Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Beer review - Norway to NorCal, via Switzerland

I don't normally think of either Norway or Switzerland as being among the world's great brewing cultures, but today we have excellent sour beers from each, as well as a very, very native beer from Northern California, which most definitely is. 

HaandBryggeriet Sur Megge

Romantic that I am, I still imagine Norwegians as mead-swilling Vikings. The only Scandinavian beer most folks know of is Danish Carlsberg, which is your basic generic pilsner.

So, I was surprised to learn that, besides their own crap pilsners, Norwegians in the past decade have started a couple of excellent craft brewers: Nøgne Ø and HaandBryggeriet ("Hand Brewery"), the latter of which is 4 guys in a 200 year-old farmhouse, many of them fermented with wild yeast and barrel aged.

I got my hands on their Sur Megge (Sour Bitch) at The Jug Shop, which is a marvelous barrel-aged  sour ale, coming in at 8% ABV. Great notes of summer fruit, orange-gold color, and delightfully tart. I'll definitely have to keep an eye out for their other beers!

Brasserie de Franches-Montagnes Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien 

The next beer comes from the region of Switzerland bordering France, again two countries I don't think of when I think beer. France of course being (thanks to the Romans) a wine country, and Switzerland absinthe. So I was very surprised when the proprietor at Little Vine told me he had a sour beer from Switzerland, and naturally I had to try it.

The Brasserie de Franches-Montagnes (BFM, "Brewery of the French Mountains") has actually been around for about 15 years, making very small batches of a wide variety of traditional beer styles, most of them with a twist. I was lucky enough to get a bottle of their Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien (named, apparently, in honor of the much-beloved brewery cat), which is a bière de garde, a Belgian-style ale with copper to brown color, maltiness, and moderate strength (6-8% ABV).

The Bon-Chien, however, is quite a bit strong, clocking in around 11% ABV. Not only that, it's barrel aged, the exact barrel depending on the vintage - Merlot, whisky, and grappa have been used. This gives is a delicious sourness, as well as character from whatever was aged in the barrel previously.

The Bon-Chien was a truly outstanding sour beer, very strong yet well balanced between strength, sweet, and sour, with outstanding sour cherry, red wine, and vinegar flavors. A real treat if you can find it, just be sure to drink it sitting down!

Almanac Extra Pale 

Last but certainly not least, Almanac brewing is a couple of San Francisco homebrewers who made the jump to commercial brewing two years ago. Their initial focus was on brewing seasonal beers that showcased local Northern California produce (as well as hops and even some malts), including blackberries, plums, oranges, fennel, and honey, usually paired with lighter-bodied Belgian style ales.

Beginning this summer, however, they've also begun producing two year-round brews (which they call "table" beers, although at around $3 a bottle, they're not exactly everyday beers), their Extra Pale (6% ABV) and Honey Saison (4.8% ABV). The former is brewed with local Mandarin oranges and generously dry-hopped, to produce a really excellent West Coast pale ale, slightly tart and with a pronounced citrus flavor from both the hops and the oranges. It's quite excellent, and I can't wait to review the saison!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Beer review - Mikkeller madness!

Spontankoppi, Coffee IPA, and Spontankriek.

Frequent readers of the BCBB will know that I've got quite a thing going on for the beers of Danish gypsy brewers Mikkeller. On a recent trip to The Jug Shop I picked up some more of their beers. Two of them interested me because they went with a "wild" yeast fermentation, and two because they had coffee in them. I love coffee.

Now, most brewers are very cautious about the yeast they let into their beer, and with good reason. While the behavior and flavor profile of good ol' S. cerevisiae is predictable, there are around 1,500 known species of yeast. They're all over the map, and a lot of them will spoil beer (and food), and a few are down right dangerous.

Probably the tamest "wild" yeasts are the Brettanomyces (affectionately known as "Brett" among brewers), which are what make sour beers sour. But even Brett is a tricky beast. It produces flavors that can be described as "metallic," "leather," or "barnyard," which can easily overpower a beer. It also has a much slower metabolism than S. cerevisiae, so beers with Brett typically require longer aging. And, they can metabolize sugars that S. cerevisiae can't, meaning that Brett fermentations will go on long after the S. cerevisiae are done - which can mean they take much longer to be finished, or, if you bottle them too early, they can build up too much CO2 in the bottle. And, finally, they can be damned difficult to kill off, so if they get into your brewery, and you don't want them there, you may be out of luck. You'll either have to switch to brewing sours, or get a new set of equipment. Consequently, very few homebrewers ever make sour beers, and they have to be very cautious when they do.

It's possible to buy commercial strains of Brett and pitch them into your beer. The more traditional method is to go with a "spontaneous" fermentation, where you let your beer into contact with the natural yeast in the environment. (This is also how traditional sourdough starter is made.) One way to do this is to ferment your beer in used wine barrels. Wine is usually fermented naturally using the yeast that's already accumulated in the fruit themselves, and a certain amount of that will be Brett, which builds up over time in the barrels. Another traditional method, used to make Belgian lambics, is to open the rafters of the brewery to the winds, and allow airborn yeast to accumulate in the spiderwebs and cobwebs, which then fall into the fermentation tanks...

Coffee, meanwhile, is an interesting and challenging ingredient for brewers to work with. A number of styles of beer, particularly porters and stouts, would seem to lend themselves to the addition of coffee, since they share similar flavors. But coffee (and similarly, cocoa) contain oils, most notably caffeol (which is primarily responsible for coffee's aroma and flavor), the oxidation of which can cause them to go rancid. (I've haven't myself used coffee in beer, but it's something I'd like to try, if I can find a good method.)


Kriek is lambic with cherries added. The beer itself is usually a Belgian lambic, which is a fairly light-colored and flavored beer. In some cases, kriek is made by adding a cherry syrup to a lambic, which can be a bit cloying. The more traditional method is to add cherries, with their attendant load of wild yeast, to the fermenter.

Spontankriek is clearly the latter sort. It's puckery tart, the sour cherry flavor mixing seemlessly with the sour beer. If you like sour cherries or sour beer, you're going to love this. 7.7% ABV.


Having thoroughly enjoyed the Spontankriek I was really looking forward to the Spontankoppi. But I have to say, I think the first word out of my mouth was... "ouch." I don't know how they got the coffee into the beer, but it was extremely strong and bitter, like the strongest cup of black coffee you've ever had, and then some. (Admittedly, I like my coffee strong, like barely fit for human consumption, but with lots of milk and sugar.) The sour beer was reduced to almost a footnote. If you get off on really strong black coffee, you might enjoy this, but I didn't. 5.3% ABV.

Coffee IPA

After the Spontankoppi, I had some trepidation about the Coffee IPA. Particularly since it came in a wine sized 750 ml bottle, so good or bad, I was going to be drinking a lot of it (Dr. P doesn't care for hoppy beers).

Fortunately, it was everything that I'd hoped the Spontankoppi would be, and more. The IPA base wasn't agressively hoppy, focusing on the citrusy and fruity notes, with a good malt backbone. The hand of the coffee was much lighter, not bitter, with toffee notes that matched the malt, and fruity notes that matched the hops, with just a hint of coffee bitterness on the finish. This was definitely the hop-head's coffee beer. 6.9% ABV.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Recipes #224 and #225 - still mead and spiced gravenstein cyser

As I mentioned early on, you can ferment pretty much anything with sugar in it (or starch that you can convert into sugar). One of the earliest sources of sugar available to humans was honey, and yet, one of the oldest fermented beverages is also one of the least familiar in modern times: mead.

Mead is simply fermented honey. To ferment honey, you have to dilute it with water, since the high sugar content in honey actually turns water molecules it comes into contact with into hydrogen peroxide, and draws the water out of cells, both of which have the effect of killing microorganisms like yeast and bacteria.

In addition, since honey is almost completely composed of fructose and glucose, it's lacking most of the nutrients that yeast need to grow, prosper, and metabolize it into alcohol. Consequently, making mead requires either adding these nutrients (usually in the form of diammonium sulphate and/or the powdered yeast remnants).

You can also add other fermentables to the must (the water with dissolved honey), such as fruit juice or grain, which will both provide these nutrients and change the character of the finished beverage. Mead made with fruit juices is called melomel, and with grape juice specifically, pyment. Mead can also be flavored with herbs and spices; spiced pyment is called hippocras, allegedly after the father of Greek medicine, Hippocrates; in fact, the Celtic word for spiced mead is metheglin, from which derives the English word "medicine," because as we all know, a spoonful of sugar...

Mead is typically still, but can be made sparkling like beer or wine by adding sugar at bottling to feed the living yeast in the bottle. Like beer, mead can be strong or weak, sweet or dry, depending on how much honey you use and how alcohol tolerant your yeast strain is. The main thing required to make mead is patience, because it's much more like wine in the time it takes to mature.

Mead made with apple juice is called cyser, and that leads us to today's two recipes.

Still mead (3 gallons)

A lot of mead recipes call for you to boil or at least pasteurize the honey, but it doesn't seem like that's really necessary, since the honey itself is pretty close to sterile, and you'll boil off any volatile flavor or aroma compounds in the honey, which is usually pretty subtle to start with. In general, the better honey you use, the better your mead will be, but also, the more expensive!

  1. Add 6 quarts warm water, 1.5 tsp diammonium phosphate, and 1.5 tsp yeast nutrient (dried yeast remnants) to sanitized fermenter.
  2. Add 10 lbs honey to fermenter, mix as much as possible by swirling fermenter.
  3. Add warm water to fill each honey container about halfway, seal and shake vigorously. This will help get all the honey out, and aerate the mixture, since the must will be low in oxygen. Pour into the fermenter.
  4. Add warm water to bring the fermenter to 5 gallons, then pitch yeast and seal. You can use liquid mead yeast, or a dry mead or wine yeast like grand cuvee.
  5. Rack after 4 weeks. During primary fermentation, you may want to gently agitate the fermenter a couple of times, as the must will tend to accumulate dissolved CO2, which can cause issues when you rack.
  6. Rack after 3 additional months.
  7. Bottle after 3 additional months.

Spiced cyser (3 gallons)

I like to make cyser - apple mead - with Gravenstein apple juice. Gravensteins are a variety local to Sonoma, north of San Francisco. It's typically only available in the fall after the harvest. They've got a good balance between sweet dessert apples, and tart savory apples. Sadly, as demand for California wine has increased over the last couple of decades, many Gravenstein orchards have been torn out and replaced by vinyards. This stuff makes a delicious holiday treat (or gift), like Christmas in a bottle.

  1. In a large pot, combine: 6 quarts Gravenstein juice; 8 lbs honey; 2 sticks cinnamon, cracked; 8 cloves, crushed; 8 allspice berries, crushed; 1 tsp fresh-ground nutmeg; 1/2 dried curacao (bitter) orange peel.
  2. Bring to a low simmer, heat for 20 minutes, cover and let stand until the pot is cool to the touch, then pour into a sanitized fermenter.
  3. Warm 2 more quarts Gravenstein juice, fill each honey container about halfway, seal and shake vigorously. This will help get all the honey out, and aerate the mixture, since the must will be low in oxygen. Pour into the fermenter.
  4. Pitch yeast and seal. You can use liquid cider or mead yeast, or a dry mead or cider yeast, or wine yeast like grand cuvee.
  5. Rack after 4 weeks, then bottle after 3 additional months.

Homebrewing in the White House

Last year, there was a news story about how President Obama purchased a homebrewing kit so that his kitchen staff could brew beer at the White House, using honey from the beehives he'd had installed there. Needless to say, homebrewers across America were happy to get some national exposure for their hobby, and lots of people emailed me the story.

Naturally, being a curious lot, some of us wanted the White House's recipes, and a couple of months ago at least two people submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to get them. So, brewing at the White House was again in the news at the beginning of September when the recipes were published, and again people sent me the stories to ask what I thought of the recipes, and whether I planned to try them.

At the risk of losing my chance to ever share a beer with the president, let me say that I was not impressed. The recipes, for a honey ale and honey stout, call for using canned malt extract. I didn't know that anyone even sold canned malt extract anymore.

Malt extract is basically a syrup, what you'd get if you took the sweet wort from mashing grain and boiled it down to the consistency of liquid caramel. To be fair, it's how most homebrewers start, because it takes some specialized equipment and a little finesse to mash grain. Most beginning homebrewers do what the White House recipe does, which is called a partial mash. You soak 1-2 pounds of specialty grains, for example the toasted dark malts that give a porter its color and chocolate/coffee/toffee characteristics, in hot water an a cheesecloth bag to extract the flavor from them; and then you add malt extract to the water and boil it.

That's what I did for about the first 2 years and 25 batches of beer I made. After that, I got a mashing rig and did a full mash or all-grain recipes, where all your wort comes from grain. That gives you more control over the grains you use, and thus over the flavor.

In using malt extract and a partial mash, the White House made their recipe very accessible to novice homebrewers, so in that respect it's a good thing. But canned malt extract... that's like a casserole recipe that calls for a can of cream of mushroom soup. You can still buy it, but then you're limited to to the amount in the cans (typically 3.3 pounds; apparently the WH gets around this limitation for using dry malt extract to round out the amount needed; and let me tell you, that stuff is a PITA to work with, it sticks to everything), and I'd be concerned about freshness. I suppose it'd be OK if you didn't have a local homebrew store and had to get your stuff through mail-order, but better mail-order places sell plastic/foil packets of extract that will be much fresher than canned. Although I guess I should be glad they didn't go really old-school and call for hopped extract, which basically (gods only know how) included some sort of hop extract in the malt as well.

So, while I applaud the White House for spotlighting the hobby, and for making their recipes accessible to beginners, I wish they'd used a little more current ingredients.

Beer review - Belgo-Danish farmhouse IPA barrel super-mashup!

Time once again for some beer reviews! As the title suggests, it's sort of a mash-up of Belgian-style, farm-house style, IPAs, barrel-aged, and Danish gypsy-brewed beers, where each beer has at least one, and possibly several, boxes checked from that list.

Fantôme Printemps Saison


Fantome is a little outfit an old farmhouse in the dinky town of Soy, Belgium. They basically make one beer, a saison, on which they make variations using herbs, fruits, and spices. The Printemps is their flagship - at 8% ABV, is strong for the style, and has a lot of fruity flavor going on. Quite nice! I picked this up at Little Vine, and they seem to carry it regularly.

Evil Twin Disco Beer

This one (and the remainder in this review) all came from The Jug Shop, who will get their own review one of these days. Suffice to say, they're awesome. They frequently do beer tastings on Friday nights, and this one, along with the Aphotic Baltic Porter and Invasion Farmhouse IPA, were part of a tasting of barrel-aged beers.

Evil Twin is a Danish outfit of gypsy brewers, along the lines of Mikkeller. They're just as wacky in their experimentation, and perhaps even more so in their naming, with beers like Grünerløkka Hipster Ale, DEVFFC,MQAL9,.8, Christmas Eve at a New York City Hotel Room, Without You I'm Nothing, and Been Smoking Too Long.

Disco Beer is an IPA aged in chardonnay barrels. It's quite strong (10.5% ABV), but fairly mellow on the hops. It has a smooth, thick, velvety character. It's almost a dessert beer along the lines of a stout, but hoppier and without the chocolate/coffee/toffee malt profile.

Victory V12 Belgian-inspired 


Victory is from Downington, PA, outside of Philadelphia. Their flagship beers are their Hop Devil IPA and Storm King stout, and a lot of their beers tend to follow a West Coast ethic of a strong hops profile.

The V-12, however, is a pretty straightforward Belgian trippel, clocking in at a massive 12% ABV. It's pretty true to the style - golden, sweet, and fruity. I'm not a big fan of this style of beer (I think I mistakenly bought it because I thought it was barrel aged; if it was, those characteristics didn't really come through), but if you do, it's a pretty solid representative.

High Water Aphotic Baltic Porter

Across the continent, in Chico, home of one of the first and largest craft brewers, there is also High Water. They're a little closer to a boutique brewery - they have a couple of beers like their Hop Riot IPA that they sell all the time, but often they'll brew a small batch of something, and once it's gone, they may not brew it again for a good long while.

Such was the case with their Aphotic Baltic porter, which they had one trip to The Jug Shop but not the next. It's a strong beer, as Baltic-style porters are, at 9.3% ABV. It's aged in bourbon and brandy barrels, which gives is a complex character, and there was a hint of sourness there that balanced the sweet, chocolate character well. I recommend it, if you can find it!

Mikkeller Invasion Farmhouse IPA


Finally, another by our favorite Danish gypsy brewers.  Start with a moderately strong (8.0% ABV), moderately hoppy IPA, and now inoculate it with Brettanomyces, the wild yeast strain that gives sour beers their puckery, sometimes barn-yardy flavor. This brings out some of the great summer fruit flavors from the hops, and a great interplay between the sweetness of a strong beer, bitterness of IPA, and sourness from the Bret. A great transition for you hop-heads looking to get into sour beers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Building a kegerator

There comes a time in every homebrewer's life when he gets sick of washing bottles, and he decides to start kegging his beer. I say "his," but let's face it, probably 95% of homebrewers are men. Which also leads to the fact that men want a "man cave," and man cave + beer keg = kegerator. And, we're not just talking about a refrigerator with a keg in it; we're talking about a tap in the door.

Of course, you could buy a kegerator, but what's the fun in that? Homebrewers are, by definition, DIY guys, and you can convert a refrigerator into a kegerator for less than $100 (soda kegs and CO2 tank not included, but those can be readily purchased on the cheap on eBay).

And so, a photo essay, as Your Author builds a kegerator!

Behold, a refrigerator, purchased for $100 off craigslist. Price did not include renting an appliance dolly to haul it 3 blocks, nor the cost in waking up Dr. P from her Saturday morning slumber to help me haul it...

The necessary hardware: food grade plastic tubing, tap, shank, nipple, hose clamps, keg connector, drill drip tray, measuring tape.
Measure twice, drill once. Because of the interior configuration of the door, the tap has to be a little off-center.
The sheet metal exterior of a most refrigerators is pretty thin; you can cut through it with a 12-volt cordless power drill and a 1" spade bit.
Beyond the sheet metal is foam, and then...
The plastic interior panel of the door.
A nice souvenir!
Now, we put the shank through the hole, and secure it with a big brass nut on the interior of the door. Not shown: me cursing when I realized that the 3" shank that I originally bought was too short, causing me to have to go back to the brew store to get a 5" shank...
Secure that shank!
Now we have to fit the hose on the nipple that will screw onto the end of the shank. The nipple is quite tight, so this actually required a goodly degree of force.
Securing the nipple with a hose clamp. Not shown on the other end is the connector that fits onto the keg, also secured with a clamp. Homebrewers typically use 5 gallon soda kegs, and there are two kinds: ball lock and pin lock. These are not interchangable, so you pretty much have to commit yourself to one kind or the other.
A nut fits over the nipple...
...and screws onto the end of the shank.
The interior hardware is now finished.
Now we attach the tap to the outside of the door. There's a little gasket that goes between them.

The tap has little teeth to help line it up...
And a special wrench to secure it. If you want to get fancy, the handle screws off and can be customized.
To keep the floor from getting sticky, we'll put a drip tray under the tap. Make sure a glass will fit under the tap!

Make sure it's level...
Screw in the screws...
And hang the tray. Finished! Now all we need is a keg of beer!

Recipe #223 - Saison's Greetings

Since I love saisons, a few years ago I added one to my holiday line-up. I spice this one a little bit differently than my standard saison (although who am I kidding, I've thrown all sorts of stuff in there...), and age it on wine-soaked oak chips.


7.25 lb domestic 2-row
2 lb domestic Vienna
.05 lb flaked wheat
0.5 lb asidulated malt
0.5 lb flaked oats


1 oz East Kent Goldings @ 5.4% AA @ 60 min
0.5 oz Saaz @ 4% AA @ 20 min
0.5 oz " @ 5 min


White Labs Saison Ale Yeast WLP 565


Soak in 4 oz 190 proof house vodka for one week: .5 tsp crushed coriander, .25 oz curaçao orange peel, 1 g crushed grains of paradise, 1 tsp fresh grated ginger. Strain and add at racking.


8 weeks on chardonnay barrel chips.