Rule #1: Never brew in socks.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Hit List

As Angry Monocle's joint brewing operations come to a close, we take a moment to reflect on what we've learned over the last 36 documented batches of beer (as well as three batches of cider, and a handful of undocumented batches). Most were very good, but a couple were terrible, a few were mediocre, and four were among the greatest things I've ever tasted.

Hit list (Lee):

Learning experiences (Lee):

What went right:

1. Yeast. The most noteworthy yeasts we've used are Belgian strains from Wyeast and White Labs. Sourced from the great breweries of Belgium, these yeast strains produce high concentrations of esters and phenolic compounds, lending beer fruit- and spice-like flavors. One of our most universally enjoyed beers (the Golden Bear) was made from the simplest recipe possible, but the yeast we used (WLP 570, from Duvel Moortgat) gave it an incredibly complex aroma and flavor. Belgian yeasts are best with a couple pounds of sugar to make the beer drier and more drinkable. 

2. Roasted Barley (lots). Our stouts regularly exceed 15% roasted barley. There are other worthwhile roasted grains, but unmalted barley roasted black is one to treasure, and a key part of all our stouts. Two of them stand out from the rest in quality: The Cosmos, a 12% ABV Belgian-style stout, and Surly Sunday, our first coffee stout.

3. American hops (lots). Now that summer has finally come to Seattle, I want to drink IPAs all the time. Though the British invented the style, Americans have taken it to another level, using new American hop varieties and increasing the amount of hops per gallon of beer. To get a sense of how the way we use hops compares to the way big breweries use hops, consider that Budweiser and MillerCoors use about two ounces of hops per beer barrel (31 gallons). Our last IPA had 11 ounces of hops in five gallons—over 32 times the rate of the big breweries. Hops we like for IPAs include: Ahtanum, Amarillo, Cascade, Citra, Centennial, Chinook, Horizon, and Nugget.

Europeans sometimes deride American hops for producing "catty" (i.e., cat piss) aromas in beer. I have tasted this in American IPAs, and believe that it is almost exclusively associated with old or mistreated IPAs, and therefore a result of oxidation (i.e., staling). Depending on how the beer is treated and how sensitive your palate is to the flavors of oxidation, you may start to taste off flavors at 2 months after bottling—or at two weeks after bottling. The difference between a week-old IPA and a year-old IPA is profound; they are barely recognizable as the same beer. Accordingly, good IPA yeasts ferment quickly and need little conditioning time to clean up off-flavors created during fermentation. The Chico strain from Sierra Nevada (Wyeast 1056) and its descendants are industry standards, but dry British ale yeasts are also worth exploring.

Conventional wisdom says that IPAs with a lot of bitterness should be balanced by sweetness, i.e., more unfermented sugars in the wort. My experience with IPAs has been the opposite. I find that since sweeter beers are also more full-bodied, they tend to coat the palate and contribute to a more lingering bitter/bittersweet finish—whereas dry IPAs tend to finish pretty clean even at extreme levels of IBUs. See: Russian River, Pliny the Elder.

What went awry:

1. Under-attenuation. Attenuation refers to the percentage of sugars that are converted into alcohol by the yeast. A highly attenuated beer is therefore a dry beer, while an under-attenuated beer is sweet. I find that, with the possible exception of stout, beer that is under 75% apparent attenuation suffers in drinkability. This is especially true of Belgian ales. Under-attenuated Belgians tend to be cloyingly sweet. We use very little or no crystal malt in our Belgians nowadays, and always add some sugar to further improve attenuation. Adequate aeration and pitching the proper amount of yeast is also crucial.

2. Yeast. Belgian yeasts are not suited for all beers. After brewing two Belgian IPAs (The Mad Hopper and Chomp Chomp) and several Belgian ales with roasted grains (Le JardinThe Cosmos, The Belgian Black) I am inclined to think that these yeast strains do not complement beers with chocolate malt or high levels of hop bitterness. All of this holds even more true for Hefeweizen yeasts, which we have stopped using altogether. The strong banana notes they produce are hard to pair with other flavors, and Hefe yeasts have not attenuated very well for us.

3. Chocolate. We've used chocolate in two beers: The Aphrodisiac and The Mocha. In the Aphrodisiac we used cacao nibs from Theo Chocolates, which contribute complex, raw chocolate flavors, but lack the straight-up chocolate flavor that most people are familiar with. In the Mocha we used 100% Dutch-processed cocoa powder with five minutes left in the boil. It gave the beer some chocolate flavor, along with some additional bitterness, but had trouble distinguishing itself through the coffee and the under-attenuation of the beer. I think my main mistake was trying to use chocolate as a secondary flavor. I probably won't use chocolate again soon, but if I did I would make a straight-up chocolate stout, with a full pound of chocolate (maybe a little vanilla, too). I would add 8 oz of cocoa powder (5 gallon batch size) at flameout and 8 oz of cacao nibs (soaked in vodka for 24 hours) to secondary. I would also use 5% roasted barley, 5% pale chocolate malt, 5% Crystal 80, and 5% de-bittered black malt. I'd also lower the IBUs to 25 to compensate for the bitterness added by the chocolate.

4. Infection. Note: the yeast and bacteria that infect beer are non-pathenogenic—i.e., harmless. As much fun as exploding bottles are, infection really cuts into the shelf life of your beer. I suspect our main problems stemmed from wild yeast contamination from inadequately cleaned bottles. We always Oxiclean our bottles when we first get them, both to remove the labels and clean out the insides. Soaking and rinsing 100 bottles is a pretty huge pain, though, so after the initial Oxicleaning we just rinse and sanitize our bottles between batches. This works well enough if you're good about rinsing the bottles immediately after drinking the beer. We lapsed in this respect for awhile, and as a result found evidence of contamination in The Cosmos and The Aphrodisiac. We've since borrowed a high-pressure bottle rinser that we use if a bottle isn't rinsed immediately after use.

Reflections on coffee stouts:

Even though Surly Sunday, when fresh, was the best coffee stout and one of the best beers I've ever had, I think there is still a lot to learn about brewing this style of beer. Coffee stouts are challenging due mainly to the following fact: coffee tastes best immediately after brewing, while imperial stouts generally peak between six months and two years after brewing. To help compensate for this, we let the beer mature in secondary for extra time and add the coffee at bottling. One strategy I might pursue in the future is to brew plain imperial stouts and keep fresh extra-strength iced coffee on hand to add when serving. We've been using cold-brewed coffee for our stouts, because it seems to last better. I've recently been impressed by hot-brewed iced coffee (chilled immediately by the addition of ice), which I'd like to experiment with in beer. I've also heard reports that steeping whole-bean or coarsely ground (percolator grind) in the beer for 12–24 hours produces a more stable coffee flavor.

One other practical difficulty with brewing coffee stouts is filtration. Paper or cloth filters do the best job of removing sediment from coffee, but using a drip method of filtration also tends to introduce a lot of oxygen into the coffee, which is bad news for flavor stability. One could boil the brewed coffee to remove dissolved oxygen, but this would also destroy the coffee's flavor. A press pot could minimize oxidation, and the sediment should settle to the bottom of the bottle with the yeast, but presses require a coarse grind. More cold brew experiments necessary to determine optimal grind.

I would also like to experiment more with coffee selection. We've been using Peet's Arabian Mocha-Java, because it has a very recognizable classic flavor and its roasty, chocolatey flavors complement roasted barley very well. One idea I've been toying with for awhile is using a more delicate, lighter-roasted coffee (Ethiopian springs to mind) in a subtler beer, like a dark Belgian ale or English brown ale, and staying away from grains darker than pale chocolate. I also want to make a dry-hopped coffee stout with Indonesian coffee.