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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Blogger Unknown said...

Nice. I'm anxious to hear how this one turns out. I just bottled something akin to a big, big porter that topped out at about 9.8% ABV. My heftiest so far, for sure. It involves a popular wine varietal here too - more on that another time.

My last batch (my frozen yeast batch) I decided to let sit on 4 oz of American oak soaked in straight bourbon. Two weeks in the secondary. I got vanilla, but more than that, oddly, coconut.


7:10 PM  

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