Friday, October 31, 2008

Fermentation Friday - The monster mash

"Scalability" quickly entered the pantheon of flak jargon when companies like Oracle and PeopleSoft were dominating business technology news back in the early 90's, thanks to its futuristic-sounding yet moron-friendly ability to insinuate a system that would never need replacing, but upon which one could build and modify to suit your needs. That caveat aside, admittedly, one of the loveliest things about homebrewing is its stupidly delicious scalability. That one, with the materials on hand in most American kitchens, along with the same simple staple ingredients for making bread, can make beer on one's stovetop, is primally alluring. That one could also delve in to the degree of rocket science, working with a level of complexity of engineering and technique that rivals the largest brewing facilities in the world and still call it homebrewing is nothing shy of mind-boggling. Today's tale comes from that precipitous, barren no-man's-land somewhere between those two extremes, between pure simple impulsive joy and cool, experienced confidence. Today's installment of Fermentation Friday comes from that point when an intrepid yet amateur all-grain homebrewer decides to challenge himself, and fails disastrously, terrifyingly. Today's tale, in the vein of homebrewing horror stories, is about triple decoction mashing. I must warn you! This tale is loaded with geeky terminology that may prove more boring than terrifying.

At it's heart, the concept of decoction mashing is deceptively simple. So simple, in fact, that as a consistent method for extracting stubborn sugars at various discrete temperature stages, one doesn't even need a thermometer to achieve quality results. Using the boiling point of water as a constant, the only measurement that's crucial is the volume of the mash that's being handled. In other words, rather than needing to know that you want to bring your mash up from "Blood-warm" to 140° F, you would need to know that you had to draw off one third of your mash, boil it, and return it to the tun. Want to raise it again? Pull off another third, boil it, and return it. Simple, ingenious, and downright medieval. Of course, there are reasons why hardly anyone uses this technique anymore (to the contrary of what the above link purports). But, in the search for what we deemed a proper, authentic pilsner, we took that path. Like Hansel and Gretel happily wandering into the forest only to come upon a delicious-looking cottage, we delved in while having no idea what wickedness lay ahead, nibbling ignorantly away while our trail of breadcrumbs has been cleared.

For the most part, the whole activity of laying out the proper measurements for the correct volumes of water and weights of grains and the timeline and all that jazz went fairly smoothly. Sure, it all took extra time, but such is the nature of quality craftsmanship, right? Without needing to make any major adjustments, we successfully stepped the temperature up over the course of an hour and then let it rest for another hour. By the time we'd reached that final saccharification rest, though, a more experienced brewer would have noticed that something had already gone horribly wrong. How were we to know that the dense, cement-like porridge we'd created was going to be completely unsuitable for brewing? By the time we started the fly sparge, the mash resembled one of those petrified oat pucks you find in permanent residence next to the cash register at your local FTO coffee dispensary. The liquor began to run, the sparge arm began to spin, we opened the outlet valve... and nothing came out.

Well, not nothing. A weak dribble of whatever cloudy liquid had managed to settle below the false bottom dripped out into the vorlauf pitcher, but nothing more. On the surface of the mash, however, hot liquor was quickly accumulating. Thinking some malt had managed to clog the outlet, I tried blowing back up through the outlet to dislodge it, without any luck. Jamming the mash fork into the grain bed did nothing to help the situation either. Cursing, I closed the sparge valve and dumped all the grains into the kettle so that I could examine the outlet from the inside and try to determine why it was stuck. (Could it be the high-grade imported malt concrete we'd prepared? Nah.) After managing to run some hot water through the outlet to assure that it was functioning, we dumped the mash back into the lauter tun to again try to get the sparge going, trying hard not to think about how badly the results had been compromised by all that handling of the mash.

Again, the sparge arm starts up (after having had to refill and reheat the liquor tun) and the water level again begins to rise. And again, the same steps: blowing into the outlet, mixing it with the fork, dumping it into the kettle and cleaning the outlet from inside. And again, like an interminable tide of despair, the rising water refused to permeate the mash, the outlet wouldn't run, and our hopes for a sunny outcome to the day were quickly diminishing. When I decided to try to blow up through the outlet one last time, delusionally imagining that our efforts were in some way salvageable, the gods of brewing decided they'd had enough fun taunting me and unleashed their final insult. The bulkhead (ours being a simple rubber stopper with copper tubing run through it which has since been replaced), after having been manipulated far more than its design warranted, gave way. All the wort that had collected in the tun while my pathetic rescue attempts had been underway came pouring out, all over me, all over the ground, everywhere except for in the kettle. Like a brewer's caricature of a little Dutch boy, I desperately tried to reattach the bulkhead to stem the outpouring, but it was no use working against the hot and sticky flow of five gallons of liquid gold. We just watched it go. Haarlem would have drowned by my failure.

It was an unmitigated blow to my brewing confidence, seeing a day's work collapse like that, literally watching money pour down the drain. And while it hasn't dimmed my enjoyment of all-grain brewing, we've never again attempted to decoct any of our mashes, a fact that plagues me every time I taste one of our doppelbocks or mãrzens and have that nagging feeling on the periphery of my tastebuds: Could this have been better, if only? If only.

This month, Pfiff! has the privilege of hosting Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2. If you'd care to participate, either post a comment here or send me an email, and I'll include your entry in the roundup that we'll be posting in the next day or so.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Been too flubbered lately to post...

But there's always time for Photoshop. And for brewing. And now, alas, for twitting, too.

Many updates coming soon, most certainly.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Announcing October's inevitably spooktacular Fermentation Friday

That my strange sense of compulsion was deep and overwhelming is shewn by its conquest of my fear. No rational motive could have drawn me on after that hideous suspicion of prints and the creeping dream-memories it excited. Yet my right hand, even as it shook with fright, still twitched rhythmically in its eagerness to turn a lock it hoped to find. Before I knew it I was past the heap of lately fallen cases and running on tiptoe through aisles of utterly unbroken dust toward a point which I seemed to know morbidly, horribly well...*
Your beer cellar, perhaps?

October 31st marks this month's entry in homebrew blogging's monthly Fermentation Friday carnival, one that we're lucky to be hosting here at Pfiff! Lucky, that is, because despite all attempts to otherwise fashion a unique, creative topic around which we could all gather and warm our hands by like some big psychic bonfire of brilliance (attempts that failed, repeatedly), it's of no use anyway. Trying to avoid the obvious was like trying to steer light out of a black hole. Lucky, because it's Halloween, kids. Which leads us to the obvious theme for this month: It's time for y'all to whip out your best homebrewing horror stories. Extra points for tales of woe told in true campfire fashion, and head straight to the front of the class for a bonus handful of candy corn if there's a deliciously ironic twist in the end. If there's one experience we're certain is common to anyone who's ever homebrewed, it's a disastrous tale worth sharing in order to scare the hell out of other homebrewers.

Hopefully we can all learn valuable lessons from these wretched homebrewing legends. Or not. Send along your submissions on Samhain either to or by posting a comment in this here blog post. I'll plan on wrapping up the roundup on Saturday, November 1st in order to provide you with a megadose of terror. Until then, beware!

* H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Out of Time


Friday, October 03, 2008

The Session #20 - Peculier, isn't it?

There's an amazing array of microclimates in the Bay Area, thanks mostly to curious geography, a dramatic maritime influence, and an alternating of coolness and hot air from the legions of fixed-gear bike riders. Within minutes upon crossing the Golden Gate bridge, for example, it's not uncommon for the temperature to swing by twenty degrees, especially in the summer, when the supreme fog-producing power of the Marin Headlands and Golden Gate Park gets into high gear, beating back the waves of heat rolling in from the Central Valley with a tenacious soup of dampness so incarnate that folks mistaking it for rain is easily forgiven.

Outside of the grasp of the fog, which makes itself at home nearly year-round, erasing any semblance of passing seasons, the world carries on as usual. Having spent the majority of my life under that cozy blanket of gray gravy, though, the past four years living out on its periphery have been somewhat enlightening (summer hot! winter cold!) if not also tinged with nostalgic longings for such simple things, like wearing black year-round, never really needing sunglasses, and subsisting on a diet solely based on comfort food.

Having a perilously iffy memory, I hadn't actually intended on participating in this round of the Session, but thanks to an unlikely convergence (and I guess that's how memory works, anyway) of this image, along with the strangely unseasonable (if not entirely uncommon in these parts) appearance of my old friend Boss Fog crawling westward through the trees, having clamored over Nicasio Ridge, wading through the forest of Geronimo Valley, and finally pushing past White Hill down into the Ross Valley, up into the cuffs of my shirt and the legs of my pants, that old familiar chill down in the bones that led Mark Twain to not make make mention of it, I was struck by the realization that I can't imagine enjoying a Theakston's Old Peculier without the lingering visage of Mario's Bohemian Cigar Shop in North Beach, nor the accompaniment of a fine, fat, Italian sausage sandwich on grilled focaccia.

The same place where I first experienced Ommegang, early in my awakening love for yummy beers, Mario's is an unassuming joint in a neighborhood thick with unassuming joints, not a "beer" place by any means, nor a destination diner truly worthy of the commute it would take me to get there now by virtue of its offerings alone. There is the endless procession of the fantasy fishbowl provided by the foot traffic of Washington Square, there is the seemingly always available window seat from which to view it, and there are the tiny tables at which voices can get close and quiet and conspiratorial, all at the expense of those unknowing tourists and troublemakers out there on Columbus Ave.

A dark, different, yet easily quaffable beer that stands up kindly to the thickest Sunday gravy, Old Peculier was a great introduction to the concept of dark, robust old-slash-strong ales in the British tradition, a far cry from the stouts and porters of the Pacific Northwest. Not surprisingly, it's also quite at home when set in front of a monochrome backdrop of vaporous, gooey fog. The tinges of nostalgia kicked in when I saw that image on my screen, while out the window to my right, the bay trees were disappearing into a gradual, erasing mist.

And now the real rain is closing in, which brings Eugene, Oregon back to mind, and along with it, many, many other beers. First one: Mississippi Mud. Busting open fake jugs with Alex while breaking my knuckles trying to crack John Hurt's fingerstyle code. Don't ask me why that one, and not one of the amazing, iconic brews of the region that impressed upon my palate so, helping to turn me into the snob I am today.

I think that about does it. There's really no narrative closing here. It's just a memory, after all. I'm just happy to know that my horrible inability to reminisce with clarity doesn't mean that with the right stimulus, a a place and a mood and a time in my life can be brought so quickly, whip-crackingly back into focus like that.

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


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Back-to-back Bourbons

Amongst my litany of shameful hobbies, one is an undying affection for the Sunday comics. An unhealthy obsession that ought to have died along with my childhood, it's a pathetic escapist addiction that the internet has resurrected, the online comics page standing in for the smudgy color print not only literally, but psychologically, cooling off and numbing a brain run feverish at the tail end of page after page of bad news [note: no links needed there, right?].

Of those back page shenanigans that have always been a draw, it's the "find six differences between these two panels" items that are stupidly, confoundingly irresistible. Typically, like most acerbic post-post-modern wannabe hipster cynics, I hide behind the satire of snarkily-written comics commentary to blanket my adolescent compulsions, but if you really want a regular dose of high vulpine drama, you need to go straight to the Slylock Fox source on a weekly basis. I'm sorry to have to admit all this. At least I'm not one of the creepy Cassandra Cat people. Anyway...

Regardless, the vertical tasting experience can be the beer lover's "find six differences" opportunity. (Keeping with the comics analogy, a horizontal tasting would be when you find yourself comparing the different artists' styles in Gil Thorp. I'll stop there.) Take for example, the extraordinarily rare opportunity afforded to me by Virgil (from a package known here as "The Gift of the Virgi") to not only get a taste of an elusive and exclusive beer that's typically unavailable on this coast - Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout - but also to have the even more rare opportunity to taste two vintages, '06 and '07, side-by-side. Since 1994, when it was originally brewed to commemorate their 1000th batch, this Midwestern take on the Imperial stout is now made as an annual special release, each batch being slightly different. Whereas in a horizontal tasting of various bourbon barrel-aged Imperial stouts, you'd be put in a position to recognize the particular traits of various brewers, a vertical tasting lets you focus on the subtleties of one brewery's specific vision, along with the effects of aging. And oh, what a beer to play this little game with...

There isn't much that I can say about Bourbon County that hasn't been duly noted by a million other writers out there over the past 13 years: It's a hugely alcoholic (the two samples we had were 11% and 13%, respectively), soot-black stout that's brewed with seven types of malt ("so big, the malt was coming out of the top of the mash tun") and aged for 100 days in castoff bourbon barrels. So rather than go through some labored poetry over its blackness, intensity, or its.. blackness, Des and I came up with some retardedly simple six differences between the two, which is much easier than trying to describe just how delicious these beers truly are:

- oh so very chocolaty
- raisiny like dark rum
- surprisingly nutty

- boozy hot fire
- charred wood
- coffee beans

So the question now of course, is will the '07 taste like the '06 when it's paired, next year, alongside the '08? Will the bourbon and alcohol fade into the background over a year's time? Or are we looking at a beer so singularly aggressive that all the brewer's attempts at consistency are shaken off this juggernaut's massive presence? Or more like Mark Trail's fist o' justice? (Had to get that last one in.)


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Äppelwoi experiment, part IV

During the second-to-last stage of racking the cider into a secondary fermentation vessel, it turned out there was a smidge of a surplus of our little trial at replicating a Frankfurt-style applewine, not enough to warrant prepping a new fermenter, but just the right amount for prepping a small half liter bottle for some quick cold conditioning and a preliminary taste. This past weekend, with the quickening shortened hours of the onset of autumn at odds with a true summer's heat, it was the obvious opportunity to check in on our little experiment.

And, not bad. It had more in common with the exemplar Äppelwoi than I'd anticipated, especially considering its youth and the fact that we had forgone mimicking the barrel-aging process. Dead flat, dry, slightly tart yet completely redolent of a freshly sliced sweet apple, all flowers and honey and just a hint of earthiness, it was close to my memories of the later, spring taste of that individually German cider style. (In fact, the final gravity came out to .995, which meant that it's come out to just over 9% alcohol by volume. Strong by conventional cider standards, sure, but gone is the candy and the stickiness, the fear that you might be attracting yellowjackets by merely sitting it out, and in its place the very edge of the essence of wine, the very hint of it.)
Time will likely clarify it, and we'll certainly be carbonating it slightly to capture the mouthfeel of a cask under pressure, but it's not a bad start. Will it retain its more expressive aromas as it ages, or will they drop out, leaving it slightly on the bland side? Would it have benefited from a more tannic backbone to help keep itself straight during the last of its conditioning? Time will tell. Hale's already appearing at the farmers' market with wilder heirloom varietals and potential for strange cider making galore. Hard to keep it all straight, make room for all this experimenting, hoping the holidays bring thirsty, thirsty, equally experimental guests to our door...