Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Altbier showdown!

If you're in the Chicago area and haven't tried Metropolitan's Iron Works Alt, what the hell's wrong with you??? To say it's been getting good reviews is an understatement. Check out what people have been saying about it here and here. And as you can see in the picture above, even folks who can't actually drink Iron Works still find a way to have fun with it (that would be my daughter, for the record).

Anyway, now that we have a six-pack of Iron Works in the house, and our own F5 Altbier on tap, I decided it was time to do a side-by-side tasting. Here are my notes:

Appearance: The Iron Works alt is a beautiful deep copper/amber with an ample off-white head. Ours is a hair darker--maybe more chestnut than copper--but very close.

Aroma: Some slight grassy, herbal hop notes give way to a hint of bready sweetness with the Iron Works. Mine has a slightly vinous ester note that I've noticed in quite a few of my beers lately (and with the temperature control and generous pitching rates I'm not really sure where this is coming from) along with a sweet malt note but only a slight hop aroma.

Taste: With the Metro Alt, up front you get a nice mixture of sweet Pils and Munich malts and a clean noble hop bitterness. In the middle you get some honey-like sweetness with just a touch of toasted complexity. The finish is nice and dry, but with just enough malt to keep the solid bitterness from being thrown out of balance. Really a remarkable Altbier, and definitely the best I've ever had outside of Düsseldorf.

Now as for my Alt, well... I'm not very happy with my Alt. Simply put, it's too big. The taste profile is quite similar to Iron Works, but both the malt sweetness and the hoppiness are amplified. I think you need the hops to be bigger to balance the beer, but it doesn't have that light, dry finish that the Metro Alt does, and that makes it heavier than an Alt should be. Plus there's still that damn vinous note.

So, the bottom line for now: Metro has managed to do what I've been hoping an American brewery would eventually do, and that's brew an Altbier that's not just a slightly hoppy brown ale brewed with German ingredients but is true to the Düsseldorf style (and yes, I'm familiar with authentic Düsseldorf Altbier, thank you very much) . Just how close it is will be determined in a couple months when I return from Düsseldorf with Atlbier in tow (more on that to come soon).

As for my beer, well I think I have some things to straighten out. The big thing for now is adjusting my mash schedule: I think my Munich-heavy grain bill gives me nice depth, but I need to compensate for that by going with a lower mash temperature so it finishes with a lower gravity. I know Doug and Tracy dealt with this issue by going with more Pilsner malt but I really like the depth Munich gives me (and I know Schumacher's Altbier is 100% Munich so it can be done).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

So let's blend . . . and taste . . . and coassssst.

I've never really thought about blending beers before. Other than mixing old sours with fresher batches or trying to salvage an unbalanced beer, it always struck me as gimmicky. Recently, somebody in our homebrew club discussed blending for the purpose of entering more styles of beer into competitions. Now I'm not that gung-ho about winning medals so again it didn't really interest me.

However, another local homebrew club has a competition coming up (the BOSS Charlie Orr Memorial Chicago Cup Challenge) and we're trying to encourage as many entries as possible in an attempt to win the coveted Chicago Cup. I currently have a Helles (which is a little too hoppy and will probably be entered as an Dortmunder Export) and a Dunkel that I think are quite tasty, so it occurred to me: maybe I could blend them to make an Oktoberfest and a Vienna lager! Some initial tests suggested some good possibilities, but tonight I picked up a Dortmunder (Ayinger Jahrhundert), a Dunkel (Flensburger) and a Vienna (Capital Wisconsin Amber, which is admittedly "loosely based" on the style) so I can both compare my beers to commercial examples and see if blending can make a Vienna. (On a side note, I couldn't find any commercial O-fests in March so I'll have to go by memory on that.)

So first, the comparison of my Helles (Export?) to Jahrhundert... Mine is a tad darker (a deep gold rather than straw) and somewhat opaque. It's actually weird... My first keg was crystal clear but this second keg just doesn't want to clear up. I took this second keg to Wisconsin and back but would think it would still drop clear after a couple weeks. Anyway, back to the beers. The Ayinger has more of a traditional Pils aroma whereas the Helles has a deeper breadiness. Mine is also both richer and hoppier; almost like a Maibock/Helles Bock. I think the balance is about the same; mine is hoppier, but also maltier. I'm almost tempted to enter it as a Helles Bock; while at 1053 it's way low for a Maibock (1064 minimum) it really tastes big. But it's clean, and too hoppy for a Helles, so I guess a Dortmunder Export it will be. (What's annoying is it would be perfect as a Kellerbier, but I already have on specialty beer--my Gose--and you can't enter two in the same category.)

Next, my Dunkel... Similar color and clarity to the Flensburger. The Flensburger's aroma is much more pronounced with sugar and caramel notes, almost sweet tea-like. Mine is far more muted. Flavor-wise, theirs is kind of hard to explain. I'd say the Flensburger is more toasty, like there's a touch of Carafa in there. It's also more grainy. Mine tastes a little fuller, rounder. Overall, however, I'd say these two are much closer than the Exports were. Bitterness is just about the same. It's just that tea-like flavor that I generally associate with crystal malts (mine was 100% Munich, so I wonder if they used some Pils and Caramunich malts in addition to the Munich).

So now it's time for blending! First I figured I'd compare the Wisconsin Amber (the Vienna lager) to the Flensburger Dunkel to see how they differ. I poured a little of the Amber to do a color comparison and it's a tad lighter than the Flensburger Dunkel. Taste-wise, the Amber definitely has a little more Pils-like character to it. It's lighter on the palate and less sweet. Definitely seems like maybe a 2:1 Dunkel:Helles ratio would work. Let's find out...

Much like the comparison between the Exports, the big difference here is richness. Color-wise, the Amber is a little lighter than my blend, though I'm worried that a 50-50 blend will get the color right but be too hoppy. The flavor seems to be fairly good (mine is a tad hoppier, but not much) but there's still a fullness to mine that I'm not getting in the Amber.

Based on the first blend, I tried a 50-50 blend and as I suspected it's closer in flavor profile but hoppier. Hmm...

The last thing I tried was a 2:1 Helles:Dunkel ratio for an Oktoberfest. O-fests have a decent range of color, with Oktoberfests consumed in Germany being a deep gold and exported versions being more copper, almost red. This particular blend (the one pictured at the top of this post) came out a nice honey orange. The taste was pretty damn good, too. The richness of the Helles with a slight toastiness from the Dunkel. Again, it's a tad hoppy but certainly by U.S. standards this would pass as a style-appropriate Oktoberfest.

In the end, I decided to go with the 50-50 blend for my Vienna and a 2:1 Helles:Dunkel ratio for the Oktoberfest. I'll be curious to see how each does next week. In the meantime, this has opened me up to new possibilities regarding future beers... Could I brew ten gallons of one beer, five gallons of another, and end up with a 5-gallon keg of three different styles? Seems entirely possible to me!

Monday, March 07, 2011

We're gonna have an Altbier party tonight!

Well, not tonight (unless you're reading this a week from now). But forced Black Flag references aside, I'm excited to announce that the release party for Metropolitan's Iron Works Altbier--for which I served as a taste-tester special consultant--is Monday, March 14th, at Hopleaf in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood. The fun starts at 7pm, so I hope to be there by 6:30. If you stop by, be sure to say hi and buy me a pint... after all, if it weren't for me there would be no Iron Works!* And if you can't make it, you should be able to find Iron Works starting next weekend at your local quality bottle shop (and if you're REALLY cheap, Doug and Tracy will be pouring free samples at the Lincoln Park Binny's on Friday the 18th from 5-7pm, but I guarantee you after one sip you'll grab a six-pack or two!).

*This statement is totally untrue (my job as a special consultant generally involved tasting the various batches and giving them either one thumb up or two thumbs up), but I'll say anything for a free beer.