Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Crown Maple Strong Ale - Recipe & Tasting Notes
Beer: Adirondack Cabin Breakfast
Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Strong Ale
Kegged On: 7.31.14
Appearance: bright orange/copper, good clarity, moderate head
Smell: sweet malts, caramel, treacle, earth, maple
Taste: sweet rich malts, earthiness, treacle, maple in finish
Mouthfeel: medium body, rich, low bitterness, relatively clean finish
Earlier this year, I was going to try to pitch some kind of article about how maple is the next pumpkin. I never got around to it, but if you need evidence supporting my theory, look at the explosion of maple-infused bourbons that came out of nowhere and then mark down on a Post-It Note somewhere that Bear Flavored was the source of the first observation of this trend so that, in the future, you will remember where to attribute proper credit when everyone starts catching on. Pumpkin is under heavy fire as we mark another year of pumpkin spice-flavored everything jumping multiple sharks, and what's next? Pumpkin jumping fermented Icelandic shark? Clearly, the culinary world is going to need a new trend to shamelessly exploit, and soon. And it's going to be maple.
Whether or not this is a good thing, the fact is: maple tastes good. It is a good taste. The flavor of it is good. Who doesn't like maple syrup? What kind of nerve would it take to strike some kind of anti-maple stance? You would be rightly labeled a heretic.
As such, of all the flavors that craft brewers / homebrewers like to throw in a beer, maple syrup is one of the few that sounds, off the cuff, like it might actually be a pretty good idea. Here is where that gets tricky: maple syrup is pretty much concentrated sugar, and as such, when you add it to a beer, it ferments. And after all of it ferments, it's essentially... well, no longer there. The flavor of maple syrup is much more volatile than other stuff like molasses, despite its deceptively dark and rich appearance. When brewing beer with maple syrup, you'll commonly read that you should use Grade B maple syrup, which has a stronger, less refined flavor that's not as appealing for most straight applications of the stuff, but works well in cooking or brewing situations. Unfortunately, this only goes so far. The truth of brewing with maple syrup is this: you have to use ungodly amounts of the stuff for it to have any real impact.
I've been chasing this whale (whaleshark?) for a couple years now. My last attempt was hilariously disastrous and yet sort of intriguing thanks to the otherworldly potency of spruce extract (though after a while that beer started to taste like Dr. Pepper and I'm hoping I stumble across a bottle or two of it that got misplaced because I'd love to try it with like five years of age on it). Paradoxically, maybe, this is part of the reason why maple seems so innocent and inoffensive to me in this context. It's essentially impossible for it to become over-bearing and take over the profile of a beer, to a degree that it's actually really difficult to get a beer to taste strongly of maple at all without cheating.
The most obvious strategy therefore being to simply add Lots of Maple Syrup, and add it late in the process. Primary fermentation can scrub out more delicate flavors (this is why we dry-hop), so adding the maple syrup a week or two in helps retain a bit of nuance, theoretically. Following the same logic, you want to ferment on the cooler side. (It just this second occurs to me that it would be interesting to try this as a lager). But still, your main weapon for maple flavor is simply going to be the amount of syrup you add — I just don't see any way around this. This beer got about 3 lbs., or slightly less than a third of a gallon, of Grade B maple syrup. I then keg-primed the beer with 4 more ounces of syrup for carbonation. This strategy works reasonably well, though you're still unlikely to get a beer that tastes like straight-up maple syrup unless you use, well, even more, some ludicrous amount that essentially turns the beverage into a maplewine-beer blend kind of deal (don't think I won't try this). While a good chunk of the fermentable sugars (over 20%, in this case) were maple syrup, the maple flavor is quite subtle, a bit in the nose and a suggestion in the mid-palate of the beer, but never a note that's super, distinctly maple. Interestingly, in fact, I would say the fermented-out maple character here evokes a molasses flavor. Though I guess that makes sense: the sweetness gone, a much more earthy, rootsy (?), pungent character is all that's left.
The base beer underneath doesn't need much comment. I kept it simple and relatively light in color, wanting all the maple character I could summon to shine through. Flaked oats ensured there would be a good amount of body without cloying sweetness, and Munich malt provides a bit of clean malt character without, again, cloying sweetness. One pound of smoked wheat malt added a bit of body and, frankly, no detectable smoke character (so it could either be upped significantly, or dropped). No caramel malts here, no thank you — strong ales like this always push what I can handle enough as it is. I really detest cloying sweetness, can you tell? Ironic in a maple syrup beer, but that's how it is.
Subjectively, I think the results are quite tasty, but more critically, and hypothetically, there definitely could be More Maple Character, in a perfect world. Subjectively, again, this may be one of my favorite "strong ale" or barleywine-type beers that I've had in years — it's generally not high in my list of favorite styles, so there's some competitive advantage to be had by anything a bit different, but I really like this direction this takes the genre in. Just enough character from that syrup to be unique, but all-in-all a very strong representation from the base beer: clean, malty, not overly cloying, a rich(ish) indulgence that's a bit too drinkable for its high ABV.
Of important note, though: my strategy of adding Lots of Maple Syrup is likely uneconomical for brewers who are not maple farmers or friends with maple farmers. One third of a gallon is about 42 ounces (maple is actually easiest to weigh, I found, so again: 3 lbs. or 1.36 kg), but any way you slice it, that's an awfully expensive addition. Way more than the cost of the rest of your ingredients, most likely. And frankly, I would suggest adding even more, if you can. This right here is exactly why you don't see that many maple beers on the market: it can quickly become prohibitively expensive without enough payoff to be worthwhile.
But then again, sometimes you just have to treat yourself, right? A 5 gallon batch of maple strong ale with half a gallon of maple syrup might sound expensive outright, but it's still cheaper than buying a similar amount of a similar beer commercially. This is one of the main advantages of brewing at a homebrew scale: even when you splurge, you don't have to splurge that much.
Of course, I must now admit that I sweet-talked my way into doing a brewing demo for Crown Maple at Madava Farms, a producer of fine maple syrup in the Hudson Valley. This had its advantages, ie. maple syrup. And also real life taste-tasters! After brewing the test batch over the summer, I returned to Crown Maple the other week and poured samples for visitors to the farm at their harvest festival. The reception was I think universally positive, though I'm always the first to point out that the reception to any free beer regardless of quality is usually universally positive. Regardless, no one spit it back out in my face, and so I must thank Crown Maple for the syrup and the opportunity to get some good feedback on an adventurous brew-concept.
5.0 Gal., All Grain
Single infusion mash at 156 F
Fermented at 66 F in temp control fridge
35.7% [#5] 2-row malt
21.4% [#3] flaked oats
21.4% [#3] Grade B maple syrup (added after primary)
14.3% [#2] Munich malt
7.1% [#1] oak-smoked wheat
1 oz. Northern Brewer @60
Safale US-05 American Ale
London ESB (pitched at addition of maple syrup)
Keg conditioned with 4 oz. maple syrup