Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Tasting Notes: Table Beer III

I damn near ruined this beer by letting it get too much flavour from an oak spiral.  This is particularly frustrating as I'm usually very conservative when it comes to adding oak to beer, and also because without the oak I thought this was the best table beer I brewed so far.

How did I end up adding too much oak?  The spiral I used came from my attempt at spontaneous fermentation.  Before brewing that beer, I had boiled it for about thirty minutes in some hot water, and allowed it to soak for several weeks in my house culture.  It then spent a few more weeks in the (unfermenting) wort.  I wrongly assumed that by this point most of the flavour would be gone, and added it to the secondary vessel containing the table beer in the hopes that it would add some wild yeasts to the fermented beer.

This was actually all part of a long-term plan.  My thought was that once the spiral was inoculated with various bugs from my house culture and the spontaneous fermentation, I could use it as a way of inoculating other beers in turn by adding it to the wort during primary fermentation.  Sort of like a poor man's version of fermenting in an inoculated barrel.  Its potentially a good idea, and one I still intend to implement, but I now know to make doubly sure that all the flavour is stripped from the oak.  Its currently sitting in the jug containing my house culture again.

Appearance: Most bottles of this beer were a hazy golden yellow, but this last one (which has been in the fridge a while) has dropped bright.  Foamy and lingering head.

Smell: Lemons and white grapes, but then straight up wood underneath it.  By the end its like you are sniffing a brand new American oak spiral.

Taste:  Lemony and slightly spicy at first, before the wood comes on.  The first few bottles tasted like licking an oak spiral, but now that's faded a bit such that other flavours come out as well. A nice tartness has developed since the beer was bottled, which I think also helps offset the wood.

Mouthfeel: Medium carbonation, doesn't feel particularly thin, but still very easy to drink. Slight lingering astringency from the bitterness and wood.

Drinkability & Notes:  I had no trouble getting through this batch (unsurprisingly, I find these table beers are a nice accompaniment to dinners during the week, after which I often have to spend time prepping classes for the next day), but the oak was far too dominant in most of the bottles I drank.  I think without it this would have been my favourite table beer so far, and I'll definitely brew this recipe again.  I have a slightly stronger version, blended with no-boil sour, conditioning in bottles at the moment, and I've put a rebrew of this table version in my brewing calendar for next month.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Brew Day: Vatted Old Ale

Martyn Cornell's list of endangered British beers includes the following two styles in the "critically endangered" category:

Vatted old ale
About the only survivor of vatted old ale in Britain is Greene King 5X, which is, alas, almost never made available on its own, but generally blended with other beers to make, eg, Strong Suffolk. Up to the end of the Second World War, however, Old Beer, matured for a year or more in huge oak vats, was still popular in the West Country, particularly in Bristol. Few brewers, alas, have the time or space to make long-aged beers today.

Sour aged ale

A variety of vatted old ale is the sour aged ale represented now only by Gale’s Prize Old Ale, where a proportion of each brew is held back, solera-style, to add to the following year’s fresh ale. The complexity and depth available from such long-aged beers, particularly after several years in bottle, is stunning. Fuller’s rescued POA when Gale’s closed, but again, few brewers have the time or space to devote to such a minority beer.

As I've mentioned here before, I'm pretty interested in these almost extinct British beers, and already have several attempts to recreate them underway.  So far I have stock ales inoculated with lactobacillus and one or two strains of brettanomyces, but nothing with the full complement of LAB and wild yeasts found in other sour beers.  This week I decided to change that by a beer inspired by Gale's Prize Ale: something strong, intended for long ageing, and inoculated with a range of organisms.

My original plan was to brew this as another solera, and I may still implement that by making another batch in the next month and combining the two together into a six gallon carboy.  I would then pull off three to four gallons once a year, and top the carboy off with fresh wort.  This is similar to the way that Gale's is brewed at Fullers.  They no longer use the wood from the original brewery (this used to be the source of the inoculation), but instead hold back a portion of each batch to inoculate the next one.  But there is also historical precedent for brewing a strong beer in this style.  It seems to have been something that British manor brewers did with their strong ales, as recounted in this delightful description of "marrying ale" that I found on Ron Pattinson's blog:

The method called marrying ale, we have often seen tried upon a private person's stock with success. It seems to increase its strength, but especially its mellowness and the fulness of its flavour, and consists in tapping a pipe or hogshead of ale in the middle, and when it is drawn as low as the tap, to fill up the cask with another brewing of wort. The particulars to be observed are: to begin upon a sound stock, such as is approved as to colour and flavour; for if there be any approach to acidity it will not do. The next point is to tun the newly-fermented wort upon the old stock, when it has fermented about twelve hours. The third particular, of great importance, seems to be, not to marry your ale in winter, but in autumn (October), for if your cellar be not a vault,the old stock is too chill, and the fermentation may suddenly stop: if this should happen, as in cellars that are not vaults, the heat may increase considerably in spring, the fermentation may be renewed, and the ale may spoil, or mischief happen to the cask by bursting. Ale that is brewed in the usual way will sometimes ferment in summer, and throw up the bungs of the barrels; especially if the fermentation have been hastily conducted, and little or no cleansing have taken place in the barrels after tunning (which is likely to be the case when brewing is performed in frosty weather); where this happens, the danger is that acidity will follow, and therefore the beer should be speedily used. When ale is married, the fermentation will bring away all the old hops, and it is not to be overlooked that the cork will rise that had been driven in with the tap. It is, therefore, requisite to work it out at the bunghole, skimming away the hops, &c. till they and the cork are discharged; then fill up the cask, and take out the top cork for cleansing, as before. It may be filled up several times with fresh wort, as in other cases, until the fermentation stops, and then the cork and bung put in (the latter very lightly) and left so until it is necessary to hop it down. The writer has refilled a cask in this manner five years successively, and had the ale always superior, and always alike in colour and flavour; in continuing this practice for a long period it is necessary to remove the casks for fear of accidents. The excellence of this ale is, that you can never guess at its age; it drinks always soft and mild, without any resemblance to ale recently brewed, and is equally remote from hardness or acidity
Lars Garshol describes a similar process implemented by walloon ironsmiths who emigrated to Sweeden in the 17th century.  It seems these workers missed beers from home (perhaps something akin to Flanders Red or Oud Bruin):
To satisfy their craving for walloon beer, the walloons started brewing their own beer. Out of this brewing quickly developed what seems to be a Swedish variation: hundred-year beer (hundraårig öl). This was a beer primarily made for the aristocratic owners of iron works or major mansions. 
It was brewed the same way as the walloon beer, and then stored in big wooden tuns. After a few years, half the beer would be drained off and bottled, and a new batch would be used to fill up the barrel again. This would go on for, in quite a few cases, many decades. The barrel would never be emptied, so it could literally be said to be hundred-year beer, although obviously the beer from a century ago would be present only "in homeopathic concentration" as one source put it.
Lars' post was the immediate inspiration for brewing this beer, and on his recommendation I sought out a copy of Country House Brewing in England by Pamela Sambrook, which I still haven't got round to reading.

I didn't agonize too much over my recipe for my beer.  The old recipe for Gale's Prize Ale was pretty straightforward: Maris Otter and a touch of Black Patent, with around 10% invert sugar.  Apparently Fullers have changed it since taking over the brand, using Optic, crystal, and chocolate malts.  I would have liked to have used all English malt for the base, but I'm running low until the next group buy in a few months, so I made do with a blend of US 2-row and Golden Promise.  I added about 5% medium crystal, and then on brew day cooked up a batch of invert #3 (via the dilution method) to make up about 10% of the grist by weight (not by extract).  I knew I was going to have problems hitting the high original gravity I wanted (somewhere around 1.090), so at the last moment I also added about half a cup of homemade Belgian candi syrup that's been lying around for ages.  Altogether this produced a rich chestnut-coloured wort in the vicinity of 1.090.  I hopped the beer to around 50 IBUs (the reported bitterness for Gale's), using some old Northdown hops for bittering and a blend of EKG and Fuggles for a 20 minute flavour addition.

My plan was to ferment the beer with a large amount of freshly top-cropped Wyeast 1318, along with the final 10-15 mls of a jar of ECY20 that I purchased last year.  I pitched both together so that the bacteria and wild yeasts had a chance to get established, but given that the beer will have a very high alcohol content I'm not expecting it to get too sour---in fact, I'm hoping it won't, since I'm looking for something more vinous, with a soft acidity and some light leathery funk.  Something I can bottle by itself, but also use as an interesting component in blended beers.  I gave the wort a healthy dose of oxygen, and the beer is now fermenting in the low 60s, hopefully keeping higher alcohols etc. in check.

If things go to plan I'll probably brew up a second batch in the next month or so, this time fermented with Wyeast 1318 alone since it will be blended with the inoculated beer in a six gallon carboy (still waiting for another 2-for-1 offer!).  Then, following the Swedish brewers described in Lars' post, I'll take a pull and top it up again around Christmas each year until I move out of here (which may mean only once or twice).

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Modifying a Corona-style Mill

My plan to write some tasting notes for the blog this week was thwarted by a lingering cold that left me unable to taste much of anything.  It hasn't stopped me brewing though, and after a disastrous start to the brewing year (I scorched a hole in my BIAB bag and spilt grain all over the kitchen), I finally feel like I'm getting back in the swing of things.  I have a few interesting batches planned for the next few weeks, and I'm feeling quite excited about how some of the saisons currently going through secondary fermentations in my closets are tasting.  With any luck, in a few months I should have some very nice beer on hand.  I also won a couple more medals in a local competition, which was a pleasant surprise since I didn't expect much from the beers I entered.  I have one beer that I think is very good entered into the Upper Mississippi Mashout next weekend, and I'm curious to see how it does.

One thing that's helped me get back to brewing despite the fact that I've been quite busy is that, after crushing almost 200 batches by hand with my cheap knockoff Corona-style mill, I finally went to the hardware store (a two minute walk from my apartment) and bought the fifty cent bolt I needed to run it with a drill.  The 5/16" bolt screws into where the handle should be, and you can turn it (and thus the plates of the mill) by using a drill with a socket adapter.

Making that first change was pretty easy, but when I crushed the grain for my next batch (a dry stout) I noticed that the crush was pretty uneven, with lots of whole grains visible in the grist.  I went ahead and brewed anyway, but my efficiency took a significant hit: almost 10 points, not something you want to happen with a dry stout, which already risks being too bitter and astringent because of all the hops and roasted grains.  I fermented the batch anyway (it was doing double duty as a starter for a new pitch of Wyeast 1318), and as predicted its tasting a bit harsh.

The problem was pretty obvious: the plates on this kind of mill are often quite wobbly, which means that the gap between them doesn't stay even while you're crushing it.  Usually, when I'm turning it slowly by hand, this isn't too much of a problem, but with the drill turning everything much faster a lot more uncrushed grain was getting through.

There are a couple of modifications you can make to these mills to help prevent the plates wobbling.  I didn't bother with then when I bought it because the crush was OK and I was getting acceptable efficiency, but now I knew I had to try them.  The first is to add a couple of spacers on the adjustment bolts between the two sides of the mill---you can find some good pictures here.  The second is to take out the cotter pin that holds the front plate in place---mine looked like it had been bashed in with a hammer, and took a while to get out---and replace it with a 8/32 inch bolt that will hold the plate firmly in place (see picture).  That was an extra 12 cents, and took all of ten minutes.

After making those modifications, I ran a few handfuls of grain through the mill to see how the crush looked and adjusted the gap until I was happy with it.  Corona-style mills will really tear up the hulls of the grain, and can also produce a lot of flour, but since I'm doing BIAB I don't have to worry about stuck sparges and the like.  I'm also pretty careful about mash pH, which helps reduce tannin-extraction from the grain. There were certainly fewer intact hulls left after using the drill, and a bit more flour too, but I knew I could probably minimize this by conditioning the grain (i.e. spraying it with water) before I crushed it.

Midway through last week I brewed another batch in the evening (a top-up for my pale solera), and crushed all of the grain in the mill. I was a bit worried about my cheap drill overheating and burning out, but it made it through and the grist looked OK, with the crush fairly even and not too much flour (see picture).  I went ahead and brewed, and got an efficiency boost, ending up 3 points over my target O.G.  Today I brewed again---this time a pale bitter---and conditioned the grain a few hours before crushing it.  This seemed to help preserve the hulls more than the first time, when I conditioned it about 12 hours in advance.  And today I hit my target O.G. dead on.

All in all I'm pretty happy with these modifications.  They mean I can crush the grist for my batches in a fraction of the time it used to take me (I'd say about 5 minutes each for these two, where before it would have been more like 30).  I like to crush the grain the night before I brew so that I can get everything going nice and early the next day, but recently I'd been finding that I was often too tired to do this prep, which usually meant that I didn't brew at all.  What's more I have a few high gravity batches planned for the next few weeks, and I always used to dread crushing the grain for that kind of thing---not any more!

I will have to keep any eye on the flavour of my beer---I haven't noticed any astringency from the grain before now, but perhaps the more thorough crush will lead to problems.  I'll also probably need a better drill (I have my eye on this one), but for now I'll keep using my cheap one until it gives up on me.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Tasting Notes: Summer Ale

What do I like to drink when it feels like -19°F out?  Summer ale!  Well, not really, but its what's in the fridge and I haven't written tasting notes for it yet...

Appearance: Golden and almost clear, with a very slight haze.  Thin lingering head.

Smell: Wheat and spicy hops, with a light fruitiness beneath it that is probably a combination of the Challenger hops and the yeast.

Taste:  Crackery malt, almost bread-like but not in the rich way I associate with Maris Otter.  Like a crusty baguette.  Transitions nicely into spicy hops and then a fairly firm bitterness.  J says it tastes 'English' in a good way (i.e. it tastes like the pale cask beers she enjoys most when we visit my family).

Mouthfeel: Low carbonation, about the best I can get from bottle-conditioned English beers.  Medium body, slight astringency.

Drinkability & Notes: I really like the combination of malt in this one, but I'd like the hops to be a little brighter.  I think next time I'll add something like Styrian Goldings or maybe even Bramling X to give some citrusy notes along with the spice.  I thought the flavours were a bit muddled in the first few weeks after bottling, but its conditioned well and is tasting pretty good right now, especially if I remember to give it a while to warm up before opening it.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Plans for 2015

Between the holidays and other unrelated distractions I haven't been near my beers or my computer much for the last few weeks.  Things should be back to normal again now as the new school term starts up, and over the next few weeks I'll put up some tasting notes for some of the beers I brewed at the end of last year as well as hopefully having time for a few new brew days as well.  In the meantime I thought I'd follow suit with some of the other blogs I read and write a brief post about my brewing-related things I'm looking forward to in 2015.


Without a doubt the thing I'm looking forward to the most is beginning to pull from the various soleras I started last year.  This pale one should be ready for the first pull pretty soon, but I won't begin pulling from most of the others until later in the year, and even when I do I'll probably let at least some of the first pulls continue to age in another vessel.  I'm hoping to add one or two more soleras in the next month or two  as well (keeping my eye out for another 2 for 1 offer on 6 gallon plastic carboys): I definitely want to do a strong ale, along the lines of something like Gale's Prize Ale and inspired by the solera-style brewing described here and here; if I can afford (and find space for) another carboy I might also do another pale solera with The Yeast Bay's Melange Blend, just so that I have another pale beer with a different flavour profile to draw on in blends.

The main purpose behind all of this is having beers on hand for blending.  In some cases this will be as simple as pulling a gallon from a pale solera and using it to cut four gallons of fresh, dry saison; I have a couple of beers brewed in this way ageing already, and I'm planning on starting a few more with some of my first pull from the oldest pale solera.  In the same vein, some of the pulls will be used to inoculate fresh beer that is not as dry as a saison, which will go through extended ageing like any other sour.  But the thing I'm looking forward to the most is beginning to make blends from the various soleras---blends of the same beer at different ages, blends from different soleras, and even blends drawing on other beers I have on hand.  My batch size is pretty small, but I'm thinking about saving a small portion of any other beer that looks like it might be an interesting component in blend in a half gallon a jug while I bottle the rest of the batch---I may do that this with porter, for instance, or some of the other old ales that are currently ageing in my closet.

Other Brewing

Besides the soleras, I expect I'll carry on brewing the same sort of thing I've been doing recently: pale, dry, low-alcohol beers that are either sour or bitter, using English or Belgian yeast, with a few historical recreations and stronger beers thrown in for good measure.  

Whenever I sit down and start thinking about brewing I'm always drawn to the idea of simplifying things and narrowing my focus, e.g. by sticking to a single yeast strain or trying to perfect particular recipes.  That planning often goes out the window once I start brewing and come up with a bunch of new ideas, but I had at least some success with it last year, sticking to single yeast strains for several batches and coming back to similar beers several times.  Now that I have my soleras going, I like the idea of sticking to two yeast strains for the rest of the year: Wyeast 3726 for my drier saison-style beers, and Wyeast 1318 for everything else (i.e. bitters and top-ups for the soleras).  I also have ideas for a couple of recipes or beer templates that I'd like to work on based on things I've brewed this year: a bitter saison brewed with spelt or wheat, a funky and tart saison brewed with buckwheat and other unmalted grains, a tart and lemony saison brewed with rye, and a bracingly bitter pale ale with less than 4% ABV, and perhaps something dark and dry as well.  Perhaps I'll get distracted by other ideas, but at the moment I like the thought of working on these beers throughout the year.

The other thing I want to do is pay more careful attention to my yeast management.  This will be pretty much essential if I really do stick to those two strains, especially if I'm just repitching from batch to bacth.  I picked up a used microscope last year, and intended to teach myself how to do cell-counts and check viability so that I could have a better idea of the amount of yeast I was pitching into each beer.  I haven't really got round to doing that yet, but I plan to make an effort in the next month or so.


One of the nice things about starting this blog is that its put me in touch with lots of other home brewers, and I hope that will continue next year.  I especially want to find time to get more involved in the wiki being written by folks at Milk the Funk, but I'm also hoping I'll find more opportunities to try other people's home brew and to get more feedback on my own beers.  I'm not really much of a competition brewer, at least in the sense that I'd never brew something specifically for a competition.  But I like to keep an eye out for local ones that don't involve mailing beer, and I've saved bottles from a few recent sour batches to enter into some of the bigger local comps like Drunk Monk Challenge; I may even enter Nationals this year if I think I have enough spare bottles from my better batches.

Well, that's about all I can think of at the moment.  Its getting late, and I had planned to brew four gallons of saison today.  With any luck, more regular posting will resume in the next few weeks.