Thursday, April 10, 2014

Robust Porter - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Porter
Brewed On: 12.23.2013
Bottled On: 1.26.2014
ABV: 8.4%

Appearance: black upon pour; pale brown evident at edges, tan foamy head
Smell: floral esters, sweet vague berry, burnt roast, vanilla, bready malts, perfume
Taste: sweet bland malts, dry bread, old coffee, slight astringency, burnt rubber
Mouthfeel: medium carbonation, medium body, oily, tongue-coating

For the sake of the ensuing discussion, let's start by lumping stouts and porters together. Brown ales too, because we're a feisty lot. To make things easier, we'll refer to this lot simply as 'dark beers.'

I enjoy dark beers quite a lot. If we're already lumping specific styles into general categories, I'd go as far as to say that dark beers may be in my top three of favorites. I can drink stouts and porters and brown ales almost any time — summer might slow me down a bit, but not entirely. Strangely, I find dark beers to be a category prone to averageness, more so than with others, while their averageness is also more forgivable at the same time.

Dark beers seem to exist within a narrow window — usually safe, but rarely exceptional.

That's just my taste, and I mean all that from the perspective of a consumer looking at commercial examples. But as a brewer, I have been aware for some time that dark beers are by far my weakest 'style.' Maybe it's the soft water here in Beacon, maybe it's my previous ignorance of how to accurately control the buffering effects of minerals and residual alkalinity in my mashes, maybe it's that I haven't brewed dark beers frequently enough to be able to pin down a pattern. Maybe I'm just super picky. The other thing that makes dark beers tricky for me: I don't find the ingredients so intuitive as different hop varieties or yeast strains, where it's easy to work with them in isolation and get a feel for their tendencies. One of these days I'm going to brew a series of test batches to really pin down which dark malts I like and which I'm kind of meh on — just 2-row and one black malt, with nothing else to dilute the flavor.

But today we're looking at a specific beer, of course; a robust porter that I brewed back in December. It's not bad. It's not great. There are maybe some low-level fermentation flaws, a floral ester note that doesn't belong, but in general, it's just kind of bland and muddled tasting. When I burp after drinking some, I occasionally notice a burnt rubber character that I find in tons of dark beers (both commercial and homebrewed.) There's little depth here; no real memorable flavors. On the other hand, I did brew it to be on the lighter side — if any style police are wondering, I'm calling it a robust porter not because it is modeled on any particular historical precedent, but because I wanted it to be strong, yet not utterly black, with brown malt playing a greater role in the recipe than roasted malts. Plenty of people I've given this batch to (without explaining anything about it) have seemed to enjoy it more than I expected. It sorts of confirms my above-expressed belief that dark beers can slip past the nets of mediocrity and survive through elusive, inscrutable okayishness.

Looking back at all the dark beers I have brewed previously, some have come out great, some have come out okay, and I'm only now starting to pin down why. Because I'm nothing if not long-winded, let's run through. An extract imperial stout that I brewed early on was overly sweet for reasons that were fairly easy to pinpoint (extract, molasses, Belgian yeast.) The next year, a rye porter came out decent, while a brown ale and a spruce dark ale came out varying degrees of bad for totally unrelated reasons. But then I've had great results with black IPAs, and last spring's hoppy Conan brown ale may still be one of my favorite batches ever. Around the same time, I brewed a version two of my rye porter, with splits aged on rosemary and chili (separately), and all three versions were excellent. Just to confirm, I drank my last two bottles of that batch next to a bottle of this current batch. The superiority of the year-old porter was undeniable.

For whatever reason, though, I gave dark beers a rest for most of last year, whipping up this one the day before I left for Pennsylvania on Christmas break. With four months to mellow out, it's shrugged off some of the noisome esters that tainted it early on, but its okayishness isn't going anywhere.

Now I'm determined to set my dark beers right. With more free time opening up in my life very soon (hooray!), I'm going to be able to concentrate a bit more on my brewdays and monitor my process a lot more meticulously than I have been for the last half year or so. The first step: finally, finally investing in a PH meter so I can actually see firsthand what's happening in my mash. 

PH is usually one of the very last factors to be addressed directly by a homebrewer (as was the case for me), and many of us that treat our water still are trusting the calculations we run, or our mere intuition. Personally, I treat water mostly towards how I want it to taste, and have primarily trusted that my PH would fall into line based on the calculations of the EZ Water spreadsheet. Well, just a few days ago, I brewed up a new stout, based on an even-more-careful scrutiny of my mineral additions and PH levels, and this time I got to measure it with an actual PH meter. Where the spreadsheet estimated a mash PH of around 5.5 (room temp), my meter read... 4.8. Whoops.

It's always best to assume user error in these things, and many others seem to have had luck with similar calculators, so I guess we'll just assume that I'm too stupid to use it and work from there. (Though I've since plugged everything into Bru'N Water, which seems to allow for more accurate and controlled predictions. I have a good feeling about it.) Maybe my attempts to calibrate my meter somehow failed spectacularly, and I'm still just flying blind. Maybe the water profile of Beacon has changed significantly, somehow, since I got it tested. Maybe my dark beers are cursed, and I'll have two mediocre dark beers in a row.

But whatever is going on, I'm not going to accept average beer, and I'm not going to rest easy until I achieve consistency. I enjoy stouts, porters and brown ales too much — and I expect them to rock just as hard as anything else.

4.75 Gal., All Grain
Brewhouse Efficiency: 76%
Mashed at 152 degrees for 60 minutes
Fermented at 65 F, slow rise to 68 F after 4 days
OG: 1.082 / 19.8 Brix
FG: 1.018
ABV: 8.4%

68% (9.5 lbs.) 2-row malt
14.3% (2 lbs.) brown malt
7% (1 lb.) pale chocolate malt
5.4% (12 oz.) Cherrywood smoked malt
5.4% (12 oz.) rye malt

Hop Schedule-
1 oz / 48 IBU Warrior @60
2.5 oz / 40 IBU Pacific Gem @10 min

White Labs London Ale Yeast


  1. I've found Bru'n water to be a bit more accurate than the EZ water spreadsheet. Checking with a ph meter at room temp I'm usually only off by .1 or .2 from where Bru'n had calculated. I usually try to error on the high side so I can always adjust down with lactic or phosphoric.

    That said, I've also switched to using just R/O water so I always know what my starting water is. Depending on where you live, I'm sure you're aware the water source can change throughout the year, making it difficult to know your starting profile.

    1. Bru'N water just has so many more options and inputs and seemingly control, I have to assume it's fairly accurate if you use it right. I'm glad I compared the two and took the time to play around with Bru'N water.

      The nice thing about my town's water is that it's so soft as to be practically R/O... to the point where I think any variations will be minor, and not have much effect on PH. I may have to test it once or twice more at different times of the year to be sure of that, though.

  2. Hey Derek, I've had a similar problem with my dark beers. Since our water is very similar--the water here in Boulder comes in very soft, too--I've had some luck using calcium carbonate to buffer against the acidity of the malts. Of course, it ultimately depends on your grain bill. But the pH meter is going to go a long way in pointing you in the right direction.

    1. From what I understand, Calcium Carbonate actually isn't super effective at buffering dark malts because it takes a lot to get the calcium truly in solution. But as with everything in brewing I see all sorts of conflicting advice online. Some people say it's all you need, others say it has basically zero effect. I've used it in all my dark beers, but of course I haven't been able to test the actual effects of it to see much its "doing". Now that I can, and I'm seeing how low my PH ended up being, it sounds like I may need something more formidable. A combination of chalk and baking soda may do it, but I'm also going to dabble with pickling lime, which apparently is very effective.

  3. Looks like you came to the same conclusion I did after watching the Kimmich interview. Ph is too important to not know exactly what is going on in your mash. I too decided to purchase a nice ph meter.

    Here in Ft. Collins which also has really soft water I've had really good success using pickling lime for my dark beers. I also brewed an imperial stout when I was visiting someone in San Diego and we used pickling lime with great success. Unfortunately, I haven't found any good hard data on the effects of pickling lime so I've had to do a little guessing in how much to use. It ended up working out though.

  4. I have soft water as well. With the addition of gypsum and chalk. I find it relatively easy to brew oatmeal stouts and IRSs. Browns, Porters and Ambers are more difficult.

    1. Unless you're dissolving chalk with CO2 you're not getting anything from it.


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