Friday, April 24, 2009

Fermentation Friday - But I don't even know her

Note to mom: Hi mom! Now that you've gotten cozy with your new iPhone and are regularly checking this site to see what your son's up to and whether or not there are any photos of (or by) your granddaughter, I thought it was be a good idea to give you a little "heads up" on today's writings. See, on the last Friday of every month, folks all around the globe post their thoughts on a common theme relevant to the hobby of homebrewing. I have a bad habit of writing seriously off topic items on these occasions. With that, consider yourself forewarned: This one gets pretty "inside baseball", if you will. There are no pictures of Mia, either.

When stuck in a particularly pessimistic mood, this whole "writing about beer" arena can come off as mighty insular at times, insular in a "pop will eat itself" sort of way, all Ouroboros-like in its circular back-scratching and back-biting, that pessimism perversely amplified during a week that's seen the beer blogosphere (which I'm beginning to wonder is just one big centrally located beer blog with one singularly big beer blog brain, based off the sheer amount of déjà vu one gets scrolling through their feeds over the morning coffee) all taking sides in a genuinely retarded debate around the cultural significance of a piece of filmwork whose title may remind you of a certain low-budget space opera from the disco era, alongside the near incessant reposting of another video piece that can't help make me think of a certain Nike campaign.

Thankfully it rarely takes more than something like a kit-bashing puddytat to alter one's perspective on things.

And thusly, one can view this little self-congratulatory micocosm of beer obsessives with a bit of charmed affection. Despite how the collective musings of a beer obsessed army can at times display what appears to be an alarming lack of perspective and a dangerous level of short-sightedness, there's an undeniably sunny song in there, one evangelizing the diversity, quality, and culture that the craft brewing movement brings to the table. And if you zoom in on that happy little planet of malt aficionados, you'd see a sub-population, racing across the surface, doing something for themselves, the worker bees, the oft-maligned but dutifully persistent homebrewers. Granted, they're equally - if not more - insularly referential, but unlike the folks taking up my precious "cats playing drums" bandwidth with redundantly embedded videos and press releases copied so quickly out of their email that there's little bits of broken html floating about the edges, homebrewing bloggers actually spend their spare time making stuff. And then when they write about it online, they typically help explain to others how they, too, can make their own stuff. That's pretty much all that's able to pull me out from under the cloak of blogging invisibility today. Proactive thinking. Let's make some booze, people.

And today's roundtable topic concerns the wonderful world of liquor (cue the dancing bottles). Safe to assume that we're not talking about the heated water that's used for rinsing the grains in your mash tun, liquor, better known as "booze that isn't beer" being put into service in brewing in order to add tints, shades, and shadows of other alcoholic beverages is not uncommon. The word "bourbon" alone appears five times on the BeerAdvocate Top 100 list (four times on the RateBeer Top 50), and the concept of reusing castoff whiskey barrels to age beers has become a stereotypical shortcut for brewers looking to cash in on "special edition" versions of their beers. In drawing inspiration from the craft beer world, a homebrewer has little to go on regarding the use of liquor outside of what would appear to be a conspiracy from the all-powerful secret cabal of coopers (yes, all four of them). Simply put, to most folks, liquor in brewing means barrels. We homebrewers soak oak chips in bourbon and brandy and maybe even get our club to all pitch in and try to fill one of those 31 gallon monstrosities, topping off the angel's share every so often while praying that it ends up tasting even close to its namesake.

Far be it from me to preempt what's guaranteed to be a far superior discussion on the topic, bolstered by one presenter's quantitative research, professional experience, and within an arena where one can even get some hands-on experimentation with the matter at this year's National Homebrewers Conference, let me simply say this: Don't limit yourself to attempting to imitate barrel flavors. Fun for a while, but easy to overdo and frankly, if you're a true hipster, it's totally played out. Instead, consider these two gateway scenarios:

- Once you've divorced the barrel character from the source liquor (and if you allow yourself to stretch "liquor" beyond the confines of simple distilled spirits, allowing for a more all-welcoming family of booze), consider what other flavor components exist in different varieties and how they can best complement what you'd like to achieve in your beer. Take a scotch ale, for example, in which you decide you want to add a particularly peaty character. What would happen if you complemented your addition of peated malt with the distinctively Islay aroma of something like Laphroaig? Or what if, in a an old stock ale, you wanted to add a hint of casky oxidization, and added a touch of musky Amontillado sherry? Or if in a stong, dark Belgian style ale, you wanted to emphasize the dark fruit characteristics of the yeast profile by dosing it with a spot of late harvest zinfandel?

- Beyond even that, think of the excellent extraction properties a high-alcohol solution can provide. The spirit you use need not be the end, but also the means by which you add character to your beers. Tinctures (like those pictured above*) offer a measurable, sanitary, and pleasantly controlled vehicle with which to gradually adulterate your beers. We've always sworn by the technique whereby you prepare herbal tinctures in a neutral vodka base, but in the end, many "spirits" that we know are nothing more than neutral grain spirits with various botanicals infused in them, like sloe gin. Consider the "infused vodka" rage: There's no reason why you can't use the exact same technique to add a touch of orange to your citrusy double IPA, some licorice to your Baltic porter, some lemongrass to your wheat beer, or some juniper to your holiday ale.

I hesitate to think of what might become of combining those two concepts into a third, hybrid gateway, but there's little doubt that the more experimental amongst us aren't afraid of crossing the streams. I'll be first to admit a certain stupid fondness for the odd bourbon-aged this or brandy-aged that , but in the meantime, step back for a minute, and just consider what simple, strange, mystical concoctions you could unearth by simply thinking outside the barrel.

* From left to right: saffron and black pepper; ginger, myrrh, white pepper, and curacao orange; and the ubiquitous whiskey-soaked oak.

Congratulations. You've made it this far! More on the topic, from the archives:

- Miscellaneous musings on the boozy tango between beer and liquor.

- Our first foray into reverse-engineered cocktailesque beers, the Old Fashioned. (With a followup here.)

- The story of Tokyo Fog, the beer who loved bourbon.

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



Blogger Jake said...


Thanks for posting, I really enjoyed reading your response and ideas on the topic this month! I have posted a summary post of the respondents.

11:28 AM  

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