Wednesday, October 1, 2014

No-Hop, No-Boil, Lime-Zest & Kiwi Gose - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Beer: Alagoas
Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Gose
Brewed: 8.05.14
Kegged On: 9.06.14
ABV: 4.2%

Appearance: golden yellow, slight haze, ample head, good retention
Smell: lime, citrus, lemon, lactic sour, mild funk
Taste: lime, lemon, upfront lactic sour, rounder soft fruits, tangy acidity, slight salty finish
Mouthfeel: high carb, light body, crisp, puckering lingering sour in finish

Perhaps being the Fermented Man has its advantages as far as my control of bacteria, or perhaps the lactobacillus strains I welcomed into my house last year have gotten a whole lot more comfortable since I began inviting so many of their peers to party. Whatever the reason, I took an even bigger gamble with this summer's "quick sour" beer, but in spite of the added difficulty, the result is far more delicious than any of last year's attempts. If I'm feeling really generous, I might even go ahead and call this one of my favorite batches of sour beer that I've made.

Why did I decide to do a sour, salty gose with kiwis and lime zest to be ready just in time for late September? Let's pretend it's not just because I don't have very good organizational skills to keep my brewing schedule on track and say it's a f*** you to July-released pumpkin beers via reverse seasonal creep. Sure.

There was actually a brief window in which I considered dumping this batch, funnily enough. Not because it tasted bad or anything, but because I thought my sheer, glaring negligence must have ruined it in some way. I had always wanted to do this as a gose with no hops added and no boil — just run straight off the sparge into a keg. I would then purge the keg of oxygen because kegs are really great for that kind of thing, and oxygen is bad for sour mashes and can lead to domination by bacteria that make your beer smell like puke. I've tested out various methods to avoid this with last year's Bearliner Weisse and a few other previous brews, but the basic strategy is pretty straightforward: avoid oxygen when doing something like a sour mash and using bacteria from raw grain. 

A keg is the perfect way to purge oxygen from headspace and keep it out. But you'll have to excuse my short-sightedness here: this summer was, quite frankly, a bit rough. I was a little fried, a lot stressed, distracted, and disoriented. And it didn't occur to me until I already had the not-boiled wort in the keg: what would happen if the bacteria started kicking off a lot of CO2?

My original plan beyond this point was not to rely on just the lactobacillus from the grains (whatever survived the mash, since I wasn't boiling anything at any point), but to pitch some of my house culture to ensure ample souring. As this was all happening in early August, I even thought about putting the keg of souring wort in my car for a day, which was the hottest location I could think of at the time. But okay: what if I put the keg in my car and it started fermenting furiously? Not all strains of lactobacillus produce much CO2 — there are homofermentative strains and heterofermentative strains, but it's hard to know which you have, especially when, like me, you planned to pitch a blend of house cultures. And while I could check on the keg fairly frequently to pull the pressure relief valve, I suddenly didn't feel very comfortable about those sporadic purgings of CO2 build-up being the only thing between me and a car bomb.

So I stalled, kind of got busy and distracted and unfocused, and the wort / beer sat in the keg in my apartment for a few days without any additional microbes pitched. Once or twice a day I would pull the pressure relief valve to vent any built-up gas that might be accumulating, should some spontaneous fermentation be occurring. After a day or two it was clear that there was no gas building up, and therefore likely not much fermentation happening. Should I pitch bacteria into the keg anyway and just keep on pulling the pin, hoping that would be enough? Or should I just transfer the whole thing into a bucket, even though that maybe defeats the point of my oxygen-avoidance plan in the first place? And should I be worried about some sort of unfriendly microbe taking up residence in the wort due to the multiple days it sat without fermentation to ward off hostiles? Cthulhu knows I've read plenty about botulism this year, and still haven't been able to determine exactly why it never seems to be a concern in unfermented wort. While debating the safety of this batch — and yes, even briefly considering dumping it — I reminded myself that many breweries buy wort and ship it in sealed containers. In Europe especially, a lot of this packaged wort is destined for lambic production, where the full onset of fermentation may not occur for a few days. There are definitely situations out there where it sounds like botulism should be a concern, and yet I've never heard of anyone dying of botulism from beer (have you?). My guess is that the pH of wort even before fermentation may already be too low or something. In either case, I had also added 14.5 grams of sea salt to this batch, it being a gose, and with that added buffer, I decided I'd once again embrace my destiny as a death-defying, botulism-dodging crazy-person badass and go for it.

[Editor's note: Speaking of which, while I have your attention — please consider pre-ordering my book, which will allow me to tackle even more crazy experiments, and allow you to read about them. In addition, if you'd like to drink some of my crazy experiments, such as this gose and many other sours, I'll be hosting a book reading preview party / fermentation sampling event next May. I will go out of my way to ensure epicness. Sign up for it now via my IndieGogo dealy. Okay, thanks, cheers, back to the brewing!]

The exact fermentation of this gose would be hard to replicate for anyone lacking the means to break into my apartment and steal some of the jars I keep sitting around, as much of my souring cultures are not available commercially, and, I'm guessing, have mutated quite a bit as I've maintained them and let them adapt to their new bear-focused environment. However, with this batch, I did introduce Lactobacillus brevis, newly available from Wyeast, to the cocktail. But in general, I've found that I'm getting a much cleaner, rounder, fuller lactic sourness from letting the lacto do its thing over time, rather than trying to pump it up for a frenzied, brief sour mash period.

As this entry is already getting long, I won't get into how brewers have this weirdly intense fear of letting lactobacillus survive in their beers... even brewers who are otherwise happy to embrace Brettanomyces. We'll save that one for another day. But as you may have noticed, this beer was never boiled or in any way pasteurized (other than from the temperature of the mash itself), and so the bacteria remained very much alive throughout and to the present. I don't find any danger of lactobacillus making the beer "too sour" or something; but then again, I like my Berliners and gose to have a very full tangy sourness. (For comparison, if you've had Westbrook Gose, I would say the sour character in this batch of Alagoas is very comparable). Nor does letting lactobacillus live require extended aging periods, in my experience. I always add Brettanomyces to my quick sours, and even so, they're done after about a month. Speaking of which: why add Brett when there's already so much going on here? The main danger of having an aggressive sourness in a beer like this is that Saccharomyces could stall out due to the pH level falling too low before it can fully attenuate. Brett is much more pH tolerant, and will help the beer finish out dry; at least, that's the idea. This finished out at 1.008, which might be on the high side for the style, but has the benefit of providing some body and balance that a drier version might otherwise lack.

Finally, what says "October" better than kiwis and lime zest? I had 2 lbs of kiwis sitting in my freezer for months that I was just waiting to use for something, and while I knew they wouldn't add much character (especially at that very low ratio — typically I'd add fruit at 1 lb per gal. or more) I figured I'd toss them in anyway. I added 2.8 grams of lime zest (and also squeezed out the juice from the limes into the beer as well), targeting about 200 ICUs based on Shaun Hill's scale. The plan was to add more, almost double that, but when I tried the beer a few days after that first addition of zest, the lime aroma was beautiful and the flavor perfectly subtle, supporting of the sourness, it was already exactly what I was looking for. Not wanting this to be an aggressively lime-forward beer, I decided to keep it at that lower dosage and went ahead and kegged the beer.

The result is the most crushable beer I have ever made, and a base I'm looking forward to trying with many other variations of fruit and zest.

BRB time for a keg-stand.

5.0 Gal., All Grain
Double infusion mash at 122 F / 148 degrees F
Fermented at room temp, 72 F
OG: 1.040
FG: 1.008
ABV: 4.2%

43% [#3] Pilsner malt
43% [#3] white wheat malt
14% [#1] special roast

Hop Schedule-

House Lactobacillus cultures
House Brettanomyces cultures
London Ale III

14.5 g sea salt
2 lbs. kiwi fruit
2.8 g lime zest
juice from 3 limes

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book Pre-Sale and Private Reading / Rare Beer Night Invitation

Here is a link for you to click.

A few weeks ago I had a realization: I really needed to eat rotten shark meat before the end of the year.

A month or so previous I had eaten some Century Eggs that I'd acquired in Chinatown. These mucus-green, gelatin-like fermented eggs were  while surprisingly innocent in taste  almost certainly one of the most horrifying-looking foods I'd ever consumed. But they were fairly easy to acquire, and they definitely didn't smell like death incarnate. As far as bizarre and unusual fermented food traditions, they were fitting as a marker of the halfway point of my year. But I'd need something even more bizarre and challenging to end on. After all, while much of the mission of the book is to educate people on the ways microbes impact us and our food on an every-day basis — far more than most of us realize — part of the goal also is to illustrate what fermentation is. And what better way to illustrate how deep the magic of fermentation goes than to personally gag my way through one of the most pungent, unique, and intimidating foods in the world? Rotten shark meat from Iceland, for example. Truly, I understand the fundamentals of education.

Hákarl is made by burying the poisonous flesh of a Greenland shark in the ground for months. After fermentation, it is theoretically fit for human consumption, but retains some delightful properties: the high content of urea is gone, but an overwhelming odor of ammonia remains. For unfathomable reasons that I hope to get to the bottom of, this food has become a cherished delicacy in Iceland.

Various notable eaters-of-things have described hákarl as one of the most horrifying foods on earth. It's reputation for smelling like something that should kill you while not actually killing you is fairly impressive. One of my favorite descriptions from a hákarl-tryer will have to be paraphrased: like encountering a Dementor in the Harry Potter series, the experience is not only a terrifying experience in the present, but from that moment onward robs you of the ability to ever feel joy again.

Sadly, in spite of its popularity, hákarl is unavailable outside of Iceland. But we can all agree, I clearly must try this stuff for the book, which means I must go to Iceland for a few days at the end of the year, which means I am doing a pre-sale of my book to raise the money necessary to go to Iceland (because I am a writer, and therefore cannot afford trips to Iceland). I am happy to try hákarl so you don't have to, but it's going to take some planning and effort.

Another thing we can all agree on: crowd-funding is pretty silly, so I want to keep this as straight-forward as possible. Consider this no more than a pre-sale, if you want — a pre-sale which happens to ensure that a very fun chapter of the book can be written.

You can, right now, pre-order a copy of The Fermented Man, right here. So go ahead and ease your future self's purchasing obligations and avoid the tedious, dangerous experience of shopping online for books at Amazon. Instead, I will sign a copy of the book just for you, maybe even doodle a picture of a bear or a little anthropomorphic lactobacillus or something, and mail the book right to your address of choice (when it's released, of course).

Or, if you wish, consider it an invitation to a very fun book preview event I'll be holding next year (most likely in May, but exact date and location TBA), during which we will all enjoy a lovely sampling of various fermented foods and destroy my extensive collection of vintage Bear Flavored beverages, as well as several Very Special Kegs containing even more delicious beverages. I will regale those select few in attendance with tales of fermented shark meat, and great times will be had by all. (You will also get a signed copy of the book once it's out, of course). I'm going to pull a lot of strings for this event to make sure it's something special.

More details, of course, over on my IndieGoGo page.

So, lock down your signed copy of The Fermented Man now (it's going to be awesome), consider joining me for an Evening of Good Times (also awesome), and sleep better at night knowing that I'm going to try to put one of the most foul-smelling foods on earth down my mouth at the end of December.

I'm getting closer and closer to the end of the year, and the next few months will certainly be interesting. Thanks to everyone for your support and interest in the book, I can't wait to share it with all of you!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How I Dry-Hop My IPAs with No Oxygen Pickup and No Clogged Kegs

It's a metaphor for society.

Since the beginning of the year, I've been alluding to a new dry-hopping procedure I devised. I've probably explained it in parts here and there, but never in great detail. Since I've gotten a number of emails about exactly what I use and how I go about it, I figured I'd do a short (editor's note: not really that short, as usual) post on the process. I've been very, very happy with the results, and it doesn't really require much extra effort, just a few more pieces of equipment to (easily) be cleaned. The only downside, potentially, is the cost, and dedicating a keg just to dry-hopping.

Here's the basic theory behind this: oxygen is very bad for hops. When I was bottling my IPAs, no matter how good the recipe or how well-managed the fermentation, they would always drop off very, very quickly. The better you can prevent O2 from infiltrating your beer, the better chance the hop character has to preserve its awesomeness. 

During fermentation and for maybe a week or so after, enough CO2 is generated that there's a protective blanket over the beer. Yeast are still cleaning up and doing their thing. Oxygen has been purged from the fermentor during what was hopefully a nice healthy fermentation. After this is when we most want to prevent oxygen pickup in our beers. A brewery can simply do a conical dump to remove trub (rather than transferring to a secondary) and can purge headspace with additional CO2 in the fermentation vessel, then transfer to whatever serving vessel they utilize, which will also have been purged of oxygen. Keeping O2 out is fairly easy with a standard brewery setup, and I wanted to emulate this process. 

1st Step - Initial Dry Hop in Primary
I add the first round of dry-hops after the end of primary fermentation, which is usually about 5 - 7 days after brewday. Enough of a CO2 blanket should be hanging around at this point that I'm not too concerned about oxygen getting in. This first stage dry-hopping is pretty standard. I let it go for about 5 days.

2nd Step - Second-Addition Dry Hop / Secondary Keg
I generally ferment my IPAs in a bucket with a spigot, because buckets fit in my fermentation fridge and carboys do not. However, this step is the one place where some oxygen could still be getting into my beers, as I'm not transferring under CO2 pressure at this stage, and the CO2 blanket over the beer in the primary vessel may be diminished by now (~12 days out from brew-day). Recently, Luke at MetaBrewing made a similar post about kegging beers without oxygen pickup — in fact, I almost scrapped this post when I saw his pop up, but upon reading, we actually have a fairly different approach which could, in fact, easily be combined. Luke's system is designed to get the beer out of the primary and into a keg under CO2 pressure, and the keg could just as well be my "dry-hopping in keg" method, carrying on with my procedure from this point. Check out Luke's post if you want to go all the way with this concept.

The end goal of this second stage is to dry-hop in a fully-sealed, CO2-purged vessel where oxygen can be banished with assurance. In other words, dry-hopping in a keg*, while still limiting the amount of time the beer is on the dry-hops. The main problem with dry-hopping in a keg is that hops tend to clog dip-tubes very, very easily. I personally find nothing in the entire homebrewing hobby more irritating than repeatedly clearing a diptube until it finally starts dispensing beer.

Here's my system.

1). Trim end of diptube (I used a dremel) about an inch to an inch and a half.

2). Slide a Corny Keg Dip-Tube Screen over the trimmed end of the dip-tube. This is short, coarser screen that fits snugly over the dip-tube. If you're using leaf hops, it may be enough on its own, but will likely clog if you throw too much mass up against it. It is probably not enough to filter out many smaller particles on its own either.

This filter can be purchased here.

3). For this reason, I use a larger, secondary filter that is open at the top but is such a fine grade (300 micron) that it will keep out all hop mass from the bottom and sides. Here's a link. I've seen this filter available from a few sources, some of them cheaper, but it can be hard to search for. I recommend digging around.

Here's the quirk behind why I went with this particular filter, though: it's actually designed to put the hops inside of it and contain them, like an expensive, durable hop bag. It's not meant to filter them out, but to act as a hop sleeve. I tried this. I did not like it for this function at all  as large as the tube is (it's almost the length of a keg, as you can see next to the dip-tube above), the hops swell and get compacted, there's not enough surface area exposure, and the extraction I got was disappointing.

However, I found that the two screens in combination, acting as a filter to keep the dip-tube clear, work brilliantly. I'm sure there are other screens (or other combinations of screens) that would also be effective — whatever is the cheapest way you can pull this off, go for it. The goal is simply to keep the dip-tube clear while at the same time giving the hops the chance to float around freely in all that beer, extracting their precious deliciousness.

3rd Step - Transfer Off Dry-Hops Into Serving Keg
After you've done the last stage of dry-hopping in your perfect O2-free keg vessel? Connect the dry-hop keg to your sanitized, CO2-flushed serving keg through the beer-out connects. Attach the CO2-connect to the gas-side of the dry-hop keg. (There will be nothing on the gas-side serving keg connect, the only connect which will be free) Crank the pressure, then open the relief valve on the serving keg until gas has pushed all the beer from the dry-hop keg into the serving keg.

You now have a lovely, aromatic IPA free from the scourge of oxygen. Hooray!

Once the beer is in the serving keg, I just keep it in the keezer and charge it normally under CO2 pressure. This is another point at which there is more room for experimentation. What about carbing, at least partially, while the beer is crash cooling before transfer out of the dry-hop keg? Or why not even rig up the gas to push in through the dip-tube of the dry-hop keg, thus both rousing the hops and carbing at the same time? This is something (the effect of CO2 on dry-hop character) that I haven't seen much information or research on, and will certainly play around with more in the future.

*Yes, you could also use this same setup to simply dry-hop in the keg you're drinking out of. I chose not to do this for two (somewhat) arbitrary reasons. One, as I mentioned, I wanted to emulate the setup and process a brewery would use. Dry-hopping in a keg sort of feels like cheating; my favorite IPA makers obviously manage to achieve their aroma and everything without taking this added measure. I wanted to know that I could, too. More practically, some brewers feel that letting a beer sit on dry-hops too long begins to extract vegetative flavors eventually. While this probably wouldn't be a big concern at fridge temps, especially considering how quickly I drink my IPAs, I decided to hold off on dry-hopping in the keg as a bonus future step rather than my default approach.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Chickens and Funk: Plan Bee Farm Brewery is Growing (Slightly Bigger) and Growing (Everything)

Plan Bee Farm Brewery
When, like most extremely normal people, I'm dwelling on stories I haven't written yet weeks or months before I actually sit down and type anything out, I often latch onto some kind of 'hook' that seems like a good encapsulation of the story I want to tell. And so, for some time now, I figured I would open this feature by writing about how Evan Watson, brewmaster of Fishkill, NY's Plan Bee Farm Brewery, appears to be one of the nicest human beings you'll ever meet. I promise this isn't me showing my bias, because truthfully, I don't really know Evan all that well. No, it's just the take-away you'll have after chatting with him at a market on occasional weekends, and seeing him explain his beer and his brewery's mission to other curious shoppers, most of whom haven't the slightest idea what a beer produced by a tiny farm brewery with a local wild house yeast strain might be like. ("Is it a light beer?") Evan may be a bearded giant, but from making his acquaintance in the year-and-change since Plan Bee opened, I had decided that this incredibly humble, soft-spoken man is just a big old sweetie.

Evan is full of surprises, though. And given his quiet, down-playing nature, you won't learn these things easily, without some prying. That he was some kind of All-American football star way back in the day isn't that shocking. But try Googling his name and uncover his music career, which he will allude to only offhandedly, in the vaguest, most demure of terms. You will discover that he's incredibly talented in this realm as well — has, in fact, toured with some very big acts that I promise you've heard of — and you wonder: when in the world did he have time to start brewing? And at Captain Lawrence, no less, one of the Hudson Valley's greatest success stories, and undeniably the brewery with its best sour and barrel-aging program. Evan Watson has some impressive credentials.

And yet, right now, Plan Bee Farm Brewery consists of little more than a small shed behind the home of Evan and his wife Emily. (At least, that's how it would seem if you're thinking of a brewery in the traditional sense). Inside the shed are a couple micro barrels, one normal-size barrel of solera lambic, four Speidel fermentors, and one of the simplest brew-houses that I've ever seen. True, Plan Bee is only running a one barrel (32 gallon) system currently, leading to the rare situation where a professional brewer can drag his equipment out into the yard and clean it with a garden hose. Even for its size, Plan Bee keeps things basic: I've seen any number of homebrew set-ups more elaborate than this.

Plan Bee Farm Brewery

As anyone in the industry knows, 1 bbl per batch is not a lot of beer. Almost anyone, including those with a 1 bbl system themselves, will tell you that it's a wildly uneconomical business model in the long term. But Evan's ambitions are a bit outside the norm of most volume-oriented brewers. He describes the current brewery as a Petri dish. Plan Bee will grow, and likely soon, but volume will never be the focus. Evan told me he doesn't think he'll need anything larger than a 5 bbl brewhouse for the next phase. Not because Evan doesn't think he could sell more beer, but because he doesn't think he could produce more beer. The operation is unprecedented in the state of New York, as the only brewery to currently make every one of its beers with all-NY ingredients. Not only are the hops and barley grown in the Empire State — many of the hops, in fact, are grown right in Evan's yard — but his current house yeast strain was originally plucked from Muscadine grapes growing in his backyard as well, and developed through repeated brewing sessions. Plan Bee epitomizes the farm brewery model that this state, and many others, are now pushing so hard. And, in a curious way, Plan Bee demonstrates why the farm brewery license, as it stands, may pose harsh challenges for just about any other brewery.

Evan's plans to grow Plan Bee don't follow the usual growth pattern of a nano-brewery. He told me he's currently looking for a new property: "Ideally, 15-30 acres, dedicating most of it to grain growing, and probably just an acre of hops." Curiously, rather than growing significantly larger in volume, Evan plans to grow more... local. With a new location, and expanded farmland, he hopes that Plan Bee will source every ingredient, and every step of the process, from its own property. The new Plan Bee Farm Brewery, whenever it arrives, will be much more than a tasting room next to some tanks: there will be a larger apiary, a malthouse, hop-oast, small orchard, large garden, and more.

I have often wondered if the Farm Brewery Bill in New York is overly-ambitious. It seems pretty clear at this point that it is going to be a huge challenge to make it work as written, however wonderful of an effort in concept. I have debated with many people in the industry if, given the current capacity for growing malt and hops in the state, it's possible for the intended regulations to be sustainable in the timeframe allotted (60% NY-state ingredients by 2018). Just a couple small-to-medium size farm breweries would quickly eat up the entire state's projected resources, to say nothing of its existing resources. Brewers are all very much counting on this licensing intervention to inspire supply for the undeniable cliff of demand, which looms... close. We're counting on a mad rush of producers to fill what has been highlighted as a glaring void.

Way ahead of everyone else, though, Evan's sort of ambition is personal. I didn't get the sense that his plans have much to do with business or licensing or market differentiation at all. It's simply his vision for the brewery — and farm — he'd like to run. He's passionate about developing the terroir of beer in this way. I don't think Evan wants to brew "local" beer so that he can slap that word on the label. I think Evan simply wants to brew beer with things that he grew, that he knows, that he tended to at every step of the way. Because to him, that is the beer. Not the recipe. Not the equipment. Not whatever it is a janitor brewmaster does.

"Growing, developing, and processing your own ingredients allows for a nearly infinite possibilities," Evan tells me later. "Brewing is even more agriculturally based than wine-making, yet we've lost that connection in this country. If you went to a vineyard in Napa or Sonoma and they said they source their ingredients exclusively from other countries, you would laugh in their face. Almost every other brewery in this country is essentially ordering from the same catalog. I feel the ingredients I source myself can be fresher, less-handled, more distinct, and entirely proprietary."

This also sounds like a ludicrous amount of work.

Two buckets of fresh hops go into the kettle for "Hop Wild."

Evan tells me he has a habit of acquiring hobbies. He says he likes distilling things down to their essence, understanding what makes them tick. Just for the sake of knowing how things work, from what I can gather of his quiet musings as we add wet hops to the boil. So when he makes a beer, he wants to craft it through every step of the process. He's brewing a weird hybrid of a beer the day we chat, with two large buckets of wet Cascades from a local farmer, but rather than a standard IPA, he intends to pitch a "weird cocktail of every yeast and blend I had floating around." I have no idea what the result will be, but it sounds guaranteed to be fascinating. The hop cones are so large we spend a good half an hour breaking them into chunks to toss into the kettle. He tells me he "has a million ideas." He wants to make this new, future farm brewery wrapped around growth, around beer, and also music. A place people can go to absorb all these things. It's sounding like a pretty chill place.

Which, I would say, is a good idea considering his current situation: a brewery in his backyard, and a retail 'farmstand' in his front yard, open Saturday afternoons only. The only other place to find the beer? The local farmer's market, on Sundays. Bottles only, in each case. It's not like there's a whole lot to go around. If you're going to find Evan's beer, those are the options.

Plan Bee has released a number of well-received sour beers in recent weeks: Brass Tacks, a barrel-aged golden sour, and two fruit variations of that base beer: Amour, on strawberries, and Precious, on apricots. The Watsons are used to beer collectors and drinkers of all types hanging out around his property, but the line of cars out of his driveway at 9 o'clock in the morning for that recent release of Precious was a first. When Evan and Emily opened the farmstand to customers at noon, the beer sold out in under an hour. A few weeks later, Plan Bee released Comb, a blended sour. The line started before 8 am this time. Though twice as much beer was available for this batch, the Watsons lowered the bottle limited significantly from the previous release. The whole batch still sold out in the same amount of time.

Plan Bee Farm Brewery Mattrazzo

The small scale helps, and certainly, selling out a batch in 15 minutes isn't totally inconceivable when you're making such a small volume in the first place. But the beer is getting out there, popping up in states far away from Evan's little farmstand. A new location will have to cement Plan Bee's accessibility and aesthetic. His roots to the farmland, the wild yeast he favors, spices fresh from the garden. It'll have to be comfortable, as one would imagine such a place, I figure. It's a good problem to have, shared by many of today's best brewers, even if they started, at their smallest, still many times larger than Plan Bee. I'm quite excited by the prospects of this operation, especially given this feeling I get that Evan won't fail to deliver on his ambitions.

I ask him to describe what his ideal brewery would be, beyond just all the farming and creeping bines. There hangs a solitary acoustic guitar on the wall of the brew-shed, for when friends visit during a brew session. Out front, by the driveway, a hammock stretches between trees, bushes arched over the path that leads to the house, chickens racing across the yard. It is the kind of place that is, from the very first impression, extremely charming.

Evan starts telling me a bit about his former football career, of all things — and, not being much of a football person myself, I have no idea where this is going, or if I will understand whatever metaphor he's working at.

After games, he says, he would sit with his father at a pub in Ohio, and have dinner with big imperial pints from Great Lakes Brewing Co. He says he could recall nothing more satisfying after a game. It just felt right, after all that harsh physical exertion. I can relate to that.

Jumping back to the present, he says maybe he wants to learn how to paint. He has this vision for this massive, intricate piece of artwork that will be the focus of the new brewery space, the only piece of artwork in the taproom / hangout area.

"I want to learn how to paint in that old style of dark, romantic, classical oil paintings. And I want to have it be this big intricate mural painting of Vikings."


"Yeah. A Viking ship crashing ashore, spilling over with nude Nordic warriors. Pillaging a village. Decimating and decapitating their beach-bound opposition with giant broadswords. "

I'm laughing pretty hard at this point, not entirely sure if he's serious.

"And really vibrantly hued blood, just spraying everywhere. Blood-red paint is splattered all over the canvas... even on the gold frame itself. Some on the wall next to where it’s mounted. Really multi-dimensional."

Other ideas for how he can bring community involvement into the open-space, festive nature of the farm, this "cross-section of the Viking’s mythological Valhalla with a Mississipi Delta BBQ," include: "feats of strength" in the yard. In the hall, there will be only one enormous long wooden table, covered in animal skins, where drinkers can sit. Here I was expecting a pastoral utopia, some neo-farmer paradise subtly integrating the finest in New York brewing and environmentalism, and Evan has his mind set on smashing goblets on the ground at the end of a night, and, I don't know, throwing javelins at wild boars, probably. Okay, surprising, maybe, but it sounds pretty damn awesome. It will certainly be unique in the area, whatever ends up happening with Evan's plans.

"My family is from northern Scotland," he says, by way of explanation. His ancestors might quibble with the Viking-specific imagery, but I'm seeing some logic to it all. The beer as a reward after a hard day's labor, and connecting that tactile labor to the product it results in. Beer, as tied to the real and physical. Maybe it's just the misleadingly quirky name of the brewery and its elegant logo that threw me off from the start.

Why shouldn't farm brewing be gritty and blunt, anyway? There is certainly a violence inherent in farming, and maybe in brewing, too. As we clean out the mash tun and brew kettle in the yard with a hose, later, I ask Evan about a dried snakeskin hanging up on the fence at the vegetable garden.

"We've had, like, three different snakes attempt to invade the chicken coop this summer," Evan tells me. "The other week there was a huge snake that kept eating all the eggs before we could get to them. We were getting like six to eight eggs every morning before that."

One morning, he woke to Emily sounding the alarm: the snake was back, and it had, once again, eaten all the eggs. This time, Evan moved fast enough to catch it.

"I grabbed a flathead shovel and smashed the thing in half. There was blood, and yolk, just... spewing out of it."

Plan Bee Farm Brewery Evan Watson
So, to crush an enemy's skull, you would grab it like this...

Unlike most brewers catching wild local yeast strains, Evan never sent his off to a lab, or even tried to isolate one single strain himself. Not that he took this route based on some adherence to lofty principals of naturalism, but because he found there was no reason to.

"Brewers are so afraid of Brettanomyces and talk about it as if it's this unstoppable monster, but really, Saccharomyces is the hungriest, dominating, most competitive of yeasts," he says. "That's why basically all pure-culture brewer's strains ended up being Saccharomyces. It's what wins out in the end."

Evan has used a few commercial cultures in the past, mostly favoring Wyeast's 3711 French Saison, but he'll likely phase out commercial yeast entirely at this point. Four different wild cultures make up the majority of his repertoire now, all isolated from around the farm property: a peach tree yeast strain, strawberry yeast, Muscadine grape yeast, and a new culture of honey yeast that Evan is currently developing.

Wild yeast isn't known for its versatility, so it may seem like a lot of effort to turn these raw, feral critters into something clean and consistent enough to base all the brewery's beers around. It probably is, but Evan isn't averse to hard work, clearly. I remember Tachiniki, one of Evan's earliest beers fermented with a wild fruit culture (peach), from when I was first encountering Plan Bee at the farmer's market, and thought it was an interesting, if very raw experiment. Much like how you might expect a first generation wild yeast culture to taste, without much aging: very yeasty, phenolic, vaguely Belgian with a bit of weird grassy funky. Not knowing much about Evan at the time, other than that he had a background at Captain Lawrence, I wasn't sure how to gauge this quirky direction, but I loved that he was trying it. And as an experimental brewer who rarely releases the same thing twice, even though they are all bottled, I figured it was a fair guess that some very cool experiments would be coming down the line.

"I'm basically recreating history with this brewing process," Evan explains. By which he means, instead of sending it off to a lab, he just kept pitching his favorite Muscadine grape culture over and over, spending far more time and resources steering the yeast than most brewers would be willing to. But as the Saccharomyces in the culture out-competed Brettanomyces, Evan noticed that the pellicles stopped showing up. The hint of lactic tang from lingering stubborn bacteria got less pronounced. Through repeated top-cropping and re-pitching, Evan says the culture has become "incredibly clean." And after trying one of Plan Bee's recent farmhouse brews fermented with the stuff, he's right. It's nothing like the yeasty, phenolic culture that I tasted in Tachiniki a year ago. Sharing a recent batch of Farmstand Ale (#3) with friends, later, we decide this particular yeast tastes like nothing else we've encountered. It truly is unique to Evan's tiny operation — and it's fantastic.

When I talk to a lot of brewers — especially those in this new wave of nanobrewery openings — I can't quite figure out what their motivation is beyond "Making beer for a living sounds sweet"... and the results can be all over the place. Some brewers just want to make beer. Some brewers, perhaps, just want to drink beer. Some want to focus on a certain type of beer. Some want to make the most refined, precisely-calibrated beer. I don't think I've encountered another brewer with Evan's exact goals. Some of his beers may be a bit more raw than others, but that's part of what he's doing, and his small scale means, if you've bought the beer, then you've likely had some small connection to the man who made it. He will tell you whatever you want to know, and he will be frank.

"I've made some exceptional batches of beer, and I've made some mediocre batches of beer," he tells me. He's not being arrogant or self-deprecating, he's just observing.

If his recent releases are any indication, Plan Bee's output is sliding more and more into the 'exceptional' side of the spectrum. Evan clearly understands how to cultivate demand in the world of beer traders and roving bottle-sharers, but still seems a bit shocked, and perpetually flattered, by the sudden intensity of attention.

"When people started to come up to the stand and ask to buy a whole case, I would feel bad," Evan says. Due to the economics of small scale brewing and bottling, Plan Bee beers aren't particularly cheap. "At first I felt weird that people were spending so much on my beer. Each bottle of this one batch I brought to the farmer's market was $20, so for a whole case... you know? This one guy was trying to buy as much as he could, and I was like: 'Are you sure you want to buy all that beer, man? That's a lot of money.'"

You can't help but get the impression that Evan Watson is a really nice guy. Just... don't steal his eggs.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Blended Farmhouse Technique - Fermenting Brett and Saccharomyces Separately Before Blending

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Farmhouse Ale
Brewed: 6.02.14
Bottled On: 7.10.14
ABV: 6.5%

50% Saison + 50% Brett C:
Appearance: pale straw yellow, thick head, lingering foam, good retention
Smell: citrus, orange, grass, soft spice, meadow, yeast, mild clove / pepper
Taste: zesty citrus, orange, lemongrass, soft spice, yeast, dry fruit, low bitterness
Mouthfeel: high carb, velvety nouthfeel, light body, dry, clean finish

50% Saison + 50% Brett Trois:
Appearance: pale straw yellow, huge fluffy head, lingering foam, good retention
Smell: grass, spice, meadow, citrus, orange, perfume, pear, mild clove
Taste: zesty citrus, soft fruit, orange, pear, spice, yeast, low bitterness
Mouthfeel: high carb, creamy mouthfeel, impression of body, dry, clean finish

What's the primary difference between most serious homebrewers and most professional breweries? There's the equipment and scale, sure, but regardless of your system, the goal is just to produce good beer. And that can be done at any size, so long as a few basic factors are met. But the perhaps the most significant difference is operational: most professional brewers are brewing a lot; a couple times a week, or maybe even around the clock. If not brewing exactly, then there's someone in the brewhouse, doing... something. Most homebrewers brew a few times a month, maybe. They have limited fermentation space, and knock out one batch at a time. In general terms, it's just the difference between a hobby and a job, but in practical terms, it means a professional brewer can, theoretically, do more things with more beers.

As a homebrewer, it can be very hard to get into blending. The variety of batches, the number of fermentors, the time involved — the opportunities for blending don't always present themselves, and require some planning. Of course, those elaborate blends that we mostly think of when we think of blending — geueze blenders taking shares from an entire cellar worth of barrels — are perhaps beyond the scope of what would be a sensible amount of effort for most of us. Sour blends from even just a handful of beers require a reasonably deep pipeline.

But lately I've been wondering: what about more straightforward, head-to-head blends? Maybe it's misleading to call this blending at all; it's more... pairing two beers, uniting separate, established flavors, and seeing how they split the difference. It's not a novel idea, to be sure; my inspiration was simply all the times I've seen discussion of using English and American yeast side-by-side. Two complimentary strains, each doing their own thing in their own way... and then combined. Why not?

Of course, to me, this experiment seemed particularly appealing with the complimentary profiles of a saison yeast and a Brettanomyces strain. Not that there's anything wrong with the usual methods of fermenting a Brett saison, and I've found that pitching both Saccharomyces and a small dose of Brettanomyces at the same time can get you a beer that's fermented out in a very reasonable time-frame — a month or so — and still has a nice, mellow Brett character. So why ferment them separate and then blend? It's not like 100% Brett-fermented beers are funkier, as we know. But they are, nonetheless, distinct. I often find myself mostly loving the unique weird funky fruit essence of a new Brett strain, but just not super into throwing back pint after pint of it. Brett strains sometimes have a hard time creating a desirable mouthfeel and body in a beer, so where the flavor and aroma may even be super appealing, they still drink like something weirder than they truly are.

I went with Wyeast 3711 French Saison for the "straight saison" portion of this batch, because it's such a monster attenuator (meaning, I figured, the batch could be done faster if there wasn't much gravity for either side of the split to munch on), and because 3711 is known to create a slick, full-bodied mouthfeel despite the lack of residual sugars. The idea being that even if Brett didn't create much mouthfeel, the other half of the blend will help to boost it — each split, hopefully, complimenting the other. French Saison can get a bit spicier than I prefer, on the other hand. I do like my saisons rounded off and balanced either by some fruity Brett funk (which literally reduces the sharper saison character by consuming some of the other yeast's by-products) or some acidity, or both. The saisons I most enjoy find a way to balance that farmhouse character without losing its complicated essence. Here, instead of letting Brett chew on the esters and phenols like a scavenger, the idea was to blend the character down, cut it with the more fruity Brett fermentation. My friend and I did some proportion tasting before we actually blended, but for simplicity, we ended up going with an even split of 50% Brett and 50% saison into each final blend.

The results are promising, though not yet what I would call a unqualified success. My conclusion, for now, is that you'll have to really select the right strains in order for this technique to set itself apart. Proportions of the blend will make a big difference, as would the timing of when you blend — things we weren't really able to fiddle with due to the aforementioned challenges of the homebrew scale. And I guess that all goes without saying; this was just a very basic demo of a concept. Worst case scenario, here, you have a beer that just kind of tastes like a standard farmhouse ale.

Trois fared the poorest of the two blends I tried, but I think my particular stock of that is getting on in age, as the base beer didn't have the depth of explosive juicy character I've come to expect from it. The blend that came out is totally overshadowed by the saison yeast, with its coarser, slightly spicy yeast-notes more apparent than I'd like, and a finish that's very much like a typical saison. It's still a really nice saison, dry and highly drinkable with some intriguing and complex fruit stuff going on in the background, but there's not quite enough different about it to be worth the effort.

Brett C held up better in the blend, as that strain (quickly becoming one of my favorites for versatile 100% Brett batches) leaves a succulent tropical orange flavor and drinks almost as clean and smooth as a 'normal' Saccharomyces beer on its own. Blended, it cut down a bit more on the forward 3711 notes, added some more complexity, and actually managed to taste like it brought something new into the beer. 

The merits of this technique, or some variation of this technique, will come down to whether or not it can produce a beer that's unique and distinct from those made with more conventional fermentation and blending methods. With a whole barrel room full of various farmhouse and Brett beers, you could combine them in any way you wish until something tastes fantastic. But for most, that's not an option. I'll try a few more simple experiments with this blended farmhouse / Brett technique in the future, because I do think something very exciting could come out of it with very little extra effort or resources. Simply using different strains may make all the difference: I actually think I'd use something other than 3711 French Saison for this, because it is too dominant in the resulting beer, and doesn't seem to give the Brett as much to work with afterwards as I would have thought. I've always been a fan of White Labs Saison II, and would like to try this again using that strain. The Brett strain (or strains) used obviously make just as much of a difference, so that presents dozens more opportunities for experimentation, as well. Finally, even the timeline of blending should have a significant impact. I brewed this at my friend Phil's house, since he's got one of those 'basement' things that come in so useful for carboy storage, but the result was that we didn't get to blend the beers as early as I would have liked — it was over a month after fermentation until they were united. Had we blended, say, a week or two into the fermentation, when the yeast were still actively doing their thing, the finished character may have been a more seamless merger, with Brett having had more time to reduce phenols and round off the beer before fermentation ceased.

As always, there's plenty more work to be done. For #Science.

Brewed 6.02.2014
Mashed at 150 degrees for 60 minutes
Fermented at basement temp, 75 - 80 F
OG: 1.053
FG: 1.003
ABV: 6.5%

78% [#8] Pilsner malt
9.8% [#1] flaked oats
9.8% [#1] rye malt
2.4% [4 oz] rye malt

Hop Schedule-
0.5 oz Nugget @60 min
0.5 oz Nugget @10 min
2 oz Cascade dry hop for 6 days

Wyeast 3711 French Saison [Split #1]
Brett C [Split #2]
Brett Trois [Spit #3]

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