Brew News – New Brews (and an old favorite)

I consider myself very fortunate to work where I work and to have an understanding boss like I have. I manage the homebrew department, but Wendy, the store manager, manages the wine and beer section. I am constantly appreciative of her willingness to try to get new and interesting beers in the store. Today was a great day – two new beers to taste and the return of an old favorite. A nice evening’s quaffing, worthy of a review.

I have always loved collaborations. I collected comic books as a kid (and on into my college years), and my favorites were always those issues where the characters from one series ended up teaming up with those of another (Spiderman with the FF, the X-Men with the Avengers, etc…). I also used to have a database to keep track of musicians from my favorite bands and their work with other bands…

Lately there have been a few interesting collaborations in the craft brewing industry, and here are two very successful ones.

Stone/Dogfish/Victory Saison du BUFF
Three of the most respected and most innovative of the craft breweries in North America, all known for their “extreme” approach to brewing, teamed up to create this most interesting beer. It’s a Belgian Saison, in style, but with the added intrigue of a dose of herbs – specifically, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Simon and Garfunkel would be proud. I’ve brewed with sage, rosemary and thyme before, but not parsley. I guess if you’re going to brew with three of them, you might as well go all the way to Scarborough Fair…

A nice moderately full-bodied ale, not very sweet, and, in this instance, quite herbal. The malt balances the herbs, the herbs complement the malt and the yeast, and in the end everyone is happy (if not hoppy)… 6.8% abv, no indication of IBU’s which suggests they may have skipped hops entirely… BUFF stands for Brewers United for Freedom of Flavor… and, just in case you missed it, the name is a play on the name “DuBoeuf”, the name of a real Belgian/French saison…

Sierra Nevada XXX #2 Charlie, Fred & Ken’s Imperial Helles Bock
Back in the winter Sierra Nevada introduced the first of their 30th Anniversary brews, a collaboration with Fritz Maytag of Anchor, a delicious Imperial Stout. This is the second of four, and it’s every bit as noteworthy. Co-designed by homebrewers and homebrew writers Charlie Papazian and Fred Eckhardt, the Imperial Helles Bock is a HUGE chewy, bready blond lager at 8.3% abv, smooth and and amazingly malty.

There are two more installments of the XXX series coming later in the year, and I for one am really looking forward to them…

Westmalle Dubbel
Ah, the Trappists. If you really want to know what Belgian beer is all about, you have to start with the Trappists and their amazing brews. Abbey beers, golden Tripels, and amber/brown Dubbels… Had I been born a more religious man, I might have considered becoming a Trappist monk just to be involved in the brewing of these heavenly beers… but alas, I must observe from the outside.
The Dubbel style is probably best exemplified by this brew, made in Malle, Belgium, by the brothers of the Westmalle Abbey. An outstanding strong brown ale, it has malty notes but is dominated by the yeast. I often describe the Trappist yeast profile as being almond/pistachio-like, and this is a superb example of that. Absolutely delicious, yet less full-bodied and less alcoholic (only 7% abv) than the tripels of Westmalle and other Trappist abbeys, the Westmalle Dubbel may be the best starting point to appreciate this unique class of beers.

Just “gruit”…

I generally brew for myself. I don’t brew for competitions (although I have, of course, entered beers in local and regional competitions); I don’t brew for friends or relatives (although I frequently share with them); and I don’t brew to impress people. I brew for me, for my tastes; for my edification, sometimes.

Today I make an exception. This beer is for my Uncle Bob. Not that he will ever drink it, or even consider doing so. Uncle Bob, my godfather, is a great guy, a funny, friendly guy, one of those that almost every family has – he would do anything for anyone, has a heart of gold, loves his kids, grand-kids, nephews and nieces, etc. When it comes to beer, though, he’s a little narrow-minded. Drinks stuff out of silver cans with mountains on ‘em. And he always laughs at my home brew, scoffing, “What did you use, tree roots and bark?” That has become a standard, almost clichéd comment at every family gathering. Sometimes he will grab my brew out of my hand and sip it, pretend to choke or spit it out, and roll his eyes. And rinse his mouth out with the contents of his very cold can.

Well, Bob, this time I did brew with roots and bark. Among other things.

I got reading Stephen Buhner’s fascinating book, Sacred And Herbal Healing Beers, after looking online for some info about ancient and medieval brewing spices. I knew that hops were a relatively new addition to brewing, and that prior to hops, brewers used a multitude of different plant ingredients to flavor their brews. Buhner has cataloged, explained and traced the history of those ingredients, and the book is truly masterful.

That reading led me to design a sort of medieval “gruit” beer, using no hops at all and several different herbs and spices instead. I confess I was not brave enough to make a full batch of this experiment, but that’s one of the beauties of home brewing. I can make a small batch to try out an idea, and if the result isn’t up to par, I have not wasted a whole batch.

I intended to make a vaguely Belgian-style amber ale as the base for the herbs. So, I poured out a bottle of a boring (somewhat stale) amber ale brewed last fall, into a series of shot glasses. To each I added a small pinch of the herbs I was thinking of using, let them steep for a while, then taste-tested the effects. In the end I selected seven flavors I found intriguing, and combined them in one larger glass. I strained out the herbs and found the resulting mix quite interesting. So that’s what I used in the batch I brewed.

3 gallons, all-grain with herbs and honey.


  • 2 lbs. Weyermann Abbey Malt
  • 1/2 lb. amber malt
  • 1/4 lb. Special B malt
  • 1/4 lb. dark Munich malt
  • 1/4 lb. 160°L crystal
  • 9 oz. Cara-amber malt
  • 1-1/2 lbs. Cara-hell malt
  • 12 oz. Cara-belge malt
  • 1 oz. peated malt
  • 8 oz. honey
  • 10 grams “gruit blend” (includes sweet gale, wormwood, woodruff, sweet basil, chamomile, dried ginger root)
  • 300 ml. gentian root extract
  • Belgian Saison Yeast Blend (White Labs WLP568)
  • 1/2 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Crush the grains. Heat 10 quarts water to 154°F. Mash in grains, hold 60 minutes at 154°F. Heat another 6 quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff, sparge. Collect 14 quarts sweet wort, add honey. Bring to boil, boil 30 minutes. Add gruit blend (in a fine mesh bag), boil another 30 minutes (60 total), remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading. Pour into a sanitized primary fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Add yeast and gentian extract, seal and ferment 8 – 10 days at room temperature. Transfer to secondary, age 14 – 20 days at 55 – 60 °F. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and condition 15 – 20 days at 50°F.

OG: 1050
IBU: not applicable!

A note on the grains:
A little bit of a “kitchen sink” grain bill here, with an emphasis on caramelized malts, seeking to get a sweeter finish to balance the bitterness of the herbal ingredients. Suspecting that medieval brewers would almost always have dried their malts over a fire, I added the peated malt to give just a hint of smokiness.

A note on the herbs:
Some of the herbs used are reputed to be toxic or at least hallucinogenic – particularly the wormwood. Recent studies have shown that many of the claims were exaggerated; still it is best to consider very carefully when experimenting with medicinal plants. All these herbs are available in good spice sections or through your home brew supplier. Feel free to consult your physician, pharmacist or shaman if you have concerns about the herbs used.
I opted to make a tea by soaking the mesh bag in boiling water after removing it from the wort, and I jarred the tea to save for bottling, in case the herbal character is not enough at that point. The gentian root extract is probably the most bitter of all, and, yes, it is the herbal flavor in Moxie (my favorite soft drink).