Posts Tagged hops

Christmas beer! (And thoughts on ingredients and methods.)

The other day, I bottled my Christmas ale, and it’ll be fizzy and ready to drink this weekend.  It was a success, and I’m excited to drink it.  The concept was a red ale with Pacifica hops and spice and orange peel infusions.  I did a lot with this beer that was a little different than I have done in the past, to try to get a better product and it really worked out for me.

I used Maris Otter base malt for the first time (specifically the Thomas Fawcett MO). I’ve never been much of a fan of American 6-row because I don’t think it really has any flavor.  By contrast, 2-row, especially British 2-row is more complex, and it brings a lot to the beer.  MO is similar to 2-row, but more so.  It’s not powerfully flavored, just complex and grainy, and maybe a bit earthy.  You can tell why it is the traditional base for ales.  The MO flavor carried right through to the final product, and it was a smashing success. 

The funny thing is the main reason I’d never used MO before is that it’s kind of nichey, and I had never seen it in a recipe.  All the ones I’ve read call for 2-row or 6-row, so when I got to designing my own recipes, I fell into that same rut.  So, MO was a pleasant surprise.  It’ll probably be my default base malt for ales in the future.

Traditionally red ales are made with roasted barley, from which they get their red color.  I had to sub black patent, so I didn’t actually get a red color, but rather a pale brown.  It hasn’t made any discernible impact on the flavor, but since the beer is spiced, I may just not be noticing.  I have learned that Beersmith’s color estimates are off, at least for my setup.  My beers always come out paler than estimated, even though the alcohol estimates are always spot-on.

I raved in an earlier post about the Pacific hops, and I’m going to rave about them some more.  They’re fantastic.  They’re low-alpha, so they’re not too bitter, and they’re very, very earthy.  That’s the main flavor I get out of them.  I’ve heard other references say that they are citrusy, but I’m not convinced my sensitivity to citrus is very high.  Maybe others will get that out of them, but I get an earthiness that pairs fantastically with the complexity of the Maris Otter malt and the yeast flavors from British ale yeast.  If SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) brewing is your thing, I’d bet you could make a spectacular Special Bitter with Thomas Fawcett Maris Otter and Pacifica hops.

In the past, I’ve treated orange peel according to the recommendations I’ve read online–boil them for 5 minutes like a late hop addition.  I’ve always been deeply dissatisfied with the results.  I just don’t get much orange flavor coming through.  I did that with this beer, and it was no good.  So, this time, I added orange peel to the secondary for the last 10 days before bottling.  (It was supposed to be 6, but my bottling got delayed.)  I’ve done this with fruit flesh additions in the past with great success.  I was a little concerned that I would get unpleasant bitterness from the whites of the peels, but I really didn’t.  I used an ounce of dried bitter orange peel and an ounce of dried sweet orange peel.  It works well in this beer, but it’s too intense for something like a Belgian white.  If I ever do another one of those (I’m not a big fan of Belgian beers) I’ll probably do a 7-day infusion with a half ounce or two-thirds of an ounce total.  The infusion also included a healthy handful of cloves and a stick of cinnamon.  I’ve heard it from beer judges that you shouldn’t use cloves in beer, because it’s a phenolic off-flavor, so when you drink it, you’ll go, “there’s something wrong with this beer.”  I disagree, at least for my palate.  I think you have to be trained to think of cloves as a beer contaminant, and I haven’t been.  With the orange peel especially, it makes my palate go, “Yum! Christmas!”

So that’s my experience with the 2012 Christmas Ale.  I really hit the ball out of the park with this one, and learned some pretty cool stuff about ingredients. 

You should be able to get Maris Otter at any homebrew store.  Pacifica hops are a bit rarer, but New Zealand hops are getting easier to find all the time.  If your local doesn’t stock them, they’re easy to order online. (But check your local first.)


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Tallahassee Brewfest

I apologize for the lengthy and unexplained hiatus.  Work got really busy, and then my whole family got sick one after the other.  It’s the kind of situation that makes you want to grab a beer….


Anyway, I’m back and I have a couple things in the hopper.


This last weekend, I attended the sixth annual Tallahassee Brewfest.  I’ve been fortunate enough to attend all but the fifth, and the event has grown to be quite a feast for the beer enthusiast.


All the usual suspects were there–Anheuser-Busch was pushing their “craft” brands, and InBev had their lineup of trendy imports.  Brooklyn, Sweetwater and Rogue were represented, as they have had a local presence for a long time.


The real treat is the smaller up-and-coming local breweries, the craft brewers who are just moving into the market, and the homebrewers.


Swamp Head was there, with a broader selection of their beers than I had seen before. Midnight Oil was their standout, a coffee stout.  I was oh-so-very close to voting them best in show for that beer.  Coffee stouts and porters were very trendy–I sampled a dozen–and I think that by the end of the night, I was kind of over them.  MO is a great beer though, and I’ll definitely be looking for it on tap.  The gentleman representing Swamp Head was involved in the brewing there, and he was very happy to discuss recipes, ingredients and beer design philosophy, which was really good of him.


The beer I did vote for was Erie Brewing’s Railbender Ale.  It was awesome, golden in color, with a ton of caramel malt.  It was a coolish night, and a very fresh-drinking, flavorful beer, and it was just perfect for the occasion.  It was sweet from that malt bill, so I don’t know how it would stand up to a hot summer day, but for wintertime drinking, it was exceptional.


The homebrewers mostly came from the North Florida Brewers’ League, and their beers were quite excellent.  One of the fun things about homebrewing is that you can brew beer for you, without having to worry about whether it is particularly marketable.  That tends to make homebrew a little bit avant garde, and that was the case at the Brewfest.  There was some excellent creativity on display, and while not all tickled my palate, they were each skillfully crafted and fun to try.  My favorite was a low-octane Belgian.  They were very successful at getting the big flavor of a Belgian beer into a 5% alcohol package, and I was impressed.  I may have to try that someday, because my classic 9-11% Belgians can be a bit much for many occasions.


One of the trends I’ve noticed at the Brewfest over the past 6 years is a movement away from ultra-hoppy beers.  There are still plenty of IPA’s and Imperial this-and-thats for the hopheads, but there are more subtle beers, even very malty ones starting to work their way into the craft beer scene.  I think this is great, not just because I’m not a hophead, but because a strong, earnest and diverse beer scene is good for everyone.

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New Ingredients to try

When I got into doing mashes, first doing partial mash, then doing all-grain, I kept it pretty close to the vest on my base grains, using Pilsner, UK 2-row and American 2- or 6-row, depending on what I was making.  Those are probably the big 4, with Pilsner for German-style beers, UK 2-row for fuller-flavored ales and US pale malts for ales that need a cleaner flavor.

With my next couple of beers, I’m going to break out of that rut and try a couple new base malts, and I’m excited about them.  I’m going to make a Whisky Ale with Maris Otter, which is very traditional for cask-style ales.  (By the way, tomorrow’s Beginner’s Tuesday post is about how to make a cask ale.)  Maris Otter has a distinctive nutty/biscuity aroma.  I’m intrigued to see how it goes.  I can envision it becoming my go-to base malt for less-hoppy British style ales.

With that whisky ale, I’m also going to try New Zealand-grown Pacific Gem hops, which are reported to have an earthy flavor with a dark berry note.  I think that will match nicely with the peat-smoked malt and the oak tannins.

I’m really very excited about this Whisky Ale!

I’m also looking at doing version 3 of my Oatmeal Java Stout in the foreseeable future. I don’t feel like ‘m getting the right profile from the UK 2-row with that beer, so I’m going to use Mild Malt, which is a traditional base for stouts and dark porters.  I also need to adjust my specialty grains because the batch is too chocolately.  I need some more aggressive darkness to make it work, so maybe roasted barley….  We shall see.

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A colossal failure

People talk a lot about the recipes that work, but little about the ones that are colossal failures.  There’s a lot to be learned from those failures, though. So, let me share one of mine.

A few years ago, my friend and I decided to make a pineapple pale ale.  The details of the recipe are lost to the sands of time, but the gist of it was an extract “pale” ale (it was a bit darker than it should have been) with a boatload of hops, and some pineapple.

We didn’t realize that the sugar in the pineapple was basically going to ferment out completely.  While we were expecting this tropical pale ale kind of taste, what we got was an intense sourness.  Really, really intense sourness.

We also didn’t hop the beer very well.  I wish I could remember details, but we put almost all the hops in the boil, without enough aroma hopping.  Then we dry hopped it, and we did that waaaaaaaaay too long. That left a hop profile that was bitter to the point of being angry, then very, very, very green.

Between the sourness and the bitterness, the thing drank like it was sucking the moisture off your tongue.

Yeesh.  Lessons learned.

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Hops–a frustration

I’m not as knowledgeable about hops as I am about the other beer ingredients, but this is something I’m trying to change.


Thus far my strategy has been to add hops to a beer that are regionally appropriate to the style, so noble hops for lagers and Fuggles or Goldings for British style ales.  This works just fine because I make malty beers.


I want to make an English Pale Ale, though, to make a more hop-forward beer in a style that I would like to drink.  I specifically want piney hops to pair with the Maris Otter base malt, and I’m going to keep the recipe crystal-malt free.


So, I go to some resources on hop varieties to figure out which ones are evergreeny, and no two resources ever agree on anything.  One source suggested Simcoe, but others say Simcoe is a tropical fruit hop primarily.


I don’t really get why you can’t get a straight answer on this.  Various resources on malts give basically similar information.  Everyone agrees that Munich is sweeter than Pilsener.




So does anyone have any suggestions for a really piney hop?


Does anyone have a suggestion for a resource on hop flavors that has proven accurate for them?

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Brown bottles? Green? What color bottles should you use for homebrew?!

If you’re like me, and you primarily use beer bottles that are leftover from commercial beers you’ve bought, you have a mishmash of different sizes, shapes and colors. You may be wondering if some of those bottles are better to use than others. Almost every homebrew site recommends brown bottles. Sam Adams made an advertising campaign about how only brown bottles protect beer from the light. But plenty of companies use green or clear bottles. What’s going on?!

First off, it is very true that light can damage beer. Specifically, it makes beer go skunky. You may be aware that the primary bittering chemicals in hops are the alpha-acids. One subset of those are the isohumulones, or iso-alpha acids. Under normal conditions, isohumulones are stable, but if you do some funky chemistry to them, they react with amino acids. Some of those amino acids have sulfur in them, and when chemically altered isohumulones react with them, they produce chemicals that have the odor and flavor of skunk spray. Clearly, this is not good.

To produce skunky flavors from your isohumulones, you need two other components. One is riboflavin, which comes from your malt. (Riboflavin is Vitamin B2—beer is nutritious!) The other is ultraviolet light. UV provides the energy to alter the isohumulones, and riboflavin catalyzes the reaction producing the skunkiness. As a homebrewer, you can’t avoid having isohumulones and riboflavin in your beer, so you need to protect it from UV. Because this reaction requires light, beer that has been affected is called “lightstruck.”

Brown bottles are by far the best for filtering out UV. Contrary to popular myth, glass is a mediocre UV blocker at best. Yes, your car windshield is 95% UV proof, but that’s from the high-tech coatings, not the glass. The iron that is used to make brown glass is a good UV blocker, so brown bottles are relatively safe to use. In the real-world tests I have seen, green glass has performed about halfway between clear and brown glass, and the lightproofing of clear glass is poor.

So, you should use brown bottles if your beer is going to be exposed to any significant amount of light. If you store your beer in the dark until right before you drink it, it really makes no difference at all. Bear in mind, though, that clear bottles can go skunky in about an hour in direct sunlight, which may matter if you’re taking your beer to a tailgate and putting it in an open ice bucket.

Not all beers get lightstruck at the same rate. The more IBU’s you have, the faster the beer will go skunky. More hops means more isohumulones, more isohumulones means more molecules that can make nasty sulfur compounds. Dark beers will go skunky faster than light beers simply because dark beers absorb more light. That means they’re taking in more UV, thus altering the isohumulones more quickly. This is why light, low-hop lagers are the beers typically found in green glass.

So what’s up with the clear glass bottles? Newcastle Brown Ale comes in one, and it’s dark. Why doesn’t it have a major problem with being lightstruck? If you’re a large-scale commercial brewer, you’re almost certainly not using actual hops in your brewing. They use hop extract instead. (This is why so many breeds of high-alpha hops have been produced in the last 40 years—you get more hop extract per acre. It’s nothing to do with flavor at all.) You can chemically modify the hop extract to remove the isohumulones. If you don’t have isohumulones, your beer cannot get lightstruck. It’s not cheap, but if you’re doing it to large batches of hop extract, it’s actually not too bad. For many macrobreweries, the added cost is less than a penny per bottle and is a worthwhile investment in protecting the product.

For the homebrewer, though, the best bet is to stick to brown glass, or to keep your bottles in the dark until right before drinking them.

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Let’s Talk Hops

Hops are one of the four key ingredients in beer, along with grain, yeast and water. Simple fermented malted grain is pretty cloying, so the bitterness of the hops is an important part of balancing out the flavor of a beer. They also add various other flavors that can give a beer much of its character, and understanding how they really work is one of the differences between making good beer and making great beer.

And boy howdy, do American craft brewers and drinkers love them. Walk into any American brew pub or craft brew retailer and you’re almost certain to find lots of IPA’s and Imperial this-and-that’s. There’s an arms race going on the produce the hoppiest beer you can bottle and sell, with Dogfish Head 120-minute IPA, Hop Slam and Hoptimus Prime being among the more famous results.

This is a purely American phenomenon. You’re not going to find Der Hopfenkaiser on a German beer shelf. Even England, which has a tradition of high-hop beers (Wychwood makes some good ones), still only gets as strong as a middle-of-the-road American craft beer.

There are a number of reasons for this. I think the biggest is that it is a full pendulum swing away from the American macrobeers that have dominated the market since the end of Prohibition. Things like Budweiser are made first and foremost to be cheap and quick to get to market. That means using a lot of adjunct grains like corn and rice that add alcohol, but not much flavor and body. In a weak-bodied, flavorless beer, a little hop goes a long way. Hops are also the most expensive part of beer. Between those factors, macrobrewers’ recipes are built round using as little hop as possible. As the craft beer movement developed in the US, hop flavor was an obvious sign that you were drinking something that was not macroswill.

And let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with liking high-hop beers. One of the great things about beer is that it comes in so many different styles that almost everyone can find something they think is delicious. The issue I have with hops and the American craft beer industry is that many people have crossed the line from thinking “I think hoppy beers are better” (a perfectly legitimate opinion) to thinking “Lots of hops are what makes good beers good” (crazy talk.) There was actually a Sam Adams commercial a couple years ago that made that exact argument—that their beer was better because it had eight times the hops or whatever. Crazy talk.

The result of this has been an industry that tends to overhop everything. Lots of hops requires lots of body for any kind of balance. This is why good high-hop beers are also high alcohol beers—they had a ton of grain in them to ferment. If you put a mountain of hops into a 4.2% abv brown ale, you’re brewing a train wreck. The beer will feel thin, and it won’t be anything like a brown ale. The hops will completely overwhelm the nutty flavors that are characteristic of the style, and what you’ll really have is a mildly alcoholic hop tea.

I was once served a 125 IBU American-made doppelbock. That’s about six times the hops that are normally in that style. I almost never return beers at bars, but that was so disgustingly out-of-balance that there was no way more than two mothfulls were going anywhere near my face. The issue is so pervasive that my wife (who doesn’t drink beer) jokes every time I order a new American craft beer, “You’re going to think it’s ok, but that it would be way better if it weren’t so hoppy.”

The trick as a brewer (commercial or home) is to design your high-hop beers to carry the hops. Don’t just stand back and throw hops at your beer. Think about what flavors your hops are going to give you, and how your malt profile is going to work with that. And for the love of mercy, don’t just say “I’m going to make an X, but it’s going to be super great because I’m doubling the IBU’s!”

Also try some malty beer. You never know; you might like it. I’ve lost count of how many people who think they’re total hopheads have tried one of my homebrew lagers and said, “Jeeze! That’s great!”

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