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]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Perfecting Already-Good Recipes and Rebalancing IPAs - Experiences with London Ale III in American IPAs

Imperial IPA with London Ale III

Beer: Morgan Horse DIPA
Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Imperial IPA
Brewed: 7.7.14
Kegged On: 7.31.14
ABV: 8%

Appearance: pale golden orange, hazy, ample head, good retention
Smell: grapefruit, citrus, peach, soft mellon fruit, dank, pine
Taste: zesty grapefruit, orange, citrus, soft peach, melon, pine, mild finishing bitterness
Mouthfeel: light body, medium carbonation, soft, crisp finish

You know when you have a goal in mind that you probably couldn't fully describe to anyone but a few of your imaginary friends (they're the only ones that get you, anyway) — you just know that you'll know when you get there? In previous years, I couldn't describe exactly why my IPAs kept falling short of what I wanted them to be. I just knew there was something else I wanted them to be. No matter how good I felt about them after a solid brew-day, or as they went through fermentation, a week or two after bottling, some slight disappointment would creep in. Maybe they were getting closer, but they weren't where I wanted them to be. And I wasn't even sure how to describe where I wanted them!

After much work and brainstorming and espionage, I think now I might be there — or at least, past the point where subsequent refinements will be almost unnoticeable to anyone less anal retentive than myself. I may not have the Ark of the Covenant in my personal possession per se, but at least, at last, I found the convoy of Nazis trying to make off with it, and I'm even reasonably confident I'm riding on the roof of the very truck they have the Ark inside. #metaphors

I don't think anything is ever beyond improvement, believe me. I'm not talking about perfection yet, not by a long shot — ie, a level of purity defying any further improvement. In this case, I'm just talking about meeting certain expectations. Expectations that, a year ago, I wasn't sure I'd ever meet. I was looking to get my IPAs to a certain level, make them drink a certain way, with a certain flavor profile, and not completely dive off a cliff after the first two weeks. Having a very good feeling about this batch from the start, I waited for my first pull off the keg until I was sure the beer would be properly conditioned, resisting the urge to sneak early tastes. I'm glad I did. With that first glass, I had one of those rare moments where, in spite of my overwhelmingly cynical nature compelling me to constantly be disappointed in everything, I found I had hit my goals. After a couple of sips, I burst out laughing.

Of course, I've been pretty happy with all my IPAs this year, to the point where most of the time I'd rather have one of my own than something from the average bar or bottle shop. If that sounds super snobby, or this whole post already sounds pretentious, consider that homebrewers have an advantage in catering things to their specific preferences, not to mention the advantage of freshness (provided you can drink the whole batch fast enough). Realistically, the improvements in these beers have been fairly incremental from batch to batch, and Morgan Horse IPA, an 8% just-imperial using Simcoe and Amarillo with a dash of Columbus, might just be me getting all the small things right, all at once. The batch previous to this (which I never wrote up, so I'm kind of lumping into this post) was pretty close to the best IPA I've brewed previous to this one, though it used hops I enjoy more: Mosaic, Galaxy and Amarillo. I loved the Azacca IPA I did in the spring, also enjoyed the Shrunken Heady I did, and the year's first IPA was also tasty as hell. My IPAs have been getting consistently better with almost every batch. Such a trackable progression gives me a lot of confidence. So what have I been changing?

The first big change I made to my process may still be the most important thing differentiating all these IPAs from previous batches. I started kegging, and immediately fixed up a rather elaborate set-up to better emulate the process a brewery would have. The beer gets transferred into a secondary keg fitted with two stainless steel filter screens over the dip-tube to prevent it from clogging. I'll usually do a first-stage dry-hopping at the end of fermentation in the primary, then transfer to the initial keg about a week and a half after brew-day. The second-stage dry-hops go into this keg, loose (the filters over the dip tube are much more effective than trying to constrain the hops themselves) for about five days. After five days, I'll cold crash in my keezer for another day or two, then do a keg-to-keg transfer into a serving keg. Perhaps I could just drink the beer off the first keg, but I like that this roughly emulates what a brewery would do (very few breweries would package their beers with the hops still in there, and my goal was to go at this from the same playing field). Theoretically, also, this gives me the chance to use the dry-hopping keg as a brite tank and clear the beer a bit more, though they've still been pretty hazy for the first couple weeks. (I used gelatin to clear my IPAs a few times, which helped. Then I sort of forgot about it).

Another recent change I've been trying out: English yeast strains for American IPAs. Conan was my go-to for the last two years, but it's a finicky strain to work with, and up until very recently there was no good source for the yeast other than culturing it up from cans of Heady Topper (itself quite difficult to obtain on a regular basis). Following lead after lead as I chased the secret of the great new-wave IPAs, I heard from a couple sources that one of my favorite Green Mountain state brewers was using the Boddington's strain, which is supposed to be London Ale III. And after hearing this same speculation a number of times, I had to give it a try. WWSHD?

Using English yeast strains in American IPAs isn't a totally novel idea — plenty of awesome breweries are doing it (Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist, Tired Hands, Cigar City, Three Floyds, Surly, Firestone Walker, Stone), and enough of them are brewing IPAs I love that I figured there must be something to it. While I prefer most styles of beer on the dry side, I also like my IPAs to be soft and silky and elegant, in contrast to the usual bitterness-focused West Coast model of the last decade. The logic behind the choices of these brewers makes sense: an English yeast strain might not attenuate as highly, but attenuation can be worked around, and careful management of the yeast will allow for a mild base of fruity esters to accentuate the brightness of the hops, soften the palate, and give an impression of balance without going overboard on the malts.

It especially makes sense when you're going for an IPA that drinks smoother and softer than the usual. I've been calling this ideal profile in my head the "Rebalanced IPA." I hate dividing up styles into sub-styles always, but there are enough breweries out there brewing this new profile of hoppy beer that I think it's worth considering that it may be a novel and separate approach, utilizing new techniques and a new way of looking at the structure that holds an IPA together. The Rebalanced IPA is as distinct to me, at least, as the old East Coast vs. West Coast IPA concepts.

Anyway, London Ale III seems to help with that balance. It also achieves the sort of saturated, soft mouthfeel I've been wanting for my IPAs. But then again, when it's cooperating, so does Conan. Similar somewhat, different somewhat, probably both with their pro's and con's. LAIII is a huge top-cropper, with a krausen persisting on every one of my brews for days after fermentation was over. Despite that, it starts up very quickly, very aggressively, and attenuates well enough. I've been nudging the temperature higher each time, against my original instinct to ferment in the mid-60's — I'm now thinking it likes it around 68 F, maybe even 70 F. But I'll keep playing around, of course. And soon, very soon hopefully, I'd like to do side-by-side batches with London Ale III and Conan. Gotta keep it scientific!

Finally, the mysterious world of water treatment. Undoubtedly hugely important! My take on this too has been evolving dramatically. But water gets so complicated, and to me, somewhat cryptic, perhaps it's an analysis left for vague unpacking some other time. I will say, for now, that a great place to start is deciding whether you agree with Vinnie Cilurzo's tips for brewing better IPAs. That classic treatment is great for a particular breed of IPA, but I'm fairly sure that a lot of the IPA brewers that I prefer are not, regardless of their starting mineral content, just dumping in some gypsum and calling it a day.

5.5 Gal., All Grain
Mashed at 152 degrees for 60 minutes
Fermented at 68 F
OG: 1.073
FG: 1.012
ABV: 8%

76.5% [11#] 2-row malt
7% [1#] white wheat malt
7% [1#] Cara-Pils
3.5% [8 oz] Golden Naked Oats
5.2% [12 oz] corn sugar

Hop Schedule-
1 oz CTZ @FWH
2 oz Amarillo hop stand for 45 minutes
2 oz Simcoe hop stand for 45 minutes
1 oz CTZ hop stand for 45 minutes
1 oz Amarillo dry hop for 5 days [primary]
2 oz Simcoe dry hop for 5 days [primary]
1 oz Amarillo dry hop for 5 days [secondary keg]
2 oz Simcoe dry hop for 5 days [secondary keg]

Wyeast London Ale III

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.

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