Friday, July 31, 2009

Fermentation Friday - The sincerest form of flattery

While one as hobby-obsessive as myself never requires a special occasion to haul out the brewing equipment, there's a definite soul-satisfying aspect to crafting beers of a purely commemorative nature. Like in the poetic alchemy I discussed briefly the other day, imbuing a recipe with a sense of story, an essence of heart, makes for a uniquely satisfying experience. Over the years as we've experimented, there's occurred a natural progression away from devising beers in accordance to a sense of style or the urge to imitate, but rather to celebrate something, whether it's the aroma of lavender plants being scorched by the last gasp of summer's heat, or the dark candied fruit and old world spices of the holiday season, or the austere mood that accompanies the deeply grounding, fathomless life change of bringing one's first child into the world. And as is to be expected, as we've deviated from the conventional, the resulting beers have gotten odder - but they're personally odd, our odd, and in that was have become more homogeneous over time.

It's oddly ironic, then, that when formulating my customary annual beer for my beloved this year, upon asking what she'd like to have ready to pour on her birthday, I was, rather than being asked to capture the smell of the color purple in a malty bock or to synthesize the guitar music of Oscar Aleman into a crisp pilsner or distill the serenity one feels when dipping your toes into a completely still lake, only to see the tracing ripples distort the passing shadow of an eagle flying closely overhead into a balanced IPA, instead challenged to simply recreate the flavors of a commercially available beer.

Even more ironic, the beer in question is brewed as a tribute to that brewer's beloved, and is named in her honor: Birreria Le Baladin brewmaster Teo Musso's wife Nora. But who am I to deny a request that's simultaneously a birthday wish and a test of my brewing prowess? That brings us to this month's installment of Fermentation Friday, wherein I cast aside all aspersions of originality and novelty, and dive in to completely ripping off the most iconic Italian brewer of the modern age.

Nora is by all accounts an exquisite beer, a fluffy, semisweet, creamy golden ale that exudes a copious amount of floral and spicy perfume, one completely bereft of any hop presence and yet etched throughout with mysterious layers of flavor that slowly reveal themselves as you go deeper into the glass. Hearkening back to its namesake's Algerian roots, the beer is drawn with a distinctively Egyptian flair. Besides incorporating an ingredient known to most people as a gift of the Magi (or conversely, as a toothpaste ingredient), its grain bill includes kamut, an Egyptian khorasan cereal grain thoroughly unfit for brewing with, which was at one time believed to be a wheat of the lineage from the ancient Fertile Crescent. And in addition to its specialty ingredients, the core beer is designed to be served as an accompaniment to foods spiced in a North African manner.

Granted, coming from a guy who puts headphones on his fermentation tanks so that the yeast have music to enjoy while they work, this isn't even close to a "weird" beer. But it's an immensely personal one, one that succeeds in his quest: "A new taste is like a new way of communicating with people. My beers try to communicate new flavours and aromas to people." And when it came to sit down and draw up the plans for my version, it became painfully obvious that I was pleasantly in over my head, that the mere act of trying to recreate one of Musso's beers I was being forced to sketch the recipe a little like him as well, a position that was very freeing, joyful, creative, and bound to engender a beer poised to "communicate" something, hopefully something pleasant.

While our version shares many of the hallmarks of (and thanks to the myrrh*, bears a striking first impression resemblance to) the original Nora, it's decidedly stronger (over 8%  versus the original 6.8%). The agave worked to help keep the body nice and light, along with adding a bit of floral sweetness. The grape juice also helped cut back the density that I feared the wheat and kamut would be providing, while additionally adding a little bit of vinous tang and "mystery fruit" aroma that goes nicely with lychee, tropical fruit esters that the Belgian ale yeast can contribute. And on top of all that, despite my initial intentions, the amount of kamut was cut back to a serviceable but inconspicuous degree, mostly out of fears that my stovetop cereal cooking technique wasn't cut out for providing a more generous portion of fermentables in the mash.

Here's how it ended up:

6 lbs Pilsner malt extract
2 lbs Belgian Pilsner malt
2 lbs white wheat
1 lb flaked kamut
1 lb Crystal 15L
1 lb CaraFoam
1 lb light agave nectar
1 lb Sauvignon Blanc grape juice concentrate

1 oz East Kent Goldings for 60 minutes

WLP550 White Labs Belgian Ale Yeast

Place kamut in small pot with just enough water to cover, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, stirring often and adding water occasionally, until it resembles a thick porridge, around 10 minutes. Add to steeping grains. Steep grains for 50 minutes at 149° F. Boil for 60 minutes, adding liquid fermentables in kettle during last 15 minutes. Once vigorous fermentation has subsided, add small amount of tincture of Curacao orange, ginger, and myrrh, gradually increasing bi-weekly over the course of 6 weeks until balance is achieved. Carbonate to about 3 volumes. Find yourself some shawerma and enjoy.

* Honestly, if you're thinking about brewing a beer with ingredients like kamut, agave and myrhh, and want to pick them all up at the same time along with a sixer of Torpedo you could do worse than living in a place like Fairfax.

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 over the weekend.


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