Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shrunken Heady Topper Recipe, Plus New Tips from John Kimmich



There are always a number of factors at work when a beer explodes into the craft beer consciousness, shooting up the rankings and dominate "top" lists. There are a lot of factors and explanations and circumstances that allow some beers to fare better — and spread faster — than others. Heady Topper, The Alchemist, and John Kimmich all have a complex and fascinating story. But I think the reason Heady has the huge following it does now is as straight-forward as it is complex. This is a beer that has it both ways.

Heady Topper rewards the type of beer nerd that sits down to analyze and elaborate. It is deep, it is multi-layered, it is unique and welcomes you with a unique hop personality that other IPAs may imitate, though they don't quite get all the nuances and inflections right. When you get a really good can of Heady Topper (and certainly, you don't always), it represents the IPA's true self, pristine, and other IPAs veer into the uncanny valley of imperfect facsimile. Yes — I really enjoy a can of Heady Topper, to the point of going on record waxing poetic about it. Not necessarily because I think it is the best beer in the world or anything. You see, for all its juicy hop glory, Heady is also among the most refreshing and drinkable beers I know. Set a fresh can of Heady in front of me and I will be challenged not to empty that beautiful silver cylinder in an easy five minutes. Forget pilsners — this imperial IPA is my perfect summer camping beer. Or lawnmower beer. Or whenever beer. (Though narrowly shut out of my favorite beach beer.)

Except, whoops, it's still an 8% ABV imperial, and you'll notice sooner or later. Heady Topper drinks like a session IPA that forgot it's supposed to leave you intact for the rest of the session. So my inspiration for creating a beer called "Shrunken Heady Topper" should be pretty obvious, right?

I've had this idea for a long long time — I think almost since last summer's homebrew club attempt to clone Heady. The resulting brew from that collaboration was promising, and delicious, but the recipe was not quite there yet. We'll likely do another group attempt this summer, hopefully trying a few different variations on an updated Heady recipe. But before we get to that, I wanted to do a riff on Heady that wouldn't punish me too much for accidentally killing a fourpack in one night (if my beer came in fourpacks.) I waited, biding my time, until I got a kegging system and improved my technique for aroma preservation in IPAs, treating last month's Troika IPA as something of a test batch. I wanted to do this right. When Troika IPA was a pretty solid success, I decided it was time to give Shrunken Heady Topper a go.

The timing turned out to be perfect, as Chop & Brew recently posted a video of John Kimmich speaking in  Nashville, TN, October 2013, for the Music City Brew Off.


So the changes to this recipe are coming from three directions: the need to shrink the ABV of Shrunken Heady Topper down to around 5% while maintaining a similar body and presence, to improve upon the closeness of the hop bill based on my hunches from the last recipe, and to incorporate whatever new info we've gleaned from Alchemist mastermind Kimmich.

Collected from the video, here's a few things we've / I've learned:

Conan is also known as VPB-1188, and the strain was originally sourced from an English beer / brewery that Greg Noonan was particularly fond of. Kimmich makes it sound like the yeast had been with Noonan since opening the Vermont Pub & Brewery in 1988. (My guess: "VPB-1188" simply indicates the date and place when Conan first began its American conquest.) Kimmich has been using Conan for some 20 years now, which is pretty incredible to me. Almost since I started culturing the yeast myself, I've wondered where exactly The Alchemist gets their re-ups from. Even now they're probably not big enough for a full in-house lab, and they certainly wouldn't have had one in the early brewpub days. Larger yeast companies serve as yeast banks as well, and it seems likely that White Labs (or some other yeast bank... anyone know what other companies might even be options?) has had Conan in its vaults for 20+ years, potentially. They probably can't sell it themselves due to the proprietary nature of yeast banking, but someone has it. (This leads to the interesting scenario of other yeast companies harvesting Conan independently, from cans of Heady Topper, and banking it at White Labs separate from the original isolates of Conan. Which leads to some interesting ownership questions: at what point could White Labs [or another large yeast company] start selling it themselves from outside sources, or are they locked into mere banking of various incarnations of the same strain?)

Kimmich recommends a few yeast strains that he finds close to the character of Conan. First off is "Wyeast British Ale III," which I don't believe is the exact name of a strain, so far as my Googling can dig up. I believe he perhaps meant to say London Ale III, a strain offered by Wyeast that rumors say Hill Farmstead may use — and Shaun Hill apparently once also had access to Conan, as I've also heard, so that would kind of make sense? Kimmich also recommends German Ale for a similar character, and even just based on the Wyeast page for it, this sounds worth trying. At some point in the future I'll hopefully get to do a split batch comparing these various strains in one base beer.

On to water. Kimmich acknowledges that he slaughters a virgin in every brew before mashing in, but for most of us, this is already standard process. (Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Brettanomyces R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.) He says to aim for a mash ph of 5.1 to 5.3 — presumably he means at mash temps, as 5.4 - 5.6 ph is considered standard at room temp measurement. Having just bought a ph meter, I'm still getting the hang of recording my actual mash ph (as opposed to the mash ph as simply calculated by Bru'n water), but he makes it clear that any beer over the proper mash ph will be a "muddled piece of shit," and it's best to err on the low side. Fair enough.

As far as the hops: you'll maybe remember that that last recipe my club brewed, based mostly on the intrepid work of Signpost Brewing and HomeBrewTalk members, used a massive amount of hops, something like 1 pound per five gallons. Kimmich immediately debunks the statement that Heady uses "tons of hops," suggesting that the ratios he's heard from some clone recipes are far higher than what the brewery actually adds to the beer. Part of this is almost certainly scale and technique — as one might assume from a brewery at the top of its game, Kimmich alludes to "proprietary techniques" he's developed for dry-hopping, though it's left pretty open what those may be. He does say concretely that they dry-hop for 4 to 5 days, never more. Whirlpooling lasts for about an hour. The Alchemist uses only pellets, never whole hops, and does not add any hops during the boil, only CO2 hop extract (and all the hops after flameout.) I seem to be all out of Hop Shots, so I just used a fraction of an ounce of CTZ for FWH.

Almost all those pointers fall under the category of "general advice," and none really help us to lock down the unique makeup of Heady Topper. But that's fine — if I were in a position like Kimmich is, I'd give advice of the exact same sort. Having a mystery neatly unraveled for you is no fun, and if he can teach improved brewing techniques to those seeking simply to clone his recipe, it's ultimately best for everyone.

The main take-away, for me, is that my hopping techniques can always be improved, though dry-hopping in a secondary "conditioning" keg purged with CO2 is a fine start, and at least puts me on the same general plane as most breweries in regards to the oxygen-thwarting tools available to me. While I scaled down the total amount of hops in Shrunken Heady Topper already due to that whole "shrunken" part, I'm probably still using more than Kimmich would, from the sounds of it. I'm okay with that. Efficiency isn't as good at the homebrew scale, and I also don't have access to the freshest, highest-quality hops that the Alchemist is now contracting for. To a homebrewer, a few extra bucks and an extra ounce or two of hops isn't all that big of a deal. Not if it makes 5 gallons of beer emulating a world-class IPA.

Assuming I don't screw anything up here, and the results are anything close to actual Heady Topper (but lower ABV), the real question is: can I make the keg last more than one highly unproductive weekend?


Update: Tasting notes posted here.


Recipe-
5.33 Gal., All Grain
Brewed 3.23.2014
Brewhouse Efficiency: 76%
Mashed at 150 degrees for 65 minutes
Fermented at 66 F, let warm slowly to 70 after 3 days
OG: 1.049
FG:
ABV: 5~%

Malt-
85.3% (8 lbs) Pearl malt
10.7% (1 lb) white wheat malt
4% (6 oz) CaraMalt

Hop Schedule-
0.2 oz CTZ @FWH
0.5 oz CTZ @0
0.5 oz Simcoe @0
0.5 oz Apollo @0
0.5 oz CTZ @ whirlpool
1 oz Simcoe @ whirlpool
1 oz Amarillo @ whirlpool
0.5 oz Apollo @ whirlpool
1 oz CTZ dry hop
1 oz Simcoe dry hop
1 oz Apollo dry hop
1 oz Amarillo dry hop

Yeast-
The Alchemist Conan Ale Yeast


41 comments:

  1. "The Alchemist uses only pellets, never whole hops, and does not add any hops during the boil, only CO2 extract (and all the hops after flameout.) Whirlpooling lasts for about an hour."

    Unable to grok, "only CO2 extract"

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    1. CO2 hop extract is what Northern Brewer sells as "hop shots." It's basically just the oils extracted through CO2 into a "shot"... adds a clean smooth bitterness without adding more vegetable matter. A lot of breweries use this for their bittering addition nowadays.

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    2. Thanks for the clarification, much appreciated. Also, kudos on the clever image!

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  2. That seems like a high OG considering you're only expecting an ABV of 5%? Even a relatively modest attenuation of 70% will get you above that, won't it?

    Very interesting about the ownership of yeast strains. Starting from the position that possession is 9/10 of the law (and I say this as a lawyer), how could you ever hope to own the rights to something that replicates itself so readily? Your only hope would be to filter your beer and force carbonate, but then what self-respecting beer nerd community would want be interested in the first place?

    Quite likely, even if there were a triable issue about yeast ownership rights, the sums involved in taking such issues to Court are so vast they would ruin the only breweries interested in doing so, and at what cost to their reputation in the beer community? And if a legal ambiguity hasn't been tested in Court, it's sort of up for grabs.

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    1. Whoops! That was a typo actually. Meant to be 1.049 OG, so it should come out around 5% ABV. Thanks for catching that and pointing it out.

      Glad you chimed in with a lawyer's perspective, I think you're right about yeast being sort of up-for-grabs, and I assume that's why so many small yeast companies have been able to start selling Conan without running into trouble. (They just have to call it by a different name.) However I would guess there must be some kind of contract signed between a brewery and the yeast bank holding their yeast that prevents the yeast bank from just turning around and selling the private strain on its own. So if another yeast company happens upon it naturally (or in a can, in this case), it's fair game, but the original banker must be limited by some kind of contract, right?

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    2. This area isn't exactly my bailiwick, but I would not be surprised in the slightest if there were clauses in contracts between yeast banks and breweries preventing the onward sale of a strain by the former (in the same way that if you were to get your sperm frozen, you could quite legitimately expect not to have thousands of little Dereks running amok down the Eastern seaboard).

      A contractual remedy like this would be a personal right, as opposed to a proprietary one, however. It would not give you a right to track down every last can and bottle of beer containing your yeast and remove them from sale.

      In theory a brewery could require everyone to whom it sold a bottle to agree not to harvest and cultivate the yeast. At least in England, I have my doubts as to whether this would even be enforceable, and what about people who receive bottles as gifts and aren't party to the non-harvesting clause?

      I see a bright future in yeast law ahead of me.

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    3. I took a tour of the Fuller's brewery in London last week and the guide specifically mentioned harvesting yeast from bottles of their beer. He said something along the lines of, "The brewers among you could grow yeast from our bottles and use them in your homebrews -- and we encourage it -- but our yeast is genetically fingerprinted, so if a commercial brewery were to start selling beer made with our yeast they'll be hearing from our lawyers."

      Wyeast 1968 and WLP002 are both rumored to be Fuller's yeast, so perhaps the guide was just blowing hot air. I guess we'll never know until someone compares the fingerprints of all three yeasts.

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    4. Very interesting. I wonder how that would work. In the US, I'm pretty sure we can't use genetically modified yeast in brewing (legally), or so I've been told. I wonder if this genetic finger-print thing wouldn't work here then. Perhaps Fullers could sue another English brewer who borrowed their strain, but the different regulations from country to country would make it too much of a headache to try to enforce the same in the states.

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    5. I know that when Mike Carver revived Lacon's of Great Yarmouth, a brewery taken over and closed down by Whitbread in the 1960s, he had to prove ownership of the trademark before the National Collection of Yeast Cultures would release a sample of the Lacon's yeast held on ice since 1958.

      While the other half and I were researching our book, we discovered that quite a brewers from the era of the 'real ale revolution' used yeast from bigger breweries (Adnams, Tetley) but (as we understood it) on the condition that the source wasn't publicised.

      I suspect Fuller's wouldn't actually be bothered unless another brewery exploited the yeast for marketing purposes, e.g. saying on the label 'Fermented with Fuller's famous yeast strain.'

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    6. That's a great point, and I think there's something similar happening here now with small yeast labs releasing their versions of Conan. No one outright labels or sells it as Conan yeast, but there are enough hints dropped that you can figure it out if you're looking for it. I suspect in all these cases there's simply a Gentleman's Agreement in place, where the new guy borrowing yeast doesn't flagrantly advertise that he's ripping off a famous strain, and the holder of the original strain doesn't have to jump through hoops to prove ownership of something that is, after-all, living, mutating, and difficult to truly control.

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    7. It's not like Kimmich can claim ownership to the strain in the first place - and he doesn't. I believe he made a very important point in that Q&A when he brought up other brewers complaining that the yeast doesn't drop out - "You're just not treating it right." Yeast behave in sometimes vastly different ways depending on the strength of the wort, the size and dimensions of the fermentor, temperature, and so on. Thus, why would it concern Fuller's or The Alchemist to have a secret, proprietary yeast when most other brewers can't even replicate the conditions they use to actually make their beer with the yeast? The genetic makeup of the yeast only tells part of the story.

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  3. Great post Derek. Regarding mash pH readings, I had a brief email exchange with John a few days ago. A lot of folks were likely surprised by the lower target pH range he stated. I asked him if that was measured at room temp or mash temp. Although he didn't directly answer that question, he encouraged me to continue my method, which is measuring at room temp. Room temp is the standard that most references use, and you should always let your sample cool before measuring in order to prolong the life of your pH meter.

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    1. Thanks, it sounds like another sort of confirmation that we aren't way off with our room temp measurements compared to what he's doing. It makes the most sense, and I agree — seems like a good idea to do whatever will preserve the life of the ph meter longest.

      Out of curiosity, did he happen to drop any other potentially useful hints?

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    2. Alas, no additional hints were dropped. However, I will say that due to his 5.1-5.3 comment, I specifically targeted 5.2 in the mash of my last batch (whereas I normally target 5.3-5.4) and I had the best hot break (egg drop soup) in my kettle that I have seen in a while.

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    3. This mash target could be derivative of the high protein levels found in pearl malt, allowing those proteins to drop, making for a cleaner tasting beer? I'd have to look to Fix to see mash ph's impact on malt proteins to see if there is any corollary.

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    4. Interesting thought Aaron. My memory is hazy and I can't look it up right now, but that seems to be line with what I recall of ph's effect on clarity. I didn't realize that Pearl malt had particularly high protein levels either.

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  4. Excellent post. What salts are you using to alter your pH? I just brewed a Heady inspired Pale on last Friday. I uses Pearl, WW, CMC Munich in similar proportions and a hint of Dextrose. You can see in a video that was posted online last year Pearl, CMC Munich, and Cerelose Dextrose bags. Used London 3. Dry hop this sunday for no more than 5, no less than 4 days in a CO2 purged keg, which I know makes a huge difference from other pales I've done. Can't wait to hear how yours turns out.

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    1. Generally Gypsum and a lesser portion of Calcium Chloride. We have very soft water in my town (Beacon, NY), so there's a lot of room to play around with it.

      Good luck with your brew, I'm intrigued to hear how it goes using London III.

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  5. Thanks for the sweet repost of our Chop & Brew episode. It was an excellent evening to hear John Kimmich breakin' it down like that... and a few Heady Toppers didn't hurt either. Brew for Brew! Chip @ C&B

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    1. Chop n brew its awesomeeeeeeee ! chop 4 chop !!
      yesterday i brewed a similar ipa, same OG and same hop weight/bill, hahahaha.
      My malt base was pils/munich/biscuit/brown sugar, and it was a single hop galaxy.
      i ve been wanting to try new yeast ( london 3, west yorkshire, burton ale) to see if i can archive the fruitness of conan, hard to get those down here in brazil =/
      great post, keep it with the good work !!

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    2. Thanks for sharing it, it was really cool to be able to "sit in" for his session! It must have been awesome to be there in person... especially armed with fresh Heady. Keep it up!

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. I get the sense you didn't really read the article (particularly the paragraph right after the video)...

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    1. Sorry - that was intended to be a response to Ryan at 10.16 3/28/14.

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  8. Can't wait to hear the results of this. I too love the taste of Heady and imperial stouts, but would prefer to keep my ABV a bit lower too.

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  9. I notice that you are skipping the Centennial hops this time any reason for that? Also .2 oz of CTZ with no hop shot at all is it just me or does that not seem like enough? I know Heady isn't a really bitter DIPA but you probably need enough ibus to balance out a bit more then that right?

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    1. In all honesty, it's just "hunches." I kept going back and forth on the Centennial, and decided to try amping up a few of the other hops this time in its place. And you may be right about not bittering enough — I figured the huge amount of whirlpool hops (and the fact that CTZ tastes fairly aggressive, bitterness-wise) combined with the low ABV would help to retain the same impression of balance. It's guess-work though, and I wish I had realized I was out of hopshots before I brewed this, as I would have probably ended up bittering a bit more in that scenario.

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    2. Thanks for the quick reply. I just brewed that last version you posted a couple of weeks ago myself and I didn't have a hop shot either so I used CTZ to bitter. My addition was around 1.5 oz but that was also the higher OG version. My LHBS didn't have Caramalt either so I reduced the amount and used CaraMunich instead (35-40L). Bottled after 4 days with the dry hops and I am telling you want that beer is going to be down right fantastic if it tastes 1/2 as good as it smells. Will find out in another week or so when it is all carbed up. Cheers -Clint

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  10. I was at the presentation and after it was over, I asked John a few questions and one was about brewing a lower gravity IPA, he mentioned he would mash it high, 156 to 158 to get more body and to try and balance out the hops as much as possible.

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    1. Makes sense. If I were using a more reliable yeast, I would have done the same, but lately Conan hasn't been dropping below 1.014 for me, so I figured I'd get the same result even mashing relatively low. I was worried with this batch that if I mashed at 156, Conan would decide to stop on me much higher than I wanted. Hopefully all goes as plans, we'll see!

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    2. I mashed my Hillbilly Mountain Brew at 157-158, The predicted FG using Conan was 1.019, but it finished out at 1.014, Ive had really good attenuation with the strain Im using.

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  11. This was all the way back in 2011 so the strain may have been modified, but the assistant HF brewer, Dan, said the yeast they were using was the same one used in Boddington's, which would confirm the London Ale III theory.

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    1. That's another great bread crumb on the Vermont yeast trail, thanks Geoff. It looks like Dan is actually going to be opening his own brewery here in New York, only an hour or so away from me, which I'm quite excited for!

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  12. You can see part of their brewsheet in this video (around 1:50): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVItX3hAcno

    FG 1.076 TG 1.013

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  13. In this recipe what in your process differentiates a 0 minute add from a whirlpool? I am only able to do hopstands where I do a few post boil additions. Usually one just off the boil and another at 170F.

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  14. So how did this come out? Any changes you would make?

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  15. I think he's talking about PH room temp. That's given, unless otherwise noted. That's within regular mash PH range and - with recent hop utilization research explaining how lower boil temps will extract less IBUs from hops - explains Heady's massive amounts of used hops, yet restrained bitterness.

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  16. if Kimmich states that he only allows dry-hopping to last 4-5 days tops, when does he dry hop and how long does fermentation last?

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