Saturday, September 4, 2010

Brew D'État Makes a Pumpkin Ale

Ever since I first laid lips upon Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale and Southern Tier's Pumpking, I had wanted to brew a pumpkin ale. Little did I know, Dylan's experience with these beers had awakened a similar yeuk. So, we decided that today, Saturday, September 4th, we would create a pumpkin ale the likes of which this great nation has never seen.

There was only one tiny problem with this ambitious plan: WE'RE IN THE MIDST OF A NATION-WIDE PUMPKIN SHORTAGE. This little snag presaged a host of difficulties that plagued us throughout the tedious brewing process, such as forgetting to purchase a thermometer and not cooling the wort quickly enough before pitching the yeast.

However, despite all odds, we managed to christen our first fermentation vessel filled with all the precursors to a pumpkin ale. We don't know if it'll be delicious or even potable, but we do know that it looks pretty. So, without further adieu, Dylan and Chip will show you how to brew a pumpkin ale:

Step 1: Get equipment, and
sterilize, sterilize, sterilize!

You boys doing a science experiment?

Cleanliness is key because bacteria is bad, as will be discussed later. Thus, we did a lot of sterilization. Dylan is already sterile, so we saved some time there.

Step 2: Gather supplies

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make 48 bottles of ale.

Ugh. Damn this pumpkin shortage! Could it be a communist ruse to strike at the very heart of the nuclear American family by halting the production of grandmas' pumpkin pies? Or maybe it's just due to bad weather. Yeah, probably the latter.

Even online, pumpkin is mightily expensive. We were forced to improvise and purchased 60 oz of "pumpkin pie mix" instead. Will the extra sugar produce a bigger alcohol concentration or a cloying mess? Will the additional spices be complementary or disgustingly overpowering?

Who knows. However, this certainly isn't the craziest beer recipe out there. And, as if I didn't ask enough rhetorical questions already: Is Necessity not the mother of Invention? DNA test pending.

Step 3: Steep grain in water for 20 minutes at 155 degrees

I swear it's not my bag, baby.

Steeping (also called "mashing") allows you to harness DIASTATIC POWER, which is basically a fancy word for getting an enzyme to convert the grain's unpalatable starch into yeast-friendly sugar. In the case of barely, maltose is the end result. We only steep a little bit of grain to help provide flavor and proteins and some other good stuff that doesn't come with malt extract (see Step 4).

Step 3b (optional): Remove grain from water and munch away

Nom Nom Nom!

"Leaving No Trace" has never been so gross. It's like nasty, malt-flavored oatmeal. I'm pretty sure the taste is on par with gruel, so heaven knows why Oliver Twist would want some more. The above picture required 3 retakes, 34 mints, and a therapist.

Step 4: Add malt extract

Chocolate syrup's uglier, less friendly sister.

Wort (pronounced "wert") is a goopy, syrupy mixture containing mostly sugar and water along with assorted proteins, fats, fatty acids, and other fun molecules. It's what yeast loooove to nom and will eventually become your beer. We brewed with malt extract (many breweries do the same), which is essentially the same as wort.

Fancy-schmancy elitists who do all-grain brewing must get the wort strictly from the mash rather than a big jug of malt extract. In other words, by using extract, we bypassed the annoying (some say "rewarding") initial steps required to go from barley -> wort. An all-grain brewer would do a larger-scale version of step 3 (and a little bit of extra magic to filter out some junk). They then would follow the remaining steps exactly the way we did.

Safe to say, all-grain brewing and malt-extract brewing produce great beers. I liken it to the difference between 35mm and digital cameras, respectively: both require skill, artistry, and diligence to produce consistently good results, but the former demands a bit more attention and provides a few extra degrees of freedom.

Step 5: Bring wort to boil

I've seen this before...oh, I know, in a colostomy bag.

You boil the wort for a few reasons: to stop diastasis, to create what's called the "hot break" (a coagulation of proteins and other unwanted molecules that will eventually drop out of solution), and to sterilize your wort (reducing your yeast's competition), among others. It looks and smells pretty unappetizing, but it's necessary.

Step 6: Add bittering hops and a can of pumpkin

He's got the whole hops, in his hands.

Hops act as preservatives and make beer taste crisp, bitter, earthy, floral, and/or citrusy (depending on the varietal). They balance out beer's sweet side, affording it more palatal complexity.

The cone of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus (n.b.: not a character in Harry Potter), is where the hop's magical oils are derived from. Did I mention it's related to the marijuana plant? By "magical oils," I simply mean those chemical compounds which are useful in beer-making.

We used hop pellets, which look like rabbit feed in the picture above. Pellets and freeze-dried hops are common forms used in the brewing process. The hops added at the start of the boil will bestow most of their bitterness and almost no aroma (explained later). Our bittering hop de jour was Hallertauer, a so-called "Noble Hop," which is very pleasant and not very bitter. Thank goodness; who likes bitter pumpkins?

We also tossed in a can of pumpkin mix at the beginning of the boil in order to bring out a lot of classic pumpkin flavor.

Step 7: Boil for 60 minutes

It smells worse than it looks, if that's any consolation.

Not much left to say here. Stir constantly and watch for boil-overs. That's when you get a mass of gross foam that cascades onto your stovetop. Luckily, Dylan and I remained vigilant and avoided such calamities. Some people recommend that you place a few pennies at the bottom of the pot to stave off boil-overs, but being watchful can also do the trick.

Step 8: Add finishing hops and more pumpkin

Easy Libby, as we affectionately called her.

The longer you boil something in a liquid, the more of its taste will transfer into the liquid. However, volatile chemicals, like wonderful odor molecules, will escape and fly away. Aromatic hops ("finishing hops") and stimulating spices should be added at the end of the boil so that your beer will have a great nose.

Dylan and I threw in another can of pumpkin pie mix at t-5 minutes. Then, with two minutes left, we added some pumpkin spices and Cascade hops. Yummy!

Step 9: Cool the wort

Making chilly beer.

Because bacteria grows best around 90-140 degrees F while yeast enjoys a balmy 80 degrees F, you need to drop the temperature of the wort down to 80 degrees or below as quickly as possible. This step is critical: the longer it takes the wort to cool, the greater the likelihood is for your beer to harbor funky bacterial flavors.

You'll also want to cool the wort down as fast as possible because it's a huge open target for airborne contaminants that will later activate and mess up your recipe. You can't seal everything up and store it away until it reaches a temperature amenable to your finicky yeast, so immediately pitching your yeast and sealing your fermenter is out of the question.

Finally, you'll drop the temp because the wort can oxidize more easily at higher temperatures. Oxidation creates bad tastes.

You see, there are so many ways to mess up your beer at this stage! It is imperative that you work to cool the wort, as expeditiously as humanly possible, even if drastic measures are needed (see below). For the infelicitous duo, Chip and Dylan, Step 9 took freaking forever.

Step 9b: No, seriously, dude, cool the damn wort.
It needs to be at 80, and the thermometer still says 86.

It's like R2D2 at a day spa.

Our recalcitrant wort needed some intervention, so we transferred it from a once-icy-now-toasty bath in the sink to a real bath. Chip resorted to wrapping a wet towel around the top half of the bucket while splashing it with water (as if it were a beached Shamu), leveraging the power of convection currents and water's heat capacity to accelerate the cooling process.

Still, it took far too long, and this gave us much anxiety (cleverly masked in the picture above).

Step 10: Transfer to primary fermentation vessel, pitch yeast, and store away from light and heat

You've got an infestation of beer in your basement.

This could have been broken down into additional steps, necessitating extra pictures. I'm fed up with laying it all out for you visually, so I'll limn this last step:

Transfer | With beer, you can have multiple vessels for fermentation. Most of the yeast's business gets done in the primary fermenter, so you put the wort in there first, add additional water to bring it to the correct gravity (sugar concentration) for fermentation, and toss in (pitch) a bunch of yeast. Then seal it up and sit back while the magic happens. An airlock prevents nasties from getting into the container while allowing carbon dioxide (a byproduct of fermentation) to come out.

Currently, our nascent beer is in the primary fermenter. You'll notice that the wort was already in the primary fermentation vessel during the cooling phase (see Step 10), which is usually a no-no, but not a big deal. Anyway, we got antsy.

After a week or so, we will transfer the fermented wort to a secondary fermenter, leaving behind the "gunk" from the boil and primary fermentation (dead yeast, bits of hops, proteins from grains and pumpkin, etc.). This clears the beer up.

Finally, we'll bottle condition for two weeks, puting the beer in bottles with some extra sugar for the yeast to munch on. That way, they can kick out some carbon dioxide gas to make the beer fizzy and delicious.

Note that this whole process takes about a month. Good things come to those who (brew and) wait.

Pitch | Again, pitching yeast just means adding yeast to wort so that the yeast can start their work of converting that nasty-looking soup into Ninkasi's nectar. There are different regimens for pitching yeast depending on the beer's style and your OCD level. We just pitched the yeast all at once when the temperature got around 80 degrees. That usually works fine for ales.

Hide | You store beer away from light to keep sulfur from getting knocked off one molecule and binding to another. This sulfur shuffle yields a skunky taste (literally, the chemical formula of the funky scent is similar to that of a component of skunk spray...ewwww!).

Phew, that whole process was almost more than one man could handle. Or two. We learned a great deal about the brewing process: the dos, the don'ts, the forget-me-nots. Even without assurance that our ale will be fit for human consumption, the whole affair was very rewarding. We look forward to honing our craft and experimenting a little. I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you're interested in brewing your own beer, buy a book (I love this one), and give it a shot! It's easy as 1-2-3...11!

Friday, September 3, 2010

(Good) (Cheap) Local Beer!

I admit, Indianapolis is not exactly world-renowned for its breweries. Okay, Indianapolis is not known for a whole lot of anything (see how fast you can name ten things about Indianapolis - or even five - okay, go!)... But what Indy is certainly not known for is its beer. In fact, before 2009, the Indianapolis Brewing Company was the last active brewery in the city, and the IBC shut its doors shortly after WWII.

On July 1, 2009, at long last, Sun King Brewery tapped a locally brewed beer (available for commercial distribution) for the first time in over 60 years. The brewery has since been welcomed by the city like a girl at an all-boys camp. Everyone seems to be talking about it, and most are thrilled to have it around. The brewery has already been written up in the city paper on numerous occasions, and it's rare to find a restaurant in the area that doesn't carry at least one of the brewery's offerings (see their listing of draft locations:

Still in its infancy, Sun King made Indy proud by bringing home two awards at this year's World Beer Cup: a Silver for the Sunlight Cream Ale in the Blonde or Golden Ale category and a Bronze for the Dominator Doppelbock in the German-style Doppelbock or Eisbock category. Our parched community has finally begun to slake its decades-long thirst for local beer, and I decided to stop by the brewery today to pick up something for tailgating at the big Indiana rivalry football game tomorrow between Notre Dame and Purdue.

I had visited the brewery on a quiet Saturday several months ago, but on a Friday afternoon, the brewery was hopping (with pun very much intended). Don't know if it's part of a Friday special, but when I walked in, I was given 6 tickets to sample the beers. Free. Just for walking in. Gotta love that hometown hospitality. Obviously, I had to sample all six on tap, including their four year-round house beers and their two seasonals (Oktoberfest had just gone on tap yesterday and the other was a brown ale called Crabón Sustantivo Marron - or Crab Apple Brown). I also came armed with half-gallon and quarter-gallon growlers and, inevitably, agonized over which beers to get, and then which would be the half-gallon and which the quarter-gallon. Sometimes life is hard...

The photo above is me waiting in line to get them filled (not pictured: the tasting tables and the sweet brewing warehouse). If it's not obvious from the length of the line or the growlers on the tables, people were loving their growler fills - and what's not to love when Friday is $5 fills?? If I may quote my friend Luda - "Don't stop, get it get it."

Drink local beer! (Especially when it's good - and affordable!)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Barack's Big Beer Bets

Following the United States' loss to Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics ice hockey finals, President Obama settled a friendly wager with the Canadian Prime Minister, sending him Molson with a little taste of America--a case of Yuengling--to go along with it. A few months later, he made a similar bet with British Prime Minister David Cameron over the World Cup game, but it ended in a draw. Sadly, both leaders stayed dry.

I can really appreciate a president who enjoys his brew. And a beer-loving Commander in Chief should come at no surprise given the fact that many of our Founding Fathers brewed beer. Some even developed their own original recipes. So next time you pledge allegiance, make sure you hold a cold one to your heart; beer is as tied up with our American heritage as the Star-Spangled Banner.


If you want my opinion, I think that a few cases of Arrogant Bastard would have sent a more powerful American message. Next time, mayhap.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fried Beer!?

I was once at a party where a man was frying Snickers bars. This new innovation at once confused and delighted me, so I approached the man as he battered another bar with a thick, syrupy concoction. I pried with great interest:
"What other types of things can you fry?"
The man responded with terse confidence, a smug grin creeping across his face as he continued to busy himself with his craft. A mere moment later, empiricism got the best of me, and I returned to demand proof.
"What about Cotton Candy?"
Now the gauntlet was thrown down, and, predictably, he took up my wager with a cocky smirk.

I handed him a large ball of cotton candy I had procured on approach, anticipating his acquiescence to my friendly challenge. Despite my initial incredulity, I actually I did want to believe that, indeed, you can fry anything. It's the pipe dream of all Southern food-lovers. And his own confidence inspired hope in me.

However, within minutes, despite attempts at containment, the ball of cotton candy had mostly dissolved into his batter. The goopy mixture was subsequently transferred to the fryer, dripping with futility, reduced to almost nothing. The loose aggregate of brown and pink sunk into the burbling oil like a wet blanket, and the resulting victual resembled a piece of fried chicken skin flecked with pink sprinkles. It tasted like crispy sugar-butter, like batter, like shattered dreams. I considered the experiment a failure and went away somewhat disheartened at the revelation that there were indeed pragmatic limitations to what we can fry. Was this it? Had we fried all there was to fry? These questions burned with their pitiful finality, and the epistemic claustrophobia engendered thereby would haunt me to this today.

But, lo! What new culinary miracle hath science wrought? Well, friends, we've put a man on the moon, conquered disease, connected the globe, de-crusted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and finally, we've fried beer.

That's right. Fried beer. It's injected into a pocket of pretzel-like dough, deep fried, and served up for your (adult) enjoyment. I'm confident that we've hit the ceiling in terms of ground-breaking discoveries. Science, you can retire.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Quest for Sour Ales (and others)

Last year's Great Taste of the Midwest for me could easily be summed up with one word: hops. It was all about finding the hoppiest IPA out there, and it certainly took a heavy toll on my palate.

This year, however, was all about finding the ultimate sour beer. My affinity for tart ales takes me back slightly more than a year ago to Buffalo, NY, at the Brewing News headquarters. In the middle of one of our usual "beer and cheese" breaks, my boss pulled out a bottle of New Glarus Berliner Weiss, part of their 'Unplugged' series. I tilted my glass back and was highly carbonated and very, very tart. Honestly, I had never had anything quite like it. From that moment on, I was hooked. This newfound love was only exacerbated when, a few weeks later, I had Ommegang's phenomenal Flemish red ale, Rouge.

Anyways, that's the background as to why I was really shooting for the mouth-puckering brews at this year's fest. I walked through the entrance around 10:30 and picked up my media pass--I was helping cover the event for the Great Lakes Brewing News, one of our seven regional papers. I spent the first half hour walking around, scoping out the brews and finally made a choice...Tyranena's Double Down and Dirty Stout. Thick, rich and full of chocolate, it was the best stout I had all day (yes, even better than Dark Lord and the E.T.'s Reese's Pieces). Oh, and the best part? It was only available to those who got in before 1pm (aka media, volunteers, etc.).

Oh wait, I'm supposed to be talking about sour ales, aren't I? Kudos to Lakefront Brewery for tolerating my persistent returns to their booth--the beer I was in search of was Rosie, which they were having trouble getting tapped due to a severe lack of ice (a number of breweries were having this issue). Once they got it working, I was in heaven. Highly carbonated with wonderful cherry notes, this beer has been a standout since I visited their booth at Quivey's Grove last October. After having my Rosie fix, I sauntered over to Bell's tent, where I had another superb sour--Wild One. I find the combination of tartness and cherries to be completely complimentary, and this was no exception. The beer was excellent and I had to get a refill once I was done with the first glass.

I made my way over to Jolly Pumpkin, a Michigan Brewery known for their exceptional Belgian Ales, and particularly the sour ones. I had never had their Kriek before, so naturally, it was the first one I tried. Yet another sour brown combined with...cherries, it was incredible. It was the third brewery I visited, and sour ales had yet to fail me. At 1pm, Tyranena released 'Deb and Glenn's Kinda Lambic', aged in bourbon barrels. A brown ale fermented with [at least] three different kinds of fruit, it was awesome, and I let their owner Rob Larson know the following night when I was fortunate enough to join him (and my boss) for dinner. Sidenote: My boss, William Randolph Thirst (also known as "Bill Metzger") accomplished the rather incredible feat of securing a keg of Bitter Woman IPA for my aunt's upcoming wedding. Well done, seriously.

Finally, I made my way over to the Real Ale tent, which I was sure would have a number of sour, mouth-puckering brews. My first choice was Jolly Pumpkin's Oak-aged Calabaza Blanca with Hibiscus. It was absolutely phenomenal and extremely refreshing. The Hibiscus apparently adds additional aging to the beer, helping with the tartness. My second beer was Kuhnhenn's two-year aged Geuze. And, without a doubt, this was my "Beer of the Fest." They combined the two-year aged beer with fresh sour ale, and the result was absolutely astonishing. I kept count on how many times I had my glass refilled with the geuze, and the number was a mildly-insane...7. The keg was eventually completely empty around four o'clock, and I was more than happy to contribute!

This year's Great Taste of the Midwest was absolutely wonderful. I had many, many beers in all kinds of styles, but for me, this year's was all about the sours...and they did not disappoint. In fact, sour ales may have taken over the infamous IPA as my #1 beer style, although I suppose only time will tell. Next up on the calendar is Quivey's Grove, which takes place the first weekend in October. Will I have a new style and beer quest? Stay tuned to find out!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Great Taste of the Midwest

Aside from her natural beauty and that je ne sais qoi charm, Madison plays host to the second largest beer festival in the U.S.: The Great Taste of the Midwest. This year, five gigantic tents and a few satellite cabanas housed over 120 breweries serving some 500 beers from 11 Midwest states.

The party began at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday in Olin Park, about a mile from the Capitol building. The din of 3000 bon-imbibants melded with the music from the folk and bluegrass bands scattered among the tents, providing a carefree, jovial soundtrack for the full five hours of drinking. Even the sun decided to make an appearance late in the day after severe negotiations with heavy, gray clouds. Not even Helios himself would miss the Great Taste.

Ales were so in this year. Belgian Ales and IPAs seemed to predominate, though emissaries from every style were poured with wild abandon. A "Real Ales" tent was devoted specifically to cask-conditioned, unfiltered ales served at cellar temperature. Instead of being pumped from a conventional beer engine, they went ultra-old-school and used gravity for pour power. To expedite the serving process, each cask was marked with a number. You'd hand over your glass, bark out a number, and a server would quickly disappear to fetch your beer from the racks like a crazed librarian on a search for the public library's last copy of Twilight at the behest of a bawling tween needing her fix. I'm sorry; I lost control of that metaphor, and I apologize for anyone hurt in the process.

The "Real Ales" tent was real tasty all right, but the real action was at the Brewers' tents, where current inventory, special releases, SWAG, and merch were all up for grabs. The festival's program featured a map and key for navigation purposes, allowing us to easily locate our old standbys and promising candidates. Strategy is key. Here's your chance to talk to the brewers a bit, make some banter in line, and get a feel for what a brewery is all about. You can't waffle and dither and temporize with your crippling indecision. This isn't for petal pickers and nail biters. Choosing a brewery and specific beer after an arduous deliberation process can lose you valuable time, and you'll leave with a head full of regrets and a bloodstream full of sobriety. Thus, taking time to review the program before a festival will help maximize your experience. Fortunately, I just consulted with Dylan, who, possessing a media pass, was able to initiate the drinking process 2 hours before everyone else. His advise enabled me to hit the all-stars immediately before they became too popular (and before the alcohol/hops tempered my tastebuds). So, like many successful men before me, I simply had to stand on the shoulders of Jews. I mean giants.

Still, you don't need to be Eddie Carmel with a Magellan GPS to find your way around a beer festival. Most breweries had some great offerings. The crowd favorites--Bell's, Founders, Goose Island, Three Floyd's--took to the field with their predictably impressive selections on tap. I had a quasi-"Saint Theresa" moment during the 2:30 p.m. release of Three Floyd's 2008 Dark Lord. It can best be described in one word. However, I generally tried to avoid the usual suspects, given my familiarity with them. I was in the business for something new and possibly a little crazy. Thankfully, a few new faces were able to knock me out with their consummate stylistic renditions and, in some cases, heretically unorthodox recipes.

A beer festival's quality indicator is incontrovertibly a long line, and one particular brewery had a disproportionately huge brew queue. As many as 30 people waited patiently behind this brewery's table while other brewers' taps sat forlorn and idle nearby. Obviously, there had to be a reason for this gravitation, so I, too, waited in line with baited breath just to see what this hubbub was all about. When lips finally touched liquid, I knew that this was the festival's MVP. So, ladies and gentlemen, I now present to you, the blue ribbon winner at The Great Taste of the Midwest, Kunhenn Brewing Co LLC.

Kunhenn's, a microbrewery from Michigan, is owned and operated by the Kunhenn brothers (families really know how to brew; just ask Three Floyds). They bill their brews as "Out of This World," adopting a little green alien as their mascot. Their approach to beer can be best described as weird, wet, wild, and fun...with a dash of sophistication.

Kunhenn's distribute locally in Michigan out of a brewpub which carries their wine, mead, and an outstanding array of craft beers. They offer classes for brewing a batch beer or making wine on premise, enjoining their customers to not only get a fish, but learn to catch one as well. Their ascendancy in the Michigan Craft Beer scene owes to unbridled inventiveness and a fantastic assortment of great-tasting beers that draw loyal followings. Speaking of beers, here's where we start the crazy talk.

ET's Reese's Pieces Stout. Inky black with a dark, sand-dune head, this strange brew's peanut-buttery-chocolate nose perfectly replicated the scent of my roommate's Reese's Puffs cereal I had eaten that very morning. The taste was akin to Hershey's chocolate syrup with suggestions of coffee, leaving the peanut butter component to your olfactory glands only. It was heavy, and delicious, and weird. Love at first sip. Oh, I almost forgot: to top off the whole experience, they dropped dry ice pellets onto beer's head, releasing an eerie white mist. Drinkers emerged from the tent with what seemed like the extraterrestrial nostrum from a Star Wars apothecary.

Alien Ale. A pepper beer infused with three different kinds of pepper. While not as gentle as The Grumpy Troll's Slow Eddy or as aggressive as Great Dane's Tripepper Pilsner, it's a fresh mouthful of jalapeño that answers the question: ¿Que?

Creme Brulee Java Stout. Can life get any better? 4 out of 5 optimists say "No." I did not try this beverage, as the keg was kicked half-way through the festival, so I have no authoritative comment. But, c'mon. Beer + Creme Brulee + Java = ridic. The fact that it ran out so quickly is sufficient testimony to its awesomeness.

In short, Kunhenn's is breaking the rules in all the right ways. More beer reviews may be forthcoming, potentially in a podcast. I just had to comment on the highlights of the day. Next year, I urge you to drive, fly, or flubber out to Madison for the 2011 Great Taste of the Midwest. With so many beers and beer lovers in one place, you're bound to find your Happy Place. Peace ya'll.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Get Your Knowledge On

Perfect for the casual quaffer, the burgeoning beerthusiast, and the elite epicurean alike: click here to learn all about beer!

Thanks for the blog fodder, Kara!