Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Mixed Culture Wet Hop Saison - Hop Harvest Collaboration with the Brewery at Bacchus

The northeastern US, plucky go-getter that it is, will have a whole lot of hops in the coming years. In five years, ten years, the entire country's hop industry could start to look very very different as new growers, new flavors, and even more new varieties start hitting the market at scale. This is old news, of course, but it still feels like we're waiting to observe the real impact of the restored northeastern hop growing region, and we'll be waiting a little while longer.

There are two big primary questions yet to be answered, from my perspective:

1. How will these new hops taste? Plenty of beers have been brewed with northeast hops now, but even the most established hop farms in the region are still quite young, and thus, I'm guessing the character of the hops will only really begin to take up an identity in the next few years. We'll hopefully start to see new varieties (or renamed varieties) with flavors distinct to this region.

2. How will breweries be able to use the hops? This seems like a fairly mundane logistical question, but it's going to be pretty significant in what kinds of beers these hops are used to make. Pellet hops are much, much easier for most breweries to use — conversely, leaf hops can be almost impossible for some breweries to use at different stages of the process. But pelletizers are expensive, and at the moment, inaccessible to most hop growers in the region.

What we're left with is a lot of mildish leaf hops. And a lot of leaf hops means a very large mound of hops indeed — hell, another reason it's not practical for us to use leaf hops at Kent Falls is that we'd simply have no space to store what we'd need. While the go-to strategy to dispose of any large pile of hops would typically be to throw them in an IPA, you'd have to be very deliberate when taking this approach. Wet hop IPAs have become a huge thing every harvest season of the last few years. But even an IPA blasted with a comically-large pile of hops may turn out with a surprisingly mild flavor. The returns, in other words, maybe be somewhat disappointing in proportion to what went into the beer. There's also the fact that wet hops simply taste very different from traditionally-used dry hops, and this needs to be taken into consideration when adding a wet hop IPA to a brewery's profile. If all of Kent Falls' other IPAs are juice-forward, an earthy, mild, grittier harvest IPA may stand out as a bit odd next to the rest of the lineup.

Barry and I were talking to Mike from the Brewery at Bacchus (editor's note: Mike and Jay, who have been brewing the beer for Bacchus for a couple years now, will soon be taking the lead at Hudson Valley Brewery, in Beacon, NY, so watch out for their stuff to hit the market in a big way soon) about doing a collaboration, and it quickly arose that we should do something based around our hop harvest in early September. From there, we decided that a wet-hopped farmhouse ale was the way to go. Both Bacchus and Kent Falls brew a lot of saison-ish beers, and we decided that the communal nature of the hop harvest was a very fitting start for a collaboration. For fermentation, we literally mixed together our cultures — saison yeast, lactobacillus and Brettanomyces from both Kent Falls and Bacchus went into the batch. There's quite a variety in this batch, though the cultures here are very aggressive. Fermentation was quick. While Tiny House has had several months to age and condition since we brewed it, the turnaround on a beer like this can be much faster than conventional wisdom used to have it. Such sourish mixed culture saisons rarely need more than three months before they can be packaged, in my experience — but obviously, different procedures, cultures, gravities and other extenuating conditions have to be taken into account.

The brewday itself for this beer was quite fun — as some of you may know, as there were a hundred plus people in attendance, and maybe you were there yourself . We're going to be hosting a hop harvest festival every year, and to make it Fun For The Whole Family, we make a big to do out of it. Pig roast, live music, beer, etc, and the general good vibes of a community gathering. Lots of fun, etc. All day long, the hops being harvested were thrown directly into the beer. I mentioned that leaf hops / whole cone hops are quite difficult to use in our setup, and the only place we can practically toss in such large quantities of vegetable matter without an epic bagging nightmare are the lauter tun. Fortunately, this is quite easy — I cleaned the spent grain out of the lauter tun real good, and transferred the wort out of the kettle and into this vessel instead. The false bottom allowed us to dump close to a hundred pounds of wet hops in without fear of clogging anything. At the end of the day, I simply knocked out as I normally would, and cleaned up the used hops as if they were a soggy mass of spent grain.

The resulting beer is simple but delicious — a well-balanced sour farmhouse ale with a good blend of acidity, Brett funk, and tannic rustic earth-notes from the hops. It's extremely complex for its low weight of only 4% ABV. I'll be looking forward to brewing something like this each year. If you would like to try this beer and are / know someone who is in the western Connecticut area, we will be releasing this at the New Milford farmer's market (indoors, basement of the school) this Saturday, January 16th. Keep in mind that while you may think I am a hack and my beer is all dumb, this *was* a collaboration with the Brewery at Bacchus, and those guys are pretty legit, and have never really bottled much before. So! Also, thanks to Mike's fiance Natalie for the lovely beer label. She knows how to art it up real good.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Barrel-Aging Techniques and Process: Second Nature Peach Sour Saison

There are a number of reasons that writing about beer for this blog has become more challenging since jumping into the commercial side of things for Kent Falls Brewing Co. Surprisingly, it's not even so much that the actual brewing process has changed. I found it relatively easy to scale everything up — that transition is something I want to write about more, and will, but I almost don't know what to say. Most brewing to me is a matter of intuition, and while there are plenty of technical and logistical things to work out, my answer to how I scale up my old concepts most of the time would be a big ol'  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

More challenging, in terms of writing about brewing, is that you start to think about each beer and the process behind it differently. Or at least, that's been the case with me, but the last year and a half of my life have been one never-ending mental breakdown, so who knows. Regardless, as a homebrewer, each batch felt more distinct, more of an individual project. One batch at a time, everything I made was a focused reservoir of my attention. It seems like it should be the opposite, but as a homebrewer, I felt way more obsessive about each beer I made, and for better or worse, far more inclined to poke and prod at it as I waited anxiously to know how it would come out.

I'm sure plenty of commercial brewers feel this way about every one of their commercial brews too, so maybe it's just the delirium and crushing existential crises warping my attentions, but brewing now feels more like a ride that I'm trying to steer than some little pet project that I'm micro-managing obsessively. Actually, though, I think homebrewing for long enough inevitably trains you for this too, especially homebrewing sours. You have to learn patience at some point. You have to accept that some batches, of the many carboys that once took up space in my incredibly nerdy and fascinating-to-visitors Beer Room, just have to be ignored for a good long while, and any attention you give them will probably do more harm than good. Scaling up to the point of having a thousand gallons plus of beer in barrels, this effect is exacerbated even more. No longer is this beer a singular, isolated project, but now a chain of events, a chain of 8 - 12 hour work-days, a series of vessels to transfer liquid between. Your attention becomes divided between numerous projects and a hundred points of stress and worry. For the same reason, some of these beers would be impossible to "clone," because there are so many unique steps and variables involved. You could mimic the process, but never the exact circumstances.

But here's the story of one such beer, the first real aged sour beer we've released at Kent Falls. I've done a couple different gose, our seasonal tart saison, and one previous barrel-aged release, a Brett saison with grapefruit zest. But we're finally just starting to dip into the whole barrel-aged sour thing, now that most of our barrels have contained liquid for at least half a year. To start, the barrel-aged saisons are going to fall into two releases. "Nature" will be a mixed-culture barrel-aged saison, always created from some new blend of barrels, and likely a bit different with each release. We'll release that possibly twice a year, or maybe just once a year, to really go for an annual vintage thing. Any fruited barrel-aged saisons will fall under the "Second Nature" name — again, pulling from the same selection of barrels, I'll pull some aging saison to receive fruit.

Even when homebrewing, replicating any one barrel-aged beer is going to be incredibly difficult without blending. Add to that the fact that I'm not necessarily going to try to recreate the exact same beer every time, and I have two dozen barrels to choose from (a very tiny number compared to many breweries) and you're starting from a baseline of endless variation: living beer in a living environment that's going to change and evolve over time. Like most of the barrels in the brewery right now, the two barrels that I selected for this peach sour were filled with liquid from our earliest batches of saison. Probably the most interestingly-different thing about my process for these beers is that the base beer was fermented out to a very low gravity before being transferred into the barrels, like 1.5 plato. Conventional wisdom is generally that you'll want to leave some residual sugar in the beer for the Brett and bacteria to munch on. Brett, however, really doesn't need much to eat to create its distinct character, and even just the autolysis of the yeast around it may be enough to feed it, especially in the oxygen-friendly environment of a barrel.

As a result, the beer resting in the barrel after four months of aging was not crazy sour. It had the pleasant flavor qualities of an aged sour, just minus the bracing acidity. This is pretty much what I was going for — "balance and approachable" seems to be an unstated theme of Kent Falls' beers, so I'm not trying to push my barrel-aged sours to be tongue-savaging acid monsters. I figured the beer would pick up a bit more acidity once it was on the peaches, though, and it did. We have two plastic holding tanks that serve as our fruiting tanks, for now. Some fruit I'm adding straight into the barrel: we picked some 80 lbs of local cherries for another such barrel-aged saison that's been aging since late summer. The cherries can stay in that barrel for as long as they want, as far as I'm concerned. Peaches, though, seemed like a royal pain in the ass to stuff into a barrel, so a plastic secondary tank was the solution we came up with for now.

This lead to one of the most fun (read: not fun) days of my brewing career. A few days before our hop harvest festival, during one of the busiest weeks of the year, and after spending a full day already brewing, I sat around hand-dicing 200 lbs. of peaches and throwing them into the plastic holding tank. I actually just slit the peaches in quarters but left them on the pit, so they held together as whole fruit, but with their flesh exposed. I figured as whole fruit, they'd be less likely to clog something up (a whole peach is larger than the opening of a butterfly valve), but slit, so the inside surface area would still be available to the beer. Anyway, that took until 3 in the morning, even once there were two of us going at it. Really fun, let me tell you.

The beer fermented out on the peaches surprisingly fast, hitting 1 plato terminal gravity in less than two weeks. We only left it there for about 5 weeks before bottling it.

And yet more variables that would be hard to replicate at home: I did absolutely nothing to sanitize the peaches, figuring it'd be nice to pick up whatever local microbes happened to be along for the ride. As a result, the beer went through a really happy pediococcus phase during bottle conditioning, which added complexity and enhanced acidity, rounding out all the flavors to great benefit. Now that it's ready for drinking (the pedio phase cleared up after about 6 weeks, thanks to the Brett hanging around), Second Nature - Peach has one of the best noses on a peach beer that I've had recently, with a perfect marriage of oaky vanilla character (much more than I expected to get out of these wine barrels, to be honest) and juicy fresh peach.

I'm very, very happy with how this one came out, and very excited to share this with everyone once we release it (at the New Milford farmer's market, December 19th, if you happen to be in the area). However, I have no clue how I'd share a recipe for this beer that wasn't utterly meaningless. Hopefully discussing the process (which really is the recipe, in this case) is somewhat helpful, at least. Beers like this, the product of scale-brewing and production schedules and McGuyvering and improvising and last-minute decisions and luck and timing and patience and terroir, are less like painting a portrait, one careful and deliberate brush stroke at a time, and more like some Jackson Pollock expressionist bullshit, dangling from a wire above a canvass, with a bucket of paint, just flinging shit in all directions and trusting that it's going to look pretty cool in the end.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Popular Science Interview: What Are You Doing For Thanksgiving?

Here's a crazy thing that happened: the other day, I talked to Popular Science for a "What Are You Doing For Thanksgiving?" series, alongside a whole roundup of people way more famous, successful, knowledgeable, and interesting than me. Nonetheless, I think my interview was pretty interesting, thanks to a fun starting premise: what weird things are you doing for Thanksgiving this year due to your particular occupation and interests. Basically, I seem to be the "fermentation guy" in this roundup of notable food folks.

You can check out the whole list of responses with that first link, and my interview right here.

In the interview, I mention a wild beer I fermented with nothing but squash. Rather than viewing squash or pumpkin as a flavoring ingredient, I thought it would be more fun to use the stuff as a source of native wild microbes. (The fermenting squash is in the header picture above). Obviously, there's a lot to delve into there, and I'll be writing more about that beer in the future.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What Is Farmhouse Beer? - Plus, Hoppy (Equinox) Saison Recipe

These days, I get asked this question ("what is farmhouse beer?") a lot. And by "a lot," I mean, during the occasional month in which I interact with a human being, very often that other human being asks me this question.

"Farmhouse beer" and "saison" have been used by modern brewers as somewhat interchangeable terms in the last several years, so let's start there. The confusion begins immediately, because there is no real definition of the entire "farmhouse" umbrella, and "saison" itself can be hard enough to explain. I believe most of us have come to use "farmhouse" as a broader, more encompassing term for a type of rustic beer, of which saison is a slightly narrower subset. So "farmhouse beer" has come to mean any beer emulating beers that, historically, were brewed on farms for farm workers and locals (rather than for mass distribution to a city populace), though theoretically that could be a whole bunch of things, and also BTW most farmhouse ales are no longer brewed on actual farms, or for farm workers. Obviously, this is all rather broad and unhelpful as far as building expectations as to what you're about to actually drink might taste like. In order to make "saison" somehow meaningful, we moderns have little choice but to take a broad historic brewing approach and whittle it down to something more specific. After all, farmhouse is also used outside for beer, for all sorts of vaguely rustic items. How do you define 'farmhouse' in a way that you can actually succinctly explain to someone buying your food product at a farmer's market? To me, 'farmhouse' as a descriptor has always been a bit like defining porn: you know it when you see it.

What is "saison"? Historically, saisons were simply farmhouse beers. Broad. Brewed in certain seasons, adapted to each farm and its terroir and resources, given to farm workers. But we have taken this broad swath of beer and made it highly specific, almost entirely based off of one saison that survived industrialization and went on to inform modern palates: Saison Dupont. From the diverse array of historic saisons, which were rarely defined and rarely thought of as a "style", we have molded a category of beers around an archetypal (and delicious) example: extremely dry, extremely effervescent, fermented with particular French and Belgian yeast strains for a spicy / fruity / phenolic flavor profile, and quite a bit higher in alcohol content than most historic examples likely were.

I like to break down farmhouse beer / saison into three "takes" on the "style" that have been, at some point, common.

1. Neo Saison
What happened was this: by the later half of the 20th Century, very few farmhouse breweries remained in operation, and fewer still that the average brewer or drinker could ever hope to try without a country-hopping scavenger hunt. One saison, though, still did stand, and its relative accessibility meant that it was the first (and only) example of saison that many impressionable American brewers were encountering. What happened next was fairly obvious: Americans became obsessed with this intriguing style, and having a very limited sample size to go off of, basically copied the hell out of Saison Dupont lots and lots of times. So as the saison visible enough to capture our attention and become the quintessential saison, Saison Dupont sort of reinvented what saison was. But being just one example from a previously diverse category, it very likely differs from many of those older beers in pretty big ways. Still, I've never been a stickler for a rigid adherence to styles, so ultimately, who cares? This is how evolution works, and now we have a new style, what I like to call the Neo Saison. Dupont did it early, and arguably best, but Americans have created what you could even consider a distinct sub-genre. While Saison Dupont contains up to six different yeast strains, one major difference of the Neo American Saison from any historic saison are their reliance on only one single culture. Generally, we have isolated the strongest and most desirable yeast from these classic saison examples, creating a narrower microbial ecosystem and a tighter, more streamlined realm of flavor.

2. Sour Farmhouse Ale
Lots of beer got funky and sour historically. There were a measures against this, like aggressively hopping a beer to inhibit bacteria, or simply drinking it young. But farmhouse brewing was not beholden to the rigid market demands of industrial brewing, and terroir was part of the equation. Farmhouse beer was often kept through the winter, thus offering plenty of time for microbial colonization and terraforming — and anyway, those farmhouse yeast cultures were likely a mix of funky stuff in the first place. Farmhouse Ales notes that many European saisons closely resembled lambic, which makes sense. Blending was common. Tartness was an expected characteristic, and as the beers aged with the seasons, a bloom of funk would emerge. Rustic was the name of the game, and arguably this tradition evolved into some of the beautiful sour beers that have survived into today. Everything about these funky, terroirist farmhouse ales was bucolic was f***.

3. Hoppy Farmhouse Beer
Historic farmhouse brewers had a yeast culture — their yeast culture. Like a sourdough culture, these farmhouse brewing cultures were passed down through time, evolving and accumulating identity, and gave every farm's beer its uniqueness. As mentioned above, historic farmhouse ales often turned tart and funky over time. If you didn't want that to happen, one option was to create an aggressively hopped beer — the hops inhibiting the bacteria, and slowing down or preventing sourness from developing.

Hoppy saisons today are not particularly common (in my region, at least), which is interesting, considering how much we like our hops, and inserting them into any and all styles. To be honest, I find hoppy saisons (and their spiritual cousin, the Belgian IPA) can be a very difficult beer to properly balance, and I don't always love the results. An overly aggressive yeast character can become very cloying when paired with hops, highlighting bitterness in some unflattering way. Any sort of sweetness — more commonly found in a Belgian IPA than a hoppy saison, I would hope — and you have three of my least favorite qualities in a beer, and one where too many loud notes are fighting to be heard.

To work, I think a hoppy saison needs to go soft on most of those potentially-abrasive qualities. First, you need a quieter yeast strain, one that plays nice with other elements of the beer. If your saison yeast gets too phenolic, it'll clash. And whatever hops you're using, avoid bitterness as much as possible. The bittering addition, if any at all, should be a splash. Focus on the flavor and aromatics so that the hops can work their nuances in there without banging around, demanding attention. Finally, for the love of god: keep your saisons dry. Stick to a simple, clean malt bill. Take any caramel malt you might find laying around your brewery out back, douse it in gasoline, light it on fire, dig a ditch, shovel the remains into the ditch, and fill the ditch with concrete. Then move somewhere else, because your property might now be haunted by caramel malt.

Considering how hard it is to define farmhouse ales at all, there may only be one practical quality we can point to: they're beers brewed to be dry and refreshing, above all else. But if you can accomplish that, you can brew a great farmhouse ale.

Hoppy Equinox Saison Homebrew Recipe-

5.0 Gal., All Grain
Ambient free-rise fermentation, avg. 82 F
OG: 1.042
FG: 1.004
ABV: 5%

100% [#7.25] Pilsner malt

Hop Schedule-
2 oz Equinox @0 (whirlpool for 40 minutes)
3 oz Equinox @dry hop

Here are some saison cultures I like: French Saison, Saison II, Wallonian Farmhouse

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

New Hats, Plus Restocked Hoodies

Hello! It's me again, Derek. You may remember me from the other week, when I was guiltily addressing the fact that I have not written very many blog posts recently, and wondering what I should write about next. Well, I'm working on that! In fact, I hope to have a couple new blog posts very soon.

In the meantime, I'm happy to reveal that I have a new product in my webstore: hats! Yes, I took the "mash paddle pentagram" from my most popular t-shirt design, and had it transmogrified into hat form. Now you can take this very clever idea — again, mash paddles that form a pentagram — and put it on your head! Your head, being the most visible part of your body, will allow a maximum number of people to observe this new garment and its design which you have personally selected.

In addition to those hats, I have also restocked most of the t-shirt designs, as well as the "Black Metal Brett" hoodies. It is very soon going to be winter and thus a hoodie would be a very good idea, especially a hoodie as grim as this one.

Finally, thank you to everyone who has ordered my dumb merchandise so far! I greatly appreciate it. And I apologize for those times when it takes me a week or two to mail things out. Sometimes I can't keep up. Would anyone like to buy my webstore and t-shirt designs? You'd probably be much better at this than me. Urban Outfitters? You guys interested? Hot Topic? Old Navy?

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