Friday, August 29, 2008

Fermentation Friday - The best is yet to come

There's a maxim that gets bandied about in homebrewing circles that goes a little something like this: "A batch of homebrew is ready when you've drank the last one." Whereas this smirking quip has its origins in the debate over the proper aging and conditioning of homebrewed beers, it could be taken on a philosophical level to mean something wholly other. What if rather than meaning that most folks often tap into the fruit of their labors while said fruit is still a bit on the green side, it was alluding to the Platonic conceit that exists on the periphery of all best-laid artistic endeavors?

Say, as you work your way through those hand-capped bottles over the course of a few months, that while the beer within those bottles is maturing, that you too are maturing, as an observer of the specific qualities of the beer. And as the facets reveal themselves in different lights like Hokusai's Mt. Fuji, that final sip from that final glass essentially closes the loop on your experience like a freehand outline of the ungraspable soul of the beer. [Note: This analogy has no bearing on the life cycle of the rancid, ropey, freaky infected messes of spoiled nastiness that can occasionally inhabit the homebrewer's domain.] While that outline succeeds in capturing a perfect reflection of the experience of the beer, Magritte would be quick to point out, "Ceci n'est pas une bière." It's but a mere picture of a beer. But could the beer get any closer to being done? Could you be any closer to finishing it? It floats out ahead of you like a faintly glowing ghost, illuminated by its very potential, brought to life by your relationship to its essence. It'll be done once you've finished tasting it, the Form of it up ahead in your mind's eye, perfect.

Now let's step back a moment. What else could finished mean? If we're talking about "the point at which it's reached conditioned maturity and optimal frame of time in which to drink it," we're essentially using it to connote the point at which the beer is at its best. That brings us to this month's Fermentation Friday topic: "What, in the opinion of others, is the best beer you have ever made and why?" In a macro view, taking our stance that a homebrewed beer is at it's best at the point when you've just run out of it (sound of one hand clapping, people!) to the next level, wouldn't the best beer you've ever made then be the next one you make?
With that in mind, it seemed appropriate to head down to the cellar and put a glass under the tap of the last batch of homebrew we've got here, a keg of witbier that managed to sputter and cough one final decent pour of cold, simple, tartly refreshing goodness before giving up its own ghost. When it was done, it was time for the best beer we'd ever made to come into being - if there's one step in the process of making one's own beer that's more enjoyable than tasting the product you've envisioned, it's this, the envisioning process itself.

Summer is on its way out. A beer brewed at this moment, of regular strength and bereft of complex procedures, would be ready for enjoying amidst the heaviest fall of dried leaves, slanting shadows of the oncoming lesser days, whipping winds signaling a change in the seasons, and unpredictably alternating moments of a summer's heated last gasp and winter's northern-borne chill. It's a seasonal season, if anything. The harvest is in full swing, and the thriving bursts of life that surround us in spring are turning into fruit that will either return to the ground, or be picked for our own nourishment. With that in mind, earlier this summer, knowing Des' attraction to the ephemeral nature of nature's olfactory bounty, I got her a still for her birthday. (Granted, the romantic qualities of such a gift are hard to compete with, but it should be noted that it's an essential oil distiller, so the hooch 'n moonshine act is still virgin territory.) One of the first things she distilled was the essential oil of lavender which prolifically blooms here in late June, which also resulted in large amounts of lavender hydrosol. There's a fascinating bit of transmutation that goes on when converting hard, obvious, symbolic items into the sensory element that singles them out in your unconscious mind. And with the seasons passing, catching a whiff of the recently expired elements of summer's headiest moments can be a bit of a timewarp. Bringing lavender into beer, though?

Like I mentioned before, whatever gets brewed at this moment will fall squarely into the hallows of late October's transitional, myth-evoking stage. It's a season, to be sure, but what does that mean in terms of a saison? The Oktoberfest concept is a little played out, and truly more evocotive of saying goodbye to summer than welcoming winter. This saison needs to be black. A black saison, hints of the last dry elements of the waning summer, caught up with hints of the dried flowers that accompany it, prepared to sit alongside a stormy night of power outages and Lovecraft readings or an Indian summer afternoon with quince tarts and farmhouse cheeses. Dry, bitter, not too strong, but not too easy.

So there you go. Here's the recipe.

I'll let you know how it turns out, when it's ready.

Many thanks to the Bunz over at the Panhandle Beer Snob and Redneck Brewery for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008


In honor of the potential for a wave of change in this country through an inevitably invigorating change in our political leadership, one that we and future generations will quite possibly trace back to tonight, I thought it only appropriate to share this, in respect to those of us for whom the safety, success, and serenity of our children is a consummate priority:
We the Brewers of Avery Brewing Company, in order to form a more perfect ale, require new leadership that can liberate us from our quagmires in foreign lands; embrace environmentally sound energy alternatives to imported oil; heal our ailing health care system; free us from tyrannical debt and resurrect the collapsing dollar. We hereby pledge to provide him with an ample amount of our new Presidential Pale Ale to support in the struggle for the aforementioned goals!
- Ale to the Chief! bottle label

[Sorry. Sometimes you just can't summon a decent post title, and then you get this second-hand reference stuck in your head, and it's not even really connected, but you could care less...]


Monday, August 25, 2008

The Äppelwoi experiment, part III

Last week, my daughter arrived home from a walk, sitting in her stroller and clutching a perfect little tennis ball of an apple, tiger-striped green and red, a secret prize from an otherwise ordinary amble around the neighborhood. Naturally, I wanted to take it from her. Des, however, promised to lead me to the tree that actually made it its job to present such treats to whomever could reach them. After returning to the scene of the climb, we managed to gather a small bushel, most of which ended up getting starring roles in our tasting afternoon. It was clearly apparent, though, that apple season was fast upon us, and with that, the need to whip up that experimental batch of Äppelwoi.

Just in time, just as the time to strike was upon us, a final ambassador of inspiration arrived on our doorstep: the authentic item, delivered in the world's most elegant beverage container, the 40-ouncer.
This is what it sounds like when Frankfurter doves cry. Not delicious. The reassuring image of a pastoral landscape framing a traditional bembl was nothing but a lie. Only steps removed from vinegar (or worse), this horrific reminder as to the benefits of pasteurization and the hardships of international travel still thankfully bore traces of  the cider that we were aiming towards: a very dry, slightly wild, sour, lightly carbonated, vinous and refreshing take on what must be one of the simplest, most foolproof alcoholic beverages in Nature's cookbook. After  assuring ourselves that there's no way we could make anything worse,  we appropriately, given the packaging,  poured the rest out for our homies.
Fast forward one week, and to the scene of the county farmer's market in all it's harvest height glory. All manner of late summer and early fall produce clogging the narrow lanes between the vendors, a twisted, psychedelic color maze, tomatoes and peppers lined up in identical rows but flashing against each other in starkly contrasting hues like run of Warhol prints. And in the midst of it all? Apples. Gravensteins, to be precise, along with some other mysterious early girls like the pink wonders you see above. In keeping with the information I was able to glean from translated web pages regarding Äppelwoi  production, we purchased our typical amount of fresh pressed juice, but also appended our must with a few pounds of apples we pulverized ourselves and added unwashed, skins, seeds, stems and all. All it took was a little honey-based starter of Montrachet yeast, and we were off to the races.
Lest the irony of this image, taken from Hale's orchard's Gravenstein cider jugs, be lost on anyone, understand that the origins of the bountiful array of apple trees that crisscross this country of ours stem from a single purpose. And it was not, as they say, to insure against visits to the local medical practitioner (that came much later, during Prohibition). It was, as the label suggests, because when crushed and left to their own devices, apples do ferment on the wild yeasts resident on their skins, creating a magical, homey elixir that most definitely took the edge off of frontier living. Needless to say, we disregarded the warning. Oops! Let's see what happens, shall we?

And for those of you keeping score at home, the original gravity of the cider was 1.070, which is higher than the "traditional" guidelines set forth in BJCP, but right on track for a cyser or mead...

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Monday, August 18, 2008

And on the seventh day, there was Brett

And a lot of Brett, to be quite clear. Yesterday, we hosted the first ever Pfiff! beer and food tasting, a five-hour session of "The New American Mavericks", a collection of American wild ales paired with fine nibbles held on a marginally summerish San Francisco afternoon in the garden with eleven very enthusiastic guinea pigs. Luckily, the convergence of some great beers, the luck of being in the midst of a bountiful harvest season, the advice of some generous and open brewers, and a wonderfully warm group chemistry, it was an almost completely injury-free (sorry Kris!) success.

The inspiration for the tasting resided in a pair of magnums that had been collecting dust in the cellar for a few years now: both from Vinnie Cilurzo's maiden voyage into wild brewing, batch 001 bottles of both Temptation and Supplication that were just demanding to be enjoyed with a crowd.

And enjoyed they were. In fact, if I may be so bold, my assertion that these beers and their ilk are easily loveable by a wide range of palates when in the presence of complementary foods (most of which were based off suggestions made by the remarkably accessible brewers themselves) proved itself repeatedly throughout the tasting. Unfortunately, my capacity for inspired insight has been hamstrung by the crippling exhaustion begat by pulling this event off only to turn around and hit the ground running with a brutal day at work. Summer is officially over, as it were. My brain is mush.

Rather than try to go into detail while saddled with the writing panache of a court reporter on traffic infraction duty, for now I'll simply leave you with this: A copy of the menu, and a gallery of images taken from the afternoon.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't extend a very special thanks to everyone for their involvement: Alex for *ahem* singlehandedly helping in the galley, Dave for suggesting the Allagash Interlude, JJ for paying her entry with a bottle of Isabelle Proximus, Jesse for taking all the photos, all the others for coming from far and wide to take a chance on an event that was undeniably experimental, and Des for finding the perfect apple tree. As apprehensive as we were going into yesterday, I think the question is not "if" we'll do it again, but "what" and "when".

Update: Peter has gone through the trouble to post a vividly detailed analysis of the proceedings. Thank you!

Update #2: JJ's gone ahead and posted a recap that includes some interesting opinion on the "wild ale" designation (along with the two "unofficial" tastes that concluded the day which were nothing less than spectacular.)

Update #3: Even Alex is getting into the act. Crazy Zen-themed recap action!

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Whitman's Brooklyn, black, chocolate and stout

It's certainly not every day that a libation from the storied Brooklyn Brewery finds itself propped up for a glamour shot on my cutting board, so a certain compulsion to fire up the old blogomobog was inevitable when this glorious specimen recently crossed the great divide and found its home in my cellar.

But I'd be lying if I didn't say that this tail-end of summer, with its lethagic dog days tinged with little specks of regret and hints that a return to the regular grind is just around the corner, has infected me with a serious case of vacation brain. So I present you with a distraction, this: Whitman's Brooklyn. From the description of the project:
"If Walt Whitman’s association with Brooklyn is not exactly overlooked by mainstream documentarians, then neither is it explicitly celebrated or, one might argue, sufficiently considered in the vast majority of critical analysis of his work. The fact of Whitman’s residency–he lived in Brooklyn for over half his life and twice as long as he lived anywhere else–might not seem so meaningful if Whitman’s poetry wasn’t so saturated with the physical world."
With a bit of the East River running through my veins (not literally, thankfully for my health), and not just a little love for Walt, this site is a true treasure of a find. Until I get my act together to do some proper blogging, I say "Damned fine beer," and leave you with this:
All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it;
Did you think it was in the white or gray stone? or the lines of the arches and

All music is what awakens from you when you are reminded by the instruments,
It is not the violins and the cornets . . . . it is not the oboe nor the beating drums—
         nor the notes of the baritone singer singing his sweet romanza . . . . nor those
         of the men's chorus, nor those of the women's chorus,
It is nearer and farther than they.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, p. 61

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Reminder: The new American mavericks tasting session

Just a quick reminder to all y'all adventurous Bay Area beer enthusiasts that the premiere Pfiff! beer and food tasting is coming up in two weeks - Sunday, August 17 - and there are a few spots at the table still remaining. More about the event can be found here. Whether you're a confirmed Brett-head or haven't the slightest clue what that even means, if you're in or around San Francisco and have a hankering for the wild side of new American brewing, you might want to join us.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Hints of a holiday ale, continued

What a difference a couple months makes, eh? At least not everything in my brewer's garden is an abject failure. Which reminds me: If anyone out there has any suggestions for using up all the mugwort and feverfew that grows in my yard like weeds, please let me know. Next up, heather and sweet gale...


The Session #18 - ...but once a year

Almost the definition of advertising cliché, "Christmas in July" is a post-Independence Day marketing assault that's inevitably leaked into the brewing communityin recent years. Chances are, alongside the car sales and outdoor furniture expos and everything! must! go! riding-mower clearances, there's invariably a booze dispensary near you pulling some leftover holiday wares out of their hopefully temperature-controlled back rooms and offering up a chance to indulge in some Bizarro World intoxication while they crank the AC and Bing to seasonally appropriate levels.
But for those of us who like to indulge in the creation of special, strong, spiced ales with that oh so holiday flair, there's no shame involved, since July is the perfect time to get the kettle out and start reminding ourselves what flavors go best with Contessas, as any good strong beer worth its gypsum salt is gonna need the next six months to shape up. For this month's Session, since we're talking about anniversary releases - once a year specialties that you'd otherwise only pop open for occasions of merit - we decided that it coincided quite fortuitously with the annual formulation of our holiday ale recipe, which we brew each year in early August . Along with formulating a recipe, of course, one must also do some tasting. And so we did. With glassware befitting the occasion, naturally.

(It's important to note that we're cheating a little bit here, pretending to ignore one of the subtler instructions for this month's Session: "a limited release anniversary beer from your favorite brewer homebrew stash.")

For a few years now, we've given out corked 750mL bottles of spiced Belgian ale to our worthy friends and family, and each year, thanks to some electronic goof or another, I artfully manage to misplace the recipe for the previous year's batch. So, I pour back over my notes, my shopping history, my dog-eared pages in Brew Like a Monk, and try to locate a old bottle of the stuff to sample in hopes it'll jog my memory. This time, we decided to go back two years, pulling the last of our 2006 bottles (of which I know there are some still floating out there, so if you're reading this, heed the warning below) and our second-to-last 2007 bottle. After dimming the lights, cleansing our palates, and getting Rock Band warmed up in lieu of the fireplace, we got down to work like it was the night before Christmas.

The '06 and '07 batches, while sharing identical ingredients in subtly altered proportions, turned out to be wildly different from each other when placed side-by-side. The '06 literally exploded as soon as the wire had been untied from the cork, yet stayed put in the bottle until it was ready to be poured. The '07, on the other hand, opened with a neatly clean pop, but devilishly tried to climb from the bottle in a steady cascade of foam once I'd set it aside to get the glasses ready. They were both similarly hued, with equally fluffy heads and generously effervescent, creamy mouthfeels, but that's where the similarities ended. I picked up on piles of black liquorice in the '06, whereas Des latched on to its grapey, coffee-ish qualities, ones we hadn't noticed when it was a younger bottle, while likening it to a less alcoholic Samichlaus. The '07, on the other hand, was more dubbel in character, reminding me initially of Ommegang, with strong, yeasty esters, and a brown sugar flavor that wrapped around the figgy maltiness that typically accompanies the style. Interestingly, any hints of the original spice additions would be nearly impossible to single out by name, which, as far as I'm concerned, is exactly the way it should be: The nearly imperceptible hops are replaced by a certain "spiciness" that offsets the malt, but it's an ambiguous enough effect that it lends to some fun guessing.
Just kidding about those boots.

They are, in the end, beers that so strongly reflect the sentiments of the holidays they're like liquid fruitcakes, which makes tasting them while your legs are still sore from waterskiing a bit of a contradictory experience. But, alas, these are the dilemmas we homebrewing beer blogger types must confront. So, without futher ado, here's the plucky little phoenix that arose from the tasting notes we gathered last night: a hastily drawn and perilously unchecked recipe for our 2008 holiday ale. Enjoy.

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. This month's party is being hosted by The Barley Blog. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide.

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