Old-fashioned home brewing
Legend has it that the beloved troubadour of San Francisco, Herb Caen coined the term "beatnik" at North Beach's Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe (better known as Specs). Would be wonderful were it true, had he not actually used the term in print ten years prior in the Chronicle. And as Richard Simmons (no, not that one), the proprietor of Specs points out, it's not as much a destination for beatniks as much as it's been a mecca for bohemians since the late '60s. In the space between Vesuvio's and Specs, in fact, one could probably write the story of the City's modern art movement, between the legions of cheap, thirsty night owl poets. musicians, dancers, and artists looking for something a bit stronger than an espresso at Trieste for fueling their imaginations.
Whereas Caen's drink of choice is historically agreed to have been "Vitamin V" (as in, a vodka martini), there's another cocktail that Specs doles out in equally enthusiastic measures, that being the perennial bourbon mixer of choice, the Old Fashioned. An incredible bit of magic, that. Between some good Kentucky corn whiskey, a little sugar, orange, bitters, some water, and garnished with a cherry, there's a true sense of alchemy at the results, a bit of mixological hocus pocus that attests to it being considered the origin of all cocktails. Like many of the classic drinks in its family, it's a Calder-esque game of balance between sweet and bitter, grain and fruit, wood softness and mineral hardness. Sound familiar? If you've ever brewed beer, the issues of balance between malt and hops are always ground floor concerns, with grain aroma competing with yeast esters slightly higher up the ladder, and for those of you who have played around with oak, it's the exact same rainbow of contrasts that anyone who has enjoyed a barrel-aged beer would find themselves observing.
What goes around, comes around. When recently thrown to the wind this lazy question, "What should we brew next?", a particularly vocal bad influence suggested I give up homebrewing altogether and step up to the world of liquor distillation and make him some nice small-pot secret-time whiskey-style hooch. Which, sadly, isn't in the plans for the near future. But through a glimmer of inspiration, the thought dawned on me, what possibility is there for brewing a beer that could take bourbon's place, and in its most glorious and honored form? What possibility was there in brewing a beer that mimicked a top-shelf Old Fashioned?
After hashing out the final details about what's integral to making an Old Fashioned work while enjoying some inspired barrel-aged libations at the Firestone XII release party, there were certain things we agreed on as being elemental to the success of this little experiment:
- It needs to look right: Sounds obvious, but it's often underrated just how much we take appearance into our accounting for taste. Hitting that flat-out sexy shade of polished mahogany, glints of red and orange evident against the light meant we'd get to experiment with CaraRed for a change.
- It needs to smell right: Alex has gotten me addicted to the stupidly awesome habit of flaming orange peels onto the surface of my Old Fashioneds, which results in giving the aroma a slightly marmaladey touch, one that I thought might be replicable with the judicious use of the right type of hops at the right time in the boil (although admittedly, we'll be flaming a fresh-picked orange over the kettle for good luck). Options are pretty limited at this point, so we'll be experimenting (there's that word again) with some organic Belgian Admiral hops for both bittering and aroma. Beyond that, a successful beer-as-bourbon analogue would need that distinctive aroma of charred oak and that sparkling hit of hot spice. Thanks to the simple genial wisdom of Griz, that part's easily covered.
- It needs to taste right: Any undistilled beverage trying to compete with bourbon is going to meet its biggest challenge in providing fire, that simple burn of a high proof alcohol, and it's a heat we'll only be able to get close to mimicking by making sure we've got a strong elixir on our hands. The original gravity for our batch will come in around 1.090, meaning that with a good clean fermentation from the English Ale yeast, we'll be looking at around 9.0% alcohol by volume. The malt will be paired with a slight hint of brandied cherry to outline a relative sweetness, with a good deal of cheap pilsner extract, British pale and honey malt adding a grainy mouthfeel, and the yeast hopefully completing the fruit overtones.
Here's the recipe. Consider it an Extra Specs'cial Bitter, in honor of that great, great watering hole, and the world of art that's poured forth as a result of its capacitation. Worst case scenario, it doesn't taste like an Old Fashioned as much as a Belgian double IPA. Things could be worse. As long as it stirs the soul and enables a little bit of deep, strange thinking, it's doing its job.