, as you might think by its frequent placement in pies).

    Procedurally, a cereal mash goes like this:

    1). Mill the cereal adjuncts down to a fine grist, and supplement with about 15% of the overall total malted barley base malt. The malted barley will help to add the enzymes necessary for conversion, which many cereal adjuncts lack. 2). Add hot water at 3 quarts per pound. You want a thin mash here, because you'll be edging it through a boil later, and don't want an overly-gummy soup that'll scorch (as I would later find out). First, though, you're targeting a simple infusion-style mash, so 3). bring the temperature to within the gelitinization range and hold that for 20 minutes to allow the gelitinization to occur. 4). After the geli stage, you can raise your cereal mash up to a gentle boil. Here's where I ran into trouble: the mash will go from a soup of loose grains to a thick, porridge-like gruel. But my understanding of the procedure on brew-day was different: I had thought I was meant to hold the temperature of the boil for an additional 20 minutes. So upon reaching a gentle simmer, thinking this light boiling was that which would ultimately destroy the starches, complete gelatinization, and achieve great success, 5). I kept stirring feverishly. This was actually unnecessary — 6). upon hitting the boil, apparently I could have added the cereal mash right into my main mash — but I stood there and diligently blended the congealing porridge goo with a wooden mixing spoon for another 20 minutes, 7). like some kind of asshole.

    Long story short: my cereal mash got a little bit scorched. Just a little though.

    Coming out of a cereal mash — especially one that got cooked for longer than necessary, a mildly-toasted extra-thick porridge — buckwheat muck is super mucky. Added to my standard mash of pilsner malt, it got really extra muckity muck. And I got a stuck sparge. A stuck sparge like I've never seen before. I think this was a stuck sparge so stuck it actually went back in time to find my run-off and kill its parents, thus altering the time-space continuum so that my run-off never existed at all. 

    I stirred in some rice hulls. The buckwheat muck went back in time again and killed the parents of rice hulls. Rice hulls no longer exist. When I write the words "rice hulls," you have no idea what those symbols on your screen are even meant to represent, because the concept of rice hulls no longer exists in our world. For a moment, or a minute, I just stood there fuming and perplexed. I momentarily considered just dumping the batch, thinking I would never manage to extract any liquid out of the quagmire.

    Long story actually-not-that-short, I had to shovel my entire mash tun over into another vessel, add another like a truckload of rice hulls (what? rice huh?) to the bottom of the tun all over the screen until it had an impenetrable security blanket. I then scooped the mash back on top. From there, things finally actually went smoothly. With this beer. Also on that day, I was trying to keg an imperial stout. Have I mentioned how much I hate leaf hops and their tendency to clog things? Anyway, that's a story for another time.

    I fermented this guy in my 6 gallon homebrew barrel that's home to one of my house cultures, which, upon taking residence in the barrel, has definitely grown more and more sour over time. Something else that I mean to write about another time: how mixed cultures can change in their performance after repeated repitchings. This was about the third use of this particular house culture, and the lactobacillus in the barrel clearly were ready to leap out ahead and get to work — over the four months I let this age, it's developed a nice strong acidity, but firmly in the lactic side of things. No acetic, and nothing harsh, fortunately. In fact, the very subtle smoke character imparted by scorching my mash a bit didn't hurt the beer at all, to my great surprise. You can taste it in the background, but it tastes just like a very subtle smokiness, to the point where I enjoy it as an incredible complexity, rather than a flaw. That, in addition to whatever nuances the buckwheat added (it grows harder and harder to determine what came from where), make this taste like a much older sour than it really is; I find it to be excitingly complex for a beer so young. It's far more multi-layered than other young sour saisons I've had.

    Coincidentally, yesterday I brewed a buckwheat saison on the commercial scale. It'll be going into a 10 bbl stainless tank and getting a new construction of my mixed house cultures. Needless to say, I didn't try to emulate exactly the same mashing procedure — but writing about this new batch is an entry for another time.

    6.0 Gal., All Grain
    Brewed: 10.30.14
    Bottled On: 1.17.15
    Fermented at room temp, 72 F
    OG: 1.065
    FG: 1.004
    ABV: 8%

    77.5% [#11] Pilsner malt
    21.1% [#3] buckwheat
    1.4% [3.2 oz] acid malt (pH adjustment)

    Hop Schedule-
    1 oz Brewer's Gold @flameout

    White Labs Saison II
    House Sour Saison Culture - White Mana

    Wednesday, June 24, 2015

    What is Brett IPA Supposed to Taste Like?

    When I agreed to be the brewmaster at Kent Falls Brewing Co., the first thing that Barry, the co-owner and brewery manger, told me was: "Make sure the beer is as confusing as possible. I don't care what you brew. I don't care what it tastes like. I just want everything to be the maximum amount of confusing."

    We're working at all sorts of inventive, cutting-edge ways of confounding beer consumers, like making a lightly-sour saison one of our core beers (for the mainstream Connecticut market), and releasing a refreshingly soft table saison that clocks in at only 3.8% and is dry-hopped with American hops, so if you want to call it a saison, that's fine, but if you want to call it a table beer, that works too, or if you just want to consider it a farmhouse ale, technically yes, it's that also.

    Actually, those two beers have been received shockingly well, even the incredibly low-ABV saison. One of my Things lately is that over-explaining this stuff to people from the very start can be detrimental; just give the beer to them, they will taste it and realize it tastes very good, and not have to try to pretend to care about all the style complexities your inner nerd is dying to spit out in exhausting detail at them. Start with flavor and educate based on what they like and their interest level. Unfortunately, though, that only works when you're starting from a blank slate. When the person drinking the beer has half-formed preconceptions, things get trickier.

    Brett IPAs are weird. Often, the very people that need to be educated on what a Brett IPA is supposed to taste like, what makes it tick, are those same beer nerds who actually sort of understand what Brettanomyces is. Lots of beer drinkers know: Brettanomyces makes beer funky. It's associated (confusingly, it turns out) with sour beer. But it isn't usually responsible for the acidity in beer, just the funk — and maybe a bigger push of tartness due to the low residual sugars it leaves behind. Brett is as weird and hard to pin down as it is intriguing and complex.

    I've written about this before, but now that I'm commercially brewing a 100% Brett beer that, theoretically, thousands and thousands of people (oh shit whoa wait that's weird) are going to taste, I feel like I need to get it out there again: what is a 100% Brett beer supposed to taste like? What is it? Why is it?

    100% Brett beers, in general, do not follow the rules that aged, mixed-culture Brett beers do. Being already a mouthfeel, that's hard to explain to someone over a shouted bar order. A year in a barrel with Brettanomyces simply changes a beer in ways that a quick 2-6 week fermentation (our Brett IPA only takes 7 days to ferment out completely, now that the culture has adapted) won't match. Faster, in beer, usually means less intense, sometimes possibly simpler. 100% Brett beers, fermented quickly, are in no way inferior, just different. They bear a different flavor profile. Their funk is a different kind of funk. They're maybe less intense, but their impression of Brettanomyces character is distinct and readily apparent to anyone familiar with it. I've drank enough 100% Brett beers that I think I could still pick one out of a lineup if my hair was on fire and someone was trying to put it out with a dirty hiking sock full of old trash. Trust me, 100% Brett character may be subtler, but it is unique and identifiable, just different from its aged incarnation.

    In many 100% Brett beers, you will find crisp notes of zest, possibly some phenols (though most seem to prefer these beers without much of the phenolic notes), usually a hard-to-pin fruit character, and something like dried sweat. That dried sweat is tastier than it sounds, like berries that are cooling off after running a marathon. But this sweaty note, usually what I perceive as the most funky element of a 100% Brett beer as compared to an aged Brett beer, is still fairly tame and subtle, in the way that an anthropomorphic fruit sweating would be far more appealing than an actual human sweating, But, most importantly, 100% Brett beers don't usually approach full barnyard. And they might be mildly tart, at best, but not actually acidic. Brett doesn't make beer overtly sour. It may create an impression of tartness, but a 100% Brett beer is not going to be full-on sour.

    That's the general gist, but each 100% Brett beer will of course be slightly different, depending on the brewer's preference and how they steer it. The general consumer is very likely not to know all this upfront, as a lot of confusion regarding Brettanomyces remains. I've heard from many brewers that this has broken them on the style. They've gotten so much misguided negative feedback, often from the very beer nerds that seek out Brett beers, they simply stopped brewing the beer. This is deeply frustrating and sad to hear. And as with any matter of education, it's up to us handsome, knowledgeable few to address this.

    Personally, my goal for a Brett IPA is to have that same juicy, aromatic, fruity, refreshing, accessible, not-very-bitter-at-all-actually beverage that I already seek in a good clean IPA, but with a slight edge of Brett pushing the fruit hop character down minor paths tangential from the usual. The brunt of hops, with an undercurrent of something just slightly strange but equally refreshing. I've been working on a Brett IPA recipe for years as my perfect hiking beer, because that's what I want on top of a mountain. Refreshing, but a little wild, a little disorienting. Not cloying or clobbering or overly severe. I want a beer that tastes like a glass of juice from an unknown alien species of fruit.

    That, to me, is what Kent Fall's Waymaker Brett IPA tastes like. I'll write more about this specific beer and the history behind my brewing it more extensively in the future, but for now, I just want to write about how it doesn't taste how you might expect. It's probably not nearly as funky as you'd think. While unfortunately I'm sworn to secrecy about the particular strains of Brett we're using (it's a blend of a number of strains, not one single Brett), these particular Bretts are rather clean as a primary fermenter, with just a bit of that funky zest I find in 100% Brett ferments. They work fast: the first batch was a bit funkier due to me knocking out too cold, and the batch taking longer than expected to ferment, but since then, this beer finishes up just as quickly as a Saccharomyces-fermented ale. There's an edge to the beer, like a weird glass of orange juice spiked with some guava juice, but the fruit and the citrus and the juice is very much the focus. It recreates much of the flavors of an IPA, but many of those flavors happen to come as much from the yeast as from the hops. That's the point. I can't decide whether that's the point of a 100% Brett beer to some hypothetical consumer; I can only offer that that is the point of this particular 100% Brett beer to me, as a brewer.

    One Untappd review amusingly said, simply: "I've been had." I'm not even sure in which direction they were insinuating they'd been tricked, misled, which is the frustrating aspect of such things: did they think this wasn't enough of an IPA, or wasn't enough of a Brett beer? Too funky, or not funky enough? My favorite thing about this beer is how much it balances both aspects of what it is in equal portions, but maybe that's a negative to you. Either way, in either direction, I really just can't particularly allow it to bother me, because Waymaker tastes exactly like I want it to. And my job, then, is to help show drinkers what a 100% Brett beer can be, what new things it can offer, rather than playing to whatever misconceptions and erroneous goals they may have formed for it. In my mind, this is a style of beer that did not and could not have existed before, I don't know, ten years ago. Naturally, it will lead to some confusion.

    What it tastes like is far more important than all the nerdy details surrounding its fermentation. What it tastes like, I hope people agree, is refreshing and juicy and interesting. Wild enough for the top of a mountain, unique enough for a tulip at the bar. So wherever it is that you drink it, whether or not it tastes like a glass of weird orange juice to you too, I just hope that you enjoy it for what it is. The same should probably be true for all beer, come to think of it.

    Wednesday, June 10, 2015

    Should Northeast-Grown Hops Be Renamed? / Brewing an IPA with Century-Feral New York Wild Hops

    Running a brewery on a real actual operating farm, complete with its own hop yard, I'm very much interested in the quality of local (northeast) hops, and putting them to the best possible use. I can't wait to see what comes of the resurgence of the industry in this region. Of course, the quality of the local hops that I've brewed with so far can vary widely, which is to be expected. I don't take that as a knock on local growing: many of these are from incredibly small operations, basically hobbyists, and local hops are much like a fledgling homebrew scene: some surprisingly good, some need some troubleshooting. But done right, I've seen promising cones.

    And generally, where it gets really interesting is that everything I've tasted, when turned into beer, is quite different from its namesake varieties grown in the northwest. So here's something that I think will become a major question in the beer community in the near future: should hops from new regions like the northeast, which diverge dramatically from the character of their western counterparts, be renamed as something new and unique? Are these the same hops? When is Cascade no longer Cascade?

    I'm not quite bold enough to raise such a question and then try to answer it myself right now, but I do hope to see some discussion on this subject soon. It is the time to start thinking about such things. Hop farms, particularly in New York, are teetering at the threshold. Right now, many of these farms are prepping for their third-year harvest, an important milestone in the lifespan of a hop yard. Hops generally require a few years before they hit peak maturity, and you'll often hear that the third harvest is the one where they really come into their own. Very few serious operations in New York have been around much longer than this. The same, I imagine, is true for New England in general. As far as we know, the hop farm at Kent Falls Brewery on Camps Road Farm is the only commercial hop growing operation presently in the state of Connecticut (we're also the first farm brewery in the state of Connecticut). Our hops are, in fact, entering their third year. I'll be very interested to see how they perform in 2015. (No pressure whatsoever, Farmer John).

    But what's really, really cool and exciting to me is that there are hops growing in the northeast which have been around for far longer than any of the modern batch of hop farms. Decades before farm bills were being contemplated, decades before the craft beer movement was even a twinkle in Ken Grossman's eye, hops were growing wild in the Northeast. Because as you probably know, New York used to be hop growing capital of the Americas... before Prohibition tripped it up, and blight clotheslined it in a vicious and unfair tag-team. All across this region, derelict hop farms were abandoned, hops left to grow feral. This is fascinating to me: all over the state, and nearby states, potentially grow hops that have been wild for almost a century. Hops that may in fact be hundreds of years old, all-told. Hops that have absorbed the character of the land and made it their own. Truly unique, more-or-less native hops. Forgotten, and awaiting rediscovery.

    Obercreek Farm, in Wappingers Falls, NY, found such hops growing on their property. Obercreek is one of the many small farms / growers in New York to put in just an acre or few of hops, but these weren't part of the business plan: they were already there, for what Farmer Tim estimates to be about a century, if not more. And with a hundred years to acclimate to the soil, it's no wonder they're the strongest and most aggressive growers of Obercreek's lot. Besides them growing well, I was hoping for stronger flavors than I've gotten from immature local hops, too. And in this aspect, they showed what unique regional hops are capable of. The IPA that I brewed with these New York feral hops may not be game-changing for a contemporary IPA, but it shows off the varied potential for a little-explored type of hop. The flavors were indeed stronger than other local hops I've used, and far more complex. Unique, too.

    While the general framework of the recipe was that of an IPA (nothing fancy, there), this doesn't quite taste like any IPA I have ever had. The primary character is something like orange marmalade, but with less citrus. It's rounder, smoother, softer; more suited to a well-balanced pale ale than an IPA, perhaps. The flavor isn't necessarily as striking as some really juicy hop varieties, but it also fills out a spoke on the flavor wheel that I've not exactly encountered — and that sort of uniqueness is always welcome. Smooth orange marmalade: I can work with that.

    And who knows what hops this wild variety originally descended from. A safe guess would be that Cluster or perhaps Brewer's Gold might be involved. Another safe guess would be that these hops were not descended from Mosaic. And in any case, they do shelter a hint of the English ancestry that might have preceded them, or at least influenced popular hops at the time, but with that 'American tang' shaping most of what's there. And whatever their background, if we brewers end up using more hops like these, we're going to need to start brainstorming some new names. East Coast Cascade or something a century older: they're just not the same.

    A school near the brewery is said to have hops that have been growing wild for 300 years. Now those I really want to brew with.

    Thursday, April 16, 2015

    When Life Gives You Double-Batch Brews, Make Lemony Kettle Soured Saisons

    Kent Falls Brewing Field Beer Saison
    The label art indicates in which season the beer was brewed. Wowsers!

    I've recently found myself in a situation that, while certainly not unprecedented, is definitely unusual. I am far from the first homebrewer to jump into commercial brewing with no prior experience working at a brewery. Personally, I think the lines between "commercial" and "homebrewer" are going to become increasingly blurred over time as far as the Assumption of Quality goes. Newish online communities like Milk the Funk are already a mix of both pros and homebrewers, all interested in pushing fermentation boundaries with experiments that are cutting-edge no matter who is making them or at what scale. A brewer is a brewer, in my opinion. The equipment doesn't matter too much once you know how to use it effectively.

    But equipment does matter, whether a homebrewer or a pro, in that you have to do the best you can with what you got. Only have three conicals? Gotta figure out how many house cultures you can juggle — you're not gonna be able to keep brewing like a homebrewer with ten carboys in a side room and a shelf stacked with jars of yeast. How long is each beer going to take to finish? What's your brewing schedule? Packaging schedule? You only have one brite tank — what happens if two batches finish at the same time? What happens if you have to harvest yeast from two batches at the same time and you don't have a yeast keg free? And how do you dry-hop without a top-access manway, anyway? Can someone please make me a huge funnel that flares outwards about two feet and tri-clamps onto a 2-inch port?

    There are endless challenges involved in getting a brewery operating smoothly, especially with extremely limited manpower (to be clear: my nickname at Kent Falls is "Manpower"), but I think you have to look at every roadblock as a potential jumping off point toward new ideas. "The friction of challenge is often that which creates the very spark to ignite a blaze of ingenuity," is probably close enough to an expression that people might sometimes say, I assume, and also an important lesson in why you should never come up with ideas during dry season in a forest. #firesafety

    It just so happens that Kent Falls Brewing Co. is on an operating farm, and we're trying to embrace the legacy of farmhouse brewing in many different ways. It's always shocking to me how so many beer styles are a product of happenstance. Brewers didn't start decoction mashing because they did some test batches and realized it would improve their beer — they did it because of a change in taxes on their mash tun volume. Farmhouse brewing has always been about using what you have in the best way possible, and we're trying to keep that in the back of our minds all the time, with everything we do here. The old milk chiller in the cow barn? It helped sell Barry on the property back in 2011, when it occurred to him that it could be used as a coolship and open fermentation vessel. Use everything you have in the most productive, most inventive, most coolest way possible.

    By the time I got involved in the brewery, the equipment was already purchased. I didn't have to think about what brewing system, what size, how many tanks, how many tanks to start with and how many to aim to end up with, single batch, double batch, triple batch, etc. As with everything in brewing, this could be good or bad or a little of both. I didn't have to spend months contemplating and jotting down pros and cons of different configurations. My challenge was to simply figure out the best way to use what we had: three 30-bbl fermentors and a 15-bbl brewhouse (plus 16 oak wine barrels).

    And our earliest, primary goal was to develop Field Beer, our saison using 100% local malt. Eventually Field Beer will utilize 100% local ingredients, once there's a large enough supply of local hops. There are a few blog posts I probably could and should write about Field Beer — about why local is important to Kent Falls Brewing, what it means in terms of quality, logistics, and the context of this specific beer — but my mission began with the basis of the beer already established. Field Beer will rotate with the seasons, the recipe changing to incorporate a different unmalted grain (oats, spelt, wheat, rye) and a different hop variety each season. I've been pleased beyond my expectations with the quality and efficiency we've gotten from these relatively new operations; our growers and Valley Malt nailed it. We had the ingredients we needed to make a great local saison. We just needed to figure out how to make a flagship beer like this as interesting as possible. The recipe itself was always going to be fairly simple: that rotating unmalted grain (oats for winter) as a small (<10%) portion of the grainbill, and Connecticut-grown, Valley Malt-malted Pilsner for the rest.

    I am fascinated by the opportunities to blend. But until our barrel program is relatively established, blending in the traditional context will be fairly limited. I debated blending in old barrel-beer with fresh batches of Field Beer, but that raised more logistical issues than was worth considering for our first beer. The idea stuck with me though: in some ways, double batch brewing is a form of blending. Maybe you have to brew twice to fill each conical, but rather than looking at this as twice the amount of effort for the same result, what if you looked at it as an opportunity to add differentiation? What if there was something unique and different you could do because of the double-batch brew thing, and not in spite of it? Like sour just half the batch, to add a dash of refreshing tartness to the whole beer?

    The great thing about this strategy is that it doesn't actually add a ton of time, effort or risk to the process of making the beer, yet it has a great impact on the flavor and complexity of the saison. So far, we've brewed three batches of Field Beer. We decided not to sour that first batch, for various reasons, and treated it as a unique one-off First Batch Ever (read all about the madness that went into making that first batch) and was thus a straight-up 'classic' neo-saison, 5.2% ABV, lightly hopped with American Brewer's Gold. Batch 2 was soured, as the beer will always be going forward. (Bottles include the batch number, but I think Batch 1 has pretty much sold out now anyway).

    I will continue to refine and tweak the process as I brew more batches, I'm sure, but the basic deal is this: we mash as normal, keep the temp in the kettle above the pasteurization range until run-off is complete, then begin running the wort through the heat exchanger and back into the kettle. While we're doing this, I run CO2 through the aeration stone rather than oxygen. This way oxygen is scrubbed out, and forms a blanket over the wort in the kettle. I pitch my house lacto culture, rather than innoculating with grain. I've been using this culture (a blend of at least five different lacto strains) for some time now, and prefer both the diversity in culture and reliability in performance I've found with it. If you want to get your own house lacto culture going, my recommendation would be to simply acquire a bunch of different lacto strains from various sources and throw them together... maybe culture some from grain as well, if you're feeling extra sassy.

    As far as the souring process goes, time and temperature are the main knobs that I'm going to fiddle with: the first batch I cooled down to 115 F before pitching the lacto, and I let it go for 36 hours, until it was at 3.4 pH. Without any additional heat, the temp in the kettle only dropped down to 104 F before we cut it and fired up the kettle to pasteurize.

    After both 'turns' of the batch were together in the tank and fermented out by our saison culture, the resulting acidity is where I wanted it, clean, crisp, refreshing, adding brightness to the beer more than any big pucker-punch of acid. You definitely get the whiff of funky lactobacillus fermentation in the nose, but it's free of anything off. Flavorwise, this is balanced well between lemony tartness and the rustic weird earthfruit of a saison. I'm quite happy with how refreshing and approachable this beer is, how well the souring worked, and how very clean the result of this process was.

    I should say that, of course, this is not meant to be a perfectly accurate representation of how historic saison was made. We're not trying to do that. We're a modern American farmhouse brewery, though I'm certainly inspired by historic saison. And we're trying to emulate the mindset of those old farmhouse breweries, but not necessarily any exact recipe. So, no, historic brewers probably didn't kettle sour their saisons like this. We're not necessarily aiming to brew a tart saison just because a lot of historic saison was tart. We're aiming to brew a saison that we find enjoyable to drink, and aiming to take the farmhouse philosophy of using what you have in the most productive, most inventive, most coolest way possible.

    As you may or may not know, we're self-distributing in Connecticut for now. Connecticut does not have many breweries making sour beer, or funky beer, or wild beer. I hope we can turn a lot of new drinkers into fans of the tart stuff. So far, the results are promising. I find it actually helps to not over-explain these things: non-fermentation geeks don't need all the particulars and complications. Sometimes if you explain too much beforehand, they'll be overwhelmed, and thus mentally braced to kick back against this too-much-new thing they're trying. But if you only explain: "It's tart, which makes it even more refreshing," the response is generally extremely positive. People focus on the fact that a tart beer is refreshing, which it is, and not that it's some crazy shocking new experience, which it shouldn't be, if it's well balanced. And I've heard now, multiple times, maybe the perfect response: "Damn, this would go great with a burger." There we go.

    We bottled 60 cases of this here batch of Field Beer, which will be released locally on 4/17. In case you're interested in checking this particular beverage out, our map of places distributed to is right here.

    A photo posted by Derek (@bearflavored) on

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