Monday, January 16, 2012

Hoppy beers and age

I had the chance recently to do an IPA tasting with a few of my drinking buddies.  I claimed this IPA tasting to be the best ever done in Oklahoma, and I feel that I might actually be able to make a case around that point.

I only need one piece of evidence:

From left to right:
Pliny The Elder - Russian River Brewing Company (California)
Hello, My Name is IPA - my Dogfish Head 90 minute clone from last January
Ruination IPA - Stone (California)
Myrcenary IPA - ODell (Colorado)
Inversion IPA - Deschutes (Oregon)
90 Minute IPA - Dogfish Head (Delaware)
Furious - Surly (Minnesota)

The lessons learned from sampling all these beers were pretty simple.

1. Fresh is better.  The 90 minute itself had aged reasonably well, but with it being well over a year old it was just syrupy sweet.  My 90 minute clone suffered from the same problem, but to a greater extreme.  There was little hop flavor or aroma left.  Conversely, the Pliny had been bottled in mid-December, and it was an amazing hoppy experience.

2. Lighter and dryer finishes are better - in our opinion.  When working through all these beers in a night, we didn't want to feel full or bloated, and the dryer finishing beers (pliny, ruination) were much more well received.  It just was a more pleasant DRINKING experience, as opposed to a 'sipping' experience.  This may have been tied to mood, or quantity, but it's something that I feel generally holds true.  I tend to reach for a barleywine or imperial stout when I'm in the mood for a sipper.

3. Roastiness just isn't a flavor we want in an IPA.  We found the roastiness in the Surly Furious to be an interesting taste, but not one that we wanted to go back to.  This could be tied to age somewhat - this particular can was probably about six months old, and the balance may have faded.

4. Bitter isn't a flavor - it's a complement.   This is directed at the Ruination.  I have had a number of Ruinations, and loved every single one.  But when it's stacked up against some of the other beers above, you lose the taste of the hops due to the overwhelming bitterness.  The Ruination name is appropriate - it really does ruin your palate.  After drinking that beer we all agreed we still love it, it just wasn't as well balanced as some of the others due to the extreme bitterness.

5.  There's a reason why Pliny the Elder is held in such high regard by the beer community.  It really is just. that. good.  The piney aromas and the well-balanced flavors and bitterness made this beer the head of the pack. 

6.  Unfortunately, the bottle of Inversion I procured appeared to have gotten infected.  It was the last of the six pack and I don't remember off flavors in any of the other bottles.  But this one definitely had some funk in it, perhaps a strain of Brett. It was a shame that we couldn't line it up against the others appropriately.

Trying to apply these lessons to my beer is easier said than done.  I already have a pretty solid base IPA, and I would like to keep it from going too extreme in any direction.  The trade-off is, most great beers are GREAT due to their uniqueness. I need to spend some time thinking what notes, if any, I would want to emphasize.

Still, there's a couple obvious lessons:  First, I should probably focus on making my beer just a bit lighter.  The pound of Caramel 60 I had used in it wound up giving it a darker color than I intended, and I feel it may have offset the hops just a bit too much.  I may switch to a pound of Caramel 40, or a blend of Carapils and Caramel 60.

Second, fresher is truly better.  I need to make sure I'm kegging/bottling my IPAs while they are at their strongest - about a month after brewing, in my opinion.  I'm also not sure I will keep as much stashed back of my future batch IPAs as I do with other beers, as the age factor renders it a far less interesting beer.

Finally, I'm thinking I need to up my late hop additions.  I'm sure I've experienced the lupulin shift at this point (where your palate gets accustomed to hops and wants more and more), but I like the big, bright hop flavors and aromas in an IPA.  I may up the bitterness to balance it and allow it hold a bit longer, but only slightly.  I want to avoid going down the road of the Ruination.

I'm glad we took the time do something like this.  The learning experience from sampling these beers side by side has taught me a lot.  Building a great IPA is definitely a challenge, and one I'm glad I've accepted.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

12-12-12 Wee Heavy Brew Day

This past weekend the wife left town for the day to visit some relatives, and it gave me the opportunity to have a brew day and catch some of the NFL Wild Card games.

The next batch that I had been planning on brewing was an extremely strong Wee Heavy, as defined in this thread on HomeBrewTalk.  I wanted to finally participate in one of the recipe swaps on this forum, rather than looking on jealously as I had in the past.  I figured this would purely be a 'for fun' beer, as I highly doubt a 12% ABV Scottish ale could be made part of any successful rotation.

I'd actually had this beer on my mind for well over a month, but I needed to get my hoppy 80 schilling beer finished before I would have a chance to reuse that yeast.  I'm aware that I could have simply stepped up a starter separately, but having pitched large beers on a yeast cake in the past with great success, I preferred to do it that way.

The general guidelines for the recipe were fairly straightforward:
20lb UK Pale Malt
4oz Roasted Barley
Scottish Ale Yeast
UK Hops to ~30 IBUs

I put a slight variation on mine by adding 2oz of Chocolate malt.  I did this because I like the effect that the Chocolate malt has on a wee heavy.  In the past when I've made a Wee Heavy, it's been only pale malt and chocolate malt, without any roasted barley.  So in the interest of combining these two recipes, I settled on the following:
20lb Maris Otter UK Malt
4oz Roasted Barley
2oz Chocolate Malt
mash @ 151 to keep mostly fermentable, but with a bit of body

1oz Challenger (UK) hops @ 45 minutes
1oz Challenger (UK) hops @ 35 minutes

This would be pitched on the yeast cake of Wyeast 1728 Scotch Ale yeast from my hoppy scottish 80 shilling, which I've decided to name "The Shinning" in an homage to Groundskeeper Willie.

The first thing I did was crush my grain directly into my mash tun, and I very quickly got concerned.  This was the second biggest beer I've ever done, and when my 10 gallon cooler was already full up to the 6 gallon mark from dry grains alone, I started to get nervous.

But there was no reason to panic.  Some quick googling helped me find a 'will it fit' mash tun calculator, and I wound up adding just a shade over six gallons of mash water, which fit just fine.

After a standard 60 minute mash, I ran the first two gallons of runnings off into a separate pot so I could caramelize them down.  This is an important step for this version of the recipe.  The caramelization helps provide the color, body, and sweetness that are required.

I got that going on one burner, and ran the rest of the first runnings into a second pot which I started heating on my second burner.  While this was going on, I sparged with a little over six gallons over the top of the mash.  This was designed so that I could collect a full 10 gallons of wort, which I would then boil down.

I did this for several reasons.  The first is so that I could extract as much of the sugars as possible from this grain bill (higher efficiency).  The second was to compensate for boil loss in the second pot as the first pot boiled down.  The third was to be somewhat true to style, and get additional color and body from the long boil.  The wife's dog helped me out during this process.

From here, it was a LONG day.  I started the boil process around 1pm.  I wasn't done cleaning up until around 7pm.  It took about four hours of boil to get where I needed to be.

I had hoped for a shorter day, but two things went wrong.

The first was that I ran out of propane for the caramelization burner.  I had hoped to take the two gallons down to 2 quarts or less, but the propane kicked after an hour and I had only boiled down to 1 gallon.  I didn't see a choice, so I added that gallon to the main pot, which gave me a little over 8 gallons at that point.  I was shooting for a 6 gallon batch, but as I got closer to 7 gallons I realized my gravity was a bit low.  I was shooting for an original gravity of around 1.100, but the refractometer readings I took during the boil implied that I was low, and that it was likely to come in under that value.  Rather than add malt extract or sugar, I decided to boil it down to closer to five gallons.  So I did!

With a little under 6 gallons in the pot, I added my first batch of hops and started a 45 minute timer.  Added the second batch 10 minutes later, and killed the gas after 45 minutes.  I wound up with just about five gallons of beer in the pot, and a gravity reading of 28brix, which translated into 1.115 in original gravity.


It appears I either misread my earlier reading, or that it boiled down faster than I expected near the end.  Either way, this is going to be one STRONG beer.

To put that number in perspective, that means that about 16% of this beer is pure sugar.  If that was able to completely ferment out, I would wind up with a beer that's stronger than most wines.  Now, that won't happen - this beer is likely to finish around 12-13%.  Still, it's going to be a beast.

Of the five gallons in the pot, I was able to get a little over 4.5 into the carboy on top of the previously mentioned yeast cake.

It's now happily fermenting away at 55 degrees, and will definitely need a long time to age before it's ready.

I'm thinking that in about two weeks, I may rack it into my oak barrel and let it take on some of the oaky and boozy flavors from that for a few months.  I still haven't decided.  Either way, it's many months away from being even close to drinkable.  It will ideally be hitting its prime on 12/12/12, which is the day we're all supposed to swap and sample our different versions of this beer.

I'm looking forward to this one.  It's the first beer I've made in a while that wasn't for research or experimentation purposes.  This one is purely for fun, and it feels like it.  Hopefully that comes through in the final product.

Update 2/7/12: I kegged this beer last night.  It finished at 1.028, giving it an ABV of 11.9%..  Definitely a big boy.  I like this beer already - it's very sweet and smooth, and has a lot less alcohol burn than I expected.  It's going to spend a couple months in the keg until my oak barrel is free, at which point I'll move it into the barrel.