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The Bitterness Wars

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When you read a magazine, evaluating what to brew next, what are you looking for? Are you jumping right to the style? Is difficulty a factor? Adjuncts? From the beginning of my homebrewing life (early 2012), one factor has overshadowed every recipe decision for me: IBUs and the resulting  bitterness.

I don’t know, if I am more sensible to bitterness in beer than other people, but excessively bitter beers are just not drinkable to me. And I brew what I like to drink. Here is an important distinction: hoppiness is not equal to bitterness. Hoppiness describes the hop aromas and flavors, imparted to the wort by the hops added late in the boil, at flameout, or in dry-hopping.  Bitterness is –  well –  the taste of tar and soil and rocket fuel on your tongue when you force down that IPA that the hipster type at the bar described as a “revelation and a challenge at the same time”.

I am perfectly fine with hoppy. I am not fine with bitter. I can deal with certain bitterness, but I am turned off by anything swings toward the dark side of the malty-bitter balance. Some time ago it was discovered that a gene is responsible, if a person tastes broccoli as bitter or not. Maybe the same is true for beer; maybe some drinkers perceive the bitterness less because of a genetic trait. That doesn’t change the fact that I prefer malty beers, and sometimes the IPA trend frustrates me.

Bars, pubs, and restaurants are proudly carrying whole shelves of IPAs, drowning out malt balanced options. Beer magazines have caught on and are riding the wave. Sometimes I can read really quickly through an issue of Brew Your Own by ignoring all IPA centered articles and recipes. As isolated as I sometimes feel with my taste, I am not alone.

What’s in a name

IPA, or India Pale Ale, got his name from its destination. It was brewed in England and exported to India, and later to other colonies including the Americas. Differing accounts exist about the strength of the early IPAs, but there is consent that it was strongly hopped, to survive the long sea voyage across the world.

In the US the Prohibition was the great brewing inhibitor. Brewing styles and recipes fell by the wayside and after America started drinking again, lagers dominated. It were the smaller breweries in the 1970ies that revived long neglected styles, among them the IPA.

Over the top

The rest is history. The IPA is now more successful than it ever was. But is it too successful? Is it now pushing other beerstyles from their well deserved spotlight? There are nuances, of course, and every IPA is not the same. There are some that I can drink, but I haven’t found one I actually enjoy. And isn’t enjoyment the point of drinking beer?

Again, I am not begrudging hop heads their fun, but I am pleading to not forget about the beer lovers, who just don’t like beer past a certain level of bitterness. On reddit I found proof that I am not alone, as evidenced by this post:

Poster Maltinger writes

I get it! Some people like bitter beers! Good for you! But does that mean that 3/4 of the table in some pubs have to be IPAs?

Other blogs and publications have sounded the same horn, but their voices are few and far in between. Tastes are changing, and that is where my hope resides. If tastes can swing to more bitter beers, they can swing back as well. Hopefully the chase for 100+ is a just what it is now, a craze that will eventually pass.

One can always hope.

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George Washington And His Beer

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“Happiness and a good beer are inseparably connected.”
-George Washington
portrait-george-washington-3605088.jpg

Ok, I fudged the quote above.
The original reads “Happiness and moral duty” but it seems that the great general and first President was partial to a good brew. We know this, because his military journal contains a recipe for a small beer. A small beer was a beer with low alcohol content that was drunk through the day by everyone (and that includes children). Small beers were either brewed to target lower alcohol consumption, or were produced by running water through the mash again, after the wort for the bigger beer with higher sugar content (=higher alcohol) had been drained from the brew pot.

Washington’s recipe calls for bran hops and a lot of molasses. Budweiser has taken it upen themselves to brew this historic recipe. The result is their Freedom Reserve. Big breweries are fighting back against the microbrew trend. It is nice to see that Budweiser tries to stay in the game with interesting brews.

Will it taste like the beer George Washington drank? No. Like most historic beers it will be an approximation. There is no way to tell if the taste of the ingredients even came close to the modern taste, and sanitizing regiments and brew processes in a modern brewery add their part to separate Freedom Reserve from it’s historic roots.

But I would like to try it. Just for the fun imagining that I am tasting roughly the same beer that George Washington drank on his long journey.

Article in Esquire

A Taste Of Aloha – Cloning Kona’s Lemongrass Luau

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Introduction

Last year I went to Hawaii. For the first time. With me came my wife, my son, and my mother. Yes, my mother! My mother never wants to be  ANYWHERE other than Austria (her home), but three days into our vacation in Kona on the Big Island she said: “I could live here.” I was shocked but not surprised. Hawaii is… unique to say the least. The fauna, the flora the food the ocean, and the way of life. Coming to Kona, for me, also meant to visit the Kona brewery. My family and I patronized the excellent restaurant and the next day my wife and I took the brewery tour.

At the end of the tour I wanted to take a metal growler home with me. The growler came with a beer of my choice and I chose one I had never heard before: Lemongrass Luau.

It is a blonde ale, cloudy, light in color and body, with a restrained hop bitterness and a citrusy finish. It was just the right thing for a hot Hawaiian day. The growler soon had a disturbingly hollow ring to it and to my disappointment I could not find the beer back here in California.

So what is a brewer to do… he clones it!

First comes the investigation.

Kona themselves tell you quite a bit about this beer online:

  • It is made from a simple malt bill of two row and wheat ( I guessed that from the cloudy appearance)
  • Turbinado sugar is used
  • Hawaiian Ginger adds a “pop” (what the hell is a “pop” of ginger?)
  • Hops are Williamette, Northern Brewer, Pacific Gem
  • The beer is filtered through lemongrass that is grown at brewery employees’ homes
  • ABV: 5, IBU:20

Planning

Here is my screenshot form Beersmith. THIS RECIPE IS FOR 2.5gal!

Malt

For the grain bill I decided on at least 20% wheat to produce the cloudy appearance but not brew a hefeweizen. The rest is made of two row.

Hops

Since Pacific Gems are mostly bittering hops, I decided to drop them and get the bitterness from Willamette and the aroma from Northern Brewer.

Adjuncts

The amount of sugar was a guess. The body of the beer is light, but not too light. So I would add around half a pound of Turbinado and tweak that amount in future batches.

Yeast

For a blonde ale I chose White Labs WLP0001 California Ale, for a clean fermentation.

Water

Since I was using very light colored grains I added 20% distilled water to the Arrow Head Mountain spring water.

Other ingredients

The ginger was difficult. I did not remember any ginger flavor in the beer but I could have missed a subtle tone. Under no circumstance I wanted any hot taste, so I decided on 1 oz in the last 10 minutes of the boil for a batch of 2.5 gal

The lemongrass would go in the secondary. I estimated three stalks should do it.

Brewing

Mashing and Boiling

  • I heated 2 gallons of water to 154F. The mash settled at 150F and was kept at that temperature for 60 minutes.
  • The ph kept at 5.3
  • I sparged with 178F water and collected 3.7 gallons.
  • The wort was boiled with the first addition of Willamette at 60 minutes.
  • Second hop addition was the Northern Brewer at 30 minutes
  • 10 minutes before the end I added the sliced ginger in a hop sock, Fermentis yeast food, and the Turbinado sugar.
  • The last aroma hop addition was added after flameout.

Cooling, Settling, Oxygenation, Pitching

  • The wort was cooled for 30 minutes in an icebath.
  • Then it was transferred to a settling bucket for 30 minutes.
  • The original gravity seems to be lower than expected. 1.046 rather than 1.051.
  • After settling it was dribbled slowly into a 3 gallon Speidel Fermenter to oxygenate the wort
  • The WLP001 was pitched and stirred.

Icebottles will keep the fermenter between 60 and 70 F

Update Brewday +1

The wort shows signs of fermentation right away

Update Brewday +4

After 4 days of active fermentation the airlock is slowing down. I have acquired 3 stalks of Lemograss. The stalks are washed with vegetable soap , cut and put into a hopsock. I soak the hopsock for 30 seconds in a Star San solution.

For a 6 gallon batch recipe, go to Kona Lemongrass Luau Revisited

 

Pure and Simple – The German Purity Law

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The Spice of Life

A tourist traveling in Belgium or Britain is greeted by a cornucopia of different styles and tastes in beer. Porters, stouts, witbiers, saisons,… the variety is remarkable. If said tourist now traveled on to Germany or Austria, he or she would find a steep decline in choice. Let’s have our hypothetical tourist sit down in a German pub and sample the beer menu. There would be Munich Helles, Bocks, Dunkles, Schwarzbier, Rauchbier,… all lagers…, and Dampfbier, Koelsch and  Hefeweizen (plus some more obscure local ale varieties). But where are the ales brewed with fruit, sugar, and other adjuncts? Where are the milk stouts, the sugar and honey in the beer? Why are there mostly lagers?.

Variety is the spice of life, or so the saying goes, and that was certainly true for the beers brewed in the Holy Roman Empire in the early 1500s. Brewers used barley, wheat, rye and all kinds of herbs and spices in their beer, and, of course, hops. Beers that were brewed were not really divided in ales and lagers yet, but there were definitely lagers brewed – inadvertently.

How do you brew a lager and not know it? Lagers need cold fermenting. Lager yeast is especially bred to ferment lager in the 50F range. In those days, brewers did not even know, what turned their wort into beer. Yeast was not bred or propagated as much as contracted, like a disease,  from other beer batches. A yeast cell was not a concept that the brewers understood or knew about, but they knew that a beer that was fermented in winter tasted different than a beer fermented in warmer months. That there were two different yeasts going to town on the wort, depending on temperature, that was a thought that would come much later. So winter produced cleaner tasting lager beers – lagers – and summer was the time of ales.

So far, so good. Until the early 1500s there were lagers and ales, some with hops, some with herbs. So who were the spoilsports who ruined this rich menu? We can point squarely to two people: Duke Wilhelm IV. and Duke Ludwig X. of Bavaria.

Duke Wilhelm IV.

A New Beer Law

In 1516,  the law propositioned to the Assembly of the Bavarian Estates in Ingolstadt reduced the ingredients in beer to hops, water and (barley) malt. it was first only used in Bavaria, but it gave the local governments the tools to enforce the regulation and slowly spread all over Germany. The driving factor behind the law (which was not called Purity Law at this time) was economy and health.

Before the rise of hops, herbs were used to brew beer, all kinds of herbs. Those herbs could be beneficial, or highly poisonous. There had been regulations through the Middle Ages in various places and cities, that attempted to regulate the use of herbs in beer, but using hops was simply safer.

Economics played a role too. Beer was such an important part of society, that it consumed a huge part of the grain production. Some grains, like wheat or rye, were necessary for providing bread to the people. The Purity Law restricted brewing to barley, to ensure that enough wheat and rye remained for baking.

So here were the main reasons why German brewers were restricted to water, hops, and malt. Over time this became the motto of the German beer industry and something of a seal of approval. “Hopfen, Wasser, Malz – Gott erhalt’s” (transl. “Hops, water, malt –  may God preserve it”) was a way to define clean tasting, long lasting quality beer. But all that does not explain the fixation on lagers. Hops, water, and malts can make a great ale as well.

Prohibition

The second part of this story is one of prohibition. Brewers and consumers were aware that beers brewed in summer could not be as well preserved as beers brewed in winter. Higher temperatures caused not only a different fermentation process, but also contributed to bacterial infections and sour beers. The second and knockout punch to beer variety came in 1553 when in Bavaria summer brewing was outlawed. Beer had to be brewed in the cooler season and stored cool in caves for summer drinking. Continuous practice  of this isolated the lager strain of the yeast, and specialized it for cold brewing.

While these revolutions were born in Bavaria, they slowly made their way through all Germany. This was hampered by the political situation at that time that saw Germany not as a unified country, but a quilt of little independent kingdoms and and duchies, all united under the name of Holy Roman Empire. What was good for the towns of one duchy, was not the law for the towns of the neighbouring duchy, and so the law had to make it’s way from town to town and guild to guild, aggravated by the fact that brewers had to find other work in summer, when brewing was forbidden.

And then, how else could it be, the tension of the chain became slack. In a few places, brewing with wheat was allowed again, coriander and cumin snuck into the wort. In the late 19th century a new Beer law was put in place in Bavaria to bring the recipes back to the old standard hops, water, and (barley) malt. Other parts of Germany allowed top fermenting beers with sugar and other  malts, but Bavaria stayed the course.

Keeping It Pure

In 1918, the beer law became the “Purity Law” (Reinheitsgebot) in Bavaria for purely economical reasons. Bavaria was defending its beer industry against beer brewed with sugar from other parts of Germany. Later, in the European Union, this “Reinheitsgebot” was adopted in other parts of Germany to indicate that their beer was more pure than the beer imported from other countries in the European Union. This, of course, had the effect that more and more breweries in Germany that had used sugar, had to adhere to the ingredients “hops, water, and malt” again.

And so the Purity Law created an isolating zone around Germany and Austria that fended off everything that strayed from the beaten path. 1987 the breach occurred. Other countries in the European Union were  bringing in lawsuits for not being able to export their beers to Germany and Austria and call them “beer”. This started to serious chip away at the Purity Law. Today, the Purity Law only regulates the production of bottom fermenting beer in Germany. Bottom fermenting beer to be sold in Germany has to be produced with hops, water ,and malt, but can deviate when it is produced for export. Other countries shipping their beer to Germany are not bound by this law.

And the law lives on. It has continued to be a trademark of German and Austrian Lager breweries and countless commercials and billboards try to drive home the fact that hops, water, and malt is all that a beer needs. Today the market is opening up. Free trade is bringing new tastes, and even established breweries cannot help but notice that the consumers are thirsty for more than the old standard lager. I was very surprised when I found the first Shandy (Radler) produced by a beer company that I only knew for lager beers, but I am happy that variety is making a comeback.

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