Thursday, July 10, 2014

Seeking Your 100% Brett Strain Experiences for a New Bear Flavored Guide

Hello! You may remember me from such previous Bear Flavored Guides as "Bear Flavored's Complete Guide to Hop Varieties," and "How Many Hop Varieties Are in the Best IPAs? - A Statistical Analysis." Usually, I accomplish these extensive and exhaustively-researched guides through dedication to my inherently anti-social nature and days of avoiding tasks that would be far more practical uses of my time. For the last year or so, I have been thinking that I need to put together a Guide to Brett Strain Characteristics in 100% Brett Fermentations. As more and more unique strains hit the market from an increasingly varied number of sources (which is another story I'm working on, as it happens), it will grow exponentially harder to keep track of them all. It already is pretty hard to keep track of them all, honestly, in no small part because the nomenclature for Brettanomyces strains is a mess, and the language to describe their weird qualities is just entering the beer conversation.

So I've been passively working on this guide for some time now, and have at this point brewed 100% Brett beers with a lot of the strains that are more-or-less commonly available. Because there are literally thousands of Brettanomyces strains floating around out there, this guide will for now focus only on strains that are available in some widespread capacity, ranging from the regular White Labs / Wyeast strains, to offerings from newer / smaller yeast labs as they arise, down to those isolated by homebrewers such as Dmitri of BKYeast which have found fairly widespread use in both the homebrewing and commercial brewing world, and are thus theoretically obtainable for the average brewer. It's going to be difficult to draw a line between the various "hobbyiest" isolated strains, and I'll try to at least reference as many sources of Brett strains as I can, but any strain so underground that it can only be obtained by standing in front of a mirror and chanting "Brettanomyces!" three times in succession while describing a pentagram with bloodfire is definitely right out.

Now, there's simply no way I could personally ever get to brewing with every Brettanomyces strain out there; nor could I ever claim to have a completely accurate, representative assessment of how each strain works based on whatever limited experience I may have had with it in one beer. (It's not like I've brewed a single hop beer with every variety on my hop guide list, either.) And beyond that, my own experiences often cause me to doubt information online that sounded pretty established — White Lab's Trois is said to be the same strain, rebranded, as the popular Brett Drei, but my own experience with each version leads me to question this. Maybe I just caught a weird mutation of one of them — which is why having more references is important. Without collecting more experience(s), I'm left to merely speculate.

So with this project, I'm asking for backup. Want to contribute your experiences to a guide that likely tens of billions of humans will read for countless millenia to come? Help me supplement my own experiences by sharing your own. As I said, I'm looking to chronicle the attributes of any Brett strain that has at least some recurring availability to homebrewers. Aroma, flavor, overall impressions, favorable styles, attenuation, length of fermentation, flocculation, super powers bestowed, and really, any other impressions notable or useful. Flavor descriptions tend to be all over the map for these kinds of beers, which is a large part of the reason I want to get some different opinions in here other than my own. The ultimate take-away for each may be: what would you brew with it, and why? Hit me up in the comments (or over email, if you prefer.) If you want to simply link to a post you already wrote, that's good too. And of course, citations will be provided in the eventual guide that I publish myself, with heartfelt thanks to all who contribute.

So, hopefully this sounds like a good idea to everyone, and thanks in advance for your help and support. Cheers to a future of exciting Brett strains and accessible documentation. Maybe even eventually they'll have less confusing names.

And, in related news, my Brett IPA that I brewed with the gentlemen at Bacchus Restaurant in New Paltz, NY, is getting tapped tomorrow (Friday, July 11) at 7 pm. If you happen to be in the area, stop by and have a drink with me, pick up a sweet Brettanomyces-themed t-shirt, or we can just high five. Cool.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why We Should Take Beer Styles Less Seriously

Random photo of beer of indeterminable style.

Get ready for some more opinion-based rambling, folks. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Bear Flavored Ales' Board of Directors.

I suspect this article may make a lot of people want to throw beer bottles at me. Or I don't know — maybe this is actually a common feeling that we just don't talk about much. The Brewer's Association recently released a massive overhaul of its Beer Style Guidelines for 2014, and it's encouraging to see recognition of rapidly-growing categories of beer, but many entries nonetheless make me think that the effort is largely a shell game. Certainly beer styles do get argued about a lot — wars have been fought over the black IPA; drinkers shruggingly accepting that session IPA is a tad different from a boring old pale ale — but generally, we all seem to be working under the assumption of there being a sacred realm of 'classic and traditional' styles that everyone, thank god, can at least agree on. There's the stable ground of history, and then there's these whacky new styles like 'Brett IPA' and "imperial black rye coffee Kolsch" that are just some nonsense the kids are pulling out of their baggy pants at dubstep concerts with which to spike their Red Bull. 

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the concept of beer styles. Sometimes life needs simplicity and guideposts. We need styles, and we like to argue about styles; I just think we often place far too much emphasis on them. Especially from a consumer standpoint, it's very important to have at least a broad guideline, a rough sketch of what I'm going to drink. It doesn't have to be a classic style; it can be a little blurb, a few descriptive words. (For example: I love how much info Modern Times manages to convey on their cans despite a very minimalist design.) When I pick up a bottle and there's no style or description at all, nothing but a cute name and a government warning, I become so annoyed that I will almost never buy that beer. Give me at least an idea of what the beer is — however you want to do that. That's what styles are for: guidelines, shorthand, a marker to let you know how close you are to town. And as long as we're not taking things too seriously, I think it mostly works out.

Lately — and maybe this is just because I happen to be on a binge of historical-brewing literature — I feel like the concept of "brewing to style" is being chipped away at from both the past and the future. There's going to be some unexpected benefit to the genre of IPA spawning a thousand spin-offs, in my opinion. The names might sound silly, but ideally, hopefully, it'll help to enforce the idea that styles are not immutable and handed down from the Heavens on stone tablets: they're coined after the fact, to classify something that looks like it'll be sticking around long enough to need a name.

The thing is, styles and beers change. Everything changes. In fact, I would go as far as to say that most beer styles as we think of them today did not exist 150 years ago. A brewer from the mid 1800's would probably be at a loss, trying to enter a modern BJCP-sanctioned contest. Classic and traditional? Sure, depending when you want to set the start date.

Think about it: around the end of the 1900's, within a couple decades' time, a great many things happened all at once. There was a sweeping overhaul of fermentation procedure thanks to the work of Pasteur. Two World Wars happened, drastically affecting the availability of ingredients and the taxation system imposed upon European and English breweries. Gravities dropped, processes changed. Lager-mania shifted a new generation's tastes, right when mass industrialization was becoming easier than ever. Oh, and let's not forget, there was that whole Prohibition horseshit. American brewing was perhaps the hardest hit by these few turbulent decades, but the rich historical traditions of English and European brewing were drastically affected as well, something that modern drinkers rarely seem to recognize when touting the legacy of international brewers.

I'll pick one specific example, saison, because I was just leafing through Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski again. Something struck me: Farmhouse Ales was released in 2004, following a period where the saison style could have been considered on the verge of extinction. Not so long after that book came out (and this was probably not a coincidence), the style exploded onto the American scene. In 2014, only ten years later, I would say that saisons are one of craft beer's darlings, a style that a significant percentage of breweries brew on a regular basis. As of this writing, there are over 3,000 saisons logged on more than twice as many as any other Belgian style. That's crazy! I had to look multiple times at those numbers to make sure I wasn't losing my mind — how could saisons be twice as common as witbiers, dubbels and tripels? But it seems to be so, perhaps because the style is generally viewed as loose in its guidelines, historically and conceptually open-ended.

But given all that, the vast majority of saisons being brewed today are pale, moderately hopped, highly carbonated, frequently spiced, and fermented exclusively with a Saccharomyces "saison strain." Perhaps no beer defines the modern saison better than Saison Dupont — I mean really defines, in that Saison Dupont, just one example of European saison, seems to have formed the baseline for the entire modern vision of what a saison should be. But Dupont was only one farmhouse ale, one that happened to survive the difficult first half the century with its integrity in-tact, and remain available enough that American drinkers could discover it when they were ready for it. Historically, there were many different farmhouse beers, and they varied quite a lot. Farmhouse Ales describe most as probably being a bit more amber in color due to historic malting techniques, and being either aggressively hopped or distinctly sour. More sour, depending on age, and sometimes blended with lambic, or even spontaneously fermented. Carbonation, before bottling became the norm, was probably low. Alcohol levels were also much lower, because farmhouse ale was largely brewed as sustenance for farmhands working the fields.

In fact, the primary common thread between historic and contemporary saisons is the reliance on a highly-attenuative yeast strains to result in a low terminal gravity; saisons, whatever else they are, should be dry and refreshing. But what started out as a style closely related to lambic is now almost universally fermented by a culture of brewer's yeast, and usually packs a heavy ABV punch. That these strains have been isolated from European saison brewers gives them credibility, but isn't going to match what historic saisons once were. Even allowing for the fact that saisons were varied and open-ended, the general loss of some of their most widespread qualities in modern examples sounds to me like we've basically redefined the baseline of what the style is, to a degree that would cause uproar if done with, say, an American gueuze.

Though it's not on the sour spectrum and its funk is not too extreme, even Saison Dupont still contains a mix of microbes — White Labs found as many 5 different cultures, and other brewers I have talked to (who have done their own culturing) report the same findings. One strain within the Dupont culture seems to lend the vast majority of the character to the beer, however, so this is strain was selected as the "Dupont strain." But does an ecosystem really function the same way when seemingly-vestigial organisms are dropped?

For as fettishistic as brewers are about the purity of other styles, the use of the term 'lambic' or the blasphemy of calling something a 'Black IPA,' I find it little funny that this reincarnation of the saison slipped through without judgement. Especially when Farmhouse Ales probably inspired it, though the book goes to great lengths describing the beer as very different from how most of us are brewing it.

I don't want to sound like I'm just pooping on American saisons (though I would definitely like to start seeing much weirder, funkier, tartier saisons), because it's a style that I (mostly) love regardless of how it's interpreted. To be clear, this is an issue of semantics, not quality. If you brew a monoculture-fermented, moderately hopped, highly carbonated golden ale and call it a saison, you're not doing anything wrong. It is a saison. That's my whole point: we changed what the style it is. Styles are the Matrix, and we are all Neo, #MINDBLOWN #INCEPTIONSOUND

So back to my overall point of brewing to style: how much can it mean when we keep changing what those very styles are? You could run through this whole thing with almost any 'historic' style. Last year I went through this with India Pale Ale: historic IPA, [contemporary] English IPA, and American IPA are all three pretty different things, which makes the sudden proliferation of IPA sub-styles seem a little less ridiculous. I mean, still a little ridiculous in terms of marketing and bandwagoning, but slightly less so.

Everything has basically been tried by someone before and yet everything is new and ever-changing. I'll leave it to future generations to argue about what to call their THC-infused quintuple IPA brewed by a matrix of self-pitching nano-yeast, growler-filtered via cross-secting dubstep vibrational frequencies. I will yell at them to get off my lawn and continue listening to Led Zeppelin.

Taste trumps semantics. I just want my beer to be weird and interesting and tasty and refreshing.

.... Okay, maybe all I'm really saying here is, if I ever have kids, I want them to grow up having very strong opinions about the microbial content of saisons.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Announcing the First-Ever Commercially Available Bear Flavored Ale, July 11

Hello, readers of and inhabitants of the internet. I'm happy to announce that if you are interested in trying a certified Bear Flavored Ale, you now have your first chance to do so (unless you know me in real life or have previously robbed my apartment.) I realize that most of you do not live in the Hudson Valley, but for those that aren't too far away, or enjoy traveling long distances for unfamiliar and untested beer: let's party.

On Friday, July 11th, Bacchus Restaurant in New Paltz, NY, will be tapping the first keg of a batch of Bear Flavored Brett IPA, based on my recipe in the May / June issue of BYO Magazine (the full article hasn't been posted online yet.) I brewed this beer with Mike and Jason back in May on their 3 bbl system, so there'll be a few kegs of it that will pop up probably in the following week or so, if you miss the initial release. But on the 11th, we will be tapping at least one 15 gallon keg, so I figured, why not invite everyone to join in? I'll probably bring a few other assorted Bear Flavored beers from my archives to share as well.

Stop by, say hello, call me a pretentious beer snob, ask about the brewing process, whatever. Spoiler alert, though: commercial brewing ain't nothing but hoses and tri-clamps. Brewing 22x the volume that I normally brew at home doesn't actually feel all that different for the most part, in that you're basically standing around in a humid room, adding ingredients at a few key points, and then cleaning a whole bunch of stuff up. Manually dumping in multiple sacks of grain, and then hauling the wet spent stuff out of the mash tun afterwards, certainly requires a bit more endurance than at home. And like switching to any new system, it's a bit daunting to navigate the unfamiliar maze of pumps and hoses and valves. Still, I maintain that the most important elements of brewing a great beer come before and after brew-day, so we'll see how well we managed to scale up this recipe, and transition the techniques I use at home for 100% Brett IPA into the larger (relatively-speaking) commercial setting.

The main difference I've noticed so far: we used a pitch of Brett Drei from East Coast Yeast for this batch, rather than White Labs Brett Trois, because all sources (that I've seen) claim the two are identical, and ECY happened to be easier to obtain at the time, for us. But I have my doubts: the early tastes of the beer in primary haven't had the same character as any of the 100% Brett Trois IPAs I've made previously. Not a bad thing; simply different from my memories of that particularly notable yeast flavor. We'll see how it tastes once it's all carbed up, though; often, that final stage of conditioning changes everything. The beer dropped down to 1.006, and with lots of juicy Brettyness and dank dry hop, this should be a great summer drinker for a Friday night.

Remember, if you haven't ever tasted any before: 100% Brett beers really aren't sour, and not even all that funky. And if you show up wearing one of my rad t-shirts, I'll give you a high five and a pour you one from my secret stash.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Azacca Single Hop IPA - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Azacca Single Hop IPA

Beer: Killshot IPA - Azacca
Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: IPA
Brewed: 5.10.14
Kegged On: 5.26.14
ABV: 6.8%

Appearance: pale golden yellow, hazy, ample head, good retention
Smell: melon, grapefruit, peach, bubblegum, fruit candy, tart apricot
Taste: orange rind, grapefruit, apricot, tangy / tart fruit, slightly grassy / earthiness
Mouthfeel: light body, medium carbonation, crisp finish, soft bitterness

Each year around the summer, I find myself knocking out a couple of single-hop IPAs and pale ales to test out the various hop varieties that have caught my attention. They're not necessarily as exciting as a multi-hop IPA with a carefully engineered recipe, but they're still valuable in tweaking the base recipe below the hops, and of course, for finding out how to use these hops in the future. While I don't often re-brew exact recipes, I have been aiming for a target and inching closer with every variation. The hops may change, but I must find the perfect vehicle with which to deliver them

Having said that, the more I brew, the more I feel like recipes are nothing more than a framework; ultimately fairly arbitrary when it comes to most styles. There are many paths to reach a similar end, and many other things that affect the resulting beer. Beyond your handling of water and yeast, there are still other factors that come into play for a homebrewer: a chaotic or interrupted brew-day, an oversight of some important addition down the road, and the packaging method you employ. I'm happy to say that my Keg Brite Tank ----> Serving Keg methodology is now working just about flawlessly. And this brew-day went very smoothly, despite it being a totally out-of-my-element demonstration at a local hop farm, Dutchess Hops. Brewing beyond the comfort of your own kitchen (or driveway), it's very easy to realize you forgot something crucial: a thermometer, oven mitts, maybe even all your hops. Leading a demonstration requires focus and organization, and it's probably inevitable that you'll miss something or other and have to improvise. Given that, this one... actually went really well. The hop farm was a beautiful venue for a brew-day, and we had a gorgeous day and a nice crowd. Other than the stress of loading my entire laboratory into my tiny car, I could get used to brewing like that all the time.

In fact, every part of this brew came together pretty perfectly. Of the other variables, with this batch I tried out a new yeast strain I'd been curious about: Wyeast's new West Coast IPA strain, which I've heard said is the Stone strain (given the name, that would make sense.) I don't have too many thoughts on it; it fermented out fine, it's nice and clean, hit the expected attenuation, and would probably make a fine substitute for 1056, though I doubt you'd be able to pick out any major differences between them. Unlike my IPAs fermented with Conan, this one is finally starting to clear after two and a half weeks in the keg. Not that I mind the haze.

That said, this is a [mostly] single hop IPA, and those will rise and fall based on the hop they showcase, of course. (My single-hop IPAs are rarely true single hops, because I strongly feel that these elusive, expensive, highly popular flavor hops are completely wasted as a bittering addition.) Given the chance to shine in one of my most-solidly-brewed IPAs to date, Azacca is really impressing me. It's not quite another Citra or Simcoe, but it's lovely and unique and crazy aromatic, and right now, that's what I'm looking for. In fact, it's one of the rare IPAs I've brewed where the nose is maybe better than the flavor — it's explosively juicy, full of sweet fruit notes, almost candy-like, as described above. Unlike some comparable varieties, Azacca isn't so much tropical as just ripe and tangy. One friend described it as "tart apricot," and went on to suggest that such a profile is a running theme in my beers, which is probably true. But he wasn't the only one to get apricot character out of this. So let's go with apricot as the main theme. There's a bit of grassy and earthy character towards the back, and I think how you structure your beers will affect how high the different volume knobs were set. I'm favoring the fruity character here, with a very clean malt base, low bitterness, and a touch of sweetness to accentuate it, but Azacca has more depth than just that.

Most importantly, I think Azacca will pair well with a number of hops. Citra immediately springs to mind, Apollo, Centennial, just about any C-hop, probably Simcoe, though Amarillo sounds a bit redundant to me. Time to order another pound.

5.25 Gal., All Grain
Brewed 5.10.2014
Mashed at 148 degrees for 60 minutes
Fermented at 68 F
OG: 1.061
FG: 1.009
ABV: 6.8%

84.4% [9.5#] 2-row malt
6.7% [12 oz] white wheat malt
4.4% [8 oz] Golden Naked Oats
4.4% [8 oz] corn sugar

Hop Schedule-
0.5 oz Warrior @FWH
4 oz Azacca hop stand for 45 minutes
1.5 oz Azacca dry hop for 5 days [primary]
2.5 oz Azacca dry hop for 5 days [brite tank]

Wyeast West Coast IPA

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Dry-Hopped Sour Farmhouse Ale - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Beer: Goatpants
Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Farmhouse Ale
Brewed: 1.06.14
Bottled On: 3.30.14
ABV: 4.4%

Appearance: pale straw yellow, ample head, lingering foam, good retention
Smell: apricot, unripe peach, lemon, lime, grapefruit, funk, dew, tart raspberry
Taste: tart apricot, sour peach, lemon, grapefruit, clean lactic sourness, succulent fruit finish
Mouthfeel: high carb, medium body, slight bite, clean puckering finish

I sometimes wonder how I manage to write a thousand words or so on every freaking beer I brew. Unless there was some kind of jarring mishap along the way, or I'm trying out a new technique, or testing out some totally novel series of ingredients, does every beer need (or deserve?) such elaboration?

No. I'm just really bad at keeping my shit succinct. I have a whole book to write in the next seven - eight months, and I'm not so much worried about cramming all that writing time into my chaotic schedule as keeping it short enough that my editor doesn't murder me.

When drinking Goatpants, a sour farmhouse ale / saison (where I took the rare path of flippancy with my naming schemes), I really don't feel like writing... anything. Maybe in part because I wonder if I should be keeping at least some tricks of my sleeve (nah?), but mostly because I wish I had infinity bottles of this beer (or preferably, cans of this beer), and the fact that I don't causes me to focus on how much I'm enjoying it while I'm drinking it. Maybe it's just that I really love sour farmhouse ales, but this and White Mana are in strong competition for my favorite batches so far. Some of my IPAs are making a strong push too, but I think the batches that I tend to age, savor, and share with as many people as possible, unsurprisingly make a more lasting impression in my memory. And it's no coincidence that my two favorite batches so far were basically shooting for the same target — Goatpants is my attempt to reverse engineer the microbial makeup of White Mana, which used Hill Farmstead saison dregs to achieve its pleasant lactic tartness. I wanted to see if I could build up a house culture to reach the same end.

Complex, long-aged sours are a wonderful thing — there's no beating the complexity of a lambic — but there's something to be said for the paired-down, refreshing pucker of a tart, lively simple sour. When any kind of sour is done right, the succulence triggers that salivation reflex in your mouth that inspires you to keep drinking, like you have to wash down the beer with more of itself. When the beer is light and juicy enough, this refreshing combination is hard to beat.

Essentially, that's what I'm aiming for here. The sourness is on par with a particularly tart Berliner Weisse, but drinks juicier and richer — which is probably a result of the large Citra dry-hop addition this sat on previous to packaging. The saison base gives it a very nice boost in complexity, too, especially for a sour that only aged for a couple months. Another reason I love this style — it doesn't have to have lambic-level complexity, just a distinct farmhouse quality and a pleasant backbone of acidity. Not necessarily easy to achieve, but easier, or at least much faster if you're working with the right microbes.

The right yeast and the right bugs are going to make an excellent beer, but modern brewers, for all their fascination with IPAs, don't yet seem to fully appreciate the relationship between hops and funk. And why do saisons have to be limited to Noble hops? Nothing wrong with those, and they can't be beat for a certain type of saison, but if a vibrant, alive, succulent sourness is your goal, fruity hops work even better than spicy herbal ones, in my humble opinion. I'm far from an expert, and I'm definitely not claiming to have discovered any part of this correlation myself, but seriously: the magical pairing of juicy dry-hops and succulent sourness is simply not exploited often enough. The result is just, like, so much more juice.

But like I said at the beginning, is there much point to me rambling on about my silly personal preferences and the flavor profiles of the beers I make, at length? The most important thing would be any tips I happen to discover along the way. So I was telling you all about how I think the dry-hops helped enhance the juicy vibrant character of this (at least while it's fresh), but probably more important than that subjective observation is the fact that I did not add any hops to the beer at all prior to that point. So yes, the entire boil and fermentation of this beer was strictly 0 IBU, no bitterness or alpha acids or vegetable matter to get in the way of the bacteria. Why? Because I wasn't really looking for bitterness here, so I figured — why not give it a try? I didn't need the boil hops for flavor, and theoretically, at least, they'd only get in the way of the lactobacillus' acidity development.

Was that truly the case, or did I just happen upon a few particularly awesome bacteria strains (and complimentary Brett strains)? We'll see. I saved the dregs, and hopefully those dregs perform as they did the first time. I liked this batch enough that, in fact, I just brewed it again twice this week, but this time I threw some old Citra leaf hops in the whirlpool. After sitting in my freezer for two years, poorly sealed, I don't think they'll contribute enough IBUs to really inhibit the bacteria, but... we'll see. Depending how they pan out, one of the re-brews will definitely be getting some fruit. As my friend pointed out, this beer is absolutely screaming for apricots.

5.25 Gal., All Grain
Brewed 1.06.2014
Mashed at 150 degrees for 60 minutes
Fermented at room temp, 72 F
OG: 1.038
FG: 1.004
ABV: 4.4%

78% 2-row malt
11% white wheat malt
11% rye malt

Hop Schedule-
4 oz Citra dry hop for 8 days

White Labs Saison II
Mangrove Jack Belgian Saison
Brett L
Brett Custersianus
Brett Trois
4 Lactobacillus strains*

*Only 2 of the lactobacillus strains I used are commercially available from White Labs and Wyeast. Culture or select strains that will create a nice strong blanket of lactic acid. A blend of strains seems to work much better than a few isolated strains.

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