Tuesday, January 31, 2012

He's Misstra Know It Alt

Tracy Hurst at Metropolitan Brewing has called me both an Alt Savant and a Düsseldork. I'm pretty sure it's not so much a reflection of my knowledge of Altbier as it is my passion for the style. I think most brewers pick a style or two that they really want to perfect. In my case, Düsseldorf-style Altbier is definitely my white whale.

Part of my motivation for pursuing the perfect Altbier is that I fell in love with the style the first time I tried a Diebels Alt as a college student studying abroad (I was sitting in a basement jazz club in Reutlingen, Germany, trying to summon the courage to jump on stage during their jam session, when my buddy Joon--a German-Korean saxophone player from Düsseldorf--bought me a bottle). Part of my motivation is that hardly anybody (with the exception of Metropolitan) brews a Düsseldorf-style Altbier in the U.S., so when I started brewing my only options for drinking an authentic Alt were traveling to Düsseldorf or brewing one myself.

At any rate, I'm far from an expert on the style, though I'll cop to knowing more about Alts than most American brewers. I've had the pleasure of visiting Düsseldorf twice (in 2007 and 2011) and can't wait until I go back again. I want to say the second beer I brewed was an Alt, and since then I've brewed more batches than I can remember... certainly more than any other style. I even had the pleasure of taking a day off of work to help Doug and Tracy at Metro brew their I-Beam Alt, the predecessor to their Iron Works Alt (which you all should go out and buy NOW).

All that being said, my homebrewed Alts have been inconsistent to say the least. I would go from dry and bitter to sweet and not-so-bitter and back again, always having trouble dialing in that perfect combination of maltiness, but with a dry finish, and a crisp bitter hop foundation that isn't TOO bitter. It's hard, especially at the homebrew scale where mash temps, alpha acid percentages and hop utilization can all have large margins of error.

So what have I learned? Well, first and foremost, I'm a big believer that German-style beers should get their maltiness primarily from Pilsner and Munich malts (which give a rich, bready sweetness) rather than crystal malts (which give a sugary sweetness). So I think the first thing you have to nail down is your Munich to Pilsner ratio for your grain bill. You can add a little CaraMunich (and I do add a pound of Caramunich III per ten gallons) but that shouldn't be your primary source of maltiness. (The exception is Uerige, which is all Pilsner plus a small amount of specialty malts, but it's the least traditional of the Altstadt Alts and in my opinion is too thin and thus unbalanced in its bitterness.)

Now an early mistake I made was trying to make my Alt maltier (to stand up to the hop bitterness) by upping the temperature of my saccharification rest. But I quickly learned that upping your mash temp leaves you with a fuller, sweeter maltiness, and an Alt needs a dry finish. As such, I do a protein rest at 122°F and a sacc rest at 151°F. If you want your Alt to be maltier, up the Munich; don't up the mash temp.

The final part of the equation is obviously the hoppiness. Your level of hops will be dependent on both the maltiness of your beer and your personal preference for bitterness. Nearly every American Alt I've had is too low in bitterness* (Metro's Iron Works is to style, though even that is on the low end of the spectrum by Düsseldorf standards). Our last Alt came in at an estimated 45 IBU's with an O.G. of 1051 and it just won first place in its category at the inaugural Chicago Winter Brew Fest, so I guess it strikes a nice balance.

That being said, I had a chance to try my latest Alt side-by-side with a bottle of Füchschen Alt and I've decided I want to cut my Munich down from 14 lbs. to 12 (for the record, I use Best Malz Munich II, which is a dark Munich) and up my Pilsner from 4 to 6 lbs. and then drop the IBU's closer to 40. The idea is to drop the maltiness a little (to make it slightly lighter) and then reduce the bitterness accordingly. Unfortunately there's no easy way to calculate how fewer IBU's I need to compensate for the decreased Munich, so I'm just guessing. But the result should be a slightly lighter but equally-well-balanced Altbier.

So, I guess that concludes my rambling about Alt. Let me stress once again that this isn't authoritative. It's simply what I've learned based on some reading, some tasting, and lots of trial and error. If anybody else has thoughts, I'd love to hear them. Here's to building a better Altbier!

* I should clarify that most Alts from production breweries are under-hopped. I've had several great Alts from American brewpubs, but unfortunately those tend to be one-off brews and are almost always only available on draft.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Hello, hello, it's good to be back (and I brought Glühapfelwein)

Happy New Year! I was never the most prolific blogger on the planet, but I was always really good about keeping track of my brew days . . . until this fall, that is. That's when I learned something: apparently blogging is a lot like exercising--the longer you go without doing it, the harder it is to get back into the swing of things.

See, despite not having posted since September, I've been brewing just as regularly as I always have. I've brewed another Düsseldorf Altbier, a Doppelbock for the holidays (a portion of which had maple syrup added to the secondary) and, just last week, a Munich Helles. I also fermented a hard cider. The problem is, once I got behind on the blogging, I felt like my next post had to cover everything I had done in the meantime. So the task of getting back on the blogging horse seemed to grow larger and larger with each passing day.

But enough with the excuses... Rather than go back and cover everything over the past three months, I'm going to start quasi-fresh just to get going again. I hope to fill in the gaps here and there, but for now I'll get 2012 started by sharing a recipe I came up with that I think is pretty sweet: Glühapfelwein.

To explain what Glühapfelwein is, let's start with something you might be more familiar with: Glühwein. Similar to Gløgg, Glühwein is a German mulled wine that many Chicagoans know as the stuff you can get served in a little ceramic boot if you visit the Christkindlmarket (Chicago's German Christmas market). It translates roughly as "burning wine," and it's essentially wine that's simmered with various spices popular at the holidays. It's also generally sweetened with sugar.

Now, a few weeks ago the kids and I were watching the Claymation Christmas Special (the most underrated Christmas special in the history of television) and they had a running joke about wassailing. This led me to look up some wassail recipes, and I was surprised to find that many were cider-based. Well, by pure coincidence Leah and I made five gallons of cider earlier in the fall, so this gave me an idea: what if I made Glühwein, but instead of wine I used our cider as the base?

The end result is something I call Glühapfelwein (Apfelwein, literally "apple wine," being German for "cider"), and it came out awesome. I based it off of a fairly simple Glühwein recipe I found online which only uses two spices most people already have in their kitchen--cinnamon and clove--so it can make a good jumping-off point for those who want to experiment with other spices, but I found it to be pretty awesome as-is. It also would be lower in alcohol because our cider, at around 6.5% ABV, is significantly lower than a typical red wine, so I added enough brandy to boost it up to typical Glühwein levels. And without further ado, here's the recipe:

Pour 3/4 c. of hard cider into a sauce pan; throw in one cinnamon stick. Add 1/2 c. sugar and simmer until dissolved. At this point squeeze the juice of one orange into the pot. Spear ten cloves into the peel that's left and throw that into the pot too. Bring to a low simmer for 20 minutes to a half hour. After then, take out cinnamon stick and orange peel and add 750mL or 3 c. of cider. Heat for another ten minutes or until warm and carbonation is mostly gone. Just before serving, add 1/2 c. of brandy and stir well. Makes roughly 4 6-oz. servings.

One final note I should add... Our cider is fairly dry (I fermented 4 gallons of cider until completely dry and then back-sweetened with 1/2 gallon fresh cider) so if you use a commercial cider, or if your hard cider is sweeter, you may want to start with less sugar and then add to taste. Enjoy, and happy 2012!