Saturday, June 30, 2012

Brew day: Saison D'Etre

Back in the dark ages, before Leah and I had kids, Leah brewed her first solo beer--a Saison that we called "Saison D'Etre"--and she ended up winning third place in her category in the 2005 Queen of Beer competition.

Fast forward to 2012. In a week we're having a joint birthday party for my oldest daughter (who's turning 6), my youngest daughter (who's turning 2) and my sister's two boys (she's due with her third in about a month, so we figured we would spare her the chore of throwing a birthday party while over eight months pregnant). However, due to poor planning (and the fact that the Roggenkölsch we brewed a few weeks ago is earmarked for a block party) we found ourselves in need of beer with only two weeks between our one available brew day and the party.

What could we brew that quickly? I have two go-to beers when I need something quick (our Step Leader Hefeweizen and our Village Green Mild Ale) but we've brewed both of those recently. Thinking of other options that are quick but also fairly accessible for non-beer-geeks, I suddenly remembered the Saison that Leah brewed. Perfect! Unfortunately, I didn't have the recipe handy (it was brewed when we were still doing extract batches and so I don't have records in Beersmith) but I decided to modify my gluten-free Piper at the Gates Saison, which I thought turned out pretty tasty. I also decided to simplify the spices, going with coriander, ginger and black pepper.

Compared to the multi-step, 90-minute-boil German beers I've been brewing lately, the brew day itself was a breeze. One 60-minute infusion at 146°F and a 60-minute boil. I yielded 10.5 gallons of wort at 1.060 (overshooting my target by two points). The only thing that slowed me down was that something clogged the pump a bit which led to a slower-than-usual flow through my plate chiller. It was a fairly hot day so I was only able to chill to around 70°F. I wanted to pitch cool and allow for a natural rise so I threw the beer in my chest freezer set to 60°F and didn't pitch until later that night.

I had fermentation the next morning with the ambient temperature around 64°F. Three days later I moved the beer up to our bedroom which is around 72°F (according to a refrigerator thermometer I have, though I'm skeptical because our thermostat was reading 76°F the other day and our bedroom is the hottest room in the house). I'm thinking of moving the beer to our closet (which is even hotter than the rest of our bedroom, as it abuts our attic) for the rest of fermentation, which I'm guessing will bring it closer to 80°F. Supposedly the yeast I used--WLP 566 Saison II--can take higher temps, and obviously I want it to finish as quickly as possible. I guess we'll see how it turned out in a week!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Brew day: Cooler By The Lake Roggenkölsch

So I'm actually a full brew day behind with the blog (yesterday we brewed a Saison which I hope to post about some time this week) but this time I had a good reason... I ran into some difficulties with my last brew, a Kölsch-style ale brewed by rye which I'm calling a Roggenkölsch, and I wanted to see how it was tasting after primary before writing about it. Yesterday I kegged the Roggenkölsch (exactly two weeks after the brew day) and now it's time to do a postmortem...

As a bit of a back-story, a couple months ago I did my first direct-heated step mash, a Hefeweizen that actually combined direct heat and a decoction. The big concern I had read about with step-mashing is scorching, but generally I read that if you heat no faster than 2°F per minute scorching shouldn't be an issue. It wasn't, and the beer came out pretty amazing. With this beer, I wanted to do a beta-glucan rest because I was using over 20% rye, and for a ten-gallon batch there was no practical way to bump up from 95°F to 143°F using an infusion given the size of my mash tun, so I figured I would use direct heat again. Worked the first time, right?

Well, about ten minutes into raising the temp from 95°F to 143°F, I started to notice a very slight burnt smell. I was really hoping it was the spiciness of the rye, but I was concerned it was scorching. At that point, it was too late to do much about it, so I proceeded with the brew day. After the 20-minute beta-glucan rest, I raised the mash to 143°F for a half hour and then up to 160°F for another 15 minutes. I collected around 12.5 gallons which boiled down to 10.5 after a 90-minute boil. I ended up four gravity points above my target (1.052 instead of 1.048). I chilled and pitched at 60°F with a slurry of German ale yeast courtesy of Metropolitan Brewing (makers of the excellent Krankshaft Kölsch).

When I started to clean the mash tun, I discovered scorching on about a quarter of the bottom of the kettle. Crap. How could I have gotten scorching when I didn't have any issues with the Hefe? It took me a couple days before I realized the obvious: I only brewed five gallons with the Hefe, whereas I brewed ten gallons with the Roggenkölsch. And I think I could do 2°F/hour with a good burner, but I use my old burner for the mash, and that one has half the gas holes clogged so the heat is concentrated on about a third of the kettle. As such, I'm now thinking of getting a second Blichmann burner so that I can get even heating and hopefully direct-heat 20+ lbs. of grain efficiently without scorching.

So anyway... how did the beer actually turn out? Here's the weird thing. It doesn't taste burnt (thank goodness) but at 60°F there's a very slight smoked flavor. It almost reminds me of the Schlenkerla Helles. I actually like it quite a bit, though I'm hoping it will be more muted when carbonated and at serving temp, since it's for a friend's block party. In the meantime, I'm gonna start saving my pennies for another burner. As much as step mashes make for a longer brew day, I really think the results speak for themselves.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In which I make tonic syrup (solely to ward off malaria, of course)

So as I've noted before, we have a four-tap kegerator in our basement, and one of those four taps is reserved for a non-alcoholic offering. More often than not, that non-alcoholic offering is either root beer or seltzer water. Now as much as Leah and I love beer, we also enjoy other alcoholic beverages from time to time, and one of our favorite non-beer drinks is the good ol' gin and tonic. Lately a few premium tonic waters have popped up on the market, and while they're definitely better than Schweppes, they're also pretty damn expensive. So I figured, if I already have seltzer on tap, why not make my own tonic syrup?

Sure enough, a quick google search yielded two fairly simple recipes, with the second being a derivative of the first. It seems the basic ingredients are pretty simple: cinchona bark (from which the bitter, signature quinine is derived), a sweetener, and a little acid (possibly for a preservative; possibly to invert the sugar to avoid crystalizing). Beyond that, the one used a little lime and lemongrass for aromatics, and the other used a few more ingredients.

The big question for me was which aromatics I wanted to use. Part of me thought the aromatics are where I can really have some fun and make it a unique tonic. But at the same time, I thought about the drink's purpose as a mixer, and since I enjoy trying different types of gin, I didn't want to create something that would compete with the gin's flavors or only complement certain brands of gin. Initially I considered using no aromatics at all, but in the end I decided that for my first attempt I would go with the more basic recipe using just lime and lemongrass.

Well, I ran into one small problem: I couldn't find lemongrass. Yeah, I know Asian markets are supposed to be the best place to find it, but I didn't have time to run out to one so I had to go with a plan b. Some cooking guides suggested lemon zest and ginger could somewhat replicate the flavor of lemongrass, so I decided to go with that. And then, thinking about how lemongrass is a stalk, I decided that I wanted something "green" tasting to add as well, so I picked up a cucumber. So much for my idea of keeping things simple.

Finally, I had to decide on what sweetener to use. One commercial brand of tonic uses cane sugar; the other uses agave syrup. My favorite sweeteners are turbinado sugar, honey and maple syrup. Maple seemed too distinct for making tonic, so I decided to use 50% turbinado sugar and 50% honey for my recipe.
Putting it all together, here's the recipe I came up with:

1 cup water
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
1/2 cup honey
1/2 lime (sliced into four pieces)
zest of one very small lemon
1/8 tsp. fresh ginger
2 inches of the end of a cucumber, cubed
1/2 tsp. cinchona bark
1 tsp. lactic acid

I started by combining the sugar, honey and water and heating until dissolved. Then I added the cinchona bark and other ingredients and simmered for 15 minutes. After that, I poured the whole mixture in a large French press to filter it. The French press doesn't get the bark (as it's a fine powder) and some suggest filtering through coffee filters but that would seem to take FOREVER and I found that it was barely noticeable. I figured after a day or two in the fridge it would settle out anyway.

So how were the results? Pretty damn good overall! The first tricky thing was finding a good balance of syrup, seltzer and gin. I found 1 tablespoon (1/2 oz.) tonic syrup, 1.5 oz. gin and 2 oz. seltzer to be a good ratio (I mix the syrup and gin together and then top it off with an equal amount of seltzer). Now that being said, I do think that it was a bit on the sweet side, so next time I may cut down on the sugar and honey and up the cinchoa bark just a bit. But I was really happy with the aromatics. I think they all gave the syrup some depth but no single flavor was overpowering. They blended very well with Citadelle gin (a fairly traditional, reasonably-priced French gin) and I'm going to try it with North Shore Modern Gin next.

So there you have it... A fun little project for those of you looking to pass the time between brew days. If anybody else tries this recipe (or one similar to it) I'd love to hear how yours turns out, or any suggestions you may have.