Monday, March 30, 2009

Fog's a-brewin'

I've mentioned here recently that we've got a budding shutterbug in the house these days, a pint-size paparazza of sorts who's made her dad's Elph somewhat of a treasured playtime gadget. Here we have one of more recent works, entitled "Yeast". I resisted correcting her, in that it was actually a 2000mL "yeast starter", suspended in a simple wort of dry malt extract and nutrients, as she's likely approaching her subject from an artistic vantage point and not a purely scientific one.

For those of you who don't completely geek out on homebrewing, a 2000mL slurry of yeast starter is more than ample if you're only planning on brewing five gallons of beer. Most folks are content tossing the contents of a pitchable vial of liquid yeast (if not just a packet of the dry stuff) into their beer-in-waiting and letting nature take its delicious course. Why would I bother to waste some valuable wall-staring time with yet another routine of cooking, sanitizing, and nail-biting?

Why? Well, these are the silly types of things you do in preparation for brewing a 14% 12% alcohol by volume* batch of beer.

That beer is the topic of today's experiment: Tokyo Fog
...comes on little cat feet
It's oddly addictive, this reverse engineering technique of formulating recipes, attempting to deconstruct the hidden successes encoded in the interplay between ingredients in culinary masterpieces, reimagining them as distilled, ghostly incarnations within this wholly other medium of brewing. One such masterpiece, legendary in its time, without comparison, is the mighty Tokyo Fog. This Atomic Age bachelor pad tour de force, as inimitably described in loving detail by a man who was there to witness its resurrection on a windless July afternoon, is nothing shy of a symphony in three movements, those movements being: Coffee, Ice Cream, and Bourbon.

And what a name! Fog, particularly the coastal fog that's often referenced symbolically around here, develops over the course of the summer months, when the cool, wet air pushed eastward over the Pacific collides with warm, dry air from the inland valleys, accumulating in such bulk over specific spots in the Bay Area that they suffer through far colder summers than the other three months. It boxes and isolates, like acoustic baffling, creating a theatricality in each little space it carves out, making soundstages out of corner cafes, beach boardwalks, sage-ridden headlands, and steep, lamplit streets. Cars pass by as if entering and exiting a frame, existance beyond which nothing more than a muffled world of guesses, creating at once a heightened state of focus - conversations seem close, clear, undisputed for attention - while at the same time lending to a disorientation and sense of waywardness, what without a sun, sky, or horizon to guide you, along with that unsettling enigmatic curiosity about what lies beyond your crippled scope of sight and sound.  What better metaphor for the experience of enjoying this unholy assemblage of post-war American pantry staples? And Tokyo? I have no idea. It just adds to the mystique.

But let's return, as we always should, to beer. With a mindset similar to some of our other recent experiments, it seemed high time to attempt to isolate and translate the essence of this iconic, nostalgic treat into beer form. High time, that is, considering that a beverage of this strength and potential complexity could need up to a year to fully complete. No point in waiting any longer that we have to, right? That said, let's cut to the nitty gritty, what makes this kid tick. It's actually rather simple:
See, it's sweating because it knows what's in store for it.
Coffee: There's a nearly inescapable DIY trajectory leading homebrewers to become home coffee roasters. And as an unrepentant shill for the folks at Sweet Maria's, I'd be remiss if I didn't pimp the full city roast Guatemala El Injerto Estate 100% Bourbon beans that made their way into this batch. Taking a cue from  - where else? - Randy Mosher's oft-cited manifesto on breaking traditional brewing boundaries - we ground up some fresh-roasted beans, poured some cold water over them in a French press, and let them sit in the fridge for a few days leading up to brew day. The resulting coffee was hugely aromatic, but almost completely devoid of roast bitterness. It found its way into the kettle just about five minutes from the end of the boil. Alongside some appropriately dark specialty grains, it ought to allow for a notable but unpunishing impression of coffee.

Vanilla ice cream: This one poses a bit more of a conundrum, as I'm loathe to add any vanilla directly into a beer. To date, my tasting experiences regarding vanilla flavor as it manifests itself in beer are akin to those with chocolate, in that my personal preference leans towards the impression of those ingredients through brewing slight-of-hand (special grains, fancy fermentation methods, and the like) rather than via stubborn attempts to cram some hunks of semisweet or a few pods of Madagascar bean into the fermenters for effect. For creaminess, though, we thought the judicious use of oats and chocolate wheat malt would help offer that impression through body and mouthfeel, and knowing full well that the preposterously huge amount of malt would lead to an inevitable hit of residual sweetness, we shied away from the too-obvious addition that gives modern-day "cream" stouts their name, that unfermentable loser named lactose. As far as vanilla was concerned, though, we hoped that we could pull some of that off in concurrence with the closing, keystone element of the trinity...
Prepping the potpourri in a lake of liquid love
Bourbon: The key player in Tokyo Fog is the fine oak-aged corn whiskey, "America's Native Spirit", as it were. I've waxed poetic on the joys of bourbon and the myriad joys of marrying it with beer in the past, and to be totally honest, its use in mainstream craft brewing over the past few years has ballooned to a nearly obnoxious scale. Nevertheless, in capturing the spirit of its namesake, that icy treat made permanently slushy by said bourbon, getting some of that liquid fire in there was absolutely essential. As before, we went the Brewcraft route, this time watching nearly a fifth disappear into the oak within just a few days. Seeing as how vanillin is a well-known compound that finds its way into wines thanks to oak barrel conditioning, our plan is to not only take advantage of the "bourbon extract" we'll be generating, but also allow the beer to rest on the physical oak for a while (considering we're looking at aging this for nine months, we've got plenty of time) in hopes that it pulls through and completes the picture we're trying to draw.

Go ahead and click on the carboy geyser for the recipe, if you dare:

If there's a more satisfying image in all of homebrewing than one of a fermentation gone comically, explosively awry, I haven't seen it, and frankly, I've come to acknowledge these perilously violent emissions as harbingers of good luck, as there's seemingly been a consistent messiness-to-deliciousness ratio at work in our kitchen. The results of such havoc? You'll just have to stick around. (For about 6 months or so, unless I weaken and sneak an early sip. Or two.)

* Meet L'il Tokyo:
See, math is not my strong suit. Despite my best intentions, I miscalculated the rate of evaporation over the course of the 90-minute boil, not sure if it was the low level of propane in the tank or the brisk Alaskan wind that kept striking out in whiplash bursts from the north, or that simply, I didn't do the 6th grade level multiplication correctly, which meant that we ended up at the end of the evening with a bit more beer (yay!) than we'd expected, but inversely, at a lower gravity, and hence a lower potential final alcohol level (boo!) than we'd anticipated for. And while Li'l Tokyo might feel left out, as the 1600mL of overflow from the kettle forcibly segregated from the bulk in its little flask, we're already devising plans for how to make the little guy feel special. (In the background is a glass with which we toasted the end of a successful evening of brewing, maybe one of the closest things I've had yet to a beer-incarnate Tokyo Fog, North Coast's Old Rasputin XI. They certainly look related, don't they?) Updates on all to come...

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Fermentation Friday - From ground to grist

I'm hesitant to mention we've already covered this chapter.
I'm a bit reluctant to admit, I feel like we've been here before. One doesn't have to dig deep into this year's paltry archives to see that as far as "doing things differently" in 2009 is concerned, I'd already declared this to be my "year of the session" (which, admittedly, hasn't begun yet, but more on that next week), and figured that the subject of the new and improved homebrewer Rob 2.0 was one best left to wallow in the same closet as the other broken promises, those charted out under a post-holiday sugar-withdrawal delirium, next to the weights, and the Proust, and the vegetables. But while there's an outward similarity in this month's topic to the recent resolution-themed round of Fermentation Friday, our host for this month's carnival does seem to be searching for a slightly different angle, one pointing towards the notion of spring as rebirth, with a vernal air of optimism rather than the stern, dutifully resolute promises made in the winter. Distracted by a languorous breeze choked with pollen and busy insects and an all around procrastinate, lethargic mood, it's difficult for me to chain my body to my desk and my mind to any concrete thoughts. It's a casualty of the kindness of Nature, one that may inspire some to indulge in some spring cleaning while only convincing others that it's high time to find a nice warm rock and sink deeply into the zone of not-caring-itude.

So I turned to read a little Twain:
"San Francisco is built on sand hills, but they are prolific sand hills. They yield a generous vegetation. All the rare flowers which people in "the States" rear with such patient care in parlor flower-pots and green-houses, flourish luxuriantly in the open air there all the year round. Calla lilies, all sorts of geraniums, passion flowers, moss roses—I do not know the names of a tenth part of them. I only know that while New Yorkers are burdened with banks and drifts of snow, Californians are burdened with banks and drifts of flowers, if they only keep their hands off and let them grow...

I have elsewhere spoken of the endless Winter of Mono, California, and but this moment of the eternal Spring of San Francisco."
And my mind wandered to those very same Calla lilies in abundant bloom in our very own garden at the moment, strange, wild, oddly secret eruptions of white and yellow superflowers that haven't paid the slightest attention to how completely disregarded they've been by human care, returning annually with the wild onions and little clouds of gnats and annual grasses that point their seeds up in arrows for kids to throw at one another, and how funny I thought it was to see waves of plum blossoms shook by the wind, laying like miniature lily pads on the surface of our roiling brew kettle and how oddly appropriate it was that the beer's name was going to refer to Tokyo?

And then I bothered to read some Thoreau:
"MEANWHILE MY BEANS, the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted, were impatient to be hoed, for the earliest had grown considerably before the latest were in the ground; indeed they were not easily to be put off. What was the meaning of this so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antæus. But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows. This was my curious labor all summer — to make this portion of the earth's surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse. What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?"
Which, after a quick digression into the words of Edward Abbey, made me think of the peculiar differences in relationships we build with the plants that we sow from seed, for food, and those stowaways that find their way in to disrupt the perfectly aligned rows of life we assume to have control over, and those that just appear as if by magic, through an alchemical confluence of sun, water, wind and food, the wildflowers which come in wicked waves or not at all, and the silly way in which I document the purely ornamental growth of those tenacious weeds in pots in our yard, the ones that climb up the outside railings and banisters, like a lupulin Jolly Roger climbing the mast, flying our homebrewing freak flag high for everyone to see.

And lastly on to a little John Muir:
Father was proud of his garden and seemed always to be trying to make it as much like Eden as possible, and in a corner of it he gave each of us a little bit of ground for our very own in which we planted what we best liked, wondering how the hard dry seeds could change into soft leaves and flowers and find their way out to the light; and, to see how they were coming on, we used to dig up the larger ones, such as peas and beans, every day. My aunt had a corner assigned to her in our garden which she filled with lilies, and we all looked with the utmost respect and admiration at that precious lily-bed and wondered whether when we grew up we should ever be rich enough to own one anything like so grand. We imagined that each lily was worth an enormous sum of money and never dared to touch a single leaf or petal of them. We really stood in awe of them. Far, far was I then from the wild lily gardens of California that I was destined to see in their glory.
And then it hit me. I really need to get outside. And while we've indulged in minor homegrown additions to brews in the past, what better time than right now to really get one's hands dirty, outside, in the garden, with my daughter and a trowel and a misguided set of predictions of how it'll all turn out. We can scheme and plan, shoo away the pesky squirrels and freeze perfectly still when the hummingbirds zip in close, hoping they won't notice us, maybe fly even a little closer. But where to start, if not with the staple hops or grains? Enter this new addition to our DIY library: The Homebrewer's Garden. Don't get me wrong - I have *no* idea what experiments this new indulgence will engender, haven't not even cracked the spine on this one yet (but a hop-free herbal saison does seem appealing). Did I mention it's really quite pleasant out? Like 75 degrees, with a subtle breeze and the hint of apple blossom in the air? Too pleasant to even read, at the moment.

Many thanks to Byron at for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Spring hops eternal, again

There's a predictability in my postings that faithful readers of this blog have probably taken note of. And of no exception, this: the annual "first hops" picture post, along with the painful yet indispensable title pun. Welcome to spring, denizens of the northern hemisphere.

(Don't believe my clockwork tendencies? Check the archives.)


All part of a balanced breakfast ale

Mia prides herself on being a quality helper in the kitchen, especially in regards to the arena of baking. Any opportunity to don her mini-toque and mix, punch, dollop and squash her way through an afternoon of food prep is one she'll gleefully take up, upon realizing that's what's on the agenda quickly running to unseen corners of the house to noisily retrieve her stepping stool and perhaps even her mini-apron, keeping an eye open for a free whisk or spoon, prepared to warn anyone within earshot when the oven is hot. Astoundingly, she'll see a job through to the end, with hardly any little person attention deficit to speak of. What began as a rainy day rescue plan has now become as routine as reading or playing music or piecing together puzzles. For a kid who isn't particularly driven by food, and has even less of a sweet tooth, it's still the first thing she'll want to fill me in on when I step through the front door in the evening. If there's a totemic symbol of all that wholesome home-centric adorable fuzzy awesomeness, an icon that fits conveniently in the palm of your hand that represents the process and the product in the hendiatris of head, heart and hands, it would have to be the oatmeal raisin cookie. And if there is an act more nourishing to the development of the toddler psyche - from it's fine motor skills to its lessons on procedure and cause and effect and collaboration to its establishment of work and reward - than baking oatmeal raisin cookies, I haven't found it yet (with the possible exception of the wholesome family singalong).

Think I'm getting soft in my old age? A whole post about baking cookies with a little kid? Give me a break. Your reward is forthcoming, for having made your way this far. It's still all about the beer. Nourishing, centering, fulfilling, "breakfast for dessert of vice versa" beer.

Beer, in today's case, born with the heart and soul of an oatmeal raisin cookie. Let's make some, shall we?

Because face it: homebrewing is a lot like baking, in many ways moreso that cooking. Ability to follow directions with an underlying understanding about the purpose of each step, the use of time and chemistry as the major catalysts, and the focus on a core set of a few simple ingredients are all hallmarks of baking and brewing. In the interest of putting together a recipe that capitalizes on the highlights of fresh, chewy, pungent, homebaked delightfulness, entrapping all those facets of a child's culinary masterpiece within a prism of their dad's favorite beverage, it makes sense to single out some slightly unorthodox brewing ingredients that could potentially make the difference:

Toasted oats: Well, duh, you say. Oats, in oatmeal cookies? Genius. Sure, but while oats have a celebrated history in brewing, the typical flaked oats that find their way into a brewer's mash tun have a far more neutral character than those that have spent some time sweating it out in a hot oven. Following a tip from Randy Mosher's most excellent Radical Brewing, we took a half pound of hand-picked Grade A local hippie co-op approved bulk oats and spread them out on a baking tray in a 300° F oven until the house was unmistakeably haunted by the ghost of deliciousness. Allowed to rest for a few days in the interest of casting off any harsh residual chemicals conjured up by the toasting action, they were then added in with the remainder of the grist.

Raisin puree: If it weren't enough for us to be "radical", the least we could do would be to include something "extreme". Thanks to Sam Calagione's treatise on that very subject, we experimented with a new approach to freeing up all the trapped fermentable sugars trapped in a half pound of raisins. Simply enough, put the raisins in a blender with a cup of hot wort from the kettle, frappe them beyond recognition, dump the resultant goo into your kettle about ten minutes shy of the end of your boil, and relax.

Candi, candi, candi, I can't let you go.
All my life, you're haunting me. I loved you so!

Homemade candi sugar: The image of oatmeal cookies as the health-conscious option on the bakery shelf is a bit strained, as everyone knows the most important ingredient is still sugar. Sweet sweet sugar. So what better opportunity, then, for us to attempt to knock out some amberescent candi sugar by following these simple instructions? The beauty of doing this yourself, like the toasted oats, is that you're completely in control of yet another deeply flavorful brewing component where you can dial in to whatever nuance you'd like to convey. As the sugar cooks, it gradually darkens in color, slowly developing more deeply toned aromas, going from a spun-sugar cotton candy scent into something more richly toffee-ish, caramel-like. Next time we'll have no choice but to go even darker to see where that takes us...

Chances are, despite the duplication of some key ingredients and the resultant intensely comforting waves of olfactory bliss that permeated the home with window-steaming warmth, the finished product in the glass will likely be as akin to an oatmeal raisin cookie as our Old Fashioned Ale was to its namesake cocktail (as in, "not very"). But was it delicious? Indeed it was. Perhaps we ought to chalk this up to my budding theory on the built-in success of backwards engineered brewing recipes. We shall see.

The recipe is here. (It's no small coincidence that the ingredient menu has an "odds and sods" look to it, smidges of all sorts of character grains and an odd stylistic ambivalence, because that's exactly what it is: a leftovers batch. But what of the beer that warranted all these castoff ingredients? What possible Frankenstein of an experiment could have yielded these scraps? To be revealed in our next episode: Tokyo Fog.)

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Friday, March 06, 2009

The Session #25 - At lagerheads

A few months ago, the little kerfuffle over the increasingly curious nature of The Session topics came to a bit of a head when Jay posted his "open letter" (like there's any other kind on teh internets), wondering aloud whether some fuzzy barriers needed to be put into place in reining in the subject matter that's taken up each month in this carnival. As someone who gleefully participated in subverting what might be considered an arguably staid (and while we're being honest here, not terribly exciting for folks like myself to read) topic set, I didn't feel it was necessary to chime in regarding what ought to be a "proper" Session question. (I sort of figured that the thirty-one people who opted to respond to my hosting was proof enough that there's room for questions that were a little on the silly side. And I'd be lying if I didn't recognize how obnoxious I was being at the time.)

So the people of the brewblogosphere all lined up like good little ducks and started back on the track of ticking off styles like we're at some BJCP rally. Tripels marked the ostensible return to normalcy, a topic that I played along with mostly nicely. Fine. Always game for a good challenge. But now this. The description might have made more sense if it read like this:

Hey, people. In direct opposition to logic and in the presence of a global economic collapse that's sent most of us into a Stone Age level of hoarding panic, I'd like to ask you all to take some of that very hard earned money of yours and dish it out on swill. That's right. I'd like you to forgo one of the basic foundational reasons why you bother to write about beer (that being the desire to excite and encourage people to explore the world of beer that exists beyond said swill), take some money that could have gone to feeding your child, or fending off medical debts, or keeping the bank from ripping away the roof from over your head, or - oh, who am I kidding? - money that could have to gone buying some really good beer, and give it right back to the same industry against which you waste valuable Boing Boing Gadgets-reading time mustering opposition, and then allow me to sit back and chuckle while you throw yourself through a literary blender trying to come up with something readably interesting to say about how - let's admit it, shall we? - you felt you were on the sick-n-wrong end of a urine specimen test gone horribly awry.

Of course, that might be a little bit of an exaggeration. But the truth is, the division between what many of us would lump into the fancypants beer pile versus mass-produced garbage is almost as linear as the division of the yeasts used to ferment the finished products. Around here (and please note that this whole rant is epicentered on a small stub of land poking precariously into the Pacific Ocean on the western coast of the United States), the roots of the problem are fairly clear - Industrial Revolution brewing practices allowed for mass market, roundly acceptable tasting lager beers that stormed easily back into the waiting and weak palates of the post-Prohibition age. It was only through cultish geekiness that ales made their way back onto the market, and with them, the badge of "craft" honor, the promise of "handmade" beers, made by people who "care", not like some insulting, artificial, machined nonsense wrought by assembly line machines. And it's a badge that ale has somewhat unfairly worn throughout this whole beer renaissance we're currently enjoying, one that has the unfortunate side effect of handicapping high quality lager beers' entries into the fray, and leaving us thirsty folks with a deeply divided selection. There are obvious exceptions: A handful of European imports manage to maintain a "premium" status, and some braver-than-I small breweries like Moonlight embrace the intricacies of cold-fermentation as part of their core mission. But in its current incarnation, the difference between which finger you stick out while hoisting a beer can still be split between the family lines. So while our host this month is looking for "lager love", even specifying "pilsners, light lagers, helleses" - beers that I would trade all the Anchor Steam (kind of a lager!) in the world for, were I on the proper continent - it's the kind of love that a beer geek like me, stuck out here on the edge of the Pacific Plate as I am, finds rather difficult to muster.

To the task at hand: Not to come off like a complete spoilsport, I looked around to see if there were any available subjects, but as it turns out, there aren't lagers of any sort to be found in our fridge, or our cellar, or floating in the melted ice of the old keg bucket in the garden, the most recent treasures to be enjoyed from abroad long gone. The nearest relative in the vicinity is a carboy of homebrewed imperial pilsner chortling dutifully away in the fridge in the garage, but that seems like exactly what our host is asking us to ignore for the time being: a lager in most obtuse sense, brashly American and odd and begging for attention and flirting with all the hallmarks of the extremitude that often go hand-in-hand with the nu-craft scene. I wonder, then, if this can even be counted as a true Session post (see, there's that subversive streak again), as there's no tasting notes to comment on here. No cheap cans of beer around to stage for perverse portrait photos, no desire to crack open my wallet to bring some into the house, just some silly little metal frame built for shoving it up some poor poultry's ass.

In other news, my two-year-old has recently taken up the hobby of digital photography (hence the leading image in this post). I only mention this as in case someone's thinking of making the April topic "Lite and lo-carb beers: How freaking awesome are they or what?!" or some such crap, I'll be posting a gallery of her recent work in silent protest.

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. This month's party is being hosted by The Beer Nut. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide. You can also follow folks' entries on twitter by searching for posts marked with the #thesession hashtag.